Read Camelot & Vine Online

Authors: Petrea Burchard

Tags: #hollywood, #king arthur, #camelot, #arthurian legend, #arthurian, #arthurian knights, #arthurian britain, #arthurian fiction, #arthurian fantasy, #hollywood actor, #arthurian myth, #hollywood and vine, #cadbury hill

Camelot & Vine (24 page)

“Try a helmet.” He offered me one and I
tried it on. My breathing echoed inside it, muffling other sounds.
When I turned my head I lost full range of vision. I would need
years of training, like the soldiers had, to feel anything but
claustrophobic inside that little prison.

“Thanks, but I’ll need all my senses for the
king’s use.”

Bedwyr frowned. “Magic must suffice then,”
he said, with a solemn pat on my head.

 

-----

 

We knew east by where the sun punctured the
forest canopy. Keeping the light ahead, we rode on with but one
incident: Medraut and Pawly, who seemed never to do anything
separately, had somehow become disengaged from the group.

“We do not need them,” Lancelot told
Arthur.

“I’ll have him where I can see him,” was
Arthur’s terse reply.

Assuming Medraut couldn’t have gotten far,
the king dispatched men in pairs to search in four directions. The
rest of us waited an agitated hour, staking out a central location
in the thick of the forest. I napped against a moss-covered
boulder, taking what sleep I could get. There had been almost none
for me the night before.

Lancelot and Hew dragged back the strays.
Medraut and Pawly looked like a couple of scared runt puppies who’d
escaped from the yard and knew they’d been bad. The episode made
Medraut even more unpopular than he already was. He and Pawly
waited astride their horses with shoulders hunched, as though
expecting the whip. But Arthur merely shot Bedwyr a look and we set
off again, our pups now trained to stay.

In late afternoon we left the wagons and
horses at a rocky area abundant with small caves. I found a strong
branch and tied Lucy’s reins to it before kissing her nose and
begging her to stay put. Dread began to close in on me like a
helmet with no breathing holes. I wanted Lucy’s reassuring presence
beneath me, or at least at my side. Leaving the horses meant we
were close to the enemy. If Arthur thought stirrups would make us
“unbeatable,” then why leave the horses behind? It was silence he
wanted, in a forest too dense for riders.

When the king ordered his soldiers to “be
invisible” my stomach squeezed with guilt. But the men understood
the metaphor. From that point we moved more quietly than I would
have imagined sixteen people could maneuver, through underbrush,
wearing chain mail. Arthur grabbed my hand and pulled me with him
as the company fanned out among the trees. Stealth and armor did
not slow the warriors’ pace. Keeping up with them winded me, though
I was unencumbered.

The more isolated from the others we became,
the more my terror grew. Even holding the king’s hand didn’t
reassure me. Arthur was unafraid, his sense of direction certain,
his steps light on the ground, he was adept at silence and speed.
He was never out of breath, whereas I feared the sheer volume of my
panting would broadcast our location.

The late sun deepened to gold. Scattering
its filtered beams, we scurried along behind the brush paralleling
a path. I was watching Arthur’s feet, trying to mirror his steps,
when he froze to listen.

The message came in a chirping sound. At
first I thought it was a bird, but the repetition was too rhythmic,
too precise. Arthur led me down into a crevice where we looked out
from behind a fallen log. He pointed up with his eyes.

A scruffy man sat perched high in a gnarled
tree, unaware of us. A Saxon lookout, I guessed. He’d parked
himself in the elbow of a branch to put his feet up. The tatters of
his pants hung in ragged strips on his legs. His dirty, blond hair
fell across his face. None of that seemed to bother him. He hummed,
intent on his work. In the fading light I saw the quick gleam of a
knife flick. He was carving.

Arthur tugged my arm, pulling me to sit
beside him in the crevice. “We’ll await the dark,” he
whispered.

“What’ll happen to him? Slave?”

Arthur put his finger to my lips. “No,” he
mouthed. His eyes glimmered. Nothing of the previous night’s
bemusement remained. He was on the job and this was his
vocation.

At first the only sound was the man’s
oblivious humming. As darkness grew, an owl joined him. Eventually
the hum stopped. My fear pounded around inside my chest as though
someone had gotten locked in there and was desperate to get
out.

The air cooled, heightening the damp forest
scent to pungency. Arthur ate the dried meat in his pouch. I tried
to eat the rations in my pack but my stomach wouldn’t stay still. I
could only listen to that infernal owl, the terrifying flapping of
wings, the crunch on leaves when an animal came sniffing, the
pound pound pound
of my heart.

After what seemed like hours but couldn’t
have been, Arthur whispered, “Make ready your powers.”

I hung my head. The gesture must have looked
to him like concentration. He gave me a moment.

“Ready?”

I nodded. I was not ready.

“Shadow me. You know the rest.”

We peered out over the edge of the crevice.
The moon was the tiniest bit fatter than the previous night’s
sliver had been. The Saxon lookout’s rhythmic snores filled the
forest, adding bass notes to the symphony of owl and trickling
stream.

King Arthur whistled.

Fwomp!

The Saxon in the tree jerked forward as
though awakened by a sudden thought. His hands opened and he
released an object to the air. Moon-flash glinted as his knife
tumbled from the tree, landing somewhere in the brambles. The Saxon
followed in a forward dive, his body bouncing against the tree
trunk, cracking branches on the way down and finally thudding to
the ground a few feet in front of us with a British axe buried in
the back of his head.

Hew appeared out of the black night and
retrieved his axe, making a soft, crushing sound when he pulled it
out of the dead man’s skull. Two of Lancelot’s men pulled the body
into the underbrush to loot it for weapons, while Hew climbed the
lookout tree to take the Saxon’s place.

This was where I had come in: blood in the
forest, revulsion, fear. I was stiff with it.

“No crying,” Arthur whispered. He pulled me
from the ravine with a jerk.

I followed him from tree to tree, him
crouching, me wiping my eyes and stumbling, and wishing I had
something to blow my nose on. Twice more I heard the
fwomp!-crack-thud
of a Saxon lookout being removed, to be
replaced by one of ours. I dogged Arthur’s heels, hoping proximity
would keep me safe. But I knew better. The Saxons knew him. They
wanted him dead.

I had known the battle was coming but,
typically, had put no realistic thought into what “battle” would
mean when I was confronted by it. I’d thought only that I’d figure
it out when I got there. I’d hide or pretend, as usual. And now I
was stumbling through the woods toward doom. I could pretend I had
magic, but an axe was an axe.

Such thoughts only made it harder to keep up
with Arthur, to slide down a slope after him or to crawl behind the
same log he crawled behind, to crouch among thorns with him while
the air around us hissed with British warriors speeding through the
forest.

After mere minutes, I followed Arthur up a
rise. A bird called. The red-haired boy whose name I kept meaning
to ask perched in the black branches above us. Surrounding the
fire-lit clearing, British and Belgae warriors peeked from behind
tree trunks and boulders.

We had surrounded the Saxon camp.

Our victims had no inkling of us. Their
fires blazed like beacons and they conversed in full voice, though
I didn’t understand a word. A slim man stirred a pot over smoking
embers. Three others squatted around the fire, their clothes as
ruined as those of the lookout. More men stood talking by a huddle
of sagging huts. I counted eight men, no women. More could be in
the lean-tos, but not many. We had fifteen strong, well-fed
warriors, and me. It was going to be a massacre.

Arthur scoured the camp. He was counting,
too, strategizing—noting where the weapons were, judging elevations
and low places, casing out the hiding spots, choosing what to use.
When he raised his arm and whistled I cowered, furious at myself
for not having used my precious time the same way he had.

It was too late. The king donned his helmet
and ran into the clearing. With wild shouts, my friends descended
on their victims in an avalanche of flashing weapons. I stayed on
the rise, digging my fingers into the ground as if to bury myself
in the dirt.

The red-haired boy leaped past me to take on
the first Saxon he met. That Saxon may have been a straggler but he
was also a veteran, and he saw a rookie coming. In a quick motion
he pulled off the boy’s helmet, tossed it aside and slit the
freckled throat.

The nameless boy twirled. I gasped, and
tasted his blood on my tongue. He seemed to see me in his last
moment, then all knowledge left his face. His legs gave out and he
fell, blood pouring from his neck and soaking into the ground.

The killer didn’t have time to see me. Two
of Lancelot’s men immediately set upon him. More interested in
victory and revenge than honor, they each stabbed him once in the
back and moved on.

The boy’s death released me from the panic
that had gripped me. Death took seconds. I had to move. I had a
job: to protect the king. My eyes watered, making it difficult to
see across the clearing. But there was no time for crying, and
Arthur had ordered me not to. I sought him amid the chaos of fire
and fighting, and finally found him on the other side of the
clearing, crossing swords with a big, unarmored Saxon who was
holding his own.

Creeping outside the reach of the clearing’s
light, I crawled bloody patches into my knees and brought myself to
crouch behind the trees nearest the king and his opponent. I
watched, wondering what to do, until the enemy staggered. The king
was tired, too. Their battle was winding down. Someone would end it
soon.

I would end it. I would throw things at the
Saxon. I would distract him. I would protect King Arthur. I would
keep my promise, even though my promise had been a lie.

The nearby rocks were too big to lift, much
less throw. Sticks wouldn’t deter a warrior. I had to be careful. I
had to distract the Saxon without distracting the king. I found my
opportunity in the campfire. A fallen branch had caught fire,
leaving one end cool enough to handle. I crawled to it through the
forest floor decay, staying out of the ring of firelight and
ducking behind a lean-to.

Arthur and the Saxon moved around each
other, stalking. The king came so close to me I could hear his
jagged breaths. The Saxon was in my view beyond him. Though wearing
no armor he was a younger man, stronger than King Arthur. A few
weeks of deprivation had not weakened him much. He panted through
his nose, glaring at the king, determined and ready. He raised his
sword and began to circle. In seconds they were clashing swords
again.

When the Saxon came close to me I pushed the
burning end of the branch toward his feet, dislodging a rodent who
ran squeaking. I stiffened, but the fighters carried on. The branch
was too heavy to lift so I inched it toward the Saxon’s legs,
hoping neither warrior would notice. When it scraped the ground at
the Saxon’s feet, he stepped into its flames and yelped.

Hands covered my eyes and mouth. Someone
grabbed me from behind and swept me up over his shoulder like a
sack. I struggled, but he had my legs in a tight hold. The beating
I gave his back didn’t deter him. He carried me for several
circuitous yards. When he put me down, something like a cloth sack
went over my head. Someone held my arms behind my back. I made the
beginnings of a noise. A hand stuffed the sack into my mouth.

Frantic whispers. I guessed we were inside
one of the huts. They laid their hands on me. I didn’t think they
would rape me, not yet, not in the midst of battle. But they wanted
to tie me down, control me. I kicked and scratched. I tried to
shout, and I kept trying until I finally managed to free my mouth
and let out a grunting noise before I lost my breath when one of
the Saxons threw his crushing weight on top of me .

Then the hut, or something, came shattering
down on us. A thump, a moan, another thump and I was swept up again
by the powerful arm of a single, swift runner who carried me off
under his arm like a bundle of laundry.

The sack over my head came away, but I was
in no position to turn around and see my courier’s face. The forest
floor blurred beneath us as he ran away from the camp, deep into
the woods, with desperate speed. I flailed my legs but to no avail.
His grip only tightened and my legs scraped against the trees we
passed. This one was crazy. This one would kill me. His strength
was a thousand times that of the others.

He threw me to the ground. I hit the dirt
head first, and came up dizzy. But I recognized the slits on his
visor. He pulled off his helmet and waved it in the air, his blond
curls falling around his shoulders.

“This is your magic?” said Lancelot. “You
protect my king with a burning stick while allowing the Saxons to
capture you?”

“You saved my life.”

“If I had thought they would kill you I
would have left you there. But they would have him ransom you and I
will not put him through it. You have no such value.”

“I’m grateful to you, Lancelot.”

He spat. “You are selfish. I do not care for
your gratitude. If you survive tonight you must go. Return whence
you came.”

“I can’t.”

“Were you banished?”

“Sort of.”

“This does not surprise me. I have no
sympathy. If you stay in Arthur’s lands I will kill you.”

“But I’m not your enemy,” I said, pushing
myself to my feet.

“You know things others do not know.”

“Medraut knows—”

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