Impossible odds were a familiar thing to him. And with a lot of skill and a little planning, he knew that what was thought to be impossible could end up to be greatest triumph ever imagined.
After a few miles of the slow pace Clyde set for the group, despite the awesome thrill of riding the biggest, most fierce looking, and nicest horse that he had ever seen in his six years, Aiden was getting bored. He tried to imagine that he was a noble knight, riding off to save a princess from an evil Saxon warlord, but it didn't work out so well. Noble knights galloped to the scene of noble rescues, not walked.
"Mama," he asked, twisting his body around so he could look at her, "can you tell me a story?"
Elaine, still very uncomfortable at how far away the ground was, was willing to do anything to stop her son's squirming. "If it's alright with Miss Relm and Master Clyde."
"Of course it's alright with us," Relm called back to them, "but only if you ride close so we can hear it too!"
At his daughter's request Clyde slowed the grey so he was walking alongside the calm Dagonet. The normally silent grey and the big black shared a curious glance. Ghost made a noise that sounded mysteriously like a snicker, and in response Dagonet let out a snort so loud that it caused Elaine to flinch in surprise.
I wonder what they are saying, Clyde thought.
"Can you tell the one about the knights and the Saxons?" Aiden pleaded.
Elaine couldn't help smiling at her son, "There are a lot of stories about the knights and the Saxons, my dear."
"The one you saw!" he clarified, "When they are on the ice!"
"Alright then," she replied, "but why don't I start a little earlier, back in the village. Miss Relm and Master Clyde might want to know why the knights are on the ice."
Not having thought of that, Aiden agreed to listen to what he called "the boring part" of the story, so long as she didn't skip out on the good stuff later.
Although he tried to keep his concentration on the road ahead, Clyde found himself almost instantly drawn into the woman's tale.
"It was five years past," she began, "around this time, when the line between fall and winter starts to blur. We, your father, you, and I, lived on the estate of a Roman of great importance to his empire. You were too little to remember anything, my dear, but this Roman was a cruel man. He made us work till our hands bled and our legs gave out, then when it was time to bring in the harvest, he took most of it for himself. If we protested, he would have his soldiers beat us, saying that it was the will of his God that we serve him in such a way. That fall it was much worse than any other year. The harvest was poor to begin with, and once Marius, for that was the Roman's name, took his portion we were left with almost nothing. Many people died . . . your father and I almost lost you, my dear."
Elaine paused and cautiously let go of the reins with one had to pat her son on the shoulder. Taking a quick look at the others, she could see Relm's eyes radiating something between horror and fury, while, if his stiff posture were any inclination, her father seethed with barely concealed rage. Strangely, each one of the horses had an ear trained on her as well . . . even the seemingly selfish Dragon.
"It was right at the beginning of the first bad cold snap. A young girl who was pregnant with her first child died of starvation, so the village elder went to Marius to plead our case. He was tied up and whipped in front of the entire village as an example. We were not allowed to cut him down, on pain of death."
"We had resigned to our fates. What else could we do? The weak would die and the strong would live. Although at this point, there were no strong among us. I was certain that we would not make it through the coming winter."
"And then," Aiden chimed in, "the knights came!"
"Yes," Elaine said, "several days after the village elder's public punishment, nine riders galloped into the town. Seven of them were the famed Knights of the Wall, fearless fighters led by the great Artorius Castus . . . Arthur. They had come on a mission from a Bishop, to escort Marius and his family back below the Wall. For, not so very far to the north . . . the Saxons were coming."
"Marius did not believe them. He thought Rome would send an army to protect his family. But Rome did not care about Briton any more. They wanted their people out and away from this island, "Let the Saxons take it," they said. Rome-"
"What were the knights like mama?" Aiden interrupted.
Elaine had to laugh, "Is it always the knights with you?"
"They're my favorites," he replied innocently.
"Alright, alright. I have not seen them in five years, but I will do my best to remember. I only know a few of their names, from what I heard in conversation, but I can recall a few things about each one. There was a dark handsome one, he wore two blades crossed over his back and spoke to Arthur as if they were brothers. Another had a wild mane of golden hair and broad strong shoulders. I heard another knight call him Gawain. And there was a quiet one, he seemed much younger than the others, much less sure of himself. One they called their scout, a fierce man with a wild look about him. I remember he had a hawk. Then there was a big man, not tall, just big, who talked in this loud booming roar of a voice. He was always speaking to the other big knight, Dagonet, a tall man with a scared face and kind nature. And Arthur . . ."
"It was impossible not to see Arthur's Roman heritage. But yet, he was very different. Once done speaking to Marius he stopped and looked over the people of the town. One of the men approached him and asked to join his knights. Arthur refused of course, but what was surprising was he began to ask about the people, why we all looked so thin and weak. When he found out it was because Marius was taking so much of the harvest . . . his very look could have killed. And then, he caught sight of our village elder, still strung up where he had been whipped."
"'Who is this man,' he asked."
"When we told him, Arthur drew his sword and cut the elder's bonds."
"'You are all free men!' he told us, 'Free to chose your own fates, free to live your lives the way you wish!' He explained to us the Saxon danger that was approaching from the north, and told us to gather what we needed to make the journey south. It was much later that we all found out his mission was just to bring Marius and his family to safety, not us. He guided us because he thought it was the right thing to do."
Aiden, who had heard this part before, wanted to get back to the action, "What about the evil priests and the bad place?"
"If you keep interrupting your mama we'll never get to hear all of the story!" Relm said in mock exasperation. But when the little boy had fallen silent, she turned to Elaine and said with a smile, "So, what about those evil priests and the bad place?"
The raven haired woman shook her head and laughed. This young woman was no more than a child in an adult's body if her comments were any evidence! Still chuckling, she continued the tale.
"As we were departing, Marius ordered his soldiers to wall up then entrance to a place we all called The Pit. This was where he kept his prisoners, those who he felt were the greatest defilers of what he said was 'The Lord's Law.' Sometimes his soldiers would find a Woad and bring them there. We would not be able to sleep for weeks because of the screaming. Eventually the screams would stop and life would go on as always. But we never, never saw those that went in the Pit come out."
"Arthur saw the men walling up the entrance and demanded to be let inside. When they refused he had one of his knights, Dagonet, break down the door. The way clear, he and a few others entered. They came out with a young Woad woman and a little boy."
"They were both close to death. But instead of leaving them, as was the sensible choice, Arthur had them put in a wagon and taken along. He would not leave any of us behind."
"We walked for days, the weather getting colder with each passing hour. Snow covered everything at that point, most of us had frostbite on our toes and fingers, a few of us couldn't even walk anymore," Elaine's face fell at the memory of so many familiar faces that had not made it through that rough journey, despite Arthur's good intentions.
"You had a bad case of frostbite yourself, my dear," she said to Aiden, "You couldn't walk at all, your feet hurt so much. Your father and I would take turns carrying you, until we were too weak to even do that. One of the knights saw our trouble, the big man with the loud voice. He rode his horse over and told us not to worry, that he would help us. Then he turned and shouted to the cart where the Woad, the boy, Marius's wife, and Dagonet were riding. I still remember his words, "Hey Dagonet! I'm gonna bring you another little scrap to take care of! This one's only temporary though, so don't be getting attached!" That was how I came to know Sir Dagonet's name. I do wish I had caught the name of the loud knight, but at the time I was too distracted by other things to think of asking."
"You rode in the cart for the next two days, until your feet healed enough for you to walk a little on your own. Arthur had everyone stop for the night, so your father and I fetched you from the cart. The other riders said they did not mind if you stayed, but your father and I wanted you back with us. We were always grateful that we took you back when we did . . ."
"The next morning, Marius and his soldiers made a bid for power. They ambushed Sir Dagonet in his sleep, then when he tried to fight back Marius took the young boy from the Pit hostage and threatened to kill him. But before he could harm the boy, an arrow hissed through the air and buried itself in his chest, killing him instantly."
"Lady Guinevere!" Aiden shouted.
"Yes, her name was Guinevere, but back then she was no lady, only a Woad. With Marius dead, his soldiers had no will to fight Arthur's command and were easily subdued. The trouble past, Arthur urged us all to move once again, for his scout had brought news that the Saxons were closer than anyone had thought."
"Later that day, we came to a large frozen lake. There was no way around and the Saxons were too close for us to turn back and find another route. We had to cross. Amazingly, the ice held, even when the entire caravan stood on the lake at once. But it was slow going, too slow. As we crept across the ice, the sound of the Saxon war drums, and eventually the sounds of Saxon voices came closer and closer. Even if we made it across, the Saxons would catch up to us within the day."
"The knights must have known this better than anyone. They made the decision to stay behind on the ice to stop the Saxons and allow the caravan to escape to Hadrian's Wall. That was the last time I saw the knights and the Woad, when I looked back after crossing the ice safely. Eight warriors against an army of a few hundred men. Your father and I prayed that the knights, and even the Woad, would be rewarded in the afterlife for their selflessness."
"But they didn't die!" Aiden chirped.
"No," Elaine replied, "Long after the ice crossing, your father met a man who heard of what transpired from the knight's squire. He told the tale to him, and in turn your father told the tale to me. The knights and the Woad waited on the ice for the Saxons to arrive. When the Saxon's saw their enemies, it took all of their commander's authority to keep his men from simply charging and overwhelming the puny force. Thinking to impress Arthur and his knights, the Saxon commander had his men form into neat lines and begin their march across the ice, drums booming, men chanting. Knowing the range of their crossbows and short bows, the Saxon's thought they were safe."
"They had not reckoned with the range and power of the English longbow."
"When the Saxons were barely a fourth of the way across the ice, Arthur commanded his men to shoot. The Saxons were grouped so close together that little aiming was needed for a shooter to hit some bit of flesh, so for each shot fired by the eight warriors, eight or more Saxons fell. Death rained from the sky for the Saxons, and as each of their comrades fell, men stepped in to fill their places, making the army cluster closer together with every step. That was Arthur's plan you see, to center the weight of the army onto a single point of the creaking and groaning ice so that eventually the instable platform would give way and send them into the depths. But even with the army clustering, Arthur could see something was amiss. The ice was groaning like a dying thing, yet it would not crack! And still the Saxons came, closer and closer. He gave the order for his warriors to take up their swords, to prepare for a combat that they had not a chance of surviving. He knew it. They knew it. Yet they stayed, if only make the army that would eventually catch up to us just a little bit smaller, to give a few more of us the slight possibility of escape."
"For one knight this was not good enough. Sir Dagonet knew that the only chance of the caravan making it to Hadrian's Wall un-assaulted depended on the Saxon army falling through the ice that was too strong. So, disregarding his personal safety he snatched up his axe and ran out onto the lake, halting at a point midway between the knights and the Saxons. Ignoring the crossbow bolts that shot by him, he began to hack at the ice. Several bolts struck him, but he continued with his task until, with one final swing, a massive crack appeared. Seeing the danger the Saxon commander ordered his men back, but for many of them it was too late. The icy waters of the lake turned to chaos as men fought to escape the depths, but to little avail. The army was decimated, and those that remained could no longer follow the caravan. Arthur and his knights had saved us all."
That story finished, Aiden and Relm immediately bombarded her with questions.
"Tell the one where the knights saved the Bishop!"
"Why didn't Arthur just move the line of knights back on the lake?"
"Or the battle on Badon Hill?"
"Do you know any stories about the knight with the hawk?"
"Or the one where-"
Clyde felt that his intervention was called for. "Now you two," he said sternly, "one story is enough for now."
The little boy crossed his arms and pouted, but did not argue. Relm on the other hand-
"Why? Didn't you think Elaine was a good storyteller? You were very good by the way, no matter what my father thinks."
Elaine blushed and nodded her thanks. She was not used to anyone complimenting her storytelling abilities, as until now only Aiden and her late husband had been the only ones to know of them.
"I also thought you were quite good," Clyde growled, "I just thought that you might like a break. Telling stories takes a lot more out of people than listening to them." He aimed that last comment at Relm, who mumbled an apology to Elaine for acting so childish.
After they stopped for the night Clyde waited till the young woman put Aiden to bed before approaching her. She was rubbing Dagonet's thick neck and speaking to him softly. The horse had an ear trained on her, as if he was trying desperately not to miss a word she said. It was strange the way that creature had taken on the role as protector of the woman and her son. Strangely similar to the way Interceptor had latched onto him.
Dagonet's snort alerted Elaine to the man's presence. She turned around to look into his questioning blue eyes, waiting for him to ask what she knew he had been thinking since she had finished her story.
"What happened to the knight on the ice?"
Elaine stared at him sadly, "He fell through. The others pulled him out, but it was too late. One of the crossbow bolts struck something vital; he should have been dead before he struck that final blow."
"I had a feeling," Clyde muttered, "You don't tell Aiden those parts, do you?"
Elaine shook her head, "He's not stupid, he knows that some of them did not make it. But I still do not tell him, he loves the knights so much I can't bear to actually say it."
She turned back and started to run her fingers through the big black's mane. "You probably think I'm sheltering him, making him weak."
"No," Clyde said softly, "He seems like a fine boy, so you must be doing a fine job of raising him."
Dagonet turned his head and whickered, lowering his muzzle so it just touched her bulging stomach.
The former assassin couldn't stop his lips from curling into a smile. "It seems I am not the only one to share this view."
From the other side of the camp Relm happened to look up to see the big black with his nose resting on Elaine's stomach. My gods, she thought, what a picture! In a moment she had out her sketch book and was furiously running the pencil over it. Damn it what she wouldn't give for some color! The outlines of the black's head and Elaine's torso took shape on the paper, they were the main subjects of the drawing, perhaps she would add a bit of background later if she felt like it. She worked quickly, wanting to get as much of the image down before her unknowing subjects changed positions and the moment was lost.
She couldn't help letting out a quiet curse when Dagonet's head suddenly jolted up as if he had been stung. Elaine laughed and Relm just caught her father's muffled question.
"The baby," Elaine chuckled in reply, "the little one kicked the poor fellow right in the nose."
It could have been the light, but Relm swore that she saw the big black's eyes go wide with curiosity and surprise. In any case, he lowered his head again, returning to the same position as before. A sudden spark of inspiration flared in Relm's head and she quickly returned to her drawing, sketching a tiny hand in Elaine's belly reaching up to press against the black's powerful muzzle.
Warm breath on the back of her neck made her aware that someone was watching her work. She spun around, smacked the offending spy, a rather surprised Dragon, and hissed, "No one watches me draw! Not even you."
He looked ashamed and nuzzled her shoulder in way of an apology.
"It's alright boy, you didn't know," she reassured him, "Just don't do it again."
While Dragon bobbed his head enthusiastically, Ghost, who was tied a little further away, let out one of his deep hrrrrring laughs.
"Does he know something I don't?" she asked Dragon accusingly. The black's eyes widened and he frantically shook his head. What the hell?
Head shaking, head nodding, laughing, Dagonet's general behavior towards anything small and defenseless, Dragon's ridiculous amount of pride, Ghost's attitude towards everything . . . these were not animal behaviors. They were bloody human.
"What are you three?" she whispered. The stallions offered her no answer.
"I'm serious you two, what are you?"
"It's no use Relm." The young artist yelped at the unexpected voice. Spinning around she shot her father a nasty glare for sneaking up on her like that. He shrugged it off and continued with what he was going to say, "I already asked."
Clyde allowed his eyes to run over the strange creatures, animals who were not quite animals. He allowed his gaze to linger for a time over the grey's expressionless tawny orbs, eyes so much like his own from long ago that it was chilling.
Whenever he looked at those eyes, he was not entirely sure if he wanted to know what or who the grey really was.