The abrasive boom of a ram's horn woke Aidan from their dreaming. They pushed themselves up onto their hands and blinked away the sleep. The two guards that normally were posted outside their cell had already disappeared. Dread slowly seeped into Aidan's body. For an agonizing few minutes, nothing happened. They stood, waiting anxiously for any sign of activity. Then, just when they had given up hope of explanation, the sound of running feet came at them through the dark. Gawain's copper hair glowed in the torchlight as he came into view.
The young man slowed as he approached Aidan's cage. He was obviously out of breath, armor only half clasped to his body, and he held his sword belt in his left hand.
"What is going on?" asked Aidan simply.
"Saxons," said Gawain, "and half the army left this evening with most of the Alt Clut."
"That is a dire situation, but I don't see why you came to tell me."
"You can bloody well fight," said Gawain, quickly pressing his face against the bars of Aidan's cell, "question is, will you?"
Aidan stood, dusting off the clothes Artorious had ordered brought for them. "I don't see why not," they responded with a crooked smile.
Gawain produced a ring of keys.
"Now where did you get that?"
Gawain found the one needed to open the cell after a few tries and looked up. "Don't ask questions."
"One more," said Aidan playfully, "why are you trusting me?"
Gawain fixed them in a firm stare, rising to his full and, admittedly, impressive height. "Riona trusts you," Gawain said firmly, "that's enough for me."
"I'm going to need a weapon."
"Like this?" Lamorak appeared from the shadows without warning, which seemed to be a habit of his. Gawain jumped in surprise. The Hedge Knight handed Aidan their leather armor, sword, and quarterstaff.
"Seems we had the same idea," he said, winking at Gawain.
Aidan took the gear and quickly began to outfit themself.
"How does it look up there?" asked Gawain, jerking his head toward the ceiling.
"Tristan has what remains of the troops in the inner courtyard."
"Then we best make our way there," said Gawain, "Ready?"
The two knights turned to look at Aidan, who swung their cloak over their shoulders and clasped it against the nape of their neck. The leather armor felt familiar, like a second skin. They tossed their staff from hand to hand, and then gave the two men a wolfish grin. "Ready."
The courtyard was chaos. Tristan stood in the center of it, desperately trying to corral what was left of the troops as servants and ladies in waiting ran around them in various states of distress. Lamorak trotted toward the scene, followed quickly by Gawain. Aidan took their time, feeling each footstep beneath them with a sense of importance. They took fresh air into their lungs for the first time in days.
"Men!" Tristan's voice sounded strained already. It was obvious that without Luc, there was a distinct absence of leadership. "We must fortify..." his voice was drowned out by another horn blow. Tristan paled visibly. Aidan reached the group of soldiers and the men parted before them like blades of grass. Tristan quieted as Aidan neared.
"Who let you out of your cage," he said darkly. Aidan slowly tilted their head to one side in amusement.
"I did," said Gawain, immediately drawing up behind Aidan like a wall. Tristan faltered.
"We need every fighter we can get," said Lamorak, appearing beside the two men, "and Aidan counts as at least three."
"Fine," Tristan growled, "but we need to get these men in line—"
Before Tristan could finish speaking Aidan's voice was echoing out over the courtyard. "Soldiers!"
There was a moment of hesitation, and then gradually, the men of Artorious' army drew up into attention behind Tristan.
"We are about to be besieged. You know what they are capable of. This land is soaked with the blood of your forefathers who fought their forefathers, and still they hunger for more. More of your land, more of your blood. Are you going to give it to them? Or are you going to fight back?"
The men roared at Aidan with weapons drawn.
Aidan turned to Tristan. "Keep the bulk of the men here against the inner gate. Lamorak, you will lead the archers and a small team of soldiers to keep the outer wall as long as possible. Gawain, fortify the outer gate and hold it as long as you may, but do not waste any lives doing it. When the men are overwhelmed, draw them back here. We must force the Saxons through the gates, not over the walls. Concentrate their efforts where we are strongest and we will hold, even with fewer numbers."
Tristan, Lamorak, and Gawain were staring at Aidan open-mouthed. Then suddenly, Tristan began barking Aidan's orders. Men dispersed this way and that to follow them. Aidan glanced around quickly, looking for Riona. She was probably already in the main hall with the other women and the king. Aidan resisted the urge to find her and assure her safety. Lamorak and Aidan broke off with a group of archers as Myrddin came running out of the main hall, a small band of boys in tow.
"Aidan!" the older Druid was breathless, "these boys want to help. I've taught them how to make hot pitch. We can help Gawain keep the main gate as long as possible."
Aidan stared at the young fresh faces of the pageboys and squires, their stomach turned. "Faeder..."
"If the Keep falls, we will all die," Myrddin said gravely.
Aidan hesitated and then nodded solemnly. "Come with us."
The group moved quickly below the portcullis and outward toward the main gate. Aidan and Lamorak dispersed the archers equally along the walls while the boys ran back and forth distributing bundles of arrows.
"They will try to come over the walls and through them. You must cut any lines and quickly destroy ladders as they appear," Aidan said to the handful of soldiers who were not archers. "There will be three of them to your one, at least, you must make sure that not a single Saxon makes it over that wall!"
As the men dispersed, Aidan took stock of their body. It felt tightly strung as if every step might plunge them over an unforeseen edge. The air had grown eerily silent and heavy with anticipation. The men around them stood alert and pale, waiting for their deaths with bated breath. Already, the invading ships had docked. Swarms of men spread across the short distance between the shore and the keep. The flickering of torches dispersed like faded stars among the dark moving shapes. The enemy sounded their horns as a great ungodly cry came up from the approaching horde. They shook their shields and racked their axes in a cacophony meant to jar the Britons into panic.
From below in the courtyard, a chant was beginning to rise over the wind.
"Britanni in sempiternum!"
The Pendragon motto seemed to bolster the spirits of the men, and soon, the sound was filling the air, pushing back against the raucous chorus of the Saxons. Aidan slowly raised one hand; Lamorak mimicked the movement on the western side of the parapets. The archers raised their bows in unison, arms pulled back, bowstrings taught.
Aidan's heartbeat quickened.
YOU ARE READING
The Hawthorn ThroneFantasy
[Editors' Choice] A century and a half have passed following the Roman withdrawal from the British Isles, abandoning the accursed place to its plethora of chiefs and warlords. In the Kingdom of Elmet, a boy named Artorious, heir of Uther Pendragon...