Fandom: Rosemary Sutcliff's The Lantern Bearers and Sword at Sunset
Written for sutcliff_swap 2012
Old Aquila's last battle : the Battle of Badon Hill, which led to forty years of peace between Saxon and Briton.
In The Lantern Bearers, we learn how the Roman British farm where Aquila grew up was burned by Saxon raiders, how Aquila was seized as a thrall, returned to Britain, escaped and became one of the High King Ambrosius's commanders against the invading Saxon threat. There he met Ambrosius's young nephew Artos - who we now know as King Arthur.
When Ambrosius died, Artos took over as the leader of the remnant of Roman Britain, and Aquila went with him to fight at the great battle of Badon Hill, as the commander of what had been the High King Ambrosius's bodyguard. Thanks to carmarthen for last minute beta reading.
“... the old Heaven and the old Earth patched up to seem a little more secure. A few gained years in which men may sow their fields in reasonable hope of reaping the harvest”.
Artos’s words hung in Aquila’s mind as he took off his boots and, out of long habit, cast an eye over his gear lying neat and ordered in the moonlight, ready for the morning. A few years to sow the fields, as the fields on his father’s farm had been sown and reaped, in those few happy years when he and Flavia were growing up and it seemed that the end of the world would never come.
It might not seem like much of a promise to die for, but it was enough. A few years for Flavian, the son Aquila had never really known properly, to see his own son grow up. A few years for Flavian to live in peace with his beloved Teleri, and maybe even to see the damson trees in the gardens of tired old Venta Belgarum flower, without being called to the war trail before spring had warmed them into life.
It was a fine warm midsummer night with a fair moon, and the tent flap was drawn back to let the air through. Many of the War Host would lie on bare ground tonight, here and there around the old fortress-stronghold of Badon, but here among the old Royal Bodyguard that had been Ambrosius’s there were tents in ordered lines, in a camp that would have done credit to an auxiliary force of the Eagles.
Aquila looked out over the camp, but he did not see the moonlight on the neat lines of tents, or the fires further away where the Dumnonii were sprawled here and there with their standards rakishly planted where each chieftain had seen fit. Aquila saw the shape of his own childhood valley in the moonlight; the lines where once there had been vines planted along the south-facing valley side, the huddle of tile-roofed barns under the bare side of the down, the orchard, the water-mill, and the distant mouth of the valley opening out, where sometimes on a clear day you could see the sea.
Artos would give Flavian his father’s ring tomorrow evening, and he would give Flavian those years of peace too. If any man could do it, then Artos would do it.
Even Ambrosius had not had the thing that Artos had, the flame inside him to hold back the dark, the flame that kindled men to follow him. And yet... bright though Artos shone, he was not the lord who had given Aquila back his sword, all those many years ago.
Aquila had been Ambrosius’s man, and Ambrosius was gone. Ness was gone too - little bright Ness, who had chosen to stay with him, who could warm a room just by walking into it. And Flavia... perhaps, somewhere far away in the lands of the Saxon East, Flavia still lived, but if she did, she was as lost to Aquila as if she were in Constantinople at the other end of the world. This would be Aquila’s last battle, for good or for ill, and he had more of the dead than the living to look forward to seeing on the other side of it.
And yet, Aquila realised, with a feeling of surprise, that he did not want to die. He would like to see those years of peace, if they could be won, if God favoured them tomorrow. He would like to know his grandson better.
He would not give up easily. He would not go down in despair. The Saxon savages might think nothing of death in war save how to win a glorious place in song, might think a straw-death, a peaceful death, to be a disgrace - but Aquila - Aquila was a civilised man, and if he had to die, it would be fighting for the hope of peace.
Aquila only knew the Saxons were coming up the vale of the White Horse before he heard them because the other men in the line called out and pointed. His old eyes could not see so far any more. But soon the sound came to him: the tramp of thousands of feet, the sound of metal on metal, the cry as one of the British skirmishers sent out to unsettle the advancing horde came too close and went down.
The long grass before the men of the Royal bodyguard in their red cloaks was full of moon-daisies, waving on their long stems in the wind, and across the bright field of flowers came the armoured grey line of the Saxons, filling the whole valley. So many of them! Eight thousand at the least, and mostly well equipped, save for the naked insanity of the berserkers with their wild eyes and long knives.
Aquila took a moment to glance along the line of his own men, the Royal Bodyguard at the heart of the British line, every man in his red cloak. Not young men, any of them, but a force that would not disgrace even a Legion of the Eagles none the less.
The Saxons crashed into the first British line hard, even though they were moving uphill. The weight of the Saxons pushing forward was hard for the British line to hold. They fell back on their second line, and then on the third, straining, struggling - not so much to hold ground as to reduce the numbers, to thin the seemingly endless ranks that came thrusting up the vale.
The deep boom of a Saxon war horn sounded somewhere in front of Aquila in the struggle, and he threw his man down and shouted to young Priscus, there behind him on a hillock, ready to send word down the line. Priscus understood, and the Saxon horn was answered by the clearer note of a British trumpet, sounding the old trumpet call of the Legions from long, long ago. “Attack! Attack!” Ambrosius ripped his sword from the neck of the man in front of him and stepped forward.
And somehow, the Saxons were crumbling, were falling under the red British swords or breaking away and moving back, and Ambrosius’s old bodyguard advanced again, over the bodies of the dead and the waving moon-daisies bright in the sunshine across the tawny side of Badon Hill.
For a long moment there was a breathing space, a pause as both sides collected themselves. Aquila wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of one gloved hand, and glanced along the line: it was still complete, though there were faces missing. But he thought - he was sure - they had left more Saxons cold upon the hillside than they had lost themselves.
And now, the Saxons were massing again: Aquila could see Aelle, Battle King of the Saxons, under his horse-head standard, calling his housecarls about him, rallying them for another push forward.
Again they came, at a slow rolling run up the hillside to crash into the British line, which swayed and stepped back, but did not break. Back Aquila went, one step, two, careful not to trip over the bodies now strewn behind them across the slope from the last advance. Hold the Saxon on his shield, counter the axe-blows, wait for a mistake, keep an eye to old Owain on his left, and Kenwal on his right, step back, step back, step back. He was breathing heavily now, and he could feel blood running down his arm from a cut high on his shoulder.
Back past the men killed or wounded in the first attack, back past the original British line, back, step by step into the mouth of the vale, past the thornbush that Aquila had noted before the fighting started, the bush that was level with the position of the hidden reserves, the reserves that Aquila’s old eyes could not quite pick out high on the hillside, even though he knew they were there. It was almost time. Almost.
There on the tawny summer-warmed side of the hill, as he flung the heavy body of a mad naked Saxon berserker back onto his fellows, Aquila strained to see how great a Saxon host still lay before them. He could see far enough: there were still fresh Saxons below him on the hillside, as yet unwounded and moving upward. Too many of them: too strong, they stood like a wall that even the British horse, even the Companions of Artos might fail to break.
Flavian was up there somewhere, high on Badon Hill with the cavalry reserves, hidden behind a copse of trees with his cohort of horse, ready to follow Artos into battle as he had always followed Artos, even from that first battle when he was only a boy. Aquila had never known how to talk to Flavian, not really - but here was something he could do, a thing that might still mean something.
For a wonder, Priscus was still within sight just behind the line, and Aquila jerked his head, for he was short of breath, and made the signal. Again the clear trumpet sounded: “Attack, Attack!” and the deep voice of the Saxon war horn brayed in answer.
Aquila took a deep breath, and threw himself forward with all his weight into the Saxon line. Behind him he could feel as much as hear Owain and Kenwal and the rest of the Royal bodyguard follow him as one man, a spearhead thrust deep into the Saxon horde, and under the fury of the British attack, the Saxon line bowed, and its forward thrust was halted.
And from the hillside, other horns answered Priscus’s trumpet, as it called and called, and then suddenly broke off: Artos’s hunting horn, gay and fearless, rang through the noise of battle, and as the Saxon axe hit his unprotected side where Owain had fallen a heartbeat before and darkness fell over him, Aquila heard the sound of thundering hooves. Artos had thrown in his reserves.