Legend of the Emerald Rose
Northwestern Shores of Britannia
The blunt blow sent his short sword flying from his grip, but twelve-year-old Shadoe’s response to that warning delivered him from the battle-axe’s lethal blade. The Saxon warrior cursed his miss and moved to swing again. Like a well-choreographed dancer, King Arthur Pendragon pivoted and wielded Excalibur, slicing the man’s neck muscles and spinal column clean through. The astonished expression of the Saxon’s beard-matted face seared itself onto Shadoe’s memory. A moment later, the man’s head toppled to the boggy sod before his body fell forward.
“Keep your back to mine, lad!” Arthur smacked his fist between the bony shoulder blades of his armor bearer. Before Shadoe could respond, the king caught up Shadoe’s sword and shoved its peat-caked hilt into his hand. “I mean you to outlive me, Apprentice.”
The youth smiled and, for a heartbeat, he held the passionate gaze of his high king’s green eyes. “Aye, Milord, but,” he yelled over the combat’s din when Arthur rushed to engage more enemy warriors, “how can I keep my back to you when you don’t stand still?” Shadoe gave Arthur chase, diving and swerving between quarter staves, spears, swords, battle-axes, horse hooves, and falling bodies. At such a harrowing time, Shadoe un Hollo Tors rejoiced for his limber build.
From out of the mists, Mordred Pendragon charged through the fray on horseback, wielding his scarlet-stained sword at anyone in his wake, even his ally Saxons and Jutes. Wearing a sardonic smile, his striking face was splattered with fresh blood. Mordred truly was Satan incarnate.
Too late to stop, Shadoe stumbled into Mordred’s path. As Mordred charged him, Shadoe did what he did best. He ducked. The swoosh of a near miss burned his right ear. A horse’s hoof cleared his head. Short sword in hand, Shadoe flipped over backward and landed upright on his feet. Mordred reared his snorting steed and glanced back. Their gazes met—Shadoe and Mordred, first cousins but fighting on opposite sides. Mordred laughed, and then charged off.
Drenched with blood and sweat, Shadoe dove behind an outcropping of rocks and took stock. Mordred could have slain him but hadn’t. Why? The clash of metal and wails of warriors overrode that question. Shadoe had lost sight of Arthur. He spotted Perceval and Tristam, who watched each other’s backs. A short distance away, Cai and Geraint did likewise. Such was the honor code of Arthur’s knights of the Round Table.
Leaping onto a rock, Shadoe rejoined the combat with a prayer on his lips, “Father God, protect me. Protect Arthur and—”
Shadoe was slammed facedown into the bog. He glanced up to see an enemy’s quarterstaff plunging toward him. Shadoe grabbled for the haft of his short sword and rolled over, evading the enemy’s weapon. The bloodstained staff rose again in the hands of a young Jute. A direct blow to Shadoe’s skull would be fatal.
“Skewer him, Shadoe!” Lancelot’s voice rang out. With the hilt of his sword, Lancelot rammed the warrior’s back ribs and sent him sprawling over Shadoe.
His sword’s haft braced against his stomach, Shadoe thrust upward. The blade pierced the youth’s stomach and exited his back. The Jute screamed. Blood trickled from his mouth and nostrils before his weight slid to Shadoe’s hilt. Shadoe struggled to push the young man off.
Lancelot du Lac jerked the Jute’s lifeless body off Shadoe’s blade. Offering a gloved hand, Lancelot drew Shadoe to his feet and gave him a brief look. “For your first battle, you are doing well, scion of Merlin.”
At the mention of his father’s name, Shadoe flinched. “I try, Sire.”
“So where’s our high king, Apprentice? You’re to have his back this day.”
“I lost him, Lance. He went—” Shadoe swerved as Lancelot delivered a deadly blow to one Saxon, then another. Shadoe held his own against a Jute before driving his blade through the man’s heart. Before long, Shadoe guarded Lancelot’s back. Despite his worry about Arthur’s whereabouts, Shadoe fell into a comfortable rhythm with Lancelot. Minutes later, Shadoe saved the Silver Lion from an incoming spear. Pride squirmed into his heart, and with it, newfound confidence. Mayhap war wasn’t hell after all.
War was hell!
Arthur was dead!
Anguished wails echoed across the battlefield—an altar saturated with sacrificial blood. Celts, Picts, and Britons rent their clothes and cried to the heavens over the loss of the Pendragon. A slate gray mist shrouded the gory carnage, but nothing could conceal the wretched stench of death. Arthur Pendragon’s armor bearer, Shadoe un Hollo Tors, knelt beside his dead master. With blood-coated hands, he held tight to Arthur’s battered helm. His gaze never wavered from the ashen features of his sovereign lord.
An exceptionally large man, Arthur Pendragon lay on his back, clutching his sword Excalibur. A sleeping giant, Shadoe had often called him, for despite Arthur’s lofty height and breadth of shoulders, there had never been a man of gentler heart.
Absently, Shadoe wiped dirt from Arthur’s jaw and pushed the unruly auburn hair off his king’s forehead. That noble brow was no longer tension-creased but masked in youthful virtue. Arthur’s fiery green eyes were forever sealed. Shadoe grieved, for he would never again feel those confident jewels of light gaze upon him.
Oh, to hear his rich voice shouting orders, bursting forth in laughter, and humbling itself in prayer. Oh, Arthur. Shadoe gripped the gilded helm tighter. Why didn’t I foresee this day? Why didn’t God spare you and take me? Why didn’t I have your back? Shadoe’s brow knit low and tight. Grief, guilt, and ire slashed him through.
The brutal siege assailed Shadoe’s mind, and the events that had led to this tragic morn misted his eyes. It had been a momentous day, when from all corners of Britannia, including the farthest regions of Pictland, chieftains of every tribe rose to support Arthur. Not since before Rome’s desertion had there been such loyal unison on the Isle of Might. With support of the clans, Arthur organized a series of campaigns against the Germanic invaders. The current battle had lasted three days. Once more, Arthur’s troops were victorious, and Mordred had been restrained. Only in the aftermath did the high king’s men discover Arthur himself had been mortally wounded.
Shadoe’s reflections came full circle. Multiple versions of Arthur’s death heated the stagnant air. Had it been a Saxon? Or had the seasoned warrior taken an ill-fated step and fallen upon his blade? Having witnessed Arthur’s final contest, Shadoe and Lancelot knew neither premise was true, but they had vowed to their dying Pendragon not to reveal that nineteen-year-old Mordred had slain his own father.
Through grief-veiled eyes, Shadoe gazed at the dust from the retreating Saxons and Jutes. The Britons and Celts had pushed them south from Arthur’s lands. But for what prize? How long before Mordred stormed Hadrian’s Wall again? How long before he marched on the innermost summer realm of Camelot? How would Lady Guenevere defend her people? Of an army more than two thousand strong, nine hundred Celts, Romano-Britons, and Picts had perished. From the head count, another two hundred men were wounded and many missing. Fortunately, the enemy’s loss was greater. Still, Cai, Geraint, and four other brave souls of the Pendragon Round Table had perished.
Shadoe knelt, waiting for a miracle, waiting for Yahweh to return their high chieftain to life. How could God allow this? Arthur had been a godly man. What would happen to his peaceful kingdom of Camelot? Jesu help us, Shadoe prayed heatedly, Arthur is . . . was Camelot!