The Wand King #6

Helmet

Arta stood on the outer rampart of Tor Avalon. It was nothing more than a long grassy hummock with a deep ditch in front, both of which stretched out around the hill. High above and behind her, the warning bell tolled from the church tower.

It was the first time she was glad they had built a house for Constantine’s God there. She smiled a wolfish grin to think of monks raising an altar over the bones of Utter “Broadblade”. Was he a saint to them? The way they worshipped every priest to be hacked down or burned, it would not surprise her if Utter’s portrait went up in painted glass.

A Saxon war-chief, immortalised by the same men who preached peace with every breath.

“Are you smiling, Arta?” Colla asked, twisting the handle of his great hammer in his meaty hands. It looked like he wanted to wring its neck. If what the pagans said was true, and each weapon had a soul, the hammer’s spirit must have felt like a strangled hen. “There, you’re laughing now. Does this amuse you?”

“What do you expect from a pagan?” Constantine asked.

His deft fingers plucked at the beads of his rosary, counting them off as his lips whispered a prayer. Arta wanted to slap his face, wrap his brown wool robe around his head and throw him into the ditch.

It was not his words which angered her. She knew well enough his thoughts about the old religion. The way he stood, the clacking of his rosary beads, it drove her mad. How could he pretend to be so calm? Finding certainty in the Lord’s protection, as he was fond of putting it. Arta saw through the mask of sober faith.

Constantine was drunk with fear. His knees trembled beneath his habit and, if her nose was not mistaken, the monk had wet his undergarments. She laughed again and was instantly silence by a chorused shout from down the slope.

Twenty-or-so men were coming towards the ramparts, where over a hundred men and women waited to defend their homes. The invading warriors did not charge at the hilltop. They swaggered and set a slow, confident pace. There was good reason for it.

The attackers were Saxon, while the people of Tor Avalon were Briton. They were armed with bright swords, broad shields and gilded helms. Coats of thick iron mail trailed about their knees.

Constantine had the finest armour out of all the defenders, but his thick woollen habit would not stop a sword’s edge.

Arta drew the weapon which Colla had forged and held it overhead. The people of Tor Avalon fell silent. Its blade shone radiant as silver in the bright midday sun. There was a pause in the approaching ranks and the Saxons craned their necks to see which warrior stood with their enemies.

Then the sword dropped out of sight, plunging through the earth at Arta’s feet. The challenge had been made. Single combat. Two swords and one death to determine who would hold Tor Avalon by day’s end.

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