Thus at Merlin's encouraging, King Arthur went down from the tower under flag of truce, to a place of neutrality, in order to speak with the six kings. Beneath his robes he had a double-mailed jesserant and at his belt he had the sword drawn from the stone. With him went Bishop Bedwin, Sir Kay, Sir Bedivere, and Sir Brastias; Sir Ulfius and Sir Lucan remained behind in charge of the men in the tower. It perhaps not be correct to say that the talks that followed between King Arthur and the six kings were for peace; there was no meekness nor gentleness on either side; the kings had many a severe word, but King Arthur always had an answer, and replied to them as a liege lord to his men. Finally, the meeting broke with King Arthur saying that, as he lived, they would kneel, and he and his men returned to the tower.
Then Merlin said to the six kings, "What plan do you have? For I tell you true, that if you had ten times as many men you would not succeed in battle against him."
King Lot in response to this said angrily, "Shall we listen to liars and fortune tellers?" And when he had said that, Merlin vanished before their very eyes, and all who were there were troubled.
King Arthur was in deep counsel with his knights, and of a sudden Merlin, sitting at the right hand of the king, encouraged him to set on his enemies with all ferocity, although no one had seen Merlin come or had even known he was there until he spoke.
"Sire," he said, "even now there are men in the armies of the six kings who, having heard my words and seen my signs, as well as having heard your own arguments, will come over to your side. And though they still will have greater numbers, this is all to good, for you shall defeat their greater numbers and by doing so shall make clear to all who live by the sword that your right to rule is a right you can enforce. But heed my advice in this. When you go to battle, do not fight with the sword that was pulled from the stone until you see all things on the field turn for the worse; then you may draw it and set it to work as best you may."
Then like a fire came King Arthur and his men against the six kings, and three hundred men were added to his strength by those who deserted the six kings. Then Sir Bedivere, Sir Kay, and Sir Brastias, the greatest knights among his men, slew both right and left with a speed and sureness that was a marvel to behold; Sir Ulfius and Sir Lucan leading a smaller group drove against the flank of the six kings. King Arthur himself, on horseback, set his sword both left and right, before and behind, with such marvelous feats of arms that King Caradoc said to King Urien, "Perhaps this boy is more fit as a successor to Pendragon than he seemed," and King Urien said in reply, "Now I better understand what Merlin meant."
But King Lot, King Anguish, and the King of a Hundred Knights fought their way around toward the back of King Arthur's army, forcing him to turn to meet them. He smote both behind and before, with deeds as great as he had so far done, but the three kings had set upon him with great numbers, and the press of the other three kings prevented all but a few of his knights from rendering him aid. Thus both he and his guard were hard-pressed and it seemed that they would fall with time. Down went King Arthur's horse, and King Arthur with it. King Lot rode at King Arthur, striking him down, and four knights set on him at once. At this, King Arthur heeded Merlin's advice. He took the sword that had been drawn from the sword and pulled it from his scabbard. All at once there was a light, shining from the blade, like thirty torches bundled closely, and as they were dazzled, he forced them back. A great light was about him, and with a fury of strokes he slew left and right, and the armies of the kings broke and began to flee.
Then a signal was sent out and the commoners of Caerleon poured onto the field. They had for the most part only clubs and wooden staves, but the knights who were slow to retreat could not stand against them. The kings, however, were still able to gather their chief knights and flee. King Arthur, however, called back their pursuers, because Merlin counseled him not to follow them.
After the battle at Caerleon, King Arthur withdrew toward Londinium, where a great feast was held to celebrate the victory. The king also took counsel with his barons, for as Merlin said, the six kings were sure to return in search of vengeance. The lords and barons could provide no sure counsel, so Merlin said to them, "Greatness of kingship requires many things. The king has right, and he has shown that he has good men. But I warn you all that, of those who fought with the six kings, the greater part of the best men survived. The armies that they fielded this time were based on the false assumption that the king, being young, could not fight like a king, and they will no longer make such an assumption. Even greater numbers they will gather. Further, the great kings of the north are not weak in alliances, and as we speak, they are consulting with those allies, and, as we speak, agreements are being forged. Six kings you fought off; there will be more kings against you when you return. The men of Logres are strong, but even if all the chivalry in all the realm were gathered together, they would not suffice. Thus we must look to alliances ourselves."
But the barons did not know whom he meant, so he continued, "Across the water, there are two kingdoms, Benewic and Gannes, ruled by twin brothers, King Ban and King Bors. Their chivalry is exceptional. But to the south and to the east, bordering both kingdoms, is a larger kingdom ruled by a man named King Claudas, and the border between the kingdoms of the brothers and the kingdom of King Claudas is in dispute. King Claudas is very wealthy, and thus is able to hire many soldiers and knights against them, and by numbers has slowly made progress against the brothers despite the excellence of their men. Where need for alliance and need for alliance meet, alliance may be born. Offer them a deal. Send two trustworthy knights who may speak for the king with diplomatic letters and gifts of goodwill. Tell them that if they come to the aid of King Arthur and his court, King Arthur will swear by solemn and sacred oath to come to their aid."
This was agreed, and Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias were chosen as the knights of the embassy. After they had crossed the channel, and were riding toward Benewic, they were met stopped by eight knights.
"We bear messages to King Ban," they said. "Please let us pass."
"Then you shall die or be prisoners," said the knights, "for we serve King Claudas." And two of them rode with spears against Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias, but by their spears Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias threw the knights to earth with great force, and ran through the midst of the knights. But the six who were left gave chase and soon, choosing their moment to turn well, Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias threw another two down and by deft maneuvers knocked two others off their horses. Thus finally they had weeded it down to two against two, and Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias were wholly victorious. At this point, two knights of King Ban, Sir Lionses of Payarn and Sir Phariance, came upon them, for rumor had already reached the courts of their embassy, and Sir Lionses and Sir Phariance were impressed by the achievement of Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias against the eight knights of King Claudas. Thus they came to Benewic, where as it happened both kings were taking counsel together, and the knights of King Arthur were brought by Sir Lionses and Sir Phariance before King Ban and King Bors.
Receiving the letters from King Arthur, the two kings had them read, and, once they understood the contents, were glad of a sudden. A great feast was held, and Sir Ulfias and Sir Brastias told the story of the eight knights, confirmed by Sir Lionses and Sir Phariance, to great cheer.
"Ha!" said King Ban jokingly. "They are well known friends to us, having caused us endless trouble; I would certainly have rendered them a harsher friendship than you did, if I had met them."
So Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias returned to King Arthur with letters of promise and many gifts. And by Hallowmas King Ban and King Bors, along with their brother, a cleric named Gwenbaus, had come over the sea with three hundred knights of the highest skill. Then three kings held a great feast. Sir Kay the seneschal served the hall; Sir Lucan, the son of Duke Corneus, and his cousin Sir Griflet, the son of Sir Don, served the kings personally. Then afterward for Hallowmas they held a great tournament.
The shields dressed and the spears couched, Sir Griflet received the lot to fight first; he fought one Sir Ladinas from Benewic, and they came together so furiously that both their shields shattered, and both knights were knocked to the earth, stunned, so that at first was feared that they were dead. But Sir Lucan, running to Sir Griflet, found him alive, and helped horse him again, then helped Sir Ladinas up as well, and both did well later in the tournament. Then Sir Kay with five knights went up against six knights of Brittany and all of the latter were unhorsed. Indeed, Sir Kay fought so well that the men of Brittany wondered at him; no one did better than he that day.
However, after he had unhorsed many knights, Sir Kay went up against one Sir Placidas and was unhorsed, far more fiercely than Sir Placidas had perhaps intended. Sir Griflet, seeing this, was wrathful and rushed against Sir Placidas, whom he smote hard to the earth, and this began an escalation on both sides, as knights both of Logres and of Benewic and Gannes grew angry at the treatment. When the three kings saw this, they rose suddenly and summoned the knights to court, where they had evensong and then supper. The kings awarded Sir Kay the first prize, and distributed prizes also to other knights who had performed surpassingly well, such as Sir Griflet, Sir Lucan, Sir Ladinas, and Sir Gracian of Gannes.
Then in the morning, after holy Mass, they held a small council, consisting of the kings, Gwenbaus, Sir Ulfius, Sir Brastias, and Merlin, and argued out what they would do. For their part, the tournament had convinced King Ban and King Bors that they had chosen their allies well, but on reviewing new information of the numbers that had been raised against them, their foes having now increased to eleven kings, it seemed good to them to increase their numbers further.
"And yet it is a difficult thing," said King Bors. "Our knights are bold and brave, but long years of war have perhaps made them wary of leaving too little defended their homes and families against a foe capable of fielding great armies. And any numbers we can bring will be limited by the difficulty of provisioning them at such a short notice."
"These are not such difficult problems," said Merlin. "This is my counsel. Send me, with tokens of authority, to the kingdoms of Benewic and Gannes, to raise the men, and pick two knights of intelligence and boldness to return as well to organize the border in defense against King Claudas until we are able to ride against him in force. Do this and all things will proceed to their proper ends."
King Ban and King Bors wondered at this, but as the plan had the support of King Arthur, King Ban gave to Merlin his signet ring as a sign of authority, and the two kings appointed Sir Gracian and Sir Placidas as the knights to organize the defense of the kingdoms. Thus Merlin, Sir Gracian, and Sir Placidas were sent over the sea.
Thus Merlin, Sir Gracian, and Sir Placidas went to Benewic. The people there were glad to see them, and, recognizing the authority of King Ban's signet, several hundred men of valor were gathered together.
But Merlin rose and spoke to them, saying, "Men of Armorica, you have heard of the feats of Saint Germanus, the bishop of Autissiodorum, who was sent with Saint Lupus of Tricassium to the island of Albion in the days of your fathers. This was the same Germanus who died in Ravenna, petitioning for aid and mercy to the Armoricans. He had been a general and a governor, a man such as all of you, accomplished in the ways of strategy and war. In his travels, he came upon a band of Bretons who were menaced by bands of Picts and Saxons. As the leader of the Bretons was dead, Saint Germanus took the people in his charge and led them to a valley nested between two great mountains. When the band of raiders drew near, the Bretons at Saint Germanus's command shouted Alleluia three times in a great and roaring voice. The mountains, hearing them, called back Alleluia, and then, hearing each other, called Alleluia again, until, the whole region was filled with echoes, as if a great army were hidden behind every stone. Terrified of what they thought a vast host, the Saxons and the Picts threw down their arms and fled, each one seeking to get ahead of the others.
"Men of Armorica, I have not come here to place before you an easy road, but a difficult one, a path not for the cowardly or weak, although there is great glory in it. But I come here because the men of Armorica have few peers in chivalry and a reputation for valor and skill, with none greater in warlike fame. If there is such potency in a Breton shout, can any deny that there is potency in a Breton sword? I do not come to propose to you a path of comfort, but one of glory, achievements of renown on fields that will be remembered, and when it is done, the aid of King Arthur and his knights against your own foes."
And as Merlin spoke, it seemed to the men who heard that they saw themselves in battle achieving great things. Thus Merlin went speaking from place to place in Benewic and Gannes, and wherever he went, the hearts of the men who heard him were set alight with visions of glory. Some there were who, seeing their sway with the knights falling aside, said to each other, "This man is dangerous; he speaks with the tongue of a devil." But they did not dare intervene, for the spirits of the knights and even the common folk were increasingly high.
Because of his efforts, Merlin gathered together fifteen thousand men on horse and foot, and many of the men were of great renown. Among these was one, named Sir Illtyd, also known as Hildutus, who was a son of Bicanus and grandson of King Anblaud, as well as a cousin of King Arthur through his father's side. He was a man educated in all arts, having intended to go into the priesthood, for he had a very great devotion to Saint Germanus, but the attraction of arms had drawn him away, and thus he had served instead in the forces of his father, who was a tributary ally of King Bors. With him went his friend, Sir Nasciens, a descendant of King Bron, the brother-in-law of Saint Joseph of Arimathea, and a cousin of King Ban and King Bors. Both were soldiers and scholars of exceptional ability, valiant in battle and skilled in arms, learned and lettered in all of the liberal arts, and afterward they each achieved great renown, although for matters more serious than war.
When the host was beginning to be gathered together, Sir Illtyd, Sir Nascien, and others came to Merlin and said, "Sir, how shall we victual this army; for even bringing such supplies as we can, we find we will soon run out."
"This is not a difficult matter," said Merlin. "Select out some men who have skill in hunting, and have them hunt for deer."
"Sir," they said with surprise, "there are not enough deer in the woods to feed this many people."
But he insisted, and they sent out hunters to hunt. The hunters could find few deer, but Merlin said, "Carve and dress it as I shall tell you, and then begin distributing it." So they did, and soon distributed meat to the entire host, with the few deer they had not being exhausted of meat until all of the army had been well provisioned.
Merlin said, "Let all of the footmen be sent to aid Sir Gracian and Sir Placidas in the defense of the castles of the country, for their time shall come soon enough." This left about ten thousand men, all on horse. Then Merlin hired a great many boats, as well as those already available, including fishing boats, to bring the men to Albion. When they were at sea, Merlin said to Sir Illtyd and Sir Nasciens, "Have the men in the fishing boats set nets over the side." And when they did, they drew back the nets full to bursting with fish, so that it was difficult for strong men to pull them in. Thus the host came to the Portus Dubris, also known as Dover, on the island of Britain, provisioned in abundance by land and sea. Then Merlin led the knights northward through secret ways and encamped them in a valley in the forest of Bedegraine, and afterward rode to meet with the three kings.
The kings were astounded to meet Merlin, for they had not expected him to be more than just beginning, and could not understand how anyone could raise an army so swiftly, and indeed thought at first that some accident had prevented him from going or caused him to return before he had finished. But Merlin told them of the ten thousand well armed and well provisioned men in the forest of Bedegraine, and there was nothing more to say but to ride to join them.
to be continued