< Geoffrey Storey - Synopsis - White Dragon


The White Dragon - Britain



The Prologue.


    Gaius and his horse were concealed behind a curtain of foliage as he gazed across at the invaders working at the upper end of the narrow valley.
    Two shallow streams ran down into the valley from the hillside, with a low outcrop dividing them. The peninsula thus formed jutted into the valley below.  The streams joined at the base of this peninsula to form a river which ran down through open water meadows before entering the forest which filled the mouth of the widening vale. The river continued through the forest and re-emerged to cross the plain and flowed towards the sea in the distance. There on the sea-shore stood the main settlement from whence these men had come – not as foragers, but as men building the first inland settlement in these hills.
    There were perhaps a score of men, mostly free churls, hard at work, spread out, their words reaching him faintly on the breeze, their guttural Englisc harsh to his ear, as expressive and coarsely descriptive as he remembered from the Sea People who had visited his father. Most were working on a fence on the jutting spur, the others clearing scrub and trees from beyond the water meadows below. The clearing was now quite large, and being prepared for the plough.
    There was a small white banner on the knoll, flying from a tall gnarled oak tree. Beneath the oak, seemingly growing out of it, was the beginnings of a long wooden building.
    Although all the foreigners appeared to be armed freemen, having both spear and shield to hand, he counted four heavily armed men who appeared to be Gesyths, Companions, gathered on the rock above the junction of the streams, not far from a dominant figure. Except for a few mail-clad Gesyths and armed freemen who were very much on their guard and alert to the woods surrounding them, they were all working easily together, churl and Companion alike. Like the churls the Companions wore the vicious seax knives on their belts which gave these Saxon invaders their name.
    Near the four Companions on the higher ground, talking to a labourer was a tall flaxen-haired warrior with a bejewelled sword belt girdling his waist. His hair flowed onto his shoulders. There were pack-horses that Gaius could see, tethered on the knoll, with perhaps a dozen or more riding beasts visible on the peninsula. That was chance. It was rare to find good horseflesh in the Englisc settlements, even if they were more ponies than cavalry mounts.

    Gaius turned his head to where his men sat their horses.  He had with him on this expedition a troop of his father’s Horse, under their Decurion, Secundus, and his inseparable Optio, Publius.  Their uniform equipment was ill-used through rough field conditions, but the red crosses with the red dragon imposed stood out as they unclipped their shield covers and readied for the action awaiting them.
    Secundus was a rather flamboyantly dressed young man. Brave and intelligent, his men loved him and would follow him anywhere. Yet the troop’s bearing and discipline was, Gaius knew, largely the work of his optio, Publius, a grizzled dark-haired man, as short and stocky as his Roman forebears had been. These men had a reputation unrivalled in the army.
    The troopers were men of the North, British warriors. They looked for the most part as tough as did Publius, small dark men of the forest, some with strong traces of those swarthy beak-nosed Italians of old, but also with a smattering of the tall and fair-haired men who, like Gaius and Secundus themselves, were descended from the chariot-borne aristocracy who had ruled in this land long before Rome.
    The tension, especially among the younger men on their fidgeting mounts, was palpable. Many quietly prayed to their Saints, and to Christ. Most of the men were veterans, sitting their horses in grim silence, almost thoughtfully fingering their weapons. They were as keen and as deadly as their blades, sharp and death-dealing. 
    For now their Red Dragon Banner drooped from its lance, but soon it would bellow as they charged, opening its jaws to engulf these pagan Saxon strangers, invaders of their land. Satisfied after his fleeting glance at his men, Gaius turned his attention back to the enemy. He concentrated his gaze on the swordsman whom he was certain was his opposite number among the Saxons, the tall young man with the long Scandinavian blade at his side. Now that would be a prize worth the seizing!
He had sent a few men, under Publius, to scatter the men on the valley floor and to distract the enemy. The remainder of his troopers were positioned on either side of the densely wooded hillsides, hidden amongst the trees. His main attack would be from above and behind the Englisc, from the hills on both sides of the jutting headland.  It would take time for Secundus to get into position, but when he did so he and Secundus would take the enemy in a classic pincer movement on the now largely cleared spur and the level hillside behind it. The Saxons had of course cleared the land to a long bowshot’s distance before beginning other works. There were no other obstacles before them. No ditch had as yet been dug across the neck of the peninsula to isolate it from the hillside, before the twin streams plunged down in white racing water-falls to the valley-floor below.
    The cavalry were close. It would take minutes from the order to attack to reaching their enemies, long minutes in which the Saxons might just have time to prepare. He knew that his troop understood exactly what each man had to do. Classic cavalry tactics. His father would be proud of him.

    This was a rare opportunity, unlooked for. His was a routine intelligence patrol, sent out as the last of the snows had retreated and just as the new Spring growth was bursting into life. His scouts had come across these few men, alone, isolated, on the fringes of the forested hills, in the early dawn light. A hasty discussion with Secundus and Publius. A stealthy approach, the splitting of his forces, and the scene would be set by noon. It was almost miraculous.  He crossed himself, murmured a hasty Pater Noster. The crisp Northern air was keen, the light winds still chill. A good day to fight.
    Today he would lead his men not on a brief skirmish, but in a charge that would teach these arrogant foreigners that if they ever ventured to leave the safety of their coastal walls and sand-salt fields they would die.  War-booty and horses were an added bonus. Honour and Victory were here to fight for. For he was Gaius Valerius Marcius, son of Julius of the Valerii and Marcii, and he rode for Urien of Rheged, the mightiest War-Lord of the North!
    It was noon. The time of waiting was at an end. Both Secundus and Publius would be in position. He turned to his men, arm up-raised. He dropped it.
    “For Urien, for Rheged, and for Christ!”


Chapter One: The Dragon Hatched.


    The youth sat athwart his bench, legs spread against the quick motion of the sea.  It was almost light, with misty tendrils of morning fog drifting past them.
    He thought he could see the proud White Dragon’s head on the prow slipping in and out of the wispy cloud, bright where it caught the pale rays of early sunshine. That imperious symbol was his father’s own. It lived within his very being, his soul. It was his wyrd, his destiny. A statement out here on the boundless ocean of who he, his father, and his family were.  He was Garwulf, son of Garrick, Woden born, Aethling of Lindsey.

    He stood, straddling his lanky legs against the heaving of the ship, Wave-Cleaver.  The white phosphorescent wake now sharply outlined the dipping oars. He had heard Father tell the steersman that they should make landfall in the cold light of morning, and already he could see the reddish tendrils of the false dawn in the east. He wanted to see his new land.  The voices around him grew more expectant.  Men looked towards their gear, the ever-present combs reached for whilst keeping the steady beat of the oar-stroke.
    For they were land-seekers. Men who lived by their swords and their wits, men sworn to his father’s service, but an oath given could as haughtily be withdrawn. Warriors all, from the humblest free churl at the oar with his spear and shield piled amidships, to the most magnificently bejewelled Gesyths beside him at the oars.
    These men were not tired after long rowing. They had left in the half-light before day-break from the tiny sandy cove in which they had spent the night.  Father had wanted his ship, his warriors, and himself to make landfall as splendidly as possible. They had an hour or two yet to travel.
    He heard the cadence of their voices at the oars, keeping time yet still communicating, good-humouredly, their words of the sea, and keeping out the great nothingness around them. Their speech was in the graphic, expressive, descriptive tongue they called Englisc, their roots and their language out of Angeln, across the waters, many a year or decade behind them.
    Only the gull that soared above the clouds could see, perhaps, the shores of their well-remembered homelands, a poor flat land of swamps and encroaching sea, of bloodshed and rapine encroaching with the hordes from the Eastern Steppe. Their gaze had turned to the land Rome had abandoned. They had already voyaged far, these Angles, and so had their fathers, and often their grandfathers, to these islands of Britain far out in the Northern Seas.