Clash of Iron - Angus Watson

Chapter 1

Queen Lowa Flynn of Maidun knew she’d have to fight the moment she saw King Samalur the Tough of Dumnonia. She’d been fairly sure that violence would be required when she’d heard that he called himself “the Tough”. Appearance and name aside, the fact that he’d marched an army five times the size of hers into her territory hardly heralded a friendly hello.

The boy king looked down at her from the low wall of the abandoned hillfort that he’d appropriated for Dumnonia’s temporary headquarters. He was perched on the edge of the ornately carved wooded throne. He did not look tough, or, indeed, like a king. He looked like a spoilt child who’d spent a lot of other people’s time and effort trying to look majestic. Fanning up and out behind his throne was a ludicrous, scallop-shaped wooden adornment the height of two tall men, laboriously etched and painted with hunting scenes. Lowa thought what a huge and pointless hassle it must have been for some hapless peasants to haul the thing all the way from Dumnonia.

The king’s skinny legs dangled from the massive throne, clad in the finest tartan trousers. His boots, hanging a good foot above the platform, were tipped with polished ox horn. His bony, nobble-elbowed arms sprouted from a shiny brown otter-skin waistcoat. He wasn’t much older than Spring, yet, below a bulbously arched nose and deep-set eyes, his smile shone with the unshakeable self-satisfaction that men didn’t usually achieve until much later in life (and women rarely managed; some women that Lowa knew tried the look, but it was usually unconvincing).

Around his perched throne stood granite-faced guards adorned with the boar necklaces of Warriors, and next to them young, pretty female and male attendants. The former looked at Lowa with mild interest, the latter bathed their ruler with sycophantic smiles while regarding Lowa with the same disdainful rolling-eyed glowers that they might have given an elderly flasher.

Lowa sighed. Three days a queen, already she hated it.

She’d come to meet Samalur on horseback, bringing only Carden Nancarrow and Atlas Agrippa with her, intending to show how relaxed she felt about a gigantic army invading her territory. Having seen Samalur and his gang, she now knew that she’d made a mistake. She looked cheap in their snobbish eyes and that had weakened her negotiating position. Looking up to the boy king on the hillfort wall, she was below him physically as well, which didn’t help. Perhaps she should have brought some sort of platform? Found a taller horse? She hadn’t expected to be skilled at diplomacy, and she’d been right. Things were not going well.

“I have no quarrel with you, Samalur,” she tried. “Quite the opposite. It will benefit both our tribes to unite against the Romans.”

“The Romans?” His voice was high and haughty. “Do you know where the nearest Roman is? In Iberia. Should we unite to fight all the fish in the sea – because they’re a lot closer!” Samalur giggled like the teenager he was, looking left to right at his court, who laughed along fawningly. His Warrior bodyguards smiled like men and women who’d been told to smile but weren’t happy about it.

One of them wasn’t laughing or smiling. Chief advisor Bruxon, the only one of Samalur’s retinue who’d been introduced to them, was looking grimly at the grassy ground. He was about Dug’s age with black-stained woollen clothes, a clean-shaven face and dye-blackened hair tied back in a short ponytail. He looked almost comically severe. Perhaps because he disliked his conceited ruler? Perhaps he might be useful in winning round or even unseating the young king?

“And don’t think Bruxon’s going to help you because he looks like someone’s tricked him into drinking piss!” Samalur sniggered. He’d seen her looking at Bruxon and read her thoughts. Lowa was reluctantly impressed. “He always looks like that. But he’s loyal to me. It was Bruxon’s plan for me to kill my dad and become king in the first place! He tried to make me think it was my idea, but I’m cleverer than that, aren’t I, Bruxon?” The advisor nodded resignedly. “So I’m also too clever to believe any of the crap that the druids spout about Roman invasions. They only do it to make themselves look important. That’s why I don’t keep druids near me. I killed all my father’s. And do you know what’s really funny? They bang on about seeing the future, but not one of them saw me coming!”

Laughter rang out