The King's horse was brought forth, a massive, steadfast war-mare that had seen a score of battles and knew her job well; the grooms put on her blanket and saddle, and the great white caparison of war emblazoned with The Red Dragon of Camelot. All was silent in the stableyard, for this was no tournament-day, no glorious battle as in days of yore...Arthur was old now, and alone. No Merlin, no Lancelot--even the Company of The Round Table was divided, and Mordred's forces boasted many from the old fellowship.
He didn't look old, though, thought the youngest groom, watching the King march down the castle stairs; his hair and beard were silvery-gray, yet his face kept the eager, wondering expression of a boy--a rather sad boy today, puzzled by the darkness closing in around his world...
"Good morning," Arthur smiled at the grooms; "I think it might rain today, don't you? Ho there, Shalamar...how's my old girl?"
The mare, trained to kick, trample and bite in battle, whinnied like a frisky colt and nuzzled the King's ear, chewing playfully on his long gray hair as he patted her neck. "Yes, I know...it's going to be a hard day today! I can't promise you oats and apples at the end of it, but we must hope for the best, eh?"
King Arthur mounted easily and drew his sword--Excalibur, blindingly bright in the misty dawn, flashed like lightning as he flourished it.
"Are my Knights ready?" he asked, not looking at anyone in particular.
"They await in the courtyard, my lord," said the chief groom.
"Don't go!" a voice suddenly called out; the King and the other grooms turned in surprise to gaze at the youngest groom, who stood frozen, terrified by his own outburst.
"Be quiet, boy!" the oldest groom snapped, then turned to the King--"Pardon him, Sire...my niece's youngest, she don't beat him enough, beggin' Your Highness' pardon--"
"It's all right, Gideon," Arthur smiled, and beckoned to the trembling lad; "Come closer, boy...your name is Giles, is it not?"
That was the thing everyone loved most about King Arthur--he knew the names of every man, woman and child living at Camelot, and he always spoke to them with as much courtesy as they rendered to him..."How could anyone turn against him?" Giles thought, approaching the Pendragon in awe.
"Yes, Sire...Your Majesty, please don't leave! I-I heard my dad talking, him and some others...they think you should stay here in Camelot, and let those traitors dash themselves to pieces against the walls..."
"I wouldn't want you or your family to be in any danger, Giles," Arthur replied. "Camelot was never meant to be a fortress, but a bastion of Peace--oh, it could stand a siege easily, but such an event would take away its purpose, make it just another castle! Camelot will not be stained by Mordred's presence again...I can promise you that much."
Taking Shalamar's reins in his hands, King Arthur turned her head toward the gates, gave Giles a reassuring wink, and rode forth...