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I'm sharing a little excerpt so get your coffee, or whatever your preferred drink is, and settle down comfortably.
But first at little background information.
My Celtic Fervour series so far is:
Book 1- The Beltane Choice
Book 2- After Whorl: Bran Reborn.
Book 3- After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks (due for publication spring 2014)
The title for books 2 and 3 are specially chosen since what went on in the aftermath of the battle of Whorl, as mentioned in The Beltane Choice, isn't described in Book 1. Books 2 and 3 both continue the story of Brennus of Garrigill who is a secondary character in Book 1. He is such an honourable man, he deserved to have his own story.
Book 2 begins with Brennus on the battlefields at Whorl....
Note: I've used a few Scottish Gaelic phrases to give the 'feel' of the Celtic language though no-one actually knows what the Celtic speech of the area sounded like. The phrases are explained in the speech following though there is a glossary included in the novel.
AD 71 After Beltane – Whorl
“Fóghnaidh mi dhut! I really will finish you! I have you now, invading scum!”
Another couple of whacks would have the shield gone. The Roman auxiliary’s arm already showed signs of fatigue as Brennus slashed below the man’s chain link protection, his full power backing each blow of his long Celtic sword. The man was brawny, a practised opponent at the edge of the tight cluster of Roman bodies, but was much smaller than he was and rapidly weakened. Brennus knew the advantage he had. A drained grin slid into a grimace of pain as his sword jarred on the Roman gladius when the soldier’s stab interrupted another of his blows, the impact juddering his weakened elbow, an injury sustained with a previous combatant.
The gladius flashed upwards. To reach his head the angle of the auxiliary’s attack had to be higher than the usual, demanding a different force to succeed, and the Roman just did not have the strength any more.
A cry of frustration emerged from the Roman, the clenched teeth an indicator of the man’s tenacity as the gladius prodded forward yet again. Brennus understood none of the man’s tongue, the battle ground not the place for meaningful talk, but the intent was clear.
“Come! Come forward! A ghlaoic! You fool!” Brennus’ hollering taunts and crude ridiculing gestures gained him a little ground as the auxiliary broke free of the rigid formation, desperate to gain conquest over yet another Celtic adversary, the shorter gladius slashing and nipping at his chest but not quite breaking the skin.
The tight group of Roman soldiers had been almost impossible to breach; their raised cover of shields an impenetrable barrier. He had been toying with and provoking this particular soldier for long, long moments. Yet, even with his superior strength, he knew he could not sustain such weighty combat for much longer either, before he would need to retreat to regain his reserves of vigour – though only a little more wearing down of the man’s resistance should be enough. He knew that from an earlier experience. Drawing breath from deep inside he slipped back a pace, and then another as if giving up the pursuit.
“Come forward, you piece of Roman horse dung! You demand the blood of the Celts? Let it be so! Have mine!”
Powerless to resist the lure the Roman soldier surged at his bidding, his shield swinging, his gladius jabbing. One last twisted swipe of Brennus’ longer Celtic sword detached the blade-nicked shield from his foe and sent it sailing aside. Abruptly unguarded, the auxiliary pulled his gladius in front of his rippling mail in a futile attempt to cover his chest.
“Too late!” Brennus’ snort rang out as he whacked the soldier’s fist with his shield when his opponent readied his blade for another stab. It was enough: all the leverage needed to topple his foe. Witnessing the Roman’s slithering attempts to right himself he allowed an exultant smirk to break free, knowing victory would be his over this particular rival. “Death to all of the invaders!”
The sounds of battle all around him seemed all the sweeter as he slashed his blade towards the Roman’s vulnerable neck, the man’s cloth wrap having unfurled from under the chin during the tussle. It was the weakest part of his well equipped adversary that was uncovered above the waist. He knew that a blow to the head was wasteful since the glinting copper-flapped helmet fit tight around the Roman’s skull. His first swipe was met with the flailing gladius, the clang and screeches of blade on blade an exhilarating challenge. Triumphant warmth flashed through him, the sweat of the combat a bitter taste in his mouth as it streamed his face. The auxiliary was doomed as Brennus spat through his teeth, “I hate every last one of you!”
The shrieking, the neighing and squealing behind him he ignored, the battlefield noises a tremendous din all around. The stench – of heated combat; of the blood tang and of faeces of man and horse; of the already putrid reek of entrails; of the stale sweat and battle lust essences – he also disregarded. His attention was only on his quarry as he felt the edge of his sword slice in under the man’s chin. He prepared himself for the spurt of warm blood that showered on him as he angled his neck away from the first gushes.
What was totally unexpected was the crushing mass that slammed into his back, so powerful it lifted him off his feet and propelled him onto the blinking gladius he had successfully parried.
“By Taranis …” His yell muffled into a spluttering squelch. “An cù! The bastard!”
Down he went, onto the slippery blood drenched grass, his sword sliding fully through the auxiliary’s neck. His dead opponent softened his fall only partially since the horse that had slumped into him followed on at his rear. As the agonised cries of men and the squealing of the horse echoed around, his fist relinquished the grip on his sword, the blade having snapped on skidding impact with the ground. The frantic, writhing animal that pinned him to the Roman gladius totally overpowered him. Devastating agony seared at his back; blood filled muck crammed his mouth. A blinding white-red haze gave way to darkness.
Felled by a mighty powerful beast, and not that Roman blade, was Brennus’ last thought.
AD 71 After Beltane – Near Marske
Ineda checked over her shoulder, yet again, as she crept through the forest heading for the rock face at the bend of the river. If her grandmother, Meaghan, was anywhere around it was likely to be near the cave. She would have been sheltering there since fleeing their roundhouse village at Marske some five days past. Meaghan’s last word to her had warned that the cave was where she would run to.
The day was early-summer warm, the sweetness of new foliage a fragrant sniff, the sunbeams creating pretty slashes on the ferny undergrowth. Usual forest sounds greeted her as she trod a light-footed pathway over tree roots and avoided the deteriorating debris of winter cold, which still remained a slippery rotting mess in some deeper grooves. It would have been pleasant to hum her way across the last stretch of undulating forest floor before the land dipped down to the riverbank, but it was not the time for such frivolity. Chirping and fluttering chiff-chaffs, and lightly buzzing insects were a fleeting glimpse as they went about the business of pecking and first-nectar gathering. A herd of deer crossed over to her right, their progress a delicate and graceful dance amid the green in her peripheral view, their passage through the trees with nary a sound to be heard. They were a good example to Ineda to remain vigilant – silence being crucial. Her reasons were two-fold. She never unnecessarily disturbed the peace of the forest god, Cernunnos, or his creatures.
Soon burbling water gently rippled and twinkled in the sun, way down below her, the eddies around the large flat stones flashes of slow movement since the river level was very low at this point on its traverse through the forest. Skittering down the last earthen slope Ineda halted her slide, grabbing a tight hold of the sun-warmed brackens.
The cave was close by. It was a haven often used by her and her grandmother if the weather was inclement while Meaghan was instructing her in the lore of healing herbs.
The light tap at her shoulder had Ineda swivelling in a flurry. Not the touch of a hand, it was the smallest of pebbles that pinged off her shoulder. From behind a tree to her rear an old woman emerged, her voice light and cheerful.
“You still have much to learn, Granddaughter, if you think to surprise me.”
Ineda rushed into the bony old arms for a welcome hug. “That will never happen and was not my intention. If I try to evade anyone, you know it is the Roman patrols.”
“Ciamar a tha thu?” The old woman’s inquiring look was intense.
Ineda grinned and answered the question. “How am I? I am fine. All the better for seeing you.”
“It is good to see you well, Ineda, but not so good about the persistence of the Roman Army. Come, and give me your news.”
Meaghan’s gnarled fingers feathering at her braids, to tidy them, was a gesture she had missed so much during the last fraught days.
Ineda had a lot to tell as they tramped their way along the riverbank towards the cave. “The tribespeople of Witton have given us shelter, as Father had hoped they would. We use roundhouses that lay empty after the Roman Army first descended upon the settlement about a half moon ago.”
“Were many Witton people slain?”
“Aye. Many from Witton and the nearby villages.” Ineda’s tongue dripped contempt of the Roman blade. “Anyone who put up the slightest resistance was put to the sword. Men, women and even children.”
Meaghan’s hand clutched at her arm, halting her stride. “Your father?”
A reassuring tap on Meaghan’s bony fingers was returned by a surprisingly tight squeeze from one so riddled with twisting knuckles. She was careful with her reply knowing Meaghan’s concern for her only living son.
“Ruarke is unharmed, apart from his earlier foot injury that now heals well. Our trek to Witton was a sore trial for him, but I tended the wound as you instructed. The bindings are kept tight and the sole of his foot has not suppurated, though the injury remains red and angry. Your stitches to the skin hold firm. The crutch slowed our escape, but without it to help him hobble he would not have made the distance to Witton.”
“Witton is farther than you expected?” Meaghan tottered a little, grasping the ferns and low twisting willows as she skittered along the narrow strip of pathway right on the river’s edge as it followed the curve of the water.
Ineda trod along making sure not to trail too swiftly or she would topple her grandmother. Accepting the pulled-back branches which concealed the cave mouth, she ducked inside, allowing the cover to slap back into place behind her. “Aye! We were two full days travelling before we reached it, though if Ruarke had been fit and healthy it would have taken us far less than one day. Unseasonable marsh mist and cloying rain also sapped our strength.”
“I journeyed to Witton some time past with your aunt Caitlin, but the weather was favourable and we were eager to arrive there.” Meaghan’s tone was wistful.
A deep sadness trickled through Ineda. Stepping closer to Meaghan, who busied herself about the fireside, she clasped her grandmother’s shoulders, turned her and buried in for a hug. Her next news was bad.
Meaghan’s touch at her hair and the deep sigh that escaped to ripple from chest to chest indicated her grandmother already guessed the worst.
“My daughters have already gone to the otherworld, I know this Ineda. The Roman gladius has struck fiercely and has left me bereft of my family, save you and your father.”
Ineda’s tears ran freely, soaking Meaghan’s woollen dress. “Aye. We three are the only ones left now.”
She felt Meaghan’s strength of character as the old woman put her from her and gave her a little shake at the shoulders, the elderly voice strong and determined. “Our blood has been drained by the Roman Empire but we will not lay down our lives willingly, Ineda. Remember that! It is part of your future to resist!”
“I do not want to lose you as well, Grandmother!” Her plea met with a small shake of Meaghan’s head and a beaming smile which revealed yellowed, yet healthy enough teeth for one of so advanced an age.
“You are the child of my son, but also the child of my gift, Ineda.”
Ineda could not doubt the fervour in her grandmother’s eyes, a vital life force lighting them with a bright green fire. If she had inherited her grandmother’s gift she had also the look of her grandmother in eye colour, height and shape. Another bony hug reassured her before Meaghan put her from her at arm’s length, the old eyes penetrating, yet tired at the same time.
“Ineda, though you but realise it, you are also my future! My craft is in you.”
“I cannot understand you, Grandmother.” She faced Meaghan, asking a further silent question. When no answer came to enlighten her, she added, “Yet.”
The soft finger pats to her braids were gestures well learned. Ineda knew it as an unspoken signal for patience.
Meaghan’s voice softened to an amused chuckle. “Neither of my two daughters had the power, or the will, that you possess. You will always have me with you in spirit, my girl. My healing force is within you and binds us.”
Meaghan’s fingers flicked away the tear trickles that still ran down Ineda’s cheeks, the tutting and clucking as though they had been a waste of precious spirit, her old rheumy eyes reassuring and endearingly warm with love. “Never fear for me, Ineda, my girl. I tell you this, now. I will not depart this realm with a Roman weapon the cause of it. My passing will come, ere long, but I have more healing to do before then. My next task is important to our Celtic brethren and not just to me alone.”
Looking into Meaghan’s face Ineda did not doubt a single word. She forced her tears gone. Courage did not come easy but she willed it so, the wobble to her lips only momentary before she found the control Meaghan demanded.
“I will find strength to resist.”
The cackle that followed was typical of Meaghan, any weakness put aside and barely worth a mention. Sliding away from their embrace her grandmother almost bent double to poke at the embers of the tiny fire that lay a little inside the overhang of the cave. It was a fire small enough to slowly cook by but not fiery enough to create noticeable smoke. “You will resist, my girl! Now, tell me how your father finds Witton.”
Ineda sat down and ate the fish Meaghan handed her, a fish which had been slowly roasting between two hot stones at the fireside. Wrapped in wide leaves the flesh had not dried out, the taste of it reminding her that she had not eaten since the previous day. In between welcome mouthfuls, she gave answer.
“Father is dispirited that we fled so ignominiously from Marske, but he accepts that we had no other choice. We need the shelter, and support, our distant family at Witton affords us. He also accepts the Roman yoke dished out to us at present, though not willingly.” She picked a small bone from between her teeth before continuing, shaking her head in disgust. “I could not persuade Father to return to Marske now, even if the Roman scum left it alone.”
“You are sure of this?”
“I fear he feels safer at Witton where there are more men to protect everyone.”
Meaghan halted her tending of the fire and stared at her, shocked by her words. “Your father has grown into a coward?”
“His fighting strength is gone, sapped away by those moons of Roman threats and attacks. He snaps at assistance, yet rejects any measures of friendship.”
“My son feels less than a man?”
Ineda did not answer that question. It needed no answer. “He still strives to protect me but has lost his sense of our village unity. I am not so certain he would defend anyone from Witton against Roman attack, and I do not understand that, Grandmother.”
“Ruarke would stand back and allow others to do that for him?” Meaghan’s voice was pained.
Ineda shrugged her shoulders, her gaze on her grandmother unwavering. “Perhaps. The settlement is well down in numbers of original people, but it is still very large compared to our own tiny village, now that there are many unfortunates that the Roman Empire have forced to live in it. Though we have not sheltered there for long Ruarke seems befuddled about our future.”
“Yet he would not return to Marske? This behaviour does not match.”
Ineda knew her words seemed contrary. “Aye. I have no understanding of why he accepts succour, yet resents the friendship tendered to him.”
“Guilt must lie heavy on him. My son was always a deep one, not easy to understand.” Having picked at a little fish Meagan rose again and stood hovering by the doorway. “Come. I have some healing herbs to show you.”
Wiping her fingers on her dress Ineda followed her grandmother, thinking how unalike the mother and son were. Her father was a good man but was prone to making some strange decisions.
They made a slow climb back up the banking. When she crested the rise and was up onto the flatter ground she felt Meaghan’s bony fingers plucking at her dress to halt her progress. Dropping onto a raised level stone her grandmother drew hard won breaths before speaking again, her whole torso trembling. “I have crept back to Marske a few times. The Roman Army still sends patrols every day to pilfer more of our stored goods, but they have no notion I have been anywhere near. The past nights I have spent in the cave, but as soon as they have cleared out every vestige of our supplies and tools they will cease to visit our roundhouses. By then, they will have another place to plunder. And I will return to my home, even if your father refuses to do so.”
“Grandmother!” Ineda made no mistake about her plea as she clutched Meaghan in a tight hug. “It is far too dangerous to go back. They are still bent on destroying any Brigante who flaunts their authority. We must make no show of being armed now, and groups of warriors of more than two or three are held in suspicion. Any more out on the hunt together incur the full wrath of Rome as they are deemed to be on the attack. I have been tending to some stripling warriors this morn who thought to challenge one of the patrols, though their wounds were not as serious as they could have been. I suspect them having come as more of a warning from the Roman gladius than any other purpose.”
“I hear you, girl. I will do nothing to put me at risk. Now, tell me of any risings against these Roman oppressors.”
Meaghan put her away from the clutch and looked deep into her eyes, demanding answers she did not have, although her grandmother’s gentle hand pats were soothing and reassuring, indicating that she would do nothing rash.
Drawing a deep breath, Ineda related all she knew. “It goes ill for the tribes of mid-Brigantia. I have heard that those from further north congregate at Whorl where they may be battling as I speak. A few Witton warriors escaped the patrols before dawn yesterday morning and headed there.”
“Then those Witton warriors will either triumph, or will go to the otherworld knowing that they fought for our Celtic heritage.”
“I do not want them to die in vain, but the Roman Empire is a mighty foe!” Ineda could not prevent her anger from spouting forth, her voice strident and scathing as she looked across the river. She could hardly face Meaghan since her next news seemed worse and yet might be the reason for her father’s apathy. “More could have gone, I am sure of it, but they chose to avoid the conflict.”
Meaghan’s reaction was not what she expected. The old woman’s laugh rang out over the river noises, drawing back her gaze. “Then they will live to clash with their heart. These battles with the Roman scourge are intended to subdue the warring tribes of mid-Brigantia. The Roman Army floods our territory now, their presence a direct threat. They will drag us into their Roman province – which they did not properly do when Queen Cartimandua made her long-ago treaties with them.”
Ineda did not even try to hide her scorn. “Aye! As their client-Queen Cartimandua kept their marauding tendencies at bay, their main presence remaining in southern lands.”
“Girl, you do our former queen a disservice. You may not have liked Cartimandua’s methods but in her own way, for long moons even when you were a tiny child, she afforded us a form of freedom from their constant presence on our Brigante soil.”
Ineda jumped up from the stone and paced around, her temper roiling. “Cartimandua is long gone – dead or elsewhere – but King Venutius still lives! He survives and will continue to rebel against the Roman scum.” Shocked at her grandmother’s words she dared speak as she never had before, her tone berating. “Do you now give these Roman oppressors your allegiance, Grandmother?”
Unable to look Meaghan in the eye, betraying tears hovering, she gulped down her anger and frustration as she stared across the water. There were so many people whose actions and speech now confused her.
Meaghan’s arm snaked across her shoulders and squeezed her tight to her breast, her fingers a reassuring stroke down her braided hair. “Never will I do that, Ineda, my girl. You tell me Venutius lives, and I believe you. Aye, this may be true, but who is left to follow him and rise up against the Roman Empire’s army? ”
Lifting her face to view Meaghan, she kept her voice low, the vow in it unmistakeable. “There are still northern Brigantes who will repel the Roman Empire. It may not look that way just now but there are many, like me, who will continue to resist.”
Meaghan’s arms held her stiffly out at length, fingernails inadvertently nipping into her flesh, before her grandmother’s gaze took on a cloudy look, her eyes flickering and rolling skywards, as though seeing an inner vision. “You are only a thin sapling, my oftimes foolish granddaughter, but there is strength to build and grow on…” The old voice trailed off.
Ineda had watched her grandmother trance like this before, and did not fear it. The twists and grimaces at her old cheeks indicated both pain and pleasure, the flickering of her eyes a frightful sight, but the tight grip of her fists remained firm. Ineda watched and waited knowing she could do nothing to speed, or safely halt, the progress of the vision. After some moments, Meaghan came to herself and smiled before she spoke again. It was not a smile of worry, but one of promise: an affectionate twinkle was there in her eyes…and love. Meaghan’s love never failed to warm her.
Her grandmother’s words were firm. “Ineda, child of my son, you have a warrior’s heart – even if you never have proper warrior training. I see your time is coming, though it is not here yet. Do nothing rash. Act according to your clever head.”
Ineda watched as Meaghan’s bent finger rose up to tap her on the forehead. The old nail was strong and firm as it made contact with her skin. They now stood so close the flesh around Meaghan’s eyes was crinkled and worn, her eyelids almost covering her view as she smiled and cackled. Not daring to stop the tapping, she returned her grandmother’s smile, sensing there was more to come when the finger drifted lower and pointed to her chest.
“Your heart will know the way you must fight the Romans. Let that knowledge come naturally to you, Ineda, and do not force it. You have a valiant part to play in your future and in the future of those around you. The path ahead for you will have much frustration, hardships and heartbreak, but there will also be equal joy. You must face what occurs with courage. Wear two bratts when that time is revealed, and continue to wrap yourself thus till the sun shines again. The skills of healing I have taught you will rest in your mind, but bring them forth when they are most needed. Bear your future well, accept the difficulties and live through the very bad times. Always work towards the good.”
She accepted her grandmother’s words, acknowledging them with a nod. Though she did not know what Meaghan meant she knew it was likely to happen. Foretelling was a gift her grandmother rarely used, but when she did, it had always been accurate.
“You have only taught me some of your healing skills, Grandmother. There is so much more to learn.”
“Aye. That is true, but you have learned all of the most important. What is to follow will come naturally to you, from the teaching you have already gained. You have the skills to build on, and you are fine and quick. Believe that this will happen.”
Meaghan drew her back down to sit beside her on the flat stones as though nothing unusual had happened. “Tell me more of what happens with our Roman overseers.”
“I know very little except that many Brigantes are said to be gathering at Whorl where there is a suitable low hill and flat plains for battlegrounds. Many at Witton are rejoicing at this news, yet there are also terrible rumours of every village and settlement around these parts needing to make treaties with the Roman Governor, Cerialis – like Witton has previously done. Some say Brigante delegates have already decided to journey to these parts in preparation for talks instead of engaging in futile battles. If that is so then those negotiators may speak for the Brigantes, but that does not mean every Brigante warrior has given in to the Romans!”
“You are in the right, Ineda. I must remain here for one such as you speak of. He will never give in and accept the Roman yoke.”
Ineda looked deeply into her grandmother’s eyes. “Who do you speak of?”
Meaghan’s head shaking was accompanied by a wan smile. “I have no answer, yet, to that question…”
A sudden flare of metal glinting in the sunshine across the narrow stretch of river set them both fleeing…in opposite directions.
(iamges acquired from www.123rf.com)