I've been tweaking quite a lot of passages in my time-travel novel, still not quite settled on what I like best, because some of the information may be unnecessary. Here's a little Sunday surprise snip that's ended on the cutting room floor...
(image from Wikimedia Commons)
A bardic Druid?
Aran’s excitement bubbled. He’d read that bardic druids told stories of the Celts in song and verse as well as being priests of the faith. That they were skilled secret agents was even more thrilling.
Tuach surged onto his feet, his fist rising high into the air, the noise dwindling to nothing. Furious, yet heartily rousing, his voice boomed over the congregation.
“People of Balbath, of the ancient Taexali, and now of the confederation of the northern Miathi, hear this. The Roman forces once again infiltrate our lands. The peace settlements not long since made have been overturned by their presence on our southern Miathi borders. Rome flies in our face and kills everything in its path that shows a hint of resistance. The Roman hordes march north in tens of thousands.”
Appalled gasps halted Tuach, momentarily.
“Listen well to our druid brother.”
Tuach’s hand rested briefly on the tall man’s shoulder before he sat down again. The druid’s gaze wandered over the whole company before he uttered a single word, authority settling around him like a cloak as he waited for his own little group of followers to settle.
It wasn’t coincidence that two of the druid’s men flanked Aran and the twins –and it wasn’t a comforting flanking. The two men had earlier dumped their spears and shields at the doorway but they still wore enough metal to mean business, even if they said absolutely nothing alongside. Aran was aware that Brian sidled closer but was more aware that Fianna was losing her cool. Being cornered wasn’t something Fianna tolerated easily, her expression one of barely restrained temper. He guessed she wasn’t as drool-struck about Mapon’s two older guys as she had been by Tyrnan.
Mapon’s voice rang to the rafters. “For those who do not know me, I am Mapon. Our Roman enemies do not remain south of the green wall as they promised a handful of seasons ago when the last treaties were negotiated.”
Sickened discontent rippled around the room. The druid gauged the mood of the crowd before he continued.
“Emperor Severus has surged north of the wall in a show of mighty strength. He dislikes the raids our Miathi brothers made on the Roman forts and guard towers still dotted around our productive farmlands. The gold that came to us, mere summers ago from his Governor of Britannia he deems has not been well earned since we attacked his soldiers when good opportunity presented itself.”
Many questions flew around the room, Mapon giving quick answers.
Green wall? Aran sifted through the facts he’d learned. The Antonine Wall? That was built of turf with deep ditches and high banking.
Mapon continued, “The Emperor Severus will not relent now, not till the troops of the Roman Empire have re-traversed our whole lands over and over. Our Celtic brothers who challenge them, and survive, scatter to Caledon high hills, and this is what the Romans intend. They want to control our productive flatlands for their own benefits.”
Re-traversed? Aran itched to talk to Brian. He had a good idea of what the date might be. If the Antonine Wall had already been built, the current date had to be after AD 142. Severus became Emperor quite a bit later than that, after AD 200, but the man had been a conquering soldier for decades before he became the emperor.
“Emperor Severus has re-occupied the settlement of Raedykes with great strength.” An angry murmuring from the crowd interrupted Mapon’s flow.
Raedykes? Aran suppressed an exhilarated grin. The first Roman invasions of the Raedykes area had been around AD 83, or AD 84, but during the reign of the Emperor Severus, the fort had been reoccupied.
“Thousands of troops march to Balbath, even though Severus will not reach here till some days hence. Being carried every single step of the way takes him longer.”
A huge clamour broke out as the assembled council randomly mocked a military leader who was carried like a baby. The mood of the crowd shifted, the threat appearing less severe to them. Derision reigned.
Aran felt the tug at his cloak.
“Do you know anything about this?” Brian sought confirmation of the truth of the statement.
He nodded since he did remember reading about Severus being carried on a litter.
“No! No. People of Balbath.” Mapon quietened the crowd. “He is no baby, and no wounded warrior either.”
It was Fianna’s eyes this time that sought Aran’s as the throng mumbled and fidgeted till Mapon regained their full concentration.
“The man is old and crippled, yet that is not what causes him to linger behind his frontline troops. The emperor gains a full report before he begins his own travel for the day. His campaign is planned in meticulous detail. Severus misses nothing.”
Mapon continued to outline the strategies Severus made every single day, his emphasis building up the tension in the room.
Aran nodded to Brian since he’d read about this too. Severus was a Roman Emperor, but he’d been a military general for most of his life, having campaigned all over the Roman Empire.
Mapon held the gathering spellbound. “Severus’ ultimate purpose is to return to his far-off Rome and declare he has the whole of our hugely long island in his palm. We, the peoples of the north - the Caledons and our confederation of Miathi tribes - are the last to challenge the supremacy of Rome. We are the last disruption on the western barrier of Severus’ Empire: the last resistance for him to subdue.”
Bold interruptions broke Mapon’s flow but only for a moment since Tuach signalled the sentry at the door to wield his flickering torch. Silence reigned again.
Fianna giggled, her eyes now twinkling. “We need one of those for our school assemblies.”
Aran had no time to respond before one of Mapon’s guards sidled Fianna to the other side of him and all but kept her hidden from sight with his bulk. He could tell she was protesting but was making no noise. Either the guard was gagging her or she was wise enough to keep silent. It took a few seconds for Aran to realise that Brian had been similarly positioned away from him as we’ll.
That certainly put paid to any sharing of information.
“Our enemy moves swiftly enough given the baggage carts they pull with oxen and mules and as before, many moons ago, they have reinforcements from the sea. A good number of Roman ships have been spotted not far south of here, near their base on the Taymouth. These ships supply them with food, weapons and hundreds of auxiliary forces.”
“Do their ships make landfall near here?” The cry came from a warrior further down the room.
“Already some have landed at the mouth of the Dee. Directly south of there is under total Roman control.”
Tuach jumped up and looked around wildly. All eyes followed the chief’s outstretched finger. When it settled on him, Aran gulped as Mapon’s guards dragged him forward towards the chief. “Is the stripling’s settlement at Durris already taken?”
Mapon’s nod was solemn. “Aye. Durris has fallen. Roman forces flood the flatlands around their old base at Stracathro. The warriors of Durris fought bravely, yet were too few to conquer the thousands of Roman troops.”
“Durran sent his son to us with the Pin of Funach to escape the carnage?”
Mapon nodded. “More than likely, but apart from a general warning to the Taexali we must know what else the pin signifies.”
Tuach’s eyes sought out Aran’s again. “Were you there when the Romans attacked Durris?”
Aran’s reply was careful. The guards held him tight and he didn’t feel like a repeat of Tyrnan’s arm locks. “I wasn’t at Durris. I haven’t set eyes on any Roman troops.”
A gaggle of questions disturbed the air, the crowd stirring into action.
Tuach held his hand high. “Who is alive to tell of the fate of the Durris settlement apart from you, Mapon?”
“Some of kinsfolk escaped west to the hills, and by north-west towards here, though they were vastly outnumbered by the slain. Roman forces re-group closer to here, near the mouth of the river Dee. I skirted north-west to give warning to you and the other northern tribes.”
“How can we defend ourselves?”
“No single settlement can repel this evil. Some twenty thousand troops advance…more when reinforcements from the sea join them.”
“So many?” Tuach’s voice sounded gutted.
“I have scattered my druid companions far and wide, to the west into the hills of the Caledons. They go to warn the Decantae of old, and the ancient Lugi tribes.” Mapon’s voice was now cheerless, his earlier energy dissipated.
“What must we do, Mapon?”
“I wish I could tell you what you want to hear, Tuach. I have few suggestions and none of them are good. We can continue to defy the Roman Empire’s soldiers. We can flee to the hills. Or we can make more peace treaties with them.”
“Only cowards flee!” someone cried.
The next outburst came from an elder of the tribe seated close to Tuach who first spat his disgust into the fire. “The Roman word is not to be trusted.”
The room erupted in a fury of disruption, the anger able to be tasted.
Aran looked round at Brian and Fianna, dismayed to find they weren’t there any more. A hurried scan of the room reaped no sign of them. Where had they gone? He strained at the tethers still holding his arms.
Over the clamour, the most hideous noise blasted the very timbers of the roundhouse and made them creak with its force. The weirdness of it sent shivers down Aran’s spine; its horrid wailing like the squealing of an animal in pain, not unlike the squeals he’d heard from the wild boar in the forest earlier in the afternoon. Every voice immediately ceased its babbling. All eyes were back on Mapon, the instrument still held to his lips. The long metal tube was topped with a pig-like animal head.
The carnyx - a battle horn of the Celts!
Mapon passed the instrument down into Tuach’s hand before he spoke.
“Our whole way of life is threatened by these Roman invaders. The Romans impose their gods on us, they have forbidden druid teachings, and they have turned their subjected people into slaves of the Roman Empire.
Aran was dragged to Tuach’s side once more, his arms twisted behind his back. Facing him, near the entryway he could see the twins being dragged into position. Back-to-back, their arms were tied up with rope. Brian looked as angry as his sister, both of them battling against their keepers.
“The Romans infiltrate in many ways, my friends. They may even have sent these children to spy for them.”
He felt all eyes swivel from him to the twins and back again, the mood of the crowd murderous.
“If they are not spies of the Roman Empire, do you know what message they bring?”
Aran’s blood iced up. How could they know what the message was when he didn’t know himself?
“Force them to tell us!” More than one voice added the same demand to the hollering.
“Have no fear. We will know but as your druid leader, I call for all tribes to stand united against our common enemy when we confront them. Blairdaff assembles tribes of the Garioch on the foothills of Scare Hill, below the Celtic hillfort on Mither Tap. Will you join him? Delnabo, the greatest of the Caledon leaders musters there, too. You must decide, but you must decide now. The Romans could be at your hearth after the next sun rises.”
Have a lovely day.