Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Taking a breather….now and then!

Taking a breather….

Phew! What exactly might that mean?

Is it my daily dose of reading a new post at  #Christmas with The Crooked Cats on Facebook? Yes, it might be. There's a fantastic opportunity to WIN a Crooked cat book every single day in December and you can't get much fairer than that! 

It could be a little bit of downtime like I’m currently claiming, after a hectic period of pre-Christmas madness having been involved in novel signing & selling sessions since early November at various Christmas craft venues, my table all decked out in its festive glory. 

Last Saturday was my last ‘Fair’ of the year and I’m now looking forward to having free Saturdays over the winter months to do whatever seems natural- hopefully a lot more writing!

This mid-December downtime isn’t real though, since it coincides with a busy family time fitting in visits to Pantomime, Santa’s Grotto and meeting friends for ‘Christmas Nights Out’. Not to mention the traditional family get together when we buy our real Christmas tree, have lunch with my daughters (if there’s time during a work lunch hour), and afterwards when I have the pleasure of decorating both tree and house! As of yesterday, my tree is bought and decked out in its finery, some of which dates back to the 1950s, the glass decorations belonging to my aunt and my mother.

Still to do is the posting of my great nieces' and great nephews' gifts, and the wrapping of the ones already bought so that I can pop them under that tree. There's also that moment when I check the gift list to make sure I've not forgotten anyone. And I sometimes do! Oops, then there's another check of the menu for the Boxing Day meal that I'm cooking since one daughter is hosting Christmas Day and the other New Year. The table's likely to be set for a dozen but the numbers can fluctuate! 

Did I mention taking a breather? During the mid-winter time that can be dreary and dark, it’s really important to recharge the batteries… because of what is yet to come.  

It makes me think about what the winter festival actually means for me. Christmas and New Year are times to enjoy my family even more than normal. It’s a time to make more fuss than would be typical. Our Christmas Day, Boxing Day and Ne'erday fare is more elaborate. Its a time set aside for us to be together as an extended family - in-laws included - when we play board games and do other fun stuff. There will hopefully be some snow on the ground for my grandson and granddaughter to build a snowman, yet we hope the weather isn't too hazardous for the family to drive to the host’s house.

We enjoy our cosy celebration in heated surroundings, holly and ivy decking the halls (easy since I have very large badly-needing-pruned holly trees and wild ivy dotted around the garden) - the holly and ivy being traditional symbols which harken back to a time and religion of long ago.

But …A cosy mid-winter celebration isn’t what’s happening to one of the characters in my current historical writing and the trees she is surrounded by are quite different.

Enya is also taking a breather but not because she’s about to have a hectic festival season. She’s actually quite miffed about that because her people are not in a position to celebrate anything!

It’s AD 84 and Enya lives in northern Britannia. The festival of the winter solstice is coming very soon when the sun god, Lugh, seeps out a tiny bit more light and makes the days begin to lengthen. Enya’s people normally look forward to a celebration in mid-winter to mark the time when the earth’s cycle hovers momentarily and then the long dark nights become shorter, and the daylight gradually becomes longer. 

In good times, Enya’s people feast well and enjoy a great gathering - the bards singing the praises of their famous ancestors. Young, fledgling warriors like Enya are heralded to fully branded status during happy ceremonies but that’s not likely for her this coming winter festival time – though she’s proved her worth already by killing a Roman soldier in the recent battle at Beinn na Ciche. Her people have no time to celebrate or to mark the success of their young warriors. Elevation of her official status to full warrior must wait for more settled times. Thousands of Roman soldiers are still encamped nearby and might pounce at any time. 

Enya's feeling out of sorts with the gods and goddesses but it doesn’t mean she's given up on them completely. She regularly gives praise to her favourite deities, ones which are common to many tribes around the European continent, but most of all she currently pleas for the goddess, Scathach, to favour her. Scathach is a mentor of women warriors and Enya desperately needs the goddess to help her thwart the Roman scourge. Under the command of General Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the legions of Rome continue to harass her people The goddess Scathach is also known as goddess of the dead, ensuring the passage of those killed into the otherworld, but the way Enya is presently feeling she doesn’t care  how many dead Romans Scathach helps along the way  - so long as it’s a lot.

This is the point at which I have a dilemma as an author. Scathach is a warrior goddess of the Ulster Cycle so I can't be sure that she would have also been a goddess of what is now north east Scotland during the era of AD 84. What I feel more sure of is that there would have been some similar local warrior deity that Enya would have favoured. So, do I use the name Scathach in my work or do I invent a new name? 
Another problem is the fact that, in general, the Celtic people/ late iron age tribes of Scotland made no representations of their gods and goddesses for us to be acquainted with, so I can use no definite image for Scathach. 

However there are some very gifted and fanciful artists who have made their visions of Scathach available on the internet. Spoiler alert! If you don't like sexy goddesses- don't click the link! 

Like her Garrigill clan, Enya’s just suffered a humiliating defeat when the forces of Agricola faced the allied Caledonian tribes in battle at Beinn na Ciche. (Book 3 Celtic Fervour Series) She now knows for sure that pitched battle isn’t the answer to defeating the Romans but she vows to find other ways of defending her people. She also prays to Scathach to aid her during her quest to find out the fate of her brother and cousin.

What Enya is currently doing is taking a breather… she’s gathering her strength before she goes off to find her missing relatives.  

I wish you a merry festive season if that's on the cards for you!


If you've still got time today for a little extra coffee time read, what follows was removed from my manuscript for Book 4 of my Celtic Fervour Series. Some form of it may be eventually be included in the final version of Book 4 but here's a little taster of my writing... 

At this point near the beginning of the story, 14 year old Enya is on surveillance duty in the forest with a few of her fellow warriors. It's only 9 days after the devastating Battle at Beinn na Ciche where the congregated forces of the Caledon allies faced the mighty Roman armies of General Gnaeus Agricola. Roman soldiers are like ants around the countryside seeking out any surviving tribespeople...  

“Cernunnos? I fear you are not a happy god.”
Enya’s whisper was for herself. The forest god favoured neither her, nor her Brigante kin.
A deep chill, accompanied by intermittent sleet mixed rain, had descended after dawn causing a last cascade of colourful leaf drop to glide down from the birches. She might have found the red-gold butterfly flutters appealing had the day been a fair one but Cernunnos demonstrated his anger at the bloody deeds of men in his precious territory. The mush of twinkling, soggy leaves was treacherous underfoot.
Down the slope from where she took cover, the deep thundering of capercaillie panic in the undergrowth of the forest was followed by the strident tapping of a woodpecker.
“Tchik…tchik” The double woodpecker call repeated itself, increasing in volume each time.
Two of them!
Enya’s insides knotted as she pressed her back closer to the damp tree trunk, her teeth clenched tight together to suppress the urge to rant. After pulling the edges of her bratt tighter across her freezing cheeks for more protection, she sneaked her head round to peer down the hill. They had not been the truest of capercaillie or woodpecker calls. The warnings had been issued by Colm of Ceann Druimin and Nith of Tarras, members of her scouting patrol. Their alert meant that two Roman soldiers were in the vicinity but she had no sight of them, yet. She had not encountered any of the Roman bastards since the disastrous battle fought at Beinn Na Ciche.
Slithering sideways to the shelter of the next bole, there was a pause while she drew breath, her life force thumping in her chest, ears strained for further cautioning. She snatched a gaze down the steep incline, though still saw nothing human. A side to side check, and another to the hillside above her, revealed no signs of the enemy there, either. Why would two of the Romans have separated from their companions? It had been drummed into her that Roman army training was not inclined to encourage a few soldiers to break from the smallest fighting unit. Except if they were the ones Uncle Lorcan called exploratores, the lone scouts who evaluated the territory in advance of the arrival of the legions. She hitched in another large gulp of air when a new thought occurred.
She bit back on the whispered words, her head shivering when she squeezed her eyelids tight to dispel the foolish notion. The Roman General Agricola could not possibly be long enough in Taexali lands to be sending out those Uncle Brennus, and his new hearth-wife Ineda, named speculatores. Ineda knew well about those special soldiers who pretended to be visiting Celts, but were spies who infiltrated the local tribes to gain information to send back to the Roman commanders.
Enya allowed a tiny nervous twitch of admiration to break the freeze at her cheeks. Ineda was a woman that she would like to get to know much better because Ineda had been a successful Brigante spy for many winters whilst a slave of a Roman tribune. The woman was as fearless as any who was warrior trained.
Feeling truly brave was not yet a customary emotion that came to her but her warrior skills were sound. Her father, her uncles and aunt Nara of the Selgovae, had seen to that. She worked hard every sunrise counter the alarm that still came unbidden inside her, even if what she showed to others seemed coldly fearless. Since the carnage on the foothills of Beinn Na Ciche she awoke each new day with renewed resolve. Somehow she would find her missing brother and cousin, and she would fight against the Roman usurpers with her last breath to achieve it.
“Tchik…tchik.” More repetitions to remind her to keep vigilant. 
Enya swallowed down the spit she wanted to blast onto the leaves below her feet but such a gesture of contempt might be too noisy. Speculatores pretended to be to Celts. Many of them originally were before they had joined the Roman auxiliary units, but they were now in the thrall of the Romans who rewarded their tribe by absorbing their land into the Roman Empire. Another bile laden grimace was forced down her throat. Imposed conscription to the Roman army during the bulk of their adult years, for a good number of their male warriors, seemed a poor reward for those subsumed tribes.
If Uncle Lorcan and Uncle Brennus were correct, she would never have to face that fate. A dry laugh was suppressed. Dull-witted Romans! She knew many female warriors who fought just as courageously as the males of their tribe but the detested Romans would never allow a woman to become one of their soldiers. They enslaved captive women and that was a much worse fate. Local women had already been taken as prisoners but she would never let that happen to her!
She snatched a peep down the slope but nothing seemed changed. A light sleet still fell in the pale grey gloom but the leaf drop had ceased, the early morning wind having long died away. The sight below meant it was difficult to focus on particular markers in the way her father, Gabrond, had taught her one tree merging into another where the white flakes clung but somewhere down there were two Roman soldiers, blending into that murkiness.
It was in the hands of the forest gods who would be seen first.
According to Uncle Brennus, speculatores intermingled after their arrival at Celtic settlements making friends of local tribesmen, after which they sneakily wormed out information before disappearing into the morning mists, never to return. As a result of their spying, Roman legions followed in their wake to wreak havoc and devastation. She drew in a large breath, closed her eyes and rested the back of her head against the tree trunk. Holding her body immobile she vowed that if she met one of these speculatores, she would throttle him with her bare hands.
Enya shuddered and not just from the cold. The territory near Ceann Druimin was littered with displaced tribesmen from near and far—just like her and her Brigante kinfolk—so how could Chief Lulach of Ceann Druimin be expected to decide who was genuine and who might not be? There was a deep scrutiny of new arrivals at Lulach’s hillfort, yet new bonds had been forged quickly. So many strangers needed to become instantly reliant on each other. A degree of trust had to be entered into since it took every available warrior to keep the clanhold of Ceann Druimin safe from marauding Roman patrols. Like the ones threatening her now. 
When the new series of woodpecker taps echoed around, followed by the deeply croaked repeated kraa of a crow, the pause between each series of kraas unnaturally long, she checked that the fourth member of her band, Feargus of Monymusk, was still close by.
Remain vigilant was Nith of Tarras’ command and his warning came from somewhere far down in the dip of the pine forest. Reining in her anxiety, she blew on her freezing fingers before she curved her hands around her partly open mouth and sent her answering crossbill call.
The rapid series of choops acknowledged she understood there were now three enemy auxiliaries skulking below. Hunkering down behind the trunk, she shook off the icy layer from her bratt then slapped the ends of the sodden wool back over her shoulders, her fingers numb and clumsy as she tucked in wayward strands that had escaped her plaited hair. The measure was poor protection for her chittering body, the relentless pelt of hail stinging her cheeks like she imagined a branding tine would do, though she had yet to experience that. Such happy celebrations to acknowledge her recently gained warrior status had been delayed and were likely to be deferred for a long while. Becoming a fully branded warrior might never happen! 
She was not normally inclined to be morose but nothing was fair. The invading Roman bastards ruined everything in their wake!  
The slightest slip of slushy leaves sparked her attention, her gaze tracking the movements made alongside.
The soft nudge at her shoulder had her rising again to create room for Feargus of Monymusk: his sidling in next to her not unexpected for each was set to guard the other. Restrained exasperation clouded the light-grey glance he darted her way before he again searched the vicinity. It was an age till he whispered, during which her shaky breathing seemed loud in the absence of natural forest noises, the woodland inhabitants warm and tight under cover, unlike she was. Only humans were foolish enough to be out in such unpleasant weather. 
“Vengeance must be harnessed, yet again, Enya. If Nith can only spy three of them then we must hold back an attack. More of their contubernium group of eight will be close by, though they are as yet unseen by us.”
Feargus’ deep voice was the merest flight of wind tickling her ear lobe, his fledgling red chin whiskers an itch she had learned to bear. She was becoming used to the young warrior, barely older than her fourteen winters, who had been her constant lookout companion during her last two days on surveillance duty.
 Enya avidly scanned the surroundings on her side and down the slope, her response mouthed rather than actually heard. “I cannot see Nith, nor any of these Romans, yet his call came up clearly enough.”
“Have you spied Colm down there?”
Feargus sounded casual yet she knew he most likely was as anxious as she was about the fourth and youngest member of their patrol. Of the four of them, Colm of Ceann Druimin was the only one who was bred in the area but he had the least experience of Roman conquest, having been at the rear of the battlegrounds at Beinn Na Ciche. He had not even been confronted by any of the Tungrian or Batavian forces of Agricola. “Nay. I have heard no further capercaillie distress signals, so those Roman auxiliaries must still be at some distance. Nith must surely be making use of Colm’s local knowledge of the dips and pitfalls of these woods. ”
Enya felt the censure when Feargus turned to grunt at her. “Cease your fretting. Nith of Tarras needs the advice of no man about forest surveying.”
She could not prevent the compressing of her lips, nor the shivers. “Aye. It is true enough but Nith should not be out scouting yet. His battle wounds remain raw and this relentless chill will have his breathing rattling like the drumming of warrior fingers at the feast of Beltane.”
Feargus’ disapproval continued though his tone held a hint of admiration. “You know well enough by now that Nith will not be constrained to take rest. His blood vengeance still lingers too high for that.”
Enya was vexed that the foolish warrior from the Selgovae hillfort of Tarras would undo the careful tending he had received at sunrise, the worst of his battle-gained injuries having been cleaned and wrapped anew by Aunt Nara. Nith was a hardy young man, his unshakable persistence in seeking Roman retribution an enviable trait but he was not nearly back to full strength. Eight nights was not sufficient for full healing of the deep chest lacerations he had received. Each first light since her arrival at their encampment at Ceann Druimin, Nith’s pallor had grown greyer as had his disposition.
Her teeth clattered together when she answered. “N…Nith has not trekked this far from Tarras to succumb to the infernal early winter that you have here in Taexali lands.”
Feargus’ wide grin broke some of the tension, his headshake a denial which resulted in droplets of sleet to spatter from his bristly chin hair. “Caledon. Remember this is Caledon territory and these hills are different from my Taexali flatlands. Yet even here in the Caledon forests, early snow like this does not usually fall till closer to our shortest day of the winter solstice. Our gods send a message to those who battle around them.”
Enya huffed, a small quiet agreement. “It would be good to know who of us that the gods punish the most. Is the disfavour mainly for my fellow fleeing Celts from Brigante territories to reflect on, or is it directed at our invading Roman destroyers? Perhaps if you pray harder to your local gods our plight will be alleviated?”
The softest of chuckles escaped Feargus’ lips. “Praying to my Taexali gods would not be the answer. The Caledons of these woods and rolling hills have their own deities. It may be the Cailleach Bheur we need to pray to but I do not have words strong enough to pacify the blue hag. You will need to consult with Colm’s father, Lulach of Ceann Druimin. Though these parts do not lie so far from my Monymusk Taexali territory, the folk hereabouts have their own ways and Lulach knows all across his land.”
A tight smile broke free before Enya again peeped around the tree for a quick survey. Her gaze whipping back to Feargus, she answered, “Lulach may have given my displaced Brigante kin the shelter of his valley but I greatly dread the man and his barbed tongue.”
Feargus’ nod was slight. “Aye. Your Brigante tribespeople have suffered dearly at the hands of the Roman bane for much longer than my fellow Taexali have. But that can also be said for all of the tribes north of Brigantia who have been routed by the troops of the Roman Empire as they storm their way over our tribal lands. I doubt there are many surviving of the Selgovae that you lived amongst for half of your life.”
Enya stared at him. “How can you know that?”
Feargus grinned. “I have been listening well to the tales around the night fires. Travellers from far afield are always interesting to learn about—their stories so unlike our own. I am one of many who are eager to know more of the Garrigill Brigantes and the Tarras Selgovae who have trekked so far north.”
Enya poked her head around the tree and snatched another quick look. When satisfied all was safe her answer came tiredly. “Aye. We have had no home to call our own for such a long time but I did not realise we were gossiped about at the firesides.”
Doubt raised Feargus’ eyebrows, his grin gone. “The reason for your kin being in Taexali and Caledon lands is worth listening to. You have come from a great distance and have knowledge of many Celtic tribes, most of whom were nameless to me before your arrival. Most people hereabouts have rarely left the sight of Beinn Na Ciche.”
Enya was aware that the peak named The Mither Tap, part of the range of hills of Beinn Na Ciche, was a prominent sight on the landscape. During her own trail northwards Uncle Lorcan had been told to head for the peak because somewhere within sight of it was the gathering place for the tribes of the Taexali lowlands and for the Caledon warriors of the mountains. The assembly for battle on the foothills had, indeed, recently happened but the result had been drastic for the Celts. She supposed that many of the Caledon and Vacomagi warriors who had been slain by the Tungrian and Batavian auxiliary forces of Rome had probably only left the safety of their tribal homeland for the first time ever to fight the Roman armies of General Agricola.
After another quick survey she nudged Feargus. “Have you never ventured far? I mean before Agricola’s Roman invasion?”
“Nay, I have not, at least no more than the trek of a day, or two, to the waters of the coast. My mother’s kin are from Baille Mheadhain.”
Enya’s gasp was louder than she intended. “Nay! That is where Agricola’s fleet are based.”
Feargus’ eyes glistened. “Aye. I greatly fear for my mother’s kin. Your uncle, Brennus, told me that prisoners from the area have already been shipped off to the south, to be sold as slaves of the Roman Empire.”
Enya purposely ignored the hitch in his voice. He was a proud young warrior. She still had some of her kin around her but Feargus sounded like he had none left. His gaze was towards the trees alongside them though she imagined his focus was inward.
“My father’s people were farmers at Monymusk. Now, it seems I have no kin left and no fields to tend. Or my family is like your brother and cousin: lost to me for now, until I find them again.”

Enya’s feelings erupted at the mention. Where could her cousin Beathan, and her brother Ruoridh, be? The searches after the battle had found no trace of them, dead or alive. “I hate the Roman bastards. I hate what they have done to people who just want to be left alone to live their lives in their own way. ”

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