Authors: Manda Scott
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #_rt_yes, #_NB_fixed, #onlib
He had been branded once before, long ago, when his name was not Julius Valerius. Then, Bán had fought the men who held him down and it had been done badly so that the wound had festered and he had nearly died. Now, kneeling tied and blindfold in the claustrophobic dark of a wine cellar, beneath a house that was less than three years old and with the snuffed wicks of the candles sending rank smoke into the dark, he yearned for the touch of the iron. When the masked centurion wiped the wine down the line of his breastbone and pressed his thumb in the centre to mark the spot, he leaned forward to meet the pain.
He had forgotten how bad it would be. The shock was blinding. Fire, and something worse than fire, wrapped his heart, closing tight, like a fist. It wrenched at his breath in a way that wounds taken in battle had never done. He forced himself to silence but need not have done; the noise of one man was lost in the echoing chant of forty male voices. The stench of burned flesh drowned in a flood of sweet smoke as someone threw a fistful of incense onto the brazier.
Later, he wondered at the expense of that: frankincense cost more than its own weight in gold. At the time, he only knew that, however briefly, the pain of the fire consumed the other greater pain of his soul and it was for this that he had come to the god. He threw himself into it, riding the heat that spread from his chest until it drew him out of himself and he watched his body from a place apart, one with the fire and yet separate. At its height, when the bearable became unbearable, someone standing behind stripped the blindfold from his eyes and cut the cords at his wrist and someone else lit the seven lamps before the sun-disc so that, in deepest darkness and blinding pain, the god’s light offered solace.
He would have liked to have accepted the offer, to have fallen into the waiting, welcoming arms of the deity, to have known peace and certain salvation. The men branded on either side of him did exactly that. From his left, he felt the shudder of flesh that matched exactly the moment of surrender when a horse first accepts the bridle. From his right he heard a whimpered exhalation, as of a man at the climax of love. For these, and the others beyond them, divine joy engulfed all pain, erasing its threat for ever.
It was what he had been promised and what he had craved. In an agony that was more of the heart than the body, he cried aloud in the void of his soul for the voice of the god. He was not answered. Too soon, the iron was gone, leaving only the ache of scorched flesh and a curl of smoke that rose to join the taint of those who had been branded with him.
The centurion stepped back, swinging the reddening iron. The double curve of the raven blurred and steadied and lit the space between them. Hidden eyes regarded Valerius from behind the god’s mask.
“Know now that you are my Sons under the Sun, the last for whom I will be Father and special for ever because of it. I will leave this province soon, with the governor, travelling with him to Rome to accept such postings as the emperor chooses to bestow. I will be a centurion of the second cohort of the Praetorian Guard. Should you come to Rome, make yourselves known to me. The new governor will arrive with next month’s first auspicious tide. With him will come new officers to replace those who are leaving and new recruits to replace those we have lost. Meantime, the welfare of this province, the honour of our emperor and of the legions is in your hands and those of your brothers under the god.
“You are his now, first and foremost. Before the legions, before all other gods, you belong to Mithras to death and beyond. He is a just god; ask and he will give you strength; weaken and he will destroy you. By the brand will you know and care for each other and if the god grant that we meet again, I will know you by it also.”
They were seven in the row, naked as infants, newly marked and newly named. Not one spoke. On the far side of the room, a man’s voice set up the chant of the newborn. It was joined by others and others and, last, by the new initiates until the full weight of forty-nine voices surged onto the walls and fell inwards, deafeningly. As the sound faded, a single lamp was lit beneath the image of the god. The centurion turned and saluted. Behind him, the others did likewise. From his place above the candle on the northern wall, smiling Mithras, capped and caped, caught his bull and drew his blade along its throat.
Only the children sleep on the night before battle and sometimes not even them. On the night before the Roman governor of Britannia took ship and left for ever the land he had conquered, two thousand warriors and half as many dreamers gathered awake on a hillside, less than a morning’s ride from the most westerly of the frontier forts. Singly and in groups, as their gods and their courage dictated, they prepared themselves for war on a scale not seen in the four years since Rome’s invasion.
Breaca nic Graine, once of the Eceni and now of Mona, sat alone at the edge of a mountain pool. She tossed a pebble in the palm of her hand and sent it skipping over the water.
The stone bounced five times, shattering the moon’s reflection. Shards of broken light scattered into darkness and were lost. The river ran on unheard, the music of its passing drowned beneath the stutter of bear claws played on hollow skulls nearby. The light of a thousand restless campfires gilded the water’s edge and smoke hazed the air above it.
Only by the river was there solitude and darkness and the peace to ask favours of the gods.
The second pebble clipped the edge of the moon and was lost. On the unseen slopes behind, the skull-drums reached a crescendo. A woman’s voice called out in the language of the northern ancestors. Other voices answered, grunting, and the un-rhythm of the drums changed. It was not good to listen too closely to that; over the years, more than one soul had been lost in the mesh of woven bone-sounds and had never found its way home.
“For Briga’s care in battle.”
The third stone, more accurate than those before it, bounced nine times and sank into the moon’s heart, carrying the prayer directly to the gods without the intermediary of the river. If a warrior believed in omens, it was a good one. Breaca, known as the Boudica, sat as the moon settled again and was whole, a crisp half-circle of silver lying still on a bed of moving black.
She picked up a fourth stone. It was wider and flatter thanthe others and bounced smoothly on her palm. She breathed a different prayer into it, one for which tradition did not supply the words.
“For Caradoc and for Cunomar, for their joy and their peace if I am taken in battle. Briga, mother of war, of childbirth and of dying, take care of them for me.”
It was not a new prayer; in the three and a half years since her son was born, she had spoken it countless times in the silence of her mind in those moments before the first clash of combat when everything and everyone she loved must be put aside and forgotten. The difference now, in the rushing dark by the river, with the chaos of preparation held
temporarily at bay, was that she had spoken for the first time aloud and had felt the prayer clearly heard. She was beside water, which was Nemain’s, and on the eve of battle, which was Briga’s, and the gods were alive and walking on the mountainside, called in by the scores of dreamers whose ceremonies lit the night sky.
After nearly four years of despair, she could feel the promise of freedom just within reach if bone and blood and sinew could be pushed hard enough and far enough to make it happen. Knowing a hope greater than any she had felt since the invasion, the Boudica drew back her arm to throw her stone.
“Cunomar!” She turned too fast. The pebble skittered over the water and was lost. A child stood on the river bank above her, tousled from sleep and stumbling uncertainly in the dark.
She reached up and lifted her son by the waist, bringing him down to the water’s edge where he could stand safely. “My warrior, you should be sleeping, why are you not?”
Blearily, he rubbed a small fist in his eye. “The drums woke me. Ardacos is calling the she-bears to help him. He’s going to fight the Romans. Can I watch the ceremony?”
Cunomar was not quite four years old and had only recently begun to grasp the enormity of war. Ardacos was his latest hero, second only to his father and mother in the pantheon of his gods. The small, savage Caledonian was the stuff of childhood idolatry. Ardacos led the band of warriors dedicated to the she-bear; they fought always on foot and largely naked and surpassed all others in the stalking and hunting of the enemy by night. The skull-drums were his, and the chanting that accompanied them.
Breaca said, “We’re all going to fight the Romans but, no, I think the ceremony is sacred and not for our eyes unless they call us in. When you are older, if the she-bear so grants, you can join with Ardacos in his ceremonies.”
The boy’s face flushed in the fire glow, suddenly awake. “The she-bear will grant it,” he said. “She must. I’ll join Ardacos and together we will drive the legions into the outer Ocean.”
He spoke with the conviction of one who has not yet known defeat, nor even considered it possible. Breaca had not the heart to disappoint him. “Then your father and I will be glad to save you some Romans to fight. But in the morning we must kill the ones in the fort beyond the next mountain, and before that Ardacos and two of his warriors must make the land safe for us. It may be he has need of me in a part of his ceremony. If I go to him, you must go to bed first. Will you do that?”
“Can I sit on the grey battle mare before you go to kill the legions?”
“Yes, if you’re good. See, your father’s here. He’ll hold you while I go to Ardacos.”
“How did you know—?” The child’s face was awash with awe. Already he believed his mother part-way to divinity; for her to predict the appearance of his father out of the maelstrom of the night was only another step to godhood.
Breaca smiled. “I heard his footsteps,” she said. “There’s nothing magical in that.” It was true; more than Cunomar, more than any other living being, she knew the tread of this one step. In the chaos of battle, in the silence of a winter night, she could hear Caradoc walk and know where he was.
Now, he waited at the top of the bank. With the
firelight behind, his face was invisible and only his hair was lit. Spun gold flickered around his head so that he looked as might Camul, the war god, on the eve of battle, or Belin who daily rode the mounts of the sun. It was a night to sustain such fancies and the gods would not be offended.
In the voice of men, Caradoc said, “Breaca? The she-bears have called your name. Are you ready?”
“I think so. If you will take care of your son, we can find out.” She passed Cunomar up to the waiting arms and hoisted herself up by the hazel roots. “Briga gives me luck and her care should the luck fail. It appears I may have to find my own courage.”
The fourth stone was forgotten, deliberately so. There was no way to predict what the gods might make of it. Breaca could not imagine them exacting retribution from a child for his mother’s failure to cast a stone truly and Caradoc made his own fate in battle. She had seen him fight too often to believe he could die before her.
She pulled herself up the last half-length of the bank. Caradoc’s face was lined by lack of sleep and the weight of leadership. He hugged her lightly. “The she-bears believe you have courage to spare. Tonight would not be a good time to disillusion them.”
Breaca grimaced. “I know. To them I am god-filled and can never die. You and I know the truth: courage is too fickle to be held fast from one day to the next. Like sweeping the moon in a fishing net, the water sifts through and the light stays as it was. Each time I ride into battle I believe it will be the last.”
She should not have said that. The fourth stone was not fully forgotten and Caradoc could read her as well as she could him. He asked, “Does the coming battle feel bad to you?”
“No more than it ever does. And it doesn’t matter. There are enough in Mona’s council who know what to do if we do not survive.”
“Thank you. I will fight better believing they will not be called on.” He kissed her, a brief press of dry lips on her cheek, and then, quickly, “If Ardacos can do as we need, fewer may die.”
“We can hope so. Take care of Cunomar. I can find the she-bears on my own.”
Away from the river, the hillside was alive with warriors painting themselves and each other, weaving their warrior’s braids and fixing at their temples the kill-feathers that gave notice to the gods of the numbers of enemy already slain.
Ardacos’ she-bears formed a circle on the western slope of the mountain, sheltered by late-berried thorns. The night was alive with the clatter of bear claws played on bone-white skulls and it was hard to hear anything beyond the soft, insistent absence of rhythm. The sound was a river that washed into the mind and soul and carried them to places Breaca had never been, or wished to go. Older than the ancestors, it spoke directly to the gods, promising them blood in return for victory and demanding courage and something greater than courage as its price.
Knowing exactly the limits of her own courage, Breaca nic Graine, known throughout the tribes as the Boudica, bringer of victory, stepped forward into the firelight.
The men and women of the she-bear made a circle around her. In daylight, she could have named each one. They were her friends, her closest comrades, warriors for
whom she would die in battle and who would, without pause or question, die for her in return. Lit by the leaping flames, those who circled her were barely human and she could not see Ardacos at all.
“Warriors of the she-bear, we have need of you.”
“Ask.” The voice was a bear’s, carried on a wave of drumming. “The bear lives to serve, but only one whose heart is great enough to know the risk may ask.”
“The gods will test my heart as they test yours.” The words, like the rhythms, were the ancestors’, old beyond imagining. Pitching her voice above the rattling claws, she said, “We who fight battles in daylight ask the aid of those who hunt men by night. There is a task for which no others are suited. There is danger beyond that which any others can face. There is need of one who can track and one who can hunt and one who can kill and leave not a single one of the enemy alive. Can you do this? Will you do it?”