Authors: Manda Scott
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #_rt_yes, #_NB_fixed, #onlib
Bán’s eyes were black, like the night, and shining. Caradoc had stood beside her. It was easier to remember him now. Somewhere, the pressure had lifted.
Caradoc’s eyes are grey, the colour of clouds after rain.
“Thank you.” It was impossible to tell who had spoken.
“Breaca? Breaca, will you come back with me? The sentries are returning; we must be gone.”
She did not remember running, although her heaving chest told her that she must have done so. On the far side of the rampart, loping back along the trackway, she said, “You didn’t tell me I was calling him back.”
Airmid was behind. She said, “I told you as much as was safe. If you had known, would it have made it any easier to fight the ancestor?”
“I would not send you into battle unarmed.”
“You were not unarmed, and you were not unsupported. You did what you had to do as well as you could do it. It was enough. We’re both alive.”
“Did it work? Did you kill Scapula?”
“No, but the serpent-dreamer infests his dreams and will continue to haunt him when he wakes. I do not believe a man can survive long under such assault. He will sicken and die, or he will kill himself. He will be dead by the next old moon.”
They were alone. The she-bears had left them at the start of the trackway. The elder grandmother had not followed them from the governor’s tent. Her absence left a gap that let the wind through.
Airmid said, “I had to leave your brooch on Scapula to bind the dreamer. I’m sorry.”
“I can make another. Only Bán will not be there to spit on the casting for luck.”
“But he may have found peace and that will be luck enough. Macha was there and she can be trusted to know what is needful. We never found Bán’s soul after Amminios took his body. It may be that the serpent-dreamer has access to places we do not and can bring him back into Briga’s care. We can pray so.”
“To whom do we pray?”
“To Nemain. The other gods will hear it.”
There was no moon; there never had been, but the trackway had lit the route to the fort. Returning, the gods withdrew their light and the night deepened to black. Breaca led by feel, slowly, pushing across the moorland where the heather and bracken were least. Night beasts shadowed them, fewer than there had been, but more than other nights; a vixen barked and cubs answered from either side; an owl screamed, the high note that cuts through sleep; far back, near the fort, a bear yammered over a kill.
Breaca stopped. “That’s Ardacos.”
Airmid said, “Don’t turn back,” and pushed hard on her shoulder.
Together, they walked through the night, blindly.
They reached a small cliff with no way round but to climb down. Lowering herself from an uncertain ledge, Breaca realized she could see her hands in front of her face. On the solid ground beneath, she could see her feet. “Dawn’s coming,” she said.
“I know.” Airmid climbed nimbly. “We have to be at the fire before the first edge of the sun rises over the horizon. Can you walk faster?”
They walked faster, and when they could properly see their feet and the paths winding through the knotted heather, they ran. Mist rose to greet the morning, great blankets drifting over the moor. On the eastern horizon, the morning star rose and sparked fuzzily. Far ahead, the light of a dying fire burned red against the paling light. Two figures sat hunched beside it, wrapped against a night’s cold. One of them waved urgently.
“Faster,” said Airmid.
They ran, careless of the footing, and crossed the river on slippery stones. Luain mac Calma sat on the rotting log before the fire. He did not rise to greet them, but lifted his head as they crashed across the rocks. A decade’s ageing creased his face and cleared slowly as he looked at them and beyond to the growing light of the dawn. Blinking, he rubbed his face.
“You’re back,” he said.
He was among the most eloquent of dreamers; when he chose, he could fill a night with rhetoric and have words to spare. He stretched his legs and laid one last branch on the
fire. Autumn leaves crisped in the heat but did not burn. Leaning in, he blew until a nascent flame snaked up to catch the lowest leaf.
When it had burned fully to ash, he said, “It would seem there are good reasons why that has never been done. I would suggest we do not attempt it again.”
“Did you think us lost to the serpent-dreamer?” asked Airmid.
“You were lost, that was beyond doubt. The question was what parts of you she would give back again.” He looked at them, squinting. “Not everything, it seems.”
Efnís roused more slowly and walked to the river to wash his arms and face. By the fire again, he spat on his palms and rubbed them together, then reached out and touched Breaca’s brow. His hand was hot as molten iron. Breaca flinched. Luain mac Calma grasped her shoulders. “Don’t move.”
It was hard not to move. Efnís’ heat scorched her skin. Voices seeped through his fingers. Light flared and was still and it was not of the rising sun. The elder grandmother laughed and an older voice joined hers that rang like flint on iron.
Two speaking as one said,
“Your time is ours, warrior. When we have need of you, we will call.”
Something stung above Breaca’s eye and made her blink. Luain mac Calma stood before her. His knife was of bronze and sharp on both edges. With its tip he had cut where Efnís’ hand had been. A bead of blood wept into her left eye and stung a second time. With her own hand, Breaca wiped it away. The day brightened and the mist cleared as if it had never been. The leaking voices died.
From the fire, with her back to the flaring sun, Airmid said, “Welcome back. If the gods are with us, we will bring Caradoc home as safely.”
By order of the Emperor, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus Britannicus, conveyed through his freedman Narcissus, two ocean-going grain cargo vessel sailed from the mouth of the largest eastern river in the north of the province of Britannia. His Imperial Majesty was fully aware of the extreme risk of an ocean crossing, having experienced the wrath of the autumn storms in his single sea voyage during the conquest of Britannia. To minimize this risk, the two ships sailed three days apart, at times considered auspicious by both augurs and seamen. They took the long sea route round the south coast of the island and down the western side of Gaul to pass east again between the Iberian peninsula and the northern coast of Mauretania on a course straight for Italy. They docked at night and in secrecy at the Roman port of Ostia, recently re-engineered and made safe by the actions of the same emperor.
Each ship was met at the docks by a half-century of the first cohort, the Batavian horse-guards, hand-picked for their unswerving loyalty to their emperor and, importantly,
their well-tested ability to keep their counsel while blind drunk. The escort brought a covered grain cart in which the human cargo was transported the eighteen miles to Rome and thence, under cover of darkness, to a secure annexe of the servants’ quarters at the imperial palace on the Palatine hill. They were met by the former slave Narcissus and two other freedmen: Callistus, who had charge of the public treasury, and Polybius, religious secretary and favourite of the Empress Agrippina. On the second occasion, medical help was sought. After due consideration and on Narcissus’ express command, the emperor’s physician Xenophon of Cos was woken and required to attend certain of the emperor’s newly arrived prisoners. His subsequent advice was followed to the letter. In the imperial palace, neither the freedmen’s nor the doctor’s word was law, but both assumed a close approximation.
Dubornos surfaced slowly from dense, unpleasant dreams in which he strove to reach the gods and could not find them. The space they had occupied in his soul was empty, like a house not lately used, and he was alone outside it, calling. He lay still on a pallet of hard wood and brought his mind back to the world around him. For a while, he wondered that the sea had become so still and the taunting gulls so silent. His mind still rocked in nauseating rhythm but his body failed to follow. His body, instead, noticed other things in the stillness: he was in pain, but less than he had been; he was no longer naked and his wrists, ankles and neck were unshackled; the air no longer stank of raw and rotting sewage but of dust and damp plaster and an ointment made from olive oil. Flexing his fingers, he found the pressure on his forearms came from
bandages, not iron, and he remembered the hands of the doctor who had applied both ointment and linen. The man had been skilled, had worked with intelligent compassion on the ulcerating sores on ankles, wrists and collar bones where the shackles had chafed. Afterwards, there had been hot food, which had been welcome, and wine, which was less so.
In an earlier, easier, part of his life, Dubornos had pledged never to drink wine but then he had pledged also to give his life defending the children of the Boudica from death or captivity and had failed comprehensively to do so; drinking the gift of the enemy had seemed a small oath-breaking after that. The wine had contained other things besides grape. He remembered the bitter-spice taint of poppy on the back of his tongue and then the dreams. Swimmingly, they claimed him again.
The lamps had been relit next time he woke; their steady light made it easier to grasp consciousness and hold it. The dullness had been a blessing; for a fleeting, beautiful moment, he was alert and free and could remember who he was, if not where and why. Then the accumulated memories of the past fifteen days returned all at once with terrifying clarity. He lay still, watching the unforgiving black behind his closed lids and tried to breathe evenly through waves of nauseating fear. A groan rose unbidden from deep in his chest and he stifled it against clenched teeth, grimacing afterwards in the gloom, a half-grin of self-congratulation as if so small an act of defiance were a victory in itself.
He breathed deeply, striving for calm. He was Dubornos mac Sinochos, warrior of the Eceni and of Mona; he would not display fear in the presence of the enemy. More than that, he was a singer of the first degree;
death was his ally. In his training he had passed the singers’ final test, had lain in an oak casket while Maroc, Airmid and Luain mac Calma packed him about with earth and lowered him into the pit he himself had dug. For three days and nights he had lain still, buried alive in a simulation of death so complete that the boundaries between this world and the other had blurred to nothing. When, at moonrise on the evening of the third day, they had exhumed him, he had not wanted to come back. Briga by then was his friend, the death she offered his closest companion. In the eternity of darkness, he had walked again and again along the uncounted paths taken by the souls of the dead in their journey between this world and the other and had found in the walking a peace he had never encountered in life.
Airmid had worked alone with him for two days to bring him fully back. The closeness to her and the pain it brought were, he thought, part of the reason he had not wanted to return. He had wanted Luain mac Calma or Maroc or Efnís to take her place but none had done so and he had resented all of them for it. Later, in the small moments of profound joy that gave colour to his life, he had begun to understand the depth of love she had given him in those two nights and to feel grateful.
In the early part she had made him sit up and talk, endlessly, of their shared childhood. He had fought that; Briga was less heartless. He had been shocked to find Airmid’s will stronger than his and the god’s combined. She had wound him in a thread of remembrance and sage smoke and refused to let him go. Later, they had walked alone together in the low hills of Mona and she had made him eat whatever they found that was yellow, the colour of sun and day and life. It
was high summer and the wind-coarsened turf had been alive with yellows. He had tasted flowers and fungi he was sure were poisonous and yet he had not died. Later still, she had made him bathe in a small, craggy pool at the foot of a waterfall and had joined him in the chill water, holding his naked body to hers, and his heart had broken and a dam inside him with it so that he wept tears that matched the flow of the river until there were no more tears to come. Afterwards, he had slept chaste at her side, fulfilling in part the dream of a lifetime.
He had woken with his head on her knees, both of them dressed. Her fingers teased out the tangles in his hair. Her voice had the deep, reverberating tones of the god.
“It is not death that you fear, son of Sinochos, whatever your body may have told you in the terror of your first battle—it is life. To be a true singer, you must bridge the river and stand evenly on both sides; one foot must be in life to balance the one that stands in death. It is as sacred to sing the newly born into this world as the newly dead into the other. Both must be done with equal heart. Can you do that?”
She was beautiful, he had always thought so, even when they were scrape-kneed children and she with the green frog tattooed on her arm that marked her as mad. In the evening light, she was Nemain, come alive and smiling. He had not believed what she said; he lived daily with the shame that fear of death had brought on him but he had smiled back and said, “I can try.”
He had done his best in the four years since, but had not always succeeded. On the mountainside above the valley of the Lame Hind, he told himself he had chosen life only because he had believed it would help Caradoc to win final
victory if he knew his children were alive. Selfishly, he had also yearned to see the reaction of the cavalry decurion when Caradoc rode at the head of Venutios’ three thousand warriors to crush the tattered remains of Scapula’s legions. In the vast, cluttered camp of the Brigantes, faced first with Cartimandua, who had threatened a life that was far worse than death, and then with Caradoc, shackled and bloody, Dubornos had felt his detachment and the strength it gave him begin to waver. In the long spaces of tedium between one humiliation and the next, the singer had begun to recognize the truth in Airmid’s words, that death had never been his fear, but that what unmanned him, what left him weak-limbed and sobbing with terror, was the prospect of the last long-drawn moments of life that led up to it.