Authors: Graeme Farmer
Copyright © 2015 by Graeme Farmer.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the author or publisher.
First Ebook Edition: January 2015
Original cover art by Ben Clifford. Go to
s the Roman Legions tighten their iron grip on Britain, the world of the Celts is plunged into turmoil. The conquerors bring chaos with them – new diseases, new laws and a new religion, Christianity. Coming of age in this bloody time is driving sixteen year old Sharn to despair.
But everything changes when Fritha, a Pictish girl, arrives from nowhere, as though she dropped from the stars. Sharn is bewitched by the alien newcomer and he falls in love. Everything about her fascinates him – like her skill at hand-to-hand combat. This leaves him wondering how she became such a savage and merciless fighter.
Together Fritha and Sharn resist the invaders, and the Romans want to kill them. So the young warriors walk with love and death through the misty, wolf-filled forests of ancient Britain.
And like all young lovers they hope that their love is stronger than death. But is it?
To Chris, Jack and Dan – friends for the journey.
harn ran towards the wall. He didn’t care if he died. In fact he wanted to die – better no feeling at all than this.
He guessed he was about two hundred paces from the Roman fort. His plan was simple – stand at the base of the wall and scream insults at the sentries until they put an end to his cries and an end to the throbbing in his head.
Up on the ramparts, Zohar, the officer of the watch, cursed this godforsaken place. Not even his run of luck with the dice could stop him thinking of the orange groves of home. Tabiz and Pethar, who were on guard duty with him, disliked Britain too but it was Zohar they cursed because he had won so much money from them.
Zohar had grown tired of the game, so he stamped up and down next to the brazier to get some warmth back into his legs. It was then he saw the figure running out of the darkness. He strained his eyes to pierce the swirling mist and relaxed a little – the figure was small. It was either a boy or a woman. No, it was a boy – women don’t run that way. He snatched up his spear leaning against the parapet.
“We’re meant to give the challenge,” Tabiz growled.
“Too bad. They know the rules,” Zohar growled back.
Zohar loved his spear. He had modified the standard issue javelin by lightening the shaft and feathering the blade so it was more like the hunting spear of his native Persia. He was the best spearman in the legion and wanted to prove it once more.
Pethar again tried to stop Zohar but Tabiz shushed him. He wanted to see whether he could bring down the Celt at this range.
Zohar planted his feet and drew his arm back, allowing for the wind and the boy’s movement. He drew a steadying breath and hurled it. The razor sharp head of the spear flashed in the moonlight and its ash shaft vibrated from the energy of the throw.
Sharn was about to scramble into the ditch when he felt a bolt of lightning catch him high up on his left side. He yelped in pain as he looked sideways at the weapon lodged deep in his shoulder. It was the shock that made him lose his footing and plunge headlong down the slippery bank. He landed heavily and the impact drove the spear through muscle and sinew until most of it stuck out the other side, waving in the sleety wind.
Sharn lay their stunned. Yes, he wanted to die. That’s why he had ventured out into this bleak night … so is this what death felt like?
Then something moved in the shadows. At first Sharn believed he had knocked himself senseless because he thought he saw Fritha. He blinked and blinked again. It
Fritha, suddenly appearing out of the coiling fog.
She slithered down the bank and knelt in the slush, sobbing and gurgling with concern. Sharn knew what all her wordless sounds meant.
“Fritha, go back! The soldiers will come.”
But Fritha just stared at the spear, making small noises of helplessness.
But she stayed put. As the moon came out from behind a cloud, Sharn gazed up at her, squatting there, her lips blue from cold, and his heart flipped over with love.
Back on the ramparts, Pethar was arguing with Zohar. “Leave your spear till morning. There’s two of them now.”
“What have I got to fear from a wounded boy and his girlfriend?” Zohar said as he pushed past Pethar.
“You’ve already disobeyed orders. Don’t make it worse,” Tabiz joined in.
“It’s my best spear,” Zohar replied, as he ran down the stairs two at a time.
He lifted the bar on the slit gate and forged out into the night. The moon went behind a cloud dirty with snow and everything looked different. Once again, he cursed this land of dense fogs and black nights, but he orientated quickly and saw where the skinny girl stood over the dying boy.
Sharn heard Fritha suck in her breath. He twisted his head around and saw the soldier bearing down on them.
“Run, Fritha!” But he knew she wouldn’t. One thing he had learnt about Fritha in the short time he had known her, she didn’t scare easy.
Fritha started to pant. Sharn had seen this before. It was how she prepared for trouble. It was as if she was drawing in more than air, bulking up like she was breathing in flesh. Her eyes grew wide and seemed to spark in the scudding light, and Sharn knew someone was going to bleed.
Zohar did not break his stride even when he saw the girl plant her foot on the boy’s shoulder and yank the spear out. After all, she was so thin the moonlight almost shone through her. He unsheathed his sword, but he didn’t think he would need it – the girl wasn’t even holding the spear right.
Fritha waited for the charging soldier, murmuring her battle prayer. “Turn to stone, my heart, to feel no fear. Turn to iron, my body, to feel no cut. Turn to wolf, my soul, to feel no pity.” She waited a little longer. What had old Bredan taught her? “Listen to your heartbeat, and wait for your enemy half a heartbeat after it is too late. Then he will hook himself on your eyes.”
Zohar was near enough now to see exactly what the girl did, but too close to do anything about it. She took one blindingly fast step forward and started to spin. The spear flared out until it was whistling through the air at the end of her long arms. He didn’t feel a thing when the blade he had honed so painstakingly slashed his throat. He coughed wetly as his heart bloomed at his chin and crashed into the mire at the bottom of the ditch.
“Fritha, go now!” Sharn begged her.
But Fritha was already setting like a waterdog, as she registered another soldier running out of the slit gate.
Pethar raced towards the place he had seen Zohar fall and it was his turn to curse the chancy light. The moon had gone behind another cloud and it was as dark as the bottom of a bag and so he had to slow his steps.
Pethar got close enough to see Zohar spreadeagled in the mud and the girl standing over him. He came to a halt as he tried to figure out what had happened. How could a mere girl bring down a battle-hardened soldier? And where was Zohar’s spear? Was the girl a sorceress? Pethar knew the Celts were a backward people who practised human sacrifice. Perhaps the girl was part demon. And what were those loping shapes he caught out of the corner of his eye? Were they wolves? His imagination started to race. And were those wolves under her command?
Pethar tugged on the leather thong around his throat and pulled out a small effigy of Mithras, sucking the statuette into his mouth to give him protection. And Mithras was starting to work already because the moon showed again and instantly Pethar felt better. After all, he had slain fifty men in battle. How could a scrawny girl beat him? He drew his sword and sprinted ahead.
Fritha had the spear resting on her instep. As the soldier rushed towards her, she flicked it into her hands, and darted forward. She planted the shaft in the soft ground and lifted the point.
Like his brother-in-arms, Pethar had committed himself and now could do nothing to arrest his momentum on the greasy incline. He ran onto the spear, the tip finding its way up under the protective leather skirt. As he gasped in pain, Fritha pushed sideways with her narrow hips, opening his belly. Pethar made one wild swipe with his sword but the girl dodged it, bending back out of the way as if her body had no bones in it. And the stricken legionnaire pitched forward into the mud.
Crassus, the centurion, arrived on the ramparts just in time to see by the light of the emergency brazier a girl kill one of his most experienced men. Tabiz made to run down the stairs to see if he could do anything for his two comrades.
“Halt!” Crassus barked.
“Stay where you are!”
Crassus turned to his adjutant. “Get me an archer. On the double!” The adjutant sprinted off into the gloom.
Tabiz was not thinking straight and he tried to edge towards the stairs. Crassus brought his discipline rod down on his back.
“Stand down, legionnaire!”
“But they’re my friends, sir,” Tabiz pleaded.
“You are stood down,” Crassus repeated. I don’t want to lose any more men.” And the whole scene seemed to grow more eerie as Crassus noticed a gang of wolves just beyond the rim of light, circling in the fog.
Back in the ditch, Fritha was trying to help Sharn to his feet, but his leg gave way. Fritha gasped with exasperation and made encouraging noises for him to stand, but he could not. She put her shoulder under his armpit but Sharn was much heavier than her and he was clumsy from loss of blood. He told her again to go. It made no sense for them both to die – but it was already too late.
Crassus, Tabiz and a tall dark man with a bow and quiver of arrows ran towards them. Fritha could see them more easily now because two of the men carried oil soaked torches and the first glimmer of the new day was lifting the horizon. With a gurgle of frustration, Fritha lay Sharn down and turned to face the three men.
Crassus had lived so long because he was cautious. He stopped a safe distance from the gruesome scene and tried to make sense of it. Two of his best men were growing stiff and cold at the hands of an underfed girl in a ragged shift. Like Pethar before him, he wondered whether she was part devil, but Crassus put it out of his mind. He had recently been baptised into the new faith coming out of the east, and the priest had taught him that demons and witches had no place in it.