Eboracvm, The Village

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Eboracum, The Village

An historic action novel, with a romantic twist (book I)


Excerpts




Chapter I


Dawn came fast, and with it a foul headache and a bursting bladder that forced Cethen Lamh-fada from his warm bed, earlier than was decent. For awhile he tried to stay the inevitable, and tossed about the rope mattress in bloated torment. Elena finally put an end to his misery.

“Get up and piss, oaf, or neither of us will have peace,” she muttered in a thick voice, then sniffed loudly and wailed. “Did someone let the hogs loose? It stinks in here.”

Elena rolled over and buried her head beneath the covers, leaving Cethen to curse and crawl from his bed. He swung his bare feet onto the icy floor with a painful groan, and sat gazing numbly about the lodge. Vague memories flooded his mind, like cold water seeping across a dirt floor. The room was packed with people. More than a score lay sprawled about the hut where they had either bedded down, or fallen in a drunken stupor. The reek of vomit filled his nose, piercing the ripe odour of dank clothing, unwashed bodies, wet boots, cold ashes and beery farts.

“Shit!” Cethen cursed and shook his head, which was a mistake.

He groaned again, then peered bleary eyed in search of the night bucket. It was nowhere to be found. Perhaps it was just as well, for the place already stank worse than a pig sty. He fumbled for the cloak that had served as a blanket, and staggered to his feet. The need for relief was urgent, and a quick search for his boots proved fruitless. They should have been by the side of bed, which was where he always left them; but a further blink of his bleary, blue eyes revealed only one, soaked and limp under the weight of an upturned beer jug.

A second curse fell from his lips and his eyes wandered. Several pairs of boots were scattered close by the dead ashes. None of them were his, but one pair seemed a likely size and he slipped them on. They were ice cold with the night’s damp, but at least they were not soaked in stale beer. The thought was enough for a final curse, then Cethen lurched to his feet and made his way unsteadily outside.

The day was crisp and cloudless, blinding in its early morning brilliance. The glare made his eyeballs hurt, but it also brought a broad smile. The air was sharp, but the sun was warm on his face and the change of weather welcome. The sky had been dark and heavy for months. The small stone lodge and the surrounding clutter of huts had felt like an island in a sea of snow and slushy mud. If the brightness lasted, the village might finally rid itself of winter and welcome the warm green of Spring.

Feeling better for the thought, Cethen shuffled to an open pit dug close by the stake fence that circled the tiny village. He balanced on the edge, opened his cloak, and sighed at the pleasure of relief.

“A deaf man with his nose plugged couldn’t sleep in there,” a voice complained.

Cethen turned to find Elena standing with her arms folded across her chest, and a grim, determined look on her face. He groaned, not because of the dull throb that pounded his head, but because of ‘the look’. Fifteen years married to the woman had taught him to be wary of it. Elena said nothing more but stood with her cloak belted tight around her waist and her head cocked to one side. She calmly uncrossed her arms and began combing her fingers through the tangles in her hair. The ache in his head throbbed harder.

“Not here,” Cethen mumbled, and nodded toward the lodge. Without waiting for a reply he started down to the river.




Chapter V


A tall, dark haired woman stalked off the deck, barely allowing time for the gangplank to settle. She strode impatiently across the dock, onto the river bank, and up the path toward the camp. A young tribune in full dress uniform fell in behind, followed by a gaggle of Britons and a small contingent of infantry. Gaius leaned against the side of an empty freight wagon, bemused, and settled down to watch.

No sooner had the woman started up the slope to the camp than she stopped and whirled angrily about. Those behind bunched up like a flock of sheep. She shouted, hands waving, and most scuttled back again, probably because they were empty handed, Gaius decided. Then just as suddenly, she resumed her long stride up the dirt path.

At first Gaius thought the woman would pass by, but she stopped sharply, as if something odd had caught her attention. She glanced sideways, slowly eying him up and down, as if assessing the value of a slave. Her eyes swept over his uniform, narrowed as they fell on his rank insignia, then moved up to the top half of his skull where the yellow, green and purple of his bruises gleamed through the dark bristle of his scalp. Her features took on a look of amusement.

“You’re lucky. They struck you in the only place that won’t do a Roman permanent damage,”and in the event Gaius had missed the point, she added, “your skull.”

He stared back, both irritated and drawn by the cool, imperious features. There were tiny lines of age etched about her eyes and mouth, and her hair, once raven, was beginning to streak with grey. Unlike many Roman women, though, she made no attempt to hide it; but it was her eyes that held him. They were a dark, greyish blue, and seemed to pierce his thinking. They held the sharp focus of intelligence and, despite the abrasiveness, a glint of something that could be nothing other than humour.

Gaius nodded, and decided to respond in kind. “It did catch my attention, at the time.”

“You are gawping,” she accused.

Again he nodded, and shrugged. “True.”

She seemed amused. “And what do you see, Roman?”

Gaius decided the simple truth would serve best, and without thinking of the other side of his words, spoke up. “You must have been very beautiful when you were young.”

Her eyes widened in surprise, and for a moment she seemed completely nonplussed. The backhandedness of the compliment suddenly struck him, and he squeezed his eyes shut at the gaff. Then her lips twisted into a grim smile. She spoke one word and began to laugh. “Turd!”

Some of the straggling flock had once more caught up. Gaius recognized the soldier in dress uniform as Julius Fortinus, and tried to keep a straight face. He nodded a greeting, and the young officer simply rolled his eyes upwards as if appealing to the Gods.

“Where is Petilius?” the woman demanded.

Gaius bit his lip at the familiarity, and wondered how he should reply. There was no doubt who she was. “I have no idea,” he said carefully.

“He was supposed to be here today.”

“At any time, is what I heard.”

“Then take me to the senior officer. Is the Legate here?”

“No, he’s not.”

“Then take me to whoever else is.....”, she broke off, looked down at her feet as if gathering patience, then looked up again. “I suppose that’s you?”

Gaius decided to extemporize, dragging out the details in order to irritate. The impulse was irresistible. “Well, our rank structure is a little difficult to understand, you see, unless you really know how it works. The Primus Pilus is here, but he’s from the ranks. He’s actually very senior and in his own way exerts more influence than I do. Particularly with the troops. He doesn’t hesitate to use it either, I might add. But you asked for an officer, which I suppose means you want someone of at least equestrian rank. Or better. There is the senatorial lad, Publius, but like most the other tribunes he’s a bit raw. Still in training. So, if you really want.....”

“Shiiiiit!”

“....want the senior officer. A real officer. Then I suppose yes, that’s probably me. For the moment.”

He offered an impudent smile and bowed stiffly at the waist, which sent a jagged pain lancing along his spine. The pose seemed to strike the correct note, though, for the woman threw her hands in the air as if in surrender. The sharp stab of pain was worth the effort.

“And you are?”

“Gaius. Gaius Sabinius Trebonius. Senior tribune, senior centurio of the first cohort, and chief engineering officer of the Ninth Hispana. And you are?”

Her eyes flashed, but not with malice. “You know damned well who I am. And with all those ridiculous titles, if you don’t, then you effing well should. Now show me where I’m staying.”

Cartimandua resumed her progress into the camp and Gaius fell in alongside, suddenly aware of his sore ribs as he hurried to match her pace. The flock dutifully followed.

“We have nothing set aside. I’ll see what the Governor....”

"Of course there is nothing set aside. Why should there be? No one knew I was coming.”

“Then perhaps we might be.....”

"A tent of my own would be nice. A large one. Well lit. And warm. I like it to be warm.” She turned and looked pointedly at Gaius, her eyes glinting. “We older people like the warmth, you know. It’s very important to us. Turd. Perhaps that’s what I should name you. Turd.”

Gaius bowed his head. “Whatever company you prefer to keep, ma’am.”




Chapter XV


“Lopping heads off is not only messy, at this time of year it attracts more flies than a pile of shit,” Dag muttered as he flopped down beside Cethen, and stared morosely to where a woad daubed party of hill men moved among the dead, each trying to recall which of the Romans he had killed. Once found, the dead man’s head was hacked off amid great whoops of triumph. Two of the hill men were pushing each other, arguing loudly as they straddled the corpse of a particularly large Roman decanus.

“Not only that, the damned Romans cut their hair short, and it makes them hard to carry,” Cethen quipped in turn, and both men laughed.

The two sat cross-legged on a red cloak retrieved from a Roman corpse, and ate for the first time since the hastily snatched bite of food earlier in the day. Around them the tuath took care of itself, and since no kin close to either had been badly hurt, both men left well enough alone.

Cethen had grudgingly formed the opinion that Dag, without Garv, could be almost human. They had fought side by side when Venutius had twice decided the Roman square could be taken, each one staying close to the other as if in unspoken agreement. Both of them missed a brother who should have been there, and while it was like yoking an ox and a mule together, it had not felt that uncomfortable.

"Da, why do they do that?” Rhun asked, staring in fascination as one of the hill men completed his grisly task, and jammed the severed head on the end of his sword. He waved it gloatingly at the Roman lines.

“It’s to make their piss boil,” Dag answered instead, watching curiously as several arrows arched out from the square, falling close enough to send the hill men running. “I think it’s working.”

“No, I mean why do they cut them off at all?”

“It’s where a man’s soul lives, son, and remains even after he’s dead,” Cethen explained. “They say if you take a head and hang it up, it brings lots of good things. Luck. Power. Courage. Especially if the enemy fought well before he died.”

“So why don’t we do that?” Rhun asked, wincing as the man pulled his gruesome trophy free of the sword and tossed it into the air, before finally placing it in a leather bag.

“I suppose we do, son, but in a different way. We carve heads, or paint them. You’ve seen them. Etched into metal, made out of clay, you name it. We just don’t bother cutting the damned things off.”

“Because they stink,” Dag added helpfully.

“And bring flies,” Rhun giggled.

Cethen playfully pushed his son sideways, and would have then wrestled with the boy when he bounced back, but he saw a familiar figure riding carefully through the sea of warriors and horses that now filled the meadow. He rose to his feet, grunting at the stiffness that had settled on his legs.

“Cian. Over here.” He waved as he yelled the words, and saw his brother change direction. There was another man with him, and they were towing an unsaddled horse.

"Came to find out if you were still on the green side of the weeds,” Cain called out, as he neared.

“Takes more than a Roman army,” Cethen replied, but his attention was elsewhere. The horse being led by his brother was Gaius’ chestnut. There was a flesh wound at the base of the animal’s mane, which explained why there was no saddle. But the cut was not deep, and seemed to be causing the beast no great discomfort.

“So. What are you doing with that, Cian?” he asked cautiously, pleased to see the animal, but afraid his brother had claimed it himself.

“Don’t worry,” Cian grinned, reading his thoughts. “It’s a gift. From Vellocatus. He recognized it when they were gathering the strays.”

“Gift be damned! The man stole it from me, and gave it back to its owner,” Cethen complained, then glanced up startled. “Is he dead? The Roman, I mean.”

The man beside Cian kicked his horse forward and answered the question. “You know that can’t happen,” Luga said emphatically, his deep voice slow and confident. “You’re the one that will kill him. The druids have said so.”

“But they lied about the vision...” Cethen began, but gave up when he saw Luga’s expression tighten. “So how did the man lose my horse? What happened?”

“I saw a spear bounce off his back like it was magic,” Luga said, pleased to be asked the question, his great, bearded face full of awe. “Another was pushed away even as it was driven into his belly. Then he was thrown from his horse, and still he wasn’t hurt, so another man rushed in to kill him. But a spear came out of nowhere and took him in the throat, just as he struck the Roman on the back of the head with an axe!”

“An axe in the back of the head will usually do it,” Cethen said dryly. “It works well with bulls and chickens.”

“That’s just it,” Luga cried, pleased at the example. “It does, doesn’t it?. But with this man, it merely knocked his helmet off in pieces. After that, he crawled forward until several Romans rushed out and pulled him into their miserable square. I tell you, the Gods have charmed his life. There’s a spell on him.”

“If you took a spear in the throat when you’re trying to brain someone, your aim might be off a hair too,” Cethen observed, then another thought struck him. “Shit, that’s three helmets the Roman’s gone through since Spring.”

“You can see that Luga’s got nothing better to do on a battlefield than watch others fight,” Cian gibed.

“That’s not true,” Luga protested. “You were there, too.”

“I was too busy doing the fighting. Never saw a thing.”

“I was fighting too, curse you. It doesn’t stop a person seeing things.”

“Exactly!”

Luga pondered the comment for a moment, then growled, “What do you mean by that?”

“Shit,” Cethen interrupted, “I thought you two weren’t supposed to fight until after the battle.”

Both men glared at him, then Luga spoke slowly, with just the trace of a smile. “Cethen, that doesn’t make any sense.”




Chapter XXV


Elena rode into the fortress, overwhelmed by a sickening fear she was too late. The few dead outside the gate were hardly worth a glance, but inside it was worse than the slaughter of cattle at Samhain. She reined in, stunned by the sight of so much killing. Bodies littered the muddy ground like blood soaked pebbles, and there was scarce a trace of Roman colour among them. In places it looked as if the dead had been strewn like leaves, except nothing stirred but the wind blown flutter of loose clothing. The Roman infantry had left no wounded behind.

The fighting had already moved a third of the way across the enclosure. The Roman line stretched from one side of the fortress to the other, a distance of over a mile. Cerialis had gambled, committing most of his precious legion just to maintain a front of three ranks. But it was working. The battlefield trailing the advance was a graveyard. Half the cavalry, no longer needed inside the ramparts, had been sent North to cut off any retreat. It was a gesture of pure confidence.

Elena cursed silently and focussed on where the lodge sat, halfway across the huge compound. It was ahead of the Roman line. Thankful, she once more kicked the horse onward and at first it balked, eyes rolling and nostrils flared with the scent of blood and smoke. She lashed angrily at its flanks with the loose end of the reins, and it bolted forward. It lurched past a score of burning hovels, careless of the bodies beneath its hooves, stumbling and kicking as it raced on in growing panic. Elena fought to regain control and almost crashed into the rear ranks of Roman infantry, but the beast stopped short, its front legs suddenly as stiff as stilts. She hurtled forward over the animal’s neck.

“Noooo!”

The word was screamed by a harsh male voice. Elena stared up through a star riddled haze and saw the decanus Octavius, wrestling with a wild faced infantryman. The soldier glared hate as his sword swung uncertainly a hair’s breadth from her throat, the scarlet glaze of battle in his eyes. For a moment she thought the man would thrust anyway, but the glare focussed and the light dimmed. He turned without a word and ran, for he was now a half dozen paces behind the line. Octavius offered an arm and pulled her to her feet.

“He’s over there.”

Octavius answered her question before it was asked, pointing his stained sword vaguely behind the ranks of shuffling infantry. Without waiting further he ran forward, but not before burying his blade in the twitching body of a fallen Briton on the off chance the man was not yet dead.