“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.”
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.”