Read The Eagle and the Raven Online

Authors: Pauline Gedge

The Eagle and the Raven (4 page)

BOOK: The Eagle and the Raven
3.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“Peace, Lord!” Cunobelin said. “First there must be good eating and drinking tonight, and plenty of music, and of course the rites of Samain. Then we will talk.” He scrambled to his feet. “But if you’ve eaten for the morning, let me show you Camulodunon.”

Subidasto’s mouth set in a hard line of disapproval but he rose also, nodding reluctantly.

Caradoc suddenly found Boudicca’s round eyes staring at his face, and it made him uncomfortable. “Father,” he said. “Will you excuse me? I must go and see to my herd today.”

Cunobelin dismissed him, but said quietly, “There is also the matter of my dogs, Caradoc. Brutus has a ripped ear and cannot now be sold. How did that happen, I ask myself, when the guards at the kennel have had orders not to let those dogs out of their sight? There must be a settling here.”

“You know everything, Father,” Caradoc said, grinning. “Have you spoken to Tog?”

“Yes, and to Aricia. The three of you owe me two heifers. Breeding stock.” Cunobelin was smiling back.

“Now Father!” Caradoc protested. “Take a carcass. I cannot afford a live heifer.”

“I’ll fight you for it if you like,” Cunobelin said indifferently.

“No, Father, no.” Caradoc shouted with laughter. “I have no wish for more scars, but a breeder gone will be a sore loss.”

“Then take Cinnamus and Fearachar and go raiding,” Cunobelin said. “How do you think I got rich, Caradoc?”

Caradoc saluted him ruefully and turned on his heel, but he felt a small hand steal into his own and hold him back. He looked down to see those brown eyes still fixed solemnly on him.

“Can I come with you?” she whispered.

His heart sank, but before he could refuse, Cunobelin said, “Take the child down to the slaughtering, Caradoc, and amuse her for a while. Do you object, Subidasto?”

Subidasto hesitated. He was evidently torn from moment to moment by the wish on the one hand to be as objectionable as possible and on the other not to offend these most powerful people, but finally he shook his head, and so Caradoc left the Hall with Boudicca trailing behind him. They walked into the sun and took the path that led straight down to the gate. It stood wide, and beyond it Fearachar waited, sitting on the ground, a sour look on his face, the reins of Caradoc’s horse held loosely in his hands.

“I have been waiting for you for a long time, Lord,” Fearachar said reproachfully as he handed the horse over to Caradoc. “I am cold and hungry.”

“Then go and get warm and have something to eat—but I don’t think we have left you much,” Caradoc retorted. “Boudicca, can you ride?”

The chin came up. “Of course!” she said. “But not…not horses like him, only chariot ponies. There are not many horses as big as that in our country,” she finished, blushing.

Caradoc lifted her and set her on his mount’s back, jumping up behind her and gathering up the reins. “Shall we go fast?” he asked her, and she nodded vigorously, winding her fingers into the horse’s mane as he dug in his heels and swept down the gentle slope into the meadows beyond.

In an hour they came to the river flat, and even before they rounded the bend that would reveal the water and the marshes and the tall, leafless willows, they could smell the slaughtering—the sickly sweet, wet smell of freshly spilled blood—and they could hear the high, panic-stricken bellowing of a thousand cattle who were about to die. As they cantered around the bend, all the ground from forest to water became a thick mass of pushing, jostling people and closely herded beasts. The din was tremendous. A little way up the bank Caradoc picked out Togodumnus, and with a shock of remembered shame and excitement spotted Aricia next to him. They were sitting close together on cloaks on the grass, their steaming breath mingling as they talked. As he drew rein and got down, and Boudicca slid off the horse’s back to stand beside him, Adminius came striding up the slope.

“Caradoc, where have you been? I’ve had my people running all over the place, looking for you!” He came to a halt, panting, his handsome face flushed. “There’s trouble down there. The freemen are fighting. Sholto says you offered him a bull and a heifer from your breeding stock, but Alan says no, you offered only one bull, and that for slaughter for his family’s meat. And Cinnamus is down among his cattle, screaming and swearing, for it seems that he is short twelve beasts.”

Aricia chuckled, Tog nodded in mock solemnity, and Caradoc cursed. “Well, Adminius, why come to me? You are senior next to Father. Go and sort it all out.”

“Because I’ve got cattle missing too!” he roared. “Tog, I’m sick and tired of creeping into your compounds in the dead of night to steal back my own cattle! Where is your sense of honor? And you with the highest honor-price of the lot of us. I’m going to complain to Father!”

“Oh sit down, Adminius,” Togodumnus said lazily. “How could there be anything but trouble when the freemen rush to drive their cattle first to the slaughter? No wonder the traders stand back and laugh at us. If Cinnamus spent more time caring for his beasts and less crossing swords with you, Caradoc, he’d know that he lost cattle this summer through disease. And as for you, Adminius, I think I’ll bring a case against you for trying to steal my cattle. You’ve just admitted it, you know.”

The color mounted in Adminius’s face and he rushed at his brother, pouncing on him, and soon they were rolling on the ground, fighting and kicking.

Aricia sighed. “You had better go and see what has happened, Caradoc,” she said.

When he met her eyes he was conscious of a tightness in his loins, but she spoke evenly and her eyes told him nothing. It was as if the night had never been. Well, perhaps it hadn’t. Perhaps it was not Caesar who was the demon, or Aricia, but he himself who had spent the whole night of Samain in a fit of delusion. She looked away, sighing in a great gust of steamy breath, and the very hopelessness of the set of her shoulders told him he had not dreamed the night. She was too quiet, too calm.

“Leave the little one with me,” Aricia said. “Who is she, anyway?”

“Boudicca, daughter of Subidasto, chieftain of the Iceni,” he said carefully, pulling his cloak around him. A yell of rage came from the two wrestlers and he repressed an irritated urge to kick them both in the rump.

“Come and sit here, beside me,” Aricia said to the girl. “What do you think of the Catuvellauni?”

“You have fine horses, and much cattle,” Boudicca answered promptly, “but my father says that you all suffer from a disease.”

Caradoc turned, amused. “Indeed?” he said. “And what disease do we have?”

“It is called the Roman disease,” she replied, lifting her limpid brown eyes to meet his own. “What is it, do you know? And will I catch it? I do not want to be sick.”

Aricia and Caradoc looked at each other for one astounded moment, then Aricia burst out laughing. “I do not think, little Boudicca,” she gasped, “that either you or your father are in any danger of being struck down by this, this terrible disease. It seems to afflict only the Catuvellauni.”

“Oh. Then I do not wish to sit here. I wish to ride Caradoc’s horse again.”

The child is quick, Caradoc thought. She knows that we are laughing at her father. He nodded to Aricia and strode away, torn between laughter and anger at old Subidasto’s temerity. Roman disease! How little he knew Cunobelin, to imagine that the Catuvellauni were only pawns in the ironclad fingers of Rome. We are first, and only, freemen, masters of ourselves. In that is our pride.

He plunged into the crush of excited, shouting people and they made way for him, muttering as he passed. They were mostly peasants, small and dark-haired, but there were also many native Trinovantian freemen and former chiefs, from whose stock his mother had come. Here and there a Catuvellaunian chieftain bowed to him, and by the time he had forced his way to the bank of the river he had four nobles at his back.

Here the stench was overpowering. Blood pooled on the grass and trickled in rivulets down to the water, and great piles of carcasses waited for the tanners to come and skin them and the butchers to haul them away and dismember them. The air was clouded with flies even though the first frosts had come and gone. Alan stood next to Cinnamus, the sleeves of his tunic rolled up, his arms bloody to the elbows. Sholto was berating them both, shaking his fists and stamping on the ground while the crowd watched, waiting for the blows that must come. Caradoc stepped forward.

“Alan, a good morning to you. And to you, Sholto. Shall I pick you up and throw you into the river? Why do you argue with my freeman?”

Sholto glared at him. “I am your freeman too, Lord, or have you forgotten our bargain? I oath to you for a bull and a heifer, breeders, but Alan here calls me a liar!”

Caradoc looked at him speculatively for a moment, watching the shifty eyes slide away from his. He did not like Sholto and was already regretting his offer to take the man on as his chief, but the honor-price was a sore point between himself and Tog, and Sholto had a large kin and many cattle. He was a whining, lying miser, but he could fight, and so could his freemen and his women.

“I do not call you a liar, Sholto, but I call your ears hard of hearing. Alan is right. I promised you only a bull for your winter store, and a silver cup for your wife. But if you prefer, you may take a breeding heifer. I do not care. Or you may want to consider Togodumnus’s offer, but make haste. My cattle wait for the knife.”

Alan smiled slowly, folding his red arms, and Sholto chewed his lip and thought furiously. Togodumnus was young but he had many freemen in his train. Too many, and they squabbled all the time. But Caradoc could keep order among his men with a word or a joke. He had a way with people and, moreover, he was honest in his dealings. Such a lord could not be manipulated or rapidly impoverished. Sholto spoke sullenly.

“I will take the breeding heifer, Lord.”

“A sound decision. Well, Alan, you can get on with it. Cinnamus, why are you foaming at the mouth?”

“That brother of yours has gone too far this time!” Cinnamus came close to him and spoke in a low, forceful undertone. “Twelve of my fattest slaughter stock are among his cattle. I know them. My head freeman knows them. I am going to present a case to your father tonight, Caradoc, and I am going to be recompensed for Togodumnus’s light fingers.”

“How can you prove your loss?”

“All my people will take the oath for me!”

“So will Tog’s. There has to be more.”

“There is.” Cinnamus smiled grimly. “All my cattle were marked this spring, nicked in the ear. We shall see how Togodumnus can worm his way out of that!”

The crowd was drifting away now, disappointed because there had been no fight, and already the tanners and butchers with their knives and hooks were moving among the piles of dead beasts. Caradoc looked to the forest bank, but Aricia, Tog, and Adminius had gone. So had Boudicca with his horse.

“Cin, why don’t you go to Tog and tell him what you’ve told me. Then demand from him twelve of his cattle as well as your own back. That will hurt him far more than my father’s justice, and I would hate to see you and him shed each other’s blood over a few cows.”

“A few cows!” Cinnamus swore and spat on the ground. “Fine for you, Lord, with your vast herd, but I must count every beast twice. A drop of Togodumnus’s blood would go a long way to assuage my heart, and a lot of others, too. Even his own chiefs are wary of his thieving ways.”

Caradoc knew it was true. Tog was sixteen and he had great charm, a gift that rescued him from scrape after scrape and caused his chieftain freemen to cluster around him like fawning dogs, but he was dangerously close to losing his father’s patience and the admiration of his kin. Cinnamus could easily kill him, Caradoc knew. The young man who stood before him, frowning angrily, had been trained from birth as a warrior, a cold fighter whose reflexes were lightning swift and who could destroy without mercy. That was why Caradoc had chosen him as shield-bearer and charioteer. But he had also been chosen because he was generous and quick to laugh, and he and Caradoc loved one another.

“Do what you think best, Cin,” he said at length. “It is your feud. But think of the consequences to your family if Tog decides to make it a blood feud.”

“He never would. Not him. If you speak to him, Lord, I may be content. Tell him I want my cattle, and the others too, and tell him also…” He paused, his green eyes smiling into Caradoc’s own with an edge of pure ice to the humor. “Tell him also that if he enters my compound again I will order my freemen to kill him.” He nodded and walked away, striding loose-limbed and tall by the river, the sun glinting on his golden hair, and Caradoc turned, making his way slowly back along the path to the gate.

Halfway there he met Togodumnus, one hand on his horse’s flank and the other around the little figure perched atop like a tiny sparrow in a big tree. Boudicca waved to him and then clambered down, her eyes sparkling with success.

“I rode him all by myself! I did! I even made him trot!” She stroked the smooth neck of the animal, sniffing at his warm smell, and her red hair, loosed from its braids, floated in a great aureole about her face. Caradoc watched the square, blunt little fingers moving over the brown coat while the horse stood patiently, his soft muzzle quivering.

“Good,” Caradoc said absently, and they moved slowly on. “Listen Tog, I’ve just been talking with Cinnamus. He’s very angry with you over those cattle.”

Togodumnus sighed with exaggeration. “What cattle? I stole no cattle. They must have strayed.”

Caradoc stopped in the path and took his brother by the shoulders. “You are a fool, Tog. Cinnamus is deep and dangerous. He thinks. And he knows your habits.” Togodumnus shrugged.

“Do you know what he has done?” Caradoc asked. Boudicca was watching and listening with interest, and Tog shook his head, smiling. “He marked his cattle last spring. All of them.”

Togodumnus whistled. “Then I am in trouble. I suppose he wants them back.”

“He wants your blood, but he will take the cattle back, along with twelve of your own and a promise to leave his goods be. Otherwise, he will kill you.”

They resumed the walk in silence, but as the gate neared, Togodumnus stopped. “I will do that,” he said. “I like Cinnamus.”

BOOK: The Eagle and the Raven
3.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

A Man Like Morgan Kane by Beverly Barton
The Devourers by Indra Das
What Doesn't Kill You by Virginia DeBerry
Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright
An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson
Endgame by Jeffrey Round