Read The Eagle and the Raven Online

Authors: Pauline Gedge

The Eagle and the Raven (58 page)

BOOK: The Eagle and the Raven
3.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“My Sine hates and loves what and whom she chooses,” Emrys replied, his eyes turning to watch her briefly as she sparred desultorily with her shield-bearer. “But her emotions do not interfere with her good sense. Venutius must yet prove himself. We will watch him closely, but I think this time he is here to stay.”

“Pah! A man who allows such a woman as the Brigantian bitch to order his thoughts is weak and not worth the effort of saving,” Madoc rumbled. “But he is a very great warrior.” Emrys did not reply. His chin had sunk onto his hand and his eyes turned back to Sine as she lunged and parried by the water. Madoc heaved himself to his feet and went away to sleep.

That evening, Emrys, Madoc, Venutius, and a few of the other chiefs met together. It was not a Council, for the calling of a Council would have meant a wait of days while freemen scoured the mountains for the stragglers still wending their way to the camp. The men had eaten and drunk, and now sat cross-legged in the warm darkness, just out of reach of the little fire. Around them the ever growing camp settled to rest. The scouts had been posted. Mothers hunted their children, and soft voices called on the night air. Somewhere a bard was singing a gentle summer song, and farther away the clang of iron on iron belied the peace enveloping the men. Emrys slipped his cloak from his shoulders and looked at them carefully, one by one.

“I wish to talk about Caradoc,” he said. “Is there any chance of a rescue? Tell me what you think.”

For a moment they considered, eyes downcast, then Madoc’s gruff voice boomed. “Scapula has been trying to take him for years, and now he has succeeded. He will not sleep until Caradoc is on his way to Rome, and until that time Camulodunon will be so stiff with soldiers that they will be standing elbow to elbow, earthwall to gate. To attempt rescue would be suicide.”

“If we had hope for the arviragus’s return, even if it meant the death of every man in the war band, we would attempt it,” another chief chimed in. “But there is no hope. The only chance we had was while he was on his way to Camulodunon, and since we did not know of his capture until after he arrived there we could do nothing. Now it is too late.”

“I agree.” Venutius spoke up hesitantly, aware that he was subtly separated from these men by their own choice, and would remain so until somehow he could prove to them the strength of his resolution to stay with them. “A rescue by force of arms could have been attempted on his journey south, but we have been too disorganized to plan such an ambush. A small group of men might be able to slip south as far as Camulodunon, but I doubt it. No tribesman is going to be allowed within miles of the arviragus’s cell. We have lost the chance.” He immediately felt their hostility. You lost us the chance, the silence around them said to him. You are to blame. Emrys loosely folded his sun-bronzed arms.

“Caradoc would not want us to come after him unless there were a good chance,” he said. “He would say that we need every warrior we have left for the days ahead.”

“What about women?” Venutius cut in suddenly, and they all turned to stare at him.

“Speak, Brigantian,” Madoc growled, his eyes lighting shrewdly.

“Men could not get to Camulodunon, but women might, sword-women disguised as peasants. Not too many. Five or six, perhaps.” They continued to gaze at him, then Emrys called to his shield-bearer.

“Bring me the scout from Camulodunon!”

They waited for him, an edge of excitement to their breath, their stance, then he came and squatted before them. “Tell us the deployment of troops around the town,” Emrys requested.

The scout answered promptly, balancing on his bare feet. “Within Camulodunon, around the forum and the administration buildings where the arviragus and his family are held, are two hundred soldiers. No tribesmen are allowed there, none at all. Only Romans may pass to the temple and the offices of the governor and the mayor. Between there and the wall and gate are five hundred, stationed in every street. Between town and river, and scattered through the forest, are more than a thousand.”

“Are you sure?” The numbers seemed ridiculous, nearly two thousand men to guard one family.

“Quite sure. I sometimes clean harness in the stables, with a centurion’s servant. He likes to talk. Unless a man can fly, the arviragus will go to Rome, and soon. In one month.”

Emrys thanked the man and sent him away, and the excitement went out of the disappointed men. “I do not think we will attempt any rescue,” Emrys finally said. “Your idea was a good one, Venutius, but by now the Romans know that the hands that grip our swords are without gender. Caradoc would understand.”

They all sat there without speaking, one wild scheme succeeding another in their minds, knowing that all schemes were fruitless. Between them and Camulodunon stretched many miles, and at Camulodunon itself there was only death. Yet none was willing to be the first to leave the fire and admit failure, so they all sat on until silence reigned in the camp and the soft summer night sky became laden with stars.

Venutius knew that he was being closely watched. Only his hours of sleep were his own, though his kin and his tuath mingled freely and with an increasing comfort among the other tribesmen. Each morning Madoc or Emrys would send for him, very politely, very gently, and he would spend the days going from camp to camp. Sometimes Emrys or Madoc would travel, for a new network of communication was being woven throughout the mountains between camps of a dozen, a hundred, even five hundred warriors.

Venutius was able to begin a map in his head and slowly fill in its outlines with supply tracks, scout tracks, war tracks between one rebel group and another. He saw the genius of the arviragus for the first time as Emrys and Madoc painstakingly rebuilt what had been blown apart by Rome. An invisible carpet of thin threads held the west together, and along those threads, like quiet, busy spiders, flowed grain from Mona, men, and news. Orders were passed, strategies queried and confirmed. Emrys and Madoc patiently began to repair those threads that had snapped, and in Venutius’s mind the west suddenly acquired a wholeness as north to south, east to west, it came together. The west as an army, its units scattered over miles of rugged terrain, too far-flung for a Roman general to control. But it was not too separated for a gifted warrior if his compatriots were versatile and able to interpret a change of order swiftly—if they could be cut off from the source of power, yet maneuver still as part of the whole. The units changed position, changed shape, grew or were diminished, and those vital threads shifted with them, ever fluid, ever static.

Only a man of exceptional ability could have created and maintained this living cobweb, and Venutius came to understand that his wife had destroyed something, someone, irreplaceable. As he strode the passes with Ordovician or Silurian, sadness and anger for Caradoc grew within him. The Druithin had made no move to replace the arviragus. An arviragus was first made, then chosen. It was too soon. But it might never happen.

He began to note the camps of strength, and weakness. He noted how grain from Mona followed one route for miles until it was deep into the hills, and he decided that this was a dangerous practice. He sat alone at night, moving the units about in his mind like gaming pieces, not trusting too much to their honor, as Emrys did, or countering his orders out of doubt, as Madoc often did, and within his head the west acquired a new shape. He said nothing to his still-mistrustful guardians, for his advice would have been suspect. He watched, learned, and waited. Sine sometimes came to him in the evenings, still hostile but very polite, and they spoke of inconsequential things. He sensed that she was feeling for something deeper than the words, but he did not know what it was. The core of him, perhaps, the soul. It finally occurred to him that Emrys sent her but he did not care. The long, carelessly folded legs, the windblown, unkempt black hair, the air of clean, savage honor emphasized by the wolf’s frozen leer, comforted him. She was so unlike Aricia. No maze of complex, half-digested needs and cold, cloaked machinations disturbed their conversation, and peace began to settle its blessed veils around him. He began to heal.

One month later, when autumn was a change in the smell of the wind, one of the spies from Camulodunon found Emrys and Venutius together, eating a noonday meal of venison and berries. He squatted swiftly, sharing the food with them before he gave his news.

“The arviragus has gone,” he said finally. “I was there. Many tribesmen had gathered to sing him to his fate. He looked very tired, but otherwise well.”

“Did he speak?” Emrys had been expecting this message but even so there was shock, and the ever present, dormant hurt whipped into life.

“He did, but not many words. ‘Tell them I did not surrender, and neither must they,’ he said. I do not think that he could have managed more, knowing that he was looking his last on Albion.”

Emrys sighed gently. “My thanks, freeman. Return to Camulodunon. I need to know now what Scapula is planning for the winter but you must not bring word yourself. Send it along the chain.” His next order cost him much. His voice was husky. “When word comes of the arviragus’s execution, I want to know as soon as possible.”

“I understand, Lord.” The man rose and went away, and Venutius and Emrys could not look at each other. An unexpected loneliness descended upon them. While Caradoc had been in Albion his presence had somehow continued to brood over the west, but now the two men felt spiritless and empty, without direction. The force and warmth of a mighty man had been withdrawn, and it left them lost and empty.

Venutius was the first to rise. He tossed back his flaming hair, got to his feet, and stood looking down on Emrys. “You heard his last order to us,” he said harshly. “We will not surrender. Never. As long as there is one warrior to call the west his place of freedom we will fight on. We will not dwell on the past, and I will no longer feel shame for something I would have given my soul to prevent if I could. Nor will I skulk here, dependent on your forgiveness. I will walk the camps freely, with my spine straight. Up, Emrys! We must not fail him now.”

Startled, Emrys glanced up at him, the look in the rugged face bringing him to his feet. For a time they stood eye to eye, exchanging a charge of determination, an agreement to fight or fall together. But it was not friendship. They understood one another, that was all.

Chapter Twenty-six

T
HE
voyage was short and uneventful, but after disembarking at Gaul’s port of Gesioracum, Caelte, Caradoc, and his family were taken to the steps of the temple and chained together, while all day, in the dust and growing heat, the people of Gesioracum, coarsened by many more years of subjugation than the people of Albion, came to mock and to spit, to pile insults upon the bewildered, defenceless Catuvellauni. The Roman guards stood by and watched idly, bored with a spectacle they had witnessed many times, and as the hours went by the marketplace filled with the curious, the bitter, the scandal-seekers, all come to see with their own eyes the man who had become infamous throughout the Roman world. In all the years of his isolated struggle for survival, Caradoc had given no thought to his growing legend. Cut off in the silent fastness of the west, his days and nights revolving around campaigns and mere sustenance, he had been oblivious of the furor of speculation that had raged from Gaul to Thrace. But now, drowning in the ocean of angry, gleeful faces, he understood, and was devastated. He was booty. He was a prize, a toppled god to be ground into the mud by unforgiving, disillusioned worshippers.

“Sons of dogs!” Llyn exploded in his ear. “Cowards! Their hands have not held swords for years uncounted and they know it! That is why they jeer at the greatest warrior in the world!” He blustered on, but Caradoc felt the trembling of his body through the thin rags and watched the girls in tears, their heads bent, their hair hanging over wet faces, their hands unable to wipe shame away.

“Look at you!” someone bawled out. “Lice-ridden peasant—what kind of an arviragus are you? If you are the best Albion has to offer, no wonder the Romans disdain you.”

Caradoc felt Eurgain stiffen beside him. “I love you, Caradoc, I love you,” she whispered over and over again, while the small stones grazed their bare arms and clattered down the dazzling white steps. As the afternoon grew hot the offal of slaughterhouse and kitchen began to stink around them, but Caradoc stood seemingly unperturbed, his eyes on the far side of the square, dirty, matted brown hair falling about his broad shoulders. Something in his face drove the mob to a fury and his proud, aging features still imprinted with nobility brought a raw, frightening animosity surging around the little group.

Did you endure this also, Vercingetorix? Caradoc wondered. And was it the least of your trials?

The afternoon inched away with a ponderous, spiteful slowness, a sick dizziness overcoming them as the stench of packed, unwashed bodies rose under the sun. The girls moaned softly under their breath. Llyn and Caelte leaned together, supporting each other’s aching legs. But Caradoc and Eurgain stood straight and aloof, a reproach, a living resurrection of hurtful memories to the people of Germania.

It took them a month to reach Rome, and in every town and village along the way the same exhibition took place. The same jeering peasant crowds gathered, the same worn insults were hurled, the same stifling, slow-moving hours were endured. While autumn was advancing swiftly in the clean, wet woods of Albion, here, as they journeyed slowly southeast, it was still late summer.

It seemed to Caradoc that the same contorted faces were following him and by some cruel trick of time he was really chained to the same temple in the same dusty marketplace, but he knew by the cringing of his soul and the deepening shame that they were not. It became harder and harder for him to keep his head high, to ignore the stupid, spiteful words. There were days when he wanted to grovel on the warm pavement, to crawl before the people in subservience, to beg forgiveness for something, anything, so that their harshness might be turned to a soothing pity.

The girth and might of the Roman Empire was greater than he in his arrogant naiveté had ever imagined, and in the dark, blessedly silent nights, sitting cross-legged in his cell, he marveled at his own temerity in having had the bravado to challenge it. He had been nothing but an irritating flea after all, nipping uselessly at the almost insensible hide of a giant. For a while the giant had scratched at him in vain, but then it had found him and brushed him off. He was nothing—a nuisance, a petty, piping annoyance—and Albion was nothing also, a tiny crumb beside the open maw of an empire. Cunobelin’s empire had been a tawdry, cheap thing, less even than an imitation, and he and Tog, Cin, Caelte, all of them, had sported and boasted like inno cent babes in…what was it that Bran had called it? …a fool’s dream world. The Druithin knew. No wonder the silly little raids, the empty squabbles, the vain strutting of the tribes had driven them to desperation. I am nothing, nothing, he thought, the darkness of his despair more blinding than the close blackness of his cell. The Catuvellauni are nothing, Camulodunon was nothing. Ah Mother, nothing! His thoughts returned to his family, to love and laughter, and, though painfully, he was able to say—yet I am myself. I live. I have a rightful place, just as does the Emperor of Imperial Rome. I will not say that my life has been wasted, for I have been true to those things I know are right.

They were small comforts. He saw the splendor of the cities of Gallia Narbonensis with the dreary eyes of awakened disillusionment. He walked beneath Julius Caesar’s triumphal arch at Arausio and felt his barbarism. And when at last he stood with his captors and looked out over the vast sprawl of the city of Rome itself, the death of his innocence was complete. He was looking at an everlasting power, and he knew it. He heard its constant rumble, he smelled its pungent mixture of spices and dung. He felt the inexorable ocean of its brute force against which no people could stand. He bowed his head and followed his guard along the road.

But he had grossly underestimated his importance, as Claudius had known he would. The emperor had ordered his exposure in the towns in the hope that he might arrive in Rome thoroughly cowed, for he did not want a swaggering, bumptious chieftain turning his triumph into a circus. He knew the tenor of the citizens over this, his greatest prize. For years the city had waited to see the infamous, impudent rebel in the flesh, and now Claudius, whose public image had suffered because of the excesses of his favorite freemen Greeks and his family, had the chance to swing that fickle opinion back to himself, and he grasped the opportunity in both greedy hands. He was giving the people a delicious nightmare in the flesh. At last he had brought the chieftain under subjection and there would be a military review, and a special session of the senate, and, of course, a parade.

On that last night, Caradoc and the others were housed in barracks just inside the city walls. Caradoc and Eurgain knew what faced them on the morrow, and they spent the hours of darkness in silence, holding each other tightly, their hearts full of pity for their unsuspecting children. Over the last month, the girls had lapsed into sullen, bewildered brooding, and Llyn had stopped cursing the gods and his luck and had begun to realize that his life was almost over. He was stunned. Death was something that one brought to others, and at the thought that it was now stalking him he was engulfed in panic. He sat in a corner, his face in his hands, grappling with his terror.

In the morning, they were brought water and clean clothes, and a soldier stood by while they washed and quietly dressed themselves. Then they were led outside. Sun beat down on the white dust of the wide, tree-lined Via Sacra and the wind was stale and somehow draining. They were given no food. They could hear the dull roar of the huge crowd that had already gathered, and before them the chariots rolled back and forth, and the officers, in red cloaks and sparkling bronze helmets crowned with gay plumes, waited impatiently for the order to begin.

Caradoc took advantage of the moment of confusion and he embraced and kissed the girls. “Walk slowly, with your heads up,” he advised them gently. “Look straight ahead. Remember, all of you, who you are. You have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to regret. If we are to die today then let us die proudly, not disgracing our tuath.”

They turned huge, terrified eyes upon him and Gladys clutched at him with strong, panic-stricken fingers. “I cannot do it, Father, I cannot!” she whispered hysterically. “I am faint, my legs will not hold me! I am afraid to die!”

An officer walked toward them, chains over his arm. “It is time,” he said. “The young women are to go first, then the bard, your wife, your son, and then you.”

“Father!” Gladys began to scream and the officer nodded at his escort. Two burly soldiers tore her from Caradoc’s grasp and dragged her away, her sister following numbly, already in a daze.

“She will recover,” Llyn said. “She has seen death too many times to be prostrate for long.” His words were casual but his voice shook, and Caradoc hugged him briefly.

“Farewell, my son. Today we will cheat them of a spectacle.” Llyn inclined his head and kissed his mother, and then Caelte bowed to Caradoc while the officer returned.

“I thank you, Lord, for a good life,” he said. “You have been just to me, and I will not forget.”

Caradoc took his wrist. “Farewell, Caelte. I thank you for your music. What songs you will sing for me yet, when we sit together around a Council fire again!” Caelte smiled and was gone. Caradoc turned to his wife. “Eurgain,” he said, the tears undried on his face. “Do you weep also? You, who have always been my pool of sweet, calm water?” She tried to smile but her lips were quivering uncontrollably. Then they were in each other’s arms, eyes closed against the pitiless bright sunlight. “Sword-woman,” he whispered.

“Arviragus.”

They broke apart slowly. “A safe journey,” he said quietly.

“A peaceful journey, Caradoc.”

They stepped together to the waiting chariots. Caradoc stood obediently with wrists together, and looked ahead while the chains went around them and the soldiers swiftly hammered them to the rear of the chariot. The street was thick with generals, commanders, tribunes, senators, each mounted or riding behind a charioteer. It seemed that all the aristocracy of Rome wished to be a part of this triumph. Llyn, chained to the chariot in front, turned and smiled at him and he smiled back, his eyes straining to where, far ahead, he caught a glitter of sun on purple and gold. The emperor. His soldiers stepped away, satisfied. Somewhere up ahead a trumpet was sounded, and the parade was under way.

What shall I consider now? Caradoc thought as the chariot began to roll with a jerk that nearly dislocated his shoulders. Shall I think of you, Vercingetorix, and your lonely torment? Shall I think of you, Cunobelin, and how your wiles were only the simple deceits of a wayward child after all? Shall it be you, Madoc, you black old reprobate, or you, Emrys, so proud?

The dull roar of the thousands that lined the route drew nearer, and the stiff, ironclad legionaries of the city cohorts that lined the street stood closer together, only their eyes betraying their excitement. The trees had abruptly given way to buildings and Caradoc walked on, his ears deliberately stopped to the wild clamor around him.

I shall think of you, Cinnamus, of your green eyes and bright sword. I shall remember your dry wit, your understanding smiles, your fearlessness and loyalty. You were devoted to Camulos and the Great Mother, but what are they beside Jupiter and the invincible gods of Rome? No, no, do not think of that. Think of what he would say if he were here, think of his scorn.

The sunlight was dazzling, an undiluted outpouring, blinding to his unaccustomed eyes, and the hard stone of the paving hurt his feet. The road had become a broad, straight avenue cutting through tall towers, lofty temples, row upon row of shops, a never-ending, harsh river of solid stone where no soft green thing grew, and it seemed to Caradoc that even the stones shouted at him, Barbarian! Barbarian! If his eyes strayed from the dancing plume of the general behind whose chariot he was chained, he was immediately smitten by the complexity of this mighty city and he could not begin to assimilate the impressions that rained upon him.

Cinnamus. Cinnamus Ironhand.

The faceless, screaming masses pressed and strained against the restraining arms of the cohorts, delirious with excitement, an ocean of waving white and brown snakes, a sea of blurred, open-mouthed faces.

Cinnamus.

The trumpets blared. The sun flayed him.

He heard a man yell, “Well done, barbarian!” and he came to himself and stumbled. All at once reality deluged him.

“A good fight, barbarian!”

“We salute you, barbarian!”

“Caradoc, Caradoc, well fought, well done!”

They were not vilifying him. They were not calling in a white rage for his execution. It was not garbage that struck him, it was flowers—pink, yellow, soft crimson, delicate blue. They were hurling flowers at him, their faces generous and inquisitive, their smiles broad, their shouts encouragement.

“Laurels for the barbarian! Freedom for Caradoc! Mercy for him, Claudius, mercy!”

He scanned them incredulously. It was true. His final humiliation had become the parade of a victor. Up ahead he saw Llyn pick up his stride and shake back his hair. Caelte was ambling along as though his lord had just called for a new song in honor of spring. And suddenly his own spirits took wing and soared high to meet his destiny once again. It seemed that he had conquered Rome after all.

The procession slowly wound to the Forum and halted, and the mobs poured into the plaza behind it. Claudius dismounted and walked slowly up the wide marble steps of the Curia, his purple cloak floating out behind him. When he reached the splash of sunlight at the feet of the soaring columns he turned, and raised a gold-braceleted arm, and his wife stepped from the shade to stand beside him. The mob exploded, screaming their appreciation. For a moment he stood thus, imposing, raised high above his thundering citizens, then he stepped back and lowered himself onto a shaded, purple-draped chair. The trumpets brayed raucously once more and the procession began the slow, solemn circuit of the Forum, at the forefront the praetorians in full regalia.

In all his wildest dreams Caradoc had never imagined such splendor as this. The sun filled his eyes with a blinding dazzle, glowing white and pink and honey golden on the pure, swift-running pillars of Julius Caesar’s temple, flowing under the severe arch of Augustus. It wove mutely in and out the myriad arches of the Basilica Julia, battled silently with the proud shadows of the temple of Castor and Pollux, and Caradoc forgot his chains and craned this way and that in awe. He was in a frozen forest of giant white trees, stone trunks, jealously and arrogantly sheltering the soul of the world as the oak groves of Mona guarded the heart of his people. Living trees grew old and died, even as the men who tended them, but this immobile forest would stand forever, as the soul of the Roman Empire. He trudged past the arch of Tiberius and Germanicus, glanced up at the temple of Saturn where thousands seethed on the steps and clung high on the pillars, and then his chariot swung to the left and past the temple of Concord beyond which, high on the hill, the temple of Jove reared proudly, flanked by the Tabularium.

BOOK: The Eagle and the Raven
3.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Under the July Sun by Barbara Jones
Passion's Tide by Sarah West
False Pretences by Veronica Heley
The Edge of Dreams by Rhys Bowen
Everything to Gain and a Secret Affair by Barbara Taylor Bradford
Oxygen by Carol Cassella
Thief: A Bad Boy Romance by Aubrey Irons