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Authors: Pauline Gedge

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“Light the other lamps,” she said, going to sit on the edge of her bed, still puzzled at his air of abstraction.

The afternoon was advancing and the light was already fading away, but as Caradoc moved about the room the friendly, quiet glow increased and he felt his muscles and his mind relax.

“Now,” she said when he had finished. “Sit on my couch and tell me what you want.”

He did as he was bidden. What do I want? he thought, and such was the stillness and peace of the room that all his confusions fell into niches and he could view his troubles clearly. I want to be finished with Aricia. I want you to make me feel clean again, Eurgain. I want a new position in the tuath. I want roots among my kin, new anchors against my restlessness, but most of all, oh most of all, dear Eurgain, I want to be rid of Aricia!

He cleared his throat. “Eurgain, we have been promised to each other for a long time now, and it is time I was wed. Do you agree?”

She did not move. She did not color, or blink, or sigh. She merely sat there looking at him, the lamplight flickering on her hair and making shadows in her tunic. But slowly a deep sadness, a hurt, passed over her face and he saw it.

“Caradoc,” she said calmly. “Something is wrong, I know it. Why do you come to me now, at this strange time, and blurt out your proposal as though a demon were at your back? Have our fathers not pledged us to each other? There was no need for this.”

“I want a betrothal now, Eurgain. We are both of age and I tire of an aimless life.”

“Aimless? How can you say that, you a warrior with an enviable honor-price, in full health and leading a hundred chiefs?” He was lying, she knew, and a knife turned in her heart. “It’s Aricia, isn’t it? The rumor is all over the tuath.”

He started, then rose and began to pace in agitation. “I should have known better than to think I could keep my foolishness from you. You are right. It is Aricia.”

“Are you in love with her? Do you want her for your wife?”

“No!” The word exploded into the room, and she heard all that there was to hear in the force of its passing. “She is troubled because she knows her father will send for her before long and then she will have to leave us. She is trying to press a claim on me, Eurgain.”

“Say no more!” Anger lit her words. “I, too, have a claim on you, Caradoc, but I would not dream of presuming on a childhood agreement!”

He stood still and pushed a bemused hand through his hair. “I know, I know. Will you still forgive me, Eurgain?” he said with difficulty. “I’m a weak-kneed peasant, I admit it. Will you still accept me?” He felt suddenly as though the course of his whole life hung on her answer, doom or pardon, slavery or freedom, and he watched the wide blue eyes, the small nose, the large, pensive mouth, in an agony of waiting. Finally she sighed.

“I will accept you, Caradoc,” she said, but her voice was flat and tired. “I have waited long enough. You think you know me, but you do not.” She rose and drew close to him and he took her cold hands in his own. “I am a sword-woman and the daughter of a sword-woman. Never insult me, dear one, by underestimating me.”

He enfolded her mutely. He could not find the words to tell her that he loved her because from their earliest years their lives had been intertwined and had formed a bond that would not be easily broken. No matter what he said at this moment she would not believe him. Aricia, he thought, but the pain was already subdued. Aricia. He cradled Eurgain gently in his arms.

She drew away slowly, her hair netted in the rough embroidery of his tunic. “Will you eat now?” she asked him, as though she had not just been torn apart, as though the sweet fantasies of all her fifteen years had not been turned to dust and blown stinging into her face. She had never controlled herself with such iron determination before and her chest ached with pain and her eyes smarted. A sword-woman does not break down, she told herself. She does not show fear.

“I think I should go and talk to Father,” he said, knowing he could not eat. “And then I should go see Sholto.”

“Watch that man, Caradoc,” Eurgain said. “Father says that he has a large honor-price but no honor.”

“Yes, I know,” he replied. “But he swells my ranks.” He bent and kissed her cheek, and left her.

Cunobelin was in the Great Hall, talking to his chiefs as Caradoc and Fearachar plunged into the gloom and went to join them. The big fire was out and ashes lay scattered about the floor. Lamps burned high on the pillars but their brave circles of wan light only served to darken the shadows around them. Caradoc heard the chiefs burst into raucous laughter and watched them disperse before going to Cunobelin, who turned to him, smiling.

“Well, Caradoc, this has been an unlucky day for me. First those greasy traders refuse to give me money instead of wine because of that cursed Druid, and then my son nearly gets himself killed by my favorite chief. Now what ill news do you bring me?”


My
chief, Father. Cinnamus is in my train,” Caradoc reminded him, and they sank cross-legged to the ground together. “Bring wine, my friend,” he said to Fearachar, who was hovering in the background. “And then get about your business.” Fearachar went to the end of the Hall, drew wine from one of the newly landed jars standing there, and then brought it back and served them.

“From today’s shipment,” he said. “Probably a bad vintage. Those Romans will cheat you as soon as look at you,” Fearachar said and then left.

“To the eternal night of the tuath,” Cunobelin said, raising his cup, and they drank together, pouring their dregs onto the floor for the Dagda and for Camulos and for the goddess of the tribe, aging now, even as Cunobelin himself aged. Cunobelin licked his lips and folded his arms and leaned back against the wall. Caradoc heard the slaves behind him begin to lay another fire, chattering as they padded among the ashes.

“Now,” said Cunobelin. “What is on your mind?”

“I want to get married, Father. I want a betrothal to Eurgain as soon as possible.”

Cunobelin looked at him carefully, his small pig eyes sharp. “That is quite reasonable. And what does Eurgain say? Is she ready?”

“She agrees.”

“Hmmm. And what of Aricia?”

Caradoc kept his eyes on the floor between his knees. How astute his father was. “I am not sure what you mean,” he said.

“Of course you are! You are not the first man to be caught between two fires. Do you love Eurgain?”

“Yes.”

“Caradoc, if you want to marry Aricia I will be content. Eurgain’s father and I can work something out. You may have to pay her some cattle, and a bauble or two, but she would understand.”

“I know she would, but I do not want to marry Aricia!”

Cunobelin looked at him curiously. “Why not? I would, if I were younger.”

“Because I don’t want to go off to Brigantia.”

“That’s not the real reason, and you know it very well, but I suppose it will do. The chiefs of Brigantia are fierce men, Caradoc, and rough. They can fight. They would certainly not welcome a foreign ruler. But think…” he went on slyly. “Think what it would mean for us. Brigantia ruled by a Catuvellaunian warrior.” They met each other’s eye and burst out laughing. “You know, Caradoc,” Cunobelin went on quietly, leaning close to Caradoc’s face, “I once considered making war on Aricia’s father, taking his head. Brigantia is very large: all our people, and the Trinovantes too, could fit within it twice over. Did you know that? Aricia is heir to a vast, unkempt, poverty-stricken kingdom, which nevertheless has some of the best warriors anywhere. But I decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble. The Coritani lie between us and Brigantia, and they would have had to have been trodden down first, and somehow I did not think that Augustus, or Tiberius, would like that.” The flames of the new fire danced across his seamed face. “No,” he said, leaning back again. “Aricia has been an admirable hostage. Brigantia has minded its own business as I knew it would, and so have I. Do not be too hard in your judgment of her, my son. It will not be easy for her to leave her pleasant life here and go home to try to control a horde of tough wildmen.”

Aricia’s sojourn among the Catuvellauni had had two aims. Her father had sent her to absorb a way of life proper to the daughter of a chieftain. Many young nobility had passed in and out of Camulodunon, where power and luxury were greatest. It was the custom, but Cunobelin had begun to wonder lately whether perhaps in Aricia’s case it had been a mistake. The spirit of childish willfulness that had won his approval had grown with her, and as she matured it was becoming an obstinate selfishness. She was too easily lured by the blandishments of luxury around her, and of course, by spoiling her outrageously he had contributed to her blithe presumption that every pleasure, good or bad, was due her. She had also been sent as a hostage, in the days when Cunobelin and her father were treatying with each other. One of Cunobelin’s sons had gone to Brigantia in exchange, but the distance between the two tribes and the ever present threat of Roman intervention had caused Cunobelin to discard one of his many tortuous ambitions. His son had died in Brigantia and Aricia had become his pet.

“Caradoc,” he said, “marry them both, and keep Aricia here. Then her father will make war on us, Tiberius will champion me as the undoubtedly innocent party, and there—we have a foothold in Brigantia!”

Caradoc smiled wryly. “What about the Coritani?”

Cunobelin yawned prodigiously, scratched his head, then smiled slowly into Caradoc’s brown eyes. “I have been considering them lately. Yes, I have. Do you know what they own, Caradoc? Salt! Plenty of lovely salt. I think a few raids into their southern flank would not go amiss, and then perhaps a little war, if Tiberius does not send an objection to the raids. He may even approve. Salt for trade!”

Caradoc cut in. “Father,” he said delicately, feeling the quicksand under his words, “just how closely are you tied to Tiberius?” He could not ask what he wanted to—is Tiberius Ricon of the Catuvellauni?

Cunobelin stared past him for a long time, breathing lightly, and the clanking of pots and the echoing of the slaves’ voices as they began to prepare the evening meal wafted toward them. The Hall was more crowded now. People hung about the fire to exchange the news of the day, and the rain had begun, drumming on the wooden walls in monotonous rhythm.

At last Cunobelin stirred. “All my life I have walked a narrow bridge,” he said quietly. “On the one side is the dyke of my dreams, full of battle and conquest, a kingdom for the Catuvellauni stretching in uniform length from the wild lands of the north to the uncouth mines of the western peninsula. All men using my coins, Caradoc, all freemen raising their cattle and crops for me and my tuath. Think of it! I think of it constantly, but now my days are coming to an end. The goddess and I grow wrinkled and feeble together, and the chiefs whisper of my ritual death and of the goddess becoming young and strong again. But not for me the drowning cauldron of Bel, the fire of Taran!” His eyes burned and his lips drew back from yellowed teeth. “Not yet!” He slumped a little. “On the other side of the bridge is the gaping throat of Rome, her imperial tentacles reaching for me like the cold bodies of a thousand snakes, but I walk free and alone, between the two, for I am Cunobelin, Ricon, and neither Rome nor my fading dreams shall take me. What would you do, my son?” he said gently.

Rome had tried to force a foothold in Albion, and Rome had failed. The traders flooded the lowlands because the Catuvellauni allowed them to do so, and Caradoc thought privately that his father was indeed growing old, and soft, and full of groundless fears. “I would move against the Iceni, Father, and then the Coritani, and then Verica, huddling by the ocean, and the Durotriges and the Dobunni, what is left of them, and I would not stop until my name was feared from one end of the earth to the other.”

Cunobelin watched the handsome face, the glowing eyes, and a warm pool of paternal pride spread within him. “Would you indeed! So would Tog. But Adminius…ah, there’s a deep one, my oldest child. Adminius would go to Rome and see the city of his dreams. He would talk with the emperor, and come back with a thousand togas and a thousand thousand new ideas. Well, Caradoc, the chiefs will have to make the final decision. It will be far from easy for them. Three sons!” He began to laugh, struggling to his feet while about them curled the aroma of boiling pig and roasting steer. Caradoc stood, too, and his father slapped him on the back. “I will announce your betrothal to the Council,” he said. “There will be no objections—at least, not among the chiefs. Poor Aricia.”

Caradoc was flicked on the raw. “If you feel so sorry for her, marry her yourself!” he snapped, tugging his cloak around him with irate pettishness, and left the Hall.

Chapter Three

I
N
the spring, when the frail white snowdrops and shiny yellow celandines carpeted the meadows, and the woods were a riot of fresh green leaves and drunken bird song, an embassy arrived from Brigantia, to take Aricia away. The winter had been mild, with days of wind and rain, gray skies and brooding, clinging mists, but few frosts, and spring had come early. Caradoc’s betrothal to Eurgain had been announced to the Council and no voice had been raised in objection. Indeed, everyone had got drunk and sung the night away, and Aricia had withdrawn proudly into herself. Caradoc had hoped that with his new relationship to Eurgain the old, heat-seared helplessness of his lust for Aricia would be mitigated, but he found to his shame and dismay that if anything it had intensified. Aricia avoided him, and he saw no more of her than her cloaked shadow fleeing around a corner in the mist, or her shrouded, tall figure gliding from the Great Hall. His days were full of the tension created by her deliberate absence, and he found his daydreams wrapping all too easily around her. He knew very well that she was not the woman for him, and he, bewildered, did his best to struggle free, but the mindless rivers of desire flowed on within him, in a place where he could not reach, even as she had said, and Eurgain watched his pitiful attempts to extricate himself with a great, omnipresent pain. She loved him, she had always loved him, and she was prepared to lay aside her pride enough to marry him, although in the evenings, when he was full of wine, her name came hard to his lips. Aricia would go, and Eurgain waited with grim patience.

Togodumnus had spent the winter months licking his wounds. The fight with Cinnamus had not shaken him, but his father’s reaction to it had, and his chiefs had told him politely but firmly that though they were his to command they were not his peasants and they could change allegiance if they chose. He coldly reviewed his honor-price and came to the conclusion that it was high enough. He stole no more cattle from the members of the tuath, but he, Caradoc, and Adminius went raiding in Coritani territory twice before the sticky brown buds on the trees burst forth, and the Coritani, with outraged affront, began to throw up huge earthworks just within their border. Cunobelin was satisfied. “It is a beginning,” he said. “We must move slowly.” And then the calving began, and the sowing, and men’s spirits rose and spread wide like the carpeting of bluebells that were flung down with a prodigal hand by the god of the woods.

On a soft day, when the river ran warm and green and the sun dimpled upon its breast, six men drew rein outside the far gate. Their tunics were soiled and wrinkled. Brooches and bracelets of curious, tormented design adorned them, and their bronze torcs were almost hidden under matted beards that gave their dark faces a wild, graceless look. The cloaks that lay slung across their horses’ backs were scarlet, fringed in blue tassels, and each man had a bronze shield across his shoulder. Their eyes burned under high, tanned foreheads, flicking sharply over the river, the trees beyond, the gate, and the cool shadow of the outer earthwall restlessly seeking. The tallest man strode forward to greet the gateguard, who had come hurrying, his sword drawn.

“Good morning to you, Catuvellaunian,” the man said, his voice deep but ragged with weariness. “Put up your sword, we come in peace. Send to your master. Tell him that Venutius chieftain of Brigantia is here, and then bring us food and beer, for we are tired and thirsty.”

The gateguard gave them all a quick, disapproving glance and beckoned them into the dimness of his little gatehouse. They followed slowly, chafed and stiff from long days of riding, and uneasily they sank cross-legged to the dirt floor while the gateguard set meat and bread before them, and dark brown, strong mead. He left them reluctantly to send a servant riding the six miles to Camulodunon and then to see to their horses himself. He approached the beasts warily, wild animals these, skittish and jumpy, decked out in more of the flamboyant, foreign bronze whose contorted faces of unknown gods leered at him. He cursed softly as the horses backed away from him, their harnesses trailing and their ears flat to their heads, but one of the men called a word of command from the shadow of the gatehouse and they stood still immediately. The gateguard led them to the stable, calling his servant for help, while the men within drained their mead silently, their eyes still probing cautiously. They began eating when the gateguard returned, wolfing the food without apology, then settled their backs to the wall, their legs stretched out before them and their hands on their sword hilts. They still did not speak. After a while they seemed to doze, but when the gateguard rose to go outside he found himself transfixed by six pairs of unblinking eyes trained on him in unbroken hostility and he sat down again, trying to decide how long it would be before a message would come and he could be rid of his unwelcome guests.

At last, after two silent hours, the sound of hoofs was heard, and then the jingle of harness and men’s voices. Venutius and his Brigantians came fully alert and rose quietly. They left the stuffy gloom of the gatehouse and went blinking into the sun, and the gateguard reached for his beer with vast relief. Caradoc and Cinnamus had dismounted, but their chieftain escort remained seated on the broad backs of their horses, their hands surreptitiously sliding to the hilts of the swords they had hidden under the folds of their cloaks. Caradoc and Cinnamus advanced and saluted.

“Welcome to Camulodunon, chieftains of Brigantia,” Caradoc said, looking at them with candid interest. “May your stay here be one of rest and peace.” Although Caradoc was tall, Venutius was a full head above him, and Caradoc found his wrist taken in a viselike grip. He resisted slightly, out of pride, and Venutius smiled slowly at him, his white teeth appearing amidst the tangle of red beard.

“I thank you for your greeting,” he said, and they dropped their hands. “I am Venutius, my lord’s right-hand man, and these are my kinsmen.”

Caradoc greeted them all with affability, conscious of their latent power, a raw, almost wild undercurrent of brute strength and clean animal cunning. He knew that Cinnamus was eyeing the weird, repellent designs on the shields and brooches with the same fascinated stare.

“And I am Caradoc ap Cunobelin,” he said finally, turning to see the Brigantians’ horses being led from the door of the stable. “My father waits for you with eagerness, and even now a calf is being slaughtered in your honor.” The niceties of greeting were thus dispensed with and the mounted Catuvellaunian chiefs relaxed, their sword hands sliding to their harnesses once more. Caradoc, Cinnamus, Venutius, and his men swung onto their horses and the cavalcade set off up the winding track in the direction of the town. After a while Camulodunon appeared as a smudge of black smoke and a vague gray hump on the horizon, but it was still quite a ways off.

Caradoc and Cinnamus talked a little as they rode, to put these strange men at their ease, but their efforts went unrewarded. The Brigantians said nothing, watching with hard eyes the slow unfurling of this peaceful, green countryside, and Caradoc knew that when the embassy returned home the Brigantian ricon would receive a full report on the Roman-loving Catuvellauni—the numbers of their cattle, how many fields were tilled, how many traders had been passed and greeted on the road, how great the forests were. Caradoc did not mind. The chieftains would also see the rings of massive earthwalls encircling the town, the might of the huge gate, the depth and danger of the dyke. Let them look, and be amazed. Yet they did not seem amazed. Venutius pointed out a peasant and his wife, who were sowing in bare feet, their tunics tucked in their leather belts, and he made some comment in an undertone to his kinsmen that produced a series of dry chuckles. But other than that the ride was an uncomfortably silent one. Caradoc and Cinnamus caught each other’s eye and smiled sympathetically, thinking of Cunobelin’s reaction, but Caradoc thought also of Aricia, and the smile left his face. So she was to go. He had dreaded and longed for this day, but now that it was here he could think only of Aricia’s own fear, and the miles between Camulodunon and Brigantia that she would have to ride with these unpredictable freemen-chiefs for company.

They dismounted again at last, and the gateguards saluted and waved them through. The afternoon had begun and the sun, now shining full and filtering through drifting wisps of lazy cloud, made them sweat as they waited for the stable servants to lead their beasts away. Then Caradoc gestured to Venutius and they walked up the slope together, past the stables and kennels, past the craftsmen’s shops, up past the disorderly, dirty sprawl of freemen-commoners’ huts where women sat on their skins and gossiped, to the wooden huts and neat paths of the nobles’ and chieftains’ circle. The shrine of Camulos was open, and as he passed Venutius cast a swift glance inside. The three-faced god squatted in the close darkness, ugly and menacing, and Venutius barely restrained himself from spitting as he strode by. Roman-lovers! he thought. Even their gods were enclosed in dark shrines, like the gods of Rome. He wanted nothing more than to take the lady and be gone.

Caradoc halted before the doors of the Great Hall, where Cunobelin stood with his chiefs ranked beside him, his arms folded and glittering with bronze bracelets, his gray hair plaited on his breast, his eyes half-closed against the sunlight. Venutius stepped to him and saluted, and Cunobelin smiled, offering his arm for the other’s clasp, noting Caradoc’s tense face. So the sheepherders of Brigantia had discomfited him! So much the better. Let him watch and learn. He snapped his fingers, and his chiefs parted.

‘’Welcome to Camulodunon, son of Brigantia.”

“Your hospitality is boundless, Cunobelin, Ricon,” Venutius replied, his voice a deep, rolling rumble that made Cunobelin’s own sound high and thin. “We are tired. We have ridden with haste, for our lord is dying, and wants his daughter home.” A murmur sighed through the crowd.

“I have had word of your coming,” Cunobelin said smoothly. Caradoc looked at him with astonishment. It was possible, of course, for his father kept a keen eye on the borderlands, but if it were true he had not said a word to anyone. Cunobelin turned. “Enter now and give me your news. You can bathe and rest, and we will feast. Afterwards you can repeat your business to the Council.”

“Ricon, much as we would like to while away the hours in pleasantries, we have great haste,” Venutius replied quietly, but coolly. “Send for the lady, I ask you, and have her traveling wain prepared. Her father’s strength fails and we dare not linger.”

Cunobelin turned back, astounded, and some of the chiefs whispered angrily. To refuse hospitality was the height of rudeness, but what else could they expect from such wild northmen? “But you will surely eat the calf that has been slain for you, and change your clothing? Besides, it will not be easy for Aricia to pack her belongings. She has been here very long and has many precious possessions.” None missed the hint of reproof that bordered on a cool statement of Catuvellaunian superiority, but though Venutius’s jaw tightened, he answered Cunobelin with the same indifferent calm.

“Cunobelin, we must indeed wash and change and eat,” he said slowly. ‘’However, may the feasting be swift and the Council dumb, for whether we will it or no, we must be gone before tomorrow’s dawn.”

Iron lay under the words, and Cunobelin’s men gathered into a belligerent knot, scowling openly at the strangers, but Cunobelin finally smiled again in perfect understanding. None of them, not Venutius and his chiefs nor Cunobelin and his band, cared when death came to Aricia’s father. They were speaking not with their words but with their wills, and the game was as old as the tribes themselves. Cunobelin loved it. He played it with consummate skill and knew how to reduce an opponent to a faltering child without saying one harsh word. But these Brigantians did not enter into his machinations, not yet, and today he did not want to play, so instead of opening the next move, he shrugged, bowed, and led the way inside, leaving his back to the foreign swords. Venutius followed, his back exposed to the Catuvellaunian chiefs, and Caradoc watched the little ritual and wanted to laugh. The older his father became, the more these little games amused him. Caradoc put a hand on Cinnamus’s shoulder.

“Go and find Aricia, and tell her that the time is here,” he said. His voice shook and the green eyes rested on him in understanding before Cinnamus turned away. Caradoc fought a desire to run to his house and seal the door, but he walked slowly after the Brigantian chiefs and into the smell of stale pork drippings and woodsmoke.

Cinnamus found Aricia outside the gate, a few paces in under the trees, picking bluebells. He stood quietly for a moment, watching her bend and straighten, her arms full of the rich blue flowers. He felt no pity for her. She was a foreigner, beautiful, yes, with a veneer of Catuvellaunian culture, yes, but ultimately she did not belong to his tuath. Besides, she was nothing but trouble and she knew it. Caradoc was moody and sharp-tongued because of her, and even Togodumnus had been looking after her lately, an odd, reflective light in his eyes. Such a one could bring dissent and even murder to a ruling house, could weaken the unity and strength of the tribe. He saw more in her than either Caradoc or Togodumnus. He saw a plotting, cold mind behind the lustrous eyes, a dangerous lack of human affection, and he did not like her. He was glad that she was going.

He took a step and she stiffened and whirled, her fingers seeking the knife that was always at her belt, the blooms falling in a damp shower over her feet.

“Cinnamus! You startled me. What do you want?” She did not care for the blond, green-eyed young man. He was so quietly sure of himself though his clothes were threadbare and his ornaments few, and she was annoyed she could never meet his eyes. She bent and began to gather up the flowers.

“Forgive me for frightening you, Lady, but Cunobelin has sent for you and you must go at once. Your kinsmen are here.”

Puzzlement clouded her eyes, but as he continued to stand there politely, looking past her to the cool depths of the wood, she straightened and pink flushed her cheeks and receded, leaving her deathly pale.

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