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Authors: Pauline Gedge

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“My kinsmen, Ironhand?”

He saw the tremor shudder through the long, delicate fingers, and one by one the blooms began to fall again, already wilting. She leaned suddenly against a tree trunk, feeling weak, breathing in shallow spurts, trying to regain some control of herself, then with a savage movement, flung the remaining flowers behind her and walked to him, the skin of her face stretched tight over the fine bones, her eyes hollows of dark misery. “Lead on, then,” she said, her voice high, and he turned and threaded his way back to the path and the open gate beyond.

She paced behind him, saying nothing, and together they wound their way up through the town to the Hall. Smoke spiraled from the roof, and already they could smell the roasting calf. They went in to find the Hall full of chiefs and idle, curious freemen, come to catch a glimpse of the north-men, and the conversation rose and fell around them as the wine cups were filled and emptied. Cinnamus turned aside, going to Sholto and Caelte who stood just inside the door, heads together, while others of Caradoc’s chiefs clustered nearby. Aricia walked on alone to where Cunobelin and Caradoc waited.

“They have come at last,” Cunobelin said gently as she came up and stood before them, her face a mask of stiff, emotionless control. “I sent them to the guest huts so that they could wash and change their clothes. We exchanged such news as we were able. Will you hear it?”

Her lips trembled and for the briefest moment her gaze rested on Caradoc, then wandered from his tanned face to roam the Hall, seeking an escape, seeking a reprieve. Togodumnus came over and thrust wine into her cold hands. She drank slowly and then nodded. Cunobelin put a heavy arm across her shoulders and urged her down onto the skins, and his sons followed, squatting easily before them. Behind, in the shadows, the groups of men broke up and came and ringed them, squatting or sitting cross-legged to hear what went on. It was their right, but Aricia hated them for it. She clasped her hands in her red lap and sat straight-backed. She saw Eurgain and Gladys come in, take wine, and stand together hesitantly by the door, and she looked away. But wherever she looked she saw only eagerness for news, a callous greed for something to hear, and her eyes found no rest. Cunobelin spoke again, but softly, so that only his sons and his chiefs caught the words.

“Your father is dying, Aricia, and you must go to him swiftly. Your Council awaits you in Brigantia, and your kingdom. You must go to your house and have your servants pack a wain.” The word was passed quickly to those in the rear, and whispering rose and then died away. Aricia answered him without moving.

“You are my father, old wolf, and this is my tuath. I will not go.”

“No daughter of mine would speak thus,” Cunobelin said sternly. “You have a duty to your people. You have no brothers, and Brigantia awaits your rule. Will you say that I have failed in my responsibility to you, that I return to your father a weak-kneed, spoiled brat?” Her eyes burned with unshed tears and she gulped the wine, knowing that he spoke harshly to help her bear what must come, but she felt a pang of resentment nonetheless. She shook back her hair and faced him.

“I know my duty, Cunobelin, but it is a hard one. Can I not be forgiven for wishing to lay it aside? I came here as a hostage but you brought me up as a daughter. Shall the parting of such kin be without pain? Do you feel nothing?”

He embraced her. “I know my loss,” he replied, “but I also know Brigantia’s gain and the gain of this tuath. Will there not be commerce between us, and Samain meetings, and good relations, now that my daughter goes to rule another kingdom?”

She laughed then, a sound without mirth. “Or shall I become what my kin want me to be, a wild hill-queen, loving no one and suspicious of all?” She rose. “I will go to pack, and meet these, my…my kinsmen.” She said the word with contempt and swept past them. Eurgain moved to speak to her but was brushed off deftly, and excited talk began again while the sun poured through the vents, mingling with the smoke and making pale puddles of light on the ash-strewn floor.

That evening, every chief and freeman in Camulodunon attended the feast, and the din and laughter were full of the heady undercurrents of diversion. The members of the royal family sat together with their bards and shield-bearers and Aricia sat with them, dressed deliberately in her best tunic, the one striped in red and yellow and embroidered with gold thread. The thin circlet on her forehead was of gold, as were her bracelets and anklets. She sat on her cloak, her tunic folding softly around her, and she felt the eyes of her strange kinsmen regarding her in speculation. She sensed suspicion in them, a vague, uneasy dislike. Well, let them hate her, she said to herself. She did not care. They would have to obey her, and they knew it.

She ate little and drank much, and her kinsmen, who disdained the Roman wine, quaffed their cheap local beer and watched her from their place beside Cunobelin and his chiefs. Cunobelin’s bard played and sang, but his words were drowned by the noise. Caradoc talked easily with Sholto and Cinnamus, conscious of a spreading contentment and a guilty relief. Togodumnus and Adminius quarreled and finally came to blows, but at Cunobelin’s word, retired sheepishly with black eyes and bloody noses, to drink some more and flirt with the women. Gladys and Eurgain sat together, both glittering in the dark light of the smoking torches, their attendants twittering beside them. Outside the wind blew, soft and wet, and now and then a gentle, warm rain fell. At length Cunobelin sent the slaves out and called for Council, and Venutius rose and told them all gruffly and quickly why he had come.

Aricia watched him carefully. He was handsome in an overpowering way. A physical strength emanated from the long, thick, breech-clad legs, the booming voice, the matted red hair, and his men hung on his words as though he were the most silver-tongued of bards, singing to them of victories to come. Yet he was young, scarcely older than Caradoc. She sipped her wine, relishing it with fatalism, knowing that she would drink no more of it for many a year to come, unless somehow she could turn her beer-drinking savages into Catuvellaunian freemen. When Venutius sat down, his sharp animal’s glance reaching her, she looked at him and then away to where Caradoc was fingering his tightly braided brown hair and listening intently to Tog’s whispers. Venutius was a challenge she would have to meet if she was to do with Brigantia what she would, but perhaps he would prove easier to tame than the sophisticated sons of Cunobelin. One of the chiefs was speaking now but not in dissent, and she knew that the smile on Cinnamus’s face had nothing to do with the effects of the wine. They are glad that I am going, she thought bitterly. All of them. Well then, I will also go gladly. She smiled at Venutius and he smiled back slowly, warily, and looked away. Perhaps she was not as Roman as she looked, his new queen.

In the predawn mist, when the dew lay heavy on the ground and the trees reared like ghostly warriors beyond the gate, Cunobelin, Caradoc, Togodumnus, and the others gathered to share the cup of parting with Aricia and her chieftains. Two wains stood ready, moisture beading on the manes and flanks of the ponies yoked and waiting to draw them, the rich tunics and cloaks, the fine jewels and drinking cups, the beaded curtains covered with hessian to protect them from the morning’s dampness. Aricia stood by her horse, her hood thrown back, her eyes shadowed with stress and weariness, and Venutius stood by her, already possessive.

Cunobelin’s shield-bearer brought her the cup, bowing slightly, and she took it and sipped, then handed it back, and he passed it to the others, who were huddling in their long cloaks. When all had finished he took it away and Cunobelin stepped forward and held her to him. For the last time she rested within the circle of his strong arms and looked into his wrinkled, sly face. “Go in safety, walk in peace,” he said. Then Caradoc stepped to her and kissed her cold cheek. “Forgive me,” he whispered into her wet hair, but she did not respond. Adminius came to hug her next and she still stood like a stone sentinel, but Tog sought her mouth and muttered something in her ear and it brought a fleeting smile to her stiff lips. Eurgain enveloped her in warm arms and perfume, and suddenly Aricia found herself melting. The two girls clung together, and Aricia whispered, “Take care of him, Eurgain. He needs you more than me.” Gladys strode up and kissed her, pressing something warm and smooth into her palm. “A talisman,” she said, and Aricia opened her hand and looked down. It was a tiny piece of driftwood that seemed to writhe on her skin, four snakes intertwining. The wood had been oiled and polished and a pin set in it so that it could be worn on a tunic or used to fasten a cloak. As Aricia stood gazing at it, Gladys’s strange comfort brought tears to her eyes at last and she mounted quickly, and, after settling her cloak around her, drew up her hood and nodded to Venutius.

No one called farewell or waved, and she disappeared quickly into the mist. The wains rumbled after her, and Cunobelin turned abruptly to the gate, Gladys and Eurgain going with him.

Togodumnus turned to Caradoc and smiled. “What will be her fate, I wonder?” he said lightly. “Shall we make war on her in years to come, do you think?”

A hole that will not be filled…Caradoc thought with a pang of deep regret, and then her face was before him, the gold-flecked eyes wide and the arms rising to encircle him. He blinked and smiled back at his brother. “Who knows?” he answered carefully, but he felt the thread that bound him to her lengthening, stretching, growing taut around him with no sign of a break. He did not think that he had seen the last of her.

A week after Aricia’s departure, on a breezy, sunny morning, full of the delicate odor of yellow gorse flowers, Caradoc and Eurgain shared the cup of marriage. The wedding was on the grassy lawn that swept from the earthwall of Camulodunon to become grazing meadow and the short spears of young crops. Eurgain wore a silver circlet on her brow, and her dark golden hair fell loose about the blue folds of her tasseled tunic. Caradoc was arrayed in scarlet. He stood tall and proud while the wine in the cup sparkled red and the gathered chiefs and freemen waited to cheer and sing when the words that would bind the two of them together were pronounced.

He had chosen his wedding gifts with great care. A necklace of blue glass beads from Egypt, a bolt of silk from the island of Cos that shimmered rainbow colors when Eurgain took it up wonderingly and ran it through her fingers, a pair of hunting dogs, and two drinking cups of the purest silver, shipped especially, straight from Rome.

Her dowry had been the greatest ever brought to a warrior of the tuath—two hundred cattle—and as Caradoc took her hand and kissed her soft lips and the uproar broke out around them, he felt Togodumnus’s grinning, wry face by his elbow. Now Caradoc had the highest honor-price of any of his kin. He chose gifts for his chiefs also, careful to offend none of them, but for Cinnamus he had fifty breeding cattle and a new cloak. Cinnamus had protested hotly, talking of the shame of patronage, but Caradoc pointed out to him that he was merely buying future loyalty, and Cinnamus, after weighing the words in cool silence, finally nodded and accepted the magnificent gift, knowing that he would eventually earn it in Caradoc’s train.

Cunobelin had presented the couple with the largest house in the town. It had two rooms, two hearths, and twice the work to keep clean, as Fearachar had pointed out under his breath. Eurgain had spent a happy day hanging her lamps and arranging her belongings, and she had persuaded Fearachar to open a window for her, low down. The view was not as sweeping as the one from her own house, but she. knew she would have little time for star-gazing. She was sorry, but her house soon acquired the brooding, peaceful aura she carried with her everywhere, and her inarticulate longing for the silence of the far-off hills was turning now to Caradoc, her love. The Feast of Beltine was coming, fertility burst forth wherever she looked, and the sun was warm on her face as she turned and smiled at him shyly, putting out a hesitant hand to touch the waving dark hair that framed his brown face. He was hers. Aricia was gone. He would come to love her in time, but if not, it did not matter. He would need her, and with that she would be content.

Chapter Four

V
ENUTIUS
struck out west when they had left behind the bulk of Camulodunon and the knot of silent, shrouded people. He set a brisk pace, and Aricia rode beside him, her throat tight with pain and her hand still curled around the magic serpents. With no more sound than the soft footfalls of their beasts and the occasional jingle of bronze harnesses, they passed like wraiths under the fog-hung trees. They followed the same path that had often echoed to the shouts of the Royal War Band as it merrily hunted the wild boar, and Aricia resolutely shut her ears to those beckoning memories of days far off and gone forever. The straight stretch where the warriors practiced their chariot skill glided under her hanging feet, the ground began to rise slowly, and the trees thinned out. In a little over an hour the second gate was behind them, and Aricia turned once, seeing the shallow, slow-moving flow of the river, the forest, the gateguard motionless in the early morning light, the massive defenses soaring behind him. She looked ahead to where the track wound up to the crest of a rolling, grassy hill and disappeared over the top, and to where the way was lined with spreading oaks and the thin, willowy ashes whose little leaves tossed in the new wind.

“We must not take much time in reaching the border,” Venutius said. “A Druid waits for us there to see us safe through the land of the Coritani, but he has business elsewhere and will not stay overlong if we are delayed.” She said nothing, leaving his words unacknowledged, and, with a low call to the horses, they started up the path, the wains trundling in their wake.

They stopped once on a wind-raked hill that gave them breathtaking views of the land lying under them like a blanket, patched here there with dark forest, dyed with the bright green of young barley, oats, and wheat, embroidered with slow silver trace of rivers far away, and the blue haze of spring tinging the horizon under the midday sun. They ate quickly, sitting on the grass, and the men talked and laughed, their tongues loosed now that the all-insinuating reach of Cunobelin was a thing for tales and song. But Aricia was quiet, eating slowly, and her eyes traveled the wide sweep of the sky. She tried not to look ahead, telling herself that this was merely a trip, a short, pleasant spring jaunt to worship a goddess in the woods perhaps, and soon she would say goodbye to these unwanted companions and go home. It was a dangerous game to play, but it was the only way she knew to keep at bay the tides of homesickness and grief. Venutius sat beside her, passing her meat and cheese, and giving her strong beer from his goatskin bag.

He watched her out of the corners of his brown eyes, but they eventually mounted and rode on, and she still did not grace him with the smile that had warmed his blood in Cunobelin’s Hall.

At twilight of the third night, when dusk crept upon them from secret places among the trees, they crossed into the lands of the Coritani, riding beside deep pits in the earth, pools of darkness, and raw gashes in the ground where the people had taken soil for the new earthwalls that hemmed the riders in. But Aricia, tired, dirty, and cold, took no interest in the defences that had been thrown up against the Catuvellauni. A little way ahead a solitary light burned and Venutius called a halt, going forward quietly on foot to see what it was. The others sat motionless, Aricia drooping on her horse’s back, her eyes heavy and her hands curled stiffly about the reins. They listened to the stir and scuffle of the wild animals in the undergrowth and watched the blurred stars wink out.

Before too long Venutius came back, his approach as silent and stealthy as a slinking stoat. “It is the Druid,” he said, “and some of the chiefs of this people. The lady can rest here for the night, and there will be hot water for her in which to wash.” As if, thought Aricia dully, all I want, soft southerner that I am, is a bowl of hot water. Venutius, you are a fool. Her horse plodded dejectedly the last few paces and she slid wearily to the ground, throwing the reins to the servant who had come running. She walked into the hut, ducking her head and blinking in the brightness of the fire. A Druid sat there, warming his hands, and for a moment she thought it was Bran, but then he turned his head and greeted her amiably, and she saw that this man was much older, a swarthy, bearded man with twinkling eyes and bronze rings tied into his hair.

The Coritani chiefs rose and greeted her with the words of hospitality and she answered them automatically while her men stood behind her like dark shadows. These chiefs could barely hide their churlish disdain of her, the Catuvellaunian cub, and soon they bowed and went away and she sank onto the skins by the fire, letting her cloak slide from her shoulders.

“Set a watch over my wains,” she called to Venutius. “The Coritani are a thieving people.”

The white-clad figure on the other side of the fire chuckled. “They are no more rapacious than your foster tribe, Lady of Brigantia,” he said. “They are my own people, so watch your words. I am a noble of this tribe, and if you insult them I will vanish in the night and they will come and cut off your pretty head.” He was joking with her, but she was in no mood for jest and she stared into the heart of the fire. Well, let them come, then, and take her head, it would not matter to her.

The Druid rose and stretched, then cracked his knuckles until she winced. “I can see, Lady, that my jokes are out of season,” he remarked. “So I will go to my rest. A servant will come before long, with hot water, for which you will, of course, pay him—in Cunobelin’s coin, if you do not mind. Although the Coritani spit upon his name, they eagerly seek his money. A good night to you.” He went out, the doorskins swishing to behind him, and after a moment she tiptoed to the door and peered out.

“Do you need anything, Lady?” a voice spoke in her ear, and she withdrew hastily muttering, “no, no.” She went back to the fire, and sleep filled her head, driving out the hunger. At least she was well guarded. The servant appeared as she was dozing, propped against the wall, and she asked him for hot meat and warm wine, to be brought in half an hour. “That will cost you two bronze coins, Lady,” he answered promptly.

“I will pay you when you have delivered the things to me!” she snapped at him, and he smirked and went out. She shed the short male tunic and the loose breeches gratefully, tossing them on the floor and then washing herself thoroughly in the scalding water. Then, refreshed, she dressed in the clean clothes she had brought in a leather pouch, and loosened her hair, unbraiding it and combing it in long, slow strokes. The servant came, carrying a tray with hot beef, bread, last year’s apples, wrinkled and tiny, and a jug of cold, frothing mead. He put down the tray and bent to throw more wood on the fire.

“I asked for hot wine,” she said sharply. “Do not tell me that the Coritani drink no wine for I know that they do, and in abundance. Bring me wine!”

He straightened and looked at her insolently. “I have been told that the Brigantians drink only strong mead and barley beer,” he said. “Your pardon if I took you for one of them.” Before she could shriek at him he was gone, returning in a while with a drinking cup full of wine. He went to the fire, picked up the red-hot poker, and thrust it into the cup, and the wine sizzled and began to steam, its rich aroma filling the hut. She almost snatched it from him.

“Now go away. The hospitality of this tuath leaves much to be desired,” she said, flinging two coins at him. He caught them adroitly, bit them, and left grinning, and she sipped the hot wine thankfully, sinking to her cloak beside the crackling fire.

Early the next morning they were on the move again, riding northeast to find the coast. The Druid rode beside Venutius, talking gaily, and Aricia, her spirits renewed, rode behind then, listening and smiling at the give and take. The morning was overcast, and far away, flashes of lightning played about the gloomy marshes of the Iceni territory, but the air, although close and sticky, was not warm, and all the company wore their cloaks. At the end of the day Aricia could detect a new scent all around them—raw, bracing, the tangy smell of the ocean—and when they camped near a circle of rough stones that leaned together as if tired of the hundreds of years they had stood, she fancied she could hear it, the dull booming that made her think of silent, black-clad Gladys and the tall-masted ships of Rome. She took out the serpent brooch and lay holding it in the dark, and whether the talisman did indeed have some soothing power of its own, or whether she was becoming used to the ways of her new chiefs and felt less alone, she slept deeply and awoke with hope, to bird song and another gray morning.

They reached the ocean that day, and left all trees behind them. The country that opened out was barren, a place of rolling, grassy slopes, each folding into the other, on and on without end, a place where the wind never ceased to whisper of loneliness and quietude and of hawks and eagles, hanging, wings outspread, in the cloudy, wind-tormented sky. They drew rein on a cliff, and Aricia got down and walked to the edge, keeping her balance with difficulty as the gale sent her hair whipping behind her and her cloak wrapped itself tight around her knees. Below her, where black and gray rocks lay like the rotting teeth of the land itself, and the sand, wet and cold, hissed malevolently under the ocean’s torturing hands, lay the heaving water, swelling and receding sullenly while the gulls bobbed on the waves and flapped screaming over the beach. Black seaweed lay strewn here and there, shiny and thick, and, through her keen, flared nostrils, she could smell it, too, the scent of life itself. After several deep breaths she turned again, fighting her hair and her cloak, and mounted, and they picked their way back to the track that would run beside the sea until it veered inland, where the river of Brigantia spent itself.

Five days later, in the evening, they came to where the river spread out and mingled with the sea, to a place of marsh and long-legged, long-beaked birds who stepped delicately in the mud and probed for grubs with their sharp bills. The sun had almost gone, and pink shafts of light lay over the surrounding country like the drifting gossamer of spiders’ webs. The men were excited. Aricia could tell by the way they laughed more freely, their voices carrying far in the still, sweet air.

The Druid turned to her and reined in, bringing his horse to walk beside her. “Well, Lady,” he said, “tomorrow you will see your home.”

Already she had seen country she never knew existed, and a curious thrill went through her. She smiled at the man. “Long has it been since I left these parts,” she replied. “I was not yet six when my father took me to Cunobelin.”

“Have you any memories?”

She frowned, tunneling past the bright visions of yesterday to an older time. “I am not sure,” she said slowly. “Sometimes I think I can remember the odor of sheep, and a huge stone house as big as the Great Hall itself, but perhaps these are only dreams.”

“Perhaps.” He watched her closely but saw only cheeks colored by the evening breeze and eyes clearer than the stars. “Tell me, Lady, did the seer of the Catuvellauni tell the omens for you before you left Camulodunon?”

She glanced at him swiftly, shock in her face. “Why, no. The seer at Camulodunon has not been consulted for many a year.”

He sighed. “A pity. I should like to have known what he said about you, but of course the Romans do not encourage such practices.” He spoke without a sneer in his voice and she did not know how to answer him. The hustle and obscenities of the Roman traders seemed so far away here.

“I suppose you will be leaving us soon,” she said, and he nodded.

“We part at the border. I am traveling west, through Cornovii country and on to visit the Ordovices for a while.”

“Oh? Who are they?”

He gave her a look of pure amusement, and his eyes sparkled. “They are a very fierce and uncivilized tribe who inhabit a country of snowy mountains,” he said solemnly. “They have no chariots or horses, and they live in stone huts. I do not think you would like them very much.”

Just then Venutius called a halt by a little stream that emerged from the eaves of the wood, and they dismounted and began to make camp. Aricia sat by the river, watching the pink glow turn to gray and then to dusk, excitement reaching her too, carried on the brisk, happy voices of her chiefs and the wind that brought to her the hint of a vast high country waiting for her on the morrow. Soon that smell mingled with the odor of woodsmoke from their cooking fire and she went to join the circle of men who ringed it. One of the chiefs had caught a hare and they ate well, washing down their meat and bean gruel with icy river water. Then they reclined on their cloaks, telling stories, singing snatches of old fighting songs, and listening to the night noises beyond the friendly circle of the fire’s orange light. Aricia fell asleep contentedly on the ground, rolled in her cloak, her head pillowed on Venutius’s horse blanket.

Noon of the next day brought them to the border. A light drizzle was falling, not enough to soak them, but enough to make them fasten their cloaks tightly around their necks and draw up their hoods. Although Aricia could see no sign that Brigantia lay before her, the men drew their swords and flung them into the air, catching them by the hilts and swinging them around their heads. “Brigantia! Brigantia!” they shouted, and when Aricia looked about for the Druid she found that he had left them, had melted away somewhere into the trees.

It was said that the Druithin had no fear of wooded places, but Aricia shuddered, imagining him riding alone and unprotected under the hostile eyes of all the spirits there who had no love for humans and who lived only for Samain, when they could carry a person off, never to be seen by mortal eye again. Something else took her, too, a sudden fear and foreboding. She felt somehow that if she crossed the border of her land she would immediately change and become something alien even to herself. And though men would see and speak to Aricia, Queen, yet she would no longer be Aricia but some dark, evil thing that lived in Aricia’s body, which no one would ever know, not even herself. She shivered again, but the men had started to move and her horse followed them, crossing over some strange invisible line that marked the marches of Brigantia.

BOOK: The Eagle and the Raven
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