Sunday, March 30, 2008

Terminology in historical fiction

Well, I had made up my mind to post about something else, but this particular topic has been giving me some cause for head-scratching the last few days.

If you read this blog regularly, you'll know that I'm writing a series of novels set during the Roman invasions/occupations of Scotland. Since Scotland was never settled (ie. no set-plan towns or villa systems were ever established) and remained a military frontier zone throughout Rome's occupation of Britain, most of my Roman characters are involved with the army in some way. And if you pick up a book on the Roman army, you'll find it full of neat, specialist words and terms. I guess that if I ever manage to get my books written and - Mithras forbid - published, I suppose my target audience would be people who were interested in this particular period and place, and so might be familiar with a lot of these terms already. But what about my readers who aren't? How do I strike a balance to make the terminology user-friendly for anyone who might happen to read my books?

I could just use the Latin terms, and throw together a handy glossary at the end, but I know I would get annoyed if I had to break off from the story regularly to flick to the back of the book and look up unfamiliar words. I dislike books where the author overuses italicised Latin terms in order to make themselves look more knowledgeable. I mean, do you really need to call it a gladius when the word "sword" will do just fine? Unless, of course, you're making a comparison between Roman and Celtic swords, or something. And do you really need to call that cloak a sagum?

But I do think that economical use of proper terms can lend authenticity to a book. The question is: which ones are best left as they are, and which are better translated, however roughly? Writing is, after all, about communication, and frustrating the reader is hardly going to help you.

As a general rule, if there is a word which has a direct rendering in English - like legionary, auxiliary, centurion, or legate - I'll use that. Other words I translate for simplicity's sake. Take those terms for the roads and gates inside a Roman fort. "Main street" is a fairly loose but serviceable translation of via principalis, but the other roads were the via praetoria and the via decumana - which can't really be translated into English (okay, I suppose they can, but "praetorian street" and "street of the tenth" aren't very helpful, and, in the case of the latter, don't make much sense). The four gates of a fort were known as the porta praetoria, the porta decumana, and the porta principalis dextra/sinistra - literally, the "main gate right/left". Translations which don't really fit into English syntax. Since not all Roman forts faced the same way, I decided to use simple directional names - "west gate", "north gate", etc. - and refer to the via praetoria and the via decumana as the "north street" or the "south street" as appropriate. I figure the reader needs to know in which direction a character is going more than they do the proper Latin name for the road they're on.

And it's not just Latin terms. Since my Caledonian social structure is based roughly on the model given in early medieval Irish law texts, there are certain specific phrases used. But since most of my Caledonians are not Goidelic speakers, and because I'm writing a story, not a dissertation on Celtic society, I've used approximations. So I substitute fine for "family" or "kin-group", and tuath, which has more territorial connotations, for "clan". I treat the tribal units (Epidii, Caledones, etc.) as roughly approximate to the provinces of Ireland, which were made up of a number of tuatha.

They're tricky terms to approximate, but it works for my book.

Then there are those terms I've chosen to leave in the original. For example, if there isn't an English equivalent for a term of Roman army rank, in some cases I'll give a simple approximation - eg. "standard-bearer" for signifer - but mostly I tend to use the original Latin, as with optio or tesserarius. They don't lend themselves well to an English translation (optio literally means "choice" (ie., "chosen man"), and tesserarius means something along the lines of "man with a tile/tablet"), and I'm not too fond of trying to substitute in modern army terms, so I just leave them the way they are. I don't actually italicise them in the prose, simply because I think they would look a bit odd next to non-italicised legionaries and centurions.

Some terms I'm not too sure about, however. For instance, Firmus of the second book is a pilus prior centurion: the most senior in the cohort (my invention; the altars don't specify which rank of centurion he is). I'm still not sure whether I should refer to him as the pilus prior, or maybe use an approximate phrase like "senior centurion" or "first centurion". Bloody Roman army.

So, I know more or less which phrases I'm translating and which I'm leaving as they are. The new question is: how do I intergrate those foreign words into my book? I don't want the reader to have to stop and look up a glossary in the middle of a crucial scene, nor do I as a reader like an author halting the action in order to explain what a certain term means. The smoothest way to do it is through context, whether this be dialogue or demonstration. Remember the writer's golden rule: show, don't tell. This is especially true, in many cases, for historical fiction. After all, if my reader wanted to be educated on the Roman army, then they'd have picked up a non-fiction book on the Roman army in the first place. It also disrupts the PoV flow.

For example, in the first chapter of The Ancestor Crown, I introduce my Roman MC, Marcus, and his contubernium. A contubernium was a unit of eight men who shared the same barrack-room, or the same tent whilst on campaign. Counting now, I use the word seven times throughout the course of the chapter, but I never pause the story (such as it is) to explain, "oh yeah, this is what that means". By the end of the chapter, there's enough information and context for me to trust the reader to work it out: eight Roman soldiers sharing a barrack-room.

The same goes for the Old Irish word fidchell. With phrases like "fidchell board", "fidchell pieces" and characters sitting down to play fidchell, I think the reader can tell it's the name of a board game. Which is just as well, really, since we don't know much more than that!

On the other hand, the word "optio" has cropped up in my last two excerpts, and I'm not sure how successfully I've managed to get across what an optio is in them. I know that he is the centurion's second-in-command, but I'm not sure if the context fully gets that across.

Dialogue can also provide a context. For example, the Druidess Sargaid tends to refer to Gairea by the Gaelic ban-fhàidh, but most other characters use "seer", and Marcus also uses "sibyl", so the non-Gaelic speaker shouldn't have much trouble with meaning. Pronunciation is another matter! ;)

I'm not really sure how to sum this up; I was just trying to sort out my thoughts. I suppose it comes down to balance. Too many foreign terms can become awkward and irritating, especially when the author feels the need to pause the action to explain their meaning, but a few well-placed ones can really enhance the atmosphere and authenticity of the story. It's a matter of working out what those are, and how I can slip them in so the readers barely notice.

And now I'd better go. I've got a book to write, and I need to find out why Gairea's brother Leathan has suddenly decided to start acting like a first-class mentula. ;)

Saturday, March 29, 2008

An award, and some hills and rain.

I've finally managed to get this post up, at long last.

I'd like to thank Gabriele for very kindly awarding me this. :) By accepting, it seems I also have to award it to ten more bloggers. Well, there aren't as many as ten blogs I read regularly - my online life, it seems, is about as deficient as my real one :P - but here are the ones I do, so here you go:

- Gabriele (yes, you're getting it again!)
- Crystal
- Sarah
- and Celedë.

But truthfully, all my friends and acquaintances on the Blogosphere deserve it. You know who you are. :)

Hope you're all having a good weekend so far. It's an afternoon for staying and doing nothing over here. My dad drove me out to Auchendavy farm a couple of hours ago so I could get a better idea of the lie of the land. Just the Campsie Hills - nothing very special - but it's nice to know exactly what my characters are looking at. Sadly, there's nothing to see, fort-wise, any more. No sign of Firmus, Eilwen, or Scaurus either - I think they were hiding from the rain that came on as soon as I got out of the car! ;) What a bleak, boring old posting the Antonine Wall must have been. God only knows what those Syrian archers along the road must have made of it!

Anyway, that's all I've got for now, but I might be back later. Something on the radio today gave me an idea for a post, but for now, have a good Saturday!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Excerpt: Medionemeton

I hope everyone had a happy Easter. I know I did (apart from the snow - wtf?). Won't be looking at chocolate again for months, I can tell you! :)

And now, here's another excerpt. I think I might start making this a regular fortnightly thing. I'll see how that goes. It's hard to find decent-sized snippets which form independent scenes and give some idea of character.

And it's mine. Well, the words are, at any rate.

Again, this excerpt is from the Antonine novel, and takes place in AD 162. Eilwen daughter of Igerna, a princess of the Taexali tribe, has been captured by bandits, along with her escort, on her way to marry King Giric of the Caledones. The bandits turn out to be Romano-British slave traders, who take them south. At the fort of Medionemeton on the Wall of Antoninus, Eilwen is purchased by the centurion Marcus Cocceius Firmus, who's looking for a secretary.

I'm not too sure about the description of Medionemeton in this one. At this point, Eilwen has never seen a Roman fort before, so the description is quite full. (Yeah, if you hadn't realised already, I like describing stuff. A lot.) I just wonder if it's maybe too much of an info-dump as to what the average Roman fort looks like. Please let me know what you think. About that, and about anything else you notice.

And because I like sharing this stuff:

- "Medionemeton" is another name from the Ravenna Cosmography. It's used here as the name for the fort at Auchendavy, purely because I like it. It's Celtic in origin, meaning "middle grove".

- Due to farming and the building of the Forth and Clyde Canal, the limits of Auchendavy can't be fully traced, though we do have some rough measurements. As far as I know, no internal buildings have actually been identified apart from the bathhouse, so I was given a little freedom in my portrayal of the interior. I decided to make it fairly standard, though. The modern road seems to bisect the fort along the line of the via principalis. From tombstone evidence recording non-combatants, a vicus might be presumed. There are some possible Roman features just to the west of the defences, so I decided to place the vicus there in the book.

So now, without further ado...


Cailtram’s cries were still echoing in her ears as she followed Firmus through the western gate. As soon as she passed into the fort, she instantly lost her bearings. It was like stepping into another world. The four turf ramparts corralled a hive of activity utterly different from Din Brenin, crammed with long timber barracks and workshops set on either side of a gravelled street which cut a straight line through the fort. As she trailed Firmus up the street, she was assailed by a kind of ambience she had never felt before: as stolid as the ramparts, as rigid as the lines of straight-edged buildings. Industrious and yet, at the same time, austere. Unlike the houses of the royal fort, the buildings of Medionemeton had been built strictly for serviceability, and so the only decoration to be seen was the coating of whitewash on the walls, and the occasional scrawl of graffiti. The air was thick with the smells of men and animals, of sweat and smoke, hot metal and manure, leather and meat; and, over the clamour from the workshops, voices competed to be heard in a coarser form of Latin than Eilwen had been taught, rattling off orders and curses and small talk until the jumbled snatches of conversation became a dull roar against her hearing.

And all the voices were male. For the first time, she realised she had stepped into a world which was completely masculine. All around her were men wearing the red tunics and studded leather belts of legionaries, some in segmented cuirasses, others in mailshirts. Most of them pushed past her, bumping her shoulders, knocking her aside as unconcernedly as if she hadn’t been there at all, though they all stopped to show deference to the centurion.

There were no villagers inside the fort, and Eilwen was suddenly, acutely aware that she was the only woman in sight. That fact didn’t seem to have escaped the notice of the off-duty soldiers who loitered in the verandahs of the barrack-blocks. They watched her with interest as she passed; a couple shouted out lewd remarks until Firmus turned and sent them a look that made them wither. There was nothing Eilwen could do but gather what was left of her dignity around her and straighten her shoulders, masking her fear with careful aloofness.

It seemed an interminable journey along the street, until they reached a second one which branched away to the left, running up to the northern rampart, where another guard tower looked towards the hills. Below that, the great wooden gates were securely shut, shutting out the north.

Firmus was talking to the two guards who stood with their javelins crossed over an narrow archway leading away from the main street. Tearing her eyes away from the northern gate, she realised that the timber buildings had been replaced by a line of stone-built buildings whose whitewash could not disguise their military grimness. After a brief exchange, the guards stood aside to allow Firmus through the archway. Eilwen followed, avoiding their eyes.

On the other side of the gateway was a square courtyard hemmed in by a colonnade. There was a well in the centre, but that was all. Apparently Roman plainness was not restricted to the façades of buildings.

The centurion had turned, and was watching her look around. “I take it you’re not used to this sort of place?”

“Not really, no.”

“This is the headquarters building,” he told her. “You’ll be spending most of your time here, though I’ve made arrangements for you in the praetorium - that’s the building next to this one.

“Now, come, I’ll show you where you will be working.”

He strode across the courtyard, through the colonnade and into a wide chamber with a dais raised against a wall hung with notices written on wooden tablets. They looked like lists of names - rotas, perhaps - but there was no time to examine them as she was led to the back of the building, where a curtained doorway was guarded by two fully-armed legionaries. Eilwen had noticed the bored slump of their shoulders, but they instantly straightened when Firmus came near. He stared them down for a moment, and Eilwen sensed their discomfort before he said coldly, “Keep it like that, men.”

“Yes, sir,” they muttered, chastened.


“Centurion!” Both Firmus and Eilwen turned to see another soldier leaving the room next to the curtained door. Like the centurion, he was clad in a mailshirt, though the crest on his helmet was coloured black and white, and ran from front to back. He stopped in front of the centurion and saluted smartly. “Back already? What did you get? Oh - hello, who’s this, then?” He saw Eilwen, standing just a few paces away, and his gaze raked over her with undisguised appreciation. He met her eyes and grinned. She despised him at once.

“Put your eyes back in, Scaurus. This is the new clerk.”

Scaurus dutifully turned his attention back to Firmus. “How much did you pay for that one, sir?”

“Enough,” was the reply. Eilwen wanted to hit them both, but reined in her anger and clenched her fists at her sides. Likely, she would be dead before she could lay so much as a finger on either of them.

“Well, make sure you get your money’s worth, sir,” said the one called Scaurus. “I know I would.”

His tone reminded her of the innuendoes of Lossio and his lackeys, and of those soldiers outside. A chill went through her as she glanced at the centurion. He wanted her for her literacy, but what was to stop him dragging her to his bed if he so wished?

I will kill him, she thought wildly. If he touches me, I will kill him. She would not leave the fort alive if she did, but she had not been coerced to marry one man, only to be forced into the bed of another. She could compromise herself only so far.

"Thanks for the advice," came the dry response. "Now, what news have you got for me?"

Eilwen was forgotten in an instant as Scaurus replied, “Nothing. Completely vanished into thin air.”

Firmus exhaled. “I’ll have to send another message to the legate, then.”

“That you will. I don’t envy you that, sir, and no mistake.”

Eilwen listened silently, wondering what on earth they were talking about.

“Quite,” Firmus replied. “Well, I’d better get it over and done with. On your way, Scaurus. The watch is due to be changed soon; make sure Latinus’ lot are on the eastern tower. There’s been a cock-up with the rota.”

“What’s new?” asked Scaurus grimly. “Justus doesn’t have a damn clue what he’s doing. Thank the gods you’ve got the help in now, that’s all I can say, sir.”

“Yes.” Firmus nodded, glancing at her. “I’ll show her the office now.”

“And I’ll track down Latinus.”

“Yes. Dismissed, optio.”

“Sir.” Scaurus saluted, and strode away towards the exit, for which Eilwen was glad.

Firmus spared a moment to make sure the two guards were still standing to attention, then he gestured briskly to her and showed her to the next room down from the one out of which Scaurus had appeared, at the end of the building. He stopped outside.

“This here,” he said, “is the main regimental office. As my secretary, this where you’ll be spending most of your days. Understand?”

“Of course,” she replied tersely. “I am not stupid.”

He gave her a measured look. “I hope not. Now, before you actually pick up a stylus, I’m afraid there’s something I need you to do for me first.”

“And what’s that?”

By way of an answer, he swung open the door, and Eilwen looked inside in dismay. The room was plain enough, as was to be expected, with a desk pushed against the wall below the single window, and a three-legged brazier shoved into one corner. But in complete contrast to the starkness of the rest of the fort, this room was in disarray. The surface of the desk was hidden beneath a chaotic jumble of scrolls and tablets, some of which even littered the floor. The scroll rack looked as if it had been stacked by someone who had had only the slightest idea where everything was supposed to go before giving up entirely. There were even dark spatters across the flagstone floor where an inkpot had fallen.

“It’s a sty,” she exclaimed. “I’ve seen threshing floors more ordered than that!”

“Don’t hold back, please,” Firmus countered, with a bitter smile. “Your trader should have warned me of your tongue.”

The mention of Lossio made her temper flare, but she willed it into submission. She eyed the cane the centurion held under his arm. If she weren’t careful, she might find it used on her. She knew the reputations of these Roman officers.

They stared at each other, each taking the measure of the other. So far, Eilwen had avoided looking directly at this man who had been arrogant enough to buy her in a marketplace, trussed like an Imbolc ewe. He was about forty, she judged now, and wore his centurion’s crest as if it were natural for him. Indeed, he had the austere look of a man who had been born to the position, with a face full of stark contours, the line of his jaw roughened with stubble. Deep furrows shadowed a stern mouth. Beneath the rim of his helmet, his dark eyes were seamed at the edges with hard lines. They studied her thoroughly, and she had to will herself not to flinch.

Now, she thought. I must tell him now. If his was the main regimental office, then he must be the commanding officer of this fort, and thus her only hope of help. If she told him the truth now, she would be able to help Cailtram and the others before Lossio could leave Medionemeton. If she could make him believe her...

Then what? If she somehow managed to convince this officer of her true identity, what would happen to her? It was only then she truly realised who she was dealing with. Romans. Not warriors of the winterland, bound by oaths and codes of honour, but invaders who used whichever trick they could to further their aims. Was she simply putting herself in greater danger? It was unlikely she would simply be released. More likely that they would hold her for ransom.

And that was provided they would set her free at all. Nausea crawled up her throat. Dear gods, why hadn’t she thought of this before? Had she really allowed her panic to blind her so much? If this centurion believed she was the sister of one of the northern kings, it was far more likely that she would find herself being escorted south to Londinium in chains before this day was even out. Had she really misjudged so terribly? They wouldn’t release her; they would keep her as a hostage. They would use her as a weapon against Cinioch, use her to gain control of the Taexali. Romans never used brute force where they could use their version of diplomacy.

Oh, gods. What have I done? She had trapped herself, and she had doomed the others, too. She remembered Cailtram’s agony, Anis’ terror. In her panic, she had made slaves of them all.

Sickened, she made herself look at Firmus again. He was still appraising her, as if he hadn’t noticed her terror. It had not shown, then.

"Let’s see...” He looked down at the wooden tablet, her receipt of purchase. The thought made her feel ill. “Now, Eubia -”

“Eilwen,” she interrupted.


“My name is Eilwen,” she repeated. She didn’t care what Greek frivolity Lossio had written down on that tablet. She remembered the blank uniformity of the fort buildings, the men in the same garments. She would not become part of that. She may have lost her freedom, but she would not lose herself.

“Fine.” He shrugged. “Eilwen it is. Now, Eilwen,” he went on, businesslike, “I’ll need you to set to and get that sty tidied up as quickly as possible. Looks like I have a message to send to the legate today; I’ll be needing you to copy it for me.”

She had trapped herself, and no one but her was going to save her. It would take time, however, until she could think of a way to extricate herself from this predicament. Until then, there was nothing to do but raise her chin and reply in the most pleasant voice she could affect, “Yes, centurion.”

A slave she may be, but she would die before she ever called Marcus Cocceius Firmus “master”.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I has a trillojee. :)

I don't know if LOLCats actually have a picture for this. Shame.

I think I might just have a trilogy on my hands now. The third one ambushed me this morning.

What happened? Well, I was bewailing my lack of a decent Roman villain in either the Flavian or Antonine novels. Suffice to say, I'm writing novels in which the main storylines concern the Caledonians fighting Roman imperialism and all the nasties that implies. And all the properly villainous characters are... Caledonians. Not the usual situation, I grant you.

Agricola pretty much refused to be a baddie (at least until the seventh season), and since Emperor Domitian never actually appears, he doesn't really count. In other words, the Roman "villain" in The Ancestor Crown is the concept of imperialism, rather than an actual person. It's a different case to that of the Severan invasion, where we have Septimius Severus ordering an actual, recorded policy of genocide. Which would make Severus, and those two sons of his, rather suitable villains. The situation for the Caledonians would be more dire than that of the Flavian invasion. Instead of "We're all going to be enslaved!" it'd be, "We're all going to be slaughtered!" Good novel material there, I thought.

But I left it alone, and went back to mulling over my current two books; in particular, about how to tie up the Antonine novel. Now, if my MC Eilwen, a royal blood-carrier of the Taexali, does go on to marry Centurion Firmus, any children of theirs would theoretically have a claim on the throne of the Taexali through her. The scenario came to me then: a descendant of theirs (an older child or a grandchild) comes to Caledonia at the time of the Severan invasions, makes a successful bid for their birthright and ends up as a leader against Severus. Naturally, this character would be torn between their Caledonian and Roman blood, and leave room for much internal conflict. ;)

It's the bare bones of a story, right there. A continuation of both the stories of Roman-Caledonian warfare, and the family lines established in the first two books.

Then, in a moment of pure inspiration (er...), accompanied by comedy angelic singing, it hit me: what about the historical figure Argentocoxus? Like Calgacus, all we have of him is his name (and the fact that his wife had a chat with Empress Julia Domna about their sex lives), so this is the novelist's ideal opportunity! Maybe this hypothetical descendant of Eilwen and Firmus' goes on to become a Caledonian war-leader, and becomes known as Argentocoxus! Eureka! It all fits together.

And not only would it continue the overall plot, but also this tradition of funny phallic-sounding names! Cocceius Firmus, Argentocoxus... you get the idea... Lol!

I love the writing process. The only problem is... oh dear God not another one please not another one!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Shakespeare manga!

These have been kicking about our house for a while now, but since they're either in my sister's room or my mum's, it's hard to get a hold of them. What I have seen, however, I'm rather impressed with. There seems to be two series of them now, one the "Manga Shakespeare" published by Self Made Hero, and a "Manga Edition" series by Wiley.

Seriously, I wish we'd had something like this when I was at school. We were just given the books and made to read the plays out in class. It was bloody godawful. I was lucky because I'd read those Stories from Shakespeare-type books they publish for youngsters, so I knew a lot of the stories already, but most of my classmates didn't, and in English there was nothing worse than having to read aloud that (let's be honest) difficult language without having come across it before, and trying to get the gist of what was happening at the same time. These manga editions, however, give a visual of the setting and characters alongside very decent abridgements, which, I think, would be a good thing to have alongside the main text in a classroom. Both series include introductions and plot summaries, and the Manga Shakespeare versions also include a visual dramatis personae at the beginning of each, as well as a short section on the life of Shakespeare himself. The Manga Editions also separate the story into its Acts. They would definitely make good side-reading for pupils, and maybe even get the more reluctant readers interested. But most importantly, they emphasise that these stories are timeless, and that they were written to be enjoyed!

And, of course, the wide range of genres that manga incorporates means that just about any Shakespeare play can be adapted. Some of them have been given a modern setting, but others, like Richard III and Julius Caesar, have kept to the original.

They've got a range of titles available at the moment. The Manga Shakespeare line has Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Richard III, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The Manga Edition series, meanwhile, has Macbeth, another R&J and Hamlet, and Julius Caesar.

Of the ones I've looked at so far, I think the Manga Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet is among the best, and it's not even one of my favourite plays. The adaption is well done, and the artwork is lovely. I like the transition from 16th century(?) Verona to modern Tokyo, and the Capulets and Montagues being two rival yakuza families.
Shakespeare seems to transport very well to Japan. Akira Kurosawa's film Throne of Blood was an adaption of Macbeth set in the Warring States era of Japan, and that worked very well, too.

The Tempest and Midsummer Night's Dream also have gorgeous art which heighten the fantasy themes. The Macbeth adaption, naturally enough, looks like it would appeal, as a manga, to those who're into Trigun and Battle Royale and the like. I'm quite disappointed with the artwork in Hamlet, though. It's a bit plain and flat, and I don't think it really does justice to the overall atmosphere of the play. I think it might have benefited better from the dark, gothic style of artwork used for Richard III. I'm not actually that familiar with Richard III as a play - I know the story, vaguely, but never actually read it - but I think I'll read this version, on the strength of the art alone.

At the moment I'm reading Julius Caesar. As a manga it's fairly decent, and again, the play has been adapted well. What I like about this one is that it puts distinct faces to the conspirators; I remember when we read it in school I lost track a bit of the mention of two Brutuses (Marcus Junius and Decius), two Cimbers (Metellus and Publius, brothers), and the two Cinnas (one's a conspirator, the other is an innocent bystander who gets mistaken for the conspirator and is murdered by the mob).

It also made me realise we need some Roman manga. How about a version of The Twelve Caesars? I think that would work nicely. :)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Crappy "history" book

Warning: Prepare for a long, long rant. I would try to be more civil, but I’m too irritated.

My mum bought this a few months ago: Before Scotland, by Alistair Moffat. One of those “narrative histories”, about geographical Scotland before it became political Scotland. In the beginning, it’s actually rather good. Informative, even though there’s naturally a lot of conjecture, and entertaining.

Then we get to chapter seven: “Caledonia”. And not only does it stop being entertaining, but it is often inaccurate and, in some parts, totally invented.

In essence, the entire chapter is one long, righteously indignant rant. You know the sort of thing: the old chestnut about the poor, downtrodden Scots (or Caledonians, in this case) and their nasty invaders. Personally, I like my history books to take a step back from this sort of thing, but I wouldn’t even mind it so much, if it didn’t go on for pages before we even start getting into the actual history of the matter. Moffat might have raised some good points, but I’d already lost interest. We’re five pages into the chapter before we hit anything resembling “history”, in which time Moffat has given us a full rant about the nature of Roman atrocities, of which this is only a taster:

“...the Romans came to what is now Scotland, they saw, they burned, killed, stole and occasionally conquered, and then they left a tremendous mess behind them.”

Hell, yeah! To plunder, to slaughter, to rape, they give the lying name of “empire”, and where they make a desert they call it... oh, hang on a minute...

But that’s just it. Tacitus has already covered Moffat’s main bullet points, and far more eloquently. At least he didn’t kick off on a side-rant about how it’s a “national disgrace” that universities used to insist on a knowledge of Latin rather than Gaelic, which Moffat claims is “native to Scotland”. Given that Gaelic came later and replaced whatever was spoken before that, not only is the above statement wrong, but surely, according to tradition, Gaelic is as much the language of the invader as Latin is. But don’t let history get in the way of your patriotism, by no means. And if you want to promote an interest in Gaelic language and culture, a worthy enough cause, surely your energies would be better spent being out there promoting it.

Oh, and a word in your ear, Mr. Moffat, you don’t “decline” amo, amas, amat; you conjugate it.

But I’m a persevering sort, so I press on. Turns out the opening rant was the least of it...

“The Romans left us nothing of any enduring cultural value.”

Well, apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health...

Oh, you mean in Scotland? Well, why didn’t you say? Why that “us” in there? Am I to infer that this book is intended purely for Scottish people? That’s rather exclusionist, don’t you think? Not to mention we get the mention of the “slaughter of 10,000 of our ancestors at the battle at Mons Graupius”. Ten thousand of whose ancestors? Of Scottish people’s ancestors? Does that include all those people who have been born and raised in Scotland and consider themselves Scottish, who are of European, African, Asian, Chinese, etc. descent? Wow, I didn't realise Calgacus had such extensive contacts.

But let’s extricate ourselves from these sticky areas, and get onto the history part. Inaccuracies, inventions, and pure wishful thinking abound. History enthusiasts at this point may wish to light their flaming torches and get out their sporks.

First, and what should have made me put the book down right then and there, was the mention of Vespasian’s involvement in the original invasion of Britain “as a military tribune”. Wtf?! Vespasian was not a tribune in AD 43; he was the legate of the Second Legion. Hell, even Wikipedia got that one right.

We get a bit on Ptolemy’s tribal map, and for some inexplicable reason Moffat starts getting excited about the Caitt, the “Cat People” from where we get the names Caithness and Clan Chattan. He says, “The Cats may have fought the Romans at Mons Graupius...” Um... maybe... but if you’re going strictly by Ptolemy’s map, there are no Caitt included, and they don’t appear in writing until the Early Historic period, as a kingdom of the Picts.

Then we finally get onto Agricola and his earlier career in Britain, in particular his stint as a tribune during Boudica’s revolution. According to Moffat, “Nothing, however, could have prepared the young Agricola for what he and the XXth Legion saw when they reached the Menai Straits.”

Hold the phone. Where, in the Agricola, does it say that he was attached to the Twentieth Legion? Where does it say he was at Anglesey? There’s a mention of him being invited to share Suetonius’ tent, which implies he was campaigning with him (and makes me want to write Suetonius/Agricola slash, following on from my last post), but Tacitus never explicitly says that his father-in-law fought at Anglesey at the time of Suetonius’ attack. He did stage another attack during his own governorship, but that was almost twenty years later.

We’re then treated to a long description of the battle of Anglesey, which is largely irrelevant, seeing as this is supposed to be a book about Scottish history, but apparently we must never pass up a chance to describe in detail examples of Roman ebulness. Anyway, we get a wonderful description which is pretty much ripped straight out of the Annals, including “black-clad women... Like Furies...” Seriously, if you can’t think up your own similes, at least include quotation marks. Then we get the following: “Behind the warriors were Druids and their ghost fences, rows of skulls facing the legions across the water.” Say what? Where did the skulls come from? Archaeology? The Annals? No, didn’t think so. Stop trying to pass your own imaginings off as fact. This is a history book, not a work of historical fiction.

Well. Allegedly, anyway.

And because Moffat is the type of historian for whom everything must have ritual significance, we get delightful descriptions of the “sacrilege” carried out upon Eildon Hill North and Burnswark Hill. Them ’orrid Romans built forts and camps near these “sacred” hillforts. I agree with him that the Roman presence at Eildon was a very deliberate one, targeting a place which seems to have retained some sort of importance, religious or secular. But Burnswark? Moffat states that by the time the Romans got their grubby paws on it, “like Eildon Hill North it had probably become a fire-hill, used four times a year to mark the Celtic festivals”. Really? How fascinating. Where in the archaeology does it tell us this? And apparently, “Archaeologists believe... that missiles were first fired in anger at the Selgovae defending the long perimeter.” Actually, that theory has been abandoned for quite some time now, but we shall draw a veil over that. After all, a bitter siege makes a better story than legionaries using a mouldering old ruin for artillery practice.

But there’s a lot of this sort of thing. We get things which “probably” or “must have” happened without any decent proof. After the withdrawal from Newstead in c. AD 100, “the enmity between the Selgovae and their eastern neighbours almost certainly spilled over into something more incendiary.” Did it, indeed? What enmity is this, exactly?

And when we get to the Battle of Mons Graupius, Moffat just can’t resist comparing it to Culloden. The parallels are so obvious, didn’t you know? Seriously, I’d be very disappointed if Calgacus was anything like Bonnie Prince Charlie. I like to think the Swordsman actually knew what he was about. (Oh dear, I’m such a Campbell.)

So after Moffat has waxed lyrical on the clans at Culloden (Clan Chattan get another mention, of course), finally we get onto Mons Graupius. And here we get the romantic vision of the Celtic warriors of yore, all woad tattoos and carnyxes. Moffat asserts out of nowhere (though I should be used to this by now): “Some of the warriors in Calgacus’ army will have been drunk.”

Well, it was you who said they were “our” ancestors! Sorry, couldn’t resist. Hey, maybe that’s why they lost. Like the Gododdin. Hmm...

And, of course: “Tacitus does not mention naked warriors at Mons Graupius but it is very likely that there were some.”

Because God forbid we should dispense with old stereotypes now.

And so it goes on. Until we get to the end of Trajan’s reign (AD 117) when, according to Moffat, the Selgovae and the Novantae joined with the Brigantes in rebellion:“Between 115 and 120 warbands mustered, rode out of the Pennines and attacked and destroyed the legionary fortress at York.”

Nothing like this is mentioned in any of our historical sources: all we have is a token mention that by the time Hadrian became emperor, the Britons couldn’t be kept under Roman control. There’s certainly no suggestion anywhere that York was destroyed. This, however, does give Moffat the excuse to give the obligatory story of the “annihilated” Ninth Legion, despite the fact that the legend has pretty much been disproved, and despite the fact that earlier in the chapter he mentioned the legendary disappearance of the Ninth Hispana and the "likelihood that it never happened". But here he says, “it may be that remnants survived and that they were sent on to European postings”. In actual fact, it seems nowadays that the legion as a whole went over to Europe, switched with the Sixth Victrix. What's with the continuity glitch?

And so on. To tell the truth, that was when I finally gave up. If I want to read historical fiction, I’ll look in the fiction section of Waterstone’s for it. And if I want to read an historian with an axe to grind, who isn’t above spinning the odd tall tale, I’ll read Tacitus.

*sporkity spork spork*

Oh, and happy Ides of March to you all. Don't go to the Senate, and don't turn your back on your best friend. ;)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

This week's oddities

I got the results for my Latin test. A2! And for my Celtic essay, I got an A3. Since the question was especially horrible, I'm extremely chuffed! :D I'm still waiting for my marks for my Archaeology tutorial worksheet, but in general, I'm happy to say that my first two terms at uni have been rather a success! :D

Not that I'll be resting my brain much over the holidays. I've got a big Latin translation to do, another essay for Celtic, and one for Archaeology. Luckily, the folks in the Arch. department aren't looking for much over 1500 words, and the question I've chosen for Celtic is much less general than the last one (religious belief in Dark Age Britain, focusing on the writings of Adomnán). So it'll be mostly about that saint guy... I forget his name... :)

Oh, yeah, and here's an irritating little oddity I came across in the Department of Classics yesterday. My tutor hadn't shown up to unlock the room for our tutorial, so I hung around in the hallway, looking at the wall maps. One of said maps claimed to be of The Roman Empire in the Flavian Period. So why the hell were Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall marked on it?! Flavian period: AD 69 - 96; Hadrian's Wall was built in 122, the Antonine Wall, c. 140.

I think I should leave a post-it on the map next time I'm in the building.

Edit: And while we're on the subject of the Flavians, I was listening to Utada Hikaru, when up crops the lyric, Hitori demo tsuzukeru to kimeta mission. My baffled reaction was, "What was that about Domitian?"

Damn Flavians - they're taking over my head! Get 'em out, get 'em out!

Elsewhere, as I read the Life of Saint Columba again for this essay (all of it this time, not just the good bits :P), I came across the account of a priest called Findchan "who was greatly attached to Aed, in a carnal way".

...How the fricking hell did I miss that one? Dark Age cleric/warlord slash? Hellz yes! Thank you, Adomnán, for making my week! :)

Monday, March 10, 2008

Excerpt: Antonine novel, chapter 1

(gasps as she comes up for air)

S'cuse my non-presence, but it's been a busy time for me. I've got two essays coming up (to do over the Easter holidays :( ) and that involves a lot of reading. Also had a Latin test on Tuesday (the horror!) and I've got a sore back which came out of nowhere. Joy. But now I've managed to disentangle myself from that darned thing called real life, and I'm putting up - well, the title says it all, really. :) It's a full chapter, and thus a lot longer than I would have chosen for an excerpt, but it goes together as a whole, I think. This is that little snippet I quoted in that meme I did a few weeks ago, this time in context. I'm not very confident about my ability to write a decent battle scene, so I'd love any concrit anyone has to make.

First, some historical notes I think I should make:

- The date of withdrawal from the Antonine Wall remains controversial, and it's possible that some forts were occupied as outposts after the Wall had fallen into disuse as a frontier. After a lot of reading, I've decided to set the novel in AD 162 - 163.

- Marcus Cocceius Firmus (no, that's not a Roman porn name!) was a real person, and we know about him from the dedications he made at the fort of Auchendavy (see here). He was also the subject of a very interesting article by Eric Birley, who suggested, amongst other things, that Firmus was from the province of Lower Moesia on the Black Sea, and had been a member of the Emperor's Horse Guard before going on to become a legionary centurion. A soldier called Lucianus is attested on a tombstone at Auchendavy; Scaurus and Bassus are fictional names.

- For the most part, we don't have names for the Antonine forts like we do for the ones on Hadrian's Wall, so I've pinched names from Ptolemy's map and the Ravenna Cosmography (bah) of the seventh century. I've equated Ptolemy's Alauna/Alavna with the fort at Ardoch, which seems to have been occupied as an outpost during the Antonine period (c. AD 142 - 163). Pexa is a name from the Cosmography, and I've stolen it for the fort at Camelon - the "transit fort" of this chapter.

Anyway, enjoy (or don't)! And I'll be off to catch up on what I've missed the last week or so!

Edit: Contains violence, blood, etc. I know some people like to be warned about these things.


Chapter 1

AD 162

Marcus Cocceius Firmus was not a man who jumped at shadows. Of his forty years, twenty-one had been spent in military service, the last nine as a centurion of the Second Legion, manning the Wall of Antoninus, the frontier which was not only the most northerly in the Empire, but also the bitterest. Where the rain struck like a slaver’s flagellum and the winds howled down from the grim highlands like the shades of the uncounted Romans who had perished amongst those northern mountains. Where the natives could change their allegiances in a heartbeat and give a spear in the night where they had given grain the day before. In the four years Firmus had been stationed on the Wall, he had had plenty of time to get used to that. He had the medals, and the scars, to prove it. He trusted in his gods and in his sword, and countered the volatility of the frontier with his own strict discipline. If there was one thing he disapproved of, it was cowardice - in his men and, especially, in himself.

But this stretch of the northern highway made even the most hardened of frontiersmen baulk. It was a solitary ruin of a road, built by long-dead legionaries in those days when the Flavian emperors had deemed the wilds of Caledonia a worthy prize, its paving now uneven and its surface only sparsely metalled. Now it provided the only tenuous link between the Wall and the lonely outpost forts in the north, threading through hilly wildernesses and narrow valleys like the one Firmus and his century were now passing through.

Firmus’ hands tightened on the reins of his horse as the road approached the mouth of the glen, where the hills drew in sharply and the woods that cloaked their slopes crawled close to the roadside. Beyond that, the road twisted out of sight as it entered the pass. Not long now, he assured himself. Not even three miles until they reached the old monument that commemorated the building of the Wall, and then, finally, the Wall itself.

Good. It was a day’s march from the fort at Alauna and evening was already falling. The setting sun was a swathe of flame to the west, stretching the shadows. And then there was the hush which usually fell with the dusk in these lonely places, that silence against which the noise of the century on the march - the heavy stamp of iron-nailed boots, the clop of hooves, the rasp of armour plates and metalled belts - seemed uncomfortably loud. Over it, Firmus could not hear those subtle noises in the undergrowth that might betray a hidden foe. It was in these steep-sided glens that one had to be doubly on their guard, where a lone Roman patrol might be taken unawares, where the painted northmen had the advantage.

Marching next to the horse, Firmus’ optio, Lucius Villius Scaurus, cast a glance around and said in a low voice that only Firmus could hear, “Evil place, sir. I’ll be glad once we’ve cleared the hills.”

Silently, Firmus agreed. It did not matter how close they were to the Wall; they had never truly reached safety until the last man had passed into the transit fort and the gates had closed behind him.

Never taking his eyes from the road in front, he replied, “Nor I, Scaurus. Now, before the pass closes in, I want you to pull back and bring up the rear - at least until we reach the monument.”

“Sir.” Out the corner of his eye, he saw Scaurus salute, then take a step to the side to allow the rest of the century past.

Firmus scanned the road ahead, convinced that he had taken the correct precaution. The closer they drew to the wooded slope at the end of the valley, the heavier the stillness became. His horse was unusually restive, muscles tensed beneath him.

No, he realised, it was not just the dusk. It was not his soldier’s caution. The quiet was too dense. Too watchful. Too patient.

His hairs at his nape prickled in warning.

The first he knew of the attack was the spear - the high whine, the lash of air as it sliced past, barely a handspan in front of his face. His horse reared, screaming, and he pulled sharply on the reins, digging his legs into its flanks to avoid being thrown off. Still clinging with his left hand, he reached across with his right and wrested his sword from its scabbard. A war horn shrilled from the cover of the woods, in the same instant that a cry of “Picti!” went up from behind. Firmus turned his head, just in time to see a pack of blue-skinned wildmen burst, howling, from the trees.

The century descended into a commotion of shouts and curses as packs were thrown to one side, swords drawn and shields ripped from leather coverings as the men hastened to draw themselves into organisation. Spears whistled, followed by thuds and clatters and cries of pain. Another one missed Firmus by a hair’s breadth: he felt the wind rip through his helmet crest in its wake. Cursing, he swung himself from the saddle, snatching his shield from where it hung against the horse’s flank, and tossed the horse’s reins to the standard-bearer behind him.

“Here, Bassus, take these and get behind the line!” Without waiting for a response, he turned and shouted, “Shields together, men! Close the ranks - give them no opportunity to break through. Optio! Get those men into position!”

“Yes, sir!”

As the legionaries to the fore formed a tight wall of shields, staunch against the surge of Caledonians flooding down the slope, Firmus raced to take his place on the right flank, pushing stray soldiers into position where necessary, his heart pumping with the panic he couldn’t afford to show. Damn it all! Where had the wildmen all come from? There had to be at least sixty of them.

He had barely taken his place when there was a shout, and another volley of spears arced raggedly towards the Roman line.

“Raise shields!” he ordered.

The shields went up in a flash of scarlet and gold, a mere heartbeat before the missiles struck home. Firmus felt the thud of a barbed iron point into his own; with a quick movement, he brought it down, wrenched the weapon from the wood and launched it back into the screaming mob. At the same time, the swiftest of the Caledonians thundered into the Roman line. The air resounded with the clash of swords and shouts of men. Over the rim of his shield, Firmus saw the first tattoed warrior throw himself at him: a wall of woad-dyed muscle swinging a huge sword. The blade came down; Firmus reared back and felt the blow glance against his shield. In retaliation, he struck out with his left arm and rammed the boss of his shield into his assailant’s gut. With a scream, the man crumpled, and Firmus stabbed down, into his throat. Gurgling, the warrior slid out of sight, but through the spray of blood Firmus caught sight of another one coming at him, snarling at him in that gods-forsaken tongue.

The legionary beside him suddenly lurched forward with a cry, a spear rammed between two cuirass plates. His killer dived forward to meet the Roman pushing forward to meet him, sword slashing dangerously in the narrow space given. Firmus was forced to angle his shield away from his body to defend himself, and the warrior bearing down on him needed no more encouragement. With a shout of triumph, he raised his sword in both hands and cut downwards in a vicious arc. Unable to cover himself with his shield in time, Firmus could only brace himself and bring up his sword to parry. The blades met with a ringing clash. The blow came with such strength that Firmus felt the shock of it travel up his arm. A sweat broke out on his forehead, and, grimacing, he willed his muscles to hold.

The barbarian gave a bellow of frustration and swung his weapon again. Firmus had only a single breathless moment in which to stab out, forcing his opponent to leap back, out of the way of his sword point. But he had to time to be relieved: the warrior quickly gathered himself and leaped forward, face flushed and twisted with battle-rage, sword-arm raised to deliver another blow. There was no time even to contemplate the force of that blow; Firmus’ eyes caught the twitching of the muscles in the barbarian’s wrist in the heartbeat before the blade came down. Summoning his own strength, he stabbed out. He felt his sword go in, between the ribs, shattering bone. The Caledonian stopped short, face transforming from rage to disbelief. Firmus kicked the sagging body back, freeing his sword and loosing a spatter of blood. He was rewarded with a moment of disruption as the warriors behind sought to avoid their dying comrade.

But the respite was short-lived. Even as the warriors collected themselves and turned their attention back to the Romans, they were suddenly shoved aside by another striding through their midst with the gait of a man wading through a river, bellowing in a strident voice. His grey eyes suddenly caught sight of Firmus - of his centurion’s crest and medalled harness - and the battle-fury in his face gave way to something almost gleeful. Firmus, too, had time to note the gold torque around this one’s neck, the jewelled brooch pinning his cloak, the fine mail shirt, and the sleek sword in his hand.

“Ah! Centurio!” The man pronounced the Latin word as if it didn’t fit in his mouth, then, spewing something in the Caledonian tongue, came at him in a whirl of gleaming blade and flashing gold. Firmus, legs braced apart, the balls of his feet staunch on the ground, met his sword, and they collided in a screech of metal on metal. Firmus saw his assailant snarl at him over the crossed swords and his own lip curled in response. There was a moment where the blades simply strained against each other, unable to gain an advantage; then Firmus suddenly yielded, letting his sword drop before punching out with his shield. As his opponent reared back to avoid it, he thrust out, but the Caledonian shoved his silver-studded buckler in the sword’s path. Firmus spat out an oath, but was given no opportunity to follow up his strike as the barbarian’s sword struck at him again, with greater fury than ever, barely leaving him time to parry. Jupiter Greatest, but this one had the strength of a bull!

Their swords clashed again - and again - the Caledonian’s blows growing ever more furious as he tried, and failed, to force him to give way. Firmus was holding his ground - but only just; his breath was coming sharply now and sweat stung his eyes. With every clash, he could his sword-arm protesting.

No! He must hold fast. Where he had previously been aware of the ebb and flow of the fighting around him, the iron-smell of the blood, the curses and screams in each language, he brought his consciousness down to a single needle-point of concentration. On the warrior before him, and nothing else.

Jupiter... Mars... Apollo... he sent up a silent prayer with every blow... Hercules... Diana...

A spear came out of nowhere, burning a line of pain into his arm. He cried out; at the same time, the warrior with the torque suddenly changed the angle of his sword stroke, levelling it at his legs. He had no time to retaliate, could only stumble out the way of its path. But the momentum carried him further than he intended, separating him from his men. Separating him from the shield wall. In a moment, the space where he had been swarmed with barbarian warriors.

His attacker, grinning now, pressed forward to claim his victory.

“Centurion!” Out the corner of his eye, Firmus saw a flash of black and white crest as Scaurus fought his way towards him. “They’ve breached our front shields in two places; the ranks are in danger of disintegrating!”

Firmus deflected another blow from his Caledonian friend. “Then I will be there as soon as I can.” Another parry. “Return to your position” - and another - “and tell them I said to hold until then.”


In that instant, all of Firmus’ fear for his men, the reminder that they were depending on him, made him forget about his own anxiety. Time to end this ridiculous fight with this gaudy peacock.

Fired with a new determination, he feinted to the left. The Caledonian brought his shield down to ward off the sword, but Firmus saw his moment, seized it, and struck the shield away with the edge of his own. Before his opponent could grasp what had happened, he threw all his strengh into one thrust, and the point of his sword plunged into the fellow’s gut. The warrior let loose an unearthly scream, and Firmus stabbed again, this time in the groin. Blood soaked his arms as he pulled his weapon free and got out of the way of that huge body as it fell, face-down against the broken paving stones.

The warriors who had paused to watch their leader battling the Roman centurion were now thrown into a panic. In the confusion, Firmus dispatched one of them cleanly, and that decided them. They began to fall back, shouting to each other as they retreated. Within moments, he heard the cry taken up throughout the barbarian ranks, harsh voices suddenly full of fear. More warriors were now beginning to break away from the main body, and the ones that remained were terrified, unsettled enough now for the Romans to retaliate properly. And it was up to Firmus to give them the order.

His throat was dry, but he shouted so the men would hear. “Augusta!

Augusta!” The answering shouts were scattered at first, but more voices quickly took it up. The battle cry of the Second Legion. The signal for attack.

Cutting his way through to his men, Firmus shouted, “We’ve got them on the retreat, lads! Shields together, don’t give them any quarter!”

With a shout, the century pressed forward, boots trampling blood-soaked turf. Like Firmus, the men had found their strength again, and the barbarians who didn’t retreat were simply trampled beneath their advance. The Caledonian horn blared again from the trees, the raw-throated voice almost frantic as it sounded the retreat. The fragile order amongst the enemy finally broke and, hollering, they began to tear away, back up the slope towards the fringe of trees. The few die-hard fellows who remained quickly met their deaths at the end of the Romans’ swords.

When it became clear that there was nothing more to be done short of pursuing the survivors into the woods - not an option he wanted to take - Firmus raised his sword-arm. “Hold!” As the century came to a breathless halt, he stood silently, listening as the crashing in the undergrowth died away and the strains of the war horn gradually shivered into silence until the sounds that remained were the ragged breathing of the men, the moans and curses of the wounded and dying around them.

Suddenly aware of how exhausted he was, of the pain in his every muscle, Firmus let his breath out in one long, loud sigh, watching the trees for any flickers of movement.

“They gone now, centurion?” asked the young legionary next to him.

Firmus turned to him, and felt a smile break through the ebbing battle-tension. He clapped a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I think so, Lucianus. I think so.”

There was no time for celebration. The century would be badly shaken from the ambush, and though the enemy had retreated, there was nothing to stop some of the braver or more foolhardy of the survivors rallying together and giving it another shot. And all around them lay strewn the bodies of Romans and Caledonians alike. They would have to decide how to deal with the dead and injured and make their way as quickly as possible to the Wall.

“Right, all of you, listen here,” he said loudly. “It was well fought, lads, and you’ve done me proud. But we need to get away from here as fast as we can possibly make it. That means no time for gloating.” He nodded to Scaurus. “So to begin with, optio, I want a tally of our casualties.”

“Yes, sir.”

“As for the rest of you, I want you all to set to and help the wounded. If there are any Caledonians still alive, kill them.”

“What about our dead, sir?”

Firmus paused, chewing on the corner of his bottom lip as he considered the question.

“We’ll have to leave them,” he said eventually. “When we get to the transit fort, I can report this and we can request a recovery tomorrow. But right now, I want to concentrate on getting the living away from here. Now, let’s get going.”

He joined his men in scouring the battleground. The more bodies he turned over to check for signs of life, the more disconcerted he became at the number of Romans amongst them. Raids were a fact of life on the northern frontier, it was true, but they rarely resulted in these casualties. Usually they were small bands of cattle-thieves, or one of those wandering groups of young warriors who had simply become too confident. This one was different. The numbers had been greater, the ambush too well staged. Something wasn’t right here.

He retraced his steps to the body of that gaudy young warrior he had killed. Now that he had time to examine his opponent’s trappings properly, it was obvious that he had been someone of some status. Although trampled now, his cloak was edged with fine embroidery, and the bronze hilt of the sword had been set with amber.

No, something definitely wasn’t right.

Squatting down, he unhooked the torque from the corpse’s neck and turned it over in his hands, frowning as he examined the exquisite coils, the symbols incised into the terminals. Not something one usually found around the neck of any cattle-raider.

His thoughts were broken as he heard footsteps, and turned to see Scaurus approaching. He was holding his helmet in the crook of his arm and dragging one hand through his sweaty hair.

“Well?” he prompted.

“Seventeen dead, centurion,” Scaurus said grimly. “Twenty-six are injured, and four of them are unlikely to last the night.”

“We’ll get them to Pexa and see what the medics can do for them there.” Firmus’ voice belied his disquiet. Love of Diana! That left less than half the century in good condition.

There was a leather flask of water strapped over his shoulder. He unbuckled the strap and took a long swig from it before proferring to Scaurus. Over the optio’s shoulder he watched as the men busied themselves with supporting injured comrades, making makeshift bandages out of torn garments lifted from the corpses, and passing out the shoulder packs in preparation to move out. He would examine the injured himself and make sure they were all properly assisted before giving the order to march.

“What of Bassus and the standard?” he asked.

“Oh - safe.”

“Well, that’s something, then.” He tapped the torque thoughtfully against his palm.

“I thought you said we had no time for gloating, centurion,” quipped Scaurus.

He smiled wryly. “Just a curiosity.” He attached it to his harness. “I intend to show it to the commander at Pexa.”

Scaurus gave a low whistle as he examined it. “Classy piece, isn’t it?”


“You don’t think this was a random attack, then?”

Firmus shook his head. “There were too many of them, too well placed.” He glanced towards the hills. “It was almost as if they were lying in wait for us.”

“They’re getting bolder,” Scaurus agreed.

“I’ll need to report this to the legate in Isca,” Firmus said. “The governor must be informed. He had hoped that last year’s unrest would have died down by now. If anything, it’s increased.”

“We’ll need to warn the outposts, sir,” said Scaurus. “If the Venicones are -”

“These weren’t Venicones.”

“No?” Scaurus frowned. “How can you know that, sir?”

“Look at the tattoos.” In his time of the Wall, Firmus had come to realise that one could identify a Caledonian’s tribe by his tattoos. Each tribe had its own totems and symbols, and the telling symbol for the Venicones was the hound. Every Veniconean warrior Firmus had ever encountered had the image of a hound tattoed where it could easily be seen. And looking at the corpses around them, there wasn’t a single one in sight. In fact, Firmus didn’t recognise any of the symbols decorating these warriors. They weren’t Venicones, or Damnonii who had strayed too far east. The realisation sent a new chill through him.

He looked back, towards the north. Dusk was falling now, bruising the sky with purple, and the northern end of the glen had already disappeared into shadow. It was colder now, too, and Firmus shivered. He looked back at Scaurus, and saw his own discomfort mirrored in his optio’s face.

An ambush that appeared to have been planned; warriors sporting unfamiliar tattoos...

What in the name of the gods was going on?