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 fa├žades 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”.


Gabriele C. said...

I don't think there's too much description. Since we're in Eilwen's POV it is interesting to see the fort through her eyes.

I like Firmus so far, he seems to be a honest man. Though I wonder what he's got himself into, bringing a female slave into that testosterone ridden place. ;)

Eilwen comes across as very composed. I wonder if she's intended that way, or if there should be a bit more inward emotion of 'Gods, what have I gotten myself into' in that last sequence of internal thoughts. It's a difficult balance, I know, I tend to overwrite emotion.

Kirsten Campbell said...

Thanks, Gabriele. As I said, I wasn't too sure.

Yes, Firmus is one of the most decent people in the book. He just wants to get the next four years over with so he can retire happily to that house by the Black Sea. But I think I'd better start researching medicine myself; find out what the Roman equivalent for aspirin was. I have the feeling he'll be needing it before the end. ;)

I'm glad Eilwen seems composed. Yeah, she is meant to come across that way, but reading over again, I think you might be right. That last part could do with a bit more emotion. I'm always worried I'll tip that balance. Never seen anything wrong with the emotion in your writing, though. :)

Gabriele C. said...

Willow bark contains the same stuff as aspirin. :)

Kirsten Campbell said...

Ah. Should've guessed. Good old willow bark. ;)

Crystal said...

OMG..THANK YOU FOR THIS POST!! I needed a damn good exerpt to take my mind of things for a while! WELL WORTH IT!!

btw, thank you for the kind and sweet comment on my blog. You are a treasure:)

Kirsten Campbell said...

Lol. You're very welcome! And thank you. :)

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