Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Excerpt: Will of the Gods

Well, uni started again yesterday. So far it's looking great, even better than last year. I'm so excited about Archaeology, and Latin'll be great (once I'm back up to speed with my grammar - erk!). Even Celtic doesn't look as bad as I'd feared. I was a bit worried they were going to get strung up on "Oh noes the English came and messed everything up!" but the first couple of lectures have assuaged that fear. It actually looks really good, or will be once I've got my Gruffudd ap Llywelyn separate from my Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. (headdesk)

Anyway, I'm still running around trying to sort out various odds and ends (bills, forms, bloody student loan letter that hasn't arrived, books for uni, etc.) so I'm cheating a bit with today's post and throwing up a nice long excerpt from my first NiP, The Ancestor Crown. Well, hey, I haven't put up one in a while, and it was either that or a moan about the Maeatae and why they're giving me a migraine. So... er... enjoy. (As ever, this is a rough draft version, and concrit is very much appreciated.)

A slight warning: there are a couple of expletives. I don't think there's any more than two, but I know some people are more offended by language than me.

Backstory: Late summer, AD 82. A daring night attack by a force from the allied tribes upon the camp of the Ninth Legion resulted in a desperate rescue attempt by the Twentieth. During the pursuit, legionary Marcus Valerius Laevinus went to the aid of an officer, but was captured by a band of tribesmen. Now, he wakes to face his captors.


If there was one thing that Marcus knew for sure, it was that Fortuna had no love for him.

He awoke to the sound of voices, and the soft lap of water - beneath him? But he wasn’t rocking, so he couldn’t be on a boat. Slowly, he realised that he was lying on his side with one cheek pressed against a rush mat. Beyond that, it was impossible to make out anything but the pain. Everything hurt. Every joint in his body was afire, and a heavy ache hammered his skull. His hands were behind his back, but when he tried to move them, rope cut into his wrists and he groaned in pain.

Where was he? He strove to remember, but all that came to him were dim blurs of memory. There had been so many warriors - and Vitulus, with no helmet - and a girl with red hair... then that older warrior had come at him and - yes - now he remembered. But nothing was clear after that. He should be dead. Surely he should have been killed. He had no idea what had happened next, all his mind could grasp onto were snatches of grey sky and wind-scoured hills, with the thundering of hooves and barbarian voices all around him.

A leaden chill settled in his gut then as he realised the truth. He was a prisoner. His eyes flew open, but the fog in his mind seemed to be affecting them, so all he could make out was the blurred flickering of a hearth. He thought he might be inside some building - the air was close, with a heady, herbal smell. The voices he could hear were coming from outside, but though he strained to make out their words, he couldn’t make any sense of the raucous speech.

Panic lanced through his stupor, and the blood pounded in his ears, the pain in his head beating rhythmically. He tugged at the ropes binding his wrists, but whoever had tied them had known what they were doing, and he was rewarded only with sharp burns. Fear rose like bile in his throat, but it was soon shot down by a bolt of urgency. He had to find some way to free his hands, then a way to escape.

And Vitulus. What had happened to him? He’d lost sight of the senior tribune when that warrior charged at him. He could be lying nearby even now, bound as he was. He had do something, couldn’t just lie here...

With a groan, Marcus pushed himself to his knees, but instantly wished he hadn’t as the sudden movement sent the blood rushing to his head. The wattle walls of the hut tilted crazily before him and he fell back, cursing. But there was no time to waste. If Vitulus was here, then he had to find some way to free them both and escape.

“And how, pray, would you go about that?”

He started, his heart leaping into his mouth at the sound of the voice. He’d thought he was alone. It took a moment for the shock to subside before he realised that the words had been spoken in Latin.

Blinking to clear his vision, he looked up. The speaker was a woman, and old, though it was hard to place her age. The face framed by those white braids was austere and deeply lined, yet her shoulders had only a slight stoop to them, and the dark eyes now appraising him were clear, with a direct gaze that possessed a depth so profound he felt suddenly humbled. Somehow, it was that which let him know what she was, even before he noted the white robe, or the polished knife at her girdle, or the oaken staff around which one bony hand was curled.

His throat went dry, and his back stiffened. For the first time, he realised that his weapons had been taken, and his armour with them. They’d left him with nothing. And now here he was, bound and helpless in the presence of this Druid crone.

She regarded him with what could only have been amusement. “Oh, come now, Roman. There is little need for that.”

“Where am I?” he demanded, in the fiercest tone he could muster. “Where have you brought me?”

“You are in my house. And that, for the present, is all you need know.” Though speared through by a thick, barbarous accent, her Latin was faultless, almost better than his own. “Now, come -” he thought he saw the shadow of a smile - “answer me. How do you intend to go about this escape of yours?”

Marcus’ mouth opened, but the crone’s words had shocked him into speechlessness. How could she have known exactly what he had been thinking at that moment?

“Who are you?” The question was out, sharp-edged, before he could stop it.

“I am Sargaid, Chief Druidess to Nechtain mac Cathair, King of the Epidii tribe.”

Instead of making things clearer, all that did was set Marcus’ head to reeling as he tried to pick out a name from that collection of guttural syllables. And the Epidii. Had he heard of them before? If only this bloody headache would stop, then he could think...

“Have you a name, Roman?”

He hesitated, wondering if he should lie, but then decided that in his current predicament, that probably wouldn’t help him any.

“Marcus Valerius Laevinus.”

“Well, Marcus...” She drew her knife. Marcus froze, but she only smiled at him in that thin, ambiguous manner. “If I untie your hands, do you give me your promise that you will not attempt anything foolish?”

What was he supposed to say to that? He nodded, mutely. Sargaid ushered him into a sitting position, and cut his bonds. As he rubbed his wrists, now branded with deep red welts, the Druidess moved away, paused to stir something in the cauldron above the fire, then bustled off to busy herself with an oaken chest at the other side of the hearth.

Marcus glanced around. The only way out of the house was the narrow doorway on the other side of the hearth. He looked up, hoping to see a smoke-hole or some weakness in the thatch, but all he could pick out was a dizzying arrangement of smoke-darkened rafters. For all that the occupant was a Druid, it was no different from other native houses in Britannia, except maybe a bit bigger, and the furs and hangings that decorated it were finer than those in most. Nothing very remarkable.

Then his eyes fell on a human skull, yellowed with age, that grinned down at him from one of the posts. He jumped.

“That one was a chieftain of the Creones before you were even born,” Sargaid told him. “A warrior of the Epidii gifted his head to me in gratitude for the gods granting him a successful raid.”

Privately, Marcus thought there must be easier and less grisly ways to say thank you, but said nothing. Sargaid was a Druidess, after all, and her kind had a morbid interest in these things. He sent another uneasy look towards the skull. If anything, it only served to remind him into whose clutches he had fallen. He didn’t quite manage to suppress a shudder.

“You’re lucky,” Sargaid went on, as she rummaged in the chest. “If things had gone differently, your skull might have ended up decorating Cathal’s house in just the same way.”

Trying, and failing, to keep that image at bay, he asked, “Was he the warrior I killed?”

“No, the one you killed was Domhnall of Clan Moireach. Cathal is the one who would have killed you, if not for my intervention.”

He frowned. Was he supposed to be grateful?

“Why did you keep me alive, then?”

“I confess, I don’t know.” Marcus opened his mouth to protest, but she went on, “It was the gods who delivered you into our hands, but their reason for doing so remains unclear, even to me.” She chuckled suddenly. “Though I must admit, most of the warriors feel you made a poor exchange for that polished young tribune they had before.”

“Then why don’t you just kill me and be done with it!” he snapped, the heat rising in his face. In truth, he wasn’t sure he wanted to face the sort of the death the Druids inflicted on their victims, but anger made his blood burn with recklessness.

Yet Sargaid was unperturbed by his outburst. She merely lifted her shoulders. “If that is what the gods will, then so be it. But I have the feeling you are not meant for the Otherworld just yet. So, in that case, will you allow me to tend your wound?”

Marcus blinked. “What wound?” A fresh pang burned through his skull, and he raised his hand to the place where he had been struck, only to realise that it had been bandaged.

“That wound.”

He shrugged, reluctant to have a Druid any closer to him than was necessary, but he couldn’t see what else he could do. So he allowed her to replace the moss press to the wound and tie on a new bandage, but he refused the cup she offered him, despite her assurances that it would ease the pain. His head still hurt to Tartarus, but he had too much experience of Druid potions.

That done, the Druidess stood and returned the chest to its original place.

“He got away,” she said suddenly.

He blinked. “Who?”

“The tribune. He slipped the grasp of Cathal’s warriors and ran.”

Marcus supposed he should be glad. He had, after all, done the noble thing and saved the life of a tribune. But at that moment, all he could do was curse both Vitulus and himself for their stupidity. He wondered, bitterly, who was the bigger fool: Vitulus, for ending up in danger in the first place, or himself, for blundering into it after him?

“I did my duty,” he said flatly. And now he was paying the price for it. He wondered if the rest of his contubernium knew what had happened to him. With a sinking heart, he realised that they probably didn’t. No doubt they thought he was dead.

Maybe it was better that way. A heroic death in battle rescuing a senior officer - even if that officer was Vitulus - was better than the truth.

Sargaid must have sensed something of these thoughts, too, for her voice was almost gentle when she next spoke. “It was a brave thing you did. You could have left him to die.”

A bitter noise escaped his lips. “Could I?” The thought hadn’t even occurred to him. He thought about Vitulus now. No doubt he’d been shaken, but by now he was probably recovered, and back to strutting around the camp like the spoilt little prick he was. Marcus clenched his fists, and forced himself to swallow his sourness. “He was a tribune. He needed help. I had to give it.”

“Then you have more honour than many,” replied Sargaid. “I know many men who would have baulked at such a prospect, even if it were their duty. It took courage, and the gods commend courage.” She flexed her fingers on her staff, studying him contemplatively. “What was your legion, Marcus? The Ninth?”

“No.” He shook his head, wondering what had prompted that question. “The Twentieth.”

“Ah, yes.” Sargaid’s voice was very quiet. “The boar.” She turned away and looked into the fire for a long moment, and Marcus could only wonder what she saw there, in the heart of the flames. Despite the warm fug of the peat-smoke and the soft glow from the rushlights, a chill crawled down his spine.

“Druidess Sargaid,” he said at last, unable to take the not knowing any more. “What am I doing here? I’m not well-born enough to make a good hostage, and I’m only a legionary; I can’t give you any information. Why have you taken me prisoner?”

He’d asked her straight; now she’d have to answer him straight.

But Sargaid only heaved a sigh, and turned to face him. For a moment, he thought he saw a troubled shadow cross her face. But the moment passed, and he saw nothing.

“I have told you already; I have no answers yet. I did not expect anything like this. This is the will of the gods, and I do not hear them as I once did. Gairea is their chosen messenger.”

He frowned. “Who?”

“Gairea ní Machar, my apprentice. She is a ban-fhàidh - what you would call a sibyl.” For an instant, her voice regained that subtle hint of private amusement. “You met, I believe, but were never introduced.”

He thought back, and remembered the girl from the clearing. Red hair. White gown. Eyes full of shadows. He remembered only too well.

His feelings must have shown in his face, for Sargaid said briskly, “Come, now. She’s not that terrifying, surely. She’s a gentle girl, and harmless.”

Marcus said nothing. He had a dim recollection of gentle, harmless Gairea aiming a dagger at his throat, but decided it wasn’t worth the correction.

“What now, then?” he asked. “What’ll happen to me? Do I have to wait till you’ve read all the signs before I get to know if I live or die?”

Sargaid was grave. “Just so. This was not something I had foreseen, and it may be that your presence amongst us will have consequences that will reach farther than we might imagine. For now I can only counsel patience.”

“Patience!” he echoed, incredulous.

“Have patience, and when the time is right, the gods will reveal all. Then, Marcus Valerius Laevinus, shall we know what fate they have decided for you.”


Gabriele C. said...

Very nice snippet.

We must share a family of plotbunnies; your Ancestor's Crown and my Eagle of the Sea come from the same stock. You think we both caught them at Vindolanda?

Btw, I hope that Cerones skull is not some relative of my MC.

Lol, enjoy sorting the Llywelyns and Gruffudds, it's like the English Henrys and Edwards. :)

Kirsten Campbell said...

Thank you, Gabriele.

Oh, yeah, there's no doubt about it. Our plotbunnies interbreed. :)

Don't worry; that skull is decidedly not related to your Aquila. I think the last thing either of us needs is a crossover! Poor Agricola will never get anything done if his soldiers keep on getting kidnapped by odd tribes. (grin)

Gabriele C. said...

Yeah, and Celede's Batavians on the verge of mutiny won't help matters. :)

I hope she'll have regular internet until Nano as well.

Crystal said...

Well bloody hell Kirsten! You've been busy over here!! I haven't been blogging that much as of late so I gotta do some catch up!!!!

Have a good day sweet, i'll catch up on all your "going on's" in a bit;o)