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Authors: Manda Scott

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

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BOOK: Dreaming the Eagle
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The place of honour in the roundhouse that evening was his. Sinochos had hunted and they feasted on jugged hare and field beans spiced with wild garlic. They asked him for a song after. Gunovic was not a singer, he had no training, but he had a good stock of stories that were common amongst the tribes and a voice to do them justice. He drank the ale and bade them stoke up the fire and, in honour of Eburovic, began with a tale for the children, of the shebear who lived in a cave in a mountain and first brought fire to the ancestors, together with the skills to forge metal. It was a good tale, although here in the flat lands of the east, where a hill barely made a thumbprint on the horizon, he spent time building for the young ones a picture of the jagged, snow-laden mountains in which the bear lived and the great cascading waterfall, the height of nine times nine men, that tumbled down for ever in crashing torrents to fill the gods’ pool below. They watched him in utter silence. Ban hugged Hail at each mention of the beast, never taking his gaze from the weaving, sensuous hands of the smith and the stream of shadow pictures they cast on the wall.

They left the bear at the gods’ pool, talking to Nemain, the moon, who alone of the sacred ones showed her face twice to her people, once in the sky and again on the water, thus showing that water was the way by which one could reach the gods. The children, protesting, were gathered and wrapped and laid down, some to sleep, some to listen, some to try to listen but still to sleep. Ban was offered his old sleeping place with Silla but turned it down. Hail was old enough now not to need feeding through the night and there was no reason for Ban still to sleep in the harness hut but he liked it and was guarding the privilege fiercely. In any case, he had no intention of going to bed when he knew the best tale was yet to come. He curled in his cloak beside his mother with Hail resting on his other side and set himself to listen.

Breaca sat further round, on the right hand of the elder grandmother, ready to offer assistance should the old woman have need of it. Her scarred hand ached, deep down between the finger bones, as it did when she was tired. Absently, she rubbed the place on her knee. Gunovic leaned inwards and passed her his jug. They had raced their horses earlier and he had won, but only by a short head. He had complimented her on the grey filly afterwards and given her a brooch shaped like the small fierce owl who hunts by day. It was the only way in which he showed that he had heard of the death of her mother and it was done privately, with kindness, as was his way. Next to her father, he was the best warrior she had ever known and he had taught her some of the dirtiest moves with the sword that a man could think of. If she had killed the Coritani by skill with weapons, Gunovic was as much to thank as anyone. She accepted his jug with a nod, drank, and passed it on round the circle. The ale was warm and bitter and it cleansed the last taste of garlic from her mouth if it did nothing for the pain in her hand.

There was some shuffling and rearranging of seating as people filled the spaces closer to the fire. A piece of salt-laden driftwood as long as a man’s arm was laid on the embers, sending up fierce blue sparks to dance in the roof space. The smell of it was sharp with the iron-salt tang of the sea. The flame built higher, casting long, leaping shadows to the thatch above. Carved beasts on the doorpost shimmered and came to life. Smoke layered above them, holding in the heat. A third jug was opened for Gunovic, who took it back to the singer’s place on the far side of the fire. Before, he had been standing, the better to show the shadowplay with his hands. Now he sat, resting his back on a hide stuffed with horsehair that leaned against the wall. When he had quiet, he addressed the elder grandmother, as tradition demanded.

‘Grandmother. You have heard all tales that can be told. The choice of which to hear now is yours.’

The old woman stared into the heart of the fire, her head cocked as if listening. Presently she lifted her eyes to meet those of the smith. ‘Give us the tale of Cassivellaunos,’ she said.

Other voices murmured approval. It was a classic tale of good against evil, where the colours were clear and right prevailed against the odds. Gunovic was silent for a moment, thinking. Then he lifted his head and began.

‘I tell the tale of the greatest warrior, of Cassivellaunos, grandfather’s father to Cunobelin, the Sun Hound, who rules over the Trinovantes and the Catuvellauni who live to the south …’

His voice was new. It lost the singer’s lilt and became the voice of Cassivellaunos, speaking on the eve of battle; the warrior who, alone of all the people, had the strength and foresight to unite the warring tribes at the time of Caesar’s two invasions.

In her mind, Breaca saw a giant of a man with flowing copper hair seated on his roan battle horse. His great brindle war hounds gathered about him, collared in leather and iron, ready to rip the throats from the legions. Around his neck he wore the torc of leadership, cast for him in gold by a smith of the Eceni. More black feathers than could be counted hung from the end-pieces of the torc, each with its quill stained red to mark the warriors he had killed in fair battle. His shield was of bull’s hide and so heavy it took two other men to lift it. His sword was of iron and when he drew it on horseback the tip reached to the ground. About his shoulders he wore a great multicoloured cloak, patched with the colours of all the tribes who came to join him: sky blue for the Eceni, white for the Ordovices, red and black striped for the Brigantes who worship only Briga, green for the Cornovii who follow the horned one, grey for the warriors and dreamers of Mona, those individuals selected from all the tribes to study on the sacred island. Only the gorseflower yellow of the Trinovantes was missing, for it was Mandubracios, a prince of that tribe, who had betrayed the hero and his allies to the enemy.

This was close to home and had the spice of near danger; the Trinovantes held the territory immediately to the south of the Eceni homelands and the truce between the two peoples had never been easy. In the dark, Mandubracios of the Trinovantes grew before them: a venal man who coveted land and power not given him by the gods. He was a poor warrior and lacked courage but made up for it in cunning. When it was clear that he could not defeat Cassivellaunos by force of arms, he travelled to Gaul and petitioned aid from the greatest enemy of all, Julius Caesar, asking for the legions’ help in defeating his enemy.

Twice, Caesar’s legions invaded. The battle in the first year was the stuff of heroes but that in the second year was by far the greater. The armies met on opposing banks of the river that led to the sea and it was as if the gods themselves were fighting. The battle raged from dawn until long into the afternoon and the water of the river ran thick with the blood of both sides. Warriors died in their thousands, defending land that was not their own.

Towards evening, seeing they could not prevail, Cassivellaunos led the survivors along secret paths to his stronghold. The place was in marshland, hidden on all sides by forest, and thought safe. It gave sanctuary to the wearied warriors, allowed time to eat and rest and bind their wounds, time for the smiths to forge more spearheads and beat out new blades, time for the dreamers to reach the gods and ask for aid.

But the stronghold was not safe. Mandubracios knew of it and he brought the enemy with him, whispering in his ear his knowledge of Cassivellaunos’ only weakness. The great warrior had a war hound named Belin for the sun god and he loved it as he loved his children. In secret, men of the Trinovantes stole the hound away, luring it with fresh meat and sweet voices. It came willingly, for it was not a hateful hound unless set at the enemy in war. And so on the morning of the third day, a horn sounded from the marshland beyond the stronghold. Cassivellaunos looked from the ramparts and saw the enemy ranged about him. He lifted his spear and would have given the order to open the gates to attack, but then he saw his favourite hound crucified in front of the enemy ranks with its muzzle bound shut that it might not howl and warn its master. The dog died as Cassivellaunos watched and its head was taken off and mounted on a spear and brought forward with the demand for unconditional surrender. It was then that the great warrior’s heart was broken. If the enemy could do that to a hound, which was sacred, what would he do to the people? He consulted with his dreamers and walked out of the gates of his fort and laid his great blade which had taken many lives at the feet of the enemy, spitting on him as he did so.

Gunovic stopped there. It was time. Breaca was not the only one weeping. All around her men and women choked and wiped their faces. At Macha’s side, Ban was sobbing inconsolably. He clutched a struggling Hail to his chest and called down ghastly, graphic curses on the enemy, on all who came from Gaul, on the house of the traitor Mandubracios who wore a gorse-yellow cloak. Macha wrapped him in her own cloak and rocked him like an infant, promising him that the story came better and that the great dreamer Onomaris, whose dream was the kittiwake, had spoken with Manannan, god of the sea, calling up a storm to wreck the Roman warships so that Cassivellaunos’ life was spared and Caesar’s legions departed, never to return again. As was always the case, the dreamers won the battle if the warriors could not. It made no difference to Ban. The beloved hound was dead and those who did it were to be cursed for generations.

Gunovic came closer to the fire. ‘It may be they were cursed as you say,’ he said. ‘Julius Caesar died alone, slain by his own countrymen, and none of his line has ever been heard of since. The traitor Mandubracios died childless and it is a descendant of Cassivellaunos who now rules the Trinovantes as well as the Catuvellauni.’

‘Who?’ Ban had moved from sobs to hiccoughs and had difficulty making long sentences. ‘How does he rule his enemy’s people?’

‘His name is Cunobelin, which means “Hound of the Sun”. He rules two tribes because he is a very clever man who loves power, and he commands more spears than any other so that none dare stand against him.’

‘His sons will do so,’ said the elder grandmother, sourly. She alone did not show signs of weeping. ‘At least the firebrand, if not the others.’

Ban’s eyes were wide. ‘Who is the firebrand?’

Gunovic said, ‘Caradoc, third and youngest son of Cunobelin. The Sun Hound has spread his seed wide and with a purpose. Togodubnos is the first son, born to a woman of the royal line of the Trinovantes. He ensures his father’s line amongst that people. He is a giant. for his age, with black hair and a hooked nose. He has not yet killed in battle but he earned his warrior’s tests in good faith. He is a good diplomat. He would make a fine leader did his father permit it. The second son, Amminios - he is a redhead, pale, with sallow skin and eyes that water - is out of a highborn Gaulish woman. He has been reared half in Gaul and has become so Roman that he wears the toga when he eats and plucks the hairs from his nostrils twice every month to make himself pretty - it’s true…’ His voice rose high in indignation at the raised brows and mocking smiles around him. ‘You may mock, but Amminios has his father’s blessing and spends his days drinking wine with the magistrates in Gaul. He already has three horse farms and trading rights in wine and glass and fine tableware and is amassing his own private fortune.’

‘And slaves.’ The elder grandmother spat on the fire. ‘That one makes his fortune trading in slaves. His wealth is in blood, as is his father’s.’

‘Indeed, it may be so.’ Gunovic nodded, slowly. ‘Caradoc, however, is of different stock. He is exceptional. If you are in battle, this is the warrior you want at your side. His mother is war leader of the Ordovices and they, as you know, are second only to the Silures in the courage and strength of their warriors.’

His eyes were on Eburovic, whose distant ancestors were of the Silures. Eburovic stretched his arms and moved his feet to the fire. ‘That’s a lie,’ he said pleasantly, ‘and you know it.’

Gunovic grinned. The Eceni smith was his closest friend. What is life if you cannot taunt a friend a little? The others grinned with him, feeling the tension die.

Eburovic moved so the fire lit his face. ‘You should tell the truth if you would be a singer, smith. The Silures are good warriors, some of us may even be heroes, but the Ordovices are exceptional. It is said that they are born with the battle fever in their eyes and that it never passes from them. Those who fight against them ride out expecting to die. Most of them do so.’

Gunovic inclined his head. ‘It may be so. I bow to your greater experience. Certainly the mother of Caradoc is a warrior of known prowess. Her name is Ellin nic Conia.’ His voice lapsed again into the cadence saved for the tales of heroes. ‘She is tall and very beautiful, with hair the colour of corn before harvest and greengrey eyes that take on all the shades of the sea. She wears a tunic the colour of her eyes and is known across the land for her valour in battle. Her horses are the finest of those bred in the west, her sword cuts the hardest, her spear flies the furthest, or at least’ - his voice altered, gathering a sense of portents to come - ‘they did all of these until last winter when her son Caradoc, at eleven years old, took his warrior tests from her people and won his spear. Now his mother’s spear flies second to her son’s.’

‘At eleven? He passed his warrior’s tests amongst the Ordovices at eleven?’ It was ‘Tagos, sister’s son to Sinochos, who asked. He was twelve years old, nearly thirteen, and he was due to take his tests at the winter gathering. It was considered a good age with no shame if he failed the first time. To pass, he had to throw a spear and hit the mark nine times out of nine at fifty paces. Less than one in ten who tried it passed first time.

‘He did.’ Gunovic nodded. ‘It was attested by all their dreamers. None has taken them younger and succeeded. He will take the tests of both the Trinovantes and the Catuvellauni in the next year. His father does not approve and will do nothing to help him, but I have seen the boy, and he will succeed. When he does so, he will be a named warrior of three different peoples. There is no man, including his father, who has ever achieved such a feat.’

BOOK: Dreaming the Eagle
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