THE SONG OF THE NORTH / THE BOAR STONE EXCERPT
Cahir was startled from his thoughts by Alban war-horns screeching discordantly along the ridge above him. There must be movement in the Roman ranks of the army spread out to the south.
He made his way over the hill to his battle-banner, staked out between two poles in the still air. It was the scarlet boar rushing to the attack across its white background: the emblem of his ancestors from Erin long ago. His heart soared to see it.
Weighed down by his armor, Cahir adjusted his stance on the edge of the ridge, bracing his shoulders. Below him, as the mist lifted, his allies were massed, all facing the Great Enemy: the Romans.
His own Dalriadan and the Attacotti armies flowed down to the plain on the right of battle, the west. In the centre were Fergus’s Erin warriors, and on the far flank, to the east, the dark Picts were gathered in their thousands. And all so eerily silent, beyond the coughs, the mutters and curses, the clank of armour and weapons.
No, not silence. An instinctive denial shot through Cahir. Too long had his men been voiceless. Now they faced an honourable battle, and just like the heroes of old they must cry their courage to the gods!
Slowly raising his wood and hide shield above his head, Cahir struck it with the hilt of his unsheathed sword so it boomed over the murmuring throng. He drew a great breath, bellowed it out. “The Boar!” Thud. He struck the shield again. “The Boar!” Thud. “The Boar! Thud. “The Boar!”
Around Cahir heads turned, and in moments up came thousands of shields borne aloft, and swords shimmering in the mist, and the Dalriadans broke into one war chant. The Boar! The blows of the swords formed a primal drumbeat, urgent and stirring, gradually growing faster and louder. It was a racing heart; pounding blood. Mellan leaped on the spot waving his blade, screaming at the top of his lungs, and the young men followed, yowling like wildcats.
The chants and drumming spread, first to the Dalriada warriors of Erin who cried out the same, sharing the blood of the boar; and then to the Picts, though their war cries were unintelligible at this distance. It didn’t matter, though, for the din rose and ebbed together, soaring and crashing, the spears being pounded up and down alongside so the light caught in blinding ripples across the ranks.
With a savage smile Cahir stood silent now and let the sound penetrate his body, lifting him up to the heavens. And the last lines from the prophecy came into his head.
Hear your blood call you
Raise the boar above you
Make an end, battle-lord
The red-crests come!
It was time to charge.
In the small cell of a room, Minna stared up at the Roman soldier with the dagger across his knee.
“How can I know any more than you do?” Minna repeated hoarsely. “The king of Dalriada planned to land a large force from Alba and destroy your northern army. This must be obvious.”
The optio’s face hardened at her faintly taunting tone.“I want to know his ultimate plan.”
Minna stared at the sunlight flaring on the soldier’s dagger. The thought of Cahir made something curl up inside her, a small, hard, desperate urge to shield her memories from harm. The sun flashing off the sea into Cahir’s eyes on that last farewell at the shore. The sound of his soft voice in the dark on that last night. They could undo her now.
She bared her teeth in a smile. “Why, afterwards to march south and attack Roman soldiers where they find them. But you already know this, too.”
Quick as an adder, the optio grabbed her tangled braid and dragged her head back, and she bit her lip not to cry out. His eyes were pale orbs that showed no mercy, no vulnerability. “Enough insolence, my pretty whore. I want to know exactly where he is going and why.”
A stink of unwashed skin and sour sweat wafted over her, and garum, the fish sauce that laced all Roman food. Fish guts rotting in the sun — how Minna had loved the taste once, in her Roman childhood. A whimper squeezed past her teeth.
“You will answer me,” the optio said with a brutish smile, “or I will hurt you.”
And without warning his dagger nicked the hollow of her throat. Minna cried out, the lurch of terror breaking something open inside her. And the sight came flooding in like a sunrise over hills, so strong and bright the truth was outlined for her to see in vivid colour.
There was a baby in her belly. Cahir’s child, a nub of a thing, its spirit no more than a faint echo of life.
She clapped her hand to her throat as the soldier released her. Blood seeped through her fingers…there was a baby, and it would die too. She could not fill her lungs because of the vice that tightened around her.
Satisfaction flared in the optio’s eyes. His voice dropped, and he stroked the blade around the curve of her ear. “I need you to speak,” he murmured, like a man would to his lover, “but that does not mean I need your body unmarked.” And he took her arm and dragged the blade across her white wrist.
She moaned as another line of red appeared, the blood beading on her skin. The optio smiled and stepped back, and Minna was dizzily remembering how Cahir drew a dagger across his own flesh, marking himself with the tattoos of shame. That warm skin she had kissed. A fist squeezed her and it all started to go dark and cold.
At the final moment, a light arrested her descent into blackness. She was supposed to listen. Rhiann’s voice came back to her from the saor dream, but she knew now she had forgotten it since. At the times of greatest travail we will be with you. Her Sisters, the priestesses from the island, long ago. Somehow still here.
Minna clawed at the stone floor. Help…help me.
As she wavered on the edge of the precipice, there came a brush of butterfly wings on her shoulders and throat, a touch alighting on her temples and eyelids. But there was no one else in the room, besides her and the optio. She caught a sob in the back of her throat. The optio’s smile blurred. A rustling began, like wind blowing through a forest. Her eyes sank closed. I’ve fainted, then. Cahir will think me so weak.
But the rustling became whispers echoing on the walls, layers of voices murmuring. Minna straightened, struggling back from the dark place. Each voice began whispering different things, snatches of thought and idea which wove into a kind of song, drawing her with them.
The butterflies became invisible fingers, soothing her, calming her panic to give her clear sight. Breathing hard, she blinked and raised her chin, listening.
“Speak or I bring this blade to your veins!” the soldier growled. “And worse, witch, will come when I give you to my men. Have you thought of that?”
She shuddered awake, stretched her chin high, no longer slipping into
darkness. Her back was absolutely straight, the grace of the Sisters
holding her. “Witch, you say?” She smiled, her heartbeat striking loud
and slow in her breast. “You have heard, then, Caecilius Rufus, of my
island of witches in the Western Sea.”
There was a shocked silence. She knew his name. The whispers told her.
“On a day of sunshine, the holy witches died on Roman swords. And have you heard, Caecilius Rufus, how forever after those soldiers could seed no woman’s womb, their manhoods weakened and poxed?”
A pause. “What vileness is this?” the optio demanded. “What madness do you utter?”
There were lights behind Minna’s eyes. She felt the blood drying on her skin. She heard the baby, a tiny, gasping cry, and held it close. “No madness, Roman. You have heard of this slaughter — for all these years later you still fear to violate the wisewomen of Alba.” She leaned forward. “Know then that I am of these witches, and I too can put a pox on you, and all that you are will wither away.”
Enraged, the optio stepped close and struck her across the face. “You lie…it is all lies!”
Her head snapped back, the lights dancing. She hardly felt the pain in her jaw and lip — she only saw the fear far back in his eyes. She smiled again, tasting blood. The voices flew about her head more urgently, the ghostly fingers stroking away her hurts. “Caecilius Rufus.” The sing-song voice that now came from Minna did not seem to be hers, and she listened to it with a distant dreaminess. “You stole three solidii from your father when you were nine, and he beat you until the skin came off your thighs. You killed a kitten once, by stringing it up in a noose of twine and watching it die. No one knows that. The first woman you bedded laughed at you…”
The optio grunted, his hand rising again.
“On the Wall you collected taxes, and made money behind your commander’s back.”
The soldier’s fist wavered in the air, and he fell back one step and then another, the whites of his eyes standing out in his pale face.
She got up on her knees. “You raped a blueskin child once, and you’ve never banished her eyes from your mind. They haunt your dreams still.”
“No.” His voice was strangled.
Slowly, she pointed at him, the blood oozing from the cut on her arm. “You loved a man,” she said softly. “It surprised you. He fought alongside you, and you loved him and when nights were cold you shared warmth and showed nothing of what you felt in your face. He died, so near to you that in every dream you see the blade pierce his flesh again, and wonder why your own flesh was not there to take the blow.”
The soldier’s body was quaking now, and her finger with it. “Violate me,” she said very softly, “and I will bring down upon you the wrath of every witch who died that day. Your manhood will shrink and rot, until you scream for release from pain. Your shade will be followed even unto the halls of death, and never left in peace.” And she opened her throat, for what came then were the first lines of Davin’s song, that spoke of the love of Rhiann and Eremon. The barbarian words reverberated off the plaster walls, doubling back on themselves. They were words of great love, hope, and belonging, but this soldier thought them curses.
With a gagging sound he backed against the door. “You are ours now, witch, no matter what you say,” he gasped. “We can use you as hostage to capture your lover, to force him to surrender. He is a man, and can die by the blade.” Halfway out the door he forced himself to speak again. “Know that your men hang from the walls for the ravens to feed on. We toasted their deaths with ale.”
He slammed the door behind him, and Minna fell to all fours, panting. Gradually the butterfly touches faded, and it grew colder. The whispers in the room grew fainter, until there was nothing but the banging of a loose shutter outside in the breeze.
The soldier’s last words struck her heart, one by one, like the barbed whips of a lash. Donal was dead.
For the first time, she who had been a slave tasted the full bitterness of becoming her true self: a seer. She was discovering that those bindings to spirit could strangle, as tight about her neck as any slave-ring.
Fighting back to back with Ruarc, Gobán and Fergal close about him, Cahir saw that every knot of Romans was surrounded by triple their numbers of Albans, and he was flooded with jubilation.
He cleaved the terrified ranks of the enemy before him, striding through with sword swinging two-handed, taller and heavier than they and able to scythe through them like fallen wheat. It wasn’t the most elegant fighting, but it was glorious, and reckless.
Blood was a hot wash down his face, and its copper on his tongue pricked at an animal part of him that knew it meant victory. Freed of mist, the sun ignited the sheets of polished iron cladding the warriors around him, reflecting back a blur of light. Sweat ran down his skin underneath the armour, washing away all restraint. In the midst of the chaos Cahir unleashed a roar from his very soul, and as he stabbed and spun he felt more power and grace surging through him.
As if summoned by his passion he felt the presence of his ancestors Eremon and Conaire and their men at his shoulder, formed of the dust motes and hazed sunlight around him. He sensed them behind him, eyes bright with battle ardour beneath helmet-guards, their spears a forest, their swords a wall of iron. Their spirits poured strength directly into his heart, and it flowed to every part of his body. Cahir fought as he had never fought before, as if he was filled with the endless sun and wind and sky.
“The Boar! The Boar!”
Fighting as part of the Roman army, Cian stumbled down the hillside, his arms spread wide like a sacrifice to the screaming barbarians before him. But he surprised himself.
Though his blackened soul craved the release of death, his body retained the instinct for life. He heard a war cry wrenching itself from his throat, and as the armies collided, was suddenly ducking and weaving through a tempest of bodies, blades and lances. Part of him watched in detachment as he slashed and lunged with his sword and oval shield, a guttural growl punctuating each wild swipe and twisting leap. His acrobat’s grace was reawakened, his movements a dance, seductive in its deadly rhythm. Block with the sword, shield up across the arm, sword point into that exposed flank.
Inside he railed at this crude desire for another breath, another day
of sun and wind, a need that overrode all sense. But without conscious
thought, his arms and legs knew what must be done.
Battle days are full of ironies.
Red, who so desperately wanted to continue inflicting his hatred on all blueskins, took a blade in the guts in the first few moments of battle, clean and simple. Cian saw him go down, a look of absolute disbelief on his face, before he was lost under mud and blood and tramping feet.
And Cian, who had started the day praying for death found himself overwhelmingly alive. He heard manic laughter, and realised that it was coming from his own throat.
He would have dropped his sword quite gladly, throwing back his head and screaming that mad laughter to the blue sky. But a snarling Pict came for him with a broken lance, and his sword was swinging around of its own accord. After shattering the lance his blade tip went in under the Pict’s arm, and sank into the soft place above the ribs.
Screaming now, Cian clutched the hilt with both hands and drove it home.
“Hawen’s blood and breath!” Cahir exclaimed, pointing to the middle of the plain. His young commander Ruarc raised his eyebrows. “The Roman dux has joined the battle! I didn’t think he would ever come down off his hill and fight like a man.”
Ruarc grinned, and crowed, “It’s because they know they are beaten! At least he has the balls to die with his army.”
Cahir was already one step ahead. “Then we will make an end!” he cried, turning away for the slope. “Come!”
To the side, druids and horseboys were catching any spare mounts that came riderless from the chaos. Cahir and Ruarc ran for the most fiery stallions, those still tossing their heads with nostrils flaring.
Cahir galloped back into battle with a dozen riders at his shoulder, their eyes intent on the dux, far away across a sea of ducking heads and slashing swords.
The Roman infantry, their famed discipline unraveling, fell back before the snorting horses and wild-eyed riders who bore down on them with blades swinging like scythes. There were no more rigid lines, just knots of Romans surrounded on all sides by shrieking Albans.
Again and again Cahir lost sight of Fullofaudes. He kept having to lean down to hack at men who tore at his bridle, blocking blows to the stallion’s bowels and legs with his shield. His knuckles were bloody and his wrists bruised from the many strikes he deflected, his back cramped as he twisted, sweat running into his eyes. But he shrugged it all away with an elated laugh, kicking the battle-trained horse up so it reared and struck out with its hooves. The press around them melted away, and they were able to gain a clear space and dig the horses in the ribs.
Like arrows they streaked around the flanks of battle. The Roman infantry and officers had pulled into a tight group around their leader, but they were beset on all sides by howling Alban warriors.
Hearing the approaching war cries, their allies the Dalriadan and Pict fighters leaped back as Cahir's riders collided with the Roman foot soldiers. As Cahir and his men jumped to the ground to fight, they closed back in.
On a small knoll, the dux was wielding his sword with grim efficiency, wiry and strong for his build. Cahir pressed through a mass of lunging, rearing horses, his eyes fixed on the dux in the centre of his men. He struck out left and right with a cold rage, Ruarc at one shoulder, Mellan at the other, until the last of the Roman officers were piled in tumbled heaps at Fullofaudes’ feet, his standard shredded on the ground.
Cahir strode up, one hand wrapped around his bloody sword-hilt and one tearing off his helmet. He dropped it to the ground even as he waded through knee-high heather and broken bodies.
Fullofaudes looked upon his face, his eyes widening in recognition. His blade went loose in his hand. With a contemptuous flick of his sword, Cahir dashed the weapon from his fingers so it fell uselessly on the bloodied turf.
And they stared at each other as the last throes of battle raged on around the knoll: in the dux’s cold, grey eyes helpless rage and defeat; and in Cahir’s, a burning victory.
Minna was taken away in the dead of night, stumbling on the end of a rope.
She heard the whispers: the northern army was scattered, with no command left alive. She must be taken south.
No man was willing to lay hands on her, but that didn’t stop the small torments, the nips of pain. The men prodded her with spear-butts, striking her in the ribs and legs with glancing blows until she was a mass of bruises, trying desperately to protect her belly. When they wanted her to move faster they used the barbed points.
She soon learned that if she raised her eyes she would receive a blow from a fist, and once, the crack of a lance across her skull. Warding signs came too, of course: the crossed fingers and spit in her face. They tripped her to kneel at the end of every day, and poked her awake with spears.
So the desolated landscape through which they moved became no more than a blur of suffering.
The air was rancid with smoke and the stench of rotting corpses, and all around were blackened shells of abandoned buildings, and the bodies of warriors of both sides choking streams and piled behind breached walls.
Minna stumbled along with her head down, but she would endure and not fall. She would make it take more than exhaustion, sorrow, guilt, or the sting of cut flesh, for the sake of her baby.
Gradually, as Minna’s pain became constant, her mind broke free and drifted above her. And she realised that as her body was bruised and cut by her own Roman people, something in her was inexorably draining away. It gathered in from every part of her body, then flowed out of her feet to the earth.
Out went the old life and loyalties. The kinship with Broc, her unknown father, her dead mother. The heartbeat of Rome, of Eboracum, of Master and Mistress and the villa. Being Roman. Being Minna-the-nurse. Being someone else’s. All of it went, bleeding away in that tormented journey across a blasted land.
Step by step, Minna was stripped of her previous lodestones — blood, identity, birth — and what was left was a different being. She became only Minna of Dalriada, beloved and seer of the king. She found the mother in her, strong and fearless for the baby.
She would be these things alone, for the short span of time left to her.
© 2007 Copyright of Jules Watson