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Morton punched himself in the shoulder. His big fist made a comforting plop in the soft flesh there. The tall river stretched up before him, straight as a level, until it butted into the side of the smoky bluff and disappeared. Morton liked the tall river even though he knew it was magic and evil. He liked it because it ran straight. Sometimes the hills rose right up to it, and sometimes they fell far beneath it, but the tall river ran straight as a plumb line.
Morton punched himself in the shoulder. “Look, Morton,” the master had said. He gritted his teeth and looked. “With yer eyes, idiot,” the master had said. The master wanted flat stones and the tall river was full of perfect, filed flat stones, but Morton didn't like to pry them out. It was easy to find ones that would slide right out, but he looked on the ground instead, beneath bushes. This was harder work, and tedious because he and the master and other flat-stone-seekers had long since salvaged what had fallen. “Take 'em from the actor duck,” his master had ordered.
He punched himself in the shoulder.
The tall river had been dry for a long time. Morton could see why: mortar at the top had turned to dust and stones had fallen. The river just dribbled away. This didn't bother him. Morton was not thirsty.
What bothered him was the magic. It was failing. The river, so tall, so straight, was sagging.
He did as he was told. At ground level, he found a footing stone and he pried it free of the column with a groan. It was only a decorative stone, but still, it hurt him to damage the tall river. He punched himself in the shoulder, thinking of the king, Brennus the king, who punched him softly in the shoulder once, long ago, saying “Good lad, Morton.”
“Good lad, Morton,” Morton said out loud as he placed the footing stone on his cart.
The next stone hurt more. It wasn't decorative. It was important.
Morton knew stones. He knew how to lay them flat so they never needed mortar. The magic of the tall river was not in its flat but in the ceilings below the river. Black cats, thought Morton. Dozens and dozens of black cats – frightened black cats – one after another, over the hills, down in the valleys, all the way to the smoky bluff, carrying the tall river on their arching backs. He saw that some of the stones in the black cats were crumbling. He saw that if one crumbled, all fell because they leaned one upon the next. Like a village. He saw the magic and he giggled to himself because he saw it.
He punched himself in the shoulder.
Saint Cadr strode across the Durney Hills, bracing his staff in mud pans to leap across, black-clawed underbrush ripping at the coarse cloth of his robe. His cousin had told him to take the old Roman road, but he had refused. “The Romans are gone.”
“Praise the lord,” Dress smirked. “I don't guess they'd take kindly to my profession.”
“Thank them for that, for you’re one of few. The devil they brought was lassitude and silk.”
“I'll take some of that silk off your hands if you like, Cadr, although you don’t look like you’re carrying it. What sort of fool have you become?”
“One hard enough to hold off Caolwulf when he comes with his ships, and if you prefer your head where it is, you’ll help me remind Brennus and his sheep what it means to be a Celt. They're soft in town, Dress, with their carpets and baths.”
“Baths? Have they cleared the shit out of the baths?”
“Brennus sits in a cauldron. Those lads of his carry water up from the river and he sits in it like mutton. He makes soup of himself.”
“Clever man, that one. I might have turned myself in if they’d reopened the baths.”
Cadr slammed a palm across his cousin’s ear for that, provoking a fist in the gut. The two cousins battered each other across the room until both were bloodied and harder than before. “Good,” said Cadr, holding his cousin’s hair in his fist, both of them panting hard. “You have both strength and control. Come with me. Brennus cannot enact his law if you’re under my protection. We need you.”
“Fight your Saxon yourself.”
It was sinister, thought Cadr as he vaulted across Cold Creek, how the Romans softened us. His own father could barely remember the day the Romans left, but dearly remembered the last amphora of olive oil and how fine cod tasted sizzling with garlic. The day Roddy's ship was taken by the Saxons, the old man had gathered his sons and nephews near. Cadr had grinned with anticipation of revenge, but his fat father had only cautioned them never to sail outside Poor Man's Bay. Retreat: the same thing the Romans had done.
Cadr sucked at the spot where Dress’s fist had loosened a tooth and savored the taste of blood and salt. He sprinted up the valley side from the creek to force the hard air into his lungs and feel the bruises in his thighs. Only by hardening themselves again would the Celts survive the Saxon incursions.
When he cleared the rise, he was greeted by the weedy remains of the aqueduct, long since dry, gritstone bricks crumbling, thick vines of an ancient land pulling at the arches. Brennus had agreed, under pressure, to destroy this vestige of the Romans, salvaging the bricks for his harbor defenses. Impulsively, still pleased with the ache in his lungs, Cadr found the old flaws in the structure, the ones he and Dress used to climb as boys, and hoisted himself into the lower arch, ripping out rotten bricks with gusto, jamming his staff into deeper spaces to use as a bar. From atop, he could see the huts at the end of Poor Man's Bay and out to sea where Caolwulf’s ships would roam. He marched toward town in the trough, jabbing at suspicious spots before trusting them with his feet. It was a cruel irony that a people so weak and soft as the Romans had mastered such enduring magic to construct a thing like this.
The idiot's moan jerked him back from his thoughts. The voice was unmistakable, the wordless chanting of a man who was less than a boy, an ox in the body of a neighbor. The boy’s mother had invited some animal’s spirit down her dusky night road once and incurred this hopeless half-mind upon the town for her sins. The mason had been happy for a strong back and had agreed to keep the boy alive, but all of them paid for the idiot’s labors. He invited dark ones with that chanting, dark ones or wolves.
He lay down in the stone trench, leaning far over the broken wall to see below, and caught the big boy playing with a sarsen brick, filing it. The idiot had no awareness, utterly absorbed in his foolery. Cadr could almost have touched him but he watched unnoticed, his salt-thick locks dangling like snakes upside down, his face slowly engorging with blood. The mason's apprentice suddenly switched from file to trowel, and in two motions slapped a veneer of mud on both sides of the stone. Then he straightened and jammed his stone into the ceiling, reaching now for a mallet.
“Here now, what are you doing?” Cadr demanded. The idiot screamed and cowered, and now Cadr saw the stacks of filed stones, the hollow of thick mud. “What evil are you up to, fool? Who commanded you to repair the aqueduct?”
He swung over the ledge and clambered down, tearing up some of the apprentice’s work as he dropped, realizing that the fool was attempting the repair of an entire arch. Sacrilege! “No, no!” the idiot screamed, running toward his work with outstretched fingers, but a quick thrust from Cadr’s staff left him breathless and writhing on the ground. Cadr yanked the idiot to his feet by the filthy collar of his tunic, ripping part of the seam, shoving his bearded face nose-to-nose with him, “Who told you to repair the arches? Who?”
He watched the fool’s face bulge and grow red. “Do not howl, you blubbering thing. Name the man who told you to build this abomination.”
The idiot held his howl and his tongue too, but an apprentice had only one master.
A warm soak took the ache from his knees, allowing him to walk with the old swagger into public, an important consideration, important that his subjects see the old warrior still strong as stories of Caolwulf’s plundering trickled down the coast. He stepped outside onto the limestone-paved courtyard, letting the morning air brace his skin, surveying the workings of his household: Genev hanging sheets near the western wall where the sun could dry them, Cor’s new wife stumbling under a skirt-load of eggs, Fiona shucking corn. He scowled. “I told you not to do that sort of work”
Fiona looked up at him, tossing a curly lock aside with a jerk of her chin to view him fully with both blue eyes clear. “If the king will eat, the corn must be shucked.”
“It makes your hands rough.”
“As does cleaning clothes, as does carrying water.”
“Let the girls do those chores.”
“And I? What shall I do? Sing?”
Brennus scowled deeper. “Not sing. Your singing makes my skin rough.”
“Just so,” she smiled and bent back to her pile of corn.
It would be easier to sit justice here in the courtyard, but the Villa reminded certain people too much of the Romans; even its name was Roman and it had always been the governor’s home until they left. Brennus’ father had bowed to tradition and the vehemence of freedmen to move justice back to the old marketplace where the Celtic warlords had dispensed their laws.
“Get up. Leave that for Genev. Teach the children numbers, or tell them a story.”
“As you will,” Fiona murmured, and stood, gathering her skirts beneath her as she rose.
He kissed her, then walked to the edge of the courtyard, looking into the mud at the edge of the pavers distastefully. Crunch, the chef, was peering over the fish mongers’ wagons, rolled up from the docks for the chieftain’s household. “It’s all clams and bottom fish,” he complained when Brennus approached. “They refuse to sail outside the bay.”
Brennus addressed the fishwife, a salt-puckered, pale-haired woman in boots – Porton the oysterman’s spawn he felt sure. “I’ve posted watchmen at Crag’s point and the Knuckle. I’ve told the sailors to look to fires there for warning.”
“The Saxon’s a sea fox, your worship,” she cringed. “Don’t make them sail out with him. He’ll sneak up from the sandy bottom and break up our boats before we know a thing! Please your worship, I beg you. There’s enough here for all – look here at this lovely flounder, lord, see them bright scales…”
The fish was too dusty to shine, but might have been fresh beneath the grime.
“My lord!” came a deep-throated call.
Brennus touched his sword hilt before he could check himself, but turned and gave the big youth striding across the muddy lane a tight-lipped smile. “Louarn. Well met. See me to the market.” The young man only claimed to desire to stand beside his “king,” but strong men without proven loyalty were as much a danger as a boon. He took Louarn’s outstretched right hand in his own, each holding the other’s fighting arm in a lock of friendship, gripping that outrageous upper arm with his left. He would like to trust this one…
Not ten steps toward the market, they were joined by Brennus’ oldest living friend, Tigernos, and the greeting was the same, although Tigernos was left-handed. The saint warned Brennus to shun a warrior who carried a weapon on the left, but there had to be someone a chief could trust, and for Brennus that man was Tigernos. They continued down the center of the street – the only straight one in the village, designed that way by Roman engineers – collecting three more strongmen along the way, Ula with his oak bracers, Áed, whose belly was as round and as hard as a barrel, and little Coran who once ran down a boar on open ground. Tigernos and Áed, he kept at his sides, Tigernos on the left, Áed on the right always; the others formed wings. None was suffered to walk behind him, ever. This formation he learned from his father, who learned from the legionaries that trained him before they left.
The three of them, himself, Tigernos, and Áed, wore Roman-forged swords that could lop off the top of an ash-wood spear although Brennus needed to take care with his longer sword that he used the better bits. He had a bad nick halfway up one edge that Clapper the forge master had never been able to properly repair. Clapper’s woman, Brenn, had used sinew and deerskin to repair the bellows, but the old Roman forge still couldn’t quite heat Brennus’ iron enough for a perfect repair. The others – Ula, Louarn, and a dozen other muscle-bound lads – carried a motley collection of spears, knives, spiked clubs, chains, and pitted, iron swords.
By the well, where the street crossed a wide swale, the mud was deep. Brennus watched the windows and doorways of the hovels there for careless housekeepers to toss their waste into the street, but caught no one. He had decreed that chamber pots should be emptied outside the main thoroughfares to prevent this yellow mud, but in an angry fit had decreed the penalty banishment – too harsh by half, and couldn’t bring himself to enforce it, so it went largely ignored. The marketplace stood on a stony shelf and he scraped off his boots with a grimace.
He and the lads marched through the pitiful collection of tents, cabbage and onion vendors, old Crackit with half a basket of dried, greenish goat meat, and a few artisans with scraggly collections of rags, wool shirts, clay pots, and baskets.
The shelf of rock upon which the market sat sloped generally upward toward the eastern corner, exerting itself in a convulsive heave to belch up a sturdy pile of gritstone into which some mason had once carved steps and a sort of low-backed throne for a ruler to dictate from. Brennus pressed his knees with his hands to climb the steps and sit justice uncomfortably upon the stony chair.
The petitioners followed him, some boldly, others shyly, some with goats, all filthy, pressing toward his strongmen who held them back peacefully, weapons sheathed or strapped to shoulders. Áed cast a look back at him over his shoulder and Brennus gave the nod. The first one through, predictably, was old Durstan, this time dragging the widow Leven who kicked at his bony shins with her hopeless, woolen shoes. “Consul, I have a thief!” screamed Durstan.
“I’ve told you not to call me that, and if I condemned every thief you accused, our little town would consist of only you and me before the year was out. I don’t suppose I would last long myself after that. What’s she taken?”
“A milking goat, your majesty. I had to lead the poor thing home from her herd by a rope. Let her deny it.”
“I won’t deny it, you villain,” the crone spat. “I won’t deny the goat was with my herd but I didn’t ask it along when I drove ‘em home. The thing wouldn’t leave. The goats don’t like this villain because he feeds them rocks and beats them when their kids die. His milking goat was wise enough to stick with mine.”
Durstan hurled his hands in the air and clenched his fists, making a fine show of restraining his indignation before launching into a reasoned accusation. Brennus interrupted. “Let the goat decide. Louarn, set them twenty paces apart with the goat between. See to it neither has any strong-smelling food up their sleeve.” Durstan protested, and Brennus nodded to Áed to choose the next petitioner.
Next, Joyce the baker was accused of selling loaves too dear, to which he declared that the farmers had raised the price of grain to “wicked” levels. Brennus forced him to reduce his prices and promised to speak to the farmers. After that it was Boudicca’s son who had skipped his trench-digging duty. The trench was critical to the defense of the town should one of the neighboring tribes attack, but it was Tigernos’ duty to oversee it; a glance was enough to send his friend off.
His people waited for their turn. They adhered to his decisions. The sun warmed the plaza and Brennus felt a little proud. His father’s little chunk of land and folk – some liked to call it a kingdom, for who else had he to answer to? – had faced chaos and illness after the Romans left, but now Brennus felt he could see some order and peace. Problems still persisted – a chieftain makes his errors – but all in all, his people, his freedmen, were finding firm footing on this bank of Briton. The market seat was just high enough for him to see across the thatched roofs and low trees to the bay where sunlight crackled on a fresh blue sea, the strong-backed fishermen’s sons heaving on the oars, carrying oysters, blue fin, flounder, and perch.
The little knot of men at the low end of the market came without fanfare; they could have been farmers or craftsmen come for business. Brennus nodded to Áed, almost smiling at young Jocelyn, her red-brown hair lifted off her neck as she moved shyly up to address him. The voice of the saint, however, was unmistakable, and forceful, breaking through his reverie, stopping Jocelyn in her tracks, pulling all eyes to him. “Treason!” he shouted.
There were six. Cadr and his three followers wore punishing, coarse robes of hemp, sturdy sandals, and collections of talismans around their necks – feathers, teeth, shells, and the Christian cross. The other two were bound with salty ropes together at the waist so that they trod on each other's feet; they were bloodied too, their canvas shirts ripped at the shoulders, Cadr’s staff no doubt the cause of it. They were so bent and disheveled that Brennus took them for scouts or messengers from some other tribe at first until he recognized the tell-tale slack jaw of the idiot – Morton, the mason’s apprentice; and with that he bolted to his feet for the other man was the mason himself, Harvus Halvus’ son, charged with renovating the old keep and the harbor wall, critical defenses should Caolwulf’s Saxon ships come scraping up on Brennus’ sand.
“Traitors!” Cadr shouted, “Judge them, Brennus! They would make us bondsmen to the Roman once again!”
Two of Brennus’ strongmen moved to shut down the disturbance but hesitated when they saw who made the complaint. Cadr was no goat herder, no fisherman’s son, he was the saint, an incarnation of the druids some said, wise in the ways of magics, or, if not, then certainly the toughest man in a day’s walk, and Brennus’ younger brother.
Crossing the square, herding his prisoners before him like unruly goats, swatting their thighs with his staff, the saint shouted his accusations to the gathering, curious crowd. “Our fathers drove the Romans and their whips from this land, but these men would have them back, forging the chains anew!”
“The boy disobeyed me, counselor!” wailed Harvus the mason. “I never –”
“Quiet slave,” growled Blok, the ugliest of Cadr’s men.
Men and women were running into the market now to see what the disturbance was; Cadr was hot-headed and headstrong, but these qualities made him popular as well as unwise, Brennus knew. The passion of his belief made him believable somehow. “I present these sinners to you for judgment, my chieftain.” A collective murmur of thirsty excitement rumbled through the crowd, all eyes straining to see the huddled accused, those law-breakers, slave-makers. Hungry and dirty his people may have been, but they were fiercely jealous of their freedom too.
“What have they done, Cadr?”
“They’ve unburied some old spell of the slavers, and witched the aqueduct to take their stones. They mean to remake the haunted arches.”
Harvus meant to speak up, but a glance from Blok was enough to shut him down. The idiot only hung his head in terror and shame.
Brennus used to stare up at those arches in awe; they seemed to belong to another world, so patterned, so precise, one after another rolling up from Lookdown Cistern past the Durney Hills; so foreign did they seem in the boy-Brennus’ muddy world that he could believe, as some did, that the Romans with their new god had flown them here to staple shut the old gods’ prison.
Neither Brennus nor his father had ever made a law forbidding the re-construction of the aqueduct, but by tradition, the superstitions served as law. Brennus wished he had not sent Tigernos off to discipline his soldier; he would have liked to draw his old friend near now. The people were shouting. He had to kick Áed before the big-throated man thought to silence them with a roar. When a hush settled nervously upon the crowd again, he asked the mason, “What is this?”
Mincing out from under the heavy hand of Cadr’s biggest, Harvus beseeched him, “By the old gods, I never asked the boy to build the aqueduct! I told him to tear it down and bring me the stones. Y’have to believe me! I’ll whip him till he doesn’t sleep a week, but let us go!”
“Brother,” broke in Cadr, in a reasonable voice, “The apprentice, Morton, was not just pushing stones up on the aqueduct when I found him. He had gone to the river first and dug up a quantity of clay, then mixed it with some magics to make the stones sit. He’s an idiot, no? He could not have planned it on his own.”
“He’s a genius, lord!” wailed Harvus over the rising shouts of an angry crowd. “He lays stone like he was born to it. He has – he has…”
“He has no more than you have given him,” warned Cadr.
“Instincts! He knows stone, I swear it, more than I could ever teach!”
“You accuse the boy of witching then?” said Cadr.
“These are Roman arts! The mason summons the Romans with his—”
“I said enough, Cadr!” roared Brennus, and cursed himself for letting his brother speak a single word. “Can you never cease your barking?” He wanted to hiss that under the Romans, their children grew to men, but he knew better than to be drawn into an argument with Cadr, especially when he could hear the response: that under the Romans their children grew to slaves. “The idiot. What is the apprentice’s name?”
“Morton, lord,” answered Harvus.
“Morton, boy, look at me.” The hulking boy's head was tucked so far down to his chest that the chieftain could see the knots of muscle about the top of his spine. Oddly, the idiot punched himself softly in the shoulder. Louarn gripped his chin in his meaty fist and yanked it up. Immediately, the boy crushed himself into a ball and commenced a high, horrible howl piercing enough to crack boulders. Louarn kicked him, then Cadr kicked him, and lesser men were backing away in fear
Brennus backhanded his brother across the mouth and Áed bellowed for silence again, which served to shut down most of the crowd, but not the idiot; he only howled louder. The tone was a haunting one, high, like a woman’s, but powered by the lungs of a man. The apprentice huddled on the ground, rocking, and ululating. The people all knew him, but he had always seemed a meek, quiet idiot. They pointed and muttered to each other behind mud-blacked hands.
Cadr glared and Brennus grabbed him, pulling him close, hissing, “Who’s the idiot here? These two are the only men I’ve got to build the walls.”
“These men will bring back the ways of the Romans, and I fear, dear brother that they do it on your orders. The Romans with their baths, their oils, they fled because they were too weak for this island. They relied on slaves, on us, too much. We must not be tempted into their debaucheries. We must be strong. The wall that will hold off Caolwulf will not be made of stone but the iron limbs of Celts, your brothers' and mine. We must work to make them strong, not weak for pining after the luxuries of the Romans. Put an end to this. Make an example of the masons. They must die.”
Cadr did not wait one moment more, but swept off his brother’s grip, hauled Morton to standing by the hair, and shouted to the crowd, “Will we be strong or will we be slaves?”
The woman who scolded him loudly, “Leave the poor idiot alone!” was left unmolested, but the honest man who suggested “The Romans kept us fed,” was clobbered immediately by an irate neighbor. The scuffle became a brawl and Brennus knew that he should wade in with his men, clubbing the violent into submission with the hilts of their swords, but he suddenly felt so very tired. Cadr planted a foot on the spine of the idiot and kicked him into the heart of a six-man fight. Three attacked and three defended and the boy crumpled onto the stone. Harvus the mason dared not go to his aid but fell to his knees and covered his face with his hands. Brennus’ men hesitated, looking to their chieftain for guidance, but he could offer them none for he was looking over the crowd, over the rooftops over the bay toward Crag’s Point where he thought he saw a fire. It was hard to tell, it could have been the light of the setting sun reflecting on a low cloud or the water; the afternoon mist was rising. He was still staring when he saw the square sail and the curved prow rounding the point. The fire grew stronger – yes, definitely a fire now on Crag’s Point, harbinger of the devil, the Saxon, Caolwulf in his dragon-bowed ship.
micheledutcher - This historical era fiction piece seems to be filled with tidbits of life from another age. It is like seeing the shift of cultures from one age to another through the eyes of someone living during that change. Here in America that change would be the time period when the first Europeans hit the shores. Nicely done. Aces in the details provided.
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