Authors: N. M. Browne
For Shirley Matthews and Laura Matthews Bailey,
my mother and my sister
Cerys is dead. Her hot head lies in my lap, but already her skin cools in the damp air. We lie, her corpse and I, with the other slaves in the cold, dark curve of the roundhouse wall. She was my only friend.
She won’t be the last to die this night. I know that death is coming for us all, riding on the snow-wind that howls louder than the wolves. I know it where it counts: in my bones and guts; death will be here soon.
I must move, but my back aches from the hard labour of the day and my legs are numb from the weight of Cerys. I can’t feel anything. It is an effort to stroke her fine hair and trace the lines of her face with my fingers. I close her eyes and mutter a prayer for her soul.
‘Shut your mouth, you stupid Brigante cow. I’m trying to sleep.’ Elen’s voice is a low snarl. She accompanies her words with a hard kick to my back. That blow was a mistake. I could kill her with my bare hands if I chose. I’ve kept my head down and my temper under control these last months for Cerys’ sake. Now there is nothing to hold me back. Now no one can punish her for my faults. Cerys is free and so am I. The worst has happened and there is nothing else that I fear. Of course, I don’t kill Elen. She’s not my enemy, just another hard-used slave. This life has cut out the kindness from all of us. Anger is better than grief. Grief is useless. I should be grateful to Elen because anger gives me the strength to shuffle away from her on my knees, Cerys’ slight body in my arms.
My cold breath mists the air. We are as far as we can be from the fire, the snoring Chief, his men, his kin, and the restless hounds. We are further still from the only door. I could have escaped before, but I was honourably taken in battle and then, when I realised there was no honour in enslavement to this Chief, Cerys needed me and I had to stay. She was little more than a child. I saved her from the Chief and the worst of the women’s spite, but fever doesn’t fight fair and I’ve no weapons against that. I cross her arms over her chest before she becomes too stiff to move. She was noble born and deserved better than this crumbling hole of a hall as a burial place. I have no grave gifts for her and that shames me, even as it gives me an idea.
The Chief and his men lie snoring in a stupor. There is little food to be had in this the hungriest of times, but they have feasted on the last of the Falernian wine. They’ve been celebrating some trivial victory over strangers in the woods beyond the River Ddu. The gods have blessed me with their drunkenness.
Usually I keep my eyes from my captors. I’m warrior-trained and I’ve wanted them to forget it so I’ve skulked in the shadows for Cerys’ sake. Humility has become a habit. I look at them now and though they bested us at Ragan’s Field, I can’t see how. I could kill them where they lie, vulnerable as babies, dribbling in their wine-soaked sleep as if death does not stalk them.
I crawl towards them across the stinking rushes. Bric, the Chief’s finest hound, raises his head from his paws. He looks straight at me but his throaty growl is muted. The Chief is quick to anger and it is his dogs and his slaves who bear the brunt of it. I signal to the dog to lie back down. My father had a gift with animals and I have inherited a little of it. Bric obeys me. He is silent but watchful. The Chief’s sword in its jewelled scabbard lies beside his overturned goblet, glinting gold in the firelight and not much more than a long arm’s reach from where I kneel. I stretch my arm towards it. I can’t quite touch it. I almost topple. Bric snarls and the Chief’s eyes open. I hesitate. If the man chooses to attack, I will go down fighting. I can get to the sword before he can. My blood thunders in my ears like the river in full flood. Somehow the Chief’s bleary eyes focus only on the hound. He cuffs Bric hard so that the dog yelps and cowers from him, then the Chief grunts and settles back to sleep. Bric is between me and the blade. Slowly I list the names of all who died at Ragan’s Field and only then, when I have calmed myself, do I move again. I pat Bric’s skinny flanks and scratch behind his ears until he settles back down on his haunches and finally my fingers close round the precious sword. Still I dare not get to my feet but shuffle awkwardly back to Cerys, my long skirts tangling round my legs.
I ease the blade from the scabbard. The Chief, for all his slovenly ways, keeps its edge keen and the blade oiled. It is so good to hold a weapon again. I test its balance, grip its hilt in warrior fashion. Holding it, I am myself again. I can barely feel the blood flow through my fingers but I hold the sword against my jaw and slice cleanly with a steady hand. My hair is my only vanity. It has always been admired for its luxuriance and its reddish colour, the shade of old gold. I slice the plait just below my ear and when it falls away, I feel dizzy with sudden lightness. It is my only treasure and I arrange it like a torque around Cerys’ neck – it is a kind of gold after all and the best I can do, even if it is less than she deserves. I don’t risk rousing Elen again so my prayers are silent and hasty. Every nerve in my body is telling me it is time to go.
I am still too afraid to stand, but I fasten the sword belt around me. I’ve lost weight in the time I’ve been here and the elaborate decorated leather hangs too loosely from my hips. I hitch my skirts up above my knees and then I take Cerys’ thick woollen cloak and brooch from her. I don’t want to but I know she wouldn’t begrudge it; the afterlife cannot be as grim and cold as this one.
I lift the sword so that it doesn’t drag against the ground and crawl slowly past the sleeping men. The Chief’s wife stirs and mutters in her sleep as I approach and one of the babies cries and is instantly put to the breast, but no one wakes for long enough to see me make my clumsy crawl for freedom with the Chief’s best sword. Bric follows me with his eyes and I wish I could take him with me.
I don’t get to my feet until I reach the door. I have to lean a little against the wall for balance. I’m not weak, just worn out with all that has happened and dizzy from lack of food. I wrap Cerys’ cloak around my head and shoulders and secure it with her brooch. I unsheathe the sword, ready. I’m not ready, but I’d rather die of the cold than at the hands of the shining men who will take this hall before the night is over. I’ve seen them. Their metal tunics, splattered with blood, alive with reflected fire. Around them the flames of the blazing hall leap and flicker while the Chief and all his kin scream and die. I should warn them. I am a seeress and my visions are true. I falter for a moment. It is my duty to tell the Chief what I’ve seen, but duty and honour have only brought me here to this tumbledown hall, half starved as a winter hare, friendless and frozen. Besides, the Chief has a druid of his own.
It takes all my strength to lift the apron of leather that cuts out the draughts from the hall, to unbar the great door and push against it. Even the strange Parisi gods whose names I barely know are with me tonight, for someone has oiled the hinge and the great door swings open silently and suddenly I am engulfed by a blizzard. I can hear the hungry baying of the wolves and for an instant almost slink back into the lesser cold of the hall. It takes all my courage to step away from the shelter of the overhanging thatch. The watch are busy warming themselves at the brazier at the gate. I count the huddled shapes. They are all there, shirking their duty; they deserve what is to come.
Within five paces I am camouflaged by snow. It stings my face like the branding iron and blinds me. Luckily I know that it is fifty steps to the timber rampart of the fortress wall. I make them swiftly, praying that the watch are too distracted by their own discomfort to do their job. The sword bounces against my legs and my boots are worn so thin I feel every bump and stone of the ground, but worst of all I am afraid my heart will batter its way out of my chest it is banging so hard in my breast. When I get to the rampart, my legs give way and I collapse into the thick blanket of snow like a speared deer. It is so cold every gulping breath is full of knives. I have to wait until I stop shaking before I can begin to prod each wooden stake in the wall with my sheathed sword. Some will be rotten even in a well-run fort and this is not a well-run fort. It doesn’t take me long to find a piece of wall that crumbles and then it is just a case of levering the timbers apart with my scabbard and bashing at it with the pommel of my sword. It is hard to hear anything in this wind and there is still no sign of the watch. I work at the timbers with my numb fingers until I can make a hole big enough for me. The wood, jagged as a broken tooth, scrapes the skin from my back but then I’m through.
I’d forgotten the sheerness of the slope beyond the rampart. I can’t keep my feet. I have time to thank the triple-faced goddess for the thickness of the snow, then I slip and I’m tumbling, rolling, falling down and away from the place of my humiliation, bashed, almost broken . . . and free.
I can’t see anything but whiteness. Ice stings my eyes and snow fills my mouth and ears. In the darkness I’m not sure which way is up and I’m thrashing around like a fish out of water. It’s all right. I can breathe and I don’t think anything is broken. I should run before the watch see what I’ve done to the wall, or before the flame-wielding enemy breaches the rampart. I struggle to get to my feet but pitch backwards into the wet snow because I am falling into that other darkness and another vision.