Ruadh stood with his back to the straw mattress, unable to watch his father choking on his own blood. He had seen a man’s eye gouged out with a spear point so it hung on his cheek by a thread; he had watched Broichan, the Druid priest, spill the guts of a cow onto the altar like a basket of snakes, but still he could not watch his father suffer so. He could not bear to see the man who had once wielded a sword like a whirling wind now reduced to this poor wretch who cried for the gods to come and rescue him from his abysmal suffering.
In spite of this, his gaze refused to stop straying to the huge brass mirror that hung on the wall opposite his father’s bed, the slightly distorted reflection lending the death scene a surreal quality. His mother, Aodhnait, knelt by his father’s side, trying desperately to staunch the blood with her hands. Although her face was in shadow, Ruadh knew there would be tears on her cheeks.
Behind Aodhnait stood his brothers, Lugaid and Nemglan, each fighting a battle with their own emotions as they watched the death of not only their beloved father, but also of the king of their tribe, who had worked so hard over the past two years to keep the peace between themselves and the hated Romans.
Broichan the Druid perched on the other side of the bed, trying to get the king to drink some noxious potion he had brewed. Eventually, he placed the bowl to one side. The man was past such medicines. Standing, he lifted his hands to the roof and murmured a prayer under his breath. His blond hair, stiff with limewash, was drawn back from his face like a horse’s mane and caught at the nape of his neck with a large silver clasp fashioned in an intricate religious symbol. His dark green cloak was woven with brown patterns of plants and animals, and he looked like a forest spirit, the Green Man maybe, come out of the woods to observe the death of Coinneach, the might king of the Durotriges.
Ruadh shivered, the movement catching the eye of his wife, who held the bowl of water into which Aodhnait dipped her cloths, now as bloody as the man she tried to clean. Finola did not smile, and he knew what she was thinking, what they were all thinking as they waited for the king to die. He glared at her, wanting some sign of support, but she merely turned her attention back to his mother and bent awkwardly to pass some new cloths to Aodhnait. Finola was seven months’ pregnant with her third child, but still carried herself like a warrior in spite of her swollen stomach. She was almost as tall as Ruadh, although slimmer of stature, and striking of appearance. He may not have described her as pretty, but she always wore her hair elaborately styled. Her brows were dyed black with berry juice and her lips red with ruam, and her eyes flashed with the fire that burned within her spirit. She was a match for any king of the tribe, but at that moment Ruadh wished she was a little more submissive and willing to please him.
His gaze strayed back to his own image, and he studied himself impassively for a moment, trying to see how he would look to a stranger. Tall, broad-shouldered and powerfully muscled, with striking copper hair braided intricately and held back with rich clasps and beads, he looked every inch the king’s successor. But he could see the dove’s wings which beat in his heart reflected in his eyes, constantly reminding him that he was fooling them all, and that he would never be able to fill his father’s shoes.
A cough from the king snapped his attention back to the bed, and a fresh spurt of blood erupted from Coinneach’s mouth and nose, spraying Aodhnait’s already- drenched blue tunic. The youngest of the three brothers, Lugaid, turned and bolted. Although Nemglan remained, his face grew even paler.
The king’s body twitched, then went still. Aodhnait collapsed with a wail on top of him.
Broichan let out a snarling, primeval scream to warn the spirits that Coinneach’s soul was on its way to the Otherworld. It was not the first time Ruadh had heard the priest’s death rattle, but the shrillness of the note combined with the cloying sweetness of the herbs burning on the fire made his stomach churn.
He turned and flung aside the skin covering the doorway and went into the cool night air, then leaned against the hut wall, hands on his hips as he bent forward, breathing deeply.
“So, it is over.” Finola followed him out and stood beside him, but she did not reach out to touch him, to comfort him. He straightened to see her looking up at the stars, tracing the constellation of the Warrior with her hand, saying her own prayer of farewell. Turning, her eyes narrowed. “They will come now and take everything. We will have nothing left. We will be lucky to survive.”
“We do not know that,” he snapped. “They have honoured the treaty this long. Why should Coinneach’s death change anything?”
“The pact was made with the old king, not his son. They are clever, these Romans. They knew he did not have long upon this earth.”
“You know what was in Coinneach’s will. He has left half of everything he owns to them. I am sure that will pacify even the greediest of them.”
She spat upon the floor. “If you think that, you are even more of a fool than I thought.”
He glared at her. If she had not been carrying his child, he might have slapped her. He opened his mouth to answer, but a movement caught his attention, and he turned to see some of the men emerging from the large meeting hut twenty paces away. They stopped as they saw the first prince talking with his wife. Now he would have to go over and tell them the news. Finola still had blood on her hands. Could he not have some time to mourn his father before he had to tackle the political arguments that would ensue?
He gritted his teeth. He had never had the stomach for leadership since he had first known of his future responsibilities. Still, he had little choice now Coinneach was dead. He had to keep the tribe together.
“Are you coming?” he asked his wife, turning to walk towards the hut. He stopped as she caught him by the heavy gold bracelet that circled his upper arm.
“Perhaps Nemglan would be the more suitable choice for king.” Her words sliced into him like a blade.
“Thank you for your support.” He threw off her hand. “But I have no intention of giving command to Nemglan. I am now leader of this tribe, and if you cannot offer your support to me, I suggest you return and help Aodhnait with the burial of my father.”
He walked away without turning to see if she followed, but her words stung like salt in a dog bite. Still, Finola was the least of his worries.
The farmers and their families were gathered around several fires outside the hut, and the flames highlighted the fear on their faces. They had heard the stories from the east, where the Romans had taken Prasutagus’s land, beaten his queen and raped his daughters, and they feared for their own lives.
He ignored them and approached the wide hut, the looped-up skin door revealing the light from the torches that spilled out like melted butter.
He stopped in the doorway, looking around the interior. Every space in the large hut had been filled, the nobles of their tribes and their families crowded in, awaiting his arrival. A movement behind told him Finola had joined him after all. To give her support, or to add her accusations to those awaiting him? He didn’t know, but still he gathered some confidence from her presence.
He pushed his way through the people to the speaking platform at the centre of the hut. The faces he passed were grim, unsmiling, worried. He stepped up and turned to face the doorway so those outside could also hear. Finola stayed below, but stood close to him. He held up his hand and waited until everyone fell silent.
“Coinneach is dead,” he said, his voice ringing through hut.
Everyone started talking at once. He waited a few moments for the news to sink in before he raised his hand again.
“The news comes as no surprise to any of us,” he told them, “although I understand foreknowledge of it does not in any way lessen its impact. Coinneach was a good man and a great leader, and he will be sorely missed. The death of a leader at any time makes us feel insecure and worried about the future of our tribe, but if we remain strong, we will have nothing to fear.”
The murmurs started again, and one man stepped forward.
“How can you say we have nothing to fear?” He glanced around to encourage those nearby to back him up. “As soon as they know Coinneach is dead, the Romans will come. They will take everything we own, and if we resist, they will kill us!”
Ruadh glared at the man with distaste. Eochaid was not a chieftain, and his short cloak with its noticeable lack of decoration illustrated his lowly station. He was well known as a troublemaker, and until this night few would have given him the time of day. Now, however, many nodded in agreement with his words, and Ruadh sensed the man spoke for them all.
“Coinneach has made provision for the Romans in his will,” Ruadh told them. “He was sure he had done enough to keep his tribe safe. You trusted his word before he died—why do you doubt him now?”
A few people looked shamefaced, but paradoxically it only angered him that it took his father’s words to make them see sense. Why could they not trust him, too?
He was about to speak again when another man stepped forward. He was clearly a chieftain, with an elaborately woven green and black tunic, and a heavy woollen cloak that reached to his feet, fringed with gold and silver discs that chimed as he moved. His most striking feature, however, in a people who prided their hair above almost everything else, was his hairless head, which had given him his name, Cendchaem, smooth-head.
Ruadh waited to hear what he had to say with interest, as this man had always been his father’s most loyal supporter.
“Normally, I would not give this man’s word a second thought.” Cendchaem gestured towards Eochaid, who frowned. “Today, however, I agree with his fears. We all know what has happened to the Iceni. Why will our fate be any different?”
“We should attack now,” Eochaid shouted, “before they attack us. Perhaps if we take the initiative, we will have a chance of beating them!”
“Beating them?” Ruadh turned to him, furious. “You are talking foolishly. You saw their army, their weapons and their battle strategy when they first came to this island, and many of our tribe died before we accepted their terms for peace. That was Coinneach’s decision too, and you all agreed to it then. His death makes no difference to this. We must continue to keep the peace if we do not all want to die by the sword.”
“How can you say Coinneach’s death makes no difference? The leader of our tribe is dead! What is to stop the Romans killing us all?”
Ruadh felt a movement at his side and turned to see his wife taking the platform beside him. “You say the leader of our tribe is dead.” Her voice, pitched low, rang out across the crowd. “You forget we have a new leader now. Coinneach left us a mighty son to rule in his place, a man who has Coinneach’s blood, Coinneach’s heart. My husband is a good man, and a strong one. He has no intention of letting the Romans take all that we own. And he knows the only way we can achieve this is by being unified. Oisin sings of the Warrior, who strikes when he senses a weakness in his opponent. Well, we must make sure we have no weakness, that we give them no chance to attack. We must unite behind Ruadh. Only then will we be sure of remaining strong.”
Eochaid listened to her words with a sneer. As she finished, he cast Ruadh a disparaging look. “Brave words. But I am not sure that I want a coward for a king!”
Ruadh stared at him. The room had fallen silent at Eochaid’s words, everyone waiting in horror for the new king’s reaction. For a moment the dove’s wings fluttered in his chest. Then the Warrior’s spirit flooded his body, and he leapt from the platform with a roar, his action taking Eochaid by surprise so both men fell back into the straw, people scattering from the spot as they hit the floor.
They rolled, Eochaid striking out with his fists, but he had forgotten Ruadh’s superior height and strength. He pushed Eochaid onto his back with surprising ease and sat astride him so his weight prevented Eochaid from rising. His hands closed around the other’s neck, and the soft flesh and ligaments gave beneath his fingers.
He had often heard Oisin sing of the red mist that came over a man on the battlefield, but although he had fought in many wars, he had done so with a feeling of distaste at the killing, wanting only to protect his tribe and his family. Now, however, he laughed as the Warrior’s spirit flooded him, his body responding to the power, as if it would surely burst from him in a shower of blue sparks. He welcomed the strength, his hands tightening around Eochaid’s neck. The skin and bone buckled easily beneath his grip, and Eochaid’s eyes bulged as he gasped for breath. Ruadh ignored his pleas. For the first time in his life, he wanted to see a man die.
A sharp pain in his right cheek brought him out of the trance, and he drew back sharply as blood ran down his face to see that Finola had cut him with his own dagger, and was now trying to drag him off. “Stop it!” she screamed. “You will kill him!”
“I want to kill him,” he snarled.
“Everyone knows you are king, Ruadh. No one will question you now. Show him mercy and they will honour you the more that you can not only take life, but give it too.” She tugged his arm, almost crying with the effort. “Ruadh, no. The Warrior has you now, but when he is gone you will regret this. I know you too well.”
Ruadh looked back at Eochaid. The red mist of madness was already descending. His wife was right—he would regret this. He sat back, releasing Eochaid’s neck. The man rolled over and gasped as Ruadh rose.
“You made one mistake.” Ruadh kicked Eochaid where he lay groaning in pain. “Although you were right in that I do not wish to see any more deaths, I am not a coward.”
He turned and, with one swift motion, leapt back onto the platform. “Listen to me!” he shouted. “I am king now. Whatever I may have wished, I cannot escape this obligation, and I intend to follow it through to the death. You are my people, and if you unite behind me, we can make sure the Romans cannot touch us.”
As the chieftains and their families cheered, Ruadh smiled triumphantly. He was king now, and no one could take that away.
The Romans came two days later. The Procurator was a man called Decimus. He was an army man, forced to retire due to a serious leg injury and clearly hating every minute of his administrative career. He was dark, tall and heavy, and he walked with a pronounced limp. The people of the Durotriges hated and feared him, and he liked them not a bit more.
“I hear Coinneach is dead.” He announced the words in Ruadh’s own language, seating himself across the table from the new king. Two of his officials stood behind him, and behind Ruadh were Cendchaem and Fearchar, another of Ruadh’s trusted counsellors. “My commiserations,” Decimus continued. “He will be sorely missed.”
“Thank you,” Ruadh said in Latin, with as little feeling in his words as the Roman had expressed. His father had made him learn the Romans’ language. How else, Coinneach had said, was he to know if they were talking about him behind his back? “I know that my father and you had a good relationship based on trust and mutual respect. I hope that may continue with me.”
“Hmm,” Decimus said.
Ruadh could not tell if the man agreed or disagreed. He shifted uneasily in his seat. “I hope your presence here does not foreshadow a problem.”
“As bluntly spoken as your father,” Decimus stated. He leaned back in his seat. His light blue eyes were cold. “You understand, of course, that I made the pact with Coinneach, not his son.”
“I understood you made it with the tribe, not my father,” Ruadh returned. He spoke calmly, but his heart beat faster now.
Decimus shrugged. “I am sorry if I gave that impression. But you must understand that when we added your country to our Empire, we needed to make it as peaceful a transition as possible. However, now that we have a stronger physical presence here, we intend to fully integrate the Britons into our society.”
“Meaning that we can no longer allow tribes to have their full independence. You will begin your integration by handing over all your weapons to us. You will of course have the full benefit of our civilising influence; we bring order, control and an established trading economy with most parts of the world, and enjoy many delights unknown to the barbaric tribes. For these privileges, we will double your taxes—a fair trade, I think.” He raised an eyebrow at Ruadh. “I hope you intend to cooperate with our demands. I cannot bear to think what your penalty would be if you did not.”
Ruadh stared at the taunting Roman. The man had thrown so many insults into one sentence he could not take them all in. He swallowed, Cendchaem and Fearchar shifting angrily behind him. Carefully, he allowed no emotion to cross his face.
What would his father have done? Coinneach had been a passionate, powerful man. But he had also been wise. He would have borne any burden to keep his people alive.
“When does our ‘integration’ begin?” he asked.
“Two days hence. I will come with men to collect your weapons.”
“Our weapons carry the souls of our forefathers within them,” Cendchaem burst out, his hand resting on the sword that hung at his side. “They hold much ritual importance for our people.”
“And how are we to defend ourselves against our enemies without them?” Fearchar added.
“We will deal with any problems you may experience. Soon all will realise that we will allow no uprisings in lands under our control. All will learn to live in peace.”
“Live under the thumb, more like,” muttered Fearchar.
Decimus shrugged. “The wild horse always struggles when one attempts to tame it. But soon it realises the futility of trying to escape. And when under control, it soon becomes loyal to its master.”
Ruadh pushed himself to his feet. “We understand your terms, Roman. That does not mean we have to like them. We want peace, but we also have our pride, so do not push us too far. Now I suggest you go, and let us prepare for your return.”
Decimus stood slowly, eyes narrowed. “Two days, barbarian. Be ready.”
Ruadh and the others watched them go. Only after they had exited the hut did Cendchaem and Fearchar turn to him, outraged.
“Ruadh—how could you let him say such things to us?”
“Are you really going to accept his terms?”
Ruadh held up his hand. “I want you to go to each man and woman and examine their weapons. We will take the best third of them and hide them in the pit in the woods. But do not make it too obvious—leave some good quality in the remainder for the Romans to take their pick. Then, tell each villager to sort their grain, stock and valuables. Again, the Romans can have the worst for their taxes.” He approached the two chieftains and put a hand on their shoulders. “We will survive Decimus’s attempts to crush us. One day, we will be able to fight back.”
They came on the eve of Samhain, the night when the thin barrier between light and darkness opened and the devils left the Otherworld to walk the land of the living. Ruadh stood at the entrance to the compound as the Romans came over the hill, the chieftains behind him moving uneasily in the fading light, as the warm October rain pooled at their feet and made their cloaks sodden and heavy.
“I have a bad feeling about this.” Finola stroked her swollen stomach.
“Everything will be all right.” He reached out to stroke her cheek, then glanced at the Druid priest, who was tracing sigils in the air. “Broichan, what see you in the omens tonight?”
Broichan finished his signing, then put his hands in the long sleeves of his robe. “The goat’s stomach was clean and clear of disease. The gods are watching over you tonight. You will serve our people justly and with courage.” His old face, already wrinkled, creased with worry. “But the rains came before I had finished the sacrifice. They washed the blood from the altar onto the ground. This symbolises the spirit of the tribe returning to the earth. I fear for our people tonight, good king.”
Ruadh turned back to the slope of the hill, where Decimus and some fifty or so men were advancing towards them. “We have what the Roman asked for,” he said softly, to himself as much as to anyone else. “We have nothing to fear.”
The Romans passed through the huts of the farmers, stopping to examine the goods they had displayed in payment of their share of the tax. Decimus rifled through their possessions, casting aside their treasures as if they were worthless stones. The Roman spat upon a sack of grain that one man offered him, and kicked out at a cow that stood waiting patiently to be collected. Ruadh stiffened as Decimus neared.
“Well, Roman.” Ruadh stepped aside to let the man into the compound. “We have done as you desired. The tax is ready for collection, and here are our weapons, as you requested.”
Decimus pushed past him, walked along the line of chieftains, and picked up the occasional sword or axe to examine its quality, only to throw it aside in disgust. Eventually, he turned and came back to Ruadh, his face dark with anger. “Do you take me for a fool, man? Do you think others have not tried this sort of trick before? Where are the weapons you have hidden? And we will not have the bad grain, or the diseased cows. We will take only the best, for that is our right.”
Despair rose inside Ruadh. “We have done as you wished, Decimus. Please take what we have offered you. Do not make further trouble that I will not be able to control.”
Decimus sneered at him. “Yes, I have heard you are weak and do not rule, but rather are ruled by your subjects.” He gestured to one of his men, standing behind him, to go to Ruadh. “Get his sword, Kaeso. And that beautiful torc around his neck.” He smiled mockingly. “The king pays along with his subjects; that is only fair!”
Ruadh took an involuntary step backwards as the Roman soldier approached. “Wait,” he snapped, “you cannot take my weapons. I am king. They are my right.”
Decimus came forward, eyes blazing. “You have no rights now, barbarian. You are a Roman subject and are forbidden to carry weapons. You will yield them to me, or you will be killed.”
For Ruadh, time froze. He saw everything clearly, as if the sun had come out and illuminated every figure in its brightness, although rain continued to fall from the darkened sky. Behind him, the chieftains moved angrily, ready to pounce like hungry wolves. The Romans soldiers that accompanied Decimus stood still, but their eyes betrayed their uneasiness, for although they too scorned the tribes they had conquered, even they could obviously see the danger in provoking them too far.
But it was Decimus’s face that drew Ruadh’s attention. It held the same look of mockery that Eochaid’s had on the night he had challenged the new king, and once again Ruadh’s blood stirred with anger. Finola had been right. He had been a fool to think Coinneach’s death would not change anything.
Calmly, he said, “Finola, get the women and children into the meeting hut. Cendchaem, guard the door. Nemglan and Fearchar, get the weapons from the pit.” He turned back to Decimus, who stared at him in shock, and Ruadh swiftly drew his sword. “And as for you, you son of a mangy street dog, now I am going to kill you.”
He swung the sword at the Roman, who gathered his wits and leapt back sharply, yelling to his men to draw their weapons. Pandemonium broke loose. Out of the corner of his eye Ruadh saw Finola sprinting for the hut, fast even in her condition, dragging the women and children with her. Beside him, the rest of the chieftains drew their own personal weapons, some swords and some axes, bracing themselves as the Roman soldiers rushed towards them. But Decimus was the man he wanted to kill. The Procurator symbolised all the humiliation he and his tribe had suffered. Ruadh had done his best as king and protector of his tribe to ensure their safety and to keep the peace with the invaders, but to no avail. Nothing remained but to fight, and Ruadh wanted nothing more than to feel his sword slide between the Roman’s ribs.
He circled the Roman, who had now drawn his own sword, both of them crouching low. Behind him echoed the clash of iron as blade met blade, and he wondered briefly if Finola was safe in the hut; then Decimus came for him, and all thoughts fled his mind except for the thrill of the battle as he lunged and swung and tried to kill his enemy.
He did not know how long they fought, but the sky darkened and the rain lashed down, and twice his enemy’s sword pierced his skin and raised blood, once in his left thigh, once in his left shoulder. Decimus was strong and well-trained, and Ruadh was tiring. The rain had made his leather tunic heavy, and his feet sloshed ankle-deep in mud.
Dazed, and centred as he was on his own battle, he still heard the scream of a woman in some small part of his brain. Cendchaem must have fallen, and the women were being attacked.
Decimus looked over too, and when he looked back he grinned. “A pretty woman, your wife.” He hefted his sword from one hand to the other. “Nice to know there is a prize awaiting me at the end of this fight.”
Ruadh growled and stumbled away, slipping and sliding across the open space to the meeting hut, where many men still fought, bodies littering the ground, blood seeping into the earth.
He found Finola at the entrance to the hut, struggling with a soldier who was trying to lift her skirts and press her up against the wall, regardless of her pregnant appearance. Ruadh killed the man smoothly without a pause, pushed his wife into the hut and turned to face the battle continuing before him. Only then did he realise Decimus had followed him.
He watched the Roman approach, the man’s dark hair plastered to his head with rain and sweat, face still fierce with anger. His own left arm hung limply at his side, the cut in his shoulder weakening the muscles. Blood ran down his left leg, too. His face felt sore and one eye was already swelling, and from the look on Finola’s face when he ran up to her, he must be badly cut up.
Still, he moved to block Decimus’s entrance to the hut, lifting his sword. “You will not have her,” he snarled, spreading his feet. “You will have to kill me first, Decimus.”
He waited for the Roman to approach, knowing he did not have much strength left. In the distance, a strange wailing indicated that Broichan was carrying out the rites for the Samhain rituals. He shivered. Was the breeze that brushed the rain across his face truly the wind or actually the spirits, stepping through the fabric of reality and wandering his world to plague him? Was the Warrior one of those spirits? He imagined Him entering his body, filling his soul with His passion, His energy. He lifted his head and laughed. His dove’s wings had surely been stilled for the night! Vaguely, he became aware Decimus was waiting, not attacking him. “What you waiting for?” he yelled.
Still, Decimus did not attack. Ruadh stared at him, then turned his head. Around him, the chieftains were gaining ground on the remaining Roman soldiers. Even as he watched, another fell under Lugaid’s axe, crumpling to the ground with his head almost severed from his body. Gradually the realisation struck him. They were winning! They were actually beating the Romans! His heart swelled.
Then he turned back to the Procurator, still not understanding why the man had not attacked him.
Only then did he see the fear in the Roman’s eyes. The dawning made him light-headed. Decimus was afraid of him. Afraid of his passion and his desire to defend his family and people. He straightened, sensing victory.
The blare of a horn from the watchtower drew his attention back to the compound entrance. Decimus turned too, and together they saw the doorway darken with forms, men on horseback with flowing red cloaks, scattering the farmers before them as they entered the enclosure. Decimus turned back to him. Now his expression bore triumph, his reinforcements having arrived. His fear had fled.
Ruadh stared at him, his victory dissipating into the October rain. Slowly, it dawned on him that this was the end. Decimus would not allow any of the chieftains to live. Ruadh would be killed, his woman beaten, his daughter raped, his son taken as a slave. His people would be subject to the harsh rule of the Romans, and would curse his name.
In the sky, the clouds parted, and across the velvety blackness, stars glittered. Three in a line—the Warrior’s belt. He traced them as Finola had, and remembered Broichan’s words. “You will serve our people justly, and with courage.” Suddenly, he saw his destiny.
He raised the sword that had previously been dangling towards the ground, its tip in the puddle at his feet. The water ran down, turning red in the light from the fires the Romans had started by lighting the roofs of the nearby huts. Red as blood. It was an omen. Decimus’s own blood would join the rain before the night ended.
He grinned and took a step closer to the Procurator. “Come, Roman.” His spirits lifted as fear returned to the other’s eyes. “Let us enter the Otherworld together tonight.”
He squared his stance, brought the sword across his body. And then all thoughts fled his mind as he went in for the kill.