After the Battle
Tod was roused by Honey’s sleepy protest as Bird was lifting her from his arms. “Tod, my man, I’m just putting Honey on the sleeping bench. Why don’t I help you get over there too?”
Yes, that would be good. She was warm, it was almost dawn, it would be good to fall back into the darkness and heal.
Stunned by the contretemps that left his friend in a heap at the feet of the auxiliaries, Artos-the-Bear unstrung his bow, scooped up Kit’s abandoned weapon and hoisted Rusty over his shoulder. There was too much adrenaline in his blood to do anything but act. His heart would break later.
A part of his mind was aware that Stud had escaped what seemed like hours ago; he’d fled as soon as Kit had gone down. His best friend had lain unconscious, completely at the mercy of the soldiers. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way, he was supposed to do the retrieval, Kit the distraction, that’s the way they always worked it. This was completely fucked.
He knew his duty, make sure Rufus got to safety, bind up his leg and get his ass home. He never could have imagined bright, laughing, Kit gone. Their plan had always been that he would be the herdsman, Kit was meant to be the priest; they would end up crotchety old men, gossiping about the women they had known.
He had to find and keep an eye on Kit’s children, help them when he could. Artos owed Kit that; he vowed to hold him in his memory, tell his story over and over again. His eyes stung, he blinked repeatedly.
Artos felt like the path was all uphill, he was so tired his legs were trembling. He forced himself to keep moving, only making a quick stop to bind up Rufus’ thigh. Maybe Rufus wouldn’t make it, he was still out and he’d lost a lot of blood. Fool kid, rushing down to the track that way – blew the whole thing. None of them had a chance after that.
It had taken them most of the night to make their way through the shadowed spruce groves, to get anywhere near where the Romans were working, the trip back seemed too short. Despite the weight on his soul and Rufus on his shoulders he would be there right after day meal. Huh, it had been much slower going in the dark.
Crossing the last ridge that stood between the blood spattered pass and home Artos started across the sloped meadow. As soon as the Clan spied the distant figure staggering toward home they gathered. More than the inert figure in his arms, it was the tears streaming down his face that told them the news was bad. Hands extended, they helped carry Rufus over the last stretch.
Kit’s father, the Apa1 Samognatus2, had taken the time to arm himself and put on his golden torque and armbands; he stood waiting at the threshold, the mountains at his back. The chief would meet tragedy with dignity, still, horror tightened his throat.
The men looked steadily at each other. There would be no turning back once the words were spoken. They held reality at bay until Rufus’ family broke through the crowd and the women began to wail, tearing at their clothes. Rufus was lifted and carried indoors to be tended.
He’d been rehearsing what he would say, he needed to speak plainly. He’d combed through what had happened, searching for anything he could have done to prevent what happened. He and Kit were up-slope from Rufus, there was no way they could have gotten there to prevent his leap into disaster.
Kit may not have been the chief’s favorite son, but nonetheless he swelled with anger and he shook Artos harder. “Tell me!”
“The Romans need to learn respect, we are not unwashed, unlettered savages. We thought to get their attention with a quick wasp sting. It isn’t right, the way they treat us.
“We planned to strike over where they are building the road through the pass. We were going to stay within the cover of the evergreens, loose some arrows, and get out. I don’t know what got into Rufus, maybe he slipped. But he yelled and landed in the middle of a party of auxiliaries. Or maybe it was the other way around: he slipped and yelled when one of them ran a sword into his leg. We couldn’t see from where we were standing. We got down there as fast as we could and we did like we always do. I grabbed Rufus and Kit ran in to distract them. Since he is so agile that’s the part he usually takes. I kept moving but he went down and the soldiers grabbed him.
“It should have worked, we got Button away that time, and we got the little girl away from the pigs. We’ve done it time after time playing ball, we could have done it in our sleep. It should have worked.”
The Apa thundered:”Where was the other boy? The one who calls himself Stud?”
“I don’t know, he vanished as soon as Kit was down; I thought he came back here.”
“Find him,” he glared at the rest of the hovering men, “track the soldiers if you can. Find out where they’ve taken my son.”
On the track through the pass and later in a supply wagon en route to Castra Vetera
Kit could hear men arguing…somewhere…behind him? Two, no, three, more. His head hurt. Someone was pounding, scratching and pounding; the clangor was louder than the screech and rattle. He couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. “Hey!” Loud, more voices. His head hurt worse than ever and everything was all swimmy. Rough hands dragged him to his feet, pulled at his tunic.“Lookee here, not your average Celt.
This one’s all painted up. Total barbarian.” More rough hands grabbed his hair and dragged his face upwards. “Not civilized, betcha all he can say is :’bababa’”
Laughter swelled and crashed over him. His vision was filled with laughing mouths and snaggled teeth. Everything slid sideways, then it was dark again.
He woke several times more, each time the black pain in his head brought nausea and a foul taste in his mouth before things faded.
Finally the constant jounce and jingle stopped and he was dragged upright into what looked like torch light.
The brightness hurt his eyes. Again he’d retreated into unconsciousness. The darkness was a blessing. There were many things he was happy not to remember.
If he thought too much on it the whipsaw of his emotions would capture him and spin him into a storm of fear and anger.
Something bad would happen, and he couldn’t afford that. Not with these people.
at Castra Vetera
Publius Quinctilius Varus was an embarrassment to his nephew, Lucius Vipstanus Gallus, even if he was an uncle only by way of his wife’s first marriage. He would rather appear to be oblivious to the bad smell that hovered over that part of the family than retire to the country in shame. He would enjoy his position, unlike Varus’ other nephew and deputy Lucius Nonius Asprenas, of sober and diligent repute.
His rotation as legate at Castra Vetera3 on the Via Agrippa had begun with him knee deep in whispers about Varus’ disaster; this gave him to understand that perhaps he had been overly optimistic about his career. His wife would not set foot in the wilds of the Gaulish provinces and declared that their sons would not run with a bunch of barbarians nor would they be schooled by a bunch of hardened soldiers. She’d heard stories….
And so Vipstanus signed documents, listened to reports and agreed with whatever the praefectus castrorum, the senior centurion, had suggested. It was dull, dull, dull.
Dull was better, dull would get him home sooner rather than later, above all dull was safe. But…..ye Gods and little fishes, the amenities were lacking.
Until a little entertainment came within reach. The scouts had gone out on a routine patrol and encountered a few recalcitrant Raetians on a raid and brought back a princeling or priestling of some sort. It was about time he got some amusement out of this posting.
Vipstanus rose from his couch, where he had idly been swirling the dregs in his wine cup, tied his boots back on – and for the sake of his dignity, a cloak. It wasn’t Rome, but by his ancestors, he had some standards! With a dignified pace the legate went to see what the cat’d dragged in.
Some of the lowland Raetians, sensing the inevitable tide, had taken the Emperor’s coin but the highlanders, having heard of the heavy taxes and tolls imposed by the Romans, tossed their heads like stallions and declared:“Never!”
So amusing, so futile.
They were hammering home the final bolt on the manacles restraining a fine tattooed specimen. From the elaborate inked designs – perhaps someone of importance. A bit gaunt and battered, but guerrilla warfare will do that. Nicely muscled, not too scarred, a valuable trophy for the right person. Meanwhile….
there would be compensations. A holdover from the rebellions, a stripling warrior, an unbroken colt so to speak. How sweet it was!
“Get a collar on him, clean him up; make sure Servius does the brand, he’s much neater with the iron….and then bring the slave to me.”
9 CE, up mountain
His uncle could see deeply into people’s spirits; if they’d dreamed truly, he could see what they’d dreamed and would scribe an indelible memory of those images on their skin. Uncle Cat would let him assist in grinding the pigments, and holding the pots of ink as he worked. It was an exhausting business for all concerned; the ceremony, the laying out of the figure, just so, the actual hovering over the initiate until the process was complete. For one of Uncle’s great tattoos…they would get a winter’s worth of food.
The legate straightened his clothes and called Iberius over to remove the Raetian archer. “Give him over to Merulla4 to clean and tend. She’ll take ‘good’ care of him.” He chuckled at his own wit. “Get it Iberius? Good, heh, heh.”
Iberius laughed obediently. “Very clever wordplay, sir. I’ll get him out of your way now.”
Everybody in the quarters called Merulla, Bon, short for Bona (good), ha, ha. Mostly because everybody wanted to stay on her good (ha, ha, again) side.
A formidable woman and former nurse to the legate’s children, she had been sent by his wife to run this household – and probably report back to her.
They call me Merulla, Bona if they want something. I’ve forgotten the name my mother gave me. She said she was taken from Cush, far to the south. I don’t know who my father was. Somebody smarter than my mother. He got away. My mother got dead. It is hard to escape when your skin is this dark. Maybe that’s why they dragged my sorry ass north, they knew I wanted to run.
Ohhhh, they do call me, whenever they want something straightened out, someone nursed.
Oh, Bon, you’re the only one that can fix this, talk to these people, heal that. You don’t want to know about the rest of the time.
Me, I’m biding my time, I will get myself free, one way or the other. Or else.
Now it is Ohhhh, Bon, you’ve gotta take care of this boy. He’s real messed up. Legate took his whole family’s troubles out on his ass. Poor kid wasn’t so good when he got here, now he’s a lot worse.
And I thought I was going to get some sleep, uhhh, uhhh, unnh.
They’d put him in an alcove off the kitchen. She’d seen plenty of brutality in her life, but something about this battered figure just tore her heart.
Sweet mother of all the Gods! Lucius Vipstanus Gallus,is a rutting goat. Better he were Galli5 than Gallus, and never got it up again.
What am I supposed to do with this filthy mess?
“Iberius, let’s see what kind of damage we are dealing with. You get some water, I’ll get the rags.” her voice was calmbut her face was tight with fury.
Iberius grabbed her arm “What has you so upset, Bon? This is just what happens to slaves. We’ve both gone through it. We have no value.”
Merulla slowly shook her head. “I don’t know. I was born to it, I’ve seen it all. But yesterday he was free, today he is just a thing.”
She swung away from the alcove to raid the rag-bag.The Spaniard, Iberius, watched Bon move away,
fascinated by the roll of her substantial hips and the contrapuntal motion of her heavy breasts. Blackbird fly…..
He’d often fantasized about her but he valued his balls too much to make a move. A man could lose himself in her glory
. Ahhh, Bon. He hurried to get a basin of water.
One way or another they managed to get the damaged slave clean, wipe the road dirt off, clean the angry looking brand and put salve on it, wash the blood from between his buttocks. Neither said a word, since they’d both seen worse.
After he was laid out on his stomach, Iberius voiced every man’s concern – “At least they didn’t castrate him.”
Merulla’s cynical retort was: “That’s because geldings are no fun. Varus likes some fight in his victims.”
…and then bring the slave to me.”
For three years those words were Tod’s waking nightmare.
At first they chained him to a pillar in the atrium, his humiliation on display for all the couriers, clients, and men of rank to sneer at. There was no scrap of cloth to cover him or to soften the ground, nor any privacy. Day after day he was left to stare at the sharply geometric mosaics that patterned the floor. Dark thumbnail squares, down eight and across eleven, down eight … on and on.
Always the same, perfectly regimented, paired ebon angles on a russet field. Tod counted until he lost count, or until the light grew dim, or someone kicked him.
Then he’d have to start all over again with the dark squares: down eight, across eleven, down eight. He never got
past the pattern to counting the ivory bits, someone laughed at him, mocked him,
Where are your arrows, O mighty bowman,
not feeling so sharp now are you.
Some spoke Celtic, some spoke his dialect. He could understand enough Latin that he understood their insults too.
If you serve Vipstanus well, maybe he’ll get you a new dress, sweetheart.
Sooner or later the light would go dim and his true torture would begin. They quickly learned not to feed him until after he’d been brought before the legate. A lesson neither they nor he would not forget after he’d vomited on some expensive hangings. For that incident he’d gotten such a beating with the centurion’s vitis that the soldier had toyell for an unbroken staff to finish the job. When gray dawn crept across the floor and the household stirred, he was given a skimpy bowl of pottage, handed a bucket and a rag, and told to clean up the ‘stupid barbarian filth and blood’ from where he’d lay.
The parade of collaborators, calumny, and couriers would begin again. Tod shielded himself as best he could behind his pillar, always keeping the dream creature he carried on his back facing the red oxide washed wall. The information carried in the image was for his fellow initiates and clansmen alone.
Every day as Tod felt himself grow weaker from lack of food and exercise, he retreated further and further into his memories.
Tod got days’ worth of reverie from his memories as Kit. There were the great clan feasts and the girls….no he wouldn’t think of those sweet wild girls in this place. He had to think of things that would keep him strong.
He could hide in the past, hide from the awareness of this juncture, events that had trapped him at a point where he questioned himself and his fate. Had the Goddess forsaken him? Or was he trapped in the world of his spirit dream? His body had betrayed him, it was not strong enough to withstand the abuse heaped on it. Or was his mind not strong enough to hold him firm and prevent his body from writhing like an animal.
The old Iberian freedman who oversaw his feeding and led him to the baths was brusquely kind. Once, in the bath, the man had even stripped down to help him with the unfamiliar jars and bottles. Tod could see that he had been harshly used. Scars from a flogging ridged his back and there were twisted areas where he had been broken but hadn’t healed right. A survivor, worth listening to.
Tod really hated stinking of oil-of-roses. That Iberian had oiled and scraped him before dragging him to the barber. This effeminacy was insult to the Goddess!6 Getting his hair trimmed in the Roman style was bad enough but when they came at him with razors he had to be held down. He was a man! They would have him looking like a child or a woman. He shuddered in revulsion; the legate wanted him as a catamite! Last night, after his branding, wasn’t a one time thing! With that realization he fought and bucked like a berserker, until the barber called in one of the guards and Merulla (who was very strong) to hold him down.
The team calmly advised him to hold still or he’d be losing some important pieces, which meant in turn that he would be losing value since he was too old to be a proper eunuch and would end up working in the mines.
The guard reassured him that the legate would lose interest soon, he always did. It curdled his soul to be some greasy pederast’s deliciae, their sweet little tidbit.
The guard’s word was true and soon enough the legate’s interest was caught by a captured he-wolf which was displayed in the atrium. Tod was put to work feeding the furnace in the hypocaust.
The Iberian had a name when he was bought, but it didn’t suit, so he became Iberius. Tod was given over to him to school in the ways of the house. Iberius understood the boy’s drive to escape, but at his age he couldn’t live through another flogging and wasn’t about to trade his life for someone else’s chance at freedom.
Bluntly he spelled out the facts. It wasn’t worth anyone’s life to help a slave escape; between the collar and the brand he was a marked man. If he tried and was caught he would be re-branded as a fugitive; that nasty FUG scar on his cheek would scare all the girls off for sure. If he failed in his attempt, his best advice was to get himself killed as soon as possible.
After those grim warnings Iberius slapped his knees and creakily stood up. “Let me show you where you will be working.” He led Tod through a narrow passage, along a wall and around a corner where he came face to face with an enormous pile of wood. “This is the hypocaust, it heats the bath, both dining rooms and the legate’s chamber. Since it is still summer, the work is light and only the bath needs to be fired up for the afternoon. As long as the weather is mild the legate will be dining outside, if it rains he may decide to entertain in either the small or the large dining rooms. By winter you will require help to keep the fires sufficiently stoked to heat the bath, the dining rooms and his private apartment.
“We are lucky that his wife isn’t in residence. Women tie up the bath all morning and generally are a lot more work. They notice things.
“Until the powers that be decide else wise you will be shackled to your workstation, either here or in the bakehouse.” Wandering back towards the kitchen garden Iberius pointed in the direction of a substantial building. “They always need help grinding grain.” Moving towards the kitchen itself, tugging on the chain to hurry Tod along. “The legate prefers a fine bread….mutter, mutter…not of the old stock, I can tell you…mutter.”
That was when the weight of his helplessness began to press into Tod. It was easy to stay defiant when facing his enemies, not so easy when chained in the dank space used to house slaves. The ergastulum had been designed according to the best modern principles suggested for the housing of slaves. They were, after all, expendable, consumable, unlike more durable goods such as a cart or fine furniture. There was no reason to provide light or pleasant sleeping quarters. They were a prelude to a grave. He had felt his life being wrenched off course that morning during their abortive strike at the Romans. His former life, as Kit, had died on that mountain pass.
And so the days came and went; making sure the fires were stoked just so for the legate’s bath, unloading carts filled with firewood. He was able to make a game out of stacking the firewood, twisting his shoulders in an underhanded pitch that landed the split on the stack with a satisfying thunk. The area around the hypocaust gradually filled with cord after cord of wood in preparation for the cold season.
The slaves and freeborn ate their main meal while Vipstanus was in the bath, the body servants ate while he dined (no wonder they were all sleek as otters). They had about an hour before Merulla declared that they had to clear the decks – it all depended on how many dinner guests there would be and how much the legate wanted to impress them.
Ordinarily it was variations on the same pottage. Whatever greens were ready in the garden, whatever grain was handy, some dried beans and a bit of smoked meat maybe, or cheese. Always wheat bread, always watered wine, occasionally weak beer, sometimes fruit. Tod’s belly had a hard time getting used to the wheat bread, barley suited his gut better. The olives were nice and salty but he missed the butter and cheese of his homeland. Some days he thought he would kill for a pitcher of his stepmother’s ale.
Soon Tod would have to slide further into the recesses of the sleeping bench. For now he would luxuriate in the warmth and scents surrounding him and his people. His to tend, his wealth, his security. Horse grunted and shifted slightly in his sleep, a human sound, part of his earliest memories, along with smoke stained beams and firelight. The sort of things you neither hear nor see at the time but which richly paint the past.
Ever since….NO. Tod rolled closer to Honey nuzzling into the nape of her neck. This was good, this was right, he wouldn’t think about the other.
1 Apa: Clan father or chief
2 Samognatus: summer born.
3 Around 15 BC the Roman camp Castra Vetera was created near modern-day Birten. It was intended as a base for campaigns into Germania and until its destruction during the Revolt of the Batavi in 70 AD it was occupied by 8,000 to 10,000 legionaries.
4 Merulla: Blackbird.
5 The first Galli arrived in Rome when the Senate officially adopted Cybele as a state goddess in 204 BC. Roman citizens were prohibited from becoming Galli, which meant that they were all orientals or slaves. Under Claudius, this ban was lifted. Eventually Domitian reaffirmed that Roman citizens were forbidden to practice eviratio (castration).
The Galli castrated themselves during an ecstatic celebration called the Dies sanguinis, or “Day of Blood”, which took place on March 24. At the same time they put on women’s costume, mostly yellow in colour, and a sort of turban, together with pendants and ear-rings. They also wore their hair long, and bleached, and wore heavy make-up. They wandered around with followers, begging for charity, in return for which they were prepared to tell fortunes. On the day of mourning for Attis they ran around wildly and disheveled. They performed dances to the music of pipes and tambourines, and, in an ecstasy, flogged themselves until they bled.
6 the medieval Icelandic law book, said that a man was free to kill someone who spoke certain forms of insults. Most of these insults have as their basis the implication that a man acted in a womanly manner. To a Norseman, cowardice and effeminacy were two sides of the same coin. Effeminacy implied sexual and social impotence. To suggest that a Norseman was no man (such as suggesting that he was the submissive partner in an encounter) was a mortal insult. The Celts and the Norse were close enough culturally that I think logical parallels can be drawn.
I must again thank penpractice, Aspis7and my pocket archeologist Adhara Tamar for all their help and encouragement.