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Rage Against the Dying Light
By Jan Surasky
Sandalwood PressCopyright © 2017 Jan Surasky
All rights reserved.
Catrinellia bustled about the long, low table, bossing servants in the Coritani palace's great hall. Her regal bearing, so steadily in evidence as a Celtic queen, had momentarily been intercepted by a strong desire to personally oversee preparations for tonight's banquet. To this end, she fussed at the servants, instructing one to exchange a silver serving platter with carefully sculpted inlaid fish swimming after each other around the rim for a larger, more elaborate, gold one with warriors and chariots, spears at the ready, engaging in battle; another, to bring out a larger serving bowl, one with chunks of amber embedded in the sides and exquisitely chiseled animal heads with coral-studded eyes peering out from under the rim; and, yet another, to set out more wine flagons.
The Silures would arrive this afternoon and Catrinellia knew the importance of a favorable meeting. As queen to the Coritani chieftain Votorix, she knew an alliance with the Silures would help to strengthen the security of the Coritani against the threat of their more warlike southern neighbors the Cautevellani. But, everyone knew how difficult it was to get two Celtic chieftains to agree, especially on politics. Catrinellia hoped that a great, welcoming feast, in the true Celtic tradition, would soften the Silures.
The Silures contingent was an important one. Cunobelinus himself was coming, chief of a tribe that, under his great-grandfather, had stood against the Roman army nearly a hundred years before. Caractacus, his oldest son and royal heir, would be there as well, along with Venutius, a royal ward from the Iberian Deceangli tribe, and the most elite nobles and most honored generals.
She lifted the skirts of her long olive-grey tunic slightly to whisk her tall, agile body more efficiently over the expanse of the high-ceilinged great hall's clay floors. She must check the pantry and the larder, and make certain that the hearth was readied and the spits prepared.
In the hallway outside the great hall, her daughter, the princess Boudicca, stood peering in at the flurry of preparations. To Boudicca, newly-turned sixteen, it was too soon to practice the formalities of queenly duties, at least on a regular basis. Her brother Mandorix, ten years her junior, who so often pestered her for a game of hide the boar's tooth, was at play in the palace courtyard. She turned and slipped unnoticed down the hallway and out the palace's great front iron gates.
The city of the Celtic Coritani tribe stood on a hill overlooking the fertile plains of the northern British countryside. Laid out in the typical Celtic manner, its palace was at one end, its merchants' and artisans' shops and homes lined the narrow streets at the other, and the homes of its nobility and military leaders were set off to the side.
The city looked out over a large expanse of fields and farmers' small, round, thatched clay huts. The fields, rich with grain, were interspersed with large and modest herds of cattle, pigs, and flocks of sheep. It also overlooked the Devon River, which ran down to the North Sea, and which brought succulent fish of all types to the Coritani table.
Boudicca passed through the large, open gate of the stone and timber walls which surrounded the city, with a slow, measured stride. But, as soon as she reached the steep hillside which gave rise to the city, and gazed down upon the meadow which stretched below it, she broke into the run which had given her so much childish pleasure. As she raced down the hillside toward the sacred grove at the far end of the meadow, Boudicca thought of Diviticus. He would be certain to be full of news after his journey to the Isle of Mona for the Druids' annual meeting. And, she would be the first to hear it, even before her father. Diviticus had been her friend since childhood, and always had time to share his Druid wisdom with her, even when Mama and Papa were too busy to satisfy her insatiable curiosity.
Her long, red tresses sparkled in the sun, flowing free about her shoulders, as she ran across the meadow through the newly risen spring violets. She would dress her hair for tonight's banquet in the formal Celtic manner, she thought, but for now, she savored the wind running through it. She arrived at the edge of the grove, and made her way through the stand of sacred oak trees to Diviticus' small, clay hut.
As she reached his hut, Diviticus emerged, ducking as he passed through the small doorway. Outside, the rays of the sun that passed through the trees bounced off his long, blond locks, making the grey that ran through them sparkle. He straightened his long robes as he brought himself up to his full height. The lines that ran through his face, reflecting years of study, lifted somewhat as he saw Boudicca running toward him.
"Diviticus, Diviticus," gasped Boudicca, out of breath as she reached his hut, "what did you bring me?"
"Now, Boudicca," he smiled, slightly, "do you think I went all the way to Mona just to bring you back a gift?"
"Diviticus," she repeated, ignoring his gentle teasing, and throwing her arms around him, "where did you hide it?"
"Well, I guess I will have to surrender it," he said, as he took her hand and drew her inside his hut. There, next to his traveling pack was a small, carved, wooden object. He lifted it gently and handed it to Boudicca.
"Oh, Diviticus," she said, quieting suddenly as she stared down at a small, oaken carving of the Celtic fertility goddess. "What a beautiful likeness of Sequanna."
"It was a pleasant way to pass the lonely nights by the campfire on my journey to Mona," he answered, smiling at her pleasure.
"Now I will have my own image of Sequanna to bedeck with flowers come Beltane," she said. The vision of her own flower-bedecked idol increased her anticipation of the spring rites festival she cherished the most among Celtic customs.
She knew the carving was Diviticus' way to gently remind her that someday she would be a Celtic queen. Then it would be necessary to secure Sequanna's favors for the blessings of royal heirs and a bountiful tribal harvest. But, for now, she wanted only to continue learning at Diviticus' knee and to roam the mossy, anemone-filled floor of the sacred grove. She wanted only to ponder life from her favorite tree stump healed over after a centuries-old stroke of lightning. And, to make friends with the hares that roamed the glade.
"Diviticus," she begged, "tell me about your journey to Mona."
She settled herself cross-legged on the clay floor next to Diviticus, who had already perched himself on a sturdy, three-legged hearth stool, one of the few furnishings to grace his simple hut.
"I traveled through the land of the Brigantes to the Isle of Mona," he began. "Everywhere there were herds of pigs and sheep. The Brigantes are a large and warlike tribe, grown strong from the heritage of their ancestors in the mountains of the Continent. But, for now, on our island, they are content to herd their sheep and plow their fields."
"What are their people like," she asked. She fixed her blue eyes intently upon his face, waiting for his account which would bring her news of the world beyond the Coritani kingdom.
Diviticus chuckled. Despite the maturity of her body, her eagerness to share his travels remained the same when as a child she sat upon his lap and listened to his tales, and nibbled the honey he had gathered along the way, and packed so carefully for her in his knapsack. "The people," he said, "are sturdy, hard-working, and generous. I spent many nights around their fires, and often under their roofs. They shared a hearty rye bread, baked from the grain they grow in abundance, an occasional wild fowl, fish from their streams, and a rich, creamy goat cheese made from a recipe handed down from their Swiss ancestors on the Continent."
"After their meals, they often have trials of valor, as we do," he continued. "The bards and the vates celebrate the hero with wine and song."
Boudicca's eyes sparkled, picturing the Brigantes in the country north of the Coritani.
"They are a strong tribe, with many cities," he added. "Velorix has ruled with great wisdom, for many decades, but he is old now. Cartimandua will soon be queen."
It had been many years since Boudicca had seen Cartimandua. The Brigantes heiress to the throne had often accompanied Velorix on his travels to the Coritani palace for inter-tribal chieftain gatherings. But, now Velorix was ill and did not travel.
Since she was old enough, Boudicca had often romped in the woods with visiting heirs of Celtic kingdoms, many of whom had visited only once and by now had passed out of her memory entirely. But, Cartimandua, the Silures prince Caractacus, and his foster brother Venutius had been frequent visitors.
Caractacus and Venutius, two years older than she, had always shared their companionship with her, often roaming the sacred grove for woodland treasures. A stream which washed the body and the spirit, a hare which foretold the future of the Celtic race. But, Cartimandua, four years her elder, preferred to remain separate, seating herself on an undisturbed fallen log, often accompanied by two or three of her carefully-bred golden hounds. Sometimes, she would seat herself on a three-legged stool hauled to the woodland by a handmaiden, while the servant held a mirror, scrolled in gold and inlaid with coral, to her face, and replaced the strands of ebony hair that had escaped from the elaborate hair-do, or smoothed the wrinkles of her intricately-woven tunic. Often, she passed the time listening to the tunes of a Brigantes court jester, whose musical poems she shared with the others only when they were worn from their woodland jaunts.
Sometimes, Caractacus hunted in the woodlands and shared his hunting skills with his companions. An expert marksman since youth, his blond, good looks depicted the traditional Celtic warrior. He brought down only game which matched the Celtic tradition, sparing the sacred goose and allowing the white hare to run free. Venutius, with the darker looks of the Iberian Celt, more thoughtful but sometimes quicker to anger than his foster brother, shared with her his skill in carving a bow and an arrow from a young, green sapling tree-limb. When the seasons grew full of idle hours without the pleasures of her companions, Boudicca sent arrows wafting onto the wind or toward the circles she drew on the birches and pines with woodland stones.
"Diviticus," asked Boudicca, fixing her gaze again intently upon his twinkling, blue eyes, "what was the talk of at Mona?"
Diviticus' eyes turned serious as he leaned toward her upon his stool and fixed his gaze upon her once again. "We Druids recounted tales of tribal disputes and discussed just methods of settling them. The disputes of warring tribes. Land disputes among the farmer, merchant disputes, military disputes, and even royal household disputes.
"We discussed religious rites and omens. Which omens held the most promise and how best to extract the signs of augury from them. This last brought hot dispute from Xianthus of the Venuti and Triantho of the Cautevellani, which lasted until the sun rose twice, on the merits of right or left passage of a white hare under the stars of a midnight sky."
"But," he added, leaning forward, "the talk was mostly on the fear of Roman attack, and the fear of Roman rule, as our Italian, Gallic, and Iberian cousins have suffered for nearly a century. When Caesar grew tired of attempting to subdue us in tandem with our Gallic neighbors, while they tried his patience with uprisings and drew his fleet, sorely in need of repairs, from our shores, he left with only a loose alliance from two of Briton's Celtic tribes. There is talk that our undefeated isle is a challenge to some of the Roman senate."
"It is said," he continued, "that the Roman emperor Tiberius does not love power and rules justly and wisely. He opposes the gladiator games and does not lust for the acquisition of lands across the sea. But, gladiator matches and expanding the Roman empire are causes dear to the hearts of the Roman senate and to those who wield the power in Rome, and it is feared that there will be attempts upon his life, or attempts to depose him in favor of a more aggressive emperor."
For Boudicca, Caesar's conquest of Gaul in 55 BC, nearly a hundred years before, and his two attempts upon Briton, nearly a year apart, seemed like ancient history. Although she had heard the story of Caesar's landings celebrated in story and song, it melded into the rich and colorful tales of the many exploits of several thousand years in the history of her Celtic ancestors. Of battles and migrations. Of stands against invaders. Of victory. Of the sacking of Rome.
But, what stood in her mind was not the Roman subjugation of Italia, Iberia, and Gaul. It was the earlier attack of Rome upon the Celtic mountain tribes of Germania, where the Celts repelled the Roman armies, remaining free of domination. It was there she was certain that her direct ancestors lay, since the tales of their valor in the face of a highly disciplined Roman army, were full of flaming-haired warriors.
To Diviticus, the fear of Roman attack rose often as he gazed upon the undisturbed meadows of the ancient countryside, the fields tended by serfs who labored under the sun to bring grain from the once fallow soil, and the ancient groves where Druids agonized over justice and practiced the rites of their ancestors which had been handed down through hundreds of centuries.
Diviticus had learned of Caesar's landing on British soil at the knee of his grandfather who, as a young man barely into his twenties, had stood against Caesar's armies. His grandfather spun visions of Celtic warriors who fought with valor and a Roman army driven by discipline and sheer numbers. He told of battles of Celtic tribe against Celtic tribe, which pressed the Cautevellani and Trinovantes to seek Caesar's aid, a favor they paid for with loose alliance to Rome, which they still honored. The fear of Roman armies returning to claim the remaining British Celtic tribes as trophies of the Roman empire, as the western territories of the Continent had proved to be since defeat, seemed always to be ominous.
"It was thought by many Druids that the way to repel the Roman threat was for all of Briton's Celtic tribes to unite to form one nation," continued Diviticus. "But," he mused, "there are those who also believe that we will sooner see the sun set in the east than see all the Celtic tribes of Briton unite under a single banner."
Boudicca listened with patience to Diviticus' talk of politics. She knew it was his way to tell her that one day she would be wed to a Celtic chieftain and, as queen, would be expected to support tribal policy. But, the lush song of the woodland thrush and the faintly perfumed scent of the violets which filled the mossy floor of the ancient grove brought memories of Caractacus' and Venutius' visits past, and visions of their promised stay.
"Diviticus," she said, a smile flashing across her once intense countenance, "Caractacus and Venutius will soon be here."
Diviticus smiled. The joy of her anticipation to roam the sacred grove with her long-time companions filled the room. "Boudicca," he said, gently leaning toward her, "Caractacus and Venutius accompany Cunobelinus on a serious mission. They will sit long in the Coritani council."
"But," she answered, "I must show Caractacus how fat the furry, white hare has got we found as a newborn babe. And," she added, "show Venutius how high the oak has risen we planted from the acorn in the clearing at the edge of the sacred grove."
"And I," he laughed, "must show them the new method we learned at Mona to guide our journey by the stars. But, first," he added, "we must know how important is their visit to the Coritani. Cunobelinus comes to talk of alliance against the threat of warring Celtic tribes. The Silures would build strength with an ally in the north, and the Coritani with the Silures numbers.
"Cunobelinus grows old, and Caractacus will inherit the reign of the Silures tribe. He must sit in council and listen to the talk of affairs of state. He must listen to the nobles and the generals. One day he will be asked to make decisions weighty to the Silures, and perhaps to the destiny of other tribes as well.
"Venutius must also sit in council. As foster son to a royal household, he must abide by the same duties as the king's son. Cunobelinus, in Iberia to seal a trade treaty, saved from the attack of Roman brigands by Venutius' father King Erithrominus, in gratitude promised to educate the young prince as his own firstborn son. Blood member of a royal household on soil where Celtic monarchy has been diminished by the Romans, Venutius is trained to one day be prince consort to a Celtic tribe on our own isle. He, too, must grow wise in tribal ways."
Excerpted from Rage Against the Dying Light by Jan Surasky. Copyright © 2017 Jan Surasky. Excerpted by permission of Sandalwood Press.
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What People are Saying About This
Extensively researched work, it reimagines history in a way that makes the Celtic lands of the first-century very pleasingly accessible with captivating, detailed, even haunting settings, richly developed characters, and well-told social mores that define a civilization.