The Eagle and the Raven
By Pauline Gedge
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 1978 Pauline Gedge
All rights reserved.
Autumn, A.D. 32
CARADOC PUSHED HIS WAY through the dense thicket of briars and found himself out in the open at last, free of the forest's somber shadows. With a sense of weak relief, he sheathed his sword, hugged his cloak more firmly about him, and squatted for a moment on the gentle slope of the bank, watching the sullen flow of the river as he recovered his breath and his bearings. For a while he had believed himself lost and had thrashed about in the pathless halls, knowing full well the panic that seized him. For this was Samain, and even his father's best warriors, men who feared nothing and no one, were afraid on this day and were not ashamed. The sky had been gray all day, and now a bitter, driving wind had sprung up. It would bring rain, but he lingered, unwilling to rise from the damp grass, yet anxious from the swift coming of night and from the trees at his back which spoke of dark secrets he could not understand. He shivered, but not from the cold, and, morose, he huddled deeper into his cloak, thinking of all the Samains he had seen come and go.
His earliest memories were full of the same fear that had gripped him in the forest, of his father, Cunobelin, sitting like a great bulk of shadow, gazing into the fire, of Togodumnus his brother, and Gladys his sister, silent and uncomprehending, clinging together at his father's feet, while his mother lay on the bed and held him close, her arms stiff. The eerie autumn wind would whisper round the doorskins, and the fingers of night would rustle above in the thatching. They would sit thus through the dark, slow-moving hours, the children dozing and waking again to see the fire burned low and Cunobelin leaning over to lay more wood upon it, and only when the pale, reluctant dawn crept shamefacedly into the room would any of them dare to speak. Later, after porridge and bread and a piece of honeycomb, they would gather in the Great Hall, anxiously counting the chiefs and freemen as they straggled in, afraid to ask if any had been taken, afraid to ask who had been spared. Then, in the late cold morning, the cattle slaughter would begin, and for days the reek of blood would hang over the town. Samain. How he hated it. Another night of terror, another day of killing, another year almost over.
A sudden splash of color caught his eye and he turned. His brother had emerged from the trees where the path wound down to the riverbank. Togodumnus was not alone. Aricia walked beside him, her black hair streaming out behind her and the long folds of her tunic pressed tightly to her lithe body, her blue cloak and Tog's crimson flapping against each other. They seemed to be arguing, and they stopped and faced one another, their voices rising vehemently, but they were still too far away for Caradoc to catch any words. All at once they burst out laughing, and Aricia's hands, her long white fingers, fluttered in the fading light. The pale butterflies of spring. For a moment Caradoc was dazzled by their flight, but soon he rose, and, at the movement, Togodumnus saw him, waved, and began to run down the path. Aricia caught at her cloak and vainly tried to wrap it around her as Caradoc slowly went to meet them.
"We lost you!" Togodumnus shouted, coming up panting. "Did you make a kill?"
"No. He bolted into a thicket, but by the time the dogs had found a way in, he had vanished. Where is my horse?"
"Aricia tethered him and then we looked for you. She was angry because the gate will be closed soon, and it looks as though the night will be stormy. She wanted to leave you to your fate." He grinned. "She didn't want to spend Samain Eve in the woods."
"You were the one who cast fearful glances over your shoulder, Tog, and I was the one who had to lead Caradoc's horse," Aricia protested hotly. "I am afraid of nothing," she said, smiling at Caradoc in mute complicity.
It was late afternoon and the light was failing rapidly. In the north, the clouds billowed ominously, piled one on top of the other by the force of the wind, and the three hunters hurried toward the horses and mounted quickly. Togodumnus led the way, cantering easily beside the water; Aricia swung into a gallop beside him, and Caradoc brought up the rear. Once the first gate was past, they would still have to go six miles, through straggling clusters of huts, beside farmsteads, skirting meadows. In an hour they would be drinking warm wine beside their own fires, their feet to the friendly flames.
Caradoc suddenly thundered past Aricia and motioned Togodumnus to rein in. "The dogs!" He shouted, waving his arms furiously. "We forgot the dogs!"
"You fool!" Togodumnus swore at him. "Where did they go after they lost the boar?"
"They went charging off into the underbrush on some other scent. I whistled them and they came and then I started back for the path. Why call me a fool? You two are the greater idiots for not following when they were hot for a kill!"
"You are both fools and idiots," Aricia broke in, her voice betraying a verge of panic. "Cunobelin forbade you to take out the dogs because they are bound for Rome the day after tomorrow. But what did that mean to you? Just another admonition to be ignored." She gathered up the reins and kneed her horse. "Well, you can go back into the woods and hunt for them, if you dare. I am cold and tired. I'm going." She trotted past them and then picked up speed. In a moment the dusk swallowed her and the young men were alone. They eyed one another, aware of the growing dimness and the unnameable things that waited in the trees beyond.
"What shall we do?" Togodumnus said. "That vixen — — It was her idea to hunt today and well she knows it. Some night I shall catch her and tie her to a tree, let the Raven of Nightmares have her."
"Hush," Caradoc hissed. "She'll hear you and She'll come. We must get home. Tomorrow we can tell father and take our punishment."
Togodumnus shook his head, but Caradoc had already started for the gate, and Togodumnus followed. The wind had risen to a shriek, clawing at their hair and their heels, and the horses snorted and stretched into a wild gallop. When they reached the first gate, they fell off their horses and ran across the dyke, dragging the reins in their sweaty hands. As they tumbled headlong toward the gate the gateguard came running out, his torch held high.
"I was not going to wait for you another moment, Lords," he grumbled as he slammed the big wooden gates closed behind their horses. "Such foolishness, to keep me sitting by a naked gate on this night of all nights!"
The man's sword was in his other hand. But what could a sword do against the demons of Samain? Caradoc wondered. "Has Aricia been through?" he asked. The man nodded. "And dogs? Have any dogs been through?"
"Yes, indeed. A pack of them an hour ago, lathered up and worn out."
Togodumnus clapped his brother on the back. "There! The hounds have more sense than we! Thanks to you, freeman. Go back to your hearth." The man sheathed his sword and turned away.
"Now for bed," Caradoc sighed as they mounted. "And not even a rabbit to show for a wasted day. Father will surely notice Brutus's ripped ear."
"Of course he'll notice, and he'll take a heifer from each of us for the price of the hound. What ill luck!"
"How could Samain Eve bring anything but bad luck? And just when my honor-price has been going up."
"It's a good thing that your honor-price depends on more than your cattle. What surety did Sholto offer you for the loan of your two bulls?"
"He has pledged himself and his kin to me. He is a good man to retain. I told him that if he oathed to me instead of to you I would give him one of the bulls and buy his wife a Roman drinking cup, of silver."
"Caradoc! No freeman's loyalty is worth a whole bull! Besides, I offered him a bull and a heifer."
"Then why did he decide to oath to me?"
"Because you never make your freemen do anything but count your precious cows! Oh, a curse, it's beginning to rain. Perhaps it will turn to snow."
"Too early in the year," Caradoc answered shortly, and they finished the ride in silence, their shoulders hunched into their cloaks, water dripping from their elbows and heels and driving cold into their faces.
The way was dark as they followed the rough, winding path across the little fields. The peasants would be huddling together in their hovels, the chiefs and freemen in their wooden huts, and they passed no one. Occasionally they heard the restless lowing of cattle, brought in from summer pastures and herded together within the wooden palisades, but even the wild animals had gone to ground and it seemed to the two youths that they were the only living things left on earth. Caradoc and Togodumnus plodded on, their horses' hoofs falling quietly on the sodden, leaf-strewn path. Beside them, they could see Aricia's track in the wet grass, the horse's prints already filling with black water, but soon the night was fully dark and they could see nothing but the thin ribbon of road that wound slowly and hypnotically beneath them. Togodumnus began to sing quietly under his breath but Caradoc hushed him once more, ashamed of the fear that welled up inside him. Already seventeen, he had killed his man and raided for cattle; he had hunted deer and boar and wild wolf. These things he could face and understand, but the nebulous, drifting spirits of Samain, the demons who waited this night to drag their victims to the woods, these he could not turn to best with a slash of his sword. He felt them now, standing just within the cover of the gaunt, leafless branches meeting over his head, watching him with hatred, wanting to do harm. He gripped the wet reins ever tighter and spoke quietly to his horse. Togodumnus began to hum but this time Caradoc left him alone. One more bend, and they would be home.
They finally dismounted inside the second gate, their thighs wet and chafed and their hands blue with cold. The stable servant ran out to meet them; he took the reins from their stiff fingers and led the tired horses away without a word.
Togodumnus took off his cloak and watched the water trickle between his fingers as he wrung it out. "Will you sleep tonight?" he asked his brother.
Caradoc shook his head. "I don't think so. Hot wine and dry clothes for me, and then perhaps a song or two from Caelte to keep the vengeful ones from my door." His voice echoed against the darkened huts. "Tomorrow we can breathe again, but in the meantime you can go to the kennels and check the dogs. It was your idea to take them out."
"No, it was not! Aricia and I got into a fight. She said I was too much of a coward to disobey Cunobelin, she said I had no guts! Besides, you lost them, not me."
"Oh Tog, why do you listen to her? You know she will get you into trouble."
Togodumnus's eyes glistened. "Not as much trouble as she will make for you, my brother, if Cunobelin ever hears what you and she are about all the time."
"What do you know about that?" Caradoc asked him sharply, grinning.
"Nothing. Only rumors. Well, a good night to you Caradoc, and good hunting."
"Tog! Come back!" Caradoc shouted, but Togodumnus was already striding between the silent homes on the steep hill to his own little hut. Caradoc resignedly moved west into the deeper shadows of the tall earthwall, his footfalls sounding fatally loud in his ears. He soon came to his father's stables, where a gush of warm, sweet-smelling air engulfed him for the moment, but then he turned, passing the blacksmith's forge and the harness maker's shop, and so came to the kennels.
He counted the cages carefully and stopped at last, squatting, calling softly. The hounds ran to the fence and quietly pushed their cold noses into his hand. He quickly ran his eye over them once, twice. There was one missing. Caradoc groaned to himself as he started to count again, not certain which one was gone. Brutus, half his ear hanging over his nose, watched him reproachfully. Finally Caradoc cursed out loud. It was Caesar. The one dog prized above all others of this litter, the one that had been especially trained for Tiberius himself. It would be that one, Caradoc swore, remembering why Cunobelin, with his sly humor, had given the beast such a name. It was not for Tiberius's sake that the dog was so blessed, but for that of Julius Caesar, who had come to Albion twice and gone away twice, never to return. Cunobelin had remarked to his sons that Julius had not, after all, been a very good hunter.
Caradoc stood irresolutely, his hair sticking to his forehead and his cloak, heavy with water, hanging from his shoulders. He did not doubt that Caesar had led the dogs back home. Putting himself in Caesar's place, he suddenly realized where the dog would be — — somewhere warm. Caradoc turned to begin his search, starting with the blacksmith's, then the harness maker's, the stinking tanneries, the stables. Determined he left the fourth circle and walked slowly up to where the freemen commoners lived, an area of squalor and confusion. He knocked on walls and pushed aside doorskins, frightening the tribesmen who at first saw in this dark, sopping figure a cunningly disguised spirit. Minute after minute passed, and at last he had to admit defeat.
He swung abruptly into the climb to his own house, but when he came out above the buildings perched on the slope, the wind caught him and he staggered and almost fell. All at once the skies opened further, releasing a black wall of ice-tipped, stinging rain. He began to run, and, as if at the awkward movements of his body, his pent-up panic was unleashed and pushed him on.
What am I doing out here on this night when time stands still and the earth is poised on the brink of a terrible nothingness? he thought, horrified. Some fey spirit has entered into Caesar so that I will search for him, and when I find him he will take me in his mighty jaws and drag me back to the forest.
He struggled on into the teeth of the gale, blinded, vaguely aware that he was passing the Great Hall, instinctively and mindlessly veering away from the shrine of Camulos until at last his numbed fingers felt the heavy skins of his own door. He thrust them aside and tumbled within, standing, panting, his eyes closed, while water ran from his body and pooled under his feet. He was stunned for a moment by the sudden cessation of noise, the storm now only a steady shushing on the thatching of his roof, the wind an impatient prowler, throwing itself against his walls, to no avail.
Soon he relaxed and opened his eyes. A solitary oil lamp burned on a little table opposite the door. Soft hangings covered the walls, and, at one end, curtains were drawn back, revealing a low bed with a blue and red cloak trailing across it. But this was not his hut. Beside the bed was another table, a mirror lying on it, and with it a gold head circlet, a pile of bronze arm bands, and a brightly enameled girdle that snaked to the floor. With a whine of welcome Caesar rose from his place before the smoking fire and padded across the room toward him.
Aricia spun round in shock. "Caradoc! You gave me a fright! What do you want?"
He hesitated, torn between an embarrassed confusion and overwhelming relief that he had found the dog. There was no demon here, only a dog, and a girl. She was standing barefooted on the skins that covered the hard clay floor, and her white sleeping tunic fell around her like drifting snow. She held a large comb in one hand, and her black hair fell straight and thick to her knees, spreading over her pale arms and gleaming in the firelight as she stepped toward him. He mumbled an apology and turned to go, an irrational anger rising in him, but she spoke again and he paused.
"How wet you are! Have you been looking for the dogs all this time? Take off your cloak or you will catch cold."
"Not tonight, Aricia," he said firmly. "I am soaked and tired, and angry with you for keeping Caesar here. And I am angry with Tog for leaving me to seek on my own. I am going to find my own hearth."
She laughed. "What a sight you are, with that black scowl on your face and your hair hanging down your back in strings! I didn't find Caesar and keep him here. He ran to me not half an hour ago. I was about to call for someone to take him to the kennels when you fell in. As for Tog, you know you have to take him by the scruff of his neck and shake him if you-want anything done: Why are you so annoyed?" She went to him swiftly, tugged the cloak from his shoulders, and, gingerly holding it out, walked to the fire and laid it down. "Warm wine from the land of the sun," she said gently, picking up a jug that sat in the embers. "Have a cup before you brave the night again, Caradoc. And talk to me. It is Samain, and I am lonely."
He sensed Caesar's brown eyes upon him. Go now, he told himself. Go before once again your honor lies around you like pieces of smashed pottery. But she had poured the wine and as she held it under his nose, the spicy fumes steamed in his nostrils. He took the cup and warmed his hands around it, feeling his fingers tingle with new life. Then, he stepped further into the room and turned at the fire to let the heat penetrate his stiff legs. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Eagle and the Raven by Pauline Gedge. Copyright © 1978 Pauline Gedge. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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