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It was autumn of the year the Romans came and drove us Celts into hiding in the forest. I, being a little too old and wise to fight an army of armour-clad giants, was foraging on the lower slopes of the wood for herbs to heal those who thought they could. In war, I reminded myself, a live old healer is as useful as a dozen maimed young heroes.
As I thought it a silence dropped around me like sudden deafness. Nothing. Not a breath of air or a song of bird. A spirit is passing, I thought, crossing my fingers and closing my eyes.
Then all was rustling again. Behind me, lower down the hill. A column two men wide and thirty long, without their usual clanking armour that always gave us plenty of notice of their approach, was bearing directly upon our temporary camp up the hill. They marched in silence, with total discipline, barely making a sound in the undergrowth.
They were on no simple arms search. We'd been a thorn in the pride of Scapula the new Governor ever since he came here to build his fort - where our village had stood - and finally settle the revolt being organised by Caradoc to the north. No, they'd come to kill every one of us. We'd had our chance to accept Roman rule and answered by burning the fort to the ground.
They saw me, too, old and stupid as I was, too surprised to think of hiding. But none broke rank; they simply glared at me as if I had single-handedly burned their fort. Only when their leader snarled an order and pointed at me did the two at the front grin, draw their short swords and come at me with an eagerness in their young faces that turned me cold.
My old legs, having more sense than my head, turned and carried me into the woods - uphill. Wise legs, I thought; uphill would be the lookouts, and my screams would alert them to the presence of the Romans. Such considerate old legs, I thought as they dragged me through the brambles that tore at them and ripped my leather tunic, the same thorns that would be torture for the virtually bare-legged legionaries chasing me. What a pity such clever legs would soon be the legs of a dead man.
For a moment, with that thought in my head and the excited shouts of the two soldiers close behind, I was at peace. The terror slipped away and the pain in my legs was gone. I kept running but somewhere inside me I'd already accepted the futility of it.
'Down, old man!' said a familiar voice from a bush less than three paces in front of me. 'Down now!'
I saw no-one, but threw myself flat on the ground anyway as if there were a deep, safe hole there to crawl into - just as the bushes on either side of me exploded and big Bedwyr and our young leader Morfar burst out of them with a roar and a whoosh of their huge swords that terrified even me. I covered my ears and buried my face in the fallen leaves; Roman or Celt, the terror and agony of death sounded much the same, and I'd already seen and heard enough of it.
'On your feet, you old fool, before the rest of them get here,' came Morfar's voice again as he and Bedwyr half carried and half dragged me through the trees. All was panic. By now the other lookouts would have heard and be running to warn the villagers. In a few minutes our camp would be deserted.
'Take them to Mynydd Pellwn, as planned,' said Morfar. 'We'll meet you there in a few days.' They dragged me along northwest, on a line to intercept the fleeing villagers. Pellwn was our last resort; planned just in case of an emergency like this, though only a handful knew of the plan.
Bedwyr laughed - even in a crisis he wasn't afraid to laugh - and said to Morfar in his thunder of a voice: 'Lucky for him he had the sense to run towards us - though I'll never know how he saw us while running with his eyes shut.'
I glared at him bravely from down near his elbow.
'Old man,' he laughed, 'I'll never forget the look on your face; now I can say I know what blind panic looks like.'
I looked to Morfar for support, but he just looked away, hiding a smile. No respect these days, I thought, these youngsters have no respect for their elders.
'Hurry now,' said Morfar, then pulled me in close to say, 'and look after Cai or I'll disembowel you myself. Do not let the Romans take her. Do you understand?'
I didn't, but I nodded anyway. Then they were gone. A brief rustle of bushes and they were invisible. I used to be able to do that, too, before my old joints started making more noise than the leaves I always managed to trample on.
I hurried on, deeper into the dimness of the forest, higher up the hill, with only the wheezing of my breath and the hiss of the breeze in the treetops. None of us liked being alone in the forest, there were too many spirits, but it was worse now as I tried to outrun the memory of the young legionaries. I ran faster.
I wondered at how silently and surely that unit of assassins had come this time; not spreading out in search of us, but as if they knew exactly where we'd be. Someone would be still breathing today - albeit guiltily - in exchange for that information.
Mynydd Pellwn: the mountain of holes, I thought. Two days of uphill travel through the blackest, most spirit-haunted part of the forest. 'And what then?' I whispered. 'A slow death by winter in a cave, with our grain, food stores and tools behind us?' Probably all destroyed already by the soldiers in their frustration; our looms smashed and our cloth stolen. Where is Caradoc? Why haven't the tribes united yet?
But no reply came. Nothing but a cold wind from the north and a sky filling with rain clouds. 'Damn Scapula and his legions!' I said, and the curse blew safely away. I'd seen the 'Roman Peace'; beatings, rapes and murders; destruction of villages for spite; death for wearing a battle sword instead of a hunting one; that was the Roman Peace. It may have suited queen Cartimandua in the north with her huge army of half-tribes, but we Southern Silures preferred Caradoc's Celtic peace, the one we had before.
It was nearly dark before I caught up with the villagers at the place where the stream passes the giant oak growing over the equally giant rock. There I could take my rightful place of leading them to safety, as befitted my age and wisdom.
'And about time, too!' said Rhonwen, the crone of a healer woman, as I thrashed and cursed my way through the bushes - naturally I wanted to be heard approaching and thus avoid getting speared by some startled woman or child. 'Did you get lost again?' she sneered, and cackled in that way she'd developed specifically for scraping my nerve ends.
'Lucky to be alive I am,' I said, making sure she noticed my bloody, scratched legs and hands. 'But for Morfar and Bedwyr I'd be...'
'Hush, you old fool,' she hissed. 'The children are scared enough without your silly stories.'
She was right enough, and guilt passed through me as a half dozen infants gathered around me with their big eyes staring up at me, full of fear and trust. Others sulked in shadows, grieving or dreading grief to come. 'A curse upon these times,' I said, fussing with the children and letting them empty my pouch of the nuts and sweet herbs I'd been saving for my breakfast.
'Rhonwen,' I said, 'where is Cai?'
'The mad girl's following behind - as usual.' She said it with a curl of distaste to her lip that was fairly typical of most people's feelings.
We could relax a little here. The soldiers wouldn't follow the women and children this far, least of all with our men hiding in every bush and pile of leaves along the way, picking them off one by one.
Cai came up behind me silently - as always. It was her smell that gave her away, and the feel of her eyes on my back. She wasn't over-fond of water so it was a blessing to us all that it rained so much in these parts. I turned, reluctantly, to face her. She was never a joy to behold. Her hair hung down to her chest in dirty, matted black strings, half covering the dirty, round face that must have been pretty once; her beauty and her madness constantly at odds. She was studying my face in her uncomfortably searching way, but with something more than fear behind those sad, grey eyes of hers.
She rarely spoke, which suited everyone as her voice was a bit unpredictable, but nine times out of ten it was a high, mad screech that pained a sensitive ear. And now she stared at me waiting, I knew, for some word of Morfar. Mad as she was, somewhere inside her was something sane enough to feel love.
'Morfar and the other men will join us in a few days, girl,' I said. 'They're delaying the Romans so we can get away.'
She nodded, satisfied. She'd lost her senses long before wandering alone into our village nearly a year ago, barely out of childhood, mute, and wearing nothing but a torn piece of hide. She would have been driven off by the women, fearful that her madness was possession by spirits, but Morfar took her in. He was soft like that. He said she'd bring us good luck. There were a great many wise leaders in the land but ours wasn't one of them.
She looked at my scratched legs and hands, this mad girl, summed up the cause in that peculiar way of hers and held my hand as if she were trying to comfort a child in a clumsy, inexperienced way.
We all spent the night in that place, spread out around the giant oak in twos and threes in case of attack. We were rained on, chilled by wind and bitten by insects. From beautiful, dry roundhouses in a proper village - albeit knee-deep in mud most of the time - to this, sleeping in the open, I thought, it just wasn't right for a man of my age.
Cai sat beside me in the dusk, staring at the rock and the tree. 'There's a legend,' I said, 'that the rock and the tree have always been here, in the centre of the forest, locked like that in their struggle to prove which is stronger, but if the rock cracks or the tree falls then the world will end.
She studied my face, checking if I was making it up, her face worried, then she went over to check the rock for cracks before returning and wrapping her smelly blanket around us both. I hadn't had a chance to collect my blanket, so I was grateful to her. Smelly as it was, it was better to be under it than in the open - or worse, having to be under Rhonwen's.
Rain dripped through the trees and swelled the stream into a rumbling torrent, making sleep impossible. 'Girl,' I whispered, 'are you sure that rock was sound?' She snored, rolled over and pulled the blanket off me in reply.
When I awoke from an uncomfortable half sleep that I was better out of, she was still sleeping, tight beside me with her arm across my chest. I smiled to see her dirty face and half-smiling lips, and wondered what sort of dreams a mad girl has that bring such a rare peace to her face.
Her dress was of ill-fitting, rough hide, and torn at the shoulder. It looked as if she'd sewn it together from a pile of off-cuts. We were all a bit ragged these days, since the Romans stole our cattle, but Cai was particularly shabby.
I'll make you new shoes, I thought, when we get to the caves. We'd all need some for winter. Good leather for shoes was a bit of a rarity lately, but I had a piece in my bag that I'd salvaged from the remains of a Roman jerkin. She needn't know where it came from; she was picky that way.
I covered her arms with the blanket and tried to get up without waking her, but she woke, snarled at me and ran off into the trees, mad once more. But she walked beside me all the way to the caves, holding on to me most of the time, never at ease.
We were in the caves a day before the men arrived, broken and dispirited. Those who did return. Cai had given herself the job of assistant to Rhonwen and me, gathering herbs and preparing chambers in the caves to lay the wounded and dying. Naturally her first patient was Morfar, who had to undergo a thorough inspection before she was satisfied he was undamaged.
Bedwyr and his brother, little Owain, sat quietly near the entrance of the main cave; near enough to enjoy the fresh air away from my cauterising of wounds. Owain nursed a bloody left hand that he offered to me proudly the moment I joined them. 'Look', he said. 'Took my finger clean off!'
'The boy's a fool,' said Bedwyr. 'Waited until the biggest of the lot of them was going by - a real tough old bird with a chest like a horse - and jumped out on him with this,' and he showed me the lad's snapped knife.
'The sly old rogue had ribs like a breastplate,' said Owain with a grin.
'In the end it took three of us to finish him,' said Bedwyr quietly, and they both stared at the ground, remembering.
'I found the finger, though,' said Owain, tapping his pouch.
And tomorrow, I thought, he'd tie it to a tree in a place of friendly spirits and they'd heal him - maybe even grow him a new one if he was favoured. But the legionary would never grow a new head to replace the one big Bedwyr had crushed.
Cai came and fussed over the lad, completely ignoring Bedwyr. There had always been something about him that she didn't like, or that frightened her, even though he treated her like one of his own. After washing and covering Owain's hand, leaving the delicate business of tidying the stump to Rhonwen and me, she glanced quickly at the small cut above Bedwyr's eye, sneered, tossed a handful of herbs into his lap and walked off.
'Your apprentice lacks a certain something in manner, old man,' he said with a grin splitting his huge black beard. He turned to his brother, 'Don't fiddle with the dressings, boy, you'll have it all over the floor now.' He turned back to me, and I saw the fatigue in his eyes. 'I swear, if this boy gets any more stupid I'll strangle him myself and save the Romans the trouble.'
I left them to their privacy and went outside, away from the hardened, introspective faces and the blood, pain and stink, out into the browning leaves with the cool wind in my face. Morfar came and sat beside me.
'More will come soon,' he said, and stared south. By the time Caradoc comes the Romans will be unstoppable on the flat lands down there and we'll be surrounded up here in the mountains.'
I nodded. I had an uncomfortable feeling that our brave but impetuous leader had a plan, and any plan that involved leaving the safety of these caves was, in my opinion, unwise. The caves were quite comfortable - a few too many echoes, draughts and dripping roofs for my taste, but there were a lot of worse places to spend a winter.
'As soon as enough men come,' he said, 'we must go back down and burn their fort again, before they get settled in and make a base down there, cutting us off from the tribes in the east.'
'Is that all, Morfar? A handful of boys and battered men against two legions of hardened Roman veterans? Eight thousand trained men, give or take the odd thousand.'
'And what would you do, old man?'
I shrugged. I was no general. This was my first war - as it was for us all - and this was an enemy none of us could have imagined. Not wild skirmishers like Celts, but a disciplined, professional army that fought as a single entity and showed no fear.
'When Caradoc comes,' he went on, pointing north and sweeping his arm southwards, 'there mustn't be a strong Roman base here or Scapula will control all the lowlands from north to south and we'll be driven west into the sea.'
I looked at his soft young face, barely bearded, and wondered if he was a real hero, like the heroes of my grandfather's time, or if some of Cai's madness had rubbed off on him. We were short of heroes that year; they'd all gone north to join Caradoc's army and most had been killed in his first major encounter with Scapula's full army at Caersws, leaving just us few to do our best with guerrilla tactics.
Bedwyr would have been there for that fight if he hadn't tried to make a chariot and broken his arm when it fell apart the first time he tried it out. He wouldn't be told that chariots are a thing of the lowlands and tend to be a bit hard to control on the side of a mountain.
We sat a long time in silence, much as we'd done before the invasion, when we could enjoy the rustle of trees in the wind and not fear it in case it heralded an attack; when we had time to watch the seasons change and the children grow. I knew he'd be thinking along the same lines, relaxing for a moment, so I decided to ask him what he'd always refused to speak of.
'Cai,' I said, and I saw him tense. 'You know her past, don't you? She'd have told you. I think maybe she's not so mad sometimes.'
'She's mad,' he said flatly.
'But where did she come from? Who is she?'
'No-one. An orphan. All the family killed.'
'Morfar,' I said gently, 'I practically raised you, and I know when you're lying.'
'I know, but I'm still not telling you anything.' He smiled boyishly at me.
I looked away before speaking again. 'And if you plan to attack Scapula in his own fort your secrets will die with you. How will that help her?'
'It will help,' he said, and went into the cave, calling for Bedwyr.
Within the week he'd sent out four boys as messengers; two to the north to get news of Caradoc, and two west to plead with the Demetae to help us break Scapula's control of the lowlands. Morfar went with fifty men back down the mountain, attacked the fort-builders, burned what little they'd constructed and returned with thirty-three men and a gaping wound in his side. Little Owain never got to grow a new finger; Bedwyr carried his body up the mountain and buried him right on the top, facing north to watch for Caradoc's army.
Two weeks later they went down again, attacked a foraging party and returned half-dead. Before they could go again a messenger returned from the north and he broke our hearts; Cartimandua had betrayed Caradoc and handed him over in chains to the Romans.
Morfar's wound wouldn't heal. Despite my efforts to bind it and even close it with hooks, it wouldn't close. He'd lost all heart to go on. The poisons got into his body and he went beyond our healing. He took my arm when I was working on his wound: 'I should have told you the truth when you asked,' he said, 'about Cai.'
'It doesn't matter, Morfar. Tell me when you're well again.'
He smiled and was a boy again.
'You will have to look after her now,' he said, 'until I'm back on my feet.'
'Of course I will. I've already told you so.'
'Exactly. And she trusts you or I wouldn't be telling you.'
I nodded and waited while he gathered his thoughts between spasms of pain.
'Caersws,' he said. 'Caradoc's first battle with Scapula's full force. Caradoc and the remains of his army got away but his family were captured. Remember?'
'Of course, it wasn't that long ago - even for my old memory.'
He grinned at me like a boy with a secret. 'Not all of them. One child wasn't there. An illegitimate girl.'
'Caradoc fathered a mad child?'
'No, no, no, you old fool. She was sane - then. As sane as any of us in these days, anyway. The Romans killed everyone in her village - all her family. She believed her father, Caradoc, was also dead. But they didn't know who she was, of course. They didn't kill her with the others, and she escaped... after...'
I stopped him. I understood. It was typical of the legionaries.
'So they must never know who she is,' he said. 'No-one must know; there are too many loyal to Rome or afraid of death for her to be safe if it becomes known. Maybe when we have peace again her senses will come back.'
He died later that day. We buried him next to Owain, facing north, our two heroes facing our betrayer.
Cai left us after her mad outburst of grief at the burial. She vanished into the forest. I searched for her, but I only once got a glimpse of her. Sometimes when it's very quiet in there I think I hear her, always near the giant oak. Sometimes I think I smell her, and often I feel her eyes watching me. But I don't fear her any more. I always leave food and clothes for her, our newest benign spirit, and ask her to come home, but she never will, not while there are still Romans in the land. In her own insane way she is still waiting for Caradoc.
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