AN: I love this story to death. I've been dying to write a piece telling the story of the native of Britain when the Romans came, and this is it. It's straight historical fiction, no magic. Now, I will warn you that the Gaelic words in this are not phonetically spelled. Whatever I don't have listed below, though, is pretty much what it sounds like.
Suileach: sull-luck bainsidhe: banshee Madawc: maddock mathair: (mother) ma-hir Beorc: burke Siobrach: sov-rak Caoimhin: ku-ev-in
The night was hot and angry, surely reflecting the mother-goddess Banba's sorrow. The rain of even her tears could not quench the flames eating at Suileach's home. The hated tongues of flame leapt hundreds of feet into the sky, roaring and crackling as they consumed trees and animals. Their shrieks rent the air like a bainsidhe's cries. Suileach, too, fell to her knees and wailed, tugging at her knotted length of dark hair, her muddy eyes alight with the oranges and reds and yellows.
"Suileach!" a male voice called. She did not heed it."Suileach!" he called again, falling into the tall grass beside her, panting. The man was Madawc, her dead mother's brother, Suileach's only family left in the world, now that even her trees were dead.
"Why? How?" the eight-year-old sobbed brokenly, hugging her plaid to her thin, trembling shoulders.
"That's how!" Madawc replied angrily, turning her head none-too-gently in the direction of a shining column of silver speckled with red; Romans.
"You and I both know why they did it, Suileach."
The young girl didn't deign to nod, only lowered her head to shield her eyes from the scene too dreadful for any horror film.
The Romans had occupied the land of the Bretons for many years now, before Suileach was born, and they had brought the native people nothing but grief. They killed the druids, men and women who rightfully raised the ire of the people into trying to eradicate the stony men with their iron and devil-fire that water could not put out. The Romans violated the very land itself, spat on Banba's bosom, stealing livestock with threats of death for being stopped. When they saw the stand of trees, found the hammocks and nonexistent building that only druids went without, they did what they did best.
Suileach knew that she and Madawc were perhaps the last of the druids; it was something that her uncle would never let her forget. He wanted her to hate the Romans, and constantly fed her on stories of how they burned and pillaged, but she had never really believed men could do such things until that night.
Madawc put a comforting arm around her shoulders, and started a chant. Brokenly, Suileach joined in, praying for the lives lost. Not human lives, but the lives of the animals, the worthy.
"But, Mathair, can you save him?"
Suileach, twenty or so odd years of experience under her belt, ran her hands over the sick man's sweaty chest, dark brows furrowed. Some illness had taken to him, one that caused him great pain. She didn't know exactly what it was; probably some damnable disease the Romans brought with them from their land of heat and insects.
"I don't know." She said at last, removing her hands and taking the proffered bowl and cloth to cleanse them in. "Pray some more, and I will give him herbs to ease his trouble, if not his passing."
She never lied to people when they asked their condition or another's. If she were sick, she wouldn't want to be lied to either. This man's future was bleak.
From her bag she pulled a wad of cloth and a stone mortar and pestle. She emptied a few of the contents of the cloth, little round seeds, into the bowl and began to grind them down.
"Bring me fresh water." she order gravely, her eyes flickering over the twitching man. She didn't know him personally; just perhaps spoke with him a few times on her visits to his village. Druids played a role as healers, after all, and the villagers here were friendly besides. While her life demanded that she live either in solitude or with other druids, she liked companionship. When she was alone, she thought about how much she hated the Romans. At least in the village she could vent her anger along with the other men and women whenever the need arose.
When the water was brought, Suileach flecked some into the pasty poppy seed mix and ground some more, repeating the cycle until it was a foul-smelling mush instead.
"Someone open his mouth." she commanded, holding up the bowl. The man's wife complied, her brow sweaty with worry. The druid scraped the mess into the man's mouth. He tried to recoil, but was too weak to do so; she pitied him, once so strong a man, now reduced to this pile of skin and bones, all because of a Roman disease.
The man's wife clamped his mouth shut, but that was all that happened.
"He needs to swallow…" Suileach remarked, slyly reaching over the woman's arms and pinching the man's nose shut.
"You'll kill him!" the woman gasped, though she made no move to stop the action.
"Of course I won't." she chided, as if the thought were absurd. "He'll open his mouth, take in air, and swallow while he's at it."
The woman still looked doubtful, but started as her husband threw out his chest and took a great gasp of air. Suileach saw the bulge in his throat that meant he had swallowed, and grinned, satisfied.
The little hut was cramped with the belongings of the couple and the spectators that came to watch the druid at her work. As she collected her things in her bag, the man's parents gifted her with the hindquarter of a sheep, already preserved.
"No, please, I can't take this!" she protested, trying to hand it back.
"Mathair, take it!" the old woman insisted. "You deserve not having to hunt for your food every once in a while. It's bad enough we have to call you here on Beltane. You young 'uns should be out in the meadows!"
She blushed and accepted the meat, not wanting to seem unthankful. The elder just didn't understand that the whole point was in hunting her food. She thanked them regardless, wondering what to do with the hunk of meat as she tucked it away on her bag. Suileach reentered the sunlight and took a deep breath of moist, spring air.
Beltane, occurring around Midsummer, was a night sacred to the Gaelic culture. Men and women, heeding the call of god and goddess, would spend a romantic night under the stars. Suileach never really wanted to be part of the festivities, despite what the old woman said, so she made sure that Beltane night always saw her alone in her grove, mixing herbs or performing various other tasks.
"Hey, Sully!" a voice called. The druid broke from her thoughts, watching as three men approached her, the two behind the first shoving each other playfully.
"Beorc!" she called back laughingly. "What do you want?"
"Are you going to stick around this year?" he asked cheerily. Beorc, while not a tall man, was a half-head taller than she, with fair hair braided, his young mustache trying hard to look bushy.
Suileach gave him a sly grin. "You're just hoping that the goddess will lead me to your bower!"
Beorc didn't look abashed in the least. "You bet I am, and I'm gonna wait all night for you."
One of his companions, a man she also knew by the name of Brom, jabbed Beorc with his elbow. "Then you'll be a very lonely man, friend. She'll visit me afore she comes anywhere near you!"
Dryw, Beorc's last companion, gave her a serious look while the other two men fell into a brawl. "Sully, some Romans came by a tenday ago. They didn't stay long, and they didn't talk much. They just looked a while."
Suileach arched an eyebrow, appreciating his concern, but wondering why he brought up something she already knew. "And?"
"And I think they may be on to you." he specified. "I don't want the Romans getting their hands on the last of you. You're all that's left of the old days."
Suileach was deeply touched by this simple statement, and wasn't sure why it should speak to her so.
She put a hand on his shoulder and smiled in a familial gesture. "Thank you. That means something to me."
She took her leave of their company, Beorc and Brom now arguing about something else completely.
"One more thing, Sully," Dryw called out to her. She turned to hear his last comment.
"Give Madawc my regards."
Suileach smiled. "I will."
She shifted the strap of her medicine bag and walked on. She rode no horse, nor kept a cart; she walked everywhere, and she had good strong legs because of it. It hardly bothered her to walk the three miles between the village and her current home and back in a day.
But she never left sight of the spires of smoke coming from chimneys. She stopped her pace down the worn path. She heard hooves, mild-pace, indicating a canter. There was only one animal, and no squealing of wagon wheels. That meant that the rider was traveling light. Only a fool traveled alone and light, nevermind that she herself did so. She was a druid, a respectable member of society, and she had not far to travel.
Still, she had no time for fools, especially suspicious ones. She turned on her heel and set a comfortable jog back to the village. It was small by most standards, more like a hamlet, consisting of about seventy people and their respective houses, a market square with various small shops, an inn that was mostly a tavern-type place because of the few travelers who came by. It was quaint, and she liked it there.
The people in the fields on the outskirts of the village looked at her strangely for returning so quickly, and at a faster pace than she left.
"Hoy, Mathair, you forget something?" a woman friend of hers, Siobrach, called from her plot of beets.
Suileach frantically waved her arms at the woman in a crossing motion to get her to be quiet, offering no explanation. Siobrach looked confused, but went back to her work with a shake of her head.
She found the man she was looking for coming out of the inn, deserted of his two companions. Beorc was the son of the beer maker and owner of the establishment, and she had a mind to borrow his father's cellar.
"Beorc, you little tree, I need a favor."
Despite his 'advances,' she trusted the man very much. He, like Dryw, had known Madawc before her uncle left this world, and anyone whom Madawc trusted, she trusted.
She quickly explained the situation, and he was too happy to hide her from prying eyes.
So there she was, crouching in the damp between barrels of ale until the newcomer either left or was proved to be trustworthy enough to know that the village hid a druid.
Marcus Lentus Calpurnius was a strange man. He did not eat large meals during the day; he constantly snacked instead, and was trim for it. He did not pay foolish heed of foolish women; he kept himself to himself, and thus no woman scorned him for any reason. Mostly, he did not show himself to be clever; the clever were quickly removed from positions of power, and so he, the fool, was better for playing dumb.
At least, that was what he had hoped to make of his life. As it were, he did eat large meals, he did pay foolish heed of foolish women, and was scorned simply for being male, and he did show that he was clever. That's why he was on this mission. That cleverness, and his blonde hair.
Marcus was born in Gaul to a Roman father and Gallic mother. Foolish young boy he had been, he joined up with the legion and found that it was not at all to his liking. The work was hard and, while it kept him in shape, he was never happy with it. No one ever took him seriously, for he was, after all, too clever.
That's why he was dressed up in filthy plaid, riding a horse across the wild untamed lands of the cold little isles to the north. It wasn't much different from Gaul, really. It just rained more. Much more, and he was soaked through to the bone and sick of it. So when he came up the hill and spotted the smoke of a settlement, and on Beltane nonetheless, he sped up his sorry mount to find shelter and the liqueur that often accompanied such festivities. Yes, he knew what Beltane was. They had that in Gaul…
The village was decrepit in his eyes. The huts were little more than carved-out hills, in and of itself interesting, but dirty and not very grand.
"Welcome, stranger." said a man who did not seem as if he meant it at all. He leered up at Marcus, as if unaware that the Roman was mounted and he was not.
He pasted a grin on his face, pretending to be a genial fool. "I'm very cold, and I must say that your village looked like a nice place to stop by. I have money, to pay for what housing I can get."
He hefted a purse, something that the real Marcus would never do. His challenger arched an eyebrow, but there was not theft in his eyes.
"There is an inn," he said at last, pointing to the better-built heap of wood that he had come from. "But the innkeeper doesn't take Roman coin. Have you otherwise?"
The man was well spoken for a backcountry bumpkin, and why anyone would set up an inn in this place was beyond him. Nevertheless, the man's comment made Marcus frown. He almost said, 'what type of place is this that you don't take civilized coin?' but he curbed his tongue.
"I have some gold." He finally replied, sitting back in his saddle.
"Good." The man said. "Then the keeper will be happy to see you."
At last, the creaking door to the cellar opened, waking Suileach from her doze. She lifted her head from her hugged knees to see Beorc had come to retrieve her.
"He's gone?" she asked hopefully.
"No, he stayed." Beorc said, holding out a hand. Grudgingly Suileach took it, and he pulled her to her feet.
"Then why are you letting me out?"
Beorc grinned and chuckled, his cheeks slightly rosy. He must have drunk a few with the stranger before he remembered his friend hiding in the damp.
"He's a Gaul!" Beorc barked as if it was simple and hilarious. "They hate the Romans more than we do!"
Suileach sniffed as they emerged into the waning sunlight. She saw, too, dark clouds gathering in the sky. An omen? Perhaps, but what of? The gloom insinuated that she wasn't supposed to go home this night. On Beltane, when one didn't go home, that left one no modest alternative.
When the night fell, and the bonfires roared, Beorc and his friends pushed Suileach up onto a table set before the flames so that they silhouetted her frame. She had drunk, and was a little groggy for it, not to mention bubbly.
"Dance! Dance!" the revelers bellowed over beer and meat.
Suileach put a hand coyly to her mouth, as if this wasn't the proper thing to do.
"Yes, dance!" chimed in the blonde Gallic stranger before taking a large swig of ale. He wasn't so bad a person, she'd decided. But whether or not in the morning, when the alcohol wore off, she still thought so, had yet to be found out.
"All right!" she laughed, holding up her hand to calm them. "But not because you asked. Friend Dryw reminded me today of where we come from, and that I am all that's left!"
She held up a fist, as if to remind the people of the Romans, and they cheered and bellowed, slamming their mugs down on the table in beat.
Marcus joined in, though he wasn't sure what her cryptic speech was about. What, was this woman so many hundred years old that she was from the old days? Unlikely, but he had to ask.
"Beorc," he said, nudging the man to his left in a businesslike manner, "What'd she mean by that? Is she far older than she looks?"
Beorc, in the firelight, looked horrified. "You don't know?"
"Know what?" Marcus said laughingly.
"She's a druidess!"
Marcus sprayed the mouthful of beer that had been in his mouth all over a couple in front of him, too engrossed in each other to notice. In those three words, he understood it all. With eyes widened by awe and knowledge, he looked up at the woman in new light. She didn't look like a bloodthirsty rebel bent on the extermination of civilization. She just looked like a woman, like any other, except perhaps with more spirit. He had thought she was strange before, but now he wondered. Was there a side of her that was what he'd expected?
"Has she ever killed anyone?" Marcus asked, eyes locked on the now swaying form of the druidess.
"What? No!" Beorc said, waving a drunken hand at him. "Listen!"
The crowd around quieted as Marcus thought they never would; the couple in front of him even stopped their fondling to look up at her, attentive. The musicians to her right weren't playing, so she must have planned on signing.
And sing she did.
Her voice, young and clear as a bell, wavered over the surrounding spectators. For a moment, Marcus lost his carefully-trained comprehension of Breton Gaelic, switched his mind into Latin, and listened to the language with the ears of a foreigner. Gaelic, to the untrained ear, was choppy in a smooth way, like whipped cream. The vowels were swallowed, and the consonants were throaty. All together, especially in song, it was the most beautiful language he'd ever heard. It was more beautiful than that of Gaul.
She had chosen an appropriate song, he registered when he listened in the language. It was called, 'At My Father's Barrow,' and as far as he could tell, it was about a girl who went to visit the barrows, or burial mounds, of her forefathers, and found sidhe lurking there.
The song was beautiful. She was beautiful, this ragged female whom he was supposed to hate, just because she was called a druid. But wasn't that why he was here? To catch a druid, a sorcerer who turned the minds of the natives against the Romans? This woman was no inciter of mischief, even if she wore feathers in her hair. She was just trying to keep her culture alive.
The song ended, leaving him feeling sad. Suileach thanked her audience and hopped from her table-stage in a swirl of skirts. Even as far as women went, she was strange; her name was by rights used mostly as a man's, and her dress only came down to her shins, as if she were challenging the female stereotype. He found that very attractive.
The musicians struck up the beginning notes of a reel, and Suileach felt like dancing to that. She was about to find Dryw or Beorc, but the Gaul – what had he called himself? – Oagan, approached her.
"Could I have this dance?" he asked, a glitter in his eye.
She grinned, filled with energy as she took his hand. The reel started, and the dancers careened wildly around the fire, laughing and making other various sounds of delight.
She was a little confused about Oagan. He was sinewy like a fighter, but the poor man wasn't bright enough to survive long in such a lifestyle. Perhaps, she wondered, the reason why he was so far from Gaul, and how he apparently hated the Romans was because he had been a slave of them, and had escaped to her little island. Her heart went out to him, if that was the case. She would never have survived becoming a slave to the Romans.
She opened her mouth and was about to say something to him when he suddenly planted a kiss across it. She was taken aback at his sudden show of affection, but something told her it was more than that.
The dance was forgotten – most of the musicians were in pairings of their own anyway – and they just stood there, like crazy people, drinking in each other. Why should he suddenly do this? Why was she suddenly interested in men? Well, it was Beltane, and if she knew anything about it, she knew that anything could happen.
Oagan nuzzled her ear and breathed into it, making her shudder. He looked into her eyes, and in his she saw a beautiful green as she did not often see. She understood then, and felt silly for not having done so earlier. She had fallen into the call of the Goddess, and answered it with a smile and a kiss.
The next morning, Marcus couldn't break out of his daze. He didn't know whether he was lucky or damned. Suileach was regarded as clergy. For all he knew, that was highly taboo and severely punishable. He had left her early that morning as soon as he realized what he'd done.
He was currently drinking from the previous night's beer in the ramshackle inn. Beorc was there, too, half asleep in his seat. The man noticed him blearily, and he grinned and nudged and Roman.
"Hey, how'd y' fare?"
Marcus gave him a broken smile. This man would kill him. "I didn't."
Beorc nodded his head with pity, looking somber as he patted Marcus on his back. "Better luck next year, friend."
The last thing Marcus wanted then was for the person to walk in who did.
"Caoimhin, d'ya have anything without spirit this morning?"
Suileach, rubbing her temple, plopped into a seat next to the two men. Marcus froze in place staring at what looked like a foul mood on her face. Great Juno, she was going to kill him too. She'd been dead drunk!
The keeper brought her a plain mug of sugar water, which she downed quickly, licking her lips and sighing.
"Sully," Beorc practically whined. "I didn't see you at all!"
The woman gave him a look to curdle milk. "Please, not this morning. You didn't see me because I was with someone."
Marcus took a breath, figuring it would be his last.
"Who?" Beorc demanded. "Dryw?"
"Then who?!" he asked, is if believing there was no other man she'd ever have.
"Him." Suileach said simply, as Marcus hoped she wouldn't, bobbing her empty mug in the Roman's direction.
Beorc swung hooded eyes in his direction, and did not say anything.
"Please, Beorc, don't pout." Suileach said in a motherly fashion. "If you'd really wanted to see me, you wouldn't have been with Siobrach."
The big man actually blushed behind his beard, sitting back, his anger at Marcus forgotten. "I 'spose." he mumbled.
From outside, there were shouts, roars of anger from men, and screams of terror from women. All four heads in the room looked as one to the door.
"Sully!" Beorc yelled, jumping from his seat in a surprisingly sober way.
The druid tripped over the chair leg in her haste to stand, tipping over her mug as she did so. Marcus was surprised to see fear in her eyes as he too stood, though not quite as quickly.
"What's going on-" he started to ask, watching as the innkeeper held up a trap door over in the corner, motioning frantically to Suileach.
His question was answered by a loud phrase that was heard above all else. It was sworn in Latin.
They must've marched up during the night, when no one was paying attention! Marcus thought sourly.
Two legionaries pounded into the room, sighted the open door and the woman adorned with feathers, and knew who she was. Beorc was shoved from their path and Suileach, frozen and wide-eyed, could do nothing as they roughly grabbed her arms and dragged her from the room, not sparing a glance at Marcus.
He quickly followed them, fumbling through his bag for the Roman seal he carried, marking his identity.
The woman who had once sung so prettily was now screaming in rage, mostly saying outrageous and nasty things about her captors. Not one word out of her mouth, he noticed, had anything to do with begging the angry villagers to rescue her. Angry they were, too. The men shook their fists at the Romans, and the women paced around ceaselessly, pointing accusing fingers at the legionaries.
"Shut her up!" a man wearing the centurion helmet barked. A third soldier clouted Suileach soundly on the bag of her head, and her body sagged, legs flexing slowly.
"Lord!" Marcus called, jogging up to him, seal outstretched, much to the astonishment of the villagers. The shock wore off shortly, and they were yelling at him, too.
"Who are you? What do you want?" the centurion asked, suspicious of the rough-looking Gaul who spoke Latin.
He flashed the seal at the officer before be began. "Lord," he said again, "This woman has done nothing to the Romans. There's no reason to detain her-"
The man frowned and held up a scarred hand, cutting him off. "Hold it. You were seen last night. You're in enough trouble as it is. Shut up and let the tribune deal with this mess."
The tribune, senior to the centurion, strode up just as his subordinate said this, surveying the situation quickly. When his eyes landed on Suileach, his brows furrowed, never a good sign.
"Should we kill her, sir?" the centurion asked.
Marcus would have said something, but the tribune replied before he could.
"No, keep her alive. Where there's one, there's more, and she'll know."
The man swung his gaze around to look at Marcus. "You, you speak the language. I release you from your work until we get what we need from her."
He did not envy playing translator between Suileach and the officers. He got the sneaking suspicion that she wouldn't talk to him.
As he turned, quick steps and a grunt of anger was all the warning he got as a big fist collided with the side of his face, knocking him off of his feet.
"Y' bloody bastard!" Beorc yelled, standing over him with his fist still clenched. "You betrayed a druid, Roman! The Morrigan will make sure ye'll never again find rest on this earth – watch for her crows!"
Marcus sat up, wiping the blood from his cut lip. The rank-and-file soldiers did not move to help him, and he didn't blame them. Nor did he blame Beorc for striking him. Marcus probably would have done the same, were he in the big man's place.
Beorc walked away, trembling with rage, and Marcus slowly stood again. He knew better than to go for his horse and gear. They were as good as village property. Feeling god awful, he trudged after the neat column of Romans in silence, unable even to look at Suileach's form.
AN: I'm splitting this in half because someone kindly brought to my attention how awkward it is to read so much in one sitting, and frankly, it's easier to edit.