The Last Seanachie

Machine hearts, machine men

Ricburgis heard them long before he saw them. Even in the deadening depths of the forest, the sound of metal against metal carries. The oak, ash and beech did their best to muffle it as their boughs worked in the wind. But the creaks and rattles of mighty bough and its squadron of leaves flexing in the wind couldn’t hide the sound.

A rhythmic clank every second, getting closer.

The first clank made him freeze, his head titled, like a startled fawn half-expecting the crash of a wolf through the thick undergrowth, teeth, claws flashing. He closed his eyes slowly and swivelled his good ear, his right, towards the distance.

Clank. Pause. Clank.

He crouched slowly, depositing the yoke of leather pails to the ground. Even the youngest son of the Bructeri chieftain had chores and that crisp autumn morning had seen the teen dispatched from the tribal village to fetch water for the morning bathing. Like most of the northern tribes, the Bructeri never started a day without a hot soak, even in the depths of the darkest Germanic forests. Forest winter

A hand automatically moved a shaggy sheaf of yellow hair away from Ricburgis’s good ear and he homed in on the location. North? The river? He fine-tuned, blotting out wind, the burbling of the stream, the irritable oaks and their slender smooth barked cousins.

The clanking was barely closer. Not on the river at least, he thought. They wree on foot, but were they warriors? Romans? Was that the rhythmic thwack of a scabbard on a chain-mail tunic?

Clank. Pause. Clank.

Thump, thump. The sound of his blood pulsing through his head began to drown out the clanking. He realised he hadn’t let out his breath for almost three minutes.

He strained again. The Romani here? This far north, this far east of the mighty Rhine? It would unheard of. It would be a disaster. His father, Vannius, had moved the Bructeri east into the untamed forest depths before he was born. East, east the depths, away from pasture, to avoid the machine-like men, with machine-hearts, hidden behind steel, killers without passion, devoid of feeling.

His ears sucked in the sound. Should he flee to the camp, warn the warriors, drinking as ever in the long-hall, or find out more. He drank in more, sifting out the background noise, discarding the irrelevant and then he heard his first voice. Familiar speech patterns. He relaxed, but only just. It could be a raiding party. Or treacherous scouts who’d thrown their lot in with the garrison at Bativodorum.

Clank, pause, clank. Close now, following the stream towards him. But the without the crashing of roman studded sandals on the deadfall branches. It suggested people who were comfortable navigating thick forest. It could only be fellow Germanic tribes. But why here?

Ricburgis was unarmed. No spear, no javelin. The clanking came nearer, his stomach turned but a Bructeri never flees a fight. He detached the pails from his yoke. It would do as a staff, he thought.

And still the clanking. He stretched his limbs, bit into the smoothed edges of the yoke and prepared to meet the noise.

His ear still worked on the sound, feeding it to his brain, calculating possibilities. Fight or flight? His body had already made the decision to stay but his brain carried on anyway until it worked out the sound.

Chains.

And chains mean slavers.

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