Dawn’s light smuggled itself into the village. Like spider threads in the breeze, streaks of sunlight slinked through the tops of the trees before pouring into the patches of the cleared forest. It lapped up against the dozen or so huts before spilling back to form shimmering pools that pushed back dawn’s bedfellow, the dark.
Morning was already punctured by the happy grunts of the pigs, snuffling through the undergrowth of their stockade, chuntering among themselves, occasionally a squeal as an acorn was given up by the trampled mud. Steam rose from their backs mingling with the early smoke coming from huts, diffuse, rising to meet the sun as it broke through the towering forest that had yet to feel the saw and axe.
Clanks of iron pots being hauled into place and the first rumble of the grinding stones on grain began to join the pigs’ breakfast chatter.
The Bructeri village was small by other tribal standards. Pushed into the interior of the forest by relentless Roman probing, endless probing, the tribe had fared badly. Its clearing was recent, only the foundations of a great hall still yet stood, fresh lumber still heaped within its skeleton. Where once the Bructeri had numbered thousands, their proximity to the mighty river Rhine had made them a frequent target for the machine-hearted men of the Romani garrison at Bativodorum. Now just a few hundred of their kin remained, scattered like pebbles in the interior of the forest.
Vannius had been careful, safe. No Bructeri had given ground to the Romani. They’d fought to the death – or slavery. But however many his dwindling war bands had slain more Romani always returned. Always in greater numbers, always encased in iron, strong swords in hand. As his veterans, his shield brothers had fallen, he had looked around to see striplings, willowy young men, mere boys, clutching green spears, a few old blades. No, they were no match. Not for now. Not yet. They had to move.
He missed the east bank, the endless chatter of the river. Rich in fish, freshwater mussels, goose and game, they had prospered. Bructeri boats had plied the watery highway trading north and south on the Rhine as it slumbered through Germania. Batavians at the mouth of the river brought amber and furs from the northerners, and the southern tribes brought wine, jewelry, oils from the south.
Fancy goods, but the Bructeri had iron.
Their streams ran red. Ironstone’ bled into the soil. Water from the wells resembled blood. And their smiths could transform the ore hewn from the living rock into blades as easily as the woodworkers fashion planks from trees. When tribes skirmished, Bructeri blades did the fighting. When peace reigned, Bructeri pots boiled the water, Bructeri ploughs carved through the heavy clay of the river delta as if it were churned butter.
Now only forest. Endless forest.
‘Marius!’ he barked. His son’s slave was returning from the tribal midden. He’d been up before dawn. Firewood was under one arm, an empty piss pot on the other.
‘I think we should have dug that thing further away, you know.’ Marius said breezily. ‘If the wind changes in the summer, it will go into the hall, I swear it,’ he added nodding over his shoulder at the cesspit.
‘Rubbish, the wind never changes,’ said Vannius. ‘Anyway, you like digging. Keeps you fit.’
‘I think carrying your piss-pot keeps me fit enough. Why can’t you have a wooden one like everyone else? This is heavy.’ Marius grinned.
‘You’re a cheeky bastard. Come here..’ demanded Vannius, looking stern, but his eyes gave away his mood, only half-serious.
Marius knew what was coming next. Vannius loved a brawl. The Bructeri chieftain could barely get through the day without grabbing some passerby for a trial of strength, wrestling some unfortunate, or challenging to lifting logs. Usually, he started his day testing his son’s growing strength.
The headlock came swiftly. Marius dare not drop the dry firewood into the morning grass.
‘Too slow,’ trumpeted Vannius. ‘I thought you said you were fit? Clearly, not doing enough work around here!. I should stick with that son of mine.’ Marius had chores and the fires were not going to light themselves. Before the blackness of the choke hold took effect, he managed to swing the iron piss-pot into the sweet spot of the inside of the chieftain’s knee. Blessed breath returned in gasps. Marius instantly regretted the move.
But instead of the roaring blow he expected next, there was just silence. Vannius was looking fixedly at the clearing heading to the stream.
‘Where’s Ricburgis, Marius? Where’s my son?’
Categories: The Last Seanachie