Crossroads At Isca
A circle of men, their beards glistening with pork fat, and clasping beakers filled with wine and mead, watched the dancer, her golden hair flying out around her as she leapt and turned around the fire burning in a ring of stones at the centre of the wattle and daub hut.
The men shouted their encouragement as the dancer completed the final steps of the dance to the beat of a drum covered with animal hide, the rattle of stones and animal bones, and the shrill trill of a pipe.
They burst into uproar when she stood poised like a statue, one arm raised above her head, her breasts rising and falling, her lips shining as she glanced across the heads of the audience.
Shouts of, “More, more,” echoed around Ceomin’s hall.
His face flushed from excitement and wine, Tribune Lucius Acilius, jumped into the circle and swept the dancer into his arms and danced with her in a whirl of skirts around the periphery of shouting men, his iron-studded sandals biting into the earthen floor.
Faine’s head ached from the smell of burning oil and the smokiness in the building stung her eyes. From where she sat she watched her cousin. Marella had so much energy when it came to dancing. She glanced at Ceomin, her uncle and chieftain at the hill fort, and wondered if she dared sneak away to her hut without him noticing.
“I enjoyed your singing and playing,” a voice said beside her.
Startled, Faine glanced up to see Titus Antoninus, one of the young Roman tribunes, smiling at her. The light from the flickering oil lamp on the wall behind him lit his well-formed features, black hair and olive skin, and fell across his chest lorica of iron hoops and strips of leather.
“Lucius tells me you compose your own songs,” he said.
“I do though one of my songs was from a poem of Sappho’s.” She stumbled over the words, embarrassed by his admiration.
“I thought they sounded familiar. So you know the Greek poets?”
“We had a Greek tutor. He was an old man and destitute.” Faine told the lie she always did when asked about Cheiro. “Ceomin took pity on him and offered him a home at Ceobury.”
From where he sat on his rough-hewn chair, Ceomin watched his niece dancing with the Roman tribune. Little sot. His hand tightened on the silver beaker of mead. If he didn’t keep a tight rein on her, she’d run off with the first man who asked her. He stretched to ease his deformed leg, a result of a spear wound in his youth.
Searching the crowded hall for Faine, his other niece, he was satisfied when he saw her and Titus Antoninus together. He knew the Roman tribunes would be attracted to his nieces. It was why he invited them and their troop to join in eating the roasted pig. It paid to have that fool of a Greek whom Faine used to moon over to tutor the girls. His nieces were more of an asset to him than his nephews. He thought of what benefits he might get from further involvement with the Romans.
He shivered and pulled the wolf skin closer about his shoulders. The nights had grown cold and the mists rose early.
His mood changed when he saw Lucius Acilius give Marella a beaker of wine. She drank it, her lips gleaming wet in the lamplight as she smiled at the young tribune.
“Come here, girl.” Ceomin’s voice rasped over the noisy throng.
For a moment it seemed she’d refuse before she sulkily acquiesced.
When she reached him, he pulled her onto his lap and demanded of the Romans near him, “What do you think of my girl? Have you a better dancer in Rome?” Before any of the Romans answered, he called to Faine, annoyed now at seeing her in conversation with Titus Antoninus. “You, come here too, girl.”
“Would you excuse me,” Faine said to Titus Antoninus. “I must go to my uncle.”
When she reached Ceomin, he pulled her down beside Marella and rubbed his face against her cheek. “What do you think of my darlings?” he asked again. “Have you better in Rome?”
“No,” said Titus Antoninus who had followed her.
“You know a fine pair of fillies when you see them, tribune.” Ceomin’s expression broke into a smirk. “I have to protect them from your men. They’re such innocents.” He hugged Faine and Marella, whispering, “You’d better go to your hut, my darlings. It’s become too rowdy here.”
Marella jumped to her feet. “You always spoil everything.” She glared at him before flouncing off.
He scowled after her, excusing her to the Romans. “Come again, my fine fellows, and see Marella dance in my hall. She may be in a better mood.”
“We’ll take her to the fort,” a legionary said, his voice slurred with wine. “She can dance for us there.”
“Yes, yes,” shouted the Roman mob.
Ceomin grunted to Faine who had slid to her feet. “I don’t trust these drunken sots. Murdac will take you to your hut. Make sure you bar the door.” He beckoned to his farm overseer who stood a few feet away and whispered his orders. “See the girls to their hut.”
Murdac raised his hand in salutation.
Titus Antoninus held Faine’s hand a moment before kissing her palm. “I’ll come again to hear you sing.”
She curtsied. “I’ll look forward to that, tribune.”
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Ceomin said as the Roman watched her walk away.
“Very.” The tall Roman pardoned himself and pushed through the boisterous group of Romans and Britons to join Lucius Acilius, the leader of the Roman troop.
Followed by Murdac, Faine caught up with Marella on the path to their hut.
“I hate Ceomin.” Tears of rage made Marella’s voice husky. “He knew I was having fun.” She broke into a sob. “I hate him.” She kicked a pebble off the dirt path. “I’ll run off to Londinium with the first Roman who asks me, just see if I don’t, and Ceomin won’t be able to do a thing about it. He won’t risk trouble with the Romans over me.” She looked happier. “What were you talking about to Titus?”
“He must have said something to you?”
“He complimented me on my singing and playing.”
“Is that all?”
Faine caught the disappointment in her voice. Titus hadn’t mentioned Marella. “He said he enjoyed your dancing.”
Marella smiled. “He’s good looking, isn’t he, but he’s not fun like Lucius. Lucius said Titus has recently arrived from Rome. He’s a member of one of Rome’s leading families. How I’d like to see Rome. I hate this place.” They reached the thatched hut where she and Faine slept.
Marella pushed open the door and vanished inside.
Faine shivered as she stood by the open door. The mists were rising and now covered the valley floor. Soon they would reach where she stood. She too, liked the thought of the sun, but she had no desire to leave Ceobury. “Goodnight,” she called to the dark form of Murdac who had stopped a few paces away.
He lifted his hand in acknowledgement.
She went inside the hut. Marella was already in bed. By the light of the lamp that Marella had brought from Ceomin’s hall, Faine slipped out of her woollen tunic and pulled on a night one.
After Faine had doused the lamp and slid under the covers on the pallet of straw, Marella whispered, “Lucius said he’d take me to Londinium.”
The image of the fresh-faced Lucius Acilius rose before Faine. “You know Ceomin wouldn’t allow it.” She turned on her side and snuggled under the skins and woollen rugs.
Marella’s voice rose. “I’ll go with him if I want to. The Romans are so clean. They bathe everyday and their cheeks are so smooth. Ugh! I hate hairy faces.” She shuddered. “Have you heard about their bathhouses? I’d love to bath in a hot pool and have a massage afterwards instead of having to cart water from the stream and wash in a pot.”
The mist had nearly covered the hilltops when the Roman troop departed from Ceobury.
Lucius Acilius cursed as they rode through the drifting rain. “We should have left earlier. I suspect old Ceomin purposely entertained us with Marella and Faine to keep us there.”
“Why would he do that?” Titus Antoninus asked, riding alongside him.
“Perhaps he hopes we’ll be interested in them.”
“What does he expect would come from that?”
Lucius glanced at him, catching the inflexion of surprise in Titus’s voice. “Who knows? Ceomin is a cunning old devil.”
“Faine and Marella are an attractive pair and speak good Latin.”
“Ceomin employed a Greek to tutor them.”
“That’s unusual for a Roman let alone a Briton. Was the Greek a runaway slave?”
“Ceomin wouldn’t admit it if he was.”
The path narrowed as they entered the wood. The horsemen rode in single file between the trees, which dripped water onto their bronze helmets.
“Are the girls his concubines?” Titus held a low branch back from whipping against his face and came level to ride beside Lucius again.
“As far as I know they aren’t. Both Ceomin’s sisters, the girls’ mothers, died in childbirth. Ceomin brought them up as his daughters. They have more freedom than our Roman women whom we cherish more.”
Lucius glanced at him, wondering at the sneer in his voice.
“What does he plan for his nieces?” Titus continued. “They look older than the average Briton when she marries.”
“I doubt whether he has plans to marry them off yet. They’re his pawns in any game he wishes to play. Marella begs me to take her to Londinium. Removing her from Ceomin’s control is the problem. He’s important to us. The other tribes look up to him.”
“Why don’t you pay him for her favours?”
“He’s not interested in selling the girls. I’ve offered him silver but he says he has all the silver he needs.”
“Not many men can say that.”
They emerged from the wood. The drizzle of rain stopped and the clouds parted, allowing moonlight to stream down and envelop the flat plain. In the distance rose the stone walls of the great Roman fort.
“Where does his wealth come from?” Titus asked as their horses made their way along the wide paved road.
Lucius glanced at him, wondering at his interest in Ceomin. “He sells produce to the fort, the town and the mine. He even sells wine, wretched stuff that it is but the Britons seem to like it well enough. Witness how you saw them quaffing it down but I think it’s power he wants. Power over his tribe though he’s losing his people to the town, and even power over us.”
“What power has he over us?”
Lucius laughed. “In the matter of his nieces he has. I saw you were taken with Faine.”
“I didn’t expect to find someone as talented and educated as her among the Britons.”
Lucius glanced slyly at him. “She’s beautiful too, as well as a virgin.”
Titus ignored his insinuations. “Has Ceomin offspring of his own.”
“No, and never has so far it’s known to us. He’s had plenty of women so the old devil must be sterile. There’s a woman who tends him and probably supplies his sexual needs. He doesn’t have young women in his bed, I’ll say that for him.”
Lucius tightened his grip on his horse’s reins when he rode over a narrow bridge.
Titus came up beside him again. “I thought Ceomin didn’t look well.”
“His leg is badly crippled. I imagine it’s painful. He was very ill last winter.” Lucius pulled his cloak, held together by a copper brooch made in the shape of an eagle at his shoulder, closer about him. “I hate this wretched climate. I long for the day when I can return to Rome.”
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