He stood on a small height of the island, watching as the prisoners were hauled by. The few that had been “spared” now screamed obscenities as legionaries brought them along to the waiting punts on the shore. The boatmen were indentured Gaels from across the sea, pale skinned barbarians who stood there sullenly as their Cymric kin were escorted past. Only the Celts north in Caledonia and westward to Hibernia now stood free from under the yoke. The issue for the next generation.
He hadn’t seen resistance like this since the fens. He shuddered at the memory, wading through the swamps, legionaries swearing as they sunk with their armour. Other patrols just disappearing, either butchered by the Vendici or sucked down into the morass. Something that wasn’t quite water but not quite land. At least now with the heart of their religion skewered, the subjugation could begin.
Here they’d made a stand. Yns Mons in the barbaric tongue of its inhabitants, a language that sounded more akin to the crying and shrieking of birds and beasts than the subtle nuances and measured stride of Latin. The defenders crying aloud to Beli Mawr, Lugh, anyone who would aid them.
The home of their religion. Pagan worshippers. He said a quiet prayer to Mars for granting them victory. Not that any army in the west could stand against the iron fist of the legions. It had taken two cohorts only to land here and wipe out the last remnants. He gritted his teeth at the memory of the charnel house in Gwynedd, bones piled waist deep. Or the slit throats of the patrol impaled at Doncaester. Along with a bloody mess only where their groin had been. He felt a bout of queasiness at the memory. No man deserved to die like that. And on the cross? inquired a snide tone, remembering the lines of crucifixions they’d made.
Robed figures were babbling and shrieking as calm legionaries advanced to finish them off. Others staggered around with pilums protruding from their bodies. A few legionaries had found wineskins and amused themselves with javelin tossing at the demented druids. Too giddy to aim properly, they were half crippled. Legionaries drew their gladius to step forward and administer a coup de grace.
One was being hauled past, foaming at the mouth almost. He was an older man, his hair the colour of snow. Not that was any great indication of age, these barbarians seemed to live shorter lives than the civilised lands to the south. Considering the islands seemed to be constantly swathed in cloud and fog, he wasn’t surprised. He shivered and pulled his cloak in around him more, grey was the predominant colour here. No sane man would call these isles home, what sort of life could you live here? Except one wild, like an animal.
A ragged collection of druids, women and those few warriors who’d escaped across the straits. Felix smiled as the druid wove a gesture in the hair with his hands, a sign of evil, though his expression changed as spittle landed on his cheek. Frowning, he dabbed it away with the corner of his cloak before continuing as if nothing had happened.
“Your people kill in but four ways for your gods?” he enquired in accented but understandable British. The druid snarled but nodded warily, hawking up for another gobbet. A blow from one of the escorting legionaries knocked him to the ground and he moved to stab down with his gladius before Felix stopped him. He’d used the hilt of his gladius, the metal of the shortsword having made a wicked mess, Felix frowned at the site of it.
“Yes Roman” the druid spat, his spittle red now, the legionary had broken some teeth. “Earth, air, fire, water. It is from them we come”. Felix uttered a few quick words in Latin and others came forward, reluctant to part with their wealth but obeying the tribune. They began to heap it upon the druid who slowly had it begin to dawn on him. He was swearing in British so fast now, or was it some older tongue? Did it even matter? “I’ll send you to your gods Druid” he promised calmly.
It didn’t help him as he was hauled towards the drop. Only some twenty feet down, the water was a deep blue there. Felix indicated it as the druid began to speak again, this time in halting Latin “I curse th-” he got no further as he was shoved over, strong arms propelling him towards the drop.
Legionaries crowded the scarp to peer down, craning for a view as the water cleared from the splash. Once the druid broke the surface, twice, Felix marvelling at the strength and willpower the man was able to summon. All for naught as another wave broke over him, a foam of whitewater cloaking him from view.
When it cleared, nothing remained to show his passing, only the sound of the waves crashing and the shriek of the seabirds above.
"Must not all things at the last be swallowed up in death?" - Plato
Niall Ó Raghallaigh stood on the prow of the ship, heedless of the sea spray as the vessel bucked in the waves and crashed into the water, surmounting each crest and cap like they were the peaks of mighty hills. The boat seemed to creak and groan in protest at the weather, the storm having being whipped to fever pitch. But like a dogged wolf the ship continued on, chasing their quarry like a wolf after a stag. Clinging to some of the rigging, the grey-eyed Gael stared with cold fury at the vessel they could see ahead, maybe only half a mile on.
The slaver was a longship, one of three that split up in the storm now hurried for the Isles where they would be amongst friends and be able to bring their slaves to market. Its oars were in and the sail reefed, earlier on at full pelt the heavy western winds had torn the soaked canvas. Like the Irish ship, it was being battered by the storm but its men were of hardy stock, coming from a harsh land and well accustomed to hardship. But even they were tired and weary of the chase, sullen words being muttered and harsh glances shot at their captain. Stoic and emotionless to the last, they paid little heed to each other and less to their human cargo.
The slaves were kept low, chained together and penned below the gunwales where normally they were used to row. Now they huddled together for warmth against the biting wind, their thin scraps of clothing (bare shifts and torn rags) scant protection when the sea spray splashed over and drenched them time and again. Three had already perished in the chase, their hands hacked off from the chains and the bodies tossed overboard. The reavers had begun in far off Frankia and worked north along the Irish sea, raiding lands of Gael, Breton, Welsh and Cornish, along with their last foray into western Caledonia. Some of the slaves were long-term, having being kept aboard more than a year, others only fresh arrivals of a few days back. But an Irish pirate had espied them and now this heavily laden longship strove to reach a safe haven.
“We should fight them” grumbled Flóki, Magnusson. A man of the Norse his grim bulk was a testament to his race and few among the crew dared anger the young man. His words were to himself as he wandered the thwarts above the slaves, a short-bladed seax clutched in his hands, ready to silence any of the slaves or quell thoughts of rebellion. They were pitiful creatures really, a mixture of Franks, Saxons, Celts of the various lands and even one or two he couldn’t place. Taller than the southern Latins, they still paled compared to the sheer bulk of the Northmen, to a man who all stood taller than six foot. Animals in human form, some had painted designs on them, others clad only in ragged furs. Tostig the slaver hawked and spat down on them as mewling wails lifted. “If we’re caught, they’ll kill you too” he smiled grimly, swearing at them in Svear. Some of them knew the tongue. Flóki turned in disgust and resumed his walking on the rolling deck, the seax felt feeble in his hands, how he longed for his war axe.
The Irish ship drew nearer, its sails fluttering sharp in the breeze, close to an hour passed but it gained on the longship. Arrows were tried from both quarters but the wind just whisked them away like a giant swatting aside flies. Gaelic howls sounded as the reavers drew near, shipping oars and drawing weapons. A rangy, long of limb race, they were still as barbaric as their Cyrmic and Brythonic kin in Europe and Britain despite their inherent pretensions to nobility. Not for rescue did they pursue the Northmen, they would gladly sell the cargo into slavery for their own profit. Revenge neither, many owed the Northmen blood debts but the prospect of violence was more thrilling to the savages. Love of a fight, the hunter’s thrill of the chase had drawn them.
Niall hated them and black fury coursed through him as he stood tall on the bow, the two ships clattering together. The sails flapped incessantly as both vessels luffed up into the wind. Boarders and counter-boarders leapt to the charge, one Viking disappearing with a scream between the ships and sinking like a stone. Lightlier armoured than the Norse, the Gaels still wore mail or leather, with greaves common with their kilts and light helmets and bucklers. Against them stood the Northern giants, mailed and helmed, some seeming more like creatures of iron than men.
Niall landed with an oath, his light Dalcassian axe lashing out to tear the neck half off one juggernaut. Two more Gaels landed with him, one screaming as a Danish sword tore into his cut. The lighter Gaels surged around the Norse while they lashed out with sword and axe, silent stoicism being met with savage war cries. Flóki snarled in disgust as his seax broke on the mail of one of the reavers, picking the smaller man bodily up, heedless of the weight. Grunting with the effort, the Nord flung him bodily overboard. Bodies tumbled and fell in amongst the slaves as the two sides surged, slipping and falling on the wet deck in the pitching seas. Darts and javelins flew from Irish ship, showering the Vikings like hail.
Cathal whooped a war cry as he spun, dropping low and letting his axe bite into the unarmoured leg of a Dane. As he fell with a cry, he followed up with an overarm stroke that thudded into his face with limp finality. All around them the fighting was waxing furiously on the drenched deck. Men stumbled and fell, belowdecks and overboard as the two ships tossed in the teeth of the fierce storm.
Niall himself slipped and this is what saved him from a sword slash smashing into his neck. He was able to block the next part with his buckler and with difficulty forced his attacker back, hacking away like a madman. Below the slaves continued wailing and howling their lamentations. Time would tell were these new reavers to be saviours or slavers. The ships were locked together in brutal combat with the fate of one determining the other. Only one could triumph, but fate had different ideas.
The storm winds and currents were pulling the ships towards the far northern isles, the storm had blown them far off course. A treacherous reef with jagged rocks, sure to tear the keel out of any proud vessel. But to the combatants, it was all moot. Flóki himself had killed three already as he fought his way to the bow, reaching for his axe. The Dane axe was a fearsome thing, a long shaft of timber with a wicked looking head. Now the rage was on him, the killing one. He began working his way down, clearing the ship, helmless and shieldless, hewing about him with both hands and woe betide those who were in front, the berserkgang making him blind. He was heedless now of friend and foe, seeing only dark shapes before him that were to be destroyed.
Rising with feline grace, Niall retrieved his axe and flicked it forward to slash across the neck of his opponent. The black fury of the Gael was on him now and he moved like in a dance, his blows coming so fast that his opponents barely felt the first before they’d been slain by the last. He whooped again, a chilling sound like a wolf’s howl, jerking his axe free. He moved into a half crouch now as the Norseman came forward, his teeth bared. The pitching deck made footholds impossible and Flóki stumbled as he lurched forward. Niall avoided his rush but instead of a nimble side-step and killing stroke, he was thrown from his stance as the ships bucked in the storm.
The Gaelic ship hit first, its bottom being torn out as it hit the reef, nearly knocking everyone over as the impact jarred them all. It held there for a few sickening seconds before tearing asunder and the Norse vessel came in, clattering apart and water pouring over to condemn those in the decks to an awful death. It half capsized, Gael, Northman and slave alike being flung like ragdolls from the impact or else trapped in the wrecks of their ships. Many of the slaves went down, mouths opening and closing silently underwater as they tried to grab a last grasp of air. Other assailants unwilling to let each other escape, now joined each other in death’s cold embrace as they disappeared below the waves.
Niall was lucky not to be trapped under the ship when it went, instead he was swept by a wave, not like the poor unfortunates doomed to drown or dashed on the rocks. He struggled in his armour to keep aloft, treading water desperately and swimming upwards to choke in lungs of air, many others doing the same. He grabbed onto a spar that had splintered off, barely sufficient to keep him aloft. Muscles burning, he blacked out and knew no more, his hands gripping the wood as tight he could..
It was full night and still a storm when he came to on the beach. He was drenched, shivering from the cold water and the rain still beat on him. The tide had receded to leave him on the beach stranded, the acrid taste of salt in his mouth and up his nose. He coughed, only to bring up seawater. His mouth gagged at the burning taste, bile joining it as his stomach vented.
Rising he forced himself up on hands and knees. His helm had been lost but bits of timber floated in the surf, the moon’s light showing the carcasses of one of the former reaving vessels half sprawled on the strand. Bodies were scattered along, some still floating in the sea and none moving. Abating slowly, there was an odd serenity to it, marred only by the bodies that the sea had taken in tribute.
Flóki himself came to half under a plank. The saltwater had doused his fury and brought him to his senses. Now he struggled to free himself, the bear glaring and struggling against one of the keel timber strakes. His eyes met the Gael as Niall rose. There was no fury now, just a deathly calm as the last survivors confronted each other. He’d lost his axe but he gripped a sharp rock in his hand, knuckles white on it though he could barely stand.
The Gael grinned savagely, it was more like the flash of teeth a wolf gave its prey. He lurched forward steadily, eyes focused on the trapped man.