My Writing

Rain On The Estua

By March 21, 2018 No Comments

Well, with Lion Cub dished out to proofreaders I find myself in limbo until they’re done, so I figured I’d put up some Caledon short stories on the blog.  Most of these are basically ‘deleted scenes’ where I put something together then realised it had no place in the books themselves (and they’re long enough as it is!).  For all my devoted fans who are waiting at their laptops for Lion Cub to come out, hopefully these will keep you going for a while!

The first one I’ve decided to share covers part of the Seiriae War, which takes place between Leaping Wolf and Lion Cub.  Enjoy.

 

Rain On The Estua

 

Rhia looked down at the fast-flowing river and for the hundredth time she cursed the rain that swelled it.  The Estua had always been too deep to ford, but they might have boated across had they been blessed with better weather.  But not now.  The wind whipped the chieftain’s hair across her face, lashing her skin with soaking black tendrils, but Rhia didn’t flinch and kept staring at the river.  She was standing on a little rise above the Estua’s south bank, while her army spread out on the muddy fields below.

The clouds were so thick that even midday seemed like twilight and the shields and banners of the legions looked dull and drab in the downpour.  The great river, bloated with the rain, sped off east with a roar that seemed loud even on the ridge, and on the north bank she saw the retreating warbands of the Seiriae, cantering towards the woodland with their chieftain at their head.  Craven bastard!  Rhia’s eyes went from the fleeing tribesmen to the lone bridge across the raging torrent, grey and narrow and stalwartly blocked by the solid mass of the Seiriae rearguard.  She sighed into the wind.  Today was going to be bloody.

After a long and hard campaign in the Catuvanni lands they had finally pushed the Red Hand back into Seiriae territory, and both Rhia and her Gaian allies were agreed that, were he allowed to retreat in good order, the Seiriae chieftain would be back to his raiding the moment they turned their backs.  And the legions couldn’t wait here forever.  They had to push him deeper into his own lands and break his power, driving home the lesson with fire and blood.  The irony was not lost on Rhianwyn daughter of Carradan.  Not so long ago her own people had been fighting the Gaians, and a Gaian general had looked down on her tribe, planning how best to break their power and teach them to fear the might of Gaivia.  Rhia shook her head.  This is different.  The Seiriae attacked first, and the Catuvanni were under the Gaians’ protection.  It is only right that their attackers be driven off.  She thought of the mutilated corpses that the Red Hand had left behind him, and told herself firmly that this was nothing like when she and her father had fought the conquerors.  But for all the differences, you can’t deny there are similarities too.

Rhia shoved the thought from her mind; this was not the time or place for philosophising.  The Gaians and the Caledon were allies now, and this campaign would solidify that better than any diplomacy ever could.  And that justifies your attacking a fellow Lurian tribe?  Rhia told the voice in her head very clearly that yes it did.  The Seiriae were a brutal people and even had they not been, the survival of the Caledon had to come first.  Fighting beside the Gaians here would send a message to all that the alliance was more than just words, and if it took a few Seiriae deaths to secure her own people’s future then so be it.  She looked down at the bridge again.  But it will be more than a few lives lost today, and not all of them Seiriae.

Below her, cohorts from three legions were preparing themselves to attack; two Gaian and one Lurian.  Together they had both the numbers and the discipline to inflict terrible damage on their foe, though today they would be made to pay for that damage in blood.  On the bridge and the north bank stood half a thousand Seiriae, including what must have been near a hundred of their Garawd, the savage tribe’s equivalent of Gadarim.  The Red Hand must have picked his lands clean of people to summon such a force.  This defeat will cripple his tribe for years.  Part of her wanted to curse him for a blind fool, but she had to admit there was cunning beneath his ambition.  The attacks had been planned with care, avoiding pitched battles with the legions wherever possible, and he had done far more damage to the Gaians and Catuvanni than any had expected.  And now his retreat is no less well-planned.

The mass on the bridge would never stand against a shieldwall but they would bleed them and slow them down enough for the main body of the Seiriae to flee.  Once the cohort gained the north bank they would be bled further by the flanking forces that awaited them on either side.  Rhia couldn’t make out the red tattoos that marked out their elite, but she knew that the warbands on the bank would be teeming with Garawd, waiting to smash into the cohort when it finally ground its way through their comrades.  The legion would still win of course, but they would have no archers to help them, and the formation’s great strength was in moving forwards.  The Seiriae would be butchered today, but many a good legionary would die as well, and it would cost them precious time while the Red Hand fled to his mountains.  Once there, he would be able to raid and withdraw if the legions followed him, and regroup his forces if they didn’t.

The Caledon’s commander ground her teeth and cursed the rain for the hundred-and-first time.  It had denied them the chance to land more troops on the north bank, it had robbed them of the archers who might have thinned out the enemy, and was busy soaking Rhia to the skin to boot.  Her dark leggings and red tunic were as wet as if she’d strode through a bathing pool, and her pony’s mane was limp and straggly.  Her clothes stuck to her uncomfortably, the heavy mailshirt over them somehow making the whole experience that much worse, and she dreaded to think what sort of mess her woad was in by now.  She glanced at the tattoos on her wrist.  At least some of my battlemarks can still be seen.

Without thinking she touched a hand to the Vulco amulet beneath her sodden tunic.  This was Gaian-occupied land, perhaps they should have prayed harder to Vulco for a victory, or to Cassio for good weather.  Maybe we should drink goat’s blood in our rituals the way the Seiriae do, it clearly works.  Or at least, it was working now that the Seiriae were back on their own land, where their ghosts and Sidhe would be watching.  Rhia flicked the hair from her face and began trotting down the ridge.  Whatever she and hers ought to have done, it was too late to do it now.

As she rode she pondered on the decision they would have to make next, and no matter what it was going to be hard.  Between them she, Gawan, Kyran, Cadmus and Galerian would have to decide whose company would be first across the bridge.  The first to see it’s legionaries die.  She resisted the urge to chew her lip as she approached the formations and saw the banners up close.  Even in the wan light she saw the deep green dragon that was Mabonac, flying on red and blue for the Caderyn, black for the Dariniae, and summer green for the Gorvicae.  Even on a day as grim as this it made Rhia feel proud to see them together; tribes that had been killing each other when she was young, now united into the Caledon.

Beyond her own people she saw the golden lion on red that marked the Tenth Legion, their motto written beneath it in letters of gold; Justly Proud.  Rhia couldn’t help but wonder just how true that was now, given their recent history, but she supposed that for all his faults Cadmus was doing his best to regain his legion’s stained honour.  Farther off still she saw the black banners and flying raven of the First Legion, their own motto written in silver beneath the red-eyed bird; Unto Death.  Unsettling though their legend was, Rhia knew and liked Gregor Galerian far better than she liked Cadmus, and for an unworthy moment she considered arguing for the Tenth to be first into the fray, simply because of who they were.  She stamped out the notion with a grimace.  We are all here to fight the same battle.  And Cadmus is not Lepidus.

Soon enough she came to the spot opposite the bridge where the generals and tribunes had gathered to make their plans.  It still struck her as odd that she’d never actually named herself as general of the Caledon Legion, everyone just assumed that she was.  Rhia swung a leg over her pony’s head and dropped from the saddle, then tried to walk normally as her breeches clung clammily to her legs.  The assembled men nodded to her and she nodded back politely, first to her fellow Gadarim and then to the Gaian generals.  Kyran had barely changed since the great battle at Nantwyn and was looking fearsome with his lime-striped hair and swirling tattoos, though like all the Lurians, his painted woad was messy.  Beside him, Gawan was looking just as fierce, but undeniably older than he had done at their last battle.

Gawan, her dearest friend who’d once been her deadliest enemy, had more tattooed battlemarks than Kyran and Bedwyr combined and was an exceptional fighter and leader of men.  But beneath the lime Rhia knew his hair was fast turning to grey, and in weather like this she knew his leg would be paining him.  Combined with his crooked nose and missing hand it was becoming ever clearer to Rhia that the First Man of the Caledon was approaching a time when he would serve better as an advisor than as a warrior.  The thought saddened her a little.  But then, I suppose it’s a sign of good skill or good fortune when a warrior gets to reach old age.

She pondered that thought for a moment as she approached the little group.  Gawan was somewhere about his fiftieth winter by now, and though Rhia was a good twenty summers his junior, she’d seen more than one grey strand in her black hair of late.  One day people will look at you and think that you’re too old to fight.  A ridiculous thought struck her and Rhia almost chuckled to herself.  All her life she’d felt pangs of envy of curvaceous friends like Meg and Vorena, but at least when Rhia got old there would be less of her to sag!  She bit back the smile, clearly born of nerves more than good humour, and kept her face plain.  There was work to be done here and if things went well, she could worry or laugh about getting old once they were done.

Gregor Galerian was the first to speak.  He was a tall, dark-haired man with classical patrician looks beneath his black-plumed helm.

‘Well, there is only one question; who is to cross first?’

Both Gawan and Cadmus answered at once, followed less than a heartbeat later by Kyran.

‘I will.’

Gregor almost smiled.

‘Noble though the gesture is, we have the lives of our men to consider as much as our own honour’

Cadmus frowned and grunted.  The stocky man was no great orator but he was an exceptional soldier and a sensible commander.  Even when he was on the wrong side.  It was Gawan who answered, his voice gruff.

‘What do you suggest?’

He spoke slowly to make his rough-edged Vulgare easier for the Gaians to understand.  Gregor was apparently prepared for his question and produced a leather purse from his belt.  He emptied out enough coins to pay two cohorts for a month and passed them to the grizzled centurion stood beside him.  The General sifted through the money in the other man’s hand and picked out four silver coins and one of gold.  He held the golden coin up for all to see and even in the rain it twinkled at the little group.

‘We each draw a coin from the purse.  The eagle takes the bridge.’

Rhia and the others nodded and Galerian dropped the five coins into the little bag.  The Caderyn chieftain worked to keep her face blank.  Like any Gadarim she was dedicated to battle and was willing enough to go and fight, but the warriors of her cohorts were her friends and comrades, and if she drew the golden coin she would condemn many to death.  A death far from home, fighting to defend Gaians and a conquered tribe from a mob of savages they ought never to have met.  Rhia set her jaw.  They might not be defending Caderyn land, but they were protecting the best interests of the Caledon in the long term.  Not that it’ll be much comfort the widows and orphans I’ll see when I get back.

Cadmus was the first to step up and put a hand in the purse, and the plain-faced man looked almost disappointed when he drew out a silver talon.  Gawan went next and had a similar reaction when he saw he’d not be leading this charge.  Kyran made as if to move but Rhia reached in first, her hand brushing against all three coins before she pinched one and drew it out.  The golden eagle winked at them again and Rhia felt her heart skip a beat.  The Caderyn it is then.  She saw Gawan open his mouth to speak but she silenced him with a look.  He meant well but there was no backing out of this, and deep down he knew that as well as she did.

Rhia forced a smirk and held the coin up with a wry look.

‘I’m keeping this by the way.’

The smiles that came back at her were equally forced but she was grateful for the effort.  Even Cadmus’ mouth twitched.  Once again she thought of her friends in the cohort, and wondered how many Caderyn would see Annwn’s bridge today because she had plucked out that coin.  She took a breath and pushed the thought away.  It was all in the hands of the gods now, and once again she touched a hand to the amulet around her neck.  Both Gregor and Cadmus put hands to their chests as well, no doubt feeling the outlines of their own charms to the War God.  They are asking their god to bless me; Gaians praying for Lurians to win a victory and come home safe.  Rhia almost shook her head.  It was a strange world indeed that she’d created.

In her head Rhia whispered a silent prayer of her own, partly to Mabonac for a victory, but also to Cassio Marna for herself.  Let me live through this and get back to Tamora.  Let me see my boy again.  Lucan was eleven now, and beginning a Gaian education at the Duralian Academy.  Rhia wished she had been able to stay there with him for a while, but the Red Hand had struck the Catuvanni and duty had called her east, and away from him.  She tried to comfort herself.  If all goes ill, he has family both at Bryngarth and in Tamora.  Olla will bring him home once all is done, and Drusus and Livilla will keep an eye on him in the city.  Livilla might never have seen eye to eye with Rhia but she would make sure that Lucan blended in for the sake of his name, and Drusus was the kindest Gaian Rhia knew.  It was cold comfort at best, but it was better than nothing she supposed, and Rhia would have to take what she could get at this point.

Thunder rumbled overhead and snapped her back to the present, as did the cries to Taran from Lurians on both sides of the water.  She pressed her lips together and killed her next thought before it could form.  We are not the same.  The Seiriae are savage and brutal.  And they must be stopped.  The warriors on the bridge began to call taunts across the river, their warpaint running down their faces like blood as the rain intensified.  May we turn it to the real thing when we cross.

She turned to face her fellow commanders and exchanged grips with all of them.  Gawan’s grip was firmer and longer than the others and she did her best to smile for him.  One thing was for sure; the Caderyn might be the first to cross, but the Gorvicae would be hard on their heels.  Rhia motioned for her pony and hauled herself into the saddle.  She gave a last nod to the others.

‘I’ll see you in Seiriae land.’

They nodded back and she casually flipped the coin in her hand before turning her mount’s head towards the river.  The Estua was flowing faster than ever and she tried to stay as confident as she looked as she trotted towards her cohort.  They had the numbers, they had the discipline, and after this fight the war would be all but over.  All the same Rhia felt a pang of sadness when she saw Bedwyr and the others, forming themselves up ready to charge into the fray.  She sighed to herself again.  Victory or defeat, today was going to be bloody.

 

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