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Reign of Iron
By Angus Watson
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Caesar’s soldiers have murdered, massacred and pillaged their way through Gaul and loom on the far side of the sea, ready to descend upon Britain — with them are an unstoppable legion of men twisted by dark magic. Somehow Queen Lowa must repel the invasion, although her best general is dead and her young druid powerless. She faces impossible odds, but when the alternative is death or slavery, a warrior queen will do whatever it takes to save her people.
EVERY EMPIRE HAS ITS DOWNFALL.
Table of Contents
A Preview of The Blade Itself
A Preview of The Free
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Prologue: The Aegean Sea, 85 BC
As shipwrecks went, it was undramatic. Arguing over whether the basking shark a hundred yards to starboard was larger than the basking shark that they'd seen earlier, the two lookouts failed to spot a granite megalith, relic of a town drowned by the sea many years before, which brooded a couple of hands' breadth beneath the sparkling surface. The cargo vessel rolled up on a gentle wave, crunched down onto the rock, scraped along horribly for a few heartbeats, then sailed on. A hundred paces later, the deck was sloping unnaturally and the captain shouted the order to lower the sail. Water lapped over the starboard gunwale, curses and pleas rang out from the cargo below deck and the ship tilted more worryingly. There was an island ever nearby, but waves exploded all along its cliff-fringed coastline.
Still young Titus Pontius Felix didn't understand that anything was particularly amiss. The cargo was always yelling and, according to stories that a string of nannies had told him, ships sank in storms. Today was sunny, so he was sure that everything was all right and the grown-ups would swiftly resolve the problem. Only when he heard a voice below shout in broken Latin: "Chains take off! Bel-cursed stinkenshits! Sinken we! Sinken! We are sinken!" did the six-year-old who'd grow up to be King Zadar's and Julius Caesar's druid grasp what was going on.
"Crew and passengers to the tenders!" shouted the Iberian captain, fists on hips, red-bearded face split by a foul-toothed grin. "She's going down like a Roman boy on his tutor!"
Felix didn't know what he meant but he did not like the man's tone. Surely a shipwreck was a time for seriousness? His father clearly agreed. "It is not going down!" he shouted, short arms flapping as he struggled to keep his feet on the slanting deck. "We cannot be sinking. Do you have any concept of the cargo's value?"
"I do. I can give you an exact price for your wares," said the Iberian. He was almost twice Felix's father's height. "Considering the current market, our situation and the condition of the goods, the entire cargo comes to the princely sum of… precisely fuck-all. Nobody buys drowned slaves."
"We're not sinking. You cannot sink. All my money is in that hold. My whole life! You will get us to a beach or a port or… please!"
The captain laughed. "Poseidon and his arse own these waves and today he floated one of his mighty shits in our direction. It happens. The boat's going down. We could free your cargo, but they are many, they are desperate and there's no room for them in the tenders. Best for everyone if they remain chained." The captain raised his already loud voice to be heard above the screams from below deck. "Buck up, man, you'll make more money! Life is always more valuable than cargo."
Felix's father raved until he was purple, then went with the others. Felix followed him to the side of the ship and watched him climb down into the tender. Because of the ship's list it was even further down to the water than normal, and the little swell-swayed boat was banging hard against the ship's exposed, slippery-looking underside. Felix couldn't see how he would get down there and was frightened. The captain noticed his plight and climbed back up to help him.
As they rowed away, his father looked very ill. "All my money," he said, staring at the sinking ship, tears dripping off his chin. The others found this very amusing and Felix hated them for it.
Shortly afterwards, they found a break in the cliffs. Once they'd pulled the boats up a bright beach fringed by shattered white rock and gnarled, scrubby trees, a few dozen terrifying men and women strolled from cover and laid into the crew with blades and clubs, slaughtering the lot of them apart from Felix, his father, two women and the captain. These latter three seemed to be friends of the attackers. All of them turned to look at the Romans.
"Don't kill me! Take the boy!" Felix's father's wailed, cowering behind his son. A man whose face was mostly moustache pulled Felix away and held him tight while others cut off his father's toga and sandals. Laughing all the while, they jostled the newly naked Roman towards a flint-eyed, bronze-skinned woman with long, black hair. She peeled off her own clothes, then charged. Felix's father tried to run but she caught him, tripped him and leapt onto him, all to the cheers of the pirates. His dad clawed at her pinning legs and pummelled her torso with little fists. She held him firm, ignored his attacks, punched his face until his nose was pulped and he was moaning and useless, then strangled him until he juddered like a caught fish and was still.
Felix followed the pirates back to their port. He didn't know what else to do. They ignored him but let him eat their food. He found a place to sleep in a tent with four other children who didn't seem to mind him being there, but who didn't talk to him either.
He spent the days wandering the island on his own, killing insects, lizards and any other animals that he could catch. The killing made him feel good.
One day he climbed down a low cliff to a small beach on the east of the island and found a string of large rock pools. He smashed some limpets to lure crabs from the safety of their mini caves, then set to investigating how many legs they could lose before becoming unable to walk. He was so engrossed in his studies that he didn't notice the small wooden boat with a white sail until it had bobbed nearly all the way to shore. He stood to watch as its bow wedged into sand and wavelets slapped its stern.
Little Felix couldn't see anyone in it, so he left his crabs and ambled over to find what the mysterious vessel might contain. It contained a dead woman. He screamed.
He recovered and wondered if his delimbed crabs would like human flesh. He put one on her chest, another on her face. Her head moved. She wasn't dead! She caught the face crab in her mouth and bit through its shell. Felix felt rather than heard a whoosh! and something very odd flowed out of the woman, washing over him like water, but it wasn't water. It made him tingle but it wasn't hot or cold. He'd never felt anything like it before, yet the sensation was familiar.
The woman groaned, sat, plucked the other crab from her chest and dashed it against the side of the boat. That seemed to energise her. She stood, flicked dried seagull shit off her salt-whitened black robe, jumped out of the boat and looked at him. She was very old–as old as his dad had been–with curly black and silver hair, black eyes, full, salt-cracked lips and a nose like a misshapen pear. She raised a hand as if to strike him, then smiled and lowered her arm.
"Thank you, little man," she'd said, although she was not much taller than him. "Are your parents nearby?"
He didn't know what to say.
She peered at him and he felt uncomfortable, then she said: "No parents? No matter, mothers and fathers never helped anyone much. Just tell me everything you know about this place and please don't tell me we're on an island."
"We are on an island."
"Oh cat's piss," she said and Felix giggled. "Tell me what you know about the island then. How big is it? Who else is on it? Why are you here?"
Felix told her everything. He asked her where she'd come from, but she told him only that her name was Thaya and asked if he knew anywhere safe from the pirates where she might rest and recover. He said he'd found a secret cave under a waterfall on the south of the island, near the ruined Cyclops temple. She asked him to lead her to it and he did.
She gave him a funny look when she saw the pile of small animal corpses on a rock a little way into the cave, but didn't say anything.
He didn't tell anybody else about Thaya, not because it was a secret but because he never spoke to anyone else. The next day he took her food, and the next and the next, until he noticed that she hadn't eaten any of it. He carried on visiting her, though. He didn't have anything else to do and he liked being away from the others.
One day, she taught him how to use magic.
She showed him how to squash a frog and use his mind to direct its ebbing life power to kill a bird. A few days later she showed him how to reach inside a wild pig, crush its heart and use the force created to send another pig into a killing frenzy.
After a month or so, Thaya asked Felix to bring two children to her. He did, enticing them with the promise of cakes at the cave.
All four of them walked back to the pirates' port. The pirates gathered and approached. Thaya reached into the chest of one child, and squeezed. The pirates attacked one another. Soon they were all dead apart from the red-bearded Iberian captain. He staggered towards them, bleeding from several wounds, cudgel in one hand, still grinning as he had when his ship had sunk. Felix did not need asking twice when Thaya offered him the remaining child. He plunged his hand into the girl's chest and squeezed, his little fingers popping through the delicate walls of her heart. He felt her life energy flow up his arm. He twisted it in his mind, pushed it out into his other arm and flung it at the captain. The grin melted from the red-bearded face. He fell, dead, and it was Felix's turn to smile.
Thaya said that she was very tired, so he should gather supplies for a boat journey while she slept. Felix waited until she was snoring, found a large rock, lifted it as high as he could and dropped it on her head. He used the rush of her life power to explode a dozen or so wheeling seagulls, then loaded up a boat himself and set off over the sea.
As he sailed away, he chewed on Thaya's heart, which he'd cut from her chest with the Iberian captain's cutlass. It was disgusting–gristly and tough–but a little voice inside told him that eating it was the right thing to do.
Britain and Gaul
56 and 55 BC
The water from the great wave receded. Spring walked down Frogshold hill. Her knees jarred on the steep slope but she didn't notice. People were shouting at her but she hardly heard them. She was aware of Lowa's voice telling everyone to leave her be. Somewhere deep down she was grateful, but over the top of that a dull but overwhelming rage exploded into her mind. It was all Lowa's fault! If only they'd never met Lowa! She and Dug might have been travelling together and getting into adventures, but, no, all because of Lowa, Spring had had to kill the only person, bar her mother, she'd ever loved. He'd looked after her and done a million things for her without ever asking for anything. She'd never done anything in return, then she'd killed him.
She found Dug's hammer leaning against a pile of stones that might once have been a storage hut, its head half buried. She pulled it free with a schlock of wet mud, slung it over her shoulder and walked away. She didn't look for his body because there were no bodies. All had been washed out to sea as the wave retreated, she guessed, to be a feast for the fish and the birds. She hardly noticed the rain, drizzle at first but then a downpour like the tears of a million mourners, washing the mud from the hammer's head and the broken land.
At first she walked along the coast, but the devastation that she'd caused with the flood was too harrowing–the few people left alive rummaging through wreckage and wailing multiple bereavements–so she headed inland. She walked all day, all night, all the next day and on. She ate nothing, drank nothing and did not sleep. She'd killed so many that she deserved no comfort. The only thing she saw was her arrow piercing Dug's forehead. The only thing she could hear was the scream of tens of thousands of men and women crushed by the giant wave. She didn't feel the blisters form, pop and bleed on her feet. She didn't feel the handle of the hammer wear through the material of her smock and the skin on her shoulder.
After several nights–she neither knew nor cared how many–she emerged from a wood onto a grassy hillside at dawn and collapsed on the dew-soaked grass to die. Sensing someone was there, she looked up. Her father King Zadar was looming over her, shaking his head, a twist of disapproval on his usually dispassionate face. He opened his mouth to mock her but was silenced by dogs' barking. Sadist and Pig Fucker, the dogs that Dug had inherited by killing Zadar's champion, Tadman, bounded up, tongues lolling. They champed their ghostly jaws into the increasingly spectral Zadar until he disappeared. Tyrant dispatched, the dogs looked at her stupid-eyed, saliva drooling in cords, tails wagging. Sadist scurried forward to lick her.
"Back, Sadist, leave her. That one does not like the licking," said someone in an accent from the far north of Britain. Dug Sealskinner strode up behind his dogs. Spring's arrow was still protruding from his forehead, its feathers quivering as he walked.
"You're alive!" Spring's tiredness and sorrow evaporated. Her energy flooded back for an instant, then all flowed out again as she realised what Dug's appearance must mean.
"So I'm dead, too?"
"So you're talking to me from the Otherworld because I'm about to die?"
"No, no, nothing like that. I'm just in your mind, nowhere else. You're really talking to yourself."
"I see. But I'll see you soon, when I die?"
"I'd rather you stayed alive."
"Why? I killed you. I don't deserve to live."
"Probably true, but someone needs to look after the dogs."
Pig Fucker barked, Sadist stared vacantly. Spring nearly smiled.
"If I have to look after them I'm going to change their names."
"No. We've discussed this. You cannot change a dog's name. I don't know why Tadman gave them those names, but he did and that's that."
"You're dead. Why should I do what you say?"
"Because you did this, you wee badger's bollock." Dug turned to show the sharp end of the arrow protruding from the back of his head.
"I'm sorry! But it was all Lowa's fault."
Dug sighed. Were his eyes bigger and browner now that he was dead, she wondered? "No, Spring," he said, shaking his head, "it was not Lowa's fault. By bringing those armies together so you could finish them off by killing me she saved us all. Well, you all anyway."
"If we'd never met her you'd be alive."
"Maybe, but a lot of other good and helpless people would be dead and a lot of shitty people would be busy ravaging the land and killing the rest of them. You must not blame her. As you know very well, because I'm just part of your mind talking to you."
"Bollocks to that. If you are part of my mind you're a stupid part. It was all Lowa's fault."
"Fine. I'm not going to convince you, but you could at least help me out with the dogs? You did put an arrow through my head and my wee dogs are all alone."
Spring sighed. "All right. But there's nothing 'wee' about those dogs, and I don't want you rolling the 'you put an arrow through my head' dice every time you want your own way."
"You assume you're going to see me again?"
"You said you were in my head."
"So I'll see you again when I want to."
"Not if you die now, and you're not far off it. You should've died of thirst sometime yesterday or the day before, and the hunger's not good for you either. So hurry up and get something to drink then something to eat very soon, or the dogs'll be alone. There's a stream in the woods at the bottom of this hill. Head for that."
"Sure, just magic me to the bank and I'll drink. Or how about a mug of beer right here?"
"Magic you? No no no. Do you not get what you did?"
"What do you mean?"
Dug shook his head. "And you're meant to be the bright one. Your magic came from me, and you killed me. I'm not blaming you, you had to do it to produce power enough to collapse a great big fuck-off island and create a wave that Leeban or any sea god would have bragged about for centuries. But I'm gone now and that's it for you, magic-wise. No more, ever. You'll have to walk to the stream, like everyone else would, without complaining."
The idea of walking almost made Spring pass out. "I don't think I can walk."
"Then you'll have to slither. You can do it!" Dug winked and disappeared.
Spring opened her eyes. The sun's rays stabbed into her brain. When her vision had swum into a cloudy semblance of normality, the woods were a long way away. She was buggered if she was going to slither down the hill. She had dignity. She would crawl.
She pushed up onto her hands and set off.
With the rational part of her mind begging her to give up, collapse and die, she crawled down the slope, hands and knees sliding on the slick grass. When she reached the trees, darkness bloomed. She thought for a confused moment that night had come, then realised that it was her vision failing. Consciousness teetered. Her hands slid away, her arms buckled, she face-planted into the grass and closed her eyes. The relief was amazing. A quick rest couldn't hurt, could it? So what if she died? The dogs would understand and surely they were big enough to look after themselves? They were certainly ugly enough…
"Wake up, Spring!" shouted a northern voice, startling her.
Come on, she told herself. She tried to push up into a crawl, but could not. So, she thought, I'll be slithering after all.
Digging elbows and feet into soft soil, she pushed herself under the shade of the branches and on through leaf litter and twigs. She managed to lift her head and saw a blackbird watching her from a log, head cocked. She opened her mouth to tell him to piss off or help her, not just perch there, but her throat was too dry and she only rasped at him quietly.
Finally, the shallow gully of the stream.
She tumbled down the bank, floppy as a boneless squirrel, and squelched face first into the water. Mud filled her mouth and clogged her nose.
Oh, she thought. How apt. The girl who killed thousands with a giant wave was going to drown in a shallow stream. But she managed to twist her head so her face was only half submerged. She lapped cold, delicious, muddy water. Soon she had the strength to slide the rest of her body down into the stream, kneel, and drink water from her cupped hands. A good while later she managed to stand. Shivering with cold and shuddering with effort, she staggered to a blackberry bush.
Two days later the young archer crested the rise and walked down the track to Dug's farm, his hammer over her left shoulder, its shaft wrapped with moss and cloth to prevent further chafing. Her right shoulder was coated in a poultice to soothe the hammer's earlier rubbage.
Dug's sheep ran to the fence, bleating accusingly, but there was no sign of the dogs. She'd expected the huge, idiotic animals to come bouncing up the track barking a happy welcome as usual, but Pigsy and Sadie were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps someone from the nearby village had taken them in?
She turned the corner into Dug's yard. Dug's yard… She staggered under the weight of the grief, then straightened. She could indulge her grief later. Right now she had things to do. There were dogs to be found, chickens to be fed, honey to be collected, sheep to be reassured and—
"Ahem!" someone fake-coughed behind her.
There were five men, clad in British-style smocks and tartan trousers which didn't quite fit, as if they'd borrowed or stolen them. Two of the smocks were holed and blood-stained: evidence, Spring guessed, of what had happened to their previous owners. The men's hair was cut short in the Roman way, which wasn't unusual since plenty of Britons those days aped Roman styles. Each carried a short, double-edged legionary's sword on his belt, which was more unusual but not unheard of. People liked to copy the Romans. But everything about this lot looked foreign–their skin, their eyes, the way they stood, the set of their mouths–and Spring was pretty much certain that they were, in fact, Roman. Now what, by all the bristly badgers' arses in the world, would five Romans be doing at Dug's hut?
They were a tough-looking lot, apart from the man in the centre, who looked extraordinary, right up with the druid Maggot in the gang of weirdest-looking weirdos that Spring had ever seen. He was toweringly tall and bulky, but with a tiny ball of a head. Black, pinprick eyes stared out of his tanned, wrinkled face. Despite his preposterous appearance, he had the expression of a man who took himself very seriously. His hair, suspiciously jet for someone his age, was greased and wrenched back from his leather-look forehead into a pert little ponytail.
She looked around. Pigsy and Sadie were nowhere. Even the chickens that usually scratched about in the yard despite Dug's efforts to teach them to scratch about elsewhere had buggered off. There was no way she'd get through the door or any of the windows before they were on her, and they were blocking the mouth of the yard. She was caught, with no help on hand.
She couldn't fight five. If they'd had the decency to run at her from several hundred paces across an empty field, and she'd had a bow and some arrows, then she'd have taken out the lot of them, no bother, but she'd left her bow on Frogshold and they were right next to her. All she had was Dug's hammer, which she had trouble lifting, let alone wielding. One of them would have been unassailable. Five… Clever words would be needed to save her here.
"First of all, I'd like you all to know," she said, smiling and thinking that they probably wouldn't be able to understand British, "that you look a bunch of prize pricks. I'd heard that Romans were ugly, but if I had pigs that looked like you I'd paint faces on their arses on market day and make them walk backwards into town."
Four of them looked blank, but the big one's eyes narrowed even further. He raised his sword.
"And the second thing," added Spring quickly, "is that I surrender, totally. If you're here to rob, go for it. Rob away. If it's slaves you're after, I will be a brilliant slave–compliant, happy and diligent, I promise. If you want to rob and take me as a slave, go for your lives. I will not stand in your way. I'm sure clever Romans like you know that you'll get much more for me if I'm unharmed."
The tall, fat one smiled a nasty smile. The ball of fear that had been growing in Spring's stomach bobbed up into her throat.
"We're not here to rob you, or to take you," he said in Gaulish, which was pretty much the same as British, with an accent that sounded like a man holding his nose and trying to sound tough at the same time.
"Well, that's marvellous," said Spring. "In that case, perhaps I can get you some food, then you can help me look for the dogs and—"
"We're here to kill you," interrupted the large man.
Spring swallowed. "I see. Why?"
"That, I do not know," said the man, "but we have been well paid, and we will get more when we present your corpse. Much more."
"Where do you have to present my corpse?" Spring tightened her grip on the hammer. Dug could have beaten ten men like this with the weapon. Help me, Dug? she pleaded silently. There was no reply.
"We will take it to Gaul."
"Who wants it?"
"Honestly, I do not know. Someone rich and important because only the powerful use middle men and only the rich can afford me."
"My body's going to be in a much better condition if you leave it alive until we get to Gaul," Spring tried. "I promise to keep it well fed and make sure it doesn't get knocked about too much."
The large man chuckled. "Believe me, I'd like to keep you alive a little longer. You are funny, and you remind me of two of my daughters. But if we kill you here, it greatly reduces your chance of escape."
"Yes, I see your point…" Spring's mind raced. She pulled the hammer from her shoulder. By Toutatis' thunderbolts, it was heavy. "We're going to have to fight, aren't we? I should warn you, however, that I'm very good with this. I suggest you retreat. I swear I'll never tell anyone you were here or that you chickened out. Your secret will be safe with me."
The leader smiled and gestured to the two men on his right. They raised their swords and came at her.
Ragnall Sheeplord arrived at the command tent, thankfully freed from the unpleasant Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus' occupation by the return of Julius Caesar. Unsmiling, black-clad praetorians ushered him in. Caesar acknowledged him with an only just perceptible widening of his eyes. The newly Roman ex-Briton knew it was a signal to wait.
Caesar seemed bizarrely unmoved by the loss of almost his entire invasion fleet to the great wave. He'd simply ordered Gaulish shipwrights and slaves to build another, bigger navy, claimed that he hadn't intended to sail to Britain until next year anyway, and sent his legions off to scour north-west Gaul, capturing and enslaving any of the Veneti tribe who'd survived the sea battle–men, women and children and killing any that resisted.
Ragnall stood to one side of the cavernous tent and listened as the general dictated the official version of the sea battle and subsequent events to his diarists. There had been no drop in the wind and no great wave. In Caesar's version, Brutus had used superior strategy and hooked rigging-cutters to defeat the Gauls' sailing boats. After the battle, he told them, he'd had the rebellious Veneti leaders killed to show the price of rebellion, and enslaved the rest.
As usual, Caesar's intention was more to do with maintaining the support of Rome than reporting the truth. The notion had troubled Ragnall initially, but now he was convinced that spreading Roman civilisation throughout the world was the worthiest and greatest goal. If that required lying to the people back home who didn't understand war, and employing means in that war that might seem extreme, even brutal–and maybe even the services of dark magic–so be it. You couldn't make a loaf without pounding wheat.
Finished with his diaries, the commander announced that he was off to check the outlying watches and beckoned Ragnall to follow him.
"Tell Caesar again," said Caesar as they swept from the tent, "about your father."
- "Watson's tale is gore soaked and profanity laden -- full of visceral combat and earthy humor, and laced with subtle magic."—Publishers Weekly on Age of Iron
- On Sale
- Sep 29, 2015
- Page Count
- 560 pages