The Druids of Avalon | Between the Books Short Stories
WARRIOR | SLAVE | DRUID
These three short stories in the Druids of Avalon series take place between the events of Celtic Fire (Book One) and The Grail King (Book Two)
Flames licked like red tongues along the slope of the thatched roofs. A Legionary’s helmet flashed in the sunlight. Soldiers advanced, swords drawn. There were so many. More than Owein could count.
The attackers had hacked through the front line of Celts. As the youngest of the warriors, Owein had been left in charge of the village. But he hadn’t stayed at his post; he’d run ahead to the fighting.
He’d not expected the Romans to slip in behind and attack the children and elders.
Owein had managed to stay alive during the battle, though not without cost. He’d lost his sword when a Roman blade sliced his upper arm. The limb dragged, bleeding freely as he ran darted toward the screams. He felt no pain. At least, not yet.
A child’s shrill cry assaulted his ears. Moira—Enid’s little lass. He lurched toward the sound, not willing to believe he couldn’t save her.
A rough hand halted his progress, spinning him about. “By the gods, lad, ye canna mean to go back.”
With difficulty, he focused on the speaker. His kinsman, Cormac. “I must,” he gasped out. “It’s my duty.”
“Ye must count it lost, then,” Cormac said, all but dragging him Owein from the slaughter. “There’s naught ye can do.”
Darkness rushed the edges of Owein vision. He swayed on his feet. “Nay. Nay—”
* * *
The weeks that followed were a blur of flight, hunger, guilt, and fear. Cormac’s prodding was the only thing that kept Owein on his feet. Left to his own devices, he would gladly have made the choice to die.
“There’s naught ye could have done to save them,” Cormac grunted, crouching low. The dwarf’s stunted limbs gave him the advantage when it came to evading Roman patrols; he could wedge his body into the tightest of crevices. “The Romans are savages, for all they call our people beasts. They dinna rest until they’ve taken all.”
Owein drew his knees up to his chest and bowed his head, trying to keep his silhouette as small as possible, a difficult task for one as large as he. The moor offered little opportunity for shelter; he could only hope the ten soldiers on the windswept trail did not look up.
“How could Rhiannon have given herself to one of those brutes?” Owein muttered. A year had passed since his older sister had left her people to travel south with a Roman commander and his young son. She’d claimed she’d fallen in love the marauding dog. Owein, to his great shame, had told her to follow her heart.
“Perhaps ‘twas a good thing she did,” Cormac said. “If she’d stayed with the clan, she’d be dead.”
Owein took what comfort he could in that grim fact. “Do ye think—”
Cormac gripped his arm. “Quiet, lad.”
The centurion leading the Roman patrol shouted his men to a halt, his eyes scanning the hillside where Owein and Cormac hid. Abruptly, his gaze sharpened. Owein’s breath stalled. Had they been seen?
The centurion’s hand strayed to the hilt of his sword.
Closing his eyes briefly, Owein whispered a Word in the language of the Old Ones. He wasn’t sure the Druid spell would work. His talent was Sight, not persuasion.
The centurion frowned. Looked away. A moment later, he shouted an order for his men to resume their march.
When the patrol was out of sight, Cormac heaved a sigh of relief. “The Horned God’s mercy is with us today,” he muttered.
Owein struggled to his feet. His limbs felt like lead in the aftermath of the magic he’d wielded. Aye, the Horned God had granted mercy, but his favor was never given freely. Head pounding with the dull ache of released magic, Owein stumbled after Cormac.
The dwarf forged west, into country that grew increasingly mountainous. Owein followed, his strength sapping with every mile. Just when he was sure he could go no farther, his rough kinsman called a halt, hunkering down in a copse of evergreens that was blessedly free from wind. Owein collapsed beside him. In a heartbeat, he fell asleep.
The rustle of footsteps on dry grass woke him. Two shadows slipped into the copse. Celts ready for battle. A torch was thrust toward Owein’s face. He blinked. One of the warriors was a man, large and rough. His companion was a woman.
Nay, not a woman—a girl, hardly older than Owein himself. She wore a mail shirt and man’s braccas, and held her sword at the ready. But the battle garb did nothing to disguise her beauty. Despite his weariness, despite the hopeless endeavor Owein’s life had become, he could not look away from her. His lower body stirred with an unfamiliar ache. The lass’s hair and eyes were the color of honey. Would she taste as sweet?
She met his gaze squarely, her brows arching. Owein’s cheeks heated. Had she read his thoughts?
“The point of a sword is no greeting for a friend, Bryce,” Cormac told the man, rising.
“Cormac,” the man replied. He sheathed his sword. “Welcome.” A sudden frown marred his features. “How goes it in the north?”
Cormac spat. “Romans are everywhere. The clan is gone. Dead, or taken as slaves. Owein and I barely escaped.”
Bryce muttered his dismay. Owein’s eyes remained fixed on the lass. She guarded the trail, one hand on her weapon, with the air of one who knew what she was about.
Bryce caught Owein’s eye. “My niece,” he said, nodding. “Nia.”
* * *
Nia took Owein into her bed that very night. Too embarrassed to tell her he’d never before lain with a woman, he fumbled to please her. He must have done well, for afterwards she smiled and snuggled into his arms.
She told him about her life. Her parents had been killed by a Roman raid on her village ten years earlier. After the dead had been buried, Nia’s uncle had trained her to both sword and bow. Every hand, even of the women and lasses, was needed to defend what was left of their clan.
Her kin numbered thirty. More than half were unfit for battle—children, elders, and those wounded in battle. So far they had survived, each season moving ever farther into the mountains. And yet, their freedom shrank with every Roman advance.
Cormac and Owein were accepted into the clan, and Owein’s life took on a new purpose. By day, he dedicated himself to the defense of his new clan. By night, he loved Nia, fiercely and often. Yet he could not shake a sense of doom. It hung over his head like the sharpened edge of a sword.
“Let’s leave this place,” he told Nia one night. “There is nothing for us here; the Romans have taken everything. In the far north, there are places where the Romans fear to tread.”
“The clan could never make the journey,” Nia replied. “The elders and the children—they would die.”
“We could go alone.”
Nia shook her head, her eyes bright with tears. “As fine as that would be, Owein, I cannot. How could I leave my clan? The children and the elders? I made a vow to protect them.”
Owein closed his eyes against the image of his burning village. He’d made the same vow, and had broken it. How could he think to do the same thing a second time?
“But ye could go,” Nia said in a small voice. “Ye could find a new home far from the Romans.”
Owein let out a long breath. “Nay,” he said, his arms tightening around her. “Ye are my home now.”
Nine men and five women crouched in the heather, waiting. Owein shifted, his gaze never straying from the rock that marked the entrance to the mountain pass. Bryce was hidden there, ready to give the signal to attack.
Beside him, Owein felt Nia stir. She breathed onto her fingers, trying to break the cold. Their lovemaking last night had been desperate, with an edge of violence that had left Owein too shaken to sleep. Disease and hunger had all but sapped the clan of its spirits. Roman outposts had sprung up on all sides of their valley. Owein could hardly stand the bleak stares of the children and the elders. The clan could not live in hiding much longer—everyone knew it. And yet no one spoke of it.
Nia shivered. Owein wished he could wrap her in a comforting embrace, but he she would not accept that, any more than she had accepted the last of his meager rations two nights before. She was strong, as strong as any of her kinsmen. That she’d kept that strength through so many years of war and hopelessness humbled Owein.
He exchanged a glance with his kinsman, Cormac, who crouched on the hillside across the trail, his sword drawn and ready. It would end today, unless they bought a few more weeks or months with the supplies carried by the approaching Roman patrol. Food and bedding along with weapons and armor. Owein was prepared to kill for those things.
Movement flashed near Bryce’s rock. Owein leaned forward, his gaze narrowing. Thoughts faded, the mountain at his back faded—even Nia’s form retreated to the edge of his consciousness.
The Romans advanced through the narrow pass in single file, like pearls on a string, unaware that death poised over their heads. Bryce gave the signal. As one, the warriors leapt.
Owein launched himself at the nearest soldier, a war-cry tearing from his throat. His victim’s dark eyes went wide.
The slash of a blade, a spurt of blood. The body thudded to the ground. Owein yanked his weapon free. His head jerking up, he sought his next adversary.
Battle calm descended. The grunts and screams of his companions and enemies floated like mist. Owein’s own cries seemed to ring far from his ears. His sword clanged dully against a Roman gladius.
His armor combined with his hatred to form an invincible shield. His opponent’s snarls and curses did not touch him. Pain, fear, and defeat—they were words with no meaning.
He would not rest until every Roman was dead. He swung his sword low, cutting his opponent’s legs from under him. The soldier fell. Triumph flashed through Owein, as fierce and sexual as an orgasm. He spun about, ready for more.
Only to see Nia with a gladuis sunk in her belly. Her own sword was limp in her fingers.
For an instant, Owein hung suspended. An image from the night before flashed through his brain—Nia arching against him, calling his name as her pleasure broke. Then the memory snapped, shattered by the exultant cry of her murderer.
The Roman gave his sword a savage twist, his elbow jerking backwards. His blade emerged from Nia’s stomach covered with blood, trailing a rope of gut. The woman whom Owein called friend and lover stared down, uncomprehending. Her lips parted.
She looked up, into Owein’s eyes.
“Nay...” he whispered. He took a step forward, meaning to catch her in his arms.
Hot, boiling rage bubbled from a bottomless well of anguish. He opened his mouth, an animal’s cry in his throat. The sound never emerged. A blow came down on Owein’s helmet, sending him careening into darkness.
* * *
“Ho! Look! This one’s alive.”
A rough hand slapped the helmet from Owein’s head. His eyes snapped open, confronting the point of a sword. At the end of the gleaming shaft, a dark face leered.
Nia’s death roared into his mind. With a cry he flung himself upward, only to be jerked back by an arm about his neck. A muscular forearm pressed his windpipe. Owein clutched at it, gasping as blackness blotted his vision.
The world went dark.
The creaking jolt of a cart wheel woke him. His mail shirt was gone; his ankles and wrists were bound with coarse rope. His struggles to free himself only served to bloody his skin.
“The barbarian’s awake,” a voice shouted.
“Get him up.”
The cart creaked to a stop. Rough hands hauled Owein to his feet. The rope binding his ankles was cut, while another was knotted around his neck and tied to the cart rail.
The cart resumed its roll, following in the wake of a column of marching soldiers. Owein’s tether jerked. He stumbled after it, only just managing to keep his feet. It was that or be dragged to an ignominious death.
They reached the Roman fort before nightfall, where Owein was leg-shackled inside a pen with a five other Celts. Fallen warriors all, they avoided each others’ gaze. A soldier brought food—moldy bread and brackish water. Owein forced himself to down both. He needed whatever strength he might gain. He would not die caged like a beast.
The next morning Owein and the others were dragged from their cells and stripped naked. They stood shivering, hands bound to wooden stakes at their backs. A fat man in a dirty toga inspected the slaves offered for sale, prodding and handling the human merchandise as if they were beasts.
An unsmiling commander looked on.
The fat man stepped back with an air of decision. “I’ll take the lot,” he said. “Twenty aurei.”
The officer’s lips twisted. “For six healthy males? That’s preposterous--quarry slaves are worth twice that amount.”
“I’m saving you the trouble of transporting them to Eburacum,” the fat man retorted. “Think on that.”
The commander gave a terse shake of his head. “Twenty-five aurei.”
“Twenty-three, and that’s my final offer.”
“I like it fast and hard. Dirty.”
Owein kept his expression impassive. With luck, Aurelia would assume her words had no meaning for him. It was a rare slave who understood Latin.
She shifted on her bed of silk and satins, luxuriating as if in a bath. She was naked. Her breasts and hips were lush, her belly gently rounded. Her hair was a dark, glossy cascade of curls. Her complexion was pale and delicate, her dark eyes encircled with kohl.
He felt no arousal, not even when she crawled to the edge of the bed and clutched his hand.
“Fast and hard. Now. I don’t care if you mark me. Do not all slaves dream of ravaging their master’s wife?”
Boldly, she cupped his sex. It remained flaccid in her hand. Owein locked his knees and fixed his eyes on the wall as Aurelia petted him. Parting her legs, she left nothing of her charms to his imagination.
Did the woman have no shame? No pride? Owein, who had bowed under a Roman lash for two years, would not bow to this. He would not pleasure this Roman bitch in heat.
Owein had only to think of Nia’s bloody body to resist Aurelia’s bold encouragement. He stared down at her, not bothering to hide his contempt. When Aurelia realized he could not be moved, she sank her fingernails into his thighs with a hiss.
“You’ll rue the day you crossed me,” she spat.
Owein did not care.
* * *
Ropes burned his wrists.
Owein strained, twisting with savage strength. Pain shot up his arms, causing his shoulders to spasm. His ankles were lashed to the wooden frame as well, his legs splayed wide.
The slave master approached slowly. He snapped the wooden handle of the flagellum against the palm of his opposite hand, allowing Owein plenty of time to contemplate his fate. A slow, painful death, ordered to appease a woman’s pride.
The rhythm of the flagellum commanded Owein’s complete attention. The thongs swung in the sunlight, the sharpened bits of iron imbedded in the leather glinting. Cold sweat gathered on Owein’s brow.
Thirty-nine lashes. Each would send dozens of jagged blades into his flesh.
A small crowd had gathered—mostly ragged, dirty slaves who kept their eyes cast downward. They’d been ordered to witness Owein’s fate, but wouldn’t take pleasure in it.
Aurelia would, though. She was there, in the front of the gathering, clinging to her husband’s arm.
Owein captured her gaze. His hatred caused her smug expression to falter.
But only for an instant. She smiled again when the first blow fell.
* * *
He awoke in a ditch, choked by pain.
His back was on fire; his head felt nearly severed from his body. His limbs wouldn’t obey his commands.
He squinted at his surroundings the best he could. He wasn’t within sight of the quarry camp. That surprised him; normally flogged slaves were dumped in a shallow pit near the privies. Inexplicably, Owein was surrounded by greenery. A thrush sounded in the canopy high overhead, and the scent of loam tickled his nostrils.
Had he crawled here? He must have, if the sting of his forearms and knees was any indication. The trickle of a stream teased his ears. Owein’s throat burned with thirst, but try as he might, he couldn’t find the strength to draw near the water.
How long he lay, drifting in and out of consciousness, he didn’t know. When he next opened his eyes, he found a grizzled face peering down at him.
“By the gods’ mercy! He lives.”
A second man appeared. “Barely.”
The first man shook his head. “Eirwen will save him.”
* * *
The woman’s unbound hair fell in a golden stream to the small of her back. Her tunic, woven in a pattern that included every color of the rainbow, draped the inviting curve of her bottom. She stood with her back to Owein, in the center of a simple round hut that was much like the one he’d grown up in. He lay on his stomach with his head pillowed on his arms and watched as she folded a length of cloth.
“Who are ye?” he said quietly.
The woman spun about. Her blue eyes were wide, her expression radiant. “Ye’ve awakened!”
“Aye, it would seem so. Who are ye?” He shifted, ignoring the stiffness of bandages and the agony the movement brought. His entire back felt like a single open sore.
She came to him, crouching beside the pallet. Her smile was genuine, he thought.
“My name is Eirwen. ‘Tis good to see ye awake at last.”
“Ye’ve been tending me.” He could remember snatches of it now. “How did I get to this place. I dinna remember much after...” He trailed off.
A flash of distress crossed her face. “My grandfather and uncle found ye some miles to the north.” She bit her lower lip. “Near the Roman quarry.”
Sudden nausea surged. He pushed himself up abruptly, willing the feeling to pass. The sudden movement sent a sharp ripple of pain across his back, and he couldn’t repress a gasp.
Eirwen’s eyes registered her alarm. “Ye mustn’t rise. Not yet.” She laid a hand on his arm. “Please.”
Owein sat with his back hunched. He wasn’t willing to lie down, but he also didn’t feel equal to the task of standing. The room wavered slightly.
“Ye lost much blood,” Eirwen said, offering him a cup.
He took it and drank. The herbs were bitter, but comforting. “I thank ye.” He paused. “Where is your grandfather now, lass?”
Eirwen took the empty mug. “Checking his traps,” she replied. “He’ll return soon.” She hesitated, then met his gaze squarely. “Grandfather says ye are Druid. A Wise One.”
Owein couldn’t hide his surprise. “How did he know?”
“Then it is true?”
“Aye,” Owein said after a small pause. “‘Tis true.”
Eirwen gave a small smile. “My grandfather claims a small talent. He’s no practical magic of his own, but he can sense it in others. He sees the Light about ye.”
Owein looked away. “Whatever Light I once knew is long gone.”
In the days that followed, Eirwen tended him with diligence and patience, meeting Owein’s black mood with unflagging good humor. His nightmares of Nia, at first so painful in his mind, slowly faded to a dull ache. Eirwen’s grandfather, a grizzled old Celt named Aiden, shared Eirwen’s dwelling. The man was a garrulous old soul. His insistence on addressing his guest as “Wise One” rather than by name grated on Owein’s nerves. He didn’t feel equal to such an honor, and doubted that he ever would.
The other members of the clan, some twenty-five souls varying in age from elder to babe, visited Owein daily. It was clear Aiden had told them of Owein’s Druid status. They bought him gifts and sought advice Owein didn’t feel worthy to give.
He regained his strength slowly, first venturing from bed to chair, then from the hut to the village common. It was there Aiden found him.
“The clan wishes ye to stay, Wise One. We want ye to be our priest and guardian.”
“I’m nay suited to such a task,” Owein said quietly. “Whatever Light I once had...I hardly feel it now. Only darkness.”
“Ah, Wise One, I know the past weighs heavily on ye, but I can tell ye, all sorrows fade with time. Ye are too young to be digging yourself a grave. My advice to ye is to take Eirwen to wife and make a new start, here, among people who have need of ye.”
Owein’s brows went up. “Eirwen?”
Aiden chuckled. “Come now, ye canna tell me that ye havna noticed my granddaughter’s interest.”
“I had not,” Owein mumbled.
“She would make ye a fine wife.”
“I dinna think I would be a good husband.”
Aiden met Owein’s gaze, his eyes solemn. “I know ye can never forget what the Romans took from ye. But when ye’ve lived as many years as I have, ye learn to find happiness where ye may. We are sheltered in this bleak pocket of the hills. We keep to ourselves, pose no threat to the Legions, and so far the Romans have let us be. The clan welcome ye as its own. We invite ye to make a new beginning here.”
“A new beginning,” Owein echoed. He felt a hundred years old, far past the time for such a thing.
“Daylight never fails to break the night,” Aiden observed.
Owein swallowed. “I canna see the dawn.”
Aiden inclined his head. “Ye will, Wise One, ye will. That I promise ye.”
© Copyright 2017 by Joy Nash. All Rights Reserved.