The opening scenes from my work in progress

I moved house a few weeks ago and I have been without the internet for a while so my blogging activity has been necessarily zero. I thought that I would post up the opening scenes of my current novel which should be available through the usual outlets at the end of this month. It is still unedited so any mistrakes are mine alone!

Note-This is now the first draft. To see how the chapter evolved with the story line compare it with the opening chapter posted under ‘My Books.’ Cliff-19/8/14

ONE

Kyriakos of Syracuse was growing increasingly concerned. He had always made it his business to mark all that happened around him, even the small seemingly insignificant details which would pass most other men by, taken together, combined to build a picture of the whole he knew, and the picture which was beginning to form in his mind was unnerving.

This was the fifth and final journey which he would make to the lands of the hyperboreans, the people who lived beyond the north winds, on behalf of his own leader the Basileus Dionysius on the far away island of Sikelia. He was anxious to return to the south and, Zeus willing, see out the remainder of his days among the sprawling vineyards of the farm which he had bought on the slopes of mighty Aetna with the considerable profits which he had made from each trip.

His lip curled into an involuntary smile as he wondered for the thousandth time on the naivety of these Keltoi, a quality which was only matched by their complete lack of sophistication. People at home had simply refused to believe that he could exchange a single amphora of wine here for a fit healthy slave but he had grown wealthy beyond his wildest dreams on the process. The fact that they guzzled vast quantities at every gathering had helped, he smirked, and not even watered down!

A cry of acclamation broke into his reverie and his mind snapped back to the present. Kyriakos smiled warmly and his diplomatic training reasserted itself as the chieftain swept through the grove, a party of druids hastening along in his wake like a gaggle of strange geese. The Greek’s gaze drank in the image of the man as he advanced towards him, hailing individuals and smiling broadly at the chosen warriors which lined the path.

Catubarros, Chieftain of the Senones, was naked save for the heavy gold torc which circled his neck and the long Celtic sword which hung suspended from the heavy belt at his waist. The chieftain held a heavy stabbing spear in his right hand and a shield of exquisite craftsmanship in his left and the Greek watched in admiration as the soft spring rays of the sun filtered through the surrounding oaks, flickering and dancing from the red and blue enamelled details which swirled across its highly polished bronze face as the Celt came on.

Catubarros’ flaxen hair fell loose to his shoulders while a long flowing moustache of a redder hue graced his features in the fashion of the Celtic nobility.

Although Kyriakos had come to like and admire the simple ways of the huge northerners, their unpredictability had interfered with his digestion almost as much as the vast hunks of roasted meats which he had been forced to ingest here on a daily basis. They were, he reflected, almost the physical embodiment of the volcanoes which lay strewn around his home lands. Benign and magnificent one moment they could suddenly explode into mind-numbing violence the next, completely without warning and for little apparent reason.

To a man, the warriors in Keltica appeared as tall and broad as the oak trees which surrounded him and Kyriakos sighed inwardly as he felt the old familiar pang of regret at the absurd morals of these northern giants. Such bodies really were wasted on pleasuring women alone.

The sunlight slashed down through the ancient boughs as the chieftain came to a halt only feet away from the admiring Greek, illuminating every curve and detail of his powerful frame. The hard, milk-white torso was made even more alluring by the angry red scars of battle and the hard puckered smile which adorned his shoulder like one of the heavy, grotesque, brooches favoured by these barbarians. Kyriakos had heard the tale of how in his youth Catubarros had defended the door to the hall alone against all attackers, allowing the women and children to escape even as the burning building collapsed about him. The bravery displayed by the young warrior had caused the enemy to rescue the unconscious boy from the flaming debris and return him to his clan. It had been the fight which had first drawn him to the notice of the tribal elders and the Celt had always displayed the angry scar with pride.

Catubarros held his arms wide as the druids moved forward to anoint his body with the sacred swirls and patterns whose meaning were known only to those of their craft. Unusually, Kyriakos had been present when the dark blue paste had been mixed by the druids that morning at the chieftain’s hall in his oppidum of Agedincum and the Greek dimly began to become aware that the feelings of disquiet which had slowly built within him over the course of the day had begun at that time. The rituals and rites performed by the holy men were closely guarded secrets and he had been even more surprised when the chieftain had requested that he accompany them to the nemeton, the sacred grove of oak trees, for the final ceremonies that afternoon.

The chieftain glanced across to him and smiled disarmingly.

“You are sure that all is prepared?”

Kyriakos nodded as he attempted to overcome his rising sense of dread.

“Yes, basileus. The payments were made which will ensure the safe passage of your people across the lands through which they will travel. You have my word.”

Catubarros nodded thoughtfully.

“And the boats?”

“All has been arranged and paid for as we agreed. They await you even as we speak.”

The chieftain smiled happily and nodded to the druids who were hovering nearby. Kyriakos caught the look which passed between the keltoi and was suddenly gripped by the icy realisation that he was no longer of use to these barbarians. He cast about in fear as he sought a way out of the sacred grove but of course there was none. Turning back towards the chieftain he had just opened his mouth to plead for his life as the heavy spear punched in to liquidise his innards.

The chieftain smiled warmly at the grizzled warriors as they clashed their spears against their shields and roared out their love for their leader. Calling out to each man as he came up, recalling his lineage and recognising his bravery in raids and battles, Catubarros led the procession between the ranks of proud men, through the oak grove and on down to the riverbank. Spring had forced its way into the northern lands early this year and the pathway which had been slick with mud only a few weeks before was now hard and firm underfoot. He inhaled deeply as he looked out across the bed of the river at the distant tree line to the haze of green which lay indistinct, dreamlike almost, beneath the warm evening air.

Reaching out a hand as he passed by the chieftain ran his fingertips lightly across the rough ridges and valleys of the holy oaks and walked free of their embrace.

Catubarros, Chieftain of the Senones, paused at the bank as a shaft of golden sunlight forced its way between the clouds and slid across his body. He recognised it as the mark of approval from the god Bel, the shining one, and thrusting his arms out wide he smiled as the druid moved forward to decorate his torso with the magic patterns which could be read only by the most powerful druids and the goddess Sequana herself. They had sacrificed a fierce boar that very morning and the dark blood of the animal had been mixed with woad to constitute the paste with which the druids were now anointing his body. It would add to the power of the spells and ensure that his spirit would fly swiftly to the river goddess’ watery realm.

He turned to the squat, swarthy man at his side and smiled, thankful that it would be the last time that he would have to conceal his contempt for the grasping little Greek. From their conversations over the previous five years he had come to the conclusion that this Kyriakos regarded himself as a wealthy man of some importance yet he had not once seen him distribute so much as a cup of wine to one of his followers much less gold or silver. It was a chieftain’s duty to reward his followers with riches as much as it was their duty to take potlach in return. If the people in the south were all as feeble and grasping as this oily bastard he reflected happily, a bright future lay before his people and he would live forever in the tales of the bards as the great chieftain whose spirit and foresight had led them to the new lands. As the druids moved swiftly around him, daubing his body and mumbling their spells he turned to the Greek and threw him a final, cold hearted, smile.

“You are sure that all is prepared?”

The Greek rolled the fingers of his hands together in the ingratiating way that had disgusted the chieftain for so long as he replied.

“Yes, basileus. The payments were made which will ensure the safe passage of your people across the lands through which they will travel. You have my word.”

Catunarros nodded, satisfied.

“And the boats?”

“All has been arranged and paid for as we agreed. They await you even as we speak.”

The chieftain glanced across to Devorix, the chief druid, and exchanged a look which both men understood without the need for spoken words. To Catubarros’ amusement he saw that the Greek was at last beginning to understand why his presence at the ceremony had been ordered but, he knew, he was far too late to alter his fate.

As Kyriakos, panic stricken, cast about for a means of escape from the nemeton the chieftain lowered the tip of his spear and prepared to strike. The instant the Greek turned back Catubarros drove the spear forward, the leaf shaped blade sliding effortlessly into his soft, plump belly. Years of experience on the battlefields of Celtica had taught him which wounds resulted in quick kills and which were merely debilitating and, unfortunately for Kyriakos, the chieftain had inflicted one of the most painful wounds of all. The spear slid easily into the soft tissue of the Greek’s lower abdomen and sliced down into the groin. Catubarros withdrew the weapon with a slick sucking sound and stood back as the man gasped with shock and agony, tumbling forward onto the dusty ground.

Moving forward, Devorix stood in the soft warm sunlight and silently studied the agonised thrashings of the man at his feet. Crouching and moving around, crab-like, the druid listened to the gasps and whimpers of the dying man as he rolled and tossed before them. Suddenly the Greek’s leg kicked out in a series of involuntary spasms and Devorix grinned up at his chieftain.

“The signs are fortuitous brother. The gods have given our great undertaking their blessing.”

The chieftain nodded earnestly.

“You are sure?”

“The gods speak through him. He is calling for his home and family and they of course lay to the south. Also, you see,” he continued, pointing at Kyriakos’ agonised kicks, “the gods are drawing his legs down and pointing to the south. The signs could not be clearer!”

Catubarros’ features relaxed into a relieved smile. To have had to come so far on this journey before they could be permitted by the gods to ask for their consent had always troubled him but, it would seem, nothing could now bar the Senones from the path he had beaten for them.

The chieftain indicated that his servant hand him his favourite battle helm and he studied it for a moment as he recalled every detail on its golden surface. The swirls and patterns on its lower edges were as familiar to him as the lines on the backs of his own hands after a lifetime together, each nick and graze in its bronze surface spoke to him of a successful raid or a fight won. The helm had been a gift from his own father when he had returned from foster and had been in his family for generations. It was right that it would now accompany the greatest of his clan to the home of Sequana. Placing it slowly and deliberately upon his head the chieftain turned and, raising his spear and shield for the last time, bathed in the roar of acclamation from his warriors as it rolled around the wooded bowl, until, with a final flourish, he turned and descended the wooden steps into the underground chamber.

Catubarros crossed the boarded floor and took his place on the royal seat at its far end as he swept the chamber with his gaze.

Ahead of him stood the enormous cauldron which had always been the centrepiece of every feast, ever since the Basileus Dionysius had sent it north four summers ago. Chest height even to him, the cauldron held enough wine or cervesia, a brew fermented from barley and the warriors’ favourite, to satiate the thirst of even the largest gathering and it had been the gift which had caused Catubbaros to first give serious thought to the Greek entreaties to invade and settle the lands of the Etruscans and Umbrians.

Along the left hand wall of the chamber dozens of amphorae stood in ordered rows, each containing the finest wines from the south, alongside tables piled high with joints of roasted meats, fine bread, fish and cheeses. Bowls and cups of the finest quality had been stacked, ready for the feast he would soon provide for the river goddess.

Looking across to the opposite wall Catubarros was pleased to see that his war chariot had been disassembled and now lay in pieces surrounded by scores of ritually bent and twisted sword blades. A series of wrestling matches had been organised at the feast the previous evening and the prevailing warriors had been allowed to supply their personally marked shields to accompany the chieftain on his final journey. The familiar designs helped greatly in recreating his hall in miniature, as had been intended.

A shadow fell across the chieftain and he glanced up to see the smiling face of Devorix standing before him. The druid held forward a golden cup, its surface a brawl of swirling pattern, and Catubarros reached out and took it from him. To his surprise the chieftain felt the first pangs of anxiety pick at him as he swilled the dark liquid. It had been many years since he had felt this way he recognised and his mind drifted back to the fights which had taken place with the older boys during his childhood. No. he smiled proudly to himself, even then there was no fear. Most of them had in time become good friends and trusted companions, the others, well, they had died he smirked.

Throwing back his head the chieftain sank the bitter tasting liquid in one deep draught. Once ingested he knew, the mistletoe would react with the porridge of herbs and grains with which Devorix had fed him earlier and death would be only a matter of time.

The druid nodded in respect as he took back the cup and, in a final display of empathy, grasped the forearm of Catubarros for the final time.

Many winters had passed since they had tumbled and played in the family hall but even the long years which they had spent apart at foster had vanished like smoke in a gale the moment that they had returned. Devorix had travelled far beyond the lands of the Senones as he learned the ways of his calling and when he had returned he had been unsurprised to discover that his brother had risen to the rank of chieftain of their people.

With a final squeeze the brothers parted and, without a backwards glance, Devorix stepped across the still squirming form of Kyriakos and ascended the rough wooden steps, back into the full light of day.

Immediately several slaves began to fix oak planking to the post heads of the underground chamber forming a rough roof over the whole. As the roofing neared completion Devorix turned to face upriver and raised his staff in the agreed signal. The signal was answered by the young druid at the barrier and his master watched as he turned and gave the order for the bindings to be cut through. Stout ropes had been attached to the trunks which had so expertly diverted the waters of the River Sequana back along an old course earlier that week and now men on each bank dug in their heels and grunted with effort as they pulled the loose timbers free.

With a roar the waters of the river crashed through the remains of the barrier and swept back along their original course, a dark brown soup edged with white which rolled and tumbled at breakneck speed towards the entombed chieftain. With a look of horror the slaves completing the roof of the

vault recognised the wall of water for the death that it was and attempted to scramble back onto the bank but the party of druids moved forward and, drawing their distinctive moon shaped blades, hacked down at them until they were still.

Catubarros heard the cracking of timbers as he sat in the half light and closed his eyes briefly as he awaited the deluge which would soon engulf him. The chieftain pulled a face as his mind alighted on the fate of his only son as he sat and prepared to set out on his own great journey. Maros was, he had to admit to himself, a disappointment, and he wondered if he had done the right thing in nominating the boy to succeed him. Even his name had become a thing of scorn among some of the warriors he knew, Maros, big, had seemed a good choice when he was younger but on his return from foster he seemed to have hardly grown at all. Naturally he had extinguished the lives of the entire client family for their failings and if size, or lack thereof, had been the only problem with the boy that could have been, had been, rectified. Naturally, the boy had inherited his ancestors’ massive frame and a diet of meat and a year or two of hard physical work had covered those bones in layers of hard muscle.

He sighed, annoyed with himself that his final thoughts in the world of men had been allowed to drift in this direction but there was no doubt in his mind that his son’s character did not sit well with the qualities required in a chieftain of the clans. He was as brave as a boar, coming from his line how could he fail to be? But the boy seemed to combine a dangerous mix of bravado and impetuosity which would likely as not do for him sooner rather than later.

A cry of alarm carried to him from above and he recognised the panicked actions of the slaves as they attempted to scurry to safety. It would do them no good, he knew, they were fated to serve him in the afterlife, their bodies would be carried away by Sequana and their spirits would serve his meal this evening.

As the slaves cleared away, strips of light cut across the gloomy chamber, illuminating the golden forms of the offerings which he hoped would placate the goddess. The Senones were moving away from the goddess’ protection and it was important that the chieftain obtain her blessing on their great adventure. A pathetic mewing sound came from the mortally wounded Kyriakos but Catubarros ignored him as his eyes drank in the life and beauty represented by the strips of blue above. The Greek would need to accompany him to the goddess to explain their reasons for leaving her divine protection. He had brought his end upon himself.

The small grey form of a dove flashed across the serried lines of sky above the chieftain as the waters reached them, gone in the blink of an eye. Catubarros, Chieftain of the Senones, gripped his sword as the waters of the river, the very body of the goddess Sequana, cascaded in to carry his soul away.

About cliff

Historical Novelist
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