An ancient ruin is under threat from developers and, on a cold winter’s day, one woman stands up for what she believes. But she isn’t the first woman to be forced to fight back against a more powerful enemy in that spot.
Lindsay loved this place. Had loved it since she was a child, exploring the countryside around her family home, going much further afield than she probably should have without adult supervision (but times were different then, or so everyone told themselves even as the news named and shamed more and more men famous in those days who turned out to be rather less than virtuous, even by the dubious standards of the time). As a small child, the dark forest that lined the hilltops like serried ranks of soldiers had scared her, but eventually she’d been bold enough to wander in, looking for adventure. What she’d found was a window into a different time and place.
Her memories of that day were so strong. Even now, she could still see the way the sunbeams filtered down through the leaves and smell the scent of the wet undergrowth beneath her feet. It had rained the day before and she’d been squelching happily through the mud when she came to a wall. She’d known that was a bit strange – forests generally didn’t contain walls. But this was an old tumbledown remnant, barely higher than her waist, crumbling and overgrown. As she looked about, she saw it was part of a larger structure: a building of some kind had once stood there. Curious and fearless in the way of childhood, Lindsay had scrambled over the wall to look around, and then seen, beneath layers of dirt and tangled undergrowth, again with the incisive gaze almost unique to a child, the tiles that had been hidden from human eyes for uncounted centuries.
It was beyond her powers then to clear away the sediment of the forest and unveil what lay beneath, but she’d picked a little at it, enough to see some of the pattern. She licked her finger and rubbed away at one of the tiles, clearing off all the dirt until she saw it shined brightly at her, a brilliant lacquered red. As her small mind took in the size of the room delineated by the fallen walls, she got an inkling of the scale of the mosaic and what it might look like. She resolved to come back and dig it up.
After a few weeks, her parents started to wonder what she was up to, where she was going every day with the little trowels she used for playing with in the garden and why she was coming back into the house so grubby. Her mother asked her one evening and she suddenly found herself quite defensive. She didn’t really want to share her discovery with anyone, but her mother started to sound a bit worried so she led her out to the forest and reluctantly showed her.
It was the beginning of a strange whirlwind of activity. Some archaeologists came to look at it and her name was in the local papers, complete with a picture of her standing in the middle of the partially-unearthed mosaic, arms held out with a big gap-toothed grin on her face. She had mud all over her dungarees and her mother was embarrassed.
The walls turned out to be part of a Roman villa, built perhaps fifteen-hundred years ago, and the mosaic depicted an intricate scene of gods and monsters: Jason defending Phineus from the harpies, even as they snatched the food from the emaciated king’s hands. It was quite wonderful and, inevitably, it had sparked in her an interest in archaeology that had led to this day.
It was strange how life went in circle Lindsay thought as she pulled her jacket closer and moved towards the front of the group. It was late winter now, and the cold was stubbornly refusing to release its grip on the land. It felt appropriate somehow, as if they had been plunged into some sort of eternal bleak twilight, with the earth forever hiding its beauty from a world gone mad. The villa had been more or less fully excavated years ago, and there were trenches dug all around the area, taped off for the safety of ramblers and dog walkers. A lot of the forest had been opened up in the decades since she’d explored it and there were new housing estates just over the hill, where her parents’ farmhouse had once stood. Everything was so different now but, here, it was still somehow just the same as it ever was. The mosaic was intact – it was impossible to take it apart and move it to a museum where it belonged and, for much of the year, it remained hidden under a filthy layer of tarpaulin until whatever student group selected to comb through the area that summer came back to look at it, unearthing it anew each time.
All that was changing now though. Lindsay stood up in front of the small group of protestors and tried to smile as confidently as she could. They were a good mix of archaeologists and enthusiasts like herself, countryside campaigners who’d move on to another rally for something else next week – foxes or badgers or green belt or something like that – and the usual smattering of concerned locals. Mostly though, people in this part of the country had more important things on their minds, like just surviving day-to-day in a land of hard pressed public services, no large industries and no real prospect of things getting better. An ancient Roman villa under threat of being bulldozed into the dirt just wasn’t a priority.
Lindsay cleared her throat. Her breath steamed in the cold air and she suddenly felt silly for even being here. Who cared about an old mosaic anyway? “Thank you everyone for coming,” she said in a voice that wavered slightly under the small crowd’s scrutiny. She’d never been much for speaking in front of people, but this was her protest. She’d organised it herself, with help from friends and allies on social media and, frankly, she was surprised this many people had shown up. “I know it’s a horrible cold morning and we’d all rather be in bed, but you’re all here because you’re angry about what’s about to happen unless we stop it.” She pointed towards the edge of the forest. Once, there’d been nothing but hillside and fields out there, but now a housing estate crept almost to the treeline. “They want to cut down this forest and build more houses and supermarkets. The same thing is happening all over the country, but this is the first time this government has had the chutzpah to allow someone to bulldoze over a protected site. As you can see, we stand on the remains of a Roman villa, an extraordinary find that lay hidden for hundreds of years in this forest. This is an active archaeological dig, a place where our nation’s history is recorded in the very soil.” She paused. She’d spent a long time planning out what she was going to say, but she had to admit that she hadn’t been back here for years, and it was in a worse state than she remembered. It didn’t look very active right now and the truth was that no meaningful work had been done here for quite some time.
“Our past is buried here,” she continued. “Thousands of years of history, made by people just like you and me, but living very different lives, is represented by this place. Yes, it may be just one neglected site, but if they can destroy this to build a Lidl, why not the Roman runins at Wroxeter? Why not the Tower of London? Why not Stonehenge? This is where we have to draw the line.” She pointed down at her feet. “We have to stop them treating irreplaceable treasures like another resource they can exploit for their own gain. This is about more than just archaeology too, all over the country they’re doing stuff like this and…” Lindsay could tell she was starting to lose them a little. She didn’t want to push too far, start ranting about the NHS and ridiculous reactionary immigration policies. She’d united a disparate group of people here, and they didn’t all believe the same things she did. The locals especially were starting to look a little uncomfortable.
She sighed. “The point is, once this is gone, it’s gone. Your kids won’t be able to come and walk in this forest or look at the ruins for themselves. This mosaic is amazingly well-preserved thanks to the forest canopy that’s kept out the worst of the elements for centuries. This really is an important place. We need to hold onto this stuff, because it’s who we are. It represents something important. So let’s show these developers that they can’t just push us around.”
Everyone clapped politely and the group sort of broke up. It was hard to see how effective a protest like this would be. They all had lives to live, and they couldn’t be here all the time. And they were so few. People would go home, they’d shrug and say they’d done their bit, and then they’d use the supermarket once it was built. No one seemed to care anymore. Lindsay sat down on the remains of the wall, the very same one she’d climbed over as a child, and rested her chin in her hands. Some press were supposed to be coming soon. That might help.
Sigrid watched her husband across the table as he belched his way through his meal. He gulped down the last of his wine and then held the cup out for more without even looking at her. She filled it obediently and went back to staring at him. In his younger days, Thorald had been a famous warrior known throughout the region for his strength and fearlessness in battle. He had fought for King Guthrum and been rewarded richly for his bravery. The rings he still wore, now fitting less comfortably around his flabby arms than they once had, attested to the glory he had won. This home too, was another sign of his prowess, of his great fame. Other warriors hereabouts would have to make do with their longhalls, thatched wooden buildings that would not even outlast the sons of the men who built them. But this building was a remnant of an older age, when people were capable of marvellous feats.
As Sigrid continued to stare at her gluttonous husband – she’d cleared her own platter some minutes ago – she remembered the first time she’d seen this house. Thorald had only recently been granted the land, and he was busy directing his slaves to clear away the vegetation that covered it and consulting with a local thatcher to have a new roof put on. It was a solid building, made of fired bricks, mortared together so that the whole thing was weather-tight, except for the thatch and the parts that were truly ruined, now patched up with wattle and daub. She’d been astonished to see such complete Roman remains and astonished too by the great warrior sitting astride his horse, lustrous beard plaited down his chest, silver rings on his arms, wearing a coat of shining mail. She knew of his reputation, and of the agreement made between him and her father when she was just a child that would make her his wife, but she hadn’t dreamed that the match would seem so…agreeable.
Thorald had always been a difficult man, prone to drinking and anger, but it was exactly that which made him such a fearsome warrior. After they married, he put her in charge of the household and returned to Jorvik and Guthrum for much of the year. But he always came back to his estate in the country, where the farm and rents provided him with an income to supplement what he could take from enemies. For many years it was as fine a life as could be found in England.
But times had changed. The days of going Viking were fading into history. The Danes were farmers now, like the English they’d subjugated, and this life ill-suited a man like Thorald. She thought once he might have been content to grow fat and old with her, but it was obvious he was finding his age a confinement. He used a chicken bone to pick his teeth clean as he stared at her over the table. His beard was grey now and his skin was sallow and wrinkled. He was almost fifty and far too weak to ever wield a sword in anger again. Without the thrill of battle to ignite the fire in his blood, all he had was his cruelty. “Is that all the wine?” he asked.
“Yes. You drank all we had.”
“Then send for more.”
“There isn’t any more.”
“With what? It’s winter, and our stores are almost depleted anyway. We’ll have to hope next year is better.”
Thorald grunted and shook his head angrily. “Farming…”
“What did you think life would be like when you came back?”
He slammed his fist into the table. For all his years, he still had some strength left in him. “This place was prosperous! What happened?”
You came home, she wanted to tell him. He ate everything they had, so there were no animals to sell at the markets, and he spent the money they had on wine. He’d been used to simply taking whatever he desired his whole life, eating and drinking his fill when he was done with the slaughter and never caring about the consequences. She’d run his estate quietly the entire time they’d been married, enduring his violent attention as best she could when he visited for a week or month, giving him sons and daughters in return, and then going back to her life. Their lives, for the most part, had been completely separate, and that had suited her fine. But now here he was, naturally taking control of everything and proving he was incapable of managing their farm. He refused to work, he treated the slaves badly, and seemed to blame everyone else for their troubles. “Next year will be better,” Sigrid said, getting up and walking over to the hearth.
“It’d better be. For now though, I just want more wine.”
“I told you,” she said, turning back to him sharply, “there’s no money.”
“Money!” He grunted again and then pulled at one of his arm rings. When he finally got it off he threw it across the room to her. She sighed and retrieved the silver band from the straw-matted floor. That was another job now being neglected – she was so busy playing at being his wife again that she had no time to see to the little household chores like changing the rushes. They were caked in filth and almost seemed to squelch underfoot. The whole house seemed dark and dingy to her now. Thorald wanted the fire lit at all times, not understanding that the way the house was built meant it wasn’t necessary to heat it at all hours. So they sweltered in the smoky darkness, letting the walls turn gradually blacker and blacker. She remembered the villa being light and airy, and the summer sun filtering through the windows onto the marvellous tiled floor. She’d never managed to clean it – there wasn’t much point when it was only going to be covered with rushes anyway – but she’d been quietly fascinated by what she could make out of the scene it depicted. It was unlikely anyone would ever see it again now.
“This will buy you more wine,” she told her husband as she held the arm ring up, “but we’ll need to work harder once winter has gone.”
“Work? I’m a warrior!”
“You were a warrior. Now you’re a farmer. And farmers make sure the land is clear – the forest has grown up almost to the walls. It needs to be cut back.”
“The slaves can do it.”
“The ones we have left are too old and sick for that.”
Thorald eyed her through the thick air and then turned away with a snarl. He upended the empty jug of wine, watching forlornly as a few drops fell sadly into his cup. Disgusted, she turned and stalked out of the room. How long would this house stay standing with its master in residence, selfishly squandering all her hard work?
The thegn said he’d protect them. That was what the thegn was for and, up until just a few moments ago, Aelfwyn had had absolute faith in that simple fact of life. But the thegn was a pious man who put his faith in prayers and, when the Danes came, he went to the church to beseech god for help. The raiders found them there and Aelfwyn had heard the screams as they put them to the sword. She was hiding under an upturned basket not far away as they lit torches and set the church on fire. There were more screams – one or two of the monks were still locked inside. The Vikings were killing indiscriminately, hacking apart people she’d known all her short life like they were beasts being butchered. The most horrible thing of all was the joy they seemed to take in it, the way they laughed and sang as the muddy road that wound between the houses in her village ran red with the blood of the English.
She knew she had to get away. She was still young, but that wouldn’t stop them. Everyone knew about the Danes, who had already brought much of Northumbria to heel and were now reaving south in bands like this one, taking what they liked from the rich, fat lands of the English. Who could stop them? Not the priests with their prayers, not the thegns who had fought few real battles. Aelfwyn began to understand that she was watching her people’s extinction at the hands of these savage men from across the sea, although this was just a small part of it, one tiny village lost in the chaos of a seemingly endless war for these lands.
For a moment the road was quiet as the Danes moved on, seeking survivors cowering in their thatched hovels. The smoke was thick from the fires, but at least the screams had gone quiet in what remained of the church. A crash of timber sent sparks high into the air and she chose that moment to bolt from her hiding place. Her bare feet squelched in the mud and she tried hard not to think about what was all around her – the bodies of her friends and, most likely, her family, left for carrion now. She heard a few low moans as she ran past, people still alive, maybe reaching out for her, but she was in no position to help them. They were already dead. Tears blurred her eyes as she ran and ran, nearly slipping in the muck. It was the smoke. She was too scared to feel grief. The last house in the village was close by now and she pushed herself on, aiming to flee across the fields and then into the forest on the hill. She knew a place the Danes wouldn’t follow. But as she ducked around one wall, she ran right into a handful of them. She stopped short, eyes wide, and they looked surprised too. One of them said something, but she could barely understand it – some of the words seemed a little familiar, and maybe she could have puzzled it out if she had the time, but not now. She made to move past, but another of them grabbed her arm.
“Wait, girl,” he said.
“Let me go!” she cried. She didn’t have time to wonder about how he spoke English.
“I don’t think so.” He dragged her back easily and threw her down onto the ground. He was younger than the others, with a thick blonde beard and fewer of the arm rings they wore, but he looked no less ghastly through the eyes of his dinted helmet and his cruel axe was still stained with fresh blood. “You’re a pretty one,” he grinned. Then he said something in his own language to the others and they laughed. He leant down and made a grab for her stained tunic, but she had a handful of mud and dung in one hand and she hurled it straight at his face. He spluttered angrily as his companions laughed, and then she was on her feet again, jumping up with the spry terror of youth in her limbs. She dodged past them and hurtled up the hill as fast as she could go. Behind her she thought she heard the Vikings talking, hopefully deciding that chasing her wasn’t worth it, not when there were other girls in the village still left alive to rape. It wasn’t a very comforting thought, but this was just a matter of survival now.
No one came here. For as long as everyone remembered, the half-ruined house on the hill had been treated with distrust. They knew who’d built it – it was the Romans, whose priests had converted England to the true faith generations before – but before that no one had known where the ancient ruins that seemed to dot the countryside had come from. The old stories were still told sometimes, when the priest or the thegn weren’t around to hear, about the giants who had walked the land long ago and left behind mighty mansions so that men would always remember to fear their memory. Aelfwyn had been fearless as a child though and led some of the other children from the village to explore it. It was a strange place, built sturdily from stone, as if it had just sprung from the ground. The secrets of its construction were lost to her people, if they’d ever known them. Coming here had always made her feel odd, as if she really were exploring something left behind by giants. She sometimes felt like the English were squatting in the offal of the civilisations that had come before, picking through bones and dung, trying to find something of value. How much had they lost, and would they ever regain it? Not if the Danes had their way, certainly.
The ruined villa was as familiar to Aelfwyn as her own home now. She used to run away here all the time, but not so much in recent years as she’d been gradually assimilated into adult life with all the extra work that entailed. Well, none of that mattered now. As she crouched in darkness relieved only by the odd patch of light let through the roof’s crumbling tiles, she thought about everything that was gone forever. All the things she’d taken for granted – the fields she’d helped plant, the harvest she’d gathered, the nights around the hearth with her family. They’d hoped for a better life for her; her father was a farmer, but he owned his own land, and it wasn’t out of the question that she might have caught the eye of a richer man, or even a thegn. The idea of being married off didn’t make her happy, but it was all she’d been told she should want. Now that hope was surely being burnt to the ground at the bottom of the hill, what else was left for her? If she escaped the Danes, where would she go?
She rested her chin on her arms as she drew her knees up in front of her and gave in to desolation. Her father, mother and brothers were certainly dead now. It was no use mourning them; they were gone forever no matter what the priest told them. She stared down at the floor beneath her bare, dirty feet. It felt funny underneath her toes and she’d always enjoyed the sensation of walking here. Instead of rushes or dirt, the room was floored with thousands of tiny, smooth tiles. On the days when there was a bit more light, she could almost make out a picture through the layers of dirt. It looked like two men fighting, and something she couldn’t recognise up to one side, like a creature with wings. The Romans were supposed to worship Christ though, like the English, so she couldn’t understand why they’d make a picture like this in one of their homes. But then, there was so much she didn’t understand about the people who had once lived here.
She heard something outside and her head shot up. Voices, speaking Danish. She strained to hear them, trying in vain to make out what they might be saying. She was so sure they’d be scared of the old building, but then she realised she’d never heard of Danes being scared of anything. There seemed to be some debate going on though and then someone shouted something and she heard the sound of heavy footfalls as whoever it was walked around the villa. There was only one door out of this room, and the windows were overgrown. If they came in, she couldn’t escape, and suddenly coming here seemed to be a bad idea. She could have just run into the woods and made her way to the next village, although what she would have done when she got there, she had no idea. She stood up and looked around. Maybe she could clear one of the windows, or run out of the door and try to get past them again. Or perhaps…
He walked in. The same blonde young man she’d throw mud at in the village. He looked angry, but when he saw her he smiled, showing ugly brown teeth. She looked down at the tiles on the floor as he advanced, and wondered why she’d ever felt safe in this place.
Vinda picked up the coloured tesserae from the tray and carefully placed it into the mortar so it slotted neatly next to its fellow. She knelt back and looked critically at the work. It was a long, tedious job, but she found something relaxing about it. It was a fine day outside, and even though she found it a bit cold this far north, it was pleasant enough in the airy villa. Andecarus, her master, walked into the room and she quickly bent back to her task, but he stopped her with a gentle hand on her shoulder and pulled her up to her feet so they could both survey the mosaic as it came together. Andecarus was the artisan, and he had a fine eye for flaws. He’d designed this himself, back in his workshop in Viroconium, but the bulk of the work was done by Vinda and the rest of the slaves.
“Hm…yes…it’s coming together rather nicely.” Andecarus was a short, balding man who affected an attitude he imagined befitted a Roman artist, even though he was as British as she was. She thought she’d overheard someone saying his father had been a potter. Wherever he came from though, his services were now in high demand and his dream was to one day go to Rome and design a mosaic for a real noble’s villa. Something that would survive the ages, he said. Something about living in this place, on the frontier, made him feel like all his work could one day be swept aside. “Yes, a lovely image.”
Vinda wasn’t too convinced. As she cocked her head to look at the design, she tried to make sense of it. There were two men, one of which was trying to fight off two winged women who were stealing the other’s food. It was a strange picture and she couldn’t imagine why anyone would want it on their floor. “What is it?”
Andecarus blinked at her, then recovered after a moment. “Well it’s…don’t you know anything, girl?”
She shrugged. She could read the markings that told her where to put the tiles, and knew a little about weights and measures from her last master, but that was the extent of her education. “Are they Romans?”
She knew about Greek, but she thought it was a language, not a people. “Do Greeks have wings then?”
“No, foolish girl. The men are Greeks. This is Jason, a great hero,” he pointed over at the man fighting the bird women. “And this is King Phineus. He was punished by the gods to always have a table replete with food, but each day the harpies – the ones with the wings – would descend and take it from him so he could never eat it.”
“Oh. Why did they punish him?”
Andecarus paused and then shook his head after a moment. “It’s not important,” he said dismissively. “It’s just a story.”
“Why does the owner of this house want it on his floor though?”
“That’s none of your business, girl,” Andecarus said a little snippily, “perhaps he just likes the story.”
“Well it’s not a very nice story,” she said, carefully stepping back towards the tiles in the tray and crouching back down to carry on with her work.
“Of course it is: Jason drives off the harpies and Phineus can eat again.”
“Wouldn’t that make the gods angry?”
“They punished him, didn’t they? They wouldn’t like Jason spoiling that.” She slotted another tesserae into place. She was just putting in the pieces depicting one of what she now knew were the harpies. They just looked like ordinary women, except with wings and snarling faces. “Besides, it seems unfair. Maybe the harpies were hungry too? Perhaps they had children they needed to feed.”
“Stupid girl. The harpies aren’t important.”
“I suppose not.” In all the stories she heard, no one ever asked how anyone besides the heroes felt about anything. The harpies looked nice enough to her, although she supposed this was just a mosaic. Maybe in real life they’d been much more horrible, which probably made it okay to attack them.
“The harpies are like all women,” Andecarus went on, stepping over her. “See, they steal everything a man has and leave him starving. They always want more. They’re like starving chicks, always begging things of their exhausted providers. Women are a punishment set upon men by the gods.”
“Like the harpies,” Vinda said.
“Except we don’t have wings.”
Andecarus casually backhanded across the face before leaving the room with a swish of his cloak. Vinda rubbed her cheek but smiled slightly to herself. Making Andecarus angry like that was something she and the other slaves from his workshop did to pass the time. For all his great fantasies of glory and artisanship, he was a small, vain man who was lucky he made as much money as he did. Life as his slave wasn’t so bad; despite the occasional burst of violence he was harmless enough, and terrified of women. He’d happily push around slaves like her, but whenever a customer sent his wife or daughter to the workshop, Andecarus almost tripped over his own tongue. No wonder he liked the story about the harpies. In his own mind, he was Phineus, denied the glorious feast by cruel women, but actually his balding pate, pot belly and weak shoulders were more likely to be to blame.
She placed another tesserae and wondered whether the people who lived in this villa would like the mosaic. Sometimes they didn’t and refused to pay. That was the only time Andecarus was dangerous, when he was looking for someone to take his anger out on. He didn’t often beat them, but when he did it was almost always her or one of the girls he chose, taking sadistic delight in their torment. When it first happened to her, not long after he’d bought her, she’d assumed it would lead to him raping her but it didn’t happen that way. Either the beating was enough for him or he got his pleasures elsewhere. It didn’t matter to Vinda: enduring an occasional beating in exchange for the relative freedom she otherwise enjoyed seemed a fair bargain to her. There was little prospect of buying her freedom, but since her mother, and her mother before that, had been slaves too, that had never been anything but a distant dream. She had her life and she was as content as she could be with it. Besides, she thought, Andecarus was old and getting weaker. Next time he hit her, she might decide to fight back. She wondered how he’d react. Leaning forward, she pressed a tesserae into the mortar with an oddly satisfying squelch.
The hilltop was shrouded in dense fog as Treva led what remained of her band into the cover of the forest. All of their clothing was soaked through from the persistent rain which had dogged them throughout their retreat, but they were at least alive. When she judged they were deep enough into the woods to be out of sight of any passing enemies, she gestured for everyone to stop. They all flopped down gratefully to the muddy ground and Treva sat down disconsolately on a fallen tree that marked off the edge of a patch of slightly less tangled woodland. She was tired and hungry and sore from hours of squelching across the countryside. “Do we have any food?” she asked.
Aidan, one of her closest companions, pulled a hunk of bread from his pouch and handed it to her. “Here.” She broke a crust off and passed the rest back to him.
As she chewed thoughtfully, she wondered how things had gone so wrong. They had been fully prepared to stand against the Romans, and the plan was sound. The Brigantes had variously been allies or enemies of the invaders, but now enough support had been drummed up from neighbouring tribes for their king to at last mount a counter attack that would drive them from Britain forever. But somewhere in the confusion of the storm that had seemed to descend from nowhere, things had gone wrong. The Roman shieldwall had survived their attack and then a flank charge by one of their cavalry divisions had sent them scattering. “What happened to Creighton? His band were supposed to have been protecting our right.”
Aidan snorted. “They probably switched sides again.”
Treva shook her head as she looked over what remained of her own forces. Fewer than two dozen men and women now, ragged and dirty, the woad they’d daubed on themselves for battle now worn off or streaked with sweat. Swords and axes notched, shields split by good Roman steel. They were a sorry sight, but they weren’t beaten yet. She bit off another chunk of bread and continued to chew the hard black crust as she considered what they should do next. She had little hope that any other loyal Brigantes had survived or escaped enslavement. For all she knew, they could be the only ones left to resist the invasion in this part of Britain. The last hope of her people. “We have to go back,” she said, almost to herself.
Aidan looked at her, and some of the others seemed equally surprised. “Face it, Teva,” Kavan said, “they beat us. It’s over.” He was a big man, but blood matted his thick hair and it was hard to tell whether it was his own or not. His left arm hung limply by his side. He, and others, might yet die from their wounds.
“So what now?” she demanded. “Back to the farms? You think the Romans will just let us live in peace again?”
“What can we do?” Aidan asked bleakly. “Every day, more of them come. The whole of Gaul is theirs, and they rule half the world, or so it’s said. This is one island.”
“Yes, but it’s our island.” She stood up on the log, ignoring the pain in her exhausted legs. She hefted her axe onto her shoulder and held out her hand. “Our island. Britain. The land of our ancestors. We have tilled this earth for generations. Who are the Romans to take it from us? What are they but usurpers and invaders?”
“They’re too strong!” Kavan insisted. “They have horses and armour and thousands and thousands of men.”
“Do you want to be slaves, taken back to Rome in chains?”
“We can try for peace,” Aidan said. “It’s worked before.”
“For how long?” She clenched her fist as she leant forward, meeting each of their eyes in turn. None could hold her fierce gaze. “If we give in now, accept our new masters, and go back to our lands, what then? What happens when they come for you and want your land to build their cities or roads on? How will you fight them tomorrow if you couldn’t fight them today? You may not be in chains, but you would still be a slave. All of Britain will be the slave of Rome. What will happen to your children, and to their children? They will grow up under Roman rule, believing a distant Emperor in a foreign land is their master, seeing their own people and country as inferior. A mere territory of a huge empire, a backwater. We will be vassals; servants in our own homes.”
“But we can’t beat them!” Aidan insisted.
“Perhaps not, but we have to fight them anyway! Or this island is lost forever, squashed under the heel of Rome. They cut down our forests to build.” She pointed behind her at the clearing. “All this will be destroyed, replaced with a fortress for the soldiers who burned your homes and raped your daughters, or the villa of a rich nobleman from across the sea who will disdain us, the Britons whose company he will be forced to endure while we labour to build his home. No one will venerate our gods. No one will love our land. We will be a poor annex, an unruly relative at the table, an embarrassment best shuffled out of sight. And what future for our people when Rome falls? Will we bow to the next empire who tries to conquer us? Will our people suffer even more humiliation? No.” She straightened and held her axe before her. It was notched, stained with Roman blood, but it would still serve its purpose. “We are Britons. We are Brigantes, the children of Brigantia, the goddess of victory. Battle-born sons and daughters of this island.” She pointed the axe downwards, towards her feet. “This is where we have to draw the line, or every generation that follows from now until the end of time will think defeat their only birthright. If we stand and fight here today, even if we are defeated, our descendants will still be able to lift their heads in the face of slavery, invasion, cruelty and the annihilation of their lands. That will be our legacy, my brothers. That will be how we are remembered.”
They were always destined for defeat, these few, but it was on this spot that their refusal to accept defeat began, and where the seeds of an indomitable will were sown.