A Bitter Chill – Extract

A Bitter Chill – Extract – Chapter 1 It might all have been different if I hadn’t burnt the mistletoe. Our troubles started on that freezing December day, and I’ve often wondered about it since. Did I bring down the vengeance of the old gods of Britannia, because I, a Roman, dared to destroy one of their sacred plants?

Who knows? I don’t. But I’d do the same again, if I had to.

We were collecting greenery to decorate the mansio for Saturnalia. Well I was supervising, rather than actually collecting. It’s something we do every December, and as usual I’d given the slaves a half-day off to help. They were all joining in, house servants and farm hands, scouringthe woods around for the best branches of holly and laurel, and the longest strands of ivy. Despite the winter cold, they were in holiday mood, skipping about and singing as they brought their trophies back to the paved forecourt where my sister Albia and I were waiting outside the bar-room door.

“It’s like a forest of dancing trees!” Albia laughed as a couple of the young maids jigged along, almost hidden by laurel branches as big as themselves, while one of the horse-boys wound ivy round his head to make a comic green helmet. “And look at Taurus. He’s got a whole holly-tree there.”

“I told him we wanted a big tree to stand in the middle of the bar-room. He’s taken me literally!” I smiled as our giant handyman strode across the forecourt holding a huge holly-bush at arm’s length to avoid the prickles.

He proudly put it down in front of us. It was even taller than he was, which meant it towered half a foot over Albia and me.

“The biggest I could find, Mistress Aurelia,” he declared. “Like you wanted for the bar-room. It’ll look good, won’t it?”

“Wonderful.” It was about three times bigger than we needed, but I hadn’t the heart to spoil his pleasure. “Yes, Taurus, it’s a beauty. And what lovely berries!”

“All the bushes and trees have brilliant berries this year,” he said. “Plenty for us, and the birds as well. Sign of a hard winter, the natives say.”

“I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s cold enough to freeze the horns off a bronze bull.” I shivered in spite of my warm bearskin cloak, and looked up at the sky, where yellow-grey clouds were being driven towards us by a sharp north wind. “We’ll have snow by tonight. You’ve made sure we have plenty of logs close to the house?”

“’Course I have. Logs for the fire and the furnace, and charcoal for the braziers. We’ll be warm inside, however hard it snows.”

“The first real snow of the winter.” Albia pulled up the hood of her cloak. “Lovely! It makes even ordinary things look pretty. Yes, that’s right, Carina,” she added, as the senior barmaid brought yet another armful of green boughs. “Smaller sprigs here, larger branches over there. Pick out the very best bits for the bar-room and the dining-room, and make sure there are some good small pieces for our private rooms – mine and Relia’s, and don’t forget Master Lucius’ bedroom. He’ll be here any day now.”

“Taurus,” I said, “you may as well start nailing up some of the smaller bits of holly round the outside of the door and windows. Use thin nails, so as not to damage the wood…”

I caught him and Albia exchanging a smile, and stopped. He’d been nailing up decorations at the mansio every Saturnalia for sixteen years, and if he didn’t know how by now, he never would.

“I’ll choose the pieces for our bedrooms.” I bent to pick out the choicest scarlet-studded sprigs of holly. “Ouch! I wish I’d brought some mittens. Will we have enough for the guest wing as well, Albia?”

“Oh yes. The three main bedrooms definitely, and probably the smaller rooms too.” She giggled. “Not that we want the place full of overnight guests just now, so close to the holiday.”

“I think we’re safe enough. Nobody travels the roads of northern Britannia in December. I’m looking forward to a nice peaceful time, with no guests staying and only a few locals to serve drinks to in the daytime.”

All right, I know that’s not quite the proper attitude for an innkeeper, but we’re only human, although our customers often seem to forget the fact. Most of the year I’m delighted to welcome guests to our mansio – soldiers, messengers, government officials, and private travellers when we can get them. They come to stay, to eat or drink, to change horses, and people say we run the best guest-house and posting-station between the River Humber and Eburacum. (I say it quite regularly myself.) But from mid-December to New Year, I always hope that we’ll have a few days of doing nothing, or as near to nothing as we can manage.

“Can we take some berries to decorate the slave quarters, Miss Albia?” Taurus carefully secured the first sprig of holly to the door-frame.

“Of course, Taurus. Just let us choose what we need here, and then have as much as you want.”

He grinned. “I like Saturnalia. The presents, and lots of good food and wine, and the games. It makes everyone equal, just for a while.”

“It reminds me of when we were children,” I said. Perhaps that’s why it’s my favourite of all the festivals, with its cheerful, anarchic celebrations, the silly jokes, the over-eating and drinking, and even the banquet where masters and mistresses wait on their slaves. And then once the shortest day of the year is past, I can tell myself that it won’t be so very long until spring. A slow, late spring on this northern edge of the Empire, but when the days begin to lengthen and the first flowers appear, at least it’s on its way.

Next spring would bring Albia’s wedding to Candidus, and she’d be leaving home. She was counting the days, glowing with excitement every time the subject was mentioned, which was very often. I was counting days too, my pleasure tinged with foreboding. She was my housekeeper at the mansio, my indispensable right hand. Of course I wished her all the happiness in the world in her new life, but how I was going to run the Oak Tree without her, the gods alone knew. Or perhaps not even they had worked it out yet.

But I didn’t want to think about it now. “This will be the best Saturnalia ever,” I said, “with Lucius coming home.”

“And Candidus here too,” Albia added. “The whole family together.” She began sorting through the largest heap of mixed greenery. “Oh look, pine branches, and even some cones! Do you think we can use these, or will they make people think of funerals?”

I walked over to join her. “Let’s use them. They look good, and I always love that resiny smell.” I stooped down and rummaged through the pile. “How much is there?…Merda, what’s this doing here?” There was a large bunch of mistletoe among the other branches. I jumped back as if I’d seen a snake, then bent forward again, grabbed the foul stuff in both hands and flung it away from me as hard as I could.

I’d sooner have found a snake than those evil glossy leaves and creamy-yellow berries, the Druids’ revered holy plant. And don’t try telling me that Druids are outlawed in this Empire of ours. Outlawed or not, they still exist and practice their abominable ceremonies in secret. We had reason to know that, because only four years before they’d incited the native Brigantians to try to kill us. For a few heartbeats my mind went back to a moonlit woodland clearing, where white-robed priests cut mistletoe from an oak tree, as a prelude to sacrificing a boy on their altar. I pushed the memory out of my head.

“We must get rid of it,” I said. “I won’t have it anywhere near our good Roman celebrations. Who collected it, I wonder? They all know how much we hate the Druids. If I catch whoever brought it in…”

”Calm down, Relia,” my sister said reasonably. “It must have been one of the newer slaves, or a child – someone who wasn’t here then, and couldn’t know what happened.”

“I hope so, because if I find we’ve any Druid sympathisers among our people, they’ll go straight to the next slave auction.”

“I’m certain we haven’t. Don’t let it bother you. We’ll just burn the stuff, and that’ll be the end of it.”

“Yes, you’re right. Taurus, take the mistletoe and throw it into the furnace, please.”

The big man took a pace backwards. “Me? I mean, well, are you sure?”

With any other slave, I’d have said, “Don’t argue, just do it.” But Taurus is almost part of the family, one of the few servants we brought with us when we came to Britannia years ago. He’s not the brightest slave in the world, but he’s the most completely loyal.

“I’m quite sure, yes, Taurus. You know as well as I do how the Druids hate all of us Romans. We can’t have their plants in the mansio.”

“But the gods the Druids worship are scary.” He gazed at me unhappily. “They won’t like me burning mistletoe, and maybe they’ll put a curse on me. Or all of us. Like they did before.”

“Nonsense!” I smiled, trying not to show my irritation. “The old gods have no power these days. Our Roman gods are much stronger. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“Aren’t you afraid of them, Mistress?”

“No, of course not. Not one bit.”

“Well, you’re not afraid of much.” Not strictly true, but I didn’t see any need to correct him. “Then if you’re not afraid of the Druids’ gods, why do you need to burn the mistletoe, instead of just throwing it away?”

It was a fair question, and to be truthful I couldn’t explain my reasons properly. I only knew for certain that the stuff had to be completely destroyed. Deep down, I was a little frightened of what the Druids stood for, having seen their power to whip up hatred and violence against us. But I wasn’t going to admit that to Taurus, especially as several of the other slaves were listening to our conversation.

“I want it burnt because it reminds me of bad times. The Druids tried to have us killed, and they didn’t succeed, so I’m not afraid of them or their gods. To prove it, I’ll burn the stuff myself, out here where everyone can see. Fetch me a brazier and some dry wood, will you?”

As Taurus disappeared, much relieved, I realised that the whole forecourt had gone quiet. All the slaves had stopped what they were doing and were watching me warily. I noticed Albia having a quiet word with Carina, and the two of them went into the bar-room. Gods, I thought, surely neither of them is worried by what I’m doing? I could have done with Albia’s support over this, but…well, too bad. I was going to have to manage without her support altogether before long. The prospect didn’t improve my temper.

I stood there by the bar-room door, smiling and outwardly relaxed, till Taurus came back with a brazier. He added some dry sticks to it, and a good fire sprang up. I marched across to where the mistletoe lay and picked it up. Holding it high in full view, I walked back and hurled it into the flames. It made a fine blaze, the waxy berries spitting and spurting. There was a small murmur, almost a sigh, from the watching slaves, and I sensed that they shared Taurus’ unease. Most were natives, born and bred in Brigantia, closer to Druid beliefs and legends than we Romans could ever be.

So I said, “Mistletoe is evil stuff, but now it’s gone, and we’re safe. I call on Jupiter and Juno and Diana and all the gods of Rome to protect us, and give us peace for Saturnalia.”

Soon there was nothing left but a few charred twigs, and ashes vanishing in the wind. But the holiday atmosphere had vanished too, and the slaves stood about in subdued groups, saying little. It was a pity to have lost the light-hearted mood, and I was wondering how we could recover it, when Albia and Carina appeared, carrying two large steaming jugs of hot wine and a tray of beakers.

“Now, we’ve got to get this finished before the snow starts,” Albia called out. “A drop of wine will keep us warm. Come on, everyone, help yourselves!”

There was a cheer, and the atmosphere lightened at once. Two of the horse-boys began a mock fight using holly branches for swords, and the rest of us stood cheering them on like spectators at a gladiator show. Before long everyone went back to the decorating, happy again.

“Well done, Albia,” I murmured as I sipped the spiced wine. “Thank you.”

“You look as if you need it,” she answered softly. “Don’t pay any attention to Taurus and the others. We couldn’t have those berries indoors. You were right to burn them.”

“I had no choice.” I still believe that. But sometimes I can’t help wondering.

Before long the front of the mansio was as green as a summer bower. I smiled and joked with everyone, and almost managed to shake off the uneasy feeling those bad memories had caused. As the light faded the outdoor slaves dispersed, and Albia led the house servants inside, to begin the decorating there. I stayed on the forecourt, alone under the big oak tree that gives our mansio its name. I was so lost in my thoughts that I hardly felt the cold, or noticed when the first snowflakes fell.

Then out of the dusk appeared a slight dark figure, carrying a hunting-bow and followed by a large dog that looked more wolf than hound. My spirits lifted as I recognised Hawk, my favourite native huntsman, and the best tracker I ever saw. Also a friend, and a good one.

“Hawk, you’re a welcome sight! Come in and have a drink. We’ve been collecting greenery, and I could do to warm up a little.”

“Thank you.” He gave his rare smile. “You owe me at least one large jug of beer. I’ve had a cold and empty afternoon trying to hunt in the woods, with all your people charging about like a herd of aurochs. They’ve scared away every animal and bird between here and Eburacum.”

“I can well believe it,” I smiled back, and we headed for the bar-room. “But everything stops for Saturnalia, you know.”

“So I see.” We hung up our cloaks and stood watching the girls decking the room out with the green boughs. Taurus’ holly-tree had been given pride of place in the middle, and looked magnificent.

I went to the bar and collected a tray with mugs, beer, and wine. “At least we only take three days off, not like in Rome where the whole city is on holiday for seven.” I led the way to my study.

“Very restrained, I’m sure. Is that due to the famous Roman self-discipline, or the even more famous Roman meanness?”

I laughed. “Probably both. You ought to know by now, we’re rather good at making a virtue out of a necessity.” I always enjoyed the banter I had with Hawk, and as usual, I talked to him in Latin, and he replied in British. We each speak one another’s languages well, but from long habit, we each used our own. It must sound strange to other people, but it suited us.

The study was comfortably warm, thanks to a big charcoal brazier, but as we entered, Hawk exclaimed, “By the Three Mothers, it’s too hot for me in here!” He pulled off his woollen over-tunic, and nodded his thanks as I poured his beer. “I thought you Romans were supposed to be tough. But the first little snowflake that falls, you heat your houses up like furnaces.”

“It’s horrible to be cold. And if we don’t have to use up all our energy shivering and stopping our teeth from chattering, we’ll have all the more strength to be tough when it counts.” I raised my beaker. “To your good health, Hawk. And to peace and happiness for all of us this winter.”

“To your good health.” He took a long drink of beer. “I’m a bit less sure about the rest of your wishes. That’s why I wanted a word.” His expression became serious. “I think you may be in for a spot of trouble.”

“As long as it doesn’t come till after Saturnalia,” I joked, but his piercing black eyes continued to survey me gravely.

I felt a stirring of the uneasiness I’d had earlier. “Not the Druids again? I found some mistletoe in among our green branches this afternoon. I don’t know how it got there, presumably by accident, but I burnt it just to be safe. I don’t want reminders of the Druids or their gods anywhere near this mansio.”

“I’ve no quarrel with the old gods,” Hawk said seriously. “I hate Druids though, as much as you do.”

He had every reason, but I didn’t want to dwell on the horrors of the past. I took a good swallow of wine. “Then if not the Druids, what’s wrong? I hope we haven’t upset one of the neighbours?” We always try to get on well with the native Brigantian farmers. “We’re on good terms with all of them. Or I thought we were.”

“You are, as far as I know. This is something different. I suppose you weren’t out and about in the woods last night?”

“Not me. I was safe and snug in front of a log fire.”

“Then you didn’t hear a wolf howling?”

“No,” I said, surprised. “I wouldn’t expect to. There aren’t any wolves left in these woods now, they’ve all been killed by hunters from Eburacum. That’s what you’re always telling me, isn’t it?”

“Quite right. So when I heard a wolf-howl, clear and distinct and not far away, I went to investigate. I found it came from a two-legged wolf prowling around your farm buildings down-river, and presumably signalling to another of his kind.”

“Did you see him?”

“No, only his tracks, but that was enough, because I’ve seen them before. There’s a gang of Brigantian lads, young toughs who’d rather steal than work. They’re supporting themselves by thieving and intimidating farmers, and they call themselves the Wolf-pack, of all silly names. The man signalling last night was one of them.”

“The Wolf-pack? Now you mention it, I’ve heard of them. They caused a bit of trouble east of here in the wold country earlier this year. I remember last June the army at Eburacum sent out a couple of foot-patrols to try and catch them, but of course they hadn’t a hope. They might as well have sent an elephant to chase a shoal of fish.”

He nodded. “A gang like that always has the advantage over the army. They know every yard of the countryside, and every hiding-place for miles. Catching them is a job for a proper investigator like your brother. How is he, by the way?”

“He’s fine. You can see for yourself in a day or two. He’s coming home for the holiday.”

“Excellent! Tell him I know where there’s an interesting wild boar, if he fancies a spot of hunting.”

“I will.” Lucius would jump at the chance of going after a wild boar that an experienced huntsman described as interesting. “But go on about this gang, the Wolf-pack.”

“They’re moving down off the hills for the winter, which means they’ll be around Oak Bridges for a while. They won’t go much nearer to Eburacum, because a couple of ex-army types have joined them lately, and they won’t want to risk being recognised near the fortress. I’ve seen their tracks. They’re still using their hobnailed army boots, though I assume they’re wearing Brigantian clothes otherwise.”

“Ex-army? That’s bad. From the Ninth Legion, I suppose.”

“No. One of the auxiliary units.”

“Gods, how in Hades do you know that? You’ll be telling me next which unit, and who commands it.”

“It’s not so hard to tell auxiliaries from legionaries by their tracks. Their boots are slightly different in design, that’s all. But as to the name of the commander, I didn’t think to check. Perhaps I should go out and take another look?”

I laughed. “Well, I appreciate you coming to warn us. But I honestly don’t think we have much to fear from that sort of band. They’ll pick on easy targets, small hamlets and isolated farms, and single travellers on foot. We’ve got a big complex of buildings here, and plenty of men. They surely wouldn’t try to steal from us?”

“They might during holiday time.” He sipped his beer. “You said yourself, everything stops for Saturnalia, and they know that as well as you do. They may try to catch you napping, or at least over-indulging.”

“You’re saying, be on our guard. Thanks, we will.”

He nodded. “You’re a harder nut to crack than a family of Brigantians in a roundhouse, but that just makes you more tempting. You’ve got valuable horses and mules that would fetch a good price, and farm animals if they fancy a free meal or two. You can’t keep all the stock in barns for the whole winter.”

“No, but we can keep them well protected, and we will.”

“Make sure you do, especially just now. Enjoy Saturnalia, but don’t relax too much.”

He went away soon after, leaving me to work out how we could keep a reasonable guard on the mansio and farm, while still letting ourselves and our household enjoy the holiday. I shared the problem with Albia, and we decided to warn the senior servants in the morning, and draw up a rota of men who would take it in turns to patrol round outside during the dark night hours.

“Oddly enough,” I said, “I’m not too bothered about this. If anything, I’m relieved.”

“Relieved? You mean you were expecting something worse?” She looked at me keenly. “Because of the mistletoe?”

“I don’t know. But if I have annoyed the old gods, a gang of outlaws trying to disrupt a Roman festival is exactly the sort of spiteful revenge they’d throw at us, isn’t it? Unpleasant, but not catastrophic.”

“For Juno’s sake don’t put that idea into the slaves’ heads! Anyhow, I still think you’re taking the mistletoe too seriously.”

“You’re right, I’m making far too much out of a trivial incident. This Saturnalia will be wonderful, and nothing is going to spoil it.”

I was never cut out for a prophetess.