This violent summer proves the hottest in memory as a pretty Roman covers the dead farmer and her children with animal skins.
Aedan the Ancalite grins upon seeing Bitch Face, whose rage over a slaughtered lover burns hotter than a hundred suns. He squats on the highest branch, a naked foot rising so his toe can scratch the itch behind his ear. His cadre awaits on the forest floor, watching the invaders hack another barleycorn field.
The leader of this harvest, known on the wind as Gaius Trebonius, grows impatient and commits more to the reaping—an anticipated mistake.
Aedan drops from his perch, the feather cape on his shoulders flapping about his head, and his warriors rise when his long feet strike dirt.
The Owl’s faction moves out of the trees, a minor mass of various blues skirted by horse-drawn chariots that roll softly over the grass. Unlike other war parties, they employ no fierce charge or hearty battle cry, as such things do nothing to sway the invaders.
The first to die are those eight Romans on watch, their isolation ensuring such deaths go unseen. Stealthily, those under the Owl’s command ignite the whale oil they spilled days ago around this field.
Fire traces a line around the harvesting legions, and Trebonius cannot quell the men’s panic any more than he can control the ring of fire surrounding them. Without a command, his horsemen charge from their trapped comrades to confront the Gallic advance.
Aedan’s arms give wordless orders from the basket of his fastest chariot, putting the horse-drawn faction behind his troops. Roman horsemen plow into the painted warriors and find themselves at the mercy of chariot-born slingers and archers that encircle the melee.
The crafty Owl leads his remaining chariots to the burning field, striking down any invader brave enough to hurl himself through the flames. Trebonius slides from his horse, his legions divided and the body count rising. He dispatches three young men to seek reinforcements, but the Owl gives chase, taking down two with his deadly sling and stone until the fearless Castor comes between his chariot and the third messenger.
Bitch Face and his two horsemen give chase as Aedan, wooden crown burning bright, orders his charioteer to rush the northern ridge at full speed. Bitch Face gains ground, close enough that his threat to drive a sword through Aedan’s skeletal heart comes through clearly enough.
Aedan presses the driver to remain on the path, and she yanks the reins, turning her horse to an impossible angle that takes their left wheel over a rocky precipice. Bitch Face somehow manages to turn with them, ignoring the cries of his men and their horses as they tumble over the cliff.
The Owl climbs his charioteer like a tree, digging his talons into her muscular shoulders while loading a stone into his sling. Castor readies his lance for a toss, his eyes drawn to the blurry wheel spinning over the Owl’s head. A stone launches with a hawk’s speed, forcing Castor to toss low.
Aedan hops from the charioteer’s shoulders as the spear pierces her back. He hits the grass with a roll before regaining his feet. His fiery crown lost, he sprints after the chariot and grabs the woman’s corpse before taking the reigns. Her lifeless body falls away, forcing Bitch Face’s horses to jump it.
Castor comes alongside, groping for the Owl’s feathery cloak. Fingertips brush the whipping leather until a nimble leg flits out. Castor’s face plate bears the brunt of the druid’s heel, but the blow is enough to darken his world.
The galloping horse slows as its rider slumps, and grinning, Aedan veers the chariot around and readies his hand sickle. Suddenly, a swift horse cuts off his path, ushering in cavalrymen bearing new colors.
They surround the slumbering, and one gives chase. Aedan lashes out when the man comes alongside, his curvy iron ripping a wrist when he foolishly reaches for his beast’s collar band.
A row of legionnaires stand the hillside’s length, their battle king, Caesar, standing among them.
A horse regiment charges from the far woods, their archers targeting the Gallic charioteers still picking off burn survivors. The second contingent rides behind them, each horse with two riders, one to cut harnesses and the other armed with a pole that sends baskets skyward when jabbed into wheels.
A third fighting force crests like a wave crawling tidal flats, led by a strapping man with a medallion-laden harness over his bare chest and a lion’s snout upon his helmet. He dismounts before reaching the blue horde, sliding from his beast as aided by the gods. His brutal blade cuts down everyone it touches.
Aedan scrambles out of the basket and onto his horse. Unhooking her rope, he rides to the skirmish line, screaming for the carnyx-holders to sound a withdrawal.
Four hornblowers heed the call, but his fifth succumbs to the Lion. A red sword withdraws from his chest, his portion of the battlefield unaware of the retreat. The ferocious man slaughters without passion or rage, his glistening chest barely heaving with each new kill.
A snout and fleece obscure this Lion’s face, but those angry cerise marks along his left tit tickle Aedan’s memory.
Retreat isn’t always a loss. Aedan receives a victors welcome for completing what his new master sent him to—delay the Romans; the damage he and his warriors inflicted will occupy them for many days.
Cassibelanus greets him with a bearhug, lifting him from the ground amidst raucous cries of admiration. Aedan cares little for this man and less for his followers, mainly young Kelr, whose once lustful eyes carry envious scorn.
“Be nicer to him,” Ciniod advises. “He might be your next father,”
Aedan thrusts his fingers down his throat until vomit erupts.
“One day,” she scowls, backing away from the splash. “You’ll bring your stomach up through that gullet,”
Cassibelanus steps over the vomit puddle.
“How many legions?”
“We attacked two before five arrived.” Aedan wipes his mouth. “They took my bitches away in chains,”
“I’m not sure how you got so many women to fight for you,” Cassibelanus smiles. “I have it on good authority that cunts aren’t to your liking.”
The men around them laugh, but Aedan remains steely.
“He’s kept plenty of girls from motherhood,” Ciniod praises. “That warrants a certain loyalty,”
“When you explain it that way,” Cassibelanus nods. “It makes perfect sense.”
More laughter, none of it Aedan’s. “I need to free them,”
“We can’t spare any men or horses for a rescue mission,” Kelr says, passing him with arms folded. “Your campaign today costs us over thirty chariots.”
“His mission succeeded,” Ciniod reminds. “Chariots can be rebuilt. Women cannot.”
“Well, not at the same speed,” Cassibelanus smirks.
Aedan whispers to his mother. “We must talk,”
When alone, Ciniod picks bits of flesh from his black curls. Her only child’s obtuse cheeks, thick brows, and pouty lips whisper of sins with her brother best forgotten.
“The son of the old Roman,” he says, slapping her hand away. “He lives.”
Ciniod tuts. “No man could’ve survived that fall.”
Aedan thrusts out his lower jaw and gazes at the trees.
“You took a totem from the old Roman’s things,” he accuses. “Where is it?”
“That wooden trinket,” she says. “It was nothing special,”
“Where is it?” he demands.
“Why, and what does it matter?”
“That trinket is a god,” he explains coldly. “One that watches over his family,”
“You don’t know that,”
“I know well enough,” he interjects. “Where is it?”
“I burned it with Fintan,” she says.
He blinks. “You stupid cunt,”
“Their gods are nothing to us,” she snaps.
“This god, Minerva,” he explains. “She guides their warrior’s hearts and, along with the rest of her house, has led Rome to devour an entire continent.”
Cinoid stares at him, fear tugging at her heart.
“What was she?” he asks. “a Leo?”
“I don’t know what that is,” she mumbles. “I never learned that Greek gibberish,”
“What was it?” he asks again. “A cat, a snake, a bird?”
Cinoid hesitates, “It was an owl,”
His eyes soften. “You burned her with Fintan?”
“I thought that bastard Roman took it from one of our fallen,” she explains, relief clouding her son’s miserable face. “They worship no owls,”
“Oh, but they do, mother,” he counsels. “And your ignorance of her form may have saved you from her wrath, but not that of the bastard Roman’s son,”
“Excite you, did he?” she accuses.
Aedan’s glare burns through her.
“You have so few weaknesses, boy,” she scolds. “But your strange lust equals a thousand faults.”
Five days pass until the new Roman camp is complete.
Ten miles east, Cassibelanus speedily fortifies their position along the Tamesa but needs two more days to implement his defenses fully.
Fintan’s son, called the Owl King by his virulent followers, proves a cunning little fuck whose influence over Cassibelanus’ most devout grows at a frightening pace.
His mother advocates him taking Fintan’s role as advisor to the Catuvellauni, but Cassibelanus cannot stand being near the sinister boy for more than a moment. His talent for strategy, however, cannot be denied, but he must keep the Owl away from the other tribal kings, all of whom desire control after the Roman incursion ends.
Avalin suggests that death in battle is a fitting end for the Ancalite.
Cassibelanus orders the Owl’s inclusion in the next war party led by Kelr—the noble Kelr refuses a druid control of his chariot force. Cassibelanus reminds the young-tough that many of their fiercest charioteers are also druids. Kelr reminds him that nearly all of those druids follow the Owl, and he’ll not have his leadership undermined.
Kelr concedes only when Avalin tells him they must work together and delay the Roman wolves for two days. After that, he need never ride with the Owl again.
The war party encounters legions two days east, crossing a grassy stretch near Cattle-Shit Pass. Kelr devises a center-line attack against them, but Aedan points out that the invaders march two men across in a single column.
“You said they always march in a line,” Kelr says dismissively. “Their narrow formation is a gift from the gods,”
“This is no gift,” he counters. “This is a lure,”
“Do you fear for Roman lives?” Kelr asks.
“That’s an imbecilic question,” Aedan says. “None marching down there is Roman,”
Kelr mounts his horse, ignoring snickers from the druid charioteers.
“Romans march four men across on open terrain.” Aedan walks alongside. “These expendable troops are mere bait,”
“Fine. You and your fifty will lead the charge into the center line,” Kelr explains. “You cut it in half, then we roll in and fight the severed faction,”
“That’s the most idiotic thing I’ve heard today,” Aedan declares.
Kelr points his sword. “You get your bony ass onto a chariot.”
Laughter rings out among the warriors.
Aedan boards his chariot, well aware Kelr acts out of scorn—but putting him out in front whispers of calculation the manlet isn’t capable of planning. He slows and signals his faction away from the formation.
Heavy gallops reveal Kelr, whose horse stands before his chariot.
“Where are you going?” he sneers at his skull-painted face. “You have no faith in my victory, then leave on foot.”
Kelr’s skin burns red through the blue woad as Aedan steps out of the basket and walks from the war party.
“These chariots belong to my tribe,” he yells. “Any wishing to follow me shall remain.”
Aedan’s unsure if his women follow until he reaches the overlook and finds thirty masked faces behind him. From the ridge, they watch as Catuvellauni chariots charge the line, but as the first horse reaches it, the Gauls fighting for Rome part like drapery.
“It’s as if they were waiting,” sighs one of his bitch’s, inciting laughter.
Roman horsemen emerge from the treeline and move across the grassy plain under a cloud’s dark shadow. They encircle Kelr’s forces within moments, trapping the manlet and his men in a pell-mell with the continental Gauls.
The Catuvellauni’s failure is assured, for even if they win against the Gallic footmen, their exhaustion will aid the mounted Romans surrounding the slaughter arena.
Another group swoops in, led by the lion-headed horseman who dismounts, naked but for his boots and loincloth. With a sword in each hand, he slices through the fighters with abandon, covering himself in a glorious red sheen moist with sweat.
A second wave brings lancers adept at thrusting their spears into chariot wheels. Here, the Lion displays benevolence; for every attacked chariot, he cuts its horse free. Then, the strapping killer notices the druids on the hill.
He rises from his squat, standing akimbo as the lethal Roman raises his head and reveals himself as the phantom from his vision, the beauty from the falls, and the son of the man who killed his father. With a menacing smile, he points his sword and grabs the front of his loincloth.
Aedan’s backside warms at the thought.
“Come and get me, fuckface.”
The Lion strides closer as the first horse bolts into Aedan’s group—eight beasts whose armored riders swing with deadly accuracy. Several druids surround Aedan as if he’s more vital than those losing life and limbs.
He whispers to his stalwarts: “Pick a rider, drag him down, take his horse, and flee.” Each bitch disburses on command, and he chooses Bitch Face, who snags his feathery cloak with a spear.
Aedan somersaults over the dismounted Roman, the sun on his painted back as he drops onto his hands and knees and sweeps the pretty man with a determined leg. The tumble robs his opponent of wind and lance, so Aedan collects the spear and touches its deadly tip to the pretty man’s neck.
“Thank whatever gods you pray to, Roman, that I’m allowing you to live another day.”
“I’m going to cut your throat, you filthy swine,” he growls in Aedan’s language.
A sudden shadow cools his back.
Aedan turns in time to block a sword with the spear’s wooden staff. He dodges the next swing, overcome by the alluring bloodlust in the Lion’s green eyes. He smells deliciously of sweat and death, yet Aedan keeps his head long enough to begin twirling the spear.
Undaunted, the eagle-eyed Roman thrusts a hand into the pinwheel illusion, deftly catching the rod’s middle and liberating it from Aedan’s hands. He arches back when Aedan backflips, clearing his jaw from a powerful foot that breaks the lance.
Metatarsals throbbing, Aedan backflips from the scene, landing in the grass many yards away. He turns to find the Lion stalking slowly toward him and raises his arm in time for one of his bitch’s on horseback to hook it and hoist him onto the beast’s rump.
As the distance between them grows, the Owl forms a circle with his hand and brings it to his open mouth. His tongue out, he goads the delectable Lion into spreading his blood-painted lips.