We finally reached a position we believed was directly above where we suspected human activity. The village was invisible, down the sloping ground to our southwest. We had cleared most of the perimeter around the village, so I was confident that Caecina and the foraging detail weren’t marching into a trap. But, we had to ensure there was no enemy threat to our front. I send Alaw and Rhodri ahead on foot to scout ahead.
Alaw soon returned. “There’s a clearing about fifty passus down the hill… we can see people…”
“People,” I interrupted? “Enemy soldiers?”
“No,” Alaw said, “Mostly women and children… some old men… the missing villagers, I think…”
“No sign of weapons… armor,” I pressed.
Alaw shrugged, “They have planting tools…”
“I think we should move forward,” I said to Athauhnu, “But, we need to be careful. These woods could hide an army. They may be using the women and children to bait us.”
Athauhnu nodded and we moved forward.
Alaw guided us to the edge of the clearing where Rhodri was waiting. I was just about to begin to deploy the turma to sweep into the clearing, when we heard a voice from down below.
“Are you fuckers going to snap ever fuckin’ branch and crack every fuckin’ twig you can find in those damned woods before you show yourselves? I could smell you and your fuckin’ horses a thousand passus away. Show yourselves and get your asses out here!”
I stood up and exposed myself. Luckily, I wasn’t greeted with an arrow in the chest. A saw a large man standing in the clearing below me. He sported bushy, grey Celtic mustachios that reached down to his chin—a cascade of descending chins, actually—and was wearing an old-fashioned domed helmet, that swam on an aureole of bushy gray hair. His leather lorica struggled to contain his belly. There was nothing comic about the sword he was holding though, a long, Gallic spatha, whose recently honed edges caught the sun light; it glowed like Duhrnwuhn White-Hilt, the lightening sword Lugus.
“So, who the fuck are you,” he challenged me?
I puffed out my chest and tried to channel all my Roman dignitas, answering, “I am Gaius Marius Insubrecus Decurio of the Praetorian cavalry of Caesar, Imperator…”
“You look like a fuckin’ Roman, alright,” he interrupted, “But, those fuckers standing next to you are no more Roman than my hairy ass! By their colors, they look like Souconai to me! What the fuck is a Roman puppy and a gang of Souconai sheep-fuckers doing on my lands!”
“Are you chief here,” I asked him?
“Chief! I’m the fuckin’ king around here…twice over, you Roman pup,” he spat back! “I am Cuhnetha Mab Cluhweluhno, buch’rix of these lands and pobl’rix of the Wuhr Tuurch!”
I understood the words “Cattle-king” and “Clan-King.” Buch’rix meant that Cuhnetha was the leader of this settlement, which was prosperous enough to have at least a modest herd of cattle. What being the pobl’rix of the wuhr tuurch, the clan-king of the descendants of the boar, meant, I wasn’t at all sure.
“Who are the Wuhr Tuurch,” I asked him.
Cuhnetha looked at me as if I were something nasty that just dropped from a tree into his path. “Tuurch Mawr was the first king of the Aiduai, the Dark-Moon People, whom you fuckin’ Romans call the Aedui. He led the people down from the Land in the Skies into these valleys in the time before time. He defeated the Pobl oh Danu, the people of the dark god, and took these lands for the Aiduai. He rode as a chief at the right shoulder of Arth Mawr, when the Gah’el rubbed the noses of uh Chellinai, the fuckin’ Greeks, and you fuckin’ Romans as well in dog shit. Now he feasts with the gods in Land of Youth! Enough of your questions, Pup! What are Romans and these Soucanai dog-droppings doing in my lands?”
Athauhnu answered, “When we Soucanai have destroyed the River-People and the fuckin’ Almaenegai, whom you Aiduai run from even in your own lands, and the Romans go back to their grape farms, we are going to make dogs of your women and shit on the heads of your sons, oh pobl’rix of cows and sheep!”
“Our women alone are enough to drive you dog-fuckers back into your shit-ridden swamps,” Cuhnetha laughed. “What are you called?”
“Athauhnu Mab Hergest,” he answered, “Pen cefhul of Madog Mab Gwuhn, Pobl’rix of the Wuhn clan of the Soucanai and Dux of the Roman Caesar.”
“I should have guessed that a Soucanai king would attach himself to a Roman’s ass, oh Horse Chief of Madog,” Cuhnetha shot back. “But, unless we’re going to fight, the law of our ancestors demands I offer you hospitality, and all this fuckin’ talking has given me a terrible thirst. So, come down out of those woods and join me!”
Cuhnetha pulled off his helmet and walked away back into the clearing. “Rhonwen,” he shouted! “Some bragawt! The good stuff! Meth coch… the red mead! We have guests!”
I looked over at Athauhnu. Despite all the insults hurled back and forth, he was actually laughing. When he saw me looking, he gestured toward the clearing. “Come, Arth Bek! The King of Blowhards has offered us hospitality and now is honor bound for our safety… and he’s right… insulting him has given me a terrible thirst and a few cups of his bragawt sounds just the thing to slake it!”
We followed Cuhnetha down into the clearing. For the Gah’el, hospitality is sacred. The host is responsible to the king for the comfort and safety of his guests. If a guest should die, through no fault of the host or his people, the host would have to pay his head-price to the king. If a guest were killed or murdered through no fault of the host, three times the head-price. Should the host himself harm a guest in any way, the host’s rank and honors would be stripped and he would be exiled.
Near the center of the clearing, Cuhnetha had a pavilion set up… a lean-to of leather sheets, not unlike those of a legionary tent. There were some rickety-looking wooden stools. Cuhnetha gestured for us to sit.
“The women will take your horses,” he told us as he struggled out of his lorica, “They’ll also serve your men. Your nags look as relieved as you do to get out of those fuckin’ woods. We don’t have much… some bragawt, cheese and yesterday’s bread.”
Athauhnu got the men situated and came back to the pavilion, where a tall, lithe red-haired girl of no more the seventeen winters, was pouring a reddish-orange liquid into clay cops.
“We call this medd coch,” Cuhnetha said grapping one of the cups, “Our bees produce the richest honey in all the lands of the Aiduai. Drink!” Cuhnetha took a long, noisy draught from his cup.
We drank. I was cautious, and that proved a good thing. Cuhnetha’s medd coch didn’t have the bite of the dur my Da distilled out behind our storage sheds where Mama wouldn’t see, but it was hard to taste the difference.
“Dur uh buhwuhd,” Cuhnetha said as if he were reading my mind, “the water of life.” He smacked his lips and held up his now empty cup to the red-haired girl.
The red-haired girl was obviously accustomed to Cuhnetha’s act. She filled his cup, placed the pitcher on the ground next to his stool and walked out of the lean-to.
Cuhnetha caught me watching her as she walked away.
“Fuh nith,” he said, “My sister’s daughter!” That was Gah’el “guest-talk” for don’t think about it; she’s family.
“So,” Cuhnetha started after another long pull from his cup, “You never explained what a Roman and a band of Soucanai thieves are doing in my woods.”
“Your king promised us food if we fought the Helv… I mean… the River People for him,” I said. “We’ve come to collect.”
Cuhnetha laughed at that. “Well, you’ve come a day too late, Little Roman! All the fuckin’ food’s gone!”
“Gone,” I said? “You mean the raiders took it all?”
“Raiders,” Cuhnetha snorted! “There were no raiders here… you and your Soucanai friends excepted, of course.”
“No, raiders,” I questioned. “Then who burned your barn?”
“Barn,” Cuhnetha shot back! “That was no fuckin’ barn! That was my fuckin’ hall! And, it was the men of that fuckin’ gob-shite of a dunorix who burned it. They took the food!”
“The dunorix,” I stammered! “The commander of the king’s fortress! Deluuhnu Mab Clethguuhno! The king’s brother! Your own people burned your bar… I mean your hall.”
“Right and wrong, Little Roman,” Cuhnetha shot back, taking another long drink. “The fianna of the dunorix set the blaze alright! But, Deluuhnu Mab Clethguuhno is not ‘my own people”! He’s the snot-nose, treacherous, piece of pussy-offal of his usurping, twice-bastard father, Clethguuhno Mab Grefhuhtha, may he rot in the piss pots of Annuhfn while worthy men piss on his head for all eternity!”
While Cuhnetha was re-filling his cup, I asked, “‘Usurping, twice-bastard’? Are you saying he’s not of the royal clan? Who is the legitimate king of the Aiduai then.”
“I am,” Cuhnetha almost shouted! “I am the pobl’rix of wuhr Tuurch… the kingship of the Aiduai has always been founded in the wuhr Tuurch… since we descended from the Lands in the Sky… the descendants of Tuurch have always ruled the tribe… that was until that cunt-lapping Clethguuhno poisoned my grandfather… my da was only a boy… not yet of the age… Clethguuhno convinced the Council of the Three Generations that the gods had killed my grandfather, not the fuckin’ hemlock he put in his beer… with hordes of Almaenuuhrai rampaging through in our lands, the Aeduai needed a strong man… a warrior ruling the tribe… my grandfather’s death was a sign that Clethguuhno should rule… then, when the fuckin’ Germans left us to go south and kill Romans, Clethguuhno’s breeding bitch gave him two strong sons… heirs… he convinced the Council to recognize his oldest… that dog-fucking Deluuhna… as his heir.”
Ranting is thirsty work. Cuhnetha held up the now-empty pitcher and bellowed to Rhonwen for more. From somewhere out among the milling Aeduai and our Soucanai troopers in the clearing, I heard a woman’s voice yell back telling him to “wait his fuckin turn!”
“No respect, I get,” Cuhnetha complained! “From my own blood!” Then, he looked at me, “Don’t ever marry a red-haired woman, boy! She’ll be the death of you!”
I didn’t take his advice and, after fifty-some years, I’m still alive… bruised somewhat… but still alive.
“So, now the wuhr blath rule the tribe…” he started.
“The wolf people,” I questioned?
“That’s Deluuhna’s clan,” Cunetha said while glaring out into the clearing as if that would bring Rhonwen faster. “The fuckin’ descendants of the fuckin’ wolf… it was they who came here yesterday with their fuckin’ carts demanding all our stored food… it’s for the king’s dun, Bibracte, they said… I asked them how were we going to fuckin’ eat until the crops were in… eat your fuckin’ seeds, they laughed… they’re already in the fuckin’ ground, I said… they just laughed… then they burned my hall… it was a message from their fuckin’ dunorix… that gob-shite brother of that gob-shite usurper… Deluuhnu Mab Fuckin’ Clethguuhno…”
Rhonwen finally arrived with a fresh pitcher of the bragawt.
“It’s about time,” Cuhnetha grumbled! “A man could die of the thirst waitin’ on the likes of you, girl!”
“Shut ya gob, old man,” she shot back, “And just be thankful I pay ya any mind!”
As she turned to leave, Rhonwen gave me a smile and a wink. I felt both in my heart.
“Where is your fianna, pobl’rix,” I heard Athauhnu ask as he leaned forward for Cuhnetha to fill his cup. “Why did your warriors allow this?”
Cuhnetha snorted, “My son led our sixteen warriors and five boys to Bibracte weeks ago, when that usurping bastard of a pretend king, may he wipe assholes in Annuhfn for all the ages, summoned them… now they’re all cowering behind those nice thick walls up on top of that high fuckin’ hill, while those fuckin’ River-People and Krauts do whatever they want… when those ass-lickers of the dunorix set the fire, my people fled to the woods… now that’s it’s safe, I have to bring them back… start rebuilding… decide how I’m going to feed them until the harvest… a king’s responsibility is to his people… to the land! When the land burns, the king burns… that’s how we did it in the old days… kill the king, choose another!”
Cuhnetha drained his cup to that sentiment.
Remembering Caecina and his foraging detail, I stood. Athauhnu did also.
“Diolch i chi am eich cletuhgaruuch, O Argluuhth,” I pronounced the ritual of thanks.
“Riduhch chi bab amser uhn cael eu croesauu uhn fi, O Argluuhth,” Cuhnetha rose unsteadily and completed the ritual, “You are always welcomed at my hearth, Lord… at least, as soon as I rebuild the fuckin’ thing,” he added.