The Golden Slave
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by Poul Anderson
Category: Historical Fiction/Fantasy
Description: 100 B.C. The Cimbrian hordes galloped across the dawn of history and clashed in screaming battle against the mighty Roman legions. Eodan, son of Chief Boierek, has been on the war campaign for many years. The Cimbrain army has become a hungry homeless pagan tribe. Their sworn enemy, the Romans, they have battled against gloriously. But for all the burning towns, the new-caught women weeping, the wine drunk, the gold lifted, the Cimbri did not find a home. And after a mighty clash, the battle is over. At Vercellae the Roman armies shattered them completely. Only a few survived--and for them death would have been more merciful. Eodan, the proud young chieftain, had been caught and sold into slavery, his infant son murdered and his beautiful wife, Hwicca, taken as a concubine. But the whips and slave chains could not break the spirit of this fiery pagan giant who fought, seduced and connived his way to a perilous freedom to rescue the woman he loved. A struggle that would make him a lover, pirate, commander, and in the end the struggle would make him a legend!
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks, 1960 Avon Books
eBookwise Release Date: July 2009
6 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [311 KB]
Reading time: 197-277 min.
The night before the battle, there were many watchfires. As he walked from the Cimbri, out into darkness, Eodan saw the Roman camp across the miles as a tiny ring of guttering red. Now the search has ended, he thought; this earth we shall have tomorrow, or be slain.
He thought, while his blood beat swiftly, I do not await my death.
Only the ghostliest edge of a moon was up, and the stars seemed blurred after the mountain sky. He felt Italy's air as thick. And the ground underfoot was dusty where tens of thousands of folk, their horses and cattle, had tramped over ripening grain. A poplar grove nearby stood unmoving in windless gloom. Suddenly, sharp as a thrown war-dart, Eodan recalled Jutland, Cimberland--great rolling heathery hills and storm-noisy oaks, a hawk wheeling in heaven and the far bright blink of the Limfjord.
But that was fifteen years ago. His folk, angry with their gods, had wandered since then to the world's edge. And now the Cimbrian bull must meet for one last time that she-wolf they said guarded Rome. It was unlucky to call up forsaken places in your head.
Besides, thought Eodan, this was good land here. He could make it a pastureland of horses ... yes, he might well take his share of Italy on the Raudian plain, beneath the high Alps.
The night was hot. He rested his spear in the crook of an arm while he took off his wolfskin cloak. Under it he wore the legginged coarse breeches of any Cimbrian warrior; but his shirt was red silk, made for him by Hwicca from a looted bolt of cloth. The twining leaves and leaping stags of the North looked harsh across its shimmer. He wore a golden torque around his neck, gold rings on his arms and a tooled-leather belt heavy with silver god-masks. The dagger it held bore a new hilt of ivory on the old iron blade. The Cimbri had reaved from many folk, until their wagons were stuffed with wealth. Yet it was only land they sought.
There was not much more air to be found beyond the watchfires than within the camp. And it was hardly less full of noise here: the cattle lowed enormously outside the wagons, one great clotted mass of horned flesh. Eodan remembered Hwicca and turned back again.
A guard hailed him as he passed. "Hoy, there, Boierik's son, are you wise to go out alone? I would have scouts in the dark, to slice any such throat that offered itself."
Eodan grinned and said scornfully, "How many miles away would you hear a Roman, puffing and clanking on tiptoe?"
The warrior laughed. A Cimbrian of common mold, the wagons held thousands like him. A big man, with heavy bones and thews, his skin was white where sun and wind and mountain frosts had not burned it red, his eyes were snapping blue under shaggy brows. He wore his hair shoulder length, drawn into a tail at the back of the head; his beard was braided, and his face and arms showed the tattoo marks of tribe, clan, lodge or mere fancy. He bore an iron breastplate, a helmet roughly hammered into the shape of a boar's head and a painted wooden shield. His weapons were a spear and a long single-edged sword.
Eodan himself was taller even than most of the tall Cimbri. His eyes were green, set far apart over high cheekbones in a broad, straight-nosed, square-chinned face. His yellow hair was cut like everyone else's, but like most of the younger men he had taken on the Southland fashion of shaving his beard once or twice a week. His only tattoo was on his forehead, the holy triskele marking him as a son of Boierik, who led the people in wandering, war and sacrifice. The other old ties, clan or blood brotherhood, had loosened on the long trek; these wild, youthful horsemen were more fain for battle or gold or women than for the rites of their grandfathers.
"And besides, Ingwar, there is a truce until tomorrow," Eodan went on. "I thought everyone knew that. I and a few others rode with my father to the Roman camp and spoke with their chief. We agreed where and when to meet for battle. I do not think the Romans are overly eager to feed the crows. They won't attack us beforehand."
Ingwar's thick features showed a moment's uneasiness in the wavering firelight. "Is it true what I heard say, that the Teutones and Ambrones were wiped out last year by this same Roman?"
"It is true," said Eodan. "When my father and his chiefs first went to talk with Marius, to tell him we wanted land and would in turn become allies of Rome, my father said he also spoke on behalf of our comrades, those tribes which had gone to enter Italy through the western passes. Marius scoffed and said he had already given the Teutones and Ambrones their lands, which they would now hold forever. At this my father grew angry and swore they would avenge that insult when they arrived in Italy. Then Marius said, 'They are already here.' And he had the chief of the Teutones led forth in chains."
Ingwar shuddered and made a sign against trolldom. "Then we are alone," he said.
"So much the more for us, when we sack Rome and take Italy's acres," answered Eodan gaily.
"Ingwar, Ingwar, you are older than I. I had barely seen six winters when we left Cimberland; you were already a wedded man. Must I then tell you of all we have done since? How we went through forests and rivers, over mountains, along the Danube year after year to Shar Dagh itself ... and all the tribes there could not halt us--we reaped their grain and wintered in their houses and rolled on in spring, leaving their wives heavy with our children! How we smote the Romans at Noreia twelve years ago, and again eight and four years ago--besides all the Gauls and Iberians and the Bull knows how many others that stood in our way--how we pushed one Roman army before us across the Adige, when they would bar Italy--how this is the host they can hope to raise against us, and we outnumber it perhaps three men to one!"
The victories rushed off Eodan's tongue, a river in springtime flood. He thought of one Roman tribune after the next, tied like an ox to a Cimbrian wagon, or stark on a reddened field among his unbreathing legionaries. He remembered roaring songs and the whirlwind gallop of Cimberland's young men, drunk with victory and the eyes of their dear tall girls. It did not occur to him--then--how the trek had nevertheless lasted for fifteen years, north and south, east and west, from Jutland down to the Balkan spine and back to the Belgic plains, from the orchards of Gaul to the gaunt uplands of Spain. And for all the burning towns and weeping new-caught women, all the men killed and all the gold lifted, the Cimbri had not found a home. There had been too many people, forever too many; you could not plow when the very earth spewed armed men up into your face.
"Well," said Ingwar. "Well, yes. Yes." He nodded his bushy head. "It's plain to see whose son you are. His youngest, perhaps, not counting the baseborn, but still son to Boierik. And that's something. Me, I am only a crofter, or will be when I get my bit of land, but you'll be a king or whatever they call it. So remember me, old Ingwar that bounced you on his knee back home, and let me bring my mares for your fine stallions to breed, eh?"
"Eh, indeed." Eodan slapped the broad back and went on into the camp.
The wagons were drawn up in many rings, the whole forming a circle bound together by low breastworks of earth and logs. It seethed with folk, there among the wheels. Even from his own height, Eodan could not see far across that brawl of big fair men and free-striding girls.
Here a band of boys whooped and wrestled at a campfire, while an old wife stirred a kettle of stew, naked towheaded children rolled in the dust, dogs barked and horses stamped. There a gang of men knelt about the dice, shouting as the wagers went, betting all they owned down to their very weapons--for tomorrow they would settle with Marius and own Rome herself. An aged bard, chilly even in summer, huddled into a worn bearskin and listened dumbly to the war-song of a beardless lad whose hands had already been bloodied. A youth and a maiden stole between wagons, seeking darkness; her mother shook her head after them in some bitterness, for it was not like the time when she was young--all this rootless drifting had ended the staid old ways, and no good would come of it. A thrall from the homeland, hairy and ragged, grabbed lumberingly for a timid lass stolen out of Gaul, and got a kick and a curse from the warrior who owned them both. A man whetted an ax against tomorrow's use; beside him snored three friends, empty wine cups in their hands. Here, there, here, there, it became one great whirl for Eodan, and the voices and feet and ringing iron were like the surf he had not heard in fifteen years.
He pushed his way through them all, grinning at those he knew, taking a horn of beer offered by one man and a bite of blood sausage from another, but not staying. Out there, alone in the night, he had remembered Hwicca, and it came to him that the night was not so long after all.
His own wagons stood near his father's, which were close to the god-cars. In two of these lived the hags who tended the holy fire, took omens and cast spells for luck--ugh, they looked like empty leather sacks, and it was said they rode broomsticks through the air. But another held the mightiest Cimbrian treasures, ancient lur horns and a wooden earth-god and the huge golden oath-ring. Eodan and Hwicca had laid their hands on that ring last year to be wedded. The Bull rode in the same wagon, but tonight Boierik had ordered it set in an open cart, that all might see it and be heartened. It was a heavy image, cast in bronze, with horns that seemed to threaten the stars.
They had wandered far, the Cimbri, and they had lost much of old habit and belief and belongingness. They were not even the Cimbri any longer. That was only the chief tribe of many which had joined their trek. There were other Jutes, driven from Jutland by the same succession of wild wet years when no harvest ripened and hail fell like knucklebones on Midsummer Eve. There were Germans gathered in along the way; Helvetians from the Alps and Basques from the Pyrenees, neighbors to the sky; even adventurous Celts, throwing in with these newcomers who so merrily ransacked all nations. They had no gods in common, nor did they care much for any gods; they had no high ancestors whose barrows must be sacrificed to; they had not even a single language.
Red Boierik and the Bull held them together. Eodan, with scant reverence for anything else, shaded his eyes in awe as he passed the green, horned bulk of it.
Then he saw his own wagon and his best horses tethered beside it. A low fire was burning, and Flavius was squatting above it, poking with a stick.
"Well," said Eodan, "are you cold? Or afraid?"
The Roman stood up, slowly and easily as a cat. He wore only a rag of a tunic, thrown him one day by his master, but he wore it like a toga in the Senate. Men had advised Eodan not to trust such a thrall--stick a spear in him, or at least beat the haughtiness out, or one day he'll put a knife in your back. Eodan had disregarded them. Now and then he would knock Flavius over with a single open-handed cuff, when the fellow spoke too sharply, but nothing worse had been needed; and he was more use than a dozen shambling Northern
"Neither," he said. "I wanted a little more light, to see the camp better. This may be my last night in it."
"Hoy!" said Eodan. "Speak no unlucky words, or I'll kick your teeth in."
He made no move against the Roman. War or the chase was one thing; beating those who could not fight back was another, a distasteful work. Eodan laid the whip on his thralls less often than most. Lately he had given Flavius the job, and the Roman had shown Roman skill at it.
"After all, master, I could have meant that tomorrow we will sleep in Vercellae, and a few nights thereafter in Rome." Flavius smiled, the odd closed-lipped smile with drooping eyelids that made Cimbrian men somehow raw along the nerves but seemed to draw Cimbrian women. In his mouth the rough, burring Northern language became something else, almost a song.
He was about ten years older than Eodan, not as tall or as broad of shoulder, but more supple. His skin was nearly as fair, though his hair curled black; his face was narrow, smooth, with wide red lips, but his jaw jutted, and his nose was curving chiseled beauty; his rust-colored eyes had lashes a woman might envy. Four years as a Cimbrian slave had put certain skills in his hands, but did not seem to have dulled his gaze or numbed his tongue.
Eodan gave him a hard stare. "If I were you, not tied to the wheel tonight and my fellows close by, I'd slip from here. You'd have a better chance of escaping now than you ever had before."
"Not a good enough chance," said Flavius. "Tomorrow you will win and I would be scourged or killed if caught. Or the Romans will win and I shall be released. I can wait. My folk are older than yours--you are a nation of children, but we are schooled in waiting."
"Which makes you less trouble to me!" laughed the Cimbrian. "You can be my overseer, when I build my garth. I'll even get you a Roman wife."
"I told you I have one. Such as she is." Flavius grimaced delicately. Eodan bristled. It meant nothing for Flavius to bed with thrall women--any man would do that if no better were to be had. The ugly, hardly understandable gossip about boys could be overlooked. But a man's wife was his wife, sworn to him in the sight of proud folk. Even if he did not get on with her, he was less than a man for speaking her name badly before others.
"What is the Roman consul's name?" went on Flavius. "Not Catulus, whom you beat at the Adige, but the new one they say has been given supreme command."
"Ah, so. Gaius Marius, I am sure. I have met him. A plebeian, a demagogue, a self-righteous and always angry creature who actually boasts of knowing no Greek ... indeed. His one lonely virtue is that he is a fiend of a soldier."
Flavius had murmured his remark in Latin. The Cimbric, the speech of barbarians, could not have been used to say it. Eodan followed him without much trouble; he had had Flavius teach him enough Latin for everyday use, looking forward to the day when he dealt with many Italian underlings.
Eodan said, "In my baggage cart you will find my chest of armor. Polish the helmet and breastplate. I would look my best tomorrow." He paused at the wagon. "And do not sit close to here."
Flavius chuckled. "Ah--I see what you have in mind. You are to be envied. I know all Aristotle's criteria of beauty, but you sleep with them!"
Eodan kicked at him, not very angrily. The Roman laughed, dodged and slipped off into darkness. Eodan stared after him for a little, then heard him strike up a merry melodious whistling.
It was the same air Gnaeus Valerius Flavius had been singing at Arausio in Gaul, to hearten his fellow captives. That was after the Cimbri had utterly smashed two consular armies, while Boierik was sacrificing all the prisoners and booty to the river god. Ha, but the hag-wagon had stunk of blood! Eodan had been a little sickened, as one helpless man after another went to be hanged, speared, cut open and brains dashed out--the river had been choked with the dead. He had heard Flavius singing. He did not know Latin then, but he had guessed from the kind of laughter (the Romans had laughed, waiting to be murdered!) that the words were bawdy. On an impulse he had bought Flavius from the river for a cow and calf. Later he had learned that he now owned a Roman of the equestrian class, educated in Athens, possessor of rich estates and tall ambitions, serving in the army as every wellborn Roman must.
Eodan went up two steps and drew aside the curtain in his doorway. This was a chief's wandering home, drawn by four span of oxen, walled and roofed against the rain.
"What is that?" The low woman-voice was taut. He heard her move in the dark wagon body, among his racked weapons.
"I," he said. "Only I."
"Oh--" Hwicca groped to the door. The dim light picked out her face--broad, snub-nosed, a little freckled, the mouth wide and soft, the eyes like summer heavens. Her yellow hair fell so thickly past the strong shoulders that he could hardly see her crouched body.
"Oh, Eodan, I was afraid."
Her hands felt cold, touching his. "Of a few Romans?" he asked.
"Of what could happen to you tomorrow," she whispered. "And even to Othrik.... I thought you would not come at all tonight."
His arm slipped down under the wheaten mane, across her bare back, and he kissed her with a gentleness he had never had for other women. It was not only that she was his wife and had borne his son. Surely it was not that she also came of a high Cimbrian house. But when he saw her it was like springtime within him, a Jutland spring in lost years when the Maiden drove forth garlanded under blossoming hawthorns; and he knew that being a man was more than mere war-readiness.
"I went out to look at things," he told her, "and spoke with some men and with Flavius."
"So.... I fell asleep, waiting. I did not hear. Flavius sang me a song to make me sleep when I could not ... he had first made me laugh, too." Hwicca smiled. "He promised to bring me some of these flowers they have--roses, he calls them--"
"That is enough of Flavius!" snapped Eodan. May the wind run off with that Roman, he thought, the way he bewitches all women. I come back and the first thing I hear from my wife is how wonderful Flavius is.
Hwicca cocked her head. "Do you know," she murmured, "I think you are jealous? As if you had any reason!"
She withdrew. He followed, awkwardly taking off his clothes in the black, cramped space. He heard Hwicca go to Othrik, the small, milky wonder who would one day sit in his high seat, and draw a skin over the curled-up form. He waited on their own straw. Presently her arms found him.