Thursday, April 15, 2021

The War and the Wall by MacKenzie Tastan

Aine waited until she saw the glint of the bronze helmet pass by the small hole in the Vallum Hadriani. She counted three heartbeats before she lobbed the stone in her hand over the rampart. It flew in a perfect arc and she heard the satisfying ping as it hit its mark. 

A moment later her brother, Calum, peered down at her from ten feet above. She wondered how he perceived the vast distance between them. Did he see himself as a loyal Roman servant, looking down on their people from above? They claimed the wall was defensive, but it was a lie. It cut a swath across their island, like an enormous stone river that dominated the landscape. Once they had known only the peace of farms and forests, but now they knew war and the wall. Its real purpose was physical and ideological conquest. 

"What are you doing here, parva soror?" Aine crinkled her nose at the moniker. 

Before joining the legion, he would have called her chuisle, which meant kin in Gaelic, but was also a term of affection. Little sister felt like a poor substitute. They were more than siblings. They were twins. 

She looked up at his regulation army tunic with his shiny helmet and his short sword strapped to his hip. If she didn't know him, she might not have guessed he was Caledoni at all. Their friends and neighbors claimed he'd turned his back on his people. It hurt Aine to hear their whispers in the village. As twins, they held a special place among their people. 

According to the ancient songs, they had spent many lifetimes together in this world and the next. They were two bodies sharing one soul, destined to feel incomplete when apart. 

Aine had believed this, too, until her brother had joined the legion. Now she wasn't sure what the other half of her was doing. She felt like someone whose right hand acted independently of their left. 

Her right hand resolutely held her bow and her left rested loosely on her quiver. She and Calum had grown up hunting in the woods around the wall. They could tell a hare from a deer from the way it rustled through the brush. They'd hunted by moonlight as well, relying on their familiarity with the land to keep them away from the bog, which could be treacherous. One wrong step and it would suck you in entirely. People had vanished there without a trace. The druids believed it was the entrance to the spirit world. It was neither land nor sea, neither this world, nor the next. 

"Do you remember hunting here as children, before this wall cut our land in two?"

"This wall protects Roman citizens from the northern barbarians."

"What does that make your, Brother, a barbarian guarding the gate?" She heard Calum suck in a breath and then let it out slowly. He wanted to say that he was a Roman, but that would have been a lie. Rome granted citizenship to her soldiers, but no one in the eternal city would see him as anything other than a foreigner. "Come with me then, noble guardian. I have something to show you."

"What is it? I should not leave my post."

"Your new master will be glad if you bring him back important information."

"It's not the bloody Picti again, is it? I'm sick to death of chasing them. They're no better than common thieves."

They're your betters, she thought, at least the Picti know who they are. Not a single one of the painted people had ever joined the legion. 

Once she was sure Calum was following, Aine walked confidently. She was careful not to outstrip him by too far, but also not to let him get too close. If she got too far ahead, he might guess her intentions and make a run for it. She was a good shot with her bow, but a moving target was far from easy. Likewise, if he got too close, he might see the torment in her eyes and then this would all be for nothing. Her tears could not save him. She loved her brother, but she loved her people more. When the druids had declared Calum a traitor, it was not her place to question them. She led him deeper into the swamp, closer to the entrance to the Otherworld. 

It was easier to pick her way along the marsh at a run, but she carefully made her way at a slow trot and her feet did not falter. "Do you remember when Father used to bring us here?" she called to him over her shoulder.

"Of course. We'd hunt frogs on our way home," Calum said.

"Did you understand it then the way you do now?" she asked.

"Understand what?"

"The wall. Did you know when we were children what it was supposed to do? You were always clever. Did you realize, even when we were young, that it was meant to separate the good Romans from us, the barbarus?" She was taunting him, deliberately using the Latin word for foreign savage. He stopped then and she was sure it was over. He knows what I'm doing and he's going to get away, she thought. Her heart pounded in her chest. She gripped the knife at her belt. He couldn't be allowed to escape. She had to make an example of him. If the other tribes knew a Caledoni had betrayed his own people and become a servant of Rome, they would see it as an unforgivable weakness. If they couldn't even keep their own people in line, how could they be trusted as members of the resistance?

"It's meant to impose order," Calum said.

"Order? Is that what they call it when whole nations fall under their boots? They didn't build the wall to reorganize. They did it to annihilate. We are our own people. We're not suddenly Romans because there's a Roman wall in the middle of our land." Her hands were shaking now, but she was still gripping the knife. They were nearly there. She had to stay focused. He replied, but she wasn't listening. She was stumbling blindly through the peat. It was only luck that she didn't stumble into the wrong place and sink. 

She stopped thinking about her brother and thought about the first time she killed. 

She was barely a woman and her longsword had nearly outstripped her height. She’d crept up to that ever-present monument whose shadow she lived in. She’d scaled the wall with surprising ease and waited in the shadow until she heard the click of a sword and scabbard bouncing against a leather belt. She hadn’t slit the guard's throat deep enough. He tried to staunch the flow of blood between his fingers and the gurgling sound made her sick. When she finally stabbed him through the heart it had been a small mercy. 

That was many years ago. Since then, practice had made her patient and she had locked away any emotions that might get in the way of her true purpose. All that was left in her heart was her wrath and her taste for vengeance. She was the strength her people needed to hold onto their land and their traditions, in this world and the next.

She heard a low whistle and stopped in her tracks. It could have been a bird, but she knew better. Her brother was still stammering his excuses when the druids formed a circle around them.

"What have you done, chuisle?" he asked. His eyes were sad. He already knew the answer. 

She moved close enough to embrace him before she buried her sword to the hilt in his gut. He made a strangled noise and then she did embrace him, one final time. "I've brought you home, Brother, back where you belong. I've taken you away from the Roman filth you love so much so you can die as one of us and enter our afterlife. Do you see the 

Morrigan waiting to carry you off?"

The tears streamed down her cheeks as she held up his limp form. A raven cried out and a druid stepped forward to take Calum's weight. "That is her cry," he said, "She has accepted him as a true Caledoni." They laid his body down gently in the swamp and soon it was immersed. "The gods feed us and we feed them with our blood. His sacrifice will ensure our victory. The Roman wall will burn."

Aine nodded mutely and followed the druids out of the bog on wet feet. She sank in with every step. She could hear the other half of her soul calling to her. "Stay with me. 

Don't leave me here alone." Not yet, Aine thought, there is still too much to do.

© MacKenzie Tastan

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