In this morning’s black and silent hours, I was drawn by the hand of spirit to my narrow window, where seven comets streaked between the stars. The sky-readers gawk at Jupiter and ignore these fiery heralds of your arrival.
But daughter, I am ready for you.
I was orphaned young and taken in by Flamines, the Roman priests of Jupiter. They indulged me, sewed me rabbit-skin boots, fed me dates and cream, and allowed me to roam as I pleased. When I grew bored at their rites they even let me prance the amber labyrinth on their temple floor.
In the years since, I have learnt to scribe for Roman profit endless texts of alchemy, grammar and rhetoric. This Flamine house sits atop Brigandu’s mount, ringed by forest, then circled by sea. A spiral stair rises from the oratory to the scribery, where I etch from dawn to dusk, looking out at the oaks whose acorns yield my ink and whose owls supply my quills.
I embellish Latin manuscripts with curling moons, braided triquetras, and the knotwork hare only Brigandu’s people recognise, and the priests who believe themselves so learned exclaim in delight at my symbols, thinking them a tribute to Jupiter. Yet eight nights a year I climb a different spiral to a stone ring high in the woods, to meet my own gods.
The Flamines overlook my wanderings, but would surely condemn the tome of foresight I keep, made from pilfered parchment scraps. It and this letter to you would be cause enough to throw me in the sea with stones in my pockets.
Still, I cannot ignore my visions, so today I scribed your comets in my tome, and chose the priest who will put you in my belly.
On an island of oaks
A holy man crowned in laurel
Plants a flaming acorn
And fathers the mother of tribes
She will rise under Saturn
To slay the great lion
Samhain, Night of the Ancestors, AD 28
As I climbed the path, the veil thinned and I saw you under an oak in a pool of moonlight. Your smile flashed silver, your hair blew russet as the leaves, and a line of blue Pictish woad streaked your pale skin from forehead to chin. My heart leapt at the sight, and I lingered there long after your face dissolved in shadow.
We Celts have always met in the stones, and no doubt always will. For the Samhain paste, I brought orris to grind with Girda’s thorn apples and the black autumn fungus the island folk pluck from oak roots. No charm is stronger than our escape paste. Dabbed on the feet it lets the spirit walk in other worlds, and when threat is dire, swallowing it grants a merciful death.
We sang of my mother, your grandmother Innis, once Drui advisor to the lord of this isle. She was buried here in a jewelled shroud when I was just a babe. Innis is all but forgotten by the Romans, but our folk still seek her favour.
Innis Drui she watches
Stands she bright in the cold
Quickens she the fallow fields
Summons she the laden tides
Calls she up the forest
Old Girda lit a fire, and we sat to stroke escape paste on our soles. All became still. The stones, the mount, indeed the whole isle seemed to inhale each time the sea crashed below us, and exhale as it drew away. I caught my breath in awe as the icy Samhain stars pulsed, then scattered apart to open your glittering path to the world.
On returning to my chamber, feet burning, ears and eyes roaring with wind and stars and waves, I saw Jovi waiting at a dark corner of the wall. I halted but he said nothing, only stared as I smiled and closed my door. It will not be long now, child, till you come to us.
Litha, High Summer, AD 29
I write newly wedded, from a desk at my home in Britannia. When I sit very still I feel you dart against my innards like a fierce, slippery fish.
Whether by fortune or the will of the gods, my Flamine guardians chose the best possible time to arrange a husband for me. Antidius is a formidable tribal leader of my own background, loved by Roman and Celt alike. He will make a fine father to you.
You were conceived at Bealtain, and will emerge at Imbolg with the year’s most potent flowers and heartiest lambs.
I lay only once with your sire, and it grieves me that I cannot repay him for his gift. How he shone at the fireside, solid as any man, yet clear as water in the flickering light. Jovi’s pompous god Jupiter forbids nakedness, so he kept his pointed hat affixed and did not mind when I laughed.
The dazzling god Belenos was upon us, and perhaps bright Mercury too, indistinguishable one from the other. Goddess Minerva called to us, or sweet Brigandu, it mattered not which. Perhaps a host of gods whispered their plans in our human ears! The wind fed the fire, which raged about us, and it seemed to me we lay inside the glowing, orange egg of creation. And into that pure and rushing space you entered.
The morning I left the isle I found Jovi at his pilgrimage, pacing the amber labyrinth in the temple. He fixed me with such a look, love and grief commingled, a look that said goodbye. The mosaic path coiled between us, too wide to cross, and I turned away. By the gods, I hope to see his face again.
Forest folk I’ve known all my life, and a few unknown, came to meet me in Girda’s hut. They cast handfuls of acorns and waved peat smoke to bless the spaces before and behind me. I gave Girda a scroll I’d scribed with the spell of nine herbs. Though she cannot read Latin she knows the words well, and the plants she loves are set in fine pigments in a border of heather.
She folded a measure of escape paste in linen for me, and smoothed away my tears with the side of her wrinkled hand. “The Flamines love you, Crina. They do this for your own good. By-and-by you will see that.” She nodded her forehead on mine and squeezed my trembling hands.
Back in my chamber, weeping, I slid Girda’s paste in my tome of foresight, which I twined in thong and secured to my waist beneath tunic and cloak. On the walk to the boat it nudged me reassuringly. As I stood on deck watching my isle disappear in mist, I knew that I carry Brigandu’s flame wherever I go, and willed my tears to stop.
Here in Camulodunum, homesickness fades as morning sickness worsens. I am glad for my husband, the respect of his people, and to be able at last to mark the old ceremonies openly. Antidius takes great pride in my queasiness, thinking himself responsible, and makes few demands on me.
To increase his library of six tomes, he has arranged for me a scribery of sorts near the kitchen garden. The chamber was once a larder and is small, deep and dark, but herbal breezes waft inside and my chair is carved comfortably.
I’ve found a friend in Deuin, a young cook whose wink reminds me of the island folk. Though a Celt, she believes the waters of Minerva’s spring in the Roman quarter heal, and brings a cup each morning to settle my stomach. She watches wide-eyed as I burn sulphur, scrape my parchments in limewater, and pound lead into dust, and calls it alchemy. By the time I stitch and scribe the first folia, I hope, her superstitions will be soothed.
Today I walked all six streets of Camulodunum, full of busy men, women and children, neatly thatched cottages, and ditches blooming with foxwort and lady’s bells. Brittonic is spoken by everyone, even the Roman bridge-builders at the river. One of them told me that Augustus grows restless since his empress’ death, and sends more troops from Rome. When I questioned the man he fell silent and would not meet my eyes.
On returning I found a curse-piece at the courtyard well, a copper disc with the Latin inscription, “Sulis Minerva, Roman or Celt, rich or poor, freeman or slave, obey me,” and on the facing side, “Let Seisyll the thief choke on his bread, lose both his hands, sicken with pox, and be savaged by wolves.” Antidius called the thing harmless, but would not speak of it to Seisyll, our smith.
I pulled my tome from its cleft above the lintel, and scribed dark premonitions of peace and war, birth and death, twin sides of a coin, half blessing and half curse. I have brooded so long now that my stomach churns as if it did hold a fish, a raw and rancid one, and I cannot bear to look at supper.
Imbolg, Winter’s End, AD 30
Daughter, your squalls are so hearty and your face so fair that none can refuse you. Whenever you chortle or wave, people rush to meet your needs. Seeing this, I named you Udi for the goddess of power, and fasted seven days to secure her protection.
I believe she grants it, for you are content so long as I keep you near with your small head unwrapped to receive the world’s sights and sounds. How my fingers love to stroke your silk cap of hair, as red as mine.
After the day’s ploughing and sowing, Antidius comes to rock you in the crook of his elbow and croon unintelligible sounds. His voice delights you, and your two smiles are alike enough to silence any doubters. When Antidius and I share a bed again I shall say nought to disenchant him.
Childbirth is long and cruel when Mars ascends, but Deuin rubbed my back, rolled me every which way and fed me radishes to hasten the flux that expelled you. Afterwards she made me chew dill seeds steeped in mare’s piss to sweeten my milk, a bilious sludge I did not thank her for. As Deuin cloaked herself to go, I saw that she resembles the Drui not only by her wink but in all her daily magics.
My foresights continue to come, and I to record them, but I do not speak of them to Deuin. Both Britons and Romans believe that only oracles have visions, not young mothers and scribes such as me.
Armies on opposite shores
Stand beneath their flags
Great lion and great stallion
Princes and beggars rise
From iron slave shackles
To surge across stolen lands
High on a bridge of flame
The great stallion’s rider calls
In a voice that pierces time
I know not my own meaning – the ink flows independent of my will. As I write I see Brigandu’s earth-coloured skin, her soft hands and eyes, her thick ivy robes, the deer and hares at her heels, the hawk on her arm. But I tell no one. I am alone and my tome grows nightly, to be read by strangers in some distant future. I long for Girda, who might understand.
When I last returned from the scribery I was wretched, trembling and weak, and have slept three days and nights since. Deuin thinks me poisoned by metals, or the beetle shells that purple my fingers. Though of course she is wrong, I confine myself to my chamber with just one pot of verdigris ink and one of acorn gall, to stop her fretting.
These letters may seem foolish now you are here, but I am a scribe and must write even when ill. Hunger wakes you again, and again I must sleep.
Bealtain, Feast of Spring, AD 35
Little Udi, you sparkle and shift like a jewel before my eyes. Your inner weather flashes in an instant from thunder to sunshine. You run quick as a doe, and are so clever you need only lay eyes on a thing to understand it. Today in the garden you tilted your head, intent on a call that no one else heard, and declared “The gods are singing!”
How I adore you.
In your first five years Romans have populated every town, field and street. They are friendly enough, but as Antidius reasons, if they crucify Jews on their hills they may one day kill Celts on ours, so long spears and bullhide shields now flank every doorway in case we should need them.
Most mornings I scribe, but today convalesce with hardly the energy to drag a quill or break my fast. I spent every drop at the festival yesterday.
You skipped and danced to the bodhran, the red ribbons of your hawthorn crown streaming, and the villagers hoisted you up to parade the main street on their shoulders, their little May queen. Antidius stood close by to guard you, but I knew they would not let you fall.
A few held observances in a new stone chapel. I have never stepped inside it, and never will. How could anyone pray without seeing the sky?
Walking the Bealtain circle I imagined Jovi far away, circling too in his labyrinth.
Two Roman soldiers observed our rite but did not intervene, and if they saw me muttering to Jovi near the Jupiter statue, they did not object. I left my wreath at the bronze god’s feet, while you and Antidius chased each other home still garlanded. After you slept, Antidius and I lay together all night in a blanket in the garden. At first light, you ran outside for your wilted crown, and still wear it now.
Tomorrow Deuin leaves for Colne, to negotiate nuptials with some unworthy fisherman. You and I shall speed her return by sweeping her room with nine birch catkins, then bury them in her sleeping-straw. Housekeeper has already cut them for us, and fetched springwater to pour on the doorsill and seal the charm.
One foresight unsettled my Bealtaine. I saw Celts meet Romans at crossroads of peace and war, and choose to fight. Though it troubles me, I must not fail to scribe this for you and the other Celts with whom you’ll share the world when I’m gone, for the Romans will record only their own conquest.
Lughnasadh, Cutting of the Corn, AD 42
The years Brigandu allowed me to shape you passed quick as moons. Since last I wrote, the wheel has turned seven times. You changed at every turn, till at thirteen Antidius insisted you be fostered. He might as well have severed my arms from my shoulders and pulled my teeth from my head, for I am as useless and empty without you. Yet your future is more important than my sorrow, and so I do not protest.
Your absence fills the garden, stretches to the edges of my gaze and my earshot, and out of the reach of my hoarse voice. I ache to knot your hair again, help you aim your arrows while you sight small game, watch you run and leap like a deer.
Claudius has banned all our rites, and celebrations in the square fall silent. I hardly care, will gladly circle in secret as I have done before, but it pains me to see Antidius thwarted so. He says the gods will send us another child, but I doubt I’m strong enough to bear one. There is comfort at least that Luna and Mars conjoin in the Scorpion’s tail, a portent of power for your new life.
Udi, forgive me for the valerian draft that made you sleep while the steward lifted you aboard your southbound cart. I couldn’t bear the tears of your departure. Remember what I taught you. Be wise and fierce. Take heed of your guardian’s instruction in Celt lore and battle arts. Write to me of your adventures, and refresh the Innis verse by humming it at your work.
Despite our birch catkins, Deuin is a fishwife now with a child of her own. I want a better life for her, to bring her home, but I can’t travel far. Deuin would say that the pigments leach my health, and perhaps my reason. All I know is that they sharpen my sight, and the comets are upon us again, falling from every heavenly house as if uniting all races, and rare is the night I sleep beside Antidius without rising to witness the divine blazing, and to scribe it.
Daughter, check your cloak for the charms inside, check the lining of your travelling box. An escape paste rests there in doeskin, for your Samhain rites or for grievous danger, to loosen the tether that binds your spirit like a hawk to the earth. Use it if you have need.
I imagine you in Londinium. Is its Flamine temple grand? Have you seen my Jovi there? Could that possibly be? Tell him to come to me, Udi, not to forsake me, not again.
The Camolodunum Flamines insist I copy their maps and texts, despite the skill of their own Vestal scribes. The priests are not kind like Jovi, yet having Celt servants pleases them. I pepper their Roman folia with Brigandu’s shapes and sigils, unnoticed. Antidius’ library grows too, but he’s so occupied with harvest that he rarely views my work.
The only Roman-raised Celt in Camulodunum, I walk a knife’s edge. I love the Romans’ philosophy, their astronomy and language. I recall their safe home and their tolerance of my habits. But I will not scribe lies for them.
As for my tome of foresight, the questions give me no rest. Who will read it? Can it alter the future? Will it make me go mad? With invasion looming, I hide it among rocks where no army can burn it. I shall disclose its location when you are grown.
The tree of strife bears fruit
A cypress sprouts acorns
Follow the red hawk
That glides above the forest
Lest this letter be discovered and I tried as a criminal, I shall send it by hound to meet you in the fenlands. Commit it to memory and destroy it, daughter, as is the old way.
Ostara, Dawn of the Light, AD 50
As an Ostara offering I wove a bluebell crown, cast it from the town bridge and watched it bob downstream toward Londinium. Far away, I thought I saw you lift it from the water while your horse stooped to drink.
That red-ribboned crown of your childhood is still bright in my mind. How strange, then, that I cannot recall your daughters’ names, or when you last visited.
Every day I thank Brigandu for making you a true queen, and for sending you and Prasutagus children. I praise her for preserving your kingdom so that you can laugh in the face of Nero’s greed, and as the Celts around you surrender their lands, I pray she safeguards yours.
I am uncertain which of my letters you received, and which you understood. Did you wonder why I lay flowers at Jupiter’s feet in spring? I must tell you before all of East Anglia crumbles.
Antidius loves you as his own child – more, as he has no other – but your sire was a Roman. I say this not to wound you, Udi, but unburden your mind. Draw back the veil obscuring the truth! See that Roman and Celt are alike and equal. Grieve for our ruined tribes, our chieftains forced to their knees, but remember you are both Drui and Roman. Nero forbids such mixed blood precisely because only those blessed with it can defeat him. Those such as you.
I have bolted the doors and set guards at our gates. Stinging water-blisters torment my limbs and my head swims terribly, but I must go find Antidius. We will light the Ostara fire tonight whether Rome permits it or not.
Brigandu protect you and Jupiter guard you. With all my heart.
Yule, Longest Night, AD 59
I have feared for you since Prasutagus’ death, with no son to represent you to the Romans. Now I lie at the mercy of my next gasp, skin peeling from my body, my hands bound in cloth to prevent me from scratching, and fear that I too must leave you. I wish you were not so far away.
Deuin is here, and she tells me you govern with goodwill and justice. Be proud, even if your lands are taken. If the war I see comes, you will not baulk but rise to glory, like your grandmother. Teach your daughters Innis’ song. Brigandu will keep you, even as she takes new forms, new names. Her flames weave together in my bedchamber hearth, and her hares dot the heather border on the scroll beside me – my last, the spell of nine herbs for Deuin.
When she heard my cough, Deuin frowned and said, “Scribes wheeze from the fumes of their dyes,” but she sat beside me and was soon smiling. She knows I could not have lived otherwise.
I loved the blue pigments most, shades of the woad you wore on the night I first saw you, and the whites of your moonlit smile. Brigandu set a fire in me under that oak, and I copied the flames to my parchments in gold yolk and blood vermillion and copper and quicksilver, and now they will never fade. Know this, my girl. I regret nothing.
The hag approaches with her scythe raised up, and the field where my bones will rest softens in mist, and the branches of otherworld groves reach for me, whispering, singing. Can you hear them?
I’ve removed the bindings from my hands and opened the last of Girda’s escape paste beneath my pillow. Deuin has winked at me, drawn up her hood, and left. It is time to fly.
Antidius brings a log for the fire and a draught of mallow for the hacking. “Drink,” he says, and lifts my head. His shoulders sag with his losses of land and title, and my loss to come, but his face is staunch as ever.
Already my spirit’s tether loosens. I rasp, “Give Udi my tome.” Did I leave it under a stone in the garden wall? I can’t remember.
“I will.” Antidius steadies my ink and this parchment as my quill jerks across it, and kisses my cheek. I shall scribe till my lungs seize and my back sprouts wings to soar with Brigandu’s hawk.
We will meet again, never doubt it. Till then may the gods give you wisdom.
In forests of history
By oaks sit your mothers
At cypress stand your fathers
They listen for your footsteps
- From the scripts of Locrina Trinovante, Flamine scribe, daughter of Innis Drui of Caledonia, wife of Chieftain Antidius Trinovante, mother of Queen Boudicca of the Iceni
[Nicole Rain Sellers lives in Newcastle, Australia. She has worked as a shop assistant, bartender, photographer, psychic, mother, editor, massage therapist, yoga instructor, herbalist, and tutor, but her favourite work is writing. Her stories, poems, and articles appear in various places including Spiral Nature, Patchwork Raven, The Enchanting Verses, Three Drops from a Cauldron, Return to Mago, and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly (forthcoming). Visit her at https://www.nicolerainsellers.com/.]