Many years ago, not long after I left school, I thought I would try my hand at writing a historical novel. This was in an age when pen and paper or typewriters were the tools of choice, lap tops and personal computers being a very distant dream. Not possessing a typewriter, nor the means to buy one, meant my maiden effort was to be hand written which wasn't a problem. Well not for me, I could read my own handwriting even if nobody else could.
After some thought I decided to base my novel in 2nd century Roman Britain, or the north of Britain to be more exact. There were a number of reasons for this, the first being my grandfather was something of a local authority on the subject and had kindled my interest at an early age, the second being I lived in Catterick Village which, if you turned the clock back a millennia or so, was known as Cataractonium - the town on the rapids. So called owing to it's location on the fast flowing River Swale. Cataractonium lying under present day under Catterick village and the nearby Catterick racecourse in North Yorkshire.
In it's day Cataractonium was an important town said to be second only to Eberacum (York) and amongst other things a major supply base for military installations such as Hadrian's wall. If ever I needed inspiration all I had to do was open the back door. I still have that 1st hand written novel and whilst it was without doubt a clumsy 1st attempt there was (and still is) some positives to take from it. My writing is one hundred percent character driven and the characters very much write the story. Sometimes I have an overall Idea, sometimes not and just go with the flow. The point is even though I was taking my 1st tentative steps some strong characters were born, characters which don't deserve to be left on a dusty shelf. Stepping Stones is a short story (possible opening chapter) bringing two of these characters back to life.
The story is based in Cataractonium, whether there were stepping stones there in Roman times I know not. Similarly the Brigantine God or deity Dassius is a work of fiction. The Batavi on the other hand did exist and it is not improbable Batavian Cohorts would have made use of Cataractonium's marching camps when travelling along Dere Street, the main road linking the legionary fortress at Eberacum (York) and the barbarian lands beyond the wall. Anyway that's enough of the history lesson. Please read on and if you like the story and think it's worth expanding let me know in the comments.
Crescens slipped silently through the deserted streets of Cataractonium. He was in high spirits, having been generously granted two day’s leave by his Centurion, Lucius. This was in recognition for his part in safely delivering much needed supplies to the remote outpost of Magis, a small fort which had been cut off from the rest of civilization by the heavy winter snows.
Over his shoulder was slung his prize bow which he intended to put to good use in the nearby woods. Hunting was his one and only passion and had been since his father had given him his first bow when he was a mere four years old. Fifteen years later his hunger for the thrill of the hunt was as strong as it ever was.
He paused on a street corner to adjust his cloak which was chafing his neck whilst listening to the muffled sound of cooking utensils being readied behind shuttered windows. In the distance he heard a cock crowing whilst closer to home a dog barked its displeasure at some unknown threat. They were all familiar sounds Crescens had grown accustomed to during the two years he’d spent in exile in this far-flung corner of the empire.
What he hadn’t grown accustomed to was the weather, and he longed to be back in sunnier climes. There was no sign of the sun today as once again a low-lying mist held the town in a vice like grip, no doubt it would eventually lift, even so Crescens cast his eyes skyward and mentally offered a small prayer to the goddess Diana. Maybe she was listening or maybe it was a trick of the light, only he was sure he saw the first hint of blue sky. Once he was happy with his troublesome cloak he continued on his way. The only person bearing witness to his passage being a street beggar who half raised his weary head from a shop doorway at the sound of Crescens feet scuffing the stone flags. It didn’t take long before he was at the main gate where he spent a little time talking to Gnaes and Victor who’d spent the previous night shivering around an ailing brazier. He didn’t envy them, he himself had spent many a frost-bitten night on sentry duty and knew all too well what it was like to be numbed to the bone.
After some good-natured banter with his two friends, he continued through the gate and was immediately confronted with his first major decision of the day.
Cataractonium, the town on the rapids, was so named as it was built on the banks of a fast-flowing river which looped around on two of the towns four walls. For most of the winter months the only crossing point was a bridge carrying the main road north toward distant Coria and the barbarian lands beyond. There was an alternative however, a series of stepping stones which under normal circumstances allowed for much quicker access into the neighboring woods. There were sixteen stones in all, Crescens had counted them many times before, and up until late they had been completely submerged underneath a raging torrent of melt water.
After a moment’s hesitation he chose the stones and veered off the road down a narrow, winding path which ran alongside the riverbank. He could both hear and smell the river as it cascaded over its rocky bed, he couldn’t see it, not through the mist, even though it was only a matter of ten paces away. He did wonder whether he would miss the stepping stones altogether and had to concentrate very hard for any recognisable landmarks along the way.
In any event he needn’t have worried, he clearly saw the stunted old tree marking the point where the path forked down the river bank to the stones. He gingerly scrambled down the badly eroded riverbank to the water’s edge. The first stone was just visible with its head barely out of the water and Crescens seriously questioned whether he was doing the right thing. It was entirely possible other stones further across were still underwater. He did notice however, there were several footprints leading to and from the river, which seemed to indicate others had recently crossed.
He sighed and once again made sure his bow was secure, not wanting to lose it halfway across. It was the best bow he’d ever possessed, which it should be, given what it had cost. With no little trepidation he made the first step, mindful of the fact over winter the current could have loosened any one of the stones. Mercifully the first stone was solid, as were the next three. He paused when it came to number five and looked down through the crystal-clear waters at the bronze-coloured gravel riverbed below. The river was little more than knee deep, though the current was strong and fast flowing, ably illustrated by the numerous chunks of fast-moving ice which sped between the stones.. Crescens shivered and took another step on to stone number six which rocked unsteadily, he caught his balance and steadied himself in readiness to make the step to stone number seven.
Suddenly there was a strange clicking noise from somewhere in front. It wasn’t a sound he recognised, and he did wonder whether he’d imagined it when he heard it again. He tilted his head from side to side, straining his ears as best he could for some hint as to the root cause. Then he saw it, a ghostly apparition appearing through the mist in front of him, it was tall and thin and unlike anything he’d ever seen. To him it neither looked like man nor beast and with a feeling of dread he realised it must be Dassius, the legendary river deity the local Brigantine tribe feared so much. Until now he’d always thought it was nothing more than a story told by parents to deter small children from playing near the water’s edge. Until now…
Crescens right hand instinctively dropped to his side and with one well practiced movement drew his sword. He glanced nervously over his shoulder at the stones behind him. Should he turn and retreat the way he’d come? If so, it meant turning his back on his perceived adversary which went against everything he’d been taught and even though every fibre in his body screamed run, he turned to face Dassius who was still coming toward him in a series of strange, exaggerated movements. Is this how it ends, he thought, miles from home in this god forsaken land…?
He felt himself physically shaking with fear, how could a simple Legionary overcome a river God who possessed the power to turn a man to dust just by looking at him. Crescens steeled himself for the battle to come, only one of the many gods he had been fervently praying to must have listened and the mist miraculously thinned to reveal it wasn’t Dassius at all, but a young woman wearing a strange head dress giving the false impression she was far taller than she was. Crescens didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as he watched her hopping from stone to stone. With every step she took she made the strange clicking noise and was so engrossed in what she was doing she didn’t notice the much-relieved Legionary surreptitiously re sheaving his sword. She was only three stones away when she finally looked up and realised with a start Crescens was there.
Straight away Crescens saw she was unlike any woman he’d ever seen. She was extremely tall, even allowing for the elongated head dress which seemed to be woven into the fabric of her hair. It, along with her richly decorated clothes were nothing like those worn by the local Brigantine women. Crescens guessed she must have been with the Batavian Cohort which had arrived in Cataractonium earlier that week. In his head he heard the stern warning issued by Centurion Lucius who had apparently come across the Batavians before.
“Keep away from them they’re nothing but trouble, especially their women,” he’d said in such a way no one doubted it was an order, not a request.
These words and more were ringing in Crescens ears as he took in the women’s flawless skin, her high cheek bones and enticing red lips to say nothing of her eyes which were a vivid emerald green and appeared to be studying him every bit as much as he was studying her. Crescens only hoped she liked what she saw as much as he.
Then she smiled and to Crescens it was as if the sun had come out and he felt something stir within him that he’d never felt before. He smiled back and was more than a little taken aback when the woman very deliberately pointed at him and then at the bank behind as if to say, “you go back.”
Crescens shook his head and with a look of bemusement slowly pointed at the woman and the bank behind her. She seemed to regard him as if he’d just affronted her in some way, then with a little laugh of bedevilment, stepped forward on to the next stone. Not to be out done Crescens immediately did the same. They were now facing one another with only one stone between them. The woman, or to be more exact girl, as he now adjudged her to be of a similar age, tutted and said something in a language Crescens didn’t understand. Without thinking he took another step forward so there was nothing now between them but a single strides width of ice-cold water. He stood there smirking victoriously which was a mistake as without further ado the girl stepped forward onto the same stone, which was barely big enough for one, let alone two.
Both she and Crescens instinctively caught hold of one another as the stone rocked precariously to one side which was when Crescens realised he was literally nose to nose with the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. It was the eyes which fascinated him, they were both deep and full of mystery, whilst at the same time brimming with a lively intelligence which had him absolutely captivated.
A coy smile spread across the girls face and she bashfully lowered her head, Crescens knew he should say something, only found himself uncharacteristically tongue tied. Such was the spell this beautiful creature had cast upon him. Almost as if she was reading his thoughts she looked up and for a tantalising second their frozen breaths intermingled in front of them, then almost imperceptibly she brushed the end of her nose against his. He couldn’t have got a bigger thrill if he’d been touched by the goddess Venus herself.
If he hadn’t been so smitten, he might have noticed the mischievous grin and the look of bedevilment was back in those pretty green eyes. He might have also noticed how she’d changed the position of her hands and they were now flat against his chest and no longer clinging to his waist. Instead, he watched mesmerised as she leaned forward as if to brush his face again. Only she didn’t, and with a triumphant yell the hands which seconds before had been holding him oh so tight, brutally propelled him backwards off the stone.
He landed flat on his back, the shock of the ice-cold melt water driving the wind out of his lungs. For a split second he was totally submerged and flailed around in sheer panic, the combination of the strong current and slippery riverbed conspiring against him. It was only for the briefest of moments, but to Crescens, who wasn’t the best of swimmers, it was a heart stopping age.
His left foot finally managed to get a solid purchase on a large boulder, and he was able to turn himself over and get to his knees. His first reaction was to reach around behind him for his treasured bow which, much to his relief, was still there. He became aware of a shadow looming large over him and looked up to see the girl howling with laughter from the safety of a nearby stone. He really wanted to fire off a tirade of heart felt oaths but found no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t. Maybe it was the brief flicker of genuine concern on her face, or maybe it was the combination of the sun’s rays and the semi opaque mist giving her the appearance of a goddess floating in thin air. Either way it was a vision he knew he was never going to forget for the rest of his life.
He innocently held up a hand so she could help him regain his feet, fully intending to drag her in with him the moment she took it. The girl laughed and wagged a finger at him before nimbly stepping out of arms reach. She wasn’t falling for that one…
Crescens could feel the cold starting to numb his body, like it or not he was going to have to return to his barracks and dry out. He pulled himself back up onto one of the stepping stones where he stood; a sorry, sopping wet excuse for a man if ever there was. He looked back to the girl, but she’d already turned her back on him and was continuing her way without affording him a second glance. His heart plummeted at the thought of never seeing her again, then she turned, and their eyes met once again. Crescens grinned sheepishly after her. She said something which once again he didn’t understand, only there was no mistaking the sideways flick of her head.
Crescens looked down at the fast-flowing water between the stone he was standing on and the one beyond. Inside his head he heard his Centurions voice warning him about the perils of Batavian women, he also saw those beautiful green eyes and exquisitely sculpted face. He couldn’t help but think when he took his next step it was going to signify so much more than just crossing a river, it was a step which was going to alter the course of his life. He looked back to the girl, she was standing facing him, her eyes willing him to follow. He knew there and then there wasn’t a decision to make…