It was midday, and the sun was warm and going to get warmer by the look of it. Alyssa and I spurred our horses on to catch up with the army, and on looking back, I realised there was a large dust cloud being kicked up that hung in the air as a mass of grey. Those at the fort could probably see it now, always assuming there were lookouts posted. But Gaelich was so full of himself and his own importance, I had my doubts any would be.
It was a long way, in any case, and would take most the rest of the day plodding on to get anywhere near. The column couldn't dash forwards, we had wagons in it so moved at their speed, and it was best to keep those in the middle, and so protected.
Alyssa smiled in that inimitable way that send waves of rainbows into my heart. 'It seems very quiet, darling.'
'It's hot, perhaps they are keeping in the shade of their homes. Where is Alegia?'
'In a wagon with Agneta and Squirrel. She seems happy with them. Everybody treats her with respect and love, we have been so fortunate, Lauren.'
'I hope she's well after that fright she had yesterday. I'll ride back and see if I can find her. Do you want to come?'
Alyssa nodded. 'Yes, I miss her laughter a lot.'
She was in a covered wagon playing throwing sticks with Squirrel.
'She keeps winning,' Squirrel said, and winked.
'Hello mummy Lauren and mummy Alyssa. I beat Squirrel every time. Aren't I clever?'
'Oh yes, very. I knew you were the moment we met. How are you sweetheart?'
She looked puzzled. 'I'm well, thank you mummy Lauren. Why shouldn't I be?'
I smiled to myself. How resilient kids are. Nearly eaten by a bear and a Lynx, and it was all in a day in the iron age. 'Just checking, that's all. Do you want to ride with me?'
'Yes, please. I want to see the fort we're going to, mummy.'
'Okay. Come to the end of the wagon and hold onto the side. I'll ride my horse very close and pick you off. Ready?'
Gripping her around the waist, I lifted Alegia over, and sat her in front of me. I held my reins either side so I could make sure she wouldn't slip off. She was comfy there because we never used saddles.
She grinned up at me. 'I like riding with you. Would mummy Alyssa take me for a while soon?'
'She'll be delighted, sweetheart. She has missed you very much, too.'
'Is that the nasty fort?' she asked, pointing to the low mound that was gradually getting larger the nearer we got.
'Yes, that's it, Alegia. We are all going to fight it soon, so you will have to stay in a wagon with Shaila.'
'Is that the same one you went and burnt down, and freed all the prisoners from slavery, mummy?'
'Yes sweetheart, the very same one. So, they aren't going to be very pleased to see me again, are they,' I said with a laugh.
'Please be careful mummy Lauren darling,' Alegia said, as she slid her arms around me. 'I love you, and don't want anything to happen to you.'
'I'll try my best, just as Alyssa mummy will, as well. We both love you very much indeed.' I released the reins from my left hand and cuddled her tightly.
Addani came alongside. 'Shall we stop by this stream, Highness, and break for lunch? I expect they have seen us by now anyway, so it won't matter halting in full view.'
I nodded. 'A good idea. I expect many riders are hungry by now. How big is the stream?'
She grinned back. 'Not big enough for a swim, Highness. You could sit in it though,' she finished with a loud laugh.
One side of my face lifted in a cheeky smile. 'It will hardly cover your bum then.'
Addani roared out laughing. 'I can't help being tall, your Majesty, I just grew up this way.'
'And up, and up,' I replied.
She grinned, turned her horse and trotted to the front of the column to call a halt.
The hubbub of sorting everybody out eventually settled, and a short-term camp made, which meant erecting a few tents.
Alyssa took my hand. 'Let's go and wallow, darling. I feel the need to cleans my body after that forest.'
'It's a strange place, isn't it? There never seems to be any breeze through it, unlike other forests, which makes it oppressive. We'll have to go back through it after this. I'm not looking forward to that much. I think I prefer that first forest, even though it's burned and holds so many sad memories.'
The Queen squeezed my hand as we walked. 'It must have been awful, darling. I can't imagine how you managed. Ah, here's the stream. Addani was right about not being able to swim, it's not very big at all.' She stood, and slowly undressed. It was magical.
She was so perfect, I just stood looking at her. I was sure she knew what she did to people, especially me, and did it deliberately. Watching her move and undress, was almost a religious experience.
She smiled. 'I'm happy,' she said. 'So I am young and lithe. Come on, take your clothes off and join me.' She walked in and sat, singing to herself quietly, although again, her wonderful voice transfixed every soul here. The sound was heavenly, soft, melodic, and in some odd way, exciting. A hand was held out to me.
We sat together, splashing about, Alyssa laughing and squealing like a teenager, something I had never heard her do before.
Alegia joined in the splashing, and soon we were all laughing our heads off.
Many others got in, too, for a bit of light relief before the horror of battle, which was a certainty.
Brevit's shadow took the sun away. She smiled. 'Your Highnesses seem happy today.'
'We are, Leader,' Alyssa replied.
'I just came to inform you that a small party has left the fort and are heading this way. We can see the dust trail, so they'll be a while yet before they get here, Highness,' Brevit said.
'Come Lauren,' Alyssa said, holding her hand out again as she stood. 'We need to get into formal clothes to receive these people, whoever they are. We can't meet them like this,' she ended with a wry grin. 'We must demonstrate our status.'
Brevit had set up a perimeter, so the two horsemen were halted there and questioned. Arms gesticulated, but Brevit and Addani remained firm. Nobody just walked into our camp, no matter how important they thought themselves, and most certainly not armed.
'They are two representatives of Chief Gaelich,' Addani said after she had walked across to us.
Alyssa nodded. 'Very well, Leader, allow them to us, but under armed escort and without weapons.'
Addani bowed, and left.
Shouting erupted from the group, plainly the two men weren't happy about being disarmed. But having seen at close quarters, what happens when a visitor comes within our camp with a concealed weapon, as had occurred with Chief Drakfer of the Ancilites tribe, I wasn't taking any chances. So Brevit gave them a good pat down, as I had shown her how to do after that event. One cannot be trustful of anybody out here, especially from a fort we knew used devious methods and cruelty.
The group advanced between six of the Queen's Guards, dressed in Royal Red, well-armed with swords and loaded crossbows. I noticed how the men kept looking at, what to them, were very strange weapons.
Alyssa held an arm up. 'That is near enough. Who are you?'
'We came to ask the same thing,' one of the men said sharply.
'You address our exulted Queen by her proper title, Brevit snapped, drawing her sword. 'You address her as Queen Alyssa.'
He gaped at Alyssa, standing taller than he, wearing beautiful regalia, a bejewelled crown, sword and dagger. 'Erm, your Majesty,' he stammered. 'I beg your pardon, I have never heard of you before. But what brings you to our land?'
'I ask again, who are you?' Alyssa said, irritably.
'I am Chief Gaelich's Headman, Falcon, your Majesty. This is the Chief's Armourer, Fedore. We come as his envoys.'
'So, you represent your Chief here, now?'
'He wanted to know why you brought an army to his fort, Queen Alyssa?'
As he said that, Fedore jabbed him in the ribs. 'That one, next to her. I recognise her from the fire.'
Falcon's countenance changed. 'What do you mean?'
'She was one of the slaves that came and ruined our fort, the one that seemed to know too much for a slave's good. I mentioned it then.'
Addani stepped beside me. 'This is the Goddess Queen Lauren. Her Highness rules with the great Goddess Queen Alyssa at the far hill fort, the one you invaded a short while ago.'
Both their mouths dropped open and they gaped. Falcon was the first to recover. 'Are you sure, Fedore? They say she's a Queen, so how could she have been a slave?'
'I'm certain it's her. She was a slave back then.'
'It is so,' I said. 'We came to take back our people you had forced into slavery from the Babrani tribe. The only way to gain access to your fort, was to pose as slaves. Because of your wickedness, you suffered a dreadful fate. We look after the people of our land, they are free, we have no slaves, there is no need of it, not if people are treated properly. Yet you seem to rely on making a misery of the lives of the many who you enslave against their wills. I say to you now, free all those you hold captive, and turn your Chief over to be tried as a criminal before us. Your wretched fort still attacks our lands using other tribes to take folk away from their families. We are not going to put up with it any longer. That is why we are here.'
'Take that message back to your Chief,' Alyssa said. 'Be warned, we intend to stop attacks on our lands, homes and fort, it is intolerable. We have weapons you can only dream of, weapons that will cause devastation in your stronghold. Queen Lauren controls Nodens, so will bring down the God's wrath upon you.'
Falcon scoffed at that. 'Nobody can control Nodens, he's a God. You're bluffing.'
'That's what Chief Drakfer, of the Ancilites tribe said. But he regretted it when we destroyed his village and killed them all, including him. I suggest you do what is demanded of you, hand Gaelich over to be judged, and put the fort into the hands of civilised people, otherwise it will be the worse for you.'
'Destroyed the Ancilites tribe?' He was plainly taken aback.
'Yes, and the Babrani as well. The situations with both tribes got out of hand. Ruffians like you cannot go where they like committing crimes against ordinary people, without a reckoning being stood against you.'
'Ha, nobody has ever beaten the Babrani in combat, so you lie.'
'You accuse a Goddess Queen of lying? How dare you!' Alyssa exclaimed so sharply they both took a step back.
'We know there are some operating from your fort,' I added. 'But we have beaten them in the field of battle every time we met, and destroyed their village. And you may be tempted to ask why. I will tell you. Because they lived outside of normal human decency and acceptable behaviour. We found traders tortured and killed on several occasions, and our people's homes attacked and torched, the occupants murdered. It could not go on, so we acted. Now, as well as your Chief, we require any Babrani or Burga clansmen to be handed over with him.'
They were obviously shaken. 'I have no authority to do any of these things, my Queens. I must go and talk to my Chief.'
I glared at him. 'What point is there in that? He will not allow himself to be handed to us. Go back and make a coup d’état.' Then I realised they wouldn't know what that meant. 'Go and depose your Chief, a regime change would help your cause. If you do not, you will be included in our reckoning, as well as Gaelich.'
'We are true to our Chief. We refuse to do such a thing.'
'In that case, you instigate a war. We will not be deterred from our mission, nothing will stay our hands. Go now, and talk it over.'
'Attacking our fort will cost you dearly,' Falcon replied, cockily. 'Our walls are strong, and hearts also. Your army will never gain entry.'
I Just smiled serenely back at him. 'We shall see then. Walls can fall. So be it.'
The return look was unsure. His brain was working out why we were so certain of ourselves, why I showed not the least worry that we could attack a fortified hill, like theirs, and win. But his eyes also carried another message, Gaelich would never just surrender, that was not an option.
Alyssa took me in her arms. 'We are committed then, darling. A fight it is going to be.'
I nodded, and kissed her.
'What are your orders, Highness?' Brevit asked.
'Break camp and move nearer the fort. We'll set up a siege camp a short distance away out of arrow range, their arrow range of course,' I said with a grin. 'Try to keep it near this stream, it's handy for water. We must deny its use to the fort as well. So once camp is set and lookouts posted, send out a patrol to encircle the fort and see if there are any other gates or means of accessing the water supply by them.'
Brevit bowed her head, and gave the 'Mount Up.'
It was evening by the time the column arrived. The stream went off to the right and alongside the hill the fort was on, so our camp was away from any approach. It also meant we could control who entered or left the place, and whether or not they could get water for their daily needs.
Brevit decided to lead the patrol herself, so took a dozen of the Royal Guard with her, half with crossbows, the remainder with the longbow. It gave her a choice of firepower. They had spear sheaths on their horses as well, and slings, so were well armed.
Alyssa and I spent time with Alegia during the evening. We had both missed our daughter a lot, so made the use of the spare time making her laugh and giggle. We went for a bathe in the stream again, too, the water relatively warm as it was shallow and slow moving.
Etain took command of the tents, and soon there were fires with food cooking. The wagons were brought to the rear end of the encampment, away as far as possible, from any prying eyes at the fort. The less they knew about our weapons at the moment, the greater the shock when they eventually found out.
A constant stream of people came to ask questions, so we had little free time before any likely battle. But Alyssa was always patient and kind, listening to complaints or disagreements, and resolving them. She was amazing.
'What are your plans, darling?' she suddenly said, blazing a glorious smile at me.
I rolled over as I lay on the grass to look at her sweet face. 'Plans? Perhaps wait a day or two, to see if there is a revolt inside that place, and Gaelich is overthrown. It must be obvious to all inside we mean to attack at some point, so leaving it a while will help that fact play on their minds. Let them stew a little. In the meantime, we can send a hunting group out to that forest over there, to get more meat, that can be smoked and stored. If they hunt now, and then leave it a day or so, it can be hunted again. I expect it's where the fort hunted anyway, so we have to deny them the use of that too, sweet one.'
'Sweet one,' Alyssa repeated softly. She loved me calling her that, and if it made her happy, I was willing to do so. 'What if anyone comes out?'
'Refugees you mean? I wonder if Gaelich would ever allow them to go free, it's against his natural instincts. But if anyone does, they'll need vetting to see who they are, and what they did in there.'
'Vetting?' Alyssa asked, puzzled.
'Interrogating then, it means the same thing. We don't want any spies in our camp, or any treason if we let them stay, and then they try to disrupt our weapons or food stocks.'
'I've seen quite a few faces looking over the top of the palisade. That means they have internal platforms, so they will most likely be above the gates as well and able to loose arrows down upon us.'
I smiled at her. She was concerned about losses. 'Crenn made some large, square shields for me, do you remember I talked about them? They are to surround the troops we send in close, to cover them as a wall of protection. We know from the Babrani, that arrows won't pierce wooden shields, but ours have a layer of iron on top too, so arrows should simply bounce off. A troop moving under those, can get right up to the palisade without getting injured, and then turn around under them, and walk away again. The Romans used their shields like that.'
'You've mentioned those Romans before. When do they come into it, darling?'
'I think they already have. An emperor Claudius sent an invasion force here under general Aulus Plautius. And you once told me merchants came across the sea in boats to trade, they were most likely from the Roman's homeland. So, Briton is already trading with the empire of Rome. But they get greedy and want more. Claudius wasn't too bad; he would pay tributes to clans and tribes if they allied themselves to them, and left them alone to govern themselves. The trouble starts when Claudius dies and the Emperor Nero takes over. He, unfortunately, is as mad as a bean, and demands the complete subjugation of all the tribes and clans. Then they start robbing them of their resources. They'll treat the Britons terribly, taking slaves back with them across the sea. We shall have to fight them. But it will take thousands of us, and it will be necessary to bring all the tribes together, and you know how hard that is.'
Alyssa sat looking blankly at me. 'How do you know all this? And what we must do to survive. You even know their names, that's incredible.'
I gave a light laugh. 'I was educated at college, Alyssa, I had to learn about it from the history of our world. But this period was my favourite, I don't know why, I was always fascinated by it. I never thought I would end up in it though,' I finished, laughing again at the irony of it.
'I'm so glad you have,' Alyssa said softly. 'I love you.' One of her hands touched mine tenderly.
'And I you, my sweet one. We'll fight them all. I know their tactics, and ways of beating them. It has to be guerrilla warfare, hit and run tactics in other words.'
'I'm glad you said it 'in other words', I hadn't any idea what the first one meant,' Alyssa said, flashing a charming smile.
'The Britons must never meet them openly on the field of battle, we will lose. A Queen called Boudicca does, with an army, and they'll nearly all be killed. We must use sudden sneak attacks in forests, or anywhere that will conceal our people until the very last minute.'
Just then, we saw Brevit's patrol appear around the south gate end of the fort. I was surprise how close in she was, and no sooner had I thought that, than arrows began falling on them. Shields went up, but she had made an error again, and I wondered how her head was now after those awful blows to it.
They made our camp, fortunately, without any casualties to either woman or beast. She came to report.
'Sit down, Brevit,' I said. 'What did you find?'
'As you suspected, Highness, there is another gate the far end. It was open, and several people were getting water to take back into the fort. We need to seal that. When they saw us, they dashed inside and closed the gates tightly. There are no more large gates, but on both sides, there are small ones, like doors, but only one, each side about halfway along. The river goes away from the fort over there,' she indicated with an arm the rear of the fort, 'so that is the only place from which to bring water from.'
'Why did you get so close to that fort, Brevit? You left the patrol open to attack.'
'I'm sorry, Highness. I misjudged the distance.'
'How is your vision? Is it clear or blurred?'
'A little blurry, Highness, and I get headaches. But I'll be alright, don't worry.'
'I do worry, Brevit. They aren't good symptoms. It means you have damage to your brain from the falls and blows to your head recently, and there may be older injuries from that war club blow in the forest when you were taken as slaves. I will have to relieve you of such duties, but not of your position as Fighting Leader. I'm concerned for you, my brave warrior.' I leant and patted her hand. 'We've been through a lot together, and as brave as you are, in your present condition, you may go into a dangerous situation without realising it, as you did just now. You got in far too close and your patrol came under fire.'
Brevit looked crestfallen. It was a hard blow for her. She felt it her duty to be in front, leading us all ever onwards. But doing that had caused her to get into trouble quickly and repeatedly, and even though she had miraculously survived so far, she had plainly suffered.
'I'm sorry, Brevit. But I need you alive, not in Otherworld. You can still lead our camp and charges, when we go in. I just want you to take a rest from patrols for a while.'
She sighed. 'Very well, my Queen. I know you're worried about me. I admit I've made a few mistakes lately, so I guess you're right. As long as I can still fight, I'm happy.'
I took her hand and squeezed it. 'Be brave, Brevit, as you always have been. I'll support you all I can.'
'Thank you, Highness, you always have.' She cried then, it was rare she ever did, the realisation that she was in trouble physically, was too much for her to bear.
Poor Brevit. It must have been a terrible blow to sustain, having been at the fore all the time, possibly all her life, leading with her courage and bravery. But it was that, that had caused her problems. However, that was Brevit all over, all for the moment, and no thought of the consequences. I put my arms around her, 'Don't upset yourself, my dear Brevit. We all think the world of you, and it may pass, so try to take things easy for a while.' I placed a kiss on her cheek.
She wiped her tears away. 'Do you think so? I might get better, Princess. Oh sorry, I mean Highness. Forgive me.'
I laughed. 'Brevit, you can call me whatever you like, I won't mind. You're very special to me, and I'll stand by you. Give me a hug please, I can't reach you, you're too tall.'
A chuckle came through her sad features. 'Thank you. May I go to rest for a while, please?'
I nodded. 'Of course, nobody has earned that right more than you. Go on, make yourself scarce.'
She smiled and left.
Alyssa sat beside me. 'What's the matter with her, she was crying? I don't think I have ever seen her do that before.'
'I had to relieve her of some of her duties. She was very upset.'
'Why did you do that? She's so brave, darling.'
'And that's the problem, sweet one. She gets into terrible scrapes and is injured, especially head wounds. She's losing it a bit. The problem may clear, so I suggested she takes it easy for a while. Unfortunately, she brought that patrol in too close to the fort, and she would not normally have done that. I'll have to break the news to Addani, although I have already spoken to her about my concerns.'
Alyssa looked pensively at the ground. 'She has always been like that, goes dashing in without thinking, a hot head. I've seen her take some tumbles, during that winter patrol for instance. Do you think she'll recover?'
I shrugged my shoulders. 'I don't know. It could go either way, get better, or get worse. I would hate to see her get worse.' I searched around for Addani, but she was nowhere in sight. 'Agneta, go and find Addani for me please. I'll ask her to come here as well.'
It was a hard explanation, but at least I had forewarned her sister a while ago, that it was likely to happen. 'So, I want you to take the lead for a while, but at the same time, keep an eye out for her, please, both you and Fallow. She's still capable, it's just that her judgement is a little out at the moment. It means more of the load will fall upon your shoulders, I'm afraid. Take Brevit with you, by all means, so she doesn't feel left out and redundant, but be aware she is likely to stray into danger.'
'Very well, Highness, she's my sister, I'll look after her, and Fallow cares for her deeply, so between us, she'll be fine. What does redundant mean?'
'Not wanted anymore, useless. Which she isn't, most certainly not.'
Addani smiled at that. 'Thank you, my Queen. I understand.'
'Oh, before you go, I want a strong outpost setup down by the far gate, but well clear of the fort and guarding the river. They are to stop anybody escaping or getting water, chase them away if they do.'
'How many, Highness?'
'This many,' I said, opening both hands and then removing one. Fifteen should be enough. Arm them with both types of bow, javelins and slings. Choose a sensible leader, perhaps Greta or Juna. They are to retreat into clear sight if attacked by a larger force, and send a runner immediately for support. And for a counter attack, form a separate force the same size on standby here. Be sure all horses are regularly watered, put someone in charge of that, perhaps Jeela, but that's up to you. Carry on.' I gave her a salute, hand to the forehead.
She laughed. 'What's that?'
'A salute. It was common among all military personnel in the future.'
She returned it, and burst out laughing.
'Is that right?' Alyssa asked. 'People saluted each other.'
'Only in the armed forces. It was a show of respect for rank and the Crown,' sweet one.'
That charming smile drifted across Alyssa's face. 'Sweet one,' she whispered.
Soon the gate detachment was making their way to the north of the fort to make a satellite camp, and take up a guarding watch.
Brevit came over. 'It's evening now. Shall I begin making the camp secure, Highness?'
'How are you, Brevit?' I asked. 'Did you rest?'
'Yes, Highness, I'm not as dizzy now.'
'Don't be the hero, my dear Brevit. Tell me immediately if it returns, and you can rest again. By all means organise the camp though.'
Soon tents began springing up like mushrooms in a field, both here at this camp, and farther down the river, by the north gate.
Many heads were looking over the fort's palisade. They must be wondering what was going on.
Squirrel took charge of the evening meal, she was very good at organising people. Most sat about in the late evening air, chatting and eating. Addani set up a guard rota, so our flanks were covered.
Alyssa cast me a furtive glance, then a smile lit her face. 'We have our very own tent,' she said, in that deep voice she used when feeling amorous.
We left everyone else to sort themselves out. I was sure the whole camp must have known what we were going to do.
Inside, Alyssa folder her legs beneath her and sat, smiling sweetly at me. 'I need you to love me, darling,' she whispered. 'With passion, as we have done. I cannot wait any longer.' Her eyes pleaded, those wonderful deep blue eyes, that held so much promise.
I was aware she needed me. She had aged noticeably over the last few days, wrinkles showed. Being in the wilds of Briton didn't agree with her. She was a Queen of a fort, she ruled it wisely, and her people thought highly of her for it. But being out on campaigns wasn't her idea of fun, and she worried. She worried about me, about the outcome, for her people here with us and those back at the fort. It was a terrible burden for her, and it showed. Alyssa had come because she was terrified we would be separated again, and she couldn't bear the thought of that.
She leant slightly, and took one of my hands, raised it to her mouth, and kissed it tenderly.
'I love you, too, Alyanda, never fear I do not. I always have, from the moment my eyes saw you sitting at the table in on the palace that very first day I was brought before you. And now we are together, for the rest of time. Let me isolate us with my powers, so no living soul will try to disturb us.' I raised the hand she still held, to her cheek, and lightly ran the back of my fingers down it, to pause by her lips.'
She kissed my fingers, took my wrist and pulled me towards her. 'Let us lie together and enjoy each other. I've missed you so much, darling, the pain of separation is hard, with you so near, and yet so far.'
It took but moments to undress, then to experience the magic of her body close to mine, warm, so soft, so perfect, so absorbing. A drifting sensation came over me now Alyssa was close, in intimate contact. She had an ability to merge our bodies, and they seemed to float on air.
For a few seconds, I closed my eyes to breath in her scent, the scent of lemon balm Alyssa always seemed to be able to arise during intimacy, and the sheer bliss of being with her. On opening them, I saw a vision of beauty before me that had been missing the past few days. She had changed already in anticipation of our close love. My lips found her eyes, her cheeks, and finally her mouth, touching softly, their warmth sending a fire through my body, my heart, my soul, that began consuming me with a passion so intense, I cried out.
Her arms encircled me, keeping us in the repose of an intense kiss, sending her heart and soul to mine, exciting them to a degree I had never felt before. Higher and higher, the world spun, we left the tent and journeyed through the universe.
At that moment, we found each other, and my mind blazed with star bursts and rainbows. Calling her name was the only thing that kept me from falling into Eternity, so I called it loudly, as she called to me.
Then, the Sun exploded.
It took several moments to find my senses. Alyssa swam into focus, a new, vibrant, young Alyssa, with bright blue eyes, wonderfully red lips, a flush on her cheeks and a red tone to her long hair that took my breath away. She looked like a teenager, possibly sixteen or eighteen, but no older. I shook my head, thinking I was still wherever we had been, but she remained the same.
Alyssa smiled serenely. 'Why are you staring at me, darling?'