Desperate Ground 1-?
by Sophia
Part One: Snow on Junipers.

"Ground on which we can only be saved from destruction by fighting without  delay, is desperate ground."  Sun Xzi

Perhaps it was the whiteness of the early winter light filtering through the  naked trees or the scent of juniper crushed under his mount's hooves that  reminded Iphicles of the first time he set foot on this land.  Scarcely two  years ago, it seemed so much longer.  Whatever it was, it brought him back  to that day and a feeling of melancholy went through him.

His ship arrived on the shores of Brittany in mid-winter and whenever he  thought of Camulodonum, his unit's destination, he thought of snow on  junipers.  It was the year he'd agreed to help Rome fight its wars in  Britannia, the year he'd finally felt so completely land-locked and  cloistered in Corinth that he had to get away.  Helping Nero's armies in  Britannia seemed like a worthy pursuit and would get him out of the royal  robes and back into uniform once again.

The feeling of melancholy vanished as he heard a shout from one of his men.   A cavalry officer was off his horse and was examining the ground, pushing  away the light dusting of snow from the previous night and poking the deep  carpet of leaves aside with a stick.

"What is it?" Iphicles asked as he rode over.

"I'm not sure, Sir.  It looks like a skeleton."

Iphicles dismounted and bent down, moving aside the soft ground cover with  his booted foot.  Yes, looking closer he could see bones, several long bones  most likely those of a leg.  He poked at a hard metal object with the point  of his sword and turned it over.  A helmet of some kind, the dirt and leaves  making it almost impossible to identify the owner's allegiance, but he knew  it wasn't Roman.  Iphicles turned to Gawyn, a Celt, one of the auxiliary  officers and a member of the cavalry unit he'd been given to command.

"Was there a battle here recently? In the past several years?"

"The Iceni and Trinovante have been enemies for generations," Gawyn said as  he looked around the landscape.  "They fought on and off a couple of years  ago."

Iphicles looked around.  From his years of experience, he knew that where a  few soldiers fell in a wood, there would be a battlefield nearby.  He  remounted and looked through the trees for the thinnest part of the forest  and underbrush, and urged his horse on.  His men followed in his wake,  making their way carefully around thick trees and fallen logs.  Soon, they  came out into a large clearing.  Down a gentle slope was the unmistakable  sign of a battlefield - trees were scorched, their branches twisted and  broken.  Stumps and fallen logs poked out of the snowy ground, the blackened  wood in sharp contrast to the white of the fresh snow.

Iphicles moved closer and dismounted at the edge of the clearing.  He bent  down and poked through the covering of snow and leaves and found a worn boot  with the bony remains of a foot still in it.  The rest of the corpse had  been dispersed, the elements weathering it, stripping the flesh,  disintegrating the clothing.  Animals scattered the bones in the surrounding  field.

"The victor?" he asked Gawyn.

"I'm not sure there was one, Sir.  They kept fighting even after both sides  had heavy losses.  Neither gained nor lost any significant territory."

Iphicles shook his head.  War was only worth all the death and destruction  if one side gained, either more glory or more territory.  Rome demanded both  of its professional soldiers.  These barbarians seemed to fight for the  blood alone.

"Looks as if Catus gave them a reason to stop fighting for a while,"  Iphicles said as he remounted.  Gawyn laughed.  It was a hollow sound.

"Didn't they give their soldiers a proper burial?" Iphicles said with more  than a hint of disgust in his voice.

"They must have been Trinovante," Gawyn replied and shook his head.  "The  Iceni control this land and more than likely wouldn't let them return to the  battlefield to collect the fallen."

They were silent for a few moments as Iphicles surveyed the battlefield.   Green brush and grass started to reclaim it.  It would be years, though,  before trees once again grew here.

"Let's move on," Iphicles said to his men and they went back into the forest  and on to their destination.  As they rode, Iphicles thought about the  reason for their return to this part of Britannia.  Suetonius, Nero's  governor in Britain, needed assistance to quell a budding revolt among the  Iceni and Trinovante tribes.  Decianus Catus, the Procurator, had started it  all with a thoughtless act, and now the General's team of cavalry officers  from the IX Legion were there to offer support to the Procurator's men and  clean up the mess.

While the sun was warm on his face, the air was crisp and Iphicles could see  his breath and that of his horse as they made their way through the thick  undergrowth.  The deep green of juniper and fir contrasted against the wild  disarray of colour from fallen leaves and the thin layer of fresh snow that  fell in the night.

The air was so clean and moist and the scent was so invigorating, Iphicles  stopped his horse and dismounted, unable to resist.  Bending down, he picked  up a handful of the needles that littered the forest floor and breathed in  their scent.  Yes, that was it.  Juniper and pine.

"That scent," Iphicles said as Gawyn rode up. "It reminds me of the first  day our ship landed in Britain."

"How long have you been here?"

"Two years," Iphicles said and sighed, finally tired of war.  "Too long.  I  have a home and a kingdom back in Greece.  A family I haven't seen for  years." He breathed in deeply once again and pulled his furs closer. "It's  time to go back."

"When do we leave?" Gawyn asked, his pale eyes on Iphicles.

"That depends on the mess Decianus got us in and how long it takes to  extricate ourselves," Iphicles replied. "Hopefully, before the end of the  year."

He pulled a branch of Juniper off a bush and shook off the snow. Holding it  up to his nose, he breathed its scent in deeply. He closed his eyes for a  moment, enjoying the scent and then stuffed the branch of Juniper into the  bridle of his saddle.

"You're prepared to come with me to Corinth?"

Iphicles, impressed with Gawyn's valour on the battlefield, had asked the  young Britain to come to Greece and serve as his Protector.  Gawyn hadn't  formally responded, needing time to think about it.  Gawyn looked up at the  tree tops and said nothing as if still making up his mind.  Overhead, a  large raven sat in the tree and screamed at the men.

"My family's dead," Gawn said finally.  "Every last one. There's nothing to  keep me here except revenge against the Iceni."

Iphicles shook his head and remounted his horse.

"You may just get your revenge. If things don't quiet down soon, we'll have  to pacify them."

"Pacify!" Gawyn snorted.  He looked away. "You mean massacre, don't you?"

"That, my dear Gawyn," Iphicles replied, a grin on his face.  "is entirely  up to them."

Iphicles looked around, reluctant to leave.  He marvelled at how different  this place was from his own home in Greece.  Thin clouds scudded past in the  brisk wind and he pulled his skins a little closer against the chill.   Iphicles hated to leave this quiet place for the turmoil that lay just a  league away.  He was tired from two days hard riding from their encampment.

It was always like this -- the calm before battle.  He fought the urge to  linger and took one last look around the peaceful forest.  Above, a flock of  birds flew in a graceful arc, and another black raven called out from a  branch over Iphicles' head.  Two ravens in one day - an omen - who knew  whether good or ill.  It was time to go on and he waved to those who  followed and they made their way through the forests that surrounded the  home of the Iceni Queen, wife of the late King Prasutagus.

As the small group reached the top of the hill overlooking the royal  residence, they could hear shouts and see smoke from fires burning down  below in the courtyard.  A black smirch hung over the palace and smoke was  pulled by the wind in a thick column high above the tree tops.

Iphicles motioned to his men to split up and surround the palace so they  could reconnoitre the area and meet up in the clearing in front of the  Queen's residence. He made his way slowly, taking care on the hill's rocky  slopes, but looked up sharply when he heard a woman's screams.  They weren't  screams of grief or fear, but screams unmistakable to anyone familiar with  war and pillage.  Pain. Iphicles frowned and urged his mount on.

"Has Suetonius lost complete control over the troops?" he muttered under his  breath.  Iphicles looked to see where Lucius was, and satisfied that he was  out of earshot, spoke quietly to Gawyn.

"The Iceni are Rome's allies. If there's too much trouble, the alliance  Claudius built will fall."  He looked over at Gawyn and smiled ruefully.  "But then, you wouldn't really care about that, would you?"

Gawyn smiled but didn't meet Iphicles' eye.  "What started all this?" Gawyn  asked as they neared the courtyard.

Iphicles sighed heavily and shook his head as if he couldn't believe what he  was about to say.

"The Iceni King willed part of his estate to the Emperor.  When Prasutagus  died, the Procurator claimed all the King's property for Rome."  He looked  around to see if Lucius was near and continued, speaking in a quiet voice.  "The Nobles were driven from their lands and many of the King's people were  sold into slavery.  When those loyal to the Queen fought back, they were  killed. Who knows what's happened since."

Lucius was a bright young lieutenant and an able soldier who'd go far in  this Province.  While Iphicles knew Lucius was loyal to him, he also knew  Lucius was Suetonius' blood relative and ally, and so he took care with his  words when in Lucius' presence.

"Under the terms of his treaty with Rome, the Emperor was responsible for  protecting the Queen and her daughters," Iphicles continued.  "Unlike  Claudius before him, Nero doesn't look favourably on the client Kings.   Prasutagus had been friends with Rome and was one of Claudius' staunchest  allies in the Province.  Now that's in question."

Iphicles was charged with leading a small group of men with haste from their  station to the northwest to try and head off disaster.  Anything was  possible and Iphicles braced himself, but when they arrived in the  courtyard, it was worse than the young General could have imagined.

"What in the name of Hades..."

Boudicca, the Iceni Queen herself, was in the centre of the small courtyard,  her arms chained around a thick pole and her body bared from the waist up.   It had to be her - no one else in the court had such long flowing red hair.

That hair, her most famous trait, was matted with blood.  A soldier stood a  few paces away and whipped her with a methodical arm, the whip's thin  leather slicing through the still air, its sharp crack falling on their ears  seconds after the blow itself landed on the Queen's flayed back.  Her  screams stopped, and now the Queen's only response to the whip was to  shudder.  After a few more lashes, her body was still.

"I can't believe it," Iphicles muttered and said a curse against Suetonius  under his breath.

Roman soldiers faced outward in a circle around the courtyard and, with  their shields ready and swords drawn, they held the servants and a small  number of the Queen's subjects at bay.  The palace guard had been killed and  their bodies lay in a bloody row off to the side of the courtyard. Iphicles  could see the white hot anger on the faces of those gathered to watch their  Queen being publicly flogged, and could sense their outrage.

Even Iphicles couldn't believe his eyes and he'd been fighting most of his  adult life and had seen many atrocities.  These were Rome's loyal allies.   Boudicca was their Queen.  This did not bode well for peace, Iphicles  thought, and he was barely able to control his anger as Lucius rode up  beside him.

"I'm going to stop this now."

"No," Lucius protested, grabbing hold of Iphicles' shoulder.  "Let me do  this.  If you go, it'll look like you're challenging the Procurator's  authority.  If I go, it'll just be to offer Uncle a hand."

"We have to end this now or they'll kill her," Iphicles replied.  "There'll  be no stopping these people without heavy casualties on our side if that  happens.  I won't have my men dying because of Catus' madness."

"That's going to happen no matter what," Lucius said quietly. "It's merely a  matter of how many and when."

Iphicles hesitated.  After a long moment, he looked away, unwilling to meet  his Lieutenant's gaze.

"Go. Ask the Centurion to turn her over to her people."

Lucius rode to the centre of the courtyard.  As much as Iphicles wanted to  intervene directly, he realized Lucius was right.  Directly challenging the  Procurator's decision would put Iphicles' command in danger.  Nero had no  love for him or for foreign officers in the Army.  No matter how much glory  he brought Rome, Iphicles knew Suetonius would betray him if he challenged  the Governor or Procurator's authority.  This had to be handled with extreme  care.

He turned to his men and made a show of being unconcerned, smiling and  nodding to them.  Knowing him as they did, they smiled in return, but their  smiles were as forced as the one on Iphicles' face.  As Lucius rode up to  the Centurion and dismounted, Iphicles held his breath and listened, trying  to keep his face impassive.

"She's almost unconscious," Lucius said casually to the Centurion.  "Let's  turn her over to her servants."  The Lieutenant looked around the courtyard,  nodding to the soldiers on guard.  "You've taught them to fear Rome," he  said in a loud clear voice.  "We shouldn't have any more trouble from them."

The Centurion glanced at Iphicles in recognition and was silent for a  moment, then he nodded and called out to his man to stop.  The soldier  brandishing the whip lowered his arm and wrapped the leather into a thick  coil and attached it to his belt.  He motioned to two of his soldiers and  they went to the unconscious Queen hanging limp in her bindings and untied  her hands.  Iphicles winced as her body crumpled onto the ground, her wounds  staining the snowy earth red.

A servant broke through the line of soldiers and went to her side, crying  out in her Celtic language as she did.  She stripped off her own cloak and  wrapped the Queen in it.  Several of her countrymen tried to push past the  soldiers and jostled them in the process.

The soldiers, unused to such treatment, turned immediately to their  Centurion to see how they should respond.  The Centurion looked directly at  Iphicles, but then shook his head.  The men passed through unharmed and  joined the servant, picking the Queen up and carrying her quickly inside the  compound.

'That's an end to it,' Iphicles thought and hoped the retaliation, when it  came, wasn't too serious.  He was experienced enough to know this deed would  not be without consequences.

Lucius and the Centurion spoke for a few moments as the locals left the  courtyard and went about their business.  Lucius was humouring the man,  praising him for dealing so well with the situation.  Iphicles was only too  glad to have Lucius with him.

The Lieutenant had such an earnest face and could lie with the best of them.  Iphicles' own face betrayed him more often that not and he could barely  keep a look of disgust off it at what he saw in the courtyard.

Iphicles sighed.  Another whiff of juniper would prepare him for what lay  ahead, but when he looked into his saddle harness, the green branch was  gone.  It must have fallen on the way down the rocky slope.  He breathed in  deeply, hoping to clear his head, but only the acrid scent of smoke  remained. Iphicles knew it all too well.

The scent of war.
___

"Where's Suetonius?" Iphicles asked as Lucius returned and stood at his  side, holding on to his horse's bridle while Iphicles dismounted.

"At Mona, subduing the Druids."

"He should be here.  The Druids can wait.  No wonder things are out of  control."

Lucius sighed and leaned closer to Iphicles, laying a hand on his shoulder.

"They have the daughters inside."

"Let's go."

Once again, Lucius restrained his commanding officer, but Iphicles pulled  away and ignored his silent request for calm.

"Don't even try to stop me," he said in a tight voice. "This is too much.   Those girls are royal princesses."

"The men see them as barbarians.  Several veterans and members of the  auxiliary were killed in skirmishes in the surrounding countryside.  These  men want revenge."

"I don't care.  The girls can barely be of age."  Iphicles pushed past  Lucius and marched over to the Centurion, clapping the man on the back in a  jovial manner. "Let's go in and see what's up, shall we?"

"General," the Centurion replied, saluting Iphicles finally.  "The  Procurator gave orders to teach these pagans a lesson they won't soon  forget."

"Oh, I'm certain they won't soon forget this," Iphicles replied.

'The man's no fool,' Iphicles thought to himself.  He likely understood the  politics of this situation and followed close behind Iphicles as he entered  the palace.

As his eyes adjusted to the dim interior of the old stone fortress, Iphicles  listened for clues to the princesses' location.  The rise and fall of men's  voices came from the eastern wing of the palace, so Iphicles followed the  sound down a long hallway, the hard leather of his boots echoing off the  stone floor and wall.

Iphicles caught sight of some women from just inside an open doorway, but  the door closed as he passed.  The princesses weren't in there.

Lucius ran to catch up to them.

"The men are understandably inflamed," Lucius said in a breathless voice,  trying to moderate his commander.  "I think we had better..."

"I think we better just slow things down a bit," Iphicles replied, not  letting  him finish.

They entered a small room filled with soldiers and Iphicles could just make  out two pale forms underneath the black and brown of the soldier's uniforms.  Several soldiers stood and watched while others took turns on the small  bodies lying almost naked on the cold stone floor.

Iphicles gritted his teeth.  The youngest of the girls looked to be the same  age as his niece.  Iphicles went to the men standing along one wall, and  they stood rigid when they recognized him.

"General..."

"I think this is enough," he said in a quiet voice.  He looked around at the  soldiers, gauging their willingness to accept his command.  "Let's leave the  girls to their people.  We've done what was required."  When the men  hesitated, Iphicles knew an appeal to their sympathy for the girls was  fruitless, so he tried another tactic.  "There's news of fresh fighting on  the way to Camulodonum and the colony's in danger.  They have inadequate  defences and we need to move quickly to prevent a massacre."

After another long moment of hesitation that bordered on insubordination,  the officers followed the Centurion and filed out of the room.  Iphicles  averted his eyes as the men stood, righting their uniforms, stepping over  the bodies of the two princesses with little care.

Once they were gone, he bent down to the smallest of the two and checked her  neck for a pulse.  Bruises were already flowering on her arms and thighs,  but she was still alive so he moved to the other who had turned over on one  side and was staring off blankly at the wall.

'Too young, too young,' his mind cried out.  This one was barely of a  marriageable age, and had her mother's red hair.  When Iphicles turned her  over, she stared up at him with eyes that were such a clear blue, they  reminded him of the Aegean.  Reddened  from crying, her eyes were blank as  if she'd shut off completely.  She looked up at him in wait for more pain,  but he shook his head, and drew a blanket over her.  She closed her eyes  finally and turned her head away.

"Call their servants."

Lucius left the room and shouted some orders and soon several women rushed  in, weeping as they saw the two children half-naked and bruised.  Iphicles  found  another blanket and was covering the younger girl, but one of the  servant pushed him out of the way and ripped the blanket from his hand.  The  woman was old, her  gray hair falling in disarray around her bony shoulders.  She hissed at him in her Celtic language.  Probably a curse.  Iphicles  held his hands up and backed away.

Iphicles left the women to care for the princesses and joined Lucius and the  other men back in the main hallway where a great hearth was lit.  His  officers spread their maps out on the long table and were marking where the  ambushes had taken place.  The palace would act as a temporary command post  until they  decided on a strategy to prevent an attack at Camulodonum.   Porteous and Lucius discussed the previous day's events and Iphicles tried  to listen but couldn't concentrate.  The image of the cold blue eyes of the  Queen's daughter haunted him.

"General," Lucius said, motioning to Iphicles to move closer.  "Your  counsel..."

Iphicles complied and with reluctance, return his mind to the task at hand.
___

They were a good day's ride away from Camulodonum when Iphicles got news of  the horde moving towards the colony.  After he and his men left the palace,  they made their way to a small camp a few leagues away where they waited for  word of the Governor and of their next move.

A breathless rider from the IX legion arrived late the following morning  just as the sun rose high above the tall pines surrounding the camp.  His  mount foamed at the mouth, its eyes wild with exhaustion.  Iphicles  recognized him.  As a slave lead the horse away to be watered and fed, the  young soldier told Iphicles of his harried ride from the Queen's palace and  the massacre of the Romans there.  He'd escaped with his life and rode as  fast as he could to get here with news.

"Boudicca's called on her enemies to put down their blood feuds and join her  to wipe out the temple at Camulodonum," he said and panted for a moment. "It  seems their anger is focussed on the Imperial Cult of the Divine Claudius  and we must meet up with the rest of our legion to head them off before they  reach the colony."

Iphicles surveyed his men.  Dark looks told him the state of their minds.   While they all felt contempt for the Procurator's actions against the Iceni,  the idea of their fellow Romans dying at the hands of these people was too  much.  Iphicles felt it with them, but knew that until the Procurator's  madness, there had been peace -- so much peace that retired soldiers lived  in the countryside, farming their lands and living out their old age with  little fear for their families.

The Iceni didn't mind submission to Rome as long as they felt they were  treated with justice.  Catus' acts were viewed as unjust and the soldiers'  treatment of the Queen and the defilement of the princesses were too great  an insult and abuse of power to go without revenge.  As angry as Iphicles  was, as horrified at the death of their troops, he knew who was to blame.

"How far off is the IX and Petilius?"

"A day's ride," the young officer replied, drinking down a draught of wine  to quench his thirst.  He flopped back on a chair in the tent and wiped his  brow with the back of his hand.

"How many men?"

"5,000, Sir, including 200 cavalry. We're to meet up just outside  Camulodonum and move to stop the revolt."

Iphicles nodded.  5,000 - not a whole legion but it would do.  While the  Celts were brave warriors, they had little of Rome's discipline.

"We've had a day's rest," Iphicles said, standing up and pulling his leather  tunic over his head.  "I say we start and ride until sunset.  The sooner we  arrive, the better prepared we can be."

As the men left the tent and Iphicles began to gather up his writing  materials, Lucius came to him and pulled him aside.  He leaned in close.

"Your honest assessment, Iphicles."

Iphicles hesitated.  Why was he asking this?  Iphicles said nothing for a  moment, and framed his words carefully before he answered.

"This has to be stopped now.  If anything happens to Camulodonum, it will  inflame the Iceni and make us look weak.  Every tribe with a grudge will  join them."  Iphicles smiled.  "That's just about every tribe there is."

He shook his head at the immensity of the danger.

"Camulodonum is one of our biggest settlements," he continued. "Many have  retired there and live with their families.  There are few soldiers  garrisoned there - not enough to protect them from the Iceni."

Lucius nodded in agreement and put a brotherly arm over Iphicles' shoulder.

"I fear for them.  From what I hear, the barbarity of these people and their  druids is not matched."

"It's not," Iphicles replied, clapping him on the back and picking up his  sword. Iphicles sensed Gawyn's attention to the conversation and wondered  what he thought of the Roman's folly in Britannia.  Gawyn joined the Roman  cavalry as a way to fight his own people - those who'd slaughtered his  family.

"How may worlds must you Romans conquer?" he'd asked Iphicles once after a  horrible victory over one of the tribes in northern Britannia.

"Only those who won't accept Rome's authority," Iphicles replied.

"What will you do when you've killed all of us off?  Kill each other?"

What would they do?  Iphicles wondered now as he thought of the battle they  faced in the coming days.  Iphicles was a warrior, a soldier, and as a  mercenary and ally of Rome, he was loyal to Caesar, but he sometimes  wondered at all the death and destruction.  Did it make Rome more glorious?   Did it make him a better man to be part of it rather than back mouldering in  Corinth?  Then he thought of what he'd seen in this land and others.

"These druids," Iphicles said, looking at Gawyn closely, but speaking to  Lucius. "They make human sacrifices, skewering virgins alive.  They believe  the screams attract the gods.  Who ever is ultimately to blame for this, we  can't let that madness loose, Lucius.  We must move with haste."

Gawyn handed Iphicles his armour and helped him prepare for the ride, his  face impassive. Iphicles pulled his furs around his shoulder and left the  tent, stealing off into the forest surrounding the small camp.  The sun had  been warm since they left the Queen's residence, and all the snow had  melted, but still the air was chill.  It was brilliant outside - not a cloud  in the deep blue sky.

Once Iphicles was out of earshot of the other men, he stopped in a small  glade in the middle of the thick forest.  The air was so fresh and moist.   Birds fluttered in the treetops above and once again, Iphicles saw a raven,  big and black.  It seemed to stare at him, calling out a curse as if it were  a Celt and hated him as much as Boudicca's horde.

Iphicles would have thrown a stone at it if he could have found one, but  thought better of it.  No need to tempt the gods.  He spied a juniper in the  distance and made his way to it.  On his return to Greece, which Iphicles  hoped would be within the year, he'd make sure to take an entire bush back  to Corinth.

He snapped a thick branch off the snow-covered juniper and held it up to his  nose, then tucked the branch securely beneath his armour.  When they fought  Boudicca, as he knew they would in less than a day, Iphicles would need this  clean scent to chase away the stench of war.

TBC