Samhain was the ancient Celtic celebration of the New Year. It was believed on this night that the veils between this world and the Otherworld (the supernatural world) were thinnest, and the dead could make contact with the living. This celebration was Christianised, and eventually became the modern holiday Halloween. Aquae Sulis is current day Bath in England, and Siobhan is the Celtic equivalent of the name Johanna.
Something was afoot. It was nothing that anybody could put a name to, but the entire town of Aquae Sulis was buzzing with tension, and Kate could feel the pressure as she wandered the streets.
"We must celebrate Samhain!"
Kate froze. She spun on her heels, and looked into the face of one of her dearest companions. "Kevin!" She snarled. "Are you trying to get us both killed?"
Grabbing him by the ear, she pulled him into an alleyway. "Kevin, you know as well as I do that Brutus has forbad us from practicing," she growled. The Celts and Romans had lived in peace for generations, until Titus Cornelius Brutus had been granted leadership of the town from Rome. His first action as governor had been to prohibit the practice of Celtic spirituality. Kate's mother, the chief druidess, had been beaten and quartered in the town square for casting lots and reading what the bones foretold.
Samhain hadn't been celebrated in three years.
"The people are on the brink of madness, Kate. If we do not appease our
Ancestors, I fear they will raze the town to the ground," Kevin warned her.
Kate sighed heavily. "And what can I do about this?"
"Kate, we all know you've been contacting your mother every
Samhain's Eve. You're our druid. Do your duty and stand up to Brutus."
"Attempting to contact my mother," Kate muttered. Her lips twisted into a wry
grin. "I haven't been gifted with the Second Sight."
"Nevertheless, Kate. You've made your offerings to the Otherworld. Your family is safe. The rest of us are not so lucky." Kevin looked at her with wide, imploring eyes. "Go to Brutus. Make him see reason. We must celebrate, or the town will burn."
"The man hates me," Kate warned him. "But I will do what I can," she promised.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted him. Lucius Rabirius Castus. A poet,
Roman born; having made his way to Aquae Sulis by roads of Port Magnus, Gaul and Cornwall. A look across the town square was all she could afford him. If Brutus were aware of their clandestine romance, Castus's head would be cleaved from his shoulders before she could say Minerva.
A high-pitched wailing echoed through the air of the town. Women frantically grabbed their children, men's hands dropped to the hilts of their swords, and
Kate heard more than one townsperson mutter the word "banshee".
Ignoring the chaos, Kate stepped forward to investigate. Alexis, Castus's beautiful, sweet daughter, was curled into a ball, tearing at her hair and scratching her arms, keening hysterically and begging for it all to go away, all the while pleading for her father.
Behind her, Kevin swore loudly. "Kate, she has the Sight," he hissed.
Kate hastened forward. The girl's fit would do nothing to allay the townsfolk, especially so close to Samhain. They would all see it as an attempt from the Otherworld to break into theirs.
Kate looked over at Castus, who was frozen in shock. She shook her head, indicating silently for him to turn tail and run home. "Child!" Kate addressed her comfortingly, desperately trying not to show her haste, or any sense of familiarity. "Child, you must calm yourself." Kate grabbed the girl, wrapping her arms around her from behind, crushing the girl's slight frame to her own. Kate shushed her quietly, whispering to her soothingly in the rolling tongue of the Celtic people. "Come on," she whispered, as the girl's breathing slowly reduced to shuddering gasps.
"Please, take me to my father," Alexis pleaded.
"Of course. Come along," Kate directed.
Kate could feel the eyes of the entire town on them as they made their way toward the town's Roman quarter. She was mere steps away from the door to the Castus homestead when she heard bellows from Roman soldiers.
"Keep walking, Alexis. I'll fend them off," Kate whispered fiercely, shoving her towards her doorstep. "You will not touch that girl," Kate growled.
"The girl was practicing sorcery. You know what the punishment is," The centurion answered.
"You have absolutely no proof of that," Kate responded; stepping into the middle of the footpath, ready to face off with the soldiers. She was roughly shoved aside, her head smashing against the cobblestone path. The last thing she was aware of as she faded into unconsciousness was Alexis being dragged away by her long red hair, Castus's bellowing ringing in her ears.
Kate came to with a groan. She gingerly touched her hairline, her nimble fingers inspecting the damage to her skull. The gash wasn't that deep.
"Castus, I am so sorry."
Castus ceased his pacing. He knelt before the chaise where Kate lay, his face white.
"Don't apologise," He soothed her. "It was foolish for Alexis to wander the town alone so close to the New Year."
"I should have protected her," Kate insisted.
"That wound on your head suggests you did all you could," Castus argued.
Kate brushed her fingers through his hair, nibbling on her lip. "Why didn't you tell me she was a Seer?" She eventually asked.
Castus sighed. He pressed a kiss to her cheekbone. "Her mother was Cornish," he began.
"Explains that red hair," Kate interjected, trying desperately to say something to smooth the crease on Castus's brow.
"Indeed," Castus agreed, fiddling with one of the beads woven into Kate's braids. "She died in childbirth four years ago. My son, too. Soon after, Alexis had her first vision. It scared the life out of me," Castus explained. "We came to this town because of you. Alexis had a vision that involved you." He ran a hand through his hair.
"So you just packed up your life and moved?"
"Alexis was adamant that meeting you would change the course of history."
"And then you arrived, nearly four years ago to the day," Kate murmured, shifting to sit up, ignoring the wave of nausea that hit her.
"I did. And I fell in love with you the second I saw you,"
Kate rolled her eyes. "Liar," she teased. She leant forward, pressing a kiss to his lips. "Even if I manage to free her, there's no way you can stay here. You have to leave."
"Kate, no. We'll find some other way," Castus argued.
She rested her forehead against his. "Castus, there is no other way. I will not allow that man to take your daughter from you." Her voice hitched. "Besides, you've met me already. I'm sure history will still be changed." Her hand slipped through his hair. "Don't worry, I'll still let you write me those poems from the other side of the Empire," she teased, referring to the epic tales he wrote of a Celtic woman-cum-goddess, whom Kate insisted seemed a little bit too extraordinary to be real.
"Castus, I have an idea."
"You must let the people celebrate Samhain," Kate growled as she crossed the threshold into Brutus's villa.
"Must I?" He sneered.
"Have you walked the streets? The town is on the brink of insanity. If you do not allow them to honour their ancestors, they will burn the town to the ground."
Kate rested her hands on the arms of Brutus's chair, moving so her face was inches from his. "Do not make the mistake of believing that because the Romans seized control of this town that we have been broken. We are a warrior people. Any one of my kind would sooner tear open your throat with their teeth than pay tribute to Rome."
"Do you really believe that hollowing out turnips and throwing bones on a bonfire will keep you safe?" Brutus scoffed.
"There has been no edict from Rome prohibiting traditional worship," Kate snapped, suddenly grateful that her mother had insisted she receive a Roman education. "The people of the town you govern will raze the village to dust if you continue to deny them liberty. How will that reflect on your record in Rome?"
Kate donned her mask. The Samhain celebrations had begun in the early afternoon, far earlier than required, but the community was desperate to pay homage, and to make amends for the years they'd failed in their tribute. Kate had every intention of taking advantage of the madness to break Alexis free.
Drawing her black cloak around her, Kate stole into the town prison, using the hilt of her iron knife to knock the sole guard unconscious. She tossed Alexis a bundle of clothes. "You're coming with me."
"I don't understand," Alexis gasped out for the third time. "What's happening?"
Kate looked back at Alexis, and made certain they weren't being followed to her favourite grove. She came to an abrupt stop next to a fast moving stream, spilling forth from a cave. "You are a Seer, Alexis. It is my duty to have you live up to your heritage."
Kate moved towards Alexis, inspecting the violet bruise splayed across her cheekbone. "This is who you are, Alexis. We're going to contact the Otherworld, and then you and your father are getting the hell out of this town. I don't care what your vision told you. You cannot stay here if you intend on giving your father grandchildren."
"Kate, you don't understand," Alexis argued. "My vision wasn't just about you."
"We're running out of time," Kate reminded her.
"Kate, listen to me!" Alexis demanded. "My vision was about a man. This man will advise a King who can unite all the Britons and drive the Romans from this land."
"Alexis, time is scarce. Your father will be here in moments, and he is taking you far away from here. If we don't get started now, I will never see my mother again," Kate begged, her eyes wet with tears she refused to shed.
"Let me speak first," Alexis ordered. "We cannot leave. The man that I was given vision of is your son. Yours and my father's. The vision I had in town today was of what will happen if I leave. Britannia will be decimated. The King will never come to be. Your son must be born. And my father and I must be here to allow that to happen." Alexis stepped back from Kate. "This vision must come to fruition. If that means that Brutus separates my head from my body, then that is my duty to Britons this land over." Alexis turned on her heel, ready to leave the grotto and return to her fate.
Kate snagged her arm, dragging her back. "Alexis, that would destroy your father and you know it. You will go back into that town alone over my dead body," Kate whispered fiercely. She gently turned Alexis back towards the grove. "You never did anything like this with your Mama, did you?"
Alexis shook her head, drawing her cloak around her to guard against the wind. "We only ever left offerings of food and lit out hearth from the town bonfire."
"This was my mother's favourite place," Kate told Alexis. "She's buried underneath that Oak right there. Tonight is the night that I teach you how to contact the Otherworld."
Together, they lit the candles that sat on the smooth stone table from the torch Kate had carried from the town's bonfire. Kate carefully unwrapped the
hearthcakes she'd spent the morning preparing, placing her offering on the stone table along with several of her mother's favourite apples.
Kate reached for Alexis's hand. She quietly began to mutter an incantation in the tongue of her people, repeating the words her mother had taught her as a girl, desperately hoping that this night would be different, and that the veils between the worlds of the living and the dead would be thin enough to allow her to see her mother again.
Alexis picked up the words of the chant, muttering along with Kate. Kate's heart swelled with hope when the candles' flames began to flicker and lengthen – a spirit was present.
On the edge of the white stone table, Kate's mother appeared. They'd done it.
Kate instantly burst into tears.
"My darling girl," Siobhan breathed. Kate fell to her knees in front of the ghostly figure, weeping.
"Katie, my dear girl, I am so very proud of you," Siobhan murmured, her ethereal hand reaching out as if to brush Kate's cheek. "You must listen to this brilliant girl. The child you will bear Castus will give wisdom enough to save Britain. My darling girl, they cannot leave town now."
"Who is to say I'm not already carrying the child? I cannot ask him to stay. Alexis will be taken from him the way you were taken from me. His heart is too light for that, and I cannot bear to watch him suffer."
"The decision to leave should be mine, Kate," Alexis interjected.
"You need to beat Brutus at his own game. Single combat, in the Roman fashion. Castus will take control of the town, and he can overturn Alexis's death sentence. You need to challenge him tonight."
A cold gust of wind rustled through the trees, and lightening tore open the sky. In the second Kate looked away from the table, her mother had disappeared.
"You have your orders, Kate. There are only a few hours of Samhain left."
Kate ignored the mud that soaked into the hem of her cloak and dress. She ignored the celebration of the townspeople. She walked toward Brutus, who had insisted on setting up his own throne in the town square to oversee the madness.
"Brutus," Kate bellowed, loud enough for the entire town to hear. She vaguely registered the whispers of the townsfolk as they gathered around her. She tightened her grip on Caliburnus, the sword hidden beneath her voluminous robe. Certain she had the eyes of the entire community on her, Kate tossed a glove at his feet. The symbol was understood unanimously.
Brutus sneered, one hand resting on his sword as he marched down to collect the glove.
"Does she really think she will defeat me?" He jeered, unsheathing his sword, posturing to the Roman soldiers amid the crowd.
Kate hesitated no longer. She threw back her cloak, drawing her sword from its sheath, and in one fluid movement, swung the blade and severed Brutus's head. She tossed Caliburnus into the mud, deftly picking up the head. The townsfolk separated, nobody daring to cross her path as she made her way to the homestead.
Without a word, Kate skewered the head onto a pike and left the post to stand before her front door.
Entering the house, she was unsurprised to see Alexis and Castus warming them by the fire, drinking cups of unwatered wine with her father.
"It's done," She murmured, slinking over to sit on the arm of Castus's chair.
"I hear I am to become a grandfather," Kate's father asked.
Kate shrugged, accepting a cup of wine. "I've always been partial to names beginning with M."