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«Emperor», Stephen Baxter

oraculum nectovelinium (the prophecy of nectovelin, 4bc)

aulaeum temporum te involvat, puer, at libertas habes: cano ad tibi de memoriam atque posteritam, omni gentum et omni deorum, imperatori tres erunt. nomabitur vir germanicus cum oculum hyalum; scandabit equos enormes quam domuum dentate quasi gladio. tremefacabit caelum, erit filius romulum potens atque graeculus parvus erit. nascitur deus iuvenus. ruabit roma cervixis islae in laqueui cautei. emergabit in brigantio, exaltabitur in romae. pudor! comprecabit deum servi, sed ispe apparebit deum. ecclesiam marmori moribundi fiet complexus imperii. reminisce! habemus has verita et sunt manifesta: indico: omnis humanitas factus aequus sunt, rebus civicum dati sunt ab architecto magno, et sunt vita et libertas et venatus felicitae. o puer! involvaris in aulaeum temporum, fere!

the prophecy of nectovelin (freely translated with acrostic preserved):

ah child! bound in time's tapestry, and yet you are born free come, let me sing to you of what there is and what will be, of all men and all gods, and of the mighty emperors three. named with a german name, a man will come with eyes of glass straddling horses large as houses bearing teeth like scimitars. the trembling skies declare that rome's great son has come to earth a little greek his name will be. whilst god-as-babe has birth roman force will ram the island's neck into a noose of stone. emerging first in brigantia, exalted later then in rome! prostrate before a slavish god, at last he is revealed divine, embrace imperial will make dead marble of the church's shrine. remember this: we hold these truths self-evident to be- i say to you that all men are created equal, free rights inalienable assured by the maker's attribute endowed with life and liberty and happiness's pursuit. o child! thou tapestried in time, strike home! strike at the root!

PROLOGUE 4 BC

 

I

It was a hard day when Brica's baby, Cunovic's nephew, struggled to be born, a hard, long day of birth and death. And it was the day, Cunovic later believed, when the wintry fingers of the Weaver first began to pluck at the threads of the tapestry of time.

The labour began in the bright light of noon, but the midwinter day was short, and the ordeal dragged on into the dark. Cunovic sat through it with his brother Ban, the child's father, and the rest of his family. In the smoky gloom under the thick thatched roof, Brica's mother Sula and the women of the family clustered in the day half of the house, uttering soothing words and wiping Brica's face with warmed cloths. The watchful faces of the family were like captive moons suspended within the house's round walls, Cunovic thought fancifully. But as the difficult birth continued Ban grew quietly more agitated, and even the children became pensive.

The druidh was the only stranger here, the only one not related by blood ties to the unborn child. The priest was a thin man with a light, sing-song accent, which, according to him, emanated from Mona itself, the western island of prayer and teaching where he claimed to have been born. Now he wandered around the house and chanted steadily, his half-closed eyes flickering. No help to anybody, Cunovic thought sourly.

It was old Nectovelin, Cunovic's grandfather, who lost his patience first. With a growl he got to his feet, a mountain of muscle and fat, and crossed the floor. His heavy leather cloak brushed past Cunovic, smelling of blood and sweat and fat, of dogs, horses and cattle, and he limped, favouring his left leg heavily, an injury said to be a relic of the war against Caesar fifty years ago. He stalked out of the house, shoving aside the leather door flap. The other men, who had been sitting quietly in the house's night half, stood stiffly, and one by one followed Nectovelin out of the door.

When Ban himself got up Cunovic sighed and followed. Nectovelin was old; he would be the great-grandfather of the child being born tonight. But all Cunovic's life it had been Nectovelin with his size and power and legacy of youthful combat who had led the family, and especially since the death of his only son, father of Cunovic and Ban. So it was tonight: where Nectovelin led, others followed.

Outside the night was crisp, cloudless, the stars like shards of bone. The men stood in little groups, talking in low voices, some of them chewing bits of bark. Their breath-steam gathered around their heads like helmets. The dogs, excluded from the house tonight, pulled at their leashes and whined as they tried to get to the men. Even in the frosty cold there was a rich moistness in the air; this was an area of wet moorland.

Cunovic spotted his brother standing a little way away from the others, at the edge of the ditch that ringed the little huddle of houses. Cunovic walked over, frost crackling under the leather soles of his shoes.

The brothers stared out into the stillness. This little community, which was called Banna, stood on a ridge that looked south over a steep-walled wooded valley. There was no moon tonight, but starlight glinted on the waters of the river at the foot of the cliff, and Cunovic could make out the sensuous sweep of the shadowed hills further south. This was the home of the Brigantian nation. In the morning you could see trails of smoke spiralling up from houses studded across a landscape thick with people and their cattle. People had been here a very long time, as you could tell from the worn burial mounds that crowded this cliff edge, amid tangles of ancient trees. But now there was not a light to be seen, for the houses sealed in their light and warmth like closed mouths.

Cunovic waited until his brother was ready to talk. Ban was only twenty, five years younger than Cunovic himself.

'I'm glad you're here,' Ban said at last. 'I could do with the company.'

Cunovic was touched. 'I know I've been away a lot. I thought we were growing apart-'

'Never.'

'And besides, I'm not much use. I have no children of my own. I haven't been through this, not yet.'

'But you're here,' Ban said solemnly. 'As I will be for you. I suppose you miss the comforts of your travels. On a night like this a dip in a pool of steaming water would be welcome.'

Cunovic grunted. 'Don't believe everything you hear. The king of the Catuvellaunians has built himself a bath house. He paid through the nose for a Roman architect to design it for him. But the traders from Gaul say that to them it's no more than a muddy hole where you'd let your pigs wallow. Not that they would say such a thing to the king's face, of course.'


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