It is a truth universally acknowledged that blacksmithing in the 21st century leaves a lot to be desired. I blame the Romans for this dumbing down of essential skills and outsourcing it for profit. I let out another long and frustrated sigh and closed my laptop lid.
So far my search for good replica armour had turned up very little of use. Most of what I could find on this “internet” you have these days was clearly of poor quality. Not a single piece would survive a light single strike of even the most blunt of swords. Could I find a proper smith’s workbench and anvil?
Well yes, I could, but not at a price affordable to the income of a non-corporeal Dumnonii queen whose kingdom ceased to existed about 1500 years ago. My only chance was to do it all myself. All I wanted was to recreate this house to make it feel more homely but soon I realised I could sell it too.
I was looking into places to get sheet metal when a tentative hand knocked on my front door.
The person I least expected to see was the Roman. I’d barely got the door half open before I recognised that unmistakable armour. My eyes narrowed when I saw him. He barely registered my disdain so I made a mental note to work on my disapproving face.
‘Hello,’ he offered a nervous smile. ‘You must be Kensa, queen of these lands?’
‘That’s right,’ I said cautiously. ‘What do you want, Roman?’
‘I apologise for this intrusion but may I come in and talk to you on an urgent matter?’
‘What about, Roman?’ I snapped.
He smiled painfully. ‘Please help me try to understand this world. I went to Karl’s but he is out tonight playing chaperone to the shopkeeper’s daughter and I’m at a loss for the evening.’
Well, he wasn’t demanding I become a vassal queen, so I let him in.
I offered to make tea and bring some biscuits and he gratefully accepted.
‘What do you want to talk about, Roman?’ I said practically throwing myself on the sofa.
‘I am unaware of your customs and so I do not know if I’m addressing you correctly. How do you prefer to be addressed?’
I smiled despite myself. I’d met plenty of brutish Romans, but this politeness was as surprising as it was welcome. ‘Those who prefer a formal address call me Queen Kensa. I am no longer a queen and so most people just call me Kensa.’
‘Would you mind if I called you Kensa?’
He nodded and smiled. ‘It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I am Atticus Justus Cato.’
‘What is the proper address of your rank?’ I asked, pointing to his livery.
‘Centurion,’ he said, ‘but as I no longer have a ship or men to command, please just call me Cato.’
‘Nice to meet you too, Cato,’ I said cautiously. ‘What can I help you with? I can’t promise anything. I still don’t fully understand how this world works.’
Cato went silent for a moment and then pointed at my wall. ‘That?’
The object of his interest was the television.
‘Karl calls it The Telly. Sometimes The Tellybox and sometimes The Idiot Box.’ I picked up the controller, ensured I had it the right way around and pressed the button.
The thing sparked into life.
‘What is that noise?!’ he asked and put his hands over his ears.
On the screen, a man and a woman stood in a pub screaming at each other. I switched it over quickly. Luckily, the other channel had a gardening programme on. ‘I’m sorry about that, Cato,’ I smiled apologetically. ‘That is what they call “a soap”. This particular narrative features people regularly having fights in pubs. Sometimes with their words, sometimes with their fists.’
He nodded curiously. ‘Not so different from the arenas. It seems insults and wailing are a precursor to physical combat in this world. Strange, isn’t it?’
‘We Britons were not so different.’
He considered me curiously. ‘I never heard a Briton make such vicious noise. Your voice is soft and gentle, I could not imagine you capable?’
I didn’t know what to say to that so I just flushed.
Oblivious to my minor embarrassment, Cato continued to talk ‘My guess is they would have drawn swords once the insults finished?’
‘I have never watched it long enough but that would be my expectation. Our druids used to warn of such wailings from malevolent sea creature pretending to be distressed children or women. They entice their victims in and suck their life away. Soaps do the exact same thing, according to Karl.’
‘Thank you for the warning,’ Cato said in all seriousness. ‘I shall be vigilant against its sorcery.’
I’d never received a compliment from a Roman. I’d never met a polite Roman either. Cato seemed different? I studied his face. He was handsome in a boyish way, darker skinned than any Roman I had met. When he smiled, the edges of his mouth turned upwards at a sharp angle. It was kind of cute-
I shook my head of these thoughts. Handsome he may be, but he was still Roman – my sworn enemy. There would probably come a day when we’d run swords through each other.
I asked him about his life back in Rome.
‘Alas, I am not of Latin birth. I am from Syria. The closest I ever got to Rome was Ostia.’
‘Where is that?’
‘The Naval Port a few miles away. I never visited the Imperial City.’
‘You sound disappointed?’
He contemplated my question. ‘Yes. It was the desire of many a provincial to finally visit the city. Much of it is gone now, I suspect.’
I pointed to my laptop. ‘Perhaps we can have a look? See what facilities from your time still stand?’
He contemplated my laptop for a moment. ‘Thank you Kensa that is kind of you.’
Like a 13-year-old girl, my heart skipped a beat. But no, don’t worry I wasn’t falling in love with Cato the Centurion. I’m 30, not 13 and and was rarely swayed by a handsome face alone even at that age. But he was the first man here in Salmonweir who neither put me on a pedestal as a representative of some long gone exotic kingdom, nor cowered in fear at the merest hint of a frown.
‘This is what they call “the internet”?’ He asked, moving closer to me.
‘It is,’ I said, firing up my device.
‘Jowan tried to explain to me this “internet” but I fear he confused me all the more.’
I gave him a brief rundown and he seemed to accept it. ‘Thank you, that makes much more sense.’
Curious, polite, respectful and pleasant company. I was already warming to this Roman. A shame we’d probably eventually kill each other.
Cato cleared his throat. ‘If you don’t mind me saying. You’re not like other Celt- Dumnonii I’ve met.’
My face dropped slightly. ‘In what way?’
‘Oh, the good way!’ he said. ‘Most just wanted to run a sword through me. On one of our ship’s last patrols before we sank, a small vessel came upon us and started throwing their waste at us.’
‘Fish guts turn smelly quickly here,’ I nodded. ‘it’s the cold and wet.’
Cato frowned. ‘I don’t mean fish guts. I meant, ah-‘ He leaned forward and gestured at his backside.
‘Oh!’ I chuckled. ‘Got to keep the Romans on their toes. You believed all sorts of silly things about us and we didn’t want to disappoint the invaders.’
I finally found a page called Caesarpedia and gave him a brief explanation of how the site worked. When he asked if it was a bit like a scroll that would show how anything if he wrote the right word, I kind of went with that.
I left him alone with the laptop while I went to make some more tea.
Just as the kettle stopped boiling, he called for me. He sounded agitated so I rushed through wondering if some wild creature had found its way into my house.
His look was a mixture of anxiety and confusion. ‘Help!’ he said. ‘There are naked people on your screen.’
‘How did you manage to get this this website?’ My jaw dropped and I immediately closed the page.
‘I got confused between the Caesarpedia box and the one above it.’
‘On the browser?’
‘Yes, the one on the browser. I merely entered Julia Latin nude dancer. She’s a woman I once knew. I was curious as to what happened to her when your browser showed me that!’
I laughed. ‘It’s quite all right, Cato. This device will take you quite literally. Perhaps we should do something else?’
‘Yes, I would not accidentally wish to declare war on someone by typing the wrong phrase.’
I laughed. ”That won’t happen unless you use something called social media but that’s a whole new level that I don’t think you’re quite ready for. Give it a year or so.’ I reached out and brushed his hand. When I realised what I’d done, I rapidly withdrew it.
He contemplated his hand. ‘I could feel you?’
‘I’m sorry for touching you. Decorum between our stations and all that.’
‘No, it was quite pleasant, I’ve not felt anyone’s touch since I arrived here,’ he turned to look at me seriously. ‘Kensa?’
‘Yes, Cato?’ I flushed again but his serious face turned to concern.
‘I would love some more tea. Will it be ready any time soon?’
I laughed loudly and Cato gave me a peculiar look.
‘Did I say something amusing?’
‘Oh Cato. You looked so serious as though I’d caused some major offence against your family or something.’ I stood up. ‘I will make some more tea.’
We drank tea and we talked into the night. We shared stories of our families and our early lives and I must admit feeling drawn to Cato. He made me laugh and Karl was right about his curiosity. Cato was the first true friend I’d made in the village aside from Karl.
It felt like we’d been talking for days, but it was just two hours when Cato made his excuses and said he wanted to go and see Harry. I was genuinely sad because we’d had a lovely evening.
‘Thank you, Kensa,’ he said with a bow. ‘I would like to converse with you again some time.’
I couldn’t hide my smile. ‘We shall see.’
I rose early the following morning to see the dishes and signs of Cato’s presence. Suddenly, the house felt empty and I reminisced about my new friend throughout the tidy up.
But as I opened the front door, I almost tripped over a box. Curious as to who would be sending me a package, I opened it and was surprised to see a bunch of flowers – fake blue roses – and a handwritten note.
Kensa, Thank you for your conversation last night. By way of thanks, please accept these flowers. I am told blue is a gesture of friendship?
I wonder if you might like to come to my house in a few days so we can talk more about this strange world. I would like to make you dinner as a thank you for being my first friend here – Cato
I smiled and let the door close behind me.
Thank you for reading! Sword Crossed Lovers features two of the major supporting characters from Salmonweird. If you enjoyed this spoiler free short story, please consider buying the book. £4.99 on Amazon Kindle and £9.99 paperback.
DI (retired) Karl Blackman thought his retirement to Cornwall would be quiet and peaceful.
Then the ghosts arrived, Karl’s wife Valarie went back to Cambridge to escape an Iron Age Warrior Queen on the lookout for Romans, a pirate crew on the lookout for rum, an Elizabethan poet on the lookout for a publisher, and a medieval monk on the lookout for plague.
Could it have got any weirder?
Ah, yes. the “murders”…