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Winner: David Stokes

The Eternal Coin

I began as liquid fire – a stream of copper and zinc flowing from crucible into voids of clay; one of twenty forged in a moment.  Cooled, I was a yellow-golden sunrise, as yet unformed; my long journey ahead.

It was Gobannus who first shaped me. A British slave who had once raised his sword against the Romans, he was now living amongst his captors in Gaul. Mechanically, he took me from a basket of blanks, heated me, placed me in the die – then struck.

NERO CLAVDIVS DRVSVS GERMAN IMP –The Emperor’s face on one side, a triumphal arch and equestrian on the other. In less than a second I was finished.

And I was perfect. So much that Gobannus lifted me from the die and stared – a lifetime’s craftsmanship had made me, impeccably centred, every line flawlessly crisp. How I must have seemed to him, this little piece of wealth between callused fingers? With his existence owned, what I must have represented – the very life-blood of Imperial power. How many brass Sesterces would it have taken to free him, to buy back what he’d lost?  He stared at me for a long while, a tiny token of value in those strong hands. Then he tossed me into a basket of others.

Weighed, bagged, I was sent away with my brethren, by ship, across the rough waves; in pursuit of the Legions in their conquest of Britannia. We landed at Portus Ritupis, then transported by cart along the new roads and ancient trackways to the campaigning legions.

I was first counted out by a careful and meticulous Signifer in a fort, newly built to stamp imperial power on the defeated locals. I was part of the newly-minted salary of one Sabinus Decimus Flaccus, a Decanus of the Legio II Augusta; given in exchange for his mark on the Signifer’s black wax tablet. I didn’t stay long with Sabinus however; in a grubby bar, I was exchanged for a tent-party’s worth of wine, meat, and time with the slave girls. Spent in the newly sprung vicus, the grimy town-to-be clustered around the fort.

So it was that I first passed from military ownership into the civilian world; passing from hand-to-hand, merchant to trader, to customer and back. Over the next few months I was exchanged locally for malting grain, cloth, labour, or comfort. Soon I was traded beyond the vicus, between new-forged towns, up and down the provinces. This part of my existence lasted years. I outlasted the Emperor whose image I bore, and the next. I witnessed the natives change too, first reluctant under Roman yoke, and then thriving. For decades I circulated the province, enabling a thousand transactions, touching a thousand lives, growing dark and worn with each hand I passed through.

Thus diminished I came to the widow Sulicena, part payment for a fine woollen cloak. Sulicena was young, doe-eyed and terrified; her husband recently lost to the sickness that now afflicted her son. With money in hand she bought medicines, and a lead-sheet to scratch out a contract to the gods for Aunillus’ life. I was to be the barter, I and her other meagre savings. Washed in vinegar and sand-scrubbed she regained some of my shine – and in return the gods were amenable, little Aunillus soon recovered his health.

Thus, I became property of Brigantia-Minerva, goddess of healing and war. Given to her temple I was placed in bag within a storage jar; a gift-to-the-gods. And there I remained as years turned to decades; one of many in a long-forgotten collection of small donations, each a payment for a miracle delivered. In time, decades became centuries, and eventually even the goddess changed, her pantheon swept out as the temple became a church, yet still I remained.

It was as the Empire declined that my story changed again. Attacks by sea-borne barbarians threatened the Emperor’s Britannia and money was needed to build defences, and hire mercenaries to replace the recalled legionaries. Soon, the Church was forced to contribute, raiding its ancient-hoarded wealth to secure its safety. Walls were built, fighters armed, supplies stockpiled, the accumulated treasure of centuries was spent until there was little left. However, the preparations weren’t enough to protect from treason.

It was an autumn night when the mercenaries hired to protect the Romans turned. A night of steel, screams and blood as the savages slaughtered and pillaged the town for its riches. My church was the first to be sacked; terrified clergy cut-down even as they tried to flee with their treasures.  My jar was dropped in the melee, the ancient pottery shattering, the sacks breaking and spilling their wealth to be scooped up by frantic, grasping hands. I was missed in the frenzy, rolling away, lost amidst the wreckage.

Outside, the traumatised survivors abandoned the dream of Rome and their town founded on Roman wealth, and fled to the west – and with them any value I’d had evaporated.   I lay, amidst the decaying wreckage of empire, whilst about me the charnel-house city became a ghost-haunted ruin.

It was a winter’s day when Sener found me; the young Saxon, braving vengeful spirits and icy cold to search for treasure amidst the long-avoided ruins. I had lain abandoned for more than a century when he found me, protected beneath a piece of broken pot, still bright from Sulicena’s pious devotions near three-centuries earlier. I was part of a cache of three coins found at the spot, including two worn denarius, first minted a half-century after me, yet more used before being dedicated to the goddess. The expression of wonder on Sener’s face was reminiscent of Gobannus’ so long ago. Perhaps he thought that I was gold, as bright and gilded as I was. Whatever his thoughts, it was at his hands that I was to change again.

Sener was betrothed to the fair Afra, a love-match approved by her father. I and the denarius were to be a gift to her on her wedding day. We returned to his home, not far from the stone ruins, a world of daub and wattle. Here he heated me before piercing with an awl and hammer – in that moment taking away my perfect symmetry.  We were cleaned and strung together on a woven thong of dyed leather, myself in the centre, my equestrian face outwards – my new life as jewellery begun.

Afra accepted me with all the love in which I’d been offered. Tearfully happy, she stroked my surface as Sener bound the thong around her neck, and I settled on her chest. She wore us all that glorious day, through feasting and dancing, and later placed us nearby as the marriage was consummated. And we were never out of reach; each morning she would dress with us worn proudly as a symbol of love. When nervous, fearful, wracked with pain she would stroke us taking comfort in her memories. Even as Sener grew wealthier, became a trusted Carl to his lord, gifted with gold and silver adornments, Afra kept us; albeit worn alongside flashier baubles. She birthed eight children with us about her neck, seven growing to adulthood. So cherished were we that her family believed us to be Roman magic or beloved of the goddess Heleth, and credited us with the family’s success and health.

Aged fifty-three Sener died, and that winter, Afra followed. We were bequeathed to her eldest daughter, also Afra. For a second lifetime we served as a charm, but brought out only for births and sickness, part of the ritual magic of healing. On this Afra’s death we were divided, a magical heirloom given to her eldest three daughters. By this time, I had darkened again, my image worn from the touch of multiple births and deaths, whereas the denarii were still bright. Thus I was given to the youngest girl, fourteen-year-old Hild who was married to Leland, a freeman farmer.

Granddaughter to heroic Sener, Hild brought status to Leland; but also martial obligation, and before their first year of marriage turned, Leland was called to fight for the fyrd. Fearful for his life, a pregnant Hild sewed me onto Leland’s tunic, a last gift before their last kiss. Thus protected he marched to war, carrying me with him.

This was how I came to know the clash of shield-walls, that terrifying hell of screaming men, hacking blades and death. It was here that Leland died, a slow death from a belly split by an enemy seax. Bleeding, in agony, Leland tore me from his tunic, pressing me tight in his fist as his life slipped away, his thoughts on Hild and the baby he’d never see. I slipped from his lifeless hand, trodden deep into the soft mud, and there to wait once more as centuries passed me by.

And pass they did – ten centuries, more, the world changing around me. Nearby, a new village was settled, Leland’s descendants amongst the population. For a millennium it thrived through invasion and plague and famine, whilst patiently I waited in the soil.

I was discovered again by the keen eye of tenant-farmer Joseph Turner. He spotted me, brushed off the soil with calloused fingers and placed me in his pocket. Joseph was a collector of oddities discovered on the land his family had farmed, if not owned, for the past five generations, all kept in an old tobacco-box in his workshop.  

For thirty years, I remained in that box, occasionally looked at by Joseph or his sons. After Joseph’s death I was forgotten, abandoned; until one morning Joseph’s grandson, John came looking for us, prompted by distant memory. Pulling out the box, he rummaged through the old coins, broaches and twisted arrowheads, and satisfied, lifted us out.    

Not far from the farm, a new young Vicar had taken the parish, in part, to excavate the roman ruins that underlay the village. Soon word spread that he paid good money for old finds.  Thus it was, for the price of a few pints, I passed into the hands of Reverend Standish.

Here I was indexed, drawn and published in the local antiquities newsletter. I was buried once more, this time in a leather-bound catalogue, alongside dozens of coins found in local excavations or found by parishioners. I spent a further half century like this, a small part of a private collection, barely looked at, part of the wider history of the local area.

Again, it was death that changed my fortunes. Reverend Standish left his collection to his grandson, the Lieutenant Richard Standish, who shared his grandfather’s passion for local history. Richard found me amongst the yellowing catalogue pages, and instantly we had an affinity. Like me, Richard had spent years in the earth amidst the death and destruction of war. He was inspired too by the ragged hole above Claudius’ head and what stories might lay behind that, by the weight of history I carried; and mostly, I was a memento of a beloved grandfather.

I spent the next forty-years as Richard companion, always close to hand. Richard found fame as a writer in those years, selling novels set in Roman Britain. He also, continued his Grandfather’s work, sponsoring excavations of the village that had once been a vicus. Towards the end of his life he opened a museum, showcasing that history. At first, I was not part of that exhibition, joining it only on Richard’s death, labelled as the inspiration for his works.

And that is where I remain, in a glass case in a small museum. For near two-thousand years I have journeyed.  My value has varied over that time, from Imperial symbol, to the price of a meal, a promise for prayers answered,  a gift of love, a magical talisman, a curiosity, a mark of distant history, an inspiration, and a memorial to a kind man. I have touched many lives in many ways, and I may be yet more in the future – who knows what awaits the eternal coin. 

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David always wanted to be a writer for as long as he can remember, and his writing encompasses a wide range of genres. Over the years he’s had a number of successes with short stories, poems and comedy scripts, including an honourable mention in the 2012 Wergle Flump international humour poetry competition. He has published three novels: two historically-inspired fantasy novels for adults – The Cinder Crown and The Cinder Queen – and a children’s fantasy novel, Gritch: Daemon Prince. He’s currently editing the final two ‘Cinder’ novels for publication in 2018.  He has also had a pantomime script staged.

His day-job involves running a national family support charity (The Cleft Lip and Palate Association). David lives in Kent with his wife, and spends his free time ad-libbing new adventures with his two children.

Find out more about David’s work on Goodreads

 

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