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Authors: Manda Scott

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BOOK: Dreaming the Eagle
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Breaca felt a passing warmth on her right side and turned. Dubornos pushed his heavy-set skewbald up beside the grey mare. Breaca said, ‘I know. We should leave. In half a day, the slaves will have broached the ford. If we are standing here when they cross, we are dead.’

He nodded assent. The singer in him brought peace when the warrior would only have brought war. In this, he was like Venutios and as valued. He said, ‘You have done what you can. We were only ever here to buy time for the runners to reach the tribes and the warriors to reach Togodubnos at the sea-river, not to defeat two legions.’

‘I know. And we have achieved that much. I think Togodubnos is ready.’ Breaca pointed through the trees to where a woman in the yellow cloak of the Trinovantes leaned against a yew. A foundering horse steamed at her side. Caradoc was already with her, listening. He looked up as Breaca approached and said, sourly, ‘We’ve found our missing legions. The Second and Ninth landed with their auxiliaries and cohorts on the far south coast. They’re marching north now.’

Breaca nodded. It was what she would have done. ‘Then we should leave and join Togodubnos before they come at our backs.’

‘We will do. The tribes are massing on the sea-river. Togodubnos has gathered all who are coming. He’s destroyed the bridges and burned the boats but he has a guide who knows the route waiting to take us across. We must be there before nightfall to cross at low tide. If it comes and we’re not there, she’ll go alone.’

Ardacos joined them, his face taut with the need to fight. He said, ‘What if the Romans follow us across? There are traitors all through the ranks of the Atrebates who will lead them in our wake. The river is only a barrier to those who do not know its ways.’

The messenger shook her head. ‘There are none here who will tell them. Those who know the path across and wish to live are with Togodubnos. The rest are with Briga.’

The group stood silent for a moment, acknowledging the dead.

Thinking forward to the battle ahead, Breaca asked, ‘What tribes are already there, in what numbers?’

‘The Silures and the Durotriges have sent what warriors they can spare. In all, they make five thousand. The Coritani have sent one thousand and Venutios of the Brigantes, lately of Mona, has brought just over that number of his own followers.’

Venutios, who had been Warrior and who, the day after he ceased to be so, had sat under a tree in the company of his successor with the burden of his new life clear in his eyes. Breaca asked, ‘Cartimandua has sent nothing?’ The messenger shook her head. At her side, Caradoc grimaced.

‘It is said she favours Rome,’ he said.

Breaca said, ‘Because you do not.’

He shrugged. His eyes held hers, acknowledging nothing. She had never heard his side of the winter spent in the north with Cartimandua. It seemed unlikely she ever would. Passing over it, he said, ‘Every able-bodied warrior from the Trinovantes has answered the call. Last night, the warriors and dreamers of the Eceni joined them. They are not counted but my brother believes he has over twenty thousand spears, including the three thousand who wait here.’

‘And the Dobunni?’ asked Breaca. ‘Has Beduoc joined us?’

The Trinovantian messenger spat. ‘Beduoc sent a sheaf of threshed corn back with the runners. Word has it he has thrown his weight again behind Berikos and Rome.’

‘Berikos is in exile.’

‘Not any more.’ The messenger shook her head. ‘He journeyed to Rome requesting aid and Claudius has granted his wish. Berikos has returned to his people with the Second and Ninth at his back to change the minds of those who would oppose him. For their part in his return, Berikos has granted the Romans corn and firewood in unlimited quantities. It is said that Beduoc has promised the same if they cross the sea-river and enter Dobunni lands.’

‘Where are the legions now?’

Caradoc said, ‘They have circled the forest-marsh between the downs and are marching north. They will be at the southern bank of the sea-river within two days at the outside. If we can’t stop them, they’ll cross and march on the dun. If they take it and the ports it protects, the tribes of the east are finished, and possibly all the tribes of the land.’

He spoke into silence. It was not news. They had lived with this knowledge since before the Sun Hound’s death. At times - when Amminios had gone to Gaul and not returned; when Berikos had been defeated and they had heard - wrongly - that he was dead -it had seemed possible they might avoid it, but they had never believed it for long.

Breaca stared out across the river, contemplating the chance of defeating four legions massed in one place. Rain smeared the sky above the Roman lines. Javelins fell sporadically when one of the defenders lost patience and moved forward. The slaves had rolled eight of the boulders into the river.

Caradoc, mounting, began to signal his runners. To Breaca and the waiting warriors of Mona, he said, ‘We have to hold them until nightfall. If we leave in daylight, they will see us and follow too closely. The boulders will not hold them that long. We must find something else.’

The answer was obvious once the question was clear. It was without honour, but honour had been left behind when Chanos died. Breaca raised her arm and grey cloaks began to weave through the trees towards her. ‘We have a dozen slingers,’ she said. ‘They can be protected by shields as the men are on the other side. If they concentrate on those without armour - the ones doing the work - they can slow them. If we can delay until dark we’ll have a full night to withdraw. But they must not know we have gone.’

‘They won’t.’ Airmid was there, speaking with the authority of one to whom the gods have spoken. ‘If the warriors of Mona can hold the river, Caradoc’s people must see to the deception. Each one should light at least two camp fires so that it seems as if we remain. Those who know the land best should stay until midnight, to make songs and let it be known we are girding ourselves for tomorrow’s battle. The rest can ride for the sea-river and safety.’

 

XXVII.

AT THE EEL-SPATE, THE FIRES BURNED THEIR LIES THROUGH THE night. The sea-river kept its secrets from those who would follow and held safe those whose lives depended on it. Under cover of darkness, three thousand warriors, with their horses and hounds, left one for the other, following the one guide left alive on the southern side who led them across a low-tide swamp that promised a sucking, sodden death for any traveller who did not know the route. Long after midnight, they reached the broad river plain with its low hills and sparse scrub, readily cleared, that Togodubnos had chosen as his battleground. Fires in their thousands glimmered low in the night. Warriors in their tens of thousands slept beside them, waiting to make war on the invader in the morning. The incomers were greeted quietly, fed, and shown places to sleep - in huts for the leaders and dreamers who wished to use them, in the open for the rest. The Romans, left behind at the eel-river ford, did not notice their loss.

Breaca had chosen to sleep in the open. She woke the following dawn to the sounds and sights of twenty thousand preparing for battle. The hum of voices wrapped her like bee-flight in summer. Rising, she went in search of Macha, who had care of Hail, and found her in the nearest of the dreamers’ huts, located by the smell of sage-smoke and hawthorn. Cygfa, the hound bitch bred by Odras, lay on the threshold. Since Ban’s death, she had never been far from Macha. Hail lay at her side, stretched flat in the sun. Breaca knelt by his head.

‘Will he live?’

‘I believe so. He is strong for his years and Airmid stopped the bleeding early.’

‘Will he be able to hunt without a leg?’

‘It has been known.’

Macha had changed since Eburovic’s death and her own spear-wound, but not in the ways that mattered to those who cared for her. She stood in the hut doorway, a tall, regal woman, made doubly so by the torc of the Eceni, held in waiting for the day when Breaca was no longer Warrior of the gods’ isle and could return to her people as leader. Beneath the torc, on a neck-cord of silver, Macha wore the whole body of a wren with its wings spread as if in flight, and beneath those the front feet of a shebear with the claws sheathed in copper wrapped her waist. Never had Breaca been shown so clearly the sources of Macha’s power. They would have welcomed her on Mona and Maroc would have been her junior.

Hail lay sleeping in the sun at her feet, curled like a whelp. Only by looking closely could Breaca see that his left foreleg was gone. A memory slid past her guard of Ban and the care he had taken when the hound was a whelp and close to death with the flux. She had not thought herself living in a golden age then, nor known that it might end so easily. She dug her fingers in the coarse grizzle of the great hound’s mane as she did when they were going hunting and spoke his name, as Ban would have done. He slumbered on, unmoving. Breaca looked up.

‘Why won’t he wake?’

‘We gave him poppy so that we could cut the leg away without pain. He will wake by noon.’

‘We will be fighting then. He will try to join us. You mustn’t let him.’

‘He is bound to Airmid. She held his dream while we cut the leg. He will stay with her.’ Macha knelt at his other side. A shaft of morning sun made light of her years, skinning away the austerity of the elder. She smiled, and was the caring voice at the hearth, the caress in the dark night, loved as a second mother.

Cradling the hound’s head on her knees, Macha said, ‘Your feathers have multiplied.’

‘These?’ Breaca touched a fingertip to the fresh kill-feathers at her temples. The quills were golden, died with wild garlic, signifying Roman dead. They rattled as she shook her head. ‘The honour guard make them each night around the fires. They feel it a dishonour if I don’t wear them. They will make no difference in what is to come.’

‘They make a difference to those who follow you, and not just the spears of Mona. There is no-one here who has killed as many Romans as you have. It gives the rest something to aim for.’ A hand reached out and smoothed Breaca’s face, as her father had done once, long ago, after the first killing. ‘Why does it hurt so?’

It should not have been so clear. If Macha could see it, others would too. Breaca said, ‘They broke the honour of a challenge and then they threw unarmoured slaves into battle, not caring how many died.’ It had hurt all of them, killing men forced to work. Breaca had thought of Iccius. Others had kin who had been stolen by slavers.

Macha, understanding, asked, ‘How many died?’

‘We killed nearly fifty before nightfall for the loss of one slinger.’

‘You did what was necessary.’

‘We still killed them. And then we abandoned the field of battle.’ That, too, had hurt. ‘Already they are celebrating the defeat of Caradoc.’

‘You knew you would never hold them at the eel-spate. It was always too small and you too few.’

‘I know. It still sits badly - a warrior should not leave the field before the battle is over.’

Macha smiled, becoming the elder again. ‘You brought the battle with you. They will follow. There is nowhere else to cross but here. And you will not leave here unless it is won.’

‘True. And I think we can win, if the gods are with us.’

Around them, all the warriors who had answered Togodubnos’ call to arms prepared for war. They seemed as numerous as the Romans, too many to count, but in the coming battle leadership would count for more than numbers. Before she slept, Breaca had been to the Eceni fires and spoken with Gunovic and the other spear-leaders; as they had against Berikos, they would unite with the spears of Mona and follow her lead. Only one man had been missing whom she had expected to find. To Macha, she said, ‘Why is ‘Tagos not here?’

‘Silla bore him a child, a daughter, on the day the runners came with the call to war. The infant died in her first day. ‘Tagos was heartbroken; he had thought to be a father if he could not be a warrior. He has stayed to comfort Silla.’

‘Or to be comforted by her?’ Breaca had not known that-Silla had a liking for ‘Tagos. Had the girl lived, Breaca would have been her aunt. If she died, today, or any other day, it would have ruled the Eceni after Silla. Breaca was not certain she wanted ‘Tagos’ child to rule anything. She looked at Macha and saw the same echoed in her eyes.

Macha said, ‘They comfort each other, I think. It makes no difference to the outcome of the battle. ‘Tagos is neither warrior nor dreamer and we have enough of both here not to need an extra voice around the fire. And here is one who wishes to meet you’ She stepped out of the doorway. From within came the meaty smell of pine torches soaked in bear’s fat. A tall youth with tail feathers of the grey falcon in his hair stepped into the light, blinking.

‘Efnis!’ They embraced. ‘It’s good to see you.’ Breaca’ stepped back to look at him. ‘You have a new dreaming.’

‘It came with the last moon.’ He was shyly pleased. Only one dreamer in thousands dreamed with the falcon. His face had grown stronger for it.

Breaca had found a cache of freshly buried gold and silver coins when they made their first ambush. One of them bore the mark of a falcon. By chance, she had kept it. She tipped it from her pouch and gave it to him. ‘You should come to Mona. There is so much to learn.’

‘I will. When this is over.’

She left him with Macha and Maroc, planning the means by which the dreamers could call on the gods to aid the battle. Everywhere else, as far as the eye could see, men and women in their thousands tied up their hair and wove in the kill-feathers, and painted fresh marks on their shields and on the shoulders of their horses that the gods and their friends might recognize them in the chaos of the killing field. Children raced between the fires, carrying messages and paints and whetstones and all the other necessary precursors to warfare that a warrior might need but might not wish to carry. Most of the children were within a year of their longnights and had begged for a chance to fight in the battle. It would not be allowed, but they were permitted instead to help, to see how the kill-feathers were woven, to hear the songs and the prayers and to learn all that they could of courage and strategy from the example of their elders. In the battle, they would carry water to those resting behind the active lines. In this lay their best hope of honour and fame. Each of them knew, had heard in long tales by firelight, of how Breaca, Warrior of Mona, had won her spear in true battle at the age of twelve. A great many twelve-year-olds had set their hearts on achieving the same, or besting it, in the days to come.

BOOK: Dreaming the Eagle
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