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Authors: Manda Scott

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Dreaming the Eagle (69 page)

BOOK: Dreaming the Eagle
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From Macha’s hut, Breaca walked the horse lines in search of the grey mare. On leaving the eel-spate, the battle mount had not only carried Breaca but had taken Hail across her withers - a weight half as great as a man - and still raced through the night to safety. Even as they ran, it had been clear that she was lame. At Togodubnos’ encampment, Breaca had called for torches and had found the mare’s tendons bowed out and hot to the touch on both front legs. She had spent time standing with the beast in a small tributary of the river, but the damage was greater than cold water alone could cure. Now, walking along the rows of waiting horses, Breaca found Airmid there ahead of her, wrapping shaved willow around the affected limbs. She crouched down to feel the damage. Her palm came away steaming.

Airmid said, ‘She won’t be fit to ride today.’

‘Will she ever?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Will she lose the foal?’ The mare was four months pregnant and the foal would have been the greatest battle horse Mona had ever seen.

‘I don’t think so, but we can’t be sure. She needs rest and good food and she will get that only if the Romans are driven out.’

‘We will do it.’

‘Good.’ Airmid stood, pushing her hair out of her eyes. There was a brief, awkward pause. They never said goodbye on the day of battle; it had been so since the first fight against Amminios and this was not the day to break with tradition. Breaca stood still, filled with the need to hold the moment. Around them the noise of the camp rose to a peak as the preparations for battle neared completion. Close by, Ardacos marshalled a handful of children, giving lessons on safety and the need of warriors for water; further back, Cumal kicked a camp fire into smouldering ash and lifted a cooking pot clear. Gwyddhien waited at a discreet distance, not for Breaca.

Airmid said, ‘I dreamed a snake with the head of a spear that killed an eagle. It pierced the body beneath the left wing, taking out the heart. You should remember it.’

‘I will do. Thank you.’

They embraced in silence, nothing left to be said. Braint met Breaca as she walked away. The girl shone like a newly honed blade. She said, ‘Gunovic wants you. He has a new horse.’

Breaca grinned. ‘Gunovic always has new horses.’ She remembered a message given earlier. ‘You should go to see Macha. She has the skull of a wildcat. If you meet her at the dreamers’ hut, she will give it to you.’

‘Thank you. I will.’ The wildcat was Braint’s dream; even without the skull, one could see it. They, too, embraced. The girl said, ‘Go safely.’

‘You too.’

Breaca’s throat was cramped from too many unspoken partings. She walked upriver in search of Gunovic. For years, he had been telling her to train a new battle mount and she had not, feeling it a slight on the grey mare and arrogance before the gods. It did not surprise her that he had done it instead.

She found him in the upper reaches of the stream, cooling his hands in preparation for a day of fighting. Two horses grazed nearby, one a grey so pale as to be almost white, the other an ugly, big-boned brown colt with a coat already thick for winter and a nose that curved outwards, like a bear’s. The smith splashed out of the water, grinning, and made a sweeping presentation of his gift. The grey was his and had been so for years. He would not offer her that. She stared at the brown horse and then at him.

‘Gunovic, that’s a bear, not a war horse. It would be good for drawing a cart but it’s not going to be useful in battle. In any case, I don’t ride horses that have feet wider than mine are long.’

‘He has feet no bigger than your mare’s. It’s the hair about them makes them seem big. Get up on him and I’ll race you to the tree and back. Then see if you want him.’

They raced. Breaca won, or the horse did; she had put little effort into it. They tried out with shield and spear and sword. The bear-horse did not anticipate her movements as the grey mare had done but he was fast and turned well and knew what he was supposed to do. She dismounted and checked his teeth and found he was just four years old. She frowned, thinking.

‘You’ve been south of the sea-river seeing to the defences or bargaining with the Atrebates for more than half the time since he first had a bit in his mouth. Who else has trained him?’

‘Macha. She bred him from one of Eburovic’s mares.’

Breaca bit her lip. It could have been no-one else. ‘He’s good.’

‘He’s the best. With him, you can defeat the Romans.’

He was the third one to say so. Breaca made an inward sign to Nemain that she not take the words as presumption and turned her new mount towards the river in search of Caradoc.

Caradoc was not hard to find once she knew what to look for. He had abandoned the white of the Ordovices in favour of the multicoloured cloak of the hero Cassivellaunos, newly made for him by the weavers of the Catuvellauni to include the colours of each tribe that had joined them. It drew eyes wherever he rode. Breaca had been offered the same and had declined it, keeping to the grey of Mona and the blood-red mark of the serpent-spear. Her hair was banner enough; in the sun it burned like living fire and the wind was rising. Come the battle, charging the enemy, it would fly like a flag.

She rode down towards the water’s edge on fresh green turf with blackberry bushes in full fruit to one side. They should have been removed but had been left with their fruit intact as an offering to the gods of harvest. By chance, they marked the first fording place along the sea-river, too far inland for the Roman ships to venture, but not so far that a bridge could be thrown across with ease, or javelins reach the defending lines.

Togodubnos had worked on the south side for some time, cutting trees to deny cover and firewood to the enemy and digging pits which he covered in brush to confuse the cavalry. He had destroyed the bridges that existed and burned those boats that were not brought across. A handful of charred and broken skeletons smoked fitfully on the southern shore. On the day before they arrived, he had made a ceremony with the dreamers and had cast into the river a fine bronze shield, worked at both ends with the shape of a horse, in offering to Nemain that she remember they held the water sacred and did not fight across it to dishonour her, but rather to ask her aid in defending their land.

Breaca joined Caradoc by the ford.

‘Breaca, welcome.’ He turned, sharply alert, like a hound on the morning of a hunt. Everything about him had sharpened. The culmination of his life was upon him, and possibly his death. She had never considered the possibility that he might die but now he grinned and, perversely, her mind made of him a grinning corpse, the skull flayed to whiteness, the teeth smashed back to the roots, the gold hair dulled to mud. The thought stalled her, twisting her gut as nothing else had done. Had Airmid been there, she could have said if it was a true vision. Lacking her, Breaca could only wait until it passed. She felt sick.

Caradoc’s grin faded. His eyes searched her face. ‘You should wear a helmet,’ he said, having access to her mind. The wind lifted his own uncovered hair.

‘As you do?’ It came out more archly than it should have done. ‘If the gods wish us dead, a finger’s breadth of iron will not stop it. In the meantime, it is better for you and I to be seen by those who follow.’

‘Oh, I think we will be seen.’ Humour had always been a shield for him, an automatic defence. He rallied it now, studying her horse with open curiosity. ‘You think the Romans will fear you more if you ride a bear?’

She, too, could hide behind mockery. ‘We could race to the trees and back,’ she offered. ‘I’ll wager my shield against yours that an Eceni bear-horse can outrun a Roman cavalry mount.’

‘Really?’ They had never raced. From the first winter amongst the Eceni through the competitions of Mona to the games at his father’s funeral they had avoided it. On Mona, on the night of the choosing, they had competed against the gods and the dreamers but not each other. He tilted his head, considering, and she saw the humour wane. ‘Maybe not. My father taught me never to bet against certainties. And the time for racing may be over - now and for all time.’ He jutted his chin towards the river and said softly, ‘The enemy are here.’

She had heard them all morning, the second noise behind the haze. Now she looked out across the river to the reality that the business of her own camp had hidden. The sight was not as awe-inspiring as she had feared; on the far bank, the standards of two legions had been raised but barely a single century of men stood ready. Behind them, a rippling snake of polished armour wound back to the east. The sound of horns and marching feet carried faintly.

Breaca studied the standards more closely. ‘Still only the Fourteenth and Twentieth,’ she said. ‘They have marched since dawn, if not before it. They will fight with less sleep than us.’

Caradoc nodded, his horse sleek beside hers. ‘They are alone. And this time we outnumber them.’ It was what mattered most.

‘Not for long.’ Togodubnos rode up to Caradoc’s right side. ‘Sentius Saturninus is marching north at the head of the Second and Ninth. If we can defeat these two today, we will have as many again to contend with tomorrow, possibly sooner than that.’

Togodubnos had aged in the month since the meeting on the salt marsh. The weight of invasion dragged at his eyes as if he carried the fears for all their deaths. Behind him, an argument reached its climax and a single warrior of the Trinovantes broke from a knot of others, followed by a straight-backed child on a small bay pony. As they neared, Breaca saw that the warrior was a woman and in a condition that should have kept her from battle.

She would have spoken out but she saw Caradoc’s face and the curt shake of his head. Togodubnos turned and it was clear that his burden was not all caused by Rome. He made the formal introduction sketchily, as if time did not allow for anything more. ‘You know my son Cunomar, and Odras, his mother. She has come to fight the invaders who would defile her homeland.’ He smiled, wearily. ‘I find that I can command ten thousand spears but not one woman.’

‘You should visit the Ordovices,’ said Caradoc, dryly. ‘You would not even try.’

The woman rode close to him and, as Caradoc leaned over to kiss her, it was evident that the spark that had lived between them in a calf fair so many years ago did so still. Breaca thought briefly of Cartimandua of the Brigantes who favoured Rome because Caradoc did not, and a woman of the Ordovices who had given him a daughter, and wondered if either of them had seen him in the presence of Odras.

Caradoc was speaking. ‘… wise choice for one carrying an unborn child?’

Odras’ head was up. He was not the first to ask that question. ‘The wisest of all. There are five months yet to go before I give birth. I do not risk the child. And I would have my daughter live free of the Roman yoke - or not at all.’

She was the first one to acknowledge aloud that they might not win. All three heard it and let it pass.

To his brother, Togodubnos said, ‘You always said she could ride better than any of the men. Five of her cousins ride as members of my honour guard. She has vowed to outfight them today and prove it.’

‘Good.’ Smiling, Caradoc spun his horse. To Odras, he said, ‘I will lead the Ordovices and the Catuvellauni on the left flank. If you find the battle too quiet in the centre with my brother, you are welcome to join me.’ He reached down to lay a hand on Cunomar’s shoulder. ‘You would be better with Macha and Maroc.’ He was careful to avoid reference to children. ‘They will guide your part in the battle.’ The child had his mother’s wide brown eyes. He looked up into the face of his uncle, the hero of three tribes, and nodded. He was not yet a warrior, but his heart was set on fame.

The morning came together with the certainty of a dream. Cunomar was taken back to the reserve lines to join the other children. Odras joined Togodubnos and sat her horse in the front line by the blackberry bushes with the greater mass of the Trinovantes and the small delegations from the Coritani and the Cornovii bunched behind them. Breaca rode upstream to the right flank, leading the Eceni and the warriors of Mona. Caradoc blew his horn to call the Catuvellauni, the Ordovices, the Durotriges and the Silures into a mass on the left, facing the stronger right flank of the enemy. Venutios brought his black-cloaked Brigantes to join the left wing with Breaca and she was glad. Waiting mounted at the head of them, she eased the serpentblade in its sheath and began the inner search that would kindle the fires of certainty, seeking beyond herself for the thoughts of the dreamers to help her. For the first time in her adult life, her palm throbbed as it had done after the death of her mother.

On the far bank, horns howled in staccato rhythms. Men shouted and blocks of legionaries wheeled. The first cohorts of the XIV th and XX th legions ranged themselves in ordered lines as they had done at a narrower sea-river and, almost unobserved, the battle began.

 

XXVIII.

THE GROUND VIBRATED TO THE RHYTHMS OF WAR. THE CROW smelled blood and wanted to join. Ban spoke to him, quiet words of calm, and they were within sight of the wounded at the back of the battle lines before he realized he was speaking Gaulish; that in this place, at this time, his own tongue had deserted him. He searched inside, for the shade of Iccius or his father, for the memory of the elder grandmother, for any sign that what he did was wrong. He had searched in the same way in Germany when word had first come that Caligula had died under a hail of knives and that Claudius, made emperor by the Praetorian Guard, planned to continue with the invasion.

Later, as feuding and revolt threatened to topple the new incumbent, Ban had grown complacent, believing that the Senate was weak and, lacking the driving vision of a Caesar or an Alexander, would never set its heart on conquest. Then in early summer the orders had come to muster for war and the Ala V Gallorum had ridden east to join the Legio II Augusta north of Argentorate, and then up to the channel port of Juliobona and the ships that lay idle at the river mouth, awaiting final orders.

It was a long wait. In the early days Ban had ridden the Crow through the trees to the Gaulish shrine of Cernunnos, where the antlered god of the Gauls stood carved on a single massive slab of granite, holding court among the beasts of the forest. He had brought bread and a new horn-handled knife and left them beneath the stone together with his request for guidance. In the silence afterwards, he had feared that Nemain had deserted him for his duplicity and had spent a night alone under the full moon, praying for her return. When she did not come, he had taken an offering to the shrine of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the soldiers’ god, and left it on a pile of others. He did not make a living sacrifice - his gods would not thank him for spilling another’s blood - but he left half of his saved pay and, later, took the bulk of the rest down to the water and gave it to Manannan, god of the sea.

BOOK: Dreaming the Eagle
6.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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