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Authors: Manda Scott

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

Dreaming the Eagle (74 page)

BOOK: Dreaming the Eagle
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‘Cerin was Ardacos’ lover,’ she said. ‘It’s why I went to look for her. I knew where she fell. He is caring for Cunomar and can’t go alone. Also, I think he doesn’t wish to weaken himself for tomorrow. I would have asked Airmid but she can’t leave the dreamers on a night when they are calling the gods for the sake of the people-‘ She was talking to fill the space. She stopped. He said nothing. The space between them stretched beyond endurance.

‘Caradoc-‘

He dragged his cloak away from the bear-skin. The pelt was amber in the light. ‘The bear has room for two,’ he offered, and he was shy suddenly, like a child. ‘If you were to come to it, I would know that the need was felt by us both.’

She was standing, not able to go closer, held by an impossibility of longing. ‘Do you not know it already? How could you not? Have you forgotten Mona?’

‘No, how could I? But I have also not forgotten my father’s grave mound, nor a certain hillside overlooking the Atrebates. You are quite terrifying when you’re angry.’ He smiled, lamely, only half serious. ‘And, besides, Airmid hates me. How could I offend Maroc’s favoured dreamer?’

‘Airmid?’ The shock of laughter let her move. She stood and stepped round the fire. ‘She doesn’t hate you. Airmid has been telling me for years that the gods cast you and me together for a purpose. I thought she was saying it because it was what I wanted to hear.’

‘And was it?’

‘Oh, yes.’ She reached down and touched his palm, and his fingers closed on hers. Lightning sparked up her arm, stealing her breath. ‘From the beginning, yes.’

‘Then it is good we know now, when it is not too late.’

The death and terror of the day was gone. His smile was the grin of a youth in a river, challenging the gods. It caught her heart and lifted it into the sway of the gods; it flayed her skin from her body so that every nerve ending ached for him; it shattered the last boundaries of her self-imposed restraint as the first floods of spring break a child’s dam of sticks and straw, sweeping it into oblivion.

Trembling, she reached out and traced the line of his lips with her finger, prolonging the moment, holding an eternity of joy at her fingertips as she had held an eternity of death on the battlefield. He reached up and caught her wrist and turned it round and kissed the soft skin on the inside, where the pulse raced to a new rhythm that changed as his lips pressed onto her and then the soft tug of his teeth and she laced her fingers through the gold silk of his hair and down to his neck and his shoulder until, wrapping close, they slid down onto the bear-skin. The night was warm. The pelt beneath them was soft and safe.

In all ways and none was it as she had imagined. He was skilled, but not with her; she was used to other rhythms. They struggled to lose their clothing and keep their privacy in a place that was within earshot of every man, woman and child left alive on the north side of the sea-river. Both had seen the frantic couplings of other warriors brought together after battle by the shared intimacy of imminent death; they had a need not to feel themselves the same. The gods smiled and sent the mist to wrap them close and shut out the world. Later, with the mist still dense, the world could have crept up to watch and they would not have known it.

Breaca had no wish to sleep. Fog swirled round them, thick with the colours of the fire. She lay with him under the cloak, wrapped in the musk of his sex and hers, exploring. She found and counted the scars on his body, naming the weapon and the angle of each and the mistakes he had made in letting them through. He acknowledged the errors and did the same for her, ending at last on the serpent-spear set in ink in the skin of her forearm. He traced it with his forefinger, raising the hairs on her spine. ‘You did not have this when I met you first, nor on the night of the choosing.’

‘No. Maroc did it on Mona after I became Warrior. He had a dream and said I should bear the sign where it could be seen even without my shield. He would not say the content of the dream.’

‘It is everyone’s battle mark now, did you know? I saw warriors painting it on shields around the fires last night; the mark of certain victory. We will fight with its protection tomorrow - today.’ They had forgotten the war. It came back, crushing the joy. His eyes clouded. ‘Don’t let them kill you.’

‘I hadn’t planned on it.’

‘Unless they kill Airmid.’ He was only half joking.

‘Or you.’ His hand was still on her arm, covering the dreammark. She had already searched him and found no inked mark; she had not expected to. She said, ‘You have no dream, no sign on your shield. How can the warrior of the Three Tribes have no dream?’ She had always wanted to ask it and had not had the right; only close kin or lovers could ask such a thing. The knowledge that she could do so freely melted her again and she leaned in and kissed him. With her breath part of his, he said, ‘My dream is the eagle.’

‘Of course.’ She should have known that. It ran through the core of his being. She remembered the soaring triumph she had felt when she had thought the eagle might be her dreaming. Holding him close, she said, ‘Your father would have been pleased.’

‘My father did not believe in dreams. You forget, he came to Luain very late in life. He forbade its use while I was still within his reach. When I was beyond it, it was too late. Amminios had heard of it and made it a weapon.’

Horrified, she remembered. ‘His men bore the mark of the war eagle.’

‘Yes. If you had felt for your brother as I felt for mine and knew his hired killers sported the mark of your dream, would you want to paint it on your shield? Besides, we have no need of it now.’ He rose up on one elbow and reached for her, trailing his fingers through her hair. ‘Boudica. Bringer of victory.’ He gave it the cadence of a singer, so that she was already a hero, with the tale of her charge sung beside the fire, and then said it again, differently -‘Boudica’ - in a way that made it a private thing to keep between them.

She frowned at the presumption before the gods and he grinned, wiping the creases from her forehead with the ball of his thumb before leaning back and pulling his shield from the weapons pile behind the tree. ‘See, it is all of us, not just the few.’ The shield was bull’s hide on willow and could take an axe-blow without breaking. In the day, it had been white. Now, the serpent-spear stood out in red on grey, exactly as it did on hers.

He smiled wryly as he had done before, knowing the places in her that hurt, and the reasons. ‘I asked one of your people to paint it for me this evening. If we are to win, we must fight under one dream, not many. If we are to die, I would as soon die under your mark as mine.’

‘Caradoc-‘ It was a gift, made before they had come together and greater for that. She could not speak. She pulled him close, covering her loss, and let him know how he had touched her.

A while later, with the length of him still inside her, she said, ‘Our son when we have him, will he be allowed to have his own dream?’

He arced back, astonished. ‘Really? Can you tell so soon?’

‘No. But Airmid told me years ago. I would like to believe her.’

He crowed, softly triumphant. ‘Then we should find a name, something for him to be proud of; one of those who died most bravely in yesterday’s battle.’

‘Or who will die in today’s.’ She was sober. The time for fighting was coming and one death, at least, had been foretold. The first fingers of dawn drained the colour from the night. The fog thickened with the coming day. She stroked his hair from his brow, kissed it and pushed herself out from under the cloak. Standing, she said, ‘He has a name already. It came to Airmid in the dream that told of his conception.’

His face became still, his eyes wide and fixed. ‘Mine?’

‘No. If I am alive to bear the child, you will be alive to rear him.’ If. Nothing is certain but that some will live and some will die. The best of dreams shows only one path among many. Maroc had said that. She did not feel it necessary to tell him.

They were sliding into the mail shirts and strapping on their sword belts when he grasped her wrist and turned her to face him. ‘Who is it, Breaca? What name has Airmid given him?’ Whose life is already forfeit to the gods?

‘Cunomar.’

The hounds gave first warning of the attack. Those at the furthest western edge of the encampment bayed as if hunting and were echoed soon by the rest. Waking warriors, caught dressing or voiding their bowels, rushed to arm and harness their horses. Breaca, who was saddling the bear-horse, mounted and looked over a sea of sleep-wracked heads. The fog was thicker than it had been. To the east it hung sickly pink, defying the dawn. The west still lay in darkness. A hundred fires stuttered at the furthest margins of the camp, rosy pinpricks in the fog. Beyond them, in the scrub and sparse trees, a shadowed line obscured the ground. The bear-horse cocked his ears and whinnied. Far away, a filly answered.

‘That’s Roman.’

‘It can’t be.’ Caradoc was mounted beside her on a horse that had been a gift from Gunovic. His new mount rolled its head at the feel of a strange hand on the bit. He peered to where she pointed. ‘We set sentries.’

‘We should have put dogs. In this fog, you could walk up to a man to cut his throat and he would not see you. Gods-‘ A fire flared on the edge of the camp as a warrior struggled to hold her baying hound. For a moment the fog cleared and Breaca could see clearly the lines of armour sparking in the light; unending lines stretching sideways and back. Terror flushed her, cold as ice.

‘It is the Romans. A legion at least. They’ve forded the river higher up and come down in the dark, under cover of the fog.’

The Warrior’s horn hung from her saddle. Without thinking, she raised it to her lips. The high, clear notes soared across the camp site. The Romans abandoned their secrecy. A hundred legionary horns brayed an echo to hers. As the noise died away, five thousand legionaries clashed their swords on their shields and shouted in deafening synchrony. If Camul himself had sent thunder to mark the onset of battle, it could not have been louder. It was said afterwards that a dozen warriors died in fright at the sound.

Carnage began in the west and crept forward like ice across still water. There was no time to range in ordered battle lines. Those who were ready mounted and searched for others in the fog. Those still asleep - and they were many - dressed with a haste that left much undone. Half of the warriors who rode into battle that day did so bareback and lacking at least one weapon. Most of them died.

The honour guards of all the tribes were sharpest and most ready. Even before they reached the battle, Breaca and Caradoc were surrounded by grey-and white-cloaked warriors. Others joined as they rode. Togodubnos’ followers among the Trinovantes still fought with the image of the sun hound on their shields. The remainder, grey cloaks and blue, green-striped Coritani, Durotriges, Silures - all bore the serpent-spear, freshly painted in colours that matched their cloaks. For what good it will do them. In the ravening fog, Breaca saw her dream become nightmare. Nausea tightened her hands on the reins. The bear-horse tossed its head as it ran.

‘The dreamers …’ Dubornos pushed his horse up to hers. He was grey with sleep, his voice hoarse from a day of battle. ‘They think they can hold a line. They want us to support them.’

It was madness. The whole world was madness. Breaca turned her horse where he pointed and the honour guard turned with her.

‘Where?’

By Togodubnos’ pyre. The fire is still burning.’

Earth met water, fire met sky. The pyre was as big as it had been the night before. Someone had taken it upon themselves to keep it well fed and it shone through the fog as a beacon for a final stand - or a miracle. Those who believed they could call on the gods to protect them stood in a half-moon before the fire with Macha and Airmid at the apex and Maroc and Luain mac Calma at either end. Gunovic stood with Macha and the hound bitch, Cygfa. Ardacos, Braint, Gwyddhien and Cumal stood behind him with Cunomar on his pony between them. Seeing the child there, Breaca knew they would die; the gods and his father had said so.

Hail stood behind Airmid, steady on three legs. He greeted Breaca joyfully, as he had once greeted Ban, and she returned it in kind; his heart was great and he deserved her love. Airmid turned with her own greeting. She knew where Breaca had been and what she had done with the night and was glad. The firm, beloved hand clasped hers. The face turned up to hers for the kiss bore a landscape of unbearable grief and was still beautiful. ‘You came. Thank you. If we are to die, I would be in this company.’

She would not weep on the day of battle. She could not. ‘Have the gods said we must die?’

‘Some of us must.’ Airmid’s voice carried the certainty of the dream-given. ‘But if you live to bear the child, Caradoc will live to rear him. I swear it.’

If.

Caradoc was at the far end of the line with Maroc, almost out of sight. Others, seeing that a stand would be made here, were joining them. They were pitifully few. Breaca estimated a bare thousand, to hold a legion. They had done it before, but the pulse of battle had been with them; it ran against them now. She sensed death more surely than she had ever felt it. She looked down and found Airmid still watching.

‘Are dreams so certain?’ she asked.

‘Some of them.’

‘Can you turn the legions back?’

‘No. But Macha has dreamed that we can hold them long enough.’

‘Long enough for what? There is no-one to help us.’

‘We don’t know. It will be shown us.’

The first wave of warriors died in their hearing. More joined their stand by the pyre. They were fifteen hundred and growing. The fog swirled too thickly to be sure of numbers. Ahead, out in the white, the line of legionaries moved forward as if drawn by plough horses, slowly but without a break, each man safe behind his shield, each stabbing in the small space between. They lost one for every twenty warriors killed. Small numbers of Roman cavalry - not the wild Batavian horsemen of the cohorts or their Gaulish auxiliary comrades - covered the margins, preventing an attack from the rear. Their control was terrifying. To ride within sight of battle and not to kill spoke of discipline beyond imagining.

BOOK: Dreaming the Eagle
12.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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