Authors: Manda Scott
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #_rt_yes, #_NB_fixed, #onlib
He meant Cunomar. The boy’s heart surged. Ardacos signalled behind him and the second warrior ran up towards them. Even before she reached the top of the slope, Cunomar could see what she brought. He thought he might weep with joy and wondered if that would be a good thing to do on the eve of battle. Before he could decide, Ardacos had knelt before his mother’s grey mare and held out a legionary sword in both hands. Formally, using the cadences of a singer, or an elder in council, he said, “For Cunomar, son of Breaca and Caradoc, cousin and namesake to Cunomar of the fires, who gave his life that we might live, I bring the weapon of the bravest of this night’s enemies.”
Stripped of its sheath, the blade lay naked across Ardacos’ palms, a thing of silver smeared stickily black. Cunomar felt his mother’s hands on his waist and then he was swung down to the ground and she was standing behind him, one hand on his shoulder.
Before she could prompt him, the child drew himself up and, following the conventions he had heard in the summer councils, said, “Cunomar, son of the Boudica and of Caradoc, warrior of three tribes, thanks Ardacos of the Caledones, warrior of the she-bear and of the honour guard of Mona, for his great gift and pledges…”
He ran out of words. He had no idea what he pledged; the weapon held all his attention. It was smaller than his mother’s war sword and he was sure he could lift it. With both hands, he grasped the hilt and pulled. The blade slid off Ardacos’ open palms and fell, point down, to pierce the turf between the warrior’s feet. Cunomar’s pride fell with it, turning to shame and fear of failure and the ill omen of a
warrior-to-be who could not raise his own sword. Tears welled in him and spilled over and he took a breath to howl his disappointment.
“No. Look. There is no harm done. See, we can lift it together.” His mother’s arms encircled him, stemming the grief. “It’s an enemy sword and Mab’s blood is still on it. We must clean it and dedicate it to the gods and then we’ll put it away and keep it safe until you’re a warrior and can wield it in battle.”
That was not what he wanted. Cygfa had her knife and could wear it openly; he wanted the same, or better. He felt his lower lip quiver and the tears massed again on his lids. His mother ruffled her fingers through his hair and went on as if she had never meant to stop. “But before that, you can try one swing, to get the feel of it. See—I’ll hold it, you can make the stroke.”
With one hand she lifted the blade, making it light as straw, and with the other she pressed his own small fist in before hers and he found that he could make the back-handed killing stroke in the way he had seen Cygfa do when their father first began to teach her, and then, because it was a Roman blade, he followed it with a lunge forward as the enemy were said to do, killing empty air that had every Roman in the world at the end of it.
His mother laughed, breathlessly. “That’s good. See? The blade knows its rightful owner and—” She stopped, and this time he did not have to look up to see why because he had seen the thing before her and it was his own small gasp that had made her look with him to the horizon where a beacon fire blossomed like a second sun. Cunomar knew in the depths of his soul that it signalled the beginning of
the war to end all wars and that he would not be old enough to wield his new blade before the fighting ended.
The world changed, dizzyingly fast. Breaca stood, suddenly, taking the Roman blade out of reach and her son did not protest. He heard her call out a name and a cry rose up around him, the keening of the grey falcon that was the sign of the Silures in whose land they lived and fought, and of Gwyddhien who led the right wing of the honour guard. The sound multiplied as her warriors joined it and the mountain rang as with a multitude of hunting birds. The child’s world darkened as men and women in uncountable numbers mounted their horses and raised their shields, blocking out the sun.
Cunomar turned, seeking his mother, and found she was crouching beside him again, snapping her fingers and whistling into the long shadows beneath the hawthorn trees where the war hounds lay awaiting battle.
Three hounds emerged. The grey-white bitch was first, who had been called Cygfa until Cunomar’s half-sister was born when the hound’s name had been changed to Swan’s Neck and then to just Neck. She was foremost among his mother’s brood bitches and had given birth to Stone, the tall young hound who came out next and who would run beside the grey battle mare and help the warriors to defeat the enemy. But it was three-legged Hail for whom his mother waited, for whom she would always wait, sire to Stone and uncounted others. The great white-spotted war hound had once belonged to Breaca’s brother Bán and, because of that, was now and for ever the most beloved of the Boudica’s beasts.
The singers told more tales of Bán, lost brother to the
Boudica, than of any other hero, living or dead. For one who had died before he ever sat his long-nights, the litany of Bán’s achievements was dauntingly long. Hare-hunter, horse-dreamer and healer, he had been born with power such as had not been seen since the time of the ancestors. His first battle had shown him also to be a warrior; as a child not yet come to manhood, he had, they said, fought and killed at least twenty of the enemy before he was tricked into carelessness and slain. The tragedy was made worse by the fact that it had been Amminios, brother to Caradoc, who had betrayed the boy-hero and slain him. The singers played heavily on that; it would have been far less of a tale if the traitor had been an unknown warrior from another land.
They sang of the hero’s hound, Hail, in the same tones and often in the same songs as they did of Bán, telling of the beast’s outstanding courage in battle and his prowess in the hunt. From when he was too young fully to understand the words, Cunomar had listened to his mother’s voice singing him to sleep, so that he dreamed through the nights of a god-touched boy who killed with the ease of a man and of his three-legged war hound who belonged now to the Boudica and had claimed for ever a large part of her soul.
Cunomar had tried to love Hail as his mother did but had not succeeded. In the spring, when a dog whelp had been born with the same white ear and spattering of white spots on its coat as its sire, Cunomar had hoped that perhaps his mother’s affections might shift so that the new hound would displace the old, but it had not been so. The whelp had been named Rain because there could only ever be one Hail, and although Breaca had cherished it and spent too much of her time in training it, Hail was still the one
who ran at her side on the morning of battle and it was Hail before whom she crouched now, in whose pelt her fingers dug deep so that her nose was level with his nose and to whom she spoke as if the hound were a warrior and could understand.
The hound grumbled deep in its throat and when the Boudica let go, it sighed and turned to make its stilted way to Cunomar’s side. Hail was too big, that was part of the trouble. The great head loomed over the child’s so that the boy had to look up into its eyes. He thought it regarded him with disdain, measuring him against those who had given their lives in battle and finding him not of their stature.
With an effort, Cunomar dragged his gaze away. Breaca had come to crouch before him as she had before the hound, with her face close to his, smiling. He reached out and hugged her, burying his face in the crook of her neck, breathing her in to the depths of his chest. He thought she should have smelled differently today, of battle and resolution, but she smelled as she always did, of sheep’s wool and horse sweat and a little of hound spittle where Hail had licked her face and she had not wiped it away, and over all of those, she smelled of herself: his mother who would never change.
Cunomar’s hair was corn-gold like his father’s. She smoothed it, tucking it behind his ears. Her lips pressed into his crown and he knew she was speaking but not what she said; the words were Eceni and too difficult for a boy raised on Mona amongst the dialects of the west. He ached for knowing she must go when he so badly wanted her to stay and be
Boudica, to blaze with the wildfire just for him.
Instead she smiled the secret smile that she kept for her
son and his father and said, “My warrior-to-be, I’m sorry, I have to leave you. The beacon fire says the enemy governor has sailed away and we must destroy his legions before another comes to take his place. I’ve asked Hail to take care of you while I’m gone but really he’s old and he needs you to take care of him. Will you do that for me?”
He would do anything for her, she knew that. Reaching up, he touched the silver feather that dangled in her hair. It was beautiful, each part of it perfect, so that Cunomar could imagine the smith had taken the wing feather of a crow and dipped it in silver, running gold in bands round the quill to number the hundreds she had killed. He wanted his mother to kill another thousand Romans so that she could have more feathers but the words were too complicated so instead he smiled for her and said, “I will guard Hail, I swear it, my blood for his blood, my life for his,” as he had heard the warriors do.
It was the right thing to say. She clasped his head in both hands and kissed his forehead, then rose swiftly, speaking again in Eceni. A shadow fell across the ground before him and Cunomar turned to find Dubornos at his side, the tall, gaunt singer with sparse red hair who was one of his mother’s oldest allies.
Cunomar was not afraid of Dubornos, but he did not understand him. In a world where the wearing of wealth was an open honouring of the gods, the singer bore no gold or silver adornment, but only a narrow band of fox pelt on his upper arm to mark his dream. Moreover, he carried about him a grief that drained him of humour and he spoke rarely and always with great gravity as now, when he reached down and took Cunomar’s hand as if he were a small child and
said, “Warrior-to-be, I have pledged to stay and take care of the younger children. Will you help me with that?”
Anyone could tell that he found it uncomfortable to speak so and would have preferred to take care of the children himself. Still, it was not done for a warrior to turn down a request for help before battle. Cunomar withdrew his hand as politely as he could and touched the skinning knife at his belt. “I will help,” he said, “my life for theirs,” and he saw his mother clasp Dubornos’ shoulder and heard her soft word of thanks and knew it was what she had wanted.
There were eight children, of whom Cunomar was the second youngest. With Dubornos’ help, they scrambled up the mountain to take their place in a high eyrie, behind a rocky escarpment that gave them a view down to the river and across to the enemy fort that squatted on the opposite side of the valley.
Cygfa joined them presently, her face tear-streaked from her parting with their father. His sister may have been going to be a warrior sooner than he, but, in Cunomar’s opinion, she did not know how to part properly with the warriors before battle. She spoke briefly with Dubornos and then the two of them came to lie with Cunomar, one on either side. They watched as the mass of horses threaded their way down the mountain and the warriors of the she-bear, who went into battle on foot wherever possible, ran down the slopes, grey as boulders with the woad-grease, and were swallowed by the mist.
For a while, stillness held the valley. Trumpets sounded distantly from the fort. The Romans, too, had seen the beacon but there was no knowing what they made of it.
Certainly they were not likely to believe that the beacon hill had been taken and their fort was under attack. The gods or the dreamers, or both, kept the mist thick around the river and sent layers of it rising on the warm morning air, concealing the movements of warriors. Looking carefully, Cunomar could see the glint of a mail shirt or a spear tip, but the harness and helmets of the warriors were well wrapped to keep them quiet and unseen for the longest possible time.
The boy’s attention drifted. He was watching Hail who was, in turn, watching a spider string a web across the heather when Cygfa nudged his elbow and hissed. He raised his eyes in time to see his mother and father lead the charging warriors up through the mist.
For the rest of his life, Cunomar remembered that battle as if he had taken part in it, flying as one of Briga’s crows in the air above his mother, guarding her and marking the enemy for death. He heard the drum of the hooves and the war cries of the warriors and knew the point when they gave way to the screams of the wounded. He smelled the blood and the horse sweat and the curdling acid of spilled guts and the first threads of smoke as the men and women of the she-bear carried brush and burning brands up the steep turf ramparts of the fort and set fire to the wooden palisade on top. He saw from up high the moment when the commander of the enemy forces chose to order his men out of the gates to fight in the open where the fires might not catch them and he knew, with a jubilation that lifted him cheering to his feet, that this was what his mother had planned and prayed for. He saw the brief hiatus in the fighting as the warriors withdrew to let the bulk of the
enemy sweep out of the gateway and then the crash as of a breaking wave as they surged back in again, annihilating the foe. Through it all, his mother and father killed at the fore, copper hair and corn-gold making two beacons for the warriors to follow. At no point did it occur to him that his mother might die, or be injured. She was the Boudica. She lived to kill the enemy and Cunomar, her son—her only child—would do the same when his time came.
On the eastern side of the country, far from the chaos of war, Julius Valerius, second in command of the third troop, the Fifth Gaulish Cavalry, stationed in perpetuity at Camulodunum, woke to numbing cold. It gnawed into his dreams, which were bad, and made them worse until he woke. He pulled his cloak tighter and rolled over to lie on his side. It was too dark to see. Stretching a hand to the wall, he felt a slither of ice on the rough plaster where the breath and sweat of four men had frozen. His fingers were stiff. He blew on them and tucked them under his armpit, swearing aloud as the blood returned. The brand was the only warm part of him; a raven’s silhouette of fire still burned in the centre of his chest a full month after the iron had first seared his soul.