Sample text for Dreaming the serpent-spear / Manda Scott.
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Rain clouds bruised the last pale of the sky, lit to copper by the dying sun, and the ring of fires beneath.
Cunomar of the Eceni, only son to the Boudica, thrust a lit brand into the bundle of gorse and thorn and straw that lay close to the base of the legionary watchtower.
He waited, watching the clouds and the fire equally. A lifetime passed; time to be seen, for the alarm to be raised in the watchtower above, for a legionary standing on the ramparts to hurl a javelin into his unarmoured flesh, for a dozen of the enemy to burst from the gates with their blades unsheathed, seeking the life of the warrior who sought to burn them.
None of these things happened. He watched the nuggets of mutton fat wound in the centre of the thorn take light and flare, brightly. Three part-naked warriors ran in from his right and threw more bundles of fatted furze along the foot of the wall. Cunomar ran after them, lighting each one. He hurled the burning end of his brand into the heart of the last.
Straw and dry thorn blazed, belching greased smoke. He backed away, choking. Heat washed over him then, as if the need to succeed had kept him safe from the ravening power of the fire. Freed from that, he felt the skin of his forearms blister where burning tallow had sprayed onto them. The king-band on his arm grew dull in the heat and burned him.
He ran back into unseen shadows, blinded by the flames. Friendly hands caught his elbow and dragged him to shelter behind a short barrier of woven wicker palisades. Someone–Ulla, perhaps; she cared for him most closely–reached across to cover his head and shoulders with a cape of soaked rawhide, making sure not to touch the healing wound on the right side of his head where his ear had once been. Someone else passed him a scrap of wet wool and he pressed it over his mouth and nose. He tried to make his breathing shallow and could not; the run and the heat and the fire had taken that from him.
He breathed smoke and coughed again and was not the only one. His lungs ached. The bear grease about his torso and limbs became fluid in the heat. Battle marks in woad and white lime that spelled out his oath to the she-bear, to honour her in victory or die, smeared into meaningless swirls. His hair stood up like a cock's comb, a hand's length of stiff, white lime. He flexed his shoulders, and felt the heat equally on the old bear scars, cut with love by the elder dreamers of the Caledonii, and the new ones scourged by Rome. None of them matched the savage, perpetual ache at the side of his head where a hawk-scout of the Cortani in Roman pay had hacked off his ear.
Far faster than he had imagined, the flames engulfed the wood of the fort, except at the gates, where the timber was steaming, but had not yet lit. Following standing orders, the men of the XXth legion on watch inside had doused the gates with water before dusk. Even here, in the occupied east of Britannia, where there was supposed to be peace, the legions still protected their watchtowers nightly against fire.
Valerius had said they would do that, and that the men inside would be drunk because, orders not withstanding, the legionaries did not believe there was any risk of attack. He had said, too, that, drunk or not, they would still charge from the gates in a wedge as soon as the alarm was sounded.
Valerius knew too much and was too free with his opinions. On principle, Cunomar did not want him to be right.
He was thinking exactly that when the gates slammed open and the legionaries charged out. They were formed in a wedge, with their shields to the outside and wet leather draped about their heads as protection against fire and iron.
Cunomar's spear had already left his hand when the words he needed came to him. "Go for their legs! Aim below the shields. Go!"
The night splintered apart. Two dozen greased, limed, howling bear-warriors threw down their wicker barriers and hurled their spears. Most aimed as they had been told and if they did not all hit flesh and bone, they caught amongst the ankles of men who stumbled into the night dazzled and deafened and drunk but still viciously able to fight.
"Break the wedge! Don't let them form a line!"
The battle rage had not yet come. Cunomar was intoxicated by heat and smoke and the heady release of action, but still able to think. He saw his second spear glance off the knee of the leading legionary. The man wore the helmet plumes of a junior officer but no leg greaves; there had been no time to fit them. Shocked, he looked up, drunk and sober at once. His eyes were black pits in a fire-red face. He was too young to be leading men alone.
His eyes barely changed as another spear struck him. He collapsed onto one knee, using his shield to push himself upright, and opened his mouth and shouted "Hold the wedge!" and it was then, spurred by the angular grate of the Latin, that the bear took hold of Cunomar, filling his heart and his gut and his head with a vast, unstoppable fury, so that he no longer knew what he did, only that he needed to kill and to keep on killing until every thing of Rome had been broken apart and driven into the sea for ever.
He was of the she-bear; he ran to battle unshielded and unarmoured, fighting only with spear and knife. Bear grease was his armour, his rigid, white-limed hair his helmet. The king-band that encircled his arm marked him as the son of the Boudica, child of the royal line of the Eceni. His knife was a gift from his mother, made before the men of Rome had flogged her. He had made his first battle kills with it, in her company. As he had done then, he sought the song of the blade that he might bear a small part of the Boudica into battle.
Screaming her name, he smashed the cheek of the Roman officer with the knife's hilt, then stabbed at his eyes. The man's one good knee buckled. He crumpled to the bloody earth, too suddenly dead to cry out.
Exultant, Cunomar threw back his head and howled victory for the Boudica and the bear. If one of the enemy had struck him in that moment, he would have died. He knew it and did not care. He lived because the bear watched over him and was invincible. He shared a second kill with Ulla while there were still men alive to hunt and was sorry there were not more.
Afterwards, it was quiet, but for the spit and tumble of the fire.
Eight Roman legionaries and their officer had manned the watchtower, and all were dead. Of the two dozen she-bears who had attacked it, only Scerros, a red-haired youth of the northern Eceni, had taken any wound and that a shallow sword thrust to the thigh which would heal by the month's turn.
The enemy dead were stripped of their weapons and armour and their bodies fed to the fire. The flames reached up for the sky, bright as sun in the encroaching night. The heat was unbearable.
Cunomar walked back to the wicker palisades and began to stack them. From that distance, the fire was pleasantly warm, easing the transition to calm.
"It'll be seen." Ulla spoke from the shadows to his right. Her kill had been first and cleanest, and she had visited the bodies of the slain afterwards, running her blade along each throat that the men might be assuredly dead before they were given to the fire.
Such an act was a mark of her care, or her hate; probably both. She, too, had been flogged by Rome, with Scerros and three others. These five made the tight, unyielding kernel of Cunomar's honour guard, and if Rome had had the choosing of them, still, he was glad of the choices. Nearly a month had passed since and they were recovered enough to move and to fight, but the scars would never go, nor the patina of otherness that set them apart even within the she-bear, which was already set apart from the greater mass of the Boudica's gathering war host.
Ulla was dark-haired and bright-eyed and she killed as a hawk does, with a fluid, savage beauty. She joined Cunomar in stacking the wicker barriers in a heap.
"The fire will be seen," she said again. "If a single sentry of the Twentieth is awake and even half sober in any of the other watchtowers, they'll light the signal chain and the whole of Camulodunum will know by morning there has been death in the Eceni lands."
Cunomar hefted the topmost palisade, testing its weight. "I would think so," he agreed. "Valerius said as much."
Ulla met him face-on, her lips set straight. "He said it as a warning, not an invitation," she said. "He thinks we are not yet ready to take on the legions."
"I know. I think he's wrong. Soon, we will learn which of us is right." Cunomar hurled the wicker onto the flames. The fire coughed and stuttered and flared higher and brighter. He stepped back, smiling.
"Perhaps if we throw enough of these on," he said, "it may be that we can make the flames reach the clouds. However drunk they are, Rome's watchmen will find it hard not to notice that."
Ulla was the closest of his honour guard, his sworn shield in battle; she had never yet argued against him. With the four others who had bound themselves closest to the Boudica's son, she helped him to throw the wicker onto the fire.
Before the last of the wood was alight, a pinpoint of flame blossomed to the south and west. For a moment it looked fragile, a dandelion puff fluttering in the wind. Cunomar turned to face it fully and spoke aloud the first eight names of the she-bear as he had been taught them in the caves of the Caledonii.
The night vibrated, richly. At the sound, the distant flame strengthened and held, and was joined, presently, by seven others, strung out over half a night's ride in a line that led directly south to the veterans' colony of Camulodunum, Rome's first city in its occupied province of Britannia.
The fever broke at dusk on its twelfth day.
Breaca woke to the smell of smoke and the quiet of an empty hut. The fire lay dead in its hearth and the sweat was cold on the horsehides beneath her.
Her face was creased in a pattern of ridges. She moved and then did not move, but simply breathed, because nothing else was possible while the pain consumed her: great, mountainous, pounding waves that crushed everything else to nothing.
The fever had been a gift, she had known that even at its height. She tried to fall back into its oblivion and could not; the day was too sharp and too present and her body would not let her go.
Other things made themselves felt.
Her feet were cold, that was the first thing, and the palms of her hands too hot. Woven wool covered her, and paste had been smeared over the worst parts of her back so that she felt the tickle of the blanket through crusted remnants of dock leaf and powdered clay. Her hair was not plastered to her face as it had been when she last paid it any attention; someone had combed it with care, and braided it back from her face, so that there was a tightness at her temples and across her head. Airmid had done that; the touch of her care was still there in the patterns of weaving.
Breaca had no memory of the paste, or the blankets, or the combing of her hair. Her memories began and ended with Graine, and the sounds of her screaming, and the brutal finality of the moment when it had stopped.
Your daughter's wounding is not your fault or your failure.
So the god had said. Breaca did not have to believe it.
On the third remembering, or perhaps the fourth, when the shock of the sudden silence was less, she realized that she could no longer hear the anvil, and that she had moved twice now, and no-one had leaned over to offer her a beaker of water and ask if she needed help to drink.
Confused, she stretched her mind beyond the confines of her body for the first time in days. Sage smoke drifted light on the air but the scent was old, with its sharpness long gone. The fire was dull and white ash lay cold on its surface. No-one sat with their back to the wall, ready to lay the small heaps of apple wood and pine chips onto the embers, to cleanse and clear the staleness of the room.
No-one was waiting, either, to change the wads of uncombed wool that had been propped under her armpits to keep her still in the turbulence of the fever, or to lift her head with quiet hands to offer her water and help her void urine into the clay pot that lay empty by the bed, or to kiss her, and smooth paste on her back and speak to her of the growing spring and the new foals in the paddocks and the whelps fathered by Stone newly born in the great-house and how the war host was in training, ready for her return.
She waited awhile, and then turned her head and so found that she was, indeed, alone, without either the god or Airmid watching over her for the first time since the fever began.
The shock of that left her numb for a moment, like a plunge into cold water in summer. After, coming to herself again, she began to weep, slowly and silently at first, then later in great, heaving sobs, and the release of it, and the knowing that her grief was no burden to anyone, was as overwhelming as the pain had been, and made it less.
After that, she needed water, and so sat up, and drank on her own account from the beaker that was left by the bed. The water was cool and tasted of nothing more than the river, which was as telling in its own way as the silence.
It was a long time since she had drunk anything that was not laced with something bitter from Airmid's stocks, leavened with a little honey to disguise the taste. Those who cared for her, therefore, had known the fever was ending and had left her alone to find for herself the limits of what she could do. For that that care, she wept again, briefly.
She lay back, and stared up into the reeds of the roof thatch and began systematically to take the measure of her life.
Am I not yet dead?
She was not. The gods wished her to live; she must, therefore, strive to do so, and to fight, if that were required of her, and to care for those whom she had loved, and did still, and all of this must be done amidst the despair of Graine's wounding, with no promise from the god that it would end.
But she will heal? Airmid had asked, and Valerius, in his wisdom, had answered, If she wants to badly enough.
To want to heal, one must first have a passion for life, and her passion was Graine, who was broken.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Boadicea, -- Queen, -- d. 62 -- Fiction.
Great Britain -- History -- Roman period, 55 B.C.-449 A.D. -- Fiction.
Great Britain -- History, Military -- 55 B.C.-449 A.D. -- Fiction.
Romans -- Great Britain -- Fiction.
Women soldiers -- Fiction.
Britons -- Fiction.
Queens -- Fiction.
Iceni -- Fiction.