She Prays for Victory - Full Story
Content Warning: Discussion of rape and the effects of rape, grisly images, brutal violence
Tossing the ax into her other hand, she pushed the old man away. He stumbled and fell to the ground, but more barred her way, thronging in front of her in their bullhide garments that blurred together into a faceless mask of resistance. In the dim half-light of the trees, a few flecks of sunlight glimmered down from a gap in the leaves above, and her vision swam for a moment as the branches shifted.
“Back! Back, woman!” cried one of the old fools at the center of the group. “Already you have brought a curse upon yourself. Don’t compound your profanity any further.”
Clenching her jaw, she took a step forward, but a hand closed around her ankle and pulled her back. She looked down at the man who had first confronted her, reaching out to clutch her leg. Yanking her foot away, she smashed the heel of her boot into his face. His nose broke, and he rolled away, screaming.
Turning toward the others, she gripped the ax in both hands and marshaled her authority to address them in a clear voice. “Out of my way, all you charlatans, or I’ll hew you to the ground along with your empty symbols. Worship as you will, but if you hinder me, I’ll put your faith to the test.”
Such determination flashed in her eyes as she strode forward that the first of them gave way before her, and she passed between them untouched, raising the ax over her shoulder.
A narrow shaft of cold, gray light fell upon her husband’s face where he lay within the tall mound of earth. The chill air outside filtered into the grave, and she shivered as she looked down on him, arrayed in his finest garments and with many tokens of his great wealth arranged about his body. Even in death a fleeting remnant of his smile, at once proud and gracious, still hung about the corners of his lips. She smiled in return, running her fingers along the back of the hand that had so often caressed her skin, had held her as they danced together under the stars, and had, many years ago, clasped her own as the rope had bound them to each other.
“Wherever you have flown, my heart flies with you,” she whispered to him, stooping to press her lips to his forehead. Then, ducking her head to pass through the opening of the mound, she emerged into the open air, her hair and skirt fluttering in the wind.
Her husband’s daughters stood nearby, having already made their farewells. Lavena wept freely, but Mave, the elder, only stood watching as the bard assigned to perform the rites passed inside to whisper his last instructions to the dead. Meeting Mave’s eyes for a moment, she tightened her lips into a comfortless smile, and she saw her step-daughter’s face twist with an involuntary spasm of grief. In a single breath, though, she had smoothed her countenance back into a mask of stoicism, and she turned her eyes toward the burial mound once more.
Leaving her daughters to comfort themselves with the funereal rites, she turned away and began walking up the sloping ground toward the house that stood on the hill far away, dark against the gray of the overcast sky. At the corner of her vision she saw Lavena open her mouth to cry out after her, but Mave clutched her sister by the arm and shook her head without a word.
The wind blew life back into her as she walked, and by the time she was halfway home her grief had found its solace in the pricking of the cold against her skin and the warmth in her legs as she climbed. Turning to look down again at the funeral gathering, she heard the bard’s song drift up from below, although she could not discern the words. He stood with his arms upraised, and many of those present—all her husband’s kinsmen, sworn sword-brothers, and faithful servants—had lifted their faces toward the sky as they listened to his account of her husband’s life and deeds. Almost wishing she could have listened to the song, exaggerated and grandiose though it surely would have sounded in her ears who knew him best, she turned again and walked the rest of the way to the house without looking back.
The warmth of the fire burning in the great hall washed over her as she entered, but she lingered not, instead mounting the stairs to climb to the floor above and enter the bedroom she had shared with her husband these eighteen years. It loomed quiet and empty as she stopped at the door, but after a moment she entered and crossed to the narrow window that looked out over the plain. Far below, minuscule shapes against the emerald green of the moor, her husband’s mourners were scattering; his allies to their homes far away and his tenants to theirs nearby. His daughters and those of the household, lingering a few moments longer beside the grave, had only just begun to climb the hill toward the house, but already she could see that Lavena was starting to dry her tears.
A flash of light on the horizon caught her eye. She lifted her gaze to the hills far beyond, and her heart began to pound faster in her body as she saw, still too distant for any but her eyes to observe, a row of shields glinting against the sun as it emerged from behind the clouds. Turning from the window, she descended once more to the hall and approached the hearth, where hung her long, two-handed sword. Her hand closed around the hilt, and she lifted it down from the wall, casting aside the scabbard and striding toward the door with the naked blade.
“I always hated the stola,” she said, pulling off the bloodied and tattered garment and using it to brush the ash and shattered pottery from the table in the kitchen, which had somehow survived the ransacking of the house more or less intact. “Unflattering sack.”
“Father liked us to appear loyal,” said Lavena, pursing her lips. “Committed.” She sat on the opposite side of the table, near the fire, for she had taken off her dress to stitch up the torn skirt.
“For all the good it did us,” said Mave, tossing more broken clay vessels onto the floor. She slammed the door of the cabinet she had been investigating and opened the next.
It contained a few bowls still largely unbroken, which she took out and carried with her to the storeroom beyond, calling over her shoulder, “We would have done better to show these robbers the points of our swords when they first appeared in the land.”
“We can rebuild,” said Lavena. “We still have the land; that’s what matters.”
“For how long?” Mave called from the storeroom, the echoes of her voice bouncing off the stone walls. “They won’t stop with us. We’ll be slaves in our own country soon.”
She returned with two of the bowls filled with beer and set them before her sister and step-mother. “There. It’s weak stuff, but all they’ve left us.” Going back to fill the third bowl, she added, “Better get used to it.”
Lavena frowned again as she pulled the needle through the edge of the dress. “This was only my second time wearing this.”
“You’ll have many more opportunities,” said her step-mother. “They’ve taken or burned nearly everything else.”
She picked up her bowl and drained it, then sat down at the table across from Lavena, who cast her an aggrieved glance. “Not much good, with a huge tear all the way up to the ass.”
Her mouth twisted again as she fought with a sudden upwelling of tears, but she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I should have spent more time learning to sew,” she added as she resumed her task.
“You’ll be glad you didn’t soon,” said Mave, returning with her own beer. “Shooting is better than housekeeping for what we have in front of us.”
“We’ll be slaughtered,” said Lavena. “There are too many—endless numbers of them.”
“Better fifty of our free folk than a thousand of their mindless soldiers. More like machines than living men.”
Mave lowered herself slowly onto the bench next to Lavena, spreading out her own torn skirt and wincing as her flesh met the planks.
“We should muster all our tribe,” she continued, taking a draft from her bowl. “If they haven’t already been attacked, they will be. We should push these invaders from our land—or, better yet, use their blood and bones to feed the ground. There’s only so many soldiers. Most of them are old, or women or children.”
“Innocents,” said her step-mother.
“They’re here, aren’t they?”
“They’re here,” said Lavena, “And thousands more of them are just across the water.”
Lavena stood up and pulled her dress over her head, then twisted around to look at the back. The stitching stood out, marring the finery of the dress, and she sighed as she sat down again.
“Our gods and our strength will keep them back,” said Mave, paying no attention. “They can’t stop our sacrifices, and our songs. Heaven will be our might.”
She slammed her empty bowl onto the table and rose. “Mother, what do you say? You rule the clan now—shouldn’t we drive away the foreigners from our land, the land we’ve held for generations? They can only withstand us for so long.”
“How many attacks like today could you withstand?” demanded Lavena, her voice growing sharp with the memory of earlier panic and terror, but Mave waved her into silence.
She looked from one to the other—from Mave’s grim resolve to Lavena’s controlled wretchedness—and swallowed the lump that blossomed in her throat at seeing their courage. Still, she could not bring herself to pronounce their doom, and at last Mave drew her knife from its sheath at her hip and rammed it into the wooden table point-first. With the echoes of the stroke still reverberating about the tiny kitchen, she began to drag the blade across the boards in short, practiced strokes, forming a symbol the others recognized before she had even finished.
“You have never understood that story aright,” she said to Mave, with the glimmer of a smile.
“I understand that you received it,” said Mave. “May we not do as much in defense of what we hold dear?”
“Regardless of our sacrifices, or whatever we do to call upon the gods,” she answered, with deliberation, “the more of them who must die, the more of us who must die.”
At last, she rose, looking at Mave. “You are stern and warlike, daughter. You will rouse our people to defend themselves and their land.”
Crossing over to where Lavena sat, her face a mask of mingled humiliation and determination, she sat down beside her and kissed her forehead, holding her daughter’s face close to her own. “I will ask something more difficult of you. Will you go with your sister to summon all our our tribesmen, wearing this dress? Will you show your shame to them, and know it is not your shame at all? When they know how you have been wounded, they will know what’s at stake.”
Lavena’s eyes glistened as they stared into hers, but the younger woman nodded at last.
“But what will you do?” asked Mave. “You are our queen.”
Holding Lavena’s hands between her own, she looked up at Mave and smiled. “I will offer the sacrifices.”
Night was falling as the two younger women rode away together on a single old mare—the army had stolen the best of their horses—and she watched them disappear into the gathering twilight before turning back toward the barn that stood behind the house. The moon had waned to only a faint sickle, so she groped along the wall until she came to the hooks that held the rope. One long coil still remained, and she slung it over her shoulder before stumbling back out into the dim moonlight.
“Breecs,” she muttered as she looked out across the fields. “Why is everything a skirt?”
Drawing the knife from her leg, she sawed away the skirt of her tunic at mid-thigh level and discarded the leftover fabric. Then, setting her sights on the hills at the edge of the horizon, she began to run.
Camulodunum stood in darkness still when she arrived, with only the faintest suggestion of dawn at the very rim of her vision. Stopping in the open square at the center of the town, she looked up at the figure that loomed over her in the blackness—the winged form of a woman, arms spread out in front of her and feet posed as if running forward, toward the north. Ten feet above her head at the least, it towered, an abomination, a symbol of the conqueror’s dominion over the conquered—a never-ending reminder for the native people of their subjugation, and the subjugation of their land. Sparing a moment to smile at the irony of such thoughts arising within her own mind, she circled the great statue and leaped up from behind it to grasp at the outstretched wings. She pulled herself up by her arms, then braced her knees against the stony feathers and pulled the coil of rope over her head. She passed one end of it under the statue’s armpits, then tied it in a loop before springing backward to land once more on the ground. Looping the other end of the rope around her own back, she wound it about her elbows before backing away until the slack tightened. With her heels digging into the ground, she leaned backward and pulled on the rope with all her strength, until it bit into the flesh of her shoulders and a cold sweat broke out on her skin. The stone at the base of the statue’s feet cracked, then broke away, and she tumbled backward as the figure plummeted down and landed with a low thud upon the soft ground at her feet.
She rose, panting a little but laughing under her breath, and untied the rope from the statue. The figure lay on its back, resting on the outstretched wings with its hands to the sky. Squatting beneath the left wing, she placed her hands on the woman’s back and heaved upward and over, so that the statue rolled onto its face, with its feet toward the north, as if it was fleeing southward.
Still laughing, she coiled the rope and tossed it back over her head. The edge of the sky was growing lighter, and soon the town would begin to stir. Hitching up her fraying skirt, she ran away toward the north once more.
When her daughters returned at the end of the third day, she had already swept all the ashes out of the house and salvaged what goods and furnishings had been left undamaged. A few of their livestock had scattered during the attack, and these had gradually returned, providing them with milk and eggs. She had even found time to venture into the forest and slay a deer, which she was roasting over the fire when Mave and Lavena burst into the house, exuberant with the news that some two thousand of their clansmen would muster on their land within two days time.
“And also,” said Mave, tearing off a mouthful of venison as she sat down at the kitchen table, “we heard rumors of strange and disturbing portents away down at Camulodunum. Terrible cries and shrieks of laughter were heard two nights ago in their theater, and only this morning, the water of the river is said to have turned to blood as it flowed through the town.”
“And three nights ago the statue of Victory, their goddess, fell from its pedestal, as if running away from the North,” said Lavena, grease dripping down her chin as she spoke. “The land has already begun to drive them out.”
“Whatever sacrifices you offered, the gods have heard you,” said Mave.
“Let’s hope we do not also have to sacrifice too many swords,” she said, sitting down across from them and smiling at Lavena, who grinned back at her.
Londinium lay grim and black and quiet as they stalked the empty streets together. Passing by the hollowed-out husks of huddled houses and the scattered and charred corpses that lay among the rubble, they walked in silence toward the center of the once-burgeoning town. Although the stench of decay still lingered behind the smell of smoke and ash that seemed to saturate even their own clothes and hair, the quality of the air had improved since the previous day, when the scent of blood and death had nearly overwhelmed all other sensations—before the fire.
They had driven the citizens of the town before them, helpless and mindless with fear at their advent. The men of the clan, wild with exultation at their previous victory in Camulodunum, had thrown off all restraint and wrecked little whether those they slew had played any part in the injustice perpetrated against their tribe. Slaughtering any too slow to flee, they had soon emptied the streets of any living enemy, and even those taken alive did not remain prisoners for long.
“What say you now to my qualms?” she said to Mave as they arrived at the square and looked up at the grisly figures above them.
“They were on our land,” said Mave, her voice taut in the darkness. After a brief pause, she added, “But they did not deserve this.”
“But… you told them,” said Lavena. “You warned them to show mercy—you told them.”
“Such is revolution,” she said, her mouth a hard line. “At best you can guide it. You can’t control it.”
“We—but this mustn’t happen again,” said Lavena.
“There’s no help for it now,” said Mave. “We have to go on, and if that means their people die, better than if our people die.”
“But no one had to die!” wailed Lavena, her voice breaking. “Why didn’t you listen—”
“It’s too late,” she said, pulling her younger daughter to her. Lavena buried her face in her mother’s shoulder and sobbed, while her sister continued to look up at the pitiful shapes overhead.
“Come,” she said at last to both of them, pulling away from Lavena. “We owe these people better than they have now.”
She led the way to the first pole and kicked it over. It cracked, then toppled to the ground with a soft, sickening thump, and she turned it over. Impaled upon the spike, pierced from groin to open mouth, lay the body of an old woman, her eye sockets wide and staring where the crows had picked at them.
Turning to Mave, she placed her foot on the dead woman’s hip to hold the body still. “Pull out the pike,” she said. “Then drag the body to center of the square.”
While Mave removed the first corpse, she tore down the second, and Lavena removed the pike from the body of a young man whose face had also been slashed and burned after his death. All told, twenty-two bodies lay stacked in the middle of the square by the time they had finished this gruesome work, and they stood looking down at the miserable heap in silence for some time afterward.
Finally, Mave said, “One or two of the buildings were made of stone. We can raise a cairn over them.”
“No,” she said. “A tomb is just another thing to be desecrated. We must burn them.”
“But then they cannot go on—”
“Whatever is left of them has no need for this body,” she said. “The dead have nothing to do with us. We only care for their remains to ease ourselves; it matters not how. Find wood; there must be some remaining that isn’t entirely burnt up.”
Shaking her head, Mave turned away to seek wood, and Lavena took a step after her, but her step-mother took her by the arm. “This will only worsen,” she said. “You should return to our home, where you will know nothing of it.”
“How could I do that?” asked Lavena. “You will fight, and Mave will fight. I must fight beside you.”
“Someone must tend to the house and the animals,” she said. “You were not made to endure this.”
Lavena shook her head. She pulled away and followed after Mave, running to catch up to her older sister.
When they had gathered sufficient fragments of wood to construct a rude bier, they placed the first body on it and prepared to light it with a few embers Lavena had found among the ashes. Mave, holding the glowing coals in the helmet of a fallen soldier, was just leaning over to empty them onto the bier, when a sudden shift in the wind sent a chill running up her step-mother’s spine.
“Stop,” she said to Mave, and both her daughters turned to look at her. Without another word, she flung herself to the ground and pressed her ear to the blackened grass, drawing slow, even breaths.
“What is it? What do—” said Mave, but she held up her hand for silence.
“Keep still,” she said, and resumed her vigil. She lay on the ground, motionless, while the moon sank slowly toward the horizon, then sprang to her feet at last. Looking away toward the west and north, her heart shrank in upon itself, and she turned to look at Mave.
“Burn them,” she said. “Make sure it is done before dawn, before anyone can discover you. I will return.”
Before either of them could protest, she broke into a run and disappeared into the fading night.
She ran out of the town, past the tents of her clan where they had pitched them overlooking the road from the north, and out of sight, over a small hill that looked down on Londinium from a distance. As she ran, the moon sank ever farther, and the light of dawn grew behind her, turning the sky dark gray between the stars. The sun was just beginning to crest the horizon when she summited another hill far along the road and looked down across the plain below.
There, encamped across the fields at the back of a narrow gorge, lay thousands upon thousands of their enemies, silent and waiting, as if for a trap to spring. Here and there, watchfires shone in the dwindling darkness, and she could even see their sentries moving to and fro at the edges. Although she knew she stood too far off for mortal eyes to see, she felt exposed and vulnerable, and she cast a glance over her shoulder toward Londinium, where her people would even now be awakening and preparing to advance toward Verulamium, their next target for conquest.
Fighting the urge to turn and race back to their encampment, she turned her eyes instead more directly north and, after a long, silent moment in which the whole world seemed to stand still for her decision, began to run once more.
In the last hour before twilight she came to the edge of the forest, and she paused under its eaves, peering inside. The darkness had already stretched out its fingers around the trunks of the trees, and she could not see the path she sought. Knowing she must trust to instinct—or whatever she thought of as instinct—she stepped inside the wood and began to walk, as quickly as she dared, into its depths.
Tree after tree drifted by her in the lengthening gloom, and as her vision adjusted to the darkness their shapes grew more vague, not less. All stood silent about her, with even the cries of the birds above dwindling into the distance behind as she walked, and no sign of movement before or about her betrayed the presence of any living creature but herself. She walked on, with only the rustling of the leaves at her feet for company, until even the last remaining rays of the sun were receding from the tops of the trees above. Then, almost without warning, she arrived at the place she sought. One moment she had spied the sacred grove before her, and after only a few more steps, she had emerged into it. Looking up, she saw the deep blue of the fading day-sky through the scant leaves of the oak trees above, and those same leaves cast faint, flickering shadows on the ground at her feet.
Before her stood the great oak, the mighty sacred tree from which all the power of the gods and the authority of the druids, their priests, emanated. Wide and gray and tall, it towered above every surrounding tree, spreading its roots out across the ground at her feet. She took a step toward it, and felt a ripple of fear—or awe—run over her skin, but the tree itself only stood silent and proud before her, neither welcoming nor spurning her. With a quickening pulse, she strode toward it now, the urgency of her errand rushing back over her, and she laid her hands on the ancient bark with only vanishing trepidation.
“You,” she said, closing her eyes. “You have taken my sight from me; all these long years a veil has been over my eyes.
She opened her eyes and looked up into the thick branches, waving gently above her. “But whatever listens at the edges—whoever lurks beyond our reckoning—hear me just this once. Grant my people victory. Give us back our land. Drive these “conquerors” before us into the sea. And if not… if we are to be driven back, pushed down and wiped from the earth….”
She closed her eyes again, and leaned forward to rest her forehead against the trunk of the tree. “If not, at least let my daughters live out their days. Let me close their eyes myself, even if we are far from their home and reduced in wealth and valor to little better than slaves. Don’t make me see their bodies broken and their blood spilled out onto the ground. No more empty sacrifices, I beg you—you who have been so long unseen.”
With her eyes still closed, she waited, feeling the blood thundering through her temples and pounding in her throat, but no sign came, neither sound nor vision nor inner sense of certainty. At last, tearing her fingers from the surface of the tree, she opened her eyes and turned to leave the grove.
And she was not alone. All about her, standing at the edges of the grove, half-hidden in the darkness beneath the trees, stood vague, shadowy forms, gray figures in gray robes, all but shadows for how they tantalized her perception. Silent and still, they made no sign and gave no greeting, but only watched; she was sure they watched. As she turned, slowly revolving while she stared into the forest beyond the sacred tree, she could see them lurking in every direction, waiting for her to reach out, or draw near to them, to give herself up or give herself over to them, to the power they claimed and wielded. If she would only surrender herself, she knew, she would receive her desire—would find the answer to her prayer—but the words would not come, and her knees would not bend. They beckoned to her, somehow, without word or expression, but she could not respond, and with every moment that passed a slow terror crawled upward from within her chest, reaching its tendrils up into her very mind—the fear that she had left the physical world behind and been trapped in the World Beyond, away from those she loved and defended. Soon, very soon, if she did not come back to herself, to the solid ground that seemed to have evaporated under her feet, she would lose any hope of victory, and, indeed, her very self, within the shadow-world that had reached out to envelop her in its formless embrace.
A faint, faraway sound began to seep into her consciousness, barely to be discerned at first, but growing louder and closer and more insistent as she heeded it more and more. It rose and swelled and filled her mind until it seemed to be issuing from deep within her, and suddenly she realized that it was her own voice, screaming in defiance and rage, screaming to tear the very fabric of her lungs from her body. With that, she came back to herself. Her feet gripped the ground, and her eyes ceased to drift, and she heard, as the scream died within her throat, only the wind in the trees overhead.
Blinking, she looked about her once more. The shadowy figures still stood at the edges of the grove, but they no longer held any terror or fascination for her. Turning back in the direction from which she had come, she darted out of the sacred grove, and none barred her way or called out to her.
She spun as the javelin thudded into her shoulder, and fell to her knees, then looked back at her forces, fierce and unrelenting even while defeat closed in upon them. The walls of the gorge rose up to the right and the left, and their own supply wagons had cut off their retreat. Before them, the Romans pushed forward, their foremost rank no smaller than her own in that narrow place. Hemmed in on every side, they fell four at a time, while their enemies turned aside their desperate blows in precise, mechanical unison. Cursing her absence, in which the chiefs of the various families had formulated the foolhardy frontal attack, she yanked the javelin from her flesh and cast it to the ground, then rose once more, looking for Lavena.
Mave had already fallen, pierced by many arrows and cut down at last, despite her ferocity, by a sword-thrust to the belly. She knew Mave had died in agony, her life ebbing away onto the rocks in an ever-decreasing stream, but she had at least died in silence, never crying out except in defiance. Lavena must not fare the same, and when she finally spotted her, only thirty paces away to the left and behind, she turned at once and ran toward her daughter.
Lavena had climbed a little way up the side of the gorge and was hacking her way through the advancing Roman forces with a sword retrieved from one of her fallen kinsmen, her arrows long spent. Shrieking out some unheard battle cry drowned by the din of weapon on weapon and the screams of the dying, Lavena was fighting with an abandon and tenacity she would not have expected of her, but she knew her daughter’s sword-skill would not keep her alive much longer. At least she would see this one of all her people survive this slaughter, to live and die in the world after the way of other women. If only she could reach her, she could shield her with her body and bear her away from the battle, to safety in some other land, if this land would no longer hold them or shelter them.
She had come within ten paces of Lavena when the woman raised her sword above her head, and in that moment of vulnerability, a Roman soldier swung his own blade across her path, slashing at her ribs. Lavena fell, the battle-cry dying on her lips, and as she crashed to her knees the Roman drove his sword point-first into her chest, rending her heart through. The light died in Lavena’s eyes as the blade was withdrawn, and she never even cried out as she fell onto her face.
Her heart standing still, and at the same time pounding to burst from her chest, she swept up behind the Roman and felled him with a single blow that sheared away the base of his helmet and cleft his head from his shoulders. As his body fell away, she crashed to her knees beside her husband’s daughter and turned her body over. Lavena’s eyes stared up at her, bright and green and unseeing, and she allowed herself two long beats of the heart to memorize their color before closing them softly with her fingertips. Then she laid Lavena back down on the ground, stood up, turned, and bellowed out to what remained of the Iceni tribe:
“Victory or death, you Britons!”
For answer, twenty more javelins at the least flew toward her. Three of them pierced her chest, and one her hip, and she fell backward across Lavena’s body.
When the battle had ended, and all the Romans had cleared the gorge, taking their dead and wounded with them, she struggled up from beneath the bodies of the other Iceni who had fallen over her and examined her own battered frame. She had come back to consciousness not long after one of the Romans had pulled the javelins from her ribs, and she had lain half-dead throughout the remainder of the morning, while they slowly worked their way forward, advancing toward Verulamium, where she had gathered from the fragments of speech she overheard that they hoped to find some of the citizens yet alive. With a dismal ambivalence, she shook her head, knowing the disappointment they would suffer.
The wounds left by the javelins had nearly healed, but she had taken many wounds earlier in the battle, and she could remember no time when she had borne this many scars. They would fade after a time, but she would carry the bodily reminders of this disaster for many years. Meanwhile, soreness wracked her every limb, and she felt nearly dizzy with thirst. When she tried to rise, the world spun around her, and she fell back to the ground, lying down on the hillside again and letting oblivion overtake her.
When she woke once more, she felt stronger, although still thirsty. Rising, she found that she could stand and walk, so she went at once in search of water and found it a little way farther up the gorge, trickling down from the top of the rightmost hill. When she had satisfied her thirst, at least for the moment, she returned to where she had fallen and knelt by Lavena’s body.
Lavena’s skin still glowed warm in the sunlight, and her face, untouched by any wound, was serene and wholesome even in death. After running the backs of her fingers twice over her daughter’s cheek, she hoisted Lavena’s body over her shoulder and carried it farther into the gorge, until she reached the midpoint between the two ends. No other corpses lay there, for she had passed beyond where the Romans had taken their stand. There she laid the body lengthwise on the ground, and thence she returned to search for Mave. She found her face-down beneath three other bodies, and when she turned her over she sighed aloud, relieved to see that Mave’s eyes had already closed in death. Nonetheless, her face and body bore many wounds, so that she little resembled the bold and ruthless warrior who had incited her people to take back their land. Now she was just a bloody and battered corpse, although when she at last lay next to her sister the likeness of their kinship brought some of the humanity and personality back into her face.
When she had placed their weapons in their hands and smoothed their tattered garments as best she could, she began to go to and fro about the gorge, picking up large rocks and boulders and carrying them back to the grave. The work lasted all the day and far into the night, and she had to stop several times for water, but at long last, when the moon stood high overhead, she had built a cairn that covered Mave and Lavena’s bodies and would stand for many years in their memory.
Standing beside the tomb, she wept freely and silently for a long time, until her eyes had nearly swollen shut and her throat burned with the effort. At last, knowing she must go but dreading the moment itself, she dried her face on the back of her arm and turned to leave. But grief overcame her, and instead of walking away she cast herself on the cairn, opening her mouth in a wail of misery and despair that echoed throughout the hills and up into the sky beyond.
So she swung the ax downward toward the roots of the sacred oak, and with the first bite of the blade splinters flew up into her face, piercing her skin and drawing blood from the flesh beneath. Another of the druids, growing bolder as she turned her back to him, reached out to clutch her right arm, but she turned and pushed him away. She raised the ax once more to strike at the tree, but he came toward her again, so instead she sent the blade thudding down onto his shoulder, nearly cleaving away his arm from his body. The rest of them, crying out to the gods for vengeance and deliverance, kept their distance, and she let their keening die into the background as the thud of the ax, repeated over and over in the depths of her mind, formed a rhythm that almost persuaded her order might be returning to the world.
The mighty tree began to sway, sending the scattered glimmers of sunlight flickering about the floor of the sacred grove as its branches danced above. With a few more blows of the ax, she knew that her work was done, and she stood back to watch as the great trunk, creaking in its death-throes, fell downward—slowly at first, then gathering speed until the sound of its ruin echoed to the very bones of the earth.
She threw down the ax and turned away, but as she walked back through the midst of the lamenting druids she heard a cry behind her.
“The gods will damn you for this, Boudica! Your profane murder will haunt you to your grave and beyond!”
Turning once more, she saw the man she had wounded lying on the forest floor, raising himself on his one good arm, his visage twisted with fury and malice. The others, gathered about him, fell silent and looked up at her, their own faces strangely blank.
She took a few steps toward the fallen man, then squatted to bring her face roughly level with his. Looking deep into his enraged and agonized eyes, she asked, “Have the gods some worse hell than this prepared for me?”
Then, rising, she turned away again and left the grove, fading into the darkness under the trees.