by Greg Brendan Patrick
“‘We the Celts of this isle, are used to women commanders in war,’”she cried. ‘I am descended from mighty men! But I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth now. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, my bruised body, and my outraged daughters. Consider how many of you are fighting—and why! Then you will win this battle or perish. That is what I, a woman, plan to do! Let the men live in slavery if they will.’”
Tacitus, Annals (XIV.35)
Great stories are not supposed to begin with endings, but I was never truly meant to be a bard. And yet this was my final duty to my Queen. The Romans had made every effort to ensure that what had happened would be a song forever unsung. They vowed to sever the tongues and fingers of any bard who dared tell the story. Yet I am beyond their reach now, and so I un-dust my harp.
I am Amergin, charioteer to High Queen Boudicca of the Iceni, and I recall now how the day of battle dawned in fiery crimson hues. The sky seemed alight from the flames of some resplendent pyre, like the vision of a mad artist who paints in wild red.
The carnyx brayed, heralding her coming.
“Make way for the High Queen!” they bellowed. The shouts relayed throughout the mass of warriors, and they responded like a great parting of a tempestuous sea.
I drove her chariot, drawn by majestic dark horses, through the ranks of our great Celtic army. The stallions responded, as did I, to the resounding cheers and chants of her name.
When her smiths had asked her what she wished them to craft for the battle soon to be joined, she only said, “Make them fear me.”
And they did, applying all their skill to forge the poetry of her legend into objects of shimmering steel. They had inscribed ornate scenes of battles and hunts on the varnished surfaces of her chariot. They had wrought Celtic knots and spirals so painstakingly into her armour that, in the crimson dawn, each line appeared to be the pulsing vein of a heart pierced by a sacrificial dagger. They had constellated her shield with rare gems, as though crafting a celestial star map.
Boudicca was beautiful and terrible to behold, both dream and nightmare. Our warriors whispered that she was the living incarnation of the Morrigan, the feared and worshipped Goddess of Death and War. When she stepped down from her chariot, she seemed to have stepped down from the fiery depths of the sun itself, radiant and resplendent.
“Hail Boudicca!” they cried out in a raptured choir, drumming the hilts of their swords on oblong shields. The throaty bray of the carnyx heralded her arrival, but it cringingly attacked my soul for the percussion was as jarring to me as it was to the stallions.
Boudicca was flanked by armour-clad Hibernian war hounds that strained on the chains of their handlers. Behind her stood her great Celtic army, in rank after rank. Those who stood in an honoured place at the vanguard were great brawny warriors, women and men, whose hair was spiked to resemble the spurs of a boar. Their faces were dyed blue in serpentine patterns, like eels ready to swim in the blood of their enemies. They bore no shields but rather carried swords with human-shaped hilts. Piles of heads lay at their feet to be tallied for prestige, and they each eyed their rivals’ count with restless envy.
She bared her teeth, and then suddenly became alert in lycanthropic fury as if seeing the Romans for the first time.
She became a force of nature as wild as the winter storms that swept the lands and froze lost men to death where they stood.
Neither Boudicca nor I basked in the adulation they lavished on her. Boudicca’s features were set and composed as a sculpted marble statue, betraying no emotion, and yet I knew that under her façade she harboured a terrible haunted anguish – a realization that for all the intoxicated furor of invincibility infecting her warriors, this was would likely be her last battle.
My breath steamed in the chill air almost in rhythm with the dark stallions, and as I drew rein before the Roman ranks, I steadied the team which stomped and bucked, unsettled by the presence of so many people around them.
There was much to vex both horse and hound. Sword hilts drummed rhythmically against shields. The carnyx brayed again, as did our dragon-faced bronze war horns. The clan called out the enemy with wild boasts, cheering, and jeering.
I caressed the stallions, running my fingers through their manes. The Hibernian hounds growled, sensing the approach of the enemy’s sandaled tread. They bared their fangs and reared against their tethers as if the reek of wolves burnt in their nostrils. At a word from Boudicca they rested on their haunches, growling restlessly.
Like a ghost haunting ruins, I knew this place – this stretch of desolate moor. My mind strayed to the night I had become the charioteer of the High Queen, Boudicca of the Iceni, the scourge of Romans.
I looked aside at the ‘Queen’s Shadow’, the black-robed Druid, who clutched sacred mistletoe in one hand and his harvesting sickle in the other. The Druid painted the horses’ flanks with blue swirls, and then applied dark streaks of soil mingled with blood to Boudicca’s face, creating a tigress’ stripes.
I met the Druid’s cold blue eyes as he approached her chariot. I saw myself mirrored in his sickle’s blade. I felt ancient, as old as the standing stones arrayed in their eternal circle, as old as the hill that shuddered under thousands of feet and hooves.
Boudicca smiled at the howls of wolves pacing the tree lines, impatient for carnage to come. She closed her eyes and swayed as though she heard music, like some dark serenade, its primal rapture moving her. She bared her teeth, and then suddenly became alert in lycanthropic fury as if seeing the Romans for the first time. She became a force of nature as wild as the winter storms that swept the lands and froze lost men to death where they stood.
I spoke then in a whisper, “Epona, Goddess of the Horse, extend your grace to shield our steeds from the enemy. Grant them strength and power. Lugh of the Long Arm fair God of the First Light, lend brightness and speed to my spear as you cast your rays of the dawn to vanquish the night. Blind the enemy’s eyes even as you enlighten mine.
“Oh Morrigan, dark Goddess of War,” I continued. “Whose grace is terrible and beautiful. Infect the ears of my enemies with fear. Favour our desire for victory this red day. May our swords be the hands of your wraith. May each foe we slay be a sacrifice to your name, and may they shudder in your terrible shadow.”
Even as I concluded my prayer, a glowering blackness cast upon me as flocks of ravens gathering from distant moor and wood amassed in streams of darkness, swirling cyclonically.
The air filled with their carrion screeches. Black feathers fell like tears of midnight hailing Boudicca in dark tribute.
“Hark!” someone gasped in awe.
The great mass of ravens seemed to form a towering figure hovering over the field of battle, like a black-gowned woman twirling in an aerial dance.
“The Morrigan! The Morrigan is with us!”
The ravens swirled faster like the dark currents of a stirred cauldron. As if mocking the crucifixion the Romans threatened to inflict upon her, Boudicca spread her bronze-torqued arms coiled with blue-painted serpentines.
I charged the stallions, but though I meant to veer away from the ravens, for I knew the horses would instinctively shy, she bade me stay course. I urged the team into a gallop as the final frenzied mass of ravens swept over us.
Boudicca laughed. I heard her do so seldomly, but now I watched her close her eyes and spread her arms in rapture of the dark caress of their wings, like a sorceress reveling in some ancient rite. She caught some ravens’ feathers like black tear drops.
We burst through onto the Romans, who watched aghast. I saw fear flash in their eyes as they peered over the rims of their crimson shields. Boudicca cast back her head, her hair flowing wildly. I imagined that the moment to her was like that of a falcon which soars and then descends suddenly, talons extended, screaming on its quarry far below.
Boudicca’s daughters hung from the sides of the chariot, ululating battle cries. They leapt off to lead the charge on foot. Our warriors felt invincible, and expected to sweep the Romans aside, and yet with a charioteer’s keen eye for topography, I could see with sickening realization that we would be vanquished this day.
The Romans were arrayed with cruel ingenuity, their ranks positioned so that when our great horde blundered into them, they would clamp shut around us like the prongs of a trap ensnaring a lumbering bear’s paw.
I veered the chariot away with a sharp pull of the reins. It tilted precariously before I righted it with another turn. Seeing we were now parallel to the legions, I urged the horses on before our own army crashed into us. Our charging warriors were our worst threat, for they could crush us against the Roman shield wall, but even as I evaded the impending collision, the Romans counterattacked in an onrush of crimson shields.
I drove us clear as the great wave of howling warriors slammed into the Roman ranks. Against all their own expectations and heightened bravado, they reeled back from the red swords of Rome which began butchering their way through the avalanche of Celtic bodies.
Our warriors fled only to find themselves trapped by their own wagons, heavily laden with loot. They were penned in a terrible abattoir, crushed against the wagons while listening to the steady chop of Roman blades drawing inexorably closer.
And yet the eyes of the Roman commander were locked on only one of us.
“Peltasts bring her down! one centurion howled.
Legionaries lunged forward, twirling stone-loaded slings over their heads before letting them fly. Both stones and javelins streaked past us, glancing off our shields and helms. The Romans next wheeled forward great ballistas, giant crossbows which launched bolts that slaughtered three men at a time. Warriors fell to this machinery, their corpses skewered together.
I drew rein for her for one last time.
At the lakeside, she shrugged off my assistance, for she held frailty in contempt, and dismounted.
She stood looking out on the sacred waters, the sun mirrored on their surface.
The flank of Boudicca’s chariot became riddled with arrows that quivered upon impact. We hurried past the Roman’s lightning-emblazoned crimson shields, racing the gauntlet. Roman knights rode toward us, their helms like sliver-masked executioners, their swords drawn. An accomplished huntress adept at bringing down stags and boars in the greenwood while evading antlers and tusks, Boudicca cast her spears at them powerfully, catching one in the chest and throwing him backwards, blood spraying from his mouth.
Her hounds kept pace with our chariot, loyal beasts which, in a last act to save their mistress, brought down two horsemen before they could slay her. Their jaws frothed red as they mauled Roman flesh. Then I heard them yelp, and I knew they were gone.
I pulled at the horse’s reins, but Boudicca was no longer with me. I glanced aside and saw her standing alone like a cornered lioness. Romans raced in to claim her head, and the royal bounty that no doubt came with it. Like a desperate gambler’s throw, I made my move. It was almost certain to shatter the chariot and drag me behind the bolting horses, but I wagered my life to save hers.
Whispering a prayer to the gods, I urged the horses on faster, their flanks heaving their mouths frothing. I steered toward a rise in the terrain, waited for the right wheel to elevate, and then wrapped my hands and arms about the reins and wrenched them sharply to the left. The horses veered and the chariot tilted, threatening to capsize at any moment. I saw the green earth rush by ever closer to my cheek, but then twisted my hips to set my balance, and when my perspective changed, I locked eyes on Boudicca standing only a short distance before me.
I pulled on the reins again and righted myself. The chariot tilted back into position, and I felt the wheels fall back into place, jolting me as it landed. I cried out euphorically, smiling into the sonorous rush of wind sweeping my hair as my helmet fell off as I urged the horses toward her.
Boudicca stood impassively before her would-be assassins, her features set, statuesque and as oblivious as a Goddess of War is to the steel and the howling carnage about her. If the Romans expected a yielded sword or a cowering woman, they had chosen the wrong enemy. She was covered in gore like a lioness guarding her last kill. She held the head of a slain Roman by the hair before casting it at their feet. It rolled to them, looking up in an expression of final shock.
A lowborn soldier stepped forward to claim her, but I roared in like the chariot of Hades, and drove over him, sickened and yet satisfied at the sound of the bladed wheels lacerating his flesh. I tasted the coppery tang of his blood as it splattered my face.
“Come, My Lady. Take my hand,” I urged.
She did, but as I pulled her into the chariot, I could see that she was wounded. I feared mortally, for I saw spreading dark stains beneath the fabric of her royal cloak. I fought back tears harder than I had any human enemy.
“Drive me to yonder lake,” she bade me.
I drew rein for her for one last time. At the lakeside, she shrugged off my assistance, for she held frailty in contempt, and dismounted. She stood looking out on the sacred waters, the sun mirrored on their surface. Her eyes were blinded by light and tears. She seemed lost, oblivious to time, ageless as the hills.
“Go,” she bade me.
“I won’t leave you, my Queen,” I vowed.
“As your Queen I command… No, as your friend I ask you. Tell all what has happened here before the Roman scribes do.”
I could see her intent, and I wished to join her. I prepared to sever the horses’ reins and bolt them, for I could not bear to think of them butchered by Roman blades, but Boudicca staid my hand.
“I have not released you from my service, charioteer. I saw the way you looked at my daughter.”
“Forgive me, my Queen,” I beseeched.
“If you do not go now and save them, I never will forgive you. This is the last command of your Queen.”
I clasped my fist to my heart in salute, but then Boudicca said more tenderly, “Amergin, you have to let me go. Save my daughters, sing my story, and I will hold your service fulfilled.”
The Romans never found Boudicca. They never took her alive nor found her dead. They never paraded her in chains through their streets or vanquished the cherished dream among her people that she would return one day to drive the Romans into the sea.
She turned away from my sad eyes. Head held high, she strode unwaveringly into the lake, her hair and garments rising as she waded into the depths. Her armour bore her down until she was immersed below the dark surface, like a flame enduring through water, till I saw the last of her.