Caratacus stared into the darkness.
They were out there. He knew it as he knew the scent of his firstborn. A natural knowing made without effort or thought.
The three bridges were close now, almost to the point where the charging hordes who would thunder across at daylight could reach the shallows with their first leap. His best archers and spearmen had spent the last hours peppering the night with unaimed fire, rewarded occasionally by a loud splash or a shrill scream that testified to a legionary engineer who would not be alive to fight in the morning. He knew it wouldn’t stop them, didn’t intend it to. But they would expect it, and he was eager to give Plautius what he expected.
‘Epedos, you understand what you must do?’
The war chief of the Atrebates nodded gravely. All the kings of the united tribes of southern Britain had gathered on the whaleback hill overlooking the crossing point. ‘We wait until you have the enemy pinned against the river. They will be forced to deploy left and right, thinning their line. When they are at their weakest, we strike.’
Caratacus turned to Bodvoc, whose Regni warriors would man the British left flank alongside the Atrebates. ‘Remember that, Bodvoc. When your blood boils in the furnace of battle and the clash of iron calls you like a bed-ready maiden, you wait. You must not act without Epedos. This is our chance to crush them. Yours is the vital blow; you must strike it with all the force you have. And when the Romans are driven in chaos and confusion across our front, you, Lord Scarach, will fall upon them with your Durotriges, our Iceni friends and my Catuvellauni and Trinovantes, and it will be as a wolf falls upon an injured doe, swift and deadly.’
Scarach’s face split into a grin. ‘Hear that?’ He slapped his enormous son on the back. ‘Like a wolf. Booty and plunder and blood. And all before breakfast.’
‘And I?’ Togodumnus didn’t appreciate being left to last and his voice mirrored his petulance.
‘You, Togodumnus, will be the knife in the heart of the Roman attack; the anvil against which we destroy them for ever.’ Caratacus’s brother gave no sign of appreciating his flattery. ‘With Epedos and Bodvoc on their right, unbearable pressure on their centre and the river at their back, they will inevitably be forced to retire to the west. Then you kill them.’ He turned to the men on the hill, looking each in the eye in turn. ‘You kill them all. This is the day the Romans learn the true price of stealing our lands and enslaving our people. No slaves. No prisoners. Only souls for Taranis. The legions of Plautius must vanish into the mist as if they had never existed, so their fate is the stuff of Roman nightmares for fifty generations and more.’
‘Aye.’ A dozen voices sounded in unison.
Caratacus closed his eyes and allowed himself a vision of victory. He saw a river choked with Roman dead, running red with Roman blood. A Roman baggage train burning. A shining eagle trampled in the dirt. He thought of his wife Medb and the boy Tasciovanus. They would be proud. Then, with a pang of guilt, he remembered the day on the hill. And Cartimandua. Would she leave her mountain fastness to seek his forgiveness and an alliance, or wait until he inevitably made his way north to impose his overlordship on her Brigantes?
‘Yet these are Romans.’ His thoughts were interrupted by the quiet, life-weary voice of Antedios of the Iceni. ‘We have seen how the Romans can fight. They are both flexible and disciplined. What if
… and I defer to your wisdom in this, Lord Caratacus… what if this Plautius does not see fit to stray meekly into your trap? What if he has a trap of his own?’
Caratacus felt the liquid ice in his guts as the question he had not dared ask himself was put into words, but when he replied his own voice was hard and unyielding. ‘Then, Antedios, we fight the Roman on his terms… and we win or we die.’
Five miles downstream Ballan rode westward along the riverbank to join his lord. He had been right, it had been a fool’s errand, but he didn’t grudge Caratacus his certainty. It was that kind of attention to detail that made the Catuvellauni a leader worth following. They had reached the high ground where the estuary met the sea just before last light. It wasn’t a hill, exactly — just a gentle elevation in the flat landscape — but there were signs that people had lived in this inhospitable, wind-scoured place; the rotting fallen timbers of a building and blackened stones that had once been part of a hearth were just visible among the tufted grass. From this platform they were able to see far along the coast to north and south, over the bog and marshland inhabited only by ducks, herons and frogs, and the mudflats that were just visible as the tide turned. Ballan saw nothing to fear. No war galleys or troop transports, not even the timbers of an ancient merchant ship that had fallen foul of this treacherous, ever-shifting coastline. When he was certain, sure enough even for Caratacus, he and his eight men turned their horses west. They could have made better time cutting inland, but the Iceni scout elected to follow the twisting river. If Caratacus believed there was even the slightest chance of a small enemy force crossing this far down he might as well check. They would still be back with the king by daylight.
Four hours later he was regretting his decision. In the darkness and the rain that now drifted down to soak their clothing he could barely see beyond his horse’s ears. The river was blanketed by swirling mist that men’s eyes turned into sprites and ghostly figures come to relieve a warrior of his soul. The ground beneath their feet was as treacherous as the shoals of the estuary, full of sink holes and soft spots, buried branches with spikes as sharp as any spear and gullies that could swallow a man and his horse.
Behind him, his men rode with their heads down, praying that Ballan would see sense and end their misery. He could feel their resentment and he grinned. He hadn’t proved to Caratacus that an Iceni was worthy of the position of chief scout by being sensible. He had proved it by doing the impossible. Again, and again and again. He had spent more time in enemy territory in the last month than he had by his own fire. When word of the Roman invasion was first brought by the refugees from the coast, whom had Caratacus dispatched to confirm it? Ballan. And when his lord had decided to see for himself, who had brought him by the secret ways and placed him so close he could almost smell his enemy? No, they would stick with their fool’s errand. Let his men curse him.
He wasn’t sure at first; how could a man be sure of anything on a night like this? They had just reached a point where the action of the river had taken a massive circular bite out of the soft material of the bank. It was nothing unusual, but it meant another half-hour detour and an extra element of care. If the river could undermine one piece of dirt it could undermine another, and a horseman had to be wary of ground that might fall away beneath him and pitch him straight into the water. Still, the cloud blanket seemed to be thinner, and there was even a glimmer of shadowy moon showing somewhere up there. At least they would have the illusion of light to ease their way. The rain continued to fall gently and the river mist was thick as his wife’s oatmeal porridge, but there was a hint of breeze that made it whirl and eddy in an ethereal imitation of the water it covered. He sighed and was about to turn and follow his men when he saw it.
It wasn’t a shape, nothing as substantial as that. Just a section of mist that was more… solid wasn’t the word. Perhaps there wasn’t one? He told himself it was only another eddy in the fog, but it awoke something in him. He felt a shiver run through his body, as if a dead man had just run cold fingers down his spine, and he stared harder, trying to understand what the mist was telling him. For a few more moments it was still just mist, and he thought he was imagining what he had or hadn’t seen; had or hadn’t sensed. Then the wind shifted again, and the vapour curtain was twitched aside, and he was more frightened than he had ever been in his life.
Romans. And they were walking on water.