As Caratacus succumbed to the despair of defeat, a mile to his west the sullen mass of Britons confronting Frontinus had been motionless for so long that he dared to hope they had given up. It was Rufus who shouted a warning that told him what he had always known. They were coming again. The Batavian commander drew his sword, reminding himself to mend the new nicks that marred its razor edge, then remembering he probably wouldn’t have to. He took a deep breath.
‘Prepare to receive the enemy.’
His calm voice was echoed along the line by the few surviving officers. Three hundred shields were raised as one and three hundred swords came free of their scabbards in a ragged parody of the nervetingling song the two thousand had created earlier.
Rufus saw the British advance from high on Bersheba’s back. It was obvious they were weary, and some were reluctant, the fire in their blood extinguished by the carnage they’d witnessed, allowing themselves to drift behind the main force of attackers. But there were still thousands of them and they knew how close they were to winning.
Frontinus had used the lull to send out foragers to collect what they could from the heaped British dead, and now the most able-bodied of the wounded were frantically straightening the metal points of throwing spears and handing them forward to their comrades in the line. The Britons were just beyond the mound of their fallen when the shape of the attack changed. A group of forty warriors, champions all, sprinted ahead of the main force and formed an unconscious imitation of the Roman wedges that had destroyed the last cohesion of the ambushers in the battle of the valley. Frontinus screamed a warning, but his men had no time to react. The arrowhead of charging warriors hit the pitifully thin Roman line like a battering ram and Rufus saw the exhausted Batavian defenders smashed aside, opening a gap that was an invitation to the thousands of warriors following behind.
‘Rufus!’ He heard Frontinus’s shout, but he didn’t need it. He was already urging Bersheba forward past the Batavian officer into the gap. He could feel the fear and the anger in the elephant and she flared her ears and raised her trunk and gave an almighty roar of fury that split the skies. The first Britons saw her come and recoiled in terror before the enormous grey monster that was the stuff of their worst nightmares. But behind them came Nuada and Togodumnus, and neither was daunted by the elephant’s power.
‘Kill the beast,’ Togodumnus screamed as he sped forward with a long spear in one hand and a sword in the other.
‘Kill the beast.’ Nuada echoed the cry, and by some trickery or piece of magic a flaming torch appeared in his hand. He thrust the brand into Bersheba’s face and now it was the elephant who recoiled, squealing as she lifted her head to expose the loose skin of her throat to the point of Togodumnus’s spear. The movement threw Rufus off balance and he felt himself being pitched over Bersheba’s shoulder, but even as he fell he still had the presence of mind to draw the short sword at his belt. Every fibre of Togodumnus’s being was centred on the elephant and he barely noticed the sprawling bundle that landed off to his side. With a cry of triumph, the Dobunni king dropped his sword and raised the spear in both hands to thrust the lethal, leaf-shaped point with all his strength into the soft flesh of Bersheba’s neck.
To Togodumnus, it was the merest glint at the corner of his vision, but Nuada saw it come and he cried a warning that was a heartbeat too late. Rufus had launched his gladius overhand with the timing of an athlete and the sure eye of a warrior. It was one of the crude arena tricks Cupido had taught him, but it saved Bersheba’s life. The needle-tipped iron took Caratacus’s brother in the left side of the chest, piercing flesh and bone and heart muscle. Togodumnus felt the breath knocked from his lungs in the same moment he screamed his victory cry. He was surprised when he found himself staring up at a pure blue sky; more surprised still when his mouth filled with liquid and he began to drown in his own blood. He cawed once, like a hungry crow, before he slipped into the eternal darkness of the Otherworld.
Rufus gripped the hilt of the sword in both hands and it came clear from Togodumnus’s lifeless flesh with an obscene sucking sound. Their king was dead and the warriors of the Dobunni were stunned by the loss, but Bersheba was still the only thing holding the gap in the Roman line and Nuada the Druid screamed at them to avenge their leader. He advanced towards the elephant across the dead and dying of both sides, with the sinister bear claw held out before him as he chanted the incantations that would bring his god to his aid.
Rufus didn’t know whether it was the power of the words or the sight of the man who had been within a second of sending him to a fiery death, but he felt himself suddenly gripped by a numbing paralysis. Bersheba shifted uneasily beside him. For a moment there was nothing on the battlefield but the three of them. No Dobunni warriors. No Batavian defenders. No heroes or cowards. No dead. No living. Just man, and beast, and the Druid. Nuada looked him square in the face and smiled as he saw his enemy quail.
The Druid’s amber eyes, which reminded so many men of a stooping falcon, glittered with hatred, but, in a moment of revelation, Rufus looked into them and saw not a hawk but the memory of a saviour. He heard the earth-shaking roar of a male lion in his head and his hand automatically sought the worn charm at his neck. In that instant his strength returned and Nuada’s spell was broken. The high priest felt the moment too and frowned in puzzlement.
‘You have no hold over me, Druid,’ Rufus cried in a voice distorted with contempt. ‘Go back to the black pit you came from and take your dogs with you.’
In the same instant there was a blood-chilling howl from the left and a new army fell from the tree-cloaked heights there. Adminius and the Cantiaci had come to the battle. The traitor king had watched as the drama was fought out below him. More than once he had been tempted to leave the Romans to their doom, but always something had made him stay. Now he sensed victory and loot the way a soaring buzzard senses the stink of a rotting carcass.
The Dobunni saw them come and ran. With a final venomous curse at Rufus, Nuada ran with them.
Two miles downstream Caratacus waited at the foot of the low hill above the river and watched the disciplined lines of legionaries wading towards him through the flooded lagoon he had created. There was nothing to slow them but mud and the floating corpses of dead Catuvellauni warriors. The traps he had set had all been trampled by his own advance. The army that should have been waiting to slaughter them was gone, scattered like autumn leaves in a sudden gale. Only his small rearguard stood between the legions and the retreating British tribes. Here they would stand, and here they would fall, and he would fall with them. He had failed, and he knew that in failing he had condemned his country and its people to Roman domination and all that meant. Death, for some, certainly. Slavery for more. What wealth they had would be taken to fill Roman coffers and what honour they retained would be trampled beneath Roman feet. But not his honour. His honour would die here with him and he would feast with his fallen warriors — like brave Arven — in the halls of the Otherworld.
He felt a firm hand grip his shoulder, and shrugged it off.
‘Leave me,’ he snarled, half turning and surprised to see Ballan, and behind him the men of the royal bodyguard. ‘You had your orders. Your place is protecting the women and children.’
‘No, lord, my place is with you, and your place is with your people.’ The Iceni’s voice was hard-edged with urgency. ‘Don’t you understand, lord? You are Britain’s hope. Without you they are nothing. With you, they will fight.’ Caratacus shook his head. No, they wouldn’t fight. They were defeated and demoralized. Their fighting days were done. Ballan persisted. ‘Yes. They will fight because you are there to lead them.’ He pointed to the crest of the hill behind them. ‘Twenty thousand warriors and more are waiting for your call. Yes, they are beaten and, yes, they will need time to recover their strength and their courage, but they will fight. Throw your life away in some pointless gesture and you are betraying them and every one who fell today. Those men died for you. Live for them.’
The Iceni’s words were echoed by the captain of the rearguard. ‘He is right. Go, lord. Do not let our sacrifice be in vain.’
Caratacus bowed his head. He didn’t have the strength to suffer this again. Wouldn’t. But neither did he have the strength to resist the hands that pulled him away from the advancing Romans and back up the whaleback hill towards the encampments. He stopped just once, and forced himself to look down over the battlefield that should have been Plautius’s bane, but instead had become his own and that of his people. The long lines of armour-clad legionaries were halfway across the shallow lagoon now, advancing with dogged, purposeful steps towards the rearguard. Behind them, the flooded plain was dotted with British dead, while, at the river’s edge, the three Roman bridgeheads were linked by a pale rampart of Catuvellauni flesh. Beyond that, the Tamesa flowed on, unmoved and unhindered, except by the narrow bridges that dissected its broad waters and still carried the last elements of the three legions across to the north bank. ‘Lord!’ He heard the concern in Ballan’s voice, knew he was endangering them all, but knew also there was one last thing he must do. His eye was drawn to the brightly coloured cloth pavilion where he knew Plautius had watched the battle. He tried to stretch his mind across the gap, to seek out what he did not want to know, but what he must endure. For if his warriors had suffered the spears of his enemy, surely he could suffer his enemy’s scorn? Yet, as he stood there on that field of blood, he realized that the man who directed this terrible killing machine had already forgotten the name of Caratacus of the Catuvellauni. And that was worse than any insult.
He allowed himself to be led in a dream through the chaos of defeat. Among the huts of the encampment a hundred small battles were being fought between the retreating Britons and the victorious legionaries of the Second Augusta. A hundred small tragedies played out.
Not every legionary had pursued the fleeing tribesmen, and it was clear that if they had stood and fought, the remnants of the Regni, the Durotriges and the Iceni could have comfortably kept the Romans at bay to cover the retreat of their women and children. But defeat drives logic from a man’s head and those who had lived through the carnage of the day’s fighting had only one thought: survive. An auxiliary cavalryman who should have stayed with his unit speared a fleeing British chief in the spine with a roar of triumph, but a second later he was hauled from the saddle by a dozen of his victim’s tribesmen and butchered among the obscene filth of a latrine area. Moments later, muffled screams attracted Ballan’s attention to a scattered clump of rowan trees beside their path between two encampments. He knew he didn’t have time to investigate, but an image of his woman and the bastard children he affected to despise convinced him he must. Two Romans were holding down a Catuvellauni maid of about fourteen, while a third humped and bucked between her legs. Without a word, he cut the rapist’s throat and Caratacus’s royal bodyguard chopped the accomplices to pieces as they screamed for a mercy they knew would never be forthcoming. One of the guards took the girl by the arm, but she slipped from his grasp and ran, screaming, into the chaos and the confusion. Men on both sides who showed no inclination to fight simply ignored each other. Two Romans entered one hut looking for plunder, while five paces away a British family gathered what they could for the long retreat. One of the Romans threw a British child a loaf of bread and the boy’s father nodded his thanks as they departed. A few paces ahead, Ballan found his way blocked by twenty surviving champions of Bodvoc’s Regni involved in a savage little battle against a similar number of legionaries from the elite first cohort of the Second Augusta, whom they had faced in the morning. The two sides stopped hacking at each other long enough to allow Caratacus and his bodyguard to pass before resuming their personal war.
They had almost reached the horse lines when Caratacus halted. ‘Wait here,’ he told Ballan, and walked over to the group who had caught his attention.
Scarach of the Durotriges was a warrior feared in battle and a ruler who would bend the knee before no man. But he was a father too. Now he knelt at the centre of his royal guard, head down over the still body of his giant son. As Caratacus drew closer he could see the king’s shoulders shuddering, shaken by grief that was torn from him in great heart-bursting sobs. He almost turned away. No man should see a friend like this. But just as Ballan had shown him his duty, Caratacus required Scarach to do his.
Two of the warriors lifted their spears to stop him, but a third ordered them to allow him to pass and he stood over the weeping Durotrige. The boy’s face — what was his name? Keryg? Yes, Keryg — was marble white, but otherwise unmarked, and he might have been sleeping. He was bare to the waist and Caratacus could see no wounds on his torso. It was a few seconds before he realized what had killed Scarach’s son. There was a small nick just below his right ear where an arrow had sliced through his flesh. It wasn’t a deep wound, but deep enough. It had cut through the big artery in Keryg’s neck. Caratacus had seen such wounds before. A man just bled, and bled, and bled, until he could bleed no more. He touched Scarach on the shoulder. ‘Lord Scarach?’
The king turned to look up at him, his eyes wet and red-rimmed, and Caratacus could see that the front of his tunic was black with the dried blood that also covered his arms to the elbow. He imagined the awful minutes as Scarach had fought to save his firstborn, the terrible, certain knowledge that it was all in vain, and the final moment when the light faded in the boy’s eyes. He made his voice hard, knowing that sympathy was the last thing this broken man needed. ‘Your son is dead, but others live. You have a duty to them.’
At first, Scarach stared at him, unseeing, but gradually recognition dawned. ‘It is finished,’ he said bleakly. ‘Do not talk to me of duty. My only duty is to give my son an honoured resting place.’
Caratacus shook his head. ‘It is not finished, and you dishonour your son’s memory with every minute you waste here.’ He felt the guards shift uneasily at the insult. What a fool he would be if he ended the day wriggling on the point of an ally’s spear. ‘We will gather our forces and make for your fortress at Mai-den. There we will wait until we have regained what strength we have and are able to strike back at the Romans.’
He saw a flicker of life flare in Scarach at the mention of his legendary hill fort, which he had vowed no enemy would ever overcome.
‘It will take time until we are fit again for a battle, but from Mai-den we will be able to strike out. We cannot yet destroy the invaders, but we can hurt them and make them pay for what they have taken from us today.’ He deliberately moved his gaze from Scarach’s eyes to the corpse of his son. ‘You will honour Keryg more by avenging him than by burying him. Come.’ He held out his hand. Scarach hesitated and Caratacus thought his appeal had failed, but eventually the king’s bloodstained fingers reached out for his and he pulled him to his feet. ‘Ballan! A horse for King Scarach. We ride for Mai-den.’