My people valued horses for their grace and for their strength; we housed them and trained them at no less expense and with no less care than we did our warriors. We valued gold as well, for its allure to the gods and its power over humanity, and in the knowledge that those two often worked in concert. But above all we, the noble Iceni, valued our honor and would sacrifice both horses and gold to defend it.
The Romans took it all from us, and more.
We saw our widowed queen deprived of her inheritance and saw her stripped of her right to rule. We saw her flogged and tortured by the same Roman generals that her trustful husband had sought as his allies. We saw her forced to watch as drunken Roman troops threw lots for the privilege of robbing her daughters of their virginity.
Not yet a mother myself, I had turned my back and tried to run from the sight of those children cruelly pinned to the ground, as they were brutally raped again and again by the victors. Even so, there was no way I could escape the terrible sounds of their pain and horror.
We were not the simple folk the Romans believed they could subjugate with their unspeakable actions. Tales of our disgrace swiftly brought allies to our side—from our Trinovante kinsmen, their finest warriors; from the far-flung Druidic realms, shadowy multitudes emerging from the misty edges of the forest. Together, we rallied to the battle cry of our bruised and disgraced queen.
Her very name spoke of victory to us, and we were not afraid.
I was but one of the thousands amassed on the hillside overlooking Camulodunum, though certainly honored to stand in the ranks of the queen’s elite, the women warriors of the Iceni. The once-sacred city below was barely recognizable to us, sullied with the hulking stonework and the vulgar manor houses of the usurpers. All the better; we would destroy the Roman monstrosity and rebuild on its ruins the sanctified Camulodunum of our memory.
Just past dawn, the populace had begun to seep into the streets, groggily edging past each other, oblivious to our presence. Which of them glanced upward, perhaps to enjoy the glint of dawn light against the grassy slopes, and first spied our gathered horde? What did they think when they saw our thousands amassed on the hillside beyond the city they had come to think of as their own? Did they snicker at our chariots, built of rough-hewn wood and shielded with straw? Did they assume us uncultured fools for bestowing our horses with golden bits and coin-spangled harnesses while our warriors faced battle in the same coarse cloaks in which they plowed our fields? What did they think when they saw our Boudicca, standing proud and tall in her humble chariot, her tawny hair and the gold of her royal armor both aflame in the rays of the rising sun?
We could not help but admire her fiery glory, but even we were awestruck by the presence of her daughters to either side of her, the same so horribly abused by our adversaries only months before. In the radiance about those children we read the gods’ confirmation of the virtue of our cause. Boudicca had placed an arm over the shoulders of each and gathered them to her in the affectionate gesture observed in the most ordinary of mothers. Then she called to us, her husky, graveled tones rising above our murmurs, silencing our impatient susurrus.
“I am not the first woman to lead our peoples to war,” she shouted, “and I do not intend to be the last.” A spontaneous cheer rose from the throats of the Iceni women at the sound of our traditional call to battle.
“The Romans are not of the same mind as us on this matter; their wars are led and fought by men alone.” She paused, and then continued in a heightened voice. “The Romans are not of the same mind as us on many things. They dishonor the memory of the dead; they rob us of land and livelihood. They humiliate and degrade us in the name of their laws.”
She paused again, lowering her head to murmur some words to her daughters.
“They savagely steal the innocence of our children, and call it a victory for Rome.”
Another roar rose up, across the hillside, among the Iceni and among our allies, man and woman, warrior and priest alike.
“We go into this war for the honor and the freedom of our people; vast numbers of our warriors have amassed for the fight. Despite the obvious virtue of our cause and our trust in the might of our forces, each of our warriors must go into this battle acknowledging the possibility of their death. Only by choosing to fight to the death will we find the courage for victory!”
With these words, Boudicca nodded to a triad of druids standing to the side of her chariot. They climbed on behind her, each carrying a large, covered ironwork bowl. The eldest of them, a gaunt man with weatherworn skin and silver-gray hair, uncovered his bowl and set it beside her. Then our queen nodded to us, her Iceni warriors. We moved forward at her command.
“My warriors do not fight to their death without the blessings of the gods,” she said. Reaching into the bowl, she grabbed handfuls of the contents and flung them up over our heads.
A shower of gold shimmered in the early rays of sunlight and seemed to hang in the air for a moment before raining down on us. Hundreds of coins offered, as was our way, first to the gods, and by them bestowed back on a precious few as signs of their blessing, marking the elite among the Iceni warriors thus divined to be the first into battle.
We leapt and scrambled. All around, my comrades claimed their gleaming talismans, but I was not among the chosen. I stepped aside as they formed ranks in front of us; I cheered these coin-bearers on as they marched down the slope. Left behind, I watched in silence from the hillside as they neared the city and the battle began in earnest.
I watched my sisters and brothers in combat cut through the city’s hastily arrayed defenders, ferociously slashing at them with stout Iceni blades. I saw them send Roman opponents into retreat with little more than the grisly promise of their bloodthirsty presence.
Before long, I also saw Iceni comrades fall, mortally wounded at the hands of Romans who had not forgotten how to fight. I saw my comrades clutch at wounds, stagger back to their feet, heave and fall again. I watched their motionless bodies trampled as the fight went on about them.
And then I saw the bodies of dead Iceni begin to stir again, their arms and legs jerking stiffly. I saw them rear back on their haunches, and rise from the ground, awkwardly clutching their weapons. I watched fallen comrades lurch back into the fray, snuffling the air like wild beasts. I saw the dead come back to life and hunt down their killers.
I watched as they feasted on hands, arms, legs, Roman blood dripping from their mouths. I saw them snuffle the air again, only temporarily sated, and pursue the nearest Roman for another gruesome feast.
I once again turned my back on the horrors before me, hoping to control my revulsion. Within moments I turned back, realizing that the strongest emotion I faced was not horror, but envy. How I longed to be among the walking Iceni dead in Camulodunum, wreaking upon the Romans a consequence more gruesome than they had delivered onto us!
In the thought of it, I stole a glance at the gracious Boudicca. Our queen stared, not at the battle below but into the sky above. I followed her gaze and perceived a twinkling presence in the light of the rising sun. A field of coins hung glittering in the air. In the space of a breath, they dropped in a shower of gold over the Iceni still standing on the hillside.
A single glittering coin dropped squarely into my opened palm. I gasped and stared at it for the briefest moment, and then, in unison with my neighbors, I raised the god-blessed gold into the air.
We ran, shrieking, into battle.
For the Iceni! For justice!
We die, and rise again, for victory!
Marlys Jarstfer grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but writes and lives in not-quite-rural Massachusetts with her very own furniture-maker and a twenty-year-old cat in yet another gray-painted house. This one has bats and tree-climbing woodchucks in the backyard and a crypt under the front lawn, which may partly explain certain things.
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