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Soon after daybreak next morning the headman came into the hut he had placed at the disposal of Aska and Beric with news that two of the Fenmen had arrived. They at once went out and found that the two men had just laid down their loads, which were so heavy that Beric wondered they could possibly have been carried by them. One had brought fish, the other wildfowl, slung on poles over their shoulders. These men were much shorter than the Iceni, they were swarthier in complexion, and their hair was long and matted. Their only clothing was short kilts made of the materials for which they bartered their game.
"They both speak the language well," the headman said, "I will tell them what you want."
The men listened to the statement that the chiefs before them desired to find with their followers a refuge in the Fens, and that they were willing to make presents to the Fenmen of cattle and other things, so that there should be friendship between them, and that they should be allowed to occupy some island in the swamps where they might live secure from pursuit. The men looked at each other as the headman began to speak, shaking their heads as if they thought the proposal impossible.
"We will tell our people," they said, "but we do not think that they will agree; we have dwelt alone for long years without trouble with others. The coming of strangers will bring trouble. Why do they seek to leave their land?"
"Our people have been beaten in battle by the Romans," Aska said, taking up the conversation, "and we need a refuge till the troubles are over."
"The Romans have won!" one of the men exclaimed in a tone that showed he was no stranger to what was going on beyond the circle of the Fens.
"They have won," Aska repeated, "and there will be many fugitives who will seek for shelter in the Fens. We would fain be friends with your people, but shelter we must have. Our cause after all is the same, for when the Romans have destroyed the Iceni, and conquered all the countries round, they will hunt you down also, for they let none remain free in the lands where they are masters. The Fen country is wide, there must be room for great numbers to shelter, and surely there must be places where we could live without disturbance to your people."
"There is room," the man said briefly. "We will take your message to our people, our chiefs will decide."
Aska and Beric wore few other ornaments than those denoting their position and authority. Many of their followers, however, had jewels and bracelets, the spoil of the Roman towns. Beric left the group and spoke to Boduoc, who in two or three minutes returned with several rings and bracelets.
"You could have a score for every one of these," he said; "they are of no value to the men now, and indeed their possession would bring certain death upon any one wearing them did he fall into the hands of the Romans."
Beric returned to the Fenmen. "Here," he said, "are some presents for your chiefs, tell them that we have many more like them."
The men took them with an air of indifference.
"They are of no use," they said, "though they may please women. If you want to please men you should give them hatchets and arms."
"We will do that," Aska said, "we have more than we require;" for indeed after the battle with Cerealis and the sack of the towns all the men had taken Roman swords and carried them in addition to their own weapons, regarding them not only as trophies but as infinitely superior to their own more clumsy implements for cutting wood and other purposes. At a word from Beric four of these were brought and handed to the men, who took them with lively satisfaction.
"Could you take us with you to see your chiefs?" Beric asked.
They shook their heads. "No strangers can enter the swamps; but the chiefs will come to see you."
"It is very urgent that no time shall be lost," Beric said, "the Romans may be here very shortly."
"By the time the sun is at its highest the chiefs will be here or we will bring you an answer," they said. "Come with us now, we will show you where to expect them, for they will not leave the edge of our land."
After half an hour's walking through a swampy soil they arrived at the edge of a sluggish stream of water. Here tied to a bush was a boat constructed of basket work covered with hide. In it lay two long poles. The men took their places in the coracle, pushed out into the stream, and using their poles vigorously were soon lost to sight among the thick grove of rush and bushes. Aska and Beric returned to the hamlet.
"Have you any idea of the number of these people?" they asked the headman.
"No," he said, "no one has any idea; the swamps are of a vast extent from here away to the north. We know that long ago when the Iceni endeavoured to penetrate there they were fiercely attacked by great numbers, and most of those who entered perished miserably, but for ages now there has been no trouble. The land was large enough for us, why should we fight to conquer swamps which would be useless to us? We believe that there are large numbers, although they have, from the nature of the country, little dealings with each other; but live scattered in twos and threes over their country, since, living by fishing and fowling, they would not care to dwell in large communities. They never talk much about themselves, but I have heard that they say that parts of the swamps are inhabited by strange monsters, huge serpents and other creatures, and that into these none dare penetrate."
"All the better," Beric said; "we are not afraid of monsters of any kind, and they might therefore let us settle in one of these neighbourhoods where we could clear out these enemies of theirs for them. It strikes me that our greatest difficulty will be to get our cattle across the morasses to firm ground. We shall have to contrive some plan for doing so. It will be no easy matter to feed so large a number as we shall be on fish and wildfowl."
At noon the two chiefs returned to the spot where the men had left them, taking with them Boduoc and another of their followers. A few minutes after they arrived there they heard sounds approaching, and in a short time four boats similar to those they had seen, and each carrying two men in addition to those poling, made their way one after another through the bushes that nearly met across the stream. Most of the men were dressed like the two who had visited the village, but three of them were in attire somewhat similar to that of the Iceni. These were evidently the chiefs. Several of the men were much shorter and darker than those they had first seen, while the chiefs were about the same stature. All carried short bows and quivers of light arrows, and spears with the points hardened in the fire, for the Iceni living near the swamps had been strictly forbidden to trade in arms or metal implements with the Fenmen. The chiefs, however, all carried swords of Iceni make. Before the chiefs stepped ashore their followers landed, and at once, to the surprise of Beric, scattered among the bushes. In two or three minutes they returned and said something in their own language to their chiefs, who then stepped ashore.
"They were afraid of an ambush," Aska muttered, "and have satisfied themselves that no one is hidden near."
The chiefs were all able to speak the language of the Iceni, and a long conversation ensued between them and Beric. They protested at first that it was impossible for them to grant the request made; that for long ages no stranger had penetrated the swamps, and that although the intention of those who addressed them might be friendly, such might not always be the case, and that when the secrets of the paths and ways were once known they would never be free from danger of attack by their neighbours.
"There is more room to the north," they said; "the Fen country is far wider there, there is room for you all, while here the dry lands are occupied by us, and there is no room for so many strangers. We wish you well; we have no quarrel with you. Ages have passed now since you drove our forefathers from the land; that is all forgotten. But as we have lived so long, so will we continue. We have no wants; we have fish and fowl in abundance, and what more we require we obtain in barter from you."
"Swords like those we sent you are useful," Aska said. "They are made by the Romans, and are vastly better than any we have. With one of those you might chop down as many saplings in a day as would build a hut, and could destroy any wild beasts that may lurk in your swamps. The people who are coming now are not like us. We were content with the land we had taken, and you dwelt among us undisturbed for ages; but the Romans are not like us, they want to possess the whole earth, and when they have overrun our country they will never rest content till they have hunted you out also. There are thousands of us who will seek refuge in your swamps. You may oppose us, you may kill numbers of us, but in the end, step by step, we shall find our way in till we reach an island of firm land where we can establish ourselves. It is not that we have any ill will towards you, or that we covet your land, but with the Romans behind us, slaying all they encounter, we shall have no choice but to go forward.
"It will be for your benefit as well as ours. Alone what could you do against men who fight with metal over their heads and bodies that your arrows could not penetrate, and with swords and darts that would cut and pierce you through and through? But with us-- who have met and fought them in fair battle, and have once even defeated them with great slaughter--to help you to guard your swamps, it would be different, and even the Romans, brave as they are, would hesitate before they tried to penetrate your land of mud and water. Surely there must be some spots in your morasses that are still uninhabited. I have heard that there are places that are avoided because great serpents and other creatures live there, but so long as the land is dry enough for our cattle to live and for us to dwell we are ready to meet any living thing that may inhabit it."
The chiefs looked awestruck at this offer on the part of the strangers, and then entered into an animated conversation together.
"The matter is settled," Aska said in a low voice to Beric. "There are places they are afraid to penetrate, and I expect that, much as they object to our entering their country, they would rather have us as neighbours than these creatures that they are so much afraid of."
When the chiefs' consultation was finished, the one who had before spoken turned to them and said: "What will you give if we take you to such a place?"
"How far distant is it?" Aska asked.
"It is two days' journey from here," the chief said. "The distance is not great, but the channels are winding and difficult. There is land many feet above the water, but how large I cannot say. Three miles to the west from here is the great river you call the Ouse, it is on the other side of that where we dwell. None of us live on this side of that river. Three hours' walk north from here is a smaller river that runs into the great one. At the point where the two rivers join you will cross the Ouse, and then journey west in boats for a day; that will take you near the land we speak of."
"But how are we to get the boats? We have no time to make them."
"We will take you in our boats. This man," and he pointed to one of those who had been with them in the morning, "will go with you as a guide through the swamps to the river to the north. There we will meet you with twenty boats, and will take a party to the spot we speak of. Then we will sell you the boats--we can build more --and you can take the rest of your party over as you like. What will you give us?"
"We will give you twenty swords like those I sent you, and twenty spearheads, and a hundred copper arrowheads, and twenty cattle."
The chiefs consulted together. "We want grain and we want skins," their spokesman said. "We have need of much grain, for if the Romans take your land and kill your people, where shall we buy grain? And we want skins, for it takes two skins to make a boat, and we shall have to build twenty to take the place of those we give you."
"We can give the skins," Aska said, after a consultation with Beric; "and I doubt not we can give grain. How much do you require?"
"Five boat loads filled to the brim."
"To all your other terms we agree," Aska said; "and you shall have as much grain as we can obtain. If we fall short of that quantity we will give for each boat load that is wanting three swords, six spearheads, and ten arrowheads."
The bargain was closed. The Fenmen had come resolved not to allow the strangers to enter their land, but their offer to occupy any spot, even if tenanted by savage beasts, entirely changed the position. In the recesses of the swamps to the east of the Ouse lay a tract of country which they avoided with a superstitious fear. In the memory of man none had dared to approach that region, for there was a tradition among them that, when they had first fled from the Iceni, a large party had penetrated there, and of these but a few returned, with tales of the destruction of their companions by huge serpents, and monsters of strange shapes, some of which were clothed in armour impenetrable to their heaviest weapons. From that time the spot had been avoided. Legends had multiplied concerning the creatures that dwelt there, and it now seemed to the chiefs that they must be gainers in any case by the bargain.
If the monsters conquered and devoured the Iceni, as no doubt they would do, they would be well rid of them. If the Iceni destroyed the monsters a large tract of country now closed would be open for fishing and fowling. They therefore accepted, without further difficulty, the terms the strangers offered. It was, moreover, agreed that any further parties of Iceni should be free to join the first comers without hindrance, and that guides should be furnished to all who might come to the borders of the swamps to join their countrymen. They were to act in concert in case of any attack by the Romans, binding themselves to assist each other to the utmost of their powers.
"But how are we to convey our cattle over?" Beric asked.
The native shook his head. "It is too far for them to swim, and the ground in most places is a swamp, in which they would sink."
"That must be an after matter, Beric," Aska said. "We will talk that over after we have arrived. Evidently we can do nothing now. The great thing is to get to this place they speak of, and to prepare it to receive the women and other fugitives. When will you have the boats at the place you name?"
"Three hours after daylight tomorrow."
"We will be there. You shall receive half the payments we have agreed upon before we start, the rest shall be paid you when you return with the boats and hand them over for the second detachment to go."
The native nodded, and at once he and his companions took their places in their coracles, leaving the native who was to act as guide behind them.
"They are undersized little wretches," Boduoc said, as they started for the village; "no wonder that our forefathers swept them out of the land without any difficulty. But they are active and sturdy, and, knowing their swamps as they do, could harass an invader terribly. I don't think that at present they like our going into their country, but they will be glad enough of our aid if the Romans come."
When they reached the village they found that the herds had just arrived. The headman was surprised when they told him that the Fenmen had agreed to allow them a shelter in the swamps, and he and eight or ten men who had straggled in since Beric's party arrived, expressed their desire to accompany the party with their families. Other women in the village would likewise have gone, but Aska pointed out to them that they had better go north and take shelter among the Brigantes, as all the women of his tribe had done, except those whose men were with them.
"You will be better off there than among the swamps, and we cannot feed unnecessary mouths; nor have we means of transporting you there. We, too, would shelter in the woods, were it not that we mean to harass the Romans, so we need a place where they cannot find us. But as you go spread the news that Aska has sought refuge in the swamps with two hundred fighting Sarci, and that all capable of bearing arms who choose to join them can do so. They must come to the junction of the two rivers, and there they will hear of us."
As the villagers were unable to take away with them their stores of grain, they disposed of them readily to Beric in exchange for gold ornaments, with which they could purchase cattle or such things as they required from the Brigantes; they also resigned all property in their swine and cattle, which were to be left in the woods, to be fetched as required. Aska and Beric having made these arrangements, sat down to discuss what had best be done, as the twenty boats would only carry sixty, and would be away for two days before they returned for the second party. Boduoc was called into the council, and after some discussion it was agreed that the best plan would be for the whole party to go down together to the junction of the rivers, each taking as large a burden of grain as he could carry, and driving their cattle before them.
They heard from the headman that the whole country near the river was densely covered with bushes, and that the ground was swampy and very difficult to cross. They agreed, therefore, that they would form a strong intrenchment at the spot where they were to embark. It was unlikely in the extreme that the Romans would seek to penetrate such a country, but if they did they were to be opposed as soon as they entered the swamps, and a desperate stand was to be made at the intrenchment, which would be approachable at one or two points only. Six men were to be left at the village to receive the women and children when they arrived. The guide was to return as soon as he had led the main party to the point where the boats were to meet them, and to lead the second party to the same point.
That evening, indeed, the women began to arrive, and said that they believed all would be in on the following day. Among them was Boduoc's mother, who told Beric that her eldest daughter had started with Berenice and Cneius to meet the Romans as soon as the news of the defeat reached them. When day broke, Beric's command, with the women who had arrived, set off laden with as much grain in baskets or cloths as they could carry, and driving the cattle and pigs before them. The country soon became swampy, but their guide knew the ground well, and by a winding path led them dry footed through the bushes, though they could see water among the roots and grass on either side of them. They had, however, great difficulty with the cattle and pigs, but after several attempts to break away, and being nearly lost in the swamps, from which many of them had to be dragged out by sheer force, the whole reached the river. The men of the rear guard in charge of the main body of the swine and cattle did not arrive there until midday.
The spot to which the guide led them was on the river flowing east and west, a mile from its junction with the main stream, as he told them that the swamps were too deep near the junction of the river for them to penetrate there.
Some of the boats were already at the spot. When they reached it Aska and Beric at once began to mark out a semicircle, with a radius of some fifty yards, on the river bank. Ten of the cattle were killed and skinned, and as others of the party came up they were set to work to cut down the trees and undergrowth within the semicircle, and drag them to its edge, casting them down with their heads outwards so as to form a formidable abbatis. Within half an hour of the appointed time the twenty boats had arrived together with as many more, in which the grain, hides, and other articles agreed to be paid were to be carried off. Three of the cattle were cut up, and their flesh divided among the twenty boats, in which a quantity of grain was also placed. The seven remaining carcasses were for the use of the camp, the ten hides, half the grain, swords, spears, and arrowheads agreed upon, were handed over to the natives, and Beric, as an extra gift, presented each of the three chiefs who had come with the boats with one of the Roman shields, picked up on the field of battle.
The chiefs were greatly pleased with the present, and showed more goodwill than they had exhibited at their first interview. Aska had arranged with Beric to remain behind in charge of the encampment. As soon, therefore, as the presents had been handed over, Beric with Boduoc and three men to each boat took their places and pushed from shore. The boats of the Fenmen put off at the same time, and the natives, of whom there was one in each of Beric's boats, poled their way down the sluggish stream until they reached a wide river. The chiefs here shouted an adieu and directed their course up the river, while Beric's party crossed, proceeded down it for two miles, and then turned up a narrow stream running into it. All day they made their way along its windings; other streams came in on either side or quitted it; and, indeed, for some hours they appeared to be traversing a network of water from which rose trees and bushes. The native in Beric's boat, which led, could speak the language of the Iceni, and he explained to Beric that the waters were now high, but that when they subsided the land appeared above them, except in the course of the streams.
"It is always wet and swampy," he said; "and men cannot traverse this part on foot except by means of flat boards fastened to the feet by loops of leather; this prevents them from sinking deeply in."
Late in the afternoon the country became drier, and the land showed itself above the level of the water. The native now showed signs of much perturbation, stopping frequently and listening.
"I have come much farther now," he said, "than I have ever been before, and I dare not have ventured so far were it not that these floods would have driven everything back; but I know from an old man who once ventured to push farther, that this is the beginning of rising ground, and that in a short time you will find it dry enough to land. I advise you to call the other boats up so that in case of danger you can support each other."
The stream they were following was now very narrow, the branches of the trees meeting overhead.
"Can any of the other Fenmen in the boats speak our language?" Beric asked.
The man replied in the negative.
"That is good," he said; "I don't want my men to be frightened with stories about monsters. I don't believe in them myself, though I do not say that in the old time monsters may not have dwelt here. If anything comes we shall know how to fight it; but it is gloomy and dark enough here to make men uncomfortable without anything else to shake their courage."
At last they reached a spot where the bank was two feet above the water, and they could see that it rose further inland. Several of the other Fenmen had been shouting for some time to Beric's boatmen, and their craft had been lagging behind. Beric therefore thought it well to land at once. The boats were accordingly called up, the meat and grain landed, and the men leapt ashore, the boatmen instantly poling their crafts down stream at their utmost speed.
"We will go no farther tonight," Beric said; "but choose a comfortable spot and make a fire. It will be time enough in the morning to explore this place and fix on a spot for a permanent encampment."
A place was soon chosen and cleared of bushes. The men in several of the boats had at starting brought brands with them from the fires. These were carried across each other so as to keep the fire in, and eight or ten of these brands being laid together in the heart of the brushwood and fanned vigorously a bright flame soon shot up. The men's spirits had sunk as they passed through the wild expanse of swamp and water, but they rose now as the fire burned up. Meat was speedily frying in the flames, and this was eaten as soon as it was cooked, nothing being done with the grain, which they had no means of pounding. They had also brought with them several jars of beer from the village, and these were passed round after they had eaten their fill of meat.
"We will place four sentries," Beric said, "there may well be wolves or other wild beasts in these swamps."
After supper was over Boduoc questioned Beric privately as to the monsters of which their boatman had spoken.
"It is folly," Beric said. "You know that we have legends among ourselves, which we learned from the natives who were here before we came, that at one time strange creatures wandered over the country; but if there were such creatures they died long ago. These Fenmen have a story among themselves that such beasts lived in the heart of the swamp here when they first fled before us. It is quite possible that this is true, for although they died ages ago on the land they may have existed long afterwards among the swamps where there were none to disturb them. I have read in some of the Roman writers that there are creatures protected by a coat of scales in a country named Egypt, and that they live hundreds of years. Possibly these creatures, which the legends say were a sort of Dragon, may have lingered here, but as they do not seem to have shown themselves to the Fenmen since their first arrival here, it is not at all likely that there are any of them left; if there are we shall have to do battle with them."
"Do you think they will be very formidable, Beric?"
"I do not suppose so. They might be formidable to one man, but not to sixty well armed as we are; but I have not any belief that we shall meet with them."
The night passed quite quietly, and in the morning the band set out to explore the country. It rose gradually until they were, as Beric judged, from forty to fifty feet above the level of the swamp. Large trees grew here, and the soil was perfectly dry. The ground on the summit was level for about a quarter of a mile, and then gradually sank again. A mile farther they were again at the edge of a swamp.
"Nothing could have suited us better," Beric said. "At the top we can form an encampment which will hold ten thousand men, and there is dry ground a mile all round for the cattle and swine."
Presently there was a shout from some men who had wandered away, and Beric, bidding others follow, ran to the spot. They found men standing looking in wonder at a great number of bones lying in what seemed a confused mass.
"Here is your monster," Beric said; "they are snake bones." This was evident to all, and exclamations of wonder broke from them at their enormous size. One man got hold of a pair of ribs, and placing them upright they came up to his chin. The men looked apprehensively round.
"You need not be afraid," Beric said. "The creature has probably been dead hundreds of years. You see his skin is all decayed away, and it must have been thick and tough indeed. By the way the bones are piled together, he must have curled up here to die. He was probably the last of his race. However, we will search the island thoroughly, keeping together in readiness to encounter anything that we may alight upon."
Great numbers of snakes were found, but none of any extraordinary size.
"No doubt they fled here in the rains," Beric said, "when the water rose and covered the swamps; we shall not be troubled with them when the morasses dry. Anyhow they are quite harmless, and save that they may kill a chicken or two when we get some, they will give us no trouble. The swine will soon clear them off."
It was late in the day before the search was completed, and they then returned to the camping ground of the night before, quite assured that there was no creature of any size upon the island. Just as evening was falling on the following day they heard shouts.
"Are you alive?" a voice, which Beric recognized as that of his boatman, shouted.
"Yes," he exclaimed, "alive and well. There is nothing to be afraid of here."
A few minutes later the twenty boats again came up. The Fenmen this time ventured to land, but Beric's boatman questioned him anxiously about the monsters. Beric, who thought it as well to maintain the evil reputation of the place, told him that they had searched the island and had found no living monsters, but had come across a dead serpent, who must have been seventy or eighty feet long.
"There are no more of them here," he said, "but of course there may be others that have been alarmed at the noises we made and have taken to the swamps. This creature has been dead for a long time, and may have been the last of his race. However, if one were to come we should not be afraid of it with a hundred and twenty fighting men here."
The Fenmen, after a consultation among themselves, agreed that it would be safer to pass the night with the Iceni than to start in the darkness among the swamps. When they left in the morning Beric sent a message to Aska describing the place, and begging him to send up some of the women with the next party with means of grinding the grain. As soon as the boats were started Beric led the party up to the top of the rise, and then work was begun in earnest, and in a couple of days a large number of huts were constructed of saplings and brushwood cleared off from the centre of the encampment. Some women arrived with the next boat loads, and at once took the preparation of food into their hands. Aska sent a message saying that the numbers at his camp were undiminished, as most of the fighting men belonging to the villages round who had survived the battle had joined him at once with their wives, and that fresh men were pouring in every hour. He urged Beric to leave Boduoc in charge of the island, and to return with the empty boats in order that they might have a consultation. This Beric did, and upon his arrival he found that there were over four hundred men in camp, with a proportionate number of women and children. There were several subchiefs among them, and Aska invited them to join in the council.
"It is evident," he said, "that so large a number as this cannot find food in one place in the swamps, at any rate until we have learned to catch fish and snare wildfowl as the Fenmen do. The swine we can take there, but these light boats would not carry cattle in any numbers, though some might be thrown and carried there, with their legs tied together. At present this place is safe from attack. There is only one path, our guide says, by which it can be approached. I propose that we cut wide gaps through this, and throw beams and planks over them. These we can remove in case of attack. When we hear of the Romans' approach we can throw up a high defence of trees and bushes behind each gap."
"That will be excellent," Beric agreed, "and you would doubtless be able to make a long defence against them on the causeway. But you must not depend upon their keeping upon that. They will wade through the swamp waist deep, and, if it be deeper still, will cut down bushes and make faggots and move forward on these. So, though you may check them on the causeway, they will certainly, by one means or other, make their way up to your intrenchment, and you must therefore strengthen this in every way. I should build up a great bank behind it, so that if they break through or fire the defences you can defend the bank. There is one thing that must be done without delay; we must build more boats. There must be here many men from the eastern coast, where they have much larger and stronger craft than these coracles. I should put a strong party to work upon them. Then, in case of an attack, you could, when you see that longer resistance would be vain, take to the boats and join me; or, when the Romans approach, send them off to fetch my party from the island. Besides, we shall want to move bodies of men rapidly so as to attack and harass the enemy when they are not expecting us.
"I should say that we ought to have at least twenty great flatboats able to carry fifty men each. Speed would not be of much consequence, as the Romans will have no boats to follow us; besides, except on the Ouse and one or two of the larger streams, there is no room for rowing, and they must be poled along. Let us keep none but fighting men here. As all the villagers fled north there must be numbers of cattle and swine wandering untended in all the woods, and in many of the hamlets much grain must have been left behind, therefore I should send out parties from time to time to bring them in. When the large boats are built we can transport some of the cattle alive to the island; till then they must be slaughtered here; but with each party a few swine might be sent to the island, where they can range about as they choose. What is the last news you have of the Romans?"
"They are pressing steadily north, burning and slaying. I hear that they spare none, and that the whole land of the Trinobantes, from the Thames to the Stour, has been turned into a waste."
"It was only what we had to expect, Aska. Have any more of my people come in since I left?"
"Only a young girl. She arrived last night. It is she that brought the news that I am giving you. She is a sister of your friend Boduoc, and her mother, who had given her up for lost, almost lost her senses with delight when she returned. The family are fortunate, for another son also came in two or three days ago."
Beric at once went in search of Boduoc's mother, whom he found established with her girls in a little bower.
"I am glad indeed that your daughter has returned safe," he said, as the old woman came out on hearing his voice.
"Yes, I began to think that I should never see her face again, Beric; but I am fortunate indeed, when so many are left friendless, that all my four children should be spared.
"Tell the chief how you fulfilled your mission," she said to the girl.
"It was easy enough," she replied. "Had I been by myself I should have returned here three days since, but the little lady could not make long journeys, and it was three days after we left before we saw any of the Romans. At last we came upon a column of horse. When we saw them the little lady gave me this bracelet, and she put this gold chain into my hand and said, 'Beric.' So I knew that it was for you. Then I ran back and hid myself in the trees while they went forward. When they got near the soldiers on horseback the man lifted up his arms and cried something in a loud voice. Then they rode up to them, and for some time I could see nothing. Then the horsemen rode on again, all but two of them, who went on south. The man rode behind one of them, and the little lady before another. Then I turned and made hither, travelling without stopping, except once for a few hours' sleep. There are many fugitives in the woods, and from them I heard that the land of the Trinobantes was lit up by burning villages, and that the Romans were slaughtering all. Some of those I met in the wood had hid themselves, and had made their way at night, and they saw numbers of dead bodies, women and children as well as men, in the burned hamlets."
"You have done your mission well," Beric said. "Boduoc will be glad when I tell him how you have carried out my wish. We must find a good husband for you some day, and I will take care that you go to him with a good store of cattle and swine. Where is your brother?"
"He is there," she said, "leaning against that tree waiting for you."
"I am glad to see you safe among us," Beric said to the young man. "How did you escape the battle?"
"I was driving the chariot with Parta's attendants, as I had from the day we started. I kept close behind her chariot, and escaped with her when the line of wagons was broken to let the queen pass. When we got far away from the battle your mother stopped her chariot and bade me go north. 'I have no more need of attendants,' she said; 'let them save themselves. Do you find my son if he has escaped the battle, and tell him that I shall share the fate of Boadicea. I have lived a free woman, and will die one. Tell him to fight to the end against the Romans, and that I shall expect him to join me before long in the Happy Island. Bid him not lament for me, but rejoice, as he should, that I have gone to the Land where there are no sorrows.' Then I turned my chariot and drove to your home to await your coming there if you should have escaped. It was but a few hours after that the messengers brought the news that you were safe, and that the survivors of your band were to join you at Soto with such men as might have escaped. As Parta's orders were to take the women with me to the north, I drove them two days farther, taking with me a lad, the brother of one of them. Then I handed over the chariot to him, to convey them to the land of the Brigantes, and started hither on foot to join you."
"You shall go on with me tomorrow, you and your mother and sisters. Boduoc will be rejoiced to see you all. We have found a place where even the Romans will hardly reach us."
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