Blood. With her thumb and two fingers, Sulwen pinched her nose to block out the coppery stench, the only thing left of her fellow druids, her teachers and friends. On shaky legs she wobbled across the scarlet-stained beach, silent shouts of "Go, go," filled the druidess' mind as she waded into the frigid water.
Her muscles clenched tight with pain, her thoughts drifting fast, she had to focus. Chilled shivers jolted her as she stood waist-high in the sea, taking a deep breath, she ducked under. Druidess Sulwen pushed her arms hard and kicked with all her might against the rapid swirling tide, bubbling like a boiling cauldron above the even deadlier quicksand bottom.
Bobbing for air, she glimpsed the shore. Weak, she felt she was spinning. Sulwen pushed her body hard. She found strength in knowing she would eat and rest at the next village. She swam onward through the frigid water until she reached the shallowest part and then waded onto the beach.
She laced her arms together across her chest. Shivering, her eyes drank in the lush, green plateau, crested by a Celtic fort. Still cramping from the hard swim through the icy current, she forced her legs to climb the narrow, twisted path. She limped through the arched gateway of the wooden enclosure and into the inner yard.
Her muscles relaxed at the sounds of mooing cattle and bleating sheep. The normal sounds of life helped her block out the memories of screams and horrid death cries of people burned alive, of a whole island slaughtered.
Her eyes took in an old, wizened woman stooping by a cook fire, stirring a large, black cauldron with a wooden ladle. The moment Sulwen's nose latched onto the smell of boiled duck, her stomach throbbed with want of food. The thick, feral smell commanded her belly to eat.
Sulwen squatted down beside the woman. "Old Mother, bright blessing to you." She swatted at a fly hovering over the cooking pot.
"I feared all the oak seers were dead." Her thin, wrinkled, brown-spotted hand curved around the wooden handle of the ladle as she scooped the broth into a bowl. "Here." She handed it to Sulwen. "Eat."
Her wet hands still trembled from the chill of the sea as she devoured the stew.
"A blessing to see you still live. If we had known there were survivors, we would have come to your aid." The woman's eyes were sad with regret.
Her tender words broke the ice gathering around Sulwen's heart. "You aid me now. All is in the hands of the gods." Duck and sea salt trickled down her throat. She had never tasted anything as good. It had been so long since she last ate.
The old woman called to her granddaughter. The young maiden, no more than ten, with dark hair fashioned into six long braids, watched Sulwen from the doorway of a small round hut before she stepped forward and offered the oak seer a plaid cloth.
Sulwen set the empty earthenware bowl down and took the covering from the girl's small hands. She walked over to the hut and pulled back the leather flap. She entered, headed for the center fire and peeled off her wet robe. Stooping by the amber blaze, as her skin soaked up its warmth, she spread out the folded plaid. It held a blue tunic, which she pulled on over her head. She lay on the tartan, wrapped it around her, shifted into a sitting position, and tied it at the waist with her rope belt. She stood, her shoulders relaxed, she felt her lips curl into a smile. Her stomach full, her clothes dry, she ran her fingers through her wet hair, feeling human again.
The old woman peeked her head inside the round house. "Druidess, our chief summons you."
"Yes." Sulwen took a deep breath and held her head high as she went with the old woman. A crowd of people, women of all ages, older men, and a flock of children followed as she passed both round and rectangular stone huts of limestone slabs topped with thatched roofs, like those on Ynys Mon.
She came to a stop in the corner of the fort by the largest hut, an impressive round house with steps leading up to the entrance. Sulwen nodded to the woman, drew the white bull hide covering aside and entered. The chief leaned back on a small pallet. His large, gray-blue eyes were wide and blank as he stared into nothingness.
No doubt, Sulwen thought, he is suffering from the vision of the massacre on the island. These people saw the fires, heard the screams. The stench of blood and burning flesh drifted with the smoke into the village, yet they couldn't have done anything to stop it. This tribe had no warriors. The Romans killed them all in the last uprising. This chieftain couldn't halt the butchery, the slaughter of holy men and women.
As he rose, Sulwen noticed he appeared taller, muscular, and younger than she expected. "Hail bright one, I, Caswallon map Cynfarch of the Ordovices, welcome you. We thank the gods you were spared death at Roman hands. Did others survive?"
"My thanks, Chief Caswallon. Yes, a few escaped, taking refuge in the mountains."
His dull eyes lit with a gleam of relief. "It is good. We will help you reach safe haven in the slopes of Eryri as well."
"My thanks, Chief Caswallon, but I follow a quest to Londinium, not the snow-topped peaks."
His eyebrows slanted in confusion. "Druidess, Governor Suetonius Paulinus, the Roman who massacred your teachers and friends, who killed our druids, is on the march toward Londinium."
"Yes, Suetonius and I search for the same person. Queen Boudica of the Iceni, for she holds the power of war leader and the gods are with her. Andraste sent me a vision bidding me to join the queen with all haste."
The rebel queen would rid Britannia of the Romans. Andraste had told her so and she believed with all her might in the goddess and Boudica. They were her means to vengeance, to healing.
"If the goddess bids you find Boudica, I will not dissuade you." He walked to her and patted her shoulder. "We will aid you in your quest. Yet first, come, speak to my tribe. We want to know all that happened." He gestured her to follow him outside. As a crowd gathered around them, he nodded at her. "Bright one, tell us what you witnessed at Ynys Mon."
Her heart raced. She couldn't speak for a moment but she knew she had to tell them. Without looking directly at anyone in the crowd, she opened her mouth and began to speak. "We knew the Romans were coming due to the messenger you sent, Chief Caswallon, and we prepared for battle." Sulwen's throat tightened and her eyes watered. "The day before, my friends and I gathered woad flowers and boiled them in a large cauldron as we sang for the gods." She pressed her palm against her forehead. A downpour of tears threatened to break through, but she stopped them by biting down on her lip and blinking her eyes.
"Yes druidess." The chief cast his head down, recalling that traumatic day. "Suetonius rode in, 7,000 men strong, all with weapons, helmets, and chainmail."
Sulwen steeled her emotions so she could continue.
"Yes. To repel the Roman swords and spears, we rubbed leek oil over the warriors' skin and painted magic symbols of the gods on their firm, muscular bodies. Still, I trembled with fear as I gazed across the water at the soldiers, in shiny helmets and red capes, lining up their massive onager and ballista machines."