This is a black land. The caked earth is black from the blood spilled for suppression and spite. The trees are black for no birds sing, deafened as they are by the cries of pain. The sky is black as winter approaches and all hope seems lost. The smell of death pervades our lives.
Before I was born the Romans invaded our land and my father, as king of our tribe, the Iceni, surrendered with other tribal kings to the Emperor Claudius. Father was always a peacemaker, my mother says. To secure our independence, he swore loyalty to the oppressors. In return for the taxes we pay to Rome, they allow us to live on our own land.
My mother tells me she remembers my father whispering to her, “I have thought of a way to protect you from Roman rule, if anything should happen to me.”
“How,” she asks him.
“I will make a will and leave half my estates to the new Emperor, Nero, and the other half to you and our girls. Nero will allow you to continue to reign and manage the land so the three of you will be safeguarded.”
My sister, Latis, myself and my mother Boudicea, make sure my father remains healthy because we are not as sure as he is that any Roman is honourable. The local tax collectors are dishonest. My father, King Prasutagas, knows because even though the money leaves here paid in full, it is he who must make good the frequents shortfalls. He just pays again. He chooses not to see the violence carried out by legionnaires who run amok in our land. Beatings, killings, and rapes. The governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, cannot control his own troops. The Romans blood lust, dishonesty and ineffectual governing strengthen my resolve to resist these conquerors. They, however, continue to try and impose their will by military strength.
I am Minerva, daughter of King Prasutagas and Queen Boudicea, and at this time I am maddened with rage. My mother says all thirteen-year olds are angry. However, she acknowledges I have a right to be furious today for she is too. The Romans have killed my father, you see.
* * * * *
Despite our father’s allegiance to Rome and his will leaving half our estates to Nero, the Romans seize all our land now he is gone. They plunder the house and take all they can carry. Gone are our coins, our silverware, our pottery. Gone is our winter store, our land and our people who work on it. They do more. They do worse. My mother confronts the Roman overlords for stealing our property and they seize the opportunity to humiliate and dishonour us. For her protestations they strip and publicly flog her. I watch and my heart cries for her. I feel her pain and her shame. I do not let her see my pity. She is a proud woman. How dare they flog the Queen of the Iceni, I shout in my head. My only response is to remain stoic. So, I stand superior and strong and face the enemy. I will not give them the pleasure of seeing my distress.
Latis and I are beaten and raped over and over, by Roman slaves. As if we are less than slaves. I am in agony but I do not make a sound. I hear Latis as she whimpers. I would have thought that Roman slaves would have some pity for our plight, mistreated as they are by their masters. They do not. They know nothing but cruelty so they deal the same to us. It is rare they are allowed to mete out any punishment and they revel in this opportunity to debase princesses of the Royal House. Our attendants carry us home for we cannot walk.
Our mother’s skin is torn and raw and her women attend to her wounds with tears of compassion and regret rolling down their cheeks. Her back hurts and, unable to find rest, she winces with every sting and stab. The passion to settle scores keeps me going. Some day it will boil over.
“You are just children and are ruined,” she murmurs. Yes, it’s true and our ongoing worry is they have ruined our wombs or maybe left Roman babies there. I won’t consider douching as I am still healing, but I ask for a potion. Latis says she will cope, come what may.
“We will heal,” Latis says and reaches for mother’s hand.
Because we are vulnerable Latis thinks we should flee, but she does not say this. Because we are violated, I think, we should fight but I do not say that either. Not in so many words.
“The physical injury will heal,” I tell her. “But, if you can, give us some hope to relieve the heartache.” My mother looks at me and smiles. I think she recognises the strength she passed on to me.
“I promise you,” she says through clenched teeth, “I will avenge the betrayal and infamy brought on our family. The reason we are spared is to fight another day.”
“We stand by you, mother, and together we will face what must be done.” I tell her, yearning to fight.
“My girls, you give me spirit,” she declares. “We are on our own now your father is dead, but we have support. The Iceni tribe have the courage of ten Roman legions.”
“Yes, as soon as we are healed we will strike back,” I say and mother seethes, “For my daughters honour I must have redress. For my daughters future, I will rise up. For the death of my husband and their brutality to us, I will repay the Romans. I will not rest until the Romans are crushed.” She reaches for a large hard apple on the table and with dark eyes that burn into our souls, she squeezes it until it squashes through her fingers.
We three need the winter months to recover before we attempt revenge. In the meantime, our mother, Queen Boudicea, starts to plan.
* * * * *
My mother’s most faithful attendant whispers, “They have taken much, my Queen, but I buried your jewellery. They have not taken that. I have it for you.”
“Branigian, you are a dear friend,” she says and softens her usually strident voice. “The only one who would have thought of it. Bring it and let me see.”
The attendant offers the box. Her hair adornments lie on top. She passes over the bone and wood combs and selects one with white stones that glisten in the shaft of spring sunlight shining through the window. She hands it to Branigian who curls her hair off her face and holds it in place with the comb.
Beneath the combs is our mother’s torque, made by Sumerian artisans, and given to her by King Prasutagas as a betrothal gift. “This I hold very close to my heart,” she sighs and hugs it to her chest before placing it around her neck. “And this,” she declares holding aloft the large fibula our father bought for us to give to her, “was always my favourite.” We know well the big clasp, our gift to her at the celebration of her birth month in her thirtieth summer. It is large and shiny yellow, the metal they call gold, with intricate lacing around the edges and a green central stone. It is very striking and she wears it often to fasten her cloak. She finds the rings she commissioned from Egypt and places some on her fingers, and shows us.
“Now I feel like the Queen of the Iceni,” she says, happier than I have seen her since the death of my father.
“You are a striking woman, my Queen,” says Branigian and we smile. Branigan has found the words drifting around our minds.
Mother reaches into the box and selects a silver wristlet with small blue shimmering stones. “This is the one you favour, Branigian,” she says, “but it is too small for my large wrist. I’d like you to have it.”
Branigian does like this piece. When the Queen asks her to select jewellery, Branigian is sure to include it. However, stunned by value of the gift and unsure whether to accept it, she searches for the correct words. My mother laughs. “If you say no, I shall be displeased. If you take it and wear it, I shall be pleased.”
The attendants leave and she turns to us. My beautiful sister, Latis, is fourteen years of age, one year older than me. Her jet-black piercing eyes, like mother’s, make her look defiant but it is a mask. She has father’s calm qualities. Her pride is her lustrous hair that falls to her waist. Our mother hands her two pearl clustered combs that will look stunning in her dark locks.
“These pieces were fashioned in Wessex,” mother tells her. “Wear them with pride because you were conceived when the king and I visited Cerdic of Wessex to discuss alliances.” Latis bows her head in gratitude.
I am named for a Roman Goddess, Minerva. I dislike the name because of its association with the Romans. My father, however, saw my name as another way to demonstrate assimilation into Roman culture. Unlike Latis, I am a warrior. I am tall like mother and my hair is the same colour as hers: the shade of the big copper beech in autumn. She hands me a silver necklace with greenish-blueish beads.
“This will compliment your colouring and your hair,” she says. “It comes from Persia where they mine it in the Alimersai Mountains.”
“Thank you, mother,” I say, “but why give away your jewellery now?”
She is direct with us. “We head into battle and do not know if we will defeat the enemy or die on the field. I would ask that you wear the jewellery because if we perish I want the victors to know we are the rulers of this land. I want a proper burial. They may afford us that small tribute.”
* * * * *
We rise early. No one can sleep. A mix of edginess, excitement, and elation fills the air. The horses are restless as our people make ready to leave. The women who fight alongside the menfolk, paint blue stripes across their cheeks and blacken their eyes. Mother is quiet. Latis is sick.
We dress with care. Our mother adorns herself with her betrothal torque, a gold armband and her copper crown. She ties a red belt around the waist of her dark blue woollen tunic. Her cloak of pale blue, with red and yellow flashes, is swept high to one side and fastened with the large gold fibula we gifted to her. Her reddish hair falls, thick and wavy, down her back below her hips. Latis and I take similar care. She dresses in shades of grey and I am in green. We wear our jewellery as instructed.
Boudicea stands tall in her war-chariot, fitted with scythe blades on both wheels to disable enemy chariots as we pass. The chariot is pulled by two palomino horses and as impatient as Boudicea to be off, they shake their blonds manes, snort, stomp and try to rear up. We take our places slightly behind the Queen, I on her right holding a dagger and on her left is Latis, looking fearful. She has a right to be fearful. She rides into battle with a baby in her belly.
Mist hovers over the camp when, just as dawn breaks, Boudicea takes her javelin in her right hand and steers her chariot between our fighting men and women.
“She is a fierce, wild woman,” I hear someone say.
“No, I am a wild woman,” answers a woman. “She is a warrior queen.”
They listen to Boudicea’s shrill voice as she tells them they have been enslaved long enough; that they do this for their daughters, their sons; that this is a fight for deliverance from our enemies.
“These Romans do not know to fear us,” she shrieks. “Today we will show them their error. Today they will see our strength and solidarity. Today we will trample on their pride and arrogance.”
When a rooster announces daybreak, they roar. Everyone recognises the sign of good luck.
“Have fortitude, good women and men, for we shall win our freedom.”
They cheer more and their excitement is infectious. The Trinovantes, Iceni allies to the south, have joined the revolt and when hear the jubilation they call out their praise. All are pleased to pick up their weapons and follow Boudicea on the road to Colchester.
Now an established Roman outpost the former Trinovantian capital, Colchester, is detested because of its Temple to Claudius built with our money while our families scraped a living. Colchester defenses are poor and it is easy to kill and slaughter as many Romans as dwell here. They are mostly old; old enough to have injured and slaughtered our people and vandalised what we own. We have no pity. We mutilate the dead bodies, destroy the temple, behead a statue of Nero, and burn the city. The victory increases our optimism. After two days we are spent but still able to drink the Roman’s ale and good wine in celebration.
That evening, we three women go round the troops and rally them for the morrow. The ninth division, we hear, is heading this direction and we must prepare. Our fighters, boosted by success and the liquor, are ready to take on all of the Roman empire.
We meet the enemy on the road. The appearance of charging, shrieking tribal women terrifies the soldiers. They fall back and we defeat them without many losses. As we advance towards London, some on foot, some riding the horses we liberate, we welcome other oppressed tribes who join us along the way. All eager to have their day.
The Governor Suetonius hears of the rebellion and reaches London before us. Seeing it is impossible to defend with his limited troops he departs with his army. When we hear this news, we are joyful and energised. The Roman army is falling to the right and to the left without combat. We are unchallenged when we enter London and burn it to the ground. Boudicea is as bitter as any man and shows no mercy for the young, old, women or children.
“I am ashamed,” says Latis when she sees the bodies of children left on the ground for scavengers and those of high-born women impaled on stakes.
“All this desecration carried out in the name of revenge.”
“Shameful deeds necessitate revenge,” I counter.
“Shameful deeds try to justify revenge when forgiveness might be as effective.”
I will have the last word. “Well, we can forgive them now they are dead.”
* * * * *
Next morning, we meet with Boudicea to discuss the news that Suetonius has increased the number of his troops and is now heading this way. As we plan, a small bird flies into the tent and flutters around, looking for a way out. Silence descends.
“This is a bad omen,” Boudicea says.
I too know this superstition. “It’s only a bird that’s lost.” I tell my mother and sister but both look troubled.
“That’s just what the omen portends,” my sister answers. “It is telling us we are lost and must prepare for change, or death.”
As I sweep the bird out, I catch their fear. Boudicea tells us, “We have been lucky at Colchester, London and St Albans but I need to know what each of you will do if we are not so lucky in the next fight. Latis what will you do?”
“I will try to escape, Mother. I want to wed and make a good life for the child, I carry,” she answers and places a hand on her stomach.”
“I like that,” mother answers. “It’s good to know our blood line will continue. If you can, take Branigian and some others with you.” Latis nods. “And, what will you do Minerva? Are you of the same mind?”
“No. Either victorious or defeated, I will stay to the end. I will remain on the battlefield and fight to the death. It is what I must do to vindicate the death of father, punish them for what they did to you, and have atonement for the rubbish they forced into my body. Whether we live or die this battle will dignify our house and honour the Iceni tribe once more.”
“Your dedication does you justice, Minerva. Your father would be proud of you. I am proud of you.” I smile when I hear her say that for her praise is rare.
“What will you do, Mother?” Latis asks after a pause.
“I will fight with every ounce of my being, but if we are overpowered I must get away from the field. I cannot be taken alive because the Romans will use my downfall and subsequent torture to supress our tribes. I will try to return here to camp and get help. Should I not be successful in escaping I will take poison. My attendants have instructions to bury or burn my body.”
The sense of uncertainty hangs in the air. We planned for success and planned for defeat. We are ready. The three of us hold hands, then hug. We say our goodbyes, leave the tent and rally the tribal warriors. They are eager for further wins. Many have grown prosperous exploiting the spoils of war. Such stories as will be told in years to come.
Boudicea climbs into our war-chariot. Latis and I climb in behind and call to all around us, conveying camaraderie and expectation we do not feel. They wave back, believing in their certain success and cheer us as we ride out at great speed.
Boudicea’s hair lifts in the wind and flies behind her.
Vivien Hollis was born in N. Ireland and now lives in Canada. She visits England and Ireland each year for immersion in history and craic. Having retired as a professor at the University of Alberta she returned to her first passion, fiction writing. Vivien is a member of the Strathcona Writers Foundation. A number of her short stories are published. Speak up was published online in The Galway Review and selected for the printed edition, Galway Review 7. Hard Life was awarded an Honourable Mention and published in 2016 by Canadian Tales, Red Tuque, (IBSN 978-1-927049-05-1). See her website. Vivien Hollistorical short stories she is working on her first historical novel.