Beric the Briton
G. A. Henty
Part 3 out of 8
exclaimed passionately that the Britons were a wicked people.
"Then there will be a great battle when you meet Suetonius, Beric,"
Cneius said. "How think you will it go?"
"It is hard to say," Beric replied; "we are more than one hundred
and fifty thousand men against ten thousand, but the ten thousand
are soldiers, while the hundred and fifty thousand are a mob.
Brave and devoted, and fearless of death I admit, but still a mob.
I cannot say how it will go."
"How long shall we stay here, Beric?" Berenice asked. "When will
you take me to my father?"
"If we are beaten, Berenice, you will rejoin him speedily; if we
"He will not be alive," she broke in.
Beric did not contradict her, but went on, "I will see that you
are placed on board a ship and sent to Gaul; it is for this I come
here today. Cneius, in two or three days we shall meet Suetonius;
if we win, I will return to you myself, or if I am killed, Boduoc
or his brother, both of whom I shall charge with the mission, will
come in my place and will escort you to the coast and see that you
are placed on board ship. If we lose, it is likely that none of us
will return. I shall give the old woman instructions that in that
case her daughter is to guide you through the forest and take you
on until you meet some Roman soldiers, or are within sight of their
camp, then you will only have to advance and declare yourself."
Then he turned and spoke for some time to Boduoc's mother in her
own language, thanking her for the shelter that she had given the
fugitives, and giving instructions as to the future. He took a
hasty meal, and started at once on his return journey in order to
rejoin the Sarci as the army advanced from London. Berenice wept
bitterly when he said goodbye, and Cneius himself was much affected.
"I view you almost as a son," he said; "and it is terrible to know
that if you win in the battle, my patron Caius and my countrymen
will be destroyed, while if they win, you may fall."
"It is the fortune of war, Cneius. You know that we Britons look
forward to death with joy; that, unlike you, we mourn at a birth
and feast at a burial, knowing that after death we go to the Happy
Island where there is no more trouble or sorrow, but where all is
peace and happiness and content; so do not grieve for me. You will
know that if I fall I shall be happy, and shall be free from all
the troubles that await this unfortunate land."
CHAPTER VII: DEFEAT OF THE BRITONS
London was but a heap of ashes when Beric arrived there. It had
been a trading place rather than a town. Here were no Roman houses
or temples with their massive stone work; it consisted only of a
large collection of wooden structures, inhabited by merchants and
traders. It lay upon a knoll rising above the low swampy ground
covered by the sea at high water, for not till long afterwards did
the Romans erect the banks that dammed back the waters and confined
them within their regular channel. The opposite shore was similarly
covered with water at high tide, and forests extended as far as the
eye could reach. London, in fact, occupied what was at high water
a peninsula, connected with the mainland only by a shoulder extending
back to the hills beyond it, and separated by a deep channel on
the west from a similar promontory.
It was a position that, properly fortified by strong walls across
the isthmus, could have been held against a host, but the Romans
had not as yet taken it in hand; later, however, they recognized
the importance of the position, and made it one of the chief seats
of their power. Even in the three days that he had been absent
Beric found that the host had considerably increased. The tribes
of Sussex and Kent, as they heard of the approach of the army, had
flocked in to join it, and to share in the plunder of London.
Another day was spent in feasting and rejoicing, and then the army
moved northward. It consisted now of well nigh two hundred thousand
fighting men, and a vast crowd of women, with a huge train of
wagons. Two days later, news reached them of the spot where Suetonius
had taken up his position and was awaiting their attack, and the
army at once pressed forward in that direction. At nightfall they
bivouacked two miles away from it, and Beric, taking Boduoc with
him, went forward to examine it. It was at a point where a valley
opened into the plain; the sides of the valley were steep and
thickly wooded, and it was only in front that an attack could well
"What think you of it, Beric?" Boduoc asked.
"Suetonius relies upon our folly," Beric said; "he is sure that
we shall advance upon him as a tumultous mob, and as but a small
portion can act at once our numbers will count but little. The
position would be a bad one had we any skill or forethought. Were
I commander tomorrow I should, before advancing to the attack, send
a great number round on either side to make their way through the
woods, and so to attack on both flanks, and to pour down the valley
in their rear, at the same time that the main body attacked in the
front. Then the position would be a fatal one; attacked in front
and rear and overwhelmed by darts from the woods on the flanks,
their position would be well nigh desperate, and not a man should
"But we must overwhelm them," Boduoc said. "What can ten thousand
men do against a host like ours?"
"It may be so, Boduoc. Yet I feel by no means sure of it. At
any rate we must prepare for defeat as well as victory. If we are
beaten the cause of Britain will be lost. As we advance without
order we shall fly without order, and the tribes will disperse to
their homes even more quickly than they have gathered. Of one thing
you may be sure, the Roman vengeance will be terrible. We have
brought disgrace and defeat upon them. We have destroyed their
chief cities. We have massacred tens of thousands. No mercy will
be shown us, and chiefly will their vengeance fall upon the Iceni.
When we return to the camp, go among the men and ask them whether
they mean to fight tomorrow as they fought Cerealis, or whether
they will fight in the fashion of the rest. I fear that, wild as
all are with enthusiasm and the assurance of victory, they will
not consent to be kept in reserve, but will be eager to be in the
front of the attack. I will go with you, and will do my best to
persuade them; but if they insist on fighting in their own way, then
we will go to them one by one, and will form if we can a body, if
only a hundred strong, to keep, and if needs be, retreat together.
In speed we can outrun the heavy armed Roman soldiers with ease,
but their cavalry will scour the plain. Keeping together, however,
we can repel these with our lances, and make good our escape. We
will first make for home, load ourselves with grain, and driving
cattle before us, and taking our women and children, make for the
swamps that lie to the northwest of our limits. There we can defend
ourselves against the Romans for any length of time."
"You speak as if defeat were certain," Boduoc said reproachfully.
"Not at all, Boduoc; a prudent man prepares for either fortune, it
is only the fool that looks upon one side only. I hope for victory,
but I prepare for defeat; those who like to return to their homes
and remain there to be slaughtered by the Romans, can do so. I
intend to fight to the last."
Upon rejoining the Sarci, Beric called them together, and asked them
whether they wished on the following day to rush into the battle,
or to remain in solid order in reserve. The reply was, that they
wished for their share of glory, and that did they hold aloof
until the battle was done and the enemy annihilated they would be
pointed out as men who had feared to take their share in the combat.
When the meeting had dispersed Beric and Boduoc went among them;
they said nothing about the advantage that holding together would
be in case of defeat, but pointed out the honour they had gained by
deciding the issue of the last battle, and begged them to remain in
a solid body, so that possibly they might again decide the battle.
As to disgrace, they had already shown how well they could fight,
and that none could say that fear had influenced their decision.
Altogether two hundred agreed to retain their ranks, and with this
Beric was satisfied. He then went off to find his mother, who was
as usual with the queen. She would not hear of any possibility of
"What!" she said. "Are Britons so poor and unmanly a race, that even
when twenty to one they cannot conquer a foe? I would not believe
it of them."
"I don't expect it, mother, but it is best to be prepared for
whatever may happen." He then told her of the arrangements he had
"You may be right, Beric, in preparing for the worst, but I
will take no part in it. The queen has sworn she will not survive
defeat, nor shall I. I will not live to see my country bound in
Roman chains. A free woman I have lived, and a free woman I will
die, and shall gladly quit this troubled life for the shores of
the Happy Island."
Beric was silent for a minute. "I do not seek to alter your
determination, mother, but as for myself, so long as I can lift
a sword I shall continue to struggle against the Romans. We shall
not meet tomorrow; when the battle once begins all will be confusion,
and there would be no finding each other in this vast crowd. If
victory is ours, we shall meet afterwards; if defeat, I shall make
for Cardun, where, if you change your mind, I shall hope to meet
you, and then shall march with those who will for the swamps of
Ely, where doubtless large numbers of fugitives will gather, for
unless the Romans drive their causeways into its very heart they
can scarce penetrate in any other way."
So sure were the Britons of victory that no council was held that
night. There were the enemy, they had only to rush upon and destroy
them. Returning to his men, Beric met Aska.
"I have just been over to your camp to see you, Beric. I have talked
with Boduoc, who told me frankly that you did not share the general
assurance of an easy victory. Nor do I, after what I saw the other
day--how we dashed vainly against the Roman line. He tells me that
your men, save a small party, have determined to fight tomorrow in
the front line with the rest, and I lament over it."
"It would make no difference in the result," Beric said; "in so
great a mass as this we should be lost, and even if we could make
our way to the front, and fall upon the Romans in a solid body, our
numbers are too small to decide the issue; but at least we might,
had the day gone against us, have drawn off in good order."
"I will take my station with you," Aska said; "I have, as all the
Iceni know, been a great fighter in my time; but I will leave it
to the younger men tomorrow to win this battle. My authority may
aid yours, and methinks that if we win tomorrow, none can say that
you were wrong to stand aloof from the first charge, if Aska stood
Thanking the chief warmly for the promise, Beric returned to the
Sarci. Feasting was kept up all night, and at daybreak the Britons
were on foot, and forming in their tribes advanced within half
a mile of the Roman position. Then they halted, and Boadicea with
her daughters and the chiefs moved along their front exhorting
them to great deeds, recalling to them the oppression and tyranny
of the Romans, and the indignity that they had inflicted upon her
and her daughters; and her addresses were answered by loud shouts
from the tribesmen. In the meantime the wagons had moved out and
drew up in a vast semicircle behind the troops, so as to enable
the women who crowded them to get a view of the victory. So great
was the following that the wagons were ranged four or five deep.
Beric had drawn up the men who had agreed to fight in order, in a
solid mass in front of the tribe. He was nearly on the extreme left
of the British position. Aska had taken his place by his side. His
mother, as in her chariot she passed along behind Boadicea, waved
her hand to him, and then pointed towards the Romans.
"Look, Aska," he said presently; "do you see that deep line of
wagons forming all round us? In case of disaster they will block
up the retreat. A madness has seized our people. One would think
that this was a strife of gladiators at Rome rather than a battle
between two nations. There will be no retreat that way for us if
disaster comes. We must make off between the horn of the crescent
and the Romans. It is there only we can draw off in a body."
"That is so, Beric," the chief said; "but see! the queen has reached
the end of the lines, and waves her spear as a signal."
A thundering shout arose, mingled with the shrill cries of
encouragement from the women, and then like a torrent the Britons
rushed to the attack in confused masses, each tribe striving to
be first to attack the Romans. The Sarci from behind the company
joined in the rush, and there was confusion in the ranks, many of
the men being carried away by the enthusiasm; but the shouts and
exhortations of Beric, Aska, and Boduoc steadied them again, and
in regular order they marched after the host. In five minutes the
uproar of battle swelled high in front. Beric marched up the valley
until he arrived at the rear of the great mass of men who were
swarming in front of the Roman line, each man striving to get to
the front to hurl his dart and join in the struggle. The Romans had
drawn up twelve deep across the valley, the heavy armed spearmen
in front, the lighter troops behind, the latter replying with their
missiles to the storm of darts that the Britons poured upon them.
With desperate efforts the assailants strove to break through the
hedge of spears; their bravest flung themselves upon the Roman
weapons and died there, striving in vain to break the line.
For hours the fight continued, but the Roman wall remained unbroken and
immovable. Fresh combatants had taken the place of those in front
until all had exhausted their store of javelins. In vain the chiefs
attempted to induce their followers to gather thickly together and
to make a rush; the din was too great for their voices to be heard,
and the tribesmen were half mad with fury at the failure of their
own efforts to break the Roman line. Beric strove many times to
bring up his company in a mass through the crowd to the front. The
pressure was too great, none would give way where all sought to
get near their foes, and rather than break them up he remained in
the rear in spite of the eager cries of the men to be allowed to
break up and push their way singly forward.
"What can you do alone," he shouted to them, "more than the others
are doing? Together and in order we might succeed, broken we should
be useless. If this huge army cannot break their line, what could
two hundred men do?" At last, as the storm of javelins began
to dwindle, a mighty shout rose from the Romans, and shoulder to
shoulder with levelled spears they advanced, while the flanks giving
way, the cavalry burst out on both sides and fell upon the Britons.
For those in front, pressed by the mass behind them, there was
no falling back, they fell as they stood under the Roman spears.
Stubbornly for a time the tribesmen fought with sword and target;
but as the line pressed forward, and the horsemen cut their way
through the struggling mass, a panic began to seize them.
The tribes longest conquered by the Romans first gave way, and the
movement rapidly spread. Many for some time desperately opposed
the advance of the Romans, whose triumphant shouts rose loudly; but
gradually these melted away, and the vast crowd of warriors became
a mob of fugitives, the Romans pressing hotly with cries of victory
and vengeance upon their rear. Beric's little band was swept away
like foam before the wave of fugitives. For a time it attempted to
stem the current; but when Beric saw that this was in vain he shouted
to his tribesmen to keep in a close body and to press towards the
left, which was comparatively free. Fortunately the Roman horse
had plunged in more towards the centre, and the ground was open
for their retreat.
Thousands of flying men were making towards the rear, but with
a great effort they succeeded in crossing the tide of fugitives,
and in passing through outside the semicircle of wagons. Here they
halted for a moment while Beric, climbing on the end wagon, surveyed
the scene. There was no longer any resistance among the Britons.
The great semicircle within the line of wagons was crowded by a
throng of fugitives behind whom, at a run now, the Roman legions
were advancing, maintaining their order even at that rapid pace.
Outside the sweep of wagons women with cries of terror were flying
in all directions, and the horses, alarmed by the din, were plunging
and struggling, while their drivers vainly endeavoured to extricate
them from the close line of vehicles.
"All is lost for the present," he said to Aska, "let us make for
the north; it is useless to delay, men; to try to fight would be to
throw away our lives uselessly, we shall do more good by preserving
them to fight upon another day. Keep closely together, we shall
have the Roman cavalry upon us before long, and only by holding to
our ranks can we hope to repel them."
Many of the women from the nearest wagons rushed in among the men,
and, placing them in their centre, the band went off at a steady trot,
which they could maintain for hours. The din behind was terrible,
the shouts of the Romans mingled with the cries of the Britons
and the loud shrieks of women. The plain was already thick with
fugitives, consisting either of women from the outside wagons or
men who had made their way through the mass of struggling animals.
Here and there chariots were dashing across the plain at full gallop.
Looking back from a rise of the ground a mile from the battlefield,
they saw a few parties of the Roman horse scouring the plain; but
the main body were scattered round the confused mass by the wagons.
"There will be but few escape," Aska said, throwing up his arms
in despair; "the wagons have proved a death trap; had it not been
for them the army would have scattered all over the country, and
though the Roman horse might have cut down many, the greater number
would have gained the woods and escaped; but the wagons held them
just as a thin line of men will hold the wolves till the hunters
arrive and hem them in."
The carts crowded with women, the plunging horses in lines three
or four deep had indeed checked the first fugitives; then came the
others crowding in upon them, and then before a gap wide enough to
let them through could be forced, the Roman horse were round and
The pause that Beric made had been momentary, and the band kept
on at their rapid pace until the woods were reached, and they were
safe from pursuit; then, as they halted, they gave way to their
sorrow and anguish. Some threw themselves down and lay motionless;
others walked up and down with wild gestures; some broke into
imprecations against the gods who had deserted them. Some called
despairingly the names of wives and daughters who had been among
the spectators in that fatal line of wagons. The women sat in a
group weeping; none of them belonged to the Iceni, and their kinsfolk
and friends had, as they believed, all perished in the fight.
"Think you that the queen has fallen?" Aska asked Beric.
"She may have made her way out," Beric said; "we saw chariots
driving across the plain. She would be carried back by the first
fugitives, and it may be that they managed to clear a way through
the wagons for her and those with her. If she is alive, doubtless
my mother is by her side."
"If the queen has escaped," Aska said, "it will be but to die by
her own hand instead of by that of the Romans. I am sure that she
will not survive this day. There is nothing else left for her,
her tribe is destroyed, her country lost, herself insulted and
humiliated. Boadicea would never demand her life from the Romans."
"My mother will certainly die with her," Beric said, "and I should
say that all her party will willingly share her fate. For the chiefs
and leaders there will be no mercy, and for a time doubtless all
will be slaughtered who fall into the Roman hands; but after a
time the sword will be stayed, for the land will be useless to them
without men to cultivate it, and when the Roman hands are tired
of slaying, policy will prevail. It were best to speak to the men,
Aska, for us to be moving on; will you address them?"
The old chief moved towards the men, and raising his hand, called
them to him. At first but few obeyed the summons, but as he proceeded
they roused themselves and gathered round him, for his reputation
in the tribe was great, and the assured tone in which he spoke
revived their spirits.
"Men of the Sarci," he said, "this is no time for wailing
or lamentation; the gods of Britain have deserted us, but of this
terrible day's defeat none of the disgrace rests upon you. The
honour of the victories we won was yours, and though but a small
subtribe, the name of the Sarci rang through Britain as that of
the bravest in the land. Had all of your tribe obeyed their young
chief and fought together today as they have fought before, it may
be that the defeat would have been averted; but you stood firmly
by him when the others fell away, and you stand here without the
loss of a man, safe in the forest and ready to meet the Roman again.
You are fortunate in having such a leader. I may tell you that had
his counsel prevailed you would not now be mourning a defeat. I,
an old chief with long years of experience, believed what he said,
young though he is, and saw that to fight in a confused multitude
on such a field was to court almost certain defeat.
"Thus then I placed myself by his side, relying upon his skill
in arms and your bravery, and throwing my fortune in with yours.
I was not mistaken. Had you not firmly kept together and followed
his instructions you too would have been inclosed in that vast
throng of fugitives hemmed in among the wagons, slaughtered by the
Roman footmen in their rear and cut down by their horse if they
broke through the line of wagons. You may ask what is there to
live for; you may say that the cause of Britain is lost, that your
tribe is well nigh destroyed, that many of you have lost your wives
and families as well. All this is true, but yet, men, all is not
lost. Great as may have been the slaughter, large numbers must have
escaped, and many of you have still wives and families at home.
Before aught else is thought of these must be taken to a place of
safety until the first outburst of Roman vengeance has passed.
"Had Beric been the sole leader of the Britons from the first there
would be no need of fearing their vengeance, for in that case none
of their women and children would have been slain, and they would
be now in our hands as hostages; but that is past. I say it only
to show you how wise and far seeing as well as how brave a leader
in battle is this young chief of yours. While all others were
dreaming only of an easy victory over the Romans he and I have been
preparing for what had best be done in case of defeat. To return
to your homes would be but to court death, and if we are to die
at the hands of the Romans it is best that we should die fighting
them to the end. We have therefore arranged that we will seek a
refuge in the Fen country that forms the western boundary of the
land of the Iceni; there we can find strongholds into which the
Romans can never force their way; thence we can sally out, and in
turn take vengeance. There will rally round you hundreds of other
brave men till we grow to a force that may again make head against
the Romans. There at least we shall live as free men and die as
A shout of approval broke from the men.
"You need not starve," Aska went on. "The rivers abound with fish
and the swamps with waterfowl. There are islands among the swamps
where the land is dry, and we can construct huts. Three days since,
when he foresaw that it might be that a refuge would be needed,
Beric despatched a messenger home with orders that a herd of three
hundred cattle and another of as many swine should be driven to the
spot near the swamps for which we propose to make, and they will
there be found awaiting you."
There was again a chorus of approval, and one of the men stepping
forward said, "Beric is young, but he is a great chief. We will
follow him wherever he will take us, and will swear to be faithful
and obedient to him." Every man raised his right arm towards the
sky, and with a loud shout swore to be faithful to Beric.
"You are right," Aska said. "It is of no use to obey a chief only
when ranged in battle; it is that which has ruined our country.
There is nothing slavish in recognizing that one man must rule,
and in obeying when obedience is necessary for the sake of all. As
one body led by one mind you may do much; as two hundred men swayed
by two hundred minds you will do nothing. I shall be with Beric,
and my experience may be of aid to him. And if I, a chief of high
standing among the Iceni, am well content to recognize in him the
leader of our party, you may well do the same. Now, Beric, step
forward and say what is next to be done."
"I thank you," Beric said when the shout of acclamation that greeted
him when he stepped forward had subsided, "for the oath you have
sworn to be faithful to me. I pretend not to more wisdom than
others, and feel that in the presence of one so full of years and
experience as Aska it is a presumption for one of my age to give
an opinion; but in one respect I know that I am more fitted than
others to lead you. I have studied the records of the Romans, of
their wars with the Gauls and other peoples, and I know that their
greatest trouble was not in defeating armies in the field but of
overcoming the resistance of those who took refuge in fastnesses
and harassed them continually by sorties and attacks. I know where
the Romans are strong and where they are weak; and it is by the aid
of such knowledge that I hope that we may long retain our freedom,
and may even in time become so formidable that we may be able to
win terms not only for ourselves but for our countrymen.
"The first step is to gather at our place of refuge those belonging
to us. Therefore do you choose among yourselves twenty swift runners
and send them to our villages, bidding the wives and families of
all here to leave their homes at once, taking only such gear as they
can carry lightly, and to make with all speed for Soto, a village
in the district of the Baci, and but a mile or two from the edge
of the great swamp country. It is there that the herds have been
driven, and there they will find a party ready to escort them. Let
all the other women and children be advised to quit their homes
also, and to travel north together with the old men and boys. Bid
the latter drive the herds before them. It may be months before
they can return to their homes. It were best that they should pass
altogether beyond the district of our people, for it is upon the
Iceni that the vengeance of the Romans will chiefly fall. By presents
of cattle they can purchase an asylum among the Brigantes, and had
best remain there till they hear that Roman vengeance is satisfied.
"Let them as they journey north advise all the people in our
villages to follow their example. Let those who will not do this
take shelter in the hearts of the forests. To our own people my
orders are distinct: no herd, either of cattle or swine, is to be
left behind. Let the Romans find a desert where they can gather
no food; let the houses be burnt, together with all crops that
have been gathered. Warn all that there must be no delay. Let the
boys and old men start within five minutes from the time that you
deliver my message, to gather the herds and drive them north. Let
the women call their children round them, take up their babes, make
a bundle of their garments, and pile upon a wagon cooking pots and
such things as are most needed, and then set fire to their houses
and stacks and granaries and go. Warn them that even the delay of
an hour may be fatal, for that the Roman cavalry will be spreading
like a river in flood over the country. Beg them to leave the beaten
tracks and journey through the woods, both those who go north and
those who will meet us at Soto. Quick! choose the messengers; and
such of you as choose had best hand to the one who is bound for his
village a ring or a bracelet, or some token that your wives will
recognize, so that they may know that the order comes from you."
Twenty young men were at once chosen, and Boduoc and two of the
older men divided the district of the Sarci among them, allotting
to each the hamlets they should visit. As soon as this was decided
the rest of the band gave the messengers their tokens to their
families, and then the runners started at a trot which they could
maintain for many hours. The rest of the band then struck off in
the direction in which they were bound. With only an occasional
half hour for food and a few hours at night for sleep they pressed
northward. Fast as they went the news of the disaster had preceded
them, carried by fugitives from the battle.
At each hamlet through which they passed, Aska repeated the advice
that had been sent to the Iceni. "Abandon your homes, drive the
swine and the cattle before you, take to the forests, journey far
north, and seek refuge among the Brigantes. A rallying place for
fighting men will be found at Soto, on the edge of the great swamps;
let all who can bear arms and love freedom better than servitude
or death gather there."
Upon the march swine were taken and killed for food without
hesitation. Many were found straying in the woods untended, the
herdsmen having fled in dismay when the news of the defeat reached
them. As yet the full extent of the disaster was unknown. Some of
the fugitives had reported that scarce a man had escaped; but the
very number of fugitives who had preceded the band showed that this
was an exaggeration. But it was not until long afterwards that the
truth was known. Of the great multitude, estimated at two hundred
and thirty thousand, fully a third had fallen, among whom were
almost all the women and children whose presence on the battlefield
had proved so fatal, and of whom scarce one had been able to
escape; for the Romans, infuriated by the massacres at Camalodunum,
Verulamium, and London had spared neither age nor sex.
On their arrival at Soto they obtained for the first time news of
the queen. A chief of one of the northern subtribes of the Iceni
had driven through on his chariot and had told the headman of the
hamlet that he had been one of the few who had accompanied Boadicea
in her flight.
At the call of the queen, he said, the men threw themselves on
the line of wagons in such number and force that a breach was made
through them, horses and wagons being overthrown and dragged bodily
aside. The chariot with the queen and her two daughters passed
through, with four others containing the ladies who accompanied
her. Three or four chiefs also passed through in their chariots,
and then the breach was filled by the struggling multitude, that
poured out like a torrent. The chariots were well away before the
Roman horse swept round the wagons, and travelled without pursuit
to a forest twenty miles away. As soon as they reached this the
queen ordered the charioteers to dig graves, and then calling upon
the god of her country to avenge her, she and her daughters and
the ladies with them had all drunk poison, brewed from berries that
they gathered in the wood. The chiefs would have done so also, but
the queen forbade them.
"It is for you," she said, "to look after your people, and to wage
war with Rome to the last. We need but two men to lay us in our
graves and spread the sods over us; so that after death at least
we shall be safe from further dishonour at the hands of the Romans."
When they had drunk the poison the men were ordered to leave them
for an hour and then to return. When they did so the ladies were
all dead, lying in a circle round Boadicea. They were buried in
the shallow holes that had been dug, the turf replaced, and dead
leaves scattered over the spot, so that no Roman should ever know
where the queen of the Iceni and her daughters slept.
Although Beric had given up all hope of again seeing his mother
alive, the news of her death was a terrible blow to him, and he
wept unrestrainedly until Aska placed a hand on his shoulder. "You
must not give way to sorrow, Beric. You have her people to look to.
She has gone to the Green Island, where she will dwell in happiness,
and where your father has been long expecting her. It is not at a
death that we Britons weep, knowing as we do that those that have
gone are to be envied. Arouse yourself! there is much to be done.
The cattle will probably be here in the morning. We have to question
the people here as to the great swamps, and get them to send to the
Fen people for guides who will lead us across the marshes to some
spot where we can dwell above the level of the highest waters."
Beric put aside his private grief for the time, and several of the
natives of the village who were accustomed to penetrate the swamps
in search of game were collected and questioned as to the country.
None, however, could give much useful information. There was a
large river that ran through it, with innumerable smaller streams
that wandered here and there. None had penetrated far beyond the
margin, partly because they were afraid of losing their way, partly
because of the enmity of the Fen people.
These were of a different race to themselves, and were a remnant
of those whom the Iceni had driven out of their country, and who,
instead of going west, had taken refuge in the swamps, whither the
invaders had neither the power nor inclination to follow them.
"It is strange," Aska said, "that just as they fled before us
centuries ago, so we have now to fly before the Romans. Still, as
they have maintained themselves there, so may we. But it will be
necessary that we should try and secure the goodwill of these people
and assure them that we do not come among them as foes."
"There is no quarrel between us now," the headman of the hamlet
said. "There has not been for many generations. They know that we
do not seek to molest them, while they are not strong enough to
molest us. There is trade between all the hamlets near the swamps
and their people; they bring fish and wildfowl, and baskets which
they weave out of rushes, and sell to us in exchange for woven
cloth, for garments, and sometimes for swine which they keep upon
some of their islands.
"It is always they who come to us, we go not to them. They are
jealous of our entering their country, and men who go too far in
search of game have often been shot at by invisible foes. They take
care that their arrows don't strike, but shoot only as a warning that
we must go no farther. Sometimes some foolhardy men have declared
that they will go where they like in spite of the Fenmen, and they
have gone, but they have never returned. When we have asked the
men who come in to trade what has become of them they say 'they do
not know, most likely they had lost their way and died miserably,
or fallen into a swamp and perished there;' and as the men have
certainly lost their lives through their own obstinacy nothing can
"Then some of these men speak our tongue, I suppose?" Aska said.
"Yes, the men who come are generally the same, and these mostly
speak a little of our language. From time to time some of our
maidens have taken a fancy to these Fenmen, and in spite of all their
friends could do have gone off. None of these have ever returned,
though messages have been brought saying they were well. We think
that the men who do the trading are the children of women who went
to live among them years ago."
"Then it is through one of these men that we must open communications
with them," Aska said.
"Some of them are here almost daily. No one has been today, and
therefore we may expect one tomorrow morning. This is one of the
chief places of trade with them. The women of the hamlets round
bring here the cloth they have woven to exchange it for their
goods, others from beyond them do the same, so that from all this
part of the district goods are brought in here, while the fish and
baskets of the Fenmen go far and wide."
CHAPTER VIII: THE GREAT SWAMPS
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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?"
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
"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
"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
"Yes," he exclaimed, "alive and well. There is nothing to be afraid
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
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
"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
"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
"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."
CHAPTER IX: THE STRUGGLE IN THE SWAMP
That evening Beric had a long talk with Aska and four or five
men from the coast accustomed to the building of large boats. The
matter would be easy enough, they said, as the boats would not be
required to withstand the strain of the sea, and needed only to be
put together with flat bottoms and sides. With so large a number
of men they could hew down trees of suitable size, and thin them
down until they obtained a plank from each. They would then be
fastened together by strong pegs and dried moss driven in between
the crevices. Pitch, however, would be required to stop up the
seams, and of this they had none.
"Then," Beric said, "we must make some pitch. There is no great
difficulty about that. There are plenty of fir trees growing near
the edges of the swamps, and from the roots of these we can get
The men were all acquainted with the process, which was a simple
one. A deep hole was dug in the ground. The bottom of this was
lined with clay, hollowed out into a sort of bowl. The hole was then
filled with the roots of fir closely packed together. When it was
full a fire was lit above it. As soon as this had made its way
down earth was piled over it and beaten down hard, a small orifice
being left in the centre. In this way the wood was slowly converted
into charcoal, and the resin and tar, as they oosed out under the
heat, trickled down into the bowl of clay at the bottom. As little
or no smoke escaped after the fire was first lighted, the work
could be carried on without fear of attracting the attention of
any bodies of the enemy who might be searching the country.
Two months passed. By the end of that time the intrenchment on the
river bank had been made so strong that it could resist any attack
save by a very large body of men. That on the island had also been
completed, and strong banks thrown up at the only three points
where a landing could be effected from boats.
The swamps had been thoroughly explored in the neighbourhood, and
another island discovered, and on this three hundred men had been
established, while four hundred remained on the great island, and
as many in the camp on the river. There were over a thousand women
and children distributed among the three stations. Three hundred
men had laboured incessantly at the boats, and these were now
finished. While all this work had been going on considerable numbers
of fish and wildfowl had been obtained by barter from the Fenmen,
with whom they had before had dealings, and from other communities
living among the swamps to the north. Many of the Iceni, who came
from the marshy districts of the eastern rivers, were also accustomed
to fishing and fowling, and, as soon as the work on the defences
was finished and the tortuous channels through the swamps became
known to them, they began to lay nets, woven by the women, across
the streams, and to make decoys and snares of all sorts for the
The framework for many coracles had been woven of withies by
the women, and the skins of all the cattle killed were utilized
as coverings, so that by the end of the two months they had quite
a fleet of little craft of this kind. As fast as the larger boats
were finished they were used for carrying cattle to the islands,
and a large quantity of swine were also taken over.
During this time the Romans had traversed the whole country of the
Iceni. The hamlets were fired, and all persons who fell into their
hands put to death; but the number of these was comparatively small,
as the greater part of the population had either moved north or
taken to the woods, which were so extensive that comparatively few
of the fugitives were killed by the search parties of the Romans.
From the few prisoners that the Romans took they heard reports
that many of the Iceni had taken refuge in the swamps, and several
strong bodies had moved along the edge of the marsh country without
attempting to penetrate it.
Aska and Beric had agreed that so long as they were undisturbed they
would remain quiet, confining themselves to their borders, except
when they sent parties to search for cattle in the woods or to
gather up grain that might have escaped destruction in the hamlets,
and that they would avoid any collision with the Romans until their
present vigilance abated or they attempted to plant settlers in
Circumstances, however, defeated this intention. They learned from
the Fenmen that numerous fugitives had taken refuge in the southern
swamps, and that these sallying out had fallen upon parties of
Romans near Huntingdon, and had cut them to pieces. The Romans had
in consequence sent a considerable force to avenge this attack.
These had penetrated some distance into the swamps, but had there
been attacked and driven back with much slaughter. But a fortnight
later a legion had marched to Huntingdon, and crossing the river
there had established a camp opposite, which they called Godmancastra,
and, having collected a number of natives from the west, were
engaged in building boats in which they intended to penetrate the
swamp country and root out the fugitives.
"It was sure to come sooner or later," Aska said to Beric. "Nor
should we wish it otherwise. We came here not to pass our lives as
lurking fugitives, but to gather a force and avenge ourselves on
the Romans. If you like I will go up the river and see our friends
there, and ascertain their strength and means of resistance. Would
it be well, think you, to tell them of our strong place here and
offer to send our boats to bring them down, so that we may make a
great stand here?"
"No, I think not," Beric said. "Nothing would suit the Romans better
than to catch us all together, so as to destroy us at one blow. We
know that in the west they stormed the intrenchments of Cassivellaunus,
and that no native fort has ever withstood their assault. I should
say that it ought to be a war of small fights. We should attack
them constantly, enticing them into the deepest parts of the morass,
and falling upon them at spots where our activity will avail against
their heavily weighted men. We should pour volleys of arrows into
their boats as they pass along through the narrow creeks, show
ourselves at points where the ground is firm enough for them to
land, and then falling back to deep morasses tempt them to pursue
us there, and then turn upon them. We should give them no rest night
or day, and wear them out with constant fighting and watching. The
fens are broad and long, stretching from Huntingdon to the sea;
and if they are contested foot by foot, we may tire out even the
power of Rome."
"You are right, Beric; but at any rate it will be well to see how
our brethren are prepared. They may have no boats, and may urgently
"I quite agree with you, and I think it would be as well for you
to go. You could offer to bring all their women and children to our
islands here, and then we would send down a strong force to help
them. We should begin to contest strongly the Roman advance from
the very first."
Accordingly Aska started up the Ouse in one of the large boats with
twelve men to pole it along, and three days afterwards returned
with the news that there were some two thousand men with twice that
many women and children scattered among the upper swamps.
"They have only a few small boats," he said, "and are in sore
straits for provisions. They drove at first a good many cattle
in with them, but most of these were lost in the morasses, and as
there have been bodies of horse moving about near Huntingdon, they
have not been able to venture out as we have done to drive in more."
"Have they any chief with them?" Beric asked.
"None of any importance. All the men are fugitives from the battle,
who were joined on their way north by the women of the villages.
They are broken up into groups, and have no leader to form any
general plan. I spoke to the principal men among them, and told
them that we had strongly fortified several places here, had built
a fleet of boats, and were prepared for warfare; they will all
gladly accept you as their leader. They urgently prayed that we
would send our boats down for the women and children, and I promised
them that you would do so, and would also send down some provisions
for the fighting men."
The next morning the twenty large boats, each carrying thirty men
and a supply of meat and grain, started up the river, Beric himself
going with them, and taking Boduoc as his lieutenant. Aska remained
in command at the river fort, where the force was maintained at
its full strength, the boat party being drawn entirely from the two
islands. Four miles below Huntingdon they landed at a spot where
the greater part of the Iceni there were gathered. Fires were at
once lighted, and a portion of the meat cooked, for the fugitives
were weak with hunger. As soon as this was satisfied, orders were
issued for half the women and children to be brought in.
These were crowded into the boats, which, in charge of four men in
each, then dropped down the stream, Beric having given orders that
the boats were to return as soon as the women were landed on the
island. He spent the next two days in traversing the swamps in a
coracle, ascertaining where there was firm ground, and where the
morasses were impassable. He learned all the particulars he could
gather about the exact position of the Roman camp, and the spot
where the boats were being constructed--the Iceni were already
familiar with several paths leading out of the morasses in that
neighbourhood--and then drew out a plan for an attack upon the
He had brought with him half the Sarci who had retired with him
from the battle. These he would himself command. A force of four
hundred men, led by Boduoc, were to travel by different paths
through the swamp; they were then to unite and to march round the
Roman camp, and attack it suddenly on three sides at once.
The camp was in the form of a horseshoe, and its ends resting on
the river, and it was here that the boats were being built. Beric
himself with his own hundred men and fifty others were to embark
in four boats. As soon as they were fairly beyond the swamp, they
were to land on the Huntingdon side, and to tow their boats along
until within two or three hundred yards of the Roman camp, when
they were to await the sound of Boduoc's horn. Boduoc's instructions
were that he was to attack the camp fiercely on all sides. The Roman
sentries were known to be so vigilant that there was but slight
prospect of his entering the camp by surprise, or of his being
able to scale the palisades at the top of the bank of earth. The
attack, however, was to be made as if in earnest, and was to be
maintained until Beric's horn gave the signal for them to draw off,
when they were to break up into parties as before, and to retire
into the heart of the swamp by the paths by which they had left
The most absolute silence was to be observed until the challenge
of the Roman sentries showed that they were discovered, when they
were to raise their war shouts to the utmost so as to alarm and
confuse the enemy.
The night was a dark one and a strong wind was blowing, so that
Beric's party reached their station unheard by the sentries on
the walls of the camp. It was an hour before they heard a distant
shout, followed instantly by the winding of a horn, and the loud
war cry of the Iceni. At the same moment the trumpets in the Roman
intrenchments sounded, and immediately a tumult of confused shouting
arose around and within the camp. Beric remained quiet for five
minutes till the roar of battle was at its highest, and he knew
that the attention of the Romans would be entirely occupied with
the attack. Then the boats were again towed along until opposite
the centre of the horseshoe; the men took their places in them
again and poled them across the river.
The fifty men who accompanied the Sarci carried bundles of rushes
dipped in pitch, and in each boat were burning brands which had been
covered with raw hides to prevent the light being seen. They were
nearly across the river when some sentries there, whose attention
had hitherto been directed entirely to the walls, suddenly shouted
an alarm. As soon as the boats touched the shore, Beric and his
men leapt out, passed through the half built boats and the piles
of timber collected beside them, and formed up to repel an attack.
At the same moment the others lighted their bundles of rushes at the
brands, and jumping ashore set fire to the boats and wood piles.
Astonished at this outburst of flame within their camp, while
engaged in defending the walls from the desperate attacks of the
Iceni, the Romans hesitated, and then some of them came running
down to meet the unexpected attack.
But the Sarci had already pressed quickly on, followed by some of
the torch bearers, and were in the midst of the Roman tents before
the legionaries gathered in sufficient force to meet them. The
torches were applied to the tents, and fanned by the breeze, the
flames spread rapidly from one to another. Beric blew the signal
for retreat, and his men in a solid body, with their spears outward,
fell back. The Romans, as they arrived at the spot, rushed furiously
upon them; but discipline was this time on the side of the Sarci,
who beat off all attacks till they reached the river bank. Then in
good order they took their places in the boats, Beric with a small
body covering the movement till the last; then they made a rush
to the boats; the men, standing with their poles ready, instantly
pushed the craft into the stream, and in two minutes they were safe
on the other side.
The boats and piles of timber were already blazing fiercely, while
the Roman camp, in the centre of the intrenchment, was in a mass of
flames, lighting up the helmets and armour of the soldiers ranged
along the wall, and engaged in repelling the attacks of the Iceni.
As soon as the Sarci were across, they leapt ashore and towed the
boat along by the bank. A few arrows fell among them, but as soon
as they had pushed off from the shore most of the Romans had run
back to aid in the defence of the walls. Beric's horn now gave the
signal that the work was done, and in a short time the shouts of
the Iceni began to subside, the din of the battle grew fainter,
and in a few minutes all was quiet round the Roman camp.
There was great rejoicing when the parties of the Iceni met again
in the swamp. They had struck a blow that would greatly inconvenience
the Romans for some time, would retard their attack, and show them
that the spirit of the Britons was still high. The loss of the
Iceni had been very small, only some five or six of Beric's party
had fallen, and twenty or thirty of the assailants of the wall; they
believed that the Romans had suffered much more, for they could be
seen above their defences by the light of the flames behind them,
while the Iceni were in darkness. Thus the darts and javelins of
the defenders had been cast almost at random, while they themselves
had been conspicuous marks for the missiles of the assailants.
In Beric's eyes the most important point of the encounter was
that it had given confidence to the fugitives, had taught them the
advantage of fighting with a plan, and of acting methodically and
in order. There was a consultation next morning. Beric pointed out
to the leaders that although it was necessary sometimes with an
important object in view to take the offensive, they must as a rule
stand on the defensive, and depend upon the depth of their morasses
and their knowledge of the paths across them to baffle the attempts
of the Romans to penetrate.
"I should recommend," he said, "that you break up into parties of
fifteens and twenties, and scatter widely over the Fen country, and
yet be near enough to each other to hear the sound of the horn.
Each party must learn every foot of the ground and water in the
neighbourhood round them. In that way you will be able to assemble
when you hear the signal announcing the coming of the Romans, you
will know the paths by which you can attack or retreat, and the
spots where you can make your way across, but where the Romans
cannot follow you. Each party must earn its sustenance by fishing
and fowling; and in making up your parties, there should be two or
three men in each accustomed to this work. Each party must provide
itself with coracles; I will send up a boat load of hides. Beyond
that you must search for cattle and swine in the woods, when
by sending spies on shore you find there are no parties of Romans
"The parties nearest to Huntingdon should be always vigilant, and
day and night keep men at the edge of the swamp to watch the doings
of the Romans, and should send notice to me every day or two as
to what the enemy are doing, and when they are likely to advance.
Should they come suddenly, remember that it is of no use to try
to oppose their passage down the river. Their boats will be far
stronger than ours, and we should but throw away our lives by fighting
them there. They may go right down to the sea if they please, but
directly they land or attempt to thrust their boats up the channels
through the swamp, then every foot must be contested. They must
be shot down from the bushes, enticed into swamps, and overwhelmed
with missiles. Let each man make himself a powerful bow and a great
sheath of arrows pointed with flints or flakes of stone, which must
be fetched from the dry land, although even without these they will
fly straight enough if shot from the bushes at a few yards' distance.
"Let the men practice with these, and remember that they must aim
at the legs of the Romans. It is useless to shoot at either shields
or armour. Besides, let each man make himself a spear, strong,
heavy, and fully eighteen feet long, with the point hardened in
the fire, and rely upon these rather than upon your swords to check
their progress. Whenever you find broad paths of firm ground across
the swamps, cut down trees and bushes to form stout barriers.
"Make friends with the Fenmen. Be liberal to them with gifts, and
do not attempt to plant parties near them, for this would disturb
their wildfowl and lead to jealousy and quarrels. However well you
may learn the swamps, they know them better, and were they hostile
might lead the Romans into our midst. In some parts you may not
find dry land on which to build huts; in that case choose spots
where the trees are stout, lash saplings between these and build
your huts upon them so as to be three or four feet above the wet
soil. Some of my people who know the swamps by the eastern rivers
tell me that this is the best way to avoid the fen fevers."
Having seen that everything was arranged, Beric and his party
returned to their camp. For some time the reports from the upper
river stated that the Romans were doing little beyond sending out
strong parties to cut timber. Then came the news that a whole legion
had arrived, and that small forts containing some two hundred men
each were being erected, three or four miles apart, on both sides
of the Fen.
"That shows that all resistance must have ceased elsewhere," Aska
said, "or they would never be able to spare so great a force as a
legion and a half against us. I suppose that these forts are being
built to prevent our obtaining cattle, and that they hope to starve
us out. They will hardly succeed in that, for the rivers and channels
swarm with fish, and now that winter is coming on they will abound
"I am afraid of the winter," Beric said, "for then they will be
able to traverse the swamps, where now they would sink over their
"Unless the frosts are very severe, Beric, the ground will not
harden much, for every foot is covered with trees and bushes. As
to grain we can do without it, but we shall be able to fetch some
at least down from the north. Indeed, it would need ten legions to
form a line along both sides of the Fen country right down to the
sea and to pen us in completely."
By this time the Iceni had become familiar with the channels through
the swamps for long distances from their fastness, and had even
established a trade with the people lying to the northwest of the
Fen country. They learnt that the Romans boasted they had well nigh
annihilated the Trinobantes and Iceni; but that towards the other
tribes that had taken part in the great rising they had shown more
leniency, though some of their principal towns had been destroyed
and the inhabitants put to the sword.
A month later a fleet of boats laden with Roman soldiers started
from Huntingdon and proceeded down the Ouse. Dead silence reigned
round them, and although they proceeded nearly to the sea they saw
no signs of a foe, and so turning they rowed back to Huntingdon.
But in their absence the Iceni had not been idle. The spies from the
swamps had discovered when the expedition was preparing to start,
and had found too that a strong body of troops was to march along
the edges of the swamps in order to cut off the Iceni should they
endeavour to make their escape.
The alarm had been sounded from post to post, and in accordance
with the orders of Beric the whole of the fighting men at once
began to move south, some in boats, some in their little coracles,
which were able to thread their way through the network of channels.
The night after the Romans started, the whole of the fighting force
of the Britons was gathered in the southern swamps, and two hours
before daybreak issued out. Some five hundred, led by Aska, followed
the western bank of the river towards Huntingdon, which had for the
time been converted into a Roman city, inhabited by the artisans
who had constructed the boats and the settlers who supplied the
army; it had been garrisoned by five hundred legionaries, of whom
three hundred had gone away in the boats.
The main body advanced against the Roman camp on the opposite bank,
in which, as their spies had learnt, three hundred men had been
left as a garrison. By Beric's orders a great number of ladders
had been constructed. As upon the previous occasion the camp was
surrounded before they advanced against it, and when the first
shout of a sentry showed that they were discovered Beric's horn gave
the signal, and with a mighty shout the Britons rushed on from all
sides. Dashing down the ditch, and climbing the steep bank behind
it the Iceni planted their ladders against the palisade, and swarming
over it poured into the camp before the Romans had time to gather
to oppose them. Beric had led his own band of two hundred trained
men against the point where the wall of the camp touched the river,
and as soon as they were over formed them up and led them in a
compact body against the Romans.
In spite of the suddenness of the attack, the discipline of the
legionaries was unshaken, and as soon as their officers found that
the walls were already lost they formed their men in a solid body
to resist the attack. Before Beric with his band reached the spot
the Romans were already engaged in a fierce struggle with the
Britons, who poured volleys of darts and arrows among them, and
desperately strove, sword in hand, to break their solid formation.
This they were unable to do, until Beric's band six deep with their
hedge of spears before them came up, and with a loud shout threw
themselves upon the Romans. The weight and impetus of the charge
was irresistible. The Roman cohort was broken, and a deadly hand
to hand struggle commenced. But here the numbers and the greatly
superior height and strength of the Britons were decisive, and
before many minutes had passed the last Roman had been cut down,
the scene of the battle being lighted up by the flames of Huntingdon.
A shout of triumph from the Britons announced that all resistance
had ceased. Beric at once blew his horn, and, as had been previously
arranged, four hundred of the island men immediately started under
Boduoc to oppose the garrison at the nearest fort, should they
meet these hastening to the assistance of their comrades. Then
a systematic search for plunder commenced. One of the storehouses
was emptied of its contents and fired, and by its light the arms
and armour of the Roman soldiers were collected, the huts and tents
rifled of everything of value, the storehouses emptied of their
stores of grain and provisions, and of the tools that had been used
for the building of boats. Everything that could be of use to the
defenders was taken, and fire was then applied to the buildings and
tents. Morning broke before this was accomplished, and laden down
with spoil the Iceni returned to their swamps, Boduoc's and Aska's
parties rejoining them there.
The former had met the Romans hurrying from the nearest fort to
aid the garrison of the camp. Beric's orders had been that Boduoc
was if possible to avoid a fight, as in the open the discipline of
the Romans would probably prevail over British valour. The Iceni,
therefore, set up a great shouting in front and in the rear of the
Romans, shooting their missiles among them, and being unable in the
dark to perceive the number of their assailants, and fearful that
they had fallen into an ambush, the Romans fell back to their fort.
Aska's party had also returned laden with plunder, and as soon as
the whole were united a division of this was made. The provisions,
clothing, and arms were divided equally among the men, while the
stores of rope, metal, canvas, and other articles that would be
useful to the community were set aside to be taken to the island.
Thither also the shields, armour, and helmets of the Roman soldiers
were to be conveyed, to be broken up and melted into spear and
As the Roman boats returned two days later from their useless
passage down the river, they were astonished and enraged by outbursts
of mocking laughter from the tangle of bushes fringing the river.
Not a foe was to be seen, but for miles these sounds of derisive
laughter assailed them from both sides of the stream. The veterans
ground their teeth with rage, and would have rowed towards the
banks had not their officers, believing that it was the intention
of the Britons to induce them to land, and then to lead them into
an ambush, ordered them to keep on their way. On passing beyond the
region of the swamp a cry of dismay burst from the crowded boats,
as it was perceived that the town of Huntingdon had entirely
disappeared. As they neared the camp, however, the sight of numerous
sentries on the walls relieved them of part of their anxiety; but
upon landing they learnt the whole truth, that the five hundred
Roman soldiers in the camp and at Huntingdon had fallen to a man,
and that the whole of the stores collected had been carried away
The news had been sent rapidly along the chain of forts on either
side of the swamp, and fifty men from each had been despatched to
repair and reoccupy the camp, which was now held by a thousand men,
who had already begun to repair the palisades that had been fired
by the Britons.
This disaster at once depressed and infuriated the Roman soldiers,
while it showed to the general commanding them that the task
he had been appointed to perform was vastly more serious than he
had expected. Already, as he had traversed mile after mile of the
silent river, he had been impressed with the enormous difficulty
there would be in penetrating the pathless morasses, extending as
he knew in some places thirty or forty miles in width. The proof
now afforded of the numbers, determination, and courage of the men
lurking there still further impressed him with the gravity of the
undertaking. Messengers were at once sent off to Suetonius, who
was at Camalodunum, which he was occupied in rebuilding, to inform
him of the reverse, and to ask for orders, and the general with
five hundred men immediately set out for the camp of Godman.
Suetonius at once proceeded to examine for himself the extent of
the Fen country, riding with a body of horsemen along the eastern
boundary as far as the sea, and then, returning to the camp,
followed up the western margin until he again reached the sea. He
saw at once that the whole of the Roman army in Britain would be
insufficient to guard so extensive a line, and that it would be
hopeless to endeavour to starve out men who could at all times make
raids over the country around them. The first step to be taken must
be to endeavour to circumscribe their limits. Orders were at once
sent to the British tribes in south and midlands to send all their
available men, and as these arrived they were set to work to clear
away by axe and fire the trees and bush on the eastern side of the
As soon as the intentions of the Romans were understood, the British
camp at the junction of the rivers was abandoned, as with so large
a force of workmen the Romans could have made wide roads up to it,
and although it might have resisted for some time, it must eventually
fall, while the Romans, by sending their flotilla of boats down,
could cut off the retreat of the garrison. For two months thirty
thousand workmen laboured under the eyes of strong parties of Roman
soldiers, and the work of denuding the swamps east of the Ouse was
Winter had now set in, but the season was a wet one, and although
the Romans made repeated attempts to fire the brushwood from the
south and west, they failed to do so. Severe frost accompanied by
heavy snow set in late, and as soon as the ground was hard enough
the Romans entered the swamps near Huntingdon, and began their
advance northwards. The Britons were expecting them, and the whole
of their fighting force had gathered to oppose them. Beric and
Aska set them to work as soon as the Roman army crossed the river
and marched north, and as the Romans advanced slowly and carefully
through the tangled bushes, they heard a strange confused noise
far ahead of them, and after marching for two miles came upon a
channel, where the ice had been broken into fragments.
They at once set to work to cut down bushes and form them into
faggots to fill up the gaps, but as they approached the channel
with these they were assailed by volleys of arrows from the bushes
on the opposite side. The light armed troops were brought up, and
the work of damming the channel at a dozen points, was covered by
a shower of javelins and arrows. The Britons, however, had during
the past month made shields of strong wicker work of Roman pattern,
but long enough to cover them from the eyes down to the ankles,
and the wicker work was protected by a double coating of ox hide.
Boys collected the javelins as fast as they were thrown, and
handed them to the men. As soon as the road across the channel was
completed the Romans poured over, believing that now they should
scatter their invisible foes; but they were mistaken, for the Britons
with levelled spears, their bodies covered with their bucklers,
burst down upon them as they crossed, while a storm of darts and
javelins poured in from behind the fighting line.
Again and again they were driven back, until after suffering great
loss they made good their footing at several points, when, at
the sound of a horn, resistance at once ceased, and the Britons
disappeared as if by magic. Advancing cautiously the Romans found
that the ice in all the channels had been broken up, and they were
soon involved in a perfect network of sluggish streams. Across these
the Britons had felled trees to form bridges for their retreat,
and these they dragged after them as soon as they crossed. Every
one of these streams was desperately defended, and as the line of
swamp grew wider the Roman front became more and more scattered.
Late in the afternoon a sudden and furious attack was made upon
them from the rear, Beric having taken a strong force round their
flank. Numbers of the Romans were killed before they could assemble
to make head against the attack, and as soon as they did so their
assailants as usual drew off. After a long day's fighting the
Romans had gained scarce a mile from the point where resistance had
commenced, and this at a cost of over three hundred men. Suetonius
himself had commanded the attack, and when the troops halted for
the night at the edge of an unusually wide channel, he felt that
the task he had undertaken was beyond his powers. He summoned the
commanders of the two legions to the hut that had been hastily
raised for him.
"What think you?" he asked. "This is a warfare even more terrible
than that we waged with the Goths in their forests. This Beric, who
is their leader, has indeed profited by the lessons he learned at
Camalodunum. No Roman general could have handled his men better.
He is full of resources, and we did not reckon upon his breaking
up the ice upon all these channels. If we have had so much trouble
in forcing our way where the swamps are but two miles across, and
that with a frost to help us, the task will be a terrible one when
we get into the heart of the morasses, where they are twenty miles
wide. Yet we cannot leave them untouched. There would never be peace
and quiet as long as these bands, under so enterprising a leader,
remained unsubdued. Can you think of any other plan by which we
may advance with less loss?"
The two officers were silent. "The resistance may weaken," one said
after a long pause. "We have learnt from the natives that they have
not in all much above three thousand fighting men, and they must
have lost as heavily as we have."
Suetonius shook his head. "I marked as we advanced," he said, "that
there was not one British corpse to four Romans. We shoot at random,
while they from their bushes can see us, and even when they charge
us our archers can aid but little, seeing that the fighting takes
place among the bushes. However, we will press on for a time. The
natives behind us must clear the ground as fast as we advance, and
every foot gained is gained for good."
Three times during the night the British attacked the Romans, once
by passing up the river in their coracles and landing behind them,
once by marching out into the country round their left flank,
and once by pouring out through cross channels in their boats and
landing in front. All night, too, their shouts kept the Romans
awake in expectation of attack.
For four days the fighting continued, and the Romans, at the cost
of over a thousand men, won their way eight miles farther. By the
end of that time they were utterly exhausted with toil and want of
sleep; the swamps each day became wider, and the channels larger
and deeper. Then the Roman leaders agreed that no more could be
done. Twelve miles had been won and cleared, but this was the mere
tongue of the Fenland, and to add to their difficulties that day
the weather had suddenly changed, and in the evening rain set in.
It was therefore determined to retreat while the ground was yet
hard, and having lighted their fires, and left a party to keep
these burning and to deceive the British, the Romans drew off and
marched away, bearing to the left so as to get out on to the plain,
and to leave the ground, encumbered with the sharp stumps of the
bushes and its network of channels, behind them as soon as possible.
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