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BLOOD, IRON, SNOW

BY PHOEBE BUSH


The bloodied point of my sword leaves a trail in the snow.


It follows a flurry of footprints that disappear into the distance, away from heaped bodies half-lost to the mud, away from the hoarse croaks of crows and their absent circles in the pale sky. Shadows of men stalk the field behind me, pressing at pulse points, prying rings and weapons from frozen fingers.


“Lady?” shouts one, rising from a crouch. “Lady, where do you go?”


I do not reply and it does not take them long to recall that their business is with the dead, not the living. I proceed alone, my only focus becoming forward. If that focus were to break, I would surely break with it and that cannot happen. Not until I find them.


With a quick check to the deerskin purse at my hip, I drag my right leg forwards. The weight of that, I do feel, along with the wooden shaft that twitches every time I move: its barbed point embedded in the meat of my thigh—the product of a moment’s carelessness. I clench my teeth against it. The trail ahead of me winds from left to right, flecked with blood, telling its own tale of pain and fatigue.


Lambs to the slaughter, I think, and the wolf not far behind.


The land crests upwards, until the snow-capped hill stops and slips into a muddy slope, leading to the jagged frontline of the forest. A drawn-out stagger takes me down towards the trees. My knee jerks, almost threatening to buckle, only to hold firm at the memory of high-pitched screams and the bitter taste of ash.


I find the strength for another step, then another.


Revenge, I have learnt, is a fire that refuses to die easily.


The forest swallows me like a maw, one that once fed on my laughter, whose paths are as familiar to me as the faded woad patterns painted onto my skin. The trail of blood takes me deeper, to a place where the trees crowd together, blanketed by mist and quiet.


My tread grows careful, my breaths shallow. Hunting is a game for the patient; though gods know that I have waited for long enough.


A twig snaps. I go still, unable to crouch or bow, refusing to be the woman who had once trembled in the shadow of a thicket and prayed to any god who would listen.


The silence lingers. Reassured, I creep onwards, until I find what I have been looking for. A single boot lodged in the mud: fine leather, scraped. Without it, they will slow.


“Soon, my daughters,” I whisper and squeeze the hilt of my sword, stepping off the path and deeper into the undergrowth. As I do, a robin flutters down onto a nearby branch. It bobs in a bow, its chest a blaze of orange amidst the whites and blacks. The same colour my hair used to be, even if I no longer see it, not since I hacked it short with a blunt knife.


Another bow, and in a flash of feathers, the robin is gone.


Not that I shall miss it. Time has since woven my loneliness into a garment, one that I now wear like a second skin. Pausing by a fallen tree, I squint over the top, to scan the treeline. There, there, and then gone again. A flicker of movement from far ahead.


Favouring my left leg, I strive on.


The arrow lodged in it has cost me dearly. Amid the clashes of battle, I had been distracted by a familiar face in the throng and had mistaken it for one of my long-sought prey. It was not until I stood over his corpse with a broken shield, that I had realised my mistake. Then, a cry had sounded behind me.


“Archers! Arrows from above!”


And I had reacted a second too late.


I wince at the memory, fresh as the weeping wound, as I carry on through the underbrush and the snow-streaked mulch. A snag of cloth on a thornbush snatches at my attention.


Careless, I shake my head, they are getting careless.


“Come out,” I croon. “Come out, wherever you are...”


The same taunt had come from their forefathers, who had stalked these woods in their red crested helmets and metal armour. Now, with my sword pointed before me, the words are mine. The metal is rust-coloured, almost browned, like the faded bratt wrapped around my shoulders. Figments of another life.


A flurry of caws comes from above. Glancing at the dark shapes in the canopy, I slip behind a nearby trunk, catching and holding my breath. Muffled voices rise, followed by the soft crunch of snow.


“I think we outpaced her,” says the first.


“It cannot be true,” says the second. “It cannot.”


“What cannot?”


“Grandfather spoke of her,” says the second. “The day he died, he was telling us to keep the red-haired Iceni out. I thought it was old age or a delusion, never did I think it could be...” His voice fades.


“Probably is,” says the first. “A spectre. You know how battle is.”


“Believe me, this was no spectre.” There is a pause between them, one filled by heavy breaths and hesitant steps, broken when the second asks: “Did you see where Marcus went?”


“Gone,” says the first. “Just... gone.”


“Do you think it could have been... her?” asks the second.


“Listen,” snaps the first. “If you mention her once more—”


His voice breaks through the stillness. Screeches and the beat of a dozen wings erupt into the air, and the dark shapes take to the sky. A quiet curse comes from the other soldier. I stiffen, holding my nerve as tightly as the hilt of my blade.


Boys, I realise. Not men. Not that it makes much difference.


They were still the sons of their fathers, of their grandfathers.


“Come on,” says the first, so close that his voice rings in my ears. “We better move on; the others shall be searching.” And there he is, passing by: a patch of youthful stubble on his chin, his breastplate too wide for his slight frame. His nose will make this easier. Curved, like his father’s.


He walks ahead, one pace, two pace, and I allow him a third, before moving from the cover of the trunk and grabbing him by the hair, exposing the column of his throat—


“Watch out!” the second one cries.


A slice of my blade and the first soldier jerks against me, blood flowing from a gash in his throat. His cheeks are rounded, soft. A boy with a similar face had pried one of my screaming daughters from my arms, then smiled as he held her down.


With a flick of my wrist, the twitching body falls to the forest floor and spills out the last of its life. I go to watch it, when a sharp point digs into my back.


“Grandfather told me of you,” the second stammers. “And I know not what you are: a figment, a ghost, a witch, but this mortal plane is not your concern, outsider. Be gone from this place.”


“It seems,” I begin, “that my name has been forgotten by the children of men. A shame, one would think that the sight of your precious cities alight would be remembered in a culture that bows to an altar of the same destructive creed.”


He presses the point of the sword deeper, enough to pierce clothing, skin. A line of blood trickles down my spine. “End the torment of my family,” he commands, “or I shall run you through.”


A dry laugh shakes my shoulders, the dull croak tolling through the trees.


“No, my child,” I tell him. “Not until you end the torment of mine.”


His sword point twitches. I take the chance and turn, bringing my own weapon around in an arc that the boy is too slow to meet. A neat red line seeps across his unarmoured neck. He reaches for it, his eyes blown wide, his fingers twitching, failing.


Then, the body slumps, the legs fold and the head rolls clean of the shoulders. The sun moves in an arc behind me and I take the time to assess the familiar features. His strong jaw, his dark eyes.


I sigh, the only sound that I am strong enough to make. The arrow in my thigh twitches. It sends a burning sensation up my leg, though the pain is one that I had seemingly been blind to, numb to, until now. No matter, I tell myself. It shall soon be over.


Staking my blade into the mulch, I bend over the second boy and roll over the body. A ring glistens on his right hand. I slip it off, holding it to the pale light of the sky. Yes, I remember this, the feel of it against my cheekbone. The owner had quite the backhand.


“Oh, Catus,” I mutter. “Bear witness this day, for now your line has ended.”


The first body is harder to manage. Even when I pry at the armour, nothing familiar catches my eye. Clotting blood and frost sticks to my fingers by the time that I find a small purse and tug it free, the tie giving with a snap. A little plucking and I find what I seek: a coin, rusted to green, well-thumbed.


“Oh, Suetonius,” I whisper and press the coin to my lips. “Bear witness this day, for now your line has ended.” Tucking the objects into my pack, I leave the blade and the bodies behind. Neither are of any use to me now, not in this final stage of my journey.


It is not a long one, even if each step feels heavier and I have to blink against the flakes that have started to fall. Clear sky soon disappears, shrouded by tree cover, and the undergrowth thickens. I weave between it, following a thread that I have followed for hundreds of years.


It was a shelter, once. A shelter that became the place where two bodies now lay. Ones that could have been sleeping, as they once slept in my arms, in swaddling clothes, then in dresses. Ones that could have been sleeping, if not for their blueing lips, the spatters of blood, and the men standing over their bodies.


Pale rays of light break through the canopy, to nestle in the small clearing where two slabs of stone now lay parallel on the forest floor. A sad smile pulls at my lips.


“Mother has returned,” I murmur, reaching for the purse dangling at my belt loop and knowing that they shall never reply, yet loathe to drop the worn words. “Mother has brought you gifts.” Opening the purse, I reach inside, taking out the ring, the coin.


“In your name, slain: Suetonius, Catus, Gaius,” I say and drop the talismans to the floor, where they clatter against the stones. Necklaces, boot buckles, even a finger. A small price to pay for what their fathers had stolen. “And, finally, Ostorius.”


The deed done, I raise my face to the sun, feeling its touch and the bitter sting of the cold. I open my palms to it. “It is done, my daughters,” I hear myself rasp. “Mother has done what she promised.”


Like a puppet unstrung, I sag down onto my knees. Blood pulses from my wounded thigh. It trickles down my leg, into the earth, where I should have gone long ago, smote down by a Roman blade or buried beneath the roots of a hawthorn, rather than being left to wander the plains and forests like a restless spirit, unable to drop dead until the sons and grandsons of my enemies did the same. And here, at last, an ending.


Gazing down at the twin slabs, flecked with patterns made by frost, light and the shining talismans of my grief, I reach into my leather purse for one final object.


A vial of amber liquid.


“Mother,” I exhale, “is done.”


I lift the glass to my lips.


“Boudica,” I say, taking a sip, “is done.”


 

Phoebe Bush is an aspiring editor and writer from Essex, who has recently graduated from the prestigious Warwick MA Writing Programme. She currently works in an escape room, which is just as crazy as it sounds, but spends most of her spare time lost in the woods, covered in paint and ink, or with her nose in a book.


© Blood, Iron, Snow, 2023, Phoebe Bush

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