outclass both of her parents; the loss of the many hunting knives that lay on the shelf beside her sleeping place in the great-house; the loss of the ancient blade with the feeding she-bear on its hilt that had been her father Eburovic’s and his father’s before him and his mother’s before that, back through the years to the distant history of the Eceni.
That blade should have gone to Cunomar on his long-nights, and might do still; Ardacos knew where it was kept and would do what was right, speaking the words of the giving as if he were father to the child-made-man, not simply his mentor. Cygfa could not be present at the ceremony - only men could take part in a boy’s long-nights as only the women stood vigil for the girls - but she could braid his hair for him afterwards with Airmid and Graine when he came out to join—
Breaca stopped, cursing her undisciplined mind. She had never thought herself weak. She did not wish to do so now.
Breathing tightly, she raised her head and looked beyond the fire to the place above the treetops where the half-circle of Nemain’s light made silhouettes of leafless branches. When she had lain above the Roman camp, the moon had been in the last day of waning, too old to show at night. Now, it was halfway to full, and casting shadows on the landscape. Five days had been lost as she healed in the cave, each one a lifetime.
The night was less still than it had been. A damp wind billowed from the south, spreading the haze above the fire low and flat. The darkening trees bent their heads to the north and the sky beyond sparked with early stars. The roan mare shifted, snuffing the breeze, then shifted again and blew out gently through her nose.
It was not the ancestor who spoke, but the oldest part of Breaca’s mind, which was wedded to the serpent-spear and to life. She rolled to her feet, shedding her cloak and sweeping it over the fire pit to hide the glow. Her slingstones were in one hand and her sling
in the other and she was already within the shelter of the trees, moving silently over rain-damp leaves and pressing through undergrowth that eased forward to let her through and closed behind her afterwards, denying that she had ever been.
Go south; the wind is from the south, and it brought the scent of man to the mare.
Breaca circled south, soft as owl-flight, exchanging her sling for her knife, the better to kill in close cover. Her mare stood as if carved from granite, a thing of the night. The rising steam from the fire-warmed cloak would eventually betray to the trackers the fact that she had been in the clearing, but it would not give away her new position.
The enemy was alone and well hidden. He lay still beneath a stunted blackthorn and only the pale smudge of his hair let Breaca see him. He was not, therefore, Roman; of the invaders only the Gaulish cavalrymen were so coloured and they did not have the skills for this. He would be a Coritani scout then, a traitor from the eastern tribe, neighbours to the Eceni, who favoured Rome, and whose best scouts were paid well in gold to hunt their countrymen. Breaca had killed two of his kind in recent days and had not found them any more skilled than their Roman masters, simply more careful in open country.
She waited, watching, then pressed her knife-blade into the dirt and, with her free hand, sifted through her black-painted stones. Two had red snake-lines on the black, painted on Mona, when the serpent-dreamer was a safe and distant memory. Breaca knew them by the sharp pain they raised in her palm. She eased one from the pouch and cupped it in the belly of her sling. These two alone not only crushed the life from the enemy, but extinguished the fires of the soul. It was a fate fit for a traitor and even the godless Coritani were learning to fear it.
Presently, as the steam from her cloak became smoke, the scout rose from his hiding place and eased forward, squirming on his belly, silent as a snake. If the