The Final Dirge
The Final Dirge
I need to be alone more than I need shelter or food. The relentless tide of war songs (even my own name had become one: Boudicca! Boudicca!), the feuding clans, and the scorched earth stole the very marrow from my bones more than hunger ever had. I tell only Eilish, my general, that I am taking leave for a short respite and that no one is to follow me or be told where I am. As much as she vexes me with her insolence and single-mindedness, she is the only one who could begin to understand. She asks no probing questions, as I expect, and even kisses my cheek as I leave, though we had argued only hours before. I realized at that moment how much she reminds me of the sister I so miss.
I take no mare, but stroll through the courtyard and well beyond the stables, to a small feral meadow where late summer intybus blooms. The bees are in their harvest frenzy, gathering resources to make it through another winter, and their methodic buzzing as I lay among them lulls me into a daydream. Behind my eyes, I visit myself at an earlier time, a time when I lay in this very meadow beside Prasutagus. Between us lay two-year-old Ceridwen, her bow-shaped mouth going slack against one breast as she falls into a milk stupor, and new-born Rhiannon, feeding greedily at my other nipple—her eyes, even then—searching the horizon.
On the heels of that tranquility comes the memory of a dream from two nights past. I stood in a scruffy, flat moorland, encased in fog so dense it had weight. As I moved through it, I felt bones and the instruments of war at my feet. I tread cautiously, sometimes stepping on bone shards that made me wince, sometimes stumbling on shields and helmets. I could see no horizon, only a blind distance of white.
I stopped when my toes slid beneath a tiny, intact skeleton. I knelt and picked it up, cradling the fragile head and torso in my hands. It was a baby, perhaps four moons old, whose hollow eyes came to life suddenly. The eyes, identical to mine, looked expectantly up to me, then the mouth began to coo or cry; I could not tell which, for it was voiceless. I put the skeleton to my breast and walked farther into the fog. As we trudged on, its brittle baby mouth turned soft and took its fill from my body. The fog began to clear, and the sun illuminated the bones, thick as autumn leaves at my feet. The skeleton at my breast smiled with her green eyes and full, dimpled cheeks. As I walked, her bones took on flesh and strength as my legs weakened and faltered. In the distance stood a cloaked woman, too far away to see her features, but close enough to see her beckoning hand. I felt she would interpret this strangeness if I could make it to her.
Energy seeped from my legs like water from a cracked bowl, and I fell to my knees, coming down hard on bones that splintered under my weight. The baby showed no fear, only smiled into my eyes and grasped at my hair. I wrapped her and her kicking legs up in my cloak and tied it to my chest. Then, on my hands and knees, I crawled inch by slow inch toward the woman as the child watched the sunlight that danced across my gold torc.
At long last, I reached the woman, and though I could not see her face, I knew when she held out her hands that she wanted the baby. I unwrapped her from my cloak. Her chubby arms reached toward the woman, and as she left my hands, I fell among the bones as the last strength in my body ebbed away. When I woke, I knew the meaning of the dream immediately.
I rise reluctantly from the bees’ kingdom. Oh, what I would give to be in that queen’s army, a worker bee with one, sacred mission: food. I thank the bees for the music—it was a dirge, and I could ask for none finer—then walk farther out, to the little woodland we call Coed Bach, where I brought Ceridwen and Rhiannon often when they were too little to ride down the winding ramparts to Coetir Santaidd. In some ways I prefer Coed Bach. It was our private sanctuary, with no pressure to worship at the great oak. I showed them plants used for medicine and food, and a plant never to touch that grew along the tiny brook. These are the memories I want to relive with my grandchildren. Anger rears up in me as I make my way to the soggy ground, where the aconite grows. The hood-shaped flowers—pretty, purple things—that belie their true danger, reach my knees. With the protection of linden leaves between my palms and the plant, I tug one out of the soil. The root is starchy and dense, with many spindly tendrils. It will provide more than enough when the time comes to use it.
As I near the stables, I put on a mask of unwavering certainty. I remind myself that I am the face of this war, and my people need to see it. Our enemies need to see it. Yet I had come to believe, and now know for certain, that my children’s and grandchildren’s freedom will cost me my life. It is not too high of a price to pay.