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Clash of Iron
By Angus Watson
Read by Sean Barrett
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Leaders are forged in the fires of war.br>
Iron Age warriors Dug and Lowa captured Maidun castle and freed its slaves. But now they must defend it.
A Roman invasion is coming from Gaul, but rather than uniting to defend their home, the British tribes go to battle with each other — and see Maidun as an easy target.
Meanwhile, Lowa’s spies infiltrate Gaul, discovering the Romans have recruited British druids. And Maidunite Ragnall finds his loyalties torn when he meets Rome’s charismatic general, Julius Caesar.
War is coming. Who will pay its price?
Table of Contents
A Preview of A Dance of Cloaks
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Queen Lowa Flynn of Maidun knew she'd have to fight the moment she saw King Samalur the Tough of Dumnonia. She'd been fairly sure that violence would be required when she'd heard that he called himself "the Tough". Appearance and name aside, the fact that he'd marched an army five times the size of hers into her territory hardly heralded a friendly hello.
The boy king looked down at her from the low wall of the abandoned hillfort that he'd appropriated for Dumnonia's temporary headquarters. He was perched on the edge of the ornately carved wooded throne. He did not look tough, or, indeed, like a king. He looked like a spoilt child who'd spent a lot of other people's time and effort trying to look majestic. Fanning up and out behind his throne was a ludicrous, scallop-shaped wooden adornment the height of two tall men, laboriously etched and painted with hunting scenes. Lowa thought what a huge and pointless hassle it must have been for some hapless peasants to haul the thing all the way from Dumnonia.
The king's skinny legs dangled from the massive throne, clad in the finest tartan trousers. His boots, hanging a good foot above the platform, were tipped with polished ox horn. His bony, nobble-elbowed arms sprouted from a shiny brown otter-skin waistcoat. He wasn't much older than Spring, yet, below a bulbously arched nose and deep-set eyes, his smile shone with the unshakeable self-satisfaction that men didn't usually achieve until much later in life (and women rarely managed; some women that Lowa knew tried the look, but it was usually unconvincing).
Around his perched throne stood granite-faced guards adorned with the boar necklaces of Warriors, and next to them young, pretty female and male attendants. The former looked at Lowa with mild interest, the latter bathed their ruler with sycophantic smiles while regarding Lowa with the same disdainful rolling-eyed glowers that they might have given an elderly flasher.
Lowa sighed. Three days a queen, already she hated it.
She'd come to meet Samalur on horseback, bringing only Carden Nancarrow and Atlas Agrippa with her, intending to show how relaxed she felt about a gigantic army invading her territory. Having seen Samalur and his gang, she now knew that she'd made a mistake. She looked cheap in their snobbish eyes and that had weakened her negotiating pos ition. Looking up to the boy king on the hillfort wall, she was below him physically as well, which didn't help. Perhaps she should have brought some sort of platform? Found a taller horse? She hadn't expected to be skilled at diplomacy, and she'd been right. Things were not going well.
"I have no quarrel with you, Samalur," she tried. "Quite the opposite. It will benefit both our tribes to unite against the Romans."
"The Romans?" His voice was high and haughty. "Do you know where the nearest Roman is? In Iberia. Should we unite to fight all the fish in the sea–because they're a lot closer!" Samalur giggled like the teenager he was, looking left to right at his court, who laughed along fawningly. His Warrior bodyguards smiled like men and women who'd been told to smile but weren't happy about it.
One of them wasn't laughing or smiling. Chief advisor Bruxon, the only one of Samalur's retinue who'd been introduced to them, was looking grimly at the grassy ground. He was about Dug's age with black-stained woollen clothes, a clean-shaven face and dye-blackened hair tied back in a short ponytail. He looked almost comically severe. Perhaps because he disliked his conceited ruler? Perhaps he might be useful in winning round or even unseating the young king?
"And don't think Bruxon's going to help you because he looks like someone's tricked him into drinking piss!" Samalur sniggered. He'd seen her looking at Bruxon and read her thoughts. Lowa was reluctantly impressed. "He always looks like that. But he's loyal to me. It was Bruxon's plan for me to kill my dad and become king in the first place! He tried to make me think it was my idea, but I'm cleverer than that, aren't I, Bruxon?" The advisor nodded resignedly. "So I'm also too clever to believe any of the crap that the druids spout about Roman invasions. They only do it to make themselves look important. That's why I don't keep druids near me. I killed all my father's. And do you know what's really funny? They bang on about seeing the future, but not one of them saw me coming!"
Laughter rang out from Samalur's throng.
"You don't need druids," the boy continued, "you can talk to the gods without them. I do. But I am part god, so that probably makes it easier… I'd recommend you kill all your druids, but you won't have time, since I'm going to kill you and take your territory. Tell you what; after I've wiped you and your army off the battlefield, I'll kill all your druids for you."
Lowa clenched her fists. "I would have agreed about druids not long ago, Samalur, but I've learnt differently. I know at least one druid who can see an invincible force of Romans coming to conquer us all with the same certainty that we might see rain coming across a lake and know that we're about to get wet. I've seen her do things that make me believe her."
"No, sorry, won't work, I don't believe her or you."
"Samalur, if our armies clash, thousands will die. Whoever wins, both armies will be weakened and we'll be more open to invasion. Not just from the Romans, but from the Murkans and anyone else who puts their mind to it."
"So surrender. I've given you my terms." Samalur smirked.
Even if the terms had been overly reasonable, Lowa could never have surrendered to the cocky little shit.
"You may outnumber us, Samalur, but our skill and experience is greater. We will rip the belly from your army like wolves savaging an aurochs."
"Take the belly. There'll be plenty left. We'll still win."
"Even if you do, a multitude will be killed. Your people will be weakened for generations."
"What are armies for if not to fight? I've got a huge army and I want to use it and nobody can stop me. Least of all you. You're not my mother. You can't be, I killed her."
Lowa put a hand on her bow.
"Lowa," said Atlas quietly, "we don't have—"
She held up a silencing hand. "All right, Samalur, I'll fight your army and I'll kill you myself. Wait here, we'll be back after nightfall."
As Lowa turned her horse, the laughter of Dumnonia's upper echelons made her skin prickle. She kicked her iron heels into the animal's flanks and galloped away.
"Lowa," Atlas shouted over the drumming hooves, "We need to go back. There are too many of them. We have to come to terms. It is not too late—"
"It is too late. Call a council the moment we return. We have a battle to plan."
"I can't," she said, shaking her head then looking up.
Lowa looked seriously angry. Spring couldn't remember anyone ever looking so angry with her, apart from perhaps her father, King Zadar. It wasn't like Lowa at all. Being in charge changed people, it seemed, and not for the better.
"Spring, whatever you did to Dug and me in the arena, you're going to do it again to both of us and to as many other Maidun Warriors as you can, and we are going to tear this Dumnonian army to pieces."
"Lowa, no. I can't." Spring looked at the sling in her hands. She'd come into the woods ostensibly to hunt game, but really she wanted be alone. Finding out that she could use magic had thrilled, confused and upset her. Realising after the death of her father that her magic seemed to have left her had not cheered her any. She'd thought that getting away from all the noise of Maidun and walking on her own through the trees might make things clearer. So far it hadn't. She'd also thought she'd been careful to leave no trail, but Lowa had tracked her.
"You will try," said Maidun's new queen. "This isn't a game. The Dumnonians outnumber us massively. It is very likely that they will kill us all, Dug included. Do you want that to happen? I don't know what your power is or where it comes from, but I know what it can do. You have to use it to help us."
Spring wanted to burrow into the ground to get away. If she could have used her magic still, she would have created an island miles across the sea where she could have lived with Dug for ever, and perhaps a few other nice people, but certainly nobody who wanted to get involved in battles. "Can't Drustan help?" she asked.
"He's going to do what he can, but he says that compared to you he can't do anything."
"I do want to help, but I can't. I don't know what I did to you and Dug to give you strength, I just did it. It was the same the night before when I took Chamanca's outfit. I knew that I should take it, I knew that by touching it I'd make the leather strong and it would protect you, and I knew that I should put it in your cell. But I don't know how I knew. And I'm certain that I can't use my magic against the Dumnonians, totally certain, as certain as I am that I can't drink all the water in the sea. There's no point trying, I just can't." Spring's vision blurred with tears.
"But in the arena—"
"I know! I'm sorry!"
Lowa's lips were a thin white line. For a moment Spring thought she was going to hit her.
"So, when you put–for want of a better word–the magic into Chamanca's outfit that stopped the chariot's blade from chopping me in half, that was the first time you'd used magic?"
"I don't know if it was magic, or what it was."
"Was that the first time?"
"Oh no. It's happened loads before. Like when I met Dug he wanted to kill me, so I had to change his mind, but before that Ulpius wanted to kill me so I had to wake Dug up by going into his dream and getting him. Sometimes I just know things. Like I know the Romans are coming, and just before I met you I knew that Weylin would want a cart and I could rescue you and Dug by getting one. Sometimes I can do things, like when Juniper the dog jumped at me I stopped her heart, and sometimes I can make other people know things, like when I taught the girls to use the slings and then, like on Mearhold, I can make people fall in and out…" Spring reddened as she remembered that Lowa mustn't know about that. "… of boats, like I did for a joke once with one of the boys—"
"Hang on." Lowa took Spring's chin gently in her hand and looked into her eyes. "That's not what you were going to say." Spring tried to pull away. Lowa's fingers tightened. She leant forward. Her gaze speared through Spring's eyes and bored into her brain. "You missed something out, didn't you?" she said quietly.
"On Mearhold. You used your magic for something that you're not telling me."
Spring tried to squirm away, but Lowa's grip was iron. "No, I didn't!" she insisted. With her lips pressed together by Lowa's strong fingers she sounded like someone who'd had their tongue split in two by liars' tongue scissors. "What could I have used it for?" She had used her magic to make Lowa fall out of love with Dug on Mearhold. At the time it had made good sense. She and Dug been happy before Lowa had come along. Meeting Lowa had resulted in Dug being savaged half to death by a horrible animal, not to mention Spring herself being stabbed and kidnapped by the awful Ogre, and who knew what more trouble this blonde archer was going to bring them? So Spring had acted to save Dug, and, if she was honest, because she wanted Dug to herself. However, when Spring had seen how much her actions had upset Dug, and Lowa, too, she'd realised that she'd made a mistake. She'd tried to cancel her spell, or whatever it was, but she didn't know if she had succeeded, and there was nothing she could do now that she had lost her magic. Besides, even if it came back, she'd learnt her lesson about mucking around with people's affections and she wasn't going to do it again. So she could have told Lowa what she'd done, but there was nothing to gain from it and plenty to lose.
Spring fixed her eyes on Lowa's and said, as firmly and seriously as she could through her squashed mouth: "I did not use my magic on Mearhold."
Lowa released her, but her stare did not let up. Spring squirmed and resisted the urge to tell her all just to stop those eyes poking about in her head.
"Enough of this," said Lowa, "I've got a battle to plan."
"I'll come to the battle. I'll do whatever I can to help. I'm good with my sling! But I won't be able to use magic. I'll try, I will, but I know it won't work."
"You do what you want." Lowa strode away.
Spring watched her walk off. She'd come to the woods to try and make herself feel better, but now she felt as rotten as she ever had.
Dug wrinkled his nose at the endless Dumnonian army, stretching out of sight south and westwards across the grassy undulations of Sarum Plain. Opposite him, in the enemy line, horses stamped and blade-wheeled chariots creaked. Some hairy Dumnonian men and women shouted insults but for the most part they waited quietly like Dug. There'd be plenty of time for shouting once the Dumnonians charged. Assuming that they did charge. Dug didn't know the battle plan in detail, he knew only that he and the hundred men he'd been put in charge of were to wait until the enemy came at them. He looked down and saw that his knuckles were white from gripping his hammer. He relaxed his hand, filled his lungs then breathed out long and slow.
It was a cool, dry late summer's day under a white cloud sky, which was a plus. Fighting was more pleasant when it wasn't too hot. But why was he fighting at all? He could have carried on out of Maidun and be waking up now in some town like Bladonfort with a bit of a hangover, ready to start working on the next one. Instead he'd come back, had risen before it was light with thousands of other nervous bastards and was lining up for yet another battle. Great big badgers' arses, why? Because, he admitted to himself with a self-chastising shake of his head, he was an idiot who wanted to impress Lowa, even though she didn't even know he'd gone away, let alone that he'd come back, and she was too busy being queen to care anyway.
Talk was that the Dumnonians numbered a hundred thousand men and women. Dug was sure that they didn't. That was what the shout had said, and everybody had accepted it. People always exaggerated army sizes and it wasn't as if anyone had popped over to the Dumnonian camp, asked them all to stand still and counted them. One thing was sure, though–there certainly were shiteloads of the nasty looking buggers–many, many, many more than the Maidun army had.
So it looked like Queen Lowa's reign was to be a short one. It was an odd twist of fate, mused Dug. If Lowa had waited less than a moon, then Zadar would still be ruling Maidun instead of her, the Dumnonians would have crushed him instead and would have avenged her dead sister and friends for her. But now Lowa was leading a formerly enemy army that she'd previously been a part of, against an army that she would have joined, had she known it was going to attack the army she was now leading. The world, thought Dug, was rarely straightforward.
The outcome of the battle would be, though, without even taking the massive difference in army sizes into account. Before it had even begun, Lowa had made some blinding errors, as Dug had noticed that new kings and queens were wont to do.
There was a ripple along the Dumnonian line and a couple of chariots started forward. Were they about to charge? Dug and the rest of the Maidun army tensed as one, but the chariots wheeled round to display a couple of naked, mooning posteriors, and returned to the Dumnonian lines.
Now, where was I? thought Dug. Oh yes, he'd been thinking that he should have gone to the war council and pointed out how rubbish the plan was, and not chickened out of it because he didn't want to see Lowa and that woman-stealing arsehole Ragnall together. Whatever advice Drustan, Carden, Atlas and the rest had given her, it had either been crap or she'd ignored it. He could see three glaring mistakes.
First rule when fighting a larger army was to find somewhere narrow to fight, like a valley or, better, a cliff-lined gorge, to ensure that fighting was never more then one on one. Yet Lowa had decided to meet Samalur on an open plain, where he would surely encircle her much smaller force and attack every soldier of hers with ten of his.
Second rule with a smaller army was surprise. Hit the enemy when and where they didn't expect it. Yet the Dumnonians had been camped in the same place for three days, and Lowa had announced that she would attack them there. It couldn't have been less of a surprise.
The third, and biggest, error was meeting Samalur in battle at all. An army that size would be able to feed itself for only a matter of days in enemy territory, so, had Lowa pulled her people up into impregnable Maidun Castle and closed the gates, the Dumnonians would have gone home soon enough.
The only good thing he'd heard that she'd done was to tell the Dumnonian king that they were going to attack the night before. With any luck he would have kept his troops awake in readiness, while the Maidun forces had slept. And, Dug admitted to himself, he didn't know everything. There might have been more to the plan than immediately met the eye. Whatever, it didn't matter. He just had to follow orders, give orders, and fight.
Down by his feet were two long spears and a large, hefty shield. They'd been sneaked forward once the ranks were already in place so that the Dumnonians wouldn't know they were there. That was pretty tricksy and should really muck up a chariot charge, so it was possible, he supposed, that Lowa had other schemes in place.
Another positive was that the breeze was an easterly on the Maidunites backs, rather than the more common south-westerly. That was a spot of luck, since their projectiles would go further than the enemy's, but it was hardly a gale, and there was no way Lowa could claim credit for the direction of the wind.
Dug's thoughts were interrupted by a rattling blare of bronze trumpets with wooden clackers in their mouths. They rang out first from the Dumnonian army, then from their own. The Dumnonian front line shuddered as one, then rolled forwards. Here we go. Dug felt the contents of his stomach lurch and asked Makka the god of war to ensure, if nothing else, that he didn't shit in his leather battle trousers. If he was going to the Otherworld today he wanted to arrive clean-arsed.
"Ready!" he shouted, looking around at his men and women, then added, "Arms' length between you all!" more for something to say than anything else–they were already well spaced. They looked back and him and nodded; some were wide-eyed with their lips parted in fear, some serious, some wild-eyed and froth-mouthed. They were mostly armoured in leather like him, a few wore iron helmets like his. Most were armed either with hefty iron swords or stout spears. He was the only one with a hammer. Very few, thank Toutatis, looked like they were going to flee before the fighting had begun, so that at least was a great improvement on some battles he'd been in. He looked back to the Dumnonians and spotted a large dragonfly, flying between the armies as if it was just another day.
From horseback in the centre, atop one of the burial mounds that clung on to Sarum Plain's uplands like a well-spaced migration of giant slugs that had died and solidified, Lowa watched as the Dumnonian chariots charged her right flank. She'd sent Atlas to the right with the infantry to encourage Samalur to line his heavy chariots there. The young Dumnonian king had obliged. With his massively superior force, Samalur had done the sensible thing and matched her battle lines on both sides, heavy chariots on the left, infantry on the right, light chariots and cavalry in reserve ready to zoom wherever they were needed. Numerically superior, the Dumnonians had no incentive to try anything more advanced than the classic "infantry attacks chariots, chariots attack infantry" tactics.
Dug was leading a section on the right, she remembered once again, about to be hit by thousands of thundering chariots and their crews of murderous, heavily armed Dumnonians. Atlas had told her that he'd come back to Maidun offering his services, and that he'd been given a company to lead. She was hurt that he hadn't been to see her on his return, but then again it wasn't long since she'd woken him up by having sex with Ragnall on the other side of the campfire. How could she begin to explain and apologise for that? She banished Dug from her thoughts. This was no time for childish romanticising.
Thinking of children… it was irksome that Spring wouldn't use her magic. If the girl had made Lowa feel like she did when she'd fought the chariot and Chamanca, she would have taken on the whole Dumnonian army herself. But Lowa believed that she'd been telling the truth about not being able to use her magic, because the girl was a terrible liar. Lowa was sure she'd lied about using her magic on Mearhold, and she had a fairly firm idea about what the jealous little brat might have done. That was something else she'd have to address if they lived through the day. Right now, she'd found another use for Spring.
Drustan had helped a little, magic-wise. By sacrificing an ox, so he said, he'd caused the wind to veer round to the east so that it was behind them. But that was it. He said that those who could use the gods' powers could only draw a limited amount. Lowa had asked him if there was anyone else. He'd said no. The gods had shown him that he was going to find a young person who was the greatest ever practitioner of magic. He'd thought that this was Ragnall, and he'd even tricked Ragnall into believing he'd lit fires with his mind in order to draw it out of him, but now he knew that the young man had no contact with the gods. The magic youngster foretold was Spring.
But now Spring had lost her magic. Had the gods deserted her, Lowa wondered, because the Maidun army was doomed to be annihilated by the Dumnonians, and gods don't like helping losers?
There was one way to find out.
She raised her arm and dropped it. The Maidun trumpets spewed their cacophony. Her army's left, her mass of heavy chariots, stirred then surged towards the Dumnonian line of foot soldiers.
On her right, the Dumnonian chariots charged the Maidun infantry. Javelins launched. Maidunite shields appeared like a sudden bloom of flowers. There was a great howl of disappointment from the Dumnonians as their missiles were deflected by the revealed defences, but they charged on, swords aloft, wheel-blades flashing.
At the last moment, all along Maidun's right flank, long spears sprung up like hair bristling on a wildcat's neck. The Dumnonian chariot line faltered as thousands of reins were yanked in panic, but it was too late. The horses and chariots hit the infantry's spears. A heartbeat later she heard the sound of a thousand wooden poles snapping under the impact of horses and people, followed by the screams of Danu knew how many Dumnonian horses and men as iron spear heads punctured their limbs, stomachs, faces… She thought of her own soldiers, kneeling behind shields as tons of man, horse, iron and wood smashed down around them. All along the Maidun line, horses' hooves would be crushing skulls and splintered chariot draught poles impaling the chests of her own people. That had been unavoidable. She prayed that not too many were killed, and that none of them was Dug.
The Maidun front line held. The Dumnonian attack crumpled as wave after wave of horses, chariots and charioteers crashed into and on to the broken pile of their fallen comrades.
On the left, Maidun's chariots stopped twenty paces short of the enemy line, as, Lowa thought with some satisfaction, the Dumnonian heavy chariots should have done. Maidunite javelins flew. The volley whumped harmlessly into thousands of Dumnonian shields. The Dumnonians shouted in delight, dropped their shields and charged. The Maidun chariots paused for a moment, then unleashed their second, unexpected salvo of javelins. That was much more successful, as were the third, fourth and fifth javelin volleys. Hundreds of Dumnonians fell. Their line dissolved in disarray. Some ran back to retrieve their shields. Some ran at the chariots. Captains screamed contradictory commands.
For centuries it had been the pan-tribal British custom to carry only one javelin in each chariot. You chucked that as an opener, then the crew-warriors dismounted for some proper mêlée fighting with swords, axes, hammers and the like. It hadn't been easy, but Lowa was glad she'd talked the charioteers into flouting tradition and carrying five javelins each. Hopefully now, if they survived this battle, some of the other innovations she had in mind might be more readily accepted.
On the right, her infantry dropped their pikes and dashed in to finish off the downed charioteers. The Dumnonians saw the line broken, rallied and came at them, but the Maidun soldiers rolled back into their line, retrieved their spare, unbroken pikes, held them aloft and retreated steadily, backwards and outwards, away from Lowa and the centre. The Dumnonian heavy chariots pressed, but, having seen what happened to the first lot, held back from all-out attack on those bristling pikes.
Another discordant trumpet blast honked from the Dumnonian centre and their light chariots set off at a gallop to swing around Maidun's right and attack the flank of the infantry. Lowa gritted her teeth. She'd planned on Samalur doing exactly that, but not so quickly. If the Dumnonian chariots got round behind her right flank, then her plan was screwed and they were all dead. It was going to be close.
On the left, the Maidun charioteers had exhausted their javelins. Hundreds of Dumnonians had been killed or disabled, but that was only a tiny proportion of their force and the battle there was far from over. On the same trumpet call that sent Dumnonia's light chariots around their left edge, thousands upon thousands of their infantry charged on the Dumnonian right, armed with shields and heavy iron swords.
The Maidun chariots cantered away. Like the Maidun infantry, they retreated both backwards and away from the centre, spreading the width of the battlefield.
- "Watson's tale is gore soaked and profanity laden -- full of visceral combat and earthy humor, and laced with subtle magic."—Publishers Weekly on Age of Iron
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- Apr 14, 2015
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