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Authors: Manda Scott

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

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BOOK: Dreaming the Eagle
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Afterwards, they lay folded together beneath the curve of the bank, letting the sun warm their joints, listening to the throbbing boom of the bittern that stood in the reeds further up the river. Breaca played with the loose sand, etching pictures. In the way her father had taught her, she made a wren, a shebear and a horse. All three were watched by a frog that was of her own design. Airmid reached over her shoulder and added the sweep of a leg and the dot of an eye, to make the frog more real. When it was done, she drew a leaf that might have been a spearhead for it to sit on and a long, low oblong that became, with some added symbols, the ancestor’s mound. Without discussion, they drew each other in the space beneath the mound, lying as they were now, with a garland of beech leaves, to keep them together for eternity. Airmid drew a sword and a shield in the doorway, to ward off enemies. She added another Breaca, a smaller one, sitting in the distance with her back to a beech tree, watching the moon rise over the horizon, but that was dangerous and she wiped it out as soon as it was complete.

Because they needed to talk of it, but not directly, Airmid asked, ‘Have you asked your brother how he came by his dreaming? Ban was not on his longnight when it happened. He could tell you everything.’

‘I’ve asked.’

‘What does he say?’ ‘He says it wasn’t a real dreaming.’

They were done with drawing. Breaca lifted a broken reed from the bank and tickled the top of the water. A small fish reached up to kiss the surface where it touched. ‘His heart is set on passing his warrior’s tests and nothing beyond. He doesn’t want to be a dreamer.’ It was inconceivable to Breaca that her brother should not share her heart’s need, but she had recognized it to be so. She helped him, when she could, with his warrior training.

Airmid was behind her, resting her chin on her shoulder, watching the reed and the fish. ‘What does Macha say?’

‘To him? Nothing. To me, she says that if the gods want a person to hear them, they will shout louder until he does. Or she does.’

The fish saw a water beetle just beyond the tip of the reed and snatched for it instead. Beetle and fish vanished together beneath the surface. Breaca laid the reed on the bank where she found it. She reached back and found Airmid’s hands and wrapped them around her. The mood of the morning had passed and the fear was returning. She said, ‘What happens if they only whisper? I might not hear them.’

‘You’ll hear. I promise it.’

The kiss on her ear was as light as that of the fish on the reed. The breath was warm on her neck. The sun moved lower on the water and the dazzle of its reflection coloured the world gold, even after she had closed her eyes. The earlier mood was not, after all, irretrievable.

Some time later, Airmid said, ‘Everyone fears the same thing. It is only the arrogant who believe the gods will speak to them - and so they hear nothing, because they have not learned to listen. You are not arrogant.’

‘But I am still afraid.’

‘Which is how it should be. But still. However quietly the gods speak, you will hear them. Be patient. They will tell you everything you want to know. All you have to do is listen.’

 

V.

RAIN SHIVERED ON THE LEAF IN FRONT OF HER. FINE DROPS gathered together and rolled forward to splash heavily onto her knee. Above her and to the side, other leaves dripped their loads onto her neck, her hair, the bare skin of her arms and legs. It was warm rain, heated by the thunder and lightning, tempered in the forge of the gods, and the feel of it was a relief after the pressing heat of the morning. Now that the first cloudburst was over, Breaca could pick out single drops, pattering briskly through the upper branches, louder than the receding thunder.

Lightning flashed again and lit the group of riders huddled at the edges of the trackway below her. They had run for shelter too late and were drenched, and their horses with them. She counted thirty but there were probably more. They were travelling on the eve of the midsummer solstice, which made it certain that they had not come simply to trade or to visit kin. She eased closer, pushing through the clinging leaves to a place where she could see but not be seen. There were two groups, that much was clear. She had watched them riding in from the southern trackway and there had already been two separate factions before ever they ran for the trees. Those who stood on the near side of the path were led by a big, blackhaired man mounted on a solid brown gelding. He was young, less than twenty, but he sat quietly and looked around him with the steadiness of age. If one of them was going to see her, it would be him. She curled herself small and tight and kept her eyes away from his, not to call herself to notice.

The second faction, grouped beneath an oak on the far side, were led by a red-haired youth on a nervous bay colt that started at every shaken leaf and mouthed constantly at its bit. The rider used his hands roughly and there was blood in the frothing spit. She took note of that, and the colour of their cloaks and the style of their torcs and patterns on their armbands and the accents with which the blackhaired one swore at the weather and her country and the redhead cursed her people and his own father, and then, as the rain fell harder and the noise of it filled her ears and theirs, she edged back, step by careful step, to the place where the grey filly waited.

The storm was a brief one. It passed before she reached the turf rampart, giving way to rinsed blue skies and a drying sun, so that when she pushed through the gates in the encircling rampart the filly was black with the sweat of the run as much as the steaming after-wash of the rain. Inside, the compound was deserted save for a cluster of hens and a sleeping hound. It was the third day of the midsummer horse fair and every man, woman and child of the Eceni was at the fair ground, securing the last of their bargains and renewing old acquaintanceships over jugs of ale, while the elders of each group prepared for the council gathering in the greathouse. They were not alone in this; across the country, it was the same. Each of the tribes came together in their own homelands at this time. Even the Coritani must speak with their gods and daybreak on the summer solstice was well known as a time when they listened most keenly. Very rarely an individual or a group from one tribe might choose to travel to another’s greathouse for advice from their dreamers or to bring a petition pertaining to war, or its cessation. The truce of the season allowed it and the peace that arose afterwards was understood to be a gift of the gods. Those she had seen on the trackway were not from a people with whom the Eceni were at war but there could be no doubting their intent; they were riding for the sacred land that was the heart of the Eceni nation and their route took them directly past Breaca’s roundhouse.

It was not done to run horses at speed within the compound but certain circumstances allowed it. Breaca cantered directly for the roundhouse and the women who remained inside. Airmid had heard her coming. She stood waiting outside the door-flap with the elder grandmother at her side. Both were dressed for ceremony. Their tunics hung straight and uncreased and smelled of sage. Black crow’s wings graced the grandmother’s shoulders, their tips falling forward to meet at her breast bone. Airmid wore a necklace of silvered frog bones, a fine, delicate thing that shimmered as she moved. Her black hair, newly combed, was bound at her brow by a thong of palest birch bark, the mark of a dreamer. Gold torcs gleamed at both their necks, giving them added height, making them other and sacred.

On any other occasion, the sight of Airmid like this would have filled Breaca with pride and a desperate longing. Now, she was part of the new pattern of the day, a thing to be dealt with quickly. She threw her weight back and the grey stopped neatly as they had practised. Airmid reached up for the reins. Her eyes were crisp and clear, with the added depth that came after dreaming. She said, simply, ‘Who are they?’

‘Trinovantes. Thirty at least, possibly more. They are armed but the leader wears the band of a messenger on his left arm. They are on the trackway and they will pass here on their way to the gathering. They should be met and greeted.’ She twisted her body to look into the roundhouse. The grey spun and fidgeted under her. She saw nothing and straightened. ‘Where is Macha?’

‘With your father. They rode up to the trading fields to help clear the greathouse for the gathering.’

Breaca cursed, fluidly. ‘Sinochos, then?’

The grandmother grinned, showing her lack of teeth. ‘He is out hunting for the feast tomorrow night. If you were wanting a man and not over-fussy about which one, his son is here.’

‘Dubornos? Why?’ Dubornos, when she had seen him last, had been sitting in the trade stands, broaching his second jug of ale and speaking floridly to anyone who would listen of the bargains he had made at the fair.

‘He fought with another youth over the trade of a sword belt and they sent him home,’ said the grandmother. ‘I dare say they would let him back did he bring big enough news. You’ll find him in the men’s place, cooling his head. He will be fit to ride as long as he is given a horse with good sense.’

‘What’s wrong with his own horse?’

Airmid said, ‘They took it from him and made him walk. You would need to give him another.’ She did not say the grey; she knew better than that. Breaca loathed Dubornos with a fierce passion. In her opinion, he was a bully, a liar and - worst of all insults - an appalling horseman. Her eyes met Airmid’s. Breaca’s hands tensed on the reins and the filly tossed her head. She said, ‘I’ll take him to the paddocks. He can take one of the new geldings. They are fast enough and their mouths are better able to take him.’ It was not true, she knew that, but she would have died before she gave him her own horse to ruin.

She left before the elder grandmother could argue. In the men’s place, Dubornos was sulking and refused to believe either that warriors were coming or that he had any need to act as she requested. She let him call her a liar twice and then drew her beltknife and laid the blade across his throat.

‘When you have won your spear, you will have the right to argue. Until then, you are a child and do as you are told. Is that clear?’

It was the first time she had used the rank her killing gave her, the first also when she had drawn her knife against another in genuine anger. Dubornos blanched and his eyes widened, showing the whites. He pushed himself back against the doorpost and the movement shaved a sliver of skin from his neck, making it bleed. Holding the blade with excessive care, Breaca said, ‘Swear to me in the name of your ancestors that you will ride as fast as you can to my father and tell him what I have told you.’

‘I swear.’ It came out as a whisper. She did not push for more.

‘Get up.’

She took him to the paddocks and waited long enough to see him catch-and mount a safe, unimaginative gelding before turning back and riding for the gates.

Airmid and the elder grandmother had been busy in her absence. The grandmother held the blue cloak and little-owl brooch that Breaca had laid out to wear at the gathering. Airmid held a comb and a belt with fine tooling that was new and that had clearly been set aside as a gift for later.

‘There is no time-‘ she began.

‘There is always time.’ The elder grandmother spoke patiently, as she did to women nearing childbirth. ‘The storm has not yet passed over the trees where they shelter. They will not leave until it does so and then they will walk slowly for a while to dry. When they are near we will hear them and, in any case, they will not pass us by. This is the house of the royal line and it is you they have come to see, even if that is not how they tell it. In this, you are your mother’s daughter. You will greet them as she would have done, not as a child newly back from rooting out rats’ nests in the fields.’

That was unfair. She had not been rooting out anything; she had been looking for the greengrey fungus that grew on the elm trees and could, if stewed right, make a lotion to keep off the flies. It was to have been her gift to Airmid before the gathering; they could have stewed it together and had the liquid ready to give to those elders who wished it. She opened her mouth to say so. Behind the grandmother, Airmid smiled and shook her head in a complex gesture that signalled understanding and thanks and the need for haste and acquiescence. Breaca shut her mouth and slid off the horse.

‘What do I need to do?’

‘Wash, comb your hair, let us dress you.’

The grandmother was rarely so patient for so long. It was not something to test by hesitating further. Breaca did as she was bid; washed her face and arms and legs in the jar of water that they brought her and scrubbed them clean and dry with the hank of sheep’s wool scented with rosemary. Airmid combed her hair, taking care to tease out the tangles without tearing. The grandmother brought out the stone-grey tunic that had been her mother’s and had been cut down to fit. The belt-gift was beautiful. Airmid had tooled it herself, interweaving the shape of the frog with the warrior’s spear that was Breaca’s sign until she dreamed one more fitting. It had been oiled well and was supple. Breaca pulled it tight and tucked in the ends, cursing her luck and the Trinovantian warriors that she had not had time to find her own gift. She was trying to say it, with her hands and her eyes, when the grandmother emerged from the place beyond the fire where she kept her private possessions. She was holding something out as she might her own gift. ‘You should wear this. It is what they expect of you.’

Firelight flickered over the thing in her hands, making it move like a snake.

‘What is it?’

‘Come outside and see.’

She ducked through the door-flap after the grandmother. In the light of the newly washed sun the thing she carried took solid form and shone, brilliantly. It was her mother’s torc, the sacred one woven by the ancestors from nine times nine gold wires that was the mark of the leader of the Eceni. Breaca had not seen it since the gathering before her mother’s death. The sight of it now made her head feel hollow.

She put a hand to her throat. In the voice of a child, she said, ‘It is not for me. I am not old enough. Macha should have it. She is leader now.’

BOOK: Dreaming the Eagle
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