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Authors: Manda Scott

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

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BOOK: Dreaming the Eagle
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The grandmother spoke. ‘There was only one whelp,’ she said. ‘He was too big and coming backwards. The bitch had not the strength to birth him herself. In the end, we had to take his hind legs and pull him out.’

His heart twisted tight in his chest. ‘But he will live?’

‘No.’ The grandmother shook her head. Her eyes were rimmed red with the smoke. He realized she was the one who had argued against the mating. ‘I’m sorry. Your mother was half right. He would have made a good hound, possibly the best, but he is too weak to live - and not well marked. The gods send these things as a sign. It is not for us to go against them.’

‘But then why was he sent at all?’ The whelp lay in the pool of shadow cast by the fire. The boy dropped to the floor, lifting the limp form to his face. It lolled in his hands, a damp, cold, salty thing with a head too big for its body. It was not a white head, that had been a trick of the slime and the firelight, nor was the body completely black. When he looked at it carefully, he found that one ear was white with a streak like a teardrop that slid down to circle one eye and that the rest was a dark patterned brindle like all of the other hounds but with small flecks of white scattered through the coat, like hail seen on a dark night.

Hail. The word resonated inside. It was a good name for a hound. He kept it in to himself for now, cradling the thing tight to his chest. It squirmed and he felt the heart flutter under his fingers.

‘Look!’ He held the pup in the light. ‘He’s not dead.’

‘Not yet, but he is too close for us to bring back.’ It was a different grandmother who spoke. She sounded tired.

Around him, the others murmured assent. Underneath it, he could hear the tug and pull of other things that were not being said.

His mother had lines round her eyes that had not been there in the morning. A long string of bloody mucus crossed over one arm. She spoke to him more gently than the second grandmother had done.

‘It’s a hound puppy, Ban. There will be others.’ She reached a hand across the fire towards him. ‘He should have had brothers and sisters beside him in the womb but the bitch was too old and she could only make one. On his own, he grew too big and the birthing was too long. Even if we bring him back now, he won’t have the strength to suckle. The bitch will run dry within hours and her son will die of hunger, having known the first breaths of life. It will be harder for him then. Better to let him go now.’

Her voice rang true. She spoke as she believed. He sat where he was. ‘But the dream … the gods’ horse …’ He hadn’t told her. She looked at him, squinting through the firelight. He said, ‘In my dream I was riding a red mare but then it wasn’t a mare, it was a horse and he was black, with a white head.’ His own name meant ‘white’ in the tongue of the Hibernians. He had known that since he was old enough to know the sound. He had never found the reason why.

The grandmothers linked eyes over his head. He felt the path of their stare like a sword-cut. His mother came to kneel at his side. The new lines on her face had gone. ‘Ban? You dreamed a horse with a white head? All white?’

‘Yes. No. Not all of it. It had a black patch between the eyes, like a shield with a sword laid across it.’

‘And what did you see in the black?’ It was the elder grandmother, the oldest of the old women, his mother’s mother’s half-cousin. Her hair was so thin and so white you could see the smooth scalp all the way across the top from one ear to the other. Beneath it, the skin of her face was as wrinkled and brown as bark scraped from an oak. Her eyes were watery brown with yellow at the edges and the black dot in the middle was milking over in a way that said she would soon be blind. But this evening she was not blind. Her eyes were wide and they picked up the light of the fire, shining in through his own skull to the memory of the dream. It must be so. How else could she know that he had seen something in the black sunburst on the head of the horse?

‘I don’t know.’ He frowned, trying to remember. In the dream, he had known exactly what it was. It had made sense of everything else. Now it was simply a patch in the shape of a warrior’s shield that had shown him something else in reflection. He struggled and failed and saw the effort reflected in his mother’s eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I can’t remember.’

His mother had picked up the hound puppy now and was rubbing its chest absently, her gaze still on her son. One of the grandmothers rapped her shoulder and, without looking up, she handed the whelp across the smoke. Breaca took it and began to breathe for it, pressing her mouth to its muzzle and blowing deep into its chest. Someone must have taught her that, and recently; she hadn’t known how to do it for the colt foal that had died by the stream. One of the other women lifted a fold of her cloak and began to rub hard over the whelp’s heart. Something had changed. They were going to bring it back. He wanted to watch, to help, but his mother lifted him round to sit opposite her, with his back to the bitch and the pup. ‘Tell me the dream,’ she said.

He told her as much as he could remember. It took less time than it had taken to dream it. At the end, he could still not tell her what it was he had seen when the horse turned its head. Only the feeling of it was left with him and he had few enough words for that.

‘Did you feel afraid?’

‘No. The first time I did, but not the second time. I knew I had nothing to fear.’

‘Not even when the sword struck you?’

‘No.’ That puzzled him. He should have been afraid of the sword. But then he had been a warrior in battle and his father had told him that, in the frenzy of fighting, some warriors passed beyond their fear. He looked down at his left arm. It was as whole as the other. ‘Maybe I knew it wasn’t real.’

‘Maybe.’ She didn’t believe it. Across the fire, something was whimpering, faintly, like the wind in a reed. The old bitch lifted her head and grumbled a greeting. The pup was rubbed one final time and placed in the fall of her teats. She licked it hard, pushing it up and in. It mewled and pawed and had no idea how to suck.

‘He will have to be fed.’ His mother stretched forward and pressed the hindmost teat between finger and thumb. When the first bead of milk appeared, she held the pup to it, smearing its lips with white. It mumbled and sucked and, the second time, did it more strongly.

The elder grandmother spoke. Her voice was the rustle of dead leaves in winter. ‘The boy had the dream. The whelp is his to rear.’ She turned to Ban. Her eyes scored his face. ‘He will not live without help. Will you give it?’

‘Yes.’ He had no doubts about that. He said, ‘His name is Hail.’ That sealed it. To name a thing gave it life. His mother took hold of his arm. ‘For the first half-moon, they feed more often than not, through the night as well as the day. I will show you how. If you can do it, the whelp will live. If not, he will die. If he dies, it is the will of the gods and you are not to blame yourself. Is that clear?’

‘Yes.’

‘Swear to me that you won’t blame yourself.’

He swore. He swore by Briga, the three-fold Mother, and her daughter, Nemain, the moon, and by the smaller gods of childbirth and rearing. Then, because the whelp was a dog and not a bitch, he swore also by Belin god of the sun and by Camul the war god. It was a long and complicated oath and at the end of it he remembered that he was not swearing to stay awake and keep the whelp alive, but rather not to blame himself if it died. He spoke that aloud, to make it clear.

His mother was smiling when he had finished. She held out her hand and lifted him up. ‘Come then, I’ll show you how it is done. And then we’ll find you somewhere to live with her so you don’t keep us all awake through the night with your nursing.’

 

II.

EBUROVIC WOKE WITH THE MOON. A DAZZLE OF SILVER SLID through the gap between the door-skin and the oak upright and glanced across his eyes, interrupting the dream. He lay still, listening. The night was quiet. He had been dreaming of danger and the echo of it fogged his thinking. The hushed breath of the other sleepers made a blanket of sound layered over the night’s smoke to deaden his ears. He turned his head and heard the whine of a hound and the scratch and scurry of rodents. Elsewhere, in the world beyond the thatch, an owl screeched and was answered. He heard it and waited; these were the sounds with which he slept nightly and none of them had woken him. Lying still, he stopped his breathing and strained to catch the things beyond the smoke. In time, it came again, the subtle chink of iron on iron, such as a careless man might make, allowing his sword to clash on his shield hub, or his armour to grate as he climbed a rampart to attack those sleeping within. But Eburovic was not asleep. For six months, he had not truly slept, waiting for such a moment as this. Feeling something close to joy, he reached down for the sword that had been within a hand’s reach day and night since the Coritani attack. His hand closed on the grip, settling in place as if born to it, and he drew the blade from the sheath. Polished iron slid on oiled bull’s hide and made no more noise than the sleepers. Still, he was heard.

‘Your daughter is at her work early.’

He stopped. The joy left him. The whisper came from his left, from amongst the women. It was dry, like the brush of wind over stone. He peered into the gloom. The embers of last night’s fire gave little light but he saw a bent shape move in the darkness and the reflected glimmer of milk-blind eyes and knew who it was. The elder grandmother was erratic and harsh with her words but he had never known her speak without reason. Certainly, she had never lied to him. He sat down on the edge of his bed and laid his naked blade flat across his knees.

‘What work is that, grandmother?’ His own voice was pitched to move through the breathing, to reach her but not wake the others.

‘How would I know that? You must ask her.’

Her tone was scathing, but he had learned long ago to listen beyond the acid of the words to the silences that carried the real meaning. He did so now. ‘What work is it that must be done in darkness and alone?’

‘She draws out her dream, as you should do,’ said the old woman. ‘It does not pay a man, or a child, to dream too often of violence.’

He was silent for that. His dream had been the same every night since the autumn. In it, he slept with his sword in his hand, not hanging from the wall, and he did not keep apart from the women, for all that Graine was in the first throes of childbirth. He heard the warriors approach before they began the work of killing and he was there in time, standing in their path, swinging sharp and savage iron to halt their advance. In his dream none died but the Coritani. The first three fell to his hammer and his blade combined, long before they reached the women. The last, as in reality, died on his daughter’s spear. He ended each night standing in a doorway facing her across the body of the fallen man, feeling the simmering ecstasy of battle ring through his head and pride fill his heart. The dawn sun sang in over his shoulder, setting fire to her hair, her smile, her shining spear-tip. She raised her weapon in salute and he thought his heart would burst with the joy of it. Then, always, he saw her eyes. In life, they were a burnished green with small threads of copper spreading out from the core, a colour all their own. Here, from the doorway of his dream, he looked into the late-summer blue of her mother’s eyes and the smile that fired them was the one that had burned into his heart long before he became a father. It was the smile that made him remember his loss and brought back the crippling grief. Weeping, he watched his daughter open her mouth and knew that she spoke with the voice of her mother. He strained to hear but her words were lost in the tides of pain and always he woke before they could reach him. Now, he sat in the dark and felt the ache as he had each morning, made greater this time by the understanding that Breaca, too, had dreamed of the deaths and he had not known.

‘It is not a good thing for a child to dream so,’ he said.

‘She knows it. She is working as she feels she must. It is not for you to stop her.’

‘No.’ He eased his blade back into its sheath and stood. His tunic lay folded on his bed-skins. He slid it over his head.

‘You would go to her?’ The ancient voice nagged like an aching tooth and the scorn was directed entirely at him. ‘Would she work in the dark if she wanted you?’

‘I woke early from my dream,’ he said and realized that it was the first time he had done so. ‘Perhaps I need to see what she is doing.’

‘She is teaching herself patience.’ The grandmother dismissed it as nothing. Both of them knew it was not. ‘It is not before time.’

‘Then I will look. I will offer help only if she asks for it. I will do nothing to stop her.’ He stepped past the fire to the door-skin. An elderly bitch thought to follow. He pushed on her muzzle and turned her back. She padded away to his sleeping place and dug herself a bed amongst his hides. He waited until she had settled and then let himself out.

The forge stood away from the roundhouse, on the far side of the compound, with its front entrance facing south so that sparks from the fire might not, in dry weather, set fire to the thatch of the roundhouse and cause ruin. The building itself was made of wood with slatted hazel for the roof and he wet it himself regularly so that it would not burn. The floor was beaten earth, damped and trodden and glazed by the fire until it was flat and imperviously smooth, except at the doorway where the hens had scraped a dust bowl and lay in it on occasion, basking in the heat.

There were no hens at night. They had roused themselves at dusk, pecking their way with the last of the light to the safe roost under the eaves of the granary, and he had sealed the door-skin behind them, laying a row of river stones along the skirt, so that the furnace, free of draught, might keep its heat in the Trough to the dawn. Coming on it now in the light of the moon, Eburovic saw the haze rising straight from the smoke hole and knew the fires were not sleeping. At the door-flap, he found that the stones had been laid aside, arranged in order of size more neatly than was his habit, and that the skirt had been turned inwards with a single weight holding it down from the inside. He stood for a moment with his ear pressed to the leather but heard nothing. If Breaca had been using his hammer, she was not doing so now.

BOOK: Dreaming the Eagle
6.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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