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Authors: Manda Scott

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

Dreaming the Eagle (35 page)

BOOK: Dreaming the Eagle
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Amminios said, ‘Your friends are looking for you. You should go out, now. They will be worried.’

Ban stretched forward. His mouth was dry. His pulse raced as if he had run since morning. The dreamer pieces, blood and treachery, came into his hand. ‘Sit,’ he said. ‘We have one more game to play.’

The man turned in the doorway. The flap fell behind him, cutting out the cool of the evening. ‘You accept the wager? The red mare for Iccius?’

‘For your horse and Iccius. He will need something to ride when we leave.’ Ban pushed the pile of armbands and weapons to the side. ‘You can have these back. They would not fit me and I have no need of them. We will play only for the horses and the boy. Do you agree?’

‘I do.’ Amminios leaned forward and tapped Ban’s left hand. Opening it, Ban saw the yellow of treachery wink back at him. The Trinovantian smiled, sharply. ‘The first move is mine,’ he said.

It was a game like none that had gone before it. From the first move, Amminios attacked, wielding his dreamer with a savagery and precision that was new to them both. Ban lost three of his warriors in as many moves and came breathtakingly close to losing his own dreamer and the game. The power of it hit him with a force that was physical, dashing the blood from his head and leaving him breathless. He gathered himself and fought back, setting a trap and springing it while Amminios’ attention was on his own assault. It gained him two pieces and forced the yellow dreamer to flee for cover. Amminios countered with one of his skipping runs that took a piece from one far corner of the board to within a square of the other and spun left at the end. Ban had seen it coming and gave away another three of his red warriors. A moment later, in a move as sweet as any he had made, his dreamer took five of the opposition.

They became more circumspect, circling each other, moving pieces in feints and counterfeints, pushing the dreamers around the board in defensive moves that drew no blood. The warrior pieces became more valuable. Each lost another one and became more wary still. Neither of them wanted a draw; to take the dreamer, each needed at least three counters on the board. Amminios began to move his pieces as if at random. The board became an ice-covered pond and his pieces children playing. The patterns of it carried a lethal, fluid grace. It was hard not to be sucked in, to dance for the beauty of the dance. Ban dug his nails into his palms and bit the inner edge of his tongue. He pushed his warriors into an ugly, condensed block and made them move in a massed charge, sweeping the ice dancers to the far side of the board, breaking the patterns. It took time, and Amminios wove circles about him, taunting.

Neither spoke. In other games, there had been a quiet background conversation. They had talked of the horses, of Breaca’s battle grey and the races she had won, of the red mare and the foal she carried, of the Sun Hound’s breeding projects and why Amminios believed his father’s blood lines to be tainted with faulty stock and what he planned to do on his three farms in Gaul. Ban had told of Hail and their hunting. Amminios had relayed a story of Odras’ hound bitch and her lone run against a full-pointed deer.

This time, there was silence. On the outer edge of his mind, Ban was aware of other voices besides Airmid’s calling his name but he was beyond the point where they dictated his moves. Partway through the ice dance, he felt a draught as the door-flap lifted and he knew he had been found. Shapes gathered in the doorway. Someone brought another torch and the shadows of the counters changed direction. Voices murmured like the morning babble of wood pigeons and made as much sense.

Someone asked. ‘What have they wagered?’ and someone else -Caradoc, or the Roman; their voices were uncannily similar under strain - said, ‘The horses. It will be for their horses,’ and a third voice, which must have been Amminios’, said, ‘Brother, you demean me. We play for our honour. And for the boy.’ Not long after that the door-flap shifted again and he knew that Iccius was there.

None of it touched Ban. He was in a place beyond reach. His soul belonged to the board and he would have played on if they had told him that Iccius had escaped and was riding the red mare over the ocean to Gaul, or that he was dead. They were both dancing now. He had broken his warriors’ march and sent them outwards, probing for weak spots. He found one and took a piece and then found himself cornered and lost his own warrior in turn. His dreamer sheltered behind the remaining three pieces. Amminios had four. It was not impossible - each had won from this position before - but it was dangerous and neither could afford mistakes. Patterns grew before Ban’s eyes: replays of the afternoon’s games and of others, earlier, played with Gunovic. The ghost of an idea tugged at his imagination and caught hold. A path formed in his mind similar to one he had seen before and failed to take. He believed it worth trying now.

In a new break from the dance, he moved his dreamer into the open and began a curving slide across the board. Amminios’ pieces moved like wolves on a trail. They split into two groups and came after him. They were well disciplined, keeping close together, never allowing the single space between that would enable Ban’s dreamer to turn and skip across them, wielding death. The yellow dreamer sat alone towards the lefthand side of the board and did not move. The red hit a corner and the wolves began to close. Ban brought his three remaining warriors forward defensively, to cover the gap. If one looked ahead, one could see that there was enough time, just, for him to bring them into square formation around the smaller piece. He could protect it from attack but he would lose the flexibility of the dreamer’s sideways movements.

He sighed and shifted in his seat. The crowd had grown quiet. Caradoc, or perhaps the Roman, swore quietly in the name of Briga. Ban did not look up. The pieces moved swiftly. Neither player took the time to stop and consider all other openings. Both were intent on the wolf pack and its kill. Ban hopped his warriors forward as fast as the play allowed. On one move, he risked a gap. To have taken advantage of it would have slowed the yellow advance and he knew Amminios better than that; the wolf does not stop to snap at dayflies when the deer is running on the trail. At his next turn, Ban was able to bring one piece four squares forward, gaining ground. Another moved sideways to fill the void. Amminios smiled thinly and arched his brow. He had done it once or twice before as a way of offering a clean end to a game already forfeit. In this game, he would not do it so soon. It became instead a quiet signal between them; he was winning and they both knew it.

The wolves were three squares away when the red dreamer made a break for cover. It was the highest risk Ban had taken throughout the entirety of their play and he heard a hiss of indrawn breath from the doorway. He struck sideways and down, bypassing his leading warrior and slipping sideways behind it, out of reach of the yellow counters. Amminios frowned and stared at the board. It was not a move he had considered. The rhythm of play faltered briefly as he studied his options, then he lifted one of his warriors and moved it, skipping, back and forth across its fellows in the zigzagging strike that marked his most elegant play. It came to rest within two squares of the red dreamer and the new position changed the tenor of the game. Even the least experienced of players could have plotted out the ending. Hesitantly, Ban brought his warriors in a ring round his key piece. He moved his pieces more slowly now and it made no difference. Soon, the yellow counters surrounded the red, one move away from the kill. The red dreamer had two moves left and either one placed it in mortal danger. To move either warrior would bring it within reach of the yellow and Amminios would clear the board. In each case, the dreamer was forfeit and the game with it.

Amminios rested the tip of his finger on the tiny red counter. Quietly, just between them both, he said, ‘Must we go through with it? You played well. I would not inflict the final indignity of the kill for no reason.’

‘What will happen to Iccius?’

‘He will continue to serve as horse-boy. Your red mare will improve my father’s blood lines, and the colt that she carries will be mine when we ride to war against the Ordovices.’

‘It might be a filly.’

‘Maybe. Then I will have a battle mare to match your sister’s.’

Ban laid his hands flat on his knees. The pressure of the play had left him more drained than he had ever been. Looking up, he met a forest of eyes: Breaca was there with Airmid, Macha with Luain; Eburovic stood to one side near the Roman. Odras, the woman who owned the hound bitch, leaned against the wall, nursing a silent infant. Searching further, he found the face that he wanted. Caradoc stood in the shadows behind Amminios. His father stood on his left. In this light, one could see the likeness of the eyes, and the difference. The Sun Hound’s gaze was reflective; a bottomless pool to be explored only by the gods. Caradoc’s was more open; laughter simmered in the iron-grey depths, to be seen only if one chose to look for it, and approval.

Ban wiped his hands on his tunic. His head felt hollow and his ears rang. It was possible that a boy might feel like this at the end of his longnights, having passed the warrior’s tests and won his spear, although he thought not; none of those he had seen welcomed back to the men’s place had looked as if the gods had blessed them, and he felt that way now.

He became aware that Amminios was looking at him, that he had asked him to yield and was awaiting his answer.

He frowned and checked the pattern of the dance; exultation was unhealthy in a warrior and led, always, to defeat and humiliation. His father had taught him that long ago and Caradoc had demonstrated it endlessly in the races. Only by fitness and skill, careful planning and with the aid of the gods, did one succeed. He had planned and prayed and the gods had heard him. It was Amminios’ last move that had made his pattern possible. He placed his elbows on his knees and leaned forward to touch his rearmost warrior, tucked beyond useful play in the corner. He had placed it there some time ago, one move among many in the frantic flight to support his dreamer. Amminios, if he had seen it at all, had dismissed the threat.

‘The way you have taught me,’ he said, ‘when a warrior reaches the corner furthest from whence it came, it grows in stature. For one move, it can act as a dreamer. Is this not so?’

It was not necessary to lift the piece. As soon as the words were spoken, the dance was clear. For a piece with the power and scope of a dreamer, a path lay clear across the board, skipping all three of the remaining red pieces, taking out two of the yellow warriors and making a final double jump to the yellow dreamer sitting alone and forgotten at the back of the board. It was a clean and beautiful kill and he had learned the basis of it from Amminios.

‘So it would seem.’ The Trinovantian placed the flat of his two palms together and touched his fingertips to his lips. When he looked up from the board, his eyes were as blank as his father’s, his features set in bland irrelevancy. ‘Congratulations,’ he said. ‘The gods have spoken on your behalf. My horse is yours.’

‘And Iccius.’

‘Of course. With the horse goes its boy.’

Ban looked up. Breaca was angry with him, and proud at the same time. Beside her, Macha was having some trouble not laughing. Between them stood Iccius, a thin-faced child with a shock of white-blond hair and vast blue eyes, turned the colour of jewels in the lamplight. He was weeping.

Ban stood, feeling the urgent need to drain his bladder. He pushed through the crowd and clapped Iccius on the shoulder in passing. The moment was pure in itself and he had no wish to milk it.

‘Segoventos will leave soon,’ he said, quietly. ‘If you wish it, you can return to Gaul and thence to your people. If not, you will be welcome amongst the Eceni.’

The feast held in the greathouse surpassed that which had preceded it in the quality and quantity of food and ale, wine and entertainment. The atmosphere was less restrained than it had been. Slaves served, but discreetly. Wine was passed to the mariners and those of Roman mind who wished it. It was not pressed on the Eceni. Two men and a boy excused themselves early, stepping outside for fresh air and solitude. As if by chance, they found each other and walked awhile, coming to rest on the slope beyond the northern gates that marked the entrance to the dun. The night was cool and newly washed with rain. The storm clouds of the afternoon had thinned to stranded gossamer, looping weblike between the stars. The Hunter rose from the east with the Hare over his shoulder. The Ram’s Horn lay low in the west. The moon hung between them, a coin cast poorly in silver with one side lost to the heat of the forge.

The turf had been cropped close by uncountable numbers of sheep. It smelled of sage and silverweed. Hedgehogs, rats and foxes rooted amongst the debris of the cattle market. Caradoc lay back with his hands cushioning his head. ‘You’ll sail soon?’

The Roman, too, lay back against the rising turf of the bank. A small white flower grew at his head, reflecting the moon. ‘Segoventos says we must be on the evening tide in two days’ time when the moon is full. It is too soon for propriety, but if we leave it longer we’ll lose the tides.’

‘He is anxious to see how she handles.’

‘Of course. And as anxious to be safe in Gaul before Cunobelin changes his mind and takes her back. Segoventos will not admit it, but she is a better ship than the one he lost.’

Caradoc said, ‘I had heard they were going to name her the Raven. Why did they not?’

‘It was an idea of Curaunios’, not any of the others. Briga’s birds are unlucky at sea.’

‘So they named her instead for my father?’

‘He may think so, but no. They named her for a horse that nearly changed hands in a board game this afternoon. And for her rider.’

Ban sat up slowly. Earlier, he had drunk too much ale and felt ill. The spinning of his head had cleared with the fresh air but not the heaving spasms that tied in his guts. ‘What have they called her?’ he asked.

‘The Sun Horse.’


‘Because they didn’t know you were going to try to give away your best mare to a man who is known to kill horses,’ said Caradoc, dryly.

BOOK: Dreaming the Eagle
6.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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