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Authors: Manda Scott

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BOOK: Dreaming the Eagle
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‘And will the son slaughter the dreamers as his father has done, or will he honour them, after the way of his mother’s people?’

There was a shocked silence. It was Macha who had spoken. In the same cold voice, she said, ‘It is ten years since the Sun Hound killed the last of his true dreamers. There were two. He had them skinned alive and their bodies nailed to a hazel tree and took instead Heffydd the False who speaks his master’s words as if they came from the gods. Will the firebrand son follow him in his sacrilege, do you think?’

‘No.’ Gunovic shook his head. ‘The Ordovices hold the lands that lead to the sacred isle of Mona. Of all the tribes, they are bound closest to the dreamers. Caradoc despises his father and follows his mother in everything. He will not drive out the dreamers, wherever he comes to rule.’

‘Good.’ That from ‘Tagos, who had sat with his fists bunched, ready to fight but with no obvious target. He let them relax and rolled his shoulders as one does cooling down from a fight.

Sinochos said, ‘So then what of the Sun Hound who has three different sons by three different mothers? Has he finished his sowing of seed or need we warn our daughters to be wary of Trinovantian men with plucked noses and heads thick with wine?’

There was a ripple of laughter, not quite sure of itself. Gunovic stood, stretching his legs. ‘Oh, he’s too old. It’s his sons you have to warn them of; they come in threes and are inescapable. And smiths with dry throats and hairy nostrils. Warn them of those as well.’

He grinned so his teeth shone in the firelight and the absurdity of it made them laugh again, which was a good way to finish and wiped away the last memories of the first sun hound and its death at the hands of the Romans. Only Ban did not forget. He slept for the night with his mother as he had not done since he was three years old, and Hail slept in the space between them.

Gunovic left three days later, the richer by three new pack horses, a big bay threeyear-old colt that would be trained and ready as a riding horse for him to take when he next passed by, the promise of grain to fill his packs when he came back in the autumn, nine blocks of salt, a tunic in pale undyed wool with a border in Eceni blue, a set of bone needles and a selection of dried herbs that would heal both himself and his mounts if he could remember which were for poultices and which to take with food - and such finished and part-finished weapons as Eburovic felt he could spare in the circumstances.

As befitted his status, he also carried a message directly to the elders of the Coritani through whose lands he was to travel next. It said that the Eceni considered the attack in the autumn to have been the act of rash youth and it should not be allowed to foment ill-feeling between two peoples who should better remain at peace. In evidence of the earnest intent of his words, he showed an armband in gold that was both broader and heavier than the one that had been given Arosted the salt trader when he delivered his message in the other direction. In trading with the warriors of the red kite, he was able to offer a great many brooches of high value but few spearheads or sword blanks, having already shed most of his stock.

Gunovic passed through the Coritani and on north to the homelands of the Brigantes, fierce-fighting followers of Briga, where he found that he did, in fact, have iron to trade, including several dozen good Eceni spearheads, together with the rumour, provenance unknown, that the Coritani were massing to attack their northern neighbours. He was well rewarded and enjoyed his stay and turned west towards the mountains a rich and happy man.

 

IV.

LATE SPRING MOVED INTO SUMMER AND BROUGHT AN EARLY drought. The heat was greater than anyone remembered it. The air sucked moisture from ground and people alike. Horses stood in pairs in the shade of the hawthorns, flicking their tails in each other’s faces. In the roundhouse, the door-flap was raised to its fullest and the fire damped to a bare minimum. The elder grandmother slept naked on top of her furs with her arms stretched out sideways to let off more heat. In the forge, the fires had been cut to a single glowing coal. Nobody moved who did not have to.

Breaca found Airmid by the sacred pool beneath the waterfall. The older girl lay stretched like a lizard on a scoop of rock. A nine-stemmed hazel grew out of a crack beside her, its leaves throwing oval shadows equally on the rock, her body and the water. The patterns shifted with the lift and stir of the breeze, blurring her outline so that, walking past, it would have been easy to miss her. Even knowing exactly where to look, Breaca still had to stand and wait until her eyes had made the change from sunlight to shadows and could pick out the dark of sunned skin against the lichen-dappled stone. When she was sure, she climbed up on a different rock and sat for a while studying Airmid, watching the pattern of her breathing and trying to see if her eyes were open. In time, when it seemed clear that the girl was awake and not dreaming, Breaca slid down, laid her gift on the ground between them, returned and settled herself to wait.

And wait. Behind her, a stand of mixed thorns and hornbeams buzzed with life. At the corner of the spinney a small, slate-grey bird caught flies and fastened them with careful intelligence to the spikes of a blackthorn bush. Elsewhere, a wagtail moved from stone to stone across the water, filling its beak with insects, carrying them in relays to a waiting nest. On its third trip, it gave way to a kingfisher, a streak of blue light with the sun-bloom on its belly that flashed down over the water and dived for a fish in the centre. Seventeen heartbeats passed before it surfaced, carrying no fish. Frowning, Breaca watched the water close over the place it had been. It did not seem right that a bird should have gone to the realm of the gods and come back empty-handed. She looked over to Airmid, wanting to talk, but the other girl’s eyes stared blankly out across the water. It was possible, after all, that she was dreaming. Breaca let out the breath she had been holding and went back to waiting. This time, she did not watch the pool.

Everyone dreams. From before she could walk, from before she could speak more than her own and her mother’s name, Breaca had listened to others talk of their dreams and their dreaming. It had come to her early that while her mother had dreams - colourful, vivid, lively dreams with great bearing on her life and her family - Macha and the elder grandmother spent time alone dreaming and came back to the roundhouse with their eyes fixed on faraway places and the words of the gods on their lips. At much the same time, it had come to Breaca that she wanted the dreaming far more than the dreams - and that it was granted far less often.

Three times since she had been old enough to understand the nature of what was happening, girls had gone out to spend their three nights alone and come back to tell of it. The sisters Camma and Nemma had gone out in succeeding years and come back with the white goose and the deer respectively as their dreams. Camma, who passed her days keeping Hail from her roasting pans, had been a vague, pale-haired lass who lived with her eyes on another horizon, but motherhood had taught her the truth of her dream and she guarded her two children with a ferocity that proved worthy of it. Nemma, her sister, had returned with the red doe, but it would have been astonishing had it been otherwise. From early childhood she had followed the tracks of the red deer, collecting dropped antlers and moulding deer-shapes out of scraps of hunted skin. Throughout one summer, she had reared an orphaned hind calf, feeding it on mare’s milk and teaching it to come to her call, so that now, in hard winters, she fed it as she fed the horses. Sinochos and the other hunters knew its tracks and knew that they touched it at their peril.

Those were the first two Breaca saw. Neither was exceptional; each was happy with her dream and each paid due respects to the goose or the deer at the appointed days and times and hung a token - a feather and a hind foot respectively - on the wall above her sleeping place to act as guardian. It was Airmid, strange, tall, darkskinned, dark-haired Airmid, who was different. She was the one who, at dusk on the last day of her longnights, had walked back in through the door to the women’s place, stepping across the stones laid in the entrance as if walking on water, with her eyes not in focus and her face wide with wonder and her mouth still not able to make the words for what she had seen. She had not been given a token; she had no need of something external to remind her of what had happened. The gods had spoken. They would continue to do so, and what they had said defined the rest of her life. She was a dreamer.

Breaca had witnessed the full import of it in the spring before her mother died. It was a sharp, clear morning with a good sun and a thick frost. She had risen early, out of habit, and was sitting outside the roundhouse, working on a deer-skin. Ban had been with her, plucking a woodcock he had caught in a trap. Everyone else was still asleep when Airmid arrived, running from the women’s place, skipping barefoot past the midden without care for the debris, stopping only at the door to the roundhouse because the elder grandmother had spoken to her sharply from inside, saying her name and asking for caution. She had waited then, panting, clenching and unclenching her fingers, with her dark hair, so much like Macha’s, still crushed flat from sleeping and her eyes wild and the chaos of the dream hanging about her, making her other, in ways she had not seemed before. The grandmother had finished dressing then and come out to listen and, with a visible effort, Airmid had come back from the place her mind had gone. ‘The rain is coming,’ she said, and her voice had rasped, like a frog’s. ‘Nine days from now. We need to move everything.’

‘The rain always comes. Why should we move anything now?’ The elder grandmother had been gentle, which was a new experience. In normal circumstances, one roused her early at great peril.

‘There’s too much. It will flood. The gods’ pool beneath the waterfall will not hold all the water and it will spread out across the paddocks like a sea. The river will carry the bodies past the doorway of the roundhouse. The bodies’

She had stopped then, biting her lips to keep from weeping; Airmid, who wept for nothing and no-one. Breaca had reached for her, but the elder grandmother had risen first and taken the older girl inside to lie down on her own bed and given her a wad of willow to chew until she slept, and Breaca had been set to watch over her while the old woman went off to discuss the news with her peers.

There had followed a scatter of unseasonal activity. Over the next seven days, the people had moved to the higher pastures and carried with them everything that would spoil. On the ninth day, the rains had come as Airmid had said they would. Over the course of the day, the river had swollen and burst its banks and the flood had risen halfway up the wall of the roundhouse and everyone who saw it had given thanks for the timeliness of the warning that had allowed them to move; all except for Airmid herself, who had wept inconsolably through fingers splayed wide with grief because the three frogs that had come to warn her in the dream had floated past, dead, on the water.

Breaca had watched her more closely after that, if from a distance. Airmid had a difficult reputation and it was not entirely undeserved. Four years spent as the eyes and limbs of the elder grandmother had left their mark so that she did not speak much and when she did so, it was with an irony that frequently bordered on rudeness. If pushed, the edge of her tongue was sharper than anyone but the elder grandmother’s and that was not something to court without reason.

Other gossip was less accurate. The tale of Dubornos, the redheaded son of Sinochos, and the damage she had done him was plainly untrue although Airmid had made no effort to refute it, which was frustrating. In the early days, when Breaca had realized that it was jealousy that made her peers speak so badly of the older girl, she had tried to defend her. She had fought, twice, and been blooded. Later, after a conversation with her mother, she had stopped fighting another’s battles and set herself instead to watch and learn what she could of the secrets of dreaming. If Airmid noticed, she gave no sign.

Everything had changed in the autumn with the death of Breaca’s mother. Airmid had been a quiet, solid presence at a time when the world had turned over and she had made the gift of the redquilled warrior’s feather, which no-one else had thought to do. Afterwards, a new respect had grown between them, and then friendship, which went deeper and was worth more.

It was a good day to sit quietly with a friend. Breaca watched the changing flood of light on the surface of the pool. The sun moved and her shadow moved with it, sliding forward by degrees until it stretched to the first reeds that hedged the bank. She considered whether she needed to change her position so that her shadow might not taint the water and decided not. The sun moved further until it shone on her back, warming the place between her shoulder blades that had felt exposed since the morning of her mother’s death. She closed her eyes and let the heat move inwards. In her mind, her mother spoke to her, as she had done in her infanthood, and, like an infant, she did not understand the words. In the distance, a frog began to speak and the two voices merged. A hand took over from the sun, kneading the muscles that ran up either side of her spine. A voice that was not her mother’s said quietly, ‘Breaca, open your eyes.’

She did so. A small frog, less than three fingers wide, sat on a rock in the dark of her shadow. His skin was moss-green with a brown stripe along the side. His eyes were entirely black, and when he blinked the upper and lower lids met in the middle of the brown stripe. He blinked now. Breaca blinked back.

Airmid said, ‘How did you know that I needed the plantain?’

‘I heard you tell Macha.’

‘Where did you find it?’

‘There’s a plant in the high paddock, where the yearling colts grazed in spring. I picked the leaves at the old moon and took care to take only one in three. The plant is still living.’

‘Thank you. That was well done.’ Next to her frogs, Airmid cared most about the plants. It was one of the things that set her apart from the others. The hands moved from Breaca’s spine to her shoulders, working out the knots of a morning’s work.

BOOK: Dreaming the Eagle
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