DAWN STAG EXCERPT
Too restless to stay by the shielded fire, Eremon crept in the darkness to the bare, rocky ridge-top. Now he crouched on the ground and listened to the haunting calls of wolves as they rose and fell far away under the moonlight.
A stick cracked and Eremon’s head went up, his nose scenting the air.
“It’s me.” Conaire’s bulk blotted out the vivid stars, which were scattered over Eremon’s head like campfires on a battle plain. Here, on the crest of the world, Eremon could almost reach up one hand to the bowl of night upended over his head, and grasp for the flames that beckoned him so.
His foster brother handed Eremon a skewer of mountain hare. “Get it out of your mind, brother,” Conaire prodded. “Then perhaps you’ll sleep.”
Eremon hooked hands over his knees, his mailshirt faintly clanking. “There will be no sleep for me.” He cocked his head. “Don’t you feel the Romans so close now?”
There was a crunch of Conaire’s teeth on bone. “Well, they are close,” he mumbled practically. “We know exactly where they are camped.”
“I mean, feel.”
Conaire grinned, his teeth faintly gleaming. “Now you sound like Rhiann with her druid-sense.” He clapped Eremon’s shoulder. “I bet their commander feels us, too. He’ll be pissing in his little skirt at the very thought of braving these valleys when he knows we are about.”
The Romans had come with a great force into Novantae territory, a swathe of land that bulged into the western sea. They had split their army in two, thinking to skirt the coasts in a flanking movement and crush the tribal villages between their iron pincers. The Novantae women and children had simply disappeared, though, fleeing into the hills.
Lead by Eremon, the Novantae warriors had then targeted the smaller column of Romans, pinning them in a valley in the north. The Roman commander of the southern column would by now know that his reinforcements were trapped — and that the only way to join up with them again was by passing straight through the hills on which Eremon and Conaire now perched.
“He took our bait because he had no choice,” Eremon remarked, sucking grease from his fingers. “These Romans are rarely foolish — and they are not yet that afraid of us.”
Conaire grunted. “We will have to change that, then, brother.”
Eremon dropped his shoulders. “Lugh’s balls! I feel like my bones are pushing through my skin.” He snorted, scratching his leg with a nail. “I do not know what is infecting me.”
“I do.” Conaire gulped down the meat. “You’re as keen to shed Roman blood as I am.”
Eremon raked a hand through his fringe. And yet it is a burning I have never felt before…
Conaire rose, massaging the old scar in his groin. “Try and get some sleep, anyway. Have some more mead.”
Eremon nodded, staring out to the valleys falling away to the north in long seams of black. When Conaire’s steps crunched away, Eremon tilted back his head. Rhiann. Did she know that he crouched here as agitated as if his bones were on fire?
The wolves howled again, the eerie sound swelling and fading, and Eremon turned towards it. Did Rhiann know why his senses had sprung alert, plucking at him until he couldn’t sleep?
Rhiann was startled from her trance by the beat of a drum at the door.
She blinked heavy lids and struggled to focus. She was sitting cross-legged before a crackling fire, in the hut of the priestesses on the Sacred Isle. She had taken the saor herbs…that is right…to loosen her mind from body. So she could call the power of the king stag on this longest day…call it for Eremon.
Her pulse throbbed. To send strength to Eremon in the south, where he was to face the Romans in a battle in the dark.
“It is time.” The seer Setana stood before her. “We have drawn the Source to the stones; we have sung to Mother Earth and Father Sun. Now the Caller must come.”
By lamplight Rhiann’s hands and feet were bathed by the younger novices, and she was clothed in deerskin pinned with slivers of bone. Then two priestesses Rhiann did not know came into the room. Rhiann fell back a step, for under the effects of the saor their clay-painted faces swam in a stark blur of white, black and brown; their eye sockets dark pools, their skin a glowing ochre. With soft fingers and chanting they painted Rhiann’s face into that of a hind, with brows winging out to white-splashed ears. Then they all led Rhiann outside to the headland above the village.
In the twilight, Rhiann took the path up to the sacred circle of stone uprights. She could already hear the drums booming, and feel the pulse coming up from the earth — a ancient heartbeat.
The leaping flames illuminated a crowd of priestesses, painted and hooded, circling slowly in a spiral dance. They had been gathering the Source for hours, focusing it here, and as Rhiann crossed the boundary of the inner circle of stones, the power hit her in a cresting wave. When she moved her heavy, dizzy head, she caught glimmers of it from the corner of her eye.
Winding cords of luminous silver; glimmering veils of argent light. Emanating from the sisters. Weaving them together. Pouring from the stones, rooted as they were in The Mother. Source. The light of all.
Finally she was standing before Nerida, and all Rhiann could see was the firelight glittering in those aged eyes. “Is the Caller ready?” Nerida’s voice echoed around the circle.
Ready? Rhiann wondered, dazed by the saor. Yes, she was ready to try, for behind Nerida rose the greatest stone in the sacred circle. At its hallowed base Eremon had joined with Rhiann moons ago, and all she had once been had shifted into something different, sweeter and more powerful.
As if in response to the thought of him, the silver threads of Source swept around her, enveloping her in a whirl of light. “I am ready,” she forced out.
At her words, the chanting of the priestesses changed to a sibilant song, panting and throbbing, a primal beat that surged through Rhiann’s soul. There it began to awaken old memories of when people ran with the deer in the endless forests.
Nerida rested a hand on Rhiann’s forehead, and Rhiann breathed in the scent of the clay on her palm. “Tonight, with our song, we have opened the door of time, and now you must step through it. Become the Caller! Become the ancient Mother of the Tribe in the Trees, who beckons the deer for sacrifice so that Her people may live.”
Rhiann closed her eyes, swaying on the spot, swept away from this bare, windswept hill with its salt breeze, and the great stones looming against the stars. Instead, she tasted the musty damp of forest loam on her tongue…and the sap of old trees…and followed the lines of burning brands as the hunters streamed ahead of her through the black woods.
She let herself remember…
She let herself be…
She was the Caller, and They would come.
With her back to the greatest Stone, Rhiann breathed, sinking deeper into the space between worlds, her arms outstretched.
Cold night. Bright stars. Dark trees.
High moon. Pale mist. Stream on stone.
Skittering hooves. Pawing ground. Shuffling breath.
Scent of lust. White of eye. Red of flank.
Clash of hearts! Crash of heads! Scream of rage!
At last, they heeded her Call.
When she felt the breach of the circle, Rhiann opened her eyes, her sight unfurling within Thisworld and the Otherworld at the same time. Her spirit-eye burned her forehead. The saor herbs blurred the swaying bodies of the Sisters around her.
On the fringes of the firelight, two pairs of glowing eyes bobbed. And from Rhiann’s outstretched fingers, silver threads of Source streamed, the light from each finger joining into two shining ropes. One reached to the darkness on her left — to the south, where Eremon’s presence glowed in her heart like a flame. The other spread toward the eyes of the two beasts that warily climbed the hill, drawn out into the open against all their ancient instincts.
Come! she cried in her heart. Acting against all the innate fear of their kind for man — the arrow-wielders, the spear-throwers — the stags stepped out of the shadows.
The starlight glimmered on their antlers, which dipped as they sniffed the air and ground. The firelight gleamed on wet noses and the green points of their eyes. Dimly, Rhiann was aware of the drumming continuing around her, through her, in time with the beat of her heart. Then her senses themselves expanded, until she felt the pulsing hearts of the two stags beating as one…beating with her.
Around her, the priestesses hummed and swayed, tossed their painted heads and blew out warm breath.
And the stags pawed the ground, as their hinds looked on.
In the darkness of his musty tent, the Roman governor Agricola’s eyes flickered open.
He had not slipped into deep sleep for days, for he couldn’t stop gnawing like a rat at this risky decision to cross the mountains. The men of his northern column needed him, however, and he must merge their forces back together, or they would be risking defeat.
For these Novantae were not just a leaderless rabble after all. There was a significant force guided by some intelligence loose in this bleak moorland. Agricola turned over, the flimsy blanket of his camp bed rucking up around his hips.
Curse it! It was the best decision, the only chance they had, and he must trust in that and the Fates — and drive through these hills as quickly as possible. He scratched his side. The skin felt hot and it itched, yet it was not the skin…he somehow itched from deeper inside, in the bones and flesh. He also felt unnaturally alert, his limbs thrumming with some tension that made them quiver. His heart raced. Damn it, did he eat some strange plant?
He couldn’t be afraid. Not him.
Suddenly, he swung his legs to the floor and groped for a robe.
Drawn by the shining cords streaming from Rhiann’s hands, the stags danced closer, snorting and pawing the earth, lunging forward and then leaping back. Their breath was a cloud of mist glittering above their tossing antlers.
Rhiann could sense the blind rage building in her — their male rage. The irresistible, single-minded focus on the rival, the enemy, which blotted out all else. Now one stag reared up on his hind legs, belling in a low, guttural groan. Now the other bellowed back.
I must choose, Rhiann realized with a burst of clarity. I must choose the King Stag.
Her consort. The one who would triumph.
* * * *
Eremon gave in at last to his twitching muscles and the compulsion of his heart and belly. He crept among the hollows of wet bracken, rousing the men. He had already sent Nectan’s archers to dispose of the Roman sentries.
The Novantae prince’s hand was on his sword as he came awake. “We attack now, in the dark? Not at dawn?”
”They had no room to build a camp ditch in that valley,” Eremon replied hoarsely. “They will not be expecting a night attack.”
“They have scouts,” the man pointed out.
“Not any more — the Caereni have done their work.” Eremon was struggling to rein in a surge of uncharacteristic impatience, drawing his sword so that starlight glimmered on the blade. “It must be now.”
Agricola went to the tent flap, straining his night vision to adjust to the faint grey sky. The mountain air bit at his fingers and nose. Around him, he could just discern the humps of his soldiers’ bedrolls.
He had allowed no fires, even though for days there had been no sign of any men in these barren hills, and he’d chosen a position among the rotted stone dykes of an old farmstead. But something wasn’t right.
Outside, Agricola checked first on the handful of horses at the centre of the tents, patting the snuffling nose of his own mount. Then he made his way to the edge of camp, where a scree slope reared from the valley to a ridge above. On the way he cocked his head as, far away, a wolf howled.
The guard posted on the inner watch came smartly to attention, and turned his back as Agricola passed his water against the slope. The commander idly noted the thin rime of frost on the tumbled stones in the starlight. He raised his eyes to the rock heights that frowned down at them like a dark fortress. “Frost,” he muttered defiantly. “In summer.”
He dropped his tunic and stepped back, his boots crunching on a stray patch of frozen grass. It was then his nose went up, sensing the air.
Rhiann let a hand fall, and one twisting rope was extinguished.
The other hand pointed at the Chosen One, his chest deep and proud, his eye rolling at her. From her fingers the Source surged brighter, all of it focused now on one stag. It entwined with his antlers and rimed them with silver. It danced between the tines, glittering on his brow, while the rest clothed his flanks in a pale sheen.
The light was power, rage and strength, glorious at its peak…but then a warmer tide engulfed Rhiann, and tinged the silver with red-gold. My beloved, she found herself whispering. The light pulsed in stronger waves. Eremon, beloved, come back to me…
The Chosen One reared, and his hooves struck the earth as he bellowed and ran. The other stag also reared, and between them their antlers met with a resounding crack.
Above the Roman camp on the ridge, Eremon’s restlessness had now become rage, sweeping away his caution in a flood of heat that rose from his loins.
In the shadow of a rock beside him, Conaire’s teeth flashed once. Eremon tried to grin back, but it was a baring of teeth, and then he knew it was time…it was time…
He stood and stepped into the paler light, raising his sword…
…the stags’ hooves flailed, striking sweating flanks until blood ran on the soil between the sacred Stones. Rhiann, pouring with sweat, felt the power of all the watching does enter her and explode through her fingers in a churning stream of blue and silver fire. The hooves reared and the antlers crashed again, and this time it echoed off valley walls...
…as Alban battle cries rebounded from the rocks. Eremon dropped his hand and the air came alive with a hail of spears and arrows. Shrieking men swept down the slopes from both sides of the valley like a flood-tide, engulfing the camp.
At the first screech Agricola unsheathed his sword and raced for the tumbling walls behind him, his heart pumping in sudden panic. Before he broke free of the cover of the scree slope, he heard the deadly hiss of arrows and higher whine of spears, and then all around the thuds and clashes, and cries of pain.
A screaming savage landed in front of him, leaping from a great height. Agricola could only stab at this daemon who danced around him, face striped with starlight and shadow, eyes those of a rabid beast.
The man fell under his blade, and Agricola stumbled over the body, shouting to rouse his men.
The other stag screamed as the hooves of the Chosen One raked down his sides. Fierce antlers stabbed at the loser’s flanks, and those pawing hooves now stamped and shredded flesh into rags. The chanting of the priestesses grew louder, echoing through Rhiann’s mind and heart and out through her hand…
…Eremon slashed with his father’s sword and leaped among the Roman soldiers as they rolled to their feet. He sliced across white throats and unprotected heads until blood ran hot in his mouth and eyes. And all the while his head swung from side to side, as he sought the one whom he sensed — the one he had come for. He did not know who it was, only that some power beckoned him to find the Other.
He cleaved the knots of fighting men with his blade, until before him the rotting, wind-scoured wall fell down into a tumble of stone steps. Eremon raced up them until he stood on top of the wall, raking over the fighters with a desperate gaze.
Directly below him, a Roman soldier ran an Alban through with a javelin, and Eremon heard the bellow escape his own throat in answer. The victor looked up into Eremon’s face with hatred in his fierce eyes…and they were Agricola’s eyes, in Agricola’s hard face.
Eremon’s breath left his chest, and rage filled it back up again. That face had haunted his dreams, taunting him with its sneering mouth and cold contempt. And here was Eremon’s own sword in his hand, and there that face before him.
With another yell, Eremon lowered his weapon and tensed to jump. But then a spear clattered into the stones, narrowly missing his leg and instinctively making him shy to one side. In that moment, Roman soldiers surged around their commander, sweeping him from view. Eremon leaped down, but in the darkness, screams and confusion, he was soon caught in the knots of fighters milling back and forth. It was not until the press lessened, the Albans and Romans around him dead, wounded, or fled, that he could raise his head again.
It was then he heard panicked whinnies. On the far side of the throng, men in streaming cloaks were whipping their horses into a gallop, fleeing northwards.
Shuddering as the rage abruptly left him, Eremon’s sword-tip dropped to the ground. He sank back against the cold stones, his chest heaving. And somehow, in that blood-scented darkness he felt Rhiann — as if her breath brushed his cheek...
…and at last the Chosen One stood over the vanquished stag. Its heaving flanks were splashed with dark blood, and its head lowered until the torn velvet on its antlers brushed the ground.
© 2005 Copyright of Jules Watson