WHITE MARE EXCERPT
The wind drove stinging snow in under Rhiann’s hood, and the ground was like iron, the cold seeping up through her boots.
Ahead loomed the dark gate tower of the Roman fort, and faintly she made out the shape of a soldier standing on it. When she recognized the outline of his spear, she suddenly felt desperately alone, and vulnerable. Would he attack?
At every step she tensed, waiting to hear that high whine and feel the impact in her chest. Her palms inside the sheepskin mittens were slick with sweat, and her heart nearly drowned out the storm itself. But perhaps he could not aim true in this snow… Yes, surely. And somewhere, not far behind, her own tribesmen crept with their swords. Somewhere, Caitlin crouched with an arrow on her bow-string.
The only thing that kept Rhiann’s feet moving was the knowledge that Eremon was in the enemy fort, hurt and despairing. She had to do this for him.
That gave her courage, and she warded away the fear and drew her scattered thoughts deeper in, calming herself with sheer will, centering her power in the middle of her breast. Beyond the cold and the screaming wind, she tried to feel the heartbeat of the land.
Somewhere, deep underneath her, it was there. She’d not told Conaire that she didn’t know if she could do this, if she could reach the Source. If not, she was the only one in immediate danger. She just had to pray that, if not for her, the Mother would help Eremon.
Breathe…breathe…there…feel it, wait for it…there.
The throb came once, twice, three times. Now she drew it slowly up her
legs, desperately hoping that she would not lose the thread, letting it
pulse in waves of warmth. You are the tree, came a memory of Linnet’s voice. Your
roots reach down to the Source. The Source is light. Draw it up through
your roots, your legs, and hold it…here…in your heart. First, let it
fill your chest as if it is a pool of light, and the Source is the
spring. When the pool is full, draw it higher. Then, let it fill the
center of your throat, and finally let it rise to the spirit-eye on
your brow. Now you can feel using the Source, you can speak using the
Source, you can see using the Source.
Within the grainy ice and white wind, Rhiann burned.
The man shouted another challenge, and she walked forward. The Source enveloped her with its heat.
I am cold, weary, stumbling, she projected toward him. I am alone. He would not hear the words, for they would fall into his heart like stones in a pool. He would only feel their meaning.
The man did not raise his spear to throw it.
Despite the snow, Rhiann nudged her hood back, so her unbound hair fell free. I am young. I am beautiful. By far the most beautiful thing you have ever seen. I am a goddess, come to bring you warmth in the endless cold.
The soldier was still, and did not cry out for his comrades. Rhiann closed her eyes to see with her spirit-eye, and realized he was young, very young. And transfixed. A glowing ball of light surrounded him as it did all people. In it, his emotions swirled in bands of red, blue and violet. She was not strong enough to penetrate that. But she could sense it.
With her own spirit, she grazed the edge of that light. And something in him reached out for her, urgently. Desire.
me!” she cried, lifting her hand. She spoke halting Latin; perhaps he
would think her from one of the tribes allied to Rome. Into his heart,
though, she radiated something else. You are weary, too. You are
lonely, and frustrated. It is long since you felt a woman’s skin. Here,
this is the taste, the touch, the smell…remember…
He came forward, gripping the edge of the palisade. “Why are you out here alone?”
She was close enough now to look up at him, and she knew that what fading light there was would fall on her upturned face. She barely felt the snowflakes on her skin. His dark eyes gazed down at her from beneath his helmet. Her other senses felt his breathing catch and grow faster. Now that she was closer, she could loop her own web of light around him, snare him in it, bombard his heart from all directions with a cascade of senses: honey lips, white breast, skin-scent, fingers of fire, breath-murmur…
It was like the dark energy she had felt at Samana’s dun. Yet in that moment, Rhiann’s power was stronger, for it was fuelled by all the love of all those men behind her, for Eremon. Though they would never know it, right now, the love of Eremon’s men for their prince fed the Source as it flowed through her.
“Please help me,” she pleaded. “My family was attacked by the northerners and I fled. I’m lost, and cold.” I am harmless. I am alone. I am a woman.
His body-light flared with a last burst of defiance. “You should seek your own people, girl. This is no place for you.”
“I’ll die in the storm if I go. Please.” If I stand close to you, you will smell the musk of my skin. I am a barbarian woman. My appetites are strong.
She saw him glance nervously over his shoulder.
They will never know. They left you here, cold and alone. You will show them. You are a man. I need a man to save me. I will be grateful.
Luckily, he was young and inexperienced, and hadn’t mated with a woman for many moons. Such glamours could not sway someone’s mind, only whisper to the urges already there, stirring coals up to fire. Or pluck at weaknesses, like wind at crumbling stone. She held her breath, and saw the energy in him wavering. As it did, she put all her effort into drawing the Source up in one last fountain of white-hot light, and whirled it at him. The weak resistance shattered and she nearly cried out with the rush of that power.
He swore softly, and disappeared. The next moment, beyond the noise of the wind she heard the faint creaking of the bars in the gate. A black gap opened in the palisade, and wood scraped over icy stones.
“Come on, then,” the youth murmured. “Be quick about it.”
Rhiann had to put her shoulder to the gap, for he would not open it wide. And as she did, she locked eyes with him and held him spellbound, smiling with all the promise she could muster…
…just long enough to throw her whole weight against the gate, wrenching it from his hands. Before he could wake himself and leap upon her, a line of wraiths rose up from the snow-filled ditch, where before there had been no men at all, and flew at him on padded feet. Rhiann felt the nightmares of Alban giants and monsters rise up and paralyze the boy’s voice. A moment later, as she ducked, something whizzed past her ear. The boy dropped like a felled tree, a white-fletched arrow protruding from his throat. Without breaking stride, Conaire stepped over the body and was inside, the other men following silently but swiftly.
Rhiann slumped against the gate and watched the boy’s blood pool on the icy ground, the snowflakes falling on his upturned cheeks. Mother. The power had receded in a rush, leaving her trembling. Mother, forgive me. She had brought death. She, a Goddess-daughter, who revered life. And yet, as she had joined this fight, so she must partake of its bitterness as well as its triumphs. Eremon would tell her that she had no choice. But the least she could do for this boy was to accept that she did have a choice, and had taken it, and blame no one but herself for what it brought.
She reached down and closed the boy’s sightless eyes, and left a finger’s caress on his lips as she heard Caitlin’s slight steps in the snow behind her.
“The kin bids you farewell,” Rhiann whispered, her tears falling into his mouth, “the tribe bids you farewell, the world bids you farewell.”
Eremon lay in the darkness, wrapped in pain. The pain centered around his chest, where the beating had been worst. Every breath, every expansion of ribs, was agony. At least he’d stopped feeling his broken fingers. Here in this end of the barracks it was freezing, and his hands were bound behind him, cutting off the circulation.
Curled in a corner, he shut his swollen eyelids and tried to extinguish the images in his mind: the brightness of their helmets against the snow; the jeering faces; the hatred in those dark, alien eyes.
It was not like battle, where he locked eyes with an opponent, consumed with the thrill of pitting himself against an equal. For a moment out of time, only two existed, sharing heartbeats, sharing breath. Sharing blood. But to be tied up like some animal, arms pulled back so the fists could penetrate deeper; to watch a sword-hilt come down on his fingers, helpless and exposed…A whimper escaped his tightly-closed mouth, and he was flooded with shame. I am a leader. I have courage. I will die with courage.
He did not know why he was not already dead. They must want to send him to the main camps: any information from the north would be valuable. A shuddering now took hold of his limbs, and he bit his lip to stop himself crying out. I will find a way to kill myself. I will do that for Alba.
Conaire clustered the men under the darkness of the gate tower. Within the storm, the day had become no more than a dark, featureless stew of grey cloud, but Conaire’s heart beat clear and slow now, his mind sharpened with grim resolve.
The open space inside the rampart held two long buildings. One was dark, and seemed lifeless. From the other, the nearest one, firelight spilled from a row of small windows. Every now and then a faint roar of laughter sounded.
“Colum,” Conaire whispered. “Take five men and surround the door of that building.” He indicated the dark barracks. “When you hear our attack, go in with caution. If you meet resistance, deal with it. If you do not, and Eremon is there, leave two to guard him and the rest come back and join us.”
Colum took his picked men, and they crept around the rampart wall. Through the whirling snow, Conaire saw the dark shapes edging into position. “We have the best odds we’ll ever see,” he murmured to those remaining. “We’re outnumbered, but I’m betting they feel safe inside their walls, and won’t have weapons to hand. We must take three down each.” He paused. “Agricola will know it was us if they remember our unpainted faces. Leave none alive.”
He eased his sword free, the sound masked by the high keening of the wind, and slipped across the narrow space between gate and barrack block, his men following, ducking as they went beneath the windows. In a moment they were all outside the door, spread along each wall. There, sheltered from the wind, the sound of talking and laughing swelled. Peering at the door closely, Conaire saw that it was flimsy — not designed to keep out anything, except wind.
With tight lips and a jerk of his head, Conaire got his swiftest fighters into a tight wedge behind him, as only the first handful would have the element of surprise, and they must clear a space for the others to swing. With a quick prayer to the Boar, he tensed back a few steps, adjusted his shoulder.
Like a charging bull, he burst through the door as if it were brushwood. By the light of fire and lamp, he glimpsed scores of men lined up on benches and the floor, gaming and drinking. While the surprise was still dawning on their faces, Conaire, his sword held two-handed, swept it across the nearest men like a scythe. Screaming, his warriors charged in after him, laying about them in great circles of blade. Arms and heads were hewn from living bodies; in moments the floor was slippery with blood.
Conaire saw the men at the edges scrambling for their weapons in the farther reaches of the barracks, and with a roar he cleaved the crowd, cutting a swathe through those who were ill-prepared, striving to reach those who sought for arms. Some had their short-swords up by the time he barreled into them, but he was unstoppable. Fergus and Angus were tight up behind him; as Conaire drove the wedge, so they had time to swing. He felt the sting of Roman blades on his arms, but they were just glancing cuts. His own sword bore them down like a storm wave.
In his head, a litany thrummed. Eremon. Eremon. Eremon.
The litany brought fire to his limbs, the strength to his legs…and at last it burst from his lips, as he felt the blood-lust bloom in his chest. The men took up his cry, until among the curses of the Romans and cries of pain, one name rang to the rafters.
As if waking from a dream, Eremon stirred. There was a noise…something familiar out there amid the howling wind. He raised his head, though it rang with dizziness.
The god Manannán. His name. Someone called his name.
Was it the gods, come to claim him at last? Had he passed over to the Otherworld? But no: he opened one swollen eye. It was nearly dark now, but a last drift of light caught on the nubbled plaster of the wall before him. He was not dead.
“Conaire?” he managed to croak through cracked lips. The sound faded away in the room. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he edged himself up the wall, his hands still bound behind him. He took a deep breath. “Conaire!” he cried, louder now, hardly knowing why he called, for Conaire was far away.
Though the sound was mewling to his ears, like that of an injured cub, in an instant the doorway was filled with the dark shadows of men. He tensed, but had no arms free to lift in his defense.
“My lord,” someone said. It was a language he knew. Words that made sense, at last.
“Boar’s balls, get your knife,” someone else said, and arms came around him, cutting his bonds. The blood rushed back to the ends of his fingers, bringing agony.
At the edge of the slaughter, Conaire paused and risked a glance back. His men were fighting in knots all over the room. In the first charge, perhaps a score of Romans had died, reducing the odds to two to one. But in such a confined space, with the Roman order in tatters and the men taken unawares, the odds had become even.
The strength of the Romans lay in their discipline, so Eremon always said. Hand to hand, like this, armorless, unprepared, they had only their brute fighting skills to save them. And Conaire’s men were taller, heavier. In this they could triumph.
The Roman soldiers that had not been killed were backed up against the walls, led by someone who seemed to be their commander, but the Erin men were hacking their way through their defenses. The room was deep in bodies. Fergus was just pulling his sword free of a downed man, and with a yell, threw himself back into what remained of the fray. Angus must still be fighting in the shadows.
But it was only a matter of time, now, and they could do without Conaire, at last. So he hurried back through the splintered door, and across to the other building. Two soldiers lay dead just inside the doorway, and voices echoed from a small room at the far end.
Conaire plunged through the inner door, to be faced with the sight of Eremon laid out on the floor. He knelt down, thrusting Colum to one side. “Alive?”
Conaire gathered Eremon in his arms. Though only half-conscious, Eremon moaned in pain. “Gods,” Conaire muttered. “Rhiann is not far. Find his horse and pack and follow me. I want him out of here, now!”
Of the journey home, Eremon afterwards remembered little.
He recalled snowflakes falling on his face, and his body shivering beneath blankets before a tiny fire, which swelled and shrank as he tried to look at it through half-open eyes. He remembered wafts of Rhiann’s honey scent, and the thudding of her heart against his ear. He remembered water being squeezed between his cracked lips, and then warm broth.
And her voice swam in and out of his mind.
“I’m giving him as much as I can…it will make him sleep. It’s the only way for us to travel fast, he’ll be in too much pain otherwise. No, we can carry him on the horse…it’s only the fingers broken…”
And so it went on for an endless time: the lurching of the horse beneath him, and the stabs of fiery pain; the cold that crept in under his furs, clawing at his skin; the wind scouring his face. He burned, and then he shivered.
“Thank the gods for snow,” came Conaire's voice from far away. “Our loop would not throw them off for long.” A rough hand cupped his shoulder.
And sometimes, when the lurching stopped, there would be singing, very soft and close to his ear.
© Copyright Jules Watson 2004