Games of Epona

For the Historical Fiction Competition: Across ancient lands, to far flung places, the Celts thrived and lost with swirls of blue ink, bravery and the hardship of surviving in European wilderness. In the Taexali tribe and her days of testing, the daughter of ri named Fia finds love in the form of the family's new slave Lennox. A war is brimming, and fragile and low ranking lives are always first to perish. Fia finds herself drawn to both sides with both her and Lennox's fate strung along by the gods themselves or one goddess in particular: what will become of a familiar forbidden love in times unwritten and unknown?

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2. To shed a light

He appears in the night.

The sky begins to fade from a tired eve as clouds were framed with flecks of gold, a slow emerging sun marking the beginning of another day. But we mark our calendars by moons and not sun. Stars, one by one at the speed of a quiet water, spring dip from sight until at last the pouring horizon had engulfed them.  I smile. The stars had marked prosperity for the Taexalis and by the gods have they blessed us.

I duck behind the sand-scraped dune as the sound of horses crunched along the grass and try my best to mute my breaths. In the quiet weather each and every murmur travels through the wind. My fingers grasp around a bronze bracelet that clamps and clashes against my bony wrist. The silhouettes of men and horses are black and dotted across the waking day, and I can clearly, with a small pinkie finger, mark the outlines of my returning family. Striding in front of the crowd is Thane, leading the rest of the flock in the direction of our home that blocks a ray of light, and cascading a shadow of a large round house. They’ve brought a few friends along, possibly to brag about the kill under the smoke of a roaring fire. They’ll wake mother up… I think to myself before chuckling. She didn’t seem to have woken up as I snuck out of the house about an hour ago, despite knocking my bracelet on the stone clay walls.

Nairne’s considerably shorter horse follows  behind, but I notice with a flinch that bumping along the tough torsos of the animals’ frame there are almost circular, almost square, familiar shapes that glint in small streaks of the sun. I can sense the fleshy skulls, growing colder with the absence from their bodies as the horse’s hair knots with the dripping last morsels of blood. The men took their enemies souls again.

A third body is chained to Thane’s side. His tall frame is not being treated lightly; I swear I can see ropes joining the two males together and Thane’s smirk grimaced in glimpses along with his bleached locks as he cracks a command. My eyebrows fuse together in a confusement as I consider him. He doesn’t look like a Taexalis member. The niggling sensation working its way along my spine tells me he isn’t either. If he’s not a Taexali then who, or more importantly what, is he?

I peer more bravely from the dune and instantly regret it as he locks eyes with me from a distance I didn’t think possible. All I can see is the way his lips don’t form an alarm even though he can tell I shouldn’t be there. Maybe he thinks I’m a burglary and wouldn’t mind to see my family robbed of their riches. Or maybe he’s just being considerate. I shake my head fast; he obviously can’t be Taexali.  

I decide I’ll investigate once I get my breath back. It won’t take them a minute to discover I’m not sleeping, but I pray they will be so engrossed in their win that they’ll forget about me. Wild birds are already waking and taking to the sky as little black shadows. Sand integrates into my blond hair still thick with waves from yesterday’s fine braids. With a sigh of relief, I look out to the view. The sea we live just footsteps from is much too cold for a hopeful May, and runs with waves and a pallid blue creeping a fair few inches from my feet.

“Fia daughter of Thane, is that you?” I jump as a stern question appears from nowhere.

“Dallis!” I stumble to my feet from a crouch to face her. Dallis towers above me with a mixture of kindness and annoyance crawling across her round features. While her older frame is lithe her cheeks burst out as though she’s stolen a handful of berries and shoved them in her mouth to hide them. As amusing as her face can be – and from upwards, it’s never been so comical – I stifle a chortle and purse my lips together as to look focused. After all, I should be getting my rest. Tomorrow’s an important day, after all.

“What are you doing up at this hour? You aren’t supposed to rise until the nobility had returned from their trades today.” There’s a sigh in her voice but it feel sharp to hear, so I keep my guard. Dallis has been known to rat on me whenever the blame shifted, and when I am around; that isn’t unregularly. The longer I take to answer, the deeper the frowns become on her freckled face.

“I know Dallis, I was just…” My mind froze as every excuse seemed to have been wiped clean off my mind. Collecting wild bird’s eggs? There weren’t nests for miles. Practicing for the field games? I didn’t have my weapons.

“You were just… Waiting patiently for your father. I understand.” I let out a breath as Dallis answers her own question for herself. “It’s inspiring to see your interest in war, Fia. Honestly; if only my children were quite so intrigued. I think I’m looking at a pair of Churls.”

“You could do worse.” I add, trying to smile to soften the blow. I can tell from the bitterness she radiates at just the word that she’d rather her sons be dead. Death can be worthy of a nobility if by warfare, being stabbed through inky blue skin or taken hostage and with some internal strength fighting through to the otherworld. It is far more glamorous than farming at least.  Dallis herself is not a nobility; she works on the land a short walk away. It pains her not to own the ground she sweats and bleeds for, I can tell. But through her life she invested her hard effort to get her boys to fight. A vain effort, but an effort nevertheless. By the way she walks and the air of importance she forces on her aura, it would be easy to think so. Her clothes are good quality but only because she has so little. Even now, among the salty air and fire that from the inside churns out a ghastly smoke there is still a sour tinge to my nostrils that I regret must come from Dallis.

“Nobility must come so easy to you.” Dallis’ looks fall to the ground possibly to avoid my awkward smile. Nobility was handed to me at birth. I’d like to say I was born into it, but for the Taexali that’s not entirely true. Everyone knows I don’t belong here, including Dallis. There’s something so uncomfortable in her dark brown eyes, as though she’s talking to a foe. I try to shake it off, pretend its envy for Thane’s position or for the chances that are thrown onto me suffocating my body in precious metals and armours. Unlike her children, I’ll forever be basked in the Druids’ concern and knowledge, dressed in Taexali’s finest cloth and raised by the Ri of all families. But the blood that flows between Thane, the most influential of every man and women in the Tuath, and me flows at different speeds, through different hearts. I’m not his daughter, I am merely a peace offering.

Unlike Dallis’ children, I’ll be a warrior.

Unlike her children, I’ll die young.

“Not as easy as it does to Nairne.” I shrug and think of my older brother by only a few scattered months. A rush of admiration and envy hit me all at once at just the sight of him peep into the house; he is a true born son of Taexali.

“Nairne has always had a head far older than his years,” Dallis comments with another surge of jealousy for her own sons. Could she not see that paths were mapped out for the people, and not their parents? Nairne was a ruler, and Dallis’ offspring were commoners. What she did not see was that it wasn’t a shameful life, but an important part of our community. They were not soldiers. Munroe had a farmer’s build and the kind eyes that would smitten the enemy, not frighten him. His younger brother Angus too, though taller and leaner, had a gap-toothed smile filled with the joy of a good day’s work. Both had slightly red skin from being exposed to sun all day, but tough around the hands from the trails of soil work. They deserved pleasant wives and well-fed children, lives and not legends.

Dallis grumbles about having to feed the livestock and wanders off in the polar opposite direction from my home, the woven cloth of her long skirt twirling at its bottom as the wind tries to bite her ankles. I begin to think about the problem waiting back at the house; Nairne would have spotted I was missing, he has a knack for being observant to add to his many talents, but he wouldn’t have said anything. That’s the other aching jealousy I harbour over Nairne; his soul is as patient as it is merciful.

I kick away a handful of sand with the ball of my bare foot and let the white grains soak into my pores, exfoliating the worn muscles from their tough work. The training had stretched and broken parts of my body I hadn’t known existed before, never mind had felt. Now my ribs tugged when I stretched and there was a iron weight whenever I tried to move my sleek thighs.  My eyes strain to capture the action, but it’s impossible to see through the house. I’ll have to move closer in order to discover more about the unknown face. Time ebbs by like the ever changing sky as I sit and pull my legs to my face, balancing my chin on my knees and trying to figure out an impossible plan of getting in uncaught. I knew Thane wouldn’t have usually minded, but I had to be prepared for the field games. There were only two other girls competing and over thirty boys. I’ve known the rules since I was a toddler; when someone kicks you kick them stronger. When someone bites you bite them harder. When someone… It was no surprise the rules stuck so quickly.

As much as I try to fill my head with the games, every image edits itself before it becomes the half shadow dragged across on the horse. He’d headed straight for our house, very usual for the ri’s house after a celebrated war. They would have toasted to those they’d lost a boast about their killings, carrying souls trapped in lifeless heads. His skin looked less pale and more of a dark honey glow around his skin and a desperate look as he caught eyes with me but didn’t say a word.

“Fia of Taexali, get in here before we have to come and find you!”  I jump up and expose myself not only to the warm but pleading tone of Nairn and see Thane with his arms crossed, still with the markings of a war hero adorned on his skin though thankfully between the sharing of the enemy’s lost goods and the fight itself he managed to tug some material around him. Our warriors like to fight naked to stun their opponents and be proud of the immortality being unafraid of death gives you. I bite my lip and cross a leg over another, unsure of what to say by the red and purple bags that have begun to form over the ri’s eyes and the season has only begun. His pupils are still enlarged with a thrill, and with that he holds a hardworking if not bedraggled look.

“Come inside Fia,” Thane calls out across the grass and sand that separate us. I can hear him perfectly despite the distance. “Come and meet our best trade of the meeting; Lennox. He’ll be our slave from now on.”

A slave makes sense, I tell myself and think of the others that have served and continue to serve us. War captives of all ages and abilities; though mostly the strong and young men, so alike to the boy I saw only through the backlight of the sun. Something is different about him though, something I did not see in the others. Maybe the tiredness is getting to you… I tell myself but it’s too feeble to believe over the excitement of knowing through a steady beat of emotions what your own brain can’t even tell you. I don’t want to leave and face the night which will as quickly as it takes me to walk become day. I don’t want to be a fighter tomorrow. My limbs are tired and my mind yearns for the quiet of a cool sea all day but there is an enigma hiding in that smoke-filled house and I intended on solving it.

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