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Excerpt for The Silvered Mare by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Silvered Mare


Jon Jacks



Other New Adult and Children’s books by Jon Jacks


The Caught – The Rules – Chapter One – The Changes – Sleeping Ugly

The Barking Detective Agency – The Healing – The Lost Fairy Tale

A Horse for a Kingdom – Charity – The Most Beautiful Things (Now includes The Last Train)

The Dream Swallowers – Nyx; Granddaughter of the Night – Jonah and the Alligator

Glastonbury Sirens – Dr Jekyll’s Maid – The 500-Year Circus – The Desire: Class of 666

P – The Endless Game – DoriaN A – Wyrd Girl – The Wicker Slippers – Gorgesque

Heartache High (Vol I) – Heartache High: The Primer (Vol II) – Heartache High: The Wakening (Vol III)

Miss Terry Charm, Merry Kris Mouse & The Silver Egg – The Last Angel – Eve of the Serpent

Seecrets – The Cull Dragonsapien – The Boy in White Linen – Porcelain Princess – Freaking Freak

Died Blondes – Queen of all the Knowing WorldThe Truth About Fairies – Lowlife

Elm of False DreamsGod of the 4th SunA Guide for Young Wytches – Lady of the Wasteland

The Wendygo House – Americarnie Trash – An Incomparable Pearl – We Three Queens – Cygnet Czarinas

Memesis – April Queen, May Fool – Sick Teen – Thrice Born – Self-Assembled Girl – Love Poison No. 13

Whatever happened to Cinderella’s Slipper? – AmeriChristmas – The Vitch’s Kat in Hollywoodland

Blood of Angels, Wings of Men – Patchwork Quest – The World Turns on A Card – Palace of Lace

The Wailing Ships – The 13th Month


Text copyright© 2018 Jon Jacks

All rights reserved

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Thank you for downloading this ebook. It remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be reproduced, copied and distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes.

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Chapter 1


Today, the mare was dark, brooding.

Over the next few hours, tens of thousands would die here; men, women, children.

Hidden amongst the shadows of the woodland, it watched with growing dismay the drawing together of the two armies.

One highly organised, heavily armoured and ingeniously armed, yet knowing such advantages hadn’t saved other armies that had been sent to quell the rebellion.

The other far larger, confident of another victory, just as they had conquered and laid to waste the great cities the empire had imposed upon their land, their peoples.

Their queen was preparing to release the hare, who would let them know whom the Fates favoured.

But today, the mare knew, the hare would lie.



*


Would he die today?

Probably.

Hadn’t every legion sent out against this queen and her army failed to stay her rebellion?

And today, the odds were once again on her side, her army far outnumbering theirs.

For them, it would be a defensive battle; the queen’s army must be allowed to fall upon the swords of the massed infantry.

He and the rest of the mounted soldiers must stay towards the rear, no matter how eagerly they wished to revenge the previous day’s slaughter, when their fortified cavalry barracks had been attacked and captured. They would only be forced into an early action, it seemed, in the unlikely event that the warrior queen’s massed chariots could somehow navigate the hills and marshes protecting the infantry’s flanks.

As for later in the day, that would depend on how well the infantry fared: if they prevailed, then the cavalry could take part in the wiping up operations immediately afterwards; if they fell, then the cavalry would either fall with them or be forced to ignominiously flee the field.

May the Goddess Epoena keep a watch over them; or, if he fell, at least safely guide him to the other side.

Even as he called upon the goddess for her protection, he saw her riding before him, naked and mounted upon a gleaming white mare. He almost gasped in surprise that he had been granted this view of her, both elated and yet terrified; was it a sign that she would be later welcoming him into her own world?

If so, then he would he be accompanied by the friends gathered around him? For he could tell by their reactions – their own barely withheld astonished gasps, the sidelong glances as, like him, they sought reassurance that they weren’t imagining this glorious sight – that they had all seen her too.

The goddess rode calmly before them, proud rather than ashamed of her nakedness. The horse beneath her shimmered, rippled like foam on rolling waves; then like those waves, it began to fluidly dissolve and disperse, until all that was left of it were bare outlines, much like the glistening sheen of a dark horse caught in the light of the moon.

Then this vanished too, along with the girl.

She left only a whisper on the lazily flowing breeze.

Return my land to me.’



*



Chapter 2


Alanua’s head throbbed wickedly as, at last, she woke up.

It was still dark. She shivered; she was so cold!

No – it wasn’t still dark. It was growing darker.

And she wasn’t at home in her bed of straw. She was lying out amongst the sleeping men, women and children of the queen’s army.

A few of those around her shifted painfully in their sleep, groaning, even wailing piteously in agony.

As Alanua sat up, her forehead sharply ached. She instinctively brought a hand up to where it hurt most, frowning in surprising as her fingers felt something hard, caked and flaking there.

When she brought her hand back down, she saw that the flakes sticking to her fingers were of darkest crimson; of what could possibly be blood.

Close about her, the bodies were still, quiet. She reached out for one of them, shocked by its unnatural lack of any kind of warmth, any form of flexibility; for it was as hard and immobile as if frozen.

As if the darkness itself were sprouting into life, there was a sudden flurry of shadows, splitting and briefly rising up into the air, dark shapes with feathered edges that cawed furiously as they tussled over glistening scraps.

Carrion; riving at the flesh of those ‘sleeping’ close by her.

She saw now that the dark mounds of countless bodies stretched out in every direction, a seemingly endless landscape of a disturbed and rolling earth. Yet amongst it all there were odd signs of life; the ragged forms of weeping women searching for those they had lost, the even more ragged creatures silently grunting in joy as they found another jewel or purse the dead would neither have use for nor fight to retain.

The swords, shields and helms that the fallen still wore were naturally ignored by these thieves, for they didn’t wish to be mistaken for warriors when the exhausted victors had recovered enough to return to the battlefield and seek out those who still clung to life.

If she had found a helmet that had fitted her, would Alanua now be amongst the dead or those who had fled when it was obvious the battle was lost?

The soldier who had struck her had obviously believed his harsh blow of a hilt to her unprotected head would be enough to kill a young girl.

There was a loud snort of disgust, maybe even dismay.

Seeking out its source, Alanua found herself staring in surprise at a red mare, a blood-red horse walking far more carefully amongst the dead than any of the far more callous humans.

Why was it still here, when it could be off somewhere where it could rest and feed?

There was no saddle on its back, no signs of any remnant of reins or leads. Perhaps it had broken free of one of the many war chariots that, so deadly efficient in every previous battle, had been rendered useless today by a solid wall of shields and flanks protected by hills and an impassable, waterlogged marsh.

Such a strong, well-trained horse would be valuable to anyone who could capture her; yet no one was making any attempt to even draw close, let alone throw a noose about her neck.

It could well be, Alanua reasoned, that once again no one was willing to risk being mistaken for a warrior, or wished to be seen denying the victors their own booty.

There was an undoubted wariness about the robbers, however, each somehow unconsciously shying away whenever the horse nonchalantly drew near.

The dark hide of the mare rippled in what little moonlight there was. It flowed, as if suddenly formed of nothing but reflected shards in a dark pool.

The hide flapped, like black cloth caught in a gust of tussling breezes, becoming flickering flames of darkness.

And, collapsing and folding in upon themselves, they revealed nothing more than a hideous construct of a flowing black sheet, topped with the peculiarly terrifying skull of a horse.



*



Chapter 3


The darkness still flowed silently about this horrify artifice of a horse. Now, though, it was a mix, a mingling of rippling gown and endlessly rolling storm clouds.

The white skull seemed to gloat over the fallen.

Only moments ago, this repugnant thing had seemed to be a horse. Now it was revealed to be some form of witchly device, a magical guise conjured up so some wizard or witch could move freely amongst the living, and the dead.

As if sensing Alanua’s awe and interest – sensing, in other words, something that was not as it should be – the witch turned her way.

The dark holes of the horse’s skull seemed to lock on Alanua’s eyes, as if peering into them intently, irately.

What was a mere girl doing watching a witch going about her business?

Whoever this witch was, she coolly turned away, the growing darkness of the night yet again swiftly folding in upon itself as witch once more became horse.

With a contemptuous snort, the red mare unhurriedly curled away from Alanua.

Alanua’s head throbbed painfully, her vision blurring as her eyes filled with tears.

Had she imagined the whole thing?

How could a woman, even when wearing such a crude disguise, suddenly become a horse?

Because she was a witch, keeping everyone around her spellbound?

But then why should Alanua, a mere girl, be granted a way of seeing beyond such powerful conjuring?

Her head was swimming now with a mingling of pain and poorly defined yet conflicting thoughts. She lowered her head, cupping her brow in her hands in a fruitless effort to ease the relentless aching of her mind.

Across the line of her eyebrows, it throbbed most of all. As if there was a physical rather than just a mental struggling going on there.

She closed her eyes, the agony of the pressure building up there unbearable.

She could feel the furrowing of her brow, the tickle of eyebrow hair against the inner flesh of her fingers,

And suddenly, there was sense of movement in her cupped palms, reminding her of when she had once caught a mouse.



*



Startled, Alanua snapped back her head, staring in fright into her cupped hands.

It wasn’t a mouse she held there.

It was creature she could never have imagined could possibly exist.

No bigger than the smallest shrew, it had the head and neck of the most delicately beautiful horse. Yet its body was like that of fish, with a fin on its back. Its lower part coiled towards her, serpent like.

It fluttered in her cupped palms as if somehow magically floating there.

‘Alanua,’ the creature whispered urgently, ‘you must look for the hare; only the hare can save you now!’



*



Chapter 4


The hare?

The hare that had lied, that had betrayed them?

Alanua had seen for herself how the hare the queen had released before the battle had curled off across the land lying between the opposing forces, its deft moves promising them yet another victory.

How was it possible that the hare could save her?

How was it possible, however, that she held in her hands a creature that wasn’t supposed to exist?

A creature that talked to her.

‘Who are you?’ she asked the apparently weightless creature. ‘What are you?’

‘Juno,’ the creature responded. ‘That is both my name, and what I am.’

‘Are you a…horse…or a fish? Or a snake?’

‘We can talk later,’ Juno said, ‘you must get away from here!’

Abruptly recalling that she was seated amongst the dead of a fierce battle, Alanua nervously glanced everywhere about her.

The thieves searching amongst the corpses for valuables would kill her if they caught her peering intently into her hands, as if she held something especially prized.

She stared once more into her cupped hands.

Her empty cupped hands.

Juno was no longer there; she had vanished.



*



Like the goddess, was Juno just something else that Alanua’s dazed and throbbing head had conjured up into existence?

Am I going mad?

Once again, she anxiously looked out across the mounds of bloodied corpses that stretched away from her on every side.

Yes, she should leave here now, or at least as soon as possible.

The victors would recover soon from their exhaustion and begin searching out those of the queen’s army who still lived.

How long had she been unconscious?

How long had the Romans had to rest and recover?

Rising to her feet, she took a last, forlorn look over the dark, still shapes of the fallen.

Was Aedan amongst them?

Or had he lived, and fled?

Leaving her amongst the dead.

It had seemed so exciting when they had decided to leave a life of drudgery and farming and join the queen’s victorious army.

Should she search for him amongst all these corpses, in the hope that he was only wounded and could be saved?

In the growing darkness, the merging of everything into one murky shade, she caught the glitter of emeralds.

They were eyes.

Eyes observing her closely.

The eyes of a hare.



*



Chapter 5


If she followed the hare, as the strange little creature had advised her to, Alanua would be abandoning Aedan.

She had followed the queen’s army because she had wanted to be with Aedan. He had been deemed old enough to fight; he had been expected to fight.

She, of course, had been told by her mother that she was too young to become a follower. That it was too dangerous, and she would be safer at home.

Then again, it was also her mother who had told her Aedan wasn’t good enough for her. So, having secretly disobeyed one of her mother’s instructions, she had found it so easy to ignore another of her mother’s many commands.

Rebelling against her mother’s directions regarding Aedan had simply made their love for each other seem even more joyful, even more precious and worthy of keeping alive.

Whenever they could, they had disappeared into the surrounding woods together, straying as far away from the village as they were able in the time given them.

The way Alanua remembers it, she had missed the coming of the Roman Counsel and his soldiers to the queen’s village because she had been down by the river with Aedan.

The Counsel had come to demand that, under Roman law, a queen had no right to rule or hold property. All of her husband’s lands now belonged to the emperor now that the king had died.

The queen had refused to comply with such an outrageous demand. And so the Romans had stripped and whipped her, with the Roman soldiers taking out even worse and further outrages against her two daughters – even though the oldest, Voudica, was hardly thirteen.

Alanua only found all this out on her return from the fields with Aedan. By this time, the Roman Counsel and his men had gone, the damage done.

The happiness Alanua felt was wiped out in an instant, as if her time with Aedan had been nothing more than dream, and she had been rudely awoken to a reality horrible beyond imagining.

The queen wanted revenge, and her subjects agreed with her. Aedan swore that the Romans would suffer for this insult against those he loved.

He would rather die, he had proudly, furiously proclaimed, than let the guilty go unpunished. Only in this way could honour be restored, innocence regained.

And now the chances were that he was indeed dead.

Honour had not been redeemed.

The return of innocence had been thwarted.

What role could a hare play in righting so many things that had gone wrong for them?



*



Apart from the odd blink of its staring eyes, the hare was perfectly motionless.

It could have been waiting for her, like a well tamed dog, Alanua realised.

To test her intuition, she cautiously took a step towards the hare, expecting it to take fright at any moment and scamper away.

The hare remained where it was. It blinked, continued to stare at her.

Alanua took another step, then another.

The hare did indeed appear to be waiting for her to draw closer.

She was only a horse-length away when, at last, the hare turned and, taking a few hops, headed in the direction of the nearby, thickly strewn forest.

It was a place Alanua would much rather prefer avoiding, especially now it was drawing all the darker.

The hare, realising she wasn’t following, also stopped, glancing over his (her?) shoulder back towards Alanua.

There couldn’t be any clearer sign that the hare was expecting Alanua to follow her.

The hare once again patiently and motionlessly waited for Alanua to make her choice.

Alanua chose to follow the hare into the woods.

The hare hopped along in front of her.



*



Chapter 6


Shouldn’t she be heading back home? Alanua asked herself.

And what would be the point of that?

The villagers wouldn’t welcome her back.

They knew she had left to join the queen’s rebellion. Now that it had failed, it would bring down the wrath of the empire upon poor villages such as theirs.

And if they were found to be harbouring one who had actually fought for the queen, well, what would their punishment be then?

Bedsides, Alanua had to admit, she was no longer sure where her village actually lay in relationship to her present position.

She had simply followed the advance of the queen’s army, hardly bothering to notice the land they had been travelling through.

It was possible to navigate using the stars, she knew, but what use was that when you had no idea where you were supposed to be heading?

When you had no idea how to use the stars anyway?

The hare, on the other hand, was a creature whose patterns of movement, whose mating dances (and, if needs be, through close study of their entrails), could be used for divination.

Some even said hares were actually wise women, shape-shifting under the moonlight.

As Juno had informed her, this hare was perhaps her only chance of avoiding capture by the vengeful Romans.



*



Her life depended, it seemed, on the hare who had betrayed them.

But perhaps that was because the queen herself had insulted hares, had perhaps even unwittingly aligned them with the Romans when she had declared that their enemies were nothing but foxes and hares trying to rule over dogs and wolves.

Worse still, perhaps it had been the Goddess of Victory herself, Boudiga, who had at last deserted them.

‘I call upon you as woman speaking to woman,’ the queen had pleaded before the battle, ‘I beg you for victory!’

And yet theirs had only been a dreadful defeat, not victory.

Alanua hardly had to think about where she was going as she followed the hare through the dark wood. The creature appeared to know where the otherwise hidden tracks lay, paths that Alanua would never have been able to find on her own even in daylight.

The woodland lying just ahead of her was now opening up, the trees smaller, the gaps between them greater. For beyond this sparser line of wood the trees came to an end, with only the undergrowth continuing a little further, stretching down towards one of the many roads that now spread out across the land.

The queen’s army had used this road as it had advanced towards the legionaries garrisoned in the fortress at Lactodurum; the Milky Way, Alanua had heard the road called.

The hare didn’t take to this road, however: rather it darted swiftly across it, vanishing into equally dense woods lining the other side of the road.

Alanua similarly dashed across the road, fearing that she might be spotted if she stayed out in the open for too long.

She slipped into the wood’s dark embrace, once again experiencing that unwelcome mix of relief and fear.

This was the domain of the creatures, not of man or woman. Perhaps, too, of evil spirits and manifestations.

And if any man were here with her amongst the woods, he would now undoubtedly be a renegade, like her a survivor of the defeat who would have to find a new way of staying alive; even if that meant robbing or killing anyone foolish enough to cross his path.



*



Chapter 7


In her imagination, in the darkness, the trees clustering around Alanua took on the forms of men, of vicious animals of the night.

The hare, however, showed no fear. And so although Alanua couldn’t fully bury her fears, she continued to follow the creature slowly hopping along in front of her.

She was tired, and wished the hare would pause for at least a moment, giving her time to rest. She considered letting the hare go on ahead a little while she rested, feeling reasonably sure that the hare would wait once it realised she was no longer following.

But what if she were wrong?

What if the hare didn’t have any more time to waste waiting for her?

If the hare left her here, she would be lost in the darkness.

Besides, the hare instinctively seemed to understand that Alanua had to get as far away as possible from the battlefield, to ensure she wasn’t caught up in any subsequent searching of the area by the victorious Romans. So they had no choice but to pass through these dangerous woodlands even though the darkness was now almost complete.

Her own instinct was to avoid the woods at night, as this made them only more dangerous.

But now she relied on the night to protect her.

Not that it meant she feared it any less.



*



When they at last stepped from the woods into open, rolling farmland, the hare quickened her pace.

Ahead of them, lying in the very direction in which they were heading, Alanua could see the lively flickering of high rising flames, smell the wafting aromas of smoke and roasting meat.

Although it abruptly dawned on her that she was hungry, she held back from licking her lips in anticipation of a delicious meal.

She had been fooled before by that wicked odour.

On their advance through the country, the queen’s army had not only defeated every legion sent out to quell the rebellion, but had also taken and laid to waste some of the empire’s greatest cities.

And those people caught up in the way of the queen’s army had paid dearly for the outage that had been inflicted upon their queen and her daughters.

They had been sacrificed to their goddess, Boudiga.

The meat roasting on those fires was probably human.



*



Chapter 8


The closer Alanua drew towards the burning building, the worse the chocking effect of the smoke became, despite it being virtually invisible in the darkness.

It was a far larger and more impressive building than Alanua had expected.

She had seen the villas the Romans had built, and had of course been awed by their size, sophistication and beauty.

But this was something even greater and far more imposing.

A fortress.

A fortress with incredibly high walls, as if the darkness had been made solid before her.

A solid darkness that stretched out to either side of her, as if its intention was purely to block any further progress.

She remembered now; as the army had made its way northwards along the road, Aedan had proudly told her that he would be accompanying the bands protecting their flanks, and possibly taking part in an attack on a Roman cavalry barracks lying a little south of Lactodurum.

Yes, it really had all seemed so exciting then, hadn’t it?

She had resented being told that she wouldn’t be amongst the warriors. Not because she was a woman, of course; the queen and her eldest daughter were leaders of the army, and many women were deemed more than capable of joining in with the fighting.

But it had been agreed by everyone (even Aedan!) that Alanua was too young.

Too small, even, to bear the helmet that might have spared her being knocked unconscious.

The hare had the good sense to skirt around the fort’s formidable walls rather than take the more obvious option of entering through gates that invitingly lay open.

In the inconsistent, ever-changing red glow of the flames rising up from inside the fort, the armour of the bodies strewn around the entrance glittered with a bloody red sheen. The corpses of the horses, being naturally darker, could have been small hillocks of freshly tilled earth.

Here the smoke could at last be seen, a twisting, hazy veil enveloping everything.

The hare seemed neither to care nor be bothered by either the mounds of dead or the coiling, choking smoke.

She continued to confidently lead the way, heading now towards the next burning building.

And once again, the stench of burning bodies stretched out across the dark fields towards Alanua.



*



The villa formed three sides of a square surrounding a small courtyard.

Two sides were on fire.

The glow from the flames roaring up into the night transformed the courtyard’s central fountain into an elemental mixing of water and fire, or – depending on your preference, or perhaps your state of mind – a spouting of blood rising up from the earth itself.

As Alanua passed by the springing waters, the calm tinkling of its falling into a pool could be heard even amidst the fierce cracks of the raging flames.

Like most villas Alanua had seen, this one had a slope-roofed veranda. Here and there, however, its supporting posts had been transformed into crude crucifixes, the villa’s owners firmly bound to them along with any servants who had been foolish enough to remain loyal to their Roman masters.

Just as at the fort, the hare unconcernedly hopped past the dead as if they were nothing but more charred timbers.

Then again, why should the hare care when these corpses were not of her own kind?

Hares had a way of communicating with the dead, Alanua had heard. That’s why they burrowed underground, enabling them to carrying messages from the living to those whose abode was now the underworld.

Briefly hopping up onto the veranda, the hare entered a door leading into the wing of the building that wasn’t burning. She ducked quickly through a number of hallways and rooms until they entered what could only be a kitchen, with it’s a large fire and bricked, oven-like features.

There was no food to be seen anywhere, however.

Meat hooks hanging from the rafters had been stripped of anything that had been suspended there to be smoked by the fire. Earthenware vases of milk or water had either been carelessly toppled or cracked, their precious contents spilling everywhere over the work surfaces and the floor.

A door apparently leading off towards what might have been a storeroom was thrown wide open, the interior empty but for grains of wheat trodden into the floor.

It had been remorselessly stripped of everything useful or edible.

The hare made no effort to approach the storeroom. Rather, she headed for a corner of the kitchen, gracefully hopping towards what could have been the opening to a small oven, if it hadn’t been placed so far away from the fire, and so low down.

The hare slipped into the hole, pausing to briefly glance back towards Alanua before it vanished inside.

The hare obviously expected Alanua to follow her.

Getting down on her hands and knees, Alanua scrambled through the hole.

Inside what was a small, low room, there was a thick layering of fresh hay.

Even so, it smelt dreadfully in here; the stench of dogs.

It wasn’t a mess, however, but cleaner by far than many of the houses she had seen in the villages they had passed through. These dogs must have had their very own attentive servants tending to them, or at least someone appointed to look after them as part of their duties.

There were also bowls of meat, vegetables, water and ale set out for them to eat.

They lived – or more likely, had lived, Alanua corrected herself – better than most people. This food must have been laid out for them just before the arrival of the queen’s warriors who had peeled off from the main army, and had therefore remained untouched, the dogs now probably lying somewhere outside amongst the dead.

Alanua ate and drank hungrily.

She curled up amongst the comforting warmth and softness of the straw.

She was tried.

Couldn’t they rest awhile?

She looked pleadingly towards the hare.

‘Just for a few moments? Who would find me here?’

The hare stared back at her with curiously wide, glistening eyes.

Then she blinked.

Then she lay down, closing her eyes.



*



Chapter 9


Alanua was awoken by the tickling cold of the hare’s nose rubbing urgently against her cheek.

Just as earlier when she had woken up, confused and bleary, on the battlefield, it took her a moment to recall where she was, what she was doing here.

This was made all the harder as so much that had occurred could have been a dream.

This hare.

Juno.

The witch.

She emerged unwillingly from the reassuring comfort of the womb-like kennel, shivering as the cold of the rest of the kitchen hit her.

Oh, how much easier it would have been if the soldier’s blow to her head had simply killed her! Then she wouldn’t be so unbearably cold, so lonely and fearful, so wretched that she had to steal food put out for the dogs!

On the prompting of the hare, she had gathered together what was left of the food, wrapping it up in the folds of her ragged dress and supporting it there with one arm as she had scrambled back through the opening. She had also pushed before her the largest bowl she could find in the kennel, having filled it with all the water and milk from the other bowls.

Now she quickly looked around the kitchen, seeking out a hessian sack for the food, a stoppered metallic jug to pour the watery milk into.

She had no idea how long it would be before she came across another hoard of food.



*



Out in the courtyard, the fire that had ravaged the villa had at last begun to die down.

The gagging smoke still hung about the courtyard, as did that horrifyingly confusing odour of roasted pork. But now there was hardly more than a gloomy pink glow to light Alanua’s way as she made her way past a fountain reflecting nothing but the odd sparkling star. Little moonlight streamed down from a shard almost hidden by clouds and the rising smoke plumes.

The chiming tones of the cascading waters could be heard far more easily now the crackling of the fire had been replaced by the odd snapping of a charcoaled timber.

Alanua would have tripped over the body laid out in the yard if she hadn’t noticed just in time the light reflecting back from his eyes like two miniature, silvered moons.

No, not his eyes; the coins placed over his eyes.

The dues for the Ferryman, who would carry him across the river to the underworld.

The light flooding the courtyard was poor, ill-defining, yet it was obvious that this man wore the dark, simple clothing of her countrymen, as opposed to the light coloured and more finely made garments of the villa’s family and servants.

His companions had had to leave him here, doubtlessly when the wailing of the horns of the queen’s army had called on them to swiftly regroup in preparation for battle.

She envied him in her way; he at least was free of his worries now. Hers were only just beginning.

Alanua stared apprehensively at the two sharply glittering coins.

They would be useful on her journey.

But they would be more useful on his.

She was torn between taking the coins and begging the Goddess for forgiveness, or leaving them knowing she might well end up begging people for alms

She looked towards the patiently waiting hare, as if expecting her to offer advice.

The hare’s eyes blinked.

She gave no sign that she wanted to help Alanua make a decision.

The coins sparked and glittered temptingly.

The image stamped upon the coins glistened brightly about its edges.

The coins didn’t bear the face of the emperor. They bore instead a few quick, curving strokes, representing what could be the simple outlines of a galloping horse.

They had been carefully placed upon the man’s eyes, such that the two horses could have been charging across the dull moon of his face.

This man, then, had not one but two horses to carry him off to the world of the spirits. Alanua was aware that coins had been struck for the queen, though she had never yet seen any.

Gingerly bending closer towards the dead man’s face, she cautiously removed one of the coins, taking care not to catch his flesh with her finger tips.

As she stood up straight once again, bringing the coin up closer to her face for a more considered look, she saw that the flowing strokes upon the coin were indeed an artistic, energetic rendering of a horse in full gallop.

Even held up close to her eyes, it wasn’t easy for her to clearly make out the coin’s design in the dull light. She moved a little close towards where the springing waters reflected and enhanced what little light there was, hoping to see things more easily there.

The spray and the odd, more wayward droplets wetted her fingers, making them increasingly slippery, weakening her grip on the coin as she attempted to twirl it about so she could view its other side.

The coin fell from her fingers, tumbling towards the waiting waters.

Cracckkkk!

Alanua was startled by the abrupt snap of what could have been a lightning strike. It came from behind her, back to where she had just exited the wing of the building containing the stripped kitchen.

She whirled around.

She heard the dull plop of what she assumed must be the coin striking the fountain’s waters. But the focus of her interest was on the intensely black shadows of the covered veranda, for they appeared to move sharply, with almost conscious regularity, as if someone was hiding amongst them.

The witch!

Alanua was sure she had briefly glimpsed the witch veiling herself in shadows, the whiter head of the horse skull glaring back at her from the darkness.

She peered fearfully into that darkness, at once wishing to make out once again the figure she had seen, but also dreading that very thing.

There was nothing there.

There was no more movement.

The crack that had so disturbed and unnerved her had, in all probability, been little more than another heavily burnt beam breaking under the strain of holding up a crumbling building. The noise had simply carried through what remained of the structure, exiting the door just as she had a moment earlier.

With a sigh of relief, she turned back to face the hare with a sickly grin, wondering what the complacent creature must make of her stupid fear of the darkness.

But the hare was nowhere to be seen.

It seemed to have abandoned her.




*



Chapter 10


‘Hare…little hare – are you still there?’

Alanua peered out into the darkness, hoping the hare was still nearby, that she had simply hopped off into the thicker parts of the black night.

Of course, there was no answer.

But neither was there any sign of the hare.

Besides her, the man glared up at her with his one, brightly glistening eye.

Was that it?

Was she being punished for helping herself to half of the Ferryman’s dues? Even though she hadn’t meant to steal it?

Would the hare return if she returned the coin to its rightful place?

She stepped over towards the fountain, ready to climb into its freezing waters if needs be to retrieve the coin.

But what chance of finding it did she have in the darkness?



*



The sparklingly silvered lines of a horse flowed and rippled on the surface of the waters.

Fortunately, this was the edge of the pool, where the waters were hardly disturbed by the cascading waters of the fountain.

Alanua realised it had to be some form of trickery, the way that water magically appeared to bend a stick you plunged half in, half out.

It must be, then, some kind of reflection of the coin lying on the pool’s bed, the glistening lines of the horse illuminated by the moon and stars rising up through the waters to the surface.

The horse seemed curiously alive, its legs appearing to move as the waters gently swelled and fell.

Alanua reached out, gently touched it, as if tenderly stroking its back. She delighted in the way her slight disturbance of the waters caused the horse to apparently respond to her touch.

Strangely, as the waters smoothly bobbed, not all of the strokes and glints of light forming the horse flowed exactly the same way, the brighter sparkles separating slightly from the shimmering curves linking them.

She didn’t wish to disturb this gleaming image; but she had no choice.

She had to retrieve the coin, for the sake of the poor dead man, who wouldn’t want his spirit trapped in this world.



*



As if the darkness itself had heard her self-admonition and whole heartedly agreed with her, an irritated snort erupted from the thickly solidifying gloom lying ahead of her.

‘Who’s there?’ Alanua demanded nervously. ‘I meant no harm here…I’m lost, that’s all.’

She cursed herself for her foolishness,

Shouldn’t she have pretended she had lived here, but had escaped the butchering inflicted upon the villa by the queen’s army?

It was too late to correct her stupid admission that she didn’t belong here.

Whoever was out there in the darkness was now unhurriedly approaching her, the footfalls growing louder with every step drawing them nearer.



*



Chapter 11


Alanua gasped.

The horse emblazoned on the coins, flowing in the waters, illuminated in the stars, was now calmly drawing towards her.

It was nothing but the silvered tips of ears, neck, back and tail, along with the curving edges of the foreparts of legs, front and rear.

It gleamed with the lustre of the moon, whose shattered shard had finally broken free of the clustering clouds, and was no longer veiled by smoke now the fire was dying down.

Everything else lying about these shimmering highlights was of the deepest black, the darkness of night.

It drew closer, this wraith of a horse.

This magical horse.

This trickery of the light…

For, it dawned on Alanua, it was merely the sheen of a horse’s hide, glistening brightly in the moonlight.

The horse itself was so black it could have been formed of the night; and so it had remained invisible to her until it had stepped into what little glow came from the sickening flames.

Of course, she reasoned, it must have escaped when the cavalry fort had been attacked.

And yet, just like the hare, the horse’s eyes captured her own in its intense stare.

It was waiting; waiting for her just as the hare had earlier.



*



Chapter 12


Alanua had never ridden a horse.

They were far too expensive – to purchase and to care for – for lowly or young people like herself.

Perhaps, as with the hare, she was simply supposed to follow the horse.

But then again, how hard could it be to ride a horse?

Surely, all you had to do was sit astride its back?

And then she would be swiftly carried away form here; far swifter than she could possibly hope to achieve by walking.

First, however, there was the matter of ensuring the dead man was safely carried off on his own journey.

She reached into the cold embrace of the waters, reaching down for the coin lying on the bottom.

Carefully, she placed the retrieved and still wet coin back in the hollowed-out recess of the dead man’s eye.

The patiently waiting horse snorted, as if in a mingling of disgust and surprise.

The dead man seemed no happier now that both of his moon-like eyes had been restored to him.

And there was still no sign of Alanua’s guiding hare.

Perhaps it wasn’t so easy to be forgiven for such a trespass.



*



She stepped a little closer towards the horse, expecting it to turn as she approached, just as the hare had spun around once she had drawn close enough.

The horse, however, bent its forelegs, lowering itself to the ground.

It was easy for Alanua to climb up on its back.

She grabbed its silken mane tightly as the horse once more rose up to its full height.

Now the horse at last turned around; and rode off wildly into the night.



*



Chapter 13


Alanua could only think of the wind when she tried to imagine what else could move so impossibly swiftly.

How was she to know that no other horse could have caught the one she rode, no matter how hard it tried?

Even the wind, Alanua’s nearest comparison to her experience, would have given up the chase.

Despite the way they raced so incredibly smoothly across the fields, Alanua clung ferociously to the horse’s dark mane, fearing that at any moment she would be thrown, tumbling painfully to the ground.

How did everyone manage to stay on a horse’s back when it could run at such a dangerous speed?

Fortunately, the darkness veiled their true speed from Alanua. Had this been daytime, when the things around would have been more clearly visible, everything would still have been passing by in an indecipherable whirl, but at least it would have granted her some sense of how quickly they were passing through the landscape.

The horse took in its stride hollows, dips, hillocks and even hedgerows or rocky outcrops, leaping over them in one flowingly seamless motion, and so it wasn’t until they careered into the dense wickerwork of a forest that Alanua experienced any indication of the rush of their flight.

Here at last, even in what seemed to be an impenetrable darkness, she could make out shapes that were still darker than others, even though they were passed by in an instant. There was also that inescapable sense of something closing in about her, as well as the odd attempt of a slender twig to reach out and scratch at the flesh of her face.

Breaking free of the forest’s claustrophobic clutch was like leaping free of dark soil being shovelled into her grave. They came out into a more open landscape once more, the silvery thread of a river reflecting the moon now the only thing separating them from what could have been lush farmland lying on its other banks.

The horse didn’t break its pace. It rushed on, crashing through the water, each landing of a hoof throwing up gloriously sparkling fountains of the mercurial water.

Either the river had no real depth, or they had been lucky enough to come out at a ford, Alanua reasoned.

The horse sped on.



*



Chapter 14


A fountain of fire sprang up from the darkness lying ahead of them.

Was this another building set on fire by the queen’s army as it had advanced through the land? Or was it now the turn of the Romans, already bringing their vengeance down on the populace?

In their headlong rush towards the blazing pyre, the rising flames seemed to abruptly soar into the sky, revealing themselves in an instant to be the offspring of a huge bonfire rather than any devastated farm or town. Yet it also dawned on a horrified Alanua that they were charging directly and unavoidable towards it, as if her mount was determined to throw them both into the conflagration, where she at least would be quickly reduced to a charred cinder.

Then, suddenly, without any abrupt jolt – leaving Alanua incapable of saying when it had actually happened – they had slowed to a regular trot, approaching the blaze at an unhurried pace.

Around the fire now the dark shapes milling about it began to take on form, tinged as they were with the blaze’s own red glow. Forms that moved, swayed – danced merrily.

It was a demonic scene, with its bloodied and dark cavorting figures excitedly circling this false sun; but Alanua at last sensed no fear, for this was a scene she recognised.

She had witnessed many such celebrations of the festivals of the ‘bright fire’ of Bealtaine, or the bonefires of the unused remains of slaughtered animals at Samhain; although she had to admit this wasn’t the time to be welcoming either of these.

It could be, then, a victory celebration.

A fire of bones of a different kind.

One by one, many of the demons became recognisable to her too, men and women she had seen flocking to the queen’s army as it had victoriously made its way past towns and villages. They were drunk, happy, the way Alanua remembered them celebrating other victories against the Roman forces sent against them.

But this time, it made no sense; this time, they had lost.

‘Voada! Voada!’

Even against the raucous background of all the laughter and inebriated cheering, the yell was loud and direct enough for Alanua to pick it out from amongst all the other cries.

From out of the dark mass of writhing bodies, a boy was rushing towards her, waving joyously.

‘It’s me, Voada! Aedan!’

Voada?

Was he drunk?

Of course he was!

Alanua elatedly leapt down from the back of the black mare, darting swiftly, almost clumsily, across the ground in her urgency to greet Aedan.

She had feared he had died, yet here he was; safe, and apparently not even slightly injured.

As they came together, they instinctively threw their arms about each other, sharing a painfully yet gleefully tight embrace.

‘Aedan, you’re drunk!’ she admonished him, giddily laughing. ‘It’s me: Alanua!’

‘Oh, of course: Alanua!’ he chuckled as he pulled her tighter to him, as he kissed her again and again. ‘I’d forgotten that!’

Before Alanua could ask him how he had forgotten her name, he breathlessly stepped back, gripping her hands, whirling her into a happy dance.

‘Didn’t I say I would wipe out this stain inflicted upon you?’ he declared proudly. ‘Now we are free, Alanua; free at last of those devilish Romans!’

‘Stain? Upon me?And how can we be fre...?’

‘But how did you get here!’ Aedan unconsciously interrupted her in his excitement at seeing Alanua safe once again. ‘I thought you were lost: I’d been told you would be amongst us, but I’d searched everywhere and couldn’t find you!’

‘I came on this horse–’

She turned, expecting the horse to be patiently waiting for her, as it had done earlier.

But the black mare was no longer there; it seemed to have vanished once again into the darkness it had appeared from.



*



Chapter 15


To be reunited with Aedan, when she had feared that he might be dead, served as further proof to Alanua that their love for each other had been predestined and was therefore unavoidable, inescapable.

Despite her mother’s concerns and doubts – despite her mother’s many attempts to keep them apart – they had once again been brought together, even when it had briefly seemed that fate had at last turned against them.

Naturally, her mother’s qualms and insistence that they no longer see each other had only strengthened their determination to meet up in secret. It gave their liaisons an extra edge of excitement, a sense that their attempts to stay together in spite of all these pressures to separate them could only be a sign that it was a love that was pure and true.

Such a love could only be wonderful and good for the world.

And therefore those wishing to keep them apart must be wicked, maybe even unknowingly evil.

They met out in the woods, far enough away from the village and the workers in the surrounding farmland to avoid being seen together. From here, they would often head towards the wider sections of the river that flowed through the less dense parts of the forest, bathing here, or simply relaxing on its grassy or sandy banks.

Here they would often pick and delicately entwine flowers, setting their interwoven bouquets in the waters in the knowledge that they would flow down towards the village, where those washing or fetching water would marvel at these unnatural creations.

It was their way of taunting her mother, of course. A lesson for her that she cannot pull apart those fated to be together.

On those days when the villagers would be particularly busy fulfilling their appointed tasks, and Alanua and Aedan believed their continued absence would go unnoticed, they would follow the track of the river as it lazily wound its way out of the wood. Now they would use the growing darkness as their cover. Besides, most people would have sought shelter behind the village’s crude walls, fearing the wild animals that gradually took over the earth as the sun went down.

With the fading of the sun, the stars came out too, dominating the darkening sky with their sparkling brilliance.

‘How can we be in danger when all our ancestors are looking down on us like this?’ Aedan wondered aloud as he stared up in awe at the glittering canopy stretching everywhere about them.

Reaching out for his hand, Alanua followed his gaze upwards, staring up into the night along with him.

Directly above her were the stars around which everything revolved; the whole world, the night itself, slowly spinning about that far off point, as anyone who took the time to stare upwards long enough could easily see for themselves.

You could link these stars in your imagination, conjuring up creatures just as surely as you could form horses and swans in the clouds. Even the Romans had brought with them their own tales of heroes who had been made god-like when they had been cast upwards into the night sky, transforming into clusters that ensured their stories would never be forgotten.

Amongst this particular grouping of stars, she had been shown how the Little Bear and the Great Bear were separated by the writhing serpent Draco.

The serpent was easy to visualise; the bears, however, had always struck her as being a fancy of the old women who had told her these tales.

Besides, Alanua’s real interest in the stars lay in that milky band that appeared to stretch all the way across the universe. It was the milky stream flowing from the breast of a goddess, some said. Others claimed it was a form of river, separating the world of the living from either the realm of the dead or the mansions of the gods, depending on whichever tale you wished to believe. Then there were those who declared it could only be a bridge, linking those worlds, and thereby making them accessible to anyone brave or foolish enough to attempt such a journey.

Alanua had her own ideas of how this wondrously iridescent cloak of white had come into existence.

It was the Track of the Children.

With a finger that could have been trailing its path across the sky, Alanua brought the coursing of the spumy stream to Aedan’s attention.

‘Have you heard, Aedan, how it came about to bond two lovers whom others wished to keep apart?’

‘I’ve heard many reasons for its existence,’ he admitted, adding with obvious interest, ‘But no; I can’t recall ever hearing that one.’

‘In their case,’ she said with a tinge of regret, ‘it could so easily have been over for them before it had bloomed into its full glory; because there had been a great battle, a battle to end all battles as the victorious king claimed, for he made sure that every man amongst his enemy was killed.’

‘But the boy – the one who is in love with the girl – he must have escaped then?’ Aedan interrupted a touch doubtfully, failing to see how this could be a story of love if one of them had already died so early on in the tale.

Alanua shook her head miserably.

‘No, he died along with the rest of the men, bravely fighting for his people.’

Aedan hesitantly chuckled.

‘Then this has to be the end of your tale? You’ve started at the end?’

Once again, Alanua sadly shook her head.

‘The king had him buried with all the rest of the warriors in a mass grave. But rather than be parted from him, this girl falls into the grave – and is buried there along with him.’

‘She’s alive? She lets herself be buried alive?’ Aedan interrupted once more, aghast at the thought of someone lying there as soil was piled in upon them.

As it dawned upon Alanua that this was indeed a terrible way to face death, she pondered this for a moment

‘I’m not sure,’ she said. ‘The way I’ve heard the tale, it’s not really spelled out, I suppose.’

‘Or maybe you’ve always preferred to skip over that particular part of the story?’ Aedan teased her.

She laughed, realising there was a great deal of truth in this.

‘Well, yes,’ she admitted. ‘I wouldn’t like to dwell too long on the idea that she is alive when she falls amongst all these dead warriors!’

‘Either way, it seems to me she’s going to end up dead,’ Aedan pointed out. ‘So maybe we could just assume she had been killed by the king’s men, along with all the warriors? That’s a far braver way to die anyway, isn’t it?’

Alanua nodded in agreement, even though she felt this changed the tale far more than she would have liked.

‘But anyway,’ she continued, ‘the victorious king was angry when he found out that the lovers had been buried together; he didn’t want them to be enjoined this way, even in death.’

‘Why? Why was this so important to him?’

Alanua shrugged; once again, it was a missing component of the story that she had never dwelled upon, considering it a minor detail as far as the moral of the story was concerned.

‘I’m not sure,’ she confessed. ‘The way tales are told, passed on from person to person, some of the reasons lying behind the story are lost. Does it really need to be explained anyway, when it’s a tale of love?’

‘I suppose not,’ Aedan agreed, even though he felt a reason behind the king’s actions was important. ‘Maybe she was his daughter? Then he wouldn’t want her to be lying with someone who was a mortal enemy, would he?’

Yet again, Alanua found herself nodding in agreement with Aedan’s quite reasonable observation.

‘Yes, yes; I suppose that would make some kind of sense of it all, wouldn’t it?’

She thought of the anger aroused in her mother by their own forbidden relationship.

‘Maybe,’ she added thoughtfully, ‘that was the whole cause of the war; maybe the king was furious that his daughter had fallen in love with the son of an enemy king!’

‘If so, he must have regretted being against it; he lost his daughter after all.’

‘If that was so, he didn’t regret his actions enough to stop himself from trying to keep them apart, even now that they were dead. He had their bodies dug up, and reburied in graves on either side of the burial mound.’

‘He must have really loathed this boy!’ Aedan murmured worriedly, nervously catching Alanua’s eye as he said this, wondering if this was how her mother felt about him.

Alanua either missed or ignored Aedan’s plea for a refutal that her mother loathed him.

‘Soon, a tree spouted from each grave,’ she continued with her tale, ‘each one growing and rising up so quickly that in no time at all they are reaching out to touch each other, as if the lovers themselves are embracing once more. The king, of course, orders that the trees are cut down, only for other trees to grow in their place. And every time the king orders the felling of the trees, others grow to replace them, reaching out so that their branches entwine.’

‘Why doesn’t he just accept that he isn’t going to beat this?’

Although Alanua felt Aedan was being far too irreverent for her liking, she managed not to show it.

‘He wasn’t going to be beaten – or at least, so he thought. He had them dug up once again, and this time had them reburied on completely opposite shores of a Great Lake; or, as some say, even the sea itself.’

This time, Aedan merely whistled softly in appreciation of the king’s ingenuity; no trees could span such a distance.

‘The trees once again reached up from their graves, soaring up and up until even they could reach out no farther with their branches; and so now it was this that emerged from the very tops of the trees, endlessly growing between them–’

Alanua gazed up dreamily as she once again used a pointing finger to trace the path of the milky band arching across the universe.

‘It was this – the Track of the Children – that forever enjoined them once more.’



*



Chapter 16


The darkness had absorbed the horse as completely as if it had never really existed.

No matter how hard she peered into the surrounding night, Alanua couldn’t make out even a faint tracing of that glittering sheen that had first alerted her to the horse’s presence by the fountain.


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