Friday, 1 June 2012
STORY OF THE MONTH - EMPIRE OF THE HARE
It might have been the way things were done in my grandparents’ day, but it certainly wasn’t the way our conquerors ruled. Classicianus, the Prefect’s tax collector, had been most anxious I should understand our position upon Father’s death. “Submit as Roman women do,” he advised. “Then Nero will allow you to stay in your home. The only thing you’ll lose is your titles – a small thing, surely, compared to what he has the power to take from you, should you cause any trouble.”
I knew it would be no use talking to Mother or my sister. So while the fortress slept beneath the moon goddess Serapha’s silver eye, I crept to Father’s bedside, fell to my knees and begged him to reconsider.
He tried to lift the plait that hung heavy as a bronze rope across my face, but did not have the strength. “It’s too late, Ralla my child. The scribe has come and gone. Your mother would have it no other way. Don’t worry. I’m sure when the great Emperor Nero realises I have no son to inherit my lands, he’ll make an exception in this case.” His words erupted in coughs. He leant into the shadows at the far side of the bed, and there came the sound of retching.
Though a chill sat beneath my heart and I could feel demons waiting in every corner, I did as Classicianus had taught me and reached for my inner light. “Please, Father!” I said. “You could call another scribe. Classicianus says Mother’s crazy if she thinks Nero will let her rule, but that if you were to let him, he could word it in such a way that we’ll be allowed to stay here under a Roman representative—”
I had gone too far. Father rose up on one elbow. The imported linen of his night robe was spattered with blood, and Serapha chose that moment to withdraw her blessings from the room. The demons shrieked in triumph as they whirled towards the bed.
"I love you, Ralla,” he whispered. “I love your sister. I love your mother. When I walk with the spirits, I need to know you’ll still have a roof over your heads, meat on your table, and the respect of our conquerors.”
“But that’s exactly what we won’t have! Mother won’t work with the Romans as you did. She offers sacrifices to Adraste whenever you’re away. She makes me and Kwelona watch. She talks to the Druids in secret, and she’s stolen gold from your coffers to fund their cause.”
“Ralla, I don’t want to hear this.”
“Classicianus is right. She’s crazy, Father. I’ve seen her dance naked in the sacred grove, and—”
“I’ve seen her drink blood.”
His back arched on a scream. I thought his spirit had gone. But when he fell back, his breath bubbled in the darkness.
I felt for his hand, clutched it tightly and bowed my head. “Please Father, you don’t understand! If you give her this power, she’ll make the Iceni worship Adraste’s spear, and…” I couldn’t see how I would bear this. “…she’ll stop me seeing Classicianus.”
He whispered something then, just before he died. Maybe something about love and sacrifice. But the blood broke his words, and Adraste’s demons carried the pieces away.
Even with the Romans’ new roads and fine ships, it’s a long way from Camelodunum to the Narrow Sea, which separates this land from Classicianus’ home, and even further across Gaul and into the warm sea called Mediterranean that washes the shores of Nero’s great city. Classicianus once explained it in the strides of a hare: one for the lands of the Iceni, ten for all Britannia, twenty for Gaul, but a thousand huge leaps to cross Nero’s Empire. So it was that while the messages were travelling by horseback and ship, we had time to bury Father, time to mourn, time to feast, and time to be afraid. I could not understand why someone with so much land already would want ours too, but I knew Classicianus’ warnings were given in good faith and I dreaded Nero’s reply.
Meanwhile, Mother revelled in her new freedom. She invited the Druids to join our feasts, even though they were outcasts after the last edict from Rome, and quite openly defied the Prefect’s representatives who called at the gates to demand audiences. She ordered one particularly obstinate man who had tricked his way into our hall to be trussed like a deer, and dragged him through the streets of Camelodunum behind her chariot. She was drunk at the time, but that was no excuse. The representative died. I felt awful in case he had been a friend of Classicianus’.
Kwelona stared at the filthy, bloody body stripped of most of its clothing. She chewed on her knuckles, then giggled. “Look, Mother!” she said. “He’s got a big worm hanging between his legs!”
“Idiot,” I hissed. “You know what that is. You’ve been to the sacred grove. Stop laughing, it’s not funny.”
But even as I spoke, I knew Kwelona had not connected what she had seen in the grove with reality. With the Druids’ masks and costumes, their smoke and their drums-that-beat-in-the-head, what she saw there must have been like a tale told to frighten children. I bet she thought the blood of the sacrifice Mother drank to bind her spirit to Adraste was nothing more sinister than blackberry juice.
The way Kwelona laughed reminded me of Mother in her crazier moods. I took hold of my sister’s shoulders and shook her. “Stop it!” I shouted. “Stop it now!”
Whereupon Mother seized my hair from behind and slapped me before all the guests who had piled out to watch the fun. “That’s enough,” she said, her voice like iron in spite of all the mead she had drunk. “Remember you’re a princess of the Iceni! Now spit on the foreign filth and get in the chariot.”
There was a hush. Kwelona stopped giggling and went back to chewing her knuckles. In the torchlight, her hair burned and the golden threads of her best gown glittered. But the hem was splattered with mud, and she had lost one of her slippers in the sewer. I turned my face away from the dead man. “I will not,” I said quietly.
Mother tugged my plait harder. “Roman sandal-licker,” she hissed into my ear. “Your pretty Gaulish tax collector will be next. Or maybe we should keep him for something special? To read the portents, perhaps?”
I turned cold. I knew what she meant. The Druids have many ways of divining the future. Some involve animals, others certain herbs picked by Serapha’s light. But the ceremony she was referring to involves plunging a dagger deep into a man’s heart and watching the way his limbs thrash as he enters the world of the spirits.
Mother laughed at the expression on my face, leapt into the chariot and grabbed the reins. The mare shied, and for a moment the platform teetered on one wheel. Mother laughed even louder. “All right, Ralla! Have it your own way and walk. Coming, Kwelona?”
My sister shot me a look over her knuckles, edged around the dead man, then spat quickly at his trussed ankles and jumped for the moving chariot. Their laughter echoed in the dark streets long after the hoof beats and the rumble of wheels had faded.
To my shame, as I walked home alone that night with the demons chasing me and my dagger in my hand to discourage the rabble from thinking I was an easy target, I actually wished Emperor Nero would cross the thousand leaps of the hare and take away Mother’s power, even if it meant we had to live in one of the hovels clustered around the grand marble buildings the Romans had erected in the centre of Camelodunum – though I did not seriously believe he would make a queen live in a hut. I still believed in Classicianus’ inner light, and that this light would one day shine in every corner of our land. To tell the truth, when Serapha shone on the centre of the town, and I saw how our fortress brooded in black contrast against the sky, I rather fancied living in one of the marble palaces that had taken so much of the Iceni’s wealth and labour to build.
Yet even as I dreamed, the hare was busy leaping.
Can you guess who Ralla's mother is? Want to know what happens next?
You can read the rest of this story, and six other tales of fantasy heroines, in DEATH SINGER available as an ebook for Kindle from amazon.co.uk for £1-99 and amazon.com for $2-99 (age 12+).