Ban had the dream for the first time when he was eight years old, in the spring after Breaca lost her mother and got a sword-cut on her hand. He woke suddenly and lay sweating under the hides, his eyes searching the dark of the roof space for comfort. A long time ago, when he was younger and afraid of the night, his father had carved the marks of horse, bear and wren on the crooked beam above his bed to keep him safe. He had spent light summer evenings tracing them in his mind, feeling the wall of their protection. Now, he lay in the pressing silence, praying for light, and saw nothing. If the moon had risen, it did not shine on his side of the round house. If there were stars, their light did not penetrate the thatch. Inside, the cooling embers of the fire gave off a thread of smoke but no flame. It was the blackest night he could ever remember and he might as well have been blind, or still dreaming.
He did not want to be dreaming. Blinking, he searched for other ways to anchor himself in the world of the living. Light, dry smoke tickled his nose. Each night his mother laid a tent of twigs on the embers, that the smoke of their burning might carry her family safely through the world beyond sleep. With age, he was beginning to understand the language of the smoke. He breathed in and let the different tones filter through his head, sorting them into an order that would speak to him; the acerbic touch of sun-scorched grass, the warmer, more sinuous thread of acorns roasting, the pricking of wet shale and the high, clear note of tannin, as from a hide, freshly cured. It was this last one that fixed it. An image came of a girl lying asleep under a scattering of white petals and, later, of a tree dripping red with berries the colour of dried blood that he had been told not to eat. Hawthorn. It would have been that.
He made his body relax. He was calmer now. His heart beat less hard. He closed his eyes and let the drifting smoke carry him back to the start of the dream. In the other world it was daytime. He was riding a strange horse, not one of his father's; a red mare with a hide the colour of a fox in winter. She was tall and very fit. He ran his hand down the length of her neck and her coat sparked like a new coin beneath his fingers. They were running fast, at dream-speed. He was naked and the mare had no saddlecloth. He could feel the bunch of her muscles gather and pull beneath his thighs. If he worked to let go of this world, he could see the steam billow back from her nostrils and hear the whistle of her breath over the splashing hammer of hooves on turf and bog. In a while, she passed out of the sunlight and entered a mist so thick he could barely see the tips of her ears. The fog swirled in banners past his eyes, making him blind. He sucked in a breath and smelled horse-sweat and stale bog-water and the mint-sour tang of myrtle crushed underfoot. Without any good reason, he lifted one hand and cupped it round his mouth and yelled a word--a name--into the dizzying white. His voice came out harshly, like a raven's, and the name itself made no shape in his head. It echoed and came back to him and still made no sense. He let it go and leaned forward instead, singing to the red mare, urging her on, promising her fame and long life and strong foals if she carried them both safely through the danger. There was certainly danger, both of them felt it; a distant malevolence kept at bay only by their speed. The mare flicked her ears back to listen and then cocked them suddenly forward. The boy felt a change in her stride and looked up. Ahead of him, a fallen yew blocked the path. The mare gathered herself and tucked her head in, shortening her stride. He wrapped the fingers of both hands tight in the snaking red of her mane, feeling the coarse cut of the hair on his palms, She jumped cleanly and he soared with her into eternity. The ground was firm on the far side. The mare stretched her forelegs to land. The boy relaxed his grip on the mane and sat upright and this time, the first time, he lost himself in the fierce joy of it, exulting in the stories he would tell Breaca and their father and later, when he had it right, his mother.
The world changed as they landed. The fog vanished and it was dusk, not daylight, and he was no longer a boy riding a mare, but a man, an armed warrior, lying flat to the neck of a war-horse compared to which the mare was a small and stringy pony. The beast was in battle-fever, running its heart out, churning up clods and stones in its wake. The hammer of its passing shook the earth and ripped the trees from their roots. Ban swept a hand forward along a black, thick-pelted neck and the scarred skin of his palm came back drenched with sweat and fresh blood. He drew in a sharp breath and the stench of his own sweat flooded his nostrils, bringing with it a dread that went beyond terror.
He might have fallen then, it hit him so hard, but he felt another's arms clench tight round his waist and knew that he carried someone behind him and that the second life mattered more than his own. With sudden clarity, he understood that the danger was not for him but for the other and that there was safety ahead. He was leaning back to say this when the horse caught its foot in a rabbit hole and stumbled. It twisted violently in mid-stride, fighting to regain its footing, and the great head turned on the neck so that, for a brief, blinding moment, Ban's eyes locked with those of the beast and what he saw there froze the breath in his throat. Then a voice shouted a warning in a tone he had never heard before and, even in half-sleep, his body jerked and twitched as a blade arced down out of nowhere and severed his left hand at the wrist.
The pain of that had woken him the first time and it did so again. For a second time that night, he lay wide-eyed in the dark while the hammer of his heart made hoofbeats in his ears loud enough to shake the stars from the heavens. He was less afraid this time. He had seen a thing only the gods should see and the sheer impossibility of it pushed him through fear into the still place beyond. He breathed in and made himself feel the things around him. The hound that shared his bed had gone and he lay alone between the hides with only his younger sister to keep him warm. Silla lay on her stomach, her skin glued tight to his with the damp of their sweat so he could feel the ripple of her ribs and the angles of her hip bones pressing into his side. He concentrated on the place where the point of her knee dug into his calf and let the feel of it bring him back to himself. With that, he found that her breath whistled with the same rhythm as the mare's and then, later, that the weight of her body was crushing his left wrist, cutting off the feeling from his hand. He eased his arm out, slowly, doing his best not to wake her.
Silla was three years old and had only lately graduated to sleeping with her older brother. Ban had looked forward to that, cherishing the thought of her company with its promise of extra warmth and the novelty of sharing the hides with someone other than a hound. Reality had been more of a two-edged sword. Nine nights out of ten, she was a cheerful bundle of clinging heat who screwed up her nose and squirmed in under his armpit and listened while he whispered the stories of their father, the greatest warrior and smith the Eceni had ever known, and of their mother, who could become the wren and travel the spaces between the worlds to keep them safe. On those nights, his sister giggled and let him draw the outlines of the beasts on her skin, pressing lightly so the feeling tingled and lasted to morning. Then there was the one night in ten when some unnameable thing had upset her and all he had to do was turn over too fast in his sleep to tip her back into mewling, wailing infanthood. Without trying, she could wake half the round house and experience had taught him that it was Ban, not Silla, who would wither under the weary stares in the morning.
Tonight was not one of those nights. She had listened to his story of the crow and the she-bear and had slept soundly, even when he woke with the dream. He moved himself away from her and rolled to the edge of the bed to sit up. His bladder was full and would not last the night without emptying, which was, perhaps, where the urgency in the dream had come from. He slid his hand between his thighs to check that he had not disgraced himself and then, belatedly and with care, reached under the hides to do the same for his sister. Both were dry. He stood, letting relief lever him out of the warmth into the chill of the night.
It was not as cold as he had thought. The late cloud of the evening had cleared but the wind blew warmly from the south and kept the frost from the ground. Still, he reached back in through the door-flap and dragged his cloak from the bed. It was cut down from one of his father's, scorched in places from the forge but still heavy with the smell of sheep's oil and mansweat. The important thing about it--apart from the colour, which was blue, like the sky at dusk, and marked him out as one of the Eceni--was that his mother had told him that when he wore it properly, clasped with the brooch at the right shoulder, he looked just like his father. It was not true, exactly; his father was fair, while he had the dark hair and browner skin of his mother, but the boy understood the likeness to be in the way that he bore himself, particularly around the women. He had taken care, in the time since he had heard that, to watch how his father was with his mother and to hold himself the same whenever he was with Breaca. Tonight, in the dark and with nobody watching, there was less need for formality. He left the brooch in its niche at the bedside and wrapped his cloak tight around his shoulders like a hide, draping the free ends over his elbows to keep them from trailing in the mud. Like that, he was nearly as warm as he had been in bed.
He edged quickly round the side wall of the round house. He had been wrong earlier when he had thought the night completely black. The moon had long since dropped below the curve of the earth but the stars made a canopy of light from one horizon to the other, casting soft, muted shadows. High up, the Hunter stepped over the crown of a beech tree. The boy swung his fist up, giving the salute of the warrior. This, too, he could do alone in the dark when there was no-one to tell him that he was a child, not yet come to manhood and too young to make the warrior's mark.
The hounds came to join him as soon as he stepped free of the rampart. They had been at the midden and smelled of it now as they crowded round, butting him in the groin and armpit, grinning and whining in greeting. He pushed his way through them, whispering gruff threats that offered all manner of violence if they didn't let him pass. None of them feared him but they drew back anyway, showing white teeth in the starlight, leaving only the brindled dog with the white ear that shared his bed to brush up against him, rubbing shoulder to shoulder after the way of a friend. He hooked his arm across its neck and the beast leaned heavily against him as he stood upwind of the midden, holding himself straight the way his father did, to piss in an arc onto the picked-out head of a pig. The dog nudged him as he finished, pushing him off balance. He grabbed at its coat and used it to pull himself upright. The hound backed away, grinning, hauling him with it and they made it a game, tussling quietly in the dark. The dog was the tallest of the hounds, one of his mother's best stag hunters and soon to be sire to its first litter of pups. The bitch chosen as dam was well past her prime and there had been a long and heated discussion between his mother and one of the grandmothers at the time of her bleeding as to whether she was not too old to bear more young. She was the only one left of her line and she was still the only hound in the pack that had ever brought down a deer single-handed, and the old blood was a good thing, strengthening the untested fire of youth. So said his mother, and the grandmother, perhaps mollified by talk of youth leavened by age, had relented and given her blessing to the match.
That was two months ago, just before the first of the pregnant mares reached her time. Since then, he had been caught up in the foaling, watching as each one slid out and was freed from the birth-caul. On the night of the quarter-moon, he had chosen the dun filly with the sickle-shaped mark between the eyes to be his own brood mare when he was old enough to take one and she was old enough to breed. The greater part of each day had been spent at her side in the paddock, making sure that she knew the sound of his voice better than any of the others. She was three days old and already she would leave her dam and run across the paddock towards him for her lick of salt. In the stir and flurry of that, he had only vaguely taken note that the bitch, too, was close to her time. When he thought about it, he remembered that her nipples had been leaking milk for the past two nights and that when he had lain alongside her in the doorway to the round house that afternoon with his hand on her belly, he had felt the press of a small, round head against his palm.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Dreaming the Eagle by Manda Scott. Copyright © 2003 by Manda Scott. Excerpted by permission of Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.