I wrote the first few chapters of Moon Pony about 8 years ago, recollecting a visit to the Iron-Age Fortress of Maiden Castle in Dorset. My agent at the time wanted me to write something different, I wondered if I could write something for the Young Adult market, and something that combined one of my favourite topics - horses.
The events at Maiden Castle happened. The destruction by the Romans was complete. We know much of the detail of Vespasian's assault through the extensive excavations of Sir Mortimer Wheeler - the ballista bolt found lodged in the spine of an unfortunate member of the Durotriges tribe can be seen in Dorchester museum, and to walk along the top rampart of Maiden Castle is a truly breath-taking experience.
My ex-agent didn't like the few opening chapters, she told me to write something else. As it turned out she didn't like any of the ideas I came up with and dumped me. Her loss. I might, one day, continue this story, for do the ghosts from that ancient time linger? I think they do. Braeda probably did not exist, although there would have been girls like her. Nor, I doubt, was the Moon Pony real, but then, the Iron-Age peoples were noted for their skills of horsemanship and for the quality of their ponies, so perhaps my imaginary little mare did have an ancestor somewhere.
And anyway, this is a story, and characters created in the rich and wonderful realm of the imagination can become as real as you or I - if the tale is good enough to bring them to life.
June 2004 & July 2012
It is AD 45, in Dorset, South West Britain.
Overlooking the sea is a vast Iron-Age fortress, where the proud people of the Durotriges are to fight for their lives against the might of Rome. Where many of them are to die or become slaves. One girl, Braeda, survives. Along with her, one pony, a pure white-coated mare who bears the sacred mark of a whorl of hair shaped as the crescent moon on her forehead.
It is for Braeda and the mare to continue the unbroken line of mother to daughter, a line that has descended from the dawn of time. But the victorious Romans may forbid it.
The Moon Pony, a story of loyalty, courage and honour; and a story of love between enemies.
The Moon Pony
by Helen Hollick
May, A.D. 45
It seemed absurd to Braeda, squatting inside the Queen's Hall with the other women, that she should be so reluctant to greet the coming of a new day. She had never regretted the paling sky of the dawn before, but then, there had never been a legion of Roman Red Crests laying siege to the hill fort that was her home before.
"You keep rolling those bandages," old Bronwen, her grandmother, admonished, nodding towards Braeda's momentarily idle hands. "We'll be needing more than that small offering of yours for the wounded."
Braeda tore her gaze from the early morning bustle beyond the wide-flung double doors, and again began rolling the strips of coarse-woven cloth. There was already quite a pile at her side, but it was not as large as Bronwen's, even though her swollen and gnarled fingers were not as quick and flexible as Braeda's.
"Will there be many wounded?" the girl asked, concern trembling in her voice. Her father and brother, her father's brothers, her uncles, would be making ready with their weapons up on the high rampart walls of this, the Royal Stronghold, the chief citadel of the Durotriges. She feared for their safety, as every woman this new day, was fearing for her men-folk.
Her grandmother did not answer immediately, instead, she sucked on her toothless gums a while before deciding to offer the truth. What use in making pretty stories if the child may soon, if things went badly, find the reality for herself? Aside, she must have heard the whisperings, and felt the held-breath of unease that was prickling at the back of everyone's necks like the uncomfortable feel of an approaching thunderstorm.
"The land to the south west of the Father river, the Thamesis, and his brother, the Meduway, is being crushed by the footprint of this Roman general they call Vespasian, or so word sailing on the wind, is saying." Her tongue had moved unevenly over the Latin name, Vespasian, unfamiliar to her British voice. She looked into the girl's eyes, old wisdom lovingly holding youthful unease. "There were few left to bury the dead at Badbury and Hamworthy, further back along the coast. Those not killed, taken as slaves."
"But they were small strongholds," Braeda answered with a quick breath of hope, "defended by only a few warriors. This is Maiden Hold, from where the Queen of all our tribe reigns!"
Her gaze wandering towards the open door, Bronwen nodded slowly, agreeing. "Sa, sa, there is truth in that," she said absently, rolling another bandage and adding it to the growing pile. She sighed, the breath puffing from her mouth with a mist of sadness. "But I am thinking that because our Queen resides here with the King Consort, that this General Vespasian has come with the full might of Rome beneath his command. It is here that he must finish what his God Emperor started over to the east in the lands of the Cantii, and to the north, up beyond the Thamesis River."
Braeda said nothing. Instead, reached for another strip of torn linen and began to wind it. Would they be needing all this preparation, she wondered, if, after the sun had risen and trundled its long path across the sky, they were to all to be killed or enslaved? She would rather die than be taken as slave and be beaten into the will of another's ordering. A queer thing, to be thinking that this could be the last day of her freedom - of her life - and to be spending the start of it by doing something as mundane as making a heap of linen bandages.
Other women - the old and the young, for the able women would be using their spears and sling-shots up beside the men - were doing, and thinking, the same as Braeda and her grandmother. Some were feeding the young children a breakfast meal of porridge and oat cakes, seating them over in the far corner of the Hall where they would be out of the way, but safe. To the other end, Bronna and Maia, the healing women, were supervising the boiling of water and the gathering together of their herbs and ointments. Braeda turned her gaze from the red heat of the hearth-fires where the tips of metal rods were beginning to glow red hot. Either of the healing women would use them to slap onto a wound to stem the bleeding and cauterise the wound, the stink of burnt flesh and the scream of the wounded hanging in the cobwebbed air of the smoke-dusted rafters for long minutes after. Braeda knew this, for there had been other skirmishes with neighbouring tribes, minor squabbles that blew into a sudden hot flurry of a storm then died down again, forgotten. This thing with the Roman Red Crests, though, this was no passing scurry of a boisterous wind rippling over the surface of a calm pond. This fight stretched as wide as the sky.
The girl looked up at the sound of her name being called, her two corn-gold braids bobbing against her shoulders as she turned quickly towards the commanding voice. Her father was standing just inside a smaller side entrance, his hand flinging back the doe-skin covering to allow in a shaft of the fast expanding daylight, was searching for her with his eyes, his keen sight peering through the swirling fug of hearth-fire and tallow smoke.
Braeda jumped up, calling to him. "I am here Father!"
He grunted, beckoned with his finger. "Come with me, child."
"But I am to help with the wounded."
"Others can be doing that, I need you for the ponies." He ducked back out through the doe-hide, letting it fall, sending that corner of the Hall back into dark shadow.
For all her father's authority Braeda tossed a querying glance at her grandmother. Bronwen nodded approval, smiled. "Go child, you have a better talent with those ponies than you have with these." She pointed, with a laugh, at the pile of lop-sided bandages that Braeda had rolled. It was good to laugh on this day where, soon, there would be so little to laugh at. Where, by sundown there could be nought but tears. For those left alive to cry them.
Braeda ran to join her father, who was already walking away from the Hall with his purposeful, long stride. She paused at the doorway, realising that perhaps she ought to have given her grandmother a kiss or a hug? Almost, she turned back, but her father impatiently called again and the moment of doubt passed. She would do it later, when next she came, for Bronwen would still be here. Her hips and knees were stiff from the joint-ache and she rarely moved far from the comfort of a hearth-fire.
"We must harness the chariot ponies," her father explained as she trotted to keep up with him. "For when we get a chance to go out and fight these Red Crests on our own terms, and in our own way."
Braeda was pleased to be expected to help, she was, after all, as quick at harnessing the paired teams as was her brother, Tognus - was akin to him in more ways than that! Tognus and Braeda were twins, born of the same birthing, although Tognus had fought his way from their mother's womb some half of an hour before his sister. She did not mind him being the eldest, for was not that the way of things? For the man to go ahead to ensure that the path was free of ambush or danger for the woman to follow in safety behind?
Come the Summer Solstice they would be fourteen summers old, and at the Mid-Summer Gather, in a little more than four weeks' time, when all the Strongholds of the Durotriges met in peace and festivity, Tognus would be given his man's spear and become entitled to sit with the men in the King's Hall. Would no longer run as a naked cub with the boys. Braeda, too, would be leaving behind her girlhood and be honoured as a woman, to be claimed by a man as wife or to join with the women who dedicated their souls to the Moon Goddess. She would shed the wearing of a short-kirtled skirt, let the folds of the material fall to her ankles instead, and be allowed to wear bangles of gold or bronze or copper on her wrists, around her neck and dangling from her ears. The jewellery she wore now was the adornment of girls; braided strips of leather or ribbon, worthless coloured stones; the entwined stems of flowers.
Mid-Summer? For many of them there would be no joyful celebration of the longest day, the sun would not be reaching the zenith of its height in the sky. Tognus may not be receiving his spear, nor Braeda her golden earrings, for this Roman, Vespasian, had brought his soldiers marching into the heart of the tribal territory and threatened its happening. Although you could argue further back than that. if the God Emperor Claudius, greedy to rule more than he already governed, had not ordered that Britain should be joined to his Roman Empire. Or if the Caesar, Julius, in the time of Grandmother's grandmother, had not come to see Britain for himself and decided that he wanted her wealth of wool, tin and gold, her spirited ponies and prized hunting dogs. And perhaps you could go further back still? If the She Wolf had not found the two abandoned orphans, Romulus and Remus, and had not reared them as her cubs, then they would not have survived and Rome may never have been begun. None, then, would have heard of the ferocious might of these Red Crest Eagles or felt the hot breath of the Roman Empire panting close at heel. Or this thud-beat of fear that was drumming in Braeda's heart.
Although she had not asked, her father said, "You must see to my chariot team on your own this day, for your brother is already up on the rampart walls making ready with your uncles and our warriors. I will join him there as soon as I may, fight there until we can open the gates and drive our spears in to the black hearts of these invaders who have no right to trample their feet across our land." Sadder, that small ring of defiance fading, added, "Tognus carries my second best spear and my spare sword. Let us pray to the Morrigan, our Goddess of war, that he will survive this day and in honour take up his own arms at the more appropriate hour."
"Yet it is an equal honour for a boy to win his spear in the heat of a fight is it not?" Braeda countered. It was not for her, a girl, to comment on the ways and traditions of men, but Braeda was never one for holding her tongue if there were words to be spilt from it.
Her father ruffled her gold hair, smiled at her. He loved his daughter as much as he did his son, for while the boy was quick to learn how to use spear, shield and sword, to handle the chariot teams and develop strength in his muscles and mind, Braeda reminded her father of her mother. Hair the colour of ripened corn, eyes as blue as a mid-summer sky, a laugh that swelled with the joy of a lark singing high above the corn meadows. The same shape chin and brow, the same slender hands and lithe figure. Her mother, the woman her father had loved beyond his own life, who had died giving birth to her only son and daughter.
"Aye lass, that indeed is an honour for a boy, " he answered, did not add that it was also considered an honour for a boy to die alongside his father, for that honour was reserved for the Otherworld, the world of wandering shadows, not this one of sparkling life and laughter.
He left Braeda to work with several of the younger boys, catching the chariot ponies from their pens, and slipping the bridles over their heads and the jointed iron bits into their mouths. She backed her father's two most special ponies either side of the long chariot pole, and lifting the yoke, buckled it to the harness straps, the two greys fussily tossing their heads, and snorting their eager excitement.
She laughed at the darker of the two, Hawkwind, with his dappled shoulders and black-tipped ears, as he stamped his foot impatiently, while she was finishing the securing of the leather straps.
"Now, wshh my beauty," she admonished, running her hand along the proud, muscled crest of his silk-smooth neck, "Your turn will come all too soon; let you be having a rest while you may - and be minding my feet, for I have no wanting of bruised toes from your stamping little hooves!"
The sun had risen, sending out a bursting glory of red and gold, the dazzling fingers of light striking up into the expanse of bird's-egg blue sky darting as straight and swift as tossed spears, making the few wispy clouds seem as if pots of coloured dye had been deliberately splashed over them all. With the strengthening light, the bright patterned enamels of reds and yellows and blues that decorated the harness took on a rich life of their own, adding to the jingle of the bit and the chime of the chain links.
But the light brought other things to life also, aside from the proud buckles and decoration of a chariot team's war harness. Down in the valley, a mile beyond the high oak-trunk palisade that ran all around the topmost rampart, the Romans were already on the move from their encampment. Their watch-guard trumpets and shouted orders had been pricking the night air throughout the hours of darkness; had crept louder in volume with the coming of the dawn. Braeda looked up from stroking Hawkwind's velvet soft, pink muzzle. From down here, below the rampart walkway, she could see only the hurried activity of the warriors - men and women - making ready. Down along near the East Gate she saw her two uncles, and with them, her brother, tall, as thin as a willow, but as strong as an oak. He looked much as she did, corn gold hair, blue eyes; his smiling mouth as wide, his trilling laugh as loud. Above him, the circle of the sky that should have been brightening into the blue of a cornflower, but was becoming black and angry with billows of drifting, clouding, smoke.
The first flicker of real fear tumbled through Braeda's stomach, drying her throat so that she found it hard to swallow. "What is it?" she whispered, "What makes the morning sky turn as black as night?"
One of the boys harnessing another team nearby, his face turned to look at the sky and nodded wisely. "It is the Romans, they are burning the new-growing corn and the ripening hay in our fields so that they may come nearer to the first ditch and rampart beneath a cloak of shrouding smoke. My father said they would be doing that."
"Aye," another boy agreed, "they are too much the cowards to draw up in the shield wall and fight openly as would we!"
A third boy who had been cursing his restless ponies added, with scorn, "My father said they would be setting fires in hope of stopping us from using our ponies. Hah! The fools!" Proudly he was stroking the white faces of his bay team, "Do they not know that our ponies have brave hearts and noble spirits? That they are full trained to turn not a hair at fire or flood, or noise, or the rank smell of blood and acrid stench of smoke? What use a chariot team that blanches at such!"
Braeda felt the churn of her stomach quieten. He was right! What imbeciles these Romans were to be thinking so obvious a trick would be fooling them, the people of the Durotriges! As the thought came her heart quickened, for she had caught sight of a group of women coming from a smaller, private, Hall to the side of the main, soaring Queen's Hall, the defused sunlight striking, defiant, on a glint of gold as the Queen herself, Isolde, walked head high and proud, to join her husband, the King Consort, Caracurus of the Black Hair, who stood with the warriors up on the top rampart.
Tears pricked at Braeda's eyes, tears of overwhelming pride. She was so beautiful and wise, Isolde of the Durotriges. Within her, as with her mother and her mother before her, back through the generations until the very beginning of time, she carried the heart, the very soul, of her people. While the King, Caracurus, may lead the warriors, may be chief for the fight or the hunt, it was for the Queen to lead and unite the tribe. He was the sun, gold in the sky, shining benevolent and protective, but she was the Moon, silver and serene, healer, wisdom-maker; mother to all. She was the mortal sister to the immortal Goddess, Morwynlleuadd, the Moon Maiden. It was for Isolde, through her care, to ensure that fortune walked always in the path of her people, that the crops grew well in the fields and that the children of the women, and the foals of the mares, the calves of the cattle and the lambs of the sheep, were born healthy and strong. Here, at the stronghold of Maidens, Isolde and her priestesses ruled by the blessing of their Goddess. It was to Maiden Hold, and the word of the Queen, their High Priestess, that all in the south west turned for guidance in law and life. And her presence bound their souls together as one tribe, one family. A citadel of vast importance, one that, if this man, this General Vespasian, was to even remotely succeed in the name of his God Emperor, Claudius, had to destroy.
Isolde was frightened, but she could not show her fear to her people, for they too were frightened, and it was to her, and her husband, that they looked for strength and courage. Around the Queen's shoulders was draped an ankle-length mantle made of the skin of a mare, a special cloak, from a special mare. Only the Queen of the Tribe, the High Priestess wore a cloak of purest white. On her head rested the horse-skull mask that was covered in half-moon shapes of gold discs, glinting and sparkling in the sunlight, and delicately tinkling as she moved.
From all along the palisade the men greeted Isolde's coming by leaping to their feet and lifting high their spears and javelins that were decorated with the black feathers of the raven, the totem of the goddess of war, the Morrigan. They shouldered their bright-painted shields and tossed high their voices and their hearts to hail Isolde, the day, the sun, and the coming of battle. Were answered by another roar, the sound of men from an empire across the Narrow Sea. The combined shout of a thousand, thousand Red Crest men let loose, unleashed to begin the fight.
Beside the horse pens, the pony that was the joy of Braeda's father, Hawkwind, lifted his head to the sky and answered, trumpeting his stallion's call of defiant pride.
and that is all I wrote. One day I may continue..
Battle begins, Braeda stays with the ponies, frightened but determined to keep the fear from entering the hearts of the animals who are uneasy at the noise. She has a talent with horses and is training to be a horsewoman, one of the priestesses who care for the breeding and foaling of the mares.
Her brother comes down from the ramparts and begins slashing at the harness, Braeda tries to stop him, asking what he is doing - "What will Father say? The chariots are to be ready for when they are needed!"
"Father will be saying nothing. He is dead. Nor will we be needing the chariots or the ponies," and to her horror, he draws his knife across the two ponies' throats, killing them. Braeda is hysterical.
"Do you not see?" he shouts, "it is over, the gates have gone, they have battered them down with their great iron-tipped rams - the Red Crests are nearly in our fort, they will be upon us any moment and I will not be letting them take my father's ponies!"
Horrified, Braeda realises that he must do this thing, then she remembers the Queen's mare, the Moon Pony. The breeding mares are out in the hills, where the grass is green and fresh, but the Queen's own special mare is here within the fortress, not far off foaling. Her coat is pure white, and she carries the sacred symbol of the tribe on her forehead, a whorl of hair shaped like the crescent moon. The Queen, who knows these things, is certain that she is special because she carries the most sacred accolade to the Goddess - twin foals. At all cost, the Moon Pony must be saved!