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Secret Passages - unpublished content

Foals of Epona – A Madoc the Horseman story. The following synopsis plus text of the first chapter is in preparation, and is exclusive to the H2U pages. Content is likely to change considerably during the writing process.


Foals of Epona
  by Helen Hollick

Synopsis

Madoc the Horseman, wounded in battle, is no longer an officer in King Arthur's elite cavalry. He does not know what he is to do with his life now, but he is determined to have nothing more to do with horses. He has reckoned without Fate, and the hand of Epona herself, the goddess of horses, however, for on returning to his home town of Voreda (modern Penrith) he meets a man with a beautiful white mare. A chance meeting, one Madoc thinks nothing off until he discovers an injured colt foal and a dead yearling filly.

He struggles on with the colt, every step taking him nearer to a home he does not want to return to. There, as he suspected, he is not made welcome for he has never been friends with his elder half-brother, nor his shrew of a sister-in-law. But needs must -where else has he to go? And now he has an injured colt to care for.

With the snow falling, all he can do is grumble over jugs of ale shared with his old friend, Ieuan ap Meurig, who, for all his authority as Keeper of the King's Law, has no interest in a dead horse. A break in the weather sees Madoc persuading him to at least take a look at the horse - undeniably killed intentionally, not by accident. What they find when they return to the scene, though, sets a whole new course in action - there is a dead woman with the horse, her throat slit. This is murder - and as it turns out, theft of the King's horse!

Madoc becomes more involved than he wants - the dead horse and the colt belong to Arthur, the King, and the dead woman is the grandmother to the young, spirited woman, Rhiannon. Profoundly deaf, she has lived a life of shy solitude, preferring horses as companions over people who mock her inability to hear and her poorly articulated words. But she does have a talent - she can read what a man is saying by watching his lips move - and, like Madoc, can understand what a horse is thinking.

Together, Madoc and Rhiannon set out to retrieve the stolen white mare, and bring a murderous thief to justice.

An adventure which is to take them into the lowland hills of what is now Scotland, and a danger that even Madoc has never faced before, or wants to face again.





October 463 A.D.


A scream. A sound that Madoc had heard before, on other occasions, in other places. A sound that he had no wish to ever hear again.

He glanced nervously into the dense foliage of the woods to either side of the empty road, nothing moved except the drizzle of October rain. No other, earthly, noises save for the trickle of water from a nearby stream, the drip of rain-sodden leaves, and the uneven squelch of his boots as he limped on, heading away, mile by slow mile, from the busy Roman town of Caer Luel. He halted, pushed the hood of his wolf-skin cloak from his head and ran his fingers through the thick tangle of straw-coloured hair that fell rain-sodden, and lank, to the collar of his tunic. His brows creased, bewildered, above hazel eyes that had, not so long ago, smiled with laughter but now only reflected his desolation. He could have imagined that sound of course, grief-riddled memories were difficult to control or discard. And he had enough of those to last a man a lifetime of imagined horrors.

The air was cold. This morning there had been ice riming the puddles. This rain, if the wind veered any further to the north, could change to snow. Pulling the wolf-skin back over his head he walked on, icy mud splashing onto his old, mole-skin braes that were hard-wearing and comfortable, yet thick enough to turn a glancing strike by a sword blade. The over-tunic beneath the cloak was of leather too, decorated with a personalised pattern of metal rings and studs, padded with alternate layers of wadding and felt. The uniform of the King's Cavalry, of Arthur Pendragon's Artoriani. Practical clothing for a man whose life may depend on the suitability of his protective garments. Not that Madoc had need of them. Not now.

The tribes of the north were at last subdued, and the King, Arthur, so it had been rumoured in town, was returning south. Madoc had no intention of meeting with the Pendragon again. Nor with the friends and comrades he had left behind to finish that long and bloody war up beyond the Wall. How many of them, he wondered as he trudged on through the rain, were now buried beneath the heather-turf of the Highlands? How many more bones lay rotting in lonely graves? How many more brave-hearted horses had filled the bellies of scavenging carrion? That had been a horse's scream he had heard - or thought he had heard. Ah, the harpers never told of the horses when they sung of the glories of battle. Never told of the suffering that they silently, and uncomplaining, endured.

"Sod it!" He swore aggressively, shut the intrusive thoughts of Arthur and his damned cavalry from his mind and concentrated instead on keeping his feet from plunging into the deeper, sodden ruts. The drag of his injured leg was slowing his progress. Not so long ago he had walked with a swinging stride, capable of keeping up with the pace of his mount, but that was before Trimontium and a battle that had left him trapped with a shattered thigh-bone beneath his dying friend. His horse, Tan Du.

Another few days and it would be the night of the dead, Samhain, and then the winter months. Madoc dreaded the prospect of the short days, long nights, cold winds and confining snow. Winter was the season to sit before the hearth, sharing ale, barley-beer and outrageously exaggerated lewd stories with like-minded companions. He would not be doing that this winter, nor, he thought with bitter regret, any future winter. Irritably, he shrugged his pack to the opposite shoulder as he passed a fifth mile-stone. Another two hours or so and he would reach his destination, Voreda. The old Roman-built fortress and settlement where his mother, twenty eight years ago, had laboured through the long hours of a mid-summer day to give him life.

"Bugger it!" Madoc snapped another oath as his boot skidded in a half frozen pat of ox dung, his arms spiralling to maintain balance, a stab of pain shooting like a lightning flash down the tender muscles of his left leg. When the army surgeons had done all they could for him, they had discharged him from both hospital and cavalry, offered a staff for him to lean upon as if he were a useless old man, a small bag of silver coin, and wished him good fortune. Huh! He had taken the coin, pride had refused the staff, and life, no doubt, would refuse to entertain the good fortune. Perhaps he had been the fool to not take the staff? Pride would be the more damaged if he arrived at his elder half-brother's tavern plastered from head to foot with mud and cow-shit.

Angry, rather futilely, he kicked at the pile of dung, swearing another oath of frustration that lurched off into the almost leafless canopy and dreariness of the woods. No sound or rustle of movement came back, as if the curse had been swallowed whole. Only the rain-mist slithered, silent and repulsive, between the shadows, accompanied by the overpowering, seductive, smell of wet earth and mouldering leaf litter.

In the eerie silence Madoc's breath rasped from his mouth, his heart hammering in his ears. He shuddered, regretted those thoughts of lonely graves, the dead and the dying. This was no place to be thinking of departed spirits - were Otherworld eyes watching him? Peering, hidden by the shape-shifting mist?

"By the Mane!" Annoyed, disgusted with himself, he swore aloud again, using the sacred name of Epona, Lady of Foals. "Damn fool! I am seeing danger where there is none - taunting fear as if baiting a trap for it to come stalking and sniffing nearer!" He strode on, lame-legged but head up, wolf-head hood pulled forward against the rain that was, as he had suspected, turning to snow. And despite the bravado, the fingers of his right hand furtively made the horned sign to ward off evil.

Then he gasped, almost let the meagre bundle of belongings fall, his breath catching in a quick, sharp and startled intake as a shape loomed out of the swirling snow ahead - a huge, multi-headed figure, snorting clouds of dragon's breath from wide, flaring nostrils. Fear ripped through Madoc, drum-beating in his chest, drying the saliva in his throat... then he closed his eyes, muttered a thankful prayer, and released the held breath in a relieved whoosh; then cursed, colourfully and vehemently.

"Epona's Mane, you damned near startled the piss out of me!" Madoc stepped to the side of the road, and dramatically placing his hand over his pumping heart, grinned inanely at the plaid-cloaked rider who was reining in a stocky, bay gelding and tugging frantically at a fractious mare dancing at the end of a taut-pulled headcollar rope.

"I was not expecting to meet anyone on the Caer Luel road this miserable day." Madoc continued affably, while out of habit he reached a hand forward, palm down, fingers outstretched, towards the mare; she pulled away nervously. A handsome animal, fine bred and of value. Curious, Madoc asked, "Do you have a buyer waiting for this beauty, Caedmon the Horse Trader?"

The rider's brows furrowed, not immediately recognising this rain-sodden, snow-dabbed, muddied traveller standing before him. He tossed back his hood to reveal brown hair that was cropped short in the old Roman style; grey eyes frowning from a clean-shaven, forty-year-old, wind-tanned face; a face marked by new-made scratches that clawed down his left cheek. A man for the ladies, Caedmon assessed the stranger in terms of a potential rival. He saw a gaunt-faced, lame-legged straggle of a man, tall but too thin and too life-weary to be of consequence where a lady's intimate affection might be concerned. In Caedmon's opinion, this man's chin was too square, and nose too large against those hollow cheeks and sallow skin. Ragged and grimed, bearing several days' worth of stubble-growth - but a man who had served, to judge by the worn, mud-stained clothing, as an officer in the King's Cavalry.

A spark of recognition tumbled to mind, and Caedmon acknowledged, with a sudden smile, the man before him. He half saluted by raising the hand that held the reins, nodded.

"If I had not a destination in mind, Madoc the Horseman, do you think I would be fool enough to venture out in this day's wretched piddle and snow? Damn it you idiot mare, what is it with you?" The bay gelding was standing patient and unconcerned but the mare, fidgeting at his side, again attempted to pull backward, the rope searing through Caedmon's hand as her front hooves left the ground in a rear. He snatched the rope tighter, hauling her down, revealing knuckles that were as bloodied and bruised as his face.

"This sodding animal has had me on the ground twice already," he grumbled, then, giving an accompanying rueful grin, added, "I wish I had never taken up this moon-mad deal. I reckon she has given me a couple of cracked ribs to add to this bloody mess!" He touched a finger to his cheek, "What with her bad temper and having to nail on a shoe that this fellow cast... God's Breath, but I feel I have been on the road forever this foul day!" Twisting the leadrope another turn around one of the two pommel horns at the front of the saddle, he kicked out at the mare with his boot, catching her brutally on the cheek. She squealed in pain and alarm, flung up her head.

Madoc winced. That was no way to treat a horse already frightened and confused, but he held his tongue; said instead, "I am no longer called Horseman. Plain Madoc will do."

Caedmon snorted disdain through his nostrils. "There are few in these parts who have not heard of your talent." He flicked an indicating gesture at the obviously injured leg. "You do not lose such an ability because of an ill-healed wound. Like it or no, you are not called Horseman for nought."

Madoc shrugged, not caring to argue, merely stated, "I will have no more of horses. They are nothing to me now." Now that I can no longer ride, he thought despondently. Now that I am worthless.

Caedmon chuckled. "You will not be wanting to offer me a grander price than the one I hope to get for this mare then?" His wide grin showed a row of white teeth, broken by a single molar that was capped ostentatiously in gold. "Not even with the good coin that Arthur surely paid you?"

Standing always brought a greater ache to the new-healed bone and muscles of Madoc's damaged thigh. He shifted weight, trying hard to conceal the pain that shambled up and down his leg, glanced again at the mare. She was indeed a beauty, a mixture of the slender desert breeding crossed with a native, stouter hill pony. He had seen plenty of her kind to recognise the quality. His own stallion had been of similar breeding, although this mare had one difference that he had not personally encountered before - she was pure white, with, as far as he could tell, not a single blemish of dark hair. But she was no abomination breed, no freak, pink eyed, deaf-eared albino. It was taboo to call a horse 'white', for only the Goddess, the Lady of the Foals, Epona herself, rode upon a mount as white as mare's milk; mortal beasts, so as not to offend Her, were always termed grey. This exquisite mare, though, was undeniably white. Too beautiful to be mortal bred.

Stepping forward, Madoc approached her, his shoulder set at an angle of 45 degrees, eyes lowered, fingers spread and body relaxed, his whole stance showing that he was no threat. From between his lips, issued a hushed, whispered breath, "Wsshh my beauty, sshh."

Her ears flickered with apprehension but she lowered her head, and taking in his reassuring scent, pushed her velvet muzzle into his shoulder. Careful not to make any sudden movement Madoc stroked his hand lovingly along the silk smoothness of her neck, across the ripples of her muscled shoulder and down the unblemished foreleg. Straightening up, he rubbed at the centre of her forehead, gently caressing the white hairs that swirled together in a whorl where once her ancestors, the horses of legend no longer in the world of men, would have grown their single horn.

She was as white and delicate as Tan Du had been black and solid. Tan Du, Black Fire. His bones lay, picked clean and rotting, on the battleground outside the hill-fort of Trimontium. A spear shaft hewn into his chest, blood draining from his nose and mouth as the fire that he had been named for had faded from his eyes.

"I have gold coin, aye," he answered Caedmon, "but not enough of it to afford this one. What man, below a king, has?" He said it with a sigh of regret and stepped back a pace, then huffed a low breath of derisive self-contempt. Why the regret? He had no use for a horse, by his own decision he wanted nothing more to do with them.

Caedmon's answering grin was sated with expectant gain. "The English Saex have gold, and the white mare is their sacred emblem. Aesc of the northern Jutes will pay a ship-full of the stuff for her, I am thinking."

Rubbing unconsciously at an old-gotten scar that ran from his hairline to his right eyebrow, Madoc chewed his lower lip. So, she was to go to the English? Most certainly Aesc would purchase her, to his kind she was as valuable as a sliver of wood from the cross would be to a Christian believer. Aesc carried the white horse emblazoned on his personal banner as a symbol of courage and strength, the living reality of such a horse would bring him great prestige. Madoc shrugged, hunched his shoulders and turned away. Three, four hundred Saxons - or Jutes as they ought to be correctly called - were settled at the eastern end of the Roman Wall that marched across the narrow neck of northern hills between sea and sea. Aesc was the eldest son of the ageing war lord Hengest, who ruled down in the south-east in the English-ceded territories beyond Londinium. Hengest, the most powerful of his kind, had been beaten in battle by Arthur, but one day soon, when the Saxon lord went to meet his foreign gods face to face, his eldest son would take up the reins of authority. A white mare could be used by Aesc as a totem to blow the cooling embers of war into life. Arthur, most assuredly, would not welcome the possibilities and implications.

Like most of his fellow countrymen Madoc had no liking for the Saxon incomers; the thought of a resurgence of the fighting that had been so bloody between the British and English tasted of bile in his throat. But if it came it would not be his fight, and one thing he had to concede, the Saxons would take a greater pride and care of such an exquisite creature than did this gold-greedy bastard of a horse trader!

"Good journey to you then Caedmon," he said. "See she is well sold to Aesc of the Saex, she deserves better than your bullying."

The acid words hit their target as Caedmon answered tartly, "Not all of us possess your goddess-gift, Horseman! Perhaps if men like you were to share your secrets more evenly ....?" He smothered the rise of sudden temper and cocked an expectant eyebrow, waiting hopefully. Some called the horsemen such as Madoc Whisperers - for there were others, Madoc was not unique - men who could seemingly walk up to a plunging animal, set a hand on its neck, whisper into its ear and have it as calm and placid as a new-born lamb.

There was more to it than that, but few with the blessing of Epona's Gift were willing to publicly release their learned secrets. Not if better impact, and higher profit, could be made by the marvel of what appeared to be instant magic. It had not taken magic, though, for Madoc to realise that this mare was dreadfully troubled. Ears back, agitated; sweat-streaked neck and flanks. Any fool, were he to look at the signs, could see her anxiety.

Receiving merely a blank expression Caedmon tried instead with, "Will I be seeing you at the Saturnalia horse fair in Caer Luel when I return? I'll buy you a jug of Greek wine with my share of new-acquired gold, and you can tell me how you would control such a mettlesome beast, eh?"

Madoc again made no answer, instead, he started to walk on, raising his hand casually in farewell. Behind him, as Caedmon disappeared into the swirl of snow the mare squealed and again launched herself upwards, accompanied by a staccato burst of the trader's most virulent cursing.

It had been her call that had echoed through the woods. A horse's scream was so much more potent than that of a man's, and Madoc would never, ever, get the sound of Tan Du's death out of his ears and mind. No matter how high he held his shield.

The mare was in trouble, but what could he do about it? Like he had said to Caedmon, he was no longer a horseman, he wanted nothing more to do with horses. Black, or white or any colour in between.

Copyright © Helen Hollick 2013