Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hunter's Moon (Full Story)

Every villager knows to lock up his daughters when the centaurs ride, lest they be taken as brides. But tonight the hunter’s moon hangs low in the sky, and my shutters swing open with ease.

Their hooves are thunder upon the earth, their cries like the songs of birds. They ride together as one, not man nor beast, but something beautiful and whole. I’ve seen them only once before, when I was a girl. They ride through the villages every ten years, a blink in time for them, but an agonizing wait for me.

There is one I have longed to see return. They call him Raelin, son of Rudiobus their king. I remember seeing him then;  his body, long and lean, mane as black as the ravens that lead them, and eyes as haunting as the moon. Raelin was young then, too young for a bride. Until now.

The fennel seeds sprinkled in my hair are fragrant, a favorite of all the centaurs. I weave meadowsweet in my braid, adding a touch of femininity.  Only strong young women are chosen, and the ravens have kept watch over the villages with the most promising girls. I’ve made sure to be seen in the forest with my bow.

My brother sleeps soundly next to his wife. He does not need me any longer, nor I him. The time has come for me to choose my own path, and I choose the centaurs. I choose Raelin, and I pray to the gods that he will choose me.

I slip out the open window, heading toward the forest. The village is silent and dark. The cobblestone streets, illuminated beneath the low red moon, lead me away from my past and toward an uncertain but beautiful future. When the sun rises and Raelin sheds his horse body to walk as a man, I will be his bride, a goddess among gods. A daughter of Epona.

The earth begins to quake beneath my moccasins and a murder of crows cover the night sky like a thousand arrows.

It is not long before I hear them, their voices as beautiful as I remember. The beat of my heart matches that of their hooves. I’ve already said goodbye to my village. Now I belong to the forest.

They burst through the trees, the eldest of them first, in a mass of browns, blacks, and grays. These centaurs are not looking for brides. They’re following the crows, leading the way for the younger men, for Raelin.

I find him easily, a clear, sharp image among the swarming colors and dust clouds left behind. While the others thunder through the village, Raelin walks calmly behind. He is a true prince. I bow to him, not submissive or subservient, but respectful. His presence commands it.

Raelin’s head tilts as he studies me with no expression on his face. It is only then that my confidence falters. Have I not impressed him? Has he not come for my hand?  I pull my shoulders back and draw a breath.

Raelin smiles, an expression so serene and still so full of power. He exudes power, and I find I like this about him. His suntanned skin, reddened by the moon, is criss-crossed with pale scars, but his horse body is flawless, sleek, and shining. He wears nothing but a forest green sash that hangs at his human waistline.

Raelin gestures for me to approach him. I can feel the eyes of the circle of centaurs upon my shoulders, but I pay them no mind. Raelin reaches out a hand to grasp a strand of hair that has fallen loose from my braid. He lifts it to his face and breathes in, closing his eyes and smiling.

I want to smile too, but I’m afraid that I will lose my composure and ruin this moment. So afraid that Raelin will not find me worthy.  I know if he does not, if he leaves here tonight without me, I will remain in my village. But my heart is not here. My heart is in the forest with the centaurs.

Raelin removes his sash and my body goes rigid as he reaches for me, draping it across my shoulders. It smells of him; evergreen, mountain air, and that sweet earthy musk that only horses possess. He holds out his hand. “Come. Daughter of Epona.”

I reach for his hand, but he drops it, his eyes fierce and focused beyond me.

“Eva, no!” A voice interrupts this perfect moment. The centaurs flock around their prince, arrows drawn on the imposter. “Eva, please.”

My body seizes. I know this voice. It is a voice that does not sound like the songs of birds. A voice that I do not long to hear. It is a voice I do not love.

The voice of my betrothed.

When I turn and find him standing there, pale and stubborn against the tall grass, irritation thrashes in my belly, familiar and frenzied. It’s the same feeling I’ve had for him since the day my brother told me we were to wed, but this time it dances with something else.

I take one step toward him and no more. “Aaron, you must return to the village.”

“I won’t.” Without moving, he has narrowed the distance between us.

There is a difference in the way he speaks and I think I have just seen him transform from child to man. All the pieces of him are the same, but they are somehow more solid than before. Though he has not yet grown a hair on his chin nor slain his first boar, I think it would be difficult to call him boy ever again.

“You must.” I do not hesitate. My words fly from my lips like arrows. “This is my choosing.”

“And this is mine.” He shifts and I see that he holds a spear at his side. The granite tip burns beneath the moonlight and I know what it is that spins in my belly, an awkward and eager partner to my impatience. It is fear.

Behind me, the centaurs have grown uneasy. I hear their hooves tearing open the earth and stamping it shut again. I am afraid they will soon lose their patience.

I fill my fist with Raelin’s green sash and raise it before me. “I do not choose you, Aaron. I never will. I am sorry for your pain, but it will pass if you will only go.”

His face pinches together and he shakes his head once sharply. His hair spills forward, dusky and wild, the only part of him I ever came to love. “You are bespelled, Eva. I will not leave you in the clutches of these beasts.”

The growls that crawl around me are not quite human. I hold my hands out as if to catch them and feel the rumble of them between my fingers.

“We do not bespell our wives.” The voice flies over my head. I only know it is not Raelin’s. “We have no need.”

“Because you would steal them from their beds, instead like the cowards you are? Poor, defenseless girls?”

My tongue trips over the insults, unable to pick one to rebuke, but Raelin is faster than I and his voice opens over the valley like sunlight. “You are brave to stand at the mouth of so many arrows and speak your truth, but you must recognize your defeat before it is eternal.”

The warning is a courtesy not given to many who confront the centaurs. But I can see it alone is not enough. His fingers are tight and anxious on the spear.

“Aaron, please,” I say hoping he will hear me. “My mind is clear. Lend me the honor our friendship deserves and believe me.”

The space between us grows heavy with silence. I do not know what Aaron will do now. I hope he will choose to leave, to accept my decision as final and return to the village to tell the tale of my abduction. It is always a tale of abduction, though I am certain I cannot be the first to seek the centaurs out.

All around us, the crows are impatient. They fuss and clatter their beaks at us or the moon for disturbing their peace, but the line of Aaron’s shoulders is persistent. He raises his spear.

“It is my right to challenge the beast who would steal my betrothed.” I see no trace of the person I’ve known. This Aaron, this man, is proud and fierce and unrelenting. “Put down your arrows and face me.”

I turn and press my palm against Raelin’s chest. He does not try to escape me and his eyes are hard and regretful. Already he mourns the life he will take from this field.

One of the others, a dusty roan with a wide forehead and a mouth that I think must always be happy, sticks the butt of a spear into the earth beside Raelin. Without thinking, I reach out my hand and take it.

“I am that beast who would steal your betrothed!” I take three steps away from the centaurs. Aaron’s eyes are wide as the moon. “I am a daughter of Epona and I accept your challenge.”

As soon as the unexpected words fall from my lips, I know they are truth. Raelin’s sash has given me strength, certainty. It is his world in which I belong. It is his people that I now call my own.

Raelin breathes in sharply and I hope that it is with pride, but I cannot turn to look. I must keep my eyes on Aaron, must show him I am as serious as the hunter’s moon is red tonight.

“Eva?” Aaron says, and with that one word his face slips from man to boy, full of confusion, and an emotion I’d hoped not to see. Hurt.

But his happiness is not my responsibility. He will heal if only he will go, and I intend to make him do just that. I thrust the spear into the ground beside me. “This is the life I want and I will fight for it.”

“You would die for it? For these… creatures?” Aaron asks.

I hold his eyes with my own so that he might see my honesty. “I would. And would you die to save your wounded pride?”

He looks beyond me, at all of the centaurs who stand silent, watching. Even the ravens have stilled their wings in wait for his reply.

I know the moment he decides. I feel the faint vibrations as something inside him breaks. I have stolen from him a piece of his honor. Even when he returns to the village and tells of my abduction, he will know the truth. He stepped down. He was not chosen.

The small part of me that cares for him in friendship aches. It would be too much to bear were I not certain this was best for us both.

Aaron returns his gaze to me. His face hardened, as though we are mere strangers meeting in the woods. “Very well. I do not wish to have a wife so unstable she would think it wise to run off into the wilds with a herd of beasts.”

The centaurs grumble at this but I move quickly. “Thank you, Aaron,” I say and reach for him. He steps back, not allowing me a proper goodbye.

“Come Eva,” Raelin calls, and my name in his voice is like music.

I cannot hide my joy even as Aaron watches, his brows sinking into a frown.

“Leave this boy to his musings,” Raelin says to the centaurs gathered around. “He has lost much tonight.”

Aaron straightens his shoulders and juts his jaw at Raelin. “I am no more boy than you, and I have lost nothing of worth here.”

Raelin remains calm, nodding with a restraint I would not expect in the face of such insults. He knows what has been taken from Aaron this night, and the respect he shows stirs a small storm in my chest. I have made the right choice.

I reach for Raelin’s outstretched hand.

“Not a boy?” Says the one who threw down the spear. His mouth twists into a smirk. “You can’t even hold on to your betrothed.”

Raelin’s gentle smile for me shifts into a mask of anger. My step falters until I realize the look is not for me, but for something over my shoulder.

A frenzy of motion erupts around me. Hooves pound toward me and screeching crows dive into the fray as I turn to look. At first I don’t recognize the face. Aaron is so full of rage he’s become someone else. I am hypnotized by his eyes. I cannot look away. Time slows as he lunges forward.

There is a burst of fiery pain in my side and then I am lifted. For a moment all I can see is red, and I think it must be the moon. I have flown high enough to be encompassed in its beautiful light.

“Eva.” Raelin’s voice comes from so far away. I wish he could be with me here on the moon. We could stay forever.

“Eva, can you hear me?”

The concern in his voice clears the moonlight away and I see his beautiful face surrounded by a halo of red light. My tongue feels thick when I speak. “Yes, my prince?”

His lips break into a smile, but his eyes glisten with tears. “Hold on my love. We will be home soon. My mother, she will know how to save you.”

The treetops are a blur above his head, and I realize he is holding me in his arms and we are galloping through the forest. My betrothed. His shoulders and chest are smeared with red. I reach up to touch his cheek and when I drop my hand his face is red too.

“There is no need,” I say, and curl myself into him. “I am already saved.”


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