I made sure to keep my body close to the forest floor as I slowly crept forward, my weapon at the ready, each step carefully placed as to make as little sound as possible. My leather skinned clothes helped dull the noise as I brushed against leaves and my fur boots muffled my steps against the wild forest floor that was covered in branches and leaves. I followed the tracks of my prey, keeping my eyes on what was around me, completely aware of which direction every sounds was coming from.
Birds tweeted their song in the distance, harmonising with all the other sounds of natures life. and I sent a quick prayer up to the Goddess of the hunt, Garbh Ogh while she was listening.
Stopping a short distance away from my target and readying my bow, I pulled back the string, feeling it tense beneath my fingers. This was one of my favorite parts, the exhilaration that flooded my body the few moments before my hunt finished.
From my crouched position behind some thin brambles, I had a clear line of sight, this would be an easy kill.
I made my final checks, not wanting to make any mistakes after the hours of tracking it had taken to find them. I was definitely downwind and out of view, so there was no chance of them seeing me and fleeing, there was nothing else around that was a danger to me, I was ready.
Taking in a deep breath and exhaling slowly, I let my arrow fly.
The arrow whistled through the air and hit its target right in the heart, allowing me to let out a small cry of triumph. Rushing towards the deer that now lay dead, my body finally relaxed. This deer would feed enough of my people to stop the ones that needed it most from going hungry, for now.
It had been a rough winter for all and prey was scarce, our stores of grain had depleted faster than normal and we had lost people to starvation. Never had I remembered a winter with such fierce storms of snow and ice that caused such devastation, many believed the Gods were punishing us, whispers went around the village that it may also have been a blessing as the storm had stopped the invaders from getting anywhere near us.
When I was sure the deer was dead, I sent yet another prayer to Gargh Ogh in thanks.
I pulled the arrow out from the deer's, placing it back in my quiver after cleaning the gore off on the grass. It was only then I allowed myself to feel the ache of tired and trembling muscles from having pushed myself so much. I lay on the grass next to my kill, utterly exhausted after hunting and riding for most of the morning and afternoon, I deserved a small rest.
It was a reasonably nice day and spring was beginning to show signs of arriving more forcefully. Snowdrops littered the forest floor and the comforting melody of birdsong drifted to me through the wind, encouraging my body to relax further into the ground. It was odd that after such a harsh winter, that the spring had brought such scorching heat.
Soon my people would celebrate and thank the gods with gifts and sacrifices for keeping most of us safe through the winter. There would be a massive bonfire near our standing stones and a new carving would be cut into them by our elders to depict the struggles of the past months so our tribe would never forget that even though we lost few, the many had survived one of the worst snowstorms in living memory.
Closing my eyes, I let out a small sigh. The heat of the sun washed over my body, making me feel warm inside and out, a gentle breeze keeping me from being too warm and in need more shade the silver birch trees offered. I could not stay for too long however, the heat would make the deer rot quicker so I would have to take it back to the tribe to be cut up and cooked soon.
Yet I craved the escape that hunting gave me, though I was seldom allowed to hunt alone and so far from home.
It was good to escape the tribe for even just a little amount of time though. There was so much going on that it was beginning to wear me down and I feared for my people's survival as much as my father and mother did.
There was talk of a peace treaty between the Brigante and the Romans further down south, peace treaty or slaughter, my father said. Of course we did not have much say in any treaty as it did not really concern my tribe. The Romans had not gotten quite as far up North as our land, that they referred to as either Pictland or the wider country as Caledonia. Though every now and again, a cohort would be spotted not far from my land, they never stayed, they were beaten back by either the harsh landscape or the spears and arrows of the surrounding tribes.
God's I would never understand their need to name places as they did and I hated them. They had already taken slaves, killed and raped their way through the most southern tribes, leaving the sigil of Rome in their place. Enslaved or slaughtered seemed to be their drive, even if they spoke of peace. The villages and tribes that had bowed down were supposedly shown much leniency as free people as long as they agreed to trade with and fight in Rome's name, something that seemed a lot like slavery to me.
I had never met any Romans myself, but I knew they called my people the Picti or painted ones because of the blue woad we stained on our bodies alongside our tattoo's in swirls and lines of intricate knots, used to intimidate our enemies and even show status. Even right now, though I was not in battle, I had lines of woad on my face, neck and wrist that twisted around the inked in tattoo's along my arms and legs, up my side and curling around my back.
Two finger width lines of woad cut down my left eye, from my eyebrow to the top of my cheekbone, the blue bringing out the hazel tones in my eyes, on my right side was a swirling pattern going from my jaw, down my neck and to my shoulder and finally, I had a thick loop that wrapped around my left wrist.
The markings on my eye showed I was a hunter, the one on my neck that I got a few years back, showed I had been in battle and the one that encircled my wrist let the tribes know I was a seer, connected to the gods. The the woad would fade and need repainted, my tattoos depicted the same knowledge so that all would understand who I was.
In all my 17 winters, I had never seen or heard of battles as bad as those being fought against the Romans in the last year. Although the fighting mostly kept out of our borders, my people often offered help to the Celts and Britons of the south. We were strong warriors and our magic was tied to the land, giving us an edge over any foe.
I hadn't realised I had drifted off until I heard a male voice from behind me.
"Nice hunt, Ceana."
"What are you doing here, Mata?" I snapped, keeping my eyes closed in an attempt to cling on to my daydreams.
"I came to tell you to return home. The chief is looking for you." He explained, standing arms crossed in front of me.
My small moment of peace was over then. Sitting up I eyed Mata carefully. He was topless in the heat, exposing his muscled torso covered in dark blue swirls and tattoos. Like me he was wearing leather trousers and fur lined boots that laced up over his calves.
Even though Mata had seen nearly 22 summers and was a warrior by trade, he spent most his time running after me and keeping me out of trouble...if he wasn't the one getting me into it, in the first place.
His black eyes watched me closely as I studied him. As most of our people did, he had dark brown hair that was only an inch away from hitting his shoulders and almost covered his eyes.
I would often tease him about his fringe asking him, "How are you meant to fight our enemies, if you cannot see them?"
Mata would just huff at me and flick his hair out of his face.
"Maybe you should just do what the other warriors do and shave it all off." I would suggest, knowing he would never even think of doing it. He was too proud for that.
Today was no different and as I lay back down on the damp grass I decided teasing him would take my mind off having to go back home.
"You really should fix your hair."
He chuckled as he took a seat next to me and began picking at a blade of grass. "I think I would lose too many of my women if I did that."
I frowned at him, "The only woman chasing after you is your mother trying to keep you in check."
It was his turn to frown now, and I laughed at him as he poked my side.
"She thinks I need to find a wife soon," he sigher, referring to his mother, "She says at my age I should have had my first child by now."
Not that I would ever admit to him, but his mother was right. Many in the village were married by my age.
"My father thinks I need a man." I answered bitterly.
"Well then, aren't we a perfect match made by the gods themselves?" Mata declared.
Laughing briefly, I looked over at him, expecting to see his signature smirk, but his face was serious. My smiled dropped and I looked away with a huff.
I thought of him as a friend, no more and he damn well knew that. It wasn't the first time he had hinted at our union and I knew it probably would not be the last.
"I don't want to be married." I snapped.
I stood to get ready to head back to the tribe, my peaceful mood now ruined. The thought of leaving and making my way north as a wanderer once again fleetingly passed but I would never do it, I had people that needed me.
There was a moment of silence after I spoke and Mata watched me grab my bow from the ground in an angry swipe. He sighed and picked up the hind legs of the deer I had killed.
"Remember to go straight to the chief when you get back, Ceana. You know he doesn't like to be kept waiting." He warned, giving me a pointed look.
I really didn't want to go back just yet. There were too many responsibilities and expectations for me were high, but he was right I could not take too long.
Nodding my head we made our way to our horses that were tied up side by side and I took a moment to wonder how Mata had managed to find me; this wasn't my usual hiding place.
"You go ahead Mata, you can take the deer with you. I am just going to get some water." I smiled.
He looked at me sceptically, raising an eyebrow and shaking his head. After giving him the most innocent look I could muster, he rode off and I watched him disappear behind the silver trees that were native to my land.
I patted my horse and placed the soft blanket onto her back, preparing for my ride home. Rabbits I had caught from earlier hung from my saddle next to the small leather satchel of water that I greedily took a drink from.
"Well Epona, it looks like my day free has been cut short." I muttered, feeling disgruntled.
I walked Epona to the edge of the forest to prolong my journey back as much as I could, but as soon as we were out, I rode at a fast gallop back to the village.
I laughed at the warm air whipping through my dark hair as I raised my arms up, so they were parallel to the ground. The wind danced through my spread fingers and I closed my eyes to enjoy the sensation of flying, of freedom.
My joy was cut short when I reached the small settlement that was home. I slowed down, reaching the wooden gate that was guarded by the twin warriors Ailean and Ailig.
I jumped off Epona and guided her towards the scowling guards.
"You should have been back hours ago." Ailig scolded me.
"I lost track of time." I muttered.
Making a move to enter that gate, Ailean stopped me with his spear and I groaned.
"The chief is not happy, Ceana. Has has company coming tonight and he needed you back when you gave your word you would be."
"Oh..." I trailed off, guiltily.
Ailig chuckled at my reply, "In quickly, before he has both of our lives sacrificed to the fates." He motioned his head to his twin.
I all but ran in, quickly handing Epona to one of our few slaves and running again to the chiefs hut. It was one of the few non animal skinned huts in our village and was by far the biggest as to accommodate feasts and guests.
Once in, I realised there was a meeting going on as the elders and lead warriors were gathered together and discussing something in angry tones. Mata was among them, standing next to his father who gave a disapproving look at my lateness.
I grimaced, picturing the scolding I would get from the chief for being late.
"Nice of you to join us." The subject of my thoughts said.
I gave a nervous laugh, walking further in and standing before the two wooden thrones at the back of the hut for the chief and his wife. When I reached the thrones I knelt down on the wolf pelt that was set before them.
"There had better be a good reason for you going against my orders, Ceana." The chief snapped and was about to stand up before his wife placed a calming hand on his arm.
"Would there ever be a good reason?" I argued back, keeping my head respectfully bowed, but not bothering to hide my smirk.
The spectators laughed quietly, but shut up at my father's glare. Noticing that he did not see the funny side of this, I decided sincerity was the best course of action.
"I am sorry father. I got caught up in my daydreaming again." I murmured, grimacing at his obvious anger.
My father, Torquil, Chief of my people, shook his head angrily at me while my mother, Catriona, tried to hide her smile behind a hand.
"That is no excuse! Now, listen carefully during this meeting and I may decide not to punish you for it!" He hissed, narrowing his glowing eyes dangerously.
I nodded quickly and scampered to stand next to my mother's throne. She reached a hand to my cheek and tutted softly.
"Why must you antagonise him so?" She sighed, but I could tell she was not angry at me. To be honest, I thought she found the entire thing highly amusing.
The men in the room started discussing whatever it was I had interrupted, in more hushed but strained whispers, completely ignoring me and my mother.
I smiled apologetically at her, "I do not mean to."
She raised an eyebrow, laughter lighting up her face. "I take it Mata went to find you."
"Yes, thank the gods for if he did not I would probably still be out." I admitted, looking over at Mata for a few seconds, only to meet his intense gaze.
I gasped and quickly looked back at my mother, blushing at being caught staring.
"He is very fond of you." She hinted, noticing the exchange and I scowled at her.
"I do not think of him in that way and you well know it."
"He is a handsome man, Ceana. He would make a good husband." She insisted.
"I do not want, nor need a husband." I snapped, glaring at her.
She raised her hands in surrender, "I am not pushing you to marry. If your father and I married for love, I believe you should do the same."
"Thank you." I sighed, feeling the tension in my body dissipate.
The meeting dragged on and my mother had braided the front of my hair before I plucked up the courage to ask the question that had been on my mind since my talk with Ailig and Ailean.
"Forgive my interruption, but who are the guests we are to be expecting tonight?" I inquired.
Mata rolled his eyes at me and I glared at him, as my father turned to me with a frown on his face.
"We are expecting a visit from the Roman General Castiel, to discuss trading, among other things." He explained.
From the scowls on the warriors faces who were around the fire, I could tell that not everyone was happy with the idea, and to be honest neither was I.
"Why should we make peace with the men who want OUR land for themselves? How many of our people have died to protect us? How many women have been taken as slaves and been beaten or raped? They cannot be trusted!" I argued, my hands fisting by my sides angrily and causing my knuckles to whiten.
Heads nodded and voices murmured their agreement and an argument broke out towards the back of the room that was silenced by my father's raised hand.
"I understand the concerns that my daughter has raised, but is not peace with the Romans the lesser of two evils?" He addressed the tribe.
"Or would you rather our people continued to fight and die?" He asked, placing his palm on my cheek in a rare fatherly gesture.
Turning my head from his hand and taking a step back from him I crossed my arms defiantly. The chief was right and he knew it too, if the smirk on his face was anything to go by.
"Your anger is well placed, blood of my blood. I am glad you feel the need to protect your people, but you are still young and you need to learn that peace is sometimes the better option."
I still did not completely agree, but I nodded anyway, "Yes father, I see your point."
"Good, because you will be coming with me to escort them back here." He revealed, nonchalantly.
My eyes snapped to his and I ground my teeth together before letting out a frustrated sigh.
"Where are we meeting them?" I gritted out and my father smiled down at me.
"The standing stones." He replied, walking to my mother to place a kiss on her hand, before he pulled his cape on.
I had to bite my tongue to keep back my angry retort. They shouldn't be anywhere near our sacred place. It was for the tribes only and the gods would not be pleased.
Glaring into the fire while the warriors gathered their weapons and capes readying for our departure, I tried to call on a vision of the coming events. Much to my frustration nothing came, the gods were silent and even the great mother, who most of the time answered when I called upon her, had left me blind to the future.
I sat exasperated on my fathers vacant throne, next to my mother.
"Can you see?" I asked her. "The future I mean, I am not able to."
My mothers eyebrows rose in shock, it was common knowledge to the tribe that I was more powerful than my mother.
Sighing and sinking deeper into the throne I looked at her expectantly and waited for her to try to see a vision, something, anything!
I held my breath in anticipation as my mothers eyes closed and her head tilted up. After a few long seconds she opened her eyes with a frown on her face and I knew what her answer would be.
"The gods are not listening today, but don't worry, they won't stay silent forever." She laughed at my frustration.
I heard a horn blow and knew that was the signal that the time had come for our departure. Standing up a shiver wracked over my entire body and a strong feeling of trepidation came over me. This was it, what I was waiting for, a sign.
My mother noticed but before she could ask I grabbed my bow, kissing my mother on the cheek and promising to be careful. I ran to Epona and rode out to the front of the group.
What did it mean? It was obviously not a good sign...Although, now that I thought about it the feeling was more like what... nerves? And that could be good or bad.
Damn the gods and their unclear visions, it could never be simple with them.
The wooden gates opened to reveal a slight mist covering the ground. Another sign from the gods I was sure, and I felt the warriors unease at the sight. To lighten the mood I warned the group to steer clear of any Wisps or Shee lest they be whisked away. The laughter that followed put a smile on my face as the rest of the men made jokes and shoved each other about.
Despite the happy atmosphere, my heart was still beating wildly in my chest and I could hear the blood rushing through my head. I wished I could say I was not scared but from what I had seen and heard, the Romans were not to be trusted and here we were about to take them right into the heart of our country.
I sent up a silent plea to the spirits of our ancestors to watch over us and heard the land whisper its reply in a gust of wind and the rustling of leaves, hopefully that would be enough.
Hope you enjoyed it :)