Chapter 3 - Raines
I step lightly through the woods, away from my star place, away from the lawn, weaving through a thatch of huts. Little green eyes peek at me from doorways and I wave to the younglings. At the outskirts of our woodland village, I single out my family’s hut. I’ve got my own now that I have come of age but I much prefer to sleep under the stars.
“Mom,” I smile as she welcomes me in the door with a kiss on the forehead. I return one.
“Where is Persephone?” she asks.
“She’s coming. Changing, I think.” I glance about. It’s been several weeks since I stepped into our cozy hut. My childhood hut. “Where is Niamh?” I haven’t seen my older sister in several moons. She quiets, her smile slowly sliding away.
“I wish I knew… The Trinovantes’ tribe attacked the Isles. Niamh was on the Isles, studying with Azizi - the craftswoman.” I sober. My mother sighs. “The gods will protect her.” A moment later Persie appears in the doorway and my mother’s worries vanish. “Persephone!” she trills. “Baby girl!” They kiss foreheads, embrace. Persie smiles self-consciously.
“I missed you, Lady Else.”
“Oh, look at you,” Else says, spinning Persie in a circle. Persie’s blue skirt flows gently.
And from that moment on, the evening is cheerful and sparkles with familial love.
Not until I begin walking to my trees do my thoughts return to Niamh. I feel guilty for not worrying sooner. When - and how - I wonder, will she return to us? Will she return at all?
Castor and Pollux are shining bright. My skin cools against the night-touched moss. The next day at dawn, Cal and I skirt the edge of the Fields, wandering away to nowhere it seems. We are gingerly holding hands.
“Dance Elect is coming up.” Cal tosses the words gently into the air as if releasing a baby bird. I catch his phrase, stroke it in my palm. Respond.
“Do you want to be selected? Do you want to be on the warrior team?”
“What will that mean?” I ask.
“It means I’ll be dancing even more. It means that I’ll only be allowed time away from the dance hall during festival rest days. The consequences of us getting caught - it’s not something I think I could recover from.”
I slow him to a stop and turn his body gently towards mine. A few inches above mine, I find his eyes. They hold me still in a strong and honest gaze.
“We’ll be okay,” I tell him. His forehead presses to mine and one of his braids swings forward to beat my chest. “Are you nervous?”
“Yes,” he says.
And in that moment I know I will be at his side with love for a long time to come.
Mar turns to me, his fear leaking into the air. I stare into the old druid’s face, pale and drawn.
“The signs do not bode well. The goddesses are angry. We cannot hope to evade the Trinovantes until they are appeased.” The sun dips behind dusky hills and I shiver with the sudden chill roaming the air. “What of Mars? What of Neptune?” he asks me.
I hesitate. If there is value in his theories, there’s no reason to keep it from him. “Mars is only just beginning to rise. It will be prominent for moons.” Mar’s face crumples. I try to soothe him. “Surely the planets play no role in the outcomes of our trials. We will be safe once we perform. Our team is like no other.”
Mar stares at me sadly. “I have heard tales of many great empires that have fallen to bloody cinders. And each one begins with ignorance.” There is a pregnant pause. He reaches out and squeezes my shoulder. “Thank you for all your hard work, Raines. I know it is difficult believing other than the druids’ words but reading the sky to fuel our studies.” He opens his mouth to say more, but the impulse fades from his face. “Goodnight, my boy.”
I nod and offer a swift bow before leaping into the forest. My trampling feet snap branches and sluice through leaves. Twigs catch between my light brown toes. I want to be with Cal more than anything - to hide from the stars and the fate they supposedly bring, to hide in the warmth of his kiss. But he is gone now, entrenched in the Dance Elect, fighting to be seen. I almost feel the air searing his lungs as he leaps and twists and stretches for recognition.
I want him to be here. I want to be alone. I want to know what’s become of Niamh.
Time drags like sand across my throat. I lay in the sucking darkness of my hut, watching the fabric flap in the arch of my doorway, a timid breeze greeting me. I snarl at the air. The torchlight filtering to my eyes from the Lawn dims until it fades and leaves me lonelier. I sleep.
Moonlight sneaks into the room next to him. My eyes open. Cal sands silhouetted at the end of the bed. I see nothing but the golden triumph in his eyes.
“Cal.” My arms open to him. He sinks into the bed.
“I did it. I’m on the warrior dance team! Raines….” The last word is a whisper and I tremble at the tone of his voice.
His body presses to mine, tenderly at first; strong but shy. I collide with Cal’s mouth. Lips meet lips. Stars burst open. I burst open. His joy seeps into me, seeking me out, gliding softly into my heart. I reach up, left hand tangled in braids, right hand easing its way over his temple. His hair has been shaved away on this side of his head. Soft, angel-soft, the short strands run under my fingers. I pull my mouth away.
“Your third braid. It’s gone.”
“Yes,” he murmurs. “They cut it. It is the mark of a warrior dancer. A distinction between what I was before,” he pauses. I feel his heartbeat. “And what I am now.
Our smiles meet tenderly this time, but with a desperation that, a few seconds ago, had been absent. The length of his body presses to me, on top of me. Lean with muscle. I tremble. He feels me shudder, his hands sweeping from my shoulders to my chest. On their own, my hands strip away the fabric of my tunic and he slips out of his. A small hitch of breath catches my lungs. I smile. Breathless.
I place my palm on his chest. He smiles. The beat of his heart floods my fingers with life. He guides my hand down, trailing across ripples of muscle. They flex slightly with his short breaths. I see he is nervous. Tentatively, he slides his hands over the ridges of my hips, the hollow between them. I meet his eyes.
Our hands wander lower.
Every other heartbeat he is on my mind. Cal. My gorgeous dancer boy.
I enter the counselor’s tent and gasp. A hundred individuals are already gathered there. We are mostly the same age, young, but every face I see appears older than my own.
At daybreak, I sent Cal off to rehearsal with a kiss and watched him fade into the trees. It was at this moment that my mother approached me. Her eyes were downcast. She didn’t speak.
I took the paper from her hand and my eyes skidded across the runic symbols. Not making any sense of them. When there’s been a terrible mistake, your body knows precisely when to stop you from seeing the truth.
I read only enough to present myself in this very room.
A counselor stands at the front and we hiss to a hush.
“Caerinians,” she begins. “You have all been drafted.”
My heart goes cold.