It was night, and the spirits walked.
In the lodge of the lord of the tribe, Toutorix, the Invincible Boar, Epona waited for the representatives of the spirits to come for her. Since sunrise she had carried a knot in her belly, but she refused to give in to it. She had gone through the day as if it were any other day, pretending not to notice the jealous teasing of the other girls and the suddenly speculative glances of the boys. She had eaten her meals without tasting them and had licked her fingers afterward as if she had found the food delicious. It was important to avoid offending the spirits of the animals and plants that had been sacrificed for her nourishment.
As the sun moved across the sky the knot in her belly became a stone. The older women began preparing her for the night's ritual, and she submitted in silence as they bathed her body in three changes of cold water, and oiled her skin with perfumed oil from a silver Hellene ewer. Rigantona watched closely to be certain no drop was wasted. It was her oil and her ewer.
Epona's masses of tangled, tawny hair were pulled smooth with a bronze comb and plaited into three braids, with a copper ball knotted into the end of each to signify her status as the daughter of Rigantona, the chief's wife. Rosy-cheeked Brydda batted at the balls to make them swing, and laughed like a child, but for once her infectious gaiety did not strike an answering note in Epona.
After sundown she could no longer wear the short tunic appropriate for children, but she was not yet a woman, so her mother wrapped her in a blanket woven of soft baby-goats' hair and pinned it securely with one of her own bronze brooches. "Be certain you return that brooch to me afterward," Rigantona said sharply. "Don't you dare lose it!"
Afterward. It was hard to believe there might be an Afterward, when you were going into the unknown to face the spirits. Epona looked into her mother's face and thought of all the questions she wished she could ask, but she said nothing aloud. What lay ahead was mystery. To be worthy of her blood she must face it bravely, just as any warrior went to certain death, knowing that life continued beyond. Afterward.
At night the spirits walked.
When the long purple shadows swallowed the lake the women would come for her. Epona's younger brothers and sisters sat big-eyed on their sleeping benches, waiting. The chief and his wife stood on either side of her, proud and tall, prepared for the arrival of the gutuiters. They heard the foot steps on the path outside. They heard the knock: three heavy blows on the wooden door.
Epona's heart was pounding, but she tossed her head back and stood very straight as the door was thrust open. Nematona, Daughter of the Trees and senior gutuiter, a wornaft as lean and vigorous, as a mountain pine in spite of her many winters, strode into the room. "We have come for the girl child," she announced with the authority of her office. Two other women entered behind her, bringing with them a scent of sweet smoke and bitter herbs.
"She is not ready," Rigantona protested according to custom but without sincerity. She had waited a long time for this night, to see the child leave. She held Epona by one shoulder and Toutorix took hold of the other, ready to propel the girl forward if she should threaten to humiliate them by balking. Children did sometimes struggle at this final moment, and even those who knew her best could not always predict what Epona might do.
"Come," Nematona commanded, holding out her hand.
I do this willingly, Epona said in her mind, to her mother. If I did not, you could not force me; you could not! She had had many similar conversations with her mother over the sear sons, not all of them silent.
She clasped Nematona's hand firmly, realizing by the warmth of the gutuiter's fingers how cold her own were. It would have been clever to warm her hands by the fire before the women came for her, but of course no one had suggested it and now it was too late. What was done now must be of her own doing.
Nematona led her from the chief's house, the other two women walking beside them, holding torches aloft. Epona ached to steal one look backward, to see if her parents were watching her straight back and squared shoulders; but she heard the door pulled shut behind her, its hinges creaking. Only the lord of the tribe had the new iron hinges Goibban had recently designed. Epona heard the thud of the bolt, signifying that the child was now barred from the lodge of the mother; she might enter again only after she had passed into her nextlife.
The lodge of Toutorix occupied a central position in the village, a community of dwellings and workplaces built of timber and clinging to the western shore of a narrow, winding alpine lake. Grouped around the chief's house woe the lodges of his nearest kinsmen, the nobles of the tribe, and beyond these clustered the smaller lodges of miners and craftsmen and stockmen. Arranged for convenience around the village perimeter were the workshops and carpenters' pavilion, the dome-shaped bakehouse and smokehouses, the storage pits and holding pens for the livestock. In a place of honor, slightly set apart and surrounded by precious space, stood the forge of Goibban the smith.
The mountains rose abruptly, crowding in on the village as if to shove it from its precariously narrow perch into the cold lake. Clinging to the forested slopes above were the lodges of more miners, for many men now worked the great Salt Mountain. In the folds of the hills, above deep wooded valleys, were the old smelters and mine shafts that had supplied the tribe with copper for bronze-making for many generations. Nearby were the huts of the charcoal burners, the strange men who held themselves apart from most aspects of village life yet faithfully cut wood and tended the smoldering charcoal mounds upon which the forge and smelters depended.
A timbered palisade shielded the village from view of the stony path leading up over the hills to the mountain passes. Four nights to the west, along that trail, lay the famed Amber Road leading far north to the "sea gold" of the Baltik, and south to sunny Etruria, where it was partially paved with stone and causeways had been 1milt over the frequent marshes.
Along this road were shipped copper ingots and bronze ornaments, furs and hides and cattle, casks of honey and resins, bales of wool beeswax and tools and countless wagon-, loads of salt, the outpouring produce of the Blue Mountains.
Following the same road up from the south came gold and silver, wine and olive oil, faience glass beads and topaz jewelry and ivory bangles, perfumes and dyes, and tanned strangers from lands warmed by the seas of endless summer.
Aside from the trail through the mountains, which villagers called the trade road, the only other access to the community was by water, across the lake. This proved a convenient route for floating out timber and bulk shipments of salt to be moved into the descending waterways and the network of rivers to the north.
Up the steep valley at the head of the lake was the great Salt Mountain itself, dominating the thoughts of all those within its sphere of influence, providing a wealth for the tribe of the Kelti that they could neither measure nor exhaust.
For most of each day, the village lay in the shadow of the towering mountains. What little level terrain existed was long since crowded with buildings, except for the tribe's common-ground, near the lodge of Toutorix. Epona and the three gutuiters must cross this open space on their way to the sacred grove and the house of Kemunnps, Priest of the Stag, chief priest of the Kelti.
No! Epona would not let herself think about the shape-changer. Her loathing for the man might weaken her, and she must not allow that to happen. I will do this my way, she said to herself. My way. She matched her pace to the processional stride of the gutuiters and pressed her lips together to keep them from quivering.
Sometime during the long day one of the women attending. her, Suleva, She Who Bears Only Daughters, had broken the prohibitions to whisper a fragmented warning: "You must not show fear. An awful thing will happen if…" Then the woman shrank into herself and said nothing more.
The gutuiters began the ancient chant:
"Maiden to sacrifice,
maiden to sacrifice.
See her go.
See her go.
Dark is the night,
cold is the wind.
See her go.
See her go.
Follow the fire,
See her go!
See her go!"
They moved their upper bodies in time to the chant, bending from side to side so the torches they carried made swirling patterns of light. The swaying movements and light dizzied Epona, and it was an effort to keep her steps regular, one foot set neatly in a direct line in front of the other as was proper
for mountain dwellers.
Spectators, crowding into the doorways of their lodges, took up the chant: "Maiden to sacrifice. See her go!" Their voices rang in the night air, calling the attention of the spirits to Epona.
As she came abreast of each lodge, those who watched were careful to look down, for it was considered dangerous to meet eyes with a person passing between worlds.
An evening breeze sprang up, bringing the smoke from. Kernunnos' lodge to meet the little procession, and as they passed the house of the dead, the voice of the chief priest could be beard, joining in the chant with secret words from the language of the spirits. That harsh voice carried a long way.
The valley seemed to grow darker, as if the residual twilight were being sucked out of it by the smoke and the chanting. The breeze became a cold wind from mountain passes still blocked by snow, and the ice crystals it carried froze out the softer scent of the pines at the edge of the sacred grove.
Epona did not look at the trees, but she heard Nematona call to them with love, and heard the soughing of their branches in answer. There was a spirit of exceptional power in the sacred grove. To walk close to the gnarled trees was to feel its presence, like a multitude of eyes looking at you, like the humming of a vast hive of bees, like the breathing of great animals, crouched and waiting, thinking unimaginable thoughts.
The people of the village gave up the chant and went back into their sturdy safe lodges, to their bright warm fires. Only Epona and the gutuiters remained under the open sky, where the awakening stars could see them.
The path became narrow and broken, and sharp stones pressed into Epona's bare feet. Beyond the trees stood the magic house of Kernunnos, which she had never seen, for children were forbidden to go near it. It was built of oak, like the house of the dead, instead of birch, as other lodges were. The wood of the sacred tree was used for these special buildings because having once been sanctified they must stand forever, they could not foe remade.
There was another structural difference between the house of Kernunnos and those of other people. All other lodges of the living were rectangular; that of Kernunnos was built to conform to the sacred circle. Trees crowded close behind the priest's lodge, and Epona knew from whispered stories that the ravens of Kernunnos sat hunched like black spirits of doom in those trees, surely aware of her approach.
The smoke issuing from the magic house was acrid and made her cough.
The gutuiters stripped her of her blanket before shoving her inside the lodge. At first she could see nothing, could be aware of nothing but the smoke stinging her eyes and nostrils and the sound of the chanting reverberating through her being, making her part of itself. A beating like a drum. There was a drum; she could make out its voice, the booming of the priest drum, and it came closer. Something was coming closer. Something terrible and irresistible.
There was a shrill cry directly in front of her, and a face materialized from the smoke, a sharp-featured face like that of a fox, with yellow eyes that burned into hers. The power of those eyes made everything else fade away and she saw. only the feral gaze of Kernunnos the priest.
Epona was nauseated by the visceral revulsion she always suffered when she was near the chief priest, but she struggled to fight it off. It must not interfere with the ritual.
Kernunnos was dressed in a cloak of animal skins, with dangling paws that swung limply as he circled the girl. She smelled his body; rank, musky, a wild animal's smell. His eyes stared and glittered. On his head towered the branching antler headdress that marked him as a shapechanger, the rarest of the druii, the most awesome member of that priesthood whose talents were passed on through the blood or, occasion ally, bestowed as a sign of exceptional favor from the spirits themselves.
In one hand Kernunnos grasped a piece of horn, a prong taken from the antlers of a mighty stag sacrificed generations before. The bone had been polished and sharpened to a fine point. At its tip it bore a permanent stain, hike ocher.
Kernunnos lifted the prong to the level of Epona's eyes and shook it at her. "Your time has come," he chanted in a singsong voice. "One life is over. One life begins. It is always so. Make ready for the spirit of the strong and the powerful, Epona, the strong and the powerful. Make ready for the sacrifice of the blood, for the blood is the life. Make ready for life, Epona."
"E-po-na, E-po-na," thee women chanted. They began t move, dancing, bending, forming a circle around the pair in the center, holding them within its magic ring. Circling, circling.
"Epona!" they cried. "Mother to daughter to mother to daughter, open the way. Open the way!" The gutuiters danced faster and Kernunnos began to dance too, turning with them, always holding the sharpened prong before Epona's eyes as if he were using it to lead her, She followed him because there seemed nothing else to do. Her feet had no will of their Own, moving in an ancient pattern her flesh and blood knew but her mind did not. Kernunnos Understood. His hot eyes smiled at her across the antler; through the smoke. He lowered his hand and the prong touched her breast, just pressing (he skin at first and then digging in hard, drawing blood. Kernunnos danced and turned and darted at her again and again, seeking out the tender parts of her body, watching with his feral eyes to see how she reacted.
He could kill her easily. He could tear open her unprotected body with that horn and kill her, and there was nothing she could do about it. Who could question a sacred ritual? Who knew what the spirits plight direct him to do? Epona had walked into mystery; no one who returned from the lodge of Kernunnos ever spoke of the ceremonies performed there. It was forbidden.
With balled fists held tight to her sides, she faced the priest and waited with all the dwindling courage she possessed, aware of her bravado draining out of her like urine trickling down her legs. Never before in her life had she, eldest daughter in the lodge of the chief, been hurt; only, skinned knees and stone-bruised heels, and a kick from one of Kwelon's oxen. She was unprepared for pain; hot, lancing pain. She fought to keep herself from shrinking away from the stabbing antler.
The dancing unit, with Kernunnos and the' girl still held in its center, moved closer to the firepit in the middle of the lodge. The youngest and fairest of the gutuiters, Tena, She Who Summons Fire, took a pottery jar from the stone hearth and shook its contents over the flames, murmuring an invocation. A gout of greenish smoke belched up from the coals, filling the lodge with a smell like overripe fruit.
The smoke swirled around Epona, caressing her. It filled her lungs and her brain and permeated her being, and with it came a sort of ecstasy, a drunkenness such as affected those who drank too much wine. Nothing seemed so important anymore. Her blanket was gone, and with it her mother's precious brooch…so? Kernunnos whirled and gibbered and the pain came…but? It did not matter, It was hard to remember that she had ever been afraid. Her newly grown breasts felt heavy for the first time, and there was a heat at the bottom of her belly that had not been there before. Not so much a heat as an ache, a needing…
She turned and turned like a hungry child, seeking the mother's nipple, and the ache went with her. She surrendered to it. She collapsed into this wonderful soft swirling sensation with its colors and odors and a faraway ringing of bells--were they the little bronze bells the women wore on their ankles? Did it matter? How delightful to be cushioned in this new way and feel a reasonless happiness glowing through her flesh. She smiled. She laughed softly to herself. She shook her head so the weight of her braids whipped around her and she was not afraid.
The not smoky air felt good on her bare skin, and the lightning flashes of pain as the antler kissed her meant nothing; they could not hurt her. She was sweating profusely and the close air of the lodge made her wish she had more clothes to take off, takeoff her very skin, break free of whatever it was that was pressing in on her, pressing…
She was very dizzy. The drum was beating and 'the bells were tinkling and the gutuiters were singing in faraway voices. A wave of nausea shook her and she closed her eyes for a heartbeat, feeling her balance desert her as she did so. She stumbled forward, throwing out her hands, expecting the priest to break her fall, but Kernunnos was no longer there. He was behind her now, prodding cruelly between her legs, and the pain was too intense to be denied. She was on her hands and knees and he was hurting her, hurting her…she chewed her lips to keep from crying out. With an incredible effort she managed to stagger to her feet and face him, refusing to be savaged from behind.
The prong slashed like a knife across her breasts.
The shapechanger stared at her. His lips were drawn back from his teeth into an animal's snarl, and he was singing a high-pitched ululation mat changed and became the cry of wolves on a winter night, far off in some snow-filled valley. No one who heard that cry could escape the thrill of fear that followed the wolf's passage down countless generations; The wolf sang of wisdom, of loneliness and freedom, reminding men huddled in their lodges that there were wiser spirits in the world--and better hunters.
The shapechanger looked at Epona through a wolf's face. The animal itself seemed to stand before her, marking her for its prey. To her surprise, in that desperate moment some-inner prompting came to her, as clear and sharp as a human voice speaking. With a nod of understanding, Epona looked into the terrifying visage of the shapechanger and drew her own lips back from her teeth, matching him snarl for snarl.
The women seized her and lowered her to the ground. One sat on her chest and the other two spread her legs wide, so the priest could dance between them. The chanting became muted as Kernunnos invoked the names of the spirits of tree and stone and earth, calling on them all to witness the ritual and accept the girl's passage to the nextlife. When he sang the names of the water spirits the women wailed in chorus, spitting into the palms of their hands and rubbing the liquid on Epona's skin. When he called upon the fire Tena gave a great cry and light blazed up in the lodge.
Epona felt very far away from herself. She waited passively now, almost indifferently, as Kernunnos squatted between her spread legs and deftly guided the sacred horn to the entrance of her body. The priest closed his eyes and sang the song of the gateway; he demanded admittance for the spirit of life. As the chant rose in power the women moaned and fell silent. The voice of Kernunnos shrilled upward into a final ringing note and one exquisite stab of pain lanced through Epona.
The women shouted in triumph.
The girl lay panting on the floor. They did hold her now, they stood at a respectful distance, smiling down, and Nematona extended a hand to help her to her feet. Tena and Uiska, Voice of the Waters, came closer to caress her fondly. It hurt to move but she would not let them see Tier wince. Why give way to pain now, when the worst was over? She was surprised to realize the smoke had cleared away completely, and the lodge of the priest was just a warm room with a friendly fire blazing in the circular firepit.
She stood swaying, vaguely aware that the women were sponging her body with heated water. As. her vision cleared, she realized the priest's lodge was far different from the luxuriously furnished home of the lord of the tribe, The dwelling of Kernunnos resembled an animal's lair.
Every bedshelf was covered, not with soft fur robes, but with whole skins bearing feet and tails. The heads had polished pebbles for eyes. The hides of larger animals, such as stag and bear, were pulled into lifelike postures by leather thongs suspended from the lodgepoles that supported the thatched roof. Dead birds, their bodies gutted and packed with salt, roosted in every crevice and spread their wings against the walls in startlingly lifelike flight. Rams', horns and stags' antlers were fastened on every available surface, creating a forest of horns. Boars' tusks and the bleached skulls of wolves were lined up around the hearthstone, cipwded amid the pots and jars.
Only the priest was missing. Epona could not remember his leaving; he was just not there anymore.
The three women moved around her, kneading her flesh with melted fat, making little chicking Sounds when her thighs quivered involuntarily. "You will be all right now," said Tena in her hot quick voice. "You are a woman thisnight, and from now on your spirit will guide you wisely. You passed your test very well."
It was the first time one of the priesthood had spoken to -o her as an adult. She tried to answer in a voice too quavery to trust, then cleared her throat and tried again.
"It wasn't bad. It didn't hurt," she told them.
The gutuiters exchanged glances of approval.
"You are brave," said Nematona. "You have proven fit to be the mother of warriors."
What was it SuTeva had said? "You must not show fear. An awful thing will happen." Suleva, She Who Bears Only Daughters.
Epona flushed with pride, but the insatiable curiosity that was part of her nature prompted her to ask, "Why is it so important to bear warriors? We are never attacked here in the Blue Mountains."
"Not in your lifetime, no." Nematona passed her knife hand across her eyes in the classic sign of negation. "But that is only because the battle reputation of Toutorix discourages other tribes from trying to capture the Salt Mountain. Yet we have fought before, and doubtless will again. We must all be capable of defending what is ours.
"But the children you bear will never have to fight for the Salt Mountain, Epona, because they will not be born here. Men will come from distant tribes of the people and give Toutorix many gifts in order to ask for you as wife. You will be highly prized, not only because you come from the chief's lodge but also1 because you are a strong,' healthy young woman with courage to pass on to your sons--sons who will take their first meat from the tip of your husband's sword and serve as warriors in his tribe, wherever that may be."
Nematona's words reminded the girl of another cause for concern, sow that the ritual of woman-making was completed. Like all women of the people, she was free to choose her own husband from among any who might ask for her, but the man she selected would make her part of his tribe in some place far from the Blue Mountains.
No, Epona said silently, stubbornly, inside herself. Not me. It will be different for me; I have my own plans.
It will be different for me. I will make it so!
Nematona brought her a thick fur robe and folded it around' her body. Pale-haired Uiska, of the ¦colorless eyes and snowy skin, pinned the robe closed with Rigantona' s brooch, a massive bronze circle incised with a curvilinear design that drew the eye along the endless turnings of existence. It was a favorite pattern of the people, the representation of life flowing into life.
Redheaded Tena stroked the fur robe. "This was made from the hide of a pregnant she-bear," she told Epona. "Very strong magic. It has been saved for along time for the daughter of Rigantona."
The robe was heavy and had a rank smell When Eporja wrinkled her nose, Tena chuckled. "Awful, isn't it? I suspect it needs airing, Epona. When the Hellene traders, come after snowmelt, get some kinnamon from them and rub into the fur. Until then, you really don't have to wear it; it's just a symbol of your new status."
"By now everyone in the village knows my new status," Epona replied. "But I will wear it,' in spite of the smell. It isn't as bad as the odor of the squatting pit or the dye cauldrons, and as you say, fresh air will help." She could imagine the way her sisters' eyes would shine when she came home wearing that splendid fur, and the fun they would have dressing up in it. Even Rigantona had nothing better.
Nematona opened the door of the lodge and Epona was astonished to see pearlescent dawn above the mountains. Had the night passed so quickly?
Of course--one must never forget the power of the spirits.
Mindful of the responsibilities of her profession, one of the gutuiters took Epona by the shoulders and faced her toward the rising sun. It was time for the final phase of her initiation into womanhood.
Uiska began it, in the solemn teaching voice all druii employed when giving instruction. "The sacrifice has been offered and accepted; the portents are good. You will be a fertile woman. The gateway of life has been opened within you, so you can enjoy bedsports and lifemaking with a man without fear of pain, and your children will begin with pleasure and enter this world smiling.
"But another gateway has been opened as well. You are now an adult member of the people, which means the spirit within you has been awakened. From now on you must always have an ear turned inward to listen for its voice, the voice that speaks without words. When it commands, you must always obey. That is wisdom.
"We do not encourage a child to listen to its spirit, because the spirit of a child newly housed in flesh after living in the otherworlds, is playful and giddy, like one who drinks too much wine for the first time. It lacks good judgment We do not call to awaken that spirit until both it and the body have had time to mature. For you that season is at hand, and now your spirit is fully awake. You have become-a free woman of the Kelti, Epona, daughter of Rigantona. Never forget!" Her voice lashed the whip of command.
She continued, "There are times when the spirit will warn you for no reason you can see, but always pay heed to such warnings. To be deaf to the voice of the spirit within is to be crippled, a burden to others for as long as you live. It is better to have been born with a physical deformity and been exposed on the mountainside so your spirit could seek better housing. But you are not crippled, Epona; you can hear the voice. Like sight and smell, touch and taste and hearing, it is a sense to guide you. Use it well."
Epona nodded. That was what had happened, then; in the moment when the shapechanger appeared to be a wolf and she snarled back at him, the spirit within had spoken to her, telling her to show defiance.
"But how does my spirit know these things?" she asked Nematona, who was standing to one side, watching her with a grave smile. "Where does its knowledge come from?"
"From the source of all wisdom," the senior gutuiter replied. "From the great fire of life that is shared by every living thing, in thisworld and in the otherworlds. The spirit within you is just one spark from that fire, but through it you are given access to the accumulated knowledge of the whole, if you will only learn to listen."
Epona frowned, trying to stretch her thoughts wide enough to embrace understanding. "Are you saying the spirit in me is kin to the spirits in the animals and plants? How cain that be?"
Tena spoke up, taking her turn in the instruction, "All life is part of one life," she said, "and that one is sacred to all We worship it in each of its many forms. It animates us and we share in its immortality. The spirit known in thislife as Epona will die and be reborn, slip in and out of the flesh, move from world to world, as we all shall, but it will continue to partake of life, because we are all parts of the whole.
"The great spirit of life has many faces. In summer we worship it in the form of the goddess, for spring and summer are the seasons of the female, the time of birth and harvest, the celebration of warmth and light and fertility, life renewing itself."
"Snowseason is the season of the male, the hunter of the autumn and the craftsman of the winter, the provider who shelters and protects. It is the time for testing, for strength and endurance, and for the death that precedes birth.
"Death is nothing-to fear, for life comes after. Spring follows winter. Morning follows the night. Be joyous and unafraid, Epona, for you are part of immortal life itself, and the great fire burns in you."
Tena stretched out her hand and laid it palm down on Epona's forehead. Without conscious volition, Epona closed her eyes and crossed her hands over her heart in response. A radiance filled her; a commitment to her place in the endless cycle; a pleasure in being part of the whole.
The gutuiters walked back to the chief's lodge with her, not surrounding her as guards, but following one pace behind as an escort of honor. As she walked, Epona felt little twinges of pain and something warm trickled down her legs. By the time she reached her family's lodge her thighs were sticky and she could smell blood.
At the door of the house the gutuiters saluted her and turned away. Over, her shoulder, Tena said, "Take care not to dream of a man nextnight," and the other two laughed. Nematona laughed like the rustling of leaves; Uiska's chuckle echoed the bubbling of brook water.
In accordance with the ancient custom, the older members of Epona's family had kept watch for her through the night Toutorix had honored her by dressing for her arrival in a fresh linen tunic and new woolen cloak, Rigantona's finest weaving, in the red and green plaid of his family. Around his neck he wore the heavy gold neckring of a proven warrior chief, and massive bronze bracelets reinforced the strength of his wrists. The hair on his head had been newly bleached with lime paste, disguising the fact that it was no longer ruddy gold but streaked with silver, thick with the frost that obliges a man to measure his age in winters rather than summers. His cheeks were clean shaven, as was customary for a man of noble rank, but beneath them his mustache and beard were as luxuriant as ever. Toutorix wore an air of aggressive masculinity as easily as he wore his tartan cloak, though his broad shoulders were beginning to stoop and the muscles in his legs had grown stringy.
Married women still made approaches to him and many children in the Blue Mountains bore the stamp of the lord of the tribe on their faces: the passionate proud features and sky-colored eyes.
Over his tunic Toutorix sported a broad learner belt ornamented with bronze plates and squeezing him a bit more tightly than it had in his youth. But he was not tat; no, man of the people would willingly allow himself to grow fat, to suffer the ridicule and punishment meted out to one who lost his shape and could not fasten his belt. Seen casually, he was the same powerful patriarch his family had always known, and Epona was warmed by the sight of him.
Arrayed in her best linen gown, Rigantona stood beside her husband. She was seasons younger than the chieftain, but as women did not bleach their hair it was possible to see that frost was making inroads in. her yellow braids. Yet her shoulders were broad and proudly carried, and the breasts that had suckled many children were still relatively firm. When she raised her arms the muscles rippled in them as they had done when she was a girl, so skilled in the use of sword and spear that no boy her age could stand against her. No longer did she train, stripped, to fight beside her husband if needed, however; by now she was content tip enjoy1-a degree of leisure and wear all the jewelry she possessed wrapped around her neck and stacked on her arms and fingers. The autumn of her life was a pleasant season for Rigantona.
Epona saluted the chief, then went directly to her mother to show she had returned the brooch. Rigantona examined it thoroughly before looking at her daughter's face at all. . "I am told I did well," Epona remarked, knowing better than to expect warmth or praise from her mother. Rigantona was not like other mothers. "I might have done better if I had known what to expect," the young woman added.
"The rituals are mysteries," Rigantdna responded. "Tests, to see how well we face the unknown. Did you cry out?"
"Good. Toutorix was worried about you, but I told him no daughter of mine would prove a weakling." She turned away from Epona and lifted the brooch to the firelight so she could admire its design once more.
Epona started to get a drink of water from the embossed bronze hydra on its tripod by the door, a luxury purchased from the Hellenes and now copied in every household in the village, but Alator was there ahead of her, anxious to fill her cup. His- eyes glowed with pleasure at being the first to Offer a drink to the new woman in the family. Epona smiled at her younger brother, remembering how she had hurried in the same way to be the first to do a service for their older brother Okelos, when he returned, pale but swaggering, from his man-making.
She longed to wash the sticky blood from her thighs and crawl onto her bedshelf, but there were Still rituals to be observed, and her dry throat burned with thirst. She said the customary thanks to the spirit of the water and carefully scattered drops in the four directions before draining the cup. Then her family lined up to congratulate her, and there was a small feast.
She was exhausted, but she would not show it. Stand tall! urged the spirit within. Your new life begins.
Copyright © 1982 by Morgan Llywelyn