Yorkshire, England, 1784
'Keep still, Stanley, for the love of God!'
The horse quietened immediately, aware of the uncharacteristic note of alarm in his master's voice. With his heart beating furiously, Robert Duke, hand on bridle, glanced around at the silent courtyard. The sun lay dormant in the east and the moon was now a faint sliver in the early morning sky. Soon the birds would begin to sing. It was imperative that he got away quietly and unseen. He looked anxiously up towards his wife's room tucked in the west wing of the house and noted with relief that her lamp remained unlit. The other windows too, were still shadowed with sleep and only the kitchen, deep in the basement, betrayed signs of movement and light.
Deftly, Duke swung himself onto Stanley's back, took up the reins and coaxed the horse forward. The horse turned and made his way slowly and quietly towards the tall gates at the end of the drive. These gave onto the road that led to the City of York, but Duke, instead of taking this road, nudged Stanley towards the open fields.
The horse broke into a gallop. He knew where he was going. Before his master had married Esther, with the fair hair and a mouth that rarely smiled, they had travelled this way many times to see another lady, one with dark hair and warmer eyes. Her name was Hannah. Yet the last time they had seen Hannah something in her had changed. Her eyes had become clouded, sad, her expression mournful. This had troubled Stanley for he had liked the smell of Hannah; her gentle voice soothed him, and his master too seemed to have a sense of peace about him whenever he was beside her.
Stanley breathed in the sweetness of grass and cornflower and felt the wind tear through his mane as he galloped across the wide fields on the way to Hannah's home. As they neared Hannah's cottage, Stanley began to sense something was wrong. His master sensed it too for he suddenly jerked on the reins. A hot bolt of pain shot through Stanley's mouth, causing him to rear up and neigh shrilly in protest.
Hannah's small house was deserted.
The door had been torn from its frame. It hung precariously on one hinge. Overturned baskets of herbs, potions and healing balms were scattered across the grass. Through the lopsided door, the horse could see broken shapes; the furniture had been hacked to pieces and the small table where Hannah had sat many times, smiling and peeling beans for their supper, was split in two. Stanley raised his head and snickered loudly.
This was bad.
He felt fear run through him. There was fear, too, in the house; he knew the cold smell of it. And of something else, sickly sweet, once warm, but now grown cold and hard.
'Steady boy,' Duke commanded him and Stanley felt the firm grip of his masters legs around him.
Duke threw himself off his horse. He ran to the door. He scanned the darkened room; saw the crumpled bed, the upturned chairs, and the blood on the walls. So the rumours were true. They had taken her.
For one long moment Duke stood there, frozen, imagining Hannah, small and dark, being dragged away, begging them to leave her be, crying, perhaps crying out for him? He should have come sooner. He should have known the last time he was here - how many months ago? six, eight? - that the madness had come upon her again. He could have helped her then, but no, he had chosen not to, returning instead to his comfortable life, his business affairs, and a marriage that was as cold as the Arctic seas. He had failed her. 'They have taken her and I am lost,' he said, even though there was no one to hear.
Stanley tossed his head in agitation, 'what to do?' But Duke, unlike Hannah, did not have the gift of horse speak and Stanley's thoughts drifted away on the wind.
The horse pawed the ground impatiently. Duke glanced up at Stanley; the answer came to him suddenly. He must find Hannah, rebuild her house, and never leave again. 'Stanley, we're going to York,' he said quietly. But the horse had already turned and was heading swiftly back to the road that would lead them into the city.
The room had gathered more shadow and was now cloaked in silence. Torrance the Gaul cleared his throat, impatience written all over his face.
'There are matters of war and retribution to discuss Brennus,’ he said jumping up from his seat on the ground.
'We do not have time to mess about with matters of magic. There is a time and place for Seronydd wisdom but right now we need to defeat Rome with this!'
He brandished his sword and glared at Mortunda.
Brennus drew himself a little straighter. 'I have given my answer Torrance,' he said gruffly, 'The Gods have ordained this and, as guest in my house, I ask you to honour my decision.'
He turned to Lovernicus.
'Please proceed,' he barked, throwing a second glare at Torrance. Torrance slunk back down to the ground, his face tight with frustration.
'It will not take long my friend,' said Lovernicus soothingly to Torrance, 'once we have finished with the Request, we can return to the discussions we were having with further enlightenment.'
Torrance remained silent, his mind churning over the events in Gaul. Mortunda noticed that Sego caught Torrance's glance, and once again she felt the bite of distrust for the burly elder.
Lovernicus bade the party to form a circle. Using his staff he carefully drew a ring of protection in the dust at the centre of the room and placed four rocks at equal distance to represent Fire, Earth, Water and Air. Mortunda lay inside the circle. Lovernicus knelt beside her. He held his hands above her head where her soul was located and spoke to her in gentle whispers.
'Mortunda, who do you wish to speak with?'
Mortunda answered, 'Sequana, Goddess of the River.'
'Mortunda you have made the Request of the Flame. Those who make the Request claim that the Gods have contacted them; they claim to have been in dialogue with the Spirits who inhabit this world with us and as part of us. The Request of the Flame asks an elder to go into the fire with the Requester to talk directly with the Gods of the Upper Plane. You have a question you wish to ask Sequana, Goddess of the River. It is a dangerous journey and I have to ask you one more time; do you speak the truth? Have you truly been called? If you speak a falsehood then one of us will die. The Gods will vanquish any man, woman or child who makes a false claim in their presence.'
Mortunda's voice trembled as she replied, 'I am speaking the truth Lovernicus. Sequana came to me in a dream and asked me to visit her by the old settlement beside the river. She said we were all in danger and we had to talk to the people in the South to prevent war. I meditated this evening by the Tree and was told to come and talk with you.'
Lovernicus listened carefully, his eyes alight with amazement. The child was already consulting with the Tree of Life! He had not encountered such understanding at so young an age since he himself was a boy, and that was a long time ago.
'And you are sure this was Sequana and not a false spirit such as a Traveller disguised as a Goddess?'
Mortunda shook her head vehemently. 'No it was not a Traveller. The Goddess had the smell of the river about her and her eyes were pure cornflower blue.'
He nodded, 'Thank you Mortunda. You have given me your word that your intent is pure and I accept. I will now begin the Request.'
Lovernicus slowly turned to face the circle of people behind him. He went to the stone representing Fire and around it he placed twigs and other rocks. Within a few moments Lovernicus had lit a small fire, and fanned the flames until they danced brightly in the darkness of the house.
'I must ask all present to close your eyes. If you open them you risk being blinded. When it is safe to open them again I will tell you. Close your eyes.'
One by one, the members of the party obeyed the command.
Sego closed his eyes but allowed a tiny fraction of light to seep through his eyelids, just enough to allow the flickers of light to penetrate. He was disturbed. Why had Lovernicus asked them to shut their eyes? It was most unusual. With his partial vision he scanned the others in the circle and saw that they had followed the order. Deseus the boy, Brennus too had clenched his eyelids closed; the other tribal elders who had participated in this rite several times had closed theirs. What was Lovernicus going to do? How could anyone bear witness to the Request if they all had their eyes closed? He listened to Lovernicus talking in a low voice to Mortunda.
'Mortunda, you must too close your eyes and take deep breaths. With each deep breath I ask you to think of your dream and picture Sequana as she came to you. I will accompany you on your journey and ask Sequana to share with me the meaning of her visit.'
Mortunda let her body relax. She breathed in deeply and out again and then took a deep breath inwards. Her eyes flickered behind her closed lids and she very gently began to fall into a trance. With each new breath in and out she moved more deeply into her dream until she was no longer a child laying on a dusty floor in her father's house but was free, somewhere in a land vastly different, walking across a soft green glade towards a young woman with long flowing hair the colour of mud and eyes as blue as cornflowers.
As Mortunda drew close to the Goddess's outstretched hands, back within the confines of the circle Lovernicus took from his tunic something wrapped in the finest wool. He held it in the palm of his hand for a moment before slowly and reverently drawing away the soft layers to reveal a dark red stone about the size of a pine cone.
Its edges were sharp, jagged; a stone that had been roughly hewn centuries ago from the deepest rock. It lay there dull and lifeless, cradled in Lovernicus' hand. Gradually a light began to emerge from within, and the Jewel slowly came to life. The light inside sparkled, then flashed, igniting, growing brighter and more dazzling until the room was filled with a pure fierce white light. Lovernicus focused intently on the glow of red that lay at the heart of the Jewel buried deep within the silver white rays of light spilling outwards. The Jewel responded to his gaze and began to fizz and spark again. Its centre became a ball of fire. The heart bled into the white light until it had merged with it; the light grew softer then, less harsh, until the entire room and the occupants within it were clothed in a warm soft red glow.
Mortunda was carried in its embrace, deep into the glade towards Sequana, safe from harm.
Through his partially closed eyes Sego saw the scarlet blaze of the light. Very carefully he opened one eye.
Immediately, a sharp pain struck him with the force of a fist and his eyes closed tightly, pinched together in a reflex. He was lifted slightly off his feet by the force, and his face burned. For one moment it felt as if his eyes would melt in their sockets. He spread his hands desperately over his face to make sure his features were still in place, that his eyes were not liquid, not running down his cheeks, and that his mouth had not become a soggy mass of burned flesh. His face felt in one piece - with relief he knew it was just an illusion.
Breathing deeply to keep himself steady on his feet, Sego very gently used his fingers to coax his eyes open again. For a brief moment, before the light pierced him for the second time, he saw a vision of a red Jewel suspended above Lovernicus' open hands. The Gwr Doeth, with his head held high, was muttering to the light in a language Sego did not recognise. Lovernicus' voice grew louder, chanting words that sounded like water running over stones and wind running through trees. His voice undulated and rippled in tones and symbols of an unknown language, an ancient language, older than any other in the world. Sego felt his soul drawn towards it; to the power and beauty of the words and to an unseen force, pulling him closer and closer to the centre of the light.