Tain: Of Cattle and Love

Of Cattle and Love

We are young. Is that a good reason for what we do? Maybe.

We haunt the night. The sleeping herders do not trouble us, in fact, they excite us. There may be blood.

The omens were good for the raid. The sacrificer assures success in his reading of the viscera, cattle. . . . . .and love he read?

Omens! This tain1 will be rich in cattle, a first raid makes brothers of friends. So, cattle and love, it must be the omen’s meaning.

We took up our arms for the very first time. We were anointed by the druid with blessed oil, our hair was limed in fierce spikes, our bare chests marked with blue woad, our faces with excited smiles.

We ran to the border marker, pushing and shoving, joyously, playfully, brandishing shield and spear, our checkered cloaks billowing behind us. Years we have spent as boys, playing at war. Tonight we are men, and if it comes to fighting, we must not hold back.

We wait for night. The shadows hide us. Fear keeps us silent. The cattle sense us and move away, we are not their masters. Then, in the blackness, we give chase.

The prey move easily in the dark. Stupid cows slip away like smoke, but we must not return empty handed. Strange to think thus, our hands are full of spear and shield.

A shout, a man’s voice, not a friend, a cry of pain, a screaming, and the night explodes with sounds. There is a rushing, a gasp as something, someone, crashes into my shield. The bronze rim strikes my face, so unprepared am I. With a shout I thrust, the solid thunk is not like that of the wooden training butt. There is a gasp, and the resistance falls away with a bubbling groan. There is a coppery tang on the air.

“To me,” comes Conall’s cry. I run to the sound, trying not to think of what I leave behind, or what I run toward. Out from under the trees the moon’s face sheds an uncertain light, but enough to see the lightness of a leine2 and a face. The figure shouts its rage, he will kill if he can, perhaps has done for Conall.

Hatred flairs. A thousand practice shield parries, and a thousand answering thrusts make my hands sure. The thump on my shield drives the thrust that pierces guts. A twist and the figure falls away, his leine glittering dark, his face a frightful mask. The stench of it makes me angry, mad with it, fierce.

I see Conall facing a man. There is a lump at his feet. With a whoop Conall catches the man in the thigh. He smashes him in the face with his shield. A spear flies from nerveless fingers as the man crumples. There is a quavering sound, a pleading, cut off by the thunk of Conall’s spear.

A sob from someone near. Conall turns “There!” he shouts, laughing. “Get him. I’ve already killed two.”

A figure flees, and like a trained hound, I chase. I’ve killed two as well, did he know? It seems much more than enough.

The retreating figure is lithe, afraid, no doubt, like I was. There is no honor in stabbing a young boy in the back, but I pursue like I was Conall’s dog. The boy, I think, is fast, but I am a warrior trained. With a gasp and a cry the figure stumbles and crashes into a tree.

I do not strike as I should have. I hold back.

The figure struggles to rise, but can only roll over. It is no boy at all, but a terrified girl. I feel ill, I see a monster in her eyes. She tries with hands to cover, to protect, to hold a monster at bay, but the hands of a woman can’t possibly keep back such a terror. “Please no,” she says to me.

And I see her beauty in the fearful murderous night. I desire it, I can never have it. “I won’t hurt you, I never would,” I lie, because I might have stabbed her in the back if I’d thought her a man, or a boy and hated myself for the dishonor. To her I am a shadow with a spear to take her life. I cast my spear aside. “I won’t hurt you.” Worthless words with the blood of two she knew on my hands.

The confusion on her face is no less fearful. “Please no,” she murmurs.

I throw away my sheild. I show her empty hands. The stark white beauty of her face makes me want to protect her, and I morn the fact of my abhorrence to her.

Her heels dig in and push her desperately against the base of the tree, “Oh please, no no no.”

There is a crashing. I turn stupidly to see what it is. Conall, and at his waist are the heads of his kills.

“Oh ho, what do we have? Were you going to keep this pretty thing for yourself?” he laughed nastily.

“No no no,” moans the girl.

Conall has dropped his weapons too and has cast away his battle belt that covered his groin, and with it the gory heads. He snatches at the neck of her shift. There is the tearing of linen and a whimpering cry drowned out by Conall’s laughter.

Her eyes fall on me without hope, such beautiful eyes. “Leave her alone,” I pull Conall away from the girl. I shove him and he falls heavily, cursing. He is exposed, his excitement not quenched, but it is rage on his face. I see death in his eyes.

“The hell. . .” he says.

I hear the girl slip away, weeping. “Leave her alone,” I say more quietly, but there is a threat for Conall if he will hear it.

I turn my back on my friend.

Ahead she is crying and mad with fear. Her path is easy to follow to where it leads, a rocky ledge that tops a cliff. She is crumpled on the stone, weeping for fear, for loss, for love? Why would something so stupid occur to me? A bit of gravel crunches under my foot and she shrieks and turns to face her doom. I wince at how she must see me.

“I won’t hurt you. . .” I say inanely. Can’t she see that I would never hurt her, that I’m her friend? Now I am.

“Please no,” she whispers to her gods, clutching the ruined neckline of her linen leine. She begs the night because I am a monster.

My compatriots are here, shouting, and loudest is Conall.

“Leave her alone!” I shout to these madmen who were my friends.

Conall swings wildly, and knocks my helm off with a blow that stuns me. I shove him, but my fellows catch him when he would otherwise have fallen to the ground.

The girl is standing at my shoulder, she is taller than I thought, graceful, eyes wide with terror. I can almost feel her warmth, she stands so close.

I stagger back against her and past. Conall’s spear in my chest has driven me back and all my strength leaves me. There is only her beautiful face now, shocked, falling away away. I regret.

An angel in white flys above me, lit by a lover’s moon.

I was her only friend.

This is our fate.

Together.

 

 

1Is the term for an Irish cattle raid.

2Is a linen garment like a tunic or long shirt.

This story was written for a contest on Writing.com.  the prompt was: Write a fantasy/sci-fi retelling of Romeo and Juliet

All Words: 1250

© Copyright 2015 L. Stephen O’Neill. All rights reserved.
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