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Echoes of a war horse

It feels like the time for this to be aired here.

I wrote and enacted this back in 2013 as part of a Storytelling evening set around a camp fire next to a field of horses. It also holds certain echoes of past-life memory for me. I share it here now as a lasting testimony to the spirit of horse. I hope you enjoy it. The journey begins...

I'd like to invite you to take a journey with me back in time. To a land of myth and magic, when the indigenous tribes of these islands lived in harmony with nature, wise women were revered and the people looked to the knowledge of the Druids for their spiritual guidance.

Come with me as we travel now to a windswept and remote rugged island, connected to the mainland at low tide by a small causeway. As we journey across the causeway the sound of distant drumming can be heard carried on the wind. It’s said that the drumming is to keep evil spirits away yet there’s a quality to the sound that seems harmonious and welcoming…so we keep walking across the causeway until we reach the shores of the island.

Walking up some sand-dunes and across a field, we come across what looks like an impenetrable wall. Row upon row of blackthorn trees loom up in front of us, their poisonous thorns visible on deep overhanging branches that blow in the wind, giving a distinctive ‘keep out’ warning to those that would try to enter. Many have tried to tear down these walls and reach what lies beyond; but this is the Druids home and nothing passes here without their help or knowledge. So we sit down and wait…having first laid our offering under the trees that we brought with us as instructed. It’s difficult to say how long we wait... it seems both long yet almost instantaneous… as if time is being warped or bent at someone’s will. Whatever it is, we become aware that a horse and rider is coming toward us from the left. As they approach, the horse’s beauty and bearing is breathtaking. Pure black, with a flowing mane and tail, and long feathers at the feet, this proud animal confidently strides up to us and stops. Observing the rider, we notice that the horse is being ridden bareback and without any visible means of control or direction. The rider is lightly holding on to the horse’s mane, she bids us well and asks us to follow her. She's wearing a long brown coloured flax cloak with the hood pulled over her head and as we get up to follow she and the horse turn in a single fluid motion to head back the way they had come.

We follow for what seems like another timeless moment until we approach a village. How we get past the blackthorn trees is hard to say now and remains a mystery. As we enter the village, the rider removes her hood and dismounts. From her spiral face-paint, stone jewellery, penetrating eyes and demeanour, it’s clear she’s a priestess. She turns to the horse and silently communicates with him. He nuzzles into her shoulder for a moment before turning and walking away. As our eyes follow him, he walks toward an area away from the main encampment where other horses are. He glances back at the woman to give a piercing neigh before trotting away with ease and grace, whinnying a greeting to his companions before settling down to the important task of grazing. We’re amazed and stunned that the horses seem to just be there, with no fencing or other visible means of restriction or keeping the herd from leaving. The priestess looks at us and simply says “You’re being shown what is possible, what horses are, what has been and what is yet to come. Bear witness now to the unfolding that will reverberate through time”

With those words there's a blinding flash of light and we’re instantaneously transported back to the field on the other side of the blackthorn wall and land with a thud on our backs. This time however, everything is in chaos. Thick, black smoke is choking the air and hordes of Roman soldiers are everywhere. From our standpoint we observe the Romans are preparing for invasion. Fires are raging, terror and fear is palpable in the air. From beyond the blackthorn wall we hear the war-cry of the Druids. Screams and incantations are carried on the wind. The Roman soldiers have been systematically annihilating the native tribes and this is their last stronghold. Battle hardened soldiers are gearing up for the blood lust that is to follow. Yet nothing can prepare them for what they are now witnessing. On a small headland beyond the trees gather rows of Druid priests and priestesses on horseback. Among them is the priestess on her horse. This time both her and her horse are covered in woad paint; she is naked to the waist, the whites of her eyes blazing in fury as she screams curses to the invading force. She proceeds to charge down the headland alone and, through whatever magic she is able to muster, appears on the invading side of the treeline. She stops her proud black horse and proceeds to stand on his back, mocking the Roman soldiers and throwing incantations. Then, in a gesture the Romans have never before seen, she and the horse in unison emit a long, piercing and deafening scream. For a solitary moment, all the chaos and noise of impending battle stops for a heartbeat, creating an eerie silence. This human/horse other-worldly noise strikes fear into some of even the most battle-weary soldiers… and the ranks start to falter. Some soldiers even break rank and start to run. The Roman commander knows he must act quickly to regain control his troops and proceeds to gallop on horseback along the frontline of soldiers in a rallying gesture. He jeers about the Druid priestess, telling his soldiers not to be afraid of a mere woman. “If that’s how their women scream, then let them scream like that when you take them in victory” he shouts, raising the blood lust once again to fever pitch. As he turns to face the priestess, she has once again vanished behind the trees to take her place in the Druid line.

The battle rages on.

The fires burn and the Romans penetrate the blackthorn wall on their way to slaughter the Druids. No one is spared.

The commander has made a mental note of the Druid priestess and is determined to make sure he’s the one to find her. He not only wants to be the one to kill her, but wants her prized possession - the horse. He secretly admires the magnificent beast and knows it will make him a fine war horse.

As the battlefield turns red, the invading force knows they have victory in their sight. The commander gives the word for a final push and as he charges through the field he meets eye to eye with the priestess. Her horse charges bravely at him and he is stunned by its sheer power and force. The priestess is summoning all her strength to inflict a sword blow but isn’t quick enough for the experienced commander. The sword penetrates up through her left hip and with a jerk is pushed up into vital organs. As she falls from the horse, the commander pauses as he sees her life ebbing away and then continues with the battle.

Later, as the Romans succeed in exterminating the last of the Druid kind from these shores, the fires dwindle and the stench of battle hangs in the air. The commander is walking the field and checking on his own troops when he notices the horse. He’s been standing where his beloved priestess fell hours earlier, his head periodically nudging at her body. The commander approaches the horse to lead him away. The horse will not budge. No amount of coaxing, pulling or beating will make him move. The commander tries all sorts of ropes, equipment and bullying to get the horse to walk away from the woman. But move he will not. As the commander looks at him, the fighting spirit he witnessed in the horse during battle seems no longer to be present. Instead, this big, brave, magnificent fighting war horse simply crumples down next to his priestess and won’t get up. This battle prize, the one that the commander has so wanted, is now withering away before his eyes. As an experienced horseman, he recognises when an animal has given up on life, even secretly admiring the loyalty which the horse shows. With an inevitable shrug of the shoulders the commander turns and walks away, leaving the horse to its fate. As he walks across the blood-soaked earth, the horse emits a series of low, mournful and haunting whinnies that continue to echo across the battlefield as he lies with his mistress to join her in spirit. The commander, having succeeded in one of the bloodiest battles in living memory, now finds himself with wet eyes as the bond between horse and human knows no bounds.

So my friend; on a cold and windy day on a remote and rugged island that’s connected to the mainland at low tide by a small causeway, maybe you too can hear the echoes of that day and the sound of the bond between a horse and human being carried on the wind.

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