Once upon a time, before the Long Years of Suffering Under the Tyranny of Kings began, in the town of Caer Galen in the Land of the Picts, there was a Great Race held every year at lambing time. This was no ordinary race.
It was a race up the hoary face of the tallest mountain in the region, down the crusty rock-strewn other side, around the moss-kissed base of the tallest tree at the foot of the mountain, then along the deep banks of a swift stream running past its roots to the gleaming White Stone Bridge over the stream, built before time was counted as it is counted now, in the midst of the town green. This Great Race was some 30 miles all told, up mountain and through dale-a rough test of the strong hearts and limbs of the people of Caer Galen-who each longed to try within it, their strength, courage, wit, and endurance every year at lambing time.
But entry to the contest was tightly guarded by the Circle of Elders, who chose the contestants carefully over the course of the seasons between lambing and the rebirth of the sun at the Feast of Lights, in the coldest part of the year. They chose neither the eldest nor the youngest, the strongest nor the fleetest. They closed their eyes and in the blind darkness of their hearts they simply saw the colors of the flames in the spirits around them and knew which ones required the Race's test for the good of all. Their choices were then sent to the Village Council, and on the Day of First Lamb, their names were called and the Race begun.
Into this beautiful village of Caer Galen was born, in the cold of the year two months before lambing, a child named Owen. He was dark of hair, thick of limb and deep of heart. He could feel the cries of the wounded hawk in his sleep and know exactly where to find the poor creature at daybreak, from whence he would bring it tenderly back to be healed before his mother's well-swept hearth. Every day he walked slowly through the village, dropping off tinctures and poltices to the people of Caer Galen who had asked for healing, for his mother was a great healer, whose fame had reached as far as the Isle of Avalon in the deep South of This Great Island. There, the ancient ancestors of the Wise Ones, journeying down many rivers from the land of Tigers and White Capped Mountains in the unimaginably far East where the Sun had her abode, had come after long centuries of wandering, to build the Temple At The End of the Earth, their greatest school and repository of Knowing.
Owen always walked slowly, as though feeling his way along, like a blind person might, though Owen's eyes were perfectly clear and capable of sight. He said, as he grew older and speech permitted articulation of his dense thoughts, that he preferred the feel of things to their appearance, and always found his way more surely by that method than any other. And there were those who would tease him, calling him Horse, and Old Nag, and NinnyNaggy and other such names, because he was thick, and swayed and stooped, indeed like an Old Mare feeling her way through tufts of grass for the new mown hay farmers dropped for her pleasure here and there.
And Owen cried in secret at times, for the sting of these names hurt and confused his tender heart. He did not know that the hearts of others were oftentimes as blind as the eyes of an ancient man who had outlived his sight. Then his mother grew protective, fastening her sterling blue eyes fast on those who would tease her boy, warning them away with her disapproval, until the name of Horse was spoken only behind hands and backs in secret, and became a curse Owen heard reverberating each night in dreams as his spirit wandered the land, living and learning.
In time Owen's heart grew sad under the weight of this word, and he no longer wandered in the village or far afield, even in dreams. He sat by the hearth and learned the names of healing plants and the ways dreams have to guide a troubled heart, though he had no dreams for his own, which dwelt in shame. His heart, thus caged, grew thirsty and perpetually unsatisfied, it pined away until the soft light of his eyes was replaced by deep shadows. Then his mother drooped her graying head and wondered what she could do to help her gentle son with this kind of wound. At night she prayed for guidance to take her son's secret pain away. And her prayers were answered.
On a bright fall day in the seventeenth year of Owen's life, a young maid found her way to Caer Galen. She was on pilgrimage from the Temple in the south as part of her training. Her name was Morgan of the River (for by a great river in the south she had been born - and to the life of wandering like a river she was consecrated) and her hair was golden, her eyes the green of grass in spring. She was fifteen when she came to live with Owen's mother and learn what she could of healing.
She loved Owen from the first moment she saw him. It was plain to Morgan that Owen was a healer born, for her eyes saw straight and true and her mind ran swifter than the swiftest stream to understanding of all things she had seen. "Healers see with the inner sight, and leaders see with the outer sight," Morgan would often say. And she took to leading Owen about the village as she went, helping him deliver his mother's poltices to all and sundry.
And wherever the bright beauty of Morgan walked, no teasing names reverberated, openly or otherwise, and slowly the villagers came to see Owen through her eyes, for she spoke often of his gentleness, his sure knowing, and the remarkable cures he worked in his aging mother's name.
And Morgan's wild spirit became under Owen's shy gaze, tame. She no longer desired to wander with the course of rivers, but to remain by his side always. And this frightened her, for it went against everything she had been taught, against everything for which she had been named. So it was she took to running about the countryside like a bright flame, running and running, running in circles around Owen, from whom she could no longer run away. And the villagers gave her too, a name: Lightning - for the swiftness of her feet and her mind.
But her heart grew heavy under her fear. To it no thought yet gave wings. So it was that the time of lambing approached and all that I have said the Circle of Elders had watched. And the crankiest of these Elders, Arthur of the leathern skin and peerless shoes, knew what he had to do. He recommended that Owen and Morgan be called to participate in the Great Race, though no outsider (as Morgan was) had ever been called before.
Seeing the resolve in his eyes, the others reluctantly agreed. Arthur was indeed cranky, but he had the irritating habit of usually being right, for which he was reluctantly forgiven each year at shearing time, when one was required to let go of irritations, transgressions, ten year-debts, and other such difficult things. Even Maybringer, the Grandmother of the Circle, who loved Arthur dearly, had spent many a shearing before him offering forgiveness which he dutifully (in his cranky way) would accept. So it was that Owen and Morgan were chosen with sixteen others to run the Great Race. And the whole Village was amazed and shocked.
Now it must be told what the Great Race meant. From its participants future leaders were chosen-members of the Village Council. Those chosen were tremendously important to the life of the Village. No outsider had ever been so accepted or so trusted by the Elders. So it was, the members of the Village Council had to examine their own hearts, search their own minds, before accepting the choice of the Elders. But they had come to love Morgan. She was wise and kind and farsighted. She was fair and balanced and clear in judgment. After fourteen days of deliberation, the Village Council decided to accept her as a choice, and on the Day of First Lamb, she was among those called to the Race.
With appreciation and no little confusion, both she and Owen came to take their places. Then the Elders took their appointed places along the course of the Race. For it was they who watched and judged the progress of those who came. And the Race began.
It was raining that day and cold. The ground was hard from winter snows. No birds were out with early song. The earth was quiet, expectant, as the eighteen began. Each carried one water skin and three pieces of bread. Morgan burst out from the crowd of runners easily, her bright eyes scouring the ground ahead, picking out the easiest course through briar and gorse, heather and stone, ditch and wood. Up the high mountain she climbed easily at a dead run. But she paused always to wait for Owen who lumbered behind her, though others passed her by.
She was drawn back by the message of her heart that longed for his embrace. And Owen followed, borne along by the silent message of her love that his sure heart did not miss.
The grace of her love lent speed to his limbs, heavy and strong, though not fleet enough for this grueling race. And he grew tired. The day was dimming. The early dusk of spring was upon him as he finally came down the mountain's side, his love a bright flame running before him. 'Run on sweet love' he thought as Morgan looked back into his dark and shining eyes, 'win for both of us, beloved.' And in that moment she acquiesed, to his love, to her captivity, and did as he had asked. She ran with all the speed in her heart, suddenly given wings, and the swiftest runner she surpassed.
While the light lasted they ran on. Then the darkness came and the runners stumbled over stones and tufts of grass. But Owen sped on, guided by his heart that saw surely, even in the dark. And now his Morgan followed him, her heart sure as his, and together they surpassed them all.
As dawn kissed the eastern sky and the runners rounded the last bend of the stream, they were spread out over a long stony field. Pausing to gaze in Owen's eyes that urged her on, Morgan swept like a flame ahead of them all, her limbs sure, her heart shining. Owen struggled on, dropping behind the last man, but he wept not, nor felt any shame. His heart beat sure with the love of his bright flame, 'Lightning' his heart sang, 'that is her name.' And in that moment his thick, tired limbs faltered.
His heart watching only her love failed to warn him, and he stumbled over a root and tumbled down a long slope and into the stream. Morgan turned one last time to look back for Owen, and as fate would have it, she saw him fall down the long slope-saw him lay motionless there. And at that moment all else left her thought and she turned back, moments from victory, to run to him, calling his name as she came.
She came to him as he lay. His brow was bright with blood, his eyes rolled back in his head, and her heart knew true misery in that moment. She called and called, lifting his head from the wholesome stream. Several others from the race turned back and came to them there. They gently lifted him up and laid him on the mossy bank, calling his name, as another won the race. The Elders took note of all they saw and smiled.
Owen awoke to Morgan's trembling face. "He is awake," someone said. Morgan sank onto Owen's chest, crying quietly in relief. He found the strength to sit up, and gently lifted her away. "It is nothing but a bump on the head and a twist to the thigh," he said, clumsily trying to move his heavy limbs. "I am as strong as a Horse," he laughed. "I guess Horse isn't so bad a name," he said, shyly returning Morgan's gaze.
"Oh tender man," she said. "Then Horse you shall be, for strength and purpose and faith, and for your sight in the dark where no one else can see! Will you marry me?" Her question left him breathless, but his eyes said "yes." And the Elder now present smiled and said "you both are blessed."
Then they came in triumph home, for they had their love, their hearts, their sight and each other now for each and every night. But they had something more, of which they never learned until long years had passed. For the Circle of Elders always held a secret Race every year during the Great Race.
They sat and watched as the chosen ran. And from that flock special ones were noted... those for whom winning came second to helping a stranded sheep, comforting a crying child, succoring a flagging comrade - or two lovers who somehow found each other in the wideness of the world and gave up
the cup of victory for each other.
It was these "winners" noted by the Elders who someday became one of the Circle of Elders - those who guided the Fates of the villagers, as did Morgan and her Owen one fine winter's day thirty years after their fateful Race. And the other winners, the ones who crossed the White Bridge first - they were wined and dined and respected for a season, then took their place in the rolls of winners from the past. Some distinguished themselves and some became vain, some pinned hurtful names on young boys, and some came to recognize the value of the spirit's bright enduring flame.
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