Lucia Aemilia Prisca held on tight to Fortunata’s hand as they walked into the temple of Diana. As the great doors closed behind them, the street-noise of Londinium disappeared, and the two girls stood alone in the echoing hush. Sunlight filtered down through the mist of incense under the painted dome, and glowed on the gold of Diana’s chiton and the crescent moon that crowned her marble curls.
Aemilia felt the sting of tears at the sight of her. This was the last time, and she was sure Diana knew. They approached her altar slowly, feeling the ground grow holier with each step. Her hands went to her heart as she looked up at her goddess looking down at her, that face the same as ever, wild and luminous and gentle as the moon.
‘Friend of Maidens -’ she started, and then she had to stop. Fortunata squeezed her arm. ‘Lady of the Wild, I – I’m getting married. Tomorrow. I haven’t met him, but Daddy thinks he’s a good match and – anyway, I’ve come to say goodbye. Tomorrow I won’t be a maiden any more, but I’ll always, um –’ She looked down at the mosaic floor, and blinked hard. ‘I’ll always love You. All my life.’
She looked up again at Diana’s face. Her heart felt too big, as if it was pushing into her throat. The tall statue received her love in silence. So many girls had stood at her feet like this, blinking back tears, saying goodbye.
‘I’ve brought You my toys,’ said Aemilia. ‘Not just because it’s tradition, but – it’s a present. Look after them, please, the way You’ve looked after me.’
Fortunata handed her the bag of toys. Aemilia swallowed. This was it. She pulled out her old hobby-horse, long since too small for her to ride. The bittersweet absurdity of it hit her, and she wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. ‘This is Atalanta,’ she said. ‘She was the fastest horse in Britain.’ She laid the hobby-horse on the altar, small and shabby at Diana’s golden-sandalled feet.
‘This is Coral Dog. When I was a baby I cut my teeth on him. This is Lollia.’ She hugged the beautifully carved and dressed doll, jointed limbs in a limp tangle. ‘This is Lalage. It’s Greek for chatterbox. And this one’s Flora. Before I got Fortunata, she was my best friend.’
No matter how she arranged the dolls on the altar, she couldn’t seem to make them look alive.
There was one more toy in the bag – something soft, like a bundle of rags. She pulled out the tattered, ugly home-made doll and stared at it. ‘Fortunata?’ she hissed, as if the goddess might not hear a whisper. ‘Why’s Boudica in here? You don’t have to give your only toy away just cos I’m getting married.’
Fortunata shrugged. ‘Nothing to do with me. She must have climbed in there by herself. I guess she wants to stay with her friends.’
Aemilia burst into tears.
‘What was that all about?’ said Fortunata at bedtime, when she was brushing Aemilia’s hair.
‘Nothing. I was just upset.’
‘Look, I know when you’re hiding something. I can spend all night teasing it out of you, or you can just tell me and we can both get some sleep.’
Aemilia twisted round to look at Fortunata over her shoulder. ‘All right, but you have to promise you won’t get your hopes up. Promise.’
‘Right.’ Aemilia looked down at her hands, twisting the fabric of her nightgown. ‘It was just that I’ve been thinking – aargh, I can’t work out how to say this. Just – this is all completely hypothetical, okay? When I’m married – if I were to ask my husband to set you free, and if he were to say yes – would you still be my friend after you were free?’ A pause. ‘You, um – you’re allowed to say no.’
‘Idiot!’ Fortunata pulled her backwards into a hug, resting her chin on her head. ‘You think I’m only your friend because you own me? I’m your friend in spite of that. Trust me.’
In the middle of the night, Aemilia jumped awake. What was that sound? And was that dawn or moonlight spilling so bright through the window? Fortunata was snoring quietly on the bed beside her. Then the sound came again. ‘Fortunata! Aemilia! Hurry!’
It was a girl’s voice, with a British accent like Fortunata’s. For a second everything seemed normal, just a neighbour’s slave being silly, and Aemilia pattered to the window to tell her off.
The girl standing in the moonlight was nobody Aemilia knew. Tall and beautiful, with wild red hair and golden bracelets on her bare arms, she looked more like a young queen than a slave. ‘Come on!’ she called. ‘Get your cloaks and shoes! You’ll miss the Hunt!’
‘Boudica?’ cried Fortunata behind her.
‘Yes, it’s me! Come on, come on!’
‘Huh?’ Aemilia reeled. ‘What’s happening here? Anyone? Are we dreaming?’
‘Don’t know, don’t care,’ said Fortunata. ‘It’s Boudica.’ She slung a cloak around Aemilia’s shoulders, and stood her in the moonlight to pin the brooch.
‘Your rag doll? Her?’
‘It’s what she’s always looked like in my head. What are you waiting for? Let’s go.’
As they scrambled out of the window, Boudica caught them by the hands, and the next thing they knew they were running. At least, they thought they were running, though afterwards neither could remember feeling their feet touch the ground. Bigger and brighter stars flashed overhead, and the night wind rushed past them, full of the scent of nocturnal flowers, and dewy earth, and trees. They were in a clearing in a wood. Dark leaves rustled overhead, and dazzling moonlight slanted down among them and spilled onto the ground. Aemilia shivered, not with cold but with the mystery in the air.
‘We’re here,’ said Boudica. Aemilia heard a flute playing in the distance, high voices singing and whooping, and then suddenly a wave of dancing figures whirled into the clearing. Nymphs, thought Aemilia, and then she and Fortunata were pulled into the dance, tossed and spun from one laughing girl to the next, hair and limbs flying.
‘Aemilia, Aemilia!’ A fair-haired girl caught her hands and danced away with her. ‘It’s me, it’s Flora! Welcome to the Hunt!’
Aemilia stared, trying to make sense of it, to recognise her doll in the living, moving, life-sized face in front of her. Then they waltzed into the moonlight, and Aemilia saw. The friend of her childhood. Tears blurred her eyes but she was laughing, breathlessly, as Flora spun her into the arms of Lalage and Lollia. The three girls hugged her, and the Coral Dog leaped around them, wagging and barking with joy.
‘I thought I’d never see you again! I thought you were – I thought –’ And she started really crying.
‘Don’t cry, we’re alive! Alive, alive, alive! Why do you think they tell you to give your toys to Her?’
‘To Her – ’And the dance suddenly stopped. A beat after everyone else, Aemilia dropped to her knees, as Diana rode into the clearing on Atalanta’s back.
She was the moon. The moonlight gathered in her and she shone. She pulled Aemilia to her like the tide.
Her radiance filled the clearing as she slipped from the saddle of the noble beast that had once been a child’s toy. Aemilia started to shake. The goddess was walking towards her. The moon was walking on earth.
And then she was so close that Aemilia had to tip her head back to look up at her, and she recognised – not the features but the feeling of her, wild and luminous and gentle, the goddess she loved. Diana made a small gesture, and Aemilia found herself rising to her feet as if drawn by strings – so close, she could have touched her, but she was afraid she’d die.
‘Lady-’ Her voice came out in a whisper. ‘Lady, thank You – I – why are You being so nice to me?’
Diana smiled, and Aemilia realised that her goddess was amused by her. ‘We all like to be loved,’ she said softly. ‘And besides, this is not just for you.’ She held out her hand and Aemilia felt, rather than saw, Fortunata coming to her side. ‘Both of you have pleased Me.’
‘Arduinna,’ breathed Fortunata.
The two girls joined hands, without taking their eyes off the goddess. ‘Can we stay with You forever?’
‘You can stay until sunrise.’
To Aemilia’s surprise, it was Fortunata who dissolved in tears. Diana bent her shining head, and kissed the tears away.
‘I am the Moon,’ she said. ‘Every month I turn dark with sorrow for the maidens who leave Me. Every month I shine with joy for the maidens I meet for the first time. And this is right. I hold everything you leave behind. Your wildness and your purity, your dances and your dreams. Nothing is lost.’
She held out her silver hands. Fortunata caught hold right away, moonlight spilling between her fingers. Aemilia reached out, shaking, and flinched back, and held her breath, and finally dared to touch the hand of her goddess.
Her skin felt warm, and human, and Aemilia felt the power of her flooding up her arm, through her body and Fortunata’s, linking the three of them in an endless ring. The flute started up again somewhere, as Diana spun them all into the dance.