Nadine Jones's Reviews > The Mark of the Horse Lord

The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff
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Jan 23, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: young-adult, lost-kid-ya-books, re-read, 2017-popsugar-reading-challenge, historical-fiction, era-early-civ, scotland, all-time-favorites
Read from May 02 to 05, 2017

At first he had been wild with loathing of his new life, but in four years it had become part of him, so that whether he hated or loved it no longer mattered. It ran in his veins like the fiery barley spirit that the tribesmen brewed: the roar of the crowd that set one’s pulses jumping, the warmth of sunlight and the sweetness of cheap wine and the fierce pleasure in one’s own strength and skill, heightened by the knowledge that tomorrow, next week, in an hour’s time, it might all end on the squared point of a comrade’s sword.

I re-read this to fulfill the 2017 Popsugar reading challenge category, "book you loved as a child." I first read this when I was around 10-12 yo, and I remember two scenes clearly: the part where Phaedrus pursues and captures his wife on horseback, and the ending. I am amazed that I remember it so clearly now, almost forty years later. I remember the ending clearly, but not the events leading up to it, so it was just as suspenseful for me on this second reading, and just as moving. It is such a delight to revisit childhood classics and discover that they are truly awesome books. I had good taste!

It is interesting for me to see how I misinterpreted this story. I read a lot of fantasy back then, and so I read this as a fantasy, not realizing that it's straight-up historical fiction. I read passages like this, and just assumed these were made up fantasy names and words, not realizing they were real and I just hadn't seen them before:
The eyes of Forgall the Envoy were dark and opaque, as those of the Old People, whose blood ran strong in the Caledones; but little red sparks glowed far back in them, and his face was beginning to have the same pinched whiteness round the nostrils that had been there last night in the Fire Hall. “The claim of Liadhan the Queen holds good according to the Ancient Law. It is yourself, Midir Mac Levin, no more than the son of a son of a son, who sit where you have no right to be! You have forsaken the Mother and the True Way to follow strange Gods, and the curse of the Cailleach lies on such as you—on all the Dalriadain who would seek to drive her from her rightful place in the heart of men!”

I have an especially vivid memory of the section describing when Phaedrus chases Murna on horseback to ritually kidnap her and make her his wife. It's not an actual kidnapping, but still, Murna is not happy about it. It's kind of disturbing now, but at the time I read it as magical and romantic. Hey, I was, like, 12. A rather long excerpt:

The red horse snorted and stretched out his neck, and the foam flew back from his muzzle to spatter against Phaedrus’s breast and thighs; the mealy silver of the mane flowed back across his bridle wrist as the land fled by beneath the pounding hooves. Excitement rose in them all; laughter and hunting cries began to break from the men behind him. He guessed that in the ordinary way of things, the girl’s flight would have been only a pretense, like the wailing of the Women’s Side. But this was different; if he wished to catch the Princess Murna, then he would have to hunt her in good earnest; and pity twinged in him, not for her, the She-Wolf’s daughter, but for the weary mare she rode.

...The girl had turned with a cry of fury and lashed him across the face with her horse-rod; but he had her reins and they were racing along the flank of the bog, perilously locked together, floundering in and out of solid ground and sinking pocket, but drawing steadily away from the livid greenness of the hungry mire. Then with a sound between a laugh and a sob, Phaedrus had an arm round the Princess Murna and dragged her across the red horse’s withers. The wild-eyed mare, lightened of her load, sprang away and went streaking back toward the hills, with a couple of the Companions in pursuit. And Phaedrus, still riding full gallop, was clamping the Royal Woman against him with his free arm, while she struggled to break free and fling herself off.

Then quite suddenly the fight seemed to go out of her as they slackened pace from that wild gallop to a canter. Phaedrus freed one hand—he was controlling the panting stallion with his knees now—and caught at the red mareskin mask.

Just for an instant, as his hand touched the hairiness of the hide, he wondered if it were the Moon Diadem trick over again, and the face beneath it would not be Murna’s. Wondered with a little shiver of cold between his shoulder blades whether it would be a human face at all, or something else, something that was not good to see…. Then he pulled away the mask and flung it behind him among the following horsemen. It was Murna’s face looking up at him, gray-white and somehow ragged, as though in pulling off the bridal mask he had torn holes in something else, some inner defense that she was naked and terrified without. And for that one instant, despite the dusk, he could look into her face instead of only at the surface of it. Still feeling rather sick from the nearness of the bog, he laughed in sudden triumph, and bent his head and kissed her.

Surprisingly, she yielded against him and kissed him back. But as she did so, he felt her hand steal out, light as a leaf but not quite light enough, toward the dagger in his belt.

His own hand flashed down and caught her wrist, twisting the weapon from her grasp before she well had hold of it, and sent it spinning into a furze bush. “Softly, sweetheart! Maybe we shall do better if we are both unarmed,” he said, gently dangerous. She could have no other weapon about her, or she would not have gone for his dagger.

She gave a sharp cry of baffled fury, and became a thing as rigid and remote as one of the stocks of wood, charmed into human shape, that the People of the Hills left behind in its place when they stole a child of the Sun Folk. And yet the odd thing—Phaedrus knew it beyond all doubt—was that the kiss she had given him had been as real as her hand feeling for his dagger.

Words I had to look up:
Net and trident men - a type of gladiator, who fought with weapons inspired by fishermen, including a weighted net, a trident, and a dagger
Strigil - an instrument with a curved blade used, especially by ancient Greeks and Romans, to scrape sweat and dirt from the skin in a hot-air bath or after exercise; a scraper.
Gralloch - to disembowel
Bothy - a small hut or cottage
Gleeds - glowing coals
Heron-hackles - long slender, often glossy feathers from the back of the neck of a male heron.
Corrie - circular hollow in the side of a mountain (Scottish); cirque.
Goad - (horse) whip


LOVED this book, one my favorite books of all time. Maybe I need to create a new bookshelf for "ya" because this isn't exactly a children's book ...

I know I read every Sutcliff book that my library had in the young adult section, but this is the only book I remember clearly.
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