Winter and Death
In the late summer, when the plains were golden with the stalks of the dried grasses and the leaves beginning to get brittle and lose their green in the chill of the mornings, the sun shone through the stones marking the day of equal day and night.
Waelf said to those who still stayed in the camps, “This is the day that marks the time of harvest. Cut the barley and thresh it. Make your beer and barley wine. Put the barley in tight jars of clay and save it against the long winter. Gather the roots and nuts of the forest. Fill you baskets with the berries and dry and pound them. Catch the big trout feeding themselves fat for the winter and dry them and pound them. For this is the time when the land gives up its spirit. Soon winter will be on us, when there is nothing but the odd hare to be taken.”
The people knew this already and had been gathering the bounty of the plains and valleys. Many had gone off after the great magic of the stones, returning to their lands both far and near. Aon’s girl stayed with him. He had made his own house on the rise above the river to the east, with low stone walls in a circle, topped with chinked logs. It was fine place. The men who had moved the stones had made me a similar house nearby, but lower down, out of the winds._____ kept my hearth and eased my body’s pains with her soft hands. My hip and knee were hurting with the chill. I needed a walking stick to get around. I felt old, but figured I still had some seasons left in me. I was planning on moving more stones in the winter when the ground was frozen.
Waelf had decided his work was done with the henge.
“It’s up to you and your son, “he said, as he sat on the grassy side of his barrow-house squinting into the setting sun. “ I am please we did what we did. No man lasts forever. Few leave such monuments.” He paused as if he wanted to say something important, but then shook his head and said quietly, ‘ it’s all about nothing in the end, though.”
Waelf looked tired and cold. I built his fire up for him and pulled another sheepskin around his thin shoulders.
He stared into the fire and then shot me a sideways glance, but said nothing more. After a time, I stood up and put my hand gently on his arm and went to leave. The last weak rays of sun gave the tops of the trilithons a rosy tinge. I left and walked away across the dead grass of the plain. Leta would have a warm stew fro me at my house.
The Death came with the fist cold of the winter. At first it ws a young child, a baby or two. But children died often. We thought nthig more of it than any other natural event. But a coughing sickness began to spread among the mothers of the children, and the the fathers. Almost whole families died. Sickness was notrmal. W9nter’s frosts always brought the repaer of mankind. But this was wrose than the last three years ahd been. Three new smallvilaages had been made by the pilgrims who put upthe great stones. Two of these settlements were lef empty by thetime the sun had almost come to he midwinter stone. Poewpl became fearful and mor andmore turned to the dirtyMerlin of thelower viallge. He burend thingsand sacrificed anamals and pefror,med his ritual;s for the people, who in their fear turjed away from the hange and Waelf and me.
Aon went among them, more and more, as I was stiff with cold in my bad joint and also was growing tired of the ignorance of the common folk. Waelf and I sat at his fier and talked about the situation.
“ That man needs to be watched, ;’ said Waelf.” He is not stupid, thogh he is a greedy fool.’ He can see how to trun people and make himelf fat in the bargain.”
Leta and I kept apart. She went into the woods and gathered the now0dry herbs and other edible pants that still lingered into the winter, for it is a green land and never dies completely. She came back to our fire one afternoon with a basket of plants.
“I saw the boy,” She said, speaking of the Merlin’s young servant.” He was digging around the roots of the trees by the river, where the bad mushrooms were.”
“There are medicines in those roots, too,” I said. But I took her meaning. Leta had a clear mind, much given to observing.
The death grew. We heard that up and down the river, people were coughing themselves to death. The cough became bloody and then so heavy that some died just from the effort. I didn’t know what to do. Waelf thought we should burn the bodies of the dead, but the Merlin told people to keep them for three days without moving them, as their spirits would be turned to baleful ghosts if burned.
“The sickness lives in the blood and spittle, “said Waelf, But there were few who agreed. They were terrified of the angry ghosts and thought the restless spirits spread the illness. The Merlin collected more and more sacrifice from the scared villagers. His cook fire was always busy and he was growing fatter when everyone else was wasting away from winter hunger.
Waelf went down into the villages and tended to the sick as best he could, seeking to comfort them with kind words and thoughts of a better life beyond. For the people believed that vengeful gods and demons awaited them in the afterlife. Waelf, said, no, no; the kind and gentle gods of spring and summer waited beyond the shadow of death. He was telling them a tale he believed not.
“There is no way to know, ‘he said to me, “but from what I see of this world, it would seem that we simply fade away and become part of the earth of which we are made, anyway. When a tree gets old and falls, it simply melts after a time into the grass and leaves. Other trees grow from its seeds. Everything dies and changes. I have no fear of it.”
He looked at me with a twinkle in is eyes. “Of course, I may be wrong. Perhaps fire-breathing demons will consume us.” He laughed “Or perhaps, like the sun, we will come north again in time over and over, like the seasons, each a little different, not remembering the one past, yet bearing a similar face through the endless years. Who knows?”
He looked far off across the wide pain, past the barrow mounds and the henge. “I will know soon enough.” He said softly. “We all will”.
When Waelf began to cough, he spoke not of it, and waved me off, telling to stay away from him while he coughed. I kept my distance, and told Leta and Aon to do the same. But I feared for my old friend. I knew his long years put him in danger. He soon grew feverish and retired to his barrow. He would not let me enter, but I sat beyond the entrance and kept his fire stroked. Waelf simply lay down, wrapped in his sheepskins and fell into fever. He only spoke quietly to unseen presences from time to time. His Little People, perhaps, the wisgiegh makers. On the third morning he didn’t stir. He never made a death rattle of showed any signs of weakness of spirit. He was just gone.
I waited for the whole day until his body became stiff and cold. Then I made a big fire in the plain between the Stonehenge and the barrow. I carried his body, now tiny with age and illness and laid it atop the piled logs and gave him a hero’s cremation. Word had spread of his death and some faithful villagers came up from the river valley and watched silently as the fires took his frail body and sent it as ashes into the sky. I pulled my sheepskins from my shoulders and let the grey snow of his passing fall on my skin. It was the day before the midwinter’s day, and on the morrow, the sun would mark it’s lowest point against the shadows of the stones.
Goodbye, my friend, I said to myself. Herakul and been my companion. I had killed my brother- in- arms Mtombe. Vila and Enheduanna had taught me much. I had learned from the Achaeans, Sumerians, Akkadians, Egyptians, and from mad old Abram the prophet. But no one had surpassed the knowledge and mind of Waelf, this northern man with the far vision and clear eyes.
I felt he would always be there in the stones, watching the coming and going of the sun, moon, stars, and seasons. Long after all others had long been forgotten forever, His vision would still be here, bringing wonder to men far beyond the reckoning seas of time.
In the morning many came to witness the midwinter day. Aon lead the people. He said there should be no animals killed on this day, but that we would feast on the stored nuts, berries, pounded fish and grains of the season past, in honor of the great, true Merlin of the Stonehenge. We quietly watched the sun strike the stone furthest to the south at both dawn and sunset. At dusk, people came with offerings of food. To my surprise, even the fat, greasy Merlin of the lower village came, with his boy bearing a bowl of stew. I would not speak with him, out of respect for my dead friend. But Aon, being the better diplomat, and, truly the coming leader of the all the people of this river valley, to judge by his bearing and by the regard that the people held him, took the offering and ate the second bowl from the pot, the first having been placed on the altar stone in the center of the henge. The Merlin quickly withdrew, but his boy stayed behind. I felt sorry for the young lad, who indeed had grown into his first years of manhood. But he was unnaturally short and not good looking. A servant to the Merlin looked to be his life. But Aon looked like a king, as I had been, a poor king of a little people, but a king none the less.
The night was cold and after the offerings had been made a modest feast was eaten by the fifty or so villagers, and then everyone went off to their home fires to sleep as warmly as possible on this longest of winter’s nights.
It was late and dark when Leta woke me.
“Aon,” She hissed urgently. I could see Aon’s girl hunched over out dull fire. She was shaking with cold. Or fear.
I knew at once something was wrong. I pulled myself to my feet and followed the two women to Aon’s house. He lay on his pallet of dried grass, his sheepskins on the earthen floor. He was throwing himself from side to side. His eyes were rolling back in their sockets. He had vomited and shat himself. Leta lit a brand and in its light I could see the sweat pour off his body. I felt his skin. He was burning up. He tossed about in wild spasms. I tried to hold him still, and Leta and ___ tried to put wet rags to his face. He didn’t recognize us at all and he never spoke, but at one point he suddenly gave a great heaving from his guts and in a violent spasm he crashed into the stones of his wall and fell still.
There was no life in his eyes. The women began to keen and pull their hair. I shouted at them to be quiet and shook Aon hard over and over.
But he was dead. After my frantic shaking and calling his name did not make him stir, I put my ear to his mouth and nose, as I had done so many times to men on the battlefield. There was no breath. I listened to his chest, but heard no heartbeat. I pulled him to me and held his warm body close to mine. ___ And Leta both joined me in holding him. We all sobbed until the truth stilled me with its cold finality.
I left the women before sunrise and went to my house in the dark. Our fire was only glowing coals, but I had no need of its light nor its heat now. I found my bow and my quiver where I knew them to be, under a stack of sheepskins and baskets, hidden from the eyes of strangers. I strung the bow and felt the tightness of the hard sinew string. I plucked at it and It sang its dull, confidant note. I had only one arrow left from the far lands; one with a copper point. My magic arrow, I had called it as a joke. The flint-tipped ones worked fine, but the copper was a noble metal, made for the biggest kill. I would only need the one, but I brought others, just in case.
I found my old lion-skin tunic and my war sword. I had laid these by for years, and the tunic was a bit worn, but still showed the spots that no man wore in this land of no great cats. I bound a leather band around my head. I looked the warrior I once had been. I stepped out into the frosty dawn. Low wisps of winter fog lay the depth of a man’s chest along the river fields below. I walked down the path that led to the lower village. The bright morning star, the one the one the Akkadians call Astarte the Goddess, the Achaeans Afroda, glittered in the paling sky. All the earth was sleeping, except for a few ravens that clattered high in the raven villages in the tops of the tallest trees. A few flapped off as I strode calmly, yet with as much grace as my sore hip could muster. My sword slapped my thigh lightly as I stepped, for I made no effort at silence. I would feel no pain today. Today was my last day of war in my life. I had one last enemy to kill. And he would die publicly, before his people, with a chance to fight for his life. But he would die. If I died, too, It made little difference to me in that hour.
I saw a figure ahead of me on the path as it widened out nearing the village. The short spy scuttled off like a frightened rat. Good, I thought, let him tell his master that his fate was at hand. How could that fool think that he had done other than call down his own death on his filthy head? Did he somehow imagine the he would poison both my son and I with his mushrooms? I had fasted in honor of Waelf’s memory on the previous day. I felt young and whole again. My purpose of the last years had been of the long days, on building the stones. But this dawn found me with a warrior’s clear mind; immediate and vigorous.
I heard stirring as I passed the little huts and house on the outskirts of the village and I knew that somehow the word of my coming and purpose had already spread. As I passed, the sheep hide door coverings were parted by curious hands and I felt, more than saw, a gathering of men, growing greater with each cluster of huts and houses, coming at a close distance behind me. People feared the darkness and the power of the Merlin, but I knew that very few felt any love for him. I felt no fear of these men. They knew me and my sense of honor well.
I came to the base of the rise of Sarum hill. Above me the smoke of the Merlin’s cook-fire twisted into the still sky. By now the light had grown and the star Afroda dimmed and gave way to the great light of the coming sun. The mist was lifting a bit, though clouds of breath came from my own mouth and nostrils, and from the assembly at my back. I glanced around and saw that there were more that thirty men behind me in a wide circle. Some carried sticks and stone axes.
I turned to them. I said nothing, but raised my hand and made a sign that they should follow me. I climbed the rise, and passed through the opening in the berm. The men crowded in behind me. Across the flat space was the house of the Merlin.
I called to him.
“Your death hour has come. I am going to kill you for poisoning my son. You deserve to die like a dog, but ill let you face me in battle.’
There was no response. For a moment I was taken aback, for I expected a showy denial or a shocked lie. But there was nothing. Then I heard a noise from beyond the house and we all saw the Merlin and his boy running off over the far side of the berm.
Once again I turned to the villagers.
“Don’t let him escape. He has no power over you from this day forth.”
Some nodded. I set off, going over the berm and own the far side. When I reached the river bank, two men pointed that the Merlin and the boy had run up the path, across the footbridge of my own construction whose trail led back towards the Stonehenge. A strange way to go, I thought, but I set off as fast as I could. Some of the younger men ran ahead of me, eager now for the hunt and spectacle. Twice I felt a twinge of battle fear, and spun around, arrow nocked, but saw no one, only the men who followed with their own crude weapons.
As the chase led away from the village and towards the henge, I suddenly realized his intent and went as fast as I could. Soon I was running, for I no longer felt any pain in my leg at all. Surely, if there are gods , there was one bearing my legs up in that moment.
When I reached Aon’s house, the roof was on fire. I ran to the door, but he came out, holding his flint sacrificial knife to Leta’s throat. The boy crouched behind him in terror. The knife was bloody and I knew he had already further deepened his crime.
“I will kill her” he cried, “lower your arrow.”
I held my bow level with his swarthy, blood-stained face.
“You are the one who will die, coward.” I said.
My copper-point arrow struck him just below his right eye. The power of the shot pushed the point clean through and out the back of his head, so that only a foot of shaft protruded from his face. He clutched at the fletched shaft, dropping the bloody knife. Leta broke from him and ran back inside the door.
The Merlin turned and staggered away. By chance, the shot had not killed him yet. He ran, falling forward with each panicked step, toward the henge. He staggered through the opening in the earthen walls and made his way half blindly, by chance it seemed, toward the center stone. He turned to face me, for I had followed him, the villagers at my heels. He backed right into the altar stone.
I handed my bow to a man and pulled up my bronze sword. Forged in the far lands of the warm sea, a kingly gift from Herakul himself to me, its polished blade gleamed in the rays of the sun, which broke the horizon and poured through the trilithons and fell on the altar stone. The sword felt alive in my hands. This weapon was only to be drawn for killing.
I said calmly, but forcefully enough so all could hear, “On this morning, this once only, I will not keep my promise to Waelf, the one true Merlin, that there shall be no human sacrifice on this stone”
The Merlin cringed and raised his arms to cover his face; a coward’s gesture. The blow was swift and hard and it nearly severed his head from his shoulders. His blood spurted out from the cut and spilled across the stone. The fat, filthy fool slumped and fell on the cold ground.
I called for someone to bring water and wash the stone, and to take the corpse and throw it out on the plain where the ravens could do their work to it. There would be no burial or cremation for this foul demon of a man. Let his shade wander the dark underworld for eternity.
We made a fine burial for Aon down near the river, on a little rise where he and I had both loved to sit and watch for deer and other game. I had it in my mind that I would want to be laid there when I left this world, if there was anyone to bury me. I never had dreamed that Aon would there first. ___ recovered from her wounds, which had not been fatal after all. She became almost Leta’s own daughter after that. The Merlin’s boy took his own life, thereby earning his own eternal suffering, if we are to believe as the Sumerians believe.
For a while I suffered so deeply that I almost felt nothing at all. I merely watched the sun and stars come and go. We moved no stones that winter after all. But when the ground froze in the following year men came to me and begged me to order them back the work of further building the henge. We moved stones both big and small. There was no Merlin now, but I found that that name came to be applied to me. And I finally accepted it in the memory of my fine son Aon and my greatest friend Waelf. For four more years I did my best to guide the simple, fearful, yet fine people of the valley of the Evonna River.
At last my leg came to hurt me so badly, that Leta had to be my support. Then men had to carry me. There were good men in that valley. A handsome young man named Kumru emerged as a leader. He was quick at stone work and a good judge of the cases of men. I asked him to take over my duties and spent more and more time resting on the grassy slope of the sun-warmed side of Waelf’s old barrow.
The villagers made me a present of a fine new bow and a quiver of the best arrows the country had to offer. Kumru himself made me an archer’s wrist-guard of polished stone, one of the best I had ever owned. I promised him I would take all the gifts with me to the next world, and asked that I be laid next to Aon’s grave when the time came, which I knew was soon. Leta was always kind to me, as kind as any woman ever had been, and I knew that out hearts were bound, as mine had been with Vila.
One day a traveling man came up the river from the south, a tale-teller. He sang songs in the manner of such travelers for his food and shelter, for bir and vanna, and maybe the warmth of a young girl or widow. He sang us a long tale of a hero name Heracles, who, according to the song, had performed a number of outrageous labors for some king somewhere. I could only smile. My old companion had made a big name for himself. There were also songs of Finn Ma-Kul. There was even mention of a man named Pelops. Near enough to my old name. There was almost a hint of truth to one part of the tale, about a cart race and a king’s daughter. We feasted while he sang and afterwards I felt ill with too much food and drink. Leta wrapped me up in warm sheepskins and lay by my side as the evening grew cold.
Outside, on the wide, dark plain, the brilliant stars wheeled about the big standing stones.