Excerpt from my book, “867-5309/jenny, the song that saved me”. About my dad and mom


The Radio.. my childhood room and my dad and mom

Wolf spiders. Wolf spiders on my blankets.
They look like scaled-down tarantulas, chopped and channeled like tarantula hot rods, but unlike their lumbering bigger cousins, wolf spiders are frantically fast. That’s part of the problem; you take your eyes off of them for a second, to get something to swat or catch them with, and they disappear. But where do they go? Under the other blanket? Back in the corner where the wooden bunk-bed frame doesn’t quite touch the wall, that place of unspeakable web-wrapped darkness? Tarantulas, of course, are gentle creatures; you can hang them on your sweater or even let them amble over your slowly moving fingers. But wolf spiders are lightning killers, even if only of other wolf spiders. Their only other known function is to act as nightmare stalkers of seven-year-old boys.
I lay in the darkness in my little basement room. Off in the distance there was the ominous deep rumbling from the new “jet” planes flying somewhere in the night. I was under the covers, drenched in a cold sweat, hiding from wolf spiders and rigid with terror that H-bombs would fall out of the sky. I was waiting every second for it to happen. That was what they’d been feeding us kids: Commies and H-bombs.
I had the blankets pulled up around my head, because besides the H-bombs and the wolf spiders, there were the mice and rats and other short-and-long-legged crawling, creeping scaries waiting to get me down in that basement room.
My dad never got around to finishing this part of the house. It was on his list, but the list was years long and filled the blue-lined pages of notebook after notebook, each entry neatly written in his crabbed writing, each notebook held closed with a rubber band. There were a great many things on that years-long list that never got done. He was a big starter but not much of a finisher, a man of many dreams, but not so many fully realized accomplishments. So I, who my dad called Charlie Owlbox, the Dog-Faced Boy, number three of four kids, ended up being stuck in this unfinished afterthought of a room. My older brother and sister lived down the hall, in finished rooms. My little sister lived upstairs with my parents.
The basement had a semi-smooth concrete floor that was supposed to be polished but wasn’t (that was a fifties thing, polished concrete, very modern (now it’s au courant again: Whole Foods floors), and there were missing acoustic tiles in my ceiling, which left holes from which mice and rats would sometimes peer down on me as I lay in my bed. I once woke up to find that a big, fat mama rat had brought her newly spawned brood to nestle in the comfy folds of my satin comforter. At first I thought they were kittens, as we had up to a dozen cats at any one time in our house, and there were kittens everywhere, but as I squinted at them in the dim morning light, I suddenly realized that these tiny squirmers were of a more feral species. I ran, I suppose yelling, from my room. My dad came to the dramatic rescue, in typical Hughes Call fashion, with his ceremonial Navy sword in one hand and our black cat in the other. He flicked back the covers with the tip of his shiny sword and tossed the cat on the rats, which scattered in all directions. Black Kitty might have caught one of them.
Right at the foot of my bed there was also a dirt- floored “alcove”, full of dusty, cobwebby cardboard boxes, that was really a crawl space that led back under the house. This creepy, dark place was home to many kinds of critters, including the black widows that my older brother and his intrepid pals sought with jars. A flimsy little curtain only partially covered this nasty gateway to a child’s night terrors.
But my room was a well-lit refuge compared to what waited beyond my pocket door with its little hook latch. Outside the door, there was a dimly lit, narrow hallway with no wall paneling, just exposed rough joists strung with Romex electric cabling and draped with dusty spider webs. Directly across from my door was the open black hole of the highly ironically named “playroom”, another unfinished space filled with partially started projects such as my dad’s “catamaran”, the one he planned to sail to Hawaii, which was never more than a few two-by-fours tacked together and leaned up against the windows, which couldn’t be seen out of for the clutter.
There were piles of cut-up sheets of plywood, stacks of boxes and old newspapers dating back to the thirties, three-legged chairs waiting forever to be re-glued, a couple of eight-inch black-and-white TV sets, an old wind-up Victrola, uncountable broken vintage electric fans and light fixtures, and God knows what else, everything covered in spider webs and a light fall of slightly smelly grime that I came to call Mummy Dust. It just had this strange indefinable odor. I’m sure Indiana Jones would be able to relate. This unkempt jumble was naturally home to myriad species of arachnids, including my unfavorites, the wolf spiders, and all the other web makers, big and small.
You see, my father was one of those people who couldn’t toss anything out, and I mean anything. Each old box full of whatnots, each partially cut piece of lumber, every hanging garment bag full of old, never-to-be-worn-again clothing (I knew there were corpses in them) had its own old memory or a future use. At its most organized, the playroom was a place of labyrinthine, box-lined trails through the piles and stacks. This only got worse over time, until the tortuous paths themselves were filled to the ceiling. Nowadays, a person who collects stuff in this fashion would be labeled a compulsive hoarder, which is quite accurate, but the old name for the compulsive hoarder is more descriptive: packrat. Actually, both names are sadly correct.
You might think from the above that I grew up out in the hills of Appalachia or in some rotting urban tenement, but this was in Mill Valley, California, one of the most urbane pieces of suburbia that ever was. And my dad wasn’t some undereducated hick from the sticks or faceless denizen of a forlorn cityscape.
What he was was quite a complicated man. His mother and father had divorced in 1919 when he was two, leaving him to be raised by his wealthy grandparents. His mother’s father, my great-grandfather, George Alexander Hughes, was the inventor of the electric stove, if you can get your mind around that. A third-generation Irish Protestant immigrant, Mr. Hughes started an electric appliance company that went on to become Hughes Electric and he was the Chairman of the Board of General Electric at some point back in the twenties and thirties. I keep telling my brother that sooner or later a few hundred old shares of GE will be found in some old pile of papers (my brother took many of my dad’s boxes with him after dad passed away) and we’ll be rich. The shares have as yet not been unearthed. When we find them, I’ll let you know. From Maui.
My dad grew up in a big house near Chicago, where he got more attention from the liveried, “colored” servants and cooks than he did from his older-generation, distant grandparents. He was shunted off at age five to a fancy, waspy school or two and then to Harvard and Harvard Business School. From this high-altitude springboard he could have bellyflopped into a cushy corporate job. All he had to do was toe the line and follow vaguely in Grandpa’s footsteps. But while serving as a young Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Navy in a strictly non-combatant role (no doubt through his grandfather’s political connections) as a junior adjutant and tennis partner for Admiral Chester W. Nimitz in Pearl Harbor during WWII, where in addition to his forehand my father finely honed his already considerable cocktail-party skills, my father saw Golden California. When the war was over, he turned his back on his guaranteed-to-be-boring corporate job prospects and left the Midwest for the wide-open sunny life of San Francisco.
He was, despite his blustery protestations to the contrary, a black sheep who tried for a long time in vain to wear white; a lifelong failure at business and a staunch anti-Roosevelt Republican who finally came to his senses during the Vietnam War and became a Democrat and an anti-war, civil rights advocate. Should he have been surprised to have spawned a rock musician?
As for Hughes Electric Company and the George Alexander Hughes,” Father of the Electric Range”, family fortune? My lovely grandmother, the party-loving-almost-good-enough erstwhile concert pianist, spent all the dough traveling the world on board Cunard liners while draped in minks and pearls and on entertaining Broadway’s and The New York Philharmonic’s stars at her autographed- photo- filled 57th Street apartment, right across the street from Carnegie Hall.
Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations: that’s what they say.
My dad was also an alcoholic, largely of the charming variety, who couldn’t find the time to play catch with me or teach me how to drive. He was always too busy either sleeping a big night off or winding up to become Mr. Gregarious, the guy who lived for the next wild, imaginative party coming down the pike. My parents both sang and my mother played piano; we had three of them in the house, with two back-to-back grands in the big living room, the curves matching like musical yin-yang pieces. Above the pianos was an abstract painting done by one of their artsy friends. It was an oddly stretched-out rectangle three feet high and fifteen feet long that was mounted above the Steinway and the other grand. The male cats would get up on the pianos and pee on the painting, their pee trails streaming down the walls from the swirls and splatters of the abstract painting. Life imitates art.
My folks belonged to a theater group that did Gilbert and Sullivan and other light musicals, and our house was party central for the cast. Our parties were legendary. My dad cut an eight-by-ten-foot hole in the living room floor and rigged a “stage” that could be raised with pulleys up from infamous playroom to the living room. Virtually everyone at the party, and we often had a hundred people or more at our soirees’, was required to have an act, which could be raised from the depths, the partygoers singing or doing a funny scene from a play. My father had rigged colored spotlights near the ceiling of the living room that would illuminate the performers as they rose from the depths.
As a kid, I could only watch the grownups at their play, though they trotted me out to sing a Broadway song or two. I had a good voice even as a little boy. But the world of grownups was basally off-limits to us kids. We had to go to our rooms early. In the morning I would sneak upstairs and gaze upon the detritus of the parties: glasses everywhere, many with cigarette butts stuck in white wine, the kitchen a mess. There were usually two or three snoring bodies on the couches. They must have had a grand time.
Often I would get a book or two and tiptoe back down to my room. There was a library in our dining room with floor –to- ceiling books that came down from both my mother’s and father’s childhoods. There must have been hundreds of books. I learned to read early and I loved the Greek Myths, the Arabian Nights, and anything about history. I still do. I have some of those old books today. I also loved comic books, especially Uncle Scrooge, because of the fantastic adventures, and my favorite, Superman.
Superman is a lonely character. He can’t reveal his true identity to even his closest friends. He exists to right wrongs and to save the world from Lex Luthor and Mr Mxyzptlk. Superman has a weakness, deadly Kryptonite, pieces of his home world which are poisonous to him. How true that is. The stuff that follows us around from childhood can be very toxic; it can even destroy us. He had a place where he went to recharge his batteries when he was at the end of his endurance, the Fortress of Solitude. Even Superman has his limits. I guess the creators of Superman were brilliant. I wanted desperately to be Superman. Even then I knew the world needed saving. I spent long hours wandering in the worlds of books and comics. The moral choices and the circumstances of the characters were easier to understand than the real world I saw around me.
You’d think my father could’ve taken a little of his social energy to fix my nasty room up. But he couldn’t find the time; he was the party master: he loved the ladies, he lived for the laughter; his nickname was Hugs. He had a clock that said: no drinks served until after five. The clock face was, of course, all fives.
My Father was much loved by his witty, creative, and simpatico friends, but his own early childhood abandonment by his mother no doubt left him with deep, unfaced issues. Kryptonite. His dark, wounded side found expression in the scary bowels of our house, the basement of Dorian Grey. I needed my own Fortress of Solitude.
Of course, I didn’t know any of that when I was a young boy. I only knew that everywhere there were piles of stuff too important to be tossed out, projects too far down on the ever-longer list to ever be dealt with. At night the doorless playroom was a seething black pit full of lurking horrors. The laundry area, with its single, hanging bare light bulb and the dark and creepy old blanket-draped doorway to dad’s “workroom” (where he hid his cases of cheap Tom Moore bourbon) was just as frightening. There were two more of those scary, unlit, cave-like alcoves that ran off under the old house. The stairs that went up to the main floor had only steps, no facings, since they had been built by my dad, who we now know never finished anything. I imagined bony hands reaching out of the blackness for my ankles as I ran up to my parent’s bedroom in the middle of the night when I was too terrified to stay downstairs any longer.
All this and H-Bombs and wolf spiders, too.
So, I snuck my hand out of the blankets and clicked on the green plastic Zenith radio. Wish I still that radio. It looked just like the front of a ’55 Oldsmobile, with chromish mesh over the speaker and a pea -soup green body. Two dials: volume and frequency. I turned it just on a click, didn’t turn the volume up at all. At first, there was only a very faint buzzing noise. But after a few minutes, as the tubes warmed, there was KYA coming in, too quietly for anyone to hear but me. The sound of the smooth-talking DJ was reassuring to a child who felt as if he had been abandoned to his cellar-dweller fate, and the comforting top-forty hit singles played all night.
There were songs that I loved: Don’t be Cruel, El Paso, Hello Mary Lou, Bye-Bye Love, Pretty Woman. There were many more songs I couldn’t stand: She Wore Blue Velvet, Hats Off To Mary, Tell Laura I Love Her, Itsy-Bitsy Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini. But good or not, each song was three minutes long: verse, b-section, and chorus. We were a musical family and I was already at a tender age a discerning critic. My older sister was a bobby soxer who had the latest 45’s on her little record player. I listened to them more than she did. I waited for the songs that had cool guitar leads, songs that sounded like a band was playing them. Roy Orbison, Ray Charles, Ricky Nelson (with James Burton on guitar), The Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley. I switched over to KEWB or the black station KDIA when Frankie Avalon, Neil Sedaka, or another one of those horrible teen idols came on. KDIA played Bobby Blue Bland (Lovelight, one of the best singles of all time), James Brown, Barret Strong, Mary Wells, Jackie Wilson, The Coasters and Drifters, and my favorite, Ray Charles. I liked the real stuff, no lush strings or oboes.
The songs were my own private musical Fortress of Solitude; if I listened hard enough, the night, the spiders, and the H-bombs went away. Eventually I would fall asleep, but the old Zenith stayed on while I dreamed. The songs sank into my consciousness.
I was terrified down in that room, but as I drifted into dreamland on the waves of the old Zenith I was unknowingly uncovering something inside of me: music, a place of refuge. And it was my own Berlitz course: Learn to write hit songs while you sleep.

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excerpt from ‘867-5309/jenny, the song that saved me’ : My mother passes away, 1969


My Mother passes away

There was a note from my father in the mailbox at 96 LaVerne early one July morning in 1969. It said: Your mother died this morning. He didn’t knock on the door or call. I stood there holding it my hand. It wasn’t like I didn’t know it was coming, but I didn’t know it would be so soon. My parents weren’t in the business of leveling with us about life’s big issues. It was always more like, if you don’t know, then I’m not going to tell you; if you do know, then I don’t need to tell you.
She had been fighting cancer for eleven years and had finally passed away at home. I had seen her just a few days before. I was on foot, carless as I was in those days. My sisters were driving her someplace. She was sitting in the back of the car wearing a print dress which was bright and cheerful, but she was skin and bones; her once graceful arms looked like pipes draped with loose, gray skin. They stopped and she rolled down the window and told me that her mother, my Grandma Nonie, had just died. I said, gee, I’m so sorry, mom. I felt a stab of guilt. I never had anything helpful to say to her in her illness, and I felt equally ineffective at that moment as well. I didn’t know that would be the last time I would ever talk to her.
She’d been sick for so long, it seemed like she would just go on. I didn’t think about her death being imminent. At least when my father died I got to tell him I loved him before he went. I have the memory of those last words to hold inside of me. But not with my mom; she hung on for only one more week. I think she willed herself to live until her mother was gone. I have now come to see the way she, and later my father, carried themselves as they approached death as having a lot of dignity, for which I am today grateful as an unspoken life-lesson. Teaching by example. That’s really the way of the parent, since kids, especially teenagers, don’t listen to advice. But we absorb the way our parents handle themselves as human beings.
But right then, I didn’t think about dignity. I was in shock. I quickly walked the mile across Homestead Valley to my parent’s house. I was afraid her body would still be there, but they had taken her away earlier. I couldn’t even bear to look into her room. I was spooked. There was a floor to ceiling mirror right at the foot of her bed, and I thought that if I looked in it, I might see her propped up on her pillows in the bed, the way she had been for almost two years. I was two months shy of my twenty-first birthday. My mother would have been fifty-two in November.
Though I had been saying to my friends for some time that it would be better when her suffering ended, when it actually came to pass, I was hit harder than I could imagine. I learned in a dizzying moment that blood is much thicker and deeper than intellectual thought. Death is visceral and ethereal at the same time, but it’s only peripherally intellectual. In the inscrutable, hard way that life works, her death pushed me into the beginning of my spiritual life-journey.
As I look back on my life, I know I’ve always been a seeker. Even as a child I would look up at the sky and wonder why I couldn’t just spread my wings, in fact where were my wings?, and leap through it into some glorious, pearly somewhere, free of all the crapola of life: hard guys, cold girls, homework, and terror of H-bombs. LSD dropped-kicked me sideways beyond the edge of reason and gave me a glimpse of a vision of great potential. But then I would come down from that high and after a while, the vision would blur, even seem ridiculous and downright frightening. But my mom’s death inexorably pulled me down the steep trail into that lonesome valley we have to walk by ourselves. I didn’t know that I was descending into that labyrinthine maze yet. I just knew that, while I got through most of the service and memorial alright, I felt suddenly a little more like an adult; one half an orphan.
My older brother Lew came down from far northern California, where he had stayed on after college, and we drove around together, even wearing sport coats and ties some of the time for the funeral and the beginning of the wake. We talked as equals for the first time. He and I had always been of almost separate generations in our house. He was a big kid and I was a little kid, because we were five years apart. Five years. It makes a difference when you’re a kid. We little kids would be up at dawn on Christmas while the big kids annoyingly slept in until seven, no longer hungering for the wish-fulfilling BB gun or box of toy soldiers under the tree. We had had all been sent off to boarding schools during high school, in the tradition of my highly educated dad and mom, so we sibs barely knew each other. But I had always looked up to Lew. He would stand up to my father’s blustery posturing at times, even having a bit of a slapping match with the old man in the TV room during dinner once when I was home from school on vacation. My poor dad, he just didn’t have his heart into being a disciplinarian, so he made a lousy, non-credible one. He failed at it in the same way he failed at many things.
Thank God, my mother’s wake was anything but a dreary affair. There must have been over a hundred people at our house, drinking, laughing, reminiscing, and playing piano and singing, just like a big cast party for one of their light opera shows. It was a grand send-off. Mom would not have looked well on a dour, whiney event. In fact, there was one person there being maudlin and she was actually shown the door by one of my mom’s friends. My parents were part of a lively crew; educated, funny, and talented, with a taste for life that has left a glamorous picture in my mind. I drank a pitcher of something with one of the grown-ups, a man who boozily confided that he had been the only one really understood my mother. I guess I didn’t know much about her myself.

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Merlin the Archer: Winter and Death- Stonehenge and Sacrifice


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.

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Merlin the Archer: Moving the Stones, the People: Building Stonehenge


Building Stonehenge

It felt good to moving again. After all, we were men unencumbered by women or children. We had only our three ponies, which Finn named Teti, Pepi, and Nefer-kah, in honor of our Egyptian masters. Finn took a certain enjoyment in lightly whipping the laden beasts with a reed and calling on them move faster. We had told no one of our going. Waelf said it wasn’t unusual for men to go off hunting or even to go on pilgrimages to holy places, like the ring of giant stones to which we were heading. It was just a day north. The chalk ridges were fine and grassy and the walking clear of much trouble, even for me with my limp. I had a fine staff to help me, with a carved ram’s head on the top made by my son, and a leather thong to help me hold on to it. We moved up and down the low rises, sometimes crossing clear-running streams. We saw many barrows. Waelf said they we all empty, except for the shadows of the ancients. We camped clear of them and ate well and drank from skins of honey wine and clear water. It was the height of summer, and the weather was fine, though that meant that at any time it might cloud up and rain for a moment and then be bright again. The wind blew, as it always does across the plains.
There was a track of sorts, a path worn into the white chalk earth.
“From the olden days, people have traveled along the high ridges from north to south, east, to west. There are places that have power in them, and men come seeking to be cured, or to find their future destinies. I won’t say the way is without some danger, for not all that travel these roads are good men. There are brigands and thieves, as there are everywhere.”
But we had little fear. Aon and I were both good shots, and we had made up large quivers of flint-tipped arrows, well fletched. I still carried my Akkadian recurve bow, which could cast an arrow two hundred paces with killing force. I also had my bronze sword. Aon had fashioned a stiff bow out of th yew tree, in the manner of the islanders. We carried copper battle axes in our gear, brought all the way from Egypt, along with copper stone-cutting chisels. Finn wore his bronze sword, won in a campaign far away, and also had a bronze-tipped spear longer than a tall man. Waelf carried no weapons but his wits, which were sharper than any metal or flint could ever be. We followed the trace cut by the passage of men since before time through the chalk ridges and saw no one all day.
At nightfall we came within sight of an unusual hill. It looked a bit like a rounded-off pyramid. Plainly, it was made by men, for it stood by itself, with no like hills near it. Waelf said it was king’s barrow of the ancient days. Nearby was a low, long barrow not unlike the one Waelf used as his home near Sarum. We came up slowly on the village that lay beyond the oddly shaped hill. We could see the smoke from the cook fires. Evening was settling and the locals would likely be a bit put out by the appearance of armed strangers, so we decided to make a cold camp a way across a field. The country was rolling low hills, and the tall barrow-hill stood out in the twilight.
In the middle of the night, I awoke to the sound of someone talking quietly in the darkness. I slipped out from under my sheep-skins and stole into the night towards the sound. As I got closer to the talking, I could hear that it was Waelf. He seemed to be having an animated discussion with someone, but no other voice could I hear. At last Waelf sighed and walked back to our camp. I waited for some time and then slipped back under my skins.
Waelf woke us as the first light raised in the eastern sky.
“Look, “he said, pointing to the north, “the great stones of the old ones.”
There, lining a broad avenue, which, excepting the green grass that grew on it, was not unlike the processional ways that led from the Nile to the great pyramids of the Pharaoh’s Red and Black lands, were two rows of massive upright stones. They were rough, not well cut. Many of them were twisted and misshapen; some were almost square, others oval or round. Many looked a bit like crude spear or arrow points or flint knife-blades, stuck in the ground by some giant’s hand. But they were laid out in two long, if somewhat uneven, rows that reached towards a sloping hillside about a half mile ahead, where there was a great ring of the same kind of rough stones with another, smaller but still grand, ring within. The outer ring was several hundred yards across. There were gaps in it here and there. Perhaps the old ones had run out of stones. And there were oddly placed single stone scattered about the enclosure.
Waelf said, “The locals are a bit touchy about their ring. I’ve never been allowed to spend much time noting the placement of the single stones. I would guess that they mark different times of the year. If anyone here knows, they aren’t saying. When I last came here, a headman rudely told me he didn’t know what the stones meant except that they were sacred to Awe and Ock.” I have brought him some wisgiegh as an offering this time. Perhaps that will soften his tongue.”
We walked up the avenue, leading the ponies. The sun had risen and was at our backs. It was a fine day. Without breaking stride or acting outwardly concerned, Finn said, “We’ve got company on both sides.”
I glanced as casually as I could and saw them; archers with drawn bows under various trees that stood here and there. There were at least ten of them. They had us dead to rights if they chose to shoot.
Waelf raised his hand to signal us to halt.
“Aon, my boy, take the pack off our little brown horse, but leave the nose rope. “
Aon quickly untied the leather straps and the pack slid off the pony’s back. Waelf fished around in the pack bag and drew out a skin.
“More wisgiegh than I thought the old man had,” laughed Finn under his breath,” if I’d only known!”
Waelf gave us a grave but confident look and took the pony’s trace and the skin and walked ahead. Three men had come out, two with drawn bows. They stood fifty paces ahead in the middle of the avenue. The moment seemed to drag on and on, as Waelf slowly drew near the three.
Finn whispered, “If they take him out, we’ll get between the horses and back out of here.”
It would be a tough retreat. We were sure to get hit and almost certainly lose the horses and packs. I had no doubt but that Aon and I could make better shots than these men, though. We would most likely survive, though every man, woman, and child must be prepared to die at any time. Waelf faced certain death where he was, however. But I knew he was not afraid of death. He was afraid of not living, which is a very different thing.
Waelf stopped a few paces from the men. The man in the middle was either a headman or a priest. He was white haired, like Waelf. We could see they were talking, but couldn’t hear what words were exchanged. The scene was still and calm, for all the nocked arrows. A few bees hummed happily among wildflowers. We saw Waelf move forward again until he reached the men. He bowed and gave the headman the wisgiegh skin. The man tilted it up, took a long pull as one would with honey wine or beer and plainly sputtered. Finn and I fought back a laugh.
“The little people’s fire-water!” I whispered.
“Wasted on these farmers, “said Finn.
Precious moments passed. I looked around at the fine fields of barley and grasses, at the fat sheep on the hillsides. Then Waelf turned and waved us up. Even from here we could see the broad smile on his face.

The Danaates, the people of the Great Circle welcomed us to the village and pledged to help us when we moved stones for our ring. Their leader was Ruuk the Elder. He and Waelf had become fast friends over the wisgiegh. It turned out our Waelf had brought much more than one skin.
“It’s basically all I brought, “he confided at last.” One can’t have too many friends.”
We had a good laugh about our Merlin’s wisdom. Even Aon, who was so quiet and serious most of the time, thought it was the funniest thing.
“And we thought we were going to be killed!” He said, his face pulled up in a grin. It was an unusual side of him I saw that night, as we sat around the big fire in the center of the village. The boy is so thoughtful, I said to myself; he’s like me and his mother. He needed to lighten up a bit. And one of the village girls looked to be wanting to help him.
She was maybe thirteen, old enough to have children by the look of her. She brought us drink, the usual honey wine, and seemed to linger around behind Aon. I noticed, but didn’t give any sign that I did. I saw Aon glance her way a couple of times. Once, their eyes met for certain, and held for moment. The women of this land were quiet and retiring in their manners, far different from the noble women of Egypt. More like Epirus. Men ran everything here, and women stayed in the background. She wore the simple tunic and shawl of the island people. Her hair was brown with bit of red, her eyes dark.
Ruuk the Elder was the medicine man of the village; its healer and storyteller. After enough honey-wine and wisgiegh had been consumed, and the meat eaten, he told a long tale of how the giant Brud had thrown the huge stones from the distant mountains and formed the ring. It was pleasant piece of nonsense, which not even Ruuk took seriously. We all laughed when he described the Giant’s genitals in great and preposterous detail. His penis was as long as the distance from the village to the sea, and when he pissed he made the river Avonna. All the villagers had come up to listen to Ruuk go on by the fireside. Across the circle of smiling faces lit by the flames I saw a woman with long dark hair and dark eyes. She caught me looking at her and covered her face with her shawl. She seemed familiar, but then, it had been so long since I had been with woman that I put the thought down to my lustful urges, which are never far from any man’s mind. At last people drifted away from the fire. We were welcomed to camp near it, or anywhere we liked. Ruuk and Waelf stayed up late, Ruuk sipping the fire-water and exchanging tales with Waelf which made them both laugh and look somber or wistful in turn.
Aon walked up in the morning. He had not slept near us. He seemed contented. We set about readying ourselves for our westward trek. It was another fine morning. Ruuk and several other Danaates saw us off. I could still smell wisgiegh on his breath. He must gave been up all night. His eyes were bleary and happy. He promised us that we would have their help when the time came. Waelf thanked him and gave a blessing for the village. By the time we walked west, most everyone was up to see us off. I caught sight of the dark-eyed woman. She came out of a roundhouse, pushing back the hide flap, and looked at me for a moment. I thought it might be unseemly, so I looked away. Aon‘s young girl stood apart from the villagers, under a tree. He glanced at her, but she made no sign to him that I could see.
We walked through the open hills and valleys of the west country for two days. Sometimes we saw small villages, but mostly the land was empty. I thought that it was the finest land I’d ever seen. It didn’t have the excitement of the big mountains or the wilderness of Nubia, Elam, or Achaea, but it was a place that had the possibility of providing abundance for many. When I thought of the hardy people there, I thought that someday, given the right kind of kings, they might conquer even Egypt.
The road had been empty for a whole day. We came to a ridge-top and saw the western sea ahead.
“We’ll have to cross that, “said Waelf.” It’s a river further up, but still we’ll need a boat.”
We came down the ridges and drew near the slate-colored sea. The west wind blew hard off it and there were gulls and other sea-birds. The smell of salt was in the air. There was a point ahead and we made along traces towards it. We encountered no one. I began to wonder if people weren’t hiding from us.
“No doubt we’ve been seen,” said Finn.
“Or maybe fear of someone else keeps the locals hidden,” said Waelf.
There as a bit of a trace that led to a wind-blown point on the sea shore ahead. We made our way down it. I felt eyes on us. Suddenly Finn whispered,” Everyone, off the road!”
We pulled the two ponies into the bushes, which were thick right there, and lay quickly down. Aon, stroked the beasts’ muzzles with his hands to keep them from champing. I readied my bow and Finn silently drew out his bronze sword. Now we could hear voices plainly, many of them, and the clatter of arms and thick-stitched hides worn for armor. A troop of more than twenty men walked by, laughing and careless. They were a ragged, filthy crew, but strong-looking, battle tested no doubt. I could see it in the way they strode, swaggering, and by the way they were armed. I held my breath, as if that would keep us safe from such a large band. I waited for the ponies to give us away, but Aon’s sweet temper held them in check and they made no sound. The warriors had all passed when suddenly Finn jumped up and ran out into the trace, his sword flashing in the afternoon sun.
“Stop!” he shouted.
The men whirled about, drawing their weapons. They had swords and clubs, axes and spears, bows and stones. Many of them wore hide caps, the kind that would turn the flight of an ordinary arrow shot by a poor archer. What was Finn doing?
“Kullain, you dog, you’ll pay for passing me by!” he roared. But Finn’s face was spread in wide grin. The gang had stopped and spun around, to see who challenged them on this empty road. One of them, a burly man of middle height and broad chest, his dark brown hair hanging in long braids and few streaks of grey in his full beard, came strolling up out of the band and stopped. He carried a long-handled stone axe, the kind that can split a man’s skull in two with one blow. Ho put the axe head down on the trace and leaned on the handle.
His face was widened by the slow smile that crossed it.
“Why, if it ain’t old Finn, the pirate, “he said. Even I could tell his accent was that same as Finn’s.
“And what brings you here to our raiding country? Spoils of your own? These belong to us.”
Finn grinned back. He held his sword out to the side and gently slapped his other palm with the flat of the blade. “Ah, Kullain, you’d get one tenth if I was in command, you know that!” Finn laughed.
“And I suppose that’s true, “said the broad man. “ And I’d be happy to get that; for one tenth of your share would be worth more than my headman’s take!” The man tipped his chin in our direction. “Tell your men to come out. We have no quarrel with our old companion, the great Finn of the Green Isle. But tell me, what happened to your hair? It was as red as the young girl’s when last we fought together, against the Tournagh.”
“The sun of the faroes’ land burned the color out of it.” laughed Finn. “But I’ll tell you my story and you can tell me yours over honey-wine and meat, which I reckon you have.”
“Ay, “said Kullain, “that we do. I don’t imagine your ponies are empty laden either.”
“That they’re not, but I’m afraid our rations are more meant for four than for twenty-four.”
“We’ll all toss, old friend. Let’s have us a feast. Down at our ship, just down the point.” He tipped his chin in the direction of the sea. Finn and Kullain clasped hands and forearms. Aon and I saluted in the way of Achaeans and Akkadians, fist on chest. It’s understood by every warrior. They saluted back and we set off down the trace and soon reached the seashore. There was a good-sized ship with one mast, and twenty oars. Not as big as the tin-ship that brought us to Sarum’s shores, but a ship that could ride the waves, no doubt.
“And just where did a land-dog like you get such a fine ship? “Asked Finn.
“The previous owners, being dead, had no further need for it, “Kullain laughed.
Soon, the fire was roaring, the drink was being passed around – Waelf, had indeed one more skin of wisgiegh in his pack, the crafty sorcerer. Finn told many tales of our adventures, each one more outrageous than the last. And all of them basically true; well, perhaps there was a bit of exaggeration, but still, the Green islanders were wide eyed at the stories, and Finn went late into the night telling about the great pyramids and the destruction of the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah and the many sexual exploits of Herkul the giant. He also built me up quite a bit with grand descriptions so my shooting ability. One of them, Crannut, by name, was an archer of some repute. He challenged me to a friendly shooting match come morning.
“Come morning, you won’t remember you made that challenge.” Laughed Finn. Crannut was quite drunk.
“Ah, and yes I will, “And I’ll bet you our ship I can beat you!”
Kullain broke in, smiling, “Well now, Crannut, the ship’s not yours for the wagering.”
Waelf, who had kept quiet up till now, content to listen and observe, said, “I’ll make a bet for my Achaean companion. If he wins a shooting match, you’ll take us to the sacred hills across the water and help us bring back a certain stone I seek.”
“A stone?”
“Yes, a stone that will take twenty men to move and a stout ship, well captained, to bring to Sarum. Will you accept the challenge, King Pelop?”
I nodded agreement. No man had ever beaten me.
“But what do we get if Crannut wins?” asked Kullain.
Waelf leaned forward, the firelight flickering across his old face. “I’ll give you,” he whispered and paused for effect. The men leaned in to hear. “I’ll give you the secret of making wisgiegh. I got it from the little people.”
Kullain rocked back and thought. The wisgiegh had been a real treat.
“It’s a deal.” He looked at me. “We’ll see your skill in the morning. “
I bowed my head in assent.

The sea slapped against the bow of the ship. Ahead rose low headlands that tended west. Kullain held the tiller in his strong grasp. Men pulled at the long oars and slowly drove the hull through the choppy slate-grey waters. Aon and Finn sat the rowing benches. I was spared, along with Waelf, for the pain in my knee.
Kullain grinned at me, “no man can hit a gull on the wing at two hundred paces!”
I shrugged and held my palms up to say, I made a lucky shot. But I could always feel the target in my fingers, as if I could reach out and touch it. I felt sorry for the bird. But it was the challenge that had been put up by Crannut after we both hit a number of easier shots.
“We’ll go get your stone, you crafty old man, “said Kullain to Waelf.” By the gods, we’ve nothing better to do right now.” Kullain had been counting on the wisgiegh as well, I was sure. But even without the wisgiegh, it was obvious that these men held Finn and Waelf, perhaps even me, in awe. Finn had led some of them, including Kullain, in wars in past times. His courage and his mind were constantly talked about in the group. Tales were told around the fires at night of his exploits. I added my share, full of exotic Nubians and Kannaanites. As for Finn, he was back among his comrades, his spear-brothers of old. Most of these men had seen more than few seasons and campaigns. It was a formidable group, and we had nothing to now to fear from any band we might come upon.
So the gull had died by my lucky shot: I took it as an omen that we would get a big stone moved all the way back to Sarum and stand it up as the center-stone of the new ring. After that? I couldn’t say. But I knew that I usually found a way to motivate people to build things.
We coasted past a couple of tiny fishing villages. The wild men wanted to raid, but Waelf talked quietly with Finn and Kullain and we went on past. We put in a cove and Waelf went off back over a headland to one of the villages with Aon. They came back after a spell with four fat sheep and ten skins of barley-wine. I don’t know how he did it. We slaughtered the animals and the wild men lade their offerings and then we feasted. Waelf made the offering in the name of Ock and Ave’, and other gods that he and they knew, but who were strange to me. The men were satisfied. It was certain that they were coming to see Waelf as the Merlin, or whatever they called such a man.
“So, how did you get those sheep? “ I asked him later, when we were alone.
“I told them that they would be serving their god, called out here Drummand, and besides, I also told them the men were in this boat were desperate murderous raiders.” He had a twinkle in his eye.
I had to laugh. Some holy man!
The next day we rounded a wild point where the waves piled up dangerously against low cliffs and turned north. Long hills loomed inland above the coves. Waelf stood on the bow of the ship and pointed towards a rounded ridge.
“That’s it!” he shouted out, “the Hills of Penrhyn. That’s where we’ll get our stones.”
“Pull harder boys, “said Kullain, “so we can go break our backs for the wisgiegh-man!”

34 The first stone

Waelf looked back down towards the sea. It was going to be a slog, no doubt; but I knew we could do it. Aon and three men had fashioned a fine sledge from trees they hewed down in a draw. They had used their sharp battle axes and sharp -edged hand stones to plane the runners smooth and then greased them with sheep fat to make them slippery. The sledge would have slid down the hillside by itself if we hadn’t piled stones under the runners. The fashioning of the sledge had taken them two days. During that time, we had found our stone and cut it free. Truly, the stones were almost perfect the way they were. They were in a series of outcroppings on a side of the rolling ridge. The rocks had a blue-grey tint to them. They were called the bluestones. They came from a source beneath the ground that had stood them up from the soil, many on end. Quite a few had broken off like spear-points and lay scattered about some trickling springs. There were offerings among the stones and springs. Plainly this was place of worship, though there were no villages at all in the area.
“People in these islands, “said Waelf, “believe that there are lines of power between sacred places. That’s why there are traces that run for many days’ marches that go from site to site. These stones are known from the northern isles lost in the wave and storms of cold seas to the shores of the great land south across the water. They are famous for their healing properties. You see where the little marks are?” he pointed at cup-shaped carvings in the rocks. “You fill those with wine and water and then wash the body that needs to be healed. “
The wild men nodded in agreement. None had ever come here, but they knew of this place and the bluestones.
We had picked a rock that had already fallen and broken off, about ten feet in length. We had to lift it from the soil and get it on the sledge. I had the men use levers; Finn led the crew; he’d moved much bigger stones with me in the Land of Pharaoh. We levered it up and stuck small stones under it. Then we could easily turn it balanced on the small stones. Once we had it laying the right way, we simply rolled it over onto the sledge. It was a simple process, but I saw the look of amazement and joy on the wild men’s faces at their accomplishment.
“We did it, boys!” beamed Finn. We tied the stone securely as we could to the sledge and plotted our course down the hills. We knew we would have to muscle the stone up and down through some high and low spots, but we had twenty men and I knew we could do it if we were careful. We had ropes tied at all four corners of the sledge and had four men on each rope, with the rest of us ready with stout poles to use as levers or brakes. Many times as we made our way to the coast we had to stop and figure our next moves. Sometimes we had to lever up one corner or another of the sledge and lift it or keep it from sliding sideways by using stones or logs. It was hard work, and at one point, where the sledge had slidden sideways a bit towards a rill, the men began cursing the whole endeavor, but we got it moved, though it took us two days. Another one of Waelf’s miraculous wisgiegh skins appeared and made it seem worthwhile to the men, who had for the most part gotten caught up it the spirit of the endeavor.
The ship had been beached up the mouth of a deep creek that entered the fine cove. We felled four stout trees, limbed them, and laid them from the bank to the deck of the ship. We levered and muscled the sledge sideways onto the tree trunks and eased it down, sliding sideways, until it sat right before the mast, then pulled the trees out with a great effort and down it set on the deck. I worried about the weight, but we did the operation while the tide was low and the ship was grounded on the sandy creek bottom. Waelf and I were betting that the rising tide would float the ship. I had my doubts, but I kept them to myself. When the tide turned and the water rose, the ship still sat there on the tidal mud of the creek. Come on, I said to myself, float for us, now. At last it did, and our careful placement of the sledge didn’t cause the ship to founder, though it sat lower in the water. The Egyptian ships had been built very wide to hold the huge stones they floated; ours was far narrower a-beam. I had a sudden idea. We cut down four more tall trees, trimmed the branches, and lashed two straight out from the side of the ship, one at amidships and one further towards the stern. Then we lashed a log parallel to the hull on each side of the ship, so that we had counter-balancing floats. The logs were far enough out so that we could still row. This made the ship much more stable and gave me an idea for a two-hulled ship for hauling future stones. Waelf and Aon eagerly grasped this idea. We further strengthened the whole mess with cross beams across the deck of the ship as well. It was crude, but a great improvement for our safety.
By the time we had sailed all the way around the many, storm-tossed far points of the land to the mouth of the Avonna and up the river as far as we could go, and had hauled that stone on its sledge to the open plain above the river, Kullain’s men were ready for some serious feasting and drinking. Setting the stone was easy. We dug the hole just where Waelf wanted it and slid the stone up the mound of dirt that we had dug out and just tipped the bluestone butt end into the hole. We had dug a wider hole than we needed, so we used ropes and levers to get it truly upright and then filled around the base with small stones and rammed-down dirt. Our center- stone stood slightly higher then Finn’s head. All the men patted the stone, which had become both their well-cursed enemy and their good-luck charm. They were all basically believers in the power of stones. There were sacred standing stones and rings and barrows all over their homeland of the Green Isle. The whole village had come to watch the stone go up and everyone cheered when it finally stood there. The blue of the stone certainly did look special. In my mind’s eye, I saw a ring of giant thrilithons, like the Pillars of Herakul, standing around it.
But then Waelf said so that only I could hear, “Now we just need another twenty four.”
I laughed and shrugged.
Bergal the Merlin came up out of the valley, his boy with him, leading four pigs. The people drew back and quieted as he approached. He was smiling and waving a walking stick decorated with raven feathers and strings of strung shells.
“A sacrifice!” he called out. People cheered again, even our crew. A sacrifice meant a feast. A great fire was made to the east of the stone, where Waelf indicated. While everyone bustled about making the fire and admiring the bluestone, Waelf went up to Bergal and said quietly, but very seriously.”Only animals.”
Waelf stared down the dirty shaman, who looked back with insolence and cold hostility but gave no answer. The people were set on sacrifice; it was their way since the beginning of time, since the ancient past when they had crawled out of a womb-cave in the ground in the age of the hero grandfathers, or so the tales told.
Soon there was drink and roast pig, the blood from the sacrifice filled a bowl at the base of the stone. Waelf insisted on no blood on the bluestone.
“This is for healing, this stone; no blood on it.” This was Waelf’s stone, and mine as well.
I stood apart with Aon and Waelf as the others feasted. The moon had risen and the wide plains were bathed in pale light. Aon, looking away from the fires into the darkness, saw them first.
“There are torches there,” he said, pointing north. For certain he was right. Away in the distance were dancing lights, flickering like stars on a windy night. There were many of them, strung our like some Egyptian procession.
“More than fifty”, said Waelf, rubbing his bearded chin. “I wonder what this means?”
I stared out to the north. “Surely it is no raiding party; they wouldn’t light their way.”
“Yes, you’re right. But who?” said Waelf.
We waited on the high ground. The feasters were unaware of the approaching lights. I sent Aon to alert Finn and a few other men, just in case there was trouble.
The lights wound through the dells and swales as they came ever closer, twisting and winding like a starry caterpillar. Finn came up, bringing our bows and several men, though most of the hundred or so of the feasters continued eating and imbibing. The Fake Merlin was a drunken slouchy mass, sitting on a small stone, gnawing on a pink leg bone. There were nine of us waiting at the top of the rise, about a hundred lengths out from the stone.
The torches disappeared in the swale to the north and then reappeared, coming up the long slope straight towards us. We nocked arrows but didn’t draw. We could hear many mingling voices. Plainly, this group wasn’t sneaking up on us; they were almost as loud as the feasters. As the first torch came within sight, Waelf stepped forward.
“Hail, Waelf U’ Carrain!” came a shout from a deep voice. Waelf’s face spread into a wide smile.”We come to return your gift and to see the new stone!”
The big figure of white-bearded Ruuk the Elder came into view. One of his men carried a burning brand that lit his ruddy face. Behind him was a long line of people, men, women, and children. Seemingly more people than were in their whole village of the great stone ring.
Ruuk and Waelf met and clasped hands and forearms in the manner of these northern people.
“How did you know?” asked Waelf.
“Surely, you don’t think you can float a healing stone from the far hills and up the Avonna without the word spreading. By the time we left to come here, we had more than fifty other people come down to us from further north. We are pilgrims, wanting to see your new bluestone. And there it is!”
Ruuk waved his arm in the direction of the stone, which was lit both by the moonlight and the fire of the feast.
“We’ve not come empty-handed. We have animals for sacrifice and feasting, and drink, too, though not your magical brew, “Ruuk said with a wry shine in his eye.
The others surged up and around us towards the stone. Some led pigs and sheep and even two cows. One passed me and paused for a brief moment, just long enough for me to see her face in the flickering torchlight. Then she moved on.
The feasting went on though the night and the next and the next. Others came, by day and by torchlight at night, or without lights. They came from up out of the south, the west, the east. All brought what they could for sacrifice, for the fame of the Sacred Bluestone from the far hills spread like the wind from village to village, over hill and dale, field and woods, river and ridge.
“I knew they would come, “said Waelf, leaning on his staff as he watched the pilgrims make camp along the river east of the stone. “Here are our builders, our stone cutters, our haulers. Here are our cooks and hunters and farmers. They’ll make a new village by the bend, “he said, pointing to where the Avonna swept in big curve below the chalk ridges. “ And you shall show them how.”
“It is your place, “I said.
“No, my time is almost done, “he said. He looked down for moment, then back up, though he looked across the plains and not at me. Then he shot me hard glance. “I was waiting for you, you know.”
I tossed my head. Wizard’s mumbo- jumbo. Waelf liked that term. “And how did you know I would come?” I laughed. It was hard to know hen Waelf was pulling one’s leg with his medicine man’s talk.
”Oh, you know, the Little People.”
“Ah, yes, the wisgiegh chieftains in their hiding places in the earth.” Waelf knew I couldn’t possibly believe in such things.
“You’ll see, someday. They have told me many things, not all good.”
“Such as?”
“They won’t tell you the secret of making wisgiegh!” he laughed.

The word spread, hunter to hunter, village to village, herder to herder, across the green isles and beyond that a new great ring was going up at Sarum. Bands of people and individual wanderers came from all directions. Soon a camp began to form along the bend of the river below the plain where we had put up the Bluestone. Waelf asked me to help organize up the new village, so I set about it. With Aon’s mind and Finn’s outgoing personality and fame, we were able to convince the pilgrims that we needed some order in the camp. We dug a main ditch off the river and ran it around the camp, with smaller ditches feeding off of it. The big one brought water, while smaller ones carried away shit and other wastes into a settling pond in a bog away from the river. Waelf and I agreed that human and pig shit was probably the cause of many sicknesses, though the people thought it was spirits and witchcraft. Of course, our Merlin down the river in Sarum attracted some new adherents, who fell for his spells and chanting and sacrifices. We wanted to bar him from our site, but too many people believed in him, and he put on his best behavior for the most part. So we ignored him as much as we could and got on with the planning for moving more bluestones and cutting some big Sarsens for trilithons at the northern quarries. The transport of the bluestones got much more practical when a new ship came up the river from the sea. Its captain was a loud, bold character who was an old companion of Finn’s. My idea of binding two ships together to haul several stones at once became a reality. Waelf led a team west again and the ships sailed to meet them. Many men would help move the stones and then row back the ships, tied together with study spars, making a double-hulled barge, as I had seen used sometimes in Egypt. The trips were very successful and in two months we had nine more bluestones, for which Waelf had already established proper locations, marking their spots with small stones and logs. My crew, under my and Aon’s direction, stood them up in a circle, still with a few gaps. But the circle could plainly be seen. Meanwhile, Ruuk, Aon, and I went with his folk to the northern quarries where I selected three likely pieces for the first trilithon. The men there knew how to cut the rather soft stone very well, but with our copper chisels, they were able to make the stones very well formed and regular in size and shape, matching each other. The stones were far finer than those hewn by the ancient giant with the penis that reached the sea, the cutters laughed. By winter the three were ready for their icy journey over the downs and plains.
By now we had more than three hundred people in our new village, making it the single largest gathering of people anywhere in this mostly empty land of abundance. There were some shortages of food, but since the summer had been mild and the harvests good, and because many of the pilgrims brought animals with them, most survived the cold months. There were the usual deaths, mostly of infants and old people, from the rattling cough that came in winter. The strong and the lucky live; the weak and cursed die. Sometimes it’s the best people that are taken and the most evil that prosper. That is why I don’t believe in the Gods. In our new village was a communal spirit that I had never witnessed before, and a commonality of purpose. Not driven by a God-King, or by a harsh despot. Not slaves, not prisoners taken as spoils of war. The people came together to make something for the gods, for themselves. And they knew it would last many lifetimes. I knew it too.
Though they couldn’t understand why I made them dig all the ditches, they came to see that the village was cleaner and smelled less than other villages. They looked to Waelf to be their medicine man, but he didn’t really want that and tried to pass it off on others, like Ruuk and several men from distant places who were older and had experience leading groups of people. But the imposter Merlin, Bergal, down on the hill of Sarum drew more than he should have, for he was willing to put on the kind of sacrifices and shows of incantation and supposed trance-travel and other wonders which I had long seen through. It was a bit discouraging, but then again, what were we doing? The same thing but on a much bigger scale. For though Waelf, Aon, and I understood the henge would tell the movement of the sun and moon, to ordinary folk it was all magic and sorcery. They feared the gods and the spirits of the rivers and plains and clouds and ocean. They spat to ward off the evil eye, just as the Achaeans did so far away. Women collected herbs to keep away werewolves and witches and spells.
“It doesn’t matter, “said Waelf wearily one day. We had stood up the ninth stone, Five in the inner circle and four beyond, where the directions of north, south, east, and west lay according to Waelf’s observations. The whole henge was inside of a low ring of earth, made by the barrow people most likely as a sheep enclosure or a fort. Waelf had men dig the old ditch deeper, using shovels of deer antlers, and piled the earth ring higher. There was opening to the east, where the summer sun rose. One stone we placed beyond this opening. “Whether the people understand it now or not, it will help them. That is all we can do. We won’t finish the ring, anyway. Others will do that. We’re here to start it.”
“But if no one understands it, how will help people in years to come?” I asked.
“If nothing else, they will look on it and wonder. And someone with a mind will see how it works. They will know that men built this who watched the sun and moon and stars.”
I shrugged. I supposed that was enough explanation for me. I had nowhere to go anyway and I loved to raise the stones and see the ring take shape. Dark-haired Leta, for that was her name, had quietly moved to our camp and after some time, to my bed. She didn’t speak much, but she was not dumb. She would make insightful comments about the pilgrims and the villagers. It was she who said one day, “That medicine man will cause trouble yet. He’s just waiting.”
I had put him mostly out of my mind. Sarum was three miles way. We only saw Bergal once or twice a week, if that. But it was disturbing that so many sought out his chicanery. I grunted something in assent. Leta fed me and Aon. Aon had taken up with the young girl from Ruuk’s village. She was soon with child. I laughed at the notion of my being a grandfather. I had grey in my beard now, that was for sure, and though my leg was better, it would never be right again. I limped around and couldn’t take part in the lifting or moving of the stones. There was much good flint in the area and I spent long hours making fine arrow points and arrows. I also made an Akkadian-style bow. The task took almost a year, since I had to try different woods and pieces of horn and sinews from cattle, sheep and even from a bear before I found the right combination to make a powerful bow. I wondered if I’d ever need it for war again. I took it out with Aon. He had his yew longbow. We hunted to the north, across the chalk ridges and into the little wooded valleys. My bow shot true and far and I took a hart which we quartered and brought back to our fire. We had made our camp above the river-village, in a slight hollow below the winds that sweep the plains, but above the river mists. We could see in all directions from there. I had an uneasy feeling from time to time, like I was being watched by an enemy.
We brought the first three great menhirs down from Ruuk’s quarry during the winter when the ground was icy and hard. It was hard work and took almost all our men a week to bring each one. We would put them up in spring. A last load of five fine bluestones came by the twin-hulled ship and then we settled in for the cold winter months. The following year we would bring many more stones and raise them for Waelf’s great henge. Leta slept close by me and I grew to find great comfort in her arms and in her calm, quiet ways. Waelf, Aon, Finn, Ruuk, and others would gather in our warm round-house of logs and wattle and drink and tell stories while the women cooked and the children and grandchildren played by the fire in the mid-hearth. Snows came and went and sometimes the northern lights hung or raced across the night sky. Even Waelf and I had a hard time not thinking there were gods in the skies then.

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Building Stonehenge: The Wooden Ring


Building Stonehenge: The Wooden Ring

“How do you know who we are, and how do you know our language?” I said. I suppose I must have sounded a bit rude to the old man. But I was in shock. I seemed almost like a dream; the wind blowing, the great stones, the old man and fierce blue dog. Aon stood silent, observing as was his way.
“Oh, I have traveled much as you have, my friend. I’m not from here, either. I came from the far west of this land. But I have sailed across the sea and been to the land of many islands where they speak your tongue. I spent many years there, learning things which I have found useful. Other things I learned which I have chosen to forget, which may be even more important.”
He looked kindly at us. He had a thin face, and he was short and thin himself. Though he was old and had pure white hair and a long white beard, his hair and beard were clean and blew lightly in the breeze. His eyes were blue-grey and sparkled in the sunlight. There was a hint of laughter in the corners of his mouth. He wore a simple tunic, which was not filthy, but well kept, neatly sewn and mended, and he wore simple sandals and carried no weapon. A tall walking stick was stuck in the chalky soil at his side. Nothing fancy about it either.
“And you are?” he asked, almost breaking into laughter. I guess I was so taken aback by this strange man speaking Achaean that I had forgotten my wits and manners.
“I am called Pelop, and this my son Aon of Epirus” I said, saluting.
“Little Stek, wasn’t it?” he replied. My heart grew tight for a moment. I felt a sudden shock of fear.
“Stek was my name.” I answered after a moment. “A long time ago.”
He kept my gaze, steady with his clear eyes. The laughter was gone now he seemed to look right through me.
“Let me see you leg, “he said. I had been standing, leaning on the crutch, my leg lightly resting on the turf.
“Sit down; easy now.” He said.
I settled back onto the slope of the hillock with Aon’s help. The old man got up and knelt by my side. He looked at my bad leg and made me try to move it. He looked at and felt my feet, both of them, and then my hands. He looked at both of my eyes one at a time. The he put his fingers on my neck, gently and lowered his head and closed his eyes. All was still except for the incessant wind blowing ove the top of the hillock, swirling around us in fits.
He withdrew his hand and stood. “Wait here for a bit. I need to get something.”
He trotted off with his blue dog in the direction of a crease filed with trees. Aon and I sat there.
“What do you make of him?” I asked my son.
Aon calmly stared off across the plains. The grass was waving like seas in the wind. A few puffy clouds scudded across the blue sky. The old man appeared at the edge of the trees, his hands cupped, holding something, his dog by his side.
“I’d say you found the Merlin.” Said Aon.
The old man came back and knelt again and lifted up a long, black leech from his wet palm and put it on my knee. Another he placed on each side of the knee and one or two behind. Then he put two above the ankle.
“Of course, you’ll have to stay here for a while, until they’ve had their fill of your bad blood. Then I’ll have to open that up and let the fire drain out of it. Otherwise it will never heal. It may never fully be the same anyway. I think the blood-fire has probably eaten part of the bone away. But you will gain some strength back and be mostly free of pain when we’re through. Lucky for you, this old tomb is my home. So I have a robe to keep you warm enough for the night, and food.”
“Tomb?”
“Yes, these little round hills are the barrows of the old Kings and Merlins. They’ve been here for a long time, I think. They were emptied of their former occupants ages ago. They make a good shelter for a simple man who isn’t afraid of spirits.”
“And are there spirits?” I asked.
“Of course there are. In your mind” he laughed. “If you let yourself get scared, there’s no end of spooks and demons and little men and werewolves and the like out here. Good and bad, this place is full of them.”
“And if you’re not afraid?” asked Aon.
The old man turned and looked at my son directly.
“Then maybe you’ll learn a thing or two from them.” His eyes sparkled with humor, and I thought he was pulling our legs.
I noticed that already the leeches were getting fatter.
“Oh, you’re a right feast for them. They’re very good at taking blood out without causing harm. When I cut you, you’ll bleed more, but it will be better, cleaner blood than otherwise, with what these suckers are getting right now”
After about an hour, he gently pulled the engorged leeches off my leg. Indeed, the swelling had gone down a bit. The old man walked back to the woods and returned. “I returned them to the stream over there. They’re happy now, fat and happy. The trout will catch them and eat them and your bad blood if they’re not careful.”
“Why are you helping me?” I asked him.
He was standing, his white hair and beard blowing. He looked down almost disdainfully at me.” Well, it’s my job, isn’t it? Haven’t you spent your life looking after others?”
“How would know that?” I asked.
“Um… I can see certain things about people. It’s a trick I learned long ago, maybe in another lifetime. I’ve always been able to see things. Besides, I’m a herder? See my herding dog? I call him Owl, because he is wise, Like Atena’s owl in your land.”
“A herder? But where is your flock?”
“Two of them are sitting on the side of this barrow. And one’s about to get cut and feel a lot of pain.” He laughed.
He went into the barrow and came back with a cup and a fine-pointed bone needle, about a hand’s length. It was very sharp at its point. He knelt again and handed me the cup.”The strongest liquor I have. For medicine only. Drink and don’t spit it out.”
I tipped the cup and wallowed. The wine was like fire. I had to stop from spitting it out. But I swallowed it down. I felt it coursing through me almost at once.
“A special brew, “he said.” The little people showed me how to make it. It’s called wisgiegh.”
My head spun. A fine drink, that was for sure; stronger than any wine I’d ever had.
“Hold your son’s hand. This really will hurt a bit, but you’re a warrior; you can take it without crying out.”
He took the point and held it against my skin right above the knee.
“Look, a hawk!” he said loudly and looked up. I looked up too, squinting into the bright sky, and at that moment he drove the needle into my leg with great force and pushed down as hard as he could. I nearly cried out, but held my tongue. Aon gripped my hand with his as hard as he could. The old man probed around with the long bone needle. I could see sweat beads forming on his brow. Then all at once, there was a great spurt of blood and pus out of the entry wound. It splattered out on the old man’s hands. He smiled broadly.
“I got it!” he beamed. He pulled the needle out smoothly and then pressed down on my leg above the wound with his thumbs. So much blood and pus came out I thought I would faint at the sight. Black, dark blood and yellow pus. He pressed again and again, until there was nothing but just red blood. He took the cup and poured the last drops of the wisgiegh right on the wound. It burned. I winced, but almost had to laugh. Pelop the mighty warrior nearly felled by a wizard’s incision.
“That was your problem,” he said, “poison fire in the blood. It would have been worse without the leeches, but that was pretty bad.”
He went into his barrow and came out again with another draught of wisgiegh and a bowl with a wet mix of greens and browns in it. He gave me the wisgiegh, “for being a good lad” and stuffed some of the herbs into the mouth of the wound. The he put a light wrapping around it.
“Now, that wasn’t too bad, was it?” he stood and poured some water on his hands from a jug and washed them off. “We’ll change that poultice everyday for the next week or so and see how it looks. Sometimes you have to open these things up a few times. Don’t worry, I have more wisgiegh.” He laughed and Owl sat and wagged his tail and looked up admiringly at his old master. So did Aon and I.

The old man and Aon carried me into the barrow. It was a long, narrow chamber, about a man’s length across, but thirty feet deep. They propped me up so my leg was raised a few inches and my head was cushioned with a dried block of turf. The leg hurt, but I felt a sense of confidence in the old man’s treatment. He came back with more leeches and let them attach around the wound.
“There now, he said, sitting down on a block of stone, “You’ll mend soon enough. But no walking until I say so. You both can stay here.”
He was speaking some Achaean, mixed with the island language when he couldn’t recall the Achaean words. I understood him well enough. Aon was very quick with language and was able to fill in the difficult spots.
“I’ll want to hear about you. But you need to rest now. Fear nothing. I will tend to your blood –sucking guests and your son and I will see that no wolves eat you.”
I suddenly was very tired.
I woke to the smell of something cooking. Smoke was rising from a fire at the mouth of the barrow. I didn’t know if it was dawn or dusk, but the light wasn’t strong. I fell back asleep, I guess. When I next woke it was dark. I had to piss something terrible. My leg was stiff and sore. I didn’t want to move it. T lifted my head up a bit and saw the shadow of someone by the opening of the barrow.
Aon?” I said.
The shadow suddenly vanished. A dream? I heard a noise behind me. “Yes, father?”
“Sorry, I’ve to piss. Don’t think I can walk.” Then the old man was there with a gourd. He helped me roll over on my side and piss into the gourd. I was relieved, to say the least.
“That was two days worth, “he laughed. “You’ve been a good patient. You haven’t moved. Much easier than the restless type. He went to the fire and brought back a torch and stuck in a crack for light.
“I saw someone at the opening.” I said. Both Aon and the old man had been behind me in the barrow.
“Ah…” he said quietly. “ Nothing to fear here that you don’t bring yourself.”
“So, was that one your sprits?” I asked.
He rubbed his chin through his long white beard. “This place is very old. This land has been the center of ….practices that don’t happen often anymore. Though I fear they’d starting again. People are…needy…fearful. Cunning men can prey on their darkness”
“The skull on the pole. That man’s not the real Merlin, is he?”
The old man rubbed the top of his head, where his hair was thin. “The people, “he said, “like wizards, witches, fortunes tellers, prophets. Surely you know that. You have been a great traveler. I know a little of your story from people I have talked to about you.”
“Yes.”
“As I told you, I have a gift of being able to see certain things in a person. I can make guesses that are sometimes right. But I have no desire to be a village priest. I was the Merlin for a long time. I finally saw that it was not the best way for me to serve my flock. They wanted rites and sacrifices. Sacrifices are pointless. They only exist to feed the fakers who parade around as wise men. I would rather spare the poor animals, or call it making food, not call it pleasing the gods.”
“But are there gods to be pleased?” I asked.
He thought for moment, staring at the floor.” There are things in this world that can’t be explained. But that doesn’t mean there are no explanations, “he said. “ Lightning and thunder seem to come from the gods. But I don’t think so. I think they come from the conflict of the cold, dry north wind with the wet sea air and the land. It always blows hard and cold from the north after lightning. The stars and moon and sun are not gods either. I’m not sure what they are, but they are for us, a kind of way of keeping track of the seasons. Down along the river, and up here at night among the ancient barrows, things move without shape and sound, yet one can feel them, and sometimes see them for moment. You did just now. But someday we’ll understand what they are. What that drunken fool on his village hill does is not magic, that’s for certain. But there was no one else available, so I made him the Merlin until I could find a better one. I am back to being simple old Waelf u’ Carrain. Waelf was the name my father gave me and Carrain was my village, about ten days northwest of here, in the mountains of the west near the sea.”
“You said you traveled all the way to the Achaean isles.”
“I was a wanderer, looking for answers, when I was young. I wanted to go to the land of the great man-mountains in the sand. But there was too much warfare. I barely escaped alive and made my way back, and finally came here.”
“I lived in that land and helped build those pyramids. These barrow stones are as big as many we moved. Who made these barrows?”
“The old ones, long ago. The ones that sacrificed humans.”
“Where did the stones come from? I see no stone hills here.”
About one day north, there is place. But there are better stones in my homeland. I would like to build something here. I think you will build it for me. When you are walking I will show you a special place. Not far. Now rest some more. And don’t fear the shadows. That’s all they are.”

My fever cleared and I didn’t see any more shadows. Just a dream. For once, I had the feeling that I was dealing with man who could be called a wise man. He had a calm, simple, outward self. But that was because he had thought things through deeply and had faced the world as it was, not the way the superstitious folk did. If he said there were powers or spirits out here, or places where the energy of the land was special, I believed it was as a result of having watched carefully and without fear; or rather without cowardice. There is a difference, which every warrior knows whose worth his place at the victory feast: bravery doesn’t mean lack of fear; it means facing fear head on and taking on the task at hand, no matter how scared you are. Waelf u’ Carrain, the real Merlin, had that ability. He also was willing to try things to see if they would work, rather than simply accepting the ridiculous explanations people gave for things. He was also, like me, willing to try things to see if they’d work. That sounds obvious, but most people just do as they’re told, based on what has been done before. He had excellent powers of observation. He spent hours at the edge of the stream and the pond, watching how bugs crawled around, and how the fish ate them, and how the frogs grew, and so forth. He knew the movements of the sun and moon better than the Egyptians and Sumerians, who have studied the heavens since before time.
In one way he was different from me, and more akin the Prophet Abraham. He believed there must be a power that created the worlds, the earth, the stars, and the sun and moon, that made the grass grow and the winds blow and the leaves die and people fall in love and kill each other. I wasn’t sure. It seemed like it might just be a random tumble of gaming bones to me. I, who been a warrior for so long, and who had robbed so many brave men and cowards of their shades, thought that the world was full of madness. Men and women were insane, and the world of animals was nothing but hunter and hunted. Storms destroyed crops, floods washed away villages, diseases killed and disfigured almost everyone, even my most noble and beautiful Vila, who had never wished ill on any soul. And in the end, everyone and everything died and disappeared. Even the pyramids would someday be piles of sand, blown away on desert winds. No, I couldn’t see a kind hand in this creation, as Waelf called it; it was all nothing but change, eternal change.
But Waelf, like me, had a place in his mind that called him to help make things better. I was good at organizing and building. Waelf was good at seeing a need as well.
“The simple folk need something to lessen their fear, “he said to me. I had begun to mend nicely. I could now bend my leg and could actually walk, though with a limp. The fire in my blood had injured my leg. My knee still hurt, and Waelf thought it always would. But the fire itself was gone and I could feel my strength coming back. “I want to build something for them. A way of telling the seasons.”
He was leading us across the fields, past old barrows and wooded draws to a wide place that overlooked the wide plains.
“I have watched the sun and moon for many years, “ he said, “ and have marked where the sun rises and sets on each day of the year. There is a place I will show you. “
We came past a row of stunted trees. There before us was a ring of logs standing upright, each about as thick as a man’s arm. The ring was about fifty man-lengths across, with a bigger log sticking upright in the exact center of the ring. Outside the ring was another set of upright logs at various spots. We walked to the middle. I counted twenty-six uprights, all evenly spaced, and eight beyond the circle, those being a bit uneven in their placement.
“let me guess,” I said, “ You took a length of rope and tied it to this post and walked around, leaving stones or the like to make a circle. Then you measured the spaces between them until they were even. But what are the further posts?”
He rubbed his bald spot. “ I put this post here, as I felt this was a good spot, it spoke to me. You can see for miles here. I did indeed measure the circle in the way you describe. It’s logical. I then came her every morning and night for two years and carefully placed stones at dawn and sunset on the spots where the sun rose and set. In this way, I figured out when the sun was furthest to the south and furthest to the north. I set my first posts out beyond to mark those days. That is the beginning and end of the sun’s year. When it rises at that post, “ he pointed to one in the south east, “ and sets at that one, in the southwest, the day is the shortest of the year. The very next day, the sun rises a little to the north and goes further every day until it rises at that post, “pointing to one in the northeast, “ and sets over there, “ a post in the northwest. That is the midsummer’s day, when the day is longest. By watching for a long time and setting the other posts, I was able to figure out the two days of the year when the night and day are the same length. “He indicated four other posts. Then I noted the middle place and put larger posts at the four directions that are right between the other posts. North, south, east, and west. So I can come here on any morning and by looking at this ring of posts, I can tell you exactly where we are in the year. Now, a farmer needs to know when spring is coming, and a sheepherder need to know when his flock with give birth. These things can all be noted on the ring and the various days can be celebrated.”
“Why celebrated?” I asked.
“Because people need celebrations to ease their fear, “said my quiet son, Aon.
“Exactly.” Said Waelf. “There’s only one problem.”
“The posts will rot away. You need to build this with stones.” I said.
“Not just any stones.” He said.” they need to be magic stones”
“But surely there are no magic stones?”
“Oh, but there are. At least the people think there are. And they’re a long way away.”
“I suppose you want me to bring them here and put them up.”
“Why do you think I cured your leg!” he laughed.
Aon and I laughed too, the laughter of madmen, who do things knowing that they are folly, but do them anyway. The laughter of doomed men.

32 The Giant Stones

My leg soon felt good enough for me to walk around on. Waelf told us of a place a good day’s journey to the north where there was a huge ring of stones and other monuments of the old people.
“There are barrows there, some big ones, and a hill that they say was built by giants. It’s almost perfectly round. Perhaps an ancient king is buried there. Near the hill, there’s a long row of big stones that leads to a wide circle, with a smaller circle inside. I have been in the place, but not for long enough to tell if it’s a season-teller. There are no locals who know more about it than tales of sprits and dread things. They offer sacrifices there. Nearby is a place where the stones came from; I saw it. Certainly the great rocks were cut and prised from the ground in this quarry.”
“But these aren’t the special rocks you tell of.” I said.
“No, the ones that I would like to bring here are far away to the west, across the water. They are blue in color. They’re on the slopes of hills of my home country. They’ve been long worshipped. I myself feel they have healing qualities of some kind. It’s far, though. Perhaps it would be enough to make a ring here with local stones.”
“The rocks here are the chalk type. They would wash away in a few seasons.” I said.
I was starting to think that whole idea was bit crazy. I wanted to build a fine ring, because building with stone was something I liked; I wanted the challenge. I could see the ring in my mind. I was already planning how to put the stones in place, already seeing it at midsummer’s day with the sun rising between the stones. I would be an entire ring made of thrilithons like the Pillars of Herakul far away to the south across the great sea. But bringing huge stones across hills and valleys with boggy streams and woods, up long slopes of hills and own, was a project I couldn’t see happening. Where would we get the manpower? The locals were few in umber and I couldn’t see the so-called Merlin of the hill wanting to see our circle being built. He would stop any willing locals by telling them he would curse them or worse.
When I could finally mange it, we walked own the few miles to the village. I noticed the rotting skull had slipped own the pole by the Merlin’s fire. We found Finn preparing to leave for his homeland.
“It’s time I went on my way” he said.” You’re doing well now. I wish to see my old lands and see if any of my old kinsmen are still alive.”
He paused from his work of lading his little horse with his belongings. These ponies were few, but they were sturdy and tough. I would need to trade for a couple. Finn had my meager store of gold and other trinkets with him.
“I was bringing them to you up there at the barrow, “he said.” Everyone knows where you’ve been. There’s been a spy who’s been watching you.”
“The boy, “said Aon.”I’ve seen him looking out from the woods.”
“Nice of you to tell me, “I said.
I suddenly didn’t know what course to take. Staying in this village with its superstitious locals and mumbo-jumbo priest seemed a small end to my story. Perhaps I should just go with Finn and see yet another land. But my leg didn’t feel up to a long journey just yet.
“Your old friend Waelf wants me to build a stone ring for him up on the open plain.”I pointed up the hill.
“That’s’ a good project for you. You know how to do that. The Green Isle wouldn’t be good for you. It’s still wild. I’ll be going back to fighting and carrying on. I think you should stay here, my king, rest up for a while and then build that ring.” He tightened the ropes on the pony with final tug. The little horse gave a deep sigh and pawed the ground with its mud-caked hoof.
“I’d need men to move the tones. The nearest place is twenty miles. But Waelf wants to bring certain stones from the far west country.”
“Ah yes, the stones of the western hills. They’re famous. People go there from all over, even from the Green Isle, to be healed. I don’t know why; they look like any other rocks to me. You’d need to bring them here by ship, like in Egypt. The land is too hilly out that way, but the rocks are close to the shore. You could sail them around the land and float them right up the river if you had a good ship and some river boats. “
He stopped and looked down. “I want to get home, “he said, “but I owe you my life, my little slave king. I’ll stay here and help you bring your stones. Then I’ll go to the Green Isle and pass my days away.”
At that moment I was aware of a movement up on the rampart of the hill above the village. There was the baleful Merlin, staring down at us. I could have hit him with an arrow if I had my bow strung.
“That one is the big problem, “said Finn.” He’s a not a good man. Yet, to get enough men from around here to drag the stones, we’ll need his help.”
”I’ll have to ask for it then.” I said.

Finn, Aon, and I set to figuring out how many men we could get during the cold months, since that is when the stones from the nearby quarry could be most easily moved over frozen ground on sledges. A large cut block would require about forty men, unless there were very steep sections, for which we might need another twenty. Waelf and I discussed the blue stones of the far hill.
“They don’t have to be too big,” he said. About man size. They wouldn’t have to be cut. They are already the right size. They’re in one place. It’s very sacred. There are many barrows there. ”
I told him for the stone to look man size, it would have to be at least two feet longer than a man; even then, after being set in the ground, they wouldn’t be as tall as the tallest men. But the men here were short, so we could figure on a seven-foot stone, about two feet thick. We’d need. A stone of that size would take about twelve men to move easily with a sledge and ropes and levers; ten in a pinch, if the going wasn’t too hard.
“To be realistic about this, we’ll need hundreds of men and their families to support them,” I said. “We’d need a new village right nearby and food. How would we manage that?”
Waelf just shrugged. “No one said it would be easy.” He said.

Though I doubted we could build Waelf his magnificent stone ring, I was drawn to the man. In this world of darkness, he walked unafraid of meeting life and its mysteries face to face. As my leg improved, for which I was very grateful, we took to walking about the high plains above the Avonna River and its chalk ridges. There places where the old people had carved deep through the green turf into the chalk, leaving large figures of men and beast and unknown designs outlined in the brilliant white earth beneath the grass.
“To see this properly, one would have to be a bird, “he said. “maybe the old ones could fly.” He laughed , but there was an unanswerable question.
“These are for the gods to see.” I said.
“Yes, yes, the gods, “he muttered.
“In Sumer and in Egypt, they talk about gods from the early days coming down from the skies in fiery chariots or boats with wings.” I said.
“Oh, do they? “he said.
“Yes, and the Sumerians have temples on the tops of their great mud-brick pyramids, which they call ziggurats, where young, beautiful priestesses await the pleasure of the gods.”
“Oh, you don’t’ say.” He answered, having already figured out who the special priestesses no doubt served nowadays.
“That Merlin down there, he takes his pick of the women by using the fear of the curse.”
“But can he produce a real curse? Surely people would figure that out over time.”
“Any illness can be called a curse. He leads with fear, not with wisdom. That is why I wish to build the ring. Then people can see for themselves when it’s time for planting and lambing and won’t have to rely on that man’s fakery. People are easily fooled. The only real magic is in knowledge. Knowledge will set you free of fear, not enslave you to it.’
I thought as we walked. I had been trying to find a way by which we could gather a work force to move the stones. The Merlin would never go along with our plan. Without him, the people wouldn’t help. Suddenly, I had an idea.
“I will cause the Merlin to curse me, When his curse fails to work, he will exposed.”
Waelf stopped walking. The wind blew his white hair about. He squinted in the sunlight and peered at me through the slits of his eyes. His brows were furrowed. He was working through this solution.
“OH, you know that might actually work. But he wouldn’t just quit without a big fight. It could be dangerous for you and your son. Or for other people. He knows enough about plants to make poisons. He could sicken others and blame you. Imagine that he kills a favorite boy-child of , say, the headman.”
I thought about the ramifications myself for a moment.
“You’re right, that is too dangerous, not for me, but for others. We’ll need some help from somewhere.”
“I’ll ask the little people to send some warriors this way, “he laughed.
“You joke about the little people, but what do you mean by them?”
“You, my Achaean friend, will laugh at an old man. But sometimes I just ask the night for things. And they sometimes appear, though it takes time for my requests to be answered. So I say the little people, who the old ones believed in, and Finn’s people still do, are out there listening. Sometimes they decide to help. It just means I really don’t know how it al works.”
He paused. “But, still, I’ll ask them” he laughed again.

Aon and I set about trying to win the villagers over. We made bows that were better than the crude simple local bows and gave the first to the headman. We took him hunting and brought home a fine doe. Aon and I drove the doe to the man, who had an easy shot, but one longer than he could have made with his own bow. We also made hooks from some of our store of copper and Aon took some men fishing. The copper hooks worked far better than their bone ones, though some disputed the fact. Finn and I set up an archery contest with the local shots. We let them shoot at live targets set at sixty paces, eighty paces. Few hit them, though the headman shot a hen with his new bow, which made him strut around like cock himself. Then Finn, Aon, and I had a shoot-out. I bested them with shot of almost two hundred paces into a piglet that had been let loose. There was amazement from the crowd. We also set a feast from the killings of the targets and sent the headman up to give the Merlin his share, which was short but his standards, no doubt. But since I had been playing at being the friend of the headman, he was full of self-enjoyment and confidence and was not overly cowed by the filthy shaman, who showed his anger by throwing down the offering in the mud.
We slowly enticed the Merlin’s boy to come out and join us at various events. We held a foot-race along the trace that came up from the south. The boys easily beat the older men, which provoked quite a bit of laughter and sly comments from the village women. The race was won by a young man called Tark. His name reminded me of my boyhood friend Tarn, who had died in slavery. Tark looked like he had a strong heart and an independent mind. I took Aon aside and told him to make sure he befriended this one. I vowed I would find a way to set these people free of the slavery of that bad medicine man on the hill.
Merlin’s boy’s name was Brun. He had been traded to the Merlin as a small child for a promise of protection against illness. The Merlin’s name was Belgar. He originally came from the east, along the great river of the green island, the Demms. Belgar had arrived at a time when all was peaceful. Three years before, there had been an attack by raiders from a western tribe, who had come seeking the rich river land of the Avonna. The locals would have been over run, but for the timely arrival, by chance, it would seem, of Finn and his band of adventurers. Waelf, who was at that time the Merlin, had appealed for help from the red-haired stranger and his strong warriors. Waelf guessed that Finn wouldn’t be a plunderer, though he could have been. Finn and his men had driven off the invaders.
“I simply liked the old man, “ Finn said. “ He reminded me of certain of our own holy men in my homeland. The western peoples were uncouth and savage, no different from these people right here.” He spat and then drank from a beaker of beer. “But the Merlin, er, Waelf, had an air about him. So we helped. Then we went on our way after a time and crossed the channel and headed south. You know where I ended up, but my route was different than yours, through the rich lands south across the seas and then by sea to the sand lands.”
But Waelf had chafed at being the Merlin after a while. People didn’t get any smarter, no matter what he said or did. They still wanted sacrifice, especially human sacrifice, which Waelf wouldn’t permit. When Belgar showed up and began having an influence on the locals, Waelf became withdrawn and depressed and finally just walked away from village, leaving them to go forward as they all saw fit. But he had never stopped trying to figure out how the help them and their children’s children.
Aon slowly drew little Brun out. He was scared, and for while only spied on us, no doubt telling the Merlin what we were doing. But it seemed that the longer he watched, the more he saw that we weren’t doing anything bad. Quite the opposite. As we gained the confidence of the villagers and even men from nearby villages, Brun came more and more out of his shell. He even talked to Aon now and then. Aon was more a man than a boy now, but he straddled both worlds well enough. Brun was about twelve, so he was becoming a man. Once, when Aon had the boys fishing on the Avonna, Brun watched from th distance. Aon slowly made his way along the spread-out line of boys fishing from the bank until he got close to where Brun was crouched among the reeds of the shore. Aon came up smiling to Brun and offered him a copper hook. An unheard –of treasure. It was already tightly tied to a length of sheep sinew. Brun drew back but didn’t withdraw.
Aon said, “Here. You want to try with this hook? Look, let’s tie the line onto a nice willow shoot. “
Aon cut a willow branch off from the trunk of a massive old tree with his flint-edged knife. The white sap dripped on his hands. He cut it down to about a man’s length. It was stout, as thick as man’s thumb. The sinew was twice as long as the pole. Aon pierced a fat worm with the sharp copper hook’s point and drew the hook through the wriggling body.
“Just hold it ove the reeds and let it drift down with the current and the lift it out very slowly and toss it upstream and go again. If you don’t get a bite, move until you find a nice hole. Watch our for the weeds, though, they’ll catch the hook and you’ll lose it.”
There were waving clumps of trailing river-plants in the clear currents. In between the strands of weeds was gravelly bottom. The trout liked to hide by the weeds and slide out and take whatever floated their way. It was an easy life for a fish, and they were fat and strong.
Brun shook his head. Aon just laid the pole and line, complete with wriggling worm, on the reeds and walked back to check on the on the boys. One of them was landing a fat fish. The others had gathered around and were offering encouragement. Others were fishing with increased intensity, trying for their own catch. Aon helped the boy land his fat speckled prize and glanced back. Brun had taken the pole and gone upstream a way and was fishing. Aon smiled when he saw the rod bend over and saw the silvery splash of a trout as it came to the bank.
I the days that followed, he sometimes saw Brun fishing at a distance. Then the boy was missing for three days. He asked the other boys casually about the sorcerer’s apprentice, but got shrugs. Aon decided to do a little spying of his own.
There was a copse of trees on the far side of the ring-mound of Sarum. Perhaps once it had been an earthen wall, but long ages had passed since the days in which the ring was built and trees now grew up the steep slope. Aon waited until dark and crept into the stand and looked down on Belgar the Merlin’s rude house and filthy sacrifice area. Aon shuddered at how the priestesses of Dodona would have regarded the place. Their shrine had been kept clean, ready for offerings to the Immortals in which the witches truly believed. Obviously, this imposter was simply using the fearful natures of the locals to his own advantage. A small fire smoldered before the house. The skull was gone from the pole, rotted away. It was silent. Or was it? Aon thought he heard voices from the house. Belgar’s deep rumble, low, but angry, and a whimpering, like a scared sheep. Then the man’s voice was raised and there was a slapping noise and the boy cried out. Then all was still. There was nothing new about a man beating a boy, or using him in an animal way either, though the gods of Dodona forbade it. But those gods, Demetre, Afroda, Apollaon, Dyaus, Perunas the Striker, and the others were far away. This was the realm of Ock, the angry god, the Thunderer. Fear, Disease, and Death were his demons, who rode the night winds, if you believed the fake Merlin in the roundhouse. It angered Aon to hear the pain being suffered.
But we could do nothing for now, except make it plain that there was fresh blood and anew spirit in the village. Still, out time was running out. Soon, Finn would leave if we couldn’t gather enough men to move some stones and show the locals that we meant to make something that would be real magic for them.
Waelf, Aon, Finn, and I sat around Waelf’s little fire out side his barrow one night. At Finn’s request, Waelf broke out a small amount of his wisgiegh, which Finn consumed eagerly. Then we had some honey-wine. We talked long into the night as the stars wheeled in the clear skies. It was midsummer now. Waelf had shown us the way the dawn sun lined up with his log-henge. It was wonderful. I longed to build in stone again.
“That imposter down there has them in his thrall, “I said. “ We’ll never raise enough men to move any big stones. We need a good crew with only one purpose, not a bunch of farmers under the thumb of a witch-man.”
“But soon enough, the harvest will be here and past and the ground will have its frost. That’s when you said moving the stones would be easier. And the men will have nothing to do.” said Waelf.
“True enough, “I answered, “and that’s how it was done in Egypt. But the Pharaoh taxed the people to have stores of grain and bir for the flood season, when the farmers could be put to work hauling stones. We have no stores.”
We sat in silence for a while. Above, a few shooting stars streaked across the darkness.
“I wonder what those are?” said Waelf. Then he added softly, “The little people say we should go to the far hills and look at the stones there.”
“Oh, the little people, “laughed Finn. “Don’t go believing what they say! They’ll have the better of you every time!” He drank deeply from his beaker.
But I knew what Waelf meant. It was his way of saying that we should not get stuck in trying to think our way out of this situation. We should act.
“If you know the way, we could leave tomorrow, “I said, “but your flock may get worried and turn even closer to Belgar if we leave.”
“Yes, they may, “he said quietly, “but if we come back with so thing wonderful, it will open their minds.”
I had learned to trust the instincts of the old man. Besides, I was walking better now, and we had three ponies to carry our food and sleeping skins. We would go.
“To the western hills!’ grinned Finn Ma’Kul the mighty adventurer, raising his cup.
“To the little people!” I said, and raised mine.

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Merlin the Archer: On to the Green Island–two Merlins


Merlin the Archer: On to the Green Island–two Merlins

How many trails had I been down in my life of adventure and wandering? How many battles, and escapes from battles? Shipwrecks, being bound in ropes, washed up on unknown shores? I had ridden horses into combat, run through rains of arrows, climbed walls of burning cities, swum in brackish water with crocodiles and who knows what else lurking. I had slipped past drunken husbands, vigilant guards, and treacherous enemies, stood before god-kings who could have had me killed with snap of their fingers, been made a slave three times. But it was a mere slip of my foot that brought me to ruin.
The locals begged Herakulis to stay and be their own god-king. They were convinced he had lifted the stones by himself, with help from his divine blood line which they said came from So, their sun-god. Had they no eyes or minds? Their credulousness didn’t matter to me. But if he decided to remain as their king in this place which he plainly loved, our little community would be made weaker, more prone to attack from sea-raiders. Herakul was a famous, respected and feared for his strength and courage, and his presence meant a measure of safety at least from known enemies. He had taken a fancy to one of the younger women, a sea-widow of twenty summers, a real dark-haired beauty named Dromakeh. She was far above the other girls of the area in looks and sense of herself: queenly. I could see Herakul falling into the notion of staying.
“Little king, I can’t refuse the people. They want me to stay with them. I think I’m going to. Why don’t we all come here? There is everything we need.”
It was true. To the west of the great headland was a fine, south- facing gentle natural harbor. A few tiny fishing villages circled the bay. Beyond were low mountains which abounded in deer and other game. Bees made honey in the forests on the uplands and one lively river, riffled with pretty, tumbling waterfalls was called the River of Honey. It was a small kingdom, truly. We held a council.
Most men voted for the move, though it meant having to give up our hard work of the last four years. Still, there was plenty for everyone here, and the enthusiasm of the local chieftains for the protection offered by our band made them almost beg. It was a three day sail from Melaka, our town, but an easy trip with good ports along the way. Finally all but four agreed to make the move. Herakul was pleased to have his companions with him. I looked at him lying propped up on one elbow by the big fire at night, dark-haired Dromakeh by his side. His stomach was getting large, his hair grey. The hero had found a home at last. I could see him getting old here, surrounded by little Herakuls and Dromakehs, enjoying a well-deserved good life as a free man. The people had gods and goddesses here, but mostly they lived for the seasons, fishing, farming and hunting in time with the changing sun and moons. They weren’t particularly warlike, though they had disputes, which they settled by holding a council of the leading men. The main fear came from the sea, for sea-raiders came to prey on the villages. That would soon end with the coming of the mighty Herakulis the Hero.
All seemed set and we stayed a few more days, sailing the ship and smaller boats around to scout out locations for our new dwellings. I didn’t care too much, except to be sheltered from sea-storms, but Aon was taken with a certain place, a little point at one end of a curving, protected beach where the water was perfect for swimming and diving, with easy fields behind it waiting to be cleared of scrub trees, and a small stream that tumbled down from the tall hills that were close to the sea right here. I saw a point not far to the west that had a perfect place for another ring-temple. We rowed our boat over and climbed up a cliff to a flat piece of ground, almost a perfect circle itself, about a hundred yards wide. There was a natural rockfall above it from a big hill. We could just roll stones down and stand them up. This one I would set up to match the rising mid-summer’s sunrise and mid-winter as well. I could see it in my mind’s eye. From here we could make out the Pillars of Herakulis across the wide bay to the east against the pale-blue sea-sky. I was a little excited and thought that maybe this was indeed a good place to settle down once and for all, free from the man-killing goddess and the slave-making god-kings. We would be masters of this land, and good masters, fair and just.
We were climbing back down the cliff to the boat tied on the rocky shore below. It wasn’t a tall cliff, nor was the climb difficult. I could have done it in the dark with warriors chasing me looking to take my head. The footing was a little loose, but dry, nothing dangerous. But somehow I get careless for a second. My foot dislodged a rock about the size of my hand and my heel shot out from under me. Easy now, I thought, just lean back and grab the side of the cliff. But in what at first seemed like a comedy, my hand took hold of section of crumbly rock, which fell apart like dirt in my hand, and then my other foot caught the root of a tiny bush that clung to the cliff face at the side of our crude path. I felt my weight shift forward, and then I fell head first down the steep slope. I still thought; this is stupid, I’ll be able to grab something any second.
But I couldn’t, for the slope suddenly fell away to a sheer drop of maybe twenty feet: three man-heights. I crashed down heavily, out of control. I hit my shoulder and right arm on a huge, sharp boulder at the sea’s edge. Somehow I missed hitting my head, or I would have died right there. The small waves washed around the seaweed-draped rocks. My arm was hurt and my shoulder wrenched badly from the shock. The wetness of the rock and seaweed would not allow me to grab a handhold with my left hand, and my left leg slipped into the water, brushing a small head-sized boulder as it swung around. The boulder toppled off the bigger rock and rolled slowly but inexorably and with great force onto my left knee, pushing the kneecap down as my heel caught on a ledge of rock. I felt a blinding flash of pain and I realized that my leg was seriously hurt. All from this stupid fall caused by slipping on a small rock. I managed to keep my head above the water; the waves weren’t big that day, but my left leg was pinned. I looked at it as the swell pulled the water back. It stuck out at an impossible angle to the side. The rock had almost broken it clean off at the knee.
In a moment there were others around me, lifting off the stone, not much bigger than my head, and pulling me from the water. The pain was unbearable. I had learned to take pain without crying out, but I believe I screamed for help. I remember being lifted out by two men. I saw Aon standing up to his waist in the water looking at me with fear in his eyes. That’s all I remember about it now.

“He’s waking up” I heard someone say. For a swift moment, I didn’t know where I was or what had happened. My eyes could barely open. The light was blinding. Lift that piece of cloth,” I heard another voice say. I recognized it. It was Aon. The world seemed to be shifting, going up and down. I couldn’t move. My mouth was dry. I tried to talk, but nothing came out. I saw Aon lean over me through the slitted, blurred vision of my eyes. I was in terrible pain. My whole body hurt, but my leg more than anything. I had never felt this kind of pain before. I think I tired to lift myself up with my elbows, but they didn’t work.
“Hold him down, “said a deeper voice. One of the crewmen, Santarellas. “Hold on. We’re getting close now.” I looked up and saw the small sail billowing above my head. Aon held a piece of sail-cloth above my face to shield out the sun. The boat lurched forward and I heard the shouting of many men.

“Looks like the women will have to do the moving from now on for you, little king.” Herakul laughed.
“They like men who have the wooden legs in the middle, not on the side, “said Finn.
I took the wine-skin and rained big draught. I grimaced out a soldier’s death smile, but even that seemed to hurt.
“Don’t’ make me laugh, please!” I said. The slightest movement made my leg pain flare up like a white-hot fire. Finn had bound it with a split oar and tight windings of sailcloth and ropes. I couldn’t flex it, which I knew was good. The Egyptians had done this for their wounded soldiers. Finn had told me he learned it somewhere else, though.
“There was a man, a wikka-man, at a place in the big island, “he said. “He could treat you for this, if he was still alive. But this is what I remember of how he did it. I’m afraid for your leg, my king. If it turns the green, then we’ll have to cut it off or you’ll die.”
I felt sick. The fire was burning in my leg at the knee. Fire inside, deep. I had looked at it when Finn had rebound it today, two weeks after the fall. It was red, but not green, black and blue further down by my ankle and cut, but not deep above the knee. The rock had fallen so that my knee had given way to side.
“It will get better, “I managed. It had to. I couldn’t lose my leg.

But it didn’t get better. The pain stayed. I couldn’t move my leg, not bend it at all for the whole long winter. Aon tended to me and so did Evonna, for whose care I was grateful. I learned to get up and hobble around with a crutch of a stout staff that had a cut off stub of a branch at the top that I could put under my arm. I refused to be a useless person.
Finn warned me, “If you don’t heal that, it will get worse. Go easy, Pelop. Let others care for you. You age been caring for others your whole life. You are owed that debt.”
Spring comes early to those blessed warm shores and by the time the sun had begun to track back northward along the lines of ring-stones Aon had put in place, I knew I had to find an answer. The local witch-man and women had come and gone, wearing their animal skins and burning smelly batches of herbs and singing strange songs. As always, the spirits were of no use for me. Maybe I should have never turned away from the gods. But I had made that decision a lifetime ago. Too late now. My knee was swollen out like a melon.
“Maybe I should go back to the Land of Red and Black earth, the Two Kingdoms. Nefer-Kah’s healer would know what kind of poultice to put on.”
“Well, we can’t go there!” said Herakul. Traders had brought us word that there had been a scandalous birth to Pharaoh’s new wife, who had some years before borne him a fair-haired son. Now a new child was black-skinned. Pepi was the copper color of the people of the red and black lands, the Upper and Lower Kingdoms.
“We could go to my green land and see if the old wikka-man is still there. If anyone in this world could heal you, it’s is him, “said Finn. “ I’m ready to go home, anyway. I want to leave my bones in the green lands. I’m going to go on the next tin-trader. You should come.” Finn looked weary. His white hair was now matched by his lined face. None of us were the young warriors we had been five years ago.
The tin-traders sometimes stopped in our bay on their way to and from the northern lands beyond the great gates of the wide sea.
I nodded. Maybe, I thought.

Evonna looked sad when she entered the house. She put down a pot she had carried from the spring behind the house. It flowed out of the rock face which rose steeply up towards the ridgeline. She had stopped outside the door. I was lying on our bed of piled straw bound with strips of bark and covered with thick sheepskins. She tried to smile. I didn’t. My leg was truly on fire and I was tired of it. No matter how much I tried to pretend, it was too much for me. I used my crutch to get outside to go to piss or shit, but there was too much pain for me to go anywhere. Aon did my work, hunting and fishing and ploughing our field inland from the curving beach. I was a useless old man.
Evonna scowled and I spoke to her through clenched teeth, a bit impatiently, for she had a way of not talking straight to me, which angered me. I knew it was the way of women, and that most men, including no doubt her drowned husband, would beat their wives until they were cowed into such behavior, but I wasn’t that kind of man, so it bothered me that she was so subservient.
“Well, “I said, “what is it?”
She turned and tried to hide her face, but I saw her tears. Then I knew. It was the tin-ship.

“There’s no stopping you, “said Herakul.
I leaned on Aon’s shoulder and we limped slowly towards the ship. It was a wooden ship, like ours, about ten man lengths with a solid looking mast and eight oars a side. It wasn’t in the best repair, but I knew that Aon would soon set things aright with that, for I had taught him everything I knew about ships. Finn was already on the deck, grinning.
“Herakul, you God! Lift this poor miserable old pirate into the boat.”
Herakul picked me up in his huge arms and carefully he and Finn and Aon got me up to the deck. Evonna stood on the beach, her head hanging down. She had pulled her hair down to cover her face. A knot of people had gathered around the ship, as always happened when one came to port. But this time the word had spread that I was going with it, and Finn and Aon, so many of our lot had drifted down to the cove. Some women stood with Evonna. She was still young enough to attract another man. In fact, I knew that two or three of our sea-dogs had their eyes on her. We had made a nice house in an ideal place. It was hers. But I was leaving, and I knew I wouldn’t be back, and she knew it too.
There were jars of honey and long jars of wine and other things that were made locally going on the ship. Herakul was the chief broker for the goods. Not so much that this folk would be hurting if there was no return trade. He would get some tin and amber and other things if the ship made it. The captain was a red-haired man of the north who spoke the outlandish language of Finn Ma’Kul, the White-hair. The crew was impatient, for the wind was right now favorable for sailing west, but that would change, and the currents were strong in the strait and could stop a boat dead without a good wind.
Herakul lowered himself down of the side of the ship into the waist-deep water. In the old days, he would have jumped and maybe even made the shore. He turned and looked up at me and reached with his big bear paw of a hand. I reached own clasped his wrist, and he mine. We looked into each other’s eyes.
“May the gods go with you, little king, “he said.
“And with you, my old friend.” I answered, holding his gaze for just a moment longer.
Then we let go and I stood, leaning against the thwart next to Aon, who smiled and waved at our clan of old warriors and their women and children and dogs and pigs. The sweet hills of the land now known as the Pillars of Herakulis were blue in the slight haze which came with the eastern wind. It was a warm wind, the kind that brings sandstorms off the great desert of the southern lands. The people were quiet, solemn. As the crewmen poled the ship back out into deeper water and turned it with the sweep, I stayed watching the people and they watched us in silence. Then Herakul, who had walked back up on the beach, started clapping his hands and shouting and raising his fists in a warrior’s battle salute. The men all joined in and I raised my right arm as well, as did Finn. We saluted the hero Herakul and his clan and they gave us better back than we gave them. The captain yelled something and crew pulled the oars and the ship drew away from the cove and caught the wind and we began to ride on the long swells of the great western ocean.
We made good speed at first, out through the straits but then wind died away, replaced bit by bit with a westerly breeze that called for rowing along the coast. It was arduous, but all I could do was sit there with my leg propped up on a bale of wool and watch the shore, sky, and sea. The shoreline of low cliffs was monotonous, though there were small villages here and there where we stopped for the night. At last, after two weeks, we made a rugged point and turned north. The wind was at our left side and we could sail off the coast, but the waves grew like mountains, long rolling ridges of water that stretched all the way to the horizon. I had seen big waves, but never like this. If we came under one of these giants breaking, the ship would be returned to the pieces of wood that made it in a second.
“Just wait, grinned Finn, his eye shining with the adventure, “until we cross the open sea; then you’ll see some real waves. “
The coast still stood off our right bow and we found good harbors almost every night. The coast went on forever, At each point, I thought we’d see the open ocean before us, but there lying ahead was another flat-topped cliff face a few miles north, and another and another.
I slowly learned to say a few more things in the language of the northmen. Finn taught both Aon and me. First ship terms, swear words, and the names for waves and wind and clouds. Then the names of the gods, one of which was strangely familiar: my old friend Awa.
“Awa.” I said quietly to myself, remembering Mata lying in her own blood by the burning hut. It seemed like another life.
“Yes, she is our mother.” Said Finn.
“It is the same goddess I knew as a child.
“Okk came later. Awa was there first. She gave birth to Dagda and Lug and Nudas. “
“Do they fight among themselves and let people suffer?” I asked.
“Are they not gods?” laughed Finn. He was a sensible man.
“Then I have no use for them, “I said. “They’re just like the rest.”

When at last we made the last of the northern points and entered the open ocean, the waves began to mount. Though I had sailed on many a ship, I could not believe that the little red-headed captain could hold the sweep true as we rode the moving mountains. We had the wind at our backs, and that was the saving grace, for if we could not have run with the wind, we would have gone down in those wild seas. There was no harbor now for eight days, longer than I have ever spent out of sight of land. The men prayed and poured libations of jug wine into the sea for the blessing of Dilanus, the sea- god of their land, Kumreh, in the western north.
My leg was on fire and I couldn’t get much rest, so I practiced speaking with the captain, whose name was Bragh, with Finn helping. Bragh told us tales of the sea.
“If you go north, towards the North Star at this time of year, the winds blow you true like this. We’ll make landfall on the flat shores, where the great stones are. But if you go south, with the pole star at your back in the springtime, the winds blow the other way and you can sail all the way across the world to the lands of the white sands where it’s always warm. It’s two moon’s journey. The people there are peaceful. They wear the feathers of big, blue and red birds. They have no tin or wool or wine. There are trees with huge berries on them that give milk. I have been there. They have no ships, just little boats that carry to men for their fishing. And when you come back, there’s a river in the middle of the ocean that carries you back north to the green lands. The water’s warm, even when there are mountains of ice floating in it.”
More sailors’ tales. No flying horses or shape-changing witches? He was right about the great stones, though. We made landfall after the long crossing at a place where someone had already stood up three long rows of giant stones, far bigger than our puny efforts had been so far. I was impressed, though the stones were rough and not cut, they were tall and wide. There were hundreds of them, and also temples or tombs with three uprights and a huge flat stones for a roof. The locals said that the stones had been there from the time of the giants; the time before time. I hobbled through parts of the rows and was amazed at the work. It made me think that I would make a larger temple next time I built, if there ever was a time. I never stopped thinking about it. I could plan it and Aon could lead the men if an opportunity arose.
We sailed on after a spell and came around a long, windy point and sailed across what the sailors called the Sea River. The winds were whipping our ship and the sail had to be reefed to half sail. The swells weren’t as big as before, but the tops were blown off across us and we were wet and miserable for the whole passage of two days and nights. I felt a great admiration for the tough little captain and his hardy crew. They spoke not a word of discouragement and worked hard at every task. Of course, they drank quite a bit, too, to fortify themselves against the cold, but the drink didn’t make them sloppy or stupid. At last we made a point into calmer waters at the mouth of a river and the low white cliffs topped with green came into view. The Green Land.

30 Merlin

There was a small town of wooden house and huts at the river’s mouth. It wasn’t much by the standards of the Land Between the Rivers, Egypt, or even Epirus, but it was welcome after the two months of sailing through rough seas. The men were home. Their families greeted the ship with joy, children running in the cold water’s edge and lank-haired, pale-skinned women standing patiently on the shore. They wore dirty brown and grey hooded cloaks and animal skins streaked with mud, soot, and grease from cook fires and long seasons of eating with their hands. The air was cool and cloudy. Low cliffs rose along the long curving beach to the east. To the north were low hills. Everywhere there was greenery, grass so rich that it was like the sands of Egypt only backwards. There was hardly a patch of ground anywhere to be seen, just grass and bushes and trees in thickets. It glowed green even under the gloomy overcast of the cold sea. The houses of the locals were mostly made of interwoven tree limbs kept upright by stakes driven in the ground and caked with mud and sod in the open spots, and roofed with thick piles of dried grasses that were moldy from rain, but so thick that much of the rain stayed out of the insides. The huts were dark and dank, full of smoke from the little hearth-fires. A blue haze of wood smoke hung about the settlement. I could hardly call it a town. Between the houses was mud, mixed in with scraps of bones and refuse of all sorts. It smelled like shit, for there was shit around the huts. The people were dirty, too. Their hair they wore long, tied in the back. Their teeth were mostly dark and rotten. The children ambled about in the mud, naked except for little cloaks.
But they had the same spirit I had noted from the ship’s crew. They laughed a lot, and were non-complaining. There were no perfumed Egyptians here, with fly-whisks and parasols and face paint. They had lots of bir and they offered it freely, though I noticed the custom was to offer a drink and then expect one in return. It worked out, as all was shared. No one went with his thirst unquenched, even if he couldn’t provide for others. His turn might come later. These were tough people, wiry and strong. I saw they had bows and flint-edged wooden knives, but not a great many other weapons. The bows were for hunting; the arrows were nicely tanged and had good workmanship. They were designed to bring down a boar or a stag. Aon, Finn, and I stayed in huts with the kinsmen of the big man of the village, the brother of the ship’s captain, as it turned out. We had fowl and bir for dinner and bread and bir for breakfast. Not unlike the common folk of Egypt or Akkad in that way.
There were amulets and pouches hanging above doorways and around the necks of the people. To ward off evil, no doubt. There was some coughing sickness in the village and I saw that people’s shit was watery. Pigs and chickens rooted and pecked in the filth on the mud and shit where they liked, naturally. There was a string of fish hanging on a short pole outside a hut. The fish trailed into the mud. If you eat shit, you’re going to be sick. But people think sickness is caused by witches, shades, and demons and the like. I could see that digging trenches beyond the huts for shit would help, and I suggested that to Finn. We had worked on that in our community with Herakul and we had less of the loose shit disease. But Finn shook his head.
“These people are as stubborn as Nefer-Kah’s donkeys, “he said. “They won’t just change their ways because some fancy outlander says to. Even Merlin can’t bring change quickly.”
“When will we see this Merlin?” I asked. My leg was still hurting. The pain came and went, but I couldn’t bend my leg at all without white-hot fire in my knee.
“Bragh says he’s up at the Sacred Place. We’ll go soon.”
Aon and I talked about the shit and mud. He caught the idea at once, as he always did. He was the smartest of people, being his mother’s son and mine, by the luck of the gods. We took it on our selves to make a trench behind Bragh’s brother’s house, some lengths away, in a place where rain water would drain the filth away from the hut. The headman liked it, as did his woman, a ruddy-faced little girl of fifteen winters. Maybe it would catch on. Maybe not.
We set out, heading north. They had a crude cart, two wheels and a plank deck, which was pulled by hand on a track. Fortunately, the road was well traveled, almost a wide ditch in the green turf. I felt bad about being hauled along. I have always taken care of myself, never had servants. But I had no choice. It was thirty miles to the Sacred Place, as Finn called it. We had a little crew of seven lads to help. There was much coming and going to the Sacred Place. It was a meeting and trading place, too. Folk from all over the Green Land came there to be healed and to barter for small things that could be easily carried. There was a market town near the Place. We traveled through what I thought was most pleasant country I had ever seen. Green everywhere, with low, rolling hills, pretty. Clear-running rivers, valleys dotted with tiny villages and farms.
The people here were great farmers. Blessed with lots of rain, they grew wide fields of grains. There were tall, stately trees along the rivers. Here and there was a standing stone, at which the locals paid obeisance as if it was a God. There were offerings of food and flowers and small jugs of barley wine at each stone, placed there by travelers on the sacred road to the sacred Place.
“The Merlin is a great magician, “ said Finn as we walked. “people come even from my island across the windy sea to get his healing.”
“The Merlin? “I asked. “I thought he was a man named Merlin.”
“Ah. There’s always a Merlin, “said Finn.” His face and body changes over the ages, but there’s always a Merlin to help the people.”
“Is this the Merlin you’ve told me about?”
“I think it is, an old, old man by now. But there will be another after. He is sent by the gods, you see.”
Oh, the all-powerful gods. I hoped that this Merlin was a good one. But now the seed of doubt that had lain dormant in the pain-wracked and desperate field of my mind began to suddenly to bud and throw off shoots. Another witch, doing what Mtombe used to call mumbo-jumbo. Feathers and smoke and spells and potions; none of which did any good but keep the witches’ pot full of stew and his beaker topped off with barley-wine.
In twodays we came to the market town of Awonna. Like Evonna, I thought. They called the main stream the Awonna, which I thought must come from Awa herself, the inescapable goddess of the seed. These farmers would certainly worship her quickening for their crops and the harvest goddess and the goddess of the hunt and so forth. The market town was small, but well made compared to the mud slop of the coast town. Here the houses were round, with three courses of flat stones and roofs of woven branches daubed with turf and mud. There were at least fifty houses and many other outbuildings and pens for sheep and cattle and pigs. The settlement was set on the slope of a small hill of white stone and sand which rose above the meeting place of several streams, so the rain ran off rather than standing in the pathways between the dwellings. It was far cleaner than the coast town. The people were the same stock, small and wiry; tough looking. I had the thought that they would make good fighters, though each man seemed to have an independent look to him, which probably meant they could never be formed into fighting units. There were no fortifications around the town, which surprised me. On the top of the hill was a larger dwelling. The place of the Merlin. They called this hill Sarum.
There was a market that day, and farmers and other locals were all milling about the open place at the foot of the hill. There was much bir and the honey wine and barley wine being drunk by the men. The customary dirty -footed -and -faced children ran about, and a few women were wrapped in cloaks, bartering for greens and squealing piglets and ducks and the like. The locals greeted Finn like a long lost hero. He had a reputation here, almost a godlike status. He had been through here years before and had helped defeat the neighboring tribe from some nearby valley. That is when he had known the Merlin, already at that time an old man of over forty.
“And where’s the Merlin,” called out Finn, who towered above the locals, “does he not feast with his people?” Finn had had some of the honey wine, called mead, which is heady stuff, and was a fine mood.
The mention of the Merlin brought a few scowls and the locals made signs against the evil eye, which I thought was strange. Finn had told me this Merlin was almost a god himself. One of the younger men tossed his head in the direction of the looming hill. Smoke rose form the peak of a round house there, and set before it, right at the edge of the earthen wall that circled the top of the hill was a pole set in the ground. On top of the pole was the dried –out black husk of a human head. A man with a long black beard poked his head over the top of the earth wall for a moment and then disappeared. I’m afraid we partook of the local’s generosity in too great amounts that afternoon to be good visitors to the great man. We slept it off in an outbuilding provided by a burly farmer. Te beds were starw on a dirt floor, bit I must say that I slept better than I had a some time, ion considerable less pain, from the effects of the mead, though when I woke my head felt a bit heavy.
Finn, who could drink any man short of Herakul himself under the table, was up and eager to take me to the Merlin. Aon, who hadn’t had much to drink, being a sober lad in general, also was ready to go. He had an interest in the various rites and doings of priests, and compared the sacrifices to see whether one place had a connection with another.
“Everyone sacrifices goats and fowl, and even bulls and boars, “he said, “ and usually the priests or priestesses get the finest cuts.” It was true. The offerings were usually a fold of skin and fat over a leg bone, while the main cuts went to the feast, priests and king first. The poorest supplicants got scraps. Aon had grown strong being raised in a temple full of doting witches. Because he had witnessed so much close at hand, he carried deep doubts about the abilities of healers and other priests and witches. In that doubt we shared a common bond.
The day was overcast, but bright. Maybe the slight hangover from the strong drink made me blink more than I would have liked. three of us accompanied by a village headman of sorts, went up the trial to the top of there hill where the Merlin’s pace stood. It wasn’t much to look at, just another round house of mud and turf and stones, except for the blackened, rotting head on the pole at the entrance. The hilltop itself was within a circle of low earthen walls, with one gap in the walls facing south towards the village below. It looked like it had served as a fort and no doubt would do so again someday.
Finn aid, “This is where we made our play against the hill men from the east. I killed their leader with my bare hands and they slunk away like cowards.”
The cowhide skin that served as a door for the roundhouse flapped and a boy stepped out. He was about ten years old, skinny, with lank, brown hair that hung down to his shoulders. He was wearing loose pants and a tunic of coarse material. Linen, perhaps, though not the fine cloth of the Egyptians. It was so dirty that it was hard to tell what color it might have been. Maybe close to white once, now a dun color, dark with the patina of mud and animal grease around the hems. The lad peered at us suspiciously and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. Still, snot dripped down his thin upper lip.
“Where’s your master, then?” Asked the headman, whose name I had forgotten. The headman was no cleaner than the boy and had the same coloring and looks; a long face with a pointed chin and eyes set close. In fact, they looked like they were of the same family. I wondered if the boy was this man’s son.
“The Merlin is busy.” The boy said, a bit harshly, considering he was talking to three tall foreigners of obvious wealth compared to himself.
Finn folded his arms across his chest and said, “Well, you get in and tell your busy master that Finn, the one they call Ma’Kul, is here and would like to see his old friend.”
The boy stared at Finn. He didn’t seem to know who Finn was. Of course, he wouldn’t have been born perhaps when Finn had saved the town and the Merlin years before.
“ I’ll tell him.” The boy turned and slunk back through the hide door. It flapped on the door post. W could hear a deep voice that sounded angry, though thr word were unclear.
The flap moved again and large, burly man stepped out. He was almost as tall as Finn, a good hand taller than me. He was heavy, broad across the chest and shoulders, with a large belly as well, but strong looking. He had dark brown hair and a full beard, unkempt and wild looking, with a feather and a leather thong and amulet hanging from crude braids. Hi hair was filthy and his large ears protruded out from its long locks, which stuck to his pale skin. He was deeply pock-marked on his face and his nose was enormous and red, like that of a man who drinks far too much. He wore a dark brown robe and held a carved wooden staff in his hand, about as long as an arm. A symbol of authority, not a weapon. A symbolic cudgel; a witches’ staff. It had feathers and sea-shells tied to one end and they clinked together as he clambered out of the doorway. Around his neck hung a gang of necklaces of pierced stones and bones and other magical objects. His feet were sandaled. His eyes were dark brown, almost black. He had a somewhat menacing look to him. In battle, I would have chosen to take him out quickly with my arrows to get rid of a formidable foe. He stood there under the bright grey skies, squinting at us.
He didn’t say anything. I glanced at Finn, who had a strange look on his face. Plainly, this was not the man he thought to meet here. The boy had come out and stood slightly behind the big man. It was he who spoke.
“The Merlin asks who comes to see him after first drinking in his scared precinct without permission or sacrifice.”
Finn softly translated this complicated statement to me and Aon. And he added, in Egyptian, “This is not the man we seek.”
Still, I stepped one step forward and made the gesture of salutation which almost all men everywhere but Sumer use, my fist to my chest, and said in Achaean, “I am a weary wanderer who seeks the advice for an injury. I did not mean to slight your Gods. Forgive me for my ignorance.”
Finn put this to the man and boy in the local tongue, some of which I could understand, having been among the seamen of these people for some months now. Finn also bowed slightly and asked the headman to give the Merlin two fowl and a jug of mead as an offering. The boy took the offerings and motioned for us to sit on logs that lay around the fire ring. The human head, with a dead man’s grin, up on its pole stared balefully down on us from its empty eye-sockets. The Merlin, if that’s who the dirty, sloppy man truly was, sat down on a well-worn sawed-off stump that fit his broad bottom well. Bits of bone and slop on the ground around the stump indicated its frequent use. I had seen such places before. Witches, healers, priests, they’re all much the same. They accept the sacrifice for the God and eat and drink it themselves. The good ones share it fairly; the bad hoard it and give out scraps. He waved at the boy, who swiftly cut the chicken’s heads off. He then slit the bellies open and Merlin looked over his shoulder at the guts that spilled out on the cutting stump. The big man grunted and nodded his head. He then had the boy pour a cup of mead and bring it to him. He spilled some on the ground, while muttering an incantation of some kind and then drained the cup himself. Then he ordered the boy to bring us cups. So at least he would share the wine.
We drank, which after two cups helped to ease the headache I had brought with me up the chalk hill. Our Merlin slumped sloppily on his stump and let out a loud belch, which made us all laugh. The wizard grinned and pointed at me and said something. Finn said, “What hurts? Show him your leg.”
I pulled my leggings up and showed him my swollen knee. Even after almost half a year, it was dark and bruised. I could barely bend it without it causing me extreme pain. The Merlin stood up and ambled over and looked carefully at it. He poked at it with his grubby fingers, which hurt and made me wince. Then he lurched over to his stump and picked up his mead cup and took a big draught. He muttered something which Finn said meant, “A pig and five jugs of mead.”
So that was the price. I could manage that. We agreed and got up and left the half-drunk Merlin sitting on his well-worn stump. Te boy looked at us. I could see something in his eyes which I couldn’t understand; anger, or yearning? We were to return at dark. I had no doubt that his mumbo-jumbo, as Mtombe would have called it, worked better by firelight or under a moon than in the plain light of day.
When it had grown dark we ascended the hill once more, towing a nice fat pig, which had cost me dearly – a copper arrowhead, on a rope and carrying seven jugs of mead; two for us and five the so-called Merlin. We could see the glow of a big fire as we climbed the hill. As we entered the walled enclosure, the nasty black skull looked at us from its pole, silhouetted by the flames of a large bonfire. The boy was sweeping the areas around the fire and the sitting logs with a branch. The Merlin was not there. The boy motioned for us to sit and led the pig to the cutting stump. Poor pig. Ah well, he’d be eaten anyhow. Just as well be tonight. We sat on the far side of the fire from the roundhouse. The flames crackled and sent sparks into the night sky. The clouds had blown away and bright stars twinkled above. It was truly a fine night, if a bit cold. My knee hurt worse in these cold northern climes. I welcomed the fire’s heat.
At last the door flap moved and out came our Merlin, decked out in a full outfit of animal skins, including a headdress made of a large deer’s head with antlers of twelve points. Very impressive. He carried a gourd rattle and his cudgel. His feet had sandals with lots of sea-shells on them, which clattered as he walked. He came out to the fire and the boy brought him a large cup of the mead, which once again offered to the fire and then drank. The he turned his attention to the pig. He held up a flint-edged knife to the sky and began incanting to his Gods at length. Then he reached down and slit the pig’s throat in a smooth motion. The pig, held fats by a nose halter and leg bonds tied to stout pegs, struggled only momentarily. The cut had been skillful, for all the man’s bluster, and the animal died quickly; a good sign. Merlin then knelt down and slit the pig’s belly in a long cut, and reached into the bloody carcass and pulled out the entrails in the usual fashion. No different than the priests and priestesses of Epirus or Uruk, I thought. He looked at the mess and poked at this and that with his finger. He stood and stared down for a long moment.
Then he said something to the boy, who brought him a bowl of water in which he washed his hands as clean as they could get. There was a small clay pot on the edge of the fire which gave off a pungent smell of herbs. The boy dragged this away from the flames and poured some into a bowl. This he set out in before the Merlin, who offered drink to it and to the sky, all the while muttering away. Sometimes he would stomp his feet and rattle the sea-shells, other times, wave his magic cudgel across the sky. His voice grew louder and louder, until he was calling into the night with great power. I could see how people could be taken in by it; he really was quite a showman. I however, was not so easily impressed, having already witnessed rites conducted in Achaea, Sumer, and Egypt, where they’ve been at it fro even longer and have more pomp an ceremony. If Abraham had done this I would have had more faith. This was regular outlander nonsense.
At last he made a great show of throwing a handful of dust into the fire, which sent up an impressive shower of sparks. Some kind of earth that had that property, no doubt. Then he came to me with the bowl and dipped his hand into the liquid, a greasy-looking concoction of leaves and who knows what. He spread it on my knee and leg, rubbing it in a bit too hard for my pleasure, but I let him do his business. I hoped it would work, really. My pain had been uncomfortable at best and unbearable at worst, which was most of the time. He then wrapped my leg in linen and bound it with strips of hide and told Finn I was not to move it for three days, and then to bring two more chickens and he would remove the bandage.
So, four chickens, a pig, and six jugs of mead. Not a bad price for the Merlin. Finn helped me down the hill to my bed of straw inn the headman’s lice-infested hut and there I lay for two days without moving. At the third day I was helped back up to the Merlin’s roundhouse and he slowly removed the bandage. The leg didn’t hurt any worse than before. I felt somewhat hopeful. He said to take it easy and it would slowly recover. W gave him the two chickens and thanked him with another jug of mead.
Bu the end of the week, my leg was in terrible shape. The wrapping had been so tight that my foot got black and blue and now was also swollen and on fire. I was deeply angry and wanted to go tell the fool off. But the headman begged me not to, for the Merlin could call down a curse on the whole village or especially on his house, since he had been sheltering me. Finn shrugged.
“This is not the man I told you about. The old Merlin was an older man, thin and clean. He dressed simply, lived a simple life, and was wise as any seer or noble of Egypt. The locals say he moved on and this man came and told them he had been appointed Merlin by the old man. I’m sorry, my dear friend, truly, for making you come all this way.”
After two weeks the swelling had gone down in my foot somewhat. Aon made me a very nice crutch with a carved stag’s head to lean on and I began hopping around the valley. I couldn’t stay cooped up anymore. Above the river bottoms was a series of ridges of white earth covered in grass. I decided to go up there and take a look around. It was a few miles distant. At last I was able to hobble around a little better and Aon and I managed to get up to the ridge. It was wide open there, a rolling plain across which we could see for miles. A beautiful place, windswept, with tall green grass and little hills and valleys showing their traces in the distance. Here and there, there were tiny hillocks topped with grey stones, round, not natural looking. I thought they must be made by men. We mad our way to a nearby one. It was plainly man-made alright. Two huge, long stones lay side by side. They were topped by a large stone which was mostly covered in turf. It looked as if the grass had grown up into the stones over many years. The place had an air of being from a distant time. We made our way around the hillock. There, on the slope of the rise, taking in the sunlight out of the breeze, sat an thin old man. At his feet was a small but solid-looking blue-and –black splotched dog that stood and growled at us, baring its fangs.
“Ah, my friends from the distant sea. I’ve been waiting for you. At last you’ve come.”
My jaw must have dropped open. He spoke Achaean!

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Merlin the Archer: Revenge — on to the Pillars of Herakles


Revenge –on to the Pillars of Herakles

When I was through sitting with her, keeping company with her lingering shade, if there is such a thing, I carried her wrapped in her cloak down to the precinct of the Goddess. Aon was there, with the old priestess. I laid the light bundle on a flat stone in front of the temple. Other priestesses had gathered quietly. They stood back respectfully, their heads covered in veils of the same grey cloth that wrapped Vila’s body.
I turned to my boy, who stood gravely, looking at what had been his mother. I put my hand on his shoulder and bent over to talk to him.
“My son, I need you to wait for me here. I will be back in a few days. Then we will go on a journey together with my friends. You will like them and you will become a man in their company.”
He nodded. The old priestess put her arms around his shoulders and held him very gently, a soft smile on her cracked, aged lips. Clouds were darkening over Tomaros.

If the traitors of Hedra had ever dreamed I would come back, they hadn’t planned on a war general who had led armies for Sargon of Akkad and Pharaoh Pepi coming back to deal with them. I had forty men plus Finn and mighty Herakul at my side. We came over the ridge to the east of the town, marching boldly and openly. I shot the first five men I saw who appeared with arms. By then, Brukos had run out of his villa with his bodyguards. Herakul, Finn, and I came forward and met them, three against seven. It was no match. Herakul was worth ten men by himself. Brukos, coward that he was, tried to run when he saw his men fall to us, sword and axe to spear and mace. But I caught him and cut his guts out with the same dagger that had taken my Queen’s life, leaving them to trail through the dust and stones of the road that led to my old house, though he cried out his innocence and begged for his miserable life. He tried to scream, but his voice quit him before his life did. He crapped himself as he stumbled and pissed his robes. He grabbed at his trailing entrails, but soon he fell face down, his bleeding, broken nose and sightless eyes against the sharp little stones of the road. Up the little hill, at my old house, the King’s house, Andros and his men were pushing carts together to make a barricade, but we charged it and slaughtered them. I shot Andros from ten feet away, right through the throat. I was in a full rage; the wrath of the Gods, as they say. While he yet breathed, I took an axe and cut off his right hand and thrust it down his throat, where the arrow shaft had broken in two. I then impaled him on a sharp-pointed fence post and ordered the men to back away from the houses. There would be no killing of women and children. Instead, I brought all our company to the big wall that I had constructed. We took long, wooden fence railings and brought the walls of Hedra down. The big rocks tumbled into the valley below. We went around until all the walls were fallen. I bade the households to seek their future shelter elsewhere, but not in the direction of Dodona. Hedra was to be no more. My men wanted to take the women as spoil, but I forbade it. Instead, we went back east to Dodona and I made an offering of sheep and goats taken from my old city as an offering to the Goddess and to the shade of Vila, Queen of Hedra and mother of Aon.
Then we went to the ship and sailed away, never to return.

28 Hunting the Stag

The leaves rustled slightly; a zephyr perhaps. They crouched unmoving, wrapped in the green maze of a forest-bound thicket of pig brush. Aon watched as slow drops of water dripped from the tips of the broad, bright green leaves that covered his hiding place; one, two, thee, four… A snap of a tiny twig. No question: something was moving stealthily in the trees beyond the little brook. The stream itself murmured an endless song, like a thousand whispering voices, each issuing from beneath a pebble, a reed, a tangle of water- worn streamside tree roots. Someone had tried to dam the brook with large stones and the flow gurgled around these head-sized boulders. The grey sky seemed darker than the forest, as if the broad, bright leaves retained the sunlight of forgotten blue days, glowing luminously in waves and sheaves, so thick that Aon couldn’t see twenty feet in front of him.
His father sat with his legs drawn up to his chest at the base of a big tree, under a canopy of greenery that hung down like a bed curtain. He simply listened, hearing the great stag creeping forward. He could now hear distinctly the tearing of the new grown shoots in the great deer’s mouth as the animal tore them gently, but with precision and power, from the branches. Aon could see his father’s intent eyes from where he waited, his bow ready. He felt the cool, polished stone wristguard on his skin, the tension of the nocked arrow in the taught string. Now he saw the antlers above the tops of the thicket. They waved like branches in a breeze, tipping one way and the other as the deer moved his head to eat. Aon pulled the arrow back with the greatest care and ever so slowly lifted the arrow’s point to the level of the stag’s breast. Right behind the shoulder blade, just far enough down to be sure the arrow wouldn’t glance off. One shot, that’s all he’d get.
The great buck was no more than twenty paces away now, working his way towards the hunters. The wind blew towards the men, concealing their scent from the wary prey. There was a clatter as a bird took wing from the three above. The stag looked up and at the same time, Aon stood and shot.
The arrow flew true and straight and punctured the flank of the great stag, plunging in so deep only the last foot of the shaft with its duck-feather fletches stuck out from the side. He bolted sideways with a loud clattering as his twisting antlers broke branches and his hooves struck rocks and then he ran. Aon was off too, seemingly as fast as the stag itself, chasing it through the forest thicket, trying to keep the sound of the frightened, wounded animal within hearing, for he couldn’t see it. Soon the sound was fading away far ahead and he had to slow and follow the trail of broken twigs, and muddy hoof prints. The way was obvious and the blood that was left here and there made it clear that the shot had done its damage.
Pelop came upon Aon and the dressed-out stag at late dusk. The old man had taken his time, as he had to now. Aon’s trail was easier to follow than the deer’s. But the stag had run more than a mile, which was a long way for a man with one good leg to walk.
Pelop sat down heavily on a fallen tree trunk and said, “Good shot, my son. I couldn’t have done better.”
Aon knew this was a lie; no one could out -shoot his father even now. But Pelop could no longer run, so his hunting days were limited to small game and birds. He left the big stuff to his son, who at nineteen was in his prime in many ways.

We first sailed from Epirus across the wind-tossed straits to the west and came to the south-facing shore. Winter was lifting into spring. After a long passage we saw in the distance a huge smoking mountain that stood above a land of fine harbors and large towns. Herakul did some trading in these ports, for provisions, and spent some time brawling in taverns. But I now had my young son, to whom I was a stranger, in my care, and I coerced my huge, rowdy friend to quit these towns. Locals told us that the mountain was home to a race of Cyclops, one- eyed giants, and Herakul wanted to have a look for himself. I persuaded him to make the climb another time, when we wouldn’t be putting the life of a child in jeopardy by our adventuring. He was miffed, and vowed to return someday, but we sailed on. We had no need to go anywhere fast, so we traded and harbored and very slowly made our way along, sometimes staying in a good place for a few days or even weeks.
I spent my time with Aon on the deck, teaching him about the sails and even giving him a turn at the oars, though he wasn’t capable of lifting one by himself. We rowed together on one oar. He was silent at first, and I respected the fact that he had lost his mother and knew me only from tales. His whole life had been spent under the shadow of illness and death among the priestesses of Dodona. He had been on his own in that wild and lonely place. I could see he had looked within himself already. He was suspicious of the world, but not afraid. He readily learned the ways the sails set in different winds and swells. He had only swum in the cold streams of Epirus, and found the sea delightful. Along these coasts the waters were clear and warm. You could see deep down where large fish swam which we caught for our meals on hand lines and with spears. Some of the sailors were accomplished divers, who could hold their breath for several minutes and come up with treasures from the bottom, large shrimps and other delicacies. Before long, Aon was going down far past where I felt comfortable. Swimming seemed to bring him a little out of his shell; he would laugh and show off a sponge or some other rarity he had plucked from Pozdeon’s blue lair.
The men took him under their protection. He was our ship’s boy, our good-luck charm. He and I watched the starry skies at night and talked about the vast arrays of shining lights in the heavens. He told me the names he had been taught. He believed them to be signs of the gods. The great warrior with his shining belt and mighty shoulders, followed by the brilliant star called the Dog Star, was his favorite, though it meant colder weather was coming and more storms would upon us when it began to rise in the east after dusk. I didn’t tell him what I thought about the gods and the stars. There would be time for that someday. For me, I saw his mother in him, bright and intelligent and quiet. She had suffered no fools, including me, and I could see that Aon carried her inner bearing. He would sit and listen and not make needless jokes. He was comfortable being alone. I wanted to ask him about himself, but refrained, instead I watched as well. For my part, I told him stories of the Sargon and Karpatha and Egypt of the great pyramids and Kanaa. He listened and took it all in, perhaps not fully trusting my tales. Most times, there were others within hearing that made comments and rude jokes in the natural way of the sailor. Aon sorted it out in his quiet mind and kept his own counsel.
When we stayed in harbor, we would go ashore and hunt. He had my talent with the bow. I showed him a couple of tricks, but he was a good shot and a stealthy hunter. Those long, lonely winters on the slopes of Mount Tomaros had been a good school for him. Finn and Herakul were impressed by him.
“He has your calmness and thoughtfulness, “said Herakul.
“He’ll be a better shot than you before long, “added Finn, “ and fortunately for him, his mother must have been good looking, ‘cause otherwise he’d be in trouble.”
The one in trouble, pretty much all of the time, was Herakul, whose insatiable lust for women kept us rowing out of harbors ahead of angry chieftains and mobs half the time when we had come to harbor. It wasn’t his entire fault; women wanted him for his size, which was a quick legend wherever we went. Later I heard him referred to as the father of the Celts, the northern people. By this it was meant that he had certainly fathered quite a few children wherever he went. And no one forgot him. Sometimes we heard tavern singers, blind men with harps, who sang for drink and food and lodging, tell of the hero Herakul, or Heracles in the western way, the slayer of this beast or that, the man who had done many fantastic labors. Well, he had done many things, I can attest, since he did many of them around me. Truly, no one was stronger in battle and less fearless than my old friend. But he was wild. The singers said he was born of Dyaus, or whatever god was worshipped in whatever place we found ourselves. I daresay he began to half believe this nonsense himself. I left him largely in the care of Finn, who was only one step behind Herakul in size, courage, and wildness, and who would come to be a legend in his own land someday, with a similar name, Finn Ma’Kul. I thought the harpers pulled our legs for a few drinks, for they also sang about me, telling tales of my archery and my so-called intelligence. They said I had magically lifted stones to build the great man-mountains of the Pharaohs. This stones were moved with ropes, levers, and muscles; not magic. If I had believed them, I would have thought myself a proper hero, worthy of a place among the half-gods. Fortunately, I knew I had been mostly a slave and came from a tiny village in the Snow Mountains and had no father that I remembered, only a mother named Mata, who had been killed by those heartless raiders when I was just a little older than Aon now was. I was no god’s son. I was a man.
We traveled north slowly for months along mountainous coasts, seeing another huge smoking mountain above a great bay. Eventually we headed towards the west and storms compelled us to winter at the mouth of a river. Here, Herakul fathered many children, no doubt. I believe it was from this sojourn that his legend spread west and north and most likely in all directions, though I never went east again, so I can’t say what tales were told in Epirus or Troja or Karpatha. Because we were without anything to do and winter- bound, and to keep the men out of trouble, we built a temple of standing stones in a circle to thank the locals for helping us through the cold months. The temple was appreciated by the villagers, who in truth had had to put up with us for a few months. I directed the cutting and raising of the stones. Using the techniques I had learned from Ikaron in Egypt, I had the men split off rocks from a formation that the people said had healing powers. We slid the man -sized stones on sledges of peeled logs during the time when the ground was frozen. The ice made an easy road for the blocks. Levers and ropes and strong muscles did the rest.
On problem I faced was that in contrast to Egypt, where workmen built long, sloping ramps up which to haul the stones, here we needed to stand them up on end. I solved this by building a small ramp for each stone, using the dirt and stones from holes half the height of the standing stones. We then pulled, lifted and levered that stones up the ramp until they were resting, balanced right on top of the pile of dirt. Then we simply slid the stone into the hole and pulled it upright with several ropes, each pulling from a different quarter. We quickly filled in the hole around the stone and there it stood. To make a true circle, I used the Egyptian way of putting a peg in the ground at the center of the circle we planned, and then tying on a rope. I merely walked the rope around the peg, inserting other pegs to show the future positions of the stones, each one the same distance from the center. When we had finished putting up twelve standing stones, I put a smaller, more slender one right at the center; with a big flat stone for the sacrifice before it in the direction of the rising sun, since it was the sun that most everyone thought of as the main god. It made a handsome temple, building it kept the men mostly out of trouble, and it brought great good-will upon us from the local chieftains, who helped keep us in drink and girls while we stayed.
“We’ll do that next winter, too, “I said to Aon, who had been a good student and had easily grasped the measurement with string and other aspects of the construction., “ but next time, we’ll add one more stone outside the circle and line it up with the center to mark the passage of the rising sun at the short day. That way, the locals will know when the New Year has begun. Then they can plant their seeds the same way each year. ”
Aon looked hard at me. “You are very smart, father.” He said quietly. My heart fairly felt like it would bust at these words from my son, who had not yet made much in the way of comment about me in our first year together.

We coasted slowly westward, making many stops along the way. We passed great bird-filled sea marches and saw places where cliffs dropped sheer into the sea. We made point after point, many of them sheltering harbor towns with the usual taverns and women. Despite our easy progress, before long we had left winter behind and were in the warm sea waters that Herakul loved.
“Wait ‘till you see this place, my little king! It’s ours for the taking; beautiful girls, warm beaches, and no great god-kings to make a slave out of you.”
He was right. As we made our way south, the coast was not unlike the land where we had seen the smoking mountain the year before. But where that had faced west, this opened to the south and east and warm winds off the sea made for a fine air. The great sun rose like a fiery chariot out of the sea in the morning, reflecting off the generally calm waters and tinting the coastal hills with a rosy glow. The waters were warm and clear, full of fish and porpoises, which gamboled beneath our bows, much to the happiness of my boy, who was coming slowly out of his shell, like a snail. Bit by bit, he began to laugh with more ease and enjoy himself with the men. He was noticeable taller than when we had found each other. Almost two years had passed now.
I myself was growing older. I tired to count my years, but the closest I could come was perhaps thirty-five. I had been just coming into my manhood when the Ottars took me and killed Mata. Now, I had been a slave, a king, a slave of god-kings twice more, had a boy of ten years, and was a free man. My companions were of the best kind; robust men like me. Herakul was turning grey in his hair and beard, but still was as strong as a bull. Finn’s hair had long ago turned pure white, though he too was fit and able. My hair was still fair. I cut my beard short and sliced off the long ends of my hair. Aon looked like his mother, with thick hair, the color of dark honey. His eyes were grey as hers had been. We counted thirty-eight men in our band, many of whom I was have to classify as old sea-dogs. There was a sense among us all, except for a few younger lads, that it was time for an easy life.
And here it was. Although mountains stood inland, they were not tall. Along the coast there were coves and longer beaches with rich farmlands between the sea and mountains. Things grew by themselves, and the local villages were not places of starvation. At each stop we made for any length of time, we lost one or two men to the wiles of local girls, so that by the time we came to the place under the big mountain, we were not a crew that would intimidate a town. We settled on a fishing town with about two hundred families or so in the area. We made our place south of the town so as not to ruffle the feathers of the local cocks to much. There was plenty of land to go around, and town had a rough tavern and a market for bartering. We built a stockade and huts and stayed there for five years. Over time we made bigger and better houses, until we had small palaces of a rude sort for almost every man that wanted one. I found the plough to be hard work, but I had quarried stone blocks for Pepi the Pharaoh. Compared to that, it was easy farming my own fields for me and my son, if rather boring much of the time. We grew garden foods and fished and hunted. Aon and I worked on his bowmanship; he became almost as good as me. Women slowly joined in to our community, drawn by the handsome men. There was a girl who just kept coming around until she ended up staying. Though I did not love her, I did like her and she was kind to Aon. He name was Evonna. She was dark and small, as were all the locals. She had had a man, but he drowned while fishing, a common tale in these parts.
We kept the ship in good repair in a tiny harbor we made at a stream mouth, and took frequent trips up and down the coast and even out to the two big islands that lay off at some distance to the east, lands in their own right, especially the larger of the two. Herakul slowly traded way the last his goods for things we needed. On one trip to the south along the coast we came to a remarkable place, which made Herakul want to pick up and move. It was a tall, commanding headland, a great rock, really, it seemed, with sheer cliffs facing to the east : a finger of land pointing south off the coast. The locals said that the great ocean lay beyond and we didn’t doubt it, as the swells were bigger there and marched from the west through a strait we could see across. On the far side of the strait was a another massive mountain that seemed to match this one, so we sailed across the windy passage and saw that it did appear to be a continuation of the same more northerly great hill. We returned and made camp at the base of the northerly landmark, for surely it was one, there being no place so memorable anywhere nearby, and truly few places so dramatic anywhere, except for the islands of smoking mountains far to the east..
“I wonder what lies beyond these gates, “I said, as we sat around a fire. There were small apes that lived on the huge rock, and they came close to fire, seeking a handout. Herakul amused himself by throwing them some fish-scraps.
“If you go far enough, you come to the green land of my people, “answered Finn. He had grown quiet of late.
“The villagers told me when I was getting this wine that there is a great land in the midst of the sea beyond. Ships come here bringing tin. The men are fearsome and their ships are made of animal skins.” said Herakul.
Finn brightened up, “Those are the ships of my folk, “he said. Our boats are made of skins over wood frames.” He looked as if he was seeing them in his eyes now. Then, quietly, he said, “I really should be getting back before…” his voice trailed off.
“What, before we run out of wine and girls?”” laughed Herakul. “Your land’s cold and dark and ruled by witch-men and little green people, if we are to believe you. Who’d leave this for that?”
Finn laughed, and countered, “Well, fair enough.” But I could see that he was serious.

We went back to our village, but Herakul kept talking about the great rock.
“I like that place, “he said as we worked on the ship’s rigging one day. We tied some new ropes for the sail and repaired a few broken things.
“I know you’re going to think I’m crazy, “he paused as if unsure if he should go on.
I looked at him with mock surprise, “I know you’re crazy, my old friend. Come on, out with it.”
He knotted his great forehead so that a dozen deep lines formed. Sweat dripped across his skin from the sun and the exertion of pulling ropes taught. “Let’s go down there and put up a couple of your stones, little king.”
I tied off the last of the ropes. “And why?”
“Because I think the place is worthy of a temple.”
“And since when do you believe in the gods, oh mighty Herakul?” I laughed. It was unlike him to be so serious.
He sat on the deck and crossed his legs.” You know, little king Pelop the archer, we’re not getting any younger. I’d like to leave something before I die.”
“Something beyond a thousand children? “ I laughed again. He grinned back.
“Something for all my many children and their children to remember me by until the end of the world. I think two great stones, tall as three men each, with a stone across on top. Out on the flat part above the strait.”
“A task worthy of Herakul the son of Dyaus.”I said.
I thought for a moment. I was used to looking at stone wherever I went and knew that there was plenty that could be quarried there, right from the cliff face. Twenty men can pull a huge stone a short distance. Getting the lintel on top would be tricky for stones as big as the ones he was talking about.
“For you and your memory, I would gladly do it, “I said.

We set out a month later, when our harvest was done, with eighteen men. Aon was now a hairy man of fourteen, almost as tall as me, and went with us. Evonna wept when we pulled away from the shore. She had had a bad dream about me. I put it down to the attachment of women. After Vila, there would never be another true love for me. We sailed easily down to the great rock and set up a camp at a spring. The cliffs were at hand and I could already see a dozen possible stones for our project. I had collected very hard stones over the years that I used as cutting axes for softer rock. I looked for fault lines in the cliff face and soon we broke away three great stones and dragged them to the edge of the flat area overlooking the sea. It was magnificent place, all right. The matching southern mountain to the great rock loomed up across the strait. No doubt this would become a famous place. Already people used it for sacrifices and ceremonies. We swept away the debris of past fires and cleared a spot for the two huge uprights. We used our hammers to flatten the end that would go up, so we could balance the lintel stone on it. I had my doubts we could actually get a stone up twice as high as a man, but we prepared for it anyway. Then we dug our holes, as deep a men are tall. We laid down a road of flat stones to drag the upright on until the big stone was in place, with one the non-flat end pointed at the hole. We had cut stout trees to use as levers. Herakul and Finn and the other really strong men would lever up one end of the stone a few inches, while my team quickly piled boulders under it. Aon‘s sharp mind worked perfectly with mine and he directed one group of stone jammers, while I matched him on the other side of the huge rock. Then Herakul’s crew would go the other end repeat the process. Bit by bit we raised the stones up as tall as a man’s head. That took three days. Then we carefully began to lower the end that was above the hole, while continuing to raise the other end ever higher. We finally got it to slide right into the hole, so it stuck up and out at an angle. From there we used levers, ropes, more stout tree trunks as braces, and a lot of sweat to gradually pull the stone completely upright, which I measured with an Egyptian-style plum line. While most of men held the stone straight up with ropes and tree-branch braces, the others rapidly filled in around the base with the rubble we had used to raise the stone to begin with until the great stone was securely upright. Then we stood back and cheered and drank wine, exhausted but triumphant.
The second stone was a bigger problem. One thing after another seemed to wrong, but after a week we had that one in position upright in its own hole as well. The two stones stood the height of two men, not the three that Herakul had envisioned but bigger than most any stones this side of the Land of Pharaohs. They were ten feet apart, with the gap between them opening to the rising sun, so that the stones matched the peaks of the great rock and the mountain across the strait, like a symbol of the two great mountains and the sea channel between them. The lintel stone we had cut would fit across them with some to spare at each end. It was a huge piece. Putting the lintel up was going to be the hardest work and the most tedious. We had to make a pile, really a small hill of rubble all the way to the top of the stones. I tried weakly to talk Herakul out of it, but he wouldn’t hear of it. I recovered my pride and we set to work. We had caught the interest of the local tribesmen, who we engaged to help in our sacred task, claiming the glory of the temple for their sun god, who they called So. Herakul and I didn’t care what god the temple was thought of being for. He wanted to leave a monument. I wanted to see if it could be done. That is how our minds worked.
When we had our hill built, I had the men construct a long ramp at a much gentler angle than the hill, which served as a base for the ramp. It took us two weeks to get it done, with all the locals hauling stones and baskets of dirt and pebbles. At last the ramp was complete and we began the treacherous and back-breaking task of dragging the enormous stone up to the top. We had thirty men, fifteen on each thick rope, pulling side by side on the ramp above the stone and another crew coming up behind, using wedge-shaped rocks and tree-branch levers to keep the stone for sliding back down the slope. The ramp was only just wide enough for the lintel stone near the bottom, but I had had the men make it actually wider at it got to the top. I worried endlessly that the whole hill would slide away under the weight of the massive lintel-stone, but by luck and good guessing on my part it held. If the stone slipped off to one side, that would make the whole project very difficult to finish, so we were very careful, making sure of each move before we made it. I also ran ropes that went right over the tops of the uprights. I had worn smooth grooves in the edge of the uprights to fit ropes through and kept the grooves wet to ease the wear on the ropes and make them slide more easily. There were ten more men on each rope pulling from the ground on the far side of the ramp. Bit by bit we slid it up and finally reached the top, which was actually higher than the tops of the upright stones. We levered the stone ahead until it was balanced right between the uprights. The slightest mistake would send it sliding down, and we’d be sunk. But with braces and ropes, we secured it as well as we could. Then we very slowly raised the downhill end of the stone up by adding stones underneath it until it was level. Herakul and Finn manned the tree-trunk levers. This was truly Herakul’s greatest feat of his famous strength, as lifting the stone even a hand-width was all the crew could do, and then only for a moment while we jammed in fist-sized rocks and ever so slowly leveled the mighty lintel.
Once we had it in place, we used ropes and braces and poles to swing it around in its peak of rubble until it was right above the uprights. We slowly and carefully dug out the rubble underneath the stone and it settled on the flat tops of the mighty standing stones. We had done it.
A great cheer went up. By now, all the women and children and many men had come from far around the area. They had made a large, festive camp around the stones. There must have been two hundred men, eager to help.
“Herakulis! Herakulis!’ they cheered, his name sounding different in their language. He climbed up on the lintel stone and raised his hands to the skies, as if in offering. Aon and I stood up there with him, and Finn as well. Wine skins were produced. It was a great triumph. Now I knew it could be done. Standing up there I could see in my mind’s eye how a whole ring of great lintel-capped stones would look.
The locals all pitched in and we cleared the ramp and rubble in less than two weeks. I set a ring of waist-high stones around the great monument in a big circle. I didn’t bother to align the ring with the rising sun or anything too fancy; it was just to provide a setting for the great triloton.
“We did it, little king! “ Boomed Herakul. The sun was setting. The last ring stones were in place and the locals were having a feast around a great fire made of the tree-trunk braces and levers to celebrate their new hero, Herakul, or, as it sounded in their tongue, Herakles.
“They’re calling it the Pillars of Herakulis, “he said proudly.
“I would think people will remember that name for long time, “I said.

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Merlin the Archer: A slave no more– Pelop and Vila at last


A Slave No More: Return to Vila

By daybreak, Finn, Sadik, and I were half a march north. We slept in a cave above a wadi, deep in the desert badlands. Urartu had stayed behind. I stood with him apart from the camp. The fires still burned in the east, though we could only see a dull red glow through what must have been thick smoke. The wind brought us a horrible smell later in the night, like that of rotting flesh. Lot said it was brimstone, and I thought that must have been the source of the gigantic fire. Lot said it was the Lord smiting the wicked men of Sodom. But it reminded me of the mountains of fire in the islands of the dark sea of Achaea. They smoke and smell, too. And there are springs of hot water in the hills that have a similar smell. I don’t believe in superstition. It had been a huge earthquake. Small ones and even striking big ones were common in Achaea. But this one was the biggest I had ever felt by a long march.
Urartu said, “I will lead the men back to Hebron, and there I will stay, as a servant to Abraham if needs be.”
I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “My brother, I wish you well. We have been through the underworld together, and I will never forget your friendship.”
I knew he could not bear the thought of living without Sarai, now that he had seen her again, and knew that she lived. I bid him a fond farewell. He had been my brother in arms for these last years and it was a sad parting. But such partings are the very nature of the world. For me there was no choice but to escape if I wanted to live. I had no bonds to Egypt and its culture, though I looked fondly on its people for the most part, and would miss the easy life there. But for men like Tanisre, who I had killed, and Nefer-Kah, who had treated me like a prize bull, and the man-god Pepi, for whom I had no reverence, I had little regard. I had earned my freedom. If I had ever not deserved it for some reason, that reason was known, as they say, only to the gods. To me, I had been imprisoned by chance and by the vanity and treachery of greedy and power-seeking men.
The mystery of a strange man like Abraham puzzled me, as did the awesome power of the earthquake and firestorm that had torn the heavens asunder. The air was thick with haze and smoke and the ground still rumbled beneath our feet as we marched north. At times the earth shook and rocks tumbled from rimrock ramparts above us and we had to plot our course as best we could to avoid being under cliffs. We felt small; the earth felt gigantic and alive and powerful.
If this was indeed the striking power of the living, personal hand of Abraham’s God or of the other endless gods that men worshipped, then I was indeed in trouble; for I could believe only in what I saw. I had walked through the night and had never seen a spirit or a ghost whose head faced backwards, or a demon or were-wulfen or any of the other countless scary things that drove people to spit on themselves and slaughter animals for sacrifice or close themselves up in filthy houses to keep out the dark unknown. I knew where these fears truly lived: in the mind and heart. I found it awesome when the sun rose again each morning, but there was nothing that its light chased away except for the darkness of the mind itself. Men, on the other hand, were indeed fearsome. For they, with their black, cold hearts, tied to greed and power and depravity by fear of death and fear of their own feeble mortality, would do anything to anyone. Why did men need gods when they could themselves kill, rape, sack, or torture others? The gods that people invented did these very things as well, giving people the excuses they needed for their dreadful actions. I had myself had killed far too many men to reckon. No doubt many of them were fine men with families and other lives away from war.
Yet there were good people too. In fact, most people were basically good and wanted only the same basic things for themselves that others wanted: food, shelter, safety for their families and communities. But they acted like cattle, afraid of the whips of men who merely claimed to be stronger than they were. I had watched the cattle count in Egypt and had marveled how the huge, horned beasts clopped docilely along, driven by the shouts and prods of a few skinny boys carrying thin sticks. If the cattle had only realized their strength and power, they could have run the herders over and had their freedom. But they allowed themselves to be driven to pasture, where the calmly ate until the day of slaughter. People were cowed by the men who made the gods and called themselves gods. If they could but rise up, they could bring down these imposters. I myself seemed to have been born to be the slave of those with power, though I had also been a king of sorts. I vowed now to never again be a slave to any man. I would die first. I had no god to swear on, but I held that to myself and made that promise. I was now on the road of freedom and would never be taken from it.
So we left the lands that were under the power of the Pharaoh of the Two Lands, the Red and the Black, the Living God-King. I hoped that we wouldn’t come upon that other God-King’s servants, for I feared that if we got too far north, Sargon’s men would catch us. We would thread the needle between the Egyptians and the Akkadians and make for the sea and steal a boat. At least Finn and I would. Finn was the last of the northmen to survive, his fellow countrymen having died in Kush and of illnesses. Sadik swore his loyalty to me, but said he would not set foot on a boat.
“My people are sand-people. I will stay here in the desert where I belong. I wouldn’t want to freeze, anyway.” He laughed, as we took a rest under a lone tree in dry wadi. Finn had been telling tales of the Green Isles where he was from, of how cold it was and cloudy, and how it rained all the time if it wasn’t snowing. His Egyptian was stilted and his accent outrageous, plus his sense of humor was contagious. He joked about women so skinny you could tie them in knots and then have your way with them and the like. He was full of tall tales. He said in his country there were little men who had great treasures hidden under the ground. The little men could grant you a wish if you could catch one, but they were a clever race and the wishes usually came back to haunt you. There were also night witches called ‘Shees, which could chill the heart of the bravest man.
“But I’ve been out of many night, and I ne’er seen one.”
Sadik said, “You two look like foreigners here. Kanaanites are suspicious people. There are many villages on the way to the coast. But I know a way to help disguise you.”
We came westward through the desert hills until we came to the Yeriko road. There we hid in a cave above the road while Sadik went on ahead to Yeru- Salem, the fine-looking town I had noticed on the first journey through this land. There was something about this town and the hills around it that pleased me, though I couldn’t fix the reason why in my mind. I fell asleep in the afternoon and had a strange dream, in which the hills were on fire, and I awoke with a start, but all was still and peaceful. Sadik came back later with a small sack of a dark powder, which we mixed with water into a paste, with which we painted our beards and hair to turn them dark. That would help, though both Finn and I were far taller than the average Kannaanite. Sadik had also stolen three blankets, which we wore as robes. The weather was turning towards winter now. We covered ourselves and walked hunched over like sick men as we went down the road, leaning on staves. We carried hidden daggers, but I had no bow for the first time in a long while, and it bothered me greatly to feel so unarmed. We kept to ourselves and often hid when we saw a large caravan approaching. On the seventh day I smelled the unmistakable salt of the sea. We were following the main track along a small river that flowed out of the hills. Ahead was a sizable town with a fine harbor. We looked it over from a hill. I knew that the winds often blew from west to east on the coast, but we were in great luck, as a storm was approaching, bringing wind from the south. If we could steal a boat we could get away toward the north. Of course, in that direction lay Ugarit, which Sadik learned was still in the hands of the Akkadians.
“Perhaps we can work as sailors on a ship to Cyprus, the copper island, “I said. Sadik set off into the town to see if any ships were going that needed extra hands.
He returned late in the night. “If you come now, I think you may be in luck. I found a captain in one of the taverns in the harbor. He seems a bit rude, a huge man with rough ways. But he said he could use two hands. He sails at dawn. He’ll be up all night drinking as far as I can tell. He’s that kind of man.”
We stole through the dark streets of the town, called Yaffo. We hunched over even more than usual and even passed a patrol of armed men, who crossed the street rather than be near a coughing man. Sadik took us to the quays and we waited behind some bales of stuffs on a pier while he went to the tavern, the only business still open at this late hour of the night. I noted the sound of snoring coming from the deck of the ship, a sixty-foot galley of the usual coastal trader type, a ship I knew well. There was a guard who woke and barked at us, asking our business. He spoke a rude Achaean, so I answered him in a mix of languages that we were hands waiting for the captain and that seemed to satisfy him.
At long last, we heard the sound of loud, deep voices across the harbor, in the direction of the tavern. There was an argument of the drunken type, and calming voices mixed in. Then the drinkers broke into a bawdy song about a tavern-keeper’s daughter, an old one every sea-man knows. The party wandered around on the sea-front for a few minutes and finally two men came down the quay. One was Sadik. The other presented a large silhouette in the dim light cast by two torches back over by the tavern. But the stride, size, and bearing were unmistakable to me. I stood up from behind my bale and stepped out, pulling back my cloak. The big man stopped and seemed to peer at me from under his dark brows. Then he leaned his head back and laughed a great roar of a laugh.
“Two hands, you said! But you didn’t tell me one is my King! “
“Hello, Herakul.” I said.
We embraced, a long hold, in which he nearly crushed the breath out of me with his powerful arms.
“I heard you were an Egyptian general!” he said excitedly. “But let’s rouse some oarsmen and clear the harbor now. There are Akkadian informers here. I gather you would need two heads to satisfy the angry kings you have left behind!”

By the gods, as those who believe in them say, it felt wonderful to be on the rolling green sea again. The oncoming storms brought a strong wind from the south, and we had no need to break our backs pulling the oars as we sailed for Cyprus. Herakul’s ship carried a load of planed cedar logs, most prized in the world of all woods for their strength and length for building, to a Cyprian merchant. Herakul planned to exchange the wood for oil and wine to trade further west along the coast of the great land of the Hattusans, Kappodikians, Lydians, and others all the way to Troja.
“After that, I will give you to command this vessel wherever you like, “he said.
The sailing was fine through the rolling swells. I had not been on a ship on the open sea for nearly six whole years now. I had been a slave, but now I was a free man. I drank wine with Herakul and Finn, who became instant brothers, being of the same kind of men: bold and fearless and not moved by the opinions of others. I felt like one of those black midgets that noblemen of Egypt kept in their households for entertainment compared to these giant men, though I was not a short man. Herakul told us of his life of the last three years. He had gone to the land of the Perses, the children of Perseus, he of the flying horses.”
“And did the horses fly?’ I laughed.
“No, but they run fast and they race them. They have the fastest beasts I’ve ever seen, far faster than any onager. The Perses are ragged, squabbling tribes with no great kings. But someday they will be a mighty nation, for everywhere there are very proud people. And their women are as handsome as any I’ve seen. Didion stayed with them. He became a retainer to a tribal leader who had a beautiful daughter. I grew bored and tried to make my way to Harappa, far to the east, but the desert was impassable and I finally came to the south coast and rode a ship called a dhow with a pearl merchant back to Dilmun. From there I needed to hide from the Akkadians and sought refuge among the Bedu’. I crossed the great sand sea on strange animals that are like horses but have huge humps in which they hold enough water for two weeks without a well. At long last I came back to these lands and was nearly captured by the forces of Sargon. They decided to take the whole coast back there, and would have except for the resistance of the locals. No one will ever defeat such fearless men as the kanaanites. They are sworn to defend their land to death and for generations untold yet to come. Your Egyptians won’t hold them for long. If Sargon couldn’t subdue them, the faroe never will.”
I agreed. Plus, the land itself was difficult, with so many ridges and steep-sloped, wooded hills and narrow defiles. A small army could beat a large one by ambush.
“I decided to become a trader after that. I got this boat in a roll of bones. I haul tin and copper, wine, oil, timber, people, anything I can find to carry from island to island. Troja is a great city, there is gold there form the great sea north of it. My old country of Thrace is west of there, but I dare not return there unless I have, like you, an extra head or two to give to some pissed-off old kings!”
We had a laugh and another draught or five. Herakul! My blood companion and I were on the sea again. But this time, I knew where I wanted to go.
“Oohh, I don’t know about that, little king Pelop. It has been years now. Do you think she yet lives? “
“If she does or not, I will go there and find out. If she has died, there are those who will pay for that. I will go by myself, if needs be, though I would think that here are three men who never turn from an opportunity to have a little action.”
Finn and Herakul grinned and rank.
“Count me in, “said Herakul.
“And me, said Finn”

Troja was a fine city for these parts, with walls around walls. The people were proud and hardy for city dwellers. They raced horses round the walls for sport. It would have been very hard to take in war.
“I would say it would take years.”
“And every man you could find, “said Finn.
“You’d need to fool the defenders into opening those gates or you’d never get in, ‘ I said.
We traded goods for trinkets of gold and wool bales. The weather had turned cold, and wool would be good demand in Atena.
“Too close to Tirana,” said Herakul. “I will trade this in the land of the Iberians, far across the endless sea, or maybe even in the land of our friend Finn.”
“The people of my land “said the big red-bearded man, “have wool growing out of their anuses! They eat it for breakfast! They fart it when the get under their sheepskins themselves at night!”
We had a good laugh.
“Before we sell this to people who don’t need it, first we’re going to see about a queen I once knew, and her boy-child.”I said.
But for now, we were free men at last and we felt the wind of freedom blowing behind us. We made our way from island to island, some of them of the smoking mountain type. I thought of the inland sea and the great fire of brimstone, but put it out of my mind. We traded and bartered, got drunk, got chased out of port twice by angry locals, and generally behaved like dogs that had been locked in cages for a long time; we took what we wanted of the food and drink and women of each port. So we ruffled a few cock-feathers of the locals. No matter, we were the biggest cocks everywhere we went. But after two weeks of living like drunken young sailors I decided to sober up and took command of Herakul’s crew and vessel and made a course that would take us south, around the lands of Mykenai and Tirana; beyond the western lands of Itak and Lefkata and to the coast of fine Epirus. Hedra was to the north. I knew the land now, and made for a sheltered, secluded beach where we could safely beach our ship. We had forty men with us. They had been with us from the start in Yaffo and had shared in our fine ramble. Some had been sailing with Herakul for more than two years. They swore loyalty to our venture. Ten would stay with the ship, to keep her from falling into the hands of pirate and warlords. The other thirty and the three wild men equipped ourselves with the weapons we had and headed north to the sanctuary of the goddess at Dodona, under the mountain. I knew the priestesses there were incorruptible. If I was to get the truth it might well be there. It was a thirty mile march. Once again I had a bow, a fine Akkadian recurve that had been lifted by one of Herakul’s shipmates from a nobleman in Ugarit. It was the very kind of bow I was most pleased by, and it had a quiver of well made arrows, some even with real copper points.
We crossed the ridges and headed for the great mountain Tomaros that stands above the sanctuary of the Three Goddesses at Dodona. We came over a spur of the mountain and looked into the valley. It was a peaceful winter scene; snow on the hills and wisps of blue smoke rising from the village near the sanctuary at the foot of the mountain. I bade the men stay where they were and went unarmed down through the leafless woods. I came upon the ancient standing stones that encircled the Goddess’s sacred place. Within were the temple grove and the temple itself, a rectangular building that looked like it needed repair. Behind it was a collection of small dwellings of the usual kind: stone-walled, roofed with woven branches and sod-earth. An old crone sat on a block of stone before a fire, stirring the contents of a large cook-pot. Her hair was white, but bound up in the back in the manner of the young priestess of Afroda. I thought she must at this late time in her life make her offerings to Hera, since Hera was the oldest of the three Goddesses. I approached softly, not wishing to startle her in this quiet place.
Without looking up she said, “You will find her. But will you not want to see her, nor she see you.”
I was startled by the strength in her voice; it was that of a younger woman.
“Excuse me, mother, “I said, “But how do you know who I seek, or who I am?”
She now craned her neck up and looked me in the eye. She had only one good one; the left was cloudy and light blue. She had only a few stumps of teeth and her skin was worn like old leather, with so many wrinkle lines that there was no smooth skin at all, only lines and folds. But once she had been beautiful, I could still see, and she smiled at me with a knowing twinkle in her one eye.
“You think she doesn’t know, but your mother knows, always, she knows. She cares for you, little slave boy, little king. She knows why you come like a supplicant to her sacred grove and old stones.”
I was stunned, but thought: I won’t show it. It’s the usual witch-talk, everyone comes seeking something, and she’d be bound to know that.
“I am a wanderer here and seek only the blessing of the Goddess of this place on my journey.”
“Then what is your offering?” She asked, “Why do you come empty handed? Bring the Goddess something to offer and we’ll see what she knows about you and your journey.”
She turned back to her cooking, “Now, begone!” She spat.
I backed away and left the grove. My mind was confused. What was happening? I shook my head to free it from the spell. Witches. I should have stayed in Egypt. I went back to the men on the hill and got my bow and went out hunting for some game with which to make an offering. I wandered over the wintry slopes of Tomaros, slipping along as quietly as an animal myself, an arrow on my string. I came to little creek that tumbled out of the mountainside. It flowed over white boulders topped with patches of snow, between the stark slender tree trunks of ash and poplar and dark evergreen cypress. I moved silently along it, following it down, knowing that deer and rabbits came to drink and I would have a shot if I was lucky.
I heard a sound of a branch cracking from a footfall ahead, and I crept forward around a large rock to see into the next pool below. To my surprise, instead of a deer, there was a young boy there, probably eight or nine years old. He held a bow himself. He had fair hair and was tall. It made me smile. He looked like a young lad I had once known in another lifetime; a boy named Stek. Then I saw another figure; someone wrapped in a cloak of grey wool, a tiny person, on his or her haunches, crouched down by the stream. The figure’s hand reached out and I drew my breath in when I saw the skin of the hand was also grey, and hardly more than bones with dark skin stretched over them. In spite of myself, I flinched, and stepped clumsily on a stone and fell on my behind, my feet sliding out from under me so that I slid forward on my backside in a clattering of loose stones from behind my rock and stopped right at the feet of the boy. He had drawn up his arrow and it pointed at my face. He was resolute and steady. I had the feeling he had already known killing of men.
“Don’t move, “he said calmly.
“I won’t, “I said, “I mean no harm. I was hunting for deer, much as you are, perhaps.”
He didn’t say anything. I eased my hands out, putting my elbows to the earth to show him I had no weapon in them. The figure in the grey cloak shifted and slowly turned.
I had seen death since I was a child. I had looked at the faces of men and women who had been mercilessly slaughtered. I had witnessed starvation, seen bloated carcasses of men and beasts in rivers, the butchered bodies of the mutilated warriors of Kush and Elam. But the face that looked at me was a dead face with eyes that yet lived. Her flesh was eaten away around her mouth, and her gums and teeth were black. There was a huge hump protruding from below her right ear that grew to her shoulder, which was drawn up by the growth towards her head. Yet her neck itself and every other feature was as thin as dried- out reeds, the skin pulled tight in lines. If she had hair, it was far back on her head, for under her cloak only her wide forehead was visible, littered with red, bulbous growths that were joined by a stitchery of veins that stood out and showed violet against her ashen skin. One hand stuck out, like it was a forgotten thing, bony and trailing in the muddy snow on which she crouched. The other hand was only a stump, the fingers having the look of having been worn down to bloody knobs. With that wretched hand she drew her cloak more closely around her and she shrank back from me, drawing up to herself like a snail drawing into its shell, a tiny, fleshless ball of filth and decay wrapped in a dirty woolen rag.
But I knew her eyes. They still shone with that piercing intelligence that had moved me from the first time I set my gaze on her, when I followed her down the hill at Hedra ten years before.
“Do you not know your father?” She said. Her voice was thin and reedy, like wind blowing through dead stalks of grass in a winter field.” Put down your bow, Aon. This is your father, King Pelop.”
I forced my eyes to keep her gaze. I wanted to snatch the boy up and run; just run away and fly into some other world, far from this bewitchment. There was absolute silence, except I could now hear her breathing, a dry, wheezing sound like sand blowing across rock. Aon lowered his bow and stepped back towards her. I pulled myself up and knelt in the mud, looking into Vila’s yes.
She broke the gaze and lowered her eyes and said to the ground, rapidly, as if she wished to get rid of the words as quickly as she could.
“They threw us out. Andros and Brukos. Andros… he…we went into the hills and finally came here. That was six years ago, or seven. I lost count. The priestesses took us in. But I began to get sick a long time ago. The mothers said they could not heal me, that it must be a curse of the Gods. But then others got sick, too Aon, I thought he…. But he got better. Many people died across the whole of Epirus.”
She looked up again at me. I had not looked away. I wanted to reach out and touch her, take her in my arms and hold her.
“I have this thing growing in me. The mothers told me you would come. Ephratae saw you in a vision sent by the Goddess. You would come and take Aon with you. You will do something for the Gods. Something for the people who need the Gods”
There was no point in my saying that this is what the Gods give; disease and death. This is the Gods’ gift to men.
“You must help me, “she whispered.” Aon must go now and you must help me. Then you must go. I have been waiting for you for a long time. I fear not, my love. I only am so tired. You must help me go.”
“But, I cannot.” I said.
She spoke forcefully. “Aon. Go now and wait near the stones below. Wait for your father.”
Aon stood, still as a hunter. Tears rimmed his eyes.
“Please my little one, please go now. I love you and I will see again someday, if it pleases the gods.”
“Momma.” He said. But I could see a steadiness in him. He was wise; he had seen this coming for a long time. He knew the path ahead of him. I was actually there. I doubt he had thought that would really happen. He bent down and kissed his mother’s cloak and rested his small hand on her shoulder for a moment. Then he turned and walked away, as if he had never been there at all.
I had drawn up close to her. She looked me. Her sorrow was like waves washing over me coming from a far place of long storms.
“Do you know why? “ She asked softly” have you found out why we live, why we are born to this suffering?”
I shook my head. “People say they know, but it’s all the same. I have been to the ends of the earth. I have been a slave for the last six years. Only just now have I gained my freedom. I was held in the land between the rivers and then in the land of the pharaoh. I always was coming back to you. We were betrayed by those men in Hedra. They will pay for their treatment of you. “
I paused, then collected myself. Now was no the time for anger. That time would soon have its day. I said, “I have seen men and women do terrible things, and then call on the Gods for help and mercy. But I have found no one who knows why we live and die and suffer. It’s all….it’s just what people want to believe.”
She looked down for a moment and then back up at me, a deepness in her eyes. “I have watched the flowers and trees here in this sacred place. They grow and bloom and then they die and other flowers and trees do the same. It never ends, but it never stays the same either. I fear not what might come. I will die now. And other girls will be born and live and die, until the end of time, if there is such a thing.”
I reached out and gently touched her cloak, brushing it so slightly it might have felt like a breath of wind and nothing more.
“Of all the people in the world, my sweet Vila, you are the wisest one I have known. There are no Gods, or they wouldn’t let this happen and let bad people live and grow old. “
She breathed out, a long sigh.” I am so weary, my Pelop. You must help me now. Give me your knife and put it in my hand.”
I slipped the bone-handled dagger between her bony fingers so that it pointed towards her chest.
“Now, my love, my king. Take good care of your son, our son. I will see you someday, perhaps.”
I held her bony hand in mine and she just leaned forward. The blade entered her as if it were cutting through delicate linen. She collapsed on the point and let out a long low breath mixed with a wet sound and fell into my hands, rolling over, her tiny legs unfolding as she gave up her shade to the gods. She shivered and then her life went out of her and she was still.

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Merlin the Archer: Sodom and Gomorrah


Sodom and Gomorrah

There was an army of sorts standing between us and the city of Gazah. I was gladdened by the reports that Sargon’s armies had quit this region, for no matter how well I had trained my soldiers, our four thousand men would have been no match for the huge armies of Akkad, with their horsemen and phalanxes of armored fighters. The city of Gazah was not much more than few hundred houses spread out along an endless straight stretch of beach, with only a small breakwater harbor. There were fields and palm groves inland for a way, like islands floating in a dune sea. Rows of palms lined the ditches and canals of the settlement. Further inland the land rose up and there were distant hills, the ones I remembered from the trek fro Yeriko. There was a wall around the inner part of the town, but it wasn’t high. The Egyptian ally defenders sent a messenger out at night that brought us word that they were down to their last supplies and arms.
The tribal chief, Malek, had his camp south of the town. I sent a column of a thousand men right along the beach to catch his attention. As I knew he would, he threw his full force of several hundred fighters against our column. Meanwhile, I sent my archers and the One Hundred around to the east in a circling movement. When we had reached as far north as the town we turned and charged suddenly back towards the coast, fell on their exposed flank, and drove them literally into the sea, killing many of them as they retreated into the waves with nowhere left to run. The defenders of Gazah broke down their gates and came out too, taking vengeance on the rebels. I put Malek’s sad, bloodied head put on a stake near the beach. I ordered that a few of the defeated rebels be let go to flee away to the north and east. I wanted news of our coming to spread among the other rebel forces. From Gazah we marched up to Isqalluna, where we drove away another, smaller band. They scattered like leaves before the wind. Lachish we took without a fight. The town opened its gates and welcomed us as liberators. I knew they were just trying to spare themselves. It looked to be an easy campaign.
But locals who had interest in surviving and saw that we had the power to bring peace to the land brought us word that the larger armies were lying away to the east, in the hills towards Yeriko. They said two generals, Cheroboam and Hektmakar, were joined together near a pass that led over towards the lower inland sea. Rumors abounded, for the Kanaanites are superstitious, wild people, easily swayed by lies and tall tales. It was hard to tell what was truth and what was a tall tale. I dismissed the story that there were giants among the rebels, men ten feet tall, who could throw stones a mile. I had heard that kind of rubbish my whole life. But it seemed we did have a more difficult task in front of us. We sent out scouts with certain locals, sheepherders and the like, to get an accurate picture of the hills and valleys ahead. They reported what I already knew fro my flight through this same country, that the coastal plain gave way to rolling hills that became thickly forested steep slopes. An enemy who held the high ground there would be impossible to dislodge. I marched our army straight towards the mountains and came within site of the camp fires and scouts of the forces of Cheroboam and Hektmakar. I knew they watched us from the ridge tops. I had our troops pretend they were coming up into a pass along a clear-running stream, right below the heights held by the rebels, but at the last we turned south and moved swiftly south down a valley that locals told us would take us to lower, more desert passes east towards the inland sea.
We made a fortified camp, ringed with solid lines of defense. I ordered the archers to stand watch in shifts, but told the rest of the men to act normally. I wanted the enemy to think we might be vulnerable and come down out of their mountain lairs so we could engage them on more open ground. But none came. The next day we crossed a low pass that led to a semi-desert plateau of low hills near a village called Hebron. I was undecided as to our course there.
Old man Abraham came to me as I sat at my fire in the company of Finn, Urartu, Sadik and the other leaders of the One Hundred. The crane-like old coot sat down, his arms and legs like sticks now. His age was finally catching up to him. I saw the fire in Urartu’s eyes. Abraham paid him no notice, but flapped his long sleeves and waved out at the darkness.
“This is the land our people, the home my future children have been given until the end of days. We will stay here. Whether you stay or not doesn’t matter. Our Lord will protect us. Pharaoh’s power is weak here. These men out in the hills live here, too. You will never defeat them. The hills are riddled with caves and secret springs. The fighters up other can go on attacking you forever. Return to Egypt.”
I looked sideways at the old man. What he said made sense. But I had a job to do to win my freedom. If I let an undefeated army run off, I would go back the Two Lands in disgrace. I wouldn’t be given my freedom; more likely I would be killed. I secretly feared that Shesut’s marriage to the Pharaoh had put my life in jeopardy as well. If anyone knew of our parting tryst, I was as good as dead. Pepi liked to have monumental depictions carved of him striking down bound prisoners. I had no desire to be among them.
“I must fight these rebels and defeat them. There is no other answer. I will lure them to us and then destroy them. You are free to settle any place you want. There are not so many of you that these hills could not take you in.’
“But, “Abraham said, “The men of the eastern cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and Zoar will move against you, too. They you can defeat, for their towns and holdings are on open ground just to the east, along the shores of the inland sea. They are wicked men, not like the honorable shepards who band together to drive you from their ancestral homeland. The men of Sodom and Gomorrah are city dwellers. They are cowards, who hope the honest hill fighters will do the job of ridding the land of you. Then they will fall on the survivors and take them as slaves or worse. I know these people.”
Abraham looked sad, his usually vibrant spirit suddenly dulled for a moment.
“My nephew, a man named Lot, lives among the wicked men of Sodom. I sent two boys to tell him of a vision that I had of that town being visited by God’s wrath, but I fear he will reject them, and the men of the town like to have boys in unnatural ways.” He was grave. “It is a strange place. The valleys are green and the fields are fertile, but the hills have rents in them which burn with foul smelling fires, and there is brimstone around the inland sea. I foresee a great catastrophe there.”
I had learned that Abraham’s visions were worth paying attention to, though I was more interested in the fires from the ground and the brimstone, which I knew as a yellowish, bad-smelling soft stone. I had seen such places in the hills of western Achaea, where the locals said the smithy of the gods made his bronze swords and helmets for Dyaus and Perunas the Striker. I knew that in such places, the land shakes often and walls fall. Also, in such places, seeresses and priests inhale the deadly vapors of the earth and give their oracles.
“I thank you for your counsel, my friend, “I said to the thin old wraith of a man, “but my course is clear. I must beat these armies or have them at my back. After I have defeated them I will turn my attention to the cities of the inland sea, unless they sue for peace first and make that unnecessary.”
He looked at me with his deep, wise eyes. It looked as if he wanted to try to convince me further, but knew me well enough that he knew it was useless to try. He turned and stalked quietly away like a great stork or crane, but slower than before. After a few steps he looked back and said, “There are caves near here where we will take shelter. Trouble yourself not with us, and thank you for providing us with your safeguard. May the Lord be with you.” he held up his hand in blessing.
I saluted him, hand on chest in the Achaean way, an said, “and with you.” For I couldn’t think of any other response, not being a religious man myself.

We crossed over the desert ridges to the village of Hebron, where we parted company with Abraham and his followers. I saw Urartu standing apart, looking at the ground. Sarai held her head high and wished me luck, and then went with her aged husband and the others towards a large cave in a hillside. We marched away north up though the rolling hills, heading for the Yeriko road, that went through Bet-Lahm, a small village, and staying close enough to the rising ground on our right to take the high ground should be attacked. In the late afternoon on the second day we met the two generals as they led their troops down towards the south from their earlier position. There was an open space between us, but we had the better of it, with some hills to the east and the enemy somewhat below us to the west. We also outnumbered them by a third or so. Theirs was a substantial army, and appeared somewhat disciplined; instead of a rabble, they marched in ranks. I could see that there were many slingers among them, no more than shepard boys. But I knew what damage slings could do. Stones are plentiful and as effective as arrows. I wished to avoid combat, but knew it was a certainty. I decided to take a surprise course and sent the One Hundred rapidly east out of sight behind the hills, where I told them to then turn south at a run and then west, to get completely behind the enemy. I knew the Kanaanites would look for us to try to outflank them to the north and east, from the hills. I played the chance of illogical attack; coming from the unlooked-for quarter.
I also chose to send a first attack right into the setting sun, once again to take them by surprise, since they could easily see us, whereas we could only see their shadows silhouetted in the brilliance of the setting sun.
They must have thought me stupid. They recklessly charged into our feint and we drew back and unloosed our Nubian archers on them, while letting the Kannaanites advance ever further into our center. I ordered the men to keep their shields up against the rain of stones coming from their slingers and archers. I commanded our center to fall completely apart and the rebels charged through our lines. The van of the enemy had easy success and swept forward. They seemed to taste victory and pressed quickly. But they should have known that it was too easy. By the time the rebels had passed through our center Cheroboam and Hektmakar probably had realized the danger of a trap, but for them it was too late. We let a big part of their forces run through us, and then closed ranks, while the One Hundred, who had run up into position, charged out of the setting sun and fell on their rear, causing panic. I had kept back a third of my forces behind a hill and now sent them after the now eastern-fleeing rebels, chasing them into the desert towards the inland sea beyond the arid ridges. The others we obliterated with archery, spears, and battle axes. I wanted to spare some, but they fought too hard, showing no desire for mercy. Against such a foe, death is the only strategy. Better to destroy them than to leave them behind us. They’d only revolt again later. The carnage was terrible on both sides. I finally called our troops back and let the enemy carry the dead and wounded away to minister to them in whatever way they saw fit. We ourselves had lost over two hundred, nearly one of every fifteen men. Hektmakar was killed; Cheroboam escaped northward with his few horsemen. Night fell and across the field you could hear the cries and moans of the wounded as they lay beyond hope on the stones of the desert hills.
In the dawn, we piled up the bodies of the fallen and held a soldier’s simple funeral service, using the battlefield way of mass cremation. Otherwise, disease would spread among us and the people of the valley, whose ill-will toward us needed not be compounded by disease. Our soldiers wanted to leave at once, fearing the unburied spirits of the dead. But I ordered my most loyal Egyptian commander, Ani, to fall south and stay with the main force just north of the village of Hebron, fearing that Cheroboam would once again attack and take control of the strategically important road through the hills. Then I took three hundred mixed spearmen and archers, and my One Hundred, and we turned to the east, following up our earlier force chasing the rather sizable band of rebels who had fled towards the vast valley of the inland sea.
The land quickly became a desolation, a wilderness of dry wadis and cliffs. There were at least a few hundred men ahead of us. We couldn’t let a band of that size go free. Their sign was clear enough on the trackless hills and bluffs. We followed them, at times seeing them in the distance crossing a ridge or coming up the side of the bluff. There was no place of refuge for them or us here, for there was no water at all in this hard desert. We dropped lower and lower, heading ever closer to the inland sea, which seemingly is below the level of the rest of the earth, in a cleft formed by forces unimaginable, yet visible for all to see. It looked as if an axe of the gods had struck the earth and left a deep cut, in which lay the sea. At the end of the day we came to the edge of high cliffs. Our earlier force had stopped there as well and awaited my orders. Combined, we numbered over five hundred. The way ahead led down the cliffs on a steep winding road to the flat lands around the sea, which stretched out before us from north to south, with only a thin strip of land that seemed to separate northern and southern sections of the sea. At the western end of the strip, at the base of the cliff where we now stood, was a large flat-topped bluff a few hundred feet high, like an island in the desert. It was about a mile and a half away. We could see the rebels had climbed to its top and taken up a position that would be impossible to attack.
Beyond the hill lay the strip of the land that led to the other side of the sea-valley. Massive cliffs and ranges of harsh mountains rose in waves beyond the sea. I ordered the men to make a fortified camp and rest. We had marched twenty miles that day after fighting the day before, and though the wounded were back with the main force near Hebron, the men were worn out. We set up watches and through the night we saw the fires that were lit by the rebels on the fortress rock out in the valley.

The sea is a strange, otherworldly place indeed, sunk down in a deep valley below high cliffs and strong, empty ranges. The desert cliffs were not unlike Red Egypt in their bareness, and the valley of the sea, like a less fertile Nile Valley. I knew from before that Yeriko was at the north end of the valley, near where the little river flows into the long sea. Abraham had told me that along the eastern shore of the southern part of the sea were five towns, small cities, of which the two most principal were Sodom and Gomorrah. It was in Sodom that Abraham’s nephew Lot lived. I wondered what had become of the two boys Abraham had sent to Lot, but it was not of my business to attend to, so I put it out of my mind.
In the morning, the rebels still held their place on the bluff.
“We’ll never get them down from there, “said Finn. Urartu and Sadik agreed. I pondered the situation. If we left them there, they would certainly cause trouble down the road. I didn’t know if there was any source of water for them on that rock, but I knew we had only what we carried in our water bags. So we didn’t have the ability to wait them out. I decided that must abandon our position and return to Hebron. We would wait one day here to see if there was any movement, then turn back.
I had sent runners to Hebron to exchange information with Ani, the commander of Nefer-Kah’s householder archers. Strangely, a troop of Egyptians arrived at our camp at dusk. They were not my troops at all. Their commander was a man named Tanisre, who identified himself as being from the Royal Guard. He rode in on a horse, a most strange thing for an Egyptian, for though there are horses in Kanaa, they are rare in the Two Lands, donkeys being the usual steed. Tanisre was a haughty, hawk-face man, short, like many Egyptians. Plainly he was used to command and expected me to regard him as my superior. He came with two hundred fresh spearmen of the Libyan type, broader and more heavy set than the average thin Egyptians. He came to my fire.
I saluted him and asked how he came here, to this desolate place. I had not known of any reinforcements.
“I have been sent by the Lord of the Two Lands, the Black and Red, Horus Incarnate, Pepi the rightful son of Osiris and Isis, to oversee the subjugation of the rebels. I am to take the lead in the campaign.” He said flatly. His servant had brought him a camp stool with three legs, which he sat down on, ignoring the fact that I, the warrior who already had defeated the enemies of the Pharaoh, was still standing. I felt my mountain-man blood surge. I stood over him. I could have struck him down with my dagger right then. His Libyans would have been no match for my battle-hardened fighters. But Finn stood a few feet apart. He stared at me and gave his head the slightest shake. I took a deep breath.
“As my Lord commands, “I said, “But my master Nefer-Kah gives me my orders.”
“Nefer-Kah has given you to the Pharaoh,” said Tanisre in a dismissive way, “you are now under my command. “
There was bustle of commotion among the troops. I saw that Finn, Urartu, Sadik and I were surrounded by Libyans.
“I am in command here now, of all the troops, “he said, “and I am to bring you all before the Living God.”
He waved at his guard-commander, “Bind them!” he said.
I yelled, “What?”
The Libyan commander and some men stepped towards me. My hand went to my dagger. But at that moment two of my soldiers burst forward through the Libyans and threw a man headlong into the dust next to the fire. He was middle aged, somewhat fat, dressed in finer clothes than one would see in the desert hills: a town dweller. Tanisre stood up, and pulled back. The Libyans leveled their spears at me and at the man on the ground. Finn and Urartu had come to my side; Finn held a mace and Urartu his axe.
My soldier looked with surprise at the Libyans and he and his men held their own spears toward them. He seemed unsure what was happening. Tanisre had eased back into the Libyans.
“Speak, Hotep, “I said to my soldier.
Hotep held his gaze on the Libyans and said, “We found this man and several others running up the road from the east. We though they might be rebels.”
The man had pulled himself up from the dust and stood there brushing the dust from his bearded face and his robes in a panicked way. There was a look of absolute terror on his face. He held up his hands as if beseeching the gods.
“The wrath of God is upon us!” he cried out.
And then there was a sound that I had not heard for a long time, a deep rumbling coming from the very depths of the earth itself. It seemed to start from the east and came rolling like an endless herd of thunder-cattle stampeding towards us. The ground began to shake, then to violently jerk back and forth. The rumbling grew louder than any thunder and the rocks shook back and forth. I fell to one knee and steadied myself with my hands on the ground. I suddenly felt as small as an ant, and as powerless. The soldiers all fell, their spears clattering. There were cracking noises as huge pieces of the rimrock broke off from the cliff face and crashed down into the chasm below. Great clouds of dust rose, and the tripod holding the fire fell and sparks flew in a sudden blast of wind. The land was suddenly dark with night and dust. Everywhere men were crying out to the gods for mercy.
Then all at once there was a red light across the valley. What was it? I found my feet and peered into the void. It looked like a gigantic wall of flame was rising, starting from the north and almost instantly spreading south. It was many miles away, yet there could be no doubt. It must be fire. It spread quickly and here and there were huge balls of flame, as if something had suddenly burst into fire. I thought of the smoking islands of the Achaean sea. It was what was called the fire of the gods from under the earth.
Then there was a new sound, coming from far across the valley of the sea; a loud, but distinct cracking noise, as if the very earth was a huge log had being split by the axe of heaven. Then came a deep thudding sound, sharp but heavy, as if mountains them selves had smashed into each other at tremendous speed. We all grabbed our heads. I thought my ears would burst. Truly, this was the vengeance of an angry god. Had anyone ever heard such a sound before? There were three different claps of this earth- bound, mind-shattering thunder. We fell to the ground. The deafening sounds seemed to go on past us like gigantic waves as the ground quaked.
“Don’t look at it! “Shouted the man next to me. In the red light I could see him. He was on his knees, his face in his hands, turned away from the dreadful fires of the underworld. “I am Lot, “he said,” I was told this would happen.”
Then the quaking eased, though the ground still shook. Someone ran up with a torch. My head was racing. Whatever had just happened, I knew one thing: I would not be taken. This was my chance. I pulled my dagger and I turned. “Come with me!” I ordered.
I found Tanisre running in fear into the desert, surrounded by a handful of Libyans. Finn was with me now. I ran through the terrified Libyans and grabbed the Egyptian. I pulled him up to me. I was six inches taller than he was, and outweighed him by plenty. I lifted him almost off the ground and plunged my dagger into his heart. He died quickly, as much from fear as from my mortal thrust, I suspect. I tossed his body on the ground. Other torches appeared. “Kill the Libyans”, roared Finn. The word was spreading of the Libyan’s treachery, and my men, scared as they were by the earthquake and the distant fire, fell upon those that didn’t cry for mercy. I shouted for my men to come to order and fall back to camp, which they did, though in a confused way. Finn and Urartu ran among the men, calming them and ordering them to come to their ranks. “Falcons!” Crocodiles!” Cobras!” Came the shouts of the unit leaders. I ordered that the highest ranking Libyans who yet lived were to be brought to me. I found Lot and a few of his people, including three women and two young boys. They were at the edge of the cliff. Lot was turned away from the fire, though one of the women stood there watching, her face illuminated by the red glow. The flames were astounding. Even at this distance one could see the pillars of fire.
“The cities are destroyed, just as he said,” said the woman.
“Just as who said, “I asked her.
She turned to look at me, “Why, Abraham, of course,” she said calmly.

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Merlin the Archer: Out of Egypt


Out of Egypt

The huge brakka rode easily on the strong current of the broad Nile. My leg had healed and I felt whole, though restless and angry. I had killed my friend Mtombe, but, well, such things happen in war. I had angered Weni the Great General with my contempt, but my prowess in battle and defeat of the enemy had earned me fame and respect in the ranks. In each city we docked in on the way back down to Lower Egypt we were greeted with music-playing crowds of people, who brought us beer and wheat cakes and meats and melons and honey and other sweets produced by the fertile land of the great river. The Nomes greeted us with honors and feasts. We sailed on a fleet of large ships ordinarily used for transporting the huge stones from Senet to the temple and pyramid sites. A favorable wind filed our sails and the river bore us ever closer to Saqqara and the city of Memphis. At long last we came nigh to the entrance to the Shedyet, a large lake full of fish and crocodiles, home of the great temple of Sobek, the crocodile god who had favored our victory, according to the Egyptians. In the distance to the north I could see the bent pyramid of Sneferu, the father of Khufu the great, and beyond, his Red Pyramid. The next day would bring us back to the estates of Nefer-Kah and his daughter Shesut. I thought of her and was filled with a certain dread. Now I was a man of fame; Pelop the Warrior. I might be freed as a gesture to the people, an offering to the great Nine Gods; The Ennead. What might this mean for my future? My combat with Mtombe had destroyed my infatuation with Egyptian life. I longed for the rough freedom and hard, clean life of the Achaean hills. I yearned for my noble and guileless wife Vila and my son Aon.
We docked at Memphis and the army marched up the palm-lined lanes to the palace of the Pharaoh. There was a festive air. Thousands of people thronged the lanes, beating on drums and shaking sistrums, singing their feast-day songs and playing harps. Children ran barefoot among the soldiers, who smiled and didn’t scold their boldness. Men saluted us and women trilled and flirted with their eyes. But this seemed more than just a day for a victory. Sedan chairs with noblemen and women rode on the shoulders of servants; people carried jars of wine and beer and platters of fowl and pigs. The whole populace streamed towards the enclosure of the palace of Pepi. We were just part of the moving tide of humanity; we, The One Hundred, Victors of the Kush War. People began pressing past us. I asked Sadik what was going on. He shrugged, but Ikaron, who had greeted us at the quay said.
“Well, don’t you know, Shesut is to become a Queen of Pepi, a mother of the next Horus. Nefer-Kah has been raised up to vizier. Ask the gods for your lucky day, Pelop; today joy reigns and you may be freed.”
I must say my jaw probably dropped. But it stood to rights that Nefer-Kah would want his daughter to be a Queen, even if Pepi already had three. My dread lifted and I prayed that this was true.
We soon came to the wide space before the palace, with its red-painted columns and giant slanted towers of mud-brick, glazed in sparkling colors and carved with reliefs of the Pharaoh smiting his enemies. I had to laugh darkly to myself. I hadn’t seen him in that wadi facing down Mtombe. But no matter, for the people all served the god-king and nothing happened without the will of the Son of Osiris, Horus incarnate, the golden-skinned deity who walked among the people. The palace front had two towers which rose from wide bases to somewhat narrower tops. There was a gate between them flanked by giant statues of the pharaoh as Horus, the Pharaoh as Amon-ra. Colossal sphinxes lined the lane that led to the gate, from which emerged a column of shaved-head priests and many musicians, bearing censors of incense and chanting their homage to the living God. The lesser pyramids rose behind the palace, the chief among them the stepped pyramid of Djoser. A great glittering litter was being born out by dozens of priests and servants. Before it, wearing a dark-blue head-cloth and a gold belt and a wide collar of precious stones and worked silver walked Nefer-Kah, looking almost like a living god himself. Behind him, high atop the litter on a throne rode Pepi the Pharaoh, Lord of the Two Lands, Son of the gods, a god himself, carrying the hook and the flail across his chest and wearing the double crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. His skin was painted deep red and gold, with brilliant gold traces on his face sharply contrasting with the black kohl outlining his eyes. Nefer –Kah raised hi own scepter, a rolled papyrus, a symbolic deed to his Nome, an emblem of his power, and the noise and movement came to a halt.
He turned and prostrated himself before the God-King, and we followed his example three times. Then he rose and addressed Pepi.
“Oh Son of Osiris, Horus incarnate, Lord of the Two Lands, destroyer of enemies, provider for the people, he who traverses the two realms and lives forever, we salute you!” The Pharaoh sat unmoving. This is how he was seen, as a living god, not as a mortal.
“You who in your divine wisdom consults with your father Amon-Ra and the gods of the Ennead, give us your blessing on this day of victory and celebration!” A huge chorus of voices welled up, praising the pharaoh.
Then Nefer-Kah turned and faced the crowd.
“The Lord of the Two Lands has caused the enemies form Kush to fall in the desert dust, their bones to be smashed, their bas to be damned to the darkness of death without the blessing and presence of the living god. He has wasted the enemies of the Two Lands. And now he will strike at the enemies of the north and smite them to death with his wrath and power. Our victorious armies will march on the Kanaanites and destroy them without mercy so they will never again attempt to plague us with their mischief. Thus has spoken the living god, Pepi-Re who sees the fates of the world with his far-seeing eye of Horus.”
A mighty cheer went up fro the immense crowd. Though I had only understood some of the high court language Nefer-Kah had used, the message was plain enough. We would march again to war, this time with the Kannaanites.
My heart leaped. I would be one step closer to the sea, to my freedom. I vowed to escape and sail west at last. I cheered like the rest, waving my bow above my head. But only I knew for what I cheered.

The moon was shining on the stpeed pyramid when I at last returned to the estate of nefer-Kah. The One Hundred, ahd celebrated with the people in the open space before the Pharaoh’s palace. Finn, sdaik, Urartu and the others wandered back drunkenly through the plam trees. There would be wear soon again, but tonight we were free of obligation Finn had plans with a stable gilrl and the others sought pleasure in other places. I headed back to my room. At theback of the palace.
There were two soldiers thre, waiting for me. They took me into the palace proper, through the walled garden to a room lit by oil lkmaps. Nefer-Kah sat at the end of along table, a cup of wine inhis hand. He wore no head cloth. Is hair was white. I had never seen him without head gear. His eyes had been wiped clean of kohl and gold paint. He wore a simple linen kilt and no collar. Without his nobleman’s outfit, he looked like an older man, tired and irritated.
He waved the guards away, pointed at a chair near him and said, “Sit.”
I sat and he poured me a cup from a beaker of wine and pushed it at me. I could see he had been drinking. The wine sloshed over the lip of the cup.
“So, slave-king. My daughter is now a goddess.”
He was angry but he didn’t look at me, rather he stared at an oillamp on the table. I didn’t lnow how he wanted me to respond.
“You think that’s good?” he looked sharply at me, “to have a daughter who’s a goddess?”
I kept my silence.
“You have done well for yourself, for me, “he said,” Win this war . I will consider your freedom.”
“I will do my best, my Lord, “ I said.
“Your best?” he stared into my eyes.” You had better do your best. The Lord of the Two Lands demands it of me that you do your best. Of me!”
He picked up his wine-cup and threw it against the wall, where it shattered in dozens of clay fragments. The red splotch of wine ran down the wall onto the paving stones..
“Me! Without me he wouldn’t be Pharaoh. I helped put him on the throne, and now he takes my daughter to keep me below him. I am now honored, “ his voice grew quiet and spiteful, “ as the father of a goddess. But he is the incarnation of Horus. He is not worthy of it.”
He reached over and took up my cup and drained it.
“I hope she bears him a son who will supplant him. “He said. Then he grinned drunkenly at me. “A son who looks Achaean!” he began laughing crazily and stood and walked out of the room. I stayed there for a few minutes, unsure what to do. He was my master, after all. I wanted to run, but knew I had to pretend all was well. After a while a steward scurried in and without any acknowledgement of any problem escorted me back out through the garden. My heart was racing from the encounter. I knew I could just as easily be killed now as given my freedom. Nefer-Kah had wanted to seize power. That was the reason for building up his army. I would have been the instrument of his strike against Pepi. But he had missed his chance when Weni had brought Pharaoh’s troops in to be trained by me. Now Nefer-Kah’s force was smaller than Weni’s. I had offended Weni with my public contempt of him. Shesut was now going to be the wife of the Pharaoh. There was nothing to hold me to Egypt any longer .My course was clear. If I could only stay alive until I could realize it.
I walked through the moonlight out to where the desert began. The pyramids loomed up, ghostly in the light. I heard a sound behind me and crouched, ready to take cover. Lions and jackals might roam this strip at night. Something was coming towards me, but too loud for an animal. A tall shape appeared, outlined against the dark palms by the moonlight. It was a woman.
“We are safe” She said in a whisper. “I am thought to be in my chambers, preparing for my marriage day tomorrow.”
“Shesut, “I said quietly, “you have always been crazy, but this is the height of madness. Do you wish me killed? The Pharaoh is famous for slowly killing his prisoners in public. Leave me now so that I may live.”
“I had to see you once more, “she sighed. “It is not my wish to be a goddess. But I may be the mother of a god who looks like you if I am so blessed by Isis and Hathor.”
She stepped to me and I could see her breasts, bare in the moonlight. She touched me and I came to life I spite of myself. She slipped her linen gown from her body and laid it on the sand. We fell together with lust, anger, and affection mixed with our blood and tears. We joined together in a moment that made us almost rise above the world, in spiraling upward that would have been envied by the very gods themselves.
We lay together, wet with each other, and the cool evening breeze gently flowed over us like exquisite water.
“My seeress told me that I would conceive of a god-king tonight. She was frightened for me, but I felt glad. Only we will know” the starlight caught her big eyes. They twinkled in the darkness.
Only she would know, for I would not be here. I said nothing, but held her gently in the darkness.

The little steward scuttled over to me from beneath his parasol-carrying servant. I was assembling the One Hundred and the other troops for the war out on the practice fields. Carts and strings of donkeys were there, laden with provisions. The men checked their weapons, sharpening blades, tightening shield –straps, and re-stringing bows. It was business-like, but with the usual pre-campaign blister and good-natured nervous barbs being exchanged between men and between teams as well.
“Don’t bother with your arrows, little Falcons, ‘ one of the Crocodiles yelled across the pitch to an archer” The targets are smaller than hippos, and you won’t be able to hit them anyway!”
“Thank you for your sage advice, Crocodile! I’ll say hello to your wife when I return and you don’t.”
The men laughed. We were to march in the morning and spirits were good. We had proven ourselves in the Kushite war and had bonded as a team. The Nubian archers had shown themselves to be true and good fighters as well, and this time they would going up against foreigners not of their country or race. Nefer-Kah’s army numbered one thousand eight hundred men, the largest single troop in the pharaoh’s army. Other Nomes were contributing, but Weni’s force had stayed south, in Upper Egypt, to keep guard against a further Kushite uprising.
I was to be the leader of the contingent of Nefer-Kah, but I wondered what might happen after the events of the previous night. It had occurred to me that Nefer-Kah had revealed too much of his ambitions to me in his drunken state. It put me danger to know that he coveted the throne. On the other hand, he may have been so drunk that he didn’t fully remember what he had said. I could only wait. Nefer-Kah would ride in the rear, with his household guard, while I would lead the vanguard.
The steward, a weak-looking man with virtually no chin to speak of, bowed obsequiously to me, a form of manners I hated. I wanted to shake him by the shoulders and make him look me in the eye.
“Er…” He cleared his throat, “I wish to have words with you in private.”
He cleared his throat again.
We walked a few yards away. “Well, what is it?” I asked. I knew he wouldn’t tell me directly whatever the message was; I’d have to decipher it as usual with Egyptians of the upper servant class.
“Greetings, Achaean. Long life and health to you.”
“And to you, Nehni, “ I said. Patience.
“And the preparations for war go well?” he squinted at me. Sweat dripped from under the edge of his wig. Yet he must have felt it was important to be away from his parasol servant.
“We are ready at our Lord’s command.’ I said.
He looked at the practice field. “ Ah yes, our Lord. He feels not well today.”
I said nothing.
“Well…. our lord had a long day yesterday. I believe he was very tired last night when he called you in.”
“Yes?”
“And well, I believe his memory was affected by the over-exposure to the sun during the long feast of victory.”
“It was a long, but happy day. I slept well last night.” I lied. Shesut and I had parted company at dawn. I had slept for les than two hours. But I was twenty-seven and Nefer-Kah was fifty. “I understand what a tiring day it must have been for our Lord.”
Nehni leaned closer and said in very low voice, “ You may be assured our lord has no memory of his conversation with you. The wine he was serving was strong. I trust your memory is equally impaired/”
“I had too much wine and beer, “I said, “ enough for a hippo.”
We chuckled insincerely together.
“Then it’s not a problem of any kind.’ He said. He turned to walk away, but turned back and said in a low voice.
“A warrior about to go into battle would be wise to sleep early in one’s own quarters with the door string pulled in tonight.”
I looked blankly at him. I needn’t answer that statement.

The next morning we marched, the One Hundred in the van, past the palace of the Pharaoh. There was a balcony between the two gate towers of the palace and the God-King sat on a throne, wearing the red and white double crowns of the Two Lands. As always, he carried the crook and flail, crossed on his chest. He was joined by five women, his Queens, the foremost of whom was the tall and regal Nebwenet. She sat beside Pepi in a slightly lower chair. Behind her were the younger queens, including the new one. Shesut was painted and wigged and sat stock still, looking as remote and god-like as the statues that lined the lanes and stood guard outside the palace. He skin was flecked with gold. I did not try to catch her eye, for a mortal may be killed for staring at a god directly. We saluted as we marched by, to no acknowledgment by the royal party. The whole army followed us, and by the time the Pharaoh and his new bride had retired to the palace rooms, we were long up the road towards Iunu, the city of the Sun-God, Ra. Shesut would remember me, but she was born to be a queen, and now she was.
I Iunu, the city of Ra, I had a surprise that changed the course of the future. Kanaa was till in the grip of the same famine that had chased us from the mountains of Hurria to Haran and then to Kanaa. The bitter drought and lack of food had caused, so we heard, the armies of Sargon of Akkad to withdraw for now to Ugarit in the north and Mari, Ebla, and the other cities of the two rivers in the east, across the wide desert. Bands of starving refugees had come down across the sand-ocean that separated Gazah from the delta of the Nile seeking food. Pharaoh’s priest and accountants managed the food of the Two Lands wisely, and had little to spare for migrating peoples. One such group was to be taken north with the army and settled again in Kanaa after we defeated the warring raiders who were plaguing the northern delta regions. At the head of a large band of refugees was a familiar figure: the tall, skeleton-like Prophet of the One God, Abram, who had now changed his name to Abraham. His wife Sarai had been seen by Pharaoh Pepi and much coveted. In fact it was said that he took her to bed only to discover that she was the wife of the desert seer and not the old man’s sister, as had been claimed. The pharaoh thought it witchcraft and feared he would be cursed, so the whisperers said. The claim wa that spirits had come and warned the Pharaoh to not touch the beautiful Sarai, but turn her free. Superstition. But it worked for Abraham and Sarai this time. How anyone could think that young, beautiful Sarai was the sister of that old walking-stick of a white-haired man was hard to fathom. The story didn’t make sense, but supposedly, Pepi gave Abraham gold, flocks of sheep, and provisions if he would lead his band out of Egypt and back to Kanaa, which Abraham agreed to do. I think Pepi probably wanted to be rid of the crazy old man. Egypt had her gods with their priests and temples and didn’t need a new God , especially one that was all-powerful and could strike down other gods. In any case, he set the wanderers free. Sarai had changed he name to Sarah for some reason, and they had acquired as a gift from Pepi a slave girl called Agar, who was with child. It was said that the child was Abraham’s, which made me laugh, most likely the father was a stable boy or a soldier, or some nobleman, even Pharaoh Pepi, but I suppose it could have been true. Agar was a pretty girl of less than twenty years.
Urartu was beside himself with the discovery that Sarai, now Sarah, was in Iunu and would be traveling with us. He had never gotten beyond his morose lamentations for her lost love. I foresaw trouble and counseled him to stay calm and not engage in any rash actions for now. We were charged with delivering them back to Kanaa, where the band of refugees, the children of the One God, promised to settle down.
I led the army north along the delta road towards Arish. There we would cross the dune lands until we came to Gazah. Several armies of hungry men led by brigands and tribal-chieftains were running wild through the hills and valleys of that land. We were to take Yeriko and the other cities and restore order, then return to Iunu. Abraham and his people were to settle somewhere.
After the first night’s halt I went to the tents of the believers and met the Prophet and his wives, Sarah and Agar. I greeted the old man.
“Hail Abram!” I said cheerfully. For all his strangeness, I had affection for him and his tribe.
“Abraham, “he said solemnly, “I have taken a vow. I have changed my name.”
He sat on a camp-stool, his stork legs folded under him like grey bones.. Sarai was as beautiful as before, but looked a bit worn. Agar was a striking young half-Bedu’ girl with high cheekbones and a thin face, painted in the Egyptian way. She was plainly with child. She crouched on her haunches near the fire and said nothing, but Sarai rose from her pots and greeted me warmly and offered me food as she always had, as if no time had passed since we last parted. She gave me a glance which I couldn’t figure out. I let it pass.
“So you are coming with us to Kanaa. Have you a place that you will settle?” I asked the old man.
“We will go to the fields west of the long river, north of Yeriko. I would go south, but my nephew Lot has taken up with bad people in the lower valley. There is blood between us.”
“So be it, “I said. “My job is to destroy the bandits and armies that ravage the lands. We will get you close to your chosen land. Then you will be on your own.”
“It is not my chosen land; it is Yahweh’s land that he has chosen for my children and their children’s children for the rest of time, until the end of all things.”
More crazy talk. I smiled and thanked Sarai for her hospitality. I walked away from the camp. I noticed after a few minutes that someone was following me as I made my way through the camps of the troops. It was Sarai. I withdrew from the path and waited in a palm grove. The dusk was deep now and she passed me as she followed the rough rail that led to the next encampment of troops. I called to her from the trees.
“Sarai, “I said quietly, “why do you follow me?”
She slipped under the shadows of the palmettos and papyrus reeds. She looked down at the ground. She seemed unable to speak.
“Come now, “I said, “I would honor your hospitality with an answer to any question you have for me. You have nothing to fear from me”
I waited. She looked up and I could see her eyes were tinted with tears. She tried to talk, but broke down sobbing and lightly leaned against me.
“He is here and alive, “I said.” Not a day has passed when he hasn’t thought of you; I can assure you of that. He pines like a love-sick dog. “
I laughed to ease the tension. She dabbed at her eyes and tried to laugh as well. The she turned as fled back through the darkness in the direction of the refugee camp.
I reached the camp of the One Hundred. My men were readying for sleep, rolling out their reed mats on the sandy ground. I found Urartu sitting by himself on the edge of the dunes. He was staring out into the ocean of sand that lay to east.
I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “May the gods favor you, my friend. But remember, our work comes first. I will need to you to help me finish this war so we can all gain our freedom. Be a good soldier and show discipline. Your time may well come. I have seen her. Trust me, she has not forgotten you.”
He looked up at me. His pain showed on his worn face. It would live I his heart until it was healed, no doubt.

We reached the sea again within a few marches. I smelled its invigorating salt air. How I longed to be sailing away on it. But I turned my attention to the task at hand. There were likely to be raiders in the dunes between Arish and Gazah. Rabble, no doubt, but we would need to maintain our order and show these people our superior force so that they would lose interest in causing trouble. Much trade moved along the coast here to Egypt by land and ship. Pharaoh must be dominant here. The road led through the dunes just miles from the sea. We only encountered a handful of bandits, who fled before our army of over two thousand men, marching in strict formation. At last we came over a rise and looked down on Gazah. There was a garrison there, but it had been much embattled and weakened of late and had to hold the town and nothing else. Isqalluna lay beyond, and the hills of Kanaa lay in jumble to the east. Abraham said the lower valley of the five inland cities were off to the southeast, across the desert. That is where his nephew Lot lived, in the city of Sodom, a well watered valley. Abraham said the main cause of trouble would come from the tribes of that region.
“They are sinful men, who car only for greed and pleasure. No work of theirs will bring happiness. They have left the way of the wanderers of the Lord and live within walled towns and gamble and drink and sleep with each others wives, and with each other. I speak of the men.”
“And what is this, this sin? “ I asked.
“Sin is breaking the covenant with God. That is what the men of that region have done. They have forgotten what I taught them. There will come a reckoning and God will destroy them before you can.”
I didn’t know about The One God and sin. My job was to take on the rabble and bring order and win my freedom. To Sodom and Gomorrah and the other cities I would bring the armies of Pharaoh. Then I would take Yeriko.
Then I would take my freedom.

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