Legacy of the Fallen Stars
by J. J. Roth
As Stonehenge developed over many generations, its builders and their evolving society faced personal and environmental hardships. But did their reasons for building the stone monument truly explain its origins?
Chapter 1: The Taurids — 3000 BCE
Stonehenge was produced by a culture that left no written records. Many aspects of the site remain subject to debate.
— from a 21st-century popular encyclopedia
Autumn sheared the leaves from the oaks and birches. The night wind went from brisk to chill.
The new Crone, Nia, squatted in her cave on young, slender legs, throwing bones by firelight. A crag divided the smooth skin between her eyebrows as she puzzled out the bones’ message.
She dropped to her hands and knees and circled the bones, considering all angles: several vertebrae in a jumble, one digit alone, two long bones crossed at their centers, a jaw pointing up, a rib partly sunk into the dirt floor, half gleaming in firelight, half lost to darkness.
The people ignored bone signs at their peril. These had only one meaning. “Many feet walking to the place where stars fall, there welcome the heavens and their fortune.”
Nia’s truth-sayings, until now, had been of minor consequence: a calf born tangled in its cord, a wheat field drained of nourishment and beyond planting.
The truth she must tell now would take the Clan far from its settlement in the Bluestone hills, a home that had sustained it through six Summer Years; far from the circle of standing Bluestones in the sunny meadow north of the settlement, where the god Sun and the goddess Earth met and shared their power. Nia feared the Clan-Father would not heed such a disruptive truth without a sign he could see with his own eyes. He had valued her mother’s guidance, but her mother had gone to their ancestors before the equinox, almost four new moons past.
“I am not ready,” she said aloud. She fingered the Bluestone that hung from a woven cord around her neck, so light compared to her Crone’s responsibility. “Mother, help me.” She spoke to the goddess Earth, to her mother’s spirit, to that part of her mother within her, to the memory of her dying mother placing the Crone’s Amulet into her hand and charging her with the safety and well-being of the people, to any who would listen to an untested girl tasked with persuading her leader to march his people into the unknown.
Nia heard a single tap on the stones above her cave. After a pause, she heard another. The taps came faster, pattering against the stones like hail. She pulled her warmest cloak over her shoulders and ran to the cave’s mouth. The pattering grew to a roar, vibrating the blood in her veins. She covered her ears with her palms and cried out.
The cave fell silent.
Outside, the night sky had come alive with light, roiling and churning. A fiery red ball trailing a hazy, blue-white tail bore in the direction of sunrise, dodging smaller white dots that shot past stationary stars. “The place where stars fall,” Nia said. She bolted down the stony hill through trees and thorny undergrowth, across the rill that wound from the Bluestone hills, and past barley fields to the settlement and the Clan-Father’s turf and timber hut.
Callyn, the Clan-Father’s only living son, slept near the doorway. This Summer Year, he would become Nia’s man. She could feel his body’s heat in the hut’s closeness and reached out to touch his shoulder, but stopped herself. It was best he not hear this counsel before his father. He was not Clan-Father yet.
The Clan-Father snored at the back of the hut, entwined in the Clan-Mother’s legs. He slept with a flint axe near their woven flax bed-mat, though no trouble had come from other clans for many summers. Nia took the axe in hand. Better that he not reach for it and lop off her head by reflex before she had made her purpose known. She shook him. “Wake, and come quickly,” she said.
The Clan-Father snuffled like an old, asthmatic hog, opened his eyes, grimaced and blocked his face with his arms. “Will you kill me then, Nia? I meant no harm. It was an old man’s folly.”
Nia struck the axe into the dirt floor above his head, grabbed his wrist and pulled his arm from his face. “Bryllyn Clan-Father, you must come now. I am not here about where you put your hands on Harvest Day. There is a portent. I have a truth to say.”
Bryllyn lifted the sleeping Clan-Mother’s leg from around his middle and slid out from under it without waking her. He pulled the fox-fur rug up to her shoulder and tucked it around her body, prodded a hot stone from the fire, wrapped it in deerskin and laid it at her feet. He yawned, scratched his groin, coughed and spat on the dirt floor. He was among the oldest in the Clan, having almost fifty summers, and his knees and ankles popped like tree sap in burning wood as he got to his feet.
“Quickly,” Nia said. “It will go ill if any wake to see this before we have counseled.”
“As you say,” Bryllyn said, picking crust from the corner of his eye. He threw a beaver-fur cloak over his woolen tunic and spat again as they left the hut, where he stopped to arc a steaming stream of urine into the night air. Nia paced and fretted until he finished. She led him to a small rise outside the settlement and traced her finger across the sky.
“Is it evil?” Bryllyn asked. He drew a quick, noisy breath through his nostrils, squinted at the comet and shivered, though Nia thought it not from the cold.
“No, Bryllyn Clan-Father.”
She told him of the bones she had cast just before the sky began to dance. “My heart says it is most fortunate. The ball of fire leads to the place where stars fall. We must make preparations when the sun rises and leave before the first snow.”
“What was that part about ‘welcoming the heavens’?”
Nia looked to the sky again. “This much is clear. Where the stars fall, their light and power will mingle with that of our god Sun and bless the land and all who honor it. There will be bounty for our fields and livestock for our people. The rest is not yet revealed, but I feel in my womb it is not evil.”
“Your mother used to say that,” Bryllyn said, curved his large palm over Nia’s head and smoothed her thick, black hair as though she were still a child. “She was never wrong.” He watched the boiling sky for a time in thoughtful silence.
Then he nodded. “My son could do no better this Summer Year. We will counsel the people when the sun rises.”
In the weeks that followed, the Clan, more than two thousand souls, traveled through the rolling, wooded land in the direction the comet traced. The people’s pace was slow. The paths were few and infrequently used, and those they found often ended at forests, streams or rocky terrain. They carried infants and tired children who could walk no more. They drove cattle, sheep and pigs before them. Dogs trotted beside them.
They had slung their few belongings over the backs of oxen or loaded them onto wooden sledges: clay cups and pots; bone and tooth charms and stone beads; simple hand looms and spindles; furs, skins and patches of cloth; flint axes, knives and arrowheads; woolen sacks of wheat and barley seed; medicinal herbs and tinctures; and earthenware urns containing the cremated bones of their ancestors. Nia had filled as many pots and skins as she could find with healing water from the Bluestone rill, and packed a large basket with small Bluestones from above her cave.
From a distance, the Bluestone hills looked blue as their name. As Nia gazed at them for the last time, the rent in her heart from her mother’s death opened anew. She gripped the amulet and turned away, wiping her eyes. Up close, the amulet, of the same stone as the hills, looked less blue and more grey, mottled with black, white, green and brown-orange patches. Nia worried that the place where stars fell might not have stones like these, and that their powers would be needed.
Though the going was slow, the people’s hearts were light, and they laughed and sang along the way. Cold rain strung their hair into damp, dripping ropes. Wind slashed through their cloaks. But still they talked of signs and good fortune, and even magic. Families gathered their children before sleep to watch the bold comet stir the stars into swirling lights, like a glowing brand slicing through a flurry of fireflies. They passed few settlements and fewer travelers, and those they met brought them no harm.
Nia often walked beside Callyn, whose green eyes glittered when he smiled, as though he knew a naughty secret. He was light on his feet and quick for one so tall, and he had proved himself a skilled hunter with bow and axe. With no battles to be had in these years of peace except the occasional squabble within the Clan that needed settling, Callyn had become a lover instead of a warrior; and Nia, only one among many of the Clan’s daughters who had led Callyn into the forest. After her mother’s death, Callyn’s shadow had fallen across the mouth of Nia’s cave more nights than not.
Nia had told no one, but her womb-blood had last come more than four new moons past. She would bear Callyn’s child before summer solstice. She felt her heart growing bigger, expanding as every tender feeling she had ever felt came back fourfold and nestled inside her. The air smelled sweeter, colors became deeper and more vibrant, and the world around her looked sharper, more in focus. She thanked the goddess Earth for making her, like the earth itself, a bringer of life.
Copyright © 2014 by J. J. Roth