Legacy of the Fallen Stars
by J. J. Roth
Chapter 1: The The Taurids — 3000 BCE
Callyn’s eyes sometimes alit upon another Clan daughter, and then Nia’s heightened senses magnified the wind’s raw bite on her skin. The more Callyn came to her at night, the more she wanted him to herself.
But her need for his loyalty and respect ran deeper than her own desires — the Clan’s survival depended on it. If the leadership of Crone and Clan-Father fractured, the Clan’s way of life would be in upheaval. The previous night, Nia had ignored her mother’s stern warnings that such questions only raised more questions, and asked the bones whether Callyn would seek others once they paired. The answer: if blood can be passed, the god Sun seals two hearts. The second part Nia understood, but what of the blood? Had blood passed from her to their child? The uncertainty tortured her, and she dared not ask the bones again.
“Are you troubled?” Callyn asked as they walked. He laid his hand against the small of her back. Before she could answer he nodded toward his father, who was steadying himself on the Clan Mother’s arm and coughing deep, wet rasps. “He is failing, Mother help him. I may be Clan-Father sooner than I thought.”
“And I will be your Crone,” Nia said.
“You’ll be my woman.”
His smile made heat spread across Nia’s face. “Summer Year pairings are different and, they say, more difficult.”
The Clan’s Summer Years occurred every fourth generation. The last had been in Nia’s great-grandmother’s time. During Summer Year, the Clan-Father’s oldest son and the Crone’s oldest daughter, both having come of age, paired at summer solstice joining wisdom with power, compassion with strength. Callyn’s mother had a different role in the Clan as Clan Mother than Nia as Crone; honored among women, but invisible in matters of leadership.
“I must be Crone first, woman after. And you must think of me that way. This is what troubles me.”
“Whatever the role, I do not doubt your ability to perform admirably. You worry too much.”
His hand slipped down her back to her buttocks. Nia swatted him and twisted away.
“You worry too little,” she said. “Be serious. If you had been Clan-Father when I counseled following the ball of fire, would you have?”
“‘Be serious.’ Where’s the merriment in that?”
A child ran across their path, squealing and chasing a tiny dog. Callyn scooped the little girl up and tickled her until tears sprang from her eyes and she gasped for breath. He set her down and sent her after the dog with a pat to her bottom.
“All right, then. I’ve never been as sure of the truth of signs as my father has, as certain of the gods’ power in our lives, as convinced of the magic of water and stones. None of these saved my brothers. Or your parents. I trust what I can see, hear and taste.” He slipped his finger behind the stone around her neck and stroked her chest. “What I can touch.”
That night, weary from the many days of walking and wearier still from the Crone’s yoke, Nia again asked for help. “You eased my path before, Mother. Help me again. He must trust my truth-saying,” she said. If an answer came that night, she was not awake to hear it.
On the thirtieth day after the people left the Bluestone hills, just as night fell, they came to a small clearing. Beyond the clearing was a break in the wall of forest. The fiery ball glowed in the breach, hovering low in the sky. For the first time since they had started their journey, the stars hung immobile except those above the comet which dropped straight down to the horizon, one after another. They fell to a single point, an undulating arrow of light repeatedly hitting its mark.
“Here,” Nia said. “Is the place where stars fall.”
Bryllyn gathered the people close. “The power of the god Sun and the fallen stars lives in this land. Here, too, will we live.” He placed his hand on Callyn’s shoulder. “Here we will bury our dead. Rest now, take sustenance and warm yourselves. When the sun rises, we begin clearing this land.”
Nia strode to Bryllyn’s side. “We must build in the image of our god Sun a circle of welcome for the fallen stars. Where I stand now will be its center, and its edges fifty paces in each direction. Our homes we will make outside the sacred magic circle, beyond that line of trees to the south.”
Callyn and Nia built a fire at the circle’s center, and she offered to the flames, as Crones had done in their Bluestone circle in the hills since the Clan was born. In generations past, the stories told, they had offered bones from successful hunts. Now they offered grain seed. The Clan-Father’s family and the Crone laid their mats close to the fire and covered themselves with fur rugs. More fires began to twinkle as the people settled in to rest.
Nia woke at dawn in a sweat, bile burning her throat. In her dream, her mother had urged her toward the remains of last night’s sacrificial fire to divine the ashes. But when she had looked for signs in the cinders, she had found instead a human infant’s skeleton.
Nia threw off her rug and crept to the remains of the fire. She removed the unburned wood and the smoldering coals and examined the peaks and valleys in the ashes, where they crossed, where they trailed to an end. She stooped over them and traced the empty spaces between them with a stick. She found no infant skeleton, but what she saw made her laugh as she had not since she shouldered the Crone’s mantle.
“It cannot be,” she said.
“What amuses you so?” She had not heard Callyn come to stand next to her. “It has been long since your spirit was this light. I am happy to see it.”
Nia pointed to the fire’s remains. She spoke in short bursts, rushing the words out before laughter swallowed them. “They say many generations from now, people will claim we were a dim-witted people, frightened of the falling stars. They will say men could not have built what we will build here. That beings from the heavens built it, or taught men how. Others will say instead that we did it ourselves, but no one will ever know why and how we....”
“It sounds mad. I know.” Another fit of laughter took Nia. Tears glistened in her eyes.
Callyn grasped her by the shoulders. “Nia, look.”
A bright red stain bloomed on the front of her robe. She grasped the robe, her hands shaking, and lifted. Blood streamed down her leg and spattered the cloth that shod her foot. She put her hand to her thigh and held her bloodied fingers up to her eyes, uncomprehending. A cramp seized her belly, and she doubled over and sank to the ground. She felt Callyn’s arms lifting her.
The Clan Mother and two elders knelt over Nia, wrapping her in furs, while a fourth woman built a fire to heat a pot of water. One of the women pushed sprigs of mugwort through her lips and encouraged her to chew and swallow. Nia clutched her middle and winced.
“Water,” she said to Callyn. “The stones.”
He brought the water from the Bluestone rill and tipped a cup into her mouth. He set the basket beside her. She grasped a stone in each hand and clenched her fists. “Mother, help her,” Callyn said. He closed his hand over a stone from her basket and held it against his chest.
The Mother’s answer had not come immediately this time, but come it had. Her bond with Callyn was sealed. He would not doubt the stones had healed her. Her heart, so large and full only moments before, emptied and shrank to an ordinary size, and she tried to smile at him, but could not. The Clan Mother laid a heavy, flat rock on Nia’s belly, dipped a cloth in the warmed water and bathed the blood and tissue from her thighs. Nia turned her head toward the sunrise and blinked as the muted rays hit her pupils.
And so she was the first to see them. Colors, dull and unformed in the morning haze, materialized into figures. They approached from the north, stretching along the entire tree line several rows deep, bows slung across their backs, and knives, axes and spears in their hands.
Copyright © 2014 by J. J. Roth