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 2: Stonehenge I — 2920 BCE
The Ditch, Aubrey Holes and Heelstone
part 1 of 2
Fifty elder sons of the Bluestone Clan, Gryffyn and his younger brother Elun among them, loosened the chalky earth with antler picks and lifted it into woven baskets with shovels made of ox scapulae lashed to wooden poles. Children carried or dragged the baskets through the magic circle’s entrance at the northeast or across the two less prominent causeways to fifty younger sons, who piled the chalk into a high, even mound along the interior edge.
The ditch was deeper and wider than most men were tall, a hundred paces in diameter, and the work was hard and slow. Toward the center, a few paces from the chalk bank, fifty-six men, one from each of the most ancient Clan families, dug circular holes sized to hold ceremonial wooden totems.
According to the tales, the people began digging the circle in the last Summer Year, when the Crone’s great-grandmother spied a trail of fire in the sky and led the people to the place where stars fell. The Clan’s builders had described the circle with a peg and a rope, the peg marking the center. There, the blood of the Crone’s unborn child had consecrated the land.
The work on the ditch began after each harvest and ended when the ground froze in winter, then began again after the spring thaw and ended again before sowing the late spring wheat and barley. Each time, they first cleared sediment and debris that had washed or blown into the ditch the season before.
This Summer Year, the work continued through the late spring planting. In the mornings and evenings they dug and piled the chalk, before and after seeing to their crops and livestock. The post hole digging started in spring. At solstice, just days away, they would dedicate the circle with totem poles bearing carved standards representing each family. Gryffyn, who had a talent for shaping wood with flint knives, had carved his family’s totem: a round sun with thin triangular rays colored golden with yellow ochre.
The chalk bank had not yet caught up to where Gryffyn stood in the ditch, and he could see the Crone’s daughter, Olwen, standing in the middle of the circle, her back to him. He was to have been paired with her this Summer Year. Now his father had other plans, and Gryffyn had no voice in the matter.
“Get your eyes off that one’s arse,” Elun said. He poked Gryffyn’s shoulder with his shovel. “Drop down dead, you will.”
“What, so you can get an eyeful yourself?”
“Not me. She scares me, she does. Every time she speaks a truth, someone dies. You are a braver man than I, brother.” When she was a flat-chested girl speaking her first truth, Olwen warned against drinking from a rill at the bounds of their lands, and in the drought of summer her words had been ignored. Those who drank bloated like drowned things and died in their sleep. In truth, that had been Olwen’s only dire warning, but it was the one the people remembered.
Gryffyn jammed his pick into the dirt and climbed up the ditch wall. So many years of toil had led to this point, all those ancestors who had cleared the alders and hazels, marked the circle and broken ground, dug and carried and piled. The next day, men from Aureburie, the people that inhabited this land when the Clan arrived last Summer Year, would come with gifts: two huge sandstones.
These stones would stand in pits already dug and waiting according to instructions from the Aureburie builders, marking the path to the magic circle’s entrance. Through the space between them, the midsummer sun would rise and send its warmth and light over the people in the circle, waking the power of the fallen stars and bringing a good harvest and strong children. At winter solstice, the sun would set to the southwest, and those inside the circle would turn their backs to the giant stones to welcome the lengthening days.
The day after the stones came, Aureburie emissaries would arrive, including their Chieftain and his daughter, Avon. For the first time in legend or living memory, there would be no pairing between the Crone’s daughter and the Clan-Father’s son in a Summer Year. Instead, Avon would be given to Gryffyn, sealing an alliance nurtured over these past four generations.
Gryffyn joined Olwen in the circle’s center. She did not look at him. Her eyes were on the clouds. “Our god Sun is angry, and Caerdwyn Clan-Father does not heed me,” she said. “Nor does my mother, the Crone Morgan.”
“Caerdwyn Chieftain,” he said. “Your mother, the Priestess. Aureburie’s way is our way now, and the Aureburie elders say Crone means old woman and Clan-Father is too Northern.” He smiled and raised his hand to brush her hair from her face, but stopped and instead clenched his fist and brought it to his chin. He had been made to promise his father he would not touch her. He did as his father asked, at least where they could be seen.
“Aureburie.” Olwen kicked up a tuft of turf and launched it across the circle with the toe of her sandal. “Aureburie is weak. The Aureburie elders brought a host against our people as they slept. They could have driven us from this land. Instead, we made them our friends. Our ancestors handled that brilliantly, but at what cost? Our language. Our ways. Aureburie would have us honor Sarsen stones, when the power of life and healing lies in Bluestones. Aureburie wants us to join strength with strength, not with wisdom this Summer Year. A wrong choice. An arrogant choice. The people will suffer for it.”
She picked up a small grey stone veined with white, weighed it in her hand, and hurled it toward the ditch. Then she clawed a handful of stones from the ground and threw them, one after the other, until her breath came hard and her upper lip beaded with moisture.
Without speaking, Gryffyn picked up a pile of stones. They stood together, heaving rocks, not looking at each other. When Olwen’s hands were empty, Gryffyn handed some to her. Sometimes their stones crossed paths in the air or landed at the same time. Once they knocked together and ricocheted apart.
“I do not want Avon,” Gryffyn said. “You know that. I will come to you when I can.”
“I know,” she said. She threw her last stone and dusted her hands on her clothing, a tunic like those men wore. She had told Gryffyn she liked her legs free to run. “As I know some day people will say these holes we dig predict the movement of the sun, moon and stars. What you say does not set things right with our god Sun.” She ran across the circle into the surrounding field and disappeared into the forest.
Gryffyn walked along the circle, watching the men dig. Most were his age or not much older, boys he had played with many seasons ago when they were still too young to work. Some day he would resolve their disputes, approve their pairings, counsel with Aureburie and the other neighboring settlements for their welfare. Gryffyn would do his duty to them, though he would prefer to spend his days growing old with Olwen, fashioning wood into boxes and bows.
A few of the diggers wished him well on his pairing midsummer morning. Aureburie called pairing “weddian,” so now, too, did the Bluestone Clan. The word rang foreign to Gryffyn’s ear, making him think of ducks and geese. He did not believe, as Olwen did, that how the Clan members spoke would affect how they thought, would make them forget their past. As he passed through the magic circle, two days before he was to wed, he was certain he would always feel tied to the Bluestones in hills he had never seen, as had all his people since the beginning.
He climbed back down into the ditch next to Elun. A chalk-covered boy of five or six summers offered him a vessel of cool water. Gryffyn thanked the boy, drained the cup and handed it back to him.
Elun rested one hand on the pole of his shovel and pointed with the other. “I would say here, right here in this circle, would be a fine place for your last night,” he said. “That is where I would do it.” He stepped back and drew a mark in the bottom of the ditch with his shovel. “Or maybe right here. The night is long enough, why not both? And atop the chalk bank, too, and over there by the trees.”
Gryffyn lunged for Elun and without much effort, pinned his arms behind his back while Elun struggled, laughing and yelling, “On the river bank. Inside the giant hollow oak.”
Gryffyn let Elun go and gave him a shove, as he had done a thousand times since they were children. “Dig.” Gryffyn shouldered his pick and handed the shovel to Elun.
“Wait,” Elun said. “You would be angrier if it truly was the last night tomorrow.” Elun chuckled, raised his eyebrows, grabbed his crotch and thrust his hips forward. “Am I right?”
Gryffyn drove his pick into the ditch wall. “What you don’t know, brother, would fill this ditch and overflow into the river.” Elun shoveled the earth Gryffyn had pried loose into a woven basket. He was still grinning, but dropped the subject.
By sunset, the circle was complete. All the people, except Olwen, gathered inside to hear their leaders speak. The sun dipped low in the sky. From where Gryffyn stood in the circle’s center with his father and Olwen’s mother, the Priestess Morgan, he could see Olwen at the tree line, looking to the horizon.
Caerdwyn was fit and strong for a man of 40 summers. He smoothed his thick, black beard, and raised his hands for quiet. “Our work is done,” he said. “We have brought to fruition the truth-saying of our ancestor Priestess last Summer Year, to build a circle of welcome for the fallen stars.”
The people cheered and pumped their fists to the sky. Caerdwyn again motioned for quiet. “I have had word from our friends at Aureburie. Even now, their strong sons are bringing the sacred stones to us. We shall raise them to greet the sunrise on solstice morning, and rejoice in strength and friendship.”
Morgan came forward. Her long robe, dyed violet with woad and madder, trailed on the turf. Gryffyn thought she looked older than she had even a few days before. Her steps seemed hesitant and unbalanced, as though she had a pebble in her sandal. Her voice sounded thin. Her skin had a greyness that made the grey in her hair look white. He looked for confirmation in the faces gathered around him, but no one else seemed to notice.
“As we find power and healing in the Bluestones of our homeland, so Aureburie does in the Sarsens of the Marburie plains,” Morgan said. “We open our hearts to their stones, as we have done to their people. That together we may build something greater than each of us alone. Now let us prepare for the midsummer feast.” The gathering dispersed. Many people returned to their homes.
The night was clear and cool, the air fragrant with orchids and roasting beef. A dog, perhaps a wolf, howled in the distance. The full moon, bright and silver, lit the still earth, and Gryffyn needed nothing more to light his way to the forest’s edge where he had last seen Olwen.
She was not there, nor waiting at the river bank, nor on the river’s far side inside the giant, hollow oak where they often met. He took off his sandals and waded to his knees. The soft, cool air above the current tickled his thighs. Crickets chirped over the sound of flowing water. Moonlight filtered through the trees and sparkled on the river. An owl hooted. A rodent squeaked, squealed and went silent. The trees swayed, leaves rustling.
Gryffyn thought about Avon. He had seen her once before, a slender girl with honey-colored hair and soft grey eyes that darted like a squirrel’s. She had said nothing to him except when her mother prompted her. Her voice was soothing like gentle rain, but she had stumbled on her words and hid her face behind a curtain of hair. Avon’s shyness could not last forever, but Gryffyn wondered whether her strangeness could, whether he could get past her pale skin’s alien feel, when it was Olwen, dark and familiar that he wanted.
Olwen still did not come. Gryffyn went back to the settlement, toward the round, timber house where she sheltered with her mother after her father had gone to the ancestors that past winter. He knew Olwen slept at the back near the doorway that opened onto the garden where she and her mother grew cabbages, turnips and carrots. He knew she kept, at the head of her sleeping mat, the wooden chest he had made for her.
The basket in which her great-grandmother carried Bluestones from their ancestral home had rotted and finally torn three summers past, and Olwen mentioned her longing for a worthy container for the stones. He had worked the wood for months, a pliable, golden yew with few knots that he had been saving for a longbow. When he gave the chest to Olwen, she traced her finger along the two connected spirals he had carved on the lid and said, “We will always be as these circles.” He knew that if Olwen slept, she would wake at his touch, silent as a flower, and leave with him.
When Gryffyn neared the hut, he heard two sharp voices crossing each other like daggers. He crept through the garden to the back doorway to listen.
“It cannot be stopped,” Morgan said.
“I have seen the same signs in the bones, in the ashes, in the entrails of the cow roasting outside the Clan-Father’s house for the solstice feast. I have seen them in my dreams at night. In waking visions when I eat blue-flower seeds or yellow mushrooms. Blood will flow. I know it as I knew the rill would poison our people. Have you not seen this, Mother?”
Copyright © 2014 by J. J. Roth