Oh, I'm bein' followed by a moonshadow, moonshadow, moonshadow
Leapin' and hoppin' on a moonshadow, moonshadow, moonshadow
- Cat Stevens
The evening remade the sky in red and gold as Willowbark climbed the hill, bowed beneath her load, frail in the chill wind coming down the valley. Her cloak flapped about her thin shoulders as she walked toward the small circle of stones on the heath. Her companions followed, cheeks rosy only from the light of the sinking sun. Snow-stung faces were downcast, only partly due to the bitter wind. Her thoughts were on the year behind as well as the year beginning.
This was by far the hardest winter she had known. She recalled the summer's drought, which had reduced the oat and barley harvests, then the heath fires, which had driven most of the small game away. She smiled a little, deep down. Still, at least we don't have to fight with squirrels over the acorns and horse chestnuts, she thought. It seemed that since the end of summer, the year had dropped into frost like a stone into water, and the ripples were still being felt here, in the gaining light of mid-winter. After the equinox, even the hawks had fled, or died. Life seemed to have gone from the land, and now it seemed it was fleeing the village.
She looked back at the villagers - first of all was the Carrotflower the fur-bearer, small and slight under his burden. He has his father's pluck, the heart of the hunter. I hope he has the same stamina, aye, and patience. Behind him was Briony, her own daughter - ready, she hoped, to make the ultimate sacrifice. Hardly fair for them to have to do this, they are still as children to me. Behind them, the tribe straggled as best they could. For all of them it was a great effort, for some it was possibly their last. It will certainly be the longest night of my life, she mused.
It wasn't for nothing that the first full moon after the solstice was known as the Ice Moon. Snow and ice had reduced their gathering and hunting; even in a good year, food was in short supply at the turning of the light, and this had not been even a satisfactory year. Grain stocks were low, what fruits they'd been able to gather were small and tart, and the nut harvest was sparser than the moss on a pond. The pigs had sickened and given up little meat and the goat's milk had soured in the teat. The hunters could be out for days and come back with a few rabbits or squirrels, and on one glorious occasion, a single deer. What game there was, they said, was protected by more powerful gods than ours. The grave is eating better than any of us. Eight had died, more would follow.
The old men had asked for her help, and she had done her part for the solstice celebrations. Now only two days later, she was ready again, this time with the whole village in tow. Man, woman and child, babes in arms. All had walked, staggered and limped up the hill to the stone circle, excepting the frailest of the ancients, who were dragged on hurdles by those with barely more strength. For the first time she had ever known, the village was deserted. The grinding bowls stood unguarded, the huts cold and unguarded, the doors dark and empty. The decision was unanimous that they all come for this one special ceremony - each brought something by way of sacrifice, some token of value, something of themselves. She could not recall a time as maiden, mother or crone, when so much was at stake, so much offered to the guardian deities.
And if I ever lose my hands, lose my plough, lose my land,
Oh if I ever lose my hands, oh if.... I won't have to work no more.
Her mother had always told her that the full moon was a time for fertility spells and prayers to the Moon Mother. A time for gaining strength, especially for the old woman of the village, the Wise One, who would give her power back so that there would be good coming from the ploughing of the land, the planting of seeds. So here they would be tonight, Mother Moon, the maiden daughter and the crone, all together in the dark night, ready with the ultimate sacrifice for the good of many. If I fail, no-one will need to work again, they will lie in these long barrows with the bones of the ancestors.
And if I ever lose my eyes, if my colours all run dry,
Yes if I ever lose my eyes, oh if.... I won't have to cry no more.
They had reached the nine stones now, and she walked to the centre with her bundle of sticks. Briony and Carrotflower joined her, and they stood while the rest gathered around. She looked about her, watched as they settled on the ground to the south. Some collapsed with less grace than others - she saw their pain, their weakness, and felt the same pain in her own heart, felt it grind up her feelings to dust, leaving no tears to be shed. Finally, the fire-bearer joined them in the middle, having guided everyone to their places.
And if I ever lose my legs, I won't moan, and I won't beg,
Yes if I ever lose my legs, oh if.... I won't have to walk no more.
She nodded to those in the circle, watched as they walked out to the North, gathered the bundles of twigs and dried reeds, grasses together, laid out the furs and finally, as the moon rose, lit the fire. Then one by one, the villagers rose, and danced or walked around the circle according to their ability, those more able supporting those in need. Starved both with cold and hunger, their feeble legs would not last much longer. Three times around the sacred site they went in pale procession, the few feeble flames bringing a last glow to cheek and gleam to eye. She would need all her strength to give them what they needed. Finally, they finished the charm, wove the net of spirit and will, and once again legs gave way, as forty bodies sat, slumped and propped one against the other, wrapped in furs and rags, huddled together for warmth.
And if I ever lose my mouth, all my teeth, north and south,
Yes if I ever lose my mouth, oh if.... I won't have to talk...
Now she stood facing the dusk with her arms held up to the darkling sky, and called the first song-prayer of the night aloud, words condensed from the hopes and fears built in her heart over the last few months. "Oh, Mother Moon, mother of all, hear our words and see our condition. With our last breaths we call on you to shine your light on us. Intercede with your love, the Sun, and your son the Father of the Forests." I pray that I can hold out for them, her heart called. "From the south we call for the warmth of the sun, from the west, the rains of spring, from the earth we need our crops, from the forests, the game. We bring to you our last few gifts, with the last of our power. All we have, here you see."
The drums began, and the flute raised its notes to the stars. She lifted her voice and sang again, sang the story of the tribe, sang about building of the village, the clearing of the sacred grove, the planting of crops, the names of the founding ancestors, their children and grandchildren. She sang the names of the hills, the trees, the fields, she sang the names of the crops and the birds and the game and the stars. She sang their fears, their hopes, and the names of all those living and dead in the tribe this year. Finally, she sang her own name, back through her ancestry, mother to grandmother and back through the generations and ages of power, wisdom and might.
Then each in turn rose, and brought their sacrifices to her. She in her turn took them and gave them up to the flames, as the people sang. Everything had some value - old leather shoes made by long-dead grandmothers, jewellery wrought from odd and mysterious stones, bags of herbs and small cakes, all things precious in some way. Some had even cut their hair, and tossed braids into the fire. All were accompanied by a fervent prayer that this sacrifice would be adequate. None held back. Finally, with the moonlight greying her skin, came her daughter. She opened the bag she had carried from the village, laid out the contents on the flat rock by the fire. Here were priceless handsful of flour, oats and barley, a pile of filberts, dried meat and fruit, all from their final store of food.
"If all this is for naught, we will pass, and be no more. Food we need not in the grave, where we are bound unless you succour us, Mother. Clothing rots in the long barrows where we will rest unless you send us food, Father. All you see is all we have, all we are. Hear us, Old Ones, and let us not pass into the final night." The tribe sang with her as she consigned the penultimate sacrifice to the flames, and then joined in the last dance around the stones.
Did it take long to find me? I asked the faithful light.
Did it take long to find me? and are you gonna stay the night?
Finally she sank to the ground and sat, watching the others, noticed the hard shadows on the frosty ground round about her. The moonlight casts a harsh shadow with no bright sky to soften the shade, there is only light and dark here. Light of Mother Moon, dark of grim and greedy Death. She shivered at the thought as the fur-bearer brought the furs to her, bowed long and low at her feet and walked away. The villagers followed him, each bowing to her before shuffling down the hill in the full-moon brightness. Finally only the two of them were left, mother and daughter, old woman and young, facing one another. It would be a long night, and the moon would set with the rising sun and the hope that winter would end while there was still life in the village.
Singing gently into the night-time, gently rocking their heartbeat rhythm into the earth, they stayed through till the dawn, while their breath froze in their hair, transforming them into creatures of frost and blackness, blue in the moonlight, dark as death in the moonshadow. Finally, as the sun rose, the older woman stood. Slowly, stiffly and almost reluctantly at first, then confidently, she spread her arms out to catch the first few warming rays of light on her skin, she threw back her head and called her final prayer into the new day, singing until her voice faltered and broke, as she sank to the rimed earth for the last time.
Her last breath still hung in the chill air as Briony held her remains and wept over her, singing her own new name, through her ancestry from mother to grandmother and back through the generations. Briony now sang her thanks to Mother Moon, Father Sun, the God of the Forest and the Goddess of the River. She sang thanks for her mother's life, even as the last warmth fled from the remains. Then, as the sun climbed higher and the frost melted, she felt her mother's power rise inside her and stood to sing again, for herself, her mother's last song of hope and sacrifice. And a new day dawned.
Lyrics by Cat Stevens, taken from the Tea for the Tillerman album.
I had no idea where this story was going until I finished it. I know only where it started - the Nine Ladies stone circle, many conversations with grundoon, the lyrics to an old song and some introspection. There's an element of Reverend Mother from Frank Herbert's Dune books right there at the end. I admit that I had a far poorer ending, somewhat clichéd, and I'm still not quite certain that I like the writing right there at the conclusion of the story, but there ya go. I really would appreciate some feedback on the writing style on this one, if you're feeling so inclined.
For my father, for my mother. I hope that I carry as much of you as did Briony.