This story is set in the world of the Castings Trilogy – the Eleven Domains.
Mist rising from the altar stone.
The cold brisk air before dawn. Stars more brilliant than any other time, before or since. The road stretching onwards before me, as I turned and saw mist rising from the altar stone.
The breath of the earth itself. I went to drink it, to draw the holy mist into my body as my mam taught me.
A slab of granite lying in a field. That’s all. It could have been nothing. But I always know the altars, even when they have been abandoned, when the people who worshipped have left, or been killed, or disappeared in the midst of worship, as sometimes happens.
If I did not travel by night, I would not have been there. If I were not who I am, I would not need to travel by night. So I was there because of who I am, because of what I am, because the spirits willed it so, because I had picked up a stone in my shoe and stopped just then, just there, to take it out before I blistered. Because all my life I had been walking to that meeting, that altar, that night.
Walking through the wet grass, watching my footing in the darkness, my hair stood up on the back of my neck and deep in my breast my heart began to beat more slowly, slowing until, as I stood at the altar, it pounded only once for every count of ten, and I knew I was in the presence of the local gods.
I surrendered my spirit to them without resistance, without fear. I had been trained all my life for this moment, had walked the roads of the world looking for it. When the gods came out of the stone and surrounded me, I opened my heart and let them in without a pause. Without a thought.
It hurt. It always hurts, giving in to the gods. Life is sweet and selfish. It hurts to let go.
When the white witch came to live by the altar stone, the villagers went to Mabry, their Voice. He should do something about it, they said.
‘You’re the Voice, Mabry,’ they said. ‘You go and talk to her.’
‘She’s got no right there,’ they said. ‘Just came along out of nowhere and built right next to the altar stone.’
‘She’s a witch,’ they said. ‘A freak of nature. You go move her along, Mabry.’
He agreed. It was the village’s field. She had no right to build herself a wattle cabin there, in one of the best pastures. Good pasture was scarce in this narrow valley. If the altar didn’t mind goats grazing over it, who was she to object?
His sisters looked sideways when he said this, and murmured something about the gods being well able to get rid of her if they chose, but he ignored them. It was his duty to act when the villagers asked him to, and he knew how to do his duty.
‘Sometimes,’ he said to his Mam, who was so deaf now she didn’t hear a word he said, anyway, ‘sometimes the gods need a little help.’
He went after evening milking. He found the witch sitting cross-legged next to the altar stone, singing in the twilight.
‘Rising mist from the coldest stone
Rising mist from the old earth’s bones
Silent stars watched the holy breath
The road is long and the end is death.’
She had a thin, thready voice. Unnerving. With her white hair and white eyelashes, she was stranger than anyone he had ever seen. Her eyes were pink.
He looked down at the ground, abashed by her ugliness. She looked up at him, smiling.
‘Mabry,’ she said, in a voice much deeper than he would have expected, hearing her sing. He jumped.
‘Mabry,’ she said again, nodding with satisfaction. ‘A nice little kid, last year. Good blood. What will you bring us this season?’
Fear took hold of him, at that. She knew his name. More. He’d made that sacrifice in private, asking for longer life for his Mam, embarrassed to say it in front of anyone else. They all thought he was soft, as it was. Too soft for his own good, his sisters said, with amused affection.
‘This is Elva,’ the voice said, and he realised the gods were introducing the white witch. She smiled up at him, sunnily. Out of her wits, poor bitch. He didn’t know whether to kneel before her, or just say hello.
‘I, er, um, yes, Elva…’
‘Another kid would be good,’ the voice said. ‘Or a fawn. We like fawns. Good. You can go now.’
So he went, his legs taking him away without him even thinking about it. He tried to look back, but couldn’t turn his head. Behind him he could hear the witch’s voice lifted again in song, and a kind of humming that could only come from the Stone.
‘Silent stars watched the holy breath
The road is long and the end is death.’
When Gytha, his youngest sister, giggled and asked him what he was going to do about the witch, he shrugged.
‘She’s a poor, mad thing,’ he said, settling down in his Da’s chair at the head of the table. ‘Let her be.’
‘Oh, you’re so soft,’ Gytha said. ‘Da would have had her out of there in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.’
‘Da’s dead,’ Drema, the eldest of them all, said. ‘Mabry’s Voice now.’
She nodded significantly to the fire where their mother was watching their faces closely, trying to hear. Gytha made a face, away from her mother’s sight, then turned to the fire and spoke loudly.
‘Oh, aye,’ she said. ‘Mabry’s Voice now. Just like Da.’
There was a knock at the door. It was old Fearn, coming to complain that her cousin, Lullen, had taken more than her fair share of their dead grandda’s goods, and would he make a judgment on it. He sighed and got up to go with her.
The gods hide their true nature from humans. Those who come to pray and sacrifice think it is the blood that matters, but it is not.
When the animal’s life is bled out on the Stone, the gods drink, not the blood, but the life itself. All the memories, all the sensations, every breath is taken in and kept, safe, forever. They relive those lives, over and over. That’s why they like young lives, where the feelings are so intense and bad things rarely happen; where every memory is something new and fresh. They like kids and lambs, for the frolicking in the warm sun. They like fawns, for the cool dappled shade of the forest. Some of them particularly like birds, but not babies. No, the birds should be at least a year old, so they can bring with them the wild exultation of the sky. Ducks and geese are particularly favoured, for the long, unwinding migration flights that take the gods out of their small valley and across the world.
As the gods relived these lives, so did I. I was the hare, couching in the long grass, ears twitching. I was the cock, pecking out of the shell into blinding light. I was the lamb, suckling my dam, one tiny leg scraping the earth as I butted her to let the milk down.
I lived a hundred lives more intensely than I had ever lived my own. Under that onslaught of memory, my own life grew hazy. Some days I forgot my own name, and the gods had to remind me. Some times, when I was with a migrating flock of geese, their wild cries filling the air with restless longing, I did not want to remember who I was. And sometimes, afterwards, I cried.
They are not cruel, the gods. They do not ask for death so they can savour pain. The sacrifice knife should be sharp, the cut swift. No prayers will be answered for one who takes pleasure in the killing. When the death is quick and clean, the life is not tainted by pain or bewilderment, both of which annoy the gods. Pain is like a bad taste in their mouths; they spit it out.
In the day, I stay in the cabin and sleep. At twilight I come out into the dark, friendly world. I walk the fields and collect sensations for them. I dance. I think this is why they chose me; because they could see the dance in me, as they can see the softness in Mabry, or the wit in Gytha, the steadiness in Drema.
They all come to the Stone: alone, in pairs, with the village girls, with the whole village. As they pray the gods enter their minds and search for truth; and I am with them.
Mist rising from the altar stone.
Mabry saw it clearly, saw the warmer air of the mist rising over a place where it should have fallen, cold over stone. The presence of the gods. He hesitated.
The white witch was not there, but still, perhaps he should come another night. Another day.
Elva appeared at his shoulder silently. He jumped.
She smiled at him, her mad child’s smile, and shook her head.
‘Not now,’ she said, but it was her own voice, high and soft. ‘Don’t go there now. They are dancing the dance of the air. Breathing the breath of the earth. They will not want you now.’
In the darkness she shone like silver, like moonlight, and her pink eyes were darkened. By the starlight he could look past her pallidness and see the fine bones of her face, the long silk of her hair. It hurt him, as hidden beauty often did, an ache in his throat like held-back tears.
‘Beautiful,’ he said softly.
‘Aye. They are always beautiful.’ She was watching the mist swirl above the stone.
‘Are you happy, Elva? Do you want to be here, serving them?’
The face she turned to him was transfigured by surprise. For the first time he saw intelligence in her eyes.
‘Oh, yes! Oh, yes,’ she said.
‘The road is long and the end is death,’ he reminded her.
‘So it is. So it is for all of us. If we are lucky. No?’
It was, he supposed.
The mist had steadied in the air. Her voice changed as the gods entered her.
‘Do you want to be here, serving them, Mabry?’ it asked.
He took a step away from her in a jerk of surprise.
‘I -er- I serve the gods willingly. You know-‘
‘The gods, yes,’ the deep voice said. ‘But the village? It takes all your time, no?’
‘It’s my duty.’
‘Duty is not love. Should they not be served by someone who loves them?’
Mabry stood stockstill, and his mouth opened and closed. He had no answer.
They laughed, and left her. The mist climbed and wafted away.
They showed me his life. He was a good, kind son of a hard father. Try hard. Try to be like Da. Envy the sisters who could be gentle; who did not have to swagger in the tavern, or wrestle on the green.
They gave me his memories, the life he brought to offer up with his sacrifices. They gave me his mother, who loved him but who always looked up when anyone entered a room in hopes it would be Da. Even after he was dead.
It’s not easy, growing up in a house of passionate parents, in a place where love, physical love, shines so bright and so constant. Knowing that even you, the beloved son, are always second to both parents. Maybe third, or fourth, after the girls.
They gave me his Da, a man so content with his life and his love that he believed all men should be as lucky as him; so his son should be like him, in order to be lucky, too.
Arvad, his name was, a man big and hale, full of bodily strength, full of energy, a man who filled a room as he walked in, so you felt there was no room for anyone else. An adored father. The village Voice, heard first in councils, heard last in decisions. The Voice who spoke to other villages, who celebrated marriages, who cautioned those villagers who were causing dissension, or grief to others. Occasionally, the Voice who pronounced exclusion on a villager, until a fault had been remedied.
An admired Voice, well-respected. Never resenting the time or the energy he needed to do the job right. Enjoying it.
They showed me other things, as well. Mabry’s eye for beauty, for the line of a girl’s arm, the arc of a bird’s wing. The pink underneath a mushroom, the pattern of dew on the bright green edge of new fir growth in spring. Mabry brought them beauty when he prayed, and the world that he saw was different from all other worlds. They loved him for it.
So, of course, I loved him too.
Mabry’s Mam died the next night. No warnings, no hesitation. Mabry had come back from a meeting about how best to fairly share the good pasture down by the stream, and was knotting a sling to keep the lead goat’s low udder from dragging on the ground. They were all sitting by the fire, Gytha mending her milking apron, Drema at the table pounding felt into a new pair of boots, Mam just sitting, as she always sat now, hands loose in her lap, eyes half-closed.
No sound but the spit of the fire and the thump of the felting mallet. Then Mam sat up straight and looked toward the door, for all the world as though someone had walked in.
‘Arvad!’ she said, as plain as could be. Happy. Smiling that old smile, the one they hadn’t seen since their Da died. She raised one hand towards the door, then died. Slumped back in her chair, eyes, horribly, still half-open.
The three of them sat there, frozen. They knew what had happened. No-one could have mistaken it. It seemed to Mabry that while they sat unmoving they were still in the old world, the world where they weren’t orphans. But once they moved, everything changed.
‘Typical,’ Drema said, with no tears in her voice, only anger. ‘Shagging typical. She didn’t even think to say goodbye to us. Not with him in the room.’
No-one answered her, but the sound of her voice broke them from their places and took them to Mam’s side, started the process of realisation, of confusion.
The girls began the laying out immediately, using the lessons she had taught them on their Da’s body: how to arrange it seemingly before it set hard, how to bind up the jaw, smooth the eyelids, place the sprig of rosemary under the tongue, the sprig of pine between the second and third fingers of each hand. And one more thing, which they had not done for Da: the four carved wooden flowers on their string around her neck.
Mabry, banished from the room for the laying out, was let back in for this. Drema and Gytha stood back, Gytha crying quietly, constantly; Drema blank-eyed. Mam was on the table, with her shroud spread out under her, ready for wrapping. Even placing the rosemary under her tongue had not erased the smile on her face.
He placed the necklace round his mother’s neck. Two daisies, for the girls, painted brightly, then the cornflower, for him, also painted. Then another cornflower, but this one plain wood, for the sickly boy, the youngest, who’d died an hour after birth.
He remembered his Da carving that last flower. Carving and crying while Mam slept after the labour, so he’d have it finished by the time she woke up, and she’d never have to watch him do it.
The thought sent him out of the house to the gods.
Drema’s anger was rising in him too. She was right. Mam never had a thought to spare for any of them while Da was in the room.
It wasn’t fair and it never had been.
The white witch was waiting at the altar stone for him. He started shouting at her halfway across the field.
‘It’s a cheat, the whole thing! It’s not fair. I made my sacrifice. They said they liked it, even. They’ve cheated me, they cheat everyone. Shagging bastards! They take and take but what do they give back, huh?’
He grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her.
‘What do you give back, you cheating bastards? What did I get for my sacrifice?’
‘Eleven months,’ the gods said to him through her mouth.
He pushed her away from him with sudden revulsion so that she fell backward onto the altar stone.
‘Eleven months,’ the gods said through her trembling mouth. ‘She should have died last year. She wanted to. We kept her here for you, Mabry. Despite her own prayers. Despite your father’s entreaties. Eleven months of loneliness for her, waiting for your Da. For you, because we love you.’
Then he began to cry. He sank down on the grass and wept. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and he turned to her and clung.
The mist settled on the altar stone and waited.
He was Voice, and he had to lead the funeral rites. He had a Deputy, Dagmar, Huntian’s daughter. She offered, but he shook his head.
They carried the body to the altar stone on the carved burial board, and laid it down on the grass next to the stone. Elva was there, blinking in the morning light, and shading her eyes. One after the other they nodded to her, and she greeted them in her own voice.
Mabry swallowed against the hard lump in his throat, and said the prayers, the speaker’s staff in his hands.
‘May you not linger on the roads; May you not linger in the fields. Time is, and time is gone,’ he said, hearing in his own mind the many times his father had said these words over someone’s body. It was as though his father was speaking through him.
‘Time is, and time is gone,’ the villagers said. Drema, at last, was crying, Gytha holding her up.
‘May you find friends; May you find those you loved,’ he said. ‘Time is, and time is gone.’
‘Time is, and time is gone.’
‘Under your tongue is rosemary; remember us. In your hands are evergreen; may our memories of you be evergreen. Time is, and time is gone.’
They carried the body to the burial caves in slow procession, Elva following them at a small distance. He wanted her to walk up the front, with him and the girls, but he knew the villagers wouldn’t like it. They put his mother in the last cave, and rolled the stone back across the entrance with that grinding screech that he had thought, as a child, was the scream of the dead soul being locked away.
Afterwards they went back to the house and ate the funeral cakes, flavoured honey and salt for the sweetness and pain of life.
Then, finally, he spoke.
‘You know,’ he said, ‘that I became Voice because of my Da.’
Heads nodded around the room.
‘He was a fine Voice, and it was a job that suited him. But it don’t suit me. I’m thinking, now with my Mam dead, it’s time to hand over to Dagmar and be done with it.’
They raised their voices in protest, saying, ‘Wait for a while, wait until you’ve calmed down a bit, don’t make any hasty decisions.’ But he handed the speaker’s staff to Dagmar, and she took it.
When they’d gone, he and the girls began to clear away. Drema kissed him on the forehead as she went passed.
‘Well done,’ she said. But Gytha glowered at him.
‘You know she loved you being Voice! You could have waited. You didn’t have to do it today, at her own funeral party.’
He shrugged. They cleared away, and the girls went outside to sit in the sun and talk softly. He went to the cupboard in the corner, and took out his father’s carving tools, that hadn’t been used since the plain wooden cornflower was carved, and began to sharpen them. There was a reed by the stream whose leaves made perfect curves away from the stem. Now that he was no longer Voice, he had time to carve; time to try, at least, to capture the shapes of the things he saw and loved.
I knew he was planning to relinquish the speaker’s staff. The gods read it in his mind before he left the altar stone. I followed the party up the hill to the burial caves, but I didn’t go in.
I love the dark, but the musty smell of those caves sends shivers all over me.
I went back to my cabin, and waited for him.
He came across the field the next twilight, and waited for me by the altar stone. In the dusk his eyes were shadowy, but he had grieved well the night before, and they were clear of anger and despair.
‘Elva,’ he said. ‘I need to know what the gods want me to do now.’
So I kissed him.
Was it the gods’ will? It felt like the gods; that impulse had the same overwhelming power, the same painful sweetness. I thought it was the gods’ will. But as we sank down to the grass, I heard the gods laughing in my mind, laughing with true merriment. I heard their voices, chuckling.
‘Life!’ they said. ‘The road starts here.’