by Ronald W. Hull
Note to the reader. This is a work in progress. Please feel free to read and print out any part. I only ask that you email me your thoughts, good or bad, about its contents. I'm as concerned about it being as historically and scientifically correct as I am about the story. Please help me make it better. RWH
The Alps: 3362 BC
Albere was old. Older than anyone he knew. He would carve a 38th notch in his life tree when he reached the river in the Spring. When he was a small boy his father had shown it to him, marking the spot where he was born. His mother was young and strong. Being born when food was abundant again, after a hard Winter, insured that he would survive. When he was seven notches, his father showed him how to carve them with a flint blade, and Albere had done it himself every Spring since then. He was always drawn back there. It was a source of life for him.
Now he felt his age. Every muscle ached with every step. Snow had been falling since early afternoon, but Albere trudged on. It was too late to head back. He would make one of the shelters he knew before dark.
The years had taught Albere well. He was provisioned with dried fruit of sloe and nuts, and carried all his tools with him. He had a long bow of yew and arrows made straight from the wood of the wayfaring tree, a dagger with ash handle, a leather bag for water, chewed soft by the women, fire making flints and moss tinder, bone hooks for fishing, and various strings and cords woven from leather, hair, and reeds. His medicine bag with the hair of his family and medicines. Most of all, his copper ax mounted on a yew handle, built with his own hands with the people who lived by the fiery river. And his great coat, sewn of many leathers, lined with grass and with the fur turned in to keep him warm. His head was topped with a bearskin cap. In his white birch pack, nestled in wet leaves, he carried his morning fire's embers, and firewood. So, he traveled alone.
Albere had a lot of time to think on the mountain. He drifted often into deep thought at times like this. And he had many memories to think of. He wondered why life was so cruel. Why everyone he ever cared about was dead, and why he was still alive. What was the purpose in it?
The world was beautiful. Filled with sights and sounds and smells. But it was dangerous too; a place of darkness and cold, hunger and men so cruel they would kill you for anything you had. That was why he was alone.
In Albere's youth, he and his extended family traveled from the valley of the sunny slopes where they spent the Winter to the wooded highlands in the Spring. A journey of twenty suns walking, in the tradition of the elders. The ritual afforded them ample game and fish, and the berries, roots, and nuts to survive, in the time honored way. Albere had spent his younger years with the women, gathering and preparing food and medicine, and with the elders, where he learned the old ways. Each wood had a purpose, and could be found and carved to that purpose. Every part of every animal could be used. Blood, fat, intestines, meat, bone, skin, scales, feathers, and hair were either eaten, made into medicines, or used as tools.
In the family, he prospered. Albere grew strong faster than the other children, and amazed the elders with his mastery of the old ways. But, the urge to hunt in him was strong, so he led the other children in hunting games, until he too, was allowed to hunt with his father and the other men. He remembered the first bear, when he was eight notches. How he watched as the men killed it in its den with many spears as it slept. It was fat and provided food for many cold suns. The two babies inside were seen as a good omen by the elders.
By the time he was fifteen notches, Albere was the best hunter. With bow or spear, his eye was true, and he could bring down a deer with a single arrow. With the others, he caught fish, snared birds and small animals, ran down the wild pig, and challenged the great bear. Bear claws and teeth were prized by the elders.
They traded with other families. Albere joined his father on journeys of many suns to trade. Most prized was the shiny stone of pure color like the autumn leaves. When rubbed, he could see his face in it, like the surface of calm water. But it would turn dull and green if it wasn't rubbed. He rubbed his ax daily so that it shone like the sun it reflected. The elders said the stone was magic. He wondered about it and how it could be. With all of his knowledge of the world around him, he had never seen anything like it. Still, he did not believe it was magic. He knew the secret of the people by the fiery river.
It was colder now, and the wind was picking up. His world was obscured by white, blinding snow. Still, he pushed on. He knew the way so well, he could follow it without seeing. The agony in his joints was relentless, and he had to stop every few steps, leaning into the wind, to recover his strength. This always happened to him on the high mountains, but, as he grew older, it was more pronounced. All his tattoes, meant to help him ease the pain, didn't help him in a time like this.
Albere remembered the first time he saw her. In the valley where the grapes grew, there was a family with hair as white as snow and eyes of piercing blue. They had a secret for making the grapes into a powerful potion that made you lose your senses when you drank it. Albere liked the potion's sour taste, but he didn't like how it made him act foolish and get sleepy. Always on their guard on the trading journeys, he and his father couldn't afford to lose their senses, or someone would rob them. The white haired people were happy and prosperous, because they could trade their potion for the things they needed.
Nona was playing with the other children. She stood out because she seemed to be the happiest and loudest. And, she was so beautiful. It was summer and hot, even at night. Like the other children, she wore only a doe skin loin cloth. Her fair skin was a golden brown from the sun, except for her lips, turned pink from the same sun, and the tips of her budding breasts, so pink against her browness. He was excited by the sound and sight of her, like when he waited for a magnificent animal to come within kill range. But this was different. He felt a swelling in his loincloth that he had never felt before. He had seen the other men with it and, had observed them in sex with the women, but he had not experienced it himself, before. He knew it was a sign that he was no longer a child, but he did not want his father and the others to see.
That first hot night with the white haired people, he could not sleep. He dreamed of Nona and his peeing tool, once again, grew large and painful. He had to loosen his loincloth to free it. He kept thinking of her laughing and playing. He liked his sisters and admired the beauty and manner of some of the women in his family, and those he had seen on his journeys, but Nona was different. He wanted to make her his mate.
That fact was not lost among the elders of the white hairs. The old women, with flat breasts, scraggly, gray white hair, deeply wrinkled and toothless from chewing leather, knew right away. Before long, so did my father. For a prize copper looking stone, and a copper knife, he traded with the elders for the girl. For the next few suns, I was allowed to take her with me on hunts, fishing on the river, and bathe with her. We were allowed to sleep together, apart from the others.
Our languages were so similar, it was easy to talk. I learned that she had seen me too, the first day we arrived, and that her chest pounded with excitement at what she perceived as a strange, but most handsome hunter. She admitted that she had, in her own way, tired to get my attention, so that I would notice her. She was amused at how my peeing tool got big in her presence. The first hot night we slept together, she began playing with it. Albere still remembered how soft she was to his touch.
After the moon changed, we had to leave. It was hard for Nona to leave the only family she'd ever known. For two suns, she cried and wouldn't eat. Finally, she helped us with our cook fires, and settled into the routine of our journey. After two moons, we arrived back to our valley. The elders were pleased. They saw Nona as a strong addition to our group. The young hunters without mates were envious of my find. But they knew not to challenge me for her. My sisters and the younger women were both envious and enamored by her beauty. She soon became a member of our group. She often longed to see her family again. I promised to take her to them again on a trading journey. The fates ruled that that was not to happen.
Albere knew the rocky outcropping was just ahead, further up the mountain. It was pretty exposed, but would block the wind enough to allow him the burrow into the snow and escape the savage cold the wind brought with it. Maybe he could make a fire. With each step, he sank knee deep in soft, new snow, and more was coming down all the time. His pain was unbearable. He summoned strength deep within him, the strength of his youth to overcome the pain and cold and move on. If he could just move forward, he could make it.
Nona was fertile, and bore him five children. The first one came too soon, and was born dead. The elders cast their spells and incantations, but to no avail. Albere did not know if it was a boy or a girl. The second was a son, born in the Spring like he had been, and strong. Jan had the white hair and bright blue eyes of his mother, but the strength and savvy of his father. Albere looked to him to carry on the rituals of the elders for the family. Another boy was born dead, and a girl, born in winter, caught the fever and died in Nona's arms while only four cold suns old. Nila, the youngest, was also born in Winter, but showed the strength to live that reminded him of her mother. Life was hard. The same fever that took his first daughter, also took his mother and half the family. The medicine of the elders did nothing as he helplessly watched the fever kill everyone sick around him. His father was never the same. By nineteen notches, Albere had become leader of the family. He enjoyed evenings by the fire, watching Nona play with the braids in Nila's hair, and Jan playing hunting games at the edge of the camp.
It was a good hunt. After two suns of stalking, they had run down and killed two pigs. The five of them were joyous as they carried the heavy animals back to the family. Before they got there, Albere could smell smoke and the stench of death. First, he found Nona, her head cut off and her body mutilated with knives and spears, then Jan, with his little head bashed in and one arm cut off. His father, no longer able to hunt, had fought to his death. The bodies of two of the invaders, heavily armed and protected by leather, but emaciated men, lay by him. Thals--the name given to outcast males who banded together and raided families for food and items they could trade. No one survived. All of the copper his father had traded for was gone. Everything else was burned.
They hung the two invaders from the trees so that the ravens would pluck their eyes out. Albere gathered the sacred potions he could find in the destruction. After the incantations were said and he had gathered locks of hair from Nona and Jan, they burned the dead together in a funeral pyre so that wild animals wouldn't violate their bones. A great rage rose up in Albere. He challenged the others to help him take revenge for their loss. They followed him to a man. They ate the pigs to find strength for the fight, then with Albere in the lead, they set off.
It wasn't hard to follow the track of the Thals. They left a path of destruction and death. After five suns walking, Albere and his hunters caught up. They waited until the sun was long in the trees, and the Thals were drunk from the grape potion they'd stolen a sun's walk away. Then they struck. Albere killed and killed with a spear and the flint knives his father had given him. But, they were greatly outnumbered, and he was stabbed and struck many times before he killed the last man. All of the hunters were dead. Albere crawled off, and with the medicines in his bag, left with his long bow in the woods before the battle, treated his wounds. Somehow, he managed to pull his dead companions together into a funeral pyre. It took him two suns, but he said the incantations and burned them. The rest, he left to the wolves, circling and getting bolder as he struggled to send the last of his family to the afterlife. He could hear them snapping and growling over the dead as he dragged himself up, over the ridge to the next valley beyond.
With his numb hands, Albere could feel the bare rock of the overhang. He couldn't feel anything below his knees in his grass filled leather boots. It was dark now, he couldn't remember how long, as he'd willed himself to that spot. The wind was howling and the snow had already filled the place he'd hoped to shelter in. He pushed and burrowed, and managed to get as much out of the wind as he could, and the snow came in over him in layers, gradually covering him up. His embers on his back were probably out. Even with his flints and tinder, he couldn't make a fire. He just sat there, rubbing his ax blade with his right hand and holding the bag with his family's hair with his left, listening to the wind. No feeling was a good feeling. As the snow filled in around him, he felt warm.
Those warm nights when he lay on some ridge or high ground, which was the safest, and dreamed of Nona, so long dead. The sky would be heavy with light, a multitude of points of light that closed the sky down on him like the overhanging trees or the roof of a cave. In those times he imagined that each one was a spirit of those who had died, countless in their number. He loved this land with its incredible beauty and peace. But why the cruelty and harshness? The elders with their rituals, incantations, and medicines couldn't cure what was wrong with the world. Then, there was this one time, as he crossed a frozen lake in the middle of the night trying to reach the safety of shore, when he stopped, looked up, and realized that he was utterly alone. This great hunter, warrior, and medicine man was merely a snow flake compared to the vastness before him. He knew there was something greater out there. He just didn't know what it was.
He remembered the secret of the shiny copper stone. Though he traded with many families, and was welcome in the white haired family of his wife, the sight of children playing brought back dark thoughts. He preferred to live alone. He traveled the seasons in the ways of his ancestors and became known for his skills in medicine and potions. Seeking the secret of the shining stone, he lived for a while with the people by the fiery river. His legend had preceded him, so they welcomed him as a great warrior and medicine man. After he treated open sores with a tree bark and moss potion he'd learned from the elders, they let him see the secret. When green stones that were common in the area were heated on special fires that were very hot, the shiny copper melted and flowed from the stone. It could then be pounded with hard stones into many shapes. There were no elders in the family. The women lived to an old age and died after losing their teeth. The men who melted the copper died at an early age when they still had their teeth and dark hair. Before they died, they would lose their senses, and complain of great pain in their hands and feet. Albere tried his medicines on some of the sufferers to no avail. Legend said that early death was the price they paid for knowing the secret. Albere wondered if he would suffer the same fate.
When he polished his ax with a rough leaf that brought out the metal's luster, he marveled at the metal's strange properties. How it reflected his image. How it could be pounded very thin, or into many shapes. How it held a smooth, sharp edge for cutting. Even how it curved. He wondered how many other properties it had. Was it a bridge to a life without pain and suffering?
He suffered his old wounds no more. Albere was entombed in the snow.
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