Pre-Roman Gaul, before the conquest by Julius Caesar
It had finally come, Summer Solstice Eve, the time when the daylight hours would start to wane and summer would slowly turn to fall. This was the time of celebration of summer, and the hopes of a good harvest to come.
Women were preparing food for the feast. Men gathered firewood for the great bonfire that would be lit in the clearing. They looked over their fields, wondering what the crops would be like this year: if they would be bountiful or if they would suddenly wither and die.
The great Wicker Man stood empty. Some of the villagers were putting the last lashings to the frame so it would stand straight and tall until the fire consumed it. Prisoners of war, criminals, and slaves waited in a wooden cage until it was time for them to be herded into the Wicker Man, along with the livestock, and other offerings the villagers would give to please the gods of the harvest. Every year they erected the Wicker Man to honor the gods of the harvest. The Wicker Man had been a part of their lives for so long that no one could remember the first time he was lit.
Tristan stood watching, a ten year old boy with eyes like chips of blue sapphires and the curly blond hair of the Gauls. He was only a little taller than his friends, but stronger and sturdier in build. His parents had decided he was old enough to witness the burning. He’d heard about it from the other boys and begged for two years until his parents finally relented. After all, soon he would start training in earnest to be a warrior, for he was of a warrior race. His boyhood was growing to a close.
He scratched his palm where the lines formed the strange marking of a crescent moon. When the Druid priest at the last village where they’d lived had seen the sign, he’d covered his face with his dirty white robe and had said, “Kill him, you must kill him. He will create havoc in this world if you do not.” Tristan had shrugged it off, but that night his parents packed only those belongings they needed most and left the village in secret.
Tristan wondered why, but his sister had whispered to him, “It’s your fault, you know, that’s what the midwife said at your birth, ‘Kill him’. They should have done it, then we wouldn’t have to wander the way we do. If you had been a girl instead of a firstborn son, they would have.” Tristan glowered at her, and she’d turned away, but her words had made him wonder what the old priest had meant.
Finally, the sky had started to darken and the villagers began their feast. Tristan had wondered earlier about the men in the cages, what they were thinking, but now was more interested in the food, the bonfire, and running around with the other boys. The boys whispered among themselves so the adults wouldn’t hear what they were saying about what was going to happen when the Wicker Man was lit.
At last the feasting was over. It was late and the sickle moon of the Solstice had reached its zenith. The men and animals in the cages were herded into the great, hollow structure. Some of the prisoners fought and tried to run, but were beaten back into the procession. Wood and straw was stuffed into the “Man” and people gathered about, watching and waiting, some trying not to listen to the cries that came from within the great structure.
The priest signaled the acolytes and the Wicker Man was lit with their torches. As the flames licked higher and higher, screaming could be heard, both from man and beast. Some people stood passively, ignoring the cries, a few hid their faces, but no one spoke a word. This may be brutal, but the gods demanded a price for a good harvest and it had to be paid.
Tristan had his own reasons for watching. His had been planning for a week what he would do once the “Man” started burning. He waited until no one would notice that a torch was missing and grabbed the nearest one, though it was almost too heavy for his ten year old arms. When he was sure that no one could see, he ran into the sacred grove, following the path he’d seen the priests take before, their arms full of offerings.
Every so often he’d pause, checking to see if he’d been followed, then would run lightly on, going further than he’d been before. He was determined that he would not stop now, not until he reached his goal. They were all at the burning, he was sure, and this might be his only chance.
At last. A clearing up ahead that seemed to have a glow of its own. Tristan stepped into the heart of the sacred grove and saw before him what he’d only ever heard rumors of.
The stories were true after all. A pile of treasure lay before him, at least twice his height, maybe more. The other boys hadn’t lied.
Necklaces, torques, bracelets, vambraces, greaves, golden armor, earrings, rings set with precious stones. A handful of this and his parents would be wealthy for the rest of their lives. He did not know that so much gold existed. He’d like to take a pretty necklace for his mother but the penalty for his gift might mean that she would be in the next year’s Wicker Man, or buried alive, or sacrificed on the Druids’ altar.
Mesmerized, he took a few steps forward, an arm outstretched, when a hard, merciless hand grabbed his shoulder. He looked up into the face of the oldest man he had ever seen. His long stringy white hair fell to his hips, his back was humped from arthritis, but his grip was like iron. Even in the torchlight his eyes were as blue as Tristan’s and did not have the rheumy-ness of age. The look on his face was merciless, but memories were etched upon it in deep lines, memories that went back farther than Tristan could guess.
He took Tristan’s palm and forced open his fingers, staring at the mark of the half moon. “You’re cursed boy. You’re marked. You don’t know what I mean now but you will, you will. You’ll prosper but you’ll always long for what you’ve lost. They should have killed you at birth, for you will kill many more. More than you can dream is possible.”
Pride suddenly grew in Tristan replacing the fear. “Why should I believe you, you’re just a crazy old man. I’m not afraid of you.”
“You should be, boy, but you’re too young to have any sense. I should kill you right now for violating the grove, but the gods will take care of you. You may be a child, but you’re older than your years so I will tell you this: you’ll be haunted by that curse wherever you go. You will never die and you will suffer for it. Now go before I decide to take your fate into my own hands and slit your throat, though the gods forbid it.” He smiled wolfishly, revealing sharp canine teeth, from which fell tiny drops of blood.
Tristan turned and ran, letting his feet be his eyes and followind the well worn path through the groves. He breathed deeply as one as his feet pounded the ground, listening for the sound fearful sound of feet following him. He wished he could throw his torch into the trees and let the grove burn to the ground. Until he’d run into the old man he hadn’t really believed the stories people told of strange creatures that haunted the groves, feeding on the blood of trespassers.
He now understood the plight of the victims of the Wicker Man, and realizing that he was a victim, too. The old man, no that thing that walked in the shape of a man, knew more than he revealed to him about his fate. If Tristan could cut the mark off his palm he would, but he had a feeling it wouldn’t help. Nothing would help. He was all alone with this and would always be.
Pre-Roman Gaul, before the conquest by Julius Caesar
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