With each passing week the ritual grew more poignant and he dreaded the prospect of walking across the plain to the towering stone pillars of the mighty henge.
And when the Holy Man and Star-Gazer extended their arms heavenward to praise the All-Seeing-All-Powerful-One for the coming of another seven dawns, he felt every eye was on him, knowing of his sin.
Yet how could they know? The secret lay buried deep in his own heart, shared only with Laoni. But he kept asking himself how long it would be before her body began to swell as the child within her grew, exposing their guilt to the village.
It was not the result of deliberate defiance, just one moment of rashness, but he knew the Elders wouldn't see it that way. Laoni knew, too – the wild-eyed look of terror on his partner’s face when she confessed would haunt him forever.
That was when his nightmare had started.
The sun had been powerful all day, and during the last couple of hours Jontil’s thoughts turned with eager anticipation to a jug or two of the strong ale which Laoni was so good at brewing. When the beasts were taken care of for the day he began the short walk home through the sloping strip of woodland separating his three acres from the village.
As he passed the last Sycamore the countryside opened up before him, rolling away to its distant rendezvous with the evening sky. He looked down upon the scores of huts scattered along the river bank; the thread of water trailing through the foot of the valley as far as the eye could see.
Laoni had promised him the tender white meat of a fatted young calf for his supper, and the twist of greyish-black smoke worming its way through the roof of his hut told him the food was already cooking over a charcoal fire. Many other huts gave off smoke, too – he would not be the only one feasting on good cooked meat that night.
He sensed something was wrong as soon as he flipped aside the lengths of hanging beads and stepped into the cool, darkened interior of his home.
“Laoni, why’ve you got the windows covered? There’s still daylight outside.”
Instead of answering, she continued to squat by the fire with her back to him, gently prodding the spit-roasting meat. Normally she would run to him, her bare feet slapping against the earthen floor, and throw herself into his arms.
“Laoni?” he called again, staring at the back of her knee-length light brown tunic and noticing her shoulders trembling slightly. There was also a tremor running through the sleek raven-black hair, as if she were rapidly nodding her head. Then he could see that her whole body was wracked with sobs.
As he hurried towards her she suddenly stood up and spun to face him. Red rings surrounded the dark brown eyes and her breath came in rough, uneven gasps as he clasped her to his chest, stroking her hair soothingly.
“Come on,” he whispered. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
She eased herself away from his grip and ran to the beading, peering out into the fading daylight. Then she turned back to him and led the way through the arch into the more comfortable living area of the hut. That, too, was in semi-darkness; she had draped a blanket over the window in there, as well.
He stood in silence, waiting for her to tell him what was troubling her.
“Oh, Jontil,” she eventually managed to murmur between sobs. “Whatever’s going to become of us?”
“What’s wrong?” he repeated, smiling into her eyes to try and reassure her that whatever it was they would face it together.
She looked up at him with a haunted, fear-ridden face, and shook her head slowly. It was almost as if the words were fighting to come, but she was desperately trying to suppress them.
“I’ve been meaning to tell you…” she began, then stopped, turning to stare blankly at the wall.
An eternity seemed to pass before Jontil reluctantly accepted he would have to prompt her. He put his hand beneath her quivering chin and gently eased her towards him again.
“Tell me what, Darling?”
“It just never seemed to be the right moment. I was always so frightened. I’m scared, Jontil, so scared.
His heart grieved to see her this upset. While his fingers softly caressed her long dark hair his frown deepened as he tried to imagine what could be troubling her so much.
“Tell me, Laoni,” he said, gently. “Please tell me what it is. I can’t help you unless I know.”
She took a deep breath, holding it in her lungs for longer than was comfortable, causing a red flush to race up her cheeks. When she did eventually manage to speak the words cascaded out in a mad jumbled rush.
“Jontil, please don’t be cross with me, I love you so much. I’d never do anything to hurt you or put you in danger. You know that, don’t you? I’ll go away or kill myself, then no-one’ll ever know. Oh, what am I going to do? What…?”
“Hey, steady on. Come on, now, slow down and tell me what it is.” There was something about the unusual blackness of her mood and the uncharacteristic hysteria which emitted a grim, foreboding aura. Jontil started to pull her face towards his chest, but she broke away, taking a couple of steps backwards.
Again a deep breath; then finally it was out: “Jontil, I’m going to have a baby, we’re going to have a baby.”
Something nagged at the back of his mind, but his thoughts were instantly filled with what he imagined to be the usual euphoria of a would-be father, and he started to laugh.
“A baby!” he cried. “But that’s wonderful. Why all the tears? Why the worry? Didn’t you think I’d be pleased? I’m so happy, it’s wonderful news.”
She clasped a hand over his mouth. “Ssshhhh. Quiet!” Her voice was low, demanding, insistent.
But again Jontil laughed as he softly prised her fingers away from his face. “I don’t understand what’s worrying you.” His mind whirled in a plethora of happy, wondrous thoughts. He was going to be a father.
Her soft, delicate features were stained by tiny rivulets of tears, and she shook her head urgently, her face a mixture of fear and frustration.
“Jontil, think. I’m just over a Quarter Year pregnant. The baby’ll be born in the forbidden Second Quarter of the New Year. We’re going to have an Ashday’s Child.”
That simple phrase slammed into him with all the force of a wooden club. A few seconds of numbness rooted him to the spot, giving her a chance to wrap her arms around his shoulders and cling tightly to him.
He pushed her away as if she were suddenly as hot as fire. “Oh my God. The Second Quarter. An Ashday’s Child. Are you sure?" His momentary happiness at the prospect of becoming a father evaporated in a horrifying split second.
Laoni took a couple of paces away from him, looking small and vulnerable, her head drooping.
“I’m sure,” she said. “I’ve been sure for weeks. We’ll bring disgrace to the village.” Her voice was rising all the time, verging on the borders of hysteria. “It’ll be…”
“Okay, okay.” Jontil pulled her towards him again before the significance of what she had just said suddenly hit him. He spun her sideways, staring hard at her stomach, looking for signs of the child. There was nothing tangible apart from some recent stitching at the side of her tunic, suggesting she may have let it out a little.
“If you’ve known for weeks why didn’t you tell me; give me time to work something out?” he demanded.
“Don’t worry,” she said, smiling through the tears, seeming to regain a little more composure now her secret was out. “If I’m careful it doesn’t show yet.”
Jontil stared at the ceiling, his mind running away with itself, his thoughts tumbling over each other.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?” he asked again. “You must stay indoors and I’ll say you’re ill.”
Suddenly he gripped her shoulders and shook her hard. “Don’t you understand what this means? They’ll execute us. What we’ve done is blasphemy, a sin against the All-Seeing-All-Powerful-One. We’ve sinned against God.” Now it was his turn to edge towards hysteria.
He closed his eyes, remembering when the village had been awakened by the Destroyers of Evil thundering out of the night on horseback to descend on the home of their friends Brantis and Leila, whisking them away to the henge. The following day an expectant buzz had pervaded the air during their trek to the weekly thanksgiving. Brantis and Leila had been brought out and thrust before the massed gathering. The Star-Gazer was almost consumed with fury during his hellfire sermon about breaking the golden rule of their civilisation; conceiving a child which, if allowed to be born, would enter the world during the forbidden Second Quarter; an Ashday’s Child.
Jontil shuddered as he recalled how his voice had raised against his friends; how it was filled with hate and righteousness when he joined the chanted demands that they be stoned to death in accordance with the ancient laws. The Holy Man commanded a degree of calm as he began the stoning ceremony by reminding the gathering of the sin Brantis and Leila had committed.
The Holy Man’s arms were raised heavenward and his voice was strong as he began the ancient ceremony with the words that were only summoned for the cleansing ritual: “It all began long, long ago, in the days before the world died; in the days before the All-Seeing-All-Powerful-One rebuilt the world by His own magic. Before the Great Fire fanned by the Winds of Destruction blighted our land. Our realm was not as you see it today. Mankind died by his own hand, by his own ingenuity. The world was full of mechanised monsters, of great metal birds capable of taking Man in their hollow bellies from one land to another.
“Evil and wickedness controlled men’s lives everywhere. There were many false star-gazers, each claiming to be able to read messages from the heavens; such as our own – the only true – Star-Gazer does today. Our true Star-Gazer succeeds because He draws His power from the All-Seeing-All-Powerful-One. Those charlatans of ancient time did not; their power was false and evil, in defiance of the Holy Orders of the day.
“After the wickedness of the Earth was consumed in fire, and our civilisation of today eventually rose from the ashes, the All-Seeing-All-Powerful-One decreed that such carnage would never return to the Earth. He blessed the family of the Star-Gazer with hereditary power to truly read the signs of the heavens, so Mankind would be warned through all eternity of that which was yet to come. That awesome and terrible power has spanned the generations to our Star-Gazer of today, who continues the tradition begun by His forefathers.
“His power, guided by the All-Seeing-All-Powerful-One, has shown the downfall of our former brother Brantis and our former sister Leila. By conceiving a child whose birth would fall within the forbidden Second Quarter – the deadly quarter when ash fell upon the Earth from the Great Fire, fanned by the Winds of Destruction – they have sinned against us all!”
His voice raised in a rallying cry. “Do you want an Ashday’s Child in your midst?”
As one voice, the massed gathering had thundered back: “No!”
“Do you want a child tainted by the Mark Of Ash?”
“Ashday – the time that the ash fell – is a time of evil and wickedness in our history, brought upon our lands by the sins of our forebears from the Old World. Do we want reminders of those dark days?”
Back came the ritualistic response: “No reminders, no Ashday’s Child.”
Again Jontil shuddered, this time at the memory of how he had been there casting one of the first stones at his friends’ helplessly bound bodies, and how he had been amongst those laying burning torches to their hut razing it to the ground.
As the days wore on and turned into weeks he fancied he heard others whispering and casting furtive glances his way, no doubt wondering why Laoni had started keeping herself out of sight. Ever since Laoni told him they were expecting an Ashday’s Child he had pondered that unless they could successfully hide her for the next two quarters they would face the same fate as Brantis and Leila.
And when they baby was born, what then? They would have to hide their offspring, too. Perhaps even kill it. After all, was it not said that Ashday’s Children were tainted with the Mark of Ash – an unwelcome reminder of Mankind’s ultimate folly, of that time, millennia ago, when their forefathers had caused the deadly ash to descend upon the Earth, destroying every civilisation across the globe? That story had been passed through countless generations.
How much longer could they successfully hide their guilt, he wondered…how much longer?
Darkness was fast ending its vigil over the countryside when Jontil joined the throng of men, women, children and babes in arms, on their way to the weekly dawn thanksgiving. He saw with dismay that Mastron, another golden-haired one, was heading towards him. There was no escape; he was too close to the henge to deviate from his path. Within seconds Mastron was alongside, matching him stride for stride. Then came the expected question: “Laoni not with you again this morning, Jontil?
“Does it look like it?” he snapped back, keeping his head low to avoid the probing blue eyes.
Mastron laughed easily and cheerily at the indignant outburst, holding up his hands in mock surrender.
“Okay, okay, we’re only concerned because we haven’t seen her for a few days.”
Jontil glanced around cautiously to see whether anyone else was listening, but they were all too deep in their own conversations to take any notice.
“Sorry.” He adopted what he hoped was a lighter tone. “It’s just that she’s still not well. She’s a little sick and has the pain of fire around her heart.” That last part was true, at least. The sickness of a morning would have kept her confined to their hut even if their unborn child were not casting a shadow of shame.
“I see,” mused Mastron. But Jontil wondered whether he really did. “Tell her from me to get well soon.” And with that, Mastron sprinted off to join a group of five friends who were laughing amongst themselves as they trekked through the outer pillars of the henge towards the hallowed ground beyond.
As usual, the crudely-constructed wooden stage on the far side of the area was bedecked with offerings of fruit, vegetables and salted meat. Today it was the turn of those who had lived between 40 and 50 summers to bring gifts. Next week the honour would fall to villagers who had not yet seen 21 summers, and Jontil had already put aside a salted loin of cattle to take.
He looked around the throng of people stretching away across the arena, everyone wearing the same type of light brown shapeless tunic, some barefoot, others with sandals strapped to the knee. And as if that drab costume were not enough of a uniform, almost everyone’s hair was raven-black, tumbling in thick, cascading waves to their shoulders, male and female alike. Dotted amongst the noisy, writhing sea, however, was the occasional island of blond hair, such as Mastron’s and his, Jontil’s.
The sun had been above the horizon for several moments already. Its rays were slanting brightly into the henge between the enormous stone pillars, creeping towards the ancient four-branched candlestick. At the exact second the light struck it, the stage-drapes swished aside, their intricately threaded beads clattering against each other, revealing the Star-Gazer and the Holy Man in their full bejewelled glory. The sunlight, ever-strengthening inside the henge, accentuated the flashes of red, gold, green, yellow and blue which zig-zagged across their white ankle-length robes. The Star-Gazer remained still while the Holy Man took four paces forward and flung his arms wide; the first fingers of each hand pointing heavenward; the remaining fingers bunched tightly into a fist.
He threw back his head, and an ear-splitting roar shot from his lips: “All-Seeing-All-Powerful-One, we give Thee thanks for the dawning of another seven days.”
Jontil joined the congregation’s response, his voice harsh and raucous in the rhythmic chanting: “Sunday, Sunday, we thank Thee for Sunday.”
His mind raced back to Laoni at their hut, but still the words came. Like the scores of other villagers in the henge he did not need to think about his role in the weekly thanksgiving ritual. Having taken part every week for as long as he could remember, his responses were totally automatic.
“Sunday, Sunday, we thank Thee for Sunday.” This time each syllable was accompanied by a matching-tempo handclap.
“Fireday, Fireday, the time that the World burned.
“Ashday, Ashday, the time that the ash fell.”
The volume of the ritualistic chanting increased, as did the tempo, quickly building to a deafening crescendo.
“Sunday, Sunday, the time we saw the Sun.”
“Moonday, Moonday, the time the Moon shone through.
Reaching fever pitch, the crowd, which numbered almost all of the 300 villagers, whipped into a frenzy; every head slashing the air wildly from side to side as the words tumbled from their spittle-flecked lips – Fireday, Ashday, Sunday, Moonday, representing the four quarters of their year, including that forbidden Second Quarter of Ashday.
Having arrived at its zenith the chanting died abruptly, leaving the clapping to fade away slowly. The Holy Man lowered his arms, his piercing black eyes scanning the villagers. Then he waved his hand across the food beside him.
“Dwellers of Thiecon, the All-Seeing-All-Powerful-One thanks you through me, His Chosen One, for these gifts; the fruit of your labours.”
The villagers responded as one: “In return, He gives us Life.”
Again the Holy Man’s arms reached for the skies. “He thanks you for the fruit.”
“In return He gives us Light,” thundered the chorus of voices.
“He thanks you for the vegetables.”
“In return He gives us Sun and Rain to bless the land.”
“He thanks you for the meat.”
“In return He gives us Rest.”
“He thanks you for your worship.”
“In return He gives us Salvation.”
“Dwellers of Thiecon, your commitment and loyalty to Him, The All-Seeing-All-Powerful-One, are rewarded. He sends the Star-Gazer to guide you.”
“By holy and ancient Thiecon lore He sends the Star-Gazer to guide us.”
“He commands that you do the Star-Gazer’s bidding.”
“We will do the Star-Gazer’s bidding.”
The Star-Gazer stepped forward to take the Holy Man’s place at the centre of the stage. His voice held none of the rich, robust qualities of the one the gathering had just heard, being more of a thin, whining cackle. From Jontil’s place at the very back of the henge he had to strain to hear the words. But hear them he must. He could scarcely afford to miss what the day had in store for him.
“For those born in the First Quarter,” cried the Star-Gazer, “today gives you the chance to close any outstanding bartering deals, but it won’t come easily – you will need to give plenty in return for what you gain.
“Toilers of the land beware. Your downfall today will be of your own making.”
Jontil gave a startled jump. That was him, a toiler of the land. The Star-Gazer had spoken, so he must be extra vigilant to make sure things did not go wrong today.
He stared hard at the Star-Gazer. Just how much did he know? How far did his powers stretch? It seemed to Jontil that the noble, hook-nosed head with its iron-grey hair held back in a pony tail, was staring almost hypnotically in his direction. Abruptly Jontil turned his face away, still feeling those jet-black eyes boring through the back of his skull.
That night, Laoni’s shallow breathing on the rough sackcloth pillow by Jontil’s ear told him she was asleep. He wished he could drop off so easily, but his thoughts continued to turn mercilessly to the increasingly dangerous situation they found themselves in. He wondered whether the village Elders would be able to help them…he had heard tales of herbal remedies being able to remove an unborn baby from its mother’s womb for the Elders to cast into the flames of a sacred fire, so it should have no life of its own. Maybe tomorrow I’ll talk to a village Elder, see what can be done.
Gradually his thoughts became more indistinct, as sleep began to wash over him, drenching him in a dream of villagers screaming that they knew the terrible secret he was trying to conceal.
A first the ungodly sound was just a part of his nightmare. Then he realised the baying of hounds and horses came not from inside his mind but from beyond the walls of his hut. Leaping up, he cast the reed matting from the bed and rushed to the window, pulling aside the covering and peering out into the moonlit night.
It was a full moon, clearly showing that the Destroyers of Evil were abroad, threading their way through the huts.
“Laoni,” he screamed, rushing back to the bed and shaking his wife violently. “They’re coming for us…the Destroyers of Evil are coming for us. Run, quick, before it’s too late."
Instantly she was awake, with raw, savage fear twisting her pert features. Clothed as they were, only in their night-robes, they fled through the main living area of the hut and out into the moonlight, now turned a fiery orange from the flaming torches held aloft by the Destroyers of Evil, who sat mighty and proud, astride their steeds, surrounding the hut.
Frantically Jontil looked for a way past them, but none was to be had; so tightly closed were their ranks.
“No,” he screamed. “Leave us alone.”
Heads began to appear through arches and windows. Heads with leering faces and glinting eyes. Word that the Destroyers of Evil were out must have spread like wildfire through the village.
All around, Jontil heard whispered voices getting louder all the time, starting to chant until they reached a crescendo, hypnotically repeating the same phrase over and over: “Destroy the evil, wipe it out. Seek and slay this very night.”
Laoni screamed hysterically, covering her ears as if shutting out the mesmeric sound would erase its power and the threat of what she knew was sure to come.
Moonlight flashed off the wickedly sharp spears pointing down at them from the gloved hands of the masked riders, whose capes swirled around the horses’ flanks. A tall, snorting stallion moved to one side, making way for a multi-colour-robed figure to step through the gap; a figure with a ribbon holding his iron-grey hair into a pony-tail. His eyes bored into Jontil’s, then he turned to stare fiercely at Laoni.
“Yes, said the Star-Gazer impassively, his reedy voice straining to be heard above the wild chanting. “This is Jontil and Laoni Almana. The powers of foresight granted to my family for generations through the wisdom of the All-Seeing-All-Powerful-One do indeed show the truth, that this couple are going to spawn a child in the forbidden Second Quarter – an Ashday’s Child.”
The violent, frenzied crowd were baying ever-louder for immediate blood, even though they knew their appetites would not be satiated until tomorrow, when the Holy Man and Star-Gazer would invoke the stoning ritual as laid down by the ancient laws of Thiecon.
Four Destroyers of Evil leaped from their mounts and held Jontil and Laoni with powerful, immovable hands. Jontil frantically tried to shake them off, but to no avail. Laoni was now sobbing quietly, her hysteria burned away, almost as if she were resigned to their fate.
But not so Jontil. “You’ve betrayed us,” he screamed insanely into the gathering crowd, writhing in a futile bid to shake himself free. “The curse of an Ashday’s Child has long since been purged. You fools, don’t you understand what you’re doing? An Ashday’s Child won’t destroy you. An Ashday’s Child will save you – will save the World.”
His rantings were born of desperation, and he knew they were meaningless, simply a bleak attempt to escape the inevitable.
The Star-Gazer’s mouth twisted into a mock semblance of a smile, and he struck Jontil viciously across the face with the flat of his gloved hand.
“You speak of betrayal.” The words were so hostile, so vicious and fierce, that flecks of spittle flew from his humourless smile. “Your own actions betray you, and in turn, betray all Dwellers of Thiecon. Never again shall Mankind taint and blemish these sceptred lands.”
Suddenly he tore his eyes away, pointing across the plain to the distant towering pillars, just visible in the glittering moonlight.
“Take them to the henge, to the sacrificial cell,” he ordered the horsemen. Then he turned to the villagers who were crowding around the little hut.
“Come,” he commanded above the din. “We have a thousand stones to find for tomorrow’s ritual.”