Winterwood In Eclipse

The rugged hill country, near what are now known as the Berwyn Mountains, was sheep country, thin-soiled, rocky, and harshly beautiful. Those of us who had made it our home were a hardy and stubbornly independent people. We had our ways and traditions, and most cared little for Augustine's Savior. But the zealots of this young religion were like wind and water upon the rocks, and even granite wears in time. Gradually, the politics of the land shifted more and more toward the Papal influence. Those of us who clung to our more ancient Celtic beliefs became the focus of increasing ecclesiastic censure. One clan of sheep farmers and weavers in particular became a problem. The Clogynglas, or Greycloaks.

We had held some of the finest lands in the area for generations. We called it Gaeafcoedwig, or Winterwood, and it encompassed almost 5,000 hectares of wooded uplands, windswept moors and narrow vales, with a spattering of arable pockets of bottom land. The two dozen or so families of the Greycloak clan lived on scattered steadings dotting Winterwood. We worked our flocks, harvested the fleece from the woollies, and spun and wove what we did not sell or trade outright. Ours was a simple existence, close to the Earth and the spirit that filled it. But we were pagans to the new religion, and either to be converted or done away with. No doubt our recalcitrant attitude only served to hasten the alliance formed between some of the recently evangelized locals, whose lands were not as choice as our own, and the bishopric seated two days southeast in Amwythig, or Shrewsbury, in the area called Pengwern. With the tacit benediction of the Holy See's authority, the Greycloaks were systematically rooted out, run to ground, and killed. I was twenty in the Spring of 676 when I escaped the fiery destruction of our home, and witnessed from a distance the deaths of my parents. I fled into the forests, pursuit not far behind.

As I lay prone upon the massive girth of an oak bough, chest heaving and heart hammering, I felt as if I had been running for days, my lungs a searing pain and every muscle worn beyond endurance. Far below me, a thaw-flooded watercourse ground violently. I could hear the baying of the hounds drawing nearer. Soon the dogs ran into view, cruel, battle-savage brutes, slavering and white-fanged, eager to rend and kill. Moments later their keepers appeared, every bit as lethal as their curs. They clustered on the edge of the gully, gawking down at the raging white water and ragged, grey stones. Some of them scouted along the rim, shouting to each other, cursing their prey. They argued for a while, and although I could not hear what they said, they seemed to have concluded that I had fallen into the foam. My track ended at the cliff's edge, and there was no way I could have leapt that chasm. Perhaps they believed they would retrieve my water-logged corpse when it finally tumbled into the calmer waters closer to the Dyfrdwy. One or two looked less certain, but at last they leashed their beasts and dragged them away.

I relaxed a little, and sent a silent prayer of thanks to Danu. It had been close, and more by the grace of the gods and good luck than not that I still drew breath. The cleft had opened suddenly before me as I ran. There was no time to check my flight or think, only to heave myself out into space and hope. But even as I did so, I could see that the other side was too far away. Instinctively, I had grabbed at the dangling creepers. I felt them tear and give, and felt myself plummeting toward the icy spume. And then I was dangling, suspended in a buoyant sway. The grip and heft of the vines had held, twisted and tangled amid the overhanging limbs. Hand over hand I hauled myself up until I had gained the bough. With my dagger, I cut away the vines and let them fall into the torrent, washing away the evidence of my desperate course. As I lay there, listening to the retreating sounds of my pursuers, I gazed into the thrashing tumult below and considered my options. Dusk had crept across the land before I finally slipped down the bole of the tree.

It was several hours later that I made my way back to our smoldering homestead. The pall of ash was thick, but over it I could smell the aroma of roasting flesh. Following the scent, I soon saw the glow of the fire and heard the voices of men. Four of them were gathered around a blaze, hacking off hunks of meat from a spitted ewe. I cautiously edged my way around them until I came to the charred timbers of our home. The figures around the fire were too engrossed in their feasting to notice a furtive figure carefully sifting through the rubble. There was little left, so it didn't take long to find what I sought, and I pulled a scorched scabbard from the ashes. The wrappings on the hilt of the sheathed blade were burnt, but the blade itself was undamaged.

The feasting stopped abruptly when I stepped into the circle of firelight. Fat hissed into the beat of suddenly stilled time. Then the scene erupted into leaping sparks as one of the men kicked the fire at me. Another rushed me, dagger in hand, stopping unexpectedly when my blade bit deeply into his forehead. The others disappeared into the darkness. I wiped my sword on the fallen man's tunic and picked up his dropped dagger. I sliced off a piece of the sheep, and relished what I knew would be my last taste of mutton from a Greycloak flock for a long, long time. As I ate, I gathered their abandoned weapons and gear and tossed them onto the fire. I took one last look at what had been my home, then slipped into the night.

I moved quickly through the darkness. A sliver of a young moon was just clearing a ridge when I came to one of the hardwood groves that dotted Winterwood. They had been carefully tended and preserved as places sacred to our gods. I began to whisper a chant as I entered the wood. Soon I came to a stone block in a clearing and stepped up to it, drawing my dagger. With its tip, I gently traced the patterns and runes etched into the surface of the altar, continuing the chant, invoking the aid of Danu, Lugh, Sucellus and the Daghda against the injustice my family had endured. With my other hand, I clasped a blue stone that hung from a chain around my neck.

The men who fled the camp were probably quick to report my unexpected return. With the rising of the sun, no doubt men and dogs easily picked up my trail from their camp. But as they neared the grove, I am sure the dogs began to hesitate and fight their leashes, finally tucking their tails and whimpering despite the lashing and cursing of their masters. The men probably abandoned them and moved slowly into the trees. They would see open, park-like spaces beneath the trees and the air would feel peculiarly fresh and still. If they continued, they would come to a wider space with a weathered grey stone in its center. Nervous looks would be exchanged with each other as they crossed themselves and stepped gingerly into the glade. The light would seem dimmer there, like the light of the sun eclipsed, and the ground would be bare and rocky, or the grass withered and yellow. The men themselves would feel suddenly weakened, something inside of them ebbing away. Slowly, they would back away from that place.

No one ever saw me again in that land, and by the end of the year the lifeless clearing in the grove would spread to the limits of Winterwood, leaving the once coveted holdings a barren and worthless waste. Cloaked in the hues of twilight and dusk, I left my home and wandered far. Highroads led to byways, and those to tracks and trails, the well-traveled to the dim, and then beyond. The years of my journey were many.

Autumn was failing rapidly as the thirteenth month drew to an end. The weather thickened and turned chill on the last day of Ruis. As I trudged along the mist began to close in, and by the end of the day it blanketed the land, moisture dripping coldly from every branch. My clothes were sodden and my cloaked slapped wetly against my legs. Finally, I quit the road and took shelter in a stand of cedar. There I managed a small fire, enough to warm and dry myself a bit, and to steep the herbs I would use in the ceremony welcoming the Crone and the new year. The night darkened around me as I began the ritual, the chanted words rich and comforting. I wrapped our traditions around myself and felt a great ease as I completed the rite. I knew that I would sleep well and deep that night, watched over by my gods.

It was the insistent shrill of a bold, grey thrush, crying out in the half-darkness of early morning, that called me from my dreams. I shrugged off my blanket and reached for my dewy boots, shaking them out and stomping into them. I stepped out of the thicket and the land sloped down to the west. The stars were thick and fiercely clear above me, and I felt a breathless excitement within, as though I were poised in the moment before flight upon the dizzy height of a pinnacle. Words stirred elusively in my mind, and my hand strayed to the blue stone on the chain around my neck. Then the words came clear:

Awaken from your wanderers dreams,

of hillocks climbed and forded streams.

Breath in deep this Ansteorran air,

windswept, chilled, and scented fair.

May your heart be filled and glad,

for now you stand in Bryn Gwlad.

And indeed, I felt my heart moved to love for the blessing of the star-bright sky above the crimson rim of coming day.

Winterwood stirred.

David K. Aycock 2013