Excerpts from the novel
This never happened, but it could have.
I dedicate my book to the Conqueror
The Alpha Star, or Polaris, and the Little Dipper
Polaris is the brightest star in the constellation of Ursa Minor. To be more precise, it’s a system of three stars, comprising one super-giant star with a luminosity that varies cyclically, and two yellow dwarf companion stars. The first of these companions is seventeen times further from the central star than the Earth is from the Sun. It completes its orbit around the central star every thirty years. The second one is 2,400 times further than the distance between the Earth and the Sun, and completes its orbit around the central star once every 42,000 years.
Polaris is located closest to the North Pole. It is the forty-eighth brightest star known to us, 45,000 times brighter than the Sun, and forty-five times larger. It is seen in the same place all year round, throughout the entire Northern Hemisphere. It is a navigational star, helping travellers locate the north. The Big and Little Dippers, along with various other stars, rotate around Polaris. That is why it was once considered the centre of the sky. Polaris is 432 light years away from the Earth.
There was so much snow that the woman was sinking up to her knees. The furs wrapped around her muscular legs made walking difficult. Her shoulder had been badly wounded: blood was dripping from it slowly, the red droplets were absorbed by the whiteness even before they reached the ground.
The woman was completely alone. She knew there wasn’t a soul within the range of her senses. Otherwise, she would have smelled or heard their existence.
The camp was far away. She knew that which ever direction she took, she could orient herself perfectly, but her survival depended on finding the others. That was why the woman had been walking towards the camp for several days. She was hungry and exhausted, but she couldn’t stop. Sleep meant death.
Nothing could be seen except snow, and more snow. And wolves. For now, they were keeping their distance. But they had begun furtively making a large circle around her. The woman’s nostrils flared. She quietly breathed in the air saturated with aggression and the instinct to live at any price
The woman was not afraid. This land had never been hers, it had never belonged to her. Just like her life.
The woman did not know how to grieve. She did not know how to cry. She did not know how to feel compassion. She did not know how to wait or to hope. She knew only how to fight and to live. The woman knew how to look a wolf straight in the eye, and based on scent in the air and the beating of their two hearts, to determine which of the two was the stronger.
The wolves came closer, increasingly emboldened. She saw their large, grey bodies. She heard their quiet growling in the blinding white. The woman picked up a huge stick and gripped it with her good hand. She breathed out, and with all her strength she threw it at the nearest wolf.
The snow fell even harder.
Selija opens the door. The sun and snow are blinding. She covers her eyes. A silver ring in the shape of a snake winds around half her finger. She has lots of silver; her husband Gondas brings back loads of it, along with glass beads of various colours. She can order bead necklaces, brooches and bracelets whenever she feels the whim. And she does. Let the others see that she wants for nothing. Let them know it.
Selija fixes her coat. The fur won’t stay in place. Annoyed, she sticks a copper pin in it to fasten it to the coarse woollen fabric. It’s not a good idea to pin fur, but what does that matter to her? She’ll throw it to the poor and get a new one. Her husband has wagons full of furs, collected from the local hunters, ready for transport, and Selija is free to choose whichever one she likes. No need to ask. Gondas never gets angry. He is a good man. He protects her, knows how to appease the gods, and always comes back to her. He is a handsome man, with long hair the colour of straw tied at the crown. His eyes are blue, like all of our men’s. But unlike the others, he has a large scar that divides his face in two. He says some Burgundians attacked him on his way to Kornunt. They tried to take everything, but he and his men put up a fight. With the lightning and the heavy rain, he isn’t even sure if was lightning or the Burgundian’s sabre that scarred his face. He didn’t come home for a long time. He says his wounds took a long time to heal. He’s a good man: he brought her a huge silver bracelet, so heavy that it weighs her arm down.
Kirnis brings more logs for the fire. Selija wants to tell him there’s enough already. It’s hot inside. But you can’t argue with him. Kirnis is old. He used to look after the fire in her parents’ home, too. Selija brought him with her when she came to live with Gondas. Everyone knows he is too old to work, but you can’t tell him that. He does what he wants. He walks quietly, the old warrior, although it’s years since he last wielded a sword. Now he carries three sticks at a time for kindling. He never removes the boar tusk pendant from his neck, no matter what. As if he needs the protection of the Mother of the gods here by the fire, as if he is fighting the Teutons.
She only notices she’s pricked her finger when she sees the blood. Selija licks the blood as she surveys the yard, trying to convince herself that nothing has changed. The sun is rising, but it’s probably snowing for the last time. She takes a deep breath, drawing the snow and the cold into her lungs. Her fingers tremble. She adjusts her fur. She should close the door. The heat from inside and the chill from outside are mixing, spinning in circles around her. Selija doesn’t like it when life takes this course, one she can’t control: her husband Gondas is a good man, but he has brought home another woman.
He brought her. He came home with a scarred face. He told Selija that the Burgundians were responsbible for the scar, and Selija believed him. Why shouldn’t she?
Taking his wares to Kornunt, Gondas normally packs his wagons full of furs, honey and amber, and returns with silver, copper, tin and zinc. Unsure of the contents, Selija walks over to take a look, but she doesn’t see anything interesting: a wagon full of wares, what more is there to say? He normally brings back men, young but exhausted from the long journey on foot. If any of these men turn on them and try to rob them, Gondas and his men round up the survivors and tie them to the carts or sell them. Some are used for sacrificial offerings.
He always brings back men, but this time he brought back a woman.
Kirnis pushes his way in through the door past Selija. He’s completely blind now. He walks slowly across the yard. He didn’t accompany them on that journey. He doesn’t know anything.
She isn’t even a woman, she’s still a child. He brought her in the last cart. Selija watches her get out. She hops out with ease. After all, she’s young. Selija can’t hop out like that any more; her age and her status don’t allow it. Selija clenches her fist, her nails digging into her palm. She can’t hop out like that any more. Not any more. She squeezes her fist. When she releases it, four red marks in the shape of an arc remain indented in her palm. They don’t fade for several hours. They used to fade immediately. Not any more.
And that woman, that child, is looking around. She’s supporting herself on the cart, as if she’ll fall if she lets go. Perhaps she will. She’s travelled for so long, most likely without putting a foot out, most likely she was not allowed to. She looks frightened and defensive. The look of a captured wolf. Good. Let her be frightened. Selija, she’s not afraid. What is there to be afraid of?
Paying no attention to the women, the men unload the goods. Pretending she’s come to examine them, Selija approaches the last cart. She doesn’t want to, but she does. You have to know your enemy if you want to conquer her. The men shout to each other; more help has arrived. Gondas has many men. He lets his warriors go home to their wives and children. They line up their spears and shields, and lean them against the wall. They’ve done their duty; they’ve seen Gondas and the goods home safely.
He is a good man. He brought Selija a large silver bracelet, narrow in the centre, but flaring out at the ends. He puts it on her wrist and fastens the clasp. It weighs down her arm. She touches his scar. He jumps back. He has never done that before, but this time he does. Selija tries a second time, but Gondas turns and walks away. The men pile the goods up into huge piles. They know that they will be able to return later to claim their shares. Gondas is a good man. He will pay everyone fairly, even those who did not travel, the ones who stayed behind.
The child-woman is not like our folk. Her hair is not flaxen, but light brown and wavy. Her eyes are bright, clear and brown.
‘This is Glesum,’ says Gondas.
Selija shudders. She hadn’t noticed him approach. She shudders at the name, a name she’s never heard before. She’s never seen such hair, such eyes, such a frightened wolf’s gaze.
‘She’s a mute. Nobody has ever heard her voice. Don’t bother asking her anything,’ says Gondas.
‘I can see that for myself,’ answers Selija.
‘She’ll live with us,’ said Gondas. ‘I’ll build her a house at the far end of the yard. She’ll live with us.’
‘I see,’ says Selija.
Better not live with us, she thinks. Better not live at all.
The horse, quivering as it fends off mosquitos, knocks over a bucket. The water comes spilling out. Selija imagines her own life spilling out in a similar way as the tired horse kicks the bucket away, the earth soaking up the water as if she’d never been.
Glesum stands leaning against the wagon. The men walk around her. Nobody pays her any attention. She relaxes. Everyone does. And, bit by bit, things return to normal.
Selija counts the days on her fingers. It's too many now, and no sign of menstrual blood. She realises that what should never have happened has happened. She already has a son, Bentis, son of Gondas. He has seen more than ten winters. When the snow melts and the days and nights are of equal length, her son will be old enough to be a soldier, a commander like his father.
Her son Bentis was born the first winter she came to live with Gondas. Bentis is her life. She has no other. Now she is expecting again. The blood is not coming, although she tries to summon it. Days pass, as mornings give way to evenings. She has to hurry, because once the child starts to move, it’s too late to pull him out.
Selija knocks on the door. It is opened by an old woman, dragging her wolf-ravaged, scarred and painful, yet long-since healed leg. They go inside. The house is small. How much does one person need? Especially an old witch with a leg that has been ravaged by wolves.
All the corners of the house are stuffed with grasses. There's an unpleasant smell, from the salves for tending wounds. It’s stuffy inside: the suffocating stench of dried plants and pork fat cooking on the stove, mixing with kalanchoe leaves, overwhelms Selija. She feels ill, the ground tilts, and everything begins to spin. The plants come back to life, their dried blooms opening up, their stems protruding and curling around Selija’s ankles.
When she opens her eyes, she is lying on the filthy floor, covered with a moth-eaten fur. The old witch is presssing something rancid against her face. Selija turns her head so that it doesn’t sting her eyes. She might be blinded! This old witch with the ravaged leg is capable of anything. She can turn water into ice in the summer simply by throwing some herbs into it. She can preserve the bodies of the dead until it’s time to bury them. She can heal men’s wounds, applying salves so repulsive that the men vomit from the stench, but the wounds do heal. She can fasten broken bones together: she orders thirty nights of bedrest, and sometimes even twice as much. Afterwards, the patients walk again as if nothing had ever happened. She can stop coughs, reduce fevers. She can transform pain into peace and calm, bring a dead man back to life, and turn a living man into a dead man.
She healed her ravaged leg herself. The children of the village carried her home half-dead, drained of blood. She came to at home, and told them which salves to use. The children rubbed them into the wounds, they rubbed and rubbed. She gave them orders, so they rubbed, wretching from the stench and the mauled flesh. She told them to bandage the wounds with linen rags that she already had prepared; she hadn’t known they would be for her. She had always done everything for others. She had lived for others, and for once something had come in handy for herself. The children wrapped the bandages and tied them. The old witch fell asleep, and the children ran off and forgot everything. Wolves often attacked. They often attacked old women wandering far from home. If the old women didn’t die out there, they were tended to, though rarely successfully. They would then join the the Mother of the gods and fade into forgetfulness. Children rarely feel sympathy for old women; they prefer life to death.
The children forgot this old witch as well, but one day one of them remembered, and ran over to check her. The old witch was as healthy as a horse, but even older than before, and she was dragging that leg behind her. She was out wandering in the forests and the fields again collecting plants, because who was going to do it for her?
Selija begins to cry; she doesn’t even know why. People say that everyone cries in this old witch’s den. Some cry for the dead, some for the living. Ultimately, all wounds are the same; there’s no sense in comparing them.
The old witch strokes Selija’s head, and everything is calm. The pain subsides, the fear disappears, evil disappears as well.
‘Why did you come?’ she asks. ‘Your child is fine, and so are you. You can go home in peace. You don’t need anything. You have everything you need.’
‘Yes, I have everything I need,’ Selija agrees.
‘But you came here as if you needed something,’ the old witch says.
She can see that the old witch knows everything. She knows that Selija doesn’t need this child. Selija is angry. Why doesn’t she just give her the concoction and send her home?
‘You’ll anger the Mother of the gods. Don’t do it.’
Selija laughs. Her laugh is happy, melodic.
‘ I will not prepare the broth for you, not for all your silver, or what your husband Gondas brings you.’
Selija laughs. She can’t imagine how silver can’t soften someone’s heart or mind, or lessen their fear of God.
‘You have everything. All I have is my bad leg. But I don’t need more,’ the old witch says calmly.
There is no one, thinks Selija, who does not lack something. You too, you old witch. There must be something you need.
‘I’ll tell Gondas. He’ll take you into the forest. You won’t have your people, you won’t have anyone to cook your stinking ointments for. Nobody will need you, you’ll be left to tend to the wolves, the same ones that mauled you,’ says Selija.
‘You’ll make the Mother of the gods angry. Don’t do that, Selija.’
‘My husband Gondas is strong and wealthy. I can do anything I want.’
The old witch cowers. She is powerful, but Selija refuses to submit to her power. Selija has no heart or mind. Even the old witch’s best ointments can’t help her.
Dragging her mauled leg, the old witch hobbles over to the wall, takes a generous bundle of dried jimsonweed, a few leaves of one herb, some of another, and some seeds, and cooks them. She does not stir it. The concoction needs no stirring.
She pours the mixture into a smaller pot, a pretty one, recently made. She mixes in all the grasses and herbs, and bows to the Mother of the gods: forgive me, we can’t always do what we want to do. She gives the pot to Selija and tells her to let the concoction sit for a few days, and then to drink it slowly.
Selija’s menses return, and life gets back to normal.
She does not pour out the remainder of the concoction. She saves it for the next time.
Again Kirnis walks in carrying a handful of dry sticks, which he has brought, chopped and stacked by himself. There is enough here for all his remaining winters. Why, old warrior, do you burden yourself with firewood? How many times have you been told that you’ve done your duty: you’ve served the commander to the best of your ability, your spear and shield stand planted firmly against the inside wall of the house, as they await their final resting place next to you in your grave. But what can you tell an old man like Kirnis? Indeed, have you ever heard of an old man who listens?
Kirnis carries his bundle of firewood, pushing past Selija into the farmhouse. A fancy leather boot, fastened below the knee with a strap and a flashy buckle, even has bells that jingle softly as Kirnis slowly lifts his old feet. It is a leather boot that he removed from the foot of a Teutonic soldier after stabbing him with his long, smooth spear. Kirnis says that there was another one belonging to the same soldier; it was just as fine, made of the same leather, with the same buckle and bells. People used to come from nearby villages to admire such beauty, which they had never seen before. But nobody believes him any more, because his other foot is wrapped in fur, in winter and summer. Kirnis is never hot or cold, but his bells are always jingling.
Kirnis, dear old Kirnis, where is your boot? Where is your mind?
‘It was burnt,’ he says. That‘s what he always says.
It really was, all the elders say, those that still remember.
Back then, a long time ago when Gondas hadn’t even learnt to walk, but could only stand, his father received some news. Maybe it was good, maybe it was bad, only the Mother of the gods knows. Julian, the Emperor of Rome, who organised Nero’s gladiatorial fights, sent emissaries to the Baltic demanding that they return with amber. A group of horsemen, several merchants, and a number of men to load the amber, travelled for one week to the coast. They traded money for amber that had been gathered by the people of the coast. They said that they had travelled forty days without stopping. They arrived angry, exhausted, their horses snorting and digging at the earth, but glowing in the sun: it was their sweat and good breeding. After arriving in our lands, the horsemen put down their swords and shields, a kind that nobody here had ever seen before. The merchants were insistent but peaceful. They knew what they wanted.
Gondas’ father, an experienced warrior and commander of the tribe, received the news and had to make a quick decision. The tribal council was immediately summoned, the men talked, and conferred with the Mother of the gods. They only had one choice, to travel to the coast and see for themselves. The only way to clarify matters was to do it themselves.
Kirnis tightened the straps on his boots, took up his shield, and the spear with the short narrow steel point, so sharp that he could fight from a distance or at close range if need be. He was the second strongest man in the tribe after Gondas’ father; he was clever and experienced. Although there were plenty of other men, Kirnis always walked next to the commander, his equal in battle.
‘No, Kirnis, you have to stay here,’ said Gondas’ father.
Kirnis squinted in the sun, gasping for air. He didn’t know what to say.
‘Kirnis, I have a son now, Gondas. Your job is to stay with him and protect him.’
Kirnis squinted, gasping for breath. He didn’t understand if this was humiliation or an honour. But you don’t doubt your commander.
A few hours later, Gondas’ father gathered up his strongest men and his sharpest spears. After all, how could they know if these warriors or merchants had come in good faith or not? They would traverse their lands. Were their intentions peaceful, or would they kill and plunder? The fog had barely lifted in the morning when each man mounted his horse, or ran on foot, leaving his women and children behind to be protected by Kirnis and several other trusted men. They crossed over to the coast. Kirnis felt uneasy. An old warrior with a good sense of smell knew what that meant.
A strange sound approached, and Kirnis realised that it was not thunder or any other natural sound. Horses' hooves struck the ground. Their ground. Kirnis, the brave old warrior felt his heart go numb. From the sounds, he understood how unevenly matched they were. Those godforsaken Langobards, of Teutonic stock. He wasn’t sure which ones they were: they might have been Goths or Burgundians. Cruel and greedy, their purpose was to plunder as much as possible. He had seen villages they’d devastated, although he’d never personally met or fought one.
He knew that he did not have enough men, and that the palings would not stop the Langobards. He knew that they all had to run as fast as they could and hide in the dug-outs they used for storing grain. The outside of the dug-outs had to be covered with manure, so that the monsters would not find them.
Gondas. I have to find him and stay with him, to protect him. Kirnis grabbed Gondas, tucked him under his arm, and ran like the wind, with his spear in one hand and shield in the other, and Gondas’ mother yelling behind them. Perhaps she didn’t undertand what had come over Kirnis, why he was running away with her son, her life. After all, she didn’t have any other. Her screams woke everyone up, old men, women and children, they all took off after Kirnis. By then, they had all heard the thunder. All of their hearts congealed in terror; their feet trampled the wheat. No one knew if they would ever need it again.
Only the mother was yelling: her son had been taken from her. The others ran in silence, saving their screams for their final goodbyes, after a Langobard’s spear stabbed them in the back or his sword impaled their hearts.
Kirnis ran ahead of everyone else. Gondas slept under his arm, while his mother yelled. If someone had stolen your child, you'd yell too. She was cursing herself for not grabbing a knife; she would have caught up with Kirnis and stabbed him in the back. The thunder approached, but the bells on his boots kept ringing. That was the last thing they needed.
The mother didn’t hear the horses, only the regular breathing of her son, so small that being carried didn't wake him, but being carried meant he had to be hidden. She was crying, crying without tears. It was getting dark. The wind picked up. The trees rustled: to them it hardly mattered.
Kirnis put down the boy and his arms. He dug through the manure with his hands. The mother grabbed Gondas and turned to go back, but when she saw everyone else running, she understood at last what was happening. The thunder was close now. It was getting dark. It was hard to see. Kirnis pushed the people into the dug-out, as many as could fit. The mother went first with Gondas. The others dug their own dug-outs and crawled inside, the men covering them all up with manure again. The strongest women remained outside as well. They shared out the knives, each taking one, along with a spear with a long and narrow steel tip, so sharp that, if needs be, they could fight from a distance or at close range.
They raced back to the village to make sure they were far from the dug-outs, in case a child started to cry, or in case the old people, losing patience, started complaining. The palings were already on fire. All their houses would soon catch fire too, thought Kirnis. It was dry. It was getting dark. Tackling the fire was hopeless. Meanwhile, the snorting of the horses, their greedy jowls and their bared teeth, announced the arrival of the Langobards, flashing their swords. Kirnis did not have his own woman, or his own children. In serving Gondas’ father, he had never had time to even think about it. That was fortunate, because it was his duty to defend the son.
The houses closest to the palings were already ablaze, crackling generously. They were wooden and daubed with clay. Smoke, shouting, metal against metal, the gentle prayers of the dying to the Mother of the gods.
Kirnis clutched his wild boar pendant tightly in his hands. Protect me. Protect Gondas, he prayed. And he thrust his sword, many times, wherever he saw a chink in the armour. He held his sword high. The Vandals fell from their horses. Covered in blood, whether his own or his victims' (he would check later), Kirnis thrust again and again. As an old warrior, he had experienced many battles, but he had never felt such rage. He knew that if it wasn't for him, there would be nobody else. Just a few men and women, and their numbers kept shrinking. Kirnis watched the Vandals enter one house after another, helping themselves to the best booty. He thrust again and again. The smell of blood and hatred is stronger than the blackest smoke.
He would not run, but he would not die. He couldn't. He had to be where Gondas was, to protect him. Everything fell silent, because no living souls remained, only Kirnis and the Vandals. They were laughing heartily, showing each other their booty. The sound of sword against sword had been replaced by that of silver against silver. Kirnis pressed himself against the wall. He clutched his spear tightly, ready if some monster got too close. He had lost one of his boots. One of the straps must have come undone. Everything was burning. His hair was singed. The fire was approaching. He lay down on the grass and started to crawl softly towards the forest. The Vandals mounted their horses, and shouted as they disappeared into the darkness.
It was Kirnis' most valiant battle, but it was also his last. Most of the houses had burned to the ground, but not his. That's where he took Gondas. His mother followed them. Everyone was frightened and quiet, speechless as they regarded the night's silence, but what was there to look at? In the morning, the survivors set off to attend to the charred remains. They collected strewn items, caught a few Langobardians' horses, and Gondas took his first steady steps. Kirnis rested his sword and shield against the wall of the largest room in his house, and left them there to await his death. After that, he stopped talking. He did not even answer when he was spoken to. Even when Gondas' father returned, he didn't say a word. He didn't explain a thing. He passed Gondas silently to his father.
The houses were rebuilt, the people amassed more silver, and life returned to normal. But Kirnis took to carrying firewood, and nobody could persuade him not to. He would sit in his house when it was warm, or he‘d go to the forest. When the cold weather set in, he would do whatever was necessary so that Gondas would never be cold. And sometimes he would simply open the door, look at Gondas, and go home, without saying a word to anyone. He would breathe in calmly, smelling the air to check if everything was in order. He would turn his head and ask, Aren't those horses foreign horses? He knew his own. He no longer went into battle with Gondas' father, even when he was invited to. But he also never found himself a woman or children. Nobody understood what he would do next, if he would go somewhere. Nobody ever saw him happy or sad again. So they forgot about him, and left him alone to walk where only the Mother of the gods knew.
On good days, whenever some children or women had nothing to do, they would tease him about his happiness, saying:
‘Kirnis, dear old Kirnis, where is your boot? Where is your mind?’
‘It was burnt down to the ground,’ Kirnis would say. He always said the same thing.
So little is needed to burn down the mind.
Shorly afterwards, the Emperor Nero's soldiers travelled the Baltic trade routes and coastline, and took back to Rome such a hoard of amber that they used it to decorate the podium for gladiatorial fights, the knots in the nets that protected Rome from wild animals, the sand of their arenas, and their funeral stretchers. Even everyday tools were made of amber. They brought back small pieces, and large ones weighing more than a newborn baby.
The Aesti chiefs welcomed the Romans graciously, without killing any of them. They exchanged amber for large quantities of silver, coins and other treasures which pleased both the men and the women. They welcomed them graciously, without killing a single one of them. After all, after the Romans had acquired what they had come for, they would come again.
Like every spring, this spring too, a day for celebrating, dancing and singing would come, a day for learning the will of the Mother of the gods, a day for asking her blessings. This was women’s work. The men did not get involved, they had their own concerns, war and trade. Nor did the women invite them. It was not for men to determine matters related to birth, fertility and the harvest. Communing or negotiating with nature was not their concern.
As the snow started to melt and the days got longer, the women would wait anxiously. In fact, no one knew when it would all begin, only the old witch with the mauled leg. She would suddenly call them, telling them it was time. And all of them, young and old, strong and ailing, as long as they could still walk, rich and impoverished, they would undo their braids at dusk, rinse their hair with herb tonics to make it shine in the glow of the fire, and dress in the loveliest of garments. Leaving their children and their husbands, they would rush off to the hill of the lindens, happy and breathless. Young or old, they all ran as if they were young, not noticing their aches and creaking bones, and much less their everyday exhaustion and fears. You are alive for as long as you can climb the hill of the lindens, the hill of women. If not, what else is left?
They had to wait for the right time, when the days and the nights were of equivalent length. Only the old witch knew this. She prepared for it, she prepared the tonics for all the women, and belladonna ointment for the old women. Nature had already given them a lot, the slender spring herbs in all their potency were cast into a pot, while well water and the old lady's incantations would extract their essence. Only in the old lady's hands did the plants become effective. Otherwise, they grew without any purpose. If you didn't like it, the other old ladies knew a lot about herbs. They too were enchantresses, able to cast spells and to heal. But only the witch with the ravaged leg knew how to talk with the Mother of the gods. Only she knew how to ask for blessing and protection, how to find out what she desired. Only she knew the stars, and only she could see when the day was long enough to pray and celebrate.
The old witch held on closely to her secrets. She was old: what would happen after her death? Relax. Don’t worry. The old witch with the mauled leg won’t abandon you. She knows better than you do when she'll die. She would never depart from this world without teaching one of you her secrets. No one knew who it would be. They all wanted to be the one. They all hoped for it and waited, but it wasn't for them to decide. The old witch would decide who was most suitable. The Mother of the gods would decide. Your task will be to carry out her will.
Meanwhile, they all danced calmly in a circle. They wove the first tiny wreaths, using short, slender grasses, which had barely just sprouted. They placed them on their own and each other's heads, splashing in the fresh water, paying no heed to who was a friend and who was an enemy. This is how women behave when there are no men. They sang songs, sad ones and ever-so-happy ones. Taking turns, one old woman would start, the others chiming in. They made fires, praying for what their hearts or homes lacked. They prayed for a successful harvest, for the wheat, barley and oats, and also the rye and the millet. They prayed that their children would not go hungry, that wild animals and illness would not attack them. They prayed for success for their husbands in war. They prayed for silver and other beautiful things: they prayed for children for those who didn't have them, and for rest for those who had enough. They prayed and prayed. Such was this day, this holiday, when the Mother of the gods listens to every woman, when she sees every tear, when one can trouble her for the slightest of desires. That's what the old witch with the ravaged leg told them, and is there anyone who knows better?
The women drank the potions. They were shared out fairly. The old lady would not allow any mix-up. Even Selija drank. The old lady gave her a red extract for cleansing, because even the Mother of the gods will not listen to someone like Selija. To Selija, it was all the same. She knew what she wanted, and she got it. Glesum drank too. She had been brought here against her will. Her neighbours had dragged the frightened woman along with them to the hill. She stood cowering. She must have been afraid she would be sacrificed. But no, silly woman, this was not that kind of celebration. Sacrifices were not necessary here. The witch's incense made from amber powder is all we need. We light it far from the dancers, under the lushest linden, in order to intoxicate the Mother of the gods, and to soften her heart, but not to harm the other women. The old witch gave another concoction to Glesum, to calm her down. She would be here for a long time. How will she take it all, poor dear? To give her strength, so that she is prepared for what awaits her. The old witch with the ravaged leg stroked Glesum's hair. My child, why were you given this fate? Everything will calm down. It will be all right, you will survive. Indeed, Glesum relaxed. Her frightened wolf‘s glance was replaced by a deep silence.
The others also drank, until the old witch initiated the farewell dance, the most beautiful one of all. With her hands clasped, the women spun round and round in a large circle, bending forwards, bending backwards, as if consumed by fever. Losing themselves, but with their confidence in their femininity confirmed, they became one indivisible Woman, whose strengths would be necessary for the troubles that would inevitably arise. When the music ended, they all rushed home, still a bit unsteady, but very happy. Only a few of the very oldest women stayed with the witch with the ravaged leg.
Those who were allowed to remain knew. They sat under the old linden. The incense had burned out. They rubbed their armpits and groins with the belladonna ointment. They mumbled something under their breath. The witch with the ravaged leg led. The others flew off to meet the female elders of other tribes. Transforming themselves into ravens and black clouds, they landed on the lindens, cackling. So they learned the true will of the Mother of the gods, who this year had promised this and that, for better or for worse. Your lives will not be as you wish, but they will be bearable, as always.
Gondas again loaded up his carts, full of a great variety of goods: first of all amber, large and small pieces, raw, and if there was room, good furs after the winter. He was preparing for a trip to Kornunt, perhaps even to Aquileia, part of the Roman Empire, he still had to decide.
He had again called up the strongest men from the neighbouring tribes, men of the same name, of the same blood, to meet him at the Sacred Grove, the grove saturated with their forefathers' prophesies and old fears. The grove was out of the way, so there was nobody to bother you. The gods were close by. Of course, the journey to Aquileia was more profitable: they buy the amber there, and process it later. In Kornunt they pay much less. The Roman middlemen want a bit for themselves. They had taken amber to Aquileia before. After they'd sold it, they bought so many goods that the carts almost broke from the weight on the journey back. They brought back not only money and glass dishes, but also copper, tin and zinc, enough to last the local artisans several years. They brought so many copper bracelets, brooches, pendants and other pieces of jewellery that there weren’t enough people back home to wear them. The men and women could wear a different piece of jewellery every day, dressed up every day in something new.
The craftsmen had made the most beautiful baldric for Selija, the kind they'd seen in other lands, but with their own details added, because their skill was certainly not inferior. There were two pins at the sides with round heads embossed with a geometric pattern, one to be pinned to the right of the chest, the other to the left. Semi-circular charms hung from the pins; these were also embossed with the same geometric pattern. There were five circles on each side. Long, delicate chains suspended from each of the circles, five in varying lengths, covering Selija's entire chest. Selija would wear her baldric whenever she was in a good mood, or simply when she wanted to show her superiority.
Selija stood behind a tree and listened. She knew it wasn't allowed, but so what? To bring back another woman also wasn't allowed, but had anyone asked her permission? No matter how much she tried to calm down, her body trembled. The trees were rustling angrily. There was also an owl hooting. As if it was under a spell. Why couldn't it be quiet? Not only was it frighening her, it made it hard for her to hear. As if on cue, the men fell silent. They continued to talk, but only in whispers, so Selija could no longer understand what they were saying.
‘It’s getting worse,’ said Gondas. ‘The Teutons have sniffed out the traders. All of them, the Lugii, the Burgundians, the Marcomanni and the Quadi, they lie in wait for the carts, ready to attack the men and take prisoners. They take the amber for themselves, just like that, as if they had collected it themselves. The Marcommani and the Quadi are pushing towards the Roman Empire. They've made it all the way to Aquileia. Along the way you might run into a Teutonic robber here and there, but also serious, well-equipped armies. And the amber, food and other supplies that you have in your cart, everyone needs them. Not only will you return empty-handed from such a journey, you'll be lucky to come back alive. We will have to make our way further to the east, to pass through the mountains. The journey will be longer, about fifty days just to get there, but that's life. It doesn't always allow us to choose.’
Their plans had been discussed, and their drinking horns prepared. They were filled with mead, in order to seal their agreement.
Selija began to cry. To lose her husband was the last thing she needed. Bentis was still so small. Some creatures got tangled between her feet. The forest shimmered by the light of the eyes of various wild animals. Breathless, she raced home as fast as she could.
In the morning, Gondas returned tired but calm. ‘Things get easier once you've made your decision.’ All he told Selija was that in a few days he would take his best men and leave. She cried, and pleaded with him not to go anywhere. They already had enough, they didn’t need any more of anything.
‘What kind of commander am I if I don’t need anything more?’ asked Gondas. And with that, his fate was sealed.
In order to teach Selija to want more, Gondas led her to the carts which were guarded even here by his men. He invited her to take whatever she wanted. He was right; after all, he was the commander. Without the best mind, you will not become a commander. First, she grabbed the biggest pieces, but you can't wear such pieces around your neck. ‘It would be a pity to break them up,’ said Gondas. If Gondas felt pity, so did she. It was a wife’s duty.
Perhaps when Gondas was away she would go back to the old witch with the mauled leg. Perhaps she would take care of Glesum quietly and calmly. Maybe later, but now there was amber to choose from.
Then she saw exactly what she wanted. A small piece of amber, white as milk, lying at the very bottom of the cart. It was good she had dug a bit deeper down. She clasped it in her hand: a teardrop, so full of life, a drop of milk. There was a brown coagulated strip of blood along the edge. Selija would take it to the jeweller. She would not wait her turn, there was no need, the others could wait. She would ask him to make a pendant, to attach a chain to it so that she could always wear it around her neck as a symbol: to show all the people, and the gods, who wielded power around here.
Translated by Jūra Avižienis