Blue Eyes - Julie
Gren squatted on the chalk ridge, back to the sun, staring into the deep distance beyond the forests below. He could see nothing, other than what he assumed normal men would see, trees, some green, but many turning shades of flame as the winds blew colder. It was as it should be; he knew that, he had counted the full moons on his sacred baton with its 13 notches. 13 full moons, one cycle of the seasons, as it should be. The Lord of ice would come and claim the land from the Mother. It would be harsh and testing, only the strongest and cleverest surviving, but the Mother would reclaim her green lands and children back in a few moons. That was the pact they had made long, long ago. Not like in the time of the ancestors when he was jealous and angry and covered the world in endless ice for many lifetimes and Her children suffered, fled or died. Her chosen ones still watched and feared. Gren watched and feared but for a different reasons.
Gren was the clan shaman, not only shaman but a Watcher, born with eyes the colour of ice and sky, touched by the Ice Lord. He was touched by a God and was special, or so he had been told when he asked why he did not have a mother and live at a hearth. His blue-eyed tutor explained he was special and could not live as other men did; he was blue-eyed born of brown-eyed parents, eyes touched by a god. The sagas said the Lord of Ice came in the guise of a great white owl with its all seeing eyes of blue to mate with a woman. That child was the first whose eyes never changed to brown. This child with eyes of a snow owl would see if the Ice Lord was going to break his promise and reclaim his land forever. Whenever a child’s eyes did not go brown it was taken, boy or girl, to be trained as a Watcher and learn the art of watching for Ice. Gren often wondered how his mother felt seeing her baby son taken for ever. Had she felt grief or did she feel blessed her child was special? Except he knew he was not and his failure should the Lord return, it was his curse. But he did know that if he watched the clan believed all was well and life carried on.
He could sense them behind him on the ridge, preparing for the Moons of Ice and the lesser children too. Squirrels, red tails flicking, cached nuts and Jays, blue flashes in the dark woods stole them. Bears were gorging on berries in readiness to sleep out the snow. Gran could smell the tantalising smoke as it cured the venison and the mouth-watering smell of roasting hazelnuts. He could hear the rhythmic song of the women scouring hides to make warm pelts and the sharp clips of the stone workers making arrow heads for the next hunt. The preparations were going well; all was as it should be, but it did not quell the fear in his belly.
The smells reminded him it was a long time since dawn eating and the wind was getting colder. As his beard had grown greyer so the sitting became harder, and his eyes ached. Like the old grey-muzzled wolf relinquishing his pack to a younger male so Gren should be replaced by a younger Watcher but no blue eyed child had been born to brown eyed parents in all his time. Was he the last to be touched? Who would watch on his passing? Stiff and cold he heaved himself to his feet, pulling on his staff.
In the centre of the encampment food was always available to feed hunters, foragers and shaman alike. A seasoned deer hide was fixed on a tripod of stout poles, inside was a stew, meat with roots and herbs. Gren’s approach was noticed by Hayn. She stopped her task and with a deftness achieved by many repititions picked up a large hot stone from the fire with two sticks. She plopped it in the stew, which sizzled and spat in angry torment.
“There” she gestured to the wooden bowls “it will be warmed up now for you Shaman, you’ll need it after sitting on that hillside”
Gren nodded his appreciation and ladled a large helping into a bowl. He paused in what looked a silent prayer of thanks but was a savouring of the food and the welcome warmth of the stream on his face and bowl in his hands.
Hayn watched him with the wise eyes of a woman who had outlived 2 mates. She was a clan elder, mother of 6 children who lived; she was especially favoured by the Mother. Indeed her appearance with hips like a sow’s and pendulous breasts resembled the Mother. Hayn was no respecter of rank either.
“You look pensive?” she asked without looking up from grinding nuts into powder to be mixed with dried berries to make patties, “Did you see something?”
“No it is as it should be; we must prepare and wait for Her return”
“Prepare! My knuckles are sore as a chewed nipple from pounding these nuts. My daughter should be helping, instead of flirting with that stone cutter; I’m too old for preparing”
“He’s a fine prospect as a mate, you would be well provided for at his hearth” Gren suggested in mitigation
“hmmm we’ll see “she grudgingly concurred.” So what’s worrying you?”
“I too grow old; we both have only a few seasons left”
“Hmm I‘ll have plenty left if I didn’t have to work so hard. We get what the Mother gives us.”
“You shouldn’t have been so serious when you were young, plenty of women would have laid with those blue eyes of yours, but cold as ice you were. Maybe then you wouldn’t be worrying about your succession!” she chided with a strange grin.
Gren paused his eating, what did she mean?
“Very good stew” troubled, he hastily gulped down the last mouthful, “I fancy some fresh berries”. Gren stood up, gesturing his appreciation, she had been one of those he had turned down.
In a clearing, generations of women had trained the stems of the blackberry so each year its fruit grew big and juicy. Gren ate as he picked, brooding Hayn’s words. He had been bemused when women had flirted with him, he who would not provide them with a hearth until one day walking by a still pool he saw his reflection. Earth brown skin and bark dark hair, colours of the Mother he shared with every face he had ever seen, except his pale eyes and he began to understand his attraction. He was different to other men, special. What if he had lain with a girl and she had gone to another’s hearth carrying a blue-eyed child and no one knew he was the father? It would have been a special child, but a lie. A revelation entered his mind so terrible it made him gasp. What if his own mother had lain with a Watcher? His tutor? What if she had wanted a special child? What if he wasn’t touched at all? That was why he never felt special he was a lie, not a true Watcher at all.
Reeling Gren slumped to the ground and saw a young face watching him, Craw the cripple child. No one remembered his given name, but his left hand, damaged in his mother’s belly resembled a crow’s claw. The other children teased and made crow noises at him and Craw became his name and unable to hunt he spent his time with the women, gathering. Craw had a big bowl of berries and a very dirty mouth. Despite his hardships he was always smiled and he smiled a white toothy smile at Gren.
“You have been eating more than you’ve collected”, scolded Gren smiling back
“So have you!” he cheekily replied
“Yes but Hayn didn’t send me here to pick them. You had better wash your face before you return”
The boy nodded and began licking his hand trying to clean his face. He lived with Hayn, after his mother died in childbirth, the old woman took in orphans, such was the strength of her Mother’s touch.
“Have you been watching?”
“Did you see anything?”
“You must have seen something! I watch. I saw that Lynx stealing our meat last night, I called the alarm AND I saw where a squirrel hid its nuts and collected them for Hayn,” he boasted.
“You shouldn’t steal a squirrel’s nuts; the Mother’s lesser children need them to survive the Moons of Ice too”
“Well crows take squirrels’ nuts” Craw protested, “they see everything, they’re clever. I’m a crow, I’m a crow”, the boy began leaping and twirling, holding his wrap out with his good arm like a wing and made clawing movements with his left hand. “I’m a crow; you can’t fool me, craw, craw”
Gren tried hard not to smile at his youthful exuberance. A young boy, left to die as a baby, teased by his peers and with no prospect as a mate and yet he seemed happy. Gren had seen many times when despite his one hand Craw never gave up; he used things in a different way. He was as clever and resourceful as a crow.
“Yes you are touched by a crow” he nodded at the dancing child, “here share my berries.”
“You asked me if I saw anything” Gren said at last, “when I said nothing I meant I did not see the coming of the Ice Lord”
“What will he look like?”
“Like the Moons of Ice but much, much worse. There will be snow as deep as trees, cliffs of ice and all the rivers and lakes will freeze so hard we can walk on them. Everywhere will be colourless and silent except…”
“… for the crow!” Craw interrupted.
“I was going to say except for a snow owl’s screech but yes crows cry in the cold too, but they are harbingers of the Moons of Rebirth. They tell us the Mother is returning and life will start a fresh again.”
Craw looked serious, “what will happen if he does come again? What we will do?”
Gren felt a penetrating cold cut through him. That question, that terrifying question, he feared more than his lack of a successor. What was the point in Watching when the clan was powerless and cut off?
“The sagas tell us if he breaks his pact, we must follow the sun. Then we will reach a land he cannot touch, as he must have his feet in the cold dark worlds or lose his power.”
“Is it far?”
“Yes it was but since the drowning of the land that way is no more, the clan cannot follow the sun anymore.”
“Because we cannot walk across the waters to the Lands of our ancestors, we cannot escape him” Gren snapped. He finally voiced his fear, his utter powerlessness to save his people. Long ago men could walk for a whole lifetime towards the rising sun and back again, when the Ice Lord took the land they went sunward. But after the Pact a great flood consumed the land and the clan were marooned and could only watch the white cliffs of the land of their ancestors far across an angry sea. Some shamen believed the Ice Lord sent the flood, one final act of cruelty, trapping Her people in a land of plenty so they would become weak and forget him. Then he would return and claim them. But they never forgot and the Watchers watched and the people felt safe, protected.
“But you said when he comes the water will freeze so hard we can walk on it. So we can walk on the frozen sea to escape him. Stupid Ice Lord he never thought of that did he? I will walk on the ice like crows and escape him, ha-ha! I am Craw the Crow you can’t get me Ice Lord” and the boy jumped up, dancing and singing ever more rude insults to the Ice Lord.
Gren sat stunned. The boy was right and yet no saga, story or song had ever mentioned it. The waters would freeze and the clan could escape. The boy was touched by the Mother, by the crows, heralds of Her return. Gren remembered something else. Young crows had blue eyes, they turned a dark blue black but for their first year they were blue and they watched and learned. The boy was a little wild, true, but then he had had no real training or discipline but Craw was special Gren realised with growing hope in his heart. Maybe the time of the snow owl was over and the clan needed new stories and ideas from a child of the Crow, who would watch over them.
“Craw, Craw come here” he commanded, The boy stopped his gyrating and returned to his elder.
“Craw it is time for you to leave the women and become a man” the boy stared at the old man with wide, unbelieving eyes. “You will become my apprentice, learn all the ancient knowledge, the songs, sagas and sacred rituals. You Craw, touched by the Crow, will be a powerful Shaman one day, a Watcher for a new age. You are favoured of the Mother. Come we will start today, go tell Hayn you are now in my charge.” The boy remained rooted to the spot in amazement and barely concealed delight.
“Well hurry now, we have to write a new song explaining the coming of the Age of the Crow” Gren said smiling.
“Yes, yes of course” Craw shouted excitedly. He had always known he was special.