By Scott Bury
Today is the day after the summer solstice, and since the solstice plays a pivotal role in my first novel, The Bones of the Earth, I thought I would present an excerpt today.
This is my imagination of what happened under the slopes of the Carpathian mountains the day after the summer solstice, 1420 years ago — the darkest of the Dark Ages.
Chapter 3: Coming home
Javor pictured coming home with the unhurt girls. He imagined a shout from the circle of huts as a lookout saw them approaching. He could see a crowd running out to greet them at the foot of the hill below the village. His father would clap him on the shoulder and say “My boy, my boy!” He could see his father glowing with pride, see his mother smiling and weeping at the same time, her worries banished, relieved that her last son had returned. He imagined Roslaw, the headman, clapping him on both shoulders, grinning from ear to ear, proclaiming him the hero. The villagers would give him flowers and bread and mugs of ale. Elli’s mother would hug him, and then Elli would kiss him again, and so would Grat, and even that scrawny, nasty Mrost would have to congratulate him and acknowledge him as the hero. And the next day, they would resume their interrupted solstice celebration and Javor would jump over the bonfire and everyone would cheer.
And Elli will be my girl, and we will be betrothed and then married before the fall.
He did not let himself think of the dead Avars, or of Elli’s murdered father.
The sun was setting before they saw Nastasiu’s circle of huts nestled against the hill.
“Something’s wrong,” said Hrech. There was no sound coming from the village, no dogs barking, no babies crying. No one shouted as the four young people and two horses came closer. No one came running out to clap Javor on the shoulders.
Hrech ran to the first hut and then stopped dead. The hut had collapsed, its thatched roof spilling onto the ground. A corner post, thicker around than a man could reach with two hands, had been broken as if over someone’s knee.
Then they heard weeping and sobbing. They saw bodies between the huts. A dog sprawled, its neck broken. Mara, Javor’s neighbour, slumped over a rock, legs at unnatural angles. Her children cried over her body. As the four young people turned to survey the scene, they saw men and women binding each other’s wounds.
Javor went to a man sitting in the dirt, holding his head. “What happened?” The man turned around; it was Roslaw, his face covered in fresh blood. There was a new bruise under his eye in addition to the scar he had received from Krajan, the Avar.
“Where were you?” he asked.
“We brought the girls back. Did more soldiers come?”
Roslaw shook his head and turned away. Tekla, his wife, a very thin woman with bulging eyes and grey-streaked black hair, answered. “Not soldiers, boy,” she said. She appeared shaken but unhurt.“A monster. A monster. It killed so many, then …” and she broke down, kneeling in the dust, weeping.
The only thing that Javor could say was “There’s no such thing as monsters …” He turned. Elli’s eyes were wide, searching around the village. Grat just held Hrech’s hand, insensate.
Elli shrieked “Mama!” and ran across the village. Lyuba, her mother, came out of her hut, eyes wide in disbelief. Mother and daughter embraced, weeping. Javor could see a red wound across Lyuba’s forehead from the Avar’s blow.
Hrech led Grat to her hut; her mother had not come out. “You’d better check your home, Javor,” he said.
Javor felt as if there was only an empty space in the middle of his body. He ran to the end of the village.
His hut was standing, but the thatch over the doorway was gone, as if ripped away by a huge claw. In the dying red light he saw his father lying face-down in front of the door. In his hand was his long scythe. Javor could not breathe. One side of his father’s skull was caved in and matted with blood. Slowly, Javor bent down and stepped carefully over the body into the hut, not daring to think about his mother.
He had to wait until his eyes adjusted to the gloom, and then he saw Ketia lying on the floor, her back against the cold oven, as if she were trying to warm her back. But her legs were splayed awkwardly, and her head was slumped forward.
Javor put his hand on her shoulder and felt wetness: blood. He pushed her head up and it lolled to one side. Javor was numb. He couldn’t move. His hands dropped and then his stomach heaved. He barely had time to move his head away from his mother’s body before he spewed a thin stream of bile onto the ground.
When the retching passed, Javor carefully pulled his mother toward him, holding her head gently so that it would not fall too far forward. He pressed her tightly to his chest, hoping that his life, his heartbeat, could somehow flow into hers. He did not hear the thin whine coming from his throat, did not feel the tears on his face. He wept, rocking his mother’s body until night filled the hut.
Hands gently laid Ketia on the floor. Other hands pulled him out of the hut, but he could not see whose they were because his eyes were blurred. He stumbled into the arms of … he blinked until his vision cleared. Photius, the Greek traveller, the strange man who had wandered into the village two days earlier, the day before the solstice.
Scott Bury is a journalist, editor and author based in Ottawa, Canada. His blog is Written Words, and he is the author of The Bones of the Earth, Dark Clouds, One Shade of Red and Sam, the Strawb Part.