Celtika – Prologue

Iolkos, in Greek Land, 978 Old Era.

Though I wasn’t there to see it at the time, this is what I heard:

Only one of the old crew had stayed in Iolkos, living at the edge of the city, close to the docks at Pagasae. Each day at dusk, Tisaminas walked along the crumbling harbour wall, passing the lines of black-sailed war galleys, bobbing fishing boats and colourful trading vessels to reach a backwater of the port where a rotting ship was moored. An ageing, angry man sat huddled in its stem, wrapped against the evening cool in a heavy sheepskin cloak.

‘Goodnight, old friend!’ Tisaminas called down to the deck. ‘Is there anything I can get for you?’

The gaze that met his own was bright with fury, the voice a growl. ‘My sons! Help me find the bodies of my sons, Tisaminas!’

‘I can’t. It’s the one thing that none of us can do. Antiokus, perhaps, the young enchanter; but he’s long gone. We could never do it. You know that well enough. But is there anything else you want? Ask for anything. I’ll try to walk around the moon for you, if you like.’

The man below huddled deeper in his cloak, staring at the prow, gazing into time. ‘My two sons on the funeral bier, Tisaminas. And a torch in my hand. The chance to say goodbye to them. Nothing more. Save for the head of that witch, their mother, stuck on the end of my spear! That’s all I want.’

The ritual never changed, a ritual of anger and despair; the same words, the same desperation, the same hopelessness, week after week across the years.

Tisaminas answered as he always answered. ‘They’re dead. They’re gone. Medea killed them twenty years ago and we were all helpless to stop her. She has fled to her own country, to an underworld that can only be dreamed about by the likes of you and me. What you ask can only be dreamed, my friend. I’ll still walk around the moon for you. Or I can bring you food and drink … a slightly easier task.’

The man on the deck sighed. After a while he said, ‘I don’t want you to walk around the moon. Too far away. And I will eat and drink only what falls from the sky.’

‘Then goodnight, Jason.’

‘Goodnight. Thank you for watching me.’

“I’ll watch you to the end. You know that.’

‘And I want that end so much, Tisaminas,’ Jason cried. ‘Truly I do. And so does Argo. She talks to me in my dreams.’ Again, his eyes were blazing. ‘But not before that witch is feast for crows!’

Tisaminas unpacked bread, cheese and olives from his pack, and tossed this simple food down to the deck of the once great ship where Jason swept it into his cloak, before huddling again in Argo‘s bosom, in the protecting oak, to brood and dream of his murdered boys.

Why did Tisaminas stay close that night? Some inkling of our old friend’s fate, perhaps, whispered by the goddess whose watchful eyes peered from Argo‘s prow. He lingered, out of sight of the raging, weeping hero on the cracked, warped planks, intensely sad himself.

‘It’s coming to an end. I shouldn’t have said the words. I’ve willed them true! What will I do without you, Jason? What will any of us do?’

The moon sat full and low between the headlands. It had been there for hours, unmoving, as if caught in time.

The only sign of change in the silent harbour was the restless ebb and flow of the dark sea against the harbour wall and the lines of tethered galleys. Tisaminas didn’t understand what was happening.

‘If only Antiokus was here,’ he murmured to the night. ‘He could explain this. Time has slowed… .’

He noticed, then, that torches were burning on each headland, men standing on the cliffs, staring back towards the port.

This is the moment,’ Tisaminas breathed, and tears filled his eyes as he searched the darkness for Jason, below him.

As if his words had broken a charm, a rotten spar cracked away from Argo‘s mast, crashed down to the deck of the ageing ship, striking the hero who sat there in a dream. The wound was mortal, by the sounds of the cracking bones and the sudden flow of blood and pain from Jason’s mouth.

Tisaminas turned to run, to raise the call, but a voice whispered to him, ‘Stay here. Remember what you see.’

He glanced behind him. A dark-eyed girl stood there, wrapped in a green cloak. She smiled at him, then drew his attention back to Argo.

The old ship began to shift on the water. It slipped its moorings and turned towards the open sea. It drifted quietly between the dark war galleys of Iolkos, compelled by neither oars nor sail. On each headland more torches burned, twin lines of fire on the very edges of the cliffs, marking the passing of Jason towards the embracing moon.

‘They all knew,’ the man on the harbour wall said aloud. ‘The old crew – and their sons and their daughters – they all knew. She called us all!’

He found his own torch and waved it. The fires on the headlands looped and signalled back. ‘She told us all,’ Tisaminas shouted as the ship passed between the cliffs. ‘She called to us all!’

And he added quietly, ‘Thank you for that at least, Argo. Goodbye, old friend!’

From the distant heights the torches were tossed into the sea, falling streams of flame marking the departure of a great man as the proud ship sailed below them. The moon rose suddenly and swiftly into the vault of stars, catching up with time, dropping below the hills of Iolkos in the west. Suddenly, everything was dark again, the funeral ship swallowed by the night and by the ocean.

Tisaminas turned to the girl. He was apprehensive. He knew he was in the presence not of a mortal but of the goddess who had protected Jason for the better part of his life.

‘It’s over, then. Over at last. After all these years of agony.’

‘Yes. It’s over at last. Jason is in safe hands.’

Tisaminas said, ‘Argo is frail. But will she take him to a safe place of burial? Out of sight and out of mind?’

‘Yes,’ said the girl, ‘she’ll take him to a safe place of burial.’

Then she laughed, turning away, her cloak swirling. ‘But one among you will always know where to find him!’

The northern country of Pohjola, 700 years later.

Only half remembering this frozen land, he had struggled through the snow for a lifetime, it seemed, sometimes dragging his packhorses by their bridles, always reluctant to charm them and make his life easier. His bones ‘itched’, as if to say, ‘The power is here, you can use magic to stop this misery!’

But he wanted his strength in full for when he reached the ice-bound and mysterious Screaming Lake. So he suffered the winter and the endless night. And the horses suffered with him. And where the snow lay shallow he ran, and where animals had ploughed their own deep tracks through the drifts he followed in their prints, and in this way, moon by moon, he crossed the night-pale snow waste, coming closer to the land of the Pohjola, and the strange place he sought.

Knowing where he was, he was already wearing wolfbone and beartooth around his neck, and had tied the skins of mink and fox to the ragged, stinking furs in which he’d wrapped himself, half a year ago, when he had first left the plains and marshes of Karelia and crossed the ice-bridge to the mountains of the north.
There was no dawn or dusk in the winter in this odd land, only moonlit clouds, patches of stars and the spirit-glow of lights to the north. His body alone, and the brief visits of the moon, suggested when sleep was needed. The horses didn’t like it.

‘My bones itch,’ the young man said through his frosted beard, as he brushed the ice from the flaring nostrils of his two proud companions, holding his torch closer to inspect their eyes and necks for damage.

‘They itch because they are carved and inscribed with all the magic that I have ever needed, and will continue to need in my long life to come. I was born this way, hundreds and hundreds of good horses like you ago! And yes, I suppose I could use a little of that magic to make life more tolerable. And of all the horses I have known, you two are certainly the best. Which is why I haven’t named you. I will grieve for you too much as it is, when you’re gone. Horses improve as the centuries drift by! So I could charm up a little warmth . . . but I won’t. I prefer to save it for when we’ll truly need it. Come on, horses… this is not so bad. We’ll soon be at the lake. For the moment, just one more hour of travel? And then we’ll stop for food. I promise!’

Cold, frosting breath in his face, and a bleak look from the two animals, was all he received by way of reply to this lengthy pleading. It was as if they knew that the lightness of their packs meant that their food was almost finished. Already their bones showed stark against the skin, below their blankets, where the rationing was beginning to bite.

No day, only endless night. The last time he had been here – five generations ago, now – it had been endless day, and he had thought he would never see the stars again. Now he longed for the sun. And dawn was coming. The many-coloured lights to the north were dancing higher, the fiery breath of the waking goddess, streaming into the starry, Stygian heavens.

‘Day is coming, horses. And though I’m glad of that, I must be at the Screaming Lake before it arrives. Too many things wake with the dawn in this chill-boned land. So come on … one last try? One last hour? For me? For your young-old master. Merlin?’

Cold-eyed silence, save for the freezing breath.

‘I will not waste my precious bones on getting there,’ the young man said. He was impatient, now, and angry. ‘I must save my magic!’

He dropped the tethers, turned and walked through the thick snow, following the shallow path made by a pack of wolves. He howled and growled as he picked up their scent, rattled the wolf’s-bone talisman on his chest. Teasing.

After a moment, the horses followed quickly.

But then, I’ve always had a way with animals!

Robert Holdstock
Extract from Celtika, 2001