So watch the old world melt away
A loss regrets could never mend
You never miss it till it’s gone
So say goodbye, say goodbye
We’ll tell our children’s children why
We grew so tall and reached so high
You never miss it till it’s gone
So say goodbye, say goodbye
To seasons end
It was the morning of the winter solstice in neolithic England. The PCs stood next to the Chieftain of the People, near the Stonehenge Heel Stone. Ahead of them lay the stones, the gap in the tallest glowing with the faintest hint of dawn’s first light. The high priest stood in front of the Chieftain, facing the stones and composing himself ahead of the festival. Nearby one of his acolytes squatted in the snow, holding a clay bowl heavy with a slop of fresh pig’s blood and earth. Behind them the People stretched out along the avenue, clustered together against the dawn wind but still thronging the avenue in their numbers, the crowd stretching down the hill into the pre-dawn gloom. Here on the slope of Stonehenge the wind had a biting chill, whipping the thin, crisp coating of new snow into a fine mist that somehow managed to creep through even the tightest-clutched clothing. Knuckles turned blue in the chill wind, noses dripped and froze, but everyone bore the chill stoically, for this was the most important ceremony of the year, winter solstice, when the world turned for another year. Everyone wore their finest clothes, the browns and greys of their best quality furs forming a grim smear across the otherwise pristine white of the surrounding hillside. Many were painted in wode and wearing their best seashells and feathers.
To fit the occasion, the characters had come in their military finery, as befitted guests of the chieftain being honoured for their heroic deeds, though perhaps one of them had brought all his most potent charms for baser, more paranoid reasons. They were three:
  • The Dark Ram, a grim old man from an obscure cult that specialized in darkness, stone, fear and cold; once great in his youth, he was now an old man hunched inside tattered robes, leaning on a black staff topped with the horned skull of a great goat
  • Wolfson, a berserker from the cult of blood, standing firm and proud in his hide armour, fine stone axe held proudly in his strong right arm, the antithesis of the Old Ram, youth and beauty and pure violence against the old man’s frailty and grim blood worship
  • Fast Current, a naive acolyte of the cult of the forests, shivering in the chill wind, not yet used to the privations of religious life, eager to be a part of the most important rite of the year

The Chieftain stood, as always, nervous and uncertain, his weak jaw receding into flabby chins, smelling of pig fat and sour mead. They all knew of the rumours and discontent – indeed, Dark Ram had suggested they decline the invitation to avoid being seen to be allies of this fading man, who was once a hero but now a maligned administrator, but no one could look at Fast Current’s eager religious fervour and not allow him to this one special moment in dawn’s fierce glow. Now Fast Current did not notice as the Chieftain stood, impatiently waiting for the whole thing to be over, probably already scheming about what to do with the various factions aligned against him as he stood in the bitter chill of the coldest day of his 57th year, standing silently witness to his 31st winter solstice as chieftain. Tired. Looking for something, anything, to firm up his weakening grip on the People he had spent his life serving.

The time came. The Chieftain raised his arms. The High Priest stepped past the characters and raised his robed arms towards the people, tried to catch that moment when they all breathed out in unison, that was always snatched away by the Henge’s brutal winds. He turned back, began the recitations of the Necessary Invocations, walked his away around the Small Circle and the Lines. The crowd watched in anticipation as his acolyte scampered forward, he took the bowl of blood and soil and theatrically poured it into the ditch of the Henge (Being careful not to let the wind spill any onto his robes). As he did this his priests, standing at carefully spaced locations along the avenue, began the Chant of the New Life, and an astromancer walked slowly down the line of the people, singing old songs about the stars and the rhythm of the seasons. At regular junctures the priests turned to cast fresh pig fat onto the fires burning in the ditches each side of the avenue, ensuring that the People were bathed in the cleansing light of the fires.

Calling forth the New Sun always takes time. The High Priest continued his chanting and his movements in the Circle, as the priests led the chant for the People, and from the hillside a slow sussuration of poetry reached them over the hiss of the wind. In truth the High Priest mumbled, and it was hard for the PCs to follow his words from their lofty position on the hillside away from the clear spoken priests, but they struggled along as best they could. The Chieftain, well-versed by now in all these processes, muttered the words of the prayers to himself and cast his gaze impatiently to the horizon, waiting for the sun to break over the hillside so that he could send the People home and return to his scheming. Everyone’s attitude was divided between the clarion call of the new year’s rituals, and the bitter cold of the hillside. In such strange interstices is the fate of the new year held.

The Priest began to raise his voice, casting some powders onto the wind from his sleeves. He stepped back past the PCs to face the crowd, raising his voice as the Priest’s voices raised to a crescendo, then turned back to the Heel Stone, arms raised wide, the sleeves of his robe slipping back to reveal the tattoos and leathers embracing his skinny old arms, and raising his voice to a loud, powerful call, yelled “Rise, oh sun!” The crowd drew in their breath as one, a brief sharp sound that carried over the whispering of the wind. Everyone faced the stones.

The sun did not rise.

Still, sometimes the Priest’s call could be a little early, and in any case this ritual was powerful. They waited.

The sun did not rise.

They waited some more. Their call had to proceed into the earth, after all, deep into the realms beneath the ground past the silent halls where the dead slept, to the place where the sun slumbered, and raise it up to the sky. Perhaps sometimes it takes time to drag the sun forth (is the sun a man or a woman? Has it a gender? Opinions were divided, but if it did have a gender it might be a stubborn old man, or a wilfull young woman. They could wait).

The sun did not rise.

The land remained bathed in the shadow of pre-dawn. The wind continued to blow, chill and harsh, not softened at all by the knowledge that the new year’s light shone on them. Over the hills and far away was a faint glow, but the sun did not rise. It was cold.

People began to mutter. The sun had not risen. Everyone knew the stories. Recently their crops had been failing, and bad things happening. Some said that the Chieftain’s decision to move the bluestones was the reason – had he cursed the sun itself? Somewhere in the crowd, someone said something. Laughter ripped up the line. That old story! But the laughter stilled quickly, because this was serious. If the sun did not rise … people began to mutter more darkly.

The Chieftain was not stupid, he had not presided over 31 winter solstices because he could not read the mood of his People. “Priest,” he grunted, perhaps more disrespectfully than was appropriate for such a ceremony. “Have you messed up the timing? Are your astromancers drunk again?”

The High Priest apologized to the Chieftain, and stepped back to face the crowd. “It is a cold year, and the sun sleeps deep!” He called in his clearest priest’s voice, the voice that had won him power those years ago when his rivals tried to argue with the people on matters of theology, but he called out to them in pure tones of eager rhetoric. “We must call it together, as one!”

The priests obeyed, raising their voices in the Call, and the High Priest led the people on another round of chanting. Now he had one eye over the shoulder at the horizon, waiting for the moment to raise the call. The chant stretched out, and finally he turned, arms raised, and yelled “Rise, oh sun!”

The sun did not rise.

The Dark Ram spat. He could feel trouble brewing in the bones of the earth. The High Priest looked at the Chieftain, uncertain and pleading. Twenty one years ago the last High Priest had gone against the Chieftain on a matter where religion intersected with popular opinion, and a week later he had been found dead in a gully, apparently crushed under an Aurochs. Everyone knew that the Chieftain had not always been weak. He had not always been desperate either. Wolfson looked around at the crowd, readying himself to fight, and also to decide on which side to fight. Fates seemed, briefly, to hang in the balance.

Below them on the avenue the muttering rose again. Someone called out something at the back of the crowd, people snickered – it was the sound of agreement, not amusement. The light was still dim, but in the ruddy glow of the fires the priests’ uncertainty was obvious. The Dark Ram stepped closer to Wolfson and muttered, “Ready yourself.” He cast a warning glance back to Fast Current, who stood confused in the cold wind, not understanding the flows of religious and popular discontent.

The Chieftain hrmphed gently to himself, the sound of a bitter man making a hard decision. He stepped through the characters to face the crowd, stopping briefly when he was level with their ruddy, wind-blasted faces to whisper to them, “You will follow my lead or your end will be bitter,” and then presented himself to the crowd, arms raised, a sudden picture of confidence.

“Oh People!”, he called out to them, his voice suddenly taking on all the clarion tones of his youth. Suddenly their chieftain was not a weak and fading old man, but had called back the power that had led him to this position at such a young age, and helped him maintain it through many challenges. “We face a mighty test! The sun has not risen! Our priests have done their all, but it has not risen!” At this he cast a grim look back at the High Priest, that spoke of angry meetings yet to be held in quiet groves. “I feared that this would arise, because dark forces work against us.” He paused, to watch the crowd muttering to themselves. Dark forces? What dark forces? Did the Chief know something? “But do not fear, my People, because your fate rests safe with me! I assembled these heroes here against this possibility!” His arm swept around to take in the PCs, and the crowd roared their approval. “Whoever has stolen the sun from us, whatever chains hold her fast in the underworld, they will find her, and bring her back!” Thus it was that with a casual sentence the Chieftain answered the religious debate of the age – the sun was a woman! And also sent the characters to their doom. Hearing his confident young voice come back to him, the crowd roared their approval. “They will set out immediately to find the sun, and to bring vengeance upon whoever dared to interfere with her. Have faith in the heroes of our People, my friends! But now, return to your homes and the warmth. Trust in me, your Chief!”

The crowd roared their approval. The chieftain turned to frown at the characters, and after a nudge from the Dark Ram both Wolfson and Fast Current raised their arms to wave at the crowd. At the urging of the priests it began to disperse, and the Chieftain stepped in close to them. “My hut shortly,” he ordered them tersely. Turning to the High Priest, he snarled, “You two, for what it’s worth!” and marched off.

The Wild Women

They trudged back to the Chief’s hut, which was really not much bigger than anyone else’s, and furnished with the same simple bedding of birch branches and hay, though a little colder on account of its size. The Chieftain sat on his pallet, frowning at the High Priest and sucking down an early mead. He grunted his approval when the characters entered.

“Trouble,” he snapped at them. “We need to fix it, or we’re dead.” He frowned over at the High Priest. “No one knows what’s happening. You have to fix it.”

They stood helpless, unable to refuse or suggest any ideas. Finally the Dark Ram coughed and stepped forward. “Do you have any suggestions about what we should do?”

The Chieftain spat. “You’re the ancient wizard. Fix it!” He looked over at his High Priest. “What about you?! Any ideas?”

The High Priest shuffled his feet. “Well actually … they could try the Wild Women.”

Wolfson and Fast Current shuddered, in time with the Chief. The Dark Ram shrugged. “That is a desperate play. Are you really out of answers?” The Dark Ram was good at hiding his fear.

“There is nothing in the stories of our people to explain this. It is otherworldly. The Wild Women stand between the worlds. Perhaps they will know.” The High Priest looked strangely smug about his answer. Of course, rumour was that the Dark Ram had stolen his lover, back when they were both young and the Dark Ram was still a rutting goat. What better fate for him now, than to face the Wild Women?

The Dark Ram shrugged. “So be it. We will visit the Wild Women. We will save the People.” He turned his dark, blood-tired gaze back on the High Priest. “Our reward will be suitable to the task, I am sure.”

“Yes yes, I’m sure everything will be very fine for you if you just solve this problem,” the Chieftain interjected, hustling them towards the door to his hut. As he pulled the hangings aside and they marched out, he added, “Do not bother returning until you find the sun. You know your fate.”

They separated to their huts to gather traveling equipment, and regrouped a short while later in the snow at the edge of the village, shivering in the cold, and at the task to come. They had all heard rumours about the Wild Women, who live in a swamp near Avebury:

  • They are served by giants
  • They live in another realm and only come to this world to make mischief
  • To lay with one is to gain eternal life, but they only lay with women
  • They are beautiful
  • They are terrible crones

With these conflicting stories in their minds, they prepared to set off for the swamps of Avebury. Before they did, however, Fast Current bid them wait, while he performed a ritual in the forest. They returned to their huts as Fast Current called on the spirits of the trees, drawing forth their knowledge about the land. After some hours of constant chanting a vision came to him, of red-headed children fleeing into the swamp to escape strange snakes made of shadow. Dark things stirred in the land to their north!

They set off into the grey pre-dawn afternoon, marching north first through a patchwork of forest and small communities, dotted with fields and little wattle-and-daub huts, until the land slowly gave way to the full, thick forest that ruled the land beyond the communities. A narrow path cut through the forest, beaten down by generations of the People walking the path from Stonehenge to Avebury, and said to be safe but for the odd bear. The huge trees of the ancient forest loomed over the path, casting it into near darkness in the dawn light. They picked their way carefully along the path, vigilant against the strange horrors Fast Current had seen in the dreamings of the tree-spirits, but emerged safely after a few hours onto a sweeping vista of swamp and open hills, the heaths and swamps to the west of Avebury. The distant hills hung like low clouds on the horizon, barely visible in the dawn glow. Below them the swamp stretched to the east and north, a grim smear across the landscape. Mostly it was tall reeds and strange, stunted trees, shrouded in a dark and unwelcoming mist, but at some points ancient trees rose above the murk, vine-festooned branches reaching out to the sky as if they were trying to claw their way out of a stagnant pond.

They walked down the hill towards the swamp. Near its edge they found a small hamlet, just a collection of a dozen or so mud huts, and bargained with a farmer to take one of the town’s least popular members as a possible sacrifice to the Wild Women. The townsfolk let her go easily enough, a flame-haired beauty who they said was no good at farming and always fussed over mud and guts, better suited to sacrifice or religious observance than the hard life of the fens, and they took her with them into the swamp.

They guessed that the best way to find the Wild Women was to walk to the centre of the swamp, and they were not mistaken. After a few hours, as they rested on a tree stump by a foul-smelling stretch of ice-coated water, they suddenly found themselves being watched by a girl-child. This wild scrap of innocence squatted on the twisted bough of a tree some distance from them, ragged furs hanging loose on a bony frame, tearing chunks of meat off of the fresh, twitching corpse of a rabbit with disturbingly sharp teeth. She stared at them with huge, unblinking violet eyes. After a moment, sure she had their attention, she tore the rabbit in half, letting its steaming guts fall to the ground at the foot of the tree, and bounded off into the shadows. Grunting and sighing, they heaved themselves to their feet and marched after her.

She led them a merry chase for an hour, making sure they were thoroughly lost and covered in vile swamp-mud by the time they arrived at a huge, imposing burial mound. This mound was far bigger than those around Avebury or Stonehenge, and by its look far older, perhaps built back when Stonehenge was new. A huge, dead tree grew from the grassy top of the mound, and thick stands of spiny bushes surrounded it. They pushed through and into a dark entry chamber, where suddenly the girl disappeared. Ahead of them in the main chamber of the mound they could see a faint glow; in the side chambers they saw fresh bodies, old bones, and heard the disturbing smacking sounds of something sucking the marrow from bones. They hastened forward, into a huge and shadowed cave, that was obviously much larger than the mound could possibly have allowed. It stank of mud and death, but it was so large that they could not see what horrors might be hanging from its far walls. A shaft of sunlight fell from a huge crack in the ceiling, incongruous given the fractured seasons outside, and lit a strange cascade of thin, semi-transparent discs that hung from the ceiling on inconceivably thin, shiny strands of leather, as if someone in here could spin quartz into thread. On one side of the chamber, near a small fire, lay the broken body of a young man, its guts spilled into a puddle of water, a crow watching them forbiddingly from atop the corpse’s blood-smeared back. Opposite them, on the far side of the chamber, wreathed in shadow, sat an adult woman in a thin robe, lounging on a large stone dais. Something huge moved in the shadows behind them, something they could not quite make out, though occasionally they caught a glimpse of a massive fingernail or an ear or a gleaming yellow eye far above them in the shadows.

The woman held her arms wide in a gesture of welcome. “You seek us, you found us. Explain your needs.” She dragged out the word ‘needs’ in a manner both thrilling and threatening. Fast Current and Wolfson hesitated, but the Dark Ram was in his element. He stepped forward, staff held high, dragging the sacrifice-girl forward by one hand, and pushed her to her knees on the rough floor of the cave.

“We bring a sacrifice. We wish to trade for information.”

The woman shrugged dismissively and ignored the girl, who was doing an admirable job of restraining her terror. For someone fussy about mud and guts, she had surely already seen a lifetime’s worth in morning. She sat still and ready to die as the Dark Ram explained their dire situation, and tried to negotiate the terms by which they could get the information they needed.

It did not take long to settle terms. As soon as the sun rose again, the entire group would come to this mound and serve the Wild Women for a year. In return the woman told them what they needed to know: that there was something wrong at Silbury Hill, and they must go there to find the solution to the world’s problems.

They agreed to the price, and left for Silbury Hill.

The hill

Silbury Hill

To the east the swamp slowly rose and merged into forest, but before they could reach dry land they were ambushed. Emerging from a stand of reeds into a wide, shallow frozen pool they were suddenly attacked by three thick, black snakes that came sliding out of the reeds around the pond. Each was wider than a human leg and longer than a person, and as they slid through the reeds the plants nearest to them seemed to wilt away from them. These snakes emerged from the shadows in a rush, opening wide, toothed mouths and glaring balefully from eyes that were red like fire. Even as they attacked, the characters could tell something else was coming from the reeds, and as battle was joined that thing leapt out into the pool with a mighty huff! It smashed onto the ice and reared up to attack them, a giant dog-like creature with scales like a dragon, and the same fiery red eyes. It’s first act was to spit a massive gob of acid onto Wolfson, and then the battle was joined.

They prevailed, but Wolfson was injured and they were all exhausted and feeling physically sick. Even as they stood in the ruins of the battle, the frozen water of the pool seeping through their shoes, the corpses of the snakes began to melt and steam, fading rapidly away and leaving only a terrible stench. The dog-demon thing lay dead in the pool, decaying more slowly and horribly than its companions. They gathered themselves together and hurried out of the swamp. These were the things the trees had dreamt, and they guessed there must be more. Where had they come from?

Another long walk took them to Silbury Hill, which they approached in the traditional way, from the east. Here an earthwork causeway connected the hill to the land, bridging the ditch that held the hill apart from the land around. As they approached they could see a dim light atop the hill, as if a fire had been lit. They crossed the causeway and climbed the hill, emerging breathless to its windswept summit to find a scene of murder and ruin.

The light did come from a fire, which was still smouldering near the centre of the hilltop. A corpse lay in the fire, partly smothering it and partly feeding it, and two more lay brutalized on the ground near the fire. All three were young, two children and one barely an adult. They were emaciated and showed signs of having been abused for a long while, their bodies decorated with old and new bruises. They wore pathetic clothes, just rags against the cold, and the sores on their feet and faces suggested they had been in the cold weather for some time before they died. The one in the fire had been killed by having his throat cut, but the cut was a fine, clean slice, better than any stone knife could do, and the other two also showed signs of having been repeatedly cut and stabbed with something much sharper than humans could design. Some demon must have come here and killed them.

This, then, was the cause of all their problems. Silbury Hill formed a barrier between the underworld and the real, a kind of sinkhole that could only keep the underworld at bay if it was regularly maintained and prepared, and kept pure. No one should visit it, and anyone who did must observe the proper rituals. Nothing earthly could be done up here – no waste, no sex, no foul words, no birth and certainly no death. Death on Silbury Hill was only allowed in the form of sacrifice, the death of a pure child prepared properly for the ritual of sanctifying the barrier. The kind of profane death they had seen here must only cause pollution.

By killing these children, someone or something had broken the seal between the underworld and the real, stopped the sun in its tracks and unleashed the beasts of hell into the earth. The Dark Ram knew all this, and told them in a steady, cold voice. The damage could be undone, by giving these children a proper burial at Stonehenge where their souls could be recalled and rested, and then performing the proper rituals here to sanctify the place again. But there would be no point if whoever did this simply came back to do it again. They needed to find out why this had been done, and find the perpetrator, and destroy them. A ritual was required.

The Dark Ram prepared one of the bodies, setting it in the proper fashion and painting its cheeks with the correct tinctures. The girl provided the blood, just a smear of fresh blood from a cut on her arm, and then they fell back to wait as the Dark Ram called the body’s soul back from where it had fled, to draw on its memories.

He saw flashing images of horror and violence. A large boat pulling up on the shore and big men in dark armour smashing into a tiny collection of mud huts. A group of them dragged screaming away while the rest died in the river shallows, or in the shade of great oaks where they ran to hide. Fires burned. Then there was a boat, a storm, exhausting flash of water and crash of waves, then peace on the shore and the sound of woodworking. Then flight, a small group of them running into snow and darkness. Hiding on the hill, but found, attacked by the grim dark men, the taste of blood, then fire and death.

The children were escaped slaves, pursued here and murdered on the hill as punishment for their flight. Some were still abroad, running from their captors. But who would kill children on the hill, knowing the risk? They must find these slaves, and destroy them.

Giants among men

The slavers

They decided first to go to Avebury, which was nearby, and warn the people of Avebury of the danger in the woods around, as well as finding a group of warriors to remove the bodies and take them back to Stonehenge for a holy burial, but they did not reach the town. After just ten minutes on the path to the town they were ambushed by a squad of huge and terrifying warriors. There were four of them, and they gleamed. All four were much larger than the PCs, perhaps a whole head taller and much bulkier. They carried large bows that were much better made than those the group carried, and each had a knife of a strange glowing substance that was much harder and sharper than their own weapons. The leader had plates of the glowing stone-like stuff on his leather armour, and carried a larger knife that was as long as a man’s arm, and terrifyingly sharp. They hurled themselves into battle, yelling strange words in a language the characters did not understand, and the group prepared to sell themselves dearly against these great, beautiful, terrible men.

But the men had no magic. The Dark Ram called forth shadow magic to steal their health, and Fast Current entangled them in vines, and Wolfson went into a berserk rage, and the glowing men did nothing in return. No magic of any kind. Although they injured Wolfson and Fast Current, they could not win. One tried to run away but they managed to catch him and kill him, and then they followed his path over some hills to find a larger camp, with another 6 of the same men squatting around fires, cleaning their strange weapons. Everything these men carried was so much more beautiful and perfect than anything the heroes had ever seen – but they had no magic, so they did not see Fast Current watching them. The PCs sneaked away and continued to Avebury, where they raised a larger force. Within two hours the six big, shining men were dead, ambushed and surrounded and slaughtered by the people of Avebury. In the battle they all saw how the strange men’s amber-coloured swords cut perfectly through flesh, and realized that these must be the men who had killed the children on the hillside.

In the camp they found a single slave child tied up, beaten and cowed and dumped inside a tent – one of the children recaptured. Wolfson, they discovered, spoke the child’s language – he was Welsh, one of the hillfolk who live to the north of the wild seas beyond Avebury. He told them his story. The strange men had come to their village in a huge boat, raided and taken children captive, then returned to the sea. One of the men spoke a little Welsh, and told them that they would be sacrifices in a far land, where these men had come from, and where magic had slowly faded from the world. Desperate to bring the magic back, these people had begun making human sacrifices to the dark gods to try and appease them and stop the draining of their powers, but nothing worked, so they began to sacrifice more. When the sacrifices became too much burden on their own people they began traveling to nearby kingdoms to take slaves for sacrifice, and the easiest place, they said, was this island, because on this island everyone was primitive and stupid and could not defend themselves.

So they had been taken, and they would have gone to this far land to be killed in offering to the dark gods, except that a storm drove their ship ashore and damaged it, and while the men were repairing it half of the slaves escaped. When they came in sight of Silbury Hill their group split, with some heading into the forest to the west, some deciding to hide on the hill, and others scattering east. The slavers had caught the ones on the hill, then headed east and found this prisoner, and they were sending out scouting parties looking for more when the characters raided their camp. The attempt to recapture the slaves was thus broken, but perhaps 10 or 12 more of these men were camped to the north, by the sea.

Epilogue: Futures past

Wolfson put on the armour and carried the sword of the slaver leader when they attacked the slavers at the coast. In battle though, he realized that the armour made him sluggish, held back his frenzy, deadened his sense of the wild. He shrugged it off at last, threw away the sword, and in a killing frenzy beat his enemies to death with a stone he picked up from the beach. It was a bitter fight, the 30 or so fighters of the People up against the 12 slavers, but they won. Wolfson confided in the Dark Ram, and they threw all the cursed goods onto the boat, set it alight and pushed it into the reach. These men had powerful weapons and armour, some new technology that shaped stone to be harder than stone, and made them powerful and great, but somehow it had sucked out their magic. It wasn’t the gods of the underworld they needed to appease, but their own lust for progress.

The People stood on the shore watching the ship slip out to the reach, the fire slowly consuming it. They would stay as they were, and their magic would defend them against whatever strange new age encroached from over the water. They turned to face the newly rising sun, strong in their faith and their confidence in their astrologers, and set their faces to Stonehenge. Let the new era come – they were more than a match for it!

 


Note: this adventure was inspired by the desire to tell the story of the Welsh cremation remains recently uncovered in Stonehenge, as recounted here.

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The Three Fairies

Recently after a week in London for work I took a trip back to the area of Britain where I grew up, in particular Wiltshire, where I spent a couple of years of my childhood. I think I lived there for about four years from the age of about 6 to about 11 (the details are hazy, as there were many moves in that time and also a period in New Zealand). In addition to some maudlin wandering along the rivers and fields of my youth, I also did a fairly intensive tour of some of Wiltshire’s prehistoric sites. I visited Avebury, Stonehenge, Old Sarum, Silbury Hill and by accident a bunch of ancient stones called the Rollright stones. I also spent the better part of a day at Salisbury Cathedral, which is a beautiful building.

The Rollright Stones

I visited these on the way to Salisbury from the Tolkien exhibition in Oxford. At the time I visited unfortunately English Heritage were holding some kind of local event where local schoolkids could fill in some of the missing parts of this stone circle, which was unfortunate because their efforts were woeful. There was also a sculpture by David Gosling, The Three Fairies, which is the picture at the top of this post. These stones were typical of the kind of things you find in this part of Britain, just random ancient structures sitting at the edge of someone’s field, carrying five millenia of wear and largely unknown except to the locals. Set in the sweeping hillside of golden harvest corn under a flint sky the stones are both mundane and majestic, an unprepossessing memory of a time before any religion or ideas that we know.

Holy spaces

Salisbury Cathedral and the spire

I had the pleasure of visiting Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday morning, which meant I had the opportunity to hear the choir and the morning service. The inside of Salisbury Cathedral is a stunning and majestic monument to the hubris of the ancient christian church, and also to its sense of awe and holiness, and it is easy to spend a long time lost in here, fussing over its tiny details and occasionally stepping back to enjoy the grandeur and stillness of the huge hall. It is not thronging with visitors as are some great Cathedrals, so it still maintains a sense of being a working church rather than a relic. In the afternoon, wandering around the main hall again, I was able to listen to the choir practising for the evening service, which simply added to the feeling of being in a working place of worship rather than a tourist trap.

The original spire supports

Despite it not being a tourist trap, I paid for the tour of the spire, and took a precarious and occasionally disturbing climb up to the top of the original tower, to look at the archaic machinery of the spire. The spire is the tallest in England, and was built about 800 years ago, so it is something of an architectural miracle for its time. Although it was strengthened and repair work was done by Christopher Wren, much of the internal structure remains the same as when it was built, even using the same wooden supports and the same material in the arches, which is a little disturbing when you’re standing 70 m above the ground being told that the whole thing is being held together by the work of some engineers 800 years ago. It’s also very impressive to think about the risks they took and the effort they expended to venerate their god. A god, it should be remembered, that is quite new in the world, and which supplanted much older gods whose own holy sites are scattered around the town where Salisbury Cathedral was built.

Approaching Avebury

Avebury

After Salisbury Cathedral I visited the first of these old holy sites, Avebury. This is a massive circle of stones that forms part of a religious complex about an hour north of Salisbury. The stone circle runs around a whole small village, and within that larger circle is a smaller circle. Along the road to Avebury serried ranks of stones point the way to the circle itself, forming a kind of avenue leading up to the town. All around the town are old burial mounds, one of which is open for visitors to enter, and at a little remove from the town is Silbury Hill, a 32m tall artificial hill built out of chalk by the neolithic fanatics who lived around here. The whole area has the feeling of a religious complex, like a Mecca or Rome for ancient pagan ideas. In the museum at the centre of the stones we learn all about what we know about these religious beliefs in the Old Gods – which is nothing. No one knows anything about why they were built or even, to a great extent, how, and the entire enterprise of archaeology is one of speculation and wonder. It is certainly easy to wonder at these stones – by modern standards dumping a big stone in a paddock is hardly an effort, but standing silent and inscrutable in their crumbling glory, ordered according to some religious codex that defies comprehension, they hold a sense of splendour and awe. It’s easy to imagine that there is something about this land that we don’t know, something these stones could tell us if we only knew how to ask. But we don’t, so they stand there grimly defying both our science and our philosophy, warning us that our own human heritage is a mystery to us.

Stonehenge in the summer

Stonehenge

Stonehenge is the apotheosis of these religious wonderings, of course, but when I was a child it was a pretty naff place, just a bunch of hard-to-reach stones that were kind of disappointing when you got up close, and you weren’t even allowed to touch them. Later, when I lived in Britain in 2008 I visited again, but this time there was a car park and a weird stupid tunnel that led you “back in time” to the stones, and they didn’t really impress at all. But now they are much better presented, and I was able to approach them by walking parallel to the old neolithic way, seeing them first on the horizon and then closer and closer as I marched up the hill. I had a map of the layout of the neolithic monuments that surround the stones, including the Avenue, which may have been part of some ancient ceremonial arrangement. By the time I reached the stones themselves they had taken on their full height and splendour, and even the hordes of visitors could not detract from the sense of being in the presence of something mystical and special. They’re huge, they’re impressive, they are a complete mystery to us, and they stand there slowly crumbling on a time scale humans cannot comprehend, reminding us that once we were so incredibly wild and primitive that we held strange worship of strange constellations on windswept hilltops. Under perfect summer weather it was possible to imagine myself back in time, looking at these stones as a visitor to a religious ritual, and to imagine that in their own way they were as awe inspiring as Salisbury Cathedral would have been to its congregants 5000 years later. The people changed immeasurably over that time, but their passion for worshipful displays of piety obviously did not.

Imagining ancient worlds

Spending two days wandering through all these stones and ancient sites inevitably focused my mind on role-playing worlds, and I began imagining the neolithic world as an adventure setting, perhaps using the Mutant system or some free-flowing variant of WFRP3. This would be a great world for adventuring, a small and narrow world to explore intimately, rich with forests and stocked with natural hazards, where any stranger is a threat and people as far away as what is now the next county would be considered threatening strangers. A landscape dotted with strange and powerful monuments to dark and ancient gods, where magic is in the hands of priests and witches who serve the spirits of the earth and the stars, and perhaps have no allegiance to humankind at all. Or perhaps the worship of these spirits really was connected to the cycles of the earth, and the priests of that ancient time, had they wished to, could have enacted some foul rite at Stonehenge and turned the world on its axis. In that world the best weapons would be clubs and stone arrows, and with such paltry gear to enhance themselves all adventurers would be stripped down to just raw talent and their urge to survive.

When I returned to Japan I prepared and ran a one-shot set in this world, which I will report soon. I think it’s an excellent world for adventuring, as well as for tourism, and if you do visit these ancient sites I think you, too, may find yourself inspired to imagine yourself as an adventurer or a priest in an ancient, mysterious world where nobody knows anything, and nothing is what it seems.

A few tips on travel

If you are going to go through a couple of these sites, I recommend buying a visitor’s pass at the first one – I think mine was about 33 pounds, which will almost cover the cost of the museum at Avebury, entrance to Old Sarum and Stonehenge, but more importantly gives you priority access at Stonehenge so you don’t need to book a tour time. I visited Stonehenge by car, although I assume there are buses from Salisbury and other nearby towns, but it’s worth noting that you don’t go straight to the site – you park perhaps 3 km away and then either walk or catch a bus to the site. The bus will drop you off halfway if you ask, and then you can walk over the fields to the stones themselves, which is what I did and which I think is better.

If you go to Avebury, plan to make a decent day of it. You can walk from the stone circle to nearby Silbury Hill in about 30 minutes, and then from Silbury Hill to a burial mound (I forget the name) that you can enter – when I visited there were two drunk hippies in the entrance who had put candles in every room and were singing plaintive songs, which quite suited the mood, but YMMV. It’s a bit of a walk from Avebury to here and it is possible to get lost – the road goes through some pretty tangled and run down areas that may leave you thinking you’re going the wrong way – so if the weather is bad you may want to drive somewhere nearby (but I don’t know where the parking is). Also there’s no point in thinking an umbrella will be any use – the wind is intense. So just don’t bother bring one, get wet or wear sensible clothes. I would not recommend visiting in winter!

If you visit Salisbury Cathedral I strongly recommend timing your visit to start or end with a service, but be aware that you can’t tour the cathedral during the Sunday morning service, so you’ll have to satisfy yourself with a visit to the magna carta and a circuit of the cloisters. I strongly recommend the tower climb but you should be aware that there are parts where the climbing is a little bit disturbing and their strategy for getting you out if you have an agoraphobic freak out is really disturbing, so if you have a strong fear of heights it’s not a good idea to go. If you’re unsure, check some pictures online of what you might expect to see. I am not good with heights, and this climb had me a little bit shakey at times. But if you are confident you aren’t too bad with heights, do it – it’s great. A good strategy for a Sunday at Salisbury Cathedral would thus be: visit for the beginning of the service to hear the choir; then get a coffee; then visit the magna carta room; then tour the cathedral a bit; get lunch; climb the tower; finish touring the Cathedral; take a break; listen to the choir practicing; stay for the evening service or bail. The lunch at the refectory is surprisingly pleasant given the circumstances, and it’s a nice environment, and on Sunday they do a solid British Roast, so you can make a good day of it.

Also be aware that English Heritage and the National Trust are different, and most of the ancient sites are managed by English Heritage, so if you want a membership to enable you to get into all these sites for free then that’s who you should join – National Trust mostly just manage those boring old country houses.

With that advice I hope you are prepared for a couple of days enjoying the Old Gods and the New!