The Bear, the King, let fall the bear skin robe which was the emblem of his kingship. He was naked, as befitted the moment. Signs were drawn on his skin with the proper red paint, as also befitted the moment. Glyn had known the Bear before he became the Bear, could almost remember his old name. Hadn’t his name been Wirt? Strange it was so hard to recall, since it had only been one year. Wirt was only one year or two older than Glyn, but of course the Bear was immortal.
The Bear stepped into the cave of hot water, stooping. Steam wavered around him and he disappeared into the dark of the cave, where it was otherwise forbidden to go. Gwenour, his Queen, stood nearby, holding a wooden cup in one hand, an iron knife in the other. Her name had been Brianna, before she became Gwenour a year ago. Her eyes were closed as she stood, waiting. Behind Gwenour stood the Blind Lady, called Isobail Isilis, the ruler of the priestesses of Great Danu, who was the Mother of All and the Protector of the Cauldron of Earth. Isobail Isilis was old, old and blind, and no one Glyn knew remembered her name before she became Isobail Isilis.
The morning wore on. The young boy who acted as eyes for Isobail Isilis fidgeted restlessly. Everyone, the whole of the people, stood watching. No one spoke. Steam poured from the mouth of the cave of hot water.
The Bear stepped out of the cave. His red paint signs ran and dripped, melted by the hot wet air of the cave. The Bear stood facing his people. His eyes were dilated, his face slack. A murmuring came from the gathered people.
Isobail Isilis heard the murmuring. She stepped forward, faced the Bear with her blind eyes, and spoke in a voice cracked with age. “Your life belongs to your people.” She turned to face the people, and said it again. “Your life belongs to your people.” Finally she faced the priestesses of Danu, and said it a third time. “Your life belongs to your people.”
One of the priestesses gave Gwenour a shove. Gwenour opened her eyes and stumbled forward. She looked up at the Bear, who had been her king and husband for a year, and said in a small voice, “Your life belongs to your people.” Then she raised her iron knife and plunged it into the Bear’s throat. Bright blood sprayed out. Gwenour raised her wooden cup and caught some of the blood in it. The Bear did not cry out or flinch. As his blood geysered, he slowly turned and sank to the ground.
The priestesses of Danu rushed forward, each pulling an iron knife from her robe. They descended on the body of the Bear like crows, and sliced off his flesh, which they threw to the people. The whole of the people surged up, holding their hands out for the flesh of the King. Glyn surged up with the rest. It was good fortune to swallow a bite of the King, the Bear, and bad fortune not to.
Your life belongs to your people.
The people crowded, shoving, elbowing, crying out like birds. The priestesses of Danu cut and sliced the body of The Bear, threw the dripping pieces into grasping hands, until only bones and guts and brain remained. These would be burned in the dark of the midsummer moon, and the ash cast into the cleansing wind, and blown out over the Salt Sea.
Glyn had his small piece of the King. He gulped it down, tasting the rust of the blood, like old iron.
The young woman who had been Brianna, before she became Gwenour, and the Queen to the King, now became only a priestess with no name, and joined the ranks of the priestesses of Danu.
A drum began beating, filling the clearing among the tall dusty fir-trees, echoing off the cliff face which contained the cave of steam. The young women of the people slowly gathered into a ragged circle—women who were not yet married and had not borne children, but who had begun menstruating. They danced, stepping to the drum-beat. Outside the circle of young women the priestesses of Danu formed a larger, a looser circle, not dancing, holding their iron knives high so that they could be seen by the sky. Beyond that circle was a crowd of married women and married men, and old men and old women, and children. But within the circle of dancing young women were all the young men of the people, those who had begun to grow beards, but who were unmarried and had no children of their own. These young men milled about, stepping to the beat of the drum, Glyn among them.
The circle of priestesses of Danu opened on one side, and blind Isobail Isilis walked slowly through, her hand on the shoulder of the boy who was her eyes. She carried the bear skin which had been worn by the Bear, the King, and by the Kings before that one. Isobail Isilis walked slowly among the dancing women, turning her blind eyes this way and that, sniffing. She stopped before one young women who was tall, and pretty, although Glyn supposed Isobail Isilis could not know that. Glyn knew the young woman’s name to be Edana, and knew her to be a fiery person, easily angered. He knew this because he had once called on her, in her mother’s house, and been rebuffed.
Now Edana would become Gwenour, the Queen, and then a priestess after the new King was consumed by his people, and she would not be an ordinary wife and mother. She had been chosen by blind Isobail Isilis.
Isobail Isilis placed the bear skin in Edana’s hands and walked slowly toward the center of the dancing circle, leaning on the boy who was her eyes. Edana followed, chosen, her head hanging, her feet dragging in the dirt. The ragged circle of dancing women parted and the blind Priestess walked slowly among the milling young men. The young men did not look at her. They milled and danced. Isobail Isilis sniffed the close air, full of steam from the cave, and sweat, and dust, and the dry breath of the overhanging fir trees. She turned her blind eyes back and forth. She sniffed and looked with her blind eyes, choosing. She put out her hand and caught the arm of a young man, and leaned up and kissed him on the cheek. She had chosen. It was Glyn. The new Gwenour draped the bear skin over his shoulders, and he was the Bear, the King. Like Edana, he had been chosen.
Glyn thought his heart would stop. For a moment he could not breathe. It was a great thing to be chosen to be the Bear, to be the beloved of Danu, the Goddess, but it meant he would never do the many things he had thought he would do. It meant his life was no longer his own and would last only another year. But he held his chin up and tried to look proud. Edana who had once rebuffed him, fiery Edana, would be his Queen, his wife.
“Your life belongs to your people,” said Isobail Isilis.
“Your life belongs to your people,” shouted the people.
“Your life belongs to your people,” shouted the young men and the young women, glad they had not been honored by being chosen.
A year passed.
Glyn was no longer Glyn and was now the Bear, but in his heart he remained Glyn. He wondered if other Bears had found this to be true as well. He lived as King and Queen, man and wife, with Gwenour who had been Edana, and who still seemed to him to be Edana. They lived together as required, and they coupled as expected, under the watchful eyes of the priestesses and the blind regard of Isobail Isilis, because that was needed to make the land fertile and game plentiful. But they did not live in harmony. That was not required. They rarely spoke and their coupling was devoid of joy. Glyn had thought that possessing Edana as his Queen would be one pleasure of being the Bear, but he knew that she would have still rebuffed him if she had not been Gwenour.
As the Bear, Glyn blessed the fields and the wooden plows of the tillers, blessed the fish in the river, blessed the stone and bronze weapons of the hunters before they set out. The best foods were given to him and to his Gwenour, the choicest meats, the ripest fruits. Young mothers brought their new-born babes to him for blessing. This brought tears to his eyes, and to Gwenour’s eyes, because they both knew they would never sire children or bear children themselves. The women who were Gwenour never conceived. Never. To become priestesses after their year as Gwenour they could not have children. Glyn suspected that something was given to them, an herb perhaps, in the secrecy of the women’s house, which prevented conception.
The seasons hurried past. Never had Glyn known a year to evaporate so quickly. Sometimes in the dark of midnight, lying sleepless, Glyn thought about fleeing his blessing, slipping out in the dark. But where would he go? The lands of the Bear extended far, valley to hill to valley, to the coast of the Salt Sea, all along the River, and to the north where the blue people lived who did not know Great Danu. But who would not know him? Every tiny farm, every hunting camp, every village, every gathering of priestesses, would know him as the renegade Bear, the Bear who withheld his life from his people, and risked bringing the anger of the Goddess down on the land. Even the other tribes who lived to the south and to the west, and across the Salt Water, would refuse to shelter him.
Spring came. Snow melted and the ancient forest filled with green and with bird-song. Summer came, and midsummer, and the Day of Devotion, when the Bear gave his life to his people.
Glyn and Edana coupled one last time, as was required. Edana was taken away by the priestesses because she would now become one of them, and no longer be Edana or Gwenour. Glyn was washed by other priestesses, and his hair braided, and the special signs painted on his body with the red paint which only the priestesses knew the secret of making. He was wrapped in the bear skin of his office.
As the sun climbed to zenith, the people gathered again, coming from every part of the land. When they were assembled, blind Isobail Isilis appeared with a new boy who was her eyes. The old boy had grown older and gone back to his village. The Bear was led forward to the mouth of the cave of steam. Gwenour stood nearby, holding her oak-wood cup and iron knife. Glyn did not look at her, or at the things she held.
Glyn dropped his bear skin and stood naked, so the people could see that he was without flaw. Then he ducked his head and stepped into the cave.
Inside was dark and warm billowing steam. Glyn’s eyes adjusted to the dim light and he saw a rocky passage, its floor muddy and green with moss. At the end of the passage was a rocky bay with a spring of boiling water welling up. At the back of the bay was a shelf and on the shelf a bed of sodden straw. Thin light filtered through the steam from outside. An old man was seated by the spring on a bench of stone. His skin was as pale as mushroom, splotched with red, and hung loosely. His hair was lank and thin.
“Come in, Bear, and sit here with me,” said the old man. His voice was weak and moist. “My name is Aiden, which is strange since my name means fire, yet I spend my days here drenched in the dark.”
Glyn sat on the bench near, but not too near, Aiden. “Who are you, Aiden?” he whispered.
“I am the brother of the blind chief of the priestesses, who is called Isobail Isilis,” said Aiden, “although when she was simply my sister her name was Morgane. When she became Isobail Isilis she banished me to this cave, because of something I had learned—which I may reveal to you, or I may not. I had the choice of immediate death or living here in the dark and doing a service for each Bear, and coincidently for the priestesses of Danu. The Priestesses bring me food and change my bedstraw. If I were to step outside, my life would be forfeit. I often think about doing so.”
“Why don’t you?” asked Glyn.”This seems a miserable existence.”
“Because of two things, one known and one secret. One is, there is a fungus which grows here in the damp which brings on a stupor when eaten. I give this to each Bear, if he wishes it, to make what follows easier, which is the service I provide. Sometimes I eat a little myself. I do not know if the Bears did this before I came here, or who may have given it to them, but they do since I came, and I have been here many years and seen many Bears. But the second thing, the secret thing, is that I still hold a hope for a truly courageous Bear.”
“It seems to me just being the Bear requires courage enough,” muttered Glyn.
“Yes, it does,” agreed Aiden. “But what I have in mind requires special courage, and a quick mind. So far, every Bear has listened to my proposal, then asked for the fungus, and gone out to be devoured by his people. I suppose many of these Bears were true believers, who believed in the power of Danu, and that being killed and eaten is what it means to say the King’s life belongs to his people. Now, what about you, Bear?”
“My name is Glyn.”
“Very well, Glyn,” said Aiden with a small smile. “That is a good beginning. What about you, Glyn?”
“What is it that you ask?”
“It is this,” said Aiden. “The power of the priestesses of Danu, like all things, has grown old and brittle. Perhaps there was a time when we needed to believe we required the blessing of the goddess to prosper, but no more. Now we know if we plant a seed, and if there is sufficient water and sunlight, the plant will grow. We know if a hunter is skillful, and if he seeks the proper game in the proper season, he will succeed. We have no need to placate any goddess.”
“But is it not Danu who brings the sun and the rain, and regulates the seasons?” asked Glyn.
“Perhaps. Or perhaps the deity who does all this is male. Or perhaps the deity is neither. Or both. Or perhaps these things operate on their own. What we do know is that in the memory of humankind they have never failed. Not for us, who pray and sacrifice to Danu, nor for barbarians who do not. But look, we men are stronger than women. Women are slaves to the cycle of their bodies. They are incapacitated by child bearing. That is why the priestesses never consort with men. But that, if anything is, is unnatural.” Aiden leaned forward and put his pale, clammy hands on Glyn’s shoulders. “There is one thing they have which allows this perverted imbalance of power. Iron.” Aiden sat back.”But I have the secret of making iron, which I learned by secretly following and watching my sister. But I was caught, and that is why I am confined to this cave.”
“I don’t understand this,” said Glyn. “What do you want of me?”
Aiden struggled to his feet. “I want you to become King,” he hissed. “I want you to live and be King, and grow old as King, and your sons after you. I want you to wrest power from the priestesses, and take it for your own. I want to humble them, and humble my sister, and make men the masters. I want to teach the secret of iron-making to the people, and use iron as it was meant to be used, for tools, and plows. And weapons. I want to come out of this cave to be your advisor and minister.”
“But the King’s life...” began Glyn.
“Yes, the King’s life,” interrupted Aiden. “It belongs to his people. His life, Glyn. Not his death.”
Glyn’s eyes widened. He felt as though the sun rose in his thoughts. His mind raced. He saw how all this could be. How he could live. What he would say. He jumped to his feet. “I will do it,” he shouted.
“Less loudly,” cautioned Aiden. “Sound echoes from here. And there is much to plan.”
Aiden and Glyn sat together in the shadows and the steam, and talked, and planned, while the people and the priestesses waited outside in the sun. Glyn and Aiden talked and planned for hours. Then they rose and walked slowly toward the cave mouth.
“One last thing,” said Aiden. “I doubt anyone remembers that Isobail Isilis was once Morgane, or that she had a brother, or that his name was Aiden. We are old and those who knew us have mostly died. Perhaps Morgane herself has forgotten who she was before she was blinded by the priestesses to become their Blind Lady. And, after all, she is blind. How would she know me now? Nevertheless, I shall now become Merwyn, which means friend from the water in the Old Speech. The friend and counselor to the new King.”
The sun rode the western sky when Glyn came out of the cave. Gwenour stepped forward. But Glyn held up his hand and Gwenour stepped back. The priestesses blinked, and Isobail Isilis raised her head. They had all expected a stupefied Bear to emerge from the cave, dulled and ready for sacrifice, because that was how it had always been.
Instead Glyn held his hand up, and stood firmly and tall, and spoke to the gathered people with his eyes bright. “The life of the King belongs to his people,” he shouted.
“The life of the King belongs to his people,” repeated the people, puzzled.
“I have seen the Goddess,” called Glyn. “She appeared to me there in the Holy Cave.”
The people gasped, breathed and swayed. Then they were silent.
“Danu was there,” continued Glyn. “She was there along with her consort, Gwydion, God of the sky. They spoke to me and told me of a new way which is upon us.”
The Blind Lady, Isobail Isilis, now stepped forward, holding up her iron knife. “This is blasphemy, Bear,” she cried. “Your life belongs to your people.”
“Yes,” answered Glyn, The Bear. “My life. Not my death.”
The people began to murmur. Isobail Isilis stopped, confused.
“They—Danu and Gwydion—told me I was to live,” called Glyn. “Live and rule as King, and that my life thereby belonged to my people. That the Sisterhood of Priestesses was still to be honored, but that the rule would be the King’s. That my Queen would be Gwenour, who was Edana, and our sons would be King after me.”
Gwenour turned pale and dropped her iron knife and wooden cup. She stumbled back, but Glyn held out his hand. Slowly, she took his hand and he pulled her forward to stand beside him. She looked him in the eye, hesitated, then stood firmly, her hand held in his.
“As the King will rule the people, so each man shall rule his home. As token of this, Danu placed her hand under the foot of Gwydion.”
The people sighed and swayed.
“And finally,” cried Glyn, “they—Danu and Gwydion—gave to me a wise counselor. He shall be called Merwyn—the friend—and he shall give the secret of iron to all the people, so they might make tools and plows and spears and knives and arrows from it, and prosper.”
Merwyn, who had been Aiden, stepped out of the cave. “I am Merwyn,” he said. “I carry the secret of iron.”
The people cried out at this, because they had not thought anyone was in the cave. Only Isobail Isilis recognized his voice, and remembered Aiden. She threw her knife on the ground and began to shout. “More blasphemy,” she cried. “He is my brother. He is a criminal. A thief.”
But the people shouted louder and drowned her out. “Iron,” they shouted. “We want iron.” Then, “The King. The King. His life belongs to the people. Long live the King.”
Glyn noted that many more men shouted than women. Few women, in fact, shouted. The women must get used to it, he thought. It is the time of men now, He held up Gwenour’s hand.
“Long live the Queen,” shouted the men. “Long live the Bear.” Glyn smiled at Gwenour, and she smiled back.
Isobail Isilis picked up her knife angrily and marched through the people, who gave way and parted for her. She disappeared from the clearing. The priestesses of Danu followed her.
“There will be trouble there,” whispered Merwyn.
“If it comes to battle,” said Glyn, “and if we have iron, we can defeat them easily. Let them keep the secret of the red paint.”
“Iron you shall have,” said Merwyn. “And who can we not defeat, when we have it? Our tribe will be triumphant everywhere.”
“Yes,” said Glyn, the King, the Bear. “And I will be the King, and they will bow down to me.”
The people shouted the title of the King, the Bear, in the Old Speech. “Artos. The Bear. Artos. The Bear.”
Not the usual Title Fights one two, eh? I'm always stoked to see what kind of crazy stuff washes up on our shores - whether it's a dirty, nasty, shit-laden noir punch-up or an epic other-worldy coming of age deal. I watched Conan, of course, but I've never read stuff like this before - but it's interesting to think about how all these stories were prompted the same way, the same sort of catalyst gave birth to all of them. Different as all our stories are, they have that in common (wipes tear from eye).