It is the depths of Winter. Demon-harried humanity has been worn down to its bones - by hunger, by cold, by disease, by despair. Too many have stripped off their hides and walked out into the night, to be taken by the cold and returned to the earth of the land of Endor. Old men and women give of their own flesh in desperation to feed their kin. The fires are going out, and it is uncertain if they will ever be lit again.
And yet the ancestors endure - for Lu nears the end of her pregnancy, and on the first child of the gods the peoples have placed all their hopes of the Spring to come.
In the great darkness, in the long silence, in the stillness of night, tohu wa-bohu in haTehom, they wait for the dawn.
With a last scream, with one final effort, it was over.
"Yes, I have him!" Hecate said, drawing her flint knife to cut the cord. "A son, Lu, a son-"
A son who was not struggling. A son who was not crying. A son who was not breathing.
With well-practiced hands, the witch cleared the child's mouth, drained the mucus from the nose and lungs. A thousand times she had done this, ten times a thousand times. Still no breath of life entered, the soul did not ignite, no war-cry came forth.
"Please...Let me see him," Lu groaned. Hecate felt a great weight settle upon her shoulders. This too, she knew well.
"He is not with us, Lu." Hecate took up the child's blanket and wrapped him in it, and handed him over to his mother. "I'm sorry."
Lu took the bundle in her arms, and the true stillness of her son made itself known through the haze of pain-dampening herbs and oxytocin. She let out a low, pain-full moan, growing in strength as the tide until it crashed upon the shore and broke with wordless cries older than the gods, and more vast and terrible than they could ever be.
"No no no no no no...my son, my son, your father is just outside. He waits for you, will you not wake and greet him?"
The child did not stir.
"You have slept so much already, my love. Please, open your eyes."
Such things she said, or half-said, or wished to have said but could not through her sobs and burning tears. She was blind to the others, to Hecate and her sister [-----], to Tubalkhan as he entered the tent and rushed to her side. In his hand he still clutched the shapeless stuffed thing he had sewn, a mass of soft cloth and down the infant might cling to for comfort. He held close his beloved and wept with her, and his heart was rent alongside her own. For Tubalkhan had longed to hear laughter in his workshop, and the pattering of small feet, and those questions found only in the wisdom of children. He longed, deep in his soul, that he might one day hold his child's work in his hands and say I have nothing more to teach you - you have surpassed me. All of this now felt as if it had been carved out of him by a knife.
"I was to teach you the forge," said he, and he said nothing more.
With sudden movement, with violent, unsteady swiftness, Lu rose to her feet. She stumbled out of the tent, past Hecate and Tubalkhan and her sister [-----], out into the frozen night; her feet bare upon the snow and mud, the child clutched to her breast, without even a shawl on her shoulders. And when she could walk no farther, with tears freezing fast upon her cheeks and birth-blood upon her legs, she stared up at the silent stars and muted moon and screamed.
And what she uttered there was older than words; a language of ancient pain and ache and fear of the great dark, of crying out "why, why? I don't understand!" And in that broken speech of the amygdala she pleaded, threatened, cursed, wept, offered herself in his place, wished for death. Clung to some frantic hope that perhaps, if her rage burned bright enough she might stop the Wheel in its turning, that the machinery of the cosmos might reverse its course.
But the universe did not deign to answer.
She argued for his innocence, offered her life in exchange again and again, recited the litany of all her violations of the courses of Heaven. The theft of fire, the coming of Winter, the waking of demons, everything that had followed, everything that was her doing. "I am guilty, not he! If one must be struck down, may it be his mother!" she cried.
No response came. Her pleas for justice went unheard. Her cries echoed on the ice, and were rendered into nothing.
"Have we not suffered enough? What more must we pay? How many, until you are satisfied? How many must die until it is enough?"
The sages and wise ones tell us it is an error to give thought and voice to the great powers, that we must not render them in our image. This is a mercy, they say; had Lu received an answer it would be impossible to live in its shadow, for the answer could only have been "it will never be enough."
But no words were spoken in return, and Lu felt only the echoes in her aching heart.
"COWARD! FUCKING...FUCK! KILL ME, YOU COWARD, YOU [expletive untranslated]!
[The next lines have been excised in their entirety. In the oldest version of the text, so ancient that the glyphs can no longer be understood, the clay was gouged with a chisel. The scribes of later versions included a warning: the curses contained in the lacuna damnatio were of such power that they might kill the reader.]
Soon she could scream no longer, for the cold had stolen the words from her mouth and the breath from her lungs. Her legs, unable to hold her up, buckled beneath her.
A snuffing beside her, the sound of paws on permafrost, of moccasins in the show.
"Please. Come back to us." It was the voice of Aštare. Lu could not see her then, for her tears had blinded her; her eyes were frozen shut. The goddess of the hunt-at-dawn raised Lu to her feet and supported her on one side, as Tubalkhan held her up from the other. Together they took her back to her tent. They wrapped her in hides and soft blankets, worked warmth back into her limbs. DOG lay there beside her, his great black head resting upon her lap. Lu still held the child, rocking back and forth, shivering, a whispered mantra tumbling from her lips: "Give him back... give him back."
"It's time, Lu." Hecate placed her hand on Lu's arm. "It's time." For the great witch knew that if they were not parted now, Lu would be quick to join her son in the lands of the dead.
Mutely, slowly, Lu released her vice's grip on the child. She kissed him on his head, mouthed words that went unheard, and gave him over to Hecate, who held him with all tenderness due. So small he was, and blue from death and cold.
Tubalkhan rose then, as if to stop the witch from leaving. She stared back at him with eyes like burning coals, and the god of the forge took no further step.
"No man ought to sit vigil for his own son," said the witch.
"That does not mean that he shouldn't."
"No. It does not. But she needs you still, and I fear for her life if you should leave her side in this hour. As much as it pains you, do not let one death turn into two, Tubalkhan."
Thus the witch left with the child.
Aštare left the birthing tent and went to stand beneath the tree in the center of the camp. She made offering of hospitality to the spirit that lived there. She gathered the gods of the hunt, the elephant Tears-Down-Trees, the ravens called Thought and Memory, and she said to them: "Gather your bands and ready your atlatli; call your shouldermen and the old huntresses. Set your patrols about the camp, keep your tongues still and your eyes clear. Do not cease till sunrise drives them back. Do not let them breach the boundary marks. The ravens will go with you. Now go, and fear no darkness."
Thus with spear and bow, they spilled out into the night.
She was no stranger to stillbirth. But not even Hecate Daipetasos is made of stone, and in the depths of her own heart she longed for the day when there would be no shrouds so small, when her trade might be long forgotten as a necessity of a cruel and ancient age. What strength of will she had shown in the birthing-tent faded swiftly, as if it was only a puff of breath in frigid air.
The gods have no one to pray to; the great powers on whose tireless action the cosmos turns possess neither word nor mind nor thought. They shall not answer, for they cannot hear. And thus Hecate was alone with herself, alone with the corpse of a child who would have become a good man had the chance been his. Alone, with all the huddled masses pulling at the hem of her cloak, seeking aid. Alone, and surrounded by the abyss. The place, the time, that is called the Witching Hour.
The hide at the fore of her tent was brushed aside, and three gods entered.
DOG was the first, shaggy and black and as big as a bear. Xanna was the second, the goddess of going forth by day. Her face was lined with age, her braid grey streaked with white, and her dark eyes both kind and sharp. The shawl on her shoulders depicted a seal hunt and a feast of thanksgiving.
"Hail to you, my sister Hecate Daipetasos," said she.
"Hail, Xanna of the Good Death. Hello, DOG." As the witch turned to greet the third guest, the word froze in her throat, and her knees bent as if to fall prostrate there on the hides.
Ah, you know better than to kneel to me, Hekatitsa. I am no lord. I simply am.
By virtue of her second sight and second thoughts, the great goddess of witches knew that the third guest in her tent was woven of her own mind, a reflexive attempt to fill the emptiness in the universe with a guise and voice that could be grasped and understood. And so she saw there, looming over the other two, a hunchbacked shape in hides of marble and obsidian. Beads of amber the size of fists strung in a chain about their neck. A six-faced mask of bone - a man, a woman, an elephant, a crow, and a face she did not know - painted with ocher and ash. Eyes the color of golden honey peering out of the inner darkness of the mantle and hood, ancient and sad. A curled staff of wood that time had turned to stone.
"Yes, yes, of course Great-Grandfather," the great witch stammered out at the shape that stood behind DOG and the goddess of peaceful goings. "There are a few sweet pemmican cakes left, if you-"
Xanna held up her hand. "Another time," she said. "We will leave you soon."
As Xanna said this, DOG went over to where the witch had laid the child and rested his vast hairy head beside the still, frozen body - for DOG alone among all the gods is the psychopomp of children and infants. It is as much mercy as the gods can offer in the face of the great darkness, that perhaps the company of the most gentle and kind among them might ease the passage of those most in need of comfort. It is all that can be done. Perhaps it may be enough.
DOG raised his head, chuffed once, and went to stand again beside Xanna, who scratched him behind his ears.
"Be well, sister. Next time, we shall share some pemmican and kumis and speak of better things."
She and DOG left then, and Hecate was left alone with the third guest.
You have done well, Hekatitsa. But I too must depart. The the work of my halls is never-ceasing.
"Wait, Grandfather, I..." for a moment the great witch stilled her tongue, but she could not hold in the question. "Tell me. Will the sun rise tomorrow? Will spring come?"
The earth will turn its face toward the sun once more, come the end of night. In time - not quickly, but soon as such things are reckoned - the glaciers will retreat. The seas will rise. The forests will expand and green things will grow again. But that is not your question.
You wish to know if what has been hoped for will come to pass. The age to come.
That remains to be seen.
"Will he bring the sun anew?"
No. There is no return from the place of rest. Just as no barred gate might stay my hand, no hands might breach the gates of starless night.
There is no return. He shall not ride triumphant through the heavens as Bringer-of-Day. He shall not march up from the underworld with the dead at his back and spring at his heels.
"Then we all travel a doomed path. There is nothing at the end."
Hearing this, Hecate fell to the floor and groaned with all the ache and exhaustion that had built up in her body and mind.
"Too much. It's too fucking much. How? How am I supposed to go back, to tell them this?"
And yet it must be borne. Is that not the duty of your trade? Is that not the mantle of your profession? Are you not a witch, the bearer of bad news and hard truths, the watcher of comings and goings? Are you not the great witch, who knows the burden clearly and might guide men in carrying it? Are you not she who teaches difficult lessons? Are you not she who once said to me 'If I do not, then no one shall, and I cannot permit that'?
"Save your scolding, Grandfather! I know what I said." Hecate rights herself, and there is something of the old fire smoldering dimly within her. A witch's pride might overcome despair, as it is said. "I shouldn't have expected any comfort from you."
Comfort is not mine to give.
"I wish that it might be mine."
And that is why you have done well this night. They tapped their staff three times upon the floor. Until our paths cross again, Hekatitsa. Do say hello to Sirsi and Melinoe for me, they are growing up so fast.
And then the emptiness was gone, and the loom of Hecate's mind ceased its frantic shuttle. She turned back to the body of the child, and continued the preparations for burial.
Dawn arrived. Aštare and her hunters, battered but victorious, returned to the camp of the ancestors. The demons of the night had been driven back to their hiding places in the hills. They would return. But not just yet.
There on the shore of the frozen river, the ancestors and their gods mourned he who was to be called the Bringer of Day, the Usher of Spring, the Good Man and the Master of Arts, the Apotheon and Healer of the World. He upon whom all hope had rested.
Lu bore him in her arms in silence, Tubalkhan at her side.
In those days it was custom to set the dead beneath a pile of stones or beneath the open air in sky funeral, for the ground was often too firm to dig and fuel too scarce to spend.
A pit was dug in the frozen earth and filled with all kindling that could be spared. Lu kissed her son upon his brow for the last time, Tubalkhan did likewise, and the child was set ever-gently in his pyre and grave. Lu lifted a hand to her head and plucked a tongue of flame from the Crown to light the kindling.
When the fire had died, and only the bones (so small, so small) remained among the ashes, a cairn of stones was raised over the grave. Lu and Tubalkhan lingered in that place in silence, until they might stay no longer.
The camp breaks. The sleds are loaded. The dogs are harnessed. Onward.
Spring is a word of three meanings.
The first being that quarter of the year when the axial tilt of the planet brings warmth and growth back to those regions that had been leaning away; The second being the age following the retreat of the ice, the age of the Holocene in which we now live. The third being a matter of spirit - that hoped-for age-to-come when the demons of humanity's heart are dispelled to torment us no more, and the last sword shall be beaten into a plowshare, and the last of the lame shall walk, and the great labor of countless generations shall at last be fulfilled in the healing of the world.
Such is the hope.
The death of the infant Inti is commemorated on the winter solstice, nestled among the local folkways that populate the deep time of the year. Though he plays a prominent role in the art and theology of the Solar Church and the Di Valean tradition, his dedicated cult is small, consisting solely of the grave-tenders that keep his shrines. There orphans and foundlings are interred with honor and care.
He is portrayed always in his funeral shroud, a cloth woven of sunrise's bright colors and angular puzzle patterns. His face is always veiled; only his hands, colored the blue-black of frostbite, may be seen uncovered. He is never portrayed offering benediction, holding sacred symbols, or performing mudras. He is never portrayed alone, always accompanied by one or both of his parents or riding upon DOG.
He would have been the patron of all the arts of civilization; that mantle would later be shared among his younger siblings.
Next in the Cycle: The Daemonomachy