Poseidon & Cleito
by Andrew J. Peters
Copyright © 2016 by Andrew J. Peters
The Witch’s hovel stood on a bald hilltop covered with snow. It had been a half day’s journey for the young hunter to find it, minding his grandmother’s instructions from seasons past.
“Find the spitting cavern on the bank of the sea. Climb the bank to the margins of the ancient woods and follow the trodden path to a glassy plain. There she will be, perched over the barren land, like a shepherdess to a ghostly flock.”
The sun hung low on the horizon, and the snowy field was no longer glassy. The towering trees at the border of the woods cast a lake of shadow that stretched toward the hill, soon to devour it in darkness. An infinite quiet surrounded the hunter. For a delicate moment, fear bit at him, and he halted, suspended in a void of silence while the claw of frost clutched his breath. He pushed on through the field.
It was time for him to know his name.
Climbing the hill was a trudge through frost-crusted dunes that buried him to the top of his deerskin leggings. There were no other tracks up the hill. Though it was deep into the season of freeze, the clouds had not shed their tears of snow for three suns.
The home was a wattle-roofed roundhouse that looked like a giant mushroom crowning its snowy mount. It was no more than a dozen strides across, and its cone cap was buckled and frayed from many seasons of freeze and thaw. Smoke rose up from its chimney, and the snow encircling the house had melted, forming a gutter. A gnarled stake of wood warded the entrance. A freshly-killed white fox had been impaled on the stake.
The hunter stopped at the threshold for a moment, remembering his amma. He shut his eyes and spoke silent words to reach his grandmother in the otherworld.
“My beard grows thick, Amma. I am a man, and I have come, as you told me. The clan taught me well. I can chase the spotted deer, clean its hide from its flesh, and make my own hatchets and spears. Watch over me. You are always in my heart.”
He pushed aside the heavy mats hanging in the doorway and stepped inside. The sudden heat was arresting, and the stench was choking. The Witch must have been boiling some kind of animal fat. Mammoth hides hung from the hut’s rafters, dividing the space into a puzzle of compartments. In good times, the mammoth hunter clans might have had one pelt they could afford to show off in such a way, and this woman had at least three that he could see! Good barter: men from all parts of the steppe must have traveled to her to ask for name-readings.
That was trade from seasons past. There weren’t any clans of mammoth hunters left on the steppe. Not since the white-haired Sea People had alighted from their barges to ferry their antler-headed warriors and their strange machinery from their island kingdom. The raiders had brought war, enslavement, and a killing fever. They tore up the sedge with their stone-tipped harrows and drove the wooly titans from their grazing fields.
It was said the Sea People left the Witch alone, and the hunter had even heard they called on her for her prophecies and cures. How she managed to live by herself, so far from the steppe settlements, was strange to him.
The crackle of her fire filled the space, but he heard no other sound. An earthen pot rested at his foot. He took off the leather coin purse that hung around his neck, unlaced its cord, and turned it over. A dozen copper rings and tin coins tumbled and clanged into the pot.
His amma had never said how much to bring, but only once in a man’s life is he given his true name. It was the little bounty he had put away on his wanderings since his clan had scattered from the steppe. Picking over a few frozen travelers in the snow. Pocketing some spoils from the white-headed rangers he had fought off with his spear. The shiny trinkets were pretty trade, though a hunter made his way with what the land provided. He thought the currency might impress the Witch. They said she horded untold riches.
A voice stabbed at him from an unknown place. “Take off your boots.” He did not look for her, he just obeyed, taking off his mitts and unlacing his deerskin shoes and setting them aside. He stood, barefoot, and waited.
The phantom voice came again, so shrill it could shake the fur from a bear. “Leave your weapons. Take off anything with sleeves, legs, or pockets. You come and go with only what you brought.”
He looked around in disbelief. His spear and his hatchet were one thing. It was bad manners to enter someone’s house with weapons from the hunt. But following her orders would leave him in his thigh-length shift. It was threadbare and stained from many wearings.
The voice shrieked, “No time for modesty. I haven’t all night.”
He stripped down, leaving his pelt, his spear and hatchet, his woolen undercoat, and his leggings in a pile on the floor.
As soon as he had finished, the Witch called out. “Follow my voice. You can do that, can’t you? You’ve got more wits about you than you let on.”
His body, which was broad and tall and built for the hunt, felt suddenly awkward in the enclosed space. He looked around, stepped to one side, and pulled back the flap of a hanging pelt. That revealed a miniature anteroom of sorts. He ducked his head beneath a bowed and rotting rafter and ventured into that space. Another fur-draped divider hung at one side, under which fiery light flickered. He headed for it, found one edge of the fur draping, and parted it to step through.
“There we are. Not much to look at, but you can find your way into someone else’s home just fine, can’t you?”
He could not place her at first amid the dizzying disarray he had uncovered. Dozens of dead hares and lemmings hung from the ceiling. Copper jars were strewn about the room, some filled with brightly colored powders, others with putrefying fluids. Tallow candles burned on any shelf or bench where they could find purchase.
It was not until the Witch stood an arm’s reach from his face, waving a smoldering bundle of hairy twigs, that he noticed her. The smoke assaulted his eyes and his nostrils — a sickly sweet perfume. Some rite of purification.
“Sit,” she told him. She gestured to a mat in the center of the space, which faced an arcane altar of stone surrounded by wood-carved fetishes. He knelt in front of the altar while she came around the other side.
His gaze landed on her face and skittered away. A whiskered cancer grew from one of her cheeks. Her spindly white hair had fallen off in patches, and one of her eyes was closed over by a twitching eyelid.
He heard her settling across the altar from him. His amma had not told him what he should say, what a visitor should do when calling. He wished he had asked her.
“I want to learn my name,” he said. The tremble in his voice surprised him, as though he had shrunken back to boyhood.
The Witch’s voice rose up in a cackle. “Oh — that’s it, is it? I thought the warlord of the Sea People sent you to offer his hand in marriage.” Her rotting breath huffed against his face. “Shut up and hold your hands out, palms up.” She bustled like a partridge fussing for a better squat on the ground. “‘I want to learn my name,’” she mocked with a squeak. “You think I’m taking in guests for supper? No one comes to see me who doesn’t want to know his name. Real smart one, you. Must’ve kept your amma busy making sure you didn’t burn your eyebrows off staring into the hearth.”
His gaze shot up to her at the mention of Amma, but he quickly lowered it to his lap. They said she spoke to the dead. They said she knew all: everyone’s past and everyone’s future. They said she would put a curse on you if you did not mind your manners. He sat very still, saying nothing, trying to focus on her instructions.
What had she told him to do? He was shamefully nervous, and then he remembered. He raised his hands over the altar while she worked at a wooden mortar.
Using a stone pestle, she mashed powders and berries into a pulp. Then she brought out a little ivory rod, whittled down to a sharp point, and she clasped the underside of his hand. In one sudden motion, she stabbed the rod into his palm. He yelped and pulled his hand back.
“Always the biggest babies, mammoth hunters,” the Witch grumbled. “Give me that. Do you want to know your name or not?”
His lips sealed in a grimace. He brought his wounded hand over the altar. The Witch’s cold, bony fist closed over his, and she pulled his hand to the wooden bowl. Blood seeped from the crevices of his fist, and it dripped into the thick concoction.
There had been names for him before. Little Leopard, Amma had called him, because one of his front teeth had grown in crooked and stuck out like a fang. When he was older, they called him Donnogen, after his mother’s father Donno, since no one knew his father; his mother had died when she had birthed him. The band of outcasts he had taken up with called him Stag, since he was the biggest and the boldest when it came to poaching from the Sea People’s herds of reindeer. He knew himself. He was kin of the steppe people: a hunter, born from the stingy earth, descendant of a clan that had abided the freeze for ages, all the way back to the time when the first people had ventured from the smoky caverns of the earth’s belly.
But his true name would be his destiny. It would show him how he was to honor his clan, whether he was to be a chieftain who would avenge the steppe kin, a husband who would father many sons, or something else.
The hunter watched the blood accumulate in the bowl. Nausea grew inside him. The Witch pushed his hand away and used her pestle to mix the concoction into a thick, dark paste.
The altar’s fetishes called his attention. He recognized wide-hipped Mother Earth, and Father Sky with his starburst headdress and his arms outstretched, encircling everything. He saw the Frost Dragon who lived in the glacier mountains and brought blizzard and thunder to the steppe during his reign of freeze. There was the Dawn Maiden, who was so kind and lovely that she warmed the Frost Dragon’s heart and brought about the thaw.
She had an idol for the antler-headed war god, Moguns, who the Sea People worshipped by binding men to totems and hacking out their throats. The young man recognized the Mammoth, as well. An ache of sorrow worked through his bones. The Mammoth was the soul of the steppe, and she was gone. Slaughtered by the raiders, or she had abandoned the steppe, so it was said.
Some of the fetishes were mysteries to him. They signified gods and spirits of other lands. But the Witch’s altar had ancestors from the great sagas his grandmother had taught him. There was Llyr with his windswept mane of hair. He had led the famous voyage to the otherworld far beyond the setting sun, across the sea. Donnogen gazed at Llyr. It took great courage to navigate the sea, which was a dark, inscrutable spirit itself. To think a mammoth hunter had once triumphed on such an adventure filled his heart with pride.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” the Witch said. “We’re almost done.”
She set the mixture aside and meandered through the hanging kills, looking for something. She untied a white ferret and brought it over to the altar. The animal had been severed along its belly, and it looked to be only a couple of days dead. The Witch wrung its torso over the mortar, producing droplets of thick, black blood. She put the corpse aside and stared into the foul mixture.
What did she see there? He watched the contents of the bowl, perceiving nothing, not a shape, or a movement, or a gleam. He wondered if there was supposed to be some sort of reaction. He wondered if he had failed in some way.
She spoke. “Thief.”
He looked up at her abruptly. She laughed to herself. “I didn’t even need to go through all this to-do. Knew it the moment your stench crawled through my door. But that’s what they all come here for, isn’t it? To see the old Witch working at her concoctions.”
He scowled. She retorted, “That’s your name: Thief. Or, if you prefer: Liar. It’s your destiny, and it’s all you’ll ever be.”
“I’m not a thief.”
She gestured to the bowl. “It’s there as plain as the fang sprouting from your mouth. A surer augury I haven’t seen in a falcon’s age. You’ll be the greatest thief, and liar, the steppe has ever known. Not a thief! Where’d you get the coins for my pot? You earned them?” She threw her head back, laughing. “Now go on with you, before you clean me out of everything I own.”
She bustled around, finished with the reading.
It was true: he had taken coin from the Sea People who he had killed lest they kill him first. He had stolen their venison so that he and his clan brothers could eat. Only because the raiders had taken everything from his people. The Witch’s name-reading could not be true.
“You tricked me,” he said.
“There’s no tricks here. You come here for the truth, and you get it, whether you like it or not.”
A weight fell upon him. His grandmother had told him to go to the Witch. She trusted her. Had she known what the Witch would say? As he thought on it, he ached. He had stolen his mother’s life with his birth. He had not been able to help his grandmother when she was stricken by the Sea People’s feverish sickness. Following his grandmother’s dying words, he had run off to the woods, leaving his surviving kin to be murdered or taken as slaves. Was it true he had been born to be a cowardly thief? He should have died fighting to save his clan.
His voice was small and brittle. “What do I do?”
“You do what thieves do. Lie. Steal.” The Witch gestured with her gnarly fists. “Use your greedy hands to grab as much of this world as you can. Now get on with you. I don’t abide with your kind.”
He could not move. She stopped with her bustling for a moment, and her gaze passed over him. “You were expecting to be proclaimed a great hero, were you?” The Witch groaned to herself. “The lies a grandmother tells her kin. Always the mammoth hunters thinking they’re going to ride off to some great palace in the sky, mounted on a golden eagle, or some such nonsense.”
She faced him fiercely. “You haven’t got it in you, hear me? You’ll never be nothing but a thief. Steal yourself another name if you like. Steal friends. Steal a wife. You’ve got years ahead of you if you play wise. Maybe if you’re good at it, people won’t notice the name you make for yourself isn’t yours.”
His eyes burned, and a lump pitched in his throat. He looked at her defiantly. He hated her ugly face. He hated her cruel words.
“Go on with you,” she repeated. “Only thing worse than a thief is a stupid thief. You’ve got enemies in these parts, and they’re closing in on you like starving dogs. Get yourself far away where people don’t know you. That’s what I’d advise.”
He stood and walked out without another look at her. While he dressed in the fore-chamber of the house, his gaze traveled to his coins in her offering bowl. He thought to take them back to spite her, but that would lend truth to the Witch’s augury.
He pushed out of the house. The frigid night air gripped him, and he was grateful for the long, solitary journey back to the squat that his clan brothers had claimed in the forest. What was he going to tell them?
It was the darkest hour of the night by the time Donnogen first glimpsed the camp in the woods. Its bonfire was a beacon through the ancient evergreens. Spotting that sign gave new life to his legs, which had been carrying him since dawn. The scent of smoldering pine logs reached out to him through the woods like welcoming arms. Nonetheless, as the light of the fire grew bigger on the horizon, Donnogen’s stride faltered and dragged.
If everyone was huddled around the fire, forsaking their deerskin tent, they must be waiting up for him to share his news.
All the way there, he had turned over in his head what to say about the Witch’s name-reading. Donnogen had decided nothing. He wondered if he should make some excuse, saying he was too tired from his journey to speak about it and hope to come up with an answer in the morning. How could he tell his friends the Witch had said his destiny was to be a thief?
Donnogen approached the circle of men around the fire. They were shapeless silhouettes in their many layers of pelts. Though he kept his step light on the snowy forest floor, he could not delay them from noticing of his approach. They were men of the steppe, who hearkened to the patter of the white hare through fields of snow. One man shifted toward Donnogen, then another, and then each one looked in his direction. They got up on their feet. After quick squints of recognition, they hailed his arrival with hollers loud enough to shake the pine needles from the sheltering trees.
Donnogen clasped arms with his friends around the circle. He settled on a log next to Aneurix, his closest band brother since they had all joined up as one outcast company. Some of the others brought over a water skin and a cloth-wrapped bundle of rich, gamey meat that Donnogen figured to be musk deer. He took a long drink and looked across the men who encircled him. Their tattooed faces, aglow in the bonfire, fixed in on him eagerly.
Donnogen’s gaze nudged to the meat. “Who killed it?”
“Zethar. But me and Gyrdrig helped.” This came from Aedan, the loudest member of the crew. He was one of the striplings who had just last season earned the right to paint his face with the sacred woad: scrappy Gyrdrig, black-haired Padraig, and a boy they called Owl because of his bulging eyes. Zethar, Aneurix, Donnogen, and Gyrdrig’s brother, a moody big-boned fellow named Caradog, were the older, brawny bucks of the group. The eldest were a strange pair: a nervous, fragile man who they had taken to calling Flinch, and a gray and hairy fellow who they had found squatting in the woods and named Growl.
Aedan told Donnogen about the chase of the musk deer, and Gyrdrig and Owl talked over each other about their parts in capturing their quarry. Donnogen ate. The boys could keep a tale going for a good while, and it gave him a merciful moment to work out what to say about the Witch.
He could not tell them the truth. They would never look at him the same.
Aneurix passed him a second helping from the kill. Though Donnogen had not eaten since dawn, his stomach was sewn up tight. He had to muster a smile to show his friends he was thankful for the food.
The group’s chatter fell away. For a long spell, they sat in silence while the fire spat and crackled. Donnogen had to say something. He finished off his meat and wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his undercoat.
“I saw her. She told me the time has come to make my own way.”
The other men said nothing.
“I leave by tomorrow’s light.”
Zethar was the first to speak. “Where will you go?” His mane of shiny, golden hair was tied back with the proud circlet braid of his clan. He was second to Donnogen in stature and strength.
“To land beyond the setting sun.”
“How will you do that?” Aedan said. “You’ll have to cross the sea.”
Donnogen had expected Aneurix to be the first to try him with questions, but his red-bearded, pock-faced friend minded his thoughts. Donnogen had thought of a plan at its basics. The important thing was that he leave his band to make room for another leader who could look after them. He was not fit to do this after what the Witch had said. Besides, she had warned Donnogen his enemies were near. That could only mean the Sea People had seen him the last time he had wrestled a deer from their fields. They must have sent rangers into the woods to stalk his trail. They would not stop until they hunted him down. If Donnogen stayed, he would put his friends in danger.
“The raiders have longboats beached on the shore,” he said. “They use them to fish by sun up, but no one guards them while they sleep. I’ll take a boat and paddle down-shore until I find calm waters to bear me out to sea.”
The men shifted in place and snorted dubiously.
“What will you do off-land?” Aedan said. “There’ll be no place to anchor, and there’s sea dragons.”
“How’ll you manage a boat by yourself?” Caradog said.
Donnogen did not answer. They were reasonable quarrels. Donnogen had never even been in a boat. He had never been deeper in the water than his waist while crossing a swollen brook during the days of thaw. Though, as Aneurix knew, he had watched the Sea People launching and alighting at the shore while he was hidden in the cover of trees. It fascinated him that men could travel so. He had to set off on his own. Donnogen wished his friends would leave it at that.
Aneurix spoke. “What more did the Witch say? What name did she give you?”
Donnogen’s glance slid away. Should he just come forward with the name-reading and have it over with? No. His pride was too much.
“I follow the path of my namesake,” he said. “To harness the sea and travel to the otherworld.”
Having said it, the idea expanded inside Donnogen like heat from the fire. His companions’ faces widened in awe.
“She named me Llyr,” he said. “My destiny is to journey to the land where the souls of our ancestors roam free.”
For a long while, no one spoke. Like trying on a new pair of boots for size, Donnogen shifted a bit and relaxed. It was an honorable way of parting. If he were somehow to succeed, he would ask the ancestors how to bring the Mammoth back to the steppe. He would return to prove to the Witch he was meant for an honorable life.
And, if he were bested by the sea, his friends would never know, and they could say they had once traveled with a great adventurer. Donnogen could feel embers of pride burning strong in his companions. It hurt to leave his band brothers, but this would be his parting gift to them — the belief that their kind could claim glory. That would make them stronger and help them to survive.
“We’ll go with you,” Owl piped up.
The big-eyed, orphaned boy had taken to Donnogen like a son to his father. Donnogen glanced at him kindly. Like a wolf pup bounding out of his mother’s den, the boy had not yet learned the dangers of the world and the limits of his own size in it.
Murmurs and nods spread around the circle. Worries aroused Donnogen.
Aneurix nudged his companions. “We’ll all go on this journey. With our Captain Stag to lead us.”
The men grinned at one another, each one except Caradog. The sorrel-haired, thickset hunter from the hillside clans could be counted on to complain in any situation.
“The way is dangerous,” Donnogen said.
“This is why we will join you,” Aneurix said. He interlaced his hands. “We face danger stronger, together.”
Caradog stirred with a swaggering scowl, and he nudged his brother Gyrdrig to shuck the grin from his face.
“Who will look after the steppe? We’re all that’s left to watch over the country of our kin.”
The young ones looked to the older members of the party for their bearing on the matter.
Zethar stared into the fire while he cracked a pair of twigs in his big hands. “The Sea People have already taken our country. They’ve spoiled the land. We’ve long known we haven’t the numbers to fight them.” He tossed the broken up pieces of wood into the burning pile.
Caradog stood and beat his hand upon his chest. “We never give up. The steppe is the land of our clans, our people. There will come a day when the Mammoth returns to punish the raiders for the evil they brought.”
Donnogen had prayed for the same miracle. He had rallied his friends to unite as brothers to hold strong to the traditions of their kin. But he did not know how to lead them forward. It took more than the belief that the gods had spared some justice for their kind.
Zethar spoke to Caradog. “The day may come when the Mammoth returns. But who of us will be here to see it? Each season of freeze turns harder.”
He earned a long and thoughtful silence. They had been a band of twenty and had dwindled to ten since they had fled to the woods to escape the raiders. Even if they could eke out a living beyond the steppe hunting grounds, they would live out their days as scavengers. They would never have wives and children, nor roundhouse homes, nor the hunt nor the days of feasts. That was why Donnogen’s visit to the Witch pained him to the core. He had hoped for a sign of a better future for them all.
Donnogen noticed Owl watching him, along with Aedan, Padraig, and Gyrdrig. Like him, they had been sent away by their families to escape the raiders’ purge of boys who could grow up to be rivals to their warlord. They looked to Donnogen for instruction and hope. A word of consent, and they would happily follow him. That warmed his heart, their trust that he could lead them to a better life. But how was he going to do it?
As he looked around at his companions, another question overwhelmed him: how could he turn them away from following him?
“We all go to the land across the sea,” Donnogen said. He glanced at Caradog. “Not to abandon our country. To find the way to bring back the mammoth.”
It brought the men and boys to their feet like howling wolves. Only Caradog stood apart from the celebration, scowling with doubt.
For a moment, Donnogen felt as tall as the ancient pines. To say it was possible somehow made it feel like it could be done. He gathered the men together to work out a plan for stealing one of the Sea People’s boats.