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The country of the tribes of Gaul extends from the sere and rugged cordillera of the Pyrenees in the west to the grandeur of the snow-capped Alps in the east, from the dank fogbound coast of the northern sea to sunny southern reaches where the balmy tang of the Mediterranean can be smelled drifting up through the mountain passes.
But in truth, the lands of the Edui and the Arverni, the Carnutes and the Belovaques, the Turons and the Santons, and all the rest, their farmsteads, their cities, their pastures, are but islands in an ocean of trees. For it is the mighty green forest, cresting over hills and rolling down valleys, that fills the greater part of their world; it is the oak that reigns supreme, not man.
Deep within this endless oak forest is a round clearing, its grass sprinkled with wild flowers, mushrooms, mossy rocks. Waiting silently just within the ferny undergrowth fringing its margin is a circle of leaders of a score and more of the tribes of Gaul, wearing pantaloons in their tribal colors, woolen shirts, leather jerkins, their scabbards empty of swords. Each of these vergobrets stands beside a pole bearing aloft the sigil animal of his tribe--boar, hawk, bull, bear, stag, wolf, and the like--roughly carved in wood or cast in subtly modeled bronze or silver.
In the center of the clearing, illumined by the bright noonday sun, stands Guttuatr, Arch Druid of all Gaul, a tall, slightly stooped man in early old age. His hair and neatly trimmed beard are silvery gray. He wears a white robe with no tribal colors. The cowl of the robe is drawn over his head, but does not hide his face, with its hawk-beak nose and its deeply set green eyes that seem to look through this world and into another. He bears, but does not lean upon, a gnarled oaken staff as tall as he is. Atop the staff is fixed a fallen star, a roughly spherical piece of dark-gray pockmarked iron twice the diameter of an apple.
He looks up at the sun, then down at his own shadow, severely foreshortened as the sun passes through its zenith. Then he raises his staff one-handed, the fallen star now a quarter of a man's height above his head.
From the four quadrants of the wind, their white robes trimmed in the many colors of the tribes of Gaul, druids emerge silently past the vergobrets and into the clearing.
They form an inner circle around the Arch Druid, then stand immobile. Guttuatr grounds his staff once more upon the earth. No one moves. No one speaks.
And then the ghostly-pale midday moon begins to move across the face of the golden sun.
The vergobrets gasp as a shadow begins to cross the clearing and the forest beyond, as the sky slowly turns a deeper blue.
The Arch Druid Guttuatr speaks.
"As in the heavens, so upon the earth. The gods of night seek to conquer the day. Those who serve the dark war against those who serve the light. As upon the earth, so in the heavens."
The moon, like a mouth open wide, swallows an ever-growing portion of the golden sun, as if bent on devouring it entire.
The tribal leaders moan and shuffle their feet in distress. The druids stand silent, knowing eyes fixed upon Guttuatr, as if waiting for some signal.
Nothing is to be heard but the shuffling feet and softer and softer moans of the vergobrets, then the confused cries of day birds returning to roost and night birds awakening and the faint far-off baying of dogs and wolves, as the blood-red light of false sunset falls upon the forest.
Then the night itself descends. The sky turns black and the stars appear, but the sun is still visible, its face a void of darkness, but rimmed in a gauzy light like hair and beard aflame or the fiery crown of a celestial god.
"The night destroys the day!" Guttuatr shouts, and brings forth cries of terror from the men beside their tribal standards. "The dark devours the light!"
And the druids begin a stately circling round him.
Guttuatr begins a slow chanting.
"But the Great Wheel turns and we turn with it...."
The circling druids answer.
"That which is eternal, that which passes..."
"As in the heavens, so upon the earth..."
"As upon the earth, so in the heavens..."
"Let the Great Wheel turn with us!" Guttuatr shouts, raising his staff high above his head as if to command the heavens. "Night into day! Darkness to light! Let the Great Wheel--"
Suddenly vergobrets and druids alike cry out, a great collective shout not of terror but of wonder. The druids abruptly cease their circling, and turn to stare at something above and behind Guttuatr. All at once the solemn spell is broken, and an unruly crowd is pointing at the sky, shouting and babbling.
Guttuatr himself whirls around, looks up to see--
A point of light emerging from nothingness, growing brighter, and brighter, and brighter.
A new star being born.
Guttuatr's jaw drops slack, and his eyes widen in awe, as those of a man beholding the visage of a god.
"Once in a thousand years...," the Arch Druid whispers.
The vergobrets do not move, but the druids crowd close to him, and one of them dares to speak.
"What means this, Arch Druid?"
With enormous reluctance, Guttuatr slowly turns from this mighty portent.
"This is the sign of a Great Turning," he tells his fellow druids uneasily. "This Great Age will die to give way to the next."
"But what will--"
"No man of the age that is passing can see clearly into the age that is to come," Guttuatr says quickly and more firmly. "We have conjured more than those of the world of strife should know. We must finish the rite before the heavens finish it for us!"
And he raises his staff aloft once more.
"Behold!" he shouts. "The heavens themselves declare their favor! Light from darkness! Day from light! The Great Wheel turns!"
The druids hastily and somewhat clumsily resume their circling and chanting. The vergobrets draw back.
"We turn round, and round, and round...."
"Let the Great Wheel turn with us!" Guttuatr commands.
And, as if to obey, the moon begins to disgorge the light it has eaten, and the sky begins to brighten in a gloriously luxurious purple-and-gold false sunrise. The forest awakens, and blue skies and bright sun once more look down upon a world of verdant green. The rite has succeeded.
Or so it might seem.
Half a dozen roasting boar and as many sheep dripped their fat on crackling log fires, perfuming the air with deliciously pungent smoke. Boys pulled planks of steaming loaves from the ovens and set them out to cool. Peasants brought in wicker baskets overflowing with ripe red apples, white turnips, and dark-green nettles, savory and freshly picked. Bards toyed with their harps, and here and there servants sang with them.
It was the happiest day of Vercingetorix's young life, trotting to keep up with the mighty strides of his father, Keltill, as they crossed the outer courtyard of the family homestead in the bright afternoon sunshine. It was the day of the great feast to be given by Keltill to celebrate the inauguration of his year as vergobret of the Arverni.
Though robust and brawny, Keltill was but of average height for a Gaul, yet, in the eyes of his fourteen-year-old son, he was a giant.
His lands and his riches and his rule might have been passed down to him by the will of the gods, as the druids proclaimed, but what Vercingetorix saw in the eyes of his father's people was something no god could bestow. Nor were the smiles that greeted him bought solely with the gold coins he tossed with gay abandon into the air, as if they were so many sprigs of mistletoe.
Keltill was loved by his people.
Keltill grinned and made a great show of smacking his lips as they approached the brew master's cart. Seeing this famous enthusiast of his wares, the balding, fat-bellied fellow drew two foaming horns of beer from two different barrels.
"This one I would say has rather more flavor, Keltill," he said, offering the horn in his left hand, then raising the one in his right. "But this one has a bit stronger spirit."
Keltill quaffed the first, then the other.
"Well, which one do you favor?" asked the brew master.
"When did I ever taste a brew I didn't favor?" said Keltill. He laughed, then grinned at Vercingetorix. "What do you say, Vercingetorix, would you care to favor us with an opinion?"
Like any boy of Gaul, Vercingetorix was familiar with watered-down beer, given when hot weather made milk curdle or cows went dry. But this would be his first taste of the full-strength manly brew. He took a hesitant sip of the "more flavorful" beer. It was thick and sweet. Under the watchful eye of his father, he took a more manly gulp. Now a bitter aftertaste emerged, which he found less than pleasant.
"Well?" asked Keltill.
"Uh...good. Nice and, uh, foamy."
Keltill handed him the second horn. This time, Vercingetorix took a full adult mouthful straightaway, and made a show of rolling it around in his mouth thoughtfully before he swallowed. Less bitter, less sweet too, and not as thick.
"Even better!" he declared sincerely.
"Like father, like son!" Keltill said, fetching him a mighty clap on the shoulder. "My sentiments exactly! You heard our beer-taster, we'll have twenty barrels--of each of them!"
"Of each?" said the brew master, eyeing Keltill skeptically. "About the money..."
"Name your price! I'll pay you double whatever it is when we've both died and gone on to the next world in the good old Gallic fashion!"
"Very generous, Keltill, but if I, my family, and my brewers don't eat in this world, we'll find ourselves there for a good long while before you, so, if you don't mind..."
"Well, if you're going to be that way about it..." Keltill said impishly, reaching into the leather pouch from which he had been so freely dispensing largesse, and extracting but a single coin.
The brew master was not amused.
Keltill laughed at his sour expression.
"Come along, then," he said. "There's plenty more where that came from!"
He held the coin, which Vercingetorix knew bore Keltill's own portrait, closer for the brew master's inspection. "Handsome, are they not?"
They passed through a gate in the wooden palisade that enclosed the inner courtyard. Within was the great round house, with its well-hewn plank walls caulked with wattle, its tall conical roof freshened with newly cut thatch for the occasion, and still redolent of earth and hay. The roof, as always, was crowned with a carved wooden bear, sigil animal of the Arverni, but now a bear cast in bronze stood on a pole before the doorway--the standard of their new vergobret.
At the front of the house, trestle tables had already been set up and servants were setting out benches, dressing the tables with platters, and piling up logs for a bonfire.
Keltill crossed the courtyard to a wooden shed. Vercingetorix had been inside and so knew what to expect, but the brew master didn't. Two artisans were beating lumps of soft gold into sheets with heavy, broad-faced iron-headed mallets, and two more were stamping out coins from the sheets with round-faced dies and tossing them into big leather sacks already brimming with the fruit of their labors.
Keltill led the gaping brew master to one of the sacks. "Take what you consider just," he said. "No more and no less."
The brew master gave Keltill a look of amazement, which transformed to greed. He dipped both hands in the sack and came up with as much as he could carry.
He froze. He looked at Keltill.
Then he slowly dribbled half his load of coins back into the sack and departed.
"You just trusted him to take what he would!" Vercingetorix exclaimed.
"I trusted his honor. This is our way, Vercingetorix. Honor is to be trusted. Fortune is to be shared. Else what are we?"
He scooped up a great handful of coins and stuffed them in the leather pouch tied to his belt.
"Of course, it does not diminish a man's reputation for generosity that his likeness appears on his largesse, so that those who receive it never forget whence it came," he said. Then he laughed. "Not every notion of the Romans is foolish."
Keltill picked up another handful of coins and held it up before Vercingetorix's eyes. "On the other hand, the way they whore after this stuff to the point where they will even let it buy their honor is pitiful!"
"Indeed! They forget what gold is for. Do you know, Vercingetorix?"
Vercingetorix could only shake his head.
"Consider," said Keltill. "You cannot eat it, you cannot drink it, you cannot ride it, you cannot even forge a sword from this pretty but otherwise useless metal."
"But you can buy food and drink and horses and swords and more with it!"
"Exactly!" cried Keltill. "Life is not to be spent in the making and hoarding of money! Meat is to be eaten! Beer is to be drunk! Horses are to be ridden! A year as leader of your tribe is to be celebrated freely!"
With a wild laugh he tossed the whole handful of coins into the air. "Money is to be spent on the pleasures of living!"
By the time the sun had set, the festival had begun, and it could fairly be said that much money had indeed been spent on the pleasures of living.
A horde of guests had arrived. Most were Arverne nobles, their families, and warriors, and the ordinary folk of Keltill's holdings who had been favored with admission to the outer courtyard for the feast. Some few were invited nobles from other tribes of Gaul; some fewer still were druids, who had the right to invite themselves to any feast, anytime, anywhere, in the lands of the Gauls.
The drinking of beer was already well under way. Everyone had a foaming mug of copper or pottery, open barrels had been set out everywhere, and the fumes alone were enough to make the very old and the very young lightheaded.
Not that they were relying on their noses to get the beer to work its happy magic. Nor, having savored his first true taste, did Vercingetorix fail to quaff his fair share and then some. The torches seemed to him haloed, the final handful of coins tossed by Keltill cascaded through the syrupy air like flurries of golden snow, and the music and voices melded into the wordless song of a burbling stream.
Keltill's entry was greeted by a collective cheer. And though this was not lacking in wholehearted affection for the man himself, stomachs spoke as loudly as hearts when Keltill strode up to the bonfire.
A warrior handed Keltill a torch. Keltill made a grinning show of hesitation. "Surely, my friends, you have not yet drunk enough beer to truly whet your appetites?" he said. "Best we wait a bit longer before going on to the meat."