It was summer, so he went into the mountains. The air was thinner there, crisp as a sheet of ice. But everything was green and new.
Hot, charred meat in the morning. Rich, grainy bread that made his teeth hurt. A nice familiar ache, like seeing the sun rise in the spring. He grumbled and stoked the fire. His lungs filled with smoke and bright morning. He choked on it, a little. When the hacking cough subsided, he spoke a brief prayer. Enough to calm his lungs, for a little while. The god he spoke to was as old and grumpy as he was. Asking for anything more would require blood and a holy woman, and he was all alone here. Filled with blood, as it happened, but not the right kind. Some gods needed the blood of the young.
He sang a prayer to the goats. They had sharp, wise faces and thin shiny coats. They sang back and he watched them graze on the thick grasses between the rocks. The little ones wandered from their mothers, already nimble and bold. He sang to them, in a small language that they might understand. Their bleats were sharp and tiny as river pebbles.
At night, it got colder and he pulled his cloak up over his face. A prayer for the morning, so it would come. A prayer for good dreams. But the gods played tricks on him, sometimes. He had dreams, not truly bad ones, but he still woke up with tears on his face.
His mother’s morning fire, fed with resiny pine boughs. The sun as it rose over water, her copper colored cloak covering everything. Every song from his mother’s throat. She was halfway a holy woman herself, she had learned from her mother’s mother. She knew a song for cuts and bruises, for fevers and broken bones. She even knew one for a torn up heart. That was the song that lingered as he woke. He could taste it as he rose and added wood to the fire for his breakfast. Salty, earthy, warm.
The hacking cough returned as he lingered over the fire. If he fell ill again, it might be the end for him. He had fallen ill before the last moon’s turn and had lay delirious in a sweltering fever for days. The village had wanted to keep their coppersmith and expended all the holy energy they could to save him. The holy women burned herbs over his body and marked his eyelids with ash, spoke in the old dead languages of their ancestors, danced and sang and spilled the blood of a stag. When he woke up, he left his forge and headed for the mountains to tend goats, filled with the unimaginable weight of his own mortality. How long would it be, now? His father had known less winters than he had, and less illness as well. The gods were hungry for him, he could feel it. His blood was old and filled with wisdom and that made him tasty.
He went down into the valley to gather berries. The goats were grazing, full up on summer grass. Finding the berries was good, hard work. His eyes weren’t as keen as they used to be and his back hurt from the strain of bending over. But he felt so good and satisfied that he lay down beneath a yew tree and fell deeply asleep. He did not say any prayers for good dreams.
Yew for love, yew for death, yew for the names no one would ever speak. He should have known the gods were always eager to trick a man when his back is turned and they must have laughed when they sent him his dreams that day.
Fire. Heat. Ash that fell like snow. He had seen the plume of smoke from over the hills. His legs, still young and strong back then, ached as he ran, ran, ran, his mouth too full of ash to even speak a prayer. Wild men from the north. He could hear their war drums. They looked wild to him, anyway, with their faces painted blue and black, blood on their hands, ash in their hair. He thought he heard his mother singing, but it was only the sound of the fire whining as it burned. As he watched the wild men dance in the ruins, he climbed the sturdiest ash tree and watched them laugh. The ash’s bark had cankered. He could see a face in its trunk, weeping. His lover had danced beneath this tree, with white flowers in her hair. He couldn’t speak her name now. The gods had taken it with them.
He couldn’t speak her name again, not when the gods had stolen it. Not his mother’s either, who had a name like wind whistling through the trees. Or his father’s, taken by a summer fever. Or his three sisters’, taken one after the other from the blood coughing sickness. He could see all their faces, cold and dead as falling ash. He woke in a hot sweat, so like the fever that had wracked his body that he stumbled clumsily to his feet. He could smell the smoke from his burning home, but that was impossible. That ruin had been washed away by rain years ago.
His lungs felt hot, full of smoke, as though he were smelting copper again. He choked out a prayer, and another and another, until the ground was full of his words. Let them sink in like water, he thought. Let them soak into the earth and find the dead that sleep there without names, let them sleep peacefully, let the gods be silent. But he knew what dreaming of the dead would bring.
He killed a red deer. She was a beautiful thing, small and quick with a shining coat of summer fur. Her blood sank into the earth as he skinned her and offered up the best cuts of her meat to the gods that hounded him. He ate too, the gristly, stringy bits that no god would deign to eat. They wanted blood, and they would have to accept his sacrifice without a holy woman to speak to them in their language.
He cut down a yew branch to make a bow and climbed back up into the mountain. Yew for death. The air grew thinner and it caught in his lungs. He felt winded and weak when he arrived back at his blackened fire pit. The goats had wandered off, but they would be back. His hands trembled as he struggled to relight his fire. Yew for love. A wind blew, disturbing the bundle of dry grass he used as kindling.
He could hear drums beating in the north. War drums, from down inside the valley. They would rise with the wind, follow the goats and their young to where they grazed with their shepherd and find an old man alone by his fire pit.
He could run, but his knees trembled. He could fight, but his hands failed him. He sang every prayer he knew, even the one for a torn up heart, and let his hands work steadily, so that his mind could wander. Soon, his name would never be spoken again. That was the way of all things, he knew. Yew for the names no one would speak again. But, he might see his mother’s face again and hear her voice. His lover too, and all the rest. That was a comforting thought, and a good song to sing him to sleep.