Authors: Robert Doherty
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Thriller, #Fantasy, #Contemporary, #Adventure
“Stonehenge stands as lonely in history as it does on the great plain.”
The gentle breeze blowing across the Salisbury Plain carried the thick smoke produced by wood and burning flesh over the megalithic stones. It also brought the screams of the condemned and the chants of the druid priests. The sun had set two hours ago, but the stones were lit in the glow of the burning wicker man. Over fifteen meters high, the skeleton of the effigy was made of two thick logs serving as main supports up through the legs, reaching to the shoulders, from which crossbeams had been fixed with iron spikes. The skin consisted of wicker laced through the outer wooden frame.
Inside the “skin,” in a jumble of torsos, limbs, and heads, were people. Crammed in so tightly that each could hardly move. Some were upright, others sideways, and others upside down, filling every square meter of the interior.
Around the wicker man’s feet were bundles of straw that had just been set on fire, the flames licking up the legs, burning those who filled out the calves and thighs. Their screams of pain mixed with the pleading of those above them, all of which fell on deaf ears as the priests and priestesses who surrounded the wicker man concentrated on their chanting and dancing.
There were four distinct groups surrounding the wicker man, each one oriented on a cardinal direction. To the north they wore yellow robes, signifying air. To the west, blue for water. To the east, green for earth. And to the south, between the wicker man and the mighty stones, they wore red, signifying fire. With the great King Arthur and his foe Mordred newly dead, there was chaos in the land and the druids had come out of their hiding places to resume their ancient rites.
All those inside the wicker man had received a sentence of death over the course of the past year. Criminals and non-believers, and those who had served the king in the local area in suppressing the old religions and collecting taxes. The sentence was being carried out this evening through the purifying flame.
The burning of the condemned was just the beginning of the night’s activities. After the flames died down, the druids would move to the south, to the standing stones. While the druids now claimed the stones as their holy place, no one gathered around the wicker man really knew who had placed the inner circles of megaliths or why.
There were legends of course. Of Gods who had ruled a land in the middle of the ocean, a place called Atlantis. Of war among Gods, and how their battles soon became man’s. Of priests who came to England from over the sea. Some spoke of sorcerers and magicians moving the massive stones with the power of their minds. Merlin, the counselor of the king, was said to have had something to do with the stones when he was young, hundreds of years earlier. There were even whispers of those who were not human and the undead walking the Earth, but such talk was mixed with tales of pixies and fairies and other strange creatures. There was even a tale that the centermost massive stones had been brought up out of the Earth, sprouting like plants at the command of the Gods.
The screams grew louder as the flames rose higher on the wicker man, their volume matched each time by the druids. Away from the brutal scene, in the darkness, a slight female figure, wrapped in a black cloak with a silver fringe, led a horse pulling a litter on which another, larger cloaked figure was lashed. She stumbled and almost fell, only the support of the horse’s bridle keeping her upright. Her cloak was dirty and tattered, her step weary, yet there was no doubt of her determination as she regained her step and pressed forward into the megalithic arrangement, passing the outer ring of stones.
The fiery light of the wicker man fell on the man on the litter. His robe was also worn and bloodstained though he wore armor beneath the cloth. The metal was battered and pierced. His face was lined with age, his hair white. His lifeless eyes were staring straight up at the stars above.
The complex they passed through had been built in stages. In the center where they were headed were five pairs of stones arranged in a horseshoe. Each pair consisted of two large upright stones with a lintel stone laid horizontally on top. A slab of micaceous sandstone was placed at the midpoint of the entire complex, to act as a focal point for worship and an altar for the various local religions that had flourished briefly before being swept under by the weight of the years. Later builders had constructed a second smaller ring around this, using spotted dolemites. And even later, a third encircling ring thirty meters in diameter was built of sandstone blocks called sarsen stones.
There had even been a fourth circle of wooden stakes surrounding the entire complex. Stonehenge had reached its peak around 1100 B.C., with all stones in the three circles in place along with the wooden fourth. Shortly thereafter came the Romans, who desecrated the site, rightly believing that it was a focal point for local shamans whose power they sought to destroy, much as Arthur had tried over fifteen hundred years later. The Romans tore down some of the lintel stones and even managed to tip over a few of the upright ones. They burned the wooden outer circle, much as the druids now burned those whom they had condemned. The original centerpieces, however, had resisted all efforts at damage over the centuries.
The woman led the horse and litter up to the oldest set of stones. Two upright covered by a lintel stone. She threw back her hood, revealing lined skin and gray hair shot through with remaining black. With arthritic hands she untied the litter from the horse.
“We waited too long, my love, and we became too noticeable,” she whispered to her partner in a language no one else on the face of the planet would have understood. It had not yet really sunk in to her that he could not hear her and never would hear her again.
She noted the direction of his dead gaze and she too peered upward for a moment searching among the stars. She pointed. “There, my dear Gwalcmai.” He had been known as Gawain at Arthur’s court and had fought at the battle of Camlann, where both leaders mortally wounded each other. It was there he had received the wounds that had drained the life from his body as she’d traveled hard to bring him here.
However, it was not the wounds to his body, or even his death, that frightened her. It was the damage to an artifact he wore on a chain around his neck, underneath the armor. It was shaped in the form of two hands and arms spread upward in worship with no body.
A mighty blow from Excalibur, wielded by Arthur just prior to his final confrontation with Mordred, had smashed through the armor and severed the artifact in half. A tremor passed through her body at the sight, and tears she had held in for the week of travel burst forth. An earthquake of fear and sorrow threatened to overwhelm her. She could hear the chanting and see the flickering fire to the north and knew she did not have time to wallow in her pain before the druids came here to worship what they could not comprehend.
She ran her hands lightly over the surface of the left upright stone, searching. After a moment, she found what she was looking for and pressed her right hand against the spot she had located.
For a moment it seemed as if even the chanting of the druids and the screams of the dying halted. All was still. Then the outline of a door appeared in the stone. It slid open. She unhooked the litter from the horse and grabbed the two poles. With effort beyond the capability of her aged body, she pulled it into the darkness beyond. Freed of its burden and smelling the foul air, the horse bolted away into the darkness. The door immediately shut behind them, the outline disappeared and all was as it had been.
A week later Stonehenge was abandoned. Where the wicker man had been, there was only cold ash with a smattering of blackened bone. The druids had gone back to the hills, hiding from the brigands who now roamed the land and eking out a living from the countryside. So it had been for centuries, so it continued. The stones had seen many invaders, many worshippers. And they would see more in the future.
The sky was gray and a light rain was falling, blown about by a stiff breeze. In the middle of the megalithic arrangement, the outline of the doorway reappeared on the left standing stone of the center pair. It slid open and one person appeared garbed in black robes. Noting the rain, the figure pulled back her hood. She resembled the old woman who had first entered, but fifty years younger. Instead of age-withered flesh, her face was smooth and pink. Her hair was coal-black. She turned her face upward, allowing the rain to fall on it. The falling water mixed with the rivulet of tears on her face.
She had tried and failed as she had feared. Gwalcmai was truly dead. After all the years they had been together. She reached back into the stone and pulled the litter out with the old body tied to it.
Reluctantly she stepped out of the entryway, pulling the litter, and the door closed behind her, then disappeared. She slowly walked through the stones, onto the plain, pulling his body. She passed the site of the wicker man, sparing it not even a glance, and continued. When she reached a small ridge, just before she was out of sight of Stonehenge, she turned and looked back.
It was dusk and the rain had ceased. She could see the stones in the distance. She felt very, very alone, a slight figure in the midst of a huge plain. She went to a lone oak tree, its branches withered and worn. It was a living sentinel overlooking the stones. Using a wooden spade, the woman dug into the dirt, carving out a grave. It took her the entire night to get deep enough.
As the first rays of the sun tentatively probed above the eastern horizon, she climbed out of the hole. Her robe was dirty, her dark hair matted with mud, the fresh skin on her palms blistered from the labor.
She took her husband and slid him into the hole she had made. Her hand rested on his cheek for many long minutes before she reluctantly climbed out of the grave. She reached inside her pocket and pulled out the small broken amulet. She stared at it for a while, then reached inside her robe and retrieved a chain holding a similar object, this one undamaged. She added the damaged one to the chain around her neck and held it for a moment, tracing the lines. Then she looked down at her husband and spoke in their native tongue.
“Ten thousand years. I loved you every day of those many years. And I will remember and love you for the next ten thousand.”
With tears streaming down her face, she threw the first spadeful of dirt into the grave.
Area 51 is ninety miles northwest of Las Vegas, in the middle of nowhere on the way to nowhere, established on land that held no value other than its isolation and what had been hidden there years ago. Numerous mountains surrounded the dry lake bed; land the US government had gobbled up to make the location secure.
During World War II, in a cavern inside Groom Mountain, a massive alien spaceship had been discovered; the mothership. Not only had the mothership been discovered there, but also directions to the location of nine smaller atmospheric craft, nicknamed bouncers by the test pilots who subsequently learned to fly them. Test flights of bouncers over the years after World War II had led to reports of alien sightings and fueled speculation among the general public about what was hidden at the base in the Nevada desert. The speculation was mostly right, but grossly underestimated the reality.
From the very beginning, the existence of Area 51 had been classified at a higher level than anything had ever been in the United States: A committee—Majestic-12—had been immediately established to oversee the alien artifacts and granted powers by a presidential decree that allowed it to do as it pleased. For over fifty years Majestic kept the discovery secret from foreign nations and American citizens alike as it tried to find out who had put the ship there and why.
Unfortunately, Majestic hadn’t been able to discover the truth about the mothership or the aliens: that Earth had been visited by aliens over ten thousand years ago who had headquartered themselves on a large island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—the legendary Atlantis. And that when other aliens of the same species, the Airlia, had arrived thousands of years later, there was civil war among them.
The initial group of aliens had been led by Aspasia; the second wave by Artad. The battling resulted in the destruction of Atlantis and a tenuous truce. Aspasia was banished to an Airlia base underneath the surface of Mars at Cydonia where human astronomers had long been intrigued by anomalies on the surface. The two primary sites were nicknamed the Face and the Fort based on the observed shapes. Artad and his followers went to China, underneath the massive tomb of Qian-Ling, and like Aspasia and his people, went into suspended animation.
Why the aliens had fought among themselves remained a mystery. During the Third World War, both sides had issued proclamations to the United Nations. Each claimed it had been sent to Earth to protect mankind from an interstellar threat by another alien race called the Swarm. And each claimed that the other side had tried to withdraw from this task and hide on Earth, ruling mankind as Gods.