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One summer's day a stranger carrying great wealth in gold coins comes to the settlement. He is killed by one of the chief's sons in the old temple. The mysterious treasure, assumed by some to be a gift from the gods, causes great dissension within the tribe. Three brothers perceive it in a different way but they share one dream. Lengar, the warrior, knows it can fuel his ambition to be a great ruler and take power for his tribe. The second son has the vision to see that the building of a vast temple will create a place for the gods but also confirm the power of the people who build it. But it is the third son, the man of peace, the lover of the sun bride, who will be the creator and the master-builder of the Temple of Shadows.
Discover a time of ritual and sacrifice… A land steeped in blood and glory… A family of brothers whose deadly rivalries and glorious ambitions will forever mark the world. In this rousing epic, Bernard Cornwell has created the most compelling and powerful human drama of its kind since Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth and Edward Rutherford's Sarum.
A NOVEL OF 2000 BC
In memory of BILL MOIR, 1943-1998
'The Druid's groves are gone — so much the better: Stonehenge is not — but what the Devil is it?'
Lord Byron, Don Juan Canto XI, verse XXV.
The Sky Temple
Map of the settlement and temples of Ratharryn, c.2000 BC
The gods talk by signs. It may be a leaf falling in summer, the cry of a dying beast or the ripple of wind on calm water. It might be smoke lying close to the ground, a rift in the clouds or the flight of a bird.
But on that day the gods sent a storm. It was a great storm, a storm that would be remembered, though folk did not name the year by that storm. Instead they called it the Year the Stranger Came.
For a stranger came to Ratharryn on the day of the storm. It was a summer's day, the same day that Saban was almost murdered by his half-brother.
The gods were not talking that day. They were screaming.
Saban, like all children, went naked in summer. He was six years younger than his half-brother, Lengar, and, because he had not yet passed the trials of manhood, he bore no tribal scars or killing marks. But his time of trial was only a year away, and their father had instructed Lengar to take Saban into the forest and teach him where the stags could be found, where the wild boars lurked and where the wolves had their dens. Lengar had resented the duty and so, instead of teaching his brother, he dragged Saban through thickets of thorn so that the boy's sun-darkened skin was bleeding. 'You'll never become a man,' Lengar jeered.
Saban, sensibly, said nothing.
Lengar had been a man for five years and had the blue scars of the tribe on his chest and the marks of a hunter and a warrior on his arms. He carried a longbow made of yew, tipped with horn, strung with sinew and polished with pork fat. His tunic was of wolfskin and his long black hair was braided and tied with a strip of fox's fur. He was tall, had a narrow face and was reckoned one of the tribe's great hunters. His name meant Wolf Eyes, for his gaze had a yellowish tinge. He had been given another name at birth, but like many in the tribe he had taken a new name at manhood.
Saban was also tall and had long black hair. His name meant Favoured One, and many in the tribe thought it apt for, even at a mere twelve summers, Saban promised to be handsome. He was strong and lithe, he worked hard and he smiled often. Lengar rarely smiled. 'He has a cloud in his face,' the women said of him, but not within his hearing, for Lengar was likely to be the tribe's next chief. Lengar and Saban were sons of Hengall, and Hengall was chief of the people of Ratharryn.
All that long day Lengar led Saban through the forest. They met no deer, no boars, no wolves, no aurochs and no bears. They just walked and in the afternoon they came to the edge of the high ground and saw that all the land to the west was shadowed by a mass of black cloud. Lightning flickered the dark cloud pale, twisted to the far forest and left the sky burned. Lengar squatted, one hand on his polished bow, and watched the approaching storm. He should have started for home, but he wanted to worry Saban and so he pretended he did not care about the storm god's threat.
It was while they watched the storm that the stranger came.
He rode a small dun horse that was white with sweat. His saddle was a folded woollen blanket and his reins were lines of woven nettle fibre, though he hardly needed them for he was wounded and seemed tired, letting the small horse pick its own way up the track which climbed the steep escarpment. The stranger's head was bowed and his heels hung almost to the ground. He wore a woollen cloak dyed blue and in his right hand was a bow while on his left shoulder there hung a leather quiver filled with arrows fledged with the feathers of seagulls and crows. His short beard was black, while the tribal marks scarred into his cheeks were grey.
Lengar hissed at Saban to stay silent, then tracked the stranger eastwards. Lengar had an arrow on his bowstring, but the stranger never once turned to see if he was being followed and Lengar was content to let the arrow rest on its string. Saban wondered if the horseman even lived, for he seemed like a dead man slumped inert on his horse's back.
The stranger was an Outlander. Even Saban knew that, for only the Outfolk rode the small shaggy horses and had grey scars on their faces. The Outfolk were enemy, yet still Lengar did not release his arrow. He just followed the horseman and Saban followed Lengar until at last the Outlander came to the edge of the trees where bracken grew. There the stranger stopped his horse and raised his head to stare across the gently rising land while Lengar and Saban crouched unseen behind him.
The stranger saw bracken and, beyond it, where the soil was thin above the underlying chalk, grassland. There were grave mounds dotted on the grassland's low crest. Pigs rooted in the bracken while white cattle grazed the pastureland. The sun still shone here. The stranger stayed a long while at the wood's edge, looking for enemies, but seeing none. Off to his north, a long way off, there were wheatfields fenced with thorn over which the first clouds, outriders of the storm, were chasing their shadows, but all ahead of him was sunlit. There was life ahead, darkness behind, and the small horse, unbidden, suddenly jolted into the bracken. The rider let it carry him.
The horse climbed the gentle slope to the grave mounds. Lengar and Saban waited until the stranger had disappeared over the skyline, then followed and, once at the crest, they crouched in a grave's ditch and saw that the rider had stopped beside the Old Temple.
A grumble of thunder sounded and another gust of wind flattened the grass where the cattle grazed. The stranger slid from his horse's back, crossed the overgrown ditch of the Old Temple and disappeared into the hazel shrub that grew so thick within the sacred circle. Saban guessed the man was seeking sanctuary.
But Lengar was behind the Outlander, and Lengar was not given to mercy.
The abandoned horse, frightened by the thunder and by the big cattle, trotted west towards the forest. Lengar waited until the horse had gone back into the trees, then rose from the ditch and ran towards the hazels where the stranger had gone.
Saban followed, going to where he had never been in all his twelve years.
To the Old Temple.
Once, many years before, so long before that no one alive could remember those times, the Old Temple had been the greatest shrine of the heartland. In those days, when men had come from far off to dance the temple's rings, the high bank of chalk that encircled the shrine had been so white that it seemed to shine in the moonlight. From one side of the shining ring to the other was a hundred paces, and in the old days that sacred space had been beaten bare by the feet of the dancers as they girdled the death house that had been made from three rings of trimmed oak trunks. The smooth bare trunks had been oiled with animal fat and hung with boughs of holly and ivy.
Now the bank was thick with grass and choked by weeds. Small hazels grew in the ditch and more hazels had invaded the wide space inside the circular bank so that, from a distance, the temple looked like a grove of small shrubs. Birds nested where men had once danced. One oak pole of the death house still showed above the tangled hazels, but the pole was leaning now and its once smooth wood was pitted, black and thick with fungi.
The temple had been abandoned, yet the gods do not forget their shrines. Sometimes, on still days when a mist laid on the pasture, or when the swollen moon hung motionless above the chalk ring, the hazel leaves shivered as though a wind passed through them. The dancers were gone, but the power remained.
And now the Outlander had gone to the temple.
The gods were screaming.
Cloud shadow swallowed the pasture as Lengar and Saban ran towards the Old Temple. Saban was cold and he was scared. Lengar was also frightened, but the Outfolk were famous for their wealth, and Lengar's greed overcame his fear of entering the temple.
The stranger had clambered through the ditch and up the bank, but Lengar went to the old southern entrance where a narrow causeway led into the overgrown interior. Once across the causeway Lengar dropped onto all fours and crawled through the hazels. Saban followed reluctantly, not wanting to be left alone in the pasture when the storm god's anger broke.
To Lengar's surprise the Old Temple was not entirely overgrown for there was a cleared space where the death house had stood. Someone in the tribe must still visit the Old Temple, for the weeds had been cleared, the grass cut with a knife and a single ox-skull lay in the death house where the stranger now sat with his back against the one remaining temple post. The man's face was pale and his eyes were closed, but his chest rose and fell with his laboured breathing. He wore a strip of dark stone inside his left wrist, fastened there by leather laces. There was blood on his woollen trews. The man had dropped his short bow and his quiver of arrows beside the ox-skull, and now clutched a leather bag to his wounded belly. He had been ambushed in the forest three days before. He had not seen his attackers, just felt the sudden hot pain of the thrown spear, then kicked his horse and let it carry him out of danger.
'I'll fetch father,' Saban whispered.
'You won't,' Lengar hissed, and the wounded man must have heard them for he opened his eyes and grimaced as he leaned forward to pick up his bow. But the stranger was slowed by pain, and Lengar was much faster. He dropped his longbow, scrambled from his hiding place and ran across the death house, scooping up the stranger's bow with one hand and his quiver with the other. In his hurry he spilled the arrows so that there was only one left in the leather quiver.
A murmur of thunder sounded from the west. Saban shivered, fearing that the sound would swell to fill the air with the god's rage, but the thunder faded, leaving the sky deathly still.
'Sannas,' the stranger said, then added some words in a tongue that neither Lengar nor Saban spoke.
'Sannas?' Lengar asked.
'Sannas,' the man repeated eagerly. Sannas was the great sorceress of Cathallo, famous throughout the land, and Saban presumed the stranger wanted to be healed by her.
Lengar smiled. 'Sannas is not of our people,' he said. 'Sannas lives north of here.'
The stranger did not understand what Lengar said. 'Erek,' he said, and Saban, still watching from the undergrowth, wondered if that was the stranger's name, or perhaps the name of his god. 'Erek,' the wounded man said more firmly, but the word meant nothing to Lengar who had taken the one arrow from the stranger's quiver and fitted it onto the short bow. The bow was made of strips of wood and antler, glued together and bound with sinew, and Lengar's people had never used such a weapon. They favoured the longer bow carved from the yew tree, but Lengar was curious about the odd weapon. He stretched the string, testing its strength.
'Erek!' the stranger cried loudly.
'You're Outfolk,' Lengar said. 'You have no business here.' He stretched the bow again, surprised by the tension in the short weapon.
'Bring me a healer. Bring me Sannas,' the stranger said in his own tongue.
'If Sannas were here,' Lengar said, recognizing only that name, 'I would kill her first.' He spat. 'That is what I think of Sannas. She is a shrivelled old bitch-cow, a husk of evil, toad-dung made flesh.' He spat again.
The stranger leaned forward and laboriously scooped up the arrows that had spilled from his quiver and formed them into a small sheaf that he held like a knife as though to defend himself. 'Bring me a healer,' he pleaded in his own language. Thunder growled to the west, and the hazel leaves shuddered as a breath of cold wind gusted ahead of the approaching storm. The stranger looked again into Lengar's eyes and saw no pity there. There was only the delight that Lengar took from death. 'No,' he said, 'no, please, no.'
Lengar loosed the arrow. He was only five paces from the stranger and the small arrow struck its target with a sickening force, lurching the man onto his side. The arrow sank deep, leaving only a hand's-breadth of its black-and-white feathered shaft showing at the left side of the stranger's chest. Saban thought the Outlander must be dead because he did not move for a long time, but then the carefully made sheaf of arrows spilled from his hand as, slowly, very slowly, he pushed himself back upright. 'Please,' he said quietly.
'Lengar!' Saban scrambled from the hazels. 'Let me fetch father!'
'Quiet!' Lengar had taken one of his own black-feathered arrows from its quiver and placed it on the short bowstring. He walked towards Saban, aiming the bow at him and grinning when he saw the terror on his half-brother's face.
The stranger also stared at Saban, seeing a tall good-looking boy with tangled black hair and bright anxious eyes. 'Sannas,' the stranger begged Saban, 'take me to Sannas.'
'Sannas doesn't live here,' Saban said, understanding only the sorceress's name.
'We live here,' Lengar announced, now pointing his arrow at the stranger, 'and you're an Outlander and you steal our cattle, enslave our women and cheat our traders.' He let the second arrow loose and, like the first, it thumped into the stranger's chest, though this time into the ribs on his right side. Again the man was jerked aside, but once again he forced himself upright as though his spirit refused to leave his wounded body.
'I can give you power,' he said, as a trickle of bubbly pink blood spilled from his mouth and into his short beard. 'Power,' he whispered.
But Lengar did not understand the man's tongue. He had shot two arrows and still the man refused to die, so Lengar picked up his own longbow, laid an arrow on its string, and faced the stranger. He drew the huge bow back.