She wouldn’t stop crying. She just knelt in the dirt and sobbed and sobbed, the broken quern lying in front of her, still covered with the partly crushed grain she had been grinding. Her sisters were standing in a huddle in the shadow of their hut. They didn’t know how to comfort her. The loss of the quern wasn’t that much of a disaster. It just meant they’d have to borrow their aunt’s or their grandmother’s until they could replace it. That was more of a problem, and perhaps that was the real reason she was crying.
Her sisters all knew that she had fallen in love with the boy from the next valley who lived up in the hills above their settlement in the summer, looking after his family’s cows and calves. He was cheery and good looking and had dark eyes like her. He brought her milk and butter when he thought no one was looking and she smiled and blushed when he came around. He never stayed long because of the wolves in the hills. If he lost one of the calves his father would beat him silly and with good reason since his whole family depended on the meat and leather and bone and all the other things cattle provided.
The trouble was, that she was promised to another family and the great meeting where such promises and exchanges of wives took place was also the only place where new quern stones could be got. They’d had no reason to make the long journey to the great henges up until then, but now she’d have to go and she’d never see her cowherd again because her new life would be far away in the valley of Isure, the holy river that flowed past the great henges where people gathered to pray for good crops and short winters.
Her sisters on the other hand, were secretly pleased. They were either promised to local boys or were looking forward to making a match. If they were chosen to go with their uncles and brothers to the meeting place then it would be one of the most exciting events of their lives. The small henge they had all helped build on the nearby hillside was no substitute for the giant group of henges that lay many days walking to the north. Watching the summer sun rise over familiar hills and shine through the circle of wooden posts was nothing compared to the ceremonies held in the henges of the valley of Isure surrounded by hundreds of exotic people and goods from all over the known world.
Their elder brother had been and told them of seeing a goldsmith shaping his precious yellow metal into tiny rings to bind into a bride’s hair. The man had travelled from over the sea to be there and trade his skill for food and cloth. He had been to all the corners of their land and met so many strangers it made the boy’s head hurt to think about it.
With their father and mother dead, their uncles watched over the sisters. The broken quern was duly noticed and the decision made to undertake the long journey north. Cry as she might, she knew she couldn’t get out of it.
The evening before they were due to set off, she slipped away and went visiting her sweetheart. As she walked over the springy heather, now purple with flowers she picked a handful to lay by their spring. It never failed them and the water was clean and pure and safe to drink. She took a mouthful now, and then walked on.
The next morning, her farewell tears dry on her cheek, she helped bundle up all the food they would need on their journey, along with the dyed wool and smoked river fish that they would trade for the quern and offer to their gods. She wore a black stone bead on a piece of hemp around her neck. Her mother once wore that special stone. It was magical and precious. If you rubbed it, woollen threads were drawn towards it and it was light enough to float in water. Her sisters were all jealous that she had it while they had to make do with bone and teeth necklaces.
In her leather pack, she carried something else. Her sweetheart had trusted her with a tiny piece of gold that he had found that summer in the riverbed. The cattle had been drinking and while he waited he had been idly turning over stones to see if he could surprise a crayfish or two, when suddenly, there it was, gleaming in the sand. Others had found gold in the river before but not for many seasons. The boy wanted her to seek out the mountain people from the west and trade the gold for one of their polished stone axes. With such an axe the boy might be considered worthy of marrying her. She had agreed, but with a heavy heart, knowing as she did that it was very unlikely that she would ever return.
With all their goods packed and bundled on their backs, they set off. She walked behind with the two sisters who had been chosen to go with her. They were so excited they wouldn’t stop chattering and it just made her sadder and sadder as they walked on up the valley. Somewhere above them her cowherd was keeping a careful lookout for wolves and bears, she even thought she heard the sound of his sheep’s bone whistle as he kept himself company with a tune.
Five days later and they had arrived at the great meeting place. Not a moment too soon either. The sun was at its highest and they were able to watch the great ceremony that took place the following dawn when the great gold disc rose over the horizon and blessed them all with its warmth and light.
Once they had made their offerings they began to explore. The crowds of people were overwhelming and the sisters clung together at first they were so scared. But they soon realised that they were safe. At this special place, near to the great earth and wood circles, all people were protected. Flint knives and bone tipped arrows were kept hidden and men averted their eyes rather than stare a challenge at any stranger they might meet.
Her uncles lost no time in searching for her new family and while they were off looking she managed to get away from her sisters and headed for the place she knew the axe men had set up camp. She’d seen them when they first arrived, with row upon row of the gleaming dark axe heads, some already polished, other just roughouts.
She waited until a gap appeared in the crowd of people gawping at the axes and the wild haired mountain people who mined and worked the stone. She knelt down beside the soft deer hide laid out on the ground and started to examine the axes. Her cowherd had described exactly what he wanted and it didn’t take her long to find it. A beautiful, dark, greeny-grey axe, just the right size. She caught the eye of one of the axe makers and pointed and raised a questioning eyebrow. No-one here really understood the mountain peoples’ language but they got along all right with face and hand gestures. The axe maker nodded and she picked the axe up, feeling it cool and heavy in her hand. She stood up and handed the axe back then unwrapped the gold so only the man could see it. He grinned and took it from her, weighing it in his hand and testing it with his teeth. He grinned some more, then handed her the axe along with a fine piece of deerskin to wrap it in.
The deal was done and she hurried back to her sisters. They had been busy choosing a new quern stone and by the time her uncles got back they were all very pleased with themselves. They had fish and wool left over for some trading tomorrow and were already planning what they were to get when they saw their uncles’ grim faces and quickly shut up.
It turned out that they had found the family of her betrothed and he wasn’t with them. After much talking around the subject it came out that three summers ago, the boy had run away with a band of hunters. The boy had always hated farming and was desperate to live in the old way, camping and following the herds of deer and wild cattle to who knows where. They’d had no word from him since and so the family could not honour their word and she was free. The uncles had been given a set of flint arrowheads and a handful of jet beads by way of compensation so they weren’t too angry. The sisters were delighted. Now they could all have a magical jet bead to wear around their necks.
She was of course happier than all of them put together. She touched the heavy axe head hidden away in her pack and knew that now the cowherd could ask for her and be accepted. She fell asleep that evening with a light heart and a smile on her face. Far away, she was sure she could hear someone playing a tune on a sheep’s bone whistle.