Last September, I packed up the car and headed off to the Lake District in Cumbria. The National Park immediately struck me as a tamer, greener version of Scotland. Not that I wish to undersell its sublime qualities; it truly is the land that inspired Wordsworth. But this week's story is not about William or Dorthory, it is set in 2000BC, or there abouts, (with a few liberties) and tells the story of Holtfevar and Revan two Neolithical members of the Stone Axe Cooperative.
The frosts had come early that year; their crystalline arms embracing the forest floor in their sugary grip. Holtsfevar dreaded the big freeze. It was time of year when the river would turn solid an arm-length down. When the horses' hooves would clatter into solid puddles, causing spear like shards of ice to ricochet.
With every step Holtsfevar took, the verdant salad of leaves underfoot, cracked and shivered. But the birds were not singing their requiem mass yet, and the heat of the sun would soon clear the slippery potholes from the mountain roads. Today was not winter yet.
Never-the-less, Holtsfevar did not like travelling in these temperatures. He imagined the horse careening off the track into the lake below – bodies rolling in the inky abyss – sinking in silence.
Revan rode beside him quietly, unaware of Holtsfevar's racing mind.
Both men were hiking Westward towards the coast with their shipment of unfinished, stone-axe heads. At the sea, the craftsmen would polish the stones with quartz-sand, and the ships would then ferry them to the four corners of the sacred isle. They'd go north to the bear clans, and their kingdoms of ice and pine; south to the cave-dwelling cheesemakers; and east to the sheep farmers and their great oak forests.
The journey wouldn’t take two weeks, but Holtsfevar didn’t like it. Winter was near and he should have been hiding indoors, cutting wood, and telling stories. He pictured home, this wife, his smiling daughter. But they didn’t have enough food for the winter, or at least not an easy one, and this shipment could be exchanged at the port for dried grain or salted fish or even livestock (valuable as the axes were).
‘We should bed for the night,’ said Revan. He squinting into the setting sun. Holtsfevar grunted in reply. The two, quite wordlessly, set up camp and built a small fire to roast their rabbit upon. The men then set snares for the next day and checked their bread supply. All was good.
I’m not happy with this,’ said Holtsfevar, the orange flames of the fire causing shadows to fall heavily across his face.
‘Winter will be here soon – if we are lucky we’ll return just before the long-night feast.’
‘I’m not afraid of a bit of ice,’ said Revan. ‘I’ve got my furs and my woollens. What I’m scared of are the others.’
‘The other what?’ replied Holtsfevar, frowning.
‘The others - the ice ones. The ones with milky bellies and eyes like red currants. The ones that come down from the mountains to eat our children.’
‘Horseshit,’ exploded, Holtsfevar in a cloud of laughter. ‘I live in those hills – I would know if we shared this land.
‘You wouldn’t,’ said Revan. ‘And they might not live in our valley, but we're not in our valley anymore.’ And Holtsfevar had to grudgingly agree - they weren't.
That night, Holtsfevar dreamt of the ice-men. He dreamt of their moon-white skin, needle-sharp teeth and bulging red-currant eyes. He dreamt of their hungry mouths clamping onto the wriggling flesh of a living human. Their meat-screams the dinner choir serenading the banquet.
Holtsfevar woke with a start; the fire had burnt down to the embers and a thin trail of smoke reached skyward. There was no frost this morning - there was also no Revan.
Holtsfevar usually had to awaken Revan with a shout and a push - but today there was merely a hollow in the grass where his body had been.
The stone hunter felt cold with worry.
‘Revan!’ he shouted. 'Revan!' But he knew instinctively, that Revan had stollen the axes. There was no sign of the horses - or of the cart.
And then Holtsfevar realised his dilemma; he could either return to the village, or track the cart into the forest. Would he physically fight Revan for the shipment?
What was that noise? Holtsfevar froze. It has sounded like people rustling in the blackberry thickett - too small for a bear, too inept for a wolf, too big for a fox. Perhaps Revan was playing a trick? Maybe it was the ice people? He ran angrily through the bracken towards the brambles and scattered some blackbirds towards the clouds.
Perhaps he just imagined it. Revan had driven him crazy.
He looked forwards, into the deepening forest, following the wagon marks in the soft soil - and turned and looked back home. He imagined the cries of hungry children - he imagined his hungry children, and knew he couldn’t return empty handed.
* * *
A few days of pursuit and still Holtsfevar had not gained on Revan. The horses had made his job easy - but Revan must have walked through the night with a flame to have gained so much ground.
By now the snow had started to fall and Holtsfevar was afraid.
Up ahead, on the breeze, he caught the whinnying cry of horses - several whinnies in fact. The horses sounded in dire distress. It was just typical, Holtsfevar thought, to run the horses at this pace, in his weather, with their load. They must have slipped and fallen. Again the image of a lake rose in his mind, of falling through the blackness, and the heavy press of water against his skin.
Holtsfevar picked up the pace. A few moments later he heard Revan cry in pain - and whilst he still hated him, the sound of his kinsman so injured filled him with panic.
As he got closer, though, he heard the cheers of other voices.
He crawled up the escarpement and peered over the edge into the eddy of snowflakes. He could see Revan in the snow, stripped of furs. His hands and arms and legs were tied together, with each rope knotted to a long branch so he couldn't sqiurm. And there they were - the ice-men, with their bulging redcurrant eyes and milky bellies exposed to the cold.
This was a celebration - whether of a successful hunt, or the first snow, Holtsfevar didn't know, but they were gleeful and hungry looking. At the tree line some of the ice-people rolled great drums towards Revan. They stood their barrels up and started to play a terrible rattaling tattoo.
Another cheer went up, but it wasn't like the summer chorus of the villiagers from the valley, this was deep and glutteral, haunting and horrible, like their vocal chords had been bitten and frayed by a cruel God.
The ice-men picked up Revan's small body and held him over and above their heads. Their Chieftain approached. Her rank surmised from the crown of bones she wore on her head, and the mangled yew staff in her hand.
The drums suddenly stopped and they lowered his body so that it was right in front of her, level with her chest.
She twisted the staff deftly and sank the sharp end into his fleshy torso. Blood gushed out, and the Chieftain lent forward. She held her eager mouth against the font.
All the while, Revan screamed.
Suddenly the chieftian whipped back her head. Exposed her grimace and the sticky lines of blood oozing out of her mouth. She cried triumphantly.
In unison, her trusted breathern descended upon Revan with bone knives. Creating great nicks, and pressing white lips to his bleeding body. They drank with a furious thirst.
Holtsfevar turned away. The screams floating away on the darkening air, the drums renewing their vigour, and ran and ran and ran and ran, and never returned.
The Borrowdale valley was an important site of commerce in Neolithic Britain as it produced a great number of stone axe heads. These were transported as far afield as Scotland, Yorkshire and Cornwall, which highlights the quality and importance afforded them. Whilst I am not completely sure of the logistics of the Neolithic transportation system out of Borrowdale, there really isn’t any way to know for certain what people did and didn’t do. I will also admit that, as far as I have heard, there was no trouble with cannabolism in the area, although the practise had been observed in neolithical societies in Cheddar (south-west England). Ice-men, probably, didn't exist.
Links: If you are interested in reading about neolithic sites in the Lake District click the link.