By Jack Wolf
The grey-bearded man sat quietly for long moments, cross-legged, in his place by the fire. His deer hide hand-drum sat in his lap; motionless.
From his place at the edge of the small fire, his camp behind him, the man faced north, toward the black sides of the mountain. He faced the direction in which his people honored the Old Ones.
The small stone-lined pit before him cast the only light in the pitch darkness beneath the ancient cedars and fir trees: Its yellow and orange dancing flames cast fleeting shadows in a myriad of angles upon the face of the man and the elder trees that surrounded his camp.
Deep night had descended quickly upon the dense wood at the base of the mountain, shrouding the place where the man camped in a sea of black silence.
He had waited here for two days, taking only the barest sustenance of dried meat and water.Before him, on a square stone, something he had found in the nearby woods, were offerings of sage-twigs, mugwort and tobacco as well as a small glass containing aged whiskey. Also on this stone sat a sacred stone pipe with its rune-carven bowl and arching, diamond-willow stem.
Earlier in the evening the man had sung softly to the forest as the dusk approached. He had as well spent some time drumming upon his drum. There was a gentle ritual to this; nothing overly directed as he was simply attuning himself deeper to the ambient spirit of the sacred place.
The day before had been spent in silent contemplation – mostly within the confines of the small canvas tent the man had brought with him. Little more than a make-shift Tipi wrapped around a frame of locally found branches and sticks, the small shelter had served to provide the man with a place where he could be free of the insects that haunted the summer woods – that and an enclosure where he could meditate in the smoke of the sacred herbs.
His contemplation had been followed by a restful sleep as evening came. He had attempted very little in the way of communication on that first night: He was showing respect to the space in the forest and letting the local spirits have time to become aware of his camp. He had not had a fire that first night as he had wished to experience the true fullness of the forest night.
The dawn of the second day had seen him emerge from his shelter and spend time constructing his small fire-pit for the ritual of the night. The pit was small, about thirty centimeters in diameter and surrounded by nine rounded stones that the man had found in the vicinity of his camping place. As stones are seen as sentient spiritual beings unto themselves, and additionally may also be the homes of small spirits, the man had taken time to gently ask permission from each one before taking it for his fire pit. One had refused; this was a larger, rounded dark rock which had already found a nice home at the base of a moss covered pine. The man had respected this and left an offering of sage to show this respect.
The tiny fire-pit was dig slightly into the Earth; about fifteen centimeters, so that the depression formed a shallow bowl. The man lined this bowl with smaller rock fragments and pebbles he had found lying about the camp. The idea was to create a reflective surface which would reflect heat and light and as well preserve some of the warmth generated by the flames.
Into the pit the man had placed various kinds of wood. Some of this wood he had found in the vicinity of the camp; dried parts of fallen branches and various twigs and such. Other components of his fire he had brought to the woods with him: Pieces of rowan, oak, silver birch and maple, from about the thickness of a man’s index finger to the diameter of a man’s wrist, he had carefully prepared beforehand and brought with him in a bag which he had kept in his tent.
With the assortment of wood, starting with tiny, dried, shavings of cedar and willow, he formed a small pile directly in the center of the fire-pit. The rest he piled neatly to one side so that after the fall of night he would have little difficulty in reaching for fuel.
As the afternoon waned the man took out his drum and softly played for the local spirit people. He sang songs of his ancestors and his own deeds and at times he simply sat there, speaking to no one in particular; having a talk to the local spirit people on topics they might find of interest.
At last the man stood up and went to his shelter, whereupon he emerged with a dark, glass bottle and an old drinking horn. He poured some of the contents; a deep, red wine, into the horn and quickly replaced the bottle in the shelter. The smell of the wine, combined with a deeply pungent clove-cinnamon spice scent, hung in the air for moments after the pouring.
The man stood silently in the gathering grey that presaged the coming of night. He faced the north; up the side of the mountain; the direction of honor.
Long moments passed before the man held the horn high in that northerly direction. He spoke; telling those who-would-listen, his name, his lineage, his clan and his Nation. He spoke further, honoring the Gods and Goddesses of his tradition. He offered his respects to the ancestors.
And then, offering libation to the Elders by pouring upon the stones, he himself shared by drinking as well.
The offering complete, the man set his horn aside, sat down and set to kindling his sacred fire. He ignited the small pile of debris in the pit with a flint and steel, flowing this with the gradual addition of larger pieces of wood – until he had a sizeable blaze going there before him.
His timing was perfect: Just as he had completed the process of starting the fire, the blessings of Night came upon the land and the descent of night quickened. In the deep forest there is little graduation between the edge of night and the totality of its embrace: One moment the space beneath the trees is limned with the light from the sky above and the next…or nearly so with the passing of the sun beneath the horizon – it is though a mighty switch was turned – and blackness bathes the deepening land beneath.
The man sat before his fire and added some of the pieces of the sacred hardwoods he had brought with him. The fire leapt into the night with the addition of the dried wood and the man, satisfied, sat back to watch the flames.
Among those of the Thornwood time spent in the deeper contemplation of things is seen as very desirable. Oftimes, those who have sworn-upon-the stones of the sacred hearth will find great beauty and understanding in the silent contemplation of things that many may consider commonplace. To a Thornsman, the ethereal dance of fire and the velvet embrace of a forest night are anything but commonplace – much can be gleaned from these things if a person sets themselves to truly open up to such.
The man took from his belt a small pouch, and from this he took a small quantity of dried sacred herbs. He took his rune-pipe from the small harrow-stone before him and filled its bowl with the mixture.
Using a small burning twig from his now merrily dancing fire, the man set fire to the contents of the pipe bowl.
When he was done, still wreathed in the cloud of pungent, herbal smoke, he set aside his pipe reverently. With a Warrior’s half-nod to the spirit of the pipe and indeed to the spirits of the herbs which had gone into the making of the smoking mixture, he turned his attention to his drum which was leaning nearby. He took his Frith-knife from its sheath at his belt and laid its bare blade on the Harrow-stone next to the pipe.
“May there always be steel upon the stones.” He said quietly, to the spirits of the night.
It was then that he took up his leather wrapped drumstick and his drum. He began to beat the drum, slowly and softly, gradually increasing the tempo until the time was right…for song.
The song was unique: It was the song which had been given to the man many years earlier when he had come into the realization of the nature of his Vörd – his guardian-power-beast. It was a rhythmic, flowing song that rolled in tune with the drum; almost barbaric in quality yet carrying with it a deeply sophisticated and emotional theme. The words of the song were at once sibilant and guttural; they flowed from the man’s lips more and more fluidly as he drummed and sang, the song of the drum, the caress of the night and the dance of the fire-people helping the sacred herbs in his blood along.
He called to his Vord; his guardian; his helper of many seasons and his mentor in the ways of the Otherworlds. He spoke to his Vörd as a friend because that is indeed what the Vörd was. The man spoke kind and flattering words to the spirits of the night, telling them of the might and wisdom of his friend, and how he hoped they would carry word to his Vörd – asking him to come and visit.
The man drummed and sang like this for the better part of an hour before he began to slow the rhythm of his musical rite. The drumming slowed and the song softly ceased, leaving the man alone in a semi silent bubble of his own creation; a flame of Warrior truth in deepest night.
It was shortly after this that his Vörd arrived.
A soft wind picked up amongst the trunks of the ancient trees and then, almost as quickly as it has arisen, died down to silence. There was a tremendous crashing in the forest not far from where the man sat at his fire – and then another; closer.
The man held his discipline and did not reach instinctively for his blade there on the Harrow-stone: He fought his well honed Warrior instincts and forced himself to breathe more regularly – reinforcing his calm.
Then came the scent of his Vörd and he knew his companion was close. The smell was deep, earthy and pungent: A very primal animal odor.
A shadow at the edge of the fire moved between the boles and the man caught notice of it. The form was massive: Its presence could be further felt by the man through the vibration of his massive weight on the ground. Slowing and finally stopping just outside the firelight the dark shape grunted something sounding vaguely like human speech from the blackness.
“Welcome to my camp.” The seated man said.
The gigantic grey bear, far larger than an adult grizzly in his prime, ambled into the small ring of firelight. His amber eyes glowed brightly in the reflected yellow flames. This was no ordinary bear. Indeed it was not a bear of this age; or many before that: It was a primal cave bear from a time of the distant past; the time of the First Songs, the First Tales….the First Knowledge. This bear was more even that that however: He was a person of the Otherworlds; the land of spirits wights and Elder Kin.
The man did not rise; he was in the presence of a friend, not a perceived tribal superior. Instead he honored the massive Vörd with a Warrior’s half nod, the merest bow that keeps the eyes locked on target despite the movement of the head.
Invited into the circle further by the man’s gesture, the massive bear surged into the small space with a speed far exceeding that which might be attained by even the swiftest of bears in the realm of man. In one instant he was there, lurking at the periphery of the firelight and the next; in half a human heart beat, he was there, right at the edge of the fire, across from the now smiling human.
The preternatural speed of the Vörd did not surprise the man sitting at the other side of the small fire. He had seen it before, not only in his Vörd, but also in a number of other beings he had encountered in the world. The seated man was not only a Warrior of the Thornwood but a Farer of worlds; a spiritual man in his own right: He was quite used to what common men would see as unusual.
The bear settled his gigantic form into a position which much resembled the posture held by his companion across the fire. To the casual observer the posture may have set off alarm bells of the subconscious at seeing what was supposed to be a bear, seating himself like a man in such a way.
“I have been hunting.” Said the bear in a perfectly clear, though very deep sounding human voice. “This is why I did not come sooner.”
The human nodded his head in understanding. “I understand.” He replied. “One must eat.”
The bear stared in silence at the man for a moment and then looked down at the flames crackling between them. He looked up again at the man.
“It is a fine fire you have built here brother.” The bear said.
The man across the fire smiled at his friend. His Vörd had proven to be fond of such things as a well tended fire.
“Thank you.” He replied. “I have built it so that we could spend time together here in this sacred space.”
The great bear inclined his giant, shaggy head in a reflection of a human nod. It was much like the Warrior’s half-nod that his companion was well known for. The only difference was the structure of the skull and muzzle…and the massive canine teeth which showed in his approximation of a human smile.
“Do you know what I would like to do tonight?” Asked the great, grey bear.
“What would that be?” The man responded.
“I would like to sing.”
The grey bearded man sitting by the fire grinned wider now, showing his much smaller white teeth beneath the whiskers.
“Then sing we shall.” He laughed.