The wizard of Berry Hill
He walked unnoticed into the settlement. There seemed to be no one else about, a faint ember-glow in the gathering darkness was the only hint of habitation.
Something, the memory of mannish companionship perhaps, drew him in and hitching the soiled cloak above his knees he settled astride one of the roughly worked logs that circled the abandoned hearth.
In his wandering he had known many such camps huddled against the hills, each little more than a clutch of huts about a fire. He snorted. So far had men fallen! And yet, he reminded himself, some had remembered longer than others. About the hearth-fire they would gather, the day's labour done. Then the air would thicken with smoke; with debate, argument and song, with music and the Tellings of older days.
There had been folk enough about this fire earlier in the day. From the nearby hill he had watched them with his keen grey eyes. Men and women busy about their day. Children running between the huts with whooping cries.
But now he was alone. From the voluminous pouch at his belt he drew forth a long-stemmed pipe, the wooden bowl and stem almost black with grime and smoke.
For a moment he turned it over in his hands, his mind on other journeys. Older days. Then he tapped the bowl twice against the log. The sound, sharp in the gathering dark, disturbed birds roosting in the trees beyond the nearest hut.
"Hush!" he muttered, pipe clamped firmly now in his mouth while he fumbled for weed. Teeth found familiar grooves in the chewed stem.
He lifted an ember in a twist of grass, lit the weed. Thin streams of smoke wavered in the still evening air.
An old man's comfort in the wild.
Something moved by his foot. "Good evening, little master!" he breathed companionably. He reached half a dry loaf of bread from the pouch and scattered crumbs in the grass. The mouse hesitated a moment before settling down to eat between the high leather boots.
He had not journeyed so far north for many years. Many lives of men. The last time this land had been open forest, the tall trees lapping against the hill like a tide.
He drew deep on his weed, blew it back to the night in a silver cloud that swept across the ground like the falcon he had watched earlier in the day as it worked the ragged hedgerows away to the north.
Gone. All gone.
He sighed aloud. The mouse paused, crumb held in its tiny hands.
A breeze stirred the night air, quickening the hearth. He reached for a blackened stick and teased a lick or two of flame from the embers but no fuel lay to hand and he allowed the fire to die back again.
There was none to see but his eyes were wet with tears. A different night. A different fire.
He was standing on the high wall that had circled the hill top settlement. The man beside him was young, but men had fallen far from the times of old and twenty five summers was enough to see him lord of his people. This was his demesne, his fortress, hard won and stoutly defended. A wave of swords rising against the rude fort. The cries of the men. Women and children slain with casual savagery. The young prince fallen with his people. Their blood drenching the ground as the victors set flame upon the hill top.
Long, long ago.
Nothing stood now on Berry Hill but tumbled masonry, a few wizened spruce and everywhere the wiry, sheep-cropped turf. And yet, the land remembered.
Not an hour since he had stood there, listened to the wind lament through the grass under a sky heavy with tears. As drizzle filled the air he had circled the hilltop. Lichens, deep and venous red, slicked the wet stone and more than once he had been glad of his short staff.
His tour of homage complete he had descended the narrow steps through gorse and thistle and the hoar brambles that gave the place its name. He licked his hand where it smarted still, a two inch scratch his price for the sweet fruit he had plucked on his descent.
It was all such a long time ago. The invaders had moved on, content to have destroyed the settlement and hungry for better plunder in the east. For many years Berry Hill had been left deserted, its name a token of misfortune and dread to later days. In hard times some few had come, disdaining the ill-famed summit for the lower slopes. Of their name and fate no story told, unless it was the sound of the wind across the ruins of their house.
Night was almost upon him. The pipe, which he never once took from his mouth, pulsed slowly to the rhythm of his breathing. The last embers glowed dimly in the hearth. The little mouse had long since departed.
He turned to look behind him. The thatched roofs of the huts stood out ghostly against the tree line. All unoccupied, they were nonetheless a part of the Story, like the ruined fortress on the hill and the deserted farmstead. Like those who gathered here every day to rediscover the old ways and learn how to remember. Like himself.
It was all Story. Patterns across the land and down the years. He sighed - and the sound fell upon the air with an Age's soft sadness.
At the first flush of dawn he drew back the rude curtain, bent his grey head beneath the low wooden lintel and stepped out into the clearing. For one night at least the settlement had been occupied again.
Clouds still brooded over Berry Hill and he drew his cloak tight against the promise of rain. For a moment he stood there between hut and hearth. His eyes were closed, the rude staff planted firmly at his side. He extended his right arm over the settlement, fingers stiffly splayed. His lips moved though he spoke no word aloud and when he opened his eyes a few minutes later he did not linger but strode from the place with not a backward glance.
He was about to emerge from the narrow stand of trees when sudden bird-call stopped him short. Bright light raked the gloom, flashed green from his dark eyes.
The car sped past, suspension effortlessly absorbing the contours of the land. Its driver was oblivious to Outside. He had driven the road a thousand times and this time in the morning there was never anyone else about. Just another early start at the office.
The robin flung himself off the low branch from which he had announced the alarm. A dozen wing-beats took him to his morning perch on the large white-painted gate post. He watched, head cocked to one side, as the sun rose higher in the sky. Shrouded in cloud it seemed to ride the contours of the hill. Then in sudden brilliance a beam of gold broke free, lighting the thatches of the huts and stirring the robin into song.
Soon the vehicles would arrive. Lights would go on in the visitor centre, the souvenir shop and restaurant. Later the visitors. Tourists looking for something different. Coaches of school kids to whoop around the huts, learning how to make flint knives and needles from splinters of bone. Story-telling around the great hearth.
His brown cloak swirling about his legs, the traveller crossed the road and disappeared into the trees on the other side.
Another day at the Archaeolink Heritage Village. Another turn of the page. And over all the mass of Berry Hill, brooding.