Special Mention - Peter Hankins
Twelve Days of Massachras
By Peter Hankins
‘You must shed much blood,’ she insisted, ‘for you, it is drink blood or suck ice.’
Lord Gantas let out a long breath. In the darkness of the great stone temple,
with the priestess’s face lit by the altar fire, her words took on portentous weight.
They became oracular. Behind her in the gloom he could see the smiling statue of
the festive god Massachras, the plump, bearded old man, robes stained red from the
joyful festive slaughter of the beasts.
‘Help us, Father Massachras,’ muttered Gantas. ‘Nothing has gone right here
since the old Skywatcher died.’
On the Plateau the Skywatcher played a prominent part. Every year in autumn
the North Folk stored as much food as possible, including reserves of fodder for the
beasts they would bring inside their barns and houses during the worst of the cold
weather. Then they would shut themselves up and try to make their provisions last
as long as possible. It was the job of the Skywatcher to let them know when they had
rationed themselves long enough. Examining the shadows round the ancestral
stones, he would announce that the days were no longer getting shorter. The grip of
the Winter King was slackening: the Queen of Summer had beguiled him again, and
in a few weeks she would make the land green.
That announcement meant that though there might still be bad times ahead,
for now the North Folk had a surplus. Festival could be declared. The stores could
be used more freely, and Father Massachras presided over a great slaughter of the
weaker beasts, so that the North Folk fed on flesh for twelve days. Festival was
always a light in the darkest days of the year, happy times Gantas remembered from
his own childhood: the smoky smell of roaring meat, the singing of ancient songs,
and the playing of absurd games. Everyone looked forward to the festive season, but
especially the children, who after weeks of boring grains and dry bread would suck
on fresh intestine and munch sweetbreads.
Last year the old Skywatcher had died before winter came. The shortest day
arrived, but the new man was cautious: he let nearly a week crawl by without
confirming it. This delay in the arrival of Massachras was not popular. Lord Gantas’s
nephew Fordicas confronted him one morning in the open market place.
‘Time for Festival, Gantas!’ he said, insolently. ‘Why are you delaying?’ A
dozen curious young men were watching, and Gantas felt he had been ambushed.
The North Folk had too many young men just then, idle discontented fellows ready to
support any rebellious behaviour, through sullen defiance, moody silence and maybe
in the end even with violence. ‘If the herd is not thinned, all the beasts will starve!’
Fordicas said, ‘If the surplus stores are not eaten, they will rot!’
‘Mind your patience till the Skywatcher speaks,’ Gantas had told him, looking
firmly in his eyes until he backed away. The lord had no son, and failing some
accident, Fordicas was his heir. The two of them had had a golden understanding
once, a happy friendship based on the care and training Gantas had given the boy,
treating him as a son. He still could not be really angry with the boy, though he knew
that, uncle or no, his nephew must be sorely tempted to stab him in the back and try
to make himself the new ruler. Gantas, who knew a few things about the weather
and the seasons on the Plateau, was not sure that the new Skywatcher was wrong
to hesitate. The shortest day might have passed, but he thought it was still getting
colder. Maybe the darkness passed, but every year the ice seemed to hold on a little
longer and it got a little harder to get through to spring again.
Last year the crisis passed. The new Skywatcher had eventually spoken, and
Gantas had proclaimed Festival from the steps of his palace, to a great shout of
approval and relief. All had seemed well again until as the year cycled round and
winter began to tighten its grip he stepped into the darkness of the temple to seek
guidance, and the priestess demanded blood. Human blood.
‘Last year, we lived,’ she said, ‘and we rejoiced. But this year our stores are
not so abundant. Even during Festival, we shall be forced to eat sparingly this year.
The time of hunger when Festival is over will be worse than ever. Year by year the
Winter King dwells longer on the Plateau. His grasp is a little harder, a shade more
bitter. You know this. We have reached our limit. You must act.’ Gantas frowned.
‘It seems wrong,’ he protested. ‘After all, we have survived. This coming year
may be a little better for all we know: perhaps warmer, kinder again. Yet you say I
should cry war and fall on the people of the valley without warning, These people are
our friends and allies. Why must I kill them?’
‘This is the last year when we will have our full strength, unless you act. Next
year we will be weaker, and every year afterwards less able. In three years we shall
not be strong enough to fight at all. In ten years, no-one will live here on the Plateau.
The southern valley folk will bring their goats up in the summer and perhaps relight
the flame of the temple for a while; but there will be no North Folk. The valley down
there is sheltered, and leans toward the sun. People will be able to live there for
many years yet - perhaps until times change. It is our only hope of life. Seize it.’
‘The people of the valley will help us if we ask. Their King is my friend.’
‘What would you choose to be? A conqueror or a slave? Will you take what
you need, or beg for it? If you let your chance slide, you will be remembered as a
leader who allowed his folk to weaken, dwindle, and disappear. But if you act, you
may be King of both Plateau and valley for several years, perhaps for the rest of your
life. Your reign will be remembered as the great days of our folk.’
‘Still, must it really be this year? During the festive season and at a time when,
by chance, they are celebrating the birth of a royal heir, a new King? And under the
banner of Massachras? Jovial, friendly Massachras?’
‘Think of your own people first. They are afraid. They doubt you. But if you
raise the banner of war, old loyalties will be reborn.’ Gantas thought of Fordicas.
‘How can I justify it?’ he asked.
‘I will tell the North Folk that the people of the valley have failed the Summer
Queen and she has given us their lands to be ours forever. I will tell them
Massachras calls for the blood of the southerners to dye his robes in.’
Gantas put one hand over his eyes for a moment. Then he bowed to the
priestess and went away to give the necessary orders.
Three faces remained in Gantas’ mind forever afterwards. His nephew, marching
beside him, looking at him joyfully, all the old warmth restored, a look of love and
admiration in his eyes which Lord Gantas would never feel he deserved. He knew
that Fordicas would not rebel now: when he was Lord and an old man, he would
speak of his uncle with the fondest nostalgia, as a hero of the old times, a man who
acted decisively and fought for his people.
Then the face of Mertas, King of the people of the valley, as his unprepared
men, relaxed, unarmed and expecting nothing but peaceful celebration, fell all
around him, stabbed, hewn and cut down like seasonal beasts. The King’s face was
full of horror, anger, and utter incomprehension. The Queen, quicker-thinking or
perhaps operating on instinct, got away with her baby son, and could never be
‘Let no men live,’ commanded Gantas as they searched the country for
survivors. ‘Women may be enslaved if you choose, but above all seek out infants. It
is all about the children. There must be no new generation of southerners to seek
revenge. All must die.’
Then third, the face of a valley woman kneeling among the little bodies in the
twelve days of blood that followed.
‘Why? Why did you do this?’ she asked.
‘This could not be left undone,’ said Lord Gantas, ‘It is our bitter fate, mine as
well as yours. I would disown it, but I could not stop what the fates command. It is
simply the coming of winter to your lands. It is the darkest day sweeping over you. It
is the celebration of merry Massachras and haply, a new year.’