Journey to Sarum
FIRST, BEFORE THE beginning of Sarum, came a time when the world was a colder and darker place.
Over a huge area of the northern hemisphere – perhaps a sixth of the whole globe – stretched a mighty covering of ice. It lay over all of northern Asia; it covered Canada, Scandinavia and about two thirds of the future land of Britain. Had it been possible to cross this gigantic continent of ice, the journey would have been some five thousand miles from whichever direction it was approached. The volume of the ice was stupendous; even at its outer edge it was thirty feet high.
In a desolate, dark belt to the south of the ice lay a vast subarctic wasteland of empty tundra, several hundred miles across.
This was the colder, darker world, some twenty thousand years before the birth of Christ.
Since the huge casing of ice contained a considerable portion of the earth’s water, the seas were lower than those in later times – some did not exist at all – and so the lands to the south stood higher, their sheer cliffs frowning upon empty chasms that have long since vanished under the waters.
The northern world was a quieter place too. Over the ice, and the tundra, there reigned a silence that seemed to have no end. True, there were terrible winds, huge blizzards that howled across the land of ice; true, in the arctic tundra there were sparse forms of life – a meagre vegetation, small groups of hardy animals – which eked out a bleak existence in the freezing wastes; but to all intents the land was empty: thousands upon thousands of miles of desert; and in the vast glacial cap itself, all forms of life and the seas which might have spawned them were locked up in the great stasis of the ice.
Such was the last Ice Age. Before, there had been many like it; after it, there will be many more. And in the gaps between these ages, men have come and gone upon the northern lands.
Centuries passed; thousands of years passed, and nothing changed, nor seemed likely to. Then, at some time around 10,000 B.C., a change began to occur: at the outer edge of the frozen wastes, the temperature began to rise. It was not enough to be noticed in a decade, hardly in a century, and it did not yet have any effect upon the ice; but it rose nonetheless. Centuries passed. It rose a little more. And then the ice cap began to melt. Still the process was gradual: a stream here, a small river there; blocks of ice a few yards across in one place, half a mile in another, breaking away from the edge of the ice cap, a process hardly noticeable against the thousands of miles of the vast continent of ice that remained. But slowly this melting gathered pace. New land, tundra, emerged from under the ice; new rivers were born; ice floes moved southwards into the seas, which began to rise. A new ferment was in progress upon the surface of the earth. Century after century, the face of the continents changed as new lands began to define themselves and new life began, cautiously, to spread across the earth.
The last Ice Age was in retreat.
For several thousand years this process continued.
About seven thousand five hundred years before the birth of Christ, in the still bleak and uninviting season that was summer in those northern lands, a single hunter undertook a journey that was impossible. His name, as nearly as it can be written, was Hwll.
When she heard the plan, his woman Akun first looked at him in disbelief and then protested.
“No one will go with us,” she argued. “How shall we find food without help?”
“I can hunt alone,” he replied. “We shall eat.”
She shook her head vigorously in disbelief.
“This place that you speak of; it does not exist.”
“It does.” Hwll knew that it did. His father had told him, and his father’s father before that. Though he did not know it, the information was already several centuries old.
“We shall die,” Akun said simply.
They were standing on the ridge above their camp: a pitiful little cluster of wigwams made of reindeer skins and supported on long poles, which the five families that comprised their hunting group had set up when the winter snows departed. Across the ridge, as far as the eye could’ see, stretched the empty expanse of coarse grey-brown grass, dotted with the occasional bush, dwarf birch or clump of rocks, to which ragged lichen and stringy moss had attached themselves. Grey clouds scudded over the brown land, driven by a chill north east wind.
This was the tundra. For when the ice of the last glacial age began to retreat, it laid bare a desolate region that extended uninterrupted across the entire northern Eurasian land mass. From Scotland to China, in these vast, empty spaces similar in climate to Siberia today, small bands of hunters known to archaeologists as Upper Paleolithic, followed by Mesolithic man, had followed the sparse game that roamed the barren wastes. Stocky bison, reindeer, wild horse and the stately elk would appear on the horizon, then disappear again, and the hunters would follow, often for many days, in order to make their kill and survive another season. It was a cold, precarious life that continued for hundreds of generations.
“It was in the extreme north west corner of this gigantic tundra region that Hwll and his woman found themselves.
He was typical of these wanderers, who were of no single racial type. He was five foot seven, just above average height, with high cheekbones, coal black eyes, a deeply rutted and weatherbeaten face with skin that seemed to have been worn like the landscape into innumerable valleys, creeks and gullies; he had half his teeth, which were yellow, and a full black beard now flecked with grey. He was twenty-eight: ripe middle age in that region and at that time. The crude jerkin and leggings that he wore were made of reindeer skin and fox fur, held together with toggles made of bone; for the art of stitching clothes together had not yet reached his people. On his feet were soft moccasin boots. He wore no ornaments. Thus naturally camouflaged in the tundra, he resembled a shaggy brown plant of some indeterminate kind, from the top of which hung the thickly tangled mass of his hair. When he stood stock still, his spear raised ready to throw, he could be mistaken at twenty yards for a stunted tree. The broad-set eyes under his deeply scored forehead and bushy brows were cautious and intelligent.
He was a good provider, known amongst the other hunters as a skilful tracker, and for many years the little group had lived and hunted undisturbed in a region approximately fifty miles east to west and forty north to south. They followed game, they fished, and it was the moon goddess who watched over all hunters that they trusted to protect their precarious way of life. In summer they lived in tents; in winter they built semi-subterranean houses, cutting them into the side of a hill and facing them with brushwood: crude shelters, but well designed to conserve precious body heat. He had taken Akun as his woman ten years before and in that time he had fathered five children, two of whom had survived: a boy of five and a girl of eight.
And now he was preparing to embark on an immense trek to an unknown place! Akun shook her head in despair.
The reasons for Hwll’s extraordinary plan were simple. For three years now, the hunting had been poor, and that last winter the little group had nearly ceased to exist. In vain he had searched in the snow, day after day, for the tell-tale tracks that might lead him to food. Day after day he had come back disappointed, having found only the trail of a single arctic fox, or the minute scuffling patterns of the lemmings which then inhabited the region. The little band had subsisted on a store of nuts and roots that they had gathered in the preceding months, and even that store had been nearly exhausted. He had watched the women and children grow wasted, and almost despaired. Nor had the weather given them any respite, for it had been bitterly cold, with continuous icy winds from the north. Then at last, he saw a party of reindeer, and the hunters, calling on their last reserves of strength, had managed to separate one from the group and kill it. This single lucky find had saved them from starvation: the flesh of the animal gave them meat and its precious blood gave them the salt which they would otherwise have lacked. Despite this kill, the end of the winter saw one of the women and three of the children dead.
Copyright © 2011 by Edward Rutherfurd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.