We were lucky to see any sort of metal out on the plains, except for the keys around my neck. So it was all the more alarming to see a horde of riders with weak sunlight glinting off their armour and weapons, approaching from the south.
This was in the days when the gods still rode horses, of course, not flying metal fish or cloud chariots. These were the days when they still spoke to mortals without a float in their step and a boom in their voice.
At first I thought I should get my children to run for it, but I knew we wouldn’t get far if they decided to chase us. So I ordered everyone to stay where they were, waiting to see what the warriors would do and what they’d want from us.
This was in the days when they still ate mortal food as well, which was what they asked for. I told my children to stay by the main longhouse, to keep quiet, not to stare or talk to any of them.
I went to the herd to pick the animals it’d be best to sacrifice to the stomachs of such glorious soldiers. I chose two males, and then decided on a third ram for us as well. Why should we stand by hungry, while our guests feasted? I certainly wouldn’t be fasting that night, anyway.
Some of my children held the waiting rams, some of them helped me with the slaughtering. I could have let a few of the boys do it instead – but I was the mother of the household. It was my responsibility. I lost myself in the job, slicing the holes in stomachs, pinching veins to stop the hearts, cutting and quartering, snapping leg bones, scooping innards and spooning blood from empty chests.
Once I looked up to see the lead soldier staring at me, up near to my armpit in a dying animal as I was. He already had the look of one who finds death – even in an animal – to be strange; no longer used to it.
While the mutton was cooking I took one of the keys from my neck to unlock my mother’s chest, bringing out the precious spices we had left. I made a great show of seasoning the two pots, letting my guests believe they got most of my little store while our pot was fully flavoured – not that their meal wasn’t a delight to the senses in every way! They were accustomed to extravagant dishes by then, but they ate up the stew happily and drank up the tea, and they might have demanded our pot as guest right too, if we hadn’t eaten fast.
I gave them the warmth of my hearth. I gave them some of the last of my spirits as well, and my children sat huddled in the family side of the longhouse and watched them bolt it down like water. They sat up when the lead soldier pulled the bundle out of his pack, and sat up further when he unwrapped, honestly, the most beautiful fruit I’d ever seen. Even my mouth was watering.
I knew the unlikelihood of us getting any. It was a good lesson for my children, if disappointing, when he proceeded to share it with his men without so much as looking at us.
It still hurt. He didn’t even seem to realise how much it would hurt us, and that made it worse.
I watched him share out half of the first fresh fruit I’d seen in ages before he wrapped it up again, swallowing my saliva and my bitterness.
After he’d gotten food, hearth, tea and spirits out of me, he tried to get a conversation as well. I answered questions about the few settlements left nearby that I knew of, where they could find clean water for their horses, what powers were currently at play.
What had happened to all the grown men and women? That last one came as he looked from my children to me and back again. Sickness, wars, accidents and age, I replied. Once again he gave me that confused look, when you’re no longer familiar with those things.
Of course, back then I just thought he was an idiot.
I told my children that there’d be no singing or stories this evening, that they should go straight to sleep. On any other night they might have complained, but none of them dared speak up in front of my guests. Only the very oldest boys and my sister and her friend stayed on either side of me, lending authority to the mother of their household.
If we talked about anything else, I can’t remember. I only remember the leader’s eyes upon me, and the heat I felt that didn’t come from the fire.
When the boys and my sister and her friend had finally gone to join the other children, when even his soldiers had bedded down, he asked for one more thing from me. This last thing was by no means a guest’s right, at least not when it came to the mother of the household; I seriously considered refusing. But it was going to be a long winter, and I didn’t know what the next few months would bring or whether any of us would still be alive come spring.
When our clothes were coming off, he gave me one more confused look.
‘There must always be a mother of the household,’ I whispered. ‘More than ever, in these days.’
In the end, he didn’t mind at all. He even managed to make me feel beautiful for a short time. I can claim that a god truly worshipped my body, making me utterly content with flesh I’d felt unhappy in for as long as I could remember.
Although he hadn’t actually decided that he was a god, then. That would come later.
Near the morning, when his head stirred on my breast and he turned to look up at me, he asked what I would do when winter came.
‘We have plenty of sheep,’ I told him, ‘and good dogs to keep the wolves away. We’ll manage.’
‘And if another war party comes by? One less friendly than us?’
I had no answer for that. I glared up at the sky through the fire hole and took my arms away from his shoulders. ‘I am their mother. The mother of the household. I will protect them.’
‘Come with us,’ he said, sitting up.
‘How would we keep up?’ I asked, not believing he was serious. ‘You have horses.’
‘And you’re all so light that they can carry you as well as us.’ He had a point there; the horses were the sleekest, strongest looking beasts I’d ever seen. But still I wavered.
‘What could following you bring us, in the end?’
‘Food. Safety. Wealth.’ He listed them so calmly, as if they were such simple things to have. ‘The protection of immortals.’
I sat up as well at that. ‘Immortals?’ I repeated, thinking he was mad. And such a shame.
‘A new pantheon, a divine force on earth. Come with us and see.’
I lay back again and thought of food enough to fill all my children’s bellies, safety for ever, the happiness that wealth could bring. And, I must confess, of eternal life, even if that was only a mad man’s dream.
‘Give me a bite of the fruit,’ I said at last.
‘Give me a bite of the fruit, and I’ll go with you.’
‘Why should I do that?’
‘Because I have been a very gracious host. And because I haven’t seen fresh fruit in years. And because I would like some assurance that I and my children will be safe, wherever you’d take us, and I can best get that by eating some of your food. So, a bite of the fruit, if you please.’
He laughed. ‘You’re crafty.’
I wasn’t really, not then; I hadn’t even guessed what a bite of that fruit would do to me.
I’m rather more wise now, after a few thousand years.