There was no Whole Foods at Swindon, there was a Waitrose & Partners and a Tesco. Things were Great, and Royal and old timey, and most places had names before they had names, and people counted things in twelves. The flannel, bearded folk was also here, some sporting intricately designed, hand printed, organic cotton T-shirts. So did we. The ratty Triumph’s back seat was getting increasingly uncomfortable after more than three hours of riding, but we were headed somewhere, and we needed to get there in time for what I understood to be some kind of business meeting.
“'Ello!” A tall, redheaded man greeted us as we entered the small parking lot behind The Harrow Inn. It was outside of town, in Wanborough, on High street, no number. Two motorcycles were parked outside: a Victory Hammer and an exquisitely refurbished Kawasaki Mach IV H2. “The Widowmaker, how appropriate” Wayland exclaimed, nodding at the green and black Kawasaki as he parked the ratty Triumph by the two gleaming bikes.
Wayland took off his ratty helmet and put it on the ratty Triumph. The redheaded man, who I soon discovered to be named Terry, accompanied us into the front room of the inn. It was an old country house, built with local stone and timber. The old, warped beams protruded through the low ceiling of the room so much so that Terry had to bow his head to avoid knocking it on the antique wood. The far wall was almost completely occupied by a huge fireplace where the “soup of the day” was heating up slowly in a big, old, cast iron cauldron that has probably seen too many days and too many soups. In the corner, a table was waiting for us with four pints of what to my best guess was “real ale”, one of which rested in the hand of and old man. He may have been Terry's father, and maybe not.
“Just like the good old days!” Terry heaved as he plopped into his chair. “Not quite, not quite.. . I've seen better times, although things seem to be turning for the better, ain't it so, Chief?” Wayland made a gesture with his mug towards the old man. “Perhaps… Are you not going to introduce us to the young lady?” “I'm Esther, pleasure meeting you!” I held out my hand, expecting a handshake. The old man looked at me attentively, but did not shake my hand. He simply said quietly, “Pleasure is mine”.
“Please excuse my father's manners!” Terry yanked my hand with uncalculated force and shook it with both of his. “He tends to get grumpy and brooding at times, please don't take it personally.” I saw a flash of anger in the old man's eye, but he said nothing. Wayland and Terry caught up on what seemed like a lifetime of occurrences and events, until he eventually spoke again, quietly: “so, Wayland, how far is this place you've prepared for us?” - “about 6 miles, as the crow flies.” Wayland locked eyes with the old man, the look wasn't friendly. “How DO they fly these days, Chief?” a taunting smirk hovering on Wayland's face as it looked like the old man has just about had enough, he said, ever so quietly: “oh, you'd be surprised, Smith”, the word dripped from his lips like poison “how well, and how far they fly.”
They set off on their bikes. Wayland had an uneasy air about him as did the old man. Wayland lead the pack on a tiny road, first towards Ashbury, then up a little dirt trail, into a wooded area nearby. As we drew closer I saw what appeared to be some kind of a stone structure, with an entrance and a passageway, guarded on either side by silent grey stones. We got off the bikes, and I could feel the wind change, as the clouds started to gather above our heads. “This place is amazing!” I said excitedly as I re-emerged from the stone chamber inside the hill. Terry greeted my face as I made my way towards the strange band of people I found myself with. Terry smiled at me, there was a certain pity on his broad, red bearded face. He turned to the other two, who were talking in hushed voices next to a large yew. “Umm.. Wayland, she doesn't know?” The smith, who already seemed concerned by whatever business he was discussing with the old man, turned a ghastly shade of white. Terry was no longer smiling, neither was I. There was something very, very wrong going on and what was it exactly that I didn't know? “Well, what is it?” I demanded as Wayland changed colors again. The old man leaning beside him on the huge trunk of the tree pulled his long, silver hair back from face and pierced Wayland with the stare from his one good eye. “You didn't even tell her, you fool! This was your great plan? In all these years you haven't changed one bit, Smith.” I was growing increasingly nervous and the fact that Wayland remained silent didn't help at all. I was weighing my options in my mind, and just as the idea to make a run for it popped into my head, I felt a large hand landing heavily on my right shoulder.
“You'd better sit down for this one, luv” Terry guided me towards a low sitting stone and he sat down beside me, still chomping on a big green apple. “Well, you see… It might look really bad and scary to the uninitiated…” the big, red haired man tried to clumsily put together a convincing explanation as Wayland interjected: “we are gods.” Terry frowned and pointed the half eaten apple towards the smith: “you're a minor god, and even that's at stake here, so shut it!”
So far, all I knew is that I was surrounded by three delusional people, in the middle of the English countryside, with no way of escape. Maybe I could talk my way out of whatever it was that was going on. “So, Terry” the redhead was staring Wayland down in anger. “Um… what is it exactly that you want with me?” The redhead turned his eyes back to me, his face was serene and friendly, in sharp contrast to the other two.
“Here's the thing, my father and I, we've made it big time. We're very popular you see. We've had a rough nine centuries or so, but now we're making a comeback. On the other hand”,he pointed the apple towards Wayland again, “our friend here has had it worst. He almost disappeared a couple of decades ago and now he basically owes his existence to hipsters who forge stuff at home for their projects”. I listened to the madman as he continued: “so, you see, in the old days, people would gather in places like this and offer sacrifices to their favourite gods. Horses, silver, crops, but the best, most valuable of them, would be willing humans”. Terry smiled a big, reassuring smile, however is was clear to me that, delusional or not, this wasn't going to end well for me.
There was a long, awkward silence. Then Terry boomed again: “Even my father!” He spread his arm at the old man by the tree, “he sacrificed himself to himself, when times are tough you gotta be tougher, you know what I'm saying?” - “and what if the intended sacrifice is not willing?” I said quietly. “Well, it's a great honor, you see. You will go into the afterlife and feast and dine with heroes, men and women from all times, until the end of days”. Terry looked up with a pompous, delighted expression upon his face. “Yes, but what if the intended sacrifice is not willing?” I raised my voice and now I was standing. The old man stepped closer: “well, they'd usually be sacrificed anyway, even the best of them. But you see, if you get sacrificed to Wayland, it would be an act of love. He would be restored to his former glory, thanks to you. Besides, what do you have to lose?” His words came out as colloquially as if we were talking about giving away a half eaten sandwich.
“What I have to lose is none of your business. Besides, you're saying you're gods? Prove it. Let's see what kind of gods are you. As far as I'm concerned you're a crazy cult of psychos who murder people.” If talking my way out of this was an option, I was going to try any possible way. “Ah, people. They always need to see before they believe”. Terry shook his head, playing with this motorcycle keys. Then he got up, strolled over to where his Victory was parked and lifted the 340 kg bike by the frame. He walked back over to us, and set it down, gently, while taking another bite of his large, green apple.
When I came back to my senses the first thing I felt was the burning hot sensation of the pendant around my neck. I yanked it off and threw it to the side. The star of Ishtar was burning white hot, steaming and hissing on the damp ground. I was lying on the grass beneath the huge yew tree, and suddenly I saw Terry's face appear above my own, a big hand extended towards me, helping me to get up. For a second there, I thought this was all a dream or a delusion but now I was shaken back to reality by the hands of the red haired biker. The old man was almost rolling on the floor with laughter, and a large, Damascus steel sword lay on the ground next to me. I picked it up. Wayland was nowhere to be seen. “Typical Wayland!” The old man, still shaking with laughter, wiped his eye with the back of his fist. “He was never the best with the ladies” and he burst out into a laugh again. “What happened? Did I die?” I remembered only seeing white and a scorching sensation all though my body, before passing out. “Quite the contrary, luv” said the redheaded man, his apple, now in the dirt. “Quite the contrary”.
I picked up my pendant as it cooled off, I wrapped the sword in a sweatshirt and tucked it into my backpack, hilt sticking out. I rode back and spent the night in the Harrow Inn before heading back to Maine, to my Whole Foods, my kombucha and my forge.