"The wicker man!" Boo mouthed the words slowly and in horror. She stared. Her heart thumped and she shivered. She had never actually experienced a wicker man but she had heard so many stories.
Boo closed her eyes for a moment to shut out the view. Perhaps she was dreaming. Perhaps it would go away. She sucked in her breath and as it whistled through her teeth, she slowly shook her head in despair. "Whatever will father say?" If she went back to tell him she had seen the wicker man, he would be terribly shocked. Boo shivered and her heart still fluttered as she shielded her eyes and stared down into the valley at the activity in the distance.
At the near edge of the village of Quidenham was the same old field, just as she remembered it two years ago, in front of their own house, where they used to graze the goats. Now, there were no goats. The field was long and narrow. At the far end, several people were carrying withes and lengths of brushwood to the site. No doubt they were people she would recognise if she went closer. Lying on the ground, the giant effigy of the wicker man was being woven into shape. At the other end of the field, standing on one leg, was a druid, the priest.
Excited and anxious to see their old home and the family after being away for so long, Boo had run up to the crest of the long hill to where she knew she could get the first sight of it, leaving her father, Banitus, struggling along with his stick and his bag of tools. Boo looked back to where she had left him. He had stopped, and she could see he had dropped his tool bag and was sitting on it, mopping his brow, waiting for her to come back down the hill.
Boo hesitated, not knowing whether to go back down to him or simply sit down and wait for him to arrive. The decision was forced on her.
"What is it?" he called. "Is there something wrong?"
Boo rushed headlong down the hill towards him in panic. She stumbled and fell onto the stony path. She gathered herself and continued to run without even noticing the blood on her knees and the rips in her smock. As soon as she thought she was near enough, in a voice still hushed by fear, she called several times, "It's the wicker man, Father. It's the wicker man."
With the kerchief still held to his face covering his open mouth, Banitus froze as though turned to stone. Boo knelt down and clung to his knees for a while. Feeling his reassuring taps on her shoulder she got up and helped him to his feet to begin the long struggle up the hill.
Banitus had been working as a mason, at the palace of the king of the Brigantes. He had been specially asked to take Boo along, so that she could befriend and amuse the king's ten-year-old daughter, Cartimandua. At twelve, Boo had been obliged to live at the palace, more than eighty miles from home. Now, nearly fifteen, she was bored with amusing a twelve-year-old; especially a precocious, demanding and insensitive daughter of a king, like Princess Cartimandua.
Fortunately, Banitus had finished the job at the palace, so they were now on the way home. When they had first set out, Boo was excited and wanted to exclaim 'good riddance to the rotten princess', but, for the sake of her father, she held her tongue. What was it Cartimandua said the day before Boo left? "I've heard from my father that the Roman army is coming up from Camulodunum. But you won't need to worry, Boo. No Roman would fancy you, so you'll be quite safe."
Carty was like that, - hurtful, inconsiderate, ungrateful, even haughty. "Look at you," she had said, "your gown is only fit for the rubbish heap, your hair is right down your back and looks like straw. It's even the colour of straw, almost as thick and just as dirty, and you are too tall and built like a soldier. You walk as though your feet are chained. Your voice is loud and makes people jump. You never smile and you look at everybody as though you would prefer to see them dead. What Roman could even want to talk to you? There is nothing for you to be afraid of, and you have precious little to be proud of. The only thing good about you is that Boudicca is a lovely name. I do have to admit though, you certainly kept your place while you were looking after me and I don't know how you managed it."
One of the last things Carty had said was, "You have been a good friend, and even though you are only one of the common people, I really will miss you. One day I shall be queen, and then if there is anything I can do for you, whatever it is, you have only to ask. I will not let you down. I owe you that." Coming from Cartimandua, Boo had felt that it was a promise not to be relied upon. It was, after all, the only kind thing the girl had said to her in over two years. Boo was unlikely to crawl back to her at some time in the future and say, 'I need your help.'
Coming home was meant to be exciting, full of happiness. Now, even though she was no longer obliged to suffer the insults and denigrations of the contemptible young princess, on this day and at this moment, even the horrid Cartimandua would have been a more welcome sight than the wicker man.
Both Boo and Banitus stood facing each other, white-faced and trembling. Banitus was still puffing and leaning on his stick. He stared at her in silence for a few moments, and then took the piece of cloth away from his mouth and asked, "Did you see him?"
Boo nodded. "The druid is standing in the field, the one we used to keep for the goats."
"In the goats' field." It was Banitus' turn to show fear. He was white and shaking. "Did you see him? I mean the wicker man, not the priest."
"I saw them both. The people are building the wicker man at one end of our field. It's nearly finished, and the priest is standing at the other end, on one leg."
"Standing on one leg, eh. What's he wearing?" Banitus was plainly trying to pull himself together.
"A black cloak and a tall hat, Father, and he's got one arm stuck out straight."
Now, there was no doubt in Banitus' mind. In certain circumstances, particularly in the face of serious public concerns, he knew the druid priests stood as though trying to emulate the oak tree, which they revered. The men, sometimes wearing a black robe and tall hat, stood on one leg, the other foot lifted and rested on the standing knee, one arm outstretched to the side, very straight and level with the shoulder, and the other hand covering one eye. The more practised druids sometimes stood for an hour or more in this strange and difficult position, meditating and predicting unpleasant things to come. Usually, they were dressed in quite colourful clothing, but not when contemplating, forecasting, or otherwise dealing with a tragic event. On such occasions it had to be black. The druidesses usually wore a hood in preference to a hat, but apart from that they followed similar routines.
"You had better wait here, Boo. I will go down and see what is the position." Banitus was still trembling as he spoke. "I have a feeling it will be too dangerous for you there. Stay where you can see our house, keep out of sight, and I will wave to you when I know it is safe for you to follow me."
Boo looked up at the darkening sky and frowned.
"I don't think you'll get wet. I'll probably give you a wave before that rain gets here." Having said that, Banitus slung his bag of tools over his shoulder, and continued the struggle up the steep slope.
Boo watched Banitus disappear over the brow of the hill, then she too went up to a point from which she could watch him go down to the village.
Banitus was getting on in years to be working as a stonemason. It showed of course, in the way he relied on his stick to go over the hill and down into the valley. Even so, he was well known as a good mason. He had been tipped off that, perhaps because he was so good, there was even a prospect of doing more renovations at the palace of King Prasutagus of the Iceni.
Plainly, as a stonemason, a man could not get work from the occupants of the ordinary people's cottages. The main sources were the palaces and villas belonging to important personages. It goes without saying that one didn't find these places in one's own garden, or even in one's own village, so the work usually necessitated walking some long distances every day or living away from home, sometimes for long periods. This time, for Banitus and Boo, it had been nearly two years and during that time things had changed; in particular, the Roman invasion had begun and was well under way.
The palace was not far away and he could easily walk there daily from home; but such matters could only be dealt with after the wicker man had gone. After such a long time, coming home to be faced with the wicker man was, to say the least, devastating.
The wicker man was a large construction of withes and wood strips, woven into a cage in the shape of a man. It was used for sacrifices to the gods. Most commonly these were three, namely Teutates, Esus, and Taranis: although other gods were also placated with sacrifices and gifts. Taranis was the god being solicited on this occasion and he was known for his applications of thunder and lightning. He employed them in varying degrees of severity, either one at a time or together.
The use of the wicker man was a spectacular way to burn animals, and sometimes criminals or public nuisances. When the occasion was more serious, or when there was a shortage of criminals, local people were used and these were quite often the local undesirables, or even volunteers. If the occasion was of major importance, however, the sacrifice could be a selection of one or more of the local maidens.
There was a considerable fear in Banitus' mind for the safety of his young daughters, two of whom he had left behind in the village. He knew that this sacrifice was concerned with a matter of major importance, the invasion by the Romans, and was being offered to enlist the help of the gods to halt the Roman advance. The girls were in grave danger of being selected for the sacrifice, especially as the wicker man was being erected on Banitus' own field, right in front of his own house.
As Banitus drew near to the village, he could see that the effigy was almost complete. As the last few lengths of withes and strips of wood were woven into the legs, the huge wooden figure was hoisted into its standing position, at the far end of the goat field. This wicker man was quite large. Not as large as some, but large enough to cage several people, and it needed a pole driven into the ground, to which it was to be lashed for support. Quite obviously, it would burn very fiercely and make a tremendous roaring fire, if only for a short while.
As all this was happening, the druid, still standing in his strange posture, was turning his head very slowly and glaring fiercely out of his one open eye at the approaching Banitus. He made no other move; there was not even a flicker at the end of his outstretched arm. Banitus nervously held his gaze and continued walking towards his home. He breathed a sigh as he saw the druid, apparently satisfied there was to be no interruption, slowly turn his head to resume his original position and continue meditating and communing with his gods.
Soon Banitus' wife, Manimor, came from the house and ran towards her husband. Throwing her arms about him, she sobbed as she said, "Oh Banitus. You've been away for so long this time. You said six months, but it is more than two years now. I thought I would never see you again. Where is our dear Boo? Didn't you bring her home with you?"
"There were hold-ups in the work, so I had to stay on. Boo is there, up on the hill, waiting for me to wave to say it's safe for her to come. Is it safe? Are our daughters all safe?" Banitus searched her face as he spoke.
"Yes." Manimor carried on speaking but with a long pause after each short sentence. "You can wave her down now... It is safe for Boo... The choices have already been made...It's too late to make any changes... There's just nothing we can do about it." She lowered her head to show she had finished speaking, then she added quietly, "Boo had better come quickly. It's starting to rain."
Manimor's choice of words and her manner told the story. Banitus held her close. He hardly needed to say any more, except whatever was needed to confirm which of their two other daughters had been chosen. Manimor was shaking too much to be able to answer him, so he did not ask. As he held her close, looking over her shoulder he felt some relief at seeing the youngest daughter approaching from the house. He reasoned that there must have been only one chosen and that was Sunita, the older of the two. The figure of Mab, the youngest, began to ripple as he watched her through his tears. Then he turned, partly to hide his distress and partly to wave vigorously towards the road now darkened beneath the clouds that now loomed over the hill.
Boo came hurrying down the road and into the village. Like her father, she stared back at the druid as he again turned his head, and with a one-eyed scowl, watched her with his intimidating stare. Boo averted her eyes, and ignoring his baleful glare, she marched boldly down to her old home.
Boo had some knowledge of these rites and was aware that, had she arrived earlier, she might well have been chosen to be a human sacrifice. Now, fortunately, it was too late to make changes. Everything was arranged. Incantations had been made, drugs had been used on the girls, the druid was well advanced in his in ritual activities and the ceremony therefore had to continue.
As Boo passed the end of the goats' field, a group of five scantily clothed young girls were being shepherded into the body of the wicker man, and her heart thumped when she saw one of them was Sunita. If Sunita saw Boo, she gave no sign. At thirteen, Sunita was more than a year younger than Boo, of similar colouring, but much more petite. She seemed pathetically pale and frail as she followed the others into the cage. Boo questioned to herself, what right had this druid to take her sister and burn her? Boo shivered but not with the cold. She continued walking as if in a trance and wiped the corners of her eyes on her smock as she turned towards the house.
It was heart rending to see how all the girls looked so serenely happy while being so near to the point of death. Boo later learned that all the girls had been thoroughly drugged, so mercifully, they had no idea of what was happening to them. They had settled inside, behind the slats that formed the wicker man's body, making themselves as comfortable as practicable and, dreamily, had looked out from their prison onto the people congregated around about, still apparently oblivious to what was about to happen, even though they must have clearly seen the druid approaching from behind the crowd and carrying a blazing brand in each hand.
When Boo reached the house she had no need to ask any questions. There was a moment or two of hugging, sobbing and kissing, then Banitus suggested they move quickly away out of sight of the field. Boo, Banitus, Manimor, and Mab clung together as they hurried to the other end of the village, well away from the goats' field. As they walked, Boo reflected that all this was supposedly to turn back the tide of the Roman advance. She believed differently, but the druids had such awesome power she did not dare to express her view, not even to her parents.
At the far end of the village, they huddled together against the sloping back wall of a house, stooped under the edge of the thatching, where they were sheltered from the wind and the rain and perhaps a little from the noises of the ceremony.
In despair, not knowing how to cope, they started to sing loudly, then to shout. Then they changed to sobbing and trying to console each other as the sound of distant screaming told them the wicker man was burning. Open-mouthed, they stared at one another, tearfully and in horrified silence, as the agonising screaming quickly faded, giving place to a strange kind of relief. The relief was completed when, quite suddenly, the wicker man burst into a tremendous crackling roar, telling the gods of his triumph; then, he,too, joined in the silence.
After sheltering quietly for a while, Banitus, Manimor, Boo and Mab huddled together and bent against the wind and the rain as they sobbed their way back to their home. The silence was short-lived. There was a very sudden flash as lightning lit up the sky, followed by tremendous crashes of thunder. The earth shook.
"That's Taranis the thunder god getting to work." said Banitus.
Monimor responded quietly. "It sounds as though he has accepted the sacrifice."
Boo looked at each of them in turn, shook her head and sighed. She wanted to comment and express her own view of the gods and the druids but was just a little too hesitant. Instead she concentrated on helping them to huddle together. Because of the wind and their distress, it was the only way they could keep upright and make progress through the village. Indeed, Boo held them very much closer as they stood surveying the wicked steaming, smoking embers, spitting and hissing at them in the driving rain.
As the little family stood looking at the ashes of the wicker man and his victims, Boo wanted to say, "The only thing Taranis will have done is to put down a few puddles for the Romans to march through." She looked at her father and then at her mother and decided to voice it only to herself.
Standing there, staring through a curtain of tears at the steaming, smoking ashes, Boo tried desperately to organize her thoughts. She knew that, in spite of the druids' promises, assurances and pressures many of the villagers believed their sacrifices would be in vain. All this was not going to stop the Roman advance. It was well known that usually most of the druids fled ahead of the Romans. Invariably, the speed with which they departed showed they were already prepared for such an eventuality. They appeared to be imbued with a greater sense of fear and of cunning than of faith. Indeed, thought Boo, the druid in charge of this rite probably favoured Taranis over other gods because he had already noticed the heavy clouds and pending storm coming over the hill.
Boo was sure Taranis would not have been appeased, for the Romans seemed never to have been opposed. Perhaps, being foreigners, they did not understand what Celtic gods required of them and therefore failed to comply. Plainly, they were not much distracted by gods, nor much disrupted by Celts but after sweeping through the countryside with no opposition beyond abusive words and shaking fists, they had successfully begun to issue their orders and to impose their order.