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Blood on the Temple Pavement

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Blood was everywhere. The two young masons were attacking each other violently with hand axes, their blood splashing onto the pavement and the stone work they had been working on minutes before.  The young female sculptor and the Priest were just leaving the middle temple when they stumbled on the scene.

"Stop!" Pebble called. "Stop it at once!"

Amazingly, they paused, breathing heavily and dripping sweat. They had been fighting over her, of course, though she had done nothing to encourage them. She shook her fist at them. "Don't you dare!" she called again. "Stop it now!"

At the same time, the Priest stepped towards the combatants hand raised in admonition. Then, without warning, one of them groaned and collapsed onto the pavement.

In Neolithic society most people were tied to the land but masons had to travel the 'Sacred Isle' in order to do their specialist work on the mighty temples so they tended to be a group apart. Pebble's father had been a mason and when he died she had been accepted into their largely male society, though she preferred to call herself a sculptor. The huge stone lintels of the megalithic temples were too heavy for her to handle so she concentrated instead on the finer carving and the roof corbelling, using smaller stones. She was enjoying the work on the middle temple at Mnajdra and generally she fitted in well, but, these particular two masons had been a nuisance.

Handy, one of them, thought he was the Goddess's gift to women. Several times he had very publicly offered himself to Pebble but she had forcefully declined. "She's yet another Pebble for my corbelling," he arrogantly told his friends. He thought it very funny though Pebble was unimpressed. There was nothing wrong with sex in this society. Our Lady was after all a Fertility Goddess. However, Pebble had recently become enamoured of a young northern priest and recreational sex had lost its appeal, especially with this arrogant boaster. In any case, Handy liked to spread his largesse among the married women as well and this was severely frowned upon. Sex before marriage was fine but not in a way that threatened the home. Home represented family, procreation and an afterlife in the community of the ancestors. Threaten that and you threatened the whole society.

Flint was much more serious but he also had eyes for Pebble and got very upset when Handy made his unsubtle approaches to her.

"Pebbles are for rolling, you know," Handy would cry after her. "Let me roll you like the river and remove your sharp edges."

"No thanks," she would reply. "Pebbles have better uses. If you don't behave I'll cut off your 'pebbles'; and corbel them into the roof!"

The contrast between the two young men was not just in their manner. Handy was tall, muscular, handsome and knew it. Flint was shorter, rounder and severely lacking in confidence. He also lacked the other's facility in language. Pebble secretly thought he was inappropriately named. Flints were usually sharper.

It was a terrible sight that greeted Pebble and the Priest. Flint stood with his bloody hand axe held above his head. Handy lay sprawled at his feet bleeding from head wounds. They ran across and Pebble cradled the young man's head in her hands. He gave one last gasp and expired.

"You've killed him," the Priest cried.

"But I can't have," the other said. "He just fell over."

The Priest pointed to the blood on his hand axe.

"No!" the lad cried. "We were fighting but he was all right. On his feet. Then he just collapsed."

"The Community Meeting will decide your guilt or innocence," the Priest told him. "In the meantime come with me."

"Pebble! Please! Help me!" Flint cried as he was led away.

Some women might be quietly pleased to be the centre of so much attention, but not Pebble. She missed the young priest she had met at the last Spring festival but Mnajdra had beckoned and she had to go where the work took her. Anyway adolescent adulation had never appealed to her and the idea of young men fighting to the death over her was frankly disgusting. A terrible, pointless waste of life. She was also worried by the details of the scene she had just witnessed. Something wasn't right. They had certainly been fighting but Flint seemed an unlikely killer unless it had been an unlucky strike.

She returned to the body and again inspected the wounds. There was plenty of blood but no evidence of damage to the underlying skull. They were all flesh wounds. "Could that have killed him?" She next checked his airways. His nose was clear but when she looked in his mouth there was a strange sticky residue on his teeth and gums. Also, his breath smelled odd; sweet and sickly. She felt she should investigate further.

Cavesound asked the secular Chief to call a Community Meeting for the next day. It would decide Flint's fate, though the likely result was pretty obvious. He had been caught in the act. The temple was near the sea. There were plenty of convenient cliffs to throw the convicted off. In the meantime, a miserable Flint was confined to a small room to the rear of the upper temple. He almost cried when Pebble visited him.

"Please help me!" he begged.

"I don't know if I can. Tell me in your own words what happened."

He shrugged. "We hit each other. Both were bleeding but we were both on our feet. In truth we were exhausted and were taking an impromptu rest when you arrived. Then, without warning, Handy clutched his stomach, gasped and fell to the ground."

"Did he have any other enemies, apart from you?" she asked.

"He wasn't really my enemy," the youth answered.

"Don't be silly. You were fighting over me. Not, you understand, that either of you had any chance. But he teased you about it."

"All right! I did not like him but I didn't want to kill him."

"The look on your face during the fight tells me otherwise."

Flint burst into tears.

"Now, answer! Did he have any other enemies?" she demanded again.

Flint tried to pull himself together. "He was very popular with women," he said. "Even married ones."

"I had heard as much. Anyone in particular?"

The mason hesitated.

"Come on!" she commanded.

"All right. There had been a couple of married women. They were discrete but he wasn't. He was very boastful. The latest one was called Shining Light. The wife of a farmer.

"When did Handy last see her?"

"I had thought it was over between them and he had turned his attention back to you, but she came today and offered him food as a peace offering. He took the food but then arrogantly dismissed her. She cursed him and went away."

"When was this?"

"Just before we fought." The mason looked embarrassed. "He was very crude. He said her husband could have her back now and he would have you instead. You were younger and fresher. That's why I fought him."

"I can defend my own reputation, thank you. Did you eat any of the food?"

"No. He ate it all himself. The pig!"

Pebble told him he would be well advised to stop insulting the dead man but said she would see what she could do to help his case. He wept with gratitude.

By asking around she discovered the whereabouts of Shining Light's farmstead and walked down to the round house. Shining Light was thin and pretty in a worn down sort of way. One look at her and Pebble thought she could detect the very early stages of pregnancy - not that it really showed yet.

"Hello." she said smiling. " My names Pebble. I'm a sculptor from the temple. I'm here to talk about Handy."

"What about him?" the woman asked.

"Tell me, is the baby his or your husband's?"

The shocked girl let out a shriek. "Who told you?" she demanded.

"The whole workforce knows about you and the mason," Pebble said. "That you are pregnant is obvious to any woman. Is it his?"

The young woman shook her head. "In truth, I don't know. It could be either."

"How very careless," the sculptor replied.

"My husband would accept the baby if only Handy would keep quiet."

"You should choose your lovers with more care. Handy was always going to boast about his conquests."

The girl began to weep some more.

"So you poisoned him," Pebble stated bluntly.

The girl eyes widened and she wept deep sobs.

"Is he dead?" she asked.

"He is."

"I didn't ....." she began.

"Let's be honest," Pebble continued. "You did poison him though you might not have meant to kill him."

The girl eventually nodded her head.

"The question is did he deserve it ... and can we keep it a secret?"

Shining Light's mouth fell open. "Could you?" she asked, genuinely bemused.

"I don't know. My first duty is to save Flint's life as he is clearly innocent. To save yours is a secondary consideration. But there is the baby's life to consider. Let me think."

Pebble went back to the temple complex to see the Priest.

"Holiness," she said, "may I show you something? Things are not always what they seem." She took him to view the mason's body. "The injuries to his head are superficial. See? There is much blood but little damage. Do you remember, when we saw the fight, Handy clutched his stomach before he fell?"

The Priest slowly nodded his head.

"Look inside his mouth," Pebble continued. "He has been poisoned."

He examined the body and looked aghast.

"I think I know what happened," Pebble continued. "Handy had insulted one of the farmers. The wife had tried to intervene to keep the peace but he arrogantly insulted her as well. There had been mutual recriminations and her husband had threatened to fight him so the woman, who was pregnant and wanted to protect her husband, had made Handy food as a peace offering. She arrived just before the fight with Flint and Handy accepted it. Unfortunately in her haste it seems she accidentally picked the wrong herbs and one was poisonous. It would probably only have made him sick had he not been hot and bothered by the fight with Flint but it over-stimulated him and he died shortly after she had left. She knew nothing of his fate until I found her and told her. So, you see, Flint is innocent."

The old priest smiled. "I accept that this looks like poison so Flint is innocent, but the rest...? We all know Handy's reputation with married women. I can imagine the real reason why the husband was upset.  Still, you tell a good story. That's usually my job or the Chief's." He chuckled.

"Flint will be happy to be found innocent," Pebble explained. "The farmer will be happy to accept his new child. The woman is now happy with her husband and sorry for her mistake. No threat posed to the community as a whole. What better story for you or the Chief to tell?"

The Priest considered this for a long time.

"Handy was disruptive," he acknowledged. "I think it would be an even better story if he had picked the poisoned herb himself, by mistake. No need to involved the pregnant woman and risk the baby's life," he continued. "But you'll have to explain to Flint precisely what he has to say."

"I will," she promised.

They both smirked conspiratorially.

"But, of course, it will be for the Community meeting to decide," he said, winking at her.

 

End

 

David M. Smith's latest novel, which also features Pebble the sculptor, is called "Chasing Cloud: A Tarxian Novel", published by The Book Guild Ltd, and is available in paperback and Kindle from the publisher's website: (https://www.bookguild.co.uk/bookshop-collection/fiction/chasing-cloud-tarxian-novel/), Amazon and all good book sellers. He has published many short stories in different genres, including two on the Science Fiction pages of this website. He lives in Essex in England, has three children and one grandchild, so far.

 

 

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