Felmore had approached the first grassy slope with reluctance and trepidation. Once he climbed it there would be no coming back. All his long seasons as one of The People were at an end, and his brief future, his last few days of life were a mystery which would be revealed on the other side of the hills.
There were the boundary stones, standing where the smooth flat expanse of his homeland met the first swelling rise of the hills, they ringed the entire Plain. The Remembrancers told how they had been brought here by the Forebears longer ago than anyone could say, and set up to mark the limits of this land of the living. Smooth and hard, in shades of blue, pink, purple and orange, as tall as a man and set eighteen paces apart, the stones were totally unlike anything else in The Plain. The rock of which the hills were made was dark grey or black, and even down in the heart of The Plain where people had quarried for building stone it was a warm yellow.
No one had ever managed to count the stones. It took a full Tendays for the strongest of their Wardens to walk the boundary of The Plain, others less fit might take three times as long, and no matter how the count was made – some tried notching tally-sticks as they went; others marked a prepared calfskin sheet with their count at the end of each day; their Remembrancers, working in pairs, tried to memorise the numbers – the counters always ended up completely confused. From one attempt to the next the results were wildly different, and long ago The People had accepted it as the will of the Forebears, trusting it was part of their protecting power.
Nevertheless in each generation there were always those who made the attempt; not in a spirit of anger or revolt, but simply because the stones were there and trying to count them had become the way in which some young people chose to declare their readiness for the independence and responsibilities of adulthood. Afterwards they might even seek out those who had come to a similar count and make friends with them, but there was no serious rivalry between the resulting groups, it was a bonding between those who had used the stones to move beyond the years of childhood.
Felmore smiled as he remembered his own attempt to count them. He’d been so full of confidence, so sure his name would be remembered forever as the one who had finally succeeded in what had defeated everyone else. He’d persuaded his twice-mother to weave him a very long, narrow strip of cloth with all the crosswise threads cut separately. Then before he set out he’d counted the threads several times and when he’d come to the same to the same number three times he knew he was ready. He set off, pulling out a thread for each stone he passed. ‘Everyone tries to count them beginning from nothing,’ he’d explained. ‘I shall begin with the highest number ever counted and remove a thread for each stone. I shan’t need to remember any numbers, because when I finish, the number of threads left will tell me how many threads I’ve removed and so how many stones there are.’
He’d failed, of course. By the end of the sixth day he was having trouble pulling the threads properly. He could still relive the sick feeling which had swept through him when he saw three threads in his hand and knew he couldn’t be certain he’d not pulled more than one before. He’d completed the circle of the stones, but like everyone else he’d had to admit his failure to discover how many stones there were. He chuckled quietly. That failure on the threshold of adulthood was the most important lesson he’d ever had, as it was, of course for every other young man or woman who made the attempt.
But today was different. Today he was at the end of his life among The People. Today he must leave life behind and venture beyond The Plain, over the hills which had been the limit of everything he had known and experienced for the past eight tens. Only yesterday he had stood before the Elders in the very different, dark, stone circle known as The Heart and had made his last life choice as one of The People.
When they reached the end of their time many people chose to go to the caves in the Southern Hills and spent their last days in stillness and silence, content to be sealed within their cell when death had left their bodies empty shells. But he’d never been one of the contemplative kind, and when the Elders said, ‘Brother Felmore, we thank you for all you have given to The People during your life, your name will be remembered among us as a man of honour. But now at the age of eight tens your time among us has come to an end, how do you choose to leave us?’ he’d answered unhesitatingly, ‘I choose to leave The Plain, my homeland since I was brought into this life, and to find my final resting place over the hills.’
‘Do you understand that we cannot tell you what you will find beyond this place of life, what lies over the hills?’
‘Do you accept that at dawn tomorrow you must leave us forever, not to be seen among us again, and that there is no possibility of return.’
‘I do. I will make no attempt to return.’
‘We honour your choice and commit you to the Will of the Forebears in the belief that they will bring you to your resting place. You may spend the rest of this day sharing your last words with your family and friends; at night’s noon we will take you to the boundary stones where you will stand vigil until the sundisc rises. When the sundisc has passed into the clear sky you will pass beyond our land and go where the Forebears lead you.’
One by one the Elders had given him the blessing of life’s end, and he had returned to his home where his Last Feast had been prepared, and his wife and his children were gathered together with his friends.
It had been a hard day – yes, there had been laughter and many good memories had been shared, but there had been tears as well. At least no one had regrets to burden them in the coming days. As was their custom they’d already spent time putting the past to rights and saying all that was needful for the end of life. What was difficult for his family was not knowing what he might find over the hills, and where his remains would rest.
His wife had said, ‘I wish you could have chosen the cells. I would have followed you there, but I understand why you are unable to do that. For myself I shall lie within the Southern Hills.’
At night’s noon the Elders had come to his home and had escorted him here to his chosen place of departure. The dead – as those who had left their families for the last time were now called – could leave the Plain from the North, East or West, and Felmore, although he was at the end of his life wanted to face the rising sundisc as he crossed the limits of the land and went into the unknown.
At least it had been a warm, clear night, and as he had stood between two of the stones he had been able to look up at a star-spangled sky and offer his life to the Forebears without the discomfort of cold or rain. Now the light was growing, and the the first slither of the sundisc showed on the edge of the hill high above him. He took a deep breath, and as the disc cleared the horizon stepped forward and began to mount the slope.
An hour later he reached the summit, his heart pounding uncomfortably fast, but he kept his head down, watched his feet, and when he felt himself on level ground turned round. At last he admitted what he’d been denying within himself for the last season – he wasn’t tired of living, he felt full of life, he was still strong and had all his abilities, and although it was forbidden, he would look at his life’s home for one last time, regardless what the consequences might be, before he turned his back on it and took the unknown path to his death.
Seen from this height, the beauty of The Plain took his breath away. The pattern of woods, fields, open grassland and small lakes, scattered with the homes of The People, filled him with awe and wonder. ‘No wonder I loved our land,’ he thought. ‘It is beautiful beyond all imagining.’ He stood there as the sun rose into the mid-sky, absorbing every bit of it into his being and his memory. He might only have a day or two to live, but he would carry this with him and remember it with his last breath, wherever that might be.
As the sun reached day’s noon he closed his eyes, turned slowly round and with a trembling voice made his death-prayer. ‘Great Forebears, having completed my allotted time I have renounced The People among whom I was brought to life, and at your command have left my life and my home. Now I will face with what courage I can muster the death you will for me. Guide my steps and show me the resting place you have prepared for me.’
He opened his eyes, and gasped in complete astonishment. What was that shining blueness which filled his sight? What were the misty purple shapes on the furthest edge of seeing? Confused, he dropped his eyes, and took in the steep slopes below his feet, twice as far down as the Plain had been were wide woodlands, meadows and villages, and beyond them rose hills of sand and a wide shore with waves breaking all along its length.
‘I don’t understand, this isn’t the land of death!’ he thought, but a second later a new realisation swept over him: ‘Perhaps I don’t have to die yet! Maybe I can go on living!’ and as the joy of that thought flashed through him he hurried down the seaward slopes of the hill.
Felmore hesitated at the edge of a village which nestled below the fall of the hill. Coming down out of the trees he’d tumbled into a deep-cut lane which ran parallel to the woodshore, and when he’d picked himself up and brushed himself down he’d walked slowly along it, drawn by the smoke he could see rising from distant chimneys, and the sound of cheerful voices. ‘They don’t sound as solemn as they should,’ he thought. ‘I think I can hear little ones.’
Now he stood where the lane became a street, and watched six young children playing under a tree on a green. One of them turned her head and saw him, ‘Mama,’ she called over her shoulder, ‘there’s another dead man come.’
A woman hurried out of a cottage door and approached him with her hands held out, ‘Welcome, welcome. Please, come with me,’ and taking his arm she led him to a seat just outside her door. When she’d given him a drink she looked at him carefully, ‘I think I know your face. You’re Felmore, aren’t you?’ He nodded.
‘I’m afraid I don’t remember you,’ he said.
‘That’s alright. You don’t need to be afraid, we’ll explain everything to you soon. For now all you need to know is that you are most welcome. We are glad to have you among us. This day will be the beginning of your second life.’