The Gael Gates
Yawning, apprentice Llewellyn Gutraidh peered toward the hilltop, the night sky brilliant beyond the Henge, the lack of moon leaving the stars all the brighter. Crickets chirped at regular rhythm, and night birds called out for mates. A chill wind blew him the scents of grass, flowers, and trees.
Five large trilithons surrounded by thirty smaller trilithons made up the inner circle of Stonehenge on Alcyone, all the thirty-five post-and-lintel structures built with the native sarsen stone. Four stones stood at the edge of the ring, marking the monument boundaries, a station stone to each the east and west, a slaughter stone to the south, and a heel stone to the north.
Gnomes supposedly ruled these domains, Stonehenge their home. Llewellyn had never seen them and didn't expect to. A disciple of the Elemental Air, he studied the sylphs, his skill at summoning them meager as yet.
Not the most exciting of duties, the vigil at Stonehenge was taken by turns one night out of every fortnight, the apprentices disliking the duty almost as much as serving the slop. Standing beside the slaughter stone, Llewellyn pulled his cape tighter, trying to keep his senses alert, these night vigils especially difficult in the cold, when all a body wanted to do was sleep. He jerked his head back to attention, his eyelids desperately wanting to close.
Atop the hill, Stonehenge was outlined by the blue brilliance of several sisters, the Pleiades Constellation all young stars, none more than two hundred million years old, their multiple suns giving mutual light to their siblings' planets at all hours, the surface of Alcyone bathed in blue. Perched atop the largest trilithon, the main gate lintel easily twelve feet long, was sister Pleione, the pulsating star like a beacon marking the gate.
Llewellyn pinched his eyes shut as though to squeeze the sleep from them, then stifled another yawn.
A wraith slipped from the main gate and then was gone.
Startled, Llewellyn blinked up at the Henge, poised to run up the hill. A gnome? he wondered.
Nothing else moved.
Had he actually seen something, or was it an afterimage? An Elemental, perhaps?
"Proctor, you awake?" he asked on his com.
"What is it, Lew?" Medraut's voice was groggy with sleep.
"Thought I saw something come out of the main gate, but then it was gone."
"Wasn't a ghost on the inside of your eyelids, was it, Lad?"
"Don't think so, Sir." He might have taken umbrage at Proctor Medraut for implying he'd been asleep. Llewellyn continued to scan the area, seeing nothing untoward. The crickets chirped, the night birds called, and the wind blew.
A few minutes later, Proctor Medraut joined Llewellyn, still shrugging on his tunic. "Pleione throbs brightly tonight, I see. Shall we?" He gestured Llewellyn to take the lead.
The apprentice stepped over the invisible barrier they all knew as the Ring. Stonehenge was sacred ground, never to be entered unless necessary, and never alone. The grass inside the Ring was even-cut, remaining green throughout the year, always standing three inches exactly, maintained it was said by an invocation to the mythical Gwitihn.
The Henge stood atop a knoll that was so even, round, and symmetrical, that geologic forces couldn't have formed it. Llewellyn led the way up, keeping a sharp gaze on the main gate, the dewy grass soon dampening his sodhoppers.
The circular stand of trilithons comprising Stonehenge seemed menacing tonight, where during the day it stood sentinel over their domains like some ancient guardian god.
Nothing looked out of place as they approached the main gate, the south one. Three other slightly narrower gates at east, west, and north also looked empty. Intermediate gates in between, varying in height all the way down to half that of the main gate, stood quiescent as well, no sign to Llewellyn that any had been used in the last few minutes.
"Do you see that?" Proctor Medraut asked, his stare fixed to the main gate's lintel, a foot-thick slab ten feet long and two feet deep. How the ancients had lifted it eighteen feet above the ground was an enigma.
"See what, Proctor?" Llewellyn extended his senses as he'd been taught, seeing with not just his eyes, but with his entire being. There, a spark. At head height, in the center of the gate, a dim aura, a slight warming, as though someone's passage had left a wraith of the person's presence.
"A spark," Medraut said.
"Yes, faint, but there."
"It's nothing," the Proctor suddenly said, shaking his head. "You were sleeping again, Lew."
This time he did take umbrage. "I wasn't, I swear!"
"You were, and you know it, and you're to serve the slop until your next turn at vigil."
"But that's two weeks," he protested.
"Would you like it a month?" Medraut turned and descended the hill.
Leaving Llewellyn gasping in his wake like a fish out of water.
Serving slop in the kitchen for two weeks would subject him to the calumny of his peers. They'd all excoriate him. Further, it'd be the last time anyone would wake the Proctor. Fat lot of good vigil at the Henge would do their enclave if none of the sentinels raised the alarm. It wasn't how Llewellyn would run things.
His back to the main gate, he watched contemptuously as Medraut made his way down the hill and across the Ring, leaving Llewellyn inside the ring, alone.
A surreal force seized Llewellyn's shoulders and yanked him backward into the gate.
Captain Niamh Lozac'h of Alrakis stared up at the hill toward Göbekli Tepe, one of two guards patrolling the stand of stele, the capped stones like a small forest of nearly two hundred pillars. In the night sky above her, Gamma Draconis blazed, her orange light bathing the dry, rocky hilltop.
A veteran warrior and pilot, Niamh didn't mind the occasional nighttime duty. In her thirties, she had long ago lost the impatience of youth, which her younger companion guard still possessed in blunderous abundance. Also unlike her, he was not Galatian, his home world a temperate planet farther along the Orion Spur.
"It's cold out here, by Idris," Phelan said through chattering teeth, huddling in the lee of the guard kiosk.
"It won't be Idris who keeps you safe." Niamh swept the stele with her gaze, ever vigilant. The last war with the Eltanin tribes had started with their pouring through the Göbekli gates. It wasn't going to happen on her shift, she vowed, having lost her sister and brother in the intense fighting that'd followed. Alrakis ships eventually had pulverized the Eltanin Navy, but the first attack had come not by ship, but by warrior pouring through the Gael Gates of Göbekli Tepe. Any lapse in vigilance was an invitation for another attack.
Water was this monument's patron Elemental, and undines purportedly called it home. Captain Lozac'h had never seen an undine. Not a Druid, uninitiated into the Druidic Mysteries, she didn't expect to. She thought it odd that water was the patron Elemental on a desert planet. Undines seemed no help in making the planet more habitable.
"I'm going to walk the perimeter," she told Phelan. "You go the other direction, meet me on the other side."
He snorted dismissively. "And freeze my cherries? No thanks, Captain."
"It's clear they've already shriveled," Niamh replied. "Suit yourself." And she strode into the darkness to the east, her gaze sweeping the forest of perpendicular stones again. Pulling her jacket tight, she commed base command to alert them she was walking the perimeter.
Many of the stele capped, the twenty circles of stones had stood sentinel on Alrakis for nearly a thousand years, serving as gates between worlds since ancient times. How they worked was a technology long lost to the Federation, but that hadn't kept the Gaels from using the gates. Only the Druids knew how to use them, pilots like Niamh flying between worlds by conventional A-warp starship.
On her last command of the battleship Tylwyth Teg, Captain Niamh Lozac'h had led the attack on Eltanin itself, just after learning of her brother's death. Her grief had fueled a ferocious attack, the assault considered the decisive battle credited with bringing the war to an early end.
Niamh glanced back once at the guard kiosk, seeing Phelan only by the misting of his breath. The quality of soldier these days, she thought, disgusted. She knew she was rare among her colleagues to take duties such as this, most of them simply paying a midshipman or cadet to do their patrol for them.
While never one to shirk a duty, Niamh was here for another reason. The stele had always fascinated her, the Henge like its counterparts along the Orion Spur drawing her since childhood. A precocious child, she'd grown up just north of Göbekli Tepe and had considered a Druid apprenticeship. There were no female Druids on Alrakis, her father had pointed out, and so Niamh had pursued her second choice.
She stopped at the eastern terminus of Göbekli Tepe and looked up at the stars, trying to pick out the other Henge systems—Pleiades, Ophiuchus, Puppis, Gamma Doradus, and Tucana.
Movement among the stele caught her eye. An undine? she wondered, scanning.
Senses tuned, Niamh slowly widened her scan of the circles, only the westernmost stele occluded by the hill. No movement, nothing untoward.
Still, the sense of a presence wouldn't leave her. I couldn't have seen an undine, she thought, not Druid initiate, nor even a believer. "Phelan," she commed, "I thought I saw something up here. You see anything down there?"
"All clear, Captain."
"Time to walk the perimeter, Cadet, whether you have the cherries for it or not."
"Yes, Sir," he replied.
At least he didn't resist, she thought, eyes quartering the stand of stele. The gates only opened between two stele with capstones, which about half the stele had. Although varied in height, all the stele were nearly identical in width and depth, one foot by two feet. A divine dimension, according to Druid Finnán Cadeyrn, Counselor to the Potentate of Alrakis, Dylan MacAskill, and Chief of the Gates at Göbekli Tepe.
After a few minutes, seeing nothing, Niamh continued around the perimeter toward the northern terminus, where a pair of stele without capstones stood sentinel, soaring to sixteen feet. She sighted along them to Gamma Draconis, the orange pinprick bright enough to tint the rocky ground at her feet, but not enough to wash away the night.
She brought her gaze down to the central ring of stones capping the hilltop, where all the stele had capstones. Also of varying height, these stele stood between ten and twenty-five feet, their capstones of proportionate length and balanced precariously. Comprised of ten stones each, the twenty rings varied in size, one large ring at the center, five medium rings surrounding it, and fourteen small rings encircling them all.
A wraith appeared between two stele and was gone.
Startled, Niamh half-crouched, ready to pursue at the first sign of motion, despite the ancient admonition never to enter Göbekli Tepe alone. The Tepe was sacred ground, never to be entered unless necessary, and never alone. She hadn't seen enough of the wraith to describe it. Besides, what did an undine even look like? she wondered. "Phelan, I saw something again, center ring, between the northernmost pair."
"I'll be right there."
He too knew the admonition, inculcated at an early age wherever a Henge did stand.
She'd always wondered if the admonition weren't the Druids' way of keeping their nocturnal travels clandestine. Fairies and Goblins were rumored to snatch people too foolish to ignore the taboo.
Silence seemed to have settled upon the monument, the megaliths as lifeless as death. Where before cold gusts had blown, now the air was completely still. Not a cricket dared to chirp nor bird to trill.
The crunch of Phelan's boots on ground approached.
Niamh kept her gaze on the two stele where she'd seen the wraith.
"Between those two?" He pointed.
"Aye," she said, slipping back into her childhood dialect. "Keep a watch while I check my arms. Have you ever seen an undine?"
"Never have. Druid Cadeyrn says they're a mischievous bunch."
Phelan's gaze on the stele, Niamh checked her blaster charge, beside it her sword. A large, heavy, two-handed bludgeon, the sword had been her father's, and his father's, and his father's before then, she the first female in six generations to wear it. Blaster in hand, she signaled that he check his own while she kept her gaze on the stele.
With a nod between them, they crept into Göbekli Tepe, backs to each other in a half-crouch, blasters held ready at shoulder. They circled one small outer ring, neither wanting to pass through it. They skirted a medium ring and approached the northernmost stele of the large inner ring.
They stopped just a foot away from the gate, the capstones nearly meeting in the middle twenty feet above them atop the stele on either side.
"This is ridiculous," Phelan said, snorting in contempt, holstering his weapon.
"Eh? Have you lost your mind?"
"No, in fact, it's clear you've lost yours. There's nothing here." Abruptly, he turned and went the way they'd come.
Stunned, disbelieving, Niamh stared after him, her back to the gate, her mouth working, her brain stumbling in its attempt to formulate words.
Suction grabbed her at nape and waistband and yanked her backward into the gate.