(Read Robert’s introduction to this story.)
In the darkness, in the world of nightmares, she sang a little song. In her small room, behind the drawn curtains, her voice was tiny, frightened, murmuring in her sleep:
Oh dear mother what a fool I’ve been …
Three young fellows … came courting me …
Two were blind … the other couldn’t see …
Oh dear mother what a fool I’ve been …
Tuneless, timeless, endlessly repeated through the night, soon the nightmare grew worse and she tossed below the bedclothes, and called out for her mother, louder and louder. Mother! Mother! until she sat up, gasping for breath and screaming.
‘Hush, child. I’m here. I’m beside you. Quiet now. Go back to sleep.’
‘I’m frightened, I’m frightened. I had a terrible dream …’
Her mother hugged her, sitting on the bed, rocking back and forward, wiping the sweat and the fear from her face. ‘Hush … hush, now. It was just a dream …’
The blind man,’ she whispered, and shook as she thought of it so that her mother’s grip grew firmer, more reassuring. ‘The blind man. He’s coming again …’
‘Just a dream, child. There’s nothing to be frightened of. Close your eyes and go back to sleep, now. Sleep, child… sleep. There. That’s better.’
Still she sang, her voice very small, very faint as she drifted mo sleep again. ‘Three young fellows … came courting me … we was blind … one was grim … one had creatures following him …
‘Hush, child …’
Waking with a scream: ‘Don’t let him take me!’
None of the children in the village really knew one festival day from another. They were told what to wear, and told what to do, and told what to eat, and when the formalities were over they would rush away to their secret camp, in the shadow of the old church.
Lord’s Eve was different, however. Lord’s Eve was the best of the festivals. Even if you didn’t know that a particular day would be Lord’s Eve day, the signs of it were in the village.
Ginny knew the signs by heart. Mr Box, at the Red Hart, would spend a day cursing as he tried to erect a tarpaulin in the beer garden of his public house. Here, the ox would be slaughtered and roasted, and the dancers would rest. At the other end of the village Mr Ellis, who ran the Bush and Briar, would put empty firkins outside his premises for use as seats. The village always filled with strangers during the dancing festivals, and those strangers drank a lot of beer.
The church was made ready too. Mr and Mrs Morton, usually never to be seen out of their Sunday best, would dress in overalls and invade the cold church with brooms, brushes and buckets. Mr Ashcroft, the priest, would garner late summer flowers, and mow and trim the graveyard. This was a dangerous time for the children, since he would come perilously close to their camp, which lay just beyond the iron gate that led from the churchyard. Here, between the church and the earth walls of the old Saxon fort – in whose ring the village had been built – was a tree-filled ditch, and the children’s camp had been made there. The small clearing was close to the path which led from the church, through the earth wall and out onto the farmland beyond.
There were other signs of the coming festival day, however, signs from outside the small community. First, the village always seemed to be in shadow. Yet distantly, beyond the cloud cover, the land seemed to glow with eerie light. Ginny would stand on the high wall by the church, looking through the crowded trees that covered the ring of earthworks, staring to where the late summer sun was setting its fire on Whitley Nook and Middleburn. Movement on the high valley walls above these villages was just the movement of clouds, and the fields seemed to flow with brightness.
The wind always blew from Whitley Nook towards Ginny’s own village, Scarrowfell. And on that wind, the day before the festival of Lord’s Eve, you could always hear the music of the dancers as they wended their way along the riverside, through and round the underwood, stopping at each village to collect more dancers, more musicians (more hangovers) ready for the final triumph at Scarrowfell itself.
The music drifted in and out of hearing, a hint of a violin, the distant clatter of sticks, the faint jingle of the small bells with which the dancers decked out their clothes. When the wind gusted, whole phrases of the jaunty music could be heard, a rhythmic sound, with the voices of the dancers clearly audible as they sang the words of the folk songs.
Ginny, precariously balanced on the top of the wall, would jig with those brief rhythms, hair blowing in the wind, one hand holding on to the dry bark of an ash branch.
The dancers were coming; all the Oozers and the Pikers and the Thackers, coming to join the village’s Scarrowmen; and it was therefore the day of Lord’s Eve: the birds would flock and wheel in the skies, and flee along the valley too. And sure enough, as she looked up into the dark sky over Scarrowfell, the birds were there, thousands of them, making streaming, spiral patterns in the gloom. Their calling was inaudible. But after a while they streaked north, away from the bells, away from the sticks, away from the calling of the Oozers.
Kevin Symonds came racing round the grey-walled church, glanced up and saw Ginny and made frantic beckoning motions.
‘Gargoyle!’ he hissed, and Ginny almost shouted as she lost her balance before jumping down from the wall. ‘Gargoyle’ was their name for Mr Ashcroft, the priest. A second after they had squeezed beyond the iron gate and into the cover of the scrub the old man appeared. But he was busy placing rillygills – knots of flowers and wheat stalks – on each gravestone and didn’t notice the panting children just beyond the cleared ground, where the thorn and ash thicket was so dense.
Ginny led the way into the clear space among the trees in the ditch. She stepped up the shallow earth slope to peer away into the field beyond, and the circle of tall elms that grew at its centre. A scruffy brown mare – probably one of Mr Box’s drays — was kicking and stamping across the field, a white foal stumbling behind it. She was so intent on watching the foal that she didn’t notice Mr Box himself, emerging from the ring of trees. He was dressed in his filthy blue apron but walked briskly across the field towards the church, his gaze fixed on the ground. Every few paces he stopped and fiddled with something on the grass. He never looked up, walked through the gap in the earthworks — the old gateway — and passed, by doing so, within arm’s reach of where Ginny and Kevin breathlessly crouched. He walked straight ahead, stopped at the iron gate, inspected it, then moved off around the perimeter of the church, out of sight and out of mind.
‘They’ve got the ox on the spit already,’ Kevin said, his eyes bright, his lips wet with anticipation. ‘It’s the biggest ever. There’s going to be at least two slices each.’
‘Yuck!’ said Ginny, feeling sick at the thought of the grey, greasy meat.
‘And they’ve started the bonfire. You’ve got to come and see it. It’s going to be huge! My mother said it’s going to be the biggest yet.’
‘I usually scrub potatoes for fire-baking,’ Ginny said. ‘But I haven’t been asked this year.’
‘Sounds as if you’ve been lucky,’ Kevin said. ‘It’s going to be a really big day. The biggest ever. It’s very special.’
Ginny whispered, ‘My mother’s been behaving strangely. And I’ve had a nightmare …’
Kevin watched her, but when no further information or explanation seemed to be forthcoming he said, ‘My mother says this is the most special Lord’s Eve of them all. An old man’s coming back to the village.’
‘What old man?’
‘His name’s Cyric, or something. He left a long time ago, but he’s coming back and everybody’s very excited. They’ve been trying to get him to come back for ages, but he’s only just agreed. That’s what Mum says, anyway.’
‘What’s so special about him?’
Kevin wasn’t sure. ‘She said he’s a war hero, or something.’
‘Ugh!’ Ginny wrinkled her nose in distaste. ‘He’s probably going to be all scarred.’
‘Or blind!’ Kevin agreed, and Ginny’s face turned white.
A third child wriggled through the iron gate and skidded into the depression between the earth walls, dabbing at his face where he had scratched himself on a thorn.
‘The tower!’ Mick Ferguson whispered excitedly, ignoring his graze. ‘While old Gargoyle is busy placing the rillygills.’
They moved cautiously back to the churchyard, then crawled towards the porch on their bellies, screened from the priest by the high earth mounds over each grave. Ducking behind the memorial stones – but not touching them – they at last found sanctuary in the freshly polished, gloomy interior. Despite the cloud-cover, light was bright from the stained-glass windows. The altar, with its flowers, looked somehow different from normal. The Mortons were cleaning the font, over in the side chapel; a bucket of well-water stood by ready to fill the bowl. They were talking as they worked and didn’t hear the furtive movement of the three children.
Kevin led the way up the spiralling, footworn steps and out onto the cone-shaped roof of the church’s tower. They averted their eyes from the grotesque stone figure that guarded the doorway, although Kevin reached out and touched its muzzle as he always did.
‘For luck,’ he said. ‘My mother says the stone likes affection as much as the rest of us. If it doesn’t get attention it’ll prowl die village at night and choose someone to kill.’
‘Shut up,’ Ginny said emphatically, watching the monster from die corner of her eye.
Michael laughed. ‘Don’t be such a scaredy-hare,’ he said and reached out to jingle the small bell that hung around her neck. Her ghost bell.
‘It’s a small bell and that’s a big stone demon,’ Ginny pointed out nervously. Why was she so apprehensive this time, she wondered? She had often been up here and had never doubted that the stone creature, like all demons, could not attack the faithful, and that bells, books and candles were protection enough from the devil’s minions.
The nightmare had upset her. She remembered Mary Whitelock’s nightmare a few years before — almost the same dream, confided in the gang as they had feasted on stolen pie in their camp. She had not really liked Mary. All the same, when she had suddenly disappeared, after the festival, Ginny had felt very confused …
No! Put the thought from your mind, she told herself sternly. And brazenly she turned and stared at the medieval monstrosity that sat watching the door to the church below. And she laughed, because it was only frightening when you imagined how awful it was. In fact, it looked faintly ludicrous, with its gaping V-shaped mouth and lolling tongue, and its pointed ears, and skull cheeks, and its one great staring eye … and one gouged socket …
Below them, the village was a bustle of activity. In the small square in front of the church the bonfire was rising to truly monumental heights. Other children were helping to heap the faggots and broken furniture onto the pile. A large stake in its centre was being used to hold the bulk of wood in place.
Away from where this fire would blaze, a large area was being roped off for the dancing. The gate from the church had already been decked with wild roses and lilies. The Gargoyle himself always led the congregation from the Lord’s Eve service out to the festivities in the village. Ginny giggled at the remembered sight of him, dark cassock held up to his knees, white bony legs kicking and hopping along with the Oozers and the local Scarrowmen, a single bell on each ankle making him look as silly as she always thought he was.
At the far end of the village, the road from Whitley Nook cut through the south wall of the old earth fort and snaked between the cluster of tiled cottages where Ginny herself lived. Here, two small fires had been set alight, one on each side of the valley. On the church tower the three children enjoyed the smell of the burning wood. And as they listened they heard the music of the dancers, even now winding their way between Middleburn and Whitley Nook.
They would be here tomorrow. Sunlight picked out the white of their costumes, miles distant; and the flash of swords flung high in the air.
The Oozers were coming. The Thackers were coming. The wild dance was coming.
She awoke with a shock, screaming out, then becoming instantly silent as she stared at the empty room and the bright daylight creeping in above the heavy curtains of her room.
What time was it? Her head was full of music, the jangle of bells, the beating of the skin drums, the clash and thud of the wooden hobby poles. But now, outside, all was silent.
She swung her legs from the bed, then began to shiver as unpleasant echoes of that haunting song, the nightmare song, came back to her.
She found that she could not resist muttering the words that stalked her sleeping hours. It was as if she had to repeat the sinister refrain before her body would allow her to move again, to become a child again …
‘Oh dear mother … three young men … two were blind … the third couldn’t see … oh mother, oh mother … grim-eyed courtiers … blind men dancing … creatures followed him, creatures dancing …’
The church bell rang out, a low repeated toll, five strikes and then a sixth strike, a moment delayed from the rest.
Five strikes for the Lord, and one for the fire! It couldn’t be that time. It couldn’t! Why hadn’t mother come in to wake her?
Ginny ran to the curtains and pulled them back, staring out into the deserted street, crawling up onto the window ledge so that she could lean through the top window and stare up towards the square.
It was full of motionless figures. And distantly she could hear the chanting of the congregation. The Lord’s Eve service had already started. Started! The procession had already passed the house, and she had been aware of it only in her half sleep!
She screeched with indignation, fleeing from her bedroom into the small sitting room. By the clock on the mantelpiece she learned that it was after midday. She had slept . . . she had slept fifteen hours!
She grabbed her clothes, pulled them on, not bothering with her hair but making a token effort to polish her shoes. It was Lord’s Eve. She had to be smart today. She couldn’t find her bell necklace. She had on a flowered dress and red shoes. She pulled a pink woollen cardigan over her shoulders, grabbed at her frilly hat, stared at it, then tossed it behind the hat rack … and fled from the house.
She ran up the road to the church square, following the path that, earlier, the column of dancers must have taken. She felt tears in her eyes, tears of dismay, and anger, and irritation. Every year she watched the procession from her garden. Every year! Why hadn’t mother woken her?
She loved the procession, the ranks of dancers in their white coats and black hats, the ribbons, the flowers, the bells tied to ankle, knee and elbow, the men on the hobby horses, the fools with their pigs’ bladders on sticks, the women in their swirling skirts, the Thackers, the Pikermen, the Oozers, the black-faced Scarrowmen … all of them came through the smouldering fires at the south gate, each turning and making the sign of peace before jigging and hopping on along the road, keeping time to the beat of the drum, the melancholy whine of the violin, the sad chords of the accordion, the trill of the whistles.
And she had missed it! She had slept! She had remained in the world of nightmares, where the shadowy blind pursued her …
As she ran she screamed her frustration!
She stopped at the edge of the square, catching her breath, looking for Kevin, or Mick, or any others of the small gang that had their camp in the earthen walls of the old fort. She couldn’t see them. She cast her gaze over the ranks of silent dancers. They were spread out across the square, lines of men and women facing the lych-gate and the open door of the church. They stood in absolute silence. They hardly seemed to breathe. Sometimes, as she brushed past one of them, working her way towards the church where Gargoyle’s voice was an irritating drone in the distance, sometimes a tambourine would rattle, or an accordion would sigh a weary note. The man holding it would glance and smile at her, but she knew better than to disturb the Scarrowmen when the voice was speaking from the church.
She passed under the rose and lily gate, ducked her head and made the sign of peace, then scampered into the porch and edged towards the gloomy, crowded interior.
The priest was at the end of his sermon, the usual boring sermon for the feast day.
‘We have made a pledge,’ Mr Ashcroft was intoning. ‘A pledge of belief in a life after death, a pledge of belief in a God which is greater than humankind itself …’
She could see Kevin, standing and fidgeting between his parents, four pews forward in the church. Of Michael there was no sign. And where was mother? At the front, almost certainly …
‘We believe in the resurrection of the Dead, and in a time of atonement. We have made a pledge with those who have died before us, a pledge that we will be reunited with them in the greater Glory of our Lord.’
‘Kevin!‘ Ginny hissed. Kevin fidgeted. The priest droned on.
‘We have pledged all of this, and we believe all of this. Our time in the physical realm is a time of trial, a time of testing, a testing of our honour and our belief, a belief that those who have gone are not gone at all, but merely waiting to be rejoined with us …’
‘Kevin!‘ she called again. ‘Kevin!‘
Her voice carried too loudly. Kevin glanced round and went white. His mother glanced round too, then jerked his attention back to the service, using a lock of his curly hair as her means. His cry was audible to the Gargoyle himself, who hesitated before concluding,
‘This is the brightness behind the feast of the Lord’s Eve. Think not of the Death, but of the Life our Lord will bring us.’
Where was her mother?
Before she could think further someone’s hand tugged at her shoulder, pulling her back towards the porch of the church. She protested and glanced up, and the solemn face of Mr Box stared down at her. ‘Go outside, Ginny,’ he said. ‘Go outside, now.’ Inside, the congregation had begun to recite the Lord’s Prayer.
He pushed her towards the rose gate, beyond which the Oozers and Scarrowmen waited for the service to end. She walked forlornly towards them, and as she passed the man who stood closest to her she struck at his tambourine. The tambours jangled loudly in the still, summer square.
The man didn’t move. She stood and stared defiantly at him, then struck his tambourine again.
‘Why don’t you dance?’ she shrieked at him. When he ignored her, she shouted again. ‘Why don’t you make music? Make music! Dance in the square! Dance!’ Her voice was a shrill cry.
There was no twilight. Late afternoon became dark night in a few minutes and a torch was put to the fire, which flared dramatically and silenced all activity. Glowing embers streamed into a starless sky and the village square became choking with the sweet smell of burning wood. The last smells of the roasted ox were banished and in the grounds of the Red Lion the skeleton of the beast was hacked apart. A few pence each for the bones with their meaty fragments. In front of the Bush and Briar Mr Ellis swept up a hundredweight of broken glass. Mick Ferguson led a gang of children, chasing an empty barrel down the street, towards the south gate where the fires still smouldered.
For a while the dancing had ceased. People thronged about the fire. Voices were raised in the public houses as dancers and tourists alike struggled to get in fresh orders for ale. A sort of controlled chaos ruled the day, and in the centre of it: the fire, its light picking out stark details on the grey church and the muddy green in the square. Beyond the sheer rise of the church tower, all was darkness, although men in white shirts and black hats walked through the lych-gate and rounded the church, talking quietly, dispersing as they re-emerged into the square. Here, they again picked up sticks, or tambourines, or other instruments of music and mock war.
Ginny wandered among them.
She could not find her mother.
And she knew that something was wrong, very wrong indeed.
It came as scant reassurance when a bearded youth called to the Morrissmen again, and twelve sturdy men, all of them strangers to Scarrowfell, jangled their way from the Bush and Briar to the dancing square. There was laughter, tomfoolery with the cudgels they carried, and the whining practice notes of the accordion. Then they filed into a formation, jiggled and rang their legs, laughed once more and began to hop to the rhythm of a dance called the Cuckoo’s Nest. A man in a baggy, flowery dress and with a big frilly bonnet on his head sang the rude words. The singer was a source of great amusement since he sported a bushy, ginger beard. He wore an apron over the frock and every so often lifted the pinny to expose a long red balloon strapped between his legs. It had eyes and eyelashes painted on its tip. The audience roared each time he did this.
As Ginny moved through the fair towards the new focus of activity, Mick Ferguson approached her, grinned, and went into his Hunchback of Notre Dame routine, stooping forward, limping in an exaggerated fashion and crying, ‘The bells. The bells. The jingling bells . . .’
‘Mick …’ Ginny began, but he had already flashed her a nervous grin and bolted off into the confusing movement of the crowds, running towards the fire and finally disappearing into the gloom beyond.
Ginny watched him go. Mick, she thought … Mick … why?
What was going on?
She walked towards the dancers and the bearded singer and Kevin turned round nervously and nodded to her. The man sang:
‘Some like a girl who is pretty in the face
And some like a girl who is slender in the waist…’
‘I missed the procession,’ Ginny said. ‘I wasn’t woken up.’
Kevin stared at her, looking unhappy. He said, ‘My mother told me not to talk to you…’
She waited, but Kevin had decided that discretion was the better part of cowardice.
‘Why not?’ she asked, disturbed by the statement.
‘You’re being denied,’ the boy murmured.
Ginny was shocked. ‘Why am I being denied? Why me?’
Kevin shrugged. Then a strange look came into his eyes, a horrible look, a man’s look, arrogant, sneering.
The man in the hideous dress sang:
‘But give me a girl who will wriggle and will twist
Each time I slap my hand upon her cuckoo’s nest…’
Kevin backed away from Ginny, making ‘cuckoo’ sounds.
‘It’s a rude song,’ Ginny said.
Kevin taunted, ‘You’re a cuckoo. You’re a cuckoo …’
‘I don’t know what it means,’ Ginny said, bewildered.
‘Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo,’ Kevin mocked, then jabbed her in the groin. He cackled horribly then raced away towards the blazing bonfire. Ginny had tears in her eyes, but her anger was so intense that the tears dried. She glared at the singer, still not completely aware of what was going on except that she knew the song was rude because of the guffaws of the adult men in the watching circle. After a moment she slipped away towards the church.
She stood within the lych-gate watching the flickering of the fire, the highlit faces of the crowds, the restless movement, the jigging and hopping … hearing the laughter, and the music, and the distant wind that was fanning the fire and making the flames bend violently and dangerously towards the south. And she wondered where, in all this chaos, her mother might have been.
Mother had been so supportive to her, so gentle, so kind. During the nights when the nightmare had been a terrible presence in the house by the old road, where Ginny had lived since her real parents had died in the fire, during those terrible nights the Mother had been so comforting. Ginny had come to think of her as her own mother, and all grief, all sadness had faded fast.
Where was the Mother? Where was she?
She saw Mr Box, walking slowly through the crowds, a baked potato in one hand and a glass of beer in the other. She ran to him and tugged at his jacket. He nearly choked on his potato and glanced round urgently, but soon her voice reached him and, although he frowned, he stooped down towards her. He threw the remnants of his potato away and placed his glass upon the ground.
‘Hello Ginny …’ He sounded anxious.
‘Mr Box. Have you seen mother?’
Again he looked uncomfortable. His kindly face was a mask of worry. His moustache twitched. ‘You see … she’s getting the reception ready.’
‘What reception?’ Ginny asked.
‘Why, for Cyric, of course. The war hero. The man who’s coming back to us. He’s finally agreed to return to the village. He was supposed to have come three years ago, but he couldn’t make it.’
‘I don’t care about him,’ she said. ‘Where’s mother?’
Mr Box placed a comforting hand on her shoulder and shook his head. ‘Can’t you just play, child? It’s what you’re supposed to do. I’m just a pub landlord. I’m not part of the Organisers. You shouldn’t even … you shouldn’t even be talking to me.’
‘I’m being denied,’ she whispered.
‘Yes,’ he said sadly.
‘Where’s mother?’ Ginny demanded.
‘An important man is coming back to the village,’ Mr Box said. ‘A great hero. It’s a great honour for us … and . . .’ He hesitated before adding, in a quiet voice, ‘And what he’s bringing with him is going to make this village more secure …’
‘What is he bringing?’ Ginny asked.
‘A certain knowledge,’ Mr Box said, then shrugged. ‘It’s all I know. Like all the villages around here, we’ve had to fight to keep out the invader, and it’s a hard fight. We’ve all been waiting a long rime for this night, Ginny. A very long time. We made a pledge to this man. A long rime ago, when he fought to save the village. Tonight we’re honouring that pledge. All of us have a part to play …’
Ginny frowned. ‘Me too?’ she asked, and was astonished to see large tears roll down each of Mr Box’s cheeks.
‘Of course you too, Ginny,’ he whispered, and seemed to choke on the words. ‘I’m surprised that you don’t know. I always thought the children knew. But the way these things work … the rules …’ He shook his head again. ‘I’m not privileged to know.’
‘But why is everybody being so horrible to me?’ Ginny said.
‘Mick,’ she said. ‘And Kevin. He called me a cuckoo …’
Mr Box smiled. ‘They’re just teasing you. They’ve been told something of what will happen this evening and they’re jealous.’
He straightened up and took a deep breath. Ginny watched him, his words sinking in slowly. She said, ‘Do you mean what will happen to me this evening?’
He nodded. ‘You’ve been chosen,’ he whispered to her. ‘When your parents were killed, the Mother was sent to you to prepare you. Your role tonight is a very special one. Ginny, that’s all I know. Now go and play, child. Please …’
He looked suddenly away from her, towards the dancers. Ginny followed his gaze. Five men, two of whom she recognised, were watching them. One of them shook his head slightly and Mr Box’s touch on Ginny’s shoulder went away. A woman walked towards them, her dress covered with real flowers, her face like stone. Mr Box pushed Ginny away roughly. As she scampered for safety she could hear the sound of the woman’s blows to Mr Box’s cheek.
The fire burned. Long after it should have been a glowing pile of embers, it was still burning. Long after they should have been exhausted, the Scarrowmen danced. The night air was chill, heavy with smoke, bright with drifting sparks. It echoed to the jingle of bells and the clatter of cudgels. Voices drifted on the wind; there was laughter; and round and round the Morrismen danced.
Soon they had formed into a great circle, stretched around the fire and jigging fast and furious to the strident, endless rhythm of drums and violin. All the village danced, and the strangers too, men and women in anoraks and sweaters, and children in woolly hats, and teenagers in jeans and leather jackets, all of them mixed up with the white-and-black clothed Oozers, Pikers, Thackers and the rest.
Round the burning fire, stumbling and tottering, shrieking with mirth as a whole segment of the ring tumbled in the mud. Round and round.
The bells, the hammering of sticks, the whine of the violin, the Jack Tar sound of the accordion.
And at ten o’clock the whole wild dance stopped.
The men reached down and took the bells from their legs, cast them into the fire. The cudgels, too, were thrown onto the flames. The violins were shattered on the ground, the fragments tossed into the conflagration.
The accordions wept music as they were slung onto the pyre.
Flowers out of hair. Bonnets from heads. Rose and lily were stripped off the lych-gate. The air filled suddenly with a sharp, aromatic scent… of herbs, woodland herbs.
In the silence Ginny walked towards the church, darted through the gate into the darkness of the graveyard … Round between the long mounds to the iron gate …
Kevin was there. He ran towards her, his eyes wide, wild. ‘He’s coming!’ he hissed, breathlessly.
‘What’s going on?’ she whispered.
‘Where are you going?’ he said.
‘To the camp. I’m frightened. They’ve stopped dancing. They’re burning their instruments. This happened three years ago when Mary … when … you know …’
‘Why are you so frightened?’ Kevin asked. His eyes were bright from the distant glow of the bonfire. ‘What are you running from, Ginny? Tell me. Tell me. We’re friends… ‘
‘Something is wrong,’ she sobbed. She found herself clutching at the boy’s arms. ‘Everybody is being so horrible to me. You were horrible to me. What have I done? What have I done?’
He shook his head. The flames made his dark eyes gleam. She had her back to the square. Suddenly he looked beyond her. Then he smiled. He looked at her.
‘Goodbye, Ginny,’ he whispered.
She turned. Kevin darted past her and into the great mob of masked men who stood around her. They had come upon her so quietly that she had not heard a thing. Their faces were like black pigs. Eyes gleamed, mouths grinned. They wore white and black … the Scarrows.
Unexpectedly, Kevin began to whine. Ginny thought he was being punished for being out of bounds. She listened, and then for one second … just one second … all was stillness, all was silence, anticipation. Then she reacted as any sensible child would react in the situation.
She opened her mouth and screamed. The sound had barely echoed in the night air when a hand clamped firmly across her face, a great hand, strong, stifling her cry. She struggled and pulled away, turned and kicked until she realised it was the Mother that she fought against. She was no longer wearing her rowan beads, or her iron charm. She seemed naked without them. Her dress was green and she held Ginny firmly still. ‘Hold quiet, child. Your time is soon.’
The iron gate was open. Ginny peered through it, into the darkness, through the grassy walls of the old fort and towards the circle of great elms.
There was a light there, and the light was coming closer. And ahead of that light there was a wind, a breeze, ice cold, tinged with a smell that was part sweat, part rot, and unpleasant in the extreme. She grimaced and tried to back away, but the Mother’s hands held her fast. She glanced over her shoulder, towards the square, and felt her body tremble as the Scarrows stared beyond her, into the void of night.
Two of the Scarrows held tall, hazel poles, each wrapped round with strands of ivy and mistletoe. They stepped forward and held the poles to form a gateway between them. Ginny watched all of this and shivered. And she felt sick when she saw Kevin held by others of the Scarrows. The boy was terrified. He seemed to be pleading with Ginny, but what could she do? His own mother stood close to him, weeping silently.
The wind gusted suddenly and the first of the shadows passed over so quickly that she was hardly aware of its transit. It appeared out of nowhere, part darkness, part chill, a tall shape that didn’t so much walk as flow through the iron gate. Looking at that shadow was like looking into a depthless world of dark; it shimmered, it hazed, it flickered, it moved, an uncertain balance between that world and the real world. Only as it passed between the hazel poles held by the Scarrows, and then into the world beyond, did it take on a form that could be called . .. ghostly.
Distantly the priest’s voice intoned a greeting. Ginny heard him say, ‘Welcome back to Scarugfell. Our pledge is fulfilled. Your life begins again.’
A second shadow followed the first, this one smaller, and with its darkness and its chill came the sound of keening, like a child’s crying. It was distant, though, and uncertain. As Ginny watched, it took its shadowy form beyond the Scarrows and into the village.
As each of them had passed over, so the Scarrowmen closed ranks again, but distantly, close to the fire in the square, an unearthly howling, a nightmare wind, seemed to greet each new arrival. What happened to the spirits then, Ginny couldn’t tell, or care.
Her mother’s hand touched her face, then her shoulder, forced her round again to watch the iron gate. The Mother whispered,
‘Those two were his kin. They too died for our village a long time ago. But Cyric is coming now …’
The shadow that moved beyond the gate was like nothing Ginny could ever have imagined. She couldn’t tell whether it was animal or man. It was immense. It swayed as it moved, and it seemed to approach through the darkness in a ponderous, dragging way. Its outlines were blurred, shadow against darkness, void against the glimmering light among the trees. It seemed to have branches and tendrils reaching from its head. It made a sound that was like the rumble of water in a hidden well. It seemed to fill her vision. It occupied all of space. Its breath stank. Its single eye gleamed with firelight.
One was blind … one was grim …
It seemed to be laughing at her as it peered down from beyond the trees and the earth walls that surrounded the church.
It pushed something forward, a shadow, a man, nudged it through the iron gate. Ginny wanted to scream as she caught glimpses, within that shadow, of the dislocated jaw, the empty sockets, the crawling flesh. The ragged thing limped toward her, hands raised, bony fingers stretched out, skull face open and inviting … inviting the kiss that Ginny knew, now, would end her life.
‘No!’ she shouted, and struggled frantically in the Mother’s grip. The Mother seemed angry.
‘Even now it mocks us!’she said, then shouted, ‘Give the Life for the Death. Give it now!’
Behind Ginny, Kevin suddenly screamed. Then he was running towards the iron gate, sobbing and shouting, drawn by invisible hands.
‘Don’t let him take me! Don’t let him take me!’ he cried.
He passed the hideous figure and entered the world beyond the gate. He was snatched into the air, blown into darkness like a leaf whipped by a storm wind. He had vanished in an instant.
The great shadow turned away into the night and began to seep back towards the circle of elms. The Mother’s hands on Ginny’s shoulders pushed her forwards, towards the ghastly embrace.
The shadow corpse stopped moving. Its arms dropped. The gaping eyes watched nothing and nowhere. A sound issued from its bones. ‘Is she the one? Is she my kin?’
Mother’s voice answered loudly that she was indeed the one. She was indeed Cyric’s kin.
The shadow seemed to turn its head to watch Ginny. It looked down at her, then reached up and pulled the tatters of a hood about its head. The hood hid the features. The whole creature seemed to melt, to descend, to shrink. Ginny heard the Mother say, ‘Fifteen hundred years in the dark. Your life saved our village. Our pledge to bring you back is honoured. Welcome, Cyric.’
Something wriggled below the tatters of the hood. The Mother said, ‘Go forward, child. Take the hare. Take him!‘
Ginny hesitated. She glanced round. The Scarrows seemed to be smiling behind their masks. Two other children, both girls, stood there. Each was holding a struggling hare. Her Mother made frantic motions to her. ‘Come on, Ginny. The fear is ended, now. The day of denial is over. Only you can touch the hare. You’re the kin. Cyric has chosen you. Take it quickly. Bring him over. Bring him back.’
Ginny stumbled forward, reached below the stinking rags and found the terrified animal. As she raised the brown hare to her breast she felt the flow of the past, the voice, the wisdom, the spirit of the man who had passed back over, the promise to him kept, fifteen hundred years after he had lain down his life for the safety of Scarugfell, also known as the Place of the Mother.
Cyric was home. The great hunter was home. Ginny had him, now, and he had her, and she would become great and wise, and Cyric would speak the wisdom of the Dark through her lips. The hare would die in time, but Cyric and Ginny would share a human life until the human body itself passed away.
And Ginny felt a great glow of joy as the images of that ancient land, its forts, its hills, its tracks, its forest shrines, flooded into her mind. She heard the hounds, the horses, the larks, she felt the cold wind, smelled the great woods.
Yes. Yes. She had been born for this. Her parents had been sacrificed to free her and the Mother had kept her ready for the moment. The nightmare had been Cyric making contact as the Father had brought him to the edge of the dark world.
The Father! The Father had watched over her, as all in the village had often said he would. It had been the Father she had seen, a rare glimpse of the Lord who always brought the returning Dead to the place of the Lord’s Eve.
Cyric had come a long, long way home. It had taken time to make the Lord release him and allow Cyric’s knowledge of the dark world back to the village, to help Scarrowfell, and the villages like it keep the eyes and minds of the invader muddled and confused. And then Cyric, too, had waited … until Ginny was of age. His kin. His chosen vehicle.
Ginny, his new protector, cradled the animal. The hare twitched in her grasp. Its eyes were full of rejoicing.
She felt a moment’s sadness, then, for poor, betrayed Kevin, but it passed. And as she left the place of the gate she joined willingly in reciting the Lord’s prayer, her voice high, enthusiastic among the rumble of the crowd.
Our Father, who art in the Forest
Horned One is Thy name.
Thy Kingdom is the Wood, Thy Will is the Blood
In the Glade, as it is in the Village.
Give us this day our Kiss of Earth
And forgive us our Male factions.
Destroy those who Malefact against us
And lead us to the Otherworld.
For Thine is the Kingdom of the Shadow, Thine is the Power and the Glory. Thou art the Stag which ruts with us, and We are the Earth beneath thy feet.
Collected in The Bone Forest (1991)
And Dans la Vallée des Statues et Autres Récits (2003)