‘I don’t,’ said Magus. ‘That boy’s strong and he’ll have survived. But he won’t be able to move, so he’ll burn at dawn with the others. You have to take care of it, Jackdaw – I can’t.’
‘Aye, and I’ll say the words, right enough,’ came a cackly voice. ‘I know ’em well. I’ll speak the words for you, so ‘tis not your doing and that binding spell’s not crossed.’
‘Yes, Violet, you take that role and leave me out of the whole thing this year.’
The five cloaked figures walked briskly around the labyrinthpath and arrived in the centre. Raven shielded Yul from them, whispering comfort in his ear.
‘You won’t die here, Yul. ‘Tis not your destiny. I’ll help you and you’ll choose life.’
‘Well I’ll be damned!’ exclaimed Jackdaw, seeing Yul’s eyes still open and watching. ‘You were right, sir. Tough little bugger, ain’t he?’
Magus laughed dryly and glanced down at his son.
‘I told you he’s a fighter,’ he said, with a touch of something close to pride.
It was still dark in the hour before dawn, and the torches were burning low in their brackets around the stones, with many of the red lights on the path burned out and now extinguished. It was very cold and the new arrivals were snug in their thick cloaks, their breath clouding out in the still air. Magus’ cheeks glowed and Yul knew he’d charged himself up with moon energy during the night; he could feel the hard quicksilver pulsing in the man. He was full of life and vitality and his eyes burned brightly. The five of them, Magus, Jackdaw, Martin, Violet and Vetchling, looked down at Yul lying on the wooden sled in his thin white tunic. He was pale and unmoving and, but for his dilated eyes, looked like a corpse. Every one of the five wished him dead.
‘Soon ‘twill be time, Yul,’ cried the silvery voice. ‘You must stir your cold blood. Move your toes and fingers, boy. Move them!’
He tried but nothing happened. He kept on trying, willing his body to move even a fraction, but nothing whatsoever happened. He was completely numb and paralysed. Magus crouched down and felt his pulse again, his fingertips hot on Yul’s chilled throat. He gazed deep into Yul’s frightened eyes and his black fire blazed in exultation. He smiled slowly and nodded, straightening up.
‘He’s still alive but only just,’ said Magus, ‘He’s not going anywhere. We’ve about an hour until dawn and the relatives will be here soon. Have you got everything you need, Martin? The oil so they burn well? The wreaths for their heads and the special brand for lighting the fire? Good. As soon as Violet’s said the words, you two men get the bodies up on the pyre as fast aspossible. I want this over with quickly and I can’t give you any assistance. Nothing must go wrong.’
Then Yul heard them coming, as did Magus and the others, and there were far too many voices. Unlike the Passing On ceremony, it was customary for none but the closest relatives to attend this burning. In the morning the ashes would be taken down to the Funerary Yew by the whole family and placed with due reverence and ritual under the great tree, together with a pebble. But this burning at Samhain, after the summoning of the Dark Angel, was only performed before a handful of relatives. However now, in the coldness of the hour before dawn on New Year’s Day, a huge throng of people came up the Long Walk. From the corner of his eye, Yul could just see a massive crowd of Villagers led by his mother, all carrying burning torches. His heart leaped – he’d made it this far and there was still a chance!
Maizie stopped by the arched entrance and peered into the centre of the Stone Labyrinth. It was very dark inside the Circle and all she could make out were the five figures in their dark, hooded robes, and five still, white shapes on the wooden sleds.
‘I don’t believe it!’ snarled Magus. ‘She’s brought bloody reinforcements!’
David Shields, Matthew Vollmer