A cold, dark night, an ancient ritual, and the change time brings
Even with the full moon, the old path was dark. What little of the silvery light that made its way through the tightly woven branches only helped to heighten the deep shadows, causing some to move, like living twilight, as the wind moved through the trees. The wind also gave voice to these phantoms, the dry whisper of leaves, the whisper of branches moving together.
Jed shivered as that same mid-autumn wind whispered through him, moving invisible fingers through his hair and along his spine. Behind him, the revelry continued. The great bonfire in the center of, and the smaller ones clustered around, the old circle of standing stones in the center of the clearing still blazed. Dancing and laughing around and between those ancient stones where the others of his village that on the morrow would be accepted as adults. Before him, looming like the jaws of a great beast, ready to swallow him, to bury him in deepest darkness, lay the path that lead down the hill, through the woods and to his safe home.
A peel of laughter rang out behind from behind him, and he turned his eyes from the gaping maul. In the firelight, he could see that a few of the dancers had removed their clothing, and now danced with nothing between them and the fire but the cold night air. He stood, transfixed for a moment as he watched the graceful sway of Saralyn Fin’s body highlighted by the dancing flames, her waist length chestnut hair unbound, her cream colored skin glowing in the flames.
He felt the heat rushing to his face, and quickly turned away, shutting his eyes. That did little good, as the memory of that sight, that beautiful swaying body, was now and forever etched into his memories. He shook his head slowly, attempting to banish the image, and took a deep, ragged breath of the cold air, trying to cool the rising heat in his blood. He opened his eyes slowly and turned his gaze skyward, studying the stars and the wispy clouds for a brief moment, before he let his sight drift once again towards the circle of stones. He did not look to the dancers, but instead to the tops of the tall stones. Upon each a Jack’s Lantern burned, its carved face looking out into the darkness, facing away from the dancers inside. Their fiery stare giving protection, keeping any wandering spirits away. The fire behind those eyes, and the jagged-toothed grins were beginning to wan, and already a few were flickering, threatening to expire in the gentle breeze.
He took his gaze from the round guardians, and turned his eyes towards a group of small stones set near the dark wood line, and the equally dark figures that sat upon them. He doubted any of the others remembered the druids, or even the meaning of this night, so lost were they in the ecstasy of the moment. The elder of the two was a white haired, hard eyed man in a long black robe, that Jed had seen in the village only on when he came to perform the harvest blessing, or on the occasions of a death, the domains of the male half of the druids, while the females held the time of births, and the Spring blessing of the planting. The old woman he had expected to be here with the man had not been, however. Instead, the woman that was there he had never laid eyes upon until seeing her standing among the stones when he and the others had arrived there at dusk. Her hair was a coppery red, and her eyes had twinkled merrily in the setting sunlight as she had stood in her dark brown robe, which now appeared as black as the man’s, and pronounced the blessing upon them. In truth, looking at her young, unlined face he felt she should have been there dancing among them instead of watching over. This was the only time the people from the village would see a male and female druid together, and around both their waists they had worn those odd, silvered daggers with the curved, uncovered blades. The same blade, that, in olden times, had been used for sacrifice.
As he watched the two druids, the woman leaning against the rocks, and the man sitting upon one, a long stemmed pipe between his teeth, the wind shifted a bit, and as one the two turned to return his gaze. Jed stiffened and quickly turned away, and as he did he caught a brief glimpse of silver the woman’s waist. Behind him came another bout of laughter, and moving on the wind he could now make out the sweet smell of the druid’s tobacco. Once again he wished this night were over. The wind caressed his cheek lightly with its cold fingers, and there was the soft sound of rustling leaves disturbed and carried along by the breeze. His head turned to the side, attempting to peek and see if he still held the druids’ attention. Instead he came face to face with the smooth faced, red haired woman. His eyes widened and he took half a step back with a start.
“Be at ease child,” she said, her voice amused and a hint of a smile on her lips and sparkling in her eyes. “Why do ye not join the others? The time draws nigh for the revelry to cease. Do ye not wish to dance and make merry while ye can?’
Jed swallowed and tried to speak, his voice however had fled, taking the lion’s share of his wits along with it. The only thought that would take shape in the void of his mind was to briefly wonder what color eyes the woman before him had. Her throaty laugh told him, much to his dismay that his voice had found it fit to ask that question. His face began to burn as the blood rushed to hit, coloring it a slight scarlet that he hoped the night hid as well as it did the color of her eyes. The dancing twinkle he saw in her eyes when he finally managed to look into them again proved to him how false a hope that was. She stood for a moment, regarding him in silence, and as she did the smile slowly left her lips and eyes, to be replaced by a somber intensity. She lifted her hands to cup his cheeks and tilted his head down slightly. He placed a single, gentle kiss upon his forehead.
“May the Mother give ye speed this night,” she whispered softly, then kissed his right cheek. “May ye find ye hearth and home this night.” She kissed his left cheek. “May the sun find you safe on the morrow.”
Slowly her hands slid from his face and she turned and began to move back towards the old man. She stopped after a few steps, however and turned her head to glance at Jed over her shoulder.
“Green,” he heard her say, and before she turned again he was certain the smile had returned. He watched her walk away, his heart thundered in his chest, and his breath barley cam to him. He could still feel the warmth of her touch upon his skin, but more he could feel the lingering of her words upon him, and knew there had been a touch of magic in that blessing. He did not have long to ponder the meaning of it, however, for as she reached the old man, he stood, and for a moment they stood face to face. As one they turned towards the stones. The old man moved first, his stride long and purposeful, with the woman falling in behind him.
Jed swore to himself and began to sprint towards the stones. It would not be good for him if the pair to arrive within the circle before him. All dancing and merriment died away as the two druids entered the circle, all eyes turned to regard them. The two moved to a wide, squared, waist high alter stone that stood just before the roaring bonfire. In times of old, that stone would have seen more attention on this night. Sacrifices of harvested grain would be feed to the fire, and upon that stone would have lain a sacrifices of a different sort. The grain to give thanks, and to insure a good crop on the following year, the other sacrifice to satisfy the spirits, both of nature and the walking dead, that yearly walked the world on All Harvest Night.
The old druid, with the aid of his red haired companion, climbed upon that ancient stone. His back was to the blazes, his features all but hidden in the shadow. His gaze slowly moved around the circle, taking in the gathered youths. They, in turn, regarded him with solemn dread, having known that the time would come for the night to end, but dreading it still.
“Tonight,” he spoke, his voice loud and as firm and hard as the stone upon which he stood, “tonight is ye last night as children. On this, the final night of Octobrer, a night when shades and spirits roam the world, and rule the night. A night where they call out, calling for the blood off the living, for the blood of man. But mostly they call for the blood of the children.”
He raised his hands high above his head. In one hand was clutched a gnarled and rune covered old staff, in the other the curved blade from his belt. The blade caught the firelight, reflecting it and seeming to burn with a fire of its own. The old druids gaze swept the gathering again, his eyes gleaming in the dancing light now, fierce and cold. Over head, a black cloud moved across the moon, obscuring it completely. The wind also began to blow gently, carrying with it a sound like distant, malign voices.
“They call out for ye blood,” the old man suddenly shouted, his voice ringing like thunder. “And for one, they will have it!”
He threw his arms down, and a great wind, like the howl of a beast rose. Those gathered shrieked as the fires sputtered and died, and they suddenly found themselves in the thick darkness.
“Get ye home,” the old druids voice boomed in the night. “And may the night take the last of ye.”
It was sudden madness, as they all ran, shoving and stampeding, screaming and shrieking towards the path that lead to home and safety. Jed had been on the outer edge of the crowd, and as he had turned to run, he had caught an elbow to the stomached that doubled him over and knocked the breath from his lungs. He was knocked to the ground, and all but trampled. As he struggled to stand, a booted foot found the side of his head. His senses reeled for a moment, but he quickly recovered. He managed to make it to his wobbly legs and as he peered through the darkness, he could just make out the last of the others moving into the open maul of the path.
With a curse, and as much speed as he could muster, he ran to catch up. He reached the edge of the wooded path, and without a moments hesitation plunged into the darkness. As he ran, he hea4d a sound that froze his blood in his veins, the baying and snarling of hounds behind him, and behind the hounds the thunder of horse’s hooves and mad laughter. The hunt was upon him, the Devil and his dogs. To his side, running just off the path he could see one of the hounds, its red eye glowing with evil madness and hate, its mouth foaming and frothing around long, snarling teeth. Its fur a dark, eerie green that glowed faintly in the darkness of the wood.
With a snarl, the hound, bigger than any dog he had ever seen, lunged at him, going for his hamstrings to bring him down for the rest of the snarling, demon born pack to tear into. Jed lepta as the dog lunged, its teeth barely missing there mark. With a mad snarl, the dog hit the ground, and as Jed ran, he could hear its pack mates giving it the fate it had intended for him, as the horseman driving them laughed, its high, mad laughter. Jed did not look back; instead he ran with a speed he did not know he possessed. He heard the sound of a hunting horn blow behind him, and the answering calls coming from the woods to either side, along with the faint baying of more hounds. He fought to shut those sounds out, forcing anything not dealing with running or survival from his thoughts. He did not think, he did not ponder, he merely ran.
In the woods off to either side of him, lights began to appear. Will’o’wisps and tartans, the mournful cries of the later, those spirits of the stillborn babies mourning the life they were deigned. The called to him, beckoning for him to come to them, to comfort them, to allow them to take from him the life they never had. To welcome their cold embrace and in so doing feed their eternal hunger for warmth and life. Jed kept his eyes upon the path, refusing to allow them to pull him aside where he become lost in the woods until he surcome to there cries. Behind him he heard the laughter of the Master of the Hunt as he regained control of his hell spawned pack, but ahead of him, Jed could see the stream and old stone bridge that marked the mid point of the path, and safety of sorts from his pursuers.
Forcing his legs to move faster, he sprinted for the bridge, knowing that neither the pack nor its Master could follow him over the flowing water. He made it to the foot of the bridge and his heart almost sang, but as he took his first step upon the bridge he froze. Upon the bridge stood a shimmering vision. Her hair was a pale silver, her skin a creamy white that glowed in the darkness, her eyes black as darkest night, and about her body a shimmering gown of purest white that accented her hips and the swell of her breasts. Jed stood transfixed, staring into those deep black eyes, as behind him, forgotten the sound of the hounds grew louder.
She beckoned for him, with one lily colored arm, and on its own his body responded. Step by step he moved towards her, as the sound of the Hunt grew closer. He was almost with in her embrace when the moon came out from behind the clouds and a gentle wind blew across the bridge, stirring her dress. Jed caught sight of her hoofed feet as her dress stirred. With a start he came back to himself, as the spell was broken. The creature before him, a glaistig water demon, seducer and devourer of men snarled and lunged at him with its now clawed fingers going for his throat. Jed stumbled back, tripping over his on feet and falling down on his rear, and as he feel, a eerily glowing green shape that had launched itself at his back sailed over his head and into the waiting embrace glaistig’s embrace. With a snarl demon dog and water demon began to tear into each other in insane fury. Jed got quickly to his feet and sprinted the remainder of the way across the bridge, the sound of hateful baying and demonic laughter behind him.
Jed did not slow his pace, he ran until his lungs threatened to burst. So intent was he that he did not, at first see the huddled shape that lay in the path before him until he was almost upon it. He skidded to a stop as the shape, a darker patch in the darkness that seemed to shed moonlight like water, turned two burning red eyes to regard him from its spot in the middle of the path. It hissed angrily at him, but made no movement towards him. Slowly, Jed edged his way around the thing, never taking his eyes from it, and it, in turn, never moving its burning gaze away from him. It wasn’t until Jed had moved in front of the thing that Jed could see what had held its attention before he had arrived. Jed felt the bile rise in his throat, and the contents of his stomach threatening to return. On the ground before the thing was the torn and gory corpse of Saralyn Fin, her still naked breasts ripped apart and a gaping, bloody whole where here heart should have been. The thing gave another angry hiss, and Jed forced his eyes away from the bloody mass to the flame-eyed creature. Jed became aware of slight sounds in the bushes surrounding him, and more pairs of flaming eyes staring hatefully at him from the dark. Slowly, he began to back away.
At first the creature watch him, as he slowly tried to make his retreat, its fiery eyes burning into him, then, with a hiss like hot metal hitting water and a yowl, the thing lunged at him. It hit him square on his chest, and began to bite and claw. Jed screamed and ripped at the creature. He at last managed to grab a hand full of its slick, furry hide and rip it away from him. He threw it back towards the corpse, the once beautiful and smiling Saralyn Fin, and turn and ran. Behind him and in the bushes and undergrowth on either side of him he could hear the lurkers giving chase. His chest burned as he ran the exhaustion and wounds feeding the fire. Ahead he caught a glimpse of the end of the path, and his village. The things chasing him yowled and hissed at his back, their presence almost tangible against his skin. Blood pumped in his ears and soaked through the front of his woolen shirt, his vision began to dim and blur his steps to falter. Jest when he felt he could go no further, that the lurkers would catch him and feast upon his corpse as they had Saralyn, he broke from the woods, and a few more steps put him into the village. Willing the last of his strength into his legs he ran through the street towards his home. Behind him the nightmares continued their chase, as over head a dark shape moved across the moon and gave a cry like a monstrous demon crow. He heard the flapping of wings above his head as the thing dived. With a sob, Jed threw himself against his door, pushing it open to fall upon the floor inside. Safe.
The last thought that passed through his mind as his excursion and wounds pushed him into unconsciousness, as he lay panting and bleeding upon the floor, and his father slammed the door shut and threw down that bar, and as his mother kneeled beside him sobbing and calling for his father to bring her bandages and her herbs, were of to wonder about a pair of green eyes, and how wonderful it would be to gaze upon them in the light of day.