Playing at darkness, part 3
She cries for a long time but no one comes. No one will come. She is weak and shivering violently. She cannot see her wounds in the dark but she has lost a lot of blood. Her right shin is broken. Ribs too perhaps because breathing is very hard.
She is sitting with her back against the wall, her outstretched leg just touching his. The dead body repels her but apart from the gridded soakaway that leads nowhere it is the one fixed point in her nightmare.
Without food and drink she cannot last long. Water drips. It seems close but she is confused by the echoes.
At last she raises the courage to touch him. He is on his back. She pats his pockets like she is trying to put out flames with her bare hands.
The crumpled wrapper from the chocolate he'd bought when they were out on the Battery. He'd been going to share it but she'd grabbed at the bar and he'd eaten it all to spite her. There are a few crumbs and she licks at the paper like an animal.
His mobile phone. Spasms of hope as she pushes out a number. Rectangle of cold green light. Her mother. Rescue. But there is no signal. She flings the phone away from her. It slides on the tiled floor. Hits the opposite wall hard. She should have checked the time. The date. She dare not search in case she cannot find him again.
In his pants pocket she finds three cigarettes. His lighter. Her hands are so badly damaged it takes four attempts to get a flame.
Dark glazed tiles on the walls and floor. White porcelain. Her blood in a smeared trail. A line of wash basins. Urinals.
In the far corner against a heavy wooden door that she knows will be locked, tipped over on its side the metal frame of her sister's pushchair.
The scream dies in Stella's throat. She knows who she is. She remembers.
In the story-room Malcolm still had one arm around Denny. She was giggling and her body rocked against him as she attempted to bring herself under control. Stitch stood close by, holding each of them by the hand. She was smiling too but there was little laughter behind her eyes. To her left Halt leaned heavily on his crutch as though the unaccustomed bout of humour had exhausted him. Devon looked on quizzically. She had not been party to the joke and seemed to be waiting impatiently for them all to settle down. Everybody else had followed Ran downstairs.
"Come on," she urged when at last Denny had regained her composure. "Or we'll miss the Serkarë ..."
Malcolm had no idea what - or who - Serkarë was but for now he was content to let things work themselves out. He led the way downstairs, through the now deserted party room and out of the front door. He was in the garden before he realised the others were no longer behind him.
He waited in the cold. He was surprised how dark it had become until he checked his watch and discovered it was almost midnight. High to his left a three quarter moon held his station over the mouth of the river. Malcolm could never remember the legends properly but had enough lore to think of the moon as he.
Where have they got to? I thought we were in a hurry.
He was on the point of going back into the house when they emerged onto the broad porch. Halt struggled awkwardly down the candlelit steps. Drawing level with Malcolm he proffered a long slim package he had been carrying alongside his crutch.
"For you, man." The words were grunted out as usual but there was something behind them that Malcolm struggled to recognise. It might have been respect. Or fear.
The others watched intently. Devon was grinning widely. Malcolm supposed it was meant as an encouragement.
"Take it," said Halt. "It's yours." This time there was no doubting the tremor in the man's voice.
But Malcolm hesitated. The package had to be at least four feet long. It was self-evidently a sword. The plain hilt was covered in something that looked like grey suede leather and glowed disconcertingly in the moonlight. The scabbard was of the same stuff and the whole thing had been bound tightly with black leather traces. It looked old. Antique maybe. Like it belonged in a museum. Or a castle.
Halt held the weapon at arm's length. His arm trembled and he kept shifting his weight back and forth between his good leg and the crutch to maintain his balance. It was heavy. It's not a toy.
"I can't." It was all Malcolm could manage. I'm sorry.
Stitch stepped forward. Malcolm looked for help but every inch of her screamed taut impatience. Her long coat opened as she moved between them revealing a sheathed blade little shorter than the one Halt was offering him. Malcolm caught a glimpse of polished wood chased in silver. It reminded him of Arwen's sword in the films.
If you want him ...
He had that picture on his bedroom wall; a movie calendar two years old and opened permanently to July. It was an image he found profoundly erotic. The head thrown back proudly. Dark hair swept behind her ears. The exquisitely curved blade erect in her hands.
... come and claim him!
Without a word Stitch took the weapon from Halt's hands and unwrapped the strapping. Halt bowed stiffly and stepped back.
"My Lady." This wasn't how it was supposed to go but he had discharged his duty.
Malcolm could scarcely breathe. Whatever was happening - what he was being offered - was important. He knew that. It was more than a sword, it was a mark of his acceptance, of welcome into the Clan. With this act he was Gothrim. One of them. It was overwhelming.
I should be happy, he was thinking as with both hands Stitch opened his coat wide. He shivered involuntarily and only partly from the night air. She reached inside and fed the strapping around his waist. For a moment her arms were about him, her body as close against his as Denny's had been a few minutes earlier.
Then Stitch had released him and was on her knees, fastening the buckles at the front. At the edge of his vision Devon fidgeted. We're going to be late.
Malcolm willed himself to relax. This was a serious, perhaps a sacred, moment. He prayed Stitch wouldn't touch him there but the leather was stiff and she fumbled to complete the task. Over. Under and back. At least this time his discomfiture went unremarked.
"Thank you," he muttered as she steadied the weapon at his side. It was all he could think of to say.
"Don't be silly," broke in Devon; grabbing his hand and pulling him along the path. "You can't be a Champion without a sword!"
The path Malcolm had walked earlier with Stitch had been lined with candles, their flames flickering in a variety of clear and coloured glass jars. Devon went first along the fairy way, skipping beside Halt who ground his crutch hard into the gravel with each step. Den and Stitch walked in silence behind them, serious and hand-in-hand - a development Malcolm tried not to dwell upon as he brought up the rear. The sword banged awkwardly against his leg.
Off to the right people were gathering inside the ruins of the priory. It was hard to be sure of numbers but there had to be at least thirty in there. Were they all Gothrim? They all seemed to be facing in the same direction as though they were waiting for something to happen. They're waiting for us.
But if that was where the five of them were heading and they were late Malcolm couldn't understand why they didn't cut across the grass. The path lead away from the ruins back towards the castle and, Devon's prancing aside, they were proceeding along it with an almost theatrical slowness. Malcolm thought of those labyrinths where there are no walls or hedges to constrain your steps but where you are supposed to follow the path as it switch-backs to and fro.
Malcolm realised he had fallen adrift. He quickened his pace but his foot caught one of the lamps and sent it spinning across the grass. The flame guttered and went out. He cursed under his breath.
"Are you all right?" Stitch's voice was a tense whisper, her face and Denny's pale masks in the darkness.
"Er, yeah. Sorry."
They turned their backs on him and the procession continued. Any enthusiasm Malcolm had felt for the evening was evaporating rapidly. He had a headache and his heavy leather coat was doing little to keep out the wind. He thought of trying to fasten it over the sword but decided not to bother.
He was also confused about what was happening, about what was going to happen once they reached the ruins. Mostly he was confused about his standing with the rest of the Clan. The sword, and Halt's deference in presenting it, had to stand for something. Didn't it? Halt and Devon had both called him "Champion". What did that mean? And Stitch ...
"Are you my Champion, Malcolm?"
At the time he had thought it a joke; some Clan jest he was being invited to share. Words like "Champion" signified little outside in the real world. In here in the dark, a little shy of midnight with a four foot sword strapped at his hip, who knew what the implications might be. What was expected of him?
"And what would the Champion do for his Lady?"
"Whatever she desired."
"Would you defend my person and my honour against all challenge of the Dark?"
"Yes. My Lady."
Joke or not even now Malcolm couldn't bring himself to regret his decision. It had won him an hour or more alone with her above Spanish Battery and out along the pier. And she had kissed him. Malcolm licked his lip as he walked; fancied he could still taste her there. On the strength of that kiss, of what it had meant and might mean, he had followed her into the castle when he knew he shouldn't. Up till then he was winning.
Since then she had shown him little attention, let alone intimacy. There had been a moment of promise after Aleysha welcomed them to the Cottage but within minutes Stitch had disappeared inside leaving him alone outside on the porch. At the time still smitten with her he had taken it as a test but it was one he would have failed had Devon not appeared at his shoulder and pushed him bodily through the front door.
Devon. Trashy little Devon! She was the only one of their Clan to have shown him any real - and so far as he could judge genuine - attention. Fixated as he had been on Stitch he had never really taken her seriously. Was he beginning to see her differently? Young and silly she might be - even now she was dancing ahead of them along the path - but she was no child. Not with a body like that. Perhaps that was the test, he thought. It occurred to Malcolm that perhaps he didn't like Stitch so very much after all.
Then there was Denny. Her advances upstairs in the story-room had unnerved him a good deal and not only because Stitch had been there. He had never found Den particularly attractive - at least not like that - and until tonight there had never been any indication that she fancied him. What was going on? Perhaps it was just the occasion - or the alcohol.
Before and above him the castle loomed against a sky that reflected too much neon to show any stars. Through the enormous cross-grated gates Malcolm caught a sweep of headlights. Cars on the coast road.
He looked for the glass door that led to the castle shop. Ran might have left it unlocked. A quick sprint: sixty seconds would see him through the shop and outside. Outside.But he failed to locate the door in the shadows of the gatehouse and now the moment was gone.
Malcolm followed Stitch along the path as it swept around to the right. It looked like it skirted the ruins on their northern side. Beyond that lay the graveyard and the remains of defences from the Second World War. But they were not going so far. A little way ahead the fairy-lights gave out. There beside the path two torches sconced in iron posts had been driven into the ground forming a gateway in line with the priory's west door.
This is it, Malcolm thought then chided himself for being melodramatic. It would be okay. He knew these people. Some of them anyway. They were Gothrim. They loved Tolkien. Middle-earth. Most of them could probably speak Elvish for God's sake. Playing at darkness. It would be fine. He cast a glance back over his shoulder at the gatehouse. A flickering high up on the left caught his eye. Another candle, perhaps, left in a room whose window gave over the whole of the promontory. He wondered what it must look like from up there.
Then acrid smoke caught the back of his throat and he turned away from the castle and whatever normality lay beyond its gates. With such confidence as he could master Malcolm followed Devon and Halt, Stitch and Denny between the torches, across the lawn and through the ancient doorway into the blazing body of Tynemouth priory.
The nave was forty-five feet wide and a little less than three times that in length. The space was defined by more or less extant masonry at either end; the western edifice through which they had entered and in the east the rood screen pierced by two small arched doors. Beyond that loomed the monumental windows of the thirteenth century presbytery. The remaining walls were far less well preserved, in places little more than a course or two of broken stone. There was nevertheless about the place a strong sense of enclosure; of being contained.
All the lamps and candles Malcolm had seen being arranged around the ruins were at the western end, which was also where everyone was gathered. His earlier estimate needed amending. There must be sixty people in here. No one turned to acknowledge the latecomers but as Halt led them forward those on either side gave way with heads bowed. The floor of the nave must originally have been flagged but now had been turfed over. As shuffled along in the rear Malcolm had the uneasy sensation of walking on carpet.
He looked about for anyone he knew. Those of Bear's company were distinguished by their intricate leather headbands, though the great man himself was not to be seen. Malcolm recognised the girl he'd sat beside in the story-room. She was standing just to the left, a six foot torch clutched tightly in both hands. Malcolm tried to catch her attention as he passed but she seemed oblivious to everything but the flames.
The rest were a mixed bunch. He spotted a couple of mohicans and skins amongst the usual assortment of New Elves, would-be Halflings and Goth-vamp princesses. In one corner five stocky characters in cloaks leant heavily on long-handled axes. With some relief he spotted Stephen and Jason. They were standing to one side with a little group of sk8ers in flame beanies and Slipknot hoodies. Were they Clan too?
As they found their places Malcolm found himself in the centre of the front row. Stitch was to his immediate left, then Halt. Devon and Denny were in the row behind. On Malcolm' right he found one of the girls from the Field. A friend of Devon's. Ruth, was it?
No doubt next Saturday they'd all be there as usual, he thought, hugging each other and dodging the charvas. Whatever this was it probably happened every year. It was only unnerving because he didn't know what to expect. What had Devon called it?
Come on, or we'll miss the Serkarë ...
The word had meant little to him at the time but out here - in here - in the dark patterns, meanings, shifted in his mind. Serkarë. Something to do with blood. Arë was the Sun wasn't it - or was it "day"? What day was it?
Most of the goths he knew had been away at Whitby for the weekend. So far as he could tell they treated Halloween as a huge gore-fest. It all seemed innocent enough but it had nothing to do with Tolkien or Middle-earth. He was glad the Clan hadn't organised anything for the occasion. He couldn't have faced a weekend of horror movies, vampires and coffin-parties, though he would have enjoyed watching the women - girls most of them - in their cobwebbed finest, all pale flesh and over-tight corsetry.
Halloween was yesterday. By now they would all be back home, or heading home. No doubt the Field would be full of their exploits on Saturday.
It was November first. His father's birthday. A long time since he had been to church but the first of November was All Souls. All Hallows. Serkarë.
Now Malcolm was genuinely scared. He bent his head like the rest but if they were praying he had no idea how to begin, or to whom. God? Jesus? Eru Ilúvatar?
Someone in the row behind had placed a lantern on the ground. The yellow light shone between Malcolm's legs in a narrow beam. A dozen feet ahead a low course of stones erupted from the close-cropped grass. So far as he could tell the stonework extended the width of the building; the remains perhaps of some ancient dividing wall.
Behind and in parallel with the wall a row of unlit torches had been set into the ground. Malcolm could make out little of what lay beyond, except on the right where through high Gothic arches a small obelisk was silhouetted against the sky. It looked like a grave marker. Victorian maybe.
Malcolm found that by twisting his hips he could sweep the beam of lamp light from side to side. It reminded him of the lighthouse down on the north pier where he had stood earlier with Stitch or the smaller beacon across the river. He could see neither from here but no doubt they still beat their double pulse into the dark.
And my sister takes up the song,
He heard the words so clearly that Malcolm turned to Stitch thinking she must have spoken them. But she was still and silent, her eyes and mind somewhere far away. Not Devon or Denny. Not Ruth. No. He knew without asking that neither they nor any other in that place had given voice to the lines that continued to run through his mind.
Across the river she is singing.
Malcolm was shivering. His coat wouldn't fasten properly but he clasped it around him as tightly as he could. He rocked himself back and forth. He needed to be held. He wanted Stitch to hold him. Or Devon. Denny. Someone. His own arms were poor comfort but they were all he had.
Two minutes passed. Five. If something doesn't happen soon ...
When it did happen the something was vague and distant like the threat of impending weather. There's a storm coming in. But like in the movie it wasn't the kind you could shelter from. I know. Only hope to endure. There was no noise but the air bristled with static. Malcolm could smell cut grass but the taste in his mouth was dry and metallic, like sucking coins. It was behind him and moving forward.
His hand went to the hilt of his sword and drew three inches of steel. He fought the most primitive of imperatives; to turn and face the danger. Or to run. Fight or flight. Human Biology with Mrs Trimble. His Sixth Form teacher was standing before him just beyond the line of torches as adrenaline drenched his bloodstream.
Helen! He had loved her, hadn't he? It had been impossible of course. Pathetic. A schoolboy crush. Not long ago but long enough to despise himself now for his youthful naiveté. How could she have loved him? How can she be here? He wiped the back of his hand hard across his face but she was still there in the shadows only smaller now, dressed in black leather and lace.
White lace is so feminine, don't you think?
Helen. His own. His Elven queen.
The terror was closer now; almost on him. He fought raggedly at the air. Inhale. Exhale. He knew he was shallow breathing. If he didn't regain control he was going to black out. He knew the signs. His personal demon. To each his own Balrog.
It had taken all those behind him. Bear and his folk. The strangers in their cloaks. Impersonal and relentless it was coming and they would be next. Shy Stephen. Devon and Halt. Denny. Dog. And Stitch. Are you my Champion, Malcolm?
He couldn't move, could do nothing but watch forlornly as Helen danced in the shadows beyond the line of torches. Now she was no older than Devon, or Ruth whose body lay broken at his feet.
Go! Get away! He screamed silently at the child who stopped dancing as though she heard him. She turned and with one arm pointed directly at him. Her face was rigid with alarm and he knew in that moment that he was overthrown and would die in that place and Helen with him and all the rest. He could not save her.
She dropped her arm and clapped her hands together three times. With a child's laughter she turned away and skipped through the archway into the night.
And the storm broke and all about Malcolm was a weather of words. He understood nothing but gradually it came to him that around him they were chanting slowly in unison, or perhaps it was a prayer. With terror still close he glanced at Ruth who appeared very much alive. She broke her chanting to lean close and whisper in his ear.
"Did you see Aly? She's not supposed to be here. She's going to be in so much trouble!"
Aleysha? Was that who it had been? Malcolm was about to ask but Ruth shushed him into silence.
A movement to his left. Ran was moving slowly behind the line of torches lighting each in turn with a short gas-powered lance. He paused briefly at each new flame before moving on. Malcolm found himself counting under his breath. One ... Two ... Three ...
When the eight torches were alight Ran extinguished the lance and slipped it beneath his robe. He rounded the line and slowly made his way back to the centre. This is it, Malcolm thought. Christ.
But nothing happened. There was no sound at all from the assembly. Even the wind had dropped. So far as Malcolm could tell it might have been some sort of group meditation. Gothrim Tai Chi, perhaps. Or a martial art - that would fit with the swords at least. Ran wasn't wearing a blade but Malcolm had no difficulty imagining him with one in his hand.
He risked a glance to his right. Stitch was standing straight and still but nothing about her resembled contemplative poise. Every muscle was in tension, her arms stiffly at her side. Flames danced in the single tear that trembled high on her cheek.
With a start he realised Halt was also staring at Stitch, his crippled body twisted around his wooden crutch. Beneath the pie-bald make-up his face expressed such forlorn despair that this time when the words appeared in Malcolm's mind he was not surprised.
Help her. It has passed beyond me now. Yours is the task and duty.
Yes. Had Malcolm spoken aloud? Halt turned to him. The dark eyes were piercing and hard.
Do not fail her. Champion.The word bore all the bitterness of unfulfilled duty. Of devotion beyond price, beyond pride, that nonetheless would never be enough. Halt held Malcolm's gaze as though daring him to break away.
In those eyes a vision. Distinct yet distant, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Four figures at the foot of a grassy slope. Two stood close together. One kneeling beside the outstretched body of the fourth. Nothing moved except that overhead clouds built towards thunder.
The image fascinated and repelled Malcolm. He thought of his grandmother's amber necklace; each bead with its tiny insect, perfect and impossibly ancient, one second frozen for all time. A tiny movement. Flash of something bright and cold. From unfathomable depths a scream was abruptly cut short. One of the figures sank to the ground. Then worst of all and close beside him the bright laughter of a child.
"Hwæt!" The cry tore Malcolm round to the front where Ran was standing with arms extended as if to encompass them all. He paused a moment, gauging the effectiveness of his delivery. When he began again his voice was soft and deep.
"Where the old ways meet
And all those gathered there in the cold and the dark, everyone except Malcolm who stood shivering and afraid amongst them, responded as one with a shout that echoed from the walls of a bygone age.
"We join our voices with those who remember!"
Ran dropped his arms and took a step towards them. He was so close Malcolm could have reached out and touched him.
"This has been a time of honour and celebration since ages past. On this day the year turns towards winter and Men looked to the bitter months ahead as will all whose lives are hard won from the land and from the sea. With fire they honoured Arien Sun-maiden and prayed to the Powers for her return.
"Long they would feast into the night and that day they called Serkarë, the day of blood. For at that time the livestock was slaughtered to sustain Men through winter and to preserve the precious stocks of grain and seed."
There was a shuffling in the rows behind him. Perhaps they had heard it before - for all Malcolm knew Halt gave the same speech every year - but to him it was new, the first hint he had been given as to what was going on, and the interruption irked him. Ran seemed not to have noticed.
"... and Serkarë was also a time to honour the dead."
A low murmur passed forward through the crowd like ripples on a pond.
Shut the fuck up. This is important!
"Few in those Elder Days died of their years but many by the sword and the axe and the bitter spear. Fell beasts stalked the land and the Enemy and the servants of the Enemy went ever abroad."
He's talking about Middle-earth like it happened. Like it was real.
"But Men gave war against him. Nor did they fight alone."
"Damn right!" The cry burst from somewhere near the back. Away to Malcolm's left came the sound of something heavy - a wooden crutch, perhaps - being drummed forcefully into the ground. This time Ran held up his hand, waited for silence before continuing.
"And in time they prevailed and the Enemy was thrown down. But in pride the Lords of Men took dominion over those of lesser lineage. Still for many years across all the lands east of the Sea there was peace of a kind. The kind that is sustained by the hand that holds the sword.
"But in folly the Lords of Men did not know the face of their Enemy when he came to them feigning friendship, nor discerned the lies that lay upon his tongue."
Again the murmuring arose and now it was like the sea that wages ceaseless war against the shore. Wave upon wave it swelled around Malcolm and he knew there were words in the sound of it if only he could have discerned them.
He glanced at Stitch. Her lips were moving but she seemed aware now of what was going on. Perhaps sensing his attention she turned to him. Her gloved hand reached for his. And she smiled. It was perhaps the saddest thing Malcolm had ever seen. He could not bear to look at her. With his free hand he brushed tears fiercely from his face.
"... for a time the old ways were maintained though most forgot why and few understood the ancient words that still were uttered on the holy days. But grown in subtlety the Lord of Gifts fed the weakness in Men's hearts and from the precious seed of mortality, true gift of the true Giver, garnered a bitter harvest. Their rites and prayers he perverted to his purpose and of his many deceits this was not the least.
The water was rising faster now. Malcolm could smell the salt of it. A mewing cry high above.
"Many there were who listened not to the silver lies, but remained Faithful to the memory of the West. These the King first banished until in uttermost despair their blood was spilled in the Hallows. And an ending came in those days for Men and they were cast down and the land was changed. But the Enemy also was overthrown."
"In the new realms East of the Sea Men ordered the year anew to mark the Changing of the World and the fall of the Deceiver. The old festivals they took up again. But the Day of Blood they kept not. And they named that day anew the Hallowmas and it was the most sacred and solemn of their festivals.
"And here on this night of nights ..."
Ran paused momentarily. It was a heart beat, a lifetime, the catching of a breath. When he spoke again every voice assembled in the dark was with him. And Malcolm's with them, her small hand clasped tight in his unless like some wild thing it should escape him.
"... where the old ways meet
"In the name of the Lady," Ran intoned and they gave it back again.
"In the name of the Lady."
Ran hadn't dismissed the gathering but the ceremony seemed to be over. The storm had passed. In a moment the mood had become less dramatic; less tense. It was as if they had all been holding their breath and could at last come up for air. From somewhere behind him Malcolm heard hushed voices. A cough. Nervous laughter.
"... more here than last year ..."
"... I'm bloody freezing!"
"Have you seen Diamond's hair?"
"Fancy a beer?"
As annoyed as he had been at the earlier interruptions Malcolm found himself reassured by the snatched conversations. Normality, he thought. Thank God. He turned to look. People were leaving by the west gate and also through a low doorway that stood in a corner of the northern wall. He supposed they were headed for the Cottage. It seemed like a good idea. A dull thudding in the distance announced that someone had found the sound system.
Within minutes two thirds of the congregation had departed but the rest - amongst them Halt and almost all of the Clan - made no attempt to follow. Perhaps it's not over after all.
Once Ran was certain of those who remained he spoke again. "Stand forth then in the name of the Lady! Cross into the dark and find the light anew."
He stepped to one side. For the first time Malcolm noticed that the two torches in the centre of the line had been set further apart than the rest. Towards this ominous gateway Ran extended his left arm. The message could hardly have been plainer. There was nothing like a rush but people began stepping forward to accept Ran's invitation - or was it a challenge? Shy and Dog led the way, then Devon and Denny from the row behind.
There was a tug at his right sleeve. Ruth stared up at him with something close to fear in her heavily made-up eyes. He barely knew the girl but she was asking - imploring - him to go up with her. He didn't know how to respond. If this was Ruth's first time too then he understood how she was feeling but he was with Stitch. It didn't feel like the moment to ask if Ruth could tag along.
He raised his left hand into the torch light and shook his head as kindly as he could. She nodded with a pale smile but when she stepped forward alone she might have been heading for the gallows.
Malcolm watched helplessly as Ruth took her place in the procession. Surely Devon would take pity on her friend but neither girl acknowledged the other. Those who had gone up appeared oblivious to anything else around them. Slowly in their pairs they walked past Ran who raised his hand and muttered something Malcolm strained to catch.
In the name of the Lady.
Shy and Dog had reached the portal. Did they hesitate? A moment later they were through and walking into the darkness behind the flames. And still Stitch hadn't moved an inch. Devon and Denny strode forward together but at the last instant Devon stretched out her hand and Denny caught it up in her own.
It's Devon's first time too, Malcolm realised. That's why they're paired off like that. But Ruth ...
Again his heart went out to the girl, only now with real alarm. She was in front of Ran, her head bowed meekly. Ran raised his hand over her in a gesture of blessing or protection. In the name ...
No! Malcolm was ready to scream. You can't let her go alone!
But Halt was there. He saluted Ran and took Ruth about the waist. Awkward over the uncertain ground he led her the short distance to the gateway and they passed through together. The rest followed in their turn. Some were nervous, others appeared calm and composed, but this was a serious undertaking for them all and there was no laughter or gaiety. Only Bear, appearing out of nowhere, dared the test alone.
Now only Ran, Stitch and Malcolm remained west of the line of torches. Malcolm was as scared as he had ever been in his life but if he was ever going through it had to be now. He stepped forward. Stitch looked up as he tried to pull her with him.
"Look, Stitch, are we going to ..."
"Yes." She smiled but it was a pale thing that did not succeed in reassuring him.
"Come on then."
Still she didn't move. Malcolm couldn't decide if she was testing him or if she was as terrified as he was.
"I'll go alone ..." It was probably a bluff. Malcolm had no idea what he would do if she called it.
The smile had died. Her features were once again utterly unreadable.
He let go of her hand. For Christ's sake, Stitch ...
"Child." Ran's voice was soft and gentle. "It is time. You must forgive him."
Malcolm had no idea what Ran was talking about. What had he done that Stitch might have need to forgive? But the man was right. He took Stitch by the arm and propelled her the short distance to the gap between the torches. This time she did not resist. At the moment they stepped together into the darkness she turned and kissed him. Her lips were ice on his cheek.
"It's okay," he replied. "That's what Champions are for."