It was cold. The smell in my nostrils was rank. My addled mind put it down to bad breath.
Bad breath? Whose? My eyes tried to focus. A face from the past seemed to materialise as out of a mist, a face of dislike, of unpleasant memory, of fear. Yet its expression was exultant. The mist in my head thickened again, leaving what was left of my consciousness looking into a psychological coal-cellar.
A light in the coal-cellar materialised and grew brighter. Thought returned, after a manner. I was jogged by the realisation of the identity of the face I had seen.
Steve, the smith’s boy. Steve the bully. Steve whose semen I had been forced to take, one of the seven. Steve the rapist who had been banished from the Island community.
Why? Why was he back? Why…
The smith had called him. Called him into the room. The smith must be involved. The smith must therefore be untrustworthy. The smith must be responsible for my being unable to move, to speak, to make a noise. I remembered the three boys I had seen before fainting, if that’s what it was. They seemed to have been affected as I was.
What was happening to us?
Now I could feel grass below me. Below my back, below my bottom, below my heels. Now I could feel a tightness around my wrists, around my ankles, around my waist. Cool air was blowing over my body. All of it.
“Take your clothes off, boy. All of them.” The words resonated around my subconscious, but only from memory. The sensation I had felt then was similar to this, but without the bonds.
Something grabbed, none to gently, at my penis. A voice rang out, a real voice: “No!”
A different voice, from between my legs: “he won’t feel anything.”
“Wait until dawn, until it has been done. Then you can do as you will, if you must.”
“It won’t be any fun then…” The voice trailed off, sourly.
Steve and the smith. I knew them by their voices. But what was happening at dawn, and why would it be no fun then?
My mind returned to a library in the City, a library in which I had found some pages in a book which had then denied their own existence both to me and to Ben. And for the first time since then the words returned from the depths of my mind:
‘…and when the children are not yet five years, before they are fully aware of the proceedings that surround them, and before they are of an age when normal society regards them as full people in their own right, they are returned to the land…’
The other appalling details of the ceremony returned to me and, despite my near-unconscious state I felt sick. And even more nauseous was I as the reason for the imporatnce of the coming of dawn became clear when joined with the other comments.
To interfere with my body after then would indeed be no fun for the hideous young man who had touched my body. I should be dead. Along with all the boys and my life’s partner.
Nauseous or not I made a huge effort at forcing my conscious mind to the present. It took every ounce of mental strength I possessed, but gradually, so gradually, light appeared outside my eyelids, then faded. I willed my eyes open, my eyes to look from my still immobile head, to look around.
I had been placed, pinned out, on my back, on the grass. Trees were all around. But between me and them were seven wooden platforms, altars, on each of which was tethered a boy. The scene was illuminated by a fire somewhere behind me, for at that moment I felt its heat on my face and the light dazzled my sensitive just-woken eyes.
When dawn would be I had no idea, but the remainder of the horrible script, though altered in its detail, deemed to be about to come to pass.
“He’s awake!” I heard Steve exclaim from behind me. It must have been him who had shielded the fire from me.
“He shouldn’t be,” said the smith, surprised. “Not yet. He should come round just before dawn. We need him to be watching.”
At this I nearly fainted again. Watch my own children murdered? What kind of mind was it that could possibly orchestrate such a thing?”
“You’d best gag him,” came another voice, strange to me, sneering, evil. “He might just be able to yell and get someone here who’s walking in the woods.”
“No one walks here,” said the smith indignantly. “They’re warned off this part because of the old religion.”
“Good. Gag him anyway. His voice might wake the others if you’ve miscalculated the dose with them as well. We don’t want all the kids screaming. It must be clean and silent.”
There was a mumble of assent to this. I tried to decide how many voices there were, but couldn’t. My exposure to this evil, my frustration at being powerless against it, my anger at having been taken in, stripped, tethered and the horror welling in my mind at having to watch my beautiful boys being murdered in front of me — us — before presumably being murdered ourselves, was bringing on an anger and a panic so deep as to leave me once again immobile of brain and eye.
Someone came behind me and A cloth was forced into my mouth. I tried to spit it out but was still incapable. A cloth was put round my head to hold it there, and my head left to drop back to the ground with a jolt.
It was that shock that tipped the scales in my brain. Panic went flew into the air as the weight of anger gravitated to the base of my mind. I knew that I had to summon help, but how was I to do it? How could I ever have done it, being here, like this?
I thought of Ben. I thought of his dependability. Could I talk to him now I had recovered slightly? Was he anywhere near, was he awake? I thought to call quietly… Quietly? These people could hardly hear our ‘talking’!
BEN! BEN! BEN!
I felt no answering awareness. That meant the boys were unable to communicate as well. I felt nothing, no Being. Oh… I thought of all the Beings that I could call. My eyes opened once again as I realised that there was indeed a Power, a Power that was the reason for us all being here.
GWAED! ANGHARAD! CARL” I cried their names three times. Why did I add Carl?
Then: “The dawn’s coming, I think. Isn’t it a bit lighter over there?”
The smith: “You could be right. This is it. They should be coming round very soon. Everyone ready? Remember, it’s not murder. It’s harvesting plants. It’s for the good of the Village, the Island.”
There were sounds of movement and in my limited field of vision I saw a figure go to each of the altars, each with its immobile, naked, helpless Boy on it.
“When the rays of the rising sun first strike the King Stone, the knife goes in. No sound, no command from me, just watch. It will be a few moments yet, I think…”
I ‘heard’ Ben for the first time. What’s going on?
They’re going to kill the boys.
It’s been a trick. They’re going to kill the boys. Then us.
I ‘heard’ panic.
I’ve been calling for Gwaed and Angharad. And Carl. But nothing.
It seemed to be getting lighter. A warmth sprang from between my legs and covered my thighs, cooling uncomfortably in the dawn breeze. Calmly I wondered if Ben was affected the same way.
A shaky ‘voice’ from near me. I still was unable to turn my head to see him, something I badly needed to do: GWAED! ANGHARAD! CARL!
Together, I told him.
GWAED! ANGHARAD! CARL!
“It’s nearly there. Ready?”
Even I could see the lightness approaching from the east. There was a movement near me. I looked down. A shaft of light was shining on a tree trunk. It slowly descended as the sun rose, its rays delving deeper into the clearing. Now it hit the tree roots and started its journey toward the stone in the centre of the circle. It was halfway across. Any moment it would hit the top of the King Stone, as the smith had titled it. It was there. A movement by an altar, the brightness of a knife shifting in a hand…
* * * *
… A presence by my head; a Power. I could not see it but I could feel its potency. But the potency was diminishing. At length a voice just ‘said’:
My view was of the figures behind each of the boys opposite where I lay. Each had a knife raised, ready for the sun to strike the stone. But there was no movement. Each knife, each arm, each figure, was frozen. Yet all around the leaves still fluttered in the breeze, and the sun’s rays touched the top of the king stone.
As if a tree had just shaken free of the grip of a neighbour’s branch I felt the danger vanish. The air, which in my panic and horror I had hardly noticed to be oppressive, seemed to clear. I sensed that a fulcrum had shifted, a fulcrum on which good and evil had balanced for a time. And now evil had been weighed, and had been found wanting.
There was a rustle in the bushes by my side and at last I found my head would move. Angharad: naked, of course apart from the patch of body hair that indicates fecundity, and deathly white.
CARL? CARL? ARE YOU DEAD?
This made no sense to me. Why should Carl be here, and why should he be dead?
What is happening? I asked no one in particular.
There was a touch at my head and at once I felt aware. Life coursed back into my muscles. I felt used, and stiff of movement. Swiftly she did something at head, feet and waist and I could move again, albeit with difficulty.
HURRY came the command
As quickly as my stiff muscles would allow I stood, and stared, and SAW…
Seven altars in a horseshoe bore the now wriggling naked bodies of seven just thirteen year old Boys, all gagged, all wide-eyed, all alive. By the side of each was a statue of a naked man, facing inwards, hands raised in the air and clasped together around a knife. The statues seemed to be of a grey stone which resembled the granite that most of the island was composed of. The face of each statue was unique, as if carefully and with tremendous skill and effort it had been carved from the living rock. Yet who would choose granite as a medium for sculptures of that detail?
Two of the faces I recognised: the smith and Steve. Each bore a look of both malevolence and satisfaction. The other faces I did not recognise.
All this I took in swiftly as I waited for my muscles to move as those of a young adult, not as if they had lived for another half century in addition.
CARL. HURRY came Angharad’s ‘voice’ again.
I turned, wincing, just as Ben was looking round the clearing, his face a daze. Carl was at the corner of the ring of stones, just outside it, pale as if frozen, in a heap on the ground.
What’s he doing here?
HE ANSWERED YOUR CALL. Angharad seemed to be in control. I wondered what had happened to Gwaed and to the Power we had encountered at the Glade before. And why should Carl answer my plea for help? Why was he here? What made him collapse like this? Had he been killed?
HE HAS OVERSTRETCHED EVEN HIMSELF. HE HAD TO USE THE POWER OF THE EARTH WITHOUT ENGAGING HIMSELF IN IT PROPERLY FIRST. THE POWER WAS NOT REALLY ENOUGH AND HE HAD TO USE HIS OWN HUMAN STRENGTH AS WELL.
This made little sense. How could Carl use the power of the earth? Or had Angharad given him the power, or what? But why…
There was a groan at my feet. Swiftly as I could I knelt at Carl’s side, looking into anguished eyes.
Awake you are. Alive. Not too late then, was I?
It occurred to me that I had heard him speak in odd phrases like that before, and my brow furrowed.
Still anguished he pleaded again: The Boys, safe they are? Please to tell?
Yes, Carl, they are safe. You — well, I think it must have been you, though I don’t know how — saved them all.
Nearly too late I was. To believe that anyone could be so evil — I could not. At the last moment that they would really do it was obvious. One way of stopping them there was, and all the power of my own it took.
But now my work here is done: diminish I can. For now safe are you and can in time the Power assume, and after you, the Boys, and after the Boys, their boys…
“But Carl,” I said aloud, “you’ve not finished here. There are boys here who love you, and a man who loves you more than you know in the same way that Ben and I love each other. You must recover and at least let us all thank you and show our love.” I wondered where I had the thoughts from, since what my brain was trying to say was ‘I have no idea what you’re on about, but get strong quickly and we’ll try to understand and sort it out’.
There was the sound of running footsteps. The bushes parted and Jim, muddy, breathless and looking agonised, stood there. He took in the scene, the nakedness, and the silence, gasped and looked down at Carl. The look that was returned was unfathomable. Swiftly he dropped to his knees and covered the young man’s brow with his palm. He looked up. “Someone DO something, please!”
“I think you are the person who can do most now,” I said weakly.
Angharad and Ben had been circling the altars, releasing the boys. They looked scared and, for once, were silent both in thought and voice.
Evan, I said, can you help Carl? He believes he has given all he can in life and I’m scared he might… wither and die.
The boy looked at me, wide-eyed and walked to Carl. He too knelt and put a hand on his head. The man’s eyes were closed; the boy’s eyes closed in pain.
Everyone… come here. Quick. We need POWER.
There was a rush The other six boys and Angharad looked down, then without a word each held the hand of another in one hand, whilst the feet scrabbled in the earth, digging itself in until covered. A look was shared between the eight. Sixteen eyes closed.
A groan came from Carl. Silence reigned for a full minute. Our sons’ and dughter’s eyes opened again, showing alarm.
Gwaed, I ‘heard’, help us, please? With all your influence we could save him. He used the power in him, not the power from the earth, but now we need the power of the earth, of the Village, of the Island, to help him.
There was another rustle in the bushes, and a pair of softly liquid eyes joined us. Gwaed was now a powerful, potent young buck with his first growth of antlers, yet still the eyes were those of a fawn with the guileless expression that the boys wore. He stood in the circle surrounding Carl and looked. Had tears fallen from his eyes I would not have been surprised. But his head went up to the air and he gave as good a roar as a young buck can give, a roar as if about to fight for a doe.
But instead of a doe, we were aware that the old stag, now ancient in his looks and walking stiffly, was also with us. Like the smith of old, his authority was undeniable. But the aura that was its source, detectable only to the subconscious, was as benign as the smith’s had been evil. He joined the circle too.
IN US LIES THE POWER OF THE ISLAND. The voice in our heads was old, even creaky, yet filled with sonority and authority as no other I had ever heard, before or since.
THOSE WHO ARE HERE BREATHE LIFE, EITHER BY THE POWER THEY ARE GIVEN OR BY THE LOVE THEY GIVE AND SHARE, AND FOR ALL OF US IT IS THE LOVE FOR THE ISLAND THAT MUST BE PARAMOUNT.
He continued, explaining that Carl had been found, as a baby by his parents, who had adopted him. He had been born of the union of two of the deer population, but somehow was a changeling. A changeling who was in human form and with only human abilities. It had been Carl’s flight to the woods and, despite his horror of it, to the Glade, on the night he had been orphaned that had first brought him in contact with the Spirits and the power.
He had endured watching the loss of his parents in a fire, heard their agony as the flames consumed them. Yet it had been his mental distress that had enabled him to soak up the strength and some of the Being of the Island Spirits. It had produced a potency that even he did not fully realise at first. It had been he who had lived a double life as both physical and spiritual protector of the Boys and us, but whose spiritual side had been manifest only at great need, such as the Boys’ birth.
HIS LIFE SHOULD HAVE BEEN FORFEIT IN THE FIRE. LOVE EXTENDED IT. IT SHOULD NOW BE OVER, AFTER THIS HIS EFFORT. ARE YOU ASKING FOR IT TO BE EXTENDED YET AGAIN?
We all said “YES”, mentally and vocally, and for the first time I detected Jim’s thoughts in the answer. I looked at him: he was startled; tearful and amazed in equal amounts.
IT WILL MEAN THAT THIS PLACE WILL BE BARREN FOR EVERMORE, THIS GLADE. THERE WILL HAVE TO BE A NEW ONE PREPARED. CONCENTRATE NOW…
We did. By the spirits how we did. At first little seemed to happen barring a tingling at our fingers where hands were clasped with the next Boy, youth, man or Deer.
Something was happening beneath my feet. The grass was yellowing, curling, dying. One by one the false altars crumbled, the wood they were made of rotting as with ten winters’ passage. The new-formed statues cracked, splinters falling off them, destroying the perfection of their detail.
A groan passed Carl’s lips again, but his colour changed from its grey tinge to white-blue, then to white, then to a healthier creamy-pink. Jim it was who broke the circle to gather Carl into his arms, tears streaming from his eyes to land on the face, the closed eyes. The tears of love. “Jim…” we heard, and knew Carl was saved.
I felt exhausted. The boys fell where they knelt, eyes closing, Angharad too. Gwaed swayed on his feet. The old stag crashed to the ground.
What have we done? Ben asked.
YOU… WILL… ALL… RECOVER…
The Stag’s voice in our heads was fading, fading. But we could do nothing but sleep.