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~ 30 ~
It was so dark that he couldn't even see the staff in his hand. Being uncertain of the way, he followed the sounds of those walking some distance ahead of him, desperately hoping to hear any bit of news concerning what he sought. He was grateful for his traveling cloak, and he pulled the cowl low over his face. Even with the blackness of the night, he felt open and exposed, and an involuntary shudder passed through his body. In the distance, he could see a single flame before him, wavering, flickering in the cold night air. It seemed to be floating higher than the ground he walked on, so he surmised that it had been set upon the crest of the hill, among the monstrous shapes of several ancient trees. In its dim rays he could see several other shapes gathering about, drawn by a force that beckoned, terrible and ancient, from the mists of time.
He shook off the thought, muttering out a quick prayer against evil spirits. He began to climb the hill, his feet often stumbling in the darkness. He knew nothing about such things, and he hoped with all he had that he had not walked into a death-trap. Lord protect me, he whispered into the still air.
As he drew closer, the light grew brighter, and he began to hear voices from the grove on the crest of the hill. Holding down a wave of fear, he stepped past the first tree and joined the cluster of cloaked men around the torch that had been set in the mossy turf. The bald faces of irregular boulders poking up through the soil created a rustic circle in the center of the grove, and within this circle they stood, speaking in hushed tones. Most were dressed in traveling cloaks, as he was. Some had their hoods pulled down from their faces, others kept them up, adding to the obscure mystery of the place. His eyes were fixed on the five men he had been following up from the valley.
He did not venture to speak to anyone, but merely stood listening, hoping that he would live to see the dawn. He desperately wanted to flee, to run and leave that place behind forever. But something kept him from doing so, an inner voice as well as the quiet touch of reason. Only from these men would he find the information he sought, so stay he must.
After several minutes, one of the figures stepped forward from the cluster and knelt down in the center of the ring of stones, his blank eyes staring into the flame of the torch. He began to sing a low, murmuring chant, and as he sang, it seemed that the darkness grew even deeper around the perimeter of the torch’s light.
Listening carefully, the watcher thought that the man was merely humming, but after a while he was able to discern words, words unlike any other he had ever heard. They were not Saxon-English, nor any other language he knew.
As the rhythm of the chant continued, the others formed a semicircle around the leader, who continued his mystical song. After what seemed like years of standing there, the song ended and the man began to speak, but in clear tones, recognizable and distinct. At the sound of his voice, a terrible feeling began to churn in the pit of the watcher’s stomach. Would they know he was out of place? Would they be able to see that he didn’t belong?
“Brothers, both from this area and from beyond, hear me! At long last the enemy’s prize is within our reach. It is very close by indeed, in Northampton. We must rise up now and claim this relic. Indeed, just as it was revealed to us years ago, it is by this ancient object that we may fight the Judean God and force Him from our land.”
A chorus of affirmations broke out, and another man, much younger, stepped forward. Throwing aside his cloak, he stood in the light of the torch, his arms outspread. His chest was bare, and on it was branded a large, three-armed spiral, radiating out and covering his upper chest with its hypnotic pattern. His eyes were dark, but they danced with a dangerous fire as he spoke.
“The man who holds this thing, this robe, is a foolish man. He dreams of reconquering England for the Saxons. His greed is power in our hands, my friends. No longer will we need to make secret sacrifices in the dark. With that one great sacrifice the old gods will be appeased and we can begin our own march of conquest across the land. They are hungry for blood, and they call out with vengeance against this foreign Christ. Let us answer their call, brethren, and bring this land once again under their rightful reign!”
Several of the others nodded their agreement to the impassioned speech.
“Long ago this island was claimed in the names of those gods, and their grip is still strong. They will not give up their inheritance easily, and neither shall we!”
“You are impetuous, Michael,” one of the older members chided, clucking his tongue. “Let the elders of this place speak first.”
There were twelve men, excluding Michael and the watcher, and four of them appeared to be the visiting Druids. Several of the other elders shook their heads to show they had nothing to say, but one stepped forward, accepting the invitation to speak.
The watcher cringed when he heard the blasphemous words. It was a traditional Celtic prayer to God, extolling the Lordship of Christ. But when the Druid spoke it, he replaced the name of God with the names of several pagan gods unfamiliar to the watcher’s ears. To have the precious name of the Holy One replaced with the titles of these demons of old shook him to his very core.
When the prayer was done, the other elders shook their heads as well, declining the invitation to speak, until finally they came to the watcher, who stood silently, still shrouded by the secrecy of his hooded cloak. His heart beating hard, he shook his head, praying fervently they would bypass him.
He saw one of the elder’s brows furrow, but thankfully Michael did not see the reaction, and began once again on his tirade. “My brothers, we must find a way to call upon the voices of the gods! They will tell us what we must do to retrieve this robe. We have the power to force it out, but a display of our power might not be needed yet.”
One of the resident elders nodded. “The boy is right. We need a sacrifice.”
Another nodded. “I have already told our friend in the village. He is bringing what we require. He should be here soon.” At this, the entire company fell silent and stood relatively motionless for what seemed like hours. All the while, the watcher was praying fervently, hoping against all hopes that he would come out of the grove once again alive. He had heard what he needed to know: they knew where the robe was, but they did not have it. Not yet, anyway.
After some time, they heard the dull, thudding hoofbeats of a large, plodding animal. The watcher looked up to see a small white bull, without anyone leading it, walking up into the grove. His eyes narrowed with surprise. White bulls were rare, and rather expensive. That denoted either that these Druids were men of some considerable wealth or this night was a most special occasion for them.
The elder who had quoted the twisted Celtic prayer took the bull and led it by the horns into the center of the ring of stones. The animal had been perfectly calm until it entered the circle. When it stepped within the ring, it began to breathe heavily and froth at the mouth. Its large, dark eyes moved back and forth quickly, as if it were a beast gone mad. It let out a long, terrified call that resounded mournfully over the little hillock. Acting quickly, another elder stepped up with a large, toothed knife and ran it swiftly through the animal’s throat.
The watcher closed his eyes so that he would not see the poor animal as it died, thrashing about on the ground until at last it stopped, its massive muscles quivering. The Druids formed a circle around the fresh carcass, and one elder knelt down beside it. The watcher did not see everything that followed, for he had his eyes shut tightly in prayer.
The elder who was kneeling on the ground was muttering something, soft and low. After this gentle drone had continued for several minutes, though, his voice became hoarse, and picked up speed and volume. At the end he was nearly shouting, so much so that he sounded like he was in severe physical pain.
Abruptly, the sound stopped, and the watcher heard him slump back against the ground. Silence descended for a few moments, and just as the observer felt it was safe to open his eyes again, the elder let out a hideous shriek, an unearthly wail unlike anything he had ever heard. He tried not to shudder at the sound of it, tried to restrain the fear that welled up within him.
The scream ended as suddenly as it had come, and the observer heard the forms of the other Druids moving again, so he opened his eyes. The elder was now in a sitting position, his eyes haunted, staring at something off in the distance.
“What did you see?” Michael asked, eager to hear.
“No!” a voice came out of the man’s throat, but it did not sound like his own. It was a deeper voice, and darker.
“No!” the otherworldly voice repeated through its immobilized mouthpiece. “Fight, my children, fight with everything you have! We can still win!”
The voice ceased abruptly, sending the elder’s head back with a sickening snap as if someone had delivered a blow to his chin. He breathed heavily for a few moments, then looked back up at his friends. His eyes were clear again.
“I’ve had a vision,” he said quietly, clearing his throat.
“What was it?” one of the others prodded.
The elder shook his head. “Terrible,” he moaned. “The gods are afraid, so afraid. Our sacrifice can no longer reach their power. There was a war in my mind, two spirits doing battle. The Masters told me that they could win, but…” his expression was downcast. “It wasn’t true. Something else was here, in this circle, something that blocked them out, terrified them. It was something so huge and fearsome that I could not bear to look on it. In my vision it consumed the land, conquering it in a fire that burned brighter than any I have ever seen.”
“It was the power of the gods you saw then, was it not? Their power, retaking England!” Michael proclaimed, his eyes dancing wildly.
“No,” the elder croaked hoarsely, his eyes hollow at the memory. “It was something far older and far greater, something that they could not contain. It silenced them,” he began to break into tears, “and now our hope is dead.”
“But the robe,” Michael protested, his face livid. “They said that the robe would give them victory.”
The elder shook his head. “It would be a battle won, brother, but the war is already lost. We have been struggling against an enemy that cannot be overcome, and we thought that we were winning. Guilty presumption! Our fault has found its mark, and the old gods shall not return to their places of power. There is a new power, an old power, a power beyond reckoning. And it will win.”
“No!” Michael screamed. “It’s not over yet, it can't be! I will find the robe, and turn the tide of this battle once and for all!” With that, he turned and dashed out of the grove, away from the ring of stones and the rejected sacrifice.
One of the other elders turned to the one on the ground. “He's right. We cannot just do nothing. All we’ve worked for, everything these past years…it cannot fail now. This land is claimed in the names of the old gods of England!”
The elder on the ground sighed, disheartened. “And yet it still bears the name of the One who made it,” he said hoarsely, “and He wants it back.”