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Thirsty for Thursday – Solstice of Stonewylde

Fans of our Gollancz Dark Fantasy Facebook page will know that every Thursday we bring you #ThirstyForThursday where we introduce you to a book or a series we think you’ll be Thirsty for. This week we return to Stonewylde, with Kit Berry‘s brilliant third installment, SOLSTICE AT STONEWYLDE.

As the sun rises, so the final battle for the heart of Stonewylde dawns. The darkness draws in around them, and the wise woman on the hill makes a chilling prophecy.  There is no escape and no compromise when death comes knocking: five will die at Stonewylde. The only question is who . . .

Check out the first chapter below, and our video of Kit Berry talking about the SOLSTICE AT STONEWYLDE and don’t forget to click back to the Gollancz Dark Fantasy Facebook page for a giveaway later today!

 

***

Ghostly wreaths of mist clung to the great stones, shrouding the sinister images painted all over them. Black crows with outstretched wings and gaping beaks, leering white skulls, grinning Jack o’ Lanterns; the emblems of Samhain loomed ominously from all directions. Two old women, grimy shawls clutched tightly around them, entered the Stone Circle. Black feathers and white bones hung from the elder branches that arched over the entrance to the sacred space, brushing their whiskery faces as they shuffled beneath the archway. It was silent and eerie inside the Circle and the sisters surveyed the menacing scene with grim approval.

A labyrinth delineated by smooth black stones was laid out on the soft earth. The ancient cursal pattern filled the arena and the path it marked out led to the centre where a great pyre had been built. The women hobbled across to the old cauldron squatting balefully on the Altar Stone, surrounded by boughs of yew. A great black crow painted on the stone behind the altar hovered threateningly above them, its wings splayed as if it were about to enfold them both. The crones lit their cracked clay pipes and puffed contentedly at the stinking smoke, undaunted by the dark and sinister atmosphere of the Stone Circle. They both took a swig of cloudy liquid from an old glass bottle and smacked their lips with satisfaction.

‘’Twill be strange, sister, both our boys here with us tomorrow.’

‘Aye, blessed be that Magus fetched our Jackdaw home, his ban­ishment over. My own dear son back again.’

‘Things’ll change now Magus brung him back to deal with the brat.

Dark Angel didn’t want the boy up on Mooncliffe at Hunter’s Moon, but tomorrow, sister, ‘tis Samhain! With both our sons to help, the boy will be taken.’

‘Aye, Magus must have a clear path to the moongazy maiden. He needs her magic, like his father afore him with that Raven!’

They cackled hoarsely at this and took another swig.

‘Moongazy as they come but didn’t save her, did it? Nought but a pile o’ ash under the Yew! Old Heggy got it wrong there.’

They spat in unison, then knocked their pipes against the stone.

‘Work to be done now, sister, and best get on with it. We need to be ready for tomorrow night, when the Angel comes a-walking in the Stone Labyrinth.’

‘Aye, when the Dark Angel comes looking for his own at Samhain.’

One

Magus strode purposefully along the Tudor gallery to the rooms at the end. He had much to do, with the festival so close, and no time to waste today.

‘You’re not still in bed!’ he said irritably. He stood with Miranda in the girl’s bedroom gazing down at Sylvie as she lay against the pillows, white and exhausted. She pointedly looked away, refusing to meet his eyes or answer him.

‘You should be up and about by now, young lady,’ he con­tinued. ‘A week in bed is more than enough. Don’t you agree, Miranda?’

‘I’m not sure she’s quite ready yet,’ said her mother tentatively. ‘She’s still a bit weak – look at the shadows under her eyes.’

‘Rubbish!’ said Magus firmly. ‘Remember that I know best in these matters. I’ve warned you that Sylvie’s prone to malingering and attention-seeking. It’s Samhain tomorrow and she should be preparing for the festival along with everyone else. This is all for show – she’s absolutely fine. Leave us, Miranda. I want to speak with her alone.’

Reluctantly Miranda left the room and Sylvie struggled to sit up. She stared hard at him, her eyes pools of icy water in her white face.

‘It’s not for show,’ she said in a small voice.

‘You’re being pathetic, Sylvie,’ he said tersely. ‘All you did was stand on a rock for a few hours. I don’t understand why you’re making such a fuss over nothing.’

‘I’m not making a fuss over nothing! How could you be so cruel? You had no right to do that to me and I won’t go up there next month. I’ll never let you take my moon magic again.’

Magus’s lips tightened into a hard, white line and he sat down on the bed next to her. He leant forward and pushed his face close to hers, black eyes glittering.

‘You’ll do exactly as I tell you,’ he said in a voice of steel. ‘Everyone else does and you’re no exception. You know full well why you were brought to Stonewylde and what I need from you. You’ll go to Mooncliffe every month for as long as I want you to.’

Sylvie closed her eyes, trying to summon the strength to stand up to him.

‘I won’t,’ she whispered. ‘I’ll leave Stonewylde rather than go on that rock again.’

He chuckled at this and reaching out, gently stroked the hair back from her face. She flinched at his touch but was unable to move away.

‘No, no, Sylvie – you won’t leave Stonewylde. You’re only fifteen and far too young to be all alone in that big wide world out there, especially given your allergies. The Outside World could kill you. And your mother’s expecting my baby and she’ll never leave – you wouldn’t abandon them here, surely, won­dering how they’d cope with my anger and displeasure. To say nothing of what I’d do to your sweetheart Yul. You’ll stay here for their sakes and you’ll do exactly as I want.’

Sylvie stared at him helplessly through a mist of tears. She had no energy to fight. He continued to brush the hair off her fore­head and the feel of his sure fingers made her skin crawl.

‘Is Yul alright?’ she whispered, vaguely recalling his dramatic arrival at the moonrise but with no idea of what’d happened to him after that.

‘No, not really,’ he laughed. He stood up and looked down at her with a pitiless smile. ‘And by the time I’ve finished with him, he’ll never be alright again.’

‘I hate you,’ she whispered, even more softly. ‘I really hate you.’

Magus laughed again and then called her mother back in. He put his arm around Miranda, his other hand resting pro­prietorially on her swollen belly.

‘Sylvie’s to get up now. She’s not ill, she’s just wallowing in self-pity. She’s far too keen on playing the martyr and expecting us all to run around after her. Get her out of bed now and make her eat. Do you understand me, Miranda?’

‘Yes, Magus, whatever you say. You know best.’

He smiled and gently patted her stomach.

‘Yes, I do, so make sure she’s ready for Samhain. That’s an order, Miranda. I want her down in the Village tomorrow taking part in the festival. This attention-seeking behaviour stops right now.’

***

The Village Green was alive with activity as Nightwing trotted along the cobbles. Magus reined the horse in, holding the black stallion in check as he surveyed the scene before him. The Green Labyrinth was almost complete. Scorched lines marked the pattern on the grass, which was picked out further with white pebbles interspersed with tiny candles in coloured glass jars. In the centre of the enormous seven-coiled labyrinth the Villagers had built a large wicker dome, and many people were still busy adding the finishing touches. This labyrinth would be the spir­itual focus for tomorrow’s events.

Magus swung the horse around and urged him towards the open doors of the Great Barn. Peering in, he nodded with sat­isfaction at the preparations taking place. The ancient building was decorated in the same manner as the Stone Circle, with black birds, pale skulls and bright Jack o’ Lanterns. Twigs of elder and slips of yew hung around the walls and rafters, tokens of the trees sacred to Samhain. The elder was the crone’s tree, the waning and dark face of the Triple Moon Goddess and thought to guard the gates to the Otherworld and the dark mysteries of the dead. The yew was the tree of death and regeneration.

Emblems of death were everywhere and Magus smiled grimly. Death was exactly what he had in mind for the ashen-faced boy lying in the byre. Yul had led a charmed life thanks to that meddling old crone, but maybe this Samhain her binding spell could be side-stepped. Maybe, at last, the Dark Angel himself would intervene to break her spell of protection over the upstart Villager who’d caused him so much trouble this year.

Magus wheeled Nightwing around and trotted down one of the lanes that radiated away from the Village Green like spokes of a web. He’d already visited three of the families involved, and had one more call to make this morning. Maizie saw the tall figure of Magus through a window and hurriedly opened her door. She’d been worried sick since receiving a message after the Hunter’s Moon informing her that he was keeping Yul up at the Hall for a few days, following an incident with Sylvie at Mooncliffe. The implication was that her son had committed a serious misdemeanour. Maizie’s heart had sunk at this news, and she now greeted Magus with some trepidation. He dwarfed the cottage parlour, his head brushing the beams as he gazed down at the anxious woman before him.

Despite having borne seven children and enduring a brute of a husband, he still recognised the spark that had so attracted him all those years ago. Those dark curls and slanted grey eyes, the rosy cheeks that burned now with emotion, just as they’d once done for entirely different reasons. Her dimples were the same, and her proud chin. He shook his head to dispel the memories and sat down in an armchair, indicating that she too should sit. A little girl came running in from the kitchen, freezing when she saw the grand figure of the master of Stonewylde seated unexpectedly in her home.

‘Blessings!’ he smiled, holding out a welcoming hand to her. Shyly she approached and he lifted her onto his lap. He gazed down at her pointed little face and gently ruffled her mass of black curls.

‘She’s so like you, Maizie,’ he said, his dark eyes soft. ‘Not in Nursery yet? Or do you like to keep her at home with you?’

‘She won’t be two till Imbolc, sir,’ replied Maizie. ‘Time enough then for Nursery.’

‘Nearly two years? Doesn’t time fly?’

‘Like a crow, straight and true. Have you come to tell me, sir, what’s happened to Yul?’

‘No, Maizie. I wished to speak to you about your husband. I think—’

‘But what about my boy, sir? When will he be coming home?’

‘I’m keeping him at the Hall for a little longer.’

‘I don’t wish to be disrespectful, sir, but last time you had Yul up at the Hall you nearly killed him. Whatever he’s done, surely he don’t deserve that?’

Magus looked deep into her eyes and remembered how he’d once felt about this woman, only a girl then. There’d been women and girls aplenty, but she’d always been different. She was by his side all through that long year when he’d worked himself to the bone, struggling to rescue Stonewylde from the slough of neglect that was the legacy of his father, uncle and grandfather. Three bad masters in a row, and the very fabric of Stonewylde almost torn apart by their laziness and greed. It was a daunting task for the young, idealistic man, who’d put his burgeoning career in the Outside World on hold to return home and put things to rights.

Maizie had been his saviour that year, her vivacity, prettiness and uncomplicated sense of fun the only light in those dark days of endless labour and exhaustion. She’d been a complete contrast to the smart, sophisticated women he’d left behind in London – Maizie was pure Stonewylde, just when he’d discovered his obses­sive love for the vast country estate. She’d sparkled brightly, his one ray of sunlight right up until the fateful Winter Solstice when everything had fallen apart so cataclysmically in the Stone Circle. He sighed and smiled sadly at her.

‘Now, Maizie, you must trust me on this. We both know that Yul is wilful, disobedient and a complete troublemaker. That’s why poor Alwyn had such a difficult time with him over the years. It can’t have been easy bringing up a son as rebellious as Yul.’

Maizie regarded him steadily, also remembering the past. She’d once loved this man so desperately and she was sure that part of her always would. She took a deep breath.

‘We both know, sir, that Yul is no son of Alwyn’s. Now that the man’s ill and not likely to recover, we can speak openly. After all this time, surely you can acknowledge the boy as your own.’

There was silence in the small parlour. Magus’s black eyes glittered dangerously. He tapped his whip against his boot, mouth tight with displeasure.

‘I thought we’d agreed never to discuss this? The matter was dealt with years ago. You were already pregnant at that Moon Fullness up at Mooncliffe and if I’d realised, I’d never have taken you up there that night, nor carried on with you all summer and autumn. I don’t make love to women already pregnant by another man. You deceived me, Maizie, and you even admitted it just before your handfasting to Alwyn.’

She gave him a hard stare, then looked away, her cheeks burning fiercely.

‘I was not pregnant and you know it! Anything I admitted was because ‘twas forced out of me. I’d never lain with anyone other than you, not till after Yul was born. You and I both know that night of the Blue Moon was my first time, and we both know right enough why you’ve denied Yul all these years. But Mother Heggy’s a mad old biddy and you should never have taken heed of her foolish words.’

‘It was nothing to do with that, Maizie.’

‘You know ‘twas! You were happy enough about me carrying your baby up until then! But because of that stupid rant, you condemned me to years of misery with Alwyn, and condemned your own son to suffering beyond belief!’

‘You’re wrong, Maizie. I—’

‘No I’m not! All these long years I’ve kept quiet! All these years I’ve held my tongue and stood by silently, scared silly of Alwyn and his fists. And of you. You know how I’ve tried to talk to you about it, asked you to put the terrible wrongs right, but always it were the same limping excuse from you – Alwyn. But he’s not around no more and at last I can speak plain. Any fool can see Yul’s yours.’

‘Yul’s nothing like me! He has dark hair and grey eyes.’

‘Yes, that’s from me. But he has your build and height, your way o’ moving and riding, your hands and fingernails, your eyebrows and cheekbones – I could go on forever. He’s clever like you, determined, quick-witted and so strong-willed. He won’t be told what to do unless he wants to do it – and he has your temper.’

‘Maizie, that describes you too. You’re strong-minded and bright – it’s what I loved about you. All those qualities are from you. And anyway, Yul was born eight months after the Blue Moon up at Mooncliffe. That was our first time together so you must’ve conceived before then.’

‘No! He came a month early! ‘Tis not that unusual! Would I have been up in the cold and dark at the Stone Circle for the Winter Solstice if he’d been due then? I thought I’d another month to go! I was as shocked as anyone when he were born during the ceremony, in the middle of that eclipse, with me squatting on the earth while everyone looked on and Mother Heggy capering about and laying him on the Altar Stone all bloody and screaming. Not the best way of birthing your first child, and not expected neither!’

She stared angrily at Magus, her nostrils flaring and grey eyes flashing. He was reminded forcibly of the boy who now lay like death up in the byre; this was how Yul looked when he was angry. He knew Yul would’ve been a worthy son, someone to groom as his heir, as the future magus. The boy had courage, pride and was a natural leader. He was tough and intelligent and passionate about Stonewylde. But Magus’d been haunted by Mother Heggy’s prophecies ever since Yul’s birth. If he acknow­ledged Yul as his own, he risked their coming true. Conceived under a blue moon, born under a red one, the fruit of his passion. This child would one day rise up with the folk behind him to overthrow him at the place of bones and death.

Magus had woken in the middle of many a night in cold, sweating panic, haunted by the thought of a child of his growing up at Stonewylde, whose destiny was to destroy him. It was like something from a Greek tragedy and must never be given any credence whatsoever. How could such a beautiful act of love­making with a young girl who’d captured his heart, result in such horror? Maizie had seemed to be his destiny, his true love. Despite the differences in their upbringing, he’d recognised something in her that called to his soul, and in his naivety had thought that love would overcome all. With a pretty, intelligent Village girl by his side, he’d bring Stonewylde back to a golden age of happiness and prosperity. That was his plan and he’d intended to announce it that Imbolc after the baby’s birth, when he would crown Maizie as his Bright Maiden and be handfasted with her. But the terrible events of the Winter Solstice had put paid to that idea. So he told himself that the baby coming a month early was proof of just how wrong a man could be to ever put his trust in a happy-ever­after future with any woman.

Magus shook his head and once more denied Yul’s paternity, hoping as always to thus negate the prophecy. He looked across at the pretty woman before him, his face implacable.

‘I’m sorry, Maizie, but you’re wrong and I’ll be very displeased if you continue to make these false allegations. Yul will remain at the Hall whilst I investigate his latest insubordination. I’ll deal with him as I see fit. I’m the magus and it isn’t for you to question the punishment I choose to administer, so keep your remarks to yourself. I’ll hear no more about this and you’d do well to remember your place.’

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ she said, lowering her eyes, although her anger remained palpable. She was still so attractive; he’d always pre­ferred women with spirit and Maizie was certainly one of those. She’d never gone soft and fawning, never given in to him and lost her independence. She’d endured the life to which he’d consigned her with stoicism, her pride never allowing her to become anything less than the woman he’d fallen in love with all those years ago. He glanced down at the tiny girl sitting silently in his lap listening to everything being said, and his heart twinged with remorse. She gazed up at him with enormous green eyes that seemed to search his soul. Eyes that looked inside him and knew exactly what dark truths he tried to conceal.

‘Bad man,’ she said clearly. ‘Bad, bad man.’

‘Leveret, come here!’ said Maizie sharply. Magus handed the child over to her mother, who clasped her tightly.

‘Anyway . . . I came here to speak to you about Alwyn. You know there’s been no improvement since the stroke? He’s still alive but can do nothing for himself and he’s not aware of anything. He’s shrunk to skin and bones and has to be fed through tubes. I wanted to ask if you’d agree to Alwyn entering the Stone Labyrinth this Samhain for the Dance of Death. I think he should, but as his nearest relative it’s your decision. You know the custom – permission can only be granted by the closest member of the family.’

She took a deep breath to calm herself. If there was one thing Maizie had learnt from living with Alwyn all those years, it was self control. She nodded.

‘Yes, I agree he should go. Let the Dark Angel decide – ‘tis the best way.’

‘Good,’ he said, smiling briskly. ‘I’ll arrange for it to be done. Well, I must be off.’

They both rose and he gazed down at her. She stood before him, Leveret on her hip, and his dark eyes softened at the pair of them. He took one of the woman’s hands.

‘Maizie, let’s not spoil things between us now, not after all this time and all that’s happened. You know that you’ve always been special to me. You were such a lovely girl and you’re a fine woman. I wish that—’

She frowned at him and removed her hand from his.

‘Thank you for calling on me, sir. Samhain Blessings to you.’

***

By mid-morning the next day the heavy mist had lifted, although the day remained overcast and grey. Children ran around the Village excitedly, desperate to get on with the festivities. Every fire in the Village had been extinguished and everyone must fast until the feast in the evening. The trees encircling the Green had already shed their leaves, victims of a wild and gusty storm that had raged the day after the full moon, and had now taken on their skeletal winter appearance. The remains of the messy rooks’ nests had blown away too in the south-westerly gales and now only the great yew remained clothed in glossy dark-green, its slips looking like the barbs of a bird’s feathers. It was the last day of the pagan year, the day for ending the old. It was the day of death.

In the morning the Samhain drama prepared by the youngsters was performed in the Great Barn. It was a spectacular event, full of dance and music with everyone masked and costumed. Sylvie hadn’t taken part; she was feeling far too weak and she’d missed all the rehearsals anyway. Magus noticed her absence and at mid­day he left the festivities to fetch her from the Hall. She sat now in the jolting cart beside her mother, huddled miserably in her black cloak. This was her first time outside since the night of the Hunter’s Moon over a week ago.

Sylvie hadn’t wanted to come today, but Magus had stormed into their rooms and insisted that she go to the Village imme­diately to take part in the afternoon and evening ceremonies. He’d been furious when she’d refused. Miranda hadn’t batted an eyelid when he’d slapped Sylvie hard, shouting at her and throwing clothes at her to put on. Her mother had merely looked on as he dragged her, crying and struggling, out of the rooms and downstairs. He’d bundled her roughly towards the waiting horse and cart, his one concession to her weakness.

‘Behave yourself, girl!’ he’d hissed menacingly into her face, dumping her on the seat in the back of the cart. ‘I told you yesterday you’d take part in the festival and so you shall. There’s nothing wrong with you so snap out of it and stop being path­etic!’

Shivering in her cloak, she tried to stifle the sobs that escaped every so often. She felt ill and weak, but a dull anger burned inside her. It was only when Sylvie realised it was Tom at the reins that she managed to pull herself together. As soon as Magus had ridden on ahead, she leant forward and whispered to the ostler.

‘Tom, do you have any news of Yul? Is he alright?’

The old man turned and gazed down at her in consternation. He was unsure how honest to be for this poor girl looked little better than the boy, but she deserved the truth.

‘I’m not to speak of it, but I reckon you won’t spread the word and get me into trouble. So no, miss, Yul’s not alright at all. He’s alive, and that’s a miracle in itself, but he’s in a bad way. He can’t stand nor barely sit up and he can’t take no food. I done what I can, and Mother Heggy’s sent potions. But . . . well, ‘tis not looking good for the lad.’

‘What did they do to him?’ she whispered, closing her eyes in anguish at the thought of Yul suffering. ‘Was he whipped again?’

‘No, miss! He were brung up to the Hall like this the day after the Moon Fullness. That Jackdaw carried him into the byre like a brace o’ rabbits slung over his shoulders. They done nothing to him since, but I reckon Yul’s been poisoned. His eyes aren’t right and he don’t know who he is or nothing.’

Miranda pulled her back onto the seat.

‘What are you whispering about, Sylvie? Don’t talk with the servants like that. You know Magus wouldn’t like it.’

Sylvie glared at her. Even under Clip’s hypnosis, she couldn’t understand how her mother could behave like this.

‘All you ever think about is Magus! He always comes first, before anyone or anything. How could you have let him hit me, Mum? You’ve never hit me and you’ve always said it was wrong. Do you really love him so much that I don’t matter now? Don’t you care about me any more?’

Miranda looked away uncomfortably.

‘Of course I do. But Magus is right – you can’t just take to your bed for half the month. If you insist on dancing on that cliff, you’ll have to put up with feeling tired afterwards and get on with it. And anyway, Sylvie, Magus didn’t hit you. It was just a little slap.’

‘That’s not true! He did hit me, he was rough with me and it really hurt, especially when I feel so ill. Why do you always take his side?’

‘Because he knows best. He says I’ve been too soft with you all these years and that’s why you’re so weak and quick to take to your bed. He says you’ve got no backbone and you enjoy being an invalid and I think maybe he’s right. We have to obey him, you know that. Please don’t be difficult, darling – it makes life so unpleasant and I don’t want him to get angry. I must think of the baby, after all.’

Sylvie turned her back on her mother, seething with outrage. When they reached the Village, Tom helped them out of the cart and Sylvie managed to whisper to him again.

‘If you get the chance, tell Yul I love him. Please, Tom?’

‘Aye, miss, I’ll do that.’

***

Sylvie stood shivering at the entrance to the Green Labyrinth marked out on the Village Green, waiting her turn to go in. Her face was so white and thin that she hardly needed a skull mask and she pulled the thick black cloak tightly around her, trying to keep warm. The atmosphere on the Green today frightened her, all the more because of her dreadful weakness. Everything in the Village today spoke of death and darkness, and this emphasis on mortality and morbidity terrified her. It was so different from the joyous maypole dancing at Beltane or the holiday fun of the Summer Solstice.

Everyone wore a hooded black robe or cloak and many wore skull masks. A thin line of smoke trickled from the wicker dome in the centre of the labyrinth, but the cottages seemed strangely lifeless without their habitual plumes of smoke. It was quiet too, despite the many people thronging around the cobbles. Sylvie wanted very much to cling to Miranda, who stood nearby, but that was out of the question given Miranda’s earlier remarks. Her mother had made it very clear where her priorities now lay. Sylvie felt abandoned – and very vulnerable.

A man in a crow mask stood at the arch of elder branches, identical to the one up at the Stone Circle. He allowed young people to enter the sacred space nine at a time, one by one. As Sylvie’s group waited he reminded them of the labyrinth’s significance. This was a pilgrimage and a moment of deep medi­tation. The walk through the labyrinth was symbolic, represent­ing the journey towards death. When they entered the dome in the centre they entered the Otherworld, the Realm of the Dead, where they shed their past life and lay reflecting on all they’d left behind. Then, reborn from the dark womb, they began a new life, a new journey starting afresh as they retraced their steps and followed the path back out of the maze. This, said the crow man solemnly, was also symbolic of the death of this year and the birth of the new one. A time of endings and beginnings.

Sylvie watched the youngsters already in there. They walked very slowly, guided by the white pebbles as they followed the symmetrical, tortuously curved path. They walked with heads bowed, making sure they kept distance between each other until they reached the entrance to the dome. Sylvie really didn’t want to enter the labyrinth; the whole thing was macabre and abso­lutely terrified her. She swayed on her feet at the entrance think­ing she might at any moment faint. She’d barely eaten all week and couldn’t shake off the overwhelming exhaustion that smo­thered her. She’d been on a drip for the first few days and her arm was still bruised, but she was still unable to eat normally. Her legs were shaky and her stomach felt hollow.

She surveyed the great coiled labyrinth ahead and felt panic well up inside. There was nothing on the path to hold on to – what if she collapsed in there? What if she never came out again? Nobody at Stonewylde cared for her apart from Yul and, if Tom was right, he was in mortal danger himself. She could die inside that wicker dome in the darkness and nobody would realise until it was too late.

As her fears and terrors spiralled out of control, she grabbed hold of the archway and gulped in air, trying to fight the waves of dizziness. She wanted to cry at Magus’ harshness towards her. This was all his fault; he’d put her through the terrible ordeal again up at Mooncliffe and she couldn’t help being slow to recover after being forced to feed him her moon magic. She’d never be able to take this every month. She looked across to the wicker dome in the centre and hoped desperately she’d make it that far without passing out.

‘This is a very solemn journey,’ continued the crow man, ‘and not one to be undertaken lightly. As you walk towards your death, take stock of the past year and all your achievements and failures. While you’re inside the Otherworld, in the dome, confront your weaknesses and your innermost desires. Clear your minds and savour the darkness and the special drink. When you emerge, newly born, remove your death mask and look to the New Year ahead with a bright face. As you walk back along the path, think hard on what you hope to achieve this coming year, what you can do for Stonewylde, for our community. You’ll be given a slip of yew as you finish the journey to remind you of your rebirth and your resolutions. May the Dance of the Green Labyrinth at Samhain be sacred to you all.’

As the gate opened and the group began to move forward, Sylvie glanced across the Green and saw the tall black-robed figure of Magus staring intently at her. His face was impassive but his dark eyes burned into her. She shuddered and stepped under the arch of elder, the black feathers brushing her white face.

‘Pull your mask down!’ hissed the crow man, bundling her in and blocking the exit behind her.