I paced up and down the narrow strip of beach until the incoming tide threatened to cut me off. When it became obvious that I wasn’t achieving anything down there other than creating my own shallow trench in the wet sand, I started climbing the make-shift steps with a heavy heart, back to the creepy mob on top of the cliff, my bleak mood finally in sync with their sinister magic. I didn’t need magic to feel gloomy. My mind was full of swarming thoughts – thoughts of vengeance and corruption, of bureaucracy and scapegoating, and of unknown creatures coming up with outrageous, indefensible claims. And then there were thoughts of family and friends, of love and kindness and tolerance and… humanity. For all the lessons we’d been force-fed throughout life, heaven had felt a cold, cruel, inhumane place to me. And that’s when I had Cronus on my side.
Now, I was alone. We were alone.
Should I tell the others? Should I warn Vee? But she was already so worried about whatever creepy predictions Madam Morel was cooking up… It seemed unfair. I would just walk up to camp, take Vee’s hand and drag her out of there. We would walk home slowly, and she would lean on my shoulder and we would forget all this nonsense for a few more hours. Then, in the crisp light of day and with a good sleep behind us, we could decide what to do, together.
As the up-lit gorse bushes came into view, I noticed a change. No one was sitting on the make-shift tree trunks anymore. The dying embers of the once roaring bonfire were hardly visible now because of the tightly packed procession of people encircling it.
I approached unnoticed and stood on one of the stumps, so I could see better. Madam Morel was crouched over a cauldron. As I watched, one by one, they would break away and advance to her side. They would pick up a candle and touch it to the ambers until it was lit, then Madam Morel would mutter an incantation and, like struck by lightning, the person holding the candle would fall to their knees. The witch would scoop a jugful of liquid from the cauldron and tip it onto her meek subject’s head.
I watched in silence as they took turns, lit candles and were showered in the unknown substance. One by one, they stood up, their candles still lit, and moved away. Judging by the jubilant expressions on their faces, being able to walk away with their candles alight was significant in some way – like being granted absolution by some divine entity.
Vee was the last to go. By then so much liquid had hit the fire, that I could see no glowing ambers anymore. She picked a candle and dropped to her knees, her fingers desperately raking through the ashes, searching for a way to light her candle. The ashes were hot; Vee gasped and pulled her reddened fingers up, then shook her hand to cool them down. And still, she wouldn’t give up. She kept going through the ashes again and again, more and more desperate, tears dripping down her cheeks now and making tiny fizzing noises as they landed in the cinders.
I couldn’t keep watching this; it was heartbreaking. How can one person be allowed to have so much control over another human being? Why did I ever agree to let her come to this stupid performance? Sickened by the sight, I rushed forward, roughly pushed my way through the onlookers and dropped to my knees alongside Vee. I gathered up her hands in one of mine and wiped her tears with my other.
“You, twisted viper!” I hissed the words at Madam Morel.
Her face stayed blank, immobile, as if she hadn’t even heard me. She was humming quietly to herself. I gave up on burning her with my stare and wrapped my arm around Vee’s shoulders, trying to quieten her sobs. Vee continued to cry, disconsolate. She slumped against me and sobbed harder than before.
If she wanted a lit candle, I would get her a lit candle, damn it. I turned around and snatched the nearest person’s candle from their grasp. The woman gasped and dropped to her knees behind me. Christ, what drama over a small piece of wax!
I touched the wick to Vee’s candle – it caught at once. Vee simpered and threw her ash-blackened hand around my neck. Without warning, the witch decided to soak us at that precise moment. Vee’s candle caught the full whack of water and went out. Everyone gasped.
Vee’s breath caught and we both stared at the soaked candle for a moment. Vee swallowed loudly and then looked at me, panic screaming from her eyes.
“I’m going to die.” She whispered the words so quietly that I had to read her lips to be sure I heard her right.
“No, you’re not,” I disagreed, trapping her gaze in mine. “I’ve got you.” I tightened my arm around her. I could feel a light tightening of her hand around my neck, too; she was holding onto me as if I were a buoy on choppy water, the only think keeping her afloat, alive. I did not move my eyes away from her.
She could not tear her eyes away from me either and I took full advantage of that. If the witch didn’t play fair, then neither would I. I was still holding the borrowed candle.
“Bring your hand forward,” I said to Vee in what I hoped was a sure voice. “Bring you hand closer to mine.”
She hesitated for a second, but then the hand clutching the sodden candle started to move slowly, like in a trance. I watched until I was sure she wouldn’t drop the candle, then I brought the borrowed one closer. I touched the two wicks together. The flame stuttered, and then caught.
Vee stared at the flame and I glared at the witch.
My arm still around Vee, I dragged us both up to a standing position and thrust the borrowed candle back at its owner. Still glaring at Madam Morel, I eased our bodies out from the circle and turned towards the path.
“I won’t let you die,” I whispered into Vee’s ear. “I won’t let anything bad happen to you, ever.”
She whimpered, but kept walking, the candle clutched tightly in her spare hand, eyes on the flame. I put my hand over hers, forming a little windshield to keep the flame going. Slowly, one small step at a time, we walked away from the madness.