In the darkness they gather, drawn by the song of running water and the promise of the flame. The teacher trails behind, holding aloft the lamp that his companions might see the winding path. Around fallen branches and down vertiginous steps carved from the mountainside they travel until, at the edge of the bog, they pause to light the ceremonial torches.
“Be cautious as you cross the bog. The rocks are treacherous and the torches throw little light. You must pass this place as much by memory as by light,” the teacher whispers as he sparks each of the torches in turn.
“What about…” the initiate asks, but before he can finish speaking the acolyte cuffs him across the back of his head. He turns on her, fury flashing in his eyes, but she fixes him with a barely contained feral glare.
He nods, accepts his torch from the teacher in silence, and turns to pick his way across the mossy black stones which peek out above the waterline.
“Hold strong,” the teacher whispers.
The acolyte nods and turns her eyes to the mountains, visible now only as black voids jagging against the starry sky. She breathes deeply of the night air and, silently, wishes for the hundredth time that she possessed the wings which she wears in her dreams.
Behind them, the matriarchs watch from their seat on a fallen log. Three generations of woods women listen as forest slowly heaves a sigh and returns to steady breathing as the night creatures begin to crawl and trill in the cold air. They wait in silence, knowing that the softest word will scare the forest into holding its breath again.
Down in the ravine, they cross the bog safely and arrive at the stony riverbank. The gurgle of water across half submerged rocks is interrupted only by the grating of stone on stone beneath the feet of the approaching ceremonialists. Out across the waters waits the pyre, prepared stick by twig by leaf by stone, each carried to its place at the middle of the river by the initiate and his teacher while the acolyte and matriarchs watched from the shore.
The three pause at the edge and gaze into the darkness. After a moment the teacher turns to the initiate and says, “Take your torch and wade out into the river. Place each step with care so you are not sweets away by the current. When you reach the pyre, light it with your torch and allow the rising flames to burn away your past life.”
The initiate blinked, unsure how to take the dramatic speech, but eventually nodded and walked out into the black water.
The acolyte and the teacher watched as the golden circle of torchlight moved slowly across the rippling surface. Soon the light revealed the pyre: Stone had been laid atop flat stone to create an altar which rose a hands breadth above the black water, atop which stood the pyre. The initiate pushed his torch into it, kindling a flame in its dry heart. With a burst of light and the crackle of hungry flame, the pyre ignited and cast a wide circle of golden light across the river.
On the ridge, the matriarchs smile as a golden light rises up across the mountainside. Reflecting from the wide waters, the flames glow like a sunrise to paint the autumn leaves.
The initiate returns, bearing his torch and a wide grin. He is soaked and more than a little cold, but the glow of the fire warms his spirit. The three stand there at the river’s edge, watching in silence as the flames rise and embers drift into the night sky. The cracking of the fire joins in with the burbling river and the insectile night song to form a wild, secret chorus.