science fiction and fantasy writer

Dancing the Labyrinth

Reverend James dropped his broom of birch twigs. His novice, Gregory, knelt on the baked red dirt to build a pyramid of kindling on the entry stone of the labyrinth.

Reverend James tipped his head back, pressing his knuckles against his spine. Even with a novice to do half the work, beating the bounds played merry hell with his back by the time it was done.

He lowered his gaze from the unbroken blue above. Gregory stooped, blowing gently to nurse the needfire into life. Reverend James flapped the skirt of his cassock, trying to generate some cooling breeze. He lifted his hat to mop his brow with a handkerchief. Not even noon and the day was already oven hot.

Three labyrinths done, he told himself, only one more to dance, then sweep the last quarter of the circle to complete the ring, and the town was secure until the next new moon.

Gregory got the fire going quickly.

“Good lad,” Reverend James told him. “You did well this morning. No missteps.”

The boy risked a smile. Reverend James was frugal with his compliments, as a teacher should be.

“One day, lad,” he said, “we’ll take you to England, and you can feel what it’s like to dance a real turf labyrinth.” What it’s like to dance on earth that gives beneath the feet, he continued to himself, with grass that’s green and soft, not bone-pale and dry.

“What’s England like?” asked Gregory.

Reverend James sighed as he stepped out of his sandals onto the unyielding hardness of granite and baked clay. The desiccated grass prickled his soles. “Further from the sun than here,” he said. Far enough to be warmed, not scorched dry. “Summer days are longer than here, but so are winter nights. The earth is so deep that after rain a man can sink into it up to his calves. It rains enough that people complain about it.”

He chuckled at Gregory’s expression. The boy grinned.

Reverend James passed his feet through the smoke of the needfire, stepping over the first stone that was marked with the rune Nyd and reserved for the fire alone. He stepped carefully onto the second stone, pressing the toes of his left foot to the heel of his right. He raised his arms from his sides and shaped the second stone’s rune in his mind: Feoh, prosperity. He rose up on his toes and began to dance a solitary pavane.

The next five stones, leading into the labyrinth, bore the runes of the conventional crucifix: Born, Eolh, Daeg, Stan and Eoh, that stood for defence against attack, defence from evil, the light of God, endurance of the Church and faith. Their placement at the beginning of the path, outside the locks, meant setting them aside, useless in a land that acknowledged neither God nor human faith, good nor evil, only its own wild elemental dreams.

“Father?”

“Mm?” Reverend James glanced over his shoulder. After so many years since the Church exiled him to the antipodes, his legs no longer resisted the different sequence of steps.

“How do you dance on a turf labyrinth, if it’s not marked with runes?”

Like running water and a breath of air. “The dance is different,” Reverend James said. “It flows. A turf labyrinth doesn’t defend a man from the land, but binds him to the soil of his own country.”

The path through the labyrinth skirted around the heartstone, switching back and forth in expanding semi-circles then running the labyrinth’s full outer circumference before turning back to reach the centre by a mirror pattern. Reverend James turned the first switchback as he spoke.

“Like the scars the blackfellas put on their skins,” said Gregory.

Reverend James waggled his eyebrows. “Something like that, yes. Clever lad.”

He turned the second switchback, at Stan, was onto Eoh, about to leap again, when he noticed that the heartstone was cracked. Momentum carried him forward as shock immobilised his thoughts. Had he stopped himself on Eoh, before the beginning of the first lock, he could have turned back. But his right foot landed on Raed, the wheel, and he began to swivel on the axle of his toes.

Horror filled him as he stepped backwards over Gar, the new beginning, then sideways through the third switchback and began to shuffle forward, knees locked and elbows tucked, with toes splayed and heel behind heel. How could the heartstone be cracked? Could the earth have settled or shifted beneath it? Perhaps it had fractured, unnoticed, during its long journey from the English quarry that gave it birth.

Reverend James dreaded the true answer, even as he clutched at vain alternatives: the land had thrown up a Dreaming, right underneath the labyrinth.

He couldn’t remember the last time a new Dreaming had come up within a mile of the town. There were a couple of barely active bunyips down in the creek, and a willywilly ground astride the original course of the road to Sydney Town. The local blackfella tribe had a story of a warregul – a dingo dreaming – that used to roam the hills nearby, taking people and running them like a pack of hunting dogs. But that angry spirit had long since lain back down to rest. The land hereabouts was quiet, its hostility tempered by the stupor of age.

“Father!” he heard Gregory gasp. “Your shadow!”

He slid his left foot onto Calc, spiritual transformation, and began the Quaker’s walk. The boy pointed a shaking finger. Reverend James’s shadow stretched away from his feet, its body balled up tight atop elastic legs. The sun said it should have lain close and small beneath him. Gregory’s own shadow was similarly elongated, but in a different direction, both shadows pulling as far from the predator beneath the heartstone as they could.

Of all the Devil-plagued luck. Reverend James damned his own eyes for not noticing the lie of their shadows before he stepped onto the stones.

Of course, the Devil had no hand in this. If the Devil took a man, his soul would suffer in torment until the Last Day, then – perhaps – to be forgiven and rise anew. If a Dreaming took him, it would suck the shadow and soul right out of him and who knew what happened then? Whether the land would simply devour him, or whether he’d be damned to a godless Purgatory from which he could never be judged, let alone find salvation.

A Dreaming sat beneath the heartstone of the labyrinth, constrained there by the rings of rune-carved stones. Given time, it might have worked its way free, had Reverend James not begun the dance that would bind it permanently when he was done. But the moment his unprotected feet touched the heartstone, even as he sealed its prison, the Dreaming would have him, and it would tear the living soul right out of him.

Martyrdom awaited, but afterward he would not be joined with God. He rose up onto his toes, to spring clumsily sideways from Calc to Cweorth, liberation of the spirit.

“Father!” Gregory said. “What shall we do?”

The boy’s question jolted his mind back into action. Reverend James’s thoughts raced. He threw back his head and turned up his wrists as he slid slowly forward to Beorc, purification, navigating the fourth switchback to begin the long circuit of the labyrinth’s outer perimeter.

“Run back to the church,” he said to the sky. “In the roll-top desk in my study you’ll find a spool of silver wire. Fetch that, and an iron nail from the shed. There’s some six-inch spikes in a tin under the workbench. Go!”

He didn’t lower his gaze as he listened to the boy scamper away. “Father, give the lad speed. And let his eyes and wits be sharp.”

His toes found the edge of the stone. He crept forward onto Os, the word, and slowly swept the shape of the rune with his feet, a waltz-like sequence. Having begun the dance, he couldn’t pause without ruining the ritual. The best he could do was move as slowly as possible. If Gregory could get back in time with the wire, and give him a path back through the labyrinth anchored to the earth inside the town’s defences, then – perhaps – he could survive this.

His gaze went out to the ragged bushland that surrounded the settlement, beyond the strip of cleared dirt from which the townsmen wrestled their crops. The native trees epitomised this perverse continent – that kept their green-grey foliage all year round, but shed their bark in long strips, or leaked red sap as though from bizarre stigmata.

A contrary though arose. He could step out without finishing the dance. He could just turn aside and step off the edge. He wouldn’t even need to retrace his steps.

To do so would breach the town’s defences. The Dreaming under the labyrinth would be free to run anywhere beneath the settlement. Dreamings rarely moved far from the patch of dirt that birthed them, but they could exert themselves a distance in pursuit of prey.

How big a risk was it, really? Most likely the thing under the heartstone was a common willywilly and, while an old willywilly ground might be two hundred yards or more across, it took years to achieve that diameter. If it was a willywilly, the townsfolk would surely have time to reset the boundary, even to build a warded enclosure, before the dreaming had a chance to do any harm.

It was possible that this Dreaming was altogether harmless. Where the land was quiet, sometimes kookullies came up, fountains or pools of fairy light that were safe enough for children to play inside. The land was quiet, hereabouts. Or perhaps a mool – that just wanted to get about on a man’s legs for a time.

But what if it wasn’t a kookullie or a mool, or even a willywilly or some other simple thing? What if it was a Dreaming that was more than pretty lights or curiosity or mindless appetite? What if it was something full of anger and volition? Chances were the land was too somnolent to throw up such a fury. But could he be certain? The boundaries of the Red Heart, where the land was wide awake and full of spite, were known to shift without warning, by scores of miles at a time. Settlements had been swallowed up before.

He lifted his left foot and stepped firmly onto Cen, knowledge. Ever so slowly, he stamped his feet, three times apiece. Even if it was just a willywilly, could he live with himself if his cowardice cost even one of his parishioners the fate he’d avoided? It wasn’t just their lives he would be risking.

But could he face extinction, to save those under his protection from the same?

Could he not?

A lump seemed to fill his chest, crushing his heart and lungs. It expanded downwards, pressing onto his bladder and bowel, and up, blocking his breath. He spun onto the next stone, Sigel, the sun’s illumination. Slowly, arms outstretched, he whirled. This part of the dance often made him dizzy. Today he felt queasy.

Where was that boy?

He finished spinning, realised just in time that he was facing the wrong way and completed the necessary half-turn to step onto the next stone.

Just as his heel touched Peor’s tipped dice cup, he heard Gregory’s pounding steps. Was it a sign? Would chance favour him? The boy tripped to a halt at the edge of the labyrinth, close enough to touch. “I found the thread, Father,” he gasped. “And the nails.” He held up a rusted can.

“Good lad. Can you remember your paces?” Reverend James asked him, jigging like a marionette. Gregory stared at him blankly. “The labyrinth dance, boy!” Reverend James snapped impatiently. “You did it perfectly at the south labyrinth this morning. Can you remember the paces?”

The novice nodded vigorously, his eyes still wide.

Pulse suddenly thumping, Reverend James rattled off instructions: “Hammer a nail into the ground by the entry stone. Tie one end of the thread about it. Carry the thread with you into the labyrinth. Lie it along the stones behind you. It must touch every one. Move, boy!”

With a squeak of, “Yes, Father,” Gregory raced around to the labyrinth’s entrance. Reverend James skipped from Peor to Yr, the three-legged rune that could mean either the artisan’s skill or the art of killing. He wondered which it would be, today.

He paused, miming the process of stringing, nocking and drawing a bow, moving as slowly as he could. It was the end of the first lock. Gregory found a fist-sized rock and pounded a nail into the ground. Reverend James swore inwardly as the boy’s trembling fingers fumbled the thread.

“Less haste!” he exhorted. “Less haste, more speed.”

Gregory finally managed to knot the thread. Reverend James dropped into a crouch on Aesc, stretching his arms, fingers splayed, as he reached slowly up and out, emulating the world tree, symbol of nature’s order. His knees creaked, straining with the slowness of his rising.

“Call out your paces,” he said to Gregory, as the boy stepped through the needfire’s smoke.

“Feoh,” the boy called. “Up on the toes. High jumps, Born, Eolh…”

“Knees up, boy!”

Gregory lifted his knees obediently.

“Don’t let the thread touch the heartstone.”

Gregory wobbled and almost put his foot in the centre, struggling to lie the thread around the switchback without stopping moving. Reverend James bit his tongue. The boy recovered himself and leapt onto the next stone with a triumphant, “Daeg!”

Reverend James marched slow-motion across Mann, social order.

Gregory negotiated the second switchback more easily than the first, whirled across Raed and shuffled rapidly over Gar. “…splay the toes, heel to heel. Calc, the Quaker’s walk…”

Reverend James continued as slowly as he could. Sideways over Gear, orderly change. Feet crossing over, a half-turn in the middle of that stone, then back and forth across Lagh, the tide. Gregory waltzed onto Os, beginning his dash around the outer ring.

Bless me, Reverend James thought, the boy’s going to save me. Green Father, thank you, he’s going to save me. He formed a halo with his arms for Wyn, harmony.

“… Cen, left foot first, stamp twice apiece…”

“Thrice! Thrice!”

“Three times! Sigel…”

Reverend James glanced back and saw the boy’s indecision. How could he keep the thread lying true, when he had to spin with arms wide? “Put your elbows out. Keep your hands close above your head,” Reverend James advised.

Gregory nodded. His face was pale and sheened in sweat.

“You’re doing well, lad.”

Reverend James put his hands together in prayer, touching his knees to Gyf, the divine gift, at the first switchback in towards the centre. He paused as long as he dared, listening to the boy’s shouted recital.

“…Peor, jig on the heels. Skip to Yr, archer’s stance, string, nock, draw. Aesc, acorn grows to a tree…”

He threw his weight back, levering himself up from his knees. His shadow dragged at his feet. Reverend James lurched onto Ac and crouched. He watched Gregory spring up on Aesc, arms splayed, while he leapt himself on Ac, arms tight to his sides while he kicked. The boy was a bare handful of stones behind him.

Reverend James curled his hands into ram’s horns beside his temples, bowing over Yng, fertility. Three more stones in front of him, before he was through the second lock. Gregory passed beside him, going the opposite way, their sleeves all but brushing.

“…Man, march. Gear, with the right, cross, half turn on the left, cross again. Lagh, forward, back, forward…”

Reverend James’s shadow clung to Gregory’s, distorting wildly as they moved apart.

Haegl, next. He skipped about in a slow dance. A full turn left, a leap, a full turn back. Gregory leapt at the same moment, kicking, on Ac, remembered at the last moment to raise his hands for Yng’s horns. Reverend James felt something give, deep inside his chest. His senses blanked for a second. Close as he was, the boy wasn’t going to reach him in time, after all.

Reverend James jumped over Aeh, the yew, symbol of death. He teetered, feet together on Ys, stasis, the end of the second lock, looked back to meet the boy’s desperate, teary gaze.

“Too late, lad,” he heard himself say. “Go back.”

Gregory shook his head furiously. He reached out as he jumped around on Haegl. “No!” his teacher snapped. “We have to be on the same stone, boy.”

Reverend James stepped, into the second-last switchback, couldn’t pause any more or the ritual would be broken. His shadow dragged unwillingly behind, fingers clawing for purchase on the stones. His foot touched Ior. He was inside the third lock. There was no turning back. Gregory landed on Ys.

“Go back,” Reverend James said again. “If you come into the third lock, it’ll have you too. Follow the thread out. You don’t need to dance, just touch every stone.”

He looked down at his feet, at the fanged rune cut between them. The serpent, it meant. Unavoidable hardship. The first rune of the Antipodean Crucifix. The next was Ur, perseverence. He danced parallel to Gregory.

“Go!” he snapped. He took a breath, and added more gently: “You did your best, my son. I’m proud of you. Go!”

The boy’s chest heaved as though he might be sick, or else fling himself heedlessly after his teacher.

“Go,” said Reverend James, softly.

Gregory fumbled with the silver thread in his hands. His mouth twisted into a grimace of despair. With unsteady steps he began to follow its trail.

Tears blinded him and Reverend James cursed himself for a fool. Had he made the right choice? Or had he sacrificed his life and soul for no good purpose? He would never know.

My Lord, Blessed Father, I hope I’ve served you well.

Extinction awaited.

Tiw, sacrifice, at the last switchback. The martyr’s rune. Would he still be a martyr, if he could never sit at God’s side? It took all his will to take another step onto Eir, return to the earth, the last stone before the centre. The weight of his shadow almost caused him to stumble. He began to shake.

Gregory stumbled by, on the other side of the heartstone, heading out of the labyrinth. The boy’s mouth stretched open, emitting some noise, moaning or wailing. Reverend James couldn’t hear anything above his own rattling breath.

He looked down again, at the heartstone in front of him, cracked in radiating lines from the centre. The rune cut into its surface was Ebel, the claim of man over the land. What most people forgot, what he had forgotten, was that the claim went the other way too.

The pressure from his bladder and bowel was intense. He resisted, determined to go with dignity intact. His shadow thrashed and whirled and beat at itself, trying to tear free of his feet. He stepped with his right foot.

The stone was cool, where the others around it were warm from the sun. He lifted his left foot, placed it beside the right. Reverend James stood still.

He felt the Dreaming that lay beneath the stone, sensed it stir through the soles of his feet.

His shadow stiffened, stricken. The Dreaming reached up, through the shattered rune, and touched him. He clenched his teeth, unable to hold in all of a scream of terror.

He expected it to start spinning him, a willywilly twisting him up like a wrung-out cloth, while his feet stayed rooted, bones shattering, sinews tearing. He expected his shadow to shred apart, to feel the Dreaming shuck the soul from his flesh like a man might cut a living snail from its shell.

The Dreaming penetrated his foot, between the knuckles of his big and second toes. Just a pinprick, but its essence overwhelmed him. Eternity yawned, the ageless Red Heart of the land. He was an eye-blink; the history of Christ’s churches an indrawn breath. His mind rebelled.

Reverend James felt a spark of anger from the thing that held him, felt it coil to take him by force. The martyr submits, he cried to himself. The martyr submits with God in his heart.

He surrendered.

The feel of the Dreaming changed, even as it enveloped him. Young Gregory, the town, its inhabitants hurrying towards him, the church and the runestones were left behind.

From the bottom of a sheer ravine, he looked up at a slice of cloudless blue. Red rock walls shaded a lightless pool. He sensed movement, though all about him appeared still, the surface of the water like a mirror reflecting rock walls and sky. Shadows, he realised, dancing in the deep shade. He was in the Red Heart, where Dreamings were born.

It was cool in the ravine.

Reverend James had never imagined there would be water in the Red Heart, only parched dust and baking stone. He stooped, stretching fingertips towards the surface of the pool.

He felt a stab, lancing up through his legs, jerking him back upright. A tearing, and something was claimed, a piece bitten out of his soul.

The presence beneath the stone withdrew. A shiver ran the length of his body. He all but lost control of his bowel.

Reverend James blinked at the concerned faces of the townsfolk, clumped together a short distance from the labyrinth. He looked down at his shadow. It tucked close under his feet, where the sun said it should be. He tried to lift a foot, and found that he could. He stepped from the shattered heartstone, back onto Eir. His foot slid sideways, repelled by a barrier of nothing, and landed in the narrow space between the stones. He stopped, confused, and tried again with the same result.

He stared down in slow horror. For a long moment, his lungs refused to take air. The hurt to his soul throbbed inside him like a physical wound.

He willed his chest to expand, his legs to work. Moving slowly, quietly, when every part of him wanted to scream and run for the church, he walked from the labyrinth, taking care to step between the stones. His shadow stretched and contorted, wriggling snake-like to avoid contact with the stones.

“A miracle,” somebody murmured. Others echoed the words with cries of delight. Gregory remained silent, brows knotted as he watched Reverend James’s feet and shadow.

Reverend James stepped past the still smouldering needfire and out onto the baked dirt and brittle dry grass. The thin mesh of warding lines that stretched from church to labyrinths and the town’s runestone perimeter made an uncomfortable tingling, like pins and needles, in the soles of his feet. The red clay was as hard as it had always been. It offered no cradling embrace.

Yet nor did it resist.

Reverend James stood and breathed.

Gregory frowned up at him. He put a hand on the boy’s head, raised the other palm to stay the crowd.

Below, through the net of warding lines, Reverend James felt the slow stirrings of the land. Old Dreamings, sinking down into the rock, to dissipate in the slumbering depths. New dreams taking shape and rising restless to the surface, hungry, angry or simply curious. The Dreaming that had touched him spread beneath the feet of the crowd, not testing their defences, just aware.

What now, for him?

He lifted his gaze to the round church with its T-shaped crucifix, five runes cut into the cross. Ebel was centre, at the junction of the bars. Man’s claim over the land and the land’s over man. The Dreaming had claimed him for this land. He was no longer compatible with that which suppressed and repelled it, and he would never again be able to cross the runestone threshold of his church.

The realisation hurt more than the injury to his soul.

He wondered, would it bind him beyond this life? Would he be raised for judgement when he died? Or would the bite the Dreaming had taken from his soul bring him back to the Red Heart, to dance for eternity with the other shadows there?

And to what purpose?

He took a shaky breath.

Did it matter, when God’s work had been done?

Reverend James tousled Gregory’s hair, forced himself to smile. He gestured for the townsfolk to bow their heads.

His voice cracked over the words as he said, “Let us pray…”

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