There was a crack somewhere to the left of him where the fuse box was. The lobby plunged into darkness. He thought about lighting the candle on the windowsill but it seemed pointless when he was about to go outside. Besides, Jennie would be coming through with one to see him on his way. Sure enough, a flicker was heading through the kitchen towards him.
'I hope your first footing will be all right, those ladies don't look after themselves at the best of times,' she said.
'They'll be fine. Besides,' he held up the small bag of coal, 'this'll see them to the morning if they keep it banked up.'
'You willnae linger will you?'
He adjusted his hat, attempting unsuccessfully to fix it lower over his ears whilst still being able to see.
'Here.' Jennie patted his hand away, tucked the hat into his collar at the back, and pushed it up, exposing his eyebrows. 'That'll do you.' She smiled. 'Sometimes I wish I'd married a short, blond man.'
They both laughed. He couldn't remember a time since he'd moved to the island when he hadn't been called upon by someone for the first foot.
'I'll be too grey one day, already young Callum Leckie's boy has been roped in for the big party.'
'Good. I want a New Year with you to myself. Now, are you set?'
He peered out the back window, the blackness of the night offset by the glimmering sheen of a landscape covered in snow. 'I hope so. I thought it had cleared for good; it has down south.'
'Aye, well, that's a long way from here.'
He bent down and kissed her, lingering for a moment for the bliss of her warmth against him, then she opened the door and he grabbed the coal and stepped into the night.
'Dinnae tarry!' she called as she shut the door.
'I won't,' he shouted, but his scarf and the swirls of snow around him muffled the words and they came back to him, unheard.
He tramped through the snow, the echoing crunch of his footsteps the only sound. It felt strange to be out in such an empty landscape, the flakes drifting thickly around him. If he slipped, he could be covered in a moment and lost until the melt.
They were the ladies' nearest neighbours, next door they called it, though it was a good few minutes walk between the two cottages. The lamp in the window guided him as usual, this time seeming to shine more brightly than in previous years, though he hadn't expected to see it at all in this weather. He headed towards it, realising as he neared the house that it wasn't the familiar lamp after all. This was a lantern outside, rocking back and forth, buffeted by the blizzard, it's metal frame rattling in the wind. He shook the sack and took out one of the lumps of coal. As he did so, the front door opened and the light ushered him in.
'Marek, Marek! You made it. We're so glad! Come, come.'
'I mustn't linger, Emily. Jennie is alone, and with the storm…'
'Yes, it's a different year to any other, isn't it? But don't worry about Jennie, it'll be no time at all until you're back with her.'
He held up the lump of coal. 'Here's wishing you both a good New Year and prosperity for the months ahead.'
She took it from him and they hugged, Emily reaching up to kiss him on the cheek. 'Thank you, Marek; your good wishes are welcome as always. Now then, come away into the living room and you can be relieved of your burden.'
The fire in the room engulfed him with its warmth and the candles burned so brightly that it hurt to look at them. He emptied his coals into the scuttle and left the bag lying by the hearth.
'It's lighter in here now than it is without a power cut.'
'It is indeed.' Emily laughed. 'We must keep the dark at bay.' She tossed the coal Marek had given her onto the fire. 'Let me take your hat and scarf, you'll roast otherwise inside all these clothes.'
'I mustn't stay long.'
'You won't. Just leave them there on the sofa. We'll go into the kitchen in a moment, Pat's busy in there cooking.'
'I can smell something good; is she baking? It reminds me of the kolacz my mother used to make back home when I was a boy.'
'We've a special treat for you.'
'Emily, you shouldn't.'
'Of course we should. Especially dragging you up here in this weather. Besides, we have a favour to ask of you as well.' She went over to the window and held the curtains apart slightly with her fingers.
'You know I'll do anything I can, but can it wait till tomorrow perhaps?'
She seemed not to have heard him and her happy countenance disappeared as she peered through the gap in the curtains. 'Did you see anyone as you were walking up?'
'Are you expecting someone else?'
'Yes, yes we are.' She let the curtain drop. 'We shall have to go out Marek. But look first at the candles. Do you notice anything?'
'They burn so brightly, brighter than electric. Are they specially made?'
'They're not special at all. They burn brightly because of this.' She pointed to the mirror on the far wall that he hadn't noticed. It was circular, the mirror quartered by a cross of wood fixed inside the outer frame. He stepped up to it and looked at the reflection of the room. It was darker, the candles small and insignificant.
'The lantern you have outside had this design on the metalwork.'
'It is the sign of the Light and we shall need it.'
'The Light? What do you mean?'
'I shall explain in a moment. Come, Pat will be waiting.'
The kitchen was as dim as the living room was light, two ordinary candles on a shelf above the sink flickered as they entered. The warmth from the range increased as Pat lifted a tray out of the oven. She was facing away from them but as she turned he exclaimed, 'Kolacz!'
She swept the pastries off the baking tray onto a plate, then turned back to the range and lifted out another tray, this one filled with small breads.
'We've a task ahead of us', said Emily, 'and these will warm you. Help yourself, there's butter here and jam too if you wish.'
She drew back a chair and motioned him to sit down. He took one of the breads and began cutting it open. 'In Poland we have these as either a cross or a circle, but you've made them together, like the lantern and the mirror. Is this to do with your Light too?'
Pat gasped. 'Emily's told you already?' Her soft voice had a catch in it.
'I've told him nothing yet, Pat, only that we must go out presently, before the Dark rises further.'
'Yes, yes we do,' Pat whispered.
Marek put down his half-eaten bread and swept his hand across his mouth, dislodging stray crumbs. 'You've been talking in riddles since I arrived. The breads are delicious, and I'm sure the kolacz will be too, but what is this Light and Dark you speak of? Why do you need to go out? I told you I need to return to Jennie, and with this weather I can't linger.' He pushed his chair back, but Emily reached across the table and took his hand before he could move away from the table. 'Sit down a moment. Jennie will be fine. In her time, you will return in minutes. She won't be worrying, and she will come to no harm.'
'More riddles.' He took his hand away.
'These are no riddles,' said Emily. 'There is only Light and Dark, and the Dark is rising.'
'Again and so soon!'
'Pat, please. With Marek's help, we can fight it, the Light can thwart the Dark, and banish it for a time.'
Marek sat down again and Emily leaned towards him. 'We believed we had succeeded at Christmas. The snow that covered the country cleared, the boy from the south helped bring the Light. But here, the forces of the Dark linger still.'
Marek glanced from one woman to the toher. He buttered another bread and no-one spoke as he ate, sipping the now strong tea to wash it down. When he had finished, he sat back in his chair.
'In Poland a crossroads is an area where all places and directions meet, where time fades away and all there is left is the present moment. This house is on a crossroads, where the lane crosses with the path to the woods. These breads, crosses within circles, the lantern, the mirror, all with the circle protecting what is inside. It is there in Polish folklore.'
'It is in every folklore,' said Emily. 'Sometimes you'll look hard to find it, but it's there. A cross, a circle, luck, harm, good, evil, the Light and the Dark. We need you, Marek. We need you tonight. At the Great Circle, we must repel the Dark.'
'The standing stones?'
'Yes. Our road from here, from our crossroads, leads to the woods in one direction and to the stones in the other. We live here because we are called to protect the circle, and to shine the Light when necessary.'
'So why have you not needed my help before?'
'Hogmanay,' said Emily. 'They knew we would be weak. Young Fionnlagh Leckie, he is the first foot, chosen by the new laird of the Estate.'
'An agent of the Dark!'
'Hush, Pat, Marek should not know so much.'
'You know all those who are of the Dark?' he asked.
'No,' said Emily, 'not all. Only those that have shown themselves by their actions. There are others on this island, and the world over, who walk unknown.'
'And those of the Light? Do you know them, do they know themselves?'
'We know some, others become known. Marek, I must tell you, those who are not of the Light would not have seen the lantern or the brightness in the other room. They would not have passed through the blizzard unharmed and arrived at our door tonight.'
'But… I don't understand.'
'You do not have to know you are of the Light to be a part of it. Good people walk through this world unknowing. It is their role. Others are chosen to be more active. But we needed you Marek, and we took a chance because you are a good man and we believed you to be on our side.'
She began clearing away the tea things. 'When you know what you are you can never return to not knowing. It's been tried before, and will be again. But knowledge can never be vanquished. Not completely. It will always seep through into dreams and half-forgotten memories.'
'We must go now then? Before the Dark can take hold?'
'Yes, the more hours of this New Year that are spent in Darkness, the stronger it will become. In the past the Dark has taken hold for generations.'
'Let me get my hat and scarf, and the lantern at the front of the cottage? We will be taking that?'
'Yes!' Emily smiled. 'Thank you, Marek.'
In the time he had been at the cottage, the snow had fallen heavier and lay deeper, and the wind whipped one way then another, unpredictable and ever changing. He and Emily used shovels to clear a path towards the road where it was not so deep. Pat, her small frame swamped by her outdoor clothes, brushed away loose snow from around the door.
When they had opened up sufficient a pathway Marek took the lantern, its light illuminating their way. The road narrowed between the trees and they walked in a half tunnel formed by the snow.
'Why the circle of stones?' Marek shouted above the gale.
'In times past the stones were more than a circle,' said Emily. 'In the centre there was-'
'Yes. Our lantern will shine the cross into the circle and it will banish the Dark.'
'But why do you need me?'
'Have you not heard the tale that the circle was constructed by giants with the strength of ten men?'
'Yes, but what has that got to do with it?'
'I am not tall enough and Pat not strong enough to hold the lantern. We've tried, but our cross does not reach the edges of the circle. If we walk too far away the shadow stretches too long, too near and it is too wide. It must touch the whole of the circle at the same time.'
'Has Fionnlagh been to the stones?'
'Yes, and another before him, but he was called elsewhere.'
They continued in silence, the effort of walking taking their breath. Marek had visited the stones many years ago with Jennie, the slim, light rocks solidly upright and smooth to the touch, but neither of them had an interest in visiting them again.
'Wait!' Pat's voice was loud and filled with panic. 'Do you hear?'
'It's all right, Pat, you are with us, we will be unharmed.'
'What is it?' said Marek. As he spoke, he heard the beat of hooves becoming louder behind them. A man on horseback was riding towards them, a big man, his cloak billowing behind him, the horse black as a smith's anvil.
'The Rider! It's the Rider!'
Pat's voice rose with the wind and she stumbled away from Emily. Marek caught her and held her upright, Emily stepping towards them and taking Pat in her arms.
'A wild night to be abroad,' said the Rider. He was smiling, his eyes flickering between them before settling on Pat. 'And you, Patricia, I would not have expected to see you out in such a storm. Best to stay by the fireside, warm and safe.'
'Leave her alone,' said Emily. 'She no longer walks with you.'
'Nor would I want her to. When she walked with the Dark she walked strong and tall, she had vitality and life. Look at her now.'
Marek felt Pat trembling beside him and edged closer.
'Leave her be,' said Emily. 'Marek, hold up the lantern.'
He raised it and the Rider twisted away from them, shielding his face with his hand. He pulled on the horse's reins and it stepped back. He then turned so that he was directly in front of Marek, although at some distance. 'I don't recognise you; you must not have journeyed with the Light before tonight. Are you pleased with what they make you do? These old hags too weak to do their own bidding? What kind of allies are they to you, a strong man in his prime? Would you not be with others like you?'
'He is like us.'
'Can you not see how he is wasted, as Patricia was. Such strength, such vitality, such eagerness. Not everyone has such attributes, and they are squandered with the Light. What is your name?'
'Dedicated. To an old god, from times lost in antiquity. But you can dedicate yourself again, child of Mars, you can walk with us. I promise you that when we rise, we will rise for good and you will be well rewarded for helping us.'
'I choose my own path.'
'As do we all. But you can choose the path of weakness or of strength, of vigour or of weariness. Look at that woman, how frail she is, her vitality lost since she crossed to the Light.'
'Don't believe him!' shouted Emily. 'It was the Dark that made her weak, that took her liveliness and made her how she is.'
'Hear her, Marek; hear the Light make its excuses. Why would we weaken one who was not already feeble, feeble from the effects of the Light, from lacking the power to stand alone without the Dark to aid her?'
'Don't listen to him, Marek. The Dark took her and tried to destroy her. She is stronger now than ever she was with them.'
'I'm not listening, and I don't believe,' said Marek. 'What business do you have here, Rider? None with us, that I'm sure.'
'I have more business with you than you would ever guess. And if you will not come of your own accord there are other means.' He kicked at the horse's flanks, leaned low and rode towards them.
'The lantern, Marek! Hold it with the crossed circle towards him, shine it in his face and he cannot touch you!'
The horse was almost upon him as he stepped backwards and stumbled into the drifting snow. When he fell, he turned the lantern and the horse reared above him. He scrambled out of its path, still with the lamp in front of him, though it felt twice as heavy as it did when they left the cottage and shone twice as brightly. He shielded his own eyes, heard the horse whinnying as the Rider tried to reach toward him, but the horse reared again and the Rider cursed the Light before pulling his mount away and galloping back into the night.
'Are you all right, Marek?'
He staggered to his feet and brushed the snow from his coat. The lantern was not so heavy and he held it easily. 'I'm fine, Emily. But Pat, did he harm her?'
Pat stood a little away from them, her back towards them.
'She is stronger than the Rider believes. Come now, we must get to the circle. It's not far.'
The three walked on, Marek listening for a return of the horseman, or for any agent of the Dark who may be out to delay them. No one came and they reached the stones unaccosted. Emily showed him where to stand: a stone set a little away from the main circle. When he stood above the women and raised the lantern he felt its weight increase again and struggled to hold it aloft.
'Keep it high, Marek!' Emily shouted.
'It's heavier than it was.'
'Think of the Light, of the brightness it must shine on the world.'
His arm ached but he held the lantern higher until its beam shone across the circle and the shadows created by the cross touched the sides of the stones. Just as he thought he would drop the lamp, the snow inside the circle began to melt. He concentrated on the green revealing itself. When all the snow had disappeared, he lowered the lamp and stepped down. Outside the circle, snow still covered the ground, but it had stopped falling and the temperature began to rise.
'Well done, Marek. And thank you.'
He shook his head, unable to speak. As they made their way back to the cottage, he heard the steady drip, drip of the melt falling from the branches of the trees around him. The walk took no time at all, yet it and the events at the stones left him barely able to keep his eyes open.
He secured the lantern on the hook outside the door; its light shone small and insignificant into the night. In the kitchen, the electricity restored, Pat wrapped some of the breads and kolacz in a cloth and placed them in a bag.
'For you and Jennie. May you have a happy New Year now that the Dark has left us.'
He nodded his thanks. Emily accompanied him to the door.
'Marek, I have something for you. You may not need it for some time, but take it now, and let it protect you.'
She held up a small pendant, the familiar circle and cross dangling from a leather thread. 'Keep it hidden, but if one from the Dark should come too close it will repel them and you will know what they are.' He bent down and she placed it over his head, tucking it inside his coat. 'Stay safe, Marek.'
'Thank you, I will try.'
He didn't remember the walk home; to him, moments after Emily closed the door behind him he was stepping into the dim light of his own hallway.
Jennie came out of the living room as he was removing his boots. 'Goodness, that was quick! Did they not want you after all?'
'The weather,' he said, 'they were worried, so it was a case of me just giving them the coals and taking some bread they had made.' He held up the bag.
'Oh my, we are lucky tonight! Baking, the storm passing over, and best of all…' She took his hand and laughed. 'We have a repeat of Andy Stewart and The White Heather Club on the TV!'
He laughed with her and drew her towards him, wrapping his arms around her. He nuzzled his lips in her hair. 'Jennie, Jennie,' he murmured. 'My love.'
He pulled her tight but she stiffened and cried out. 'Oh, oh! What was that?' She struggled free and pushed him away.
'What, Jennie, what?'
'Something…I don't know. It was like static, but stronger, burning me.'
He gazed at her intently. 'The storm,' he said after a pause. 'There will have been a big build up of electricity from that, and I've been out in it a while.'
She shivered. 'Yes, it must have been. How odd! Anyway, come away in and we'll have a sing along with Andy. They've got some pipers too.'
'I'll just get us some whisky from the kitchen. I'll be through in a minute.'
He didn't switch on the light; he knew where to find the whisky and the glasses. He poured them each a good measure and took a sip of his own. In the darkness, he felt for the talisman. He pulled the cord over his head and let it rest in his hand, the tiny pendant cold against his palm. He stared unseeing out of the kitchen window, listening to the muffled sounds of the television and the steady dripping from the gutters outside. He thought of the Rider, of his own work against the Dark, of Pat and Emily and the damage that the Dark had done to them. Then he dropped the pendant into his pocket, took off his coat and returned to his Jennie.