The moon was bright and full upon the shoreline, the sand almost silver beneath its gaze. The waves brushed that crescent of beach with the softest sighs, brief tips of white upon their heads. On this magical night everything was still, everything was quiet. It was the eve of the years height, the eve of the longest sun and dawn was about to break.
Already the world gathered its breath, already the winds paused in their travels, already the restless water quieted to mere fidgeting upon the sands. This was the moment, almost here. And it was not just the longest day about to break. It was the longest day of the Great Year. Once every eight years the lunar cycles and the solar combined in a harmony of magic and portent.
The priestesses had been preparing for days, the Sun King was ready to be reborn on the other side of the island and on this beach, on this stretch of land before the cliffs rose up above the seas a great thing was about to be seen, an event they had all been preparing for all their lives.
And here they came, the treeline rustling, the sounds of undergrowth breaking, treetops shifting and then: they burst upon the beach, breathing hard but steady, glistening with the sweat of their exertions, hair cut short to prevent it becoming entangled in the branches they had run through, naked flanks running red from scratches and cuts.
But they did not care or notice. Everything was focused on the goal. Everything focused on the race. The young men of the tribe, the leaders of the pack pulling away now on this last stretch. All night they had been running. From one shore to the other, crossing over the ancestral island, they raced. Their muscles strained, their legs pulling at the unsteady ground, the sand shifting under every step.
They had walked and run this route a thousand times though, they had practised every free hour they had. Some had leisure to do so, their fathers rich enough to finance their son’s training. Others, forced to help their families in the fields, had run only at night or at festivals. Winning tokens at local races, brief things of sprint or gallop. This was the goal though, this was the moment they all lived for, this dash across the shore, this chase beneath the moon.
And as they poured out over the silver, smooth sands the leader pulled ahead, a strong young man of little more than fifteen winters, tall for his age, poor and lean, he had not trained as much as the richer boys, he was not as fast or as strong as the elder ones. But his eyes showed why he was leading, his eyes burned. He believed. He believed in the race, he believed in the prize. He wanted, ached to win. And so, though he breathed raggedly, though his lungs burned, though his legs were on fire, he ran and the others could not catch him.
And they tried, they strained and grunted as their feet pounded those grains of silver, they pushed themselves harder than they had done before, but the leader pushed even harder. They ran faster than they thought they could but the leader ran faster. Legs like pistons, hearts like engines, brains emptied of everything but their faith, their burning goal. Their arms pumped the air, flat palms cutting like knifes, forcing themselves forwards. Sweat pouring now from them. It was almost dawn, the moment had to be right; they could not win if they missed the dawn. They ran, they ran faster than they could think.
And the cliffs came up to the leader and swallowed him as he ran into their mouth, a cave at their base, natural to begin with but now hollowed out and extended by the priestesses. Weird drawings shone around the opening, gleaming faintly in the otherworldly light just before the dawn. Images of gods and goddesses, of astrological creatures, of history and myth. The leader broke past them, deep into the cave. Flaming torches hung on brackets to light the way, spitting and flaring as the wind of the boy’s flight caught them.
A step up at the back of the cave, a narrow opening he leapt through, a corridor, another cave crossed in two long strides, broken floor, sharp rocks, he missed them all, he was moving like dreams now, nothing could stop him, nothing could break that flow of muscle, bone and sinew pulling, it was perfect as he ran. A perfect dance of flesh beneath the skin, a perfect ripple of movement as his legs rose and fell.
Barely seeing in the darkness, his feet felt the way without pause, thought or failing, leaping from rock to rock as though a goat had taken his form. A brief face of rock: he leapt up, catching the lip of the top with his fingers, feet catching hold of the slick rock and he was up, over and running flat out without missing a breath. He was perfectly in tune with his body and the rock below. The beat of the earth beneath his feet matched his pace and they flowed as one.
Through those fire-lit caverns, bending under shadowed ceilings, crouching, leaping scrambling, feet and hands upon the cold slick rock. Buried beneath the earth, an underworld of stone and shadows and cold dripping in the depths. And the young men running, scrambling, fighting to climb up, frantically pulling at the stones as they scrambled up the steps and slopes. A flood of rasping, grunting, sweating life, blood on knees and arms, dry throats, harsh breath, knocking against the walls as they ran, bumping against the ceilings.
The underworld had them but it could not hold them for they ran. They ran against the night, they ran against the earth. And neither could catch them. They ran. And the leader ran faster. Unstoppable, the fingers of rock missing their grasp, the shadows surrounding him too slow to keep up. He ran.
The others followed behind, some flowing as he did across the stone, some more hesitant, stubbing their feet in their anxiety, missing a step, catching their limbs on jutting rocks. One broke his head open as he slipped. He died there in the darkness. And his family would never speak his name again for fear of bringing his curse upon them. But for the rest, though injured, though bleeding, they ran on, slowing now with the obstacles of darkness, exhaustion and hostile stone.
Yet the leader ran on, unpausing in his chase. The others were behind him now and he could have slowed and caught his breath a little but he didn’t. He wasn’t racing them anymore, he was racing his destiny. He was racing for the ultimate prize, a prize awarded only once every eight years to only one boy. A prize no other island could boast of, no other tribe could dream of. This was theirs, and today, this was his.
He ran, heart bursting, he ran, barely conscious in his exhaustion, he ran, barely feeling his body any more. But he was faster than them all. He was faster than the night, racing across the island from sunset to sunrise.
And then, then he saw it, up ahead, the finish line, the goal. He saw it, the moon straight ahead of him, its bright silver rays bathing him in the light of the goddess as he ran. It was hanging in the sky at the end of the tunnel, the cave opening in the side of the cliffs perfectly placed to draw its heavenly light into the earth.
And he ran towards that shining lady. He ran on feet as light as air, he ran and did not notice the pains of his body any more. That silver light washed him clean of care and worry and pain. He seemed to drift the last few steps on a river of light, ancient symbols and drawings on either side as he ran those last few steps but he did not see them. The tunnel came out, opening up to the air and wind and sea. Earth opening to release its young to the sky. And he broke free of the embrace of that cold stone underworld, and as he did so the night broke with him and the sun rose. And the horizon was flooded with gold right before him, the silver becoming gold, the seas burning, the sky on fire.
And he jumped. And for an instant, for an endless instant, his body hung there, suspended for that immortal moment between heaven and earth, between water and sky. He hung there, bathed in silver and gold. Light as the air, free as the birds. Transformed.
And as he hung there he was reborn. His feet left the earth, and he flung his head back, and threw his arms out to greet the sun and the sun greeted him as a father to a son. And the boy flew. He flew out across the sea. He was carried up on the wind to become a god among the gods of the sky. He rose and joined the Sun Kings of his youth and of his ancestors. He joined them among the stars and was transformed. Immortal. And he flew away from that tiny island so far below, the people so small, the fields so hard to till, the crops so prone to pestilence and drought, the rivers so weak, the neighbours so violent. And he was as light as the air as he left it all behind and flew, vanishing with the dawn.
They came, the others, breathing hard. The dawn sun was bright and they couldn’t see clearly as they stepped out of the tunnel to stand upon the ledge over the breaking waves below.
The one who arrived there first, just a few seconds behind the leader, was tempted, for a moment only, to jump. Perhaps he too would be transformed, perhaps he too would grow wings of silver and gold and fly up to join the gods in their halls and palaces in the sky. But he did not. He knew that only one could be transformed.
Tomorrow the priestesses would search the night sky for his brother and when they found the new star they would name it after him and a song would be composed. And sacrifices would be made in his honour. Perhaps next time the second boy thought, knowing that next time he would be too old, perhaps with a family of his own. No, he knew in his disappointment, a mortal life was his destiny now and could not be changed by magic. He was bitterly disappointed. But he knew there was nothing he could do.
He gazed down the cliff in despair, exhausted, his dripping sweat and the fresh sunlight of the new day blinding him. He turned from the edge and walked back down through the caves to the beach. There would be a feast later though, he thought, as he and the others drifted back, facing the long walk back home. Everyone would get drunk. There would be contests of wit and strength. There would be girls. He smiled. Maybe mortal life wasn’t so bad.
And far below, at the base of the cliffs, a broken body was cast again against the rocks by the white tipped surf. And then it was pulled down and sucked away into the pools of breaking water. But no one noticed or cared. For it was nobody, not any more.