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The Shortest Night
BY REGINALD BAKELEY
EXCERPTED FROM PHOOKA NO.426

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It is still hours before the dawn of Midsummer’s Day, but from the valley below Glastonbury Tor, dark figures can be seen moving on the hilltop. Bonfires are lit and torches are driven into the soil, illuminating the faces of the druids and witch-women who tread in circles around St. Michael’s Tower, swaying their arms in time to soft drumbeats. Sickles and brooms wave through the air, banishing evil spirits from the site. A makeshift dolmen is erected from long poles, and flowers and ivy are woven around it. Solemn chants drift down to the camp on the plain.

At the campsite, nearly one hundred souls rest inside their tents. Waterboys and footmen sleep near their employers, muscles twitching with anticipation of the coming day’s excitement. The players slumber. Their dreaming minds are active but not agitated, imagining faraway kingdoms and enchanted fields. All have spent months preparing for this day. Rigorous training and strict diets have been adhered to, their equipment has been inspected and maintained for peak performance. Strong wooden chests lie at the foot of each cot, their contents more valuable than any other possessions the sleeping competitors own.

Soon, a quiet bustle is heard among the tents. Groggy Britons rise and stretch to the starry sky before putting the kettle on at the campfire. One Scotsman pauses to examine a small wooden sphere, just the size to fit in his hand. It is painted in the same pattern as his great-grandfather's tartan, and identifies the man as a competitor from Clan MacKenzie. He admires it for a minute in the firelight, then motions to a passing man to come nearer. The stranger obliges, and draws back the hood of his white robe as he kneels to also look at the ball. MacKenzie utters a question in a thick brogue, and the druid nods. Reaching into his pouch, the priest draws out a handful of leaves and flowers. A low song drones from his lips, and he rubs the herbs over the surface of the ball for a few minutes, then sets it down in front of MacKenzie. The Scot snatches the ball up, and with a confident laugh offers the druid some food. The stranger declines; there is more work yet to be done. As the druid wanders off, MacKenzie thanks him and makes ready for breakfast.

The eastern sky is growing lighter every minute, and those still in the valley watch the irregular procession of competitors ascend the hill. Mallet shafts extend from the hikers’s bulky backpacks like antennae guiding them toward the top. Each member of the parade is greeted and blessed at the tower by the Master of the druids, and then finds a suitable place to rest before the signal. No balls are allowed to touch the ground beforehand, so the players warm up in other ways. Some stand facing the growing light and practise mighty swings, arcing their mallets through the dewy air. Others kneel and mutter prayers to God, holding their mallets as the knights used to hold their swords. Others still speak in hushed tones to their teammates, discussing strategy and the lay of the land that will be covered today.

Before long, silence falls over the throng of people. A young herald vaults to the top of a large rock and holds his trumpet high above his head. The players pass through the dolmen and assemble into a loose line facing the imminent sunrise. The herald lowers his horn and draws a ball from his pouch. He lets it fall to the ground, and as it strikes the soil, so do scores of others land as well, each falling from the hand of a competitor. Each player raises his own mallet at the ready. The first ray of summer's sunlight beams over the distant horizon and the herald blows a sonorous note on his trumpet. All mallets come down together and strike the balls with a thunderous CRACK, commencing the most magnificent of all the overland croquet games, the Midsummer’s Day Glastonbury Trounce.

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