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Excerpt: 'The Dark Is Rising'

<em>The Dark Is Rising</em> recently has been reissued with a movie tie-in cover — and an augmented title.
The Dark Is Rising recently has been reissued with a movie tie-in cover — and an augmented title.

Where this excerpt begins, 11-year-old Will Stanton has just discovered that he is the last of the Old Ones. His quest is to gather six magical signs that will help the Dark defeat the Light. And he has learned that he has powers, such as creating a fire just by wishing it. Will returns from a Christmas shopping trip and decides to walk home along a deserted path called through Tramps' Alley — where his curiosity about those powers gets the best of him. He comes across the local tramp, the Walker, who turns out to be much more than he seems.

The walk down Tramps' Alley began soon to be less fun than he had expected. Will's ankles ached from the strain of kicking a way through the snow. The parcels were awkward to carry. The red-golden glow from the sun died away into a dull greyness. He was hungry, and he was cold.

Trees loomed high on his right: mostly elms, with an occasional beech. At the other side of the track was a stretch of wasteland, transformed by the snow from a messy array of rank weeds and scrub into a moon-landscape of white sweeping slopes and shaded hollows. All around him on the snow-covered track twigs and small branches lay scattered, brought down from the trees by the weight of the snow; just ahead, Will saw a huge branch lying right across his path. He glanced apprehensively upward, wondering how many other dead arms of the great elms were waiting for wind or snow-weight to bring them crashing down. A good time for collecting firewood, he thought, and had a sudden tantalising image of the leaping fire that had blazed in the fireplace of the great hall: the fire that had changed his world, by vanishing at the word of his command and then obediently blazing into his life again.

As he stumbled along in the cold snow, a sudden wild cheerful idea sprang up in his mind out of he thought of that fire, and he paused, grinning to himself. You gonna fix it? Well, no, friend, I probably can't get you a warm Christmas day really, but I could warm things up a bit here, now. He looked confidently at the dead branch lying before him, he said to it softly, mischievously, "Burn!"

And there on the snow, the fallen arm of the tree burst into flame. Every inch of it, from the thick rotted base to the smallest twig, blazed with licking yellow fire. There was a hissing sound, and a tall shaft of brilliance rose from the fire like a pillar. No smoke came from the burning, and the flames were steady; twigs that should have blazed and crackled briefly and then fallen into ash burned continuously, as if fed by another fuel within. Standing there alone, Will felt suddenly small and alarmed; this was no ordinary fire, and not to be controlled by ordinary means. It was not behaving at all in the same way as the fire in the hearth had done. He did not know what to do with it. In panic, he focused his mind on it again and told it to go out, but it burned on, steady as before. He knew that he had done something foolish, improper, dangerous perhaps. Looking up through the pillar of quivering light, he saw high in the grey sky four rooks flapping slowly in a circle.

Oh Merriman, he thought unhappily, where are you?

Then he gasped, as someone grabbed him from behind, blocked his kicking feet in a scuffle of snow, and twisted his arms by the wrists behind his back. The parcels scattered in the snow. Will yelled with the pain in his arms. The grip on his wrists slackened at once, as if the attacker were reluctant to do him any real harm; but he was still firmly held.

"Put out the fire!" said a hoarse voice in his ear, urgently.

The man cursed and mumbled strangely, and instantly Will knew who it was. His terror fell away, like a released weight. "Walker," he said, "let me go. You don't have to hold me like that."

The grip tightened again at once. "Oh no you don't boy, I know your tricks. You're the one all right, I know now, you're an Old One, but I don't trust your kind any more than I trust the Dark. You're new awake, you are, and let me tell you something you don't know — while you're new awake, you can't do nothing to anyone unless you can see him with your eyes. So you aren't going to see me, that I know."

Will said, "I don't want to do anything to you. There really are some people who can be trusted, you know."

"Precious few," the Walker said bitterly.

"I could shut my eyes, if you'd let me go."

"Pah!!" the old man said.

Will said, "You carry the second Sign. Give it to me."

There was a silence. He felt the man's hands fall away from his own arms, but he stood where he was and did not turn round. "I have the first sign already, Walker," he said. "You know I do. Look, I'm undoing my jacket, and I'll pull it back and you can see the first circle on my belt."

He pulled aside his coat, still without moving his head, and was aware of the Walker's hunched form slipping round at his side. The man's breath hissed out through his teeth in a long sigh as he looked, and he turned his head up to Will without caution. In the yellow light from the steadily burning branch Will saw a face contorted with battling emotions: hope and fear and relief wound tightly together by anguished uncertainty.

When the man spoke, his voice was broken and simple as that of a small child.

"It's so heavy," he said plaintively. "And I've been carrying it so long. I don't even remember why. Always frightened, always having to run away. If only I could get rid of it, if only I could rest. Oh, if only it was gone. But I daren't risk giving it to the wrong one, I daren't. The things that would happen to me if I did, they're too terrible, they can't be put into words. The old ones can be cruel, cruel ... I think you're the right one, boy. I've been looking for you a long time, a long time, to give the Sign to you. But how can I really be sure? How can I be sure you aren't a trick of the Dark?"

He's been frightened for so long, Will thought, that he's forgotten how to stop. How awful, to be so absolutely lonely. He doesn't know how to trust me; it's so long since he trusted anyone, he's forgotten how ... "Look," he said gently. You must know I'm not part of the Dark. Think. You saw the Rider try to strike me down."

But the old man shook his head miserably, and Will remembered how he had fled shrieking from the clearing the moment the Rider had appeared.

"Well, if that doesn't help, doesn't the fire tell you?"

"The fire almost," the Walker said. He looked at it hopefully; then his face twisted in recalled alarm. "But the fire, it'll bring them, boy, you know that. The rooks will already be guiding them. And how do I know whether you lit the fire because you're a new-awake Old One playing games, or as a signal to bring them after me?" He moaned to himself in anguish, and clutched his arms through his shoulders. He was a wretched thing, Will thought pityingly. But somehow he had to be made to understand.

Will looked up. There were more rooks circling lazily overhead now, and he could hear them calling harshly to one another. Was the old man right, were the dark birds messengers of the Dark? "Walker, for goodness' sake," he said impatiently. "You must trust me — if you don't trust someone just once, for long enough to give him the Sign, you'll be carrying it for ever. Is that what you want?"

The old tramp wailed and muttered, staring at him from mad little eyes; he seemed caught in his centuries of suspicion like a fly in a web. But the fly still has wings that can break the web; give him the strength to flap them, just once ... Driven by some unfamiliar part of his mind, without quite knowing what he was doing, Will gripped the iron circle on his belt and he stood up as straight and tall as he could and pointed at the Walker, and called out, "The last of the Old Ones has come, Walker, and it is time. The moment for giving the Sign is now, now or never. Think only of that — no other chance will come. Now, Walker. Unless you would carry it for ever, obey the Old Ones now. Now!"

It was as if the word released a spring. In an instant, all the fear and suspicion in the twisted old face relaxed into childish obedience. With a smile of almost foolish eagerness the Walker fumbled with a broad leather strap that he wore diagonally across his chest, and he pulled from it a quartered circle identical to the one that Will wore on his belt, but gleaming with the dull brown-gold sheen of bronze. He put it into Will's hands, and gave a high cackling little laugh of astonished glee.

The yellow-flaming branch on the snow before them blazed suddenly brighter, and went out.

Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing.

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