“Where are they taking us?” I whispered to Helen, who hung on to Daisy’s other arm.
“To the Rowan Circle,” Helen whispered back. “My cousin told me about it. There’s a clearing there surrounded by rowan trees. Look—” Helen reached out her hand and plucked a branch seemingly from the fog itself. She handed it to me and I could see that the branch was heavy with red berries. My mother had told me something about rowan trees once.
I lifted my eyes from the branch to ask Helen if she knew, but the question died on my lips as I saw what lay in front of us: a clearing ringed round with flames. For a moment I thought the woods were on fire, until I saw that the flames came from torches plunged into the earth. Beside each torch stood a dark, robed figure. As the last girls entered the circle each figure lifted an arm and held aloft something that gleamed in the firelight.
A peal of bells sounded through the fiery circle, playing a tune I hadn’t heard before, a mournful dirge like something medieval church towers would have rung to announce the coming of the plague. The very fog seemed to flee before the sound, creeping out of the circle and into the woods, uncovering as it went a solitary hooded figure standing in the center of the circle. When the bells had ceased the figure lowered her hood.
Dame Beckwith, her silver hair billowing loosely about her face like a swath of fog that had wound itself about her head, turned in a slow circle to look at each of us. In the firelight her pale gray eyes shone yellow, like the eyes of an owl sweeping the forest floor for prey. When she had made a complete circuit, she spoke.“Girls,” she said, her voice ringing with the same carrying force of the bells, “you have come here tonight to be initiated into the mystery of Blythewood.”