The ground shook. Dark crumbled soil and decomposing leaves rattled across the forest floor. Waning yellow light spiraled through the evening’s deepening shadows, dusting sharp pine needles with warmth. It was the drumbeat, slow, steady and heavy, vibrating up from the depths of the mountains, echoing off the stone valley walls. It bounced and thudded and hammered through the atmosphere towards the sky. A second rhythm followed, quieter but faster than the first. The pounding of a thousand pairs of feet, racing up the cleared paths on the mountain slopes. The runners faces were set like flint, eyes burning with ardor and calloused hands clenching iron brands dripping with black oil. On their foreheads was tattooed in dark ink the name of the king.
The drumbeats swelled, louder and heavier as the sun dipped lower and lower behind the darkening horizon. Orange and purple streaked and chased each other across the sky. A thick black smoke rose from the war raging to the north. It billowed and blew creeping over the mountains towards the runners. Everyone’s nostrils tingled with the acrid scent of sulfur and ash. Between the drumbeats echoing around them and the smells and smoke in front of them, the runners footsteps never wavered. It only propelled them forward, booted feet stirring up the dust as they went. The earth shook under this wild-eyed tribe.
The taut skins of the barrel shaped drums quivered with each strike and pummel. The drummers themselves were glistening with sweat, water beading their hair and dripping from their arms. They sat in circles along the sides of mountains, heralding the approach of the runners with cries of exultation. The runners were already racing past them, burning eyes only for the snow capped peaks.
The drumbeats continued to pound behind them as they gained altitude. They raised their voices to one another in guttural groans of encouragement and shouting challenges through smiles and tears. Warmth and heat surrounded them, pulsating off their bodies in steaming breaths.
Onward and upward they ran, until they were past the tree line, bursting out from under the green branches onto the bare stone strewn summit. The paths narrowed into many thin trails here, weaving through massive boulders and eroding overhangs. It was only passible for one person at a time. On every mountain top it was the same. The runners did not slow though, they burst forward, gritting their teeth, raging against the urge to stop. A massive tower of wood, came into view, piled far above the their heads, blocking the view of the other side of the mountain. The runners on the first mountain reached their pile of wood first. One of them pulled out a lighter, which engulfed the tip of his iron brand into flames in seconds. Everyone around him stretched forwards their brands, catching his fire quickly. And then in unison they circled the tower of dry wood, thrusting their brands in between the logs letting the flames erupt into a blaze, before stepping back. They still held their iron brands, now burning brightly in their hands.
It was nearly dark, the sun’s ball of fire had completely gone below the horizon. The blazing tower of flames glowed on the runners faces as the cold winds of evening brushed against their sweaty skin. Towards the east the entire range of mountains also flickered and then roared to life as the others lit their own fires. There was a thunderous cheer as a thousand runners screamed, raising their blazing brands above their heads. Still the drums beat steadily on the mountain slopes below them. They all knew what was to come next.
The lead runner then turned and pointed his burning brand towards the north and to the billowing smoke just visible through the darkness that was falling fast over the mountains and valleys. Everyone knew what the others were thinking. Their king was out there, somewhere in that darkness, rescuing slaves, healing the dying and bringing light to the blind.
“Who will run through the night to the next mountain to light the fires for the army? Who will follow the king into the darkness?”
A young girl stepped forward first. “I will go my lord.”
“So will I,” said an older man, limping up beside her.
“And I,” declared countless others.
Gripping their flaming brands they turned towards the night and plunged down the mountains into the darkness. Tiny lights dotting the slopes with hope. And still the drums pounded and shook the earth.
“Kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.”
– Bruce Cockburn