There were nigh on one hundred people in the Journey Hall by the time I slipped into the room. No matter how often they took place, everyone in the Guild Halls wanted to be present at a Going Forth, some because they had travelled themselves and wished to remember, others because they would soon do so and wanted to see what would happen. In spite of their number, the hall was quiet and the mood of the gathering calm and expectant.
Just before midnight, the Guildmistress entered, followed by the Mistress of Treasures and the Chanters, some of whom carried drums, rattles, or claves. The last of the whispers gave way to silence, and everyone turned to face the Guildmistress.
“It has been some time,” she said, “since an artist went forth from our halls, but tonight, the first of many of you gathered here will step out into the Imagi-Nation on her very personal journey of discovery.”
“The Guild itself has determined that Alba’s departure will take place tonight, but each of the remaining travellers will choose the time for his or her own Going Forth. The only stipulation is that, no matter when you set out, you return one year from now, at the latest.”
“If this is the first Going Forth you have taken part in, please know that, though the events you are about to witness might appear strange, there is nothing to fear. Your role tonight is simply to watch and witness. I suggest that you each take a candle and find a good place up in the galleries from which to view the proceedings.”
Movement set in. The Guildmistress nodded to the chanters, who filed toward the compass and formed a circle around its perimeter. The new travellers and some of the resident artists took their candles and climbed the stairways to the upper floors. As they dispersed, spreading the glow of their candles more thinly as they went, the main floor of the Journey Hall fell into shadow, making it mysterious and magical. That change in light was the moment that had impressed me most when I was young.
Only the Guildmistress and a small number of guild artists remained in the hall with the chanters and… with me.
The Guildmistress turned her attention to me. “Take your belongings now, Alba, and stand in the center of the compass, and remember what we talked about earlier this evening.”
I did as she bid me and placed my travelling box, with all its contents, inside the bounds of the compass. My doll in my arms, I moved to the center of the circle and made ready for my Going Forth to commence.
One of the Chanters beat out a slow rhythm on her hand drum — ONE two three, ONE two three — and one after the other, the remaining Chanters fell in with the beat. The drumming was hypnotic, as indeed, was its purpose. A voice from the rim of the compass spoke the opening words, with which the ceremony always began, and from the floor and the galleries, one voice after the other joined the swell:
I believe in the power of creation
to fill the worlds with dreams
and draw them to the light.
I have faith in the call of spirit
and in the gifts with which
I am in life endowed.
I place my trust in the hand of love
and in the path to which
I am alone ordained.
I shall travel on my destined path
and share the gifts I find
with those who desire to know.
May it be.
The voices hushed, and the drumming continued.
A subtle change took place. The air itself seemed charged. The compass glowed beneath my feet, and specks of light rose from the patterns and danced, with me at their center.
The Chant began. Voices recited some passages in unison, other parts passed from Chanter to Chanter, as if each knew a part of the story but only few shared parts of the tale.
Slowly, their words took on meaning. They were difficult to understand at first but became clearer. They spoke of sands and times long past, and of stones and a promise. They showed me green islands and high, snow-covered mountains and bade me pass through the Gates of Heaven. And as they chanted on, the lights swirled and swarmed in a kaleidoscope of patterns and images: faces, fleeting encouters, altars, ruins, and tall beings who shone from within, human, but not quite. I saw rivers and towns, and beautifully crafted artifacts, the like of which I had not encountered before, and then I saw a darkness so deep that I felt the hand of fear reaching out for me. But this, too, passed, and in its place I saw myself in the center of a circle of people, some of whom I did not know, and others whose bodies had long passed from my life but lived on in my memories. I saw myself, alone, on a wind- swept shore, and I had a vision of time itself, deep and immeasurable, and of parting and finding and certainty.
The voices faded, and then, one after the other, the drums and rattles became still, until only one beat remained. The lights still swirled, but the pattern of their movement had changed to form a passage out of the compass. There was a final drumbeat and then silence, and I knew it was time to leave the circle. I moved through the passage opened for me and looked down to find my direction. The passage showed me that I would leave by the west door and journey to a first destination that lay north-west.
The Guildmistress herself opened the west door for me.
“You may give Alba to me now,” she said.
I laid my doll in her hand and watched as she placed her in one of the niches in the walls on either side of the door.
That done, she turned to me once again. “Journey well, Alba, and return safely and with deep wisdom.”
I did not look back, for it is not the custom of travelling artists to cast a glance into the hall as they depart. Instead, I shouldered my box and walked out into the night, along the cloistered walkway, through the Westgate, and out into a breaking dawn.