Trell paced the floor of his study, cell phone still in hand, his thoughts racing. The doctor had said Mable only had a few months to live; six at most, unless the cancer spread faster. As much as Trell hated the thought of a neighbor and his best friend’s wife dying, he knew at her age, there was nothing they could do except make her comfortable. After eight years secretly looking for Elion, she deserved to be at peace.
Had it already been that long?
The task of explaining Mable’s condition to her son, Bill, was not going to be a pleasant one, but it was the least he could do as her caretaker and friend. Trell started punching in Bill’s number and stopped, suddenly wanting a few more minutes to collect his thoughts.
He knew Mable’s wishes – that Bill and his family return to the homestead in the event of her death. That meant dealing with a situation he hadn’t had to be responsible for in years.
“Damn it,” Trell muttered, rushing over to his writing desk and pulling out parchment. The ink stained his fingers as he uncorked the bottle and took up his quill. He still had the upper hand here and he wanted to keep it that way.
The quill scratched out symbols that were known to only him and the Sages as Trell’s mind raced with possible scenarios, strategies for protecting Elion’s secrets. His secret now, he corrected himself, while he communicated the sudden changes in his post and urgently requested orders.
The study door burst open and the quill tip broke.
“Sir,” Chasky panted, his usual indifference disturbingly absent. “Perimeter alert, multiple breaches.”
“Do we have a visual?” Trell demanded, pulling out a knife to reshape his quill. Most of the time the motion sensors were set off by animals and other forest life.
Chasky held up a tablet with a still image of three figures leading horses.
“Those are not Sages,” Trell acknowledged, hearing how ludicrous that observation was as it left his lips. It was mid-February, months away from the summer solstice. And no one on a higher learning sabbatical traveled with that much gear or weapons. This was not a friendly delegation waiting for him to integrate them into this world’s culture.
“Not Sages,” Chasky agreed.
Trell set his quill down, covered the half-finished letter and darted out of the room, knowing that Chasky was on his heels.
In the surveillance room, Trell found every camera pointed at the gateway paused on a single image. He checked the time stamp and rewound the video several times to be sure of what he was seeing. Any hope that it might still be Sages crumbled as he zoomed in on shadows of three large birds that followed them.
Trell’s blood boiled. His shoulder still bore the scars of the first one he’d destroyed after realizing that those vicious spies were also cold blooded killers. He couldn’t help an absent minded brush of the iridescent lines that ran up his neck. All the trouble he’d gone to exterminating those fowl beasts, and there were three more flying out of the cave in broad daylight.
“They have a five minute lead on us at most,” Chasky said, tossing him a radio.
“Bring the Defender around front, I’ll get the guns,” Trell ordered, catching the radio mid-air.
“Yes, sir,” Chasky said, disappearing.
Trell ran to the dusty armory that had once been an extra pantry. He passed the almost forgotten swords, and various other weapons in the corner, reaching instead for two shotguns, and a smaller handgun to strap to his belt. He hadn’t carried a blade in years and that was fine by him.
“Body armor,” his wife’s voice rang out from down the hall. Grateful for such a sharp woman, he finished filling a bag with ammo and grabbed the vest hanging behind the door.
Binoculars in hand, he raced out the door, meeting Chasky around the back of the European styled manor. The old Land Rover pulled up to the barn and Trell jumped into the passenger seat.
Chasky slammed the vehicle into gear and Trell noticed that the other man was also wearing body armor. He nodded in approval, the gray in his bodyguard’s hair suddenly more pronounced. Trell pushed away thoughts of uncertainty as the two men barreled into the forest.
“Do you want to try scaring them off with the vehicle?” Chasky asked as he wound through the trees.
“Get close enough that I can make the rest of the trip on foot, but stay close. If they want a fight, you’re my backup,” Trell answered as he slid shells into the shot gun and chambered the first round.
They kept the path clear of debris but years of use didn’t soften the potholes and rocks that emerged with each rainfall. Spring run-off had swelled the few streams they crossed but it was hardly an obstacle worthy of the Defender’s snorkel. Mud splashed the windshield and Trell had to brace himself against the seat.
“Understood,” Chasky replied, both hands on the wheel as he made a hard turn to the right, then stopped just below the ridge line of the next hill.
“Keep this ready,” he handed Chasky one of the shotguns. “I’m keeping the one-way mic on channel three so you’ll hear my signal. Don’t hold back or hesitate.”
“My favorite part,” Chasky grinned. “Fifty bucks says one of them wets themselves.”
“If this is that easy, I’ll double it,” Trell offered, his stomach tightening as he remembered the videos. Something about this group was different. “Keep your eyes open. I don’t want any other surprises today.”
Chasky saluted and Trell exited the SUV. He clicked the safeties off his guns as he ran for the hilltop. At the crest, Trell scanned the area from behind a thick stand of saplings. Sure enough, in front of the opening of the cave were the three men, consulting a parchment they held between them. Trell aimed his binoculars at the man holding the map.
One gloved hand clutched the reins of a roan stallion that danced behind him, ears swiveling in an effort to pinpoint the location and threat level of the Defender. His other hand raked dark wavy hair in frustration, shielding his eyes when he checked the position of the sun and consulted his companions.
A fur lined hooded cloak hung open at his shoulders revealing two long blades hanging at his waist. The cross bow, slung over the far shoulder, dropped to his boots as he examined the map closely. And those were only the weapons Trell could see.
The other two men, each standing to either side of the map holder, were identically clothed and armed, so that it was impossible to tell which of them was the leader. Their body language was also deceptive. Not one yielding to the other in any way gave up clues as to a hierarchy.
Trell noted the high cheekbones and narrow green eyes of the leaner man holding the reins of a black gelding. He moved like a coiled spring, his gestures animated. The third man was the tallest. He had amber eyes and warm brown skin with the bulk of a linebacker and held the reins of a paint mare. He reached back to the roan stallion and at his touch, the animal stopped snorting and pulling.
The clear, distinct color, like jewels floating in the milk of their eyes, banished any hope that these were lost backwoods-men from this world. Yet in all his years of watching the entrance, Trell had never seen friend or foe come through the cavern in such gear and never ones so young. They were nineteen, maybe twenty years old and were already surveying the clearing like seasoned generals. Taking a calming breath, Trell straightened his shoulders, and started down the hill in full view of the trespassers.
The map disappeared as all eyes turned to him. The sound of metal being unsheathed rang through the air. Trell counted two daggers and one long sword but he didn’t stop until he was twenty feet away. With no way of knowing the deadly force he was packing, the men held their ground.
“You’re lost. Turn around, head back through the caves, and no one dies,” Trell ordered calmly.
“That’s a strange request coming from an unarmed man,” the tall one with amber eyes commented. Trell hadn’t heard that thick of an accent in years.
“It’s not a request,” Trell countered. “It’s your only warning.”
“We’re happy to go back, as soon as we get what we came for,” the green eyed man challenged in the same accent.
“And what would that be?” Trell demanded, hoping Chasky was hearing every word through the radio at his hip. Trell’s finger found the trigger of the shotgun and he ignored the anxious sweat soaking his under shirt.
The men hesitated, looking to each other as if unsure of what to say. The blue eyed man in the center measured Trell, sizing him up before he finally spoke.
“The blood call has been answered. We come for the last secret.”
Trell heard the Defender’s engine rev as Chasky floored it. The blacked-out, jacked up, monster-vehicle, burst over the hill, catching air before crashing down in a cloud of debris and dirt. Skidding to a stop behind Trell, the older man felt the heat of the half dozen flaming exhausts as Chasky threw the switch, in a final display of intimidation.
Trell hadn’t given him the signal but Chasky couldn’t be blamed for reacting to those words that way. He’d never known anyone who dared to speak them aloud. Now there was no way they could let them leave the clearing alive.
The roar of the temporary inferno choked out and the screams of the horses filled the air. The poor animals were near blind with fear, frantically pulling away from their handlers. Just when Trell thought they were about to break lose and disappear into the trees, the man who’d soothed them earlier shouted a command and they calmed enough to be gathered until their noses touched. He turned his back to Trell and the other two men stepped in front of him protectively, their faces unreadable, blue and green eyes cold.
“That’s not how we expected to see our first motor carriage,” blue eyes panted, his sword going to a defensive position as his courage returned. “So I’m starting to think you have the wrong impression of us. I can work with that.”
“You condemned yourselves when you spoke the forbidden words,” Trell explained solemnly and took aim.
Suddenly, blue-grey feathers burst out of the cave behind the horses; the giant eagle swooped down and across Trell’s line of sight. He pulled the trigger. A crack pierced the air and the thirty pound bird dropped between them, wings still twitching.
Trusting Chasky would cover him, Trell went to the dying creature. An examination of the beast’s body, releaved that Trell had nearly blown off one wing. The kill belonged to the dagger lodged deep in the bird’s chest; demostrating a level of skill and ruthlessness that made Trell’s choice of gun irrelevant. He thought of his wife, the warmth in her eyes as she had hummed her favorite song over breakfast, of how that might be their last one together. With a practiced hand, Trell ripped off the leather strap holding the half-stone around the bird’s neck and tossed the crystal onto the nearest rock. The butt of the rifle to smashed it to pieces as he stood to face the men he’d so grossly underestimated.
“You’re Trell?” the green eyed young man spat. His sword wielding friend gave him a warning glance but he ignored it. “Soren should have warned us about you.”
“Those are not names I would use lightly if I were you,” Trell answered, lifting the shotgun again and cocking it as he took aim at “blue eyes”. All three men lowered their weapons and took a step back, their expressions turning to stone. Only two people in the world could have given them his name, and Trell was sure one of them was dead.
“That’s why we spent the last five years earning the right to speak them. We know the oaths that bind their users and we swore them willingly. We do not use them lightly now,” blue eyes explained. Very slowly, he lifted his hands to the neck of his tunic and withdrew a chain. The large ring on the end glinted in the sunlight as he lifted it over his head and offered it to Trell. “On our lives, we are here to see this through ‘til the very end.”
Trell motioned for the man to throw his proof to him and he caught it with his free hand. As he studied the object, he couldn’t help glancing between the ring and the young man standing before him. It was a match to the knife. If it was real, if they were who this ring said they were, then they’d come speaking the words that would start a war.
“I was told you were an ally. Does that still stand, or has this land changed you?” blue eyes pressed.
“My allegiance has always been true,” Trell blurted out defensively. Had it been so long that those on the other side didn’t know where he stood anymore? Had his silence been mistaken for something else? He wasn’t about to let possible thieves get past him so easily. “And I’m going to need more than words and a trinket to believe you.”
“I fully understand,” the man stated. “Under the circumstances, I would expect nothing less.”
Trell tossed back the chain holding the ring. The man slid it around his neck, tucking it back under his tunic. Then he looked Trell in the eyes and said, “How’s Mable’s health?”
Trell’s heart skip a beat, “How do you know about Mable?”
“A mutual friend said you would be skeptical of us,” the man with the amber eyes added with a strangely familiar shrug. “He wanted to make it clear we are on the same side.”
If there was one thing Trell knew for sure in this world, it was that Elion hadn’t told anyone beyond the gateway, not the Sages, or Soren, no one, of Mable’s existence. Her name was as good as having Elion vouching for them. Was this part of one of his friends’ old schemes or did he dare to hope for more?
“I want all your weapons in a pile in front of you. Now!” Trell commanded. The men exchanged looks of disgust. But once blue eyes tossed down his sword, the other two followed suit. Trell counted twenty blades hidden on each of them as the pile grew to an absurd height, hie earlier suspisions confirmed. They were trained throwers. Any one of them could have put a dagger in his throat before he got off a shot. Except for scaring the horses, there had never been a chance of Trell killing more than one of them before they took him down. They had let him feel in control until they could get him to listen.
“Chasky,” Trell called out without looking behind him. “Put your gun away and call my wife. She’s going to want to know that guests are on their way.”
Trell lowered his gun, holding his hand out as an offering. Blue eyes stepped forward and took it.
“I’m Roah,” he announced confidently then gestured to his companions and they each offered their hands. “This is Tregr and Daggon. They are just as skilled and dedicated to seeing this through as I am.”
Trell shook Tregr’s hand and noted the green eyes checking out the unique scars on his neck. The young man had more than a few similar markings on his hands. Daggon’s name that shocked Trell the most. He took a hesitant step towards him. Daggon handed the horses leads to Roah and avoided Trell’s face as he extended his hand, equally nervous.
“And as long as you keep your oaths, I will do all I can to assist you,” Trell offered, feeling the thrill of a purpose greater than himself surge through him once again. “Welcome to Virginia.”
I pressed my back up against the barrier and exhaled through gritted teeth. Despite the half dozen towers standing between me and my target, I knew where he was hiding. The bow gripped firmly in my left hand was a natural extension of my arm; I commanded it as easily as my breath. My three remaining arrows were laced between the fingers of my right hand. I notched one and pulled the string back.
Wait, I told myself. I had to time this just right. He was the only one left standing, and it was up to me to finish it.
I darted out from behind the wall and fired, missing him. My movement triggered his next attack, an arrow loosing wildly. It stuck into the wall just above my head. I dropped to the dirt, the old twinge in my shoulder reminding me to get back on the offensive before I was a pincushion again. Counting my breaths, I replayed his attack in my head. A pattern emerged. I grinned and notched another arrow.
I heard him move behind the barrels to my right, creeping closer.
My bow whipped around the corner, my second shot acting as a decoy. It was instantly replaced by my last arrow. The bolt vibrated in the tower to his left and I waited.
He peered around a tree, arrow ready. His eyes calculated my location based on my decoy and emboldened, he took a step to cross the worn path at his feet. But he was too slow. My final shot had landed square in his chest before he’d seen me. Shock and defeat crumpled his face as I stepped out into the afternoon sun. The pain of his defeat brought him to his knees, raising his bow in one hand and my puffy, felt-tipped arrow in the other.
“And number 16, Lotty Anderson, wins the Dodgebow division for the Chicago Gold team,” the announcer blared through the speakers. “That puts them in first, with the Montreal Marvels second, Milwaukee’s Best third, leaving the Chicago Reds fourth.”
The voice melted into the sounds of the crowd as I made my way to the next staging area. Congratulations came from spectators, other competitors, and teammates, but I only nodded in response. I had to stay focused and find my cousin Tyler.
“You made me look bad!” Tyler’s voice carried clearly over the crowd. “I should’ve known you’d out last me.”
The platinum ends of his messy brown hair were an easy beacon to follow as I jogged up to him. He tossed a water bottle and I caught it, drinking deeply.
“Hey, someone had to stay in and show them how it’s done. You had some good hits though,” I added between swallows.
“I’m surprised you had time to notice,” Tyler flashed the easy grin I’d loved since we were kids. It disappeared into his sweaty face as he looked at his watch, then scanned the field. “But we’ll have to celebrate later. They’re already lining up for the last event. Strip your gear as we walk. You’re out of time.”
Tyler grabbed my compound bow and slung my duffle bag full of gear over one shoulder. His six-foot tall, brawny shoulders parted a sea of people as he blazed a trail to the next field. While I jogged to match Tyler’s long strides, I pulled my helmet off and shoved it into the duffle bag. The goggles protecting my hazel green eyes came off next. Velcro straps protested as I removed the protective vest from my lean torso. I traded it for the gold vest with my number on it, sliding my arms through and fastening it in place. Lastly, I shook out my dishwater-blond hair and finger combed it into a long ponytail.
Two years ago, my older cousin Tyler, had talked me into joining his archery team when he’d started college. I didn’t hesitate. Not only did I get to spend time with Tyler, who was more like an older brother than a cousin. I got to practice Dodgebow. I thrived in that division. Maybe it had something to do with the thrill of the chase, or out thinking an opponent on their feet, or the fast pace of all the chaos on the battlefield, or that it felt similar to the type of archery I’d practiced with my grandpa when I was younger. Whatever it was, I loved it. And I was sure if it wasn’t for my swift moves there, I would never have been accepted into this private club.
“You’re first,” Tyler’s voice broke through as we walked behind the challenger’s line looking for my place. “Blake’s fourth, so it’s not all on your shoulders but this will need to be some of your best shooting today.”
“Are you sure you can’t do this one?” I grumbled.
“Lotty, I wish I could, but this is for finalists that have accrued enough points. I didn’t qualify, you did. Just stay out of your head and you’ll be fine,” he encouraged.
We stopped at the line with the number 16. I sighed and rolled my eyes. It didn’t seem to matter how much I practiced. No amount of skill had eased the fear that perpetually wiped my mind blank when I was center stage. It was why I’d never tried out for drama or debate. I’d always felt more comfortable with expressing myself as part of a team, like in soccer; where I wasn’t the only thing people were watching…and judging. The announcer’s voice blared through the muggy June afternoon air, but I wasn’t paying attention.
“Deep breaths, Lotty,” Tyler commanded, rubbing my tense shoulders as if to remold my posture to match his. “You’ve got this. Just remember to focus on the bow in your hand and the target in front of you. And if that doesn’t help, just give me a nod and I’ll aim an arrow at you. That seems to bring out your best moves.”
“Deal,” I agreed with a grimace. Jerk, I needed my competitive mask if I was going to defend our team’s first place ranking. I tried to push down the dozens of pleas from my teammates that this would be the time I didn’t choke.
“It’s time. Go get’em, kid,” he cheered, heading in the direction of the rest of our team.
The announcer quickly reviewed the rules and then introduced the order of the contestants. “Number 16, Lotty Anderson. Shooter, take your mark,” echoed off the bleachers and assaulted my ears.
I tried to ignore the bustle of the crowd, the glare of the sun, the accelerated throbbing of my pulse. Instead, I concentrated on the double curve of the bow in my hand, the sharpness of the string between my fingers, and the red in the center of the target.
With the arrow notched, I took a deep breath and stood my full five foot six height. Checking my stance, I tested the air to see if the slight breeze I’d felt earlier had returned. When I was positive all was calm, I pulled the string back. It cut into my fingers as I steadied the arrow.
The crowd fell silent and I was suddenly aware of hundreds of eyes watching my every move. Make some noise, I thought. The Montreal Marvels were a close second and every point could mean the difference between winning or letting my team down. A slight tremor shook through my bow hand and I felt sweat on my fingers. The string started to slip.
Before I could stop it, the arrow was loosed. It sailed through the air and the groan of the crowd told me what I already knew. I’d missed the point circle completely. The fletched end waved at me from the corner of the target stand and I swallowed the lump in my throat.
The announcer recounted what points were needed for Chicago Gold, for me, to keep my team’s first place spot. I shook off the fail and quickly reloaded for my final shot. I was determined to make this one.
Taking Tyler’s advice to think less, I got into place. A steading breath only tightened the knot in my stomach. Taking aim at the red circle in the middle of the bull’s-eye, I released.
Everything slowed down in my mind as a gust of wind pulled hair across my face. I saw the moment it caught the arrow and pushed it off course, carrying it into the outer most ring of the circle. It was only when I exhaled in disappointment that I realized I’d been holding my breath.
When Chicago Gold was announced as the second place team I exchanged conciliatory pats on the back and vows of “we’ll get them next time” with my teammates. The crowd thinned as the stands cleared and I made my way to where Tyler was sitting with his back to me.
“Well, I still froze. Good thing Blake was on a hot streak today or we would’ve come in third. But, hey, at least I hit the target this time!” I boasted wryly, slumping onto the bench next to him as I loosened the buckles linking my custom leather hand guard to the matching wrist cuff. My fingers lingered over their shared symbol; a hand tooled emblem from my first bow. On the second pass I realized Tyler hadn’t responded. “Hey, I said at least I hit the target this time. Did you miss it?”
My cousin finally looked up from the phone he was white knuckling. “Grandma Mable’s in the hospital.”
“What? Why? I just called her the other day, she was fine. Better than fine, she was her usual cheery self. We were making plans for her visit this summer.”
“I just got off the phone with Mom. Doctor’s say the cancer’s spread. They don’t know how much time she has, maybe only a couple weeks.”
“No,” I gasped, shaking my head as my chest tightened.
“Dad’s already left for Virginia. Mom said they’ve decided to push up the move before she gets worse. They need us home to help pack. And Grandma was asking for you. She needs to talk to you as soon as possible, something about Grandpa Elion.”
The sun was sinking in the late July sky, slowly disappearing behind the Appalachian Mountains, when I finally turned down a long, tree lined driveway. Hearing the familiar crunch of gravel beneath my tires, I rolled down the window and breathed in the scent of fresh cut maple.
The sunset cast long shadows as I approached the front of the old Victorian plantation house; the blue siding turned gray in the fading light. I knew what would greet me inside. Even the roses my grandma had pruned every morning looked unchanged in my eight-year absence. My Grandpa had been gone eight years, and now Grandma was gone too.
Putting my Wagoneer in park, my stomach lurched. The cuff on my left wrist caught my eye and I released the steering wheel. My fingers found the familiar pattern embossed in the leather. I began to trace the lines in the order I’d been taught to draw them. The words of a nearly forgotten poem, concocted by my grandpa, filled my head.
Circle the moon and cross the tide
Beyond the waterfalls, protectors hide
Leave the last secret at their door
And they will defend you evermore
Grandpa’s made-up stories always left out what The Last Secret was and every time I’d badgered him about it, it was suddenly past my bedtime. I’d soon learned that to keep him talking, I had to ask about the so-called “protectors”; his version of action heroes that guarded a magical realm’s most valuable treasure. Only the most trustworthy and experienced were allowed to volunteer for the task, but he always hinted at a young protector that had defied all the rules to train in secret. In my childhood romps through the forest I’d pretended it was me.
My cell phone rang and I jumped, knocking my knee on the steering wheel. After willing my heart to slow, I answered it, thankful for the lifeline back to reality.
“Hello,” I said, knowing my uncle would be on the other end.
“Lotty, it’s Bill.”
“Hi, Uncle Bill. Where are you guys? I thought you were right behind me,” I feigned innocence, hoping they weren’t about to pull into the driveway.
“We were; then Karen got a call from the caretaker. Trell said the worst is over, so your aunt wanted to stop and pick up a few groceries for the house. She’s still shopping so we’ll be late.”
“That’s fine,” I said, trying to hide my relief as Bill continued.
“I think we got lucky. Trell and his nephews have been walking that horse day and night since he got sick. The vet was by earlier and checked Charlemagne’s progress before they all went home for the night.”
“I’m so relieved to hear that,” I admitted as I grabbed my stable boots from the passenger side of the Wagoneer. I slid off my flip-flops and pulled them on, in spite of the steering wheel.
“We all were, but I know Charlemagne will be in good hands with you around now. I gave you a key to the house, right?”
“Yup,” I replied automatically before turning the conversation back to the horse’s health. “So he’s going to be fine? You’re sure?”
“Yes. The vet said so himself. So Lotty, don’t go running off to the stables before you’ve gotten yourself settled. Just remember, Monday will be here before you know it, and we’ve a lot of work to do before I start at the new office. Without Tyler here, I’m counting on your help.”
“Yeah, of course,” I assured him but I didn’t put my sandals back on. I was eventually going to the barn, I reasoned. Tyler would never forgive me if I didn’t check on Charlemagne before I did anything else. He loved that horse. Besides, I didn’t think any of us could handle more loss.
“Where are you anyway?” Bill wondered.
“I’m already here,” I squeaked.
“You are?” he sounded relieved. But then he added, “You weren’t speeding were you?”
“Of course not,” I lied, playing with the frayed denim of my shorts. “There isn’t much traffic coming into Lexington. Not compared to Chicago.”
“True, thank goodness for that,” Uncle Bill sighed and I could hear the smile in his voice.
In April, after Grandma told us she had cancer, finalizing her last will had been her highest priority. She had wanted us to love and enjoy her Virginia home after she was gone. It was her way of still being with us, she’d said. None of us had guessed that we’d be moving so soon.
“Well, Karen will be relieved to know you’re there, safe.” There was a pause in the conversation as I heard Aunt Karen saying something I couldn’t understand. Then Uncle Bill added, “Could you check on Brandy as well? She’s been a little spooked lately. It might soothe her to see you.”
I couldn’t help a groan, “You know how Brandy is with anyone who isn’t Karen.”
“I know. Just do what you can, we’ll be there soon.”
“No rush. See you when you get here.”
When the line went dead, I shoved the phone back in my pocket. I guessed I had about an hour to myself. That would have to be enough.
I stepped out of the overloaded Wagoneer and marched towards my childhood home.
I had no memory of my parents, just my Grandpa Elion and Grandma Mable. The scars down the right side of my neck and shoulder, my arm, and my right side were my only link to the people that had died in a house fire that nearly killed me too. And they were just people to me. Mable and Elion had given me so much love that even when they had explained where my scars had come from, it hadn’t bothered me.
The three of us had eight wonderful years together, until my grandpa’s disappearance on my tenth birthday. The resulting manhunt consumed the entire state but failed to produce my grandpa or his body. I’d been convinced that something, or someone, had taken him. It was the beginning of a very dark period for me.
Grandma Mable hadn’t been able to handle me and her son Bill and his wife Karen had offered to take me in. It hurt to realize I hadn’t been back since that awful year. Grandma had come up with one excuse or another, sometimes just outright refusing to let me come back. I felt the old fear that she didn’t want me around because I reminded her of Grandpa tighten my chest.
Now as a seventeen year old, with years of therapy under my belt, I knew better. Grandma was just trying to help me cope with a loss that deviated us both. I could look anyone in the eye and say that I knew he was dead. I couldn’t lie about staying up all night texting Tyler but I could lie about my grandpa. I had too. You can only tell a therapist that “the bad guys from your bedtime stories took your grandpa” for so long before they start talking about sending you to an institution for a year. And as I grew up, I realized that I’d been obsessed with a fantasy.
But it had been too little too late.
The conflict of my Grandma’s last days swelled inside me, pushing at the wall I’d constructed around my heart. Grandma had asked for me over the phone, had said there were things she needed to tell me about Grandpa, things she wasn’t supposed to tell me until I was older. When I’d finally gotten to call her back later that evening, she had already slipped into a coma. Mable had died a few days later and we never got to have that talk. In the weeks leading up to the move, I’d concocted this plan to arrive early. It was the only way I could have some time alone to look for a hint of what she’d wanted to tell me.
Swallowing the lump in my throat, I stepped up onto the large porch that wrapped around the Victorian home. Walking on the old, creaky wood, I felt like I was being sucked back in time. I grabbed the ornate brass knob on the oversized front door with a trembling hand. I knew what was behind the door; a formal parlor, classical dining room, a country kitchen, antique styled bedrooms and Grandpa’s forbidden study, all waiting for his return, as Grandma Mable had insisted.
My breaths came in short gasps; I couldn’t make myself turn the knob. The thought of stepping back into those memories and not seeing either of them was more than I could face. A whinny from the barn reminded me of my promise to Tyler. It was like being released from a trace.
I spun on my heels and darted off the porch, through the yard, and across the wide drive. The stable door slid silently along iron hinges and I whipped out my phone, turning on the flashlight. Amidst the deepening shadows, I was greeted by warm snorts and swishing tails. The familiar scent of alfalfa, leather, and horse sweat wafted around me.
A flip of the light switch turned on one weak bulb in the tack room, which promptly popped and winked out.
“Oh, the things I do for Tyler,” I grumbled half-heartedly, secretly excited by the distraction.
My phone light electrified everything in its beam and left the rest of the world black, like a horror film. I shut it off to preserve my night vision. The arena lights had a proximity sensor that I’d trip long before it was too dark to see. Halfway to the stalls, as I passed the grain room, a faint glow up and to my left caught my eye. No one else was supposed to be on the property. Bill had been pretty clear about everyone being done for the night. I doubled back and the light disappeared.
Confused, I retraced my steps. A few passes revealed that I had to be at just the right angle to see up into the barn’s loft. And there was a light up there. It was swinging or flickering but it was there.
My fingers found the hidden latch between support beams. The door swung open to a set of spiral stairs twisted up into the ceiling. I took them two at a time, emerging into the lamp-lit room with my jaw hanging open.
“It’s all still here!” I breathed in astonishment.
The small, sparsely furnished studio apartment, had a thin layer of dust and a few cobwebs but, for the most part, looked ready to use. Except for the empty water troughs and broken tools stacked in one corner, I imagined that no one had been in it for years. Which did not explain the oil lamp flickering a bright blue flame from the table in the center of the room.
I remembered the blown glass lamp from Grandpa’s study. It had been his favorite light to read by. All throughout my childhood, I had never seen it extinguished. Even when the summer sun was shining brightly through the window, he’d never put that blue flame out. He said it reminded him of home, of my parents, of a time and place he could never return to. Grandma had never pressed him about it, and I assumed she’d keep it lit for the same reasons he had.
But why was it still lit, AND in the barn? The fire hazard alone made the burn scars up my shoulder and neck tighten. Feeding the anger in my chest, my mind filling up with all the things I was going to say to the caretakers as I went to extinguish it.
I found the nob to adjust the wick and turned. The wick disappeared but the flame remained. The hypnotic dance of the flame stirred something deep inside, like a memory that refused to come into focus. Assuming the mechanism was somehow broken; I opted instead to blow it out. Three strong puffs into the glass chimney created a storm of white sparks. For a second I was afraid they’d escape and start a fire, but as I watched, they slowed and blended together until they melded into the center flame, which remained undimmed. My breaths appeared in clouds and my goose bumps combined into a full shiver. The temperature in the loft had dropped at least ten degrees.
“That’s just so wrong.”
I took the lamp over to the stainless steel sink and turned the faucet on, splashing the stubborn fire. The water passed through the blue flame like it wasn’t there, dripping out the bottom edges of the glass chimney. Blinking in disbelief, I tried again. The water pooled around the base and drained harmlessly down the sink, the flame still unaffected.
“Seriously freaky. But at least I know you can’t burn the barn down,” I said, setting the lamp in the sink. “Don’t think that means I’m done with you.”
That’s when I saw the post-it note stuck to the base of the oil lamp.
The soggy paper held Grandma Mable’s shaky script.
Tell Lotty about cypher – Elion’s journals.
I ran my fingers lightly over the wobbly ink, the pang of her absence deepening behind my smile. I had been right! Whatever she was going to tell me she hadn’t left to chance. All I had to do was figure out where Grandpa’s cypher was and which of the dozens of journals that filled the shelves of his study she’d meant for me to read. I was going to float away with relief. I had one last link to both of them; they were both still with me.
I looked around the apartment, basking in the return of a thousand cherished memories. Grandpa and I had lived here when Mable had first hired him to run the farm. He’d used it as an office after they’d married and we’d moved into the big house, but some of the thrift store furniture had remained.
Then I saw it. Propped up next to a bookshelf, half filled with stacks of newspapers, boxes of equine supplements, and a stack of his old work shirts, was a picture.
A man with his hair starting to gray, smile lines spreading on his weathered face, was holding a giggling girl on the front porch of the house. Her hands and the knees of her overalls were covered in dirt, and she was waving around a tattered bunch of wildflowers. The little girl was all sunshine and hope, the old man grinning from ear to ear. It was as if all of my happiest memories were compressed into that single perfect picture with him.
My heart crashed toward the earth like a meteorite; exploding into a million pieces upon re-entry.
The word escaped in a strangled whimper.
The last day I’d seen him he’d been going to visit the neighbor. He never came back. When Grandma Mable had tucked me in that night, I fought her. I knew something was wrong. I could feel the world changing around me. Even as I curled under the covers, I’d desperately wished he would walk through my bedroom door, asking about my day as he checked the locks on my window and shooed any lingering monsters out from under my bed. He was supposed to tell me one of his stories and kiss the scars on my arm so they were a little softer by morning. But he never did again.
Lamp forgotten, I picked up the cherished image and pressed it to my heart. The rest of the memories I’d stuffed away came back in a flood; afternoon walks, stories under the light of the moon, adventures along the creek in the woods. Looking around the apartment, it was as if I was that little girl again, missing my grandpa so much I could hardly breathe.
The loft suddenly closed in on me. I needed air. I had to get out. Gasping, I set the frame back on the counter and fled. My footsteps echoed off the metal steps of the spiral staircase.
Forcing the tears back, my attention went to Charlemagne. I found his stall in the dark. He greeted me with heavy eyelids and I began stroking his neck, whispering softly that Tyler wished he could be there for him. The gentle chestnut nudged me, his hot breath blowing the scent of grain into my hands. His calm demeanor, the affection of my old friend, opened the floodgates. Tears burned my eyes and streamed down my cheeks. And I let them.
The sobs grew with every intake of breath. And even though I knew the horses didn’t need me, I needed them. I needed their strength, their unconditional love and acceptance. Coming back had reconnected me to the little girl I had thought died when I’d lost my grandpa. I didn’t know what to do with her, with her disappointment, her insecurities, her pain. All I could do was curl up on a nearby saddle blanket and cry.
“Lotty,” a soft voice pulled me from a veil of dreamless sleep.
I stretched, trying to release the ache in my neck and shoulders and I heard my name again. Breathing in the sweet scent of alfalfa and sawdust, I remembered the emotional meltdown of the night before and jolted upright, blinking. A familiar figure was outlined by the morning sun.
Bill’s soft, nearly six-foot tall frame was kneeling in front of me. His glasses had slid to the end of his narrow nose, extending the distance to his receding salt and pepper hairline. He wore his usual work jeans with a thread-worn polo and a loving smirk.
“Uncle Bill?” I muttered in confusion as a yawn caught me.
“Hey kiddo. I hadn’t expected you to sleep out here all night.”
“Me neither,” I admitted, sitting up slowly and leaning against a bail of straw. I grimaced at the kinks in my back.
“When Karen heard you were still out here, she made you breakfast,” he announced as he set a tray with a plate of eggs, toast, and fruit in my lap. “And I thought you’d want this.”
Uncle Bill handed me a mug, swirls of steam dancing above it. The invigorating aroma of French roasted coffee wafted through the air.
“Oh yes, please, gimme,” I begged, taking the mug with both hands. I inhaled deeply.
“I know you’ve been trying to cut back,” he began as he sat on the bail opposite me. “Karen teased me when she saw I had added more sugar than coffee, but I figured after last night you could use a little something sweet.”
“Thanks,” I sighed, grateful I didn’t have to explain why I hadn’t returned to the house. Between sips, I started picking at the food. That’s when I noticed the quilted blanket. I recognized it as one that Grandma Mable had hand stitched. Surprised either of them had let it leave the house, I held up one corner with a confused look.
“When we got in last night, I came out to check on the horses. You were asleep outside of Charlemagne’s stall. I didn’t want to disturb you, but Karen thought you’d be chilled out here in shorts and a tank top. She insisted on that one.”
My cheeks flushed. I studied the steam rising out of my cup. I knew it was her way of approving of my choice of sleeping arrangements, but my conscious pricked at worrying her.
“I didn’t even know you’d been in here,” I replied, setting down the precious brew to reverently fold up the hand-sewn quilt and hand it back to Bill.
“Figured as much. You gave Trell’s boys quite a scare when they came over to do the morning chores,” Bill chuckled. “So, I told them to help the movers unload the truck instead.”
I nodded whole-heartily and even added a thumbs-up because my mouth was full again.
“Charlemagne looks like he’s much better, in spite of the fact that you left your phone in his grain bucket. Your lucky he couldn’t get his teeth around it down there,” he said as he handed me the drool and grain coated devise. The screen came to life at my touch; the battery was low.
“No, “ Bill replied with a satisfied grin. “That’s what you and Tyler get for training a horse to put anything in his mouth so you can take selfies with him-”
“I never- that was Tyler’s idea-”
“Speaking of which, I’ve returned four texts from Tyler already this morning. I don’t think he’s going to believe me until he hears from you.”
Shaking my head, I set my fork down, wiping off the device to thumb through the twenty texts I’d missed.
“Do me a favor and send him a few pictures of the chores he’s missing while you’re at it,” Bill added with an air of impatience. He wasn’t fooling anybody. We all knew how proud he was of Tyler. Anthropology scholarships were hard to come by at Northwestern.
“I will document everything he’s getting out of,” I promised, with an exaggerated salute after I exchanged the phone for my mug.
As I sipped, we sat in a comfortable silence. It had been our way since I was little but now I couldn’t help watching him out of the corner of my eye. I knew how much the horses meant to his mother. Like me, they connected him to someone we would never get back and who would always be deeply missed.
“Since the truck arrived early, Karen is already moving furniture around and adding her touch to the rooms. It may take a while to sort and pack up Grandma’s personal things, to make the house ours, but it will feel like home before you know it,” he promised gently, hinting at my other reason for retreating to the barn.
“Does that include the study?” I uttered nonchalantly over my mug, suddenly remembering the lamp I’d hidden last night.
“Eventually,” he shrugged.
I just nodded my acknowledgment, sipping my coffee in silence and remembering Mable’s note. If I was going to find her message from Grandpa I was going to have to move his journals someplace they would never look, like the barn loft, without raising any suspicions. That, of course, was after I’d worked up the nerve to go into a room that had been off limits to me for as long as I could remember. After losing my nerve at the front door last night, it felt like I’d been asked to climb Mt Everest naked. This had Grandpa’s finger prints all over it and he never made anything easy.
“And I know we talked about letting the farmhands go after moving back,” Bill shrugged as I finished my toast. “But this place is in worse shape than I’d originally thought. Trell did a good job keeping up with the daily duties and his boys have proven resourceful. I’ve decided to hire them on until school starts. There’s just too much for us to do in the next four weeks. My offer still stands though. I could really use a supervisor.”
My brow furrowed, eyes narrowing skeptically.
“I need your help here, Lotty. I know it’s been a few years, but no one knows this property like you do, not even me. I need your artistic eye to be sure new repairs mesh with the old framework seamlessly. The way mom-” Bill swallowed and cleared his throat. “You know what I mean. What do you say?”
“Will I have to milk the cow?” I grimaced.
Bill got a twinkle in his eye, and for a moment I could see an echo of Tyler’s playfulness.
“It’s been a while since either of us has lived on this farm. It’s going to take some adjusting and we can’t pick and choose the chores we want to do. But as the boys’ supervisor, you will have the authority to delegate that to one of them. Just try not to let the power go to your head, okay?”
“It’s not about power,” I insisted. “It’s about preserving my archery callouses and the sensitive cow parts.”
From outside the stable, someone called Bill’s name.
“And it begins,” Bill sighed tucking Grandma’s quilt under one arm as he stood. “Well, finish up your breakfast before you tend to the horses. We have plenty of help unloading the truck, so make sure you saddle up Magnus once you’re done in here. I’m guessing he’s has just as many kinks to work out as you do.”
“Except then Karen will want me to unpack my room, help organize the kitchen, break down boxes, pack up Grandma’s things, hang pictures-”
“Hey!” Bill interjected with a laugh, his hands up in mock surrender. “I can’t promise what will happen tomorrow. I can only give you today, smarty pants.”
I could see him running the list in his head, and he suddenly looked tired.
“Then I thank you for today, and for breakfast.”
Bill just waved a hand like it was nothing and slipped through the open door. I stopped shoveling food into my mouth and finally tasted the sweet strawberries and salt-laced eggs.
I set my empty dishes on a nearby hay bale as soon as I finished, eager to check on one thing before I started my chores. The secret door opened without a squeak, the staircase equally silent. I found the apartment still suspended in a layer of dust and memories, a time capsule but for a persistent flicker from the sink. I splashed more water on the wick, the air around me dropped several degrees again, but the flame danced defiantly. For a moment I admired the little fire hazard. Figuring out how Grandpa had made it, deciphering what it was for, was like having one last test to pass, one last adventure to go on with him. And as long as I was working on that I wouldn’t have time to remember that I was doing it without him.
I held onto that last thought as I slipped back down the stairs. The horses were waiting and nothing got my brain into problem solving mode like a little physical labor. I was going to be the master of my focus until school started.
Just as I was leaving the tack room, a distorted reflection caught my eye. I dropped the wheelbarrow, gloves, and rusty pitchfork I had collected to take a closer look at the warped, dust covered glass.
My slender, oval face with full lips and a dainty nose, looked out of proportion to the dark streaks of mascara dried under my eyes. I rubbed my skin until the circles of makeup had lightened, but my ratted hair was a mess that no amount of taming would change. So, I settled for pulling out the straw I could find and tying it into a messy knot on the top of my head. With this humidity, I’ll be covered in dust and sweat in ten minutes anyways, I reasoned, going to the first stall.
“Hey boy, did ya miss me?” I asked. Magnus nuzzled my side as I rubbed his neck. “Yeah, me too. How about we go for a ride as soon as I’m finished?”
Magnus and Whiskey went out to the pasture without incident. Charlemagne was restricted to his stall until I was sure he was colic free so that left one more, Brandy. She was a skittish creature, and no amount of carrots or apples could get her to trust anyone accept Karen. I opened her stall door slowly.
“It’s just me, girl,” I cooed as I gradually lifted my hand to her nose. She huffed her nostrils over my skin, hot breath heating my fingers.
“That’s-a-girl,” I cooed, slowly lifting the lead to her chin. In one fluid motion, I clasped the lead to her halter and braced myself for a head jerk. She stared at me with innocent eyes. I backed away suspiciously and she followed, head down.
“Well isn’t this barn full of surprises today,” I mumbled, releasing her into the pasture with a shake of my head.
Before picking up the pitchfork, I pulled my phone out and snapped a picture of each stall and several of Charlemagne, who might have been posing. I texted them to Tyler with a quick message-
In case you were thinking summer term sucks, here’s what I’ll be doing. But- Bill has enslaved the neighbor boys to unload the truck so guess who gets to ride today? P.S. Your horse is posing for the camera and he tried to eat my phone, so you know he’s better! Miss you!
I hit Send, turned on one of my playlists and slipped the phone into my back pocket, glad the speaker was loud enough I didn’t need ear buds. My muscles warmed quickly, and I could feel sweat beading at the back of my neck; all the while, my mind was formulating ways to take the lamp apart. I had to remember Mable’s note though, something about a cypher. That could mean the lamp was a clue to the location of a cypher or that it was hiding a cypher inside it somewhere. The wrong action could end the hunt before it began.
I was almost done cleaning the last stall, flinging fresh straw over my shoulder, when the metal pitchfork caught on something in the floor. I struggled for a few minutes before I wrestled it free, the middle prongs bent where they had rusted.
“Sure, break now,” I complained. I was so close to finishing my chores I could feel the wind blowing through my hair and the strength of Magnus’ thundering hooves beneath me.
I grabbed the remains of the pitchfork, dropped them in the ever-growing grave of broken farm tools, and began my search for a replacement. Just as I was about to give up, I spotted something tucked behind a stack of old saddle blankets.
I coughed at the dust in the air as I took my gloves off, not believing what I was seeing. Two glistening bows and a box of arrows lay on top of a bale of hay. Shockingly, the bows were completely dust-free, like they had been recently handled or even polished, like time had no hold over them. I looked around frantically but saw no one.
Both bows, except for the size, were exact replicas of each other. The smaller had been my new bow, a present given to me the day my Grandpa had disappeared. Whenever I had asked Mable to bring it to me in Chicago she’d complained that she couldn’t find it and I’d eventually assumed it was lost. It was too small for me now, but Grandpa’s bow was another story.
My fingers slid over the beautifully polished wood, tracing the intricate gold design above the grip. The circle had a line dividing it in half, the bottom half veiled in several more lines that looked like water droplets falling one after the other. It was just like the emblem on my leather cuff, the one I’d had made from memory. I took the larger weapon and held it up, surprised by how comfortable and natural it felt in my hands. I plucked the string several times testing it; it was new.
My knuckle went white. A list of ways I was going to torture whoever had dared to touch my grandpa’s bow, ran through my head. This was one of his most prized possessions, not a toy for strangers to screw around with! If Grandpa- the thought of what he would say made me stand a little taller, holding the weapon across my heart in a silent salute I’d seen him do a hundred times. I was the only one left who knew what that weapon had meant to him and I wasn’t letting it out of my protection again.
Naturally, as if my body craved it, my fingers curled into position, my posture straightening. I twisted my cuff to protect my wrist, fixed my stance, and aimed the bow. As if compelled by an unseen force, I took a feather-tailed arrow and notched it. Three short breathes, and I was anchoring my hand at the base of my jaw, the string cutting into my fingers as I held it taught.
It was intoxicating and bittersweet holding something of my grandfather’s; almost like he was welcoming me home. I inhaled deeply, pushing the thought away and continued to test the tension in the string.
As I imagined my tension moving into the bow, all the pretenses of smiling and pretending that I was okay with our move, with Grandma’s death, with Grandpa’s disappearance, bubbled to the surface. My hands began to shake. I hurriedly chose a target on the other side of the arena, envisioning it as a black hole. As I’d been taught, I poured my pain, confusion and grief into that imagined black spot.
We are protectors of a great secret, my dearest Adelaide.
The memory of Grandpa’s mantra came back with such clarity he could have been standing behind me. The tip of the arrow swung away from the arrow sight and the string suddenly slipped through my fingers. My left hand exploded in fiery pain and I dropped the bow. I looked up just in time to see the arrow sail through an open window and towards the house.
Blood dripped from the fresh cut across the back of my hand. Horrified, I retrieved the bow, unstrung it, and shoved it, along with the arrows, back under the pile of blankets. I need to find that damn arrow, I cursed, before Bill fires me and I have to spend the rest of the summer working at a car wash!
I retrieved my gloves and slipped the soft clean leather over the cut, flinching. The fabric lining turned red and disappeared inside as I pulled the velcro strap tight. I could deal with the cut after I made sure I hadn’t killed anybody. An image of one of the chickens impaled on the lawn flashed in my head and I bolted out the side door.
The sun temporarily blinded me and I smacked into someone’s bare chest. Pushing away I staggered backward, tripping over a rock. I landed in a cloud of dust, my injured hand sending up a jolt of pain as it caught me. Before I could scramble to my feet, a large strong hand slipped around my waist and began lifting me.
“I’m fine,” I coughed through watery eyes. Shrugging free, I started to dust myself off. A third hand tried to help, but it pushed me off balance.
“Seriously, I’m fine,” I snapped, missing a step before regaining my footing.
When I finally looked up through strands of loose hair, my breath caught in my throat. A pair of crystal blue eyes, the color of the sky on a clear day, met my gaze. They sat in a long angular face, with a pronounced brow, defined jaw line, and thin lips. His wavy dark hair hung to the middle of his neck, framing a sun-kissed face and making the jewel-like quality of his eyes his most prominent feature. The innocent shock in his face was so profound I worried for a moment that I’d hurt him.
For several heartbeats we were the only two people in the world, temporarily shocked free of life’s burdens. I felt my longing, to stay in that empty moment, reflected in his expression like we were two travelers resting in the same oasis. My body started to tingle, tendrils of pleasure curling around my middle as the desire to step closer, to know what his breaths would feel like in my lungs.
A truck door slammed and he stiffened, the world rushed back in like a cold shower. I blinked the dust out of my eyes and tried to regain what little composure I’d had, gathering the loose strands of hair and tucking them behind my ear.
He stared back, the muscles in his face and shoulders tensing and relaxing with indecision. He was so close, his eyes locked on mine while a sea of thoughts rolled behind them, as if he knew me or wanted to say something, but the words wouldn’t come. His lightly tanned upper body, which I had just smacked into, was bare and showed signs of a fading sunburn. Lean muscles flexed as he balanced a brown moving box over one shoulder, a gloved hand keeping it in a death grip.
It was such a bewildering change I couldn’t help but stare.
“Sorry,” I immediately sputtered. “Wasn’t watching. M-my bad.”
He pulled my stray arrow from the top of the box he was carrying and handed it to me. I felt my jaw drop in horror. For a single heartbeat he was soft again, as if he genuinely feared me.
“Don’t shoot the messenger?” he asked softly, an unfamiliar lilt to his words.
“Don’t bring me bad news,” I answered, feeling a need to take control of the dark weight settling back around my heart.
He looked away and I was sure I saw a twin weight settle onto his shoulders as he turned back to the house. I finally felt the pounding inside my chest, like I was only just returning to my body. The walk back to the barn was a blur. My mind replayed the encounter over in slow motion, trying to recapture the weightlessness of those first moments.
Something in that first look, in the intimacy of that anonymous moment with him, had crumbled every defense I had. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we had each glimpsed the others naked soul. So why hadn’t either of us flinched away?
To be continued…