Secrets of Moldara | Myth Machine ePublishing

Secrets of Moldara

The woods around Lotty’s childhood home are filling up with dangerous people. Her grandmother’s death has brought the family back from Chicago and triggered a secret Lotty was never meant to face alone. Guided by a desire to finally solve her Grandpa disappearance, Lotty has enlisted the help of farm hands that are keeping their own deadly secrets. Together they will have to learn to trust again, relying on each other’s will to fight, if they are going to survive the truth that waits for them both in Moldara.

Trell paced the floor of his study, cell phone still in hand, his thoughts racing.  The doctor had said Mable had only a few months to live; six at most, unless the cancer spread faster. As much as Trell hated the thought of 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, wouldn’t be a pleasant one, but as her caretaker and friend, it was the least he could do. 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.

As the quill scratched out symbols known to only him and the Sages, 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 said, 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 so many weapons and that much gear. This was no 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, Chasky 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 they might be Sages crumbled as he zoomed in on shadows of three large birds that followed the mysterious horsemen.

Trell’s blood boiled and he couldn’t help an absent-minded brush of the iridescent lines that ran up his neck. His shoulder still bore the scars of the first giant eagle he’d destroyed. All the trouble he’d gone to exterminating those cold-blooded killers, 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 midair.

“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.

His wife’s voice rang out from down the hall. “Body armor!”

Grateful for such a sharp woman, he finished filling a bag with ammo and grabbed the vest hanging behind the door.

High-powered binoculars in hand, he raced out the door and met 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.

As Chasky slammed the vehicle into gear, 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 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 nearby. If they want a fight, you’re my backup.” Trell slid shells into the shot gun and chambered the first round.

“Understood.”

They kept the path clear of debris, but years of use didn’t soften the potholes and rocks that emerged with each rainfall. Spring runoff 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. Chasky kept both hands on the wheel, making a hard right turn. He stopped just below the ridge line of the next hill.

“Keep this ready.” Trell handed over 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 himself.”

“If this is that easy, I’ll double it.” Trell’s stomach tightened 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. Trell aimed the military grade binoculars at the man holding the map and took in every tiny detail.

The stranger clutched the reins of a roan stallion that danced behind him, its ears swiveling in an effort to pinpoint the location and threat level of the Defender. With a gloved hand, the man passed control of the steed to one of his companions and shielded his eyes to check the position of the sun, raking dark wavy hair in frustration as he directed his attention back to the map.

A fur-lined hooded cloak hung open at his shoulders, revealing two long blades hanging at his waist. The crossbow, 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, which made it impossible to pinpoint the leader. Their body language was also deceptive. One didn’t yield to the other in any way that gave up clues as to a hierarchy.

Trell noted the high cheekbones and narrow green eyes of the leaner man on the map holder’s right. He held the reins of a black gelding and moved like a coiled spring, his gestures animated. The third man was the tallest and had the bulk of a linebacker. He had amber eyes and warm brown skin 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 of their irises, 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 pulled from scabbards 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. He ignored the sweat soaking his under shirt. His finger found the trigger of the shotgun.

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.”

Behind him, Trell heard the Defender’s engine rev. 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, Chasky threw the switch and sent a half dozen flaming exhausts 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 loose and disappear into the trees, the man who’d soothed them earlier shouted a command. The horses calmed immediately, allowing the man to gather them until their noses touched. He turned his back to Trell, and his companions 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 said, his sword going to a defensive position as his courage returned. “So, I’m starting to think you have the wrong impression of us. That could be a problem for you.”

“You condemned yourselves when you spoke the forbidden words,” Trell explained solemnly as he took aim.

Suddenly, blue-gray 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 revealed that he’d nearly blown off one wing. But the kill belonged to the dagger lodged deep in the bird’s chest, demonstrating a level of skill and ruthlessness that made Trell’s choice of gun irrelevant. As Blue Eyes stepped forward to reclaim his weapon, 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 his rifle smashed it to pieces.

As he stood to face the men he’d so grossly underestimated, Trell 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.

The green-eyed young man was clearly struggling to regain his composure, his gaze moving from the dead eagle to the remains of the crystal. “You’re Trell?” His sword wielding friend gave him a warning glance, but he ignored it, his attention on the shotgun in Trell’s hands. “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 immediately lowered their weapons and took a step back. 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,” Blue Eyes explained, his voice echoing the determination Trell saw in all their faces. “We know the oaths that bind their users, and we swore them willingly. We do not use them lightly now.” Very slowly, Blue Eyes 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 till the very end.”

Trell motioned for the man to toss his proof to him and 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. If it was real, if they were who this ring said they were, then not only had Trell threatened an extremely powerful family, he’d nearly killed invaluable messengers. No, it was worse. They had 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 stiffened. “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 friend’s 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. No wonder they hadn’t scared easily; 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 doing much damage 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 and gestured to the shorter of the two men beside him. “This is Tregr.”

Trell shook his hand, noting the green eyes and unique scars on his neck.

Roah turned to his amber-eyed companion. “And this is Daggon. Both men are just as skilled and dedicated to seeing this through as I am.”

Trell hesitated before stepping forward. Daggon. That name was all too familiar to him.

Daggon handed the horses’ leads to Roah and avoided Trell’s face as he extended his hand, oddly nervous.

Without taking his eyes off Daggon, he addressed the group.

“And as long as you keep your oaths, I will do all I can to assist you,” Trell offered, a thrill of pride surging through him for the first time in years. “Welcome to Virginia.”

 

I pressed my back up against the barrier and exhaled with 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 the first 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 my opponent’s next attack, and his arrow released wildly. It struck 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. I counted as I exhaled, slowing my breathing as I replayed his attack in my head. A pattern emerged. I grinned and notched the second 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. The bolt deflected off the tower to his left. I loaded my third and final arrow, waiting.

He peered around a tree, arrow ready. Emboldened, he took a step to cross the worn path at his feet. But he was too slow. My final shot landed square in his chest. Shock and defeat crumpled his face as I stepped out into the afternoon sun. The pain of his defeat brought him to his knees. He raised his bow in one hand, 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. 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 outlast 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. I caught it and drank 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 phone, 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 of gear over one shoulder. A six-feet-tall hulk of a guy with brawny shoulders, my cousin easily 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 came off next. Velcro straps protested as I removed the protective vest. 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, Tyler had talked me into joining his college archery team. I didn’t hesitate. Not only did I get to spend time with Tyler, who was more like an older brother than a cousin, but I got to practice Dodgebow. I thrived in that division. Maybe it had something to do with the thrill of the chase, or outthinking 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 Elion, 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 said, his voice breaking through my thoughts 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.

“Would if I could, but you and Blake are the ones with the required points, not me. Just stay out of your head, and you’ll be fine.”

My only response was a sigh and an eye roll.

We stopped at the line with the number 16. The announcer’s voice blared through the muggy, June afternoon air, but I wasn’t paying attention. It didn’t seem to matter how much I practiced. I’d always felt more comfortable expressing myself as part of a team. For exactly this reason, soccer was my chosen sport in the off-seasons. No one person could win or lose a game as part of a team. I was never left alone to sink or swim; someone always had my back. And all the practice sessions I did on my own had yet to prepare me for the mind-blanking panic of solo competitions.

“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 grimaced as I strung my custom-made long bow. 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 I not 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. “First finalist, Number 16, Lotty Anderson. Shooter, take your mark.” The words echoed off the bleachers and assaulted my ears.

I stepped forward, trying to ignore the bustle of the crowd, the glare of the sun, and the accelerated throbbing of my pulse. Instead, I concentrated on the flex of the wood in my bow and the sharpness of the string between my fingers. The red in the center of the target called to me.

I notched a steel-tipped arrow and took a deep breath. Checking every inch of 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 as a gust of wind pulled hair across my face. I saw the moment the current caught the arrow and pushed it off course, carrying it into the outermost ring of the center circle. It was only when I exhaled in disappointment that I realized I’d been holding my breath.

Second place.

I exchanged conciliatory pats on the back and vows of “we’ll get them next time” with my Chicago Gold teammates. The crowd thinned as the stands cleared, and I made my way to where Tyler was sitting, 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 slumped 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. Doctors 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 so long that my memories of him had started to fade, and now Grandma was gone too.

Putting my Wagoneer in park, my stomach lurched. As I released the steering wheel, the cuff on my left wrist caught my eye, and my fingers found the familiar pattern embossed in the leather. I traced the lines in the order I’d been taught to draw them. The words of a poem, written 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 for clues, 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 who 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 who 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 said, feigning innocence, hoping they weren’t about to pull into the driveway. I’d been planning this early arrival for days.

“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. I loved my aunt and uncle and I knew they meant well, but I needed to face this reunion with my past on my terms, without well-meaning adults hovering over me.

“I just got off the phone with the vet,” Bill continued. “Looks like Charlemagne is on the mend. Nasty bought of colic for the old guy. We’re lucky Trell and his nephews found that moldy hay before it was too late. He said they walked that poor horse day and night until the worst was past. Anyways, you must’ve just missed them ’cause they said he’s good for the night.”

“I’m so relieved to hear that.” 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 enjoy his recovery more 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. But Lotty, no running off to the stables before you’ve gotten yourself settled. This move has taken a lot out of all of us, and this will be a difficult return for you especially. It’s okay to go slowly, give yourself time to adjust.”

“Yeah, of course,” I assured him, but I didn’t put my sandals back on. Tyler would never forgive me if I didn’t check on Charlemagne before I did anything else. 

“How was the drive?”

“Fine,” I sighed, 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—her way of still being with us, she’d said. None of us had guessed we’d be moving so soon.

“Well, Karen will be relieved to know you’re there, safe.” There was a pause in the conversation, and I heard Aunt Karen saying something I couldn’t understand. Then Uncle Bill added, “Could you check on Brandy when you get a minute? Trell and his boys say she’s been an angel, but that animal spooks so easily. It’s more likely she’s coming down with something else we’ll have to deal with.”

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 one precious hour to myself, give or take. That would have to be enough.

I stepped out of the overloaded Wagoneer and marched toward my childhood home.

Technically, I was adopted…sort of. I had no memory of my parents, just my Grandpa Elion, who’d taken me in when I was two, and the woman he married later, my 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 who had died in the house fire that had nearly killed me too. And they were just people to me. My grandparents 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 a grieving kid. Her son Bill and his wife Karen had offered to take me in, promising I’d get to go back when things got better. Grandma had come up with one excuse or another, sometimes just outright refusing to let me come home. I hadn’t been back since.

Now as a seventeen-year-old, with years of therapy under my belt, I knew Grandma was just trying to help me cope with a loss that had devastated us both. I could look anyone in the eye and say that I knew he was dead. I couldn’t lie convincingly to my uncle about staying up all night binging on my favorite show, or make my teachers swallow my late paper excuses, but I could lie to anyone about my grandpa and make them believe it. I had to. 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.

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 called her back later that evening, she’d already slipped into a coma. Mable had died a few days later, and we never got to have that talk. Knowing that she had something of my grandpa’s to pass on, be it a message or something tangible, had made her death even more painful. Whatever it was, I wanted time to discover it on my own.

I stepped up onto the large wraparound porch, swallowing the lump in my throat. Walking on the old, creaky wood erased the years. I was a child again, coming home. With a trembling hand, I grabbed the ornate brass knob on the oversized front door. 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. As if I’d been released from a trance, 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 was a pillar of white that 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 that twisted up into the ceiling. I took them two at a time, and when I emerged into the lamp-lit room, my jaw dropped.

“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, which sat on a table in the center of the room, flickering brightly.

I remembered the blown glass lamp from Grandpa’s study, his favorite light to read by. All throughout my childhood, I had never seen it extinguished. Even when the summer sun shone brightly through the window, he’d never put that blue flame out. Reminded him of home, he’d said, and of my parents, and of a time and place lost to him long ago. Grandma had never pressed him about the lamp, 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’ tomorrow, I crossed the room to extinguish it.

I found the knob to adjust the wick and turned. The wick disappeared but the blue fire remained. The hypnotic dance of the flame stirred something deep inside, a memory that refused to come into focus. Assuming the mechanism was somehow broken, I tried 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, 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, a bittersweet lump rising in my throat. I had been right! Whatever she was going to tell me she hadn’t left to chance. I had one last link to both of them; they were still with me.

All I had to do was figure out where Grandpa’s cypher was and which of the dozens of books that filled the many shelves of his study she’d meant for me to read. I flopped onto the musty old couch, clouds of dust billowing up around me. Grandpa had over a dozen journals, and those were just the ones I knew of.

I looked around the apartment, fighting a feeling of being overwhelmed. 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. The place held a world of cherished memories just waiting for me to dust them off again.

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, held a giggling girl on the front porch of the house. 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. All of my happiest memories—compressed into that single perfect picture with him.

“Grandpa!”

The word escaped in a strangled whimper.

The last day I’d seen him, he went out 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 and ask 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.

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, I was that little girl again, missing my grandpa so much I could hardly breathe.

The loft closed in on me. I needed air. I had to get out. Gasping, I put the frame back and fled. My footsteps echoed off the metal steps of the spiral staircase.

Forcing the tears back, I went to Charlemagne’s stall. He greeted me with heavy eyelids, and I stroked 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 home had brought back the little girl who’d 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 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 kneeled in front of me, outlined by the morning sun.

Bill’s soft, nearly six-foot tall frame was clad in his usual work jeans and threadbare polo. His glasses had slid to the end of his narrow nose, extending the distance to his receding salt and pepper hairline. He looked down at me with his usual 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 bale of hay. I grimaced at the kinks in my back.

“When Karen heard you were still out here, she made you breakfast.” 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 roast coffee wafted through the air.

“Oh yes, please, gimme.” I took the mug with both hands and inhaled deeply.

“I know you’ve been trying to cut back,” he began as he sat on the bale 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 picked at the food. That’s when I noticed the quilted blanket, one that Grandma Mable had hand stitched. Surprised either of them had let it leave the house, I held up one corner expectantly.

“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 in nothing but shorts and a tank top. She insisted on that one.”

My cheeks flushed. I studied the steam rising out of my cup. It was her way of approving of my choice of sleeping arrangements, but my conscience pricked at worrying her.

“I didn’t even know you’d been in here.” I set 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 wholeheartedly 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. You’re lucky he couldn’t get his teeth around it down there.” He handed me the drool and grain-coated device.

“That’s disgusting.”

The screen came to life at my touch; the battery was low.

Bill grinned. “No, 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 already returned four texts from Tyler his morning. I don’t think he’s going to believe me until he hears from you.”

Shaking my head, I set down my fork, wiping off my phone to thumb through the twenty texts I’d missed.

“While you’re at it, do me a favor and send him a few pictures of the chores he’s missing,” 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’ll document everything,” I promised with an exaggerated salute.

I exchanged the phone for my mug.

We sat in a comfortable silence as I sipped my coffee and ate breakfast. 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 had meant to his mother. Like me, they connected him to someone we would never get back, someone we would always miss.

“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 took another sip from my mug, hoping my question sounded nonchalant. I hadn’t forgotten about the lamp I’d hidden last night.

He shrugged. “Eventually.”

I nodded my acknowledgment, sipping my coffee in silence and remembering Mable’s note. If I was going to find her message from Grandpa, I would have to move his journals someplace they’d 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, I felt like I’d been asked to climb Mt. Everest naked. This had Grandpa’s fingerprints all over it, and he never made anything easy.

“And I know we talked about letting the farm hands go after we all moved in,” Bill said 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.”

I looked at him over my coffee, waiting to hear a catch.

“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.

A twinkle lit Bill’s 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 adjustment, and we can’t pick and choose the chores we want. But as the boys’ supervisor, you will have the authority to delegate. 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 waved a hand like it was nothing and slipped through the open door. I stopped shoveling food into my mouth and slowed down, finally tasting the sweet strawberries and salt-laced eggs.

As soon as I finished, I set my empty dishes on a nearby hay bale, eager to check on one thing before I started my chores. The secret door opened without a squeak, and the staircase was equally silent. I found the apartment as I’d left it, 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, and the air around me dropped several degrees again. 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 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 to gather a few tools. The horses were waiting, and nothing got my brain into problem-solving mode like a little physical labor. Until school started, I would be the master of my focus.

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.

The dark streaks of mascara dried under my eyes did not do me any favors. 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. Instead I settled for removing all the straw I could find and tying my hair 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 had been restricted to his stall until I was sure he was colic free, so that left one more horse to visit—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, gradually lifting my hand to her nose. She huffed, her hot breath heating my fingers.

“Atta-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 out my phone 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:

see the chores I do 4 u

 slacker

 your horse posing for camera, so u know he’s better!

AND he tried to eat my phone

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 sweat beaded at the back of my neck; all the while, my mind formulated ways to take the lamp apart. I remembered Mable’s note stuck to the bottom.

Tell Lotty about cypher – Elion’s journals.

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, and the middle prongs bent where they had rusted.

“Sure, break now.” I was so close to finishing my chores I could feel the wind blowing through my hair and the strength of Magnus’s thundering hooves beneath me.

I grabbed the remains of the pitchfork, dropped the pieces 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 in the attached arena.

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, as if they had been recently handled or even polished, like time had no hold over them.

Both bows, except for the size, were exact replicas of each other. The smaller had been my 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, a circle with a line dividing it in half, the bottom half veiled in several more lines that looked like falling water droplets. It was the mirror image of the emblem on my leather cuff, the one I’d had made from memory. I held up the bow, surprised by how comfortable and natural Grandpa’s weapon felt in my hands, and plucked the string several times to test it. It was new.

My knuckles 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 the 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, and 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 great secrets, 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 toward 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, tripped over a rock, and landed in a cloud of dust, my injured hand sending up a jolt of pain as I caught myself. Before I could scramble to my feet, a large, strong hand slipped around my waist and lifted me.

“I’m fine,” I coughed, rubbing my watery eyes and shrugging free of his grasp. When I started to dust myself off, the stranger tried to help but only made matters worse by pushing 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 tanned face and making the jewel-like quality of his eyes his most prominent feature. The innocent shock on 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 set 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 breath would feel like in my lungs, overwhelmed me.

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 my composure, gathering the loose strands of hair and tucking them behind my ear.

It was such a bewildering change I couldn’t help but stare.

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 wanted to say something, but the words wouldn’t come. Lean muscles flexed as he balanced a brown moving box over one shoulder, a gloved hand keeping it in a death grip.

“Sorry,” I suddenly 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. My jaw dropped in horror.

“Don’t shoot the messenger?” he asked softly, an unfamiliar lilt to his words.

“Don’t bring me bad news,” I tried to banter but I could hear the honesty in my voice. A dark weight settled 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, as if I were only now 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 other’s soul. So why hadn’t either of us flinched?

 

 

I slumped against the barn door, gripping the stray arrow in my good hand. My cut burned under the glove, and I was sure that dirt from my fall was only aggravating it. I pushed off the aged wood, turned, and plunged the arrow into the wall.

“Enough stupid distractions!”

Nothing was going to keep me from my ride with Magnus. I grabbed the first-aid kit out of the tack room and opened the hidden door to the loft. The only sink in the barn with hot water was in the loft apartment. The burn across the back of my hand told me I was going to need all the cleaning help I could get.

I took the stairs up the wrought-iron spiral staircase two a time. Dust clouds floated through beams of light that half blinded me as I emerged from the dark stairwell. As I crossed to the sink, the same time capsule I’d encountered the night before surrounded me in unnatural silence. My imagination waited for Grandpa, Grandma, or possibly my childhood self to burst out of the only bedroom like this was just another summer day, but the piles of leatherwork and Ren-fest costumes ignored me.

At the sink, the mysterious lamp greeted me, its flame still flickering.

“I’d almost forgotten about you. Don’t do anything weird,” I ordered the lamp as I stripped off the glove.

The cut ran along the back of my left hand, from the base of my thumb all the way to the knuckle of my index finger. It wasn’t very deep, but it was long enough that butterfly bandages would be tricky. I gritted my teeth as I plunged the dirt-crusted blood under the warming water, followed by a splash of disinfectant that set my hand on fire. Eyes watering, I completed the “fun” that was one-handed bandaging.

I cleaned up, gathering the wrappers from the bandages. Before I could toss them in the small trashcan by the sink, I caught another glimpse of the flickering blue flame.

On impulse, I balled up the wrappers and dropped them down the chimney of my mystery lamp. The flame danced between the papers and grew in size, but nothing caught fire. I blew on it, producing the same sparks and temperature drop I’d experienced the night before. The paper didn’t even brown on the edges. I picked up the lamp, dumping out the crumpled bits. They rolled harmlessly into the sink.

“Okay, you don’t need a wick, I can’t blow you out without catching cold, water passes through you, and you can’t light paper on fire. I get that you’re another one of Grandpa’s puzzles, but what am I supposed to do with you?” I asked the lamp, returning it to the safety of the sink and tossing my soggy wrappers into the dusty trash can.

My eyes caught on a breast strap hanging from an unfinished saddle under the table, the hand-tooled leather decorated with the same symbol as Grandpa’s bow and my cuff. I traced the symbol, repeating the rhyme.

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 

I’d never seen any waterfalls big enough to hide the army Grandpa had described. I’d learned to protect myself, but from what? The only secret I had was the creepy lamp, and the trick for turning it off was probably in Grandpa’s journals.

I felt the sigh building inside me before it came out in a rush of disappointment. I missed my childhood adventures. Compared to training to be a protector, growing up in Chicago had been kind of…boring, or at the very least, uninspiring.

I turned, remembering the days when this room had been alive with festival prep. It looked like Mabel had continued to add to the collection in my absence. I grabbed the breast strap, deciding then and there I was going to have as many of my own adventures as I could before I finished growing up and joined Tyler at college.

Four hours later, chores finally finished, I secured the decorative breast strap to Magnus’s saddle. His silver tail swished eagerly as I tugged on the metal ring under the emblem, ensuring it was tight. It was just in time too.

The guys were almost done unloading the second truck, which had finally arrived, and I had a few good hours of light left. My mind had wandered between the mystery lamp and my morning collision enough times to tell me that I was undoubtedly reading more into the moment than any boy would. More importantly, boys were not on my adventure list, so I needed a better distraction than an inventory of the horses’ vitamins.

The leather creaked when I swung up into the familiar saddle. My heart fluttered with anticipation as I turned Magnus toward the far pastures. He pranced and sniffed the air before answering my nudge. Moments later, the barn, the house, and all thoughts of responsibility disappeared behind the rolling hills. I relished the wind on my face, the way it cleared my head of unwanted thoughts. I didn’t use my bow for this kind of relief because I wanted to be the arrow, flying across the ground, single-minded.

My first timid celebratory shout soon gave way to whoops and hollers as we jumped small logs in our path. Magnus shivered under me, jumping higher as if relishing in my excitement.

The fields smoothed out again, and his thundering hooves penetrated my tense muscles, pounding out my earlier frustrations. Eventually, our rhythmic breaths became labored, and I slowed, turning into the trees. The subtle changes in terrain kept my mind occupied while Magnus cooled down.

The leaves glowed in a hundred shades of green and gold as they dispersed the fading sunlight. It was a warm evening, but a cool breeze sent leaves fluttering to the ground like giant gilded snowflakes. I soaked it all in, guiding Magnus down one game trail to another.

We traveled farther into the forest than I had planned, but I pushed on, enjoying the heightened senses that came with doing something new and formerly forbidden. My grandfather’s childhood warnings replayed in my mind, but I ignored them. He’d been protecting a ten-year-old with no sense of direction. Since I’d learned to drive, I could find my way anywhere.

I urged Magnus up a small rise, and a vaguely familiar row of large rocks appeared around a thick stand of trees. They stood waist high and led straight to another grove of trees, all with white bark. I pulled Magnus to a halt. It was an odd and deliberate-looking arrangement, but that wasn’t what bothered me. I had the distinct impression that I’d been there before.

Intrigued, I urged Magus toward the white trees.

When I heard the bubbling of water ahead, I knew where I was. As we entered a small clearing, the tiny stream came into view. The giant rotting stump of a high-cut pine rose from of the ground on the opposite bank. I pulled Magnus up short, and he stomped in frustration, but my mind was already somewhere else. At the sight of that familiar stump stretching up and over the stream, memories of a game I’d played with my grandfather came rushing back.

The white trees were the walls of the princess’s castle. My grandfather and I were its only remaining protectors, and we alone kept its secret. Each time I made it past his obstacle course and reached the stump, I’d found a note hidden under a rock at the base. It was a command from the princess detailing what I was to learn that day. My grandfather would suddenly appear to instruct me, and the lesson would begin.

I smiled at the memory of his rough, hand-scrawled notes on pieces of torn parchment. He’d tried to make his lettering fancy, but I’d secretly known he was the one sending us on our clandestine missions.

The woods hide as many monsters as they do friends, Adelaide.

Magnus shorted, dancing anxiously beneath me. Reluctantly retuning to the present, I rubbed his neck to settle him. He grew more agitated. I twisted in the saddle, looking all the way around us for the first time since entering the clearing. I almost missed the flash of metal.

It came from the other side of the stream, from under the hood of a dark, cloaked figure watching me. My heart skipped a beat. In the growing shade of the trees, the stranger seemed to be fading away. I opened my mouth to call out to whoever it was, and the figure melted into the shadows. I shifted in the saddle, wondering if my eyes had played tricks on me. A growing sense of dread settled in the pit of my stomach.

A twig snapped to my right and I jumped, swiveling to see the cause.

Magnus snorted and backed away from the sound. I searched the shadows. My rational mind reminded me that every once in a while, dangerous hermits or mountain-moonshiners wandered down onto local farms. Violence wasn’t unheard of. I took one last look around before kicking Magnus with my heels. He whirled beneath me and charged back the way we’d come.

Magnus raced down the small hill, darting among the trees. A crash sounded in the underbrush behind us. I looked back, catching the glimpse of two other dark cloaks flashing between the trees. Before I could be sure, the forest swallowed them.

When my eyes returned to Magnus’s path, it was too late.

He planted his front feet, skidding to a stop in front of an enormous fallen tree. Instinctively, I clamped down on the saddle, but momentum ripped me out of it, carrying me high over Magnus’s neck. I hung in the air, flailing my arms in a desperate but useless attempt to slow my fall. My right foot touched the ground first, my ankle snapping as the rest of me landed and rolled over. The impact knocked the air from my lungs a second before something hard struck my head.

The world went black.

 

 

A touch on my cheek brought me back to my aching body.

As awareness returned, the throbbing in my head and the ringing in my ears grew. Immediately my whole body joined in the pulse of pain. A small groan escaped my lips.

“Hold her still,” I thought I heard, but the words barely cut through the constant ringing.

I strained to open my eyes, to get my bearings, but I couldn’t. My head, my back, my leg—everything screamed in agony. The uneasy sound of hooves crunching the ground around me finally registered.

Thoughts came rushing all at once—the ride on Magnus, the strange shadow in the woods, the fallen tree. Panicked, I tried to move again, this time with more force. A set of large hands pinned me to the ground.

“I said ‘Hold her!’ ”

The voice sounded far away, diluted but urgent.

I panicked under the weight of the hands pinning me. Suddenly, as if he sensed my fear, his voice changed to a soothing tone, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. Everything sounded so jumbled, like people talking underwater. The pain in my head made it hard to concentrate.

I felt fingers on the source of the throbbing, applying light pressure on my legs; I flinched as they moved the length of them ever so gently.

“Her right leg is broken,” a concerned voice muttered. “And she’s bleeding pretty badly from that gash above her eye.”

I heard another voice, a deeper one, but I couldn’t comprehend it, my thoughts still so confused.

“Yes. I think that’s best. It’s risky, but we can’t lose her. Not now.”

Lose me? Who couldn’t lose me? I forced my eyes to open. Slowly, the smudgy colors became features that coalesced into a single person. I recognized the guy I bumped into outside my barn.

“How did you—”

“Shh. Try not to talk.” A hand rested lightly on my cheek, his thumb brushing my lips. “You had a rather violent fall. Stay as still as possible.”

He turned to talk over his shoulder. Once again, I couldn’t understand anything he said, but I noticed he wore a dark cloak. I squinted at the person behind him, thinking it odd they wore the same kind of cloak. He held a flashlight, and I made the mistake of looking directly into the beam as I tried to get my bearings. Pain seared through my head, and the darkness around the edges of my vision tried to swallow them both. The shrouded figure handed the blue-eyed boy something small and turned back to me.

“If there were any other way, I would do it. I swear,” he said.

I needed to warn him about my pursuers, but I couldn’t form the words. I gritted my teeth against the pain and struggled to sit up.

He held me down. “Too many are counting on your survival. I promise you that I want to say more, but it’s too dangerous. I’m sorry for the additional confusion I’m about to cause you.”

His words made no sense, and everything hurt so badly. I felt the sting of tears as my panic and pain overwhelmed me.

“Adelaide,” his voice was firm as he used my full name. A heavy hand descended over my heart, and my anxiety faded under its comforting pressure. When he continued, his words were earnest, willing me to believe him.

“It’s okay. You’re safe. I will make sure of that, even if it means… They got too close this time. That was my fault; I didn’t know you were out. Please, forgive me,” he begged, eyes pleading.

I stared at him as his eyes locked on mine, pleading for me to trust him. He picked up something small from the ground. Then, he took my good arm in a firm grip.

“Hold on to me as tight as you need to. This is going to hurt,” he said apologetically.

I cried out in agony as something stung my wrist and a new kind of pain coursed through me. The sharp biting stopped as fast as it hit, and a cold numbness took its place. The sensation burned in my veins, overtaking the inescapable throbs of pain. The penetrating numbness filled my hand and moved up my arm until it grew heavy. I tried wiggling my fingers, but they didn’t respond. The sensation reminded me of being poked with one of my grandpa’s darts as a kid, except they were never that powerful.

I looked up at the boy in alarm, his angular features swirling and distorting again.

“Why?” I asked in a strained voice.

“Trust me, please?” Then he held up a clear vial, uncorking it. “You’re going to feel something wet. I’m going to…clean your wounds.”

Cool liquid washed over my legs first. As it did, the constant stabbing subsided. My body sagged in relief as more water drenched my arms and torso. The pain eased, disappearing everywhere the water touched, only to be swallowed again by the frigid numbness coursing through me.

Taking my head into his hands at last, the boy gently stroked the hair away from my face. My heart quickened under his touch. His eyes filled with remorse as he looked over the injury above my eyebrow. When the water ran down my forehead and into my eyes, the throbbing mercifully faded into numbness.

I tried to move again, but my body wouldn’t respond, a soft whimper escaping my lips. He wasted no time scooping me up into his protective arms, cradling me as the cold heaviness consumed me. I had to work at forcing my eyelids to stay open. I was suddenly so tired.

“This is getting more dangerous every day you delay. We have to find it before they do. Take the opportunity they gave you and tell her why we’re here,” another voice insisted.

“No. It’s too soon. She’s not ready,” the boy holding me answered.

“What’re you talking about?” My words came out slurred. “What’s happening?”

He smiled, and I felt something heavy placed over me.

“Sleep, Adelaide. I’ve got you,” he whispered softly in my ear. His breath left goose bumps across my skin. “You won’t remember any of this. But I want you to know I’m not going to let them get to you. I promise.”

His embrace tightened and my eyes closed, surrendering to the heavy sensation that shrouded my whole body. Then, something soft and warm broke through the cold on my forehead. The warmth shot through my body like a fire melting the winter frost. My heart accelerated with the touch.

My eyes tried to open, but they were frozen by a returning numbness. No, I tried to scream. I didn’t want to give in to the icy sensation anymore. But my body didn’t obey. I managed a small groan. I didn’t want him to leave. Didn’t want to forget. I heard the boy’s voice one last time, but I couldn’t make out what he said.

Something stung me again, and more ice shot through my veins. I sank into the frozen heaviness, swept away by strange images and more muffled voices, unconsciousness finally reclaiming me.

 

 

 

I awoke gasping in the darkness and sat up, my head spinning. My hand grazed a soft blanket as I reached for my brow, rubbing it and opening my eyes. I was in a kid’s room. I felt the blankets wrapped around my legs and realized I was in a bed. I didn’t usually fall asleep with my clothes on; I hated sleeping in jeans.

My stomach growled. I looked over at the old clock on the nightstand, confused as its blue light glowed two-thirty in the morning.

Had I missed dinner?

No, I couldn’t remember having dinner. 

I got out of bed, stiff from having slept wrong and in my jeans. It felt good to stretch my muscles and get the blood moving through my lethargic joints. As I bent forward to stretch my back, I noticed dark spots of dirt and leaves on my damp clothes. Where had that come from? I walked over to the wall, tripping over boxes as I groped for the light switch. When I flicked it on, I looked down. I was a mess.

How had I fallen asleep like that? 

A closer look revealed that the spots weren’t all dirt. Dried blood? My shirt had more dark spots. I went to the mirror hanging above a small desk and was surprised to find my face and hair caked with more dried blood and leaves. I looked like a nightmare.

Memories began coming back in flashes.

First was a ride with Magnus, and then I remembered finding the stump. My heart somersaulted as the dark cloaked figures, their silver masks flashing between the trees, filled my mind. I recalled turning for home like a mad woman until Magnus had slammed on his brakes, sending me flying. I clenched my eyes shut, willing myself to make sense of the muddled images. My mind swam with hallucinations of the boy from the barn, underwater, begging me to trust him.

But where was I now?

More memories assaulted me as I stood and looked around. On the other side of a pile of moving boxes and my luggage from Chicago, two tall windows flanked French doors that opened onto a private balcony that seemed smaller than I remembered. A flowery quilt topped a brass bed that rested along the wall to my left, a single nightstand tucked close by. Opposite the bed was my desk, crayon pictures still displayed on the wall around the mirror.

In the corner, beside the closet door, was my tall dresser that I was positive still held a few treasures from the childhood I’d left behind. Even the toy chest I’d cherished as a child sat in the center of the pink rug that covered the wood floor. My mouth fell open in shock. It wasn’t just how I’d remembered my bedroom at Grandma’s; everything was exactly as I had left it. Mabel had kept it all the same…as if she’d missed me.

My mind flew back to my fall. How had I gotten home?

I looked at my reflection again and concluded I must have gotten a concussion. In my delirium after the fall, I probably pulled myself back onto Magnus and had strange swollen-brain dreams as he plodded back home. I’d heard of people with head injuries forgetting hours or even days.

For a second, I was worried about going back to sleep. Then I remembered I’d just woken up, so that ship had sailed. Obviously I wasn’t hurt that badly, just enough to be knocked senseless. It was a little unsettling to realize I’d entered the house in that condition and gone all the way up to my room unnoticed.

Magnus?! Was Magnus okay?

Cool air stirred the curtains. The breeze had snuck in through the French doors that opened to my porch, the ones I’d thought Grandpa had nailed shut.

I closed them and secured the latch before rushing out of my room. I stopped at the top of the stairs, the light and sound of a TV drifting up from the living room. If Karen and Bill saw me in that condition, I’d never be allowed to ride alone again. I decided that if I’d had the sense to make it to my room, Magnus could wait ten more minutes.

I crossed the hall to the bathroom. After I’d started the shower, I quickly examined myself in the bright light. My face and hair held the majority of the filth. I lightly slid my fingers over my scalp and couldn’t find even a sore spot. My reflection showed no signs of bruises either. I looked over the rest of my body. No cuts, no scrapes, nothing.

After the fastest shower I’d ever taken, I ran the towel over my torso and down my legs, still searching for cuts to explain the blood. I tried to avoid the bandage on my hand from earlier that morning, but the water had loosened it. The towel snagged the edge of the vet wrap, pulling it completely off.

My eyes went wide. The hand was flawless. No cut, no blood, no gaping wound. The only sign of anything out of the ordinary was a silvery white line no thicker than one of my hairs, tracing the exact path of the cut I’d worked so hard to close. I didn’t even feel pain when I rubbed it. A cut like that didn’t just disappear in one day.

Was I losing it?

I ran on tiptoes back to my room and dressed quickly, hopping on one foot to pull on socks. As soon as I was decent, I rushed back out into the dark hall and down the stairs, the only part of the house not clogged with boxes. A glance into the living room revealed Bill and Karen asleep on the couch. The TV quietly advertised a revolutionary new kitchen gadget a few feet from a half finished pizza box.

Tyler would have never fallen asleep with that much pizza left, I thought as I tiptoed through the dark kitchen. I grabbed a flashlight from the counter and snuck out the back door to check on Magnus. At each step into the beam of my flashlight, I tried not to imagine the worst.

I found Magnus in his stall, munching lazily on the evening’s portion of alfalfa. He blinked at me, or rather my flashlight, and turned away with a huff, as if I were upsetting his midnight indulgence. I let myself into his stall and examined every inch of him. He seemed okay, if a little perturbed, but I couldn’t find a scratch on him. I watched him suspiciously for a few minutes and left him to eat.

In the tack room, the soft yellow light of the pull-string bulb illuminated the dusty work tables covered with tools and riding gear. I found the saddle I’d used, sitting lopsided on its rack, the bridle on a corresponding hook. I stepped closer to examine it, the smell of horsehair and leather filling my nose.

I didn’t know what I was hoping to find. My mind went back to the hallucination of the boy, but I quickly dismissed it. A meticulous inspection of the reigns finally put my mind at ease. They had clearly been drug through the mud, and the darker marks might have been blood, even if I still didn’t know the origin of that blood.

Had I crushed a small animal when I fell?

That idea matched up with my earlier hypothesis; I’d fallen and gotten a mild concussion that had given me wild hallucinations. I let the reins fall loosely against the wall, knowing I would need to clean them before Bill saw. I could only imagine that conversation and the poor explanations I’d come up with that he would easily see through. But it wasn’t Bill that dominated my thoughts as I turned out the light and returned to the house.

I knew I had fallen. The impact had clearly been hard enough to knock me senseless, but not so bad I hadn’t been able to drag my sorry butt back home and put up Magnus before collapsing in bed. So why did my mind keep going back to his tack?

When I returned to the house, I put away the flashlight and crept quietly up the stairs. Back in my childhood bedroom, I pulled off my shoes and sat on the edge of my bed, rubbing the new slivery-white line on my hand.

How was it completely healed without even a scar?

Reassuring myself that I hadn’t imagined the cut from that morning, I tried to recall the blue-eyed boy’s part in my hallucination. He’d cured me with magic water and my grandpa’s poison-laced darts. At least that was the fairy tale my brain had invented. I couldn’t lie; it was one of the better dreams I’d had. And as I thought back to the moment when I’d smacked into that muscular bare chest, I guessed that I had my own desires to thank.

I shook my head. That boy definitely qualified as a distraction. And if I was picturing him as my hero when I lost consciousness, I had liked our encounter way too much.

Just as I was falling asleep, the tack room popped into my head again. I inventoried Magnus’s gear once more, trying to scratch the itch that told me I wasn’t seeing something. The new breast strap, the one with Grandpa’s symbol—my symbol—flashed in my memory, and suddenly I knew what was wrong.

It was missing.

 

 

 

The morning light poured through the bay window as I skipped into the kitchen. Karen, who was seated on the counter with her feet propped on a stack of boxes, peered over her coffee mug, her eyes bloodshot.

“Good morning,” I sang, dancing through the maze of boxes toward the fridge.

“Someone’s awfully chipper for a Monday,” Bill said. He too was gripping a mug like it was his anchor to consciousness.

“Well, not sleeping on the couch will do that,” I admitted with a smirk.

“Youth,” Bill grumbled. “I feel like I’ve been trampled by horses.”

“Or hit by a bus,” Karen said, groaning as she stretched her back. “I really need to find a good yoga studio. You think they have one here?”

“I thought I saw one across from the grocery store,” Bill said.

“Speaking of groceries, what’s for breakfast?” I pulled the box of leftover pizza out of the fridge to see what was hiding behind it.

“Pizza!” Bill announced, grabbing the box. He slid his hand in, pulling out a floppy piece of meat lover’s pizza. He took a giant bite and sighed as he chewed.

“Ew, Uncle Bill!”

“That’s disgusting,” Karen said, grabbing her coffee and yogurt to move as far from Bill as feasible in the box-infested kitchen.

“This is heaven. Maybe leaving Tyler in Chicago does have its perks.” Bill shoved the rest of the cold pizza into his mouth and grabbed a second slice.

“Well, it’s all yours,” I said, taking the milk and box of granola over to the stack of paper bowls. After slicing a banana over the top of my cereal, I plopped down on the box labeled cookbooks and started eating.

“Honey, don’t you think you’re a little underdressed?” Aunt Karen seemed to be looking me over for the first time. The coffee must have kicked in.

“No. This is what I normally wear for my runs.”

“But the boys are here already,” Uncle Bill managed between bites. “I thought it best to get an early start to chores, especially if we want to get the barn roof patched before the next big rain. We don’t need any more moldy hay. I start at the new office today; I told them you’d be out as soon as you finished breakfast.”

“Great.” I sighed into my half-eaten bowl of granola. “So are these guys cool? I mean, this isn’t going to turn into a full-time babysitting thing, is it?”

“Well, I can’t vouch for cool. They’re exchange students,” Bill admitted with a helpless shrug. “But if yesterday is any indicator of their work ethic, you’ll be able to completely rebuild the barn before school starts.”

“Yeah, well, we’ll see how well they listen to instructions from a girl,” I said, thinking of Tyler and his friends. Most of them couldn’t be trusted to finish anything that wasn’t food.

“This isn’t the dark ages anymore,” Karen chimed in. “If they slack off or give you trouble, you let me know, and I’ll tell them how things work around here.”

Karen looked as fierce a wet kitten, and I tried to hide my grin. “Thanks, but I’m pretty sure if they can’t follow my lead, withholding lemonade and your prized potato salad won’t be enough.”

Bill stifled a laugh and choked on his pizza. Karen looked into empty space like I’d uttered profound wisdom. I shook my head, starting a second pot of coffee for both of them before climbing back over the boxes and darting up to my room to change into barn clothes.

The hot July sun was already well over the horizon and climbing when the screen door swung closed behind me. The humidity kept dust low, but my tank top was already sticking to me. I rehearsed a brief introduction and a rundown of the plans I’d made for repairs.

I was still going over my list as I passed the chicken coop. A bulky figure kneeling beside the hen house brought back flashes of yesterday’s hallucination, and my heart jumped. I slipped behind the building and ducked out of sight before I’d even realized I was hiding.

Oh, good start, I thought. Hi, I’m Lotty and I jump before I think. Embarrassment compelled me to see if my cowardice had been spotted, and I peeked around the corner slowly.

In the center of the coop stood a young, muscular man, with smooth dark skin, broad shoulders, and a gentle expression. His irises were a striking amber, almost gold against the bright white of his eyes. The way they set off his curly, brown hair was uniquely soft in such an intimidating figure.

In front of him sat two very straight rows of hens, all of them unusually still, as if in some kind of trance. As I watched, the remaining hens wandered over to the pile of grain at his feet. One by one, he picked them up and set them in a third row. I would have feared for the birds’ safety if not for the softness in his murmurs and how delicately he handled each bird.

He looked over his shoulder as if he sensed he had an audience. I ducked behind the shed and waited. When a chicken started clucking and was quickly joined by another, I looked again. The guy had produced a basket and was collecting eggs.

To be precise, he was stroking each bird softly until it squawked and stood, returning to normal chicken behavior. He then collected the egg it left behind and moved to the next hen. It was like a magic trick or chicken whispering or something. Whatever it was, I couldn’t look away until he stood and walked to the house, a basket of eggs under his arm.

People are talented with all kinds of animals, I convinced myself. Why not with chickens? It didn’t mean he was weird. 

As I slipped into the barn, the clatter of metal tools pulled me to an old stall. It had been converted into a catchall for broken implements and unfinished projects that had been around as long as I could remember. I was sure I’d once seen a rusty old plow from Mabel’s childhood behind the eight-cylinder engine block that held up one end of the workbench.

I recognized the sound of another tool being tossed onto a pile. Eager to get to work, I almost popped around the corner and introduced myself. But after chicken-boy, I was curious, so I crept over to the peephole I’d used as a child when I’d wanted to watch Grandpa sharpen his swords.

A lanky young man, also about my age, with dark auburn hair and olive skin sorted through the rusted tools hanging over the bench. Only this one moved with quick, darting precision that spoke of years of training. His green irises seemed to shine in the dim light of the barn, just as the other boy’s eyes had.

I watched as he selected screwdrivers, a handsaw, and a coffee can full of bent nails and set them on the workspace in front of him. He dipped his hand into a bucket of water and then started massaging a screwdriver so rusted I was sure it would turn to dust. But where his fingers went, a trail of gleaming, polished metal followed, as if he were just wiping off a thin layer of tarnish. He worked quickly, shaking out his hands after dipping each tool in the water and starting again. Then he moved onto the bucket of nails, pulling them straight as easily as I would a piece of clay, and my jaw dropped.

A shiny and very functional pitchfork leaning against the far wall caught my eye, and I turned away from the peephole. If it weren’t for the old worn handle, I wouldn’t have believed it was the same pitchfork I’d broken yesterday. The prongs were not only bent back into place, but the metal was glistening.

The urge to sit down and clear my head overwhelmed me. I settled for pinching myself. Could a person have post-concussion hallucinations? The steady plunk of nails into a growing pile was too real to deny.

The mysterious lamp in the old loft called to me, but I turned instead for the tack room, hoping the scent of the familiar leather would ground my racing mind. Besides, I needed to find the breast strap I’d misplaced last night during my dazed state.

I rounded the corner and stopped short. My stray arrow stuck out accusingly from the wall in which I’d buried it. The previous day’s anger and embarrassment had faded, but my arrow reminded me of the first impression I may have left on the help. I yanked the projectile out of the wall and stormed through the tack room door.

“I surrender,” a familiar deep voice boomed.

“Aaaak!” I shrieked, whipping around, holding the arrow in my hand like a dagger. To my right, beside a rack of saddles, was the boy with the crystal-blue eyes, the one from my dream. No, it was a hallucination, I reminded myself.

“Don’t do that!”

Dark hair fell across his face, but he didn’t brush it away. Instead, he raised his hands, a dirty cloth in one and a bottle of saddle soap in the other. He was mercifully clothed this time, but just the thought of him without a shirt, and I could feel myself smacking into him again, the heat of our bodies entwining…

“Hey, I’m not the enemy here,” he said with an air of cool authority. I welcomed the return to reality. “Unless you’ve come to finish shooting the messenger, in which case, I will have to resist you.”

I blinked in confusion and then looked at the arrow still clutched in my hand. I felt my cheeks flush.

“That won’t be necessary. I was just looking—wait, what are you doing in here?” I demanded, lowering my weapon.

“Conditioning the saddles while I waited for you.”

“That’s all you were doing?” I insisted, thinking of the way his friends handled their chores.

“Well, they are rather terrible dance partners, so cleaning them seemed more useful,” he said, his eyes following me as I moved between the racks. “Were you hoping for something else? Because I could try juggling them if you’d prefer.”

Everything seemed normal, too normal. And clean. Even the tack I’d used yesterday was free of dried blood and dirt. The breast strap was still missing though.

Can you juggle them?” I asked, genuinely unsure of what his answer would be.

His look told me how ridiculous the question sounded, but his expression flashed completely serious before he grinned. “Not even a little bit. But I can try if you have your heart set on it.”

“Don’t be silly, I just…” I stuttered, searching for the right words. The way his eyes held me, as if he needed to be closer to me too, to say more, dissolved all other thoughts.

“Another time then perhaps. Are you okay?” he pressed, stepping closer.

“Yeah, it’s just— Everything seems a little off this morning,” I admitted.

The door burst open, and the other two boys rushed into the room, each brandishing a pitchfork they looked ready to use. The blue-eyed boy jumped between me and my would-be rescuers. His command of the room was unquestionable. The pitchforks lowered.

“Someone screamed,” the larger, golden-eyed boy reported briskly.

“That was me,” I confessed sheepishly and everyone relaxed. “My bad. Just been a weird couple of days. What I mean is, all my reflexes are still set to the city so…hi.”

The three boys looked at each other, unsure of how to respond.

“Hi,” the echoed greeting sounded foreign on my defender’s tongue. “Since we have all gathered, how about we commence with the introductions? My cousins, Daggon and Tregr.” The blue-eyed boy gestured to the others.

They held out their hands in turn, grasping my hand but not really shaking it, like handshakes were uncomfortable. The tack room suddenly felt overcrowded.

“Great names. I’m Adelaide. But everyone calls me Lotty.”

“And everyone calls me Roah,” the blue-eyed boy finished, but oddly didn’t reach out to shake my hand.

“Okay,” I began, my prepared speech entirely forgotten. “How ’bout we just get started?”

They all nodded meekly, and I was suddenly very interested to see what these boys were made of.

“If you’ll head into the arena, we can go over what chores you’ve already finished this morning, what’s left, and what repairs we’re working on first.”

They filed uncomfortably out the door of the tack room, obviously preferring that I lead the way. But every sense I had still tingled. These guys were either the strangest foreign exchange students ever, or they were keeping some pretty big secrets.

There was no way I was turning my back on them, not with what my grandpa had taught me about solving puzzles. And they were definitely the most interesting puzzles I’d encountered in years.

 

 

Brianne Earhart

Brianne Earhart spent most of her childhood dreaming up stories. She would pretend there were knights and fairies living in the woods behind her house, that her animals could talk to her, that magic was a superpower, and that her imaginary friend really did have a house in that fallen tree across the horse trail. Struggling with learning disabilities throughout her schooling, she was very insecure because reading was a challenge. Her imagination and creative expression were her safe place and creating stories through works of art, her liberation. After years of self- education, she had enough confidence to trade her paintbrush for words to create The Moldara Series.

Brianne Earhart studied Creative Writing and Art at Southern Virginia University. She loves being outdoors, creating art, all things yoga, and dark chocolate. She lives with her husband, Tony and their 5 kids by a lake in Northern Idaho.