Dark goes the atavistic night
Deeply held by mystic sight
Words hang stoney and set
Fate falls within epoch’s oubliette
-Medieval Moon Prophecy
With an arthritic, wrinkled hand covered in thick, golden rings, the ancient Alchemist hastily scrawls with black ink across the water-stained parchment. Wild words of black winds. Stark words of naked truths. Secrets born of a lifetime studying darkness and light.
From its iron perch near the top of the peaked roof, an enormous red-tailed hawk tracks the movement of the feather-quill pen with unblinking amber eyes. Silently it nods in understanding. The end has come at last.
“Boy,” the Alchemist says weakly. “Boy, come here.”
Galdur has been waiting outside the slightly ajar round door for hours, shivering in a light robe of tattered brown, looking at his burned hands in the glow of the blood moon. With shuffling steps, he presses open the door fully then enters and bows deeply. He’s not a boy but feels the title fits him better than other things he’s been called.
“Yes, sir. I’m here.”
Slumped at his desk near the low-burning fire in the center of the room, the Alchemist folds a thick piece of parchment into thirds and doesn’t acknowledge him. The enormous brown and white hawk, however, clicks its beak and opens its wings, flapping silently for a moment. Galdur avoids looking at its four sharp black talons but can’t escape its monstrous shadow cast against the far wall. He shivers.
Colorful smoke drifts around the small circular room and Galdur holds his robe to his mouth to avoid breathing in the sour smells. His eyes water as he makes his way toward the Alchemist by stepping carefully around tall stacks of antiquated books, through little nooks of shadowy space, and around shelves filled with bottles of dark, swirling liquid. Galdur feels the room and the hawk watching him. They are waiting for him to fail. He always manages to do things wrong.
For as long as he can remember, the Alchemist has called for Galdur to fetch him food, clean his wounds, test his potions, run his errands, and take the hits when his frustration makes him moody. He can’t remember life before coming here but sometimes imagines leaving the fear and failure of this life behind in search of something else. Although he isn’t sure he deserves anything else.
Silently he takes his place on a short wooden stool beside the fire and looks at the aging Alchemist’s long, gnarled, grey hair and beard. He can see the dark puffy skin around his faded blue eyes and his crooked sloping back. It appears he’s aged decades since yesterday, but that can’t be. Galdur wonders if he’s looking through a prism or some kind of magical fog. Everything feels heavy and unstable around him. He wonders if he might be getting sick.
Using one of the many stout beeswax candles lit on the crowded desk, the Alchemist melts a square of silver wax onto the fold of parchment and presses a golden moon stamp into it to seal the paper. Clicking its sharp beak, the large hawk swoops down and lands on a wobbly pile of books taking a moment to settle itself securely before presenting its scaly, orange leg. The Alchemist shakes his head slowly with tears in his eyes.
“Not today, old friend. This journey isn’t for you.”
Decades ago, the Alchemist and the hawk met on the sandy banks of the roaring river Thames. Under the light of the full blood moon, the same moon as tonight, tendrils of destiny and time weaved together forging an unbreakable bond. Together, they’ve seen the world reshaped time and time again by the forces of shadow and light, an immeasurable war raging forever behind the faces of man. It’s been a long, exhausting battle. They are both very tired.
The Alchemist strokes the soft feathers on the back of the bird’s neck. This isn’t a moment for nostalgia, reflection, or hesitation. There’s no time for such things. When this night is over, both he and the hawk will be dead and his last act will either save or condemn this world. It’s no longer in his hands and there’s a certain relief in the knowledge he has done all he can. His work, their work, has ended. Only the moon knows what lies ahead.
“Come closer, boy.”
Slipping off the stool, Galdur takes three slow steps forward with dirty, bare feet. There’s a pounding in his head and he realizes the smoke has reached his lungs, making him dizzy.
“Put out your hands.”
Galdur opens both hands palms up and braces himself for the pain which usually accompanies this command. Instead, the Alchemist gently places the silver-sealed parchment into them as if returning a baby bird to its nest. Galdur feels a rush of warmth floods his body followed by a sense of urgency. The Alchemist closes his eyes and makes a deep bassy sound in his throat. The hawk tries to mimic it but it comes out as a haunting high-pitched hoot.
With a shudder, the Alchemist opens his greyish-blue eyes and stares at Galdur. There’s a look he’s never seen in his teary eyes. He recognizes it as finality, as a goodbye. Whatever happens next will be the end of their relationship and the beginning of something new. He tries not to smile as fate seems to be on his side for the first time in his life.
“You know where to go. You’ll find the cottage behind the waterfall. She will be waiting for you. Nothing else matters.”
Galdur knows the place he speaks of. For years he’s been made to study maps and travel halfway there and back, but never has he been allowed to leave the forest. The Alchemist has both prepared him and broken him. He wonders if he has what it takes to fulfill this task. It feels too important to be left to someone who fails as much as he has.
“You can do this.”
Not for the first time, Galdur has the sense that the Alchemist can read his mind—an unpleasant and uneasy thought. Even so, the words of encouragement feel as refreshing as the first spring rain and he savors the cool sweetness. He didn’t know just how thirsty he had become.
Staring down at the flickering shadows across the sealed parchment in his hand, he searches for something to say to the man who found him as a child and both raised and abused him. Conflicting feelings fight for dominance, begging like hungry abandoned pups to be heard and acknowledged. He sways slightly.
Galdur’s lived a life shut off from the rest of the world. A childhood without birthdays, syrupy treats, or any trace of kindness. A life of only service, servitude, and solitude. A life designed for a single purpose—to deliver this parchment into the hands of the Lady of the Lake. He feels overwhelmed as the pieces of his life click into place. Each task led him to this very moment. He begins to cry.
He’s surprised by his own words and how much he means it. He’s grateful for a life with purpose, even if it’s been difficult and lonely. When he looks up he sees the Alchemist and the hawk have both bowed their heads and closed their eyes. He considers trying to rouse them but decides the time for talking has passed. It’s time for action.
Without looking back, he holds the parchment to his chest and walks swiftly through the room and into the cool night air. There are three things waiting for him draped across an oak barrel of mulled wine: a pair of leather boots, a thick wool cloak, and a small sword. He’s certain none of it was there when he went in, but he knows destiny doesn’t require explanation or belief. It requires faith.
The deep brown leather boots and dark green cloak both fit perfectly. The sword, a short silver dagger with tiny gleaming stars etched along the sharp blade, comes with a leather holster and belt. Galdur secures it around his waist and spins in a circle. There’s a sense of all things coming together. A feeling of completion and new beginnings. He laughs.
Reaching inside the cloak he finds several leather pockets. One is the exact shape of the parchment letter complete with a silver button to secure it close to his heart. There’s a pocket with a flask filled with wine, another with a sack of gold, and a final one filled with tiny carved stones each a different phase of the moon.
Sifting through the smooth stones with his left hand he pulls out the tiny full moon and holds it up to the sky. The journey ahead seems etched on its surface, calling him to be swift, to be bold, and to be brave. If he doesn’t deliver the letter by sunrise all will be lost. He turns toward the foggy forest and takes off in a run.
Destiny awaits and only the moon knows what truly lies ahead.
Author’s note: There’s nothing more fun than a good fantasy adventure. I set out to write one centered around the journey of an important letter but ran out of time to complete the story. Instead, you get the beginning of an epic journey that might someday be made into a novel including shadow monsters, the lovely Lady of the Lake, and a tale of true redemption for dear old Galdur. Thanks, as always, for reading my story of the week.
Short Story Challenge | Week 32
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write about a letter changing everything. We had to include alchemist, waterfall, birthday, cottage, spring, roar, syrup, sift, immeasurable, and bank.
- Read Angelica’s Short Story: Meet Me at the Waterfall
- Read Anna’s latest blog: New York City and the 9/11 Memorial
Write With Us
Prompt: A dinner party
Include: phoenix, canvas, homesick, evening, spicy, rooftop, cicada, orthodox, ding, spruce
My 52-Week Challenge Journey
- What is the 52-week challenge?
- Week 1: The Heart and the Stone
- Week 2: The Biggest Little Gift
- Week 3: It Bearly Fits
- Week 4: The Claire in Clarity
- Week 5: The Family Tree
- Week 6: Through the Glass Windshield
- Week 7: The Final Goodbye
- Week 8: Sunset, Sunrise
- Week 9: Returning Home
- Week 10: The Water
- Week 11: Aw, Phooey!
- Week 12: Meeting Time
- Week 13: The Old Man
- Week 14: Dani and the Queen
- Week 15: The Golden Muse
- Week 16: Honeymoon Treasure Hunt
- Week 17: The Red-Haired Beauty
- Week 18: Playing Games
- Week 19: One Thing
- Week 20: The Child
- Week 21: The Carrot
- Week 22: Apple Stars
- Week 23: Something in the Water
- Week 24: Midnight Wedding Vows
- Week 25: Chocolate Kisses
- Week 26: The Island
- Week 27: Take Me By the Hand
- Week 28: When the Snow Falls
- Week 29: Stitches in the Woods
- Week 30: The Peacock Effect
- Week 31: New Experiences