Gort Treliving leaned on his elbow and stifled a yawn. Though a book lay open in front of him, his gaze roamed unseeing over the spines of the library books on the nearby shelves. The rain on the windows beside the table exerted an almost hypnotic state. Thunder rumbled overhead, loud enough to reverberate in his chest bone. The sensation took him back to the events of the past summer, and the extraordinary things that happened when Laurel crawled through the Men an Tol, the holed stone out on the moors.
The Canadian girl had been on a quest to gain healing for her mother, but Gort, Aisling, and Coll went with her on the journey. A small smile touched his lips, good thing all four of them hadn’t needed to crawl through nine times; it would have taken forever. He shivered with the memory of the fear that gripped him the moment the light flared around Laurel. He’d grabbed Aisling’s hand, more for his own sake than for hers. Somehow, the four of them were suspended in the night sky surrounded by shimmering crystal knights on horseback.
He lacked words to explain the experience of riding through the night skies. The leader of the knights was so otherworldly and magnificent Gort had been unable to tear his gaze from the shining countenance. When the knight acknowledged him with respect and recognition, his heart leaped in his chest, and joy spread through him. He vaguely remembered returning the salute. The knight extended his hand and pulled Gort up behind him, the horse’s haunches had felt reassuringly solid under his buttocks.
The journey through the ebony night following the sparkling star roads lit by the argent moon was a blur. Once they reached the slopes of Glastonbury Tor he remembered Laurel offering her talisman to the Seal Stone which spoke in a gravelly voice. Then, he’d entered the labyrinth of caves inside the hill. He slid down the side of huge horse and thanked both horse and knight for the safe journey. His gaze darted everywhere, rainbows of light shifted and flowed like water currents in the air. The huge crystal cavern housed many crystal horses and their riders.
Gort hadn’t been able to think of anything but the crystal horses and knights since they appeared at the Men an Tol and swept him away. They really exist, Arthur’s knights. Not the corporeal knights that rode with Arthur, who had embodied the greatness and light that these crystal knights represented, but the undying spirit of truth and justice. Through Arthur’s human knights, the essence of these crystal knights had existed in the world for a time. Driven out, when the human knights became obsessed with the quest to find the source of the light, driven from the world by the knights’ singular need to expose what must remain a mystery.
Before him were the real knights of legend. He read all the books on King Arthur and his knights that he could find, searching for the magic he sensed lay behind the tales, but that the authors seemed to ignore.
There it was, in front of him living and breathing. Well in a sense living and breathing, he allowed. When the knights drew their swords in front of the Seal Stone before they entered the hill, his heart had leapt at the sound, and fury, and the sheer beauty of it. None shall suffer unjustly, it promised, no burden shall be too great to bear, no sorrow too great to heal. Not as long as we are here. Gort joined his heart with their pledge, his world could never be perfect given the fallibility of man, but he pledged he would do everything he could to make it as close as he could in his life.
His gaze lighted on one stallion that stood a bit apart from the rest, the horse wasn’t really any different than the rest to look at him. But somehow, he was…separate.
The horse lifted his head and focused his attention on Gort. Their gazes locked and held. In an instant, Gort knew everything there was to know about the creature, and realized the horse knew him as fully. Old hurts and losses passed between them, and the foreknowledge of future trials to come, loneliness and the longing to truly belong somewhere, anywhere. Both souls acknowledged the confusion of not feeling like they belonged where they were, the insecurities arising from being somehow different.
An overwhelming feeling of acceptance and unconditional love washed through Gort. Without seeming to move, the stallion was suddenly standing beside him, Gort raised his hand and rested it on the horse’s shoulder. Tears ran unchecked down his face, with this magnificent creature by his side, he would never have night terrors again. The spirit horse accepted him exactly as he was, and ached for that same acceptance from Gort.
The slight boy opened his heart completely to the creature, trusting and with perfect peace. The crystal stallion’s eyes widened as he received the boon and lowered his head to rest his forehead against Gort’s.
“My name is GogMagog. I am part of what is and what will be.” The stallion’s voice sounded like ice breaking in Gort’s mind.
“Mine is Gort September Treliving, I have sought and found the eternal balance of light and dark. The point where night equals day and day equals night. I have found it through you.” Gort answered him joyfully without need for spoken words.
“You will be my knight.” GogMagog told Gort, “Together we will ride the star paths and the moon’s ways.”
“How can I be?” Gort asked him. “I’m a mortal, and you must be some kind of god.”
Pain gripped Gort, how could he be apart from GogMagog now he knew what it felt like to be whole. He would always be in search of that lost piece of himself. He saw the same realization in GogMagog’s eyes and felt it in the piece of himself that now resided with the stallion.
“There will be a way,” the stallion said uncertainly. “We would not have become what we are if it was not meant for it to be this way.”
Gort wasn’t so sure, but with his hand resting on the stallion’s shoulder he let himself believe. He became aware of what was happening with his friends now that he had become comfortable with the presence of GogMagog in his mind.
Aisling was looking happier than Gort had ever seen her, talking to a group of small, dark beings. Coll was looking confused and watching Laurel anxiously. Laurel seemed deep in conversation with a tall man dressed all in black, with the huge crystal Mare standing behind her. Coll didn’t seem to be able to see who she was talking to, or to hear them. Gort looked at GogMagog.
“The Daughter of Eve talks with Gwynn ap Nudd, the leader of The Wild Hunt. Your friend can’t see him or hear what they say.” GogMagog paused and looked thoughtful. “The Mare is not happy about this.”
Some decision was arrived at and his friends disappeared in a flash of light. Gort fought the urge to hurl and pushed back the dark spots that threatened to cloud his sight. A tall woman materialized before him, glowing with an unearthly beauty.
“What shall I do with you?” She tilted her head to one side and regarded the pair through narrowed eyes. “Horse, who gave you permission to forge this unlikely alliance?”
The stallion dropped his nose to the floor and pawed with a restless foreleg. Gort stepped forward but was saved from speaking by the intervention of the leader of the knights.
“He is one of us, though he walks a separate path at the moment. The young stallion has chosen well and the company supports his choice.” The shimmering figure bowed to the woman whose clothes moved in an unseen wind.
A frown darkened her face for a moment before she shrugged and turned to the large man who stood beside his crystal stallion. “All of you agree to this unusual union?”
The knight nodded and the huge horse at his side bugled, the sound ringing off the walls.
“So be it, then. If things should go amiss it is on your heads.” She made a sweeping motion with her arms scattering rainbow light. The next thing Gort remembered was standing by the Men an Tol in the breaking dawn with a sturdy black pony by his side. One whose eyes glimmered with the spirit of the crystal stallion.
* * *
Lightning flashed outside the library window illuminating the leaded panes of glass. Gort shook himself out of his memories and glanced at the clock. Where the bloody hell was Coll? His best mate was supposed to meet him to research their joint history project. It wasn’t like him to not show up when he promised to be somewhere. Worry drew his brows together and he shut the unread books on the table. He returned them to the proper shelves before gathering his belongings and shoving them into his knapsack. Standing up, he shrugged into his jacket and slung the pack over his shoulder.
On his way to the door he waved a hand in farewell to the librarian. He hesitated on the steps outside after pulling the door shut behind him. He hated walking alone at night, especially when it was storming. Even though Uncle Daniel hadn’t been seen in months, Gort still got the collywobbles when he was alone. Taking the advice of the doctor in London, he squared his shoulders and spoke out loud. “He can’t hurt me. He has no power over me. I am safe.”
Blowing a deep breath out through his lips, he pulled up his collar and stepped out of the shelter and into the storm. Morrab Road ran steeply down to the Western Promenade. Light spilled from the houses he passed throwing rectangles of illumination on the slippery pavement. He heaved a sigh of relief as he crossed the road and continued along the wide paved walkway that bordered the sea. A pleasant journey on a nice day.
The wind blew a mix of rain and sea spray in Gort’s face. Hunching his shoulders and pulling his hood forward, he made his way along the promenade, wishing he was home and safe in front of Emily’s hearth with a cup of hot chocolate. Instead of out here, wet as a drowned rat and wading through the puddles of rain water on the pavement. The waves slapped and boomed against the wall, throwing surf and seaweed in the air.
He wiped the moisture from his eyes before reaching out a hand to steady himself as his foot slipped on the wet cobbles. His cold fingers scraped down the stone wall beside him. The dark granite gleamed dully in the faint light from the street lamp.
Tendrils of icy rain woke shivers as they trickled down the front of his jacket. He tucked his head lower and thankfully turned onto the familiar street. Surely, Emily would be home from Sarie’s by now and have a pot of hot tea or cocoa waiting on the stove. And Coll. Wherever the heck Coll was.
Over the wind and the sound of the sea bellowing hollowly as it hit the wall behind him, someone called his name. He turned his back to the wind and searched the darkness, nothing moved in the stygian blackness.
He started up the street again, in a hurry to reach Emily’s door and shut it safely behind him. A shiver of unease rippled its way up his spine at the scrape of footsteps and the catch of someone’s heavy breath. Turning again, his heart pounding louder than the howling wind, Gort surveyed the windy night carefully. The years of abuse at the hands of his Uncle Daniel left deep scars. Even now, Uncle Daniel lurked in the shadows of his mind waiting to grab him.
Passing the end of the lane running behind the neighbouring homes, his heart jumped into his mouth as something caught at his arm.
He jerked and lunged halfway into the roadway. His eyes darted frantically up and down the street, with his breath caught somewhere between his throat and his chest. He would have screamed if there was enough air in his lungs. Settling for a guttural squawk which was lost in the roar of the wind, Gort forced air into his lungs and grunted in disgust. The only thing there to touch him was the innocent branches of the huge rosebush bordering the laneway.
“Get on with you.”
Living with Emily and Coll for almost a year now helped the anxiety attacks. Though, there were still moments when he was back with Uncle Daniel, taking a beating, or worse, being locked in the little dark cupboard under the eaves.
“Daniel’s gone, can’t hurt me anymore.” The words sounded brave in the darkness.
It gave him courage to speak the words out loud. The psychologist in London told him to verbalize his feelings and acknowledge his new position of safety. It was supposed to help him realize it was true. Some days it worked better than others.
Gog’s absence from his mind did nothing to help stem the impending tide of anxiety threatening to overcome him. The big stallion had only been gone since the morning, on some errand for the Lady, he said. Gort could only feel him very faintly, the horse’s presence flickering at the edges of his thoughts. Magoo, the black pony that housed the stallion’s spirit in this realm would be in Sarie’s barn, but he would be only what he was, a kind equine companion. Not Gog Magog.
Gort stepped back onto the narrow sidewalk and silently counted the doorways between him and the safety of Emily’s front door. Six houses, now five. Gort’s heart thundered in his ears. There were footsteps behind him, anonymous eyes burning into his back. He was afraid to turn and look; four more, now three.
Two more houses to safety. Gort hurried his steps toward the warm yellow light spilling from Emily’s windows. “I’m being silly. It’s just the storm, that’s all. There’s no one behind me, no one at all.” Gort let out the breath he was holding when Emily’s front door swung open. Coll stepped out into the blustery night and the wind snatched at his mate’s hat. As the stocky teenager turned to pick it up, Gort waved.
“Where have you been?” Coll shouted through the sound of the wind.
“At the library, waiting on you.” Relief chased the anger away.
“Get yourself in out of the storm.” Emily’s voice came from the open doorway.
Coll retreated back into the entry hall, and the soaked boy followed on his heels. Gort stripped off his dripping jacket and regarded it dubiously. Emily took it from his hands and hung it on the newel post of the staircase.
“Come along into the kitchen and get some dry clothes on you. Coll, run upstairs and fetch some things for him to change into.” Emily towed the shivering youth toward the kitchen while she spoke.
Standing in front of the fire and dropping his wet clothes in a heap on the floor, Gort allowed Emily to wrap him in a warm blanket and settle him in one of the wing chairs beside the hearth. She scooped his things up and pegged them to a line on the far side of the kitchen to dry. Coll clattered into the kitchen bearing fresh clothes, a cold draft wafted across the floor before the door to the hall closed behind him.
“Why didn’t you come to the library like we planned?” Gort asked with his hands wrapped tight around the hot mug of cocoa Emily pressed on him.
“You sent me a message, telling me you changed your mind.” Coll frowned.
“I never, who gave you the note?”
“There was no note. Maureen Gowan caught me right after last class and said you asked her to tell me.” Coll frowned harder.
“I never spoke to Maureen at all today. Why would she tell you that?”
“So you went to the library and then walked home in the dark alone?” Coll quizzed him.
“I waited for two hours and did a little reading, but the storm was getting worse, and I figured you would have been there already if you were coming.”
“Did anything happen on the way home? You looked like you’d seen a ghost when I saw you. Did you see Stuart?”
“Stuart hasn’t bothered with me since you and him had that disagreement out by the mines last year.”
“So what spooked you then?” Coll persisted.
“Just nonsense. I thought I heard someone calling my name and footsteps behind me. There wasn’t anyone there when I looked, of course.”
“Are you sure? I thought I saw a shadow behind you when I came out onto the stoop, but it faded into the rain, and well, I didn’t pay it any more mind when I saw you were safe.” Coll’s forehead wrinkled in concern.
“Are you sure you didn’t hear someone? There was no one behind you? It seems strange Coll would get a message to keep him away. Something that would ensure you would be coming home on your own late at night.” Emily picked up his empty cup and refilled it. She handed another full cup to Coll as well.
“I didn’t see anyone when I looked, but it felt like someone was breathing down my neck. You know, like there were eyes boring into the back of my head.” He shivered under the blanket.
“I don’t like it at all. It’s just the kind of thing Stuart would pull.” Anger colored Coll’s words.
“Stuart was never one to stalk me though, Coll. He’d just have grabbed me and had his fun. Besides, Stuart never works alone, and I’m sure there was only one person behind me.” Gort’s voice shook, but the stutter that plagued him while living with his uncle didn’t come to the fore.
“Who else would be devious enough to send me a fake message and then track you down in the rain,” Coll mused. “You don’t think it could be your uncle, do you?”
“Not him. I don’t know, maybe Harley Perran? The bloke was plenty mad when Daniel up and left town, especially owing Harley ten pounds.” None of it made any sense at all. Gort dismissed the suggestion of his uncle as paranoia. Nobody had seen or heard from his uncle for six months.
“Regardless who it was, from now on, I want you two boys to stick to each other. Any message you need to give each other has to be given in person. I don’t like the feel of this at all.” Gort noticed the distress on her face before Emily could conceal it from him.
“Bloody Hell.” His mutter was muffled by the blanket. Something like this would have to happen now, just when it was starting to feel safe.Who would want to hurt him enough to follow him around in this foul weather?
“I’m gonna ask Maureen tomorrow why she told me not to meet you.” Coll glowered into the flames in the hearth.
“Did you get any supper, Gort?” Emily asked.
“I stopped for some fish and chips at the chip shop before I went to the library. I ate Coll’s bit too, when he didn’t show up.”
“Then, I think it’s time for bed. It’s after nine, and it has been a long night, between Coll worrying and you walking in the storm.” Emily nodded at the door to the hall to emphasize her words.
The boys unfolded themselves from their chairs and deposited their cups in the kitchen sink before heading for the door to the hall. Once they door swung shut behind them, Coll gripped Gort’s arm.
“You’re sure you didn’t see anything when you looked behind you, nothing at all?” Coll whispered sharply.
“I told you, I didn’t see anything, and I looked more than once.”
“It just doesn’t make sense, none of it,”
Coll released his friend’s arm and led the way down the dark hall. After flicking the switch at the foot of the stair, the boys made their way up to the landing. Gort reached over and turned the hall light on before turning off the one over the stairs. Shadows of any shape or description spooked him tonight.
* * *
Coll closed the bedroom door firmly behind them and waited until his friend was snugly in bed before plunging the room into darkness. In the dim illumination from the street lamp leaking through the curtains, Gort’s eyes glinted in the darkness. Coll was overwhelmed for a moment by the fierceness of his need to protect his best friend from more pain. Nobody should have to endure that kind of stuff. Unconsciously, the older boy curled his hands into fists and experienced an odd joy at the thought of smashing whoever it was that threatened Gort. “We’ll figure this out tomorrow. Don’t let it worry you overmuch. I’m sure there must be an explanation for all this mess,” Coll said into the darkness.
“Let’s hope it’s a good one.” Gort’s voice was muffled as he turned on his side and pulled the blankets up to his nose. “I don’t think I’m ever going to get warm tonight.”
Coll waited until the even breathing told him Gort was sleeping. Slipping out of bed, he padded down the hall to Emily’s room.
“Gramma.” Coll tapped softly on her door.
“Come in, my heart. Is something amiss?” Emily was sitting in her rocking chair by the reading lamp in the corner of her room.
“I don’t like any of what went on today.” Coll sat down on the stool by Emily’s feet.
“I can’t say as I’m very happy about any of it either,” Emily agreed.
“If it wasn’t Stuart, then who was it?”
Emily sighed. “I’ll have a word with Sarie tomorrow, maybe she’ll have some idea about what is going on. Ask Aisling in the morning and see if she has heard anything that might shed some light on the situation.”
“Maybe Ash will have some ideas; that’s a good thought Gramma.”
“There’s nothing to be done tonight, so you might as well get some sleep. Morning comes early you know.” Emily brushed the top of Coll’s head gently with her hand.
“I guess you‘re right, Gramma.” Coll pushed himself up off the stool and kissed Emily on the cheek. “See you in the morning.”
“Call me if you need me in the night,” Emily told him. “It’s been four months since we’ve dealt with the night terrors. I hope tonight won’t bring them back.”
Coll waited while she reached up and turned off the reading lamp before going back to his room. Outside the wind continued to throw rain against the window panes, and the roar of the sea carried up the narrow street from the harbor below.
* * *
Morning came, as it always did. The sun struggled to fight through the fog blanketing the town. Gort shivered at the sound of the sea sucking at the shingle down by the promenade. The slap of the tide sounded preternaturally loud in the thick grey air when he opened Emily’s front door to retrieve the bottle of milk sitting on the doorstep. Gort quickly snatched the milk and shut the door behind him, leaning on the wall and fighting to conquer the terror clawing at his chest.
“There’s nothing out there, just the fog. Quit being such an idiot.” The whispered words pushed past the tightness in his throat.
He forced himself to take a deep breath and relax his death grip on the neck of the milk bottle. When his breathing steadied, Gort continued down the hall into the kitchen, setting the bottle on the counter. His face felt tight and strange in reaction to the internal struggle to shove the fear to the back of his mind.
“Everything okay?” Emily asked.
“Is there someone out there?” Coll was on his feet and halfway to the hall door.
“No, nothing. Nothing except my imagination.” A weak laugh escaped.
“You sure?” Coll stopped with his hand on the door.
“Relax, mate. I’m just jumpy this morning.” Gort caught his friend’s gaze, smiling to convey his gratitude for the offer of defence on his behalf.
“Leave off, Coll. Come and eat your breakfast.” Emily set the plates on the table.
By the time the boys set off up the street for school, the sun had won the battle, and the fog was only ragged grey remnants which drifted into the corners of the buildings and wafted across the surface of the ebbing tide. They met Aisling at the corner of Alexandra Road, and the three of them continued on toward the red brick school.
“You mean Maureen told you Gort said not to meet him?” Aisling was startled by the news. “Why would she say that?”
“I don’t know. I never spoke to her yesterday, don’t think I even saw her,” Gort told her.
“Someone put her up to it,” Coll accused.
“Who would do that, though, especially since you don’t think it was Stuart?” Aisling laid her hand on Gort’s arm. “It wasn’t Daniel was it; come back for revenge?”
The thin, dark-haired boy shook his head in denial. The prospect of his uncle returning was too unthinkable to even speculate on. “That’s over and done with, innit?”
“Someone did, that’s for sure,” Coll said stubbornly. “We need to find out who it was before something else happens.”
Once they reached the school yard, Coll hunted Maureen down and confronted her on the school steps.
“Why’d ya tell me not to meet Gort last night? Who put you up to it?” Coll’s voice rose angrily.
“What do you mean, ye git? Some boy ran up and handed me a note, said it was from your mate, and I should let you know you should meet him at home.” Maureen defended herself. “I thought I was doing you a favor.”
“What kid? Who was it?” Coll persisted.
“I don’t remember.” Maureen was exasperated. She dug in her coat pocket and produced a crumpled up piece of paper she thrust at Coll. “Here’s the note. I’m not making it up.”
Coll took the note from her fingers and smoothed it out. The writing was large and sprawled across the page. Maureen was gone when he looked up from his scrutiny of the note.
“What did she say?” Aisling asked, joining him on the steps.
“Said some kid gave her a note. This is it.” Coll handed over the scrap of paper.
“It’s not my writing. I don’t know whose it is.” Gort scrutinized the scribbling.
“It does look kind of familiar.” Aisling peered over his shoulder. “But I don’t know whose it is either.”
“This just keeps getting weirder and weirder.” Coll ground his teeth in frustration.
The school bell rang, drowning out what Aisling was saying. She shrugged helplessly. They trudged up the remaining steps and hurried to their first class, none the wiser for having the note in their possession.
* * *
Aisling went back to Emily’s with the boys after school on the pretence of working on their projects. Gort sat by the fire, turning the paper over and over in his hands, a frown creasing his forehead, absently pushing his unruly hair from his eyes. Aisling reached over and gently took the note out of his hands. She smoothed the paper out on her knee and studied the large uneven letters.
“It’s like I should know who wrote this,” she murmured. “I know I’ve seen this writing before.”
Coll shook his head, crumpled up the sheet of foolscap he had been working on and threw the balled up paper into the fireplace.
“I should be getting home; it’ll be getting dark soon.” Aisling glanced out the window into the back garden.
“I’ll walk you as far as the corner, if you want.” Gort reached for his jacket.
“Want me to come with you?” Coll asked, still frowning into the fire.
“I want some time to think on the way back, alone like if you don’t mind, Coll.” Gort desperately wanted to spend some time alone with Aisling. Coll had been moody ever since Laurel went back to Alberta last August, which didn’t always make him the best of company.
“You be all right? Alone, I mean.” Coll glanced up.
“It’s only to the corner and back. I’ll be fine. Nobody’s gonna jump me in broad daylight.”
“If you’re not back in fifteen minutes, I’m coming to look for you.”
“Yes, Gramma.” Gort grinned at Coll. “You sound just like Emily. I have to work through my fears, like the doctor said.”
“It’s just a little way, Coll. Not even out of sight of your front door,” Aisling chimed in.
Coll snorted and returned his attention to his schoolwork. “Just make sure nothing happens or Gramma will skin me alive for letting you out on your own.”
Once out the door, Gort took Aisling’s school bag from her and captured her left hand with his own. Aisling looked up in surprise, and a brilliant smile lit her face.
Hand in hand, they walked slowly toward the corner, too happy to spoil it by speaking. Aisling’s hand in his felt warm and sent tingles of something lovely up and down his spine.
Aisling’s fingers tightened on his as they neared the corner of her street. She was very nearly his height, so there was no need to look down to see her face. Aisling darted a glance toward her house and pulled him into the shadows gathering by the stone wall of Mr. Melways’ courtyard. Gort’s breath stuck in his chest. Breathe, for God’s sake!
Aisling gently tugged him closer and tucked her arms around his waist. Gort carefully put his hands on her shoulders and gently pressed his lips to hers. Aisling’s arms tightened about him before she leaned her head into his shoulder. They stood quietly for a minute before Aisling stepped back and smiled.
“I gotta go; heaven forbid my mum should come looking for me.” Aisling’s smile broadened. “You know how she goes on.”
“Ash.” Nothing seemed the right thing to say; he was overwhelmed by his emotions. “I … you’re … I think you’re wonderful.” Lame, is what that was.
“I know that, silly.” Aisling touched him quickly on the nose with her finger and then skipped lightly down the road to her house. She turned before she opened the door to blow him a kiss.
Gort put his hand out toward her and caught the endearment.