Morningstar

This short story is a few years old now. While far from my first ever, it was the first I enjoyed enough to submit to the Writer’s Digest Short Fiction competition. I think it placed in the top 10,000 hah. It is part of my collection of stories about fallen angels I’ve been working on. I am quite proud of it and I hope you enjoy reading it.

Art by Christopher Moeller

Art by Christopher Moeller

M o r n i n g s t a r

Sunlight careened over the buildings surrounding the town square.  There was little shadow inside, but enough to give a shred of shelter as the merchants began to arrive.  The bazaar accepted traveling folk throughout the month and they came as sporadically as the wind might change.  Vendors would cart their wares into the square and before long the area was thronged with customers bickering at each sale hoping to pinch their pennies.  And when their services were met and they had retired to their homes, the vendors would cart their wares off again, as quickly and unceremoniously as they had arrived, heading for other towns willing to part with their wealth.

Today the bazaar was particularly large.  It might only reach this size but once a year and today happened to be that very day.  The young boy had come to the square as he had come most every other day in all the years he could remember.  Through rain or snow, or scorching heat such as today, the boy would always come but would never purchase.  He had little money, but it was more because the young boy was frightened of the vendors that made him shy away; with their surly looks and bellowing voices, chastising the non-buyers for their lack of credulity and insight of human needs.  So the young boy always came, but would be certain to keep his distance and admire the wonderful inventories from afar.

Along the halls there were vendors of all sorts.  Pompous gentlemen who sold the finest foods available erected stalls next to those who dealt the most delicate spices explorers the world-over could find.  Grand carpets and rugs were hung to display their intricate woven patterns and short, fat men sold impressive blades and dirks fit for the likes of Sultans.  Among these merchants were purveyors of wondrous skill and show.  Leathery women who claimed, for a fee, they could speak to your father’s father’s great grandmother; there were nubile young ladies wearing nothing more than a tattered loincloth, using only a common reed to tame poisonous reptiles; taut men displaying their feats of strength and nimble, fragile boys who could walk across the edge of razors.

The young boy was now standing near a stall of absolute wonder.  It held a plethora of fruits and vegetables the boy had never seen before and wouldn’t believe in their variety had he not been seeing them now.  There were recipes and ingredients to make remedies for all manner of ailments, from a minute chest cough to the most burning lesion of the flesh.  The stall had tools such as trowels and shovels for masonry and picks for tilling soil.  It had strange artifacts of gold and obsidian, sculptures of beasts and deities the boy could hardly dream of.  There were black chickens and sickly canines, meant to be great for one’s health when seared, as well as various elements to burn to obtain good fortune.  Strange cloths hung near the back used for shawls and headdresses and the young boy wished he had one now to shield the heat, as he wiped the sweat from the corners of his eyes.

It appeared to be the largest stall in the square and subsequently had the largest line of customers.  The proprietor was a tall, gangly looking man with long, spindly fingers he used to pluck the coins from the palms of his customers, as quickly as a magpie will unearth a grub.  He moved in such smooth succession from shop front to back and from buyer to ware, the line was shrinking quicker than it could grow.  With the proprietor stretching his lanky figure about the stall with such innate nature on his own, it was then that the young boy noticed the other person behind the counter.

In the far back of the stall, relaxed on his haunches upon the dry and crusty earth there sat a young man.  He was only a man insomuch that he had the physique of a human.  He was stark naked, but the boy could not decipher whether he were in fact a he or a she at all, for the perception of distinguishing anatomy seemed unimportant.  The young boy simply gazed at the young man in the back of the stall, quite sure that he was not a man, or young for that matter, but a very different magnificent creature altogether.  At that moment there was another, other than the boy, noticing this ethereal object.

The next patron in line was a rude old miser, who approached the vendor and spoke snidely.

“Hrm,” he grumbled, looking into the back of the stall. “I will purchase the slave.  What is the cost?”

The proprietor assured the man, “This is no mere slave, he is a powerful guardian.  Here!”  He called to the creature. “Come meet your new owner.”

The creature raised its head and the boy looked intently at his face.  His look was sullen, as if he had suffered more that one day than ten hundred men in all of their lives.  When the creature stood, the young boy noticed then the most magnificent part of all; how he could have possibly overlooked them prior made him feel as though he were dreaming, so he blinked twice and then again to be sure.  Coming from behind the shoulders of the young man were an astounding set of wings, with splendour enough to make the boy wonder how they were fitting under the canopy.  Such a span, the boy thought, if any bird were to have them they could fly the trade routes in a single flap.  And white!  Such a blinding, beautiful, iridescent white that when the boy looked at them he could perceive nothing else.

“Guardian?” asked the miser, “Hrm.  Who have you guarded?”

The creature spoke, its voice as soothing as it was simple. “None.”

“If he has no prior clients,” snapped the old miser at the vendor, “then how am I to know he is a guardian?  What has he done to earn such a title?”

The proprietor was dejected, but before he could open his mouth to plead his case the creature spoke again.  Only this time he appeared to be many feet taller and his hollow, white eyes had become red as hot iron.

“More than you could ever imagine.”

At these words the old miser hurriedly, crumbling and grovelling, pocketed his coin sack and retreated from the stall and then the square altogether.  The proprietor eyed the winged creature with a frightening suspicion, perhaps realizing, but not entirely understanding, for the first moment what sort of magnificent or terrible creature he had kept in his stall.

Watching this interaction from the street had startled the young boy.  But as is the way with young boys, fear does not linger long, soon becoming fascination; moments later the young boy was in the line for the stall.  He hadn’t much money—his coin purse was very light—but he simply had to try.

It appeared the encounter with the old miser and the creature had left the proprietor far less nimble than before, thus the line moved slower.  He blamed it on the increasing heat and time of day, but the boy knew better.

It was coming on dusk by the time the young boy neared the front of the line.  He was hungry and he hadn’t eaten all day. He skipped breakfast to reach the bazaar early and missed lunch for he wouldn’t dare leave his place in line.

Nearing closer to the front counter, the boy regarded the young man in the back of the stall who now seemed far less imposing, sitting melancholy on the cracked dirt of the ground, but no less fascinating.  The boy lifted his light coin purse, which contrasted with his heavy heart, knowing full well he could not afford hardly anything from these vendors, much less an astounding guardian.

When the boy was just fourth from the front the proprietor turned to them all.

“Closed!” he bellowed. “We are closed for the day!”

No! thought the boy, his heart sinking further.  And as the other patrons began to file out and away, fully aware of the nature of the bazaar, the young boy rushed forward pleading, “Sir! Sir, please!”

“We are closed, boy. Move along!”

“But the guardian,” the boy cried. “I want to purchase the guardian,  I will give you all I have.”

Hearing his yearning, the majestic thing in the back looked up at the boy.

“Which is of trifling value, I imagine.  Now go.”

The boy reached for his coin purse but as he did, his hand fumbled and it fell from his belt to the ground and landed by his foot with a thud.  The boy looked at the ground and saw his round purse and as he went to pick it up he found he had to use two hands to lift it.

“Look!” he called to the proprietor, lumping the tiny sack onto the counter, its contents spilling out. “Will this do?”

The merchant gazed in amazement at the currency before him, but was not near as awestruck as the young boy, who just moments before was a pauper.  Across the counter there were spread all sorts of riches: rubies, emeralds, sapphires; gold and coins of all shapes and sizes, from realms the two of them had never heard of and, truth be told, would not even be established civilizations for centuries.

The proprietor looked eerily at the young boy. “The guardian is yours.  Take this key,” he said, handing the boy a small cloth that wrapped around a tiny but immensely heavy object, “Now leave.”

Inside the cloth was a key, attached to a long piece of twine, which the young boy put around his neck.  The vendor returned to packing his wares and sundries and animals, almost ignoring that any transaction at all took place.  The winged creature stepped out from behind his former stall.  The boy looked at him for what seemed an eternity.  He was tall and superb; thin, but possessed the grandeur and splendour of a legion. He was as pale as baby’s breath but at the same time emitted more light than the morning star itself. His eyes were white and hollow and though the boy could not see into them, no matter how much he stared, it appeared that whatever direction the creature turned its head his eyes were always upon his new owner.

The young boy looked away a moment and pointed down the square. “I live this way.”

The guardian nodded and they began walking together.

. . .

They walked at long length through the vast and winding streets and alleyways of the inner city, before reaching the ramparts and crossing one of the many bridges leaving the city proper.  The outskirts just beyond the city walls were not vastly different than inside, only they had less cover and therefore going about one’s daily business became far more arduous.

The boy was exhausted and famished and sat beneath the slender evening shade of a poplar tree.  The guardian stood waiting.

“Aren’t you tired?” the boy asked.

The guardian shook his head.

“Or hungry?”

The guardian stared.

“Or thirsty?”

Shaking his head once more, the guardian held out his hand to the boy.  In his upturned palm there was the appearance of something, without anything being there at all.  The boy looked again, closer this time and he saw a small green fruit, foreign to him, but at the same time familiar.  To an onlooker it would’ve appeared that the creature conjured this item out from behind the veil of thin air.  But the boy just accepted the gesture as if he knew full well where the guardian produced it from.

“This will help” he told the boy.

The young boy took the fruit in both hands and bit into it cautiously; it tasted marvelous.  But the taste did not come from his palate, instead it came from his thought. He imagined himself waking from a deep slumber with a cool breeze upon his face.  When he finished, he scarcely remembered eating at all.  He stood up from his poplar canopy.

“My home is just past those hills.”

They continued down the roads leading further and further from the city.  They passed many huts and houses along the way and the boy expected to receive cursory glances of intrigue from townsfolk for a situation such as his, but nobody seemed overly concerned with the young boy and his majestic, winged creature.

It was evening and dark as the bizarre pair neared the hills the young boy had pointed out before, when the guardian stopped and spoke for the first time before being spoken to.  Just off the path there was a large stone well.

“Why have you never drawn water from this well?”

The boy did not appear shocked that his guardian knew this and yet attempted to lie.

“It has been dry for years.”

The guardian looked at the boy as he spoke and could see through to the very pit of fear inside him.

“It is not,” he said. “And it is clean as well.”

“Everyone says it is cursed and I believe them.”

The guardian gazed at the well, utterly enveloped with curiosity.

“They say it was dry ever since the city was built” said the boy. “Then one day it wasn’t dry anymore.”

The two continued on until they reached the boy’s hut.  It was meagre and dilapidated and a fair distance from the other homes of the dozen or so nearby families in the village.  It was very small, fitting for the young boy—with a likewise-small thatched straw door that the boy pushed open.

“It is not grand,” he said. “It allows wind and water, but keeps away the wolves.”

The climate of the night became the antithesis of the day. Hot and still as the daytime was meant it was equally cold and windy throughout the night.  The boy climbed under a ragged sheepskin blanket on the floor and almost instantly began shivering as his prostrate body was leached of its heat through the hard, earthen floor.

“Will you sleep?” chattered the boy.

“No.”

“Not even to dream?”

“I cannot dream,” said the guardian.

The boy felt a stinging pity for his new companion—this brilliant oddity of a creature—and wondered how a powerful guardian could appear so solemn and unfortunate.

“Where do you come from?” asked the boy, who felt the pierce of the guardian’s eyes. “I mean, how did you end up at the bazaar?”

“I fell,” said the guardian, “and when I stood I was here.”

The boy felt the immense weight of the key around his neck and took a brief glimpse at the single, black cuff locked around the creature’s ankle, before looking away from fear of being caught staring.

“What is your name?” asked the boy, suddenly becoming fearful of the question’s possible answer.

The guardian was looking through a hole in the straw siding of the hut, gazing out upon the rising moonlight of the countryside.  “I don’t know anymore,” he said. “What is your name?”

The boy rolled over under his frigid sheepskin.  “I don’t know either.”

The guardian paused a long while as he looked at the clouds rolling through the sky, passing over the silver fog of the moon.

“I do.”

But the young boy could not hear, for he was already dreaming.

. . .

When the young boy woke he was lying on a different floor than the one he fell asleep upon.  There were expertly crafted wooden planks lining the ground and as he sat up to rub the sleep from his eyes he similarly noticed the entirety of the hut was transformed.  He now resided in a formidable cottage, with polished stone walls and a strong wooden roof.  In the corner there was a fireplace, though it did not appear to be burning anything and existed purely and simply as the idea of fire.

The guardian was standing where he had been the night before, staring in the same direction, though where the straw hole had been was now replaced with stone.  After the miracle of the purse and physical illusion of the fruit, the boy was no longer preoccupied with the how, he was simply puzzled.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because I am your guardian.”

The boy stood up from his bed and felt odd as the new room surrounded him; it strangely made him feel weaker.

“Can you teach me how to make things?”

The creature looked away from the wall.

“Yes.”

. . .

In the first few months that followed the guardian began by teaching the young boy the essentials of language; before long he could read and write, making him a rarity outside the city walls.  Within the season he secured a position as a messenger and delivery boy for the local magistrate.  In the evenings and days between his tasks, the boy spent all of his time confined in his cottage with his guardian, learning new skills.  This particular night he learned how to fashion a fire, as winter was approaching.

“I will be able to spend the winters here now.”

The creature nodded. “Better than begging inside the city.”

The guardian routinely made comments such as these and rather than question, the young boy resigned himself to understanding that the guardian knew everything of the past.

The better part of a year passed in this way, with the boy as a messenger in the day and pupil at night.  The guardian followed the boy wherever he went and none regarded him with curiosity or felt his presence baffling.  Every few days the pair would journey to the city for supplies and water.  The guardian would always carry the casks, as they were the heaviest, but would incessantly gaze at the well each time they returned home.  He mentioned it only once and the boy became upset and it was never spoken of again thereafter.

The years began to pass and trips to the city became less frequent.  The boy had learned to plant a garden and tend to livestock he acquired.  With age also came strength and the boy became a formidable hunter.  He had since given up his charge as a messenger and he traded a variety of his animal pelts for tools at the bazaar.  His guardian taught him tactful skills of carpentry and afterwards he built a barn and stables, then a forge wherein he learned the ways of blacksmithing.  He assisted in the building of coaches and wagons in the city and on the outskirts in the village he repaired horseshoes and shovels.  He still spent his evenings with the guardian, who taught him the preliminary laws of medicine and even the brutish ways of combat and how to tend to those inflicted in such acts.

The young boy became more learned and experienced than anyone who surrounded him, than even those in the city itself.  His magnanimous nature was spoken of dozens of leagues beyond and the young boy and his guardian had become a local legend.

Over time the young boy was no longer a young boy but had become a young man, but he had been called boy for so long that he knew no other name.  So he kept the name, in all that he had done and learned and knew there was one thing, two actually, that he still needed to do.

One early autumn morning the boy rose from his heavy wooden bed in the barn.  He hadn’t slept in the cottage for some time—that was for the guardian, he built it—the boy felt more comfortable in the fruits of his own labour.

He walked across the field to the cottage and saw the guardian inside by the fireplace.  The boy took the heavy key from around his neck and held it out to the creature.  The guardian just stared.  The key was heavier than ever and the boy’s arm ached as he held it out.

“Here.  It’s yours.”

The boy’s hand was outstretched and the guardian slowly reached up his own to grasp it.

“You have done more for me in this life than I will ever be able to repay you for.  I want you to have your freedom.”

The guardian took the key from the boy’s hand and examined it with such malign intent, hardly able to fathom with any conviction that it was this small, trivial device that kept him weighted all these years.  For the first time since he purchased him at the bazaar, the boy was frightened in the guardian’s presence.

“If I could ask one more favour before you go,” said the boy.

The guardian clutched the key tightly. “Anything.”

The boy swallowed hard.

“Cure the well.”

For the only time in a dozen years since the boy first laid eyes on this ethereal being, the creature smiled.  It was not a smile of lawfulness or passion or love; it did not display camaraderie or elicit goodwill.  It was simply a smile of deep content.

“Certainly.”

The guardian then bent low and unlocked the cuff from around his ankle—as he did so, the key and cuff itself dissipated into nothing and were no more.  He walked out of the cottage and stood, basking in the morning glow.  A weight was gone from him, literally, but it seemed to the boy this was the first morning his former guardian had ever been a part of.

The creature crouched as if to ready a leap and with a single thrust of his wings was hundreds of feet in the sky, soaring away.  He did not look back.

And that was the last of his guardian the boy would see until the end of his days.

. . .

The following year passed slowly for the boy.  He was happy with his life and thankful for all he had learned from his guardian.  He continued to use his skills daily and maintained providing services for all he could help.  Still, though not quite dismal, the boy would routinely lie upon his mattress in the barn each evening, pondering where it was the guardian had flown off to.  One particular evening, while readying for bed many weeks after he had last seen the creature, instead of changing into his undergarments he threw on a lofty coat and left his barn.  It was a frigid night just before the coming of winter and the cold air cracked as it warmed inside his lungs.  He set out from his land with a determination and fear that he had not felt in many years.

It was not a long trek before he came to the well.  It had always felt further and more uninviting, but now it seemed the well was fashioned off the path just for him.

The boy approached the mossy stones with horrible trepidation.  He looked down into the sinking blackness of the well and thought terrible thoughts as he lowered the bucket.  What curses lie beneath the stillness of those ripples?  Why have none used this well for as long as this?

He briefly overcame his fear as he drew the bucket from the darkness, but it returned when he saw the water.  He grasped the handle and lifted the bucket to his lips in one quick motion and took a gulp.  It was cold.

He put the bucket on the ground and began walking back to his barn.  The water was crystal clear and it tasted good.  And when he returned home, perhaps it was the overcoming his fear of the well, or perhaps it was the fresh air or maybe the water itself, but whichever the case, for the first time in over a year the boy slept soundly.

. . .

In the weeks that followed, the boy’s trips into the city became fewer and far between until he finally negated going altogether.  What he needed to survive contently he found on his own land, or if need be he would venture to the small village beyond his hills.  He still often received proposals from merchants or proprietors in the city, requesting his favours or assistance in some manner—to which he always gladly accepted.  Even so, the vast majority of these required little movement on his part and he was all the happier for it.

One winter morning when the boy was tending to his livestock in the barn, he noticed a person coming over the hills toward his cottage.  As he approached them, he discovered it was a young lady, perhaps only a year or two his junior.

“I’m very sorry to trouble you,” she said, “but my father’s wagon has broken and we were hoping you could help us.  You see, my father is a tailor and we have a shipment going to the bazaar.”

But the boy heard none of it.  All he did was gaze at the beautiful girl before him, knowing full well that she would one day be the girl he would marry.

It did not happen all at once.  The boy ended up fixing the broken wagon wheel and the girl and her father thanked him before continuing on their way.  It happened that the father had a partner for many years who lived in the city and thus twice a month the young lady and her father would travel to the city to sell their garments and every time they would stop at the handsome cottage to visit the boy.  This continued for many months until one day the father left without the girl.

“I wish to stay,” she said. “I love you.”

The boy was overjoyed.  He had felt the same since the first day he had met her, but would not dare admit it for fear of separating her from her dear father.  Now that she had made the choice herself he was elated.

And so they were married.  The boy built an addition onto the barn with extra rooms and a cellar as well.  When his wife asked why they did not simply move into the stone cottage, the boy replied “It is not mine to live in.”  His wife saw the sullen look in his eyes and understood the matter to be deeply personal, so she never spoke of it again.

The pair lived happily together, just the two of them, but only for a short while.  The wife soon gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl.  When the boy’s father-in-law visited, the boy questioned the man if perhaps he and his wife should have waited longer to have children.

“Of course not,” said the father, “You are a young man who has a lot of love to give. Better that you start sooner than later.”

Every day was a blessing for the boy.  He had a loving wife and two children of his own.  With each day that passed the boy would raise his children in the same way he was raised.  He taught them of language and how to read and write; he taught them how to tend livestock in the barn and till soil in the garden.  The children followed their father to the well and back again, all the while he would ask them questions of arithmetic and medicine.  They followed him into the woods to hunt and down to the lake to fish.  This was how the boy’s family passed their years, but not the boy.  For as he taught his children and watched them grow, so too did they watch their father remain the same; they began to become frightened of the boy.  They spent more of their time away from home with their grandfather, until one brisk day in spring they left permanently, for a school far off.

After a trip to the well one morning, the boy returned to the barn to find his wife saddled on one of the large mares.  Her eyes were red and dry, as though she had spent a lifetime of tears just that morning.  Lines had formed around her eyes and mouth, covering up her fair skin; her hair had turned from its luscious auburn to a bleak grey, but her eyes remained the light shade of emerald they had always been.  There was no doubting she had aged, but as she looked at the boy she felt herself to be ancient and faded—for he was the exact same as he had appeared to her when she first came over the hills all those years ago.  She did not ask how or why, she simply sighed a heavy breath of utter sadness.

“I must go.”

“Please…” the boy began, but she interrupted him.

“No. Do not make this harder for me.”

She choked back the tears as they began to well up again.

“You are still the lovely young man I married long ago, but I am now an old woman.  The past year I have laid awake at night and prayed that this hex might pass over you.  But it hasn’t.”  She wiped a tear as it began to trickle down her cheek, “and now I must go.  Goodbye my love.”

The boy watched with a pail in his hand as his one and only love galloped away over his dusty, snow-covered fields and off into the morning glow.

. . .

It first began with people from the city—they stopped sending for favours or services and before long even the people of his own town began to shun him.  Whispers of the strange, un-ageing young man spread many leagues out; his land became foreign to them and, as if a hex were really upon him, the people avoided it entirely.  Years passed and new roads were made into the city from outlying municipalities, but without fail they always steered from the boy’s land.  Eventually, as the years went on, the boy saw no one and no one saw him.  He had long since lost all happiness, but was slowly beginning to lose the will to live.  He sold all his livestock and in recent months had neglected his fields and gardens, letting them wither and blight in the sun.  After years of solitary confinement the boy still made sporadic trips to the well, but even that he gave up.

He was sad and alone.

He did not hunger or thirst, grow ill or succumb to weariness. He only aged.  The boy aged and aged, until he passed the span of fifty years in one.  With each rising of the sun, the boy, in his old and fragile body, felt his life slowly drain from him until one evening he knew that if he were to last long enough to sleep he would not wake in the morning.

He decided to lie in the cottage that night.  He did not use any cover save for a tattered sheepskin blanket and felt the cool of the wooden boards below him as he recalled how they changed from earth many years ago.  The boy was afraid he would fall asleep before he arrived, but the boy was wrong.

The guardian appeared at the door and the absence of time had only made his grandeur more luminescent.  The boy shed a tear at the sight of his old companion, who appeared unchanged from the moment he first saw him take flight.

“Hello” said the boy.

The guardian stood by the wall, where he had watched the sun rise through the hole in the straw what seemed like eons ago.  He looked at the thin, decrepit old man before him, a shell of what he once was.

“Hello young boy,” he replied.

Then he looked back out through the door and over the thin fog of the winter night.  The boy did not ask how or why, but the creature told him just the same. He told the boy everything.

He told him of his parents, who left him as an orphan and the sister who died many years prior that he never knew he had; he told of the young boy’s children and how one became a great scholar and the other died of consumption shortly after leaving home; he told of the boy’s wife and how she lived her remaining days as a lonely widow, dying heartbroken and alone; he told the boy it was himself who was the one responsible for breaking the father’s wagon on that fateful day decades ago.

He told the boy everything and the boy did not wince or sob, or yell at the guardian in a fit of fury. He merely listened throughout the night to the creature and absorbed it all.  Before he came to an end, the guardian paused for a long while, gazing out over the pastures as if he one time forgot about this place, but of course that was impossible, for the guardian forgot nothing of the past.

The last thing he told to the boy was the boy’s name, but he received no response.  When he looked from the sky down to the floor of the cottage, he saw that the young boy could not hear what was said for he was asleep under the sheepskin, dreaming.

-B.W. Gladney

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