Excerpt for The Gate by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Gate

By A.L. Lester

Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

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Copyright 2016 A.L. Lester

ISBN 9781634865661

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All rights reserved.

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published in the United States of America.

* * * *

The Gate

By A.L. Lester

The road unfolded in front of the car as it ate up the miles in the night. Way above he could see the high arch of the night sky, as distant and cold and passionless as an afterlife he didn’t believe in. Arthur was dead. Finally gone. After all these weeks, dragging from hour to hour, fighting for every last breath, he’d finally let go.

Matty didn’t know what to do with himself, so he drove. Not to anything or from anything, just an instinctive urge to keep moving. Before long he’d have to turn the car round and go back, back to the farmhouse—back to Arthur’s cooling body, life drained and dignity returned. Not quite yet though.

Six weeks ago, he’d finally come back from France to find his brother sick. There had been no warning of it in Arthur’s letters. Just the usual cheerful news about the neighbours and the cousins and the titbits about the grass in the top field starting to grow, , now spring looked like it was coming in and they were thinking about sharing a couple of pigs this year with next door and what did he think? Nothing about the illness that must have been eating him alive from the inside even then, to be so thin when he had opened the door to Matty. Matty almost hadn’t recognised him. He was stooped like an old man and his skin was dry and yellow, stretched thinly over his face. Then he’d met Matty’s eyes and Matty had drawn breath and stepped forward to put his arms around him.

“What’s wrong?” he’d asked.

Arthur had stepped back out of his grasp and held the door wide and not answered until they were both seated at the kitchen table with a mug of strong tea.

“Doctor can’t tell me,” he’d replied, brief and to the point as always. “Says it’s a cancer, most likely, but she can’t find anything to see.” And he’d poured a second cup of tea and that had been that.

But in the night, Matty had heard him pacing the floor of his room, talking in a low and urgent voice. The lamp light crept under the door as Matty paused outside, wondering. When he knocked and asked in a low voice if everything was all right, Arthur stood in the half-open doorway, blocking his view into the room, although over his shoulder, Matty could see the disordered sheets and crumpled pillows that spoke of disturbed sleep and troubled dreams, plus piles of the ubiquitous books.

Arthur had always been one for books. All through their childhood, he hoarded them like the dragons in his stories hoarded jewels, coming home triumphant from a trip to the library with yet another new volume. Later, when Father and the Rector helped him make the break from the farm and get a place at university with a scholarship, academia fed his appetite like dry twigs to a blaze. The house was full of them—Father had quite a library of his own, even before Arthur began to add his share.

Now, after Matty’s four-year absence, there were even more. The shelves were overflowing. Small books, big books, leather bound, and cloth bound. Hard covers and paper covers. Rough edged and smooth. Wedged in on top of each other, higgeldy piggeldy, balanced in stacks on every available flat surface all through the house. Arthur was writing things down, too—loose leaves of paper scattered around, notes stuffed into the middle of abandoned volumes in longhand and shorthand notation. Matty asked if Arthur still wrote columns—he’d made a reasonable income with articles and stories for various papers and magazines in addition to overseeing the running of the farm—and Arthur gave him half an answer, purposefully vague. The help on the farm had been down to one older man and a couple of boys in the last couple of years, and it was hard to find the time. He found it difficult to concentrate since he’d become ill.

But when Matty pressed him to say when he’d first noticed his health had begun to decline, he couldn’t really tell him. Matty bumped into Dr Marks in the village one day and she expressed the hope that Arthur was taking care of himself. She couldn’t tell Matty very much about what ailed his brother; she thought it was probably a condition of the liver, but because Arthur was reluctant to be referred to a specialist, it was difficult to say. She was pleased Matty was home to look after him a little, they didn’t see much of Arthur around the village these days and they were both missed.

So Matty took himself home and tried to make things easier for Arthur. It was coming up to hay time and Matty worked long hours in the fields with the men to get it cut and stacked before the weather broke. He came home at twilight, itching and sore with exertion, but happy to be tired in a way that was easy to sleep off. The familiar rhythms of the farm settled into his blood again after four years of mud and bombs and gas and hurry-up-and-wait. Mrs Beelock still tended the kitchen and the poultry, her son helped outside, and Gaffer Tom worked at the hedging and ditching. Jimmy and Rob both came home to their jobs as farmhands and that made it easier. Jim had his wife and family in the village; but Rob went back to sleeping in the loft over the far end of the ancient beam and cruck barn like he’d always done.

It was a small farm, but the years of war meant they had to work it hard and with efficiency, as the rest of the country had been worked to feed the army in Europe and the cities on the home front. His father had a small private income before the war, which meant they had the luxury of schooling and a touch of life outside of the small farming community they belonged to. He and Arthur had that now, and Arthur had his writing. Matty was home and, although their father died before the flames of war began to consume the world, it still felt right be back.

Arthur, though. Arthur was an enigma to him now. He’d always been the brother Matty looked up to. He was ten years older—almost too old to be called up in 1914 and anyway, reserved to work on the farm. He’d left for Oxford when Matty was eight and seemed even more god-like when he’d returned in the summers between classes. Matty had left school and worked with Father, content with the country life and his round of friends and family. Arthur had gone to work on a London paper for a while, but then come home and helped as well as working as a writer. After Father died, they’d continued in the same vein until Matty joined up.

Now Arthur was changed. Not in the way so many men were changed now, still able to hear the sounds of the guns and smell the stench of the mud. He was quieter, yes, but he was almost frenzied in his search through his books, focused on his work but unable or unwilling to tell Matty what it was he sought. He was thin and stooped and his yellowed skin had the texture of crepe.

He got weaker by the day after Matty returned, until two weeks ago he’d been unable to rise from his bed. He began wandering in his mind, agitated and upset, sending Matty again and again to make sure the gates and doors were shut, and the lamps extinguished downstairs. He wanted Matty to promise to burn his papers and books once he was dead. Matty baulked at promising any such thing, despite Arthur’s insistence.

The end came quite suddenly—Matty was sitting in the faded red brocade chair by the bed, reading aloud in the afternoon sunlight, the familiar fall and rise of Dickens rolling from his tongue without really registering in his mind. Arthur was lying on his side with his eyes sometimes open and sometimes shut, the cotton pillowcase stark white under his yellowed cheek. His breathing was shallow but calm.

“Matty,” he said. “Matty, I need you to get rid of the books. Keep the gates shut and get rid of the books. Promise me.”

His eyes were huge in his thin face.

“Why, Arthur? What’s so bad about the books?”

“I don’t want you knowing,” he replied. “I don’t want you to have to go through this. I can’t stop it now, I left the gate open too long and it’s got its claws into me and I can’t get free. Once I’m gone, it won’t have a way in. Keep the gates shut and it won’t have a way in. Burn the books, please.”

He let his eyes fall shut again, exhausted.

Matty took his hand and sat and watched the sun move across the red flocked wallpaper their mother had chosen twenty years ago, dust motes dancing in the golden light. Arthur’s breath became shallower and shallower as the sunlight became thicker and darker and golden like honey dripping off a spoon. As the twilight fell, the shallow breathing whispered away and everything that made Arthur himself left.

Matty sat and held his hand a little longer as the soft evening wrapped itself around them. Then he straightened Arthur’s limbs and closed his eyes and tidied him under the sheet. He went downstairs and out of the front door, closing it carefully behind him. And he got into the small car he’d bought a couple of weeks earlier, an indulgence he’d been embarrassed to reveal to his brother, and he cranked the starter and opened the yard gate—and closed it behind him—and here he was, driving on the new macadam road up over the hills, head and heart quite empty.

* * * *

The funeral was quiet, solemn, nothing untoward. The Rector spoke steady, kind words. Arthur was laid beside his parents in the small village churchyard, surrounded by countless generations of the same families who turned out to pay their respects. A pair of buzzards mewled close by on the thermals and Matty could hear a lark high above in the distance. The sun was warm on his shoulders behind him as the cold of the dark earth was on his face from the open grave in front of him. He scattered the first handful of damp soil onto the coffin and the hollow echo rang in his ears as he stood and watched the others who followed his example.

Afterwards, Mrs Beelock put on a high tea in the parlour. Plates of thickly cut ham sandwiches, boiled eggs, the dark rich fruitcake she turned fresh from the tin. She and her daughter circled round with the large teapots they used for the harvest festival, pouring endless cups of strong brown tea and milk chilled from the dairy slab with the cream still thick on the top. Conversation was quiet and unstilted. These people had known both of them all their lives. Understanding words, memories of shared boyhood, a hand pressed to his arm in passing by women who had been friends with his mother. Eventually they all left. Mrs Beelock cleared and washed up and shepherded her daughter out the back door to feed the poultry and go on home.

The house rang with silence. The men had gone back out to milk. It was just him and the books.

He sighed.

In the three days since Arthur died, Matty hadn’t really thought very much. He’d gone on with the farm work, he’d taken turns sitting at the side of the light oak open coffin in the formal front parlour, a fat, sweet-smelling beeswax candle at the head and foot. He ate the food Mrs Beelock put in front of him and taken his turn at the stone sink, washing the dishes as he always had. He slept in his bed in the room with the green wallpaper when it was time and woke up as he always did when the sun touched the picture of the boat in the gold frame which hung on the wall at the foot of his bed.

He’d arrived home at the end of May. The long, hot, hard blue days of June had crept into the softer dog-days of July as he read volume after volume of Dickens to Arthur with slipping voice, sat in the red brocade chair with his feet on the faded rug beside the bed.

He’d asked no questions and Arthur had provided no answers. But now it was just Matty and the books.

He poured a glass of brandy from the bottle at the back of the sideboard. The glass of the oval mirror behind was age-spotted and silvered, and the heavy cut crystal of the brandy snifter was dusty. He wiped it out with the end of his black tie, uncaring. It tasted as it looked, aged and smooth, full on his tongue and hot in his throat. It brought him back to himself a little.

He sat in Arthur’s chair, a dark, worn, comfortable leather club affair to one side of the fire, and gazed into the flames absently. He’d come home because he had never thought of going anywhere else. The farm was in his blood, as it had been in their father’s and their grandmother’s before him. He couldn’t see himself existing anywhere else in the long term, especially after his time stuck in Flanders’ mud. He knew Arthur had felt the same. Arthur’s relief when he’d arrived home and announced he’d left London permanently had been palpable. Arthur had needed more than just the farm and, through his studies and his writing, he got it. The land was secondary to that.

For Matty, it was the opposite—he’d enjoyed learning at school, he enjoyed reading, discovering things. He had realised he liked to visit new places and meet new people, so long as they weren’t trying to kill him. But for him, that came second to the land. The brothers had complemented each other well, fitting together like two pieces of a jigsaw, understanding each other, working around each other and carving out satisfactory lives.

Of course, the war changed that—it had changed things for nearly everyone. And Matty wasn’t naïve enough to think life was going to go back to exactly how it had been five years earlier. The little car outside was one of the signs that changes were still happening. For all of that though, he hadn’t thought he would be navigating the changed world without Arthur to make him see things from a different point of view.

He picked up the book at the top of the pile on the floor by the armchair. It was large, leather bound and heavy, with rough-cut pages and bits of paper in Arthur’s neat hand sticking out from between them as bookmarks or notes. Idly he opened it. It was well-thumbed. It fell open at one of the pages Arthur had marked.

It was in a language Matty didn’t immediately recognise. Latin? Looking closer, it wasn’t Latin—he had learned it at school—it was in an archaic form of English. Handwritten in thick cursive, with notation and diagrams. It looked like someone’s diary, or a book of notes. Arthur had added his own, in the paper he’d slipped between the pages.

Tried salt across door and window frames and around edges of room, no good

Smell of burning oil

Push back. The energy follows thoughts

They can hear me thinking

Matty stared at the page thoughtfully and drank some more brandy.

* * * *

The tap at the kitchen door took him unaware and he carried the bottle of brandy out with him to answer it. It was Rob. Matty stepped back in silent invitation and let him in. “All right?” Rob asked, quietly.

“Not really. Do you want a drink?” Matty gestured to the bottle he’d set on the table.

Rob looked at him with narrowed eyes and nodded. “I’ll join you.” He’d been promoted up to sergeant in the Signal Corp, Matty remembered, in a disconnected sort of way.

“Come on through. I was in his study.”

Rob hesitated. The farm men never came any farther into the house than the kitchen. But it was an unusual day. In front of the sideboard, Matty slopped some more out of the bottle into another dusty glass and proffered it. Rob took it and sat where Matty gestured, on the worn leather settee. Neither spoke. It was a comfortable kind of silence.

He and Rob had always got on, in the way of single men. They’d gone to the pub together sometimes and taken a couple of local sisters on Courting Walks through the bluebell woods as a pair, a long time ago. Matty hadn’t been particularly interested in Marie Booth and he didn’t think Rob had been much interested in her sister Clemmie, either, probably for the same reason. Matty had made sure never to look at him like that, though. He didn’t need that sort of trouble on his doorstep.

But now he really looked at the other man, comfortably sprawled opposite him. Looking back, they’d been inseparable. Four years of muddling through in the trenches and taking soldier’s comfort in a few minutes here and there, furtive and messy behind the lines, had snapped something in him. He didn’t really care overmuch what people thought of him, not anymore. And he suspected a lot of other people were the same. When you’d had boys too young to be away from their mothers die in your arms, you learned to grasp for any comfort or happiness when it appeared and damn the consequences.

“I was just checking on you.” Rob said quietly. “I can go if you like.”

“No, don’t go. I appreciate the company. I just haven’t got much talk left in me.”

“No need to talk with me, Matty, you know that.” Rob’s smile was slight but genuine. He turned to small talk. “Cows are milked. I left the churns in the dairy, though. It’s too warm to put them out tonight. We’ll need to do something about the back of the barn before the winter. There’s gaps of light coming in through that red stone wall. The brick’s crumbling away.”

They made desultory conversation for a half hour and Matty’s eyes started to droop. “You need to sleep, lad.” He could hear a small, genuine smile in Rob’s voice.

“I do.” He stood and put his glass on the sideboard. “Thank you.”

“Any time. Just ask. Whatever you need.” Rob stood quietly beside him, stalwart and solid and so very comforting. They faced each other. Rob raised his hand to the back of Matty’s neck and Matty stepped forward into the embrace. Rob’s other arm came around him and settled him, forehead against that broad shoulder, smelling of hay and good sweat. It was such a relief to have someone else take his weight for a little while. Neither moved. After a little while, Matty felt Rob press a soft kiss against the top of his head. He was hard in his corduroys, against Matty’s hip, and Matty felt himself stirring in response. “Get some sleep. It’ll all look different in the morning.” The arms fell away with a passing caress to his nape and they stepped apart.

* * * *

After that, things settled into a routine. There was no doubt in his mind—or anyone else’s—that he was back to stay. They worked as a good team, him and Jimmy and Rob. There was no recurrence of the day they had embraced in the parlour. They watched each other, but neither took it any further forward. It was a grieving time for Matty and he didn’t have it in him to start anything.

He didn’t stop himself looking quickly enough, though, the day he went into the tack room at the end of the barn searching for Rob and found the man stripped to the waist and washing in the rough stone sink. Matty pulled himself together pretty sharply, but he also saw Rob had noticed him noticing, and had looked back. He admired Rob a bit, then, on the quiet. They were harvesting, rushing to get all the fields cut before the weather broke. It was nice, watching Rob’s shoulder and back muscles ripple as he tossed the stooks of corn up onto the top of the steam-powered threshing machine when it was their turn to have it trundle down into the yard. And when he caught Rob watching him in return, he just smiled. It felt good to have this small secret between them. It wasn’t safe, of course. But it felt good. Nothing might ever come of it. It very rarely did, in Matty’s experience. Just shared looks and being scared to take it any further.

So he was surprised to find Rob knocking on the kitchen door one evening in September. The nights were starting to draw in, despite the long, hazy days of summer still clinging, and it was dimpsy outside. The run of clear skies had broken with a steady drizzle that thrumbed down onto the dust of the farmyard and turned it to mud.

“Evening, Rob,” he said as he moved back to let the man in through the door.

“Matty. Thanks.” Rob stepped over the worn stone threshold and turned to hang his drenched coat and cap up as Matty closed the door behind him.

Matty busied himself pushing the kettle onto the hob of the range. “What’s the matter? Is there something wrong with the cows?”

“No. No. Nothing like that.” Rob stood by the table, one hand in the pocket of his corduroys, with his free hand absently fingering Arthur’s papers which Matty had spread out all over the scrubbed wooden surface.

“Sit down. The kettle’s nearly boiling. Tea?”

“Yes, please.”

Rob didn’t sit, just propped a hip on the table. Matty moved around steadily, measuring out the tea into the pot, waiting until the kettle was rumbling before he poured boiling water onto the leaves. He brought it over to the table and cleared a space among all the papers to set it down, then turned to get a couple of heavy mugs from where they stood on the wooden drainer, and then fetched the milk jug from the slab in the larder.

He put down the milk jug and sat opposite Rob, who finally pulled out one of the wheel-backed oak chairs and took a seat. “What’s the matter?” Matty asked.

Rob watched him, eyes cautious and assessing over the mug of tea, the slight steam obscuring his quiet brown gaze a little. He gestured to the papers rather than answering. “What’s all this, then?”

Matty thought for a moment. He didn’t not want to talk about it, but it seemed crazy when he thought about explaining it someone else. Finally, he said, “Arthur. It’s Arthur’s work. I’ve been trying to make sense of it all.”

Rob pulled a sheet toward him. “It’s not in English,” he observed. “What language is this, then?”

“I’m not sure. Some of it’s Latin. Some of it’s Old English. And some of it…I’m just not sure. I wondered if it were Arabic, or Chinese or something.” He was trying to categorise the loose papers by language and possibly by who had written them. He recognised Arthur’s slightly crabbed but fluid hand. A lot of the writing on the loose leaves was his. But there were others, too. It was difficult to tell because of the different languages and alphabets. There was no consistency. “I was trying to work out what he was working on when he got sick. It doesn’t seem to make much sense, though. Lots of talk of gates and keeping them shut. He was very worried about it the week before he passed.” Matty swept a hand over his forehead. “I couldn’t reassure him because I didn’t understand him. And he couldn’t explain it. He was raving for a lot of the time.”

Rob looked at him sympathetically. “I hear he was very sick for quite a while before any of us came home?” The burr of his country voice was gentle. “I’m sorry, Matty. I should have said before. I didn’t really know what to say, though, it seemed like it all happened so sudden-like. And then the corn needed getting in before the weather broke and we’ve not really spoken.”

Matty studied his tea intently. He didn’t know if he could bear sympathy, even now and even from Rob, who knew him as well as anyone. “I didn’t know,” he confided. “Not ‘til I got home. He didn’t tell me. And it was so peculiar, Rob. He wouldn’t see Dr Marks after she told him she thought it was cancer. But I don’t think it was cancer. Not the way he was raving at the end.”

Rob cocked his head quizzically. He bit his lip and considered his next words.

Matty could see him wondering if he should speak. “What?”

“There’s something peculiar at the back of the byre.”

It wasn’t what Matty was expecting at all and he frowned a little. “What sort of something?”

“Something I think you should see.” Rob put his hand over Matty’s where it lay on the table. It was big and warm and rough from the harvesting and Matty liked how it felt.

* * * *

They put on their gear and went out into the drizzle. The dusty yard of the summer clumped into mud under their boots now and Matty didn’t like its greedy suck. It was better around the back of the barn. The cattle made their soft, comforting noises inside, munching and rustling in the dark with the occasional snorted punctuation.

“Here. Round the side.” Rob slowed as they approached the corner. “Don’t get too close. I don’t think it’s safe.”

There was a lamp lit at waist-height, the glow spreading warmly from where it hung. But it wasn’t a lamp, when Matty looked properly. It wasn’t anything. It just was. He glanced at Rob. His face was illuminated on one side by the golden light. “What is it?” Matty asked him.

“I don’t know. It’s just…light. I walked around it and you can’t see it from the other side. And I walked up to it and tried to look past it. I think—” his voice wavered just a bit “—I thought, I could hear some sort of noise coming from it. Singing. Crying. Something.” He glanced at Matty and looked away, embarrassed at his own fancifulness.

Matty swallowed nervously. Rob was steady. He’d always been steady. Neither of them were given to fancy. That had been Arthur’s job. He took a step closer and peered at the light. Around it there was a shimmer, almost like a heat haze. It went out a few feet in each direction. About the size of a door or a gate. “A gate,” he said. And looked at Rob.

Rob looked back. “That’s what I thought, when you said.” His voice was calm. “I came to tell you about it, and then, you told me that.” He swallowed. “I can hear someone on the other side. Voices.”

He went to step forward and Matty put a hand on his forearm.

“Let me.” Matty took another step forward, and then another. The light was three or four yards away. One more step and he could hear what Rob had heard. Faint singing or crying, he didn’t know which. He turned to look back at the other man. “I can hear it.”

Rob joined him, shoulders pressed together, and they took another two steps side by side. Matty reached out a cautious hand and touched the shimmer around the edges of the glow. It seemed to flow toward his fingers, a delicate blue-white light, and quickly he pulled his arm back.

“All right?” Rob’s voice was quiet.

“Yes. It’s cool. Not cold, but definitely cool. It feels prickly. Like a shock from electricity.”

Rob stretched his own fingertips out and shuddered as the light seemed to jump out and meet them. He dropped his arm and the blue glow retreated, like ripples stilling in a pond.

The noise got louder. It was a keening, singing sound. Almost like hounds giving tongue, Matty thought. They stepped back as simultaneously as they had stepped forward. As they did so, the light at the centre brightened and expanded. It pulsed in time with the rhythm of the voice on the other side. They retreated farther, almost to the corner of the barn. The light expanded and became almost impossible to look at. Mindful of his eyes, Matty half-closed them, watching through his lashes. The keening song became so loud, he put his hands over his ears, and saw Rob had done the same.

Suddenly both the song and the light disappeared. Snapped off at their apex. Floating on Matty’s retinas, though, was the silhouette of a figure outlined against the burning light. He blinked the floating image away rapidly, and felt Rob tense as a board beside him as he did so.

“Who are you?” he heard Rob say in a hard voice—his sergeant voice, Matty thought of it. His eyes cleared and, in the dim drizzle still falling steadily, he saw there was, indeed, a man in front of them.

He crouched on the ground in the continuing rain, braced on his arms, gasping great gulping breaths and retching. There was something strapped to his back. A pack? Matty blinked frenziedly and wished his night vision would return.

Rob obviously hadn’t been as blinded as Matty had been and stepped forward, putting his stocky body between Matty and the intruder. “Who are you?” he repeated. “What’s going on?”

Matty went to step up beside him and Rob put an arm out, pushing him back again.

“No,” he said. “Stay back, Matty.”

Matty paused at the command in his voice. “I’m fine.” He pushed down the sheltering arm and stepped forward. “Who are you?” he echoed. “What’s happening here?”

The drizzle lightened, and the silhouette became clearer as Matty’s eyes adjusted. The man was vomiting properly now. He had a plait of long hair falling over his shoulder. Matty took another step forward and, whilst the man’s position didn’t change, it immediately became clear the approach was unwelcome. He felt hands on his shoulders. “Don’t go any closer.” Rob’s voice was deep in his ear.

“It’s alright.” Matty wasn’t sure which of them he was reassuring. Rob, cautious and grounded, the vomiting visitor, or himself. Rob squeezed his shoulders and let go.

“Do you need help?” Rob stepped forward again and Matty followed him.

The man turned a pale face up toward them, pushed the long tail of hair over his shoulder, and wiped his mouth with his hand in the same motion. He stared at them and they stared at him. After a moment, he pushed himself up onto his knees.

Matty realized with a start there was a pair of crossed swords or sticks on the man’s back. He had a bag strung across his torso cross-wise, like webbing to hold bullets.

They all stared at one another for a moment longer, and then the man leaned forward and retched again, muttering something as he did. That was it. He needed help and obviously wasn’t a threat. Matty knelt beside him, disregarding the weaponry, and put a hand on his shoulder, pulling the braid back from his face. The vomiting fit went on for some time and Rob eventually came up to his other side. Matty could see he was debating whether to take the swords out of their scabbards whilst the stranger was incapacitated. They shared a look over the man’s head and mutually decided to leave them where they were.

Eventually the retching stopped, and the man sat back on his heels again. Matty handed him a handkerchief and he wiped his mouth with it and went to return the soiled cloth. Then he glanced at Matty, who said, “Keep it,” and pushed it away. It was stowed in a jacket pocket.

The rain worsened at that point, and Rob said, “Let’s get him inside. It’s not going to stop.”

They each put a hand under the man’s shoulders, and he seemed to understand what was happening and helped them pull him to his feet. He paused, panting a little and letting them take his weight. He cleared his throat and said something that might have been thank you, but Matty didn’t understand the language. “This way.” Matty said, gesturing toward the house the same time Rob said, “Let’s get you inside, lad.”

He wore a leather jerkin, Matty realised, as they made their way unsteadily around the corner of the barn into the main yard. It kept the worst of the rain off. The mud was worse on the return across the yard, the accumulated dust of the summer now a sucking, soupy mess that reminded him of the trenches. He sometimes thought he wasn’t ever going to be comfortable with mud again. A definite issue for a farmer. At the kitchen door, the man baulked, like a horse put to a too-tall fence. Rob stepped ahead and opened it, stepping in and taking his coat and cap off, whilst Matty said, “It’s all right. Come in out of the wet,” and encouraged their visitor forward.

Eventually he took a tentative step across the threshold and Matty followed him into the warmth and light of the kitchen. Rob was pumping the lamp; it flared up, illuminating the room and their inadvertent guest, who gazed around curiously. Matty hung up his wet clothes as Rob poured a glass of water and offered it to the stranger. “Here, drink this. You were pretty sick.”

The other man took it and sniffed, cautiously, then sipped.

“Thank you,” he said. His voice was soft, and his accent was peculiar. “I mean you no harm,” he added, haltingly. “The Gate…” He paused, head tilted as if he were listening. “The Gate was…protected. Guarded,” he corrected himself, and then sneezed.

“Sit, sit down,” Matty insisted, suddenly aware of how awful the stranger looked. His face was pale and his lips blue tinged; he was starting to shiver. Matty pulled out a kitchen chair and pushed him down onto it. His knees buckled a bit and he went down all at once, looking queasy again.

“I apologise,” he muttered.

Matty met Rob’s eyes over the stranger’s head. Rob nodded toward the kettle.

“Let’s get your wet things off, lad,” he said, using his kind sergeant voice this time as he moved to help do just that.

Matty put the kettle on the hob and turned back to see Rob wrestling the weapons and bag off the young man’s shoulders. And he was young, Matty could see now, in the better light. He was tall and skinny, with a thin face and blondish-brown hair darkened with the rain. It had come out of the braid and he kept pushing it behind his ears. The leather jerkin came off to reveal a shirt of some sort of linen material underneath, that was at least dry. Rob hung both the jerkin and the scabbard up on the pegs behind the door as if he did that every day, ignoring the young man’s protests. Matty proffered the warm towel which hung on the rail in front of the range, and the stranger passed it over his face and then scrubbed at his hair before combing it back with his fingers.

“What’s your name, lad?” Rob asked, taking the towel back.

“Lin. My name is Lin. Of the Frem.” He paused and tilted his head again in that listening motion and spoke stiltedly. “The Gate. It will open again. I have to close the gate.” He gestured to his belongings. “I need my things. I thank you for your help. But I need to do it now.”

He went to stand, but Rob pushed him down as Matty made the tea and passed out mugs. Lin of the Frem took his, despite his protestations, cautiously wrapping his hands around its warmth. He took a sip and twisted his lips before taking a proper mouthful.

“And so, Lin of the Frem, what are you doing here? What was that light? And what do you mean, about a gate?”

Rob spoke quietly but he meant business, standing close behind he other man, not about to let him rise without some answers. Matty could see from the set of Rob’s shoulders and the way he leaned against the rail of the range, arms crossed. Lin seemed to realise he wasn’t being given any quarter, either. The lamplight chased across his face and Rob’s. Lin looked sharp and soft in turns; Rob looked intent. His gaze flicked to Matty’s across the waiting space of the room.

“The gate…” Matty murmured softly. “What does that mean?”

Lin tilted his head again and looked at Matty. “Your brother.” It was as if he were tasting the word. “Your brother knew about the Gate?”

Matty blinked, startled. “Yes. Yes, I think so. His writing…” He gestured to the piles of papers. “He wrote about a gate. About keeping it shut.” He swallowed. “Was that what we saw just now? What is it? Where does it go to? Where are you from?” He felt like a fool. The man had appeared out of empty air. Except the air hadn’t been empty; it had been filled with light.

Lin took another mouthful of tea and shook himself like a dog. It was a visible gathering of his wits. “I came through the Shimmer to try to stop the break. There is a break in the Shimmer, yes?” He watched them both, seeming to will their understanding. “I need to mend it. It is dangerous. You must let me go.”

“Is that what we saw?” Rob asked. “The break in the Shimmer? Like a door?”

“Yes. I have been tasked with closing it. But it was guarded on the other side and I couldn’t do it. My Kias was not strong enough.” He tipped the mug and drank more tea. “You have to let me go and try again.” He was looking better and better, recovering quickly.

“But…” Rob was cautious. “Where are you from? What is the Shimmer? You weren’t there and then you were. I know what I saw. And you saw the same, didn’t you, Matty?” His gaze at Matty wasn’t as certain as the tone he aimed for.

Matty went over to him, putting a hand on his arm. “Yes, I saw the same. He came from nowhere. And I heard the song and saw the light. What was the singing, Lin?”

“It was the Ternants, trying to open the gate for me. It was very difficult.” His speech was becoming clearer and faster. “I am to close it. They fear the people who have opened it are going to hurt the people here. You, the Delflanders.”

“Hurt us how?” Matty was starting to wonder about Arthur.

“Take your Kias. Some of you have some Kias. They can drain it away and use it for themselves. It will kill you if that happens.”

Matty and Rob looked at each other.

“My brother. Arthur. He died. He told me to shut the gate.” Matty pointed at the stack of papers at one end of the table. “He collected all these books and papers. They don’t make much sense to us.” He included Rob in his gesture. “He withered away. Doctors said it was a cancer. He died telling me to keep the gate closed. Can you tell me what happened?”

Rob put a hand on his shoulder. “Steady, Matty.”

Lin put the mug down on the table decisively. “I have to go back. I have to shut the gate. I will explain afterward, but you must let me go.” He stood, and Rob and Matty both stepped back as he moved toward the coat-pegs. He reached for his jerkin and shrugged it on, making a distasteful moue at the cold, damp leather. He glanced at them both before reaching for the swords. “I mean you no harm,” he stated again. “But I must do this.”

He slipped into the harness with the agility of one who did it every day, and they let him. “I thank you for your help.” He opened the door and stepped out.

Matty looked at Rob. Rob looked back. As one, they moved toward the open door. Rob grabbed the Tilly lamp off the kitchen table in passing. It was full dark outside now, not just the dimpsy-dark of the end of a drizzly late-summer day. Lin was just rounding the end of the barn.

They could hear the sound again. To Matty, it seemed more of a screeching wail than a song now. The light leeched a cold blue around the corner and they slowed as they ran up to it. Lin had drawn his swords and stood in a fighting stance in front of the light, which brightened as they watched. They could see a shadow in the centre of it. The both jammed their heels in as they came up behind Lin, one on either side. The sound was ear-splitting and there was a hot, harsh breeze coming from the centre of the light that smelled of the desert.

Matty had to raise his voice to be heard. “What is it?”

“It is a Carnas. A Creature. They want to send it through to hunt. We must stop it.” Lin looked very young and very fierce as he shouted back, his voice carried away by the increasing wind. He shoved his swords at Matty. “Here. Hold these.” He dug into the bag he had re-slung over his chest. Matty watched the gate with one eye and Rob with the other. Rob still held the lamp, low in front of him. He was watching Matty, not the gate.

Matty knew, suddenly. All the glances, all the touches, all the exchanged smiles this summer and early autumn. They meant something. Rob was back to stay and that was all right with him. He flashed a determined grin across Lin’s head and raised the swords. Rob raised the lamp.

“When I say,” Lin shouted. “When I say, throw the lamp. Hard. If it gets any further, we are lost.” He had handfuls of something-or-other from his bag, some kind of soil or crumpled leaves. Matty didn’t have time to look. The shadow was becoming more distinct and the song was unbearably loud now. He wanted to drop the swords and put his hands over his ears.

“Now!” Lin flung the soil-stuff at the Creature, which was clearly some sort of animal now. “Now!” he shrieked.

Rob came alive with a yell of his own and bowled the lamp after the soil-stuff. There was a god-awful noise. Screaming, yelping, munitions going off. Matty crouched and put his arms over his head.

And then, silence.

Matty drew a few breaths and slowly uncurled. The other two men also lay in the mud. They were both blinking.

“Is it gone?” Rob’s voice was heavy and the way he pulled himself up was heavier. He extended a hand to Matty and Matty rose, as well. Lin pushed himself to his feet beside them.

“Yes. It is gone. It will not return. Thank you.” Lin busied himself collecting his weapons and wiping the mud off them.

“But what was it? Who are you? What happened?” Matty looked at him. “Is that what killed my brother?”

“Perhaps?” That odd, bird-like tilt of the head again as Lin stared at him. “Yes. Yes, I think so. I am sorry. We did not realise what was happening until now and we acted as soon as we could. He had Kias, yes? He Worked?”

Matty stared at him blankly, rain running down his face. “I don’t know what that means.”

“He had a book, did he not?” More staring and tilting. “A book. You must destroy it. Destroy it. Do not read it. You do not have Kias. You must not follow this path. It is dangerous for you. For both of you.” He turned his gaze on Rob. “You must not let him pursue this. It must be prevented.”

Rob stared back at him. “I can’t stop him doing anything, lad. You’ve got the wrong man.”

Matty glanced over at him and their eyes met before he dropped his gaze to his muddy boots. “Let’s go in.”

“I must go back,” Lin said. “Remember what I said. You must not follow this path. Please?”

He stepped away and stretched out his hand. Blue light began to gather around it. Matty looked at Rob again and they both stepped back.

“I thank you for your help, both of you.” Lin made a sweeping gesture with both arms and a pool of blue-silver light appeared to spring from his fingertips. He stepped into it. The light shrank to a pinpoint and both it and the man were gone.

Matty blinked and turned to Rob. “What just happened?”

“I have no idea.” Rob stretched out his hand so his fingertips touched Matty’s and Matty gathered his courage along with his breath. “Will you come inside with me? So we can look at the papers and talk about it?” His grip was warm on Matty’s palm, despite the mud, as Matty drew him closer. He didn’t loosen his grasp as they walked across the yard side by side.


* * * *


Continue exploring beyond the mysterious gate in Lost in Time, published January 2018 by JMS Books LLC!

London in 1919 is cold, wet, and tired from four years of war. Alec is back in the Metropolitan Police after slogging out the last four years in the mud of the Western Front. Lew, on the other hand, has been pulled back in time from 2016 by a catastrophic magical accident. They are both floundering and out of their depth, struggling to come to terms with changes they didn’t ask for and didn’t expect. Gruesome murders taking place across the city draw them together through the desolation of the East End and the smoky music clubs of Soho. In the middle of a murder investigation that involves wild magic, mysterious creatures, and illegal sexual desire, who is safe to trust?

* * * *

ABOUT A.L. Lester

A.L. Lester likes to read. Her favorite books are post-apocalyptic dystopian romances full of suspense, but a cornflake packet will do there's nothing else available. The gender of the characters she likes to read (and write) is pretty irrelevant so long as they are strong, interesting people on a journey of some kind.

She has a chaotic family life and small children, and she has become the person in the village who looks after the random animals people find in the road. She is interested in permaculture gardening and anything to do with books, reading, technology, and history. She lives in a small village in rural Somerset and is seriously allergic to both rabbits and Minecraft.

For more information, visit allester.co.uk.


JMS Books LLC is a small queer press with competitive royalty rates publishing LGBT romance, erotic romance, and young adult fiction. Visit jms-books.com for our latest releases and submission guidelines!

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