Barnaby just stared at Diarmuid. The silence stretched out until finally Diarmuid exploded, “Did you hear me?!”
“Then say something? What do we do?”
“I cannot say that I know. Let’s call Cormag over before we get too deep into this, shall we?” Barnaby was holding himself still in that way that people do when they are trying very hard to remain calm. He picked up the phone and dialed the gas station. “Cormag, would you please come and join us at over here? We have had something occur.” He paused. “Yes, I understand. We will see you in a little while then.” Barnaby hung up the phone. “He has two customers waiting for service, and he will join us when they are gone. Have you checked on the store?”
“Of course not! I came straight here.”
“For the moment, I think, there is little we can do. Why don’t you go open for a time and then we will discuss. Once Cormag is free, we will come find you.”
“You want me to just go about business as usual?”
“Indeed. Though it is Tuesday, and a holiday, people will still be expecting to see us. If the whole town shuts down, it will raise comment. For now, we will resume our occupations.”
“Over eight hundred years, and you are having the most underwhelming reaction possible,” Diarmuid said and stomped out the front door.
Barnaby chuckled. It wasn’t often that Diarmuid showed his upset. In the long time they had been together, Barnaby could count only a few moments when Diarmuid had lost his sunny composure. Barnaby was far from feeling underwhelmed, in fact; he was afraid.
The time when he and the other men served as actual physical Guardians to the Lady had long since passed. They had fallen out of the memory of the world and into a dark shadowy place of legend. He was not worried that this man had arrived to do her harm, but rather that this signaled the end of the guardianship altogether.
He rolled his office chair over to the filing cabinet near his desk and pulled open he bottom drawer. The file folder he withdrew was marked “Visitors” and held a stack of papers. He had been filling out these lists for decades now. The top list was marked 2010. He didn’t know the man’s name, but he was certain to be somewhere on this list. With precision borne of unexpressed energy, Barnaby placed the folder on the corner of his desk to wait for Cormag’s arrival.
It didn’t take long, Cormag arrived a few minutes later, startling Barnaby from his thoughts. Barnaby simply stood picked up the folder and gestured for Cormag to follow him. Cormag raised an eyebrow in question, but followed along. The walk to the store was short, and they found Diarmuid scrubbing the front windows. The street was empty of people, and only the car in the front of the store stood out as odd. Cormag joined Diarmuid in washing the windows, knowing that Barnaby would come out with it when he was good and ready.
“Well?” Diarmuid asked.
“What was this gentleman’s name?” Barnaby asked.
“Nolan James.” Barnaby sat on the bench in the front of the grocery and opened his folder. Mr. James was the fourth name on the list.
“He’s here one the list. Seems he has visited us for three years now.”
“That’s what he said.”
“What man? Would you two mind filling me all the way in?” Cormag asked.
“This car,” Diarmuid said and jabbed a finger at the sedan, “belongs to a man named Nolan James. He found his way to the tree.” He briefly filled the two men in on what Nolan had said to him.
“I see. Where is he now?”
“Still at the tree. I got back here as fast as I could, and Barnaby here decided that we should go about our business. So, I am washing windows.” Diarmuid picked up the sponge and slapped it on the window, sending a spray of water across the glass.
“You left him there?” Concern edged into Cormag’s voice.
“What was I supposed to do? Knock him over the head and drag him back? I thought it was more important that you both knew he was there than trying to get him back to town,” Diarmuid said. He took a deep breath. Then another and paused in his vehement scrubbing of the window. “If I’m really honest – with myself and you – he was no threat. He was making puppy dog eyes at the tree, and sounding like he’d started drinking early.” His smile returned, albeit a sheepish one. Barnaby and Cormag smiled back.
“So. What do we do next then?” Cormag asked as he slowly continued to wash the window of the grocery.
Barnaby cocked his head in thought. I had been many years since he had spoken to the Lady in person. They had met regular for a long while, hundreds of years in fact. When they had been forced to move finally to the New World, she had retreated even further. He did no think he had seen her since sometime around the Civil War. She left signs that she was still present, but she no longer engaged in conversation with them. He worried sometimes that there would be nothing human left in her, and that they would have to find a way to pass the Autumn on to another Lady. He knew the basic way this was handled, when it was willing, but not the removal of one who must have her time as Lady ended. That Nolan had claimed to hear weeping when he entered the grove was the only shred of hope Barnaby clung to that she was there, and whole.
“We knew this time would come. I have been keeping these absurd lists for decades for this exact reason,” Barnaby said, flicking the papers he held for emphasis. “I think what we do now is we wait, and watch. Carefully. I don’t believe Nolan could have found his way there without reason. I think we will have an answer, one way or another, soon.”
The other two men looked into Barnaby’s face as if searching for another answer. As they found none, their faces passed quickly from one emotion to another: worry, fear, determination, hope. They had been at this task for a long time. Longer than memory in some cases. That they may be able to pass again into normal life was thrilling, and daunting, and terrifying.
Cormag turned back to the window and dried his section of it. With a firm nod, he said, “We wait.” He handed Diarmuid the cloth he had been using and left. Barnaby and Diarmuid watched him go.
“We came here willingly, and the idea of this possibly being the end is overwhelming, what must he be feeling?” Diarmuid said softly.
“I would imagine the hope of salvation is painful, and teasing. If this does not play out the way we all hope, if Nolan is not the one, it could crush us all,” Barnaby replied.
“Do you ever wonder about the other Ladies? Winter, Spring, Summer? Where they ended up, if they have retreated, if their Guardians are still with them…”
“I have for some time. The passing of the seasons is a simple ritual, but I often wonder who is on the other end of it each time. The Lady herself, or someone like us, just holding down the fort until some distant time. The Brotherhood is long dead, and I wonder what that means for us. In the end, the Ladies existed before the Brothers and they will exist even after we are gone. I think that this may be one of many mysteries I don’t get to know the answer to. The truth of it is lost in that long ago library under the Council Hall,” Barnaby said.
The men looked up at the sound of footsteps on the pavement and saw Nolan crossing the street back to his car. He smiled pleasantly to himself as he walked but he grinned widely when he saw Diarmuid.
“Dermot, hey! I’m glad I caught you. There isn’t a hotel or anything in this town is there?” he asked.
“There is not. I believe the nearest inn is two towns down the valley, in a little place called Vallens,” Diarmuid said. “They usually have a couple rooms open.”
“Great! I will go and check it out. I think I’m going to take some time off and hike around the valley a bit. I’m sure I’ll see you soon. That grove out there is spectacular. I feel about ten years younger.” He laughed at himself and waved as he got in that car. They watched him leave, raising hands to wave farewell as he pulled out of the parking spot.
“Well, then. We wait,” said Diarmuid.
“We do, old friend.”
The fall continued mostly as usual, with only the addition of Nolan’s frequent visits to change the routine. He often stopped to talk to one of the men, or another, after his hikes. Cormag was often quiet when Nolan was around, examining him and keeping his conversation short and pointed. Diarmuid sat on the bench in front of his store chatting amiably with Nolan when he stopped in. And Barnaby, well, he sounded a lot like an old grandfather quizzing his granddaughter’s date when he talked to Nolan. Nolan didn’t seem to mind, and talked to each of them equally, and openly.
Finally, winter solstice came and the ritual at the grove was carried out by the three men, snowfall beginning at the moment it was complete. They walked back to town in the quiet of a new snowfall, and the quiet of another year’s duty discharged. As they reached Fancy, they paused, gave a small bow and then went their own ways without a word.
The next morning dawned, blinding sun on brilliant snow. The morning began as many winter mornings did in Harold. Barnaby and Cormac, armed with shovels, arrived in front of the grocery just as Diarmuid came out the front door with hot coffee for all of them. He exchanged coffee for a shovel and they began to clear the sidewalk down the street. The morning was no longer early as they finished and, shovels in hand, crossed the road to begin the clearing of the school walks. As they reached the far side of the rode, the noise of sweeping made them look up as one, startled. On Fancy’s porch a woman was sweeping the snow away. All three missed steps and staggered to a halt, and at least one of them had a jaw dropped in shock.
“Good morning, gentlemen. It looks to be a fine, brisk winter so far, does it not?” The Autumn Lady leaned on her broom and smiled at the men, mischief in her eyes.
This is part eight of a short story/novella. I am posting parts of it here until is it complete. It is by no means finished, so please share your questions/comments/suggestions.
You can find the previous parts here: