Episode 179: The Mothgate by J.R. Troughton

Show Notes

Hello everyone. Here in England the seasons have completed yet another quarter turn. The leaves are falling, the wind is gusting, and the pumpkin spice lattes have been packed away faster than you can say Christmas sales.

To accompany the longer nights and contemplation of the cycles of life, this week we’re proud to present The Mothgate, by J. R. Troughton, originally published in Shimmer.


The Mothgate

by J.R. Troughton

 

19th September

 

“This is your most important lesson.”

 

It was a rifle she handed me. Long and cold, ornately decorated. It was heavier than I’d expected, heavier than the one I had practiced with. She laid the barrel on the low wall before us and that helped.

 

“Watch and wait. No mistakes, Elsa. I know what is coming,” she had said, staring off into the trees. “Look for the butterflies. See them, and you’d best be ready to shoot what’s coming behind.”

We knelt behind the crumbling wall, rifles balanced over its brow, peeking over the moss-stained stone and into the dense trees that lay beyond. I tried as best I could to stop my teeth from chattering, but the winter night was bitterly cold. Mama Rattakin didn’t seem to notice. She was staring toward the tree line, pointing with her black and withered hand.

“Look, there.”

I peered into the gloom. Amid the tall trees I saw them, purple butterflies, flitting into view and sparkling in the moonlight. This was the first time I had seen them in the wild, though I recognized them immediately.

I tried to ignore them and slow my breathing. The forest was almost silent, other than the whisper of wind blown leaves and my own thunderous heartbeat. My skirt was soaked through, and my body ached from the hours of waiting. My fingers slid across the trigger, and I chewed at my lip. Daring to glance sideways at Mama Rattakin, it was as if she was made of stone. Perfectly still, other than the gentle sway of her grey hair.

How many times had she been here, I wondered? How many nights had she spent alone, keeping watch with nothing for company but her rifle and the cold stars?

How many had she killed?

A sudden burst of movement came from the trees. I raised my rifle and tracked the fast-moving thing as best I could, though if I had fired, my bullet could have gone anywhere at all.

Mama Rattakin grabbed my rifle barrel and smoothly brought it back down onto the wall. Despite her age, she was still quick as a fox. The owl that had drawn my aim flew into the night.

“There,” she whispered. “They will come from there. Be patient.”

I felt guilty. She had prepared me as best she could, but the pressure of my first guard was getting to me. Shaking my head, I returned to my sights. Mama Rattakin had been more than specific in telling me where to aim. Between the cliff face and the tree with the sheared branches. She would cover the rest of the tree line.

I heard the breaking of twigs and the sound of wet leaves underfoot. White shapes far back in the dense forest, growing closer.

“Be ready, Elsa.” I wasn’t sure if Mama Rattakin had spoken or I.

A gentle tune came floating through the woods. The words of a song that felt familiar, like they had been sung to me as a babe. Just one voice at first, then many. It was a haunting and beautiful harmony, soothing like honey and milk tea. My grip on the rifle loosened.

I felt Mama Rattakin’s hand on my shoulder and tried to focus once more. A fierce bite to my bottom lip helped. I stared into the wood and watched them come.

Emerging from the trees, glistening in the moonlight as they danced, came the witika. Sylph-like figures covered in pale robes who spun and twirled as they sang, stepping closer and closer. Their long white hair flowed like rivers of snow, swaying about their hips. Each of their heads nodded along to the song in perfect synchronicity.

Mama Rattakin’s rifle cracked. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the witikas burst in a shower of snowfall. Another crack, another explosion of white close by. I wanted to turn and help, but Mama had made me swear on my birth mother’s grave that I would only focus on the cliffside path. Her rifle was now dancing its own deadly beat.

A white figure appeared by the cliff face. She was facing away from me, dancing backwards through the mulch, spinning on her tip toes.

I took a deep breath. I aimed for her heart.

I pulled the trigger.

The gun slammed into my shoulder and knocked me to the ground. The kickback was far fiercer than the rifle I had practiced with, and it felt as if I had been kicked by a bull. Scrambling back to my knees, I placed the gun on the wall and looked for the witika. She was gone, and where she had stood was an explosion of white powder. As I scanned the trees, that haunting song continued, only interrupted by the sharp cracks of Mama’s rifle. Every couple of seconds, it sounded again, and with each crack another song died.

Another witika appeared by the cliff face and leapt forward, landing in dainty arabesque. It flicked its hair back, smiling, revealing teeth like glass needles. I aimed once more and fired. I was ready for the kickback this time and saw the bullet pierce the witika’s chest. She seemed to unravel for a moment, like a patchwork quilt coming undone, before bursting in a shower of white powder.

Mama’s rifle continued its own steady beat.

The path I watched was clear. Disobeying Mama’s instructions, I scanned the tree line ahead of us, watching for the next interloper to appear. I had settled now and my hands had stopped shaking. I spied another witika on my path, and I aimed once more. Each time a new witika danced into view, I took my time, as Mama had taught me, and firmly squeezed the trigger.

Snowfall all around.

Eventually, the dancing troop thinned, and the witikas stopped coming. I lowered my rifle and after a few moments of peace, laid it against the wall.

“Wait, Elsa. Always wait.”

Mama kept her gun trained on the forest before us. Her eyes were watering. How long since she had last blinked? Eventually, she too lowered her gun, stood up, and massaged her cramped legs.

“Well done, Elsa. You saw them all unravel?”

“Yes, Mama Rattakin.”

“Every single one?”

“Yes, Mama Rattakin.”

“Good girl. I knew you would. Happy birthday, my pride and joy.”

With that, she picked up her bundle of ammunition, threw it over her shoulder, and began to hobble back down the winding path towards our cabin. I snatched up my gun and chased after her.

Always to the point, Mama Rattakin.


She took me to the Mothgate the following day. It was dull and cold that morning, the sky the color of slate. Trooping through the woods and down past that moss-covered wall, I saw the remains of the witika had vanished during the night.

“Not of our world. Not stable. Never stays long,” Mama Rattakin had muttered. I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or not.

Weaving through the trees from which the witika had come, we eventually came to the gate. I had studied the pictures in Mama’s lore book and it was unmistakable. Cracked and crumbling, it was an archway of black stone, spotted with purple lichen. The trees immediately on either side were twisted and spotted, stripped of bark and leaning away from the gate, desperately trying to move from their station. Atop the archway was a great stone moth the size of a small dog.

“This is the Mothgate,” Mama whispered. “They come through here when the sun is hidden and the wild things can roam.” She picked up a branch and tossed it through the portal. It landed on decaying leaves. “The gate is of this world now, Elsa, and holds no terrors. Nightfall brings it strength. Nightfall opens the gate and then the monsters come through.”

“Have you ever seen it open, Mama? At night?” I could not imagine those ghastly ballerinas from the night before emerging through this thing. It seemed so mundane.

“Yes, my dear.” Mama Rattakin sat against a rock and pulled out her pipe, wincing as she massaged her crippled leg. Taking a long pull and blowing a finely crafted smoke ring, she watched it drift away as she continued. “Many times, when I was younger and more foolish. I would come closer to guard the gate and try to stop the witikas and the ettersops and tallemaja from coming through. I was a better shot back then.” Tapping her pipe, she raised a hand and pointed at the gate. “I would rest here, rifle ready, and see how quickly I could stop their trespassing. It’s too close though, too risky. The moss wall is a much better place. You should always watch from there.” she stared at me. “Always from the wall. You’re not skilled enough to fight so close. You would be overwhelmed.”

I ignored the insult and tried to imagine those days long ago. A younger Mama Rattakin, full of verve and courage, sitting outside the Mothgate with her rifle and her revolver, solemnly guarding the world from the Nightfall creatures of the gate. A better shot, she says! Impossible to imagine. I had never seen Mama Rattakin miss a target.

“Can we not just break it, Mama? Could we not fetch the hammer and knock out the stones?”

A wry smile crept across Mama’s lips.

“I tried once, Elsa. The gate is tougher than it looks. These stones do not break.”

I stared at the Mothgate in silence. Mama continued to smoke her pipe.

“You will learn, Elsa. The gate is what it is. We cannot move it. We cannot break it. All we can do is stop the things that live beyond it from entering our world. That is what we do. That is what we always will do.”

She raised her withered hand to the gate, pointed it like a gun, and pretended to shoot.


Back at the cabin, Mama lit the hearth and kicked her shoes to the corner. I brewed a kettle of barley tea and served it in cracked pewter mugs. We sat in silence for a time, sipping our herb-infused drinks. Mama’s eyes were closed and her chest rattled as she breathed.

“How long since the last true Nightfall, Mama?” I asked.

“Oh, many years. Long before I was born. I’ve only read about it in the book. It was long before we found the gate and began our stewardship. Would you fetch it for me, dear?”

I placed my tea to the side and went to Mama’s study. It was a catastrophe of paper in there, each piece covered in arcane scribblings and counter scribblings. The lore book was open on her desk, on the page concerning witika. Mama must have been amending the entry.

A diagram of a witika’s face filled the middle of the page, annotated with crude sketchings. There they were, the teeth I had seen last night. Thin and long and sharp as scorpions’ tails. I shuddered as I imagined them sinking into my skin. I had not seen the eyes, black as pitch, that stared out of the picture at me.

Some years earlier I had asked Mama how old the book was, but she had simply laughed and rolled her eyes. The pages were yellowing and cracked, the spine bent. Entries on different monsters of the gate had been entered, amended, crossed out in their entirety, then added in once more with new names and new impressions. Mama’s own script was arcane, but fresh. As a young girl I had tried to find the oldest and faintest hand I could, hoping to find some forgotten lore I could impress Mama with. This never worked. Mama seemed to know everything about the land of Nightfall, and studied the book daily.

I closed it with care, picked it up with both hands, and brought it to her. It took up Mama’s entire lap.

“The witika?”

“Yes. There were more than I expected last night. The dance felt different, too. New patterns.”

I nodded.

“Do you think it means something?”

“It all means something, Elsa. Every change, every new motion, every new expression or song. We have to watch out for these things. It is only through understanding that we can stop them,” she sighed. “So, Elsa. Are you ready for your exam?”

“Mama, no! I’m tired.”

Mama clicked her tongue. “We’re all tired. I suppose you’ll say that when a fossegrimmen leaps at you from the fog, cudgel raised? Or a witika catches you in its cold palms and shears your neck with its fangs?”

I sat back down. Mama had her rituals.

The questions went on long into the night.


19th September, again

“I don’t understand, Mama,” I cried out in anguish. “Why must you leave?”

“This is always the way, dear. You have done well over these past years. You have become quite the guardian. As long as you keep your calm and your sense, you can hold the gate alone now, as has always been intended. Whether it’s tallemajas or pollogrubs, or any other devil of Nightfall, you know how to stop them.”

“But why can’t you stay with me?” I wailed. “Why go through at all? It’s never worked before!”

Mama laid a hand on my shoulder and tried to soothe me with nonsense words of heroism.

“This is what we all do, Elsa. When it’s time to pass the guard on, we have to try to end things. My Mama marched through the gate, as did her Mama before her. This cannot continue forever, my dear. One of us must find a way to close the gate, and when we do, nobody else will be left with…” She waved her hand around the barren cabin. There was no need for words.

“But you’ll die, Mama.”

“Maybe I’ll set you free from this burden. We can but hope. Things might be different this time.”

I wiped a tear from my eye. It wasn’t fair. Mama was right, as always, but I didn’t want to see her leave. She had been there for me since I was a cub. She never spoke much about my youth, just that I had been left on her doorstep and she raised me as her own. I loved her for this.

The walk to the Mothgate was too short. Mama limped ahead of me, using her rifle as a walking stick. I tried to find the words. Something, anything, to express my gratitude and love for her. It all turned to ash in my mouth. None of the words I could find were suitable. Tears continued to solemnly march down my cheeks.

As we walked down the gloomy trail and towards the Mothgate, I wondered how long she might live once she crossed the threshold and entered the Nightlands. Poor Mama Rattakin. She was quick and deadly, but there was no knowing what she would find when she entered the Mothgate. The book only contained so much, after all.

We stopped at the old moss wall and prepared as normal. I had stopped shivering, having learnt to focus through the cold and through the fear. I was as steady as hard stone, no matter what my heart felt.

“Once tonight’s guard is finished, I shall leave you,” Mama said. “Trust me, Elsa. You are ready. And do not cry for me. This is what I was meant to do. I don’t have a choice. Do not follow. If I fail, and the gate remains, you too will one day have to make this journey. You’ll know when the time is right.” She wiped a tear away from my cheek.

The book said we would see nokken this night, and we did. They came as expected, beautiful white horses stampeding towards us, backed by the thrill of violins played by unseen hands. I was expert now and between us the chatter of our rifles soon stilled the hoofbeats of those devilish shapechangers. I saw only one change; a nokken that reared up in front of Mama, scorpion tail erupting from its back as its front legs melted and thickened into chitinous plates. Mama’s rifle laid it to rest with a bullet to the heart. She never even blinked.

Mama Rattakin had raised me to fight the creatures of Nightfall, teaching me their weaknesses and strengths. I learnt to separate beauty from good. Not all things that come through the Mothgate are as delightful to look upon as the nokken or witika, but they are all equally dark and cannot be allowed to enter our world. She had shown me the stories in the book of the old times, where the creatures of Nightfall had come into our world and feasted upon our kind. Faeries and nymphs, beautiful as silk and silver, dripping with crimson. Beauty could not be trusted. Mama Rattakin was all scars, aged from stress, but her heart was pure as mountain snow.

We waited, rifles primed, but nothing more appeared before us. The nokken had been stopped.

“It’s time.” Mama pulled herself up and limped through the trees, stepping over the chalk dusted grass and on towards the gate. She almost seemed keen. I followed behind.

This was the first time I had seen the Mothgate at night. Through that same stone arch lay an unfamiliar place. It was a forest, still, but not the same forest in which we stood. I’m not sure how I could tell, but it was clear. Something in the color of the trees, perhaps.

Mama turned to me, her eyes sparkling.

“Elsa, you have kept me young. Thank you for your help all these years. You shall be a wonderful guardian.” She drew me close and caught me in a bear hug. “I’ll see you again, I’m sure.”

“Do you promise?”

Mama did not answer this. She simply smiled, as was her way.

With that, she stepped through the Mothgate and into the unknown land beyond. She looked from side to side, scanning the trees around her, before settling on a path and disappearing out of sight. I stared into the empty air where she should have been, and shivered.

It was with a heavy heart I turned and headed toward our cabin. Now my cabin.

I felt like an empty shell.


19th September, once more

Four years since Mama Rattakin left me, and the gate still opened most nights. Each night I sat and waited with my rifle primed.

It was summer now and I was lying against the rock opposite the Mothgate. Mama had said to stay at the moss wall but I preferred it here, where I could watch the gate and pick off the monsters as they crossed into our world. She had said I was not skilled enough. I came here to prove a point to myself.

It had been trolldes tonight. Great and hairy and fat, they could only fit through the gate one at a time. True enough, it took more than one bullet to bring them down, but it had been a simple task. Over the years I had turned shooting into a craft. I am better at this than Mama was, I am sure.

Under the moon I sat, watching the gate, making certain that no other creature would cross through, when I saw it. I saw her.

Mama Rattakin.

It was only for a moment, but there was no mistaking that limp. She hobbled past the gate and out of view once more.

My jaw dropped.

“Mama! Mama Rattakin!” I called out, approaching the gate. Could it truly be? After all these years, that she still hunted in the Nightlands and searched for a way to break the gate?

I crept forward. What could I do? Mama had always warned me about the danger of the gate, but my mentor and teacher, the woman who raised me, was so close. What if I could bring her back? After all these years, surely she could abandon her quest and rejoin me? She could rest while I took stewardship.

My mind was fastened. I primed my rifle and stepped through the Mothgate and into the new forest. My heart raced and my stomach leapt towards my throat. Old Mama Rattakin was alive. How I had longed to hear her voice, to feel her calming hand on my shoulder just once more. Now it was possible.

The Nightfall forest. Twin moons loomed large in the sky above. It was a busy place, alive with the unfamiliar chattering of unfamiliar creatures.

It was colder, too. Much colder.

I held my rifle steady and slipped through the trees, heading in the direction Mama Rattakin had gone. My nerves were on fire, every sense heightened. I had slain thousands of unwholesome beasts from this land, but now they could be anywhere around me. This was no shooting gallery. Every snap of a twig or rustling bush set my nerves alight once more.

Stepping through the trees and up a steady slope, I heard the distant song of the witikas. Creeping over the brow of the hill, I discovered it was the lip of a basin. Pine trees grew sparsely and a deep lake glistened at the bottom.

There were witikas by the water, dancing their mad ballet, heads dipping and rising in time with one another. Peering through the sight of my rifle, I saw many more creatures I knew around the lake; fossegrimmen working their fiddles, huldras bathing in the water and basking in the moonlight. I stepped back, taking care to not make a sound. Mama Rattakin would never have been foolish enough to venture into the basin, of that I was certain.

I turned to head back out of the basin and continue my search for Mama, and froze. Before me stood a great bear, a karhu. Saliva dripped from its fangs and it stared at me hungrily with beady pink eyes. These beasts had rarely come through the Mothgate, but I knew how dangerous they could be. A rattling growl came from deep within its throat.

I raised my rifle, aiming for its head. It lunged forward as I fired, and time slowed.

First came the crack of my rifle. My aim was true and a gout of white burst from the karhu’s head as the bullet entered its skull and struck the beast dead. Second came the crack of my leg as the great bulk of the karhu fell upon me. It sent a lightning bolt of agony through my leg and up my spine as I collapsed to the ground. I howled in pain.

The monstrous corpse had rolled sideways after landing on me, tumbling down the slope before settling in thick bracken. Waves of pain pulsed through my leg and back.

I lay on the ground, tears pouring from my eyes. Taking a deep breath, I stood and put what weight I could on my leg, nearly collapsing back to the ground as it buckled under me. How could I search for Mama Rattakin now? Using my rifle to support me, I hobbled down the hill as best I could. As I moved, I could hear beautiful and harmonic song growing closer.

The witika were coming.

I hobbled down the hill as fast as I was able, whimpering to myself as I tried to remember my way back to the gate. Any thought of finding Mama had evaporated. All I could think of now was survival, and that meant finding my way home.

“Elsa.”

I froze.

At the bottom of the hill stood Mama Rattakin, revolver in her good hand. She was covered in mud and white powder, her clothes ripped. Somehow, miraculously, she didn’t seem surprised to see me. Nothing rattled Mama.

“Mama Rattakin!” I sobbed, hopping toward her as best I could. She looked down at my injured leg, looked to her own, and smiled.

“What a pair,” she said, shaking her head.

Oh, Mama. Only she could keep so calm in such difficulty.

“You’re alive, Mama! I’d always hoped, but when you never came home I didn’t know what to think.”

She nodded. “You were foolish to come through, Elsa. But what’s done is done. I’m glad to see you.” Mama started to limp away at a pace I could not hope to meet.

“Mama, wait. I cannot keep up.”

“You must.”

I stumbled after her through the undergrowth, fending off branches and thickets with numb hands, tears of pain streaming down my cheeks.

“Mama, I’m so glad to see you. But, I don’t understand. How have you eaten? How have you survived?”

“I’ve only been gone for a few days, Elsa.” Mama looked me up and down. “For me, anyway. Time is a broken thing in Nightfall. It does not run like the river, as in our world, but it thrashes and whips like a hurricane. Days are weeks and months are seconds.” She shrugged as she walked. At no point did she stop and wait for me, though she had slowed her pace. “But you must listen, Elsa. This is very important. I am taking you back to the Mothgate now and you must, no matter what happens, go through. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Mama. You’re coming too, right?” My heart sank even before she answered.

“I can’t return, Elsa. My time in that world is over.”

And with that, Mama Rattakin upped her pace.

Only when the peak of the Mothgate loomed did Mama Rattakin stop. Breathing heavily and drinking in the cold air, I tried to compose myself. Mama was always so assured. It was as if ice ran through her. We had put distance between us and the witika now, who must have gone cavorting and gamboling in the wrong direction. It was quiet. Just the murmur of wind that crept through the trees and the rustle of wet leaves as I dragged my shattered leg behind. The sounds of moonlit animals hunting.

I heard a whimper.

Was it Mama?

She was shivering. It was now that I realized the rich scent of winter mulch and bracken in the air was not alone, and had been joined by smoke and charcoal.

An oddly warm breeze cut through the crisp night chill and quickly rose in temperature. Over Mama’s shoulder, floating through the trees, hanging limply in the air, was a man. Dressed in waterfalls of red cloth, chin resting against his chest and a wide brimmed hat upon his head, he drifted towards us. Blackened feet brushing through grass that died as he passed, he stopped and slowly raised his arms. Fingers of coal stretched out, spilling ash that floated on the breeze. Broken fingernails and scoured knuckles. The daemon lifted its head and revealed its face; a cracked skull with a quivering jaw that ground its teeth without pause.

I recognized this thing from Mama’s ancient book of monsters. This was one of the few creatures that I had never seen come through the gate. One of the most dangerous things that lived in the Nightlands, a brasskarl. A corpse risen by a pyromantic curse with a desire to incinerate all living things.

It stood between us and the Mothgate.

“Through the gate, Elsa.” Mama’s voice quivered. I realized with a jolt that, for the first time, she was afraid.

“But, Mama…” My voice trailed off and her eyes dulled.

“You must go home, Elsa. Do not try to help. You must get home to guard the gate and maintain the book.” Her voice cracked. She hugged me, before turning back to the monster before us.

The brasskarl floated, flames licking the air around it. It ground its teeth so hard that shards of bone started to break away.

Mama stepped towards it, raising her revolver. She fired three times, the bullets tearing into the burning monster, gouts of steam bursting from its wounds. It moved towards her, slowly, arms extended.

I shuffled sideways, dragging my hurt leg, making a curved path around Mama and the brasskarl. The gate wasn’t far. Mama fired another three times and this did not still the brasskarl. It had reached Mama and grabbed her with brimstone hands. Flames shot down its arms to engulf Mama Rattakin in fire. She screamed, much as I had screamed earlier, and thrashed in its grasp, kicking and punching with all her strength.

I could not help myself, despite Mama’s plea. I threw myself towards them and tried to drag Mama away. Yet the moment I touched her, those cursed flames lit up my hand. My skin began to blister and I let go, swearing and swinging my hand wildly in the air. The brasskarl was focused entirely on Mama, shaking her violently as she immolated. Her struggles waned.

I thought I would be sick, but the weight inside me was too heavy. Trying to ignore the end of my Mama, I hobbled through the black stone Mothgate and collapsed in a heap. I lay in the mud, staring up at the dawn sky, and waited for the monsters to follow.

They did not. Mama had been enough.

I peered through the gate, but Mama and the brasskarl were out of sight. As I stared, the forest shimmered and morphed. Soon enough, it was our own forest once more. I had returned through the Mothgate just in time. The image of Mama burning was still fierce in my mind.

Inspecting my hand, I saw it was ruined. Blistered and raw, I was sure it would never be of use again.

The sun rose and the night died away, and with great effort, I made my way back to the cabin, limping up the grassy path. Opening the old wooden door, I hauled my exhausted body inside and collapsed into Mama’s armchair. This comforted me, however slightly.

Closing my eyes, I soon fell into slumber, but sometime later a knock at the door roused me.

Dragging myself to my feet, I cautiously hobbled to the door and answered.

On the step of the cabin, wrapped in rags, lay a newborn babe. She slept quietly, her chest rising and falling. Dreaming of her mother, perhaps? I stared down the path and all around, but nobody was there. Bending down, I scooped up the child, taking the weight in my good hand, and took her inside.

I returned to the armchair, cuddling the well-swaddled babe close. She had a birthmark on her hand, a crescent moon stretching from the base of her thumb across the back of her hand. Just like my own.

I lifted my scorched hand to try to make it out, but the blisters had completely masked it. Carefully placing the babe down on the wooden table, I cleaned my hand and dressed it, wrapping it tightly in bandages. I needed to see a doctor, but there were none for miles around and I had no hope of reaching one, not on my own. I strapped it and splinted it, just as Mama had taught me.

I froze as I pulled the splint tight. A foolish thought crossed my mind.

The lore book was sat on Mama’s desk. I placed a palm on an open page and closed my eyes, thinking of Mama. Skimming through, I found the page concerning the brasskarl. There were not so many entries on this monster as the rest, though they were still numerous. Some faded, some new, some almost worn away completely. Upon the diagram of the creature were drawn dozens of X’s, on elbow, hip, and heart. With Mama’s pencil, I marked the six points where I had seen her shoot the brasskarl. There was a pattern. Chewing the end of the pencil, I studied the notes with care. It was methodical, like a surgeon probing.

The baby stirred. Hobbling to the table, I picked her up in my arms and cuddled her close. Exhausted as I was, it was only now I noticed the envelope tucked into her swaddling. I removed it clumsily with my good hand and tore it open.

The girl opened her mouth and I readied myself for her bawling.

“Mama,” she cooed happily.

I opened the envelope, my heartbeat racing.

‘I am sorry to ask this of you, kind stranger, but please look after our darling Elsa,’ it read. ‘She is our pride and joy. With your love and care, I am sure she will be a special person one day.”

I slumped into Mama’s chair. I looked at the calendar. It was the 19th of September. My birthday.


19th September, 19 years on

We approached the tree line and set up camp by the moss coated wall. Elsa’s hands shook as she unpacked her bag. She glanced to the tree line over and over again, though she tried her best to hide it. It was a big day for her. All those years of practice, leading to this.

I knew she would do well. I was stronger than my own Mama, and my own dear Elsa would be stronger than me. One day, perhaps, one of us would find a way to close the gate. The brasskarl was the key.

I had often thought about telling her the truth, yet it was too heavy a burden for such a young mind. I am not sure I would have lasted the years of long and lonely nights if I had known. Not at her age. What if she had left the gate, or made a decision that changed my past, her future? Nightfall might have overtaken the world with blood and beauty. No. She would understand, just as I had.

It is different for me, as Mama. Having Elsa had given me purpose. She needed my protection. She needed a guide. How else would she have grown strong enough to guard the gate? How could she grow to become… me?

Telling her the truth was too great a gamble.

“This is your most important lesson.”

I handed her the rifle. Long and cold, ornately decorated. Passing it on was harder than I’d expected. Seeing her struggle with the weight, I took the barrel and laid it on the low wall before to us. I knew that would help.

“Watch and wait. No mistakes, Elsa. I know what is coming,” I said, staring off into the trees.

END

 

About the Author

J. R. Troughton

James Ross Troughton is a writer of fantasy fiction who lives and works in Essex, England.

After graduating from the University of Leicester in 2007, he moved to Seoul, South Korea, where he worked in language academies for three years before returning to the UK. He now works in Primary education. He likes cats.

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About the Narrator

Stephanie Malia Morris

Stephanie Malia Morris works in a bookstore by day and a library by night, which gives her access to more books than she can possibly read over several lifetimes. She is a recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Award and a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in FIYAH, Apex, and Nightmare. She has narrated short fiction for StarShipSofa, Far Fetched Fables, Uncanny, and all four of the Escape Artists podcasts.

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