by G Allen Wilbanks
Horses’ hooves clattered across the cobblestones paving the outside courtyard. Sarah heard the cacophony and paused in her cleaning to peer toward the front door with curiosity. She loved new guests as they always arrived with news of the world she had left behind and the most wonderful stories of how they came to be at the waystation. Setting aside the dusting rag she had been dragging across the reception counter, she clasped her hands together and smiled pleasantly as she waited for the new arrivals to come inside.
Several minutes passed and the door did not open.
Her curiosity winning out over her patience, Sarah exited the waystation’s entry room to greet her visitors outside. She found four mounted riders awaiting her in the yard. The four riders sat passively on their mounts while the animals stood in a straight line, eerily calm and still except for one midnight-black horse, which stomped a shiny front hoof in occasional fits of poor temper.
“Good day to you, gentlemen,” Sarah called up to the riders with a slight bob and curtsy. “I must admit I am surprised to see all four of you travelling together. Boy! Step back!”
A stable boy, who had exited the barn at the arrival of the horsemen, approached the dappled brown and grey mare closest to him. He reached a hand toward the animal’s reins, causing Sarah’s outburst.
“Stand away. You know better than to touch Mr. P. or his horse with bare hands. I’m not going to nurse you in a sick bed for the next two weeks. Now, go on back and grab yourself some gloves.”
The boy hastened away to do as he was bid.
“I’m sorry about that Mr. P. The boy seems to have lost his good sense today.”
The man on the dappled mare nodded his understanding. The rider was broad-shouldered, though lean. A thatch of curly black beard covered most of his face, revealing only two light-brown eyes and unruly black brows above the concealing facial hair. The man wore worn and tattered cloth clothing with a tanned leather cloak draped over his shoulders.
“No harm was done,” he assured her. “And we are not staying long, so the horses need no attending.”
Sarah let her gaze touch each of her four visitors. “I see you do not have anyone with you. No new guests? Should I be concerned at your appearance here all together and empty handed?”
“No, you should not,” said the man atop the agitated black horse. Sparkling green eyes and a brilliant smile on his clean-shaven face eased her fears. This man, unlike his companions who wore more casual and travel-worn clothing, had on a neat blue uniform, complete with glittering silver buttons, gold embroidery, and polished black boots. “We have not yet gathered for … that.”
“Well, thank you, Mr. W. That is indeed good to hear. So, what can I do for you gentlemen?”
“Today, Sarah,” said Mr. W., “we have come here for you.”
Sarah blinked, then swallowed a dry lump that had formed in her throat. “I am very sorry if I've done something to offend you gentlemen. If there is a problem, please let me know what it is, and I will attend to it immediately.”
“No, no,” Mr. W. hastened to assure her. “There is no problem. We have good news.”
The rider to Sarah’s right moved for the first time. He wore a long, black cloak, his face lost in the shadows of a dark cowl pulled up around his head. The man tossed a leg over the saddle and slid from the back of the majestic white stallion he rode.
He landed gracefully upon the cobblestones, the soles of his boots slapping the ground and his cloak billowing about his figure. He raised a gloved hand and pulled the cowl back until it fell across his shoulders, revealing round, chubby features, and a bald head. The man was smiling, like Mr. W., but his eyes were the glinting silver of whitecaps on a turbulent ocean.
Sarah had never in her time here seen Mr. D’s face. She did not know if this sudden revelation portended good or ill for her.
“Sarah,” said Mr. D. “You have overseen this waystation for a millennium, taking in the souls I leave you and preparing them for their final journey. You have done everything asked of you, and so much more. The time has come for you to leave and take the final path for yourself.”
Sarah shook her head, concern crossing her features.
“No. Please. I cannot leave. The road here is not for me. The road of ashes is my final path, you told me as much when you brought me here and gave me the chance to remain as the caretaker. If I must choose between the waystation and the flames, I beg you to allow me again to stay.”
“Sarah, I promise you, the flames are not for you. Not any longer. You have proven your worth to follow this path to its end. I release you from your vow to remain as caretaker, and I, along with my brothers, have come to see you on your way.”
The other three figures nodded solemnly at Mr. D’s pronouncement.
“But there are still guests inside. They are not ready.”
Mr. D’s smile grew wider. “And such is why we know you have earned your place. Your concern for the others is admirable, but we will see that a new caretaker is placed here. The guests are no longer your concern.”
Mr. D. opened his arms and stepped forward, embracing Sarah. He felt warm, which was a surprise to her. She had expected… Well, she didn’t know what she had expected. When he released her and stepped back, Sarah had tears in her eyes.
“Is this real?” she asked, still unable to accept after so long that she was free to walk the path she had sent so many others down in her uncounted years as caretaker. “I can go?”
Mr. D. nodded. “Go see.”
Sarah turned to face the gateway leading from the waystation courtyard onto the final path. She took several tentative steps until she passed through to the open space beyond the courtyard walls. Outside the waystation perimeter for the first time since she had been placed in charge of the place, she heard a distant sound; it was faint, but it hinted of laughter and song.
The path ahead of her was long and winding, rising and falling with the landscape until it finally disappeared over distant hills. Behind those hills a bright light emanated from somewhere, filling the sky and welcoming all who would approach.
Sarah spun around to thank the horsemen, but they were gone. The waystation also was gone. Nothing existed behind her but an endless field of grass and wildflowers. There was nothing to go back to.
All that remained for her was to follow the path forward and see what waited at the end.
About the authorG Allen Wilbanks is a member of the HWA, and has published over 100 short stories in Daily Science Fiction, Deep Magic, The Talisman, and other venues, including previous publications in CaféLlit and has published two short story collections, and the novel, When Darkness Comes.
For more information, visit www.gallenwilbanks.com.