The Golden Road

This tale will be revised in due course, as I'm not entirely happy with it. However, I wanted to post it in time for the solstice. The photograph was taken at 4.30am June 21st 2015, and shows sunrise on Dunwich beach in Suffolk.

The creature emerged from the very tree itself, gaunt and bone-bleached. The moonlight pooled around the patch of ferns in the centre of the glade, but extended no further. Yet still the man-shaped thing was clearly visible, seeming to radiate its own luminescence.
Nathan’s heart thundered with alarm as the entity moved slowly and stiffly towards them, as if it had almost forgotten how to walk. The merchant glanced at his son, who seemed transfixed by the spectre. The grandfather of the Turnkey clan sat on the back of the cart, too short-sighted to notice what was happening but shivering in the pre-dawn cold despite the thick blanket wrapped around his thin shoulders.
The distant bells of the church struck the midnight hour and the ferns seemed to shiver in response. Stirring, unfolding, gradually releasing their hidden treasures, Nathan and his son watched as three small balls of gold were exposed to the moonlight. Each was no bigger than a pea, but they seemed to radiate a gentle golden light as they depended from the fern leaves.
Health, wealth and happiness they brought – at least according to the stories told by Old Aggie, who recounted she had heard from her grandmother and back more generations than anyone cared to think about.
Health for the gnarled and crippled Jonah, still huddling under his blanket; wealth to restore Nathan’s own depleted fortunes, futilely thrown away in search for a more conventional cure for that curses that afflicted both his father and son; happiness to lift the soul-consuming melancholy that rendered his only child a pale echo. What an interminable succession of learned and expensive medical men had failed to do, perhaps these old ways could achieve?
“Fetch your grandfather!” Nathan hissed, apprehensive of attracting attention even in this far-flung place. Dutiful as always, Harry slipped across to the cart and helped the old man down.
Creaking like ancient hawthorn, Jonah approached. His clouded eyes opened wide at the three golden seeds – somehow the curtain of the old man’s cataracts lifted enough for him to take in the magical wonder before him.
Cautiously the three men stepped into the glade, alert for the potential dangers they had been warned of. Nathan and Harry started at every shape that seemed to momentarily form and dissipate in the curling woodland mists.
They stood before the fern, suddenly hearing the distant sound of music emanating from deep within the forest. The lilting blend of pipes, strings and drums declared the fairy origin of the tune. The People were coming for the fern seeds, and their wrath at being thwarted might prove deadly.
“Hurry father, take one!” the once-portly merchant hissed. The deflated folds of what had been several chins flapped as he spoke.
Young Harry guided the old man’s twisted fingers to pluck one of the golden spheres, which rolled into the palm of his hand.
Nathan took a second seed and directed his offspring to take the final one. The three generations gazed at the tiny treasures that were intended to bring them great blessings.
The branch of a tree groaned and seemed to reach towards them, a coil of mist forming round it like flesh coagulating around an ulna. As the men watched the vapour formed distinct fingers at one end and elbow and upper arm at the other. The figure’s chest and head emerged into the moonlight, silver flickering in the cavernous pits of the wraith’s eye sockets.
Old Aggie had warned them that the ancient creatures of the forest would guard their secrets jealously, and that they should get the seeds to water before the midsummer sun rose or the power would be snatched from them.
The merchant caught the whispered word and shot an anxious glance at his son. All the joy and life had leached out of the lad when his fiancĂ© and best friend died in the plague that swept the village four years ago. A second, more slender figure began to take shape, floating just behind the more substantial one. The sepulchral face of the first misty figure bore scant resemblance to Daniel as far as the merchant could see, but whether it was a ghost or something even more dangerous, he didn’t want to hang around waiting for either shape to become corporeal. He ushered his family out of the glade, careful not to turn his back on the spirit until the last possible moment.
The music grew closer with every shuffling step towards the lake. The approaching dawn cast enough light to expose the tree roots that threatened to trip them, whilst simultaneously making them hurry enough that the likelihood of the elder Turnkey sprawling in the dirt became all the more probable.
At last the lake edge came in sight, ethereal in the pre-dawn glow. Wheezing and rasping, Jonah looked on the verge of collapse as his relations practically hauled him to the only place where the reeds had yet to take over.
“It’s getting brighter. Quickly father, cast the seed into the water and call for health.”
The old man did as he was bid and the seed sank from sight. The golden glow grew stronger, spreading in rippling pools around as Jonah begged for the restoration of his health.
A column of water rose up and resolved itself into a slender, feminine figure. The translucent face looked directly at Jonah, the lips moved but neither Nathan nor Harry could hear a sound. The water nymph, or whatever she was, held out her hand. A curious expression spread across the aqueous face.  
Nathan crossed himself, wondering aloud if they were risking their very souls by having truck with these unhallowed creatures. Had the priest not repeatedly castigated his flock for leaving out offerings to the spirits of forest, field and stream? Jonah, in his younger days, had staunchly condemned his neighbours as little more than peasants for maintaining the traditions of ancient times. Like his namesake, the old man had borne adversity for countless years with nothing more than fruitless prayers and ineffectual medications to treat the ailments that left him knotted in agony. Yet here he was at the lake’s edge, seeking a solace that neither saint nor science had been able to provide.
“Let me drink,” the elderly man rasped breathlessly and his family supported him as he shuffled forward and drank from the cupped hand. Harry wondered briefly if his grandfather was drinking from the hand, or drinking the very hand itself. If the nymph felt any pain from the experience, it was impossible to tell.
Jonah’s body shook, the two walking sticks falling from each of his gnarled hands. Even as the two younger men tried to stop him from tumbling, the broken old body seemed to reset itself. The stooped figure returned to its former stature, the filmed eyes becoming as bright as the approaching dawn. Twisted fingers straightened and rattling lungs breathed deep.
Jonah gently pushed his supporters aside and stood by himself for the first time in two decades. Joyful tears streamed down the lined face, and he stared in wonder at his own hands.
“Thank you, oh thank you. Whatever you are, wherever you come from, bless you, bless you! Quickly boy, before the sun rises, cast your seed. The fairy troupe is nearly upon us.”
The music had indeed grown much louder, and they gaze nervously about. The spirits of midsummer would soon be in sight. Nathan dropped his seed into the still outstretched palm of the water woman, and the golden ripple spread through her body seeming to make her more solid, more human. With hair as yellow as the flag iris that bloomed amidst the reeds, she struck the merchant as looking an awful lot like the girl who had so nearly been his daughter-in-law. He cast a glance to his son and saw the recognition had struck home there too.
“Wealth,” he drew himself back to the matter at hand as a lap harp struck up from within the woods, “I want wealth. The restoration of our family’s lost fortunes.”
The woman’s lips moved, but this time only Nathan heard the melodic voice which seemed to echo as if she were speaking from the bottom of a well. His relations looked at him quizzically.
“The fairies bring trade. Oh Lord, I see their banners flying. Harry, cast your seed!”
The young man dropped his golden gift in the now near-flesh hands of the nymph, and watched as the light spread through her form like sunlight refracting through water. With her other hand she pointed east, to the far side of the lake where the dawn burst through the clouds and cast its light across the waves.
“Take the golden path to happiness,” she instructed.
Surging over the crest of the hill came a throng of creatures the like of which none of the Turnkeys had ever seen. Some were no higher than a daffodil, others of like size to a human, yet more loomed down upon them and seemed for all the world to be walking trees. Some seemed to be a fusion of rock and wood, or bird and beast, or of human and fox and badger and frog. Every animate and inanimate thing in the forest looked to have conjoined in an insane pageant of life made manifest. With hands and paws, tendrils and branches they played upon drums and flutes and harps and zithers. They played upon instruments the likes of which none of the men had ever seen before.
Seeing the mortals before them the throng paused and fell silent. A large stag moved to the fore of the crowd, and the rider dismounted. Every guilty apprehension that Nathan and Jonah had ever felt came crashing down upon them at the prospect of the cloven hoofed, shaggy-legged, curling horned satyr that strode towards them. Tattoos seemed to writhe across the powerful torso as if they had life of their own.
The satyr’s eyes flashed like emeralds in the morning light, and he came to rest a few yards from where Harry stood quivering and pale. His father, equally timorous at the sight of this creature from the netherworld, stepped between his child and the monster.
“Hold!” the grotesque entity’s voice, deep and resonate as an aged oak, stopped Nathan in his tracks.
“Dan… Daniel?” Harry stuttered, as that familiar timbre echoed across the clearing. A voice from the grave.
“You have called for the Golden Path, but you must now choose to step upon it. Or will you let it fade once again?”
“I’ll step on it, yes!” and stumbling, his legs weak with fear and exhaustion, the young man lurched towards the lake where the golden light of the newly dawned sun cast its path across the waters. He sank into the shallows and began to wade out.
The goat-like creature strode past Nathan, pausing to remove the ornate golden, bejewelled chain from around his neck and passing it to the startled father. He uttered a single word, which meant nothing to the horrified man who found himself momentarily distracted by the stunning beauty of the entwining golden tendrils and leaves, cradling a dozen jewels.
As the two elder Turnkeys watched the strange figure strode across the water, its hooves walking upon the golden light as if it were a solid bridge, instead of sinking into the lake. The satyr stopped by Harry and hauled him from the waves, where he stood waist-deep, and carried the young man in his arms. Harry rested his head upon the brawny shoulder of the fairy creature and the two journeyed out across the radiant bridge until they disappeared from Nathan and Jonah’s sight.
“Harry! Harry!” the merchant called till his throat became hoarse. A bony hand rested on his shoulder and the old man pointed out that the water nymph had disappeared back beneath the waves, and all the strange and freakish things with which they had made their pacts had returned to the depths of the forest.
They waited until noon and hunger pangs drove them to make the long, silent walk home. As they came in sight of the village, Nathan finally spoke.
“What does coibche mean?”
“It’s from the old language, son. The bride price given by the new husband, part went to his bride and part went to her family. Even in my day I was expected to pay something to my father-in-law before the wedding.”
They stood a while, trying not to dwell on the implications. Nathan’s fingers traced the coldness of the metal in his pocket.
“You never did like that Daniel.”
“I saw the way he and Harry looked at each other. A lot of young men go through a phase… I thought when that bloody lad died Harry would grow out of it, marry and lead a normal life.
As they passed out of the forest and into the dustbowl that had once been their fields, marking the boundary to the family home, Nathan drew out the fairy gift. The glorious golden ornament that the satyr had given him seemed to dry before his very eyes. The exquisitely cast golden leaves became real, dried up leafs. The chain turned to wizened tendrils and the jewels were revealed as seeds and shrivelled berries.
“I have lost my son and my fortune. God has punished me for turning to the children of darkness for help,” he slung the bride price in the ditch at the end of the field. “I wonder your new health has not evaporated with the dew as well.”
“It will, son, in a manner of speaking. That water creature told me I could live four more years in perpetual agony, or have one golden year of health and then die at the next midsummer. I chose to be free of pain.”
They sat in the near empty house, mourning the loss of Harry, wondering how on earth to explain his disappearance without bringing further shame upon their poverty.
Yet, for all the shock of seeing his grandson carried off by a wild man of the woods, Jonah could not recall the last time he had felt so fit and vigorous. He yearned to be up and out, doing all those things he had only been able to watch others doing. Striding out into the fields, he stalled as he saw the shoots sprouting all around the ditch. They were the first green things that had appeared in those fields in practically three years.
Filling a watering can, Jonah dowsed them and watched them swell and stretch. Day by day he tended the field, repaired the house, and coaxed his son into joining him. The plants grew at a miraculous rate, dozens of them spreading across the field. Their flowers unfurled within weeks and attracted so many bees that the two men constructed hives for them. As the honey flowed, flower turned to fruit – succulent strawberries, redder than the rubies that had adorned the golden chain, cherries darker than a fairy’s heart.
Not only did the fruit refill their coffers, but the mead and wine filled their cellars with the promise of years to come. That year flew by, such that Jonah had almost forgotten his bargain. Till the eve of midsummer, when Jonah knelt in the field pulling up weeds and lifted his eyes to see the smiling face of Harry.
Nathan glanced up from his ledgers to see the two men standing amidst the burgeoning crop, and at once rushed out. The puppy that sat upon the porch, napping in the late evening sun, opened a bleary eye and watched the three men embrace and turn to walk out into the forest and find the Golden Path across the lake.


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