The Lantern Man
by Megan Bjerke
The Lantern Man stood at the edge of the dock, his light out in front of him. He waited, sometimes for hours, but his arm never grew tired. Despite the crisp air and only being covered in a wool jacket and thin pants, he never grew cold. His feet, stuffed into worn boots, never ached from standing on the pristine pine panels beneath him. None of it would have mattered anyways. He was a beacon right now, nothing more.
The Lantern Man checked his watch. Two more minutes. He placed his only treasure back in his pocket and returned his gaze to the familiar scene before him. The sky, devoid of the moon’s glow, blanketed the valley in darkness. Crickets chirped around him. The sounds of owls catching their nighttime meal floated on the breeze. The murky water of the river slithered down the bank, silently, deadly.
Too many bodies had washed up on the shores of Alcoa after braving the water. Bodies trying to prove their strength and vigor to friends or possible partners. Too bad. A dead body was useless. It needed to be fresh for the Mistress. Which is why the Lantern Man came out to the dock every new moon, to wait for the Water Man to bring the month’s bounty.
As a bell tower far in the distance struck midnight, a rowboat crept towards the dock. Silently, except to a trained ear, the oar pushed the wooden vessel through the water, along the tamest current of the river, along the same path the Water Man had used for the last twenty years.
The boat’s dark figure crept from the shadows into the light, until the ghostly silhouette revealed a tall burly man, as dark as the cloak he wore, standing at the stern. The Water Man nodded in acknowledgment and the Lantern Man let his arm slowly drop to his side, tracking the boat’s approach. It glided to the dock with ease. The Lantern Man set down his light and unspun the rope to his left. He looped a noose around the front lip of the boat and tethered the line to the dock’s post. The Water Man did the same, pulling a rope from the boat and fastening the back of it to the dock. Once secure, the Lantern Man approached the ferryman.
“What do we fear?” the Lantern Man asked.
“That which we cannot see,” the Water Man said. “And what cannot we see?”
“That which we fear.”
The Lantern Man nodded and took a step back, staying on the dock while the Water Man stayed in the boat. They weren’t permitted to cross into each other’s domains. It was against the rules, against It’s rules. The Water Man turned and lifted a large burlap-covered body from the front of the boat. Fastened with rope in several places, the wrapped human remained slack as the Water Man placed it on the dock, with more gentleness than a man of his size would normally possess.
The Lantern Man frowned. The Mistress preferred older offerings, ones who had enjoyed life longer. Ones who had less time left to live. “That’s young.”
“That’s what the Hunting Woman could get,” the Water Man said flatly.
The Lantern Man stewed. Should he bring her someone so young? Or should he have the Hunting Woman find another offering? If he didn’t take her this one, the Lantern Man wasn’t sure she would last until the next new moon. And if she didn’t last, then It would be angry. Very angry. Then all their souls would be in jeopardy. But if he did take this one, the Mistress might refuse to feed anyways. Either way, the Hunting Woman had put him in a terrible position.
He sighed. “I’ll accept the offering.”
The Water Man nodded and untied the mooring lines, releasing himself from the dock. As the boat pulled away, the Water Man placed two fingers over his heart. “To that which we cannot see.”
The Lantern Man returned the gesture. “And to that which we fear.”
He watched as the ferryman lowered his oar into the river and drifted from the light, disappearing as the darkness claimed him. The Lantern Man coiled the used rope around his shoulder and turned to the body. It still hadn’t moved. Good. That meant it was still unconscious. A subtle rising of a chest was all that confirmed that the offering was still alive. That would make the trip back go smoothly. It was a pain when the offerings struggled, and it stole a little piece of his soul every time he had to knock them back out again. Hopefully, this one would stay like this until it was time to meet the Mistress.
The Lantern Man blew out his light, plunging the dock into blackness. The beacon was no longer necessary. His eyes adjusted to the shadows and he bent down to grab the body, lifting it up and over his shoulder, situating it against the crook of his neck with a graceful ease. With one arm wrapped around the offering’s legs, he grabbed his lantern with his free hand. After adjusting the body one more time, he left the dock and headed for Alcoa Castle.
The path to the castle wasn’t marked anymore, hidden from the outside world. And instead of cutting a straight path to the castle, the Lantern Man had to weave through Alcoa Forest, up and along the hillside, using only the trees as markers. Not that he really needed them. He’d made the journey every month for the last twenty years and could find his way back with his eyes closed.
He trekked for two hours through the overgrown brush and trees, quietly threading his way through the sacred forest. The Lantern Man didn’t stop for rest. Nor for water. Nor to check his bearings. He continued on, knowing he needed to arrive well before dawn.
The forest’s resident wolf pack kept their distance as he walked, but he felt them circling. Watching him. Protecting him. Owls hooted as he passed, bats flapped above him. Branches rustled, with what, he did not know. There were creatures here even he had never seen in his twenty years, hidden away beneath a blanket of darkness, as sheltered from the world as he was. As they all were.
Eventually he came to the base of Alcoa cliff, a sheer limestone wall that jutted high above the forest. It ran for miles on either side, forming a perimeter around one side of the valley. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, searching for the familiar scent that marked the hidden entrance, the one thing that continued to change every new moon as a form of protection for Alcoa Castle and its inhabitants. A waft of wild pear came from the left. He walked along the wall until the scent was heavy and sweet. Finding the old tree fanned against the rock, he pushed through the weeping branches and disappeared into the cliff.
Emerging in a long tunnel shrouded in shadows, the Lantern Man made his way through the cliff’s web. Tunnels split in different directions at varying times. Some were dead ends, some ended at creature nests. Some would simply disorient intruders until they succumbed to dehydration and hunger—or to insanity. But at each opportunity, the Lantern Man took the correct path.
The end of the cave was unhindered and unguarded. The Mistress decided anyone who made it this far deserved to discover Alcoa Castle and its inhabitants. Its history. Its secrets. The tunnel opened to a large castle built into a deep recess in the cliff. The castle’s ramparts butted against the natural barrier of limestone, and its numerous turrets and towers spiraled towards the stars. He crossed over a small footbridge and made his way through the gatehouse, into a large courtyard. In the middle stood the castle’s garden, orchard, and walking grounds. On the left sat the stables, filled with chickens and several goats; the horses had perished years ago. On the right was the kitchen. Despite it being the busiest part of the staff’s day, the courtyard was empty, the castle quiet. Few lights flickered through the stained glass windows.
The Lantern Man made his way forward, through the garden and into one of the castle’s tallest towers. Up he climbed, the offering still unconscious over his shoulder. At the top of the stone stairs the Lantern Man knocked twice on a large oak door, engraved with the Offering symbol—a pyramid of three stars surrounded by a circle of birch branches. It unlocked from the other side and opened.
The Preparer ushered him inside. The room had been stripped and cleaned since Alcoa’s last guest, including the bars on the windows and the chains on the bed. New rugs and sheets had been brought in, and extravagant lamps hung from the walls. Fragrant flowers accented the windowsills. The colorful stained glass windows had been buffed so the moonlight shone through, and the birch bedframe glistened with a coat of fresh oil. In the middle of the room sat a wooden table, normally for the offering to eat from. But tonight it was empty.
“Place it there,” the Preparer said and motioned towards the table. She was short and curvy, with black hair and olive skin. The Lantern Man hoisted the body off his shoulder and laid it where she asked. “How old?”
“Twenty-three,” he said and stepped back, giving her room to approach the body. She stared at him incredulously. She knew the Mistress’s tastes as well as he did. “When did you prepare this room last?” he asked.
“Seven days ago,” she whispered, ashamed.
The last offering had been drained a full week ago. The Mistress was going through them more quickly than before.
“Then as you can see, I didn’t have a choice,” he said, his voice caked with annoyance.
The Preparer grumbled something to herself, but turned back to the body. With swift hands she untied the ropes binding the legs, ankles, chest, and arms. With a deep breath, she undid the final tie around the neck. The fabric fell, pooling around the offering’s sides.
Flawless golden skin glowed in the lamplight. Dark brown hair framed a sharp face untouched by wrinkles. A matching set of navy breeches and a long coat covered a wine-colored dress shirt, and polished but worn black boots rose to his knees. His clothes were wrinkled but tailored to his taut frame, and smooth callouses, formed from years of repetitive manual labor, dotted his hands. He had money, but was not a high ranking member of society. The Lantern Man hoped this meant the townspeople wouldn’t spend too much time looking into his disappearance. Perhaps they would think another tradesman had left town searching for a better life.
The Preparer left the offering, muttering in disgust that this man was too young for this fate, and went to the bureau. She pulled a long box from the bottom drawer, and a set of tan breeches and a white shirt from the top. Returning to the body she removed a key which hung from her neck, unlocked the box, and opened it. Inside, the Lantern Man could see her tools and lotions, oils and cleaning agents. At the offering’s feet, she meticulously laid out what she needed. When she was satisfied, she nodded to the Lantern Man and grabbed the young man’s legs. The Lantern Man grabbed the shoulders and lifted, allowing him to pull the fabric from underneath the offering.
The Lantern Man folded the fabric and as the Preparer removed the offering’s boots. He glanced out the window, his eyes greeted by a pale horizon. Dawn approached.
He needed to leave.
“To that which we cannot see,” the Preparer said, realizing it too.
“And to that which we fear,” he replied and left.
Down the tower the Lantern Man walked, his boots echoing off the stone, the fabric tucked underneath his arm. At the end of the stairs he went right and made his way through a corridor lined with closed doors. With only a few lamps still lit to light the passage, the paintings which decorated the walls and the stones beneath his feet hid behind a veiled darkness. But he didn’t mind. He loved the castle this time of night. Sounds were scarce, people even more so as most of the daily staff slumbered by now. He slowed his pace, appreciating the peace, the stillness, the freedom.
The Lantern Man stopped at the last door on the left and knocked. Several seconds passed before he received an answer, the door unlocking from the other side. Access now granted, he entered. Likely already an hour asleep by now, the Laundress wasn’t there. Not that it made any difference. This drop off had been part of his routine since the first offering and just like he did every month, he placed the fabric in its designated spot, on a shelf at the front of the room, where it would be added to tomorrow’s wash.
The door locked behind him as he left and he made his way to the courtyard. Now that his job was completed, he could relax. The crisp air tickled his cheeks. From the garden, the scents of lavender and apple swirled together to lift his spirits. Bernie, their oldest milking cow, nudged him with her nose as he stopped to scratch behind her ears, and he ran his hands through the wheat stalks as he made his way to the kitchen.
His evening meal sat warming above the hearth, left out for him by the Cook, who never forgot about him, who always tried to fill the Lantern Man’s plate in hopes it would make this terrible day even slightly better. He devoured it, the freshly baked bread and garlic butter, the boiled eggs and vegetable stew, the lavender tea and apple tart. After eating every crumb, the Lantern Man slowly made his way down the stairs at the back of the kitchen.
Half drunk on a full belly, he spiraled down deeper into one of the many recesses of Alcoa Castle, far beneath the ground’s surface. Again he came to a locked door at which he knocked and which granted him access to the rooms below. He bathed in the washroom, clothed himself in a fresh set of comfortable night garments, and with a deep breath, entered the staff sleeping chamber.
It wasn’t a tall room, but it served its purpose. Square doors stacked on top of each other covered every wall, and the name of a single staff member was carved into each one. At the far end of the room the Lantern Man reached up to the third row and quietly rapped on the door marked for him. The door swung outward. Pulling himself up with ease, he lifted himself into the narrow capsule that he called his room and slipped inside onto freshly laid bedding. The door shut as he pulled his feet in. Now in complete darkness, he pulled a blanket over his body and closed his eyes. Nestling into the position he would sleep in until the next new moon, the Lantern Man drifted off to sleep, leaving an innocent man to an unfortunate fate.
About the Author:
Megan Bjerke is currently in her second year of the Popular Fiction Writing and Publishing Master’s program at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. She is a member of the National Writers Union, The Author’s Guild, and the International Women’s Writing Guild. Megan is also a founding member, a board member, and a copy editor for Emerson’s popular fiction magazine, Page Turner Magazine. She lives in California with her boyfriend, three dogs, one cat, and a rabbit. In her spare time she loves to travel, read, and organize her ever expanding library. You can follow her on Instagram at @megan_bjerke.