Luke's body whirled through the portal in a kaleidoscope of starlight and rainbows. Burnt ozone stung his nostrils, and his stomach roiled as if live dragonflies flitted inside. He clutched his grandfather's palm tighter, the only connection anchoring them together while they spun into the void, guided by the compass in his grandfather's other hand.
"We're here." His grandfather's words whistled with wheeziness.
He released Luke and turned away, pocketing the compass, but his old man's movements weren't quick enough to hide the tremors or his shortness of breath.
A mountain breeze, tinged with smoke ruffled the tussock grasses underfoot. In the valley below, Luke pinpointed a chimney on a cluster of shacks beside fenced paddocks. Had the old man's sense of direction faded and cast them adrift?
"Follow me." His grandfather rolled his shoulders back, lifted his head high, and led the descent.
Mindful of their journey's mission doubt dragged at Luke's feet. At only twelve, would he be found worthy? He didn't want to think about his grandfather's declining health if their bid was rejected.
Metallic scent tainted the air as they skirted past the dwellings; a one-room cottage, barn, and a smithy. Orange coals smoldered on the forge, hammers, and tongs lined up in military precision, but the pockmarked leather apron hung empty from a hook on the open door.
Without pause, his grandfather guided Luke out the back to the horse corrals. A bear of a man with arms like anvils leaned against the fence. Leather pants and knee-high boots sheathed his legs, but his chest was bare except for a star patterned tattoo, staining his chest muscles indigo and cobalt. At their approach his head swiveled, snaring the pair with a deep ocean gaze. Dryness etched Luke's throat.
"Navigator, so many years have passed, I feared you would not return."
Luke's grandfather bowed his head. "Farrier, events have been unkind, but I keep my promises. My grandson had agreed to assume the responsibility in the place of his father who died when he was a babe."
The men spoke as if Luke were a phantom, but he remained silent, remembering his grandfather's instructions only to speak when asked a direct question by the otherworld farrier.
Grass scented warmth huffed through Luke's hair. A midnight coated horse towered above his head. A white star marked the stallion's forehead.
Luke clambered up the railings, but he still had to stretch to trail his fingertips along the horse's snout. His breath caught when he gazed into the depths of the creature's starlight eyes.
Firm fingers clasped Luke's shoulder, and the farrier bowed towards the steed. “Kasper approves of you. Come inside."
The temperature in the smithy scorched the hairs inside Luke's nose, and sweat trickled beneath his tunic, but the farrier worked the bellows until the coals combusted into flames. Next, he sprinkled a handful of sand into the hearth, and the fire danced into violet and malachite hues.
"You understand, old friend, without the enchantment your life span will be reduced to mortal years?"
My grandfather nodded. "These old bones grow weary, and the pathways are becoming muddled. My time is past. Luke is young, but he is pure of heart."
The farrier studied his friend for a moment before he reached out with his palm. "Navigator, of your own free will do you relinquish your powers to your grandson?"
The old man answered by dropping his compass into the farrier's outstretched hand. "I do."
The farrier's otherworld stare scrutinized the boy, and although the being didn't touch him, a prickling sensation rippled up Luke's spine. After several heartbeats, the farrier inclined his head. "Your soul is free of darkness, but perhaps you are too young yet for any temptations to have challenged your values."
"He's a good lad. I vouch for him and will guide his path." His grandfather squeezed Luke's shoulder.
Calloused fingers gripped Luke's chin. "Are you sure you want this? It's not too late to back out and live a normal life. Be warned, once you accept you are bound for life. Each time you enter here seeking my help a non-negotiable toll must be paid."
Before crossing over doubts had plagued Luke's thoughts, but after tasting magic, he couldn't settle for a dull life on the farm when his world had been opened to the lure of other realms.
Luke moistened his lips. “Navigator blood runs in my veins. I'm young, but I'm ready."
The farrier released him. "Do I have your solemn vow you will only guide your passengers by the way of the light?"
Heart thundering, Luke focused on the compass. "I swear I'll follow the true pathways."
Light glinted off the chain as the farrier dangled the compass into the sparking coals. “Hold out your hand.”
Luke flinched, expecting his skin to sizzle when it touched the metal, but the compass was cool. He didn’t feel any different. Had the transfer worked?
The farrier clasped forearms with the older man. “You owe me one last favour, but I will redeem what’s due at another time.”
“As always it will be an honour to serve.” Luke’s grandfather stepped away.
“Navigator, peer into the fire.”
Several moments passed before Luke responded to his new title. Within the flames, he spied a young woman’s face, whose striking features seared into his memory.
“One day she will seek your skills, and when she does you must bring her to me.” The farrier crossed his arms.
Questions burned in Luke’s mind, but he’d been schooled on the protocols, so he suppressed his curiosity, and lowered his eyes. “As you command.”
The farrier ushered them into the yard and bid them farewell. “Keep your promises, follow the light and your direction will always be true.”
Outside Luke paused, blinking. A glittering path lit the way up to the portal.
Unshed tears gathered in his grandfather’s eyes. “The navigator’s sight is now hidden from me.”
Grasping the compass in one hand, Luke held out his other hand. “Come grandfather, I will guide you home.”
(Navigator is a prelude and companion scene to Fire Hooves – yet to be released.)