It was a cold morning. Pale sunlight shone through the window of Edgar’s room, casting unusual shadows over the wooden floor and velvet chairs.
The brown Xweetok sat on the edge of his bed, shivering in his thick dressing gown. His gaunt face was creased with worry as he stared at the empty writing desk hidden in the shadows of the room. The significance of the day felt like a lead weight on his shoulders.
Edgar dropped his head into his hands and let out a slow, shuddering breath. It was no good. There was only one thing to be done- no matter how hard it was.
The Xweetok dragged himself to his feet and stumbled to the writing desk. A pen was found, and then a sheet of paper, and he hunched forward, paw trembling as he poised the tip over the white parchment.
What could he say? What could possibly reverse those dreadful words he’d uttered exactly a year ago?
He leaned back, breathing heavily through his nose. Words were useless. There was nothing left that could be said.
The curtains rustled lightly, and light flashed across a smooth plate of glass. Edgar stared at it; the framed photo he had almost forgotten he’d left on the desk. Two soft, blue eyes, smiling at him from a life he’d once known.
He touched the pen to the paper. There was one last thing that could be said.
The ancient stairs creaked and moaned as Ferran jogged up them. The hired-hand Gelert had been shaken out of his work by the ringing of a bell, and was now racing to Edgar’s room. The old house was virtually deserted, as Ferran’s employer preferred to be alone, and the echoes of his footsteps drifted through the large, empty rooms. Other than two cooks, the gardener, a maid and the nurse who came in each day to check on Edgar’s diminishing health, he was the only employee.
Ferran nudged the door to Edgar’s room open. The Xweetok was sitting on the edge of his bed, the shadows under his eyes exceptionally pronounced. “Yes, sir?”
“Here.” Edgar held out a plain white envelope, an address written across its front in a painstaking script. “This is very important. See that it’s delivered today, please.”
“Yes, sir.” Ferran took the envelope, resisting the temptation to scrutinise the name on it until he was out of the room. His master hadn’t written a letter since he’d fallen sick; it couldn’t possibly be...?
The door clicked closed behind the tan Gelert, and his eyes immediately flicked down to the name on the envelope.
Ferran’s mind flashed back to a time when the house had been full of light and music and fresh flowers. A time when Edgar had been healthy and looked as young as he was. A time when he’d been happy.
Ferran jogged down the stairs two at a time. If there was any chance of bringing that happiness back...
“And where would you be going?” the cleaning maid asked, her large eyes wide with surprise as the Gelert jumped the last three steps.
“Posting a letter.”
“Well, you don’t have to be in such a rush about it,” she said, carefully lifting a vase to dust under it. “The mail’s already been collected. It won’t go until tomorrow now.”
Ferran felt his heart stop. “What?” He glanced at the letter he held in his hand. Edgar had been so insistent that it leave that day...
Slowly the Gelert walked outside, churning his mind over for a solution. When, at last, it came across one, Ferran almost rejected it. It would be too hard. It would take too much time. It would almost certainly be too late, anyway.
A memory rose up, unbidden, from two years before. A tiny yellow Gelert child, bundled up in bed, was wheezing and coughing. Ferran saw himself standing over her, fear and helplessness written across his face, as he tried to sooth her.
The door behind him opened and the young, healthy Edgar from the past entered. “What’s this, Ferran? You didn’t come in for work today, so I thought I’d check in on you.” He saw the child and frowned. “Is this yours?”
“My daughter, yes, sir. I’m sorry I didn’t come in-”
“She looks sick,” Edgar interrupted.
Ferran blinked a few times. “She is.”
“Have you seen the doctor?”
Ferran took a slow, shuddering breath. “The medicines are too expensive.”
“Nonsense.” Edgar leaned over the child and tapped his chin. “Call the doctor again. I’ll take care of the financial side.”
The Gelert felt his jaw drop open. “Sir...”
“No, I insist.” Edgar turned to leave the room, grinning cheerfully. “Take as much time off work as you need.”
The door clicked shut, leaving a stunned Gelert standing beside his sick daughter.
“Thanks,” Ferran whispered, far too late for Edgar to hear.
Ferran stared at the letter. His daughter had recovered thanks to the master, and the Gelert had never forgotten it. That had been his reason for asking to stay when Edgar had dismissed the rest of the staff, just under a year ago.
He rubbed his paws over the plain white envelope, as though the mere feel of it could give him the motivation.
And then, because he loved his daughter, he started running.
May sat contentedly in front of her fire. It was on cold days like that day she was exceptionally grateful for the small cottage she lived in. The silver Uni took a breath and let it out slowly, savouring the feeling of the warmth on her skin.
Suddenly the door was slammed open to reveal a lean brown Gelert, his fur ruffled by the wind. “May! I need your help.”
The Uni stared at him. “What?”
Ferran brandished a plain white envelope at her, his face set with steely determination. “I need to deliver this.”
May yawned and shook her mane. “The mail’s already gone.”
“I know. That’s why I need you. I need you to run.”
The Uni stared at him. “What? No. Out of the question.”
“This is important to me, May.”
The Uni shook her head again. “Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I’ve run properly? I’m not going to start again now.”
Ferran walked up to her, begging with his eyes. “This letter’s important. It needs to be posted today- the only way to do that is to get to the docks and find the postal ship before it sails.”
May eyed him as a memory from many years before rose in front of her eyes. “Run, you say?”
“Maybell!” someone screamed. People were crowding around her, talking loudly, calling to one another. There were so many smells; the smell of the torn grass, the smell of blood, the smell of the sweat of the other professional racing Unis.
“How bad is it?” someone asked.
May blinked hazily. She was lying on her side, just two hundred metres from the finishing line of the track. Concerned spectators crowded around her, and a doctor knelt over her front left leg, which was bleeding. “It’s bad,” he admitted. “I can fix most of it. She’ll walk fine, and maybe even be able to run, but she’ll never race again.”
She watched in a haze as a short Wocky beside her swore and began pacing. The manager. He’d been the one to sponsor her, to organise training for her.
They’d dubbed her an amateur athlete with great potential.
And what would she be now? A racing Uni who couldn’t race.
The doctor put a cloth over her face and she blacked out.
When she woke up, she was in the hospital. The white walls, white tiles and white beds were harsh on her eyes. She blinked furiously and moaned.
“Here,” someone said, and pressed a cup to her lips. May gulped the liquid down and opened her eyes properly. The first thing she saw was her front leg, which was heavily bandaged. She moaned again.
“Maybell, is it?” the voice asked. She glanced up and saw a young, handsome Xweetok smiling at her. A tan Gelert stood behind him, grinning. “My name’s Edgar,” the Xweetok continued. “It’s nice to meet you.”
May grunted and closed her eyes again. Her head was heavy from the anaesthetic, and all she wanted to do was go back to sleep.
“I know this is a bad time, but I’ve got to meet someone soon, and might not get another chance to talk to you. My assistant here saw you race, and told me what happened.”
The assistant would undoubtedly be the Gelert. May couldn’t care less.
“It must be hard to lose your career so suddenly. I’m sorry. This is short notice, I know, but we’re actually in need of a sub-assistant gardener at our property. If you’re ever looking for a new job, give me a call, okay?”
May opened her eyes in time to see the Xweetok place a card on her beside table. “My address is there. I know being a gardener is nothing compared to racing, but the pay’s okay and it won’t be too strenuous on your leg, if you want a change in occupation.” Edgar glanced at his watch. “I’ve got to go now. All the best, Maybell.”
With a bright smile and wave he turned and left the ward. The Gelert, with a polite nod, put a bunch of flowers on the bedside table, next to the card. “Good race, by the way.”
And then they were gone.
May snorted. Sub-assistant gardener? That was obviously a position that had been invented on the spot. What had the offer been, then? Charity?
The Uni sighed and looked at her leg. With an injury like this, it would take her months to recover- and goodness knows how long after that until she could find a new job. She had scarcely enough money to her name to pay for the medical bills.
She gingerly stretched out her good hoof and picked up the card.
May blinked, bringing herself back to the present. Ferran stood in her doorway, windblown and desperate, holding a letter.
Her current situation was a good one. She could live in the cottage attached to Edgar’s estate, manage what was left of the garden, and have plenty of money to give herself a reasonable life. She was content; her position was secure; she had no worries about the future.
And it was all thanks to the scrawny Gelert who had watched her race and told his master about her fall.
Because she loved their generosity, May stood up. “Okay. I’ll run.”
The wind was cold and harsh, blowing against the panting Uni, and the Gelert clinging to her back, as they thundered down the road.
It was a race against time. The ship that carted mail overseas was due to leave any minute. Ferran clutched the precious letter to his chest as May leant forward and increased her speed a fraction.
They had said she’d never be able to race again, but the Uni was on a mission to prove them wrong. Her leg ached with each step, but she knew she couldn’t stop. Not with something so important to Edgar.
They rounded a corner in the road and the dock came into view. “There,” Ferran called. “The ship’s in dock three.”
May saw it- a huge, weathered wooden vessel, just putting its sails up. She changed direction and clattered up by the side of the craft. The crew was swarming across the deck, making sure the ship was ready as it prepared to move out to sea. One of the sailors saw them and stared in amazement. “Ferran?”
“Mathew! Get over here!”
The tall black Gelert on the deck sauntered over to the rail and leaned over. “Well, this is a surprise! A visit from my own brother.”
Ferran jumped off May’s back. “I have a favour to ask.”
“Well, ask fast; we’re about to leave.”
“I need you to take this letter. It has to be posted today.”
Mathew frowned. “Sorry, bro, I can’t do that. The mail’s already packed and sorted. We can’t take any more letters now.”
Ferran stared at his brother, begging with his eyes. “Please, Mattie.”
The sailor flashed back to his childhood, and to the image of a younger brother staring at him with wide eyes, repeating again and again, “Please Mattie. Please.”
The sails were opened, and caught the wind. A bell was struck and the crew began to cheer as the ship moved off. Matthew made his mind up in a split second.
Because he loved his brother, he stretched out a hand. “Okay. I’ll take it.”
Ferran moved up onto his toes and held the letter out. Matthew caught one end and pulled it up.
“Thanks, Matthew. I owe you one.”
The sailor grinned. “What are annoying older brothers for?”
The ship was moving farther out, and it was becoming harder to hear one another over the howl of the wind.
“It’s got to be delivered today. It’s very important.”
“Gotcha. See you some other time, okay?”
Matthew saw his brother mouth the words ‘thank you’, but the wind snatched them away. He just grinned and gave the thumbs up before tucking the letter into his pocket and returning to his duties.
The ship turned out to sea, and was soon cleaving through waves. The day, which had started out dull, became worse; the wind became stronger, pushing the waves into furious white mountains. The clouds thickened and darkened, and it wasn’t long before the first spatters of rain began to hit the deck.
The captain, after consulting his charts, signalled for the ship to change course and dock at Krawk Island. He turned around to go back to his cabin, only to find himself faced by a concerned-looking Gelert.
“With all due respect, cap’n, what about the mail?”
The old Shoyru captain frowned. “It looks like a storm’s going to break soon. I can’t risk my crew or my cargo by sailing into it; we’ll dock at Krawk Island until it’s over.”
“But what about the mail?” Matthew repeated helplessly.
“We’ll, it’ll just have to be a day late, won’t it?” the captain snapped. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m busy.”
Matthew pulled the letter out of his pocket and glanced at it. “This is addressed to Mystery Island. I was told it had to be delivered today.”
“Well, tough luck.” The captain, exasperated, stalked off, leaving a disheartened Matthew standing in the middle of the deck.
Jeana sat, alone, in a nook between the main mast and a pile of crates. She was one of the passengers the mail ship occasionally allowed on board. The young pink Eyrie sat still, a hardcover book cradled in her hands, as she watched the captain walk away from the Gelert sailor.
Novels were Jeana’s life. She devoured them voraciously, borrowing them from her library six or more at a time.
The one she was reading at that time was part of a favourite series. The heroine, Avarie, was a famous navigator who delivered parcels by air. She had just managed to land on Terror Mountain during an intense blizzard, to be met by an isolated family desperately in need of supplies.
“I’m here,” Avarie gasped, stretching out a hand to shake the Lutari’s. “I made it.” She carefully unbuckled the pack from her back, and handed it to the relieved family.
“Thank you so much,” the Lutari whispered. “It couldn’t have come at a better time. How can we repay you?”
“A good deed is its own reward,” Avarie said with a smile, turning and preparing to fly back into the blizzard. “Never forget that.”
Jeana looked up at the Gelert sailor, who standing helplessly on the deck, a letter held in one hand. It was obviously important to him.
She glanced down at the book. Avarie, her hero, wouldn’t have hesitated in an instance like this.
Because she loved her books, Jeana stood up and held out a hand. “I’ll take it.”
Matthew stared at the small pink Eyrie. “What?”
“I can fly. I don’t mind storms; I’ll take the letter.”
The sailor felt a wave of relief wash over him. “Really? Thanks, kid. It needs to be delivered today.”
“No problem.” Jeana took the letter and glanced at the address. “Mystery Island isn’t far. I can probably get it there in an hour or so.”
“Are you sure it’s okay? There’s a pretty nasty storm brewing out there.”
Jeana flashed a grin at him. “I’m fine. I’ll catch back up with the ship at Krawk Island tomorrow.”
Jeana tucked the letter and her book into her jacket, turned, and ran towards the ship’s rail. As she reached it, she stretched out her wings, and let the wind catch her as she dived over. She plummeted down towards the sea for a second, and then rose into the sky, beating her wings to gain altitude as the rain started to spatter down in earnest.
She hadn’t expected it to be quite as cold in the air, and began to shiver as she flew. The wind buffeted her around, pushing her off course. As the rain fell more heavily she reached into her jacket and pushed the letter into a crevice where it would stay dry.
In the stories, Avarie could always tell which direction she was flying in, no matter what the conditions. In reality, Jeana found it a lot harder. The Eyrie, blinking rain out of her eyes, pulled a compass out of a pocket and checked it. She was off course already.
The clouds crackled overhead and the first flashes of lightning lit up the sky.
Despite the cold, the wind and the storm, Jeana had never felt so alive. It was like she was living in a novel.
They say that, when you look back on your life, it isn’t the things you’ve done that you regret; it’s the things you didn’t.
Lily Robinson pushed her front door open and sighed. So, this was how the day would end. The Xweetok brushed her red hair out of her eyes and put her suitcase on the front step.
The sky was heavily overcast, and threatening rain. She should hurry if she wanted to catch her ferry.
Lily blinked tears out of her eyes as she turned to lock the door to what had, until then, been her house. She didn’t understand why she should be so sad.
She’d sent Edgar the letter over a week ago. She’d told him she’d be moving. She hadn’t provided the new address.
He knew the date, and surely understood the significance. A year to the day since they’d last talked. It was a sign that she was preparing to move on and forget him.
He hadn’t replied; that must mean he was either still angry, or didn’t care.
After a whole year.
She put the key in her pocket and drew a shuddering breath. She had to move on now. No matter how little she felt like it, and no matter how much she wished he’d written back, it was time to start a new life. She couldn’t keep missing someone who didn’t care about her.
She bent down to pick up the suitcase.
“Miss Lily Robinson?”
Lily turned around to see a drenched, ruffled, exhausted pink Eyrie. “Yes?”
“A letter for you. It came express.” The Eyrie winked and held out a plain white envelope. Lily felt her heart shudder, but kept a calm face.
She shouldn’t hope. It had been too long.
She took the envelope, and opened it. Inside was a plain sheet of paper. She stared at the writing for what felt like hours, reading and re-reading it.
Finally, she looked up at the Eyrie, hoping that her face wasn’t too pale. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” The Eyrie flashed another grin and began to climb down the path.
Lily stood still, the letter clutched in her hands. “Edgar...” She picked up the suitcase in one hand, still holding the letter in her other, and, after a short pause, began to walk towards the docks.
Not away, to Shenkuu, as she’d originally planned, but to see a very old and very dear friend.
Both Edgar and Lily had thought the hurt and the emotional scars from their argument would never be healed. But they were wrong.
Edgar’s letter hadn’t been poetic, it hadn’t been long, and it hadn’t been articulate. It had merely expressed a fact.
A fact that had- if not completely done away with- at least begun to heal the pain.
On the sheet of paper Lily held, right in the centre, in large, clear letters, were just three words.
I love you.