The twentieth of June in the year of our Lord 1563 brought with it an unusual eclipse. Despite the fact the event had been predicted well before its occurrence, many across the British Isles were nevertheless startled by the suddenness of it. There was much written about the event and even the most scholarly reports noted the unusual quickness and agility in which the Moon moved to obscure the Sun, some even going so far as to proclaim that it was almost as if the Moon nimbly threw itself as a barrier between the Earth and the Sun, as if it were acting like we were in need of momentary protection from its brilliant rays. A few hinted toward a magical reasoning behind the celestial events while others put forth accusations of diabolism or sorcery and thus ignoring everything scientific theory had to say on the matter.
Although I will never speak of it, I know of another theory for the moon's actions, a much darker theory; one attested to by Astronomers. Astronomers, practitioners of an ancient art predating the Abrahamic faith, have a way of reading the stars; the sun was in itself merely a star and the moon nothing more than a simple celestial body so therefore the movements and manners of both were easily read to those who understand the true way to read them.
I am not one of those people, but not too long ago I became acquainted with one who had claimed to have such powers, a man by the name Hew Draper. He was not a man I had come to know well, nor under typical circumstances, but rather he had been a prisoner I counselled in my position as Chaplin of the Tower of London. Ours was a short association; after being found guilty of performing dark magic he had been incarcerated in the Salt Tower, away from the other prisoners, where I had come to see him several times before he… vanished. He was suddenly no longer in the prison and the records that dealt with him had seemingly gone along with him. No one would tell me where he'd gone, or, perhaps, it was more of a matter that no one was able to.
I never thought that I should see Hew Draper again, but then as I cross the lane behind my home that unseasonably cold June morn I find him standing there with an impatient air about him, as if he has been waiting for me for quite some time. He is easy to recognize; in many ways he is still the man I had met back in the Tower: still short and almost unnaturally thin. No longer being adorned in ill fitting prison clothing results in quite the difference in his overall appearance however. The man before me looks like any one of a dozen merchants I might pass in town on market day, none of whom would make enough of an impression to garner a second glance.
"I believe I have something of yours," he says, without so much of a greeting or explanation as to his presence there.
There is much I wished to say to him and many questions I have, but instead I simply reply, "Do you?" as politely and calmly as I can manage.
Pulling a gloved hand from his pocket he reveals to me a simple metal cross. Despite not seeing it these last few years I recognize it instantly — it was the cross I used to wear around my neck, the one I thought he had taken and then used to make his carvings, the one I assumed long worn down to nothing due to those same carvings.
Rather than offering platitudes in relation to its original disappearance or accusations of its theft I merely thank him for its return. As its chain is not provided instead of returning it to its place around my neck I slip it into the small satchel I carry.
He stands there for a moment, rocking slightly on his feet, regarding me, and I have the same sensation I had when he watched me that first time we met. I feel rather like an antiquity piece in a museum being picked apart for study as I bore his gaze. "The sun's song is exceptionally strong today," he says eventually.
Personally I have found the morning to be unseasonably chilly, but something keeps me from mentioning it. Instead I nod, as if accepting his word as truth. I clearly recall all he told me during our last encounter about magic and stars and darkness and light and the discomfort it sowed within me and have no desire to begin any discussion that might cause a repeat of that experience.
He continues to look me over, but apparently I pass whatever internal assessment he makes of me for he adds, "Do not fear, the moon will protect us. I've seen it and seen to it." Then he smiles, as if such a statement was a reasonable and sensible one and gives me a short nod of farewell, the kind one gives when they mean to leave.
"Mister Draper," I call quickly, a million questions on my tongue, but when he looks at me I see something in his eyes - something dark, something… other - and my many questions die unasked. Instead I offer a simple, "Thank you for returning my cross."
"You are welcome, Chaplin," he responds. A breeze kicks up just then, full of dust from the road and summer pollen, making my eyes water and tickling my nose. I turn my head so as not to sneeze on the other man, but the sneeze does not come and once my eyes clear I realize I am alone in the lane. It is a distraction that lasted mere seconds, but in that time he has gone. To where, I do not know.
The entire encounter is over in minutes and is just odd enough I may have wondered if it were all a result of some fevered dream save the cross now lying within my satchel as I observe the eclipse that afternoon. I know better than to stare directly at it, choosing to watch via the shadows on the ground instead. It was likely only my imagination, but I cannot contain a shiver at the melodic rustling of the leaves during the entire length of the event. The sun's song indeed.
I had not expected to see Hew Draper again after that, but see him again I do. Four years later the ninth of April had been progressing as any typical day might when a man abruptly appears in the hall practically in front of me. As I have been walking quickly and he is small in stature I nearly plow into him and it is a result of luck more than anything else that we both remain on our feet. It is only as I am offering my apologies that I realize I know him.
"Good day to you, Chaplin," he says in greeting, seemingly unaffected by neither my inattention that resulted in not seeing him before practically knocking him over nor my surprise upon recognizing him.
"And to you Mister Draper," I reply for wont of anything more reasonable to say and to rein in the desire to fill the air with question after question. Why is he here? Where has he come from? Why is he free? When and how was his release from prison arranged? If he hasn't been formally released then how did he leave the Salt Tower? What does he want with me?
As if reading my mind he leans forward, and pitching his voice low offers, "I never told you how much I appreciated your visits."
"I am glad to hear it. I had hoped they brought you a measure of company, if not solace."
"They did. That and more." He smiles, it is not a particularly pleasant smile, but one of secrets. Whether or not those secrets are to be shared, I can not say, but knowing him I suspect I do not wish him to. "My astronomies have brought me to you today so I could ensure you the stars may be foretold, but are not forsworn."
Uncertain how to respond at first I eventually settle on a simple, "Thank you."
"I also wished to return this." Just like last time he pulls a gloved hand from his pocket and opens it to show my cross within it. The same cross that he had presented me with in the lane two years prior. The same cross that I had put around my neck upon finishing my ablutions this very morning. The same cross that I realize is now no longer there.
"My cross," I say carefully, uncertainly.
"I appreciate its loan."
I had not lent it, not back in the Salt Tower and certainly not since this morn, but feel no need to belabour the point. Instead I hold my own hand out and give my thanks when he places the cross in it.
"The moon will do its part today, but if I may be so bold as to offer a suggestion, I would recommend that you remain away from the north side of town until the morrow."
"I- I shall," I reply, atypically stuttering over my words, as I am both uncertain and slightly afraid of what it is he is implying. "Thank you."
"You are welcome, Chaplin," he responds, echoing his reply from the last time we met. And, as like last time, upon uttering those words a cold breeze comes out of nowhere, this time causing the candles in the sconces fastened to the wall to flicker ominously. In my moment's distraction, wherein I look to them to see if they will be blown out, he disappears.
Three hours later there is a solar eclipse. I am inside when it occurs and well away from any windows so I am unable to compare this event to the last one; if the sun sings through the trees again, I do not hear it. It is only during the evening meal that I learn of the fire that destroyed several buildings at the north end of town before being contained. I express proper dismay at the news, but Hew Draper's warnings echo in my ears even as I spoke as had I gone through my usual routine I would have been right in the thick of the disaster. Upon reaching my chambers that evening I fashion a new chain to hang my cross as the one I had placed around my neck this morning is missing, gone along with the cross I presume. I know not how, but it am certain Draper's visits and the disappearance and reappearance of the cross are related. It has to be.
My path has intersected with Hew Draper's several times in the years since then yet I speak of it to no one. He is ever the same, well kept and dressed moderately in whatever the style of day may be, although, unlike myself, he does not seem to age. His visits are always brief. Sometimes he issues me a warning of some kind, but sometimes not. Occasionally he offers advice which I never failed to take if I am at all able. And always, always, he presents me with my cross. Its edges are always freshly sharpened and it often bears traces of dust upon it, but it is still, unmistakably, my cross.
Although I keep telling myself I should, I never manage to convince myself to ask him why he is only able to appear to me as if the herald of an eclipse or how he manages to have my cross with him each time we meet. Eventually, after three decades of intermittent visits, I do find the courage to ask him why for him nothing other than his clothing changes while I have gone old and grey.
"The stars," he explains, "don't care about years."
"I cannot say the same," I huff, unthinkingly. "They pass by far too quickly for my liking and I feel each and every single one more harshly than the last. It does not appear the same for you, however; sometimes I wonder if for you mere days pass between one of your visits and the next."
"These meetings shall continue as long as my astronomies allow. But they have their limitations and eventually will reach their end."
His odd, regretful tone brings me short. I begin to think that what might cause our unusual acquaintance to end will not be a result of anything on his part, but rather my own mortality. "Everything must eventually, I suppose," I respond carefully.
"I am well aware which visit that will be and can tell you on that day when it comes to pass if that is something you wish foreknowledge of. Is it?"
As there are some things man is not meant to know I do not answer. Given his wry smile, I do not think he honestly expected me to.
Hours later, however, as I stand under what on other days would have been the midday sun but instead find myself shivering in the encroaching darkness, I wonder if I should have.