The outward gloom beyond the room Had made the house an island The dark extended through the wood Beyond the forest highlands
The company beneath the trees Sat still amid their thoughts Their sleep came slow and grudgingly Though weariness they fought
But as they lulled, their senses dulled The wood began to stir And none would waken to observe The wonder that occurred
A swirl of leaves beneath the eaves Moved slowly down the path And as it swept across the stones More leavings it amassed
Yet when it neared, it disappeared The swirl of leaves was stilled And in their place, a figure stood Of child height and build
It seemed full-dark, without a mark Or feature to its face Against the curtain of the night, The figure bore no trace
The shadow raised, then ran ablaze At first an emerald sheen Expanded to imposing size In flames of blinding green
It shuffled past the garden grass Beside the door it came An arm outstretched, it scraped the boards And dripped its virent flame
But standing fast, the shape collapsed And fell beside the door A violent flash, and then the dark: The body was no more
No curse again befell them then In peace the hours passed A leaden grey replaced the dark And morning came at last
By slow degrees, the company Awoke as each desired The host returned and found them all Assembled by the fire
“So you’ve awoke,” the master spoke “I want to thank you each— For most of you, my forest home Is not in easy reach.
“It’s made me glad, the time we’ve had Together all once more; I mourn as well the missing three— Their loss I don’t ignore.
“But wicked business such as this Will threaten more besides So will you join me furthermore? What did the group decide?”
“The ballot’s torn,” the second warned, And gestured toward the rest He, the first, the fifth and eight Would heed the host’s request
The rest alone would venture home And mention these bad tidings But go no further, for their kin And houses needed minding
“I understand, and none demand Your bondage on this quest. You leave my distant forest home As dearly honored guests.”
He led them toward the garden door As others said goodbyes Then like a spell, the host stood fast Transfixed with widened eyes
Outside, the ground lay charred and brown It sizzled as it stank The outer boards that formed the door Reduced to cinder-planks
“A fire-shearer was denied here,” Said the host at length “I sealed the house some days ago— But I misjudged their strength.
“They weren’t supposed to draw so close; My magic must be failing. I used to better set...” he said But found his voice was failing
The third bent down and smelled the ground Then coughed to clear his throat “So similar,” he whispered soft And pulled matches from his coat
He struck a match above the patch Of blackened earth and waited A fire swelled— the third leapt back From the blaze he had created
The fire sparked, but as the mark Was taken up in flame It lightened, then reversed itself And green the ground became
The flames died fast. Below, the grass Appeared as nothing cursed it “It’s fell-flame,” said the third at length “True fire can reverse it.”
“How could you know,” the host said low, “The nature of the burns? For fell-flames come from many powers Not easily discerned.”
“The awful smell the ground expelled— That soil was defiled. Such fire-shearers terrorized My homeland as a child.”
He then restored the garden door With yet another match The wood reversed by slow degrees Like splinters reattached
The third then sought his private thoughts And muttered to his chest “I’ll join you then,” he said at last, “…Yes, I think it best.”
“The same for us, as just discussed,” Behind them someone beckoned “This need is more immediate Than first we came to reckon.
“As well, it seems that forces bring We nine to this endeavor. Is that your forest’s secret, then? What ties us all together?”
“Would that I knew, I’d counsel you,” The master told the sixth “I’m given whispers from the trees; No details yet exist.
“But come inside, and help decide How best we carry forth. It seems we’ve one more journey yet, We nine, we from the North.”