The Lantern Hart
by Myles Buchanan
Glena liked to watch the sisters as they ran. She would hang back to watch the sun flash in their hair. Pera’s hair was dark black and Luna’s was the finest silver. Beyond their village was a wide green lawn with oak trees spaced across it, and when Pera and Luna ran over this lawn, their pale calves flashed and their laughter drifted behind them.
The grass was smooth and soft under the curving branches. How massive these trees were, Glena thought, and how tiny were the figures of Pera and Luna beneath them.
Only once they neared the morrith forest would Glena speed her pace to catch them. The morrith forest was a dark tangle of branches and thorns. Little sunlight came through the dense needles and the shadows on the forest floor often seemed strange, so they had made a kind of game of it. Glena told them stories of evil things that might lurk among the branches and ferns, and the sisters looked to her, wishing her to say more.
On this day the three of them followed a familiar pathway to a dry creek-bed filled with ferns and spanned by moss-sleeved logs. Pera and Luna clung close to Glena. They loved her even though Glena was not as pretty as any of the other girls, and Glena did not understand. Each morning she stood in front of the mirror hating the angles of her body while Pera and Luna had boys writing love notes to them, longing to smooth silver or black hair behind a tender ear. Yet it was Glena the sisters wanted, her words they clung to.
“I saw a shadow move there behind the juniper,” Pera said. “Did you see it?” Both girls looked to Glena.
“A shadow moving? I don’t doubt it.” Glena settled into her usual mossy seat and drew her cloak about her. “With each day these woods will become ever more dangerous. It’s like I told you: a slow invasion. Something stalks us all. So you saw a shadow move out of turn? Ha!” She poked Pera’s shoulder. “We’d all better get used to shadows. That and far more.”
Luna was already climbing the embankment and after a moment Pera followed, their silver and black hair shining in the dimness. Glena herself followed more slowly behind. She didn’t feel good. Though she knew it was all a game, a trouble had been growing in her heart. For a moment, watching Pera and Luna move away from her into the thick leaves on the other side of the creek, she felt a jolt of fear that they might vanish into the trees without so much as a cry and just be gone.
But the morrith tree was just a morrith tree, perhaps a little unusually shaped, but otherwise normal. The sunlight that found its way through the canopy shimmered on the morrith needles covering the forest floor, and that was all.
Pera and Luna were unfazed. “Didn’t you see anything?” Luna asked, and Glena had to look away from the brilliance of her smile.
“No,” Glena said. “Well, yes, but only just barely. Whatever it is that’s coming hasn’t reached this part of the forest yet. If we’re lucky, we’ll get only hints for a while. We call this our morrith forest. Ha! Everyone forgets this is the southernmost corner of Shadewood. The evil is still somewhere that direction.” She pointed down the path that continued before them, nearly closed over with ferns and undergrowth.
The afternoon sunlight seemed to strike these trees more brightly, and a prickle of dread crept into Glena’s heart. She could no longer look at Pera and Luna’s bright faces without feeling sad.
“But we aren’t to go that way.” Pera glanced sideways at Glena. “Are we? Though, of course, there’d be no way for anyone to know if we did.”
“No, we aren’t to go that way,” Glena said, and meant it. “We can still discover much without putting ourselves in danger. We should visit the willow. That would be the first to fall if evil did spread. We should make certain that its spirit still lives.”
Pera and Luna seemed content enough with this, so Luna led them onward through the twists of the old creek bed while the afternoon sun fell and the shadows interlocked and spread. By the time they reached the willow tree, there were patches of dark in the corners of Glena’s vision. She felt a fear that was not so different from sorrow, a pulse in her throat and heart.
The willow was nearly entirely silhouetted and for the first time she feared to stoop under its canopy, thought there might be something waiting there under it. But there was nothing amiss. In the mossy loam under the willow’s branches there was even a small cluster of pale daffodils somehow surviving in the dim and chill of early autumn.
“Look!” Luna said, and smiled back at Glena “So there must still be hope, if the flower still lives.”
But Glena was not really listening. She had seen something. Though the branches of the willow sealed them nearly entirely from everything outside, she had seen something. An actual shift of shadow, not one of her inventions for Pera and Luna’s amusement.
She saw the muzzle of a great wolf, the shudder of its brown flank, a stony grey boot hooked through a stirrup. She froze. Behind her Pera and Luna were still chirping about the rogue patch of daffodils, and when she clutched each of their arms they startled.
“No talking,” Glena hissed. “We leave when I say so. Back the way we came. We’ll make no noise at all.” She felt a clicking sound inside her chest, as if her heart were a clock.
In the dimming shade the sisters were more beautiful to her than they’d ever been before. Of course she knew the monster outside had heard them, could burst through the willow branches and destroy them if it chose. But she also knew that it wouldn’t. It was a scout only, she knew, an emissary of the coming sorrow.
* * *
Glena knew that Pera and Luna would not understand. The sisters wanted shadows and monsters only if the beasts lurked at a safe distance and eyed them from the far reaches of the woods. They wanted these monsters to unleash doom only once the three of them were safely indoors, drinking tea in the Fernleaf Tavern while a fire blazed, or wrapped in blankets in the comfort of their own house.
Glena was aware of the dangers of imagination. After all, she liked to tell stories. There had been times when she’d really managed to scare herself, speaking to Pera and Luna so passionately of cloaked wraiths, of houses torched with red flame that she’d convinced herself it was all real. Certainly it had felt real. Pera and Luna clutched the blankets to their chins, leaned the compact warmth of their bodies into hers, and Glena’s heart beat fast.
Then she’d look out the window and be shocked to see nothing. Which was the whole point: there was no real danger. Pera and Luna waited gleefully for more stories, and she was always ready enough to provide them. Glena liked how close together the three of them would sit, the shared warmth of their excitement and fear.
But now Glena was truly scared. She felt she’d been exposed to a terrible secret, and it shocked her that her own fanciful imaginings had been so close to the truth, that the monsters might be even worse than she expected. She shuddered at the thought of that single gray boot and the massive furry flank. She tried to stop thinking about it but couldn’t seem to. As they walked back from the forest, Pera and Luna’s words dissolved around her.
Still they wanted to be entertained. That night they huddled in Pera and Luna’s bedroom, sipping after-dinner coffee they’d smuggled in from the kitchen. When Glena sipped the rich coffee, anxiety and excitement shot through her all at once and, on tiptoe, she crept out through the darkened living room to make sure the front door was locked. She expected the sisters to be unsettled by her quietness, but they seemed more excited than ever when she returned.
“So.” Pera poked Glena’s side with a pointed toe. “Are you ever going to tell us? We’ve been in agony here.”
“About what?” Glena said. She didn’t trust herself to say more.
“I mean how bad is it?” Luna smoothed a lock of silver hair behind her ear. “You spoke like we were to be ripped limb from limb. Do you think it was the same thing I saw there on the other side of the creek? Or something else?” Luna got to her feet and went to the window. “I sometimes wonder if everything we almost see comes out at night.”
Glena rose, too, and stood beside her. Carefully she watched the rain begin. She’d felt its presence high above them that day in the morrith wood. When she saw the muzzle of the beast, she’d felt it strongest. Now, as she watched, the rain speckled the cobblestones, hissed against the torches. She looked at the selfsame cottages, each window lighted by candles and hearth, each filled with families settling toward bed. She could see the Fernleaf Tavern and thought she could faintly hear the voices inside.
“I saw a wolf,” she said at last, and she couldn’t keep the tremble from her voice. “Some horrible kind of massive wolf. And I think there was a person riding it.”
The rain thickened and battered the cobblestones. She watched the guards raise their hoods and huddle under the eaves of houses. How fragile they looked. Luna put a hand on her back, and even through all the fear Glena felt a low thrill of excitement.
“But that’s insane!” Luna leaned closer to the glass. Glena knew that Luna was looking at the morrith forest, the stripe of denser darkness just visible past the line of houses at the village’s edge. She thought she could see some of the morrith trees swaying there.
Pera rose too and stood next to her sister, sipping the last of the coffee. “It may not even be safe to go to bed,” she said. She had a way of smiling that made her look younger. “You’re sure someone was riding it?”
The wind was picking up, hurling the rain against the window pane. Torches faltered, one vanished in a gasp of smoke. “We can’t ever go in there anymore,” Glena said, and now the first tears came, ridiculous tears that she thought had been waiting for years, maybe even her whole life. “Don’t you understand? Nobody here is safe.”
“Hellfire, Glena.” Pera came up next to her so that all three of them faced the window and the rain that raged outside. “What do you mean?”
“Just what I said.” She smeared at her eyes with the back of her hand. “The forest is closed to us now.”
Glena thought at first that their silence was fear, but it wasn’t. She could feel disbelief hardening between the two sisters, could hear the lilt of contempt in Pera’s voice, the same tone the other popular girls always used with her. “Without the forest there isn’t anything to do. It’s where everyone goes. What do you think: that we should rot inside all day and play board games? Watch the forest from the window? Slave over schoolwork?”
“I don’t know,” Glena said. “I just know we can’t go back. I’m going to my father again tomorrow and telling him no one should. I don’t care what it takes. Everyone has to know. Everyone. We all have to be on our guard.”
Though the sisters still stood with her at the window, Glena could feel them drifting away. She realized that Luna’s hand no longer rested on her shoulder as it had. “I don’t know what you’re saying,” Luna said.
“It was all pretend. Don’t you see? All our talk of shifting shadows and veiled secrets. All nonsense. There’s terror out there coming for this village. And it’s coming regardless. It doesn’t care if we’re scared or not scared. It doesn’t care if we know or don’t know. I mean, by all the gods, look what’s happening outside our window right now. Have you ever seen this before? Storms like this with the summer hardly gone?”
She unlatched the window and opened it before they could stop her. Rain hammered into the room. The wind forced them back, tangled their hair, ripped the parchment from the desk, scattered candles and hot wax. Pera and Luna screamed. After they got the windows shut, they looked at Glena the way she’d always expected: anger and disbelief on their pretty faces.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Myles Buchanan