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Friday, January 01, 2016

A Night in Nox

In the gray, failing light of the last day of the year, the foot-tired travelers turned there backs to the chilling airs hovering over face of the lake and made for home.  Back, back to the road.  Back to the hard, poured surface of pitch and stone.  The black scythe swathe cut which proved man ruled these woods and went where he willed and did just as he pleased.  If they listened, they could just hear the whispered echoes of the rolling fortresses upon it.  They were not far.  Not far indeed.  The path was clear and hard packed from many feet; the way would be easy.  They would make their own fortress before dusk.

Twisting and twining, coiling and writhing the path led down into a shadow gloom of crouching pines.  Stunted and malformed, an army of ancient children, angry at their maker, keeping counsel with none but themselves, they hid from the light and turned the silent ground below to a moist carpet of needles which gave beneath the travelers’ tread.  Not in soft delight did they place their feet but in eerie dread as if trod upon the very flesh of a sleeping giant.  As if the softness and the blanket might muffle the breaths and they would fall into the very mouth and be swallowed up in darkness. 

Neither had much will to ponder long the spongy earth however as their ears and eyes were hooked and pulled to the gnarled spider limbed branches hanging low over their fearful faces.  A shadow flitted before them.  First one, then two, then three, then fifteen, then fifty, then a countless cacophony of feathers and wing, chirp and screech!  A great squawking, Hitchcockery mob, long overdue in the southlands, hanging here in this wicked wood.  Robins, robbed of their warm reds, cold gray and dull drabs in the gloom, glimpsed only for a moment as their sharp beaks split to cry at the interlopers.  Fear!  Flight!  The impenetrable net above them that strained out sky and light was filled with the wind of beating wings, they could feel it on their faces, it thrummed in their ears, an arrhythmic beat, an erratic madness.  Fear!  Flight!  Flee!  But never far, never far, always one step ahead, one branch further, only to take flight again!  The world around them became a dark, thrumming mass of flashing wing and darting darkness.  Their steps quickened but the path twisted back, this way and that, never free of the copse of malevolent trees and terrified birds. 

Light often comes in strange forms when one feels most trapped by the darkness.  A spell.  The grizzled traveler knew a charm for such times.  He sang an old, throaty song, a song of light in darkness, of warmth in cold, of succor in abandonment.  A melancholy tune of being found when lost.  A song it was, imbued with ancient power, an enchantment stronger than fear, greater than darkness: Hope.  Soon the shadows parted.  The wings drew back, further and further to either side and then fell at last, fell behind.  Joy began to peek out and then…

They froze, the song cut off. 

A call.  A voice of Night.  A sentry’s query.  Ominous and portent.  Who?  Who goes there?  State your business.

A shadow, a silhouette on a dead branch, a horned watchman on his tower.  Who? Who goes there?  They did not answer.  The interlopers dared not speak.  The great watchman lifted up and on moccasin wing and silenced currents went to make his report.  Joy stillborn, hope forgotten, the interlopers pressed on no longer sure of the Road.  No longer sure of Home.  Eyes wide for what may come next. 

What came next were gnomes.  At first the travelers spirits lifted.  At first they laughed at the brightly colored comedians.  The cavorting fools.  The antics of the minuscule denizens of this enchanted wood.  So here, then must be the source of the tricks of light and noise.  Here then was the cause of their folly.  And favored guests they must be to see this village of the fair folk!

But no fair welcome was this.  All they received was course jest and rude name.  Insult and ignominy.  And warning.  The guard made it clear what the natives thought of their grossly oversized intruders.  The dead eyed scavengers gnawing on bones made it clear what the fate of those caught in these woods at night would be.  But fear not us, they mocked, no, no, fear not us!  We are the janitors, we are but the gardeners.  Fear the Parliament!  Aye, they laughed,

    The Parliament, the Parliament,
many wasted minutes spent,
    many fools’ last moments,
wondering what the wee folk meant
    by fear the Parliament!

When they know just what we mean
    split they are from spine to spleen
Too late they see what we’ve seen
    and we will pick their fool’s bones clean
And sing a jolly last lament
    to fools who should fear the Parliament.

And with many more rude noises and raucous laughter at our backs, we quit that place and none too quickly.  And before i and my companion had time to consider the song of the faerie folk, the sentry called again.  From far ahead, between us and the road came the challenge.  It was answered from West.  That challenge was answered from the East.  Then behind.  Again, and closer from before. 

Surrounded.  Hurried we did now.  The gnomes had achieved their fateful work.  It was dusk, we had lost the light.  No silhouette accompanied our warnings from above now.  The sentries hung over us unseen but not unheard.  Now before us.  Now to the side.  Faster and faster we went, as fast as we dared as root and rock sought to trip us in the gathering gloom.  Night fell and still we were fighting the path itself.  This way and that it turned.  Taking us tortuously close to the road, within sight of passing fortresses and then away and deeper into the rolling wood and hollering cataract.  A watery trench between us and the road.  An open maw.  And always the Parliament overhead!  Unseen talons in the dark.  Silent wings at our backs.  The values shifted.  Dark path became ribbon of light. Reflecting leaves became deep shadow.  Trees closed in around us, reached for us, cut us off from the Road and then…

We stumbled and nearly fell down the steep embankment cut by human hands, abrupt, unnatural and oh so welcome at last we came to the Road!  Fumbling for the key, encased in steel and glass, engine roars to life, lights stab the darkness and make it deeper still but outside, outside, blessedly outside.  Escape at pursued impala speeds, they breathed deeper the artificially heated air, they let the chill escape their feet, they tore into sugary chocolate to sweeten the fear from their mouths and set course for home.

The deep raking talon tears along their souls will heal and be forgotten in a week or two.  Or so i’m told.

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