She watched his face just beyond the sheets of rain, standing abruptly at the edge of the wood beyond the garden. His garment was black, like smoke about a witch’s pole, and his face was shrouded beneath a wide-brimmed hat. Wind curled about him and whipped the limbs and branches of the trees at his back so that they yearned to tear from the earth and fly into the darkness and the fires in the distance. But the man at the edge of the wood, he was not dismayed by the whirlwind, nor did the trees assault his figure nor the rain flood his hat. Instead he stood, resolute and rooted to the spot, and gazed at the house wherein she observed the world without.
Her first instinct was to hide, to flee the man who walked along the edge of the forest, who wandered through years and miseries unknown. And so, she did at first; she retreated from the porch upon which she had been watching the fire from the sky fall upon the cities to the East. She had smiled then, until he came within her view, moving among the shadows in the trees, his cloak billowing about his ominous form. She arose quickly, shuffled inside and shut the door with haste. She knew not why she felt so afraid, only that she could not allow the man to see her, lest she vanish from her home, lest the wood consume the garden, the porch, the house. Her children would be lost to the forest and the old gods therein.
Panic was a tricky friend, and the woman had only met her briefly before, a faint passing by in the uncertain twilight of a crescent moon. She met her again now, and her breathing grew shallow, her heart increasing in speed – pitter-patter pitter-patter. The window down here had dust on it; she had never realized that before. The dark figure stopped moving and merely watched the house. She thought perhaps he had heard her withdraw into the shadows, into the refuge of her home. Now he hovered there, over the face of the rainwater that pooled on the ground, too much for the Earth to drink up all at once.
The fire in the distance was bright, and the higher the flames grew, the greater were the shadows cast by the old trees of the forest. An explosion rocked the ground upon which she stood, a great ball of light and smoke erupting over the nighttime horizon to the East, a hundred miles away. She watched it flood the sky with light and darken the stars, licking the firmament with its vicious tongue. When she looked back to the forest, the figure was gone, along with his silhouette. She glanced about, running from window to window and scanning the tree-line. The rain was descending in heavy torrents now, nature’s temperament for the scorched lands beyond. But she could not see, only thin shadows and blurry windfall as branches collapsed with thunderous ruin.
The settlement sat in the eye of the storm, wind only tantalizing the shuttered windows above and the unlocked door. Yet the storm raged at the edge of the trees, and tempted her to step back outside, to watch the fires in the East and the rains and ash-clouds between here and there. So, she stepped out the door once more, barefoot and wide-eyed, to observe the beauty and the majesty of her world. The wind blew and she gasped, the rain poured and she cried, the fire burned and she screamed, and she stepped ever forward across the clearing, past the garden never-thirsty, beyond the orchard ever-ripe, until she stood abruptly at the edge of the wood.
A faint sound tickled her ears. It was pleasant, like the singing of a gentle stream, or like birdsong at a long-anticipated dawn. And it had a melody unlike any she had ever heard—and believe me when I tell you, she had heard many a wonderful song, even creating some herself. But this song, this new song, it settled warmly, like a cat before a wood-stove inside of her head, and it drowned out the chaos with the most soothing and royal of purrs. She listened attentively, and peered as far as she could into the trees, attempting to identify the source.
Then the song arose with euphonious alacrity as out from the depths strode forth another, a creature of beauty and grace, a being of light and of hope and of promise and strength. It came forth as a beast of legend and was lithe and cunning, for its smile held a thousand lies, and yet the tongue possessed rote honesty and wit. It whispered into the song and the rain could not withstand it. The sky and his downpour abated, and the creature came to the woman and hung its song upon the wind of its breath, its tongue entering her ear with a new voice and another world. She smiled and was intrigued. But the creature—it was enamoured.
‘My Queen,’ quoth the pretty creature, and bowed before her feet, worshiping her ferocious beauty and pulsing light. ‘I heard your song in the forest and followed it here to this clearing.’
She spoke not a word, but observed and enchanted her companion without intention.
‘Surely you will come,’ the creature said, and offered its hand.
She lingered, favoring one foot over the other. She looked only at the creature for a time, then glanced at the tree-line once more. Any other day, she would have seen him. She would have noticed his wide-brimmed hat vanish behind the tree, his cloak wave at her from the shadows. Any other day, she would have caught a glimpse, would have remembered and run back to her house. But on this day, on this dawn she had not anticipated, with the fires burning on the hidden horizon, the light of the creature so enthralled before her shone brighter than the border of the wood, and she stretched out her hand. Taking it fast, the creature danced her into its world, and the forest consumed them in their consummation. What life and abundance they experienced! What excitement and god-like quality! And all was merry and all was fey—but for a time. For soon thereafter the Sun stood bright above the clearing, and saw with despair that the woman was gone.
The figure at the edge of the wood now watched the depths of the lesser shadows of the midday Sun, and bowed his head. For he watched as they went their way with a kiss, watched as she stumbled back along their winding trail. And he watched as she tried again and again to find her way back to the orchard and the garden and the house of her children. He watched as she grew despondent and despaired. He heard her cry, and he turned away.