The Lantern Hart
by Myles Buchanan
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Days passed and Glena did what she could. She tried to make arguments. If the morrith forest was really harmless, filled with shadows and green-tinted light and chattering squirrels and nothing else, then why were there wolves amassing silently on the forest’s western edge? And why were they ridden by figures hidden inside dark grey cloaks, figures that looked like death?
She went to her parents, to the village watch, but they just sent her back to the fire with her schoolwork and a mug of drinking chocolate, told her to play in the very forest she’d warned them about. She was only a child, after all, and nobody else had seen such things.
Pera and Luna had not taken her advice, and now they hardly spoke to her. Glena could often see them playing with the other village children, making forays into the same trees out of which she’d seen wolves poking their fanged muzzles. Why did nothing go wrong? Every afternoon, Pera and Luna laughed and played with the other village children in spite of the rain and sleet, and Glena was relieved and frustrated that nothing went wrong.
Most days she sat inside her own modest living room with her drawing pad and books, listening to the low drone of her parents’ voices. They asked her what had happened to Pera and Luna and then eventually seemed to forget all about it, going about their normal grown-up business as if she wasn’t there at all. Her father returned late from bartending the Fernleaf Tavern, and her mother either chattered with the weavers’ guild or labored silently on some unending household project. They hardly seemed real to her.
With dread, Glena felt herself becoming the type of person the other kids despised: silent and awkward, scouting the perimeter of the other children’s games, forever preoccupied by strange thoughts. She watched autumn sweep the leaves of the oaks through arrays of bright color. The morrith trees of course remained the same, crouching in dark-green menace as the days shortened and the storms grew worse.
Would no one listen? Clouds closed over the sky, chilled rain raced between the cobblestones, thunder cracked the air. It soon became difficult for Glena to distinguish between the thunder and the growling of the amassing wolves, and soon her frustration gave way to sorrow and fear. When the other children disappeared into the morrith trees, she hung back. And when Pera and Luna emerged, Glena sometimes saw other movement among the twisted trunks. But she could say nothing more.
Instead, she drew. That night she sat with parchment on her lap and her charcoals spread out on the table beside her and drew so she wouldn’t cry. The creature she created seemed to be a stag, but its curled antlers were massive, and nestled between these antlers were orbs of light. In her mind these orbs glowed a bright gold.
Finishing the drawing, she felt okay for the first time since Pera and Luna had gone away. She sketched stocky morrith trees in behind the animal, and it seemed more complete. She imagined this creature ranging amongst the trunks, sending the wolves and whatever rode them fleeing with the sharpness of its antlers and the scorching light it carried.
If only such a thing existed, she thought. Rather than think more of Pera and Luna, she imagined a handsome boy riding the animal, but she dared not draw him.
* * *
The next day, there was a knock on her door: four light knocks in rapid succession. Glena’s heart leapt. She dared not allow herself to think. It was Pera. Without her sister Luna, she seemed somehow larger, her beauty spreading to occupy a space normally occupied by the two of them. Glena was hesitant but delighted. Pera scuffed her feet in the doorway.
“You can come in if you like,” Glena said.
“No,” Pera said. “No, that’s okay. I came to apologize.” A grin was forcing its way through even this phrase. “Listen, Glena, you were right. There is something hiding among the morrith trees. It was there all along. But it’s a good thing. He’s just there to protect us.”
“What?” Glena shifted. She felt awkward beside Pera’s enthusiasm. “I’m sorry. I just don’t understand what you mean.”
She was practically hopping up and down with excitement. “Listen, Luna doesn’t know,” she said. “And you aren’t to tell her. But I met someone out there. A beautiful boy. He was dressed in robes of green and white. He seemed to glow. And he was riding a lantern hart.”
“A lantern hart?”
“That’s what he called it. His steed. It was a great stag, and it held magic in its antlers. Orbs of orange light. I can still see the way that light struck the trees. All of it was enchanted just for me.”
Glena felt a strange sort of nausea churning through her. “And what did he say?” she asked softly. “What did he say about the forest?”
“That I had nothing to fear!” Pera said. “That none of us have anything to fear!”
“I see,” Glena said, because she could think of nothing else, because the blood was still pounding through her veins.
She half-expected the drawing to be gone when she returned to her room, or altered, the handsome figure of a boy imposed in perfect charcoal on the beast’s back. But the drawing was the same. It was only back in her room, away from the warmth of Pera’s presence, that she thought to wonder: Where is Luna?
* * *
The afternoon crept into evening. The joy brought by Pera’s reappearance dissipated quickly and left a hot and crinkled feeling in Glena’s chest, like the feeling that came before tears. She couldn’t bear the thought of sitting inside with her parents, so she drew her cloak close about her and walked the cobbled streets, fighting the impulse to cry. A thin sleet was already falling.
She realized after some time that she was jealous. She tried to think of what it would be like to be held, feel slender warm arms around her shoulders or waist, a hand moving slowly through her hair or gently on her ears. Angry tears built in her eyes. She walked without knowing where she wanted to go.
She found herself outside the Fernleaf Tavern, which by this point in the early evening was alive with song and frivolity. A kind glow came from the lighted windows. For a moment she felt peaceful and thought about stepping inside.
She had the thought that her worries were hallucinations after all, just fantasies of a girl sad and excluded. It struck her as possible, and the thought comforted her. I can go into the tavern. I can listen to the singing and the dancing and drinking. All those people so happy. But she knew she was not allowed inside. Her father had said so.
When Glena saw Luna, she started with surprise. Luna looked bad, smaller somehow, and there were scared lines around her eyes and mouth. Even with the sharp sheen of her hair, the girl seemed to melt out of the darkness like a ghost.
“Hey,” Glena said. “I didn’t realize that was you.”
Luna stared through Glena with a kind of numb fear, as if she’d never seen her before. “Oh,” she finally said. “Hey, Glena. I was just looking for you.”
“Looking for me?” Glena asked. She felt in a trance herself. More and more the world wasn’t making sense to her. “Luna, don’t you think you should get inside? Where it’s warm? You look horrible.”
Luna wiped her eyes. “No, that’s okay.” Her eyes darted back and forth across the empty square. “I just wanted you to know that you were right. Something terrible is out there,” she broke off and covered her face entirely with her hands. A sob escaped her and for a moment it seemed like her knees were going to give way.
“I saw the monster you were talking about,” Luna said. “I saw a man all in gray, with just darkness where his face should have been.”
“Where?” Glena said. She could feel the queasiness building through her chest. She thought she might be sick. “You mean in the morrith wood?” She didn’t know whether she should go to Luna, if she should put her hand on her friend’s shoulder.
“He was riding a terrible creature. A great stag. Larger than any I’ve ever seen. And it held... it held a terrible light in its antlers. It made all the trees look dead.”
Glena tried to speak but could think of no words to say. While she hesitated, Luna seemed to shrink. The door to the Fernleaf Tavern banged open and bright laughter tumbled out. Glena glanced toward the open doorway: a laughing couple emerged. It was Feldan, the miller’s son, with a tall beautiful woman Glena did not recognize. The two of them were bright in the glow of candles and hearth. Glena looked away, and Luna was gone as if she’d never been there. Glena blinked. For a moment she wondered if she’d imagined everything.
That night at home she stewed over it. She pulled the blankets close to her chin and drank tea while, outside, the evening sky unleashed hell on their little village: rain enough to extinguish all the torches and lash the morrith forest to a frenzy.
Her father and mother droned on about the village, about Glena’s schoolwork, about her bedtime. They talked about the storm: not about its origins, but about how long it would last, what damage it would do to the outlying farms, whether any of the trees on the village’s edge were liable to fall.
Glena barely listened. Over and over she went back to the drawing of the lantern hart. She thought about destroying it but knew that she couldn’t. She felt that something terrible had been revealed to her, but she couldn’t say what.
She never saw Pera or Luna again. In the years that followed, she tried not to think too hard about what happened. After all, no one knew anything: the girls had vanished into the morrith woods the next day and never returned. The only thing that was strange, people said, was that they went separately.
There was no reason, Glena decided, to think about it further. They had abandoned her, after all, and whatever it was that resided in the morrith wood had gladly received them.
Copyright © 2015 by Myles Buchanan