On the nineteenth day of December

Two days ago, the elder had given the little bearded fellow directions to the over-hanging rock under which the puffballs grew; for though the elder had led him there some three days prior, the way they had taken was intricate. It would be the task of the little bearded fellow to gather and transport the mushrooms, but, the elder had cautioned, this must not be done too early, or else they would perish.

In the afternoon, the little bearded fellow ducked under his train-clock-fence, and set out according to the directions he had received; though it was not yet time to pluck the puffballs, he wished to determine for himself where the grotto lay, so that he could find it again with ease thereafter.

But what was implicit for the elder — how at a certain fork, say, the recentness of the displacement of fallen foliage indicated which of the two paths was the continuation of the one he was taking — was not always evident to the little bearded fellow. And encountering, say, a shortcut under a natural arch formed by two small trees bent towards one another, their branches intertwined, the little bearded fellow and his kin would always take it rather the long way around, this both bringing luck and evincing respectful esteem for the structure; of such magical lore the elder was unaware.

In consequence, it took the little bearded fellow — frequently retracing his steps; and often stopping, in puzzlement as to what the elder might have meant — considerably longer than he had anticipated to find his way. Now, though, he was at last not far from the over-hanging rock — but night had in the meantime fallen. There was only a weak moonlight, that served to emphasise the darkness more than it alleviated it.

Out of the deep murk between the trees, dozens of will-o'-the-wisps suddenly surged upon the little bearded fellow. With a light that was of a chill spectralness, they appeared right before his eyes, excruciatingly close — he snapped his head back, and stumbled backwards. Other will-o'-the-wisps took up the assault. The little bearded fellow recoiled and recoiled, unable to orient himself.

The will-o'-the-wisps were grimly silent; the only sound was that of the frantic shuffling of the little bearded fellow's feet in the hoarfrost, and fitful cracks from twigs broken in his stumbling. A horror of the mind — labouring, failing to define, to comprehend its antagonist.

The little bearded fellow collided with a stone, and fell painfully into the obtuse darkness at the foot of a tree... but in that instant, the will-o'-the-wisps lost him for a moment, and this gave the little bearded fellow a chance.

As he lay there, a will-o'-the-wisp found him... but the little bearded fellow was ready. He snapped his fingers, and a white spark flew; alight just a moment, but of a blinding intensity that eviscerated the the will-o'-the-wisp's ghoulish gleam. Another will-o'-the-wisp swept suddenly towards him... and scorching white ignited from his fingers once more.

The little bearded fellow rose back to his feet... and a full-blown battle broke out. The will-o'-the-wisps swarmed, diving towards him unremittingly; he met them with burning light, his fingers clacking without cease, his arms thrusting, his hips turning. Flashes of white light cut one after another through the air, fighting.

The little bearded fellow's magic thus provoked, the will-o'-the-wisps could not break through the light-barrage, and the fearsome struggle drew on and on. But at last their force was spent, and the little bearded fellow was suddenly alone again in the winter night.

The moon was now higher, and the frost and frozen branches of the forest glistened a little in it, as they had not done earlier. The little bearded fellow proceeded finally to the over-hanging rock and the puffballs it sheltered; squeezing one between fingers for reassurance, it released three elegant, silvery jets of incandescence as if from a candelabrum — the most exquisite manifestation of the signs' hidden light that the little bearded fellow had yet seen.

This is the nineteenth part of an episodic tale written in November and December 2022. Previous part. Next part.

Last updated: 13:51 (GMT+1), 20th December 2022