“The Lamp Trees”
Copyright Jack Sutter 2018-2020
There were four trees upon the green. And in each tree there was hung a lantern. Every day, at sunset, the lamplighter would come, and place fresh candles in the lamps if need be and light them. Why, no one knew. It has been that way for longer than anyone could remember from one generation to another. It was a must unfortunate turn of events when one day, someone found out.
It was well past seven, and darkness had taken the land scarcely an hour before. Strictly speaking, it was forbidden to visit the lantern trees after they were lit. But Harald had done it anyway. He was young, fit, an able swordsman, and was afraid of nothing. It was said that terrible things would befall anyone who visited the lamps while they were lit. Some said that trolls came there and made council during the night, others said that witches conducted their fiendish rites, and some even said that the devil himself was their guest of honor. Whatever it was, Harald was determined that this night, he and he alone would at last find out.
Harald sauntered about beneath the lanterns, his hand resting jauntily on the longsword sheathed at his side. He feared neither trolls nor witches, and he wasn’t sure whether he even believed in the devil.
Loafing around in the middle of the four trees proved a boring business. Harald amused himself at first by whistling. When he got bored of that, he recited some poetry. He didn’t know much poetry though, and the little he did he only knew but poorly. Eventually he thought that he might be making himself a bit too conspicuous, standing as he was in plain view under the baleful glow of the lamps. So at length he repaired to a tree a short distance away, and watched the lights from afar. He daren’t whistle now, for fear he should frighten away whatever timid creature held all the village in a fear more timid.
The hours rolled by. Harald’s vigil was proving a lonely one. As the chill of the night began to settle into his bones, Harald wished he had someone to talk to as he gazed mournfully at the lamps, waiting for something to happen.
And then, a voice spoke.
“If it’s company that you wish for, you need only ask.”
Harald started. He looked around, but there was no one in sight. From the sound of it, it was as though the voice had come from the very center of the copse of four trees, but in their midst there was yet nothing.
“Speak your desires”, the voice continued, “and they shall be granted to you.”
Harald gulped, and laid his hand on his sword.
“Who are you?”, he cried. “Where are you? Come out and show yourself!”
“I am nobody”, the voice replied, “and I am nowhere. Speak, what is your heart’s desire?”
Harald peered out into the darkness. He still couldn’t see anybody out there. Was the voice really coming out of the nothingness?
“What do you mean?”, Harald asked. “Why do you want to know my heart’s desire?”
“Didn’t you know?” the voice replied. “These are wishing trees. Isn’t that why you are here?”
“Of course”, Harald blustered. “Why else would I be here?”
“That is good!”, said the voice. “Then tell me, what is your heart’s desire?”
Harald thought for a moment. There were a great many things in the world that he desired, but to sum them up on the spot he found himself at a bit of a loss. Money, fame, a beautiful woman, power and strength, excitement, adventures, the honor and respect of his community.
“Make up your mind!” the voice cried. “You have only one opportunity. The lamps burn tonight for you, they will not do so again. What is your heart’s desire?
Harald took a deep breath. He had come up with a reply which was the best he could do at short notice.
“I should like a rich, beautiful wife who will make me a great lord and a mighty hero.”
“Very well”, said the voice, “your wish shall be granted. You must now extinguish the lamps.”
“What?”, Harald said, confused.
“You must climb each of these four trees and put out the lamps. Only then will your wish be granted.”
Harald knew there had to be a catch somewhere. Bit it didn’t seem too difficult to climb the trees. With a whoop, he bolted for the nearest tree and began to scamble up it. It was far more difficult than it looked. Again and again he scrambled and scraped and fell to the ground. At long last, he lurched himself high enough into the boughs that he could reach the lamp. The candles inside were enormous, and as hard as he blew he could not put them out. Finally, in desperate frustration he licked his hand and closed it fast over the flame. He cried out as the fire burnt his skin, but the candle was out. He put out the others in turn, this time with more care. He then climbed down the tree, nearly falling to the ground as he did so. And he began all over again with the next tree. And the next. And the next.
Finally, at long last he stood panting at the base of the final tree. His hands were seared and bleeding, his shins and elbows torn and tattered, and all around him there was naught but darkness beneath the trees.
“Well done”, the voice said. “You wish shall be granted!”
Suddenly, the world around Harald faded away.
He found himself standing on the crest of a great hill. He was seated on a mighty steed, his body was encased in jewel encrusted armour, and on his head was a crowned helmet. Before him was a great host of soldiers arrayed in splendour, and at his side, seated upon a pure white mare, was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
The woman turned to him and smiled.
“Now is your hour, my husband. Now is the time that you shall become a great lord and a mighty hero!”
As she spoke, she raised a slender arm and pointed.
And at the bottom of the hill Haralod now saw that there was a tremendous horde of trolls, outnumbering his own a hundred to one.
Harald gulped. But he knew what he must do. With a cry, he drew his sword, and rallying his men the charge was sounded. And Harald charged headlong into the horde of trolls, disappearing into their midst as his men followed behind with brave cries upon their lips.
And no one in the village ever saw Harald again.