Snow rippled with dancing moonlight and shadow, orchestra to the conductors of looming pines, their boughs lurching and vaulting in the wind. The wintery symphony blew clear and strong through the stand of tall evergreens, a rare crystalline night breeze that chased the brooding storm clouds back over the mountains. In a clearing, a sturdy farmhouse abutted a tall barn. Warm light and laughter splashed through the smoky windows to ward off the shadows at the edge of the trees, softening the stark moonlight.
Then the moon’s bright face dimmed, an errant cloud silencing the music of light and shadow, plunging the scene into muted tones of grey on black. The tall pines now stood as foreboding giants, as if the veil of darkness had revealed their truer nature, the shadows at their bases deepened, heartened by the luminous orb’s demise. Then something in the deeper shadows began to move. Stealthy bits of midnight slid between the trees and detached themselves from the recesses where shadows usually lurked to creep across the grey snow. Deep footprints belied the illusion of ethereality. Some skittered from the woods toward the barn, while others edged along the spears of yellow light to lurk near the door of the farmhouse.
Not a sound escaped the shadows, but they turned with mute obedience as their master appeared. The towering figure strode into the open, disdaining the need for secrecy. One thick arm bearing a great curve of jagged steel rose slowly into the air. The shadows stood poised, ready. The blade slashed the peace of the cold night air, and the grove exploded with violence.
The barn door dissolved into splinters at the first crashing blow. Brays of alarm from the mules and a milk cow’s truncated bawl of terror split the night’s silence. In the farmhouse, the laughter ceased. Shapes danced in the warm yellow light, moving first to the window, then to the door. The portal flew open, followed by the sharp tines of a pitchfork. These impaled an attacking shadow and blocked the clumsy sword thrust of another, but the outcome of the battle had been decided before it had even begun; outrage and farm implements were no defense against whistling arrows and flashing blades. Shadows flooded the farmhouse, muffling the screams of those still alive within.
The sacking was swift under the commands of the experienced leader. Skittish mules strained under hastily piled loads. Sacks of grain, kegs of ale and pieces of the coarsely butchered cow were divided and tied on, followed by blankets, bolts of cloth and casks of salted meat. The most pitiful baggage was hauled bound and gagged from the house, small and struggling in the grip of the attackers. Only half the size of the smallest of the invaders, the captive was tossed roughly over the back of a half-loaded mule. Only when the two buildings lay as empty shells did the attackers finally form into disorganized ranks and depart.
Silence and stillness crept back to the clearing in their wake, the scene ironically unchanged. A few splashes of crimson on the snow and the crumpled form in the doorway of the house were the only signs of the violence that had visited. Then flames began licking hungrily within the house, greedily devouring the dry wood and destroying even that lying semblance of serenity. The pyre lasted for hours, while the moon remained hidden behind its insulating cloud, as if ashamed of what it had seen.