In a country far, far away, hidden in a valley covered with clouds, there sits an old, cold house. It hunches over the land it has been raised on, brooding like a veteran over past victories and defeats, glowering at the mosses and grasses that dare to encroach upon its silent reverie. A ragged and uncared-for path beats its way to the front of the house; tattered weeds springing up between the flagstones. The wooden front door hangs off its hinges, creaking and muttering quietly to itself. There is no one left here any more to listen to the tired, repetitive complaints of old wood though. No one has come to this place for a long time.

It was not always this way. Once, long ago, someone used to live here. A man came once, fleeing some dark and terrible thing. He came across this house, in that country far, far away and made it his fortress and his refuge. He never spoke of the things he was fleeing from, and for a long time no one came to the house. He hid there in solitude, hiding himself away behind the glass and the wood and the mortar, and he was, if not content with his lot, at least at peace. He found, at the back of the house, a garden and in it he planted a bush. For many years he tended to that bush, protected behind strong walls of stone and the barrier of the house, and yet never did anything flower. This saddened the man, although he could not pinpoint exactly why, but he cared for the bush as if it were his own flesh, and went about his life.

Now after many years of living there alone, tending the bush that never flowered under that grey sky, people came to the valley and the house. At first the man simply watched them from the window, sometimes acknowledging their presence and sometimes not, but never more than that. He noticed after a while though, that some people came back to the house more often than others, and these he studied and considered. Eventually, he even came down to the front door and opened it to meet them.

First came the dark lady. Dressed in raven mourning, and wearing secrets around her like a veil, she had been among the first of the visitors and the most persistent. She intrigued the man; so like him in many ways and yet so different in others. When he opened the door to her, she merely smiled at him as if they had known each other for years and the house itself welcomed her in as if she had lived there all her life.

The next visitor was, in some ways, as different from the woman as the day is from the night. He came with hair of sunlight and laughter that made the man smile even in the depths of his loneliness and isolation. Yet there was about him a shadow, and sometimes the laughter was replaced by a sadness so like that of the man in the house that his heart was touched. Perhaps here was another person who had experienced whatever darkness the man had fled all those years ago. He too entered the house and was welcomed.

The last visitor was a quiet and contemplative man; he arrived at the front of the house one day and sat there with an air of calm acceptance and peace, waiting for the man in the house to come out and acknowledge him. This intrigued the man in the house; so many visitors in the past had tried to attract his attention with wild displays, or else tried to barge into the house as if it were their own and change things. He went down to meet this visitor, this stranger who had turned up with no comment and no demands. They exchanged soft words at the front of the house; words that were carried away by the wind so that no one else could snatch them and then the quiet man came into the house and was accepted.

The man who had lived in the house completely alone was surprised by these developments, and yet strangely happy at the same time. The sadness that clung to him like a shroud lifted when he saw the raven lady, the laughing knight or the quiet man. Even the house itself seemed brighter, as if sunlight had broken through the clouds that still clung to the valley. It was a strange feeling for the man in the house, but he enjoyed it and was pleased by how things had transpired. Then something even greater happened. The man went out into the garden and saw that the bush that he had so carefully tended and protected had given rise to a solitary, perfect red rose.

He was overjoyed by this unexpected gift and called to the raven lady, the laughing knight and the quiet man. They came and saw the rose and were happy at the joy it had so clearly brought to the man in the house. For the first time since he had come to this place, the man in the house thought that he might finally have escaped his demons, and he was glad.

For a few years this happiness continued. The man opened his house to all who came, and the sounds of laughter and music could be heard on the breeze for miles around. Still came people who tried to enter the house and order it to their rule, but the man was no longer afraid of what they might do to his refuge and he was able to deal with them in short order. Yet there was still a doubt that gnawed at the man in the house. He had thought that with the flowering of that solitary rose, a turning had been made of his life, and that soon the garden itself would flourish again. But no matter what he did, nothing ever grew in the garden, and the bush itself still only bore that solitary flower.

Then one day a stranger came to the house, a man of desire and passion. The man in the house was bewitched, and he invited this stranger in to the house. It was a new time for him; his companions before had opened him to life, but here was a person who opened him up to fire and heat. His joy was tempered by the fact that this new companion, who to him was life and love, bore death with him as well, and it saddened him to know that one day they would be forever separated. It must have saddened his new companion as well, for one day the man in the house woke up and found him gone from the house. The light dimmed for a long time after that; the clouds pressed even closer against the valley and the house it sheltered, and the man retreated back behind his walls and his windows. Even the efforts of the raven lady, the laughing knight and the quiet man could not rouse him from his despair for long, and he spent long months alone in the garden contemplating the rose that still flowered there.

This continued for many years, and as the time passed by so did the man in the house become more distant. The raven lady still came to visit him to share their secrets; the laughing knight still came with a joke at the cruel whims of life and an angry defiance of fate; the quiet man still came to share acceptance and wisdom. Yet they could see that when they went away again, as go they must, the man in the house would retreat back behind the walls and close in on himself.

Something unexpected happened then. From a land even further away than that distant land that held the house in the valley, came a man of the ancient people, singing songs of his history and telling stories of the world. He had seen the man in the house long ago at the window, and had come to realise that he wanted to come back one day and get to know this strange, distant soul who hid behind glass and brick. The man in the house had noticed him long ago as well, but had dismissed him as another of the reckless hangers-on who had been at the house before. When the man of the ancient people came though, the man in the house felt a rippling of light run through the house, and he himself realised just how he had missed this stranger who he had never actually met. He threw open the doors once more and invited the stranger in.

For many days they shared their stories and their secrets, and both were glad, for something special had been forged without them even noticing. But as the time went by, the man in the house noticed his new companion was quiet and sad. The man of the ancient people had travelled a long way from his home to reach the man in the house, and he could stay no longer. When he was told this, the man in the house was devastated. He walked the man of the ancient people to the front of the house, watched him as he disappeared over the horizon, and then turned back to the house, walked in and closed the door on the world outside.

The raven lady came to the house but the man would not let her in. She nodded her understanding and went away again, knowing that the time would come when she would return and be admitted. The laughing knight came to the house but the man would not let him in. He nodded his acceptance and went away again, knowing that the time would come when he would return and be admitted. The quiet man simply observed this and nodded his understanding to the man in the house, and waited.

The man in the house was sorry at turning his true companions away but he realised that he had to protect the defences of his house. He knew that the raven lady, the laughing knight and the quiet man would never violate his sanctuary, but he needed to ensure that no other strangers could again get in and destroy his peace. He could only hope that his companions realised this.

He went from room to room in the house, in the cold, grey light, checking that everything was secured and safe. Finally, he went to the garden. He saw to his dismay that the rose bush, with its solitary flower, was dying before his very eyes. As he watched the rose, he saw it break up into six perfect red petals that drifted slowly to the ground. He bent to pick the fallen petals up and, looking at them in his hand, suddenly everything became clear to him.

He sent out a call and his companions came to him, as he knew they would. The raven lady, the laughing knight and the quiet man came, and were accepted back into the house. The man of the ancient people came from his distant land, and even the man who bore death in his blood came once again. They gathered in the garden, with the dead rose bush and the man in the house clutching six perfect red petals in his hand. He looked at them for a time, and they looked at him. He turned to the man who bore death in his blood.

“You were the one who taught me that lust and passion are an essential part of life, “ the man in the house said. “But you also taught me that it is only the imminence of death that truly makes life precious, and that we should seize every moment that life offers us, for it could be our last. I only wish I could have explored the moment more with you.”

With that he held out his hand. The man who bore death in his blood reached out and took one of the petals from his hand and, with that, was gone. The man in the house turned next to the man of the ancient people.

“You were my potential and hope for the future. You showed me that, no matter what life may send my way, there could always be surprises around the next corner.” The man in the house paused for a moment, and then smiled wistfully. “However, where I am going, there is no longer any place or need for hope. You came far to be here and you have far to go to return. Take hope with you always”.

He leaned forward and kissed the man of the ancient people and then held out his hand. The man of the ancient people took another petal and then was gone. The man in the house then turned to the quiet man.

“You were my contemplation and my awareness. You showed me that acceptance is such an important part of life, and that only through understanding why something happened could I then move on to making that thing mine.” The man in the house shrugged helplessly. “I only wish I could find the words to express it more clearly.”

The quiet man said nothing, but smiled his understanding and, stepping forward, he hugged the man in the house, took a petal from his hand and was gone. The man in the house then turned to the laughing knight.

“Where to begin? You showed me that there is laughter in everything, and that is possibly one of the greatest gifts that I have ever been given. You made me smile when life was bleakest and taught me that I have the capacity to do the same as well. But even more than that, you also showed me that sometimes it is good and necessary to get angry, to take the steps to change a situation that is bad for me. Thank you.”

He closed his empty palm and pressed it against his heart in a form of salute, and held out his other palm. The laughing knight took a petal and then he too was gone. The man in the house then turned to the last of his companions, the raven lady.

“As you were the first, it is only fitting that you be the last as well, “ he said. “You have always been my emotional strength and my empathy. You were the part of me that I always felt was missing before I met you. I mean, it has reached a point where you can even…”

“Finish your sentences for you” came the soft reply from the raven lady. They shared a small, private smile and then hugged before stepping apart from each other. The man in the house held out his hand. Smiling sadly, the raven lady took the last but one petal and she too was gone.

Left alone in the garden, the man in the house looked around one last time before looking down at the last petal held in his open palm. He smiled softly to himself and then, humming a little tune under his breath, closed his palm on the petal and was gone.

No one has ever come to the house since, and it has maintained its lonely, silent vigil down the years. But maybe one day, someone will come to that cold, empty building, and its halls will be filled with noise, and the windows stream with light. And just maybe, in that garden, one day, roses will bloom again.

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