A cool breeze caressed Aedilas’ cheek and made him think longingly of the pitcher of water he had waiting for him in his cabin. He’d been cutting wood for what seemed like hours now and was covered in a sheen of sweat. Every three days he’d go out and chop up enough wood to last him for three days and nights. Then he’d pile the wood up on the side of his cabin, so that it would be easy to get if he needed it. He’d always done it this way, since back when his wife was still alive.
Whenever Aedilas thought of his wife, it awoke the pain inside. It had been ten years since she’d died, but the terrible ache was just as strong whenever he thought of her. She had been his best friend and constant companion for much of his life. Not counting the Dark Times, when war had ravaged the land, and men spent their days either fighting or fearing for their life. She hadn’t known him then.
It was getting harder to hold his axe steady and split the wood. Aedilas had a pain in his hands that seemed to be coming more often and his arms didn’t have the strength they once did. Aedilas was getting old, but didn’t consider himself an old man yet. His hair was more silver than it was black, but he still held his head up high when he walked and could fend for himself.
“Aedilas! How’s the stew today?” Varius yelled and waved, as his two dogs barked their own form of greeting.
“It’s good enough, but always tastes better when I’ve got some good conversation to go with it. How’s the real world doing?” Aedilas asked fondly. Varius was a hunter that would visit Aedilas whenever he was in the area. He’d bring Aedilas fresh meat and stories and Aedilas would offer up a spicy stew and brandy he distilled in his cellar. Both men thought they were getting the better end of the deal.
“Men fight, men die, and women keep birthing more. It’s the same as it’s always been. You’d know that yourself if you ever left this cabin of yours.” Varius gave each dog a pat on the head, then tossed them two bones. They curled up on the ground and started gnawing on them contently, and Varius helped stack the firewood against Aedilas’ cabin.
“What use do I have for other people? I have no family and the only woman I’ve ever loved is already in the next world. I’ll stay here with my trees and my brandy and live out the rest of my days,” Aedilas said.
Varius nodded. He spent most of his days alone with his hounds in the woods, so he couldn’t fault Aedilas for choosing a life of solitude. People would smile to your face and stab you in the back, but nature never did. If you respected nature and knew your place, then you’d get along just fine with each other.
“Well, let’s get inside. Night will be coming soon and the stew should be almost ready. I’ve got a fresh batch of brandy too. It’s a bit stronger then the last batch,” Aedilas said and grinned.
“Dear gods, I couldn’t see for two days after drinking the last stuff you made.”
Aedilas chuckled and opened his door. He stepped inside and Varius followed. “I guess you’re staying the night then?”
“I have no desire to try and wander these woods drunk and blind,” Varius replied and shooed one of his dogs outside when it tried to follow him into the cabin.
The cabin was warm from the fire and filled with the spicy aroma of stew. Varius was never able to figure out what it was that Aedilas put in his stew that made it taste so good and the old man wouldn’t tell him. It must be herbs that grew locally though, since Aedilas never went to town to buy anything.
Varius sat down at a table in the kitchen and Aedilas walked over to the pot of stew that was simmering over a fire. Aedilas picked up a long wooden spoon and dipped it into the stew, then brought it to his mouth. He tasted it and nodded in satisfaction.
“Stew’s ready,” Aedilas said and grabbed two large bowls to fill up with food.
Varius stood and opened up a cupboard, where he spotted a jar of brandy and two mugs. He grabbed the brandy and the mugs and set them down on the table. Aedilas had a bowl of stew for each of them and two spoons already sitting on the table.
Aedilas filled up the two mugs with brandy and raised his in a toast. “Here’s to you, Varius. Keep bringing me meat, to keep my belly full and I’ll keep giving you brandy, to keep your wits dull.”
Varius laughed and both men took a long pull from their mugs.
“You weren’t joking, this is potent.” Varius said and wiped a tear from his eye.
“When a man gets up in years like me, he needs strong drink to keep his bones warm at night. Where’s my meat anyway? I’m starting to get low.”
Varius smiled. “Give me a couple weeks of hunting and when I’m done I’ll stop by here and give you a share.”
Aedilas nodded. “Fair enough. Just don’t take too long, or you might find me starved to death.”
“If that’s the case, I’ll pour us each a mug of brandy and drink them both in your honour!” Varius declared.
Both men laughed and began to eat their stew. It was good and the brandy was strong and they stayed up long into the night retelling old stories that seemed to grow more outrageous with each telling. When Aedilas awoke in the morning, with a headache and a tender stomach, Varius was gone.
Three days later, Aedilas frowned at the dull ache in his hands. It was so bad he could barely keep a hold on his axe. He looked with dismay at the wood he had to cut and briefly thought about doing it another day.
“No,” Aedilas muttered. “I do this every three days, Liliana always said it was important to have lots of firewood.”
Aedilas swung the axe and struck the wood in front of him. He cried out in pain and dropped his axe as the force of the blow reverberated through his aching hands. “Gods, above!” Aedilas swore and gently rubbed his hands together.
His hands throbbed painfully, keeping time with his heart. Aedilas closed his eyes and breathed deep, trying to slow his pulse and accept the pain in his hands. If you could accept pain, then you could overcome it. He slowed his breathing and focused on the pain.
His hands became warm and the pain receded so quickly, that he almost lost his concentration. The warmth spread out from his hands, through his arms, shoulders and the rest of his body. Aches and pains that he’d lived with for so long, that he forgot they were there disappeared and he stood in surprise, feeling like a man half his age.
Aedilas grabbed his axe, and noted that he held it steady. He took aim at the wood and raised the axe up and brought it down. The wood split and Aedilas let out a gleeful chuckle. He didn’t think his old trick of accepting pain would work so well. He cut through the rest of the wood, and piled it neatly against his house.
“You’re much stronger than you were,” a feminine voice exclaimed.
Aedilas let out a scream and jumped into the air. He turned around and held his axe out in front of him, ready to attack the intruder on his land, woman or no. The strangest woman Aedilas had ever seen was standing in front of him. She was tall, about the same height as him, and had long green hair that was the same colour as the leaves on the trees. She was only wearing a white diaphanous dress, that barely concealed her dark brown skin.
“Who are you?” Aedilas finally asked, when his voice returned to him.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the woman said and giggled. “I forgot you’ve never seen me! My name is Maelin.” Maelin twirled around in a circle, making her hair and dress fan out around her, before facing back to Aedilas.
Aedilas forgot his fear as he regarded Maelin. The old curiosity that burned inside him when he was young and didn’t know better flared up again. “I take it you’ve seen me before?”
Maelin nodded and smiled. “Do you like your gift?”
“What gift is that?”
Maelin slowly walked towards Aedilas, “You were broken. Someone had put out your Flame,” Maelin said and placed her hand on Aedilas’ chest. “I lit it again, I made you whole! Does that make you happy?”
Aedilas’ heart skipped a beat and he broke out in a cold sweat. “Dear gods, no. You broke the High King’s decree?”
“Do not worry, Aedilas,” Maelin said. “Your King has no power here.”
“His power is everywhere,” Aedilas whispered. He sat down roughly on the grass as his mind raced. “Why did you do this?”
Maelin sat down beside Aedilas and rested her head on his shoulder. “I promised Liliana I would look after you. She said that I must make sure you remember to put your shoes on the right feet when she is gone.”
Aedilas’ eyes widened in surprise. “You knew my wife? For how long?”
“We were friends for many years. I wanted to be your friend too, but Liliana thought that I’d make you think of a time better left forgotten. When she grew sick I wanted to fix her, but she would not let me.” Maelin frowned.
Tears fell from Aedilas’ eyes and wet the wispy beard he’d forgotten to shave. “I don’t suppose she would. My Liliana was a great believer in destiny.”
“Do not cry,” Maelin said and wiped the tears from Aedilas’ face with her finger tip. “I have seen Liliana. She is happy where she is and patiently waits for her love.”
“Can I see her?” Aedilas asked.
Maelin raised her chin haughtily and struck Aedilas on the nose with her finger. “Do not ask such things, Aedilas. You must wait until your turn to go there. That place is not for mortals, who still breathe and sleep.”
“My apologies,” Aedilas muttered.
Maelin’s smile returned and she stood up. “I must go. Enjoy your gift and be happy again!”
“Wait!” Aedilas exclaimed and jumped to his feet. “Will I see you again?”
“Of course,” Maelin replied and raised her hands to the sky.
An aura of light surrounded her and Aedilas could smell soil and pine. He closed his eyes and breathed the smell in deep. When he opened them again, Maelin was gone.
Over the next week Aedilas explored his ‘gift’ and revelled in the power it gave. Half forgotten words of magic returned to him and he made mundane tasks, like tending a garden, become exercises in Spellweaving. His spirit soared, as he recalled how to shape reality to his will, and life felt new again.
Maelin was as good as her word and returned everyday to watch him Spellweave. She would laugh and clap as Aedilas summoned hazy phantasms to dance for them. He even gave a mouth and eyes to an old tree, who spent the whole hour of the spell complaining about a family of squirrels that had made him their home.
One day, when the first week was over, Aedilas lay down on the grass surrounding Tonderan Lake. He had just spent the morning exploring the bottom of the lake in a bubble of air and was now relaxing in the sun and enjoying some of his brandy. A breeze smelling of wildflowers brushed his shoulder and he turned to see Maelin sitting beside him.
“Hello, Aedilas,” Maelin said and grinned mischievously.
“Hello, Maelin,” Aedilas replied and offered her his jug of brandy. “Would you like to try some?”
Maelin’s nose wrinkled up in disgust and she shook her head. “That smells terrible. How can you drink it?”
Aedilas smiled. “The smell and taste grow on you after a while. Truth be told, most men drink brandy for the way it makes you feel, not the flavour.”
“Nothing that foul could make you feel good, Aedilas. The sun above, and grass underfoot. A sheltering tree and a cool breeze. These are the things that should be cherished. Not smelly bog water,” Maelin declared.
“Those are all wonderful things. Yet, sometimes a man needs more in his life,” Aedilas said and took a drink from his jug. “May I ask you a question, Maelin?”
“Of course, Aedilas!” Maelin exclaimed and rested her head on Aedilas’ shoulder. “We are good friends now. You can ask me anything.”
Aedilas cleared his throat nervously, “What, uh? What exactly are you?”
Maelin’s head popped off Aedilas’ shoulder and she narrowed her eyes at him. “Aedilas! What kind of question is that?”
“Forgive me. It’s just, I know you aren’t human. Are you some type of forest creature that I never learned about?”
Maelin jumped up and turned away from Aedilas before crossing her arms. She turned her head back to him and said, “I am not a creature, Aedilas. I am a woman. Can you not see?”
Aedilas eyes widened, as Maelin’s dress became even more translucent. Suddenly her womanly curves were much more pronounced. She turned around and he could see her nipples standing upright and the hair of her sex, dark and inviting. Aedilas quickly turned away and flushed in embarrassment.
“I’m sorry. Of course, you’re a woman. A beautiful woman.” Aedilas paused, and tried to calm his racing pulse. His eyes were drawn back to Maelin and he slowly ran them up the length of her body. Maelin preened under the attention, enjoying the touch of his gaze.
“Now do you see, Aedilas?” Maelin purred. “Do you wish to see more?” She shrugged her shoulders and her dress fell to the ground at her feet.
“Dear gods, I’m an old man. Why would you want to be with me?” Aedilas asked. He was trying unsuccessfully to keep his eyes on Maelin’s face.
“You make me happy and I make you happy,” Maelin said and pressed her lips to his.
Aedilas kissed her back and decided that there was no point in trying to argue with that.
Hours later, they lay in each other’s arms, dozing idly in the sun. Aedilas was still reeling from Maelin’s touch and silently debating if it was worth waking her up to reach for the jug of brandy laying just out of reach. After careful consideration, he decided that he could have brandy anytime, but doubted that he would have many more sun filled afternoons in the arms of a beautiful woman. Aedilas lay there feeling proud of his decision, when the familiar bark of two dogs jolted him upright, and woke Maelin.
“Gods, it’s Varius. Should you hide?” Aedilas asked in worry.
Maelin calmly stood up and stretched, arching her back and causing Aedilas to curse the luck that made Varius come by on this day. “Do not fear,” Maelin said and put on her dress. “I will go now. Men always get sleepy after lovemaking, anyway.”
Aedilas raised an eyebrow and briefly wondered how many men Maelin had been with. As he was pondering this, Maelin raised her arms and disappeared in a beam of light, leaving Aedilas with his thoughts and the scent of rain showers.
Varius’ two dogs started barking and ran towards Aedilas, as they spotted him near the lake. “Hello, Aedilas!” Varius called out.
Aedilas looked towards Varius and waved, remembering belatedly, that he was naked. Aedilas quickly dressed and said, “Hello.”
“A fine day for sunbathing,” Varius said and stifled a grin.
“Indeed it is,” Aedilas growled. “Now, let’s get all the jokes out right now. I don’t want to hear any comments from you about finding an old hermit, naked by the lake.”
Varius scratched one of his dogs behind its ear, and gave Aedilas a solemn look. “The way I see it, this is your land. If you want to walk around naked on it, then do it, by all means.” Varius paused and his face split into a grin, “I just ask that you keep your clothes on when we’re together. I wouldn’t want my poor hounds to confuse you for a piece of old jerky.”
Aedilas smiled and the two of them laughed as they made their way to Aedilas’ cabin. “Did you bring me any meat this time? Aedilas asked as they walked.
“I did. Some delicious venison and a bit of rabbit. It should last you sometime,” Varius replied. “I left it back at your cabin.”
Aedilas nodded. “That’s good. Thanks, Varius. I suppose you’re going to be wanting some of my famous brandy then?”
“I’d love some,” Varius said and gave Aedilas an appraising look. “I must admit. You look much better you did than the last time I saw you. You look years younger, truth be told. What’s your secret?”
Aedilas flushed and looked away. “I started exercising. I swim in the lake every day. It’s gotten my blood flowing again, and I feel like a young man again.”
“You look it,” Varius replied.
Aedilas smiled and they spent the rest of the walk speaking of trees, birds and things that men who spend most of their life in a forest like to talk about. When they arrived at the cabin, Varius took the meat he had brought and placed it in the shed to be salted and dried. They both went in the cabin and Varius grabbed a jug of brandy and sat at the table expectantly.
“I don’t smell anything cooking and your fire is out. Do you want some help preparing things?” Varius asked.
“Nonsense. Everything’s ready, just give me a moment. I need a bit of leyleaf to spice the stew, go outside and get some.” Aedilas knew that would keep Varius busy a while.
Varius grinned and stood up. “Now I know your secret ingredient! Aren’t you worried I won’t come back?”
“Bah. We both know you’re too lazy to cook for yourself. Now get out there and gather the herbs,” Aedilas growled and made shooing gestures at Varius.
Varius laughed and left the cabin, calling his two dogs to follow him as left.
“Gods above,” Aedilas muttered. He peaked outside to make sure Varius was gone, then shut the door. He stood over his stew pot and called on his magic, or ‘Flame’, as Maelin would say. It answered his call and he muttered words of power. The wood under his pot burst into flames and the ingredients he needed flew from their homes and into the pot. Within minutes, the stew was boiling.
The door swung open and Varius strode in, shaking his head. “You sly old devil. You sent me on a fool’s hunt for those herbs, so you could prepare the food without me watching. I should have known better.”
“Yes, you should have.” Aedilas tasted his stew and frowned. “It’ll be a while before the stew’s ready.”
“Well, the brandy’s fine,” Varius replied.
Aedilas grunted in response and sat down at the table. Varius passed him a mug and each man raised theirs to the other in salute.
“You’re staying here the night?” Aedilas asked.
“If it’s not too much trouble.”
“As long as you’re gone in the morning. If you stay any longer, I’ll run out of brandy and I don’t think I’d like to spend too much time with you sober,” Aedilas said with a grin.
“I promise, you won’t see me when you wake!” Varius said and the two men started some serious drinking.
Aedilas woke with a pounding headache. He reached over to the table that sat near his bed and cursed as he knocked over the cup he left there, filled with water. He tried to call on his Flame, but his Spellweaving failed. Aedilas cursed again as he realized he’d have to get up and get some water the normal way. He was too sick to Spellweave.
Aedilas filled his cup and took a long drink of water before getting dressed and going through his morning ritual of washing his face and mouth. When he was finished, he stepped outside and squinted at the bright sun. He looked around and saw that Varius and his hounds were nowhere to be found. Aedilas could never understand how that man could drink so much and be awake and on the road so early.
The day promised to be a hot one, so Aedilas decided he’d head down to the lake for a swim. He walked slowly, enjoying the smell of the forest and the heat of the sun. Maelin would come and find him soon, she always did before too long. Aedilas made it all the way to the lake and still Maelin hadn’t appeared.
Aedilas decided to wade into the water a bit, and rolled up his pants over his knees so they wouldn’t get wet. He took his first step into the water and felt a breeze brush his cheek, smelling of honeysuckle. Aedilas turned and saw Maelin smiling at him.
“Hello, Aedilas,” Maelin said as she walked into the water and took Aedilas’ hands in hers.
Aedilas smiled and kissed Maelin’s hands in reply. She shivered with delight, then broke away from Aedilas and ran along the shore. Aedilas laughed and followed after her.
Maelin sat down on some grass and waited for Aedilas to catch up. When he did, she pouted and said, “I don’t like your friend. He smells like death, don’t let him come around anymore.”
“Of course he smells like death, he’s a hunter. It’s his job to get meat for myself and others back at town. He’s a good man, Maelin.” Aedilas said.
“I don’t think so.” Maelin opened her mouth to say more, but Aedilas silenced her with a kiss. It lasted long and Aedilas wanted it to last longer, but he felt Maelin stiffen in fear. Aedilas pulled back and turned his head to follow Maelin’s gaze.
Varius was standing a short distance away with an arrow knocked. His two hounds were growling and eyeing Maelin up like potential prey.
“Step away from it,” Varius commanded.
Aedilas placed himself between Varius and Maelin. Even though Varius had his bow, Aedilas was more concerned that Maelin would hurt him. She was obviously powerful and Varius was out of his depth.
Aedilas put his hands out towards Varius and said, “Put down your bow, old friend. This is Maelin, she’s a friend of mine and the reason why I look so much better. She’s reminded me that life is a gift and not a serious of chores. Sit with us and I’ll tell you about how we met.”
Maelin gripped Aedilas’ arm tightly and whispered in his ear, “He is not what you think. He means us both harm, Aedilas.”
Aedilas looked towards Maelin, taken aback by the fear in her voice. “He’s my friend.”
“That I am, Aedilas. Now step away from it and let me strike it down with my bow,” Varius yelled and his hounds started to circle Aedilas and Maelin, growling and snapping at the air.
Aedilas’ eyes grew dark, when he saw Maelin flinch away from the snarling dogs. He looked towards Varius and spoke in an old voice, the voice of a man he’d thought dead long ago. “Call off your hounds, Varius. Maelin is dear to me and I will suffer no harm to befall her. It is within my power to stop you, though I’d prefer it if you put down your bow willingly.”
Varius smiled. “I know of your power, Aedilas Shadowbane. You were the greatest of the High King’s Spellweavers. You were at his side in the Dark Times, fighting against the Shadowlings from the Sunless Realms. When the High King was hurt, you used the Staff of Daegelon to shut the portal and banish the Shadowlings forever.”
Unwelcome memories of that terrible day flooded Aedilas’ mind. His face turned ashen, as he remembered the sound of Shadowlings tearing a man apart. Many of his friends died that day, so the world could be free. The High King murdered the remaining Spellweavers and took away Aedilas power as a reward for their sacrifice.
“How can you know these things?” Aedilas asked quietly.
“The High King told me, of course,” Varius replied. “He bid me long ago, to keep watch over you and make sure you never regained your powers. Spellweavers are too dangerous to let live or roam free. It looks like that creature beside you returned your power somehow.”
“I am not a creature!” Maelin yelled and pointed a long finger at Varius. Maelin’s eyes were hard and her mouth was set in a grim line. “I am part of this forest, and your King has no power here!”
“His power is everywhere,” Varius said, echoing Aedilas’ words from days ago. Varius whistled and his hounds jumped on top of Aedilas, knocking him down.
Aedilas called on his Flame and a powerful wind came and knocked the two dogs off of him, and into a tree. He stood and turned towards Maelin when heard her scream. An arrow was sticking out of her chest and her eyes were shut. Light was streaming out of her wound with a growing intensity.
“What have you done, Varius?” Aedilas screamed. He ran towards Maelin, but before he could get to her, she exploded in a flash of light. The blast knocked Aedilas onto his back and left him blind for a few moments. As he rubbed at his eyes, struggling to see, he smelled the faint scent of fallen leaves.
Aedilas heard growling and stood, shaking his head as his vision returned. He looked to where Maelin had fallen and saw only dead grass in the shape of her body. Harsh growls from each side of him, alerted Aedilas to the threat of the dogs.
“Calm yourself, Aedilas,” Varius said. “The creature is gone and I am willing to let you back into the High King’s good graces. He spared you, all those years ago, for the service you did the realm. If you give up your power willingly, he’ll let you live out the rest of your days in your cabin.”
“The High King is generous,” Aedilas whispered. He felt the power of his Flame coursing through him in a raging torrent and let a little of it escape him and flow into the sky. The cloud’s darkened and the wind began to howl. “Yet, why should I need his permission to live in my own land?”
“He is the High King,” Varius replied and pulled an arrow from his quiver. The arrow glimmered with a crimson light, that spoke of power stored within. “This land and all others are his domain.”
“Not anymore,” Aedilas said and closed his hand into a fist. The two hounds yelped, then burst into flame. Within seconds they’d burned to ash and were blown away by the wind.
Varius loosed an arrow, and Aedilas shouted a word of command. The wind obeyed and blew the arrow into a tree, which began to burn from the arrow’s enchantment. Aedilas opened his hand, palm down, and lowered it. Varius felt his legs stop working and he fell onto his stomach and dropped his bow.
Aedilas slowly walked towards Varius, with a thoughtful look on his face. “When I first met the High King, I was a boy. Did he ever tell you that?” Aedilas asked.
“He didn’t,” Varius gasped. There was a force pressing him down, and making it hard to breath.
“He taught me all I know and would often look at me with pride as I eclipsed all the other students. Yet, sometimes I would see a strange look in his eyes. Something akin to fear, or maybe jealously.” Aedilas spoke a word of magic and Varius was raised into the air, with arms and legs stretched out to his sides.
“You must stop this,” Varius pleaded. “The High King checks in with me regularly. If I’m dead, he’ll know you have your power back and he’ll come for you!”
“I look forward to seeing him,” Aedilas said and pointed at Varius. Varius’ feet burst into flame and the fire slowly burned up his legs and body, scorching his flesh, even as his screams assaulted Aedilas’ ears. In moments it was over, and Varius was a charred husk laying in the grass.
“The High King has no power here,” Aedilas whispered and fell to his hands and knees. He bowed his head as his anger left him, and the old familiar ache returned to his heart. It was worse than ever, as memories of two dead women danced through his mind. Even the thought of facing the High King, and killing him for what he’d done, gave Aedilas no respite from his sorrow.
Despair threatened to overwhelm him. He shook his head angrily, picturing what Liliana would say if she saw him feeling sorry for himself. Aedilas stood up and turned towards the lake. When he did, he felt a breeze touch his cheek, smelling of soil and pine.