Now dressed, he took up his trusty oak staff from the corner in which it lay. Its well-worn shaft slid easily, comfortably, into his scarred palm, settling into his grasp, fitting the curves of his long fingers. He smiled a little from the sharp sweetness of the wood, from the memories it conjured. He had worn it well, worn it into him, through years of constant use. And how he had used it! When he had been young and fit, when his spirit had been sturdy, he had done things that changed the fabric of this very world, things that lived on in the pages of lore-books, the stuff of legends and ballads.
Ah, he sighed again, moving towards the door. Those memories had been more than a lifetime ago. He was now just an old man who lived alone in the mountains, a shadow of the mage he had once been.
Outside, the air was crisp, nippy with the scent of conifers and coming winter. A full moon burned in the sky above, casting the high mountains, the mossy rocks, into dapples of white and blue, a dichotomy of light and shade. He paused for a moment in the broad light of the moon, letting its warmth trickle into his achy bones. It strengthened him, warmed his insides. He felt his limbs beginning to tingle, and smiled as the fire inside him, the magical flame, slowly stirred to life again. He let the moon’s face shine fully on his stooped back as he moved further along to the henhouse. It was this light, and this light alone, that could raise his power. He needed it for his strength and for his magic. He was probably one of the last of them, he thought, cold fingers fumbling with the latch on the henhouse door. The numbers of the moonmage clans had always been few. They had never really been the romantic sort, never ones for marriage or childrearing, too much suited to being alone, to meditating and working. He himself had spurned women, preferring the open mountains and open night sky instead of a humble home, a bed, a wife. Now, here in the cold and the dark, he wondered if he had perhaps missed out on something golden, some hidden joy that other men had long been reaping.
He at last got the door open with a frustrated grunt. Wiping his hands, he crouched down and put his head inside the henhouse. The hens clucked and rustled sleepily in the heavy darkness. The smell of them was deep and keen and warm, and it brought tears into his eyes, but he spoke softly to them, patted their soft feathers, and laughed at himself for his old foolishness: the chickens were all fine, all here, all safe. He did not know why he had been worried about them. He shut the door again, latched it, and then held his breath, a wave of concern and worry coming over him. He’d been dreaming before he’d woken. He’d dreamt something, and it had made him afraid.
He shook his head.
No, it couldn’t have been. It was nothing but a dream, a nightmare. He was truly getting too old for this living alone out here in the wilderness; it could make one go mad eventually, even a man like he who was accustomed to being alone. He checked the henhouse door again, and tried to convince himself he was being foolish as usual. The hens were safe here. All was well; the mountains were quiet.
Yes. That was it. They were quiet, and they were not supposed to be. He listened hard, listened to the dead silence. Not even a cricket was chirping tonight. It was only cold and full of moonlight, very strong moonlight, moonlight that made his spirit feel sharper than usual, his senses sharper than usual. He smelt the air. It did not smell normal to him anymore: he smelt another smell, one sweeter than the others, stranger. It reminded him of the days that he had gone into battles, and had done war with the greatest of other mages. Their clothes had always reeked of this smell. So had his, when he’d had the strength to actually use his staff for its real purpose.
But what would magic be doing here?
There was no one here, no one but he and his chickens. He shrugged, taking another long look round at the dark trees, the white rocks. The mountains were quiet, that was all. He was just being an old fool, a very old fool. He trudged slowly back to his cabin, got into bed, and eventually fell into a dreamless, restless sleep.
Come morning, after a breakfast of onions and dried jerky, he headed for the henhouse again. He was greeted by a frost-stilled world, trees, ground, and air locked in gossamers of fragile ice. All was pristinely silent and fresh, awaiting the embrace of coming gold light. As he walked, the world crackled softly against him. He liked the sound: it was like music, fey music.
The chickens were already awake. He heard their anxious clucks and trills before even opening the door, and at once he knew that something was amiss; something had frightened them. He jerked open the door and peered inside. The chickens were huddled in a knot in the centre of their house, staring at him with wide, wild eyes.
“What is it, lovelies? What is it?”
He stroked them and spoke to them, but they did not quiet, rustling their feathers and lurching worriedly about instead. He shut the henhouse door, looking around for a sign of what had happened in the night after he’d gone back to bed. And then he saw, behind the henhouse, the delicate outlines of paw tracks imprinted into the frosty ground. He went over at once and knelt. The breaking sun had begun to melt the frost, letting clear water pool in the shallow impressions in the mud. Four toes, one pad. Long and lean. Too big to be a fox’s.
He felt a shiver go through his body. It was so severe he had to cup a hand over his mouth to keep in his teeth.
A big wolf.
And again, faintly, that odd ambrosial scent, that sweetness, came to his nostrils. His eyes followed the tracks past the henhouse, under the conifers, and over the closest rocky ledge into the mountain heights. So it had come down from the mountains, come here, and gone back, likely to the little creek that chuckled through the crags up there. And it would probably return. Wolves often returned.
The sunlight was beaming full upon him now. He groaned, rising stiffly. Sunlight was not to his liking, never had been. Judging by the look of things, he thought he would likely have to return to sleeping in the day and waking at night, return to the way he lived when he needed mana in his blood. He caressed his staff lovingly, reminiscing. He would, perhaps, need to use this again, and he hoped he could remember how.
For something was stirring.
Something that was not mundane.
That night, the moon rose higher than it had the night before, nestling itself amidst the tops of the conifer citadels. It was a cold night, frosty again, and the sky hung low and deep and black over the mountainside.
He stood in the cabin doorway in his cloak and cap, staff held to his chest. He was alert and awake, rheumy eyes fixed on the blazing moon. He was simply here to watch and wait, see what the night would bring. His chickens were safe inside his house, warm in blankets under his bed. He listened. Only the moon’s light seemed to speak, shining loudly, silently.
And then a rustle came from the bushes near the henhouse. He tensed, peering hard at the shadows, listening more. The rustle deepened into heavy breaths, heavy growls. Something large and silver was brushing round the henhouse furtively, round and round, searching. He caught a glimpse of gleaming eyes, of long, strong legs. Moonlight burnt fiercely on his bare face and hands as he watched intently. The fire inside him was very hot. The strength was in his bones, behind his eyes: he raised his staff, ready to strike, but then he lowered it suddenly.
The beast had sat down on the ground. Its growls had ceased, instead giving way to a low sound like sobbing, human weeping. The old man’s heart pounded in chest. What was this beast doing? What wolf cried like a man? The creature threw back its great head, raised its snout to the moon. The old man braced himself, but the mournful, eerie howl rocked his bones anyway, shook the magic inside him, dared it to burn even more.
“Beast! Stop!” he shouted, rushing forth, staff high. The wolf was taken by surprise; it careened off its haunches and onto its feet, snarling, teeth and eyes and silver fur flashing under the moon’s gaze. He swung at its head and hit flesh, and it bolted away into the grasp of shadow and rock.
Gasping for breath, the old man doggedly followed. The strike, the feeling of hitting something solid, had sent jolts of pleasure through his arms. He liked that feeling, that feeling of power, and the feeling of the magic alive inside him. He set off along the path the beast seemed to have taken, up higher into the mountains. The moonlight had filled him with ancient strength and dulled his pain; he traversed the mountains with the agility of one decades younger. He crawled over rocks, under branches.
“Beast!” he called. His voice echoed off the quiet peaks, and he listened for the creature’s breathing, smelt for its scent, for that of the sweet ambrosia. It might have known the mountains well, but he knew the mountains better; he had been born of them, raised in them, and nothing could hide from him here for long.
He got to the creek. It was half-stilled by frost, no longer chuckling. He found wolf tracks around it, on both sides of it, and he crossed it with one wide swoop of his long legs. On the other side, he found a thicket of conifers, and he pressed into them, pushing back their sharp branches, shutting his eyes, twisting his face away from their hands.
“Beast!” he called.
In the moon-shrouded shadows, he caught the glimmering of two embers, two eyes. He heard its growl low and severe; and it sent shivers all through his angled body. He smelt its breath, sweet with the smell of magic, of fading spells.
It was curled against a sheet of rocks, trapped in one of the mountains’ strongholds. It thrashed; it cowered; it snapped its jaws, but the old man did not retreat, nor did he come closer.
He gazed down at it solemnly, staff held across his chest. The moonlight’s affect was trickling slowly through his limbs, circulating within his spirit, and with his eyes thus washed in magic, in his elixir of strength, he saw the wolf thoroughly. He saw its tears, it pain. He saw something else inside that fur; saw a brother-in-spirit, saw a similar soul.
Murmuring words not said in years, he extended the staff and touched the wolf’s mighty shoulder. The flash of magic leapt from his bones instantly, sending searing pain throughout his aging countenance. He cried out and stumbled backwards into the grasp of a pine, having forgotten how painful it had been to use magic; it had always been painful, always, and always would be.
But as he emerged from the momentary dizziness, he saw his spell had worked.
Instead of a wolf, a tawny-haired young man, hardly old enough to be a man, lay curled on his side on the ground, sobbing. He was dressed in only ratty clothes, thin and ripped at the shoulders, elbows, and knees, and his body was covered in bruises and scratches, including one very large bruise forming on his shoulder where the old man had struck him. The old man came a step closer and the young man’s face lashed out towards him, pierced him with pale, terrified eyes.
“Are you going to kill me?” whispered the young man. The smell of magic was thick on his breath. “Are you going to finish me off? Go ahead, kill me.”
“I don’t want to do that,” said the old one slowly.
The young man was trembling; he looked up at the moon and winced, writhing more, a groan coming from him. “Why does it do this to me? Why does this happen?”
The old man smiled a wrinkled, understanding smile.
“I think you are like me.”
When the young man just stared at him, the old man showed him his staff, his aged hand with a new scar rapidly forming along its length. The scar was from the words he had uttered just moments before; each of his many scars was from the words.
“A moonmage. A nightwalker. I used to be like you, when I was younger. I could take the form of any night creature I wished—a wolf, a bat, an owl. Anything.” His eyes lapped the light on the young man’s face, appreciating the youth’s sharp features, keen gaze. There was magic in this one, sure enough. The young man kept staring at him, as if waiting, waiting for more.
The old mage finally said, “I am Kael.”
And the young one’s eyes flooded with wonderment, with shame, with awe. He turned towards the old man and reached for his hands, voice shaking: “Oh, my! Oh, my! Kael the Great Mage? Kael the Silent? The one who destroyed the vile Nightshade clan? The one who balanced the world with moonstones? The one who saved Shaeshyn?”
“Yes,” sighed Kael, sadly, fondly. His mind drifted back to all that glory, all those events of his youth and middle years. How many years ago had that been? Forty? Fifty? More? He had lost count living here for so long, winters all the same, sunsets all the same. The young man grabbed at the old one’s hands.
“I am honoured to meet you, milord,” he said. The old one patted the young one’s hands in return. The young one’s were warm, tender, still free of scars; and his eyes were bright as dewdrops.
“Remember this,” proffered the old mage. “You are one of the last, like me. Find a wife. Have children. It might be hard to pull yourself away from the moon, from wandering in its path, but believe me, it’s worth settling down. At least your bed will always be warm and food always ready.”
The old one tried to rise now, leaning heavily upon his staff. The moonlight’s tingle was beginning to trickle out of him, and he creaked and grunted in vain, finding that he could not stand until the young one helped him up.
“Can—can you teach me?” asked the young one suddenly, as the old man turned to leave. Kael looked over his shoulder, an expression mixed with surprise and odd tears.
“But I am an old fool,” he said.
“No! An old mage.”
“And why would you want me to teach you?”
“Because—because I admired you.” The young one looked shyly to the ground, kicked it with his bare, frozen feet. “I read about your legends. I wanted to be like you. Because—I want to be a real mage, if I can.”
The old one smiled again. His heart was warm, though his limbs were cold, and he walked over to pat the young one’s good shoulder.
“You can come with me if you promise not to eat my chickens,” said the old man. “They’re for eggs only, you know.”
The young man’s face spread with a grateful, glad smile that spoke the confirmation of that promise. He put his hands on the old mage’s arm and helped to guide him back over the rocks, over the stream, under the trees, to the cabin and the sleeping hens. The moon shone strong and warm upon their backs, and both the old man and the young man, the old mage and the young mage, smelt the sweet ambrosia, felt the fire inside them kindling, and knew that they would share many nights together roaming the mountainside and howling to the moon.
© Belle DiMonté 2012
Belle DiMonté is a widely published fantasy author and the editor of the fantasy ezine Into the Willows.