Virgil jumped off his horse cart in front of the door with heavy metal bands and the blue glass lamp. The cold breeze made his coat flap. He rubbed his hands together and stamped his feet to get rid of the stiffness. Autumn was coming to an end, and soon the game would become scarce. He would have to make do with whatever he could find in the woods. But for now, he looked forward to some cider and a haunch of roasted meat dripping with grease. And a warm bed, if he could manage it.
The stable boy came running.
“Run faster, boy. If I stood here any longer, I’m likely to turn into a tree,” he said with a lopsided grin, to take the sting out. “Lead the cart out back, tell the cook I’ve got her boar, and then you can find a stall for Beth. But hurry, I don’t want her catching a cold.”
The boy doffed his cap at him, took the reins, and led the cart away.
Virgil turned toward the inn door and smiled. The woodcut swung noiselessly above the door, swaying in the wind. The two storied inn glowed golden in the light of the later afternoon sun. And the smell of roasting meat and spices was already starting to settle around the inn like a warm invitation. He rubbed his hands as he pushed open the door to The Leaping Hare.
He made his way up the narrow flight of steps to the common room. The warmth and the sweet odors washed over him as soon as he emerged onto the top step. He glanced to both sides. Except for a fair-haired fellow sitting on a bar stool, the place looked empty. The farmers were likely to be busy this time of the year, harvesting the last crop. But with the setting sun soon they would crowd into the inn to share wine, warmth, and gossip. It had been too long since he’d been here. The innkeeper was behind the bar, as usual, polishing his bottles of brandy.
“Silas, old friend, your place is a welcome respite from the worries of the world,” Virgil said, walking up to the bar.
The innkeeper turned around with a rag in his hand and smiled. “Virgil! You old devil! Bless your soul! I was beginning to wonder if that boar you promised my wife had gotten the better of you.”
A grin appeared on Virgil’s face, and his eyes twinkled. “The day a boar gets better of me will be the day when you run out of ale.”
The innkeeper laughed. “So what brings you here after so long? Don’t tell me you just came to deliver the boar,” he said squinting at him suspiciously.
Virgil’s grating laughter rang around the empty common room. He shook his head and said, “Your excellent meat and mead, my friend, what else? Although, I’ll take some hot spiced cider, if you have it. Winter has already started nipping at Autumn’s tail.”
The innkeeper nodded sagely. “I hear the lakes have started frosting over up north. A sure sign of a savage winter.” He disappeared through a door at the back of the bar and emerged a few moments later with a mug of steaming cider. “It’s a good thing that we had such a good harvest this year. There should be enough stock for the winters. I was also hoping to salt and smoke some meat before it snows.”
Virgil lifted the mug to his lips and savored the warmth of the cider as it made its way down his throat. He sighed with contentment. “That’s the best cider I’ve tasted in half a year. Almost makes it worthwhile having chased down that monstrous boar.” He winked at the innkeeper. “I believe it has enough meat to keep you busy for a few weeks making sausages.”
The innkeeper beamed. “That’ll make her happy.”
Virgil glanced to his right. That’s odd, he thought. The topic of the impending winter was enough to rouse even a drunk simpleton to conversation. But the fair-haired fellow had barely even looked at them. He sat hunched over and seemed to be brooding over his ale. His hands were strong and callused, but his clothes were too clean for a working man.
He leaned toward the innkeeper and whispered, “If I had to guess, I’d say the fellow over there,” he said, tilting his head to the right, “appears to be forlorn and in need of strong whiskey.”
The innkeeper glanced surreptitiously at the young man, then placed his palms on the bar and leaned closer. “That’s Aleph, poor fellow! Best carpenter you’ll ever meet. You see this bar top, how it shines in the firelight?” – Virgil nodded – “He did that. But fate hasn’t been kind to him. Son went missing a couple of months ago and it drove his wife mad. There’s been no sign of the boy, but the wife acts as if he’s just out playing and will come back any day. The boy ain’t coming back and the wife shows no sign of grief. Poor fellow!”
Virgil scratched his scraggly gray beard thoughtfully. “Terrible. But it ain’t uncommon, you know? Women folk, they have a strong instinct when it comes to their children. Maybe the boy is alive.”
The innkeeper shook his head sadly. “A three-year-old boy can’t survive in the woods alone, can he? You mark my words, it was a beast that carried him off and …” he broke off, unable to finish the sentence.
Virgil grasped the mug in both hands and drank slowly. After a few moments, he looked sharply at the innkeeper. “There are no man-eaters in Blaise Woods. No beast would dare come close to the village. Except for foxes, maybe. But a three-year-old boy is no chicken.” – The innkeeper raised a finger in objection – “But what do I know? I’m just a beat-up old trapper who almost let a boar get the better of him. A boar that you’re about to gut to make sausages and salt pork,” he said winking.
The innkeeper smiled. “You’ll be needing some hot food too, I assume. Martha has some lamb stew simmering in the pot. I’ll go check.”
“That would be marvelous! And while you’re at it,” Virgil added loudly, “another mug of ale for the master carpenter.”
The young man looked up with the ghost of a smile on his lips. “It’s alright, sir, you don’t have to buy me an ale. I’m not exactly destitute, in spite of what Silas might have told you.”
Virgil’s grating laughter rang around the common room again. He sat down on a stool beside the young man. “Gossips like an old maid, doesn’t he? Can’t blame him, though. It’s how he keeps his trade going,” he said, winking at the young man.
The innkeeper slammed the mug of ale on the bar top, spilling a third of it. He gave Virgil a withering look and stalked off.
Virgil grinned, grabbed the mug and placed it in front of the young man. “This, dear fellow, is in appreciation of your craftsmanship. Not many carpenters can craft a bar top that gleams like gold in the firelight.”
That seemed to lift the young man’s spirit. “Thank you, Sir! The name’s Aleph. But you give me too much credit. The right kind of wood and polish is what makes it gleam.”
“But it takes a skilled carpenter to pick the right kind of wood and polish, does it not?” – Aleph nodded – “I’m Virgil, and I know a fair bit about woods too.”
“You’re a carpenter?”
“Not exactly,” Virgil replied with a twinkle in his eyes. “I deal with the things that live in the woods. I’m just an old trapper, but I do know an oak from elm.”
Aleph lifted his mug with a smile and said, “Then let’s drink to your health, sir.”
Virgil lifted his mug and drank some cider. They sat in silence, watching the innkeeper tapping a new barrel in preparation for the evening crowd. The smell of baking bread had started drifting out of the kitchen and made Virgil’s stomach growl.
He turned to Aleph and asked, “Does your wood crafting skill extend to crossbows and bolts? I’m in need of some repair and restocking.”
Aleph shook his head. “That’s a job for an armorer or a weapon smith, but we have none in our village. Maybe I can take a look at your crossbow? Sturdy it up until you find a weapon smith?”
“I’d appreciate that a lot.” Virgil scratched his beard thoughtfully. “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but I’ve been coming to The Leaping Hare for decades now. How come I hadn’t heard of your skills as a carpenter before today?”
Aleph looked up and frowned in thought. “It must have been a long time since you stopped by in the village. It’s hardly been two years since I set up shop here. Before that, I was an apprentice elsewhere.”
“You must have been really good. Master carpenters don’t usually let their apprentices leave early.”
Aleph’s smile dripped with sadness. “It was partly because of my wife and my boy. My master was a good man. He knew an apprentice’s wage was not enough to take care of them. So he gave his blessing to start my trade here.”
Virgil bowed his head. “My condolences for what happened to your boy. No father should have to live beyond his children.” He raised his mug and said, “To your son’s memory.”
Aleph raised his mug and drank deeply. He opened his eyes and looked at Virgil pointedly. “Do you have children, sir? Or grandchildren?”
Virgil eyes lost their twinkle and turned a darker shade of green. He shook his head slowly. “Fate, it seems, did not want me to grow old in comfort or happiness. I had a family once, but time has eroded the memories. And even the pain of the loss.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“It’s alright. It was a long, long time ago. I used to lose myself in my trade during the day and drown my sorrows in ale in the evenings.” He drank some cider and looked sharply at Aleph. “But unlike me, you have a wife to go home to. Why not share your grief? Comfort each other?”
Aleph didn’t meet his gaze. Instead, he drained all the ale from his mug. “I wish I could. Find comfort in her presence, I mean.”
Virgil caught the innkeeper’s eye and gestured for another mug of ale. When it arrived, he replaced the empty mug in Aleph’s hand. “She needs you as much as you need her. Even if she doesn’t say so.”
Aleph looked at Virgil with tears shining in his eyes. “She won’t even accept that our boy’s gone. He’s not coming back, but she behaves as if he’s just playing hide and seek. She has always been cheerful and flighty, but this … this is unnatural. I can’t even see a sliver of sadness in her eyes. The wise woman said that intense grief might have unhinged her mind, but I can’t stand to see her smile as if nothing is wrong.” Tears were leaking from the corners of his eyes by the time he finished speaking. He wiped them away with his shirt sleeve and drank deeply.
Virgil placed a comforting hand on his shoulder and said, “Stay strong, son. Fate is not always kind, but you must not give in to despair. Your wife might be trying to give you hope, to alleviate your sorrow. A mother’s heart is a strange and wonderful thing. We can only guess at the storm raging within her. But she’s lost her boy, and you’re all she has left. Seeing you like this might be breaking her heart.”
Aleph looked up, a spark of hope blossoming in his wet drunk eyes. “But the village elders, they said … you really think …” He gulped some more ale, then fumbled with his shirt buttons. Finally, he managed to undo a few buttons and showed Virgil the thing he was wearing around his neck. “Meesah gave this to me when I asked for her hand. She said she’d made it herself and it would give me comfort and strength when I needed it. Do you think if I put it around her neck, it would give her the courage to face the truth?”
Virgil’s breath seemed to catch in his chest. He leaned closer to examine the thing. He reached out, but stopped and looked at Aleph, asking for permission. Aleph nodded. It was a flat, round stone, almost like a pebble. Not much bigger than the first two joints of his index finger. But he only had eyes for the scratches on the flat surface. They had been put their deliberately as if someone had tried to engrave a symbol. But it was done very crudely.
A log split in the fireplace and the flames fanned out momentarily. Virgil dropped the stone in surprise. The symbol had come alive with the flames. The scratches had glowed with a faint orange light for half a second. He clasped his hands together and blew on them to hide the trembling.
Aleph didn’t seem to have noticed. He was looking at him with hope still in his eyes. “Do you think I should give it to her then?”
“No,” Virgil said gently. He drained the rest of his cider. “I think she meant for you to have it. It’s a mark of her love. Keep faith, and she will come back to you.”
Aleph nodded and clutched the stone pendant to his chest. “You’re right. I know she loves me. I love her too.” He drank some more ale and said in a slurred voice, “I have treated her unfairly, but I swear I will make it up to her.”
It was dark when Virgil arrived at the cottage. The going had been slow. It was a long way from the inn, and the cold had seeped into his bones. He shivered as he reached out to knock on the door. In his other hand, he held Aleph firmly as he didn’t seem too steady on his feet. The door opened after a few moments, bathing both of them in warmth and light.
“A very good evening, dear lady,” Virgil said, speaking to the slender figure of a woman silhouetted by the fire. “And apologies. I’m afraid your husband is a little intoxicated, and I am to blame.”
“Aleph?” she called out in a sweet, soft voice.
He stopped mumbling and looked toward her. “Meesah, is that you?” he asked in a drunken slur. “I’m sorry for leaving you alone all this time. I love you and should have been…” He tried to reach for her but stumbled.
Virgil grabbed the back of his coat to keep him from falling. “It’s okay, son. You’re home now.” The woman was halfway down the steps as if to grab her husband before he fell. He gave her a sheepish grin and said, “He may have had a little too much ale. Would it be alright if I shared your fire, just for a little while?”
“Oh,” she said with surprise. “I’m sorry. Yes, please, do come in. And mind the steps. I always stumble over them in the dark.”
Virgil slung Aleph’s arm around his shoulder and followed her in.
Just a few steps in, Meesah spoke again. “Would you mind taking him in there, please,” she said, pointing to a door on the left.
Virgil half-carried, half-dragged Aleph into the bedroom. It was lit by a small lamp in a corner, and all he could see was the large bed that could have easily slept four. He lowered Aleph, who was still mumbling, onto the bed.
Meesah followed him in and started stroking Aleph’s head. “I’ll be out in a few minutes. Would you mind waiting at the dining table? You’ll be able to warm yourself by the fire.”
Odd, Virgil thought. She seemed rather cheerful considering the condition of her husband. He walked back to the hall, took off his hat and coat and put them on the stand by the door. Rubbing his hands together, he headed toward the fire to warm himself.
The fire was giving off a merry heat and had a faint whiff of something flowery. He took a deep breath and caught the odor of wood polish and sawdust lingering just out of sight. He turned around to let the warmth wash over his back and took in the sparsely furnished room. His eyes immediately jumped to the dining table. Just like the bar top at the inn, it gleamed in the firelight. The chairs were carved with intricate patterns of vines and flowers. It was exemplary craftsmanship and wouldn’t have looked out of place in a lord’s mansion. The rest of the room was sparsely furnished. A simple wooden bench beneath the window and a threadbare rug in the center. A working man’s house.
“I hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long,” the sweet, soft voice said, entering the room.
He turned to face her. “Not at all, dear lady. I was enjoying the company of this pleasant fire. I hope you’ll forgive me for bringing Aleph home drunk. I felt like the lad needed it, though.”
Meesah giggled. “There’s nothing to be forgiven, Sir. In fact, I must thank you for getting him drunk. I’m sure his company will be much more enjoyable tonight.”
She stepped into the firelight and Virgil examined her carefully. She would barely come up to his elbows and was slim as a willow. Her dark, braided hair framed a heart shaped face and fell past her lower back. The firelight danced in her dark almond-shaped eyes. Her lips were curled up at the corners, as if on the verge of laughing at a joke.
Virgil was surprised to discover a smile on his lips. “I don’t believe we’ve been officially introduced. The name’s Virgil, a humble trapper by trade, who happened to be passing by the inn and ran into your husband.”
She surprised him by curtsying. “I’m Meesah, a mother, and wife by trade, who wasn’t expecting company this night. If you wouldn’t mind waiting by the fire a little longer, I can get you some mulled wine.”
“Thank you, ma’am. But if it isn’t too much of a bother, might I ask for tea instead?”
Her smile widened. “Absolutely, sir. Please take a seat.”
Virgil watched her disappear through a door in the far corner and settled into a chair. The resemblance was unsettling. He had suspected the moment he’d seen the stone around Aleph’s neck. He closed his eyes and rubbed a spot on his chest. It seemed the time had come to make good on his failed promise.
Meesah returned after a few minutes, carrying a steaming pot and a pair of cups balanced on a tray. She walked slowly and carefully, eyes fixed on the tray. When she reached the table, she kept the tray down with a sigh of relief. “It’s not often that men turn down wine or ale,” she said, her eyes dancing with playfulness. “Your honor might be suspect, Sir. How can I believe what you say is true when you won’t drink wine like an honest man?”
Virgil’s grating laughter resounded around the small room. “I have seen too many winters, child. And have had my fair share of wine and ale. But in the woods, I make do with tea. And now I find that I prefer tea.”
“Well, then I’m glad. I love tea and rarely get a chance to share it with someone who likes it.”
The smile returned to Virgil’s face. She had swept away his melancholy memories just by her presence. He accepted the cup from her delicate hands and took a sip. “Ahh! This is heavenly. And here I thought pine needle tea had no comparison. I must compliment you on your tea making skills.”
Meesah laughed, obviously pleased. “Do you truly spend most of your time in the woods?” she asked suddenly. “Aren’t you afraid of the beasts that stalk in the darkness?”
“Oh, I apologize. I said something inappropriate, didn’t I? Aleph does tell me that I should let my thoughts catch up with my tongue,” she added innocently.
“No, my dear, you didn’t say anything inappropriate. You just surprised me. Young women, or any women for that matter, don’t often talk about beasts and woods and darkness.”
“Why not? Is it not exhilarating to sleep under the starry sky, drink sweet water from the mountain springs, and listen to the chirping of the birds when the day breaks?”
Virgil could feel the longing in her voice. His eyes twinkled with merriment. “Forgive me, for my immodesty, but when was the last time you danced barefoot in a shallow stream as sunlight filtered through the trees?”
Meesah gasped, and her eyebrows climbed her forehead. “How did you know?” she whispered softly.
He grinned. “I knew a woman who loved to do that. Many times I watched her dance in dappled sunlit streams. You look very much like her.”
She grinned back. “That was uncouth of you, sir. You must have been a quite the rogue.”
Virgil laughed again, his growling laughter ringing around the room.
She sipped on her tea and continued talking. “There was a copse of cedar and orange trees near my village, with a small stream flowing through it. And in a small clearing, a big rock jutted out into the stream. I loved it there. I used to go by myself all the time. The smell of orange blossoms in the air, birds chirping before the approaching twilight …”
Virgil studied her carefully as she sat with her eyes closed, a fond smile playing on her lips. He hated what he was about to do, but he knew he must.
“When did you last take your boy to the woods, Meesah?”
Her eyes flew open, and something dangerous flashed in them. Her demeanor changed instantly. She looked ready to attack. Or flee.
Virgil knew he had to tread carefully. “Aleph thinks he’s gone, but you know he’s not. Where is your son, Meesah?”
She regarded him like a wary animal, but there was something else there too. He glimpsed a hidden tenderness, and that was all he needed to see. Virgil nodded once, softened his voice and said, “It’s alright, you can tell me. I swear, the words spoken here will never pass my lips.”
She didn’t say anything, but she relaxed her grip on her tea cup.
“You can sense him, can’t you? You can tell he is okay, but you don’t know where he is?”
Meesah sighed and shook her head. “I … can’t explain it. I just know my boy is safe.” She sipped tea from her cup and took a deep breath. “For several days after he vanished, I felt the world had turned dark. Every time I closed my eyes, it was as if I would lose myself in the darkness. Every waking hour was agony. I felt as if a part of me was gone. I was tempted to let the darkness take me.
“But one day, I saw a spark of light within the darkness. I don’t know why or how it happened, but I just knew it was my son. He’s alive, I can sense it. Even now, when I close my eyes I can feel him keeping the darkness at bay.”
The fire crackled in the fireplace. The wind whistled as it parted around the cottage. A silence stretched between them, seeming to last for hours.
Finally, Virgil broke the silence. “Does Aleph know? Have you told him what you told me?”
She nodded. “I don’t think he believed me. He took me to see the village elders and even a wise woman. None of them believed it either. They thought I was losing my mind. But I have never been surer of anything in my life. That’s when Aleph turned away from me, started avoiding me. I don’t know what …” Tears were streaming down her pale cheeks, but she didn’t seem to notice.
Virgil reached out and gently laid his hand on top of hers. “It’s alright, child. You’re not losing your mind, but people mistrust that which they don’t understand. Neither the elders, nor the wise woman, and not even Aleph understands who you are.” He smiled mysteriously and added, “I don’t think even you understand who you are.”
Meesah lifted her tear streaked face and looked at him with a puzzled expression. “What … I don’t …”
Virgil held her gaze and with his right hand, reached inside his shirt He tugged at something, pulled it out and laid it on the table.
Meesah poked at it cautiously. It was a sliver of stone, encased in some kind of metal. She picked it up to examine it closely. Fire glinted off the gold casing, but the stone seemed to absorb all the light. Her fingers brushed against what seemed to be scratches on the stone’s surface, and they came alive with a vivid green light. She drew in a sharp breath. Not scratches; symbols etched into the stone. They felt eerily familiar, even though she didn’t know what they meant. The green light faded away, but she kept staring at the stone, mesmerized by it. She felt like the stone was reaching into something deep within her.
Virgil gently plucked the stone from Meesah’s fingers. “This is a rune-stone. Similar to the one you made for Aleph. That’s what you made for your boy before he disappeared, didn’t you?”
Meesah looked stunned and could only nod slowly.
“That’s why you can feel him. The light holding the darkness at bay will get brighter the closer you get to him.”