By Jay Requard
Snow crunched underfoot as Ambrose Knighton marched the drifts, kicking his way through the frost and submerged branches. The cold seeping through the stitching of his hide boots was like any other cold of the season, wet and biting as it numbed the nerves beneath the flesh.
He clutched his hatchet to his chest, his bare fingers buried in the dingy fur of his reindeer skin coat. Scanning the trees to his right and left, he searched for a dry trunk, limbs—anything he could drag back to his shanty with no more effort than he had spent marching to find firewood in the first place.
What am I doing here?
It was a fair question for a man in his position, who was once the grand wizard of a kingdom long lost to the flames of history. Magic had become a thing of the past, at least for him, a faded idea from a time when life allowed for faded things like pride. He fished and hunted in the warm seasons, grew what he could before fall arrived, and survived in the gloom of winter in utter loneliness. Left to the sour roots and dried meats he had stored or stolen, most nights were spent shivering under a mound of soiled blankets and clothes he wore for weeks on end. The odor of his unwashed body had vanished long ago, the stench placed out of mind.
Life in the wild was not what the former wizard had wanted, leaving him with a single prayer he uttered every time he dragged himself through the snow:
I just want to die.
He spotted an adult birch a few yards to his left. Streaked black and brown, the pale bark peeled itself from the trunk in rigid strips, revealing the fresh wood beneath the husk.
A thought entered his mind, a plan to hack the giant down, angling its fall in such a way that its weight would land squarely on him. Trepidation rose in protest, followed by the terrible image of the trunk slamming into his skull, crushing bone and brain. Ambrose shook, but not from of the cold.
Resigned to cowardice, he moved onto the next tree, a small shrub dry enough to burn.
Sitting in the doorway of his ramshackle hut, Ambrose looked at the stars as they shone in a cloudless night. In the old days he would have reveled in their cool light, standing on the balcony of his summer tower while studying them through a spyglass, each and every one taken for granted as something for his whims to decode.
Now the stars simply stared back—cold, distant, and meaningless.
I just want to die.
Ambrose started, snatching his hatchet from between his feet.
Off in the frozen meadow before his home stood a strange maiden, clad in a shift of translucent silk. Like folds of pure light, the fabric formed over curve and swell. Snowy hair draped to her breasts, held from her face by a laurel made of twigs and dead leaves.
She looked at him, her head tilted in curiosity. “Are you all right?”
Ambrose lowered his weapon. After so much time, seasons upon seasons with his lonesome, he questioned if she was real. “How are you here?”
“An unusual question,” said the lady. “I suppose I manifested, if that is an appropriate word. But human words are quite lacking, after all.”
“Manifested?” His buried curiosity returned. Her skin was the first obvious sign of her nature—dry and dusty, black birthmarks of various sizes streaked the flesh. The light of her eyes, luminous mint, transfixed him. “You’re a wight.”
“There’s brown on me, too,” she muttered. “I wanted to thank you. I thought you were going to cut me down today and you didn’t. That was very kind.” The wight held something under her arm, a small barrel banded in iron. She set it on the ground between her and Ambrose. “Well. Goodbye.”
“Wait,” said Ambrose. “How do I know this isn’t a waking dream? I could be dead of the cold, or…”
“Try the beer,” she said. “It will tell you the truth.”
She vanished into the pitch of night, her shape fading into the barren trees. Silent for many minutes, Ambrose lifted the barrel from the snow. Brushing slush of the side, his palm and fingers ran across gullies carved in the wood. The runes formed into a single word.
“Hope,” he whispered, his breath fogged.
He lugged the barrel back to his hut, and sitting in the doorway again, he rummaged in an old magic box, searching among a collection of things he had brought with him when he fled his dead empire. Digging out a cup, he set the tin vessel beside the barrel and loosened the cork. He dribbled the dark liquid, his hands shaking from the frost.
A frothy head, the color of burnt sugar, fizzed to the cup’s rim. Caramel met with burnt wood, soft and earthy, behind a scent of fresh pine. Ambrose sipped the dark beer, the bitterness quickly giving way to a rush of mint and herbs, a flutter of chocolate and cinnamon on the tongue. The tang of the alcohol buttressed a smooth, roasted finish, silk and satin as it slid down his throat.
Bringing his empty cup down, he heaved in excitement. A dull buzz, the like of which he had nearly forgotten after years in the wild, reared a lusty head.
What am I doing here?
The answer never came.
His eyes crusted with mucus and frost, Ambrose blinked a few times against the light pouring through his shanty’s roof. Rays of morning struck his eyes, inflaming the headache in his temples. Slowly he sat up on his palate, pushing away his blankets. He struggled to halt the vomit working up his throat.
A few minutes later he trod outside. The barrel had rolled into the field, covered in wet snow and bits of dirt. He set it upright, knocking the side to gauge its emptiness. The wood answered with a hollow thud.
Following a half-hour of voiding his bowels, Ambrose waded into the woods with a small hunting bow he had scavenged the season before. Armed with only a few arrows, he had trained himself during the spring to shoot, or at least well enough that he had killed four squirrels and a dozen ducks during the fall.
The wind swept the valleys and lakes with cruel strokes, sending gales of frigid air piercing through his hides. Wastes of naked trees caked in white passed by, an endless drear of one trunk that looked like another.
What am I doing here?
He was about to answer when he caught something in the distance, a twitch of movement just over the hill. He pulled back on his nocked arrow, incited into a draw.
A great deer stood atop the snowy rise, his antlers cutting the sunlight. Big brown eyes stared at Ambrose, fearless and bold. He raised his bow at the beast, thinking that on the off-chance he felled the giant, there would be enough meat to salt and preserve well into the summer. No more killing and a little more rest. His fingers came apart to loose when–
“Why do you want to kill him?” the wight whispered in his ear.
Ambrose wheeled around with a yelp. He tripped as he backed away, landing hard on his rump.
The wight stood a few feet from him, her dainty fingers over her lips to hold in a laugh. “Pardon me.”
“Pardon? Pardon you?” Ambrose rose to his feet and shook a finger in her face. “That deer could have kept me fed all winter!”
“I didn’t mean to upset you,” said the wight. “I just felt–”
“Felt what?” Ambrose interrupted. “What did you feel?”
She straightened to her full height. “If you must know, you did not want to kill that deer. I know you didn’t, so I stopped you.”
Flabbergasted, he was staked to the spot, open mouthed as he searched for the rebuke that never came. Slowly he brought his mitted hands up and covered his eyes.
“Are you all right?” the wight asked. “Do you have a headache?”
“What am I going to eat?” he asked her. “I’m starving out here.”
“I gave you that beer.”
“I drank it all.”
Magic, once Ambrose’s passion, woke in the shadows of sorrow, bright and vibrant. He cast what spells he remembered, sending sparks and lights at the barrel for hours until the sun set. Exhausted from the work and the focus needed to ply the walls of the unseen, he retired to build a fire from the shrub he had left to dry.
A crackling blaze welcomed the night as the stars emerged from their hidden places. Their brought a strange, small cheer to accompany Ambrose, who sipped the wight’s dark brown brew from his dented cup, eyes to the fire.
“May I come in?” The wight waited on the stoop of his hut.
Ambrose sighed and took another drink.
“Why are you so sad?”
I just want to die. He grimaced, remembering how she had read his reluctance to take the life of another living being. Too quick to take back or cover up with something convincing, he shrugged. “Things are as they are.”
The wight entered the shanty and sat on the other side of the fire. The meager light bathed her skin in mottled tones. Her blonde hair shimmered.
Ambrose regarded her, somewhere between curiosity and morbid lust—not a lust born of a base desire to sate bodily need, but a lust for the past. In better days women were always available at his beck and call—some for his status, others for the possibility that their wiles and beauty would capture him enough to share secrets.
“So what happened?” the wight asked.
“You’re not offended?” he asked, tapping his temple. “Many would shame me for those thoughts. They’d call me a selfish bastard, and a woman-hater.”
“Human lust is very human. And you wouldn’t want to even if I was willing.”
“Can your kind even reproduce with humankind?”
She smiled, revealing her wooden teeth. Smooth and polished, as if lacquered, they gleamed. “You’re curious, Ambrose. Even when you don’t want to be.”
“So what happened?” she asked again.
Pushing the images from his mind, he spoke them instead. He sipped some more beer, another brush of caramel, pine, and light mint. The syrup loosened his tongue. “What’s there to say? My old king died right when my master did. The former flopped and froze atop his whore, dead from a bad heart, while the latter just had it coming. That’s the business of magic—you get back what you put in.”
“No truer words.”
He frowned. “Anyway, his git son took the high seat, with me at his side. We hated each other from the beginning. He wanted war and power just to prove to all these little countries how big his cock was, and all I wanted was the opposite. War is for savages.”
“And then?” she asked, her tone leading.
Clad in his stained hide leggings and matted fur coat, Ambrose gazed into the flames. Bringing his cup up to drink, disappointment met him with emptiness. He made to rise, but before his hand even touched the ground she was there, standing at his side as she poured another cup.
“Thank you,” he said, somewhat bewildered.
“So.” The wight put the barrel down. “The git.”
“The git,” he said, nodding. “War has a way of dragging everyone into it, and I did things for my king, even when I hated it. One kingdom burnt, then another, and then another, and at some point even his own subjects couldn’t take it anymore. I fled before they ripped down my door. The kingdom wasn’t…”
Ambrose paused. This time the memory came, crashing through his mind like a stone flung from a catapult. People screamed in the dark, their wails cut short in gurgles of blood. Pompous children, idiot heirs to something they would have never understood or appreciated, begged for naught. His tower, once a marvel of engineering and magic, teetered until it crashed to the earth.
“So how does a man like you, with such talent and such a good heart, end up in my woods?” the wight asked.
“A good heart?” He scoffed. “I need to live, to eat. This seemed better than nothing.”
“You humans don’t do well with the cold. Or misery.”
“We all have to get by… blasted gods, what is your name?”
“A name?” Surprised, she turned to the barrel. “I’m Hope.”
His eyes followed hers to the name etched in the wood. “You’re serious?”
“Names are for those who need them,” she replied, huffy. “If it makes you feel better that I have one, I can be human for a moment.”
“A moment?” He dimmed at his own question. Ambrose remembered the things he had done in the search for knowledge, abuses rendered to creatures like her. For a moment the fallen sorcerer wondered,
What am I doing here?
“A curious question,” Hope observed. “A cynical man would say that you are here because of the sin you spread.”
“Would he be wrong?”
“Perhaps.” She shrugged her solid shoulders. “Perhaps not. But his is not the only view.”
“And what would the others be, pray tell.”
The chthonic maiden blinked her luminous eyes, her pupils lit by star-fire. “A realist would tell you that no sin determined this, at least not alone. There are many things outside of our control. It cannot be helped if the wind tears my roots from the earth, though I pray it won’t.”
“Realism is very bleak,” Ambrose observed.
“But it’s honest. It takes note of true accomplishment when such glory is due, and it recognizes what one earns, if they play the rules accordingly.”
“As is the entire world.” Hope uncorked the barrel to pour more dark beer into Ambrose’s cup. He watched the head from, suddenly aware of how many cups he had taken from her. The world around him buzzed, hazy and unbalanced. Before he knew it he had sipped.
“So that leaves the blessed. Good people,” she continued, quiet. “But naïve if they never know pain.”
“Oh, a much needed requirement,” he slurred. Exhaustion flooded in, weighing Ambrose down into the furs and moth-bitten blankets of his palate. “So what would you prescribe?”
“To be blessed. To know that sometimes the universe only provides what you are willing to give yourself. That is simple enough to know.”
Ambrose bolted up on his bedding, flailing in the midst of a waking dream. A trail of white smoke wafted off his dead fire, spreading a charred scent. He calmed, immediately aware of the headache settled in his forehead.
Near where his hand rested stood his small cup full of cool, clear snowmelt. He sipped quickly. The light in his eyes subsided, and as he looked around, discovering Hope had left. The barrel remained, refilled for the night.
It was close to midday when he emerged from his hut, going out beneath a sky awash in white clouds. Left alone again, he marched to gather firewood for that evening’s fire, promising himself a night without drink. Trudging along, Ambrose reflected on the beauty of the world around him—the way the snow dappled the eaves of the branches, how the icicles hung heavy on the tips of their wooden fingers. He struggled to remember the last time he beheld the world around him, the shade of happiness an odd companion for a man of misery.
He was foraging for dry wood when a loud thwack disturbed the forest’s peace. Ambrose moved toward the sound. The sun had begun to set, and through twilight and shadow he made out a figure behind the trees.
“Help,” whispered a weak voice, barely perceptible to his ears. “Help me.”
Ambrose knew who called. Dashing into the grove, he halted when he saw a man standing near Hope’s ancient birch, a hatchet in his hand. The man looked back at him, his face framed by the hood of a fox fur mantle.
Hope lay on the ground between them, her hands pressed to a gaping wound across her stomach. Sap leaked between her fingers, clear and viscous. She reached for Ambrose, a silent plea for rescue.
“Is she yours?” asked the man with his hatchet. He reached up with his free hand and pulled back his hood. A handsome face emerged from its confines, a proportionate head covered in an oiled mustache and a coif of combed red hair.
“Not mine,” Ambrose said, squeezing the handle of his wedge. “You’re a sorcerer, aren’t you?”
“That I am.” The man lowered his weapon and smiled. “Are you of The Craft as well?”
Ambrose stepped closer to Hope. “You have to let this creature be.”
“Oh, my apologies,” said the sorcerer. “I am Bertram Scrabbtile, of the Wittington Scrabbtiles. I was out looking for a wight to use for an experiment and I came across this comely creature. She was defensive when I entrapped her within a spell of my own design, and fled here. Again, I ask you, is she yours? I would not want to infringe on another fellow’s property, especially a Professor of Mystery.”
“She is a good creature,” Ambrose replied. “I’d ask you leave her be.”
Scrabbtile’s joviality disappeared, replaced with a cold expression. “My professor mentioned this might happen. ‘Bleeding heart types abound in the world,’ he said. Ah well.” He stuck his hatchet in his belt and pulled the gloves off his hands. Light emanated from his fingers, pale and low, until the energy spread across his hands to form orbs of yellow radiance.
Ambrose threw up his hands, shouting a quick incantation.
What am I doing here?
Blinded, he heard two loud booms, one in front of him and another splintering a tree. Vision returned, and he found himself face to face with Scrabbtile, only a few inches apart. A black pit marred the snow beneath their feet.
The two grappled to the ground, each trying to hold down the other before one of them could retrieve their hatchet. Ambrose rolled on top of the man, his left hand on Scrabbtile’s mouth as he pulled his own wedge free.
Existence slowed into hard, labored breathes. Ambrose raised his hatchet high and brought it down, splitting the young sorcerer’s head with a wet pop. A trail of blood followed as he raised his wedge again, again, and again.
Then the forest was silent.
Ambrose halted his spell when feet patted the boards.
Hope hobbled into the doorway of his hut, a hand clutched to her wounded stomach. Through the sap-stained silk he could see the rent in her flesh, its gully caked in a thick crystalline paste. She shied in embarrassment, which quickly morphed into surprise when she saw her birch tree standing nearby.
“Your hut,” she said, startled. “How?”
“I moved it,” he answered, solemn. “I need to build somewhere.” He returned his attention to the wall of ice and stone before him, accessing the compartmentalized section of his mind he had set to focus on his incantation, a simple thought-matter form that allowed him to easily access the method of modifying the particles between the piling stones so it would only melt under the heat of dragon fire.
Though, with such creatures half a world away, he had little to worry about.
He brought his cup up and took a sip of Hope’s dark beer, the burnt grains painting his tongue in sweet brush strokes. With his right hand he raised his power, ordering the stones to rise until a solid wall formed, eight feet tall and twenty feet long.
What am I doing here?
“What do you keep asking?” Hope asked, curious.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But whatever it is, it’s better than dying.”
Jay Requard is from Charlotte, North Carolina. Raised on a steady diet of Conan, Drizzt, Elric, and world mythology, he spends his days when not writing on pursuits such as fencing, cooking, painting, reading, and brewing. The author of numerous short stories, he is the current head organizer of Charlotte Writers, the Queen City’s oldest genre writing collective. sitwritebleed.blogspot.com