Aiden pulled his cloak tight around him, wishing that the green cloth kept out more of the cold. As though it were playing with him, the wind blew hard, the gust shaking his entire being. The boy cursed under his breath, wishing he could recall more of the old, weather-altering songs. Something to soothe the wind- or something to warm it at the very least.
Even if he was able to remember, such a spell cast by only one person would be weak and easily broken by nature. A choir would be needed to calm such winds. And a choir, Aiden did not have.
The young man trudged forward, walking mostly on the balls of his bare feet so as to save his heels from the possible pain of thorns and pebbles. It had been far too long since the old pathways of the forest had been cleared of the natural debris.
It started to rain.
With a sigh, the young man picked up his pace- breaking into a reluctant run. His feet fell pray to several strings of thorns, but the sooner he was out of the rain, the better. As he neared his destination, the path became more and more decorated- stone archways and pillars stood among the trees- welcoming him as he returned to the deserted city Aiden called home.
The stone buildings and temples remained, for the most part, in tact; the magic of old keeping the bricks from cracking and wearing away. The plants had taken advantage of this upkeep, growing and extending out of windows, over balconies. Vines crept up the walls of many of the stone buildings.
There was one building, however, that had remained untouched by nature. The Great Temple, it was said, had absorbed magic deep into the walls. Enough magic that even time would not be able to bring it to crumble. It stood in the exact center of the old city; the architects who had long ago constructed the city had designed it with the Goddess in mind. With Her chosen temple surrounded by the dwellings and other buildings of the city, She could always hear her people.
But the great deity had not heard her people sing for many years, nor had she sang in that place. The only one left to sing the ancient songs was Aiden.
Because Her divine spirit had been absent from the place for so many decades, the young man had no qualms with entering and living within the Great Temple. When the people thrived and the priests were responsible for protection of the forest, only a select few were ever allowed entrance to the temple. Or, at least that was what Aiden had read in the records. But now, its doors swung open to anyone who had the strength.
The cool, white marble steps felt good beneath his feet- soothing the muddied and broken skin. There were 22 steps- he had counted them many times- leading up to the doors of the temple. The stairs were an easy feat, but it was getting inside that had always proven difficult.
Though Aiden was sure the old priests had a song to aid them, he was forced to use brute strength. The man pushed his clothed shoulder up against the door, the old carvings digging into his skin as he pushed. As the door gave way, he stumbled slightly, but managed to regain his footing on the slick stone and gave one last heave, forcing his way inside.
Without bothering to put forth the effort and close the massive door behind him, Aiden stepped inside. It was dark and cold, but at least it was dry. Unwrapping the soaking, threadbare cloak from his body, the man began singing. It was a wordless song, slow in melody and long in its notes. As he sang, the sound echoed off the walls- kept bare to allow the music to strengthen on its own. With every syllable that was uttered, the cloak dried a little more in his hands, and continued to do so until the cloth was completely dry. He held up the green cloak, frowning. It had more holes in it than it had last week. He would have to replace it soon.
Aiden tossed the cloth aside. Not bothering to care enough to pick it up, he began singing once more- this time a different tune. As he sang, he stepped further into the large, circular, first room of the temple, heading towards the fireplace embedded in the left side of the wall- stepping over his makeshift 'bed' as he did so. His voice quieted as he knelt, adding logs from his meager pile onto the ashes from last night's flames. He would have to clean it out in the morning.
But for now, the dirty fireplace would do just fine. Placing a calloused hand gently one one of the logs, he raised his voice; the volume increasing the speed at which his hand- and thus, the wood- heated up. Within a few moments, he had coaxed a flame out of the log, and soon he had a fire blazing.
Silent now, Aiden sat back, crossing his ankles out in front of him and enjoying the warmth of the fire for a moment before standing once more. He slipped out of his shirt, hanging it on the mantle to dry. All of his clothes were simple, always made of light materials so he could climb and move easily, made with colors that allowed him to blend into the trees while he hunted. He either made or traded for his clothing- occasionally making the two days' journey out to the nearest town or, if he was lucky, trading for cloth from a passer by.
He stepped over to his bed- really just a mound of pillows and blankets he had bought and traded for over the years- and made himself comfortable on his stomach. Within an arm's reach of his nest, Aiden had placed a stack of books he'd gathered recently from the old library. Though the ink was faded and some of the words proved to be illegible, he had powered through a great deal of the surviving records; learning all he could about the history and the songs of his people and his Goddess.
The light from the fire was just enough so he was able to read in a couple of pages before falling asleep mid-sentence, and without any supper for the night.
It was early in the morning when the sunlight pulled Aiden out of sleep. Not a half hour after waking, his clothes were on his back and he was deep in the forest, almost a mile out from the abandoned city.
Hood covering his caramel-colored hair and bow in hand, the young man crept through the trees- careful to avoid making any noise or sudden movements. He moved slowly and kept close to the trunks of the trees. So far, the deer he was stalking either hadn’t noticed him, or didn’t care. Aiden was betting on the former.
The first chance he got to shoot, he took. As the deer paused- head bent near to the ground to inspect something in the dirt- Aiden reached back, taking an arrow from his quiver. Pressing the butt of the arrow to the string, he stepped out from behind the tree and knelt to the ground. He wasted no time hesitating. With careful aim, he pulled back the string and released it not two seconds later, watching as the arrow struck the doe through her chest.
“Oh, thank the gods,” Aiden breathed, rising from his kneel. He had managed to make another quick, clean kill. There was little worse than having to finish off a wounded animal. The Goddess had blessed him with the opportunity to hunt, and he wanted to show Her the same respect by keeping his chosen prey from suffering.
The man pulled the arrow from the deer’s body and cleaned the head in the grass, returning it to the quiver on his back before continuing, kneeling down once more to begin his prayer.
But before he could even utter the first syllable of his prayer, a sound caught his attention. It sounded nothing like the familiar rustling an animal would make, nor was it the wind. With speed that impressed even himself, Aiden leapt to his feet, slung his bow over his shoulder, and began scaling the nearest tree. He managed to get a good 15 feet of height before he started to hear voices. The man sat on his haunches, one hand pressed against the trunk of the tree while the other pulled his cloak tight around his body. He was silent and practically motionless as he watched the ground below- watching intently for the intruders to pass.
He didn’t have to wait long; not two minutes later, the owners of the loud voices revealed themselves.
They were both well-muscled men; one tall and lean, the other larger and a couple heads shorter than the first. Both of them carried large packs on their back- probably full of food and other supplies, and were dressed better than most explorers Aiden had seen in the forest. It was not the sturdy clothes, or the bulging bags that kept the man’s attention, however; it was the conversation that they carried.
“You sure we going in the right direction?” asked the short one.
“Of course!” the taller exclaimed, throwing his hands up in exasperation as though he had answered the same question a thousand times, completely unaware of the eyes watching him from the trees. “All the rumors and legends point us here. To this forest. In this direction!”
The other shrugged. “I just wanna be the first t’find ‘em.”
“No one else has found the books so far. There’s no way we won’t get to them first, you imbecile.”
“Right, right,” the short one replied, nodding and brushing off the insult. “I know that.”
The tall man rubbed at his temples and stopped, almost directly under the branch Aiden perched on. “Stupid, stupid…” he muttered, slapping away the other’s hand when it came to land comfortingly on his shoulder. “Of all the people I could’ve been paired with, I got an idiot. It’s a miracle we’ve made it this far! And if we even get the books, I’ll be the only one able to read the damned music! Because you can’t read!”
He moved to backhand his companion, but before his hand could strike the skin, an arrow embedded itself in his heart. He tried to say something but instead fell limp against the shorter man, muttering incoherent nonsense.
The short man pushed him off onto the ground, eyes searching the trees frantically for the killer. When he finally landed eyes on Aiden- legs carefully positioned to hold his weight steady on the branch while his hands held the now empty bow- two arrows pierced through his chest.
They were both dead in a moment.
In those couple of minutes it took them to die, Aiden climbed down to the lower branches before hopping back to the earth below. He claimed his arrows back from the bodies, setting them on the ground nearby before pushing the men over onto their stomachs so he could raid their packs.
Inside there was nothing less than small treasures- bread, wine, cheese, dried meats, matches, small tools used for digging and hunting. As he sifted through the provisions, it became clear that along with the deer he had killed earlier, several trips back and forth from the city were going to be a necessity.