In those days, there was a magician who could cast a spell on a candle and link that candle to the life of a single person. So long as the candle burned, there was hope.
Those families who had the means engaged the magician to cast this spell when husbands and sons went off to battle. So long as the candle burned, their loved one was still alive. The highest winds would not snuff out the flame. But even on a quiet night, if the soldier died, so too would the flame on the candle die. Those families would know of their loss long before word came to them from the battlefield.
The Mercer family, who as their name suggested were merchants, sold half their business to purchase a candle from the magician Niko. The candle was bought by Vesta for her husband Hamlin, who was conscripted to a war that neither he nor his country had sought. He was no soldier and received little training before he was sent to fight. Not long after battle was engaged, the merchant’s candle flame died. Vesta told only her children. For even though the magician’s spell was known to be a true one, she still could not face the loss of her beloved husband.
When the army was rotated and some were allowed to return home for rest and healing, her husband’s fellow soldiers brought her a few of his belongings along with their condolences. Only then did she realize he was truly gone, and she mourned him.
As was the custom in their lands, she kept his belongings in a small shrine in the largest room of their home. In that shrine stood the barely burned candle. The shrine was to abide for one year, and after such time, Vesta would dismantle it. Thereafter, it would fall upon Hamlin’s friends and his family to remember him.
But after seven months, when the family had returned to their work and their lives and the Vesta’s friends were already hinting to her that she should re-marry rather than carry the burden of her trade alone, something unexpected happened.
It was a brisk morning, and Vesta was stoking the fire in the center of their shop to make it more inviting for their customers when her youngest son ran in calling to her. He was not yet old enough to join his brothers and sisters at school. Vesta began to wonder if she should put him to some work in the shop when he stopped before her, beaming. He grabbed her wrist, pulled her arm, and told her she must come home with him right away for he had seen a wondrous sight. She resisted, but only mildly. Her youngest was not one to make fusses. He would not tell her what he wanted her to see, but only dragged her home, which was not far from their shop.
He took her to the shrine and there she saw the candle, her husband’s candle, burning brightly and steadily. At first, out of disbelief, she turned to her son and asked him if he’d lit the candle. She knew he hadn’t. In desperation, she had tried that very thing when first the candle blew out. She had hoped that it was a mistake, or that the candle’s magic had failed. The wick would not catch the flame. So she believed the candle’s magic to be true.
Vesta watched the flame. She brought the candle and her youngest child to the shop, and they watched the candle all day. When the family all returned home in the evening, she questioned her other children. They were as perplexed as she was. And she saw reflected in their eyes the same aching hope she felt in herself. The next day, she took the candle with her and set out on the day-long journey to the magician’s home.
Though Vesta had dealings with the magician from her purchase of the candle, she had not spoken with him often and did not know if he would welcome her visit. He was the only magician—or spell-caster of any sort—that she had ever known. She expected that he would be secretive about his craft and eccentric in his manner. But when she arrived, he greeted her himself. His beautiful manor was not hung with strange artifacts and potions, but decorated with pots of living flowers and trees and paintings of pastoral scenes. He offered her refreshment, and spoke to his servants with warmth and familiarity. It was the way Vesta spoke to those in her own employ. When she told him how long she had traveled to reach him, he asked for a room to be prepared for her. He insisted she stay the night and take his carriage back home.
After the pleasantries were done with, the magician himself asked how he might be of service to her. Vesta explained what happened. He listened closely to her tale. He took no offense when she sheepishly admitted that she had doubted the magic of the candle. For the only other conclusion was extraordinary indeed. But the magician insisted that his candles were true. So there could be only one other conclusion. Her husband had indeed died. But was dead no longer. Something or someone had restored his life.
Vesta was elated and overwhelmed. Even still, she had prepared for what she would do.
“Your brilliance,” she said, addressing him with an ancient formality, “I have a great favor to ask and am prepared to pay what price you set for this favor.”
The magician Niko raised a brow and sat back. He bowed his head slightly. She asked the magician if he had any way to track down a person. She had heard of such magic, but it was not common or easy, or else she would be using it to track down those who owed her debts.
The magician glanced at the candle she had brought. It was linked to her husband’s life. He looked at Vesta.
“I can if the candle is still linked to him. But I warn you, if your husband was dead and had passed over but was recalled back to life, then perhaps something sinister is going on. Perhaps he is in the hands of someone like me, who practices magic and sorcery but of a far different and dangerous kind. A warlock. In any case, it is most likely he is under the control of our enemy.”
Vesta did not know much of the war, only that she feared it for she had already lost her husband, and her sons were growing older. If the war did not end, they too would be conscripted, and she would have more candles to watch in worry. She could do nothing to end the war, nothing to stop her loved ones from being sent to war. She had not that power. But if they were alive somewhere in the world and needed her help, she could do her best to find them. She would do that for her husband. Find him and bring him home. But she could not do such a thing without help from powerful allies. Her only fear in the moment was that the magician’s price would be too high for her to pay. She would need to hire fighters. And she needed knowledge from the magician.
Vesta asked the magician if anything similar had happened with any of the other candles he had made.
“Once,” he said. “And only once before.” And for the first time, he looked troubled.
The next day, the magician brought Vesta to the house of a man whose wife had gone to war. She had not gone as a soldier, for women soldiers were rare in those days, but as a healer. Her husband had bought an enchanted candle for her. He had been watching it when the flame died. And he had been watching it when the flame jumped back to life. He searched for and found his wife. It took a long while and during that time, the flame had turned many colors, the last one being gray.
Niko told the man Vesta’s story and asked him to tell her his own. Vesta was dismayed at the sorrowful look in the man’s eyes, but she listened.
When the man first found his wife after she had been lost to him, she looked and seemed like her old self. She was un-wounded and whole in body. But as time bore on, it seemed she began to lose herself. He never found out how it was that she was brought back. She could not remember much by the time she came home. She said a wicked magician who was obsessed with the afterlife had brought her back to question her. When she had no answers to give him, he abandoned her. She began to make her way back home, thankful for the second chance, but eager to get away from the one who had given it to her. Her journey home had been fraught with danger and sadness, but also blessed by encounters with kind strangers. Her husband believed that the changing colors of the candle flame had reflected her feelings after she returned to life, though they never had done so during her natural life.
The healer weakened as she drew closer to home. By the time she was reunited with her husband, almost a year had passed since the day she had died and been brought back. Soon that year came and passed. That was when the flame turned gray. She became empty of all feeling. She had memory, but she began to lose her spirit. She begged her husband to snuff out the candle and let her pass on as she should have, or else she feared that she might be utterly destroyed and they would never reunite in the afterworld.
Her husband didn’t believe in the afterworld and in spirits. He believed only in what he could have and hold. He believed in making the mortal world the great paradise in which all could live and thrive and struggle honestly until death came and gave to each his or her eternal rest. More life and struggle beyond the veil of death held no appeal to the man.
He refused to end his wife’s life, or to let her end her own. He saw she was not the same but believed her affliction was caused by the shock of war.
When the man was done telling his story, he brought Vesta to his wife, for she still lived, but she was like a mindless beast. She knew her name, kept herself clean, and responded to some speech. But her eyes were empty.
Her husband wept then. He knew she was living but not alive, and yet he could not end her life. He thought she would wish it, but he wasn’t sure. And he wasn’t sure of the afterworld. He warned Vesta not the make the same mistake he did. He warned her to search for her husband, find him before the candle flame turned gray, and give him a merciful death.
Vesta, saddened and disheartened by the tale of the poor healer, almost regretted that her husband’s flame had reignited. As she and the magician rode back to the magician’s home, she gazed out of the carriage window, thinking about Hamlin. Her sadness turned to anger at the thought of some evil sorcerer toying with her husband’s life. She turned to the magician and asked him for guidance. He told her that he had much pondered the story of the healer. There were many captured alive by the enemy who had candles burning for them at home. Of those, only one, and now only two, were brought back.
“No doubt the process must take much vigor, much strain, and a terrible measure of power. There must have been a reason why the healer and your husband were chosen.”
Vesta could think of no reason her husband would be chosen. She only wanted him back, or if that could not be, she wanted him gone and out of the reach of all the world’s evil, be it war or warlocks.
“The colored flames have some significance,” Niko said. “I don’t think the healer’s husband is entirely correct about their meaning. Save for his guess about the last color the flame ever turned, gray. I believe it means a living corpse, a dead spirit.”
“And that will happen…to my Hamlin?” She clenched her fist and watched the magician’s eyes. “Is there no way to stop it, save by killing him all over again?”
The magician did not answer, for he had no answers.
But the by the time they arrived back at his home, he had an offer. He offered to go with Vesta to find her husband, in the hopes they could find him quickly, before his candle flame turned gray. Vesta felt a spark of hope alight in her heart, though a small one. Whatever had been done to the healer and now to her husband was done by one who was far more powerful than Niko.
The magician made candles, one for himself and one for Vesta. They returned to Vesta’s home and left behind the two candles for the merchants’ children. Vesta also left instructions to her eldest child, should she fail in her quest to return their father to them. But she took her husband’s candle with her. The magician needed it for his spell of finding. She needed to see its colors.
They set off in a carriage, but the magician warned that they would have to go on foot once they reached their enemy’s lands, lest they be waylaid and captured, or worse.
Niko told Vesta more of what he had learned from studying the healer. He had been sending his own spies into the enemy’s lands to discover the secrets of the wicked sorcerer. He had some dubious information. That the spell-caster was a warlock, a practitioner of forbidden magic, and that this warlock was the king of the enemy realm himself. He had gone mad. The war he waged now was born out of that madness. And so too was his obsession with death and the afterlife. It was said he found some ancient artifact, something that was not meant to be tampered with by just any sorcerer.
“I’ll wager it was that artifact,” Niko said, “that he used to bring the healer and your husband back to life. Somehow the warlock has severed the laws of life and death.” He hesitated. “I have only guesses, mind you.”
Vesta understood. He did not know for certain what had happened to Hamlin. He could make her no promises. He wished to give her no false hope. But he had his scholarly theories. Ones he would eagerly share with another scholar or magician, but was delicate enough to withhold from a grieving widow who was now once again a grieving wife.
She had asked the magician for some poisons, merciful and painless poisons, in case she had to do for her love what the healer’s husband could not do for his. She did not think she could do it. But then she remembered the healer and how pitiful the woman was, a creature not quite alive, not quite dead.
She nodded. “I have already braced myself to say a second goodbye.”
“The person this warlock brings back is not entirely whole,” the magician said, “or at least, they don’t stay that way. The spirit he recalls may be whole, but as soon as it returns to its mortal body, it begins to unravel. Soul, body, mind, and heart separate. If that person is linked to an enchanted candle, the flames may signify this unraveling by their different colors.”
“But what do the colors mean? You said they are not reflections of feeling as the healer’s husband thought they were.”
The magician shook his head. “Feelings are easy to gauge, save for the ones that are deeply hidden and denied. A spell to reveal feelings would be easier than the candles I make. No, the colors in the candle flame are caused by a change in the very core of the person, the very spirit. Of that, I am certain.”
Hamlin’s flame had begun to change color already as they traveled on through their lands.
“Do you know of any way to reverse that change,” Vesta asked, “to re-bind the spirit?”
“It might be possible, anything is, but not by any magic I can do.” They still rode in the carriage and Niko rolled up the sleeves of his robe to reveal beautifully intricate and colored tattoos of words in a language that Vesta did not recognize.
“Spells of protection?” she asked.
The magician laughed cheerfully. “No, remembrances. He touched the tattoos with his fingertips. These are names of those whom I love or once loved—some are lost to me and some are not. Some are far from me, and some are close. Love is not a spell, but it is a kind of magic. Most of the time it is weak, suffusing us and passing through us without our notice. But sometimes, it can be focused. It can do wonders.”
Vesta frowned. Love she had in abundance, for her family most of all. But there was no magic in it. She loved her children more than life itself, yet that love had little power in making them behave if they chose not to.
“It will not in itself be enough,” the magician said. “Love does not feed every part of us. There is thought and knowledge. There is labor and toil. Home has all of these in one place. All the things that bind a spirit together.”
The magician believed that bringing Hamlin back home to his family, to those he loved, to the work that engaged him, and to do so before the end of a year, might be the only thing that could restore him, to keep his spirit from unraveling.
After several months of travel and searching, the magician and the merchant were inside the borders of their enemy realm. They had heard that the wicked warlock king was defeated by a great hero, who sacrificed himself. News of the war ending was beginning to spread, though battles continued to rage in some areas.
One day, the magician’s spell of finding stopped, for it found what it sought. Vesta dashed ahead without thought of her safety. She ran to a figure that slouched toward them, wrapped in three ragged cloaks against the mild chill of morning.
She stopped and he stopped. He looked up and she saw. It was him. It was Hamlin.
She feared he would not recognize her. But his gaze locked with hers and he flew at her, arms outstretched. They embraced. Vesta would have been content for time to stop its march at that very moment, with her eyes closed, and her husband’s arms around her. Distant thoughts of their children called out to her. She opened her eyes and raised her head. A drop of her husband’s tears fell on her forehead. She pulled away, for they were not in safe lands, and now that she found him, she had to fulfill the second part of her quest, to bring him safely home.
She told him so, and she made his acquaintance with the magician, and watched him all the while. Hamlin still seemed the same to her. She was relieved and also anxious. Vesta pulled the candle out of a pocket in her cloak. They had capped it so its flame would not give them away, and the magician enchanted the cap to dampen the flame’s heat so it would not harm Vesta. Beneath the cap, the enchanted flame burned steadily. She and the magician explained to Hamlin their part of the tale. Then he told them all that he remembered.
He remembered being wounded not long after he ran out upon the battlefield. He was felled by something, then he felt pain, and then nothing. When he woke, he saw the night sky so crisply and clearly it was as if he were floating in the heavens, so he thought he was in the afterworld. But the next time he woke, he was in a stone chamber and was told that he had been given a great gift, the gift of a second life, by a powerful magician. He was told how many months had passed while he lay lifeless but preserved, while the magic worked through him. All he wanted to do was go home, and he planned his escape, but then the castle he was being held in was attacked, and he was able to leave freely in the mayhem that followed.
He began to make his way home. But something strange kept happening to him. He would sometimes wake and not remember how he had come to be where he woke. He would be completely drained of vitality, as if he had fought and labored all the time that he thought he was sleeping. And he would be starving and thirsty. It didn’t happen often. Most days he traveled, then slept, dreamt of home, and woke remembering all that had passed the day before.
Vesta showed him the candle flame. It flickered in every shade and hue of red, from bright to blushing. The magician pondered and he wrote in his diary.
They traveled quickly but cautiously at first. But the candle flame kept turning colors, and Vesta worried that it would soon turn gray, for many months had passed since Hamlin had returned to life. The magician had kept count and warned they were nearing the end of a year.
So they began to travel more quickly, taking fewer rests. They grew careless, the closer they came to home. One day, as they hurried through a mountain pass, only a league away from the borders of their native lands, they were set upon by rogue enemy soldiers who seemed well aware that the war was over, but wanted something for all that they had suffered. Vesta counted eight soldiers, as raggedly garbed as Hamlin was.
When Hamlin offered money for their mercy, the soldiers insisted they meant no harm to the merchants, for merchants were honest people who were pulled into the war against their will. The soldiers wanted nothing to do with making honest people do anything against their will. But they recognized the magician for his trade, though he wore a dull traveling cloak over his embroidered robes, and to him they meant to do much harm.
Niko turned to the merchants. “Be on your way, then,” he said. “Our business is done.”
Vesta and Hamlin did not move. Then the soldiers parted to make way for them.
“As we said,” their leader proclaimed. “We mean you no harm. No matter what realm you hail from. Pass along and all good will to you.”
“Thank you for your mercy,” Vesta said, stepping forward from behind Hamlin. He held onto her hand. But she squeezed it to give him comfort and he released it. “But please, I beg you, be merciful still and let the magician pass as well. He helped me to find my long-lost husband. He is escorting us back home.” She glanced at Niko, who watched the soldiers and did not look to her. “He has been a good friend to me and to the people of my land.”
“Sweet words, madam merchant,” the leader of the soldiers said. “I am moved and awed by your kindness.” He drew the sword that was sheathed by his side, and at this signal, his men drew their weapons as well. “But not enough to suffer a warlock to live.”
He raised his sword to the magician. Vesta tried to stand in his way, hoping she could shield the magician, but the leader of the soldiers cried out in a rage. He slapped her face with back of his hand and pushed her to the ground. The candle in her cloak fell out, the cap came loose and the flame burned a brilliant black.
Vesta had never seen that color. She turned to look at her husband. Hamlin gazed down at her, then he looked at the leader of the solders, and his eyes turned to fury. He flew at the soldiers. His body seemed to split, to shatter into many bodies. Vesta sat up, her jaw aching, and she crawled away from the fighting. She thought her vision must have been damaged when she was struck, for she saw four men who looked like her husband.
One Hamlin seemed to have the strength of many men. He lifted a soldier who was a head taller than him and tossed the soldier aside. Another Hamlin dodged past the attacking soldiers and dashed toward Vesta, his eyes filled with love and mercy. He knelt before her and held her.
“Stay close,” he said. And even in the midst of fear and panic, Vesta thought he sounded like he had when they were just met as youths, and she had fancied him from the first. She saw the candle in the midst of the battle. It’s flame was now many-colored.
A third Hamlin made his way to the magician. Vesta watched as the third Hamlin pointed up at the pass. The magician nodded and raised his arms. Niko was not skilled in battle magic. He had warned Vesta as much when they set out, but she had still decided not to hire any guards, for the smaller their party, the better their chances of not being worth anyone’s notice. But the magician did have some skills that had come in handy during the journey—sparking fire, enchanting cloaks against the rain, and levitating stones that were too heavy to lift. She saw that he was moving a stone high up in the pass now. She did not see how one rock would help him stave off the five or six men who were still upon him. But once he dislodge the rock, a rumbling sound filled the pass, and a slide of rocks tumbled down the side of the pass and upon the soldiers. It happened so quickly, Vesta feared that Niko and the third Hamlin were buried as well, but she saw them, unharmed when the dust settled.
A fourth Hamlin stood aside and watched, his eyes full of calm. The soldiers were defeated. A few were badly wounded and they were helped up by their comrades. They all shuffled away. The four Hamlins watched them go.
The fourth Hamlin suddenly leapt toward the magician and pushed him aside as an arrow whipped past. A fleeing soldier had taken one last shot.
One Hamlin collapsed to the ground. The other three touched his back and they were rejoined into one. Hamlin fell unconscious and Vesta went to him. The magician knelt beside her. As she turned her husband’s body around and checked him for life, another arrow came through the air and struck the magician. Vesta looked up and saw a soldier salute her and then vanish through the pass. The magician crumpled beside Hamlin.
“Niko!” Vesta shifted toward him. The arrow had pierced his side.
“I know what’s happened to him,” the magician said. He was short of breath. “It’s the same thing that happened to her.”
“Who? The healer?”
The magician shook his head. “It’s a legend, a myth.” The magician’s blood seeped out of him and pooled under him. Vesta glanced over to Hamlin and saw that her husband was alive and breathing. She pressed her hands helplessly against the magician’s wound. But Niko shook his head. “No time to tell you.”
“Tell me how to heal you. I can try at least.”
“His aim was true.”
Vesta felt tears spring to her eyes.
“Take your husband home, quickly. He can be saved.”
“Yes, we’ll get you healed and then you’ll help me save him.”
“I can’t…do it. He can’t be rejoined. He’ll always be different. But you can…save him.”
Tears rolled down Vesta’s cheeks.
“You weep for me? Such compassion. I entrust all my life’s work to you,” the magician said as he handed her a small scroll tube. Vesta felt a sudden surge of affection for the magician who had been the best friend she had in her time of direst need. She began to feel pity for him, for he had no loved ones there to comfort him as he passed on from his life, but then she held his hand and stopped pitying him. For she saw in his eyes that he was not to be pitied but honored.
The candles he had made, all those candles. They were a greater legacy than a kingdom. As wicked magic was made with ill will, so was good magic made with good will. The magician had shared in the care and love that all the families felt for the ones they were separated from. Vesta made an oath in her heart that she did not utter, for unspoken oaths were truer than spoken ones. She would honor the magician, his work and his life. So too would her family honor him for as long as she lived.
Vesta held Niko’s hand, gazed into his eyes, smiled, and kissed his forehead. The magician died. Unbeknownst to Vesta, leagues away, as his candle flame died, her youngest watched and called to his brothers and sisters. They all gathered and willed their mother’s candle flame to burn on.
The magician died. But her husband lived. She brought him home. The closer they came to home, the more the candle flame steadied into a bright yellow flame. It remained that way for many months. With the scroll that Niko gave her, Vesta inherited all the magician’s possessions. When she visited his vast home and came upon his library, she was overwhelmed by the knowledge he had amassed.
It would take her a long while to find the legend he spoke of that would help her husband. She would study for a lifetime if need be. A few of her children began to joined her. Her husband too sometimes join them, though he did not prefer a scholarly life. He was changed by whatever he had seen of war and perhaps by the things he could not quite remember seeing from having passed through the veil of death. But he was still himself at the core. Vesta still sometimes feared that Hamlin’s flame might turn gray, but as more and more time passed, her fear diminished. She sometimes felt guilty that she had regained her love, especially when she remembered what happened to the healer, who shared his trials and torment. She hoped to find a way to restore the healer one day.
Though his flame remained un-grayed, Hamlin still sometimes shattered into four. Vesta observed him when he did for clues that might lead her to the legend she sought. One of the four was loving, one was charmingly crude, one was bright and thoughtful, and one was wise. They came to learn that his candle flame turned to brilliant black just before he shattered, so he was able to hide his condition from all but his family. After a while, he came to think of it not as the price for his second chance, but as a gift in itself. He helped his family and his people when he was shattered. He used his strength to build and protect. He used his wisdom to make peace between fighting neighbors. He did so as his way of honoring the magician, and for turning what was done to him to good. His family took care of him when he rejoined, for he always fell into a sleep. Vesta feared a day would come when he would not wake, but she too came to see his condition as a gift. She even came to jest that she had four husbands, which the whole Hamlin did not find at all amusing.
When Hamlin was shattered, his candle flame burned many radiant colors. Red, blue, green, violet. Sometimes it burned with many colors woven together. But when he rejoined and become one Hamlin, the colors of the flame would meld back into a warm natural yellow. So Vesta and her family continued to work, to learn, to search, and to strive.
For as long as the candle flame burned, there was still hope.
Copyright © 2015 Nila L. Patel