Ailia stood in the darkened forest, staring at a single candle flame that flickered in the shadowed silhouette of a tree. She raised her bow, knocked an arrow and pulled the bowstring taut. She remained still and held her breath, closing one eye as she sharpened her sight on the wavering flame. She adjusted her aim and then, just as her arms began to shake, she released the arrow.
It shot through the air, piercing a patch of leaves before flying into the candle flame. The arrow caught fire and then combusted, showering a rain of sparks to the ground below.
Ailia lowered her bow and walked to the tree. The sparks lingered in the grass and ferns, glittering like dewdrops. The candle remained intact in the branches above, though its flame had become agitated, as if caught in an imperceptible breeze. The nights were always so dark in the forest—the single, wavering flame of the Candleberry tree was the only light for leagues around. But it was a light the tree kept close, and Ailia was determined to find a way to set it free.
She crouched and touched the sparks that had embedded themselves in a patch of moss. The sparks felt cool and soft, like snow-covered fox fur, or water that had not yet frozen. She picked them up and they continued to glow in her hands like amber jewels. She then set out deeper into the darkened woods.
The shards of flame lit her way as she walked through the gloom. She walked until she came to a darkened cave, within which lay a hulking, shadowed form of a great black bear. The bear raised his head at her approach and huffed through his wide snout.
Ailia raised a hand. “I come in peace, friend Bear.”
Bear sat on his haunches and sniffed the air. Ailia reached out to him, and he put his cold, wet nose to her hand. He huffed again.
Ailia smiled and scratched Bear behind the ears. Then she placed the shards of light into his thick, soft fur. “Those are for you, friend Bear. To light your way.”
Bear got to his feet and shook his fur, but the sparks remained. Then, with a final huff, he walked out into the night.
Ailia returned to the Candleberry tree. She shot another arrow into the flame, and, once again, picked up the sparks that had rained to the ground. With the shards in hand, she again ventured into the darkness, this time coming to a winding stream.
A great white stag stood drinking at the water’s edge. He raised his head at her approach and, before he could turn and run, Ailia raised a hand.
“I mean you no harm, friend Stag,” she said.
Stag watched her as she neared, but remained still. Ailia reached out to him, and Stag sniffed her hand. He took a step forward.
Ailia smiled and ran a hand over his coarse coat. Then she took the shards of candle flame and put them on his great rack of antlers. Stag shook his head, but the shards remained. Then he turned and darted off into the night.
One last time, Ailia returned to the Candleberry tree. Again, she shot the single flame with an arrow and, for one last time, picked up the sparks that had fallen. This time, however, she did not head off into the woods. Instead she knelt and said, “I see you, friend Hedgehog.”
Hedgehog crawled out from under a bush and wound his way around her ankles. Ailia smiled and placed the last of the shards onto Hedgehog’s spiny coat. Hedgehog’s quills shivered, but the sparks remained. He then scurried away into the night.
Ailia rose and walked away, but the path was brighter. She turned and looked back and smiled at all the sparks of light that moved through the darkness, ever circling the single wavering flame of the Candleberry tree.