One True Gift

by L. E. Erickson © 2002

With cold creeping down his collar and into his old-man bones, Hamblin hurried along under a glowing gray sky. Tree branches glittered, knife edges in moonlight.

This'll kill me. Or she will. Doesn't matter, I'll be dead soon anyhow.

Hamblin clutched his bundle tighter, though his arthritic fingers objected. His gift to her, all he had left. Would it be enough?

Her tower loomed. Heíd seen her only once, when he was a young man, but he'd wanted her for all his lonely, wife-less years. She'd walked the moors, black fox at her heels, wearing an evergreen dress. Her hair had danced like flame in the devil winds, and her eyes had been as black and cold as burned-out stars.

What will she do to me, with those eyes?

Hamblinís heart rattled in his chest. He reached the squat tower of red stone but saw no door, so he chose a sheltered spot, laid aside his bundle, and dug.

The soil's surrender was reluctant. Hamblinís hands stung, his joints screamed. Frigid air crawled down his neck.

Finished, Hamblin sat back and reached for the burlap-wrapped bundle.

Greater men bearing greater gifts have died for disturbing her.

"I donít care," Hamblin whispered. How would her pale lips look, curved into a smile? Heíd seen the hope of it in those eyes, he thought. Let others try to buy her power--he wanted only her smile. He'd wished a long time for the courage to try earning it. Impending death had given him that, at least.

Hamblin was tense with anticipation of doom as he unwrapped the lily. Its snow-white petals shivered in the wind, but he thought it might survive the cold. He eased the flower into the hole.

"It's yours." His voice quavered. "I want you to have it."

He tucked loose earth around his gift.

It might have my blood for fertilizer.

Something tickled the back of Hamblinís neck. He croaked in alarm and spun around.

Between Hamblin and the tower stood the black fox.

Time for me to die?

Something in the fox's mouth glittered in the moonlight. It dropped the object and nudged it toward Hamblin. Its head bobbed; its sharp nose pointed at the key on the ground. Hamblin picked it up.

Faint lines glowed in the red stone of the tower--a keyhole.

As Hamblin stood, a breath of warm air caressed his neck. It wafted past him, sparkling into mist as colder air condensed its moisture, and encircled the lily.

The lily disappeared.

The fox nudged Hamblinís leg and pointed its nose at the keyhole. With fear buzzing in his ears, Hamblin stumbled forward and pushed the key into place.

It clicked. The world tilted. Cold became warmth, darkness became light. Gone the moon and the naked trees and the moors; Hamblin was surrounded by emerald leaves and jewel-colored blossoms. Directly before him was the white lily.

The witch crouched beside it, her face hidden by a cascade of ruby hair. Her slender fingers stroked the lily's petals. Then she stood and looked at him.

"For me?" Her voice shimmered into Hamblin's heart and held it for a beat.

"If you want it," he stammered.

Her black eyes narrowed.

"Why?"

"To make you smile." Hamblin felt stupid saying it, like the young man who'd been infatuated by a mere glimpse of the beauty that stood before him now. But he was infatuated still.

Her voice again, like sweet mead rolling down a parched throat, speaking words Hamblin didn't recognize. Paradise faded into a dim room with red stone walls. Wintry cold crackled in the air, even with the fire that burned in the far wall.

She faded, too, emerald green dress to willow gray, ruby hair to snow, smooth skin to sallow wrinkles. Only the lily Hamblin had brought her remained the same.

The lily, and her eyes. He glimpsed the same promise of a smile he thought he'd seen in the eyes of a dream decades before.

"And now?" Her tone was husky with age, but sharp, and Hamblin remembered to be afraid. Despite her decrepit appearance, she might kill him yet.

Or was it she who was afraid?

How long has she lived here alone?

He was ashamed, suddenly, of his obsession with her physical beauty.

"It's still yours," he replied, then blurted, "And so am I."

The garden returned, brilliant color and warm breath of perfume. She remained the same.

"My name is Arabeth. I'm old. I'm dying."

Hamblin nodded and reached for her hand. It was dry and cool in his.

She smiled.

x x x




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