“It weren’t so long ago – maybe seventy years, maybe less – not a single person of Skymoore, from the lowliest shoe-polisher to the fanciest lordling, could get so far as breakfast without hearing the name Talbot Windomere. His blood was one-part human, one-part elf; his features were elegant as the Pale Moon and brilliant as the Southron Star; and he was unmatched in both body and mind. You read his name in the headlines of the morning paper, heard it in the praises of academics and swashbucklers, and yes, just made it out in the fanciful giggles and whispers of the young.
“Of this last category, there were two whose passion and affection for Windomere stood out among the rest. There was Sharla Darkholm, a wealthy young dryad whose family owned Goldsoil Farm, and Tuck Greenston, a modest human blacksmith. Their battles for Talbot’s heart were often public events. Sharla might hire minstrels to quite literally sing her love from the rooftops, and Tuck would spend his breaks from work nailing his love poems to the doors’ of all Talbot’s favorite locales.
“One morning, just as summer was giving way to autumn, both Sharla and Tuck were greeted by servants of the Windomere family asking them to come to dinner at the Windblown Manor, a rare and coveted invitation. Naturally, they accepted.
“The meal came in three courses, each more extravagant and delicious than the last. Sharla ate with a reserved dignity. Tuck did all he could not to water at the mouth. Talbot was amused by both. As dessert (a fifteen-or-twenty-layer cake, depending on who ya ask) was served, Lord and Lady Windomere retired to their room, leaving Talbot to at last reveal to his suitors why he had summoned them.
“‘It is clear to me,’ he began, ‘that your affection for me is greater than that of any other in Skymoore, or indeed in all of Solkin. I admire the both of you in great and equal measure, and yet the law of proper society insists I may only choose one. So I submit a challenge to the both of you:
“‘I have promised my parents that one year from tomorrow, the first day of autumn, I shall marry the individual of my choosing. As autumn gives way to winter I will invite you here again, and each of you will bring me the loveliest object which is no larger than a pebble. He or she who brings me the gift which pleases me greater will have my hand in marriage. Is this agreeable?’
“It was. And so Sharla and Tuck finished their cake and braced themselves for a sleepless night.
“For Sharla, the lack of sleep came from a busy mind; with her family’s fortune she could have anything she wanted – she had only to imagine it, and it would be hers, and then it would be Talbot’s. For Tuck, it was the body that was busy, for the day before he’d received the invitation, the blacksmiths of Skymoore received grim tidings: a link on the chain that tethered Skymoore to Solkin was breaking, and they had less than a year to stop the city from floating off into the sun.
“This may sound like a lot of time, but you have to remember that Skymoore’s state was brought about by the most powerful magic and skilled smithing the world has ever seen. That which kept the chain together for over two-hundred years was a mystery, and now the blacksmiths of Skymoore were tasked with replicating that craftsmanship while keeping the danger a secret lest the town lunge into panic.
“So Tuck spent his autumn working tirelessly. He spent many hours at his desk and walking the Rusty Road as he sought the perfect gift for Talbot Windomere, and he spent many more hours sweating at the forge not only to build the chain, but to keep his family’s business afloat.
“As autumn gave way to winter, Tuck and Sharla found themselves seated once again in Windblown Manner. As Lord and Lady Windomere retired to bed, the servants wheeled out the largest pie Tuck would ever see, and it was time for the suitors to present their gifts.
“Tuck handed Talbot a modestly-wrapped box, no larger than a robin’s egg, with a sudden sense of pride; he had spent all the gold he could spare on his present, and he was certain that Sharla could not top it. Confusion was plain on that half-elf’s face as he withdrew a minuscule piece of paper, folded up many times. He eyed Tuck curiously.
“‘Mallear paper,’ the blacksmith explained sheepishly. ‘Unfold it.’
“The young lord Windomere did so. He unfolded it once. Then twice. Then three times. And soon ten or more, until he was holding a rather large watercolor portrait of himself. In it, Talbot sat on the edge of Skymoore, staring up at swirling, pulsating stars, though none was as scintillating as the young lord himself. Though he regained his composure quickly, Tuck swore he saw Talbot blush briefly at the gift, and Tuck’s spirits soared.
“Then it was Sharla’s turn. She handed Talbot a box wrapped in pressed gold. Inside was a tiny gem which seemed to contain all creation within it. Swirling in its tiny confines were constellations and swirling maelstroms of color and light which the most gifted poets would struggle to describe.
“‘A shard of the Pelu’ana Stone,’ the heiress said. ‘From Dol Belvargamar, a surface-city where dwarves and elves have set aside their differences to live in union.’
“Talbot was plainly enamored with the stone. But he could not forget the love present in Tuck’s gift. After a few moments of consideration, he revealed his verdict.
“‘Tuck, your gift is flattering, and clearly a product of thought and affection. I will cherish it always. And yet, I cannot discount the length Sharla traveled for this stone, nor its ethereal beauty. I cannot choose between these. And so as winter gives way to spring, I ask that you meet me here once more, this time with the most curious oddity you can get your hands on. Whoever pleases me more will have my hand.’
“His heart heavy with disappointment, Tuck returned home for a cold and sleepless night. But that was nothing compared to the long and difficult winter that lay before him. For those ninety days, the customers were needier, the forge ran cooler, the replacement links only grew more brittle.
“But every morning before work, Tuck would awake with the sun, exhausted from a long night of smithing, and greet the individuals coming and going from the Docks. And every day he browsed their wares, hoping eventually to find the perfect gift for Talbot. But even then visitors were a rarity in Skymoore, and these trips were often in vain.
“To make matters worse for poor Tuck, whenever he caught a glimpse of Talbot Windomere walking past the Greenston’s smithy on his way to the Sunken Flagon, the young lord was wearing Sharla’s stone as an amulet about his neck. And not fifteen days into the season, news had spread that the dryad was preparing to leave for a lengthy journey down on the surface of Solkin. Tuck wouldn’t have the luxury of making such a trip for Talbot’s gift.
“When he entered Windblown Manner just as winter gave way to spring, Tuck’s soul was sunken with defeat. He could hardly even stomach his meal, though it was even more extravagant and delectable than the last. Tuck entertained the notion of skipping the dinner entirely in an effort to save himself the embarrassment, but who was Tuck Greenston to deny the invitation of Talbot Windomere? And so there he was, watching the desert – a blindingly colorful assortment of pastries from the surface – arrive at the table, wishing desperately that he was anywhere else in the world.
“This feeling was only compounded as Sharla unveiled her gift, a flower that bloomed in the Suspended Lake located nearly a month’s travel from Skymoore. For a moment Tuck was relieved, for the flower was not especially curious or beautiful. Then Sharla removed it from its pot, soil and all, and placed it on the table, and its roots extended out like legs. Its leaves acted as arms. The flower began to dance.
“The flower could pirouette and tap dance and twirl a twig like a cane. As it danced, so too did Talbot’s eyes, with elation and wonder. He always did his best to appear composed, but now he could hardly hold himself together. Even Tuck was on the edge of his seat with awe.
“But that faded quickly when it was his turn to give a gift. As Talbot opened the box, poor Tuck wanted to cover his face, to bolt out of the room, to leave Skymoore behind entirely and live among the Forgotten Ones in the Under Roads.
“‘This is most disarming, Tuck,” Talbot exclaimed as he examined the trinket: a kaleidoscope which, when twisted properly, showed one a live, distorted view from a tower in Castiron. ‘How did you know I fancied kaleidoscopes as a child?’ He could tell from Tuck’s bewildered features that he did not, and began to laugh heartily. ‘Incredible! One cannot discount the unconscious connection of love! Nor again, can one discount the lengths Ms. Darkholm traveled for this remarkable orchid.’
“Neither suitor was surprised to hear that when spring gave way to summer, they were to return to Windblown Manor once more. This time, the young lord requested the most delicious fruit in all the world. Sharla left that very evening, and Tuck resigned himself to his forge for another three months.
“Despite the warmer weather, spring came no easier to the Greenstons than winter. The forge still ran cool, the chain remained unfixed, and their orders were cheaper and further between. But even with less work, Tuck had to provide for his family, and he could not scour Solkin in search of fruit. His only hope was to spend yet another season waiting at the docks each morning.
“When summer was nearly upon Solkin, and Skymoore drifted ever closer to floating away, Sharla Darkholm and Tuck Greenston were once again seated in Windblown Manor, eating yet another unbelievable meal. This time, they gave gifts while being served yogurt which changed flavors depending on the consumer’s thoughts.
“Sharla was eager to give her gift, a berry that grew halfway up Mount Reeshowdt, so she went first. Talbot was once more impressed by her dedication, but if the berry amazed him, he hid it well.
“And then it was Tuck’s turn.
“He presented a box composed of varnished blue wood from the Cerulean Forest nestled in the O’grofkala Mountains. Across the box was a latch fitted with the insignia of King Pondan, ruler of Grandia. Sharla and Talbot grew silent and still in its presence.
“Tuck opened the box very gingerly, as if holding something sacred, and presented its contents – a single, yellow apple – to the object of his affection. Talbot took it with the same care. Then, after gazing at Tuck curiously, the young lord took a bite. Talbot’s eyes widened and shined and Tuck knew at once that he had won.
“‘I…this is the most incredible thing I’ve ever tasted. Tuck, where is this from?’
“‘From the garden of King Pondan himself,’ Tuck replied. ‘My uncle was once a knight in his service, and he allowed me an audience.’
“‘May I try it?’ Sharla asked dubiously. Tuck began to stutter an answer, but Talbot interrupted him, saying that of course she could, and handing her the apple. She took a bite, her face serious as she chewed and gears turned in her head.
“‘Tuck’s a liar,’ she declared. His face went pale at once. ‘This apple is from Goldsoil Farm. My family owns that land!’
“‘Is this true, Tuck?’ Talbot asked. He looked stern, but he did not want to believe it. The blacksmith began to stammer an answer, and his cheeks reddened. It was true, of course. Tuck had not the time or the ability to make such a trip, nor an uncle who was a knight, or even an uncle at all.
“Tuck ran from Windblown Manor without a proper answer, utterly ashamed of what he had done. His face was red and hot and wet with tears as he returned to his smithy and slammed the door behind him. He leaned against it, and wept.
“It was over, he knew. Talbot would marry Sharla and they would have children who were one-quarter elf, one-quarter human, one-half dryad, and they would be small and beautiful and curious oddities and once every ten years they would bear fruit and it would be the most delicious fruit in the city.
“Or they wouldn’t, because Skymoore would float into the sun and everyone on it would evacuate or die. After what he’d done, that thought almost calmed him.
“He stewed in tears and misery for the better half of an hour, his skin hot from shame but his body freezing as the furnaces failed to provide the stone walls with any heat. He couldn’t move, and he couldn’t open his eyes. He could see only Talbot Windomere’s stern face as he asked ‘is that true?’
“Eventually a knock came to the door, and Tuck jumped back in surprise. He wiped his face, took a deep breath, and greeted his guest: Talbot Windomere.
“‘Wha-what are you doing here?’ Tuck asked.
“The young lord looked serious. ‘Initially, I was coming here to tell you how disappointed I was. How hurt I was that for so long I had opened my heart for you, offered my home to you, and entertained the possibility of marriage, only for you to deceive me so.’ His face softened a touch. ‘But then, on the way here I was stopped by a merchant – an old dwarf from Castiron – who asked me if I was Talbot Windomere. He told me that every morning, a young blacksmith struggling to keep his family’s business afloat would wait at the docks just for a chance to buy an item that would please me. He said you spent half a year’s worth of luxury income on his kaleidoscope. Is that true?’
“Tuck nodded dumbly.
“Talbot looked almost angry. ‘How could you do that?’ he snapped. Tuck flinched. ‘How could you do that to yourself on my account? You risked your health, your fortune, your happiness – for what? For me? My silly challenges? Why?’
“Tuck looked at Talbot as he would a foolish child. ‘Because I wanted to win them. It. Your hand. Your love. All of it.’
“Now it was Talbot’s turn to look at Tuck like a fool. Each of them was on the verge of words – a proclamation, a defense, more scolding – but it was ultimately action that completed the exchange as their lips met. The interior warmth radiating from Tuck’s fluttering heart down to his toes was matched only by the exterior heat of all the furnaces in his smithy suddenly roaring to life.
“The blacksmith separated himself from the young lord suddenly and forcefully. ‘I have to do something!’ he said, flushed and breathless. ‘I’m so sorry. Uh, wait right there!’
“Tuck ran to his smelting furnace, which now roared with a light red flame. He poured the melted metal, which glowed a faint pink, into its enormous mold, taking several trips to do so. Talbot, compelled by some unknown force, brought the bellows over to the mold. Before Tuck could stop him, the bellows were blowing enchanted air over the mold, causing it to cool instantly.
“The massive piece of metal retained its pink glow even while solid, and the magic inherent in its makeup was palpable to the two young men standing beside it. The looked at it, and then to each other, beaming with the knowledge that they had created something magical, both in the forge and in themselves.
“The Lovers’ Link, they called it, and it holds Skymoore in place to this day, and hopefully all days to come.”
The classroom remained still for many moments after Benison Ioudok the Story Keeper finished his tale. He was a little disappointed, if he was being honest. Normally the end of the story elicited at least one “aww” from the crowd, but the teenagers of Pulldrid Academy looked almost…embarrassed?
“Mr. Story Keeper, sir…” Elkrof’tiko, a minotaur near the back of the class, began.
“Just Story Keeper will do,” Benison said.
“Okay. Story Keeper. Well…”
Karessa, a gothic-looking halfling who sat alone, spoke up. “This is math class.” The students laughed: some nervously, some cruelly. Benison looked at the chalkboard behind him and confirmed that Karessa spoke the truth. It occurred to him now that the older, well-dressed student sitting near the front must have been their teacher. “We were all just too embarrassed to stop you.”
“It was a lovely story, though,” the teacher said as they walked Benison to the door. “One of my mother’s favorites to tell when I was a kid. Though her version was a little…shorter.”
Standing in the empty hallway, Benison took the opportunity to check his pocket watch. Its face held a dozen smaller clocks, each of a style and time-standardization of a different part of the world.
He had another appointment in ten minutes.
“Well, that old fool seems to have wasted the entire class today,” the teacher was saying from inside. The class hollered. “Which means I’ll have to assign additional reading for the weekend.” The class groaned.
Benison smiled to himself as he approached a door at the end of the hall. It didn’t lead to any classroom. In fact, if any other hand touched it, it wouldn’t lead anywhere at all. As he recited the beginning of The Magister and The Clown under his breath, the Story Keeper stepped through the door and into the small village of Apoky, down on the surface of Solkin.
Hopefully this story would be appreciated more.