By Patricia Briggs
Vernor closed the door of his cottage behind him, venturing out to the porch. The night wind tugged at his hood as he walked carefully down the stairs in the darkness. He set his buckets down and tightened the strings under his chin — not that there was a villager who didn't know what the hood covered anyway. Shrugging the thought away, he stepped into the street on his nightly trip to the fountain in the center of town.
The streets were busy for this time of night, but it wasn't until he reached the town square and saw the booths and wagons that he remembered tomorrow was the autumn fair. He wove a path between the carts, walking quietly so as not to awaken any of the merchants who slept nearby. While he filled his buckets he looked over the square and tried to imagine what the brightly colored flags would look like in the daylight. After a moment he shook his head, such imaginings could do him no good. He would not be at this or any other market: there was too great a risk of becoming a sideshow himself.
Resolutely, he ignored the flags as he walked back through the square. The brisk walk home in the fresh air served to alleviate most of his melancholy, for he wasn't the kind of person who indulged in self-pity. He was in the midst of choosing the tea he would drink when he returned home, when the sound of loud voices and revelry broke his reverie. With another person the noise would have attracted no further attention, but Vernor had heard such laughter before. This was not congenial humor, there was a cutting edge to the tones which bespoke cruelty.
Prudence bade him ignore it: he knew he was no knight errant, no muscle-bound hero. He managed another step before setting down his buckets and starting toward the noise. He'd been too often the victim of such attacks to ignore someone in trouble.
He allowed himself one brief vision of a beautiful woman in distress, but knew that it would more than likely be only a stray dog unlucky enough to be caught by a bunch of drunken thugs. Even if it were a woman, gratitude would not be enough to overcome his ugliness. He shook his head at his own foolishness.
He trotted through the alleyway and into the next street. A particularly loud laugh drew him to the White Stag, the better of the village's two inns.
The innkeeper and his wife were standing in the doorway, looking around the corner of the building. The man had a firm grip on his wife's shoulder.
"...I'll not cater to such here. This is a goodly place — not for the likes of him."
"But, surely you should stop... "
Vernor passed by unnoticed and stepped around the corner of the inn into the cobbled alley where a group of eight young men had someone backed up against the inn wall.
"See there, I told you their blood is the same color as any!" The baker's son, Fisher, displayed a broken bottle for the others to see — though it was too dark to tell if there was blood on the sharp edges, much less what color it was. Fisher's voice was taut with excitement, Vernor could barely see in him the good-natured boy who had delivered his father's bread.
Just beyond Fisher, Vernor caught a glimpse of their victim. No mutt or stray cat, it was a person, slender of build and shorter in stature than any of the boys surrounding him. For a startled instant, Vernor thought it was indeed a lady he'd come to rescue, but as he worked his way around behind the boys, he saw that his first impression was wrong.
Though the man's braid of wheat-blond hair hung to his waist, there was little feminine about his form or features. Iron shackles banded each of his wrists, preventing him from defending himself with magic. The sheath on his belt was empty: even so, there was enough distance between him and the small crowd of half-drunken hooligans to suggest he was still capable of defending himself. A large gold earring drew Vernor's gaze to the man's pointed ears.
An elf, thought Vernor in surprise, for he had never heard of any venturing this far into human territory. The shackles suggested that this assault had been planned in advance, making it that much more difficult to reason with the attackers.
Two of the boys held torches. One of them Vernor recognized as the blacksmith's apprentice — probably the source of the shackles. Stepping out of the shadows, Vernor took the torch from the sturdy boy's hand; succeeding mostly because of the unexpectedness of his move.
With his free hand, Vernor untied the strings of his cloak as he stepped into the small clear area between the tormentors and their victim.
"I am certain that you all have better things to do this night," he said, hoping his voice didn't shake.
"And what would that be, shadowman?" asked Fisher laughing.
"Leave him be," tried Vernor again. "Go home."
"Go home," repeated Fisher, imitating Vernor's light tenor before dropping to his own baritone. "Go home yourself, Freak." Vernor could smell alcohol and suspected that it came as much from the boy's breath as it did from the broken bottle he still wielded in his left hand.
Reluctantly, Vernor dropped the cloak, knowing that no matter how well he'd been described the reality was shocking. A true albino, in the torchlight he knew he looked like a ghoul with his pale skin and white hair. His left eye was covered by a patch, but his right eye was light blue. In the torchlight it would appear as white as his hair. Someone swore.
"Freak," said Vernor nodding. He had played the hero in so many stories of his own devising that he knew what to say now. Reaching up to his face, he tore away the patch and let it fall to the ground, showing them the eye he preferred to keep hidden. He held up the torch so the flickering light made the crimson iris and black-red pupil as obvious as possible.
"Fisher," he said as coldly as he could. "When I was a young lad, heedless and stupid, I was cursed by wizard. He touched my shoulder and condemned me to wear his mark — an eye red as blood. So affrighted was I that all the color left my body, leaving me as you see now." He took another step toward the baker's son, and raised a hand toward the boy's shoulder. "As he did to me, so will I now . . . "
Fisher dropped the bottle and ran. Seeing their leader fled, the others followed, leaving Vernor and the elf alone in the alley. When he was certain they were all gone, Vernor turned to the victim.
"I have never heard of a wizard who uses the mark of a red eye," said the elf frowning, as he stepped away from the wall.
Vernor grinned self-consciously and dropped his threatening air as he bent to search the ground for his patch. "Neither have I, but it made a good story, didn't it? Nothing magical about it, unfortunatly."
"Like an albino rabbit," commented the elf.
"Yes," agreed Vernor, although he didn't like to think of it that way, "Like a rabbit's." He found his patch and located his cloak as well. The patch was damp from a puddle, and he wiped it on his tunic before tying it back over his eye. It wasn't until he had his cloak on again that he felt completely himself once more.
Nodding at the shackles he said, "I've got hammer and chisel at home, as well as a spare bunk for the night — it might be safer."
The elf nodded his acceptance with a regal air that belied his torn clothing. "Thank you."
It proved unnecessary to collect the elf's belongings as the large backpack he claimed to be his only luggage was sitting suggestively outside the inn door. The elf picked it up and glanced at Vernor.
"It appears that your offer of a place to sleep was timely, my lord."
"Vernor, please," he corrected the elf hastily, not without some embarrassment, "I'm no lord."
"Vernor," agreed the elf, but made no effort to offer his own name.
Vernor led the elf back to his cottage, retrieving his undisturbed buckets on the way.
The elf didn't talk much, but that suited Vernor, who'd not had much practice at conversation. When the shackles had been struck off, the elf accepted the offer of tea before bed. Seated on the only chair in the room, he sipped and paused, obviously pleasantly surprised.
Vernor smiled hesitantly, his legs dangling off the end of one of the bunks. He'd left the cloak on, not wanting to offend his guest.
"It's my own blend," he said. "My relatives are tea merchants. They say this one sells exceptionally well."
"Tea merchants? Here?"
"No, they live further south. They sent me here . . . oh, a decade or so ago. It would have been bad for the family if it had been widely known what I was."
"Why is that?" asked the elf, as if it weren't obvious.
Vernor stared at him for a moment doubtfully, before deciding that there was no maliciousness in the elf's expression. He swallowed his tea and said hollowly, "Because I am a freak. If anyone found out there was something as hideous as I am in the family, it would be impossible to arrange advantageous marriages for the others."
"Hideous? No more than the rest of the humans I have met," said the elf thoughtfully.
Vernor, looking at the elf's rare beauty, could well believe he found the rest of the human race ugly. For some reason that made Vernor feel more cheerful.
"Well," he said, "at any rate they sent me away. They support me as well as I ask them to — as long as I don't create a fuss."
The elf looked up, "If I have caused you any harm... "
"No, no," answered Vernor. "I doubt if anyone will believe the boy's story anyway." He tried his best imitation of Fisher's father, "A flaming red eye? Hogwash, my boy! How much did you have to drink?"
The elf smiled discreetly and set down the cup. "You haven't asked."
"Haven't asked what?" inquired Vernor, pleased that he'd made the elf smile — even if it were only for politeness' sake.
"About the wish."
The elf looked impatient. "For my rescue."
Vernor stared at him a moment then said, "I thought that was for capturing a leprechaun, not rescuing elves. I guess elves don't get rescued that often."
The elf smiled, displaying sharp white teeth. "Not often, no. I'd appreciate if you'd not spread this night's work about either — I'd never live it down. Now about this wish . . . "
"Magic?" asked Vernor.
The elf nodded. "There are some limits of course, but I can give you gold, travel, long life . . ." he let his voice trail off and he met Vernor's blue eye squarely. "I can make you like the others of your kind, if you wish."
Vernor swallowed. "Can I think about it?"
"As long as you like. If you haven't made up your mind by morning, I'll stop by next time I pass near here. I am a merchant myself, though our usual route passes west of here. I left my party and came this way to see if there was anything of interest at the autumn fair."
Vernor spent most of the night thinking as he listened to his guest's quiet breathing. When morning came, he fed his guest on berry muffins and tea.
"Have you decided what you would like?" asked the elf as he finished the last of the muffins.
Vernor hesitated, then shook his head. The elf gave him a penetrating look out of his velvet brown eyes. "You don't wish to be like the rest of your kind?"
Vernor swallowed and said with a certainty that had developed over the long, dark hours of the night, "No. It would have been nice, I think, if I had not been born this way, but it's a part of who I am now. It's too late to change that."
The elf smiled gravely. "I think you are a wise man, Vernor. Consider your wish, then. I will visit again."
Several months passed by before the elf returned. Vernor had been sitting down to eat, and at his invitation the elf joined him. They dined simply on bread, cheese and tea.
"Another of your blends?" asked the elf.
"Yes. I think it has too much ginger."
"No, it would be too subtle otherwise, though perhaps a touch more lemon rind?"
Vernor smiled in satisfaction. "That's what I did in the main batch, but I thought I'd try this again to see if the fault was in the ginger. Would you care to sample the other tea?"
"I hope you will stay the night," said Vernor, as he put a fresh pot of water on to heat.
"I doubt the inn would have me," replied the elf dryly. "Have you thought about your wish?"
Vernor nodded, turning back to his guest. "I thought, maybe some travel — but I've never traveled much. I don't know where to go."
"Perhaps I might be of some help."
They talked long into the night about the great cities of the world, but the next morning Vernor had not yet made his wish.
"Here," he said to the elf who was tightening the strings on his backpack. "I packed some of the tea for you — I thought that it would provide you with an explanation for your travel here away from your companions."
The elf shook his head and said with a touch of arrogance, "I need no excuses."
"A gift then," Vernor said, undismayed.
The elf took the pouch and bowed gravely. "A gift worthy of a king."
And so it went, the elf would come in the evening, his visits usually several months apart. They would talk, sometimes through the night. In the morning Vernor would apologize for having no wish. The elf would accept his apology gracefully and take his leave.
"Have you ever seen the ocean?" asked the elf as he ate the last of the cheese.
"No," replied Vernor. The years could not whiten his hair, of course, but wrinkles touched the corners of his mouth and eyes — the elf hadn't changed since the first time they'd met. "Tell me about it."
The elf still didn't smile much, and was overly polite by human standards, but Vernor had learned to notice the subtle signs of enjoyment that the other displayed as he sipped from his teacup before he spoke.
"The first thing you notice is the smell, salt and fish so strong that you can smell nothing else. Then comes the sound: the rhythmic beating of the ocean upon the cliffs or the softer music of the water lapping onto the beach." The elf had closed his eyes, as if shutting off the one sense would strengthen his memory of another, but he opened them and shifted forward in the chair that had, over the years, become his. Intensely, holding Vernor's blue eye with his own, he continued, "but nothing, nothing prepares you for your first sight of the sea."
Vernor fumbled with the latch of his cupboard a bit — in the last few years his hands had become swollen and awkward. "You told me last month that your daughter was getting married."
"To a musician," said the elf sourly from his seat.
"Even so," smiled Vernor taking down a small wooden chest and carrying it with him to where the elf sat near the fireplace. "I spoke to my nephew, who has expanded the family business in recent years, venturing into silks and other fine fabrics. He just had a ship back from overseas trading, and his wife thought your daughter might enjoy this." As he spoke he drew out a dress-length of dark green cloth that caught the dancing firelight and shimmered like the richest of emeralds.
"I've never seen cloth as beautiful as my daughter before," said the elf, rubbing the fabric in his hand. "It will well serve for her wedding gown. All the other women shall envy her — even if she marries the musician."
Vernor sat down on his chair and put his feet up on the cushioned stool. "At least she's finally settling down, perhaps one of her children will be a merchant like his grandfather. Now, try your tea and see if you like what I've done with the anise seed you brought me."
The house was dark, as the elf approached it; but then Vernor had been sleeping more lately. He walked through the snow that no one had bothered to clear from the steps and opened the door without knocking. The old man was asleep in his chair, a cold cup of tea nearby. It was chilly inside, and the elf tossed a log onto the empty fireplace and lit it with a word of magic.
Taking a blanket from a bed, the elf covered him before making a fresh pot of tea. The spicy smell of the brew revived the Vernor somewhat, and he was able to sip it with only minimal aid from the elf.
"Well," said Vernor slowly, savoring the rich flavor, "I suspect this is your last visit. I am an old, old man and this winter will last longer than I."
"Yes," agreed the elf, turning slightly away so Vernor could not see his face.
"I thought," continued Vernor softly, staring into his cup, "I should clear up a small matter, as I would like to die an honest man. My wish, you see, was made long and long ago. You fulfilled it admirably. I wanted..." He coughed hoarsely, unable to finish the sentence.
The elf turned back, and Vernor could see that a single tear had fallen like a diamond to the elf's high cheekbone.
"I know, my friend," replied the elf softly, touching the old man's shoulder. "I know."