Short Story – The Gift
Snow fell in large clumpy tufts through the air as the final bell of the day rang all across the high school. The dark green steel doors of the brick structure then swung open seconds later, letting out a sea of students ready for their winter holidays. Trudging among them in the snow were Annetta, Jason, Link and Sarina, each in their heavy winter coats. The group of companions were in high spirits, knowing they would not be forced to come back until after the New Year.
“I’m going to sleep in every day,” Jason proclaimed with a huge grin.
“Right,” Annetta snorted. “If Puc lets you, that is.”
While Annetta and Jason spoke, Link and Sarina watched them. The duo were still in awe at the snowfall. Sarina had never encountered snow before coming to live on Earth, and it was still a marvel to her. Occasionally, the group would stop to find her reaching out for the small flakes and observing them melt on her hand, much in the same way a child would. Link had never witnessed as much snow on Gaia as he’d seen in Toronto. The part the planet that he’d inhabited only had mild snowfall, barely covering the ground, usually disappeared the next day. The only other place he had witnessed this much snow was when visiting Morwick.
Annetta’s voice broke through Link’s train of thought. “What are you hoping to get for Christmas?”
Jason, the one who the comment was aimed at, looked over at Annetta, his green eyes visible from the furry lining of his grey parka. “Honestly, Anne, I haven’t given it much thought. I mean, there’s the new Dungeon Crawlers game coming out in a week, but we’ve been so busy the last little while that I haven’t been paying much attention. In fact, I’m not sure when was the last time I played a game.”
Annetta bobbed her hood-covered head, agreeing with the sentiment. Usually when she finished with training in the Lab, anything extra was the last thing on her mind, due to how tired she was. Pushing a few loose strands of her hair tighter under the hood, she glanced over at Link and Sarina. “I’m guessing you both never celebrated Christmas, did you?”
Hearing the question, Link and Sarina looked over at one another and turning back, shook their heads in an uncertain manner.
“That is the solstice-related holiday, right?” Sarina frowned as she tried to remember things she had read in her books. “At least, that’s what I think it was. It takes place around Earth’s winter solstice, but over time has been adapted to various religions of the world. The term Christmas comes from one of the religions, but many secular people still celebrate its traditions.”
Annetta and Jason both looked at Sarina with slightly confused expressions, never having heard the holiday explained in such a way.
Link rummaged in his brain, trying to come up with something to equate it to. “On Gaia, we had a midwinter feast to celebrate the approaching end of winter and to give praise to the Unknown for allowing us to live through another year. My father and I would go every year to the capital to see the parade and the burning of the Nava tree pyre when I was younger. Everyone would bring a log or a stick to throw into the pyre and send their prayers to the Unknown for the coming year.”
Annetta nodded at the story. No matter how many times she spoke to Link, she always managed to learn something new from him about his past. She was fascinated by his time on Gaia. There was something alluring about hearing how life went on in another place. It allowed her to forget some of the dreariness of her own.
“For obvious reasons, my father did not celebrate anything,” Sarina added to the conversation. “A birthdate was the only thing he commemorated for me every year, and even that over time became less and less pleasant as he was engrossed in his work.”
“I can imagine.” Jason agreed with her.
Passing through the last set of lights, the companions approached Annetta’s building, knowing what lay waiting for them.
Their training having concluded for the day in the Lab, Annetta, Jason and Link all walked over to the weapons rack and began putting away the blades they had been using, inspecting each one for damage before doing so. Link took notice of the large nick in Annetta’s sword that was beginning to form a fracture in the metal as she placed it nonchalantly in its place and walked away. Looking over at it, Link knew the damage would spread over time, rendering the sword useless and potentially a hazard in the arena if it broke on the girl.
“Anne,” he called to her and pointed out the dent. “You’ll need to replace your sword.”
The girl turned around and huffed as she strode over to it, taking a good look at the indented metal that was beginning to crack. “Aw, man, but that was the sword Brakkus picked out for me to train with.”
Her frustration was clearly visible in the creases on her face as it furrowed. She couldn’t think about letting it go. Sighing, she slid the weapon back regardless.
“I’ll look into getting a replacement maybe tomorrow,” she said.
Link then watched as Annetta left with Jason to go home for the night. Sarina had been absent from the arena doing some work for Puc, a habit she had gotten into of late. This left him and the mage as the only two remaining on the training grounds. The Gaian youth turned to regard their instructor. Puc Thanestorm was stern and even demeaning at times in their lessons, but the Water Elf mage had their best intentions at heart, and Link supposed that’s what mattered. He was also a wealth of information on human customs, which he found useful in trying to adapt to his double life.
“Puc, can I talk to you about something?” Link asked.
“Well, there isn’t a sign anywhere saying you cannot,” the mage intoned. “Speak.”
“What is Christmas?”
The mage’s dark hair glided over his shoulders as he turned to regard the youth. “A winter solstice-related holiday that is celebrated by Christian religions, and due to its popularity, is also observed by a significant portion of secular people. Why do you ask?”
“I heard Annetta and Jason speaking about it,” he replied. “They spoke of getting gifts as well.”
“Ah, I see.” Puc nodded thoughtfully. “That is one of the traditions. Children are told that a man named Santa Claus will leave gifts for them under the Christmas tree if they are good during the year. As humans get older, however, this notion is dismissed, it being obvious that it is the children’s relatives who are responsible for the gifts. When older, people still exchange gifts with their friends and family as a sign of goodwill.”
“What sort of gifts?” Link continued to question.
“They vary depending on the person they are being given to,” the mage answered. “But I suppose the best kind are the ones that are useful to the individual they are given to.”
Link found himself buried in thought as he absorbed the information. When he turned around to speak to the mage again, he found that he had already departed for the evening.
Waking up the next day, Link found himself going on about his usual routine of getting dressed, making breakfast and then heading out into the Lab to do his morning patrol to see if any creatures were loose. Puc would most likely be up, but he doubted any of the others would be. According to the time being projected onto his wall, it was 5:15am. Going for patrol was something that he had gotten into while Brakkus was still around, and had kept it up in memory of the Hurtz. Memories then surfaced of the few creatures they had found, beasts from other dimensions that had come through from the Eye to All Worlds when the barrier had not been up, or creatures from the biospheres. Not all of them were dangerous, of course, but they still required taking care of and being removed. He had not come across any of late, but a habit was a habit and he continued his walks nonetheless.
His sword strapped to his belt, Link walked through the metallic hallways for a good few hours, hearing the echo of his boots on the floor as he went. He had no difficulty navigating through the corridors, and ending up exactly where he wanted to be at any given time, an additional advantage the strolls had given him. Another benefit of having spent time with the Hurtz, he’d shown him how to differentiate the walls from one another, as well as the sounds made by the floor and even faint smells when detectable.
Smiling to himself as he remembered these things while walking, he almost didn’t hear the faint rapping coming somewhat to his left. Hand on the hilt of his blade, the Gaian put his feet into a fighter stance. He knew well the sounds that belonged to the Lab and the ones that didn’t. This one, as far as he could tell, did not. Weaving down the corridor with his back pressed against the wall, he came to the entrance. The turning feeling in the pit of his stomach that he would have to face whatever was on the other side surfaced and he took a deeper breath to suppress it, letting it out slowly in order to not alert whatever was there. Finally, certain of himself, Link let his blade loose and jumped out from the corner and into a battle stance.
Instead of the creature he expected to see, however, he only found a terrified Jason over a work bench.
“Whoa! Jeez!” The boy put his hands up into the air. “What gives?!”
Confused, Link looked over at his watch to see it read 11:37 am on it, and then back up at Jason. “What happened to sleeping in?”
“I did, but I had something I needed to work on before Puc nags us to death,” he explained and then pointed to his workbench. “Promise not to tell Sarina, though? It’s kind of a surprise.”
Frowning, Link put his sword away and walked over to see what it was that Jason was so intently working on. What he now saw was a woodworking bench, and on it, two long pieces of wood, nailed together at a ninety degree angle. Looking closer, he saw one of the pieces had rectangles cut into it and pieces of glass placed in them.
“It’s a bookshelf with picture frames in it,” Jason told him. “I’m making it for Sarina for Christmas, since she’s never gotten anything or celebrated it. Once I’m done, I’m going to add in some photos that we took while out on walks and stuff. She loves reading, so I thought she might like it. What do you think?”
“I think it’s great.” Link offered his opinion, which made the other boy beam with pride.
Jason then continued to work, chiseling out a design on the upper board where the pictures would go.
“Where did you learn to do this?” Link asked, watching curiously as his hands worked.
“I took a few wood shop classes in high school,” he explained. “A lot I’ve just learned from this book I found in the library on advance woodworking project, with the rooms down in the Lab also, I’ve been able to gather all of the tools I need as well, so it’s made it really convenient.”
Link nodded in agreement and then buried himself in thought before speaking up again. “I should get something for Annetta, but I don’t know what. You’ve known her for years. What do you think she’d like?”
Jason glanced at him, slightly confused. “Honestly, Anne’s become a bit of a mystery in the gift getting department. Before we knew about the Lab, it was easy. Fantasy books, movies, games, but now if I’ve gotta be honest, I’m not sure. I mean, she spends her free time with you or riding around Severio Castle.”
The Gaian youth lost himself in thought again, bobbing his head absentmindedly again when the boy had finished speaking. Despite spending so much time with the girl, she was as Jason had put it, a mystery. Just what could the heir of Orbeyus want? Noting the time on his watch again, Link took off to continue his rounds.
A gruff guttural noise escaping deep from within her, Annetta swung her practice sword in the arena, the attack aimed at Link. Dodging the strike, the Gaian rolled out of the way and remained in a crouching position, his weapon raised over his head as he took another hit from her. Bracing his free palm on the flat of his blade, he pushed the girl away, giving himself an opening to stand once more. There was something off about her sparring today, but Link couldn’t tell what it was.
“I think that is enough for today, Severio,” Puc’s voice called from the side of the arena.
Huffing, Annetta stalked over to the weapons rack and half placed, half tossed the sword, trying to mask her disappointment with how her fighting had gone.
“Man, what’s up with her?” Jason inquired from the bleachers where he sat beside Sarina.
“An off day. We all have them, Kinsman,” Puc informed him. “Tomorrow will be better.”
Everyone begun to clear out for the evening, leaving Link to linger behind yet again, his gaze still fixed on the weapons rack, watching the sword Annetta had placed dangle back and forth still from the initial impact. Finally, he walked over to put his own weapon away, and that was when he realized it. Reaching further back behind their practice weapons, Link pulled out Annetta’s old nicked-up sword. Putting it down momentarily and picking up the blade she had been using earlier, he laid it flat on his hand, with his fingers resting four inches from the hilt. It began to tip slowly, but did not get the chance to fall as Link snatched it up before it could do so.
“Of course,” he muttered to himself as he looked at the weapon.
Point of balance in a sword was not a foreign subject to Link. Depending on the use of the weapon, the point of balance in a blade would differ from blade to blade. The farther the point was from the hilt, the more slashing damage it had, at the cost of maneuverability. When Brakkus had picked out their practice weapons, he had made sure that each was matched exactly with the one they would be using on the field. The weapon Annetta had selected for herself was clearly much heavier. Link confirmed this by trying to balance it again, moving the flat of the sword across his fingers, until it was five inches from the hilt instead of four and watched it stay level.
Sighing, he shook his head and put it back on the rack, his gaze turning back to the battered sword he had retrieved previously. Gears turning in his head, he then had an idea. Snatching the blade by the hilt, he made his way out of the training grounds.
It did not take him very long to reach his destination. Turning the final corner, Link found himself standing at the entrance to the armoury. Everything was as he had left it from his previous visit. Weapons and armour were all stored along the walls behind cages of steel mesh. To his left was a sharpening station and on the far side to his right, the smithy.
Link gazed down at the time on his watch. It was past 11:00pm. He would be in for a long night, but somehow, that didn’t bother the young Gaian.
A few more days passed. Annetta and Jason seemed to have less time to be spending in the Lab than they wanted to with all of the preparations they were involved in with their families. Despite this, their absence was not a topic of Puc’s scorn. The mage, too, seemed to be preoccupied, slipping in and out of the stables to travel to the Eye to All Worlds. Where he went, Link had not the faintest idea, until the mage’s hand found itself on his shoulder after another sparring session.
“Come. There is something I wish to show you.” Puc said.
Slightly confused, Link obliged and followed him to the stables. Saddling up their horses, the two made their way towards the portal that led to Severio Castle. Coming through it, Link was greeted by the sight of a thousand stars above on a darkened sky, only shadowy silhouettes of the nearby trees visible. A warm wind blew past him, making him forget the time of year it really was. The lands around Severio Castle seemed to know no seasons but summer. His eyes moving forward, he then took note of a great orange glow within the courtyard in the distance. Before he could ask the mage what was going on, Puc was already off, a faint illuminating glow coming from his staff to light the way. Urging his horse forward, Link did his best in order to catch up, keeping to the well-trotted path in order to avoid his mount stumbling in the dark.
As they continued, the secrecy was beginning to weigh on Link and he was about to ask yet again what was going on when the great doors swung open before them. Peering into the courtyard, Link saw a great wooden pyre burning before them. He also recognized the smell of the wood instantly as he dismounted and approached, still not fully believing what he was seeing.
“Surprise!” Annetta’s voice then rang through the air, mixed in with Jason and Sarina’s. The trio then popped out from the other side of the pyre and approached them.
Link stood with a shocked expression, both at seeing the pyre and his friends all there, “I… I don’t know what to say.”
“Do you like it?” Annetta asked.
“I do, it’s just…how did you?”
“I might have had some involvement to recreate the authenticity,” Puc replied. “but the idea was theirs.”
“Well, mostly Anne,” Jason chimed in.
“We just did a bit of research and helped with the pyre,” Sarina nodded.
“Aw, come on guys! We all agreed.” Annetta retorted and then turned to Link. “Since you couldn’t be home for the midwinter feast, we wanted to bring part of it to you.”
Link then noticed Annetta was holding a short log, pointed towards him. Accepting it, he turned to the fire, looking into the flames for a moment. Closing his eyes, he tossed it in and opening them again, saw that everyone else had done the same.
“I don’t know what to say. Thank you, everyone,” Link spoke again.
“Call it a Christmas gift,” Annetta chuckled as they continued to watch the fire climb into the night sky.
When the last of the embers had died, and the group was sure the fire was fully extinguished, they made their way back the Lab. It was late, but energy levels were high among companions.
As they got ready to split up for the evening upon reaching the meeting area with the couches, Link took hold of Annetta’s wrist to stop her.
“Wait here for just a moment,” he said as he took off.
The girl frowned, being left alone as everyone else departed for the night. Slumping into a plush red couch, she waited and was soon rewarded by the sound of feet running towards her again. Turning, she saw Link, holding a long object that seemed to be crudely wrapped in red and white wrapping paper.
“I’m sorry about the wrapping job,” he huffed through short breath. “I wanted to give you this before you left…uh… happy Christmas.”
Annetta accepted the package. “Thanks, but you didn’t have to get me anything.”
“No, it’s alright, I wanted to,” he replied. “Besides, I thought you could use it.”
Frowning, Annetta began to tear at the paper cautiously, layer by layer. A smiled mixed with surprise spread on her face when she realized what had been inside, and she lifted the practice sword to look at it.
“It looks brand new,” she beamed, running her hand down the smooth flat of the blade. “How did you?”
“Just some re-forging and fixes,” Link told her. “It’s still mostly the same blade Brakkus gave you.”
Annetta lifted the blade and gave a twirl with her wrist, sensing the perfect balance, a thing she had been missing the last few weeks. She slashed an invisible foe in the air, all her strokes feeling right again. Link watched from a safe distance and smiled, knowing how she felt.