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Chapter One

“I always cry at weddings,” Diane Londen said, snuffling noisily into her handkerchief. “Oh, God, I only brought one hanky! I’ll be a mess by the time the bride comes out.”

Without looking up from his viewfinder, Keith Doyle reached into his pocket and passed over to her his own square of cotton. “Here. I can always grab a napkin off the table if I need one.”

“Don’t you dare!” Diane admonished him, refraining from shoving his shoulder only because it might knock over the video camera he was adjusting. His face was invisible, leaving only a thatch of wavy red hair showing over the body of the camera. She directed her remarks to that. “It looks too nice to disturb.”

Freeing his eye from the rubber focusing ring, Keith glanced over at the huge buffet table laden with a feast of good-looking dishes that lined one entire length of the Little Folks’ great room. Well, the concept of huge was relative. The tabletop hit him just above knee high, as he had found out to his agony when he had arrived and tripped over it, and the bowls and platters were small compared to what graced the Doyle family table on major holidays, but the feast itself, for pure variety and quantity, was nothing less than spectacular.

The Hollow Tree farmhouse had been transformed fantastically in a matter of only a few weeks after he and Holl had returned from their transatlantic trip, almost more than it had since the Little Folk had moved in at the beginning of the summer. With a special impetus urging them on, the Folk had worked wonders. In one month flat, the house had gone from being a pretty ordinary building where people lived and worked and repaired the neglect of decades, to a fanciful bower, complete with braided arches of vine and flowers over every door, 3D sculpture pictures in wood, glittering stone, and colorful woven tapestry on nearly every wall, waiting for Titania and Oberon to make their big entrance, stage left.

All the Little Folk were already in the big room. It just about held the eighty-some of them, with a little space left over for the handful of Big Folk visiting for the wedding. Midriff high to a medium-sized human adult, the Little Folk resembled the Big Ones in nearly every way. They were proportioned just like humans, with the notable exception of tall, elegantly pointed ears where their big cousins had to be contented with small, rounded scrolls of flesh, and their faces looked young, almost childlike, even those Little Folk with beards or gray hair. And they could do magic. They assured Keith time and again there was nothing about the wonders they worked that he couldn’t do himself with practice and patience, but he still held them in awe.

Not enough awe to quench his delight that his best friend, Holl, was marrying his ladylove Maura, and that he, Keith, was here to witness the event, not to mention recording it for posterity. It gave him a rare chance to see his mysterious friends at their best. Keith knew that this was to be the first wedding among the Folk in over forty years, certainly the first since they had come to the Midwestern United States, and the first real celebration of any kind in who knew how long.

Out of pure excitement, not to mention a little pride, everyone had gone all out to deck the house in beauty. Flowers festooned every vertical surface, leaving one to perch well forward on the chair seats lest a casual lean backward crush a careful arrangement and dust the unwary sitter with pollen and petals. The blossoms’ scent filled the air. Living vines entwined with streamers across the ceiling and doorways. Each one of the Folk, large and small, had on new clothes, specially made for the occasion. Keith surveyed the range of costumes that embraced styles from a nod to ancient Greece to a whimsical interpretation of modern metal-head.

And there was the feast to come. Among the Little Folk there were some notable cooks. From Keith’s point of view, after years of school food, any meal actually prepared for less than a hundred tasted pretty good. Add skill and time to improvise and season, and the results were ambrosial. Keith’s belly rumbled in anticipation. On the table, cold plates of meats, cheese, and fruit were arranged around big empty spaces awaiting the arrival of the hot dishes, which Keith could smell cooking just beyond the doorway. Big bowls, carved beautifully in some of the elves’ favorite designs, ivy and honeysuckle, held their quivering cargo of creamy yellow or ruby red ever so slightly out of reach of the flies that circled hopefully overhead. No pest alighted on the food or dishes. There was a distance beneath which the insects couldn’t go, though they kept on noisily trying. Keith sensed a benevolent buffer layer of magic that protected the picnic from the ants. He wondered if it would keep out the questing fingers of a hungry college student hoping to extract an olive from the crudités tray.

To Keith’s delight, in the center of the table was a broad, flattened bowl filled with un-sliced loaves of fresh bread. He didn’t need to see the look of pride on the face of Holl’s sister Keva when she caught him eyeing it hungrily. Little old Keva made the best bread in the world. Keith had eaten enough of it to give it his wholehearted approval. To make his joy complete, he spotted butter and fruit preserves in wooden dishes nearby.

Though pastries and other goodies abounded, there was no wedding cake as Big Folk were accustomed to seeing, so he suspected the ornately-fashioned braided bread at the nearest edge of the table served much the same purpose. The wooden-staved keg at the other end, seeming a little self-conscious under its crown of vine-leaves and larkspur, had to be full of homemade brew. Elven hooch sneaked up on you, Keith recalled. It had to be magic, because although it packed a good kick, it didn’t leave behind hangovers as a lasting memento. The wallop happened all at once, and got the punishment over with.

Holl and Maura had kindly waited for the fall class session at Midwestern University to begin before celebrating their nuptials so their classmates could join them. That consideration told the Big friends that they were valued as much by the bride and groom as the folk of their own size. Keith thought this was a terrific way to begin his junior year.

A peep through his viewfinder framed some of the Big guests arriving. Keith waved over the camera’s top at Teri Knox, a pretty girl who’d been in the secret classes taught by the Elf Master. She was graduating this summer. Her honey-blond hair was almost hidden by a wreath of silk flowers, a medieval accompaniment to her modern sleeveless, soft jersey dress. Teri spotted him and waved, making a deliberate face for the camera. Barry Goodman, next in at the door, echoed the expression. Teri caught Lee Eisley’s sleeve and pointed toward Keith. Lee shook his head with a pained, pitying look on his dark bronze face. Keith grinned. This was going to be a great tape.

Lee was the first Big pupil the Elf Master had ever taught. He’d been out of college for over a year now. Though he was a quiet man, Lee’s high GPA in journalism had helped him to get a foot in the door at the Indianapolis daily paper. Hard work and talent got him the occasional feature article, each of which Catra, the archivist, had carefully preserved in a scrapbook. The Elf Master was proud of his oldest pupil and was glad that the young man made time to keep in touch. Contrariwise, Keith knew Lee would rather lose his byline and five or six teeth than miss an event like this. All of them had reason to be grateful to the Little Folk for helping them to master difficult academic subjects, but before Keith came along, had never had much social interaction with their small benefactors.

Dunn Jackson was the newest keeper of the secret. He was Diane’s addition to the class, as Diane had been Keith’s. The three of them shared an Introduction to Philosophy course that threatened to swamp them all in a wave of gibberish. If the Master hadn’t begun a parallel tutorial in the basics of philosophical thought, Keith could have kissed goodbye his consistent B average. Dunn’s cheeks were flushed red under his light coffee-complected skin. He was excited to be here, too. His eyes were wide, moving here and there, trying to take everything in at once. Keith liked him. Dunn had an enquiring mind that ran along some of Keith’s favorite channels. He and Keith had gotten together over speculations that if Little Folk of the Caucasian persuasion existed, there might be some of his own color out there somewhere. It was a concept worth exploring one day.

The other newcomer was an elf from the Old Country. In Keith’s opinion, Tiron felt at a disadvantage being thrust into a new country among seven dozen new Folk, and it came across as an attitude problem. One facet of his real personality was as clear as the blue sky: Tiron was a womanizer. Without having to ask for details, Keith could tell Tiron had set the sisters Catra and Candlepat against one another—not too difficult a thing to do—as rivals for the prize of his affections. His direct challenge of Holl’s position as an acknowledged leader was going nowhere; Holl was too popular. Pity would have been out of place for the newcomer, though. Tiron wasn’t suffering for lack of attention. The older Folk sought him out as a tie to the old country, and the younger ones as a curiosity, someone their own size with whom they hadn’t grown up. His skill in woodworking was also a great addition to Hollow Tree Industries, putting him immediately into the first rank of craftsmen and craftswomen. Keith was sure in time Tiron would relax. If he didn’t, some of the fathers of daughters would take turns decking him.

Things were so different now that the Folk had a place of their own. The first change Keith noticed was sound. When they were living beneath the Midwestern University library, everyone had been quiet, listening all the time for footsteps, fearful that they would be discovered by the terrible Big Ones. They were liberated now. The twenty acres of thickets and meadows around the house contained the more normal hubbub of eighty or ninety beings, plus farm animals, plus pets. Out in the small Near Meadow just beyond the kitchen door were a handful of sheep and a dog barking at them. And there was music. Tuning up in a corner was a small band consisting of a harp, two wooden flutes, an ancient fiddle, a guitar, and a gadget which looked like a combination of the last two. The guitar player, Marcy Collier, was a Big Person, a friend and former object of Keith’s unrequited affection. She smiled at him shyly and bent her head to tune a string. Her thick, black hair was crowned with ivy and roses, like those of the Little People around her. Unlike most Big Folk, Marcy belonged here, on Hollow Tree Farm. She and Enoch, the Elf Master’s son, were an “item.” Marcy took a lot of good-natured razzing on the topic from her friends, but she was learning to defend herself and her choices. In Keith’s opinion, the Constitutionally guaranteed pursuit of happiness included dating someone half one’s height. He applauded anything that made Marcy happy. With love and support, she was blossoming into a capable, confident woman.

The music and the noise in the room died away suddenly as Curran, Holl’s clan chief, appeared at the door. For once, the sour old elf had a smile on his face. By contrast, Holl, behind him, looked solemn and nervous. His usually pink cheeks were pale. He was dressed in new clothes of russet and dark green that were cut to an unfamiliar but ancient-seeming pattern, making him look as if he had stepped out of a long gone time. His dark blond hair was slightly damp and curled up at the ends, as if it had been wet-combed just moments ago. On his head he wore a woven circlet of white bellflowers. The magic blossoms gave off a white light visible to those who could see that kind of thing, gathering strength from and giving strength to Holl. Keith regretted that the video camera didn’t have second sight to catch the almost perceptible pulsations of mystic energy. Beside him, Diane sighed. In the corner, the harp player began a soft, winding melody like the memory of a forgotten dream.

There was a whisper of sound from the opposite side of the room. Into the doorway leading from the kitchen the Elf Master stepped, his head held high and proud. Maura was on his arm. Her rich hair, a deep auburn almost the color of carnelian that contrasted not unfavorably with her father’s carrot-colored thatch, was braided into complicated patterns and crowned with bellflowers, the blossoms nodding with every step she took. Embroidery ran down the bodice and around the long sleeves blending the green and gray ivy pattern favored by Holl’s clan with the green and yellow honeysuckle motif of her own. In her hand she clutched a bunch of the white flowers, their energy gleaming and spilling over her fingers like water. Maura’s lips were trembling, caught between a smile and tears. She stepped toward Holl with a look of love and anticipation burning in her deep green eyes that made Keith catch his breath. The Little Folk were so childlike in appearance that sometimes he forgot that they were mature adults, far older and wiser than he. That brief flash reminded him. Holl came forward to meet her, his right hand outstretched.

Candlepat broke through the ring of witnesses and hurried to Holl, clutched his arm, turned him away from his bride. Keith was shocked. The blond elf, a pixie carved by Playboy, had lost her usual self-assurance, and was pathetic, even woeful.

“Holl, don’t go to her. I care for you, too. What about me?” she begged, her eyes gleaming with tears.

Keith was horrified. Blindly, he felt his way around the camera and edged forward. Candlepat was such an all-round flirt, even vamping him sometimes; he’d never suspected she had an honest attachment to Holl. This was no time for her to bring it up. He couldn’t let her interrupt the ceremony. She probably needed a good heart-to-heart talk with someone. If he got her outside, the wedding could proceed uninterrupted.

Steel-strong fingers gripped his forearm and dragged him back. Keith glanced down. Maura’s black-haired brother was holding onto him with all the natural strength of a full-time carpenter. Did he want his sister’s wedding disturbed? What was going on here?

“It’s part of the custom,” Enoch growled under his breath. “Explanations later.”

Arrested, Keith nodded, his eyes fixed on the figures in the center of the room. “All right,” he whispered. Carefully, he edged back to his post, hoping he hadn’t gotten in the way of the lens.

Holl put the girl gently aside, with a tender touch on the cheek.

“I want only Maura,” Holl answered her softly. His hand came away wet with her tears. “You’ll find someone, lass. But not me.” Candlepat withdrew to the edge of the ring, her straight back proud as her sister enfolded her in a comforting arm. Keith couldn’t see her face, but she was too proud to show disappointment in her posture. He wondered how much of her performance had been sincere.

The couple made a few more steps toward one another, and Enoch shoved forward, moving between his sister and Holl.

“Think, sister,” he said, almost hoarsely. “You’re too young to make a life’s commitment.”

Smiling, Maura touched his hand with her fingertips, found and clasped her brother’s palm. “Thank you, but I made my choice long ago.” She leaned to kiss him.

Enoch nodded, and eyes down, moved out of the way. As he returned to his place, Keith could see him smile. The two pairs met in the center of the circle and the clan leaders put the marrying couple’s hands together. Curran and the Master shook hands—the white head and the red nodding politely to one another—and stepped away, leaving Maura and Holl together, joined.

Holl smiled at Maura. “Before our friends, I swear that I will be a good husband to you, support you, and provide for you. Not only a lover I’d be, but a friend and partner in all things. No other will ever supplant you in my heart. I promise to treat your dreams as dearly as my own, to enjoy and suffer life alongside you all the days of our lives.”

“Since we were children, I knew we were meant to be together,” Maura replied. Her voice trembled as if she might burst into tears. “I’ve never wanted another for my lifemate, and I come to you with joy.”

The audience sighed with pleasure as Holl bent his head and kissed Maura gently. Keith waited, but the embrace deepened, went on and on.

The Elf Master cleared his throat. After a long moment, the couple broke their kiss and came up for air. Maura’s cheeks were rose-pink.

“As you haf claimed one another, none of us shall stand between you or compel you apart. I offer my congratulations and good wishes.” Beaming, Holl and Maura moved to embrace him, then turned to enfold Curran. There was a general cheer, as the crowd converged on the couple, shouting well wishes. No longer constrained to silence, Diane honked loudly into Keith’s handkerchief.

“You’d think I’d learn to buy waterproof mascara,” she said, smiling. Her eyes were rimmed with soggy black. She dabbed it away. “Oh, I’m so happy.”

“Me, too,” said Keith.

He couldn’t stop grinning. Happiness seemed to be contagious, because the foolishly indulgent smile he wore was on every set of lips in the room.

“And now the feast begins,” curly-haired Rose called out cheerfully. Like a flock of pigeons abandoning one old lady’s crumbs for another, the crowd reversed and made toward the feast table. Keith managed to barge through the throng to Holl and Maura. He knelt to kiss the bride on the cheek and gave Holl a strong embrace and a hearty slap on the back.

He tried to find something deep and profound to say, but all that came out was, “Congratulations and good luck.”

Maura squeezed his hand. “It could not have happened without you,” she said.

“It was nothing, Maura. I’m a sucker for a happy ending,” Keith said, feeling his cheeks burn. “Hey, what was all that about a challenge tradition? For a moment there I thought the whole thing would stop.”

“It is one of our oldest traditions, ye ignorant infant,” a gruff voice said from behind him. Enoch stepped over Keith’s ankle to get to his sister. He embraced her and his new brother-in-law. “I’d never have kept Maura from claiming this grinning oaf if she truly wanted him,” he aimed a warning scowl toward Holl, “nor would I let him take a step nearer her if she looked at all unhappy about it.” The rough edge in his voice was undoubtedly connected to the bright gleam in his eyes. Keith’s mouth was open as he considered the delightful revelation: Enoch was sentimental. When the black-haired elf turned back to him with a suspicious glare, Keith’s mouth snapped shut like a trap. “I’ll explain it all to you in words of one syllable. Come with me, and listen.”

While they stood in line for the buffet, Enoch explained the custom of the challenge. “It’s to ensure that each of the pair loves the other without doubt. In the face of the challenge, either is entitled to turn away if they feel they’re being coerced into the match or making a hasty decision. We like to take our time to decide things, as well you know. There might be hurt feelings this way, but no lifelong mistakes are likely to be made, and we live long lives.”

“I like that a lot,” Keith said, nodding approval. “To win your ladylove, you have to be proof against temptations or threats.”

“So pretty a custom,” said a voice at Keith’s elbow, making him start. The elderly woman beside him twinkled at him with mild blue eyes. Ludmilla Hempert must have been standing beside him the whole time, listening to Enoch talk. She patted Keith on the arm with a somewhat large and surprisingly strong hand. “I surprised you? I have been resting in one of these so fine rooms. Ah, my little ones! A feeble old lady like me, and they must have me by them when they bless the young.”

Ludmilla was a retired cleaning woman who had been working for the University at the time the Little Folk had taken refuge there. She was the first benevolent Big Person the Little Folk had ever encountered, and they treated her like a guardian angel. As for her protests as to being a feeble, old lady, Keith wouldn’t have bet against her bench-pressing her weight in grandchildren.

“It wouldn’t have been the same without you. Can I make you a copy of the videotape?” Keith asked politely.

Ludmilla beamed. “Oh, yes, I would enjoy it. But how would I explain to my family when they visit?” she asked with a sly quirk of her mouth.

Keith grinned back. “I’ll put opening credits on it. You can tell them it’s a Hollywood short subject called A Mid-Autumn’s Afternoon Dream.”

Beer would make him too drowsy to enjoy the dancing. He wandered into the kitchen to find a glass of water instead. There were clean cups on the table, but when he reached for the tap, Shelogh called out to him.

“The purified water’s in the jug. Have all you want of that. We’ve a cistern-full down below. Don’t bother with the tap. The water stinks.”

“What’s wrong with it?” Keith asked.

“Oh, nicht much,” Shelogh said, mixing mid-western English with the Germanic accent the middle-aged Folk had picked up from Ludmilla Hempert. “Just some nasties, smells like it seeped out of a barn instead of from between limestone sheets.”

“Bizarre,” Keith said, pouring out water from the jug and tasting it: pure, clear, invigorating as wine. “Should I start looking for a water-purifier for you?”

“Oh, no,” she cried, “when we can do it ourselves? Ach, Keith Doyle. We haf energy to spare now that it’s our own home. Have you not noticed?”

“Oh, yes,” Keith said with a grin. “I have. It’s terrific.”

Holl came through with a stack of dirty plates and put them up on the drain board.

“Hey, it’s a rotten thing to mention on your wedding day, but what’s wrong with the water supply? It smells like runoff from a feedlot, but there’s no feedlot within miles. One cow and seven sheep couldn’t do that much damage, not to the underground water table.”

“Oh, that,” Holl said. “Olanda has listened to the water’s heart. She said it isn’t natural. Someone is pouring an evil-smelling mess into it somewhere between the source and our cistern.”

Keith’s brows drew down over his thin nose. “That sounds like deliberate contamination of the groundwater. That shouldn’t be going on down here. You ought to try to arouse some local action to look into it. You should write letters to the editor, or something.”

“Of that wee paper that comes out once a week?” Holl asked, astonished.

“Come on, Holl, you live in a small community yourself. Everyone reads The Central Illinois Farmer because it’s more personalized to them than, say, the Chicago Tribune or the New York Times. You could write really stirring letters if you put your mind to it. You’re the most environmentally aware people I know. You can hear streams and trees complain. You waste nothing. I know your homes in the library were built with scrap, and you use everything to death.”

Holl stroked his chin. “Then the ones to blame might be more apt to pay attention to a well-written plaint, eh?”

“Right,” Keith said.

“Would they listen to the cries of a mythical person, then?” Holl spluttered.

“No one who can mail a letter is mythical. If it goes that far, I’ll come down here when they check out the groundwater on the farm,” Keith said. “But hey! I didn’t mean to get you off on a tangent. This is your wedding day. Have a blast!” The band in the corner began to play. “Dance with your wife,” Keith finished with a grin.

“Just the thing I was about to suggest to him,” Maura said, coming up to claim her bridegroom. She tucked her hand into his arm and drew him out onto the floor. Keith watched them swirl away to the merry beat of the dance band.

With all their friends and relatives clapping the beat, the bride and groom circled the room. The music had as much magic in it as the crowns of flowers they wore. Keith found himself tapping his toes with the rhythm, and longing to get out and do the modified polka which was his standard for weddings and other festive occasions.

Pat Morgan, Keith’s former dorm-mate with whom he was currently sharing a cheap student apartment just off the Midwestern campus, came over to poke him in the ribs with the handle of his dessert fork. “Look at this,” Pat said, gesturing around him with a sweep of his arm. “It’s like a Shakespearean pageant, with all the elements of traditional drama—love, suspense, happy ending.” He sighed. “It would never make it in the theater today.” Pat had a melancholy bent that went with his Ricardian looks.

Breathless, the bridal couple broke apart though the music was still playing. Each ran to the sidelines and joined hands with the parent-in-law of the opposite sex. Then those couples parted to bring others onto the floor one by one. Maura’s tiny hands seized Keith’s, and pulled him out to dance. His partner looked like the bride on the top of a traditional wedding cake, and was almost small enough to fit. He felt like an uncle escorting a five-year-old niece.

“You look beautiful. Could you possibly be that happy?” he asked, feeling indulgent.

“More so, Keith Doyle,” Maura said, her skin fresh and pink, her eyes fire-lit emeralds. “I feel I owe you much.”

“Holl did it,” Keith said hastily, turning away in embarrassment but making it look as if he was making sure they weren’t going to bash into the next set of dancers. “Holl did it all. He saved my neck too, you know.”

“He learns quickly, but he had a good example set him,” Maura said, not letting him off the hook. “Well, when will we see you as happy as we are? When will you ask the pretty Diane to wed with you?”

“Uh, not yet,” Keith said, feeling his cheeks flush. “At least let me get out of school first and find a decent job! Love in a student-grade apartment isn’t all that romantic.”

“When you’re in love, any bower is a palace,” the elf-lass reminded him. She fixed him with a searching gaze. “You didn’t gainsay me. So you’d actually do it, would you? She’s the one of your heart?”

“Uh,” Keith said, feeling the floor drop out from under him. He looked around wildly, wondering if anyone was in a position to overhear them. Thankfully, the music was pretty loud. “Come on, Maura, have mercy! I want to do things in the right time. Don’t tell her.”

“I don’t have to,” the girl said coyly. With a gay smile, she spun away from him and chose another partner. Inspired by Maura’s last teasing words, Keith turned to find Diane and draw her into the dance, but to his amazement, the Elf Master had already asked her.

“Claim-jumper,” Keith muttered. He bowed to Ludmilla Hempert and assisted her gallantly to the floor.

In the second set, he managed to secure a dance with Diane. She was breathless and flushed.

“Isn’t this wonderful?” she asked. “I’m so happy for them, Keith.”

“Keith Doyle!” Dennet, Holl’s father, waved to them from the side of the room. “There’s been a package for you, by the bye. Did Rose give it to you?”

“Uh, no,” Keith said, puzzled.

“Oh, I’ll find it. There’s been enough of a stir these last days, so there has.” He bustled away and returned with a flat box covered with brown paper and tied with waxed string. “From Ireland, it is. Have you friends called Skylark, then?”

“Mailed from a pub of that name,” Keith said, unwrapping the brown paper. He grinned, and showed the contents to Diane and Dennett. The flabby rectangle wrapped up in fine embroidered cloth had a fancy lettered card tucked under the ribbon. “It’s not for me. It’s for Holl. A wedding present. From the Niall.”

Dennett’s eyes twinkled. He looked like a teenager letting them in on a prank, in spite of his white hair. It was disconcerting, considering how old Keith suspected him to be. “There’s the name of a man whose face I’ve not seen these, oh, well, how long has it been? Your photographs were like a work of wonder, lad. I thought never to see those likenesses again in life. What’s in the package, then? Ah, gifting time won’t be far off. I’ll have to hold my curiosity ’til then.”

“How long has it been?” Keith asked pointedly. He had never managed to learn how long ago the Little Folk had made their way to the New World, nor how old they grew to be. Curiosity made his invisible whiskers twitch.

“Oh, a long time,” Dennett said. He smiled conspiratorially at Keith. Maybe he thinks I already know, Keith thought, dismayed. “Gifting time’s coming soon, after Holl and Maura have broken their fast together as husband and wife. My son’s eaten nary a thing all day, though he’s been up since sunrise, he’s that nervous.”

“I can’t blame him,” Keith said, and recoiled as Diane socked him on the arm. “Ouch!”

“Well, go and enjoy the feast,” Dennet said hospitably. He turned to follow his own advice.

Keith went back to his camera and filmed some of the guests eating, then turned his lens and hastily focused on a full plate moving toward him.

“There,” Diane said, putting her hand over the lens. He lowered the camera and she handed him the plate. “Stay out of trouble.”

Keith dug in. His anticipation was exceeded by the reality. The food was terrific. Meat dishes were few, leaving a more significant presence by savories that got their proteins from nuts and beans. The vegetables were as ornate as the room’s decor: carrots were cut into corkscrews, celery shredded into small replicas of wheat sheaves, relishes and salads appeared as colorful as mosaics and stained glass windows—and everything was delicious.

“Did you see the dessert?” Diane asked, pointing to the edge of his plate with her fork.

Two half-blown rosebuds lay together near the salad. They were nearly perfect, except for the fact that they were larger and transparent. “Those are amazing. What are they made of?” Keith asked.

“Jell-O,” Diane said with an impish grin. She ticked the plate rim with her fingernail, and the gelatin rosebuds quivered. “When I asked how they did that, Calla said, ‘Enhancing, lass, enhancing!’” Diane mocked the Little Folk’s tone.

“That’s all the answer you’ll ever get out of them,” Keith said with a grin.

After much of the feast was eaten, the newlyweds were enthroned on the finest of the flower-strewn chairs. At their feet the children placed the colorfully wrapped packages entrusted to them by the adults. The presents from other Little Folk were few. The Big Folk proffered their large, and in Keith’s case, heavy, boxes with a trifle of embarrassment.

“Oh, don’t concern yourself,” Holl assured them. “It’s most generous of you to include us in your custom. Heart’s generosity is always welcome. In our ways, which are a bit rusty, as you might guess from forty years’ disuse, presents given to the newlywed couple are mostly personal in nature, since everything else is shared for the good of all. But Maura and I are grateful for whatever inspiration you’ve been visited by. Be sure none are unwelcome. We’ll open yours first, after a presentation of my own.”

He turned to Maura and lightly held out his hand for hers. When she extended her palm, an inquiring expression on her face, he placed in it a tiny carved wooden box.

“We work mostly in wood, but I wanted something a little thinner and stronger,” Holl said. Maura pressed the miniature button and lifted the box’s lid. Inside was a ring made of braided silver and gold. In its center, glowing with the blue of a cloudless sky, was an oval sapphire. Keith and the others let out an appreciative gasp as Maura showed it around.

“But where did you find the stone?” she asked.

Tiron cleared his throat. “A heart’s gift from me, cousin,” Tiron said hoarsely. “I swear by the trees and the earth that there are no love spells on it to make you turn to me, nor any other influence that would lessen your joy.” Surprised, Maura smiled warmly at him.

The sentimental, generous gesture showed a side of Tiron that surprised Keith. The strange elf seemed at times to be the greatest of egotists. He blushed when Maura rose from her throne to kiss him heartily on the cheek.

“We welcome you among us,” Maura said, squeezing his hand. “I can’t thank you enough.”

“Well, it’s nothing,” Tiron said, blushing.

“But you’re trying to denigrate the gift,” Holl protested. “He told me that the stone came from the hand of a king in days long gone. This king, a visitor from over the water, gave it to our people in Ireland and promised to keep faith with them, but he was killed soon after by traitors.”

“Which king?” Keith asked eagerly. “How far over the water? England? Scotland? Denmark?”

Tiron shrugged. “I’m sure I didn’t listen to the old stories,” he said. “You can write to the Niall, for all the useless rambling you’ll get out of him.”

“Well, it’s a mighty gift,” Maura said. “Thank you. And thank you for the crafting of it into such a treasure,” she said to her husband, bestowing a tender kiss on him. Holl reddened, beaming. “And now let us see what our other kindhearted friends have given.”

“Uh,” Keith said, flushing red while Maura circled around the box he offered with anticipation. “Since you have a working windmill for electricity, I thought this might come in handy. It’s used, but I had it tuned up before I brought it down. I coated the wheel with urethane so you wouldn’t get metal burns.” He had prepared his speech ahead of time but they seemed to him silly and stilted now. “Um … don’t lose the traditional skills you have just because technology makes it easier to perform your tasks.”

“Vell put,” said the Master, nodding, “and very true. I didn’t think you had it in you, Meester Doyle.”

“Uh, thanks. Just tear it, Maura,” Keith suggested, watching the bride run her hands along the side looking for gaps in the cellophane taped seams. “The suspense is getting painful.”

“As you wish.” Maura shredded the paper and tossed it aside. Together, she and Holl pried open the cardboard box. “It’s a sewing machine,” she said. With a good deal of assistance, she drew it out of its protective nest. “A fine one.” The name was embossed on the black enamel of the steel body below the cam dials. At Holl’s urging she flipped up the lid on top and read the small chart. “Look at all the stitches it will do!”

“Machine doings, huh!” Dierdre sneered. She was the oldest of the old women, a contemporary of Curran, and a clan leader in her own right. “It takes all the soul straight out of the work, so it does. That’ll never make anything worth keeping.”

“Oh, come, gran,” Candlepat admonished her, with a cocky tilt to her head. “Do you truly enjoy hemming sheets and seaming curtains? I don’t. The machine will leave your hands free for the fine work, which is worth keeping.”

“That may be qvite true,” Rose said, with a thoughtful expression. Though a Conservative, she was suspected of having Progressive leanings, and in any case trusted Keith Doyle absolutely. She and a few of the needlecraft workers examined the old Singer with pleasure.

“It’ll come in most useful, you’ll see,” Tiron said. “Next year there’ll be cloth from the backs of those sheep outside. The first of the looms will be ready by year’s end.”

Diane blew her nose as Maura undid the paper on the next present and lifted the esoteric-looking machine inside to her lap.

“It’s a blender,” Diane said, and burst into sputtering tears. Through her sobs, she explained. “I always give blenders for wedding presents. It does all kinds of things. You can return it if you’ve already got one, or you can exchange it for something else you’d like better. The receipt’s in the bottom. Oh, I’m so happy for you!”

“There’s never a thought of returning it. We’re pleased to be part of your tradition,” Holl accepted gravely, “as you are a part of ours. We will use it with joy in the generosity of the donor.”

“It’s not that big a deal,” Diane said, sniffling, but she was pleased.

“The last one’s a surprise,” Keith said, handing over the cloth-wrapped bundle. “The Niall sent you something from the Old Country.”

“Why did he not send it through me, then?” Tiron burst out, disappointed. “And me just lately departed from his domain?”

“You’re illegal, remember?” Keith pointed out quickly. “No one is supposed to know you’re here.”

Tiron nodded, stroking his chin. “I’d forgotten. Ah, but forced anonymity is hard.”

Holl pulled the ribbon off the cloth package, and it spilled open over Maura’s lap, wave after wave of foamy lace escaping in folds down her knees to the floor. Laughing, the two of them knelt to gather it up. Holl threw a swag of it around his bride’s shoulders, where it lay gleaming like joined snowflakes. She beamed and kissed him.

The others exclaimed over the fineness of the work. “How beautiful. Best I’ve ever seen. Probably very old, feel the texture and the quality.”

“That wasn’t finished in a day, nor from any hard iron machine,” said Dierdre smugly.

“No, from a small bone shuttle,” scolded one of the other oldsters. “This is the work of years and many hands.”

“The card says, ‘with best regards and a thousand blessings,’” Orchadia said. “Well, that’s very fine of them.”

That was the last of the presents. Rose, Calla, and the other ladies serving circulated with wooden cups, followed by their husbands with kegs of wine. They poured libations into larger goblets for their Big guests, who were touched by the special effort.

“The toast to the wedded couple,” Dennet said, stilling Dunn’s hand before he could drink. The newest student grinned, sharing a smile with Holl’s father.

“Sorry. Guess I’m just a little too eager to wish them well.”

The Master raised his hands for silence. “I haf vun more announcement before anyvun becomes too merry to comprehend,” the Elf Master said. “In three days, please, I vould like from each of my senior students an essay of four pages on the subject of the psychological impact of the Industrial Refolution on those already liffing in the great population centers of Europe at the time. That is all.”

Keith, Dunn, and Diane groaned. As the Big students scrambled for paper and pen to write down the assignments, Teri Knox and Lee Eisley exchanged relieved glances.

“Master, I miss you, but I sure am glad I don’t have to do the homework anymore!” Lee said fervently. He raised his cup in salute to the little professor, who regarded him with austere complacence over the rims of his glasses.

Holding Maura firmly by the hand, Holl turned to Keith with his glass high.

“As the one who’s most responsible for helping to facilitate the day’s events, Keith Doyle, will you make the first toast?” Holl asked.

Keith flushed. “It’d be an honor.” Thinking hard to come up with a toast that wouldn’t be too long or too maudlin, he cleared his throat. The room stilled, and all his friends looked at him. He smiled.

“To my friends, Holl and Maura, I wish every happiness,” Keith said, raising up his wooden cup. “Today is the first day of the rest of your lives. Make the best of it.”

“That’s lovely,” Diane whispered, squeezing his ribs.

“Very profound,” said Pat Morgan dryly, eyebrows raised over the brim of his glass. “You ought to write greeting cards, Doyle.”

“I like it,” Holl said decidedly, touching his wine cup to his bride’s. “To today, and everyday hereafter.”

***


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