“Beast,” I asked cautiously, casually fingering the soft fabric of my dress, “What do you think about the old magic? You’ve been around for a long time—”
He coughed, and I rolled my eyes.
“I mean, you tell stories about people from long ago,” I said indulgently. “You must have some thoughts about the old magic. Or perhaps some stories. . . ?”
“Hmm . . . ”
“I do have one or two, but I should warn you. The stories about the old magic aren’t particularly friendly.”
“What do you mean? Everyone knows a few, and they seem just fine to me.”
“Oh, yes?” He chuckled warmly. “What stories do you know of the old magic?”
“Well, I know about the boots that would carry a man seven leagues in just one step.”
“Yes, that’s a fine story.” His voice was the kind you would use to humor a small child.
I glared. “And I know about the tablecloth that set itself with food for a banquet.”
I spoke faster, louder. “And the mirror that could show you the future or a distant place or tell you your heart’s desire.”
He said nothing, and I still felt he was indulging me.
“Or the carpet that could fly you anywhere you want to go.” I stopped suddenly. I had run out of stories I remembered.
The silence now was brooding, and I watched the shadows from the firelight play across my hands.
“Fine,” I said at last. “What’s wrong with those stories?”
“Nothing,” he said. “And yet . . . Did you ever wonder how all those magical objects were created?”
“I . . . ” I looked up, quirking my head to the side in thought. “No, I really never did.” I straightened in my chair. “Can you tell me?”
“I only know some of them. And as I said, they are not always pretty.”
He had told me dark tales before, though, and I wondered why he would warn me this time. I stared into the red, living light of the fire until I could see nothing else in the dimness surrounding me. “Tell me,” I said.
“You say you know about that tablecloth,” he began, “the one that always had food.”
“Yes,” I agreed.
“Do you know what it is to give up something you want?”
I huffed. “Of course I do. I lost my brothers, so much of my family—”
“Of course,” he interrupted. “But you did not give them up on purpose. You did not say to fate, ‘Please, take my brothers. I will give them away.’”
I thought for a moment. “I gave up my sisters and my father to come here,” I said more quietly.
“Yes. You did. So you do know something of sacrifice. And what you were really sacrificing was yourself to protect your family, so maybe you will relate better to this story than I had realized.” I could feel his eyes on me. “But you didn’t think you were giving up something of much value, did you?”
His words were not truly a question, but they stung, far too close to truth. I spoke through gritted teeth. “I asked for a story, not a philosophical discussion of my choices and worth.”
His voice softened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to injure you. You made a hard choice and a worthy sacrifice. I wish, though, that you had not felt so meaningless personally. You certainly have not been meaningless to me.”
I looked away, blushing.
He grunted. “So, as I was saying, sacrifice. There is much I don’t understand about the old magic, things that no one ever understood really. But one thing is certain: the sacrifice. And rarely the sacrifice that you expect.”
I prodded. “So. . . . The tablecloth.”
He chuckled. “Fine. Enough philosophy. Now the story.”
Once upon a time there was a young farmer’s son. He had grown up during a time of great hardship, and many in the kingdom went hungry. His father’s crops had failed several times in a row, and they struggled. The young boy remembered many, many days without meals. He watched the fat slowly melt from his brothers and sisters, and he could do nothing to stop it.
But time passed, and another year came. That year the rain fell enough to quench the earth’s thirst but never enough to drown it. The sun beat gently upon the crops, and they burst out of the soil. That year there was plenty, and the next year and the next, until the days of hunger were forgotten.
But not for the boy. He had grown into a man by now and had settled down with a family of his own. He was a farmer like his father, producing enough to support his family, but little more.
And he remembered. He remembered those days of wasting away, of the hollowness in his sisters’ eyes. He looked on his own children now, his toddler with chubby rolls of baby fat still clinging to him, his older daughter with the sweet dimples in her cheeks. He could not allow them to ever suffer what his brothers and sisters had suffered. He thought on it day and night until the thought consumed him.
Now, this man had power. Not unusual in those days to have it, but many could not—or would not—wield it. But he would. He asked his wife to sew him a fine tablecloth, covered with images of glorious foods. Just to look on it would make your mouth water. When she was finished, the man cast a spell—no, Isabel, I don’t know exactly how he did it—
I grimaced and pretended I had not meant to ask.
—A spell to keep his family from ever going hungry.
Whenever they needed food, all they had to do was unfold the cloth and say, “Tablecloth, set thyself.” Food in great abundance, great quality, foods of all sorts would appear on the tablecloth. Enough to feed all who sat before it.
It was wonderful thing, a marvel! Amazing to behold, and a great gift to the family—though I suspect they had to be very careful to hide it from thieves. The man’s family always had plenty, and he slept well knowing that they would never see starvation.
“But what of the sacrifice?” I interrupted.
“What of the sacrifice, indeed,” he said.
The man’s family was safe, it is true. But the man himself, ah, that is another matter. He sat down before the tablecloth with the others, delighted to partake of the fine meal before him. But when he brought a turnip to his lips, it tasted of garbage, rot. He tried a fluffy, warm roll. The same. Roast lamb, steamed carrots, a beautiful, juicy chunk of roast beef. All torture to his tongue. He could eat, but it was a difficult enterprise, fraught with disgust and displeasure.
The man knew, somehow, that if he were to destroy the tablecloth, he would receive back to him all he had lost. But he did not do it. The years passed, and he ate only what was required to barely sustain life. The gaunt hollowness he kept from his children fell upon him instead. And the only enjoyment he received from food was the expressions on the face of his wife and children as they ate it.
For him, it was enough.