The Value of Love
    High, puffy clouds drifted lazily through the azure sky over northeast Arton. One passed between the sun and the deep green canopy topping central Tamaz Land. On the forest floor, miles below the canopy, the sunlight piercing the needle-leafed branches winked off. A moment later, it winked back on, sparkling the particles which floated down from the branches above.
    In a clearing surrounded by massive tree trunks, an old and frequently replenished bed of dried pemella leaves softened the landings of young dwarfen males practicing hand to hand fighting skills. Ten pairs of thickly muscled males circled, swung, wrestled, and grunted as five adult males watched, criticized, and complimented from the sidelines.
    Rikk leaned to the side as Tokk threw a punch at his midsection. Before Tokk could regain his balance, Rikk grabbed his arm, threw his leg behind Tokk's, twisted, then let go. As Tokk fell to the ground, Rikk turned to steal a glance toward the home of the Bannister family which sat at the end of the long tree-lined corridor off the clearing. Three females were coming out onto the balcony twenty feet above the ground. Rikk recognized one of them as Thieslen and forgot all else as his eyes sought to lock with hers.
    In the next moment a crashing weight hit his stomach, sending him flying onto his back, his attacker pinning him to the ground. A laughing Tokk punched him in the shoulder, stood up, then also looked down the corridor.
    "Is she looking?" Rikk asked with a groan. He was mortified to think that Thieslen might have seen him put down while besottedly staring at her.
    "No, my friend," Tokk said, offering a hand to help him up. "She doesn't appear to be the least bit interested in your antics."
    "Break!" one of the instructor's shouted. "Take up your swords!"
    Tokk laid his arm across Rikk's shoulders as they moved toward where their swords were hung in scabbards on pegs along the tree trunks. "When are you going to ask that female to consider ring binding to you?" Tokk asked.
    "What if she says no?"
    "She might say yes," Tokk countered. "She will be sixteen years in eight months. You don't have much time." Tokk slapped him on the shoulder before moving off to where his sword hung.
    Rikk frowned at being reminded of the urgency of his desire. Deciding to approach Thieslen within two weeks time, he pulled his sword from its leather scabbard and determined to concentrate on training.

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    A ray of sunlight slanted through the canopy to touch the intricately carved wooden banister. Vines and flower petals twined beneath the arms of the three young dwarfen females where they rested along its length. Oblivious to the artistry which supported them, the females fixed their catlike eyes on the field half a mile away. "Oh, look!" Shleandra said excitedly. "Rozz is going to practice with his sword." She sighed. "When he thrusts it sends shivers from my chest down to my toes." She sighed again.
    "Isn't it fun that our best friend has a clear view of the practice field?" breathed Thieslen.
    Leeshtala sent her friends an exasperated look and slid down to sit crosslegged on the wooden balcony. She grasped the carved dowels and leaned her forehead against her thumbs, looking out through the space, watching as Rikk took his stance across from Tokk.
    The contours of Rikk's chest glistened with a fine sheen of sweat. Dust and pemella needles streaked his back. His breeches of finely woven ormvack fleece were the dark green of the forest, the band around his hips darkened from sweat. They clung to the bulging muscles of his thighs and calves as he advanced and parried. A green band was tied about his forehead and knotted in back, the ends touching the nape of his neck. His deep brown hair, brushed straight back from his broad forehead would be silky to the touch. Leeshtala thought his pointed ears perfect in shape and size. His eyes were the color of amber, with streaks of brilliant green radiating from the narrow slits of his pupils. Beneath the cap of his nose, he sported a mustache. She thought him the most handsome dwarfen she had ever seen.
    She sighed, her mother's words coming back to haunt her. "If you have not found a ring mate by your sixteenth birthday, your father and I will choose one for you."
    She was running out of time. Dwarfen females of high breeding could not be unringed past their sixteenth birthday, except for Veareena who remained unringed at twenty years of age. But she did not want to end up like Veareena or those other females who lived on the outskirts of the village without family, security, or skill. "Veareena," Lesshtala's mother had explained, "shunned her family and was led astray by her dwarfen lustiness. She goes from one male to another and cannot decide on one. If you are not ring bound when you come to full maturity," her mother had warned, "you will be tempted to test the shavings of many trees and like Veareena, you will be forever undecided on which tree to carve your future family."
    Leeshtala shuddered at the thought, but she did not want her parents to choose for her. Two years ago, when she first saw Rikk on the practice field, she had decided he was the one she wanted. Within the confines of parental supervision, she had attempted to gain his attention. She had succeeded in making herself known to him, but her shy glances and later bolder looks were ignored. She had turned away other offers, determined to get what she wanted, but things weren't going as planned. Her birthday was only two months away and he continued to treat her like a casual friend. She was running out of options. "Oh, that Rikk is so frustrating!" she wailed.
    "I think he has eyes for Thieslen," Shleandra said, grinning at the panicked look on Thieslen's face. "I bet he comes to ask you to ring bind with him."
    "He can't," Thieslen stated in panic. "What will I tell him? I could not agree when I know that Leeshtala has always wanted him."
    "See?" Shleandra said to Leeshtala in a smug voice. "I told you she harbored feelings for him."
    Leeshtala saw the pink tinting Thieslen's cheeks and narrowed her eyes. "It's true, isn't it Thieslen?" she accused.
    "Oh, I can't help it," Theislen said with a whining twang. "Please don't be mad," she pleaded with Leeshtala. "I didn't mean for it to happen." She whirled away from the rail, wringing her hands as she paced along the balcony. "Oh, what are we going to do?"
    Shleandra's mouth turned up in a knowing grin, the pupils of her eyes enlarging as the lids dropped. "I think I have an idea." Two pairs of eyes turned to lock on Shleandra. "You have heard of the old sorceress?"
    Leehstala stared at Shleandra a moment, then her eyes widened. "You mean a love potion?"

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    Thieslen giggled nervously as they approached the housetree of the sorceress. "Hush up Thieslen," Leeshtala whispered harshly. "Shleandra, however did you learn how to find this place?" They had followed a winding path beyond the village, passing fewer and fewer occupied trees as they went. Leeshtala was completely lost.
    "Veareena brought me here once," she answered.
    "What?" Leeshtala asked raising her voice in surprise.
    "Shhh," Shleandra said putting her finger to her lips.
    "Why did she bring you here?" Leeshtala whispered.
    "She needed a potion to prevent the seed of a child taking root in her womb."
    "There is such a thing?" Thieslen asked, her eyes wide.
    Shleandra nodded her head. "Don't you ever tell anyone."
    "But why did you come with her, Shleandra?" asked Leeshtala.
    Shleandra shrugged. "I had been getting advice from her on how to pleasure a male."
    Both girls stopped to looked at their friend, their mouths falling open in suprise.
    "Oh, do not look at me like that." Despite her confident air, Shleandra reddened.
    "That's how you got Rozz to ask you to ring bind!" Leeshtala exclaimed. "Why you sneaky female. And you never told us!"
    "I'm sorry, but Veareena wouldn't help me unless I promised not to tell anyone what I learned. So, you must promise not to tell anyone about any of this." She reached out and grabbed her friend's hands. "Do you promise?"
    Thieslen nodded her head, her face still frozen in surprise. Leeshtala grinned and said, "We promise, but you must tell us the rest of what you know."
    "I don't want to know," Thieslen said.
    Leeshtala frowned at her friend. "Well, I do."
    "Okay, I'll tell you, but right now, what you need is in there," Shleandra said, pointing at a tree just ahead. On this, the south side of the tree, was carved the figure of a beast, its wings spread back to either side, its scaly tail wrapped around the trunk to the east.
    It was one of the finest carvings Leeshtala had ever seen, but its fanged mouth and clawed hands sent a shiver down her spine.
    Shleandra led them around to the north side where the point of the creature's tail curved down to form the handle on a tall door at ground level. A mountain scene of craggy peaks and deep caves was carved upon the door. Unlike most dwarfen homes, no stairs or balconies reached to higher levels. Far above, Leeshtala saw smoke escaping from a small hole, the only sign that someone was home. "Knock on the door," Shleandra whispered, pushing her toward it.
    Leeshtala approached the wooden door cautiously, her heart suddenly throbbing inside her chest. Perhaps this wasn't such a brilliant idea. She glanced back at her friends who waved her impatiently onward. Turning back to the dark wood, she pictured Rikk's face, took a deep breath, and knocked sharply on the door.
    "Come in!" called a voice.
    The sound was like a saw on wood. Leeshtala stepped back only to be pushed forward by the hands of her friends. "We'll wait out here," Shleandra whispered. "Go on," she said impatiently.
    Leeshtala put her hand on the point of the beast's tail and turned it. She cautiously opened the door. It moved silently inward. The large room was dim, a faint haze of smoke hanging in the air. She took several steps inside, turned, looked once more at her friends for reassurance, and closed the door behind her.
    The tree floor beneath her feet was worn and uneven. A wooden stair began to the right of the door. Its banister carved in twining snakes, it circled the inside of the tree. Leeshtala followed its progress upward. Small balconies broke its continuity, jutting out from the walls. Narrow catwalks of woven hemp spanned the open space from side to side at various levels. The stair ended a quarter of a mile up at a trap door in the ceiling. Leeshtala wondered how the tree still lived with so much of its heart cut out. She turned her head, peering at the shadowy figures of creatures which seemed to be appearing out of the walls. It was one of the most intricately carved housetrees that Leeshtala had ever seen.
    "What can I do for you?"
    Leeshtala jumped and searched the floor level for the source of the voice. In the center of the room, several iron pots hung from a frame over a fire. Though it seemed the fire was responsible for the haze of smoke, Leeshtala noticed wisps rising from several clay pots on tables and shelves about the room. A wooden rack to the left was hung with drying plants, the long wooden table nearby lined with jars and mortars and pestles. A scale sat to one side.
    The walls were interspersed with shelves holding jars of various shapes and sizes, their contents murky in the dim light. There were more tables about the room, and chairs here and there. Leeshtala stepped to the side of the fire. Behind a long counter on the far wall, stood an old female campil, her dark skin deeply wrinkled. The six long fingers on her jointed palms were deftly filling small drawers on the counter before her with items from a large basket. Leeshtala walked closer. One drawer held small white feathers, another tiny brown nuts, and another puffy ochre seeds.
    "You are in need of something?" The campil's eyes were a deep purple. They glanced at Leeshtala before the old female picked up a drawer and returned it to the chest behind her. Jars of various shapes and sizes sat upon shelves above the chest.
    Leeshtala nervously shifted her feet and took a step closer. "I --," she began and clamped her mouth closed when the campil turned and fixed her purple eyes on her. Those eyes seemed to look right inside her. A tremor passed through her body and she had the strange thought that the door to her soul had been opened and closed.
    The campil stood three heads above Leeshtala, her reed thin body and long limbs graceful as she moved with a whisper from behind the counter. She went to the fire and began stirring the pots hanging there. Leeshtala joined her, the pungent scents in the steam vapors rising to join the heavy mix of smells in the air.
    "My name is Annabelia Vertosen Rheiverihna," the campil said, her attention still on her stirring. "I am the descendant of the great sorceress Annabelia Merfosen. My father was a tenth level seer. Do you know of these things?" Annabelia asked turning to Leeshtala.
    Leeshtala shook her head and nervously shifted her feet. Annabelia sighed. "You come today, not seeking wisdom, but seeking solutions. It is always thus with the young and foolish."
    Leeshtala stiffened at the reprimand, her eyes darting toward the door. She should just leave. This stupid old woman's potions probably didn't work anyway. She could learn what Shleandra knew and use that to win Rikk. And what if that didn't work? Then she would be back here, so she might as well get it over with now. "I need a love potion," she blurted.
    Annabelia didn't move, but continued to stare at her with those purple eyes. The unwavering, assessing eyes made Leeshtala nervous, and that made her angry. "Well, don't you have one?" she demanded.
    Annabelia looked at her a moment longer then suddenly nodded and returned to the counter. She ran her hands along the jars on the shelves and finally settled on one. "I have --,"
    Leeshtala, anxious to leave, interrupted her. "Fine." She reached into the pocket of her skirt, took out two strands of gold and placed them on the counter.
    Annabelia reached under the counter, took out a small vial and filled it from the jar she took from the shelf. Then she looked at the two strands of gold. "What is this?" she asked.
    "I was told you take gold in payment."
    Annabelia shook her head. "I will take the knife you wear on your belt."
    Angry at the unexpected demand, Leeshtala said, "But my brother gave it to me. It is worth a great deal."
    "I will take that and nothing else. Do you want this or not?" Annabelia asked holding out the vial.
    Leeshtala looked at the vial and the promise it held. Imagining a devoted, besotted Rikk knocking on her door, she removed the sheath and laid it with the knife on the counter. After a moment's hesitation, she took the vial and turned away.
    "Empty the contents of the vial into the drink of the one to feel this love. They must drink it all. The one to receive the love must be the only one within their vision."
    Leeshtala hurried out the door holding the precious vial tightly in her hand. Her friends ran to greet her.
    "Did you get it?" Thieslen asked excitedly. "Let me see, let me see!"
    Leeshtala showed them the vial, then tucked it safely in the inner pocket of her vest. "What a creepy female. Let's hurry," she said, pushing them all along the path and away from the sorceress' tree.

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    Leeshtala, Shleandra, and Thieslen sat at a table in the young people's hall. "You are sure you told Morv to tell Rikk that you would be here, Thieslen?" Leeshtala asked for the second time.
    "Yes, Leeshtala."
    "Oh, here he comes," Shleandra whispered excitedly.
    "Hello, Leeshtala, Shleandra," said Rikk, stopping at their table. As he looked at Thieslen, his face and voice softened, "Hi, Thieslen."
    "Hi, Rikk," chimed Leeshtala and Shleandra.
    Leeshtala, watching Rikk stare at Thieslen, waited for her friend to speak. When she didn't hear the planned response, she turned to see Thieslen blushing, her eyes dropped coquettishly. She found Thieslen's leg under the table and gave it a sharp kick.
    Thieslen jumped, glanced up at Leeshtala, then turned to Rikk. "Hi, Rikk, would you like to join us?"
    Rikk sat next to Thieslen, a wide grin on his face. "I'll get us all some drinks," Shleandra said.
    Leeshtala grimaced at Thieslen's shy behavior.
    When Shleandra returned with the drinks, she put them close to Leeshtala and leaned on the table close to Rikk, engaging him in conversation.
    While he was distracted, Leeshtala removed the vial from her vest, pulled out the cork in its top and emptied the contents into one of the glasses. "Here," she said placing a drink in front of each of them.
    Shleandra took her drink and stood away from the table. As Rikk was picking his up, she quickly went behind Thieslen and nudged her. "Uh . . . Rikk," Thieslen said, laying her hand on his arm. "Would you like to go outside? It's awfully warm in here."
    Grinning, Rikk nodded his head and stood up, pulling Thieslen's chair back for her. He barely noticed Shleandra and Leeshtala joining them as they went outside. Shleandra led them around the tree away from the entrance and sat in the soft bed of pemella leaves, her back against a tree trunk. The other three sat alongside her.
    "I heard that Torp Outlin commissioned a forged stairway from your father," Leeshtala said to Rikk, drawing his attention away from Thieslen.
    "Yes, that's true," Rikk replied.
    Leeshtala watched with hungry eyes as Rikk sipped his drink. "Perhaps we will be seeing many more of your father's creations decorating our homes."
    Rikk shrugged. "Torp is a radical sort, don't you think? I doubt the rest will follow his example."
    "Excuse me," Thieslen said as she stood up. Rikk immediately moved to follow her. "No, no, Rikk, I'll be right back. Keep Leeshtala and Shleandra company."
     "Okay," he said sliding back down the tree.
    "So you don't expect your father's business to increase?" Leeshtala asked.
    "No, I really don't --"
    "Excuse me," Shleandra said. "I'll be right back."
    Rikk nodded at her. Leeshtala moved away from the tree and sat crosslegged in front of Rikk, her eyes on his glass. "You were saying?"
    "I don't think the carvers are in any danger of losing business to my father. Besides, he has enough to keep him busy forging tools and weapons." Rikk drained his glass and smacked his lips in satisfaction. "You know, that was really good!" He smiled at Leeshtala and she was sure she saw a new affection in his eyes.
    "I think they added some lunic juice to it."
    "What have you been up to lately Leeshtala? I've seen you making eyes at the young men on the training field. Have you got someone in mind for ring binding?"
    Leeshtala warmed at his words, sure that the potion was working. "Well, yes, I do have one in mind."
    "Ha! I thought so. And who is the lucky young man?"
    "You," Leeshtala said, suddenly brave now that her wishes were coming true.
    "What?!" he blustered. He slid back with his feet and pushed himself up along the tree trunk to stand over her. "You cannot be serious. Why, you are like my sister, Leeshtala. I love you dearly, but certainly not in that way."
    Confused and angry, Leeshtala stood to face him. "You are saying that you love me?"
    "Yes, of course I do."
    "But you don't want to ring bind with me?"
    "Good grief, no! I could no more mate with you than my sister Annanize." He saw the tears appear in Leeshtala's eyes and wrapped his arms around her. "There, there, little sister, I will be here for you. Please don't cry. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."
    Leeshtala broke from his embrace, her anger at the sorceress a fire in her belly. "Oh!" she yelled. She stomped her feet, then turned and ran toward home, cursing the strange campil female under her breath.

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    Over the next week, Leeshtala learned all that Shleandra had learned from Veareena. Though shocked at the explicit details, she felt a quickening in her blood that gave her courage to approach Rikk with her untried knowledge. His brotherly love was repulsed and shocked by her advances. Embarrassed at her mistake, and growing more desperate with each passing day, she finally returned to the sorceress' tree.
    "You tricked me!" Leeshtala stated with vehemence as she walked through the door.
    Annabelia turned from grinding leaves in the mortar. Her purple eyes were calm as she locked her hands in front of her legs. "How did I trick you?"
    "He now loves me as a brother."
    "That is not what you wanted?"
    "No!"
    "Then what kind of love do you want?"
    Leeshtala's face twisted as she thought of how to describe what she wanted. "I want him to cherish me," she said. "I want more than a brother's love."
    Annabelia walked slowly over to the counter and took down one of the jars. She filled an empty vial and held it out to Leeshtala. When Leeshtala reached out for it, she drew it back. "I will take the pendant that hangs about your neck."
    "But my father gave this to me!"
    "I will take nothing else."
    "Then give me back my knife," Leeshtala demanded.
    "No."
    "But the potion didn't work."
    "He does not love you?"
    "Well, yes, but it wasn't the kind of love I wanted."
    "It is not my fault if you are unclear in what you seek. I will take the pendant."
    Leeshtala jerkily removed the necklace and slapped it on the counter. Grabbing the vial, she pierced Annabelia with what she hoped was a withering look, and left.

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    "Sorceress!" Leeshtala shouted as she entered the tree home three days later. "What games are you playing with me?" she angrily demanded.
    Annabelia continued stirring the pots which hung over the fire. "I do not play games with you young female. Why do you think I do?"
    "Because now he loves me as a father."
    "That is not what you wanted?"
    "No!"
    "You said you wanted him to cherish you. Does he not cherish you?"
    "Well, yes, he does."
    "You said you wanted more than a brother's love. Is this not more?"
    "Well, yes, it is . . . but --"
    Annabelia held up her hand. "Then I gave you what you asked for. But this is not what you wanted. Do you now know what you want?"
    Leeshtala scrunched her face in frustration. As hard as she tried, she could not find the words. "I want more than a father's love."
    "More than a father's love?"
    "Yes, I . . . I want him to love me unconditionally."
    "Ah, yes." Again Annabelia made the trip to the counter and filled an empty vial.
    "Are you sure this is the right love?" Leeshtala asked.
    "I am sure this is more than a father's love and unconditional. I will take the finely embroidered vest that you wear."
    "But my mother made this for me!"
    "I will take nothing else."
    Knowing it was useless to argue, Leeshtala removed the vest and laid it on the counter. She ran her fingers over the needle work a moment before reaching for the vial.

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    Utterly frustrated, Leeshtala paced before Rikk. "Stop jabbering at me like a mother hen!" she screamed.
    "Honey, please, I am only trying to help you. Won't you tell me why you are so upset?" Rikk's soft voice grated on Leeshtala's ears.
    "You're a stupid lout," she yelled. "I don't know why I ever wanted you in the first place. I should have accepted Todd's offer, or even Timm's."
    "Todd would have made a fine mate," Rikk agreed.
    "Oh, you're such an idiot! Why don't you get out of my face?!"
    "Darling, who will watch over you if I leave?"
    "I have a mother, I don't need you to watch over me!" Leeshtala felt only the tiniest tinge of guilt at the stricken look on Rikk's face.

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    "Okay, I've had it!" Leeshtala said storming through the sorceress' door. "This time you gave me a mother's love!"
    "This is not what you wanted?" Annabelia asked from behind the counter.
    "No, this is not what I wanted," Leeshtala singsonged. "He's acting like a complete idiot. He wants to take me out and teach me how to throw knives, then he's overprotective and hovers over me while I do it, and then he's constantly jabbering at me about my clothes and my hair and how I talk. How do I put him back to the way he was?"
    "The way he was before you gave him the brother's love?"
    "Yes, before I gave him anything!"
    "Are you sure you want to do that?"
    "Yes, I can't stand him this way."
    "You no longer want the love?"
    "I don't care anymore! It's too late anyway. In two days I turn sixteen and my parents will choose someone for me. Can you turn him back or not?"
    Annabelia took a jar from the shelf and filled a vial. She put out her hand, then pulled it back. "Are you sure there isn't anything you'd like to ask me? Anything you'd like to know?"
    "I've already heard all the wisdom I can stand from Rikk. Just give that to me will you!" Leeshtala swiped the vial from Annabelia's hand. "If you really knew anything, you would have known what to give me in the first place!" Leeshtala snapped before turning and hurrying out the door. In her haste, she did not even notice that a payment wasn't requested.

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    Leeshtala stood before her parents awaiting their decision. "I'm sorry Leeshtala, we had hopes that you would choose your own mate. You had so many to choose from dear, why did you not take one?" her mother said.
    "I wanted Rikk."
    "Oh! We did ask him dear, but he asked Thieslen to ring bind last evening and she accepted."
    Leeshtala nodded her head. She had expected that.
    "I'm afraid we didn't have many left to choose from," her father said.
    "Well, who will it be?" Leeshtala asked, resigned to her fate and too weary to care.
    "Tomm."
    Leeshtala's heart sank to the bottom of her stomach. She could feel the acid churning around it, burning it away bit by bit. Perhaps she had been mistaken in thinking she no longer cared.
    "I know he isn't the best mate you could have made, but he was the only choice left to us." Her father paused, his eyes studying the front of her shirt. "Leeshtala?"
    "Yes father?"
    "Where is the pendant I gave you?"
    Leeshtala reached up, a movement she had made many times since trading the necklace for the potion. She found that she missed it a great deal, like there was a huge empty place where it used to be. "I . . . I . . . traded it for something I needed." She cringed at the devastated look on her father's face. His cheeks seemed to sink into his skull until all the merriness in them was gone.
    "I thought you cherished that pendant as much as I cherished you?"
    "I did, Father, I did," Leeshtala implored.
    "Leeshtala?" her mother said.
    "Yes, Mother?"
    "Where is the vest I made for you?"
    Leeshtala's voice cracked as she answered. "I . . . traded it too."
    Her mother fell back in her chair with a gasp, her hand coming up to cover the sound. "I made it with my own hands," she whispered. "I told you that I kissed every strand with love as I wove it together, and with every strand I loved you more." Her mother's face seemed to fall beneath her hand, her eyes brilliant in the firelight.
    "Oh, Mother, I'm sorry," Leeshtala cried falling to her knees before her mother. She tried to grab for her mother's hands, but her mother held them away.
    "Hey, Leeshtala!" Her brother sauntered into the room, looked at their parents and ran forward. "What's the matter? What's happened?"
    "I traded father's pendant," Leeshtala sobbed. "And mother's vest."
    Her brother's eyes widened, his mouth falling open in disbelief. "Is that what happened to the knife I gave you?"
    Leeshtala could only nod her head.
    "Well, some sister you are! I guess you don't care about your family to give away their gifts so easily."
    "No, you don't understand," Leeshtala said, shaking her head. "I traded them for more love."
    "What?" her father exclaimed. "We didn't give you enough? You wanted more?" He jumped out of his chair and stood over Leeshtala. "A brother who loves and protects you with his life! A father who cherishes every breath you take! A mother who will love you until death and beyond! These were not enough? You wanted more?"
    Leeshtala sobbed hysterically, the dawning realization of what she had done tearing at her insides. "Get up!" her father shouted. "Get out of my home!"
    Leeshtala's tears suddenly stopped at the shocking command. "Get up, I say!" he boomed. Frightened, she crawled away and rose to her feet. She stopped at the door and turned to look at them. "Father? Don't you cherish me?" she said in a small voice.
    "You chose to throw it away!"
    "Mother?" Her mother shook her tear streaked face and turned away. "Brother?" He turned his back on her. Leeshtala, feeling her insides drain away, left the housetree.
    She wandered aimlessly until she found herself at the home of the sorceress.

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    Annabelia, hanging freshly gathered plants on the drying rack, heard the door behind her open. She turned to watch the defeated female enter and slump quietly into a chair.
    "I didn't know," Leeshtala whispered.
    "You didn't know what?" Annabelia pulled a chair in front of the female and sat, spreading her long three-jointed legs and resting her arms on the valley made by her long flowing skirt.
    "I didn't know I would hurt them."
    "You didn't know that trading your brother's knife would hurt him?"
    "Well, I guess I knew that."
    "You didn't know that trading your father's pendant would hurt him?"
    "I guess I knew that."
    "You didn't know that trading the vest your mother made for you would hurt her?"
    "Okay, I knew."
    "These are truths, are they not?"
    "I guess so."
    "Yes or no?"
    "Yes."
    "But you chose to ignore the truth. Why?"
    "I don't know."
    "Why Leeshtala?"
    "Because I wanted something better."
    "What was that something?"
    "I don't know, I just know it's better."
    "So, you chose to lose the love you had for a love you didn't know."
    "I guess so. Why did there have to be a choice between one and the other?"
    "There didn't."
    Leeshtala looked up, confusion plain in her eyes. "If there didn't have to be a choice, why was I forced to make one?"
    "You weren't."
    "You wouldn't give me the vials unless I gave you what you asked for."
    "I did not force you to decide between the vials and the items."
    Leeshtala shook her head. "I don't understand. I couldn't get the vials without giving up the items, so I had to make a choice."
    "Leeshtala, you didn't have to take the vials."
    "Are you saying he would have loved me without them?"
    "No."
    "Then what are you saying? I don't understand."
    "Why did you want him to love you so badly?"
    "Because I love him."
    "Do you love him like a brother?"
    "No."
    "Do you love him like a father?"
    "No."
    "Do you love him like a mother?"
    "No."
    "Do you love him like a friend?"
    "No."
    "Do you love him down here, deep in your belly?"
    "Yes, that is it, he makes me feel funny things."
    "Only one of those? You gave up three loves for one?"
    Leeshtala's eyes opened wide and she flew up from the chair suddenly understanding the emptiness inside. "Why didn't you tell me?! Why didn't you say something? Why didn't you tell me I was trading MY love, not theirs?!" With a horrified look, Leeshtala rushed out the door.
    Annabelia watched the distraught young dwarfen run down the path, then unfolded her lanky frame from the chair and walked to the open door. Shaking her head with a sigh, she softly closed it.
    Veareena stepped from a shadowed corner where she had quickly hidden when Leeshtala had entered the house. "You could have spared her," she said.
    "She didn't ask any questions," said Annabelia, turning from the door. She joined Veareena beside the counter at the other end of the room. "Why did you not warn her?"
    "Perhaps I detest being the only ignorant one. Perhaps I would like some company in my misery." Veareena stepped behind the counter and took down several jars. "She never even made it to the love of a friend," she said smiling. "At least I did not give up so quickly." She ran a sharp nail along a jar top, tracing circles, one after the other. "I came so close and in the back of my mind, I knew the loves were melding in him. If only I had paid more attention." She sighed a deep breath. "One more jar and I would have had it all, eh, Annabelia? I almost wish she had made it. I've never seen a passionately deep and abiding love."
    Annabelia shook her head. "Veareena, you are still ignorant."
    Veareena pursed her mouth. "And you're a cruel old female, Annabelia Vertosen Rheiverihna. Why do you say such things?"
    "Because you've never learned that you can't trade one love for another."
    "You don't make any sense Annabelia. I begin to think you are the one who is ignorant! You told me that all these loves together make that ultimate love."
    "And what else did I tell you?"
    "I don't remember."
    "You remember only what you want to remember. I also told you that you would no longer care to receive that love because you had no love left in you with which to measure it."
    "Then why do you make these stupid potions if they don't work?"
    "They do work."
    "But they don't give you want you want."
    "Yes they do."
    "It's a wonder I remember anything you say, you are so confusing."
    "Veareena," Annabelia explained, "it is very simple. You and Leeshtala wanted love. I gave you what you wanted. You did not stop to consider the cost, nor did you consider if this is what you needed. Worse yet, you did not stop to consider if this was what the other person needed."
    "Are you saying we got what we deserved?"
    "I am saying you got what you asked for. Perhaps the next time you want something, you will first be sure to know what it is you want."
    "How can you know what you want if you've never had it?"
    Annabelia laughed with abandon at this. With a big grin on her face, she waggled her finger at Veareena. "You begin to show some intelligence my young friend. And while you are pondering the answer to that great question, perhaps you will remember that you still have the one thing that drove you to seek love in the first place."
    Veareena twisted her mouth. "What is that?"
    "Remember the one thing Leeshtala felt for this young male?"
    "The funny feeling down below?"
    "Yes," Annabelia said nodding her head.
    "Yes, so, what does that tell me?"
    "You have had this feeling for many males since the first, haven't you?"
    "Well, yes, that is true," Veareena said, her mouth turning up on one side, a glint appearing in her eyes.
    "Do you still consider this to be love?"
    Veareena's face fell into a frown. "No."
    "And why not?"
    "Because it is a fickle feeling and will not be denied. No matter how good one male makes me feel, I will still want the next that gives me that funny feeling."
    "And what makes you think this isn't love?"
    "Well," Veareena pondered a moment. "There was one male who wanted to ring bind with me. He swore he wanted no other, though admitted that he desired other females. I think this tingly feeling is desire. I think when there is love with desire, you want only one above all others." Veareena's voice had grown quiet and tears appeared in her eyes. "I had wished to return his love, but I could not. When I desired another, he let me go, only saying that he wanted me to be happy. He was very kind to me."
    "Is this male still living here in the village?" Annabelia asked.
    "Yes," answered Veareena, "but I do not see him often, only when I need help with heavy chores. He would no longer share his desire with me when he learned I could not love him. He says when he is with me, he gives me his heart and I am not worthy of sharing it.
    "Veareena," Annabelia said, her voice filled with compassion.
    Veareena looked up in surprise, her tears causing her pupils to widen to huge circles. "Annabelia," she said with a wry smile, "you actually sound sorry for me."
    Annabelia clucked and went to a corner of the room where a large storage cabinet stood. She leaned down, opened the lower doors, and began pulling things out and throwing them behind her on the floor. "Aha, here it is!" she said, straightening with a small box in her hands. She carried it over to the counter and opened the lid.
    Veareena gasped as she saw what was inside. She came around the counter and looked at Annabelia, her eyes filled with questions. "These are the things I traded for the potions. You kept them?"
    "Veareena," Annabelia began as she pulled the items from the box, "you have learned, perhaps what some will never learn, because unlike you, they will never know what they have, for they have never been without it." She fixed the intricately threaded belt around Veareena's waist. "You have suffered to learn." She slid the silver band onto Veareena's arm. "You have learned the value of love, haven't you?"
    Veareena nodded as Annabelia handed her the box carved in the shape of a heart. It had been a gift from her father. She touched the belt that had been made by her mother, then the silver band given to her by her brother. Feelings she had never thought to feel again began spilling from her insides. They coursed down her cheeks and dropped on the braided ring of white bellflowers which her best friend had made while they lazed away an afternoon sharing secrets in their special place beside the stream. Carefully, Veareena took the now dried ring of flowers and placed them on her head.
    She stood in wonder at the sensations which were building inside. They were growing and growing such that Veareena knew she must find an outlet or explode. "Oh, Annabelia!" she exclaimed. In a spontaneous gesture which she hadn't known since she was a child, Veareena reached forward and hugged Annabelia. She kissed the lined cheek of the old campil and whirled away to dance in a circle. Giggling, she once more cried out, "Oh Annabelia!" Hugging the wooden heart to her chest, she suddenly stopped and looked at the old female. "I can never thank you enough, can I?" she asked.
    Annabelia's old face split in a wide grin. "You grow less ignorant with every moment. Now go," she said shooing with her hands. "Go to this male who longs to give you his heart and hold yours in his loving embrace."
    Veareena laughed with pure joy. "I love you, Annabelia," she called as she skipped out the door.
    "I love you too, child," Annabelia said to the now empty room. She went behind the counter and began pulling items from the shelves below. She carefully folded the vest and placed it in the emptied box. On top of that she put the knife and pendant. She closed the lid securely and carried the box to the storage chest, pushing it into the back beside similar boxes. Sighing sadly, she ran her hands over several of the old boxes, knowing the contents within would never be claimed. She then gathered the things strewn on the floor back into the cabinet and closed the doors.
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Copyright © 1996 Kathleen A. O'Connell, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Kat