In the storm-ravaged village of Aranthine’s Fall, it was the festive season of giving and sharing. Hidden alone at the roof of the world, the village never wanted for anything but the little food that was needed to last them through the winter. But this year would be different. When the village awoke one frosty morning, they discovered a strange box, left in the centre of the village.
‘A box?’ someone asked. ‘Wherever did it come from?’
‘It’s a gift!’ another cried. ‘Sent from the heavens for our daily toil!’
As the gathered masses deliberated and argued over the box’s purpose, a young man hobbled through their midst, leaning heavily on a long stick, his face pained with every step. It was Aldan, the village’s magus and wisest advisor. Complications during birth had left him weak in his left leg, but it had given him the patience and time in his early childhood to study the arts of the magi. When the villagers finally noticed who was among them, they parted hurriedly, remembering clearly the terrible stories they had heard about the magi. An old woman, who now had the box in her withered grasp, bowed her head as low as she could and held out the object for the magus to inspect.
Aldan snatched up the box and, thrusting his stick deep into the snow, leaned heavily against it while he stood. Slowly, he pushed open the lid of the mysterious gift, admiring the delicate carvings etched into its side. Inside, there was a gnarled oaken wand, a vein of ice running along its length. A yellowed note rested under the wand, which Aldan carefully removed and unfolded, reading it aloud: ‘An honest man takes only what he needs and shares the rest with his kin. The season of kindness and selflessness has arrived. Let me grant you each a gift. I am the Icebinder, the giver and the taker. Use me honestly.’
As one, the crowd burst into excited chatter, discussing what they were going to use the wand for. Aldan listened with great interest, for they were all thinking about themselves, first and foremost.
‘I want a mountain of riches! I’ll leave this forsaken place for good!’ one person said gleefully.
‘No, no, no!’ another insisted. ‘A grand feast is what I want. Something fit for a king.’
Sighing in defeat, Aldan gave the box back to the old woman and addressed the crowd as a whole. ‘Enjoy this gift,’ he said. ‘But if any of you have a fragment of sense, think of others before yourselves.’ With a final glance about him, Aldan snatched up his stick and set off back home. Behind him, he heard excited laughter as the wand was put to the test.
During the hours that followed, Aldan observed the village from afar, sitting snugly in the repurposed watchtower that was his home. He heard singing and music in the distance and could see welcoming firelight close by. Something deep within him was chipping away at his resolve, willing him to join in the revelry and fill his protesting stomach. He never treated himself. Perhaps, just this once, he should? He peered out across the village once more, the daylight failing quickly, his curious nature making him wonder what otherworldly delights the villagers might have conjured.
‘This won’t do,’ he said, a few agonising minutes later. He felt as if he would starve if he didn’t sample just a slice of juicy suckling pork. He felt as if he would shrivel up if just one glass of warm, spiced wine wasn’t quaffed. Indeed, he felt sure he would explode if he didn’t at least find out what he was missing out on. Moving as quickly as he could, he fetched his winter cloak, slipped on his boots and set off into the oily black evening, practically bounding across the snow towards the heart of the village.
But as Aldan drew close, he no longer heard the sounds of merrymaking. All around him, frozen in place inside prisons of ice, bloated and engorged versions of their former selves, were the villagers. Scattered around them lay countless discarded carcasses, their bones picked clean and gleaming in the firelight. Aldan made his way through the bizarre scene, inspecting the obese faces of those unfortunate souls he passed. As he reached the epicenter of the party’s aftermath, he noticed a small boy sitting on the ground, the wand resting in its box beside him.
‘Good evening to you,’ Aldan said as he lowered himself painfully to sit. ‘It looks like everyone enjoyed themselves. A little too much, perhaps, but still.’
The boy chuckled and snapped the box shut. He looked at Aldan with piercing, ice-white eyes. ‘They failed my test, every last one of them. Couldn’t keep their greedy little fingers away, could they?’
Aldan frowned. ‘So you left the wand in the village? Interesting.’
‘You do not seem upset at the fate of your friends.’
‘Well, I would not necessarily consider them friends,’ Aldan said, sighing. ‘I admit I am disappointed that they were all so weak.’
‘But you were not,’ the boy said. He held out the box to Aldan. ‘You are an honest man. You have earned this.’
Aldan took the box, but shook his head slowly and started chuckling as he heaved himself to his feet. ‘Honest?’ he said. ‘Oh, not me. I thank you for this gift, but I will not be using it myself. Complete quiet and solitude are not things that any magic can truly give.’
‘No!’ the boy shouted. ‘You must indulge. How can you not even be tempted?’
‘I am greedy,’ Aldan said. ‘I could never spend the wand’s power. Instead, I will hoard it and revel in the secret knowledge that I own an artefact of such potency. This is my indulgence.’
“There are many things that we would throw away if we were not afraid that others would pick them up.” ~ Oscar Wilde