Here is a scene about one ring, two tempers, and a young woman who is appallingly candid.
“I do not value gifts from dead men.”
She had said it. She meant it, too, with all her dark and hardened heart. His crippled body was in a wheelchair, wrapped from the waist down in a blanket. He would never survive an attack from the ogres. It tired her to look at him, knowing the burden he was to others, the healer whose time could be better spent elsewhere wasted in making a dead man comfortable.
At her statement, Aryn squinted at her. “Why not take gifts from a dead man? Are you afraid you might care for him if you do?”
Merris snorted. She held the iron ring for him to take. “It’s also ugly,” she said, “if that helps.”
He took the ring in his palm. “It is very simple.”
She waited for him to say something more. She expected something clever, biting. But he remained silent.
“Well,” she said. “Why do you keep it?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Fine. Don’t tell me.”
This was how their conversations went. She would be difficult and he would inevitably yield, a consequence of his own secret knowledge that he was in fact a dead man and should know better than to provoke the living. Merris watched him looking down at the iron ring in his lap. She waited. But this time was different. This time, if she was finished with their conversation, he was, too.
“Is it very dear to you?”
The question left her against her will. Her voice sounded strange to her own ears, stiff and awkward.
His eyes flicked up. His expression said, Are you really still there?
“Yes,” he said at last. “My father made it for me.”
“Your father made you a ring?”
This time she couldn’t keep the dry, half-contemptuous wit from her voice.
“Yes,” said Aryn. “He did.”
Again there was that awkward silence. Merris wanted to go but for some reason, she couldn’t.
“Why did he make you a ring?”
He answered more readily than she expected. “To show me that even valueless things can take on forms of beauty,” he said, “with no more worth in them than their outside shape.”
Her mouth quirked. The bite in his words was meant for her.
“So you like the way I look, do you?”
The man’s face colored. It was the first time she had ever seen him truly embarrassed, embarrassed by his own anger and humiliated by the ease she took it with. But he would not allow her the satisfaction of hearing him give way to insults, or seeing him struggle away in his chair, the ignominious, rattling retreat of a cripple. What he did next surprised him as much as her. He held out the ring once more.
“I am offering you a gift,” he said. “You can throw it away if you like, but it’s bad manners to refuse. Where were you raised?”
“And if I throw it away here and now,” she said, “what then?”
“I’ll pick it up and give it to you again.”
The woman laughed. Her laugh was light, musical, and it made him weak to hear it.
“This is very persistent gift-giving,” she said. “But I do not want your ring, Aryn, and I will not take it. I am too much your ‘superficial shape.’ I see no value in an iron trinket from a dead father.”
“It is not just iron,” said Aryn.
“Oh?” Her eyes took him in, dark and watchful. “What else then?”
Each potential answer was worse than the last, dreaming and romantic. Merris watched Aryn think, considering his own thoughts, his shadowed face turned down over his bosom. He held the ring in his hand and pressed it in his palm.
“It is all that I can give you,” he said at last. “It is myself.”
Merris was silent. Her expression was withdrawn, but there was a touch of incredulity in her raised brows.
“I am surprised you risk your heart so—hopelessly,” she said. “I did not think you were a fool.”
He lifted his head. His mouth twisted. “Dead men are not afraid to die.”
“Now that is indeed foolish. Dead men are not afraid of death. They cannot die twice.”
“You will agree there are many kinds of deaths,” said Aryn.
“I agree it is only one kind that matters.” Her piercing eyes took him in. “Give me your ring.”
He held it out to her. She took it and turned away from him. For a moment he watched her turned back, studying the narrow, tense line in her shoulders. He saw the glow of strange light and knew she was working magic. When she turned to him, she offered the ring to him once more.
“What did you do?” he asked.
“I made it something more than iron,” she said. “I have placed a charm on it that will soothe you when death comes. It will make your passing painless.”
“That is a morbid gift,” said the man.
She shrugged. She felt tired, light-headed with the effort of casting so deep a spell. It was the kind of spell that could only be cast once in a lifetime, and it left her exhausted.
“Take it,” she said. “Be glad.”
His face tightened with concern. “You should not have done it,” he said. “Are you alright?”
Her eyes opened when she felt him press her fingers around the ring. “This is a gift neither of us is willing to take,” he said, wryly. “If I beg you to keep it, will you be moved?”
“Beg me to keep this?” There was that laugh again, light, so strangely guileless. “I suppose it is nice to know there is someone somewhere, begging for me. But a little of me is in this, too. Magic is not to be treated lightly. It is personal to the giver and to the receiver. I have given this to you and you will take it.”
“And I have given this to you,” said Aryn. “Take it.”
She made an impatient, desperate sound. “What? Because a thing you call ‘love’ is in it?”
“What?” he replied, equally mocking. “Because a thing you call your ‘life’ is in it?”
They glared at each other.
“Alright then,” Merris said. She raised her hand to throw it, but something held her. She turned and dropped the ring more easily in his lap. “Do with it as you like.”
She turned. Her face remained composed, almost critical. “This is ridiculous,” she said. “Will it ease you if the ring is mine?”
Aryn noticed her use of “ease” and not “please.” He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
“Foolish man,” said Merris, softly. She knelt by his wheelchair and closed his fingers around the ring. “I give my ring to you. You gave it to me. I accepted. Now I give it to you. I give you what is mine, as you have given what is yours. Do you understand? It is not an exchange. It is not a rejection. ‘Tis a gifting.”
He didn’t understand, not entirely, but the look in her eyes was piercing. She took the ring and placed it on his finger, her thumb tracing the iron band. She saw on his face the same shadowed vulnerability he had shown when he had called the ring not just iron, but himself. Her own face was intent and her voice when she spoke, was quiet and clear.
“Wear this,” Merris said, “and know that I accept what you have offered me. You are foolish but you are brave. Dead men are not brave.”