The Proposal (909 Words)
“Give it back!”
They fell together on the grass in an awkward tangle of limbs and laughter. Mairi caught the pendant from Ham’s fingers. She fastened it again around her neck, breathless and trying hard to be angry.
“How could you?” she said. “Sneak thief!”
He was still breathless and limp with giggles. Again, Mairi was impressed by how entirely ridiculous he was, and how remarkably foolish—and foolishly happy—he made her feel.
“What’s the matter with you?” she said, frowning.
“Sorry—oh, ha-ha-ha, your—your f-f-face—”
“What about my face?”
“It’s what? At least it’s not as silly as yours!”
He calmed a little. He lay still, catching his breath, and Mairi was conscious of but not troubled by the gentle rise and fall of his chest by her arm. Above them, the leaves from the tree at the end of the lane rustled softly, whispering.
“What is it?”
His voice startled her. She looked up. “Hmm?”
“What’s in the locket?”
“A picture. Of—my parents.”
His features tensed.
“Would you like to see?” she asked.
He nodded a little.
“If—if you want to show me,” he said.
Mairi’s frown softened. She opened the locket and held it for him.
Ham looked close.
“Did you know them?” he asked, softly.
“Yeah. I mean—sort of. I was so young, I really don’t know if it’s truth or trick—but I hear their voices without understanding them and I know they’re close by and I…I feel safe.” Mairi cleared her throat and smiled. “I’m probably lucky, mm? Not knowing my parents?”
“Why do you say that?”
She was perplexed by Ham’s seriousness.
“I wouldn’t want to end up like Prince Leif,” she said, “praying no girl will match my steps.”
She had meant it only as a tease. But Ham wouldn’t let her.
“And yet you’re trying to win him,” he said, “—a man—an elf you never saw—for practical reasons, not love.”
“I’m not doing this for myself,” Mairi said sharply.
“Neither is he.”
“I haven’t got a choice.”
“Do you imagine he has?”
“Sure, and yes! What if his parents want it? He’s strong enough on his own, to do as he pleases. Isn’t he? An elf lord’s son?”
Ham raised himself on his arms.
“And what about you, Mairi Wibble?” he asked. “Are you strong enough to marry for love if you choose?”
This was an unexpected twist.
Ham watched her. He was in earnest, and the pout in his lip was more pronounced than ever.
“Do you know what marriage is?” he said. “It’s an agreement certainly, a partnership—but it’s more than that. It’s a union. That’s something more than friendship, than two—that’s one. It’s not just passing rings and a kiss, and more than heritage and store. What is all that without love? You give your hand freely enough for others. Will you give your heart with it? Can you? Is it selfish to want to love, to risk the world, for love?”
Mairi listened. She was alternately pale and flushed, distracted and intent. Ham had straightened as he spoke, and whether consciously or not he had taken her hand in his own long slim one and raised himself, just so, on one knee.
“We are so frightened for the present,” Ham pressed, in a fast murmur, “that we forget the future. Or else we’re so driven for the future that we throw away our presents. Please, Mairi. Don’t—don’t. All is not hopeless. ’Tis only hopeless, if you give up hope.”
“Ham?” Mairi’s mouth twisted and quivered. “What—what are you saying?”
She knew. Of course she knew. Knowing made her forget to laugh or smile at him, or even to frown, but look on with an expression open and intent. His eyes flew to hers as she pressed his fingers. There was a new glow in his glance, like a golden-brown break mid-thunder that lets the hidden light through and is at once clear, beautiful, and open as day.
Mairi saw it. She saw and couldn’t wait. As he parted his lips to answer her, she leaned and kissed him. He jumped a little, surprised; his laugh was breathless but real; and they kissed correctly this time, as one.
“Will ye marry me, Lady Wibble?” asked Ham. “Will you?”
“I must dance tomorrow,” said Mairi, “to have an audience with the king.”
“Then I will dance with you and we will plead together.”
“Don’t be silly.” Mairi pressed his shoulder. Her smile was wide and strange on her frowning face. “I will marry you. I will. Don’t you forget it. I—I haven’t got anything proper, but will you wear this, for me?”
She had taken the silver ring from inside her tunic. It was a simple thing with a single tiny pearl set in it. Queen Margaret had given it to Mairi for her sixteenth birthday, and she usually wore it around her neck on her locket-chain so it wouldn’t be smudged and scuffed under gloves and mail. Now she unclasped the chain once more and took the ring, and tried to put it on Ham’s finger.
“Ow,” he said. “Let me.”
It was a good, tight fit.
Ham leaned and softly kissed her brow.
“I have nothing to give you,” he said. “But better, worse, whatever yet should happen, know that I am yours, Mairead Wibble.”