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Fiction #17
(published Late in the Year, 2000)
The Golden Key
by Michael Hoffman

Once upon a time there lived a sickly young boy named Hans. More than anything in the world, Hans wished to marry. In his childish dreams, he would imagine the girl he would wed, with flaxen hair and a fine smile and a fine figure. She would love him as much as his mother loved his father. His mother loved his father because they were, as the townsfolk said, a "blood match."

In those days, marriages were few and far between, a reason for both generous celebration and spiteful envy. Every year in Hans' town, the children of marrying age were given a blood test by the ruler of the kingdom, a heartless tyrant of a prince. This blood test would tell which children were allowed to marry, and whom they would marry. Should the prince decree a match, the townsfolk had great cause to rejoice.

And though Hans wished and prayed devoutly for his turn, there was little chance the prince would allow a young child with such weak limbs and cold hands to marry. And though no blood test could trace such a thing, and the prince would never detect such a defect without an audience, the child suffered greatly from his own imagination. Hans knew who he would marry, and when. The girl who captured his youthful heart lived but three doors down in his own town. She was the same flaxen-haired maid of his dreams, the warm young girl who would live happily with him when he grew up. Hans never doubted that his future would unfold thus.

His mother and father greatly doubted this, though, and often sent the child out into the woods to run and play, to build up his strength. They worried over him, because he was so small and fragile. They worried over him, too, because he was of a weak mind, given to flights of improbable fancy. Though they never chided him for his ambitions, they were aware that he would never marry the girl of his dreams.

Hans was not likely to pass the test, and should he pass, he would not have a choice in marriage. Furthermore, marriage inside a town was so unlikely as to be laughable. The townsfolk knew that each town was carefully created by their prince. Each town was made of special blood-matches from other towns. They also had heard that sometimes a town was carefully destroyed for having "weak blood," as the prince put it, but the wiser townsfolk put no stock in such mean-spirited rumors.

One fine morning in March, when the snow still rested on the hills and in the valleys, Hans was sent out into the woods by his parents. He was instructed to run and gather as much firewood as he could carry, as fast as he could carry it. Not wishing to disappoint, Hans rushed about the woods in a frenzy, burrowing at the base of each strong fir tree for loose branches hidden beneath the snow.

Many months had passed since snow had first settled upon the woods, and firewood was becoming harder to find. Hans traveled many miles into the woods, growing cold and pale as the dark woods eclipsed the noon sun. And still he searched dutifully, gathering patiently a small pile of tinder and branches. And when he finally looked about him, in the gathering gloom of the forest, he realized that he was quite lost. His prints in the snow led in every direction and therefore no direction.

Hans was about to fall into despair when he sat down in a hollow betwixt the mighty roots of a great fir. As he sobbed and cast about for a few more branches, his hand struck something hard and cold. There, beneath him in the snow, he found a great golden key and a small iron box. The box was finely wrought, and bore a small clasp with a keyhole. Any other boy might have worried over these pieces, but Hans found his heart racing as he studied the strange box and key. To a child with imagination, these were an impossibility made manifest, a miracle unto themselves.

Hans looked about him. No sign of an owner of the relics. The box was covered in not only snow but moss. Well, thought the young boy, these have been left for me to find. For, he thought, why else should this golden key and this iron box be exactly here beneath this tree? And so saying, he fitted the key to the keyhole, and easily turned it. Hans undid the clasp, took a deep breath, and opened the box.

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