Spring 2007 Volume One Issue Two
The King of Elfland's Stepdaughter - Barbara Gordon
I dreamed of the the Wild Hunt and a child wailing, and woke to gusts rattling the windows. The ache in my joints told me the storm would be worse by morning, and the green glow of the digital clock told me morning would be a long time coming.
I didn't like the green glow, too much like the shimmer of the deep pools in Elfland, where the old carp waited to tell you what you didn't want to hear. Thrift made me keep the clock.
Besides, I thought, shuffling bony feet into the matted, familiar fur of the the bunny slippers -- Tomas's last, joking gift -- what's your choice? A red glow? You know what that would remind you of. Better the carp. At least you could speak with it. My guts burned, and I thought of the pain pills, of the nurse's brisk voice: Addiction isn't something to worry about now.
Pulling back the net curtain, I looked out. Traffic lights swung amid strings of streetlights, headlights and taillights; office-blocks were henges of light, not stone. These people were so prodigal with light. How rich, I had thought first, wandering the strange smooth streets, hoping for the smell of a peat fire, the burr of a north-country voice. How rich.
The old neon signs that had bewitched me still blinked. The girl on a swing, limned by blue dress and pink legs, swung back and forth; the sharp-faced waiter bowed and presented his tray, straightened and bowed. I'm kin to you now, I told the constant figures. I too am shot through with strange light.
Wind slackened and bass music thumped from the floor above. In the next apartment, Summer and her boyfriend moaned, making up their earlier quarrel with a rhythm as urgent as the music. A new beat of hurried footsteps in the hallway and sobbing breaths. I took two sleep-stiff paces before the knock at my door.
"Mamma Janet?" A girl's voice.
My name rang strangely in the accents of the city, Cantonese, Spanish, Haitian, and Punjabi. Like someone else's name, but still with power over me.
"Coming." I pressed my right eye, the mortal one, to the peephole. Ten-year-old Savannah blinked up, dressed in a rose-pink top and blue pyjama bottoms powdered with stars. I opened the door to her. Her feet were bare, her brown face puffy with crying.
"Is someone sick at home, my hinny?"
She nodded, then shook her head. Better told behind doors. I squinted my mortal eye and looked with the left, the elf-eye. Nothing uncanny. Only the stink of it in the hallway like the smell after lightning, sinking under odours of curry and diapers, smells of the mortal world.
"Does your mamma know you're here?"
A shake of the head, more certain. I filled the kettle at the tap -- a wonder always, water so easily come by -- and set it on the stove. Savannah settled at the table, elbows on the chipped formica, hands fisted. I offered her the jar of herbal teas; without looking she took a scarlet packet. Rosehip. I spooned out black tea, wondering what my grannie would have said of folk drinking bits of weed.
"Mamma Janet, the aliens came. They took Devon and left some sorta -- thing -- instead. It looks like him but it isn't real. Mommy doesn't believe me. But I saw them." The rush of words faltered. "Do you believe me?"
"Tell me what you saw. I can't say until I know what you ask me to believe." I poured warm water into the cup children liked, marked with smiling sun and moon, and set the kettle back to boil. "Drink, it'll ease you."
She swallowed old sobs and stirred sugar resolutely. "I woke up. Dunno why, 'cause they didn't make noise. They were tall, and real white like ghosts, and big dark eyes. They were standing round Devon's crib. I was gonna yell but one of them just -- waved at me. An' I couldn't move or yell or anything."
"How did they look?" Forty years untroubled by Elfland save in dreams. Let this be only a child's dream.
She closed her eyes, face still. "His fingers were real long. He moved -- they moved kinda floaty."
"How were they dressed?"
Her eyes popped open. "I dunno. The one that waved, he had long hair, shiny white like..." I showed her the silver teaspoon and she nodded. "You know them, don't you?""I fear I do." The kettle roared and I turned to the stove. Thin steam caught the cold fluorescent light, lifted it to the cabinets, faded to nothing. The weight of water kept my hands from shaking. "You said they left something."
"It's not Devon!" Her voice soared to shrillness. I looked back and she calmed. "I got Mommy and it opened its eyes but it isn't Devon. Devon smiles for me!"
"It looks like him?" I brought my tea to the table and sweetened it. Savannah's mother had told me I used too much sugar, before sickness sucked flesh from me. Then she brought me clipped recipes for healthy one-person meals.
"It kinda -- like a picture, like -- It doesn't smell like Devon. It wouldn't wake up right. Mom said he was sleepy 'cause it's the middle of the night."
Not a changeling then, but a stock, a blinking doll, withering in days. False as fairy gold.
"I believe you, Savannah. Now I ask. Think before you answer. Do you want your brother back?"
"Yes! And that thing to go away!"
"Think. Then answer. Do you want him back if you must bring him back yourself from a far strange land?"
She stared, eyes round and black as the tea in my cup. In those mirrors I saw an old woman, hair thin and body shrunken, like the tadpole images in the peephole. Sick and old, fit only to mind children. Where's your own child, Janet?
"Sometimes I don't like him, when he's whiny and stuff, but I love him anyways." Her face crumpled. "He's gonna be scared. The aliens won't know what to do. They won't know he likes me to sing to him."
"I cannot promise you will return with him. Or return yourself. Be very sure before you begin this journey."
"Will you come with me?"
My throat dried and I gulped hot tea. I'd urged thought, yet myself decided unthinking. Of course I'd go, as rashly as before. To lose another child? "Yes. You don't know the way."
Savannah hopped to her feet. "Do I hafta get anything from home? Do I hafta bring -- it? Do they want it back?"
"No. It's a doll, a joke. They've no need of it." I opened a cabinet and looked at packets and jars. "Can you go back without waking your mother?"
"Sure." She fished the pink ribbon and dangling key from her collar. Cold iron. She'd have to leave that.
"Fetch a pack for food. You must not eat or drink anything of that country. Bring boots and a sweater. Nothing with a zipper. No iron or steel."
Alone, I tore a sheet from the memo pad. My scanty words straggled between the flowered borders. I have taken Savannah to someone I know, who may have medicine for Devon. We will be back by daylight.
"What could you do," I'd asked the Rhymer once, "if saying truth would mean your death, you that can't lie?"
"There's always silence, lassie," he'd answered. "Always silence."
My handbag had zipper and rings, but in the closet I found a souvenir tote, marked with a juggler gaudy in red and yellow. I stowed granola bars and bottled water, and was hesitating before the pill bottles when the door clicked open.
Savannah wore a daffodil-yellow hooded pullover and pink rain-boots. Over her shoulder hung a pink drawstring pack, bearing a name not hers. Wiser than she knew, this child. Her brows were drawn and her round chin jutted stubbornly. Had I looked so resolute when I'd set out, seven years older than her?
"It's the only backpack with no zipper." She pulled it open. "It's old. I don't play barbies anymore."
"The ball of string is a good choice. The flashlight you can't bring, for it has iron, I think. The pocket-knife -- " Another good choice, were it not steel. "Wait." In the drawer of oddments, surely -- Tools clanked as I turned them. Under the can-opener and a tangle of twist-ties lay the silver letter-opener. I'd given it to Tomas, when he still had letters from his family, stamps bright as neon. "This is silver. We'll take this."
Savannah bit her lip. "They aren't aliens, are they? Are they vampires?" She pulled the drawstring closed, eyes fixed on my face.
"Not vampires. We called them Fair Folk, when we had to speak of them. Aliens is as good a name." Aliens. Illegal alien, I'd been that, wandering the bright wet streets of the city, green silk gown black with rain, bare feet oil-stained. Lucky I was white, Tomas had said. The folk at home had called me Brown Janet for my dark hair and sunburnt face. Tomas had laughed to hear that.
I belted my raincoat. "Let's be on our way."
To my left eye, their footprints glistened on the dingy floor outside Savannah's door, coming and going. One-eyed, I started down the hallway.
"Why'd they take Devon?" Her voice was a breathy whisper, as if she feared to break my concentration in the midst of my magic trick. A trick stolen from thieves.
"He's a beautiful baby. They love beauty in us." For all that it faded, perhaps because it faded. Their own beauty was unchanging as crystal. "And lively. They like that." A smiling brown child, black-eyed and plump as baby Krishna in the poster pinned in the corner store. His father must have been a handsome man.
"But they're -- they were beautiful. Not like aliens on teevee, all blobby with no noses and no hair. Like, like princes and princesses. Only white, and scary eyes."
Through the fire door and down the stairs. The prints faded and I picked up my pace. "They are beautiful to us, and we to them." I had been no fairer to them than to my own folk, but my stubbornness and folly amused them.
"Where are we going?"
The wind had abated, but rain swept sideways against us. The street was slick, and smears of coloured light on the wet pavement confused my sight. I narrowed both eyes, and drew in scent as fiercely as did Auberon's red-eyed hounds. Outside, the prickling smell was stronger, though wind scattered it. "This way. Savannah, watch for dangers of this world. I must watch for them."
Not far. Likely it hurt them to travel in this place, so full of iron the air smelled of it. Savannah's hand was warm in mine. Her head switched from side to side, face vigilant under the yellow hood. She trotted to keep up, uncomplaining, pink boots striking water from the ground.
Above us buildings soared, pierced with light like fretwork, baskets of light. The rain seemed made of light, though it soaked my skirts dark. The cave-mouth of an alley swung up beside us. Savannah pushed me away.
"Junkies in there, Mamma Janet. They don't care how nasty it is outside."
"I pray they find beds in the shelters. This is no night to be abroad." Somewhere near was the soup kitchen where Tomas had volunteered and I, silk-clad refugee, had fetched up. I'd mistaken his bald head for the tonsure of a priest, begged him to shrive my sins and bring me back among Christian folk. For thirty years he had.
"Pigeon Park." Savannah's hand tightened. "Nothing here but homeless people and pigeons."
"It's here they came and went." The glimmer of their feet shone under the trees where rain hadn't reached. "No pigeons to see them tonight."
In the midst of concrete and six lanes of rumbling traffic, a circle of trees shook in the storm. Within the trees was a raised bed of wind-flattened flowers. The city had flowers year-round. In that it was like Elfland, seasonless.
In my green bare hills, the Fair Folk came through a circle of stone. In the stony city, through a circle of trees. I'd stood here with Tomas's church group, bringing hot food to the homeless, and seen no gate. But I'd not looked with my left eye.
"What do we do?"
"We dance, my bonny. We dance withershins." I pushed my keys into the wet flowerbed. "If you come back without me, take my keys. See, there's one brick lighter than the rest. That's your mark."
The yellow hood bobbed with her nodding. "What's withershins?"
"Against the turning of the sun, for we leave the daylight world. The other way I know is to sleep all night in the circle, and this night's too wet."
Her head tipped back. Rain dripped from the branches onto her face. "But homeless people sleep here in the summer, and nothing happens to them."
I wiped the drops from her smooth cheek. "If there's fewer in the morning than lay down at night, who would know?" I did wrong to take her. But she did right to come. "Now we dance. Take my hand, don't let go."
Rings of red brick, black under yellow streetlights, interlaced the concrete, linking struggling trees one to another. With the roar and splash of traffic for music, and the shifting lights of cars for guide, we two danced the circles, in and out. Withered old woman led skinny young girl; black boots and pink boots trod the measure. I'd danced so as a girl, though the city's children had other games. Down lost years the rhyme whispered:
Open the gates as wide as the sky,
And let King George and his lady by,
It is so dark we cannot see,
To thread the needle-eye, boys.
I bumped Savannah, jolting myself into unexpected laughter. She hopped on one foot and recovered, lips moving in her own song, unheard over wind and traffic.
My legs ached and breath rasped as we neared our beginning, the first circuit. Cramps crawled in my stomach like crabs. I thought of Devon's chuckle, of his mother watching the stock shrivel, thinking it him, and danced on.
The ground shuddered. I threw my arm around a tree-trunk.
Savannah crowded close. "Earthquake?" She looked about for shelter. Her mouth dropped open.
The bright-patterned murals of the park's wall dulled to mottled green and grey, moss on rock. Jagged neon lines of graffiti blackened and coiled into incised rings and spirals. From that wall of lichened stone, three great slabs pushed, uprights and a lintel. Within, grey sank to black. A hole like a barrow-mouth, an unlit alley.
"Savannah. Remember. Once past that door, you must not eat or drink anything save what we've brought. Speak to no-one, and above all make no bargains or agreements, even by signs. Both Devon and ourselves may be lost forever otherwise. Do you understand?" She nodded mutely, lips pressed tight. I smiled at her quickness. "You may speak to me. I have spoken in that country and come out again. You may ask me questions to ask another."
We loosed hold of the tree and walked through the gate of Elfland.
Within was grave-dark, smelling of earth and damp. I trailed a hand along the wall, fine hairs of rootlets tickling my fingers, Savannah a golden blur beside me.
"How come you know about this?"
"Does it surprise you, my hinny? Why did you come to me, if you didn't think I'd know?"
"'Cause you'd believe me. 'Cause you listen, even when kids make stuff up. 'Cause you're real old and you know stuff. Lotsa stuff."
Older than you know, child. "Once there was a girl. Not a princess, or the youngest of three, or brave or clever or beautiful. She loved a young man, the finest dancer in the parish, fastest runner and strongest hurler. Curly black hair he had and fine black eyes, skin white as milk. Every lass sighed for him, from Fair Elinor in the high street to Brown Janet at the dairy."
"One night he vanished. Girls wept, some with more cause than others. Folk said he'd left to make his fortune or fled some girl he'd got with child. But Brown Janet knew the Fair Folk had taken him like Tamlane in the song." The jingle of silver bells roused me from the warm straw where Will had left me. Peering through a crack, I saw the glittering fairy court ride by. "She followed."
"Like us. Did she get him back?" Her voice didn't falter. The fairy tales she knew ended with weddings.
"She freed him. But at a price. There's always a price." Auberon smiled. Will you give up what is nearest your heart?
The path sloped to a dim red glow.
"What was the price?"
"He to go, and she to stay." I could not speak of the rest. Below my heart, the old ache stirred.
"That's not fair! She saved him! How come he left without her?"
"She loved him but he didn't love her. It was Fair Elinor, with house and land, that he loved, Elinor he believed had come for him, Elinor's name he called when the glamour fell from him. Likely it was her he married when he returned to mortal lands."
She walked a few paces in silence. "That's really, really not fair. I hope Elinor was mean to him."
"He's dead and gone a long time, my bonny. Elinor too. And Brown Janet still alive, so who's to say who had the best of it?" And I'd found Tomas, truer than any of that name, for my recompense.
"I hear waves. Like the beach. It smells like the beach down there. And something else. Something really stinky." Her voice was muffled. I guessed she'd put a hand over her nose.
I stopped, and Savannah pressed against my side. She was as blind on this side as I'd been once. I crouched. "There's a broad river before us, too deep for you. Up on my back and we'll cross it together."
"Mom said since you got sick you shouldn't pick up me or Devon anymore. I can swim. I got my Super Salmon badge at the Y, remember?"
Fed by war and murder, the river had swollen since I'd waded it. For me as for the Rhymer, it had been knee-deep. I reckoned it now breast-high, over Savannah's head.
"Better you don't swim in this. It's blood, child." Anger surged in me at the cruelty of mankind. I shook my head. Do you think it all done to spite you, Janet? "Come, you carry the tote, and keep our food clean in crossing."
Above the sigh of waves, I heard her swallow. "Yuck." But she hung the bag around her neck without another word, and clambered onto my back.
It cost me to rise. I couldn't straighten, but staggered forward crouching. Old fool, my fears yammered, you'll drown the both of you. Savannah whimpered behind my ear and her hands bit into my shoulders. "It'll -- lift us -- up -- like water -- " I set my feet into the clotted mud. The saying held true, blood was thicker than water, eddying slower. When I'd crossed as a girl of seventeen, it had been a trial for spirit more than body. I'd not been able to keep from wondering whose blood I waded through, soldier struck through with pike, old miser throat-slit, and did their ghosts hang about me?
This time I feared only lest some massacre or battle in the daylight world sent a torrent of blood to overwhelm us. The tide crept over boot-tops, squelching in my wool socks. Its hot coppery stink swept my face. I breathed through my mouth.
As it reached my waist, Savannah's knees pushed into my ribs and her feet tucked high behind my back. Her face pressed against my neck and fluttering gasps told me she too breathed through her mouth. Blood rose from waist to breast. I straightened at last, borne up by the flow. Savannah gave a little moan as blood splashed over her legs, then was quiet.
Not so bad, I consoled myself. With my elf-eye I saw this time the grieving, lusting dead swept down the river, stretching out smoky arms to our spark of life, longing for the flesh that wrapped us warmly, too soon torn from them. Bile rose in my throat. I blessed my forethought in taking the pills for pain and nausea.
Savannah grew heavy and I knew the blood lowered; we neared the far shore. My skirts slapped my legs and Savannah's warm mouth brushed my ear.
"I can walk now." She slipped from my back and splashed in blood only ankle-deep, looking about in wonder. I straightened against groaning muscles and sodden clothes.
The half-light of Elfland, neither day nor dusk, shone about us. No sun nor moon, only haze like low clouds for sky. City neighbours complained that with rain and smog they hardly saw the sun, and I'd bitten my tongue not to say I'd once gone seven years without seeing it.
Leaning on Savannah's shoulder, I emptied blood from my boots and wrung it from my socks. My breathing steadied. "This is the border of their country, a piece of wild land. Later we'll find gardens and orchards. Here they come to hunt. Listen for horns, and be wary."
Past a hillock strewn with thorns, water shone.
"It's a pond, like at the park," Savannah said in relief, and dropped my hand. Blood dripped from her yellow jacket and her boots left wet red prints on the moss.
"Savannah, wait!" I stumbled after, too slow, as she waded in and swished her feet to rinse them. Her face turned back, a question in it. Behind her, long weed-green arms rose, higher than her head, and snatched. A splash and she was gone.
My hand plunged into the tote bag for the silver letter-opener. I dropped the bag as I ran straight into the water, arm lifted and ready to stab. The sandy bottom shelved away and I was swimming, kicking off my boots before they could drag me down. Both eyes open, one seeing Savannah struggling in long ribbons of water-weed, the other seeing Jenny Greenteeth clutching her catch to her bony bosom, grinning with all her pointed teeth.
Slow, slow as in nightmares, I pushed the silver knife through the water and into Jenny's shoulder. Her flesh swallowed the blade like thick mud. Black fronds of blood wavered from the cut. I pulled my hand back to strike again. Jenny screamed bubbles and leapt for the surface, Savannah tucked under her uninjured arm.
"Let her go, Jenny," I shouted as my mouth broke water. "Or this land'll have one monster less, I swear it!"
A dark head bobbed up, yellow hood trailing, and Savannah struck out for the shore. I paddled after, casting wary glances, letter-opener slicing water with each stroke. Savannah stumbled out, coughing and spitting muddy water, then turned to take my hand and help me to my feet.
"You lost your boots," she said numbly, pulling me out of reach of those long arms.
"That I did." I looked over the pond, fat ripples the only sign of battle. "Jenny! There's a pair of fine tall boots in your mud. Take them with my goodwill."
The weedy lump of her head rose through the water, saucer eyes blinking. "Janet? Brown Janet? Gi'en I'd known the maidie was yours, I'd ha' let her go by. Boots, y'say? What would ye have in return?"
"Naught but a bit of a gossip, as neighbours have. It's long since I've walked these lands, and I'd as soon not step amiss, if you take my meaning." Savannah's hand tightened to pinching. I bent to whisper. "Stay by me, we're safe for now."
"It's the doings of the fine folk under the hill ye're askin' about, I wager," Jenny said shrewdly. "Them as trouble us with their mortal pets and playthings. It goes wi' them as ever. They grow fewer, for their babes die without mortal nurses, and their elf-knights too few for their popinjay battles. The realm stinks o' mortals." Mud slid from her face as she grimaced. "For all their dainty ways, the high ones don't mind that stink. Ye stink of death yourself, Janet. Likely they'll welcome ye at court, though they scorn us crooked'uns."
"I'll lessen that stink by taking one back. Did elf-knights ride through with a mortal boy?"
"They did. Janet, are ye after your old tricks? The pitcher that goes oftenest to the well is broken first. Have a care, lass."
"This pitcher's cracked, no great loss. Will it please Auberon, d'you think, to bargain with me? He won before."
Jenny sank without answering. The pond roiled where my boots lay. Beside me Savannah had emptied water from boots and backpack. She wobbled, steadying herself by my hand to pull on the second boot.
I sat on a grassy tussock, and took Savannah into my lap. "You were brave, my bonny, but foolish. Would you run so into a dark alley?" She tucked her head into my breast. Green weed was caught in her tight braids. I picked it out.
"She was gonna drown me." A hiccuping sob. "For real."
"It's what she does. A cat's nature is to kill mice. Jenny Greenteeth's nature is to drown those who come near. No use to blame her, only to be wary."
"You gave her a present!" Indignation, then puzzlement. "You said not to bargain with anybody here."
"A gift isn't a bargain. These folk -- " I sought the right words. "Bargains for them are a, a contest. Something to win. They mostly win against us." I remembered the Great Hall, Auberon beautiful as a statue carved in pearl. Will you give up what is nearest your heart? "But a gift, a gift leaves them indebted. That's worth having."
Her shoulders raised and lowered as she sighed. "The ones that took Devon, is that the ones under the hill? Did they want him for a pet? And why did she say you stink?"
"Come. We've far to go yet. I'll answer while we walk." I shoved the tote's sprawled contents back and gave Savannah a bottle of water to wash her mouth. "There's two sorts of folk here. Jenny's sort, the crooked ones, bogles, brownies, and suchlike. They make mischief, sometimes hurt and sometimes help. Then the fair folk, kings and queens, ladies and knights in their great palace under the hill. They steal mortals."
"For pets?" She pushed the cap down with her chin and dropped the bottle into the tote.
I shrugged. "For servants, for favourites, for champions. We bring cut flowers indoors to please the eye and scent the air while they die. Wait, walk wider around the elder tree."
Swaying under the dim branches, the hanged man opened one empty eye. His teeth clacked greeting. "Bury me, Janet, give me peace. I'll be grateful."
"I buried you when I was here before."
"So ye did. But ye see it didn't last. No shroud, lass, no shroud. I couldn't rest."
"Will this do?" I unbelted my raincoat and draped it over his leathery shoulders. It hid the worst. Savannah dragged on the tether of my hand.
"God speed ye both." His head bobbed in thanks and the strands of hair clinging to his parchment scalp fluttered.
I nodded back and let Savannah pull me on. Her eyes were huge and her hand cold. "Savannah. I was answering your question." She sniffed and looked up. "There's no age or sickness in this country. There's death, you've seen that. The Fair Folk play at wars and tourneys, and kill each other dead as any mortal man. Barring misadventure, they may live forever for all I know, strong and fair as a mortal of twenty years. Mortals here are free of illness and the woes of age, though we do age and at last die."
"But she -- Greenteeth lady -- said they need nurses. Do they get sick?"
I smiled at that. "For us old folk, nurse means someone tending babies, nursing them with milk and love. Fine folk even in mortal lands wouldn't nurse babes when they might be dancing or hunting, so they'd hire some poor woman. The folk under the hill, they're finest of all."
"Devon doesn't need to nurse, not even a bottle except at night."
"They need mortal nurses for their own babes." I puzzled how to explain. "There's -- no kindness in them, no patience. Not the lowest of them would stoop to walk the floor all night with a colicky babe. Without that care, their babes sicken and die as ours would."
Her back stiffened. "Then we hafta get Devon. Soon." She glanced up. "What if they stole other babies? Shouldn't we get them all back?"
I shook my head. "My hinny, we don't know if we'll come alive from this ourselves. Don't fill your hands with more than your back can carry." A black-haired boy, six years old and sturdy, screaming and flailing in my arms, crying that he wouldn't go with me, no, no, he wanted his Lady-mother, not me. The swift, light tread of elven feet as the guards ran up the stairs to the nursery. "For some, this may be the better place."
Savannah turned, startled. "What's that noise?"
I'd missed it, lost in memory. It came again, a long skirl that pulled at heart and soul, cried run to me. My mouth dried, and I swallowed before I could speak. "The horns of Elfland. They're hunting. Run!"
Away from that sweet call to come and be killed, we ran. Moss cushioned my feet, but my stomach knotted with the jolting pace. Savannah could have sprung ahead, light as a hare over the broken ground, but she held tight to my hand, dragging me.
A fluttering, long-skirted shape leapt up. Savannah yelped, falling to her knees. The hanged man teetered on the edge of the grave I'd dug him long ago, dry head cocked questioningly on broken neck-bones.
"Be ye in need, Janet?"
"In sore need," I gasped. "The Hunt's abroad and scented us."
"Then I'll repay ye. This fine shroud smells yet of mortal life. I'll lead them a bonny chase with it."
With a shriek, he whisked off, swishing the skirts of the raincoat against heather and brambles, withered feet printing the moss with tracks like toasting-forks. Savannah brushed dirt from her pant-legs. We trotted into the shelter of scrubby trees.
_____My pace had slowed to a stumble, and Savannah panted. The horns sang behind, nearing at last, no more deceived.
"Could we hide in there?" she whispered. "Or is there something nasty inside?"
The barrow's low door smelled of dust. I could not remember if Auberon's hounds shied from barrows as mortal hounds did.
"There's no other hiding-place. Stay near the entry, for these little hills may be mazes where folk wander for weeks or years."
Savannah slid her backpack off one shoulder. "I got string. We can tie it to that bush and find our way back."
I leaned against the doorpost, exhaustion folding around me like a sodden cloak. "You're wiser than Brown Janet, for she set off empty-handed and barefoot." And came back empty-armed.
She looked up from knotting string around a bare root. "But she didn't have anybody to tell her stuff. Did she?"
I took her hand and we stooped under the lintel into the dark. "She knew stories. Some were true and some false." Like lovers.
Three paces in, the passage grew taller and twisted to the left. We walked it, I with a hand on the earthen wall, Savannah unrolling string. When no light followed, I sat painfully and drew her close. "Wait and we'll hear if the hunt goes by."
Her head rested against my breastbone. "Tell me how Brown Janet saved -- what was his name?"
"William. Will. Oh, she walked up to the Elf-king before all his court. Every one the fairest she'd seen, and King Auberon fairer than any. His hair like strands of moonlight, flesh like pearl, and every step like dancing. She cared nothing for his beauty, looking only for curly hair black as jet, smiling black eyes, and skin like milk over peaches." Savannah stirred impatiently. "He asked would she know her love when she saw him, and brought out an array of elf-knights armoured head to toe, faces hidden under helmets made like heads of beasts and birds and monsters. Which is your love, he asked. Bid them dance, Janet said boldly, let me see them dance. . . ."
Far horns wept, a disappointed hound howled. I waited to hear if they circled back or coursed away. Savannah curled tighter and I wrapped myself around her warmth, wishing for dry clothes.
I woke empty-armed.
Flinging myself forward, I scrabbled on the hard-packed floor, hands clawing, catching crumbs of stone and blown leaves. No child. Only at last the string under my scraped hand. When I tugged, it straggled back. They'd untied it from the root, a parting jest.
I wanted to scream Savannah's name into the smothering black, but checked myself. Reeling the string around my hand, I knew my folly. Sick old woman, Auberon defeated you and bound you to his service when you were young and strong. What hope now?
Hope or not, I'll finish what I've set my hand to. It was no stray sprite took her. No, I know the name. Let's have it out for good and all.
"Auberon!" I shouted. "Elf-king! I'll not wander in the dark for you. If you'd laugh, laugh in my face!"
I stamped my foot three times, muffled against the earth. With a sigh, the mound fell to dust around me, leaving the hunched stones that were its bones. After that dark, the twilight sky dazzled. I blinked. Two knights, one armoured in gold, the other in silver, sat horses caparisoned in green and silver and led a grey palfrey. The golden knight's helm was antlered like a stag-beetle; the silver quivered with the long feelers of a moth, delicately worked. My escort.
Silently, I mounted astride in the elvish fashion, thankful my skirts were wide enough for modesty. The palfrey had no reins. I laced my fingers through its mane and gripped with my knees.
Wilderness gave way to orchards where fruit shone red and yellow amid green leaves, colours deep and muted as a church window. Had they offered Savannah an apple or pear? Had she remembered my warning, faced with goblin fruit unbruised and shining, bursting with sweet juice? But perfect unblemished fruit at any season was no astonishment to a child of her time. I bit my lip against a smile, thinking of the elf-knights confounded.
Through the formal gardens, up the slow rise to the palace hill. All was beautiful as a painted picture, trees and hedges clipped into fantastic shapes, flower and fruit on the same branch. No breeze troubled the perfect order, no bird scarred berry or blossom. Nor did any bird sing, only silver bells on the horses' harness.
We halted at the palace gate. The hill was carved into huge pillars hung with stone vinery and leaves. Behind that arcade lay a pavement of marble and malachite, intricately patterned with birds and fish.
The golden knight dismounted with an easy mortal grace that stabbed my heart with memory. Tucking the beetle-horned helm under one arm, he ran a gilded hand through jet-black curls. His milky skin was flushed from the armour's warmth. I stared, and he turned a cool glance on me. His eyes were brown. Behind him, the silver knight pulled off his helm, showing himself white-haired and golden-eyed as a cat.
Brown eyes and golden eyes, squinched baby faces, my own son and my nursling. The chamberlain gave me a stone jar, saying rub their eyes with this ointment. He wouldn't tell me why. Would it harm a mortal babe? Best try it on myself first, just the one eye, to be safe.
"Madam?" he asked, on the verge of taking offense.
"Be easy." The silver knight clapped him on the shoulder. "She's struck by your beauty, as women always are. Or surprised to see mortal and elf in company."
"You are both fair," I said. "Are you milk-brothers?"
The mortal boy scowled, but his companion only raised a perfect eyebrow. "We are. You know our ways, madam?"
"I was an elf-nurse. Long ago." Forty years. Time ran differently here. Had I stayed, I'd look scarcely older than them. No age or sickness. No need to choke down pills, for the radiation machine's cold muzzle to flood me with killing, healing light. Had I stayed, I'd not be dying.
"You take her in," muttered the golden knight. "I'll see to the horses."
The elf smiled and offered me his arm. "I beg your pardon for my brother's manner, madam."
"I beg his pardon for staring. Only -- he put me in mind of someone I once knew." My hand longed to touch the boy, stroke his flushed cheek, smooth his black curls. I clenched it until the bones ached and it forgot longing.
The Great Hall was green as leaves, green as emerald. Open to the hazy sky, for here no rain fell. The courtiers stirred with my passing, silken clothes shifting and rustling as if a breeze played through a field of grass. My name whispered alongside silver chimes of laughter. Bloody water dripped sullenly from my skirts, and my bare feet left smears of mud on the malachite floor. I set my jaw, wishing for Brown Janet's lost boldness.
Ahead, flanked by spearmen and sheltered by a leaf-brocaded canopy, stood the green carven thrones of Elfland. Auberon sat alone, white and flawless as alabaster, clad in crimson silk, a bulrush sceptre loose in his hand.
I had eyes only for the table set before the thrones, laden with glistening grapes and strawberries, delicate cakes, shaved ice shaped and coloured like brilliant flowers. The scents of marzipan and honey weighted the air.
Savannah huddled on a stool at that table, knees drawn up and arms wrapped around herself. Her face wore the mutinous scowl I knew well. My breath caught up with me. She hadn't eaten.
She jumped up, eyes wide. Star-bright spearpoints dropped to bar the way. I touched my finger to my lips. Keep silence.
"Janet." Auberon had left his throne. The spears fluttered up for his passing. "Your sojourn in the mortal world has left you sadly altered." Laughter rippled through the hall. The sound at least was pretty.
I folded my arms. "Have you set her a task?"
"Not three? Have you forgotten our law and custom? I'm permitted three." He tapped the sceptre to his chin. I had thought it a real bulrush, but it was carved of fine woods and precious stones.
"She's found the way into your country, and refused your bait of goblin fruit. That's two trials passed, by my accounting."
His face twisted with petulance; even that was beautiful. "She did not do so without your help. The elf-sight you gained by stealing our fairy ointment."
I curtsied. "Against so great an adversary as yourself, how should a weak old woman and half-grown girl let pass any advantage? Foolish we are, but not mad."
He smiled. "Very well. One trial it shall be."
Too easy, I thought, and fear tightened my chest.
He returned to Savannah, the spearpoints flashing like a spray of water around him.
"Mortal child, do you know your brother?" His long white fingers reached to cup her chin and she flinched away. A flurry of elfin sighs at this impudence.
Savannah stared at him.
"Discourteous not to reply, but I'll forgive it. I'm a forgiving monarch. Would you know your brother among other children?"
Auberon pivoted on his scarlet heel. His profile was perfect as a king's head on a silver coin, save for the smile. "Bring the babes."
From behind brocaded curtains, elf-women streamed, all fair and clad in white silks. Each carried a bundle, a sleeping child. Each child brown and plump, handsome as baby Krishna, each with the same cluster of black curls.
"Cover Mistress Janet's eyes. She'll not help here."
A silk napkin fell over my face. I reached to pull it away, and my arm was caught in a cold metal grip. One of the knights.
Auberon's voice, singing. "Take as long as you wish, child. Look as closely as you wish. One is your brother, I promise that. The others are -- not."
Savannah's boots slapped on the stone floor, up to the first woman. The sigh of cloth against cloth. Was she pulling the swaddling off? Boots tapped again. A rustle of cloth, quicker, less tentative. Footsteps and cloth sliding. How many elf-women had come forward? A dozen at least. This time a soft indrawn breath I knew for mortal. Savannah's voice, clear and confident. "I found him, Mamma Janet. This one's my brother."
She'd spoken. But not to Auberon or any of his court. Could he claim her on that? The napkin fell from my face. Savannah, walking carefully under the burden, carried a sleeping baby. The spears stood upright as rushes at the riverside. I knelt and embraced her.
Her whisper buzzed in my ear. "His thumb. Only the real Devon got a wrinkly thumb from sucking."
"Clever, clever girl," I whispered back. "You've won this contest. But take care."
Auberon sauntered to us. "A wise child, and not without beauty. A pity we cannot keep them both. Rise and go, the three of you. My knights will escort you." He turned his back and walked to the dais, but I stayed kneeling, fear chilling me more than damp clothes. Savannah tugged at my arm. I shook my head. Too easy.
Auberon leaned from his throne. "Well, Janet? Why don't you take your leave?"
"Your knights haven't stirred a step. They know you have a trap to spring." I rose to face him standing. "Spring it, Majesty."
"Well enough." He tapped his fingers on the arm of the throne, pearl against jade. "The girl stays. She's drunk the waters of Elfland. By law and custom she's ours."
"I did not!" Savannah's cry flew up like a bird over the court's silence.
My guts twisted. "When Jenny dragged you underwater. You must have swallowed a mouthful." I raised my face to the crimson figure on the green throne. "You call the mud and weeds of Jenny Greenteeth's pond fare of Elfland? Taken unwilling, while drowning? Is that law and custom?"
"I am King of Elfland. Who better to read its laws?" He laid the sceptre across his knees.
Savannah pulled at my skirt. When I turned, she lifted Devon to my arms. Trembling with anger, she stepped forward.
"You, you king! That dirty water counts, that's what you say?"
Auberon smiled. "You might have had cleaner food and drink, but you refused it."
"Yeah? Then you have your dirty water back!" She yanked down her violet trackpants. "I'm peeing it out for you, you -- stinky people!"
She squatted. A puddle spread between her pink boots and an acrid smell joined the courtiers' perfumes. She pulled her pants up. I wanted badly to laugh. The hall was deathly still.
Auberon paled, white as bleached bone. "You are ours, and you'll be taught manners." He mastered himself. "Well, Janet, will you bargain? Perhaps your wits have sharpened, and you may save the girl from punishment. What have you to offer? Another seven years of service? I doubt you're with child again."
Savannah, anger supplanted by fear, clung to my waist. Devon weighted my arms. Memory swept over me. The hall, the rustling throng of courtiers, and William, freed from fairy glamour, calling for his Elinor. Not for Janet. Auberon asking, would you have him go free? Will you give up what is nearest your heart?
I'd thought he meant William, dear to my heart though he'd not loved me. To give him up for love's sake. I hadn't known that the one sweet night I'd lain with Will left his seed quickening under my heart.
Yes, I'd said. I give up what is nearest my heart. Let William go to the one nearest his heart. Let him be free and content. Unknowing, I'd given the Elf-king my son. My womb had never borne another. Only at last it bore death, death the doctors fought with drugs and invisible light, shooting through my body like neon through glass, limning my veins with cold fire.
Auberon stirred impatiently. I gave Devon to Savannah, and stepped free of the children.
"No bargain, Elf-king, but a gift. I give freely what you once cheated from me. I give you what lies nearest to my heart."
I opened my arms as if I could tear myself open, show my womb cut away as Auberon's elf-sight had once seen my new-formed babe within. "Sickness, Auberon, wasting sickness. The loss of flesh, hair, beauty, strength, at last of life. I give you death, the crab-cancer lying where my son once curled. My gift to Elfland."
Speaking, I knew it true as any word of the Rhymer's. My death to Elfland, set free to ravage their fair limbs and faces, blight the fruit and rot the root. I free of pain and nausea, free to live out my mortal span. They to pay for my stolen youth, years of servitude, stealing my son's heart and casting me out empty-armed --
As if the thought called him, the golden boy's white face stared from among the elf-knights, clear as through a lens. Only his eyes were mine; the rest was all Will's beauty. He would die with Elfland.
What of it? What's he to you? He denied you as his father did. I want my Lady-mother, he said, not you. Let him die with those he chose.
Auberon stood, trembling. I had not known elves could tremble. A moan rose like wind before a storm, the courtiers crying against doom. Bitter joy filled me.
"Janet." His voice was melodious though the sceptre shuddered like a true bulrush wind-shaken. "I refuse your gift."
"You cannot, Elf-king, by law and custom. This you cannot twist to your liking. There is no refusing a gift."
"Take it back!"
Among the knights, a flash of silver over gold. The elf-boy shielded his mortal brother. Milk-brothers. The strongest bond they knew, stronger than mother and child. It's their nature. Will you punish them for it? The black-haired boy pushed forward, refusing protection. My hand lifted, aching to once touch his face.
Tomas whispered in memory: Forgive. We aren't wise enough to judge, only to forgive.
I turned to the King. "What will you give me to take it back?"
"Name your price."
Warily, Janet, choose your words as if any one of them might turn and bite you. "I and these two children to be given safe escort from your country. All three of us to return to the city we left, within an hour after the time the girl and I left it, on the same night, month and year of our leaving. And the elves not to trouble me, the children, their family or the city itself for," I scrabbled for terms. Not my lifetime, too little left. My head swam with weariness. Finish this. "For a hundred mortal years. In return, I take my death back to myself."
"Done." Auberon stepped closer. Savannah pressed against me and I dropped a hand to her shoulder. "You've taken back your gift. I'll take back ours. You'll see no more of Elfland."
Quick as thought, he snapped the bulrush sceptre at my left eye. No pain at first, only blackness and a hot trickle of blood. Savannah shrieked. I caught her hood to keep her from running at Auberon.
No hall, king, or courtiers, only swirling grey shapes, clots of mist. A thin clash of armour as elf-knights gathered. Savannah pulled forward, slowed by Devon's weight. I pressed my sleeve to my eye and followed the beacon of her jacket.
Gauntletted hands set me on horseback, Savannah before me. I laid an arm around both children and clutched the saddle. We set off downhill. I felt the horse's care to set its hooves, smelt dusty hair and warm sweat. A stolen mortal beast, no tireless elven steed.
"Can you see?" Savannah's voice was hoarse but steady.
"Not Elfland, that's fog. I see you. You must lead until we return to the daylight world." I swayed, head ringing with pain like struck crystal.
A thousand jingling bells on the horses' barding, the beat of hooves on turf, the children's breathing, Devon's slow with sleep, Savannah's broken by sniffs and choked sobs. Then one long deep sigh, and she sang to her brother, voice true and untrained as a bird's, words none ever heard in that land.
"The border of our country, mortals. As far as we agreed to carry you." The children were lifted from the horse. I pulled my leg stiffly over the saddle and slid down unaided to the springy moss.
"My thanks." I reached for Savannah, all that was clear. The knights were tall misshapen shadows.
"I'll take no thanks of yours. May you drown in the river of blood." In elven voices, even curses sang.
Did he think I couldn't turn a curse? "May my body wash up on your shore and all my ills crawl to you, elf-knight."
The jingle of armour and bells as they remounted, the muted drum of hooves.
I tried to set aside weariness, sickness, pain of head and bones. Only the river left. Not so hard a task, only one child more. "Lead me to the edge, Savannah."
"I have an idea. Can you hold Devon?" She pushed the boy at me. I bent to take him, straightening with a groan. Savannah trotted off, backpack sliding from her shoulders.
"I will." She halted, swinging the pack in both hands. Before her a flat space, mist rising, the smell of mud and weed. "Mrs. Greenteeth?"
My hands tightened and Devon whimpered sleepily. Trust her, I thought. She's come this far.
Jenny's voice bubbled. "What would ye, mortal child?"
"I have a present for you. This backpack. There's string in it. And -- and granola bars. Here." Her arm swung back and forward. The pink blur flew into the mist.
No splash. Jenny must have caught it on the fly, long arms snaking out. "A pretty thing. Pink as a flower, a bonny, bonny lass painted on it, all golden hair and smiles. What would ye have in return, child?"
"Only a -- a favour. Like neighbours. That nasty king hurt Mamma Janet, and she's tired. And we hafta get home, across the -- the blood. And you're real strong. I bet you could carry all three of us across, safe as anything."
Jenny chuckled like water through a drainpipe. "A bold lassie and clever-tongued! What d'ye say, Janet, will ye trust me?"
"Aye, for it'll spite Auberon to know us safely crossed, and you'll spite Auberon with all your will." I limped up. "While we cross, I'll tell you how she came to piss on the floor of the King of Elfland's Hall."
Her laughter swelled to a torrent. "That sounds a tale worth three lives. Come!"
Stick-thin shadows of limbs rose from the mist, body and head a dim spider-lump strung in the middle. Savannah choked down a whimper. I drew a fold of blanket over Devon's face, and straddled Jenny Greenteeth's back. Savannah huddled behind, gripping my waist.
I saw neither ground nor river, only smelt blood and felt the lurching roll of Jenny's gait, how she struck out with arms and legs, back humped and head bobbing. I held tight to Devon and a clump of hair, and whispered Savannah's challenge and Auberon's trickery into the muddy twist of Jenny's ear. Her body shook under us, first with outrage at being used in Auberon's strategems, then with laughter.
"Here 'tis, the far shore of Elfland and mortal world above. Fare ye well, Janet and childer. A fine tale, and all the crooked folk shall laugh."
"If you see the Rhymer, ask him will he make a pretty song of it, for Auberon's Hall."
Her laughter followed us up the path. Savannah clung to my sleeve and Devon's blanket.
We stepped out to the stink of exhaust and roar of traffic. Devon woke and cried. The storm railed at us, swirling my skirts around my legs. Everywhere light streamed from cars, buildings and lamp-posts, splashed on wet asphalt and fluttering leaves, shredding darkness.
Once more I'd come barefoot to the city. My right eye was dazzled by the sudden light, but saw spray-painted graffiti. My left was blind. There's always a price. I shrugged, joggling Devon to soothe him. Savannah dashed to the flowerbed and scrabbled in the dirt. She waved my keys.
"Let's go home, Mamma Janet."
"Yes, my hinny. Let's go home."
Halfway back, she spoke. "What should I tell Mom? She won't believe me but I don't wanna lie."
And I to the clinic that afternoon, where they'd for certain ask what I'd done to my eye. "There's always silence, lassie. Always silence."
- END -