Fairies and Elves, Unicorns and Dwarves. It's important to note that here there be dragons--most of them, anyway.
At midnight on her ninth birthday, Alison Marie was crowned Queen of the Nightlands; she decreed that flowers should glow in the dark and that bats should dine with her at supper. At midnight on her tenth birthday, she was named Keeper of the Secret Word, which she whispered to her trusted steed, a giant frog who galloped through the moors. On her eleventh birthday, Alison Marie was worshipped as Goddess of the Sky. She spread her dragon wings each night and breathed the stars to life with fire. But at midnight on her twelfth birthday, Alison Marie became the daughter of a widowed man, and she made no more visits to her other lives.
There is no memory in those worlds, she thought as she touched the cold, papery cheek of her mother's body. And so I shall remain in this world and be a Servant of Death. Objects we have no words for do not exist in the same way as those we do.
That's what the elfmaid said when she handed me the book. She said it slowly, as though I was a child. She said it was the most important thing to understand. She opened her eyes, revealing golden orbs that glittered like stars in the night.
And as the morning sun rose slowly over the northern mountains, black pupils narrowed to slits, and stood like knives, to accommodate the light. Say you've got a problem. Might be big, might be small. Almost always to do with money. Maybe you can't afford to feed your kid. Maybe you can't make the rent. Maybe you've thought about all the different ways to get yourself out of this hole, and they've gotten bigger and crazier--theft and fraud and suicide and murder--and you're just about ready to start trying the worst of them.
Here's what you do. This is a public service announcement brought to you by VFV. Warning: There is a plague of unicorns upon our kingdom. This species has been known to carry off fair maidens and impale those who attempt to slay them.
Whether you are on a royal hunt, or are a sorcerer in need of a magical horn, be aware: unicorns can be cunning, dangerous, and deadly. Do not be fooled by the beauty and elegance of these creatures, nor their air of innocence and purity encouraged by the princess community. They are in fact depraved and horny beasts who breed like rabbits; hence the reason they have overpopulated the forests and now run amuck in small villages, consuming crops and terrorizing the countryside. Those horned stallions have their pick of the best maidens and use magic to seduce them. Worst of all, they trample over the dignity of the common man. All must do their part in ridding our kingdom of this invasive herd. When the Bargain was first made--so the stories went--the leaves on the trees had just turned. The world was dressed in rubies and gold, and autumn rains darkened wood to ebony. But each Bargain lasted a year and a day. As the seasons cycled, the day of sacrifice crept through the winter. This year, a spring ice storm sheathed the sprouting branches and new leaf buds in a silver thaw. From everywhere, crystalline brilliants flashed and winked.
The Sacrifice stood on the approach to the Keep, though neither of them deserved their titles. Enid was just a scared girl, and the keep was less like a dwelling built by men and more like the cocoon of some great larval insect. Brittle, colorless stone dribbled down from an amber-glass dome to grip at the hilltop like the fingers of a keloid scar. The entry causeway stretched before her like the gullet of the great beast she was slated for. "No, sir, I don't think your problem is with the fridge elf." I watched the technician bend his thin frame behind the refrigerator as he spoke, flashing his light through the cooling fan into the inner recess of the unit. "He looks pretty happy. He's got himself satellite TV and a case of Fritos. If the writer's strike isn't over when football season wraps up, you might have a problem, but you should be fine in the meantime. He doesn't have a clue about anything going on around here."
I recalled the nametag on the technician's blue coveralls had read "Ed." Ed shifted to his stomach, peering into the inch between the linoleum flooring and the bottom of the refrigerator. "Ah ha! Just as I suspected," he said triumphantly. Jonathan ate elves because they were high in protein and vitamin B, and he fed them to his wife for the same reason. She was three months pregnant and couldn't stomach most foods; only elves satisfied her without bringing on a ripple of nausea in her belly.
He prepared them for her like a tuna fish sandwich, chopping the cooked meat into small, moist chunks and mixing it with mayonnaise and a blob of sweet relish, then smearing the resulting paste between slices of toasted Wonder Bread. Ellandra followed the unicorn deeper and deeper into the dying wood. She saw it only as flashes of white in the sunlight that filtered through the brown leaves, but it had to be a unicorn. Unicorns maintained the balance in the world, and her land was dying before its time. They couldn't allow this to continue.
Ellandra stopped to rest at every tree, her thin chest aching with each breath. Her legs trembled beneath her, and her hands were weak and clumsy, clutching at crumbling bark. In the days when fairies were still to be found in the world, and wishes could come true, there lived a wishwriter and his wife. The wishwriter was a clever man, but plain, and born with a twisted back that made him stoop. His wife was beautiful, gentle and generous, and she loved him just as he was.
The wishwriter was happy, for this was just as he had wished. His wife contented herself that her husband, too, was gentle and generous, and it did not hurt her to love him. After graduation, still in the white dress the school made all the girls wear, you go down to the lake to see the mermaids. It's a long walk: through the backyard of your father's house to the woods, over the neighbors' gate, down the lane and under the bridge and across the irrigation ditch. This early in the summer, the grass in the meadow is knee-high and still green, and the tangle of vegetation down the slope of the hill smells damp and alive. Along the lakeshore, the mud sucks at the heels of your new white sandals, bought to match, until you take them off and hook the straps around one wrist. They've left the start of blisters in two spots, on the top of each foot.
The grotto where the mermaids live is on the far side of the lake, far past where most people bother to go. There's a path, but it's not much more than a deer trail, and you remind yourself to bring the hedge clippers, the next time you come. The raspberry canes will creep across the path, otherwise, and they're prickly. She married the dragon when she was only twenty.
She kept her hand on his head throughout the ceremonies, holding it absolutely still in fear that his sharp scales would cut through her skin. A human priest, then a dragon officiant--did dragons have priests? She would have to find out--performed the twin ceremonies beneath the moons, first human, then dragon, then the signing of the bond, dragon and human. The dragon let the village tavern keeper feed her the traditional honey bread and wine. She gave him the tiny garnet, all that the village could afford, smaller, she knew, than the great gems the dragons exchanged when they wed, dragon to dragon. She knelt as he blew flames across her head. He stayed still as she placed the gentlest of kisses on his scaly nose. She tasted blood as she stepped away. The villagers applauded politely; the dragons blew flames against the wind. Everyone knows that humans shouldn't eat or drink when visiting Faerie, but no one's quite sure why.
I searched the internet and found a bunch of different theories. Maybe you'll end up trapped forever, enslaved to whoever fed you. Maybe you'll get transformed into some hideous beast. Maybe you'll starve to death, never able to eat human food again. Or maybe it's some combination of all the above. I pestered my faerie--well, half-faerie--boyfriend for answers while he filled my cracked vinyl lunchbox with human food, but Maelon refused to explain and finally demanded, "Look, do you want to meet my parents or not?" She thought that The Machine would be easy compared to unstitching a tesseract. She didn't know when the creation had earned itself a name, complete with capital letters, but as she peered into another of the supplementary power coils, she thought it was around the same time she created her lab coat.
Every scientiste she'd read about, whether they studied the algedonics of whales south of the tropic of cancer, or were engineers developing bronze bas-reliefs to commemorate the fifteenth moon landing, deserved a coat to mark proficiency in their study. The invaders kicked down the gate in the village stockade. Eurwen heard the crowd behind her moan in fear, but did not allow herself to flinch as the flimsy barrier crashed to the ground. She raised her hand, as much to still her own heart as to calm her people.
The soldiers marched into the village in perfect step. They moved like wolves, their weight centered and low. As they neared, Eurwen fought to control her rising dread. The rumors of the dragon's army were true. Each man was inhumanly handsome. Mellitraxa stirred in her sleep, and the bed of coins shifted beneath her. In her dreams she was a young wyrmling; the coins numbered only in the hundreds, and failed even to fully line the cavern. The soapstone slab where she rested her head lay on the floor of the mountain hollow, with almost nothing else beneath it. When the clank of metal roused her, she woke relieved at the comfort of a full cavern, the gold coins polishing her scales as she rose and stretched. She extended her talons, and they sunk deep into the shifting bed.
The human looked ridiculous, as they always do. The metal plates on his body made him look like a crab or an insect covered in chitin beneath his flowing surcoat. "Hold, foul beast," said the crab-man. "Prepare to die." Matthew spent half the morning removing rocks from the western fields before he felt the first rumblings through the soles of his feet. He looked up to see a cloud of dust moving quickly down the dirt road in his direction. The ground shook harder and harder as it approached until he had to crouch just to keep from falling over.
It stopped on the point of the road nearest to him, and when the dust cleared, he saw a dragon bigger than his house. It was covered in a thick layer of road dust, which made it seem all the more real. Stranger than that, shields of every shape and size were strapped over every inch of its body. A belt spanned its waist with a lance in a scabbard, and a huge black cauldron served as a helmet, the handle tucked securely under its chin. I appreciate your showing up. I know. Putting that ad onto OKCupid probably wasn't the best way to deal with this. I just... I didn't know where to turn for help. Maybe I should have just explained outright, but I was worried you might not come. I'll tell you everything, I will.
It started with the caterpillars. Seriously. Izam's fingers moved on their own. They found his sunken chest. And counted his ribs.
His father would have slapped his hand away. A stupid habit of a stupid boy. A stupid starving boy who counted his ribs when he was hungry even though it only made him hungrier. Izam knew it was stupid but he could not help it. He was so hungry.
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