Copyright © 2013 Alex Beecroft
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
He reached out to the nearest bin and grabbed the handle, paused before lifting it. There was still time to walk away. Hadn’t he got enough trouble of his own already?
Well yes, he did. A moment of sharp joy surprised him with its cutting edge. Did he really have anything left to lose? No. That meant a certain freedom. Wherever he went from here, it could hardly get worse. He grabbed the bin with the other hand too, lifted it away, and stood for a long time looking down, sucker-punched into silence, even his mind shutting down in the face of the impossible.
Because he was far too much of a Tolkien fan not to recognise what he saw. He was just not enough of a dreamer to believe it. Oh yes, he’d told himself, “You never know.” The folklore had always been there, surprisingly consistent from country to country. People in Iceland believed enough to still leave sacrifices for the creatures, but…
But Joel hadn’t realised how firmly he disbelieved until this moment, when he found himself looking down on what was unmistakably an elf.
Of themselves, his hands came up to cover his nose and mouth. He rebreathed his own air, warm and reassuring, for a while, as his already queasy stomach curled and turned over.
It was white, the creature. Whiter than paper, its face and outstretched hands gleaming like snow under moonlight, and its hair behind it like a comet’s trail, silver as a falling star. The tunic and trousers it wore must once have been equally white—even now they glimmered with threads of silver. Its moonstone belt and baldric gleamed and flickered as it breathed.
But the knees of the trousers were torn out, and spatters of blood showed stark around them. Rips and long scuffs of dark London dirt cratered the radiance of the tunic, and everywhere it touched the ground it had soaked up the decomposed brown liquid from the bottom of the bins, sticky and stinking and wrong.
“Nhn,” said Joel at last and lurched closer as if tugged. He bent down, caught—in the middle of the reek—a faint scent like primroses after spring rain. Saw the long, twisting burn, raised and livid on the skin of the creature’s hand and arm, and his face with the brows still creased in pain and lashes like silver wire and lips as white as clouds. “Oh…”
It didn’t require belief to reach down and carefully, carefully in case his skin stung it, or his strength crushed its spun-glass delicacy, to brush his fingertips along its cheek. A little colder than human skin, a little sleeker, but the firmness was the same, as though bones and muscles still filled it out from within. He curved his hand around the half-open mouth and felt its breath like a cool breeze against his palm.
“All right, this is…this is officially not happening,” he told it as he knelt down and got a hand under one of its shoulders. Oh, not good. Where he couldn’t see, his fingers sunk into a wet mess of blood. He almost dropped it, shifted his grip clumsily, and hauled the torso into his arms. “I want you to know I don’t believe any of this, but you’re hurt and I guess I can’t take you to the hospital. And I can’t leave you here. So…”
With one arm around the creature’s back, he wormed the other under its long, slender legs, firmly told his trembling body to shape up, and lurched to his feet. It weighed more than he’d expected from something so ethereal—less than a healthy young man, but about the same as a slender young woman. At the jerk of the lift, its brows pinched in further. It gave a little musical gasp of protest or pain.
“Ssh,” Joel murmured, almost involuntarily protective. Something that beautiful ought not to look so distressed. It violated the moral code of the universe. “It’s all right. I’ve got you. You’re safe now.”
A few burdened steps to the archway, and he paused as he made sure no one was around to watch him bridal-carry this white and alien thing into his home. Then out into the street, a struggle and fumble with his keys as he tried to open the door without dropping his burden. Another quick look around and he made it into his flat unobserved, kicking the door to behind him, snapping on the lights with his chin.
“All right,” he said again, lowering the long form of his guest to lie sprawled and filthy over his faded yellow duvet. “Everything’s going to be—”
The moment the wounded shoulder touched the bed, the creature gave a raw, gasping whine of pain. Its eyes flew open, wide, gold—gold like the eyes of lions and just as pitiless—and it shoved him hard in the chest with its uninjured hand. He flew across the room as though a horse had kicked him, slamming into the sink and falling winded to the floor, nothing but vacuum inside him for a moment until the paralysis of shock wore off and he could whoop in a bitter, resentful breath.
A faint footfall and light on his downcast eyes. He looked up, found the creature standing disdainfully over him, a knife of glass in its left hand, the right still cradled against its chest. “You touched me! You touched me! You filthy, sacrilegious…”
The knife glittered white shards of light into Joel’s aching head. He should force himself up. He’d defeated one knife fighter today already. Why not another? He should…
Inexplicably, suicidally, and desperately badly for his badass image, he put his head in his hands and started to cry.
Kjartan’s knife whispered to him. Just there, where the ear stood above the jawbone, there he could push in the point and a single curving cut would all but sever the impious creature’s head from its backbone. The blade’s voice sang under his fingers with a sweet, thin tone that rang around his aching head and seemed to boil his eyes in their sockets.
But for all the stories about humans, for all the warnings about their treacherous nature, their uncanny abilities, not even he could persuade himself that this one—crouched in a huddle on its knees before him with tears leaking out from behind its sheltering fingers—was honestly a danger to him.
The knife whined with disappointment as he slid it back into the sheath strapped to his arm, and that was hard enough. But when it fell silent, all his pains gave tongue, and the knowledge of agony went over him like a sheet of lightning. He staggered backwards and his knees collided with a soft sleeping platform. Sinking down to sit on it, he saw the stains where he’d lain, and the stench of human on the bedding was the same stink as that of the man before him.
He let you rest on his bed.
Kjartan groped for his knife again, fingers hard against the reassuring bump beneath his sleeve. There were two explanations for that, and one of them he liked very little. “What do you want from me, human? I warn you, I am a prince of my people. If you touch me again, uninvited, I will skin you and write satirical verses on the leather.”
The man choked on his tears and coughed the water out. Then the cough became a laugh, and the laugh became a spasm, his brown face flushing purple, his eyes shining out with a kind of fear. It persisted so long Kjartan became afraid that he was under some sort of paralytic spell. So painful to watch was it that he drew back his uninjured hand and slapped the man hard on his cheek.
Oh, how strange. He looked at his hand—the skin had felt rough as though it was covered all over with fine bristles. The laughing fit having stopped, the human now knelt, breathing hard, blinking its reddened eyes and watching him. Kjartan deemed it safe enough to shuffle forward and indulge his curiosity by peering at its face. It did! It had little black spikes all over its jaw that caught the light and glinted like jet. He reached out and touched them with exploratory fingertips. They were not made of stone, but apparently of coarse hair. They had a grain, like a dog’s hair, smooth if he stroked one way, resisting him if he pulled the other.
The creature looked up at him with a new kind of fear in its muddy brown eyes and a curiosity that matched his own. How strange to think that just as it was wondrous to him, so he was wondrous to it. A delightful thought.
He smiled, and it echoed the expression. It had not yet tried to kill him, or imprison him and put him on display, or overpower and ravish him, one of these three things having been what he expected when he woke to find it leaning over him. Now he wanted to know what it would do. If given its will and choice.
“Um…” it said, rubbing the heel of its hand across its eyes to dash away the tears. “So you speak English. That’s going to make things easier.”