“Where was I?” said Ed. “Ah yes. So Rosco and I galloped into the woods down the paths that we both knew so well, in pursuit of the voices that called me. Now, Alice does make a good point, that I had reason to be afraid, although not of trolls. Rather, I should have feared the envy of men, poking, prodding, conniving men, ever bent on bottling lightning and ever shocked by their own vain efforts. But blinded by desire, I urged Rosco ever faster into the heart of the woods, into paths we had never yet traveled. The singing grew louder. Then, all at once, the trees opened up into a wide meadow and my heart leapt. For I expected to see some great elven feast laid out in some sylvan banquet hall formed of the trunks of oaks and ashes. There, I would run into the arms of my kindred. They would speed me to the house of my parents.
Instead, I saw a single man, in a black, hooded cloak at the far end of the meadow. He chanted into a large, silver horn, the size of a horse. As he saw me, he leapt away from the horn, and the beautiful singing ceased.
‘We’ve got one!’ he cried. Several men also cloaked in black, bearing long swords emerged from either side of the meadow with a great cry. Rosco reared up on his hind legs, and I fell to the earth.
I awoke in a dark cell on a dirt floor that smelled of beasts. My hands and feet were fettered in chains to the wall and the back of my head pulsed in agony. For many hours, I did not speak. I lightly pressed my head against the stone wall in an attempt to soothe the pain. I began to realize that I must sit in the dungeon of some highwayman who posed as some fairy of the forest to draw in his prey. Where was Rosco? Had he escaped?
‘You bear a blade of the king,’ said a nasally voice from the shadows beyond the bars of my cell. For the first time, I noticed that two dots of light had gleamed in the dark ever since I had awoken. Only then, did I realize a man had watched me for half a day or night. I knew not which.
‘You bear a blade of the king,’ he continued. ‘The king of whom I seek my due. You will tell me where he is.’
‘The king?’ I said, my voice raspy with thirst. ‘What king?’
The man threw something through the bars at my feet – my water skin. I drank for a full minute.
‘The king of the elves,’ he said. ‘You are acquainted, I am sure. Where does his city lie? Where does he hide?’
‘I have no idea,’ I said.
‘Do not make this more difficult than it must be!’ the man shouted, striking the iron bars of the cell with some blade. ‘Where is the king? I have ways of finding out this information from you, whether you give it willingly or not. Think on your situation; I will return tonight and you will tell me where the king hides.’
The two points of light vanished. I drank the rest of the water and fell asleep. Hours later, how long I knew not, I awoke to a light tapping against the far wall of my cell. I jumped to my feet, terrified that I was not alone. I fell to the ground as my chains tripped me.
‘Sorry,’ said a low voice about ten feet away from me. ‘I only just woke up myself. I did not realize they had brought me a cellmate. Are you alright?’
‘Yes, I said, but my head hurts a little. So this brigand has tricked you as well? How long have you been here?’
‘Brigand?’ said the voice, chuckling. ‘Brigand? He is no mere brigand. Have you not guessed? Do you not know?’
‘Know what?’ I said.
‘You dwell in the dungeons of the Elfcatcher, the enemy of old.’
‘Yes. Did you think him a mere tale told to children? Like some troll under a bridge? For I bear the marks of his torture on my body. Only one hand have I now; for my other is sundered for his study. He is a cunning bard, no? Weaving the songs of our people beneath the oaks and ashes that have long served as our meeting places.’
‘Then, you are an elf?’ I said, hope rising in my heart.
‘An elf?’ said the voice dryly with laughter. ‘An elf? Well, yes I am, a jolly old sprite of the woods! I shall speed Sir Orfeo along his way with my song and help out old Merlin and King Arthur with their quests before sundown. Am I an elf? I might puke! Is this some kind of a joke? A joke? Here in the dungeons of the Elfcatcher, you play the jester?’
‘Well, what would you have me call you?’ I said, exasperated.
The voice did not speak for a moment.
‘You make me wonder whether you are even a son of the fair folk after all,’ whispered the voice. ‘Whether I should not speak to you at all. You could hardly trespass a worse taboo than call me an elf. Still, the Elfcatcher does not cage any but the fair folk in his halls beneath the earth. You are a riddle, stranger.’
‘Well, you see,’ I said. ‘I was found by men as an infant and lost to my true mother in a storm.’
‘We are all men,’ said the voice. ‘Were not the daughters of the fair folk upon a time given in marriage to the wise kings of old? And did they not have children? Have you ever heard of creatures of two different kinds having offspring? Does the dog mate with the cow? No. And you shall not name us by the slur “elf” as though we are lesser, as though we are some creature of the imagination like a sphinx or a winged horse.’
The voice chuckled.
‘We are all men,’ he said.
‘Then why do you call him the Elfcatcher?’ I said.
‘Because,’ said the voice. ‘So he is. A wretched man chasing after a fairy tale immortality that does not exist and never did. And even we who live longest of those who walk the earth do not even know the reason God has so blessed us like the ancients of the Bible. Nor do we wish to. The Elfcatcher is so named in mockery.’
We sat in silence for a few minutes. Then, the voice said, ‘Now it is my turn to ask a question. What is your name and what is your errand that you should find yourself in the grips of the evilest man of the age?’
‘I am Edmund, son of Leofric, Leofric who is the captain of the guard in the village yonder,’ I said. ‘A woman found me as a babe in the woods during a great storm long ago and so I came to dwell in the village. I rode hither in search of my parents after hearing a song of the forest that was to my ears as honey to a bee. And now I feel a fool. For it was all an illusion. And who is to say whether you are even one of the folk of the forest. For you could just be some madman waylaid long ago by common burglars who now tells himself fairy tales in the dark for his comfort.’
I regretted my words as soon as they passed my lips. For I recalled the words of my captor about the king of the elves; my cellmate was not mad. He cleared his throat. In the dark, I heard his chains rattle as he drew himself up to his full height.
‘I am Vainamar, son of Vainamarin, and I am the captain of the king’s guard,’ he said. ‘Yes, even the king of the fair folk. And I shall teach you the meaning of respect ere we part. Ten years have I dwelt in this dungeon, tortured day and night by the enemy of my people, only to be chided by some upstart Elfcaller from a backwater shantytown of the east forest. You shall not hear from me again, not unless you fetch the keys to this cell and free all who dwell herein. Good night or good day. I do not care. Good luck, Elfcaller.’
My heart sank. I apologized, but Vainamar did not stir. After a few minutes, I fell asleep once more. An hour later, I awoke to a hiss from the shadows beyond the bars of our cell.
‘Have you decided, then?’ said the Elfcatcher. ‘Will you reveal to me the kingdom of the elves?’
‘Even if I wanted to,’ I said. ‘I couldn’t. Perhaps the blade you took from me does belong to some elf king somewhere, and perhaps it does not. But that’s not where I got it at any rate. And perhaps I myself am what you call an elf, but that is not how I grew up. For I was a foundling. A man of the village Dunverwich yonder raised me all my life. The dagger of which you speak was found near me as an infant and gifted to me. I never had anything to do with elves until I went out for a simple ride in the woods a couple of nights ago. Then, I found myself in this nasty cell of yours. If you please, I wish you would reunite me with my horse and bid me on my way with such provisions as will feed me until I return to my home. Thank you.’
The Elfcatcher began to chuckle, first in little spurts, and then in booming guffaws of laughter that echoed in the dungeon.
‘None but the fair folk gather to my horn,’ he said. ‘You are an elf. For the secret of drawing them to me I discovered long ago. At least that secret I have uncovered. But I feel your tale is too unique to not hold some truth. My men will inquire in Dunverwich about the foundling you make yourself out to be, and we will learn the truth. In any case, you will not leave. I will find use for you, as I do all my slaves.’
I began to tremble. Across from me slept a warrior who had not escaped in a decade. I was barely a man and feared for my limbs. I longed to sit by the fire in the great hall of our village, where dungeons such as this were as distant as dwarves in the dark recesses of a mountain in a tale told by the most fanciful of bards.
I clasped my hands and began to pray to the Lord’s Prayer in a whisper.
‘So you think God will help you?’ said the Elfcatcher. For he had not left after all.
‘God works to help all men in all places,’ I said.
‘Then, you would not like my most recent guest,’ he said, and I saw the white gleam of a wide smile in the dark.
‘And who may that be?’
‘A witch!’ said the Elfcatcher. ‘A witch of such fame and such power that she shall reveal to me the elf king! And all of the secrets he has long kept from man in his greed.’
‘Well now,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t go having anything to do with a witch if I were you.’
‘I thought you would say something like that,’ said the Elfcatcher. ‘Against your religion isn’t it? To wield such power as a sorceress does! And pray tell, why not look into the secrets of magic if the fair folk will not reveal the secrets of long life?’
‘Well, to start,’ I said. ‘A witch doesn’t wield any power of her own, though she may think she does. Why, she’s just an ordinary old lady who speaks nonsense into the night, seeking control of what she has no business controlling, if you understand me.’
‘Ah,’ said the Elfcatcher. ‘So you think there is no such thing as magic. But what if she attains real power in so doing, oh foundling. What then?’
‘Well that’s just it, sir. It’s not her power. Whether she knows it or not, she’s just gabbing away with the evil one. And he can only do what God permits. Pray to God then for whatever He has to give, sir, whether suffering or happiness; do not speak any spells. There are good men and there are evil men in the world and it’s only common sense as says there are good spirits and there are evil spirits too. You do not know what you invite into your life when you grope about for hidden powers in the night. Anyways, that’s what my priest always says.’
The Elfcatcher was quiet for a moment.
‘You speak as one with wisdom,’ he said. ‘And I would fain speak with you more of this. But I must attend to other matters. Do not speak too much with your friend here while I am gone. His mind is quite addled.’
The Elfcatcher chuckled; his footsteps echoed down the passage.
‘I’ll help you find the elf king!’ I called after him. ‘Just don’t go having anything to do with some old witch!’
‘Well are you going to talk to me, now?’ I said to Vainamar. ‘Are you done with your little tantrum?’
‘Elfcaller and now Elftraitor,’ said Vainamar.
‘It’s not as if I actually know where your king is,’ I said. ‘And haven’t you read any stories? Don’t you know the quickest way out of a jail is making friends with the jailer?’
Vainamar said nothing. One of the Elfcatcher’s servants slipped us a couple of loaves of bread, some salted meat as tough as leather, and two bowls of water.
‘I’ll have a mutton pie next time,’ I said. ‘With a side of boiled potatoes and a pint of ale!’
‘You’ll not get anywhere with them,’ said Vainmar. ‘Not unless you intend to sink to his level and lie and deceive your way out of here.’
‘Oh no, I meant what I said,’ I replied. ‘I’ll gladly help that Elfcatcher find the fair folk if it means he won’t go courting the devil any more than he already has.’
‘You would reveal our kingdom to him, him who would hold a dagger to the throats of our children? Now you are the madman, Edmund son of Leofric!’
‘It’s not all that bad if he found out is it?’ I said. ‘What’s the Elfcatcher and his henchman compared with all the armies of the king of the fair folk?’
‘The Elfcatcher is nothing,’ said Vainamar. ‘But it is not only the Elfcatcher who would be at our gates were he to discover us. Do you not know that every mortal king laments the day when his grandsire ceased to receive our emissaries in his court? Do they not ache for the wisdom we once shared out of the depths of our long lives? Does not the Elfcatcher in secret woo their hearts with fantasies of the days of old? Nay, we would not find only the Elfcatcher at our gates. We would find an alliance of kings of such strength as has not marched since the fell creatures walked the earth. And we would lose.’
‘Then, there are fell creatures? Like what?’ I said, with a gasp.
‘Some say yes and some say no. Those greatest in our lore say yes, but even they have their doubts. If ever there were such creatures as goblins, or dragons and the like, they have not harassed us in some tens of thousands of years. But that matters not now. The Elfcatcher is crafty. He would not assail our kingdom without aid.’
We sat in silence for about a half an hour, brooding over our prospects. At last, an idea struck me.
‘How long has he searched for the kingdom of the elves?’ I said.
‘At least five decades, maybe more,’ said Vainamar. ‘But you must understand that the current Elfcatcher is not the first. He hunts us as his father hunted us and his grandfather. ‘Tis a trade passed down from father to son for at least five generations. Of course, our captor would have us believe that he is the very same Elfcatcher that hunted us two hundred years ago. For this reason he goes about hooded in black. He styles himself as though he has already discovered immortality. But he is only a pretender.’
‘Then you would say that he desires to find your kingdom more than anything else?’
‘Have you not been listening to me? Are you a fool in addition to being an impolite oaf?’
‘He is a man parched,’ I said. ‘He has spent his life thirsting for this knowledge. Do you think it is within his power to refuse it?’
Vainamar rattled his chains, groaned, and said, ‘I will not reveal the kingdom! For ten years have I sat here and–’
‘Does he have the power to refuse the location of the kingdom, if offered?’ I said.
Vainamar was quiet for a moment.
‘No,’ he said.
‘Even if we named some small conditions? Even if we said he must go with us at once with no more than a few of his men?’
‘You are cunning, foundling,’ said Vainamar, through a smile. ‘Yes, perhaps two centuries of pining for our homeland would drive the Elfcatcher to accept our terms.’
‘And he would have no time to warn or bring any allies,’ I said. ‘And once we arrived at the gates–’
‘The arrows of the fair folk would pierce him,’ said Vainamar.
‘Do you think it will work?’ I said.
‘What is the alternative?’ said Vainamar with a sigh. ‘Lose our limbs in this dungeon until we are naught but heads and hearts?’
‘The problem is,’ I said. ‘I had never even been outside of the forest around my village. And here I am laying plans against the man you say is the evilest of our age. I can find sage in the rocks under a cliff well enough, or pick out St. John’s wort in a farmer’s field, but I don’t know anything about tricking an Elfcatcher.’
‘We will not trick him,’ said Vainamar. ‘I would not suffer you to lie. You will tell him the truth. We do intend to lead him to his beloved “elves.” Do not second guess yourself in such a foul place as this, lest some villain come upon you and persuade you into second guessing what you hold most dear. Even a foundling must have heard the fable of the Worrier.’
When I said nothing, he said, ‘Then you truly are more sheltered than a newborn.’
‘Well, who was he?’ I said. ‘Some great warrior of the forest folk?’
‘Nay. Worrier, I say. Not warrior. That is the jest. For, all his life, the Worrier desired to fight in the wars of the fair folk upon the trolls of the north. Night and day, he read scroll after scroll of our lore, deep in the caverns beneath our kingdom where it is said there was once a great library. Greater than all of our loremasters he grew in his knowledge of the heroes of old, of their war on the troll-king of the north, and of the follies that slew them all. Ere long, the Worrier could not walk past a single oak tree without remarking how it paled in comparison to its ancestors long dead. Soon, even the Worrier’s own steps began to offend him. His mother dotingly called him the Warrior. But the fair folk called him Worrier. When he marched to battle at last, he froze. For he could not strike his enemy without great thought on all he had read. When the troll struck him, the troll’s blade did not bite flesh, but stone. The Worrier froze in his worries, and the troll shattered him into a thousand pieces. Thus, it is a proverb, “Mind not the shards of the Worrier.”’
‘Well, that can’t have actually happened,’ I said.
‘Did I not call it a fable? Even so, do not doubt everything you hear in stories told of long ago. People do not remember lies so easily. And besides, will not some upstart three thousand years hence think of you as a creature of myth beyond all credulity?’
I ate the last of my bread in silence. We agreed that I would propose our terms to the Elfcatcher when I next spoke to him. Vainamar fell asleep, but I lay awake for a while as images of a great subterranean library danced before my eyes.
‘Mind not the shards of the Worrier,’ I said to myself, as I closed my eyes.
‘Then Vainamar has been telling tales, has he?’ said a voice from beyond the cell.
The voice was not that of the Elfcatcher, but deeper. The speaker drew near to the bars of the cell until I could make out a pale face and bright blue eyes.
‘Think not so little of our knowledge of the lore of the forest, foundling,’ he said. ‘The master would have you dine with him. Follow me.’
With a clank of keys, the man opened the door to the cell and unlocked my fetters. I glanced at Vainamar to see if he was awake. Perhaps we could overpower the man and make our escape. The man laughed.
‘Vainamar knows that even if he killed every guard in this dungeon he would not find the way out of our little maze.’ said the man. ‘He has tried it. For I am not the first of my office. And after all he has another hand to lose. Now, come.’
The man led me down a stone passage lined with cells like our own, only no one dwelt in them. Through a small slit in the far wall of each cell, the moon cast a dim ray of light which seemed as though it had already reflected off of many walls before it ever reached the dungeon. The man pushed me into a dark corner. I could not even see my hands in front of me as I groped about for some handhold.
‘Fear not,’ said the man, his huge hands upon my shoulders, turning me left and right. ‘I know the way.’
We walked fast, almost at a jog, down corridor after corridor. I tried to mark the way we came but lost count of the turns at fifteen. I pressed my shoulder against a wall to regain my balance, but the man pushed me onward.
‘Almost there,’ he whispered in my ear. After several more turns, he drew back a black curtain in front of me to reveal a large banquet hall lined with torches on either side. The Elfcatcher’s servants had laid out all manner of food on a long, mahogany, candlelit table. My eyes feasted on roasted lamb, blackened trout, loaves of rye bread, turnips, carrots, and goblets of red wine. The scent of cinnamon and ginger reached my nose. Behind the table, wide, arched windows revealed the tops of pines against a starry sky. I perceived that in the maze we must have steadily climbed an incline until wereached in some upper room of a castle. For the walls of the banquet hall were stone and the ceilings vaulted, high above our heads.
‘Have a seat!’ said a man who sat at the head of the table, in a familiar voice. ‘You are most welcome!’
The man was tall. His hair and eyes were brown, and his smile was warm. He wore a red linen tunic lined with gold at the sleeves and neck. As I looked into his eyes, I felt comforted, as if I could share any secret and he would never tell a soul. To my surprise, not only was his voice familiar, but also his very look, as if I had seen him many times before, though perhaps he had not seen me.
‘You are most welcome!’ the Elfcatcher said again, raising his hands. I made my way past the other guests and sat at the seat to his left. Nine of us sat around the table. The others wore garb similar to their host. He raised a glass and said, ‘To the foundling!’
‘To the foundling!’ they all repeated. At once, they began to eat. I must confess that I hungered more than I had yet in my short life, and after saying a silent blessing, I began to gorge myself on the better portion of a pig.
‘I’m terribly sorry for your harsh quarters,’ said the Elfcatcher, after a few minutes. ‘We’ll have to arrange something better for you. And don’t mind my pestering you earlier about some elf king. I get in such moods. Guthrum here wants to let my blood over the whole episode– says my temperament isn’t right.’
My host turned to a portly, bald man with a gray beard who gave me a stern look.
‘Where did you find him again, Eadric?’ said Guthrum.
‘Our guest and I met on the outskirts of Dunverwich in the east forest,’ said Eadric, the Elfcatcher. ‘What a beautiful night it was, full of songs and stars!’
‘Dunverwich!’ said Guthrum. ‘Now, there’s a name I haven’t heard in years. Do you still sup with the lord there on occasion? Is he agreeable to our designs?’
I dropped the goblet from which I drank.
‘Are you alright?’ said Eadric, dabbing my tunic with a napkin. ‘That reminds me! We don’t know your name!’
‘Ed,’ I muttered.
‘Ah yes, that’s right,’ said Eadric, arresting my eyes with his gaze. ‘Edmund son of Leofric, now I remember. This is not our first meeting, is it? But never mind! Now is not the time for business! Now is the time for merriment among friends!’
Guthrum raised his goblet, and said, ‘Hear, hear!’ He broke out into a song. I still remember the first few lines:
In the halls of the Elfcatcher,
The oldest man alive,
Nine friends sing on without care,
For none of us shall die!
For soon a man shall walk the paths
That lead to elvenkind!
Nine friends shall drink the fount of life
And leave our deaths behind!
As Guthrum sang, the other guests joined in and beat their fists on the table. A minstrel with a lyre emerged from a side passage. My host squeezed my shoulder. Each guest grinned at another across the table, as they bellowed a song they must have sung many times before. As I looked around at their mirthful faces, I could not help but feel as if these were not such bad people after all. Here were lords and ladies who loved merriment. The Elfcatcher knew the lord of Dunverwich; he might even know my father. Perhaps now he would let me go. Was my imprisonment not an affair that could be settled among men? Who was Vainamar, after all? A man in a dungeon raving about trolls and dragons?
I took Eadric aside and said, ‘Surely all this about elves is just a good fairy tale, isn’t it? Who is Vainamar really? Is he a mad man? Is he dangerous? Also, I must give you my apology. If you are a lord and I trespassed on your lands, I can understand why you imprisoned me. And now that we know all this has been a mistake, you might return me to Dunverwich? Perhaps you know my father, Leofric?’
But the grin vanished from the Elfcatcher’s face the moment I uttered the words ‘fairy tale.’
To business!’ he shouted, and the hall was silent. ‘The foundling thinks elves are a fairy tale!’
Each of the guests stared at me as though Eadric had just said I intended to murder their children.
‘That will make our business rather awkward,’ said Guthrum, after a pause.
‘Indeed,’ said another of the guests with a sneer. ‘For you are an elf and you shall lead us to the elf kingdom.’
The man who spoke was far younger than Eadric or Guthrum, who both looked to be at least fifty.
‘Peace, Cuthbert,’ said a woman to his left. ‘The foundling is young, and is far from his home. He is frightened.’
The woman smiled at me. Her hair was blonde, and her eyes were green. She wore a green dress with threads of silver along the sleeves. I preferred the rude young lord. The more these people smiled, the more my nerves failed me.
‘He is the one playing pretend, Wulfhild,’ said Eadric, turning to me. ‘You asked me if I knew your father, foundling. I do not know Leofric, captain of the guard, at all, but I know of him very well. I know that he loves to read the lore of old. I know that he took in a foundling two decades ago. I know that he came into possession of a certain dagger around the same time. I know that if anyone would have encouraged you to run into the woods in the night like some mad, wandering beggar, it was that vain man. And look what has become of you. You are not his son; you are his victim. You are the son of an elf. What is more: you know you are the son of an elf!’
There was no escape. Either elves were a fairy tale and all of these people, including my own father, were insane, or elves were very much real and Vainamar was now my dearest friend.
‘Then, I have a proposal for you!’ I said, in a grand voice that I hoped would match their own splendor. ‘Vainamar and I shall lead you to the elf kingdom, but we must go at once! If you tarry but a moment, if you so much as gather a company of your own guards to join us, we shall never make the same offer again! We shall rot in the dungeons of the Elfcatcher until he has cut off all our limbs!’
The hall was silent. Eadric and Guthrum glanced at each other, their faces blank, unreadable. The woman Wulfhild held my gaze. To my surprise, her eyes were full of concern, like a mother’s for a child. A moment later, she laughed and her face returned to derision.
Guthrum nodded at Eadric, his face now grim.
‘Very well,’ said Eadric the Elfcatcher. ‘So it shall be. We will go at once, foundling, but you and your friend shall be bound. Guards, fetch our most esteemed prisoner!’
We sat and sipped our wine as we waited for Vainamar. I must confess my hands shook as I brought the goblet to my lips; for it had taken all of my courage to enact our plan. Eadric and Guthrum murmured to each other. Wulfhild whispered in the ear of the only other woman at the table. The woman’s hair was gray though her face was unwrinkled, and she could not have been older than thirty. She stared at me and her eyes widened as Wulfhild spoke.
‘Hands off me, you filth!’ growled Vainamar as he stumbled into the hall, his feet still in chains. In the dark of our cell, I could not see the skeleton that now stood before me. His skin was white as snow, stretched over his frame, taut like a sail that would soon blow away with the wind forever. He wore gray, tattered cloth that must have been a shirt and pants years before. All that remained was a strip of fabric about his waist and another that clung to his back. His only hand shook. He gasped as his eyes grew accustomed to the light.
‘There,’ said Vainamar. ‘There are… so many of you!’
‘Did you think I was some sort of a pariah who kept no social engagements?’ said Eadric, sneering. ‘Regardless, we are your escort home. You shall lead us to the kingdom of the elves.’
‘Yes,’ said Vainamar. ‘Yes… I shall. It is closer than you think… not more than three days from here. But you would never find it if you did not know what to look for.’
Two of Eadric’s guards bound my hands in rope. We followed the Elfcatcher down a spiral staircase that led from the far end of the hall to the castle’s stables.
‘So many,’ muttered Vainmar under his breath, as we entered a large barn that housed a few dozen horses.
‘I’m sorry,’ I whispered back. ‘It was the best I could do.’
Eadric’s guards brought provisions from the kitchens, and saddled ten horses. Vainamar and I sat in the back of a wagon drawn by two of them.
‘At last my friends,’ said the Elfcatcher. ‘We shall fulfill our quest!’
He leapt atop a tall, white horse, and the ten of us rode into the night.”
At this point in the telling, Ed took a sip of his whiskey and gazed across the table at Michael, who stared off into space as though he were trying to remember something.
“Michael!” barked Ed. “Are you alright?”
“What is it dad?” said Alice.
“I was just,” said Michael. “I was just thinking of that story you told about the worrier.”
“What of it?” said Ed.
“Oh nothing,” said Michael. “It doesn’t matter.”
Ed grinned; his eyes gleamed. Michael frowned.
“Well,” said Michael. “This is quite the work of fiction you’ve got, Ed. How long did it take you to come up with it? Have you ever considered publishing? There’s a huge market for young adult fantasy.”
“Oh, dad,” said Alice. “Do you always have to be so nasty? Can’t you just let him finish his tale?”
“Yes!” said Ed. “Let me finish! We were just getting to the good part!”
“Of your fiction,” muttered Michael under his breath. Ed sighed and looked away.
“That’s the trouble with modern man,” said Ed. “He spends all his time asking for proof. Then, when an eyewitness comes knocking at his door, he laughs and says, ‘What you say is too fantastical to be true!’ He will have no peace until every last marvel in the world is corked in a test tube and measured to within three significant digits.”
“And what’s so wrong with that?” said Michael, fuming.
“Don’t you see?” said Ed, looking up at him. “Don’t you see that there’s no end? Soon, you’ll need four significant digits, and then five. Before long, you’ll find yourself awake at night wondering if your calculations are correct. Don’t you see that you’re a character in a story, not a lens on a microscope? Don’t you see that if you pretend to be the latter then the dragon might not be slain, the princess might not be saved, and you will surely die the villain? Pray, man! Pray! Pray to the Author of life that He wake you from your nightmare of decimals!”
Michael shuddered; his eyes widened. He looked about the room; his hands shook.
“Are you alright, dad?” said Alice, putting her arm around him.
“Mike,” said Clive, in a low voice, the very same he used to calm his horses on a busy day in the street. “That’s a lot to hear, and I don’t know if Ed had the right to say it all. Now, I’m not gonna pretend you didn’t need to hear some of it what with your past with Alice–”
“You’re a fraud, Ed!” said Michael. He stormed out of the apartment and slammed the door. The three sat in silence for about a minute.
“Perhaps, we’ll have to finish my tale another time,” said Ed. “My apologies.”
“He needed to hear it,” said Alice, taking a swig of whiskey and slamming her glass on the table. “He needed to hear it a long time ago.”
“I remember growing up he’d check the lock on the front door three times in a row before going to sleep, as if that made it any more certain,” said Clive.
“He’s obsessed with knowledge,” said Alice.
“Not knowledge,” muttered Ed. “Control.”
“Is there a lot left in your tale, Ed?” said Alice.
“About a millennium,” said Ed with a grin. The three of them chuckled.
“Well, you have to tell us if you found the elf kingdom or not,” said Alice.
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s late,” said Ed, yawning. “I think there’s been quite enough storytelling tonight. Maybe another time.”
Alice glared at him.
“Did you find the elf kingdom?” she said.
“Well, yes, I did,” said Ed. “But not for many years.”
“How come?” said Clive.
“Well, the fair folk that I ended up falling in with weren’t quite sure whether I was really one of their number, my being a foundling, so they had me wait until my 140th birthday before they let me in,” said Ed, yawning again.
“What fair folk?” said Alice. “In the story, you were leaving the the Elfcatcher’s castle with Vainamar to take the Elfcatcher’s friends to the elf kingdom.”
“Oh, but they turned out to not be the Elfcatcher’s friends at all, Alice!” said Ed. “They were spies of the king of the fair folk, almost all of them. And they all knew Vainamar, though they did not know he was alive! The moment we stopped at a stream for a drink, the bunch of them set upon the Elfcatcher like bees to honey! Only, that nasty Guthrum got away.”
“Then, where did you go? Did the elves go back to their kingdom?” said Alice.
“They couldn’t then, dear,” said Ed. “Guthrum would have had an army of guards on their trail by nightfall. So we did what all fair folk do in such predicaments. Now, if you’ll let me go to sleep, really I am very tired.”
“You fought the guards?” said Alice. Ed sighed.
“I’m beginning to wish you thought I was as crazy as your father thinks,” said Ed. Alice’s eyes glittered.
“Maybe I will if you don’t tell me!” she said. Clive chuckled.
“We took up with a band of traveling minstrels in the nearest village!” said Ed.
“What!?” said Alice, shaking with laughter.
“The problem,” said Ed. “That the fair folk face is that we become too familiar. Before you know it, three lifetimes of ordinary men have passed. Someone’s grandson begins to wonder how he could have heard stories about you from his great grandfather. The villagers grow suspicious. People do nasty things to creatures they don’t understand. Moving about the country as a troubadour is the perfect alternative. You are familiar enough to be accepted, and distant enough to be forgotten. As a rule of thumb, one of every three traveling musicians you meet is simply one of the fair folk on some discreet errand.”
“Uncle Ed,” said Alice. “Can I ask you one more question?”
“Yes,” said Ed. “But only one more question.”
“Are you sure you’re alright in the head?”
* * *
The next morning as Clive poured himself a cup of tea, he heard a knock at the door to the apartment.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” said Michael, as Clive opened the door. “Where is he? I want to apologize.”
“He’s gone,” said Clive.
“He’s gone. His clothes are gone. His trinkets are gone. His lute’s gone. He’s gone.”
“Surely, he just went for a walk. He’s blind!”
Clive pulled a crumpled note from his pocket and handed it to Michael.
“My dearest Clive,” read Michael, in a whisper. “The time has come for me to sing my song elsewhere. Give my love to Alice. Tell your brother my personal journals of fifty years are stacked on my night table. He can write his psychological paper. Or he can slay his dragon. Edmund son of Leofric.”
Michael dropped the note to the floor.
“Here, let me go grab those journals for you,” said Clive. “Looks like you got the old man to acknowledge his illness, at least a little. I only hope he won’t end up homeless.”
“No,” said Michael. “No, I don’t want them.”