Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

The Armies of Elfland

It was the middle of the night when the mirrors came out of the elves. With a sound like the cushioned patter of an ice storm, the tiny mirrors fell to the ground, leaving a crust of glitter behind the marching elf army. They bled, of course, but the elven blood restored the dry land, undoing the effects of the drought, and moss emerged green from the ground in the troops’ wake.

The sight of the moss brought forth the drought-starved humans and their pathetic get to the mouths of their caves.

“Stay here!” the new father commanded. Not one of the children was his. But all the real fathers were dead, so they had no choice but to obey him or be beaten.

“Don’t go,” Agnes wanted to say. “Don’t trust them.” But Richard gently touched her lips to silence her. Richard was the oldest of the children, indeed almost an adult himself, and he did what he could to protect the others.

The adults fell on the damp moss, tearing it up by the double-handful like so much bread dough. They sucked the moisture from it and crammed its substance down their throats. Briefly, all seemed well. One of the new father’s wives was raising an arm to beckon the children down when the minute mirrors they had ingested suddenly expanded to ten, a hundred, a thousand times their original size. Jagged shards of mirror erupted from their flesh as horns, tusks, and spines. Blood fountained into the air and pooled on the ground, glimmering in the moonlight. The adults splashed through it, lurching grotesquely, writhing and howling in pain.

The children hid their eyes and turned away. The littlest ones cried.

Then, suddenly, there was silence. That was the hardest to bear of all.

But though the adults had ceased screaming, they did not fall. Brutally sharp glass fragments jutted from every inch of their bodies, holding them upright and rigid.

Nothing that was human remained of the adults. They had turned to crystal.

“We’ve got to bury them,” Agnes said firmly. “We can’t just leave them standing like that.”

“How?” Richard asked. “We can’t even touch them.”

The children had no shovels, but even with shovels they would have had a tough time trying to dig graves on the dry, barren beach. Where they stood had once been the shore of a small arm of the Pacific Ocean. But then the ocean had dried up and become a low, mountainous land of cliffs and sudden rifts, blanketed with dead fish and rotting seaweed. The sun had baked the wasteland that the elves had first created and then crossed as black and hard as obsidian. There would be no burials there.

“We can throw stones,” Frederic said. He was the youngest of the children. He hadn’t spoken until he was three, which was over five years ago. When he did start to speak, however, his first words were, “Things are not as they once were.” Followed, after two days of intense thought, by, “In any case, they could be arranged better.” He came up with ideas nobody else could have.

So they did as he suggested, smashing the starlight-glittery figures from a distance until they were nothing but mounds of broken glass. Richard, who had read a lot back when there were books, said, “In ancient times, when men were warriors and carried spears, they buried their dead in mounds of rocks called cairns. This was an honorable form of burial. Even kings and queens were buried that way.” Then he turned to Agnes. “You’re good with words,” he said. “Please. Say a few words over the dead.”

Agnes took a deep breath. At last she said, “The adults were stupid.” Everybody nodded in agreement. “But the elves are cruel, and that’s worse.” Everybody nodded again. “I’m sick of them, and I’m sick of their war.” She raised her voice. “I want to have enough food to eat! All the food I want, every day of my life. I’m going to get it, too. I don’t know how. But I do know that I’m never going to be fooled by the elves or their mirrors or their green moss ever again!”

She spat on the ground, and everyone else followed suit.

“Amen,” she said.

She had no idea how futile her vow would prove.

• • •

During the Alien Invasions, as they were called before the world learned that the armies of Elfland came not from someplace unimaginably far away but from somewhere impossibly nearby, the children and their parents had been vacationing on a resort near Puget Sound. So shocked were the parents that at first they didn’t think to shield the children from their television sets. So the children saw the slaughter—what happened to the people who resisted the elves, and then what happened to the people who didn’t. When the elves came to Seattle, they left the television stations untouched, and courteously escorted the cameramen to Volunteer Park to broadcast their victory celebration to whoever might still be watching.

Under the guidance of their ghastly, beautiful queen, the invaders flayed their prisoners. This they did with exquisite skill, so that all were still alive when the work was done. Then they roasted them over coals. Troubadours wandered up and down the rows of scorched and screaming flesh, playing their harps in accompaniment. Elf-lords and elf-ladies formed quadrilles on the greensward in front of the band shell and danced entrancingly. Afterwards, they threw themselves down on the grass and ate heaping platters of roasted human flesh, while goblin servants poured foaming wine into sapphire goblets.

Then they torched the city.

• • •

The children understood cruelty far more intimately than did the adults, who had the army and the police and a hundred other social institutions to shield them from schoolyard beatings, casual theft, and having bugs and other vermin dropped into one’s food or mouth or clothing simply because somebody larger was bored. But they had never before seen such cruelty as this. What shocked them was not the deeds in themselves—they had imagined much worse—but that nobody took pleasure from them. These cruelties were not done with fiendish playground glee. There was no malice behind them, no glorying in the cruelty of what was done. Just a string of horrifying and senseless images running night and day on the television, until one day the transmitters stopped and there were no more.

That was when Frederick told the children that they had to go into the caves, and Richard led them all there. When the adults came to bring them back to the rental bungalows, Richard led the children deeper into the darkness and the adults followed. Thus it was that they few survived when every building on the island simultaneously burst into flames. It was cold in the caves, but at night the adults went out and foraged for food and blankets and fuel. Every now and then some of them didn’t return.

Months passed.

When the elves changed the weather and shrank the seas, the grasses and crops dried up. There was little to eat, and the adults weren’t anything like they used to be. Hunger made them unpredictable, violent, and impulsive.

It was no wonder, then, that the elves were able to catch them by surprise.

• • •

The adults were dead. Human history was over.

In the wake of the elves, grass returned, and then flowers. Trees rocketed to the sky. Some bore fruit. Agnes was roasting apples in the coals of a campfire one morning, when Richard sat down beside her, the sun bright in his golden-red hair. “We need weapons,” he said. “For when the elves return. I tried making a bow and arrows. But it’s just a toy. It wouldn’t kill anything larger than a sparrow.”

Agnes thought. “We can make spears, like the ones the cairn-people had. Spears are easy to use, and almost anything sharp would do for a head.”

Richard laughed with delight. “If you were older, I’d kiss you!” he cried, and hurried off to look for materials.

Leaving Agnes with the strangest feeling. Almost, she wished she was older. Almost, she wished he would kiss her.

That afternoon the elves returned and took them all prisoner.

This time, they killed nobody. Lean elves with long, stinger-tipped abdomens, like yellow-jackets, injected venom into the children’s bodies. They were immobilized and stacked like cordwood on a long wooden tray, then flown by winged elves back to their camp. There, they were dumped to the ground and dosed with antivenom. As they came back to life, the smaller children began to cry.

Not Agnes, however. Her body ached from being stung, but she was far more concerned about what was going to happen next. She looked around carefully. The elven camp was made up of brightly colored tents, far loftier than the ones people used for camping, with long silk pennons flying from their tips. They stood on a hilltop and the tents went on forever below them, like a field of flowers that had no end.

There was a groan behind Agnes, and somebody clutched her shoulder. With a shriek, she whirled about, only to discover Richard groggily staggering to his feet. “Oh!” she cried. “You scared me!”

A bamboo whip cut across her back.

It was just a single blow, but it was stunning in its effect. Agnes fell to her knees. Looking up through brimming tears, she saw an elegant and fearsomely beautiful grey-skinned elf in armor of ice lowering his whip. He made a gesture, lightly squeezing his own lips shut. Then he raised his eyebrows questioningly: Do you understand?

Richard started forward, fists clenched, as if to attack the elf, but Agnes flung her arms around him and held him back. When he twisted angrily toward her, she shook her head. Then, facing the elf, she nodded.

The elf made a sweeping gesture that encompassed all seven children. Gracefully, he gestured with his whip up a broad grassy avenue between the tents: Go that way.

They obeyed. Agnes went first, keeping her head down submissively, but secretly observing all that she could and filing it all away for future use. A half-step after her came Richard, head high and face stony. Next were the three middle children, Lexi, Latoya, and Marcus. Last of all came Frederic and Elsie, who were the youngest. If Agnes dawdled or started to glance behind herself, she felt a light flick of the grey elf’s whip on the back of her neck. It was just a reminder, but a potent one. Agnes hoped the littler children were being more circumspect than she, but she doubted very much that they were.

They were marched past a corral where centaurs fought with fists and hooves for the entertainment of their elven captors, and then by a knackery where unicorn carcasses were hung on meat hooks to cure. Under an arch made of two enormous ivory tusks they went and around a pyramid of wine barrels being assembled by red-bearded dwarves only half as tall as the hogsheads were. At last they came to their destination.

It was a tent as wide and bright as the sunset, whose billowing walls of silks and velvets burned ember red and blood ochre, shot through with molten golds and scarlets that shimmered as if they came from a spectrum alien to human eyes. Banners and swags of orange and purple and black flew from the tops of the tent poles, kept permanently a-flutter by small playful zephyrs that smelled of cinnamon, cardamom, and hot peppers. She could not read the sigils on the flags, but she did not need to. By the psychic wind of terror and awe that gushed from the doorway to the tent, she felt, she sensed, she knew who lay within.

It could only be the dreadful Queen of Elfland.

At the castle-tent’s salient, the younger children were marched down a passage to the left, while Richard and Agnes were gestured inside. Almost, she cried after them. But the ice-armored elf raised his whip warningly. So Agnes made no sound, though she stretched out her arms toward the little ones as they disappeared from her ken.

• • •

Entering the tent was like stepping into another world. Gone were the somber reds and sullen crimsons, exchanged for sprightly greens and yellows and blues. Hummingbirds darted here and there. There was a tinkling of small bells, like wind chimes in a summer breeze. The sun shone brightly through the silk walls, making luminous the embroidered draperies showing scenes of war and feasting, of lovemaking and animal-hunting, and of things for which Agnes had no words. They wavered with every movement of the air, so that the figures seemed to be alive and in motion, pleading to be freed.

Their guard came to a stop. Overcome with dread, Agnes seized Richard’s hand. He squeezed hers back, reassuringly.

A gong sounded. The air shattered like the surface of a pond after a frog leaps into its center, and when the reverberations stopped and the air was still again, the elf-queen was simply there.

She reclined casually on the air just above a brocade-covered divan in the center of the tent. She wore a cream-colored man’s Brioni suit, cunningly retailored to fit her elegant body, an apricot silk blouse open to the navel, from which peeked a teardrop-shaped rock-crystal pendant, and no shoes. Her skin was the color of polished bronze, with hints of verdigris and subtle green depths. Her cheekbones were high and sharp. Her eyes were set at an angle, and they flashed jungle-green, an emerald effulgence from a star that did not shine in the night sky of this world. Unbidden, a name popped into Agnes’s mind: Melisaundre.

Queen Melisaundre was beautiful. Even Agnes could see that.

Beside her, Richard was transfixed.

“We came here by accident,” the elf-queen said casually, as if returning to a conversation already in progress. “We didn’t know your world even existed here on the marches of Avalon, that fey land we set out to conquer. Imagine our surprise and delight! A realm of possibilities opened before us! As it happened, of course, we destroyed your lands and killed your people. But, well . . . we were bored, pure and simple. What else could we have done? What other would any sensible being have done in our position?”

Agnes knew it would be a mistake to answer, and she kept her mouth shut. She was relieved at first that Richard did the same, but then she dared a quick sideways glance and saw that he was blushing. At a time like this! Agnes all but stamped her foot. If Richard, of all people, couldn’t be relied on to keep his wits about him, then who could?

Melisaundre dangled her bauble before her lips and blew softly upon it, setting it swinging gently on the pendulum of its chain. She reached out and delicately touched it—like so!—with the tip of a tongue as pink as a cat’s. “Don’t you wish you could be this jewel?” she asked. “Wouldn’t you like to lie between my breasts forever? Wouldn’t that be the pleasantest doom imaginable?”

“Thank you, ma’am, no,” Agnes said quickly, dipping the briefest of curtseys. It was essential to be polite: She realized that instinctively. And the higher the level of danger, the more polite you had to be. She knew she had to be very, very polite to the queen of the elves.

Richard stepped forward involuntarily, his eyes glowing as if lit by a flash from a hidden mirror. In a dazed voice, he said, “I think that . . .”

“Richard! No!” Agnes said.

“I mean, it kind of sounds like . . .”

“Stop! Stop! Stop!”

“Maybe, I don’t know . . .”

“Think, Richard! Don’t just—”

“. . . I’d like that.”

And he was gone.

The elf-queen held the pendant up, admiring its newly flawed interior. “A jewel with a soul reflects a better quality of light, don’t you think?” she remarked lightly. “And as we have none of our own, we are so grateful when you volunteer yours.”

Without thinking, Agnes launched herself at the elf-queen, clawing, kicking, and screaming. And found herself immediately frozen in mid-air, suspended about four feet above the floor.

“Cassis and asphalt,” said the elf-queen. “Hints of anise. An elusive smoky quality. Just a trace of honey. And a flintiness under it all. We could bottle that and sell it at market.” She placed her long, sharp nose in the crook of Agnes’s neck and inhaled deeply. Sharp fingers pinched Agnes’s arms and the inside of a leg, as if assessing her plumpness. “But with encouragement, what might you not become? Worthy, perhaps, of even a queen’s palate.” She raised her voice. “Store her with the others, and we’ll do more with her later.”

• • •

Agnes was taken away and fed—on marzipan, melon slices, and sugared oranges, on candied ginger and great slabs of baklava so intensely sweet they made her teeth ache, washed down with honeyed tea. She ate until her stomach hurt. But all the while, though she was careful to hide it, she burnt with that deep inner anger of which children, in the sentimental imagination, were deemed incapable. Any casual observer of a kindergarten or a schoolyard, however, can see that the younger the child, the less capable it is of hiding any anger it may harbor. By Agnes’s age, most children are able to bank their fury so that it is generally unseen by adults and, often, by the child itself. Agnes certainly could do that.

Then she was washed, in water that had been heated to body temperature, and had hibiscuses afloat in it. Needle-toothed yakshis dried her down with impossibly fluffy towels and helped her into new garments. They were of elven make and did not cover her stomach, but otherwise they seemed decent enough. Finally she was led to a large oval cushion which, though it looked suspiciously to her like the sort of thing people had for their pet dogs or cats, was nevertheless so comfortable that she fell asleep almost immediately.

• • •

When Agnes awoke, the bed was rocking gently under her. She drew aside the bed-curtain and discovered that the armies were on the march again, and that her bed was being carried by two trolls. She swung her legs over the edge so she could climb down.

“I’d advise you not to do that, Missy,” one of the trolls said. He was a tusked grotesque with legs like a rhinoceros’s.

“If you did,” said the second, “we’ll reflexively stop you in the most painful available manner.”

“Which, truth be told, we’d really rather not.”

“You’re just another victim of elvish depravity, like we are, after all.”

“So just stay with the program, okay?”

Agnes scrambled back into the center of the bed. “Okay,” she said. And, “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to get you in trouble.”

“You can’t get us in trouble, Missy.”

“Even if you could, what would we care?”

“We’re not self-aware.”

“Just bundles of reflexive responses, is all. It’s not as if we were actually conscious.”

So she spent most of the day, dozing off and on, being carried along with the trooping armies of Elfland. When at last they made camp, she climbed down and fed herself from one of the many tables overflowing with food of all kinds. Then Melisaundre sent for her.

“You are a green gemstone, I believe,” the elf-queen said. “So you shall be treated with jealousy.”

“Ma’am? I don’t understand.”

“You don’t need to understand. Only to obey.”

Thus it was that for thrice a thousand and one nights in a row, Agnes served as the elf-queen’s cup bearer. Silent and attentive, she sat on a small chair in a shadowy corner while her liege lady consulted with scholars and annotated books. Slim in green livery, she watched the elf-queen practice her archery, and brought iced tea to slake her thirst between bouts. At banquets, she poured a sip of every libation into a shallow bowl and drank it down, to test for poison. Rarely did she speak. Always did she watch. In this way, she picked up something of an

education in the ways of polite society.

Even more did she learn at night, when the elf-queen retired to her bed and comported herself with whomever had caught her eye during the long day. Agnes brought flagons of wine to set the mood beforehand, vials of aphrodisiacs when the queen’s lovers began to flag, and fruit-flavored ices to refresh them afterwards. She watched as the elf-queen coupled with warriors, scholars, poets, fauns, women by threes and men by the brace, with centaurs and imps as small as lapdogs and quilled apes with extra arms. It was the queen’s custom that her lovers should begin by entertaining her with oration, and so, night after night, they related gesta taken from the history of Elfland, or ornate tales of bawdry stemming from their own experiences. Scholars taught her alchemy and astrology and the secret workings of the crystal spheres that moved the stars and planets through their complex dance in the night. Soldiers spoke of battles they had fought and heroic deeds they had seen.

Agnes watched. And she listened.

Sometimes, when Melisaundre was bored, she brought Richard out of his gem. He hardly noticed Agnes’s presence, so besotted was he with the elf-queen. Agnes, for her part, watched him steadily, but her stare was hard. Once, during the heat of passion, his eyes accidentally met hers and the elf-queen immediately plunged a hand into his chest and pulled out his living, beating heart. He arched and spasmed until she returned the organ to its proper place.

“You liked that, didn’t you?” Melisaundre murmured, looking Agnes straight in the eye.

“Whatever you want me to like,” he gasped, “I will.”

Agnes, as always, said nothing.

After the elf-queen had ridden him like a horse, Richard rolled over onto his back, and when Agnes emerged from the shadows with the ices, he looked surprised to see her. He grinned shyly and started to say something, only to be shushed by an imperious royal finger laid across his lips. “You two are not to talk,” the queen said. “Not now. Not ever.”

Then she turned to Agnes. “Do you envy me, little virgin? Do you envy how many men come to pay me court, your precious friend among them, and how avidly they do so?”

“Yes, your majesty,” Agnes said tonelessly.

“They’ll never do any of that to you, I assure you. He will never so much as touch you. I’ll make sure of that.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Oh, you don’t fool me. You may not want it yet, but already you know you will. And every night you’ll stand and watch, yearning, always yearning . . . Those whom I bring to my bed are a complaisant lot. They’d be only too happy to oblige you, especially your lovely, dimwitted Richard here. But you shall stand and watch and grow old and withered and filled with regrets, while I remain gloriously young forever. When you die, I’ll have your ashes made into a godemiché, which will rest near my orgies every night, with Richard immortal and at my service. But never—not even once!—will it be used.”

“As you please, ma’am.”

In a fury, the elf-queen seized a goblet and flung it down on the flagstone floor. It shattered, sending fragments of crystal everywhere. “You wicked, stubborn child! Do you think stunting your potential will make you happy? It will not! Embrace your anger, and it will bring you vividly alive. You will be an avid, thwarted, hopelessly vengeful avatar of spite!”

“As you wish, ma’am.”

Queen Melisaundre screamed in rage. Then she bade Richard mount her once more, as Agnes stood by.

• • •

But the prize of the elf-queen’s collection was Frederic.

“My rough little diamond,” the elf-queen called him. She dressed him in jester’s motley, and brought him out to amuse her guests at banquets. They would lie in triples, twains, and tangles, on chaises about the court, while Frederic stood in the center and harangued them.

“You have no emotions of your own,” Frederic said. He looked so solemn, Agnes thought, in those big round glasses of his. “That’s your greatest weakness, and someday it will be your downfall.”

The elves responded with gales of laughter.

“You made a terrible mistake when you destroyed almost all of my people. It made those of us who remain rare. It made us powerful. Without us, you wouldn’t even know you’re alive.”

“And what about you, little fool?” an elf baron shouted back at him. “What would you do without us?”

“I’d just go on living. I wouldn’t miss you at all.”

They howled.

Another time, Frederic said, “The Earth is a sphere that revolves about a spherical Sun. The Moon is spherical too, and it revolves around the Earth.” Then, as his audience convulsed, “How many years have you marched around this world without finding its boundaries? Always you search for the way back to your own world. The land you came from is as flat as a checkerboard and so ours baffles you. You stupids! You are trapped here forever by your own ignorance.”

Finally, Frederic said, “You think us your prisoners, but it is you who are held captive by the topology of your thoughts. I am free! Unlike yourselves, I can move as I wish in all Euclidian dimensions. The only reason I share this with you is that you cannot possibly comprehend it. Should I wish, I can leave at any time by simply turning from your plane.”

Abruptly he crouched down and somersaulted away, out the door and gone.

The elves continued jeering and laughing at his japes for another hour, just as if he hadn’t left.

• • •

After the queen’s orgies that night, Agnes lay on her pallet thinking as hard as ever she had thought before. Frederic had been speaking directly to her—she was sure of it. Was it rolling into a ball that had rendered Frederic invisible to the elves? Or was it simply his bold, spit-in-your-face self-confidence?

Agnes felt anything but bold. But the challenge had been put to her. She had to follow Frederic’s example, curl into a ball, and roll outside. Either she would survive or the guards would kill her. It was as clean and simple as that.

So she rolled herself into a ball and tumbled off her pallet and out of the tent. The demon-hounds crouching by the salient did not even see her, though their eyes darted everywhere, their nostrils flared, and their ears were pricked for sounds far subtler than those she made.

Agnes somersaulted out into the moonlight.

Out on the grassy sward and down the bank she rolled, out of sight of the guards. When she came to a halt, she was not surprised to see Frederic tumbling to meet her.

“It certainly took you long enough,” he said.

“Unlike you,” Agnes replied tartly, “I can’t simply do and say whatever I want, whenever I wish.”

“And whose fault is that? The elves have no concept of reality save what they see reflected through us. I’ve been trying to explain that to you since forever.”

“Do you know what happened to Richard? The queen—”

“What befell Richard would not have happened if he hadn’t allowed it.”

“She keeps him in a jewel around her neck!”

“He was the oldest. He had the choice of staying and protecting us as best he could, or a safe life of cosseted slavery, and he chose wrong. It was despicable of Melisaundre to offer such a choice to someone so weak, of course.”

“You understand everyone so well,” Agnes said bitterly.

“I think we have argued enough for one night,” said Frederic. “Be sure to somersault your way back to your pallet. It confuses the elves when we rotate or spin, and somersaults short-circuit their brains entirely. I suspect that, like paper dolls, they’re not completely suited to life in three dimensions.”

He tumbled away.

Agnes stood motionless for a long time. The tents of the armies of Elfland stretched away to the horizon as numerous as blades of grass in a meadow, and the queen’s tent sat at the very center of the camp. A lunar moth fluttered raggedly past, and Agnes reflected that they two—she and it—were equally free and purposeless. Yet the lunar did have a purpose: to procreate, to lay clutches of tiny eggs on the leaves of trees. She had no such destiny; in its place she was forced to watch the futile carnival of Melisaundre’s endless couplings.

Now that Frederic had given her the key to freedom, she didn’t know what to do with it. Where would she go? During waking hours, she could find the other children, for they were held close to the elf-queen’s court, in case her whim required them. But when the revelries wound down into exhaustion, they were packed away to the fringes of the camp, to tents pitched among the ogres, dwarves, and other enslaved races.

She would not find the children tonight. And tomorrow, after the marching was done, their tents would be pitched elsewhere.

Nor could she escape into the outside world. There was nothing there but wilderness and ruins. Perhaps there were still people huddling fearfully in caves, as she once had. But what point was there in resuming that wretched and untenable existence?

Frederic, with his unique way of thinking, might be free, but Agnes was not. All the world was her prison.

Still, she had learned something tonight, and who could say it would not turn out to be useful? Clutching the knowledge tight to herself, Agnes tumbled back to her humble pallet at the foot of Queen Melisaundre’s luxurious bed.

• • •

Months passed, possibly years. Agnes had no way of measuring time: marks on paper, knots in her lacings, any accounting whatsoever eased away while she slept, leaving no trace.

At last there came a day when the armies did not march. The camp swarmed with activity. Elves flew into the nearest abandoned city and plundered it of building materials. Draft-giants hauled wagonloads of stone and enormous timbers. An arena arose in what had been a meadow the night before. Bleachers surrounded the oval of grass. Tall white walls soared upward and were decorated with clusters of the severed heads of ghastly inhuman creatures that Agnes had never seen alive.

Queen Melisaundre came silently out of her tent and gazed upon the arena. Then she turned to Agnes. “So,” she said. “The day has arrived at last.”

Agnes did not ask, but the queen answered her anyway: “You idiot child! The day we contend in battle and one of us kills the other, of course. Whatever happens, it will be a relief to be free at last of your constant witless questioning.”

Agnes knew she needed to control her response. Anger the queen would understand, and know instinctively her most effective response. Fear and defiance as well. But disregard? How could anybody dare ignore so dangerously mercurial a monarch? Agnes yawned and walked off, leaving Melisaundre speaking sharply to empty air.

She found Frederic in a brocade tent the color of dried blood, with jacquard dragons in its weave. Inside was a library whose stacks went on forever, dwindling into dusk. Bespectacled hobgoblins clambered up and down ladders, fetching and returning leather-bound manuscripts. Trolls stood by like bookstands, holding out dictionaries and volumes of encyclopediae.

Frederic sat at a small table, reading.

“What’s this about me killing the queen?” Agnes asked. Somehow, she did not doubt it could be done.

Frederic shut his book. “It’s time. I can read these grimoires without the queen’s scholars now. So we no longer need her.”

“You mean we could have been free of her before this and you did nothing?” Agnes was accustomed to holding back her emotions, but now she found herself quivering and white with rage.

“Yes, of course, long ago. You’d have noticed this yourself, if you hadn’t been mooning over Richard.”

Agnes slapped him as hard as she could.

One side of Frederic’s face began slowly turning red. His voice remained mild, nevertheless. “I deserved that, I suppose. However, when we are married, you must not hit me again. It’s not conducive to marital harmony.”

“Married!?”

“Married.” Frederic stood. He was taller than Agnes, which had never been the case before, and when he took off his glasses, as he did now, he was not entirely unhandsome. He was, Agnes realized with a shock, an adult, a man. “This has nothing to do with your personal feelings. Or mine, really. Agnes, you are the only human capable of assuming the elf-queen’s role. But you have, as yet, no idea of how to wield power, and you know it. I, on the other hand, do; so we must be wed.”

“It would be a loveless marriage.”

“That will change,” said Frederic, “if we want it to. We need each other. Our strengths are complementary; the weaknesses of one can be negated by the other.” His face was as pale and expressionless as the moon. “As a basis for marriage, need is stronger than love.”

Agnes thought back to all she had learned from the elf-queen’s advisors and political philosophers and realized that it was true: Need was a very strong bond indeed. Those same sources, however, had also taught that once needs were met, such bonds would dissolve like fairy dew.

• • •

Agnes prepared for battle. She was given, by the elven court, an armory shed at one end of the lists and two pages to dress her. They were pubescent boys, milky-skinned, beautiful, and naked. So far as she could tell, they were identical twins.

The pages were removing her clothing when Frederic rolled in. He grabbed one by the scruff of the neck and forcibly ousted him. The second followed after.

Agnes snatched up her blouse and struggled back into it. But Frederic did not so much as glance at her. He put down a cloth-wrapped package as long as a sword and started rummaging through the armor laid out for her. “She’s going to strike you three times,” he said. “First, on your upper right arm. So you’ll need a pauldron.”

The pauldron covered her entire upper arm and was padded underneath. He strapped it on her, right over her blouse.

“The second blow will strike you directly above your left knee. You’ll need a cuish.”

“I feel unbalanced,” Agnes said, to hide her embarrassment, as he reached between her thighs to tighten the cinches. “And just a little foolish, too.”

Frederic ignored her. “Neither of those blows will be lethal: They are intended to disable and unbalance you. The third and, potentially, the killing blow will come not from the elf-queen’s sword like the first two, but her spear. She’ll toss the sword aside and then flip the spear up into the air and catch it back-handed behind her, so that her arm is up and ready for the strike.” He held up his arm to demonstrate. “Then it will come down, and hard, right in the middle of your stomach.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I’ve been studying. This sort of thing is all written down.”

Frederic took from his kit a triple length of stiff brown leather. He wrapped it around and around Agnes’s abdomen so tightly she could barely breathe. Over it he placed a chain mail stomacher. Then, atop all, he strapped on an item of shaped metal he called a tace. “There,” he said at last. “She might knock the wind out of you, but she won’t kill you.”

“What weapon should I use?”

“None of these,” Frederic said, dismissing with a glance a gleaming selection of swords, spears, and morning stars. “They’re enchanted not to hurt her—you might as well try to take down a tank with a custard pie.” He unwrapped the package he had brought with him. “Use this instead.”

Agnes laughed involuntarily.

It was a baseball bat.

“Take it,” Frederic said. “Try it out.”

She swung the bat stiffly back and forth.

“Put your back into it. Swing from the shoulders.” He grabbed the bat and showed her what he meant.

Agnes took back the bat and swung again, with more strength. “I could never keep my eye on the ball. It’s so small and it comes at you so fast.”

“It won’t be a ball. It will be Queen Melisaundre’s head, and it will be the size of a small melon, plenty big enough to see. Just think of how you have served her, over the years, and she you.”

Agnes swung the bat with force.

“I think you’re getting the feel of it.”

“I wish I was a boy,” Agnes said. “I hope I don’t look as stupid as I feel.”

To her profound surprise, Frederic grabbed her and kissed her full on the lips. Then he pushed her away and stared straight into her eyes. “You look like you’re going to free us from elven tyranny forever,” he said fervently. “You look like the very first human queen of all the world. I don’t wish you were a boy at all.”

Then the heralds blew their clarions and the doors of the shed flung themselves wide.

“Go,” Frederic said. “Set us free.”

• • •

Agnes did not so much stride out into the lists as stumble. Yet the throngs of elves (with, here and there, a human bobbing in the air; only she, it seemed, knew no magic) roared at the sight of her, as if she were an Amazon champion.

Directly across the arena, Queen Melisaundre stepped down from her throne, looking every inch the warrior-queen. Her slim, powerful figure was clad in dazzling gold plate. A scarlet cape flew out behind her, lifted by a wind that did not exist for Agnes. Her helmet was adorned with wings, as if she were a Valkyrie, and so cut that her hair flowed out becomingly behind her.

In her hand was a sword of moon-silver, harder than steel and lighter than a feather. At her back was a long spear.

Agnes hoisted her baseball bat, feeling like a clumsy human yokel. She closed her eyes in silent prayer: Make this quick, she thought. Whether I win or whether I lose, make it quick.

Somebody threw a cloth-of-gold scarf into the air. It fluttered lazily downward, drawing all eyes after it.

When it touched the ground, Queen Melisaundre screamed like an eagle and ran straight toward Agnes. Her long legs carried her quickly and effortlessly across the green lawn. She was beautiful to watch.

Agnes suddenly realized that she should be running too and began to lumber forward.

They met.

It all went as Frederic had said it would. Queen Melisaundre delivered a stinging blow to Agnes’s armored and padded shoulder, and a second to her leg that would have crippled her had it not been for the cuish. Then she tossed the sword aside as if it were a plaything she had tired of. One hand deftly undid the strap holding the spear to her back. The other reached behind her and flipped the spear up into the air.

Queen Melisaundre caught the spear and froze for an instant, a goddess incarnate. Then, with her hair lashing and the battle-light blazing about her face, she drove the spear downward with every ounce of her strength.

The spearhead pierced Agnes’s tace with a shriek of ripping metal. But the chain mail underneath held, and the wrapped layers of leather softened the blow.

Somewhat.

It felt like getting kicked in the stomach by a horse. All the breath flew out of Agnes and she was driven back a good three feet. But, though for an instant all the world went black and there was nothing in it but pain, she did not fall down.

Then she could see again, and she was running forward, all in a rage, the baseball bat cocked and ready to swing. Take this, bitch, she thought. You with your perfect face and perfect legs and perfect everything else. With your courtiers and sycophants and lovers by the score. With your cruelty and power and the admiration of all the world and Richard too.

A fierce blood-lust filled her. Take this for being everything I am not.

It was that last thought that pulled Agnes out of her madness, for she recognized in it—as who would not?—the envy, jealousy, and spite that the elf-queen had so long been nurturing in her. And so recognizing it, she rejected it. She refused to let it be a part of her.

It was not a rational decision, for on purely logical grounds she understood that she had to kill the queen. It was simple revulsion that caused her to pull back before her blow reached its target. The bat swung past the elf-queen, missing her by a whisker.

Queen Melisaundre’s head shattered anyway.

• • •

Frederic led Agnes away from Melisaundre’s lifeless corpse toward the throne, whispering urgently in her ear. “You are the queen now. It’s important that you act the part. Speak slowly and clearly. Say that your rule will be benign but absolute. A new empire shall arise from the ashes of the old—a human empire. All magical talismans, potions, et cetera, are to be presented to the royal court that they may be made subject to your power. In this way all magicks will support the State and we need never fear rebellion. Finally, if it please you, your majesty, let us be married immediately. Announce that I am to be your consort and in no sense king. I will act in a purely advisory manner, subordinate to the throne. Do you understand?”

Agnes nodded once, regally, and withdrew her arm from his. With the slightest flutter of the fingers of one hand she gestured him back into the crowd.

Frederic backed away, struggling not to grin.

She ascended to the throne.

Everyone cheered, elves as well as the humans. Looking out over them, Agnes was surprised to see that the other children were all grown now. Some of them had children of their own.

Human history has begun again, she thought. And this will be known forever as the Day of Two Queens.

Agnes raised a hand for silence. “I am your new queen and my power is absolute. Does anyone here dispute that?”

Nobody spoke.

“Well, then. My reign shall consist entirely of three edicts. The first is that Frederic shall search through the grimoires and books of spells to either discover a way to return the elves to their own world or, failing that, otherwise rid our world of their presence. That shall be his sole employment until his task is done, however many years it may take.”

Frederic looked stricken.

“The second is that until that happy day when they are gone, the elves shall be set to work restoring our world to what it was before they came. We will settle here and scour the wilderness for human survivors. When such are found, those who will may join us. Those who will not shall be left in peace.

“The third and last edict is that henceforth we shall have no queens or absolute rulers of any kind. Form committees, hold elections, do whatever you like—but I will not tell you how to live your lives.” Mouths fell open. Eyes widened in shock. Frederic put his head in his hands.

Agnes stepped down from the throne, a queen no more.

• • •

After her abdication, she went to see Richard.

Agnes dressed as carefully for this meeting as ever she had in her life. Her clothing was deliberately modest. Yet it did nothing to disguise her newly adult shape. Her jewelry drew no attention to itself. She wore makeup, though she doubted that Richard, used as he was to Queen Melisaundre’s theatrical extravagance, would notice.

The elf-queen’s tent smelled as always of incense, spices, and perfume. Yet the air felt strangely clean, for the cat-in-heat stench of the queen herself was gone. Beside her bed (sheeted in green and blue satins with foams of lace so that it was almost as vast and billowy as the sea itself) was a small obsidian box. In it rested Richard’s gemstone.

When Agnes had laid out shirt and trews on the bed, she took the rock crystal gem and warmed it between her hands. It had been clear and ordinary once, but Richard’s soul had deepened its color into a golden-red topaz with hints of flame at its heart. Speaking a word she had often heard from the lips of Queen Melisaundre, she summoned Richard from its depths.

He appeared, smiling sleepily, in the middle of the bed.

When Richard saw that he and Agnes were alone, he sat up and donned the russet-colored clothing—first the trousers and then the sark. They fit him well and seeing him thus clad Agnes felt a sudden flush of desire that, paradoxically, she had not felt on beholding him naked.

It was true, she thought. She genuinely had come of age, if Richard’s mere presence could disorder her thinking so.

“Where is Melisaundre?” he asked.

Agnes’s mouth felt dry. She could not form words with it at first. But at last she managed to croak, “There have been . . . I have made some changes.”

Then she told him.

• • •

When Agnes emerged from the tent at last, her face was grim and a golden-red stone hung from a silver chain about her neck.

Frederic was waiting for her. “What shall we do with that?” he asked, gesturing toward the tent.

“Burn it,” she said. She knew she had surrendered all authority to give such a command. But listening to her own voice, she knew too that she would be obeyed. “Burn it to the ground.”

Frederic nodded and two lovely young women whom Agnes realized with dull astonishment used to be the young Lexi and Latoya raised up hands that burst into fire. Stepping forward, they stroked the silks and velvets. Soft flames rose up the sides of the tent, merged, and became an inferno. When Agnes made no motion to get away from the heat, Frederic gently took her by the arm and led her toward the cool.

Agnes could feel the flames at her back. Shadows leaped and cavorted before her.

“What of Richard?” Frederic asked.

She touched the gem. “He did not care to share our lives without Melisaundre,” she said. “I gave him permission to return to his crystal, to his oblivion.”

Frederic crooked a sad smile. “‘He is not dead but sleeping,’” he quoted from one of Richard’s favorite books. “Perhaps he will reconsider someday, when we have remade the world into a pleasant place again. I . . . I will become the junior husband then, if that is what you wish.”

Agnes looked at him evenly, and realized for the first time how much Frederic desired and even, in his own peculiar way, loved her. Raising her head, she looked into the future. The humans would not rebuild the cities in her lifetime, but there would be towns. The elves would one by one fade away, into wells, into trees, into small, pathetic beings who served mankind and were rewarded with dishes of milk. She would have children, and then grandchildren. She would grow old, and fat, and revered. She would desire Richard often. But she would never see him again.

“No,” said Agnes firmly. “He’s gone forever. The time for fairy tales is past.”

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Eileen Gunn

Eileen Gunn by Francesca Myman

Eileen Gunn is a short-story writer and editor. Her fiction has received the Nebula Award in the US and the Sense of Gender Award in Japan, and has been nominated for the Hugo, Philip K. Dick, and World Fantasy awards and short-listed for the James Tiptree, Jr. award. Gunn was editor/publisher of the influential Infinite Matrix webzine from 2001-2008 and was for 22 years an influential member of the board of directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She has published two collections of stories, Questionable Practices (Small Beer Press: 2014) and Stable Strategies and Others (Tachyon Publications: 2004).

Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick is one of the most acclaimed and prolific science fiction and fantasy writers of his generation. He has received a Hugo Award for fiction in an unprecedented five out of six years and has been honored with the Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, World Fantasy and five Hugo Awards as well as receiving nominations for the British Science Fiction Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and in numerous anthologies, and has been collected in Cigar-Box Faust, A Geography of Unknown Lands, Gravity’s Angels, Moon Dogs, Puck Aleshire’s Abecedary, Tales of Old Earth, and The Dog Said Bow-Wow. Michael’s latest novel is Dancing With Bears, a post-Utopian adventure featuring confidence artists Darger and Surplus. He is currently at work on two new novels. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Marianne Porter.