Too Many Fairy Princes
When Dave Wilson’s boss clears out the coffers of his failing art gallery and disappears, leaving him to confront an angry loan shark and his brutal henchmen alone, the last thing he needs to find, behind the bins at the back of his house, is a fugitive elven prince. Equally, Kjartan has quite enough to do, defending himself against his murderous brothers in the competition for succession to his kingdom’s throne, without having to get involved with Dave’s financial problems too. But they’re both going to have to make the best of it, because fairy tales run rough-shod over reluctant heroes. Especially if they start off with too many princes and not enough happy endings to go around.
…knife-guy lunged and years and years of training took over Joel’s body like a possessing demon.
Instead of twisting out of the way of the knife, he stepped towards it, crossing his wrists and blocking the man’s arm upwards, so that the blade passed over his head. Instantly, the knife-man tried to draw back for another strike, but Joel had seized his wrist. Pulling him forwards, off balance, Joel twisted below his arm, and putting his back to the man’s chest, he drove his shoulder up into his arm, while he pulled the forearm down with all his weight.
With nowhere to go, stretched across the ridge of his shoulder, the man’s arm broke at the elbow with a sucking wet snap. The knife jangled on the ground as Joel’s assailant screamed with a long banshee wail. When Joel let go, the slighter man reeled away, his legs unable to hold him up, and sank to his knees under a streetlamp.
From across the road came the sound of a window being rolled up. A light came on in number 30, and showed Joel the whites of baseball-bat-guy’s eyes, stretched wide, shocked, uncertain of whether to attack or run away.
“Is that you, Mrs. Sullivan?” Joel yelled, loud as he could. He had no idea what the neighbours’ names were, but the goons weren’t to know that. “It’s muggers. Call the police!”
In the distance, and far too soon to be anything but coincidence, the sound of a siren sawed into the night. Baseball-bat-guy gave him a glare that hit harder than anything else he’d been subject to that night, dropped the bat, ran to his smaller comrade’s side and hauled him up.
Joel watched them lurch away for three full seconds before he remembered to plunge his hand into his pocket and grab his phone to actually call the police. It lit up pale grey-green, and something behind him glittered in the light with ghostly rainbows.
The phone died—he hadn’t charged it today—but the gleam behind him simply softened into colours he could scarcely see and had no names for. Something was there, something that, like the reports of UFOs said, made his skin ruche all over with the instinct of wrongness.
Still panting from the adrenalin of the fight, warring against his own instinct and desire to run, Joel turned around and looked.
The kitchen doors of both houses on either side opened into the alleyway, and a litter of bins cluttered the pavements. From behind them, hard against the wall on the right-hand side, spilled those colours that were neither light nor darkness.
Something had been at the bins, two lay on their sides, rolled out into the footpath, their lids off and their contents spilled stinking into the street. The others had once stood packed together, and now leaned randomly apart. A space had been opened in the centre of them, and the source of the ultraviolet light lay there. Joel’s mind grasped for similes, came up with the sight of the moon at its roundest, when its pale, lunatic light shone bright enough to streak the clouds around it with dark peacock blue and spilled-petrol greens. Not a bad comparison, actually—between the dark shapes of the bins, he could see stripes of something that shone silver-blue as the moon.
His battle clarity had fallen away as soon as the threat ran from him. Now a compensating sickness clawed at his throat, made his arms shiver and sensitised the little hairs of his back where they brushed against his shirt. The snap of that elbow seemed to echo in his head, and he wanted to throw up, or perhaps to cry, or to drink until it all went away.
Instead, he edged closer to the luminous thing on the ground. Some kind of student prank? An experiment by the psychology department of London University? A piece of uranium gone missing from a power plant or some gang of terrorists? If so, what the hell was it doing here in the back alley of nowhere street, in a part of London known for faded elegance and fine houses now converted to Civil Service hostels and infinitely subdivided flats?
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. And 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 unmistakeably 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 in 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.