“I still don’t really understand,” Clara gasped out. She was two years younger than her sister and her legs were shorter. They had been hiking through the Schwarzwalde for most of the morning now and the ground was rising steep ahead.
“What don’t you understand?” Maddie tossed back over her shoulder. She always sounds so impatient, thought Clara.
“Well you say they’re not demons or anything. Why do they live in the underworld?”
“Under the hill! I told you. It’s an expression. It basically means on another plane.”
“So not necessarily underground then?” Clara didn’t want to admit it but she really wasn’t that fond of the dark. And fifteen was way too old to be admitting to that.
“No! What’s with all the questions anyway? I thought you wanted to come?”
“Well actually I said I was curious…”
Maddie rounded on the younger girl, planting her hands on her hips. Uh oh! Clara knew that look. If she said the wrong thing now Maddie would make her regret it.
“I mean yes I do want to come. It’s just a long way isn’t it? And won’t mum and dad be worried?”
“Is that what’s bothering you?” Maddie’s scowl evaporated. “I left them a note. Anyway we’re closer to the crossing place than to home now. We may as well go on. It’ll be fun! And an adventure!” She tried a coaxing smile. The trouble was Maddie’s smiles never looked coaxing. They looked like she wanted something and you’d better deliver it. Maybe it was her heavyset features and low brow. Clara couldn’t help adoring her big sister anyway. She was just made that way. Besides Maddie wasn’t so bad. Really. She just sounded annoyed a lot of the time but then most seventeen year olds did right? Clara was lucky Maddie wanted to spend time with her.
Maddie was still looking at Clara with expectant menace.
“Ok…”Clara trailed off weakly, trying to look enthusiastic.
“Look. You can get us in right? If I get there and you can’t….”
“I can. If there’s a door then I can find a way in. Promise.” Clara hastily reassured her.
“Well good. I want my wish!”
Clara felt a stab of unease at this but followed obediently after Maddie. For once she actually hoped there wouldn’t be a door for her to find. That Maddie had been wrong. She couldn’t explain why but this plan gave her a creepy feeling at the base of her spine.
“There! See?” Maddie needn’t have shouted. In the bright noon light the cave entrance was obvious. It probably would have been obvious at midnight despite the dark forest. It was huge. “Ok first we need some garlands and then you find the door, got it?” Clara nodded meekly. She thought she saw Maddie hide an expression of disgust. But it was gone from Maddie’s blunt features so quickly she wasn’t sure.
Best get to work then. The sooner she did what Maddie wanted, the sooner she could go home. She sat on a thick tuft of grass, her small, slender figure neat and graceful. Her wavy red-gold hair fell forwards around her face as she bent to weaving the piles of flowers together. After a while Clara looked up, startled by how absorbed she’d been. She surprised that same look of disgust and…was that envy? On Maddie’s face.
She hates me. Where had that thought come from? And how ridiculous. Of course Maddie didn’t hate her. She was just irritable sometimes. And Clara had completely forgotten what she was supposed to be doing. No wonder Maddie looked annoyed. Of course that was it.
“Do you think these are enough?” Clara held up several garlands which she had deftly woven together. Maddie continued to stare at her with that strange look on her face. Clara felt a thin curl of disquiet unwind in her stomach.
“Maddie!” She laughed nervously, putting one of the garlands of white flowers on her coppery curls. Just like a sacrifice. Clara shoved the thought away. “Maddie, you’re miles away! Shall we just go home?”
“No! I mean no, not now you’ve made all those garlands,” Maddie reluctantly placed one around her own neck. “Find the door for me? Please?”
Clara glanced at the fading light in uncertainty. She hadn’t realized how late it was. It was Wahlpurgisnacht after all. Maybe not the best time to be playing with gateways. Especially as it got dark. Maddie would go ballistic if she backed out now though. Suppressing a sigh, Clara moved to the cave entrance. She started to let the shimmering layers of the Veil slip between her fingers. Much as she hated to admit it, she enjoyed this.
“Tell me what they’re called again?” Clara stood swaying slightly, feeling the air, feeling the subtle shift of layers of reality. Looking for a crack, an outline, an …ah ha! “It’s here!”
“Can you open it?” Maddie could barely contain her eagerness.
“Yes. But I need their name first.” This wasn’t strictly true but Clara always let Maddie think it was or Maddie would have her opening doors all over the place without telling her where they went.
“I thought you said Ljosalfar?! Dokkalfar means…”
“Good afternoon ladies.” The voice was as smooth as spider’s silk and darkly compelling. A hooded figure stood just behind Clara.
“Oh no…I … must’ve opened it a crack…” Clara was flustered. She felt sure this was a bad idea now.
“Are you one of them?” Maddie demanded.
“I am here to guide you to what you seek. You have brought the yielding?”
“Yes.” Maddie’s expression was closed.
“Come then,” the figure turned and Clara caught a glimpse of its leg from beneath its cloak. His leg because the Dokkalfar were a male race. There were stories weren’t there? There was one story in particular that she couldn’t quite remember which had made her afraid to go to sleep….. And that wasn’t a human leg. It bent in the wrong place and was covered in dark brown fur….
“Maddie, please let’s just go home. Please!”
“Oh Clara don’t be such a baby.” Maddie shoved her between the shoulder blades and through the door.
There was no sign of the cave entrance now. It was darker and colder than the bottom of a well. There was a sharp, striking sound and the cloaked figure held up a flaming torch. Clara could smell pine pitch and damp stone and something musky and …well…animal-like. She was given no time to analyze any of this. The man in the cloak strode forward and Maddie kept pace. Terrified of being left in the dark by herself, Clara hurried after them.
There was a great babbling noise ahead of them, which hushed as they drew near. Clara looked out at the huge throng of people and realized they must have all been talking and fallen silent. The cavern was full of men. Something was screaming for attention inside her brain. Something wasn’t right. Something far more wrong than the hungry gazes being leveled on her and her sister. Do the maths, do the maths. Think Clara, think. Something is off here…
“Brothers, My lord Konig, I bring two maids who have sought us out and wish to make a bargain.” The cloaked figure declared this grandly then threw back his hood. Clara gasped. One eye was coppery red, the other was electric blue. What looked like the left hind leg of a wolf was briefly revealed again by the swirling cloak.
Clara realized what her mind had been screaming at her; all of them had something different about them. Something wrong. One had the mane of a horse instead of hair. Another seemed to be covered in growing green yellow fungus. A third looked entirely like grey stone until its eyes and mouth opened wide and dark in its featureless face. There was one with the compound eyes of a fly and another with uselessly flapping vestigial bat wings, too small to bear it in flight. No not it. Him. They were all Hes.
Every way she turned Clara saw pebbled skin, scales, slick flippers like patent leather, cloven hooves, eagle’s claws, curved beaks, feathers, slit pupiled eyes. Some had odd numbers of limbs or were taller on one side. Some had skin that grew in strange patterns. A tiny one looked like a pickled embryo. A vast, blancmange bulk undulated with rilled tentacles near the back.
They weren’t human.
And the deformities were real. Not special effects or make up or anything from a horror film. There were no zippers to these costumes. No ordinary people in disguise. Clara could smell the huge carrion, salty stench of them. All those mismatched bodies pressed together. Her heart started an all out gallop as if it could escape the cage of her ribs. Her eyes were so wide with horror that she couldn’t force herself to blink. Oh god, she was going to be sick…
Clara began to tremble. This was very bad. Was there a door here she could rip open? She couldn’t feel the tell tale cracks in the veil. She had to find a way of getting herself and Maddie back to the entrance somehow. A way to get them out. Her mind was gibbering in panic. She had missed something again but her thoughts were skittering away like autumn leaves in a breeze. She couldn’t catch hold…
“A bargain. It’s been a while. And two on the same day.” This voice was different; smooth, urbane, cultured even. At first glance this man did not seem wrong like the others did. He was very tall. His silvery white hair fell into his black eyes. Clara thought he looked perfectly normal by comparison. Until she noticed the great leopard’s paw he had in place of a left forearm and hand.
“Only one bargain, Konig.” Maddie’s voice sounded alien. Clara gaped at her but Maddie refused to meet her eye.
“Really?” The Konig looked Maddie up and down. He did not appear impressed and Maddie flushed with anger and humiliation. Clara could understand why. Being rejected as unappealing by a man with a leopard’s paw….wait a sec…..bargain?!
“Where is your yielding then, Maid?” The Konig said.
“Here” Maddie moved suddenly, shoving Clara into the Dokkalfkonig’s arms.
“Maddie?” She cried in disbelief. No one replied. The Konig turned her around to face him. She tried not to flinch as her brought the leopard’s paw to her face and tilted her chin up. Her eyes filled with tears as he looked down at her but she held her head steady. Finally he released her and she looked away.
“This one is a gate keeper. And she has fey blood.”
“Then you won’t have a problem granting my wish.” Maddie’s voice trembled with excitement.
“What are you saying? I’m not fey! Ok so I can find a few weird doorways…”
“Have you any idea what a rare gift that is?” The Konig addressed Clara for the first time. “Did you not wonder where you came by that? Your fey blood grants it to you.” He looked up at Maddie “We will take her. Name your request.”
“I wish to be so beautiful that all men will desire me.” As Maddie’s voice rang out she began to change. Her heavy, lumbering body became slender and lithe. Her mud brown, lusterless hair darkened into the richest shade of mahogany, a thick and glossy curtain that swung about her to the waist. Her features fined out. Her low brow receded into a high smooth forehead with finely arched dark eyebrows. Long lashes darkened her pale eyes. She raised her hands to touch her face, a delighted smile breaking out on her full, red lips.
Clara could barely breathe let alone speak out. What had her sister done? Maddie was terrifyingly beautiful but somehow the belligerent and cruel expression she habitually wore looked even more awful on her new face. As though she had been winded Clara realized what had happened. She had been traded. This was her sister’s plan all along.
“Wait! I don’t belong to her! She can’t exchange me!”
“If that is true then we shall keep you both. We’d rather not keep prisoners but few people ever offer us girls anymore.” Clara knew that the Konig was telling the truth. She had the strange sense that she could trust him to be honest.
“You can’t keep me! You have to let me out! We made a bargain!” Maddie’s voice was just the same even at a shriek.
“True. We have to let you out but how long do you think you’ll stay out with night drawing in over the forest and the wild hunt chasing you?” The Konig’s smile was cruel. “I wouldn’t touch you, you’re hideous inside but many of my subjects are not so fussy.” He smiled wide and ravenous.
“Clara! Tell him he has to let me go!”
“Are you insane?” Clara was still scared but now she was furious too. “Why should I help you? You just sold me into slavery! And why would they listen to me?”
“But I would listen to you Clara,” the Konig’s voice was grave; “You are not a slave. You are to be my wife, in a few years time. You’ll learn we’re not so bad. I would rather not have a wife who tries to run away all the time however.”
“So… I can still make a bargain,” The wheels were turning in Clara’s head. She couldn’t see a way out of this for herself but some part of her, the fey blood perhaps, was awakening. She somehow knew she had other powers that she could learn to use in time. Power. That’s what it came down to. That’s why Maddie had made her stupid wish. If the Konig meant to marry Clara then she was safe, well safe enough. There was no telling what would happen to Maddie. Clara might now hate her sister as well as love her but she couldn’t let that happen. And she couldn’t let Maddie go with her new found beauty. What use might she make of it? Who might she influence into doing who knew what given time?
“I…I need time. Not much. But time to think. To talk to my sister.” Clara’s voice hardened. “Alone, please.”
The Konig looked at her with a shrewd expression in his eyes. “Very well. Faolon, take the girls to the lesser audience chamber. See that Orna brings them refreshments.” His eyes lingered on Clara’s and she could have sworn she saw a hint of apology in their black depths. “And lock them in.”
The wolf legged guide stepped forward and motioned them after him. Clara took a deep breath to calm herself as she plunged after him into the throng of dark elves. Perhaps they weren’t so bad. They moved away from her respectfully, some bowed. Behind her, Clara could hear Maddie breathing like a wounded bison in apparent panic. She felt a mean dart of pleasure in her sister’s discomfort. Serves you right if I can’t save you sister dear, Clara thought with some bitterness.
The lesser audience chamber was huge. It was circular with milky white stone walls veined with clear quartz. The lamps cast deep blue and violet shadows on the oddly beautiful room. There was only one chair in the room, raised slightly on a dais. Looking at it Clara decided it was the Konig’s throne. It seemed to have grown out of the milky stone of the floor in barbarian splendor. A wolf skin was draped over the seat. Clara decided that she would not be sitting there.
There were low couches made of furs and rich blue and violet velvets though. Clara settled on one feeling the tightness in her chest lessen in the well lit room. It occurred to her that it was silly to be afraid of the dark now she knew what lurked there. All the same total darkness terrified her worst of all. Could she resign herself to darkness forever? What if she stayed and then waited for a chance to escape. The Konig had indicated that he wouldn’t marry her for a few years. She would have time to gain his trust. Then one day all she had to do was get close enough to the entrance to open the portal to the human world and… Clara blushed with shame. If she took an oath to stay it would be despicable to then betray it. Especially if she made that oath in bargain for her sister’s freedom.
Clara looked at Maddie, her green eyes hard as gemstones. “Nothing to say?”
“What are you waiting for Clara? Tear a door open.”
“I cannot. Not here. I can’t reach the human world.”
“It doesn’t matter where we go you little idiot as long as we get out of here.”
“Maddie, you just traded me for a selfish wish. Why on earth would I help you?” Clara could feel her temper fraying.
“I didn’t trade you. Not really. I thought once I’d had my wish granted, that you could open and shut a door quickly and we could both get away…” Maddie’s voice withered under Clara’s hard gaze.
“Liar.” Clara drew in a deep breath. “You never intended me to get out. Well you’ve trapped yourself in your own web and made sure you were a brilliant butterfly when you did it. Well done.”
Maddie flinched at Clara’s sarcasm. Her sister had never spoken to her like that before. Maddie had assumed that Clara was too simple and sweet to know what sarcasm was.
“Clara…please. You have to get me out. You…do you have any idea what they’ll do to me? They’re a male race, Clara. What do you think they want girls for? I didn’t get myself made beautiful to be used by…” Maddie swallowed hard.
“Yet you were quite happy to hand me over to them. Your little sister.” Clara’s voice was distant. She could see beads of sweat on Maddie’s face. In truth it was taking all Clara’s will power not to look away from her sister. Maddie’s beauty was painful to look upon. And part of Clara, the little sister part that she was ruthlessly shutting away forever, wanted to cry and beg Maddie to love her back.
A sound at the door made both girls turn their heads. Clara was glad for the distraction. A squat, wide figure with leathery skin waddled in bearing a tray. It was hard to tell the figure’s gender since the head was almost bald under its wrappings and grey whiskers framed its face. The shape was somehow feminine though.
“Orna?” Clara said
“My lady.” Orna dipped what passed for a curtsey and smiled broadly, showing tusks like a boar.
“Th…thank you.” Clara nodded at the tray.
“My pleasure lady. Is there anything else I can get you?”
“No…I mean yes. Would you…would you answer some questions for me?” Clara glanced at Maddie. Her sister was looking at Orna as if she was a partially digested slug. She had already taken one of the silver goblets from the tray.
“If I can my lady.” Orna looked at Clara with opaque black eyes.
“Please…won’t you sit down?” Maddie looked scandalized and Clara took a perverse pleasure in her discomfort.
“I’m sorry,” Clara began. “I don’t mean to be rude but I don’t know what you are…?”
Orna laughed. “I’m a troll wife. The Konig took me in when my clan were all killed by ice giants. The old Konig that is. This one’s father. I’ve watched this one grow up.” Her brown leathery lips parted in a nostalgic smile.
“Are you married to one of the…the Dokkalfar?” Clara wasn’t sure what to call them. Luckily she didn’t seem to have given offence.
“Nay Lady. We can’t breed, my kind and theirs. No point for a marriage in such a case is there? But I don’t doubt you’ll bear a fine son.” Unaware that she had said anything disturbing Orna looked round beatifically. “And no doubt you will too future Queen’s sister. Play your cards right and you shall have your pick of the most important of the Konig’s men.”
Maddie’s beautiful face crumpled in horror and disgust. “They’re not men. They’re foul…Halfling…gross…disfigured…I could never. I won’t! Clara you have to get me out! You have too!” She grabbed Clara by her collar and thrust her face close. She looks almost ugly like this, Clara thought looking at the loathing twisting Maddie’s expression.
“Now none of that, if you please, Queen’s sister!” Orna pulled Maddie away without apparent effort. “A great girl like you should know by now that looks count for very little.”
Maddie cried out in disgust at Orna’s touch and went limp.
“I’d best be back about my duties Lady,” Orna smiled at Clara again. Clara smiled tentatively back.
“Just one last question Orna, please.” Clara licked her dry lips. “Is the Konig a… man of his word? Will he keep his word?”
“Always Lady. The Konig prides himself on clever trickery but never does he lie. A bargain struck is a bargain kept.” Orna sketched a curtsey again and left.
Maddie had relaxed at Orna’s last words. Clara narrowed her eyes at her.
“I’ve got questions for you too.” Clara stated. Did Maddie really think that the important thing here was not to lose her beauty? Did Clara know her at all?
“I won’t answer them.” Maddie scowled at her sister.
“You will if you want to leave,” Clara was unaware of the regal manner she had adopted but Maddie gaped at her. This was not the meek and eager to please sister she knew.
“Fine. What do you want to know?” Maddie folded her arms.
“Why, Maddie? Why do you hate me?” I won’t cry, thought Clara fiercely. I won’t.
“Why? Because you had everything. Everything! You had all the things I wanted. Do you remember last year? When the boys started to gather around me at lunch times? I thought, I’m here. I’ve made it. I’m popular. But no. It was you. They all wanted to get to know you. Through me!” Maddie almost screamed the last word. She whirled and stalked a few paces away. “You were the pretty one, so delicate and sweet. They couldn’t see what I could see; that you were just a naïve little fool! And everything you did was just so wonderful. Really. You were good at everything and you never even had to try. I watched you make those garlands earlier, thinking that they were the offering. Had you ever made a garland before?”
“No,” said Clara startled. It had just seemed that she knew how to do it.
“There you go then. No one was interested in me. And when you came in the room they all clustered round you like you were a frigging lamp and they were moths or something and I became invisible.” Flecks of saliva flew as Maddie spat the words out. She was breathing heavily. Clara wondered how long her sister had felt this way. Then decided it didn’t matter. She wanted to hug Maddie. Say sorry that she had felt ignored. Maddie’s next words turned that impulse to cold ashes.
“You know why I really hated you? With all that you had you were just so oblivious to it all. You didn’t use your beauty. You didn’t ever try to get what you wanted. You didn’t deserve what you had. I did because I would have used it. And you just …loved me. Loved me no matter what I did. You have no idea how I despised you for that. I wanted you gone.” Maddie relaxed her clenched fists and sat down.
“Thank you for finally telling me the truth,” Clara’s voice sounded cold and distant to her own ears. She had a decision to make now. She felt as if Maddie had stabbed her. It would have hurt less than knowing that it had been deliberate. That Maddie had hated her all along. One thing was for certain, she had to deal with the Konig honestly. There would be no making promises and then breaking them later. Clara was sure of that. And Maddie. What could she do with her sister if she couldn’t keep her here? Surely she was too dangerous to be let loose on the world with a dark elf gift. Even now Clara could barely stand to look at her, she was so radiant.
The door opened and Faolon came in. He bowed to Clara. “The Konig requests your decision now future Queen.” His voice was tinctured with respect.
“Thank you Faolon. I’m ready.” Clara followed him. She felt Maddie’s sharp finger dig into her back.
“What have you decided?” Maddie hissed in panic.
“You’ll see,” Clara replied in that cold, distant voice.
The crowd parted as before. Maddie squeaked as several hands pinched and tweaked at her. Several long tongues flicked out and tasted her skin. One hugely tall Dokkalfar with slate blue fur ran his five inch claws through the length of her hair. It wouldn’t be hard finding Maddie a husband, Clara mused. She stopped before the Konig. He looked down at her expectantly. Black eyes agleam.
“I will stay here and if you still want to marry me when I’ve turned eighteen I will do so willingly. But I have two conditions,” Clara began. She had loved Maddie all this time. Surely she could learn to love the Konig? She should be able to love darkness itself after what she had found out about Maddie.
“I will hear them.” The Konig inclined his head. Maddie was poised on the edge of flight.
“If you decide not to marry me yourself you will let me go.”
“Done and the second?” The Konig looked intrigued.
“Release Maddie now…” Clara heard a sigh of relief from her sister. Just how gullible does she think I am? She gave a malicious smile. “And make sure no one can ever see her new found beauty.”
“What?!” Maddie screeched at a pitch which rang off the crystal veined walls.
“Technically that’s three requests however I like the way your mind works.” He waved his paw. “It is done.”
“What have you done to my eyes? Why can’t I see anything?” Maddie’s voice was a shriek of panic. “Clara!”
Oops! Should have worded that more carefully. Then Clara decided that she really didn’t owe Maddie anything more. Without a goodbye she accepted the Konig’s offered arm and moved through the ranks of those who would one day be her subjects. They rustled and bowed around her. She didn’t glance backwards once to where Maddie was being cast back into the darkening forest with her useless gift and sightless eyes.
(Originally published by Seventh Star Press 2014)