Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Fey Prison Warden

by Scott T. Barnes


FREE
(Fey Rehabilitation and Education Edifice)

Prisoners are responsible for paying room and board.

Looting may be required.

Below that, 'Sponsored by Nookie's Bail Bonds.'

The laminated broadsheet hung in a room resembling an airport security checkpoint, with egg-shell paint, blue carpet and the pine-fresh scent of disinfectant. The Warden himself had printed: 'You can live on the straight and narrow.'

A goblin pulled on the exit's silver knob, revealing the interior of a dingy bus station. He glanced left and right at downtown San Diego's night potpourri of inhabitants, then scuttled out. The door shut behind him.

Inside FREE prison, blue-uniformed brownies resembling slightly-built hobbits distributed personal effects to the inmates filing past: glass slippers, brooms, pointy hats, rainbow-gossamer pantyhose and sundry paraphernalia. Pivios Scrump, a dapper gnome, examined the inmates' assortment of doohickeys on a table.

Today's line-up ranged from burglarious goblins, kidnapping trows (Southern trolls who found sunlight as distasteful as tie-dye corduroys, but not fatal), flashing marsh plumes and pimping pixies, to one of Grim's nasty assistants, an extortionist reaper, all on their way to pick pockets, swipe car stereos and pillage until dawn, collecting their due from society for lodging in this fine facility. Many represented the evil half of Fairy known as the Unseelie Court. Since the Anarchratic party had come to power the government had been virtually disbanded, and every facility, from parks to museums to prisons, had to pay for itself.

Brooder Maddick, FREE prison's Warden, reserved an encouraging smile for each inmate from behind a metal desk and his dog-eared copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles. A hulking half-giant with moppish gray hair ringing a bald crown, he wore a brown, tweed jacket with matching pants and clogs. A twisted, wooden stump sat across his knees.

"I trust you with the new inmate," Brooder Maddick said to Pivios Scrump, his right-hand gnome. "Everyone knows that gnomes are stubborn as starfish. The brownies might be…susceptible."

"Then assign someone of feeble mind," Pivios argued. "They're less easily persuaded. I can't be expected to screen prisoners and clean the dragon's cell."

"Don't underestimate him. Everyone's been acting strangely since he arrived."

Pivios almost let his lips curl in a smile. "As you always say, trust begets trust. I can find someone the dragon can't persuade, if you trust me."

Brooder popped an Altoid and ground it between his molars, considering. He nodded.

"I don't understand why we have to work at all," Pivios said, "being as we get nothing for it."

"It's part of the reform process; give you skills you'll need when you get out."

"I'm on death row."

"You are a pessimist, Scrump. That's your whole problem."

The Warden leaned the folding chair back to give his legs precious inches, and spotted the hamadryad. Her name was Epistrophia Woodarch, Trophi for short. The sycamore stump across Brooder's knees had been the hamadryad's tree-home before powerful magic had uprooted it. One twig and a smattering of golden, tri-pronged leaves were all that had survived, but Trophi herself recalled the tree's former beauty. Her skin shone a healthy porcelain and her hip-length hair, draped carelessly over one shoulder to spill down her chest, was the color of dunes. Her body traced sinewy curves that did not seem awkward but art, while her eyes shone emerald as new growth. She sported a dress of birch bark and moss. Scrump's mouth slumped open at the revealed cleavage. Brooder gestured with his bratwurst-sized pinkie. He did not tolerate gaping.

"It ain't right," complained Iweret Lumps, a trow, as he approached the checkpoint behind the malodorous goblin. "I only switched the baby for a changeling because it was too beautiful to be resisted. That's what the Fairy Queen expected, and you don't disappoint her. At least I didn't leave no stock of wood with a glamour spell -- I left a fairy child, real and true."

"It's in our nature," complained Finley Phlort, his trow accomplice. "Switching and kidnapping are what trows are about."

"Rowan vs. Vampire 33.5643.7B," Pivios Scrump quoted from memory. "'The nefarious nature of undead creatures is not admissible as a defense', Judge Krob ruled. Later court rulings interpreted Undead to apply to all creatures, living, undead or fey. 'Every man, beast or thinking creature is ultimately responsible for his own actions and how those affect society around him.'" Pivios Scrump had an annoying lilt to his voice that bespoke big city snob, completely incongruous with his grizzled face. He always wore an Armani suit, power tie with a small, precise knot, golden pin and pink shirt with matching hanky. "You ought to be cleverer," Scrump continued, "no zombies have yet set foot here, yet their nature has got to be as evil as yours."

"Blow it out your ear," Iweret replied.

"Good day, Trophi," Brooder said. The hamadryad smiled and Brooder's ears blushed crimson.

"Hello, what's this?" Pivios exclaimed. The Brownies halted the line of inmates; Brooder gently put down The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Pivios Scrump was poking around the goblin's top hat.

"Give me my Bell Crown," the goblin growled, "there's nothing to see." He reached for it, but a raised eyebrow from the Warden restrained him.

A secret compartment popped open, and several watches tumbled onto the screening table. "Ah ha," Pivios said. He held up a feminine Tissot and diamond-studded Rolex. "You've been swiping on the sly."

Brooder slapped the top of his desk. "I didn't write that message for nothing!" His bratwurst indicated the 'straight and narrow.' "You owe those watches to FREE. I'll see that parole is denied. And your rent is to be doubled. Bring me 80 dollars by morning, or you'll be bunking with the Swamp Thing."

"I'd rather turn to stone."

"You'll do nothing of the kind. You'll be back before morning with your dues." Brooder scowled until the goblin muttered a "yes sir." Then the brownie guards ushered him out.

"The goblin won't come back," said Trophi. "Goblins hate imprisonment."

"Mind your own business," Brooder snapped at Trophi. It was an unexpected outburst, and everyone quit talking immediately. "Go to your streetwalking and leave me in peace."

Trophi burst into tears and fled.

There was shocked silence all round. Nearly a full minute passed.

Finally, Scrump stood and fluffed the pillow he'd been sitting on. "Not that it's any of my business, but you don't know that Trophi's been selling herself. You, of all people, should give her the benefit of the doubt."

"You've seen the x-rays, same as me; her tree feeds on man-flesh." The Warden's hand nervously caressed the smooth bark of the sycamore. "Hamadryads are vile creatures, playing on man's weakness for beauty."

Scrump looked slyly at him. "If I didn't know you like the pit of my arm, I'd say you were stuck on her."

"She's beyond reform."

There was chortling and whispering among the prisoners.

"You've been carrying that sycamore around like a talisman. I'd bet my best cummerbund you take it to bed with you."

"I do not take it to bed with me." Brooder was blushing furiously.

"You are in love. I'll be damned."

A tremble emanated from the reaper. Scrump dove behind the Warden's desk, screeched, "I was only talking." The trow scrambled for the door and a marsh plume lit itself afire in fear.

The Warden jumped before the reaper, brandishing the sycamore stump like a club. He thundered, "You won't be damning anybody until you serve your sentence."

The reaper's left eye blinked uncontrollably.

Scrump let out a long, slow sigh. He fluttered his hanky above the table. "Go on, go on, and take your sickle on the way out. Nice reaper." He didn't crawl back into his seat until the reaper was gone. "How could you let that one out at night?" he asked. "He is a menace."

But Brooder was preoccupied with something else. "Maybe there's some way she can reform. If she planted next to the blood bank…"

"She'd rob it," Scrump replied.

"She could concentrate on zombies, or monkeys…or she could work on death row." Brooder perked up. "The condemned would be lining up for that sort of execution…"

"Don't even think it," Scrump said. "I have several more appeals to go. Trophi will starve before she sees any of this gnome flesh."

Brooder sighed and sat heavily on his chair. "Now the whole prison will think I'm in love." For a half giant, he was highly sensitive to his own image, and to dust. He hated dust and messiness. Perhaps that's why he had offered the job to annoying Pivios Scrump -- they shared a dislike for dust.

The line of prisoners was moving again.

Scrump said, "I know you don't want my advice, but I am going to give it anyway. You had better leave well enough alone. The Sheriff seems to have taken a fondness for Trophi Woodarch. He asked to see her on his last three visits."

The Warden got a foul expression. "Sheriff Coughman is an elected representative of the Anarchratics. What he wants with the prisoners is his business." He thumped Scrump on the back with a hairy hand. "Besides, I'm a tenured employee of San Diego County. Nothing the good Sheriff can do to me."

Scrump shook his head. "I read in the Daily Tarot that in Europe, one in fifty people works for some form of government."

"Next you'll predict they will try to tax our income." Everyone cringed at the nasty, three-letter word. He waved off Scrump's response. "While you are thinking about how to answer that in 100 words or less, get the maintenance brownies to clean up this dust. Draft a letter to the family of the marsh plume, tell them I'm sorry, it was another case of spontaneous combustion. I'm going to get some shuteye."

The Warden deliberately put the hamadryad's stump in the evidence locker, next to the can of Goblin-be-Gone. He closed the door quickly, but he was slow to turn from it. His eyes rested on the sign again. 'You can live on the straight and narrow.'

Pivios Scrump grinned slyly at his departing form.

The Warden only slept a couple of hours. Nightmares of burning had woken him, and not even a bottle of elfin Drowsiness put him back to sleep. He walked down death row, past the reaper's cell (who wasn't technically sentenced to death, Grim having refused to collect him), Pivios' empty quarters and a dozen other cells. FREE extended for miles in either dimension, Fey and Mundane, and Brooder doubted he would live long enough to explore it all.

But tonight he knew precisely where he was going. He brushed past a trow toting a mop and bucket, was that Iweret, back already? The trow had made the corridor as spotless as a wedding dress. Scrump must have chosen him to clean the dragon's cell. The cheerful cleanliness helped alleviate the doom in Brooder's weighty step. Ever since the new prisoner had arrived, he had dreamed of doom, and doom always gave him a headache.

He stopped at door 17 and flipped the light.

A small rectangular room appeared behind the two-inch vinyl door, with a cot with white linen, a toilet, a sink and a golden-haired child. The child was lying on top of the cot, curled into a fetus ball and resting his head on his hands. One of his eyes was cracked open. After a few seconds, the boy stirred, then slowly rolled to sit on the bed. He rubbed his eyes with his fists.

The Warden had spent 38 years at this job, and despite his best efforts he knew his heart had grown hard. So many inmates would cry innocent while plunging a knife into your back. But seeing this child, Brooder's heart fluttered like dragonflies mating. "A ward of the state," he said. As one of only 33 tenured employees in San Diego County, he sometimes felt himself to be a ward of the state as well. "How unusual. Tell me why you are here."

"Are you going to torture me?"

It was in such a soft, innocent voice, Brooder was flooded with pity. "No," he said, and gulped. The thought was terrifying to him. He pictured the poor boy, chained upside down and brownies poised on a ladder, smashing the child's feet with wooden clubs. They forced him to limp past jeering prisoners towards a room in which unspeakable beings dwelled. Where hamadryads sucked life through broken toes. Brooder concentrated, tried to clear his mind before emotion overwhelmed him. "What deviltry are you capable of?" he asked through gritted teeth.

The child grinned, an adult gesture. This was no mere human child. Self loathing was receding, leaving shallowness. The Warden knew seeds had been planted in his subconscious, but which seeds? Would he see them sprouting before it was too late? He forced himself to keep a businesslike tone. "The state pays your keep. That means you're too dangerous to be out collecting dues like the others."

"And you, Brooder Maddick, you are not dangerous? You are part angel."

"I am half giant."

"The children of humans and fallen angels," the boy replied.

"That's what gives me my gentle disposition." Brooder bent nearer to the boy's height. "All creatures are born with good in them, if you are willing to search for it. Together, we could take the streets back from the Unseelie Court. We would have a profitable prison then, and a grateful public." Visions of becoming a hero blossomed in Brooder's imagination. He wasn't a simple prison Warden, but a defender of the public interest. Never mind that he let the prisoners out at night to steal for their keep, the public chose not to pay for it and they accepted minor crime as the best, free-market solution.

The boy stood and padded over to the vinyl door. His feet were cushioned in sheepskin slippers. "You cannot escape," said Brooder. A bead of sweat pooled across his forehead. "There are wards against it."

"Then open the door."

With a swift hand, Brooder pulled a card key from his pocket and released the mechanism. The door swung open and the child burst into laughter. His blue eyes were slit vertically, and the pupils shrank. He sounded less and less like a boy and more like the dragon he was.

Suddenly the beeper sounded on Brooder's belt. He checked the call, looked back at his prisoner. "We'll talk later." He started to close the door, thought better of it, and left it wide open. He strode quickly to the elevators, took them up 6 floors to street level, and walked another 100 feet back to his office, where Scrump was waiting for him with the Sheriff of San Diego County and a goblin. Sheriff Roger Coughman was a tan, square man, and Brooder had never seen him wearing anything other than a gray suit. One of his front teeth had been knocked out and replaced by shiny gold, which flashed as he talked.

"Trophi's missing," Pivios Scrump said, before Brooder fully entered his office.

"What do you mean?"

"She didn't come back with the others."

Brooder flung open the evidence locker. Her sycamore was still there, still intact.

The Sheriff was fuming. "How could you have let her go!"

Brooder glared at the gnome, who shrugged. Slowly he closed the closet, uneasy about letting the sycamore out of his sight but unwilling to give Coughman a glimpse. "She's got to pay her rent, just like all the others. The state didn't offer to do it for her."

"I will pay her rent."

"I wouldn't have presumed."

"Well, presume." The Sheriff paced, then looked sidewise at the Warden. "How did you learn that word?" He waved the thought away. "Never mind. Presume in this case."

"She's got to come back tonight," Scrump said. "If she doesn't return to her tree, she'll wither like marshmallows in a campfire."

"I know what will happen to her," Brooder said. "Why do you care so much about Ms. Woodarch?" he asked the Sheriff. "You know what she does to men that fall under her spell? She takes them to her tree, feeds their bodies to the roots, and beds the soul."

Scrump rolled his eyes. "Such drama!"

Sheriff Coughman waggled his finger in the Warden's face. "She is not a danger. Her tree is safely in here, isn't it?" He swung his arm around to indicate the evidence locker and Brooder made an affirmative gesture. "Suitably shriveled. She has little power left. You keep her from planting it in soil and she's easily manageable. Too easily, it appears. Someone has kidnapped her."

Brooder glanced at his wrist and saw a couple of new freckles. "Scrump?"

Scrump glanced at his new Rolex. "3:24 AM," he said.

"We don't know that she's been kidnapped. There are still hours of darkness left. She probably fears to come back empty-handed."

"Nevertheless," the Sheriff said, "that is not what I believe. One of your guests may be able to shed some light on the matter."

Brooder spun on the goblin. He repressed an urge to spray the green, repellent creature with Goblin-Be-Gone. "What are you doing here?"

The goblin held up a dead pheasant. "From Mutts Matter Pet Store, sir. The owner's not paid his rent, so the police have flung open the doors. It is free for the pickings."

Brooder took the pheasant and stuffed it into a beefy pocket. "Then it isn't worth much, if you didn't even have to steal it. I'll credit you for one day, but no more."

Scrump said, "He saw something."

The goblin said, "I saw the hamadryad with Fin Vera."

A chill settled in the air at the mention of the Unseelie Court Don.

"Where did they go?"

"How much is it worth?"

Brooder grabbed the prisoner by the ear and twisted. The goblin tripped over his tongue to say, "They were at the Briggs Hotel, they went upstairs..."

"I'll kill him," the Sheriff seethed.

The Warden released his hold. He turned so that none of the others could see his pained expression. "The matter's settled then. You know where to find him, Sheriff. Bring the hamadryad's rent when you come." He scrunched himself behind his desk, picked up a pencil and started writing. The lead nearly scratched through the paper.

"No, no, no," Sheriff Coughman said. "I'm in the middle of election campaigning, this is too delicate a matter."

Scrump said, "What you mean to say is that the Unseelie Court contributed to your campaign."

Brooder held up a hand. He called a brownie guard to take the goblin back to his cell and left him with strict orders not to admit any visitors.

When the brownie and goblin had gone, the Sheriff said, "She disappeared on your watch, Brooder Maddick, trying to get your booty. You recover her, don't pretend you can't. You have the most established ring of thieves in San Diego. I'll let you stay as long as you keep it under complete control." He snapped his fingers. "But I can have you replaced like that. And don't think your tenure will protect you. I can't fire you, but I can guarantee you will be guarding an anthill for the next 50 years."

Brooder should have defended his reformist policies but he was too angry to think. Rather than lash out, he popped two Altoids and crushed them, blasting his mouth with mint. With his anger somewhat under control, he muttered, "Fin Vera is the top lieutenant of the Unseelie Court in San Diego. Half the prisoners are on his payroll, or were. They can't be trusted."

The Sheriff said, "If I can help, I will do so, as long as my name is never whispered."

"I need your seal on an Unconditional Release Form." Brooder whipped one out of his desk. "Authorizing me to set a prisoner free. Rest assured I won't release anyone that hasn't changed his ways."

"You have less than three hours until sunrise."

Brooder raised an eyebrow.

"Yes, full authority -- for three hours. But if..."

"That's not good enough."

The Sheriff nearly trembled in rage. "I am not going to put my name on any URF."

Brooder deliberately filed the form back into his desk. "Then we'll have to let Trophi die. She won't be any use to Fin Vera in another few hours anyway. Problem solved."

"A fight with Fin Vera will bring calamity on San Diego."

"Not a fight. A trade. Come now, Sheriff, you thought of this as well or you wouldn't have come here."

"Then you have my permission. But give me your word my name will never be mentioned." The Sheriff pulled a Hickory Pledge Stick from his pant's pocket. "You swear to this, Brooder Maddick, and if you break your pledge, your jaw will never flap; your hands will no longer grasp nor your feet dance; your nose will not inhale a lilac's sweep perfume. In short, your limbs will cease to function." In the presence of the redoubtable Pledge Stick, the Warden swore never to reveal the Sheriff's role in the bargain.

The Sheriff then stamped the URF and stood back, apparently satisfied. "If Trophi Woodarch is harmed in any way, you will deal with me."

After the Sheriff had gone, Scrump said, "You have no idea what you're getting yourself into."

"Sheriff Coughman made his bargain with the Pledge Stick in his trousers, he'll have to abide by it."

Scrump fingered a mole behind his ear. "I know what you're thinking, but it is far too dangerous. You can't trade the dragon."

"If the dragon gives his word, he will be bound by it."

"That's what the legend says, but no one's lived to tell how to bind them correctly."

"He'll abide by it." Brooder drummed his fingers on the desk, trying to imagine how Holmes would have solved this one. "It's in his nature," he muttered.

The Warden, Scrump and what seemed a groggy child rode the red trolley across town. The Warden stood between Pivios and the strange boy, who hadn't said a word since they had left FREE. Pre-Dawn smoldered in the east. An ad for the Fey Reader featured a djinn appearing in smoke out of a 5 gallon gas can with the headlines: "Dawn of the Gasoline Age?" Brooder nearly cursed under his breath. "That means more SUVs. They are more dangerous than drunken witches on cloud-pine brooms."

The weather promised to be perfect, as usual for San Diego since the Wizard's Guild had driven the Foul Weather Kelpies to San Francisco. The trolley stopped in front of the multi-level, orange stucco Horton Plaza. The Mexican-style fountain gargled, palm fronds waved like swords and diesel fumes battled the salt air. Election posters plastered the walls for Sheriff Coughman, alongside a loud banner proclaiming: "Vote Nouveau Reconstructionist, all rally behind Ulysses Simpson Grant." The Briggs loomed in the distance.

"Did they finally resurrect Grant?" the Warden asked. He was thinking of changing his vote, just for chuckles.

"No, it was far too costly," Pivios replied. "They re-animated his zombie. He doesn't stand a ghost of a chance."

Brooder winced at the terrible word play.

The djinn winked at them from the Fey Reader as they exited. The Warden propelled the child along with a firm hand on his shoulder. They had to skirt around a pile of rubble where a dozen dwarves wearing Hawaiian shirts and flashing the latest digital gadgetry had tunneled through. A band of harpies clutching surfboards buzzed down Broadway.

Suddenly one of the harpies shrieked, "He's got a peacock feather!" She dropped her long board, which shattered on the blacktop in fiberglass shards. "It's Fin Vera."

Everyone on the street dove for cover. The harpies shrilled like eunuchs in the Inquisition.

"Quiet!" boomed the Unseelie Don. He was a dark little man in his early 40s with pointed ears, somewhere between brownie and dark elf, wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots, with a v-neck tee and gold chains around his neck. His blond, wavy hair was bleached from the sun. "Sing and I'll sell you to Colonel Sanders."

The harpies' voices choked off. They flapped about awkwardly, their surfboards clutched catawampus in trembling claws.

"Get outta here," Fin ordered, brandishing his 3-foot long, blue and green feather. The harpies sped toward the Santa Fe Railroad station and safety. Click, click, clickclickclick. The dwarves prairie-dogged up from their tunnel, cameras flashing furiously.

"Scram," Fin roared, and they dove. Dirt spewed as they raced to plug the entrance. Doors were barred. Shutters closed. In seconds, Broadway was deserted.

Pivios tried to loosen his tie with a sweaty hand. He reeked of overworked deodorant. Brooder moved to the middle of the street, facing Fin Vera, the child at his side. Goblins spilled from three micro breweries, Horton Plaza's parking garage, and Horny Toad's Adult Boutique. They stalked the sidewalks, surrounding Brooder and his companions.

Fin faced the Warden from the double line of a four-lane highway, one hand bobbing his peacock feather. "You have something for me," he said. The feather seemed to be gazing with an enormous, green eye.

"Where's Trophi?" Brooder asked.

"Trophi?" Fin grinned with his lips. "That's nice; you're on a first name basis." He motioned with his feather, and a troll dragged Trophi into the street. Her hair was disheveled, her face dirty and her dress torn. She was more beautiful than ever.

Two more trolls dressed in cowboy duds and shiny, black boots exited Flaming Nick's Coffee and dropped their caramel macchiatos with a loud squelch. Their gnarled fingers twitched.

"Hold your men," Brooder said. "The dragon has pledged on a Hickory Pledge Stick; no hamadryad, and no deal."

Fin's countenance hardened. "What did he pledge?"

The goblins edged closer, hanging on Fin's word.

Brooder allowed himself a smile. "Give me Trophi and you don't have to find out."

The tension could have given a three-toed sloth an ulcer.

Finally Fin laughed. "Okay Brooder. Have your hamadryad. Don't look too carefully about her roots." He grabbed a fistful of Trophi's hair. "She's not really blond as you think." He propelled her forward. Brooder gave the boy a gentle shove, and the prisoners walked past one another. The child ambled as if unaware of what was happening.

The goblins parted. Brooder took Trophi's hand, turned his back on Vera, and the companions walked to the trolley. Trophi's fingers trembled. Scrump turned blue from holding his breath.

No one followed.

Back at the prison, the Warden, Scrump and Trophi Woodarch waited in the security checkpoint as the last of the prisoners straggled in. Some had been unable to pilfer rent, and they would share the common room with the Swamp Thing, as promised. (The Swamp Thing had been chronically deficient in fund-garnering since his movie rights had lapsed). The hamadryad's stump sat beneath Brooder's desk.

Brooder was trying to explain his line of reasoning to a confused Pivios Scrump. "What good would Trophi here be to the Unseelie Court for only a few hours? If Fin Vera didn't have her tree, he would have nothing. It didn't make any sense."

"They knew you cared for Trophi," Scrump noted. "One of the prisoners told them."

"That's why I knew Fin's real purpose was to free the dragon."

"Which you did," Pivios said. "You mean to say that your whole plan was to give the Unseelie Court exactly what it wanted? Why didn't you come out and say it?"

"The night is not over."

"You're being too clever by half."

Brooder harrumphed. He ran his fingers through his remaining hair. "You are a pessimist."

The last of the prisoners entered, dropping their loot onto the table for examination. Scrump and the brownies were busy tallying and crediting the prisoners' cells with the proper amounts. A hellhound put its paws on the desk and slobbered, "Yes, it's a Pissarro, and it ain't even stolen."

Brooder looked suspicious. "Are you sure?"

"I found it in my grandmother's attic."

"It's filthy," Scrump complained. "There's drool all over it, and the dog breath will never come off."

"I expect a feather mattress and Milkbones, in perpetuity," the hellhound said.

Scrump looked at Brooder, who nodded.

"And a view of the SPCA."

"Don't push it."

A uniformed pixie buzzed up. "You have a visitor."

"Fairy, human or..."

But he wasn't able to finish. The Fairy Queen herself burst through the visitor's entrance and into the screening room, dragging a leprechaun behind, biting her ankle. "I couldn't stop 'er, sir," the leprechaun said, his voice muffled.

"That's all right, Harvey, let her go."

The leprechaun disengaged himself then barked. The Fairy Queen was well over 7 feet tall with bronze skin and azure hair and eyebrows. She wore a sleeveless, white dress and yellow poppies were woven around her biceps. She slung a struggling, singed canvas bag over one shoulder, and she didn't look pleased about it.

She kicked at the leprechaun, who yelped and dashed back the way he had come.

"What is the meaning of this?" she snarled.

"This is my prison," Brooder retorted. "How dare you come barging in here without an appointment."

"The dragon was a prisoner of FREE, as was the trow Iweret. And somehow they both escaped on the same day. How do you explain that?"

Brooder looked at his wrist. "Scrump?"

"Five minutes to five."

"They haven't escaped until 5:00 AM. For now, they are loot-gathering to pay their rent."

"The dragon burned half the fairy mound before I subdued him."

"You'll have to lodge a complaint with Sheriff Coughman. I have the forms here," the Warden said, pulling out several sheets of paper.

The Fairy Queen huffed and tossed the bag on the floor. "I'll have my fairies take care of it."

Brooder asked, "Where's the trow?"

"In the bag with the dragon. He might be a little crisp. That's what he gets for bringing a wyvern to the Seely Court." She winked haughtily out of Mundania.

"Scrump," the Warden said, "take the dragon back to his cell. And see if Iweret is repairable. You may need another spontaneous combustion form. We can stretch the definition a little bit on this one. And Pivios, don't open the bag until you are inside the cell."

"How did you do it?" Scrump asked.

"I put Iweret's name on the Unconditional Release Form. I had seen Iweret cleaning death row and the dragon's cell, and I knew the trow couldn't leave without snatching him. The child was too beautiful to resist. After all, it's in their nature."

"A changeling," Scrump said. "Iweret switched the dragon child for a changeling."

"A glamour, to be exact. By midday Fin Vera will have adopted a lump of wood."

When they were alone, Brooder turned an expectant eye to the hamadryad.

She looked abashed. "It was Fin Vera's idea," Trophi said. "He promised he would pay for my rent for the rest of my sentence. I hate stealing for it, I hate it."

"Actually, I suspect it was the Sheriff's idea," countered Brooder. "Setting the dragon free was probably the Unseelie Court's price for support in the campaign. Roger Coughman could use some FREE-style re-education himself."

The Warden pulled a release from his desk and brushed off the trow's name with some Name-Out. "Now that Iweret's back, I still have one blank release. Take it." He handed Trophi the form and the stump that once had been her sycamore.

"You are setting me free?"

"Please don't plant too near the urban sprawl or you'll be returning for a longer visit." Brooder began filling out the endless paperwork that came with being one of only 33 tenured employees in San Diego County. The hamadryad signed the form with a shaky hand. "Door's open," he said. He didn't look up again until long after the room was empty. And if any fairy folk had cloaked themselves in invisibility and lingered in the antechamber, as they sometimes did, they would have seen a surprising teardrop make its way down Brooder's nose and blotch Trophi Woodarch's release.

THE END


© 2008 Scott T. Barnes

Bio: Scott T. Barnes has been published in many Science Fiction and Fantasy magazines, including Reflections Edge, Bewildering Stories, Midnight Times, Static Movement, Nite Blade and others. Scott T. Barnes also edits the Webzine New Myths.

E-mail: Scott T. Barnes

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