Aphelion Issue 260, Volume 25
April 2021
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

The Elves of Tierra del Fuego

by Tracy Shew




I was journeying south, to South America, to the knuckle-bone and finger pointing out to the very edge of the world.

I had been called to be Opheries, Duke of Nicaragua, an honorary title to be sure. Elves’ idea of governance is no governance at all; nothing to ruin or impinge on our endless lives of freedom and pleasure. Still, we were called to the Council of Nine to periodically serve, in name mostly. This appointment rotated every once in a while to give different elves the opportunity and displeasure of having an official title.

Now it was my turn. I certainly did not relish the idea, but would suffer terrible embarrassment if I refused. I told myself it would likely be only for a few decades, which made it seem more bearable.

The appointment ceremony was to be held in Tierra Del Fuego, the "Land of Fire," so named because some early human explorers had mistaken clinging mist about the islands for smoke. Here, because it was far from dense civilization and any possible human prying eyes. It was also a place of magic.

We elves know about the world of men. Some poor, mad elves have even seen it. I could almost imagine it as I glided through Patagonia –- the endless farms and roads, the electrical lines strung out over everything like a great spider’s web. And the cities, with their gleaming towers rising above the squalor and stink of the slums. But I could see none of it. Everything to me was pleasant green virgin countryside. Only an occasional shaved thicket or hedgerow showed any sense of the fight of progress against overwhelming nature. Everything else was a moss green pincushion, punctuated with occasional standing stones and lonely stands of dreary woods.

They say it is dangerous to see the world of men –-dangerous, and deadly. Once you can see the world of men, they can see you. It twists you, and puts you into humans’ stories –- stories in which our kind of folk usually lose. Once that happens all of your joy becomes despair, and you become capable of tears. This is true death for an elf –- we, who should live endless lives of frivolity but often do not.

I could feel the ley lines thrumming as I approached the point of land where my brothers and sisters would be gathered. I was giddy in anticipation. I knew there would be hundreds of elves there –- perhaps thousands. Many elves I had never met. I could almost forget that I was going to be created a Duke. I was simultaneously excited and yet also already stupendously bored.

I alighted outside the clearing where the ceremony would take place. It was a broad ring covered by grass, over a hectare across, where seven hedgerows converged on a tall ringed hedge. It looked nothing like the human "Tierra Del Fuego" –- no bleak shoreline and black stones (or so I’ve heard mad elves describe it). Not even the same geography. It looked, like everything in our world did, like pleasant English countryside. The only sign of life was a dilapidated wooden entry stand, near a broad breech in the hedge, where a modest cobble track led to the interior.

"Ticket?"

I handed my periwinkle to the tall female elf at the stand. I couldn’t help noticing she had the most fascinating golden-green eyes, like an exotic species of cat. She noticed me noticing, and smiled demurely.

"Are there many other elves here?" There were no signs of another living soul, an effect of the powerful magic of this place. No decorations, no music -- just a broad, empty field.

"Oh, not too many. You’re very early."

"I didn’t want to be late for my installment to the Council."

"Oh, you’re THAT Sarion." Her eyes ignited with sudden interest.

"Yes," I said. Then I considered, perhaps this tender elf maiden needed a more direct compliment, so I added: "Or, perhaps I’m only early because I wanted to see you."

She dropped her gaze and her voice. "You desire me?"

"Yes, of course." That was all it took.

She looked quickly around until she found one of her friends to take her place at the ticket stand. A minute later, we were running hand-in-hand giggling along one of the transverse hedgerows on the exterior of the ring to find a nice secluded spot. We both turned invisible as we went, so no one would follow us. I held her hand tightly as we ran, she pulling me along like a child in snap-the-whip. An hour from now, I knew I would have scant memory of this elf damsel or what we were about to do. But for the moment, I let this brief interlude consume my entire world, feeling life and her magical laughter coursing through me.

Instants later, we had found our spot, turned visible again so we could gaze at one another, and became utterly engaged with each other. So much so, I’m surprised to say, that I had a most singular experience. One moment, I was holding this voluptuous elf maiden in my arms and about to kiss, and the next I was entirely somewhere else. I experienced a moment where my spirit left my body, for just a heartbeat. For an elf, a heartbeat could last hours.

I stood in a darkened theater, with marble columns and rich velvet curtains. It was a very human-looking place, or so I imagined. I had just enough time to wonder what I was doing there when stage lights came up. They illuminated a golden throne, and a being which sat upon velvet cushions. At first, this being had its face hidden from me, but before I could speak, he turned. It was a visage of horror: black, white, red, with protruding fangs and wide staring eyes, like a snake or a fish. He wore a golden crown and scarlet robes, and held a scepter tipped with a skull and a golden chalice filled with fuming poison in his claw-like hands.

I recognized him, for I had seen him once before: Xiroz, the Unknown God. This was the elven God of Death.

He spoke my name.

"Yes, my Lord Xiroz." It is wise to be polite to any god you meet, especially if they already know your name.

"Do you remember, one thousand months ago, when I appeared to you and gave you my oracle?"

"Yes, Lord."

"What was it?"

"You said that I would save all of elven kind from disaster. You said I would keep our world from dissolving into the world of men forever."

"Yes. You remember well. I told you this so you could prepare the last eighty years of your life for this. And now the hour is at hand. Now you must fulfill your destiny."
"
I was skeptical.

"My Lord, I have a question."

"Yes?"

"If you are indeed the Lord of Death, why would the death of all elves as our world dissolves not serve your purposes? Surely, that is what you desire." I had had a lot of time to think about this.

Xiroz grimaced. It was not a pleasant sight to behold.

"Fool elf! It is my pleasure to strip sanity and life from elves one by one, not all at once. If they all die, all at once, how am I to relieve my boredom? My desire now is to save all of elven kind so I may doom them as I wish. See the light and wonder go out from their sad, pathetic eyes as I rip away their minds."

"Yes, my Lord. I see."

"You had best not see. Just do exactly as I say, or else you doom all of elven kind."

"Yes, my Lord. What must I do?"

"You will understand. When that moment comes, be a true elf. Be more elf than elf. Demonstrate that, to everyone. Yet, at the same time, do not be an elf."

I tried to ask, "My Lord, how do I do that?" But the Death God’s wicked laughter filled the vision. It all dissolved, and I was again back in my body, with the elf maiden, and I had already plucked her flower. Then, I considered Xiroz’s laughter, and I understood: He had stolen my moment of pleasure from me.


*****



"They say that men can fly now, in their world. Like elves, except not like elves. They need a machine to fly, something made of metal. And unlike us elves, it can carry them across the water – across the ocean – to other lands."

I was in conversation with three other elves at the feast before the ceremony. Everyone seemed to be talking mostly about humans, and the progress they were making in their world. Now that I was on the interior of the circle, I could see all the tables and fairy lights, hear the music, and be assaulted by the drunken revelry of the guests –- those that cared to be visible.

"What’s an ocean?" one of my companions asked.

"You know –- the area at the edge of the world. The restless water. The Place Where Elves Do Not Go."

"We should not speak of such things," one wizened gray elf said.

"Why not? There is no harm in it.”

"Harm? Must something be harmful in order to not be wrong?"

This was not a popular opinion. The elf relating the human stories just snorted. "If something is not harmful, it may still be fun."

"True," the wizened elf admitted. "But it may also be deadly. Elves belong in the elven world, and humans in the human world. Anything else leads to stories, and madness."

I was distracted by a commotion in the clearing. Some elves had just carried in the current Opheries of Nicaragua, the one I was going to replace. He had to be carried in since he was unconscious, and fully visible. The only way he could be forced to attend the ceremony was for certain elves to pour drink in him and keep him dancing until he dropped into insensibility. Now, they dumped his body in front of the king and queen, and everyone stood to laugh at the hapless elf. As they laughed, their mirth made them alternatively visible and invisible, so the whole company became like a thousand twinkling fireflies.

I knew soon Oberon would make his speech, and then it would be my turn to be laughed at.

"I say, friend elf." It was the wizened elf who spoke to me, distracting me from the spectacle. "You’re about to be installed on the Council as a Duke. That might be an important thing. What’s your position on all of this? What example do you intend to set?"

"My position?"

"Yes, on discussing all this human stuff. When you are created Duke, will you discourage it?"

I looked at the gray elf and tried not to scowl at him, even though I did not like what he was saying.

"Of what possible difference does it make? How does my ‘position’ on this matter at all, to any elf?"

The gray elf looked taken aback, but a moment later he said, "True, true. Very sensible attitude. Very elf-like. You’ll make a fine Duke, you will."

And so it went. I said "Excuse me" to the small group and started moving through the crowd, trying not to run into anyone who was invisible. I moved closer to the head of the table, where Oberon was standing. Now that the incumbent Duke was there, the king would likely be about to make his speech, and I’d be sworn in. I felt like a frog stuck in the bill of a cormorant, about to be swallowed.

These might as well all be humans, I thought. Every conversation I heard was the same. Human this, human that. People were actually concerned what I would do when I was installed as Duke. As if running the country of Nicaragua was even remotely in my agenda.

I realized then that the God of Death had been telling the truth. Our world was being threatened by new ideas. We were on the verge of losing it all, of becoming like men. When we did, our world would dissolve into theirs, and we would die.

Oberon stood beside his queen, with a warm goblet of wine in his hand. I noted he had put on weight in the last hundred years – too much weight. He looked more like a human or a fat pig than an elf. He held his hand up for silence, and the music and revelry died down.

"Elves and elfesses," he said. "Fairies, sprites, nymphs, dryads, pixies and other assorted denizens of the Sylvan world. Welcome all to this feast."

Great cheering ensued, which caused Oberon to wave his hands for silence.

"Today, we are thanking the current Duke Opheries of Nicaragua for his fifty years of service. Well done!"

Two elves held the unconscious elf into a semblance of a sitting position, and everyone clapped. Again, Oberon called for silence. He was known for dragging speeches on to intolerability, and this one was no exception – it had already gone on twenty seconds. Many of the sprites and pixies had already begun to fly away.

"Now, we are gathered here, in remote Tierra Del Fuego, to name this elf –- uhh, what’s your name?"

"Sarion," I called out.

"Sarion, to be the next Opheries of Nicaragua, and take his place on the Council of Nine Dukes of Central America."

Stupendous applause. Oberon called for silence.

"Before I place the Golden Laurel on his head, and we all drink ourselves into utter stupefaction, does any elf here have anything to say against or in behalf of this elf?"

A moment’s pause, with everyone anxious to renew their drinking and dancing, then suddenly someone shouted "Stop!" This brought audible groans from at least a third of the elves, disappointed the ceremony would evidently go on even longer, as a pair of elves worked their way up through the crowd. I recognized one of them – the female elf I had had a tryst with earlier. The other was a male elf I didn’t know. The two of them moved up to stand before Oberon.

"And you are?"

"Galens. And I have a serious charge to make regarding this elf."

"Oh? Which is?"

The elf did not answer, but simply took an object out of his pocket, and flung it on the table before the king. Everyone craned their necks to see. It was a small flower – a marigold. It looked to have been recently plucked, so it was beginning to wilt.

The king took a look at the flower, then sidled his gaze up at the elf maiden. "I assume this is yours?"

The elf maiden, her eyes closed in shame, only nodded. Everyone gasped. Some of the nymphs in the crowd tittered.

The male elf started speaking, pointing a finger at me. "He plucked her flower. Against her will, you understand? He forced himself on her."

The queen was whispering something in Oberon’s ear, and he looked confused for a moment. Then he asked the girl, tenderly, "Is this true?"

The girl nodded.

"Well, then," the king said. "What of it? No harm done. This elf maiden obviously has a lot of flowers in her garden."

"No harm done? No harm done? Sire, this elfess is my wife!"

"Oh, well that’s another matter. We can’t have the Duke of Nicaragua dallying around in other peoples’ wives’ gardens. It wouldn’t set a good example."

I couldn’t believe my ears. The elfess had been lying all along. I now saw our moment of pleasure was all a setup, just a pretense to get me into a compromised position. I recognized the flower of course. Probably the elf –- who looked way too unintelligent to be the elfess’s husband –- had recovered it from behind the hedgerow where I dropped it right after we finished. The elfess had led me to that particular spot. The elf may even have been watching.

The humans had a word for this: It was extortion. I had heard this word before, but I never thought I’d see an elf engage in it. And now, the king himself was talking about "setting an example," as if I’d actually be a leader when I was Duke. The God of Death was right. The elven world was crumbling, right before my eyes, becoming almost human.

While I considered my next move, the other elf –- Galens –- was trying to convince King Oberon that he should be named Duke instead of me. The king was stroking his chin, listening to poison.

It was now or never.

"Sire!" I said loudly, and all eyes turned to me. "This elf is lying. He just wants to be named Duke instead of me."

The king looked confused for a moment. "Then, you didn’t pluck this elf maiden’s flower?"

"Yes, I did. But she offered it to me of her own free will." Considerable gasps at this. "And we both enjoyed it. A lot." Even more gasps.

"This is a very serious charge." He turned to the maiden. "What do you have to say about this?"

The girl answered in a very small voice. "My Lord, I have no idea what that elf is talking about."

"Well, she says no. I think that makes it very clear. Two against one."

Galens was smiling. I had to do something.

"Sire, I invoke the ancient rite of challenge by combat!" I said this very loudly, trying to sound commanding.

"What ancient rite?"

"The one I just made up right now."

"How does it work?"

"Well, this elf and I fight a duel to the death. Whoever wins is vindicated and becomes Duke of Nicaragua. All charges against the winner are dropped."

"And the loser?"

"He’s dead. We have a feast in his memory."

"Oh! That sounds like fun. But is it legal?" Another human-like question, which stung in my ears. Queen Titania leaned over, and whispered something into the king’s ear. "It’s legal! Let us have a duel to the death, and then another feast!"


*****



To be honest, I was making things up as I went along, something that elves are generally very good at. Ask me to make up a song or a poem on the spot…no problem. Only now I was trying to make up a way to save the world.

I knew that Galens could not be left to become Duke of Nicaragua. He actually wanted the title, which was strange. I figured he was insane, poisoned by the ideas about the world of men I had heard. I could only imagine how he would use his position in the council to spread those lies to others, to the king himself. And only I was in the position to stop it, exactly as the God of Death had predicted eighty years ago.

And if I lost the duel, and I died? Well, it wouldn’t matter much, since the whole elven world would end with me. My path was clear, and mine was a very desperate fight.

They cleared most of the tables and decorations away, and everyone stood in a circle so the two of us would have room to fight. The Duelmaster came up –- a goblin, the only one they could find in the area, and well versed in the ways of combat. He came up to me first, since I was calling the duel.

"Choose your weapon."

The goblin held a case of flowers up to me, of all different sorts. I chose a white lily. I felt if I were dueling in the name of Death, it would be the most appropriate symbol.

My opponent chose a large violet clematis. The most deadly flower he could lay hands on. Elves can only be harmed by beauty -- I certainly had! -- and there is no lovelier flower than clematis. Unless it is a rose, whose stem cannot even be touched by an elf – and so useless as a weapon.

Once the Duelmaster had scrambled out of the way -- imagine, a goblin hit with a flower! -- we basically squared off against each other, trying to touch our flowers to the face of our opponent. Galens had donned a long draping green cloak, giving himself every opportunity in the battle. We circled about each other seeking the moment to lunge with our flowers, and he whipped his cloak about threateningly. It was much more of a dance than a duel – something else that elves excel at.

Duels were not unknown amongst our kind –- if they had been I never would have made the suggestion. They usually are quite short, going on only so long as both parties remain interested. Then, when one person loses interest and focus, the other has the opportunity to deliver the coup de grāce. In our duel, my opponent was insane, not thinking like an elf at all, and I was absolutely desperate, so the fight went on for over two minutes, well after the attention of most of the crowd had wavered. I found my attention wandering as well –- to the beautiful elf maiden, standing in the circle, her arms clutched to her breasts, looking on anxiously to her husband. I thought of how I had been in her arms, a bare hour earlier. I thought of how she felt, how she smelled…

…and Galens almost touched my face with his flower. I snapped my attention back to the moment, parried two more of his thrusts. I realized then that this mad elf was going to outlast me. He was more insane than I was desperate. No doubt about it, I was losing interest rapidly, and I was going to die. As I parried another of his thrusts, a petal actually detached from my lily, and floated towards the ground…

But never hit. I blinked, looked at the petal. It was suspended an inch above the ground.

I heard someone clapping. My focus went to the crowd. They were all still, frozen in place. Most of them looked bored. Oberon himself was holding his hand up, suppressing a yawn. Only no one moved. No one even blinked.

I found the source of the clapping. The tall gray elf I had spoken with earlier was clapping as he stepped forward into the ring.

"Bravo! Bravo! What a show."

His visage shimmered like reflections on water, changing, and there stood Xiroz himself, in his royal robes and his crown, his fangs and his claws. Only his boots were out of place –- enormous, dusty gray boots, for his kind could not withstand direct contact with the earth.

"Now, finish him. You have won the duel. Take his life."

I looked at Galens, frozen in place, his clematis in his hand, a tiny drop of spittle flying from his mouth, frozen like a glass bead on a gossamer thread. It would be so easy –- just touch the flower to his face. He would die.

"Go ahead. I have delivered him into your hands. As far as the crowd knows, all they’ll see is you moving extra fast, and this moron will fall."

But I hesitated.

"It was you, all along. You were the elf I spoke to earlier. You spoke out against the human ideas."

"Yes, what of it? Even you see how the human ideas are poisoning the minds of elves. Now, strike out those ideas. Kill this elf."

"But, you were actually the one spreading the human ideas."

"No," he said angrily. "It was this boob of an elf. He was the one who wanted to steal power from you. He wanted to take what is rightfully yours. And he lied! Now strike him down, have your revenge. Be a true elf, as I said."

This sounded strange to me, it sounded wrong. I had heard of revenge, and power –- more human ideas.

I turned my back to Galens, and faced Xiroz.

"You know what I think? I think you only came here to watch an elf die. That’s what you like to do, isn’t it?"

"Yes, I came to watch you kill this elf. Now kill the liar."

"No, I think you are the one who is lying, to me. You said it was my destiny to save the world of the elves. But I think you are really making me destroy our world, by having me demonstrate the idea of vengeance and power to the king. You want all the elves to die."

"No! That’s not true. Obey me! Kill Galens, and take your rightful place as ruler of Nicaragua!"

"As your puppet, you mean. No way." Then I got a wicked idea. "Hey, Xiroz, what do you think would happen if one touched the God of Death with a true thing of beauty?" I pointed my lily in his direction.

Xiroz instantly vanished. He was still there, I knew -- he had just turned invisible. I saw that the crowd and Galens were still frozen. I knew I had only a heartbeat to consider my next move before the god had planned out his new agenda and a backup plan for me. But a heartbeat can be an awfully long time for an elf.

It was clear to me then Xiroz had not really lied. No god can truly lie. I was destined to stop the world of elves from merging into the world of men, but by stopping him. I didn’t know why he wanted to kill all the elves. Maybe he was tired of his eons-old charge. Perhaps he had been seduced by the siren call of men as well. All I knew was I had to stop him. There was only one way. He had said to be more elf than elf, and yet not an elf. I now knew the true answer to the riddle, and what I must become.

I looked at the ground –- at the rich, verdant grass there, trampled by our feet as we had danced. And I imagined it as concrete, though I had never seen such a thing. I tried as hard as I could to see the world of men.

Just then, I heard a sound –- it may have been a car horn and traffic sounds, or it could have been a collective gasp from the mouths of the remaining crowd of elves. Xiroz had unfrozen time. My lily was down, and I did not raise it to parry nor did I step out of the way as Galens screamed and lunged so his clematis gently brushed my face…


*****



Gustave awoke in a fit, the sheets twisted in his hands. He gasped from exertion, then lay back and tried to catch his breath.

He looked at the ceiling, and felt his mind slowly come back into focus. It was the same cracked plaster, the same dirty, yellow-brown ceiling it had always been. A fat cockroach lurked immobile in one corner, farthest from the bare light bulb which hung there. Everything was familiar.

Gustave pushed himself to a sitting position, his naked feet touching the floor. The springs in the army-style cot complained. He put his hands to his head, and felt the pulse in his temple with his fingers.

Had it been a dream? He was Gustave Mendoza. He lived in Managua in an apartment on the fourth floor of La Tepe Real. There were no elves. There was no God of Death. No Duke of Nicaragua. He convinced himself of these things, the way a man convinces himself he will live to see tomorrow.

He simply could not be an elf who had sacrificed himself to save the world. But it felt momentarily as if he had. And now he was doomed to live in the world of men? Impossible.

Gustave stood, and walked to the window. He parted the curtains and looked through the iron bars to the street below. Traffic was moving busily, although an army vehicle was there. A man was shouting through a bullhorn to bystanders on the sidewalk, giving the orders of the day. He was speaking Spanish. Gustave could understand every word.

What language had the dream been in? Certainly not Spanish. Not English. No language Gustave had ever heard.

He thought once again of how the elf maiden had felt, how she had smelled. It distracted him.

Gustave thought that perhaps he could write the details of the dream down before they dissolved entirely. What a fantastic story it would make. But Gustave was not a writer. And frivolous things like that were frowned on. They could get you in trouble.

Gustave crossed to the dresser, poured water from the ewer into a bowl, ran his wet fingers through his hair. Soon, he would have to go to work.

He looked at himself in the mirror, at the brown leather reflection staring back at him. Then, very much unlike an elf, the reflection shed a tear.



THE END


© 2021 Tracy Shew

Bio: By day, Tracy Shew is an IT professional wandering cage-free in the great Pacific Northwest. By night, he turns his twisted dreams into stories under the directions of an insane but persistent muse. He is inspired by Rod Serling, R.A. Lafferty, Huraki Murakami, and anyone for whom excellent prose and meaty content out-trump "fluff" written for pure entertainment. "If you see but one thing in the world differently after reading my stories, I've done my job.” "Besides this story, Tracy has been published in The Rabbit Hole, vol 3 (The Writers' Co-op, 2020) and has a self-published collection of short stories, Twenty Twelve, available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.