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The Queen of Elfland's Favored Son

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 In Elfland, on the edge of the Forest of M, where the trees became thinner and paler until they faded into the trackless waste that marked the borders of that land, there was a small grove. It was a place of no particular consequence, not the site of any great battles or storied romances, simply a shaded place with a spring, where the riders of the Royal Court liked to rest sometimes before continuing on their hunts and pleasure jaunts.

Of course, that was before a great curiosity was found there and the face of the land was changed forever. There are tales that wound, tales that cut, tales that change lives and open hearts and alter minds, but none so powerful as the tale of how history was warped by what was discovered in that grove.

So come to me, sit close and be still, and I will tell you the tale of the green beast, and how he became the lover of the Queen of Elfland's most favored son.

 

A Discovery

 

This was not the day for a hunt. The sun was out, but so was the rain, falling from a sky too blue for such behavior. Fairy weather, as the people who lived beyond the trackless waste would say, and the people of the Forest of M would have agreed with them; this was weather for them, and not for mere mortals. This was miracle weather.

Sir Nathaniel, who would one day become a great threat to the kingdom but who was for now no more than a knight of the court of Elfland, rode in the sun with his helmet off and pondered what he was to get the second prince for his birthday.

He had already obtained a gift for the heir, a precious relic the likes of which the courts had not seen in some time, but the other prince, the wilder one, was more difficult to choose for. He was not fickle, not precisely, but he was picky, and tricky, and if displeased would not hesitate to play such tricks as to leave a poor subject sleepless for many nights to come. Of course, he was liable to play tricks if pleased as well, but it was better not to risk it.

Perhaps capricious was the right word; it did in fact mean “fickle,” but it did so with more syllables, and thus could perhaps be phrased like a compliment.

His men ranged ahead of him and out to the sides as he rode, and, deep in thought, he paid them no mind until a great hue and cry was raised and a servant came running from the grove with the spring. “My lord, my lord! See what we've found! An ogre sleeps upon the ground! A monstrous beast! 'Tis green and vast—the scourge of the waste has come at last!”

Sir Nathaniel rolled his eyes. “Do calm yourself, my anxious man. I'll learn its business if I can.”

His horse walked on toward the grove quite calmly, not apparently smelling anything odd—so it was most likely not the great green ogre that haunted the waste. The ogre was known to have a distinctive scent, not bad but not necessarily pleasing, and it frightened animals terribly.

When he entered the grove proper, the first thing he saw was his men, huddled under one of the large trees, looking distressed. He suppressed the urge to roll his eyes at them again.

The object of their terrified scrutiny was curled up asleep by the spring. It was very large, and generally man-like in shape, though its shoulders were plated like a lizard's and its hands were vastly clawed. It was quite naked. Blond hair fell in its eyes, and its pointed ears were incongruously adorned with little rings, like cuffs.

It murmured and rolled over, revealing itself to be, at least physically, maleNathaniel did not wish to make any judgments about its mental state, as he'd seen far stranger things as a member of the court of Elfland.

He rode closer to it, ignoring the frightened chatter of his men, and reached down to poke it gently with the riding crop that hung from his saddle. “Will you be still, for Magnus' sake—now, sleeping beast, I pray, awake.”

The sleeping beast woke with a start and stared up at him. “What? I—did you just poke me?”

Sir Nathaniel waited expectantly for the beast to finish speaking, eyes widening when he realized that the creature had finished. “This is a most peculiar time. How is it that you do not rhyme?”

The beast looked confused. “I don't know what you mean.”

“We sing. We scan, recite, and chant. You do not speak the fairy cant.” Sir Nathaniel peered at him. “We're much restricted. It's a shame. Pray tell me, beast, what is your name?”

“I, uh...” The beast still looked confused, brows wrinkling over rather extraordinary gray eyes. “I don't know. Where is this place?”

“It is on royal ground we stand—you're in the woods of fair Elfland.” Sir Nathaniel traced down the side of the beast's face, puzzled. “Not the green beast. But a green beast—a handsome one, to say the least.” The beast blushed a darker green, and Sir Nathaniel laughed. “A fine young face, but little more. Perhaps I'll call you Theodore.”

The beast frowned, as if trying desperately to remember something, and then nodded slowly.

“Ah! By your look I see that's right. Come,” Sir Nathaniel said, turning his horse, “you shall stay with me tonight.” He gestured to his men, who stared at him for a moment, shocked, and then hurried forward to wrap the beast—Theodore—in a blanket that had at one point been meant for picnicking, should the knight feel inclined to stop and eat on his ride.

This curiosity could, he realized, solve all of his problems.

He glanced back at the beast, walking along behind the horse with a baffled look on his face, and smiled cheerfully. “And in the morning...”

Theodore blinked. “Yes?”

“You shall see! A gift fit for a prince you'll be. His natal day's arriving soon, upon the fullness of the moon.”

Now Theodore looked even more baffled. “A gift? Do you generally give people you find in the woods as gifts?”

Sir Nathaniel shrugged. “It's fairy right—you trespassed here. If caught, you stay at least a year.” Then, realizing how perfect it was, “And green's his favorite color, too! I had no gift, but you will do.”

Theodore looked dubious, but then he glanced down at the blanket around his shoulders and shrugged. “If you say so. I've been wandering around in that waste for ages now, I think; I suppose it would be nice to get some clothes.”

 

At the House of Sir Nathaniel

 

Theodore was given a robe and took the evening meal with him, and was surprisingly courteous for whatever odd variety of ogre he was; he ate with a delicacy uncommon even to the elves of the lower court. Sir Nathaniel quizzed him gently throughout the meal, and discovered that he had no idea where he'd come from, what his true name was, or how long he'd been wandering. The only things he was quite clear on were that he meant no harm, and that he was just now twenty-five years of age—which made him even more a perfect gift, as the princes would be turning twenty-five as well.

After the meal, the beast paused, puzzled. “Where do I sleep?”

Sir Nathaniel raised an eyebrow. “You think that I might say, with me? A pleasant thought, I must agree.” But he shook his head. “I'll sully not your purity—a gift fit for a prince you'll be.” And paused, thinking over what he'd just said. “It's getting late. That rhyme was poor. Come, beast, I'll show you to your door and let you sleep, though I must warn, we breakfast at the second horn.”

And in the morning, true enough, the horns blew, and the beast Theodore was raised from his slumber and fed on fruit and honeycombs and sweet mead. After the meal the servants bathed him, and he was dressed in silks and satins—black, for though red and silver were Sir Nathaniel's colors, red was also of the other prince, and it would be an insult to give a gift to one wrapped in the other's hue. Black also because the other gift, for the other prince, was already in wrapped in white, and a contrast would be prettier, and would suit the princes better. The ways of the courts of Elfland were labyrinthine indeed.

None of this, of course, was told to Theodore, who simply allowed himself to be fed and bathed and dressed with a kind of cheerful bemusement. The only time he even spoke was to comment on his clothes. “Black? I thought we were going to a birthday party.”

“A party, yes, but you're a gift. If you're not dressed well, they'll be miffed.” The maid glanced over at Sir Nathaniel. “My lord, if I may be so bold—I think this needs a touch of gold.”

“It's I who has to pass the test.” He smiled. “But please, do what you think is best.”

The maid hmm'ed thoughtfully and then tied a golden sash about Theodore's waist, fussing with it until it sat ideally. When she'd finished, she looked him over with some satisfaction. “I'faith, I wish that you were mine. There's never been a gift so fine.”

“Um, thank you, I suppose?” Theodore shifted awkwardly, nervous in his fine clothes, and tugged at the high collar. “This is all a little strange for me.”

She batted his hand away, smiling. “Don't fuss it so, you'll look a sight. The young prince will be thrilled tonight.”

“If you say so.”

Having no rhyme, she said nothing, simply patted his cheek fondly.

“Come, beastly one.” Sir Nathaniel offered his arm. “The midday meal awaits, and after that, I feel, there's much that you will need to know, since to the prince's court you go.”

 

The Revels

 

The princes' birthday party was a vast undertaking, ranging as it did through a full half of the forest and attended by all of its inhabitants. The trees were bedecked with ornaments of stardust and moonshine, the ground had for the event been carpeted in night-blooming flowers, and servants circulated through the dancing throng laden with glasses of berry wine and plates of sweetmeats so delicious that mere mortals would have died to taste them. Musicians perched on low-hanging branches, cradling their instruments close as they set the crowd's feet to dancing. As was common for celebrations in Elfland at that time, all the guests were fabulously masked, though many of them wore little else. The princes themselves presided from a double throne carved out of a massive oak tree, surveying the revels with amusement.

Theodore, when he arrived with Sir Nathaniel and his retinue, was given a glass of wine and a plate of food and taken to sit at the table where the gifts were being kept. He was not the only living being to be seated with the gifts, but most of the other live things were pets of one kind or another. The only other sapient creatures were a matched pair of sprites of the lower orders, who were more interested in conversing rapidly with each other than in trying to speak to him.

So he drank his wine, which was sweet and sharp and warmed his stomach, and he ate the few delicacies he'd been given, and he watched the dancers with some interest. He wasn't really sure what to make of anything that had happened since he'd woken in the grove next to the spring, but for the moment he was full, comfortably dressed, and in what seemed to be a position of relative safety. Worries could come later, when he had finally managed to recall what his true name was, and at least a few of the facts of his life.

“You are deep in thought.”

He looked up, startled, and saw that he'd been approached by a fairy, presumably one of the partygoers, a fairy with suntanned skin and dark hair and a cheerful white grin beneath a mask notable primarily for its crown of spreading antlers. “I was watching the dancers.”

“They are a sight, aren't they.” The fairy sat down beside him. “I could read a pattern for you, if you like, in their movements. Dance is a potent medium for soothsaying.”

“Is it?” Theodore blinked. “I didn't know that.”

“Most people don't.” The fairy laughed, a bright and shattering laugh which ceased as suddenly as it had begun. “What brings you here, green monster? I haven't seen you in our woods before, and I flatter myself that I know most of those who dwell here.”

“I...I don't know what brought me here, actually. Well, to the forest. I know what brought me here, to the party.”

“And what would that be? You sit at the table with the gifts, monster, are you a gift yourself?”

Theodore coughed awkwardly. “Yes. For Prince Thomas.”

“Prince Thomas? You're not at all his type. What are you called?”

“Well, Sir Nathaniel said green was his favorite color. I'm...not really familiar with how any of this works. He calls me Theodore.”

The masked fairy laughed again. “You are entertaining, Theodore.” The musicians struck up a new song, and he cocked his head. “Come, dance the Witch's Figure with me.”

“But I'm supposed to stay here.”

“The minders will not miss you for one song, monster.” The masked fairy tugged at his hand, grinning. “And if they complain I will tell them I commanded it. Dance with me.”

Behind the antlered mask the hearts of the fairy's eyes glowed bright blue in the center of irises brown like darkened oak, and he led Theodore into the midst of the dancing throng with another shatterglass laugh. The steps of the figure were complex, but somehow strangely easy to master—it felt to Theodore as if he'd danced them before, in some other life.

“You dance well, monster,” the masked fairy said when he returned Theodore to the table of gifts. “If Prince Thomas ever tires of you, seek me out, and I will teach you all manner of new steps.”

But before Theodore could protest that he didn't even have a name to inquire about, the fairy was gone.

The dancing continued until midnight, and then a great bell was struck, and all the forest fell silent. The full moon hung bright over the double throne where the princes sat, lighting them most eerily, and as the party guests turned to look, a slim figure perched near the throne threw his head back and cried out, “Merry the moonshine, marvelous light! Show us our sovereigns, so glorious bright! William, the Wild, the witch of the forest; beside him his sibling, swift son, Thomas fair! Regal the red-cloaked, our ruler to be! Grinning the green-clad, the gift of the queen!”

Theodore leaned close to the matched sprites. “Why doesn't that one rhyme? Why does he alliterate?”

“That is Loki, queen's advisor!”

“He's not from here! None is wiser!”

“He does not always deign to rhyme—”

“—but speaks the tongue of his chill clime.”

But one of the princes, the one white-haired and pale as the moon that shone down on him, leaned forward and whispered something to Loki, laughing. Loki nodded and turned back to the crowd. “Come, fairies all, you've had your fun! The time for giving gifts is come!”

The white-haired prince grinned at him. “That rhyme was approximate, my friend. You're losing your touch.”

“In truth, your tongue is tricksome, prince. The rhymes resist me, raucous things. Come, fairest, fallen, fairies all!”

The receiving line wound through the trees for what could have been miles, each fairy stepping forward to present their gifts and deliver a short speech to the princes. The princes spoke briefly to all comers—they smiled, and often they laughed, though it did not seem to ease the nerves of their guests at all.

Sir Nathaniel, being a knight of the upper courts, had a place near the start of the line, perhaps forty guests back. He waited with a false serenity, fidgeting with the package under his arm while beside him Theodore looked apprehensively toward the double throne. The wait seemed interminable, though it was probably not so long as it felt.

Then, though, then they reached the head of the line and Theodore saw an antlered mask lying on the ground beside the throne, looked up at the princes and into brown eyes with cores of blue light. Prince William smiled at him, winked, laughed a laugh that shattered into a thousand smaller laughters, and said to Sir Nathaniel's bowed head, “Nate! How good it is to see you again!”

Theodore could not help but stare. His heart stuttered in his chest, his breath came fast, his cheeks felt hot, for the crown prince of Elfland was more beautiful than anyone he had ever in his short memory seen.

And they had danced together, and he had not known.

And he was to go to the other prince, who was fair, but he was not Prince William.

“I see your face: my heart must lift. My princes, I bring you a gift.” Sir Nathaniel grinned at them and moved forward to present Prince William with the white-wrapped package.

Prince William opened the package and looked down at its contents curiously. “Fascinating, Nate—what are they?”

“For magic lord, the rarest treat—these sandals once graced Hermes' feet.” When the prince nodded approvingly, Sir Nathaniel relaxed. “And you, Prince Thomas, I have brought a curious beast. I know not what compelled him here—I've never seen a stranger beast. And he is green.”

Prince Thomas nodded approvingly. “A green beast! For me! Does it speak?”

Sir Nathaniel pushed Theodore forward. Theodore coughed nervously, then bowed as politely as he could and said, “Ah. Happy birthday, your Highness? I am called Theodore.”

Prince William's eyes lit, watching his every move.

The pale prince watched him expectantly for a moment and then beamed. “He doesn't rhyme. Why, Nate, this is a princely gift. Wherever did you find him?”

“On the edge of the trackless outer waste!” Sir Nathaniel looked pleased with himself. “I'm glad to know I had good taste.”

“Good taste, yes! But not, I'm thinking, for me.”

Sir Nathaniel went white.

Prince William chuckled. “You've mixed up your aitches again, Nate. Hecate is my patron; Hermes is my brother's. But...brother, in all the planning of these revels I find I have no gift to give to you.” He turned to his brother and held out the sandals in their bed of white silk. “Will you accept this small token from me? I was given them, as a gift; they are most worthy of you.”

The crowd laughed, Sir Nathaniel blushed bright red, and Prince Thomas took the sandals from his brother and said, “This is most kind of you, my brother; perhaps in return, as I had not got you anything, I may make you a gift of this strange fae Theodore, who seems to have caught your eye so? I was given him as a gift, he is most fine.”

“My brother, you are very kind.” Prince William stood, turning back to the crowd, and said, “Let it be known, my people, that Sir Nathaniel is to be doubly praised and held in high favor! For not only did he bring us gifts fit for princes, he brought gifts fit to be given by princes! Let his refined taste be celebrated, let his wisdom be known, and let his name be spoken well in the Forest of M!”

There was a vast swelling of applause, and Sir Nathaniel blushed again, this time much more happily. He bowed and departed.

And Theodore was left alone, to make his way to a seat on the dais at the foot of the double throne.

 

--

A Proper Dance

 

As soon as Theodore sat, Prince William's hand came to rest on the top of his head, fingers running gently through his hair in a manner both possessive and affectionate. Guests continued to come forward with gifts, though, and they paid the green man at the foot of the throne no mind, the speeches stretching on and on until finally the end of the line was reached and the great bell was struck again. It had only been an hour, though Theodore was not sure how that was possible.

The bell's note reverberated throughout the forest, dying away slowly as the gathered party guests listened in awe, and as it faded Prince Thomas slipped on the winged sandals that his brother had given him, that had first been a gift of Sir Nathaniel. He smiled at their fit, wiggling his toes beneath the straps, and said, “They fit as if made for me. Brother, I fear I must leave you; if I do not dance in these I will be doing them a great disservice.”

Prince William laughed—was he always laughing, Theodore wondered? “We cannot have a disservice done to such fine footwear, my brother. Go and dance.”

The white-haired prince leaned down to snatch a mask of his own from beside his throne—it was capped with a pair of tall white rabbit ears—and leaped from the dais to the side of one of the royal guards. “Perhaps the beautiful Kate will favor me with a figure?”

The guard rolled her eyes at him. “Not a chance. I don't dance.”

“You're short with me, o glorious Captain Kate of the Guard! O fair huntress, o sweet archer, have I offended you?”

Her mouth twitched a little bit. “Why, not at all, my prince; I simply said that I don't dance. Ask someone else instead.”

The prince continued to cajole, laughing, while Kate of the Guard clearly tried not to smile and beside her, her co-captain frowned deeper and deeper.

On the dais, Prince William bent down to put his mouth by Theodore's ear and murmured, “Will you dance with me again, Theodore, knowing now who I am?”

“I will,” he said, breathless.

“Then help me up, and we will dance.”

Theodore wasted no time in obeying. He didn't even wait for the prince to hold out a hand, simply clasped him around the waist and lifted him bodily from his seat. The nearest partygoers clapped, amused; the prince himself laughed in delight. “You're strong! But I'll lay you a wager, Theodore, that in the end, my magic will top your brawn.” He turned in Theodore's grip to face the musicians. “Come, players, let's have a song fit for a night of passion!”

The musicians struck up a new tune, one rhythmic and sensuous.

“And come, my birthday gift. Let's dance!”

This time, freed of his mask and with his identity known, the prince was rather more forward. He pressed close to Theodore as they danced, always smiling, always laughing, tugging his partner this way and that. And as the pace quickened his hands began to roam, his laughter became low and breathy, and Theodore found that he, too, was dizzy with desire.

The song ended.

“Come, Theodore.” Prince William's eyes on him were hungry. “I believe that when we danced before I promised to teach you other steps.”

They moved through the crowd to the sound of whispers, past the double throne, to a place where the trees seemed thicker. And then Theodore realized—it was not that the forest got denser past that point. This was the palace, grown from the trees themselves, reaching up so high that its leafy roof blotted out the stars.

Theodore stared up at it in wonder, until the prince tugged at his hand and pulled him through a doorway set into a rowan so massive that it must have taken root millenia ago.

“Come,” William said, eyes glinting. “Let me teach you to dance.”

“Yes, your Highness.”

“Call me William. To you I will always be William.”

“Yes, William.” Theodore smiled suddenly, heart beating warm in his chest.

“My fine Theodore.” William brushed feather-light fingers down the side of his face. “Come along.”

 

--

A Bower Scene

 

The palace halls were dark and, like the party, full of whispers. There were no servants—they were all out, dancing at the celebration. The walls were carven with fantastic scenes, and the floors carpeted with moss. All was very warm.

They reached a tower door, a winding staircase grown in the heart of an oak, and William said, “Carry me,” and twined his arms around Theodore's neck.

Theodore mounted the staircase with the prince in his arms, the prince's legs wrapped around his waist. With each bend of the stairs it was more difficult to continue—it was all he could do not to stop and press William back against the wall and learn the feel of his lips and the taste of his mouth. And the door at the top of the stairs opened at their approach, and admitted them to the woody chambers of the heir to the throne of Elfland.

“Take me to my bedchamber.”

“Yes, William.”

“Oh, listen to how he obeys.”

The bedchamber was impossibly vast. Two walls were lined with books, the third was taken up with the prince's enormous bed, and the fourth was open, room giving out to a wide balcony. The whole of the place was bathed in moonlight; in it Prince William glowed like an unearthly thing. Theodore stared down at him and was struck entirely dumb, speechless in the face of such beauty.

William gazed up at him and bubbled into laughter once more. “Set me down, and let's see if the rest of you is as green as your face, Theodore.” A wicked glint of the eye. “And if your locks are golden everywhere.”

“If my—oh.

The prince's nakedness had been unremarkable at the party, where being clothed was the exception rather than the rule. Now, awash in silver light and without a stitch to cover him, he looked like a statue, glorious and pure. Untouchable.

And yet Theodore would be allowed—

He threw away the sash that Sir Nathaniel's maid had given him, pulled off his tunic, stepped out of his soft trousers and dropped to his knees, pressing his face against William's stomach. He had to touch. Had to feel the muscles of William's legs, had to kiss his abdomen, had to breathe the scent of him in deep.

The prince whispered, “Take me to bed.”

Theodore stood and lifted him and fell back upon the cushions, William astride him like a conquering knight.

The sound of the revels drifted in from the balcony as their mouths met once, and again. They clung to each other as drowning sailors cling to driftwood, their passions hotter than the summer night. None could have come between them.

William's hand strayed between Theodore's legs and stroked him there, and at his moan the noise of the party faltered.

Theodore started. “They can hear us.”

“Of course they can.” There was laughter in his voice—always laughing. “There is no wall to muffle us.”

“We should be quiet.”

“Why? It's my forest.” His eyes were the hearts of candle flames, blue and burning; his hands fizzed with blue lightning. “If I wanted, I could order them all silent with a clap of my hands and we could serenade them with our cries.” And just for emphasis he rolled his hips forward, pressing his own hardness against Theodore's stomach.

Theodore blushed darkly and bit his lip.

“Kiss me again, my monster. Or tell me to stop, if that's what you desire, and I will give you clothes in my colors and never lay an intimate hand on you again.”

“No, I...I don't want to stop.”

“I will force you to nothing.” William's mouth curved in a wicked smile. “There is no sweeter sauce than true desire.”

Theodore leaned up and kissed him, hard and desperate.

“Kiss me again, if you desire this. Tell me, yes.”

“Yes.” The prince's mouth was hot against his. “Yes, William.” A tongue now lapping at the hollow of his throat, one hand stroking his prick, his own hands dwarfing the prince's shoulders as he scrabbled for hold. “Yes, please.” Electric kisses down his chest and stomach, and then lower and as William licked him from root to tip his head fell back and he cried, “Yes.”

“Tell me again.”

“Yes, William.

“Say that you're mine, Theodore.” The prince knelt between his legs, flushed, his hands straying further downward. “Shout it to the forest.”

“I'm yours.” Theodore's head fell back as William pressed into him. “I'm yours.” He jolted as the prince got up a rhythm, and the blue lightning outlined them as they gasped together. “I'm yours.

At his release he roared, and the sound shook the forest, and William pressed in harder with a laugh, and then they were both completed and breathless.

William climbed atop him again and kissed him, smiling, and said, “You are mine. And you must tell me all about yourself.”

“Yes, William.” Theodore gazed up at him in wonder.

“And then...”

“And then?”

William leaned forward with a smirk. “Oh, and then, let him roar again.”

 

--

Dire News

 

They woke in the morning to sunlight through the trees and the fanfare of trumpets that announced the approach of the Scarlet Queen of Elfland. There was barely time to cover themselves before she landed on the balcony, William nestled close against Theodore's side as they looked up at her. She was dressed all in red, and her eyes were sad. “My son and heir, you have been much deceived.” Her voice echoed through the forest.

William frowned. “What do you mean, my honored mother?”

“You lie beside one who means you great ill.”

“What? Theodore, mean me ill? Mother, you are mistaken.” The prince's brow wrinkled. “He has given me his fealty. I have his heart. He could no more mean me ill than a butterfly could fell a yew.”

The queen looked on him with her sorrowful eyes and said, again, “You have been deceived.”

“Why do you say this, Mother? I pray you, don't say it again, only please explain.”

“Loki of the Ice, our confidante and a friend of our court, has revealed to us a plot most shameful.” The queen's hand left a red trail in the air as she gestured to Loki, who stood tall at her side. He did not smile, but his eyes gleamed as she continued. “William...my son...you have given room in your bed to an assassin.”

“What?” William stared at her, and then at Theodore, whose face was twisted by shock. “Sent by whom?

She shook her head and turned towards the forest. “My son.” Now she spoke not an address, but a command. “I require your presence.”

A wind picked up, briefly, and then all in a rush Prince Thomas appeared, careening joyously down from the clouds with his winged sandals on his feet. “Mother! We don't often see you walking the forest ways! What draws you from your chambers?”

“Thomas.”

The force of the queen's voice brought Thomas skidding to a stop, and he frowned. “Mother, have I offended you?”

“Thomas, I am disappointed in you. Your deception has been uncovered.”

“Mother, I do not understand you,” said Thomas.

But William was staring, a look of horror on his face. “'tis true, Mother? Has my own brother plotted my death?”

“He has, my son and heir. Loki of the Ice heard his plans, to send you this assassin and take your place as heir when you had been killed, and he came to tell me all.”

“But Mother, I have done—”

“Do not try to deny it. I have bound Loki with oaths, he must not lie to me on pain of death. And he has named you usurper, and your creature an assassin.”

“Theodore.” William seized his arm. “Tell me it is untrue. Tell me Loki lies. Please.

The others, too, all turned to look at Theodore, who blinked slowly and said, “I...I can't. I have no memory before two days ago. I could be an assassin. I don't know.”

“But...it can't be, I wouldn't—” Thomas had gone entirely white, paler even than normal. “Please believe me that I would not, I would never—

“He lies to cover up his guilt.” Loki had edged in close to the queen, to speak in her ear. “He's shamed that you should know he'd kill his brother just to gain the throne. You hear his word; I mark his tone.

“Hush, Loki. You will be rewarded for your services, but for now, I must attend to the problem at hand.” The queen drew herself up, tall and regal. “Clothe your nakedness, green assassin.”

Theodore took a moment to obey, rolling from the bed and scrabbling for his clothes with numb fingers.

William clutched at his sleeve, wide-eyed. “Don't. Don't listen to her, you're mine, I command you to be still! Mother, there must be some misunderstanding here!”

She raised her head and did not look at him. “Prince Thomas, for your crime of plotting to kill your brother the heir, you are henceforth banished from the Forest of M.” Red light trailed from her upraised hand and stretched out to enfold the white-haired prince. “You are of royal blood, and thus I will not send you unguarded—you may take your creature with you.”

Thomas and Theodore were beginning to fade from sight, Thomas protesting incoherently all the while.

“Do not return to the forest, on pain of death.”

They vanished.

Prince William's wail of anguish cracked the air and withered leaves on trees.

 

--

 

And the whisper went up through the forest: “The prince is banished. The prince is banished.”

 

--

The Trackless Waste

 

Prince Thomas and Theodore, when they came to themselves, found that they had been sent to the very outer edge of the forest, not far from the grove where Theodore had first been found. And the first thing Thomas said was, “Are you an assassin?”

Theodore frowned at the ground. “I don't know. I don't think I am.”

“Do you want to kill my brother?”

No. I...I love him.”

“That was quick. You've only known him one night.”

“True. But...it felt right, being with him. I can't explain why.”

Thomas watched him for a moment and then said, “Well. Love or not, I'm all you've got now. Come, Theodore; we will go across the waste, and perhaps there we will find someone to argue our case for us.”

 

--

The Prince's Melancholy

 

With the banishment of Prince Thomas and Theodore, Prince William fell into a dark and terrible melancholy. No matter who came to him or what they said, he would not leave his chambers. Rain fell on his balcony at all hours, and its tiles were scorched by lightning. He did not weep, but his sorrow was felt by all who passed near the palace.

Kate and Eli, joint captains of the princes' royal guard, stayed by him the most in his sorrow.

“Come forth, our heir,” called Eli from the stairs, “your loyal knight is bringing gifts for your delight.”

“Nathaniel aches to see you sad.” Kate crossed her arms over her chest. “Come forth, my prince. Be gay. Be glad.”

“I will not.” The prince's voice was muffled. “My life is at an end.”

She made a face. “An end? The heir? Prince William, never. You can't just stay in there forever.”

“Prince William, stop your moping. Please. Your sorrow's rain will drown the trees.” Eli huffed. “And by my sword, I'm getting bored.”

“Then go! I have been betrayed by those I held most dear; one or two more or less will not make much difference.”

“Prince William, by the gods above, come out and we will find you love.”

“It has been found and lost, my friends. There is no more to say.”

 

--

A Stranger In The Waste

 

Thomas and Theodore wandered in the trackless waste for days on end. They did not starve—there were animals to hunt, after all, animals that Thomas was swift enough to catch. The prince had a knife with him as well, one which he had been wearing when they were banished, so they could prepare their food, and Theodore was more than strong enough to defend them against the few threats they encountered. There were streams to drink from, and the occasional tree to sleep under. But it was a difficult life, and they were unhappy with their lot.

Then, though—then they neared the coastline, and they came upon a house that was exceedingly peculiar. It had been built, in its entirety, from the body of a wrecked ship, shored up with rocks and driftwood. A torn sail hung from the mainmast, once white but now a dirty gray, the vast golden star in its center only half-visible. On the prow of the ship was a figurehead of a woman in military uniform with a star on her chest, one fist upraised, and on the side of the ship in faded letters was “S.H.S. Marvel.”

The two wanderers approached cautiously, frowning, but before they could get too close, the sand at their feet was struck by a crossbow bolt, and from the ship-house came a deep-voiced shout of, “Who goes there?”

Thomas drew himself up to his full height and said, haughty despite his now-tattered clothes, “I am Prince Thomas, of Elfland. Show yourself.”

There was a startled pause, and then a door that had been cut into the side of the ship opened and out stepped a knight, in full armor most fantastically enameled in green and gold and white. “A prince of Elfland? What would a prince of Elfland be doing here, and in the company of...some variety of ogre?”

Theodore said, offended, “I'm not an ogre.

“You're large and green, I know not what else to call you.”

“You could call me Theodore.”

“I didn't know that was your name.”

Thomas snorted. “This is absurd. Identify yourself, stranger; we've told you our names.”

The knight regarded Thomas for a moment and then nodded slowly and pulled off his helmet. “I am called Noh-Varr, and I am a knight of the courts of the Empire of Skrullos-Hala.” The sun shone on his hair, on his sharp features, and his eyes were a crystalline blue.

The prince stared at him for a moment and then reached over to clutch at Theodore's arm. “I...am hallucinating. Wandering in the waste has driven me mad. I'm seeing visions.”

“No, I don't think you are. He is very handsome, isn't he?”

Noh-Varr raised an eyebrow. “If you two are quite done. What brings you here, so far from the Forest of M?”

The question soured Thomas' mood immediately. “We have been banished. Through the lies and calumny of one I thought a friend, we have been ejected from the palace, accused of plotting to kill my brother the heir.”

The knight considered them. “Fascinating. You'd best come in, then. I've heard tell of no strife in the Forest, and the news is strange. Tell me all. You are welcome to the Marvel.”

 

--

Deeds Most Foul

 

“Prince William, please. The day is bright.” Kate was becoming very tired of trying to coax the prince from his room. “And there is planned a feast tonight.”

“I'm not hungry.”

“Still coaxing, Kate?” America, head of the palace guard, faded from the woodwork beside her. “It seems too late.” She stepped closer to the door and raised her voice. “No use in trying, captain, since we're saddled with a useless prince!”

Kate stifled shocked laughter. Eli almost dropped the book he had been reading.

There was a startled, miffed silence from Prince William's chambers, and then he said, slowly, “I could have your head for that.”

“I think not, Prince. Your mother would. But, princeling—I don't think you could.

Another long pause, and then, “Why are we having a feast?”

Satisfied, America dusted off her hands and continued on her way through the mossy halls of the palace.

Her patrol was long and winding. There were other guards under her command, true, and they all stalked their given sections of the palace—but she, she went everywhere and saw everything. There were ways in the palace that only she knew, dusty halls and shadowed corners, wings of the great wooden warren long-abandoned. In fact, the forgotten ways took up most of her patrol, as guards were not posted in them, there being no use in guarding empty rooms.

The lower rooms, the spreading roots of the royal home, were the finest part of her patrol. They were clear, and quiet, and the air was cool—almost cold on some days.

But...

She tensed, lifting from the ground.

Someone else had been there.

There were no footprints in the moss, no marks in the dust on the walls. But the hall smelled wrong, and when she looked at the ceiling, there were traces of frost in the grain of the woodwork. The scent of honey and winter-out-of-season lingered in the air. It was familiar, though she knew not how.

She followed the signs of frost, flying so as to make no sound—such a creature she was, to have flight as one of her peculiar talents. The trail led deep into the palace roots, and as she forged further on she felt the press of something terrible and foreboding.

Then, though, as she neared the doorway to a disused room, she heard a voice.

Loki. Loki of the Ice, who had come to the palace mysteriously, who lived mysteriously—who was in every way a mystery, though the queen loved him as another son.

“—to kill a tree, you strike it at the root. The House of M is destined for a fall, and I the one to trip them, queen and all.” She could not see to whom he spoke; through the half-open door, he was only half-visible. “I'll gut Will like a sacrifical goat, and as she grieves I'll cut the monarch's throat.”

Her eyes went wide, and the corridor was filled with the sudden scent of brimstone and cinnamon.

“The prince still sorrows, all thanks to my lies! He'll find relief from sorrow when he dies, and that is very soon—tonight, at least, for duty's sake he must come forth to feast, for guests are guests, if sorrow wills or no. After the meal, he'll be the first to go. Our lord is weakened, cut off from his twin! We'll take him by surprise—”

She had heard enough to hang him by. “May I cut in?”

Loki—unaccompanied, he had apparently been speaking to his shadow or to some audience unseen—looked up at her and beamed, most likely to conceal the horrified look in his eyes. “Why, guardswoman! A pleasant sight! Excited for the feast tonight?”

America rolled her neck and reached for the shackles that hung from her belt.

“I thought this place—oh, not the face!

 

--

 

“My queen!”

The queen of Elfland looked up from her contemplation of the carvings on the walls with faint and languid surprise. “Yes, Captain? What is it?”

America threw Loki to the ground at the queen's feet. “Such treachery I have revealed! Within the palace bosom was concealed a serpent in a courtier's disguise. He said, the prince betrayed. I say, he lies.

“You—Loki? Loki of the Ice, a liar?” The queen started from her throne, abruptly energized. “Tell me true, Guard Captain, the substance of your accusation.”

America opened her mouth—

“And you are freed from rhyming. It tires me.”

She blinked. “I've never spoken without rhyming before.”

“Yes, well, get on with it, serious accusations have been made and I require details in order to know how to go about things. As you should well know.”

“Yes, of course, your majesty. I caught this...creature...in the act of plotting your death. He boasted of the lies he had told to separate the princes. He planned—plans—to kill Prince William tonight, when as is his wont he makes his early getaway from the feast, and then to take you unawares when you become distracted by grief.”

The queen stared, horrified. “Loki. 'tis true?”

“I—”

“And speak carefully, little chilly one. The onus of truthsaying is upon you now, and if you lie I will rend you limb from limb.”

He gazed at her for a moment, twisting in America's grip, and when he felt the weight of her spell upon his head he laughed. “It is the truth, your majesty.”

Why? Why betray us, little icy thing, when we took you in and kept you after your own brother drove you from your homeland? And who, who, little cold creature, did you conspire with?”

He smiled ingratiatingly. “I had no accomplices, your majsty, for the same reason that I betrayed you and that my brother drove me out. I am, oh, quite mad, your majesty, quite mad indeed. I have appreciated your love, your majesty, I have appreciated your kindness, but I cannot be content without a loved one to betray. And I have a kingdom to retake, your majesty, oh, Asgardia is mine by right.”

“And what of Prince Thomas? My darling son, whom you have had me banish?”

“A sap.”

“Prince William?”

“A hazard, a danger, a wolf in the guise of a rabbit, his elimination was necessary for my success, your majesty.”

“And the gift, the green beast?”

“Merely convenient, your majesty, a creature most fortuitously provided by the Fates. I saw an opportunity and I took it. That is what I am; that is what I do.

As America watched, the color drained from the queen's face. “And I have banished my darling son on the word of such a creature.” She shook herself. “And it is as if a fog lifts from my mind. How is this, Loki? Have I been enchanted all this time?”

He shrugged. “It is my way, your majesty.”

“No matter.” She clapped sharply. “My brother, please. I need your aid.”

There was a rush of air, and America started back as the queen's brother appeared. “My sister calls me?”

“My quicksilver brother, spread the word. The true traitor is caught, and his treachery and manipulation are unmasked. Prince Thomas and the beast Theodore are pardoned. Go! Make haste!”

“My darling sister, I am haste.”

As her brother disappeared, the queen drew herself up, reached into her sleeve, and produced—an embroidery hoop, with a needle dangling from it on a length of silk. “And in the Forest of M we have punishments for those who tell traitorous lies.”

 

--

 

And again the whisper went up, “The prince is pardoned! The prince is pardoned!” And Prince William came forth from his chambers in his exultation and waited every day upon his balcony for the return of his lover and his brother.

 

--

The Message Received

 

The whisper reached the edge of the forest with some speed, but proceeded slower beyond it, carried by the few waste-bound fairies. There were one or two of those, of course, but even so it took a full week before Sir Noh-Varr of the Marvel and his guests heard the news.

The traveler who brought it to them was an itinerant peddler, who knew not to whom he spoke as he displayed his wares of tea and sweets and spices. “Have heard the news, o chevalier? A traitor's caught—his end is near!”

“A traitor?” Noh-Varr frowned. “What was his treachery?”

“He spread seditious lies against the prince—that's Thomas, mind you. 'twas found out and since the queen's not too forgiving to his ilk she's had his lying mouth closed up with silk. And now she seeks her lately banished son, for he is pardoned and his exile done.”

“Pardoned, you say? Were any other pardons issued?”

“Some verdant monster too—his pardon's there, a solace for the lovesick royal heir.” The peddler paused, peering at Noh-Varr. “You seem unsettled, knight. Why should you care?”

“I—it is curious news, no more. Here is your coin, and thank you for your information.”

“My job, great nob.” The peddler bowed, grinning.

“Yes, yes. Be on your way.”

As the peddler disappeared into the waste again, Noh-Varr turned towards the ship that was his home and called out, “Momentous news, my friends!”

 

--

A Joyous Departure

 

Theodore and Prince Thomas prepared to leave early the next day, gathering their few possessions and rising with the sun. They had thought to take leave of their host after the morning meal, but were surprised when he avoided their farewells and produced a bundle of his own.

Prince Thomas frowned. “Sir Noh-Varr. You travel as well?”

“I travel with you, fair prince.” Noh-Varr shouldered his bundle. “I would be no true knight if I should let you and your man travel unaided.”

“He's not my—truly? You will accompany me—us?”

“Prince, if you were injured on this journey home I would surely be heartbroken.”

“You would—do you jest with me, sir knight?” Thomas looked over at Theodore. “Theodore, am I mocked? Does our host mock me?”

Theodore covered his mouth with a hand. “I don't know, your highness. He seems sincere enough to me.”

“You're laughing at me.”

“Was I? I hadn't noticed.”

“You—I am not prepared to argue with you. Come, Theodore. And Sir Noh-Varr, if you're coming, let's be off.”

But he was smiling—a bit, at least.

They set off across the trackless waste walking side by side, and it was a merrier trip altogether than the one that had sent Thomas and Theodore there in the first place. Conversation was to be had, jokes and discourse and companionship, and the trek was shortened for it—not truly shortened, for the distances were no less, but each day was easier. On the horizon the Forest of M rose higher and higher, and with its proximity their good humor increased.

Then, though, not a day out from the Forest of M's border, they met—

“Bandits.” Noh-Varr stepped forward, drawing his sword. “Stand back, Thomas, I will see to them.”

Thomas? Is that the name I hear?”

The bandit gang parted, the motley crew of young villains moving aside to reveal a slim young fairy in a very large coat. She held a bare sword in one hand and a dagger in the other, and she peered at them with cheerful curiousity.

“I had not thought to find you here.”

Prince Thomas coughed, suddenly blushing. “Ah. Fair Lisa. It has been a very long time.”

“It has indeed, o Thomas sweet. I'm shocked, I hadn't thought to meet a long-lost love. Well, I was bored.” She quirked an eyebrow. “Haps this time, you can taste my sword.”

Noh-Varr glanced at Thomas. “A long-lost love?”

Thomas winced. “It is a long and difficult tale.”

“That much is plain.”

Theodore had his hand over his mouth again. “Sword-tasting?”

Thomas shot an aggrieved look at his green companion. “I am beset on all sides by humorists.”

“Your life is most difficult.” Noh-Varr raised his sword. “Stand back, o travelers, and let us by.”

The girl in the coat—Lisa--glanced over at one of her companions, a young man in a death's-head mask. He grinned and lifted a sword of his own. “We youth, sir, we live well on trouble and strife, so here's the old warning: your cash or your life.

And thus the pitched battle was engaged.

For the most part it was no contest—the bandits had twice their numbers, but Thomas and Noh-Varr had three times their training, and Theodore had his enormous size and strength. Sparks flew from the meeting of blades. Blood dripped onto the ground. One by one the bandits fell, defeated until at last only Lisa and the man in the death's-head mask still stood of their number.

Lisa raised her hands, defeated. “I did but love you once, you know. But if you will it, I will go.”

Thomas nodded, looking on her with a sorrowful countenance. “I am sorry, Lisa. But yes. Go.”

“As you require, prince I desire.”

Now it was only the man in the bone mask. He snarled. “I do not care, so do not say. I will not take the coward's way.”

He lunged.

Startled by his abruptness, Thomas stumbled back and fell, and was sure to be killed, but—Theodore darted forward with a roar that shook the heavens.

The death's-head bandit was caught by surprise, and flew back, most lethally defeated—

—and Theodore was struck—

—and with a crash he fell.

The death's-head bandit was defeated, but Prince Thomas cried out, “No.”

For Theodore, the green beast, was dead.

 

--

Many Reunions

 

The next day saw a much-awaited event in the Forest of M: the arrival of a delegation from the Empire of Skrullos-Hala, including the emperor's daughter and her consort. The princess had not been much in public life in years, mourning some unknown tragedy, and her visit was a great occasion. Knowing in his heart that his beloved and his brother would be soon returned to him, Prince William dressed for the welcoming festivities most splendidly and descended from his room with a light heart.

The shapeshifter princess and her golden consort were welcomed by thunderous chers, as they rode to the gates of the palace in a shimmering litter. A feast had been laid beneath the spreading trees, and the queen and her brother stood tall to greet their guests, William beside them in his blue-and-scarlet finery.

The queen beamed as her visitors descended from their litter. “Princess Anelle. Lord Colonel Mar-Vell. It has been too long since you last walked our mossy ways.”

Mar-Vell bowed, smiling. “We have sorely missed them, your Scarlet Majesty.”

“Yes.” Princess Anelle grinned widely, displaying her many sharp teeth in a way that made some onlookers step back, but her eyes were sad. “We are fortunate to return to the Forest of M.”

They embraced, and kissed, and then Mar-Vell said, “And your heir! Prince William, you are looking very well.”

William bowed. “I thank you, Lord Colonel.”

“But...where is your fine brother? Up to his mischief again?”

But before William could respond, there was a rustling in the forest, and a murmuring, and the crowd of onlookers parted. Up the aisle thus created came Thomas and a tall knight whom William did not recognize. Their faces were solemn, and on their shoulders they bore a cloth-covered form.

The queen stared. “My son. My fair son, my sweet son, what is this?”

Thomas raised his head. “The fruit of Loki's treachery, my mother. I am home and well. But—”

He and the knight set their burden down upon the ground.

“My brother.” Thomas looked up pleadingly at William. “I pray you, hide your eyes.”

William had gone pale. “I will not. What has happened?”

“We were set upon by bandits on our journey back.” Thomas drew back the cloth. “The beast Theodore was struck down.”

Twin wails cracked the heavens.

The first was expected—Prince William had fallen to his knees, ashen-faced, one hand reaching for his death-bound lover.

The other—

“Princess Anelle has fainted!”

Mar-Vell caught her as she swooned, pale himself, and said in choked tones, “What name did you call him?”

Thomas frowned. “He is...was...Theodore, beloved of my brother, and with me wrongly accused of treasonous conspiracy.”

Princess Anelle stirred in her husband's arms and woke, and cried out, “That is my son.”

There was a murmur anew, then a rush, and then a roar as all the crowd began to speak at once.

The queen was wide-eyed. “Your son?”

“He...he claimed no knowledge of his former life,” William sobbed. “He was found. He was found, and they gave him me, Thomas gave him me, and he was mine.

“He was stolen from us.” Mar-Vell's voice was somber. “Ten years ago today he was taken from his bed by vile traitors.”

“And thus your seclusion?” The queen's brother had stepped forward to join with Mar-Vell in helping Anelle to a seat. “We had wondered, but we did not wish to ask.”

“Thus our seclusion.”

Princess Anelle wept, the crowd murmured, and William was insensate. Though his brother tried to hold him back, he went to Theodore's body, cradling the blond head in his lap.

“'twas treachery that took you from me first, before I had time to learn you full,” he said, softly. “And it is nought but the basest treachery that takes you from me now. But do not fear the darkness, beloved. I will follow you there soon, for my heart is broken.”

He wept.

His tears fell on Theodore's face, and though he was blinded by his sorrow and did not see, every onlooker gasped as the prince and his beloved were bathed in blue light. It grew so bright that all averted their eyes, pained and yet still fascinated.

Then, oh, then, it faded, and Theodore stirred and opened his eyes and said, “William?”

William became very still. “Who speaks?”

“William, I dreamed myself lost in the forest again. But I knew I would find my way back to you.”

The onlookers roared again, and Prince William opened his eyes and said, in wonder, “Theodore. You live.”

“I live. And I am yours.”

Theodore stood, and then reached down to help William to his feet, and William gazed at him as if he were the only other person in the world.

And Princess Anelle, who had watched all of this in frozen silence, started towards him. “My son.

Theodore looked on her and suddenly shuddered. “I...Mother?”

“My son. Oh, my son.” She threw her arms around him. “You have grown so tall. Where were you? Where have you been?

“I...it seems I have lain under an enchantment for these ten years, and it was not so long ago that I escaped my captors. And yet the enchantment was not wholly broken, or I would have sought you out.”

“Your father is here too.”

His eyes went wide. “Father?”

“Dorrek. My son.” Mar-Vell's smile was bright enough to rival the sun itself. “How you have grown.”

Prince William continued to gaze upon his beloved in marvel. “Dorrek? Is that your true name?”

“It is, though I did not remember it until now.”

The queen, who had been occupied with the newly-returned Thomas, clapped her hands in delight. “Not one, but two families have been reunited this day! Let the planned festivites be ten-fold! And let us do honor to those who helped create the reunion. Thomas, tell us please, who is this knight who guarded you on your journey back? We will honor him—and forgive him his few faults in guardianship, since all has been made right.” She laughed merrily.

The knight dropped to one knee and swept off his helmet. “I am called Noh-Varr, your majesty, and your other guests should know me very well.”

Mar-Vell staggered back. “My nephew! We thought you lost in the storm that wrecked your ship.”

“Not lost, my revered uncle, and the ship yet lives; it has made me a fine house in these past seven years.”

“A third reunion!” The queen turned to the staff assembled for the welcoming festivities. “Let this word be law: we shall feast and dance and drink for a month!”

“And at the end, Mother,” said William, who had been speaking quietly to Theodore—Dorrek, now—and Anelle, “with your gracious permission, we shall have a royal wedding.”

A silence fell.

“Why, William, my son.” The queen still smiled, but there were suddenly tears in her eyes. “Will you leave me so soon? One couple cannot rule two kingdoms, no matter how capable they may be. Do you mean to abdicate your place as my heir? Or is it Dorrek who will stay with us?”

“I think, Mother, you will find you have another capable heir already handy.” William grinned. “Thomas may even make a royal match of his own. Perhaps we will have a double ceremony.”

Thomas blinked. “I will? We will? How so?”

Dorrek frowned. “He really hasn't figured it out?”

“It seems not.” William laughed. “My apologies, Noh-Varr; my brother is quick in all but matters of the heart.”

Noh-Varr shrugged. “I can work on him.”

“Work on who? On me? For what purpose? My mother, they mock me, they mock me sorely, do make them stop.”

“My nephew, calm yourself.” The queen's brother was laughing. “You are not mocked.”

The mirth spread, and then, as if a storm had broken, the whole forest was a chorus of joyous laughter. Dorrek, beaming, grabbed William around the waist and lifted him high, gazing up into his eyes. “William. I am yours.”

“Dorrek.” William was so happy that he began to glow again. “I am yours.”

 

--

The Epilogue

 

There is one verse left yet unsung:

 

By cyclone blown, by tempest tossed,

We have regained what once was lost!

All loves are reunited. Shout!

Sing songs! Much mirth! Let joy ring out!

Rejoicing must ring through the glen—

Those who were lost are found again!

 

Now, gentles all, this legend's done—

The tale of Elfland's favored sons.

 

“Unstitch my mouth. This tale is done.”