Chapter 4:

Queen of the Fair Folk

Drinking Coffee while Dinosaurs Roam My Backyard

First impressions matter. Especially bad ones. If for example you misread the clock and your date gets there to pick you up but you answer the door unshaven and in your boxers, it’s an uphill battle to make her ever stop reminding you about it for the rest of your marriage. Or if you interrupt a session of the royal court and demand that the queen picks up the clutter lying around her throne room because you’re about to unleash a Roomba on them, she might, just might, be a tad miffed about the whole lese-majesty affair and glare at you.Bookmark here

Both examples are of course purely speculative in nature and refer to no actual situation or person, living or dead, in any way. I mean, those would be some major caliber goof-ups.Bookmark here

The room I’m in is doing something weird to my sense of space. It feels at once both a standard sized living room and ballroom so big a horde of mountain trolls could play rugby in there. And that’s not all. All the colors are so overbearing that they threaten to stomp me down and I have to fight to make any sense of my situation. I wish I’d brought my sunglasses.Bookmark here

Green eyes. A voice. I decide to concentrate in stimuli from that direction and squint. In front of me is a throne made out of gnarled branches and bright flowers. Really there are two of them but only one is occupied and I fix my attention on that one. On it sits a woman who just referred to herself as a queen and to me as a mortal. I guess that says everything relevant about our power balance – and her life expectancy. Best not to dwell on that too much. I can barely imagine getting fifty years old at some point.Bookmark here

The Queen is by all counts beautiful. Almost impossibly so. The slightly greenish hue of her skin, the sensual, tightly pursed lips, high cheekbones, the pointy ears that really make me want to do the Vulcan salute. I say ‘impossibly’ because I have seen plenty of women who I could label as attractive to some extent, but this being plays in a category of entirely her own. All this is giving me some serious Midsummer Night’s Dream vibes and I hedge my bets of being under some sort of enchantment or glamour. She raises a finger to point at me.Bookmark here

“I beseech you to repeat the words you uttered upon entering my castle, man of earthly plane, for their likes have never been spoken aloud in this realm.” Her words manage to both offer strange comfort and drip palpable malice at the same time. A tall man standing just a step behind the throne smiles bemusedly. He looks a lot like the author of Coraline in his youth. I dub him Neil.Bookmark here

“Oh, that,” I say. “It was a mistake. I wasn’t referring to you or the amount of dessert you could eat. You can keep your hiney off gear, no fuzz.” I bow my head slightly and add, after way too long a pause: “Your majesty.”Bookmark here

One could claim my second impression isn’t going that well either.Bookmark here

The guards beside the fancy branchy chair grip their spears more tightly. The thin ice I’m standing on has long since melted away and is evaporating fast. It’s time to perform a retreating maneuver. I turn around to step through the doorway again.Bookmark here

It’s not there any more.Bookmark here

Right. I’ve told the girls time and again not to leave any portals open for any longer than necessary for safety reasons but also because I’d like to keep our household energy consumption below the Kardashev level. I suddenly recall how at the local supermarket they were endlessly fascinated by the doors that opened and closed when people walked towards them. I see they have implemented the principle halfway already.Bookmark here

I turn to face the queen again with an apologetic grimace and tilt my head into a small bow. “I meant no disrespect, of course. I’m just looking for my daughters, you see.”Bookmark here

“Your daughters,” exclaims her majesty. “Two human girls not yet of the age?”Bookmark here

I nod. “Yeah, kids.”Bookmark here

“imps who bring nothing but calamity and chaos!” The Queen’s eyes blaze and I hear discontent murmur building up among the courtiers. I steal a quick glance and see all sort of folks standing in a semicircle around the room. Most of them have human features but there’s also a bunch antlers, whiskers, claws and whatnot. Now they are glaring at me as well.Bookmark here

“I see you’ve met them then. They can get a bit unruly at times but they don’t have any ill intent, I promise. So, if you could just point the way they went and I’ll be out of your hair in a jiffy. Your majesty.”Bookmark here

“Such insolence! You presume to intrude the court of the fair folk at your convenience and simply exit it at your whim. I think not. You shall be put to a test.”Bookmark here

I’ve learned it’s often better to sideline important questions in favor of the critical ones. “What happens if I lose?” I once lost a round of rock-paper-scissors and had to bake a full-blown strawberry cake.Bookmark here

“Then you shall remain an esteemed guest at our castle.”Bookmark here

I don’t need any details beyond that. My imagination is good enough to conjure up vivid images of damp dungeons and dusty cells. “Right. What’s the test then?”Bookmark here

There is a wicked look on the Queen’s face when she answers: “The shell game.” She has a triumphant glow to her and I get a bad feeling that she is way too sure of her victory even before we get started. Best to stay on my toes.Bookmark here

It’s a simple game. You have three seashells, or plastic cups or inflatable tennis domes, and a pebble or some other item. You set one cup over the item and then move the cups around while the other person tries to keep a track of the movements, and in the end he has to say under which cup he thinks the item is. If the movements are fast it’s easy to lose the track of it all and end up guessing.Bookmark here

A table is set in front of the Queen. Neil places three seashells on it. Nice touch, I’ve usually played this with cola cups in the local burger joint. The item turns out to be a translucent blue orb that looks to be made of marble by the clunk it makes when dropped on the table.Bookmark here

The court is hushed. The guards have stepped back. Even Neil is giving the Queen more room than so far, and the Queen places the marble under the center shell. “Remain vigilant, mortal. Your very freedom depends on your keen attention and nerves of mithril.”Bookmark here

Then there is a whirl of blurry hands and shells as she shuffles the game pieces on the table. She stops and places her hands to rest on the armrests of her throne and grins at me not unlike an apex predator to a cornered prey. “Choose wisely, mortal.”Bookmark here

Most people would be stumped here. The flurry lasted not even ten seconds but she made at least a hundred moves and keeping up with that pace is not the easiest thing in the world. Or worlds, as it is.Bookmark here

Then again I’m raising two kids who really prefer not to eat any vegetables if at all possible and I have grown accustomed to spot any attempt of slipping cucumber slices on my plate even if deliberately distracted. No matter how quickly Milla or Meri fling even a bit of grated carrot into my pile I always catch it. There’s no alternative simply because otherwise I’d be eating three helpings of greens on every meal.Bookmark here

“That one,” I say and point the shell on the left.Bookmark here

The Queen picks up the shell and reveals a vacant spot. Her expression has changed to resemble a beast who is about to deliver the death blow.Bookmark here

“Wait a moment,” I say. “I’m quite positive it should be that one. What’s going on in here?”Bookmark here

“Perhaps you are insinuating that the Queen of the fair folk would employ such profane methods as to play unfairly?” the fairy monarch says. Her tone is unmistakable and I figure that whatever my suspicions may be I’m way better off if I don’t press the matter further. But if I don’t my loss stands and I gotta find the girls, get back home, get more coffee, clean up a bit and get started on lunch. I don’t have the time to take a one way tour of the dungeons.Bookmark here

Perhaps I can ease the tension with a joke and talk my way out of the pickle? It can hardly make the situation worse, at any rate. I have two more superballs in my pocket. I rummage for it and then present it to the crowd. “Abrakadabra, now it’s in my hand.”Bookmark here

What I expected was a bit of awkward laughter and some eye rolling. What I got was a more panic and less disco. The courtiers are shouting in terror and running and tumbling over each other as they scramble to make a getaway, the guards dive into the ground shielding their heads and the green tinge on the Queen’s cheeks has gone all alabaster. Even Neil has lost his cool and is peeking from behind the empty throne.Bookmark here

“You… you threaten me, I mean the Queen, with such a horrible contraption. I yield. I yield, do you hear me. I concede the game. You have passed the test. Put that weapon of destruction away and take your leave. Without delay.”Bookmark here

I’m impressed. I’ve always been baffled by ventriloquism and the Queen seems to be pulling that schtick off with aplomb. Her face stays rigid like stone for the entire spiel. I have no idea what’s going on but evidently there is some form of misunderstanding. I want to set the record straight or I could end up in an even deeper problem. “No, no, you see, this is just a toy that–“Bookmark here

“Without delay!” Now I can see her lips move and utter terror ripple across her face. She makes a gesture and suddenly there is a wall right next to me. In it there is a door, an open one, and I decide it’s smart to get the zucc out of dodge while the getting’s good. I wave at her and step through the doorway.Bookmark here

“Well, thanks, see you around, but what about Milla and Meri–“ It seems this is not the day when I get to finish my sentences. The doorway vanishes and I look around expecting to be back home.Bookmark here

Three small winged humanoid creatures buzz around me like a bunch of giggling bumble-bees and vanish into the shrubbery.Bookmark here

I’m standing in the middle of terribly green expanse, grass growing up to my knees. Oh beans.Bookmark here

It’s gonna be an even longer while before I can get back to my coffee.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.