He only used to see me, ye know, when the fever was upon him. That's why he thought I was not real.
Sir Matthew Dunstone was his name, and the story I'm tellin' ye about him is true, as sure as I'm standin' here right now.
It happened long ago at the Yuletide, the season they like to call Christmas, though at that time not many folks put their faith in Christmas or in stories told by elves. But that is just what this is, ye see, a tale as is told by me, Francis the elf.
Now, for the year an' a bit before he first seen me, Sir Matthew would sit all alone in front of his fire for most of his days and on into his every evenin'. He was still a youngish man, but the disease he'd picked up in them heathenish places he'd explored?the ones he used to rant about in his dreams?had wrecked his poor body as well as his mind. His frame had been much sturdier once, I could see, and his face beneath that dark, wavy hair of his had a yellowish tint that he'd not been born with. His cheeks were all lean and hollow-like, with a great, nasty scar comin' near to his mouth. So that when he'd stare at me in the dim light of his fire, nearly all I could see of 'im was a pair of dark, gleaming eyes.
The first time I seen 'im, I was sittin' in a fine, old oak tree in the mews right outside his library window, just the kind of oak us elves likes to play in. It was autumn, I believe, and the leaves were all crimson and gold-like, and I was giving this tree a bit of a try-on when I spied him ahuddled there near his fire. He had a strange sort o' glitter to his eyes. A look as if to mean that he was seein' things he'd rather not see. His face was glistening, too, but not from the coal fire at his feet as much as from the heat in his body that made him shiver.
And he was talkin' to himself.
Now, ye will think, as I did, that Sir Matthew must've been tipplin' just a wee bit too much, but he hadn't touched so much as a drop of wine with his dinner, as I later saw. We elves like to tease a fellow when he's in his cups. Else, I never would have shown meself to him.
But there he was, amutterin' to himself and lookin' as if he was keeping himself in his seat by the strength in them long, narrow fingers o' his. So, I says to meself he must be three sheets to the wind?prime game for an elf?so I slipped right quick inside his window like and perched up on the mantelpiece.
And very glad to see me he was, though it took a bit o' dancin' on me part to get his attention. He was havin' one o' them dreams, ye know, the kind in which the shadows of yer past come back to haunt ye. And, given Sir Matthew's past, what with all them terrible things he'd seen, a fair horror his dreams must've been. So that when he yanked himself out o' them all sudden-like and saw me prancin' there on his chimney-piece, he was just that glad it was me.
Now, if I had known then what was agoin' to happen, I'd have stayed far away from that tree and never visited Sir Matthew no more, but I didn't, ye see, so this was how it happened ...
Matthew tried to speak through his shivering teeth, a difficult task, even though his tremors had eased as soon as he'd seen the elf, the small, wizened creature dressed all in green that was the product of his hallucinations. As he had done for the past few weeks, ever since he had first imagined this illusive figure, Matthew focused all his will on the grinning elf?impossibly seated on the narrow chimney-piece?so as not to slip back into those other, more terrifying delusions. The ones in which slaves and whip-wielding slavers, warring tribes and bloodthirsty chieftains battled for his soul.
"Francis?" he strove for a normal conversational note, not that of a raving, feverish man?"Francis, I wonder why, if I had to invent an elf, I did not give you a different sort of name?"
"And what sort o' name would that be?" Francis asked, jutting out his beard as if he'd just been insulted.
It was astonishing really, Matthew thought, just how logical their conversations always seemed to be. Statement followed question or vice versa, just as they did in real life. Whereas in his other dreams, the genuine nightmares, all the images ran together, producing a greater horror than the horrors he had lived.
At the thought of those other hallucinations, a phantom memory snaked into Matthew's mind, bringing shudders in its wake. He gripped the sturdy arms of his chair.
"What is it, laddie?" Francis's sharp voice dragged him back from the brink of a deep, yawning pit. "Has the devil got yer tail?"
"Yes." Matthew responded with an effort, bringing his gaze back to the welcome face in front of him. "But no matter?where were we?"
Francis crossed his legs in mid-air and folded his arms across his chest. "You were mumblin' some nonsense about me name."
"Oh, yes, I remember now. I was wondering why I had not named you something more appropriate. Something like Prospero."
A grimace of profound disgust rolled over the elf's features. "Prospero? Now, who the devil would he be? One of yer heathens then?"
If he could have laughed, Matthew would have, but when he was shivering so, the effort was always much too great. All he could manage was the ghost of a smile. "No, he's a wizard from Shakespeare. I am disappointed in myself," he said, "for conjuring a companion who hasn't read him."
"Now, there ye go again, ye scurvy rascal," Francis growled. "Sayin' as how ye've invented me, when the fact is, me parents did just fine without yer help. What gives ye the bloody gall to think ye had anything to do with the makin' o' me?"
"I'm not at all certain," Matthew confessed. A fresh surge of fever had suddenly swept through him, pulling the clouds in front of his eyes, so that even Francis seemed far away and moving farther still. "Sometimes, I'm not certain of anything." A wave of shivering spread through his whole body and up to his head. All his limbs started to ache.
"Heating up again, are ye, laddie? Want me to call that grim-faced giant ye call a manservant?"
"In a minute." Matthew shook his head, trying to clear the fog away. Ahmad was not his servant, actually, more in the nature of a bodyguard. Matthew was ashamed when he had to call him, but there were times when he could not walk without the strength in Ahmad's arm. And Matthew had to acknowledge that it was far easier to help a conscious man to his room, however weak he might be, than to pick an unconscious one off the floor.
But the mist was lifting again, and pale green eyes under a black set of brows were peering down at him from a wizened face.
"You are very considerate, you know," Matthew managed quite sincerely. "Not at all what one would expect from an elf. Before meeting you, I had thought that elves were all troublemakers."
"I've already told ye, laddie, them are the other kind. The trolls. The kind what lives in caves." Francis gave a delicate shudder. "Ugly they are."
Matthew's irony did not escape Francis. "Here!" he said, drawing himself up. "Yer no great beauty yerself. Have ye taken a peek in the mirror lately?"
"Only to shave. But it was hardly necessary. You don't have to tell me I've lost whatever attraction I had for women. Though even if I hadn't ... " Matthew let his sentence drop off. It had not mattered what his appearance had been when he'd returned from his explorations. Helen had already forsaken her promise and married someone else.
But he refused to let his thoughts dwell upon that treachery. Such memories only led to bitterness, which exacerbated his fever.
"So these elves who live in caves are uglier than you?" He strove to keep to the conversation, however imaginary. "They must be quite remarkable."
Francis acknowledged this with a vigorous nod. "It's no just their men, ye see. It's their ladyfolk, too, whereas ours are fairer than the moonbeams. Ye've no heard how beautiful the elf maidens are?"
"If I had, I suppose I should have invented one of them instead of you."
"There ye go again, ye wretch, speakin' o' things ye can't understand. But I'll forgive ye this time since yer sick and ravin' like. I'll even give ye a treat and tell ye about me sister, Gertrude."
"Gertrude?" Matthew closed his eyes and muttered to himself, "Wherever do I get these names," before he asked, "She couldn't be Ariel or Ariadne, I don't suppose?"
Francis folded his arms and gave Matthew a quelling glare. "No, she couldn't. She's got the name our mother give her, and I'll bloody thank ye to leave it that way."
"If you insist."
"Well, do ye want to hear about her or no?"
"Yes. And if ye saw her, ye wouldn't be asking such a foolish question." A curious pride seemed to puff Francis's chest. "Our Gertrude, now there's a pretty lass. As beautiful as the sunlight in the glen, she is. And can she dance! As light as the mist on a fern leaf. Though ye mustn't think," he quickly added, "that she's as flighty as some of yer sillier girls. Not our Trudy." He paused to consider and a surprised look came over his features. "As a matter of fact," he said, "she's a bit like you."
"Like me?" Matthew raised his head to focus better on the elf. "In what way?"
Francis nodded smugly. "Now, I see I've got yer interest. Well, I'll tell ye," he said, "though ye don't deserve to know. Our Trudy's a world traveler, she is."
"Really? Where has she been?"
"All them places ye talk about and more. She can circle the globe faster than the sun, so she can."
Matthew let his head drop back against his chair. At times his own ravings amazed him, but on this occasion, a nagging pain in his chest gave reason to his illusions. Not that he would ever admit this to a living soul, but he had been so lonely of late.
As his bitter anger over Helen's defection had waned, a much deeper ache had taken its place. The sheer misery of a man who's been robbed of a woman and, at the same time, of all likelihood of ever finding another.
So, it was no surprise, really, that his hallucinations should take this tack. What amused him was the absurd formality of them. He sighed.
"What do I have to do," he said, "to meet this Trudy of yours? Beg an introduction?"
"Sure, and that would be a good place to start."
Though Sir Matthew didn't beg. Even with a fever upon him that was shakin' his whole body, Sir Matthew had his limits, and a proud and stubborn man he could be. I could see that the talk of our Trudy had captured his fancy, but he was never a man to let his feelings show. He'd been disappointed, he said, in the fickleness of women, so he had no further interest, said he, in the fairer sex. And I took him at his word, ye see, though I shouldn't have....
So Trudy came, and a pretty sight she was, asittin' up in the tree beside me on a cold wintry evening when the stars were all atwinkling like a million fairy lights. Her short, black hair gleamed in the dark like a piece of glossy coal, shimmering blue on green, and her pale green eyes cheered my heart like the sight of an English meadow ... .
"There." Francis pointed through the window at the man in his dressing gown.
Trudy bent from her perch on the barren twig to see. The sight that met her eyes caused a sudden pause in her heartbeat, for the man looked so alone. A book lay open on his lap, but he was not reading it. His head lay back against the chair, his eyelids pinched tightly against the light. His face appeared gaunt, and the lines in his cheeks reflected deprivation. A scar, freshly healed, ran from his cheekbone to the corner of his mouth.
"That's Sir Matthew?" she said, pulling herself up to join her brother on his frozen limb.
"Aye, he's the one I've been tellin' ye about. An' a right poor devil he is."
"What's made him sick?"
"All that gallivantin' to India and Africa?all them places ye shouldn't be caught in neither, as I've told ye and told ye?"
"'Time and again,' I know," Trudy teased. "Though that's nonsense. As if I could be caught by a disease!"
"No, but ye might be trapped by one o' them heathens and put into an iron cage, as I've heard they do if they catch one of their jinn."
"As if I would let meself get trapped! Ye just don't want me to go away from home, now do ye?"
"And what's wrong with staying here, where ye belong?" Francis grumbled. "Ye can't tell me them foreign places have any fancier spots to dance than we do. I'd like to see a prettier sight than a Scottish hillock or an English meadow."
Trudy sighed. She couldn't explain why she felt such a restlessness to travel, or why the simple dances and pranks of her fellow elves left her feeling incomplete. "I just like to wander, I suppose."
Turning to the matter at hand, she added, "But tell me more about Sir Matthew. Why did ye call me?"
"I think he'd do a might better for a wee bit o' female company." Francis gave her a wink. "I thought some o' yer antics might make him forget his troubles. I've tried all o' mine."
"What sort of troubles are they?"
"Well?" Francis settled himself in the crook of the tree and leaned comfortably against its trunk. To any person below he would have seemed but a cluster of mistletoe, with his green felt for leaves, his beard for stems, and his pearly buttons for berries. But Trudy could see him clearly. His little round eyes twinkled back at her; and the nose on his tiny face, which was uncommonly large, twitched when he spoke, putting her in mind of an exotic monkey that had once made her laugh.
"Near as I can make out," Francis began, crossing his legs at the knee, "Sir Matthew did himself in, asearchin' for the source o' the Nile. Made him a baronet, they did, after his first trip. Though why any grown man would care to know where a muddy old river springs from fair has me bamboozled."
His wrinkled brow posed her a question, which Trudy was at pains to answer.
"I can't tell ye why a man would care to know that sort of thing," she said. "With me, it's not the knowing, so much as the searching, so that when I get there all the pleasure I've promised meself slips right away, and so, I'm off again on another search.
"But is that all that ails him?" she asked. "Just a spot of fever and some beasties in his stomach?" She was sure there must be more, even though she knew the horrors such a journey posed for someone no stronger than a human. Most Britishers who set out to find the secrets of the African rivers never returned.
"No." Francis grimaced. "It's not so much his body what ails him, though that's considerable. It's what goes on in that head of his. He must've had a fright or two along the way, bad enough to scare the soul right out of him."
"Poor mannie!" Trudy bent down again to have another peek at Matthew.
His eyes were open now, and he had straightened himself to call a manservant into the room, a great, tall man with fair skin and thick black eyebrows, dressed in the white tunic and baggy pants of a Pathan warrior. A huge, white turban circled his head making him seem that much larger, though he must have stood well over six feet with his head bare.
As big as the Pathan was, Sir Matthew managed to look strong and broad-shouldered beside him. A strange feeling constricted Trudy's chest when she saw him decline the use of his servant's arm. She had no doubt he was feeling weak, but he held himself proudly as he was escorted from the room. The Pathan held back, ready to catch Matthew if he fell. Trudy wondered what act had bound these men together, for the Pathans were an independent race, not likely to hire on as any man's servant. This she had seen on her travels, as well as the strange bonds that sometimes formed between men. There had been times when she had envied them that bond she could not understand.
But Matthew did not seem to be a candidate for envy at the moment, though the square set of his shoulders protected him equally from her pity. Any sympathy she felt had to be tempered by the respect due a man who had endured the hardships he must have experienced: hunger and heat, exhaustion and disease, the treachery of sworn friends, the predations of brigands, danger from tyrants who mistrusted any foreigner, and the assault of cruelty upon cruelty on his eyes and his mind.
Yes, Sir Matthew needed some distraction from the memories she could imagine all too well. Yet, as Trudy watched him leave the room, a vague disquiet came over her, provoked by her brother's uncommon silence.
"Why?" she said, facing Francis?"why do I detect a hint of scheming? Ye've never wanted me to reveal meself to a man before."
"But this one's helpless with his fever," Francis explained, grinning. "And besides, Sir Matthew's sworn off women, or so he says, and he don't intend to be pixie-led. Bit of a challenge, wouldn't ye say, to see if he can resist a beauty such as yerself?"
A moment's pause, and Francis's eyes lit up with mischief. "What say, sister, if I lay ye a bet that ye can't lure him into the mists before Christmas?"
"Lure him into the mists? In his condition? I thought ye felt sorry for him."
"And so I do. But ye can't think I'd let me sister near a man like him if he weren't in such sorry straits? I know all humans are fools, but that's not to say ye can fool the lot o' them."
Trudy rolled her eyes. "And ye think it's yer job to keep me safe? Have I told ye, yer a relic from the Dark Ages, ye are? Do ye have any idea what I've been up to while I was away?"
"Ye've mentioned a thing or two before." Francis scowled. "But if I've got ye here, doin' yer bit to trick Sir Matthew, then I can keep me eyes on you as well. And if ye do lead him on a pretty chase, wisp that ye are, I'm sure ye wouldn't hurt him any worse than he is already. If I were a human, I'd a lot rather dance me way to elfland than sit by a fire, feeling me bones rot right out of me body."
"A lot you'd know what humans feel!"
"Same as yerself! Yer as soulless as me!"
It was true that she was, and, yet, Trudy resented this particular taunt. Somehow, she was sure she knew more about humans than her brother did. She never had shared the contempt for them her fellow elves held, and sometimes her wanderings had taken her perilously close to their world.
But she had never come too close. She'd avoided that ultimate encounter with men, with its attendant danger to rob her of all her magic. That had not prevented her, however, from skipping in the air in front of them, just out of reach, to lead men who'd been lost in the desert to water, or from causing a flurry of chaos in a slave caravan in the hope that some of the slaves would escape. And it would not keep her now from doing what she could to help Sir Matthew find a way out of his despair and into the mists.
Something about his stiff, retreating figure had intrigued her. She couldn't help wondering if an explorer such as he had suffered from the same sort of restlessness she had known, and if he understood what it was. All Trudy knew was that her wanderings rarely brought her any satisfaction, though she was sure that to stay at home doing nothing more than what the other elves did would only be worse.
"Ye say that Sir Matthew never goes out?" she asked Francis, musing.
"No that I've ever seen. He just sits in that chair o' his, most of the time, he does, except when he's sleeping."
Trudy frowned and tapped her chin with one finger. "Then, no wonder his memories trouble him so. He needs something new to take their place."
"That's the spirit! I knew ye'd jump at a challenge. But, I'm warnin' ye, Trudy, Sir Matthew'll be a hard nut to crack."
Trudy scoffed. "I'll have him eating out of me hand and in elfland before Christmas, sure enough. Just ye wait and see."
And that was what I did, though I should've noticed right then and there that she had something addlepated in mind. I should've known by the way she stared at Sir Matthew and the light flickered in her eyes. But I didn't, ye see, or I would've stopped her before the whole thing got out of hand, and a terrible tragedy would have been averted. But that's our Trudy for ye. She always did do things her own way, with no proper reflection beforehand.
And, as for Sir Matthew ... Well, that's the last time I'll believe any man who claims he won't be pixie-led.