The roads in Drusselstein did not get paved until 2003, when the project was undertaken by some private investors interested in building a market for exported doonkleberries in the USA. As of 2012, five percent of the country’s population owns one hundred percent of the country’s automobiles. Forty years ago, it could have passed for a medieval kingdom.
It was 1976, and the carriage made a heavy thudding sound on the shadowy ground as it lurched over half buried trees and washed out gullies. The driver was a Doofenshmirtz man, his expression comfortably grim as he urged the rented nags over various obstacles. They made decent time, although the horses were as old as they were ungainly—domesticated animals do not favor the forests of Drusselstein. Wild animals don’t particularly care for them either, but they don’t have much of a choice.
High above them, the white half globe of the moon flickered between withering leaves. It was autumn, and the man’s family had been journeying to the capital to apply for yet another loan, before the year dwindled down to nothing. Prospects so far remained grim.
The wagon contained five bodies, four human. There was a dog, of the vain sort of breed that can take down a fully grown deer more easily than play dead, the man and his wife, and two boys. They had started off from the capital when the sun was high in the sky, and the man had silently refused equally silent requests to pause for the night at an inn at the border of the forest. It was common knowledge that wood trolls were attracted to the sound of carriage wheels after night fall, but the village of Gimmelshtump was only an hour away once you passed the tree line, and the man had not been in the mood to let some trolls that might or might not even be in this region of the forest dictate his actions.
He was, in addition to simply being a man, a Drusselstenian man. This meant that he was never entirely unarmed when it came to the monsters of the countryside.
In the back of the carriage—more of a covered wagon, really—the man’s oldest son sat with his hands cinched around his knees. He had spent a hefty chunk of his relatively short life as a lawn gnome—and would spend more, most likely, if his father’s business with the bank had gone as badly as it sounded—which gave him some familiarity with the dangers of unprotected spaces. Witches, spells, wood trolls, der kinderlumper, so on and so forth. He was eleven years old, and he was fairly certain that he’d like to live to be twelve regardless of how much he did not want to see Big Black Boots Boris on Monday. Driving through the forest at night seemed to be a good way to make sure neither ever happened.
His name was Heinz, which is usually short for something else but in this case was not.
Heinz looked out the back of the carriage. It was open to the darkness, and the road wound out behind them like a pale silver thread.
Now, wood trolls. He could deal with wood trolls. Everybody knew what to do with them, and given enough preparation they’d hardly slow you down. Witches were trickier, but they didn’t usually wander the roads at night. Witches were more the house keeping types. Bats and goozims were probably more of a threat than—
Heinz let go of his knees and crawled to the edge of the wagon. He heard something, underneath the rattle of wheels and the creaking planks, like a third set of hooves. It had a ghostly uncertainty to it, not quite consistent enough for an echo and not quite solitary enough to be real. Heinz looked back at his mother, seated beside his father at the front of the wagon with her hands squarely in her lap, and bit his lip. She’d ordered him to be silent, but that was hours ago, and besides, she never remembered to give him back speaking privileges. If he didn’t carefully forget after a day or so, he’d never get to talk at all.
A sound like a voice slipped in through the cracks in the rattling carriage. Heinz jerked back from the darkness and searched wildly in every direction for the source of the sound, another traveler or perhaps a radio, and found nothing but his parents and his little brother, exactly as they were.
Carefully, he leaned over the back of the carriage to get a look at the ground. It was probably too much to ask for the wheels to be trailing a bell or some strange noisy junk, but he’d rather not jump to conclusions.
The wind whistled, but it was not a voice. There was nothing under the wheels.
“Child,” the darkness said, “come with me.”
Heinz toppled backwards and skittered across the bouncing wooden floor, heels pushing wildly at the planks until his back was pressed up flat against the back of his mother’s chair.
“Mama,” he hissed, eyes fixed on the featureless night beyond the bounds of their walls. “Mama there’s something out there.”
“I told you to be silent,” his mother replied. Her voice was colder than the moonlight across the dirt.
“I know, I know, but there’s something out there,” he said. “I can hear it talking.”
“How can you hear anything over the rumbling of this two bit rental,” she said, as motionless as ever. It wasn’t a question, Heinz was pretty sure of that.
“I can hear it,” he insisted, “there’s a voice, and hooves, and it wants me to go somewhere with it.”
His mother shifted. Something he’d said must have done the trick, because she turned back for a moment to glance over her shoulder at little Roger, who was sitting placidly across the carriage, staring harmlessly at nothing.
"Do you hear anything, darling?" she asked the smaller boy, a hint of reserved worry around her deep set eyes.
"No mama," Roger said.
The moon went dark behind a canopy on the road ahead. Any emotion in his mother’s face died. “There,” she said, “then there is nothing Heinz. Be silent.”
"But mama, I heard it—"
His mother snorted. “Roger heard nothing,” she said. “And elves only come for beautiful children. It is the wind in the leaves.”
And with that, she returned to her motionless vigil.
Heinz scowled at his brother. “Why didn’t you tell her?”
Roger gave him a mild look that was altogether too mature for a six-year-old’s face. “I didn’t hear anything,” he replied. “It’s late. I’m going to sleep the rest of the way.”
Roger’s meaningful look flew right past Heinz, who was already crawling back to the end of the carriage. The younger boy gave up on further communication at that point—even at six years old, Roger was aware that his brother was by nature strange and irrational. High strung.
Heinz leaned over the edge again, this time searching the tangles of branches along the road side for a hint of motion in the darkness. The alder trees rose high and curving, and empty of everything except the wind. Heinz sighed and sat down again, resting his forehead against the sill. Maybe it was nothing.
“You, dear child.”
He twisted his head. “Roger,” he hissed, “Roger do you hear that?”
His brother only made an irritated six-year-old noise and rolled over onto his side, firmly avoiding the problem. No help from that quarter, then. Heinz took a deep breath and turned back to the window.
Out in the inky night, he could make out the shadowy figure of what might have been a mounted rider in the tangle of the undergrowth, moving with eerie speed through the dense brush.
“You, dear child,” it called, “come, go with me.”
Heinz leaned out the window. “I’m sorry mister,” he called out, only a little louder than the sounds of the carriage. “My brother is sleeping, I don’t think he wants to go anywhere with you!”
The shadow figure’s horse balked, danced sideways, and then ducked gracefully out onto the piecemeal illumination of the road.
“I’m sorry,” the rider said, a new and uncertain note in its echoing voice. “Who?”
The rider, as best Heinz could see, was striking and male, and wore in his long knotted hair a spired crown with peaks like the knobs of old branches. His face was a dark pane of shadows, with glinting pinpricks of light where the eyes were—should be, Heinz amended uneasily. He wasn’t certain.
“Roger,” he answered, dutifully. “My brother. He’s not interested, um, please try back some other night?”
The black horse tossed its head, a mane like cobwebs fluttering against the night. The rider urged it forward, slipping into a more intimate distance, head tilted curiously. Closer up, he was more strange than frightening. Heinz had always found that things were less frightening up close, where you could see the seams. Take wildcats for example. Way less scary when they weren’t stalking you through the underbrush.
“Ah,” the rider said, peering past Heinz into the dim space of the wagon. “I didn’t know she had a son.”
“What?” said Heinz. He started to build up some indignation, but then, why bother, he’d been mistaken for a servant before. He went with the more important question. “Do you know our mother?”
The rider regarded him silently for a moment, and then inclined his head. The wicked peaks of his thorny crown glinted. “I am the Erl King,” he said.
“A king?” Heinz repeated, scrambling up over the back of the wagon. He perched there, as close as he could get to the rider. “Can you give my father a loan? Or are you a poor king? My father is a poor baron, that’s what he says.”
“I am rich,” the Erl King said, “but I have more valuable boons than money to grant men. Power, talent, charms, a really excellent peach cobbler recipe—”
“Oh,” sighed Heinz. “He doesn’t want any of that.”
The Erl King cleared his throat. Or whatever passed for a throat. “Right. Ah. So. Come, dear child, go with me.”
Heinz frowned. “I’m sorry, what was that?”
The king reached back like he was rubbing his neck with one twisted hand. “Er. Come away with me.”
“Come away where?”
“To… my kingdom?”
“Oh.” Heinz paused, took that in for a moment. “What, like on a vacation?”
“…Sure. A lengthy… holiday.”
“Gosh, let me tell mama, she wants to go on a vacation so bad, this is great.”
“No, no, hold on,” the Erl King cut in hastily, “not your family. Just you.”
“Me?” Heinz said.
Heinz considered this. After a moment, he glanced back at his brother, sleeping placidly with his knees pressed up against the back of their parents’ seats. Something clicked into place.
“But,” Heinz said slowly, “elves only take beautiful children. You are an elf, aren’t you?”
“I am something of that nature, yes.”
“So… why me?”
The Erl King blinked—you could tell because the twin liquid pinpricks of his eyes darkened for the flash of a second. He trotted forward again, horse keeping effortless pace with the rumbling wagon. He leaned in, over the neck of his mount, and peered at Heinz. On the lit pane of his cheekbone, Heinz could barely make out a twisting curling pattern, like the limbs of a very old tree.
“Men have such strange concepts of beauty,” the Erl King murmured. “Child, you are not like them.”
Heinz’s spine stiffened. “I am too! I’m just like everyone else!”
“No,” the Erl King replied, “you really are not.”
“I’m going back in the wagon,” Heinz threatened, throwing a leg over the wall just to demonstrate how serious he was.
The king didn’t seem particularly worried. “You have talent, dear child. Much talent. Come away with me, and I will show you how to make the most of that—my kingdom is hungry for artists, you would never be without admirers.”
“There will be dancing,” the Erl King went on, casually, “and there is always food, lovely endless food the likes of which you will never taste elsewhere. I have daughters who would play with you, any game you like. We have many beautiful old things that need to be fixed. You could be very useful to us. We would be so very grateful.”
“Dancing?” Heinz echoed, a little bit behind the curve. “Like—for fun?”
“You enjoy dancing,” the Erl King said, and it wasn’t a question.
Heinz glanced around, nervously, but no one was listening to him. “Yes,” he whispered.
“Come away with me,” the king said, offering one knotted dark hand towards the boy. “No one will tell you to stop breathing so loudly, or to be still, and you will always have a bed.”
“Um,” said Heinz. “That sounds really great, but—”
He looked again over his shoulder, at the shapes of his family in the darkness. He knew enough at age eleven to know that he wasn’t happy, and that maybe he had never been. Other people were happy, even Roger seemed happy enough. Kids at school. Uncles. Dogs. If it was possible for them, then why not him too?
The hand waited, extended patiently into the void between the monstrous horse and the creaking wagon. Heinz regarded it. He had heard a little bit about elves, just enough to know that people didn’t like them much. They took children. Well, people also didn’t like him much, and at least this elf was asking first.
Heinz sighed. “I’m sorry, your highness. I can’t go with you.”
The Erl King retracted his hand. “Dear child, you can’t be serious.”
Heinz gestured helplessly toward his family’s vague shapes. “I can’t, I—I already ran away once, I had to come back. They need me.”
The Erk King regarded him with his strange eyes, black and hooded. “They don’t love you,” he observed, a touch reproachfully.
Heinz flattened his lips, stared into the empty darkness. “I can make them,” he said.
The fairy horse tossed its head and stamped, losing distance as the wagon rattled on. The Erl King regarded Heinz with something almost like sadness. An alien, curious sadness.
“I gave my word I would only offer you anything,” he said, finally. “I cannot take you by force.”
Heinz shivered. “Thanks for the offer, your majesty. I appreciate the thought.”
The king inclined his head.
Half an hour later, the wagon arrived in the village of Gimmelshtump, wheels shaking ominously on their posts. The man and his wife went to unload their dog and their children and bring them inside the house, only to find their eldest son huddled at the back of the contraption where the wind chill bit hardest. His skin was paler than the fading moonlight, and worryingly cold to the touch. The man and his wife exchanged a glance, lifted up their son, and silently carried him to his bedroom.
In a day or so, the fever passed, and the boy survived.