From 'The Sterkarm Handshake'
Per, a sixteenth-century reiver, has been injured during a ride. He is taken to the 21st Century for treatment, and wakes up in a twenty-first century hospital room…
21ST SIDE: IN ELF-LAND
Per was in his father's hall, drifting among the people there like the smoke, like a ghost. He could see their mouths opening, laughing, shouting, but heard nothing. He must be drunk, the walls and ceilings spun so, and he wasn't standing, but lying. Under his back, solid, holding him up, was the earth. A bird was calling, 'chip, chip, chip', on and on and on. The sun was shining red through his closed lids, and he lifted his hand to shade his eyes, but it was held, tangled in his sleeve. Quite clearly, a little irritated, someone said, "Don't rile about."
He tried to open his eyes, but the light was too dazzling, and his lids
too heavy. He sighed and shifted, dozed, and then knew he was wrapped in his blankets, in his bower. But all
the sounds were wrong. There was that insistent 'bip, bip, bip...' He had never heard the sound before. He lay listening to it
with closed eyes, frowning a little. It wasn't a bird: no bird made that call. It wasn't a wind or water sound, or an
animal sound, or anything he could tell. And everything else was too quiet. There should have been a murmurous din
made of voices talking and shouting, animals moving and bleating, lowing, barking, clucking and screeching; pots and pans being walloped, buckets clanked. There should have been small, close sounds of birds and mice moving in the thatch above, and Cuddy sighing and shifting as she kept guard beside his bed. Instead,
beneath that monotonous 'bip, bip, bip,' was a discomforting silence, like the silence in the hills when you stood still,
and the noise of your own movements, which had been loud in your ears, stopped too. Then there was nothing but the deep,
silence that the hills held among their folds. Bip, bip, bip.
Everything was wrong. Under his back was something firm, but soft --- it was neither a hillside, nor his thick, hard palliasse, prickly with straw and spread over wooden chests. Nor was there any musty, sweet smell of hay rising with his every slight movement; and no fug of old sweat, old smoke and wet Cuddy. Instead - he wrinkled his nose - the smells were stinging and sharp. And too much light. Even with the shutters open, there was not so much light in his bower, shadowed as it was with the tower walls and overhanging thatch. He was half minded to hunch on his pillow and go to sleep again, but the bip, bip, bip and the too-bright light was insistent, and he opened his eyes.
The light dazzled him, and he squeezed his lids shut against it, and
lifted his arm to shade his face. Something fine tugged at his elbow. Someone was in the light, blocking it. A
voice that made him want to smile even before he knew it, said, "It gladdens me to see thee."
From behind the shade of his hand, he saw Andrea. The sight of her gladdened him. Her heavy, shining hair was slipping out of its pins and falling in thick tresses over her shoulder. The light, behind her, made a golden halo round her head, so she shone and dazzled. His elf-may.
Her face was all plump, smiling warm curves - like the body beneath, all
plump, warm curves. He felt her take his other hand, where it lay on the bedding, and she stroked its
back while holding it in her warm, soft clasp. It made him feel peaceful, like a cat in the sun.
"All is right, Per; all is good."
For sure it was: why should it not be? He opened his mouth to tell her she
was beautiful, and like the Queen of Elf-Land Herself, but found that even his face was weary. The arm he had raised to shade his eyes slumped back to the bed. He felt heavy and hazy, half numb and half-asleep. He smiled at Andrea, and she
pressed his hand between both of hers and smiled back - but her smile was wobbly. Tears spilled from her eyes.
"Oh Per, I'm so gladdened - to see some colour in thy face again."
He was surprised. Had he been sick then? Some memory, too quick to be caught, shifted in the back of his head. But seeing her in tears made him forget all that. Something was wrong, something was upsetting her, and he should put it right. His own eyes filled in sympathy. "What?" he said. His voice was a whispering croak. "What's the matter?" Her tears pleased him too, giving him a little stab of pride that he couldn't help. It was said that Elves, like witches, couldn't cry, so she must care for him a great deal, if tears could run down her face like this. Maybe it wouldn't be so easy for her to leave him, without a look back, as the seal-mays and swan-mays did.
"Per? Canst understand me, lover? Thou must harken to me now." She leaned further over him, so that she filled his sight. "I have to tell thee something..."
He raised a hand, trying to reach up to touch her hair, and she took both his hands and folded them together on his chest, holding them there. She said, "Careful of the drips."
Drips? He thought of rain dripping from the eaves of thatch; droplets
flying as Fowl shook his head after drinking; snot hanging in a drop on the end of a man's cold
"Per?" She smiled. "Thou'rt not quite awake, art thou? Harken, love. Dost remember the ride?"
His eyes kept slowly shutting, and slowly opening again. "Grannams," he said.
"That's right. The night before Elf-Windsor came, remember? Tha led a ride after the Grannams."
"Gobby," he said, on a sigh, as his eyes closed again.
"What? Doesn't matter. Per, dost remember being hurt?"
Memories moved in Per's mind, like fish in a deep pool, flashing into view and vanishing again. A big white moon in a dark sky over dark hills. A cold, damp wind and a smell of earth and grass. Great noise and yelling, and a dreadful, hot, sick ache...
"Thou wast hurt badly, Per, and lost blood, lots of blood. Thee all but died. Tha would have died."
He blinked at her, feeling drowsily warm and comfortable, and having no
clear memory of his life ever having been in danger. It was like being told about someone else. His head,
when he tried to lift it, felt extraordinarily heavy, like a cannon-ball; so he pushed his chin up towards her, hoping she would take the hint and kiss him.
"Lie still and harken."
"Hush. We saved thee. We, the Elves --- "
"Who's thy prick?" He pulled one hand out of hers, meaning to catch at a dangling strand of her hair.
"Per, thou'rt no harkening. I'm trying --- "
One of his hands had fumbled up to her shoulder and her hair. "Is it me? Am I?"
She kissed him. "Ssh. Thou'rt my brave prick." Another kiss. "And my bonny cock-horse. Now lie still, shut thy gob and harken. We saved thee from dying, Per. We put blood back into thee."
"Aye," he said. The Elves were famous for healing. "Thou gavest me espirin."
"Nay, no aspirin, something stronger. Per. Harken. I have a big thing to tell thee. But thee mustn't be feared."
"I'm no feared."
"Nay, never be. Per, we brought thee into Elf-Land."
He blinked at her again, slowly.
"If we'd left thee in Man's-Home, tha'd have died, lover, died. So we - I. I brought thee into Elf-Land. Thou'rt in Elf-Land. This is Elf-Land."
She felt his whole body convulse under her. The drowsiness left his face.
His head turned, trying to see past her.
"Per, Per." She cupped his face in her hands, leaning close over him. "All's right, tha'rt safe. Nowt shall hurt thee, I swear."
Per was staring up into her face and snatching at breath. Above and behind her head he could glimpse white walls and ceiling, shining with a harsh, wet gleam, like milk. The smooth, straight whiteness of the surfaces proved the truth of what she said. No such walls, no such ceilings were anywhere to be found in Man's-home.
"All's right, Per. I brought thee here to make thee well. When thou'rt whole and healed, shalt go home again, I swear."
Her hands still held his face, and he gripped her wrists with his own hands. Strange little pulses jumped in his elbows. What a fool, to have trusted an Elf! What a fool, to have trusted that, because there was love between them, she would do him no harm!
'I set my back against an oak,
Thinking it a strong and trusty tree,
But first it bent, and then it broke,
And so did my true love to me.'
Elves were, and had always been, uncertain and tricksy creatures, blessing
with one hand, blighting with the other, as the mood took them. All the stories taught that an Elf's love was dangerous - you might be drawn away into Elf-Land, to be a toy, or a slave or mere coin to pay the tax that Elf-Land owed to Hel... But love blinded, deafened and tied the hands.
"Per, my own prick, be no feared."
"I'm no feared." His eyes were straining sideways as he spoke, trying to see more of the room, and he looked so bewildered and so scared, that she would have cried for him if she hadn't felt like laughing.
She stroked his hair. "All's right. Would I do owt to hurt thee? Would I? Lots of folk have come into Elf-Land, thou'rt not only one. Tam Lin came --- "
Aye. Tam Lin had fallen asleep while out hunting and the Elf- Queen had found him, fancied him, and had taken him into Elf-Land. But the tax to Hel fell due and, the Queen's love for him having cooled, Tam feared he would be part of the payment. Tam escaped, but barely, and the Elf-Queen cried after him:
Tam Lin, Tam Lin, had I but known
That thou wouldst so betray me,
I would have cut out thy pretty grey eyes,
And put in two of tree.
If this betrayal, Tam Lin, Tam Lin,
If this betrayal I'd known,
I would have cut out thy living heart,
And put in one of stone.
"And True Thomas, he went into Elf-Land..."
True Thomas had spent seven years in Elf-Land, taken there by the Elf-Queen to be her lover - her silent lover, for she forbade him to speak. At the end of seven years, the tax to Hel fell due, and the Queen loved Thomas well enough to send him back to Man's-Home, with the gift of second-sight. His prophesy made him famous, and rich, but also feared, and he was never again at peace in his own world, and lived only for the day when he was called back to Elf-Land. ..
"And there was --- "
"Why hast brought me here?"
"I told thee, Per. To make thee well. Look - "
"I want to go home."
"Thou shalt. Thou shalt, as soon as thy leg's healed. Lie still, keep
still. Look, let me show thee - there's nowt to fear."
With her fingers she was gently moving a black thread that seemed to be dangling from somewhere overhead. As she moved it, he felt something brush against his arm, and the odd little pulse jumped at his elbow again.
He looked up, following the black thread with his eyes, but was distracted by the pole that stood beside the bed, shining like polished silver in the sunlight - there were bars at the edge of the bed too, and they were silver. So much silver! Worth a fortune. The Elves were truly as rich as was said. But it would be hard to carry the silver away.
He looked up again and saw that, at the top of the silver pole, hung a - he didn't know what to call it. A soft bag that sagged with the weight of its contents, like a sheep's stomach filled with meal or water. But this bag was so thin that its contents could be seen through it. The great mass of the stuff was dark and thick, not quite black, but almost so.
Some of it had smeared thinly and greasily over the inner surface of the bag, and here, where the light shone through it, the colour was a dark red. It looked like blood. What was blood doing in a soft bag at the top of a silver pole above his bed?
The thin black thread was attached to the bag. It led down to his arm, to his elbow, where the pulse jumped. At the end of the thread was a little - he didn't know what it was, but it was sticking into his arm. Into his arm -
He gasped for breath and pushed himself up in the bed -
Andrea gripped his arms before he could snatch at the drips, or jump out
of bed. "All's right, never fear. I told thee, things are strange, but thou'rt safe - "
Now that he was sitting higher in the bed he could see more of the room, and everything was uncanny... "Per, Per, harken to me - " A whole wall was missing. He looked out through the hole at green grass and tree-tops, from an angle that meant they must be high in a tower, and felt that the room was tilting and they would slide out - He gripped fiercely at Andrea's arm.
"Per, it's elf-work. What else wouldst find in Elf-Land but elf-work? It won't hurt thee, none of it will hurt thee."
He was breathing in snatches, his chest was rising and falling sharply and he stared at her fixedly, his teeth gritted.
"Look." She drew his attention again to the drip-line. "This is how the blood is being put back into thee. See, it's running out of the bag up there, and down this little pipe and into thine arm. It's making thee better, not hurting thee. And this one - "
She showed him the drip-line that led from the stand on his other side,
from the bag of saline solution. "This one has elf-work in it to make thy leg heal faster." The doctor had
explained to her that it held one of the healing-accelerants that had recently been approved for use. "And this - " She pointed to the electrode stuck to his chest. "This is elf-work to count thy heart- beats. Listen!"
Raising a finger, she wagged it in time to the beeping of the machine. "The faster thy heart beats, the faster it beeps. Now calm down - " She stroked his arm. "Calm down, and it'll beep more slowly. Listen."
He pushed himself up further until he was sitting. He still breathed fast, and his heart beat fast, but he didn't know what to do, or say, or where to look.
"All's right," Andrea kept saying, and her hand stroked on the bare skin of his arm, and her voice and touch held his fear in check - but she had brought him into Elf-land -
"How long have I been here?" He hated the pipes in his arms, but they must have been there when he woke, and didn't seem to have done him any harm - and the beeping of the box did keep time with his heart -
"Only a day, Per. Well, getting on for two. But - "
"Why do they count my heart-beats?"
Andrea wasn't exactly sure herself. She kept her hands on his shoulders, stroking, soothing. "It's just so they know thy heart's still beating... It's elf-work. It's - "
"How. How long's passed? In Man's-Home?"
A year True Thomas had spent in Elf-Land, but when he reached home, he'd been seven years away.
"Per, Per." She put her arms round him, hugged him carefully. "I promise, I promise thee, time is passing the same there as here. Thou shalt not turn to dust when tha goes back, I promise. How canst think I'd do owt to hurt my own prick, my only prick?"
He pushed her a little away and looked into her face, studying her,
searching her face and finding nothing there but honesty. He returned her hug, drawing her close again.
She felt him relax. "Lie down again, Per, lie down."
He did, and she stroked his hair back from his face so that it spread out about his head on the pillow. "Listen now: the beeping is slowing down. It's counting thy heart-beats."
His eyes grew vague as he listened. It was true: the beeping was slower. But how did the box count? It must have a spirit inside it. The beeping grew faster again as the eeriness of the thought, the idea of being so close to such elf-work, made his heart race - but he deliberately calmed himself, drawing in long, deep breaths. The beeping slowed again.
Everything was going to be strange here, he told himself. Elf-work on every side. He would be a fool to flutter and squawk like a chicken at every new thing. The fine little pipe felt warm where it touched his arm.
"What blood is it?"
Andrea saw the sparkle of fear in his eyes. "Not elf-blood, Per. It won't turn thee into an elf, I promise."
"It's blood like thy blood, a man's blood. It'll make thee well, it shan't do thee any harm."
"How do Elves get men's blood?"
That was the trouble with simple people, Andrea thought. They understood things simply, and asked devastatingly simple questions. "Never worry about it, Per. It's elf-work."
"But whose blood was it?" He looked up at the bag of blood, as if he might be able to recognise it.
"Thy blood, Per." That might shut him up, she thought. "It's the blood tha lost, being put back into thee."
He blinked, remembering his blood, black in the moonlight, dripping from him to earth below and soaking in. He opened his mouth to ask the obvious question.
"By elf-work," Andrea said. "Art hungry?"
He was, but there had been so many other claims on his attention that he'd hardly noticed it. Now his hunger seemed to increase moment by moment. He opened his mouth to say yes, and then remembered -
'Oh no, no, no, True Thomas,' she says,
'Our food must never be touched by thee:
'If ever a crumb goes in thy mouth,
'Tha'll never win back to thine own country.
'Oh no, no, no, True Thomas,' says she,
'Our drink must never be touched by thee:
'If ever a drop goes down thy throat,
'Tha'll never again see thine own country.'
Andrea saw his eyes take on that scared glitter again. "I promise thee, Per, the food I give thee'll do thee no harm."
But, Per wondered, did she want him to see his own world again? "I'm no hungry."
"Per - "
"Be I here alone?"
"Tha'rt with me," she said, sounding hurt.
"But Daddy?" he said. "Sweet Milk?"
"We could only bring thee through the gate, Per. They wanted to come, but they had to stay behind."
He stiffened his muscles against the new fear that went through him, but the elf-working box gave him away, beeping faster. Again, he made himself calm, and the beeping slowed. A whole world away from home and too weak to fight for himself - if he raised a cry of 'Sterkarm!' here, who would answer him?
He couldn't afford to be afraid. And he needed to know the worst. He threw back the bedcovers - and was astonished to see nothing but a small strip of cloth round his leg. He had expected much stained padding and wrapping. This gauzy little strip seemed stuck to his leg. It didn't even wrap all the way round it.
"Now, Per - " Andrea said.
He caught the corner of the gauzy strip and ripped it off.
There was no wound on his leg. Though it was sore, and hurt when he moved it, the flesh was whole. He looked up, startled, at Andrea. She had lied to him. And yet... He remembered something of being hurt, of the ride home, his uncle cursing because the bandage kept soaking through with blood, the endlessness of it... but he had seen the wounds of others, and there had been red, inflamed flesh, weeping pus, and the puckered edges of the wound had been clumsily held together by big stitches of black twine, which had themselves inflamed the flesh around them.
Andrea, without actually touching the wound, pointed to a thin, bright red line that ran across the side of his thigh. If a wound that had nearly killed him had healed to no more than that -
"Tha said I'd been here but tyan days!"
"Tha's been here no - "
"My leg's whole!"
"Nay, Per - "
"It's no gone bad-ways!" He stared at her. He meant, it hadn't become infected. In his world almost every cut, however slight, became infected. The infection, rather than the wound itself, was often what killed.
"It was cleaned," she said. He looked blank. There was no connection in his mind between dirt and disease. "Elf-work: we have elf-work to stop it going bad-ways." He moved, and she saw that he was going to get up. "Per, no!"
He ignored her of course - it was his biddability that made him so loveable. By holding on to the chrome stand beside the bed, he managed to get to his feet but then looked round, confused, as he felt the line from the other drip tug at his arm. The line stretched taut across the bed, and he didn't know what to do about it.
"Per." Going close, Andrea put her arms round him. "Thy leg's no as healed
as it looks. Lie down again. Rest it - and tha must eat something."
Per had no choice but to drop back onto the bed. The elf-box was beeping fast because just the effort of getting to his feet had made his heart beat hard. His muscles had felt like dough. They would hardly hold him up. He didn't think they would have lifted his knees to let him take a step.
Andrea sat on the bed beside him. "I know thy leg looks healed, Per, but that's because of elf-work - "
Startled, Per looked at the smooth, closed flesh of his leg again. Was it all a glamour, made by elf-work, as the Elves could make dead leaves look like gold coin? Was his leg really stitched up with black twine, swollen and bad-ways? Andrea put her hand on his knee. "It was a very deep gash, so they - the Elves - have put some stitches deep inside to hold it together. Elf-work stitches," she added, as he looked up in alarm. "They won't go bad-ways. They'll melt away as if they'd never been there."
"Inside my leg?" He whispered. She felt him shiver. "What are they made of? Where do they go?"
"They - " She fluttered her hands, not knowing how to explain to him that the stitches would be absorbed by his body. "They'll do thee no harm, Per. It's elf-work." What a useful phrase that was, explaining everything while explaining nothing. Per accepted that 'elf-work' could achieve almost anything, but didn't expect to understand it. "And the rest they glued together!" she said. "They stuck the edges of the wound together, really neatly."
"Glue?" Per said. He had laid himself down, and seemed almost to be making himself small in the bed.Andrea threw the covers over him. "It's a sort of glue. It holds the edges of the wound together really strongly, it's better than stitches, but tha shouldn't try to stand on it or walk about yet. Soon tha'll be able to, soon. In a couple of days." She saw his eyes widen, and stroked his hair. "Only a couple of days. That's not long."
But two days in Elf-Land could be two, or twenty, or two hundred years on Earth. Andrea got up from the bed and crossed the room to the shelves and cupboards along one wall. She brought a tray back to the bed and set it on the mattress beside him. "Tha'd get better quicker if thee et something."
There was a smell of food from the tray, a milky, yeasty smell, and he pushed himself away from it. The sides of his stomach seemed to rub emptily together, and the ache reached up his gullet into his throat. It brought tears into his eyes because he dared not eat.
Andrea was moving plates on the tray, clattering them. Per reached out and
touched the tray with the tip of one finger. It was of a hard, smooth, dazzlingly white material that he
had never seen before. It didn't feel like anything he knew, it was whiter than anything he knew and, when he scratched and tapped it, the sound was strange. Not wood, not metal, not horn.The plates weren't made of turned wood or earthenware or metal either, but of some other smooth, hard, white substance, even smoother and glassier to the touch than the tray. And there was a tall, straight-sided glass filled with - something elvish.
The glass itself was a wonder. So straight, so unflawed, so clear. Worth a fortune but, if he tried to carry it away, he would most likely break it - and how could he get even himself out of Elf-Land?
On the white surface of the tray lay - a thing. It was long, thick, curved and as yellow as a coltsfoot flower. He leaned to the left and right as he peered at it. He had no idea at all what it could be. It didn't seem to have any use. From a small white plate, Andrea had picked up something brownish and flaking. It looked like a large, fat grub with a ridged body, half curled up. Andrea broke it in half, releasing more of the yeasty smell, though it didn't smell quite like anything he'd smelt before. Flakes fell from the thing onto the plate and tray.
"This is a croissant," she said. He couldn't have repeated the word. "It's like bread." She put most of it back on the plate and broke off a smaller piece, which she put in her mouth. Another piece she held out to him. He snatched his head back before any crumb of it could get onto his face and so into his mouth. But his belly wanted it, and his mouth watered. Andrea dusted her hands, sending flakes of croissant flying, and then picked up a cloth so white that Isabel would have been envious, and wiped her hands with it before picking up a little block from beside the plate and unwrapping it. Inside was something greasy and yellow. "Butter."
Per kept his distance at the edge of the bed. The yellow stuff looked nothing like butter. Butter was white and hard, and came to table in big lumps inside a crock.
Andrea picked up a tiny round pot and peeled a covering from the top of it. She held it so that he could see the smooth, glassy red substance it held. It was pretty. He leaned forward and she held the pot so he could sniff at it. The smell was sweet but sickly. It mystified him.
He drew back and Andrea sighed, and picked up a blunt, clumsy, useless knife that was made all of metal, even its hilt. She stuck it into the little pot, and what had seemed smooth, glassy and hard seemed to melt before the knife and turned into a soft goo. He saw the glass of the little pot flex in her hand, and drew back further. Was the knife hot?
She daubed the red goo that had been hard on the flaky, yeasty thing, and
bit off a little piece herself. "Jam," she said. It was an elvish word he didn't know. She held the stuff out
to him. "It's sweet. Nice. Tha'd like it."
Careful not to touch the food, he pushed her hand away. Hungry as he was, though his head was beginning to ache with hunger, he would never, never eat anything that had been touched by that hard red stuff that turned to goo. And that strange, greasy, flaky bread... Some folk said that elvish bread was made by grinding men's bones to flour. What was that red goo then? He said, "Where's my pouch?"
"Never mind thy pouch. Eat something, please. It won't hurt thee, Per. Look." She pushed a small bowl to the edge of the tray. It was heaped full of small, white-ish, rounded things, like a heap of large insect's eggs. He didn't know what they were, and they didn't look edible. "And this is milk to go on them." She touched a small jug.
"Melk?" He leaned forward. The jug was full of a white liquid that looked very like milk. He put his nose down close to it, and for a moment Andrea thought she was going to get him to drink some milk at least. Then he reared back, wrinkling his nose and saying, "Melk?"
"Cow's milk, Per."
He had drunk cow's milk very rarely. Goat's milk, and sheep's milk, often straight from the tit, were what he'd been raised on. He watched her pour the cow's milk over the insect's eggs. They bobbed and shifted, making popping, snapping noises, as if hatching. Per pulled a face and drew further back. Did the Elves really eat such scrapings?
He looked about the room, with all its brightness, the silver- framed bed, its glass boxes and cloth on the floor. Was it all a glamour, fooling his eyes, while all the time he was lying on a heap of rags in a muddy cave? Some accounts of Elf-Land said that all the riches were nothing but glamour, and their feasts nothing but dry leaves and dung - and insect's eggs floating in cow's milk.
Andrea pushed the tall glass of orange juice towards him. "Try it. It's sweet. Tha'll like it."
Per shook his head. The filled glass was beautiful. There was an old story
about a beautiful woman whose tears were liquid gold, and it was as if she'd caught her tears in a glass. Never had he seen any liquid that colour before. In the bright light that came in through the hole in the wall, it glowed. He wasn't sure that he'd ever seen anything of such a bright and glaring colour.
"It's the juice from - " He wouldn't recognise the word, 'orange'. She remembered an older form. "From a narange."
He went on turning the glass with his finger and admiring its colour in the play of light, but showed no understanding of what she'd said. She'd thought that he might possibly have seen an orange - a small, hard, wrinkled, long-travelled specimen - strung on a ribbon and stuck with cloves for use as a pomander. But, it seemed, not. She looked at the glass herself and was struck by the thick, smooth, almost creamy appearance of the drink and its artificially coloured brilliance. For a moment it looked so weird, even to her, that she put her hand to her forehead as her mind seemed to rock.
"Where's my pouch?" Per asked.
"It's safe. Don't worry about it."
"I want it."
"What tha wants is something to eat."
He shook his head and frowned. It was annoying to have food pressed on him when he was hungry but couldn't eat. "Give me my pouch."
"The food doesn't hurt me, Per."
"Tha'rt an elf."
"But when I was in Man's-Home, I ate thy food. I trusted thee. Thy food didn't - "
"Tha'rt an elf," he said. "Give me my pouch."
"A banana!" Andrea picked up the yellow thing.
Curiosity silenced Per. He watched as she pulled at the thing's top. The
yellow came away in a long strip, white on the inner side. Long, sprawling white and yellow legs fell over her
hand, leaving a white, curved stem standing up. It was like a dead man's -
"Thou ates it," she said, offering it to him. He recoiled sharply, and she smiled and shook her head. She broke off the pointed tip. He was surprised to see how easily it broke.
Before his eyes, she put the tip into her mouth and ate it. She pushed it at him again. "Try some. Tha'll like it."
He shook his head."It's good. It's fruit." Unco elvish fruit. He shook his head. "Oh, Per!" In his world, she had made no fuss about eating a boiled sheep's stomach stuffed with oatmeal and the sheep's own heart, lungs, liver and kidneys. "Tha've got to eat something!"
"Then bring me my pouch!"
"Wherefor? I'll bring thee thy pouch when tha've eaten the croissant!"
Per sat up. His blue eyes turned silver, just as if two tiny lights had turned on behind them. He put his hand under the tray and flipped it. The tray rose in the air, turned over, and crashed onto the carpet. Streams of milk ran from the jug, cutlery clattered, orange-juice spread from the broken glass, rice-krispies rolled everywhere.
"Now the mice shall eat it!"
Andrea stood, hands on hips, looking at the mess on the floor. Her teeth were set, keeping back all of the angry things she wanted to say. Per wasn't well yet, she had to remember that. He was in a strange place and scared. "I'd better get this up. Hadn't I?" She rang the bell for a nurse and, crouching, gingerly picked up shards of glass.
“Call a may," Per said. He could tell he'd made Andrea angry, and he was sad for that. Throwing the things on the floor, too, was unmannerly behaviour in a guest - even an unwilling guest. His mother would have said, "Have I taught thee no better than that!" and given a slap to his face that would have rung his ears. But... If he'd let Andrea go on and on arguing, while he got hungrier and hungrier, she would have talked him into eating that bone-bread sooner or later. He'd had to throw it on the floor.
"I have called a may," Andrea said, still angry. The door opened and the 'may' - a nurse - came in.
"What's been going on here then?" she said.
Andrea saw Per abruptly lie down and cover himself with the duvet, hiding even his head. She almost forgave him for throwing the things on the floor. He'd always seemed so brash in his own world, and she'd often wished that she had some of his self-confidence. To see him fluster and hide from a stranger was laughable. But then, everything must seem so alien to him, and he was so far from home. Poor kid: you had to feel sorry for him. To show that she forgave him, she went to the cupboard and found the pouch he'd asked for.
It was a soft leather bag that hung from his belt on loops and held - anything he might want to carry. A tinder-box, money, dice. Now it was heavy and she could feel, through the leather, the shape of a bottle.
Slipping it from the belt, she took it over to the bed. "Here. Art happy now?"
The nurse came out of the bathroom with mop, bucket, dustpan and brush, and began clearing up the mess. Per wouldn't come out from beneath the covers while she was there but, lying on his side, he fumbled with the buckled flap that closed the pouch. Reaching inside he pulled out the remains of the rations he'd carried with him on the ride. Andrea stared. So that was why he'd wanted it. There was a big lump of cold porridge, partly eaten. It was a meal that the Sterkarms commonly carried with them when they travelled, or were working in the hills and fields. Oats were stirred into water, or skimmed milk, until they made a thick mess. A little salt might be added, to lend savour. Then it was poured into a flat wooden tray, or a drawer, and left until it was cold and set, when it was cut into squares.The pouch also held a lump of hard cheese, a leather bottle of small beer and, because Per was Isabel's treasure, an apple and a handful of small red plums.
Per lifted the bottle and shook it, listening to the sound and judging how much it held. Then he carefully tore the sticky lump of porridge in half, and put half back inside the pouch, together with the cheese, the apple, and all but two of the plums.
"Per. That isn't going to last thee long."
He began to eat the porridge. It was rubbery and sticky, and took a lot of hard chewing, but he obviously enjoyed it. Andrea shook her head. She couldn't think of anything less appetising than a greasy lump of cold, salted porridge.But at least he was eating something. She sat on the bed beside him and wondered if she could get some food sent from the 16th for him. Would he believe her when she said it had come from the 16th? She nodded and smiled at the nurse as the woman left. The best thing, she thought, was for Per to be sent home as soon as possible. She'd be with him, to make sure he didn't use his leg too much too soon. She'd have to 'phone Windsor's office and ask him about it.
"Where are my things?" Per asked. He took a sip from his leather bottle.
"In the cupboard over there. I'm sad for it, but they ruined thy boots and britches. Cut them to pieces."
He stopped eating. "Cut my boots to pieces?" Money, real hard money had been paid for those boots in Carloel. They were part of his riding gear.
"They would have hurt thy leg more if they'd tried pulling them off, so they cut them off. Never mind - "
"Wherefor did they not fetch off me boots with elf-work, and not cut them?"
"I'm not sure there is an elf-work for taking off boots, Per."
"Where's my sword?"
"It was left behind, Per. But - "
"My dagger then? My jakke?"
"They're all safe."
"Bring them to me."
"Oh, Per, thou hast no - "
"I want them. Bring them here."
"Per, tha canna wear a jakke in bed, and - " She remembered the tray falling to the carpet and wondered why she was arguing. Why distress him again? If he wanted the dagger and jakke, let him have them.
When she brought him the heavy jakke and the dagger in its sheath, he hadn't quite finished the lump of porridge. He put it down on the
bedsheet while he sat up and spread the open jakke over his chest, since he couldn't get it on over the drips in his arms. He placed the dagger on the sheet, where he could reach it easily with his left hand. Then he began eating again.
"Tha'rt in no danger here, lover."
Per knew better. He ate the plums, thinking of his mother, and spat the stones out into his palm. Not knowing what to do with them, he put them back into his pouch. At home, he would have thrown them on the floor for the mays to sweep up but here, having already thrown the tray on the floor, he didn't want to offend again.
"Dost feel better now?" Andrea asked.
He nodded, and lay down, the jakke over him. He felt his eyes closing. The excitements of the day, the effort to stand, had exhausted him again. Watching him struggle against drowsiness, Andrea said, "I'll try and get some food from Man's-Home for thee," He said nothing, and she leaned over to see his face, to see if perhaps he'd gone to sleep.
"Came I through the Elf-Gate?" he asked. She nodded. "Where is the Elf-Gate?"
"If I told thee, thou'd no understand."
"But which way is it?"
"When thou'rt well, thou'll be sent back through it. Art sleepy? Sleep, then. It'll be good for thee, to sleep."
"But where is it, the Elf-Gate?"
She thought he would relax and go to sleep quicker, if she gave him some sort of answer. "At a place called Dilsmead Hall, Per. Now sleep."
"Dilsssmid Oll. Dilsssmid Oll." He settled himself on the pillow and placed his dagger carefully in his hand. It took her by surprise when his face twisted. "I want to be home." He turned his face into his hand and wept.
"Oh Per, Per. Oh." She crawled onto the bed, close to tears herself. The drip-lines were in her way, but she carefully, gently lifted them and moved them aside until she could get under them and lie next to him, easing her arm under his head. "I'm sad for it, lover, I'm sad, but we had to bring thee, we had to, thee'd have died else." She kissed his face. "I promise, I promise, all shall be right." She kissed him again. "I'm here, I shan't go away. My own prick, thou knows I love thee, I wouldn't let owt hurt thee."
But so must the Elf-Queen have assured Tam Lin. And how could she prevent anything hurting him? Was she a man, could she fight with sword or axe? But her soft warmth, so close, and her kisses and assurances calmed him. And he was very tired. The Elves had let him live so far: why would they not let him live until he woke? Dilsssmid Oll. That was what he had to remember. He drifted into sleep, his head against Andrea's shoulder.