by Wen Spencer
Since war broke out between the elves and the oni, the stories in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette had gotten a lot more bizarre. Walking trees loose on the North Side. Dragons terrorizing Oakland. A spaceship crashing into Turtle Creek. Flocks of men with crow wings mobbing downtown.
The Post Gazette was still printed on paper complete with non-scalable fonts. Olivia had to wear her secret identity glasses to read it. She looked like a prim and proper librarian with them on, auburn hair twisted up into bun, a vintage blue gingham sundress on. No one could tell she was an illegal immigrant, a runaway teenage bride, and a whore. She and Superman. Both from Kansas. Both hiding behind the glasses. Both not what they appear to be.
"Oh, I love this war." Peanut's moaned comment sounded like pure sex.
Olivia glanced up from yesterday's newspaper. They were waiting for the keva bean handout on Penn Avenue, a block and a half from the head of the line. Earth Interdimensional Agency personnel and Pittsburgh Police officers had been on crowd control since dawn. A flood of red uniforms, though, signaled that the Fire Clan had arrived with the keva beans.
Everyone had gone tense as the elves fanned out, even the police and EIA personnel. The royal marines were laedin-caste and proved to be a surprisingly friendly and laid back group. Unfortunately Prince True Flame of the Fire Clan had also brought with him nearly fifty of the holy sekasha-caste warriors known as Wyverns. Because they were considered morally perfect, the Wyverns were above the law. They could and would kill anyone that pissed them off, even other elves. The humans scanned the incoming troops, looking for the scale-armored vests and protective spells tattooed down the Wyvern's arms in Fire Clan red. After a few minutes, it became apparent that there were no sekasha among the elves. The crowd seemed to take a collective sigh of relief.
Only Peanut had been unfazed by the arrival of the royal troops. She eyed the marines like they were red-frosted cupcakes. Until the war broke out, all the male elves in Pittsburgh that were interested in intercourse with human women had already been claimed. Peanut had been up against the window of a bakery, drooling at what she wanted and couldn't get. Every day now brought more elf troops to the city. "Oh, I need to get some of this yumminess."
"Don't you get enough at night?"
Peanut laughed. "That's all men. It’s the difference between a stale Twinkie and one of those hot fresh-made coffee rolls loaded with cinnamon and topped with icing." She mimed licking her fingers. "Elves. They live forever and they see nothing wrong with sex, so they do it all the time, and they do it oh so well."
Olivia wondered if it was also why half of the marines were female. Certainly her life would have been so very different if her family hadn't considered sex connected to sin and a woman's weakness.
She'd arrived in Pittsburgh during the last official Shutdown in mid-July. It was the farthest from Kansas as she could get; a totally separate universe from the one she'd grown up in. Elfhome was the world of elves that was a mirror to Earth with Pittsburgh the only human outpost. It seemed like a perfect place to hide from her husband.
She'd gotten a job, found an empty house to squat in, and everything seemed good. Three weeks later, war broke out. Pittsburgh found itself lost deep in virgin forest, five hundred miles from the nearest elf settlement and an unknown number of oni hidden within the city limits. All contact with Earth and its bounty had been cut off.
Olivia had always believed that if she worked hard and used her head, she'd land on her feet. The writing on the wall, though, told her that she wasn't going to survive this war. She might be from Kansas but she wasn't Superman.
Certainly she was no longer surviving with any virtue intact.
Before the war, there was actually a shortage of workers for low paying jobs. The city had needed people like her to fill the gaps. She'd been working at a bakery on third shift. She was paid under the table, so even though she was only making minimum wage, nothing was being held out for taxes or benefits. A week after the war started, though, the bakery was out of flour, sugar and salt.
Since then, she'd been walking Liberty Avenue with the other hookers, trying to keep food on her table.
"Oh, I want that one." Peanut pointed at a clump of elves standing nearby. Olivia couldn't tell which one had caught the girl's eye. The elves looked like they could be brothers or cousins. Tall. Lean. Blonde. That they were impossibly handsome went without saying; they were elves. "Save my place?"
"Don't be stupid." Olivia whispered as Peanut shifted into full streetwalker mode, pulling down the neckline of her tight shirt to show off almost all of her breasts. "This is going to be the only handout. The food is here. The line is going to start moving any minute."
"I'll make it quick." Peanut started to broadcast her interest at the elves and they received her message loud and clear. "Isn't he gorgeous?"
"All elves are gorgeous."
"That old one with the messed up face; he isn't."
The newspaper had carried candid photos of the new elf lords as they had arrived in Pittsburgh. Only one hadn't been Paris model beautiful. "Forest Moss on Stone?"
"Yeah, him, he's freaky looking. They say he's complete nutcase."
Three of the male royal marines drifted over to goggle down at Peanut. Olivia was fairly tall woman but the elves were all a foot or more taller. They were armed with rifles, swords, and daggers. She'd been raised with ten stepbrothers and could probably match any human male in a fistfight, but the combination of the males' height, weapons, and their sexual interest made her shift away from Peanut.
I'm not really with her. I'm a librarian. Can't you tell by my glasses?
"I'm Peanut Butter Pie." Peanut slid her mini-skirt up high enough to flash her red panties. The elves' eyes dropped from Peanut's sizable breasts to her lace-covered groin.
"I have heard that peanut butter is very, very good." One of the males said.
Which was, of course, why Peanut picked her name. Something about the spread made it insanely good to elf taste buds. Peanut claimed her real name was boring and stupid. Not that Olivia really had the right to judge; all the girls walking Liberty Avenue knew her only as Red.
Peanut caught the male's hand and tugged him toward the tiny dead-end alley called Mentor Way. "Let me give you a taste."
Olivia shook her head. It was still early morning; only a handful of dumpsters and some fading shadows would screen the two from the curious eyes. Olivia studied the distant head of the line. People seemed to be stirring a block and a half down. Had the handouts started?
"Damn you, Peanut," Olivia whispered. "I'm not going to starve because you were off getting boinked silly."
"Forgiveness." The marine's friends were still hovering over Olivia.
She'd hoped that if she ignored them, they'd go away. She considered pretending not to know Elvish, but then decided she should figure out what they wanted. "Yes?"
"Are you an adult?" The taller of the two asked.
She considered how to answer. She had been told that no matter what, never lie to an elf. Her forged paperwork showed she was eighteen, but the truth was she was only sixteen. "Naekanain." She fudged by pretending to not understand. "I lived alone. I am one person – how do you say -- my household."
"You're old enough to marry?" he asked.
"Yes." She didn't even have to lie for that one. It wasn't her fault that she wasn't "legally" married since the state of Kansas didn't allow a man more than one wife, and a judge would have had to approve the marriage of a fifteen-year old. She hadn't wanted to get married in the first place.
"Like I told you, Dart." He pointed to Olivia. "They're tiny even when they're fully grown."
Olivia was the tallest human woman in sight, but she was still a good eight to ten inches shorter than any of the female elves.
Dart waved off the proof. "The Wind Clan domi is smaller than this female."
Olivia didn't know the meaning of the word domi. Without a doubt, though, they were debating the maturity of the girl being hailed as Princess Tinker. The girl was two years older than Olivia but six inches shorter. Even with the war on, everyone was talking about Princess Tinker. Pittsburgh's own little Cinderella. Pictures of her were being plastered all over the city. Olivia had been surprised at how small and scruffy-looking the girl was.
"Did you hear, Ash?" Dart said. "One-eyed thinks he can get a human female to be his domi since no elf will have him."
Ash laughed. "He is insane. You heard this one." He pointed at Olivia. "Humans live alone."
Dart nodded. "I heard he's been pawing all the nivasa at the Wind Clan enclave. Male and female alike. The holy ones won't put up with that forever. Especially Thorne Scratch on Stone."
Olivia was relieved that the conversation had shifted off her. She wished the marines would move away. Everyone around her was obviously just as uncomfortable by the elves presence and their discussion. There was a five-foot gap on either side of her.
There was a call from down the street and the elves echoed it, so it traveled up Penn Avenue.
The two elves glanced down Mentor Way. Olivia could hear Peanut's muffled yelping. She’d spent weeks working as a streetwalker and yet the sounds of sex still made Olivia blush.
"Hoi! Blaze!" Ash called. "The handout starting! Shoot your gun and get it out of that girl."
Olivia lifted her newspaper and pretended to read even as Peanut's moans grew louder. The elves laughed. Out the corner of her eye, she could see that Dart was pretending to be holding a girl by the hips and thrusting into her.
"He's only a hundred this year," Ash said. "I remember that age. Fucking anything on two legs that bent over for me."
"I'd feel like I was taking a child," Dart said. "That girl looked sixty or seventy."
Ash laughed. "You idiot, humans are dead of old age at eighty. She's probably -- forty." He'd missed Peanut's real age by at least twenty years or more.
"Forty?" Dart frowned at the alley. "Good gods, that's indecent."
"She's probably an adult, although it's hard to tell with them. Blaze! Come on!"
There was a deep male groan and then silence from the alley. A minute later, the two came out from behind a dumpster. The male was trying to refasten his pants as Peanut towed him to Olivia's side.
"I'm on the next street over." Peanut was saying, pointing toward Liberty Avenue. "Come find me anytime."
Peanut pulled him down and kissed him hard before letting him go.
Two consenting adults agreed to have fun together. No money was even exchanged. Still it seemed wrong for intelligent beings to be screwing in an alley like dogs. Olivia sighed, recognizing herself as a prude. A stupid trait to have considering that her survival depended on having sex with men in alleyways. Everything would be easier if she could just be more like Peanut.
Peanut laughed. "Go ahead and say it, Red."
"I wish I could be more like you."
"No, you don't." Peanut caught her hand and squeezed it. "You can forgive me, but you'd hate yourself. You've got grit, Red, and you're proud of it."
Lately it's all she liked about herself.
"Besides, if we get a bunch of elves trolling Liberty Avenue, maybe girls stop being killed." Peanut winced at the surprise on Olivia's face. "You did hear about Cotton Candy? Right?"
"No." Olivia's stomach did a sickening roll. In the last three weeks, six girls had been killed. The streetwalkers lived too close to the underbelly of the city where the oni were hiding. Only Roxy, buried in rubble when the dragon fight smashed through downtown, could have been any one of the sixty thousand humans in Pittsburgh. The other five girls were killed because they were whores working the streets, dealing with the city's low life. "What happened?"
Peanut spread her hand. "She was up by the train station. No one saw what happened exactly. She took a shotgun to the face. They think she leaned into a car, trying to come on to the driver. She must have seen something she shouldn't have. He was an oni or something like that."
Olivia's stomach did another sickening roll. Ever since she’d lost her job at the bakery, she felt like she was slowly falling to her death. The irony was that she decided to come to Pittsburgh because it would be so hard to crawl back to her husband if things turned ugly. "I can't keep on doing this. I need to get off the streets."
Olivia had been afraid that they would be refused a share of the handout since their names weren’t on any database. She used "Red" to make it harder for police and EIA johns to check if she was a legal resident. Like most of the other streetwalkers, Peanut used her nickname for the same reason; she was the only girl willing to risk being arrested to stand in line with Olivia.
When they reached the front of the line, they discovered that the elves in Wind Clan blue were passing out the dried beans, not the EIA as they expected. The elves weren't concerned with official citizenship – they were only checking for magically disguised oni. They're already found one warrior hidden within the humans; it had been dragged to the other side of the street and beheaded. The stench of fresh blood in the late summer heat made Olivia's stomach roil.
She fought the urge to throw up as the elves took a piece of paper with a spell written on it, pressed it to her arm, and activated it. After the magic confirmed she was as human as she looked, the elves stamped her hand bright red and weighed out her allotment of keva beans. The handout was ten pounds, measured out on scales. Olivia watched the beans spill into her canvas tote, knowing that the beans were really time. If she rationed herself to a cup a day, she could live off them for weeks. The problem was that when the beans ran out, there might not be food to buy in the stores. She needed money now to buy what little remained before war and winter could disrupt the food supplies from the coast. Much as she wanted to stop streetwalking immediately, she should keep the beans for an emergency supply.
"This is going to be the only handout?" She asked the Wind Clan elf that was doing the weighing.
"Yes. Beloved Tinker domi commanded that it be given out to keep people from panicking. The next shipment will be sold to wholesalers for resale."
Which meant first come, first serve, at whatever price the stores decided to set.
Wiley's was a little mom-and-pop grocery store two blocks from her house. Olivia shopped there daily to spend all her money from the night before on what little food was left in the store. Wiley's carried local produce and dairy; staying open while the Giant Eagle down the road had closed. Everything that was in cans and plastic containers – basically everything imported from Earth -- was sold out.
A small, refrigerated case held fresh milk and eggs. There was also butter in little canning jars. It reminded her of the ranch. With thirty mouths to feed, every day meant a new jar of butter. She hated the reminder but it couldn't be avoided. Butter wrapped in paper came from Earth. Wiley's got their diary from a little farm in the South Hills.
She winced at the prices listed on the case. Everything was twice what it cost a month ago. She checked her wallet trying not to think of what she'd done to earn the twenties inside. If she got a bottle of milk, butter and a dozen eggs, she'd have enough money left over for a bag of apples and potatoes and three zucchini. The apples and potatoes would keep if she kept them cold and dark. The zucchini would give her something other than milk and eggs to eat.
There was a small rack of slickies in the back of the store. One of them was labeled "Princess Tinker" and "all new photos!" She picked it up and flipped the images.
According to the slickie Tinker had invented hoverbikes and been one of the star riders on the racing circuit. One picture showed her flying around a corner of a racetrack, head to toe mud. Another she was standing after a race, face muddy except where the goggles had protected her eyes. There was nothing elegant or regal about her. How did she get to be a princess?
The next page showed her about to step into a grey Rolls Royce. She wore a rich bronze-colored gown of fairy silk. A fortune of diamonds adored her throat and left wrist. A small wedge of blue marked the center of her forehead like a beauty mark. Her husband and his guards towered over her, emphasizing that she was just a tiny thing.
Clothes, apparently, did make a princess. The caption was in Elvish, and read "Beloved Tinker Domi."
Was "domi" then the Elvish word for Princess? Certainly "she commanded it to be given out," suggested that Tinker was more than just a concubine. The marines had said that Forest Moss wanted a human domi because no elf would have him. Why not? And what exactly would the job entail?
Aiofe was in her backyard, taking down her laundry. Olivia could see the girl from her kitchen sink. She'd avoided the anthropology student since she'd found out that Aiofe was doing an internship with the EIA. The UN police force had ultimate power in Pittsburgh in regards to humans. They were the ones that deported illegal immigrates. People were saying that with Pittsburgh stranded, the original treaty with the elves was void and that the EIA no longer had any authority.
And if anyone could tell Olivia about Forest Moss, it was Aiofe. She put on her librarian disguise on; auburn hair twisted up into a bun and reading glasses balanced at the end of her nose. She felt vaguely guilty when Aiofe brightened at the sight of her.
"Ah, Red! I've been worried about you." Aiofe had a slight Irish lilt to her voice. "I'd been meaning to come over and knock, but your light is never on."
"I'm still working night shift." Olivia partially lied. Out of habit, she joined in taking down the clothes and folding them neatly. She avoided the indecently frilly panties and bras to focus on the T-shirts sporting logos from the University of Pittsburgh. "You're not working today?"
"They let me go early since I'd been up all night getting things coordinated for today's handouts. At dawn they gave me my share and told me to go home. To be truthful, I think they be afraid that rioting might start and they didn't want a wee Jackeen to be underfoot."
Unlike the elves, most of the human forces were male. Obviously the men thought that Aiofe couldn't defend herself. Unfortunately they probably were right. While, Aiofe was as tall as Olivia, she'd been an only child and gone to a girl's school where the "contact sport" was soccer. Good little girls only learned to defend themselves when they were exposed to little boys who had been taught that rough housing was how real men acted.
"Everything seemed to be going well when I left," Olivia reassured her. She liked the familiar comfort of doing chores with another woman. She'd been so lonely lately.
"That's Pittsburghers for you." Aiofe shook out a towel and folded it. "They're so used to the reality standing on its head that they're taking all in stride. I figured that was the case and so I came on home. Can I ask you something?"
Olivia's heart leapt as she thought of all the questions she didn't want asked. There were so many truths she'd been keeping from everyone. "What is it?"
"How do you grow beans? I was thinking of planting some of what they gave me."
Olivia laughed in surprise and relief. "You can't grow those keva beans now."
Confusion filled Aiofe's face. "Aren't dried beans just the seeds of bean plants? Why can't I put them in the ground and have them grow?"
"We're less than a month from first frost."
"What's that?" Like Olivia, Aiofe had no family and her college friends had been on summer break when the war broke out. The girl was only marginally better off than Olivia in that she had a respectable job translating for the EIA, but there were times she seemed dangerously young and naïve.
"When it drops below freezing, most plants die. In Pittsburgh, the first frost is usually mid-October. That's why the leaves are starting to turn." She pointed to the sugar maple that straddled their backyards. The edges of its leaves were tinged with yellow. It served as a reminder that despite the late summer heat, autumn was officially only days away.
"I know why the leaves change." Aiofe complained. "I just don't know anything about growing stuff. I was born in the farming country of Whites Cross Ireland but we moved to a flat on College Green in Dublin from the time I was little. I don't know these things. Food always comes from the market."
"I don't know now long keva beans take to mature but they seem a lot like kidney beans and those take three or four months to grow. If we planted some back at the start of the war, then maybe there be time, but now is too late. You'd just waste your beans."
Aiofe blew a raspberry out. "The story of this war." She threw her hands up in the air and waved a pair of red silk panties in the air. "Yay." She dropped her hands. "Boo."
Aiofe tossed the panties into her plastic laundry basket. "Oh, the elves haven't allowed humans to travel out of Pittsburgh, so everything we knew about them was what we could learn from the ones here. They were all Wind Clan beholden to the Viceroy because he owned this half of the continent. With the oni invasion, though, he had to call on the other clans for reinforcements. Yay! We have this massive flood of new information." Aiofe waved a black pair of panties this time. "Boo! Pitt is a ghost town because we were on summer break. None of the anthropology professors are on Elfhome. It's only me and five other grad students with internships here in Pittsburgh. We're taking notes like crazy."
"The Fire Clan and the Stone Clan?"
Aiofe nodded, plucking down her bright underwear with no outward sign of embarrassment. "The Fire Clan is here as a neutral party because the Queen sent them. From what we've been able to gather, she's the only one with a true standing army. It’s a force that she normally uses for peacekeeping missions between the various clans. They're not getting anything out of the war except keeping Elfhome safe from invasion. The Stone Clan sent a small mercenary force that the Wind Clan is paying for the mercenaries’ help. That's the tale, cut and dried, but every day we're learning all sorts about the political nastiness between the clans. Yay!" She threw her hands up in the air. "Only Pittsburgh is now in the middle of it." She dropped her hands with a sigh. "Boo."
"Forest Moss. What's the story with him? What happened to his eye?"
Aiofe scooped up her basket and nodded toward her backdoor to indicate that Olivia should follow her in. "What we didn't know until recently was that the oni and the elves went to war before. Apparently all three planets had ways to go through caves to get from one to the other with Earth smack in the middle. Forest Moss and his household were the first elves to find Onihida. That's the oni's world. The oni took them prisoner and tortured them all, trying to find out how to get to Elfhome. They tied Forest Moss down and burned his eye out. He's the only one that survived."
Olivia shivered as she thought of the sunburst of scars circling Forest Moss empty socket. How long did they burn him with hot knifes before they actually plunged the tip into his eye? Were there more scars hidden by his clothes? "Is he really crazy?"
"He's not the full shilling, as my da would say."
Aiofe hadn't prepared for winter yet, so her kitchen seemed spacious and airy. She'd spent her spare time painting the walls butter yellow and putting up crisp white curtains instead of bracing for freezing winds and a possible loss of electricity or gas. The kitchen table was doubling as a desk; overflowing with actual paper books, newspapers, datapads and slickies. Aiofe obviously trusted the EIA and the elves to keep Pittsburgh functioning until the peaceful end of the war. Olivia glanced about, feeling guilty that she hadn't taken the girl under wing and showed her how to prepare her place. Olivia wasn't even sure that Aiofe would take her suggestions; she was nearly five years younger than the grad student. She probably would think Olivia's mistrust of the government as hopelessly militant redneck.
"So, have you gotten a chance to meet Princess Tinker?" Olivia asked instead.
"Tinker domi!" Aiofe corrected with a laugh. "The Wind Clan elves get really cheesed off if you call her Princess."
"She's their domi! They've have been in Pittsburgh long enough to know what 'princess' means. The two words are worlds apart."
"Really?" Olivia's heart sunk.
"In English, 'princess' means basically a pretty girl that has no power in government whose only value is to produce children for the bloodline. We don't have anything close to the absolute authority of a domi. She could order her guards to kill any elf in Pittsburgh and no one would question it. It's her right. To call her Princess Tinker is a sign of disrespect."
"One of the boyo gave me this." Aiofe opened a small lunch cooler, took out a plastic bag and held it open. There was a dead rabbit inside. Someone with a great deal of skill had killed it with a rifle bullet to the head. It'd been field dressed but not skinned. "I think he's sweet on me, but I don't know what to do with it."
Olivia's stomach rolled at the smell of blood, recalling the dead oni on Penn Avenue. She swallowed hard, reminding herself that it been weeks since she had protein beyond eggs and milk. "I'll help you cook it for dinner."
Aiofe grinned. "I'll wet the tea."
According to the newspaper, the newly arrived Stone Clan elves were staying at Ginger Wine's enclave. The elves’ businesses gathered just over the edge of where Pittsburgh abruptly ended, as if a giant blade had sliced through the city. Beyond the thin line of cement dust and sheered off guardrails was virgin forest as far as the eye could see.
She took a bus out to the University of Pittsburgh and walked the last few blocks to the Rim. The enclaves faced humanity with tall, blank, stone walls. Each compound was a block wide and hundreds of feet deep with two-story and three story buildings forming a sheltered orchard courtyard. While the enclaves acted like hotels with restaurants, she'd never actually been inside one of them. They were supposedly very expensive.
She walked down the street, reading the names printed in Elvish over the front doors. Ginger Wine's door was shut and locked. When she tentatively knocked, a spyhole slid opened up and blue eyes gazed down at her.
"We're not taking new guests." The male obviously learned English from a native Pittsburgher.
Olivia steeled herself against the fear that was jangling through her. "I would like to talk to Forest Moss."
The eyes went wide with surprise. "That nutcase? No, no, you should avoid him. We all do."
At least it made her fear turn to annoyance. "You shun him?"
"I do not know this word: shun."
"You don't talk him? You don't look at him? You pretend he doesn't exist?"
He tilted his head. "He's domana and Stone Clan and insane. It is best that we avoid him. Even the Stone Clan people avoid him."
"So absolutely no one talks to him?" She knew it was silly to be angry on his part but she'd lived through being shunned. It'd been an agonizingly lonely three months before she caved to the shunning. She had thought she could easily deal with not having to talk to the silly idiots who filled up her life, but she didn't realize that her own family would join in to break her will. At the time, she thought it was because they believed her marrying Troy would be the best thing for her. Only after she caved in and agreed – so she couldn't call her wedding night a rape – she realized that they were only concerned that they wouldn't end up sharing her punishment.
"He is dangerous." The elf said as if that forgave everything.
And she'd been “stubborn,” “stupid,” “sinful,” and a host of other things muttered behind her back but never to her face, and always just loud enough for her to hear.
"I need to talk to him."
"He's not here. He's off with my lord, Windwolf. They're out hunting oni and won't be back to late. You should go home; the streets aren't safe after dark anymore."
If she left Oakland, it would only be to go walk Liberty Avenue to turn tricks. "Can I wait inside for his return?"
"We're considered Stone Clan territory for the duration." He did not sound happy about the fact. "I'm not allowed to let strangers in without one of them giving me permission. Go home."
He closed the spyhole, effectively ending the conversation.
Hours later the elves return to the enclaves in force. Hundreds of them poured into the area from somewhere to the west. Most of them wore the Fire Clan's red, and then there was a small clump of Wind Clan blue. A Stone Clan female was marked with a handful of elves in black. Olivia missed Forest Moss until the last moment. He walked apart from the others, completely alone despite the throng. Five Wyverns moved with him, seemingly guarding over him while not actually interacting with him. They kept out of reach, always with their back to him.
She hurried through the crowd of elf warriors, trying to reach his side. But he'd entered the enclave and the door firmly locked.
Her place had been too silent in the mornings. It reminded her too much of when she was being shunned. She'd splurged on an old digital clock radio within a week of arriving in Pittsburgh. After two days of failing to talk with Forest Moss, she woke to the news that Ginger Wine's been attacked during the night. Dozens of elves had been killed in the attack; their names, however, weren't being given out. With heart looping through her chest like it was on a rollercoaster, she took a bus out to Oakland.
Ginger Wine's was smoking rubble. Oni bodies were stacked on the street like cord wood. There was no sign of the dead elves. In the summer heat, the slaughterhouse stench was nearly unbearable.
A work crew from the EIA were loading the oni onto trucks.
"Do you know which elves were killed?" Olivia asked one of the men. "What happened with their dead?"
The man pointed toward the Fairgrounds where black smoke was billowing up. "Elves cremate their dead; say it frees the souls to pass on. Ginger Wine only lost two of her people. The rest are all Stone Clan." He obviously thought she was friends with the Wind Clan elves that ran Ginger Wine's establishment.
"Was Forest Moss killed?"
"The domana? No. He wasn't here. He had been out with Windwolf. He totally lost it, though, when they got back. He wondered off screaming." The man gave a vague wave toward downtown. "Completely out of his head."
Forest Moss was on the top floor of Kaufmann's. She'd found him only because the concentration of Pittsburgh Police, EIA and Wind Clan elves gathered around the department store. Olivia apparently missed Tinker domi by minutes. In her wake, the elves and humans were trying to come to an agreement about what should be done with Forest Moss. None of them were happy about the elf lord occupying Kaufmann's but no one wanted to risk trying to get him to leave.
She cautiously worked her way through the store, dodging the Wyverns who were searching the aisles. Judging by their speed, they were using it as an excuse to keep a distance between them and their charge.
Forest Moss was in the back corner of the children's department. He'd collected all the mannequins around a child's tea table with a toy china tea set. The dolls gathered around him, smiling brightly, holding out stiff white hands to welcome him. Somehow Forest Moss had reduced a half dozen various mannequins to plaster dust. It hazed the air and covered everything with fine white powder.
Why was he here of all places? Why was he destroying the dolls even as he treated them to tea? There was so much she didn't know about him, not even his age. From the photos she'd seen of him, she knew that his hair was always pure white, even without the fine dust. It poured down over his shoulders and was gathered in a loose ponytail just above his hips. She couldn't tell his age from his profile; it was so marred by the scars encircling his empty eye socket. His eyelid had been sewn shut, the scars vivid white as his hair against his dusky skin.
"Its all your fault." Forest Moss wailed as he clutched an eight-year old girl mannequin to him. "You were supposed to protect them. They whispered little lies to you and you believed them all. Our beautiful lovelies, all dead, because you failed them."
She took a deep breath as she felt a wave of sympathy toward him. She still felt responsible for Tyler's death even though she had been helpless to prevent it. She'd been overruled at every turn. His "real mother" let him play with the rough older boys. As "men" the teenagers didn't need to listen to her arguments that Tyler was too young to play in the hayloft. She couldn't talk her husband and sister-wives into taking him to the hospital after he'd fallen. In everyone's eyes, she was old enough to fuck, but too much a child to make any demands on how her "children" be raised.
How much more guilt was Forest Moss feeling because he hadn't been helpless?
Maybe Forest Moss needed her as much as she needed him. Certainly she would have given anything for someone to reassure her that she had done everything she could to save Tyler and that his blood was on other people's hands.
Taking another deep breath to steel herself, she closed the distance between her and the tea table.
He whipped about to see her, hand pressed to his mouth, fingers cocked oddly. He paused, his brow knitting together. Unlike his hair, his eyebrow and eyelashes were dark brown. Judging by what was left of his face, at one time, he'd been very handsome. And he seemed much younger than she expected. If he were human, she would have guessed him to be in his late twenties.
She'd spent days trying to arrange for this conversation but she hadn't considered exactly what she would say. At least, not in Low Elvish. When she ran through this moment in her head, everything was in English with a lot of slang and curse words thrown in. "I heard that you – You – You want a someone to be your domi? A human domi. I'm-- I'm--" Willing sounded too much like a marriage vow. "I want – I need you."
He stared at her for a full minute as if he couldn't see through the dust that drifted in the air. His good eye was dark brown, the eyelids almond-shaped in a way that looked almost Asian. "What magic is this that all that I want suddenly lives and breathes? Do I dream? Ah, if I do, I wish to die before I wake."
He still had his right hand up the shirt of the girl mannequin, the buttons straining.
She reached out and cautiously unbuttoned the brightly flowered blouse, exposing the large brown hand against the white plastic skin. The dark eyebrows rose in surprise.
She wet her mouth against her nervousness. He was just another male, like any other john. Normally she wouldn't allow a free touch but there were language barriers to cross. Elves normally didn't have to pay for sex with humans; there were too many elf-obsessed women willing to give it away. And Olivia wanted something more than just money.
His good eye went wide as she guided his right hand to her hip. She had on low-rider jeans and a midriff; his hand rested on bare skin. He breathed out shakily, his gaze riveted on where they touch skin to skin. His large hand made her look like she wasn't much bigger than the mannequin he'd been molesting. He swallowed and put his other hand on her and watched vividly as he ran both hands over her stomach. The half-naked girl mannequin teetered from its sudden abandonment and then toppled over.
With a low moan, Forest Moss dropped to his knees in front of Olivia. He pulled Olivia close so he could mouth her belly as her pushed up her shirt.
Weeks of selling her body and Olivia still wasn't used to that moment of when the protection of clothes was pushed aside, leaving her exposed and vulnerable. She swallowed hard on the fear that surged through her, as if it was a wild beast that wanted to scramble up her throat and come howling out her mouth. She locked down on whimpers.
She had learned the hard way that it was dangerous to close her eyes. She forced herself to watch him carefully, watch him for the start of an attack. He cupped her bared breasts reverently, tears streaming from his one good eye.
After several heart-stopping minutes of worship, he murmured, "Water to a male dying of thirst. Nay, heavenly cream. Once you start to lap it up, will I be able to stop? Do I dare? If the thirst is not quenched, then does the tentative sip make the need all the more torturous?"
It seemed the best time to open up negotiations. Normally she wouldn't let a guy get this far without talking price, but this time, she was asking more than twenty bucks. "I'm not just for the taking. I need something in return. Make me your domi."
He leaned forward, his lips nearly touching her. It made her wince despite the fact she should be well used to this by now. "But I have suffered this thirst so long, I think if I do not drink deep and long, I will die."
"Make me your domi." She hated every word coming out her mouth. It was ironic she'd fled to Pittsburgh to get out of the mockery of marriage that she'd been forced into. "Promise me that you'll make me your domi and you can do what you want."
He looked up at her, his one eye searching her face. "This sweetness could be for one as wretched as me?"
"Only if you take me as your domi."
Fear filled his face. "I—I am not prepared for pavuanai wuan huliroulae. I have nothing to give you."
She didn't know the phrase but she was afraid it meant he was broke. "You don't have money?"
"Money?" With shaking hands, he pulled out a small beautiful silk pouch. Undoing the drawstrings, he poured several large coins into his hand. Elf bullion. Her heart leapt at the coins. According to yesterday's newspaper, they were trading for five thousand American dollars per coin. She expected him to give her just one but he spilled all the glittering gold into her palm.
She gasped, instantly torn. This was much more than she expected but with it, she wouldn't have to fear winter. As long as there was food to be bought, she could afford it. Did she take it? Did she give some back? Did he even know the value of what he just handed to her? Was it spare pocket change to him? Or was it all that he had?
When she considered the condition of Ginger Wine's, it might be all that he had.
"Do you accept?" he asked breathlessly.
Did she? Her breath caught as she realized that she was on that verge of no return. Like when she went to her mother and told her that she'd marry Troy. When she walked down the aisle of the Zion church to where Troy waited with his other wives. When she looked at the pregnancy test that she'd bought at the drug store with horded cash and realized that she needed to flee Kansas or doom her baby to a life at the ranch.
And that worked out so well.
Was she about to make another horrible mistake?
But really, could she truly continue to run all the risks of being a streetwalker through Pittsburgh winter as she got bigger and bigger with child?
Work or starve her unborn child along with her or this.
She closed her fingers on the gold coins. "Yes. I accept."
He crushed her to him, and with desperate whimpers, seemed to feed on her. He lifted her off her feet, laid her back on the low table with the tiny china teacups and little platters of cookies. The children mannequins all grinned silently as they watched him move over her, weeping and whimpering.
When he pulled away from her, she thought it was to pull down his pants. Instead he fumbled out a leather bag and produced a thick pencil.
"No, no, no. Must be careful. Must be sure or they'll use their swords to put things right."
He held her still with one hand pinning her hard by the shoulder. With the fat greasy point of the pencil, he drew something on her stomach.
"What are you doing?"
"Shhhhhh." He pressed the pencil to her lips, his one eye bright. He drew another line and said something in Elvish that she didn't recognize. The lines of drawing gleamed momentarily and fluttered. He whispered another word and the light faded. He pressed his free hand to her belly, smearing the lines. "Perfect! Perfect!" He glanced around at the watching mannequins. "But not here. They'll be back and they will not want to stand around and wait for me to have my fill."
He meant the Wyverns. No, she rather not have them watching. She wasn't that brave.
She guessed the location of the freight elevator and that the newly arrived elves wouldn't know enough about department stores to cover it. She took Forest Moss down to the docks and out onto the street.
Where did she take him? Ginger Wine was nothing but rubble. She wanted bank rate of exchange on the bullion, not whatever a hotel would give her because she didn't have American dollars to pay for a room. Which left her house.
Feeling like she just stolen an elf lord, she guided him to her home.
The only highlight of the worse summer of her life been finding the Victorian house on Mount Washington to squat in. Yes, it was too big for her but the kitchen had a wood-burning stove, a sitting area big enough for a bed, tall windows that faced south, and high ceilings that made the room seem even bigger. She would be safe and warm all winter in the one room. If the war hadn't broken out, it would have been perfect.
She hadn't realized that she'd be bringing Forest Moss home with her. She nervously scanned the room after she'd pulled him inside and bolted the door behind him. Luckily she'd washed her breakfast dishes and left them drying in the rack. Her bed was a twin-sized futon on the floor. She'd washed her sheets and air-dried them just the day before. The half-finished quilt she was sewing by hand out of fabric remnants even managed to make the futon look like a real bed instead of a sheets spread out on the floor. She had Black Eyed Susan's in a coke bottle by her bed and herbs growing on the windowsills. Her place wasn't pretty as Aiofe's place but it felt cozy to her.
All the men she dealt with before had met her in cars and back alleys. She'd never brought any of them home. What did he think? She nervously put her keys on the counter and turned to Forest Moss.
He was still staring at her as if she was the only thing in the universe.
Her purse was heavy with the elf bullion. It thumped when she put it down on her battered table. He'd given her more that enough money to survive.
It was time for her to keep her part of the deal.
She turned off the light and stepped into his arms.
Peanut was right.
Elves were damn good at sex.
After six months of marriage and weeks of turning tricks, Olivia thought she knew everything about sex. The orgasm took her by surprise. She felt the familiar flutter of pleasure that she normally felt but then grew and grew and then went stomach-flexing, bolt of lightning good with all sorts of little aftershocks and jolts.
Not to say that she didn't know what she'd just experienced. She'd watch every man that ever been with her ride through the whole show. To finally know how good they'd felt every time made her feel used and cast aside like a condom. The injustice of it filled her with rage at the entire gender and she smacked Forest Moss.
"Is something wrong?"
"Yes." She didn't want to explain how screwed she been to been born a human female. "If my johns are feeling that great, I don't charge enough."
"I don't understand." The shadows hid his ruined eye. In the dim light, he was beautiful as any other elf. There was a glimmer on his cheek, and when she touched his face, she realized he was crying.
"You did nothing wrong." She reassured him.
He whimpered like a puppy as he slept, curled around her. In the morning, he wanted to stay naked, stay in bed, stay skin to skin. Since the baby books said that getting up slowly helped prevent morning sickness, she lay with him, embarrassed by the sunlight pouring through the windows, leaving her no place to hide.
At least Forest Moss was gentle with her. Troy had been all impatience and hardness, leaving bruises as he took his pleasure. Everyone from her older sister wives to her mother all told her to be silent and endure it. A man's right to his wife. The men in the alleys and the cars had been no different.
Forest Moss seemed content to just lay in the warm sunlight, wrapped around her, so close they seemed to share the same breathe. She had never experienced so much intimacy. Troy had six wives before her. He came to her Friday nights, took his pleasure and hogged most of the bed, stealing the blankets. It was so much rutting in the dark.
Forest Moss seemed to want to see every little part of her. He held her hands, one at a time, up to the light.
"So small," He murmured. "Like Wolf's child bride."
She blushed. "I'm much taller than her."
He considered her, smiling gently. "Yes, you are right. You are older?"
Her blush deepened. "I need to eat."
Another key thing that the baby books said would prevent morning sickness was to eat many small protein-rich meals.
With Forest Moss hovering nearly close enough to touch, she scrambled up her last eggs. He frowned at the nearly empty fridge and then opened the cabinets that she had nothing to put into. When she tried to share the food with him, he refused it.
"I've been living fat on the Wind Clan coin." He pushed the plate toward her. "A weeks worth of missed meals would not hurt me."
Troy was always served first and given the best cuts of meat. It made her eyes burn with long-held, previously unshed tears.
"The coins you gave me." she approached the subject tentatively. Money was normally the domain of men. "Is it all you have?"
Worry filled his one good eye. "For now. I have land that the Wind Clan paid as retribution for my fighting. I will receive funds from our clan when we establish our household here."
Our clan. Our household.
"Where is this land?"
"I – I'm not sure. I did not have the means to clear it and build anything, so I did not bother to view it."
She had read in the paper something about the division of land. She pulled out all the newspapers since the Stone Clan's arrival a few weeks back. She found the story that ran last week. The accompanying map showed how the land was divided up. The size of the parcel took her breath away. It could have swallowed up the Zion ranch in Kansas a hundred times over. It was, however, all virgin forest. It afforded no shelter from winter and certainly nothing to eat except squirrels and deer.
They would need to stay here at her place until spring. At that point, if the war was over, they could hire someone to cut and lumber. There were most likely abandoned houses near that area they could squat in until they had money enough to build something like a small farm.
She realized then that for the first time in weeks, she felt like she was going to live to see spring.
He pulled her close and after a moment she relaxed against him and let herself feel the comfort of no longer being alone.
"I have prayed so long for you," he whispered.
She laughed into his shoulder. "Someone like me. Any girl would have done."
"You alone had the courage to face my demons and quiet them."
She wished she could believe him. She knew that any number of women in Pittsburgh would have eventually set their sights on him. She was fortunate that she was the first to hear of his plan to take a human partner.
When she sighed, her breath caused fine white dust to drift from his hair.
"You need to wash your hair," she said.
"A bath! Yes! Certainly!" But when she showed him the shower, he frowned at it for several minutes. "This is not a bath."
"You just stand here, water comes out from this part, you adjust the heat of the water with these knobs…" She fell silent as he continued to look confused and unsure. Did the elves not have running water?
As she fussed with the shower, she glanced at the mirror and froze in surprise. Almost hidden under her bangs was a small black diamond. It looked like the blue triangle Tinker had in the one slickie photo of her entering the Rolls Royce. Olivia rubbed at black spot and then used soap and water. It didn't come off; it seemed tattooed into place.
"Did you do this to me?" she asked Forest Moss.
He cringed back at her tone. "It is the custom. The dau tells others that you've accepted my offer and that you're my domi."
"So, it won't come off?"
Alarm filled his face and he looked ready to cry. "No."
"I don't want it off." She stopped trying to wash it away as it was obviously distressing him. In some ways he was like a child. It was good that she loved children. Maybe she was exactly the type of human woman he did need. She cautiously asked, "When did you do it?"
"Last night. It is a simple spell."
For part of the shower, he was remained child-like, letting her wash his long silk white hair. And then he turned, and suddenly was all male, and proved yet again that Peanut was right about elves. It was embarrassing how the much the tiles in the bathroom amplified her cries right up to the point she couldn't think of anything but the pleasure jolting through her. Afterwards there was something pure in relaxing in his arms as the warm water beaded down over them.
She woke late that night with someone tapping her palm. A strange male elf crouched beside the futon, a spell light cupped in his hand. He put his finger to his lip, indicating that she should stay silent. She jerked back in fear. Forest Moss was wrapped tight around her, still asleep. The stranger frowned at her and shook his head silently to rebuke her.
As she grabbed at the sheets, she realized that he wore the red scale vest armor and arm tattoos of a Wyvern. Nor was he alone. There were four more Wyverns in her kitchen, all watching silently.
Her breath caught in her chest and she leaned back against Forest Moss.
The crouching Wyvern looked at her sternly and crooked his finger in a universal "Come here."
Piss the Wyvern off or leave the protection that Forest Moss may or maybe not provide her? Why were they here? Why did they want her to leave Forest Moss? The Wyverns could and would kill anyone they wanted. So far their kind had killed one of the elf lords, a Pittsburgh policeman and dozens of people that may have been oni or humans.
And the Wyverns were now frowning at her and repeating the "come here" motion.
If she hid behind Forest Moss, and he came to her defense, would the Wyverns kill him out of hand? They had killed his clansman, Earth Son. If she wanted his help, then she had to protect him.
She nodded reluctantly and started to extract herself without waking Forest Moss. He lay with his ruined eye pressed against the pillow, leaving only his beauty heartrending vulnerable.
As she slid forward, the Wyvern didn't reach for her but started to step back, giving her room. His eyes went suddenly wide and he threw up his hands to protect his head and a moment later, the room exploded.
Forest Moss was awake, howling wordlessly. He gestured and another explosion blew out the far wall. The Wyverns went flying backwards, vanishing into the rubble.
"What are you doing?" Olivia cried. She wasn't sure how he was doing it but he was going to bring the house down on top of them. "Stop it!"
"No!" Forest Moss shouted. "I won't let them take you away. I won't! I won't!"
There was a loud groaning complaint as the room lurched.
She caught Forest Moss by his hair and dragged him backwards through the dining room and out the front door and onto the sidewalk. He howled the entire way like a dog that been caught in a bear trap, a sound of pure bestial pain.
"Stop. Stop!" She put hands on either side of his head and tilted his head until he was staring into her eyes. "Look at me! No one will take me away. I won't let them. I chose where I go and I'm not leaving you. Now calm down."
Brave words. Truth was, she was scared shitless. Had he killed the Wyverns? Obviously they had known he could blast the shit out of everything and had been trying to defuse him. Why hadn't they brought drugs and a straight jacket? Because those things would have made him even harder to handle?
She wrapped her arms around Forest Moss and crooned to him, trying to get him to calm down. She wanted to ask him a million questions but she was afraid he'd lose it completely if she pushed for answers now.
The Wyvern that woke her appeared at the corner of her leaning house, seemingly unharmed. She wasn't sure how he survived the blast.
She tightened her fold on Forest Moss. "What do you want? You don't break into someone's house in the middle of the night and drag them out of bed."
"Who are you?" The Wyvern watched Forest Moss carefully.
"I'm his domi!" She pushed back her bangs to show him the dau on her forehead. "And you're not separating us. Just deal with us both."
The warrior stared silently at her as it weighing his options and then he nodded. "Very well, but you must come with us."
"Without clothes?" Olivia realized that she'd left her purse with the bullion lying by their bed. In her panic, she'd saved Forest Moss but not the money that would keep them both alive through the winter. "All our stuff is still in the house. We can't just leave it."
The Wyvern shook his head. "It is not safe for you to return to the house."
Olivia growled out the one Elvish curse she knew, making his eyes go wide. "You destroyed the only place we had to live and now you're going to steal everything we own? Leave us naked?"
He looked any place but her face as he considered her charge. In the end he slowly nodded. "We will do what we can to salvage your belongings. Keep him here. Keep him calm."
They saved her purse with the bullion, the food from the fridge, Forest Moss' clothes and her blue gingham sundress before the house groaned and collapsed in a sudden thunder of broken timbers.
The elf encampment lay beyond the enclaves, just across a stone bridge that was still under construction. A large clearing had been cut in the towering ironwoods, leaving only five massive oak trees standing. Elf shines drifted under the dark canopy, glowing bright enough for them to walk easily through the camp.
Prince True Flame of the Fire Clan was in one of the white silk tents that gleamed like a lantern from the outside. He was leaned over a table, studying maps, as the Wyverns escorted Olivia and Forest Moss in. He looked up and relief went across his face when he saw Forest Moss.
"Good, you found him." He said to the Wyverns and turned his attention to the maps again.
"No, they terrorized him." Olivia snapped.
"They were in a bed together." The Wyvern reported. "They'd had intercourse…"
"I'm his domi." Olivia tried not to shout the words.
"And she is not naekuna." The Wyvern finished.
Forest Moss started to wail.
"Tell me what is wrong," Olivia said. "Can't you see that you're torturing him? You've shut him up in silence with his grief and his guilt until you've driven him mad! He needs me."
"It is against our laws for domana to have half-caste children. It's for the protection of their entire clan. If you were fertile when he coupled with you…"
"I was already pregnant when we met."
"She is perfect!" Forest Moss wailed. "Beautiful and fearless. I can drink deep and fill my thirst. Perfect! Perfect!"
Prince True Flame sighed and looked to the Wyvern beside him. "I do not want to start the clan war again over the idiocy that the Stone Clan is committing here. You are our moral compass, Red Knife. What say you on this?"
"She quiets his madness," Red Knife murmured. "If she was with child prior to their union, then there has been no harm done. I say allow them to continue until she bears the child."
"That will buy only a little time."
"He has offered. She has accepted. There is no risk she will bear a half-caste child. Those are our laws. We can not deny him what we've allowed Wolf Who Rules."
"She is human." Prince True Flame pointed out.
"We determined that humans were intelligent creatures with souls when we first found our way to Earth. For that reason alone, we have trusted them to enter into a treaty with our people. We cannot recognize that they are as we are – with souls and minds – and not treat them as equal – for to do so would judge them on their bodies alone. If we deny them equality, then we can't claim that our souls and minds are proof that we are shaped by god. To diminish them is to diminish ourselves; one follows the other as day follows night."
Prince True Flame nodded and sighed. "What is your name?"
"Olive Branch above Stone." He translated her name to Elvish. "We need him sane and fighting. See that it happens."
She grabbed Forest Moss by the ponytail and dragged him backwards from the annoying elf before she said something angry and got them both into trouble. The set of five Wyvern followed cautiously at the distance. Knowing that they were safe for now, she ignored them. She didn't stop walking until they were back to Pittsburgh proper, comforting in its familiar human city streets.
"What are we going to do?" Forest Moss asked when she paused in the shadow of the Heinz Chapel.
No one had ever asked her that before. She'd always been told the shape of her life, ignoring what she wanted. She hadn't come to Pittsburgh to escape sex, marriage, and having a baby. She hadn't been running away from anything. She'd been running to the right to choose such things for herself.
Maybe some would scorn the shape of the life she was building, pointing out that Forest Moss was a tormented, scarred, one-eyed insane elf. But he gazed at her as if she was clever and good and wise and strong. He stood waiting patiently to hear what she thought. She leaned her forehead against his chest and marveled how comforting it felt to be with someone who believed that his life was better if she had her own thoughts and desires.
"I need to find someplace to live," she said.
"Together?" He said with such fear that she realized that unlike "wife" that "domi" didn't come with the expectation that she had to live with her mate.
"Yes," she hugged him tightly, wanting to heal him. Wanting to be as strong and powerful as he believed her to be. As she always could have been, if just given the chance to be herself. "Together."
Copyright © 2012 by Wen Spencer
John W. Campbell Award Winner Wen Spencer is the creator of the Elfhome series, including Sapphire Award recipient, Tinker, and latest entry, Elfhome. Spencer resides in paradise in Hilo, Hawaii with two volcanoes overlooking her home. Spencer says that she often wakes up and exclaims "Oh my god, I live on an island in the middle of the Pacific!" This, says Spencer, is a far cry from her twenty years of living in land-locked Pittsburgh. According to Spencer, she lives with "my Dali Llama-like husband, my autistic teenage son, and two cats (one of which is recovering from mental illness.) All of which makes for very odd home life at times."