11

The sidhe ignored her, although she looked a little flustered. her eyes were fixed on Tom. "You will be returning home now. I will not discipline you, as I understand that you are an artist and it is in your temperament, but I will brook no argument. Get up." Tom stood, a little jerkily. His arms swayed at his sides like mannequin limbs. "There. That's better."

It was not terribly easy to palm a bulky sheet of gold, but Laura managed somehow. Her back was to the fire. All it took was a light heave. Metal clattered softly. The sidhe whirled and Tom slumped against the wall in relief. "What was that noise, child?"

"Nothing. Nothing whatsoever."

"Step aside."

"This is my cabin. I don't care what you are. You're not going to push me around."

The sidhe's mouth widened in a hiss, revealing a row of finely pointed teeth. Several rows, actually. They marched down the back of her throat like a shark's dentures. "I shall ask again. I will use the word please. You will comply. Would you please step aside?"

Laura didn't exactly squeak, but she did move out of the way. With a shriek of outraged, the sidhe marched over to the hearth, reached in, and pulled the contract back out. The heat had only deformed it slightly. Blinking, the sidhe pretended not to have read anything. "It is fine. It is absolutely fine and nothing is wrong with it. You will be returning with me as well, child."

Beneath her mildly pissed off demeanor, Laura was a seething volcano of discontent. Little metaphorical villagers ran frantic, casting about for virgins to sacrifice. "Are you heinously blind? That's not my name on there."

"It most certainly is."

"Okay. Then read it back to me." Planting her hands on her hips, Laura rocked back on her heels and waited.

"It is…uh…that is to say…"

"Read it."

"Hooonrabble reverer muuwek onnasick?"

"No. Not even close."

"Irrelevant. You are mine."

"I'm not."

"She hasn't accepted your gift yet." Both women turned to stare at Tom. "I'm pretty sure your contract is void if you don't give her something in return."

"What do you want?" snapped the sidhe.

"Well…" Laura stretched the syllable like a piece of taffy, drawing it out until it snapped, "Actually, I think I'm good. Or peachy, even. That's another nice word. Rolls right off the tongue.

I am all set. Fine for now. Sated. Content. Take your pick from any of the above phrases. I just can't think of a good reason for why I'd need to do business with you."

The sidhe thought that over for a moment. Then, with every ounce of dignity she could muster, she screamed. It was not a particularly human sound. If a keening winter gale had composed the breaking-glass-sonata in the key of blenders to be performed by a mixed chorus of timber wolves and banshees, then that would have sounded close. Provided it had been run through a distorter a couple of times.

Laura clapped her hands over her ears and sank to her knees, fully prepared to writhe if the sound lasted any long, but it cut off as abruptly as it had begun, leaving the sidhe totally composed.

"I suppose you win. I will have to accept that. The singer and I will be leaving now."

"Great. Close the door behind you as you go."

"I don't see why I should have to heed your petty little comm-"

"Are you seriously going to leave me out here to dry?" Tom sounded exasperated, but fear rolled wild behind his eyes. He raked a hand nervously through his hair.

Laura sighed. "I don't see what else I can do."

"You could accept the contract and wish for my release."

"Why?"

"Because you are easily swayed by my handsome features and quick wit?"

"No."

"Because deep down you're a good person?"

"No."

"I can pay you back for that food I took."

"Somehow my wallet will manage."

"I could sing for you."

"What kind of sissy would that make me if I said 'alright,'?"

"A romantic one. Here, let me hum a few bars." Somehow, it was lovelier than the piece he had crooned in his sleep. Words crashed over the cabin in fluid phrases, like waves of molten honey. The sidhe stood with one hand on the door knob, arrested. Her eyes were closed. Only the faintest of pulses moved in her throat.

Tom's voice slid smoothly up and down the register. A listener outside the cabin would have probably thought him hopelessly lost in his music, but Tom's eyes kept flicking back and forth between the sidhe and something on the other side of the cabin. Next to the fireplace. Laura turned to look. It was the fire poker.

He couldn't possibly be telling me to…

Having decided that Laura was slow on the uptake, Tom began adding hand gestures to his song. They were violent, downward stabbing motions, mostly. With a little bit of winding up and swinging mixed in.

Yeah. I guess he is. But I can't just kill the sidhe. She's still a person…ish…thing.

Walking on tip-toe, Laura bypassed the poker and picked up "Now and Forever." It had some heft to it. It wasn't nearly as lethal as the poker. And besides, how many people can claim that they've knocked an elf over the back of the head with a pulpy potboiler?

Answer: not many, but it was an immensely satisfying feeling. The general population didn't know what it was missing out on.

Upon being soundly walloped, the sidhe did not dissipate into a cloud of dust and sparkles. She hit the floor with a rather dull thump, and for an instant looked as if she was about to return to her feet, hate burning cold in her eyes.

Ultimately, though, she just lay there.

"Is she dead?"

"I don't think so, but would you like to check for a pulse?"

Images of cold hands latching onto her wrist and fey incisors digging into her forearm danced in front of Laura's eyes. "Um, no thanks."

"Well, what do we do now?"

"Hit her again?"

"We can't keep her knocked out forever."

"Well, is there some silly Hollywood way to ward her off? Cold steel or fangirls or something?"

"I don't think so. Bribing her with milk and honey didn't work as well as the myths inferred."

"You've been in her captivity. You have to know something about elves."

"Only that they make poor hosts. She kept me cooped up in a cabin a little further up-slope. Had me sing to her until my throat got raw. Then she made me tea. It wasn't bad tea…" Tom added, reflectively.

"That's it? No mystical tree palaces full of cookies and angst? Are you sure she's magic?"

"Come again? You saw the hold she had over me."

"I saw you doing whatever she told you to."

"But she gave me this voice."

"I'm betting you weren't being forced to follow any of her commands."

"No, but she…oh. Oh man. Pass me the book. I feel like crashing the unconsciousness party." Tom sighed. "How did you know that, anyways?"

"I was a very weird kid. Elves can't come into the real world. Those two statements are related."

"Oh-kay. What's she, then?"

With the sharp, snapping sound of a surgical glove, the space on the floor that had formerly held the sidhe found itself filled with swamp mud and sticks. "You're cleaning it up. You tell me."

12

The blizzard raged on for another couple of days. By the end of it, they were sick of each other's company. About the only peaceful times they had were late at night, after Tom had fallen asleep. His singing voice was still incredibly pretty, and it would suffuse the cabin from floor to rafters with a warm, blurry feeling. Somewhere during his ballad, Laura would drift off and wake up the next morning with a light smile on her face.

That smile would last until first contact with Tom, who invariably found something to bicker over. They would change topics several times during the course of the day—as Laura bustled around her easel and Tom flipped idly through "Now and Forever,"—but they always managed to argue right up until he fell asleep. At which point their words were replaced by art. It was a strange cycle, and she was glad to finally be rid of it when the clouds finally got bored of pouring misery on their little patch of mountain.

She offered to drive him into town, and he accepted. They rode most of the way there in silence.

As they were passing their first gas station, Tom's throat croaked.

"Yes?"

"Um, I sorta wanted to apologize. For dragging you into the whole elf-mess."

"Don't worry about that. Saving your life was free of charge. The groceries you took were seven dollars."

"Oh, uh," Tom patted the side of his jeans. "I was hoping I could borrow some change from you. Payphone call to some friends. My wallet's at my cabin."

"Yup. Of course. Here you go." Cold coins tumbled from one palm to another. Tires crunched over packed snow.

"Thanks." Dry air thrummed out through the heater. "I guess this is almost it, then?"

"Yeah."

"Mind if I send you a CD sometime? As thanks?"

"Folk isn't really my thing."

"Oh." Silence reigned for a moment, then, "how about if I buy a painting? Once I get my stuff back, I mean."

"That'd be fine with me. Anything in particular?"

"I kinda liked the one you were working on. Did you figure out what you're going to put in the center?"

"Not yet, but I'm leaning towards crayon elves."