ReturnOriginally published in Xanadu 1, edited by Jane Yolen, published by Tor Books, 1993. Copyright 1993 by Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
True Thomas, the Rhymer, was kidnapped by the Queen of Elfland and held there for years uncounted, never aging. Then one day, suddenly and quite without ceremony, he finds himself thrown back into the real world to live and die like a normal human being. He lands, of course, on his harp.
Poor Thomas sits there in the middle of a meadow, nursing his broken instrument, when up walks a young woman previously unknown to him.
I know you, she tells him. You're Thomas the Rhymer. See, I even know your ballad.
My ballad? he says.
She sings a verse. Got it off a Steeleye Span record, she explains. I'm not surprised you haven't heard it--you were gone long enough. I've been looking for you longer than a twelvemonth and a day.
Record? murmurs Thomas. He feels stupid. Who is this woman who knows all about him from a song? He's the one who writes the songs.
Oh, you know, folk rock, she says. Milkmaids and battle laments. Not great stuff but it's about all we had after you cut out. Do you know how tired we got of looking for you? One minute it's Thomas this and Thomas that and the next minute, poof, you're gone. I guess Elfland must have been pretty good, hey?
Beautiful and terrible, says Thomas. You can't possibly know.
Oh, horseshit, she says. Thomas nearly drops his harp. Young ladies don't talk like that in the ballads he comes from. Horseshit, she repeats. Guys your age all talk that way. Like we can't possibly know what youve been through. I thought you'd be different.
I'm sorry, says Thomas. I'm just a minstrel.
Yeah, sure, she says. That's why you have your own ballad, because you're just a minstrel. You're the Rhymer. Stardust, golden.
Thomas looks miserable. I'm not what I was, he says lamely. I can't lie to you.
Oh, that's right, she ran that number on you, she says. They're good at that, it's what they do. She looks away for a long moment, withdrawing into her down jacket and shaking her head, then turns back. Hey, look, do you need a cup of coffee or something? There's a mall we can eat in right down the road. We could talk.
True Thomas looks directly up at her at last. She's eager, she really wants to know, and she knows he's connected somehow. Slowly, dark eyes never leaving hers, he stands up.
You think you want magic, but you don't, he says. Enchantment is a kind of curse. You never get over it. Not to the end of your days. As he lurches to his full height his hair and cloak snap back in the sudden wind and the sun flashes off the remaining strings of his harp and his hair and the cloak and the strings all shimmer and tremble, like some greater and more awful thing trying to enter the world. His voice rises, breaks. Do you want to be like me? He staggers forward and for a brief moment it appears his billowing cloak will engulf her whole in its folds.
Of course I don't want to be like you, she says. But it would have been nice to have a choice. You say enchantment is a curse? Of course it is. So are life and work and being in love, at the wrong time and in the wrong measure. She takes a breath. You took all the magic that wasn't nailed down and had grand adventures and left the rest of us here in the boring everyday world to talk about you and try to figure it all out, and now you want us to drop the subject? You think you invented being the lifelong victim of a faerie curse? You go to hell, True Thomas.
Thomas appears to deflate, like a collapsing balloon. The billows of his cloak fall, drooping around him like beagle ears.
Or come along with me. The coffeeshop's right over that way. Up to you.
Far away, Thomas hears on the wind high, silvery laughter.
Arm in arm with the queen of Elfland's daughter, True Thomas, the Rhymer, trudges down the road to the mall. And reflects, not for the first time, on the strange revenge of elves.