GENRE: Fantasy • Fiction • Gay • Historical • Paranormal • Young Adult
LENGTH: 5,152 words
Baltasar grows up in a world of absolutes, of black and white, right and wrong. Just as his brothers and sisters who went before him, the boy is groomed to follow only one road, at the end of which is a life no different from his parents' and grandparents'. His parents’ strict teachings and the naïveté that results, however, render him ignored and friendless, and Baltasar spends much time alone.
During one of his solitary wanderings in the countryside, he stumbles across an enchanted land and its melancholy, ageless ruler -- a land full of color and magic, and a bond that defies everything he’s always known about the world. But what’s unusual, tempting, and exciting doesn’t always lead to a clearer path, and Baltasar is forced to choose between two wildly diverging worlds, with each exacting a high price.
Erl-King is a retelling of Goethe’s ballad by the same title.
The horse galloped into the midnight fog. Throughout the ride, Baltasar couldn’t see much more than the mad light in the animal’s eyes, the distorted grimace that pulled the mouth wide open, the square teeth exposed to the moon, the flaring of nostrils giving out bursts of smoky exhalations into the chill night. Its brown body heaved with violence, and Baltasar’s hold on the reins tightened.
“God help me,” he prayed fiercely. “God help me.”
In his mind’s eye he saw his father waiting for him at the end of the dark road, standing firm and tall before their family’s cottage, his fury spiraling with every passing minute. You belong here. Nowhere else. You owe us much, and you will not shirk your duties so easily.
Baltasar could hear those words in his head, repeated with every thundering hoof beat. Familiar words, really, having been spoken far too many times by his father, his mother, and an uncle. Those same words had been ground into his older brothers and sisters, who’d long moved on to marry and raise children without a word raised in complaint, not a single second of hesitation in their acquiescence. But Baltasar saw the shadows that haunted their eyes, the hollowness brought on by the continued and methodical squelching of a young person’s will and independence. Whether or not his brothers and sisters truly enjoyed living the way they were living now, Baltasar couldn’t rightly say, for they’d also grown very good in speaking as their parents had taught them to speak. He didn’t know whether or not to trust what came out of their mouths, even in good will.
His body screamed from the strain of the ride. Flesh, bone, and sinew had been turned into a mass of tightly-coiled tension, his legs locked against the horse’s flanks with cement-like stiffness. Why was he so desperate to take his place by his father’s side again? Was it safety? Normalcy? Familiarity? The appeal of the predictable?
“I won’t let you lose me, Papa. I won’t.”
“And why should I lose you?” came the inevitable question.
The voice, disembodied, cracked with a pain for which, Baltasar knew, he and only he was responsible. The voice also seeped into his mind, fighting to retain an open channel between them. With Baltasar’s frantic efforts at escape, taking a firm hold of his mind was all the pursuer could do, and words laced with bitterness and rejection trickled through in a relentless stream. Guilt swelled in Baltasar’s heart under the words of recrimination, haunting him since the start of the chase. They lanced him again and again with reminders of what had been, of what should have been, though he insisted on denying it all. For his family’s sake, of course, for he owed him much -- no less than his life, in fact, as his father and mother often claimed, their voices always edged with a sternness that challenged him to disobey them.
He glanced over his shoulder and glimpsed his pursuer: once lover, now outcast villain. It was what had always been expected -- indeed, demanded -- of him.
You’ve had your chance to test the waters. You’ve tasted what was forbidden, what was going to kill your soul and leave you friendless. We’ll excuse your idiocy as long as you take your place with us again. Those words, again crowding in his mind, fighting with the corresponding images of his father pacing angrily before their cottage, waiting for his youngest child to return with his pride checked, his head bowed, his tears ready to fall as he begged for his family’s forgiveness.
Baltasar’s gaze fell on the bright, leafy eyes of the Erl-king, who rode his feather-covered stallion with equal desperation nearly a dozen feet behind. His gaze was fixed on Baltasar. Not once did he mind the foggy road before them. He looked placid and confident, his complexion untouched by his exertions, berry lips curled in the barest hint of a smile. But when he reached out for his quarry, his fingers trembled, and his white palm glimmered with sweat. Suddenly, that calm confidence and phantom smile spoke of a violently suppressed longing and a deeply felt hurt that might not ever heal. Betrayals, after all, tended to wound beyond saving. Even immortals -- perhaps because of their hopelessly eternal state -- fell victim to them. Loneliness defined infinity, and the relief that was always sought was of the kind that would never come. Even at that distance, even in the dark, Baltasar could still see everything so clearly, perhaps because the Erl-King wished him to. Or was it his own heart?
Baltasar’s conscience stung him again. As before, he struggled against it, determined to justify his ill choices with every scrap of rationalized thought he could dredge up in his fear.