“What was it, Shadrach?” he said. “Let’s hear that again.”
“I’m King of the Elves,” Shadrach repeated. He changed position, bringing his other foot up on the running board. “Who would have thought it? Me, Shadrach Jones, King of the Elves.”
Phineas gazed at him. “How long have you been — King of the Elves, Shadrach?”
“Since the night before last.”
“I see. The night before last.” Phineas nodded. “I see. And what, may I ask, occurred the night before last?”
“The Elves came to my house. When the old king died, he told them that –”
A truck came rumbling up and the driver leaped out. “Water!” he said. “Where the hell is the hose?”
Shadrach turned reluctantly. “I’ll get it.” He turned back to Phineas. “Maybe I can talk to you tonight when you come back from town. I want to tell you the rest. It’s very interesting.”
“Sure,” Phineas said, starting up his little truck. “Sure, Shadrach. I’m very interested to hear.”
He drove off down the road.
Later in the day, Dan Green ran his flivver up to the filling station.
“Hey, Shadrach,” he called. “Come over here! I want to ask you something.”
Shadrach came out of the little house, holding a waste-rag in his hand.
“What is it?”
“Come here.” Dan leaned out the window, a wide grin on his face, splitting his face from ear to ear. “Let me ask you something, will you?”
“Is it true? Are you really the King of the Elves?”
Shadrach flushed a little. “I guess I am,” he admitted, looking away. “That’s what I am, all right.”
Dan’s grin faded. “Hey, you trying to kid me? What’s the gag?”
Shadrach became angry. “What do you mean? Sure, I’m the King of the Elves. And anyone who says I’m not –”
“All right, Shadrach,” Dan said, starting up the flivver quickly. “Don’t get mad. I was just wondering.”
Shadrach looked very strange.
“All right,” Dan said. “You don’t hear me arguing, do you?”
By the end of the day, everyone around knew about Shadrach and how he had suddenly become the King of the Elves. Pop Richey, who ran the Lucky Store in Derryville, claimed Shadrach was doing it to drum up trade for the filling station.
“He’s a smart old fellow,” Pop said. “Not very many cars go along there any more. He knows what he’s doing.”
“I don’t know,” Dan Green disagreed. “You should hear him, I think he really believes it.”
“King of the Elves?” They all began to laugh. “Wonder what he’ll say next.”
Phineas Judd pondered. “I’ve known Shadrach for years. I can’t figure it out.” He frowned, his face wrinkled and disapproving. “I don’t like it.”
Dan looked at him. “Then you think he believes it?”
“Sure,” Phineas said. “Maybe I’m wrong, but I really think he does.”
“But how could he believe it?” Pop asked. “Shadrach is no fool. He’s been in business for a long time. He must be getting something out of it, the way I see it. But what, if it isn’t to build up the filling station?”
“Why, don’t you know what he’s getting?” Dan said, grinning. His gold tooth shone.
“What?” Pop demanded.
“He’s got a whole kingdom to himself, that’s what — to do with like he wants. How would you like that, Pop? Wouldn’t you like to be King of the Elves and not have to run this old store any more?”
“There isn’t anything wrong with my store,” Pop said. “I ain’t ashamed to run it. Better than being a clothing salesman.”
Dan flushed. “Nothing wrong with that, either.” He looked at Phineas. “Isn’t that right? Nothing wrong with selling clothes, is there, Phineas?”
Phineas was staring down at the floor. He glanced up. “What? What was that?”
“What you thinking about?” Pop wanted to know. “You look worried.”
“I’m worried about Shadrach,” Phineas said. “He’s getting old. Sitting out there by himself all the time, in the cold weather, with the rain water I running over the floor — it blows something awful in the winter, along the highway –”
“Then you do think he believes it?” Dan persisted. “You don’t think he’s getting something out of it?”
Phineas shook his head absently and did not answer.
The laughter died down. They all looked at one another.
That night, as Shadrach was locking up the filling station, a small figure came toward him from the darkness.
“Hey!” Shadrach called out. “Who are you?”
An Elf soldier came into the light, blinking. He was dressed in a little gray robe, buckled at the waist with a band of silver. On his feet were little leather boots. He carried a short sword at his side.
“I have a serious message for you,” the Elf said. “Now, where did I put it?”
He searched his robe while Shadrach waited. The Elf brought out a tiny scroll and unfastened it, breaking the wax expertly. He handed it to Shadrach.
“What’s it say?” Shadrach asked. He bent over, his eyes close to the vellum. “I don’t have my glasses with me. Can’t quite make out these little letters.”
“The Trolls are moving. They’ve heard that the old king is dead, and they’re rising, in all the hills and valleys around. They will try to break the Elf Kingdom into fragments, scatter the Elves –”
“I see,” Shadrach said. “Before your new king can really get started.”
“That’s right.” The Elf soldier nodded. “This is a crucial moment for the Elves. For centuries, our existence has been precarious. There are so many Trolls, and Elves are very frail and often take sick –”
“Well, what should I do? Are there any suggestions?”
“You’re supposed to meet with us under the Great Oak tonight. We’ll take you into the Elf Kingdom, and you and your staff will plan and map the defense of the Kingdom.”
“What?” Shadrach looked uncomfortable. “But I haven’t eaten dinner. And my gas station — tomorrow is Saturday, and a lot of cars –”
“But you are King of the Elves,” the soldier said.
Shadrach put his hand to his chin and rubbed it slowly.
“That’s right,” he replied. “I am, ain’t I?”
The Elf soldier bowed.
“I wish I’d known this sort of thing was going to happen,” Shadrach said. “I didn’t suppose being King of the Elves –”
He broke off, hoping for an interruption. The Elf soldier watched him calmly, without expression.
“Maybe you ought to have someone else as your king,” Shadrach decided. “I don’t know very much about war and things like that, fighting and all that sort of business.” He paused, shrugged his shoulders. “It’s nothing I’ve ever mixed in. They don’t have wars here in Colorado. I mean they don’t have wars between human beings.”
Still the Elf soldier remained silent.
“Why was I picked?” Shadrach went on helplessly, twisting his hands. “1 don’t know anything about it. What made him go and pick me? Why didn’t he pick somebody else?”
“He trusted you,” the Elf said. “You brought him inside your house, out of the rain. He knew that you expected nothing for it, that there was nothing you wanted. He had known few who gave and asked nothing back.”
“Oh.” Shadrach thought it over. At last he looked up. “But what about my gas station? And my house? And what will they say, Dan Green and Pop down at the store –”
The Elf soldier moved away, out of the light. “I have to go. It’s getting late, and at night the Trolls come out. I don’t want to be too far away from the others.”
“Sure,” Shadrach said.
“The Trolls are afraid of nothing, now that the old king is dead. They forage everywhere. No one is safe.”
“Where did you say the meeting is to be? And what time?”
“At the Great Oak. When the moon sets tonight, just as it leaves the sky.”
“I’ll be there, I guess,” Shadrach said. “I suppose you’re right. The King of the Elves can’t afford to let his kingdom down when it needs him most.”
He looked around, but the Elf soldier was already gone.
Shadrach walked up the highway, his mind full of doubts and wonderings. When he came to the first of the flat stone steps, he stopped.
“And the old oak tree is on Phineas’s farm! What’ll Phineas say?”
But he was the Elf King and the Trolls were moving in the hills. Shadrach stood listening to the rustle of the wind as it moved through the trees beyond the highway, and along the far slopes and hills.
Trolls? Were there really Trolls there, rising up, bold and confident in the darkness of the night, afraid of nothing, afraid of no one?
And this business of being Elf King. . .
Shadrach went on up the steps, his lips pressed tight. When he reached the top of the stone steps, the last rays of sunlight had already faded. It was night.
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