They were not the sort of books that usually ended up Underhill. The few changelings they got in these uncertain times brought fairy tales or fantasies, or at the very least classics of literature that lampooned the entire concept of great knights. Speleothem the dwarf had read Don Quixote in five languages and would have let a shabby set of biographical paperbacks pass by without a second look. But Fraxinus, youngest and most fanciful of the elf princes, picked them up and looked at them thoughtfully. "Theodore Roosevelt, eh?" he said. And he took them to his castle and read the lot.
Speleothem braced himself for trouble.
A few weeks later, he encountered Corusca, a sprite he knew well, coming out of the palace shaking her head. "You'd better watch your boy," she said by way of greeting.
"Your pal Fraxinus. He thinks he's the human president Teddy Roosevelt reborn."
"But--Fraxinus was born at least three hundred years before Roosevelt," Speleothem objected.
Corusca shook her glittering obsidian locks with a rattle. "What's time to an elf?"
Speleothem winced. It was true, the high elves could bend reality to their will. Still, he was a little shocked to see how much longer and more prominent Fraxinus's teeth had gotten when the prince emerged from the castle in a Panama hat. "Fraxinus?" he said.
"Deeeelighted," said Fraxinus experimentally. "I was just telling the court how I overcame a weakness of the lungs through sheer force of my will."
Fraxinus, unlike, Teddy Roosevelt, had never had a weakness of the lungs to speak of. Speleothem had done a great many months' work bringing a pulled shoulder back to standard after a fight with a greater thaumatic turkey, which is what passed for fauna in these fallen times. He thoughtfully pulled his leg back and fetched Fraxinus a good hard kick in the shin. "Does a person good to have something to recover from," he explained.
Fraxinus looked down at him reproachfully. "That was not very sporting, Taft," he said.
"Oh, schist," said Speleothem.
It did not get better.
Fraxinus stalked around pronouncing things bully. He pressed hands heartily. He peered up in the sky and, alarmingly, called for a rifle, which one of the goblins ran to fetch.
"A nebula drake," said Fraxinus confidently. "I'd know it anywhere."
Speleothem knew, with even greater confidence, that a nebula drake had not been seen in those parts in years. He knew that what Fraxinus had shot had been a common or garden Elflands buzzard. And yet, in its fall, there had been a shimmer--a shift--
"Bully," said Fraxinus, grinning with his teeth thrust forward. "Just bully. Could we get an image of me with it, do you think?"
The nebula drake, its shifting midnight hide dimming as the life ebbed from it, was hastily made the subject of two magical remembrance images and one photograph taken by a changeling with a camera she shyly described as a brownie to the bemusement of all around her.
The brownie-bearing changeling and some actual brownies were pressed into service as part of Fraxinus's new retinue. Speleothem could not resist following along also, just to see what would happen.
What happened was Fraxinus's gun and his whim together made him the big game hunter that Underhill had never seen. Rare faerie birds and animals--creatures that had spread to the human lands and died generations ago--appeared in his sights and fell to them. Speleothem gnashed his teeth and tore his beard to see their extinct features appearing only in death, to see long-fanged wildemoose morphing from common harts and battle tiger-eagles flapping their last when they had pecked their first as ordinary crows.
There had to be some way to use the power of Fraxinus's determined view of himself as Roosevelt for the good of Underhill. Speleothem chewed his mustaches in thought. If Don Quixote had actually managed to slay the windmills only to find dead giants lying around the countryside, it would have played merry havoc with the Spanish wheat industry! But windmills...he squinted up at Fraxinus. Windmills never traveled in flocks.
"What has you scowling so, Taft?" asked Fraxinus. "You weren't smiling in the picture the brownies made of us with the queen zebra-moth's carcass."
"I was thinking of your next conquest, Mr. President."
Fraxinus looked pleased. "Go on, Mr. Vice President! You take a renewed interest! I am deeeeelighted."
"The glimmering Muan unicorn," said Speleothem with studied thoughtfulness. "Only the eldest of the herd would be worth taking down, of course, with a horn the size of a grown dwarf with his arms outstretched above him. But to hunt for the eldest among the herd! To track that herd across the faerie plains! Now that would be an adventure indeed!"
"A great adventure, Taft," said Fraxinus, clapping him on the shoulder. "A great adventure." And Speleothem fancied that he could see a little of the pale blue glimmer of the Muan unicorn hide in the back of Fraxinus's eye.
Sure enough, within a day of Fraxinus's focused hunt, they began to see the fragmentary, glittering spore on the rocks and in the dirt. There was a long, silver tail thread caught in a tree here, a shorter platinum whisker there.
And when they emerged from the forest, the herd was before them, the thunder of their hooves when startled like an entire city of cathedrals.
The roar of Fraxinus's gun made Speleothem want to weep. But when he looked again, he had done it: he, Speleothem.
Fraxinus had only taken down one glimmering Muan unicorn.
The rest of the herd--not seen for decades--rushed off like a carillon factory on hoof. The courtiers who were supposed to be marveling at Fraxinus's conquest instead stared mutely after the retreating unicorns. They left a cloud of dust, hoof-prints, sparkling unicorn dung.
They remained utterly solid even when Fraxinus was not focused on them. Which meant he could press on with his plan.
"I have heard tell of a flock of pearlescent basilisks still surviving in the north," Speleothem ventured. "Of course, they flock together. And one never shoots the nesting females."
"Interesting," mused Fraxinus.
"Perhaps next week we could consider hunting among the mammoth herds in the human lands," said Speleothem.
"Perhaps, Taft, perhaps," said Fraxinus. "In the meantime, my best basilisk gun, if you please."
"Deeeelighted," said Speleothem.