a few early tales of the E.L.F.
(generally suitable for YA or older)
Herewith a couple of tales of discovery, of women of imagination and heart, who got lost in the mundane world of traffic jams, taxes and McDeathburger... and how they rediscovered the magic. Read straight down the column under the title, as if it was a newspaper.
It was black as the underside of a pooka's mane by the time Aislinn left the merchant tents where she had been helping Roderick pack up The Spotted Horse. Handmade flutes, pennywhistles and painted drums had been stowed carefully with a week’s worth of clothes and cooking gear, for tomorrow’s long journey home.
"Ackghh!" This followed by a stream of fluent Gaelic. Pitch dark and no candles, Roderick had packed them all. She hopped on one foot for a moment, rubbing a soft-shod rock-bruised other. Torches glowed at camp entrances, tents glowed with candlelight. Campfires threw dancing shadows off colorful canvas walls.
Torches threw wonderful mantripping shadows on rutted roads. She put her foot down gingerly, readjusted the harp in its case on her back, straightened the three feet of shining steel in the scabbard at her side. Where the hell was the Knight in Shining Armour when you needed him? Right now a knave with a shining lamp would be just fine. The knights were probably all off guzzling wine at the meade hall anyway, or parked around a campfire with a half-dozen gorgeous women apiece.
Aislinn peered up at the fog-fuzzled stars, trying to get her bearings.
Newgrange Shire's camp was somewhere north of the armourer's. There, up King's Highway, a washout hole and rock filled track just wide enough for a wagon. It was full of traffic now, rocks or not; Lords and Ladies in elegant garb, peasants in rough wool and coarse cotton, jugglers and dancers and beggars and bards, knights and outlaws, barbarians and scholars, all making the most of this
last night of the festival.
Some of them, at least, had lights, Aislinn tucked herself in behind a
group of nobles, walking as unobtrusively as possible, in their pool of light till she reached Newgrange. Or at least the road that led to it; a bit off the beaten track, down a dark path winding through a hollow, into a black clump of trees and up around the lake. The torches at the gate burned like suns after the deep indigo of the woods. The eyes of the guards were pools of dark under fire-gleaming nasal helms. They crossed spears with a shink of precision just in front of Aislinn's nose.
"Who goes there!" one of them intoned. It was a demand, not a
Aislinn paused, open-mouthed, "Um, the Lady Aislinn of Dun Angus. I was invited to come play at the bardic circle." She turned a bit so they could see the harp case.
"Who of our Shirefolk put forth this invitation to you?" the other guard
"Jo...Ja...George? I forget his name, this tall," she moved her hands
apart, "this wide, fuzzy iron grey beard, glasses. Hey! Aren't you guys playing this just a little too close to the hilt?"
The guards exchanged dark glances, one sighed, tucked his spear in the crook of his arm, and yelled across camp, "Anybody here know a Lady Aengus..."
"Aislinn. Maryann. Maybe they know me by that."
"Yeah. Aislinn, with a harp."
A woman built like a hippo, with a smile as wide as that denizen of river and pool swayed magnificently up to the gate, swathed in yards of burgundy and glitter. She held a fifteenth century basket and a twenty-first century Coleman. She raised the Coleman and peered at Aislinn. "Mike," she snapped, "Stop being such a jerk and let her in."
"That's Dungaard," he rumbled.
"Whatever. Come in," she said to Aislinn, "pull up a piece of damp." She held out the basket, full of homemade bread, “I’m Sieglinde.”
Aislinn unrolled her sheepskin on the edge of the campfire circle, sat on it and leaned on her cased harp. The Pennsic War was supposed to be magic, or at least as close to it as you could get in the mundane world. The running joke was, that with several thousand medievalists crammed into this little corner of Pennsylvania woodland for a week, all pretending to turn back the clock to the
Faerie Tale ages, some year they would wake up Monday morning, someone would turn on a radio, and there would be nothing
Not much danger of that this year. Petty squabbles, power struggles,
headgames; Aislinn's shire had more garbage unearthed than half a dozen Presidential elections. More dirt than her mundane life, even. And it had rained most of the week turning this year’s event into Pennsic Puddle.
“Hey!” a voice called out from across the campfire, “aren’t you Aislinn, the Fighting Bard?”
“Aye,” another said, “the heraldry on her harp case is the same as was on her shield.”
“Yeah.” Aislinn shrugged, the white raven above a leaping sea was unique in all the shires, many remembered it, especially after their helms were ringing from one of her sword blows.
“We didn’t see you on the field.”
Ailinn’s shrug turned into a frown. Lo, these many years she had fought in the Pennsic War, wielding a duct-tape and rattan sword in an exuberant and competitive recreation of medieval combat.“Somebody’s acurately recreating the middle ages this year,” she grumbled. The armour standards had doubled, along with the strength of the average swordblow.“You can only afford to fight if
you’re a rich noble. With an umpteenth degree black belt.”
“Aye,” said another voice, sounding more like an eighteenth century sea pirate than a fiftenth century Scot,“Certain nobility has let power go to their heads.”
“Or their lack of power in their mundane lives.”
First Voice nodded, “So they play out their Napoleonic fantasies
“Enough!” Seiglinde said, “This is the last night, and we all have to go back to our little grey cubicles and our cell phones and computers and meals at McDeathburger tomorrow, so tonight, let’s forget the small minded people, the endless rain, the stench of Ye Olde Porta-privies, and party!”
Voices around the fire rose in agreement. Someone on the other side of the fire started playing a recorder. It tootled like a nightbird then squeaked into the wrong octave as the player blew too hard. A few only slightly off-key voices knew the lyrics and nearly drowned out the recorder. Another stream of notes, a pennywhistle, joined it, then a flute. The song began to flow, the voices rose, cheerfully, if not perfectly on key, and the whole thing roared on like a creek in spring flood, accented by the steady heartbeat of a boran. The
song finished, and the Coleman was passed around the circle, it stopped at a short, broad, fuzzy-bearded man who stood up and cleared his throat.
Someone in the circle called out, "Hey Doc, got a story for
He grinned like a bear, "Not much of one, only a wee Pennsic memory, for this last night before we all have to go back to e-spam and traffic jams."
Groans all around. Someone passed a bag of marshmallows. Someone else a bottle of meade.
Doc drew himself up, firelight in his beard and eyes. "I arrived, last Monday, in the dark of the moon..."
"Took him all day to pack the food." came a voice from the shadows. A soft drumroll from the boran accented the words.
"Fog lay everywhere, wrapping the woods and hollows like shreds of grey wool cloak. It moved through the camp, blurring the torches into magic, blurring the distinction between earth and sky, woods and field, reality and myth. I got lost on the King's Highway..."
Knowing chuckles around the fire,“You’d get lost in a paper bag!” Someone said, amiably.
"So, to find my camp, I went up on a bit of a hill overlooking the tents. A little hill all bramble cloaked and tree-topped."
"Don't forget the poison ivy!"
“And the ticks!”
"Over there it is," Doc waved in the general direction of the merchant tents, "you can see it poke its head above our camp like a castle, like a faerie hill. From that hill you can see all of Pennsic, thousands of tents, like a field of summer fireflies, aglow with campfire and candles and torchlight and oil lamps."
"And Colemans and halogen flashlights."
"There are the Crusaders with their banners flying, and the Viking tents with their carved gables, the knights in their scallop-edged wall tents."
"And Tony's fluorescent orange mountain tent."
"And the fog drifting among them, and all the lords and ladies in their finery...”
“...and the newbies in their fringe-topped Minnetonkas.” Said someone clad in authentic handmade boots.
Giggles. A teenaged boy across the fire tucked his Minnetonka clad legs under him, face redder than could be accounted for by firelight.
“...and the gleam of armour and the flash of spears in the dark. A million stars overhead," Doc paused, his voice dropped to a near whisper, "and somewhere off in the distance a bagpiper begins..."
Groans around the fire.
"No no! He was a good one!"
"The ancient strains of the pipe drift through the firelight and mist,
and time turns on itself..."
Silence fell around the campfire circle. Eyes full of firelight looked up at the storyteller, but focused each on their own inner dreams.
"What was he playing?" came a soft voice.
"Ai, I was gettin to that." Doc folded his arms as if he were cradling a bagpipe, glanced to his left and nodded at a cloak shrouded figure. From within the cloak came an eerily accurate rendition of the sound of an ancient Scottish piper.
It took Aislinn a long moment to realize what the music was.
It was the theme from Star Wars.
The bardic circle broke into equal amounts of groans and laughter. Doc passed the lamp to the left and someone began playing a guitar. The boran thrummed below the guitar notes like the rumble of a distant storm. Voices joined in and rose with the sparks and smoke from the fire to join the noise coming from other camps. The song ended and silence reigned for a moment, no more. There was a soft trickle of notes, like the beginning of rain, coming from
a hammered dulcimer. Aislinn knew the player, Freya. She who had the solid gold balls to name herself after a goddess. She of the perfect face, perfect garb,loved by all, especially the knights. Whoopee. Aislinn stuck a few more marshmallows on her twig and stuck them into the fire until they flamed.
The boran let out a questioning soft rumble, Freya gave the cloaked
drummer a glance sharp as a dagger. The boran fell gracefully silent. The dulcimer played, a lone voice in the dark, a fair enough voice, but without real spirit, Aislinn thought. It dribbled at last to a halt. Freya bowed to polite applause, and vanished into the dark on the arm of something that might have been the star of the latest action fantasy film.
Aislinn yawned and burned some more marshmallows.
On the northeast side of the bardic circle, a teenaged shoving match broke out; young bucks testing their antlers. the loser was thrust to his Minnetonka-clad feet, eyes studying the ground beneath his rubber soles. Laughter and encouraging taunts from the other boys behind him; one snagged the storyteller’s lantern and passed it into Minnetonka Lad’s hands. He stood, a cautious deer at the edge of a field full of potential predators, his neon green tunic contrasting mightily with his light leather and plate armour.
Creative, Aislinn thought, using soda cans that way. Maybe he’d
have a career in Hollywood. Definitely not as a history
The boy searched for words, and found a few. The flute played again, softly, running like a stream behind the growing tale. The boy’s words began to flow, a charging stag now, no longer cautious. The high notes of the pennywhistle wove through it, the soft roll of the boran accented it. A second flute joined the first; a cedar flute of Plains Indian style, played by a woman, half lost in the shadows at the edge of the fire. Pale haired, she was; hands that looked like they should be wielding a sword danced over the warm glow of
wood, dangling with feathers and horsehair tassels. Beside her squatted a stout, cloaked figure with a rather large piece of firewood. Her hood was thrown back, revealing a broad, cheerful face framed by short, dark hair. She raised the log to her mouth and a rhythmic hum began. Aislinn recognized the instrument; right time period, wrong continent; the didjeridoo belonged to Australia.
The drummer remained cloaked, only his raven beak nose visible. The first flute player had let his soft grey cloak fall back, and Aislinn’s eyes took him in like desert sand takes in rain; his garb was simple, a loose white shirt and leggings tucked into plain knee-high soft boots, but his face had the clean chiseled lines of a cat, and his long hair was like moonlit wheat.
The kind of guy who would break your heart in....yeah, less than a
heartbeat. Oh well, it’s nice to at least look at the fairy tale prince.
The kid's story grew in the telling; swords swung with vehemence, heroes eyes glinted like stars, the wind howled like a banshee ...flutes and drum and didjeridoo ran under it like a soundtrack. The folk in the circle leaned forward, marshmallows burned unnoticed, meade sloshed in tankards unswilled. The fire danced, and Aislinn squinted at it...the boy was a good storyteller, better than most, for she could see things in those flames.
Tale and soundtrack thundered to an explosive finish. The kid finally sat with an embarrassed grin and much applause.
A woman with dark hair and a strategically placed white streak over one eye stood and told a wild dark tale of gypsies and fair folk. The flute sighed like wind, the boran thundered like a herd of wild horses, the didjeridoo honked and rumbled, screamed and whistled and roared. The fire danced, and images flickered before Aislinn’s eyes. Someone passed around another bottle of homemade meade, and the mugs and tankards hanging at every belt were filled. A redhaired boy of thirteen or so stood and caught the storytelling lantern as it
was passed. His garb was the sort favored by young lads who knew D&D better than history; fanciful soft leather armour and thigh high boots, bold bright colors and a far too large sword slung across his back. He told a tale of a pinto pooka who ran with the mustangs till she was caught; and how the courage of a young girl set her free. For one so young, he had a great flair for tale spinning; his tale accented by the quiet rumble of the boran, the diverse raspberries coming from the didjeridoo, and some eerily accurate sound effects
emanating from The Cloak. Aislinn took a mug of meade and stared at the fire.
Wild horses galloped among the flames. She shook her head to clear it and waved the next bottle of meade on by.
Sieglinde stood and sang an amazing, if totally out of period, opera
piece. A guitar thundered out a bit of the Rolling Stones. Someone started a bellydance, then an Irish step dance. The guards changed their watch and one of them came to tell a bawdy tale of the high seas. Jokes, song, stories about surviving Pennsic Plague or Pennic Passout (where the temperature in the shade was a hundred and two), and now, Pennsic Puddle, passed around the fire, flickering in their midst like a movie projector.
The Goode Olde Days almost seemed to have returned.
Aislinn huddled on her sheepskin, curled around her harp, and yawned. It was late, maybe she should go find her own camp. But no one else seemed to be in a hurry to turn the clock back to the twenty-first century just yet. Ailsinn’s feet stayed where they were, toasting her damp shoes near the fire.
"My lady, why haven't we heard from you?"
Aislinn looked up, and there in the fireglow beside her was The Cloak. The one from whence had come the sound of bagpipes, and the roll of drumthunder, and random sound effects. He was still hooded and faceless, except for that terrific nose. What she could see of his garb, like the redhaired boy’s, was more fantasy than historical fact. Soft shades of grey, like one of Tolkien’s Sindarin Elves, organic lines of silver embroidery flowed across tunic and boots like tree branch and vine. She could see the whole circle of his boran now, painted with a bird in flight; dark silver, like storm
She knew the shape of the wings and the wedge of the tail and the
swordblade shape of the beak. It graced her own shield. A raven. And one, like hers, in the wrong color. His was set against a sun, the one legend said Raven had carried into the sky.
Aislinn searched the shadows of his cloak for eyes and found none. "No magic in her tonight, I guess." She gave the harp case an affectionate thump, then stared back into the campfire.
He reached out a hand, fine and strong as a bouquet of flight feathers. He touched her harp lightly, "There's plenty of magic in
"Yeah, well." Aislinn said.
There was a long moment of silence broken only by a vivid off-color joke from the other side of the fire.
"You know the Londonderry Aire." The Cloak said.
It was more of a statement than a question.
"Yeah. More or less." Quite a bit more than less, she just didn’t feel
like playing right now.
"Let's play it," he said softly, and now it was a gentle question.
Aislinn fidgeted, looked back at his cloak shadowed face and caught a glimpse of eyelight. “Well...ok.” She adjusted herself on the damp sheepskin and tried to think of a way to start. The Cloak stood and caught the attention of the circle, and the Coleman. He set it down before Aislinn with a flourish, and signalled across the fire to someone.
“The London Derriere?” quipped someone from across the circle. This followed by a loud farting noise.
“Londonderry...Air,” Seiglinde growled, a mountain of burgundy glaring down at him, “heathen Viking scum. You might perhaps know it better by the Bing Crosby version: Oh Danny Boy.”
The Heathen Viking Scum ducked behind his mug to snickers from the crowd.
"This song,” Aislinn began, “if I remember how it goes, has a bit of a
legend attached to it. I don’t remember who wrote it down, or when, but...”
The drum rumbled lightly, like distant thunder. Like the promise of rain Raven carried on his broad wings.
"...the author claimed she heard the music coming from a faerie
"Aye, the little people." came a rich Irish brogue from the
The wheat-haired flute player shot him a look; like a hawk watching a mouse.
“Does the name Orlando Bloom ring a bell?” said a girl from the far side of the fire.
“Elves kick butt,” the kid in the Minnetonkas agreed. The girl gave him an appreciative smile. He grined back, only a little embarrassed.
“Yeah, anyway,” the redhaired boy said. He spun an imaginary sword in his hand, and Aislinn could nearly see it.
The flute wailed softly, like wind. Like wolf howl. The redhead heathed his imaginary sword with a mad flourish and folded himself back into his cloak, like a coiled cat.
"The odd thing is;” Aislinn continued, “the meter of this song is totally unlike any other Irish music." She leaned back over her harp, fiddled and fuddled at it a bit longer.
The Cloak cradled his drum the way Aislinn cradled her harp, as if it was something alive. His hands stayed still, the circle fell quiet.
Quiet. Like the air before a storm.
The didjeridoo hummed, like night wind. The boran was water, on rocks. It flowed like a river, and Aislinn found herself carried along like a leaf, with about as much ability to stop. A moment, a lifetime later, she was aware that The Cloak was singing, softly, like wind barely heard above surf, in some flavor of Gaelic she didn't recognize.
The flute sang like a lost nightbird. The white raven harp let its last
chords sink into the night like rain vanishing over the horizon.
Firecrackle. Wind in the tent cloth. The chirp of August crickets. A
distant screech owl let loose a mournful wailing whinny. The circle sat, eyes aglow with firelight, with amazement. With wonder. They stirred, and applauded; with enthusiasm. Someone passed the lantern on, with bread and cheese and meade. Another tale started up on the far side of the fire.
Aislinn curled around her harp, hugging it like a teddy bear, trying to
think of something intelligent to say.
"Thanks." The Cloak said quietly.
She turned in surprise.
"It's good to play with a real bard."
Aislinn snorted, "Me?" The old bards could sing kings into power, or out of it. They could heal, do powerful magic. Aislinn was just a swordbroad with a harp; Maryann O’Grady, who programmed computers and had a cat and a freezer full of Healthy Choice frozen dinners and cookie dough ice cream.
"I didn’t say you had nothing more to learn, but you are a bard. A true bard."
She felt her face grow warm, and not from fireglow. She could feel him regarding her, a long cool look, as if he could see farther than she quite wanted him to. She shrugged and her eyes fled to the
"The problem is, you don't believe. Especially in yourself." the voice
was soft, like owl feathers hiding sharp talons.
She wrapped her cloak tighter around her, even though in the firelight of a still August night it was barely needed. Finally she risked a glance at him, his hood was tilted toward the ground, almost
"Sorry,” he said, “I..."
“Bran,” a voice said behind The Cloak.
Aislinn saw the first flute player, the one with the heartbreaking face, one of his fine-carved hands gesturing her boran player into the night. Behind him were the red haired boy, a young man in a tunic marked by a running wolf, and the two women; the very short one with the didjeridoo, and the other with the Plains flute, hung with horsehair. It was hard to be sure in the dark, but Flute Woman’s hair seemed to be two colors, blond and white, like the mane of a pinto horse.
Aislinn thought of the pooka in the boy’s tale.
Strange. But no stranger than the kid in the neon green tunic, or the guy with the white plastic bucket plate armour. Or the one who had swum across Leech Lake in chainmail. This was, after all, Pennsic. Everyone was strange.
“But...” The Cloak began in protest.
“We have to go, now.” the short woman said. She turned and stomped off into the night, the huge log of the didjeridoo slung from a hand as if it were merely a flute. The others turned and were swallowed by the night.
The Cloak hesitated, leaned close for a moment. His hood slipped and Aislinn caught a glimpse of a wide, pirate smile. “The faerie hill,“ he said, “Come there, now.” And he vanished into the dark with the
Aislinn stared after him. Bran...Brannan...raven, it meant. Raven
the Messenger? Raven the Trickster? Raven; Battle Crow?
Or Raven who carried the sun and brought much needed rain?
It was late, she should be curled up on her bedroll, preparing for
tomorrow’s long drive home.
Aislinn cast an eye out into the dark; the hill loomed above the camp, a dark monolith against the fireglow.
The First Rule of Self-Defense; don’t go off with random strangers,
This was Pennsic, everyone was strange.
Still, despite the all too human bickering, people tended to look out for each other.
But, it was the last night. If she vanished as some sort of virgin
sacrifice, no one would know it till her cat called 911.
Don’t be such a weenie, after all, you’re the Fighting Bard.
It’s late. Too late.
And you know what they say about falling asleep on faerie hills. Yeah, I’ll wake up some time in the twenty-third century. Probably end up as one of the guys in the red shirts on the Enterprise. The ones who always get eaten by the alien slime monster.
Aislinn stood, slung her cased harp over her back. She wandered out of camp, up the road in silky grey moonfog light, through the clump of trees, black as the space between the stars, to where the Newgrange Road met the King's Highway.
She paused, glanced toward her camp.
Her eyes turned to the hill.
Come to the faerie hill.
She turned her feet from the camp road toward the dark hill. Above the sea of tents, still glimmering with firelight, past trees like dark sentinels, scratchy dewy grass, brambles catching at her tunic edge, unseen poison ivy. A whiporwil called from the bush, another bird whose voice she didn’t recognize answered from far away. The voice of a great horned owl boomed out of the woods like a ghost. Something small scuttled out of Aislinn’s way as she thrashed
ungracefully out of the brush onto the top of the hill, bare of anything except tall grass and boulders...
...and a dragon the size of a Humvee coiled in the middle, experimenting with different colors of flame.
“Zan!” Someone snapped.
“Oh shit!” came a small voice. One Aislinn knew from the campfire.
The dragon and its fire vanished with a pop.
Aislinn stood, frozen thirty feet from the edge of the trees, trying to
talk her feet into moving. They weren’t listening. Not at all.
A lithe figure, about her own height, stood just behind the vanished
dragon, hands raised, eyes wide in the moonlight. The red-haired boy from the bardic circle.
“Great! Now we’re blind,” came a voice out of the grey dark.
“Oh.” Light flared, a flashlight maybe, or a battery powered lantern,
Aislinn could only see the glow in the boy’s hand. And she could see the others as they moved, grey cloaked figures that seemed to materialize out of the moonlight and shadow.
One of them stepped forward and bowed. “Welcome, My Lady Aislinn.” The voice was that of her boran player.
“Bran!” someone said; the voice of First Flute. He sounded annoyed.
“Not again.” came another male voice. “You can’t let everyone in on
One short, stout figure grumbled something at Bran in a language that made an avalanche sound pleasant. She was either collecting some very large firewood, or still carrying the immense didjeridoo. Near her stood another short, broad figure. The pale-haired woman snapped something at him in at least two languages, perhaps three. None of it sounded like approval.
“We need her.” Bran said.
“We do not.” first Flute said. “It is dangerous, involving mundanes.”
Aislinn’s hand strayed to her sword hilt. She could turn, go back down the hill. Now. If her feet would only obey.
“She’s hardly mundane.” Bran said. He gestured at the man next to him. “And humans are already involved.”
“She’s not like Ian.” First Flute said. He said something else, in a
tongue Aislinn did not recognize.
“She’s a bard.” Bran said. “And if you’re going to discuss this, do it in a language we can all understand.”
Aislinn took a step back. Two.
“Wait.” Bran said. “Please.” His hood had fallen back, or been lowered. His face shone clearly in the glow from Zan’s hand; sharp and clean as the lines of a wing. His hair was not raven-dark, nor pale as First Flute’s, but some in-between color, like the storm silver of the raven on his drum.
They all stood in the clearing in front of her. No one behind to block
her retreat. Aislinn’s eyes turned just far enough to see the trail behind her, then went back to Bran’s face; eyes dark in the boy’s flashlight glow, but with a glint of starlight in them.
And something else. Something unfathomable.
“Why do you need a bard?” she said.
From somewhere in the circle of grey cloaks came a resigned sigh, as if this kind of thing had happened before.
“We can play the music ourselves.”Bran said. “We can sing the songs that heal the land. But it is better if we share them with your folk. Better if we pass on the little wisdom we have learned. So that you can pass it on to your folk.”
“My folk.” Aislinn said. And what folk are you?
“You already know,” he said.
“You played at the circle.” What are you doing now?
“We played only the simplest Elvish music there. The rest is too powerful for such a place as that. This place has given of itself to thousands of people for a week, now we will give something back. Will you stay?”
Never fall asleep on a faerie hill. Or party with them either.
“Ow.” Zan said, “Is that all you remember about us?”
Aislinn’s eyes went to the kid, clad in his outrageous D&D armour.
“Uh. I. Uh. No. I...ah...played D&D too, you know.”
“Cool. What’d you play?”
“Um.” As a matter of fact, elven bards. Always.
“Cool.” Zan said, grinning.
“It’s impolite to read the unspoken thought.” First Flute said, sounding exasperated.
“Sorry. It just kind of, leapt out at me.” Zan said.
“Don’t sweat it, kid.” Bran said. He smiled a pirate smile at Aislinn,
then turned and stalked to the center of the clearing. His feet made no sound, and barely seemed to bend the grass.
Aislinn stood, mouth slightly ajar. First Flute, he of the moonlit wheat
hair, gave her a long, starlit stare, like a leopard contemplating lunch. With the boy and his light, Flute stalked after Bran. The women were already in place, forming a nearly perfect circle, with only a few holes in its circumference.
The young man with the wolf tunic regarded Aislinn quietly, a wolf gazing out from the wild woods at scientist or photographer. His eyes glinted a bit in the moonlight, but in a most earthy, human
“And if I just turn and leave now...?”Aislinn began.
He shrugged. “Nobody would believe your tale.”
He gazed at her a moment, “It’s dangerous, of course, like wading into battle with a rattan broadsword, and a plastic barrel shield. Or chancing the rapids instead of portaging around them. Or accepting the offer of a ride on the pooka instead of walking home. It changes you.” He smiled, turned and joined the others.
The flute flowed like water, moonmist, pale and glimmering. It was a
white owl floating over a dark stretch of grass.
Aislinn's harp was grass shadow, mouse rustle.
Owl swoop, mouse scream, starlight and frost. Tree and shadow and secret places.
The cedar flute sang, a different scale, the notes of Asia, of North
Pale unicorn, fragile as first frost, horn of dark steel.
The didjeridoo warbled and howled, whispered and roared. It was the bones of the earth itself, mountain and rock folding and thrusting upward, crumbling slowly in rain and wind to soil.
Woman with one eye the color of earth, one the color of sky; shifting, changing; pinto pooka, running with the wild ones, leaping off across the wide world, mountain and sea, forest and desert, soft grassy plain under pale dawn light, sharp dark rock under midnight sky.
The boran rumbled beneath. Thunder, rain, rising sun.
Raven the Seer circling high, Wolf the Hunter following, brings down the prey, shares his catch.
First Flute wailed like a gull, the white raven harp rushed beneath it like surf. Faint light shimmered around the musicians, as if the moon had kissed them.
Swordshape slicing through dark water, rising, rising. Towering fin as high as a man, breath explodes into mist, whale dives, dives down into the dark unknown. Comes back to the light and air with things unseen before.
Sun moon, day night, surf on shore; the drum was the heartbeat of the earth itself.
The images danced before Aislinn's eyes, not the way she always saw things in music but so solid and real she could almost touch them. The red haired boy played no instrument that she could see, but his hands moved in the moonlight, and light shimmered from them, swirled like mist, re-formed into those images.
Like the images she had seen in the fire.
Poisons in the air and water, falcons fall, eagle and otter and condor gone. Tiger and bog turtle. Panda and binturong. Sing them back, sing them back. Rivers flow clean again, eggshells grow hard again, strong wings take flight.
Aislinn knew the stories from biology class. From magazines. Species on the brink, brought back in time. Just barely in time.
The song flowed and the troubles of shire and job and clanky car and broken heart seemed far away and very very small.
Rain and mist had finally rolled away. The Earth was warm beneath
Aislinn’s sheepskin, the starred sky was blacker than the underside of a pooka’s mane, glittering with life-giving dew. The trees reached roots into the earth, branches into the sky, stretching like ladies in a hundred year long yoga class, tai-chi dancers in ultra slow motion. Small things rustled at the edges of the clearing, the grass moved and the circle formed by the musicians expanded to the circle of grass, the circle of furred and feathered and scaled watchers, to the
circle of trees, to the circle of tents, and the circles of the world
The song flowed like a stream, a creek, a river in flood, and carried
Aislinn with it, down to the sea.
Iron grey, pewter, silver. The sun came and melted the sky into white gold. Aislinn pried an eye open. Where the hell is the tent? Fell asleep at the fire again, ehhh. She sat up and looked blearily around her. She was curled on her cloak in a sort of nest of flattened grass on the middle of the hilltop. Her harp was carefully cased beside her.
The night came back to her like the shredded cloak of a dream.
Never fall asleep on a faerie hill.
She wavered to her feet, went to the edge of the hill, half expecting to see something other than Pennsic; Rip Van Aislinn wakes after two-hundred year nap, news at eleven.
Spread out below her was the Monday morning demolition of Pennsic. Wall tents and fluorescent backyard tents and pavilions and one tipi in various states of collapse, cars scattered through the camp in various stages of stuffing for the journeys home. Tunics and t-shirts and moc-boots and Nikes. Of course. It was just a crazy dream, brought on by too much meade and unfulfilled wishes.
“Cawrk!” someone said to her from the top of one of the trees ringing the hill. Aislinn looked up and saw a pair of crows. They regarded her for a moment and lifted off. Aislinn’s eyes followed them. Wedge-shaped tails, not flat, and that voice had belonged to a raven, not a crow. She smiled, turned once, in a circle, taking in the hilltop. Only the little space she had lain in was flattened, the rest of the grass was undisturbed. Birds twittered from the bushes, more than she’d heard all week. August flowers poked their heads above the grass. A half-grown fawn stood for a moment at the edge of the clearing and
stared at her before flashing its white tail and vanishing down the hill. Even the scene at the bottom of the hill was greener than it had been all week; the kind of brilliant sunlit green you only ever saw in PBS specials about Ireland.
Aislinn let out a sigh and headed for the trail down. Something glimmered at her feet, nearly lost in the high grass; a feather the color of storm skies. She bent, picked it up and wandered back to the mundane world.
Maryann packed in silence. Not even Jennifer’s jibes about where she'd spent the night drew comment. She turned the dream over and over in her mind like a polished stone, smiling. So what if it was just a dream. The feather she hung from the string on her mirror, the string from which a dusty dreamcatcher already danced.
She rolled up the sleeping bag, the backpacking mattress, wool blankets and pillow. Crammed greasy cooking gear into a big Rubbermaid box to be dealt with later. Collapsed the tent and mashed it into a reasonably compact bundle. The Toyota was stuffed, and Aislinn was packed away with tunic and hose and
harp. Addresses and hugs and e-mails were exchanged; many with people she would not see till next year. If ever. Engines were fired up, Pennsic began to vanish like dreamsmoke.
Halfway down the King's Highway, squatted a four wheel drive of
indeterminate color; mudsplattered and primered in three shades of urban camoflage. With a tailgate and right side door of vomitavely incompatible color, it was even uglier than Aislinn’s Toyota. It seemed to be held together mainly by bumper stickers, most of which had an ecological message; Save the Bay... Overpopulation; too much of a good thing... Walk lightly on the Mother Earth...
Earth Life Foundation... Audobon Society... Sierra Club.
It was parked square in the middle of the road. "Hey!" Maryann leaned out the window.
The owner of the wreck looked up from where he was disassembling a tipi; his face had the chiseled lines of a cat, and his hair, yanked back in a refugee from the sixties ponytail, was the color of moonlit wheat. He gave her a long cat stare, then his cool expression broke into a gentle smile, one touched with embarrassment. “The Lady Aislinn, I believe.”
Maryann sat, two wheels in a washout hole, staring in disbelief. First Flute was clad in battered hiking boots, jeans that had seen more than a few adventures, and a t-shirt that said 'love your mother' with a picture of the Earth. A few yards away a red haired boy looked up from a Rubbermaid bin he was packing and grinned like a fox. Behind them, a van and a blue Jeep were being packed; a woman with hair in distinct shades of blond and white was heaving a
cartop carrier on top of the full sized van; the ease with which she hefted it suggested it was yet empty. The Jeep’s door had a graphic painted on it, a silver raven against a sun.
"You in a hurry?" First Flute asked. Behind him, the cartop carrier
malfunctioned, dumping a load of armour and weaponry back on the
"Er." Maryann unfroze herself and climbed out of the car.
"Here. Can I borrow your hands for a minute?" Flute handed her one end of the broad canvas that had recently covered the tipi.
"Ah..." Her eyes flicked to the van, where two women now were wrestling the contents of the carrier back inside, arguing like old friends. One of the women seemed to be quite short. Beyond them, a very short, stout man was impossibly cramming one more bag into the van. He looked like the guy who'd told the tale of the Star Wars bagpiper.
Maryann and First Flute began to walk the huge tipi canvas into folds. It finally made a bundle the size of a Great Dane, and they laid it in the 4x4 among Rubbermaid boxes of armour and camp gear and a cooler and a real folded buffalo hide.
"Do you, I mean..." Maryann’s eyes strayed to the Jeep; a muscular young man with blond-streaked hair was stuffing something into the small cargo space in its stern. His t-shirt had a picture of a running wolf. The Cloak was nowhere in sight.
It was a dream, a crazy dream inspired by music and meade and unanswered wishes. Right?
Flute handed her one end of a set of tipi poles and nodded toward the roofracks. They heaved them up and he began lashing them down. "Thank you Lady Aislinn." He said with a graceful bow, like a cat stretching. “I’m Jon, by the way.”
She gaped at the faerie tale prince in the beat up hiking boots and
He gave her a half-sheepish smile,“I owe you an apology.”
“Pea-brained, mustard-nutted, stuck in the Dark Ages, haughty human-wary faerie.” Zan said so quietly only Maryann and Jon could have heard him.
Jon shot him a hard look, and said, quietly as cat claws unsheathing, “When you call me that, you better be smiling.” He feinted a strike at the kid the way an older brother might.
Zan grinned and danced out of reach, with an agility that could not have been matched by an Olympic gymnast.
“I am not haughty,” Jon added under his breath. “And I was born well after the Dark Ages.”
Maryann stood, mouth ajar, considering the possibility that both were those loopy types who danced naked under the full moon or cast spells on their bosses or didn't get out of bed without consulting the Tarot. Just at the edge of her vision, she could see the blond woman shoving the cartop carrier back onto the van’s roof.
She had just seen that thing get stuffed with heavy battle gear.
“Go on.” Zan goaded Jon, “What else were you gonna tell her?”
Jon turned back to Maryann, “Bran sees things those of us who are younger do not always see. I’m...glad... you came... up the hill last
“The...hill.” Maryann said, “I thought...”
“...it was a dream?” Jon’s eyes were some nameless grey color, like the sea, and looking into them was somewhat like looking straight down from a twelve thousand foot peak in the Rockies. He met her eyes for a moment, then looked away, as if he was afraid she’d see too much and flee. He busied himself with the contents of a Rubbermaid bin. “It wasn't." He picked up the box, shoved it into the 4x4.
“You saw my illusions, in the fire, at the bardic circle, I mean, didn’t
you?” Zan said with enthusiasm.
“Told ya’.” Zan quipped to Jon. His hands moved, as if he were starting a dance; a bluebird flew out of his hand and vanished into the air.
“Bran was right, your harp added...just the right...,” Jon frowned,
searching for the word and failing to find it, “...there are no words for it in your tongue. But your skill, your energy was needed, as a tree needs a balance of sun and water. And...”he added, “I’m a lousy
“Nobody else can play one either,”Zan said, “despite what Tolkien said in all his books... about Elves and harps, you know. He was right about the longbow thing though.” Zan added enthusiastically, “And we can’t see in the dark either, like they say in D&D. And do you know that...”
Jon caught him and gave him a shove toward a pile of yet unpacked
Bran’s words on the hill came back to Maryann. "Elvish music," she said softly, as if the words might break, or fly away like a frightened bird. “You left no trace on the hill.”
“Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but memories.” Jon said,
stuffing another plastic bin in the 4x4.
“We don’t leave footprints.” Zan said, coming back for another
Except in people’s hearts. Maryann thought. “You were all gone
when I woke up. You meant for me to think it was just a dream?” Her voice had more edge to it than she’d intended.
“No.” Jon said, “We did not know where your tent was. And the music is powerful. We could not wake you up then. It was best for you to sleep it off where you played.”
“We knew you’d find us,” came another voice.
Maryann turned and there was her boran player, grinning a wide pirate grin, raven beak nose set between eyes the color of sky over high mountains. He was clad in a rumpled t-shirt (not all who wander are lost, with a picture of hiking boots), and khaki shorts, a sleeping bag in a stuff sack was slung over one shoulder. His muddy hiking sandals looked like they had seen all of the Appalachian Trail. His face still had the clean, chiseled lines of flight feathers, but it looked no more remarkable than a tree or a bird or a windy sky. His hair though, was a color Maryann had only ever seen on cats, certain dog breeds, and grulla horses: not the human grey of mixed black and white hairs, but each hair the deep silver of storm skies.
The exact color of the new feather on her dreamcatcher.
The young man with the wolf t-shirt, (Ian, that was his name,) strolled over from the Jeep, stopping beside Bran. Like two wolves in a pack, or two birds wheeling on the same wind, Maryann thought. Of course, Raven the Seeker, Wolf the Hunter; they’re a team. Bran rummaged in a pocket the way an absent minded biology professor might, and produced a business card.
E.L.F. it said at the top, in leaf-green letters. Below was Earth Life
Foundation, a circular logo with an animal at each of the four directions, a web address, and an address in the very real world of southcentral Pennsylvania, not far from her own place in West Virginia. “E-L-F?” Maryann said, wrinkling an eyebrow.
Jon made a face. “It was the Dwarves’ idea of a joke.”
“Just never mention Keebler in his presence.” Bran said, jerking a thumb at Jon.
“Dwarves?” Maryann said, and at that moment, the short woman climbed out of the van and shouted over in a booming voice, “Which one of you pointy-ears was playing with my laptop? It’s fried again!”
“Fried?” Maryann said, her eyes taking in the annoyed didjeridoo player and the van, listing slightly to port under her solid bulk.
Bran flinched. “We channel energy in inconvenient ways, sometimes, where technology is concerned. Keeps Earla, and Doc, in business.”
“She and her family are our techies.” Zan explained.“Give her some junk, duct tape and number two fence wire, and she can build anything.”
Maryann looked at Jon’s beat-up 4x4, raised a disbelieving eyebrow.
Jon smiled, a cat before an empty birdcage, “If we could sell the world this technology, the oil industry would be really really annoyed.”
Bran nodded, “We sometimes find ways to feed the tech to human
Maryann looked at the card again,“You’re an eco-group? Like the Sierra Club or something.”
“A bit older than The Sierra Club, or at least, some of our members are.” Bran said.
“Ah hah.” Maryann said. She looked at the card, and back into Bran’s deep blue eyes. Like looking into the deep sea at the edge of the coral reef. Or mountain skies, where you could almost see the stars at noon.
“We yet have need of a fighting bard.” Bran said softly.
“I might be getting a little old to be a good swordbroad.” Maryann
Bran shook his head. “Not all battles are fought with the sword.”
“And you have far more than just strength of the arm.” Jon said.
“And you, too, are Raven. In a different way than Bran, but still Raven.” Ian said.
Raven the messenger. Odin’s Thought and Memory. Great Spirit’s Helper who carries sun, moon and stars into the sky. Take the little wisdom we’ve learned and sing it to your people, Bran had said. “Ok.” Maryann said, “When can we stage a repeat performance?”
“We never repeat anything.” Bran’s face went serious, “What you call
magic doesn’t like stagnant ponds.”
“Oh?” Maryann said, catching the raven glint in his eye, “Then, I guess we’ll have to come up with something totally original.”
The author has, in fact, survived Pennsic Puddle, Pennsic Plague, and Pennsic Passout (in full armour). Now, I use duct tape as emergency kayak and dive gear repair, and my horse is far happier without the armour. I can’t play the harp, or any other musical instrument, though I do own a Native American flute and a didjeridoo.
Murder. That’s the first thing that came to mind when I found that slinky little Victoria’s Secret thing...in puke pink, and three sizes too small...in Brad’s sock drawer. I wasn’t supposed to be in his sock drawer, or his trailer, that day, but I’d had a rare day off.
I thought I’d surprise him.
Yeah, surprise! Marcia Hawkes, you stupid boob. Like you thought Mr I. Fear Commitment might actually, well, commit or something.
Buck season. That’s the second thing that came to mind. It was fall rut and the whitetails were going horny on every sapling, bush, tree, shrub and other vertical object in Pennsylvania’s big woods. Yeah, duct tape him, naked, to a tree with doe scent all over him.
I settled for roadkill skunk in his fridge. That would really impress his new girlfriend.
The next thing I did was go down to the local county park and ask if they had any use for someone who could tell a sparrow from a finch without the Peterson’s Field Guide and had a collection of roadkill in her freezer. They set me to work scraping up dead rats and passing out more to a few dozen owls and hawks and vultures recuperating in the backyard of local wildlife rehabilitator, Cindi Brant. As a volunteer lecturer, I demonstrated projectile pooping, with the aid of Thermal the Wonder Hawk, who always splorted twenty feet or so the moment she came out of the carrier...to the screaming delight of third graders (“Hawks poop out, owls poop straight down.” I told them. Much more interesting to see a visual demonstration.) I practiced vetting skills, and acquired esoteric and arcane knowledge; like the ratio of beech and maple to conifer and power tower usage in the nesting behavior of redtail hawks.
It was a lot more rewarding ( and less messy) than Mr. Emotionally
Two years, three hair color changes, and thirty pounds lighter later I
had my own rehab permit and nowhere to put the hundred or so birds I would have to deal with every year. I needed flight cages, medical supplies, volunteers. Dead rats.
Selling major appliances thirty-nine hours a week was not going to make that happen. It barely paid the rent, barely bought cat food for my boys.
Then Jon showed up at Cindi’s, bearing a northern harrier with a badly mangled wing. Jon in battered blue jeans and well-used light hikers, tall as a young tree and lithe as a greyhound...
Stop it Marsh, you’ll just frustrate yourself.
...bearing a marsh hawk that needed mending and...
Hair the color of winter grass and those cheekbones should be
registered as deadly weapons, certainly they leave a trail of broken hearts in their wake.
Why do I keep hearing the soundtrack for “Titanic”?
Cindi let me take care of this one. The bird I mean. It was a difficult case; a shattered bone that needed surgery from our vet, pins to hold it together. A sling to hold up the half starved bird. Incubation, intubation, isolation. Hawks don’t like a lot of TLC; you fix them and leave them alone, anything more stresses them to death. Literally. Jon came back, once, twice. Then every other day. Cindi usually discouraged them; the “redtail is my totem and this is a sign from the Sky Gods” types who came with incense and stood with their noses
pressed to the flight cage in a futile attempt to Be One With The Universe.
Jon was different. He was a naturalist with an eco-group who did not have a raptor rehab facility; The Earth Life Foundation, headquartered at Hawk Circle Farm, just across the river in York County.
“E.L.F.? Is that Santa’s, Tolkien’s, or Keebler?”
He gave me the kind of look my cats give me when I tell them to get off the kitchen table.
He had a business card with a few dozen letters after his name that
indicated a lot of time in college, perhaps from the dawn of time as we know it. When asked about it, he shrugged it off.“Education has little to do with the length of your name and more to do with the shape of your boots.” He’d said.
I liked him right there. His boots were in pretty rough shape, as if he’d walked a long way in them. Even the hawks seemed to like him. They don’t really like anybody, even the lecture birds don’t. They’re wild things, they tolerate us sometimes, allow us to bring them dead rats and mend them. Then we release the ones we can and they go back to being what they are; masters of the wind, and the world’s finest pest control. Some of the ones we can’t release become lecture birds; they tolerate jesses and leashes and the staring eyes of fidgetey third graders. They understand we will not harm them.
But they don’t like us.
Jon came and the hawk’s eyes followed him. The yellow eyes of immature redtails, the brown eyes of mature ones. The red eyes of the Cooper’s Hawk. The great golden cat-eyes of the owls. They sat and watched without the usual stress or panic they showed around most humans. He’d smile up at them as if he was having a silent conversation with them.
Damn! I liked that man.
Stop it stop it stop it. Why would he be interested in a forty-something something something woman who looks exactly the way Brittany Spears doesn’t? (Reaches out and kicks over boombox playing “Titanic” soundtrack. Soundtrack screeches to halt with all the resonance of a barn owl in a particularly bad mood.)
And Jon, unlike most of the guys I’d known, had cats.
Not your usual ten pound tabby. A cougar confiscated by the Game
Commission, a Siberian tiger rescued from deplorable conditions. Snow leopards. A breeding colony of small, rare cats nobody had ever heard of, because they weren’t the charismatic megafauna you saw on Animal Planet. All of them in habitats with nearly invisible fences. Habitats he’d helped build. Took Cindi and me on a tour one day.
Damn! I loved that man.
Forget it Marsh. He communicates better with those cats than he does with most humans. He was like still water. Deep dark water. Sometimes you caught a glimpse of something, like a half-seen fish, mostly you just saw wind-ripple on the surface.
The kind of guy who was about as accessible as the latest Hollywood hearthrob on the cover of People magazine.
Jon stood in the middle of the forty foot flight cage watching me gently chase the Harrier back and forth in short bursts of flight, to strengthen her wings. “You know,” he said after a few minutes, “Hawk Circle has an empty barn. And a need for a good rehabber.”
I stood there trailing the long net, a line of big Redtails eyeing me
from their perch under the rain roof, a Great Horned Owl blinking cat-eyed at me from just overhead, and me with one foot on the owl’s dinner...from yesterday. “Huh?” I managed to say.
“There’s a little cabin that goes with it. Very reasonable rent. Enough
room for your cats.”
Which is why, at this moment, I am wearing a sixty pound backpack full of scientific gear and gorp...
The E.L.F. was assisting with a hawk study there. I’ll skip the details,
because it’s not the point of this tale. The point is, I got the cabin and the flight cages. And then Jon comes up with this; “We need someone else on this mission with raptor experience...”
I almost hit my head on the ceiling beams, leaping out of my seat,
raising my hand, “Oooooh oooh, pick me!” Ok, not really. But I did volunteer. And considered what I might do to anyone else who tried to volunteer; duct tape them to the wall of an obscure closet perhaps.
“This is great! Misty moors and everything, just like in the tourguides!” My pack thudded to the ground and I began a major excavation into it, eventually producing a pair of binoculars and a map. I squinted through the binoculars, eventually realizing some of the picturesque misty moor effect was coming from a layer of fog on the lens. I swiped at it with a sleeve, saw nothing but more grey goo and studied the soggy map.
Two strides away, Jon poured himself out of his pack like a cat
stretching. He stood, still as one of the standing stones, staring into the fog.
“Here.” I thrust the binoculars at him. Not like he ever used them. He
was one of those guys who could look at a blit in the sky and tell it was a Sharpie, not a Cooper’s Hawk, by the way it flew.
His hand moved, like the twitch of a cat’s tail. Don’t need them.
Like they would help in this goo anyway. I poked at the GPS unit. He’d left me in charge of that. He had a way with computers and other technology; it tended to self-destruct in his presence. I had the same effect on any food more complex than microwaved popcorn. At least Jon could cook. “We’re on target.” I told him.
He nodded. Like he already knew. I had the feeling you could drop him in the middle of Buttpucky Uzbekistan and he would find his way
Unless you left him in the airport. He’d had a near meltdown in the one we landed at.
The Earth Life Foundation has a little airstrip at Hawk Circle, a couple of planes, some really good mechanics who can make a tight budget fly. They’d flown us to Ireland along with a couple of other naturalists headed for other European destinations.
Neither of us had ever been to Ireland before, but at least women ask for directions. Guys just plow endlessly into dead ends, like rats in a maze. It didn’t help that the airport was having issues with their security scanner. And at least two of their computers. I’d finally found us our ride; a professor of biology and two assistants in a beat-up Land Rover. We left the airport to the sound of Irish exclamations and something else short circuiting.
“If you stare long enough, you’ll bore a hole in the fog, right?”
Jon started like a waking sleepwalker, “What?”
All day he had looked like someone walking in a dream, as if his eyes were seeing something beyond the grass at his feet. He’d stopped to read every standing stone, running his hands over them, staring off into the mist like some forlorn lover in a fairy tale.“Ireland, Land o’ Legend.” I said. “What, you expect leprechauns and pookas to materialize out of the mist?”
He gave me an inscrutable cat look, picked up his pack and started
marching. Walking, stalking, lightly as a leopard.
Oh, knock it off Marsh. You are the Assistant. The One Who Carries the GPS, The Guardian of the Laptop. The One Who Has Knowledge of Owl Pellets and Bird Lice. Never more. Never more.
From somewhere out on the moor a raven let out its distinctive
Murphy’s Law of the Backpack: the weight of the backpack shall double every mile. Triple if it is uphill. This part of Ireland seemed to be all uphill.
Jon stopped in midstride, frozen like a deer who’s scented wolf. He held up his hand. Still, quiet.
Now what? Maybe the fairies were having a party and we’d be invited. Maybe they’d have chocolate. Why did I forget to buy M&Ms for the gorp?
I peered out into the greying soup, mist and swirls of fog and the grey lumps of heather vanishing into it, and the ghost of a tree somewhere on the edge of visibility. The fog shifted in one place, congealed, and there was a white shape, vaguely quadruped. Deer? Horse?
Yeah, a horse. Not that Ireland has any lack of horses. A stray? I’d
never heard of wild horses, like the ponies of Exmoor in England, or the Assateague Island ponies back home.
Ireland, Land o’ Legends.
The shape shifted, swirled like a dream and grew nearly solid. Probably some farmer returning from picturesque toil in the fields.
It drifted closer. Not a plowhorse, not at all. Something off a medieval tapestry. Something made of wind and fire and flowing water. I barely noticed the grey-cloaked rider. I remembered to breathe. “Jon!” I pointed.
The horse leaped like a greyhound and vanished like
“Hey. Hey! Wait up!” Then there was nothing but a swirl in the fog and distant birdcalls. Dumb, dumb dumb. Not every Irishman wants to pose for the tourists.
“Jon, you saw that...” Because I wasn’t entirely sure I
He stood silent, staring after the vanished rider.
Murphy’s Law of Backpacking: the perfect camp will appear three hours after dark and you will hike right by it.
Jon found it; high on a hill to watch the sun rise, if it ever came out
of the sog. It was protected by a half ring of stones; something placed there by human hands in the Bronze Age, or earlier. There were some low shrubs and one twisty tree. The call of an owl, the trickle of running water. Jon circled around the hill once, like a wolf testing the wind. “Not here,” he said quietly, “down there, by the stream.”
“We can get water in the morning. I like the view here.”
“It can’t be foggy forever.”
“This is Ireland.”
“I thought your ancestors came from here.”
“They did. I think this is why they left.” He was already heading down
the hill, his headlamp glowing through the fog like fairy lights.
I bounced down after him, scrambling over rock and shrub and twisty root, my headlamp making erratic circles on the boulders. Jon had the tent, and, more importantly, the marshmallows.
He was already rolling out the tent when I got to the bottom. Yeah, one tent, it’s handier when you’re carrying all your worldly possessions on your back. And yeah, he’s the perfect gentleman. Dammit dammit dammit.
“You looked for rocks? Roots? Last time there was some kind of rodentia burrowing below us.” I said.
He shot me the look my cats give me when I buy the cheapo food.
“What’s wrong with up there?” My voice was getting an edge to it. Guys who make decisions without my input push the Button That Blows Up the Ship. Their ship.
He slid a pole into the dome tent’s round sleeve. It didn’t even snag. He snapped it into a perfect arc, looked up at me, eyes hidden behind the glow of his headlamp. “You want to sleep on a leyline? Go ahead. Let the faeries come and carry you off.”
“Right.” Ireland, Land o’ Legends. I liked the legends, but legends
weren’t going to keep me from enjoying the real world on my terms. I considered arguing about the campsite.
“I’ll let you pick tomorrow’s, ok?”He said softly. “As long as it’s not
on a leyline.”
“What the hell is a leyline?”
“Sort of a power line.”
“I see no poles.”
“Magic...” I could see his face now, in the glow of the light. He frowned as if that wasn’t quite the right word.“That’s what your...what most people call it, anyway.”
“So when did a guy with half a dozen science degrees become an expert on Irish myth and magic?”
He shrugged, “There’s a marker back there.”
“Marker...oh, the standing stones?”
“Yeah. And another...” he pointed vaguely in the direction we had been heading.
Another, where? You couldn’t see anything more than fifty yards away. Yeah, ok, Jon humor. Crazy ghost stories to keep me up all night. “Hah hah.” There would be no dry wood for half a continent so I set to work firing up the tiny backpack stove.
A campfire, even a tiny one in a tin can, without ghost stories is like a day without...oh nevermind. Somehow Jon had smuggled a giant economy sized bag of marshmallows into his pack. Man after my own heart. I stuck mine on a twig from the lone twisty tree above us; the marshmallows did what they usually do, turn into miniature Death Stars. Fooomph: blackened wreckage. Jon held his precisely an inch from the fire, like the tails of his snow leopards floating precisely an inch from the ground. They toasted into fresh baked bread perfection. He held out his whole twigful to me.
Something out at the edge of night wailed in a wavering howl. Jon’s eyes trailed past his new set of marshmallows and into the night.
“What was that? There’s no wolves in Ireland.” I said around the two
marshmallows in my mouth. “Coyotes either.”
“Somebody’s farm dog.”
“Oh.” Kinda creepy sheepdog. “Banshee.”I said.
He looked up at me, half startled.
“I spent a few hours in the Hawk Circle library. Looked up some of the Irish myths.” The only ones I remembered at the moment were the rather gory ones about man-eating giants, goblins, and wailing banshees. “You know any stories?”
His eyes fell to the tiny flame in the backpacking stove. He stared at it so long I thought maybe he’d learned to sleep with his eyes open. At last his voice came, soft as night wind, as if from far away. The tale wove through the night and fog like an ancient tapestry. Like harpsong. It was full of sunbright days and darkmoon nights, of the muted clink of bronze and steel, The rumble of hooves. The swirl of a cloak, bright sails on the wind. He nearly sang them.
“The De Danann.” I said, when he fell silent. It sounded vaguely
familiar, like a footnote in one of the books I had read.
“You remember...them, as the Shi.”
“Oh. The Fair Folk. Fairies.”
He didn’t answer, his eyes were fixed on something out in the night. From so far away it might have been only in my imagination, came the faint sound of a wail.
I woke in the dark, automatically looking out the tent window to check the sky for the time. More grey soup, two shades lighter than when I had gone to bed. I could see now that part of our study here was going to be how hawks in Ireland hunted with radar.
I wriggled out of my sleeping bag, trying to do it noiselessly. Jon would hear it anyway, and pretend he didn’t. I reached for my buck knife, compass and headlamp, and a bit of toilet paper, unzipped the tent just far enough to squeeze through, avoiding four feet of zipper noise. I managed to kick Jon’s knee and trip loudly over the camp stove before extricating myself.
If he survives this, he’s never gonna let me come on another
I looked back into the tent. Jon lay cocooned in his bag, face peaceful as an angel’s.
Damn! Damn damn dammit all! Cupid, you suck, and not well either. TV, movies, the bestseller list; what do we see? Geek Boy gets Top Model. When does Geek Girl get her turn, huh? I crunched off through tangly brush, thinking of a dozen cruel and unusual things I would do to the Geek God with the longbow if I ever met him.
I filled in my cathole, checked my compass. 263 heading back to tent. The waking calls of unfamiliar birds trickled around me, like an orchestra tuning up. My eyes drifted up the hill, still invisible under its cloak of fog. It would be a good place to watch the dawn.
“Leylines.” I muttered, and trudged up the hill.
The shadowy stones squatted, half remembered sentinels. The twisty tree was an ancient wizard about to fling a spell. I found a low boulder and turned off my headlamp. Around me the orchestra tuned up for dawn. An owl sent a last call into the waning night. I giggled, picturing him with a leprechaun dangling from his talons. A shadow moved, a big one against the dark silver air. I froze, watching, my hackles coming up.
A deer walked out of the fog, stared at me. What did Jon show you? New Agey nonsense maybe; quiet, breathe, sink your roots into the ground. Be One With the Landscape.
I’d seen deer walk up to him and touch his hair.
The doe stared at me, past me. Flicked an ear and walked back into the fog, unalarmed.
Hah! Wish you’d seen that one Nature Boy.
Slowly the world changed color, up the scale from hematite to iron to steel to silver.
And out of the silver came another rider.
No way. Nope, I am still asleep. I dreamed having to wake up for the
port-a-potty break. I dreamed being close enough to a doe to touch
He rode closer, materializing out of the fog, more solid, more real with every step. Yesterday’s wind and fire and flowing water horse in dappled steel this time, and a grey cloaked rider with a face that could melt steel hearts.
Yep. Still asleep. Musta been those marshmallows. Jon, if you wake me I will kill you. Cupid, if I wake now I will personally track you down and obliterate your little...
“Hello, my Lady,” the vision said. He had the kind of Irish lilt that
made my innards behave like a flight cage full of manic kestrels. He looked like he belonged in one of Jon’s fairy tales.Yep, asleep, and anyone else with any sense is still curled under their down comforters...including Jon.
Stay there, Jon.
“Have you lost your way then?” the rider asked.
I looked down at my compass, cold and hard and real in my hand, the reciprocal course back to camp still clearly marked. I looked up at the rider, raven dark hair wisping out around the edges of his hood, eyes like starlight, face uncannily sharp in the mist. “Nope, know exactly where I am.” Still in my sleeping bag. I owe you one for those stories, Jon.
“Seeing our land the hard way, then, are you?”
“Unless your horse has run away.”
“Oh. No. No horse. Unless you count Shank’s Mare.”
It was his turn to look puzzled.
I held up a jeans-clad leg, still slightly stiff from yesterday’s miles,
“It’s an old joke. American, I think. If you haven’t got a horse, you use your shanks...your legs.”
The rider's face broke into a delicious smile. He laughed with a sound like distant gulls. "Why not use a car? Twice as fast, see twice as much country?"
Car? That's a funny thing for a dream out of Irish legend to say.
"Ah...nah. See half as much blurring by at sixty-five. Give me a sixty-pound backpack and some untrammeled trails."
"Down over the hill, with the tent. I came up here to see the dawn."
"How about a tour from a different vantage point?"
"You offering a lift?"
The horse drifted over like a canoe on a still pond. Like a swan, like
mist tendrils over water. The rider moved his cloak off the horse's rump. I tore my gaze from the rider's face and noticed...
"What happened to your bridle?"
The horse was devoid of tack; bridle, saddle, not even a neck rope.
"Nevermind. I think I remember this from Tolkien or something."
"What?" he asked, his voice like music.
I didn't answer. Standing on the rock, the horse’s shining back was level with my knee. Easy enough to stretch (carefully) a slightly stiff leg over that expanse of warm dappled steel and settle in behind the rider, putting a hand on each of his hips. I could feel lithe, hard muscle under my hands. The horse's haunches bunched under me and we moved. Shot into the fog like a powerboat on a grey sea.
Not like a dream at all. Dreams came in vivid clear colors, without sound or feeling. A silent movie with Marsh as the star. This was silver air and hoof-thunder and powerful muscles under my butt and hands. Jon...if you wake me, I will paint silly designs in henna on you while you sleep, I will spraypaint rude graffiti on that wreck you call a four-wheel-drive, I will...well, roadkill in the fridge wouldn't work on Jon, he'd just add it to his collection, or feed it to my birds.
The silver world began turning white-gold somewhere eastish. The rider pushed back his hood, his wild stallion mane blowing in my face. Down over the hill we went and up the next and past standing stones looming out of the dawn like silent warriors guarding a forgotten kingdom. The horse stretched into a gallop, and it flowed like a river, a wild pooka ride. I broke into a laugh and held the rider tighter. This horse was grey dawn, not pooka black, and there was
no chance of ending up in a thorny hedge.
The mist lifted like a great bird and flew away south. Sun slanted from the edge of the world, making the shadows of the ancient stones stand out starkly on a green so bright it hurt the eyes. The horse slowed to a smooth running walk, we flowed down into dark cool woodshadow where the night air still lay in the hollow between the hills.
"What's your name?" I asked him.
The answer came like wind and twilight, "Cormarei. Yours?"
It was a Northern Harrier that Jon had brought to us that day. A
Marshawk. A big grey hawk who loved marshes, and sometimes hunted like an owl, with its ears. "A tough, adaptable species." Jon had said, meeting my eyes.
"I think my parents were just naming me for Mom's aunt." I told him, wondering why I felt like I was looking into the space between the stars.
"Names have power." he'd said.
I said out loud to the rider. Cormarei, what kind of a name was that? Not much like Murphy or Monaghan. More like one of those names kids give their characters in D&D games.
We rode through the hollow and out the other side, and a thought tickled at the back of my mind like a mouse, sun's up, well up, Jon's up. Boy is he gonna...the thought evaporated like morning dew. I hugged Cormarei a little closer...wonder what he’s got under that
And then there was a castle in front of us.
Ok, this is Ireland. Castles are like McDonald’s, one on every corner.
It was not quite your "Come see legendary Ireland" castle; no squatty square-cornered fortress; this was all soaring towers and sweeping walls, walkways twisting like vines, lined with trees and flowers and alive with birds.
For a moment the dreamsmoke in my brain lifted and I looked for the
parking lot and the tourbuses.
Then the gates creaked open with the requisite amount of groaning from ancient wood, and we rode through into a courtyard full of guards and banners and white sheep and grey geese and two elk with outrageous six-foot racks, and hounds and riders in beautiful clothes and ladies in beautiful gowns and just about everything but the Wicked Stepmother.
Jon, I appoint you Guardian of the Marshmallows, if this is the result
I get every time...
"You're just in time for second breakfast." Cormarei said. He stopped the horse with an unseen signal, flowed off like an otter into a stream, and offered me a hand.
I thought of impressing him with my athletic grace. With my equestrian skill (non-existent). I thought of how stupid I’d look in a pile on the ground.
I thought it wasn’t so bad after all when a guy actually opened a door
for you, or offered you a hand off a horse. I took his hand, slid off. Caught a leg on the horse’s upraised tail and sprawled into Cormarei’s arms.
I swear, I did not do it on purpose.
Cormarei set me on my feet, touched the horse and whispered something to him. the grey horse turned and trotted off.
"Nice, does he clean his own stall too?"
Cormarei smiled like sunrise, "Unfortunately, no. I must."
I had a sudden mental image of him in wellies with a manure fork. It bent the brain.
He led the way through vast gates, twined with carvings like Celtic
knotwork, only looser, more like the twining branches of trees, past trees that were half sculpture, and banks of flowers in an intricate tapestry of color. Ladies and warriors and elegant hounds and striped cats and banners and a noisy Great Hall with a great table at the end of it. Seated at that highest table were a couple that only Weta Workshop could have imagined into reality.
I looked around in a daze. It was like a Renaissance Faire crossed with a multimillion dollar movie production pollinated with ten top-selling romance novels gone berserk. Cormarei showed me to a place at one of the long tables, a few of the ladies gave me cool, appraising looks, one said something quietly to Cormarei, he smiled, and said something back. I struggled with a vague memory of "Irish Made Easy" and failed to find any familiar words. I sat, in worn jeans
and well-used hiking boots, and the damp Irish wool sweater I'd just bought, feeling like a wildebeest in a Fifth Avenue store, and smelling of sheep. It never occurred to me to wonder where the rest of the tourists were.
Breakfast was not eggs and toast. It was a whole show. Mimes and jugglers and acrobats and musicians and a bear and song and dance (Cormarei could dance!) and an eagle with the biggest wingspan I’d ever seen. It looked like something I should know about, something that was supposed to be extinct. Before I could ask about it a wave of music and dance swept through the hall, and the third course was served. I had totally forgotten about the camp and Jon.
Until he came down the center aisle. Under escort. A polite, but rather firm escort; two tall warriors in gleaming chainmail, faces half-hidden by helms, bearing swords at their waists, and tall spears that looked like they might be useful for more than wall hangings.
No way. Absofreakinglutely No Way. I stood straight up. Jon,
whatthehell are you doing in my dream. Go away! If you don't I will put tarantulas in your socks, I will give you a Vin Diesel haircut, I
He went right on up the main aisle through the commotion of the breakfast feast and a little wave of growing silence followed him. By the time he stood in front of the king the room was silent, the jugglers were still, and even the wolfhounds stood poised at attention.
One of the guards bowed and said something in the native dialect. The king nodded and fired a question at Jon.
And Jon answered, in the same language. Not just, 'Hello, can you tell me the way to the men's room?' out of Gaelic Made Easy, but a whole sentence. Several of them, a whole paragraph. A long, fluid, elegant one with the sound of wind in trees and night gulls over the sea.
I stood, open-mouthed. This dream is getting really weird.
Cormarei pulled me back down into my seat with all the diplomacy of an owl dealing with a rabbit.
Something in my mind moved, like clouds before the sun. Then the sun shone through, hard and clear for a moment. I twisted my arm out of Cormarei’s grip, stood up again. "Hey!" I yelled to Jon. He was still before the king, speaking that weird tongue that was sounding less and less like Irish.
"My Lady Marcia." Cormarei purred, "Perhaps we should leave now." He reached for me again, gently this time, and the clouds passed back over the sun. It seemed like a good idea to follow him as he rose from the table.
At the far end of the room, Jon bowed, turned and came back down the aisle, without the escort.
I was vaguely aware of lords and ladies around me turning to look, or moving their chairs out of the way as Cormarei pulled me down the far side of the table by the wall.
Then Jon was on the other side of the table, "Marsh. Marshawk."
I turned and looked into his eyes, funny, I never noticed what color
they were, like the changing color of the sea.
"Marshawk." he said again.
A veil, like morning fog, lifted in the back of my mind. I shot a look at
Cormarei. His face looked exactly like a seventeen year old about to get a speeding ticket. A really big one.
Jon held out a hand.
Cormarei shoved me into one of the tapestries along the wall and leaped over the table like a gazelle. Somewhere in midair he unsheathed three feet of burnished steel.
I stood frozen against the tapestry, doing an excellent impression of a largemouth bass. Jon didn't move, not even with the pointy end of the sword a millimeter from his nose. They locked eyes, and I could feel it, like the air before a thunderstorm. They stood that way for a moment, for forever.
Cormarei spoke, low, like a snake sliding over rock, "Let us hope that the Outside World yet values swordplay, kinsman." He raised his hand and someone tossed him another sword. He caught the hilt, without so much as wavering the one pointed at Jon's nose. "Take your pick." he said, flicking them both around hilts up, end points on a battle line.
Wordlessly, without breaking the eyelock he had on Cormarei, Jon reached out and took the left one. It was lighter, shorter, but Jon stood half a head taller than his raven-haired opponent. And his reach would be longer.
Whatthehell are you doing? You're a field biologist, you can climb
anything, paddle anything, ride anything. I've seen you shoot a bow, and never miss, but swords? Since when are you Viggo Mortenson? I took a step toward them, then someone at my side caught me and held me fast.
Cormarei wasted no time on formalities, like explaining the rules, if
there were any. As soon as the sword was in Jon's hand, it took a blow that nearly knocked it out again. Jon leaped, snaking his body like one of his cats. Cormarei charged, his sword wheeling like a Waring Blender.
Cormarei looked like he might know what he was doing.
Jon didn't bother pretending to parry. He ducked, twisted, spun like a
cornered cheetah. Once in awhile his sword got in the way of Cormarei's, but it wasn't intentional.
Ohhhhh crap... I tried to move again but two sets of hands held me
as securely as a hooded falcon.
Cormarei looked like every Hollywood special effect rolled into one. His blade moved like a hummingbird's wings, so fast it was nearly invisible. It flew in sweeping silver arcs, then flicked back in mid-flight to land somewhere totally unexpected.
And Jon managed not to be where it landed.
Chairs splintered, dishes flew in fragments, wine glasses went up in
sparkling showers of crystal. A lady's careful coiffure underwent a sudden makeover. A tapestry came down on three astonished diners. Over the tables and through the jugglers and around the (somewhat annoyed) bear, and Jon leaping to grab a swinging light fixture (just like in the movies) and the whole thing coming down in someone's breakfast cake.
Jon rolled out of it with sword blows following him like lightning
strikes. Then a heaping handful of icing in Cormarei's face and Jon found that the test of a swordsman was whether he could fight
Cormarei could. It slowed him down to warp eleven.
Back through the acrobats and two lute players and one harpist (alas, that harp will never sound again), a duck to avoid a swing from the bear, who rolled Cormarei down the length of one table. He found his feet and ran like a crazed racehorse through three pies and over the downed tapestry (the diners still struggling out from beneath it), his sword a mad blur. Jon leapt, spun, ducked. The lightning strikes of the sword hit closer.
I thrust an elbow into one of the tall lords holding me, raked a foot
down the shin of the other, and came over the table, straight through the candles and pies and carefully arranged flowers and vines. A small cloud of singing birds flew in panic from the flower arrangement. Someone threw a cloak over a fire started by the candles. The three diners thrashed out from under the tapestry. One of the ladies threw it on the table, a dagger-ridden gaze directed
I saw the tapestry, twenty feet away. I thought of how one catches a
large angry bird who does not want to be caught.
Jon ducked, spun, parried desperately.
Cormarei's sword clanged against Jon's, and continued on by into his thigh. Jon went down like a felled tree.
Panic kept him moving, and he rolled just as a power blow landed beside his head. Cormarei's sword stuck in the scenery just long enough for Jon to assess his condition.
Cormarei didn't stay stuck long. He wrenched loose his sword and came on like a starved shark.
The tapestry landed on him like an eagle on a fish, me on top of
Jon looked up into my eyes. "Jon, you're bleeding." I observed.
"Excellent observation." he said through tight teeth.
"That's real blood."
"Yep." He pressed his hand into his thigh, he was beginning to look a little queasy.
Beneath me, the tapestry bucked like a bronc, threw me under the table. I came up to find Cormarei standing, sword in hand, brain in neutral, nothing between him and Jon.
I swooped up Jon's sword.
I didn’t take my eyes off the prey. He glared at me through his dark mane.
"Since when are you Errol Flynn?" Jon said behind me.
"Yeah, you're right." I let the sword clang to the floor and charged
My martial arts class has a practice dummy named PunchBob. He has been the target of my male frustrations for the last three years. He’s acquired a vast number of scars, and increased my knowledge of inflicting severe damage to male bodyparts.
Cormarei stared in total astonishment for about two and a half seconds too long.
It was The Perfect Kick. The one I had never actually expected to use. Cormarei was lot softer than PunchBob, and had the satisfying effect (unlike PunchBob) of crumpling into a lump on the floor. I kicked his sword as far down the aisle as I could. It skidded to a banging stop at the king's table. I grabbed Jon's sword and held it to Cormarei's nose. "Kipling once said, 'the female of the species is more deadly than the male', want me to demonstrate?"
Cormarei looked up through pain-narrowed eyes, his gasping made it hard to form intelligible words. I was aware of silence falling around me. Of hundreds of eyes on me. As if the room was holding its
I backed up slowly in Jon's direction, not taking my eyes off Cormarei. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a dark haired girl kneeling by Jon, her hands on his wounded leg. The king motioned, and four of the guards closed in around us. One stood by Cormarei. I backed all the way up to Jon, sword still raised, wondering how we were going to get out of this one if the whole hall took Cormarei's side.
The king rose and stalked down the center aisle.
A hand fell on my sword hand. I moved to throw an elbow into his
“Whoa!” Jon said in a hoarse whisper. "Easy. You can put it down
He was standing, a bit wobbly, perhaps, and his jeans were soaked with blood, but he was standing. Beside him was the dark-haired girl, blood on her hands and deep green tunic.
"I'll live." Jon said. He nodded at the girl, "She's a healer."
A flow of golden movement, like a river under afternoon sun, a swish of fabric like breeze through autumn leaves, and the King stood before us. Jon bowed. With all the geekiness of an American unused to royalty, I bowed too, lowering the point of Jon’s sword to the floor.
"The fight was not fair won!" Cormarei's voice rasped from the floor. "My quarrel was with him!"
"Hey mustardballs, who drew first?" I snapped. "I can still prove that
Kipling quote!" I stepped toward him and raised the sword again. Around me the crowd mutter rose.
"You brought her here under a spell!" came Jon's voice from behind
"And your point is?"
"It's called kidnapping where I come from." Jon said.
"Where you come from, Outworlder, has nothing to do with this place."
"She would have returned fifty years from now! If you let her return at all."
Fifty years..."What?" I said.
"She would have enjoyed it!"
“You need an attitude ajustment.” I said, moving the sword just a bit
closer to Cormarei's midsection. “And I know just where to start.” The point wavered and dropped a notch. Two.
His sea-grey eyes widened impossibly.
Jon stepped forward beside me, his eyes like a cornered leopard.
"Fool Outworlder." Cormarei hissed, eyes flicking between Jon’s eyes and my sword.
"Yeah," Jon said, "So I am. Instead of squirreling myself away in some forgotten fold of time, like a groundhog in an eternal winter den, I go out and try to change some small part of that Outside World you seem to fear so much." His voice was low, soft as summer rain, but everyone in the hall heard it. The crowd mutter rose. “I have not forgotten who we are. That we are the Guardians.
That we are the voices for tree and wind and water, for fin and fur and feather. That we are to teach the Secondborn how to hear those
Cormarei started to snarl something else.
"SILENCE." the king said, and the hall fell absolutely totally dead
quiet. You could have heard an owl feather drop.
I thought of several things I still wanted to say to Cormarei, none of
them courteous. But my tongue didn't seem to want to work. Are we in the Twilight Zone? Firstborn, Secondborn, folds in time...whatthehell?
"I have heard you all," said the king, not in his fluid Other Tongue, but in softly accented English. "You," he glared down at Cormarei, "have troubled us before with your forays into the Outworld. But this time you have shown less wisdom than most. Bringing the secondborn Children of the world to our halls can be interesting, but this is far more interesting than I quite like. There are few enough of the Firstborn left without trying to kill each other off for breakfast entertainment."
"You." He stood before Jon. Jon in his battered hiking boots, the
well-worn jeans he'd been climbing trees and cliffs in since we arrived, the ripped t-shirt with the snow-leopard on the front, his winter-grass hair pulled back in a careless ponytail. And the king in his green and gold and burgundy robes, twined with knotwork, sprinkled with jewels like stars.
Day and night, earth and sky, yin and yang. Fairie tale king and refugee from the sixties.
Wait. It was like the surface of the river back home. The surface
that could hide the rocks below. Or reveal them, if you knew what to look for.There was an uncanny similarity in the shape of their cheekbones, the lithe, poised way they stood, and the light in their eyes.
"You, kinsman:” the King began.
Kinsman. Cormarei said that too
“Aiwei son of Awyr and Nawein;Daughter of Temeniel; Mother of My Mother Ainei. It is long since we have heard from our kin who sailed across the Great Sea."
"Yes, too long."
"And your father and mother?"
"They are well."
The king gave Aiwei a long look, up and down, "There is much I do not know about...your world."
"Would that I had more time to tell you, My Lord. But time slips
differently in your Hidden Realm, and we have things to attend to on the Outside."
The king nodded, "I wish that your return to us had been under more
pleasant circumstances. I trust future visits will be." He made a sign in the air, and I found my tongue again. "Oh. By the way, what...” the King said to Jon, “is a groundhog?”
“A large rodent, a ground squirrel with a very short tail.” Jon said, as
if he were doing one of his wildlife lectures for fourth graders. “They burrow rather like your badgers here. Their arrival out of hibernation is used as a measure of the length of the rest of the winter by the local humans of our land.”
“Ah,” the King said. “Fascinating. Sounds like a wonderful place. Guard it well.”
Jon nodded, a slight dip of the head, more like a bow.
The king turned toward me, then paused as if he had forgotten something. He turned back to Jon, “Ah yes, and do polish up your swordsmanship a bit."
"You," the King looked at me. Through me, it seemed. His eyes were like an eagle's, like the deeps of the sea. Like the space between the stars. "You have suffered some insult at the hands of this," he gave Cormarei a stern look, "impetuous youth. We will deal with him later, but for now he owes you some redress."
"Redress?" I gave Jon...Aiwei...a quizzical look.
"Make a wish." Aiwei son of Awyr and Nawein said.
"Like what?" Win the lotto? Would they know what a lotto was? Probably not.
"Just ask for his sword." Jon said.
"Ahhhh. Ok, Cormarei's sword. That will do." I wasn't sure it would do, until I saw the utterly stricken look on his face. A desperate sounding stream of words poured out until the king motioned him into silence. I glanced at Jon...Aiwei, son of... whatever. I ticked off the women's names in my head. That would make him...
Weird, weird, weird.
"It seems the sword has a long lineage...and some interesting powers." Jon smiled broadly, "I must commend your choice, My Lady Marshawk."
"Uh, yeah. Ok. Sure."
The king accepted the sword from the guard who had retrieved it from where I had kicked it down the aisle. He gave me a slight bow, a gentle smile, and the sword.
"Ahhh." I said. And bowed back. I looked at the other sword, the one Jon had used, it was still in my hand.
The king smiled, took it and gave it to Jon. Or whoever he
Beside me, Aiwei son of Awyr....etc. let loose a fluid stream of
something that almost sounded like song.
We sat in a bower of carved vines, arching roof and living trees woven together. The dark-haired girl was singing something like a running stream as she held her hands over Jon's wound. I watched, in stunned silence, as a soft glow like summer sunset surrounded the injured leg. The ripped and bloodied jeans had been ditched; a set of something similar, woven out of a material like heavy grey linen, had appeared to replace them. They hung now over the back of the couch Jon was sprawled on.
Damn, he should wear Speedos more often.
The wound closed like a movie effect. Skin darkened by blood and bruise glowed, returned to its usual moonlight on sand color. The girl offered no explanations, and I did not want to break the spell by
An hour later we were mounted on two grey horses, with no more gear than Cormarei had used. We rode through a courtyard full of dancers and acrobats, grey geese and clouds of sheep, and three more of those crazy huge elk with the impossible racks.
Irish elk. Long extinct in the Outside World, as was the Haast Eagle I’d seen at breakfast.
Out through the great gates, and into the treeshadow woods and out into the bright afternoon sun of the Emerald Isle. Jon rode ahead, singing softly to himself, I rode behind, (the horse seemed content to follow its mate), questions milling in my head like swarming mayflies.
We reached the leyline hill, Jon raised his hand in the 'still' signal,
and the horses stopped. I slid off, a bit more gracefully this time. Jon was standing before his horse, one hand on its forehead, saying something soft to it. It snorted gently in his neck, then turned, and with its mate galloped off.
In silence we walked around the hill to the camp.
A camp which, if my wood sense had not totally deserted me, was a week old. I poked at the soggy debris covered tent, folded into Irish origami by the wind. Gorp trailed from under the collapsed mess, pulled out of a ziplock by some rodent. I pulled my pack out of the tent wreck. Two field mice panicked and ran from its depths.
I unslung the sword from my shoulder, drew it half out of its sheath,
looked at the runes running down the blade like the graceful twigs of a willow. I looked up at Jon.
Aiwei, still as a standing stone, regarding me with eyes like the
deeps of the sea, like the space between the stars. The cool breeze played up my back again.
"Ok, talk." I sat down on my pack.
Aiwei knelt before me, coiled on the ground like a crouching cat. "You already know. You heard the King. You heard my tales."
"Don't sleep on a leyline or the fairies'll come and carry you
He flinched, "If you call me a fairy I shall have to turn you into a
"Can you really do that?"
"No, that is not my gift." He didn’t quite smile.
He nodded. "It is the best word your folk have for us. Just, please, no mention of Keebler."
"Or those little guys in Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer."
"Earth Life Foundation.” I said, waiting for him to say more.
He made a face, like one of my cats when I shove them off my chair. “It was the Dwarves’ idea of a pun. An in-joke.” He sighed, as if someone had made him wear butterfly wings.
"Dwarves? Yeah, now that you mention it, the Hawk Circle technical whiz is kind of short...and her dad, the airstrip mechanic..." And our pilot for the trip over, same cheekbones, same kind of eyes as Jon, in mountain sky blue. I thought of a dozen more people at Hawk Circle who were...different, the way a wolf is from a German Shepard.
"I cannot tell their tale. Only my own."
"I guess there’s a unicorn in the garden and a dragon in the toolshed
"A dragon would not fit in a toolshed."
"One might fit in an old bank barn." There was a glint in his eye, like
I picked up the GPS unit I’d been entrusted with, peered over the top of it at Jon. His aversion to technology was beginning to make some kind of weird sense.
His eyebrows twitched, “We, ah, channel energy in inconvenient ways, sometimes... where technology is concerned. I...ah...it was easier to let you handle the techie stuff.” For a moment he looked like a third grader who’s deleted the entire hard drive.
Yeah. A private ELF plane, an Irish airport with techie trouble.
“Whoa. The airport... good thing we didn’t put you on a 747. And all that topographical impairment until I found our ride. I just thought you were being a typical male, you know, ‘born with a map of the universe in my head’.”
He looked embarrassed, “I hate those kinds of places. Mazes of concrete and steel.” He frowned, as if trying to find the words l would understand. “It disrupts the...”
“Chi.” The Chinese concept of the vital energy in all living things. “Is
Jon nodded. “There’s no chi there. We’re not really allergic to cold
iron, like the old legends say. The real problem is too much iron and steel and human construction block the energies of the earth.” He studied me for a moment, light dawning in his eyes. “You understand
Yeah, we study the chi thing in our martial arts class. But more, I
understood why he seemed ill at ease in a college lecture hall or an airport. Why he looked as at home in the woods as the trees did. Why he could talk to hawks easier than to high school kids. "You’re like our lecture birds; the ones who can't fly. Or like that tiger you rescued, living in its habitat; with walls." I said softly, "Most of the time, you have to be something you're not. You can't show anyone who you really are."
He met my eyes. "You see clearly, my lady, like a hawk in day, or an owl in the dark."
I smiled. It was the finest compliment any man had given me. Man...Elf, whatever. I considered again the lineage the king had spoken of, "Waitaminute. The Elvenking’s your...cousin? That makes you...” I did not say fairy tale prince. Nope, not me.
He made a face, as if it was of little concern. "My mother and father
sailed to America long ago, when this land began to get too crowded."
“With humans.” I said.
He didn’t quite nod. "Others of my people sailed from here long ago, to various wild, far places of the world. Some stayed, in pockets of Otherwhen, Sidhes, Underhill, folds in time, like the one we were just in. My family came to America ahead of the rest of the immigrants. I saw fur traders and mountain men and vanishing tribes...”
And I was worried about being the Older Woman.
”...the decimation of the wolf and buffalo. I nearly left this world myself once. But...well it's a long story, maybe I'll tell it to you some time.” He hesitated, looking up at me. There was something in his eyes that was like those third graders looking up at the hawk on my hand. Something full of hope, and wonder. “If you like."
"I would love it." Really, really love it. More than falling in a vat of chocolate.
He smiled like sunrise, then his face grew thoughtful. We sat for awhile in silence. Not a tense silence, but the relaxed quiet of
At last he said, "I have not thanked you..."
"Don't mention it."
"Yeah and I'll do it again. Anywhere. Anytime."
"I know that. I know that now." He held out a hand, long-fingered, fine and strong as hawk feathers and touched my face like a summer breeze.
It was better than a kiss.
The author has, in fact, demonstrated projectile pooping with the aid of Thermal the Wonder Hawk, as a volunteer with raptor rehabber Mitzi Eaton. I have also engaged in random swordplay and mangling of PunchBob. I have not (yet) been to Ireland).