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 question.
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 demanded.
"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 there.
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 here...”
“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 George, got a story for us?"
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.
George 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," George 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," George 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." George 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. George 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 professor.
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 clouds.
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 her."
"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 hill."
"Aye, the little people." came a rich Irish brogue from the shadows.
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 sheathed 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; Mary-Ann 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 fire.
"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 apologetic.
"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 others.
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, alone.
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 it!”
The 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. 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.”
“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 way.
“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 America.
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 and thylacine. 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. Some of them.
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 beyond.
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 ground.
"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.
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 sleep-rumpled t-shirt.
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 night.”
“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 harper.”
“Nobody else can play one either,” Zan said, “despite what Tolkien said in all his books about Elves and harps. 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 gear.
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 bin.
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: 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 in business.”
“She’s our techie.” 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 inventors...”
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 said.
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 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 didjeridoo.