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 Unavailable.
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 the latest cover model 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 home.
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 croak.
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 dreamsmoke.
“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 had.
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 expedition again.
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 her.
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.
"Marcia..." 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 cloak.
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 will...
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 blind.
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 toward Cormarei.
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 it.
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 Bob Anderson?" Jon said behind me.
The guy who taught practically everyone in the movies how to swordfight since the dawn of time."Yeah, you're right." I let the sword clang to the floor and charged Cormarei.
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 breath.
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 gut.
“Whoa!” Jon said in a hoarse whisper. "Easy. You can put it down now."
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 me.
"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 voices.”
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 was.
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 asking.
An hour later we were mounted on two 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 off."
He flinched, "If you call me a fairy I shall have to turn you into a frog."
"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 too."
"A dragon would not fit in a toolshed."
"One might fit in an old bank barn." There was a glint in his eye, like distant lightning.
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 that close?”
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 that.”
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 friends.
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.
As a wildlife rehab volunteer, I've been "handcuffed" to a perch by Iris the One-Eyed great Horned Owl (get.. off... the ... perch... and ..get BOTH feet on the glove...), driven in a van with a barfing vulture, demonstrated projectile pooping to awed third graders, and learned to respect the power of an owl that weighs as much as a can of tuna.
Photo of Thermal the Wonder Hawk by Dwarf Buddy and excellent photog Dave Tristan. The rest is mine mine mine mine.