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Dave Freer & Eric Flint

Dave Freer is an ichthyologist turned author because he'd heard the spelling requirements were simpler. They lied about that. He lives in a remote part of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, with his wife and chief proofreader, Barbara, four dogs and four cats, two sons (Paddy and James) and just at the moment no shrews, birds, bats, or any other rescued wildlife. He does his best to blame his extraordinary spelling on an Old English sheepdog's nose, or the cats on his lap.  

His first book, The Forlorn (Baen), came out in 1999. Since then he has coauthored with Eric Flint (Rats, Bats & Vats, 2000; Pyramid Scheme, 2001; and The Rats, the Bats & the Ugly, 2004) and with Mercedes Lackey and Eric Flint (Shadow of the Lion, 2002; This Rough Magic, 2003; The Wizard of Karres, 2004). He has just completed his next solo novel for Baen, A Mankind Witch, and is due to write several more books in The Shadow of the Lion sequence and Pyramid Scheme sequence.  

Besides working as a fisheries scientist for the Western Cape shark fishery, running a couple of fish farms, he has worked as a commercial diver and as a relief chef at several luxury game lodges. Yes, he can both cook and change diapers. He spent two years as conscripted soldier along the way, so he can iron, too. His interests are rock climbing, diving, flyfishing, fly-tying, wine-tasting and the preparation of food, especially by traditional means.  


"The darkness fades into fields of light, and it is time I was away, love." 

The singer sat down while her voice and its magic still echoed around the fake wooden beams. There was a thin patter of applause. Thin, because the Curragh of Kildare Bar and Grill was finally nearly empty, after another night of music and far too much draft beer.

Rúadan began to put away his fiddle, since it was time he got out of here. Daylight was close, and daylight always seemed to bring on awkward questions. It was quite strange in a way. Here he was in Mortal lands, far away from the twilight of Underhill . . . but he remained a creature of half-light.

As strange as the Curragh of Kildare. Since the day he'd been sent here, there'd always been a shebeen, or a bar, or a drinking place of some sort on this spot. It was a good place to play his fiddle o' nights, where the patrons would buy him a beer or three, and not remember him too well in the morning.

He hauled out his old blackthorn pipe and began stuffing it. Moira, clearing ashtrays, grinned at him. "You're not going to smoke that vile stuff in here again are you, Red? Last time it set off the sprinkler system."

Rúadan smiled. Moira was a barmaid and over the centuries he'd met enough of them. He usually tried to stay on good terms with barmaids. They were definitely never the butt of his jokes. When you cadge drinks a lot, it makes every kind of sense not to use barmaids as victims. Besides, he'd found he liked girls who were good at fending off a drunk with one elbow while counting change, taking an order, and smiling at the next customer. And they had had enough confidences betrayed to them to not exercise their curiosities too far about old fiddle-players.

The trouble was that this Moira was a bit out of the run of the mill, and maybe wasn't hearing enough slurred stories about wives who didn't understand. She'd asked him questions. That was never a good sign.

"Smoke is necessary for a good shebeen," he answered, putting a match to his pipe.

"Why? It's supposed to be banned here in South Africa. It is in Ireland now. They put the ban in place last year." She lifted as pretty a chin as he'd seen on a colleen for many a year. He'd seen a lot, and most of them gave him even more of a crick in the neck than this one.

"For atmosphere."

"That doesn't just mean smoke, you know. That's what the shamrocks and green tablecloths are for. And the music."

"Aye. The music is right enough."

This imitation of old Ireland would have been funny if it had been any less accurate—or any more so. The spirit of the music was dead on, somehow. It wasn't that the singers were all great—or even necessarily good—or that some of the players didn't make a horse's butt out of the old tunes. But the heartbreak and laughter in it were right. And this piece of earth had always liked his fiddling. Indeed, it was a beautiful piece of earth, much like Ireland back in early days, when there'd been but one treeless plain, for all that this place was on the cool southern end of Africa. The strip between the sea and the Outeniqua mountains was cloaked in yellowwood forest and dense fern, hiding narrow gorges with ale-brown, peat-stained rivers. There was only one major road across all of it, and the little hamlet of Bloukrans—one gas station, seven scattered, rundown houses, a general dealer, and the Curragh—straddled that. Once this had been a logger's town. Now it survived on travelers, tourists, and people from the beach-holiday town of Plettenberg Bay driving nearly twenty miles for good beer, better music, and a lack of municipal bylaws about closing time. But there'd always been a settlement, brewing, and song here. Rúadan knew there always would be. The place they now called the Curragh loved the music and the singing. The magic that leaked through from Underhill—his reason for being (to put it politely) "posted" to a place so far from the Node Groves of the New World—was centered on this spot. It needed a protector.

So he'd been told, anyway. To himself, Rúadan admitted it could have just been that the High Court wanted to get rid of him. The problem was that the Lords and Princes of Faerie didn't have much of a sense of humor.

He blew a smoke ring. "Of course no real shebeen in the old days had ever wasted aught on 'atmosphere' beyond a peat-turf fire and no chimney beyond a hole in the roof. Not a big hole, either. I'm just making up for it. A good boozing-ken needs to be smoky and badly lit. It makes the lasses look better."

He did not add, And nonhuman fiddlers have to work less hard on their seeming, although that was true too.

"I always wondered what you smoked in that thing. All is revealed! Peat. What it smells like it, anyway." She balanced used glasses onto her overfull tray. "We've made progress since then. We've got dimmer switches."

"Generally speaking, progress is something I approve of," said Rúadan, as he shrugged on his tatty maroon velvet coat. It was true enough. Progress meant beer with no lumps in it, and foam rubber, which was a long step up on a pile of leaves for lying on. "But this is a misstep, I'd be thinking. The pub'll lose money."

She shrugged. "Strange crowd tonight, Red. A lot of them weren't really drinking anyway, let alone smoking."

That was the thing about barmaids. They had as keen an eye for the crowd as an entertainer did. "Aye. And some of them didn't join in with 'Wild Rover.'" He shrugged, picked up his blackthorn stick from the corner. Somehow, no one in the place ever noticed the skull on the top of it. It was a minor piece of magic, really. "Well, it's a good night that I'll bid you, dear."

He picked up his fiddle case and pulled on his old hat. It had once been a rich burgundy hue, but, like most of his working clothes, it was elderly. Red and old, tradition demanded.

She grinned tiredly. "You can put the accent away, Red. I'm not one of the punters."

He winked and walked out into the cool night air. Sure enough, the sky was beginning to pale over the dark mass of the forest. It would be light in half an hour. Well, it wasn't far to his tree. He passed through the parking lot, and into the forest that backed onto it. It wasn't much of a place, Bloukrans, even—like tonight—when it wasn't raining. It rained nearly as much here as it did in the Wicklow hills. It was the reason for the tall-tree forests here, and the blue-green mold on the buildings—not that the folk around here cared much for the painting of their houses, anyway. The scattered wooden houses were much the same color as the tree trunks.

* * *

Moira watched him walk away. He was an odd one! The boss claimed they tolerated having a fiddle-playing bum around the place out of charity. Moira thought the SOB boss wouldn't know charity if it bit him on the leg. But apparently the old fellow had been busking here back when the Curragh opened. Someone had said he used to play outside the Bavaria-Keller, that used to be on the spot. Old Red appeared to know every Celtic folk song ever written. And if he asked for or got any pay beyond a few pints, then the boss's mother had known who his father was.

Still, he didn't complain, and in this country you had to look out for yourself. He appeared to live—quite illegally—somewhere in the Tsitsikamma forest reserve, though no one knew where. But, then, there were elephants living in there that no one had seen, other than tracks, for five years.

Some of the girls were afraid of him. He had a rough tongue, true enough. But although he had pulled a few terrible practical jokes, she'd yet to see him do more than frighten someone. And he liked it if you gave him as good as you got. Nice old geezer, if you could take him. She wondered, vaguely, what brought him here. And where he went to every day. One of the waiters had tried to follow him once, but had gotten lost and bitten by a snake.

* * *

The girl was sitting beside the path, crying. Rúadan recognized her at once. She was the lass with the mass of blond ringlets who had been sitting with the fellow in the leather jacket—who'd just sat through "Wild Rover" without even joining in on the "nay, no never no more!"

It was late and he'd prefer to be abed, but he'd always had a soft spot for a pretty face. "And what's this then?" he said squatting down next to her. "The path is slippery enough without you wetting it up further."

"Will you hide me?" she whispered, desperately. "I think he's still looking for me."

Sure enough, there was a crash back in the bushes and she clutched on to his jacket, eyes wild with fear.

Rúadan had to laugh. To try this here of all places—and with the Faer Dhaerg of all the creatures of Faerie.

"Be easy, dearie." He bounded away up the trail, his long tail uncoiling.

The fool had a gun; a handgun of some sort. Rúadan had never been close enough to examine one properly, but as far as he knew they were ineffectual against insubstantial illusions of light and air. Rúadan sent his shadows chasing, leaping, and jeering from behind the twisted branches. The wood was filled with dead men's laughter. Many's the man would have started running at this point.

Leather-jacket's gun gave him more courage than was good for him. He fired at a movement. And then again, the muzzle-flash bright in the tree shadow.

Rúadan watched from the darkness, almost behind him now. "You could hurt someone, you know," said the Red Man, throwing his voice, and sending a branch crashing down on the leather-jacketed gunman.

The idiot fired into the canopy repeatedly, frightening the treetop birds into cawing panic. Ah, well. With any luck, with all this noise, the young woman would have run away by now. Along with every other living thing in this part of the forest.

The tip of Rúadan's tail twitched as he watched the gunman walk toward the bushes. The Faer Dhaerg sent an illusionary figure to show himself there again. Leather-jacket shot at that too and blundered forward.

Rúadan's eyes narrowed. The human deserved this.

The gunman screamed as he fell. Rúadan beamed in satisfaction and went to look over the edge of the little gully.

"Muddy and thorny enough for you?" he asked the human who was pulling himself out of the stream. Mister Leather-jacket was covered in duckweed and ripped by brambles. Rúadan had spotted where the fool's weapon had landed. The Faer Dhaerg wasn't going to touch that thing of Cold Iron, of course. But he had nothing against putting a river boulder on top of it, nearly squashing the human's reaching fingers. Rúadan leapt away, and let the human see him, properly.

The man wasn't a runaway, anyway. He tried again to retrieve his gun. After all, the furry, blue-nosed, red-faced man blowing a raspberry from the nearby rockwall was barely three feet high. Leather-jacket grabbed at the rock and heaved . . .

It didn't move, since it must have weighed half a ton. But his tormentor did—fast. He was on Leather-jacket's collar, twisting his ears and depositing a bird's egg down his neck. A quick slap on the back, and Rúadan was off up the bank. He tossed another rock—a small one, though—down on the fellow as a parting gift.

Suddenly the human seemed to realize that he could be in trouble. A slow thinker, obviously. He started to run.

Rúadan harried him, driving him through thickets and thorn bushes. He sent him sprawling over tree roots. He pelted him with sticks and wild figs. Eventually, Leather-jacket made it to the road margin, which was also Rúadan's border. The magic grew thin after that, so Rúadan let him go. Leather-jacket nearly fell under a car's wheels, anyway. Hooting and swerving, the vehicle drove past. Rúadan had to laugh again. It was Moira's little brown bug-car. A "Beetle" she called it. "Smelly" Rúadan called it.

And then he realized that his life had just gotten more complicated.

Moira had screeched to a halt and was reversing. She got out. "Are you all right?" she asked, as the former gunman staggered to his feet.

Rúadan flicked his tail up under his jacket and pulled his glamour around him. It was a bad time for it, since the sun was nearly up. At this time of year, sunrise was at 4:00 a.m. Still, it was necessary.

He stepped out of the bushes, "Moira. Leave him be."

She blinked at him. "Red? He's hurt. Give me a hand to get him in the car."

Scratched, bleeding, muddy, in jeans that were more shreds than fabric, and missing one shoe, the man did look like he'd been in an accident.

"I hurt him," admitted Rúadan. "He was chasing some lass around in the woods. With a gun."

Rúadan realized then that he should have moved faster or chased the fellow deeper into the forest, because Leather-jacket had hauled a switchblade knife out of his pocket. A flick and bright steel gleamed in the new sunlight.

"Come any closer and the girl gets hurt," snarled the fellow, waving the knife around. And then, to Moira, whom he'd grabbed with the other hand, "Gimme the keys before I cut you."

"They're in my bag," she said, calmly fishing in a leather shoulder-bag that would have done for a military campaign. She drew out a bunch and held them out to him. As he let go of her to take them, she swung the bag by its strap. It hit him across the head, as her knee caught him in the groin.

He was a tough lad. He buckled, but didn't go down. Moira had the sense to back off.

Leather-jacket took a step after her. Rúadan tensed his fingers, tightening on the blackthorn stick. One more step, and the human would know what came of threatening a friend of the Faer Dhaerg . . .

"Come and show me what a fine hero you are!" taunted Rúadan, letting him see his tail and the skull-topped blackthorn shillelagh. "Or is it only women you can fight?"

Leather-jacket stopped. "The hell with you." He turned and ran to the little beetle-car, and was in the driving seat and doing a U-turn before you could say "Knockmealgarten." The elderly brown car did not have the wherewithal to race away from the scene, but the thief did his best.

Turning, Rúadan saw that Moira had sat herself down. By the looks of it, she was fainting. Well, he'd nothing against those who fainted after the fact. She was, by a stroke of fortune, now inside his limits—off the concrete road full of steel reenforcing bars, and in the weeds next to the telephone poles. He was not at his strongest here, so far from the blocked Node he was supposed to watch, but he could carry a little-bitty thing like a barmaid easily enough. And he'd better see if the other lass was still in the wood. Problems never came singly, did they?

* * *

Moira blinked. The last she'd been aware of was Red threatening some thug who'd then run off with her car. Now . . .

She was lying on a mattress in a dimly lit place. She sat up, found her feet. She was in a tiny room of some sort, without windows or a door. Light, such as it was, came in through a small round hole higher up. Dimly she could make out a battered copper kettle that would have fetched a fortune at an antique fair, some wooden pegs with clothes hung on them, and Red's old fiddle-case.

She was bright enough to figure that this must be the old fiddler's mysterious den. Well . . . So she'd be the one who finally got to see where he hid himself. Pity it had to cost her her car, she thought bitterly.

A crack opened in the far wall, and Red stumped in with a girl. The one with the blond ringlets, broad silver bracelets, and the bad taste in lipstick color, who hadn't joined in with "Wild Rover." She had a purse of dimensions that made Moira envious, though. You could pack for a week in something that size.

"You're awake and you haven't even put the kettle on?" Red said, grumpily. "Well, there's some bottles of beer in the corner. For emergencies."

"I can't sit around drinking beer! I need to do something about my car . . ." Moira fumbled in her handbag, producing a cellphone.

"No reception," he said apologetically. "Anyway, your stinker ran out of fuel about a hundred and fifty yards from the Curragh. It was the best I could do. Too much iron in it otherwise."

She sat down on the mattress again with a thump. It was covered with a tatty quilt in, needless to say, shades of red. "Best you could do? I filled it up yesterday."

He shrugged and snagged three bottles of beer from a nook. "I'm sorry. I owe you. Mind, if you hadn't interfered I'd have had only one problem."

He pointed with a thumb at the terrified-looking blonde, while he popped the top and handed her a beer. "Here, drink this and take heart, and tell me what happened without so much tears and clutching of my finery." He patted his scruffy old coat.

Moira had to laugh. Only Red could call that old jacket "finery."

"I don't drink beer," Blond ringlets said tearfully. "I don't like it."

"'Tis a cruel world," replied Red, unsympathetically. "Drink it anyway, hating every mouthful, for the good it does you." He cracked the other bottles and handed one to Moira.

She took a long pull on it, reflecting on what an odd fellow the fiddler was, now that you saw him in daylight. He was short, plump, and scruffy with a long nose and sharp, mischievous eyes. And his face was nearly as ruddy as his clothes. He always wore red and tatty clothes. A variety of them.

The blonde was—fair enough—distressed. If she'd been assaulted by that thug, it was hardly surprising, reflected Moira. She'd fainted herself, although it was something she'd have to have a word with old Red about keeping quiet. A barmaid couldn't have stories like that getting around.

He must have carried her here, she realized. Either his hideout must have been very close or he must be inhumanly strong. And then, like a set of tumblers falling into place with that last thought, she understood.

This wasn't a shack—it was a hollow tree. Too much iron . . .

It wasn't possible. Granny O'Hara's tales were just for kids! Red, three-foot-high fiddlers with tails and the skull of some unknown beast on the end of their blackthorn sticks who lived in hollow trees did not exist! She looked at one and spluttered as beer fizzed up her nose.

Red produced a large handkerchief from one of his capacious pockets, and handed it to her. It was vermilion with a yellow border, and was both clean and neatly folded.

"Waste o' good beer," he said disapprovingly. He raised an eyebrow and shook his head meaningfully. "It's why I avoid daylight. Let's say no more of it while we've got guests. Now, missy, do I have to feed you some of my poteen to get a rational explanation out of you as to why you didn't want me to show you the route to the Curragh, but to hide you? I'm thinking yon boyfriend of yours will likely be far away by now."

"He wasn't my boyfriend! And even if he's run, the others will be waiting." She was getting through the beer quite well for someone who didn't like it.

Moira bit her lip. If she'd somehow fallen in with Granny's "fair folk" . . .

"I could use that poteen," she announced firmly. "And your story—who is looking for you? That bunch who weren't singing or drinking?"

Blond-ringlets nodded. "They were waiting for John. My boyfriend. He was supposed to bring the stuff. Only he didn't show up. He's run off with their money," she said, bitterly.

* * *

The tale finally came out, lubricated by a few lavalike mouthfuls of clear liquid from an unlabelled bottle. It was the tale, Moira decided, of a dim bimbo and a rotten-egg boyfriend she should have left years back. He'd gotten himself into debt with a gambling syndicate. Then he'd tried to buy his way out with an offer of several kilos of coke at wholesale prices. The gambling-boss had taken the bait, provided half the money up front, and demanded a hostage as surety. The exchange was supposed to have happened in the Curragh last night.

He hadn't shown up. And Susan—the blonde—had been taken to the woods. Her executioner had orders to rape her and kill her, to make it look like a sex crime. She'd gotten away when he tripped over a tree root, and lost him in the darkness. Then, when she'd been too exhausted to run anymore, Red had arrived on the scene.

The criminal gang knew she was alive, and that there were witnesses. Moira reckoned that blond-curls Susan should change her name to Collateral Damage. 

"Why don't you go to the police?" she suggested unhopefully.

The girl started like a frightened deer—a reaction totally out of proportion with the efficacy of the local cops. "I . . . I can't do that. What am I going to tell them? They can't protect me."

That was true enough, Moira thought sourly. The cops around here couldn't catch anything more dangerous than a cold, so far as she could tell. They certainly hadn't been able to catch the creeps who'd burgled her apartment in Plett. Besides, what could Blondie tell them? She'd run away from a guy who'd planned to rape and kill her?

Evidence? Witnesses? Besides, those Manolo Blahnik stilettos showed no sign of being run in. The girl looked too much like an Elle fashion plate.

"Now, there's no need for panic," said Red peaceably. "Or involving these pollis-fellows. I daresay I'll think of something. In the meanwhile, you're safe here. No one has ever found my home, unless I let them."

Moira stood up. "I need to get my car and some sleep. Drugs and murders are all very well, but I've got a job to be at and rent to pay. Can you show me how to get out of here?" She hoped she'd said it casually enough . . . she had owned a pair of stilettos once. She needed to talk to Red. Without an audience. There was something worrying about that blonde.

Red nodded. "I'll take you along then. You'll be all right here, Susan," he said reassuringly.

It was a tree, sure enough, just as she'd thought. A huge yellowwood, hundreds of years old. The crack they stepped out of snapped shut behind them.

Moira waited until they were some distance from the tree before stopping. "There's something wrong with her story, Red."

He stopped too and took a deep pull on that vile old pipe of his. Whatever he was smoking, it wasn't tobacco—or any other weed she'd ever smelled. He blew a perfect smoke ring around an early bee. "And what's that?"

"Her shoes. No one can run in those things. Two steps and you'd kick them off. And her face. Are you telling me she didn't even get scratched running through the undergrowth? Besides, someone who has gambled all their money away wouldn't be buying new Manolo Blahniks for their girlfriend, now would they?"

"Ach. I thought I was smelling a tracery of magic about her. No wonder she's carrying so much Cold Iron. A cleverly laid-on trap," he said with admiration, and resumed walking.

"Magic? There's no such thi . . ." She reconsidered. "Who are you, Red?"

He looked quizzically back at her. "Don't you mean 'what are you'? I'm the Faer Dhaerg. The Red Man."

"Like a sort of leprechaun?"

He looked faintly offended. "That's even more of an insult than 'the Rat-boy' those lowlifes from Leinster landed me with. I am what I am, despite the fact that children of men have given me many names."

"So what do I call you? 'Red' seems wrong somehow."

He puffed on his pipe. "You always were the one for the asking of too many questions. Rúadan Mac Parthalón was the first name I was given. I still think of myself as that. But Red's fine by me. It's a fair translation."

"And what are you doing here?"

"A little drinking. A bit of fiddling. I brew some poteen once in a while."

She stamped her foot. He grinned.

"Ach. I'm a guardsman of sorts. The door is closed, but the Seleighe Court wouldn't be after having someone open it by accident. It leads out into Chaos Lands, and could be a powerful source of trouble. Enough magic leaks around the edges to keep me in good health. Also, it got me out of Underhill, which was not a bad thing from their point of view. And mine, I'm thinking."

They'd arrived at the road margin and her Beetle. Leather-jacket hadn't even bothered to close the door. Lowlife! A good thing they'd come along this early before most people were about. It was a pretty safe area, but people weren't above a bit of petty theft from an unlocked car. True, she had her cellphone, wallet, and her tape recorder with her, in her bag. There really wasn't much worth stealing in the brown-job.

The key was still in the ignition. In fact, it was still turned on. She swore. So were the lights. The rattletrap's battery would be flat by now. Well, a tank of petrol and scrounging a jumpstart was better than losing her car. Still, it left her with a problem. It was five in the morning and her flat on the outskirts of Plett was a good fifteen miles away. The Curragh would be empty and locked up by now, and she couldn't think of a friend who'd like to have a lift begged off them at five in the morning, although phoning her ex was tempting.

The red fiddler had plainly had the same thought. "I've a spare mattress," he said gruffly. "And I owe you for pointing out a thing that might have tripped me up."

"A pot of gold would do nicely," she said, grinning.

He shook his head. "And what would I be doing with one of those, then? I said I'm not a leprechaun. I'll stretch to breakfast and a bed. Besides, I'd not mind an extra eye on that lass."

"She's stuck in your tree, isn't she?"

"Ah. And there is a temptation to leave her there. But it's a fine old tree, and it's not her, but what's at the back of this that needs to be dealt with. For now I think we can harvest a few mushrooms for breakfast," he finished cheerfully.

He showed her which ones to pick—several deadly-looking ones—and made her avoid some that just about had eat me written on them. He made a sack for the mushrooms from his shabby coat, and they walked back to his unremarkable tree.

The crack opened, and blond Susan fell out. "I couldn't get out," she said accusingly.

"And your foes couldn't get in," said her host. "We brought some breakfast."

He cooked mushrooms and bacon—cut from a whole side with a brass-bladed knife—on a fire inside the tree. And then he made herbal tea, a different kind for each of them. Moira had to admit, it was fragrant and nasty. She quietly poured most of hers out when no one was looking.

Susan had, it appeared, recovered from her earlier fright. She was sweetness and light now, handing teas around and praising the food. By the time they'd eaten and drunk—and Moira had belatedly remembered the injunction against eating faerie food—all Moira wanted to do was sleep. Red produced another mattress and tatty patchwork quilt. And yet another. By then Moira had got her head around the fact that the tree was bigger inside than out. Or they'd shrunk.

She didn't care. All she wanted was sleep.

Her dreams were troubled.

* * *

Ah, the challenge of it all was sweet! Rúadan had almost forgotten that. And now to rest. Full-belly humans did that well.

But someone really should warn them about eating faerie food. His mother had warned him about eating human food, after all. Some of it contained caffeine, and that would have him helpless in a dreaming trance, deeper than their brief mushroom sleep. The two women were snoring already, in a ladylike fashion. The Faer Dhaerg was reputed to send nightmares. He supposed he'd better live up to some of his bad reputation or next thing he'd have women taking advantage of him.

He did that, not that there was any real need, after what they'd eaten, and did a few other little things, before settling down to relax himself.

* * *

Moira dreamed of spiders. It was not that she was afraid of them. More like mortally terrified, but never going to admit it in public. But in your dreams, when the spider has you cocooned—maybe you could scream. Only she couldn't, and she wanted to really badly. She opened her eyes and tried to sit up, and found she wasn't going to be able to do that, either.

She was in a cocoon of sorts, wrapped up in Red's patchwork quilt. And by the looks of it, someone had made sure that she wasn't going to accidentally get out, by wrapping it with parachute cord. She had a gag in her mouth, too—by the taste of beer, it was Red's large handkerchief.

Why had the faerie done this? She'd trusted him. And then Moira realized she'd been blaming the wrong person.

Susan was leaning over another cocoon, tied with, by the looks of it, a lot of thin wire. There was a metal collar around Red's neck—recognizably made from Susan's broad bracelets. What looked like a dog chain attached to it was looped around her wrist. In her other hand she had a small walkie-talkie. "You've got to be able to find it. I've given you the GPS position."

"We're within fifteen square meters of you," said a male voice. "Trouble is there are a lot of trees in this area." 

"Cut them down. Get me out of here."

"Are you crazy, Susan? These trees are big. This is the forestry reserve. The sound of a chainsaw around here and we'd have forestry officers down on us. We'll try knocking on the trees. If that doesn't work then you'll just have to wake him up." 

"No chance. Rennilt said that that amount of caffeine would put him out for about a week. Call him."

"He said not to until we were absolutely sure that the Faer Dhaerg was secure." 

"He's wrapped in baling wire, I've got the iron collar around his neck, and the chain in my hand. And I've got him doped. How much more secure does the elf need him, for goodness' sake?"

"He's dangerous." 

"So am I when I get angry. Maybe I need to try shooting holes in this tree."

"You'd probably hit one of us. I'll call the master." 

Moira kept her eyes nearly closed, and struggled with her bonds, trying not to make it obvious. If she got out of them, she was going to kill that blond fraud. First, for what she'd done to Red, who'd done his best to help her. And second, for what she was busy with now—emptying out Moira's bag and sneering at the contents, Red's chain looped around her wrist.

As the knot on her wrists gave up the unequal struggle, the blonde looked at her. Red gave a groan, drawing Susan's attention away.

"You can't be awake!" she protested.

"I wish that I was not," said Red.

As he said it, Moira noticed something distinctly odd. She didn't know why but it caught her attention. His fiddle-case was no longer hanging on its peg. In fact she couldn't see it anywhere. Then she saw the blonde kick him, hard. "Tell me how to open this dump, you little elf-scumbag!"

"Arrah. Just tell the tree to open," he said, and it did.

Blinking in the sudden brightness, Moira saw a group of some seven or eight people knocking on trees. By the looks of things, it was late afternoon. The shadows were already long. She recognized some of the people from the nearly dry party of last night.

"We're here!" Susan called. "Help me carry him out."

They came running—including, Moira noted through slitted eyes, the car thief. He'd gotten fresh clothes on, but it hadn't done much for his face. He hauled off and kicked Red.

Despite herself, Moira grunted a protest. "Who is this?" demanded the kicker, pointing at her.

"Some barmaid. Friend of his." The blonde looked curiously at Moira. "I didn't think she'd be awake yet, either. I put enough tranquillizer in her tea for a horse."

The car thief looked carefully at Moira. "I owe you for a kick in the balls," he said, savagely. "And for having a crappy little car with no petrol in it. I'm going to enjoy this."

Moira heard the sound of horse hooves, coming closer. Somehow, she knew it wasn't going to be the Seventh Cavalry to the rescue, by the eager way this nasty bunch had turned to look.

In spite of the gag, she nearly screamed. Not at the horseman, but at the rat running past her face. It bit, and scampered away under the leaves.

The horseman was in armor, bright and silver. The face shape and the eyes that looked out of it were . . . wrong. He alighted with an ease that Moira, the world-champion departer from the backs of horses, knew was wrong, too. Doing it gracefully shouldn't be as easy as he made it look. The car thief, the blonde, and the rest of the crew bowed respectfully. Moira read envy and fear in their faces.

"Well?" said the elf—because he couldn't be anything else. "Where is he?"

Susan bowed low and pointed. "Here, Lord Rennilt."

The elf looked incredulously at the wire-wrapped blanket-bundle. And then at his hireling. Moira found it hard to see what happened next, because something was hauling her cocoon away into the bushes while they all stared at Red.

She did have the satisfaction of seeing the elf hit blond Susan. He slapped her so hard that her blond curls flew up like a halo. Then Moira was back in the bushes, realizing that what the rat had bitten was the cord, and not her.

Standing beside her, his bright eyes dancing with unholy glee, was Red.

"This . . . is a scarecrow! Human fool. Did you not say 'Na dean maggadh fum,' to him?" demanded the elf.

"Yes, master." Susan's voice shook. "Three times, as you ordered."

The old fiddler grinned wickedly to Moira. "Indeed she did, lass," he said quietly, as she sat up. "But all because of your warning, 'twasn't me she was saying it to. It's an old spell and just means 'do not mock me.' To be sure, the scarecrow I put in my place won't mock her. Come. We can back off a little."

As they slipped farther back into the bushes, Moira heard the elf say, "You ate his food! I warned you!"

"I couldn't refuse. I tried."

"Aye, but the effects of some of it you'll be feeling later," said Red, his shoulders shaking. "Now, Moira lass, up into this tree. And I'd be paying no real attention to the things you may see or hear."

* * *

It was as well he'd warned her, because the hollow laughter that suddenly seemed to come from the ground itself nearly frightened Moira into falling off her perch.

She had a good view from the small tree. The elf vaulted back onto his horse. "Come out and fight, goblin!" he said, drawing a long silver blade.

To her horror, Red stood out from the tree he'd been behind. "That's something of an insult," he said mildly, "from a minor exiled lordling. I was old when you were a boy. Does the Unseleighe Court not teach respect anymore?"

"You're a creature of the Lesser Court. Hardly one to command respect," sneered the elf.

"Ah. I've never been one for commanding anything," said Red apologetically. "'Tis my weakness. And when I was in my prime neither the High nor Lesser Court had been clearly defined. Mind you, 'tis true that I am someone who doesn't know his place, and has a marked taste for low company. The awkward thing is that the High Court doesn't know what to do with me either. I'm by way of being an odd relic that their grandparents ought to have killed. Now, 'tis a bit late for that. And I've a habit of undignified practical jokes, and a dislike of pomp and ceremony."

The elf looked slightly taken aback. "My tutors told me that you were a dangerous trickster, deployed as sentry here. But it is too late for you to cry warning now. I'll open that Node."

Red tugged his beard. Thirty yards away the elf in shining armor sat on his magnificent steed. The old fiddler stood plump and ragged, barely three feet high from the top of his battered burgundy stovepipe hat to his toes. "Did these tutors ever mention the second of my names? Perhaps they taught you about Ruairí Mac Faelán? The Red King, Son of the Wolf?"

Whatever they had taught him was enough to make the elf shriek, "Shoot him!" and drive his spurs into the poor beast he was riding. To race . . .

Away. And to be plucked from his horse by some invisible force. He landed with a terrible clatter.

The woods were full of gunfire, but there was a curious deadness to the sound. It was more like distant firecrackers. Then the old fiddler was at the foot of Moira's tree, beaming. Moira climbed down to the ground.

"They're busy shooting him, through an illusion of me," he said cheerfully. "It seemed appropriate. I'm not much of a one for killing, but I was not put here for no reason. An opening into the Chaos Lands would bring all manner of monsters here, and this part of the world has enough troubles." He handed her a small bottle. "You'd better be drinking that."

"What is it?" she asked, chugging it back.

"A sovereign remedy against stomach cramps from eating certain mushrooms," said the Red Fiddler. "Beware of the eating of faerie food, or mushrooms chosen by them! And when you've drunk that, you'd better put these in your ears." He held out two yellow earplugs.

Just as she took them, he stiffened like a cat seeing a dog. "Fool! One of those who would take down everything with him."

* * *

Rúadan saw his game turn into a nightmare as he felt the surge of magics from the dying Lord Rennilt. The Unseleighe idiot was still trying to open the blocked Node, drawing magic from his pack of jackal-human magic users! They were weak and he would kill them by doing this to them. Didn't he realize that the Node was blocked for good reason? Deep inside, Rúadan knew that the dying elf-lord just did not care.

Rúadan abandoned all else to focus his will on combating the spells of opening. In the green and pleasant woodland an arch of light began to form. And from behind it, something reached.

* * *

Moira saw how the short, plump, ragged fiddler blurred and became a ruddy-faced man in red silks trimmed with yellow. He was still plump, but red light streamed from his hands to a half-formed archway.

She decided to put off fainting till later. Susan was standing with the others—gaping, slack-mouthed while her dying master poured his power into the Gate that was becoming visible. The woman's Beretta hung loosely in her fingers. Moira closed the distance between them at a sprint, and tore the weapon out of Susan's hand, in the process giving her a backhand that would have knocked two hundred pounds of bar-pest over three stools. Moira took up a marksman's stance. The only thing she owed her ex was an ability to use firearms properly, even if this useless bunch of rich brats couldn't. She took careful aim and squeezed the trigger. Moira put a steel-jacketed bullet through the dying elf's brain, stopping him once and forever. Then she made absolutely sure, with the rest of the magazine.

As the archway became dim, a mere phantom of the setting sun, Red started to play his fiddle. And the people around Moira began to dance, and dance faster.

So did she. But she at least had two yellow earplugs and the brains to use them—and quickly.

He played. But she could see that the fiddler himself was swaying with exhaustion, though he'd had the strength to return to his usual shape.

She walked back inside the tree, to where Susan had emptied out her bag. She picked up the cassette recorder and walked over to Red, the recording LED glowing. She recorded a good fifteen minutes until he faltered. Then she rewound and pressed Play. They were miraculous—or magical—earplugs. She couldn't even hear him laugh.

He led her by the arm back to his tree and collected a bottle of his poteen. Then, in the light of the last vermilion shreds of the sunset over the mountains beyond the forest, carrying the cassette player, they led the dancers deeper into the woods, to a place where a stream spread out into a bog. Moira and Red sat on a fallen log, drank poteen, and watched the dancers gyrating in the mud. When the taped music came to an end, now rested, Red played his fiddle some more. Even faster now. Moira added the music onto the recording.

Some of the dancers were drooping from exhaustion. Red somehow arranged for a wasp's nest to be there to liven them up a bit. Only Susan didn't seem to need it. She was pulling the most amazing faces in the moonlight.

When Moira had a full cassette recorded, rewound, and ready to play, Red clicked it on and motioned that they should retreat.

When they reached his tree, Moira finally dared to take out an earplug.

"I'm afraid you're late for work," he said apologetically.

She shrugged. "It was a crappy job anyway. I only stayed for the music."

He nodded. "Aye. Strangely enough, that's what we think caused the portal here. Some Khoisan shaman did it with his music, back in prehistory. He blocked the Node too. And left his mark on the place you call the Curragh of Kildare. It resists being destroyed, all of it."

He gestured at the cellphone. "There is reception up the path. Call in sick. I've ways of making them believe."

"And those . . . dancers? The tape will end soon. Some of them have still got guns."

He laughed. "Aye. Don't you worry your head about them. Or the elven corpse. I've a mind to teach them a firm lesson. I'll deal with them just as soon as I've taken down the telephone wire that I used to knock our brave lord off his elvensteed. It's ashamed I am to admit it, but I stole it off the lines along the road margin."

Moira didn't think that any of them would forget this lesson . . . ever.

* * *

It was Monday, some four days later, and the Curragh was closed on Mondays. Moira had found her way—sensibly armed with a couple of six-packs—to Rúadan's tree in the forest reserve.

"Were you really a king?" she asked, after the second beer.

He shrugged. "It was a little bitty place. You could spit across it. And I never had much taste for kingship. I always preferred music, beer, and a few laughs to court and ceremony."

"Rúadan Mac Parthalón . . ." she mused, quizzically. "That's what you said your name was originally. I looked it up. Parthalón was the leader of the original settlers in Ireland."

He took a pull of his beer. "Oh, aye. I've been around a while. But times have changed and so have I. I was never a great power, or too keen on the use of power, so I've pretty much given up interfering in the ways of humans. I've learned to fiddle. I learned to smoke. I enjoy a bit of malicious mischief now and again."

She looked at him, remembering the brief glimpse of the thing behind the Node. It had been both evil and terrifying . . . and trying very hard to get through. "You're a liar, Rúadan."

He nodded cheerfully. "Indeed. But the truth would spoil my image."



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