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1: Tom O'Bedlam




"Selfish, inconsiderate, irresponsible—"


Maureen's voice had been rising all through this tirade; by now she was hitting A above high C, and everyone in the Faire could hear her. Eric Banyon winced, and wished she'd get to the point, since it was pretty clear he wasn't going to be able to patch up this fight.


Christ, it would be nice if she'd tell me what it is I'm supposed to have done that was so awful.


She stamped her foot, and got angrier—if that was possible—when she made no impression on the hard-baked adobe. "Shit, Eric, I can't take you anymore! You, you, you, that's all you think about! Where you want to go, what you want to do, when you want to screw—now this—this—"


Now wait just a cotton-pickin' minute here— Her accusations bewildered—and angered—him. What is this shit? I've never asked her to do anything she didn't want to. I've never gotten her into anything she didn't okay first! So I'm doing the Faires for a whileI'm a musician, dammit, and so is she! What's the big deal about my taking a couple of gigs?


Maureen's long red hair was coming loose from its knot; strands of it flew around her face as she gestured at the messy area back of the Elizabethan Faire mainstage. Eric presumed, however, that she was including the whole of the Faire in her gesture.


"Dammit, I have had it with you!" she screamed, coming into full operatic voice. "I have had it with your selfishness and I have had it with this grubby little dump and I have had it with you!"


"But—" he said weakly, unable to compete with a voice that could fill the Greek without even using the push of anger she had behind it now.


"You can just take this stupid gig and all the rest of it, and you can . . . can . . . keep it!" she shrieked at the top of her range, probably shattering glassware in the taverns and booths out front. "I am leaving!"


And with that, she threw down the bodice and skirt he'd talked her into wearing and stormed off in the direction of the parking lot, every visible inch of her pink with rage—and in the scraps of shorts and halter she was wearing, there was a lot of her visible.


She nearly collided with one of the Gypsies, who was laden with costumes and couldn't see her. He half expected her to turn on the girl, but she was so angry she didn't even notice the wide-eyed dancer/musician; she just stormed on past, leaving the faint scent of scorched earth—and scorched Eric—in her wake.


He wanted to run after her, but Beth was in the way, and he'd have to bowl her over to get to Maureen in time.


Always assuming Maureen didn't deck him in full view of the "travelers" when he caught up with her.


"What in hell was that all about?" The dark-haired, dusty dancer put her armload of clothing where it belonged in the Costumes storage, and gave him an incredulous look. "Who was that madwoman, Banyon?"


Eric sighed, and picked the skirt and bodice up out of the dust, beating the worst of the dirt off them. "That was a . . . personality conflict," he said, choosing his words carefully. "Half of it was my fault, I guess. And the other half of the conflict was Maureen Taylor."


"That was your girl? The man-eating soprano herself?"


"Ex-girl," Eric replied bitterly. "At least at the moment. She made that abundantly clear just now. She doesn't like the Faire in particular and my itinerant lifestyle in general."


"But—Eric, everybody knows what you're like."


"Maybe she thought that when she moved in with me I'd change? She never came out and told me that but—maybe she thought I'd settle down. Get a job. Join the Moose Lodge." He ducked behind the burlap curtain and set the costume down in a stack of others. He turned around just in time to catch Beth's sardonic expression through the open door flap. "Well, go ahead, you might as well say whatever it is you've got trying to beat its way through your teeth."


"Do the words 'fat effin' chance' translate properly?" she replied. "You've been a footloose street busker for as long as I've known you, Banyon. You're a darlin' man," she continued, slipping into her Faire dialect, "But I'd ne'er be after chasin' ye if were ye the last stallion in all of Eire. Jaysus, O'Banyon, but ye've got the wanderin' foot an' the rovin' eye, ye do, an' I'd ne'er trust ye wi' a puir maid's heart. Not t'mention the uither fairer portions of meself . . ."


"Give me a break," he said, wincing a little. "I just like my freedom."


"Yeah, and I just like to know where my man is once in a while." But she took a closer look at him, and her expression of irony softened to something a little like pity. Not quite—but it was at least more sympathetic. She patted his hand. "Hey, c'mon, Eric, I'm sorry. You just had a rather spectacular breakup. That was a stupid thing to say. I didn't intend to make fun of you."


"It's okay," he said, only now beginning to feel anything besides confusion and pure embarrassment. The full impact of what had just happened started to hit him. Maureen was gone.


Worse than that. Really gone this time. She'd never walked out on an argument before. Not ever. He'd always managed to get her cooled down, they'd always talked it out. Not this time. She hadn't given him a chance to get a single word in. He still didn't know what he'd done—but he'd sure stepped over the line somehow. And it started here, with the Faire.


Like he'd said to Beth, the Faire in particular and busking in general.


What's wrong with being a traveling musician? he asked himself angrily. What's so important about having a mundane job? Shit, I'd rather die. I get by just fine. I did great before I got to L.A., I'm doing all right now, and I'll do okay when I move someplace else. If she wanted a CPA, she should have moved in with one.


He pummeled his memory, trying to remember exactly when she'd first put up the storm warnings. Okay, she was getting zoned, and I showed her the campthat's when she just came out and asked me how long I planned on keeping this gig going. And how long I planned on staying in L.A. with her.


So I told her.


Damn. What did she expect me to do, lie to her? It's not like I wouldn't be coming back eventually. Why does she want a leash on me? What would she have that she doesn't have now?


He kicked at a corner of the stage, and checked for "travelers" before venturing out into public pathways. Just what I need right now, a bunch of customers wanting to hear me play "Greensleeves" for the millionth time.


He ducked through the burlap doorway, and into the dusty Faire "street."


I thought she'd figured out I don't like being pinned down, like the way my parents managed to pin me down for so many years. I've had my fill of being tied hand and foot, like a poor little lamb about to get his throat slit. Sacrificed on the altar of Great Art. Bullshit. No more.


I wonder if she's heading straight home to clear out her half of the apartment? Or are we going through this all again as soon as I get home? Goddammit, Maureen, you knew what I was like when you moved in with me! Why did you have to pull this shit on me now?




Beth put her armload of costumes away and changed out to jeans and a T-shirt with "Gentle Ladies of Death and Destruction ™" embroidered in pink and lavender on the front.


Poor Eric. He is going to be in real deep kim chee when word of this gets back to Admin. She pulled the shirt over her head and shook out her hair. The audience didn't know whether to listen to the show or Mademoiselle Mimi. At least he doesn't repeat his mistakes. Traci just went away. Donna married her shrink and left an invite to the wedding on his coffee table. And Kathiethe bitchdrove him out of Texas Faire. Even if that isn't the way the rumor-mill has it.


She hung her mini-ocarina around her neck and mentally slapped her hand. It was itching for her Fender—


We have a gig Wednesday night and rehearsals Monday and Tuesday. Stop thinking heretical thoughts! Guitars alone could get you burned at the stake by the Renaissance Purists at this place, Kentraine. Electric guitars, oh horrors!


She poked her head out into the street, and saw Eric off in the distance, shoulders slouched, head down.


Lawsy. It's hit him. Now we're going to be in for at least twenty-four hours of Gloom, Despair and Agony.




Eric slowly walked down the Tinker's Lane, past the wooden booths, decorated with colorful ribbons and cloth, where the Faire merchants were already closing up shop for the night.


Irish Hill. It's quiet up there this time of night. Nobody to bother, or to bother me. I could play a bit, get my head straight


A few "travelers" were still wandering the Faire, gently herded towards the exit by the red-tunicked Faire Security. Mostly only the Faire folk were out in the narrow dirt streets, dancers and musicians returning from their last shows, actors carrying their props back to Lockup.


The road continued on in a marginally straight line up to the Hill, his usual post-Faire hangout. But he could see that something was happening up there, a group of Faire folk gathered around a table, the burning candles visible even at this distance. Their bright costumes were now replaced by cowled dark robes. A neo-pagan Wiccan Coven was in session, and it was looking pretty serious.


Tonight is May Eve, Beltane, that's right. I'd almost forgotten. High Holy Day. Lord. If you want to raise an occult ruckus, seems to me this would be the place for it. I wanted to sit on the Hill—naw, they're already in Circle, I'd better not disturb them. I'll find another place to play.


He trudged up the slope to the Traveler's Road, that met the Tinker's Lane just below Irish Hill. He could hear the soft words from the Hill: ". . . Great Goddess, save our Fairesite, keep those who would destroy it at bay. This is all we ask, Great Goddess . . ." The chant faded as Eric walked down Traveler's Road towards the Wood, the dark oaks hiding the last glimpse of red-gold sunlight.


So it's bad enough that they're praying for help. I didn't know it was that grimsounds like the death knell. Shawna and her bunch are into "the Goddess helps those who help themselves," and if it's gotten to the point that all they can do is pray— He shook his head, stopped, and looked around, the familiar booths and stages of the Faire, the stubby brown grass, ancient oak trees, the shadowed Southern Californian hills rising above it all. Damn shame. Just because some developer thinks this would be a terrific place for shopping mall . . .


I wish somebody really could save it. This is the best Faire I've ever seen; it's so alive, always music and laughing— But when a corporation gets something into its collective head, there ain't much you can do about it. Not when they've got all the money, all the pull they need to make whoever owned the land sell it. Possession being nine-tenths . . . and I know I saw surveyors out here Friday.


General depression piled on personal depression.


I don't know if I want to stick around and see this place turn into another shrine to McDonald's and Sears Roebuck, Maybe this is a good time to move on.


Maureen sure wouldn't mind seeing me leave L.A.


Eric sighed and continued walking, dodging three drunken travelers, two guys in shorts and T-shirts, each carrying stacked paper beer cups, at least fifteen each—and keeping their balance despite the added burden of the third member of their party, slung over one guy's shoulder, out cold.


No wonder he's DOA. Their blood must be at least sixty proof. He felt sorry for the Security guy, trying to push the three in the direction of the Faire exit. Not my idea of a fun job.


The Wood loomed before him now, oak branches curving overhead to create thick darkness beneath. Dark and forbidding, to anybody who didn't know it.


But it was as familiar as an old friend to Eric, who'd played there for years: on the Wood Stage, and on the streets filled with travelers and Faire folk.


His pace slowed, and he felt a pang, thinking about how this would all go under a bulldozer's blade. God, but I love this place. It's the only place I've ever really felt at homeeven when I want to escape from everything, there's that grove, hidden at the edge of the Fairesite . . .


It occurred to him that since Irish Hill was occupied, he might want to play there for a while tonight, just get away from everybody and everything and play until he couldn't think or feel anything anymore . . .


Damn it, Maureen, everything was fine! How could you walk out on me like this?


He walked to the edge of the haybale rows that were the seats for the Wood Stage. A group of musicians was seated on the stage, playing. Eric smiled sadly, recognizing the tune even before he saw the players. "Banish Misfortune" . . . yeah, I wish it could.


The reality of the fight—and what it meant—hit him. He began to feel empty inside, and lost; like he'd lost more than just Maureen. Like he'd lost his way and he'd never find it again. Black despair came down on him, so palpable that he was mildly surprised that he wasn't surrounded by a dark fog like a cartoon character.


God. I don't know where I'm going, what I'm doing. Nothing makes sense anymore . . .


All of the Celtic musicians were on the stage, some still wearing their Faire costumes, others in denim jeans and sweaters. All his friends, his favorite people. Linda and Aaron, fiddling like crazy, with Ross and red-bearded Ian pounding out the fast tempo on their Irish war drums. Judy standing over her dulcimer, the hand-held hammers moving so fast they blurred, with Jay sitting next to her, playing tinwhistle.


And four of the visiting Northerners, two fiddler girls looking like a matched set, one with short curly hair, the other a blonde; off in the back, a serious dark-haired woman concentrating on an intricate rhythm on a dumbek, and that blond bearded fellow playing the bouzouki.


Together they sounded better than any professional group Eric had heard in six years of busking, and the music was magnetic, drawing him to them. He half-reached for his flute, then sighed. Not tonight. I can't pretend that nothing's happened, pretend to be cheerful and happy. They'll know I'm pretending, they'll hear it in my music. No, they're having fun. Better not to spoil it.


"Hey, Eric, you crazy whistler, come down here!" Judy called to him.


He forced a laugh and shook his head, calling back to her over the loud music. "Not tonight, sweetheart, I have a previous engagement." He grinned. "Maybe afterwards."


Judy laughed and said something he didn't catch, though from the look on her face it was probably salacious. He just kept his mouth stretched in that phony grin and hurried past them, hoping none of them would decide to follow and haul him back.


"Hey, Eric!" Beth hailed him from behind.


Oh shit. I didn't want to talk to anyoneespecially not somebody who saw the fight.




Beth could hear Eric groan, but he stopped, and turned to face her.


"Beth, I'm not in the mood—" he began. She shoved a flask into his long, fine-boned hand before he could finish his statement.


"Have a pull on that," she ordered. "I only heard the tail end of the fight, but I suspect you need it. Besides, we can stay here and talk about it, if you want. I may have to go take care of the rumor-mill after that ruckus."


And I want to know, because you don't usually go around making women screaming mad on purpose, Banyon, she thought wryly. You may not think about things before you do them, but you don't screw up on purpose. And I don't think you would knowingly hurt a fly.


Beth remembered Kathie, and how she'd used this lad to get herself into the Texas Faire, then into a pro band, then dropped him like a hot rock.


In your own peculiar way, you're the gentlest man I know. And, in your own peculiar way, the most forgiving. You forgave Kathie, and I never would have. Hell, I still haven't, and I wasn't the one who got it in the teeth.


"I'd almost rather not talk about it," he said plaintively, shaking his shoulder-length chestnut hair out of his eyes.


God, how can anyone be that pretty? He looks like Sophia Loren at sixteen. With the appropriate male accoutrements. Very . . . nice.


Down, girl. He's also as feckless as they come. He's no good to you or himself as he is.


"You want to live till morning?" she retorted, hands on hips. "Look, maybe I can scotch some of the worst rumors. Tongues are already clacking, and they're not being real flattering to you. Besides, you've never hesitated to talk to me before, right?" He gave her an open, vulnerable look that almost made her want to take him in her arms and give him the best kind of comfort for a broken heart.


Almost.


She continued, trying to keep her thoughts where they belonged—out of the gutter. "And maybe I can help you figure this thing out, keep you from getting into any more screaming break-up fights behind Mainstage . . . during the five o'clock show, no less."


His eyes widened. "You mean . . . could they hear us out there on the haybales?"


"To the tenth row, m'friend."


"Shit. Somebody from Admin is probably going to toast my tail for breakfast." He uncorked the flask, and took a mouthful. His eyebrows rose, and he took a second.


Well, at least he appreciates my whiskey.


"Thanks," Eric said, pausing long enough to come up for air. "This helps a lot. I think Glenfiddich can cure almost anything, even broken hearts." He took another swallow, and Beth waited until he recorked the flask.


"Okay," she said, "You and Signorina Tosca seemed to be doing all right around noon—what happened after that?"


He shuffled his feet in the dust, and looked sheepish. Too damn cute for his own good, that's Eric Banyon. He attracts too many women who think that sweet face means he's malleable. They don't look past the face to the eyes, the eyes watching for somebody who might put fetters on him. They look at the generosity, and they think he's theirs for the taking. He'll give you anything, all right; anything but himself. That part of him that he won't let anyone see, or touch . . .


"She was getting hot, I guess, and sweaty, and she wanted to know how much longer I was going to be out here, I told her all weekend. Then she wanted to know where the motel was. I said there wasn't one, and I told her about my campsite."


Oh boy, the operatic soprano hothouse-plant meets reality.


"I can hear the storm brewing already," Beth remarked sagely, since he seemed to be waiting for her to say something.


"Yeah." He took another swig, and his eyes took on their habitual expression of wariness. "Then when I was checking the schedules backstage, she wanted to know how long this was gonna go on. I told her. Then I said I was thinking about hitting Northern Faire in the fall, maybe stay up in SanFran after, if the busking was good. I didn't get a chance to tell her I'd be back by Thanksgiving, 'cause that was when the excrement hit the rotating blades."


Beth shook her head, and recaptured her flask. "Eric, Eric, you lovable idiot . . ." She took a swig. "If I was planning on setting up a fight between the two of you, I couldn't have managed it better. You probably punched every button she has."


This one is obtuse even for you, sweetie. First you let her think you're planning on a long-term relationship, then start wandering off at odd intervals, then casually tell her you may be cruising on out—without herthis fall. Banyon, you definitely take the prize.


"I don't see why," he said, obviously nettled. "She knew I was a street busker, that was how we met! Right at the downtown YMCA. I was playing the street; she was coming back from a rehearsal at the Pavilion. She knew exactly the kind of guy I am, from the minute she met me."


"Allow the Great Madame Zarathustra to read the past," Beth intoned in a cheap gypsy accent. "Tell me, in the past several weeks has she, or has she not, been making hints about how you should go do some serious auditions?"


"Well, yeah . . ." The eyes were warier.


"Has she not, in fact, set up a couple of auditions? Like the one you were telling me about a few weeks back, with that chamber orchestra?"


"Well, yeah . . ."He wouldn't look at her.


"Did you not, in fact, go to those auditions? And get job offers?" Taking the line of least resistance, you lazy sonuvabitch. Avoiding a confrontation, and inadvertently leading her on


"Well, yeah—but I didn't take any of those jobs!"


"Which looked like what? That you weren't interested? Hell no! Like you were waiting for something better." Beth ran her hand through her hair in exasperation. Banyon actually looked perplexed. "Look, dummy, anybody with half an ear knows how good you are. Madame Butterfly has considerably more than half an ear. She figured you saw how well those piddly auditions were going, and you were gonna go for something big—and then settle down with her."


"Aw, come on, Beth—I never— I mean—she's the one that moved in, she's the one that started the thing in the first place. It's not my fault, dammit! You know it isn't! Come on, Beth . . ."


He finally wound down, and sighed. "Shit. I did let her think I was planning to stick around and take a serious gig, didn't I?"


No shit, Sherlock. "I think that's a pretty fair assessment." He looked down at the dirt of the path for a moment, and when he looked back up at her, the haunted expression in his eyes finally made her feel a bit more sympathetic. Maybe more than sympathetic—


Hold on there, girl. Don't let that pretty face and those big brown eyes make you forget. He's the original Love-'em-and-leave-'em. Mister Drifter. He likes having no ties. Though I don't think he likes the feeling of having someone like Maureen walk out on himthey were a pretty tight little item, and the chemistry sure seemed to be there.


"I didn't mean to, Beth," he said quietly. "I didn't mean to string her along. If she'd said something, I'd have told her."


She sighed. "I believe you. I just wish for once you'd look at what you're doing before it gets to scenes like this. Holy Saints Paddy and Bride, you never do things by halves, do you, Banyon?"


She shook her head; he hung his.


"All right, now that I know what happened, I can at least see what I can do to keep your reputation out of the mud. I'll try to put in a good word for you with the Admin people, too, convince Caitlin that you couldn't avoid it, wasn't your fault." He started to turn away. "And by the way—"


"What?" he replied, lifelessly.


Come on, bucko. Keep looking down in the dumps, and I may bed you just to cheer you up. Pure therapy.


Sure, Beth, and I've got this beachfront property in Nevada . . .


"We've got another gig over in that place on Van Nuys, and we'll keep a corner of the stage warm for you. You're welcome to come on by, usual split. It's been a while—would be nice to have you back, you and that whistle of yours."


He gave her a miserable attempt at a smile. "Thanks, Beth. I just may do that. Hey, Spiral Dance is a helluva lot better than that dump deserves—how come you keep going back there?"


"We have our reasons." Which I wouldn't tell anyone unless they're one of us. Not even you, m'friend. 'Sides, I bet you wouldn't believe it anyway.


"Oh."


Beth passed him the flask for a last swig, then headed back the way she had come, towards Woods Stage and the jam.


But as she walked down to the stage and pulled out her ocarina, she spared a last, pitying thought for the lonely figure trudging off into the dusk. He really doesn't understand it at all. He tries, but he doesn't. Banyon, Banyon, when are you ever going to grow up?




Beth already had her ocarina out, adding the tiny wooden whistle's voice to the jam session's version of "Kesh Jig" before she even reached the stage. Eric watched her join the others, then sighed.


Yeah, dammit, she's right. But what am I supposed to do? I can't lie. I can't. And I don't want to change.


From the stage, Beth glanced up at him, as though asking him if he wanted to join the circle of friends and musicians. He sighed again, and turned away.


No. Not tonight. I just want to be alone.


He headed farther into the Wood, where the gnarled oaks clustered closely. Far away from everybody, that's where I'll go. The edge of the Wood and beyond. "Ten leagues beyond the wide world's end . . ."


Most people wouldn't come back this far, past the last palm-reader's booth and the feint lingering chemical reek of the porta-johns. Dirt and trees and me. Seems real good right now.


It was in a small grove of oaks, set back against the hillside, where Eric finally set down his flute case on a handy rock. He sat on the ground beside it, opened the case and took out the silver pieces of his flute, carefully fitting them together; as if, by taking especial care with the task, he could put his life back together again. For a moment he just sat there, the chilled metal slowly warming against his fingertips.


This wasn't the first time he'd broken up with a girl, but it had to be one of the worst. Maureen had been—nice. Not pushy. Always there for him—the way he'd tried to be there for her.


Only it was pretty likely she wasn't going to be there anymore. Until this moment, he hadn't realized what that meant in terms of loneliness. He'd gotten used to not being lonely.


God, it hurts inside, it hurts. I can't believe she's left me. I just can't. We were so tight . . . Maureen, Maureen, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you. I didn't want this to happen.


His fingers moved gently on the familiar flute keys; remembered patterns so deep he didn't have to think about them, bringing back other memories, of music, laughter, late evenings with his friends, drinking and playing. God, it hurts . . .


He brought the flute up to his lips, taking a deep breath and playing a soft note, hesitant. It hung in the air for a moment, followed by another note, quavering, equally uncertain.


Then the notes grew stronger, louder, more confident. He began to play an ancient Irish air, "Brian Boru." It was a melody created a thousand years before he was born, by someone else who was also mourning, hurting. Someone else who had longed after something that had been—or was it something that could never be? The tune seemed to hold all of his heartache.


The last note drifted away, fading into the darkness around him. Damn, Is this what it always comes to, sitting alone, playing sad music? Trying to say whatever's inside me, when I can't say the words out loud? I always end up in a place like this, alone and lonely, no one in sight. Christ. Is this how I'm gonna end, too? What's the use? When am I ever going to find somebody who can hear what I'm trying to say, instead of hearing what they want me to say?


His fingers shifted on the flute, as though of their own accord, forming the first notes of "Sheebeg Sheemore." "Yeah, old O'Carolan, now there was a modern bard. Crazy old blind guy, wandering the Irish countryside and writing melodies for his friends. Like this one. What a story, you don't even need to know what it's about to feel it. The elves of Eire, two rival groups of Faeriekind against kind, kin against kin. Maybe even once-love against once-love, love gone sour and turned into hate.


But it's a pretty melody, not like "Boys of Ballysadare," where you can almost see the Scottish bodies piling up. I guess elves don't believe in really ripping each other apart, not like us humans. Not like Maureen, anyhow. Yeah, a beautiful song, even if there's no such thing as Faerie.


He could feel the music starting to change as he stopped thinking about it; just playing, trying to take what was aching inside him and transform it into the melody. It was as though something had taken hold of his mind and body, and that something was flowing through him and the music. Like his soul was talking directly through the flute, pure, unambiguous. It was the feeling he had once in a long while, when he was playing and everything was working and it just clicked.


And it was happening now, as he played the O'Carolan tune, every note flawless and clear as crystal, every inflection and trill absolute perfection. But not a cold perfection, mechanical—no, this was music straight from his heart, all emotion, with no unhuman intellectualism intervening.


Eric felt a hush, a quietude, as though the grove itself was suddenly still, not a single bird echoing his flute, as though the night itself was holding its breath. As though everything that could hear his playing was listening to him, to the music, to what the music was saying; listening with every pore, and watching him. The ancient oak trees, branches gnarled and bent, seemed to draw closer to him, as though concentrating intently.


He closed his eyes, ignoring them. What an illusion. Oak trees can't move. Too much whiskey, Eric, m'lad.


He continued playing, adding all the extra trills and ornaments he'd always wanted to, but never dared try. Then he reached the last delicate run, straight down the scale, that was the end of the tune—


—and he kept going. Something inside him, all the pain and sorrow, was suddenly in the music, and he couldn't stop. It was a different melody now, his own, original. And the music was flowing through him, wild and fey, relentlessly pulling him onward.


It built to an impossible climax, a last fiercely defiant high note that seemed to shatter the still air, then—


—silence. Profound and absolute. As though the world was waiting, watching for something to happen. Nothing marred it; it was the kind of silence born of anticipation, as though a door was opening, and everything paused for a moment, expecting Someone to step through—


Eric took a deep breath, hearing a quivering echo from the trees as the last notes faded away. His heart was pounding, his fingers clenched tight upon the flute, trembling. Damn, Was that really me?


God, I should have some lady break my heart more often, if that's what it does to my music!


Something startled him, and he sat up suddenly. For a moment, Eric thought he heard something, an answering song from the grove, not just the last echoing notes of his melody.


Then the wind kicked up, sending swirls of dust and dead leaves scattering around him. Eric's eyes began to sting from the dust—as he blinked to clear them, he saw something glinting across the grove, a brief flicker of green light.


Green light?


He felt a chill run down his back; a thrill of wonder and expectation—then his good sense kicked in and brought him right down to earth again. Probably some Faire kids playing Jedi Knight with lightsticks on the hillside. And scaring the local rattlesnakes half to death, I'm sure. Don't they know that no one is supposed to go up into the hills? B'Jaysus. Where in hell are their parents?


He looked down at the flute, still cradled in his hands. I wish I had a tape of that. Damn. I'll probably never play like that, ever again.


Eric took the flute apart, moving carefully in the dark, replacing each piece in the case by feel. There were times when he loved that instrument more than any human. He wouldn't play any better than that tonight, and he wasn't going to try.


He stood up, dusting off his jeans. Might as well call it a night. I've got that bottle of Irish back at camp, and I think this is a good time to start on it. A real good time.


Eric felt his way to the edge of the grove, walking with care to avoid tripping over anything, then glanced back. Something gleamed among the oak trees, another glistening trace of pale green light, as verdant and alive as spring leaves. It swirled right where he'd been sitting for a moment, then vanished. It reappeared a heartbeat later, half-hidden behind a sprawling oak tree, then faded again.


Kids. I wonder if they're playing at saving the universe? Must be too young to realize that you can't.


He headed down the dirt road towards his campsite.


Eric managed to avoid meeting anyone by carefully planning his route, but it took a lot of detours. He was tired and footsore by the time he reached the camping area, and feeling the effects of the long and stressful day inside and outside.


An hour later, Eric was tumbled in his sleeping bag in a faded blue tent that had seen too many Faires, groping for his bottle in the darkness.


If I make a light, they'll know I'm here. No, not tonight. Not tonight.


His hands closed on the cool neck of the bottle, and he set himself for a bit of serious drinking.


A half hour later he was falling asleep—or passing into unconsciousness—with the better part of a fifth of Bushmills becoming one with his bloodstream.


And since he was the only one with a vantage point—and the only one not engaged in nocturnal activities that precluded idle observations—he was the only one of the Faire folk who noticed the activity over the hill. The verdant green glow that flickered and vanished between the trees, in the hidden oak grove he had left to sing to itself.


Eric would have chalked up the effect to the Bushmills, except that he'd seen it start before he took his first drink.


It was still playing its little games among the tree trunks as he passed out, and his last coherent thought was to wonder if it would continue until dawn.









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Framed