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2: Echoes From the Forest

"Shit! Quarter till nine, and I can't find my goddamn socks!"

"Damnation, Seamus, I'll ne'er be o'er thar in time! Run on wi'out me, laddie!"

Eric Banyon awoke to the absolute cacophony that was the usual "morning song" of Faire. The assorted cries and shouts of the actors and musicians in the campsite mingled with the clanking of pots and pans. The gabble of voices in a dozen conversations nearby echoed vilely in an unholy concert with the pounding in his head. He opened one eye warily, felt the bright sunlight kick him in the face, and closed the eye again.

God, I'm going to die. Please God, let me die. I think I drank too much. No, strike thatI know I drank too much.

If I'm going to die, I sure hope it happens soon . . .

He reached a hand out without opening his eyes, and felt around the floor of the tent; when his hand encountered the coolness of glass, he picked up the whiskey bottle, shaking it slightly.

No, strike that againI couldn't have drunk too much. There's some still left in the bottle.

He opened his eyes long enough to take a healthy swallow from the half-empty whiskey bottle. Mmm, good old Irish Breakfast. I'll bet this is the only reason they never conquered the world.

He swigged again, and sighed.

I think I'm going to live. Which means I'd better get on 'site.

He pried both eyes open again and crawled out of the sleeping bag, blinking blearily. Eric found his faded brown breeches on the other side of the tent, where he had discarded them last night, then rummaged through his backpack. A fresh Faire shirt, one that used to be white but now was a shade between gray and brown, replaced the one he had slept in last night. He pulled breeches and shirt on, and scratched his head, trying to remember what came next.

Feet. First, find your feet. Then find what you put on your feet. New socks came out of the bottom of the pack; he pulled his moccasin boots on over them without jarring his skull too much. After a brief moment of panic, he found his belt beneath the jumble of assorted props and costumes on the floor in the "storage" corner of his tent.

Eric fastened the money pouch, wooden comb, and flask on the belt, took another swig of whiskey, and he was ready to face the world again.

Well, maybe not, but I'll give it a try . . .

Taking a deep breath, he unzipped the door to the tent, stepping outside. As he expected, it was a beautiful morning, clear blue skies over the green-brown hills, with almost everyone in sight already in costume and heading into the Fairesite.

He staggered to the large water tank at the edge of campsite, and braced himself.

Here goes

He stuck his head beneath the faucet and turned it on. The water, cold as a mother-in-law's heart, hit him like a hammer on the back of the skull, and froze him all the way down to his toenails. He was shivering when he straightened up again.

Much better. I think.

He used the metal side of the water tank as a mirror as he combed his hair, trying without success to make the shoulder-length brown mop look presentable.

Some day I'll shave it all off, honest to God. Hell, it worked for Yul Brynner, didn't it?

"Good morning, Eric!" one of the dancers from the Irish show called to him from across the sink.

Some people are just too damn awake in the morning.

"Bah, humbug," he replied, somehow managing to sound cheerful enough.

Brigid, that's her Faire name, if I'm remembering correctly. Don't remember her Mundane name. He gave her a long, appraising look as she sauntered away from him with a definite swing to her hips. Scenic. Very scenic. Lovely from the front, lovely behind, terrific dancers legs. Well, now that I'm a bachelor again . . .

On, hell. Maureen, that should be you wiggling, your hips at me . . .

He watched the dark-haired dancer start towards the Main Gate with morose appreciation for a moment, then returned to his tent for his flute.

Besides, Brigid's a morning person. I could never cope with somebody who's that happy at nine in the morning, never.

He slipped the flute case into his embroidered gig bag (gift of Kathie, late of the Texas Faire, two girlfriends before Maureen) and started down the hill towards the Main Gate.

I've had my Irish Breakfast; I'd better get a real one before I fall on my nose.

Eric expertly dodged through the thickening Faire crowds, a tankard of coffee and a stack of hot sticky cinnamon buns balanced precariously in his hands. He found a quiet haybale near one of the smaller stages, and sat down to break his fast.

Three Commedia dell'Arte actors were on the stage, wearing the brightly-painted leather masks of the legendary Italian comedians.

". . . Isabella, don'tcha know you're a-breakin' my heart?"

"An' that isn't all I'll break, Harlequino!"

Eric laughed with the travelers seated around him as dainty Isabella chased Harlequino around the stage, waving a rolling pin with wild enthusiasm.

Except Isabella's hair was long and vivid red, and her voice was a little too strident.

Almost operatic.

A piece of cinnamon bun stuck in his throat.

Eric stood up abruptly, leaving the show even as Harlequino protested his innocence to the furious Isabella.

He walked through the Faire, eyes mostly on the dirt road littered with pieces of hay and sawdust. "Boothies" were briskly doing business with the crowd of travelers, haggling over handmade jewelry, leather pouches, intricately-decorated costumes. Hawkers were already calling to potential customers: "Ice cold milk and hot fruit pies!" "Turkey legs!" "Beef ribs, two hundred pence!"

I don't have anywhere to go, anything in particular that I have to do, at least not until the 11:30 show. Christ, Nothing to do at all . . . except brood.

Well, if I'm going to brood, I might as well do it melodically.

He took his gig bag off his shoulder, removing the flute case. He fitted the flute together, slinging the bag back to its comfortable place at his side.

The travelers looked at him peculiarly. It wasn't all that odd to see a costumed musician walking the Faire, but a flautist was a rarity, and the morose melodies he chose were definitely out of keeping with the "merrye spirit of Olde England" that everyone else was projecting.

Eric finished a rendition of "Coleraine"—Funny, you never think of how an Irish jig could be so depressing—and began another slower, even sadder tune. He was so lost to the melody and his own depression, that he really didn't notice the two step-dancers that smoothly moved in and escorted him around the corner.

Until they each grabbed an elbow.

"Hey, wait a—"

"Och, don't ye be frettin', Master Eric," one of the dancers said with a wicked grin. "We've been sent to fetch you, we have."


"No arguments, sar, we shan't listen to them!"


One of them carefully took the flute from his hand, replacing it in his gig bag before they hurried him through the crowded "streets."

Suddenly he realized where they were taking him. Eric's eyes widened.

"No, not the washing well!" He tried to pull free, but the two young women had him past escaping—unless he wanted to take this out of the realm of a street bit and practical joke and into a serious scuffle.

"We've brought him, Mistress Althea!"

The heavyset woman, her dark hair tucked up into a clean muffin cap, looked him over with a practiced eye. "Well, then, he does seem truly the scruffiest of minstrels. We can't have this. Before we take 'im over, first well need to give 'em a bath . . ."

No, not a bath! Not in the godforsaken filthy washing well!

Mistress Althea took him firmly by the ear, pulling him over to the washing well to the vast amusement of the onlookers. "I'll get even with you for this, Susie," he whispered, too low to be heard by the mundanes.

"But not till after I've had a good chance to wash your ears," she whispered back, barely able to keep a straight face. "This'll teach you to clean up your act before you come on 'site."

Eric suffered through having a scrap of cloth, dipped in the well, rubbed over every inch of his face.

Finally, Mistress Althea pronounced him cleansed, and fit for human company. "Now, girls," she said sonorously, "do take him onward to his next stop."

My next stop? All right, who's playing games, here?

Eric let the two girls drag him onward, down the dusty road to the stage where Sunday Mass was in progress.

Father Bob, wearing a Roman collar over his Elizabethan costume, dutifully blessed Eric as the girls paraded him up to the front of Mass. "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Lord, who watches over fools and children, wilt Thou see that somebody please keeps an eye on this minstrel boy? Thank you very much, God."

Eric stared backwards at Father Bob as the dancers pulled him away again. The priest was trying not to break into laughter. Yes, something definitely strange is going on here . . .

The two girls—Eric realized he didn't even know their names—pulled him down the lane, past the glassblower's booth and the stall hanging with dozens of bota bags, directly towards the Kissing Bridge . . .

Now wait just a second

Before he could react, they were halfway across the bridge, beneath the colorful garlands and ribbons that festooned the wooden archway. They stopped, keeping him trapped between them, and the two dancers kissed him expertly, one after the other.

More than a bit bemused, Eric let them. After his initial surprise, he helped them.

Well, this is definitely an unusual experience . . .

Then they tugged his hands to draw him onward, across the bridge and down the lane to the Laughing Fool Tavern. And there was Beth, waiting with the other musicians by the gate.

Oh, now this is all starting to make sense . . .

The two dancers delivered him to the tavern gate, bobbing a quick curtsy to Beth. "An' here he is, mistress, clean and blessed. And warmed up. As 'twere."

"Why, thank you, my dears," Beth said, her eyes never leaving Eric's. "I do truly appreciate your efforts." She took Eric's arm, leading him into the tavern.

"Beth . . ."he muttered, "I'll get you for this."

She let go of his hand and stepped up onto one of the rough-hewn tavern tables, calling out for silence in a clear voice. "M'lords and ladies, we have here a lad who has been well and truly heartbroken, who spent last night all alone with only a bottle for comfort . . . and we all know that a bottle is a rather cold and miserable bedmate, not like a saucy wench!"

Eric felt himself blushing as the crowd of travelers outside the tavern cheered rowdily.

Beth smiled. "Seems he needs a hand. So, what shall we do for this poor lad, I ask you?"

"Give him to the German mercenary wenches!"

"Sell him to the gypsies!"

"Make him play us dancing music!"

Beth turned to him, her voice slightly softer. "Well, sirrah, what shall it be?" She looked him up and down. "I dare say we shouldn't get much for you from the gypsies. Too skinny, methinks. So, it's the girls, or the tunes. A spritely dancing tune, or the meaty paws of the German wenches?" Beth grinned evilly, and added in an undertone, "I'd play the tune if I were you, Eric. Karen Wolfsdottir has been yearning to get her mitts on you all season."

Eric was already reaching into his gig bag for his flute.

The first tune he played was "Banish Misfortune," as lively and cheerful a melody as he could think of. The Faire folk, seated at the wooden trestle tables, began to clap and pound the table with their tankards in rhythm with the tune, and then he saw Ian and Linda sneaking up from the back of the tavern, drum and fiddle already in their hands. Oh, Bethie planned this one in advance, methinks! Okay, then, let's do it right!

He leaped up on the table without missing a beat, startling the two peasants playing a game of Cathedral next to him. With Ian holding the beat steady on his bodhran drum, and Linda deftly carrying the melody for him, Eric continued to play the flute, but also began to hop and skip down the long table, to the raucous cheers of the onlooking travelers. Beth clapped her hands in glee, watching him from a precarious perch atop the tavern fence and laughing wildly.

Winded, he jumped off the edge of the table, landing in the straw next to the two giggling dancer girls who had brought him there. He stopped the tune in mid-note and grabbed the older of the two girls, the one with the long red-gold hair and wicked green eyes, and kissed her soundly before letting her go. She landed on her posterior in the thick hay, still laughing.

Eric doffed his cap at her and her companion. "I thank ye both for bringing me here," he said in his finest Elizabethan accent. "You're both lovely lasses, and I implore you to dance for us all!"

The two girls looked at each other uncertainly.

Beth called from her position on the rickety tavern fence. "Oh, and come on with you now, lasses! Show us what ye can do!"

And they did.

Eric applauded and cheered with the travelers and Faire folk as the red-haired girl helped her companion up onto the table. Then they moved into proper stepdancer position, arms linked, one foot raised with the toes delicately pointed forward.

Linda and Ian were watching him for the signal. "Athol Highlander's!" he called, then hit the first note of the rollicking Scottish jig straight on, Linda joining in a moment later with as sweet a bit of fiddling as he'd ever heard her play, then Ian tossing off a few clicks on the rim of his bodhran before settling into some serious drumming.

The girls danced down the long table, skipping and pirouetting to the shouts and calls of the audience. Then, as the tune wound to a close, they also leaped off the table, startling Eric so much that he flubbed the last note. They both laughed with him, as he shook his head in disbelief.

It only got better after that.

After several more dances and tunes (including a very bawdy Elizabethan song that sounded almost prim when sung solo, but when you sang it in a round, the words made the most amazing sentences), Eric relaxed at one of the tables. A tankard of the Fool's best was in front of him as he watched the expert belly dancer strutting her stuff to a Scottish strathspey.

Well, it may not be "period," but who cares at this point?

Beth sat down next to him, taking the mug from his hand and draining a long draught. "Is life treatin' you better now, Banyon?"

He sighed and reclaimed the tankard from her hand. "Well, I still think telling Susie to wash me in the well was a rotten trick . . ."

"Agreed. But I couldn't let you in here with dirty ears." She leaned close to nibble on his right ear. "Do you see why?"

He took a moment to recover. "Uh, yeah."

"I'm glad." She stood up, taking his hand. "I think we've caused enough mischief for one morning. Want to take it elsewhere?"

Eric glanced up at the main trestle table, where the two dancer girls had kidnapped two Spaniards and were trying to teach them to stepdance, to the laughter of all onlookers. "Sounds good."

Beth led him behind the tavern, through the back gate and across the lane. Directly towards the Kissing Bridge.

Oh no, not the Kissing Bridge again . . .

She pulled him onto the Bridge, already populated with lingering couples. "There's only one cure for a broken heart, Banyon, and I've taken it upon myself to administer it. Don't take it personally. This is for purely therapeutic reasons only."


And she kissed him.

A significant amount of time later, he managed to find his voice again. "Uh, Bethie—"

"Mmmm?" She cuddled even closer.

"You know, I have half of a perfectly good apartment that's free for the taking, anybody could move in. And it could really use someone with a nice feminine touch—"

Beth suddenly stiffened in his arms. "Don't even think it, Banyon. Someday you may find someone who's right for you, but I'm not that lady. Don't get me wrong, I like you a lot, but let's not complicate it past that, all right?"

"Okay." He kissed the tip of her nose, making her giggle. "I just like you a lot, too." His lips moved lower, down her neck. "The offer's there if you want it, all right?"

An apologetic voice, somewhere next to his left ear, interrupted what had been a fascinating progression down the strong line of her shoulder. "Er, ah, Mistress Beth, they're about to start the Mainstage show, and Carl really is wondering if you're planning on joining us today."

"Oh, damn." Beth retrieved herself from Eric's arms, quickly straightening her costume. She gave him a wry grin. "Well, duty calls, Master O'Banyon. I'll look for you after the show."

Eric watched regretfully as Beth and her showmate disappeared into the crowd of travelers on the street. I never can manage to hold on to that girl for more than five minutes at a time. That's all she's interested in with me. I guess some guys would like that, a lady who's just a good friend and a willing bedmate. The perfect situation, right?


He walked away from the Bridge, wandering aimlessly. After a while, he realized that he was back on the road above the Laughing Fool. Since he and Beth had left, the tavern had returned to its usual quiet state, a few actors conversing over a mug of ale, some "peasant women" eating lunch at another table.

Eric found himself an empty haybale near the tavern gate, sat down, and took out his flute again. He touched the keys lovingly, as the metal warmed to his hand.

Hello, old friend. Just you and me again. He remembered how he had argued with Admin over playing a metal flute at a "period" Faire. I don't know what I'd do if they hadn't given in. I can't see doing a gig without you. I think they knew that, and decided they'd rather keep me and be anachronistic than watch me walk out. He played an experimental run, thinking about how the red-haired dancer had laughed after he had kissed her. I should write a tune for that lovely, something she and her friend can dance to. He smiled as a tune began to shape itself in his mind and fingertips, a lively little melody that brought pleasant images, recollections of Faires past; of laughing girls, dainty feet tapping out an intricate highland dance, and of chilled ale on a hot Faire afternoon.

Then his spirits dropped again, and he settled down to some seriously morose music.

"Cliffs of Moher," there's a good one. And "Kid on the Mountain," that's challenging and depressing.

Without his realizing it, Eric's sad fluting brought in a crowd of listeners to the edge of the tavern fence. He looked up to see the travelers listening intently to him, and smiled sadly to himself, thinking: They don't understand. He continued to play.

Eric looked up again. Something in that mass of faceless travelers had looked strangely familiar . . .

. . . yeah, that skinny guy, the tall blond, the one with the embroidered cloak . . .wait a minutehis cloak—my cloak!

Eric leaped up from the haybale, diving over the wooden fence like an avenging angel. The young man in the shrouding cloak took one look at Eric's snarling face and ran like hell.

A matronly female customer screamed as Eric catapulted past her, one hand reaching for the trailing edge of the ankle-length cloak. Other travelers scattered out of the way as Eric pursued the young man past the astonished washerwoman at the well and right through a colorful troupe of morris men dancing in the middle of the dirt street. Angry shouts and the sound of clattering leg-bells followed them down the road.

The thief crashed through the bota-bag booth, sending the hanging wineskins flapping wildly at their tethers. Eric followed close on his tail, waving his flute like a deadly weapon. "Stop, you lousy bastard! Thief! Thief!"

The cloaked robber dashed under a monger's carefully balanced tray of fresh tripe and crossed the Kissing Bridge in one desperate leap. Eric vaulted after him, thoroughly disrupting the amorous affairs of the kissing couples on the Bridge.

Then he saw the kilted Scottish troop directly ahead of him, carrying their pikes at attention as they marched down the street. Eric skidded to a stop, not wanting to crash into the Scottish warriors—and their six-foot spears.

But the cloaked man kept running.

Right through the formation of marching pikesmen.

Eric stared in disbelief as the nimble thief danced past the warriors and their deadly spears. Somehow he made it look simple and easy as he dodged between them. Then the thief was across, on the other side of the formation without so much as causing a single pikesman to miss a step.

Several of the watching travelers applauded, doubtlessly thinking this was part of a show. Eric just stood there, staring after the escaping thief in amazement.

Nobody should be able to do that. . . .

Eric took a deep breath and ran after him, straight into the pike formation . . .and three seconds later, he found himself sprawled on the dirt with several pikes lying around him, and a half-dozen irate Scotsmen glaring at him in disgust.

Then the dark-bearded Scottish chieftain himself walked over and looked down at Eric.

"Oh, Eric, lad, you've done yerself quite a turn this time, ye have," the Chief said sadly.

"Sorry, Boss," Eric muttered, trying to stand up without much success. His ankle hurt. Not to mention his pride.

After yesterday, there wasn't anything left of his dignity to hurt.

The Chief crouched down in the dust close to Eric. "By the way," he said in a quiet voice entirely devoid of Scottish accent, "Caitlin wanted to see you in Admin. Something about the Mainstage show yesterday."

"Terrific," Eric said morosely. One of the Scots helped him stand, dusting him off. Eric thanked him, then scanned the crowd for any sign of the thief.

Nowhere in sight. Damn.

So much for my favorite Faire cloak. I wonder how that little rat got past Security and into my tent?

The pikesmen lined up into their formation. The Chief gave Eric one last, pitying look, a look Eric caught out of the corner of his eye as the troop of Scotsmen marched off towards their encampment.

Well. Better get it over with.

He headed for Admin Hill and the offices directly behind the large brightly-colored Faire mural.

Caitlin's a good lady; she usually understands these things. I mean, she's the one who got me out of that jam last year with the Maypole dancers. They're not going to can me . . . I hope.

Eric moved carefully through the thickening traffic on the dusty lane, past the travelers haggling with the boothies over their wares. He stepped carefully over three peasants sprawled out "drunk" in the street and doffed his cap at the bored Security guard at the office entrance.

Inside the musty, crowded office area, costumed actors and musicians were relaxing, several smoking some definitively non-period Marlboros, others drinking sodas and catching up on gossip. Eric crossed to the hanging burlap flap that was the door to Caitlin's office, and took a deep breath. "Caitlin?"

A tired female voice answered. "Come in."

Eric walked into the makeshift office. Caitlin looked up from the stacks of paperwork on the table, her ever-present can of diet soda in her hand. "Hello, Eric. Is it Fate or bad luck that you always end up in my office?"

"A bit of both, I think." He sat down on a folding chair across from her. "Does it help if I tell you that I really try to avoid this sort of thing?"

"Yes, a little. I was starting to wonder if you got in trouble just so you could flirt with me in my office." She leaned back in her chair, wearily running her hand through her short auburn hair. Her long blond wig, with the floppy hat she usually wore as part of her costume, was lying on the table near the papers.

Eric stared at the wig to avoid meeting her gaze.

"So, Eric, you and your girlfriend decided to break up, right behind the four-thirty Mainstage show yesterday. Made it quite interesting for the audience. I understand your ex-girlfriend has quite an operatic voice."

Eric winced. "Yes, she does. Great projection, too."

Caitlin almost cracked a smile. "You're classically trained too, aren't you? Somebody told me you studied at Juilliard. Is that true?"

"Yeah, I was at Juilliard. Two years." He shifted uncomfortably, a knot already beginning to tighten in his gut at the mere thought of those two years. He flashed on his last recital—

Playing better than he ever had in his life; playing his heart out. Then putting the flute down. Announcing to the panel—"Today was my birthday. Last night somebody threw rocks at my window all night long to keep me awake. This morning somebody else jammed the lock on my door so I had to climb out my window to make it here on time. I can't take this shit anymore. I'm eighteen and my parents can't do a thing about me now. Gentlemen, ladies, you can take your goddamned classical education and shove it."

And the long, absolute silence as he walked out.

Six months before I could bear to touch the flute. Eight before I could play again. Three years before I could even listen to Bach.

Damn, I really wish people wouldn't ask me about that.

Caitlin was watching him with knowing eyes. "Eric, you're a sweetheart, and one of the best musicians we've ever had here, but somehow you're always getting in trouble. I'll clear you on this one, cover you for the people Upstairs, but—try to avoid this kind of thing in the future? Just try, all right? Promise me?"

He sighed. I don't know whether to be relieved that she let me off easy, or embarrassed because I know she's letting me off just 'cause I'm good. Guess I'd better just count my blessings.

"Thanks. I'm really sorry about this." He stood up to leave. Caitlin's voice stopped him before he reached the door.


He turned back to her.

"I know you're going through a rough time, your girlfriend walking out on you and everything. Just don't . . . leave, okay? I heard what happened in Texas, when you had girlfriend problems there. Don't just walk out on us, Eric. I'd really like you to finish out the season with us, okay?"

He nodded, and lifted the burlap flap, walking out of the relative quiet of her office into the overwhelming noise levels of the Admin area.

So. Somebody told Caitlin about my Texas adventure. Shouldn't be surprised, I guess.

Damn it, what's so terrible about just packing up and leaving when things go that wrong? God, if I'd stayed at Texas Fairebetween us, Kathie and me, we'd have had the place divided like the Civil War all over again. So I split, and now everybody treats it like some kind of sin. And Caitlin, she's acting like I'm about ready to run from Southern California. She doesn't have any reason to think that. Except

except, well, maybe I did think about it last night.

Okay. So maybe I have a tendency to get out while the going's good. It's not like I'm the only musician they've got. Why should I stick around anyhow? Maureen's left me, probably already moved out all her stuff from the apartment. I could leave next week, no one would care. I don't have a steady gig here, they don't need me for the show. Nothing I promised to do, just Bethie and Spiral Dance once in a while, and this Faire, and both of them could keep running fine without me . . .

Caitlin's words echoed in his mind: "Just don't walk out on us, Eric."

And Bethie, sure, she'll give me a roll in the hay, but nothing more than that. I may not be Mister Commitment, but I'd like a little more than just that in a relationship, y'know? Maybe not True Love, butSerious Like? Honest Lust?

He left the Admin building, walking through the crowded streets. At least Caitlin didn't throw me off the Fairesite. Thank God for that, I guess.

He sidestepped a group of Faire children playing tag in the middle of the lane; narrowly missed a collision with a black-velveted noblewoman and her retinue.

"Oops, milady," Eric said respectfully, doffing his cap, Lady Anne Millesford (AKA Terri Leiber of Riverside, California) just gave him a disdainful look and flounced onward.

Then he heard them, the exuberant Gaelic shouts and keening and general noise, approaching from twelve o clock high.

Oh shit, I forgot about the show!

He dashed through the crowd of travelers and Faire folk, towards the Scottish parade marching past. The double line of Celtic warriors, the Chief and his household walking within the protective row, processed past the washing well as Eric caught up with them. With an expertly-timed move that he had down perfectly after years of always being late for stage shows, he ducked under the closest Scotsman and slipped into his proper position with the other musicians.

He hollered the Gaelic gibberish (that he really didn't understand) along with the rest of the marchers, the ululating cries of the women echoing in his ears. As they marched up to Mainstage, he joined the other musicians on stage right. The Chief began the show patter: We're traveling through England and Donal just up and croaked, so we're holding a party—I mean wake—for 'im.

The frazzle-haired Dancemistress ran through the show order as Eric and the others did a last minute tuning check, ticking off the numbers on her fingers. "Jig set. two-hand reel, slipjig solo, Gaelic song . . ." She turned to one of the other dancers. "Hey, remind everyone that we're doing 'John Ryan's'—you know, 'Boom Boom'—right after the song, so everyone should line up fast." She emphasized the "Boom Boom" with a quick shimmy of her hips, and the dancers laughed. "All right, let's do it!"

The dancers ran out to center stage, grabbing partners by the hands and forming sets.

Looks so impromptu, they never guess we practiced these routines for four weeks.

Linda kicked off the tune, a lively fiddle version of "Top of Cork Road," and Eric joined in with Ian on the fifth measure.

It was a good, solid show, one of their best all season. The audience applauded and laughed at the right places, the music was at the right tempo, no one tripped or missed a step in the strathspey-reel, and—Thank God—none of the stepdancers sprained an ankle. Not like last weekend, two casualties in the Saturday 11:30 show alone, not to mention the three the weekend before.

And Maureen's comment when he told her about the sprained-ankle victims: "Probably wouldn't have happened if they did decent warm-ups, like we do at the Chandler . . ."

"Och, and now we'd be after hearing our fine musicians play us a tune, indeed we would!" the Chief called out in a voice that carried to the last row of haybales.

Musicians' solo time. Well, here we go again . . .

Eric and the other minstrels moved to the front of the stage. "'Banish Misfortune' into 'Drowsy Maggie,' two and three," Linda called.

Eric gazed at the audience, row after row of attentive (aces, waiting, watching him . . .

Bright lights, starched collar of my concert shirt scratching my neck, the orchestra ready and waiting behind me, taking a deep breath and beginning to play . . .

That damned program book: "Eric Banyon, flute prodigy, performing Dances Sacred and Profane" . . .

Then he heard "Banish Misfortune," as wicked and sprightly an Irish jig as he'd ever played, and Eric realized in dismay that the band was already halfway through the A part and he hadn't even noticed that they'd started. He tossed in a quick trill, hoping that it sounded like he had meant to join in in the middle of the tune.

Linda's giving me that "raised eyebrow" look, though, I don't think I fooled her! I'll probably catch hell for this later . . .

Then Aaron gave the signal and they dived into "Drowsy Maggie," half again as fast as "Banish" and twice as lively. They ended in a flurry of wild notes, and the audience applauded enthusiastically.

Oh, that was fun. Maureen, you would have liked that one . . .

That brought a sudden pain to his gut, his throat tightening. Damn it, Maureen, I thought you'd love the Faire, I thought we'd be terrific together, soprano and flute. You'd actually get to be close to your audience, see their reactions, how much they like your music; three feet right in front of you instead of on the other side of the orchestra pit. I thought you'd be happy here, and understand why I love doing this, playing Faire.

Why did you have to walk out on me?

He marched with the "Celtic bus" halfway back to the Hill, leaving the parade formation just outside the Turkish coffeehouse. Eric waited in line at the counter, already imagining how the sweet iced coffee would taste. Then he reached for his belt pouch to get out some cash, and—

—and there were only the leather strings dangling from his belt, neatly cut just below the knot.


Somebody stole my money pouch! GODDAMMIT, this isn't FAIR!

He started to get angry—but he ran out of energy, halfway through "disgusted."

Flat-lined. Emotional burnout.

Eric left the line, walked slowly to a convenient haybale, stretched out and closed his eyes in numb despair.

What a truly revoltin' development. First Maureen walks out on me, then someone steals my cloak, then I damned near get thrown out of this Faire, then somebody cuts my belt pouch. All the money that I made yesterday, busking with Maureen and the others. Gone.

I can't believe all of this is happening to me.

"But it could be worse."

The low male voice spoke quietly, directly into his left ear. Startled, Eric sat up, looking around.

And realized that no one was within ten feet of him. The closest person was a four-year-old girl who was busily smearing baklava over her face while her mother and a friend were watching the dance show on the small coffeehouse stage.

Terrific. Now I'm losing my mind, too. Just what I always wanted.

The little girl held out a sticky hand to Eric, gravely offering a piece of straw-coated baklava. He smiled and shook his head, then stood up.

Maureen's left me, he thought at her, as if she could hear him. Then someone stole my cloak, I nearly lost this Faire gig, and a cutpurse got my cash pouch. It only had fifteen bucks in it, not the end of the world, but that was all the money I had on me.

Methinks I need something stronger than Middle Eastern pastry, sweetling. But, in the interest of the Faire s pristine reputation, I'll get out of the way before I look for it.

He waited until he was in the hidden grove, far from the thick dust and crowds, before reaching for the corked flask at his side.

Then Eric proceeded to become thoroughly, profoundly drunk, for the second time in twenty-four hours.

I love the smell of fresh dirtbut I wish my nose didn't hurt. He opened his eyes a little, and saw—


Oh. I'm lying facedown in it. That must be why it's a little difficult to breathe. Eric tried to roll over onto his back, and failed. He tried again, then gave it up as hopeless.

S'okay. I really don't want to go anywhere, anyhow. I've always wanted to be a worm, anyway. Worms can have a good time all by themselves and never know the difference. "Oh, you're my tail? I thought you were my girlfriend."

He lay there in the dirt and oak leaves, imagining a beautiful red-haired woman smiling at him. A particular beautiful red-haired woman.

"Eric, I've decided it doesn't matter to me what you do with your life, all I want is to be with you, always."

Then she leaned forward to kiss him and . . .

Dream on, Banyon.

Oh, Maureen . . .

He managed to get his head turned to one side, and pillowed his cheek in the crook of his arm. He blinked back tears and sniffled, startling a bluejay who had been investigating him curiously, doubtlessly wondering if all that hair would make a good lining for her nest. Great. I'm lying in the dirt, completely wasted. Now I'm going to start leaking from the eyes. I'm going to make mud to lie in. A perfect ending to a thoroughly delightful weekend.

"Bard? Bard? I need to talk to you."

The voice spoke softly, low musical tones, definitely male, Eric tried to open one eye to look at the guy, but decided it wasn't worth it. "Go 'way. 'M trying to meditate."

"Please. It's very serious. I would not disturb your meditations, but I must ask some things of you."

"Nothing's that serious. Here, have a drink." Eric still had his hip flask in his other hand. He blindly shoved the flask in the direction of the voice. "Feel free to join me, there's plenty of whiskey, plenty of room here on the ground. It's quite comfortable, really. If you don't mind having rocks poking holes in your body."

The voice sounded profoundly puzzled. "No, thank you. But please, I must speak with you, I have many questions, and you are the only one who can tell me the answers."

"Why? Who put me in charge? Go ask Caitlin or somebody."

"Why? You must—you're the one who Awakened me." The voice became desperate. "Please, Bard—please."

Eric tried again to lift his nose from the dirt so he could see whom he was talking to, then gave it up as a lost cause. "S'sorry. I didn't mean to wake you up. I just talk to myself when I'm drinking, can't tell how loud I am, you know, just happens."

The voice wasn't paying any attention to him. "Please, you must answer my questions. Your song Awakened me last night, and I don't know how long it has been. I cannot find any of my own kind here, and . . . I heard disturbing talk, Bard. They are saying that this place will be destroyed soon. You, of all people, you must know what that will do to all of us. And the others—are they still Dreaming, or has something worse happened to them?"

Either I'm more drunk than I thought, or this guy is talking about something really and truly bizarre.

Third possibility. Whatever he's doing has sent him into another reality. Bad drugs, Eric. Humor the man. "Is this part of some street bit? I'm not in on it. Maybe you should save it for the travelers, m'friend."

There was a long and profound silence, during which Eric felt his tenuous grip on consciousness slipping even further from his grasp. Yeah, passing out right now does seem somehow like the appropriate thing to do.

Oh, Maureen . . .

He choked on a sob; remembered he wasn't alone, and held it in. All of it.

Stillness, unbroken by so much as the fall of a leaf. Then a single word.


Then someone's hands gently rolled him onto his back, removing the rocks and sharper branches from beneath him, piling leaves to create a comfortable bed for him. He tried to open his eyes and thank the stranger, and couldn't manage either.

"Rest now. Forget a little. I will find you later, when your heart is not in such pain."

Eric smiled as an unseen hand brushed the stray locks of his hair from his face. In the alcohol-confused haze of his mind, the gentle hand could only have belonged to one person.

Mmmm, Maureen, that's nice, feels good . . .

The last he heard was quiet footsteps, crunching through the dry oak leaves as the stranger walked away.

When he awoke several hours later, the sun already fading from the leafy branches above him, Eric was alone in the grove.

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