When Syrinthe got angry, she clenched her teeth and spoke through them so that her sentences came out clipped and terse.
“I’ll do the tune,” she said, “but I will not sing those horrid lyrics someone put with it.”
The man had sat down with us to request “Danny Boy” but had not expected a tirade in response.
“It’s a set of silly, sentimental lyrics—stupid lyrics about as sappy and maudlin as you can get. If that wasn’t bad enough, it was written by an Englishman.”
The man tried to smile. “Well, you seem to feel very strongly about this.”
“I do. Someone wrote a set of lyrics to the tune 300 years ago. The song was called ‘My Gentle Harp.’ Those lyrics do justice to the tune—which is possibly the most beautiful melody ever written. I hate to hear it sung with that other set of lyrics.”
“Well,” the man said sheepishly, “I would certainly be willing to hear the original song.”
Syrinthe smiled. “Good.” After a short but thoughtful pause, she said, “I’m sorry if I startled you or came across harshly. I feel strongly about this and I over-react at times.”
The man lifted his hands. “No, no. I’m fine. And I learned something I did not know.”
To make him feel better I bought him a glass of ale. We chatted and drank. After he left to resume his seat, Syrinthe looked at me.
“Don’t say it.”
“I just get worked up about that song.”
“Shows you care about your music.”
“Doesn’t excuse me unloading on some poor, unsuspecting bloke.”
“You can play a great version of the tune for him.”
The tune was “Londonderry Air.” I didn’t usually say that name of the tune because of the serial joke, “London derriere,” which was another thing that incensed my wife.
“I will. And I’ll apologize to him.”
“You already apologized.”
She glanced at her watch. We finished our drinks, she went back to a the small stage by the side of the bar. The crowd cheered. The pub had standing room only—all the seats taken and probably seventy people standing in the open spaces. Syrinthe’s popularity had started to break out of the region where we had lived the last three years; she had gone from being a local artist to the beginnings of national recognition.
She opened with a medley of three familiar Irish jigs on guitar. The audience listened with amazement as her fingers flew across the fret board and hit the strings with flawless precision. After she finished, silence reigned for a few seconds before the audience broke into applause and loud cheering. She gave them the sly, impish smile I loved to see even after five years of marriage. After the plaudits died down, she put her guitar on its stand and picked up her Celtic harp. A murmur of anticipation ran through the crowd.
Syrinthe recounted what had happened between her and the man who had sat down at our table, apologized to him once more, and once more gave her narrative on the harp tune that was perhaps the most beautiful melody ever written, and the most nauseating British-born lyrics of “Danny Boy.”
“I know a lot of Irish love that song, but you shouldn’t.” People laughed and then applauded. “So let me sing the preferred lyrics to the ‘Londonderry Melody.’ It is titled ‘My Gentle Harp.’”
She positioned her fingers. Syrinthe always did this and posed with her hands at the ready while she focused on playing a piece. I counted my blessings when I saw her beautiful body, her lovely round face, covered with freckles, framing her Celtic looks: small nose, blue eyes, bowed mouth with full lips. She wore a short print dress that came up to her thighs when she positioned the harp. The audience sank into the spell of her physical beauty. She began to play.
If you live in Ireland there are lots of opportunities to hear harpists. It’s a national tradition, so the question is how one can make something so many people do well into something that seems out of the ordinary. Syrinthe combined her remarkable ability, her minute knowledge of Celtic folk music, and her good looks so that she stood out from the masses. She was well on her way to becoming nationally popular.
After playing through the melody and giving herself an instrumental lead in, she began to sing:
My gentle harp, once more I waken
The sweetness of thy slumb’ring strain
In tears our last farewell was taken
And now in tears we meet again.
Yet even then, while peace was singing,
Her halcyon song o’er land and sea,
Through joy and hope to others bringing,
She only brought new tears to thee.
The audience listened, spellbound. Her voice rose and fell, casting its magic. The tavern became quiet. No glasses clinked, no one coughed, laughed, or talked. The silence prevailed through three verses of lyrics. She did a shortened instrumental closing and finished the song.
The crowd responded with enthusiastic cheering. I sometimes suspected she hoped she could be the artist who would forever eradicate “Danny Boy” from the repertoire of Irish standards and replace it with “My Gentle Harp.”
She went on to do four more harp numbers and finished up with two guitar instrumentals and a couple of standard songs—“Do You Love An Apple?” and “I’ll Play the Wild Rover No More.” She got paid 200.00€. In the past she had gotten a hundred, but her value as a name that drew in people who would buy drinks and food had increased. The crowd left her another 200.00€ in tips. Not a bad night.
After she had packed up her instruments and was talking with a group of adoring fans near the door, a tall man—maybe as tall as 6’4”—blond with long hair, good looks, and long limbs, pushed his way through the knot of admirers and seized Syrinthe’s hand.
“Great performance, Miss Curran. You play the harp quite well—and the guitar. You have very nice legs, too.”
Syrinthe, and the four people around her (three men and a woman) stood nonplussed at his words. Syrinthe is never shocked for very long and, as an attractive woman performer, knows how to handle crude hecklers.
“Then I’ll have to stop shaving them so you won’t like them so much.”
“If you stopped shaving them, they’d be all the nicer to stroke.”
The three young men immediately started to shove him. I was making my way to join them when Dillman Barton, who owned the place, and who is a big man himself, bustled into the dispute.
“No fighting in my pub. I don’t want it busted up and I’ll call the constable on anyone who starts something.” He turned to the man who had been so rude to my wife. “Mister, I think you had better get out of here right now.”
He gave everyone around him a condescending smirk and headed out the door. The three local men whispered and went out the back door.
“They’ll catch him and beat the hell out of him,” Barton said. “Just so they don’t do it in here.”
By that time I was over there. Syrinthe looked shocked and angry. I put my arms around her shoulders.
“Who was that—” she stopped, not wanting to fall into Irish vugarity. Like most Irish, my wife can swear marvelously when she’s put out.
“Never seen him before,” Barton said as he headed for the bar to serve customers. She looked over at me.
“Your fans are going after him,” I said. “I don’t imagine he’ll get away without a couple of broken bones.”
We loaded up her equipment and headed home. The man’s rudeness had upset her so much she could not get to sleep that night. I suggested a bath, helped wash her, and—like I had done on our wedding night—carried her to bed. She giggled. This sequence would ordinarily have turned into a sweet romantic interlude, but Syrinthe was too tired and fell asleep. In the morning, however, she was much more alert.
She cleaned up and said the bathroom was free. I showered and came into the living room. She had put on shorts and a t-shirt, tied her hair in a ponytail, and sat by the French doors that led outside to the patio behind our house. I brewed a pot of coffee (I still had not been wholly converted to morning tea). She picked up the newspaper we had delivered to our door each morning. I heard her gasp.
She stared down, eyes wide, reading intensely. She rapidly scanned the page, going over it three times. Then she looked up at me.
“Those three blokes who went after that cad in the pub ended up blinded. They’re at the county hospital.”
We thought we ought to go to the hospital, and Syrinthe had just changed into a skirt and blouse (she hardly ever wore jeans or slacks) when a knock came at the door. Two local constables had come to call. They wanted to ask what we knew about the incident.
We told them what we had seen last night. They scribbled notes. When we had given our version of the incident, Syrinthe asked how the young men were doing.
“They’re slowly recovering their sight. The doctors said the prognosis was good, though they can’t say what caused them to be blind.”
We were relieved that they were recovering. The constables left. We jumped in the Škoda we owned and headed for the hospital. Syrinthe drove; I was still not used to driving on the left. When we got to the hospital, a small mob of reporters who recognized Syrinthe surrounded us and plied us with questions.
“I don’t know anything more than anyone else does. I did not know the man in question—never saw him before. And I hope I never see him again—unless it’s a photo of him locked up in jail.”
They wanted to know details of what the man said to her and of the incident preceding the blindness. Both of us answered as best we could. Finally, having material for their articles and footage for news reports, they let us go. We were allowed to see the men who were blinded. By this time they had regained their eyesight and told us the doctors had said they saw no damage to their eyes in any way.
They had the same questions as the press. We gave the same answers.
“Did he squirt you with pepper spray?” I asked. “Or mace?”
“He didn’t do anything,” one of them said. “It was like he used magic. He just waved his hand and I was in complete darkness—couldn’t see anything.”
“He laughed, said something in a language none of us had ever heard, and walked away.”
We talked more. Syrinthe said they would have to come to our house for a party to celebrate their recovery. Everyone agreed that when the police caught the felon who had done violence to their eyes (however he did it) they would sell tickets for people who wanted to kick his arse and make a lot of money doing this.
When we came back home, he was there to greet us.
He had somehow gotten into the house, though we couldn’t see a broken window or a sprung lock. He sat in my favorite arm chair. He had helped himself to some of our wine. When I turned to pick up the phone and call the police he asked, “Do you want to be blinded, too? Or worse?”
I walked over to be next to Syrinthe. Instinctive male protectiveness. We got a better look at the intruder. As I said before, he was tall and blond. His hair hung down to his shoulders—I later found out this was to cover his ears, which were pointed on the ends. His eyes looked different in the light. They were blue, but none of the shades of blue one sees in normal human coloration. Sapphire blue, they flashed and sparked; I don’t mean sparkled like we usually use the term, to mean they shone happy and full of wonder and joy. I mean flecks of white light coruscated in them, like what you get from certain gemstones or like the sparkly-eyed aliens you saw now and then on episodes of Star Trek.
“Who are you?” Syrinthe demanded. But it seemed she already knew. Unlike the Irish, Americans do not a have a three-thousand-year-old tradition of believing in elves. I thought he was simply a thug and was not convinced he had magical powers. Syrinthe knew he did.
“I am Daman.”
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“That doesn’t matter.”
“It does to me. What do you want?”
He pointed to Syrinthe.
I started toward him. I was going to punch him out. Something stopped me. It felt the air in front of me thicken, and I could not penetrate it
“I don’t want to stroke your legs,” he said to my wife, “though if you go our demesne you certainly will be expected to be available to any of our people who take a fancy to you. You might be a little better off than most stray-aways we bring there, because we primarily want you as a musician.”
She blinked. He smiled.
“The rulers of my province want music. You humans have preserved the old traditions that our people lost in the long wars we fought against the Fomorian giants. So when we need musicians we come here to fetch one. I was sent to scout and found you, Syrinthe Curran. Too bad you will have to lose your husband, but he’ll find someone else, I’m sure.”
Since I could not move I wanted to curse him but my tongue would not move. Daman looked over at me. “Not a good idea you have,” he said. “If I were you I’d keep quiet.” He turned his attention to Syrinthe. “Get your phone out and call your sister.”
Eyes suddenly wild with fear, she pulled out her cellphone and punched in her sister’s number. After a few rings, she got through to her mother. She listened, eyes growing wide with grief and terror and the unintelligible drone of the voice on the other end.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can, Mother. Yes, I’ll pray, most certainly. I’ll be right over.”
She put away her phone. A leering smile covered Daman’s face.
“Your sister’s heart cancer will disappear as soon as you agree to come with me.”
“I agree. I’ll do whatever you say.”
“Syrinthe—” somehow I could talk now. She held up her hand to stop me.
“I said I’ll go. I agree. My husband will agree to your terms as well. Just spare Nola. Promise me you’ll spare her.”
“I’ve already promised you that. You’ll find I’m true to my word. Both ways.” He looked at me. “No interference from him,” he said. Looking back at Syrinthe, he said, “Be at Ballyboley Forest in three days. Your sister will be fine. If you don’t show up on the day I allot for your departure—well, I’d rather not think about what will happen to her.”
And then he was gone. It’s not like he vanished, but suddenly he was not there. I felt the air around me unthicken. Syrinthe looked about wildly, ran to me, and took my hands.
“We need to get to the hospital right now,” she said.
“I only want to see my sister. I’ll explain everything after we see her, but for now let’s go.”
We got to the hospital, were admitted as relatives, and found her mother and father there and Nola sitting up in bed, looking very well. Syrinthe threw her arms around her sister and asked if she was alright. She said she was feeling much better. And she did not look sick. To the contrary, she looked chipper and healthy.
Nola and Syrinthe did not look like sisters. Nola, tall, blonde, long-limbed, must have been derived from the millennia-long toss of genetic dice, from an ancient Viking invader who either married an Irish woman or perhaps had not behaved so properly; Syrinthe, short, rounded, red-haired and freckled, had caught the Celtic side of the equation.
“Yesterday, I thought I was dying,” Nola said. “Dad brought me here and the doctors showed me x-rays that indicated heart cancer—a big black tumor that curled around my heart. They said it was advanced and there was nothing they could do. I could barely breathe and barely move. I went to sleep wondering if I would ever wake up. But I did, I felt fine, my vitals were back to normal, and the x-rays said my heart was functioning as it should. The tumor was gone. It was a miracle.”
It was, I thought, but an evil miracle.
I drove back. Syrinthe sat quietly, arms crossed, looking at the window. Stone fences, meadows, houses and farms rolled by as the sun descended and shadows began to lengthen.
“I have to go, Quinn,” she finally said. “He’ll kill Nola. He’ll kill you and Mum and Daddy. He won’t stop until he gets what he wants.”
“Who is he?”
“He’s one of wee folk—I know, he’s not very small, but we call them that. He’s elven.” She paused as we passed a small herd of cows grazing.
“The elves are not cute little creatures who wear pointed shoes and acorn caps for hats and sit on mushrooms. They’re nasty, rapacious, selfish creatures from another world. They seize humans for slaves. I’m the unlucky one.”
“I can’t let him take you. What kind of husband would I be if I let someone do that?”
“You can’t do anything to stop him. If you interfere, he’ll destroy us all. I must go by consent. He can’t force me to come. But he can coerce me into coming—kind of like a supernatural protection racket.” She silently wept all the way home. Daman was not there. Syrinthe said she needed to be alone and went for a walk. We have property that includes a small wood. Fearing Daman was lurking somewhere nearby, or afraid Syrinthe might run off so I would not try to prevent her from leaving, I watched her. When she headed for the small grove of birch trees on the limit of our property, I hurried after her. I ran. When I broke into the circle of trees I found Syrinthe’s clothing: skirt, blouse, underwear, shoes, and socks. I found the blue ribbon she had used to tie up her hair.
I ran back to the house. Daman was there. I lunged at him and found myself on the floor. It was like someone had sucked all the strength out of me. I could barely move.
“Where is she? Where did you take her?” he demanded.
“I was going to ask you the same thing.”
“I won’t be juggled with. Where is your wife?”
“I don’t know. I found her clothes, but not her.”
“I’ll show you. That would be easier than trying to tell you. It’s just behind the house.”
He lifted whatever he enchantment he had used on me. I got out and led him to the birch grove. When he saw the circle of trees and Syrinthe’s clothing, a look of slow-brewing anger cross his face.
“I’ll be damned,” he said.
“That’s a pleasant thought.”
He glared at me. “Shut up. How did you wife know there was a portal here?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t know it was here, myself. What happened?”
He gave me a hateful look but then seemed to calm a bit.
“I was going to take her as my prisoner, but she went of her own free will.”
A portal is passageway between this world and the elven realm. The only way Syrinthe would have known about it was if Ulicia had told her about it. Ulicia was an herbalist who knew all about ancient Irish lore. She lived only a few houses away. She and Syrinthe had been friends from childhood. They went on walks together in our wood. Ulicia said there was an herb she could only find on our property. I imagine she had told Syrinthe about the enchanted grove.
“She went of her own free will?” I asked. “How could that be?”
“She somehow knew that if she entered freely she would have to prove herself to be a worthy musician. If I had brought her in, she would be my property. I suppose that woman friend of hers who is pledged told her as much.”
At age 15, Ulicia had pledged herself to twenty years of service to Brigid (not the Christian saint, the ancient goddess). “She serves as a keeper of the sacred fire of Brigid,” Syrinthe told me, “and as a prophetess of the well at Amber Downs. Her vow is pretty much the same one a nun takes: poverty, chastity—but not obedience; the final part of her three-fold vow is ‘simplicity.’”
“Very cool—except the chastity part.”
“If she wants to stay a virgin, whose business is that but her own? And she says when her vow ends—she’ll be thirty-five; that will be in four years—she’ll probably get married. She dates.”
I had the idea the chastity part had ruled Ulicia out as a prospect for Daman, since he would know she was pledged (under a vow), a thing ancient peoples regarded highly. He also would not want to get on the wrong side of the goddess Brigid. After more blustering, he left, saying he would contest the matter. I assumed he would return to the elven kingdom to claim her. I went back to the house and found a book Ulicia had given Syrinthe and she had been reading. It was bookmarked. I opened it, thinking to find something about elves she had been reading. I found a message from her. She had underlined something about Amber Downs and written in the margin, “Go there as soon as you can. Walk there.”
The article said the well was a place of magic and prophecy. For a millennium, the people of the area had gone there to receive prophetic messages.
I walked the three miles. Amber Downs is a wide meadow. Old-growth trees stand all in the middle of it and, amid them an ancient well. The site, solemn and quiet, made one sense that it was a serious place and one did not come here for other than a serious purpose. I took along a gold necklace like guys used wear in the seventies (my Dad had given it to me) and laid it atop the rough stone wall that surrounded the well. (You did not throw things into the well, even offerings.) I knelt, prayed that Brigid would speak to me, and looked over the rim of the stones into the water.
Nothing—then I saw Ulicia’s face below the surface. Her hair swirled around her head like a mermaid’s. She moved her hands back and forth as if she were treading water.
“Go to the fairy ring.” Her voice sounded in my mind, not in my hearing. “Pick up an item of Syrinthe’s clothing. Turn three times widdershins and each time speak her name. Your presence will inspire her heart.”
Then she vanished. When I looked down at the rim of the well, the necklace had vanished just as Ulicia had.
I knew widdershins meant counterclockwise from reading Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. I started to sprint back to the birch grove but then thought of the approbation Syrinthe had written down and walked. It seemed to take forever to get there. Once I arrived, I picked up one of her shoes and then followed Ulicia’s instructions, turning and saying Syrinthe’s name at the end of each swirl. For a moment, silver light surrounded me, then fire that did not burn, and then water rushing over me. When it cleared, I found myself in a different place.
I saw no showers of light, not even a change of scenery, but immediately I knew I was elsewhere. Something in the air made my flesh tingle. I stepped out of the circle of white birch and surveyed the land around me.
I had gone to another part of the world—or of creation. I saw no houses, only rolling hills thick with copses of trees and several small lakes glistening in the odd golden sunlight. I saw no signs of habitation. I wondered if I had landed in the wrong place. Instinct told me most people (or elves) would live close to water, so I set out toward the largest of the lakes.
I found a footpath. After I’d walked on it just a short while, I saw thatched roofs and wooden houses, though I had not spotted them from the vantage at the birch ring because they fit so naturally into the trees amid which they were built. As I drew nearer I smelled smoke and heard voices. I walked along a low stone fence, came to a stile, crossed on it, entered a shaded area, its grass cropped close, and followed a path of stepping stones to the site of a large house.
Two men in trousers and tunics—one had short hair so I could see his ears and tell he was elven—sat on stones. One played a lute, the other a penny whistle. Across from them sat a woman dressed in a smock, smoking a pipe.
“Greeting,” she said. “You’re human.”
I nodded, trying not to stare at her beautiful body. I thought it was a good bet to start with my name.
“I am a human called Quinn. I’ve just arrived in your kingdom.”
“We’re the first stop past the birch ring, so most humans see us first on arriving here.”
I got their names: Maddox and Brian (the men); May-Child (the woman).
“We’re practicing for the gathering,” May-Child said.
My pulse quickened when she said this. Then she added that a human woman would be there. “She, like you, came of her own free will and would be a musician at the Court of the Liege. We’re going, too—after we’re finished.”
“We should welcome this stranger,” Maddox said. “Would that trouble you, May-Child?”
She looked dreamy-eyed by now. It was not tobacco she was smoking.
“I would love that. If you would like to celebrate through my body, sir, you are welcome.”
Her beauty had its effect, but I resolved to be faithful to Syrinthe.
“I am married to the human woman who came to sing as a minstrel.”
She looked at me and put out a hand, palm up. “So?”
From what I had heard about elves, they had few parameters when it came to sex. I wondered what to do, but by that time May-Child was so transported by whatever she was smoking that she broke into giggles and motioned to Brian. He sprang up. The two of them walked toward a bower amid the trees, he stroking her lovely bottom as they disappeared into the trees that circled the clearing.
“She’s kind of new at it,” Maddox said, “but she’s certainly worth the time. The invitation is still open.”
I had to think fast. I suspected turning down the offer of a friendly woman might be source of offense here.
“The woman I’m seeking is not new at it—not new at all. I think you understand what I’m getting at.”
He smiled. “She’s worth the wait, you’re saying. Well, May-Child will be disappointed, but you can join us another day.”
I left with his blessing. I thanked Brigid and Ulicia her prophetess for my good luck. But as I followed the path, I wondered if it was more than good luck. A woman holy to the service of the goddess had spoken to me. Perhaps I had more protection here than I first assumed.
I walked on. The trees thinned. I saw a settlement up ahead with lots of thatched houses like the one May-Child and her friends lived in. Some of the larger structures stood in the center of hatched houses. They were half-timbered like Elizabethan homes and had tile roofs. In front of one, a crowd of people stood. Many held musical instruments. I had received divine guidance. Though I did not see Syrinthe, I knew she was nearby.
I knew that because many of the people in the crowd held musical instruments. I saw lutes, citterns, penny whistles, instruments that looked like clarinets and bassoons, flutes and harps.
“Human,” someone near-by me called, “why are you here?”
“For the human woman, Syrinthe?” another man asked. “Have you come to hear her audition?”
Audition. The word ran through my mind. I knew I had to reply.
“Yes. Do you know when the audition will be?”
“Soon,” an older elven woman said. She did not look old by our standards but exuded age—that’s the only way I can express it. I sensed her wisdom and her dignity. I noted I had not felt much of that with May-Child, even though, if you were just looking at them, you might assume they were close in age. “If you wish to hear her, you may sit with us. A friend of ours couldn’t attend and we can give you his seat.”
I bowed and thanked her.
“She’ll pass the audition,” the first man who had spoken to him yawned. “No doubt of that. The Liege has taken a fancy to her. As soon as she is an approved musician and is consecrated by blood into the eleven race, her ability to play music will be a secondary consideration.”
The men laughed. The woman smiled. “How do you know this pretty little wench?”
I almost said we were married but then thought better of it. It might disqualify her from the competition, and what would they do to her then?
“She has been my lover.” Of course, I was not lying when I said that.
“If she is accepted,” the woman said, “I doubt that you’ll ever lay a hand on her again. She’ll be passed from noble to noble—sweet little poppet that she is.”
“Do you know where I can find her?”
One of the men pointed.
I saw her standing, at the head of line by a door. She held a guitar in one hand.
Threading my way through the dense crowd, almost tripping more than once, I ran to her. She heard the noise of my approach and turned. I knew the look in her eyes. Syrinthe’s expression, cold and stern, warned me not to embrace her or shower her with greetings or any other display of affection. I slowed and tried to compose myself. By then everyone around was watching us. I told myself to exercise iron self-control. Syrinthe spoke first.
“Be quiet and listen.” I scanned the elven faces around us. They looked puzzled. “They can’t understand what I’m saying,” she told me. “I’m speaking English.”
I had not even considered that the elves might speak a different tongue. I had been able to understand all of them I had encountered.
“But I understand them.”
“You understand them and they you because both of you want to be understood. That’s how a lot of things work here. The place operates on practical magic, I guess you could call it. I’ve learned a little of how the system works.”
“You’ve only been here a few hours.”
“Two months,” she said. “Time is different here.”
This explained how Maddox and the elves I had met in the crowd knew about Syrinthe. I noticed she wore a coarse smock and was barefoot. She held a vintage Gibson guitar in her left hand.
“Tell me what’s going on.”
“Daman planned to take me as a slave. If he had, I would have been his property. That’s why I chose to come of my own free will. Ulicia told me about the ring of birches. Most of the people who grew up in the area know it’s an enchanted place and a portal into elven land. By coming here of my own free will, I must petition to be admitted to the elven race.”
“Do you want to be an elf?”
“No. Living forever and being at the disposal of every man who takes a fancy to me doesn’t sound exactly like paradise.”
“But you’re going to audition.”
“A human who comes to the elven kingdom must have something to offer.” She lifted the guitar.
“I have a plan, Quinn. Don’t despair. And don’t interfere. Just trust me.”
At that moment, the door opened. Syrinthe gave me an air kiss and walked in. The others in line followed. When they were all inside, I went into the building.
I found myself in a large hall. Elaborately carved woodwork defined its space. On a raised dais sat a group of elven men and women, richly dressed, who I assumed must be the Ruler and his entourage. Syrinthe and the other musicians—twelve of them—had assembled at the opposite edge of the platform. Chairs took up the remainder of the room. I looked around for an empty place. All seats seemed taken. Then someone waved at me and pointed to a free chair. He was one of the elven folk I had met in the crowd. I hurried over to where he was and sat down.
“She will be admitted to our people if her music is deemed acceptable to the Liege. Of course, for her it will also be an entrance to the royal bed chamber.”
I did not know what to say. I sat and waited. Two elven folk performed, one a penny whistle player, the other a singer who accompanied himself with a cittern. The first performer played well, the second played and sang poorly “He had better be careful,” the woman said.
I turned to her. “What do you mean.”
“If he is deliberately playing unskillfully, it will be considered an insult to the Liege and he will forfeit his life.”
“Why would he play unskillfully?”
“His family has money and land. He doesn’t want to spend his life as a musician of the court whose other duties will be to service the queen and her relatives—and probably her ladies in waiting as well. But if the Liege thinks he played poorly on purpose to avoid service in the palace, he will die this very day.”
Right after Syrinthe told me about her audition, the thought that she might play poorly and sabotage her chances of being selected had crossed my mind. I hoped she knew the consequences of such an action. After the cittern player stepped down, she walked on stage.
A servant set up her harp and a stool for her to sit on. When the smock she wore came up and revealed her thighs, the Liege smiled. I wondered what she planned to do.
Playing poorly was not a part of her plan. I felt relief but despair because she began with a lovely, sweet, melodic rendering of what she called the “Londonderry Melody.” The music rose with gentle power, quieting the room so that the entire audience—their Ruler included—was taken by its power. Then, after the introduction, she began to sing:
O Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen and down the mountain side
The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling
It’s you, it’s you must go and I must bide
The crowd listened with puzzlement and distress. The Liege, wanting Syrinthe to do well, looked uncomfortable. Her voice rose with passion for the higher, more emotional second part:
But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow
It’s I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
O Danny boy, O Danny Boy, I love you so
The audience looked nonplussed, shocked, and horrified. Syrinthe’s voice rose and fell in beautiful, haunting cadences as she went on to sing the third and fourth verses. By the end of her song the audience had plainly turned against her.
She did not stop there. She sang “My Wild Irish Rose” next. No one could imagine she planned to undermine the audition because she sang with such passion and skill. Yet the elves I sat with, and all the people I could see in the crowd, looked nauseated and disgusted. The others had done three songs. I wondered what Syrinthe would finish with.
She switched from harp to guitar and finished with an eighteenth-century ballad called “My Thing Is My Own.” I knew her strategy by now and worked hard to seem as disgusted as the audience while Syrinthe sang, assuming the persona of a woman who refuses would-be seducers and militantly retains her integrity. Of the six bawdy verses, I liked this one the best:
A master of music came with the intent
Of playing a tune upon my instrument
I thanked him most kindly for the effort he made
But my little fiddle is not to be played.
And each verse she ended with the chorus (repeated):
My thing is my own and I keep it so still
All the young lasses can do what they will
She sang with force and energy. The audience listened with horror. Elves, to whom promiscuity is a way of life, do not appreciate songs about a woman who rebuffs seducers and proclaims her lasting resolution to remain sexually untouched. Syrinthe’s voice rose and fell with strength and passion. She hit high notes easily, strumming and thumping her guitar with precision and verve.
When she finished, rose, and bowed, silence followed. Then a few of the politer elves began to clap and others followed. She received a half-hearted ovation, maybe a third of the people in room responding. After the unenthusiastic applause died out, she left the stage.
I wanted to go to her, but etiquette demanded I listen to the others at the audition. But as an elven woman sang to the accompaniment of a man playing lute, I felt a heavy hand clap on my shoulder, looked up, and saw two guards.
They escorted me out of the building and to the street where Syrinthe waited, two more guards flanking her. I wondered for a moment if they meant to kill us. One, who seemed to hold rank, spoke.
“You have two days to get out of our kingdom. Begone, both of you.”
He gave us a dirty look but handed us a leather bag. It clinked as if it held coins.
“Come on,” Syrinthe said. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
We hurried away from the settlement and found the path that led by May-Child’s house (I saw no sign of her or her friends). We went on to the grove, did the tiny ceremony and were back in Ireland, back in the grove and on our own property. We embraced. She wept. Finally, after crying out her fear and grief, she said “I knew you would come for me.”
I said nothing. After a while she went on.
“If you hadn’t, I was going to try to win admission to the elven people—I mean, what choice did I have? I thought it would be better to live in the king’s court than just be a trull for the local men to pass around.”
“Daman won’t come back for you, will he?”
“Daman is in hot water now. He won’t be doing much of anything except breaking rocks and digging ditches.”
“He violated elven law with everything he did here—trying to abduct me and what he did to Nola. These were serious violations of what they refer to as protocol.”
I kissed her. “Let’s go home.”
I noticed the vintage Gibson guitar and the antique harp she had played in elven land sat in the living room, miraculously delivered.
Syrinthe called Ulicia to tell her friend that she was back.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David W. Landrum teaches Literature at Grand Valley State University in Western Michigan. His fiction has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Mythology, Beneath Yaggdrasil’s Shadow, Father Grim’s Book of Stories, Pedestal, and Fantasia Divinity. His most recent novella, The Court of the Sovereign King, is available from Blue Swan Press.