Sunday, February 16, 2014

Straight On Till Morning by David W Landrum

Musician Chancey searches for his lover, and finds himself trapped in a sexually liberated parallel world populated with slave-owning fighters and Gaelic poets; by David W Landrum.

Chauncey drummed his fingers on the wooden arm of the chair. He had a gig that night and, more importantly, a dinner date with Sossity Chandler. He had opened for her a couple of times during her last tour of England. Sossity's tech crew recorded it and put it on her website. Sales of Chauncey's music skyrocketed as a result of exposure to her fan base. After that, she had him open for her anytime she sang in Ireland or the UK.

A few weeks back, he had seen her on a talk show. The host had just interviewed the author of a book on ghosts and paranormal activity, and when Sossity came on she asked if she believed in the paranormal.

"I most certainly do," she said. The host took the conversation elsewhere, but Chauncey felt his body tingle as if Anisa's hand had touched him. Talking to her to by phone one day, he asked, "Sossity, when you were on the TV a few months back you said you believed in the supernatural and the paranormal. Do you really?"

A pause came and then she said, "Yes, I do. Why do you ask?"

He licked his lips. "I've had some strange things happen to me lately. I wonder if maybe you can put them in perspective for me. You'll think I'm daft when I tell you about it."

"I won't think that. Tell me what you have to say."

He gathered his courage. "Anisa isn't dead," he told her. "She hasn't been murdered and hasn't decided to drop off the map. In fact, I saw her six months ago. She claims she's been carried away."

"To where?"

"This is where it gets crazy. She says she's gone to another world. I thought maybe she had gone mad. I wanted her to go for help, but she insisted she was perfectly sane. She also told me she had to go back to where she came from - for my safety. She said she would prove to me she was telling the truth. She took me to the place where she said she was carried off. And she vanished. I suppose you think I'm mad now."

"You could be," she replied, her voice even, "but I doubt it. You act too sane. I've dealt with enough deluded people to know one when I meet one, and you're not like that at all. As for believing something like what you just described could happen - I think it's entirely possible. I don't want to go into a lot of detail about my experience with the paranormal, but I will say I've encountered it enough to truly believe in it. Let's get together soon and talk about it more."

They were not able to meet for another month. Sossity went back to the States to deal with a family crisis. Chauncey's brother was hurt in a bicycling accident and Chauncey spent time arranging for his care on top of filling his own performance obligations. Sossity sent him an email, "We will talk. Things like this need to be discussed in private, face to face, not on email or on the phone. I'll be back in the UK in a couple of weeks. We can get together then."

Tonight he would see her.

Chauncey's brother recovered. Anisa had told him he could expect something like this to happen. "They'll go after someone you love. Whoever it is will eventually recover from whatever they do, but they mean it as a warning. If I stay here, they will get more violent. That's why I have to go, Chauncey. I have to go back because I love you. I don't want them to destroy those you love - or you."

He met Sossity at a pub in the countryside - the same place he had first met Anisa. They ordered drinks and food and talked about their musical careers. When the place cleared out she asked him to tell her his story.

"Don't think you have to hold anything back. I've run into things like this myself. I'll try to help if I can."

He recited, giving more detail than he had given to her before. Sossity listened closely.

"Did Anisa tell you where she is now?" she asked when he had finished

"She wouldn't name the place. She just said 'the other world.' I asked if it was fairyland and she said no, don't call it that. I just think of it as Never-Never land." He managed a smile. "I don't know where it is but I want to bring her back - and bring her back in a way that means no one can retaliate against me or my family or friends - or her. Maybe what I want is impossible."

"You might have to go get her."

"How can I do that?"

"That's what we have to find out."

He played the fundraising gig. Two days later, he and Sossity drove to the place where Anisa had vanished. Thick trees encircled the spot. A tall stone rose out of the ground just behind where Anisa had faded from his view. Fog cloaked the whole scene in grey. Sossity scanned the area until she saw what she seemed to be looking for.

"Did she vanish right here?"

He nodded, though he could not be certain of the exact spot.

"A fairy ring," she said.

He looked down and saw a raised pattern on the grass. Even in the fog, he could see how it formed a large circle. He vaguely remembered something from school about fungus-formed configurations like this one.

"Anisa has a connection with the other world and can come and go as she pleases. You can get there through here."

"How?"

"Since you don't have the connection, you have to sleep here, in the circle. You'll wake up in the other world. That's one of the two conditions you have to fulfill to get there."

"What's the other?"

"You've got to believe."

"How do you know all this? I mean, I believe you, but how did you find all this out?"

"I have well-informed friends," she answered. "I know people who know a lot about stuff like this. Let's leave it there."

Sossity left for the US the next day. Chauncey borrowed a bicycle from his brother. He was not a biker but did not want to leave any sort of vehicle parked near the site and did not want to get a ride from anyone. He took a backpack, food, a sleeping bag small enough to fit in the pack, and water bottles. As he packed, he fought doubt. He had to believe. At dusk, he prepared to ride out to the place. He thought of taking a weapon but then thought better of it. It was not his style. On impulse, just as he left the front room of his house, he grabbed a classical guitar in a soft case - one he took with him when he traveled in case he got ideas for songs (as he often did). Pack tied on the bicycle, guitar strapped on his shoulders, he pedaled to the site.

In contrast to his last time, the place was dry and clear. The sun had sunk behind the tree line. He could see its orange shape through the scrim of branches. In the dying light, he found the circle, set his guitar and backpack in it and parked the bicycle in a thicket of ferns and brush behind the rock. He took out the thin, compact sleeping bag, climbed in, fastened the drawstrings, and drifted off to sleep. The tension and the long ride had tired him out.

During the night, he dreamed. In one dream, he was caught stealing one of Van Gogh's paintings from a museum. In another, he walked down a corridor and the walls closed on him. He dreamed in color, something he remembered happening only twice in his life. He woke. The sleeping bag had kept him dry and warm. He looked around, his rational mind telling him he had awakened in the same spot he had bedded down.

A shock went thorough him. The stone had disappeared. So had the trees.

Chauncey wriggled out of the sleeping bag. He stood and scanned the landscape around him. He saw no trees. He stood in a meadow dotted with massive rocks, crisscrossed by a network of small streams. Bright wildflowers grew in a profusion of colors: red, yellow, azure, and purple. The sun shone with golden light just above the horizon.

He looked all about him until he heard something. He turned to see Anisa. He gaped. She stood about four feet away. She was barefoot and wore a coarse tunic-like garment, very short. She was barefoot. Her hair hung about her shoulders except for a long braid on the left side of her head.

"You idiot," she said. "What are you doing here?"

"I thought you would be happy to see me."

Her look softened. "Chauncey, you can't -"

He stepped over, took her in his arms, and kissed her.

"Don't," she said, pulling away.

"Why not?"

She did not reply. He kissed her again, feeling her lips soften and respond to him. She threw her arms around him. They kissed for several minutes. He unbuttoned the back of her tunic.

"No, don't," she pleaded.

"I won't if you don't want to."

She started to object but seemed to think better of it and kissed him. He finished unbuttoning her. She let the garment slip off and stood there in the golden sunlight - no bra, no underwear. The oddly configured light made her look even more beautiful.

"Let's get in the sleeping bag," he said, pointing, "unless you know where we can find trees or a cave so no one will see us."

She sat on the ground, pulling him down. "Here, that doesn't matter."

She lay back. He stripped off his clothing and took her in his arms. Anisa squealed, cried, and laughed as he made love to her. Cool breezes blew over them. The sun seemed to not merely warm Chauncey's body but to massage it. Anisa responded to him with a controlled wildness he had never known in her before. She had multiple orgasms (another new thing - for all her liberation, she had a strong streak of the sexually repressed Irish girl in her). He felt an avalanche of pleasure bury him as he finished. He rolled off of her, spent what seemed like a long time recovering, and looked back.

Her hair spilled over her like spun gold, the thin braid trailing to the ground. Her delicate breasts looked sweet in the unusual light of the place, their pale nipples and the splash of freckles that ran across the top of them glowing in the aura of morning. Her beauty made him smile.

"How did you get here?" she demanded, trying to maintain her posturing of controlled anger.

"I followed the directions. You know: second star to the right, straight on till morning."

"Very funny. Do you know what you've done, Chauncey?"

"I've come to a different world to bring back the woman I love."

"Stop it!" Tears gleamed in her eyes. "They'll kill you. You have to fight to take me back. In fact, you'll have to fight even if you decide not to take me back. Do you know what this means?" She held out the braid on the side of her head.

"No - other than you have beautiful hair."

"It means I belong to someone."

"Oh? They practice slavery here?"

"I -" she did not know how to respond. "I guess they do," she said, finding her determination. "You've got yourself in big trouble."

"How?"

"By fucking me, damn it!" She hit her fist against the ground. "The man who brought me here - his name is Sutton - he'll come after me - and you. He'll know what we did."

"Good. This guy thinks he owns you and obviously thinks he has some kind of right to you. Grab a woman and make her your sexual slave. That's illegal where I come from."

"This isn't where you come from."

"Nor you."

"He'll be here soon. He'll know you violated..." she stopped.

"His property?

She frowned. "Okay, yes. That's the way it is here. You'll have to fight him. In this place, the men know how to fight with swords. He'll kill you."

"We'll see who kills who."

"I wish you could kill him."

"What has he done to you, Anisa?"

"Nothing. Really. I haven't let him, and by law he can't force me. But I'll have to yield to him eventually or I'll become common property. Any man here can force himself on me when that happens - and they will too. That's just the way it is here."

"You keep saying that. If that's the way things are here, they need a revolution. It's time to change some things for the better."

"You don't what you're up against."

"I'm right, and I'm up against someone who is wrong. It's a foregone conclusion."

Tears spilled from her eyes. He started to comfort her but they heard the sound of horse's hooves.

"It's Sutton," she lamented. Chauncey threw on his jeans and shirt. Anisa lay there. A burly man approached riding a white horse, splashing through the streams, galloping and turned up chunk of earth. Chauncey stood there as he drew close. The horse bore down on him. He stood his ground and the rider reined it in at the last moment. He sat on the horse, looming over Chauncey, staring down from his mount. Broad-shouldered, tall, with long straw-colored hair and hard-set features, he looked formidable. A sword and dagger hung from his belt. He wore a black tunic embroidered with gold, black trousers and boots. His horse, a magnificent stallion with a sleek coat, its legs splattered with mud, panted and stamped. The rider patted the horse's neck.

"Who are you?" Sutton demanded.

Chauncey pondered, drew in a large breath, and spat on him.

Anisa screamed and stood up, still naked.

"That's the only reply you deserve, you lowlife bastard," Chauncey said. "How dare you come into my world and abduct the woman I love so you can make her your slave?

The man's hand was on his sword. Chauncey looked up defiantly.

"I suppose, if you want to murder me, there's no way I can stop you. It would be in keeping with your ethics and your cowardly ways. You obviously have no regard for law or propriety."

He saw his words had had their effect.

"I will not murder you," Sutton said, "though you deserve as much." He looked past Chauncey. "Get your clothes on," he ordered Anisa. She bent down to pick up her tunic. Chauncey reached back and pulled her in front of him.

"I prefer her in her simple beauty," he said, "which I cherished before you took her."

"You are asserting she is yours?"

"I am asserting she loves me. She is not 'mine,' not as you mean it. I find it abhorrent that you consider her your possession. She is a free woman and may choose her companion."

"Not here."

"Then I'm taking her back."

Sutton seemed to perk up. "You're challenging me for this woman?"

"You might say that."

"Chauncey, no! You need to leave."

"Don't be absurd." He looked up at Sutton. "Yes, I am. I want her for myself - not that I think of her as my property. I want to return her to her homeland."

"Then we will formalize this."

Anisa pulled Chauncey's hands away, turned, and walked over to get her tunic. Sutton trembled with rage.

"Woman, how dare you show your backside to me?" he roared. Anisa winced when he shouted but did not turn. Backside still toward Sutton, she put on the tunic and went to Chauncey. He glared at them. "I'll send messengers to you. I hope they can arrange things soon. It will give me great pleasure to kill you."

He slapped his horse with a rein. It turned and galloped away. Horse and rider disappeared behind a rise. Anisa began to cry.

"He'll murder you," she wept. "He'll cut you to pieces."

"Quiet." He held her as she sobbed. "What happens next? Do you know enough about this place to tell me?"

"He'll arrange a duel. The ruler here will send representatives. They'll offer you hospitality - they're big on that. They'll also arrange a combat between you two, a fight to the death. He'll kill you, Chauncey."

They spent the next hour together. Anisa cried and Chauncey tried to reassure her. Anisa looked up, her attention riveted to several riders coming their way.

"They're here to take us back to the village," she said. "They regard law highly in these parts - their law, I should say. If you successfully bring a person from our world to here, he or she is your property. If someone accepts a challenge, like you did from Sutton, you are obligated to fight. The people also value hospitality. They'll provide for our needs until its time for you two to face each other."

"Won't you have to return to him?"

"Since you've challenged him, I'm a free woman - until the fight is over."

"How did all these people know we were here? How did you know I was here?"

"Magic. You just know. In this world, magic is in the air you breathe."

The riders drew near to them. Three men and two women led a pair of saddled horses. They stopped, dismounted, bowed to Chauncey and Anisa, and introduced themselves, giving names that sounded Celtic or Old English: Lucinda, Avery, Marian, Giles, Devin. They were various ages, from young adult upward. After introductions, they spread cloths on the ground and set out a meal of cold meat, cheese, beer, and bread. Chauncey had been too nervous to eat in the morning and fell to with appetite. Anisa nibbled at a piece of cheese and an apple.

"When will you fight Sutton?" a woman named Lucinda asked.

"We haven't set a date," Chauncey replied.

"What weapon will you choose?" one of the men asked.

Chauncey concealed his surprise that he had a choice and said he had not yet decided.

"What is your trade in your world?" another asked.

"I'm a -" he almost said musician but changed his word to minstrel.

Their eyes brightened.

"You'll have to play for us," Lucinda said, her green eyes beaming with pleasure. "We like the music of your world. Do you know Torlough?"

He almost said no then remembered. He gasped.

"I do. He's here?"

"We brought him here."

"I thought he died in 1738."

"We exchanged one of our own who was sickly with him and, when he came here, restored him to health and youth. We changed our substitute so he looked exactly like Torlough. It was he who died. Torlough is with us yet today."

"I would certainly like to meet him."

"You shall. We'll arrange it."

"I brought my guitar," he said, gesturing. He had almost forgotten it was there. They loaded it on one of the horses along with his backpack and sleeping bag. As they mounted, he remembered mornings, the two of them riding across the Irish countryside, mist streaming from ponds and rivers, dew thick on the grass, the sun still pale, just above the horizon. She pulled the short tunic down as she settled into the saddle. He noticed the other women wore full dresses. Their party set out at an easy trot across the meadow with its stream, and beds of wildflower, heading for the village.

It was larger than Chauncey had imagined (he always connected "village" with a small settlement). Houses towered around them. Tall and narrow, some rose three or four stories or sat in trees far above the ground. Some were built on bridges spanning rivers, some on islands in ponds. He saw houseboats and houses suspended by networks of ropes and vines. Smells of manure, animals, and wood smoke filled the air. The people went about their business much the same as people in preindustrial times - carrying buckets of water, baskets of grain and vegetables, loads of wood, kegs of wine and beer. They led donkeys and goats; mothers herded children, men carried tools; better dressed men and women walked in groups locked in grave discussions, heads down, arms waving, fingers gesticulating. All of them were handsome or beautiful - as if he had come onto the set of a movie where all the people were exemplars of humanity, no one looked like a normal human being, and everyone was an actor or fashion model.

Their group stopped at the edge of a lake. Chauncey would live in a houseboat. Anisa would live in a tree house on the other side of town. Because two men were contending for her, she was not allowed to live with, or sleep with, either of them. They could, however, see each other, the authorities told them. They planned to get together that evening for dinner.

She went her way. The three men in the group gave him a tour of the house. Neat, comfortable, stocked with food, it charmed. He thanked them. They told him if he needed anything to contact them at the mayor's house.

He settled in. As Chauncey often did, he got out his guitar, sat down on the rustic but comfortable bed, and strummed a tune.

He played aimlessly, trying to imitate the rhythms of the lake water (he remembered the lines from the Yeats poems, "lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore"). When no tune suggested itself, he put the guitar down. Chauncey thought on what a dilemma he had constructed. In a short while, he would fight a combat to the death with a professional soldier. He had a snowball's chance in hell. The duel would probably last five seconds. Though he had taken fencing in college, he had not practiced and had not held a sword in his hands for years.

Despite the bleakness of the situation, he did not despair. For one, he wanted to free Anisa from slavery. He could not bear the thought of her being the concubine of a lout who had engaged in some kind of trans-dimensional abduction; and, he was an artist, his calling in life to come up with creative ideas - for songs, but the habit of creativity counted for something. If he could draw on the creative energy his love for Anisa generated, he might come up with a solution. He might hit upon a plan that would make him competitive with Sutton - that in fact would allow him to prevail. As he sat there on the bed and listened to the waters of the lake, he realized he had an idea already.

A noise interrupted his reverie. A line of dulcet notes - a harp, it had to be - drifted over the water. He listened, realized he knew the tune, and remembered. Chauncey got up, went outside, and followed the sound.

The notes grew louder as he approached what looked like a tavern, though he had no money to buy a drink, he went inside. In the main hall, up to a hundred were sitting, listening to a musician Chauncey recognized from the painting an unknown artist had done of him and from the sculpture in the city of Mohill, Ireland. He stared. He had been right: he was looking at, and listening to, the greatest musician from Irish history, Torlough O'Carolan.

The man had supposedly died in 1738. He remembered what Lucinda had told him. These people had abducted him on his deathbed, substituted a changeling, and brought him here. Chauncey stood and listened as he played. The man's hands moved in an easy sweep over the harp strings. A cascade of notes filled the room. The audience listened, captivated. A young girl came up to Chauncey and asked if he wished to sit. He nodded. She showed him to a table. He sat with five others.

"You're the man from the other world?" she asked.

He nodded.

"May I bring you drink?"

"I don't have any money."

"You are a guest of our village," she answered. "All is given to you for free."

He ordered wine. She brought a ceramic pitcher filled with marvelously flavored red (it tasted something like merlot) and a goblet. Chauncey drank and listened.

Carolan played "Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór" and then "Captain Kane" and "Planxty John Irwin" (he often titled a composition after the patron for whom it was written). Chauncey felt a hand gently touch his shoulder, turned, and saw Lucinda. She wore a purple gown, a gold torq around her neck, her fingers heavy with rings. Her dark brown hair encircled her head in an elaborate braid.

"May I sit with you, Chauncey?"

He nodded. She settled into the chair beside him.

"He plays marvelously," she commented after a moment.

"I love his work." He thought and then said, "He's blind, like when he was on earth. Can't you cure him with your magic?"

"We can do so easily. He refuses. No one understands why, but we will not force a cure on him."

Chauncey listened. He heard two more pieces he knew. Lucinda took his hand as they sat enraptured by the melodies floating through the hall. He thought to shake off her grip but decided it might be rude. He did not know the customs of this land and did not want to give offense to anyone. They held hands all through the concert. Carolan finished playing, rose, bowed, and, carrying his harp, stepped from the platform and found his way to table without any assistance.

Lucinda rose, bent down, kissed his hair, and smiled.

"I'll be at your house when the sun touches the tops of the trees, she said, loudly enough that everyone at their table heard her. She glanced at them. They met her eyes and nodded, as if agreeing to something. With that, she left. He took leave of the people at the table and went over to where Carolan sat.

He approached the table, trepidation stirring in his soul. "Master Carolan," he called timidly.

"An earthling," he said. "I can tell by your voice. Like me, you've been pirated here. Please sit. Anita?" the bar girl came to their table. "A pitcher of ale for the young man, whose name I regret to say I have not yet learned."

"Chauncey. Chauncey Austin, sir."

"Austin," he said. "You're an Orangeman."

"I try not to engage in partisan quarreling. One has no choice what tribe one is born into."

"True, and I knew many good Orangemen in my time who helped us in our struggle against the English. I agree with your sentiment. We'll speak no more of such matters. You're probably the lover of the girl Sutton dragged into the village a while back."

"I am."

"I thought so. It isn't hard to put two and two together if you live in this place as a Son of Earth. I feel for the girl. She seemed unhappy. Who couldn't feel so with that criminal Sutton carrying her away?"

When he spoke he held his head like blind people do, stretching upward, ears slightly cocked so as to hear better.

"I challenged Sutton to a duel," Chauncey said.

"I've heard that as well. Word spreads quickly around here."

"The duel has to be formalized. I have to choose a weapon. I have an idea and want to ask your opinion of it."

He explained to Carolan what he had in mind. He listened, his lips occasionally forming into a spiteful smile. He laughed when Chauncey finished.

"That, lad, is an idea come from the Devil himself."

"Is it possible?"

He thought a long moment. "I want to say 'no,'" he finally answered, "but what you propose seems to fall out right. The Council will have to consider it, but you have a good chance of getting what you desire. A lot of people on the Council dislike Sutton. I'm playing for a Council dinner tonight. I'll put a good word in for you, boy - without revealing your plan, of course. I'd say, do it. It's probably the only chance you have of staying alive. You must excuse me now. I need to dine and rest before I play."

"Certainly, sir. I only have one thing to ask before you go."

"What would that be?"

"Can we play music together sometime?"

He laughed. "What do you play?"

"Guitar."

"I've heard that instrument. It was quite the rage in England in my day. I think it sounds loud and heavy, but we'll play. I'll contact you tomorrow."

Carolan took his leave and found his way out of the tavern. Again, he made his way without assistance.

Chauncey drank his wine and the pitcher of ale Carolan had bought him. Thoroughly drunk, he staggered back to his houseboat and slept until he sensed it was time to meet Anisa. He felt miserable from drinking too much. Elven booze registered high on alcohol content. He brought a bucket of water up from the well and splashed large quantities of it on his face. He dried, finishing just as Anisa came in.

She wore a light blue dress that came to her ankles. They had given her boots and jewelry (they seemed to like jewelry here); someone had braided her hair, winding gold and red thread through the coils. He kissed her and remarked that she had cast off her minidress.

"This is how a free woman dresses. I don't like it. It's hot and uncomfortable. Come on. I know a small inn nearby. The food is good and we'll have some privacy there."

They walked through the village. "Are they treating you well?" Chauncey asked.

"They're treating me as a free woman. What are you going to do about the combat with Sutton?"

"Carolan and I have come up with a solution."

She tried to talk him into telling his plan but he refused to reveal it. At the inn they ate roast pork, turnips, bread, and green beans. They drank ale.

"Be careful," Anisa warned. "Their drink is strong."

"I've found that out."

He told her about the concert and mentioned that Lucinda held his hand. Anisa put down her fork and covered her face with both hands.

"Jesus," she said.

"What's wrong?"

She let her hands drop. "You agreed to screw her when you did that. You shouldn't have held her hand."

"And how was I supposed to know that? Mental telepathy?"

She sighed. "I'm sorry. I should have told you. She'll come to you tonight. If you refuse her, they'll kill you."

"Why?"

"One of their laws - they consider it an insult and a defamation of her character if you refuse. Lucinda said out loud she would come to you, didn't she? She said so other people could hear her?" He remembered the people at the table.

"She did, yes."

"They were her witnesses." She gritted her teeth. "Okay, you had no way of knowing. I won't hold it against you. Give her a good one. Her husband is on the Council."

"Husband?"

"Chauncey, it's different here. Everyone fucks everyone else. She'll go home tonight and tell her husband if you were good and he'll tell her about the woman he took to bed. They'll have a sweet, wonderful time comparing notes. That's how it is. I should have told you. Just don't refuse her, please."

They ate. Neither had much to say. Their relationship had developed to the point that they understood each other and did not need to talk a lot. She embraced and kissed him when they finished. He told her he would defeat Sutton and free her.

"And this whole thing has shown me it's time for us to get married. We'll do it the moment we get back - if you agree, of course."

"I won't gainsay your words. I could probably come up with a rational argument that says one, you'll never succeed at defeating Sutton; and, two, how dare you be so uncivilized as to assert you are going to marry me like that? This is a land of magic, though. I'll just pray the magic here will work in our favor."

He went back. When the sun touched the tops of the trees above the pond on which his houseboat rested, Lucinda appeared. She rode up on an animal that looked like a llama but was muscular and strong like a horse. She wore a gold dress and red sandals. Her hair flowed loosely about her shoulders. Two girls dressed in the short tunics of slave came with her. They had walked. One of them was pregnant.

The slave girls heated water and drew a bath. Lucinda got right down to business. Her slaves undressed her. Chauncey stripped and climbed into the tub with her. When they were in the bath, the pregnant servant gave Lucinda a silver phial. She drank from it and handed it to Chauncey, telling him to finish it. He drank it off. It tasted sweet. He soon realized it was an aphrodisiac.

He had taken Spanish fly and Horney Goat Weed. They rated zero in comparison to what Lucinda gave him. For the first time in his life he screwed a woman in a bathtub. The hot water did not hamper his ability (he had tried this once with Anisa and had been humbled - he still remembered her laughing at him). They thrashed and flailed, splashing water on the floor. The servant girls, apparently practiced at this, sopped the water up with towels. They found fresh towels and dried Chauncey and Lucinda when they climbed out of the tub. The two of them went into the kitchen and had wine (they did not bother to dress for the rest of the night). In less than an hour, they were locked in an embrace once more.

And so it went all night. They engaged in every sort of pleasure. His lust for her and hers for him did not lag or diminish - nor did Chauncey's ability to respond. He woke in bright light. Anisa sat in a chair beside his bed.

"I thought you'd never wake up," she said.

He tried to sit up. A jolt of pain shot through him.

"It will take a while for your lower back and everything below your waistline to recover. Your body isn't use to that level of... shall we call it 'activity.'"

"What did she give me?"

"It's called Koetrey. It's an aphrodisiac made from a flower by the same name."

"When we leave here, be sure we take some cutting of it with us. We'd make a fortune selling it - especially in Ireland."

"There's an herb that will heal you, but only the nobility are allowed to have the treatment."

A tap came on the door. Anisa said to come in. it opened and one of the servant girls who had come last night stepped in and bowed.

"Please you, Master Chauncey, I have brought healing balm for you," she said, as if in answer to what Anisa had just told him. "And if you will have the pleasure of my body" - she looked over at Anisa - "or if you would wish the pleasure of my body, Lady, I am at both your desires."

Chauncey said he did not desire her just now. Anisa helped the slave girl draw a bath. The salts fizzed when they threw them in the tub. A scent like jasmine filled the room. Chauncey managed to climb into the wooden tub and felt the treated water engulf him. His pain disappeared in moments. Anisa dismissed the slave girl. He looked at her.

"So with Lucinda - that's how it is?" he asked.

"Everyone fucks everyone else here," she muttered.

"All the more reason to get you out."

"I hope you can."

She took a soapy cloth and began to wash his shoulders.



Shortly after Chauncey finished his bath and put on the change of clothing he had stored in his backpack, a messenger came and said the Council had assembled and would formalize the challenge between him and Sutton. People in this world did not plan or schedule, he saw. They simply did things. Two locals escorted him into a structure that looked right out of the Elizabethan era: half-timbered, thatched roof, small crazy-glass windows. He walked up a flight of polished wooden stairs into what looked remarkably like the room where Shakespeare attended grammar school. Sutton stood on one side. The men gestured. Chauncey took a place opposite Sutton. The Council, seven in number, sat in chairs a on a raised dais. Anisa dropped back and joined the crowd of people stood on either side of the room.

Chauncey had expected long, elaborate formalities, but the Leader of the Council looked at both of them and said, not rising out of the chair she sat in, "We have gathered to formalize the terms of the duel between Sutton and Chauncey to determine who will possess the woman, Anisa. Are you gentlemen determined to fight to the death over the right to her?"

Sutton said, "Aye." Chauncey said, "Yes."

"Time of the duel will be tomorrow when the sun is one degree past noon in the city courtyard. As Chauncey is the challenged party, choice of weapon is his. What weapon do you chose?"

"Guitar," he said.

The Leader of the Council and everyone else in the room, including Anisa, gaped. The Leader leaned forward.

"I'm not certain I understand you, young man."

"Guitar is a musical instrument. I am challenging Sutton to a duel of music, not conventional weaponry."

The Leader's face showed a mixture of caution, puzzlement, and censure. "This is most unusual," she said.

"Music is the weapon I chose."

"This has no precedent, but I am intrigued," a Council member who wore a funny-looking Renaissance hat said. Chauncey remembered Carolan's promise to speak to the Council. Perhaps this man was one of Sutton's enemies. "I can't recall that such weaponry is forbidden."

The Leader made to speak, but another Council member - another woman - beat her to the punch.

"Our laws say the weapon be 'a thing in the use of which a noble is trained.' All our nobility must learn music of some sort."

Murmuring arose in the hall. The Leader clapped her hands. Silence fell.

"This is most unusual." She looked about, flustered, not certain what to do, and said, "Clear the hall. The Council will debate the matter and call you back when we have made a determination."

Talking among themselves, variously concerned, amused, wary, and thoughtful, the Council members began their debate. The crowd dispersed. Anisa came up to Chauncey. She wanted to embrace him, he sensed, but refrained.

"Let's go downstairs," she said. "Chauncey, why didn't you tell me what you meant to do? I worried and tossed all night. I didn't sleep a wink because I thought I'd see you die tomorrow. Now you have a chance, if the council decides in your favor. Did Torlough think of this?"

"No. I thought of it, but I ran the idea by him and he said he would use his influence with the Council to help me out. Was the first man who spoke Lucinda's husband?"

"No, but he's for you."

"I would think he'd be against me since I screwed his wife last night."

"That's because you're thinking the way our world thinks. He's very pleased you gave Lucinda a good time and is well-disposed to you."

"How do you know this?"

"I know you're good, lover boy," she whispered in his ear, pulling him away and looking around to make certain no one could heard them. "I know that from experience. I could tell by the smirk on his face and the way he looked at you that he's on your side. He hates Sutton. Come on, let's go downstairs."

They walked down the narrow staircase. A mass of people crowded the town square. Most bent toward each other, animatedly debating whether music could be the weapon in a duel. Vendors had appeared to sell food to the crowd. Kelly, Lucinda's slave, brought some sort of fritter for them and tankards of ale.

"Compliments of the master and mistress," she said.

Chauncey and Anisa ate and drank and returned upstairs when a bell rang indicating the Council had reached a decision. Sutton and Chauncey resumed their places up front. The Chair rose. Chauncey's mouth felt dry. Anisa closed her eyes and did something he had never seen her do. She moved her lips in prayer and then crossed herself. The hall fell silent.

"After considerable discussion," the Leader said, "we have concluded that music is indeed a legitimate means for settling a duel since, like the use of conventional weaponry, it is a learning requirement for anyone who attains the title of nobility."

Anisa dissolved in tears. Chauncey wanted to go to her but knew ceremony demanded he stay where he was. The announcement brought on a current of whispering in the room. The Leader called for order.

"The duel will take place tomorrow when the sun is at one," she said. "Given the unusual nature of this challenge, it will be held inside, at the Fig Tree Inn. The Council and two representatives from the village will sit as judges. The verdict of the judges will be final and not open to appeal. After the decision of the Council, the consequences of victory and of loss will be decided."

The Leader clapped her hands to adjourn the meeting. Loud, excited talk immediately broke out. The novelty of the duel had captured the imagination of the people there. Anisa wept. Chauncey risked putting his arms around her as she sobbed. When he took her to his house and they sat on the porch overlooking the lake, she managed to smile.

"I should have known," she said. "I should have known you would find a way to level the playing field, you tricky, quirky bastard."

"The playing field isn't level," he shot back. "It's tilted uphill in my direction - all to my advantage."

"Don't get overconfident. Remember, Sutton has been trained in music. People of his social rank are required to learn an art and almost all of them opt for music."

"What does he play?"

"He sings - throat singing."

"What?"

"Medieval throat singing, like Sting does on his Christmas album."

"I don't like those cuts."

"I don't either, but the people here like it a lot. And his family will be here."

"So?"

"They're a bunch of thugs, just like he is. They'll try to use their influence. And they're not above intimidating people."

He wanted her to spend the night with him but she said they would be arrested if they did and she would possibly be hanged. "It isn't worth the risk."

She went home late. He got out his guitar and wondered what to play, deciding on melodic and beautiful pieces rather than numbers that would show off his technical skill. Since they liked Carolan, he decided to do one of his pieces - more than one if called upon. A knock came at his door. It was Kelly, the slave girl. She looked afraid.

"Please you, sir. My mistress sends me to give you this."

She handed him a parchment. In the bright moonlight, he read the following (written in runes with an English translation below it):

Chauncey -

Sutton's relatives are coming to kill you. Flee to my house.

Ferron and I can protect you. Come at once.

- Lucinda


He crumpled the note in his hand. "We'd better go now," he said.

A noise broke the stillness of night. A tall, blond man leaped on to the houseboat and seized Kelly. A figure who looked like him but older strode up.

"Take this girl to the lake and drown her," he said.

Without even taking time to think, Chauncey landed a hard punch in the younger man's mouth. He cursed and fell back, letting go of Kelly.

"Run!" he shouted. She scurried off, disappearing into the night as the man who had seized her got to his feet. Chauncey bolted out the back door, falling in the pond but at a spot only a foot deep. He sloshed to the shore. Sutton's relatives (had to be, he thought - they looked like him) heard the splash and, thinking he had jumped in the water, jumped in themselves. A group of four, however, saw Chauncey running away and gave chase. Able to see because of the moonlight, he sprinted toward the tavern, burst through the front doors, and asked if he could sit at a table that had an empty seat. The two musicians he had heard earlier were still playing. Sutton's relatives muscled their way inside but slowed when they saw where he was. After a whispered conference, they put on smiling faces and allowed a waitress to lead them to a table. Two of them drifted over to stand by doors that would be routes of escape.

As he tried to think of what to do, the two musicians finished a number, stood, bowed, and stepped down from the stage. Prolonged cheering rose from the crowd. The musicians took another bow and sat at a table to drink with friends. Chauncey wondered if the place would close. At that moment, Carolan made his way to stage.

The crowd applauded happily. A man carried a chair for him to sit on and then brought his harp. He found the strings, and began to play.

The hall grew still. Even the men who had come for the purpose of murder listened, their faces drawn with astonishment. A waitress brought Chauncey ale. He was drunk already but thanked her and sipped it. The other people at the table said they wanted one more tankard before the place closed. He wondered what to do, but when he looked up at Carolan, the answer came as if by magic. Carolan began a slow air. Chauncey rose and walked toward the back door.

The guard posted by the door seemed not to see him approach. Moving cautiously, careful not to make noise and break the spell of the music, he walked past the guard and outside. None of the others from Sutton's family noticed he had gone.

Outside, he heard a whispered voice. "Chauncey!" Lucinda stood there right next to Kelly. Several armed men with lanterns stood around her. "Come."

She and her armed servants escorted him to safety. Once inside the house, Kelly began to cry. Lucinda went over and kissed her.

"You saved her life," Lucinda said. "She saw you run to the inn and hastened here to tell us where you were." Kelly wept and trembled. Some other slave women came and took her away. Lucinda turned to face him.

"I am grateful to you for saving my slave girl," she said. "I will grant you a boon."

He did not know exactly what she meant by "a boon," but decided it was not the time to ask.

"I couldn't bear the thought of those bastards murdering a helpless young woman. Pigs. Shits."

Ferron, Lucinda's husband, came into the room. Though Chauncey was drunk, he accepted a flagon of wine. Affable and friendly, her husband said the attempted assault would work to Chauncey's advantage. "Everyone in town knows about it now, and the people are not happy with Sutton. This will go against him in the contest tomorrow."

He thought their ideas of justice were maladjusted, but he held his peace. Though more confident than before, he still felt a lot of anxiety about the duel. He decided the only way he would be able to sleep was to drink until he passed out. He and Ferron toasted. Chauncey woke up in bed with a hangover. Lucinda came in, took off her nightgown, and climbed in with him. Her lovemaking soothed him and cured his hangover. He washed and went to breakfast. Ferron and he heartily ate corn cakes, sausage, and drank ale. Ferron asked if Lucinda was good this morning.

"Very nice. She's a marvelous woman."

"She is queen of the royal bed. I had Kelly this morning. Let me know if you would like to bed that little trull and I'll send her your way."

When breakfast and talk ended, they made their way to the Fig Tree. People had packed the inside, spilling into the courtyard, sitting on roofs and balconies of adjoining buildings and in the limbs of nearby trees.

Sutton's relatives, looking hostile but frustrated, sat in at the front tables. Sutton had taken a place on the same stage Carolan had performed upon last night. Chauncey looked around but did not see the harper. Lucinda had sent Kelly to get his guitar. He waited for her in a small room behind the main hall. Armed guards, Ferron told him, accompanied her to Chauncey's house just in case the relatives tried more mischief. When she brought the guitar, he took her wrist in a non-threatening way.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"Ferron was rough with me this morning. I didn't perform as well as he expected because I was upset over what happened last night. After we finished, he beat me."

Chauncey muttered an obscenity and then turned to her.

"Is there any way you can get out of this place, Kelly?"

"I've been here too long to return."

"Do people age here?"

"Yes, but very slowly. If I went home, I wouldn't know anyone. I think I'll live here until I'm dead - in a thousand years or so. I don't like living as a slave, but someday Raymond might be able to buy my freedom."

"Tell me who Raymond is."

"A man from our world - a goldsmith. They kidnapped him to be their jeweler and gold-worker." She looked around. "When I can, I see him," she said, lowering her voice. "He wants to live here too. He's saving his money and someday he'll buy me so I can marry him. If he wasn't in my life, I probably would have killed myself long ago."

"Is he a slave?"

"They gave him status as a free man."

He heard Lucinda call him. It was time to fight the duel.

The Leader of the Council stepped up and read a proclamation - more or less an official version of what she had said yesterday, giving rules and conditions. "Let the contest begin," she said, and stepped down. By the rules of engagement, Sutton, the offended party, went first.

The crowd became still as Sutton began. He must have had a good teacher, Chauncey noted, because he sang well, the music throaty and measured. He sang in dialect, so Chauncey could not under the words. The audience seemed to know the song. People sitting near him silently mouthed the words as Sutton sang. He went on for maybe four minutes and then stopped. After a silent moment, the crowd broke into applause.

The Leader invited him to come forward. He sat in a chair, checked the tuning on his guitar, and began.

He had decided on a medley of three songs by Carolan. He began with "Bridget Cruise," a slow, melodic air, launched into the fast strains of "James Plunkett,' and then segued into "Carolan's Cottage." Confidence made the music flow naturally. Lines of notes rushed out and filled the tavern. Their beauty caught the audience and (he allowed himself to glance at them) the Council too. When he finished, a longer pause than Sutton had brought on passed. Then the room exploded in clapping, cheering, and whistling that went on for more than a minute. Chauncey stood, bowed, and stepped down. The Council conferred and the Leader stepped up to declare the winner.

He saw Anisa in the crowd. They had agreed not to meet that morning so Chauncey could concentrate on his playing. She mouthed a kiss. He smiled in return.

Sutton approached the stage. His relatives looked sullen. Chauncey felt relief that they were unarmed. He felt urge to smirk at the man who had ordered one of his underlings to drown Kelly (who stood by her mistress Lucinda just a few feet from him), but restrained himself.

The Leader of the Council stepped forward, regarded both candidates, and then spoke.

"By unanimous vote of the Council, the winner of this duel is Chauncey Austin."

Once more, wild cheering filled the place. Chauncey smiled and looked about, wondering if Carolan was there, but he did not see him. Sutton's relatives stirred, but the Council had placed armed men with pikes and in armor all about. The kinsmen trembled with impotent rage. When the ovation ended, the Leader turned to him.

"As victor, this man is at your mercy. The nature of the contest is unusual, since duels normally end in the death of one or the other participant. Death is not an option of judgment in this case. The Council has determined that your opponent will serve as a guard in the northern territories for the remainder of his days. This judgment shall not be amended and there will be no reprieve. That is the Council's judgment. You may state your own judgment at this time."

Chauncey looked at the angry but defeated figure of Sutton. Even in his abjectness he exuded arrogance. Chauncey looked back at the Leader.

"My judgment is this: all his monies, lands, and possessions will become mine. When he goes to fight, he will go with nothing."

Rage showed on the faces of his relatives. The Leader gave them a stern glance. "We will expedite it."

"Something else," Chauncey said. He turned to the crowd. "Lucinda." Looking puzzled, she stepped forward. "You said last night you would grant me a boon."

"I did, and speak it again. I will grant you a boon."

"The boon I ask is that the slave girl Kelly be given to me as my slave."

Lucinda blinked. She looked shocked but recovered and smiled.

"Of course." She looked over at her servant girl. "Kelly." Kelly came forth and bowed. "You have served me well. Here, in the presence of these witnesses, I transfer ownership of you to Chauncey Austin."

Eyes wide with astonishment, she walked over to Chauncey and knelt. He told her to get up. When she stood, he placed her at his side as an equal.

"I am marrying this young woman to Raymond Goldsmith," he announced. "Is he here?"

The crowd buzzed and looked about. A young man with red hair and blue eyes came forward.

"Do you accept this woman as your bride?" Chauncey asked.

He nodded. Chauncey joined their hands. Kelly shook, trying to hold back tears.

"All the monies and property I received from Sutton's estate I give to Kelly as a dowry. When she is officially married to Raymond, I declare her set free."

Kelly collapsed in a half-faint. Raymond caught her. Some women carried her to a corner and revived her. By that time Anisa had worked her way to the front of the crowd. She sprang up on to the stage, threw her arms around Chauncey, and kissed him. The huge crowd, now in a festive mood, responded with a round of thunderous applause.

He still did not see Carolan.



The rest of the day the Council settled formalities. They drew up writs declaring Kelly's transfer to Chauncey's ownership and her freedom. A longer document stipulated that Sutton would be put into state service "in the figure of demise," which meant he could not leave the military service to which the state had assigned him. His status reduced him, more or less, to slavery. He would spend the rest of his life, Ferron told them later, guarding the northern borders and living off his army pay and rations, never able to hold a title, acquire property, marry, or speak in public. He had been technically killed in the duel and hence would spend his existence barred from privileges the living enjoyed. The Council also issued a marriage license for Kelly and Raymond.

Chauncey and Anisa spent their last night at Lucinda's place. He wondered if she would be piqued at him for taking her favorite slave girl or if Ferron would be angry because one of his best whores would be gone. Neither showed the least regret. He remembered, to his disgust, that they saw Kelly not as a human being but as an object. She could be replaced. In fact, she already had been replaced by an exquisitely beautiful young woman who looked as if she might be Indian or Malay. Ferron offered her to Chauncey, who thanked him for his graciousness but declined the offer.

Too worn out to make love, Chauncey and Anisa slept in each other's arms. In the morning, Lucinda and Ferron fed them and escorted them to the stream-quilted meadow where Chauncey had arrived only three days ago.

"Do you know where Carolan was through all of this?"

Ferron shook his head.

"I just asked because we were supposed to play music together."

"He is a free man and comes and goes as he wishes," Ferron said. He smiled and added, "Sometimes we don't see him for months. But wherever he might have been, I would say he had his hand on your heart to guide the way you played yesterday."

Chauncey could never fully despise Ferron after he said this.

After much kissing and many good-byes, Chauncey gathered his guitar and backpack. Ferron and Lucinda led them to a large fairy-ring. They stepped inside. Lucinda spoke an incantation. A roar of noise assaulted their ears - traffic, they realized. Crowds jostled them. The air smelled of exhaust and gasoline. Buildings towered over them.

"This isn't the place we left from," he said. "Are we in Dublin?"

She laughed, looking up at the skyscrapers. "Are you kidding? This isn't Dublin." She looked around her. "This is New York City." She pointed to the digital billboards all around them. "Looks, there's TKTS - and the Nokia Theater. We're on Times Square, Chauncey."

They broke into laughter.

"Lucinda must have missed," Chauncey quipped.

A sly look came into Anisa's eyes. "She didn't miss." She pointed to a display flashing on a digital board by the double glass doors of the theater. The red letters read 4:00 TODAY - SOSSITY CHANDLER AND THE UGLY LAMP BAND. The words broke up and formed to give ticket prices. Through the doors, they saw Tonya Aldair, Sossity's manager, and Jason, her bodyguard. Chauncey took Anisa's arm.

"Let's go in and see if she'll lend us the money to get a flight back to home."

Chauncey and Anisa walked into the lobby. Tonya and Jason recognized them from the times he had opened for Sossity's band. They smiled.

"Chauncey, Anisa!" Tonya said. "I didn't know you guys were in New York."

They returned her smile. Just then Sossity, carrying a guitar, walked into the lobby.

1 comment:

  1. There's some magic in the writing. This story took me to a place that I haven't been before. Well done!

    ReplyDelete