Sunday, June 26, 2011

Musical teaser: The Dragon Ring

This isn't exactly a spoiler, but it is from where the book begins to work towards an ending. Still, what's exciting about it is the music. Don't worry about the plot elements you have no background for. It will all make sense eventually., For now, sit back and enjoy the show.


 "So am I done yet?” Ben wondered aloud. “Game over? Because really, I appreciate the R&R but I’d like to get out of here and go get my kid and wake up my wife.”

Raven had no answer. Falling into step, they strolled easily together down the sloping lawns, following the stream toward to the bottom of the hill. Down there was a reflecting pool where suddenly a fountain sprang up, shooting and spilling shards of fragile colors that glinted like diamonds in the night air. Just there, the full moon’s light seemed particularly wide spread, lighting up the manicured lawns and but keeping the furzy edges for the shyer of the fair folk, quite like the meadow where Oberon’s country house lay.

Down there, too, invisible yet unmistakable, music sprang up as well—sudden, lively, quick with joy and the deep undercurrent of a drum, filling the air. Music for dancing, for tapping your feet, for ... In fact, it sounded rather like a well-used folk guitar and a bodhran, a battered tin whistle, and a fiddle. More to the point, it sounded exactly like Dinah, Tom, Brian and Morgan banging out Dr O’Neill’s, the rollicking jig they generally used to open the first gig in a new place. In just about a minute-thirty it would bounce neatly into Merry Maids then Kid on the Mountain, and by that time folks would be clapping along and starting to grin. In short order someone would be up and dancing, at least bouncing enthusiastically in time to the music. And if not stopped, they would roll on through half a dozen reels and jigs until they had to halt for lack of beer.

The music got clearer the closer he got to the splashing waters, and he realized he was smiling and his heart was lighter for the first time since all this adventure had begun. And when Ben looked, looked properly through the moonlight, past the lights shed so promiscuously by the fountain, he saw— he was so used to weird by now that it was hardly worth mentioning—Dinah and the gang doing their opening set under strings of stars on some kind of stage, and he was walking faster, almost dancing to the rhythm on the long grass.

Scattered under the trees where the hill rolled into flat meadow, he noticed cafe tables made out of big wooden cable spools set on end, each with a candle burning in a jelly glass in the middle. Around each table sat hay bales covered with brightly colored rugs and tapestries against the dews and damps, seating for the folk who came to listen, clap along, and dance..

Something like a make-shift bar resolved on the left, just where in his mind’s eye he expected to see it: a rugged, much re-painted wooden structure that looked familiar, except that the last time he’d seen anything like it, he was a kid in California. The rich odors of Turkish coffee, spicy chai with the bite of grated ginger, and something that must be, yeah, venison chili wafted from it to mix with the rich smells of earth and trees, candle flame and dancing waters. Ben breathed it in like the scents of home, and his smile just got bigger.

The booth was painted with what in this light seemed to be a fading red, and the counter strained under the burden of two huge coffee urns. A massive antique espresso machine took a place of honor, he knew, somewhere inside. To one side a glass case displayed pastries from honey-dripping diamonds of baklava to fanciful constructions of marzipan and magic, and a single, plain cake donut. Overhead in scrolling Moorish-style script floated a sign that had seen too many oak forest summers, which read: Last Call: We Never Close. Mortals Welcome.

Behind the counter, Gaezel and others of her sisterhood flirted and laughed, their hair tied up in gypsy scarves, pouring drinks and dishing up food. There were other mortals here it seemed, as well as fae of all sorts. There was also more than coffee and tea to drink. Jewel-like pitchers and bottles with exotic labels stood ready for pouring wine, mead, and cider, lemonade and metheglin, and more besides. Ben half expected to see Aubrey behind the bar, but the faerie king was nowhere to be seen. Presiding instead was mighty Odin in a plain tunic and embroidered Moorish vest, with his braid over his shoulder, clapping along with the music and pinching the girls.

Ben’s friends, who called themselves Faerie Reel when pressed for a name, had set up on a sturdy wooden platform covered with Persian rugs and draped with silken scarves. More instruments were ranged behind them at the back wall—they seem to have brought everything but the infamous banjo, including an empty chair and a harp—his harp, Moytura, whole and waiting for him, vibrating in the flickering light.

Gobsmacked, he stood stock still by the counter and watched them play, and in another moment he was tapping his foot, and in another his fingers were striking imaginary strings in the air in front of him. Dinah saw him coming from where she stood bowing a passionate fiddle. She caught his eye and gestured, her whole body swinging to point him toward the place they’d made for him at center stage, the waiting chair, the harp. Moytura, his harp.

Tears in his eyes, Ben shook his head and looked away.

“Raven, I haven’t got time for this,” he shouted over the sweet din just as the set crashed to its end and a shout rose up from the tables and down from the tree branches, crying out in their musical voices for more. Some of the faerie lights twinkling in the trees were real faeries who shrieked and turned fluttery somersaults in the air, applauding like crickets chirping.

“You’ve got all the time there is, sir,” said Raven. “This place on the Borderland was made for you at my lord’s command. Your friends were only too happy to come.

“So they’re not...?”

“Enchanted, sir?” The boy smiled, reminding Ben again of a very superior butler. “Only by the prospect of gigging in Faerie, though I’m told there was some bit of doubt at the beginning. You’ll notice they brought ... well, everything, including the amplifiers and the drum kit.”

“Electricity?” Ben said doubtfully.

“For that, there is a spell,” said Raven, eyes crinkling with delight. “They are not the only musicians here tonight, as I’m sure you realize. Anything may happen, who knows.”

“And Moytura! My god! Raven, she was smashed! Wasn’t she smashed?”

“Magic, Ben, remember? You must tell me if she fails to sound as she should. And before you ask again, we are in a bubble, you might say, outside of time entire. Six mortal hours will pass here, eight if you can bear it, while no time passes outside, and hearts ease.“

“But we’re not...” Ben stammered, starry eyed, aching to play. “We’re not finished! I haven’t earned...”

“You have had your heart broken, and while we cannot mend it, nor any hearts, you have earned the chance to mend it yourself. Follow your gift, Ben Harper.”

“People keep telling me that,” Ben said, threading his way through the tables to hop up on the little stage. Two thoughts interlaced in his mind as his friends spilled out from behind their instruments to bury him in hugs and exclamations:

This is where I belong.
If only Mellis were here.

It was Moytura waiting for him, his darling and his mistress, carved of English oak by a master to Ben’s own design, with dragon scroll work in the pillar, inlaid in part with old gold, bronze and copper. Her bronze and amalgam strings hummed under the enormous tension that let him play loud and fast without ever reaching for a string without finding it. Or when the mood was intimate and soft, he had only to touch and release. Coaxing the music from her was not so much playing as simply thinking it,

For being able to afford such an instrument, he was grateful to the career he’d chosen and now was about to abandon. Was he about to abandon it? Wasn’t he just taking a year off? The thought made him jump a little, but he set it aside for later, turning Mellis’s wedding ring on his little finger. When this was all done. They would talk. Just now, settling in the chair and rocking Moytura back into his arms, Ben thought he should play some music.

The silence grew around him as he sat and waited for the silence to form. Dinah and the others had gone for a beer and left the stage to Ben Harper alone, but they’d be back soon enough. The tables nearest the stage were crowded with the great fae, the most human seeming of their kind, with long slender limbs and jewel-like eyes. Some had brought their mortal lovers, or those who were simply friends of the house. The two wild boys who had herded ponies on the moor were there braiding each others’ hair and sipping chai. Beyond the fairest folk, lurking in the trees and hovering in the air, the moonlight revealed flower fairies and green ladies, weedy looking goblins, a brownie and a wee, small man chomping on a pipe. All waiting, all hushed.

Now the only music in the faerie glade was the sparking of the fountain, and a few random fairies giggling like the sound of tiny bells.



Ben touched the strings, and because he was thinking of his wife and his life, he simply let the music come, improvising, soothing his heart with the music until almost inevitably, he was playing Chris Caswell’s West Country Girl. He was half way through the first chorus before he realized where Moytura had led him--to Mellis, his own West Country girl--so he let the harp have her way until the verse came round again and he could join in with the lyric of passion and loss.

But the short songs of summer gone silent gave way
To the winter of wanting....

And the longing grew. What dreams was she wandering in, he wondered, and how would he find her again?

Artlessly he segued into the high wild melancholy of Wild Swans, and Tom’s guitar joined in, then the bodhran in Morgan’s clever hands tossed off a cadence, and with a look he shifted gears and threw them into King of the Fairies that got feet tapping, as Oberon had meant it to when he gave it to the blind Irishman. Before he was quite done with that, Dinah’s dulcimer joined in, and they were barreling into a set of reels that had no names, just the numbers on an old play list.

After a quick break, just enough to breathe and swap instruments a bit, they started again—just to be fair—with The Faerie Queen (O’Carolan’s, not Purcell’s, though bits of that came later) and for balance, the tripping tune about the big fae and the little one, Si Beg, Si Mor. It was a little, Ben guessed, like playing Danny Boy at an Irish wedding: it was probably a cliché but they wanted to hear it, and so they did. Three tiny faeries fluttered down from the over-hanging tree and perched on the high curve of Moytura’s neck to listen.

Just as in mortal lands, he found, in Faerie a harper spends a lot of time in the 18th century with the music of blind O’Carolan. The man had produced hundreds of tunes, and the fae ate it up as if they’d written it themselves, and some of it they had. But there’s more to the music beloved of immortals than old Irish tunes, and thanks to the clues Ben had found in the diary, they played and sang those too.

A double handful of songs later, Aubrey arrived. He strolled toward the stage swiftly changing a two-tone Ricky Ricardo jacket for a tie-dyed, knitted silk muscle shirt and butter soft leather pants that might have been painted on. With the blue-black hair curling on his sculpted shoulders, and even considering the slight points of his ears and the long, alien glitter of his eyes, he looked like the cover of a Rolling Stone. Dinah whistled, wide-eyed in fan girl appreciation; Morgan almost tumbled off the stage trying to get the better view.

Ben drew the set to a slammin’ close and stood for the applause, happy for the chance to let the pads of his fingers cool. He’d been letting the calluses get soft, and would regret it eventually. Moytura wasn’t tired, and barely allowed time to let everyone take a bow, and acknowledge, wave or blow kisses at their king, before she was calling again.

But mortal musicians need a break, and Dinah was in danger of snapping a fiddle string, so they called a pause for technical adjustments (principally, more beer), and stood around for a while in the cool, shivering a little as the sweat dried and everyone caught their breath.

“Enjoying yourself?” said Aubrey when Ben hopped down to pay his respects.

Front row center, the royal box. His lordship nodded toward the hay bale next to him, an island of quiet in the busy courtyard of low laughter and murmuring talk and ears that still rang. Ben took the seat with a grin as well as the proffered drink.

 “You know me way too well, your grace. Any requests?”

One of the fae gentlemen was trading guitar riffs from Tom, perched on the edge of the fountain. Dinah was sitting on the edge of the stage, swinging her feet, sipping a drink and staring around in wonder.

“It’s the eve of Midsummer, and you have done well. The night is yours to do with as you like.”

“I’m honored, sir.”

The king tilted his head slightly, smiling. “I told you the rewards would be worthy of you, didn’t I? You’re good, Ben Harper. You know that, I hope.”

Ben sipped his drink, enjoying the cooling effect on his hands and the burn down his throat.

“I was thinking of getting into a few longer songs later, choruses you can sing along with. Will they sing along, do you think?” He gestured generally toward the odd assortment of his audience, fae and human, large and small, dainty and substantial, cooked and straight, winged and otherwise. “Can I ask... Who are all these people? I mean, I have all the books, but still....”

“Oh my dear,” Aubrey said glancing around. “There are more fae in, well not in heaven but in earth certainly, than mortals have catalogued, even on Dartmoor. We were not all born out of hearth tales and moor mist, you know.” He took a deep breath, shook back his hair, and met Ben’s eyes. “But you’re wondering which are the most perilous.”

“That would be all of them,” Ben said frankly, which the king rewarded with a slight smile. “No, I’m wondering if you invited everyone or only your own, I don’t know, your own faction?”

“You doubt whether you and your friends are safe?”

“No, sir! God, no! But ... I haven’t told you. Haven’t had a chance, y’know. I met someone in my garden the other morning, just as I was leaving. Sort of a punk rock goth biker chick faerie about so high, with a bad haircut and really big, uh, wings. Said her name was Tanya?”

An eyebrow lifted. “Mmm.”

“She didn’t do anything, that time, just whined at me like a Cockney shop girl. But then...” Ben went on to describe the other wolvish encounters with her, and Aubrey looked thoughtful.

 “Onyx,” he said after a moment. “She is to my queen more or less what Raven is to me, a good right hand. She is also, as I think you’ve guessed, more than she has shown you.”


“This place is open, yes. But the only power that may be expended here is whatever the music raises. My queen would be welcome—and I would be glad to see her. And any of her folk, as well. But she won’t come, nor will they while we’re at odds. And that’s a pity.” The pause grew until at last, he nodded toward the band, still tuning and fooling around, but mostly killing time. “I think they’re ready for you.”

Ben threw back the last of the lemonade as he got to his feet. “Silver acorn?” he said hopefully, wiping damp hands on his jeans. But Aubrey got up, chuckling in his other-worldly way, and slapped the harper’s shoulder. “Go play, human child. Lose yourself in the music, and play. Tomorrow, you have work to do.”
With bumpers of Aubrey’s special lemonade over a lot of ice for inspiration, they jumped right into Banish Misfortune which led into an endless string of jigs Ben could never remember the names of, but it got them up and dancing, and the fae in their insubstantial gossamer and gowns can dance with perfect grace, and without rest, as any number of mortal musicians have found to their cost. Still, his heart was so filled with the music and the fellowship, it was worth it..

They sang rebel songs and pirate songs, and a raunchy ballad or two, and the voices of Faerie lifted, laughed and sang along. They played bouncy favorites and stately reelsand on Ben’s bright-eyed cue they dropped suddenly to an odd little waltz so strange that it brought the dancers down to sit on the grass and sigh over it. Then under his hands alone, the harp spilled out another melancholy tune set low and slow in the spooky old Dorian mode. And some few remembered that ancient mode from their youth in distant times and far away. One stood and sang a single chorus in a forgotten language, then turned suddenly and left with his face in his hands.

Their long sleeves and translucent draperies hushed on the grass as they leaned towards the stage or paced on the green, and small bells chimed in tune. Again some found their voices and trilled the verses in a strange tongue. Then in the silence that hovered after, Ben twisted them up into a country reel and shifted the mood again.

Behind and around him, Ben was aware of his friends changing instruments, sometimes changing strings, working the arrangements they all knew, jamming others to suit the moment and the mood. At some point Brian’s bodhran had become the abbreviated drum kit, and the guitars went electric. Ben stopped long enough to take a long pull on a cold beer, flip a few of Moytura’s tuning levers and lead into Stairway to Heaven—the full 8-minute version.

At last it was time to give up the harp for the electric bass and let Tom’s lead guitar and Morgan’s rhythm take point, while Dinah swapped her lovely old fiddle for the hot new electrified violin. They covered a little Police and little Peter Gabriel, and some mellow Phil Collins, Steeleye, Fairport, whatever came to them. And if they didn’t remember the words, they made them up. The crowd went wild, even the ones in the powdered wigs and frock coats.

All night long Ben rolled along locked in with the music, locked in love with it, with the harp, and with the certain knowledge that inside it all was Mellis, honey golden Mellis whose ring was on his finger.

Then between one heartbeat and another, the light in the glade went golden, and Aubrey himself stepped to the stage with a chiming 12-string guitar in his fist, and everything changed from the color of the sky to the shape of the weather.

In a breathless pause for the installation of more beer and the special lemonade, Aubrey whispered to one of his gentlemen who took up a guitar, another offered to relieve Brian on the drums, while his lordship bent over a silver flute and knocked out Jethro Tull’s reworking of a Bach Bouree. And when the band in its newly expanded form, fae and human, had all returned to their places, the King of Faerie stood forth and threw out the opening line of Songs from the Wood, and they found a whole album in them they hadn’t known was there. By the time they got to Fire at Midnight, with Ben taking the lyric, the water in the forest fountain was dancing in the colors of other worlds and times, and mermaids frolicked in the rain.

“It’s good to be back home with you,” he sang, and sighed.

He left the stage, then, before his voice could break, and collapsed on a hay bale at one of the little spool tables all the way at the back of the crowd and more than half in shadow. Raven ever useful, brought him sweet iced chai in a shining goblet, which tasted as though it had been cooled in snow, and perhaps it had.

“Your fingers must be shredded,” the boy said. “Wrap your hands around this.”

Ben looked at him sideways and snorted, but took the goblet anyway, swung around and sat up. Steam rose and disappeared where his fingers printed the silver. “It’s late, isn’t it?”

“Same time as when you got here, remember?”

“Yeah okay, but how long have we been playing? Two or three hours, at least.” Now it was Raven’s turn to be delighted.

“Ben, you’ve been playing, all of you have been playing and singing and drinking beer and swilling Turkish coffee for almost five hours.” Ben’s eyebrows shot up. “His grace will doubtless let you go as long as you like, but I wouldn’t go past eight. Human hearts tend to start failing after that.”

Ben sighed and wiped his eyes. “You said I was supposed to mend my heart.”

“And have you?”

He thought about it, shaking his head to clear the fumes that great music and great whiskey inevitably induce.

“When I met you,” he said slowly. “I was angry, and scared, y’know? Already pissed off with the way my life was going, and taking it out on you—and Himself—so I couldn’t even see what I was being shown. The opportunity I was being offered! What an asshole!”

Raven said nothing, though a wry smile played about his mouth.

“That’s your cue to tell me it’s okay, I had good reason...”

“Is it?”

Ben went on with a sigh. “Okay, I thought I had good reason. That just makes it worse, I know. Since then, well...” Oh god, he was about to get maudlin. So he sat up and took a long sip of chai, and another for good measure. “This stuff’s really good! What’s in this?” Close call—avoided! “My god, did you see? When his grace decided to sit in? That was a heart attack! Wow!”

Now the time was leaving them behind, so Ben brought Moytura back to an emptied stage with O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music and the one about the landlady, and half a dozen other melancholy songs that tore at the heart. Then Aubrey came down and sat on the edge of the stage more or less at Ben Harper’s feet, with his thick sweet Turkish coffee in a painted wooden cup beside him, and added Dariole’s silver-stringed voice to Moytura’s, point and counterpoint. After a while, he borrowed someone’s lute, and Ben found a guitar, and they ranged through the Elizabethans—Morely, Gibbons and Dowland, galliards and pavanes and tunes they made up till the green glade was a candle-lit gallery and the dancers tall and small, even handsome Raven, drawn up again by the music and by starlight, moved through the figures stately and sprightly by turns, their dreamscape silks, paned velvets, or woodland leafy draperies murmuring and catching the light and throwing it back in rainbows. And finally they were done.

Well, not quite done. Gaezel, who had been curled up in a crook of the lowest arm of the sheltering oak, leaned down in a fall of moonlit hair and the drape of long, long sleeves tipped with bells, and whispered two words. And because one of them was “please”, Aubrey nodded and hopped down to the grass. He collected his cup, turned and took Ben’s hand with grace and thanks, and gave him the stage.

Ben Harper collected Moytura against his chest for the last time of the morning and gave them something no one, not even Mellis knew he had: Greensleeves. Not just the old tune everyone thinks is a Christmas carol, but the Ralph Vaughn Williams Fantasia, adapted for the Irish harp.

The strings sang and Ben’s heart soared through the changes, the little bits of folk song that gave its lilt, and the sweetness of the refrain in its variations. Whether it was old King Henry VIII’s plaint to his mistress or simply an ancient aire didn’t matter, the swelling passion, the longing and heart’s ease that came with it as it built and crested was like a rose opening in the heat of summer. And as one by one the variations and ornaments fell away again from the single thread, it became the silence of peace and utter joy.

When at last he stilled the strings for the final time, even the great fae sat wrapped up in each other’s arms and unfamiliar passions. The king had left suddenly, without a word. And the bubble of perfect happiness in a moment of suspended time on Dartmoor, broke into a damp, grey dawn at the bottom of Ileston common where Diamond Hall had once stood, and the fair folk, their coffee house, even Dinah, Tom, Morgan and Brian were gone.

“Damn!” Ben said, sitting up suddenly in the dewy grass of midnight—still midnight, then—with heavy lidded eyes and wide awake. “Damn it!”

“What?” said Raven. Startled out of his own elven reverie, he set to scanning the shadows for trouble.

“I was going to sing Queen of All Argyle!”

Raven whimpered and put his head in his hands. “Oh, human child, “ he said softly. “Is that all you forgot?”

 “My —what? Oh my god!” Almost hung over, astonished that it had slipped his mind, and on the verge of feeling cheated out of something he had paid for—more exhausted than he realized—Ben combed swollen fingers through his hair growling in frustration. Then looked down, his bleary eye captured by a glint of light. It’s a hard enough thing to concentrate with the adrenaline still rushing and the ears still ringing, but he managed to uncross his eyes and see what was right in front of him.

Dew-spangled in the grass between his knees, a fat silver bell shaped like an acorn lay glimmering on a silver chain.

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