by Michael J. Albers
Late fall flowers dotted the mountain meadow except for the area around a scraggly tree that stood alone in the center. A black ring surrounded it, as if the ground had been doused in weed killer. Mark’s nose scrunched as he sat by his tent, looked at the tree, and wondered how it kept everything away.
Still pondering the tree, he heard voices on the trail. Mark shook his head and muttered, “Keep moving, please. I don’t really want to spend the night with people. Especially not that couple I passed a few hours back. They’ll never shut up.”
He watched a couple walk into sight and softly groaned. A dishwater blond ponytail, just brushing the girl’s shoulders, bobbed as she walked. They waved. He forced a smile and waved back.
“Looks like it could rain tonight,” the man said as they walked up. “Seems like you got a nice spot. Mind if we pitch our tent here, too.”
Yes, yes I do, big time, but I must be nice, Mark thought. “Naw, go ahead. It looks pretty flat and sort of sheltered over there.”
“Thanks. I’m Roger, by the way, and this is Clarisse.”
Mark nodded. “I’m Mark.”
Their matching gray hiking shorts looked new, as did Clarisse’s backpack. Roger’s gear showed only enough wear to take off the shine. Both wore tennis shoes rather than hiking boots. Roger’s hair was cut very short; Mark idly wondered if he normally shaved his head.
Their new gear contrasted with Mark’s, with its unraveling seams and multiple patches. If it wasn’t for the cancer eating out his gut, Santa might have lugged a new backpack down his apartment’s non-existent chimney. As it was, the doctor had told him he’d see Christmas, but spring was iffy. With another round of chemo scheduled for next week and the weather turning colder, he doubted his ragged backpack would see the woods again.
Roger set up the tent while Clarisse watched. They chattered on about a TV show Mark had never watched. He shook his head. Their tent went across the slope, not up it. Whoever slept downhill was going to get rolled into. At least his tent was too small to share if it rained and theirs flooded. Or maybe he’d just let Clarisse in. He rolled his eyes at the thought, as if a girl as cute as her had ever spared him a second glance.
Their campfire cooking ability matched their gear. Frustrated from watching their stumbling incompetence, Mark ended up cooking their freeze-dried beef stroganoff as the last sky glow faded behind the mountain. The rain clouds had blown through, leaving behind a cloudless sky with bright sparkling stars. He was thankful they all sat in comfortable silence staring at the occasional flicker of flame from the glowing coals. When he finally announced it was his bedtime, to his surprise, Clarisse hopped up and gave him a hug. “Night. Thanks for cooking supper for us.”
Mark lay in his sleeping bag, listening to Clarisse and Roger get ready for bed. He smiled; they were clueless, but likable. He had been alone too long; only thirty-eight and already a curmudgeonly old man. Curmudgeon or not, he hoped they didn’t get noisy before they went to sleep. Their murmuring voices filled his tent as he drifted off to sleep.
Drums, flutes, chanting voices. His eyes popped open to loud music. What the hell were Roger and Clarisse up to now? Ready to growl, he stuck his head out of the tent. A twirling column of people danced and pranced on a wide road that extended into the woods in both directions. A road that hadn’t existed when he went to sleep ran through huge trees that had replaced the meadow. Glowing balls flittered around above the dancer’s heads, lighting the road. He pulled on a pair of shorts, grabbed a t-shirt, and crawled out of his tent. Roger stood by his tent wearing just hiking shorts and Clarisse wore very short bike shorts and had her arms high over her head, struggling with a sports bra.
She paused and looked over toward him. “Mark, what is this?”
He finished pulling on the t-shirt, lifted his hands, and shrugged.
Five dancers with waist-length silver hair whirled off from the group, full multicolored skirts floating as they twirled, and approached them. “Come join us. Dance with us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”
Clarisse grabbed her phone from her short’s waistband, took a picture, and then grabbed Roger’s hand. “Come on! It’ll be fun. We can put pics on Facebook when we get back. Everyone will be jealous!”
Clarisse and Roger skipped and twirled into the swirling crowd. “Hey, you know when you go with the fairies…” Mark shook his head as he watched them blend into the dancers.
The dancers moved closer to him, their arms waved in his face, and they motioned for him to follow. “Come join us. Dance with us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”
“What is this? One of those fairy things where I’ll return in a hundred years?”
The dancers joined hands and skipped in a circle around him. “Come join us. Dance with us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”
“No, I really don’t think that would be a good idea.”
“Come join us. Dance with us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”
Mark looked around and then threw his arms up. “Oh, what the hell. Why not? In a hundred years, they should have a pill to cure a bad colon.”
The dancers twirled and whirled down the road with Clarisse and Roger twirling and whirling with them. Mark walked, dodging the flailing arms. All three walked with bare feet and the spongy ground, which lacked thorns or rocks, tickled his feet.
The procession moved through the woods and approached a huge stone building. Large stones, many four or five feet across, formed the walls, which extended up about two stories with a crenellated roof. A heavy wooden double door blocked the end of the path. Mark noted how it resembled the deeply carved doors of medieval cathedrals he had seen during his college trip to Europe. The group danced up to the doors and formed a semi-circle around them. They raised their hands and chanted “Let us enter. Let us enter. We celebrate the falling leaves.” The doors swung open and the dancers swirled inside.
As Mark passed through the door, some of the dancers grabbed his arms and pulled him into a side room.
“Here,” one said “you must be properly dressed for the banquet.”
The dancers moved in and pulled off Mark’s clothes. He realized that other dancers surrounded Clarisse and Roger. In a moment, all three stood naked and, just as quickly, they stood dressed. Both Mark and Roger wore fine pale purple velvet tail-coats with tight black pants and knee-high boots. Clarisse wore a stunning pale purple velvet dress with a low-cut tight bodice and a full skirt that fell to just above her ankles. She smiled and flipped her hips, swirling the skirt.
“Now come. We celebrate the falling leaves.” The dancers grabbed them, pulled them through a different door, and into a huge room before they twirled off, leaving the three people behind.
More of the glowing globes floated around, lighting the room. Tables formed a large open rectangle. At the center of one end stood a huge chair with a high back. On that huge throne sat a man who wore a dark purple and red robe, dense with gold embroidery. A large golden crown on his head glittered, light sparkling off four large stones and many smaller ones. On each side of the throne sat other fancy chairs in decreasing heights, occupied by people wearing brightly colored clothes resplendent with gold and silver embroidery. The chairs on the other three sides of the rectangle looked normal sized and were empty. The close-set stone floor had a stair-step design that caused the side tables to drop down at one-foot intervals every few tables. The tables at the throne end were almost six feet higher than the other end. The large open space in the center contained an open stage set slightly higher than the throne table. Mark wondered if the people at the low tables could see the stage. He guessed the tables could seat a couple of hundred people and, looking around at the dancers still twirling around the room as more came in through the door, decided there could be that many.
Fast, rolling music came from the group of musicians set in the room’s corner. The group had a couple of recorders and flutes, three bodhrans of various sizes, and several stringed instruments he didn’t recognize.
Mark felt a touch on his arm. A girl with long silver hair wearing a green tunic stood beside him. He glanced at her ears and felt disappointed to see they were not pointed, but shaped the same as his.
“Come,” she said, “I’ll show you your seat.” She slipped her arm into his and led him to a side table that was only a step down from throne table level.
“Wow, a table so close to the bigwigs,” Mark said.
“You are our guests. Of course you sit at a high table.”
The dancers continued to stream and prance into the hall. When the last one entered, the doors slammed shut and the music cut off with the door’s bang.
The king, Mark decided since he sat in the biggest chair and wore a crown, he would call him the king, stood and threw his arms wide. “Come. Be seated. We celebrate the falling leaves.”
The dancers all moved toward their seats. From the way they moved, it was clear they knew their assigned places. Noting other people had sat down, he also sat and looked around. His shoulders lifted in a minimal shrug. Oh, well, he thought, thus far, except for the strange dance to get here, this isn’t much different from those medieval reenactment pictures Karen keeps bombarding us with at work.
“Mark, Mark,” Clarisse said as other servants, also wearing green tunics, led her and Roger to the chairs beside him, “isn’t this just so cool. I was trying to get some pictures and my phone just like died. Can you believe that would happen now? This is so cool.”
Mark sighed and looked at her. “Yeah well, I guess since we’ll be spending a hundred years here, it should be cool.”
Clarisse’s face scrunched up. “Huh? One hundred years?”
“Yeah. That’s how long the fairies keep you,” Mark said. “Haven’t you read those stories?”
“Oh really! Fairies! Be real. This is just so cool. I’ve got a group of girlfriends who get together every Tuesday for dinner and…”
The king clapped his hands and everyone went silent. He clapped again and the music restarted. From a side door, a troop of people in motley poured out, raced through the gaps between the tables, leaped onto the stage, and began a wild tumbling routine. Servants, all wearing matching green tunics, moved around the tables and placed clear goblets of a caramel-colored liquid before each guest.
Mark reached for his glass and then froze. Oh, yeah, he thought, going with the fairies is bad enough, but drinking or eating their food is seriously bad. He turned to Clarisse and Roger, “Hey, we really should… oh, too late.” He watched as Clarisse and Roger both took big swallows from their goblets and popped a little brisket from a basket on the table into their mouths.
Clarisse smiled at him, “What did you say?”
He picked up his own goblet and stared at the liquid as he swirled it. It seemed slightly thicker than wine. He gave a slow nod. “Guess you’re right, Grandma. In for a penny, in for a dollar.” He lifted the goblet in a toast. “Here’s to the next hundred years. May they be better than the last three.” A smooth sweetness rolled across his tongue and left it tingling.
The banquet continued with rounds of food and drink, each accompanied by a different group of entertainers. Mark relaxed and enjoyed the food and entertainment, but wished Clarisse and Roger would stop babbling about how cool everything was and how she wished her phone worked. As a group of jugglers ran off the stage, the king stood and pointed at the three of them. “Dance for me; for all of us.” He waved his arm and pointed to the stage. “Dance for me; for all of us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”
Clarisse and Roger jumped out of their seats and trotted up onto the stage.
A little tingle moved up his spine. Mark moved his head between the musicians in the corner and Clarisse and Roger, who had began to dance wildly to the music, their arms swinging in wide arcs. Her full skirt swirled; her legs flashed with high kicks. His head drooped. He didn’t like dancing, but he did feel obligated to dance a little to repay their host for his generosity. He certainly didn’t feel like dancing that wild ride Clarisse and Roger were on. He stood and idly wondered if once he started would he spend a hundred years dancing like a maniac? With a shrug, he walked onto the stage and picked a spot well away from Clarisse and Roger’s wild arm and leg flings. Shaking his head at them, he started to dance.
He stopped, stunned by the silence. The music surrounded him again. He started to dance again and once more the music went silent. Yet, when he stopped, it was back. Glancing at Clarisse and Roger and the party guests, it was clear the music only stopped for him. He stood motionless and let the beat of the bodhrans fill his head. Behind him, he heard a snicker. Glancing around the room, he noticed that although most eyes focused on Clarisse and Roger, a beautiful lady sat at the corner of the lowest level of tables smiling at him. Her silver hair was almost invisible beneath flowers entwined in it as they spilled past her shoulders and out of sight below the table. Her eyes bore into him, sending shivers through his body. “Oh geez,” he muttered, “One hundred years of dancing to no music?” He started to dance again and again it disappeared. He paused and the music returned. “Ok, now this is getting irritating.”
The servants distributed flower bouquets. The partiers cheered on Clarisse and Roger and tossed flowers one by one onto the stage. When a flower struck Roger or Clarisse, it stuck and they rapidly transformed into bouncing bouquets. The few flowers that struck Mark fell to the floor. He stumbled, slipping on a flower stem, and he saw a half smile cross the lady’s face. He turned away and shook his head to clear the distressing flashback of a bad college party where a hot sorority girl had teased him for a short time before flittering back to her friends.
Enough, he thought. He lifted his hands and shrugged at the king. “I’m sorry, but I can’t find the music and I’m not much of a dancer anyway. I’m sorry. Those two are much better.” He waved his hand toward the gyrating flower bouquets of Roger and Clarisse.
The king’s jaw dropped and color drained from his face. “Dance.”
Another light tingle moved halfway up his spine. Mark shook his head. “I’m sorry. No.” As he walked off the stage, he thought he heard a giggle come from the direction of the lady who had been staring at him. Damn it, lady, he thought, don’t make fun of me now.
The king leaped up. His heavy high-backed throne tipped backwards and crashed to the floor, drink trays flew as servants scattered and one yelped as it hit her in the shoulder.
The room went dead silent, except for Clarisse and Roger who kept up their wild gyrations with their feet stomping on the floor. Everyone stared at the king. He glared at Mark. “You, dance!” He stabbed his finger toward the stage. “DANCE!” His voice reverberated through the room.
“I really appreciate the dinner,” Mark said, “and I did dance for a minute or so, but I’m just not into dancing, sorry. And your music. Nothing personal, but when I dance, I can’t hear the music.”
“DANCE!” The king pointed both arms at Mark, his hands trembling. He swung his arms as if to toss Mark back onto the stage. He clapped his hands. “Music. Play.”
The music resumed. As Mark plopped down in his chair, the lady at the end table burst into hysterical laughter.
Hey, lady, what is your problem? Mark thought.
The king pointed at the lady at the far end. “You, my dearest sister, silence.” He ran over, grabbed Mark’s shoulder, yanked him to his feet, and shoved him against the table. Goblets tipped and wine soaked into the back of his pants. His face hovered inches from Mark’s as he screamed, “DANCE!”
“Ow. Hey, damn it. I don’t care who the hell you are, you don’t shove me like that. My regrets, but may I be excused?” Mark unclenched his fists and glared at the king.
The king’s bright red cheeks pulsed. His head rolled back as he screamed. A room-shaking, terrifying scream.
Again the music stopped. Only the stomp of Clarisse and Roger’s feet and the increasingly hysterical laughter of the king’s sister filled the room. Mark realized she now stood beside him. She wore a pale purple dress that matched Clarisse’s. Her thick silver flower-entwined hair reached to her knees.
She placed her hand on Mark’s forearm. “Wait. You don’t want to be excused now. This party is about to get very entertaining.”
“And so.” She stepped up to stand face to face with her seething brother, who had a good eight inches on her. “You sold your soul to steal my throne. To rule until you couldn’t enchant a human.” She spat in his face. “Did eternity come quicker than you expected?”
Mark heard distant trumpets blowing.
A gasp went through the hall.
“I still rule. He will obey me.” He pushed the lady aside, grabbed Mark’s jacket, and pulled him nose-to-nose. Sour wine and spicy cheese breath filled Mark’s nostrils. “Dance! Now! Dance!”
“The Black Rider comes. Give me your crown,” the lady said, “For you, it is forfeit.”
Galloping horse hooves mixed with the trumpets, shook the entire building. Many of the guests, mostly from the king’s end of the tables, leaped to their feet and frantically looked around.
The king shifted his grip on Mark’s jacket and lifted his heels off the floor. He screamed, his nose touching Mark’s. “You will obey. You. Will. Dance.”
The sound of the horses and trumpets stopped.
The king’s face went pale. He turned his head toward the far wall and tossed Mark away. “No. He can’t be here. No!”
A loud trumpet blast shook the building. A section of the wall crumbled and large stones tumbled inward across the floor. Four riders, dressed in solid black on jet black horses, leaped through the hole and soared over the rumble. Three of them carried trumpets; the fourth rider rode up to the king and looked down on him.
“I believe you owe me a debt payment.”
“No, no. I can still make him dance. I know I can.”
“Silence.” The Black Rider laughed. “I upheld my part and now, my payment.”
The king struggled but said nothing. Mark realized that the command for silence had been more than a basic request to shut up.
The Black Rider reached down and pulled the crown off the king’s head. “These two stones are mine.” He grabbed the two largest jewels and ripped them out of the gold, twisting the crown and leaving torn edges around the settings. He dropped the gems in a pocket of his cloak. Then he pulled off a large purple one. “And this one is your sister’s.” He jammed the crown back onto the king’s head. “You no longer deserve such a fine crown. We should melt it down.”
Mark watched in horror as the upper edges of the gold folded over and sagged down. With a scream of pain, the king tore the crown from his head and flung it away. It clattered and bounced across the floor before coming to rest against a wall.
The rider reached into his cloak and pulled out a golden circlet. He pushed the purple jewel he had just torn from the crown into it, smoothed the gold edges with his thumb, and tossed it to the king’s sister. “Lentara, your crown and your power.” He bowed to her in his saddle. “I trust you’ll wear it better than your brother.”
“And now,” he pointed at the trembling king, “my payment.”
The other three riders began to play their trumpets in what resembled a fast swing tune. The king and many other partiers began to whirl, imitating Clarisse and Roger in their wild gyrations. The other riders wheeled their horses and, still playing, leaped over the rubble pile. The former king led the dancers as they clambered after them, slipping and sliding on the stones while they continued their dance. Clarisse and Roger, still covered in flowers, moved with the group.
“Wait,” Mark yelled, “you have no right to take them.”
The Black Rider spun in his saddle to face Mark. He tossed up his hand and everything froze. Dancer’s arms and legs hung suspended in space.
Mark’s knees went rubber under the glare. “I said,” he gulped. “I said whatever deal you made could not have included Clarisse and Roger.”
“And how can you know that?”
I can’t, Mark thought, I guess I really can’t. He shook his head.
“I didn’t think so.”
“No. No, wait, I do know. If you knew they would be here, then you knew how the deal would end. That means you didn’t make a fair deal.”
“My deals are always fair.” For a long moment the Black Rider stared. Then he laughed. “Fine. Humans mean nothing to me.” He waved his hand and Clarisse and Roger disappeared. “They are back in your world where they belong. Satisfied?”
He turned his horse and everyone started moving again. He rode up to the rocks and turned. “Lentara.” He saluted the lady and then his horse soared over the pile of rocks. The trumpets stopped; silence echoed through the room.
Lentara smiled as she positioned the circlet on her head. The flowers entwined in her hair fell, surrounding her feet in a rainbow of color. She lightly touched Mark’s elbow. “Thank you. My brother stole my crown with a pact that he would rule until he couldn’t enchant a human. He was stupid enough to believe that meant forever.”
Mark looked around the room, now missing half the partiers. “So, am I stuck here, or do I go home to find a hundred years has passed?”
The lady laughed. “The hundred years is your world’s story. Time is time; even we can’t do that.”
“What did he do with Clarisse and Roger? Did he really send them back as he told me? They were irritating, yes, but they don’t deserve anything bad.”
Lentara started, staring at him. “The Dark Rider responded to your challenge?”
“Then he returned them. The Dark Rider is many things, but he never lies and doesn’t play word games.”
“That’s good to hear.” Mark buried his face in his hands. “Oh well. Now I can return to my life for the four months or so that I’ve got left.”
“Four months? No.” She shook her head, sending ripples through her long silver hair. She tilted her head, a puzzled look on her face and stared at him for several seconds. “No, you have a long life before you.” She placed the fingertips of both hands lightly on his forehead and slowly drew them down across his face. “I owe you my crown; we owe you a great debt. When you need me, I will be there.”
Mark’s eyes popped open, the morning light faintly illuminated the top of his tent.
Gasping, he rolled his head both ways. “What the hell?” Finally, his eyes fixed on his backpack.
“Whoa! Yeah, I’m camping. What a dream. What a crazy-ass dream. Must be some delayed chemo drug or pain drug reaction or something.” He took a big breath. “Wow. If this becomes the norm, it’s going to be hell.”
He crawled out of his tent. The mountains still blocked the sun, but the sky was well lit. The spot of Clarisse and Roger’s tent stood empty. He frowned; no way could they break camp without waking him. The frown deepened. The ground where the tent had stood was undisturbed. Several pale purple flowers grew there.
“Man, were they part of the dream, too?”
He looked toward the meadow and stumbled as his knees turned to rubber. The lone scraggly twisted tree had transformed into a large tree, dense with leaves in flaming fall colors.
“No doubt about it, I need coffee. Lots of coffee. I wish I had brought whiskey. Lots and lots of whiskey.”
He tugged his backpack out of the tent and flipped it open to pull out coffee and a breakfast MRE. His jaw slowly worked up and down.
Trembling hands lifted the golden crown out of the pack. The three sharp edged holes showed where the gems had been ripped out, and the melted top had run down over a row of smaller gems. The base was dented and smashed.
“Oh, shit.” He looked over to the pale blue flowers.
“So, Clarisse and Roger were here last night. Oh crap! Does anyone know they were hiking here?” He looked down the trail into the woods. “He said he returned them. Are they ok? Where are they?” He set the crown down and swallowed hard. “I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that question.”
He lifted his head, forehead scrunched up. “Wait, she said I had a long life before me.” His hand touched his stomach where the constant pain of the past year was gone.
“I’ll just tell my oncologist the fairy queen owed me one.” He smiled. “Bet she’ll get me a fast appointment with a different type of doc.”