Richard Trowes got on the tour bus with resigned exhaustion. The trip that had looked so good on the travel agency's web site was proving to be insufferable, and there was still one more day to go. Plus, whatever remained of that afternoon.
He shuffled onto his seat, wishing he weren't surrounded by teenagers who had not stopped talking amongst themselves for a single moment since the group left the hotel. Had he ever been as loud as they were now? Richard doubted it. After putting noise-canceling headphones on so he would at least be listening to his music, he stared out the window as the bus started on its way.
At least the scenery was beautiful. In that, the web site photographs could never do justice to the real thing. The northern coast of Ireland was breathtaking, even in March when the occasional patch of snow could still be seen on the fields. The sky above was a leaden shade of gray, but Richard had already seen how quickly that could change under the influence of the tireless wind. Early in the morning, they had been at some castle whose name Richard had already forgotten, and the waves of the ocean crashing against the old stone walls had made for a surprisingly vivid, nostalgic picture.
It was the only picture Richard had taken so far. He supposed he was old-fashioned, but in his day, photographs had meant something. You had a limited supply of them, and then you had to wait for them to be developed, and the suspense of getting your finished product was almost as nice as the event which had warranted those mementos in the first place. He understood the convenience of having the possibility of taking unlimited photographs with digital media, but he suspected that those who did ended up with folders upon folders of bad pictures that they looked at once in their lives, if at all. Maybe they would browse through when they got back from their journeys, but just to see what to post on whatever social media web site was popular at the moment. Not him. He had a professional camera, most definitely not digital, and he only used it for special things.
The low, rolling hills of gray and white and even the stereotypical emerald swept past his window as the bus drove on. On the right lay the ocean, and far away, the white tips of other islands or maybe Scotland. Most of the land Richard saw was carefully tended. There was little wilderness left. Fences divided every acre and sheep marked different colors pastured where there was no snow, sometimes already followed by this year's young calves.
George would have probably said something along the lines of how nice it was that the circle of life carried on, right upon seeing the baby sheep, and Richard would have countered with some sarcastic argument of his own.
Except George wasn't there anymore.
At times like that one, when a memory of him came upon Richard unexpectedly, the loss felt as fresh and raw as it had at first. It had been years already, but Richard found it hard to let go. They had known it was bound to happen, they both had, and yet Richard had always managed to convince himself that George wasn't as old as his birth certificate said. Now, more than a decade later, it was Richard who was feeling the years, and all these young people around him only made it worse.
They made their last stop, the grand finale of that day's tour, at the Giant's Causeway. Richard stepped out of the bus with silent gratitude, stretching out his legs. It was cold out, but he was dressed well. He ignored the guide and left on his own to explore.
The views there were magnificent. After paying for an audio tour he was never going to listen to, Richard followed the tourist path that snaked over the edge of the seaside cliffs and could do nothing but stare at the beauty of nature. The sun came out for a little while, even, showing him water of indigo and blue and emerald. The shadows played games with the jagged rocks where they met the ocean, and the wind swished through fields overgrown with golden and green grass.
He passed through the stunning geometric formations of the Causeway without stopping because there were many other tourists nearby. He followed the path as it led up and away from the crowds, to higher places from which he could see the ocean as it turned the color of iron when the sun hid behind another blanket of clouds. The chill of approaching evening was deep, but so was the sense of isolation, of silent history and those who remembered. When the fierce wind blew past him, trailing the sharp smell of the ocean, he could almost imagine he heard the sound of flutes in the distance, amongst forgotten ruins and hidden places.
This is what he had come for. Here he could feel the true soul of the Old Country, the place his great-grandparents had once left behind.
"I'm finally here, George," he said softly, touching his wedding ring with his thumb. "Just like I said I would. I stopped putting it off and came…home."
"Oh, wow. Is there a camera nearby? Because that totally just made me cry," a male voice said from behind.
"What?" Richard snapped, turning around.
"Hey, easy there," a tall man answered, palms facing upwards, a small hiker’s pack slung over one shoulder. "I just thought you were filming a scene in one of those depressing artsy movies that earn a lot of awards just because the old guy's wife is dead."
"Husband," Richard corrected, feeling his surprise turn to anger.
"Oh, really?" the man answered, and gave Richard a quick once-over. "Would have never guessed, with that old-timer daddy look you have. Unless you're going for it on purpose?"
Richard was speechless at the man's rudeness. He stared at the newcomer with his most intimidating glare.
"Sorry, big guy!" the man apologized. "Don't tear my head off or anything, okay? I was just having a little fun, is all. I see you there standing, looking so depressed surrounded by this natural beauty, and I just had to say something. Hell, you were making me feel depressed and that's something some people would not think possible. I'm Brian, by the way."
He had spoken so fast that Richard was already shaking Brian's hand in greeting before he had registered everything.
"And you are?" Brian asked.
"What's your name? Oh, no. Don't tell me you have Alzheimer's already."
"Richard. And stop with the old jokes already, okay? I'm only sixty-two."
"Only… Right. If you say so, Richard. That's a nice name. But it's so formal, though. Can I call you Rick? Ricky? Or Dick? Dickory doc—"
"Stop," Richard said, getting more annoyed by the second. "Just leave. Go back to your tour bus or whatever and leave me alone."
Brian grinned, a sly tilt to his lips. "And what if I want to stay here?"
"You heard me. What if I want to stay here with you?" He followed that up by approaching Richard and touching his shoulder in a suggestive way. Richard backed away, shrugging Brian off.
"Don't," he said.
"Touchy, aren't we?" Brian replied, still smiling. "Come on. I like you, Richard. Ricky. Don't tell me you don't like me."
He pointed at himself with a theatrical flourish, and in spite of everything, Richard had to admit that Brian was attractive. He had flowing black hair, jet black, just long enough to appear wild but not messy. His eyes were a deep emerald green, and he had an easy smile that slanted slightly to one side, showing his bright and perfect teeth. He was only wearing a light sweater despite the weather, and the fitted garment hinted at a muscular physique underneath, but not bulky. If Richard had had to guess, he would have said that Brian looked like a ballet dancer in his prime.
"See?" Brian prodded, smiling even more. "You like me. I knew you would."
"So what?" Richard countered, flustered by the man's directness.
"So come over here. Follow me. I know a more secluded place where we can…get to know each other a little better."
An alarm bell went off in Richard's head. A young, attractive guy, feigning interest in a sixty-year-old? It had to be some kind of rehearsed charade that would end up with Richard all worked up and several hundred dollars poorer. The guy probably targeted every tourist group, maybe several times a day, until somebody fell for his act.
"No, thanks," he replied. "Not interested, but you're a great actor. I couldn't even tell you're from here. You have a perfect American accent."
"What do you mean, no thanks?" Brian answered, as if Richard had just insulted him. "Just because you're all hot and buff doesn't mean you can reject this!" Another grand gesture.
Richard snorted. "Buff? Come on."
"Yes, buff," Brian replied, raising his eyebrows in mock derision. "And your fire-red hair, if you have to make me say it. I don't usually like guys with chin beards but you somehow make it work. And I like your eyes, okay? So blue, just like the ocean. Plus, you have a great tan."
Richard tried to keep his composure, but he burst out laughing.
"What?" Brian asked, indignant.
"You have got to be kidding me. Are you blind?" Richard patted his large, round belly. "I haven't worked out in years. And see my hair? Maybe we are not speaking the same language, but this color is white. Just like my beard, all of it, not just the chin. And finally, unless I somehow got sunburnt from the last thirty minutes out under the Irish sun, I don't see how you could call this pasty paleness tan. Really, your entire number was very good until that last bit. If you want to flatter an old man, you don't start inventing details about him."
Brian said nothing at first, just glared at Richard with a frown and his hand beneath his chin until the older man stopped chuckling.
"Can I talk now?" Brian said.
"I think it's best if I leave," Richard told him. "My tour bus will be driving off very soon, I think."
Brian started nodding, then angrily stomped his foot. "I can't stand him," he said under his breath. "Even if I need him. He's so full of himself!"
"Excuse me?" Richard interrupted.
Brian ignored him. He continued talking to himself. "But you saw the look in his eyes, didn't you? So? So, he can help! Well I don't know that. Not for sure. Unless…"
"I'm going to go now," Richard said, already backing away from what had to be a disturbed person. "Good-bye."
Brian waved him off with impatience. Richard started walking away, already wondering how fast he would have to walk to make the rendezvous with the rest of the group. Judging from the pack of unmistakable teenagers that were still hanging out by the ocean despite the urgings of the tour guide, not very fast.
"Okay, fine! Wait!" Brian shouted.
"Sorry, I'm already late," Richard lied.
"Oh, no. You're not going to make me beg."
Richard turned around with exasperation. "Listen, why don't you—" Brian wasn't there. Richard turned back to face the road, and suddenly Brian was standing in front of him. "How did you do that?"
"I just remembered something," Brian said brightly. "It's so weird, dealing with you people. You see everything one way only."
"What are you talking about?" Richard asked, feeling somewhat alarmed. He wondered if Brian was dangerous.
"I’ve got something to show you," Brian told him, rummaging around in his backpack until he found what he was searching for. "Here! Look and see, Mr. Hot Stuff."
He had a mirror in his hands. It was quite large considering it had come from such a small backpack, but Richard had already had enough.
"Listen, Brian. I need to leave."
The other man blocked his way.
"Ricky, Rick. Don't be a Dick and look. Time ticks."
"What do you—?"
Richard did not finish his question because he glanced at the mirror and caught a glimpse of himself.
Of another self.
"What the hell?" Richard swore. The person in the mirror mimicked his exact motions.
"Aha! Got your attention, didn't I?"
Richard raised a hand to his cheek. Instead of his beard, he felt smooth softness, all the way down to his chin, where a carefully-trimmed patch of red glinted in the afternoon sun.
Just like his hair.
Richard touched it with hands that were shaking from shock. It was bright red, with flashes of orange and crimson in the light. He ran his fingers through the thick, full strands and could do nothing except marvel. The eyes of his younger self looked back at him full of awe and wonder, and when he glanced down, away from the mirror, the hands he held up to his face were those of a strong man. He even had a tan.
"What is this?" he whispered. Then, slowly, he raised his eyes to the mirror and stared at himself as he had been forty years ago. The image was still there, but it was more than that. Richard straightened up to his full height for the first time in ages, and he felt…good. The many small aches and pains that had accumulated over the years and which he had gotten used to were gone. In their place, Richard felt an electric sensation of vigor and strength coursing through his veins.
"Told you," Brian said with a smirk. "You're hot. Now are you going to follow me or not?"
Several minutes passed in a daze. They were walking through a field covered in patches by late snow when Richard's brain finally accepted that it was not a hallucination. Whatever was happening was real.
"What did you do to me? Who are you?" he asked Brian.
Brian stopped to glance his way.
"Let's just say I liked your eyes, and I need you to help me with a little problem, okay? You can stay like this as long as you help me, but don't get excited or anything because it's not permanent. One night only. Come on, I'll take you to my home."
"What kind of problem?"
Brian rested his hand on his chin again and looked up as if he were actually thinking about it. "Hmmm, nope. Too complicated to explain. I think it's best if you see it."
"You said you liked my eyes?" Richard asked, following Brian when he started moving again.
"Yeah. Wow, you're insatiable, aren't you? One must keep a steady flow of compliments going your way or else you're not happy."
"Never mind. And yes, I like them. It's why I chose you."
A brief pause. When Brian answered, his tone was very different, almost serious. "Because you have wisdom."
The end of their fifteen-minute-long walk turned out to be a parking lot.
"This is your home?" Richard asked.
Brian looked at him with annoyed disbelief. "What? Who do you think I am? This is where I parked my car, is all."
"Oh, right. It's just that I…"
"You what?" Brian asked irritably as they got in the car. The doors shut beside each of them, isolating them from the world. "You thought I lived in a wee hollow under a tree? Is that it?"
"I didn't say that."
"Oh, let me guess. You want me to be wearing the green suit. Shamrock and all, is that right, laddie?" Brian demanded, changing his accent completely.
"Sorry, didn't mean to offend you," Richard told him. "This is all a bit much, to be honest with you. Being young again out of the blue is confusing."
Brian nodded, appearing mollified by the apology. When he next spoke, he sounded like his old self again. "Well, all right. I suppose you can't help it, being one of them. Let me guess: this is the first you've seen magic in your life."
"Or felt it," Richard answered, flexing the muscles in his arms. "Yes."
"Typical. Well, hold on, because I'm a terrible driver, and we've got a long way to go."
"That's not very reassuring."
"Which is why I said it," Brian told him, rolling his eyes.
He started the car, and they drove away. It was strange, but Richard did not feel the slightest amount of worry about where he was going, or what he was leaving behind. He doubted the tour guide would even remember him, and back home there was nobody waiting. As he felt the roar of the engine under his seat, the main thing Richard knew was elation. He felt free.
Brian had not been lying about his driving abilities. By the time an hour had passed, they had been in more close calls with oncoming traffic than Richard had seen in his entire life.
"Slow down!" he shouted when a van missed them by inches.
"You worry too much, you know that?" Brian commented, casually looking away from the road.
"Car!" Richard yelled. Brian turned back just in time to avoid it.
"Relax. We're almost there."
"I thought you said it was a long way," Richard told him.
"And I wasn't lying, Ricky. I've had to make the jumps very small so nobody will notice. It's awful nowadays, having to hide from you people at every corner. Thankfully, there are still wild places in the Isle, like this one."
Richard looked back at the road. Where a second ago there had been low hills and farmsteads, there were now trees. Trees everywhere.
"How did we…? Where are we?"
"In my home, of course. I told you I was taking you there, didn't I?"
"Yeah, you did," Richard said absently, admiring the ancient forest all around. The car could scarcely weave through the tight corners of the dirt road. After a while, even that was insufficient. Brian stopped the car and they got out.
"Well, here we are," he announced, and made a strangely formal gesture linking both his hands. "May you be welcome."
"It's beautiful," Richard answered, and he meant it. He felt like it would be a great pleasure to run in this forest. It was a pleasant sort of shock to remember that now he could. He felt he could run to the end of the world with strength like this. "Does it have a name?"
"It's the forest," Brian answered, looking at him again like Richard was slow. "Oh, you mean the name you people gave it. I don't care to remember it, to be perfectly honest. It's just one more mark of your intrusion. Come on, then. You didn't get to look that hot again for free, you know. You've got to help me with my problem."
"You still haven't told me what it is," Richard said, following in Brian's footsteps as he made his way among the trees.
"It's better if you see it."
They walked for what appeared to Richard to be a long time, and night fell very suddenly. He could see almost nothing in the darkness. Sometimes, he was following Brian just by the sound his feet made as they moved through the undergrowth, and twice, Richard panicked when he thought he had become lost. In the end, though, they crested the slope of a gentle hill and sudden light assaulted Richard's eyes.
"See?" Brian told him. "There it is."
After blinking a couple of times, Richard was able to see better. Below his eyes, a chaotic scene was unfolding.
News crews. The first thing he recognized were the sources of all the lights, and he realized they were news crews. There were small cars and big vans, bright floodlights and dozens of cameras that he could see even from a distance. People were milling about a clearing in the forest, maybe fifty of them from what Richard could see. There were tents erected all around the edge of the clearing, and as he was watching, a helicopter approached, flying overhead, searchlights swaying to and fro as it illuminated the forest canopy.
"And they're ruining such a nice night too," Brian complained. "The equinox is almost here."
"What is going on in here?"
"What we always feared would happen," Brian answered, with sadness in his voice. "But come, you need to see. And maybe, maybe you can help."
They made their way down to the clearing. They had just reached the perimeter of the zone, however, when a burly security guard blocked their path.
"This is a restricted zone," he told them, reaching for what looked like a taser. "Authorized personnel only."
"Sorry," Richard mumbled. "I don't think—"
"We're authorized," Brian told the guard, but his voice sounded suddenly strange to Richard. Like many people speaking at once. "Let us through."
"Of course," the guard said, stepping out of the way.
"What…?" Richard whispered. Brian winked at him in response.
They made their way through the crowd and nobody challenged them again. Most people were too busy to notice them, anyway. Some reporters were rehearsing speeches, while others were standing at the edge of the forest speaking directly to cameras. Richard caught snatches of their words when he passed by.
"… first confirmed sighting of a supernatural…"
"… an elaborate hoax, but it may very well be that…"
"… since early morning today, but aside from the one specimen…"
At the very center of the clearing, there was a roped-out zone that had been erected around the stump of what must have once been a mighty tree that had grown in the clearing. On top of the stump was a cage.
In the cage, there was a girl.
At first, she looked normal to Richard, but it was because he was seeing her from the front. When they got closer, his vantage point changed and he got to see her back. Two small, sparkling wings protruded from it, fluttering helplessly against the bars of the cage.
"This is my problem," Brian said.
The girl was not crying, but the way she hugged her knees to her body telegraphed despair. Richard was speechless that nobody had thought to give her a blanket in this cold night. She was wearing only a sheer dress of simple fabric, with a garland of flowers over her head.
"She went all fairytale on us with that look," Brian commented. "And after I took her to London to pick out a new wardrobe. Can you believe that?"
Richard was not sure, but he could have sworn that beneath Brian's contemptuous tone there was worry. Real worry.
"But this is inhumane!" Richard protested. "How is this even legal? That's a person in there!"
"I'll overlook the insult because I know what you meant," Brian answered, "but what you see is not what everybody else is seeing. I'm filtering her glamour for you. Here. Have a look."
Suddenly there wasn't a girl inside the cage anymore, but a cat-sized blue dragon with sparkling wings.
"What happened?" Richard asked.
Brian snapped his fingers. The girl was back.
"At least Linora had the sense to put on a disguise before they caught her," Brian said. "Come on. I'll take you to our van."
"What do you mean?" Richard said, but his question was answered when they walked a few steps ahead and stopped at one of the largest vans parked in the clearing. Its windows were darkened and Richard could see nobody in the driver's seat.
"Everybody else sees CNN on this one. Come on, Ricky. Follow me."
He stepped through the door with Brian behind him. It was very dark inside. As soon as they both were through and the door shut behind them, however, light blazed all around. Richard covered his eyes from the sudden glow and then glanced about, dumbfounded.
He was in somebody's living room. There was a lit fireplace at one end, and windows which showed the breathtaking view of cliffs falling to the sea. There were several comfortable chairs and sofas set around a low circular table, upon which rested a beautifully carved hourglass whose sand was even now trickling to the bottom.
"There's no way," Richard said, almost to himself. "There's no way this fits inside a van."
Someone chuckled to his left. "It seems you chose a smart one, Brian."
Richard looked as a door he had not noticed before opened to his left. A short figure entered, trailing leaves and broken branches in the gust of a blast of wind. As soon as he shut the door, everything was quiet again except for the crackle of the fire.
"Please, take a seat," the figure said. He had a long white beard and a wide grin, and shuffled along as if moving cost him the greatest effort.
"You might want to go easy on the postcard theatrics, Old One," Brian commented. "Ricky here just loves them."
"Is that so?" the old man said, and the next time Richard blinked he was seeing a tall, broad-shouldered man with clean-cut hair of gray and white, wearing a fitted suit and a spotlessly white shirt. He could have been a bank executive. "Is this better?"
"Uh…" Richard mumbled, looking from Brian to the new arrival.
"Brian, you really should have prepared Richard for the state of things. Look at him, he might be about to faint."
"Nonsense, that's just Ricky's natural state. Come on, Rick, say hi to the Old One."
"Owen will suffice," the Old One said, stretching out a hand for Richard to shake. "I like the sound of that name."
"I'm Richard," he said automatically.
"Well, Richard, have a seat," Owen told him.
There was nothing left but to obey. They sat down, Owen on one side, Richard and Brian on the opposite end on a large sofa.
"Since time is of the essence, I will be brief," Owen said. "Linora made a very grave mistake and gave her trust to the wrong person. It has happened before, of course, but never like this. She granted permission, freely given, when she should not have done so. Now the secret of her existence is out."
"And with hers, that of all of us," Brian grumbled.
"Brian is correct," Owen agreed. "There are ways open to us on how to proceed withan emergency like this one, but all of them involve more magic, and I know in my heart it will just make things worse."
"Old One," Brian cut in, "if we could just blast these people away, or at least take Linora—"
"No," Owen replied forcefully, and there was a rumble of something deep and ominous behind his voice, like distant thunder. "The one thing I have seen clearly is that disaster follows this night if we take any of those paths. If this crisis is to be averted, it must be done with the help of one of them. Finding this person was your task. I just hope you chose well, Brian."
"So do I. Come on, Ricky. We have work to do and one night to finish."
"What do you mean?" Richard asked, looking at both of them in turn. "You haven't explained anything! What do you want from me?"
Brian ignored him and led Richard out of the strange living room despite his protests. Once outside, Brian shuddered.
"Ugh," he said. "I'm glad we're out of there. I can never stand to be in the presence of the Old One for very long."
"What do you mean? He seemed overly serious, but not too threatening."
Brian barked out a laugh, which ended halfway. "Oh, you're serious. I have to remember this. It's going to make a great party story."
"Why?" Richard demanded, getting angrier the more Brian refused to answer questions in a straightforward way.
"Why?" Brian echoed, and raised one eyebrow. Richard couldn't help thinking that he looked very handsome when he did that. "Because you're half blind, Ricky, that's why. You didn't really see him, his overwhelming presence… Never mind. I'm standing here arguing with you when we should be thinking about what to do. So. Any ideas?"
Richard started massaging the sides of his temples with his fingertips.
"Don't do that," Brian told him. "It makes you seem old. Enjoy your youth while you have it! Quite literally, in this case."
The many reporters and their cameramen entourages were steadily converging around the center of the clearing, where they could have a good shot at Linora's cage. There appeared to be some kind of supervising agency ensuring that everybody got their turn to film in an ordered fashion, which was something Richard had never seen before. There was even talk of an organized news conference in the morning.
"That's us, in case you're wondering," Brian commented. "We're doing what we can to keep things ordered but there's only so much corporate pressure will accomplish. We need a solution and we need it now."
"Okay, I need some quiet. Come on, let's head on to those benches over there."
"Ooh, getting all bossy? I think I like it."
Richard sighed. When he had managed to find a secluded spot away from the action, he made Brian sit down and he did the same.
"Let me see if I understood everything. This girl, Linora, is one of you."
"And somehow she was exposed. People know she is, well, different."
"I showed you the little dragon," Brian replied. "That's about as different as you can get. When this night is over, her glamour will wear off for good and everybody will see her true form, just like you did."
"Okay. So you need people to forget about her somehow, before the morning."
"Yeah. That's where you come in. If she is exposed to the entire world beyond the shadow of a doubt, we all are. You don't want to know what happens then. Let me just say that the war is going to be very, very long."
"Right. How about this," Richard proposed, scratching his chin beard in a habit long forgotten. "We claim she's a hoax, some kind of patchwork animatronic, incredibly realistic."
"Already tried that. It just so happens that the guy she exposed herself to in the first place was a biologist."
"Fine. How about we say she is a classified military project?"
"We tried that once in Nevada and now the place has become a legend. No, thank you."
"You have leverage with these people, right? This supervising agency I keep seeing? Why don't you just order them to leave?"
"Ricky, not to be offensive or anything, but that is the stupidest suggestion you have yet made and that is saying something."
"Great. Whatever," Richard said, turning away. "It's you who needs me, right? That's why you picked me. I'm just trying to help you, but I think I've had enough. You never answer any questions directly, you keep making fun of me for not knowing things I could not possibly know, and you all but kidnapped me from my peaceful tourist tour. Change me back to my old self, please. I need to check out of my hotel tomorrow at noon."
There was silence for a couple of heartbeats, and then a very long, drawn-out sigh. Brian scooted down the bench until he bumped Richard lightly with his thigh. He smelled like pine needles and moist earth.
"You never, ever heard me say this, okay?" Brian started, staring at the ground. "I apologize."
"Oh, no. You're not going to make me repeat it. You heard me. What I will do is explain how things stand since it seems you're a little thick. We do have people in key places, yes. Some of them have authority over some of the news crews you see here, but not all. Besides, the one thing we've learned in all this time is that you people only get more curious if you're told not to look at something. We can't go that way. It would not end well down the road, trust me. What we need is a simple solution, not something strange and convoluted. We need the perspective of one of you, because let's face it, it's hard to understand how you think."
"Likewise," Richard grumbled.
"Hey, I upheld my end of the deal," Brian objected. "Don't you feel great? Don't you look great? Because you do."
Maybe Richard was imagining it, but the shadow of a shy smile appeared fleetingly on Brian's lips.
"A deal you struck without my consent," Richard said.
Brian rolled his eyes. "Details. Now help me. Come on."
"Give me some time. You can't just ask a man to come up with a solution that will hide the greatest discovery in human history, just like that."
Brian had stopped looking at him, though. "Um, Ricky? Our deadline might have expired sooner than expected."
But Richard glanced at where Linora was held captive, and he suddenly understood. There was a flurry of activity around her, with people talking in loud voices and ignoring the efforts of those who tried to establish some kind of order. Enough cries of 'Girl!' and 'Wings!' reached Richard's ears that he could very well guess what had happened.
"The glamour wore off?" he asked Brian.
"Oh, yes," Brian answered, with dread in his voice.
It was madness. Some people were trying to reach into the cage, but every time they did so sparks flew out, and the person was thrown back. After the third try, a generalized cry of panic created a ring around the tree stump where the cage was resting. Linora was standing in it, hands held at either side, palms glowing blue. Her eyes were wild, and they reflected the light from a dozen cameras in a strange way.
"It's too late," Brian said sadly. "It's already happening."
The shocked silence held for a few moments, but Richard knew it would break and then there would be violence. He had seen it happen before during his service time, had witnessed firsthand how quickly civilized humans could become pack animals. Strange, how the one thing that could sway entire crowds without igniting them was—
"The Prestige," he said to himself. An idea was forming in his mind.
"Yeah, it's not really the time to think about who will get more prestige from this."
"No, Brian. The Prestige. It's a movie. About magic."
"Oh, that one. Never saw it. Was it good? Because Rotten Tomatoes was raving about it, but—"
"Brian, listen to me!" Richard interrupted, seizing the hand of the other man. Behind him, murmurs were already starting where the crowd gathered. "You can do tricks, right? Magic tricks?"
"Excuse me?" Brian asked, affronted. "I can do more than magic tricks. I can do real magic. I could turn you into a rabbit so fast your ears would—"
"You'll be my assistant, okay?" Richard said urgently.
"Me? Assistant to one of you? I don't think so, hot stuff."
"Brian, what is wrong with you?" Richard exploded. "This is bigger than your vanity, understand? One minute, you're telling me how important all of this is, and the next, you're arguing about nothing. Now, listen. You do everything just as I tell you to do it. Don't talk, just obey. Got it? If you don't, I swear, I'm going to tell the Old One that it was all your fault."
"Fine," Brian said with a pout. "No need to threaten me like that, and besides, don't you remember that he specifically forbade us to use any magic?"
"The Old One forbade you, not me. If I tell you to do something, it's not really your fault, is it?"
Brian grinned that sly lopsided smile that already made Richard's heart race a little faster. "I like the way you think, Ricky. Maybe that wisdom I saw was real after all."
"Just do what I say. Can you make us wear nice tuxedos?"
Richard took a look at himself. His clothes were now black and white. They fit perfectly.
"Oh wow," Brian commented next to him. "You are…dashing."
"I'm going to need you to do everything I need in the exact moment I need it. Is there any way for you to read my mind?"
"Of course there is. I'm going to need your permission, though."
Beyond them, in the crowd, some of the loud voices were turning into shouts. A bright flash of blue came from the cage.
"I give you my permission to read my mind. Let's go," Richard said. "Make my voice sound loud, as if I was wearing a microphone and there were loudspeakers all around."
"I'm intrigued," Brian replied. "All done."
Richard nodded and stepped into the circle of lights.
"Welcome one and welcome all!" he roared, and his voice echoed throughout the forest. Richard was trying to channel his inner ringmaster, but his knowledge of magic show protocol ended there.
The announcement had the desired effect, however. Every person turned to look at him, and he even saw Linora fix him with a wild look inside her cage.
"Um, thank you all for coming," he stammered, dazzled by all the lights and the sight of so many people staring at him.
Silence. It was expectant, tense, and incredibly fragile. Richard tried to think of something to say, but his mind was blank.
One of the reporters took out a tablet and began making notes. It reminded Richard of the inevitable office intern that was always around in every board meeting, and that mundane thought was enough to snap his mind out of his attack of stage fright.
Richard had given hundreds of presentations in his life, had made tough sales to groups of skeptical investors, and had even trained people on how to work under pressure.
He knew how to do this. He just had to think of it as him selling them something.
"You're probably wondering what is going on," he said, wading through the crowd with a confidence he did not feel. Brian was right behind him. "What is this in front of you? Is it a dragon? Is it a girl? Or is it that most magical of creatures, a fairy?"
Richard heard Brian gasp behind him, but he could not spare a reassuring gesture in that direction. He had the attention of the audience now, and he needed to deliver his sale before they started to second-guess what they were hearing. He stepped right next to Linora, making a grand sweeping gesture with one arm which made those who had gotten too close take a couple of steps back.
"Is magic real, then?" he asked, giving just the right intonation to his voice. He had gotten used to relying on just that throughout the decades, but he suddenly realized something.
He was young again. And he was very attractive.
He flashed a winning smile towards a pair of young reporters, and they started giggling. "Or could it be that everything is only…an illusion?"
Change my clothes now, he thought to Brian, hoping the man would receive it. I'm wearing only a Speedo, standing on a patch of beach sand, a bright yellow reflector on me simulating the sun.
Richard snapped his fingers, praying it would work.
There were gasps in the audience, and Richard felt the cold bite of the night wind on his exposed skin. Cameras flashed, microphones drew nearer. Someone whistled a loud catcall. The sand underneath Richard's toes was warm, and after a slow bow that triggered spontaneous applause, he chanced a look at Brian who stood nearby in his tuxedo. Brian winked his way in a very lascivious manner.
Change me back.
A second later he was wearing a tuxedo again. The sand and the reflector's light disappeared. There was another amazed gasp, but this time Richard used the pause to walk to the other side of Linora's cage. "Who is to know what is real and what is not?" he said as mysteriously as he could manage. "Take this young lady, for example. Is she what she appears to be? Or could she be something else, something the world has never seen? With your permission, fair lady, I will free you from your cage so we can have the answer to this riddle."
Richard was banking on the fact that Linora would understand the true meaning of his words. He saw how she looked quickly at Brian, who nodded, and then back at Richard.
"I grant you permission to release me," she said with a very musical voice.
Richard smiled. "Then be free!"
Make her invisible, he thought to Brian as he grabbed the cage with both hands and lifted it clear off Linora. And have a bunch of doves fly away into the night in her place, only to fall back as gold coins.
The doves exploded with a flutter of wings, but screams of fright turned to joy when the reporters saw dozens of white birds taking off into the night sky. They had just disappeared above the reach of the reflectors when each of them burst into puffs of feathers, letting big golden coins fall to the ground.
Linora looked up at Richard with a guarded glint in her eyes. He gestured urgently with his head towards the trees.
"Now's your chance. Go!" he whispered, and for once his voice did not boom throughout the clearing.
She hesitated for a moment longer, scrunching up her nose as if she were sniffing the air. Then she left, running away in leaps and bounds like an escaping hare. When she was at the edge of the trees, she turned back once.
Thank you, she said, but the voice was in Richard's head.
Her eyes glinted blue in the night, and then she was gone.
The act was not yet complete, though. The reporters were almost done picking up the coins that had fallen to the ground.
"We all are something else, something other than what we seem," Richard continued. "Is it gold you hold in your hands? Or is it something else? Something entirely different?"
Make giant screens appear all over the edge of the trees, where it is dark, he thought in a flash to Brian. Have them show a white background.
A flick of his hand, and suddenly the clearing was surrounded by giant screens flooding the place with their glow. There were more excited cries and cameras swiveled every which way.
"If the audience were so kind as to return the gold," Richard asked with a conspiratorial grin. "Right here, on the tree stump, in a pile."
There were nervous giggles and murmuring, but everyone complied out of curiosity. Soon there was a big pile of coins glittering in front of Richard.
Cover the coins with a curtain, he told Brian.
"With the help of my assistant here, I will show you the true essence of these objects, and the reason you are here tonight," Richard said grandly, by now enjoying the way his voice echoed throughout the space. Brian bowed with easy grace to his right, flicked his wrists and suddenly had a thick velvet curtain in his hands, shoulder-high. He stepped along with it until he was standing in front of the coins. Then he crouched behind the curtain, let go, and he was gone. The curtain stood on its own magically, hiding the coins from view.
There were isolated claps, but most of the audience knew the big thing was still coming. Like in the movie. It was time for the prestige.
Richard thought out his last instructions to Brian in a quick silent flash. Then he saw the coins change in front of his eyes, still hidden from view of everyone else.
"Introducing," he all but shouted out, "Shamrock Lite!"
There was a bright flash and the curtain disappeared in a puff of multicolored sparks. The screens all around began displaying the words 'Shamrock Lite' along with quick, non-stop clips of attractive people drinking something from a bright green can. Upbeat electronic music began to play from unseen speakers, and the social media tags for the new beverage were shown prominently every few seconds.
As soon as the sparks fell to the ground, where they still glinted and burned, what had been a pile of coins was revealed to now be a pyramid made out of the same green cans. They were emblazoned with the words 'Shamrock Lite' and the green of them seemed almost translucent, as if the cans themselves were transparent, allowing for glimpses of the green liquid inside.
"The soda that is not what it seems," Richard announced, wrapping up the commercial. "The soda that is pure magic. Available everywhere starting March 17th."
Wild applause. Richard gestured with both hands, inviting people to come and take one of the cans, which everyone started to do. Cameras were still flashing while reporters opened the fizzing cans, which would spray green-and-gold sparks as if it were soda fizz. Everyone was speaking at once, and Richard made use of the confusion without delay.
Make me invisible and let's go.
Brian, unseen, nevertheless delivered. A moment later, Richard lost sight of his own body and took off at a run towards the dark forest around them. Nobody seemed to have noticed that their improvised illusionist was gone.
Brian appeared, laughing, right next to Richard on top of a hill well away from the clearing.
"I can't believe it! They fell for it!" he exclaimed, wiping tears from his eyes. "I would have never, ever thought about doing what you did, Ricky. Who knew? The best way to hide magic from you people is to show you it exists! Despite all your technology, you are still impossibly dumb."
As if to prove his point, Brian made a little ball of light appear above them to provide illumination, almost as if he were daring any people to come and see.
"You're welcome," Richard grumbled, but he wasn't even mad. The wild run through the forest had not winded him at all, quite the contrary. His heart was pumping and his body tingled. He wanted to keep on running for days and days on end.
Too bad this youth would end in the morning.
"Aw, don't get sad," Brian told him, still reading his mind apparently. "It was the deal, remember?"
"Yes, the deal I never agreed to. I thought permission was supposed to be important in magical transactions, judging from everything I've seen."
Brian waved his hand and Richard was visible again. "Oh, yes, Rick. Always and foremost."
"Then why did you change me, just like that, at the Giant's Causeway?"
"Because I don't care about the rules, obviously," Brian answered. "Why do you think the Old One chose me? Sure, they all pretend to hate having me around, but whenever there's a crisis who do they call first? Me. I'm the one who gets things done."
"What's going to happen now?" Richard asked. "I left without any explanation. I hope I didn't make things worse."
"Are you kidding me? The important thing was to get Linora out of there. Without one of us captive, there's nothing they can do. Besides, I already told you we have people working amongst them. They will be cleaning it up, don't you worry."
"And that soft drink I invented?"
"Well, that part is a bit trickier," Brian admitted. "The most likely thing is that our marketing department will be hard at work for a day or two creating a campaign for your product, and then we'll have to start selling it until people forget about it. Which shouldn't take long, given the horrendous name you chose for it."
"Hey, I was under a lot of pressure in case you don't remember," Richard argued. "I did the best I could, and I think it went over well."
"That's an understatement, Ricky. Don't be so modest."
"What will happen with the stuff you created for the show? The sodas and such?"
"Well, most will disappear as soon as the sun comes up. Much like our gold, the stuff we create tends to not be very permanent."
"Just like in the fairytales," Richard said, smiling.
"Hey, some of those really did happen," Brian told him. "I wouldn't be laughing about that, if I were you."
"Are you in any tale I know? Maybe something that was turned into a Disney movie?"
"Ha, ha. You're so funny, Richard. Do I look like a princess?"
Brian punched him in the shoulder. "This is how I look, incidentally," he explained. "Anything larger or smaller is just for show, though I do try to blend in by leaving out a few details."
For an answer, Brian shook his head. When he stopped his ears appeared to lengthen at the tips, and his hair was now much longer, reaching almost to his waist. When he looked up, his eyes reflected the light with a feral flash. Richard thought he saw Brian's emerald eyes start glowing.
Another shake, and Brian was back to normal.
"In any case, I like it better like this. You wouldn't believe how hard it was to concentrate on your strange mental instructions during the show when so many people were looking at me adoringly."
"Right," Richard said. "Most of their attention was on me."
"Keep on telling yourself that. You may be hot, Ricky, but you're not that hot. And besides, you wouldn't even be here if I hadn't chosen you. It was only my great experience and expert judgment in bringing you along that made it possible for us to patch things up with those reporters."
"Hearing you talk, it would seem you did everything when it was my idea that saved the day."
There was a faint stirring in the night air, and a hint of warmth threaded itself through the cool night.
"Do not worry, Richard," a feminine voice said from the darkness. "We will remember what you did for us this night."
"Oh!" Brian exclaimed. "Linora, honey, I totally forgot I still had you invisible. Here you go."
Richard was a bit startled by the appearance of Linora next to the two of them. She was still wearing her light dress, barefoot in the chilly forest. She appeared completely at ease, and it took Richard a moment to notice that her long hair was flowing, moving as if underwater, even though there was no breeze at the moment.
"I have lived for many, many lifetimes," she told Richard, "and yet tonight I was saved by the wisdom of someone much younger. You made right a mistake of mine which would have threatened us all, and for that, I am grateful."
She made a formal bow.
"Um, you're welcome," Richard said, feeling a little uncomfortable. "Glad to have helped."
"It is as the Old One says," she continued. "Time builds complacency in ourselves, and too much confidence in our own talents can lead to catastrophic folly."
"Or," Brian interrupted, "or, someone could stop spending so much time staring at her own reflection in the lakes that never freeze and come join the rest of the world into the modern age. Just a little suggestion."
Linora smiled, nodding as she conceded the point. "Perhaps Brian is correct, after all. Not all of us are as comfortable as he is in a world that changes so quickly."
"Wait," Richard said. "Your name is really Brian?"
"Why? What's wrong with Brian?"
"I don't know," Richard admitted, shrugging his shoulders. "I just thought you would have a name more…mystical. Or something. Don't you have a real name?"
Brian and Linora exchanged a look. Then they both burst out laughing.
"What? What's the matter?" Richard asked them. He had to wait for a full minute before the laughter died down.
"Ricky, sometimes I forget just how incredibly naïve your kind can be, and then you come running to remind me."
"What did I say?" Richard huffed, frustrated.
"Our real name is something we do not speak," Linora answered. "Not lightly, nor to strangers, and sometimes not even to those whom we hold most dear. It can lead down pathways unseen. Such power over another person is not something that should be easily given, or taken."
"Well, you both know my real name," Richard countered.
Linora smiled enigmatically. "We do not. Maybe not even you know it all, not yet. You are still so very young."
"It has been a very long time since anyone called me young," Richard observed.
"Trust me, Ricky," Brian told him, "you are. Especially compared to Linora here. Not that it shows with wrinkles or anything, but the Elder Spirits have been around for…how long?"
"Many ages," Linora said. "And yet, we always find something new to marvel at, a new fluke of chance or a twining of lifelines too numerous to count. What I had thought of as a great tragedy and the source of my greatest shame has turned out to be an encounter such as I had never experienced before. A rare thing indeed."
An owl hooted in the distance.
"They're calling you, honey," Brian told Linora. "Do put in a good word for me with the old guy, okay? Tell him that sometimes it's better to bend the rules a little bit than to go around expecting everyone to behave, just as he wants to, when it's obvious a more creative solution is the most efficient."
"I will. But before I go, I have something for you, Richard."
Linora extended her wings fully, and it was like seeing the stars from the sky burst into light in the night. She looked at Richard for a long moment, and then she smiled. It was such a beautiful smile, so full of innocence and joy, that Richard felt his heart melt with adoration. "Thank you, Richard," she said, and her voice sounded many-layered. "May you always be followed by gentle birdsong when you walk in the forest, with soft needles underfoot and the fragrance of pine in your wake. Farewell."
A flash of light, a hint of summer fragrance, and she was gone.
"Oh, wow," Brian commented next to him. "You got the full blessing and everything. I hadn't seen her do that for a few good centuries. You're going to be the envy of the forest, you know that? And why doesn't she give me anything, huh? I helped!"
Richard didn't answer at first because it was as if his senses had been opened. After Linora's words something had changed. Where before he had been half-blind in the darkness of the night, now he saw the faint stirrings of the branches in the trees as night animals scurried on them in their search for food. The wind was no longer cold, but refreshing, with a hint of moist earth and growing things that were waiting, ready, for the right moment to blossom. The silent flight of an owl overhead eclipsed the moon briefly, and the far-off cry of a nightingale adorned the night with its beauty.
He looked up at the sky. There were stars above him, too many to ever count, and yet now it seemed to him that if he chose one of them, and focused, he could begin to perceive things about the twinkling lights that escaped definition. For an instant, his perception changed, and it felt to him as if the stars were barely moving, and instead, it was him spinning through the void, traveling at a dizzying speed in a never-ending tour of the heavens.
With an effort of will, he wrenched his gaze from the mesmerizing spectacle above and glanced down. There was life everywhere he looked, from the canopy of the trees to their roots underground. He took off his shoes, hastily pulling off his socks as well. There. Much better. He could feel the earth through the soles of his feet, and it seemed to share part of its mighty vitality with him, inviting him to join in…something. He did not have a word for it, not yet. It felt to Richard as an invitation that was part sensation and part instinct. Slowly, and yet growing with every heartbeat, he started to feel a yearning to reach out with a sense he had never known he possessed. He even found himself lifting his hand, fingers outstretched, as if to touch something that was just out of reach.
Brian was looking at him with his usual handsome smile and an interested expression in his eyes. "You can hear it, can't you?"
"Hear what?" Richard asked, catching himself in the act of turning his head, trying to listen for something.
"Ricky, don't be thick. It's the Song of the forest."
He was right. There was something underneath every other sensation, a sort of thrumming, life-filled beat. It did not reach his ears, but rather his heart.
"I do," he said, and his voice was full of wonder. "I can hear it."
Brian did something unexpected then. He stepped closer and took Richard's hand in his own.
"Um, Richard?" he said to him, using his full name for once. His voice sounded different too. Almost shy. "I’ve got something to confess to you."
"What's that?" Richard said, noticing that he was slightly taller than Brian. The touch of the other man's hand in his was warm, and it added to the Song in a way he could not describe.
"I didn't only choose you for your wisdom," Brian said, hesitating. "I chose you because…well, I like you. Your heart, your intentions. The way you love."
Richard thought fleetingly of George.
"That too," Brian said. "The pain you feel, the loss. And I would like… I mean, if you think you're ready to move on…"
"What are you saying?" Richard asked, although he already knew.
"I like you, Richard. And I'm lonely. It's been so very long since I was last able to be myself, you know? Nowadays, it's all pretending, taking care that no one sees who I really am, cherishing the few nights I'm able to be out in the forest, and even then, I run through the trees alone. I thought… Well, maybe you would like to join me. For a lifetime, or more. So we could run through the forest together."
Richard held the other man's eyes with his and opened his heart to him through the mental link they still shared.
He let Brian see his sadness, the way he had stopped living life long since in a silent wait to die. Richard's life had already been over, and he had not noticed. He had no one to go back to, and no one would miss him if he disappeared.
Finally, he thought of George, of the way he would smile and probably tell him to not be stupid and take this incredibly good deal he was being offered. It was a new chance at life, of a different kind.
He stood there, thinking, hand linked with Brian, for a very long time while the forest sang around them.
"I thought my youth would only last until the morning," Richard said at last.
Brian smiled in his usual sly way. "Haven't you been paying attention? I love to break the rules."
"Where would we live?" Richard asked him.
"Here, and not here," Brian answered. He gave Richard's hand a little squeeze. "There're places we can go together that don't appear on any map. Places where it's always spring, or always summer. Oh, and I have this really cute apartment in Dublin I just refurbished. You've got to see it."
Richard laughed. "I think I would like that," he said. Then he leaned over and gave Brian a kiss. It started out soft and tender, but it ended hard and deep.
"Whoa, a forceful guy," Brian commented when it was over. "I like that."
Now it was Richard's turn to grin. "And you haven't seen anything yet."
Brian pushed him away and started running. "Not if you can't catch me!" he called.
Richard sprinted after him, running gracefully through the forest at night. The sound of his laughter echoed through the trees, trailing a fragrance of pine.
Happy St. Patrick's Day! This story is my love letter to the beautiful country of Ireland. When I visited, years ago, I was not only awed by the dramatic landscape of its northern coast, but I could also feel, quite distinctly, as though the fairies were never too far away...
Thank you for reading. What did you think of the story? I look forward to your comments!