Iain slowly faded in and out of consciousness to the sound of aBegin Dictating... buzz saw. Bright light stabbed at his eyes painfully through closed eyelids. He groaned and turned over. Dimly, aspects of his surroundings impinged themselves on his perception. He was still in his clothes, his head hurt like hell as the buzz saw drilled into it, and his tongue was definitely several sizes too large. Drunk, he though. Hung over. The whole room still felt like it was swaying. He scratched himself and tried to remember where he probably was. It was impolite, not to mention uncool, to spend the first painful visibly awake moments obviously trying to work out where one was. Better to do so before appearing awake. He was in the club last night. Which was unusual. I usually only go with, oh yes. Clarance.
Stifling a groan he sat up and bumped his head on the low ceiling. This prompted him to groan out loud and fall back. He opened his eyes a slit but changed his mind when the sunlight stabbed into them. Bunk beds? What has Clarance got me into now? He felt around and he did, indeed, seem to be lying on thin cushions on a hard surface. I must be worse off than I thought. I usually get sick long before I've consumed enough to be this hung over. He sat there in quiet triumph feeling the world sway around him. He dozed for a bit, despite the buzz saw, until his bladder urged him to make another attempt at getting up.
Taking it slowly this time, he swung his legs over the edge and ducked the ceiling. The room still feels wobbly. Shading his hands he slowly squinted his eyes open. Puzzled he looked about. It wasn't a bunk bed, but rather a U shaped bed in a very low-ceilinged room. Long thin windows ran the length. Everything was definitely swaying, but not a drunken swaying. The buzz saw sound finally resolved itself into a motor and a tree slowly moved past outside the window confirming his growing suspicion: I'm in a boat.
Shannon added a line in felt-tipped marker to the clear plastic over the nautical tourist chart next to the steering column and returned the pen to her hat. The agency was right, running the rental boat was even easier than driving an automatic. The brisk breeze blew across the bow and tousled her red hair bound by a baseball cap. She wore a "Discover Ireland" T-shirt and white shorts.
She smiled, hearing a stumbling on the steps going down to the cabin. Her swatch said 11:30, mighty late riser for a country boy, she concluded. After a few attempts the hatch opened and Iain lurched halfway out. He winced painfully but tried to turn it into a nonchalant glance about the place. He doesn't look half so romantic unshaven and hung over Shannon thought to herself. "Morning!" she called out cheerily. "There's some coffee and scones down in the back. I didn't know how to make tea." He waved it off like it was no matter, not trying to speak, and hand-over-handed his way to the back.
Poor lad, she thought. But she needed him. This was her big chance. All her life she had dreamed of going to Ireland. She was one quarter Irish by blood and her hair showed it. So her father always said. Usually when he was drunk. But, she didn't have to think about that now, she was finally here. Magical, mystical Ireland. Where leprechauns lurked and fairies still danced in rings. The others in the hostel had been good humoured when she asked where she could find them and said they'd take her to The Queene's Court.
The Queene's Court turned out to be a Night-club but the music wasn't bad and the drink was good. Not that she bought any, there were plenty of friendly locals buying for her. They seemed more interested in getting in her shorts rather than telling her about the wee folk. One of them finally pointed her in the direction of a friend, Iain, saying "he says he sees fairies when he is drunk." He certainly was drunk! She glanced back to the back of the boat to make sure he wasn't in danger of falling overboard.
He had been dancing wildly in a corner all on his own. She watched in admiration, he had seemed quite good looking then, until the dancing finished and he downed half a pint of Guinness. She had a bit of difficulty herself remembering what came next. But there was a lot of kissing, which he seemed quite good at, a lot of alcohol and wild tales of fairies that she couldn't quite remember. Somehow this had convinced her to drag him off to the boat she had rented and take him with her. If he could really see fairies, then he could help her in her quest.
Iain was not a happy man. He was on a strange boat on a strange river with a strange woman he had absolutely no recollection of meeting. The coffee burned his throat as he sipped it and grimaced at her back. He didn't like coffee but didn't have the energy to make tea. It was having its effect, though, and his headache was leaving. Damn Clarance anyway, he thought. What has he got me into this time. They got to a bit where the river flowed into a lake and the woman turned and sat at the back near to him. Very near. Maybe I finally got lucky he thought to himself. But then he remembered that he had woken up with his clothes on. He really doubted that if he had gotten lucky he would have been in any state to get dressed again.
They smiled at each other and he desperately tried to dredge up a name for her. "Well, Iain", she said, proving she hadn't forgotten his name. "We didn't exactly get the chance to exchange biographical details last night", she gave a half smile as if something really had happened. "I hope I haven't dragged you off from an important job or anything."
Iain snorted. "No. I'm unemployed."
"Oh", she said. "I'm so sorry."
He looked confused. "Nah, had a year to get used to it. Not exactly easy to get a job with a Philosophy and Economics degree."
"I did Liberal Arts. Kansas City University" she said holding up a gaudy gold ring like it meant something. "I majored in Folklore and Fashion Design."
Iain nodded as if this was some great revelation. "I can see how they would go together. You must have as much difficulty getting a job."
"Oh, no. I work in child care and Dunkin Donuts on the weekends" she said as if she actually enjoyed it. "Did you cover Ancient Druidic Wisdom in your Philosophy credits?"
Uh, oh, thought Iain. I've got a nutter. "Uh, no. Classical." He couldn't resist the bait, though. "Actually we haven't a clue what the Druids thought, except that they didn't believe in writing things down."
"Look, oh look!" she said suddenly. A bank was passing nearby with some cows on it.
"Don't you have cows in Kansas?" asked Iain sarcastically.
"I'm from Missouri. Yes we do, but they aren't as wonderful as this. Here in their natural environment with the green green hills of Ireland with the little stone walls. Don't you just feel your spirit soar and lift up to the clouds?" She raised her hands above her head and wiggled about for emphasis.
Iain tried to keep his eyes off her breasts as he downed the last of his coffee. "Yeah, sure."
"I'm just so glad to be here. I've always felt that Ireland is my spiritual home." Iain coughed to cover his sarcastic grin. "I've studied it so much. The history and legends. All about the spirits and elves and fairies. I've come all this way to find them and I'm so glad to have met someone so quickly who can see them and will help me find them."
Iain's grin vanished in an instant and he all but leaped out of his seat. "What!"
She wagged her finger at him, "There is no point in denying it. All your friends say you admit to seeing fairies when you are drunk. You said as much to me back in the Club. There is no point in denying it now."
A pained expression crossed Iain's face. "Look lady, you're nice, you're cute. I don't mind sailing up whatever river this is with you but there is no way in hell I'm even going to pretend to participate in a demented quest chasing fairies."
"Right, the River Shannon, whatever. If you don't like that, just let me off."
"No, silly. My name is Shannon." He looked at her disbelievingly. "Look, I just need you to point me in the right direction. See the hair? My Irish blood runs true. I'm sure I'll be able to see them once I find them."
Iain shook his head. "All the red hair in Ireland comes from the Vikings, not earlier. Believe me, you don't have second sight."
"It too is Irish. Everyone says so. And what makes you think I don't have the second sight?"
"Because I do and I'd see it if you did!"
"Aha!" she said triumphantly. "So you admit it, you can see fairies! From what your friends said I thought you were geased only to admit it when drunk."
"No, don't be stupid. I admit it, I admit it. I'm happy to admit it. Everyone thinks I'm nuts. That laughed at me all through college. I don't care anymore about admitting it." He put one foot up on the gunwale, cupped his hands and shouted at the receding cows, "I SEE FAIRIES!"
"But", he continued, turning to Shannon. "Only when I'm drunk." He sat triumphantly.
"Then how do you know I don't have second sight? I bet you can't remember anything about last night."
"Look, Shannon. I don't remember a single bloody thing about last night. I've not met many with second sight, but I've never forgotten a single one of them. So, please, just let me off at the next bus station."
She looked at him petulantly and went back to look at the map. He felt a little sorry for her and went up to help her. "Hey, I'm sorry. You just really don't know what you are getting into."
"That's OK" she said with mock cheer. "I can manage without you. I'll find them. I know I will."
"It's your business. I just hope for your sake you don't." He we back to the rear and looked disconsolately overboard into the water. Briefly there was a shadow but he just scowled and threw a stale scone at it.
Shannon was furious. This man, this creature, she had let on board had insulted her to the roots of her sensibility. What did he know? He was a backwards jerk from a backwards country who had never even had a job. A useless drunk who was now sleeping off his excess in the cabin below. She glared at the door and wiped her mascara.
Maybe he was a mischievous sprite sent to confound her. To prevent her from reaching the royal court. But, no. She expected one of the fairy folk to have more dignity! The boat droned on as she contemplated her situation. This was a fairy quest. Iain was, quite definitely, not a fairy. But she could apply the same rules and logic. She would bind him by his word and hold him to her will until she had used him to get what she wanted. Part of her was shocked at this attitude. But she repressed it. If this was a fairy tale, she would act like it.
Up around the bend in the river was coming a riverside shop. She killed the engine and coasted quietly in. I'll just get enough stuff so I don't have to put ashore again and he'll have no chance to leave. She touched up her makeup and lightly stepped onto the dockside.
Iain lay in the cabin as the boat journeyed on. The gentle rocking was actually quite pleasant and lulled him in and out of sleep. She isn't that bad, he thought to himself. Maybe I should play along. But, then, if Clarance had really set something up it would not be a good idea. She'd look nicer if she didn't wear as much makeup. Slowly his mind drifted between thoughts and dreams. He saw Shannon's face, smiling at him, but then it rippled and he could see she was beneath the waves of her namesake screaming to him to save her.
He sat bolt-upright in the bed. The tape player was playing up on deck.
"...And when he brought his bull to her, it meant a woman making war..."
Iain thundered on to deck and ripped the tape from the machine. "Where did you get this?" he asked the stunned Shannon.
She blinked at him and said, "There was a shop a ways back. I stopped for some supplies and there was this old fellow selling music. Said I might like this tape. The band is Horse Lips or something like that."
"Horslips. An old man?"
"Yes, I'd nearly say he had horse lips himself! Smelled a bit drunk. He only charged me £2 for the tape, though." Iain sank onto the seat and put his head between his hands. "You know, I'm getting a little tired of this doomsayer act. Just what is so freaky about an old man selling tapes?" Iain looked at her scathingly. "And don't just say 'I wouldn't understand.' I'm getting tired of that too."
He sighed. "Right. This is all a set-up. I'm sorry you're involved. I think I offended the fairy court and they are getting back at me. Clarance has been plaguing me ever since."
"You've seen the fairy court? Tell me about it? What did you do?" Shannon asked breathlessly.
"Lets just say I made an inappropriate gift to the Queen."
"You didn't try one of your hopeless pickup lines?"
Iain glared at her. "No. I gave her a cow."
Shannon looked at him, disbelieving. "A cow? A bit bucolic. I don't see anything wrong with that."
"I thought you studied Irish legend. Like, the Taín? The biggest bloodiest war in all of Irish history was fought because a King had a cow and a Queen didn't. I really don't know how I could have been so stupid."
Shannon looked noncommittal. "If you say so. So is this 'Clarance' a redcap or something that they have sent to punish you in your dreams."
"No" he sighed. "I think he just came for his own bedevilment. You see he thought it was all quite funny. Ha ha."
They sailed on in silence for a bit. Iain trailed his hand along disconsolately in the water, thought better of it and just sat in a corner and looked at the map. "You should really do something with yourself." Iain just snorted. "No, here you are, by your accounts getting screwed over by the court and you are just sitting there taking it. You should be more proactive and assert yourself against them."
Iain laughed. "This isn't America. You just don't do that sort of thing."
"I don't see why not. It is better than lying there and letting it happen." Shannon busied herself with a crosscurrent for a bit. "I really wish I had a fairy companion," she sighed. "Someone to go off adventuring with."
"Not Clarance," said Iain. "This guy has the sort of sense of humour that can get you killed. They really aren't nice people." He thought for a moment. "Like The Morrigan. It sounds horrible but it means The Great Queen. But you kind of called her that so as not to draw her attention. She was mad, bad, and dangerous to know."
"Weren't there any nice ones?"
"Hah. We drove them into the hills. Burned them with iron. Why should they be nice. Sorry to deflate your fantasies. Welcome to the real world."
Shannon stared contemplatively at the sunlight on the water, then laughed. "Welcome to the real world? Here we are talking about fairies and their politics. How real is that?"
Iain joined in the laughter. "Yah, I guess so. Look, Shannon. Why don't you just come back to Limerick with me. My flat is dump but you are welcome to it. I can show you around. There are some great pubs in the area."
Shannon shook her head, but smiled at him. "Thanks, but I know what I want."
"Being proactive and assertive, eh? Oh, well." He pointed at the map. "There's a village just up a bit that the Dublin-Limerick bus goes through. You can drop me there."
"Yeah, it should be another 3.6 miles if we keep this bearing." She sighed. "I supposed I should let you off."
"I don't understand, we should be there by now," said Shannon. A mist had descended suddenly and cut off their view. Shannon was consulting the compass, speedometer, and map. The compass spun and she tapped it a bit, then changed the course accordingly.
Iain stretched out from the side trying to see the banks. "Hello?" he called out but only the odd horse whinny returned. River reeds drifted past in the shallow water.
"The map clearly indicates that we should be at the town, right now."
"Forget the map", said Iain. "Can't you see, the compass keeps changing. By following it you are taking us right where they want us."
"So what do you want me to do? Completely ignore the map and compass?"
"Yeah, just follow the current upstream or downstream. You shouldn't rely on maps too much. Certainly not in this country."
She looked overboard sceptically. "There isn't a current." Iain checked himself and frowned. There was a sudden lurch as the boat ran aground into a sand bank. Iain was thrown up against Shannon and clutched her to keep from falling. "Hey, get off!" She pushed him away and he fell heavily to the deck.
"Turn the bloody engine off or we'll never get off." He crawled back to his feet and deliberately dusted himself off. "Why weren't you watching where we were going?"
"I can't even see the damn bow from here, stupid." She tried putting the engine in reverse but it just made a chunking noise and smoked a bit. After a time it stopped completely. "I think we're out of gas."
Iain checked the tank. "So we've run aground, burned the motor out, and run out of petrol all at once. Why am I not surprised?"
Shannon put her hands on her hips and looked out into the mist. "I can swim to shore and get help."
"We could sit here and wait for the fog to clear and ask someone who passes for help." countered Iain. "Besides, I can't swim."
She stuck a boat hook into the water. "It isn't that deep. We could wade."
"What is so bad about waiting?"
She just looked steadfast at him. "I'm being proactive and assertive. Deal with it." She pulled together the food and stuff she had bought and busied herself putting them in her backpack. Iain looked plaintively into the mist. "It isn't going to go away just by staring at it. If, as you seem so worried about, it is a fairy mist, then it isn't going to go away at all."
"Maybe we can push it off the bank once we're in the water", Iain said hopefully.
"Sure, then we'd just have no fuel or engine and be adrift to top it off." She hitched the backpack high up on her shoulders and hopped overboard. The water came up to her waist. "Are you coming?"
Iain grumbled and slowly let himself over the side. "Jesus this is cold!" Shannon shrugged. Together they slogged through the shallow water. There weren't very many deep spots and occasionally the ground rose high enough to be dry. Everywhere there were reeds and mist. On a relatively dry spot they sat and ate some of their stuff for lunch.
"I don't know anywhere that has a swamp this big. We mist be going in circles or something", Iain said through a soggy sandwich.
"I didn't see any standing stones but maybe they've sent us through a portal or something" said Shannon contemplatively.
Iain sighed glumly. "Yeah, it's possible. I've heard of that."
"Lets see, what happens in fairy tales when someone gets flung through a magic gateway?" Shannon mused.
"I'm not up to killing a dragon."
"No. Dragons aren't Celtic. But we may have to steal something from the gods to bring back to humanity."
They set out once more into the mist.
"We're going to die of hypothermia", hissed Iain at Shannon. He had lost track of how long they had waded but it was getting dark.
"You should have brought a jacket", Shannon hissed back hugging her waxed jacket closer.
"I didn't think of it when you kidnapped me." They sloshed on a few more steps and she cautioned him when he broke a reed. "Why are we being so quiet?"
"I don't know. It just feels... Look!" She pointed and you could just make out through parting mist a glow well above the waterline. "A Will-o-wisp?"
"No", said Iain. "It is more like firelight." They moved slowly and quietly toward it. Slowly the elements of a larger structure made themselves evident as they got closer. "A crannog."
"A crannog. Sort of a villiage/homstead on stilts. They built them in the iron age as a defensive dwelling where they couldn't build hill forts."
"Did the elves build them?"
"Sidhe, sidhe." Iain shrugged. "I think someone said once that they learned how to make them from the Sidhe."
"We should be very, very careful, then" said Shannon. Iain nodded. They crept closer until they were right next to the very edge. They could hear creaking timbers.
Iain grabbed Shannon close and whispered in her ear "There is someone walking around." She nodded.
"A Dhia, tá ocras orm taím ag dul go dtí an leithreas." a voice said tiredly above.
"What did he say" hissed Shannon in Iain's ear.
"I don't know" Iain hissed back. "None of us paid any attention in Irish class."
The creaking got closer and they could see a figure in hairy cloth outlined against the now visible stars above. "If we don't move at all maybe he won't notice" said Shannon in her quietest voice. They clutched each other. There was then a spattering noise of water dropped into water and the sharp smell of urine washed over them. The figure shook himself and walked off. Iain and Shannon looked at each other with an air of disgust.
When the creaking had quieted, the moved slowly under the edge of the crannog. "That was totally disgusting", hissed Shannon.
"I'm sorry that had to be your first experience of fairies." He still held her.
"Here, it's warmer." She unzipped her jacket and wrapped it around both of them.
"Thanks," he said, snuggling in. "What next?"
"Well, we could wait till they go to bed and get out of this damn water and look for some item of divine brilliance to steal."
So they sat for some time in the water.
"How long has it been", asked Iain eventually.
Shannon checked her swatch, "Half an hour."
"Jesus. I'm freezing."
"So am I."
"Why don't we just try to creep in anyway?"
"I suppose if we stay out here much longer we'll freeze."
They crept back out from under the platform. After listening for some time, Iain quietly boosted Shannon up. She, in turn, helped him up. There were a number of wooden huts on the platform. In the middle of them, raised up on some stones, was the remains of a fire with a stew pot sitting in the embers.
"It's a cauldron," Iain whispered excitedly in Shannon's ear. She looked at him like he was crazy. "They're often magical. Lets steal it."
She looked at him disbelievingly. "OK. It's your mythology."
They started creeping around the nearest hut. Shannon's running shoes barely made a noise but Iain's boots squelched with the water. "I've got to go slower", hissed Iain. "You go ahead." She nodded back at him.
Iain was only halfway between the huts concentrating on his footing by the time Shannon reached the cauldron. After a furtive look at the nearest hut entrance she reached out to pick it up. "Ayeee!" she cried and let go of the hot surface rapidly. They both froze.
"A Phadraigh. An bhfuil bean leat ansúid?" questioned a voice from one hut.
"A Dhiabhail a Ruariaigh, tá bean uaim ach nach é an cait." a sleepy voice answered from the other.
Iain finally came around the corner of the hut. Shannon stood on the edge of the fire gesticulating at the pot. Iain sighed, rolled his eyes and grabbed the pot. "Ayeee!" he cried, comprehending her gestures too late.
"Siúnas a chait an anadach!" shouted the first hut again.
Shannon looked questioningly at Iain. He just shrugged. He then pulled the end of his sweater down past his wrist and used that to shield his hand. Shannon quickly comprehended and did the same with her jacket. Together they slowly took the cauldron away toward what appeared to be a bridge to the land. Once they were off the boards they could walk faster and soon broke into a run. Several hundred yards further up the trail they came to a breathless halt.
"Whew, that was close", said Shannon.
"Sorry about that", said Iain. "I didn't understand what you were trying to tell me."
"That's OK", she replied. "What have we got."
"Well, if it was the Salmon of Knowledge they were cooking, then the first to taste it gets all the knowledge of the ancients." They both paused briefly before scooping up a bit with their hands and eating it. He shook his head. "I guess not."
"It would be fine with a bit of salt", said Shannon. They scooped one or two more bits out, not having realised how hungry they were. "Maybe it is a fertility urn or something." They both paused awkwardly, exchanged glances, and nonchalantly went back to eating bits out of it. Their hands touched once or twice.
"Hmm. Maybe. They did do that sort of thing." They continued eating in silence for a bit.
When they finished Shannon licked her fingers clean. "Not what I really would have expected of fairy food but not too bad, once you got used to it."
"Yeah, not bad. Feeling any odd effects?"
"I don't know. Maybe?" She stood up and shook her legs. "Lets move on a bit, we need to dry our clothes."
"OK. I'll take the pot, it's much lighter now", said Iain picking it up.
"No, lets carry it together", she took one side of it and their hands touched again. They followed the road, which was more than wide enough for the two of them, and the pot, to walk side by side. Eventually they reached a clearing. "Oh! Look at the stars! Aren't they magnificent?"
Iain craned his neck upward. "Yeah. You don't see that in the city. There's the plow, or rather, the Big Dipper."
She nodded. "There's Orion. That's all I know."
"Yeah, you don't really learn that much about the stars when you can't see them." Iain sighed. "I'd love to live out here but there's no money in it."
Shannon sighed as well. "I know. I've thought about it a lot." The watched in silence for a bit. A small breeze blew through and Iain shivered involuntarily. "God, you're freezing! I forgot you didn't have a jacket."
"I'll be all right."
"No, lets find somewhere to lie down. We're far enough away now." They moved off the road slightly uphill. Iain trampled down some weeds with his boots and made a little nest. "I'll just put this over both of us", she said taking off her jacket and laying it over both of them.
"No, now you'll freeze. Look, my jumper is almost dry, I'll take that off as well, that'll make it more even." They rearranged their clothing and snuggled up close again. Iain's hands brushed her breasts but he drew them back quickly.
"Oh, uh, sorry about that", said Iain.
"No, it's all right. It's the best way to keep warm." She pulled his arms around her again. He shifted a bit, and she shifted a bit. Eventually she turned to face him. Accidentally their faces touched. "Sorry!" she whispered.
"No, really." He said a bit breathlessly. "It's all.." he started before their faces touched again, by no accident.
Several hours later a horse whinnied in a nearby field. They both woke with a start. They drew apart shyly, but then snuggled back together. "Look", Iain said. "The dipper has nearly set. You can just about see it where the sun is coming up."
Shannon sighed happily, then furrowed her brow. "But that's the North, isn't it?" They both sat up. On the top of the hill was a dolmen arch, glowing eerily with fairy fire. "Awesome!"
"It's a gate!" said Iain hurriedly. "Quick, put your clothes back on. That's our ticket home." They both dressed rapidly and started up the hill. "Shit, the pot!" They scrambled down, grabbed it and ran up to the top.
They held hands and looked at each other briefly. Shannon shrugged, Iain laughed and together they leaped through with a flash.
Many hours later Rory struggled to lift a sign back in place next to the road. He had got it clear, but lifting it onto its supports required two people. However Patrick shortly came down the hill next to the road. "I think a horse kicked it down, or something", Rory said to him.
"Just our luck", said Patrick. Together, though, they lifted it back in place. The sign read LIMERICK UNIVERSITY LIVING HISTORY PROJECT. "We wouldn't want our grant money stopped."
"Did you ever find our bloody pot?"
Patrick shook his head. "Someone kipped out up by the dolmen, but there's no sign of them now."
"Jesus. Who would steal a damn pot?" Rory sighed. "Some people will do
anything for a laugh."