Cold and damp seeped in around the shutters as the chill winter wind lashed rain harder against the front of the little inn. The few travelers who had not yet sought their beds upstairs huddled well away from the outside wall, hunching over half-empty tankards and pretending that the glow of the fire was enough to ward off the dark and cold that pressed heavily against the worn wooden walls.
Muirne had wrapped herself in a second shawl and eyed the guttering lanterns near the door with resignation as she finished wiping up the bar. It was noticeably colder on that side of the main room, and she was in no hurry to go over even long enough to replace the candles. Still, maybe more light would make the room less dreary than it was, so the innkeeper sighed and moved to fetch spare candles.
The knock that came on the door just as she reached for the first lantern was not expected. Nor was it the desperate pounding she would have anticipated from a traveler still caught out in the storm. Instead, it was firm, assured, steady.
Blinking, Muirne automatically reached for the door latched against the howling wind and drew it open, flinching at the rain and icy gusts that blew in at once.
A tall, cloaked and hooded woman stood in the doorway.
“I will stay here this night,” she said at once in a low, lilting voice.
“O-of course,” Muirne stammered, taken aback, “please come in.”
She caught the flash of abnormally straight, gleaming white teeth from under the hood as the strange woman smiled. The innkeeper stepped back to let her in despite the sudden wariness that kindled in her mind. Her mother’s voice slid through her memory, murmured stories of why one shouldn’t trust the stranger appearing mysteriously out of a storm…but the woman was already inside, the door somehow closing against the wind behind her.
Muirne slipped to the side of her new guest to latch the door, only to find the bolt had already slid home. Swallowing, she felt a shiver down her spine, and forced a deep breath into suddenly unsteady lungs before she turned around.
Realization that something unusual was happening had passed to the rest of the travelers in the room as well, for they now sent surreptitious glances at the two women standing by the door. No one moved, or spoke, but there was watchfulness where before there had been only hunched disinterest.
“A glass of your best mead,” the woman said. Although it was not quite a command, Muirne found that she was on her way back to the bar before she realized she was moving.
Tension hummed through the room as the innkeeper poured the requested drink, and another shiver ran down her spine. Careful not to let it affect her hands, she filled the tankard and brought it back to her newest guest. The taller woman took it in a slender, pale hand, and raised it to drink without pushing back the hood of her cloak, or moving at all from where she stood. Muirne realized that she was holding her breath, praying that her mead would be acceptable; it had been praised by many a traveler over the years, but the tastes of one of the- the tastes of this particular lady might be different.
The stranger drained the tankard in one long, smooth drink, however, and let out a pleased sigh when she finished, handing it back to Muirne. The innkeeper took it and was finally able to release the breath that she’d been holding.
“Excellent,” the low voice offered in praise, and Muirne bobbed a quick curtsy before she could think about it. “That does help to take away the chill.”
“Now,” the lady went on, “there is the matter of payment.”
Those slender, pale hands lifted, and at last pushed back the hood of the cloak.
Although it had become obvious that this new guest was not human, to see the truth of it still sent a shock through Muirne.
Long, red-gold hair bright enough to rival the firelight spilled down the lady’s back in a wild wave, and every flame in the room seemed suddenly to flare brighter, as though in eager envy. Red lips parted in a grin that lit up impossibly beautiful features, and the delicate tips of pointed ears peeked from between strands of fiery hair.
It was the lady’s eyes, however, large and of shifting blue-green-lavender hues, that caught and held Muirne’s own light blue, sending a thrill down her spine. Although mostly a shudder of fear, there was also the slightest thrill of anticipation in it.
The fae lady unfastened the black cloak at her throat and let it fall, the fabric vanishing before it hit the floor. Her figure was slender but shapely, clothed in sapphire-blue velvet. She raised her hands palm-up, and a fiddle, its polished wood gleaming, followed by a bow fell out of the air into the lady’s grasp.
“A song or two will suffice, I trust?” she asked Muirne, her ever-changing eyes glittering with mischief and good humor.
The innkeeper forced herself to take a deep breath, pushing away the shock and lingering fear as best she could, and nodded.
“Of course,” she said, suspecting from the mischief that it might be more than a ‘song or two’…and finding that in spite of her fear, she did not wish to protest. The room was already brighter and warmer than it had been just moments ago, and the storm outside seemed more distant.
“Excellent,” the lady said again, and turned to the group of stunned travelers still gathered around the fire. Gliding steps took her across the room, her skirts (fully dry and not the least bit dirtied) swishing quietly across the floor. “If any among you make music, take up your instruments,” she commanded, bringing her fiddle to her shoulder and raising her bow, “and prepare yourselves to play.”
There was a long breath of silent anticipation in which no one moved…and then with another grin, the fae lady drew her bow across the strings, sending the first dancing notes out into the air. All at once there was a cheer from everyone in the room, and several people scrambled for their packs, while others took up the rhythm with hands and feet.
Muirne felt another thrill shiver through her as the lady’s eyes met hers once more, and this time it was definitely a thrill of anticipation more than fear. Warmth and excitement and pleasure thrummed through her blood, and she felt more awake, more alive, than she had for many a long year.
Beware, her mother’s voice whispered in her memory, beware the call. It will take hold of you and never let you go.
Fae eyes glowed, and the music stepped up its pace as the lady sent her bow flying over the fiddle strings. Muirne swallowed hard and forced herself to turn and retreat behind the bar.
Soon pipes and a drum joined the lady’s fiddle, and a couple of men cleared enough space in the middle of the room to start up a dance. A few of the travelers who had been asleep upstairs began to peer groggily down the staircase, their frowns and scowls melting away as the fiddle’s notes reached up to them. Slowly at first, then with greater enthusiasm, they descended the stairs, some bearing yet more instruments.
The small inn was suddenly full: full of people, of light, of music.
Muirne remained behind the perhaps-illusory safety of the bar. She did not try to stop her toes from tapping or her fingers from beating out the time as she lined up tankards, pouring out mead and ale and handing them out to the people as they passed by, grinning and laughing and singing their way around the room. Swallowing against the lure, she held herself back from anything further.
Beware, she recalled her mother’s voice, trying to remain strong, beware the call.
It was difficult, though, and became more so the longer the music played, her mother’s voice fading. The music made by her human guests was catchy enough, and would certainly have cheered her and had her tapping along the rhythm without trouble. That was nothing, though, to the beckoning call she heard in the fae lady’s fiddle, its dancing notes leaping from the instrument almost as something tangible in themselves. They spun through the air, a wind made of sound, little eddies that swirled around her, tugging at her, playful, urging her already restless feet to step into the rhythm and pull of the music.
“Join us!” urged a man as he swept by the bar for another glass of ale.
“Yes, Innkeep, join us!” chorused the couple following behind him.
Soon the whole room was laughing and beckoning to Muirne, urging her to give in to the music’s pull.
She paused in setting out glasses, still holding back, still hesitating…
She made the mistake of looking once more to the fae lady. Violet-sky-green eyes caught hers, and the thrill of the call hit her with all of its power, and Muirne was lost in the next breath.
The innkeeper was not as young as she had once been, her joints a little stiffer, her body a little stouter. She was still strong, though, and still had her health, and so she plunged into the swirl of dancers taking up her common room without trouble. This was greeted with a cheer, and her feet followed the steps easily, hands up and clapping, spinning and twirling through the dance as the dancers moved from pairs to small circles, through a line and back again to pairs, partners switching in and out constantly as the music rose and fell around them.
That song blended seamlessly into another, led by the fae lady’s fiddle, and Muirne kept dancing, letting others fall out to take up the singing that went with this melody. Muirne danced and danced, from that song into another and then another, and although it had been a long, cold day, there was nothing but joy in her bones and warmth in her blood.
People moved and swirled through the room, and Muirne did not know if it was by accident or by some unknown design that she eventually ended up right in front of the fae lady.
The lady smiled at her, sharp but pleased, her long, delicate fingers flying over her fiddle strings, the music never once pausing.
“Sing,” she whispered, and the word reached out, thrumming through Muirne as though she were a string and the fae lady had plucked her.
Opening her mouth, Muirne sang. Her feet and hands still moved, keeping her mostly in place before the fae lady, not quite dancing but still allowing her to move with the rhythm.
She had been known for her singing once; it had been years since she had sung for anyone other than herself, though, or an occasional quiet song as she worked around the inn. Long years, hard work and old grief had worn away at the music in her heart, quieting and dulling it, and she could no longer remember when that had happened, when she stopped hearing its call.
Now, she remembered, remembered the thrill and the joy and the brightness of it, and she sang.
For three songs, Muirne sang with all of her heart and soul, truly feeling the music as she hadn’t in far too long. Then the fae lady seemed to release the hold of her command, and Muirne was able to spin back into the dancing, even as the genuine applause and cheers of the crowd followed her.
Still the music played on. Once or twice there were lulls, quieter songs where the fae lady played alone or mostly alone, and Muirne poured more drink for everyone to quench their barely-noticed thirst. When she brought herself to tear her gaze away from her most unusual guest, though, she could find no hint of light peeking around the shutters, and a wink from the lady told Muirne that she did not intend to stop yet.
Music filled up the small inn, hour after hour, and slowly it filled up Muirne’s heart, until she could swear that her heart was beating in time with the drums, her breath orchestrated by the dancing melody of pipe and fiddle.
It seemed like forever and like she had only just taken a breath when suddenly it was over. The fae lady finished a song with a last, drawn-out note, and then lifted her bow from the strings for the first time since she began playing hours ago. The other players and singers somehow managed a graceful ending despite the suddenness, and then there was silence.
For a brief instant, Muirne felt as though her heart had ceased to beat, and could not draw air into her lungs.
Then the moment passed, and there was a shuffle and a rustling as the fae lady vanished her fiddle and summoned her cloak back on. Muirne tore her eyes away again, and found that this time, the first hint of gray was beginning to show beyond the shutters, though it was dim yet.
“My thanks,” the lady said, fastening the black fabric at her throat, her voice just as rich and low as it had been from the beginning. The innkeeper’s gaze turned back to her, and the fae lady held her eyes as she drew up the hood of her cloak. Muirne was able to look away again only when the dark fabric completely shrouded the impossibly beautiful face.
There were murmurs around the room as the lady strode easily to the door. It unlatched and opened before her to reveal that the storm had passed sometime in the night, and that the first hint of a lovely day was dawning beyond the inn walls. The lady stepped out, and the door closed behind her and she was gone.
It felt like waking after a long and wonderful dream.
Muirne blinked the feeling away as best she could, forcing herself to re-light fires and lanterns that (despite having blazed merrily all night) were suddenly dead and cold. She helped her exhausted (but still cheerful) guests to beds and pallets and collected as many empty tankards as she could before falling prey to her own weariness and seeking her bed for a few hours.
Everyone woke a little later in the morning to clear blue skies and bright (if cool) sunshine. They packed their things, chatting happily about the unusual night, the wonderful music and dancing. By noon, they had all left, calling heartfelt thanks to Muirne for her hospitality, and she had the impression that the full memory of what took place the night before was already fading for most of them. Left only with a sense that there had been revelry and good times, they left with clear heads and lighter hearts.
Only Muirne would remember, it seemed.
Beware, whispered the memory of her mother’s voice, audible once more now that the music had ceased, beware the call. It will lure you in and never let go.
Muirne closed her eyes, and listened to her heart, full once more with music when it had been quiet for so many years.
Swallowing hard, she took a deep breath and let it out, and decided to see what the future might bring.
The seasons turned.
Winter gave way to spring, and Muirne hummed and toe-tapped her way through her work.
Spring bloomed into summer, and Muirne quietly encouraged travelers to take out any instrument that they might happen to carry with them.
Summer slipped away slowly into fall, and Muirne sang almost constantly under her breath, fingers tapping restlessly against thigh and bar top and table.
Fall chilled down inexorably into winter, and Muirne clenched her hands into fists to keep them still, swallowed down music that was close, so close…but slipped away, just out of tune. Fear chilled her deep in her bones, and the innkeeper wondered how long she could hold herself together, how long she could keep from wandering out into a cold winter night, seeking the notes that now danced just out of reach.
Fear chilled her…until one cold, rainy night there came a knock on the inn door, shut and latched tightly against the miserable weather. The knock was firm, assured, steady, not at all what she would expect from a desperate traveler stuck out in the storm.
Muirne flew across the room to draw the door open and found a familiar hooded figure standing in the entryway.
“I will stay here this night,” said the low, musical voice, just as she remembered it, just as it haunted her dreams.
Muirne grinned and stepped back. “Of course,” she said calmly.
The fae lady grinned too, bright and mischievous and knowing, when she drew off her cloak and summoned her fiddle into her hands.
“Bring me a glass of mead,” she commanded, “and then we shall play and dance and sing.”
“Yes,” breathed Muirne, the music swelling up loud and clear again in her heart, filling her throat, setting her toes to tapping, “yes!”
Her eyes met the fae lady’s again from across the room, and the lavender-blue-emerald gaze held understanding and promise. In that moment, Muirne knew that she had nothing to fear from this particular lady, and she allowed her mother’s long-ago warnings about the fae to fade from her mind. She would feel the magic and the Pull…but those ever-changing eyes promised that it would not devour her.
The fae lady lifted her bow to the strings and began to play.
This time, Muirne didn’t hold herself back.
Muirne is (roughly) pronounced MOR-na.
Inspirational/mood music: Nil Se’n La by Celtic Woman
Copyright (c) 2015 by Ethelinda Webb