An Excerpt from STAG PARTY
“My lord, do you not think…”
“Eh? What’s that? Speak up, Stewart, you’re positively babbling.”
Stewart the steward (we have many a good laugh over that) looked pointedly at the stone statue in front of me. “My lord—”
I held up my free hand. “Please, not you too. It’s bad enough having ‘Most gracious lord this’ and ‘Oh worshipful lord that’ coming from the druids, but you’ve known me for…phew, how many years now? Three hundred? Four?”
“Five hundred and twelve,” the little man answered, wincing as I scratched my belly and heaved a sigh of relief. “I’ve always called you my lord. If not that, what do you wish me to call you?”
“Didn’t we go through this last year? It’s Hearne. Dane Hearne. Know it, use it, love it.”
“Aye, my…Mr. Hearne. But…eh…is that not a bit sacrilegious?”
“My name? Not in the least. It’s the name I was born with, in case you didn’t know. Well…in a manner of speaking. People didn’t much go in for surnames back then, but that’s what it would have been if they had. Nowadays, people hardly ever use my proper name. I almost forgot what it was myself until a few months ago when I ran across an interesting online article about me.”
“No, not your name. Er…that.” He nodded to the statue in front of us.
I looked with dissatisfaction at it. “Sacrilegious because the artist depicted Taranis as standing astride the world in a position of power when we know him to be a cowardly little wimp, you mean?”
Stewart closed his eyes a moment. “No, my lo—sir. I meant the fact that you’re urinating on it. Taranis is, after all, your overlord, head of all the Irish gods.”
“On the contrary, I find it remarkably stress-relieving. It expresses my true inner feelings about that bastard,” I answered, punctuating the word I had been writing on the statue with an exclamation point before zipping up. I stretched and glanced around the yard. “So, what’s been happening while I’ve been gone? Buildings look good. I see you’ve had the verge mown. The druids seem to be multiplying, though. Did you speak to them as I asked? And why the blazes did Taranis wait until now to have me summoned?”
Stewart was a short man. Proud, and of noble birth—if on the wrong side of the blanket—but still lacking in the general region of height. He trotted alongside me as I strolled around the grounds, eyeing the large square tower that made up one of two inhabitable parts of the castle. The tower looked as solid as ever. There was a hint of moss growing on the north side, but other than that, it looked good. Remarkable, really, considering it was older than Stewart.
“Er…I have no idea. I was told there was a delay. As for the druids, I tried, Mr. Hearne.”
“Dane. Surely after all those long centuries of employment you can call me Dane?”
His little round face looked vaguely shocked. “I couldn’t do that, sir. It wouldn’t be fitting. You are, after all, Cernunnos.”
“Stewart, Stewart, still living in the twelfth century.” I shook my head as I strode past the carriage house where the druids were housed, counting no fewer than three new faces in the group that was dancing around a willow tree.
“I was born in the sixteenth, sir—”
“Doesn’t matter.” I waved a hand at the splotches of yellow that cascaded over the crumbled stones that made up the ruined part of the castle. “Those yellow blobs there, those flowers. Just look at them!”
We marched past the flower-splattered mossy ruins, following the narrow trail down to the rocky beach that dropped abruptly into the sea. “Whatever they are, they’re positively bursting with life force! It’s spring, man, the time of birth and rejuvenation and life! The time to celebrate being alive, not fussing around with archaic ideas and outmoded methods of speech. Live in the here and now, that’s my motto, and it’s never let me down. Where’s Fidencia?”
“Er…she’s not here, sir.” Stewart skidded down the last of the path, and kept from falling by clutching the root of an uprooted tree which had washed ashore a few year ago.
I hopped over the tree and walked to the water’s edge, breathing deeply of the fresh salt air. My position may be tied to shady woodland areas found inland, but it was the sea I loved best. The relentless roar of the waves, the sharp tang of salty air, the piercing cry of gulls and terns they etched great arcs into the sky—ah, yes, it was the sea that I returned to each time I was born, and it was the loss of the sea I mourned each winter when I died.
The sea air brushed away a few of the mental cobwebs that always remained after rebirth. I turned from the view of my beloved sea to glance back at Stewart. He was looking distinctly uncomfortable, shifting restlessly from foot to foot. “What’s the matter with you?” I asked, feeling a momentary spike of concern. Stewart had been with me so many centuries, I couldn’t imagine how I would cope without him. Had someone wooed him away from my employment while I was gone?
“It’s Lady Fidencia.”
“What about her? Don’t tell me that she’s broken that thing we started a couple of years ago…what was it…”
“A credit limit?”
“Don’t tell me she blasted through that credit limit and bankrupted me again? I distinctly remember you telling me she couldn’t do that any more.”
“No, sir, she has not exceeded the limit you put on her credit card—at least I don’t believe she has, I haven’t seen the statements for this month yet—it’s something of a different nature that I believe will interest you.”
I turned back to the sea, allowing its ebb and flow to soak into my soul. “I sincerely doubt that. Fidencia is so caught up in herself, she never had time for anyone else, let alone her lord and master. What’s she done now? Started another artist’s colony? Gone to those monks in Nepal to learn meditation again? Decided to breed more pygmy goats?”
“Alas, she hasn’t, sir. She’s…er…”
“Spit it out, man,” I told him, not taking my eyes from the breathtaking expanse before me. It amused me to try to find the point on the horizon where the steel grey of the sea merged into the grey of the sky.
“She’s gone to South America, married another god who is now a Brazilian salsa dancer, and is going to be expecting a happy event sometime in the near future,” he said, the words coming out in a rush.
My blood seemed to turn to fire in my veins. I turned slowly to look at the steward. He had backed away a few steps, a wary look in his eye as if he was about to bolt. “She what?”
He jerked at the bellow, the birds above us scattering with harsh cries of protest. I was on him in two steps, the blood pounding so loudly in my ears it blocked the sound of the sea. The pressure in my head built until it burst forth, another roar of anger sounding against the crash of the waves. “She married someone? She can’t marry someone, she’s supposed to marry me in a week! She’s gone and impregnated herself with some other man’s child? She can’t do that! I forbid her to be pregnant! I forbid her to be married!”
“You’re…strangling me…sir…” Stewart’s raspy voice pierced the roar in my ears. My eyes focused on his face, red and blotchy as I held him by his neck a good two feet off the ground.
“Blast! My apologies, Stewart.” I set him down carefully, straightening his tie and jacket, and watching him closely to make sure he wasn’t going to swoon. “You all right?”
“Yes, sir,” he squeaked, tugging at his tie. He eyed my forehead with a look of great caution. “You seem to be manifesting. Shall I fetch the swords?”
I waved away the offer. “No, no, there’s no need for me to work off anger through fencing anymore. There was a new yoga instructor in my department. I spent the entire time I was dead working on anger management skills. Just let me get control again, and then you can tell me what the hell Fidencia is up to now.”
Stewart looked away as I turned back to the sea, driving all thoughts from my mind but the calming rhythm of the waves. A few minutes later, I was myself again, and tapped him on the shoulder before starting back toward the tower. “I think this is going to require a drink.”
“Several, I would imagine.”
“Take it from the beginning,” I said a few minutes later as we walked into the room at the top of the tower that served as my study. I poured brandy into a couple of glasses, sliding one toward him before moving to the window overlooking the rocky beach. The uneven stone surface that made up the entire tower was cool to the touch—it always was, no matter how hot the day. I gripped the stone windowsill, my eyes on the grey sea below.
“It was just after you left for the Underworld that she called from Rio de Janeiro. She said that she had fallen in love with Dionysus.”
“Dionysus?” The named seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.
“Better known as Bacchus, sir. Lord of wine and celebration. Evidently Dionysus joined an alcoholic twelve-step program, has gone on the wagon, and become a salsa dancer at a hotel, which is where Lady Fidencia met him. She called soon after you died to say that she was in love, was going to marry him, and stay in Rio to live la vida loca.”
I cast a frown over my shoulder at him. “She’s living what?”
He made a little gesture that had his brandy splashing in his glass. “La vida loca. I looked it up on the Internet. Evidently it’s from a popular song. It means living the crazy life.”
“Life here wasn’t crazy enough for her?” I asked, turning to gesture with my glass of brandy, indignant at the thought that she felt the life I offered was lacking in any way. “She doesn’t think being surrounded by neo-druids for half the year, and hyperactive fitness instructors and televangelists for the other half isn’t crazy? She’d have to be insane not to find that crazy!”
Stewart shrugged, and sipped his brandy.
“This isn’t good.” I jerked out the chair from behind my desk and slumped into it, not even the thought of the sea calming my jangled nerves. “Beltane is a week away. You know what that means—Taranis will be positively chomping at the bit to get a replacement for me in here. Well, I’m not going to let that happen. Get Fidencia on the phone. Maybe this is some sort of ploy to get her credit limit raised.”
Stewart rose immediately to do as I requested, but the look on his face had me worried.
He moved to the desk in the alcove that used to be a fireplace, but which now made up his office space. The tower walls were several feet thick, made of local stone quarried not a few miles from the castle, the building of which took seemed like a good idea at the time. I looked around my study, wishing I’d had the good sense in the thirteenth century to panel the walls with wood, instead of taking the advice of the resident castle-builder. Although the tower was the only original part of the castle to remain standing—the carriage house had been added several centuries later—it always had a slightly damp feel to the stones, as if they leeched the constant spray of water that beset the outer walls.
“Someone is going to fetch her,” Stewart said from his alcove, his hand over the mouth of the telephone.
I grunted a response, and turned on the laptop that sat on my desk, sullenly prodding a couple of buttons until the current week’s schedule was displayed. “This is just what I need the second I’m reborn—a faithless consort, possible dispossession, and oh, joy of joys, what’s this? Tourists? We don’t open the castle for bookings until June. Why does it say that we’re booked for ten days starting tomorrow?”
“Sim, sim, Senhora Fidencia, por favor.” Stewart covered the mouthpiece again. “I was going to tell you about that. We had an offer I didn’t think you would want to refuse from one of those American travel websites. They’re running some sort of international contest for their top travel writers, and they needed several historical sites to serve as subject matter. You should be flattered they chose Bannon Castle—they skipped several others in the county. Besides, they’ll only be here for ten days, and the money is quite good. You said before you went underground that the roof needed repair, and you didn’t know where you were going to find the money for it—I thought this was a blessing in disguise.”
I frowned and waved away his idea of a blessing. “But they will be here before Beltane! You know how disturbing I find tourists—always getting underfoot, asking questions, wanting their pictures taken with me, coveting my manly body, that sort of thing. That’s why Fidencia and I go away during the summer, so we won’t be bothered by them. How many rooms are they taking?”
“Just two. There’s a writer who has been assigned the castle and surrounding area, a cameraman to film her, and a sound engineer. Evidently the last two are a couple. I thought we could put them in the carriage house, and let the writer have the Tutor Room for the atmosphere. Sim? Ah. Obrigato.”
“And just how are we going to explain about the druids?” I asked, exiting the schedule program with a sour expression. I disliked having my well-laid plans put awry, and now I was facing what seemed insurmountable upheaval. “The celebration is coming up, and you know how they get—everything’s a sacrifice or a ceremony, most of them conducted with no clothing on, and many involving sexual congress of some sort or another. Debauchery and pagan ceremonies is hardly how I want Bannon Castle depicted to the world at large.”
“I’ll talk to Elfwine and tell her to keep a low profile—good morning, Lady Fidencia. I have his lordship waiting to speak to you.” Stewart paused for a moment, a faint blush brightening his cheeks.
Silently, I picked up the phone on my desk and leaned back in the chair, unable to keep the smile from forming as Stewart was forced to listen to Fidencia’s recital of intimate woes stemming from her pregnancy. I let her go on for a bit, but took pity on him when she got to the part about bathroom difficulties. “What sort of game are you playing now?” I asked, interrupting her. “You picked a hell of a bad time to do it, whatever it is. I need you back here immediately. Beltane is just a week away. We have to be married by then, as you well know.”
“Noony, darling!” Fidencia positively cooed into the phone. “What a delight it is to hear your forceful, one might almost say grating, voice again. How was the Underworld? Still filled with usurers and adulterers?”
I scowled at the photo on my desk, that of a long-limbed, dark-haired, sultry goddess poised seductively on a white fur rug. Noony. I hated that absurd nickname, which was no doubt why she used it. “There haven’t be usurers since the investment advisors fed them to the sharks, and as for adulterers, those who live in glass houses, my dear.”
Her laughter tinkled in a way that once, for the three years I had been unaccountably smitten with her, delighted me, but now just made my teeth itch. My jaw tightened in response, causing my teeth to grind. “Darling Noony! One can’t adulterate someone who isn’t one’s legal spouse. You died. Therefore, I was a widow and free to remarry as I liked.”
“It’s a symbolic death, as you very well know, or you would know if you’d ever gone into the Underworld with me, as you were meant to do.”
“Once was enough,” she answered quickly, the shudder evident in her voice. “I’ve moved on since then. While you were moldering away in the Underworld, I was falling madly, wonderfully, totally and completely in love with Dion. He asked me to marry him the very first night we met—at a Samba contest, which naturally we won—and I just knew that he could offer me everything you couldn’t. It was kismet, darling, kismet.”
I ground my teeth some more, just for the hell of it. “You have no right to marry someone else. You agreed to the rules of the job, even if you’ve disregarded most of them. But you can’t just brush aside the fact that in a week’s time, we are to be married. I’m willing to overlook this indiscretion just as I’ve overlooked all the other ones, but I won’t have you jeopardizing my job simply because you’ve had it off with some Latin boy toy.”
“He’s Greek, actually, dear heart, but I wouldn’t expect you to know that. Dion gave up his licentious past, and has devoted himself heart and soul to salsa. And me, naturally. I can assure you that Dion is anything but a boy,” she purred. “And as for your job—I am sorry, darling, but I’ve decided to quit. I’ve found my true métier in life—to be a wife and mother—and nothing you can say or do will change my mind.”
“You can’t do this to me!” I yelled, ignoring the pressure in my forehead. “You know that Taranis has been breathing down my back for the last two hundred years! The instant he knows you’ve married someone else, he’ll take everything away from me and hand it to one of his minions!”
“I’m truly sorry, darling, but my mind is quite made up. There is nothing in the laws that say I have to be your wife—you’ll simply have to find someone else to marry you at Beltane.”
A few more layers of enamel were ground off at that thought. “You can’t seriously expect me to find, court, and marry a woman in a week?”
“There was a time, once, many centuries in the past, when you had something approaching charm,” she said thoughtfully. “I suggest you dust that off and use it. Otherwise…it’s been nice knowing you.”
The call continued in that vein for another agonizing fifteen minutes. I tried every argument I could to make her see reason, but she always was an unreasonable woman, and nothing had changed that.
“Hellfire!” I swore, slamming down the phone. A second later I took great pleasure in jamming her photo into the trash, followed by a great many invectives.
“I take it the call did not proceed in a satisfactory manner?”
“No.” I stormed around the room for a moment, cursing Fidencia, cursing women in general, cursing the situation I found myself in. “After eleven hundred years, she suddenly decides I don’t offer her enough scope. Scope! What the hell does that mean, anyway?”
“I believe, sir, it means she feels her life is going nowhere, that marriage with you is stifling—”
One glare was enough to cut him off and leave him mumbling an apology.
“As if anyone could stifle her. She’s the most unreasonable woman in existence, and I rue the day I ever saved her wretched neck by pulling her out of the sea before she drown. The little witch has me by the balls good and proper. Well, I’ll just show her who is lacking in scope! There is no way in this world or the next I will give up my job to one of Taranis’s lackeys. Stewart! Round up every marriageable female you know. I’m going wife shopping!”