Mick clanged the gate behind him.
In the late afternoon glow the wood-shadow was long; already the cornfield was edged with mist. The great golden expanse spread itself before him; reckless, he plunged in.
This time he walked straight, not caring, rustling through the chest-high crop, stumbling on furrows, snapping the stiff stems until all around him the corn whispered and rippled and stirred, and he felt cut off from the world, from the Fair with its garish noise and colours.
Over his head, house martins swooped and screeched.
He took the flute out of its case; it was hot, and his hands were too, making steamy streaks as he fitted the mouthpiece on, twisting it, lifting it to his lips, the warm touch disturbing him.
Then, at last, he let himself play, a long trill of relief, and all the notes came whistling out, a fast, fierce rage of music, so ready and confident that his heart raced with the power and fear of it. It was him playing, he knew that; not the old, useless Mick, stubbing his fingers with nerves – this was the real him, the buried ability he’d always had and never let himself use, a fierce cruel talent that burned him. Somewhere there were other players too, all round him; pipes and fiddles and dulcimer and drums, all in harmony, all rising to a ferocity that made the baked earth tremble. The corn stirred; it churned and shimmered and danced with him. As he watched, it swirled into the sorcerous shapes of the music, a great pattern of song rippling out from his feet in rings and arcs and spirals, far out to the hedgerows; an electric energy that made the hairs along his arms tingle. He was doing this, he was making it happen, he knew, so that he closed his eyes and played on with them all, into the darkness into the night, and it was hours later when he stood there and realised the music had ended, the energy had gone.
He was standing under a sky full of stars, facing the moon, a narrow yellow moon rising over him.
Weariness soaked him. He felt drained; his whole strength spent. It cost him an effort even to turn his head.
All around him, far into the dark, the corn lay flat in wild patterns, spirals, great geometric shapes. Above its silence moths fluttered and a few bats careered crazily in the purple sky, zig-zagging after invisible beetles.
Beyond, in hedges, high in trees, squatting on logs, lying in the corn, all the strangers of the Fair grinned back at him, troupes of tiny grotesque men, beautiful girls, tall, strangely-dressed harpers and jugglers and drummers and beyond them uglier shapes, misshapen, lost in shadows.
Among them stood Rowan, tall as a queen, her dress dark blue, scattered with stars. When he saw her he laughed, and she laughed with him, rich and free.
“Welcome to the Host of the Air, Mick,” she said.