“And take every pill, do you understand? Not just until your sinuses start to feel better; until it’s all gone. Otherwise you’ll have to have that surgery where they drill holes in your face.”
The patient, a college boy with a tattered wad of tissues in his shirt pocket, gave a small, nasal giggle, but May could tell that the threat had registered. It was her secret as a doctor, this knack for discovering the right story to tell, the one that would inspire the patient to do the things he needed to do to let his body heal himself.
In the next examining room would be the last patient of the day, a squeeze-in who’d probably keep her here a little later than she’d like. But that was all right. It was the weekend, and she wasn’t on call, and Tom had the kids – which meant they’d come home sugar-shocked and cranky from three days with no curfew, but that was Monday’s problem. Tonight her plans involved a cat, a couch, and World Cup Soccer in Spanish so she didn’t have to listen to the commentators’ idiotic babble.
In the meantime, she hoped that this – she looked at the chart – this Hazel L. Couri would be one of the easy ones.
And then she flipped the file open again, because surely her eyes had deceived her. But, no, it was right there at the top:
Date of birth: June 22, 1895.
As she kept reading, her spirits sank. Emphysema, diabetes, osteoporosis, breast cancer (remission since 2001), colon cancer (remission since 1996), a long litany of the chronic and the acute. Fred at Proctor was her primary-care physician. May could think of a couple of reasons why one of Fred’s patients would be accepting a squeeze-in appointment with a GP from a different practice, but none of them boded well, either for the patient or for her own Friday night.
Sighing, she shut the file and tapped on the examining room door.
Hazel L. Couri rose from her seat when May entered, and May stared for a moment. A hundred and nine years old or not, she was one of the most beautiful women May had ever seen. She was quite tall, considering her age, with flawless posture and grace in every movement. Her eyes were a clear, pale green. Her short hair was a uniform snowy white. Fragile and papery as she was, she looked like a queen.
May fell back on habit. She held out her hand and said. “Hello, Mrs. Couri. I’m Dr. May Gordon.”
Mrs. Couri pressed May’s hand with long, cool fingers. “Thank you for agreeing to see me, Dr. Gordon,” she said, regal and warm at the same time. May had patients who were wealthy, and patients who were powerful, and one or two who were as close as you could come to aristocracy in a small Midwestern city like this one, but she had never seen this sense of combined privilege and merit outside a Katharine Hepburn movie. “I need your help with a chronic condition.”
“Which one?” May asked. “I see that you have several.”
“Life,” Mrs. Couri said.
May’s chest tightened, and her discomfort must have shown on her face. “No,” Mrs. Couri added, “it’s not the hemlock I’m here for. I need someone to beg the King’s Boon for me, so that I can die.”
May blinked. This was a new one, though she wasn’t unfamiliar with folklore involving kings and healing. “I thought the touch of a king was supposed to cure disease.”
“No,” said Mrs. Couri, “only to end suffering.”
May opened her mouth to ask, Doesn’t it amount to the same thing?and then shut it again. “Oh,” she said.
“I’ll tell you my story,” Mrs. Couri said. “Think of it as fiction if it makes it easier.” She sat down in the patient’s chair, making the ugly beige vinyl thing look like a throne. May sat down in the doctor’s chair across from her, feeling as though she were following an unspoken command. Maybe this woman had been a schoolteacher.
“I was young, of course,” Mrs. Couri said with a weary-sounding sigh. “One always is. And it was spring; it always is. And I fell in love.”
Now she smiled a bit, though it looked more ironic than reminiscent. “The King was my mother’s brother, and he wished to please me, in his way. But he would only offer to fetch the boy for me, as though Harold’s own life were worth no more than a pet kitten’s, that could be taken from its mother and handed over to a child. But I was in love, and I said I’d do as Harold’s people did and follow my lover, though it meant I could never again be in the presence of my own people.”
She looked at May with a half-smile. “I see you wondering whether I still have my wits.”
May had, indeed, been wondering just that, though she’d also been trying to detect any slightest trace of an accent in the woman’s voice. If she came from some monarchy, that might be the grain of truth in this tale. But Mrs. Couri’s voice, though it lacked the characteristic flat vowels of the Midwest, was in no way foreign. “Go on,” May said in a neutral tone.
Mrs. Couri crossed her right knee over her left. She moved slowly, but on her it looked less like frailty than like grace. “The King my kinsman thundered, ‘You will die,’ “ she said. “And I asked my mother, ‘Is it so? Shall I die?’ and she answered, ‘Eventually.’ But it’s a hundred and ten years tomorrow, and die I don’t, and I think he’s holding me for spite, the brute.”
“And you want me to -” May hoped she wasn’t going to have to explain to the woman why she wasn’t willing to wait all night at a crossroads to pull a rider down off a horse.
Mrs. Couri took off one of her earrings and held it out to May. “Take this to the oak grove and bury it as an offering from me.”
From a distance, the earring had looked like a large round bead; now May saw that it was a nut of some sort. She dangled it between her fingers. “All I have to do is bury it?” The psychology of death was mysterious. If simply burying an earring under an oak tree was enough to make this woman feel that she could let go of the burden of life, May supposed she could to that for her.
“In an oak grove. Bury it as an offering to beg the boon for Hazel Llewellen,” she said, and maybe there was a trace of some sort of accent there. “Mortal for mortal, as it were.” She seemed to find this amusing; she gave a genteel laugh and repeated: “Mortal for mortal. He’ll not refuse you, I think. Your sort can have anything they ask of him, just for the sport of it.”
“A pretty mortal woman who doesn’t believe in Faerie.”
May sat in her Honda and frowned at the map. It was a small Midwestern river city, not the English countryside, for heaven’s sake. Supernatural creatures ought to behave like natives and haunt cornfields. She could think of a number of maple groves, but oak groves?
Well, Glen Oak Park was more or less on her way home; it would have to do. You never heard stories where the mortal and the fey miscommunicated and the offering got left in the wrong place, after all. She would go to Glen Oak Park, and bury the earring, and if she played her part in the narrative with good faith, it might be enough to allow Mrs. Couri to let go of life at last.
This time of year, the park was never entirely deserted, even after dark. But the company wasn’t the sort that reassured her. Packs of youths in loose-fitting clothes whose threatening scowls sat uneasily on their still-childish faces. Solitary muttering men. A couple who periodically erupted into shrieks of drunken laughter.
The trees were thickest on the zoo side, but somehow she thought a supernatural personage might find the caged animals disturbing. So she chose a spot in sight of the smaller playground. She’d come here often enough as a child that she still felt a little anxious when she left the grass and stepped into the woods, as though her mother would appear any moment and scold her.
She couldn’t tell an oak from a pine just by looking at the bark, but eventually she found a tree of respectable size with branches that dangled low enough that she could get a good look at the leaves. Having confirmed that it was indeed an oak, she squatted on the ground, wishing she’d had time at least to go home and change her shoes, and began digging.
She hoped the success of this experiment didn’t hinge on her actually believing all this.
Leaves lay deep around the tree, years’ worth of leaves undisturbed by anything but the wind, and there was no clear line where the leaves stopped and the dirt began, just a gradual change in the texture under her fingertips. She scooped out the crumbly leaf mold until her hand was wrist-deep, and then she fished the earring out of her trouser pocket, dropped it into the hole, and pulled leaves over it.
Nothing happened, and in thinking that, she realized that she had been expecting that something would. Smiling a bit at her own whimsy, she squatted back on her heels and put her hand on the time-smoothed bark of the tree and got ready to rise.
Between one breath and the next, she was no longer alone.
The hair stood up on the back of her neck, and she fell awkwardly, one knee hitting the ground as she twisted to see behind her, though she had no doubt that there was someone there.
In the dim light, he was faintly visible, seeming to carry his own dappled shadow. An enormous man – and when she scrambled to her feet and found that she could look him evenly in the eye, he still gave the impression of enormous height.
He had a great untrimmed beard, the light brown of fall oak leaves; wavy hair a shade lighter was pulled back into three long braids. His mouth was full and pink, like the mouths in old drawings of Santa Claus. He was broad and bulky, with heavy forearms crisscrossed haphazardly with leather thongs and a great neck hung with three gold chains whose irregular links were as thick as her fingers. Somehow his hairy head gave the impression of carrying antlers somewhere outside the limits of vision.
She would have thought he was a dream, except that she could smell him, a sharp, sour, leathery smell that made her want to sneeze, with undercurrents of ordinary sweat and of woodsmoke. There was something about the scent that made her restless, as though she wanted to run, but just for the pure pleasure of running.
She was surprised to discover that she wasn’t afraid.
He wore a piece of cloth around his waist, too carelessly fastened to call a kilt, and a cloak of some dark color over his shoulder. His bare chest was heavily covered with dark hair.
He looked perhaps in his mid-thirties – skin unlined but wind-roughened, body on the line between the suppleness of youth and the bulk of age. She had always preferred clean-shaven men with lithe swimmers’ builds; if her past lovers had stood beside this man, they would have looked like boys by comparison.
Homeless and off his medication, she thought, an actor in a play, a baseball fan dressed up for a Chiefs game -Even her own mind laughed at her. Impossible or not, she knew perfectly well who he was.
“You summoned us, daughter of Time?”
His voice made her shiver, and she resisted a sudden impulse to kneel. She looked him in the eye instead – his eyes were brown, heavily fringed with long, dark lashes – and spoke as she would to a senior doctor. “I came to ask the King’s Boon for Hazel Llewellen. I was burying a -”
He held up his hand. There was a heavy gold circle on his thumb. The earring she had just buried dangled from his fingers.
“The King’s Boon, and not for yourself.” He gave her a careful look. “You are an unlikely priestess.”
At his eyes on her body, she suddenly remembered that she had a body. Her skin quickened all at once, making her aware of the touch of her hair on her forehead, the brush of her slacks on her ankles. “I’m not her priestess. I’m her doctor.” In this dim light, the earring didn’t look like costume jewelry any more, but like something ancient and precious.
“Tell our kinswoman,” he said, laughter lying under his voice, “that she shall have the King’s Boon most freely who sends so pretty a present.”
She felt a thrill of mild alarm, not as though she were in danger but as though she were playing a risky strategy in a game against a highly intelligent opponent. The breeze subsided for a moment, and in the sudden silence she could hear one of the downtown churches chiming nine o’clock.
“Er,” she said, “thank you.” What was she supposed to do now, shake his hand? Kiss that ring? The thought of his hand and her mouth sent tension through her muscles. Maybe it was time to stop being lazy and start dating again.
The earring had disappeared again, and the hand in question had gone to his shoulder, where his cloak was fastened with a gold pin roughly shaped into an oak leaf. He unpinned it and spread it over the leaves in a single graceful motion, then gestured at it with an open hand.
“I – what?”
“Let us sit together. We will refresh ourselves with food, and seal our bargain with wine.”
Our bargain. The stories were pretty clear on what sort of payment supernatural men generally demanded from mortal women.
She’d always found that rather amusing – as though poor ordinary humanity were so irresistible that all the universe had to be conspiring to find ways to have sex with it! But she could sense his interest in her, the intensity of his focus on her. And her awareness of him was just as intense. And if he wanted to lay her down on the cloak and touch her absolutely everywhere –
She cleared her throat. “I haven’t made any bargain with you,” she said.
He gave her a knowing look that made her flush all over. “Have you not?” His teeth were very white against the dark beard. “Not yet, perhaps.” He folded gracefully down to sit on the cloak. “Sit, daughter of Time. Eat. Drink. For we find an hour so much more piquant when shared with one whose hours are numbered.”
Piquant. Well. It was true she had a limited number of hours left, and true, too, that her blood had leapt when she saw him and remained high even now, flushing her face and speeding her breathing. Nervousness and desire were combining to make her heart pound. It reminded her of being seventeen again.
“All right,” she said.
He didn’t smile, but his eyes narrowed with pleasure, like a cat’s. “It is well.”
She sat on the cloth, which was a little scratchy where it touched her bare ankles. Now he removed a pouch from his belt and drew from it a silver flask, a small silver cup, and a bundle of dark cloth. From the flask he poured out a yellow liquid – wine, from the smell of it. She took the cup when he offered it to her, but another memory of stories she’d read made her hesitate.
“Am I promising anything by accepting your wine and food?”
He didn’t deny the implied accusation of trickery, just gave that same look of narrow-eyed amusement. “You are sharing refreshment, no more,” he said.
The wine was sweet-sour as juice and potent as brandy; after a single swallow, she could feel her face burn, and she had to stop herself from giggling. The king stretched out to lie on his side and took back the cup when she offered it.
The bundle proved to contain wild strawberries no bigger than the tip of her finger, intensely sweet and so soft that it must have been some sort of enchantment that kept them from being crushed to juice inside the pouch.
“They are best like this,” the king said, and he dropped a berry into the cup and drew it out again, dripping with wine, to offer it to her gravely.
She’d been an object of seduction before, of course, but he was different from other men, and after a moment she realized it was because he was entirely without uncertainty. He continued to hold out the berry until she leaned forward and ate it from his fingers.
The salt flavor of his skin, the sour wine, the sweet berry, the scent of leaf mold all around her – she closed her eyes to savor the tiny mouthful, and when she opened them, his full mouth was wet with wine, and she followed her impulse and leaned down to kiss him.
His mouth was large and warm, and he tasted of wine fresh from the cup. She’d expected the beard to be scratchy, but it wasn’t cut, so it was as soft against her mouth as the loose ends of his hair against her forehead. The feeling of his tongue on her lips made her heart leap.
When she pushed closer, he broke the kiss and rose up on his elbow. “Slowly, daughter of Time,” he murmured. “We are not so starved that we may not savor.”
But it was occurring to her that she was starved, her skin wakening after years without touch. He read the dismay in her look and drew her down to lie on her side, close but not touching. The berries spilled from the cloth between them, and he dropped another into the cup of wine and handed the cup to her. “Soon,” he said softly.
She took the berry out, fingers cool with the wine, and offered it to him. Again his eyes narrowed, and he opened his mouth and let her put the fruit on his tongue.
When the cloth was empty, he took a sip from the cup and offered her the last mouthful, and before she could swallow he bore her back onto the cloth. The wine spilled from the corner of her mouth and ran in a cool trickle over her cheek and jaw as his hot mouth drank from her as if she were a cup.
His braids fell down on either side of her face, smelling of woodsmoke, and when her hands came up to touch him, she remembered how nearly naked he was. Her hands measured his upper arms and shoulders, explored a leather cuff that spanned one biceps, found a scar on his shoulder blade big enough to put two fingertips in, rolled down over the softness that cloaked the muscles over his ribs. All the while his mouth was bestowing hot, wet kisses to her neck and throat, and one big hand covered her breast, warming it even through two layers of fabric.
She threw her head back, gasping, and felt his low chuckle where his body pressed against hers. His fingers were skillful on her buttons, though he had no fastenings on his own clothing that were newer than the bronze age. The cool night air touched her skin as the blouse fell open.
When she opened her eyes, he was looking down at her bra, shaking his head a little. “So thoroughly you do armor yourselves,” he murmured, fingers tracing the edges of the lace. “And so firmly you do leash desire. How long, daughter of Time, since you allowed your flesh to want, or to be wanted by another?”
Uncontrolled desire sounds very exciting, but I do have to get some work done, and I’m not eager to have my breasts introducing themselves to everyone I meet over the course of the day, she thought – and his mouth quirked as though he read her thought.
“But tonight you have no need of such armor.” And he hooked his hands through the straps and pulled them down off her shoulders.
He looked at her for a long time while the down-drawn cups of the bra framed her breasts and offered them up. Her nipples tightened in the cool night air and she wavered between discomfort and fierce desire. At last he rolled to lie between her legs, and his hair tickled her as he bent his head and enclosed one nipple in her mouth.
He teased back and forth until she forgot the cold, until the night air was a relief on her overheated skin. His belly pressed against her mons, and she writhed against him for sensation, amazingly close to coming without being touched or even undressed. And when he shifted position, without lifting his mouth, and reached down to cup her through her slacks, pressing her outer lips together with his fingers, she did feel a flutter – not enough to satisfy her, even for a moment, but enough to push her past her strange reluctance to break the silence of the wood, so that she gasped out, “Please!”
Again that chuckle, and he moved down to lie completely between her legs and opened the button of her pants.
The zipper seemed to puzzle him, or else he was just enjoying teasing her – at any rate, he flipped the tab back and forth for a moment before drawing it down. On finding her underwear underneath, he shook his head again. I suppose the women you’re used to go around in dresses with nothing underneath, she thought, somewhat bitterly, but he said nothing, just pulled the garments down to her knees and parted her folds gently with two thumbs.
His tongue explored her delicately, and she tensed with frustration. She was way past being teased; she wanted to be devoured. She thrust her groin at his face, and he murmured something soothing and at last put his tongue against her clit.
She was shaking in seconds, coming in less than a minute, and he didn’t stop, just changed from quick flicks to simple pressure, waxing and waning in a slow rhythm that extended her orgasm out until she lost track of time. And when the spasms finally slowed, he slid his fingers inside her, effortlessly finding just the right spot and coaxing her back into a state of gasping, reaching, begging, crying, coming.
This time when the clenching stopped, he rose up over her. His beard was wet, and she licked the taste of herself from his mouth, shoving up against his knee between her legs and pulling clumsily at his clothes while she used her feet to push her pants the rest of the way down and off.
He unfastened a pin at his hip and unwrapped the cloth. Underneath, his genitals were cupped in a pouch hung from a thong; she let him work the knot while she fondled him through the thin, soft leather, making him pant loudly and let out an inarticulate cry of triumph when the knot came free.
His cock was big, like the rest of him. She’d never had a lover who wasn’t circumcised, and she lost some of her urgency in curiosity, sliding and stretching the soft skin that made her notice, as she never had before, the full roundness of the crown beneath.
He was more patient with her exploration than she’d been with his, but at last he said, “Now,” in such a deep rumble of a voice that she could only part her legs and welcome him inside her with a sigh.
He moved slowly, trying different angles, watching her face. She ran her hands up his hairy chest, scratching at his nipples with her short nails, and he gave her a challenging grin and caught one of her legs behind the knee and lifted it.
The new tilt of her hips drove the sweetness higher with every thrust, and she bit his upper arm as she came, filling her mouth with the salty flavor of his skin.
Only now did he lose his careful attention to craft, letting his head fall forward onto her shoulder as he drove into her. “Yes,” she murmured, raising her hips to meet each stroke, and when he came it was with a cry so wild it made her shiver.
She dozed for a time with her head on his shoulder, and he pulled a corner of the cloth over her bare skin. The smell of him heated her blood even in sleep. Before she was fully awake, he half-sat against a tree and pulled her on top of him, hardly moving inside her while he brought her off with his fingers over and over until only his other arm around her back kept her upright.
The sky lightened, and she began to hear the traffic on Prospect, while she held his softening length inside her and kissed his face. “Night is done, daughter of Time, and we must leave you now.”
She found one strawberry miraculously uncrushed on the edge of the cloak and fed it to him. Then she rose, feeling naked in the predawn light as she hadn’t under his gaze in the dark, and pulled her bra back up to cover her breasts, and buttoned her wrinkled blouse again.
When she finished dressing and turned to look at him, he was clothed as he had been, and the power that radiated from him, and that had never faded, turned back from animal to regal. “Daughter of time, are you satisfied with your bargain?”
She knew then that she could ask for a gift and he would give it freely, but she found that what she had was enough. “Yes,” she said. Again she felt the impulse to kneel, and this time she took his broad hand with its tickly dark hair and bent over it and kissed it.
His other hand rested warmly on the back of her head, keeping her lips pressed to his skin for a moment. “It was well done,” he said at last, releasing her. “We too are satisfied.”
Back home, giddy with lack of sleep, the first thing she did was make a phone call to Presbyterian Home.
“Mrs. Couri?” the switchboard operator said. “I’m so sorry, Dr. Gordon, but she passed away last night. She didn’t make her evening call-in, and the night nurse found her just after nine.”
Nine o’clock. So she’d had her boon the moment May had asked for it. “Thank you,” May said, and hung up, and went to undress for bed.
There were brown leaves in her hair and in the cuffs of her slacks and in her shoelaces. And in her pocket was a pin with a rudely fashioned oak leaf.