Carn Liath, Galloway, Scotland

Thorkell was surrounded by men he scarcely knew.

Surrounded by men he scarcely knew and men he did not know at all, Thorkell carried his cup from cluster to cluster and tried with nods and smiles to work his way into a conversation.

But the language of nods and smiles was too quiet for this buzzing hall. After a time he always went off to try another, bumbling around the room with the puzzled obstinacy of a bee at twilight, finding the flowers closed. It was not his way to wedge himself in and talk.

He found it droll to hear Brass-Dog bellow.

Therefore, after so much evidence of his own invisibility, it was astonishing to hear Brass-​Dog bellow, “Thorkell! Where is Thorkell!”

A big hand on his shoulder turned him around and hustled him forth, and Eirik said, “Thorkell! Here is just the man you want to see!”

'Here is just the man you want to see!'

Thorkell lifted his cup to keep the mead from sloshing down his shirt, and only looked away from the rim to avoid crashing into the body Eirik aimed him towards. His heart skipped a beat when he saw who it was.

The other man—an older fellow just come in—leaned his instrument against the bench, wiped his palms on the breast of his tunic, and turned to smile blandly at Thorkell.

He was handsomely-​dressed and bejeweled, but blowsy and a little fat, and Thorkell knew who he must be. It was the famous Scottish bard, Sinnach Donn—the Brown Fox—lately in the employ of Young Aed.

'This is my friend Thorkell.'

“So,” Eirik said, beaming with boyish pride, “this is my friend Thorkell, your fellow bard.”

Thorkell blanched.

“How do you do?” Sinnach asked.

“I—” Thorkell turned to Eirik, suddenly become the less intimidating of the two men before him. “Begging your pardon, my lord, I am no more a bard than you are made of brass.”

'I am no more a bard than you are made of brass.'

“You sing, don’t you? Everybody call you that.”

“Aye, but…” He gave the true bard an apologetic glance.

“And this,” Eirik said, smiling again, and delivering a whack to the bard’s broad back, “is the very famous Irish bard, Niall of Connacht. So you see, Thorkell. You are glad you came.”

Thorkell grimaced with embarrassment. “I didn’t…”

Fortunately Sinnach rolled with the blow and grinned up at Eirik. “My lord, I am no more an Irishman than you are a dog.”

Eirik wailed a protest. “What? And Thorkell he came all this way! I heard how Aed he have a famous Irish bard in his house!”

'So he did!'

“So he did!” Sinnach said. “Last summer! I, on the other hand, am only a Scot.”

“Oh!” Eirik cried. “That is too bad!”

Thorkell pleaded, “Lord…”

Sinnach said, “I know plenty of Irish songs, if that’s what you’re favoring.”

Eirik shook his head mournfully. “No, no. It would not be the same.” And he gave Sinnach Donn—erstwhile Royal Bard of Scotland—a consoling pat on the shoulder. “But so, it isn’t your fault.”

Sinnach sent a sidelong wink at Thorkell. “No,” he said, “I suppose it’s being my father’s.”

“You see,” Eirik explained gently, “I got a taste for Irish music, when I used to go to Ireland to visit my friend Murchad of Two Ladies. It makes me some kind of homesick to hear an Irish bard. But so.” He shrugged and sighed.

“Two Ladies?” Sinnach asked. “Have you heard there the story of how it got its name?”

'Have you heard there the story of how it got its name?'

Eirik glanced aside at the knots of men on the opposite side of the fire, whose animated conversations must now have seemed more interesting than his own.

“No,” he said idly, “how did it? Some tale of two sisters who loved the same man, or so?”

“Have your friends never seen the ghosts, then? No, lad, the two ladies were two Irish maidens who found themselves trapped between the sea and a band of Norsemen, a century or more ago.” He poked Eirik in the side, as only a bard to kings would have dared. “The Norsemen being bent on such enterprises as you may imagine, the poor lasses chose the cold embrace of the sea. But it’s said their ghosts still walk the shore, as they were a-​walking that night, arm-​in-​arm. Shall I sing the tale?”

“No, no.” Eirik gave him a last pat and stepped back. “Sing what our host likes. But so, maybe you teach Thorkell the song. Pardon me.”

Eirik strode off past the fire, and the cluster of men surrounding Young Aed opened at his silent approach and let him in.

Eirik strode off past the fire.

Thorkell wiped his forehead on his sleeve. “You’ll have to excuse him. He’s…”

Sinnach clapped his hands over his belly and grinned. “He’s Brass-​Dog!”

Thorkell smiled in relief. “Sure and certain! But I mean—I mean, the friend of him, Murchad, that’s being the husband of his late wife’s sister. Mayhap as he’s not liking to be reminded of Two Ladies.”

“Ah ah ah. I see.” Sinnach brushed his hands over his tunic and looked around for his instrument.

'He doesn't seem to think music of much account.'

“And, anyway, he… he doesn’t seem to think music of much account, but he’s…”

Sinnach waved a jeweled hand. “He’s Brass-​Dog! God bless him and the like of him. They’ve no time for music because they’re too busy giving us bards something to sing about.”

'They've no time for music.'

Us bards!

“No, no, you see…”

“Have a seat,” Sinnach said.

Thorkell glanced back at the bench, losing his last chance to protest. Meanwhile Sinnach lifted his instrument and dragged up a stool.

“I have to tune it again every time I sit down,” he said. “This hall does the unholiest things with sound. Holy things, too, mind, but move three inches to the left and you go from heavenly choirs to the groans of the damned.”

Thorkell perched himself on the edge of the bench. He set his cup beside him, sternly reminding himself not to spill it and make a fool of himself. He wondered whether silver goblets were easily dented. He had never drunk from one before.

Sinnach nestled the neck of his instrument against his cheek. “Do you play?” he asked.

'Do you play?'

“Ah…” Thorkell had never even held a timpan, much less played one. “I have a lyre.”

“Bring it?”

Thorkell quivered with panic. “No, I didn’t, for, you see, I’m not a bard at all. They just call me that, because I… sing a lot.”

Even the word sing seemed a presumption before this man. Thorkell wished there were another, humbler word for what he did.

“Well? And so do I.”

Sinnach picked at a string of his timpan, making it peep-​peep-​peep like a bird. A breath of silence blew through the hall, but the conversations shortly sprang up again when the men realized the singing had not yet begun.

The men realized the singing had not yet begun.

Safe beneath the sound of their voices, Thorkell said, “Aye, and a man may row his little skiff out onto a loch and catch a trout, but he isn’t being a ship captain for all that.”

A smile passed over Sinnach’s mouth as he plucked at the next string: plunk-​plunk-​plunk like water dripping into an empty cup.

“Is that what you are?” he asked. “A ship captain?”

“Aye. Or no, not really that either. I’m the man with the skiff, except now my skiff is a longship with three dozen men at oars.”

'I'm the man with the skiff.'

Sinnach twisted a peg and plunk-​plunked again. He chuckled in tune with his timpan. “What’s being the name of her?”

“Ah… the Early Morning.” Thorkell picked up his goblet and took a drink to hide his blush of pride.

“That’s a handsome one,” Sinnach said as he passed to the third string.

“Aye. She wears it well. Older than I, but fresh as the dawn. But a shepherd is all I really am. I know a fair bit about sheep, so I don’t mind calling myself that. But, you know… I wasn’t even supposed to be that.”

'I wasn't even supposed to be that.'

Sinnach laughed. Even his laughter had a musical sound: a melody for the tuning of a timpan. “What were you supposed to be?” he asked.

Thorkell smiled sheepishly into his goblet. “Why, nothing at all. The poor mother of me was a simpleton who got in trouble with we never knew whom. And not a word did I say until I was five, so everyone thought I was simple too. I only hummed. But I’d been listening all along, I suppose. And once they knew I wasn’t an idiot, my younger uncle felt sorry for me, and brought me across the water to Islay when my mother died, and set me to guarding his sheep, when I was ten or so. And that’s where I was learning to sing, there on the hills of Islay overlooking the sea. Nobody ever taught me. I suppose I’d been listening to that, too. And an old man gave me my first lyre, and I figured it out myself.”

Thorkell realized he was blathering.

Thorkell realized he was blathering, and his own shy pride in everything he had “figured out himself” seemed grotesque before the great bard’s polish and training. To his relief, however, Sinnach had sat plinking and plucking through it all, with his eyes closed and his cheek cuddling the neck of his timpan, and he seemed not to have heard.

But just when Thorkell had resolved to keep his mouth shut henceforth, Sinnach asked him, “And did another old man give you a ship later on?”

“Ach, no! That was years after. ’Twas five winters ago that I came into the Early Morning. ’Twas a hard winter, everyone dying around me. Even the sheep. And my older uncle died—my younger uncle had died when I was fifteen and left me his sheep—and the wife of me, and our little girl, and—”

“You were married?”

'You were married?'

“Ach! Aye.” Thorkell looked down and turned his goblet a quarter-​turn beside him, as if a perfectly-​round goblet had sides. “For five years.”

“What were their names?”

Thorkell looked up again, startled at first, and then touched. Those names no longer lived upon the earth. Perhaps no one alive remembered them but he, and Thorkell did not ordinarily talk so easily. Not even to himself. It must have been the mead, or the strangeness of a silver cup.

It must have been the mead.

“Ah… Morag was being the name of my wife. And Martha was our girl. Looked just like me, but her mama’s spirit shone out of her like a star cooped up in a lantern. They were always, always smiling, up to the end. And even after.”

All the while, the timpan warbled soft notes and squeaked its pegs. Sinnach’s body nodded like a reed, inviting more.

“They were… Ach! they were so pretty. If I were truly a bard I could tell you. Not the big, showy, rose-​blossom sort of pretty, I mean. That’s common enough.”

Sinnach smiled, proving he was still listening.

Sinnach smiled.

“I mean… the little, pale flowers down low in the grass, baby’s breath or bluebell, so tiny that their petals are without flaw.”

“Mayhap as the meekest flowers are the sweetest,” Sinnach said. His rings flashed on his fluttering fingers. “But I prefer the rose-​blossom style, myself.”

Thorkell slouched his shoulders and sighed. “I, too. I’m no more roving the hills where wildflowers grow. I’m a sailor now. The only women I see are already picked and plunked in a vase, and half-​wilted. But they’ve only to last the night, aye?”

Sinnach smiled and shook his head, rolling his cheek against the neck of his timpan. “I cannot decide: are you a coarse poet or a poetic sailor?”

'I cannot decide.'

Thorkell flushed and grinned. “Neither. I’m only the idiot milkmaid’s musical bastard son.”

Sinnach laughed, and his timpan’s trilling accompaniment made his laughter a snippet of song. Conversations faltered, and heads turned, but no more music followed.

“So how came you to be captain of a longship?” Sinnach asked when the lull had passed.

“Ach! That was that winter, when my—when Morag and Martha died. My older uncle went, too, and his last surviving son, and that left me, it seemed. The Early Morning was my uncle’s ship. And then she was mine.”

'And then she was mine.'

“Straight from the sheepfold to the deck of a ship.”

“Aye. Or not really. For at that time, I… My heart was broken, aye? I only wanted to go where my girls were, and I would have set off straightaway there if I hadn’t known the gate would have been barred to me if I did. And when I learned the Early Morning was mine, I set off to Leod’s Harbor to refuse her, for I wanted nothing to do with life or work in those days. But when I saw her there—it was the early morning, in truth, and the harbor all in a mist—I said to myself, ‘Thorkell, man, you cannot even swim. Go out on that ship and you’ll be dead in a week. And if not, you cannot even fight. You’ll die in your first battle.’ And then I would have died honestly, aye? So I could have gone to be with my girls. I was all shriven and ready to go, too.”

Sinnach chuckled. “Some part of your plan seems to have gone awry.”

'Some part of your plan seems to have gone awry.'

Thorkell smiled and sighed. “Aye, isn’t it always the way? And the men were all ready to mutiny when they first saw me, for it was plain to see I’d scarcely even set foot on a ship before. But right off they figured out I hoped to be killed, so just to spite me they taught me to swim, and to fight, and to be a sailor. And to this day they mock me for still being alive.”

Thorkell shook his head, grinning over his men and his ship, and their fierce loyalty, and their love. None of them were here. Eirik had taken him alone in his own ship, for Eirik’s own inscrutable reasons, though there were eleven other captains who could have represented Harald Leki, starting with Leki himself. Thorkell had never felt so lonely nor so out-​of-​place since he had first stepped onto the deck of the Early Morning.

Sinnach asked, “And are you still trying to die?”

“No… indeed I’m not. And yet you would think, with my luck, that making up my mind to live would be the death of me.”

'No...  indeed I'm not.'

Sinnach smiled.

“But I’m finding there’s a lot to life, after all. I thought I knew everything there was to know when I was twenty-​five, but then the Early Morning taught me the vanity of that. And I’d even thought I knew everything there was to know when I was twenty, and then I married a woman and had a child, and good God Almighty! I finally learned that I was an idiot, after all.”

Sinnach laughed. “Even the sheep taught you a thing or two, I imagine.”

Thorkell smiled. “That they did, that they did. And the old man, and even the poor unhappy mother of me, for she was the gentlest soul as ever lived, though she never could be made to understand that I had come out of her.”

Sinnach smiled and shook his head slowly, not to disagree, but because he was at last beginning to play. He cradled his instrument on his lap and rocked like a reed in the wind. His eyes closed, his pale lashes fluttered, and his very heart slowed into his song’s rhythm as he sank into that musical trance that Thorkell knew well.

He sank into that musical trance.

The plinking and twittering of his tuning gave way to the thunderous true tones of his timpan, thrumming and concussive, like the poignant song of a thrush reborn as a drum.

Every conversation ceased. Every man became meek. Even men like Eirik, who feared nothing and thought music of little account, were hushed by the first notes, like rabbits flattening themselves against the earth at the approach of a storm.

Every conversation ceased.

Sinnach’s song began, “In the early morning…” and Thorkell smiled stupidly, flattered at this sign of regard from the great bard.

It was a simple pastoral, the sort of thing Thorkell himself might have sung, though he had never heard this one before: the story of a songbird, from its hatching onward. Thorkell settled in to listen and remember, pressing himself against the cool wall, and curving his back into its arch like a chick in its egg.

Every verse began.

Every verse began with, “In the early morning…” but it was not until the third, when the little bird lost its mother and, barely fledged, braved the sea winds to fly to a hilly island dotted with sheep, that Thorkell began to understand that he had astonishingly much in common with the feathered hero of the tale. “The trill tongue that no ear ever heard” in the first verse, “the new-​kindled voice” in the second…

And the bard did not sing of Morag and Martha by name, of course, but he sang of bluebells and baby’s breath, and a single egg speckled with stars, and a cruel winter that swept away nest and mate and egg and all.

And so Thorkell's bird-life slipped by.

And so Thorkell’s bird-​life slipped by, in six verses of five years, and ended with another day dawning, and another flight beginning, for the world was so very large seen from on high, and the little bird had so much left to see and sing before the night fell.

The last echoing notes died slowly in the vaulted hall. The men let out their breath all together, and moved and stretched again, and smiled at one another, and lauded the bard. Young Aed was as pink with pride as if he had composed the song himself, and even Eirik looked impressed, as well as a bit sly, perhaps having recognized the nod to Thorkell in the “early mornings.” But no man there knew him well enough to have thought it any more than a play on words. Most of the men did not know him at all.

Thorkell remained pressed back against the wall, emotion so thick in his throat that he was as mute as he had ever been before the age of five. Sinnach never looked at him, but quietly straightened the rings on his fat fingers, and moved his stool a few inches to the right.

Sinnach quietly straightened the rings on his fat fingers.

Finally Thorkell shook his head, awed and humbled and more honored than he had ever been since Morag had said to him, “I will.”

“I could never do what you do, sir,” he whispered. “Take an ordinary man’s life and make it a song.”

Sinnach turned a squeaky peg in his instrument and plucked at a string, making a plink-​plink-​plink like water dripping into puddles after a storm.

“Nevertheless I envy you, ordinary man,” he said. “You’ve had the life. I’ve only ever had these songs.”

'You've had the life.'