heard when the crazed house was empty, and he could finally hear beyond the thunder of his brothers’ clumping boots and shouts and laughter, their father’s harsh rasping bark that could cut short their clamor like the sound of the blunt edge of an ax head smacking the side of an iron pot. So young Nairn was then that he still lay at his mother’s breast as he listened to the high, pure voice threading word and sound into something he could not see or touch or taste, only feel.

Later, when he could separate words into tales and drink out of a cup, his mother went away, left him alone with his bulky, milling brothers as oblivious to their flailing limbs as cows were to their tails and hooves. A woman as round as the moon, with hands as big and hard as theirs, came to cook and mend for them. She sang, too, sometimes. Her voice was deep, husky, full of secrets, odd glints and shadows, like a summer night. She held Nairn spellbound with her singing; he would stand motionless, wordless, his entire body an ear taking in her mysteries. She would laugh when she saw that, and as often as not slip something into his grubby hand to eat. But she clouted his brothers when they sniggered at him, and her swinging fists were not always empty; they learned to dance, too, away from cleavers and the back sides of spoons. One day, standing so ensorcelled, Nairn opened his mouth suddenly and his own singing voice flew out.

It was worse than the time his brothers caught him in the barnyard one night trying to peel the moon from a puddle of water. Far worse than when they heard him trying to talk to crows, or drumming the butter churn with his mother’s wooden clogs. It was standing in the muck of the pigsty, singing to the pigs while his brothers made bets on which would knock him over first. It began to dawn on him then that his brothers had a skewed vision of the world. They couldn’t hear very well, either. The pigs seemed to like his singing. They crowded around him, gently snorting, while his brothers laughed so hard that they never noticed their father banging out of the house to see what the racket was about until he came up behind them and shoved as many as he could reach off the fence and into the muck. Nairn went down, too, drowning in a rout of startled pig. His father pulled him up, choking and stinking, tossed him bodily into the water trough.

“Time you went to work, Pig-Singer,” he told Nairn brusquely. “Sing to the pigs all you want. They’re your business now.

So he did, and got a scant year older before his voice, drifting over hedgerows and out of the oak wood, attracted the attention of passing villagers and, one day, an itinerant minstrel. He showed Nairn the instruments he wore on his belt and slung over his shoulder.

“Follow the moon,” he advised the boy. “Sing to her, and she’ll light your path. There are places you can go to learn, you know. Or maybe you don’t?”

Nairn, speechless, spellbound with the sounds that had come so easily out of wood and string, as easily as his own voice came out of his bones, could not answer. The minstrel smiled after a moment, blew a ripple of notes out of his smallest pipe, and gave it to Nairn.

“Maybe not yet. Give this a try. The birds will like it.”

Later, when he had found all the notes in the pipe and could flick them into the air as easily as his voice, a passing tinker, pots and tools on his wagon chattering amiably in the sun, pulled his mule to a halt and peered into the oak trees.

“You must be the one they call Pig-Singer,” he said to the scrawny, dirty urchin piping among the rooting pigs. “Let me hear you.”

Nobody had ever asked him that before. Surprised, he lost his voice a moment, then found it again, and raised it in the first ballad his mother had ever sung to him. The tinker threw something at him when he was done; used to that, Nairn ducked. Then, as the wheels rolled on, he saw the gleam of light among the oak leaves under his feet, and picked it up.

He looked at it for a long time: the little round of metal with a face on one side and hen scratches on the other. Such things appeared in his father’s life as often as a blue moon and vanished as quickly. And here he sat, with one of his own in his hand, and all for doing what he loved.

He piped the pigs home and wandered off into his destiny.

He found his way, year by year, as far north as he could get without falling into the sea and living with the selkies. Somewhere during the long road between his father’s ramshackle farm in the southern Marches and the bleak sea with its voice of golden-haired mermaids and great whales, he grew into himself. He had walked out of that skinny, feral urchin with his singing voice so pure it could set the iron blade of a hoe humming in harmony. Slowly, through the dozen and more years of wanderings, odd jobs, stealing when he had to, charming when he could to keep himself fed, finding and learning new instruments, and listening, always listening, his stride lengthened, his face rearranged itself, his voice turned deep and sinewy, his eyes and ears became vast doorways through which wonders ceaselessly flowed, while his brain worked like a beehive to remember them.

Stepping onto the sand on the farthest northern shore, he left a trail of footprints broadened by travel. He stood at the waves’ edge, watching the foam unfurl, flow over the smooth gold sand, fray into holes and knots of lacework. It touched the tip of his sandal and withdrew. He shrugged off his pack, his harp, his robe, and ran naked after the receding song.

Later, coming up out of the roil, he heard a tendril of human song.

He dressed and followed it.

The noise came from a hovel near the sea: half a dozen crofters and fishers banging their tin mugs on a table and bawling out a ballad he’d never heard. He picked it up easily enough on his pipe; a few songs later, he switched to his harp. That got him his first meal of the day: ale and cheese and a stew of some briny, gritty, slithery pestilence that, by the last bite, he was trying to scrape out of the hollows of his bowl.

“Oysters,” the one-eyed tavern keeper told him, kindly fetching more. He added, incomprehensibly, “They make pearls. Where are you from, lad?”

“South,” Nairn said with his mouth full.

“How far?” one of the shaggy-haired men behind him growled. “How far south?”

Nairn turned, sensing tension; he fixed the man with a mild eye, and said, “I’ve been wandering around. Never beyond the Marches. I go where the music is. Yours brought me here.”

They snorted and laughed at the thought. Then they refilled their cups and his. “That old song,” one said. “My granny taught it to me. My dad sang it, too, while he mended his nets. So you haven’t seen what’s going on, south of the Marches.” He paused at Nairn’s expression. “Or even heard?”

He shook his head. “What?”


He shook his head again. All he knew of war was in old songs. But as he stood there in the ramshackle place, the plank door groaning in the wind, the endless, wild roar without, the spitting, fuming fire within, he suddenly felt the eggshell fragility of the stone walls. Something beyond fire, wind, tide, there was to fear. Something he, with all his footsteps leaving crisscrossing paths across the Marches, might not recognize until it was too late. He shivered slightly; the men, watching him around one of the two battered tables in the place, nodded.

“Best stay low, boy. The king will be looking for warriors to defend the Marches, even this far north.”

“I’m a minstrel. I carry a knife to skin a hare for my supper or carve a reed for my bladder-pipe. Nothing more.”

“You’re a strong, healthy man with two feet to march with, two ears to hear orders, and enough fingers to wield a sword or a bow. That’s what they’ll see.”

“What’s a bladder-pipe?” someone wondered.

He pulled it out of his pack. “I heard it played in the western hills. They use it to call their families together across the valleys. The songs differ, but the sound could blast the feathers off a hawk.”

He played it, had them groaning and pleading for mercy in a minute. He threatened to keep at it until they sang for him again. By evening’s end, they were slumped against one another, humming softly to his harping. The tavern keeper came up to him, where he sat by the fire, dreamily accompanying the song sung in the dark by the moon-tangled tides.

“Stay,” the man suggested softly. “There’s a loft up in the eaves where my daughter slept before she married. I’ll feed you, give you a coin when I can. And all the oyster stew you can hold. It’s safer than roving around in the kingdom, just now.”

“For a while, then,” Nairn promised.

It was a shorter while than he intended, but sweeter than he expected, especially after he met the tavern

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