In the twilight and the rain, half-way between dark and light, half way between water and air, I wasn’t certain at first if there were someone coming in the lane. Father and I had finished with the work and had nearly made the house when I spotted what might have been a dark figure leading a pony, but what might have been a trick of the mist.
By the time we reached our front step it was clearly a man in a long black coat, hood up and head down against the rain. Father went out to meet him, then walked him up to the door.
“Mother, lay another place at the table,” Father called into the house.
Mother glanced out from the dry, firelit warmth into the chilly dimness of nightfall, and with a little gasp, said, “Of course! Welcome! Come in and get dry.”
“I’ll see to my pony first,” the man said. He had such a voice that when he spoke, even the door posts and stone walls must have listened. His eyes were deep set and shadowed, but when I looked I could see them bright blue, like a fire deep in the back of a hearth.
Father went with him to put up the pony, and Mother gave my sister a broom and told us both to make the room as smart as we could.
“There’s a great man come to stay with us tonight,” Mother said, “And you’re to be on your best behavior.” A spark of anticipation lit her voice, like the day of her cousin’s wedding, or the night before the fair.
When the man came back to the house he had a bundle of sticks with him, and a large thing on his back all wrapped in oiled leather. The thing on his back was as big as mother’s spinning wheel, and shaped something like a giant axe head.
“May I take those for you?” I asked, reaching for the sticks. “Shall I put them in the wood box?”
The man laughed and held them tight. “How quick the innocent would burn all of history, if we do not teach them its worth. Nay, lad, these are not kindling wood. Look and see.”
He held out one stick to show me. Notches ran down its length, some crosswise, some diagonal, making shapes that looked like strange bird tracks.
“These are runes, and each one begins a line of a song,” the man said. “So I won’t forget.”
“What is that?” my sister asked of the strange burden on his back, drawing a scolding hisht from Mother.
“It’s a harp,” he announced, as if proclaiming that the king had entered the room.
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