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It was well past dark when Mother had the meal ready, but it was worth waiting for. There were wheat cakes and honey, our guest had his own dish of salt, and Mother kept fussing over him, asking if he wanted more clotted cream or sausage. It was as good as a holiday dinner.
Mother fluttered around the table, shy and in awe, hardly stopping to sit down before jumping up again to get something or take away something, but father sat and talked with him like an old friend, telling him about the farm and his days as a soldier. The stranger listened intently, as if he were etching every word in his mind, just like the runes on his sticks, so as not to forget.
Still stinging from having mistaken his rune sticks for kindling, I kept to myself, ashamed to say a word. After a smile or two from the stranger I relaxed a little, but I still wouldn’t say anything.
After we ate and everything was cleared away, the man went to the hearth where he had left his harp, still in its oilskin wrappings. “Would you care for a little music?” he asked us, his eyes bright, as if he knew full well we had all been dying to ask him to play for us.
“Oh, yes!” my sister clapped her hands.
When the covering came off the harp, my father’s face changed. I couldn’t say whether he was pleased or no with what he saw, but he went deep inside himself, and turned away to the shuttered window where the rain was still pounding.
The harper took his instrument between his knees and listened for a moment to the silence, then brushed his fingers over the strings. The sound blended with the rain, echoed it, sang along with it, made it a drumbeat to the music.
The tune changed, flowed on, grew stronger, and all of a sudden I could see in my mind a great hall around us. Not a low ceiling of beams and board and thatch, but lofty stone walls. Not a tiny hearth, but a great bonfire in a round firepit. Not a few rough-made chairs, but high seats at a long table, filled with men and women in the finest clothing. And then, just as I grasped at it, the image was gone.
The harper began to sing, stories of long ago, of great wars, of the time when our land was our own and the king one of our own, not a foreign conqueror who knew nothing of our ways. He sang us tales of the Good Folk, who are all now sleeping under the hills until the land is free again.
When he was finished, my father had tears in his eyes.
I’d never seen my father weep. Not for anything. I felt as if I were suddenly underwater, the air in the room too cold and thick to breathe.
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