Bard: The Odyssey of the Irish

Celtic World of Morgan Llywelyn (Volume 2)

Morgan Llywelyn

Tor Books

See a tall man pacing alone on the twilight beach, caught between the dying day and the incoming tide. Smell the moist air, heavy with salt. Hear the lapping of waves slapping the shore, the hiss of their withdrawal, their rushing return. Tide flirting with sand, seducing, inviting, whispering tales from beyond the dark sea.
Dark sea, fading light, and an old familiar restlessness combined to haunt Amergin the bard. All his life he had suffered an itch in his soul, a formless yearning that blew toward him on the north wind. The green wind, he named it to himself, for to Amergin it seemed laden with verdant aromas from some fair otherworld existing only in his imagination. Yet the north wind persisted in torturing him with hints of that achingly beautiful and unreal land, his heart’s home.
Amergin had never felt truly at home anywhere, even inside his own skin. Tonight the mood was particularly strong, driving him to stalk the beach and endure his melancholy with gritted teeth.
For once Clarsah did not ride his shoulder. Evening wind off the sea could damage the voice of a harp. But in a way Clarsah was always with him, for she was an intimate part of the man, her music constantly in his thoughts. In the gradually deepening twilight he began trying to capture the essence of the songs he heard on the wind and shape them to fit the harp’s capabilities.
But tonight the ocean seemed to be a sentient presence, willfully intruding on his efforts at composition. He found himself gazing toward the horizon again and again, as if he expected to see…what? Some goddess shaped from waves and foam to dispel his loneliness?
Lust flickered through Amergin, random as heat lightning.
He shook his head, wryly amused at himself. Even a druid’s vision could not see a goddess where none existed, or summon the spirit of the ocean herself and clothe her in flesh for his pleasure. Druid vision, like druid talent, was a sometime thing, not under a man’s control. Its occurrence and usage were chosen by the spirits for their own communication. Amergin, bard and druid, understood this all too well.
Yet Amergin the man still longed to grasp his elusive gift firmly and use it, somehow, to shape something better…
He paused and bent to strip off his sandals, knotting their thongs together so he could sling them over his shoulder. He had an urge to walk barefoot and let the damp, sunwarmed sand ooze between his toes.
He watched a lace of foam run up the beach and skitter back, glowing with hoarded luminosity. What was the source of such light and how was it held? he wondered. The tide painted serpentines on the sand and he bent to study them, curious to know what artisan had designed such graceful patterns and taught the sea to reproduce them. Amergin felt the glamour of a mystery beyond even druid knowledge and wished there were someone to whom he could express his thoughts. But he was singularly alone.
When he was a small child, enthusiasm had bubbled up in him like a wellspring and he reached out to everyone, trying to touch, eager to share. Each new discovery of beauty or wonder delighted the young Amergin almost beyond bearing. But when he tugged at the nearest arm—“Look, oh, look!”—his clanspeople pulled away impatiently, or offered him the polite patronization adults substitute for interest. The assumed the little boy’s excitement would fade when the spirit newly housed in his body grew accustomed to the world around it.
But for Amergin that never happened. The rebuff of busy adults drove him back behind a shield of shyness, hiding his vulnerability. He learned the lesson early: if you cared too much, if you opened yourself too far, you got hurt.
Among the garrulous Gaelicians he became notable for his quietness. His brothers teased him unmercifully for a time, accusing him of having been born with his jaws locked together. When he endured their taunts with unfailing good humor they at last quit teasing the little boy and went in search of more responsive targets.
Many seasons would pass before the great spirit demanded that Amergin fight free of self-consciousness and speak up boldly, risking rejection and misunderstanding. Life forces weakness to give way to strength; it is the Law.
Now, as a trained bard, he still recalled the intensity of those early emotions and longed to communicate them to others, to bring to life with his poetry radiant realms transcending mere survival. His soul was nourished by beauty; his spirit was drawn to mystery. A bard’s art must somehow harness both.
The task was not easy. There were dark days when he sweated and struggled and swore over one slippery phrase that would not come right; sleepless nights when he feared his skill would never equal his desire. Last night had been sleepless and today had seemed dark, though the summer sun shone. Still Amergin sensed the brooding weight of a storm beyond the rim of the world, heightening his restlessness, driving him to prowl the beach and…
“What?” he cried aloud, startled. He froze in midstride, staring northward beyond the sea, beyond the rim of the world. An urgent summons came winging to him on the green wind, shocking him like a lightning bolt. A powerful presence…not imagined but unbearably real!…was calling to him, reaching out to him from beyond the farthest horizon.
He could not move except to lift his arms in reply, stretching them wordlessly as he stared transfixed beyond limits of human vision. No seafoam goddess, this, created from restlessness and the body’s fever-dreams; whatever called Amergin was irresistibly alive and as compelling as the tide.
His soul rose into his throat, acing to answer.
The bard was so intent on whatever beckoned from beyond the ninth wave that he was blind to the sea before him. Yet at last his brain forced him to recognize objects his eyes had been ignoring. Ships.
A fleet!
Their intruding reality shattered the spell and he found himself staring in disbelief at a line of merchant galleys, battered and beaten, limping toward the harbor beyond the headland.
Amergin could hardly believe he was seeing traders arriving again after so many seasons. He rubbed his eyes but when he looked again the ships were still there, struggling closer. The oars swam through air and water in a ragged rhythm betraying the weariness of the oarsmen. The vessels seemed close to foundering in increasingly heavy surf.
The bard gasped and began to run. He must reach a point where he could wade into the sea and pull out survivors if the galleys went onto the rocks; failing that, he would have to get to his clan’s stronghold on the headland as quickly as possible and summon help. There was suddenly so much to do and so little time!
Yet even as he ran, anger ran with him. The traders were coming at the most inopportune time for him. Their arrival had broken a vital connection between Amergin and whatever it was that called him on the green wind, and it hurt.
It hurt terribly.
* * *
The source of the green wind was far to the north. The current of living air lay like a broad band across the sea, stretching from Amergin’s coast all the way to a large island of mountains and meadows and sweetwatered rivers.
Water, water, running water. Shinann was always drawn to the sound of running water, water going somewhere. Somewhere in the past or the future, perhaps, and time a stream you could wade into and then step out of on any curve of the bank you chose.
So the teachers had taught.
The sun had dropped below the rim of the world but the sky was still as filled with light as a plum with juice. The woman loitered along the riverbank, lifting her skirts to her things and wading into the shallows, kicking the water playfully to make it pronounce her name, “Shi-nahn, Shi-nahn,” for the golden gorse on the opposite bank.
The small woman paused and cocked her head, listening. She thought she heard an echo of something other than the voice of the river, a sound like that of a stringed instrument. The wind harping through the trees, perhaps. Yet the music it made was like none she knew, with a compelling quality that drew her to seek its source, calling out to the unseen musician. Looking southward, she waded deeper into the water, stepping confidently, very much in her element. Water water, running water.
And sudden sharp pain! Something hidden in the riverbottom ooze slashed her bare foot and Shinann jerked back, shocked that a river would attach her without provocation.
She clambered onto the nearest bank, dragging her skirts through a mass of reeds. Settling down crosslegged, she examined her injury in the fading light. Along her instep was a raggedly deep cut, welling blood.
Shinann frowned in concentration. The bleeding stopped.
She was a small woman, slender, with pale coppery hair streaming over her shoulders. Her eyes were the color of clear water. She was dressed in a soft robe caught around the waist with a twisted rope that glittered. Perhaps the rope was woven gold. Perhaps not.
A little woman with a curiosity out of all proportion to her size, Shinann had a questing nature that sent her back into the water in search of her attacker. She crouched down until only her head was above the surface, hair floating around her face like the petals of some fantastic flower. Then she took a deep breath and ducked to grope in the mud.
Her fingers closed on a shape alien to the natural debris of a watercourse. She worried the thing free and carried it to the riverbank. The last daylight revealed a bronze dagger nearly long enough to be called a shortsword, nicked and pitted but still radiating a palpable viciousness. The blade had been rippled in the forging to make an ugly would going in, and an uglier would coming out.
Shinann flung the thing aside while she wrung the water out of her gown. Then she picked it up again and examined it with interest, turning it over and over in her hands. Looking around, she caught sight of a lichen-covered boulder and struck the dagger a sharp blow against the stone, deftly calculating the exact point at which the blade could be snapped from the hilt.
The weapon broke apart with a loud crack and Shinann grinned like a mischievous child.
Holding the rippled blade balanced between her thumb and forefinger, she tipped her head back and sighted along an invisible are, then hurled the weapon with all her strength. She watched it tumble through the air, silhouetted against the evening sky for a long distance until at last it fell and was lost in a tangle of briars.
Shinann then turned her attention to the dagger hilt. The bronze had been shaped to fit a man’s grasp and decorated with an elaborate inlay of wide brass wire. Using her fingernails, she worked the wire free. The metal curled itself into a gleaming tendril in the palm of her hand. Shinann patiently through her bodice. Beauty made her smile.
The wind was blowing harder now. She stood on the riverbank, listening again, but heard no trace of the mysterious music. Its absence filled her with longing. She held out both her arms, reaching across empty space. Then she shrugged, feeling a little foolish.
Tossing her hair out of her eyes, Shinann headed away from the river, toward the Gathering Place.
Copyright © 1984 Morgan Llywelyn