From the Fiann my wounding,
The sharp wound of my death,
White swan of Erin,
A friend am I to the needy;
The eye of Christ be on thy wound,
The eye of affection and of mercy,
The eye of kindness and of love,
Making thee whole,
Swan of Erin,
No harm shall touch thee,
Whole be thy wounds,
Lady of the wave,
Lady of the dirge,
Lady of the melody,
To Christ the glory,
To the Son of the Virgin,
To the great High-King,
To Him be thy song,
To Him be thy song,
His throat hurt almost unbearably from doing the swan calls, from the soft moan of the wounded swan to the triumphant cry of the final words, and his voice cracked with it at the last, but triumphant it was, nonetheless, and the room erupted in applause.
Between soreness and emotion, he couldn’t actually speak for a few moments, and instead bowed and smiled and bowed again, mutely handing the stack of books and folders to Jimmy Glasscock to be passed round, while the audience swarmed up to congratulate him.
“Man, that was great!” said a half-familiar voice, and he looked up to find that it was Rob Cameron wringing his hand, shining-eyed with enthusiasm. Roger’s surprise must have shown on his face, for Rob bobbed his head toward the little boy at his side: Bobby Hurragh, whom Roger knew well from the choir. A heartbreakingly pure soprano, and a wee fiend if not carefully watched.
“I brought wee Bobby,” Rob said, keeping—Roger noticed—a tight grip on the kid’s hand. “My sister’s had to work today and couldn’t get off. She’s a widow,” he added, by way of explanation, both of the mother’s absence and his own stepping in.
“Thanks,” Roger managed to croak, but Cameron just wrung his hand again, and then gave way to the next well-wisher.
Among the mob was a middle-aged woman whom he didn’t know but who recognized him.
“My husband and I saw you sing once, at the Inverness Games,” she said, in an educated accent, “though you went by your late father’s name then, did you not?”
“I did,” he said, in the bullfrog croak that was as far as his voice was prepared to go just now. “Your—you have—a grandchild?” He waved vaguely at the buzzing swarm of kids milling round an elderly lady who, pink with pleasure, was explaining the pronunciation of some of the odd-looking Gaelic words in the storybook.
“Yes,” the woman said, but wouldn’t be distracted from her focus, which was the scar across his throat. “What happened?” she asked sympathetically. “Is it permanent?”
“Accident,” he said. “ ’Fraid so.”
Distress creased the corners of her eyes and she shook her head.
“Oh, such a loss,” she said. “Your voice was beautiful. I am so sorry.”
“Thanks,” he said, because it was all he could say, and she let him go then, to receive the praise of people who’d never heard him sing. Before.
Afterward, he thanked Lionel Menzies, who stood by the door to see people out, beaming like the ringmaster of a successful circus.
“It was wonderful,” Menzies said, clasping him warmly by the hand. “Even better than I’d hoped. Tell me, would ye think of doing it again?”
“Again?” He laughed, but broke off coughing in the middle. “I barely made it through this one.”
“Ach.” Menzies waved that off. “A dram’ll see your throat right. Come down the pub with me, why don’t you?”
Roger was about to refuse, but Menzies’s face shone with such pleasure that he changed his mind. The fact that he was wringing with sweat—performing always raised his body temperature by several degrees—and had a thirst fit for the Gobi Desert had nothing to do with it, of course.
“Just the one, then,” he said, and smiled.
As they crossed the parking lot, a battered small blue panel truck pulled up and Rob Cameron leaned out of the window, calling to them.
“Like it, did ye, Rob?” Menzies asked, still beaming.
“Loved it,” Cameron said, with every evidence of sincerity. “Two things, Rog—I wanted to ask, maybe, if ye’d let me see some of the old songs ye have; Siegfried MacLeod showed me the ones you did for him.”
Roger was a little taken aback, but pleased.
“Aye, sure,” he said. “Didn’t know you were a fan,” he joked.
“I love all the old stuff,” Cameron said, serious for once. “Really, I’d appreciate it.”
“Okay, then. Come on out to the house, maybe, next weekend?”
Rob grinned and saluted briefly.
“Wait—two things, ye said?” Menzies asked.
“Oh, aye.” Cameron reached over and picked up something from the seat between Bobby and him. “This was in with the Gaelic bits ye were handing round. It looked as though it was in there by mistake, though, so I took it out. Writing a novel, are ye?”
He handed out the black notebook, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide,” and Roger’s throat clenched as though he’d been garroted. He took the notebook, nodding speechlessly.
“Maybe ye’ll let me read it when it’s done,” Cameron said casually, putting his truck in gear. “I’m a great one for the science fiction.”
The truck pulled away, then stopped suddenly and reversed. Roger took a firmer grip on the notebook, but Rob didn’t look at it.
“Hey,” he said. “Forgot. Brianna said ye’ve got an old stone fort or some such on your place?”
Roger nodded, clearing his throat.
“I’ve got a friend, an archaeologist. Would ye mind, maybe, if he was to come and have a look at it sometime?”
“No,” Roger croaked, then cleared his throat again and said more firmly, “No, that’d be fine. Thanks.”
Rob grinned cheerfully at him and revved the engine.
“Nay bother, mate,” he said.
ROB’S ARCHAEOLOGIST friend, Michael Callahan, turned out to be a genial bloke in his fifties with thinning sandy hair, sunburned so badly and so often that his face looked like patchwork, dark freckles blotched among patches of raw pink skin. He ferreted about among the collapsed stones of the old church with every sign of interest, asking Roger’s permission to dig a trench along the outside of one wall.
Rob, Brianna, and the kids all came up briefly to watch, but archaeological work is not a spectator sport, and when Jem and Mandy got bored, the lot of them went down to the house to make lunch, leaving Roger and Mike to their poking.
“I don’t need you,” Callahan said, glancing up at Roger after a bit. “If you’ve things to do.”
There were always things to do—it was a farm, after all, if a small one—but Roger shook his head.
“I’m interested,” he said. “If I won’t be in your way… ?”
“Not a bit of it,” Callahan said cheerfully. “Come and help me lift this, then.”
Callahan whistled through his teeth as he worked, occasionally muttering to himself, but for the most part made no comment on whatever he was looking at. Roger was called on now and then to help clear away rubble or hold an unstable stone while Callahan peered underneath it with a small torch, but for the most part Roger sat on the bit of uncollapsed wall, listening to the wind.
It was quiet on the hilltop, in the way that wild places are quiet, with a constant sense of unobtrusive movement, and it struck him odd that this should be so. Normally you didn’t get that feeling in places where people had lived, and plainly people had been mucking about on this hilltop for a good long time, judging from the depth of Callahan’s trench and the small whistles of interest he gave off now and then, like a marmoset.
Brianna brought them up sandwiches and lemonade and sat down beside Roger on the wall to eat.
“Rob gone off, then?” Roger asked, noticing that the truck was gone from the dooryard.
“Just to run some errands, he said. He said it didn’t look as though Mike would be finished anytime soon,” she said, with a glance at Callahan’s trouser seat, this sticking out from a bush as he burrowed happily beneath it.
“Maybe not,” Roger said, smiling, and leaning forward, kissed her lightly. She made a low, contented noise in her throat and stepped back, but kept hold of his hand for a moment.
“Rob asked about the old songs you did up for Sandy MacLeod,” she said, with a sideways glance down toward the house. “Did you tell him he could see them?”
“Oh, aye, I’d forgot that. Sure. If I’m not down when he comes back, you can show him them. The originals are in my bottom file drawer, in a folder labeled Cèolas.”
She nodded and went down, long sneakered feet sure as a deer’s on the stony path, and her hair down her back in a tail the color of the same deer’s pelt.
As the afternoon wore on, he found himself dropping into a state not far off trance, his mind moving sluggishly and his body not much faster, coming in leisurely fashion to lend a hand where wanted, exchanging the barest of words with Callahan, who seemed similarly bemused. The drifting haze of the morning had thickened, and the cool shadows amid the stones faded with the light. The air was cool with water on his skin, but there was no hint of rain. You could almost feel the stones rising up around you, he thought, coming back to what they once were.
There were comings and goings at the house below: the slam of doors, Brianna hanging out the family wash, the kids and a couple of wee lads from the next farm over who’d come to spend the night with Jem all racing through the kailyard and outbuildings, playing some kind of tag that involved a good deal of noise, their shrieks high and sharp as the cries of fishing ospreys. Once he glanced down and saw the Farm and Household truck, presumably come to deliver the pump for the cream separator, for Roger saw Brianna shepherding the driver into the barn, he unable to see around the large carton in his arms.
Around five, a fresh strong breeze came up, and the haze began to dissipate. As though this was a signal waking Callahan from his dream, the archaeologist straightened, stood a moment looking down at something, then nodded.
“Well, it may be an ancient site,” he said, climbing out of his trench and groaning as he leaned to and fro, stretching his back. “The structure’s not, though. Likely built sometime in the last couple of hundred years, though whoever built it used much older stones in the construction. Probably brought them from somewhere else, though some may be from an earlier structure built on the spot.” He smiled at Roger. “Folk are thrifty in the Highlands; last week I saw a barn with an ancient Pictish stone used in the foundation and a floor made with bricks from a demolished public lavatory in Dornoch.”
Callahan looked out to the west, shading his eyes, where the haze now hung low over the distant shore.
“High places,” he said, matter-of-factly. “They always chose the high places, the old ones. Whether it was a fort or a place of worship, they always went up.”
“The old ones?” Roger asked, and felt a brief prickle of the hair on his nape. “Which old ones?”
Callahan laughed, shaking his head.
“Don’t know. Picts, maybe—all we know about them is the bits of stonework they left here and there—or the folk who came before them. Sometimes you see a bit of something that you know was made—or at least placed—by men, but can’t fit it into a known culture. The megaliths, for instance—the standing stones. Nobody knows who set those up or what for.”
“Don’t they,” Roger murmured. “Can you tell what sort of ancient site this was? For war or worship, I mean?”
Callahan shook his head.
“Not from what’s apparent on the surface, no. Maybe if we excavated the underlying site—but to be honest, I don’t see anything that would make anyone really want to do that. There are hundreds of sites like this on high places, all through the British Isles and Brittany, too—old Celtic, many of them, Iron Age, lots much older.” He picked up the battered saint’s head, stroking it with a sort of affection.
“This lady’s much more recent; maybe the thirteenth, fourteenth century. Maybe the family’s patron saint, handed down over the years.” He gave the head a brief, unself-conscious kiss and handed it gently to Roger.
“For what it’s worth, though—and this isn’t scientific, just what I think myself, having seen more than a few such places—if the modern structure was a chapel, then the ancient site beneath it was likely a place of worship, too. Folk in the Highlands are set in their ways. They may build a new barn every two or three hundred years—but chances are it’ll be right where the last one stood.”
“True enough. Our barn’s still the original one—built in the early 1700s, along with the house. But I found the stones of an earlier croft buried when I dug up the stable floor to put in a new drain.”
“The 1700s? Well, you’ll not be needing a new roof for at least another hundred years, then.”
It was nearly six but still full daylight. The haze had vanished in that mysterious way it sometimes did, and a pale sun had come out. Roger traced a small cross with his thumb on the statue’s forehead and set the head gently in the niche that seemed made for it. They’d finished, but neither man made a move to leave just yet. There was a sense of comfort in each other’s company, a sharing of the spell of the high place.