The tall olive-skinned man scanned the tavern’s customers. The looks he was receiving were guarded and nervous, not the type of looks he hoped to catch. It would be a lonely night.
Of course, Ishaq the Andalusian got looks no matter where he went outside of the Iberian Peninsula or North Africa. Even in lands where the people were as dark-complected as he his clothing set him apart. The robes he wore were more elegant, brighter colored than those of even the gentler people in Dark Ages Europe. Even in Hibernia – Ireland – where the people adorned themselves splendidly he was a sight to see.
Then of course there were the items he brought with him as he traveled. Mysterious looking musical instruments like none these provincial towns and villages had seen. He was not a singer, really, although he could sing, but he was a remarkable instrumentalist, particularly on stringed instruments. One of his favorite discoveries on this fair green isle.. along with the fresh-faced beauty of the men.. was the Irish harp, which he had taken up and mastered with pleasure.
Ishaq sat in the corner at the end of one of the rough made tables and ate his bread and cheese. No wine or ale though, for he was at least a somewhat observant Muslim. He drank water from wells, but in taverns he simply refused drink. He looked about for a serving wench to bring him some more of the excellent soda bread. To his surprise he saw the girl had gone and been replaced with a boy of about 16, tall for his age, lanky, red haired, and when Ishaq saw his face, of a beauty rarely seen even among Celts.
The boy came over, shy at the man’s strange clothes, and asked in Gaelic what he could bring him. The boy’s eyes strayed to the instruments Ishaq had with him. “Och, sir, me friend Shannon would love to take a look at those.” The boy looked abashed, realizing how forward and familiar he had been.
Ishaq responded in heavily accented Gaelic, “This friend of yours, Shannon, is he a musician?”
Rory relaxed with the man’s obvious acceptance of his comment. “Aye, well, nay.. he is a serving man as am I.. but he has always been that fine a singer. None better.”
Ishaq smiled at the boy’s use of the word “man” to describe himself and his friend. “I should like to hear him sing.. will he sing here tonight?”
Rory looked surprised. “Nay, sir, he is not allowed to.”
“Not allowed? Well what if a customer requests it, ah, what is your name, lad?” Ishaq marveled at the sweetness of the smile on the young face whose chin was just beginning to show peach fuzz.
“Rory, sir. Rory McGuinness. And me friend is Shannon O’Neill.” Rory looked at the man hopefully. “May I.. may I show him that instrument?”
Ishaq of Andalusia smiled broadly. “Better than that, young Rory.. bring Shannon here if you can. He can see it here.”
Rory looked uncertain for a moment. Ishaq suggested, “Tell the innkeeper I insisted.” The boy shot him a dazzling smile and shot out of the room. Ishaq watched him go. “Too bad he is so young..” he lamented to himself.
It was not long before the boy returned with a rather startled looking fellow his own age, shorter, more filled out and with a shock of bright red hair that could almost serve as a beacon light. Rory had Shannon by the hand and was dragging him over, the innkeeper looking out of the doorway in consternation. The man’s eyes fell on the Andalusian and the expression in them changed to a combination of knowing and avarice. He backed out of the doorway.
Rory was chattering to his friend, who was hesitantly looking at Ishaq. “Shan, look at that! Is it not fine?” Rory was pointing to a long necked rounded string instrument.
Ishaq saw as the shorter boy’s eyes lit on the lute. They widened and his mouth fell open. “Och, what is that, beggin’ your pardon, sir.”
“I am Ishaq the Musician, from Andalusia. And that, my boy, is a lute. It is a slightly shorter necked version of an Arabic instrument called an oud. It is very popular in Andalusia and other parts of the Western Mediterranean right now.” He saw the longing in the boy’s eyes. “Would you like to hold it, Shannon?”
The boy’s eyes shot to his face. “Would I? Och, aye, please, sir.”
Ishaq reached over and lifted the lute gently. He held it by the neck and cradled the bowl-like body in his other hand. He extended it to Shannon. The boy started to reach for it but stopped. “Please sir, show me how to hold it.”
Ishaq smiled his approval, and took the lute and cradle the body with his right arm, the fingers over the sound hole and the strings that stretched over it. The other hand reached around the neck and the long fingers of his left hand were poised over the double rows of strings. He placed the pads of his fingers on the strings and then reached for the ones under his right hand. He plucked out a few notes.
The mop haired boy drew in a sharp breath and he muttered “Saints in Heaven!” As Ishaq started to extend the instrument again, Shannon took it as if he was being handed a newborn baby.. but Ishaq observed when he took the lute into his arms he held it more like a tender young maid. The boy put his fingers on exactly the places Ishaq had and plucked the same notes. The Andalusian looked at him with amazement, but noted how Rory gazed at his friend unsurprised.
“Shannon, your friend Rory here says you have a fine voice.” But Shannon did not hear him. He was moving his fingers on the strings and correcting mistakes that he never made again. He was rapt. When Ishaq reached to take the lute back Shannon looked like a child who was being dragged from his mother’s arms. “You can play it again later, boy. I want to hear you sing.”
Shannon’s face was still one of rapt wonder, but he slowly came to. Rory still gazed at him with affection and admiration. “Sing?” the shorter boy asked. “I am not allowed to sing in here, me lord,” he said.
Ishaq smiled. “We shall see about that.” He turned to Rory and said, “Go fetch the innkeeper, boy.” Rory beamed and turned on his heels and made for the door. Shannon continued to gaze at the lute, with occasional glances at other instruments that could be seen in the open bag on the floor beside Ishaq’s feet.
“How long have you been in love with the Muse, my boy?” Ishaq asked.
Shannon gazed back at him, still open mouthed. “The Muse, sir?”
“The goddess of music, as it were,” the Andalusian replied.
Shannon’s eyes took on a glint, an understanding. He smiled a heart breakingly charming smile and answered, “All me life, sir. Since I can remember. But we never had nothin’ like these instruments. I had a penny whistle and a wee tabor, but nothin’ like the .. lute.”
When Rory brought the innkeeper in the man had an odd look in his eyes. He still looked greedy but he also glanced about at some of the other customers nervously. He looked at the musician warily. “Sir?”
Ishaq simply stated, “I should like to hear this boy, Shannon O’Neill, sing.”
The innkeeper echoed, “Sing?”
“Aye, is there a problem?” Ishaq pursued.
The innkeeper looked like he was not sure he had understood. “Just sing? No there is no problem. Let the young whelp sing. It’s that difficult to stop him, be God.”
Ishaq turned back to Shannon. “Well, there it is, boy. Will ye sing?” He took up the lute to accompany him. Shannon just stared at the lute. Then he slowly nodded, and turned towards the customers, taking a dignified stance. Then he looked at Ishaq.
“What will ye have me sing, sir?” he asked.
Ishaq laughed. “Whatever you like, O’Neill.”
Shannon thought for a moment, then said simply “The Parting Glass.” Rory beamed and nodded.
As the mop haired boy began to sing Ishaq had to overcome his surprise at the beauty of his voice before he could pick out enough of the melody to accompany him. The boy was well past his voice changing of course and already well on the way to his adult voice. When he did start to play the lute though, Shannon almost stopped singing.. then went on with a joyful look.
Of all the money e'er I had, I spent it in good company; And all the harm I've ever done, alas was done to none but me; And all I've done for want of wit, to memory now I can't recall, So fill me to the parting glass, goodnight and joy be with you all.
If I had money enough to spend and leisure time to sit awhile, There is a fair maid in this town who sorely has my heart beguiled. Her rosy cheeks and ruby lips, I own she has my heart in thrall, So fill me to the parting glass, goodnight and joy be with you all.
Of all the comrades e'er I had, they're sorry for my going away, And all the sweethearts e'er I had , they wish me one more day to stay, But since it falls unto my lot that I should go and you should not, I'll gently rise and softly call, goodnight and joy be with you all.
Ishaq noted that there were a fair amount of leering chuckles at the line “And all the sweethearts e'er I had , they wish me one more day to stay”. He also noted Shannon’s own wicked grin at the line and the response it earned. He thought to himself, “Then Rory is an unrequited love.”
The song over, the whole tavern was filled with boisterous sounds of approval. Ishaq asked the innkeeper, “Why do you not allow this talented fellow to sing?”
The innkeeper scowled, “I dinnae pay him to be a canary.” He went on, “Though he is good for nothing else, the lazy scoundrel.”
Ishaq produced a silver coin. “Would this make up for having to find another scoundrel to work for you?”
The innkeeper flushed, “Not here, sir, let us speak in private.”
Ishaq was the one who scowled now. “There is no need of that for an honorable arrangement is there?”
The innkeeper just looked at him skeptically.
“I wish to train the boy as my apprentice, that is all, I swear,” Ishaq said in a low voice, mindful of the looks some of the closer customers were giving him and the innkeeper.
“Och, sir, I cannae go with ye!” Shannon protested before the innkeeper could reply. “I cannae go and leave me blood brother here.”
The innkeeper beamed, “Make it two silvers and ye can take them both.”
Ishaq was not surprised. He did not think the boy would have left without his devoted friend and had in fact been ready to offer more. But he just nodded and they shook on the deal. The innkeeper repeated, “Just apprenticed, aye?”
Ishaq replied, “As Allah is my witness,” he said. He turned to the boys. “Will you come with me to learn to sing and play and travel about the world?”
Rory looked worried, “But sir, I am not a minstrel.”
Ishaq considered him. “Let me be the judge of that, young Rory McGuinness. In the meantime you can serve both Shannon and me as we travel. Methinks you would be happy to do that, nay?”
Rory beamed. “Nay, I mean aye!”
“Then Shannon and Rory, tonight make haste to gather your things and wait for to be ready to travel in the morning.” The boys beamed. “After you have satisfied your obligation to this fine fellow, of course.”
The innkeeper nodded satisfied and urged the boys with both tongue and a slap, “Get ye to work, ye young louts. Ye are not minstrels yet.” Customers immediately began to call for ale.
The Andalusian thought to himself, “Well, not quite what I hoped to gain from this place, but the boy is a remarkable talent, and I should never take his companion from him. Mayhap when that taller boy is older, we will see where his tastes lie. For now, we will travel and see the world.”
He smiled to himself. He saw the faces on him, waiting for him to entertain. He took the lute in his arms and began to play.
Next: Festival in Tirconnell
Before there was the novel, there were the stories...
by Nan Hawthorne, who also writes under Christopher Hawthorne Moss, Books and Stories b ChristopherHawthorne Moss at http://authorchristophermoss.vlogspot.com