The song wakes Jamie up.
It starts in the most infinitesimal increments of timing: the collection of heavy white fog catching on the thick thatch, until droplets swell up to beads, then pearls, and their own weight sends them sliding gently down the spines of the dry reeds, like so many billiards' balls, and when they collide they burst inside each other, swelling to hundreds of times their original size.
They quiver in the slightest stir of the false dawn, but they finally fall.
And with the drops of dew, the world explodes with music.
The Piper opens his eyes slowly, a bit at a time, with all his senses open against what Polly loved to call “The Dawn Chorus” and Ben would respond with “Aye, Duchess, but the only song it knows is the 1812 Overture.” They made themselves laugh every time; they made the others laugh.
Birds are small, but they can make a lot of noise. And there are thousands upon thousands of them in the Marsh.
The reed thatch makes herringbone patterns of the plant ceiling and shadows, the visual blur mixing with the olfactory smokiness of the peat fire still smouldering in the centre of the crannog. Behind his head, bits and pieces of dawnslight nibbles its way through the withy walls. A crannog is meant to hold back the worst weather, but the season has grown long this year. Only now is autumn beginning to feel a sting in the frost and a bite in the winds. The birds flutter back and forth, keeping warm as they discuss the atmospheric changes.
He will have to hang the leathern curtains today.
Jamie gets up, blinks his way through a tea of bog-myrtle and limeflower, and sits with the warm clay bowl in his hands as he sips drop by drop through the contents. He pokes absently through his collection of honeys, finds the dark golden jar holding the chestnut blossom nectar, and uses that for his sweetener. The restorative makes him feel better, and stirs his blood. Outside the crannog he can hear the guardians of the day: crows sneer, ravens croak, and the emerging bittern booms. So much music in such a small space.
Small spaces can contain the most objects.
He can speak for experience on this, having seen microchips and transistors, circuits and the tiniest infarctions inside large crystals. And straight ahead from his doorway lies a very small world indeed; a world his original Earth called Avalon.
It's a Pocket World, tiny and limited. In the old days it was no bigger than North Wales but it has managed to grow quite a bit in the past couple of decades—in part thanks to some machinations of people who really ought to have known better.
The He has friends there. And family. Many of each.
Jamie would like to visit them more often, but it's not up to him to do so; it's up to the Mist.
He lives in the Marsh now, which is a part of the Ribbon Worlds.
But that is a tale for another day...
Jamie puts up his tea-fixings, and yawns, belting his sporran about his kilted waist before striding outside the crannog. The Mist makes him think of other worlds, and that includes Avalon, but...Thoughts of Avalon have left him nostalgic and a little sad. He misses being able to talk to the Brigadier whenever he wishes; he misses talking to kith and kin whenever he wants. Both are separated from him—one by Dimensions, the other by circumstance. The severance isn't forever, but this waiting for the Crucial Hour between the worlds...it does get old...
Nothing lasts forever...and dead men rise up never...
Outside the world is wrapped in white. He knows where the water rests, gently lapping fifteen feet above the surface of the Marsh...and the swinging reeds and clumps of hummock and earth and the nests of birds and beasts. He knows where the birds are migrating to and from, and he knows where he can see the craigs of the Highlands on a clear day if he stretches his neck just so...but there's no seeing anything right now. There's nothing but the Mist.
The Mist is the most precious commodity in Scotland, but few people know this. Deep in the bones of the people, they know. They laugh and joke about Scottish weather, but they wouldn't live without it.
The Piper leans forward as the mist swirls about his boots. He feels the gentle press of the ageing wood on the top of the rail against his sleeves. There's a tiny soft spot there, a cavern worn quietly away by the lichen. British Soldiers, they're called, and he always smiles to see them. He always keeps a bit of the lichen around. It makes a tea to cleanse the most stubborn of wounds, and has saved more than one life. The people know where to find him when they need him. Instead of his going out in the world, mostly, the worlds comes to him. He's more than a Piper now; he's become a negotiator and mediator...he's become a healer of sorts for all sorts of ills.
He's become a Doctor.
The mist shifts, coiling white droplets in the grey air. He can hear the flutter of wings, and slowly, a hoarse barking of herons. His flesh prickles up just slightly, and he stands very still where he is, a rabbit's caution against the unseen but sensed. The Blue Hag is coming.
The first time he met her, their encounter was not exactly pleasant. But she is an ancient spirit of the land and the force of winter; and he is a Piper and a Bard and she sensed something of her old bloodline in him, so she doesn't molest him when they do meet up...but still...she is the culler of the weak and helpless, the pruner, and he is getting older. If he doesn't find his replacement before he gets too old, she will cull him with the rest of the year's tribute, making way for the new by clipping the old.
A thumping vibration sends the white world into a tither. She calls across the land, shivering the curtain of vapour in the air. The droplets quiver at the force of her old throat. He can see her in his mind's eye, rap rap rapping with her heavy staff, striking a coat of frost down each time it touches Earth. Her tartan is the stubble of the old fields, her white hair like cobwebs caught in the same frost. Her skin is cold but her wise old heart is very, very alive with not a little mischief. Behind her walk the fairy deer, which Jamie now knows are the caribou, spectres from when Scotland was much younger and the bears were white, not black.
He waits, patient for her passage. She has business this time of year, for the gateway between the seasons is gaping wide open, large and sharp as a shark's maw. Winter is going to be harsh this time around. The next Ice Age is coming. Slowly, one degree at a time, it will march on as inexorably as the Hag's step...until one day there will be no spring in Great Britain, and men will rely on machines to control the weather until it can settle for itself again...
The drumming of her staff fades into the fogs, and the Piper still listens, feeling the lingering vibrations in his mind. It blends with the song that woke him up earlier, melodies mixing like warm spices in a bowl of cider. He can scent change over the smoke of peat, and the damp of the Marsh.
He hums a bit, listening with his mind and heart as well as his ears. The music is gaining flesh; the hairs on his flesh stand up in the familiar old awe. A visitor is coming, and he suspects he knows this one very well.
He recognizes the melody in the making: words and trills from a little Breton, defiantly loving and enriching the world with a language once proscribed by his own government.
In the noise of the city where I am locked
It's my voice and my songs that keep me strong
Jamie sings very softly, blending his voice only one thread at a time into the music he's sensing. It would not only be risky and dangerous to barge into another's song, it would be terribly, terribly rude.
Without singing songs not a day is spent
In the world I find comfort only then
Nothing in this world can give me consolation
I've just got my songs left, everything's got stolen
Stolen is the shadow of the wind, so is the singing of the clouds
Stolen are the blue fields, the horizon, the fire
Stolen are the merry dances on the slopes,
Stolen are the roses, the paths and the oaks
Stolen is the moon and stolen is the night
Stolen is my language, stolen is my land
No, not a day for me without singing a song
The ravages of the world, let me forget them all
He loves to remember the day the Doctor took him to listen to this composer, and how the night had been hot and dusty, glaring with electric lights and stinking of chemicals. The TARDIS had translated the words, but Jamie's trained ear had already known Breton, and he enjoyed both versions at the same time, while the little Time Lord leaned back with a cold drink sweating in his hand, smiling at the music that floated from one small human to create waves of empathy throughout the enormous crowd.
Jamie sees in his mind's eye how the Doctor was comfortable enough in the privacy of the hotel balcony to take off his coat in that blistering, murderously hot night. The brands on his arms were not something he liked to show anyone, but with Jamie it was different. Jamie was long accustomed to seeing criminal brands on good Christian flesh, harsh verdicts from English crowns. He knew what indentured slaves were, and the Doctor had risked his life to spare Jamie that fate in Scotland.
In the old days the Doctor pulled off his coat with the careless joy of a child. Now when he did, he usually wore long sleeves.
And that always hurt Jamie, because the Doctor did so hate to be confined. The tattoos on his arms were worse than chains for the marks they left on that clever little man's hearts. The fate he'd spared Jamie and his people had not spared him. Now he was the one marked and condemned. And Jamie was the one who was free, only he couldn't figure out how to restore the balance in this riddle. The Doctor had freed him. How could he free the Doctor?
Jamie always watched, helplessly, for his moment to come, but the days turned to years as patiently as mist turned to dew.
The Doctor turned his head, sensing the weight of the Piper's thoughts. It was just the two of them on the balcony, a small, enclosed world rimmed with blooming yellow rose-vines that let no intruder approach. Three stories below their feet in a cobblestone street children were laughing and spinning long ribbons on sticks, and laughing young women were throwing possets of flowers at their laughing young men in richly-stitched vests and tight trousers, the colors demonstrating their region of origin. A tiny young woman threw back her head and laughed, so very much like Zoe in that moment; Zoe who had finally learned to laugh and have fun. This girl could have been her daughter, with the deep maroon-red hair of Breton women piled high upon her head, and hand-laced head-dress flowing down her back like a bride's veil.
Her embroideries were all of golden flowers shaped like dandelions and small suns. She spun on one heel, head back so her head-dress would flow behind her in a swirl, and on impulse Jamie plucked a large rose off the rail and threw it down to the young man admiring her. The boy glanced up, startled, as the flower bounced off his shoulder but he caught it in time; the two shared a conspiratorial look; and Jamie heard the Doctor chuckle, low and deep in his throat, as he squared up his courage and gave it to his lady fair.
“Well done, Jamie.” The little Time Lord smiled.
When I was at school I learned so many lies
I learned there that water didn't have a life
I learned that the earth was hollow
I learned that silent were the stones
I learned that the world was blue
“But the world's red, it 's scarlet, I knew...” Jamie singsongs with his memory just a little louder.
The Doctor's eyes had been dark blue and glittering sea-green, absorbing the message of the music on some level Jamie could only suspect. The song had soothed them both, scored deep into their spirits and he could remember that night as though he'd just lived it.
So too, he felt, it was with the Doctor, who never forgot anything. Not a gift so much as a curse, but a good memory was better than a shield in hard times.
See when the scarlet sun rises
See when the scarlet sun sets
The Doctor's mouth moved slightly there, twisting into an expression of amused empathy for the words.
Jamie knew he loved the color red. It was his favorite. And that was his little secret to the world. He hid that secret in himself, wearing only blue or white shirts; trousers of sea or earth colors, and his battered old black coat and shoes. He never celebrated himself with red.
Red are the stars and red is the moon
Red is the breeze and red is the mist
Red raven satellites flying up high
Red rain is falling from a foggy sky
Like red and black tar, it's fiery red,
So red is the sea as I've never seen yet
But the Doctor kept red around him; his favorite braces were for years the scarlet bands with brilliant yellow charms embroidered along the fronts; and when they finally wore out he promptly replaced them with an equally ornate floral one, where the red was very small and understudied, but impossible not to see.
The whole world is scarlet
And each day more red it gets
He collected color photographs and paintings of Mars, the Red Planet, and red dwarf stars. Here and there, they popped up in the TARDIS in odd places and times; when they started showing up all over the place Jamie knew to take care because the Doctor was feeling sad, and the TARDIS was trying to help him.
When they were in ancient Norway, fighting for their lives against the Gods of Ragnarok, the people took to him instantly, though they were a large, warlike race of blond giants. This little dark-haired man who didn't look as though he could do anything in a fight was a child in size against their raw power, but they admired him in their rough ways, and called him “Loki's Get,” for it would take Loki to finish off these corrupted deities.
Loki was a spirit of fire, promoted into the pantheon of Gods...and spent the rest of creation making sure the Aesir regretted that action.
On Narken, the people called him “Fire in the Hands.”
The Sidhe called him “The Evergreen Man,” and pointed out that of all the woods, none burned so brightly and as hotly as that of the red-berried holly.
The Selkie folk had a name for him as long and complicated and beautiful as their songs; it translated as “Against the East Wind,” an unfelicitous direction, and Jamie lived among them long enough to understand they saw his spirit as something wild and untamable as the fires that slept deep in the chasms of the sea floors.
He once heard the Brigadier call him, “That little firecracker.”
In the wild wind I can clearly hear a song
As the sun it will soon become as strong
So radiant it is as the light of the moon
So violent it is as the fire of the earth
The mist swirled like a top without warning; it spiraled sunwise upwards to the higher and hidden clouds that shrouded the valley. For a moment Jamie could pick out the sounds of the Highlands: a corbie's rough croak; a hawk's scree of the hunt and there was the smell of sweet snowfall on sun-dried grasses. And in that moment the singer's voice gained new power. Reality was shaping itself, agreeable to the flow of the song.
The Piper cleared his throat noiselessly, and added his own volume to the next words.
This song was heard once yet
At the beginning of the world
The first time the whole world was water, nothing else
The second time I'll hear it,
I'll know here is the end
And any time I think of it
It makes me sing a song
A figure was forming in the mist. Jamie felt his heart pound. He knew who it was; the Crucial Hour was here.
It makes me sing a song
And it fills my heart with grief
So much sadness in a song
Still brings me comfort and some ease
The last of the notes faded, and the Mist parted. The singer stepped through the crack in the world and stood before him.
It was himself.
A younger self, harder-looking for all of that, his still dark hair thick and unruly, tamed only by length. He wore deerskin boots and Highlander tartan, which was terribly, terribly dangerous to do, what with the English permitting only the soldiers in their employ the right of the plaids. But that sort of danger had never bothered Jamie.
In the Piper's mind it is quite a simpler thing, to permit his other-awareness inside his cognitive thought.
He has delved into the depths of body, mind, and soul within and without Time and Space, but of all his centuries' worth of learning, he has never forgotten there will always be room for possibility.
“He left me behind,” the younger Jamie says with a stoic sorrow that cuts deep to the marrow. “As soon as we left Seville, he said it was too good a chance.”
“Because the Time Lords would be waiting for ye to come back.” Jamie reminds him.
“He said...he said that they'd believe I was dead with all the others...that they'd think I was just a stupid Piper.” His young self clenches his left fist as he speaks, not sacrificing his precious right hand in the moment of anger. “I was the only one to survive the attack on the Station. Can ye ken that? Planets' worth of brilliant minds and they didn't know tae hide in an air duct!”
“He knew.” Jamie assured his younger self. “He knew. He couldn't risk losing ye again. Not after thinking ye dead like the rest.”
“But I'm not with him any more, and I promised!”
“He did it all for ye.” Jamie reminds him, but at the same time, his heart lurches forward, like a nag given the scent of sweet water. Will this be the Crucial Hour? Will the time finally come?
“It's noo fair!” Young Jamie protests furiously. “It's not fair that he go without me! He's alone now! Wi'out me! Wi'out anyone!”
“He did it for ye.” Jamie says as gently as he can. “He did it to spare ye, to save ye, to let ye have the life he never had. He could bear it if he knew you could live your own life. Are you going to scorn him the sacrifice?”
And before his eyes, Jamie closes his eyes, takes a deep breath that shudders him tip to toe, and blinks against the spiral mist. “Yes.” The young man says at last. “Yes. I do. Because he did it without me.”
“He knew his own soul damned by the Time Lords. He could bear that if you would be free.”
“How can I be free without him?” Young-Jamie answers with the icy clarity of youth. “To know another is living a life without me? He needs me.”
“And ye need him. And yet, the Time Lords can ruin that for both of ye.”
“What am I, an echo?”
“An echo is still real.” Jamie sniffed. “Ye been living with Time Lords too long! They don't know half of what they think they do! Everything ye feel is real. Ye know this!”
“Then I am a Parallel version of ye?”
“Use that word if ye like. I likened 'sideways', actually. Yes. There is a Time sideways tae my Universe where he dropped ye off between Seville and th'report to Gallifrey. Yer of that Time.”
“Then what happens to me, to him?” Jamie clenches both fists in bafflement now, even as the information is flowing through his mind. This is it; he is the Piper for the Land. The Marsh heard him calling and brought him in. This is it...this is it...
“Have faith.” Jamie tells his younger self. “Have faith. All things have their time...ye know this.”
“But I don't want our time to be over.”
Jamie looks about him again. “I...I know this place. I've been here before. Where is this place? When is it? It smells like home?”
“We're in the Bard's Crannog. 'Twas empty and it called me, as it called ye. I live here now, when I'm not walking the Mist Road.”
Young Jamie huffs softly, laughing. “Always thought I'd have tae take up that musty old family castle! A crannog in a Haunted Bog is a lot better.”
“Aye. Can't do a thing with the bogles in that old cairn!” Jamie laughs back. “I'm content. I'm settled here. Isnae saw bad.”
“But the Doctor?”
“Ye'll see him again.” Jamie assures him. “For now he has to play the clever one.”
“I promised him. This lifetime or the next. But I would rather it be this lifetime.”
“I cannae tell ye everything, lad!”
“Because of the rules?” Young Jamie scorned. “Bad rules are the same as bad laws!”
“Now when have I obeyed bad rules? Time Lord laws dinnae apply to the likes of us. We're human, lad. Takin' counsel from our past and future selves happens all the time wi'us and the Universe has never collapsed yet. Still,” he added, leveling a stern finger, “Take the time ye've got and be clever with it. He's counting on ye. Learn the ways o' the Dreamin, the Old Ways, the ways Humans bend and shift Time. Ye've got the mind and the will. All ye need is the skill, and if ye stick around places like this, it'll come sooner than ye ken.
“The Marsh, she's alive.” Jamie added. “And she has a soul. Wherever there's a Between Place, a Gray Area, a suspension between in and out, she's there. And she likes to take good care of her people—that's us. And if there's one thing she disnae like, it's people who meddle for power and not for innocent learning and joy.”
“Aye, tis not sae different from what I've seen on other worlds.” But this young Jamie was muted, his hazel eyes dark with sorrows. “I had a family once. Now they're all dead. All o' them. The Doctor's all I've got.”
“Ye've got my family...my friends. They're your friends too.” Jamie nodded with his chin, probing gently so as not to overwhelm this younger self. “The Marsh will teach ye. Listen tae her songs and what she says...this haunted land is full of more than ghaists.” A heron wailed as he spoke, and both of them flinched. “But for now, th' most important thing is, the Marsh will keep ye safe.”
“Safe?” Younger Jamie repeated carefully, for that was a word grown unfamiliar from lack of use.
“Aye. The Marsh is one o' the Soft Places in Time and Space. Gae intae the mist heedlessly, and who can say where ye'll find yerself? But on the other side o' the Mists are the other worlds. The Otherworlds, braided together like so many beads into ribbons.”
“Are the Sidhe here then?”
“Aye, quite a few...most of them stay to the Avalon side o' things...and over there--” Jamie pointed again with his chin to what would be west, “Is the Scotland o' home. From where ye came from. Walk back and circle the Standing Stone widdershins thrice and ye'll wind up in the Brigadier's century. Reverse the walk and ye'll reverse yer time. There's hundreds o' paths here, hundred o' ways to walk between the worlds.”
“And this is safe?” Oh, he was such a skeptic when he was younger.
“Aye. Because the Soft Places have called ye. Not even the Time Lords will interfere wi' the Soft Places.” Jamie grinned wickedly. “They're afraid of what they can't control, ye ken.”
“Aye. It's why they fear the Doctor.” The younger face clouded. “I can hear Her,” he breathed out. “I thought it were the birds!”
“She sings with the birds,” Jamie reminded him. “Be patient. She'll teach ye all ye need tae know about living here and keeping the Paths.”
“Keeping the Paths?”
“Aye. Someone has to keep an eye on things...patch up mistakes...set the lost back to the right paths...and make sure the Soft Places aren't being abused. We're not the only ones out there.”
“That makes sense...but...But what o' ye?” Those bright, snapping hazel eyes gleamed. “What will happen tae ye?”
“It's my Time, laddie. The Crucial Hour is here....one hour left on this world and I must go to the next.” Jamie spread his fingers out, and the sun glimmered once in the mist before them. “The Doctor is on the other side of the Marsh. He needs me.”
Wonder crossed Younger Jamie's face. “Ye'r truly me.” He breathed. “I learn to Walk Between the Worlds, sae I can be wi' him again.”
“Aye, and with precious little Time to spare. He'll be a bit reckless without our level head to keep him grounded tae earth.” Jamie swallowed hard. “I left all my books in the chest, my journals. Tomorrow is Martinmass Proper. Ye'll be able to cross and visit Avalon then. The Brigadier's over there, he and his wife.” Jamie grinned. “And tell him I've still got all his good advice in my head, would you?”
His younger self was already changing. The Marsh Song was clearer now, wilder and sweet. In that music world after world hung on a delicate chain of melody and poetry—delicate and yet indestructible. A glow sparkled in his face, dropping years off his careworn gaze, and hope stirred.
“How many?” He breathed. “How many of us are out there, waiting for our Doctors?”
“Well that depends.” Jamie laughed. “On how many Doctors are out there?” He rapped the boy on his shoulder. “There are as many of us as there are o' him, maybe even more. I can't keep track o' them all. Decided tae stop counting after the twelfth version stopped by. They all come here in the end...from one way or another...some stay a bit, some stay along time. But we all leave when it's time to rejoin him.” Jamie shrugged his shoulders, which were thicker with age but still powerful.
“What happened to cause this?” Young Jamie stared unblinking into the Mist. “Why us?”
“Remember what the Doctor taught ye the very first day he said he'd be your teacher?” Jamie asked.
“For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction.” Jamie nodded cautiously. “He said that was the first lesson for the day and all I needed to know until tomorrow."
“Well, what the Time Lords did was an action—and a bad one. A balance had tae be made. And we,” Jamie reached down, and pulled his traveling bag over his shoulder. “Are the equal and opposite reaction.”
Comprehension dawned on the other, swiftly followed by a delighted crow. “Och, they'll be angry!”
“No less than what they deserve for meddling!” Jamie smashed his fist into his palm with a clap. “Good luck to ye! I'll hold up my end o' things.”
“Ye'd better. I'm you, you scamp. If you miss your learning, it'll be me that feels it!” Jamie rapped the boards of the crannog with his walking-stick. “Enough peat to get ye through the winter, and don't fret if ye get caught outside the Marsh—it happens! Just a matter of waiting for the next Moment to get back. Listen to her,” he added, swinging his fingers around the curling mists. “She'll tell ye everything ye need tae know—and the wise men of Avalon will help ye out until ye can stand on your own feet.”
Younger Jamie nodded quickly. “Ye'd best go,” he cautioned. “He was in a bad state when we parted ways three days ago.”
“I'm hurrying.” Jamie promised softly. “The Marsh will lead me to him where I'm needed the most.” He tilted his head to one side as a sudden thought struck him.
“Oh. Whatever ye do, watch out when ye're walking around Scotland in the dead of night,” he warned.
“It seems we're the Phantom Piper, Lad...but we'll just let you experience that for yourself...”
“Och.” Younger Jamie shook his head. “Go on, then. He needs ye.”
“I'm going, you young scamp...”
The Piper stepped across the wooden boards, feeling them rock over the surface of the water.
He sang as he walked away from the crannog (he knew he would come back; he always did), singing a melody that was younger than himself, but still considered old.
It was a song the Doctor loved to play on his recorder, because the long, rolling notes made them both content.
Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that's born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.
Behind him Younger Jamie had found his pipes hanging on the wall and; Jamie didn't look back as he sang, but he was grinning from ear to ear as the music flowed through Reality.
Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
Thunderclouds rend the air;
Baffled, our foes stand by the shore,
Follow they will not dare.
Though the waves leap, so soft shall ye sleep,
Ocean's a royal bed.
Rocked in the deep, Flora will keep
Watch by your weary head.
Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say could that lad be I.
Merry of soul, he sailed on a day,
Over the sea to Skye.
Mull was astern, Rùm to the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow.
Glory of youth glowed in his soul,
Where is that glory now?
Speed bonny boat like a bird on a wing,
Onward the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that's born to be King,
Over the sea to Skye.
The Pipes had all but melted out of his hearing; the Mist was a white, thick wall—what the Doctor called the Dimensional Wall. On the other side was his destiny.
He switched the lyrics to a newfangled hymn; grateful that the music existed in so many different forms.
Spirit of God, unseen as the wind,
Gentle as is the dove;
Touch us with love and teach us to sing
Joy to you Lord above.
Your voice the sound, heard in the wind,
O'er fields and hills you sing;
Now I can hear the joy, my Lord,
the peace your song will bring.
Jamie's heart quickened. A third song was emerging through the mist.
A song from a humble, simple wooden toy.
It was a recorder.
He turned his face to the tune, and stepped through.