Midwinter’s eve, and the fire burned high. Food had been shared, and beer, and for once the sheep were unguarded, the fire and songs thought to be enough to dissuade the wolves. We sat with Fél and Kaisa and Aetyl, and beside me Audo and his three dogs. His brindle bitch, who had taken a liking to me, lay with her head on my feet.

Kaisa had instructed me in the expectations for tonight: come newly washed and in clean clothes, and bring something to give to the fire. The more precious, the better. The sun must be honoured, she said.

I had struggled to find something to bring. Audo sat with an ermine skin on his lap, his gift to the sun. My most precious possession was Colm’s history of the Empire, and I certainly wasn’t sacrificing that. Cillian had devised a solution for himself: a poem, written on a small piece of his carefully rationed paper. In the end, I gave an arrow, one of the small ones from the bird bow that had kept us fed on our journey across the mountains.

One by one, people rose to throw their offering to the fire, the men first. When they were finished, the women gave their gifts, and finally, me. Drumbeats had sounded throughout, and now the men began to sing. Audo, on one side of me, growled the words, not keeping time, but Cillian sang true. When did he learn the words? His singing voice was light, but clearly trained: Dagney’s hand there, I thought.

Aivar rose as the song ended. Everyone quieted. The two boys who became men tonight stepped forward. They both looked tired and a little disoriented: I guessed they had fasted for at least a day. There had been rituals earlier for them, attended only by the village men.

In any other year they would now just be presented to the village as men, but I had something to do, first. Aivar, leaning on his stick, called my name. He and I had spoken a few days earlier about what I should do.

“This village has never had a devanī,” he told me, “but others have. I remember what their vēsturni told me. A blessing from you is all I ask. Will you do that?”

I told him what Cillian and I had discussed. “Very good,” he said.

I rose, the two arrows in my hand, walking to where the two boys waited. At a word from Aivar they both knelt. I kissed each boy on his forehead and placed an arrow in each waiting hand. “The huntress guides your hand,” I told them as I did. Aivar had chosen those words.

The devanī should give her blessing to us all for the new year,” Ivor shouted, as I turned to leave. Other voices joined his. I thought I heard Gret’s among them. Aivar raised his hand.

“We…” He began to cough, a deep, racking cough. He tried again. “We do not ask for what we do not need,” he rasped. “Our men hunt well. If we need the devanī to give luck to a hunt, she will give it at the time. Do not waste the gift.”

Aivar’s edicts could not be disputed. Ivor and his friends quieted. The drumbeats began again, and this time women began to sing, and a few to dance. More beer made the rounds, Cillian, as usual, refusing. In the northern sky, green lights flickered; shadows rose and fell in the firelight. Fél wrapped a fur around himself and Kaisa, holding her against him. “Keep Lena warm,” he told Cillian, “or she’ll have to cuddle Audo, or his dog.” I glanced at Cillian. We had never touched in public.

“Then I better,” he said. I moved close, tucking the fur around us, leaning into him. We listened to the drums.

Ivor walked by, dressed only in a light tunic, spurning the cold. The empty mug in his hand told me what he searched for. He gave us a scornful look. “Devanī,” he said. “Why waste yourself on this man?” One of Audo’s dogs snarled. “Incapable vēsturni and idiots,” Ivor spat. “I will show you what a real man is one day.” He kept walking.

“Be careful of him, Lena,” Fél warned.

“I am,” I assured him. The drumbeats continued, faster; the dancing grew wilder. Under the fur, Cillian’s hand began a gentle caress.

“Shall we go to our bed?” he murmured.

We rose. Fél looked up. “Sleep well,” he said, “when you finally remember to sleep, that is.” Kaisa laughed. “Can we send Aetyl to sleep with her cousins?” I heard him say to her, as we left.

In our hut the fire had burned to coals. Cillian added wood. “Do you need to make tea?”

“I did, earlier.” My mouth was dry. I dropped the fur on the bed. We regarded each other across the space, in the light of the newly blazing fire. “It is a new year,” I said softly. “Don’t you have a fancy to fulfill?”

He crossed the room to me, beginning to smile; not his usual, quickly-gone smile, but one slow and genuine, lighting his whole face. My breath caught. He looks so much younger, I thought, and so beautiful. I saw tenderness in this smile, and vulnerability. He took me in his arms. I raised a hand to his face.

“This is something I haven’t seen before,” I murmured. “Why have you kept such a beautiful smile hidden?”

He turned his head to kiss my fingers. “My one legacy from my mother, I am told,” he said. “As to why, it is just reticence, Lena, like much else about me, long habit.” He bent to kiss me, a long, exploratory kiss. “Perhaps I will have more reason to let it show after tonight.”

I didn’t need to damp down desire now. My hands, low on his back, found his skin. I pulled him closer. Part of my mind noted the ridges of a scar under my fingers, but it wasn’t important. Nothing was, except his lips on mine and his hands, under my tunic now, making me gasp.

“You are very sure?” he asked, his voice low and barely controlled. “Tell me now, if you are not.”

“Yes.” I fought to speak. “Are you?”

“I am.” His mouth came down again, demanding now, insistent. How long has it been for him? I wondered, before I gave myself up to my need, and his. He hesitated once, just for a moment, and then there were only lips and hands and cresting pleasure, and unexpectedly, tears that were not mine.

(c) 2018 Marian L Thorpe

Image: geralt / 23743 images

The Breccaith

For midwinter, 2021, this excerpt from Empire’s Daughter

Tonight, there would be some merriment at the junior commons, Midwinter’s Eve being a traditional time of fun and feasting. I thought about the games and song and food I would miss tonight in the meeting hall at Tirvan. Even the littlest babies came, and toddlers fell asleep on benches or the floor as the night progressed. Traditionally we stayed awake long into the night, sleeping late the next day.

Finally, I went back to my tent to nap. I slept fitfully and lightly, disturbed by dreams. When I awoke, it was dark. I washed my face and brushed my hair, then walked through the rows of tents. Already the camp seemed noisier than usual with voices raised in song and laughter. Inside, the junior commons smelled wonderfully of food. Gulian, seeing me come in, poured a cup of something and handed it to me. It steamed, smelling of spices. I sipped carefully, tasting cider.

We ate roast pig and goose with winter vegetables, followed by nuts and dried fruits. Spirits ran high. “I’d rather be me than the Emperor, tonight,” Finn shouted in my ear at one point. “He has to entertain the governor of Leste. It’ll be all protocol and politeness, there.”

After we had eaten, the stewards and some of the officers moved the tables back, leaving a clear space in the centre of the tent. Instruments—an elbow pipe among them—squeaked and moaned in discord while their players tuned them, and then a lively, irresistible jig began.

I let myself be pulled onto the dance floor. The dance had steps, and I worked them out after a minute or two—a pattern of back and forth, meetings and partings. No one minded my missteps, and when that dance ended and another began, I kept dancing.

Later, hot and sweaty and thirsty, I stood beside Finn when the pipes changed their tone to something low and mournful. The tent fell silent. One man stood alone on the floor. When the drummer began a low, slow beat, he began to dance, slowly and formally, his hands raised, his fingers gesturing. I did not understand what I saw, but my throat tightened.

“What is it?” I whispered to Finn.

“The Breccaith,” he whispered back. “It is always danced this night, and at Midsummer, to remember those who will never feast with us again.”

I watched the dance, and the faces of the men I could see in the firelight. Some shed unabashed tears. The stewards moved silently among us with trays bearing filled cups. Finn handed me one, indicating with his fingers not to drink. The music slowed, and the drumbeats ended. On a last wail of the pipes, the dancer sank to the ground.

In the silence that followed, Finn raised his cup. “To our fallen brothers.”

“To our brothers,” the tent echoed.

“And sisters,” I said quietly, drinking the toast. The dancer stood to join his friends, and the music began again, now softer, less insistent. The men danced in pairs or small groups. Finn touched my shoulder.

“Will you dance with me?”

We moved onto the dance floor. He took my hands, showing me the steps.

“You dance well.”

“I was taught by a woman from Karst,” I said, remembering the lessons on the playing field at Tirvan, all those long months ago.

“The one who was killed?”

“You remembered.”

“We’re trained to,” he said simply. “Every man, every officer. And not just to send the messages back to the women’s villages or to brothers or sons in other regiments, but so their lives and deaths are not without meaning. It is what an officer must do. We live our lives to honour those who died.”

 I wanted to point out that I wasn’t an officer, but I stopped myself. I had been one when Tice died, and Finn thought of me as such.

The dance ended and another began. Finn guided me through the first steps again, his hands warm around mine. We had just repeated the steps again when another man, one I did not know, came up behind Finn.

“Don’t keep her all to yourself. My turn, now.”

“Josan, you’re drunk,” Finn said shortly.

“No matter. She’s the only woman here. You don’t get her all night.”

“I am not dancing with you,” I said. “I don’t know you, and I don’t want to. I’m dancing with Finn.”

“More’n dancing, too, I’ll bet,” Josan said. He lunged forward, grabbing at my breasts. I took a step back. Finn took Josan by the arm.

“Leave us be.” Others had stopped dancing now to watch.

“I outrank you,” Josan growled, pulling free of Finn’s grip. He lunged at me again. Without thinking, I pivoted, ducked, and came up under his outstretched arm to punch him hard in the stomach. He doubled over. I shoved him hard. He fell and lay groaning.

A round of applause made me look up. “Well done!” Galdor called. I stood panting a minute. Josan moaned again, pushing himself up. Suddenly he vomited, to the groans of the men nearest.

“Come,” Finn said, pulling me away, back to the tables. He found me wine, and I sat on the bench.

“I think,” Finn said, looking at me with respect, “Josan is lucky you did not have a knife.”

I took a mouthful of the wine. “He is lucky. I didn’t even stop to think.”

Finn nodded. “He isn’t a bad officer except when he’s been drinking, and then, well, you saw what he’s like. Are you all right?”

I nodded. “I am. But, Finn, do others think that you and I—?”

He shrugged. “I doubt it.” He hesitated. “I’m not a man for women, Lena, and most here know that. Even Josan knows that when he’s sober enough to think.”

“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t realize—”

“Why would you?” The music had started again, but this time without the elbow pipes, just the drum and stringed instruments. Someone began to sing. “Shall we join the singing? It’s good fun.”

“Yes,” I said, “let’s.”

The commons still rang with song—somewhat off-key—when I excused myself and left. The watch had changed an hour ago. The newly off-duty junior officers had appeared at the commons, wanting food and drink, determined to make up for the four hours they had missed. We had all eaten again and joined them in more toasts. I was beyond satiated, and more than somewhat drunk. At my tent, I stripped off my outer clothes, falling onto my camp bed, my head spinning. I heard a voice coming from the camp, young and true, raised in solo song:

The swallows gather, summer passes,

The grapes hang dark and sweet;

Heavy are the vines

Heavy is my heart

Endless is the road beneath my feet.

Entertainment to Our Mind

This vignette was a ‘slain darling’ from Empire’s Reckoning, first published in my newsletter, but I thought I’d share its conceit with a wider audience. And since no one knows who wrote the 9th century poem  Pangur Bán, why not my character Cillian?

“Lord Sorley?”  Mhairi called to me as I crossed the hall, returning from a morning’s ride. A rest day, nominally, but without teaching responsibilities I’d used the time to inspect fields and ditches, looking for winter damage. “Could you take the Comiádh his tea?”
“As long as you add a mug for me,” I said.
She brought me the tray, the scent of rosehips rising from the pot. “Thank you. I have milk heating, and I should not leave it.” 
I pushed open the door to the annex with my foot, carrying the tray along the hall. The door to Cillian’s library stood ajar, and I could see he was writing. He looked up at my footsteps, smiling a welcome. Curled up on pile of papers on his right, his white cat slept.
The kitten had been presented to Druise, the year Gwenna left for cadet school at the White Fort. ‘A kitten so you miss your Kitten less,’ Lena had said. He’d taken the little thing in his big hands, smiling at its loud purr, but in the end it had been Cillian it had adopted, not Druise. Privately, I’d been glad: over the years, we’d amassed a collection of Casilani glass, bowls and jugs. The havoc a kitten could have wreaked didn’t bear thinking about.
Cillian put his pen down and stretched. I poured us both tea and sat in the other chair. “You’ve been out,” he said. “I can smell the fresh air and sunshine on you.”
“More likely the mud on my boots,” I said. “A fair bit of ditching to do this spring.” I glanced at the paper in front of him. “What are you writing?” It didn’t look like a lesson, or the history he’d been working on for years. “A poem? Who are you translating now?”
“Not a translation,” he said. He looked, I thought, nearly embarrassed. I grinned at his discomfiture.
“Original verse? Isn’t that my job?” I held out a hand. “Shall I judge your scáeli’s skills?”
He hesitated, reaching for the paper as if to move it away from my grasp. I raised an eyebrow. “I can’t read it? Are you writing love poetry to Lena now, after all these years?”
His startled look made me laugh. “You wouldn’t even think of it, would you?” I wrote the songs of love in this household, and they weren’t to Lena. Reluctantly, he handed me the paper. I scanned the first line and stopped. He’d picked up his cup and was sipping the tea, watching me. “You wrote a poem to the cat?” I asked.
“Not to the cat,” he said. “A comparison, of how his skills parallel mine: we are both hunters, in a way. An analysis, you might say. Read on, my lord Sorley.”
A few minutes later I handed him back his poem. “Better far than praise of men, it is to sit with book and pen”, I said, quoting his own words back to him. “You know yourself well, mo duíne gràhadh. But has Pangur here ever actually killed a mouse? I thought him too well fed for that.”
He stroked the cat. It raised its head, blinking, mewed, and settled back into sleep. “Nightly,” Cillian said. “He has a rather unfortunate tendency to bring them to me, dead or alive. Watching him hunt the ones he brings in alive was the source of the comparison.”
“Shall I write music for it?”
He chuckled. “No. It was only to see if I could make the argument stand, and in verse. An exercise, nothing more. It is not worth your time, nor likely mine. A diversion from the history that is my real work.”

The 9th C Reichenau Primer, written by an Irish monk, likely at Reichenau Abbey in Germany. It includes the poem Pangur Bán. 


But eleven centuries later, the poem Pangur Bán is still known; is, in fact, often called the best-known Irish poem. Written (in Irish) by an unknown monk in the 9th Century, I have taken the liberty of giving its authorship to Cillian. Here is its best known translation, by the Irish scholar Robin Flowers (although I prefer this one by Seamus Heaney, and somehow think it is closer to what Cillian might have written).

I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.
‘Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.
‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.
When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!
So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

Reichenau Primer photo: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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A Slain Darling, Resurrected

This scene didn’t make it into the final version of Empire’s Reckoning, mostly because the book was already long, and while this added to character- and world-building, it didn’t feed the plot. But I awoke to snow today, and was reminded of it, so here it is. If you’re in the middle of the Empire’s Legacy trilogy, there are spoilers here.

Teannasach, may I go?” I asked formally. He stepped forward, offering an arm and the kiss of farewell. Our lips brushed for the briefest of moments. I wondered if knowing what I was made him uncomfortable, but if it did, he did not show it.

“Go safely, Lord Sorley,” he said. I swung up onto my horse and turned its head south.

I’d woken with a scratchy throat, but we’d talked and sung into the small hours, so I thought little of it. But as I rode through the morning, I reluctantly admitted to a cold. My throat was painfully sore now, and my nose alternately running and blocked.

Ingoldstorp was some distance away yet, but they would give me soup and fuisce, and a warm bed, and perhaps a night’s sleep would chase the illness away. I found my hat in the saddlebags and wrapped my scarf a little tighter around my neck. The day was getting colder, I was sure.

An hour later the snow began. Big flakes, wet and heavy, at first: then, when the wind picked up, smaller and denser. The world around me turned white, and still the snow fell, thick and fast and rapidly shrinking the visible world to no more than a few arms’ lengths in front of me. I started to shiver. I couldn’t see the road now; all I could do was trust my horse to seek shelter.

I let the reins lie slack. The gelding plodded steadily forward, its head low against the wind. My fingers were numb, and my toes. The snow stung the exposed skin of my face. I closed my eyes. 

Random thoughts: lambs would die in this. Had I wrapped my ladhar properly? Druise would be so angry with me. I drifted into a daze, time and the white world passing without sense or recognition.

My horse roused me, swinging his head and snorting. I looked around me, slowly realizing we stood in the lee of a building. I pushed myself up in the stirrups, my right leg dragging over the saddle as I dismounted, feet sinking into snow well over my ankles.

I fumbled along the wall of the building, looking for a door. I found one, but its latch resisted my stiff fingers. Swearing loudly, I pulled a glove off with my teeth and tried again. The horse pushed up against me, wanting cover.

On the fourth try I got the latch and the door open. I stumbled in, the horse following. A cattle byre, I could tell, from the smell and the heat, although almost no light found its way into the building. A cow lowed, and another. Probably the torp’s milk cows, I thought muzzily. I hoped so.

My hands were too cold to remove my horse’s bridle, or its saddle, even with both hands bare. He stood placidly enough, so I left him, moving towards the cattle. A warm, heavy body loomed in front of me. I put a hand on its side; it didn’t flinch. Slowly I moved around it until I was among the cows. I leaned up against one, almost hugging it. Apart from a flick of her tail, she didn’t object. Milk cows, as I had hoped, accustomed to being handled.

The heat radiating off the animals warmed me, even though the strong smell of urine in the byre made my eyes water. I would stink of cow, I thought, but I didn’t care. The cattle chewed and belched and shuffled, and one nosed me, its hot breath scented with hay. I’d never liked cattle much, before.

Warmed, I went back to my horse, removing his tack. He’d find hay and water, although the cows might kick him. By feel I found the bread and cheese in one saddlebag. Then I sat down to eat and wait.

The food tore at my sore throat, but I made myself swallow it, in small mouthfuls. I sat as close to the cattle as I safely could, and at some point, exhausted, I fell asleep.

A man’s voice woke me. Concerned, not angry: no torp or house would turn away a traveller in this weather. He knelt. “Are you well?”

I tried to speak, coughed instead. “Well enough,” I managed. “My horse brought me here. Where am I?”

“Ingoldstorp. Who are you?”

“Sorley.” A bout of coughing racked me. “Toscaire to the young Teannasach. I was riding south from Dun Ceànnar.”

“Well, sit quiet while I give hay to the kyne and your horse. I’ll take you up to the house, after.”

He was quick with the feeding. Then he piled the water trough high with snow, the byre door letting in blasts of cold as he went back and forth. It would melt soon enough from the animals’ body heat. Then he gave me a hand up, threw my saddlebags over his own shoulder, and took me to the house.

Winter Sheep Herd: Scott Payne, Pixabay

The snow and my cold ran their course together. Ingold—or rather his Konë—distractedly welcomed me, found me a bath and a bed, fed me, and sat me by the fire when I coughed. I had been lucky: I could well have died, had my horse not brought me to the cattle-byre. But my cold remained only a cold, preventing me from singing to repay my hosts’ hospitality, nothing more.

Not that the Eirën was often present. Ingold, a handful of years older than I, spent all the daylight hours out with his men and the sheepdogs, digging ewes and lambs out of drifts. I offered to help, but he refused. “I don’t doubt your skill with sheep, Sorley,” he said. “But you’ve work to do for the young Teannasach, and that can’t be risked.” So instead I fed the penned and stabled animals, and warmed half-dead lambs by the hearth of the house, with the Konë and the torpari women.

The weather changed on the fifth day, the wind shifting south, warm on the skin. Snow melted rapidly, turning the yard and the track to muck. “I’ll turn the sheep out in the morning,” Ingold told me, as we shared fuisce that night. I had played for them earlier; I couldn’t sing, but music of any sort was always welcomed. “You’ll be on your way, no doubt?”

“I will. If this weather reached south, the Casilani ships will have been delayed, but if not, they could be in harbour already. I have letters to go to Casil, from Ruar and the Raséair, and I must stop at the Ti’ach na Perras on the way.”

I had been gone well over two weeks. Ingold sipped his fuisce. “What are they like, these Casilani?” he asked.

“Wily. Sophisticated, and skilled with words and subtlety. At least the officials. The soldiers,” I shrugged, thinking of Druise, “are not so different from any men.”

“You’ll need all your wits about you, if you’re to ensure they treat us fairly,” he commented. “But the same was needed with the Marai. I suppose it’s no different. But we’ll be hard-pressed to pay tribute this year.”  The talk drifted to the effect of this unseasonal snow, and how many lambs had been lost. “We’ll have been better off than most,” Ingold said. “I had enough men to rescue most of them. Some of the torps will have lost almost all, I’d think.”

“Why did the Marai leave you alone?” Had he supported them?

He snorted. “I’m a practical man, Sorley. I sent my wife and children to Dun Ceànnar, and then I went too, but later. I told the torpari I’d gone south to fight at the Wall, for the Marai, and I left them orders to cooperate. We lost a lot of animals to feed the raiders. There’s some pale-haired babies born this year, and they took a few girls, and a boy or two, as slaves, but they didn’t burn the byres, or the cottages. A small price to pay for our lives, I’d say.”

I couldn’t argue. I toasted him silently, and he grinned and drank his fuisce down. “Bedtime,” he said. “I’ll be out at dawn tomorrow, so I’ll say goodbye now. Safe travels, Sorley.”

(c) 2020 Marian L Thorpe

Featured Image: Beneath The Snow Encumbered Branches, Joseph Farquharson. Public Domain

Sit back, put your feet up, and listen…

A writer, releasing her work into the world, gives her characters over to the readers. We have our own idea of their personalities, their appearance, their voices, but what we see and hear will not be what the reader sees and hears.

But an audio version of your work – that’s an interpretation of your characters that extends out to others, a shared experience. I’ve had other work read before on podcasts, but Benjamin Kelman’s reading of the first chapter of my novella Oraiáphon surpassed them. He has given his own versions of personality to my characters, surprising me with some, but in the end completely pleasing me.

Here’s the link. You’ll need about half an hour, but please, listen to his other readings too on Stories to Drive By. You won’t be disappointed.

The Power of Illustration

I’m working on a little stand-alone ‘chapbook’ of my short story, In an Absent Dream. It will be illustrated with black & white drawings by the artist Duy Trinh, who is capturing the setting and feel of the story with great skill.  Publication date is still to be announced, but here’s a preview of one of the illustrations, with the passage from the short story that inspired it.


“It’s just this world, these streets, these fields…but it’s overlain with roads and paths and occasionally buildings that don’t exist in the world under the sun. It’s like they hover over (or under) the solidity of the everyday world, taking shape and substance only when someone – me – enters them.”

“In An Absent Dream” is published in the small collection Spinnings available as an ebook ….or you can wait for the chapbook to have a hauntingly illustrated paperback!


Day 2 Hallowe’en Book Giveaway!

Spinnings Final Cover“I had to find reasons to return, to walk the old city, to keep the faerie paths clear…”                                                    In An Absent Dream

“I could see that from each bone, each skull, a fine thread ran, attaching it to the next, and
the next, creating a cat’s cradle that gathered more and more threads as they ran towards and disappeared into the alcoves.”                                                                                      The Spider’s Spinning  

Five Star rated on Goodreads and  Amazon.  Free for Hallowe’en weekend in all Amazon markets…stories just right for reading on Hallowe’en night! Read on your Kindle, or your Kindle app for iOS or Android.

Shivers up my Spine

You’re a writer. You write something – a short story, say; you think it’s good. Other people read it; you read it out loud at a couple of open mic nights. People like it.

But hearing it read by someone else, someone who is a really really good reader, is a whole new experience.bssh

Bob Daun at Bob’s Short Story Hour reads my short story A Spider’s Spinning so well, it sent shivers up my spine. (Which it is supposed to do – it’s a scary story – but I didn’t expect to have that reaction, given I’d written it.)

Got 10 minutes or so? Click on the link above and listen, while you’re cooking dinner or folding laundry or just sitting back with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Not just to my story, but to the music and other readings on this episode. You won’t be disappointed.