Shadow of Doubt

Shadow of Doubt

samhainsidhewyvern

I reached out and caught the leaf drifting down from the branches. A true masterpiece on a once living canvas. Red tips blazed at the end of the brilliant yellow center. The shrill cry of a sidh-wyvern caught my ear. I glanced up into the shivering autumn leaves and spied her unusual markings.

“What are you looking at, Ealaidh?” Seirm, my bard-in-training charge, flicked his stoat ears in the direction I was gazing.

I ruffled his headfur. “Tis the turning of summer to autumn. Surely you know about the lords of the seasons.”

He chuckled and flared out his short tail. “Of course I know the myth.”

“Myth?” Raising an eyebrow I cocked my head. “Surely you mean myths?”

He stared at me blankly.

“By the multitude of gods, what lazy tailed bard taught you? Oh never mind, it doesn’t matter. Sit. Learn as you should have been taught.” We settled on a fallen log dappled with lichen. The earthy scent filled my nostrils, that damp odor of deceased plants returning to the dirt that gave rise to it. Cycles.

“Seirm, my young bard—”

“I’m seventy-three.”

“My young bard.” I eyed him back into silence. “The seasons did not always turn. Ages ago, not long after the first tribes began the tell of time through Taliesin’s gift of music, Cernunnos turned to Io’s children. The earth had grown weary of supporting constant abundance. So in his great wisdom Cernunnos selected four special sidh-wyverns and gifted them with the power over the weather.”

“Yes. Everyone has heard the legends. But how can something so tiny effect the whole climate? They’re the size of hawks, that’s ridiculous.”

“You are not alone in thinking so. When first they were gifted, one of them suffered greatly under the burden of her task, even into the second year.”

The summer sun cast Muthadh’s shadow long as she stretched her scalloped wings over the hillside amongst the ghosts of shivering leaves. The hawk-sized sidh-wyvern let her translucent back frill tuck in tight as she wrapped her tail around her. Purple and orange scales hardly hid her among the ash tree’s bright green. She closed her eyes and shuddered.

“We are dragon-kin.” She swallowed, hugging the swaying branch with her clawed wings. “What a shameful jest. What am I compared to my larger cousins? A wisp to be blown on the wind?”

A distant cry shattered the air, Muthadh held her breath and spread out her wings prepared to bolt. But for what? She knew that boastful shriek, as did any who roamed the wood in the grip of summer. Luisreadh, the sidh-wyvern whose magic reigned over the season of prosperity. It was his breath that opened the flowers faces to the sun. The current of his wings that spread their pollen through the glades. His cry that summoned the heat of the blazing sun down on the earth.

Muthadh had woken. Luisreadh’s season … was supposed to be ending. Her claws gripped the branch as her eyes locked on her silhouette spilling on the ground. Thin, wiry, substanceless. She whimpered at her shadow of doubt. Green leaves buffeted her. Leaves that were her task to paint as vibrantly as Luisreadh painted the flowers. A warm breeze blew through the wood. Winds that were her task to whip into gales and strip the growth away. The sun winked through the canopy. The same sun it was her task to pull lower into the sky to let land to rest, if she could but summon the courage.

Memories of last year’s attempt paralyzed her. Last year … in what was to be the first turn of the seasons. She bowed her head and whimpered at her failure.

Autumn’s first day was today … and its bringer clung to the branch like a stubborn leaf. When she had opened her eyes on this day and seen the beauty Luisreadh had spread throughout the land, a lump grew in her throat. How could she wilt his beloved blooms? How could she rot this vibrant land? How could she possibly outshine the splendor of the sidh-wyvern of summer?

She spied him winging into the trees, Luisreadh swept through the branches screeching out his pride at his own work. His bright green scales splotched with all the colors of the blooms. Bright rows of spikes lined his back as he undulated through his domain. The spark in his eye lanced Muthadh’s heart. He wasn’t ready to relinquish. For the second time, autumn could not possibly come.

Her shadow shivered up from below, cast over Luisreadh’s masterworks. The shadow mocked her, she swore she saw it narrowing its eyes and laughing up at her. Coward! It whispered. Uninspired fool. Yours is the season of death. Who would ever embrace you? It’s no wonder that no one even missed your failed contribution last year. Crawl into a tree hollow and cry like again! It’s all that is left to you.

She tucked her head beneath a wing and stifled a sob. The gleam of bright blue sparked before her. She opened her eyes to gaze upon on will-o-wisp floating in the folds of her wing. The morpheous sprite floated down to the tree limb, brushing against the bark. “Listen …”

Muthadh bent down and pressed her ear close to the limb.

“Listen …” The wisp evaporated.

weary … rest … The limbs spoke to her in creaks and groans.

She snapped up her head. “You … you would suffer if I did not take over for Luisreadh?”

weary …

“But, you don’t understand. I would be killing you.”

sleep, not death … through winter … spring reawakens … without rest—as if to show her a leaf crisped on the twig and fell to the ground.

“Have you told Luisreadh?”

yes … he bids us to sprout eternal … we are not the evergreen …

Her frill crept up to full, flowing in the breeze between her spines. She watched the reigner of summer soaring on his breeze, oblivious to the cries echoing in the wood. He remained ignorant to the needs of the land. A snarl parted her scaly muzzle. Turning to the shadow of her doubt on the ground she glared hard at it. “Your pointless weight will not ground me. I am the reigner of autumn! This season does not come without my bidding. It is time.” She stroked the tree limb with her wing. “The land needs sleep.”

Throwing her head back, Muthadh released her harsh rasp. Her wings spread and slammed down against the warm current. A cold, crisp bite followed and enveloped her in a spinning frenzy. The skies overhead darkened, leaden with heavy rain clouds as a thunderclap echoed through the valley.

“Luisreadh! Summer has come to a close, the harbinger of autumn has awakened. Bow down and surrender.” She hovered above the tree grove, rain pelting her scales.

A brightly mottled arrow of sidh-wyvern flesh shot up from the canopy. Luisreadh led with his talons and a piercing scream. “I am not finished! I will never fall to you!”

“Spirited words.” She snapped her wing and rose out of his way. Enthusiastic as always, Luisreadh overshot and struggled to pull around and face her. “You know this is how it must be. The land calls to you, but you ignore it. Heed its cries, let it rest.”

Hotheaded Luisreadh bared his fangs. “You challenge me for the mantle? I would have thought last year when I beat you into submission you would have learned. You are not worthy!”

She cringed, the scar on her wing still tugged. But the pain had another effect. She wouldn’t let him win again. Autumn must come, even if he refused to heed the cry of the land. Rising toward him in the growing gale littered with shredding leaves she beat her wings, arching her talons. The chill in the air faded his colors. Each beat of his wings lost power as she stole the mantle from him.

His face lined with shock a moment before she collided with him, entangling him with her talons. He struggled, only to blink up at her. Muthadh carried him lower into the canopy, heading toward his favorite oak tree. “What … what are you doing?” His voice was barely a whisper in her gale.

“Laying you to rest for the turn of the seasons.” She gently nestled him into the crook of the tree, nudging his tail in.

The defeated summer sidh-wyvern’s eyes already were closing where he would sleep three seasons through. “But … why … I beat you into the hillside last year … left you broken.”

She breathed onto the oak leaves and they turned a brilliant array of reds and golds. “I already beat one opponent today. What need have I to prove to another?” A ray of sunlight broke through the clouds casting Muthadh’s shadow against the oak tree. Luisreadh’s eyes blinked back open as the shadow cringed.

Muthadh spread her wings and shot into the heavens, riding the rising gale with each pulse. Beneath her the world turned from one brilliant palette of colors to another of true beauty. The beautiful palette of change as autumn fell upon the land for the first time.

Out of the canopy Muthadh soared, wreathed in will-o-wisps.

Seirm jolted as the sidh-wyvern shot in a tight spiral over our heads and up into the leaden skies.

Placing a paw on his shoulder, I chuckled. “First time you’ve seen a myth, lad? Been around the bard camp too long. Welcome to the real world where there are creatures who truly command their surroundings. Take care to mind them. Especially the harbinger that prepares the earth for the winter sleep … she bares death on her wings.”

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Natural Disorder

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Natural Disorder

We are taught that everything has its proper place. What a bundle of useless lies. Even the novice bard knows we live in a dynamic world. A dynamic world overseen by a pantheon of puerile gods, which is an epic tale of its own accord. Don’t get me started.

The day I first glimpsed the chaos of life dwells within me as an ever present reminder that even nature bickers about the best approach. I was but a neophyte whelp, within the second turn of the seasons under the tutelage of Master Bard Ais in the shire of Coarrunn. And did I have much to learn!

I held up my paw and peered between my fingers into the velvet darkness. The sky sparkled like an endless lake. The sun had winked out and the stars awakened to play.

Darach, the badger, knelt beside me, his oak staff in paw as he grinned. “Well if it isn’t the wee bard-in-training, Ealaidh.” He being a high level druid meant he was privy to my true name. “And what has captivated her attention so?”

I sucked on my claw, still staring at the sky. The birdsong had gone silent as the old druid awaited my reply. “Shh. The sun is taking a nap.”

Darach chuckled and ruffled my head fur. “Ahh, so that tis what you think is the matter. Close. Now, you being a bard love to tell stories. Would it be alright if this old brucach told you one?”

I nodded, barely able to tear my eyes from the odd sky. Darach gathered his robes and sat down on a fallen oak branch. “The sun watches o’er the day. The moon o’er the night. Least that’s how the gods designed it. But not everything wishes to remain in its natural place. Heed me well, little bard. For that tis the way of the world!” His voice faded as the tale filled my ears.

For eons untold the sun and moon remained in their rightful places. The moon watched over the peaceful nights in the company of countless stars sparkling in the heavens. Throughout the day the bright sun journeyed ever on the same path. All was as the gods had deemed it.

Each day the sun rose always in the east and journeyed to the west, without fail. But in time the moon danced to a different rhythm, unbound by the path it appeared at various heights and angles throughout the seasons.

One day when the moon shown faintly in the azure sky the sun remarked, “The day is my time, why don’t you appear when the night descends?”

The moon didn’t flinch. “The sky is large enough for the two of us.”

“But the night belongs to you. Your light is too weak to shine in my brightness.”

“There is more to me than light. For when the earth sees but a sliver of me does not the rest of me remain?”

The sun fell silent for a time before answering, “The earth will never see you by day.”

The moon smiled and shifted, edging toward the sun. Inch by inch the moon came closer, overlapping the bright sun.

“What are you doing?” cried the sun.

All around the sky grew darker. Twilight descended as the moon reduced the sun’s light to a pale ring. The denizens of the earth all gazed into the starry heavens confused by the untimely night. Among them a Shetland unicorn pranced and neighed, frolicking in the unusual light.

The moon smiled on her and cast down her rays painting the unicorn in nightshade and dappling her with stars, a reward for the gaze.

 

Moondancer

Point proven, the moon shifted, slowly revealing the sun once more.

Silence reigned until most of the daylight had been restored.

The moon grinned. “So, none shall see me? It appears all saw me by your very light, dear sun. You provided me with the means, and I thank you.”

The sun could only remain locked on the path in the arc of the sky. “You have shamed me.”

“You had dared me. Ask not what you do not wish to be seen, for even the faintest light can hold the will to shine brighter, and the means to do so, borrowed though it may be.”

“And so, Ealaidh, every so often the moon dances in front of the sun as a reminder that great as we may be, we share this world with others.” Darach gazed up at the lightening heavens, daylight was returning.

My ear flicked at the sound of hoofbeats. Down in the valley a nightshaded unicorn reared in the waned light, the stars shimmering on her black, blue, and purple coat. Her joy spread to me on the very wind. Cocking my head I asked curiously, “Darach, are we suns or moons?”

“We are sometimes one and sometimes the other. There are times when our path is laid and there is naught we can do to step from it. The known path makes us sure and often proud” He gestured to the unicorn. “There are times when we are dancers braving our own spin on life, but that spin involves others for us to be seen. Such as a creature of day turned to night. We, like the sun, are reminded to be humble and to share.”

The daylight gradually grew stronger. I spun on my paws giggling and chanting, “I am the mighty moon! I am the mighty moon! I block out the sun and bring night to day!” The unicorn paused and turned her head my way. She neighed and pawed the earth with a hoof before throwing her mane to the sky.

Darach shook his head with a chuckle. “You, Ealaidh, are indeed a moon. There is no path on this earth that can hold you.”

Bridging Seasons

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Bridging Seasons

Something pressed against my arm. I jerked awake with the rude realization I must have nodded off. A whelp tugged on my tunic sleeve. “Gorach, can I ask you a question?”

I squeaked a yawn and stretched. A wild breeze scattered a rainbow of flower petals in the sunlight-dappled clearing. A shift of my footpaws in the patch of clover disrupted several swallowtail butterflies. After I followed their wayward path, I glanced down into the curious bear cubs eyes. “I will answer if I can.”

He rocked back and forth on his footpaws. “But you’re a bard. You know everything.”

I ruffled his headfur, a smile wrinkled his muzzle in response. “Flattery is sweet, but never let any bard tell you such nonsense. That all-knowing is useless pander.” This reminder of my station in the world seemed an ironic consequence of my unscheduled nap. A quick glance over the clearing revealed the Slan whelp’s kin tending to some bee hives. “Now, what would you like to know?”

“Well, why is it that winter and spring and … and autumn are such harsh changes, but spring into summer seems so easy?”

“Perceptive, aren’t we. And a fair question that holds quite the story. You chose the right bard for your query.”

“I did?” When I patted the ground he sat down.

Waving a paw to the forest, I smiled. “This very turn of the spring to summer I witnessed the two lords of the seasons. Their relationship is unique among the four. Would you like to hear about Cinnich and Luisreadh?” The whelp nodded. “Have you ever glimpsed the sidh-wyverns who bring the turnings?” To this he shook his head. I pointed to the colorful little sidh-wyverns flitting about the trees in their mischievous ways. “Each season is brought on by one specific sidh-wyvern. Unlike the common ones you see here, these four are only awake during their season. They only cross paths at the time of the turnings. Muthadh of the autumn wilts the splendor of Luisreadh’s summer. Rhew buries Muthadh’s colorful palette. Cinnich wakens to melt away the blankets of snow brought on by Rhew. As with many things in nature, it is a cycle. However, one change is unique … and this is the story.”

Cinnich hovered above the glade, delicate flowers stretched their faces up toward her. The fern-like fronds unfurling from her head twitched at the marvels abounding. But in her eyes beamed not pride, sorrow tinged her expression. The days grew long, the sun approaching its zenith. The harbinger of spring knew what this entailed.

Her time in the waking world drew to a close. Her time to paint the world in pastel floral dwindled.

A cry in the distance drew her gaze. Like an arrow, the vibrant green sidh-wyvern shot across the sky. His red dappled scales caught the sunlight and shimmered.

Cinnich gazed at the lacy floral surrounding her and let a bitter smile play on her lips. At last she snapped her wings and rose into the azure sky, swirling around Luisreadh. A scattering of petals floated on the breeze.

He flushed brighter as they locked gazes, talons entangling in flight. “You mossy beauty, you! Look at this glorious blanket of color you have laid out for me. Tell me how am I to be expected to improve on this?”

“It will be a shame to miss out on your colorful masterwork.” Flapping her wings, she tucked her head to her chest and tried to hold on to the mantle, fought to maintain her bright colors. “I hear at your bidding the flowers bloom as boldly as your scales.”

Luisreadh nudged her cheek. “You do this to me every year. Flattering me, I swear you hope that I will let you reign longer.” Even as he spoke he watched her blush, confirming his words. “Fierce beauty. Victor over the winter’s biting cold. How can I possibly not be moved by your splendor?” His tail wrapped around hers, his thorny vine entwined with her rose petal tail.

Cinnichand Luisreadh

“It is the way of things … when one rises, the others must sleep. My time is over, though I am not yet weary.”

“So, why should you sleep without one last act of beauty? Come, not every mantle need be passed over a battle.” He uncoiled from her and darted down through the forest with a wild shriek.

Cinnich dove, the flowers and fern fronds decorating her scales unfurled to their fullest. Through the branches the sidh-wyverns danced and sang. Behind them trees and flowers alike deepened their hues. Life sprang froth from the ground in abundance in a tangle of colors and shapes. The sidh-wyverns raced through glade after glade trading off leads in a playful game of tag.

Spiraling up into the heavens, they left a cascade of petals in the twisting breeze. With locked gazes they entwined tails and bowed to one another. Cinnich tucked her head beneath Luisreadh’s chin. “Thank you, lord of the summer-wind, for one last dance in the sun.”

The colors of Luisreadh’s scales intensified even as Cinnich’s faded. “The thanks goes to you for preparing the way for me, my mossy beauty. I shall take great care of your creations.”

Within his talons, she grew limp. He clutched her safe to him, taking her weight on his broad wings. Carefully he glided down into the forest and tucked her slumbering form in the hollow of a willow tree. “Rest, until the turnings come to you again.”

Unable to contain himself, the whelp clapped his paws. “No wonder! They’re in love!”

Gorach nodded. “Spring and summer complement one another. The seasons that build one upon the other. Luisreadh and Cinnich are both prideful beasts, but they recognize the palettes they both use. Deep in their hearts they admire the skill.”

“Do they have whelps?”

She laughed. “No. You see the lords of the seasons are eternal spirits. Given that, Cernunnos saw no need for them to … uhh … procreate.”

The whelp lowered his muzzle to his chest and muttered, “That’s kinda sad. They can only see each other for such a short time and not be able to be a ma and da.”

“One doesn’t need to be a ma or da to have offspring.” Gorach gestured out over the field. Bumblebees landed on the flowers, tugging them down as they collected pollen. Butterflies danced on the breezes, fluttering between the bright flowers. Blooms wilted from the trees, promising fruit later in the heat of the summer sun. “Every year both Cinnich and Luisreadh give birth to countless miracles. That is their legacy. Eons ago they recognized their duty to bring forth diversity from the soil. Every summer he builds on what she began. Harmony.”

The whelp leaned forward to get a closer look at a bee. His eyes followed the insect’s erratic path. “The whole world should be like them.”

Gripping the sword hilt at her side, Gorach gazed into the drifting summer clouds. “Would that it were.”

The Final Candlemark

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The Final Candlemark

Contrast. It is critical to everything around us, and yet we acknowledge it so fleetingly. It is only by the light that we can see shadows, it is because these two states mix that we see the depth of details. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but often we are drawn closer to beauty when something we detest is brought forth. Never do we bask so much in the comfort of a state of ease than when it is following a trial of pain … never do we desire so much for ease than when facing utter despair. Yet in every loss there is some gain, it just may take the heart time to grasp its meaning.

Hardly a breath stirred in the room. Heads downcast and paws folded, like statues carved in stone they sat pensively in the oppressive silence. They remained as though surrounding an altar in the midst of some solemn ritual, an unbroken circle with their focal point at the center. From my place where I perched on the shuttered window ledge I observed their devotion, removed from the immediate and yet a part of the whole. I had stumbled upon them quite by accident days ago, and as the candlemarks burned become acquainted with the imminent loss. It mattered not what brought me to the doorstep, what sort of bard would I be if I abandoned them now?

IllustrationFinalCandlemark

Upon his muzzle thick whiskers grown brittle by age covered his once strong features. He had a broad face where time had chiseled the lines of a smile for how often he wore it. Being an otter of the brucach helped there, for they were known to be a jovial lot. No stranger to hardship, his calloused paws bore the evidence of one who had worked with the water all the days of his life, the lines of the nets and ship’s ropes woven patterns into his furry hide. Scars of many a battle with a toothy beast from the deep left bald patches. Fisherbeast, leader, father, friend, protector. All these things he said without words for he could no longer speak for himself … days ago the disease had stolen his speech locking him within his own body. And now all we could do was wait, five souls whose altar was the otter who lay in his deathbed. Four his kin, and one the bard who would sing Denaidh to his final home.

Pulling my knees up to my chin, I rested my head there trying not to disrupt the family’s vigil. There had been silence for many candlemarks now, there seemed nothing left to be said. In the flicker of the candle on the nightstand I observed the four otters that formed the tight knit family. Nansaidh, his wife hovered just beside the head of the bed. Her half lidded eyes red with the tears of grief already shed. How I wished I could coax her into telling me once more about Denaidh’s first fishing trip, have her recall their wedding, the birth of one of the whelps. But I knew by one glance that her heart would break at such a request. The time for that had already come and gone. On the opposite side of the bed Bricius, their oldest son, sat taciturn and staring at his tightly clasped paws as though they could hold his father on this earth longer by will alone. Beside him the middle whelp had also been a son, Seoras glanced up at every change of breath that came from the bed. A mixture of dread and weariness lined his eyes each time. It was inevitable, but even still, the anticipation is often the worst. Beside her mother sat the youngest of the three whelps, Ganeida reached out a paw and placed it upon her mother’s shoulder. No words, just a simple comforting gesture. Though all three children were fully grown, they had returned to the home of their birth at the news that Denaidh had taken a turn for the worse. The signs were beyond denial that his wick was burning thin.

Though locked in solemn silence now, when I had first come upon the earthen cottage days before the stories they told of their father could fill a bard’s repertoire for a year. Staring idly at the flicker of the candle I let my mind wander over the amazing life of one otter named Denaidh that I might do his life song justice.

Lives rarely begin amazing, it is rather the experiences that surround one that makes it remarkable. Denaidh was born on the banks of the lake, son to a woodworker the young otter found himself more often in the water than out of it! Applying the skills to shape wood that his father had bestowed upon him it wasn’t long before Denaidh sailed his own homemade boats out onto the waters and experimented in catching fish by speed diving over the side. Living fast and free, Denaidh soon cast his home anchor aside and sailed a well made ship down the river to the pulling waves of the ocean beyond. Always a smile on his face, he acquired a strong loyal crew along the way that gravitated toward his fair nature. Skipper of the ship entailed great responsibility, but the otter had a knack for inspiring his crew to work together.

At a market just upriver Denaidh was selling some of his latest catch when his eyes fell upon Nansaidh. She had recalled with a found laugh how the sailor’s paws awkwardly caressed the fish he held as he had murmured, “Your eyes sparkle like the shimmer of the sea on a fish scale.” The rest of the day they spent paw in paw strolling along the banks of the river all the way to the sea. It was a night of pure magic as he told her of his travels out into the blue waves; to islands of wonder, foreign lands filled with strange beasts, battles on the waters with creatures of the deep. To an ottermaid land locked in one shire the whole of her life, his tales sparked a fire in her heart. She knew, before the sun kissed the horizon that she had stumbled upon the other half of her soul.

They were married in the high summer to with a merry feast. Within a year Bricius was born. And though Denaidh’s sailing kept him from home for long stretches of time, when he sailed back into port and returned to the lake shire home he was always there for them. With a smile broader than the ocean, he would sit before the hearth and relate his latest adventures … and often other stories of the past he retold time and again. And yet, even though the shire had heard them a hundred times a hundred they listened and laughed as though it were the first.

Seoras had already seen a seasons turning when the Age of the Keel Race began. Somehow, despite how peaceful Denaidh’s spirit was and that he was but a humble a fisherbeast, his ship became entangled with the great shore battles of those years. The bards called to the shores in those bitter times told of a terrible competition between the those of the old ways and city folk to design the best ships for fishing the generous waters. What began as a simple advancement became a dire and bloody race where entire ships were destroyed and crews slain in acts of pure greed. Denaidh’s ship worked to supply food to the shires cut off by blockades. If the sly otter skipper had been caught, it would have been certain death. His whole crew knew it, and risked it just the same. Each and every beast contemplated their own family receiving the supplies they ran past the blockades. Hundreds of mouths were fed thanks to the humble bravery of Denaidh’s ship alone. At the tail end of this bitter war Ganeida was born.

With three whelps now thriving under his roof, Denaidh cherished every moment he could spare to remain at him. On the shores of the lake they would cast lines from fishing poles spending the afternoon trying to catch the biggest fish, Denaidh would spin great yarns telling the biggest whooper of a tale. Wide-eyed with wonder his children believed his every word. Out in the woods, strolling paw in paw with Nansaidh they would tell their whelps of the trees and creatures that surrounded them, bestowing skills and knowledge. Ganeida had closed her eyes and smiled as she remembered when a doe and her fawn stepped cautiously across the forest path, just paws lengths from them as she rode upon her father’s shoulders, her favorite view of the world.

When they were older Bricius and Seoras came aboard the ship for a day, setting sail with the crew long enough to get a feel for the ocean beneath their paws. Though neither one chased that dream any further, the day spent out on the waters seeing what their father did remained forever in their memories. When the sailor festival came that year the fun and games seemed to never end as the families of the ships gathered to share their common thread. Strong families, bound together by love. Wives who knew their husbands would be gone for long stretches of time. Wives who knew that at any time this departure might be his last. Somehow, they kept this sad possibility from their whelps.

But fate did not have that in store for Denaidh. Each time he sailed from port he returned home again with arms flung wide to embrace his beloved family. The years turned on and with it the growth of his family as one by one they matured, stumbling across loves of their own and beginning families. Now Denaidh and Nansaidh were not just parents but grandparents gazing with pride in their eyes at the love they had created. Now grandpa had grandwhelps to tell of his favorite big fish and shipwreck stories.

The salt had become part of his coat showing in its white tips, the twinkle of starlight embedded in his eyes, the water of the sea flowed in his veins. Though the years were turning to the point when most beasts sought a less active role, Deniadh’s paws did not wish to release the tiller. Bones ached and muscles complained, but only those who saw past his masking smile knew the truth. He buried deep the burden of his strenuous years. Even when the knell rang out, the smile remained. Out of respect, the crew continued to serve him unquestionably, this wise and generous soul.

It began as a cold. Something simple, nagging, common. But it never went away. The seasons turned and the cough continued. The druid healers listened when Denaidh was pushed into their hall by a concerned Nansaidh. They knew something was wrong, but the usual remedies Nansaidh had given him had not done the trick. So they tried their methods. Scant moments of time were stolen, but the progression just continued even when the deep healing was applied. Finally the head druid embraced Nansaidh and tearfully told her to let him live as he desired … for the time upon this plain is limited.

They all knew, whelp and wife alike that Denaidh was defined by his love of his work. When his ever-failing health would force him to lay down his line that would be the end of who he was. Despite their fears for his safety, they let him sail on. Each time he returned they listened to his stories, asked his for advice even if they had knowledge of the answer, craving a chance to build just one more memory—for they never knew when the last one was coming. Every beast saw the signs as his breath came harder and harder, the constant struggle for air began to deplete his once inexhaustible strength. Were that not bad enough, during the winter fishing lull Nansaidh saw his access to memories being stripped away. Moment by moment times of the past were fading from her beloved like the ocean’s tides pulling the sand from the shore. At least his smile remained. That same sweet smile that brought strength and inspired such joy. And so she clung to his hands even as the strength and coordination began to fade.

Denaidh’s paws struggled to obey him and repair the nets, his memory fought to recall the order of the rope bindings. The work was getting harder for him, and his crew quietly stepped up to help him as much as he would allow. The ailing otter refused to admit that the tasks were getting out of paw. Navigation was becoming a greater issue as Denaidh lost access to part of the map of his world in his head. He knew things were missing and simply could not get access to them.

The struggle grew more desperate when his paws lost dexterity enough that even holding a low tension rope was beyond him. Nansaidh found her home-bound Denaidh sullen, feeling out of place the otter simply stared off at the hills that blocked his beloved ocean. The closest he could come was a staggered gate down to the lake front that left him gasping for air. Nothing she could do would lift his spirits, the sparkle in his eyes was relentlessly stricken by the disease. Piece by piece, muscle by muscle, memory by memory he was locked inside himself. The lively Denaidh full of spirit and life had gradually been stripped away. Until at last so vanished the smile.

I imagined him as they had described his vibrant spirit. Sleek and lean, he had moved about the world with a merry gate. Bright eyes sparkled back as he worked with a song on his lips. Although they say he was no singer, apparently quite tone deaf, it never stopped him from lustily belting out an old tune. With paws that could haul a line in any weather his footpaws were equally sure on both land and sea. There was always a warmth about him, even when he was disciplining crew he had an understanding air about him.

When I opened my eyes there he lay upon the bed. The muscles had deflated leaving behind the contours of a face much older than his true age. Yesterday had been his birthday, his sixty-second. The once bristling whiskered maw of a strong otter drooped where the muscles failed to hold up cheeks. His eyes had closed days ago in a sleep deep and unyielding. Thin arms and paws laid stretched out upon the woolen blanket, the skin hanging off the wasting frame. Beneath the blanket his chest rose and fell slowly, too slowly with the rasp effected by his blocked lungs. Even with his slackened face the evidence of his smile remained in the lines found there. Bittersweet to know how he must have looked to others grinning as wide as the day is long … and here he lay now devoid of all expression. Through the stories they had shared with me I felt I had come to know this slan as though I had spent years working the rigging under his gentle guidance.

The candle guttered on the nightstand, every eye in the room shifted to the flame, the first motion for ages. From the bed nothing had altered, just the unnaturally slow rasp of breath in and out. My eyes could not help but gaze back to the flicker of the candle’s flame, there are ways in this world that even a bard cannot explain. Like how a candle’s flame can predict the future. Unfolding from my perch on the window ledge I quietly walked up to the foot of the bed. Physically nothing seemed to have changed, the breaths still came as sluggishly as they had for a day now.

But the flame knew.

Nansaidh reached forward to pull up the blanket a little tighter to his chin. “He . . . he looks so cold.”

Shall I get another blanket?” Almost standing, Ganeida was stopped when her father failed to inhale at the time he should have.

Once more all eyes were drawn to a focal point, this time it was Denaidh. Impossibly long we waited. One shoulder after another fell in sorrow. Then he gasped, drawing in a slow shallow rasp. Their eyes closed in the anguish of all those days, dreading the inevitable pain of loss. This was too much, too long sitting vigil. I came to wonder what kept him from his final release.

Tentatively, Nansaidh reached out and embraced his paw. Touching his forehead with hers she whispered just above a breath, “My heart is always yours, now and forever.”

There was no breeze in the tightly shuttered room, but with a hiss and a wisp of smoke the candlestick went out.

That was what he had waited for, one last declaration of love. The beauty of those words carried his spirit on its final journey. As she pulled back from embracing him, Nansaidh’s weary gaze studied his still features. Only the hearth fire lit the room now, but even in its distant relief the motionless whiskers were testament.

No words could be found. Only silence as a mother, her sons, and her daughter watched for the breath that would never come. Out of respect I bowed my head, waiting patiently as the silent tears fell like a cleansing rain. All this time they had held the sorrow in, now it was at last free to flow.

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* * * * *

It was a dusk to remember. The setting sun set the lake ablaze with those gathered on the shore who had come to see off Denaidh for his final sailing. Atop the planks of his favorite vessel he lay on a bed of kindling, dressed in his finest tunic. At the end of the dock stood his family, paws locked in an unbroken circle, at the center was a fire urn crackling away. With the wake completed, and the last preparations made, there was but one task to be done before the otter could return to the ash from whence he came.

Standing atop a knoll I reached up my paw and enclosed the small kenaz that hung from my neck. Willing the magic to lend me a set of uilleann pipes, as the family had told me the old fisherbeast would have asked for them. Working the bellow with my elbow I let the first mellow tones carry into the air, the soft mournful wail of the lament I had intended. My fingers stirred over the holes in the pipe, as I let my heart remember this beast through the eyes of the others I realized a lament was not what he would would have desired. Gradually, the mood of the piece shifted. Denaidh’s spirit guided my paws lending a lighter air to my original melody. Yes, we would remember. Gazing into the first star winking in the darkening sky I altered the words of his life song.

“The sun can still be found shining

Beyond the leaden clouds of rain

The heart is still believing

Amidst the shadow of pain

Time has ceased your wandering

Beloved watch o’er your bed

As the candle marked each hour

Remembering the life you led

Do not grieve for the steps not taken

Mourn thee not for the hours not lived

Only dwell on the joy and the laughter

The ripples cast out is what the soul can give

Through your eyes the world was golden

Silver waters brought wealth in fin

Selfless journeys carried hardships

When wizened hearts beat not to sin

Joyful arms were there embracing

When the time came to call home

Stories are gems worth the taking

As your heart had always known

Joyful arms were there embracing

When the time came to call home

Stories are gems worth the taking

As your heart had always known

Journey on to heaven’s keeping

Beyond the pain and sorrow

Watching o’er your blessed loved ones

With every sunrise of the morrow

For the candle called you on

To the final great beyond

Where you smile to greet the dawn

We shall forever sing your song

Wisp away the smoke of forever

Burned away the wax of time

Ripple on the waves of gestures

The spiral carries ever on.”

The pipes continued as I watched Nansaidh’s paw unclasp from Bricius’s to claim a long torch from the urn. With as much dignity as she could muster, the ottermatron approached the rail of the ship. Blowing a kiss to the wind she hefted the burning torch onto the ship where the flames licked and caught the kindling ablaze. Once they were certain it had caught well enough, a couple of his sailors cut the ship loose and pushed her away out into the lake.

Fire and water, the dance of the flames on the mirror of the lake made endless by the starlit sky above. He rose with the smoke, his spirit ascended in the flames. Whether his family sensed it or not, I never knew. But on the knoll where I stood playing a sea shanty whose words many had long forgotten I felt him bid a joyous farewell.

The ship burned for hours with the shire’s eyes ever vigilant. Knowing he had truly departed, I slipped back into the humble dwelling drawn to the nightstand where the remainder of the candlestick had cooled. No one had touched it in the days that had passed. Studying this humble item I noted once more there was nothing unusual about this wax and wick. No spell had been placed upon it, no magic embedded in the wax. How curious that it should have known. The end of the wick had not yet been reached, and yet it went out … like so many lives half spent.

“Why did you come here?” Barely turning I discovered the source of the drained voice was Ganeida, the stains of recent tears lined her face.

My paw released the candlestick, leaving it once more on the nightstand. “Sometimes a bard is simply drawn to where they should be. Drifting, like a seed on the wind. I was meant to be here for his passing, you were a very lucky family.”

She closed her eyes, fighting back tears. “But he’s gone.”

“Gone?” I let a smile cross my face, “Never gone because he is here.” I pointed to her heart. “For all of you have shared his life with me, the stories and the lessons he taught you. He will never truly be gone as long as you share what he has gifted you with.”

Her eyes were puzzled, too near the pain to truly hear the meaning behind my words.

Gesturing with my paw I pulled her closer to me, covering her heart I explained. “Our lives are never isolated, they always touch others. Your father had a gift for inspiring others to seek out the best in themselves, to work hard and be happy for the ability to do so. All of you have been touched by his joyful diligence. He was strong, that is something he left as a legacy in all of you.”

Her eyes responded to the gravity of my words, falling to the floor. “But so much was taken … ”

My finger pressed against her chin, working against the gravity fighting to pull it back down. “One day you will find his strength to smile again. One day you will see beyond what has taken and grasp what was given. It will not be tomorrow, it may not even be in the turn of the seasons. But you will, because he wants you to. That is what he wishes.”

She heaved a heavy sigh, “How can I smile again when he is not here to make me laugh with one of his stories?”

My own heart skipped a beat as I was forced to close my eyes at a memory of my own. The utter despair as I stood at the memory stone where my parents passing was recorded. No imagination was required to know how she felt for I had been at that very precipice. How can a spirit ever soar again when the source of their inspiration has been ripped from them?

Wrapping my arms around her I whispered, “You will remember when you tell his stories in your own voice. Your heart will rejoice in his memory when share in his spirit. With the spark of his generosity you will find a way to honor him, and in doing so he will lift you to greater heights.” Releasing her, I drew back to look in her pained eyes, “You must heal first, but once the wound has mended you may find a greater gift in exchange than you can imagine.”

Sniffling she shook her head, “Nothing can replace him.”

“You are right.” I grasped her paw and gave it a firm squeeze, “Nothing will ever replace him, but as his memories inspire you changes will fill that space. When there is a loss of a loved one there are but two paths to chose from; we can let the loss consume our hearts and turn us bitter, or we can let their spirit lift us to higher heights in their name. In you I see his strength and his joy. From this you will be made stronger.”

“How can you know that for certain?”

With a smile I let go of her paw, pulling away as I drifted towards the door, “Some things bards just know.” … like the candlestick foretelling the final candlemark. Out in the night air the scent of burning wood drifted on the breeze that toyed with my cloak. To my back was the flicker of the pyre in the middle of the lake, by the time the sun rose it would be gone, vanished beneath the lake waters. Gone, but never forgotten.

That is why we exist. The connections forged by each and every life as it tangles with the next. We tell of the coming and the going. We tell of the ties that bind and the events that sever. We tell of slan existence … but our voices are never alone. Our tales come from others as mundane and extraordinary as can be. Spirits are inspired by every manner of beast, and the legacy often passed on—of act and word. Beat on gentle heart, remember the simple love and joy. Remember how to laugh and smile, and cherish the wonders of the world you live in. We all must lose some things in our lives, it is how the soul grasps it that makes the difference in who we are.


This story was written years ago in memory of my father, Denny. For those who know the truth, The Final Candlemark parallels the real vigil of witnessing a vibrant life stripped away too soon by a dreadful affliction. It has taken me time and distance to feel confident in sharing this … but I know my family is not alone in enduring loss. That this story may bring comfort to another and shed light in their moment of sorrow, I honor my father this Father’s Day. Somewhere, beyond the shadowing veil that parts the living from the departed–he listens to every story we tell in his spirit.

My father–sailor, hard worker, lover of a good joke, and most of all–the original yarn-spinner in my life. I miss you.

The Birth of Music

journeysthrougha-brass-quill

The Birth of Music

I lingered by the shore watching the ripples combing the ankle fur of the slan pulling the fishnets from the shallows. It wasn’t often that my path carried me far enough to glimpse the sea vanishing over the horizon. Salty wind stung my nostrils reminding me I was alive as the sea spray danced in the breeze.

What a day. Touching my kenaz I summoned a tin-whistle and played a lively hornpipe. Along the shore, the fisherbeasts gained a spring in their step. Well, I was a bard after all. It was only fair that I should play for my supper, and the thought of fresh fish conjured saliva.

“I thought it was raining, but I come to find tis only a hungry bard playing a wind instrument.” A soft voice startled me, the pitch of the whistle kicking up into a piercing note.

Turning my head, I spread my paws and let my kenaz return to the pendant. My eyes could scarcely believe the sight of his youthful grin. “Briollag!” I whispered the lynx’s true name into his ear, least any mortal hear it.

His gentle paws embraced me. “It’s been ages, Ealaidh. Not since the last battle of the bards.”

I blushed, tucking my chin into my tunic. “Don’t remind me. Come, let’s lend a paw to the shirefolk. We can catch up by the fire after the feast.”

Briollag’s soft smile never left his muzzle as we each grabbed a basket and joined in the task of hauling in the day’s catch. Even before we glimpsed the coastal shire, word of our arrival had reached them. Not one Traveler, but two were spending the night. The question I asked myself was who would tell the tale this eve? Me? Briollag? Or both of us.

Gorged on fish and mead, we leaned back in the glow of the bonfire patting bellies primed to burst. After spending the last month surviving on meager berries, I didn’t regret a single mouthful. The shirefolk lingered in the circle of light repairing nets and chatting idly.

I studied Briollag’s tunic and chuckled. Addressing him by his common name, I had to remark, “So Diog, some shire took pity on your ragged attire and gifted you with a new tunic.”

His voice, as always, was softer than the breeze. To hear it, a slan must nearly hold their breath. “Indeed, Gorach. I was most grateful for their generosity. Else by now I may be wandering with naught but my pelt.”

“Scandalous. Unbefitting a bard even of the novice rank.” I grinned.

An otter whelp twisted her footpaw in the dirt, studying us intently. “Pa says you’re both ancient.”

Beside me, Briollag’s fangs peeked out as he widened his grin in amusement. I could only laugh. “Yes, wee one.”

“You don’t look it.” She sucked on her claw. “Pa looks older than you. You look young as my older brother who just got married.”

I extended a paw to the starry sky. “There’s a reason for that. You see, the god Taliesin chose us. In exchange for serving him, he’s granted us eternal youth.”

She gaped, her claw hanging off her tooth. “Really? How old are you?”

My ear twisted as I had to try and recall the years. This was a whelp, precise years were not that important. “It’s been over four-hundred years since I was your age.”

“Whoa.” Her eyes widened, she pointed to Briollag. “How about you?”

Plucking a strand of grass, he played with it idly. His voice nearly lost in the crackle of the fire, she leaned forward to catch it. “I am older than song. Older than history itself.”

Briollag and Ealaidh

Like a summoning spell, his whispered declaration brought them into the circle of light. Young and old, they gathered at his footpaws in anticipation even before he touched his kenaz to bring forth the harp. I leaned on my elbows, cocking my ears for the story I had heard countless times and would willingly witness hundreds more. The birth of our purpose.

“In the time before time … ” Briollag began, his voice like the whispering wind drew them in and carried them into that distant time on his gentle melody.

… when the slan were naught but tribes scattered in isolation across Caledonia, life was a dark struggle with scarce hope. We were hunted, prey for the dragons and their kin. We ran from camp to camp, an endless series without respite.

In their realm, the gods watched this world. Their creations mindlessly lumbering about without cause or reason. Every beast lived, but none remembered anything from one generation to the next. The gods grew weary of reminding all of creation of their presence.

The vainest among them, Taliesin, came forth with a proposal. He would disguise himself and wander the land. Whomever answered his call he would make a fine gift. The other gods laughed at him, but he paid them no heed. Transforming into an unassuming blue wren, he flitted down to Earth. Darting among the bracken he called forth across the land both day and night, from north to south.

In the midst of their struggles, the denizens of the Caledonia did not spare a thought for him. Their lives too full of trials.

And yet, by the light of a bonfire, amongst his tribe, a young lynx flicked an ear. An alluring sound coaxed him to his paws. Though he had seen but five summers, he had never heard such beauty. Diog left the safety of the circle of light to seek the sound emitted in the darkness. The dire warnings of his tribe echoed in his ears, but he ignored them. The pulse beckoned him on until he came nose to beak with the tiny bird. The little wren hopped onto his nose, causing Diog’s eyes to cross.

“You?” Taliesin twittered, cocking his head. “You have heard my voice?”

Diog couldn’t nod, for to do so would dislodge the curious little creature. “Aye. What were you doing? That was pretty.”

He puffed out his plumage and declared with a snap of his beak. “I shall call it … music. Would you like to learn it? I am looking for a pupil.”

“What’s a pupil?” Diog scratched an ear.

“Oh, it is a wonderful arrangement.” He hopped up and down, flicking his tail wildly. “A pupil is a receptacle for knowledge.”

Diog’s paws tangled in the rough cloth covering his body. The strange words confusing him. “Never heard of that.”

“Well, that’s because you would be the first.” The tiny bird’s eyes peered into his, promising new horizons. “I will teach you the music to remember for ages to come. You will be the first of my children, a Traveler to explore the vast reaches of Caledonia.” He trilled in the air. “This is my gift to your kind. Will you receive it, my young one?”

Cupping the bird in his paws, Diog smiled with wonder. “Teach me.”

“Your heart’s wish.”

The wren took to the air and circled around Diog wrapping him in a stream of light. Within his mind suddenly the world sprang into a chorus. He heard it in everything. The breeze through the leaves, the trickle of the stream, even the drops of the rain. Around his neck the wren hung a small flat stone with a symbol on it …

“This symbol.” He held out his kenaz. “This one is the very first kenaz ever to be gifted.”

“Did your father give it to you?” the whelp asked.

Before Briollage could answer, I giggled into my paw. “Diog, it is a wonder that even something crafted by Taliesin would last this many eras.”

The whelp’s jaw dropped. Well, it seemed she caught my drift.

Briollag simply grinned that eternally youthful smile. “My road has many turns, but the wind keeps singing my journey. I never tire of my task, for each age brings its own promise.” He placed a paw on my shoulder. “Each age a new Traveler joins the circle bringing another voice to keep the memories of our world, singing them to the stones for all eras.”

He had purposefully left out the secret of his true name, for as the wren had encircled him Taliesin had sung out the key unlocking Diog’s true potential. Just as four-hundred years ago Taliesin had done the same for me. An endless cycle, so it seemed.

Suddenly a discordant chorus erupted, dozens of whelps crying out, “Can I be a Traveler?”

I blanched as paws tugged on my threadbare garments, knocking the road dust into fine cloud around me. Did they comprehend the cost? Somehow I doubted it. A Traveler is bound: to wander without ties to family or shire, is forbidden to sing of any tale thy paw takes direct part in … well, Taliesin made a brief exception when Briollag was the only bard … , shall never have a family of their own save the entire slannic race. Immortality … eternal solitude.

“Ahh young whelps.” His voice dashed them into eager silence. They leaned forward, paws on his crocked knees. “If the wren comes and you hear him, maybe. If not, there are many paths to follow. You need not sacrifice your life to play music. There is honor in our purpose. But there is sacrifice in the wren’s call. Take heart, whether or not they truly sing, all have a part in the chorus of life.”

The whelps danced around the fire chanting his wisdom without comprehension. Briollag’s paw rested on my shoulder. “Even the wayward.”

I bowed my head. “One day I will make amends.”

“I know you will.” He pressed his forehead to mine.

Passing the Mantle

journeysthrougha-brass-quill

Passing the Mantle

By Taliesin’s decree, a Traveler is never supposed to linger in one place for too long. But the branches of the pine cradled my body like Cernunnos himself made them specifically for my napping. Sheltered from the blanket of snow with my weary footpaws free of the clinging frozen slush, I reclined in those swaying boughs dreaming the full cycle of a moon away … or more. I’m not precisely certain how long fate plotted to disrupt my urge for perpetual slumber.

But disrupt my sleep it did!

SCHLOOMP!

“Gah! That’s cold!” Every limb of my body thrashed as half melted slush crawled in rivulets through my fur chilling cozy warm flesh. The boughs parted, swaying violently in my startled protest. My tail spun, fighting to catch my weight as it slid precariously off my make-shift bed. Claws caught the bark and tore off strips as I swore through the list of gods for the rude wake-up. I made it to my pledged master by the time I managed to save my rump from a potentially majestic fall. “Taliesin if you have anything to do with this I’ll spin your legend with far more truth than your shining image can endure you piece of—”

My tirade faltered as two pale shadows screamed through the forest. Ahh the squeaking rage of two sidh-wyverns, discordant music to the ear. Crouched on the branches of the pine, I parted the needles and peered in the direction they had gone. By nature the tiny dragon-kin were known for feistiness, but this ceaseless chittering dialog betrayed something more.

Overhead a small body plunged and tumbled into the pine bows. I glanced up into the dappled rays of sunshine just in time for Rhew to land sprawled on his back in my lap. The winter-bringer shook the snow from his antlers, his spindly wings snapped warmth against my thigh. He bared his tiny fangs and released a full throated war cry out to the forest. His talons punched against my tunic-covered gut as he fought to right himself. Thankfully the suede held.

“Oww! Hey!” I grabbed onto his tail and held him despite his wild flapping. “Rhew, what has gotten into you?”

He turned and snapped at my paw.

I flicked his nose, leaving him to shake his head with a snarl. “Knock some sense into that rutting head of yours. Now what in the stars is going on?”

Once more he made to scramble for the open air. Rage burning in his bright eyes, he screamed again.

A scream answered. Not an echo. This pitch was higher. A tail flick later a pastel blur swooped down, talons tearing at the pine needles and flinging them. Rhew wrapped his wings around his body, ducking his head inside. Even in the brief glimpse afforded me through the gaps I had noted the bud-like horns on the top of the pink and green mottled sidh-wyvern.

“Ah, I see now.” Nodding slowly, I kept my hold on Rhew’s tail. “Cinnich’s awake now. Well, you know what that means.”

He stretched his wings and a shower of icy flakes sprang into the air.

“Now, don’t be like that. You’ve had your season. The world has slept. Now it is time for you to sleep while Cinnich wakes the earth and brings forth life again.”

Rhew hissed and clacked his teeth. His tail wriggled in my gloved paw.

Smiling at his defiance, I stroked his back until the rigid scales began to lie flat. “That’s enough from you, lord of the winter winds. If you remain in command there will be no thaw, no food. Every beast that relies on the land for harvest would starve, which is most of us who dwell in Caledonia. All that would be left would be you and your subordinate winter sidh-wyverns. The world would be a lonely place for you. It’s Cinnich’s time to paint the land in life.”

Cinnich spiraled into the branches and landed a wingspan away. Her thorned brows knit as she chattered at him. Soon both chirruped back and forth in a maddening cacophony. I held up a finger to her and snapped, “Enough! You’re not helping.”

She flared out her wings and shrieked.

Moss and lichen sprung forth on my muzzle. I stared cross-eyed at it. “You really don’t know when to stop, do you? Neither one of you.” Brushing off the odd growth before it could take root, I grumbled, “First snow in places that that haven’t felt a chill all winter, and now being treated like a rotting log. The things a Traveler must deal with. You would think that two spirits of the elements would have enough sense to manage themselves. But no. You two have to bicker about the turning.”

Rhew, still held firmly at bay by my paw, growled and flexed his talons. Cinnich behaved no better, sticker her tongue out.

“By the moss on a river stone! You two are not hatchlings. But if you insist on behaving as such, I’ll lullaby both your tails into a deep sleep and we’ll just skip your seasons for a few years!”

Both of them whipped their heads my way, eyes wide. Not one peep.

“That’s better.” I released Rhew’s tail, he clambered up onto a branch and adjusted his wings. His eyes puckered as he gazed longingly out to the sunshot day. “I know Rhew, you are a fine painter of winter. And your craft is essential. But it is brief. Now you mush rest until the land calls for you again. The earth has summoned Cinnich, it is time for warmth and renewal. Let her perform her rituals. Pass the mantle, old friend. Just for now.”

Gradually he bowed forward, scale by scale overlapped on his neck until his head dipped below the branch he perched. The light dwindled in his eyes. A single tear flowed down his cheek, trembling on the edge of a scale. Cinnich’s wings stretched out. The horn buds on her head unfurled into flowers, giving rise to the twin fern fronds uncurling. All along her pink scales mottled by moss green brindling tiny white blossoms spread their petals as her colors intensified. Beside me on the branch Rhew’s once snow white scales lost their sheen, now faded and gray as he tucked his head beneath his wing.

“Less than a year isn’t so long for an immortal. Before you know it the world will call on you again.” I gathered his already sleeping body into my arms and nestled him into the protection of my abandoned pine boughs. “Rest well, oh lord of the winter winds.”

Cinnich

Cinnich flitted out onto the warm breeze, the sun shimmering off her blossoming body. Below me the snow pack retreated, vanishing in the breath of her wing beats leaving behind a carpet of verdant green. I dropped down into the new growth grateful for spears of grass beneath my footpaws. The cheeky sidh-wyvern of rebirth swooped down and struck me with her wings. Her vibrant eye winked at me as she chirruped in delight. The forest launched into answering cries as countless bright bodied sidh-wyverns answered her call, winging into the wood and to spread her magic. Spring arrived.

My footpaws itched with the familiar tingle that had been my constant companion over these many years, too numerous for my liking to count. The wanderlust called me no lesser than the earth summoned Cinnich to wake her. Grasping my walking staff, I heaved a sigh and took the first steps into the new turn of the season … into the same old, same old.

Summer, autumn, winter, or spring, the road is ever my home.

The Healer’s Moon

journeysthrougha-brass-quill

Healer’s Moon

The eyes of every slan stared out across the snow-riddled fields locked in the solid shadows of the night. Paws gripped the tree roots that formed the door frame of the great hall as the slan ignored the late winter chill seeping into their gathering. Soon. Any moment now it would come. Several bards of various ranks held their instruments at the ready.

Kenaz

The kenaz is a pendant worn by Travelers that both marks them as Taliesin’s select followers, and allows them to summon whatever instrument the bard desires.

Ealaidh gripped the kenaz nestled in the small of her neck. In the tense silence, her breath danced in frosted clouds. The cadence of her heartbeat a slip jig. She came up on her tip paws. The sky behind the hill lightened, turning lavender. Three more measures of the slip jig throbbed against her ribs and then … the bright crest broke from the shadows. The moon’s silver aura announced her rise into the heavens.

The silence shattered into a wild fray. Music rose into the air. Ealaidh summoned a fiddle from her kenaz and joined in the dance. Mulled wine from a kettle over the golden flames in the large hearth passed from paw to paw in communal cups. No matter how well a beast sang, every voice joined in the chorus.

Neath the moon we raise our voice

Neath the moon we sing til morning!

In the night we seek her grace

Restore all who call your glory!

Dance on two until the four

Dance as once we were created!

Gift of health, we are restored

As our magic is awakened!

In the sky the radiant full moon rose, a gleaming eye gazing down on Healer’s Moon celebration. A celebration that would last until the sun banished the night.

For over an hour, the wine flowed and the music rang. Ealaidh lowered her fiddle and drifted to the door. Her ears rode high, straining out into the night. She studied her paws. Late. It should have happened by now. The two onto the four. Why had none in the great hall shifted? This was the proper night, the night of the healer’s moon restoration.

She glanced over her shoulder into the throng. No one watched as she slipped out into the night and pressed her paw against the ode-stone. Closing her eyes, she felt the warmth of the current spread into her. She tugged thread after thread of her fellow Travelers, the last time they had sung to the stones left an essence of where they were. None were near Arainrhod’s Loch, except the one. Suthainn.

“He can’t do this alone.” Ealaidh swallowed and gazed to the east. Through the trees the moonlight shimmered on the loch’s surface. Turning back to the gathering in the great hall her heart squeezed in her chest. The warm light beckoned her. “No … ” she gazed back at the distant loch, “another Traveler is needed there. They have plenty of bards to make merry this night.”

She slipped away through the brush as fast as her footpaws could carry her over the hill. At last she broke into the clearing. Suthainn, a robust mangan, looked up from the edge of the pond and wrinkled his nose. “Ealaidh? What in the stars has brought you here?”

Ealaidh panted to catch her breath. “I came to help.”

“You?” The bear laughed. “Go back to chasing the bottom of mulled wine cups! Every Traveler knows that’s your place in the ceremony.”

“I heard the words of Briollag.” Ealaidh pointed at the hoarfrosted trees. “Spring cannot come without the Healer’s Moon power. I know this ritual requires a lot of power. You will need to draw off the current of another.”

The beads on Suthainn’s open vest rattled as he shot straighter. “Yes, one such as Briollag himself. Not a newly fledged Traveler. Now, go.”

“I’ve been emanated. I’m a full Traveler!”

“Within your first decade, Ealaidh.” He gripped the staff so tight his claws splintered it. “You’re not strong enough to take this.”

“I’ve survived my first one-hundred mortal years, and I lived to bear my kenaz.” She narrowed her eyes. “You don’t know how strong I am. Besides, you don’t have a choice. No one else is close enough.”

He grumbled to himself before eyeing her. “Listen, young blood. You’re but a whelp in my eyes. Besides, why would I trust one who vanished for a decade?”

Ealaidh stiffened.

Suthainn gestured with a massive paw. “I am no fool. I know why you came here tonight. You wanted to see if offering yourself for the Healer’s Moon would erase the scars you refuse to tell the circle about.”

Her paw brushed subconsciously at the hidden marks around her wrists. She swore she could feel the burn of the scarred flesh around her neck. Healed now, long since healed and buried in the growth of her fur. But still the other Travelers whispered, why? She lowered her eyes.

“The shift will never heal wounds inflicted by magic. Not even the Healer’s Moon can do that, Ealaidh.”

Tears stung her eyes. The leaden weight of her courage and false hope she had fostered threatened to crush her. Her shoulders fell. “I … I don’t care. That’s not why I came. I came … I came because it must be done. For the sake of all slankind.” She shivered. Coming here was such a small gesture, but it was a start.

“Ealaidh—”

“No!” She dashed past him, her footpaws bogging down in the loch’s bank. “Do it! You need a channel and the moon is nearly past her proper height. Start, Suthainn. If it kills me … ” The chill water lapping at her shins drove spikes into her. “If it kills me, so be it!”

His eyes revealed their whites. He hesitated a moment before leveling his staff over her head. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

Penance. She sank down into the water. Her teeth chattered a reel.

Suthainn widened his stance. “Arainrhod, goddess of the moon. Heal and Restore us this night.” He threw back his head and launched into a wordless song. A trail of golden light flowed around Ealaidh and joined the ribbons of magic flowing from Suthainn. They mingled together and rippled out into the still waters of Arainrhod’s Loch. The moon’s eye gleamed down on the them. Gold and silver lights streamed together and stretched into the night sky.

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Suthainn and Ealaidh threw their heads back. Wreathed in the aura their forms grew and changed. Suthainn morphed into a larger, four pawed version of himself. His clothes vanished into his fur. Ealaidh discarded her fox form and shifted into an immense dire wolf crouched on all fours at the water’s edge. The aura encapsulated her. She glowed as the power channeled through her from the loch into the ancient Traveler. The current rushed through her flesh, threatening to erode her. She widened her stance and braced herself.

Primitive howls and roars broke out over the land. Every slan  had shifted through the power of the moon’s current.

The torrent of magic raced through both Travelers. All would be restored under the light of the moon … all but two. Suthainn grimaced on the bank’s edge, his head dipped lower beneath the strain. Still in the water, Ealaidh’s eyes were slivers as she forced her gaze up into the moonlight. She snarled in defiance. The ritual price had a price. She would pay it.

All of it.

Rearing back on her hindlegs, she laid her forepaws on Suthainn’s shoulders. The light around her strengthened, her haunches shuddered, but she remained. The bear gawked as his aura faded, Ealaidh’s stance shorting the draw into herself.

“No, Ealaidh! Stop!”

His cry did nothing more than to stiffen her resolve. She raised her own voice into the night. A lament that shook the bear’s heart to the core the moment before the ritual completed. Both slan toppled into the slush.

Still in their primal forms, Suthainn dragged himself up to hover over Ealaidh’s mud caked body. Her eyes cracked open and a slight smile pulled on her grimaced lips. “Well … ” she panted, “ … it’s a start … ”

He rested a paw against her chest, searching for the beat of her heart. “How … how did you withstand that? Briollag and I both struggle to share the load. You have only been emanated for seven years now.”

She shifted a paw and winced. “Eight. But … I don’t expect mine to be counted. So much … such a turbulent time … who was I to be remembered?”

He shook his head. “You shouldn’t be this strong, Ealaidh! By the gods, what have you done?”

Ealaidh shivered, ripples raced across the water. “Not me … Can you … can you get me out of here? Cold.”

Gently, Suthainn scruffed Ealaidh and dragged her limp body up the bank. He nudged her tail close to lock in warmth and laid his bulk beside her. “The sunrise will shift us back. Don’t waste your strength.”

“Wasn’t planning on it,” she mumbled.

Their breath mingled in the moonlight in icy clouds. Suthainn tracked the moon’s journey through a few constellations before he edged a paw against her cheek. “Ealaidh, you always were a strange one. From the day that the circle learned Taliesin had picked you we all wondered ahy. This endless road erodes the spirit. You were soft and full of joy. We saw a brilliant bard, but not a resilient Traveler. ”

She flicked an ice crusted ear. “I once heard a wise beast tell … being a Traveler gives one access to all the knowledge collected in the world. But it does not make one omniscient.”

Suthainn arched his head back and blinked. “I thought you weren’t listening!”

Her laugh was little more than a forced breath. “ … surprise … oh wise one … ” She curled tighter, frosted fur crackling. “Do me a favor … don’t tell anyone about this … all right? Let them believe … I was irresponsible … by golden hearth … drinking mulled wine … by the gods, mulled wine.” A whimper escaped her.

“Come on. That hearth sounds nice about now.” Suthainn forced his head under her and worked her bulk onto his shoulders. He lumbered through the snow toward the distant golden doorway. “Ealaidh, I’ve been the healer bard for ages now. Many ages longer than you have lived. I must tell you, time has taught me that some wounds can never be healed.”

She could have been a slain hart across his back for all her stillness and lack of warmth. For a moment he thought she was once more asleep. “That depends,” she sighed, “on what one seeks. Tonight I found what I sought … even against reason.”

His ear twitched, uncertain if he had heard the wind or if the exhausted Traveler mumbled …

there will never be forgiveness, only endless blood tithes.

 

The Blind Division

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Blind Division

 I know why you have come, human. I know why you stand here reeling in confusion. An ill-wind blows across your world. You wish to ask, how did this happen? You ask how could an ancient creature like myself possibly comprehend … oh, but I do. Perhaps more deeply than you can imagine. All I ask is shelve the human ego for a moment and listen to the truth I tell, of the gravest mistake the slan ever made. There is no easy way to tell this, but I will try.

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The slan once were a single race, the god Cernunnos bestowed his gift on all our kind, despite the lowly animals we originated from. Mangan, brucach, faol, radan, and cugar, we lived side-by-side in mixed shires sharing the magic we were god-blessed with. Magic ran in our veins. Every slan who drew breath shifted into their ancient form at will. That was precisely where the names of our kinds came from. The faol, like myself, could transform into a dire-wolf. The act of shifting healed wounds. A highly useful skill full of strength and stamina. For eons we basked in the benefits of our gift, our peaceful culture thrived.

That was until fate lashed out and a shadow darkened the land. On the nights of the full moon a ravenous beast tore through shires and dragged off innocent slan, from whelps to elderly. For ten years shire-folk lived in fear of this menace stalking in the dark, aware it was at least one, if not more, of their own. In the heart of a shire Uachdaran called out to his fellow faol that mingling with the other sects of the slan is what brought this accursed punishment. Magic, he decreed, was uncontrollable and a danger to all.

Most didn’t give his youthful ignorance a second thought, especially once the attacks ceased and peace returned to the lands. But Uachdaran did not back away from his belief. He beat his breast in every shire, and gradually faol flocked to him. The once-few grew into an army driven by fear of the ‘feral’ side of our race. Before long he abandoned the forested valleys and took his followers into the craggy hills. Walls of stone, he demanded, would keep them safe from the influence of the ‘feral’ magic. Within the walls of the first city, populated only by faol, he invoked a harsh ritual. All who wished his protection must subject themselves to the thorn of the yellow rose. Once a slan is pricked the poison prevents magic, even shifting, for a full mooncycle. Cycle after cycle, his followers bound rose stems to their arms to prove their devotion. A sea of flowery yellow pennants twisted the wills of thousands.

In the shadow of his impenetrable city, others took up a similar cry until there were segregated cities of ‘rose pledged’ folk. Cities of solely brucach, or mangan. The land of Caledonia closed up behind walls of division where the ‘feral’ were treated with suspicion.

The fear of their ‘wild’ cousins manifested into a raging fire. Driven into a frenzy by the war drums of the self-declared nobility, who claimed to be protecting their followers, the battles began. Armored squads trampled and burned shires. Folk were dragged into the city walls and bound with thorns. Those who refused to be bound were slain. Bards and druids entered the cities at their peril. Attempts to ease the fear only resulted in torture, paws and jaws broken, bodies bound in thorns cast down like scree on the mountain to a long and lingering death. Most hid to protect the vast collected knowledge, leaving many shires to fend for themselves.

Through the spark of one panicked voice, a war spanned generations. Only shires veiled by the magic of defiant bards and druids evaded the painful fate as our race lost our blessing to the tongue of fear. Pierced by the thorns, the youth behind stone walls grew up never knowing what they truly were. Their suppressed gift became a horror story whispered by the hearth … the truth of the deadly decade buried and forgotten. All the collective heard was that a shifted slan is nothing more than a feral mindless beast. They gazed upon carvings on the walls of their proud armies slaying shifted beasts, never aware that the dire-wolf on the end of the lance was one their own kind. Kin murdered kin in a glorified procession of cleansing.

What a shameful lie. The shift steals none of our sense. But I tell you what can, fear. The tongue of an unchecked paranoid individual convinced there is a reason to hate can do more damage than any shifted beast ever has … and that is why, effectively, the race of slan is now extinct.

Here I am, centuries later, an immortal Traveler, burdened to keep the history and watch it ever repeat, again and again.

The world bows as one voice treats opinion as fact and drowns out all other reason. One paranoid voice drums up hatred without stopping to listen to anything but confirming echoes. One vengeful voice builds a wall against an imaginary threat, blindly dividing the world into countless shards.

I have witnessed civil war before. I have seen it eliminate a once thriving culture. Seen it destroy magic … and now, I hear the cadence of the war drums building again. The blind division born of ignorant fear, and already the panicked stand with stones in their hands ready to stack them.

Open your eyes! Please, I beg of you! This has happened before, in your time, not just mine. The candles are already blowing out, the light is dwindling. Rekindle the flame of true understanding, quell the hysteria that kills innocents. Only knowledge can banish the boogeyman before the vile whispers drive your blade into the heart of your brother, before you wall up your sister.

Once the poison of hysteria takes root, there is no going back.

So wake up, before it is too late. The entire human race is too precious to lose.

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The Blessing

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Aiden clapped immense paws together before putting his shoulder to the stranded cart’s side. It groaned as the bear’s girth over-powered the sucking mud. He resettled the wagon’s wheel free of the rut. “There we are, Ceighan. You can hook the pony back up.”

The lynx tugged the pony from grazing in the sweet clover. “Don’t know what I would have done without your help. Been stuck all morning and hadn’t budged a smidge.”

No trouble at all. Always glad to help out a fellow slan. My da always told me that it didn’t matter; be it cugar or mangan, all slan are slan indeed.”

Ceighan took a sip from a wine-skin before offering Aiden some. “Heh, something I always heard to, ever since I was a whelp. How come we’re so different? Rather odd when you think of it.”

A voice called out from the bushes. “Depends on who you ask.”

They turned in tandem and stared through the bracken dappled with wild-berries.

A cross-fox padded out. Her black muzzle stained a deep purple as she sucked on fruit. “Mmm! Nice impromptu harvest. Would you gentle-beasts care for some?” Ealaidh held out a pawful of plump morsels.

Ceighan found his voice first. “A Traveler?”

Aye.” She bowed. “At your humble service. And it seems my ears are tickled by some folk who don’t know the birth of the slan. For shame, something that needs a remedy.” She pulled the pony’s reins free and waved him back to clover. “A sweet feast still awaits you, my friend.” With a gesture to the back of the cart, Ealaidh settled cross-legged on a field stone on the roadside.

The two hung their footpaws over the back of the cart and blinked at their strange visitor. They watched as she grasped her pendant. It vanished and a lute appeared in her paws.

Now, you’ve been told this before, but perhaps like many a young whelp with the attention span of a butterfly, you heard but did not listen.”

Ceighan and Aiden downcast their eyes and folded their paws before them.

I thought so.” She chuckled and began to pluck the lute. “Then listen now and learn. Back to the time when Caledonia had but the voice of dragon-folk, when only Io’s blessing had been bestowed … ”

Cernunnos, god of the forests, gazed upon the land. The mountain spires teamed with Io’s blessed race. The dragon-kin geilt walked on two legs, built elaborate halls, and sang Io’s praises from dawn until dusk. Not that Cernunnos suffered from Io’s vain streak, he felt it unjust that no other kind had a voice in this vast world. There was room for more.

One day, while Io remained distracted by his children’s chanting, Cernunnos leapt into the mortal realm in the guise of the great white stag. Perched in the highland crags, he bellowed out and summoned his own children. Lowly animals of the land shuffled through the forest to his call and gazed up at their god. At this time they all walked upon four paws, they grunted and growled without words, as the wild boar that ravages the woods to this day.

My children!” Cernunnos stared down at them. “I seek to bestow a blessing on you. But a blessing must be earned. Only the wisest among you will be deemed worthy. The beast who reaches me where I stand will receive my blessing on their kin.” With that, the god folded his legs beneath him to wait. For the cliff he had chosen was sheer. The task, improbable.

The beasts clawed and scrambled sending shards of stone down beneath them. Many quickly lost heart and left in a huff. Until only five remained. A rat, a bear, a lion, a wolf, and a badger struggled in the debris.

None could gain more than a body length before sliding down. Each one, determination in their eyes, stared up at the antler tips beckoning them to the top of the cliff.

The wolf paused and stepped back from the others, her muzzle wrinkled in thought. The rat scampered back and joined her. He climbed onto to her back and stared between her ears trying to glimpse what she was looking at. The bear and the lion arched up as high as they could, but they were far too short to reach. The wolf lifted her head against the weight of the rat. He clung to her fur, bracing against a tree branch. The badger glanced to the wolf just as she smiled, he shared the revelation as he glimpsed the rat.

The wolf padded up to the bear and nosed her shoulder. The bear cocked her head as she pushed the lion toward him and gestured atop his back. The lion blinked, and the bear scowled and took a swat at him. This got them nowhere. The wolf snapped her jaws and stretched out her length beside the two. Both the lion and bear measured themselves against her. They were longer.

The lion set his muzzle and leaped up on the bear’s back. Then the wolf climbed atop the lion and looked down to the badger. The badger scrambled up to stand on her shoulders. The last was the small rat, who clambered up to her head. One by one, the five stretched to their full length up the side of the cliff.

The rat’s claws gained purchase over the edge. He pulled himself up. But instead of bowing to the god, he grabbed a stout holly vine growing on a nearby tree and lowered it down. The badger caught the vine between her teeth and hauled herself up. She dropped the vine to the wolf, who did the same. And then the lion joined them, and at long last the bear.

Only when all five stood atop the cliff did they turn to face their god.

Cernunnos smiled. “My children, you have surpassed my hope. When this challenge had begun and the many turned away, I expected that none would pass. But you have all proven worthy. And so,” he bowed his head over them, “I shall bless you all.

The rat folk shall be radan.”

The rat’s hind legs lengthened until he stood on them, his paws gained a thumb. The squeak of his voice changed to words. Hair sprouted on his head.

Cernunnos turned to the wolf. “The clever canine folk shall be faol.

In a flash the wolf stood on her long hindlegs and flexed her thumbs. She embraced the rat with a wide grin.

And the burly bears shall be mangan.”

Gaining her new stature, the bear roared with laughter at her good fortune.

The god turned to the lion. “You and your kin shall be cugar.

Upon his hind legs the lion tucked his muzzle in his mane and bowed before the god.

To the badger the god smiled. “You have many kinfolk, be they badger, ferret, weasel, mink, stoat, or otter I bless them the same, your kin shall be brucach.” Cernunnos stood back as the five blessed knelt before him. “Though you are different, you reached your goal together. Always remember that, my children. You are my slan. Let all of you go by that name regardless of your kind. Blessed together, remain together.”

As your will, my lord,” they replied as one.

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A gathering of great minds, past and future.

Cernunnos raised his head and leapt into the starry heavens, vanishing from this realm. In his wake he left his children to inherit the fertile earth. Every shire throughout Caledonia is blessed with every kind of slan. Radan, faol, mangan, cugar, and brucach. We were all meant to be, all blessed by Cernunnos …

The lute’s music faded in the breeze. Ealaidh swept a paw over the instrument and it vanished back into the pendant. Ceighan and Aiden stared at one another, then at their paws.

And with that, my task is complete. I bid you good day, gentle-beasts.” Ealaidh pushed off from the rock and whistled a tune down the cart path.

Traveler!” Ceighan called, waving a paw. “Wait! What about the moon’s cycle? Why does it effect us so?”

She lingered in the path and tossed him a smile. “In three day’s time there is a bardic fest up at the odestone hill. I will be sure to sing of that story. Will I see you there?”

Oh aye!” He wrung his cap in his paws. “If you will sing, I will listen.”

Aiden cuffed his ear with a grin. “Daft fool, fallin’ for a Traveler. Her spirit won’t settle for yours, nor anyones. Come now, let’s get your pony back to the cart.”

Ealaidh twisted her ear at the truth of Aiden’s words. For tis true—the long and lonely road of a Traveler.

The Vagabond Spirit

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Life is not about destinations, but our on-going journeys. None understand this better then the slannic Travelers, for that is all these bards do; journey. As a new year breaks, where will your path take you? Choose wisely! For the stagnant decay in their idleness …

The Origin of the Vagabond Spirit

The embers glowed in the hearth of the shire’s great hall. Ealaidh’s whiskers twitched in the warmth of the pre-dawn sky. Even before she opened her eyes her footpaws shifted beneath her cloak. Her flesh itched and crawled, though there were no fleas in her pelt. She took in a deep breath and held it, her ear cocked to catch the rhythmic breathing of the shire-dwellers slumbering late from the previous night’s story telling.

Every breath was even. None betrayed that they were on the verge of waking.

As silent as an owl’s hunting flight, Ealaidh extracted her restless body from her cloak and rose. Securing the warm garment around her shoulders with the clasp, she gazed around at her fellow slan with a farewell smile.

Never long enough. But that was simply the way of it. She patted her traveling satchel and tip-pawed to the door.

A gasp stalled her passage, followed by the tramping of footpaws. A mob of whelps surrounded her. They pawed at her cloak and tunic, clinging to her like ticks as they rose in a chorus of cries. The same protests she had fallen victim to for close to a fortnight now.

“Don’t go! Stay Storyteller! Don’t leave us. You have to sing more. It’s too soon for you to go.”

Ealaidh dropped her arms from the now pointless stealthy posture and exhaled a puff of breath. Around her the remainder of the slumbering slan arose, rubbing their eyes with the backs of their paws in alarm, until they realized the source of the commotion.

An elder bear lumbered over and tugged his son back from the bard. “Now now, we mustn’t be rude and hinder our visitor. Gorach has stayed here nearly the breadth of a season.”

“We have an empty den, Da. She could make a home with us.”

Ealaidh’s ears swiveled back. “What a generous gesture. But I’m afraid I must refuse.” She knelt down to look the small bear in the eyes. “You see, I have already tarried too long. And though I love this shire, I must be on my way.”

“Are you going home?”

“That … would be impossible, wee one.” She clutched the kenaz pendant hanging from her neck. “You see … one such as I is not permitted to settle anywhere.”

His eyes widened in shock. He looked up at his father to whisper a bit too loud. “Is she homeless, Da? Is she a vagabond? Why?”

The elder bear blushed as he spied Ealaidh shifting away from them, her muzzle turned to the floor. “Son, don’t use that word … ”

“Oh no, he is quite correct. That is what we of Taliesin’s Bardic Circle are. Our footpaws are meant ever to tread, for the world is our home. If we should remain in one shire, how could we possibly play our role to keep and tell history? So you see, it is essential.”

“It must be hard.”

She laughed at the young one’s bluntness. “Well, yes. The road is often long and many stretches are lonely. But we must carry on so that we can meet fellows like you. If ever a Traveler defies the wanderlust promise, the price is dire indeed.”

A dozen pairs of paws tugged on her cloak. “Story! Story! Story!”

Ealaidh clamped her paws over her ears. Even her stout voice struggled to rise above the din. “Alright! One last story. But I must leave once I finish, and I trust you shall understand why.”

Despite the elder slan’s wince, the whelps tugged her over to the hearth and unceremoniously plunked her down. All gathered around at her footpaws as Ealaidh summoned a fiddle from her kenaz. The pendant glowed and vanished as the instrument appeared in her paws.

“Alright … the time I tell is ages ago. When the number of Taliesin’s chosen circle could be tallied on one paw.” She played a festive little ditty on the strings. “A cautionary tale learned by a bard we now know only as Caillte, for his truename is lost … ” Her voice faded as every creature fell into the images her song wove.

Caillte the rat wasn’t the first of Taliesin’s chosen ones, but he was among the first handful. Clever and resourceful, even for a radan, he sang a multitude of songs to the stones for their keeping. But he was not without fault, for no slan truly is. Over the decades Caillte discovered it harder and harder each time he donned his cap and bade farewell to a shire.

Though the road called to him, his heart weighed heavy on the soles of his footpaws. Never a home-shire, never a den, never a family ever again. For a Traveler must remain allied to all, never to one. A Traveler must favor no side, remain open-minded.

After countless turns of the seasons across all of Caledonia, one morning Caillte cooled his paws in a mountain stream and pondered his elongated life. For in exchange for a Traveler’s service to Taliesin, though the years may turn, time may never catch us. Hundreds of years Caillte had gazed into his reflection to find it ever-unchanging. He missed the shire of his birth and pined for a hearth to call his own.

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In defiance of Taliesin’s bitter warning, “Tarry not overlong, for the idle shall lose themselves,” Caillte traversed the land until he stumbled on his home-shire.

The years had taken his parents and siblings to their graves, as well as every whelp of every slan who once knew him. He passed through the hillside dappled with graven stones dressed in the spirals and patterns of the after-realm. Only for a moment did he spare at his parent’s stones.

He knelt down and smiled. “I am home.”

A crowd gathered around the bard as he descended the hillside through the heather. The shire cheered to as he declared he would remain, for though he knew none, they all knew of the famed master bards of the god Taliesin. What a stroke of fortune they should have to call amongst their own one of such eternal knowledge!

Or so they thought …

The seasons turned. At first the wisdom of Caillte was well regarded by even the most gray-whiskered elder. The shire prospered ages ahead of the neighboring villages. Word spread near and far and the population grew. Caillte warmed his footpaws each night by the flames of a hearth he called his own.

A year of seasons had not yet fully turned when one winter’s morn a bright blue wren flitted between the shutters to alight on Caillte’s chest. The slumbering bard murmured, but did not arise. The wren hopped up to his kenaz and eyed it with a scowl. He stabbed at the pendant. The stone scratched.

The little blue wren snapped a nod. “Idle paws have brought this fate. Price of wisdom paid too late. Wanderlust gnaws to the bone, bard who claimed and called a home!”

Caillte opened his eyes to the flutter of wings through the shutter. It was the last morn he knew who he was. As the day progressed, the shire-dwellers watched in dismay as the light in his eyes eroded. By dusk every shred of sense had ceased to be … and all that remained was the creature now dubbed Caillte the Mad.

The poor radan rattled off little more than nonsense from dawn until dusk, only ceasing his ramblings when slumber silenced his errant tongue. He stared at the scratched kenaz for hours with no knowledge of its significance, only that he had it for some reason that ever eluded him.

And continues to elude him to this day …

Ealaidh lowered the fiddle and let her own kenaz coalesce at her collar bone. She held it between her fingers. “Every Traveler ever since is burdened with his curse, Wanderlust. If we linger too long, who we are begins to unravel. Remain too long … and we too would be entirely lost.”

The bear whelp tugged on her brush tail. “But you’re not mad.”

“Not yet.” She smiled. “But the itches and twitches have begun. The road calls to my bones. No matter how weary I might be, now is the time for my journey to start.” Ealaidh rose and bowed. “Your shire has been gracious. Your hearth has been warm. But a Traveler has no home to call their own. Ado, my friends, until I wander this way again.”

Once more a whelp’s paw stalled her departure. A radan held his naked tail in the other paw as he tugged on her cloak. “Did … did … did you have a home-shire?”

Her heart skipped a painful beat. “Yes. Once a very long time ago I called a special glade my home. A time when I was no older than you. It has been many a decade since I laid eyes on it.”

“Why?”

Her tail swept the floor. “Because … there are stones on the hillside at which I cannot bear to gaze. There are stories that I was born to be a part of and because of a solemn vow … I could not be. Bless your heart little one. On your journey, pick your paths well.”

She turned and padded for the door as fleetly as she could manage, lest they spy the tears welling in her eyes. It was not until she reached the hilltop out of sight of the shire-dwellers that she dared to let her proud head droop to her chest beneath the weight of the solemn vow.

A flash of bright blue stole her attention. A wren with a cheeky grin alighted on her walking staff.

“I don’t need the reminder.” She swatted at him, pestering him into flight. “I’m on my way to everywhere and nowhere. Go on, get!”