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.

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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!”