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.”
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.