Vessel and the Dying Light

Around the glades near the shire of Sruth Uaine not even the wind shifted the last leaf clinging to the ironwood branch. In the dwindling light I sat atop the ode-stone watching the perked ears of my fellow Slan as they wound silently through the deer paths. Every moment the sun journeyed closer to the horizon. Every moment hope died a little more.

I longed for that sensation beneath my paw pressed against the stone. Please, let some other Traveler sing to the stones. Let some Slan succeed, somewhere.

I spread out the toes of each footpaw. I was fleet. Perhaps if I joined in the pursuit? But no. Today, the shortest day of the year, did not belong to me nor any other of the bardic order. This day we were but witness to a ritual that belonged to the uninitiated youth. Who was I, a Traveler beyond her first life-span, to steal the honor from the fleet-pawed who had spent their seasons in practice sprints over hill and dale. My fingers caressed the stubborn stone. The magic thrummed against my pads, willing me to evoke the images of the past rituals. I nearly did before letting my ears fall. No, for I might miss the subtle song from another shire.

“Traveler?” A whisper stole my attention.

I leaned forward and stared down into the eyes of an adolescent stoat clutching a pouch on her belt. Stretched to her full height, she turned her gaze out to the filtering trees. I recalled her name from back in the shire, Dochas was a daughter of one of the druids not yet initiated into the order. She was not known for her grace. In fact her footpaws seemed to have minds of their own.

Her tail bristled and twitched as she went on. “Traveler, how … how do you know for sure today is the Solstice? I mean, could we … could we be wrong?”

“The sun speaks its truth. The path has stalled as only the eyes of those who measure know.” I smiled. “You fear that the search is for nothing.”

A tremble swept through her. “What if it was yesterday? What if we missed the opportunity? What if it is today and no one succeeds? Has that happened before?”

“Indeed, it has.” It took all my will-power not to summon the images of those pawful of harsh times. She already shook, no need to mire her fears. “Not in any age that I have born witness to, but in the distant past there have been winters where no beast of any shire has managed to locate the mighty Soitheach. And in some cases they found her in the dusk and failed to catch the wily beast.”

WinterSolsticeBoar

Her eyes searched with greater urgency.

“Without the touch of a paw and the connection to the legendary mother-boar, the harvest that followed was indeed meager. The forest ungenerous. Every shire in the land shed weight in the turn of the seasons. But don’t fret. Look to the sky. The sun’s rays still blush the horizon. So long as light remains, so too does hope.”

“Then … no one has found Soitheach?” She nearly climbed the stone pillar.

Silence reached out of the surface. No new song broke forth. I shook my head.

Dochas heaved a sigh. “How can no one find a boar that large?”

“The whole of our island is immense.” I shrugged. After all, ancient dragons filled the mountain caverns without a trace. Soitheach was indeed more massive than a normal boar, but she was no mountain.

Dochas’s ears drooped. A moment later they crept back up. A paw to rose to her lips.

I held my breath. Silence, for by now all of the young Slan had pressed away from us toward the distant stream.

Crack.

We both turned and gazed into the fiery rays piercing the wood from the distant hill. A mound moved through the bracken. A snorting shuffle carried through the forest. Dochas clung to the shadow of the stone, crouching low she slunk under a fallen truck of a tree and braced herself.

I narrowed my eyes against the blaze of the setting sun. The final fingers stretched into the sky. I sniffed, but no wind carried the scent. The stagnant air denied any hint as to the creature that came our way. Was it Soitheach’s hooves breaking a trail? Or some other immense beast?

Hold still, young one. Let this be your year. Soitheach, give this one the honor.

Yes, I am too old to believe in such a notion as to her hearing me. Or even my will calling forth a creature of legend. I know better than to assume they gave a damn about the lure of my insubstantial voice. A Traveler holds powerful magic, but the elements of nature hold to their own whims.

From the pouch on her belt, Dochas snatched out a mushroom the size of her splayed paw. Gently she blew on the cap toward the creature. Branches snapped and cracked. The ragged outline of the lumbering mound of flesh grew out of the forest. Tusks longer than a Slan’s arm arched toward the sky. Two beady eyes the color of a rippling stream glimmered beneath shaggy brows. A ridge of coarse frost-gray hair stretched along her back. In her wake the forest shivered, frost cracked the ground in her hoof prints.

Soitheach’s breath curled out of her mouth and rose into an icy fog. She turned her focus toward the tree. Dochas’s paw held the offering out like the wooden limb.

I cocked my head. What a clever little mite.

Step by frostbitten step, Soitheach wandered toward her with nostrils wide sucking in the scent. I clung to my perch. A faint finger of light speared the sky. If Dochas moved, the fleet hooves of the beast would carry her well out of range. All it would take was a flinch and the year would be of fallow fields.

Hold! Chasing now would be folly. Patience, young one!

A paw-width away. Every breath of the mighty boar stirred the fur on Dochas’s paw. Still as the steadfast oak she remained, not even blinking as Soitheach’s flanks twitched. Saliva dripped from her open mouth leaving behind a killing frost.

Soitheach lifted her head and engulfed the mushroom. A string of fluid connected paw and beast.

My heart thrummed. It wasn’t enough. Reach, slow… but reach!

Soitheach ground the fungus between her teeth, grunting with obvious pleasure. Her eyes hooded over.

Swift as lightning Dochas’s paw caressed down the muzzle.

Louder than thunder Soitheach squealed her displeasure. She reared her bulk up onto her hunches and nearly tumbled onto her bristly backside. That fate Dochas did not escape. She toppled tail over muzzle behind the tree. She narrowly missed being crushed by the hooves of the bucking boar.

The forest shattered as Soitheach plowed up the hillside leaving a breathless young stoat in her wake bathed in the final blush of the evening sun. Alarmed voices called from all around, ears bobbed in the distance. Dochas lay there gasping for breath, rooted to the spot as she stared where the legend has once stood in four frosted hoof prints.

My heart raced, the song this year … was mine to sing! I bore witness. From my neck I grasped my kenaz and willed the pendant into a fiddle. Already the prose formed in my mind.

Dochas of the shire of Sruth Uaine, you shall be ever-remembered. You, and you alone by your cleverness, have blessed the new year. Tomorrow, when the day grows longer, we may rejoice and sing your name.


A blessed holidays to you and yours, with a happy new year!

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The Harpening

One would think that living in a shire surrounded by the next generation of elite story-tellers would be captivating. Well, life in the shire of Coarrunn is boring as watching moss grow on a fallen log. I’ve been here now for a couple years learning my bardic skills from Master Bard Ais from sun-up to sun-down. Nothing but sit your fuzzy rear here and listen.

We’re bards! We’re supposed to tell!

“Ealaidh.” Seinn, an adolescent wolf several years older than me, ruffled the hair between my ears as he joined me by the river. “Aren’t you supposed to be listening to Ais’s lecture on the Bones of Lore.”

I mock-yawned and smirked. “Makes me snore.”

“This isn’t rhyming class.”

With a toothy grin, I replied, “Why all the sass?”

He rolled his eyes. “You’re such a pain.”

“I can’t complain.”

Tweaking my ear, he couldn’t help a little grin. “That cheeky-nature of yours is going to get you into trouble.”

I wrapped my arms around my legs and sighed. “I just want to do something besides listen all day. We’re minstrels-in-training, shouldn’t we be playing instruments, singing, and stuff?”

Seinn adjusted the red scarf around his neck, a nervous habit of his. “Well, yeah, eventually. I mean, I am, but you won’t for a few more turns of the seasons.”

I shot bolt upright. “What? A few more … what will I be doing in all that time … listening to snore-fests?”

“Fraid so. It’s what the novice whelps do. Now, let’s go.” He turned and trudged off.

I lingered by the rippling stream, finding its voice more interesting than my tutor’s. The sensation of a glare burning at my back stirred me to my footpaws. I kicked a pebble and the water swallowed my offering. Grimly, I embraced my fate and followed Seinn back towards the shire.

We passed by the glade where his harping class was about to start. The wolf offered me a hard glare and pointed over the hill to where Ais would be lecturing. With my shoulders rolled forward, I padded on … until I heard the paws of my fellow slan on the strings.

The tinkling beauty called me. Scampering through the brush I edged to the backside of the class to watch as row after row of older novice bards plucked dutifully in echo of the Master Harpist at the front. The lure pulled me, my footpaws nearly dancing, toward an empty harp at the back of the group.

My paws itched, a sensation so dire that if I didn’t touch the strings to make them sing I would cease to exist. The world lived suspended in those strings and playing them released it.

The first touch, tentative, but it brought forth a delicate cascade of sound. My heart leapt. I slid onto the seat and listened to the tune as played by the Master. Fingers shifted, already knowing the way. The moment the silence fell, I repeated the simple tune with the others. Stopping at the end felt like clogging a river. But I listened again. This time more notes than what I had heard poured through. They didn’t stop at the end of the passage.

EalaidhHarpOdeStone

Behind my closed eyes, the glade dissolved to be replaced by a mighty star-fall and a celestial river of brilliant lights. Rich blues, purples, and pinks danced in the void. Around me will-o-wisps flickered in brilliant sequences. A speckled beast dove through the celestial waters, one of the mighty dragon-kin. She arched her head and extended her frill releasing a mighty roar that shook the heavens.

A paw grasped my shoulder. I opened my eyes to find the Master Harpist staring at me in awe, a strange twitch to the corner of his eye. “Young one, you should not be playing yet. You have yet to master your powers.”

I withdrew my claws from the strings and folded my paws pleadingly. “But, I must play … ”

He extended a paw over the class, drawing my attention to it. Every student, even Seinn sat slack-jawed staring at the glimmering images projected in the air around me … my celestial river! “You must release them from your enchantment, whelp.” He knelt before me, gazing into my eyes. “In all my years, I have never seen one of such raw power. No, you must be careful and learn slowly or you may convince a beast that something is there when it is not. Or lead them to be lost to the past.”

I stared at the strings, glimpsing the other bards trapped in my image fog. “I … I don’t know how.”

The Master Harpist heaved a sigh. “And that proves my point. You, most of all, must refrain until Ais has tempered your abilities. For now, I want you to mimic what I play.” He carefully plucked out a sequence.

When he finished, I played it. The moment I struck the last note, the bards all blinked and the dreamy expression faded. Seinn stared at me, confusion in his unblinking gaze.

The Master Harpist took my paws and folded them in my lap. “Now, you don’t touch another harp, understand?”

I couldn’t even nod. The lingering sensation of completeness called to me to touch the strings. The instrument itself promised power sweet and alluring. Without even knowing it I had enchanted a dozen other bards-in-training into an enthralled image fog.

My claw drifted toward a string. The Master Harpist pushed it back away. “There’s another class you should be in right now. Your time will come, whelp. But it is most definitely not now. Off with you before you steal my students again.”

Dutifully I left, over my shoulder I watched planning my next chance to play. At least I was no longer bored.

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 Birth of Music

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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.

The Healer’s Moon

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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.

gorachillusionary

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.

innercirclebards

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!”

The Legend of the First Frost

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The shadows have reached their longest. The longest night is come. And so the heart turns wistful and ponders myth and truth. Sit by the fire, friend. Sit … and ponder with me where the line between legend and truth blurs.

The Legend of the First Frost

Gorach’s claws coaxed the rollicking melody from the strings of a lute. In the midst of the Drumbeg’s great hall the shire’s whelps whirled and danced in the welcome firelight from the hearth. Many an elder slan’s footpaw tapped to the rhythm of the familiar tune as the cross-fox bard sang out the lilting verses.

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Oh the holly she bears a berry as red as is blood,

A reflection of the depth of the holly’s vast love.

The wisdom within her branches displayed for all to see.

And the first tree within the greenwood it was the holly.

Ho-lly. Ho-ol-lly, the first tree within the greenwood it was the holly.

Oh the holly she bears a berry as green as the pine,

Linked in the spirit as yours is to mine.

The wisdom within her branches displayed for all to see.

And the first tree within the greenwood it was the holly.

Ho-lly. Ho-ol-lly, the first tree within the greenwood it was the holly.

Oh the holly she bears a berry as white as the frost,

To remind us to keep in memory all we have lost.

The wisdom within her branches displayed for all to see.

And the first tree within the greenwood it was the holly.

Ho-lly. Ho-ol-lly, the first tree within the greenwood it was the holly.

She drew the last line of the verse out, staying her paw over the strings as she watched the whelps lean forward in anticipation. Their bright eyes locked and waited for the final chord. With a sly grin, Gorach strummed and finished swiftly.

Was the holly!

The whelps giggled in a chorus.

Gorach waved her paw across the lute and released the spell. In a flicker of green light the instrument vanished and the small hematite medallion re-materialized around her neck. The mark of the Traveler, her kenaz.

otterwhelpA little otter in a bright red tunic spun in a circle, clutching her hem. “Wook! Juss wike da bewwies! An’ youw tunic is wike da bewwies too!”

She ruffled the otter whelp’s flaxen hair and grinned before remarking of her own threadbare tunic. “Green like the pine. What an observant wee one you are. And here I thought you were just dancing instead of listening to me.”

The whelp reached a paw for the necklace around the bard’s neck. “I wanna twinket wike dhat! Can it make anyt’ing you want?”

Gorach laughed and let the little one’s fingers hold it briefly. “If a kenaz were that powerful, then there would be no suffering in this world of which to sing. No, there are limits. But from this marvelous stone I can draw forth any musical instrument I have ever laid my eyes upon.”

Every whelps’ mouth hung open in awe. At last the gregarious otter blurted out, “Dida dei … dei … deity give dhat to you?”

“Yes. A god named Taliesin gave this to me. As I’m sure you have all heard from the elders of your shire, there are many deities in our world. A Traveler such as I is tasked with keeping the stories of the world and recording them for all time to the stones.” She rubbed her footpaws. “I can never tarry long anywhere. Rather a paw-weary task to keep all the threads straight. Which reminds me, today is an important day.” Gorach pulled a tidy bundle of holly branches of all colors from her scuffed leather satchel and knelt before the hearth. The whelps clung to the hem of her patchwork cloak like a gaggle of geese following their mother. She grinned as every youthful eye watched her untie the holly boughs.

She held up the green bough to the hungry flames. “To remember that rebirth shall happen again.” Tossed to the flames, the holly branch blossomed with the fire. Next she pulled out the red. “To remember that change is essential for growth.” The flames ate this branch as well. Holding up the last, the white berries, Gorach bowed her head. “And to remember that even the stoutest must rest. Rhew, come grant the land its sleep.” The last branch whistled in the fire, an echo of the wind outside the shuttered windows. The once bright colored berries turned to an indistinguishable hue of black.

The little otter tugged on Gorach’s sleeve. “Who’s Rhew?”

With a cock of her head, she sank her claws into her own long hair and scratched her perked ear. “No one has told you of Rhew? Well, now! I’ll tell you what, t’will be a long night, and for but a mug of mulled wine I will trade the story of the first frost.”

A bobcat flashed her grin and dipped the ladle into the streaming pot by the fire. He filled the mug and handed it to his son who took it in both paws. The whelp watched the level of the maroon spiced wine sloshing back and forth. By the time he reached the bard’s side nearly every slan who had come to the great hall to listen to their visitor had settled in a wide circle. Many a whelp curled in the lap of their parents. Others sat in a group at Gorach’s footpaws, leaning forward as she took a grateful gulp from the mug.

“Oh, bless the brewer. Just what a parched throat needed.” She nodded to the bobcat now seated by the hearth with an expectant grin. With a wave of her paw over the kenaz she summoned a large harp, as tall as she was seated. Her tail shifted to make room for it, avoiding the heavy instrument. She released a cascade of shimmering notes from the strings and began her tale as she always did.

Her claws danced across the strings and teased out an ominous melody. “Hearken to me. Young and old. Those who remember, those who have lived, those who have yet to live. For the telling is the power of the ages. Voices of the past call out to teach, to inspire, to warn.” The accompaniment shifted to playful. “In ages past, before the first slan roamed the land, in the time before time, it was Io’s children who ruled the world instead of sharing it with Cernunnos’s, as now. The land was very different in that age … not the seasons as we know them, but an eternal world of bloom and color. And among the dragon-kin, creatures we would know … ” As she plucked the strings, the air began to shimmer in golden strands that formed into a diminutive wyvern swooping around the room. The illusion left the whelps and elders awestruck as the image built before them in translucent golden figures. “The sidh-wyverns. The god Io’s most mischievous creation. Most are known for flitting about the forests, playing pranks on the unwary wanderer. But not all. Like our kind, some have been chosen by their god for special tasks … and this is the case with Rhew.” Her voice drifted away as they fell under her spell and entered the world of ages past.

Of all Io’s children, from the dragons to the refined geilt, the sidh-wyvern were the most colorful of all. Created from the blossoms of the trees, the tiny winged dragon-kin bore scales of the most elaborate color combinations. Deep crimson reds blended with purples rich enough to rival the violet in full bloom. Azure blue of the rippling river shimmered beside greens as lush as any valley. The vibrant little beasts prided themselves on their hues.

It was to that shame that Rhew emerged from the boughs of the holly. Stark against the viridian leaves, Rhew’s scales were a pure white, his eyes blue as the columbine. The translucent membranes of his wings, instead of smooth, bore a patterned fringe unlike any other sidh-wyvern making them appear tattered. In place of the hardened scales at the end of his tail Rhew had a tuft of shimmering white hairs. The others had no idea what to think of their colorless cousin. Because of his markings Rhew discovered it was difficult to evade their aggressive dives from the trees. Too feeble in his youth to stretch into the sky, he clung to the dark recesses of the holly branches. He ate her berries and sought her thorns for protection.

As he grew over the years in the embrace of the holly, Rhew sprouted branched antlers on his head from two patches of white hairs that matched his tail. Each year his antlers gained a new point. Around this neck a rough of thick hair wreathed his chest and shoulders. The holly’s branches still fostered him in safety, though he had grown to nearly the size of a hawk, larger than his kin.

Unlike his cousins, Rhew did not shriek or squawk. Mute, he perched in the trees and cocked his ears to listen to the forest. By the time he bore six points on each of his antlers he huddled in the holly listening to her wisdom. Weariness pervaded her whispers. She longed to rest. Rhew nuzzled her leaves, taking care to avoid her thorns. He wished for her to find the peace she sought. Beneath his touch tiny shards of white sprouted.

Rhew pulled his head back and flapped his wings, taking refuge on another branch. What had he done? Had he harmed her?

From the holly gratitude washed over him.

Whispers traveled through the greenwood from the weary forest besieged by the frolicking of Rhew’s kin in their lush branches. A great longing for respite from growth called out to the sidh-wyvern. He glanced once more at the holly and cocked his head. Wreathed in the shining crystals, she remained grateful.

The shadows grew long over the land as night descended. In the cover of the dark, while his kin slept, Rhew shot from the protection of his beloved holly. His wings carried him high into the clear night sky. Beneath his broad flight, a blanket of delicate white bloomed and sparkled in the moonlight. Rhew marveled as his wings painted the world.

The forest breathed a sigh of relief as for the first time since creation the trees and plants rested in the grip of the gathering frost.

When the sun rose to cast golden rays on Rhew’s work, the breathless sidh-wyvern collapsed into the embrace of the sleeping holly. Io crept into his dreams and massaged Rhew’s weary wings as he spoke, “Blessed one, catalyst of the world. You were made to bring peace over a boisterous land. Your gift has brought the seasons to order. There is a time of abundance, and so there shall be a time when the earth must rest. Rhew, lord of the winter skies, bringer of frost. Each year your flight will mark the time of rest when the nights grow long and the days short. Others will come. But you are my first harbinger.”

By the light of day, the bright colored sidh-wyvern clung to the frost covered trees in shock as their bright colors betrayed them. Rhew flitted from tree to tree hardly noticed in the white-hued world. Flurries of delicate snow followed in his wake until one day a pale pink and green sidh-syvern burst from the branches of a cherry tree, the snow drifts melted beneath her flight into the first spring … rhewsidhwyvernGorach let the notes hang in the air. She watched the tendrils of sidh-wyvern shaped light entwine on a spiral path to the ceiling, until they evaporated. She folded her paws on the top of the harp and rested her chin there. “Thus began the steady dance of the seasons. A reminder that new growth always begins with sacrifice and loss.”

A bear whelp, years older than the otter, smirked. “Rhew isn’t real. That’s just a silly myth.”

“Really?” Gorach waved a paw and dissolved the harp back into the simple kenaz. She took another gulp of the mulled wine and padded to the window where she unlatched the shutter. Outside, shimmering in the moonlight, the world had been draped in a blanket of fine crystals.

The bear crossed his arms and shook his head. “No puny little sidh-wyvern did that.”

She held her paw out the window and waited. A few moments passed before fine snowflakes began to tumble into her paw. A pure-white, hawk-sized sidh-wyvern swooped down and perched on her arm, holding firmly with his black-tipped talons. He bowed his antlered head to the Traveler. Gorach placed a paw to her heart. “Bless you for granting the world its rest, Rhew.”

In a flurry of snow Rhew took to the air, countless smaller white sidh-wyerns flitted in his wake.

The bear whelp stood on tip paw, flakes drifting in to settle on his nose. “He’s real!”

“For the telling is the power of ages.” Gorach nodded to the bear whelp and smiled. “You’re right. He doesn’t do it alone. Not anymore.” She found herself crowded from the window by the hoard of whelps clawing to get a better look at the spirit of winter.

The cross-fox padded to the hearth side, letting the flame’s warmth kiss her paws. Before stopping in Drumbeg for the night, she had known the day would be her last one without the cover of snow. The holly had begun to whisper.


A blessed Winter Solstice to you and yours! May the turning of the seasons bring you peace and rejuvenation.