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.

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Passing the Mantle

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Passing the Mantle

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

But disrupt my sleep it did!

SCHLOOMP!

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

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

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

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

He turned and snapped at my paw.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She flared out her wings and shrieked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cinnich

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

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

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

The Healer’s Moon

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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.

healersmoon

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 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 Legend of the First Frost

journeysthrougha-brass-quill

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.

gorachlute

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.

Symbols that Build, Symbols that Break

journeysthrougha-brass-quill

BardicSummons

“When you look what do you see? … don’t fear to look deeper.” ~Ealaidh

Welcome back.

I just finished the most amusing discussion with my human friend about symbols. We’ve all heard that old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, likewise a symbol can embody complex ideals.

Take the kenaz for example:

Kenaz

This rune is vital to the slannic bards. Displayed on necklaces, it tells others that we serve our race as lore-keepers, judges, and entertainers. Even the material the pendant is made from is significant. A novice bard’s is made from leather. A master bard’s, carved from wood. If one is a Traveler, or a true-master bard selected by the god Taliesin, the kenaz is comprised of a special metallic stone imbued with special properties.

What special properties, you ask? Well, all a Traveler need do is think of an instrument and the kenaz becomes it. Whether you want a drum, a tin-whistle, a harp… or even in modern times, yes–an electric guitar. It’s a convenient way of ensuring we aren’t burden by an veritable orchestra of instruments.

You can imagine, wandering on footpaw that would become quite heavy.

There is a danger to wearing the kenaz as well. For when everyone knows that you are a source of logic and reason, you quickly become a target during upheaval. There was a time when we Travelers had little choice but to cast a guise over our runes for our very survival.

Like my experience with the mixtured nature of symbols, my human friend reflected on a story of a man who became defined by them. She has been recording some lost chapters of his life for the world to come to know the core of this man.

From his birth, Erik hid his face behind a mask.

PhantomMask

He had every reason, for despite his extraordinary gifts, he was disfigured and the world was reviled his monstrous face. But his spirit craved beauty. He collected things that fascinated him. He accumulated the most astonishing skills to build devices and buildings that left onlookers in awe.

None of it mattered. The world only saw the mask– the monster beneath.

Weary of humanity’s game and heartsick after the loss of his greatest treasure, Erik exiled himself and tried to begin a-new. Only in America he found that his strange mask was not the only barrier.

Here he was an immigrant! Though he may have brought a meager fortune with him, the shine of the coin mattered nothing. He was an immigrant to be confined to the Bowery ward for that reason above any other.

This new world underestimated his ambition to create. Fettered by society’s bias Erik put his boundless spirit into one goal–sharing his visions with the world through his architecture.

Against the odds he earned enough to commission the one thing he would need to show the elite he was a gentlemen. His signet ring.

ErikSignetSilverOnline

The silver compass: a tool gifted to him by his stone-mason mentor. The most prized possession of an architect essential for creating master works.

The quill: the writing utensil that documented his other passion, music.

And of course his one and only initial: E. For Erik possessed no sir-name. Despite this, he claimed the status of a gentleman by his own merit.

Mask and signet. Shield and pennant. Sometimes they protect us, sometimes they define us. Sometimes they endanger or even fight us!

For Erik, his symbols have been all of these… if you like to read his story, my human friend has been recording it here: Nightingale’s Odyssey

Until next time, my friends.