Shadow of Doubt

Shadow of Doubt

samhainsidhewyvern

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

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

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

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

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

He stared at me blankly.

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

“Seirm, my young bard—”

“I’m seventy-three.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Listen …” The wisp evaporated.

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

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

weary …

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

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

“Have you told Luisreadh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 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.

blinddivisions

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 Legacy of Fear

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A sword can slay whatever lies in its path. But fear is a devastating weapon, it cuts down lives generations down the path in a journey without end.

innercirclebards

A gathering of great minds, past and future.

That ancient adage clings to my slannic mind of late. I mourn for your world, humanity, because as a Traveler I know where this is headed. The true-master bards have not seen your fate specifically, but we have seen the signs before, ages past, in our kind. Mark me well …

For many ages slan lived a peaceful existence in shires nestled into the woodlands. Our kinds intermingled and hardly gave mind to our differing races. Whether we were cugar, mangan, faol, radan, or brucach mattered not – the god Cernunnos had made us what we were: all of us slan. The shires grew in number, our culture thrived, and we bards enjoyed revelry much of our days. Only rarely were we asked to sit judgement over a petty crime. Slan were free to pay homage to whichever deity they pleased. Free to select their mate regardless of race or talents. It was a legacy of prosperity. Our society was rich beyond compare …

… until the harmony faded into discord.

The wave started small. An aftershock from a tragic event involving magic. One voice cried out in fear that the ‘beast’, though concurred, would re-emerge! Why? Because the event proved any one of us could be turned against slan. The magic of the shape-shift, a gift from the gods to heal and restore, embodied the paranoia that could come hunting in the night. A beast sent to slaughter. Magic, a part of us all, became the first target of fear.

The voice fostered that fear and the flocks came in droves. More voices cried out and pulled into further divisions. Soon, those who turned their backs on the once-ways built stone walls to protect them from their wild and primitive ‘enemies’. Each stronghold divided by race, unwilling to let a faol live amongst a brucach, or a mangan amongst the cugar. Their world became shattered into fragments guarded by swords and pikes, shielded by armor against corruption of their own decree. They selected which deities the whole of their population would follow. And in an effort to kill magic they poisoned the blood of every subject, stealing any chance they would have of becoming their true selves. For they were afraid the beast within would tear through and stalk the night!

In the shires we clung to one another, intermingled and distraught as our world was decimated. Fires burned in the valleys when the armies marched to force the followers of the once-ways into death or blood-poisoning. Magic-talents slaughtered by the thousands not by sword or poison, but by fear.

The words resonated through the generations. Parent taught whelp to hate those different in race, creed, and talent. The flames of hatred divided us … yet we were all still slan. They just refused to see it. A magic that healed and restored, a magic that was at the core of our ancient spirits, lay twisted into the dark saga of a beast to be feared. A creature to be banished. It became law that any who tapped that sacred well and refused to suppress their ability must be put to death.

The hillsides, stripped of their once ancient forests, became populated with nothing more burial cairns.

The bardic circle watched as time eroded the society we had been birthed in … until it vanished. For once the shire-born slan were eradicated, the strongholds turned on one another. Their society born of fear of an enemy, they created a new monster to slay.

We watched our world die at the hands of ignorance and fear. We watched as kin slayed kin over misunderstanding and superstition. We watched as belief drove hundreds to slaughter out of hatred.

We bore witness to a legacy of fear spread unchecked until all that remains of the slan is the memories sung to the stones … our songs. The funeral durge instead of a celebration of our once vast diversity.

Humanity, the world is in your hands now. Daily cries go up of the atrocities perpetuated against one another. Regardless of their reason: creed, race, religion, gender, orientation, job, age … why do these unreasonable divisions keep festering anew? You are all human at the core … just as we were all slan.

A legacy of fear … is all that humanity will leave behind?

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Ealaidh, the Traveler