The Bone Connection

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The Bone Connection, Anthropomorphic Characters Are a Small Logical Leap Series

The metacarpals are connected to the proximal phalanges. The proximal phalanges are connected to the intermediate phalanges. The inter—what? What do you mean what I am talking about?

Ok. Let me clue in those I have lost with layman terms. I’m talking about front paws. Do those bones maybe also sound familiar? If you’ve busted a finger I bet you’ve heard phalange before. It’s funny how most people commonly refer to the digits on a dog’s front paw as their toes, when technically the bones are fingers.

gorachlute

You should know Ealaidh by now. Would be pretty tough for her to play instruments sans thumbs.

Which brings us to anthropomorphism in writing: animal characters with human traits. This is a series exploring how fine a line writers are treading when they create anthropomorphic characters and worlds, why suspension of disbelief is nowhere near as difficult as it seems if you think about it logically, and why this really isn’t just kids stuff. Most of my works involve canines. The reason behind that is I have been a lifelong dog owner, or at least my family owned dogs when I was a kid. I am familiar with their form, their traits, their habits, their social mannerisms… and I love them. This is also the reason why most of my breakdowns in the series are canine-centric. I have examples right at my feet.

Hand and Paw Degree

Ok, now you won’t see me arguing that a real world dog possesses a full grasping hand. Scientifically they do not. They do, however, possess the same bones right down to the corresponding phalanges for a thumb. These can be found on dogs where the dewclaw has not been removed. The dewclaw is not a highly mobile digit for dogs, it serves as traction control for tight turning, as is seen in this photo of my agility dog, Ash.

DewClawTurn

Ashenpaw, my border collie, demonstrating a wrist layout as he turns. That joint is actually his wrist. The dewclaw grips the ground allowing a tighter turn.

The tendons attached to the digit are not lined up properly for motor control. But if you look at a paw next to a human hand, there is the basis for the ‘what if they were’ that good fiction is hung on.

PawHandCompare

Phoenix, my border collie/ausse mix’s left front paw and my left hand in a similar position. Think about it, dogs actually walk on their fingers and toes.

Anthropomorphism already implies there is a fusion, an evolution of the animal’s original structure to resemble a human. If you are reading a story with anthros this should be expected, rather like a ghost story has at least one ghost. Dogs already have on their forelimbs: the entire set of hand bones, the wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints. The catch is that in the basic dog the finger bones are shorter, the ‘thumb’ lacks the muscles and tendon connections, the wrist is longer (what some call a ‘front knee’ is actually the wrist), and the upper arm bone is shorter by human comparison and with limited ability to rotate. We’re talking the alteration of a few features to create the ability to grasp something.

It’s funny, but spend time with enough dogs and you are certain to see them manipulate things with their paws, almost to the point of grabbing. I have watched my own curling their dexterous paws around objects and lifting them. Not enough to be considered fine motor skills, but DAMN impressive, none-the-less.

So why is the common adult reaction “How can they grab things without a thumb?” A reaction that happens even when writers have illustrated activities that couldn’t be done easily by a society without opposable digits: wearing clothing, lighting a cigarette, using a weapon, riding a mount, drinking from a tankard.

One issue might stem from the fact that anthropomorphic writers often use the terms paw in place of hand and footpaw in place of foot. This is part of world building, and is often used in a world built in absence of humanity. Consider an animalistic society, half of the world building is having it reflect their reality, not explicitly our own. Would they use hand or paw? I mean, I have asked my dogs and they stare at me before plopping their paw in my hand. We don’t know for certain what such a cast might use, but paw feels right to many of us and in an anthropomorphic world is intended to apply to a grasping, manipulating structure at the end of an arm. That is of course unless the degree is lesser and it is a real world animal narration like “Charlotte’s Web” or “The Art of Racing in the Rain”. It is usually clear in the setting which version is happening.

PawToHadEvolution_000017

From dog paw to half-anthro all the way to full-anthro paw.

Another fun fact, the general structure of the arm can be seen in a number of animals from reptiles and amphibians, to birds and fish. The bones are all modified versions, but the basic layout is preserved.

Posturing

EalaidhCampfire

“On the other paw … “

An anthropomorphic character will often be said to walk around on their footpaws. This posture is so commonly seen and accepted in children books and even classic fable artwork. Yet once we approach adulthood suddenly this is beyond the scoop of imagination. It is rejected, or categorized as a juvenile interest with few exceptions… say a certain foul-mouthed genetically modified space raccoon like creature? Apparently Rocket passes into the realm of acceptable for adult entertainment. As well as his anthropomorphic companion, Groot. Surprise, plants can be anthro too.

human dog comparison

Diagram of human and dog in relative positions. *

Animals and humans largely have corresponding bones throughout the bodies, including ‘tail bones’. Yes, humans have tails internally. The structure is a left over trait. In this above illustration showing a humans and dogs skeletons in similar poses it can be seen how many structures we truly have in common.

And yes, dogs and many other mammals can walk on their hind legs. It’s not hard to teach via positive reinforcement. I actually captured this behavior that Phoenix did naturally, now she can walk a few steps on her hind legs unsupported.

WalkingPhoenix

Phoenix walking bipedal

Among many examples, there are two border collies on Youtube who demonstrate a tremendous amount of tricks including going from a beg to a full stand on rear legs, bipedal walking forward and backward, carrying things balanced between their front limbs … seriously, Holly and Ace are AWESOME!

Now I can hear the rebuttals! “But they have been taught that! Animals don’t do it naturally.” Hrm, are we born capable of walking upright? Seems to me we crawl for a bit until we strengthen our core enough to be able to support and balance the bipedal posture. Walking upright is a learned behavior in humans, and one that can be taught to some quadrupeds. Bears and porcupines are wild animals who are occasionally seen walking upright from time to time.

Dog skeleton

Vintage anatomy diagram of dog skeleton *

Of course for bipedal posture to be a comfortable one there are a couple of changes. One is the neck attachment needs to be shifted to the base of the skull, most mammal spines attach at the back of the skull so the neck flows level. The other primary difference is the pelvic bone. Quadro’s have a narrow girdle, while a bipedal is typically wider/front facing. Again, since we’re talking alternate universe, or genetic manipulation, it’s within a stones throw. Writers are not creating anything that isn’t already there, just modifying it.

The Bare Bones of It

What does this all mean? That the bones are there, we’re just talking about altering connections, and developing support systems to create the form of a stable, bipedal animal … a humorous statement considering that humans are animals. Unless you think we are vegetables or minerals. Humans are in fact bipedal animals, pure and simple. Are we specialized? Absolutely. But we are still animals that followed an evolutionary course to obtain our form, abilities, behaviors, etc. There is nothing that says given enough time other animals might not follow a similar course. We already have seen animals using tools, solving complex puzzles, displaying empathy. But exploration of these will be part of this series.

Bottom line is structurally anthropomorphic characters are easily obtained from real world sources without much change. The leap is far narrower than what is required to believe in fire-breathing dragons, elves, dwarves, and sorcerers creating walking ice corpses … but who am I to speak? Just a humble anthro-writer of role models severely inappropriate for children. Til next time …

RoleModelEnfuego

Enfuego the chihuahua, a NOT safe for children creation of mine. She has been published in an adult humor anthro-anthology.

*Images marked with this symbol are not my artwork, used in Fair Use for information purposes.

Next topic: Getting Lippy!

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The Anthropomorphic Stigma

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“This wouldn’t quite fit in our Fantasy department, and though we have a section for young people, I think this story would work better in a dedicated children’s magazine.”

“I would read the shit out of this, but I wouldn’t tell my friends I’m reading it.”

“Aww, this story has an animal in the lead. What a cute children’s story!”

EalaidhCampfire

What do all of the above have in common? They are actual feedback I have received on various pieces of my writing throughout the years. They are also proof of the bane of my existence as a writer. That bane is a blanket stigma that any work that includes animals (either a real one narrating through thoughts, or anthropomorphs that walk and talk like humans) is automatically relegated to the children’s story category. Yes–there are some that have managed to get listed outside of the young readers age group, but by and large the industry and public reaction is only young readers can possibly be interested in animal MCs.

Don’t believe me? Just try searching for Anthropomorphic Adult works. Or better yet, try submitting your own attempts and see what you get.

So, let me illustrate this for those who might not see the problem. It’s like having an epic Tolkien level world building in your mind all in high tech, 3D animation software so realistic you can see the hairs on your MC’s head move! You pitch it to a movie exec and they say, “Nice work. Here’s your box of 16 crayons and some construction paper. This should be enough to make it happen. Run along and play.”

Ididntdoit

Pheonix doesn’t understand why she isn’t allowed to mature.

Ok, yes, the children’s entertainment industry is loaded with many wonderful works that adults enjoy. I am a huge fan of many of them. So why aren’t we just happy playing with our box of crayons?

Because there are limits to what you can do with younger audience pieces.

There is a material maturity cap. Sure you can push the envelope, but at the end of the day there is a line you cannot cross, and a box you are not permitted to go outside of … all because your character is not human.

DonQuilypsosLastStandMixedFinished

“What do you mean I can’t say @#%?”

Alien? No problem! Get as adult as you like.

Werewolf? Well … that was human, so no biggie! Go for it!

DarknessAndLight

“Piss off, armor puppy! I’m a werewolf, I can say whatever the fuck I want!”

The spirit of a beloved dog becoming a sentient angel … (that was the story behind the opening remark). The unpublished short story that included a graphic description of animal abuse in the beginning–that’s just fine for a dedicated children’s lit, apparently. <facepalm>

CollieMemorial

“Sure, I get it. No adult would possibly admit to falling to shit about the loss of their pet. Ok, instead of my purpose of comforting them, I’ll go pander to the little kiddies. Just let me get my butterflies and rainbows.”

So yes, this topic seriously gets my goat as I go about creating the stories that I, as a fully mature adult, want to read.

HawthornandFlint

“They said don’t go that way, it’s only for the experienced, you know, mature, warriors only. We got fur, so we need not apply. Good thing I don’t give a shit what they say! ONWARDS!”

What it basically tells me is that my preference of character is not worthy of mature material. That Animal=Immature. What’s amazingly sad is that the fantasy genre is where this seems the most firmly rooted. An odd thing when one considers that fantasy readers are pre-set to toss reality out the window. Yet the industry only rarely allows an animal-centric book to enter above the children ranks. There are a few recent ones, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” comes to mind. But these are rare gems. I have to chuckle at “Watership Down” being considered a kid’s book–which some do consider it. That is a tome of a book with a glossary with unique rabbit lingo and an entire rabbit-centric mythology going on there. I don’t buy that Adam’s wrote it for children. Nor his “Plague Dogs”, a dark exploration of the danger of pathogens. How many young readers are going to be able dissect the core of “Animal Farm”? Yes, there are some advanced reading kids, but to get the sociological core of it is not a general grade school concept.

So why is human MC good, animal MC bad? Sorry, couldn’t help the reference.

PhoenixDemonDog

“Annnd how may I make you cringe today?”

I can assure you that there are actually plenty of adults out there that love anthropomorphic works. They flock to the children’s stuff that makes it out there because that is all we can find! “My Little Ponies” has an astonishing adult following including aiding in bringing some adults out of the gender closet. Serious mad props there! When the “Lion King” came out there was, and still is, a massive community of adults who create art, fanfiction, and role-play stories in that realm. Many of this include deep, mature content. And by that I don’t imply smut, I mean deep philosophy that has no place in a kid’s story. There are conventions across the nation where adults spend thousands on their costumes to walk around in. These cons are on par with other media focused ones–so don’t tell me adults aren’t interested. They are, and they crave older themed works that don’t have the kid maturity cap. The stigma cap bars the way.

scheming

“What are you doing?”  “Me? Just weaving a complex message into the narrative. Nothing critical or anything.”

So why is that children will pick up a book about anthropomorphic creatures and just go with the flow. Yet, in general an adult will look at the same story and in the first paragraph get stuck on pondering how the armor wearing dog is possibly able to hold her bow without thumbs? (I get this a lot. So much so that I now ALWAYS include a THUMB reference in the first paragraph of my anthro works to help the imagination-challenged.) Why? Why doesn’t a child have a hard time getting an animal world but the adult mind resists?

I wish I knew. But I am at a loss as to why. And before it is said, this is not isolated to my own writing. This post covers common venting from other anthro writers. Our interest is on the fringe. Our interest is regarded as a marginal thing. The impression we are left with is that if we want our work to be seen, we need to make the characters human so that readers will be capable of connecting.

We need to make them human …

Envy

“I like humans. In all of the mortal realm there’s no better stew of emotions and ambitions so ripe for corruption.”

The take away from this sadly ventures into a wider scope. One that reveals a deeper problem with our society. If society only believes that children have the potential to look through different eyes and adult do not … well, ok, just look at the news. We prefer familiarity and dislike being challenged to truly look through another’s eyes. Writing is the perfect medium for us to explore other perspectives, and yet there is a caution not to stray too far from the norm. Removing the potential for something more mature because of an MC choice is on par with the frustration of those who try to write a non-child’s story staring a child, or a non-YA featuring a teen. These are unfair leaps of logic. A child can be the star of an adult story–try to market one and see how hard THAT is. If you see humans as merely another animal and thus animals are not that different after all … you tread a very difficult path that the general human ego is not willing to swallow!

Well, guess where I dare to tread! I sharpen my word axe and prepare to cut my niche nice and deep because I know that the voices of my characters have value and worth maturity. Some have found homes, some have yet to be seen as valuable contributions. But in the end I refuse to make the something they are not. Human.

Anthropomorphic, don’t be afraid to see outside of your species box. That level of empathy is important, especially within your species in an age with such social disparity.

Brass-DeathPortalLowRes

Are you ready to see through the eyes of something else? When you are, I’ll be waiting.

All artwork in this post belongs to me.

 

Reflections, Lessons Over A Year of Writing–Seriously

The world of writing is a big old labyrinth without a map, guidebook, rules … logic (sometimes), you get the point. So here is one writer’s pause and reflection over a year’s worth of world crafting.

Last year I upped my game a bit in the writing world. I worked hard on the lessons flash/short story form teach about construction and took more chances on submissions. This paid off. I had twenty-two submissions over the calendar year of 2017 with three-and-one-half (I’ll explain in a moment) accepted for publication. The half comes from being asked to expand on a pitch and write a test draft, which ultimately didn’t make it in. Alright, so the three-ish doesn’t sound that great … but compare to that 2016 when I had thirty-nine submissions with only three acceptances. This increase was due to several factors. One, by working with a writers group I got better at the core craft. The stories I am churning out now are stronger and more focused thanks to their feedback and support. Two, I have gotten better at selecting the markets I was sending to instead of the scatter-shot of the first year. Three, luck. Never discount luck when submitting.

Alright, now anyone who knows me is well aware I like a meatier story. Novel length is where my plotting side goes to. Applying the lessons of short story format I have found it a bit easier to approach newer ideas on formation, and editing is a touch easier. But this is simple improvement that happens with time … let’s get into the nitty gritty in no real order of importance.

Lesson One: there is a story in everything! Some are flashes, some are shorts, and some are too large to be contained. The trick is realizing when you’re shoe-horning a big scope tale into a flash and instead of cramming, let it breathe! This year I grew frustrated with a short story that I have been trying to get out into the world for about two years. Every time it comes back. I asked my writers group to no-holds barred give it a rending and let me know what was triggering the rejections. The verdict came back from my trusted readers: There is more than one story in here–either cut back to one or expand on this other one. I scratched my head for MONTHS over this feedback as I couldn’t decide what to do. Then … Christmas came, and on the Eve at the stroke of midnight I lost my beloved silvermuzzled border collie, Ashenpaw. In my grief I wrote another story of an angel dog, joining Ion’s “Chain Lightning” … and it dawned on me. There IS more to this story. A whole lot more. 2018’s project is now to forge a full novel out of my vision of what happens when our beloved dogs pass on.

AshandIonAngels

Ion and Ashenpaw, the real inspiration behind the Ethereal Dogs Project, my WIP

Lesson Two: a writers group is invaluable. Writing is a grueling and lonely craft. Suffering the lows together helps. In the shorter format acceptance percentages average close to 1% or LESS. That means you are bound to see a lot of rejections even if you rock! This can be for many reasons: wrong tone for their collection, another story like it, editor had a bad day etc. Could have nothing to do with your skills. So you have to be able to gauge how you’re really doing. A good group will share success and failures, give honest and valued feedback, and ultimately teach you to start finding your writing self. Not every piece of feedback will work for you. 😉 Not everyone is Hemingway or King … which leads me to three.

Lesson Three: there is a lot of information on How To … out there, you CAN’T follow it all. So don’t! Learning how to critically evaluate these tidbits is important. But we can’t (and shouldn’t) all write like Hemingway! What makes for great King suspense/horror doesn’t work so great for Tolkien fantasy fans. The key is finding the elements you like to read and want in your stories then learn how to implement them. Good beta-readers in a writing group are awesome for this. You’ll be able to see what come across and what trips them up. You will also find loads of articles out there about adverbs/adjectives, ellipsis, dream sequences, prologues, dialog tags (said vs bookisms)–I could go on for an Illiad length saga. The point is everyone has an opinion. You won’t be able to satisfy everyone, nor should you try. Learn the basic rules, then learn how to stylistically break them. Good fiction isn’t written with pristine grammar. After all, in common English we break the rules all over the place. A grammar correct book can be boring. The key is to present your work in a way that the prose doesn’t get in the way of itself–see, I don’t mean free reign to do whatever you want, the result must be clear to readers. Again, betas who know you will help here. I’m not everyone’s cup of coffee in that I tend toward the purple-prose end. But this is my natural writer’s voice. In revisions I catch the areas that nag, but leave the rest because it suits my work. Style is something that comes with time. You can’t force it. Let it come.

Lesson Four: writing frequently helps, especially when you let the pressure off yourself. Do a fun short challenge. Use a random prompt and see what comes out of it. In a writers group do raw challenges with little clean-up time before posting to see what comes naturally. You learn a LOT by doing this. What comes to you first? How do you build a story (character, setting, threat)? What elements are you good at? What elements do you struggle with? These tidbits will aid you in identifying what your strengths are weaknesses are. Some writers are great at dialog, some are great at beginnings, some at endings, or actions sequences, or non-action scene buildings … etc. Use excercises like this to learn who you are as a writing. You can take these dabblings and expand them later if you love the idea.

Lesson Five: be fearless in your own space. Don’t restrict yourself. You have an idea? Explore it. You don’t have to show anyone if you don’t want. But you never know what comes from just exploring. A simple meandering story can turn onto a path you never would have thought of and spark a whole new adventure. Every page is a blank map of a world, don’t be afraid to simply wander for a bit. Editing is where you refocus after the discovery.

Lesson Six: be YOU. If you have a story to tell, tell it. Get it onto the proverbial page anyway you can, however long it takes. Don’t let anyone tell you not to. And if they do–they aren’t your audience. Writing takes bravery when we share our visions with the world. This isn’t easy, but if the story isn’t what you wanted to say it won’t come across right, from the heart. Keep your convictions. To me there is an older audience out there seeking animal-centric stories. I will write it, they will come.

Remember–there is no map, this journey is yours. Take the step, and the one after, and the one after that … see you on the road!

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!

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.

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.”

Natural Disorder

journeysthrougha-brass-quill

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

journeysthrougha-brass-quill

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

journeysthrougha-brass-quill

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.

Passing the Mantle

journeysthrougha-brass-quill

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.