Part Sixteen July 31, 2016
There was a fragrance, like lilies and roses mixed together in the water. He tasted it, and it was sweet. For a long time he just sat on the sand bed, half in the water half out. Without realizing it he laid back on the sand. The tiny stones made a soft cushion for his weary head. He felt the cool water brush up against his legs, then nothing more.
“Get up Bran,” he heard a kind voice shouting. He sat up and rubbed his eyes.
“Feeling a little groggy?” It was Peter.
“Yes,” Bran replied.
“Wait until you try to walk, your legs are water logged by now.”
Bran lifted his right foot up and looked at the deep water lines. “Thanks for getting me.”
“Here’s some clothes, you’re about my size, so they should fit.” Peter passed him a pile of Bard clothes.
Bran looked up the tall redhead’s body. “Likely they’re too long.”
Peter laughed, “Likely they are. Well, if they fit we’ll sew your name on the inside collar. We’ll have to put a blue stripe on the outside collar so the lucky few who have to sort the clothes out know to place your clothes in the first year apprentice pile. Look, the Master was about to ask Algin to get you, but I quickly offered. There’s something you should know about Algin, other than his mood swings,” Peter said thoughtfully. “He has a habit of taking things that aren’t his.” Peter gave a warning glance towards Bran’s necklace. “He would probably love to have that, or that dagger of yours.”
Bran looked around. “Where is my dagger?”
“You left it by the chestnut tree, the Master has it.”
Bran reached a hand up and Peter grabbed it. “Thanks again,” he said as Peter pulled him to his feet. He motioned his head towards the run. “What about my clothes?”
Peter shrugged. “Forget about them. From now on you can just bring your Bard clothes to the run. Do you understand how it works?”
“Well enough,” Bran replied. He pulled on his new clothes. They fit except for the pant legs. He rolled them up until they reached just below his knees.
“We should hurry, dinners about to begin.” Peter led him back to the chestnut tree.
The others were standing around, silently. Jordan seemed happy to see Peter. The mischievous looking blond quickly walked over to them. “Thank you Peter, now there is someone worth talking to.”
Bran looked at Algin suspiciously. Algin held his chin up in conceit. He turned his attention to Sheen. The chunky boy was humming to himself. He looked over at Master Rennell. The Master was humming and tuning his lute. None of the apprentices had a lute.
“Don’t worry,” Peter said catching his wonderment. “We have to learn the singing drills first. Later, if we pass we get to make our own lutes.”
A loud bell rang from somewhere in the campus. He looked around in surprise.
“It’s dinner time!” Jordan shouted as he rubbed his stomach.
Master Rennell put the strap of his lute around his neck. “Time to eat barley mixed with oats and wheat. With a tad of water and just a tinge of maple syrup, again,” he finished with a smirk.
“And some Bran,” Algin added with a cruel grin.
Bran made no reply. He kept quiet as he and the others followed Master Rennell towards a massive gathering of the Bards to the south.
The Master turned and faced them. He walked backwards by turning his head to the right occasionally to make sure he didn’t trip into anything. “Do you know why, we get mush?” the Master asked with exaggerated seriousness.
“So we will grow thick bellies, and are able to laugh heartily as all gut bloated people do,” Jordan replied. Jordan thrust his hips forward to extend his stomach.
“And do you know why we fill you men up?” the Master continued.
Peter jokingly smacked Jordan in the stomach. “So we will be large and fat to eat,” he answered.
The Master looked at Peter with surprise. “Why, how did you know that? Yes! You will be made plump and lump. What will happen then?”
Jordan rubbed his chin as if in thought. “Why, we shall be eaten as a speciality. I expect to catch a fair price for my flab.”
The Master shook a finger a Jordan. “No, sir. It’s by weight not quality.”
Jordan smiled ruthlessly. “Guess I won’t catch a worthy price compared to Sheen than.”
Sheen’s face went red. “I’m not that big. At least I can sing.”
“Like a girl,” Jordan retorted. Sheen mumbled soming in reply.
Algin spoke up. “And I’ll be the one to carve it out of you.”
“I’m sure you will,” the Master said dolefully.
Bran chuckled at the scene but his thoughts turned to the building where he could see a large conglomeration of Bard apprentices and masters.
“That’s the Hall,” Peter informed him.
“It looks like it’s made of birch trees with vines swung across the top for a roof,” Bran observed.
“That is exactly what it is,” Peter replied.
It took a long time for all the Bards to be seated on a thick root that grew above the ground.
“Where does the giant root come from?” Bran asked Peter.
“Don’t know, but I’ve heard its somewhere in the Oak Forest.”
Bran sat down between Peter and Sheen. Jordan sat on the other side of Peter and beside the Master. On the other side of the Master sat Algin. One by one wooden bowls of steaming mush were passed down the single stretch of stone that made do as the table. The Master tapped his bowl with his spoon. “Ready men? Ready to devour this divine food? Go!”
Bran ate ravenlousy. His bowl banged empty first, and he wondered if there would be more. His comrades and the other nearby Bards stared at him in awe. The Master picked up his own bowl with both hands and banged it on the table. “You finished before me!” he shouted.
Bran looked up in dismay. “I-I didn’t realise you were to finish first.”
“It’s not the point that I’m supposed to finish first, it is the point that up till now I was the fastest gulper of mush around!”
Still starving Bran felt anger swelling up inside. He tried to refrain but the words came out before he could stop them. “I’ve been on the road for three days. I was captured by rogues and…,” he stopped mid-sentence. “Why don’t we have another race, with a second bowl?” he suggested.
The Master’s playful eyes sunk into a glossy look of concern. Bran was mesmerised by the shift in the Master. This Master was not a jester, but held some infinite wisdom inside. The serene look quickly disappeared and the sparkle of playfulness returned. “Yes, and this time I will drink the mush down, just so I can win.” The message of the contest reached down the table to whoever was serving. Two steaming bowls were hurriedly passed to Bran and the Master.
The Master held his bowl so that its edge was nearly touching his bottom lip. “Ready, go!” he said as he began pouring it down his throat. Bran decided to use his spoon, just so he would lose. The Master smirked, his face covered in mush. “Meet you at the Excretatory!” he said jubilantly.
“That you will,” Peter reflected giving Bran a look of pity.
The bowls were passed back the same way as they came. Bran stood up to see exactly where they were being returned to. Down at the far west end he saw a bunch of Bards with aprons on. They looked unpleased with the task they were about to face.
“You’ll get your chance,” Jordan said with miserable distaste.
“Good,” cheered Sheen. “I like to serve.”
“You mean eat,” Jordan chided.
“Alright men,” the Master told them as he stood up with his hands on his stomach, “time to sleep. I’ll meet you later.”
“Little bit of gas sir?” Jordan asked with a snicker.
“That and more,” the Master replied painfully. “You need to go too Bran?” the Master asked as he let off some wind then sighed with relief.
“No, sir, I’m fine.”
“Well, I think Peter got you a cot, he’ll take care of you.” The Master grasped his stomach tighter and wobbled painfully out of the hall with the other departing Bards.
Peter waited until most of the Hall was cleared before getting up to leave. Bran noticed Algin was already gone as he walked with the others back to the chestnut tree.
Half way there Peter stopped him. “What did you mean you were kidnapped by rogues, you didn’t look like you were joking? Did they hurt your family?”
“I came alone,” Bran replied. All alone he thought.
“Alone,” Jordan repeated in surprise. “My parents rode with me here along with thirteen hired guards.”
“All of our parents brought us here,” Peter said suspiciously.
“My father learned only a few days prior to harvest that I was accepted,” Bran replied.
“What does harvest have to do with it,” snorted Sheen. “My parents brought me here with a convoy of soldiers. Why would “harvest” mean you had to come alone, anyway, that’s for the peasants?”
The snootiness of Sheen’s voice filled him with rage. Peter must have noticed the flare of anger in his eyes because he stepped between him and Sheen. “Better leave him be Sheen. So you’re a farmer?” Peter asked.
“No, I’m just a lowly blacksmith’s son. The ones who make horseshoes, pots, and swords!” he hissed in Sheen’s direction. “Farmers are the ones who grow the food you eat.” He could feel the rage growing inside again.
Sheen lifted his chin and squinted his eyelids in an attempt to appear superior. “Farmers are peons.”
Bran couldn’t withhold his anger. He shoved Peter aside and grabbed the collar of Sheen’s shirt and threw him to the ground. As soon as Sheen hit the ground Bran drove his foot up against Sheen’s neck. “I don’t like you already, but if you insult me, my family, or friends again I’ll tear your teeth out, one at a time.”
“Whoa,” Peter said soothingly placing one of his hands on Bran’s chest and gently pushing him away from Sheen.
“You’re the low-brow!” Jordan shouted at Sheen. The chunky boy rolled onto his feet and took flight towards the chestnut tree.
Jordan shook his head. “That boy has got no values,” he said with a broad smile. “But I sure like the way you handled the big bellied one. Since I arrived here the only one worth talking to is Peter. You can talk to Algin, but he lifts his nose to the air as if everything you say is below him. And Sheen…,” he didn’t need to finish.
“Most of us come from wealthy families,” Peter said with surprising humbleness, “but we’re not all lazy landowners, and some of us do work hard.” He stretched out his hand. Bran took it. He felt the strength in Peter’s grip. “I’ve done some haying myself,” Peter said with a grin.
“Me too,” Jordan suggested flexing his upper arms. Bran was not amused, but when Jordan put out his hand as well, he gladly shook it.
“I’m from the east, across Whale Sea, or as you might know it, the Emperor’s land,” Peter told him ruefully.
“Not me,” interrupted Jordan, “I am from the West, same as you, but farther north. Barker’s Port, have you heard of it?”
“No, but I have heard of the sea. Never seen the great ships.”
Jordan smiled wryly. “You are a naive chap, aren’t you?”
“We better get back,” Peter told them hurriedly as if trying to avoid anymore conversation of homelands. Bran looked up at his red-haired friend’s face and saw kept pain. He did not inquire why the talk of the Emperor’s land disturbed Peter; it didn’t seem like a good time.