Part Twenty-Four August 13, 2016
Two days from the year end test Bran found himself feeling anxious and weary. His voice was much improved, he knew the lores, but if his voice cracked during the test as it sometimes did in the higher octaves, he was finished. Master Rennell continuously joked with him and encouraged him. If the Master had not been as jolly as he was, Bran felt he would have given up by now. He rehearsed the songs in his head as they ate lunch. The tomato soup was spicy and hot and that made him feel better. He ate nervously at the salad of carrots, radishes, spinach, and broccoli. He was so engulfed in his worries that he only occasionally noticed the mean look in Sheen’s eyes. He did not concern himself with the fact that the stare was pointed directly at him.
That night he worked with the others on the lores and the humming. The Master corrected them here and there. Sheen sang angrily, but perfectly. The boy’s memory of the lores and his singing style were flawless. “I envy you,” Peter said as an aside as they practised. Sheen shrugged his shoulders as if Peter’s compliment meant nothing to him.
“Too bad there will only be three of us going on, eh, Bran,” Sheen snarled.
A coolness swept over Bran. He felt extremely calm suddenly. “Perhaps Sheen,” he replied.
That night he went to bed early. His anxiety over the testing burnt him out. Master Kadar wouldn’t need him again until the next year began, but he wished he could get his hands on the mallet and pound himself into calmness. He closed his eyes as if asleep and went over the lores again. Time passed quickly and still he lay awake. He could hear Peter, Jordan and the Master sleeping. Sheen was a quiet sleeper so it made little difference that he could not hear him.
Soft footsteps came towards him. He slowly reached for his dagger. Thoughts of Angus and the other rogues crossed his mind. He was so groggy that he found it hard to distinguish between reality and dream. “I may not get Jordan, but I will get you, horse feed,” he heard Sheen sputter to himself. The boy’s voice was so quiet it was hardly audible. Bran felt a hand brush against his chest, near the jewel. His body tensed with anger. Dream or not he grabbed at the thing with Sheen’s voice. He opened his eyes expecting to see some horrible monster crouched over him with layers of jagged teeth.
Sheen yelled in surprise. Bran grabbed the boy’s neck, put the blade to Sheen’s throat, and began to press it in. Sheen’s face turned into a look of pale horror. The boy’s teeth rattled. Weakly Sheen grabbed at the hand around his neck. Sheen let go and stared with pleading eyes. Bran wanted to nick his neck, just so Sheen would never forget.
“I-I was just looking,” Sheen whined.
Bran let go of Sheen’s neck and pushed the chubby face away. With a hiss to his voice he warned, “Don’t ever try to touch my necklace again, or I’ll kill you.” Without even looking at Sheen he rolled onto his side and closed his eyes. He heard Sheen move with shaky footsteps back to his own cot. Still in a rage, Bran placed his dagger under his cot.
He woke up first the next morning. He nudged Peter and Jordan with his foot, but left Sheen and the Master asleep. “I need to practice,” he told them. They sang, and rehearsed, argued and relearned the necessary lores. The anxiety he felt actually made him sing better. A few hours later a bell went off and Sheen and the Master awoke.
The Master looked deeply into each of their eyes. “It’s time to move on.” He stood up and slapped each of them on the shoulder. “When the second bell rings I’ll take you to the testing ground.”
Sheen seemed different. The chunky boy looked at the others, including Bran, for moral support. Bran could not believe the change! It was as if the event of last night turned Sheen the conniving, loaner into a youth who needed friendship, and who belonged to the group. Even more surprising to Bran was Sheen’s willingness to help him reach the higher notes. “Breathe from your stomach, not your chest,” Sheen said encouragingly.
The bell rang a second time. The Master, who was sitting against the chestnut tree, stood up. “That’s the bell.”
“From hell,” Jordan quipped dryly.
They walked towards Cleansing and turned east for a little way. A large conglomeration of first year Bards stood around an ancient chestnut tree where an old, wrinkled Bard stood waiting for them.
Jordan stepped around nervously. “Look at all these imbeciles. Half of them don’t have the skills to go on.”
Peter laughed at him. “Little nervous Jordy?”
Jordan turned around and gave Peter the evil eye. “Keep quiet red head or I’ll make you kiss one of these girlie sounding boys.”
Peter stepped up to Jordan and looked down at him. “Maybe I should stuff your throat full of thistle. Wouldn’t you sound pretty then?”
Jordan backed off a little. “Not as bad as you’re going to sound.” In one swift move Jordan pounced on Peter and sent them both sprawling to the ground. Bran watched the two wrestle with uninhibited amusement. He laughed as the Master tried to break up the wrestling match, and ended up getting involved. Finally, with surprising strength the master flung Jordan and Peter off.
“You’re very lucky this is our last year together you two.” The angry eyes of the Master glimmered with sudden humour. “Cause I can crush two of you twice over with no hardship at all.” Peter and Jordan, both red faced and leering at each other broke out laughing. The Master strutted past Bran. “You’re not the only tough guy here, blacksmith.”
“Bran of Darwin,” the old Bard’s voice boomed. Bran froze. The others looked at him dolefully except for Peter. Peter put an arm around his shoulder and led him to the old Master. “See you in year two.”
Bran stood before the hunched old Bard. The leathery hands held an old book with papyrus pages. The Master stared at him with dull blue eyes that made Bran wonder if he were almost completely blind. “Bran, I have chosen fifteen lores for you to sing. Of those, three of the lores, you are expected to sing completely. If you succeed in singing these lores to my satisfaction you will go on to year two. I may or may not make you sing the entire lore of the remaining ten. If I should hold up my right hand you are to stop singing. If, I should hold up my left hand, you have failed. Is this clear to you?”
Bran shivered. He felt nauseous. Unavoidably his eyes shifted from the Elder Master’s dull eyes to his quivering left hand. “Yes,” he said timidly.