Part One July 14, 2016
“When the wind plays in the pouring rain and the sea rolls its high breakers over your naked body, then you will know what the Earth is, and who you are.”
– The Prescient Sphinx, Vires
His brown eyes wandered over the mirage of green foil and up into the grey sky. His heart pounded from exertion, filling his lungs painfully with air. Pineneedles scratched his hands as he made a desperate passage towards the banquet hall.
Sweat soaked the back of his grey, cotton shirt, and the groin area of his dark green trousers. He was late! In front of him, a few steps away, he saw light coming through cracks in the crumbling clay between the squared logs that made up the banquet hall. He forgot about rushing for a moment, fondly reminiscing about the old building.
All his life he had come to the banquet hall. The smell of brandy aged in barrels and malted barley beer gave the place life. At night, when his father played the lute, he would drift to sleep while music danced in his ears. He would dream of working in his father’s blacksmith shop. Occasionally, when the air was humid, the rain came. It beat against the logs to the sound of his father’s playing. So hypnotic did it play that the rhythm surrounded him in euphoria.
He approached the door where men lay up against the porch pillars with half empty bottles resting loosely against their chests. Some slept, while others looked from under half open eyelids and grumbled. He pushed the door open. Inside feet stamped and hands clapped. He forced his way through the line of people waiting to reach the bar. Beyond the dancing couples, at the far end of the hall, he saw his father. An old leather hat with drooping rims shadowed all but his father’s chin. Darkness filled the place as daylight came to a final end. Torches were lit and he could see that his father wore the dark green pants and shirt his mother had made. His father’s head lifted so that the wolfish eyes saw him. He waved Bran to the stage.
Bran hesitated, before shaking his head. Smiling shrewdly, his father nodded his chin towards the stage.
“My son,” his father said to the crowd in his gruff voice, “will join me in singing ‘Wayward Man’.”
The crowd gibbered to one another. “He’s late again, Calwind!” cried out a man in the crowd.
“That he is,” his father replied with a cool smile that he directed at Bran.
Bran did not want to sing this song, a song about a child whose incompetence destroys his family.
His father began by playing some notes on his lute. “Wayward Man,” his father said in barely audible song-words. Bran ground his teeth in annoyance before joining his father:
A little boy ë was
Sitting on a log
His was a lost soul
And you know why
Cause he’s the Little Wayward Man
Gone away from the place where your house once stood
Sittin’ on a log, cryin’ out a sad song
Oh, Little Wayward Man, ain’t it bad
Your momma, and your papa nothin’ but dog’s bone
Fire you started burnt em all away
Poor Little Wayward Man
Shouldn’t uf pulled the dragon’s tail
Cause worm don’t take to play
Now your game has gone all wrong!
So, Little Wayward Man, remember this
Don’t go wanderin’ away from home
To a lair that’s of a dragon’s care
Now you got no home
Oh, poor Little Wayward Man
How long you gonna sit on that ole log
Singing a sad man’s tale
Poor Little Wayward Man
BARD Part Two July 15, 2016
The crowd cheered as the song ended. Many of the ladies looked in Bran’s direction as if he were the ‘Little Wayward Man’. He felt embarrassed. Impatiently he jumped off the stage, forcing his way to the bar and into the backroom where some of his school comrades were already rinsing out empty bottles and cleaning up dishes.
“Late again Bran,” Sally the barmaid said as she came back and filled four mugs of beer. Bran’s faced turned red. Sally’s squat, well endowed figure fit her bubbly attitude and Bran always enjoyed being around her.
He walked over to the shallow barrels used for wash basins and grabbed the iron handles of two wooden buckets. His job was to go to the nearby stream and refill the cauldron that heated the water for dishes. His comrade Patsy brushed back the bangs of her blonde hair and looked up at him with a smile as she pretended to listen to Cassandra’s biting gossip.
Galileo said nothing as he carried a crate of empty bottles to the storage room farther back in the banquet hall. Bran nodded at Galileo, whose mauve eyes held a great depth. Bran knew Galileo did not stare at the interior of the hall but at the distant land he came from. He wanted to say something about farming but Galileo turned his head away.
Galileo, who came from across the sea, was a Residence, one of the escapees from the Emperor’s land. Bran had heard many tales of the land across the sea; many tales that sounded like myths. He hadn’t believed the stories until he saw the truth etched across Galileo’s body.
The scars crossed the boy’s face and ran down his arms like purple rivers. Galileo was lucky, only his left ear was missing. On others the scars were so deep that they had to drink with a hollow reed because they had no lips. Bran turned away from the shy boy.
The day had been long for today was Harvest Begun, and the last day of school. Tomorrow he would help his father in the blacksmith shop from early morning until sunset. The work on horseshoes, pots, and harvest tools would not stop until the crops were ready. Then he and his father would go to the nearby farms and lend a hand. A hard life, but one he relished. He could hear his father singing and the uplifting sound of the lute as he headed towards the stream. Something in his father’s song reminded him of what happened two years earlier.
Part Three July 16, 2016
One day, working in his father’s blacksmith shop, the heat of the summer equinox had made him dizzy so his father called told Bran to cool off in Slivan’s stream. As he bathed in the stream he heard a girl screaming. Forgetting his clothes he grabbed the nearest stick and ran towards the screams.
In the distance he could see two boys throwing stones at a kneeling figure. As he came closer he heard: “Royal Bitch! Royal Bitch!” He knew the voices. The two boys were old school comrades of his, Larry and Jespo. He stopped for a moment and rubbed his eyes for Larry and Jespo had died in a canoeing accident a year before. He saw the kneeling figure was a girl in a torn yellow blouse and emerald green skirt. Her long brunette hair hung past her waist. He did not understand why her appearance overwhelmed his sight.
He dashed after the two boys with his stick. As they ran away he saw that their bodies were pale, and dead skin hung from the bones of their arms. Larry and Jespo continued to shout “Royal Bitch” as they disappeared over a knoll.
Bran remembered vividly kneeling beside her, only to blush as her green eyes examined his uncovered body. He tried to turn his head from her for her eyes entranced him. He couldn’t help staring at the oval face with its small nose and quivering lips. “Are you alright?” he asked, his voice cracking. She stared at him in silence. He looked at the ground fearful he would disappear in those eyes. She undid the top two buttons of her blouse, confusing him of her intentions.
A jewel with swirls of blue and turquoise lay against her chest. She slid the silver over her head and placed it around his neck. His eyes closed with the feel of her fingers against his skin. Never had he felt so close to someone. Even in that short time, in the silence that she kept him in, he felt as if he were divided in two. As if he was looking into a pool with a reflection of one half of himself. Just as he began to look up, her moist lips pressed against his. Blood from a cut on her upper lip slowly trickled into his mouth as she touched the jewel were it lay against his chest.
“When we are older it will lead you to me,” she said. She stood up and straightened her clothes. “It would have burned you if our destinies were not as one.”
“When will we meet?” he asked.
Once more she stared into his eyes, “I don’t know when, I just feel it throughout my soul.” She smiled, “I thought I would be safe here from the answering undead so I slipped away from my protector to be alone for awhile. He will be searching for me so I must return. Always wear the jewel by your heart,” she called out as she dashed away.
He could not move as her lithe body disappeared into the distance. All he could do was lick his lip to keep her blood, a symbol to himself, that they were now joined.
Part Four July 17, 2016:
“Wake up Bran, my boring songs are done,” his father whispered in his ear. He opened his eyes. His father stood over him grinning, but the grin could not camouflage the sadness in his father’s grey eyes. “Hal and Merrilynn have already left with your mother, so it’s just you and me.” His father’s voice sounded the worries that Bran saw in the grey eyes.
They walked outside into the cool night air. “Full moon,” his father grumbled more to himself than Bran.
“What are you–” he began before his father interrupted.
“So you’re done school,” his father stated. “Done school,” the raspy voice repeated with a choke. “Fourteen this year, very much a young man now.” Bran watched with worry at the confirming nod of his father’s chin. They stopped suddenly. His father turned and looked deep into his brown eyes. “Last year I put a request into the Bard campus. They accepted you. But, your mother and I cannot travel there with you because of harvest.” His father swallowed hard and waited for Bran to reply.
“How will I pay?” Bran asked with downcast eyes; he did not want to leave home.
“I have what you need, but forget it until tomorrow.” He saw his father’s hands tremble.
“When do I leave?” Bran pressed.
His father coughed nervously. “Unfortunately, the carrier pigeon brought the note only today. You’ll need to leave tomorrow to get to classes on time.”
Bran ground his teeth.
His father smiled knowingly, “I went there, remember, but I was never rich. The rich always get told first.”
“What about harvest?” he asked. It didn’t make sense to him to leave at the most important time of the year.
“”Riley Pitch and I talked. He has enough sons to make up for both of us. I’ll keep to the blacksmith shop fixing tools, axles, and horshoes to make up for your absence. Listen, time is short, by dawn your mother will have foodstuffs ready for you, so tonight you should pack your clothing.”
He kicked the earth in frustration, “For how long?”
“Forever perhaps. Four years is the minimum to get all your markings, but you decide. At any time you can return to help me with the blacksmith shop.”
“Than why don’t I stay?!”
A wondrous smile grew across his father’s thin cheeks. The grey eyes stared up into the full moon. “The things you can learn Bran. A Bard can travel over the entire Earth on this continent or the Emperor’s. You can go where you like and you can play for the richest or the poorest of people. You can work at a tavern, maybe buy your own. I will not force you to stay at the Bard campus, but you must go. Sadly, it is by yourself, and the roads are more dangerous now.” The happiness in his father’s face faded. “Do not forget to use your intuition. Never freeze up in the face of any danger. If you remember you are stronger than most because of your blacksmith heritage and that you are smart, you’ve always done well in school, you will be fine. If you have to earn money to buy food don’t forget your strong back or the skills I have taught you. You can get by even if you do not get your markings.”
Bran lowered his head as they continued through the forest. A haze steamed over his eyes, blurring his vision. His homeland that once loomed around him as the centre of all things became a tiny sketch that could fit into any one of his pockets. The trees that guarded him in his youth became no more than shrubs in his mind.
He knew little of the Bard campus except that he would be one of the poorer students. If the Earth was his to explore, could he ever hope to know every nook and cranny of its surface as he did his homeland? Would he ever feel safe again? How many names of places would echo through his ears, how many different peoples would he meet?
Part of him was already beginning to die. The loss of his youth caused a pang in his heart, but as one part of him decayed another wielded an excitement in him he could hardly fathom. All the wonders of the Earth were his to explore if he became a Bard. He pressed his hand against his chest. He could feel the smooth surface of the jewel beneath his shirt. As a Bard he could search for her.
Part Five July 18, 2016
As he entered his home he ignored the pale figure of his mother who sat hunched near the fireplace. He forgot to say goodnight to her and his father who had grasped his shoulder before going to bed. In his room he did not see the prepared sack that stood in the corner nor the peculiar looking dagger that lay beside it. All that his memory could grasp of the world flashed before him. All the sketches in the books he had read showed clearly before him. The drawings of distant lands, and strange creatures were prominent, for Bran’s memory had always been limited to what he could see. He could remember past events but he was not capable of daydreaming or revising the past, present, or future in his thoughts. He excelled in math, but faired poorly in anything that called upon his imagination. Designs were easy for him, plans based upon the things he knew, but he could not make up an original story to tell a child. He could not mentally conjure up things he had not seen. No newly created beings would enter his mind. A snake was a snake, a dog a dog. He felt short-handed by this. The only thing he could do with his imagination was come up with originals words to songs he already knew.
He remembered when at school his friends laughed at Kalvin’s descriptions of Master Poah. Kalvin mocked the Master by describing him as a man with a boar’s head. Others laughed, but Bran didn’t. Kalvin’s statement held no realism, no logic to him. It did not make sense to him. As he pondered his lack of imagination his eyelids grew heavy and he drifted off.
He opened his eyes to the new day with a new vigour for life. Today he and his father would work together throughout the summer. He stood up and stretched before the streaming sunbeams of dawn. Tired, but feeling good, he dressed. He stepped out of his room into the kitchen where his mother stood over a bowl of carrots. Her hands shook as she sliced the skins off. “Mother,” he said as he hugged her. Her body felt clammy.
“You’re not well today?” he asked.
Without turning to face him she replied in tears. “Today is the day you become a man.” He remembered the other night. Today he headed for the Bard campus, alone.
“Don’t worry,” he said with strength, “I have to go to the campus, but I will return.”
“When I am grey and old?” Her words dissipated into weeping sounds.
“Shh,” he soothed. “You are too young to worry about that. I could return in twenty years and your hair would still be yellow like the healthy straw of first cut.” She grasped him around the waist. Patiently he stroked her hair. “I may not stay a year, at most four, and then I will return to see you.” He kissed her forehead. “But thank you for crying.” He took a tear from her cheek and placed it on his tongue. “Now I have a part of you to keep with me,” he said.
She stared into his eyes. “And I you.” Swiftly she cut some hair from his bangs, and clasping the strands in her hand, kissed his cheek. “Get your sack and go to your father.” He was about to turn away when he felt a tug at the back of his shirt. “Remember Bran, you are the only one who represents the bonding of your father and I.” Bran nodded wordlessly.
He felt weak as he left her side; his steps were shaky. He took the sack and threw it over his right shoulder. Her final kiss to him before he went outside, felt like a lethargic dream. Outside he heard the swooshing sounds of the bellows. He looked nostalgically at the blacksmith shop, the short stone wall that gave the little building its foundation. Running his fingers along its rough surface, he explored the tiny cracks where the insects lived. For years the wall remained unnoticed by him, something so part of his life he could afford to ignore it. Above the five-foot wall were cedar boards that made the structure into one complete shelter with a peaked roof. He stood back to gaze at the puffs of smoke from the brick chimney. If this was the last time he saw home he wanted to remember it. He inhaled the scent of the smelter. He opened the door to his father’s shop and walked in.
Part Six July 19, 2016
His father stood behind the bellows, squeezing its handles together in a rhythmic pattern. Bran watched the flames in the furnace rise with each gush of air. The hypnotic flames danced before him like a friend who is honest so long as you do not turn your back to him. Sweat poured down his father’s upper body, staining the leather apron that covered the silver hairs of his chest. “I once hoped this would be a great day Bran,” his father said with honesty, “but I expected your mother and I to ride with you. Now you must go alone, and I am worried. So many years have past that I no longer can be sure what the land will be like.”
Bran shrugged his shoulders. He took the tongs in his father’s hand and dipped the horseshoe they held into a barrel. The hissing noise from the cooling iron distracted him for a moment. He watched the vapour rise as his father took out a wrapped parcel from one of the shop’s shelves.
“This should pay for your first year.” His father unwrapped a strange object that appeared to be made of silver. As Bran looked closer he could see twelve different holes in the middle of the anvil shaped object. The holes ranged in size beginning with the largest, and were connected by clips. “Observe,” his father said, taking the object from him.
His father pulled out a few horsetail hairs from a sack, next he opened a jar filled with a beige coloured gel. He covered his hands with the gel. By rubbing his hands together he covered the tail hairs. He slipped the hairs through the largest hole and then forced them through each consecutive hole until the last was reached. Bran watched intently as his father carefully manipulated the tail hairs through the smallest hole, over-and-over again creating a flexible yet stiff chord. “This is how the strings of a lute are made,” his father said with pride. “A Bard campus is always searching for more of these, because the students who finish their four years often steal them.” His father wiped his hands on a rag.
Forgetting he must leave, Bran inspected the device with great curiosity. “Why silver?”
“Silver doesn’t rust, and for some reason the glue won’t stick to its surface.” His father clasped his chin. “Be well Bran,” his father said, embracing him. Bran didn’t know how to react to his father’s embrace. He froze for a moment until his father began talking to him, telling him to follow Dampsen’s road to Cranny’s forest. To go east until he came to a narrow river called the Tye River, the Tye would lead him to the Bard campus. His father led him out the door.
Bran didn’t fully understand his father’s words; he only knew that he must leave his home.
He saw no one as he walked along Dampsen’s road. The farmers must still be tending to their animals inside the barns. He followed the road as it curved eastward toward Cranny’s Forest. As the sun heated the top of his thick crop of chestnut brown hair he looked down at the ground to avoid its glare, and so he missed the view of his homeland. It didn’t matter; he knew he had to force his thoughts away from familiarity and towards unfamiliarity. Within Cranny’s Forest he would be in unknown territory.
Part Seven July 21, 2016
The old forest, whose name came from Lady Cranny, had its myths. The only truth he knew for certain was that Billy’ s Tavern remained a well-known place for infamous occurrences. His father once played at Billy’s. For two nights Bran listened to his father’s quips about the patrons of the tavern. Every night his father said, the same couple arrived, full of cheer, but by closing time, the wife was always clobbering her husband in a rage of drunken stupor. Bran grinned at the memory.
Before him stood the guards of the forest, giant red pines that towered over every other living thing. He examined one of the trunks with its reddish-brown bark. With his finger he traced the upright, elliptical design of the bark. He continued through the forest until he came to a stream. As he leaned over the water to take a drink he heard laughter. Looking up he could see Billy’s Tavern a short distance away. He headed towards the entrance of the tavern.
Inside he could smell bacon on the grill and sweet and sour bread rolls. Round tables just large enough for three chairs were cramped near the wall closest to the door. A bar with a doorway behind it took up the length of the back wall. Behind the bar stood a rotund woman with greying hair done up in curls. Two men were at one of the tables their noses red from alcohol. He stepped up to the barmaid and laid down a silver coin. “Today I am a man,” he stated enthusiastically to her. “Can I have a jug of ale and some of your sweet-and-sour rolls?”
She smiled up at him with cool, blue eyes. “Your birthday?” she asked eyeing him up and down.
“You could say,” he replied softly.
She rubbed her wart-covered chins thoughtfully before heading through the back door. Bran sat down at the table farthest from the two men. Staring silently at the tabletop, he waited for his meal. The barmaid brought in a pewter jug and a plate of rolls. She threw down his change. “Good cheer to your awakening,” she chortled.
He dunked a piece of roll in the beer and as he went to bite into it saw rusty brown specks mixed with the amber colour of the ale. It made the bread bitter and sweet at the same time. He didn’t like the taste but he was determined. Plugging his nose he guzzled the beer until it made his stomach turn.
His sight became alive and blurred, images faded in-and-out. He laughed for he thought this must be how the fish saw underwater. Things grew extraordinarily large. Everything became unclear behind black speckles that danced inside his eyes. He got up and stumbled outside. He stumbled into Cranny’s forest.
“Off to the Campus, alone,” he sang boisterously.
Off alone to a place far from here
Where the Bards are
So I can sing to the Earth
So I can sing to the Earth of a love that I don’t understand
Rivers bend and misers take
But I will give the earth my heart
For the one to whom it belongs
I fear I shall never see again
I know her
From her long brunette hair to the tiny freckles around her nose
I am devoured by her eyes
For they are luminous like a pond under gathering fireflies
He continued to sing as he wandered deeper into the forest. He decided to stop for the day when the sky grew dark. Shivering, he lay at the side of a redwood. He drifted in and out of consciousness until he heard cracking twigs.
Part Eight July 22, 2016
“He’s the kid whose drink Misandra added the mushroom powder to,” said a man with malice in his stupored voice.
“Let’s see what he’s got in the sack,” said another.
Bran could hear them moving cautiously towards him. One slipped and cursed. He felt no fear of these men. He could tell by their voices and their hesitant movements that they were foxes pretending to be wolves. A finger poked his side.
“He’s asleep,” the first man whispered. With slight tugs the men began to pull the sack from under Bran’s head. Defiantly he grabbed hold of his dagger and rolled onto his feet. He swiped at the nearest man.
“Get away! He’s mad!” shouted one of the men with long dark hair that mingled with his beard.
“Piss’n mule he’s gonna slice you Roberto!” the other man shouted. Bran smiled darkly at the man now talking. Both men began to run away. He laughed to himself at the obese bodies of the men as they slipped on the grass. Deep inside he felt calm, and knew that on the outside he was fiery and dangerous now. The alcohol and mushroom powder in his blood along with the excitement gave him energy to start his journey again. Although it was dark he felt invincible and all knowing. With glaring eyes that defied all creatures to attack him he stumbled deeper into Cranny’s Forest singing the legend of Cranny:
Thirty feet tall was Cranny
A giant to the giants
Taller than the Trolls of the Emperor’s Land
Tall as a tree
Cranny came here to plant the red trees
To be away from the menacing Ogres
For Cranny loved the woods
She had no use for the sword
So left when the Ogres came to burn her home
So give a little thanks to the Giant, Cranny
For she planted the forest that grows
By your home
By your home
All the other words to the song escaped his memory. Soon he was too tired to walk any longer. He sat with his back against a tree covered in knots and ate a carrot from his sack. He grew so sleepy that he laid his head on the ground.
Part Nine July 23, 2016
Bran thought the screams were coming from a dream. He opened his eyes, to see a dark sky, full of stars. Sitting up he could see Cranny’s Forest far to the west. He lay in a valley against an apple tree surrounded by snake grass. He turned his head around to view the land. Away to the east he saw a grassy ridge with figures moving swiftly across its top. Moonlight lit up the images so that he could see them clearly. Four creatures with thick, cylindrical bodies that comprised of both the head and trunk ran towards a human figure that looked tiny. The creatures reached out with long, skinny limbs with oversized hands while their long feet slapped against the ground. Intimidated by their size, he could not bring himself to charge off to help the human. Instead he took out his dagger and moved cautiously forward.
The creatures chased the human out of his sight so he was forced to run his fastest to catch up to them. He reached the top of the ridge and saw that the human was a school comrade named Dillon. He was not sure, but he thought Dillon might be on his way to the Bard campus as well. Dillon’s father sometimes played the flute with Bran’s. He bellowed in rage and charged down the ridge.
A creature grabbed his friend’s body in a monstrous hand. Bran stumbled and tumbled from the shock of seeing the creature crush Dillon’s body with a clench of its fist. He looked up with terror to see a lipless mouth open across the creature’s upper half. In one gulp Dillon’s lifeless form was swallowed whole.
Bran watched, unable to turn away, as the creature made crunching noises. Tears flowed down his cheeks for he could see the outline of Dillon’s body outlined inside the creature’s lower half. He threw up without looking away while the creature regurgited parts of Dillon’s devoured body into the gaping mouths of the other three creatures.
Bran gasped and all the creatures turned their elongated eyes towards him. Their glassy eyes glowed with a blue hue. He shivered in horror. Stumbling he urged his body to run.
Ever closer he could hear the slapping of their oversized feet. Slap… he ran faster…Slap…he ran as fast as he could until his sides ached and his throat grew raw from gasping for more air!
Eleven sets of yellow eyes flashed before him! He could hear the snarls of wolves. He slowed to a stop. He could not run forward, nor back, for the creatures were behind and the wolves ahead. He bent over to catch his breath. He looked behind and saw the bluish-grey bodies of the creatures. He turned to see the wolves rushing forward with lowered heads, the white of their teeth dripping with saliva. Dagger in hand he took off towards the creatures. Biting his lower lip in concentration he came at the creature. It grabbed at him. He stepped aside and rolled away. It turned to chase him but the wolves were too near. The four creatures hissed as the canines leaped into the air a them.
He ran towards a tall aspen tree and scurried up to its lowest branch. Behind him he could hear the whines and growls of the wolves intermingled with deep harrowing screams from the cyclindrical creatures.
Up in the tree he watched as the monstrous creatures grabbed at the wolves with their gigantic hands while the wolves bit at their lower bodies and feet. Soon the wolves piled on top of the horrors and he could see no more for a time.
A little while later he saw some of the wolves licking their wounds while others tore at the cylindrical shaped corpses. One wolf ran to high ground. This lone wolf gazed over the land. Bran thought the wolf to be a guard. He focused on its yellow eyes, and its determined face. It gave him strength inside to empty the pain of Dillon’s death and replace it with stoic resolution. As a man he would never allow a friend to die in his presence. He climbed down and watched until the sun began to rise.
Part Ten July 24, 2016
Rough voices surrounded the air around him as he bathed in the river Tye. He climbed out and hurried towards his clothes. A group of mean looking men appeared before him. He grabbed at his backpack, but a strong backhand rattled his wits and he rolled onto his back. Four cruel looking men stood around him. One of them, who was now holding Bran’s dagger was lean and old and had piercing blue eyes. Thin cheeks clasped the bones of the jaw so hard that the man’s expression looked like the worm paths on the belly of a log. The narrow face broadened into a wide head with a mound of whitish hair that reminded Bran of a fleece ball partially unravelled by a kitten. He searched the faces of the other three hoping one might be friendly.
Beside the old man with the wild hair stood a large burly figure with hair the same colour as his own. He saw in the clear, brown eyes an unquenched anger and yet a gentle glow.
Beside him, a short, bald man stood. The bald man carried the appearance of a jackal. His right eye was dark blue and accentuated by oversized pupils; his left eye was covered by a black eye-patch. Black eyebrows and a constant smirk gave him a sinister, yet dense appearance.
The last man he saw glanced at him with indifference. Bran could not help but see how different this man was from the rest. Longish black hair glistened from the animal fat that greased it. His eyes were dark blue and he stood average height. Three of the fingers on his left hand were missing. Bran wondered if he was a Residence.
All of them wore clothes made of an assortment of animal furs: fox collars, deerskin pants, and wolf-fur vests.
Bran thought about the other night, how he charged at the one creature and escaped thanks to the wolves. With the men standing in a circle around him he couldn’t outmanoeuvre them, but the bald man, who stood shorter than the rest Bran felt he could knock out of his way. He made his move just as the old man was about to say something. He drove his right shoulder into the bald man, knocking him easily out of his way, but a pair of hands grasped onto his shoulders. Bran struck upwards with chaotic ferocity. One of the men screamed out in agony as Bran’s fist made contact with his jaw. Bran dove into the river. The men plunged into the water after him. He thought he could escape in deeper water until he felt a fist pound into the back of his head and his vision blurred.
They threw him on the shore and pinned him to the ground. He stopped struggling and stared angrily at his captors. The old man with the cruel blue eyes sat on his chest as the others stood by. “What a fish ye are,” the old man cackled with a sheering voice. A shadow suddenly drew over Bran. He looked over his left shoulder to see the very tall and powerful looking man. The man’s hair was cut much like Bran’s, long on the sides with a wave from left to right at the front. But the man’s hair was much thicker than his own. He noticed, much to his amazement, a lute nestled under the man’s left arm.
“You’re a Bard?” Bran rasped, surprised that such a man would travel with rogues.
The man shook his head with a weary smile. “No Bard, laddie. Just meself.”
“‘e’s our Bard, boy,” interrupted the old man.
As the older man was speaking, the bald man with the eye patch grabbed a hold of the jewel that lay against Bran’s chest and tried to tear it off. A blinding flash of yellow light exploded into his face. All eyes turned to the bald man, who stared silently at his hand.
“If you touch my jewel again I’ll kill you!” Bran hissed.
The bald man looked at Bran with his one eye wide with shock.
“Better not kill dis one, Angus,” the big man with the lute said dryly to the older man.
“No, ‘arold, but ‘e could fetch quite a price across da sea,” Angus replied greedily.
“Y-yes…but…‘e…may…be…a…witch,” argued the bald man as he blew on the burn mark that covered the palm of his hand.
“Shut-up Plaglo, ye dumb nephew uf mine! The boy is no magician or ‘e wouldn’t be out in da woods!” screamed Angus, spit flying out of his reddening lips; the bald man cringed.
“Maybe ‘e’s one of dose Druids,” said the oily-haired man.
“Not likely Dwight,” Harold said. “Most of dem Druids live farther east, near dat campus. They ‘aven’t ‘ad need te guard de land dere fer sometime; from what I ‘ear.”
“We could take ‘im to dat old hag’s place!” Angus shouted as if the others had said nothing, “Dat bitch would take ‘im in. She’s gotta ‘ave somethin te offer fer im!”
“Who’d get dat close te ‘er?” Harold asked doubtfully.
“Hell, I’ll take ‘im te ‘er!” Angus offered.
“Alright,” Harold agreed. “But fer now ‘e can carry our tings. Dat way ‘e’ll serve some purpose and et night ‘e’ll be too tired te run.”
Angus jumped up and gleefully began tying their sacks together with a rope. Sporadically he glanced at Bran with laughing eyes and a toothy smile. Bran tried to push his way through Plaglo again, but the one called Dwight drove a readied fist into his side. His breath lost, Bran began to gasp. For a brief second, out of the corner of his eyes, he saw a sad glance from Harold.
“Maybe we should give ‘im some brek?” Harold suggested.
“He’s gotta earn ‘is keep,” Angus lashed out. Turning ruthless eyes towards Bran he continued, “‘e’s gotta carry our stuff fer awhile. Strip boy, just as an extra incentive fer ye not te run.” Eyeing Angus with uncertainty, Bran did as he was told. When he was finished, Angus, with great expertise, proceeded to tie a rope around Bran’s waist and neck. Angus kept the leftover rope in his hand.
The rogues all stood up and slowly began moving onward. Impatiently Angus tugged on the rope. The sacks weighed heavily on Bran’s shoulders but he managed. It was the thistles and snake grass that burdened him the most. He constantly wanted to scratch his lower legs. By midday the rogues stopped and Bran fell to the ground. Twisting his head awkwardly to the side he could see they were still near the river. Not far from where he lay he could hear the pop and sizzle of meat. He closed his eyes and tried to calm his breathing.
“Lookee, da boy’s gone asleep on da job, should I wake da lazy dog?” Angus shouted with a voice full of menace.
“Let ‘im sleep,” Harold replied dryly to Angus. “And put ‘is clothes on so ‘e don’t freeze!” He snapped at the bald man named Plaglo.
Bran heard Plaglo move over to him, grumbling about how he was treated like a slave. For a moment Bran thought of escaping, but his limbs were too numb. “C-can’t… ye…do…tis…yerself…y-ye…lazy…dog,” groaned the Plaglo who seemed to struggle after each word as he unsuccessfully tried to push Bran’s trousers on. Unencumbered Bran was able to sit up. He did not try to escape; Angus sat facing him. A twisted, deadly look of concentration darkened on Angus’s face. In Angus’s left hand was a knife. Bran could see by the old man’s bent arm and determined look that the knife would fly if he even pretended to try and escape.
“Give da boy some grub, den we’ll move on fer awhile,” Harold said. Plaglo rubbed his baldhead and groaned but took some strips of meat from a pan sitting on the coals of the fire. Starving as he was Bran shook his head. Never knowing fully why his mother and father never gave him meat except for eggs; he found the idea of eating it repulsive now. His stomach ached for food, but he could not take the meat.
“‘e won’t take it,” whined Plaglo, “Stup’d fool!”
“‘e won’t take it, ye say Plaglo?” Angus asked darkly to the bald man. In a frenzy the old man tore up some sod and stood up. Face steaming red he stomped up to Bran. “Ye inhospitable excrete.” Before Bran could clench his mouth closed, Angus had shoved most of the grass in. Bran tried to spit it out but Angus’s hand pushed it deeper into his throat.
“When Angus is done wastin’ time, give da boy some of ‘is carrot,” he heard Harold tell Plaglo.
“Oh, I’m done playing!” spat Angus.
“Give ‘im the carrot Plaglo, and give me da meat ‘e don’t want,” Harold said patiently. The bald man’s squat body moved awkwardly over to Harold. Harold tore the meat from Plaglo’s hand and gulped it down. “‘ow long te da witch’s place?” Harold asked the greasy-haired man called Dwight.
Part Eleven July 25, 2016
Bran watched the men as Dwight slicked his hair back with his right hand and stared keenly into the distance. “A good day after today. It ain’t uncommon te ‘ave rain ‘ere after a long dry period, and sh’ hasn’t rained for two days now,” Dwight said. “From what I saw da first time I saw da witch, sh’ don’t come out unless it’s bin rainin’.”
“Alright, give da boy some water den we get goin’ again.” Harold said as he stopped to stroke his chin in thought. “Better blindfold da boy so as ‘e can’t say ‘ow far we’ve gone should ‘e escape.”
“Let’s be off, it’s been a long day already,” Angus said without humour. The old man tied a black handkerchief around Bran’s eyes then tied the sacks onto his back. Bran felt a jerk to his neck from the rope and started walking.
To himself, Bran began to sing a sad song. But as the afternoon continued and with the heat and lack of food, wooziness bore down on him and he sang his own words, to old tunes.
“Walked this path in the day when the sun was brightest,” he sang.
But unlike all the lores no sparrows darkened my sky to give me cool
I just walked on in this blasted heat
Delirious from the last two days and from the heat and exertion of carrying the sacks, he laughed to himself as he sang:
Now the day is nearly gone
How will I survive this night
With all the bug bites
Can’t stop though
No! Someone pulls my silver string
Pulling me towards an unknown
Is this what they mean by destiny?
Shall I fall
No! Someone will drag me on
Further I say, into the dark!
What a start
The real words came back to him:
We are the soldiers marching into the mist
No one knows if it will turn to vapour
The next moment we could be dust
But go on we will
Somewhere up ahead the fog breaks
That’s the destiny
On that path beyond the war we want to go
Or we shall die
“Shut up,” scoffed Angus. Bran felt a slight tug that pulled him off balance. Unable to see, he faltered, and fell to the ground. “Don’t piss me off again boy,” Angus warned. Bran continued on in silence for the rest of the day.
By evening Harold called for a halt. Bran felt the blindfold pulled off. They were at a bend in the river where weeping willows grew along the bank. A little back from the willows, cypress trees stood in bunches for as far as the eye could see. Angus undid the sacks from Bran’s back.
Harold and Dwight made a fire pit with rocks from the edge of the river. Bran lay back and felt the full brush of a cool evening wind.
Harold placed a few of his oatmeal cakes to the side. The carrots and potatoes within the sack were tossed into a pan.
“Now all we need is some meat,” balked Angus, looking especially at Bran. Dwight took out a knife from a sheath hidden under the left breast of his shirt, and diligently moved into some of the cypress trees.
Meanwhile, Angus and Plaglo gathered some birch bark twigs and a few large sticks. When they were finished they placed their piles near the fire within Harold’s reach. The big man made a lean-to over the bark with some of the twigs. “Go get some more of the larger ones,” Harold told the others as he pulled out two flint stones from a pouch he kept hidden under his shirt. Expertly he scraped the stones together to make a spark. Within three strikes the bark was alight. From within the forest Bran heard an animal cry out. From the forest appeared Dwight with a groundhog.
“Dat’s all!,” shouted Angus, “I’ll starve.”
“I’ll get more, but let’s eat dis first, eh,” Dwight replied. Bran could see a hungry weariness in the greasy-haired man’s pale face.
“We should be alright with the rest of da boy’s food fer tonight,” Harold said as he slit the groundhog’s throat so the blood spilt into the pan. “Fer now we can ‘ave groundhog stew.”
Dwight walked over to Harold with his knife in hand. “Gimme one of dose flint stones.” Harold handed him one of the stones. “I’ll sharpen me knife today an’ carve out a spear point tomorrow.”
Harold looked up at him with quiet serenity. “I didn’t see no ash trees around, da ye think de cypress tree will be ‘ard enough?”
Angus coughed to interrupt their conversation. “Why worry? Da boy ‘ad a dagger in is sack. It looks ‘efty enough te kill an animal.”
“Yeah, suppose,” Harold replied, “if we were to kill a bear te eat.”
“Ye questioning me hunting know how?” Angus shouted defiantly.
“Ye challenging me Angus?” Harold asked. The brown eyes of Harold and the cold blue eyes of Angus met in an equal stare of temptation. Both men’s faces became granite in the flickering firelight. For a moment the air was tense and smelled of nervous sweat, both men seemed ready to pounce on the other.
Finally Angus relaxed and gave a menacing smile. The old man’s eyes twinkled dangerously. “Maybe we should forget about each oder and let da boy in on our past. So should ‘e try te leave, ‘e’ll know what ‘e’s up against.”
“That would be good,” Harold replied lowering his eyes from Angus to the fire.
Part Twelve July 27, 2016
“Boy,” Angus began, “dis why I’m with a bunch scoundrels like dese.” Angus’s lips curled into a cruel smile, but his sharp blue eyes dulled as if he were torn between pleasure and pain. “See boy, I was in da army, da Emperor’s own. We were fighten’ a troop of one of ‘is sons who were tryin te rebel against ‘im. And we were doin fine fer a tiny troop.” As he spoke Angus’s eyelids opened wider until two saucers of blue iris and tiny pupil glinted in a half-crazed stare. “Dat is until we were ordered te attack a village wher’ da enemy was gettin’ its food supplies.” He began to laugh nervously as he spoke. “We torched it, little ones came screamin out of da burnin’ ‘ouses; we butchered dem. Shoulda seen dis one kid.” He turned his head toward the sky, his thin face grimacing. “Little one came out with fire in its head—blood boilin’ up on its flame infested ‘ead. No, that’s not why I’m ‘ere.” He wiped tears from his eyes. “No, baked flesh don’t bother me senses. It was ‘cause I earned me way te captain in dat force. Dose men were under me own control. And dey was all dedicated bastards; dedicated to me and da Emperor. Our orders were to charge a small bridge and ‘old it until more forces arrived.” Angus’s eyes dulled again but this time with calm insanity. “Funny what a bit of pre-paid currency can make a man do.
“I ordered me sergeant te lead da forces while I stayed back te make sure dere ere no surprise attacks. Taking up da royal banner of da charging boar me sergeant thanked me fer da honour. As ‘e led da men forward, I encouraged da rest te follow, tellin’ dem it appeared safe. I stood on da bank, watching each man march forward. I was a good soldier, boy.” The wildness returned to Angus’s eyes. “I led dose men through danger, and dey trusted me. But fer five hundred gold I could let dem go. Dey marched alive across dat bridge, but soon I knew dey would be nothin’ but spectres in me thoughts, fer da bridge was long. By the time me sergeant was ‘alf way across, da whole force was on da bridge. Dat is when I saw da first longbows peak out of da trees on da other side; I said nothing to me men. I watched me men fall like chess pieces struck by an angry ‘and. Some turned to run back; I shouted fer dem te hurry. But as dey neared da end–none made it. Can’t repent dat. Not when dere is no one te repent te. So ye may wonder, why do dese men still follow me after dey know what I done? ‘Cause I know wher’ da wealth is.”
Bran noticed that Harold gave Angus a look of inquisitiveness when the older man said the others followed him.
Angus, who was now lying on his side, nodded at Harold. “Go ahead, ‘arold. Yer drab story can’t give me any worse of a headache, den I already ‘ave.”
“Why not, got te keep ye bored with amusement, Angus.” Harold stroked his chin. He stared intently into the fire. “Don’t see how it matters anyhow, but we gotta pass da night somehows. First let me tell ye,” he said with a sigh, “me father plowed da land and I ‘elped him, but one day, well I was carryin’ a basket of turnips on me back, I saw a carriage come by our land. It was a noble come te buy me sister’s bed fer a night. Dis noble was familiar. Always comin’ around, bringing is queer friends for da ride. One of ‘is friends always had dis ‘ere lute with ‘im.” He lifted the lute from around his neck. “I thought I could put it te better use than ‘e. So when da noble went off with me sister and I was done doin’ chores I came up te da friend. I asked ‘im if I could somehow buy ‘is lute or another like it. ‘e told me dere was. ‘e led me te a clump of trees near our land. I asked ‘im what dis was fer. Da bastard,” Harold said, his voice becoming flustered, “‘e rubbed is hands along me chest and kept goin’ down. So I spat in ‘is face and grabbed ‘is chin and da back of ‘is neck.” Bran thought the memory must have been great for Harold’s hands clenched the air as if he still had a hold on the man’s neck. “I twisted ‘is neck until the bones cracked. I knew I had te escape or da nobles would kill me fer sure. I grabbed da lute and fled.”
“Is dere a price on yer head?” Angus inquired with a devilish grin.
Harold glanced at Angus in disbelief. “Are ye going to turn me in?”
“Would I do that?” Angus replied winking at Harold.
“Ye and I share a similar fate,” said Dwight as he ran some fingers through his greasy hair.
“We all do,” Harold replied. “None of us can return te da Emperor’s land ‘cause we all got nobles after us.”
“At least dese nobles are cousins related from da time the Emperor’s father was ‘live, and not da Emperor’s own children. We would not be ‘ere otherwise no matter if we lived on da Sphinx Vires’ land or da Emperor’s,” injected Dwight.
“Te Hell with all dis pathetic whining,” Angus grumbled, “Play us a song ‘arold, so as I can sleep dis miserable night away.” Angus walked over to the sacks Bran had carried. From the largest one he pulled out a rolled strip of leather and a cotton blanket. Still grumbling, Angus unrolled the leather onto the ground and lay on one side of it. He pulled the blanket over himself and wrapped the side of the leather over so that he was completely covered.
“Alright,” Harold grumbled to himself. The big man began to tune the strings by ear while the rest got out their blankets. “Figure I’ll have first watch den,” Bran heard him say to himself.
“Tie da boy’s hands and feet together, and den tie the rope to a tree, so as ‘e don’t escape,” Angus said to Plaglo as he gave off wind. “Or, I’ll blow ye up!” the old man gave a cruel chortle.
Plaglo threw off his blanket in a childish fit and did as Angus bid him. Too tired to fight, Bran let himself be tied up. The bald man tightened the rope that was already around Bran’s wrists, then circled the rope around Bran’s feet—the lead that was leftover he tied to a tree.
Uncomfortable and too exhausted to sleep Ban rolled into a position where he could see Harold playing the lute in the firelight. The big man ignored his gaze. As Bran’s father did, Harold began to hum as he warmed up his fingers on the chords. Adjusting the pegs Harold seemed to get the sound he wanted for his feet began to tap the earth in a particular rhythm.
Far away home
Do not forget your child, I
“Not about ‘ome again ‘arold,” Angus complained.
“I would love te be back on da farm instead of ‘ere with ye, Angus, remember dat.” Harold retorted. “If we don’t find some of yer treasure soon, ye know da one ye babble about all da time, we’ll leave someone else for the witch.”
Bran he knew the song Harold was singing. It was a Druid song called: ‘To The Place Where I Belong”. Harold started singing again:
Bring us peaceful sleep,
With quiet solitude,
Te dreamland we awaken
Sunny cities with beautiful women,
Loosely clad in swaying dresses
Fer away home!
Under his breath Bran began to sing the song along with Harold:
We are callin’ ye!
From feraway places
Deep jagged rivers,
Te bear bound caves
Let us sleep,
Let us sleep
Forgetting where he was, Bran began to sing the song louder. Harold looked up at him quizzically then continued:
Our ominous ‘omeland
Do ye remember da sweet songs of love,
We sing te ye
We sing te ye
Dru da drizzling rain,
And dry plains
Let us sleep
Let us sleep
Fer we call te yer womb
Dat abound in our faraway homeland
‘ere yer love carries us into da sweet dreamland,
Let us sleep
Harold continued to play a few more songs until the rest were snoring. Bran saw the big man get to his feet and carefully move towards Dwight. Perhaps from experience, Harold grabbed Dwight’s left hand. Dwight woke up with a start, but Harold put a finger to his lips. They both stood up and walked quietly towards some bushes not far from Bran.
Part Thirteen July 28, 2016
“Look,” Harold said to Dwight in a hushed voice that Bran could just make out. “I don’t like da idea of goin’ near the hag.” Bran saw him look around to see if any of the others were awake. “Plus, da boy’s got dat magical jewel. We haven’t really tried to ‘urt ‘im, but ye cannot tell if Angus will. Da boy could be ‘er son fer all we know. ‘e ain’t squeamish when we mention about bringing ‘im to ‘er. Why don’t we let da boy go? Anyways, ‘e’s just a burden. Sides I have a plan.” Dwight gave no hint of disagreement, so Harold continued. “We both know we’re stuck with Angus until we get da treasure, if dere is any. But I thinks we both can’t stand ‘is arrogance. So why not say a group of men searching fer da boy found dis site. Dey attacked and escaped with da boy.”
“Not a good plan, unless…” Dwight hesitated. “…why not knock out Angus and den we can pretend we were struggling and got knocked off our feet,” he continued enthusiastically. “Why den yer have a reason te accidentally fall on Angus, bashing yer elbow into ‘is ‘ead.” Bran could hear the two men make muffled chuckles.
“Alright,” Harold agreed.
Bran could not see who was behind him but he could feel the rope around his hands and legs being cut. “Don’t run till I say,” Dwight warned. “Least da cut rope will suggest yer father were tryin te get yer out in a ‘urry.”
“Is ‘e free?” Harold asked.
“Yeah,” Dwight replied helping Bran to his feet. Harold struck the side of Angus’s forehead with his elbow. Bran didn’t see the old rogue stir. His heart started pounding as he rubbed his wrists to get the circulation going.
“Go now!” Dwight commanded Bran. Dwight relocated himself by Angus. To Bran’s surprise Harold took his dagger from where it laid beside Angus’ and tossed it to him. Bran saw a look of uncertainty in Harold’s eyes over relinquishing the dagger. Harold turned away from him and nodded at Dwight who started shaking Angus awake. Bran ran like he had never run before. He heard Angus scream out in pain.
He forgot about his hunger and fled through the cypress trees until his feet finally refused to go on. He listened to every sound to make sure Angus wasn’t hunting for him. The others would probably ignore him if they saw him again, but he was fairly sure the old man would catch him and beat him. Now at least he could relax. If the rogues came near he would hide until they passed.
As he rested a thought occurred to him, the rogues had the string maker—he had nothing to give the campus! For a moment he pondered retrieving it. What would Angus do to him then? Besides, they always had someone keeping watch. He thought of turning home, but he was probably only a day or so from the campus. He stood up and brushed the dirt from his pants. There was nothing left to do but go on, so he shrugged his shoulders, and began walking.
Part Fourteen July 29, 2016
All his years of playing by the swamp and living in the woods made his movement swift. It was night and the world was nearly invisible to his sight. He knew the river flowed east and he had to stay near it to find the Bard campus, but it seemed such a dangerous route. It wasn’t just the rogues he had to worry about, but the cylindrical creatures that ate his friend Dillon, or, he may meet the witch that Angus spoke of. His left hand felt along the outstretching limbs of the trees and brush as he passed them. The pine needle-covered ground he was accustomed to walking on became spongy with the feel of snake grass. He took another step—he heard a splash—he quickly pulled the sole of his foot out of the muddy water. With the greatest of care he moved backwards. He prodded the ground before him so as not to fall into the water that lay hidden underneath the tall grass. He found a dry spot and stepped onto it. He kept prodding until he found himself surrounded by water. Exhausted, he sat down on a small hammock. He wondered whether the bluish-grey creatures would find him, or some other meat-eating monsters. Open-eyed he stared into the black night, waiting for the light.
At the crack of dawn the land began to form into recognisable shapes around him. He got up and carefully made his way towards the forest. He was too tired now to care what came after him. He walked with a slight limp because the soles of his feet ached from carrying the rogues’ sacks. For awhile he just went on without any specific thought. The only thing he forced himself to concentrate on was to go east, towards the Bard campus, as he sang under his breath.
As the sky darkened into twighlight he heard the sound of someone, or something crashing through the woods towards a moonlit pond. He felt around desperately for a tree or bush to hide behind. The sound of scraping branches grew louder until the human, or creature was nearly in front of him. First he noticed the face. Human but with skin so taut he could see every outline of the skull. The creature’s eyes probed the earth with the blue beams. The skin of the torso stretched over the ribs as taut as the skin of its face was over its skull. Vine-like muscles twitched every time it stepped. Three long toes protruded from each foot. The toes were tipped with eagle-sized talons. The beam moved closer to him. He could see a forth toe, shorter than the front ones, protruding from the heel.
He ducked behind a tree. Listening intently he could hear the creature sniffing. He peaked around the trunk of the tree and saw the creature head towards the pond. The beams disappeared. It snorted and began moving away.
He saw a soft green haze coming from the centre of the pond. A female head emerged from the water. As she stepped out of the pond he could see that her hair hung far below her waist. She kept low to the ground as she moved in the direction of the creature.
He could hear the creature mumbling as it urinated onto a bush. The girl, or women, moved with the stealth of a fox. She came closer to the creature. In her hand he saw a stone dagger. As she moved farther from the pond she became less visible.
The creature finished and began to turn around when the female stabbed at its chest. But the dagger only dug in through the flesh before the creature grabbed her wrist. It hissed at her as she tried to wriggle out of its grip. The creature belted her with its free hand but did not let her go. As the two struggled in and out of the light of the glowing pond Bran moved closer and closer.
He edged around the pond to get away when the girl screamed! He saw the creature force her to her knees. It bent the tip of the stone dagger towards her neck and with its free hand tore at her abdomen. Her skin, a glistening green colour, ripped open at her abdomen and red blood streamed out. Bran could hardly hold himself back. Her head bent and twisted in pain. The creature forced her onto her back and began to lick the blood that flowed from her stomach with a long, thin blue tongue. Bran hesitated. Part of him remembered his promise after seeing his comrade killed, another part of him wanted to run. The female screamed out again. He began to see images of the green-eyed girl, when his two undead schoolmates were throwing rocks at her. The creature brought the tip of the stone dagger closer to the female’s throat.
Bran bit his lower lip in uncertainty. He told himself he is a man—no longer a boy, but a man. With all the rage he could muster he charged with his dagger held high.
The creature let go of the female’s wrist. Bran could see its eyes begin to alight with the blue beam. Speckles of blue covered its white eyes. Bran instinctively closed his eyes as he jumped at it. A clawed hand crashed into his chest as his dagger dug deep into its neck. The creature screamed and dropped the girl’s stone dagger. It hit Bran again and he went sailing back. Again Bran hesitated. The creature did not seem in great pain, for it did not make a sound, but stared at him with a look of annoyance. The girl did not wait. She grabbed the stone dagger and rolled onto her feet. The creature shifted its gaze to her. As it did, she drove the dagger into its chest. The blow went deep. The creature wavered. It grabbed the hilt of the dagger but its body began to go limp before it could pull the blade out. Its eyes speckled blue and white, before filling with blood. Blood spilt out from its chest wound as it stumbled backwards, and fell. He watched in horror as its body squirmed. The death dance, as his father had once told him. Beads of blood began to pile at the sides of its mouth, piling until the blood flowed over the taut skin of its face.
The female’s head jolted towards him. He staggered backwards. He went to raise his dagger in defence but it was still in the creature’s neck. The female stepped closer to him. He could see that under her long hair she was naked. Small, pointy breasts peaked through the curtains of her hair. Her navel was bare and when he looked lower he could see the curly green pubic hairs of womanhood. Her body was lithe with defined stomach muscles were the gash in her abdomen sealed before his eyes. He breathed deeply, trying to calm the hammering of his heart.
The healing of her wound became insignificant from the overwhelming essence of her naked body. He had seen naked women at waterholes, but none with a body like hers. He felt himself drawn to her. A sense of manhood unfamiliar to him overcame his other senses. He stepped forward with the intention of caressing her body, and filling his lips with hers. His body felt powerful and his breath grew heavier. She appeared to him now as only a body of sensual smell, and touch. He reached out to touch her when he felt a slight burning sensation against his chest.
Forcing himself to overcome his desire, he looked into her eyes. “Are you the witch?” he asked awkwardly. She gave no reply so he just stood and stared into her hazel eyes that glimmered with youthful life. Still, there was a deeper abyss behind that youthful sparkle. Her eyes were so deep he wondered if he would become lost in them.
“I am no more a witch than thou,” she said with an ethereal voice. With thin, but strong arms she began dragging the body of the creature towards the pond.
Bran stood, watching in dumb amazement. “You’re going to eat it?” he asked, his voice cracking with puberty.
She eyed him quizzically. “I am an ancient thing, love. I live here, and this,” she pointed at the creature, “is a Larker. He would surely eat me if he could, for then he would have my power. Instead I will eat him, and have eaten many of his kind. So I become more powerful.”
“If you hunt each other, than who is the monster?” Bran asked with a shiver. As he looked at her, terror pulsed through his bones. She seemed so beautiful, so innocent, not much more than a teenager.
“Neither of us are monsters, this is just how it is.” She turned away from him and bent over the Larker. “You look tired my love. Why don’t you lie beside my pond?” He sat and watched her roll the Larker into the pond before descending herself.
He felt like a bizarre dream had come to an end as her hair floated on the top of the water. What world was this, he wondered. He knew of orcs, had heard of ogres, but these creatures, they were fairytales. He sat down in front of the pond and stared intently into it. The green glow began to fade until all that was left was an olive coloured haze over the surface. This trip is unreal he told himself. He sighed and lay down beside the pond. No monsters, no rogues—no the rogues were real, Angus, Harold, Dwight, Plaglo, they were all real. He could accept their existence. He closed his eyes. A sound came from the pond; but he was too tired to look.
“Sleeping beside me, are you?” came the female’s ethereal voice.
“You’re not real,” he said looking up at her. He stared deeply into her eyes as his mind tried to accept, that she was real.
Her left hand moved onto his abdomen up to his chest. “Not real,” she breathed. She lifted her face up to his. She smiled. He saw succulent lips and tiny teeth. She grasped his cheeks and bent his mouth up to hers while her right hand grabbed a hold of his left hand and placed it between her small breasts. “You’re surely the youngest one,” she sighed.
He did not kiss her back, nor did his hands roam her tempting body. His body rebelled even though it wanted this slender woman with the beautiful smile. His boyish desire would be to roam her breasts and below her navel but his body could not win over his heart; he pushed her back.
Her hazel eyes glared at him. Her tiny teeth bit together. He wondered if she would strike him, but the tenseness he felt from her eased. She looked down at his chest. Her lithe fingers unbuttoned his shirt. “So, you are taken,” she said. She re-buttoned his shirt, careful not to touch the jewel. Smiling with sad eyes she kissed his lips. “You are the first,” she said. She thudded the broad side of his dagger onto his chest. He suddenly felt healthy. “Wherever you go….,” she began but instead shook her head and began to slip back into the water. Wide-eyed, he watched her disappear once again.
Part Fifteen July 30, 2016
He stepped back from the pond as the green haze began to dissipate. Holding his dagger tightly he moved around the pond, and headed towards the sound of the river’s rapids. The closer he came, the more the forest roof cleared letting starlight shine through.
As the earth tinted with a sheet of yellow he became aware of a change in the woods to the east. A row of giant oaks made a wall between the cypress and the land farther north. He squinted at the oaks. It seemed to him that there was a path in their midst.
An angry thought occurred to him, what if this did not lead to the campus? The path turned and twisted for so long he thought it would never end. By midmorning the path did end and he stood before a wall of thorns that grew between the great oaks.
It was too much! He had a great deal of patience, but now he was desperate. He looked thoughtfully at the blade of his dagger and put it against one of the strands of thorns.
“Whoa!” shouted a man from the woods. Bran turned and looked but only saw darkness and tree trunks.
“This is the Bard campus?” he asked.
He heard movement, like wood scraping against wood. He turned and saw the thorn branches pulling back to reveal an obsidian obelisk in the shape of a pyramid. Engraved on the obelisk was a message:
“When the birds stop whistling, the dogs stop howling, the Bards too will lose their lutes, their voices. When this cometh upon the land, the hills will flatten, the trees will decay, and all good things will vaporise into the air. A gale will toss this air into the celestial planes above the globe of existence into the dark, awaiting Universe. Come not here to destroy. Place your hands upon this land in peace and sing of the world in all its wonder, in all its truth. Do not forget the troubles it abounds in. Leave if to destroy, for Druids keep this place.”
Beyond the sign was a clearing with a thick carpet of grass dotted with copses of apple and pear trees. He could see others moving about with lutes strung over their shoulders. In some places the Bards sat in half-circles their masters standing in front of them. They all wore light brown pants with hems that ended just below the knee. Their shirts were of a paler brown, almost beige. Over the shirts they had on dark green, satin vests.
To his left was a large guardhouse, that could easily hold six men, but with only one person who took up all the room inside. Bran stared in bewilderment. A giant! The giant smiled with amusement. The thick mat of silver hair on his broad cranium, no less as large as half of Bran’s body, held a great beard that rolled onto a chest nearly as broad as the trunks of some of the great oaks. Two massive hands lay on the windowsill with fingers entwined. “Come to be a Bard?” boomed the giant’s voice with a hint of sarcasm.
“Yes,” Bran managed.
“Your parents already paid, I take it?” The giant pulled out some leather bound books and began to leaf through them. “Your name?”
“I was to bring a silver string maker, but I was robbed,” he said hopelessly.
“Uh-huh, and how will you pay?” the giant asked indifferently.
“I am a blacksmith’s son, I can make or fix horseshoes, I even know how to make blades,” he replied desperately.
The giant folded his hands over the book. “What’s your father’s name?”
“Calwind, of the village Darwin.”
The giant sat back thoughtfully. “What does he look like?” The giant’s blue eyes squinted with suspicion.
“My father is a tall man. He has grey eyes like the wolf, and many say a voice that matches.”
The giant smiled. “Yes, and a character like a wolf. Wait a moment.”
Bran watched with awe as the giant shifted around and departed out a door that took up the entire back wall of the guardhouse. Through the opening Bran could see the giant thudding along towards a row of oaks. He heard the giant call out, “Kadar!”
Bran squinted to see who the giant was talking to. A tiny man, when standing next to the giant, but all muscle came forward. The man had a blacksmith’s apron on. Other than the apron Bran could not really see what he looked like.
The giant thudded back to the guardhouse. “Alright son, go seek out Master Rennell, tell him Ballard sent you. I believe he is at that chestnut tree.” Ballard pointed towards a tree to the west. “Tell him you will be working nights with Master Kadar.”
“Aren’t these apple and pear?” Bran asked.
“Mostly son, but the masters teach under chestnut trees.”
“Why–,” he began to ask when the giant waved him away.
“Don’t know why,” he heard as he walked towards the trees.
Bran gained his second wind as he neared the chestnut tree. He saw a man in his twenties sitting with some youths his own age. Bran wondered if that was the Master, he seemed young and full of life. Auburn hair on the verge of being fully brown grew thickly on the Master’s head. The short man seemed full of vibrancy, waving his hands passionately as he explained something to his apprentices. As for the apprentices, Bran wasn’t so sure about their disposition.
He did not want to interrupt the Master’s lesson so he went and sat with the others. The Master turned immediately to him. “Hello,” his voice sang out. Bran nodded in reply. Baby blue eyes smiled back at him. “Don’t tell me, Ballard sent you,” the Master said trying to imitate the giant’s booming voice.
“Yes,” Bran replied.
“I’m Master Rennell.” He shook the Master’s hand. “And these are your new comrades. Peter,” he pointed to a tall youth with a crop of red hair. “Jordon.” He could tell this one was mischievous. Jordan’s short, blond hair swirled into a cowlick, and a crooked smile greeted Bran. “Algin.” Algin’s jet black hair hung short except at the back. Steely eyes that could be brown one moment and black the next stared coolly at him. “And finally, Sheen.” Sheen was a typical kid—at least he looked like a kid, short and chunky with lots of baby fat. Sheen’s head seemed too big for the thin layer of blond hair that covered it. “And who are you, sir?” the Master asked kindly.
“Bran, of the village Darwin,” he replied quietly.
“Bran, isn’t that horse feed,” Algin snickered.
“Smells like it’s been kept in a damp place,” Jordan added.
“Leave him be Jordan, he’s new,” Peter said protectively.
The Master looked at the others with a frown. “Algin, why don’t you take Bran for a tour of the campus and to Cleansing, so he can smell like fresh horse feed?”
Algin cursed under his breath but stood up anyway. “Hurry up, my parents didn’t pay for me to be a babysitter.” Bran got up and followed Algin.
Algin walked with a very straight back. He seemed fairly athletic to Bran, but he was also as thin as a sheet of papyrus. Without saying another word Algin led him to a small hill. “To the north is Cleansing,” Algin said, before abruptly turning east and pointing at a low cliff that sloped inward with what looked like a stream running under it. “That way will take you to the Excretatory.”
“What about food?” Bran asked. He was starving.
“Wait, like the rest of us,” Algin snarled. “Come back to chestnut tree when you’re done,” Algin said as he walked away.
Bran felt like hitting his new comrade, but he knew better. This was a world much better than the one he had just travelled through. He felt safe here, no monsters, or strange green women living in the water. He headed for the large pond. Some older Bard apprentices were in the water, and something better stirred on the other side. He stopped at the edge of the water and gazed across. Girls were in the water splashing each other and laughing. He started stripping off his clothes, when he felt a wet hand on his back.
“Take it to the run for cleaning, boy,” an older Bard apprentice said.
Bran smiled crudely at the sarcasm, “Where?” he asked gruffly. The older Bard seemed taken-back by Bran‘s tone. The older boy pointed towards a miniature canal-like structure to the south.
The run ran alongside the south side of the pool. It was U-shaped. A natural waterfall spewed into the most eastern section of the U. He guessed that the force of the waterfall moved the clothes from the fareast section around the elbow of the U to the canal nearest him. He couldn’t get to the waterfall because a wide strip of junipers and an assortment of thorny plants blocked his path. He guessed that the junipers stopped Bards and Lady Bards from visiting each other. He put his right hand above his eyes so he could examine the waterfall. It poured off a ridge that was too high to see over. Disappointed he couldn’t get closer he threw his clothes into the run and watched as they washed into a basin.
The basin curved like a scoop with two long handles on either side. At the bottom of the basin there appeared to be a horizontal cylinder so it could be rolled towards the water or away from it. He didn’t bother going to the Excretatory, there was nothing in him to get rid of. Instead he slipped into the cool water of the pond.
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 realising 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.
Part Seventeen August 1, 2016
The next morning Bran’s stomach was painfully bloated. He left for Excretatory before any of the others awoke. He reached a portion of the ridge that led to the waterfall at Cleansing. Its granite face slanted outwards as it rose. At the base of the cliff was a solid step carved out of the face where the Bards sat. Holes about the size of his head were spaced out and separated by vines of jasmine. As he sat he ran his fingers along the leaves and white flowers. It explained why there were stems without leaves and no noxious odour. Underneath him he could hear the soft flow of water.
After he returned, Bran asked Peter where the waste went.
“The stream you heard beneath the granite leads to a bed of sand. I’ve heard that the water is cleansed as it seeps through the sand. The excrete itself is mixed with topsoil by the Druids and used as fertiliser.”
Jordan looked at Peter with disgust. “We eat the food from those gardens?”
“Yes we do Jordan, you pup.” Peter laughed. But as he laughed Jordan tackled him. Peter kept laughing so hard he couldn’t fight back.
Jordan grabbed a handful of soil, “Apologise you red-head, inflamed with envy, mush farter.”
“Sorry,” Peter laughed.
Master Rennell gave them a quizzical look. “Save that rolling around for the ladies, when you’re older. Now, gather around me in a semi-circle.”
“Lesson time,” Jordan grumbled.
The Master stood up under the chestnut tree. “The good thing for me is that this is my first year teaching, and through you, I can learn what teaching practices are no good. The bad news for all of you is that this is my first year and I may mess up the rest of your Bardly career. So let’s start the day with humming practices.”
Jordan hummed, “Why don’t we eat first.” The Master did not seem amused.
“Sheen, perhaps you would take us through the notes.”
Sheen stood up, cleared his throat, and began with the lowest note he could muster. Bran found out that he and the others could go lower than Sheen but he also realised that not only could Sheen do more notes than the rest of them, but also clearer.
“Excellent Sheen how about you Bran?” The Master and all Bran’s comrades stared at him. He stood up. Singing in front of a crowd was nothing new to him, but he felt nervous here. He was used to singing in front of people who were so drunk they were rocking on the edge of oblivion. He did fine with the lower notes, but when he tried the higher notes his throat tightened and cracked. He stopped for a moment, maybe his voice was rough from the harsh days of travel; he tried again. He did the deep hums fairly easily, but again his voice croaked when he tried the higher notes.
“He’s turning into a man,” Jordan mocked.
The Master looked at Jordan wearily. “Alright, Mr. Perfect, it’s your turn to dazzle us with your supreme vocal sounds.”
Jordan began humming. He could not reach the low notes that Bran had but he could go much higher before his voice began to break. He too had a wonderful voice. When Jordan did get to the high notes that he could not produce clearly he continued to make them anyway so that everyone cringed.
“Algin,” the Master grumbled.
Algin’s voice was clear but he had a bad habit of snorting and spitting after every row of notes.
“Thank you for the moisture,” Jordan chided, “my face needed a good spray.” Algin grinned at him.
“Well,” the Master observed, “that would certainly be an interesting act for an audience.” Bran thought about the banquet hall; it certainly would be an entertaining act. He could picture all the drunks horking along with the song.
“Peter,” the Master said.
Peter’s blue eyes seemed to stare off into some cheery place. He moved up and down the scale smoothly. His lower notes were very clear, but like Bran his voice began to crack at the higher notes.
“Good,” the Master said with some relief. “However, you need to make your voice sound fuller.”
Peter rubbed his chin, raised his head to begin again, but the Master abruptly said, “No, we’ve had enough humming for now.”
By afternoon everyone was sent to the Hall for lunch. After eating egg omelettes with carrots and broccoli they returned to the chestnut tree. The Master passed out books full of lore. In essence the lores were songs. “You must know these verses to continue onto the next year. It’s even more important than daydreaming, Jordan.” Jordan put the blade of grass he was twirling down and pretended to read.
Suddenly Jordan sat up with mock excitement. “Listen!” he commanded. He began to enthusiastically recite one of the poems: “There she lay, bosom naked to the air. She was half stripped, from the windigo’s tear. Weep though, not she. For coming through the mist, she could see him. Her lover, tall and strong, and dressed in glimmering armour. The Knight came upon the horrid windigo with broad blade. The windigo winced in pain and tried to take flight as the great blade bore down on its right shoulder. But the woman would not forget its cruelty. Somehow after the long hours of beatings, she managed to reach out and tripped one of its gnarly heels. The windigo fell over. The knight stabbed it with his great sword. It squealed in pain. It died. The knight lifted his lady from the cold earth. He carried her for many hours. And hence when they did stop, it was there they swore their love once again. Once married, she bore many little ones. And the maiden and her knight, lived on ever after.”
Everyone snickered at the tale except Algin who had listened to it with great dignity. “I am like that knight,” he stated confidently.
Jordan cackled without hindrance. “You’re more like a knife than a knight you thief.” A hidden blade whizzed out from under Algin’s shirt. In a blur Algin swept at Jordan’s neck. Bran didn’t know how but he struck his forearm against Algin’s knife arm and blocked the attack.
Algin gritted his teeth and returned his knife into his shirt before the others could figure out what happened. Bran laughed. “Too fast for you Algin,” Bran said. He did not stare at Algin with mockery; he did not want to offend Algin even more. Algin pursed his lips together and awkwardly returned his attention to the Master. However, Bran saw that his dark-haired comrade was somewhat taken-back by Bran’s words. Perhaps Algin wasn’t sure to make light of the situation or take more offence by it. Bran didn’t know, but his heart thudded easier when it appeared that Algin would keep his knife down for now.
“What was that about?” the Master inquired.
“Just a game,” Bran answered in a subdued voice.
The Master shook his head doubtfully. “I don’t want to see that blade out again, Algin!” Algin mumbled that he understood. After that, Jordan kept fairly quiet. His snides only came out occasionally.
As the light began to dim, everyone headed for Cleansing. Bran learned from Peter that the Bards shifted schedules for washing. Jordan returned to his old self, splashing everyone. He stood for a moment and looked across to the other side where the Lady Bards washed. “I want over there so badly,” he told Bran and Peter. “Why don’t we go tonight?”
“Its not advisable Jordan,” Peter warned.
“Maybe, but will you come with me? I don’t want to end up using those cubicles.”
For some reason Peter looked at Bran. “If he goes I’ll have to stay and keep Algin and Sheen busy and you’ll have to vouch you were with Jordan.” Bran nodded in agreement.
Jordan clapped his hands; he slapped both of them on the back. “True friends. I’ll repay you two someday.”
As they left Cleansing to go and eat the Master held Bran back. “I’ve been told you’ll have to work to stay here.” Bran nodded, he remembered that was the agreement.
“All right, I’ll take you to see Master Kadar, you’ll be doing whatever your duties are with him – I believe its blacksmithing,” the Master said. Again Bran nodded, this time with some enthusiasm, he wanted to get his hands on metal again. Unfortunately, Jordan would not be able to use him as an alibi now to go to the Lady Bards’ side; he felt some relief at that thought.
Master Rennell walked with a joyous whistle as Bran followed him. He could feel the full essence of the Bard campus. The cylindrical creatures were distant, and the rogues a mishap, similar to being bullied. The witch of the pond he could not forget so easily. Her small breasts, her long hair that flowed down to her knees. Her small and succulent mouth, and her tiny teeth.
They went north, past Ballard’s post. Master Rennell took him behind the empty guardhouse. To his surprise he saw a swamp with a path of fallen oak trunks. Master Rennell stepped on the first log. He gave an owl hoot into the darkness. Suddenly a lantern cast a dim beam of light from the swamp. Bran could just make out a short, but very powerful looking man coming towards them.
Part Eighteen August 4, 2016
The Master stood slightly lower than Bran’s shoulders, but the thickly muscled body more than made up for his lack of height. Bran glanced into the blue eyes; they seemed to have a tinge of silver in them. The ruggedness of Master Kadar’s face looked as if it had been chiselled from granite.
Master Rennell winked at Bran. “This is your man, Master Kadar.”
Master Kadar looked him over. “A little haggard, but he looks like Calwind’s son.” The Master turned towards the log path. “Come on, I’ll get you started tonight.”
“Don’t keep him too late,” Master Rennell said. He slapped Bran on the shoulder. “I’ll understand if you’re groggy tomorrow.”
“You need to understand some things,” Master Kadar began as he moved easily along the logs. “The Druids do not allow coal, or iron to be brought into the campus, so I melt the iron on the outskirts. Another point you should always keep in mind is if you come in here without my permission, or with your friends I’ll break your arms, and your Bard career will be terminated.”
Bran felt a little shaken by Master Kadar’s words, but his uneasiness turned to excitement when he saw a lantern, swaying in the night wind, illuminating a shack much like his father’s.
The Master fiddled with a padlock. “The shack is built on a mass of dirt, the kind you see in swamps. Used to be a termite hill,” Master Kadar explained. “I’ll show you where everything is.” The Master pointed at a short bench with a tapping hammer, steel toothed brush, a variety of files, and prongs. Below the bench were shelves containing different metals. “The bellows is getting pretty old, and she needs to be patched occasionally. There’s some entente glue in a jar on the bench and some waterproofed canvas in a roll above the door. Anything you’re not familiar with?”
Bran looked around. Nothing appeared new until he looked over at the metals. “The metal!” he exclaimed.
“You’ll get to know the different types and their strengths. For now though, I need you to shovel coal into the furnace while I handle the bellows.” The Master pointed to a pile of coal. “The coal should make the fire hot fairly quickly so don’t put too much in it.”
Bran grabbed the shovel and began dumping coal into the furnace. He could see a large iron pot hanging over the coals. The pot must be where the Master melted the iron and other metals.
“Seen the pot? Look inside,” the Master said.
Bran looked into the pot. He could see what looked like charred ceramic. “Does the ceramic stop the liquid from gripping onto the pot?”
“Yes, but I also have different ceramic bowls for each of the different metals, so watch it when you poor it into the moulds, the bowl might slip.”
The Master began making horseshoes. First he heated a bar of iron until it glowed red. He beat the bar until it bent into a U. Finally, he put the horseshoe into a bucket of water and held it under the lantern with the prongs. Once again the horseshoe was put into the furnace, re-heated, and cooled. The Master followed this procedure two more times. “She’s hard enough,” the Master said knowingly. “Alright Bran, tomorrow get here earlier and we’ll try to do two more.”
As Bran washed off in Cleansing he looked into the centre of the pond. The moon’s reflection stretched over its surface. The gentle waves of silver seemed hypnotic to him. Too tired to re-clothe he wandered to the chestnut tree naked. As he walked he subconsciously grabbed a hold of the jewel.
He fell asleep quickly, but unlike deep sleep where there are no dreams, he dreamt of standing on a cliff watching a giant sphere rise up from below. The higher the sphere came the larger it seemed. He could see now that it was made of bone. The sphere drew in and the front became more elliptical. Two apertures appeared half way down. He could see now that it was a skull with slits for the nose, teeth, and a jaw. It seemed to smile at him. The skull began moving back, as if coaxing him to follow. He lifted his right foot. His foot began to step when a slight pain in his chest stopped him from going on. He woke up and looked around to make sure his sleeping comrades and the surrounding trees where real.
In the morning he felt lethargic. The dream left him with a feeling of disquiet. He had never had an unrealistic dream before and everything around him seemed real one moment and dreamy the next. By night he was beginning to feel more at ease. He worked hard in the blacksmith shop with Master Kadar and they finished three horseshoes instead of two, but as he walked back from bathing in Cleansing an eerie feeling chilled his bones. He had flashbacks of the cylindrical monsters, and the woman of the pond. He needed to speak with someone, just so he could feel safe.
“Peter,” he said, shaking his comrade awake.
“What?” Peter replied groggily.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Bran said.
Peter looked up at him and groaned, but the tall red head got up and wrapped himself in his blanket. They walked back to Cleansing, where Bran stopped to look at the moon’s reflection in the water. “Is the campus ever attacked?” he asked.
“No.” Peter said with a yawn. “The Druids are very protective of this place, my father made sure of that before bringing me.”
“Why do the Druids allow the Bards here?” Bran asked.
“An eon ago the Bards gave the Druids money to buy their own land, so the Druids made this place and others like it, for the Bards.”
Bran looked around at the campus. “So the Druids now protect the Bards, because the Bards protected the Druids.”
“You will have to ask Master Rennell, I don’t know much of the story. Are you ready to go back?”
They went back to the chestnut tree and Peter fell asleep as soon as his head dropped onto his cot. Bran remained awake for a little longer holding tightly onto the jewel.
Part Nineteen August 6, 2016
In the morning Bran felt a foot prodding into his side. “Get up,” Algin growled. The foot drove in a little deeper.
“I’m up!” Bran snarled.
The Master smiled at him. “Little tired?”
“Yes,” he groaned and the Master laughed.
“I’ve noticed that most of you know how to hum from the diaphragm, except for you Bran. So I’m going to let Sheen help the rest of you get those higher notes. Meanwhile, I am going to work on Bran’s breathing.”
Jordan groaned. “I think I should learn how to sing from the diaphragm too.” He hummed horribly to prove his point.
“You’ll work with Sheen,” the Master replied. “Let’s go Bran. You and I will practice at Cleansing.”
“We have to stay here, with Sheen?” Jordan whined.
“Remember what the word Master means Jordan,” the Master said with a smirk. The Master leaned over to Bran, “Let’s go Bran, before our blond friend starts whining about the weather.”
As they walked towards Cleansing the Master began to whistle. The whistling was playful and with perfect pitch.
“How did the campus get here?” Bran asked.
“The truth? You may not want to be a Bard if I tell you that.” The Master looked him in the eye. “I see by your solemn face that you need to know. All right. Many, many, grandfathers of you and I ago, the Druids were fanatics. They argued, that for the sake of nature, they needed control over vast areas of land. More and more people began to shun the Druids. Eventually our nature loving friends disappeared into the thickest part of the forest.” The Master paused to contemplate. “Sure you want me to continue?” In reply, Bran waited in silence.
“The early Bards, and even some today, are of questionable moral, or lack of. At the house of nobles they became second only to the jester in entertainment. Many Bards became filthy rich.” The Master chuckled. “It was not the money, but the womanising that hurt the Bard’s reputation. The richer Bards could afford mercenary guards, but the poorer ones often took up fencing in order to protect themselves from jealous husbands. More often than not the poorer Bards, who womanised, fled into the forests. The Druids began to offer them protection, but the Bards had to agree to pay a dues every time they entered Druid territory.” They were almost at Cleansing.
“Eventually some of the noble sons became Bards. These nobles wanted to open schools, but they would need certain woods to make the lutes for the campus, and the Druids, who considered these woods endangered, guarded them ferociously. The Bard nobles, who dearly loved the lute, began to understand the Druids’ protective attitude. The trees that made their lutes should be protected. So, they encouraged their parents to buy huge tracks of lands for the Druids, who would in turn grow food for the noble families. Gradually the noble Bards sought to establish righteous schools within the Druid territories that their parents financed. Rules were established after many decades of argument and the Bard campus became officially established.”
“But I saw girls across the pond,” Bran said. He was caught up in the history of the campus, but he knew when they reached Cleansing the Master would begin the voice lessons.
The Master looked fondly across the pond. “While the male Bards became notorious for wooing women, a group of women took up the lyre and began to woo men. It’s rather funny. Even today the women Bards are considered innocent, but I know they are greater charmers than we men. While we sing of battle and death, and love, the women Bards sing of life. You and I, Bran, can only seduce the mind and the body. Women who are charmed by us know it is occurring, but the Lady Bards, they play the lyre as if each chord were a silver strand attached to our most inner being. Strange isn’t it? We are harsh and they are gentle. Don’t let what appears weak fool you. That weakness is seduction. I would rather be beaten then tormented spiritually by the sound of their voices—that echo to our souls through the strings of their lyres.”
They stopped short of the beach that led into Cleansing. Bran stared across the pond. There they were, the Lady Bards, naked and playful.
“Keep your eyes off the Bardesses, or you won’t be able to concentrate on the lesson,” the Master warned. Bran quickly turned his head away. He could feel his face hot with embarresment.
“Now, take several deep breaths so I can observe how you’re breathing.” Bran breathed in deeply. His chest expanded and he breathed slowly out. “You can hold a lot of air, but now instead of expanding your chest, try to expand your stomach.” Bran breathed deeply again but instead of his stomach expanding his chest did. “Watch me.” The Master breathed deeply through his nose. He could see the Master’s stomach expand. When the Master breathed out he released the air through his mouth. Bran tried breathing through his nose, and his stomach expanded. “You have it!” the Master shouted. “Now, breathe through the nose and out of the mouth.” Bran tried again. “If you do this too long you’ll knock yourself out. I want you to practice every morning. Understand?”
“Yes,” Bran replied.
“Listen,” the Master said. He expanded his chest instead of his stomach. His voice flowed out smoothly but quickly failed. He inflated his stomach and hummed. The sound was full and died out slowly. “You have much more control when you sing from the stomach. Try shouting sometime by expanding your chest then try it after expanding your stomach. The second time you shout will be much more potent then the first time. Now let’s head back.”
“Not a very long lesson,” Bran said.
“No, but a very important one if you want to continue at the campus.”
Part Twenty August 7, 2016
As they came up to the chestnut tree, Jordan was throwing dirt at Sheen. Algin laughed while Peter half-heartily asked Jordan to stop. The Master moaned and quickened his step. Bran could see Sheen’s face turning bright red. Jordan caught sight of the Master and dropped the piece of dirt he was about to throw. Screaming like a frenzied bird, Sheen dashed after Jordan. A look of absolute astonishment crossed Jordan’s face as Sheen pounced on him. The two began fighting. Peter and the Master tried to break them up, but neither was successful. Bran saw Algin take out his knife and meander up to the fighters. He could just imagine how Algin would stop the fight so he ran up himself. Without much thought he grabbed Sheen by the waist and using his knee for momentum he yanked him out of Jordan’s grip and threw him onto the grass.
Peter looked at him with a mixture of disbelief and respect. “Well, we know who the strongest is,” Peter said as the Master grabbed Jordan by the ear and marched him up to the chestnut tree. The Master scolded Jordan until Jordan was in tears. Next the Master went over to Sheen. Bran could not hear his words but it seemed the Master wasn’t trying to verbally bash Sheen, but instead soothe the boy.
That night Jordan had to wash all the dishes at the Hall. Bran hated to watch his comrade covered in sweat over steaming pots. Having to wash dishes alone meant someone was being punished; and Jordan was embarrassed. Both Bran and Peter had offered to help but the Master forbade them.
It was getting dark when Bran started off to the blacksmith shop. As he left he heard the Master wearily ask Peter if he would help Jordan, who was still doing dishes. Both Peter and the Master went off to help.
Bran walked past Ballard’s guardhouse. The inside was dark and empty. He looked through the window. He saw nothing inside but a massive chair. He continued on to the log path. With each step the logs bobbed and the bugs attacked. He felt annoyed at the creepy annoyances, they reminded him of his journey to the campus, but he was also amused that no bugs bit him beyond the marsh. From a distance he could see the light of the lantern inside the shack and the orange glow of the furnace. A gush of sadness overcame him. For a moment he wished his father were inside. Both the blacksmith shack and the marsh reminded him of home.
The next day and the days following were good to him. He became better friends with Peter and Jordan while staying ambivalent towards Sheen and Algin. In the blacksmith shop he spoke to Master Kadar only of the task at hand. His voice improved, but the Master told him, with some disappointment that he may have to always sing in the lower octaves. That would mean he could only sing backup if he played with other Bards and the songs he could sing on his own would be limited. He had told the Master about helping the farmer’s of his village with harvest. The Master shook his head, and told him the dust from the hay, and oats may have damaged his throat. Bran shrugged it off he could live with only the lower octaves. He never planned to be a travelling Bard. Unlike the others he had smithing to fall back on.
Half way through the year, when life at the campus seemed consistent, a bad event occurred. Bran didn’t know why but he was sad to see one of his comrades leave.
At the hall where they ate, Algin had left early to use Excretatory. That was not uncommon, especially at lunchtime. It was that Algin did not return to the chestnut tree. The Master asked Peter to go search for him. When Peter returned he was alone.
“What happened?” the Master asked anxiously.
Peter looked down humbly at the earth. “Not good,” he mumbled.
“Well? Is he dead?” The Master’s eyes blinked with confusion and worry.
“Algin- Algin tried to stea…,” Peter’s voice broke.
“Where is he?” the Master shouted.
“A Master Rouse has him…somewhere.” Master Rennell rushed off.
Bran walked up to Peter. “I never cared much for Algin’s attitude but he is a comrade.”
“Not any more,” Peter said harshly. Peter turned around and kicked the chestnut tree as if Algin’s actions were his responsibility.
Bran and the others waited on the Master until dusk. They did nothing for all that time. Jordan tried to make wisecracks, but Peter’s dismal mood brought even the blond-haired jester to silence. It was nearly supper when the Master returned. The normally happy face was flushed with sweat and anger. Peter immediately went over to the Master.
“Is he gone?”
The Master began shaking his head. “I argued forever, but the rules are rules. You won’t see Algin again.”
Jordan looked up at the Master from where he was lying on the grass. “What did he do?”
“He didn’t steal anything. Another boy was gloating about an interesting rock he found in Cleansing. Algin took it out of his hands and said something like “It’s just quartz”. The other boy demanded it back; and Algin refused to return it. So the boy went to tell. Algin took out his knife and nicked the boy’s right ear. The boy ran off and told Master Rouse.” Master Rennell sat down with his back to the chestnut tree. To Bran he looked exhausted.
“So he’s gone,” Peter said dolefully.
Bran stepped forward. “I always thought Algin would make a better assassin than a Bard, but still, he is, was, our comrade.”
“Not anymore,” Peter reminded him.
Bran saw a knowing look come over Master Rennell’s face. The Master’s fingers began to play the strings of his lute. Energy began to fill the air. “Jordan,” the Master half sang, “do you remember that song you like so much?”
Jordan jumped to his feet. The Master began playing his lute more-and-more feverishly. Jordan stomped on the ground. He started to clap as he stepped around and around. He sang:
Do you see the pretty girl
Uh huh, she’s going to be mine
And, like a rich man
I’ll keep her beauty
I’ll keep her beauty
Like a sweet dessert
The master began to twang the chords of his lute as Jordan sang with more passion:
She’s coming this way
Like a fire she burns me
Jordan stopped singing. He kicked the earth and spun in the air. Bran could see that he was lost in his song. Jordan started again:
Did you see the pretty girl
Here she comes
She- she’s going to be mine
Bran found himself standing up. He couldn’t fight the music. Jordan wasn’t a great singer, but he sang this particular song with so much passion. Sheen also stood up. Together they sang backup for Jordan.
Here she comes
Do you see her
Peter’s dower face lifted. It looked stuck between sadness and temptation but he couldn’t resist Jordan’s and the Master’s enthusiasm.
Be with me my love
We’ll dance below the stars
And the sea will whisper our love
To this whole world
Peter imitated Jordan’s steps. In unison Bran, Sheen, and Peter clapped while Jordan sang.
No matter what
No matter who
You are my moisture
Keeping me wet
So I won’t dry up
Take a look at my girl
She’s got long hair
Down to her hips
Umm, and she sways them
For me, uh-uh-huh
The Master belted out the tune with such ferocity that other Bards began to gather round. And with the Master’s increased playing so to did Jordan’s vigour.
Here she comes
Take a look at her
We’re together now
I feel so wild inside
It’s- it’s because
She’s mine for all time…
Jordan held the last word until his voice finally broke.
Most of the Campus now headed their way. A middle aged Master with lively eyes shouted, “Is this a concert? We’re coming too.”
Bran moved back under the chestnut tree. He leaned against its trunk and watched in fascination. Never had he seen so many conglomerate in one place. In a short time many of the Masters, including Master Rennell were gathered in the centre of a large circle of apprentices. Chattering incoherently the Masters seemed to be discussing which songs to sing. The Masters broke away from their gathering. He saw them forming their own apprentices into groups. Some of the Older Masters combined their groups. He could not believe what he was about to see. He walked over to his Master. “Is this real?” he asked with awe.
The Master gleefully wiped sweat from his forehead. He looked at Bran with sparkling eyes. “Occasionally Masters, but more often students, will get an impulse to sing. If their passion is great enough a jam session is held. It’s somewhat an unwritten rule.”
Bran felt a little embarrassed. “What is a jam session?” he asked.
The Master slapped him on the left shoulder, “Just a bunch of musicians playing passionately.”
Jordan jumped between him and the Master. “What about the Lady Bards, should I ask them over?” Bran could not believe Jordan’s gall.
“Sure,” the Master replied. “But you’ll have to swim across.” There was a hint of worry in the Master’s voice. “Take Bran with you, at least to the shore to watch in case you get numb swimming. If you do just swim on your back and Bran you call for help.”
Jordan’s eyes alit with excitement. “Time to go Bran.”
Bran wanted to see the jam session but he had told Jordan he would help him get to the other side. He found himself half running as he tried to catch up as Jordan pushed other Bards aside. At Cleansing Jordan tore off his clothes and threw them into Bran’s arms. Without another word he dashed into the water and was off.
Part Twenty-one August 8, 2016
Bran knew Jordan was a good swimmer, but he watched anyway. As he waited he heard footsteps behind him. He turned around to see Peter standing behind him. His comrade smiled wanly before sitting down on the sand beside him.
“He’s decided tonight?” Peter asked in disbelief.
“I guess it’s the best chance he has, the Master gave him permission.”
Peter’s jaw dropped. “The Master?” Bran nodded and they both broke out laughing.
Peter chose a pebble and tossed it into the water. “Do you think he’ll be all night?”
Bran shrugged. “Tell me about the east,” he said.
Peter’s blue eyes dulled. “It’s very different from here. I grew up on a large estate. My father was not nobility but a rich merchant. He sold war-horses to the King’s and Dukes.
“So many nobility you would think they would fight all the time,” Bran said.
Peter sighed. “Sometimes, but rarely. All the Kings and Dukes are related.”
Bran leaned on one elbow, intrigued by the conversation, “How?” he asked.
“The Kings and Dukes are all sons of the Emperor.”
“Well that would explain why there are so few battles, there must be very few nobility,” Bran said thoughtfully.
“Not quite,” Peter replied sadly. “The Emperor is over two thousands years old.”
Bran gulped and asked, “How?”
“From what I’ve been told, and it may just be lore, the Emperor marries outside of his own lineage. He always has sons with blond hair or red hair. Those born with red hair become kings, those with blond hair dukes, I don’t know why. His sons can only have girls. The girls are married to the Emperor’s sons, or to the nobility lineage that existed before the Emperor became ruler.”
“Why can’t the Emperor have girls, and why can’t the sons have boys?”
Peter’s face contorted. “I don’t know. The Emperor never marries his own granddaughters; he always marries outside of his family.”
“Strange,” Bran said. “The Emperor controls the entire east than?”
Peter shook his head. “No. There are the Orcs, the Giants, and many varieties of them, Goblins, and so on. Elves rule most of the northern region and Dwarfs a small area along the Tshai Mountain Range.”
“When you say Giants you mean like Ballard?” Bran asked.
“Ballard is semi-giant Bran; most of the true giants are a great deal taller.”
Bran looked at Peter questionably. His friend’s blue eyes were dark with a matter-of-fact stare. “I guess there is nothing here for the Emperor to want. He seems to have everything already.”
Peter stared deeply into his eyes. “Are you sure? You don’t know of the guardian of the west than?”
“No,” Bran replied.
“The Emperor would have conquered the west long ago, if it were not for the Sphinx.”
“Who?” Bran asked. He felt a sickening in his stomach. All these unknown creatures made his once safe world seem open and fragile.
“I don’t know his true name.”
“Enough,” Bran said with disgust. Images of the blueish-grey creatures zoomed into his thoughts making him shiver. “I believe you Peter but I’m into farmland and blacksmithing…” He froze. “I have to go to the shack,” he said hurriedly. “Can you stay?” He stood up and brushed the sand from his pants.
“Maybe you don’t need to go tonight,” Peter suggested.
“I’ll check.” Bran took off towards Ballard’s guardhouse.
He ran past the giant’s guardhouse and onto the bobbing log path. His arms spread for balance as he continued to run but his left foot hit a stump in one of the logs and he faltered. For a moment he swayed, his body bending forward and backwards. He couldn’t get his footing. “Don’t…,” he began to say to himself as he fell backwards into the marsh water.
For a moment he found himself fully submerged. He knew better than to struggle. The water on top was clear, but below him was mud and it would drag him under if he panicked. He straightened his arms out to the sides until they were perpendicular to his body. As he hoped the movement propelled him towards the log. He kicked one foot over the log but he couldn’t lock his leg. Still under water he was getting desperate for air. This time he panicked, his foot hit the log but slid back into the water. He tried to push himself through the water but he couldn’t get the necessary force. Desperately he rolled onto his belly. He tried to dog paddle without using his feet. For a short distance he managed to swim with his head above the water, but the sediment clung to his clothing. He began to sink! With his last gasp of air he screamed, “Help!”
Part Twenty-Two August 11, 2016
He felt water gushing into his throat before everything became dark. He saw the skull of his dream. It filled his vision until all he could see was its teeth and lower jaw. The lower jaw opened so that the skull appeared to be smiling. The skull floated closer. Bran felt its teeth clench onto his jewel. He tried to lift his arms up so he could push it away but he felt the mud of the swamp holding him down; he was helpless. The necklace began to rise off his neck as the skull moved upwards. Something grabbed a hold of him from behind. His arms were free from the mud. He pushed at the skull, hardly noticing its icy surface. The necklace was almost off. In a flash he saw a mammoth golden-haired paw strike the skull. The skull let go of the jewel. The paw swatted the skull again, causing it to spin away. Jolting to a stop the skull turned slightly to his left. Bran began to turn in that direction. As he did, he saw a powerful, golden-haired paw and foreleg that looked like it belonged to a creature he had seen depicted in a schoolbook. Beyond the foreleg he saw a mane with long strands of white and gold hair. He began to look up the monstrous body when everything went black again.
Bran spat out water. Someone was holding his head up and he was on his back. He heard voices.
“Jacob saw him and ran to help, but…,” a man with a gruff voice was saying.
“He’s fine, he just stinks.” The voice belonged to Master Kadar.
“Too bad they cut out Jacob’s tongue. He could have called for others,” the gruff voiced man said.
“Jacob did fine,” the Master said with unusual warmth.
Bran opened his eyes. He was inside the doorway to the shop. Leaning over him was Master Kadar and a tall man garbed in a grey cloak. He looked around for another, the one known as Jacob. Ignoring the Master and the tall man he got up and subconsciously wiped some of the muck from his clothes. As he brushed himself off he looked down the log path towards another man. He got up and stepped onto the path. His body rebelled, fearful of falling in again, but he forced himself to move along the logs.
An average sized man stood before him. The man’s body was barrel chested and the legs heavy with strength. Bran stared long and hard at the man. The man’s head was disfigured with scars along the left side. The nose had been broken and was reset poorly so the tip bent in an almost perpendicular direction to the chin. “Jacob?” he croaked.
The man shifted uneasily before nodding his head.
Bran put out his right hand. At that moment he fully realised what the man had done. A lump filled his throat. “Thank you,” he said with a choke.
Jacob raised his own right hand where only three fingers remained. As their hands met Jacob pulled Bran to his chest and slapped him on the back.
The tall man came over. Bran looked into the eyes that were only slightly higher than his own. The eyes were steely blue. The face was middle-aged and covered in weather wrinkles. In all, the face was lean like a fox’s and the eyes just as keen. The man wore a cowl over his head. The cloak he wore was made of grey fleece. It reached just below the ankles. At the rim of the cloak two mud covered feet pointed out. The man smiled. “We must go,” he said with a slight bow of his head.
Bran watched Jacob and the grey cloaked man leave. From behind him he heard the Master coming forward. “You can leave now to,” the Master said dryly. “You smell worse than the Excretatory.”
Bran didn’t bother to look back to say good-bye to the Master, he just headed straight for Cleansing, however he heard the Master following him as far as the logs.
As he came up towards the chestnut trees he saw only a few figures moving about in the starlight. The jam was over. He went to the shore of Cleansing and looked across to the Lady Bard’s side. He wondered if they ever made it to the concert, and whether Jordan was still over there.
The next morning Jordan looked dazed and he had a faraway look in his eyes. A half smile was fixed on the left side of his face. “You had a better night than I,” Bran complained.
“Your night could not compare to mine,” Jordan said with feverish vanity. Jordan turned and looked at him. Bran’s blond-haired comrade winked at him. “Tell you and Peter at Cleansing.”
Bran found the singing lesson long and dreary that day. The night before still wavered in his mind. He saw flashes of what looked to be a skull, and something else. The lesson seemed to drag on even longer when he unfortunately caught a glimpse of Jordan’s smirk.
When the time came to bathe he, Jordan, and Peter quickly moved ahead of Sheen. Sheen’s head rose in suspicion and he tried to follow them to see what was going on but Jordan had Bran and Peter run to avoid their unwanted comrade.
At Cleansing Jordan snarled at Sheen. “If you come near me today I’ll give you a thrashing, lumpy.”
Peter glared at Jordan. “We’ll practice that ‘Languid’ song together, later,” Peter shouted to Sheen.
Jordan cursed. “Why bother?” He snarled, “The fat thing can sing alone.”
Peter’s eyes flashed dangerously. Jordan lowered his head. Of the four of them, Peter was the link. He got along with everyone, and Bran knew that he, Jordan and Sheen could always rely on their red-headed comrade.
“Okay, I’ll lay off Sheen, but listen!” Jordan began. “Last night when I went over to the Lady Bard’s side, there were four of the older girls bathing. So I pointed out that we were having a jam session and asked if they would like to join. One of the girls said she would go and mention it to one of the Mistress Lady Bards. I was alone with three of them.” Jordan’s eyes alighted with excitement. “I began chatting about this and that when one of the girls, with beautiful blonde hair and ebony skin asked me to tell her about the Gentlemen Bard side. So we walked down the beach a little bit. I suggested we go into the water and talk, and she agreed. I told her a little bit about playing the lute–.”
“You know how to play?” Peter interrupted in disbelief.
Jordan waived his right hand with annoyance. “No, no, I faked it. So she tells me that in her year they get together midway through and have a dance with the Gentlemen Bards–of the same year. Well, I said I knew how to dance. So she asks me to show her a few moves. I get up real close to her naked body, and something happens.” Jordan shook his head with disbelief. “Anyway I get close to her, and she feels it against her. Suddenly her hands are on it. Both of us are looking with, you know, that awkward look. So I lean in close and kiss her. Next thing I know her legs are wrapped around my waist and I’m inside of her. She’s gasping, I’m gasping.” Again Jordan shook his head in disbelief. “It was the highlight of my life.”
“Maybe I should go,” Peter said much to Bran’s surprise. Peter and Jordan moved off slightly and began discussing a plan to get Peter over to the Lady Bards’ side. Peter turned his head from the huddle and looked at Bran. “You gonna try Bran.”
Bran smiled weakly at his comrades. His right hand grasped the jewel, “I can’t,” he said apologetically.
Days turned to weeks and still Peter never went across Cleansing to the Lady Bards’ side. Occasionally Jordan conceived of a wild plan but it never worked. Jordan went across one more time but he was forced to swim back when one of the Mistress Lady Bards saw him. Bran laughed the night he heard about it. Jordan mumbled and grumbled that if the Mistress Lady Bard reported him he didn’t care.
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.
Part Twenty-Five August 14, 2016
“Sounds of Sorrow,” the Master said. Bran started singing. The Master raised his right hand.
For each consecutive lore he kept a nervous eye on the Master’s left hand. On the eighth lore the Master’s left hand began raising, but the Master cursed and put his hand down and raised his right instead. By the ninth song Bran could feel his voice going hoarse.
“River of Sleep,” the Master said for the fifteenth song. Bran’s eyes dropped. He felt crushed. River of Sleep was one of the very difficult lores that called for many verses in the higher octaves. The Master stared emphatically into his rueful eyes. “No,” the Master said, “lets do ‘The Ship of Voyage’ instead.”
Bran stopped holding his breath and bowed his head in thanks. He wiped sweat from his forehead and sang:
Where did the giants of Atla come?
No one knows for certain
But their dark galleys do come
Through the mists of a far off land
And they sing as they sail
They sing of the voyage,
The forever voyage
These giants, do they see?
For legends say they are blind,
Yet they steer their huge ships,
Into seas where no one else dare
Have you heard what the old sailors say?
The giants of Atla,
Not seen for decades return,
When you see a giant cloud in the sea,
It is one of their ships,
Surrounded in mist
The giants from Atla, do they go blind?
Some say they never dock,
But eat from the sea,
As they travel on their ship,
Along an infinite voyage
The old Master raised his right arm. “You need much work Bran of Darwin, but you have passed. Gerald of Luhr,” the Master called out.
Bran was exhausted. He found Peter, Jordan, Sheen and the Master nearby. He sat down on the ground and breathed deeply.
“Well?” Peter asked, trying to hide a nervous twitch in his right knee.
“I made it, but barely,” Bran replied. His voice was dry and cracked.
Jordan crouched beside him. “That old fart really kept you a long time. I heard he told you to sing one song and then changed his mind, what a duck excrete,” Jordan scowled.
“No,” Bran said with reverie, “he’s a kind Master. Otherwise, I would have failed. He originally asked me to sing River of Sleep.”
Peter gasped. “You are lucky he didn’t ask you to sing that! I think Sheen’s the only one who can sing that song properly.”
“And me,” Jordan added.
Jordan and Peter waited a long time before it was their turn. Sheen, forced to wait an excruciating amount of time went through phases of emotions. One moment he was calm, the next he was fidgety, and occasionally he was on the verge of tears. All through it Bran, the Master, Peter, and sometimes Jordan encouraged him. Bran could see problems brewing once Jordan was finished. His blond comrade passed. This meant with his early nervousness expired Jordan would be ruthless to Sheen. Jordan started taunting Sheen once Peter was gone to be tested. Jordan constantly suggested that Sheen’s voice squeaked when it did not. Finally Bran stood up. He grabbed Jordan by the left ear and dragged him to Cleansing.
Jordan cursed all the way to the pond. At Cleansing Bran let him go by tossing him into the water. “I’ll rip you in two!” Jordan cursed.
Bran stared coolly at him. “You’re a friend Jordan,” he said, “but if you think you can match me you’ll be sorry. You have no idea what I went through to get here, and you have no idea what kind of physical strength blacksmithing gives you.”
Jordan half-crouched, as if ready to attack. Bran just stood straight and tall, and looked directly into Jordan’s eyes. Jordan lunged at him. Without much concern Bran stepped sideways and pushed Jordan into the water again. Jordan got to his feet and punched Bran in the face. Bran took the blow and simultaneously grabbed Jordan’s wrist. He felt the sting of the blow but forced himself to ignore it. He could feel anger like he never felt before overwhelming him. Jordan let out a cry as Bran’s hand clenched his wrist tighter. Jordan fell to his knees pulling Bran into the water. From the corner of his left eye Bran saw Peter rushing towards them. Peter didn’t stop at the shoreline but plunged in and threw all his weight against Bran.
Bran did not know what overcame him, but he grabbed around Peter’s throat and forced his friend underwater. He could see little bubbles streaming towards the surface. Something inside made him jolt. He let go of Peter’s neck and pulled the red head to the surface. He felt terrible inside. Peter gasped and started to turn on him. He could see Peter was about to strike him; but he felt so bad he didn’t lift an arm to block the coming blow. Peter hesitated and the blow never came. Instead, Peter turned his attention to Jordan who was stalking around them ready to jump in. “Better behave Jordan,” Peter cursed as he trudged out of the water.
Soaked and weary Bran went with Peter and Jordon back to the testing area. The Master looked suspiciously at them, but said nothing. Bran forgot his anger towards Jordan and shame at nearly killing Peter as he listened to a voice as clear and angelic as a spoon tapping crystal. It was Sheen. The boy’s voice moved hypnotically through the verses of River of Sleep. The song Bran dreaded singing was one of the most beautiful pieces, and Sheen sang it to its fullest. When the song ended the first year Masters and apprentices applauded with roaring shouts of approval.
“That’s his sixteenth song!” the Master shouted. “Never, never before has a tested apprentice been asked for an encore.”
Sheen listened to the roaring applause with a face of shy content. Silently the boy stepped away from the applauding hands. Bran felt a warmth inside for Sheen, and before even Peter could congratulate Sheen, Bran was slapping Sheen on the back. “You’re going to be a Master someday,” he predicted.
Part Twenty-Six August 15, 2016
The second year master’s beard was groomed and thick with dark brown hair. He liked to flick his long, tousled hair as he sat lazily against the chestnut tree. Beady eyes looked at Bran and the others with bird-like intent. A long nose that went straight out but slanted down sniffed with congestion. The Master’s suit was filled out with short arms, short legs, and a big belly. Master Rennell pushed them forward. “Master Barrage, these are your new students.”
“Thank you,” Master Barrage said dismissing Master Rennell with a sniffle. “Gather around children,” Master Barrage said authoritatively.
Bran saw Master Rennell lean close to Jordan’s left ear, and heard him whisper, “Behave.”
The new Master eyed them impatiently. “Sit down!” he shouted. Peter and Sheen sat down. Jordan slowly stepped closer to the Master, and took his time sitting. He sat cross-legged, mimicking the Master.
Bran began to sit down when he felt Master Rennell’s hand on his shoulder. “You still have to see Master Kadar, Bran.” Bran nodded and left for the blacksmith shop. “Good luck Bran,” Master Rennell said, before heading off in the opposite direction.
Bran looked up into the sky and saw how dark it was. He ran towards the shop.
As he reached Ballard’s guardhouse he noticed rain falling in the swamp. He stepped delicately onto the bobbing logs. Twice one of his feet almost slipped into the muck. Inside the shop Master Kadar was already pumping the bellows. Bran shook his head to get rid of the rainwater.
“About time,” the Master grumbled. “I still have some brass from last year. Try not to waste it, I don’t have much copper to smelt with zinc to make more.” Bran grabbed his apron off its hook and walked over to the Master. “We’re going to be here all night and maybe into the next day,” the Master stated. “Some of the Residence’s basins have holes that need brass plugs, and, since this is a new year, the campus is low on string whirls, frets, and pegs.” Bran could see small cylinders of brass, and elongated basins about half as wide as the length of his arm and about as long.
“I’m not that familiar with their construction,” Bran replied.
“You’ll learn,” the Master said as he put down the bellows and began hammering a plug. “Watch how I fix the holes in the basin. I’ll want you to take over while I start on the frets.” The Master broke the piece of metal he was hammering in two. Using a prong in either hand he placed the tips of the pieces into the furnace. When the pieces were red hot and about to melt, he placed one piece over the hole in the basin on the inside and one on the outside then released the prongs. As the metal began to cool over the hole he put down the prongs and grabbed a special hammer with a small axe blade. He pushed the inner piece in place while he struck it. The excess metal came off. He repeated the procedure on the outside. Again the metal broke above the hole.
“Do the best you can. A residence man named Alvin said he can grind the metal down and coat the inside with zinc.” The Master put a large clamp over the aperture of the basin and dipped it into the water. The metal cooled completely. “If you find it still leaks after you’ve finished covering the hole, heat up some more iron and repeat the process.”
Bran just finished plugging the last basin when dawn began to peek through the shop’s one window. A beautiful sound pierced through the air. He put down his work and listened more intently. Someone was playing a flute. The notes were long and wispy, as if the wind were flowing through the different holes.
“It’s morning,” the Master grumbled. Master Kadar’s voice sounded dry and gruff, “That’s Hammel playing his flute. Try to ignore it.”
“But–,” Bran started to reply.
“Exactly,” the Master warned, “its hypnotic.”
Bran shook his head to break the trance the flute music was having on him. One by one he placed each basin in the cooling bucket. Grunting with effort he lifted the water-filled basins up and looked for leaks. He found one basin with a leak and began reworking it.
He tried the basin again for leaks and found none. “The basins are done,” he said.
Master Kadar coughed and rubbed his eyes. “Good. I’ve done enough frets so I will get you to help me with the pegs. Now,” the Master began as he wiped sweat from his forehead, “it takes a good eye to make pegs. So what I want you to do is heat up the bronze and form it as best you can. When you have the basic shape give the key to me and I’ll use the grinding wheel to perfect its shape.” The Master went to a corner of the shop where a canvas tarp lay. He pulled off the tarp and Bran could see a large grinding wheel attached to a chair and two pedals. The Master pushed the grinding wheel with his hand, it turned easily. Next he sat down and began to pedal. Satisfied that the grinding wheel worked the Master got off.
From a drawer the Master took out some old keys. “This is the shape you want to cut out of the bronze sheets. I suggest you heat the bronze, but go easy on the bellows, we don’t want it too hot.”
“Aren’t the keys threaded?” Bran asked.
“Yes, I have a device to do that. Just make the form, I’ll do the rest.”
Bran pumped the bellows experimentally. He placed a small piece of bronze into the furnace and watched it melt. He let the coals cool down and tried over and over again until he found the right heat. When the bronze was soft enough, he took it out and with a snip cut it into the form of the keys. His first attempts were poor, but the master took them anyway. As the day began to grow brighter he made better forms. Eventually exhaustion flowed through his body. The shape of the key he was cutting became blurry. The Master made gruff noises of dismay as the form of the keys became less perfect.
“That’s enough,” the Master said with a weary cough. “Come back tonight and we’ll finish the pegs. It will be a short night. Just sleep, don’t even bother with your lessons, the night after tonight will be long again. The Lady Bard’s need strings for their lyres.”
The sunlight was so bright he wasn’t sure if he could sleep. He stood waist deep in Cleansing. Across the water he could see some of the Lady Bards. His body urged him to swim over to the other side. The desire grew so bad he actually submerged himself up to his neck as if preparing to cross. Instead he stood up again. His left hand moved slowly up to his chest where he could feel the necklace. His fingers slid down the links onto the warm surface of the blue and turquoise swirls of the jewel. A wave of sadness swept through him. He slumped forward, exhausted and aching. Just across the water were the missing halves of men. He clenched his fists. His body wanted to enchant them, caress them, and seduce them. But something stronger than his physical being denied him. Something so inner, so large, it could not be swayed by desire. He slumped farther. He let go of the jewel, letting its natural warmth heat his chest. Utterly exhausted he grabbed his clothes and headed in the direction of the blacksmith shop where he knew he could find shade at the edge of the campus.
Part Twenty-Seven August 18, 2016
He slept behind Ballard’s guardhouse shaded by the cornice. Right next to him he heard the quiet cough of someone trying to clear their throat. He leaned on one arm and looked in the direction from which the cough came from. Just outside the campus he could see in the darkening sky a man in a cloak leaning up against a tall birch tree. Long, uncombed hair fell over a wolfish face with dark blue eyes. He was clothed in a woollen cloak, as white as the sheep it came from. In the man’s hands rested a flute. The man’s eyelids slanted as he placed the flute against his lips. Bran could hear a whisper of a tune before the man lowered the lute. “You are a Bard?” the man asked with a deep, wispy voice.
“Yes,” Bran answered.
“Why aren’t you at the campus?”
“I am helping Master Kadar,” he replied inclining his head in the direction of the shop.
“You should go there; Kadar has already started his furnace.”
Bran nodded to the man. He stood up and started off towards the shop. He reached the logs when his stomach began to growl uncontrollably. He ran along the logs and into the shop.
“Sleep well?” Master Kadar asked sarcastically. Bran could see dark patches under the Master’s eyes. “I need about ten more keys. I haven’t started threading the others yet, so while I’m doing that I want you to start making strings for the lyres. Watch how the strings are made.”
The Master had a string maker just like the one his father had made for him, except Master Kadar’s was made of brass. “This string maker is for the lyres. The horse hairs you use for it are the shorter ones.” The Master took out a large object wrapped in cloth. He took the cloth off and revealed a much larger string maker. This string maker had ten string holes. The holes were progressively larger. “Make about five sets of each of the lyre strings for now. Have you ever done this before?”
“Yes, just before I came to the campus,” Bran told him. “My father gave me a silver string maker, but it was stolen.”
The Master seemed disappointed. “That would have been nice.” “Here’s the glue. The lyre strings have to be tauter than the lute strings, so pull more hair through the holes. There’s a line in one of the drawers with clips. You can hang it near the door for now until you’re ready to clip the strings on it.”
Bran went to search for the line when his stomach growled again. “You haven’t eaten either,” the Master observed dryly. “We will get some food together later on.”
Bran finished cutting out the forms for ten more keys. He set them beside the Master who continued to pedal at a constant speed. Bran noticed that the lantern light was getting dull near the Master. He added more oil. He looked back to see if the light was brighter. The Master’s face was a sweaty white colour. Bran could see by the intentness of the Master’s eyes that nothing existed now but the keys. Bran began making the strings. He made about five sets of the lyre’s first seven strings when his stomach growled again. “Sir,” he called. The Master continued peddling. Carefully, Bran touched the Master’s right shoulder. “We should eat now,” he said. The Master finished the key and stopped pedaling.
Breathing heavily Master Kadar turned and looked at him with an expression of annoyance. But Bran could see the weariness in his eyes.
“It’s like fighting in a war,” the Master said languidly. “You want to win as soon as you can and return home. So you push yourself, thinking you can win the war if you keep pushing. But eventually you exhaust yourself, and the enemy starts pushing you back.” The Master coughed, he rubbed his bloodshot eyes. “Let’s eat.”
The Master led him out of the shop and along the bobbing logs. They came to the back of Ballard’s guardhouse but instead of going towards the campus they veered off into the forest. The Master took him to a small opening. “Hillerbrand!” the Master shouted. A man came out of the woods. His dark complexion made the whites of his eyes shine.
“Kadar!” Hillerbrand called back. Hillerbrand wore the clothing of the Druids. He was about as tall as Master Kadar but not as powerfully built.
“Do you have any food you can spare two starving blacksmiths?”
“Is this the one who did the lousy job on the Residences’ basins?” Hillerbrand asked.
“Yes, so don’t give him anything, just me,” Master Kadar replied sarcastically.
Hillerbrand walked over to Bran and stared up into his face. “You have a lot of learning to do, child.”
“I’m not a child, sir,” Bran replied defensively.
“I’m sorry,” Hillerbrand said with sarcasm. “Boy.”
Bran could feel himself burning inside with anger. He was sore and tired and very hungry. He stepped forward to grapple the Druid. As he stepped closer three more Druids appeared. Master Kadar turned around, grabbed Bran by the front of his shirt and threw him to the ground. “These people feed us, clothes us, and protect us!” The Master shouted with spittle striking Bran’s face. “Hillerbrand is one of the oldest and wisest Druids in this forest you insubordinate sapling.”
Bran’s eyes glowed with anger. “I’ve met worse,” he spat out.
“Get out of here,” Master Kadar said with threatening eyes.
Bran took his time standing up. He glanced hatefully at Hillerbrand, but the anger disintegrated. Hillerbrand’s blue eyes looked dull and sad. “He’s right,” the Druid said dolefully pointing at Bran. “We can get you some fish wrapped in cabbage and potato.” Hillerbrand turned to one of the other Druids. “Anlalh, if you could.” The Druid named Anlalh lowered his head slightly before leaving with the other two Druids.
“He is a hardy boy–man,” Hillerbrand said. Bran saw the dull blue eyes sparkle. From those eyes he could see not only Hillerbrand’s wisdom but also his wit. “I’d try him at leg wrestling but he looks as if he has been doing blacksmithing a long time. What is your name?”
“Bran,” Hillerbrand said touching his lower lip with his index finger. “You look familiar.”
“His father use to come to the campus,” Master Kadar said.
Hillerbrand lowered his eyes, but said nothing in reply. Bran could see in Hillerbrand’s eyes that his father brought back memories, but he didn’t dare to ask why.
Master Kadar pointed to the ground. Bran sat down and Hillerbrand sat across from him.
“Have you heard anything about what is happening across the ocean?” Master Kadar asked.
“There is still strife. Humans against goblins; humans against giants; humans against humans, and so on. I have heard rumours that the Sphinx Vires is watching carefully. If the few sons of the Emperor, who are trying to defeat their father, do not win soon, they may retreat to here.”
“They think the Sphinx will protect them?” Master Kadar asked with surprise.
Hillerbrand placed his hands wearily over his cheeks. “If, Vires wants to interfere. You know that if the Emperor’s sons come, they will bring their industry. This land is sacred. Blacksmithing is arcane. Not since, I don’t know,” Hillerbrand spread his hands in uncertainty, “perhaps five millennium ago has blacksmithing been taught in school. Father’s can only teach it to their children. If the blacksmith has no children or his only child dies, then it is lost to that family. Your skill is the only industry that is forgiven, or shall I say barely tolerated.”
Anlalh returned with the other two Druids. They carried wooden plates containing pre-cooked potatoes covered in fish wrapped in cabbage. “Thank you, Anlalh, Durrel, and Wyatt,” Hillerbrand said.
They ate in silence. When they were finished Master Kadar bowed to Hillerbrand. Bran imitated his master’s gesture. Hillerbrand did not bow but shook the Master’s hand. He looked at Bran with wise, old eyes. “Farewell Bran.” The Druid shook Bran’s hand. Bran took an involuntary step back from the energy emitted by the Druid’s hand. He could not explain it but it felt warm, as if it were a healing energy.
He returned with the Master to the shop and lost track of time as he finished the strings for the lyres. His mind kept pondering–how did Hillerbrand send energy into him?
Part Twenty-Eight August 19, 2016
It was two days before Bran returned to the chestnut tree of his new master. “Look at this,” Jordan said with pride. On his right forearm, just below the underside of his elbow was a thick purple scar. “I am officially a Bard apprentice of the second year. You get one too.”
“You must be Bran,” he heard a nasally voice say. The new master walked over to him. “You work at night with Master Kadar, I understand. Well tonight you will have to be late. Go to the testing area. That is go tonight, in case you did not understand me.”
Bran glared at the new master. He was tired from the two long days of working, and now he had to listen to an obnoxious master. He walked towards Cleansing and headed for the old chestnut tree where the testing had taken place. A Mistress Lady Bard stood waiting by the tree.
In her hand she held an iron. Occasionally, she dipped it into a small cauldron that sat over the coals of a former fire. As he came nearer she must have heard him for she looked in his direction. “Bran of Darwin?” she asked impatiently.
“Yes,” he replied rolling up the sleeve of his left forearm. The Mistress Lady Bard dipped the iron rod into the cauldron then into a small vase. The end of the iron rod was now purple. With her other hand she grabbed a long knife.
“Put your left arm out, and don’t move.” He did as he was told. In one swift movement she sliced open his forearm near his elbow and sealed the wound with the dye on the iron. Bran could smell his flesh burning. He wondered how Sheen fared with this. “You’re done,” the Mistress Lady Bard said. “Now go to Cleansing and wash your arm.”
“Thank you,” Bran said through gritted teeth.
“I don’t hear that very often,” the Mistress Lady Bard said. “Perhaps you’ll be a charmer.” She smiled warmly at him.
He went to Cleansing, where he stripped and soaked his whole body along with his arm. A broad, uncontrollable smile crossed his face. He was becoming a Bard!
As the days wore on Bran began to dislike the new master even more. His distaste for the Master grew worse once the lessons began. The Master ‘tched’ by sucking the back of his upper teeth with his tongue whenever Bran or the others sang a verse in the wrong note. The Master’s eyes gleamed sadistically whenever Bran could not reach the higher notes. “Again!” the Master would demand.
The morning lessons continued on from the first year’s singing lessons. The Master expected them to practice humming up and down the scales. At the end of each lesson they were given three verses of a lore to remember.
Two full moons passed and the Master continued to grow more irritable. It was late and the Master called for an end to the day’s lessons. Bran glared at him, however, he decided not to start a scene with the Master. “You have a lot of catching up to do,” the Master said to Bran with a sardonic grin. “I suggest you get up early and ask one of your friends to teach you the verses of the lores you continuously skewer with your pathetic voice. Perhaps you should ask Sheen to help you with your high notes.” He nonchalantly lifted his right arm into the air and flicked his wrist in dismissal. Bran riled in anger. Sheen, who had become more amicable with Bran, looked at Bran and shrugged sympathetically. Bran understood Sheen was the Master’s favourite, all of his comrades did. Unfortunately, Bran was his kicking tree.
In the second half of the year the Master took them into the woods where he pointed out copse of yellow cedar trees. “The Druids have told me we can use one of these trees to make the necks of the lutes.” The Master keenly looked over the selection of cedars. “This one has too many curves in its trunk. This one,” the Master complained, “is so old it is rotting. Look, here,” he shouted moving towards one of the cedars, “this tree is straight enough. The bark looks healthy. I will ask the Druids to cut down this tree.” The Master took out a knife from one of his pant pockets. Diligently he removed some bark from the tree.
“Now we need to find a pine tree for the soundboard.” Peter pointed out a healthy looking pine. “No, no, a fine-grain pine, not a gnarly looking one like this!”
Jordan yawned with boredom. “Why don’t we just cut it down now?” he asked dryly.
The Master eyed him and made his usual tching sound. “The Druids know how to cut the tree down yet keep its stump alive so saplings can sprout out of it.”
The Master led them back to the chestnut tree. “Tomorrow,” he said, “we will return to the forest and cut out the necks for the lutes. Hopefully, a fortnight from now the dark rosewood will arrive and we can make the ribs.” The Master cupped his chin with his left hand and placed his right foot thoughtfully forward. “Master Kadar should have the frets and keys done. Well, if Bran didn’t mess them up.”
Bran looked wearily across the field in the direction of Ballard’s guard post. “I’ll see you bright and early,” he said to the others as he headed off to the blacksmith shop.
“Looking forward to tomorrow when we start working on the lute?” Peter asked as he got out his cot.
“Yes,” Bran yelled back, with a glint in his eyes. He wanted to construct his own lute, and learn all its intricate parts. Someday, maybe he would take up woodworking along with continuing his blacksmithing.
Part Twenty-Nine August 20, 2016
As he walked to the blacksmith shop Bran started to sing some of the verses he and the others had been working on. He sang Valley of Solitude:
They rode along the road of despair
Lost in land emblazoned with grief
Where no fertile soil lay,
Their crops grew only to wilt away
But in their hearts was a plan
For with them they brought along,
Knowledge of the Earth
They rode night and day
Over desert land they sought a greener place
Over ruined fields and waterless ponds they sought to find grace
Over the windy field, many fell
Exhausted they could ride no more and fell to die
Over a hill the horses climbed with riders aboard
A hill with a healthy waterfall
Climbing this hill took them high
Those cracked lips and shallow cheeks never smiled so broad
‘Can you see the green valley bellow?’ they cheered with hoarse voices
‘We’ll begin our plan here’
‘A new place to begin’
The valley stood as a solitude place,
Green in the midst of dust
A place for the men from across the sea to begin anew…
He couldn’t remember the rest of the song so he continued in silence towards the blacksmith shop.
Just outside the shop he saw a tall man speaking to Master Kadar. The man had long grey hair. His face was covered in a well-groomed moustache and imperial beard. The man was dressed in a tabard that loosely covered his armour. The tabard was embroidered with multiple depictions of a bull and doe deer. The chainmail armour sparkled from the lantern light peeking out through the shop window. The Master and the man stopped talking as soon as they heard him approach.
“As many as you can make Kadar,” the soldier said as he turned towards Bran. “Good evening, sir,” the man said with an eloquent voice as he stepped onto the log path.
“You too, sir,” Bran replied, somewhat awed at the man’s appearance. A sheath containing a sword with a silver hilt slapped lazily against the man’s right thigh as he bobbed along the log path. Bran turned to Master Kadar with his mouth open.
“Never mind,” the Master hissed. “Tonight we begin making shortswords. Keep this to yourself.” The Master glared at him. “You understand?”
“Yes,” he replied uneasily. He opened his mouth again to ask why.
“Don’t bother asking, I won’t tell you.” the Master said, as he turned abruptly around and headed into the shop.
Inside Bran saw a small hill of refined iron. “To make the swords we first melt the iron into large strips. We hammer the iron strips into the shape of a shortsword blade. Let the iron cool in a pale of water, reheat it, and cool it again. The cooling has to be swift or the metal will lose its strength. The hilts have to be made separately. I will do this because the ends must have a pommel to keep the hand from slipping off and the handle must be just the right width.”
The Master shovelled a large amount iron onto a long, metal pan. “The end where the handle attaches to the blade must have a thin protrusion called a tang so the hilt has something to attach to. Normally we hand pump the bellows but tonight I’ve affixed pedals below so we can get more heat in less time.” The Master started pumping the bellows by pedalling. “Do you understand all of this?”
Bran stepped forward to see how the melting of the iron was coming along. “Yes,” he replied.
“If you’re sure, you can go back to your chestnut tree. If there were two hearths I would let you stay, but there isn’t. Tomorrow I will need your help to make as many as possible.” The Master wiped the sweat from his forehead and ignored Bran.
“Yes,” Bran replied hesitantly. He waited a moment longer to see if the Master was just testing him, but the Master said nothing more. “Good-night,” he said before leaving. He stepped out of the shop and shook nervously. He wondered why they were going to make shortswords, and why he couldn’t tell anyone.
Bran walked to Cleansing. He undressed and plunged into the cool water. For awhile he stared into the sky. Its distance was too far for him to grasp, but it gave him a sense of ease. He wanted to ask Peter if he thought war was coming, but he could not. If he asked Peter, Peter would ask him why he wants to know. He stepped out of the water, re-clothed, and headed towards the chestnut tree.
Part Thirty August 21, 2016
The next day was hot. The Master had them sit under the chestnut tree to keep cool. “We will have to wait to make the lute necks,” the Master said as he fanned his face with his hand. Bran felt weary from the heat. Everyone was sluggish and thier voices sounded as brittle as mallets crushing sandstone.
“Normally the Druids take care of the weather, but every few years, during the warm season, they must let nature takes its course for a few days.” The Master lectured them as he wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. “That means unpredictable heat, and rain.”
Jordan moaned. “Can’t they take care of the weather every day?”
“No, it seems not,” the Master replied snobbishly. “Now, since there’s nothing we can do about it, let us continue with our lessons. Peter, I understand you came from the Emperor’s land. Do you know Havey’s Tale?”
“Yes,” Peter answered solemnly.
“Havey came here from the Emperor’s land almost two thousand years ago,” the Master said. “He collaborated with the Druids to stop the city of Expansar from expanding farther into the woods. The city of Expansar was a seed of industry planted here by the Emperor during his first centuries of power.” The Master nodded at Peter.
Peter looked down at the ground. He mumbled a tune to himself. Suddenly his blue eyes gazed up at the others. The freckled face grew gaunt and serene; he began to sing with a voice full of melancholy:
Havey came to the city Expansar to ruin the land
He sought to grow rich and prosper
But as he crossed the lush land before the stench of Expansar
He saw the beauty of it
Havey of the city Expanser
Did you know that you could do this?
Sing of green, lush land and rolling hills rich in forest growth
But when you sang,
Did you see the dagger glint in the bright sunlight?
Always seems the best go down before the rest
Listen children to Havey’s story
Listen dear he was a man for the Baron Falcon to fear
Havey wrote poems about a plausible future
Dirty streets lying over sandy ground
Smelly sewers where healthy foods use to grow
And blackened skies in place of the clear blue which let down the light of the stars
Havey with the Druids was granted King Lyr’s ears
King Lyr proclaimed the place of farmers safe
And though the land was saved,
Havey was pierced deeply with a dagger
Nature took him to her bosom
In the court of King Lyr he resides
Forever in our hearts and buried beneath our feet
And it is said,
His body fertilises the land, near a place joined to Expansar city
Peter stared at the ground after his song was finished. One single tear drew up at the corner of his right eye. It grew larger until the eyelashes could no longer hold its bulk. As if it were pushed off, it rolled down his cheek. “You have no idea what the Emperor has done to our land,” he cursed, as he wiped away the tear and lifted his head defiantly up to the sky. “You have no idea what I have seen.”
Part Thirty-One August 22, 2016
Later that day, after supper, Bran purposely steered Peter away from the others as they walked back to the chestnut tree. With bated breath he asked, “Do you think the Emperor will attack this side of the sea?”
Peter shrugged his shoulders, “Probably. Either the Emperor himself will order an attack, or his sons will come. War is constant Bran, it never ends. If the Emperor, himself comes, than things will get very ugly. On this side of the sea, the Sphinx Vires is in control. At least he controls near the sea. But on the other side, where I came from, there are many potent rulers. Like the Emperor, the shy chief Aldoran of the Hinterland giants is believed to be immortal. There are the reclusive dragons, sphinxes, and eternal elves. Most of them are believed to be immortal.”
Bran stared deeply into Peter’s eyes. “Immortal?”
“Immortal,” Peter hissed. “Not necessarily immortal in the sense that they can’t be destroyed or stopped. There is a legend that tells of an immortal Orc, named Sherish, who tried to rule the plains of Galbber. Sherish became the leader of an Orcish clan. He led them into continuous battle with the centaurs of Galbber plain. To defeat the stronger centaurs, Sherish ordered the fields set afire. Five ancient dragons became perturbed with his ruthless burning of the fields. They came out from their caves in the Mountain Range of Salt. Angry, they seduced Sherish with their fire breath and claws. They placed Sherish in one of the mountain caves. The cave was plugged by four Ogres. It is believed that Sherish still resides in the cave, alive.”
“Why doesn’t he escape?” Bran asked in disbelief.
“He is an immortal, but otherwise, he is only an orc, with only orc’s strength. Who knows, maybe some day he will scratch his way out.”
That night Bran went to the blacksmith shop full of angry energy. He was determined to master the making of weapons. The Emperor or his sons would have to fight to take this side of the sea.
At the shop, Master Kadar laid a finished shortsword in front of him. Bran studied its form before melting more iron into slabs. He hammered the slabs into long, thin bars and reheated the bars and hammered them into the pointed form of the shortsword.
At first the Master watched him continuously, occasionally stopping his own work to show Bran how to form the shape of the shortsword, how to hammer in the edges, and how to make the point.
The Master stopped him when he had finished four swords. “Tomorrow you will grind the finished swords with the stone wheel. When the blade is smooth you can use a file to sheer the edges and point. We’ll reheat the sword overnight in the coals. These swords are usable, but barely. I expect better work tomorrow.” The Master looked up at him to make sure he understood.
“I’m finding it hard keeping the blade straight because it’s too long for the anvil,” Bran replied. He had taken his shirt off to keep cool and now had streaks of soot covering his upper body. The frustration he felt was from not getting the swords perfect.
The Master rubbed his puffy eyes. “Work the blade from tip to handle, and back again. You will have to reheat the iron a lot until you get the feel. Now, go to your tree.”
Part Thirty-Two August 27, 2016
Three days passed before Master Barrage took them back into the woods. At the edge of the forest a Druid appeared. He led them to an open area where a pinetree with fine grain lay beside a felled beech tree.
The Master bowed his head, “Thankyou,” he said to the Druid. The Druid lowered his own head slightly and left.
Lying against the beech tree were a two-handed saw, two handsaws, four adzes, four chisels, four hammers, four plains and two, two-handed axes. The Master walked over to the tools. “First we will have Peter and Bran use the two-handed saw to cut off some of the larger branches on the beech tree. While they are working on that, Jordan and Sheen, you will cut off branches from the pinetree. Do not cut off branches that are any wider than the width of your hands. When you have cut two of these branches off with the handsaw, use the adzes to remove the bark from the branches.” The Master bent over and picked up three adzes. “Jordan and Sheen, come with me.”
Bran looked at Peter, and Peter mirrored Bran’s blank expression. “Time to saw,” Peter said with a sigh. Bran grabbed one end of the massive saw and Peter the other.
“Have you done this before?” Bran asked.
“No,” Peter replied as if it wasn’t going to be difficult.
Bran thought back to his village. He had seen men use a two-handed saw, but had never done it himself. “I’ll pull then you pull,” he suggested. He pulled and the saw’s teeth cut into the bark easily enough. Peter pulled and Bran nearly lost his grip as the saw blade jammed. “I think when you pull I push and vice versa,” he told Peter.
As he pulled Bran realised that it was going to take a long time before he and Peter were finished. They stopped halfway through the log to see how Sheen and Jordan were making out. Jordan struck the bark with the adze. The adze dug into the bark but instead of peeling off bark it ended up sticking in the wood.
“Sweep down on it!” Master Barrage shouted. “Let me show you, again!” the Master continued with a tching sound. The Master took the adze and swung it down onto the bark. As it dug through the bark the Master swept the adze up so that it skinned off the bark without digging into the wood. Jordan growled, tensed his muscles, stretched backwards, and grabbed the adze off the Master. Screaming out like a madman he swung the adze down into the bark. The adze tore off the bark and a large hunk of the wood underneath. Jordon eyeballed the trunk. With chest inflated he stomped back a few steps. He lifted the adze up, but instead of screaming, he silently arched it down onto the bark. The bark came off without any wood. “Good,” the Master said wiping his forehead. Sheen turned his eyes from the scene and continued taking off part of the bark. Sheen carefully swung down the adze, but pulled up too soon. Only the top layer of the bark came off. On his fourth attempt Sheen managed to remove all the bark without injuring the wood below. “Keep trying,” the Master said with a pleasant voice.
Huffing from using the saw Peter wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Let’s have another go,” he said hoarsely.
“Tomorrow,” the Master told them, “I want Bran and Jordan to cut the base of the beech tree into four sections. Cut each section the length of the adze’s handle, use an axe to split the sections until they are as thin as possible. Sheen and Jordan, you will begin to use the chisels and hammers to carve the shape of the neck out of the beech branches. I do not expect to have to repeat my instructions tomorrow. As soon as you wake up I want you to come straight here. Don’t even bother going to Cleansing.” The Master turned his back on them and started walking towards the chestnut tree.
Jordan gave Bran an emphatic look. “Aren’t you lucky Bran. You have to work with Master Kadar tonight, and work all day on building lutes tomorrow.”
Bran walked with Peter, Jordan and Sheen to the edge of the forest. He waved goodnight to them and went straight to the blacksmith shop.
Part Thirty-Three August 28, 2016
He completed four blades and made four more. The Master looked at his work with disapproval and sent him out for the night. He dragged himself to Cleansing. Exhausted he nearly fell asleep on the shore, but he forced himself up and headed towards the forest. He didn’t know at what time during the night, but he finally found the area where they were building the lutes. He lay down beside a cedar tree. His eyes were about to close when he heard a noise that jolted him awake. Visions of the monsters he had met on his journey to the campus became vivid in his mind. He crawled over to a cedar tree that was closer to the sound and peered around it.
In the moonlight he could make out moving figures. They were naked men and women dancing around a large, spherical stone, circled by smaller stones. The dancers either sang or played flutes. Bran slipped further into the forest. The women began making a whooshing sound. They stopped dancing and stepped into their circle with their backs facing the stone. They grasped one another’s hands. Their long hair fell over their naked hips. The men continued to dance around the women. One man after another stopped at a particular women and clasped onto her waist. When all the men were clasping onto a women they began grinding their hips against the women’s. The harder the men rubbed, the tighter the women grasped onto each other’s hands. Bran felt a shiver going up his spine. Part of him felt aroused and wanted to watch. A more powerful part of him wanted to turn away. Why, he didn’t know, but the event seemed sacred. He went over to the cedar tree and lay down, trying to block out the moans and screams of pleasure.
He was asleep when he felt hands shaking him. “Get up!” Peter said. “Master Barrage is almost here.” Bran opened his eyes. With a deep sigh he forced himself to sit up.
“Why can’t we eat first?” he heard Jordan saying from some distance away.
“Because you work better on an empty stomach,” the Master said with a growl.
Bran stood up and waited for the others to arrive. “Its going to be a long day, Peter,” he said despairingly.
“You’ll make it,” Peter replied slapping him on the shoulder.
By lunch time Bran and Jordan had made enough thin cuts of the beech tree to please the Master. “Those will be for your lutes. Now, go and get the handsaws. After lunch I want each of you to cut off a branch of the beech tree. Remember, no longer than the width of your hand. For now let’s get some lunch.”
After lunch Bran worked silently on cutting the right size branch from the beech tree. Occasionally Jordan made some silly comment on lute making, but Bran could not respond, he needed all his strength just to cut off the branch.
Before the end of the day Peter and Sheen had the rough shape of their lute neck done. Bran and Jordan had started planing the strips of beech tree to make them as thin as possible.
When the school day was finished Bran forced himself to walk to the blacksmith shop. He stepped into the shop and grabbed his apron. Master Kadar turned around, took one look at him, and pointed angrily to the doorway. Bran walked to Cleansing. He let his body soak in the water for awhile before heading to the chestnut tree.
The next day he and Jordan began working on the neck of the lute. “Before you start carving out the shape of the neck I want to explain something. At the top of the neck is a pegbox.” The Master pointed to his own lute to demonstrate. “It attaches to the end of the neck and should be carved out of the base of a beech tree branch. We add it to the neck after the peg holes are awled out.” The Master picked up Bran’s branch. “As you can see, the branch becomes narrower as it grows out from the trunk.” The Master handed the branch back to Bran and without another word headed over to Peter and Sheen.
“You think he likes Sheen?” Jordan asked quizzically.
“Beginning to,” Bran replied. “We’ll have to watch out for our plump friend,” he added with a smirk.
“Maybe that’s why Sheen has such a, lovely voice,” Jordan added with a pompous tone.
Bran laughed but a solemness took over his mirth. “Sheen has come along way from the stuck up rich kid he use to be.”
“Stuck up, yes, nothing wrong with rich,” Jordan clarified.
By the end of the day Peter and Sheen were done the shape of their lute’s neck. Bran and Jordan were nearly done. The next day the Master gave Peter and Sheen a canvas cloth. The cloth had fine sand glued to it. Bran listened to the Master talking to them as he worked at his lute neck. “Carefully sand along the grain of the wood. Go down only with just enough force to make the wood smooth.” The Master observed Peter and Sheen. “Good,” he said.
Jordan held up his lute neck and shouted, “Done.” The Master came over.
“The extension at the base of the neck could have been longer and the one side of your pegbox is wider from the neck than the other. Carefully take off that extra amount on your pegbox.” The Master walked over to Bran. “You’re actually doing a good job for a blacksmith.” Jordan made a face at Bran. When the Master was gone Bran let go a constrained laugh.
At the end of the day Bran could see that Peter and Sheen were done the basic shape of their lute neck and using awls on the pegbox to make holes for the pegs. Meanwhile, Bran and Jordan had finished sanding theirs.
Bran went to the blacksmith shop that night with more energy than he had felt the two prior nights. He made five more blades. He used a flint stone to sharpen the edges.
The next morning he and Jordan began to dig out the peg holes with the awls. Peter and Sheen were chopping off boards from the pine tree for the tables of their lutes. By lunch all four were working on their tables and by evening they were all thinning the boards of pine. “It must be as thin as possible in order to get the best sound,” the Master instructed them.
“Thank-goodness we don’t have to make the bloody tools,” Jordan groaned. His board cracked in half. For a moment Jordan stared at the board in disbelief, his face grew red with rage. Bran thought he would explode, but instead, Jordan grabbed another board and began to plane it.
By the end of the day they had all broken boards. The table of the lute would need one full width of a board, and half the width of the other board. It wasn’t until lunch the following day that Bran and Peter finished the two boards. Not until the day was almost over did Sheen and Jordan have theirs completed. Meanwhile, Peter and Bran had finished polishing their tables.
The Master gave them a two-pronged device. The prongs were attached by a circular hinge. Both prongs were about as long as Bran’s forearm. The Master pulled out a string from his pocket and dropped it beside Peter. “Take this string; it should fit almost exactly across the width of the lute. Put it across the top of the lute then fold it in half. That will give you your center point. Make a small mark with the tip of your awl. Next use the compass to draw a circle. By turning the top of the compass you can make a circle across the width of the board. The other end of the compass has a piece of charcoal attached. Be gentle. Draw a semi-circle from either end then put the metal tip of the compass where the two lines meet. Draw a full circle around the wood. That will give you the shape of the table.” The Master walked briskly back to Sheen and Jordan.
Peter folded the string in half and marked off the centre of the top and bottom of the table. He squeezed the prongs of the compass together until either end touched the ends of the folded string. Carefully he made the two semi-circles. “I guess this is right,” Peter said with some consternation.
“Looks right,” Bran said confidently. Peter began to make the circle shape of the lute when the prong with the charcoal pushed out.
“Two much pressure,” Bran said.
“Yes,” Peter replied, “but if you don’t push hard enough it doesn’t leave a mark.”
“Time to go boys,” the Master called.
Peter tried one more time to make the circle. Instead of slowly pushing it along he made light sweeps. He turned the compass around and around until the charcoal made a thick circle. “Hope you have better luck, Bran,” Peter said as he got up and followed the others back towards the tree.
Part Thirty-Four August 29, 2016
Bran headed for the blacksmith shop. He wanted to finish five blades. As he neared the shop he heard shouting coming from within. Master Kadar was trying to calm another man down. Suddenly the door burst open and a Druid rushed out. The Druid stopped before Bran and stared at him with the angriest face Bran had ever seen. “You’re the bastard who watched the love ritual. You and your Master make a good pair. Both of you break the rules of the land!” The Druid shoved him aside and continued on into the woods.
Master Kadar stood with his fingers messaging his temples. “The Druids are furious at us for using the iron to make swords. We will have to finish the ones already shaped. Then, that’s it.” The Master walked over to the bench and picked up one of the hilts he had made. “I’ll start adding the hilts to the swords that are nearly finished, you finish off the rough ones.”
It was a solemn night that ended quickly. When they were finished the swords the Master sat down, too weary to even tell him to go. Bran left with a mind buzzing with dissension. A war was coming but the Druids would not allow them to make weapons.
The next day Peter began cutting out the shape of the lute table while Bran worked with the compass. Peter used the auger to make the hole in the rose. A small crack appeared in the wood. Peter called the Master over. “Start the other hole in another part or the crack with spread,” the Master told him.
By lunchtime Bran and Peter started sanding down the edges of the table and the rose. Jordan and Sheen were nearly finished drawing the semi-circles with the compass. After lunch the Master handed each of them seven pegs.
“Look closely,” the Master held out a peg for them to see. “The lutes at this Bard campass have six strings, however all but one have two strings and the lutes are called guitar lutes. We don’t have time to make pegs so I’m giving each of you six boxwood pegs.” Bran peered at the circular heads of the pegs and the circular guard at the bottom. He estimated the peg was as long as his index finger but the shaft was only as thick as his pinky.
Peter finished putting his pegs on first. Bran listened as he worked on his own pegs to the Master and Peter going over a song together.
When the sense of war is over
Where will the old soldiers go
They know the stealth of the sword
To no avail
How will they live with wives so long left
Who will teach them to love forgotten babes
In the dust of war
Men use to the taste of blood and sweat against their lips
Knowledge of march, fight, construct camp
Is this all they know
Can a long gone soldier still plough the field
Will commanders need slaves in place of recruits
So they can still give commands
When the sense of war is over
Where will the old soldiers go
Only winners are welcome home…
Bran went to the blacksmith shop with a queasy feeling. He did not know what to expect now that Master Kadar could no longer make weapons. The Master was busy pedaling the grinding wheel when he entered. “There are basins that need mending,” the Master told him without turning to greet him.
Bran put on his apron, and in silence began mending the Residence’s basins.
A number of days went by before he and the others went back to the woods to work on their lutes. The Master taught them more verses as they waited for the rosewood to arrive. When the rosewood did arrive and the Master took them back to the woods. Near their lutes lay pre-cut boards. Beside the boards lay strips of vine. “The vine is used to bend the boards. I would have had you cut your own boards but the Druids have told me rosewood is scarce. There is a hot spring near here where you can steam the boards and bend them a little each day. It’s better to work in pairs. One person bends the board a little, while the other twists the vine and ties it. Tomorrow I hope to have some brass belt buckles. You can put the vine through the buckle and turn the buckle instead of trying to hold onto the vine itself. You’ll glue ribbing on the inside to keep the shape before you attach the table.” Sheen hurried over to be Peter’s partner.
“Finally I got rid of the silent one, the favourite,” sneered Jordan.
Four days later the boards were bent into position so a flat piece could be added at the back to attach the neck. By the fifth day the Master gave them each a thin circular piece of wood with a simple pattern. “Use the template to sketch a rose grill onto your table. Use the augers carefully to drill out the dark areas of the design. When you’re finished you need to glue a bridge onto the table for the strings to attach.” The Master handed each of them a pre-made strip of walnut with a slit through its centre. He showed them where to put the bridge before picking up his own lute and heading off a short ways away to play and sing.
“I bet Master Barrage sings some working song,” Jordan hissed. They all listened. The Master began singing songs about farmers working hard in the fields during harvest.
Bran laughed, “I don’t mind that song.” But by the end of the day, the Master’s well polished but whiny voice began to irritate even him.
The following day the Master handed out ten frets to each of them, some quick drying glue in a glass jar and a pre-fretted lute neck as an example. “Sheen you can use the neck first,” the Master said with a beaming smile, “followed by Peter and Bran. Give it to Jordan last,” the Master said with a tching sound. That afternoon the Master gave them each eleven strings. He showed them how to loop the strings around the pegs and attach the other end of the strings to the bridge. Each peg but one held double strings. When they were finished making the body of their lutes the Master gave them each a pre-made strap made of tightly woven cross-linked cotton. “Attach the strap to the end of the lute, and just below the pegbox. It already has brass eyes attached on either end, so all you have to do is screw it into place. Here,” the Master took some screws and wide washers out of his shirt pocket. “Here’s two for each of you.” Bran noted how Master Barrage passed two to Sheen first.
By the end of the day all the lutes were completed. Jordan jumped up into the air and clicked his heels together. “Done, finally!” he shouted with glee.
It was that day too, when Jordan began to cross Cleansing on a nightly basis. One day, when Bran stood in Cleansing after working in the blacksmith shop, he stood still for a moment. Somewhere on the other side, beyond the silver light of the moon, Jordan was making love to a Lady Bard. He ran the fingers of his left hand down the silver necklace and stopped at the jewel. “You’re a lucky man, Jordan,” he said before returning to the chestnut tree.
Part Thirty-Six August 31, 2016
“I saw you sing. Master Shepherd never raised his left hand.” Bran was surprised to hear Master Kadar sounding perplexed.
“He only made me sing one song,” Bran replied.
“I told him you work with me nights, so he shouldn’t make you do the whole test. Now let’s get to work.”
Bran’s jaw dropped. He stared at the Master with a mixture of disbelief and overwhelming relief. Too bewildered to say anymore he followed the Master into the shop. They worked on strings for the Lady Bards’ lyres. Finally the Master told him to go.
Bran hardly felt his feet hit the ground as he walked to Cleansing. He had no idea where the others were, but he wanted to tell them he was still a Bard.
As he wandered the campus he felt like the lore The Spectre Charette, moving silently through the night past the sleeping bodies of the other Bards in a tranquil dream. He searched for hours, but he could not find the others. Tired, he pondered where they might be. Finally he gave up. Eventually they had to go to Cleansing, so he slept on the shore.
Morning came and different groups of Bards began arriving for their morning wash, but not Peter, Jordan, or Sheen. He went for breakfast, but did not see them there either. He returned to Cleansing. Afternoon came and he saw the Bards going off to lunch. In the distance he heard huffing and puffing. He looked to his left. There they were, drenched in sweat. A tall grey-haired Master led them. The Master looked middle-aged but as fit as someone half his age. He smiled and chatted while he led the others. His face was thin, but with a square jaw. His cheeks were a healthy ruddy colour. Bran stood up so that he stood eye-to-eye with the new master. The Master smiled at him and continued on towards Cleansing.
“Bran,” Peter said with disbelief.
Bran smiled broadly. “I’m back.”
“That’s good,” Jordan said mischievously. Jordan walked up to him and put out his right hand. Bran reached out to it but before he could clasp Jordan’s hand his blond friend had grabbed a hold of his shirttail and wiped his sweaty face with it. “It’s good your back,” Jordan said as he ran towards the water, tearing his clothes off as he went. Bran stood dumbfounded.
“Last one in has to hang around Jordan,” Sheen threatened as he headed for the water himself.
Peter threw an arm around Bran’s shoulders. “Are you here to stay?” he asked enthusiastically.
“For another year,” Bran replied as he continued to look at his shirt.
“You can get it washed later,” Peter said pushing him towards the water. Bran stripped down and jumped into Cleansing with the others.
After dunking Jordan’s head several times Bran moved over to the new Master. “Hello, sir,” he said jovially.
“Hello,” the Master replied with a quizzical stare.
“I am your new student.” The Master looked down at his right forearm. He smiled at Bran and turned away.
Bran looked down at his forearm and cursed under his breath. The Master’s back suddenly went rigid. The Master abruptly turned around to face Bran.
“You’re the one who works with Master Kadar,” the Master said, “Bran.”
“Yes,” Bran replied.
“I am Master Flander.” The Master stretched out a powerful hand. Bran shook the new Master’s hand vigorously, only to find it was not as strong as he expected. “You missed the run today. It’s was wonderful,” the Master beamed.
When it was time to leave Cleansing Jordan pushed Bran, as if to say, ‘I have something to tell you’. Bran did not acknowledge the signal but continued to follow the Master with the others. The Master led them beyond the chestnut trees and away from Cleansing. They walked eastwards towards the Druids, and where they made their lutes. Bran could see that they were entering an orchard. Pear and apple trees grew in alternate patches surrounded by blueberries and strawberry bushes. The Master stopped near a large apple tree and patted the gnarly trunk. “Hard to believe this may not be native to this forest. I believe that was before the Sphinx Vires time.”
The Master smiled at each one of them. “Since Bran has not been here before I am going to repeat what I told the rest of you. Bran,” the Master began as he gestured for Bran and the others to sit, “this is known as a half year because you spend half your year here and the other half in another Master’s camp. I will expect you to play your lute daily and practice your lores, but otherwise you will be learning about the forest and survival in the wilds while you are here. The Druids insisted when they allowed the Bards to come here that there be one session of the Bard training that involved survival training and respect and understanding of the woods. I believe you will have the most enjoyable time here.” The Master winked at the others, “hasn’t that been true so far men?”
Sheen and Peter nodded approvingly. Jordan distorted his face in mock approval. Bran rubbed his hands in the grass and earth. He thought back to his own village, the years of haying and strawing. “This will be a good year, sir,” he said brushing his hands off.
“That reminds me,” the Master said thoughtfully, “Tonight you are to go to Cleansing to receive your purple scar. And Master Kadar gave me your lute.” Bran smiled. He looked in the direction of Cleansing. “Yes, now is good,” the Master told him.
As he moved through the chestnut trees towards Cleansing he sighed with relief, another year achieved!
Part Thirty-Seven September 2, 2016
They slept under the apple tree in burlap sacks. At first Bran could not understand why they slept in the sacks instead of their cots. Deep in sleep he heard a familiar but not quite fathomable sound. He remembered Jordan chuckling as they prepared to sleep. His blond-haired comrade rolled up into a ball with his head tucked inside the mouth of his sack. Bran vaguely heard an annoying buzzing sound, but he was too tired to wake; he drifted into a dream.
“Look at ‘im,” he heard a familiar and unkind voice snarl. “‘e lies dere with dose dings all over ‘is face.” The voice belonged to Angus. “‘is face looks like a cherry pie with no pastry on top.”
“Let ‘im be,” said Harold in his deep voice.
Bran woke up stunned. His eyes opened as far as they could. He looked all around him for the rogues. Instinctively, his hands reached up to his face. His cheeks were swollen with bites. Now he knew the sound, mosquitoes. But there were no mosquitoes in the Bard campus. He slid his head under the mouth of his sack. With discomfort he realised they were outside the campus, and inside the Druids’ land.
In the morning Bran arose first. He looked down at the others. All of them huddled inside their burlap sacks except for the Master, who smiled comfortably in his undisturbed sleep. Bran moved away from the tree to find one where he could relieve himself without waking the others. Flashbacks of his journey to the campus kept interrupting his thoughts. He was so use to seeing chestnut trees, except when he went to help Master Kadar. He returned to the apple tree to see the Master shaving from a clay basin. “Get up early and work late?” the Master asked.
Bran walked over to the Master to stand beside him. “How do you keep the bugs off, sir?” he asked.
The Master tipped the clay pot so he could see its contents. Inside the pot, he saw not water, but a green viscous liquid. The Master looked up at him and winked. “I believe this oil keeps the bugs off me.”
“I don’t suppose you would share some,” Bran said.
“I believe that’s good of you to ask and not take, but you see, your comrade Jordan might steal all of it if he knew what it was for. And, it would be unfair for me to give you some and him none.”
“Yes,” Bran replied. He hesitated for a moment, trying to think of a way to coax the Master into giving him some of the gel, but could find nothing else to say, so he went to practice his lute until the others arose.
He sat down with his legs crossed and his back up against an apple tree facing his comrades. Gently he laid his lute on his lap and gazed around at his surroundings. To the east there were alternate clusters of apple and cherry trees. Beyond the clusters he could see a wall of pine and spruce. Behind that wall the Druids roamed. Through the rustling leaves and gentle wind he could hear the faint whistle of the Druids’ flutes. He placed the strap of his lute over his shoulder and lightly twanged the strings. He sought to synchronise his lute sounds with their flute whistles, but he could not distinguish the notes of the flutes, they were too distant and muffled by the surrounding wind. He rested the lute on his lap again, and laid his head against the trunk of the apple tree. Something inside, some hidden essence made him grab hold of the neck of his lute again. With his right arm resting on the table he began to play:
He ran aside the forest, to find the place of his destiny
Everything seemed dark and overgrown
Alone he ran,
Through the dense woods
No one knows what creatures he met,
Nor the men who captured him,
Nor the one who let him go…
Bran could not find the chords to match the passion of the song, so he pulled the lute’s strap over his head and laid it across his lap again and just sang:
Who would believe the monsters he saw,
Skin grey with a bluish hue,
Eyes oblong and huge,
Teeth sharp and layered,
He saw the Master lightly prodding Sheen with his foot. The Master went to Jordan next. Jordan grumbled and rolled into a ball. The Master turned away from Jordan and left him to sleep; he woke Peter up next.
Bran smiled mischievously to himself. He stopped singing and went over to Jordan and stood by him for a moment. He was not sure whether he should go through with his idea. He hesitated, shrugged, Jordan deserved it. Using his blacksmith strength he booted Jordan in the rump as hard as he could. Jordan howled and jumped out of his sack. When his eyes met Bran’s, Bran simply smiled with all his charm. Behind him he could hear Peter trying to withhold his laughter.
“You’ll pay, Branny,” Jordan warned as he rubbed his rump.
“I shouldn’t have to Jordy, you deserved that,” Bran replied coolly.
The Master coughed. “If you two are done.” Bran lowered his head slightly as the Master glared at him. “I believe today is the perfect day for you to learn how to make a fire.”
Jordan coughed, imitating the Master’s earlier gesture. “Why don’t we eat first, and then make fires?”
The Master walked over to Jordan and looked down at him. Speaking like a parent to a very young child the Master replied, “It’s not necessary. You really don’t need to eat right now, you only think you do, little Jordy.” Then to Bran’s surprise the Master grabbed Jordan’s right shoulder, spun him around and lightly booted him in the rump. Jordan laughed, but Bran knew the laughter meant Jordan would seek revenge later. The Master, believing he had settled the problem, went to a nearby cherry tree and grabbed a small but heavy looking sack.
They walked towards the east until they came to the wall of spruce and pine. From the sack the Master took out five hunting knives. The knives were thick at the base and came to a point with a half circle tip. The back of the knives were serrated and the top of the hilt had an iron knob for hammering. The blade of the knife equalled the length of Bran’s hand.
The Master crouched over a spot of land where grass grew. He brushed away any needles or sticks covering the grass. “Observe how I cut out an area of the sod equal to about two of my feet.” The Master proceeded to cut the sod until he made the appropriate incision. “Take the sod out,” the Master grunted as he pulled on the piece of sod. He looked up at the others. “Jordan get me some large branches—make sure they are dead or the Druids will cut out what’s left of your butt. Sheen, get me some twigs. Peter, I want you to find me some kindling, and I don’t believe needles will do, they only cause smoke. Dead bark from a birch tree is best but any flaky bark will do. Bran, this is what I want you to do. Place the kindling at the base of the fire pit. Over the kindling place the twigs, but leave a small gap. Overtop of the twigs build a teepee with the larger sticks.”
Bran built up the fire pit as the others brought back their loads. “Peter,” the Master called. Peter, who had finished gathering before the others, was about to help Bran, “Take this bow and stick.” The Master handed him a small bow made of ashwood and string made of sisal fibre. “Place the rubbing stick atop another flat stick between your feet and wrap the bow’s string around it once. Make sure the kindling is around the stick you are rubbing with the rubbing stick.” The Master looked at Bran’s pile. “I believe you’ll need more kindling than that.” Bran added more of the kindling from the pile Peter had laid beside him. Peter began moving the bow back and forth. The Master observed Peter’s failed attempts. “Don’t rush it; find a rhythm to rub the stick. Keep the string lower.”
Jordan lost his patience and demanded he be allowed to try. The Master ignored him. Finally Peter got the rubbing stick to burn into the base stick. They all sighed with relief as the kindling erupted into flames. The Master smiled. He walked over to an exhausted Peter and patted his shoulders. “Jordan,” the Master said happily, “Make sure you keep the fire going by adding wood.” Jordan tossed some kindling onto the fire. “No,” the Master said, “you have enough kindling; just add larger pieces of wood now.” Jordan placed some larger sticks onto the fire.
The Master squatted by the fire across from the others. “If you’re out in the woods and you don’t have a bow you can try striking stones, preferably flint stones. You can also put a stick between your hands with its bottom atop another piece of wood and rub but it may not work. Never use wet wood.”
The Master stared lethargically into the flame. His blue eyes went over the fire pit. He smiled, making happy wrinkles beside his eyes. “I believe,” he said, “that we can start supper now.” The Master dug into his sack. He pulled out a package wrapped in cheesecloth. “This is carrots and potatoes,” he said as he rummaged deeper into the sack. A satisfied grin crossed his face as he pulled out a shallow pot made of brass with a wire handle. “Sheen, follow the coniferous wall to the south and you will come across a stream.” The Master passed him the shallow pot. As Sheen left the Master turned to Bran and Jordan, “Go find some more large sticks.” As Bran left with Jordan he heard the Master chatting leisurely with Peter.
“I believe,” Jordan said when they were out of ear distance of the Master, “we will find dead sticks everywhere!”
“I believe so,” Bran replied with a chuckle. He searched around for some sticks on the ground. As he bent over he felt something prod his side.
“You sir, are going to pay,” Jordan said as he prodded Bran’s side again with a stick. Bran tried to grab the stick from him but Jordan swung it out of reach. “Now you will truly pay, for trying to touch my rapier.” Jordan lunged at him striking him in the chest. Bran knocked the stick away. He dodged side-to-side trying to avoid Jordan’s lunges as best he could until he found his own stick.
“Come forth now!” Bran challenged, taking a swipe at Jordan. Jordan laughed heatedly, and lunged. Bran parlayed the thrust and went to make his own attack, but Jordan was too swift. Jordan slapped Bran’s right knee. Bran growled and lunged, but Jordan side-stepped his attack.
“Thou art slow and a dolt,” Jordan sneered. Bran hunched his shoulders and moved closer to Jordan. Jordan lunged at Bran again and struck his right shoulder. Bran dropped his own stick. “Now, despicable turd, die!” Jordan began to lunge when something struck him in the back and instead of attacking he arched his back in pain.
“How dare you attack an innocent!” shouted Sheen. Bran laughed as he picked up his stick. Both he and Sheen circled Jordan. Jordan lurched at Sheen. Bran attacked, but not with the stick. Instead he tackled Jordan. He held Jordan down as Sheen half heartedly whipped Jordan with his stick.
“Alright, I give, I give!” Jordan shouted. Bran let him up. Jordan rubbed his ass. “Takes two of you weaklings.”
Sheen gave Jordan a disquieting smirk. Sheen picked up the shallow pot with its water and waited for Bran and Jordan. Bran could not resist smiling devilishly at Jordan as they walked back, arms full of sticks.
When they arrived only the Master sat by the fire, feeding it twigs and kindling. The Master said nothing but looked up at them with a stare of severe annoyance. Bran placed his pile near the fire.
“Where’s Peter?” Jordan asked as if he did not see the Master’s annoyed glare.
“Gone to find some wood,” the Master grumbled.
“Oh, well, can we cook the food now?” Jordan asked impatiently.
“Yes,” the Master replied with a hiss. “Where have you been?”
“I was attacked,” Jordan replied half-truthfully.
“Well I am glad you’re alright,” the Master said.
“Me too,” Jordan replied as he began unwrapping the food. “You want me to throw the potatoes and carrots into the pot?” he asked as he proceeded to anyway.
The Master ignored his question. “Bran,” he said with some anger, “go find Peter, he went in that direction.”
He didn’t walk far when he came upon Peter. His tall, red-haired friend was bent over some sticks that had fallen out of his arms. Bran bent over and retrieved the pieces. “Thanks,” Peter said somewhat out of breath. They walked back to the fire-pit.
“I believe its time you learn how to build a spit,” the Master said enthusiastically. “We need two long, hardy sticks with forked ends, and one stick long enough to stretch across the fire-pit.”
Jordan quickly rummaged through the piles of sticks. He found two forked sticks, and held them up triumphantly. The Master shook his head, “No. They must be hardier.” Peter got up and headed into the woods, with Sheen trailing behind.
“I can trust you two to keep the fire going?” the Master asked Bran and Jordan.
“Of course,” Jordan replied. The Master looked at Bran. Bran replied with a nod.
The Master stood up and headed into the woods after Peter and Sheen. “I better show you for now,” he called after them.
Bran saw Jordan look in the direc tion the Master had gone. “I hear we get to dance with Lady Bards in the latter half of this year.”
Bran did not know why, but he placed his hand on his shirt over the jewel.
“Have you ever done it, Bran? Ever been inside a girl? It’s like…I’m lost for words. Some day I’m going to do it during the day. I want to see Sheila’s naked body, in the full light. Not partially in the starlight.” Jordan leaned back and looked into the sky.
“Her name is Sheila?” Bran asked. It was the first time Jordan had mentioned the name of the Lady Bard he was seeing.
“Yeah, Sheila. Biggest breasts you could ever imagine. I think when we are done this entire year, I’m gonna ask for her hand. I hear we can take wives after we return from our journey.”
Bran placed another stick on the fire. “You mean the journey to make two thousand silver coins, so we can continue at the campus?”
“Yeah, we’re supposed to make it ourselves with some written proof of how we earned it, but if I get desperate my parents will give it to me. That would be horrible. I would have to play concerts for my relatives. Unfortunately, they don’t see the skill and dedication it takes to be a Bard. They think we’re either womanisers or sexually confused, like Master Barrage seemed to be towards Sheen. Of course, I could make moves on all my third and fourth female cousins.”
“What about Sheila?” Bran asked.
Jordan leaned forward. “I said, after I come back from the journey.”
“I’m sure you’ll have fun,” Bran said.
“You mean, we!” Jordon sang, “You, Peter, and I.”
“What about Sheen?” Bran asked suspiciously.
Jordan scowled at him, “Why him?”
“I doubt Peter will allow the group to break up. Sheen is one of our comrades.”
With an annoyed flick of his wrist Jordan tossed a stick onto the fire. “I’ve got to relieve myself,” he grumbled.
Bran watched as Jordan walked over to a tree. He took a stick and placed it in the fire, and waited for the others.
Master Flander returned with two thick sticks, each with a forked end. Peter and Sheen meandered behind. Bran could tell they were hungry, just like he and Jordan. The Master pushed the straight ends of the sticks in the ground as deep as he could on either side of the fire-pit. “This is called a spit,” he told them. He placed a long stick through the wire handle of the pot. “Give me a hand,” he said to Sheen. Sheen helped him lift the stick onto the forked ends. “I believe, all we need to do is wait for the pot to boil for awhile. Once the flames are gone we will place the pot on the coals. Every so often we should check the potatoes and carrots to make sure they’re cooked.”
Jordan poked at the vegetables constantly. His face creased anxiously as he stared at the food. As they waited the Master pointed out that there were many edible plants in the forest to survive on, but that he would only show them a few, he could not allow them to cook or pick any of the berries or vegetables because the Druids would not allow it.
“The carrots are soft now,” Jordan chirped.
The Master turned to Sheen. “Poke the fire until the flame has died down.” The Master looked at Peter. “You and Jordan lower the pot onto the coals.” He turned to Bran. “You might as well practice your singing and lute playing, the rest of you can do the same when the food is cooked and you have put out the fire.”
Bran practised the lore of “Ashlam”. It was his favourite war lore, about an old soldier returning to war, but this time with his eldest son at his side.
I am Ashlam of Dorennett
Captain of Lord Share’s Fifth Company of Knights
War is old in my bone
These scars I forever wear,
They were almost all brought by enemies,
Some slain, others fled,
Often I have stood on the hill or valley,
Looking down or across at the enemy,
But never the same as this time
There is a difference in the air,
I do not feel that I can rally against the foe,
Or surrender all my emotions to attack,
The difference is there alright
My battle-axe is more prepared this day,
More then any other
For today’s battle is very different from any other,
My stealth and focus is not just for me now,
No, there is another I must care for
More so than I normally would for my own bones
My blood thrives here, beside me
Souls linked by first of blood,
My kin, my love, my heart all in one,
Stands beside me here now,
So if I watch when normally I shout,
When I, Ashlam of Dorenett, am silent when normally I would balk the enemy,
Do not think I have given up, that I have grown weary of war,
I have a new first concern now,
It’s the one who stands proudly beside me, who I must protect now,
Let my silence not deter you, but let the enemy know
My quiet attitude is nothing less than deadly silence…
“It’s time!” a very loud and annoying voice screeched. Jordan stood over the fire with his knife poked through a potato.
The Master pulled out five bronze plates from his sack. He handed one out to each of them. “Enjoy,” he said smugly.
The meal was plain, but filling. Bran would have preferred some tasty spices, maybe even celery, onion, or chives.
“Sheen,” the Master said, “when you are done eating take apart the spit. Jordan, when the pot is cool enough, pour the leftover water onto the coals and shift the coals around with a stick until they have cooled. Peter, when Jordan has finished smothering the fire smooth out the coals and place the hunk of sod back in its place. Bran you can help Jordan smother the flames.”
When everyone finished their chores the Master inspected the sod. He took the piece off again, pressed the cooled coals underneath down with his hand and replaced the sod again. He nodded approvingly. “Do you know why this is done,” he said to no one in particular gesturing towards the sod. No one answered. “If you cut out the sod and replace it later the grass will continue to grow as if nothing had happened, but if you start a fire directly on the sod the grass will die and it will take years before it comes back. The other reason is that you should leave nature looking just the way it did when you found it. Good. I believe we will go over some lores before heading to Cleansing.” The Master started to stand but stopped. “Bran, you can go to Master Kadar.”
Part Thirty-Eight September 6, 2016
Bran looked up into the sky. Incredibly they had spent the entire day on the fire and cooking. He could see the slight tint of darkness in the sky that meant evening was near. He whistled as he walked alone to Cleansing. The water tickled the hairs of his legs as he entered. He dove into the water, and as he had so many times before, stared across to the Lady Bards’ side.
He could see them. Not well, but he could make out their naked bodies. Somehow he could sense them, their smell and feel. His body ached to be with them. They were like a missing piece of his being, but his inner being hurt the most. The cravings of his body were nothing compared to his loneliness, and only one person could fulfil his direst needs. He caressed the jewel on his chest. His eyes closed as he felt the warmth tingle his hand. The passionate void he had felt disappeared. His hand dropped from the jewel. He opened his eyes as if he were waking from an all too real dream. He could see the Lady Bards, but now they seemed, not unattractive, only less so. Feeling relieved he dove into the water and splashed around until he felt clean.
He turned towards the shore when a shiny light caught his eyes from the east. As soon as he turned towards the shore again the light disappeared. He looked around but could not see where it came from. He wanted to look for it but it was time for him to go to the blacksmith shop.
Master Kadar hovered over the anvil with mallet in hand. He pounded away at a silver arrowhead. Bran could see by the tenseness in the Master’s face that something disturbed him. The mallet smashed onto the soft metal. “What are you doing here?” the Master growled.
“It’s night,” Bran replied.
“I thought I told your new Master that I would not need you anymore,” the Master said with a hiss as he pounded the silver again.
“No, he didn’t,” Bran said feebly.
“You won’t be needed until you come back from your journey. Now, thanks for your help, but I don’t need you here right now, if I do I will let Master Flander know.”
The Master glared at Bran’s left arm. He grabbed it and brought the arm closer to his eyes. “Where’s your mark?”
“I haven’t got it yet,” Bran replied. He pulled his arm away.
“I’ll fix that tomorrow,” the Master grumbled. He turned away from Bran. “Go,” he said as he began to reheat the silver.
Bran stood for a moment at the doorway of the shop. He hesitated. He felt uneasy. Had he wronged Master Kadar, or was the Master giving him more time to complete his exercises with Master Flander? He turned away from the shop and with shaky steps walked along the log path. His head felt like a basin of dirty dishes. He needed to cool off the confusion, so he headed back to Cleansing.
As he stared without thought across the water, feeling the ominous power of the night’s atmosphere, something stirred in the water. He looked in the direction of the splashing. A silhouetted figure came towards him. The figure grinned broadly at him. His blond-haired comrade moved with a tired, but fulfilled gait.
Jordan waved at him. “Get my clothes,” Jordan told him.
Bran searched the shore until he found them.
Jordan threw an arm around Bran’s shoulders. “If the Master asks where I’ve been tell him I had to go to the Excretatory.” Jordan gave a delighted sigh and said, “It’s good to be a Bard, Bran. I went to meet Sheila but she didn’t show up, so there was this girl named Patricia. Most willing.”
Bran said nothing as they walked back. He only listened with bemused jealousy to Jordan’s happy sighs, and wondered at Jordan’s moral ineptness. Everyone was asleep when they came to the camp. Jordan winked at him, climbed into his sack, and fell into an easy sleep. Bran climbed into his own sack and tried to do the same, but he knew there would be little sleep for him this night.
“Get up Bran,” the Master said, nudging Bran with his foot. For the first time Bran slept in late. He moaned but forced himself to sit up. “Time for a run,” the Master said jovially as he jogged on the spot. Bran stood up and looked around. All the others jogged on the spot. “I believe,” the Master began, “we will jog on the spot for a short while then do some stretches.”
Bran felt nauseous at first. They jogged on the spot and as the Master told them to move their arms up and down and pull their elbows back. “I believe, you should feel loosened up by now Bran,” the Master chirped. “Let’s do some stretches. This is called the fencing stance.” The Master stepped out as far as he could with his left foot before he straightened out his right leg. He placed his right foot perpendicular to his left. “Keeps the groin from getting too tight.” The Master did the fencing stretch three times with each leg holding it for a count of fifteen. “Jordan!” he shouted, “Don’t bounce, you’ll wreck yourself.”
Bran did the arm stretches and leg stretches with the others, but he still felt tight. “Let’s run!” Master Flander shouted at them as he began to move through the orchard. They ran around the boundary between the Druid’s territory and the Bard campus. Bran saw other groups of Bards whiz by, and Jordan run off to the Excretatory. Sheen stayed back with him as Peter kept up with the Master.
By breakfast time they came to Cleansing. Master Flander ran right into Cleansing, clothes and all shouting, “Beat you Peter.” The Master jumped up and undid his clothes. Peter and Sheen followed suit until they were all naked. After awhile they laid their clothes on the shore for the sun to dry. “Alright,” the Master shouted, “It’s time for our body exercises.” The Master fell on his hands, Peter and Sheen followed suit. “Come on Bran!” the Master coerced. Bran imitated the others. “One push!” the Master shouted as they began their push-ups.
After fifty push-ups the Master led them, still naked, to a chestnut tree with a branch just high enough for Peter to hang from. Peter jumped up and grabbed the branch. “Let’s see you do fifteen chin-ups today!” the Master shouted encouragingly.
Bran heard a splash behind him. He saw Jordan quickly remove his clothes and lay them on the shore. And to his surprise, Jordan did push-ups without any encouragement. “Bran,” the Master beckoned. Bran went to the branch and jumped up.
Peter, still gasping after his tenth chin-up, said: “Look, he’s even got muscle on his butt.” Bran laughed nervously and lost his grip after fourteen. He sat on the ground trying to control his laughter. To Bran’s surprise Sheen made thirteen, and Jordan beat them all with twenty.
After a long swim in Cleansing they put on their semi-wet clothes and headed for the Hall. Bran never thought porridge could taste so good. He returned for three bowls before his appetite was satiated. He saw Master Rennell. The Master winked at him, and to Bran’s shock, Master Rennell threw some of his porridge at Bran. Bran kept eyeing the Master as he returned to his own area with his bowl of porridge. “Master Rennell!” Bran heard an elder Bard Master say with a disciplinary voice. Master Rennell must have said something to his students because they all broke out laughing.
Master Rennell stood up and confronted the elder master. “It’s the last day of the month of harvest, and it’s the Circular Day, which only comes every four years Master Scragg!” Master Rennell shouted. “That makes it Fun Day according to the Druid Chronicles, and the Bard Scroll of Happenings. So…” Master Rennell grabbed up some more of his porridge and tossed it into the aghast face of Master Scragg. Bran sat watching in total awe until the Hall erupted into a mass of flying porridge. Jordan took heart in this and found Master Barrage. He dumped the contents of his bowl onto the Master’s head. Bran looked at Peter and Sheen. They had already finished their meal. Very quietly Bran signalled for them to crouch down. He led them past the rows of rowdy Bards. He came near Master Rennell and stopped. Nonchalantly he took some porridge from a younger Bard. Very quietly he got behind Master Rennell. As quick as he could he rubbed the porridge into the Master’s hair and ran out of the Hall with Peter and Sheen at his heels. He led them back to the apple tree.
“I think I’ll practice “Concento’s Way” Sheen said to himself at the camp.
“Bran and I will join you,” Peter said.
Bran knew most lores were meant for only one individual to play, but a few, like Concento’s Way were written for more than one player. He sang backup, which meant he sang most of the deeper words or did the humming.
Sheen sang with a clarity Bran could only be jealous of. Peter on the other hand sang with such passion that he often fell into an almost trance-like state. Jordan sang lead for the dance songs. Of them all Bran was the most conservative. He kept his voice low so that it was hardly audible.
He listened to Sheen’s voice. His once chubby comrade would be moving off when the journey was finished. Rumours flew that Sheen would be going to study under Lord Dastrar. The only thing Bran knew of the Lord was that he made women swoon with his piercing blue eyes and glistening bronze skin. Like Sheen, Lord Dastrar started off as a prodigy child of the song and lute. Within the short time of learning the basic skills to play the lute, Sheen already played far ahead of the rest of the group. It was difficult to imagine that the chunky, obnoxious kid with the clear voice now assisted his comrades with their lute playing.
Bran remembered his father playing a certain style, neither loud nor soft. His father played the lute as if it were a book and its chords were the pages. Whether a song about love, or war his father played with a certain earthly tone. He could not tell what style it was. But every day he struggled against the style, trying to play the clear and precise style of the Bard campus. However, when he sat alone, conceiving his own songs, the style often appeared without him knowing, and when he did recognise it, it felt warm and comforting.
Sheen began to sing and play second lute, Peter played first lute, and Bran drummed the four chords of bass.
Later in the day Master Flander and Jordan returned. Jordan’s left nostril was swollen and caked with blood. The Master looked pale, and exhausted. Jordan did not look at them. He just marched over to his sack, climbed inside and fell silent. Master Flander stood in front of the apple tree. He clenched his fists and his entire body shook. The Master briskly walked over to Jordan, grabbed the closed end of his sack, and pulled it free of Jordan’s body. “The day isn’t over yet. I believe you have lessons to practice.” Jordan didn’t say a word. Instead he walked over to the others.
“Yes, I got into a scruff,” he grumbled. “Twit threw his bowl at me.”
“He tried to use the bowl to throw the porridge inside,” the Master corrected him.
“Can you sing?” Bran asked.
“Yeah,” Jordan replied as he grabbed his lute and sat with the others.
“Tolerito’s Dance,” Sheen said.
Part Thirty-Nine Sept. 11, 2016
The next morning they ran again. By afternoon they were practising their lores and the Master introduced them to a song called “River’s Wedge”. The song was based on the Druid’s song of the same name. “River’s Wedge is about a beaver, building a damn,” the Master told them.
Jordan grimaced. “Why learn that?” he asked.
The Master didn’t bother to reply. “I will play and sing the song once, than I want you,” Master Flander waved his right hand at all of them, “to join in. On the fourth time through the song I want you, Sheen, to take lead, you Peter, join in during the chorus. Bran, you play lead lute, Sheen, you play second, and Peter, you play third. I want the three of you to switch during the sixth and seventh time through. Jordan, you play bass,” the Master said with a scowl. Jordan rubbed his sore nostril, and played bass with a clear, but definitely melancholy drum.
As night came the Master had them lie down on their backs and stare into the sky while he walked around them.
“Close your eyes and don’t open them until I say,” the Master told them. Bran closed his eyes. His senses exploded with awareness. He could clearly hear the sound of twigs creaking with each step the Master took. He could hear the slight whistle of the night wind through the branches as if it were a living thing residing near him. “Now open your eyes,” the Master commanded. Bran could see the sky and the stars above with a certain uncanny clearness. The Master continued to walk in a circle. “The stars make patterns. Imagine lines between them and you will begin to see images. I believe it is like finding shapes in clouds.”
The Master pointed to an area in the sky. “Try to find the brightest star in the sky.”
“The red one,” Jordan shouted.
“No, my apologise, not that one, the next brightest.”
“The one with a silver shimmer?” Peter asked.
“Yes!” the Master replied. “Now try to see the stars that make up a diagonal ladle with the cup at the bottom.”
“I see it,” Sheen said serenely. “It’s to the left of the bright star.”
“I believe that is it Sheen. The bright star is called Polaris, and the group of stars to the left of Polaris are called the Ursa Major. Always remember where Polaris is. It is due North. Tomorrow night and the following nights we will find some of the other shapes in the sky, but for now you can find your own images or go to sleep.” The Master Flander climbed into his own sack and fell asleep.
Bran continued to stare into the sky as the others crawled into their sacks. Knowing where Polaris is would help them on their journey. As he stared, trying to memorise Polaris and Ursa Major, he heard Jordan carefully get to his feet and slip into the night. Bran felt a moment of jealousy. He knew where Jordan was heading, a place he often wished he could follow. Still, he felt protective of Jordan. So when the Master awoke and asked him where Jordan was, Bran pointed knowingly at the forest.
For a fortnight the Master had them stare into the sky. Every night they learned the position of at least two constellations. Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Draco Dragon and Cassiopeia were easy because they could be found by finding Polaris. But because the school year only lasted half a year the Master could only show them the autumn constellations. He warned them that the constellations would change in the summer but Polaris would remain visible. Bran forced himself to memorise the distinguished glow of Polaris
Just as the fortnight ended the Master left them for half a day. On his return he brought long strands of string. “We’re going to learn how to tie knots tomorrow,” he said with jubilance.
The next morning Bran felt a foot prodding his side. “I believe it’s time to get up,” the Master said. Bran grumbled and dragged himself from his sack. Since he no longer worked at the blacksmith shop with Master Kadar, he started to quietly practise his singing and lute playing late into the night. The Master went over to the others, successfully waking up Peter and Sheen, but Jordan refused to get up. So the Master began the lesson without him. “You might want to tell your sleeping comrade that everything I teach you will be tested at the end of the year.”
The Master grabbed the lengths of rope and threw one to each of them, including one atop Jordan. “Today we will learn the Reef knot.” The Master grabbed both ends of his rope. “Left over right,” he said as he demonstrated the movement. “That means putting the left end over the right end with the left end being closest to your chest Bran.” Bran quickly reversed the ends of his rope. The Master nodded approvingly at him. “Right over left. That’s the end now in your right hand Sheen, not the original right end.” Sheen’s face went red he quickly corrected his mistake. The Master picked up two sticks. “Use the Reef knot to tie two or more items together.” He tied the two sticks together with the Reef knot. “Practice the Reef knot for today. Tomorrow I will show you how to make a permanent and adjustable loop.”
Later that night Bran heard snickering coming from Jordan. He felt around his sack to make sure there were no toads or snakes wriggling around. He didn’t find anything peculiar so he ignored the snickering and went back to sleep.
In the morning Bran woke up before everyone else. The sky was still dark but light enough for him to practice his lute. Master Flander shifted in his sack as Bran played. The Master stood up, lost his footing and fell to the ground. The end of the sack clung to his left ankle.
Furiously the Master turned to Bran and cursed, “What the piss of a toad did you do that for?”
“I didn’t,” Bran replied.
In a rage the Master untied the sack from his ankle. With angry spasms on the left side of his jaw he went over to Jordan. He tied one end of the rope to Jordan’s right wrist and the other end onto a stick that he dropped over one of the low hanging branches of the apple tree. The Master woke everyone but Jordan. Sheen began to ask about the rope on Jordan’s wrist when the Master put a finger to his lips.
Bran watched Jordan sleeping form from the corner of his eye as he practised the Hang-man’s knot with Peter and Sheen. “This is a simple knot,” the Master told them, “It’s often used for passing items from a high point or low point, such as hay for a horse. What’s so useful about it is that you can pass, say a bushel of hay, down to someone and all they have to do is widen the loop to get the hay.”
“Or for hanging someone.” Peter injected. Bran looked deeply into his red-haired comrade’s blue eyes. Peter’s normally shiny eyes turned dull. Bran saw both fear and remorse.
“Or for pulling out a foal who is stuck in its mother’s womb,” Bran said hoping to break Peter’s sudden mood change.
“I believe you understand–,” the Master strated to say.
“Arggh!” Jordan screamed. Everyone turned to see what happened. Jordan fumbled at the knot around his wrist until the rope came off. He rubbed his right shoulder.
“I believe that hurt,” the Master said with a broad smile. For once Jordan lowered his head humbly. Jordan walked towards the Master. Bran could see his comrade’s face was red with silent rage. Bran got up and intercepted Jordan before he reached the Master.
“It isn’t worth it,” he whispered as he clasped Jordan’s shoulders.
Jordan hesitated when Bran was sure Jordan would struggle with him to get at the Master, but instead Jordan said: “You’re right.” Bran let go of Jordan’s shoulders and stepped back. Jordan said nothing for the rest of the day, and the Master only spoke to him when necessary. Bran had never seen Jordan try so hard to control his temper.
Throughout the half year Bran learned numerous knots. The most useful being the “S” knot that allowed you to tie two ropes together, the Reef knot, the Bowline that made a permanent loop, and the Clove-hitch which Bran had used to tie sacks of grain with when he helped at the different farmsteads in his home village.
Master Flander also taught them some tracking. He showed them clay castings of the tracks of the Timber wolf, the Silver fox, and the Noir Bear. “These are creatures that you must be weary of when travelling through the woods. Rarely do they attack, but if you enter their territories they will often follow you from a distance. If they are hungry they might attack you at night.”
A fortnight before the test the Master offered to review the constellations with them, and the different knots. However, he did not help prepare them for the lores they were to sing. “I believe I have gone over all the songs before. If you do not know them now, than it’s too late. Oh, and there is one other bit of information you might be interested in. Up until the test you will be spending your evenings learning how to dance with Matriarch Dione. If you pass the test,” the Master eyeballed Jordan, “there is a dance later that night.”