The ink for my Music & Writing blog was still drying when I finished the prologue of my latest novel in the series, The Years of Bone and Ash. Having just focused on how ubiquitous and quietly inspiring music is in my writing, I took note of what, exactly, I had been listening to as I wrote the opening for A Bridge of Stars.
I started listening to a loop of The Dreaming Tree by The Dave Matthews Band. And surprise, surprise … when the ink first brushed paper my three Aestrâgor brothers were perched high atop a great tree’s crown in mad, wind tossed ecstasy while they reminisced about days gone by.
From there the story continued along pathways of my own childhood, from swaying treetops to hayloft battles to pony-back rides through dark woods where young imaginations take flight and wee little bats tickle the tummy with fear. Then I pushed my MP3’s advance button.
So here we are, me and a new batch of youngsters in the midst of fun and games across a sun-warmed forest glade and Hurt, by Johnny Cash joins the party. Well hell’s bells … gloom, doom, despair, and pain. Still, it pushed me to look more deeply into my young characters’ hearts. Not surprising, I found a spider’s nest of uncertainty, anger, hurts, and fears all wrapped up in a web of helpless vulnerability against a world turned dark with war’s chaos; an ill only adults could fashion, leaving children to be swept up like flotsam in a raging storm.
Here’s the prologue from A Bridge of Stars with links to the music that inspired it if ever so subtly. All in all, music on the dark or darkish side. Selected with little more than a gut feeling that things were going to get mean and conflicted somewhere in the kid’s idyllic day.
From our first breath, we are drawn like a bow. Ever increasing tensions build until that moment of perfect equilibrium, suspended breathless, then released. To be an Aestrâgor is to be drawn tight. To be alive is to be released.
— Dylan ap Owain: With Hu and Gia
Think hard, very hard, before you travel the road to war. Think thrice before you declare victory. For victory, like defeat, wears many guises. From death, there is no withdrawal. ’Tis not a place we can visit and then depart. Yet death is as much a part of our existence as is life. Think thrice before you loosen death or beget life. Both will change the course of many lives, your own not the least.
– Drumizu-dôc: Lessons in Living by Sân and Izu
Sweet Water and Deep Currents
Perched high atop a sentinel oak, his words snatched away by the same wind that rolled across the forest’s crown in great waves of roiled green, Llywelyn frowned and shook his head. “Da had just left with his talon. I remember because the night before, Taeg and Gwladys had spent the whole night studying maps and planning the raid. I pretended to be asleep, but with our tribe’s chieftain suddenly come to visit, and then Taeg, and Ma spending the day checkin’ arrows and bowstrings, why, I knew somethin’ big was astir.”
A sudden gust swept up and across the ridgeline. The three brothers had climbed high into its leafy summit for just this purpose. The branches to which they clung bucked and swayed in a truly satisfyingly terrifying way. From below, obscured by the thick canopy but announced by the occasional and brief lulls in the wind, the smell of smoke and meaty juices promised a hunter’s feast of fresh rock goat and whatever Hu and Gia had scavenged in the way of nuts and berries. This had been Dylan and Mael’s turn to hunt. But now, while they waited to break the day’s fast, the brothers were enjoying the wind’s thrills and a favorite, if increasingly rare, pastime — sharing everything they knew, or had ever heard over the years of Caille and her last battle. Llywelyn, sixteen winters and soon to be presented for his Judgement, his War God’s Judgement — Dedfryd Llew Llaw Gyffes — remained the only one of the three who held clear and solid memories of their fiana mother. Dylan had none as she died while carrying him to safety, and him no more than days old.
“Then, come firstdark. Ma, all kitted for battle, handed me an’ Mael an arrow each. ‘I expect both to be well fletched and sharp when you give ’em back,’ she always said. ‘An’ add a measure of your Ma’s love to the glue,’ she’d laugh.”
Llywelyn released his frown to the wind and grinned. “And that’s it. I still got that arrow. Once I gain my tattoo and join a file, it’ll be the first to find a Krîll. Maybe a centurion even. That’d be a fine bit a’ Ma’s love, huh? Love the bastards ta’ death. Ha!”
A sharp, high-pitched whistle pushed its way up into the canopy’s upper reaches.
“Heh! You birds plan on eating, you best fly down here!” Gia’s voice held just enough hard fact to it that in a thrice all three were swinging and scrambling down to the campsite as quick as squirrels. Nights turned chill this close to the Wall, even in summer. No point being cold and hungry.
Dylan reached out and tossed another dead branch onto the fire. A fresh cloud of sparks popped and snapped free to lose themselves in the canopy’s shadows. It had been three eightdays since Hu, Gia, and the three sons of Caille had left the dead sand and stone of the Wastes to hunt and train beneath the shadow of the North Wall. Three eightdays and still their nightly fire, with its galloping flames of blue and orange, its dancing light and soothing warmth captured their imaginations as only something as rare as a wood fire could. In their barren homeland, such was only seen on high occasions with a singer’s magic filling the soul and mind with wonder and power.
With bellies full, another rare-to-never experience, the brothers passed the early hours with tales, truths, wonderings, and flame-caught stares where each saw his own deepest reveries played out in fiery tableau.
Hu’s voice rolled soft and deep from the shadows across from where Llywelyn worked his arrows’ heads with a slender, gray stone. “So, Llywelyn, soon enough you’ll stand for your Judgement. Which talons have spoken their interest for you?”
Llywelyn paused in his sharpening to peer across the fire to where Hu sat cross-legged, working a spear’s head free of nicks. “Iago’s and Cynfn’s spoke to me before we left for here. And Wren said we’d speak when I returned.”
“Iago and Cynfn.” Gia nodded from her place beside Dylan. “Fine talon leaders. As solid as you could want. Do you know what makes Iago’s Talon such a force?”
Llywelyn frowned. “I’ve seen them outshoot all comers in the last two Beltine matches. Nobody can touch them in running bow skills.”
“Aye, there’s that.” Gia leaned forward, pulled a length of glowing iron from the coals. It was a pilum’s shank, marred by a slight bend in its length from where a hard block from Hu’s buckler had deflected Llywelyn’s thrust. And left the boy’s hands stinging numb. “But do you ever wonder how it is that they accomplish their bow work? How is it, or what is it in their training that pushes them to such excellence?”
“I . . . I thought mayhap it was that they recruited only the best archers. I’m good but not great,” Llywelyn shrugged, “but train as I do, it’s the spear that calls me. I was surprised that Iago spoke to me.”
Slowly rolling the shank’s bend straight, Gia shook her head. “Iago avoids the best young archers. He’d no more want to start with a quiver full o’ set habits than he’d want a bed full o’ sand spiders.
“He’s Arawn’s brother. By blood . . . as well as being born to the bow like his soul were made o’ horn, wood, and glue. Watching the two of them contest as they grew up was a wonder to the rest of us. If one put his arrow in dead center, why, the other had to split it. And then the other had to split that one. And that while leaping and twisting in midair. Ha! On and on it would go. Sometimes until both exhausted their arrows; had nothing but spit to cast at the butts and bloody, raw fingers to challenge each other with.
“Ah, but the pure devotion, the pure love of a thing for nothing more than the doing of it, that’s what shown from their eyes as surely as the power one feels when the singers free our souls and we walk the green glades of Cymru once again.
“And that, Llywelyn ap Owain ap Hywel ap Rhodric, son of Caille daughter of Fia, is what Iago’s Talon has. It is the bow that they live, love, breathe, and die for beyond all else that makes of them what they are. And Iago before all others nurtures this.
“And so do all the great talon leaders. Each to his or her own weapon.”
Gia held the cooled shank straight out in front of her, her eyes squinting along its length. Satisfied, she lay the iron down next to her and stared into the fire. “Twas Wren who spoke to you, heh?” were her last words before she stood and vanished into the pitch darkness beyond the fire’s small light.
Llywelyn started, his eyes wide. “What d’ya think she meant by that?” he asked the night while trying to follow her after-image into the forest’s gloom.
“Twas Wren, you’ll remember, who Caille gave me to as she died,” Dylan answered from the dark, gloaming shadows. “Wren it was that made her way through the Krîll thousands to bring me to safety.”
Hu stood up, stretched and turned to follow Gia. He paused, turned again to catch Llywelyn’s worried frown. “And ’tis Wren’s Talon, Wren’s fianas, who spend more time than any other talon deep in the Krîll lands. Watching them butcher each other. And waiting.”
A wink and Hu faded into the dark.
Quiet settled over the three boys. Their thoughts caught within the embers’ fading pulse, each wrapped the solitude around themselves as naturally, as unconsciously as they did breathe. Silence, both in body and mind, was learned early in the Wastes if a child were to survive.
With nothing more than coals glowing beneath a dusting of ash, Dylan spoke in a hesitant whisper. “I want so much to face my Judgement one day. To join a talon, just like you, brother. And then you, Mae. I . . .” But his voice died in a sad exhale of worried hope.
Llywelyn drew his gaze from the dying coals to meet his youngest brother’s haunted eyes. Younger in years Dylan may be, but often Llywelyn felt himself the younger between them. Sixteen winters he may have, but this brother who yet bore a scar under his eye from a Krîll’s lance in that last, long running battle that cost their mother her life, this brother with but ten winters, could turn those gray eyes on you and it felt as if an ancient soul were watching you, not your youngest kin.
“Dyl, what’s to worry?” Just about every flavor of death has tried to find you. Nâzrills. That avalanche last summer. Slip sand when you were what . . . no more than four winters? Gods above, I almost drowned with you in that one. And let’s not forget the time you fell into that cleft and we didn’t find you for how many days? You’ve danced around the everlasting lands enough for any ten of us. And still, Bran, Brid, Gwydion, and Lleu Llaw Gyffes favor you with life and breath. How can you not meet your Judgement?”
Llywelyn shared a grin with Mael and shook his head.
“Aye, there’s that,” Dylan agreed, but by his expression he took no comfort in his brother’s jest. “Tis not death I’m speaking of though. I may not . . . I . . . may be fated for something else.”
“Something else?” Mael gave his brother a sharp look. “What kind of something . . . else? It’s all we’ve done since we could crawl was fight and learn our weapons. What else could we be but warriors. Fiana! That’s what we were born for. That’s why you’re so mucking lucking all the time. That’s your fate, brother.”
Mael shot Llywelyn a puzzled look and shrugged. “Something else? What? A druid? Ha! It’ll be a wet day on the sand for that.”
Dylan closed his eyes, breath leaking from his lips in a nerveless sigh. “Aye, Mael, that’s just the pity of it. A mucking druid. Or something like enough to make little difference.”
Mael snorted in playful derision.
Llywelyn rolled his eyes.
An ember popped and a log crashed amidst a hiss of sparks. Then the night’s shadows thickened around the brothers as silence again claimed their thoughts.
In the dark, Llywelyn returned to his younger brother’s words and the memories they evoked. Slowly, short though as it had been, a lifetime of little oddities, of not quite normal conversations, a seemingly endless string of small things that sat just the other side of the expected, the normal as seen against the score or so boys and girls they daily trained, played, and sought adventure with until suddenly, in an unconscious gestalt, these many disparate pieces fell into place; a puzzle found shape and form and Llywelyn realized that indeed, his brother made no jest. As earnest as his pain, so were his words. A druid?
Llywelyn waved his hands in the air as if the image could be brushed aside. “Oh, come now, Dyl. ’Tis plain you believe this possible. And mayhap it seems to fit with some of the . . . the bloody strange things that happen to you. But you’re still you, heh? You it is’ll make the choice when the time comes. Talon bound warrior. Druid. It’s yours to choose.” Grinning, he added, “Only a singer you’ll never make with that wee whisper of a bat’s squeak you call a voice.”
Loving his older brother for his understanding, for his not denying what he believed, for challenging him to hold to his own heart, his own resolve, to hold firm to what he wished with all he was to be, Dylan opened his eyes to offer a twisted grin of his own. “So says the soon-to-be warrior with a nâzrill’s fart for a voice. I can just hear your battle cry. ‘Thz-z-tt! You nasty, mean Krîll you. Thz-z-tt!”
“Gods above,” Llywelyn cried, “it squeaks and farts. Our wee brother is a wonder, Mael. A true wonder.”
“Where’s Ahzi?” Gröndik-rak’s question mingled with clouds of hay dust to float down through the loft’s trap door.
A first sliver of molten gold rose above the far horizon and suddenly the stable’s chill air awoke in dazzling spears of light, the swirling dust catching fire like shafts of living marble.
“He went to the forge,” Wrenna called out as she grabbed an armful of hay from the growing pile and carried it to a stall’s feeding bin.
Passing her on her way to a fresh load, Taellish laughed. “Just because we dumped hay on his head yesterday, now he won’t help?”
“No,” Wrenna defended her younger brother. “Master Kiddornik told him to be at the smithy first light if he wanted to watch.” She spilled her hay into Drîm’s bin. “Good girl.” She reached out to scratch behind her black pony’s ears. “That’s my good girl.”
Returning with a fresh armful, Taellish sounded surprised. “He doesn’t want to ride to Mirwood?”
“Last time we teased him about his toy bow.”
“We teased you too,” Feldrish said, carrying two wooden pails of water down the still dark center aisle.
“You did. But when I tried your bow, I could pull it at least a little. And now I have a real bow.”
“It’s not a war bow.” Gröndik-rak called down.
“So?” Wrenna glared up at his grinning face. “You didn’t have a war bow last year either. And anyway, the bow you have now is not a re-e-al war bow, is it? It’s just a practice war bow. You’re not going to take it to war, are you? Oh! I forget. You’re not old enough yet. Are you?”
“Ha!” Feldrish laughed, passing Wrenna with empty buckets. “Now I remember why we don’t tease you. Wrenna the whip-you-right-back.
“Better stick to throwing hay, Gröni. She’ll win a war of words. Especially with you.”
“Well,” said Gröndik-rak, sliding down the loft’s ladder with practiced ease, “we’ll see how well you do with your own re-e-al practice bow this time!
“And we’ll see how you do with your new, not-quite-ready-for-war war bow,” Wrenna retorted, following it with an armload of hay.
Taellish joined in tossing hay at her brother. Only her hay turned out to be straw, and that well used and lumpy with manure. “He gets such a big head, Wrenna. And he can’t hit the butt beyond a score paces.”
“Hey! Whose side are you on?”
“Not yours, butthead,” Taellish laughed while Feldrish joined in with a few well aimed missiles of fresh manure. “Get it? But-t head?”
“That was good, Tae,” Feldrish snickered.
By the time the small party reached the verge of Mirwood, the sun had climbed enough to burn off the pockets of fog that filled the steppe’s dips and swales like small ponds of smoke. Ahead, beneath the wood’s heavy canopy, all remained a damp grayness that wanted to obscure the forest’s thick depths of moss draped boles and tangled limbs. Everywhere was the sound of water. Water pooling, building, finally running free to fall across a sodden cover of fern and dead leaves. An ancient wood, jealous of her secrets, was Mirwood. Old yet when the clans abandoned her shade to battle the Mârgrôllic Witches beyond the eastern horizon ten millennia ago. Old when the first Krîll stared beyond her virid crown in awe of the aerial colossus of up-thrust stone that forbid passage into the frozen mysteries of the Cold Barrens beyond.
They rode in single file, following narrow game trails into the dense gloom, their legs growing damp and chill from the wet touch of fern and leaf. Four children warded by an armed servant and their governess. At first glance, unless one were the wiser, a small enough protection for a day’s trek through the forest and to a well-known glade for a bit of archery. But the servant, Trakalnik, was in truth Drîm Grâlic, a Black Warlock sworn to the Duke’s service while the governess was something more, far more. Mistress Malik, slender, coal black hair, and porcelain pure skin whose beauty appeared fragile in this wild wood of shadows and gloom, gave away not a whisper of her true self. As a Shadow Warrior of the Mystics of Rân, in all realms ruled by death, mortal and sorcerous, she commanded the most lethal of skills. The children were as safe as if a full century of legionaries guarded them. Unbeknownst to all beyond the warders themselves, even to Count Gröndik’s children themselves, not a moment existed in their lives where they weren’t warded. If the merest whisper, the vaguest suspicion of their existence should ever arise, why, the Emperor Morgrik would move mountains and oceans to see to their deaths.
Wrenna sat quietly atop Drîm, her light cloak wrapped tightly around her. Drîm seemed as daunted by the wood’s somber presence as she. The mare’s ears were in constant motion, her head and big, brown eyes turning this way and that as if to catch some shadow — of which there were over many of dubious shapes — in the very act of transforming into something no shadow had a right to be. No, not for the first time Wrenna thought of her brother, warm and untroubled around the forge, mayhap helping with the bellows as the smith shaped steel into sword.
All she could see of her companions was Taellish’s cloaked back atop Fîldok, her dapple-gray mare. Occasionally, glimpses of Gröndik-rak’s head and shoulders materialized, but rarely as he wore a gray cloak and hood that wanted to blend with the general grayness of the fog. The very air seemed moved to oppress any conversation since first they had left the plain’s sunny openness.
With a suddenness verging on magical, a curtain of pearlescent light drew near, swallowing first Gröndik-rak and then Taellish in bright halos that dazzled Wrenna’s vision. Finally, she burst through into a sunlit glade heavy with the sweetness of ripe clover and flowers, the soft twitter and hum of bees and birds enough to instantly dispel the forest’s silent gloom.
In that moment Taellish turned in her saddle, showed a wry grin beneath mischievous eyes. “Ish-h, wasn’t that like riding through a bad dream. It’s alwayslike that.”
Wrenna returned a relieved if wane smile, rolled her eyes in defiance of the bats in her stomach. Behind her she heard Feldrish release a sigh and felt better for her own fading fright.
The four ponies, along with Mistress Malik’s palfrey and Trakalnik’s heavy draft, wandered where they would, saddle free, muzzles pushed down into the thick carpet of grass and clover, their tails swishing in contented rhythms more from habit than need. Of flies and other small, biting winged pests there were none. Indeed, within this small circle of light, amidst the great wood’s brooding shade, was offered as idyllic a palette as any imagination could desire.
Arrayed four across, their arrows stuck into the ground before them, the sun a warm gold reaching its late spring apex behind them, the children each took turns at the butt. Now fifty of Malik’s paces — they had started at a score and five — Gröndik pulled his bowstring back and back with the steady pull earned with his hours of practice.
“Don’t forget to catch your breath,” whispered Taellish.
“Aye,” Feldrish joined her assistance to her sister’s. “You’ll need a better strike than the last one.”
His bow’s string drawn to its fullest against his ear, Gröndik paused and shut his eyes while his jaw’s bunched muscles showed less of concentration than building frustration and ire.
“O-o-o, look Wrenna.” Taellish’s whisper caught a balanced note between awe and insincerity. “He’s going to shoot blind. A true Shadow Warrior my brother must be.”
Whether the string loosened first, or the oath ground free from between clinched teeth, the resulting flight of Gröndik’s arrow flew fast and true to its aim . . . high to the butt’s right, reaching almost to the tall trees beyond.
“O-o-o.” Feldrish bent to pluck an arrow from the ground at her feet. “Mayhap you should keep your peepers wide-like open, as Dorkind likes to remind us when we’re at swords.”
Gröndik glared; first at Feldrish, then swung his anger towards Taellish and Wrenna. “Gods be-bloody-below. Three against one. Fair odds, I’ll admit, considering your own skills, but truly, I thought better of you girls.”
“Hey!” Wrenna tried to scowl but managed only a grin. “I’ve not said a . . . a peep about your skillyness.”
With the arrival of this word, this skillyness, first Taellish, then Feldrish, and finally Gröndik shared puzzled looks and fell into giggling hiccups. Feldrish dropped her arrow. Gröndik just dropped.
“What?” Wrenna looked around her with the suspicion of experience. These three could, and would, change course in their ever-ongoing tumble of tease and bait faster than a pony racing barrels.
Taellish caught her breath. “Skil . . . skillyness? Oh, my. Now there’s a word I’ll cherish and find uses for. Truly, Wren, thank you for the best of best description of my brother’s bow work.”
Mistress Malik joined them, her own bow and a score red fletched arrows in hand. “After that last . . . flight, I’m not sure we shouldn’t return to thirty paces, but it appears Master Gröndik merely made jest and all have enjoyed his humor, yes?”
“Oh, yes, Mistress Malik.” Feldrish nodded. “Twas Gröni’s skillyness left us all amazed.”
Giggles spread through the girls like yawns. Gröndik flushed fresh pink to his ears.
Malik tilted her head while her brows formed delicate arches above the deep violet of her gaze. “Well then, let’s give seventy-five paces a whirl, shall we?
“And the winner earns the special treat I suspect Mistress Aölin has placed in the food hamper for just such a prize.”
Amidst delighted and enthusiastic nods, she turned her back and called, “Come now, let’s pace it off together. ‘Twill help you all recover from your great bout of . . . skillyness, yes?
After twenty paces — twenty slow, deliberate, calming paces — Taellish glanced back at the straw butt, then suggested, “Seventy-five paces seem meager enough for such a grand prize, Mistress Mali. “Twould it not be better at a hundred?”
“A hundred paces, is it?” Their governess met young Taellish’s bold grin with a doubtful glance. “From what I saw of your efforts at fifty, right here will be a stretch for the lot of you. And Wrenna with her ash wood bow, though a fine bow indeed, a hundred paces is too much for it.”
“Oh, fifty paces were near its limit, Mistress Malik,” said Wrenna. “Seventy-five or hundred,” she shrugged and smiled. “Twill make no difference at all. But I’ve been hearing how some of us could feather a mounted imperial at a hundred and fifty paces. I’d love to see such skill above all things. I most dearly would, even at a hundred paces.”
This brought a keen look and nod from Malik while Feldrish poked her sister with her elbow and whispered, “Oh, I’ll shoot the first imperial I see riding within a hundred and fifty paces, says Terrible Tae, the warrior queen.”
Taellish glared back at her sister. “The first ‘horse killing, maiming, dung eating imperial,’” she hissed. “Get it right, if you please. And I will too.”
If Malik heard her young ward’s angry words she offered no clue to it, resuming her pacing for another score and five steps where she planted her own red arrows in a short row while the children spread to each side. Gröndik’s fletchings were green, Feldrish’s yellow, Wrenna’s white, and Taellish’s gray.
“I’ll just see how close and true a line I can shoot,” said Wrenna. “Mayhap a wind will push my arrow the distance.”
Malik glanced left and right. “We’ll have a go at a rolling volley. Five pulls. Nock and draw, but wait your release’s turn. Be steady and smooth. On my count.
Each archer bent to retrieve an arrow, nocked it, then awaited Mistress Malik’s cadence. The children had been under her instruction for archery and bare-handed combat for as long as they could remember. It was as natural a part of their lives as riding bareback across the grasslands around their manor. That she appeared as a pretty, young governess who by rights shouldn’t have any knowledge of the martial arts never crossed their minds. She was Malik, a trusted and loved friend, sometimes hard taskmistress, and the constant force and presence in their lives.
“Eeya-éh . . . eeya-éh . . . eeya-éh,” Malik’s voice barked in a soft, sharp cadence.
Feldrish settled into the count, cleared her thoughts, quieted the bats in her tummy.
“Eeya” — she brought her bow up.
“éh” — drew the bowstring to her ear.
“Eeya” — adjusted her aim.
“éh” — let fly her arrow.
Even as the next barb took flight on each succeeding “éh” she had a fresh arrow nocked, drawn, and awaiting her own release. And all the while her eyes never left her own or her siblings’ arrows’ course, judging and adjusting for her next release.
Her first shaft struck the butt low but true to center; followed by Gröndik’s — lower still and almost missing the target to the right. Then, while three more arrows were still in flight, she released her second, her bow angled a finger’s shade higher. Malik’s red suddenly stuck out of a straw head followed by Taellish’s gray to the chest and Wrenna’s falling fifteen paces short, but in a true line.
Quickly enough a score and five colored arrows stood buried in straw or ground. Feldrish let the air out of her lungs in a slow sigh, resisting the need to gasp the next in. All except Malik seemed to have expended an hour’s exertion in the mere grains of sand it took to release five arrows.
With keen satisfaction Feldrish saw that her second and third arrows impaled the butt’s chest before the fourth dropped into its stomach. Her last pinned a straw foot to the ground. At least he’s out of the fight, she thought.
Taellish gave Malik an exasperated look. Her own grays were all in either chest or lower body, but the reds crowded within a tight circle between the walnut shell eyes and the dried melon rind’s brown smile. And, a breeze had pushed across the glade between the fourth releases. Her own final arrow had struck hip, and that barely. But Taellish knew better than voice a complaint against the wind. Its path had been there for all to see in a moving wave of swaying grass and swirling leaves.
Something else Taellish knew, and so, when Malik made a dash for the butt, shouting, “Quick as you like, now. Any doesn’t beat me runs twice ‘round the glade,” Taellish sped away right on her heels. Like rabbits before a fox the four children chased after her shadow.
Arrows retrieved and another sprint back, Feldrish and Gröndik ran side by side beneath the forest’s shaded verge. Only one lap though, as their governess had allowed as they hadn’t actually lost to her, merely tied her to the line.
Little Wrenna, as it turned out, was fleet as a true fox and now stood with Taellish and Mistress Malik, grinning as she watched her two friends push, trip, shove, and chase each other around the course. “I had the least far to run,” she giggled.
Another glass spent astride their ponies, galloping at the straw centurion (for Gröndik had tied a length of rope around its middle, stuck a short, stout bit of deadwood under it, and christened the target “Maximus Gladius of the First Imperial Legion”), and Mistress Malik declared their contest settled; the prize won by Taellish for her final, triple strike while galloping past M. Gladius — two arrows in the chest, the last striking his left walnut shell.
Arrows retrieved, damaged ones held aside for mending after the midday’s meal, the four children sat in a circle devouring loaves of Mistress Aölin’s fresh rye bread filled with honey, raisins, and bacon. The addition of a cherry custard pie (the prize) only added inspiration to their hunger as well as the argument that waxed and waned as full mouths would allow. Of course, Taellish had claimed her prize be divided amongst all . . . except Mistress Malik who might get as fat as Mistress Cook. “A jest! Only a jest.”
Trakalnik returned from the surrounding wood and listened as he chewed his rye loaf, a bemused look overtaking his usually calm face.
“I tell you,” Gröndik scolded, “we’ll roll the imperial army all the way back to Doôm-Râl by winter’s set. You heard as well as I how badly Duke Krazûk defeated them at Mîr Hold. Now we chase them back across the Feölt.”
“True.” Taellish’s voice spit hot, as it tended to when she argued merely to argue but then found her emotions stirred regardless. Especially when her brother took the I-know-better-than-you path. “True enough. But look at the cost, Gröni. We’ve never seen the number of steeds come to us for healing and . . . and putting down as we are now. Not even against the Aestrâgor.
“And speaking of what we’ve heard, how many times have we heard about the size of the Emperor’s armies compared to ours?”
“But,” Feldrish joined in, “our legions are so much better. Tempered, as Master Haldigrin says. One of ours is worth ten of theirs.”
Taellish shot her sister an angry look. “Aye, for now. But don’t forget how our legions got tempered. Against the stone and steel of the Aestrâgor. And how that cost us in the beginning. Remember when Grôllic came to us, near lamed to death? Remember all the others that came and we couldn’t save that summer?” Taellish’s voice, rising steadily with the heat of her memories barely held itself from screaming. “That’s what it cost us in the beginning.”
An angry hiss, much like one of the barn cat’s, escaped between clinched teeth. With an effort, Taellish took another breath, slowly, with determined calm. The last piece of her rye lay squeezed and misshapen in the grass before her. No one spoke in the unsettled silence.
“I beg your patience,” she finally managed. “It’s just I hate so the death and maiming that follows so quickly all the grand, brave words that lead us to war.
“This is my fear, my warning.” Taellish gave the circle a hard look. “As our legions fought and learned from the Aestrâgor; as they died and were tempered; as they were forged into the force they are today; why cannot this same tempering and forging follow the imperial legions? We know they have men enough that they feel not their losses as we must.
“If we do not destroy them now, completely and totally, then I fear for our duke and all of us.
“And no amount of brave talk will ever convince me that such a victory for us could possibly produce anything but a nightmare of grief and struggle even though we win out in the end. No amount of brave talk. Ever!”
Taellish’s outburst consumed itself as quickly as it had built into a raw, emotional thunderhead. Much like a sudden clap of lightning and thunder, the air felt sucked empty of energy, her words lying mangled amongst the debate’s rubble.
If the depth and vehemence of her anger had seemingly caught everyone by surprise, to her governess’ attentive ear and keen sight, the fear and pain that lay coiled like a serpent at its core were writ large across her heart.
To Malik’s mind, come what may, Taellish’s outburst sewed more good than ill. She had watched and listened as this eruption steadily gained force; since the young girl had first planted her heart between a sorely wounded mare and Master Haldigrin’s verdict the brave steed be finally put down. Grôllic — Witch — she had named her, fought for her right to live, then poured a young girl’s soul and heart into her and her healing until today the black mare stood not twenty paces from their circle now, contentedly cropping at lush clover and sweat summer grass. And still the maimed steeds came to the stead. Wounded in body and soul every bit as much as their riders, they came to find healing and love in the paddocks and pastures of Count Gröndik’s manor. And always these years past, the count’s children threw their all into the task appointed them by none other than Duke Krazûk himself. Of course, it took its toll upon body and soul, young and old alike. Love always exacts a price.
Now, Malik thought, we must heal this open wound lest it fester and scar our brave Tae. And see to all my brave children as well.
Malik neither reached out to comfort with touch nor placating words. The dignity of Taellish’s hurt, and her well-spoken rebuke of war demanded better. Instead, she offered what empathy she could. “I have heard much the same spoken by a woman who holds my utmost respect and devotion. When I was but a few years beyond your own, Taellish, and struggling with much the same enmity for war and its oft-glorified casualties, she said to me these words: “Think hard, very hard, before you travel the road to war. But think thrice and hard before you ever declare victory.”
Taellish spared her governess a quick, tear-stained glance and tiny nod, then continued to stare out into the silent distance, her knees pulled hard against her body as if to hold her heart’s grief tightly inside of her.
Slowly the meal resumed around her. Trakalnik quickly finished his rye, slipped several apples into a small pouch, hefted his bow and returned to what looked remarkably like picket duty for a mere house servant. Malik retrieved her own bow and was quickly lost amidst the forest’s shadows and gloom, leaving the children to sort their feelings out amongst themselves.
Of sorting, there was little heard. But quickly enough each pursued a ritual which had brought solace and hope during many a dark time in their lives. Brushes and curry combs came out and soon enough four ponies began to shine, free of burrs, dirt, and dried sweat. When their own basked under gleaming coats of gray, black, dapple, and bay, Malik’s dun and Trakalnik’s sorrel found themselves pampered, two grooms apiece.
The art of invisibility does not by necessity employ arcane disciplines — mystical cloakings, spell castings and the like — though to be sure the adepts can and do. No, invisibility is as much a state of being as an artificed phenomenon. A conscious as much as an unconscious adaptation. It arrives with the subtle stealth of twilight’s shadows; first adapts itself to a desire for opacity, for obscurity amidst the clutter of existence; and suddenly, much like shadows slipping ever so quietly into the black of night, so one becomes blended, obscured, and finally, translucent to the world around.
Life’s grotesqueries, her malformed, her twisted and broken in soul and mind, her emotionally despoiled, these so often find refuge with invisibility’s quiet. Wild things, creatures both predator and prey learn from their first breath this stillness of survival. And children. Some visceral sense, a vestige of humanity’s earliest struggles, more beast than man, yet guides young ones through their most vulnerable years. And some children, some few who must hide for their very lives, who are hunted and haunted by malicious intents, these children learn to taste stillness, to live so quietly, in such obscurity, they disappear from the world’s notice.
So, it was neither remarkable nor alarming that at some point, between the brush’s last stroke and Wrenna’s final arrow’s sharpening, that Gröndik turned, a question on his lips, to discover Taellish gone, the only evidence of her, a small circle of pressed grass, and even that slowly vanishing as the blades found their old form.
No matter the brightness of the day, the few and fat puffs of cloud floating across a sky so sapphirine and clear it seemingly rolls on forever; no matter the scented breezes that sweep across the forest’s high canopy in waves of shimmering emerald and gold; no matter the pure beauty and freedom of the day; below, where the dead undergrowth lies sodden and thick, where somber shadows and unstirred air weave a twilight gloom knowing neither sun nor wind; into this world Taellish found a sympathy for her turmoil, for her anger and fear and frustrated hurt.
Silently as smoke she moved through the wood, following no trail as much as some unformed need, as yet nothing but a growing pit in her stomach, a tight knot of emotions that wanted nothing so much as to sink into itself until it swept all her joy and life down with it. Unnoticed, her eyes understood her plight and wept.
On the fern-screened verge of a small clearing, a space where some great oaken sentinel had crashed to earth, its roots undercut by the same stream that had nourished it for centuries and more, Taellish paused, reluctant to abandon the darkness for this bright circle of sky and light. Standing quietly, cloaked in her own misery, she spied the flicker of a doe’s ears as she brought her head up, the stream’s water wet and dripping from her muzzle.
In a blur so smooth as to be near invisible, Taellish’s bow rose up, its string pulled back, and a flash of barbed gray flew free to punch itself into soft flesh and a heart’s muscle.
Frozen she stood, bow held out before her, hand still raised to her ear, then from between trembling lips a cry of purest denial shattered the dark silence. Her legs found their purpose. With a horrified urgency, she jumped and stumbled over the rotted oak’s skeleton to fall to her knees beside the mortally stricken doe.
Their eyes met. The doe’s bewildered, hurt; her own scalded with a dawning sense of wickedness and self-loathing.
And as suddenly as one heart beat to the next, the great, dark orbs lost their light and the doe’s life fled.
Taellish threw her head back, a cry too harsh, too raw for a child’s voice broke free to spill across the clearing. “Why-y-y?” Huddled in upon herself, alone, the cooling corpse beneath her outstretched hand, Taellish sobbed.
But she wasn’t alone. Holding herself back within the wood’s shadows, Mistress Malik watched. And waited as the tide of her charge’s grief rose, crested, and finally, surrendering to the mortal bounds of a young girl’s torn heart, subsided into a numbed desolation. Some lessons must be borne alone. But some needs be shared, and the time of sharing, Malik saw, was nigh upon her.
As softly as mist, she approached to kneel beside Taellish. With a firmness that spoke of love and unconditional acceptance, she held the young girl whose whole being pressed hard into her embrace. Neither spoke. Neither needed to. The act was committed. Its harsh consequences meted out to heart and mind. There were no words. But Taellish was held tightly, and she knew why. And because of this, she believed she could find her way through this if not past it. Oh, definitely not past.
The sun had slipped well past its height; shadows now pushed their way over the glade’s western arc when Taellish and Malik stepped clear of the wood.
In a still-raw voice, Taellish looked up into Malik’s dark violet eyes. “Thank you.”
Meeting the young girl’s febrile, swollen look, Malik spoke her first words since she had offered Taellish her presence. “From death, there is no withdrawal. Yet death is as much a part of our existence as is life. Think thrice before you loosen death or beget life. Both will change the course of many lives, your own but the least.”
Taellish held her governess’ gaze with her own. Nodded. She spoke in a whisper that lost nothing of its conviction for the softness of its vowels. “But this I can swear to you, Mali. By the Great Mare and Stallion, by all the gods of hoof and mane, by the love I hold for you, and by my house’s honor, never again will I take a life like that . . . in anger and fear . . . with no need nor purpose beyond my own confusion. It is a terrible thing I did back there. M-m-murder it was. And murder it will always be. Gods give me strength to live with it.”
With her wound so raw, Taellish could see no path in which it would heal. This Malik understood. But she also knew the fine steel strength of character that ran true through this amazing girl. To convict her own act to murder with such contrition and clear-sighted acceptance, this alone left Malik in no doubt the child’s sworn oath would never be broken. And some day, become the keel upon which much of her life would be built as she faced life’s coming tempests.
Malik smiled her understanding and belief in Taellish’s words. With a quick, firm embrace they crossed the cooling grass to rejoin the others and begin to return home. Child? Malik thought. Sweet water and deep currents but her childhood is well past. And best I remember that. They’re all grown past it.