“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."
- Song of the Prescient Sphinx, Vires
I THE GEMSTONE
Bran leans over to wipe the grime off the anvil in his father’s blacksmith shop with a cloth coated in linseed oil. As he does a chrysophrase gemstone attached to a silver necklace dangles out of his shirt. He sees the last of the sunlight reflect off the stone and it reminds him of two years ago when he met the girl who gave it to him.
Working in his father’s blacksmith shop, the heat of the summer equinox made him dizzy, so his father told him to cool off in Silvan’s stream. As he bathed in the stream he heard a girl crying out. 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 got closer the boys ran away all the while shouting over and over again, "Royal Bitch! Royal Bitch!"
He knew the voices. The two boys were old school comrades of his, Larry and Jespo. He stopped running and rubbed his eyes in disbelief for Larry and Jespo had died in a boating accident a year prior. As they continued to run away he saw that their bodies were sickly pale and dead skin hung from the bones of their arms.
The kneeling figure was a girl bleeding from her upper lip. Her long brunette hair hung past her waist covering a torn yellow blouse and emerald green skirt.
He remembers kneeling beside the girl, only to blush as her evergreen eyes examined his uncovered body. He tried to turn his gaze from her but he couldn’t stop staring at the oval face with its narrow nose and quivering lips.
"Are you alright?" he had asked, his voice cracking with puberty. She had stared at him in silence. He remembers looking at the ground fearful he would otherwise disappear into those eyes. She undid the top two buttons of her blouse, confusing him of her intentions.
Against her chest rested a turquoise green gemstone with a vein of white and grey. In the fading light he could just make out a silver dragon’s claw bail that connected the gemstone to a plain silver necklace.
She lifted the necklace over her head and placed it around his neck. His eyes had 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 though he were divided in two. He opened his eyes staring into hers. It was as if he was looking into a pond with a reflection of one half of himself staring back.
Her moist lips pressed against his. Blood from the cut on her upper lip slowly trickled into his mouth as she touched the gemstone were it lay against his chest.
“When we are older it will lead you to me,” she said with a mezzo-soprano voice full of determination. She stood up and straightened out her skirt and blouse. “It would have burned you if our destinies were not as one.”
“When will we meet again?” he had asked.
Once more she stared into his eyes and he remembers feeling frozen in time. “I don’t know when, I just feel it throughout my soul." She had smiled, "I thought I would be safe here from my father’s minions 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 gemstone by your heart!"
He remembers standing still as he watched her lithe body disappear into the distance.
As the memory fades Bran steps outside of the blacksmith shop and locks it. His brown eyes wander over the mirage of green foilage to the grey sky above. Then he remembers his father is waiting for him and dashes towards the forest path. Pineneedles scratch his hands as he makes a desperate passage towards the banquet hall.
As he runs sweat soaks the back of his grey, cotton shirt, and the groin area of his dark green trousers. In front of him, a few steps away, he sees light flickering through cracks in the crumbling clay between the squared logs of the banquet hall.
The burnt smell of brandy aged in barrels mixed with the sour odour of malted barley reminds him that he has always come here.
When he was younger he would drift to sleep as the music of his father’s lute danced in his ears. His dreams were always about working in his father's blacksmith shop.
He approaches the scratched and chipped door walking past men sitting with their legs sprawled out against the porch pillars with half empty bottles resting against their chests. Some sleep while others gaze from half open eyelids.
Inside feet stamp and hands clap. The ladies all wear one piece patterned dresses slit open on one side for dancing while the men wear their best cotton shirts and pants. All the leather shoes or sandals are creased and worn. The only people who aren’t farming folk here are his parents.
He pushes his way through the line of people waiting to reach the bar at the east side of the banquet hall. Beyond the dancing couples, at the west end of the banquet hall, he sees his father sitting barefoot on a stool atop a low stage.
An old leather hat with drooping rims shadows all but his father's dimpled chin. His father raises his head and Bran knows the wolfish grey eyes see him. His father waves him to the stage.
Bran shakes his head.
Smiling shrewdly, his father nods his chin towards the stage. "My son, Bran!" his father shouts out to the crowd in his gruff voice, "will join me in singing ‘Wayward Man’."
"He's late again, Calwind!" cries out a man in the crowd in a slurred voice.
"That he is," his father replies with a cool smile directed at Bran.
Bran doesn’t want to sing this song, a song about a child whose incompetence destroys his family.
His father strums the introductory chords on his lute and in barely audible song-words says, "Wayward Man."
Bran grinds his teeth in annoyance but joins his father and they sing:
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…
Bran hears the crowd cheer and many of the ladies look in his direction as if he is the ‘Little Wayward Man’. Impatiently he jumps off the stage, forcing his way to the bar and into the backroom where some of his school comrades are rinsing out empty bottles and cleaning up dishes.
“Late again Bran,” Sally the barmaid says as she fills four mugs of beer.
Bran feels his face turn red. He walks past shallow barrels used as wash basins and grabs the iron handles of two wooden buckets. His job is to go to the nearby stream and refill the cauldron that heats the water for dishes.
Bran nods at Galileo who is washing and drying mugs and steins. Galileo’s amber eyes stare off towards the far wall. Bran starts to say something about farming but Galileo turns his head in the other direction.
Galileo came from across the sea, a Residence, one of the escapees from the Emperor's land. Bran has heard many tales of the land across the sea; many tales that sound like myths. He didn’t believe the stories until he saw the harsh truth etched across Galileo's body.
The scars on the boy's face run down his arms like purple rivers. Galileo is lucky, only his left ear is missing. On others the scars are so deep they have to drink with a hollow reed because they have no lips.
As he heads towards the stream he realizes it has been a long day. Today is Harvest Begun and the last day of school for the summer. Tomorrow he will help his father in the blacksmith shop from early morning until sunset. The work on horseshoes, pots, and harvest tools will not stop until the crops are ready. Then he and his father will go to the nearby farms and lend a hand. A hard life he relishes.
When he returns from the stream he sets the full buckets down near Galileo. Exhausted Bran goes into the cellar and sits against one of the barrels filled with brandy.
"Wake up Bran,” his father whispers into his ear, “my boring songs are over.”
He opens his eyes to see his father standing over him grinning but the grin cannot camouflage the sadness in his father’s gaze. "Hal and Merrilynn have already left with your mother, so it's just you and me."
They walk outside into the cool night. "Full moon," his father grumbles more to himself than Bran. "So you’re done school," his father states. "Done school," the raspy voice repeats with a choke. "Fourteen this year, very much a young man now."
Bran watches with worry at the confirming nod of his father's chin. His father turns and stares deeply into Bran’s eyes.
"Last year I put a request into the Esfinge Bard Campus. They accepted you.” His father swallows hard and continues. “But, your mother and I cannot travel there with you because it’s harvest time."
"How will I pay?" Bran asks with downcast eyes; he does not want to leave home.
"I have what you need but forget it until tomorrow.”
He sees his father’s hands tremble and asks, "When do I leave?"
His father coughs. "Unfortunately, the carrier pigeon brought the note only today. You’ll need to leave tomorrow to get to classes on time. I just wish there had been enough time to teach you to play the lute. But between blacksmithing and trying to earn extra playing concerts there was no time."
Bran grounds his teeth.
His father smiles knowingly, "I went there, remember, but I was never rich. The rich always get told first."
"What about harvest time?" Bran asks. It didn’t make sense for 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 be busy in the blacksmith shop fixing tools, axles, and horshoes. Listen, time is short, by dawn your mother will have foodstuffs ready for you."
Bran kicks the earth in frustration, "For how long?"
"Perhaps forever. Four years is the minimum to get all your markings to become a journeyman but you decide. At any time you can return to help me with the blacksmith shop. But if you leave they won’t take you back Bran."
"Than why don't I stay?!"
A wondrous smile grows across his father's thin cheeks. The grey eyes twinkle as they stare up into the full moon. "The things you can learn. A Bard can travel over the entire 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 Bran but you must go. Sadly, you must go by yourself and the roads are more dangerous now." The happiness in his father's face disappears. "Do not forget to use your intuition. Never freeze up in the face of 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 blacksmithing skills I’ve taught you. You can get by even if you don’t get all your markings."
Bran knows little of the Bard campus except that he will be one of the poorer students. If the Earth is his to explore, can he ever hope to know every nook and cranny of its surface, as he does his homeland? Will he ever feel safe again? How many names of places will echo through his ears, how many different types of people will he meet?
Part of him is already beginning to die. The loss of his youth causes a sharp pang in his heart, but as one part of him decays and blows away another wields an excitement in him he can hardly fathom. All the wonders of the Earth are his to explore if he becomes a Bard. He presses his hand against his chest. He can feel the smooth surface of the gemstone beneath his shirt. As a Bard, he can search for her.
As he enters his home he ignores the pale figure of his mother who sits hunched near the fireplace. He forgets to say goodnight to her before going to bed. In his room he does not see the prepared sack that stands in the corner of his room. Nor the peculiar looking dagger in a plain leather sheath strapped to a black leather belt. Instead he thinks about all the sketches within the books he has read, about other lands and the strange creatures that live in them.
He cannot mentally conjure up things he has not seen. No newly created beings enter his mind. A snake is a snake, a dog a dog. He feels short-handed by this. The only thing he can do with his imagination is come up with original words to songs he already knows. As he ponders his lack of imagination his eyelids grow heavy and he drifts off.
In the morning he opens his eyes with a new vigour for life. Today he and his father start working together and throughout the summer. He stands up and stretches before the sunbeams of dawn. He dresses and steps out of his room into the kitchen where his mother stands over a bowl of carrots. Her hands shake as she slices the skins off. "Mother," he says as he hugs her. Her body feels clammy. "You’re not well today?" he asks.
Without turning to face him she replies in a stream of tears. "Today is the day you become a man.”
He remembers now his converstation with his father the other night. Today he heads for the Bard campus--alone.
"Don’t worry," he says with determination, "I have to go to the campus but I will return."
"When I am grey and old?" Her words dissipate into weeping sounds.
"Shhh,” he soothes. “You are too young to worry about that. I could return in twenty years and your hair will still be yellow like the healthy straw of first cut." She grasps him around the waist. Patiently he strokes her hair. "I may not stay a year, at most four, and then I will return to see you." He kisses her forehead. "But thank you for crying." He takes a tear from her cheek and places it on his tongue. "Now I have a part of you to keep with me.”
She stares up at him and he sees a tinge of green in her brown eyes. "And I you," she says as she swiftly cuts some hair from his bangs and clasping the strands in her hand stands on her tippytoes and kisses his cheek. "Get your things and go to your father." He is about to turn away when he feels a tug at the back of his shirt. “Remember Bran, you are the only one who represents the bonding of your father and I.” She places her hand on his chest over the lump where the gemstone always rests. “I still don’t know who gave you this gemstone but someday you must return it to its rightful owner.”
“I will,” he promises hugging her close.
His steps are shaky as he goes outside with the peculiar dagger belted around his waist and the sack slung over his right shoulder. The sensation of his mother’s final kiss lingers and he feels like he’s walking through a lethargic dream. A short distance away he hears the whooshing sounds of the bellows. He stares at the blacksmith shop, especially the low stone wall that gives the little building its foundation.
Running his fingers along the foundation’s rough surface he explores the tiny cracks where the insects live. For years the wall remained unnoticed to him, something so a part of his life he could afford to ignore it. Above the wall are cedar boards that make the structure into one complete shelter. He stands back to gaze at the peaked roof with its clay shingles and puffs of smoke from its brick chimney. He inhales the scent of the smelter as he opens the door to his father's shop.
His father is standing behind the bellows, rhythmically squeezing its handles together. Bran watches as the flames in the furnace rise with each gush of air to dance before him like a friend who is honest so long as you do not turn your back to him. Sweat pours down his father's upper body, staining the leather apron that covers the silver hairs of his chest.
Bran turns and looks up at the lintel of the doorway. Lying atop a shelf made of maple wood he sees the broken sword his father never talks about. He focuses on the pommel with its body of a lion and the beardless head of a man. The handle is meant for one hand but long enough to hold with two. A cross-guard in the shape of the mythical dragon claw glints above the strange blue metalic blade that is broken in half.
"Bran,” he hears his father call impatiently; he never likes when Bran studies the sword. Bran turns to his father. “I once hoped this would be a great day but I expected your mother and I to go with you. Now you must go alone, and I am worried. So many years have passed that I can no longer be sure what the land will be like."
Bran shrugs as he takes the tongs holding a horseshe from his father and dips it into a barrel. The hissing noise from the cooling iron distracts him for a moment. He watches the vapour rise as his father takes out a wrapped parcel from one of the shop's shelves.
"This should pay for your first year." His father says unwrapping a strange looking object made of silver. As Bran inspects it he can see twelve holes of different circumfrences along the centre of the anvil shaped object. The holes are connected by clips. "Observe," his father says, taking the object from him.
His father pulls out a few horsetail hairs from a canvas sack. Next he opens a jar filled with a beige coloured gel. He covers his hands with the gel. After rubbing his hands together he covers the tail hairs. He slips the hairs through the largest hole and then forces them through the clips of each consecutive hole until the last is reached. Bran watches intently as his father carefully twists the horsetail hairs with tweezers through the smallest hole creating a flexible yet stiff chord.
"This is how the strings of a lute are made," his father tells him 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 wipes his hands on a rag.
Forgetting he must leave, Bran inspects the device with greater curiosity. "Why silver?"
"Silver doesn’t rust and for some reason the glue won’t stick to its surface." His father clasps his chin and gazes at him with eyes full of confidence and caution. "Be well Bran, I hear it is far more dangerous out there the closer you get to the sea." His father pulls him into a tight embrace. From the work bench his father picks up a small leather pouch tied with strings. Bran can see from the tension in his father’s forearm that it’s full of coins. “Should be enough for you to get to the Bard campus. Tie it to your belt and keep it out of sight.
“Follow Dampsen’s road to Cranny’s forest Bran. Go east until you come to a narrow river called the Tye River. The Tye will lead you to the Bard campus.”