Here’s the second chapter in Taliesin’s tale. I don’t think I have a title for either this book or this series yet.
Chapter 2: Taris
Taliesin entered Taris on a cool spring day. A fine drizzle had been coming down steadily for some time, wetting everything and seeping into his old bones. For just a moment as he approached the guards, he felt all the years that he had lived.
The guards at the gate, one younger and one a grizzled veteran, huddled miserably in their cloaks. The younger one held up a hand for him to stop, looking him over. “Are you a priest then?”
“I am,” Taliesin answered. He noted the black and green in their cloaks, marking them as general kerns, not members of the Fianna.
“You’ll be wanting to go to the Grove then, I suppose.” The older guard spat on the ground, but the first one kept his tone fairly pleasant. “Have you been here before?”
“It’s been many years since my last visit.”
“Will you be needing directions, then?”
“Thank you, but I think I can find it.” Taliesin said. “May the Creator bless your kindness.”
The guard cocked his head. “You don’t look much like a priest.”
“Don’t act like one, either,” the second guard muttered.
“Is that good or bad?” Taliesin asked.
“Don’t know, really.” The guard broke into a sudden grin. “Come back in a year, and we’ll see how you’ve changed.”
“Fair enough. What’s your name?”
“Feliman mac Felid. And this here is Delaruid, Delaruid mac Theryn.”
“And I am Taliesin. It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Feliman and Delaruid. I’ll track you down in a year and a day, and you can judge the changes in me.”
“Aye, that’ll be the day,” Delaruid muttered.
Feliman elbowed him in the ribs. “We look forward to seeing you. Enjoy your time in Taris.”
Taliesin walked down the street, marveling over the changes that had been made since he had last been to the capitol. Stone buildings had replaced wood, and wood had replaced wattle and daub. Even in the rain, people hurried through the streets on errands that creased their brows and quickened their steps. Having been in cities in other lands, Taliesin knew that Taris was just barely becoming one, but all the elements were in place.
He went up the main street, looking for signs of places that he remembered. There was a garden in particular that he recalled fondly, where he would sit for hours meditating and listening to a harp player whose name eluded him. He let his feet lead the way, watching the people around him. They seemed to be as uniformly gloomy as the skies, avoiding eye contact if at all possible, and returning a scowl for a smile when they could not. The path took him nearer to the palace, and the dress of the people improved accordingly, but if anything, their faces grew darker. He could not attribute all of it to the weather, no matter how much he wanted to.
He stopped short, his memory telling him he was in the right place, but his eyes confusing him. The pond was still there, but the great willow whose branches dipped in the water was gone. He remembered lush greenery, but now the plants seemed wilted even in the cool drizzle.
He looked around, and saw the gardener’s cottage, looking as dilapidated as the garden. On an impulse, he knocked at the door.
“Aye, I’m coming, I’m coming,” a voice called from inside. The stooped old man who opened the door squinted up at him. “You look familiar,” he said.
“I am the druid Taliesin.”
“By the three queens, it can’t be!” the old man said, backing up a step. “I remember Taliesin from my childhood! Are you his son mayhaps, or his grandson?”
“No, it is myself.”
“Have you been in Fairie then, or perhaps trapped in amber somewhere? For you match my memories of you precisely.”
Taliesin smiled. “I get that reaction from time to time. And you must be young Mylo ap Adaf.”
“Hardly young,” the old man cackled. “But my manners escape me! Come in, come in!”
The inside of the cottage was as disheveled as the outside, and Taliesin waited patiently while Mylo unearthed a couple of stools for them to sit on. He then bustled about, putting on a pot of tea and generally seeming afraid to sit. When the tea was hot and served in old wooden cups, he finally settled across from Taliesin.
“How have you been, Mylo?” the druid asked gently.
“In all these years? Usually fair, given to the occasional setback, you know. Or do you?”
“I do indeed,” Taliesin said. “I am a bit unusual perhaps, but not really all that different.”
“As you say, then.”
“What happened to the willow?”
“Ah, that was a bit of bad business,” Mylo said. “Must have been about twenty years ago, a blight came on it. Lost its leaves, it did, and the branches turned brittle and began falling out like hair from an old man.” He rubbed his own bald pate. “Had to chop it down eventually, found that the heartwood had rotted. The garden has never been the same, no matter how I try.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?” Taliesin asked.
“You’re still a druid, aye? Would a blessing upon these poor lands be out of order?”
“Not at all,” Taliesin said.
They stepped outside and knelt on the damp ground beside the pond. Taliesin prayed for a blessing not only for the garden, but for the man who tended it as well. He wasn’t surprised by the tears he saw in Mylo’s eyes when he was done, but he was by what the old man said: “You’ve just done more than the priests in this city have done in many years, and I am grateful for it.”
“I’m sure that’s a stretch of the truth,” Taliesin chided gently.
“And I’m sure that it is not,” Mylo responded. He grabbed Taliesin’s arm and demanded, “Are you staying? Or are you like so many, just visiting for a fortnight, then on to other places?”
Taliesin saw the hope and the fear in the old man’s eyes. “I have been sent here by the High Druid himself,” he said. “I will be here until things are fixed.”
Mylo eased his grip, and turned it into a pat. “All may be well, then,” he said, almost to himself.
Taliesin continued to wander the city throughout the afternoon, ending up in the marketplace, a long winding street lined with booths. Hawkers called out to him as he passed, but even here, the voices had an edge of desperation and despair, and he saw many more beggars than he expected. The only bright spots he saw were the buskers that were interspersed among the traders, singing out hope, with only an occasional ironic twist to the words. He stopped in front of one harper, an old man with a white beard long enough to be tucked into his belt. He gave Taliesin a nod of acknowledgement, and after wrapping up his song, he began singing an old bawdy tune called “The Lusty Priest”. Taliesin laughed aloud; he knew both the song, and the poor wayward priest who had been its inspiration. The harper gave him a wink, and continued singing.
A flutter at his belt made Taliesin snatch quickly behind him, coming up with a thin boy who squealed, “Oy! What are you, half otter? I’ve never seen an old man move like that!”
Taliesin glanced at the harper, but the old man was almost as indignant as Taliesin. “What are you doing, Kestrel? You know better than to pick my audience’s pocket!”
“I wasn’t doing anything!” the boy protested. “I was just sizing up his purse, not actually trying to get into it!” He struggled mightily, but Taliesin held him firmly by the wrist, just high enough that he had to dance on tiptoe.
“You know this little thief?” Taliesin asked the harper.
“Aye, as do most of the regulars here,” the harper said. He looked darkly at the boy. “I hope he shakes your arm off! Because if he doesn’t, I’m going to have to do it myself!”
“You have to catch me first, Silverbeard!”
“Perhaps I’ll just catch your free arm!” the harper said with a laugh. “You certainly don’t seem to be going anyplace at the moment!”
“Silverbeard,” Taliesin said with a nod. “I’m afraid that your punishment will have to wait. I have my own to mete first.”
The boy gulped at that, and quit struggling. Silverbeard laughed as Taliesin pulled Kestrel away, and began to sing an even brighter song that Taliesin didn’t recognize. He did, however, catch the words “sorrowful thief” more than once.
Taliesin dragged the boy to a quiet side street. Without letting the boy go, he pulled him around and studied his face. Kestrel stared back defiantly, but Taliesin looked past the bravado and reckless courage to the boy inside. “You must be hungry indeed to steal from a priest.”
“Are you daft?” the boy said. “Priests are soft, easy pickings!”
“Are we now?”
“Well,” the boy hedged, momentarily nonplussed, “Usually they are.”
“Ah, but you had never met me before today,” Taliesin said. “So you have no idea what I might or might not be capable of. Or willing to do. For instance, I am about to let you go. You can run if you like, but believe me, I will catch you if you do. Do you doubt me?”
“No.” The boy shifted his eyes left and right, judging his chances.
Taliesin sighed. “Of course you do. So we will play a little game, you and I. I’ll let you go, you’ll make your break, and I will catch you. And we will go through this several times until you believe that I am what I say.”
Taliesin let the boy loose. Kestrel stood rubbing his wrist, and his eyes still darted about, but he didn’t move. “You’ve decided to trust me?” Taliesin asked.
Kestrel shrugged. “You have something to say to me. I figure that I can at least listen.”
“Actually, I have a few questions.” He produced a crust of bread from inside his robe. “Here, eat this.”
Kestrel looked at it doubtfully for a moment before snatching it and stuffing it in his mouth. While the boy ate, Taliesin took a closer look at him. He had unruly brown hair, a sharp nose and bright green eyes. The clothes he wore made him look bigger than he was due to their sheer volume; Taliesin guessed he was wearing at least four tunics that were held together with patches from untold others. All in all, a typical street urchin, though the eyes showed more ambition than desperation.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
“Mud Town,” Kestrel said.
“South end of the city,” he said. “Both sides of the gate.”
“How many people do you think live there?”
“Oh, hundreds I’d say.” He swallowed the last piece of bread, and his eyes began looking for escape routes again.
“Just a couple more questions,” Taliesin said. “Do you have parents?”
“I did, but I’ve been on my own for years.”
“They died from the consumption that goes around every so often.”
“And how old are you?”
Kestrel stood up straight. “Twelve, next Beltane.”
“I see.” Taliesin slipped another piece of bread into the boy’s hands. “Thank you for your time. Don’t steal from me again, though. Deal?”
“You’ll never see me again,” the boy promised.
“Oh, I don’t know about that. If I need you, I’ll find you.”
“Yah, good luck with that!” Kestrel said, and he darted away.
Taliesin arrived at the Grove shortly after the sun had set. There was little to indicate that it was the most sacred spot in the city; the walls were blank stone, and stretched high enough to hide all but the tops of the trees inside. The heavy gates were closed. Taliesin remembered a time when the walls were just a wooden palisade and the gates had been open so long that they sat in deep ruts. He also remembered the people coming at all hours; a mother pleading for divine intervention for her sick son, a warrior asking for a blessing before meeting a challenger, a widow seeking comfort in her despair.
A smaller porter’s door was off to one side. Taliesin pounded hard enough that he could hear the reverberations from the courtyard inside, but there was no indication that anyone had heard. He continued pounding until a small window at eye level opened. “Oy! You! What do you want at this hour?”
Taliesin could only see a pair of beady eyes squinting at him. “I’m here to see the druid,” he said.
“Are you daft? The druid doesn’t see beggars!” The window slammed shut, and did not open again despite Taliesin’s renewed pounding.
The whole episode left Taliesin feeling more than a little unsettled. The person on the other side of the wall had obviously not recognized him as a priest, much less a druid, which spoke volumes to the situation the High Druid had sent him to correct. He also wondered about a group of priests that would turn away anyone in need. It went against the principles of their religion, and against one of the most basic laws of the land: hospitality was to be extended to all.
He sighed. The situation made the High Druid’s fears seem understated. Taliesin looked around, but there was no one watching; he turned himself into an owl and silently flew to the top of the wall. He stared longingly at the sacred copse in the center of the wide courtyard, but he was afraid that he might miss some of the movement if he moved to its branches. Instead, he ruffled himself a couple of times and settled down for a night long vigil.