Here’s the last preview chapter of the story of Taliesin, the first bard (in my world, at least). If you’re interested in reading the rest (to help me find the problems, or just because you like it), send me an email at gnardo dot polo at gmail dot com, with all the with symbols substituted.
Chapter 3: The Grove
When morning came, Taliesin changed into a squirrel that ran along the top of the wall, and then into a crow that flapped about the courtyard pecking at motes. He saw plenty of priests hurrying about their business, but none of them entered the grove in the middle of the courtyard except to use it as a shortcut. He also noticed that most of them were dressed in robes of fine linens and silks. After watching for several hours, the realized that the robes indicated a pecking order, which made him shudder; the priests were all supposed to be servants of one another as well as the rest of the people.
He changed into a mouse that scampered along the base of the walls until he made it inside the great hall. From such a low angle, it seemed that there was plenty of movement, but he still couldn’t tell what anyone was doing. He made his way into the apartment areas, where he could see a continuation of the ranking system. The more richly a priest dressed, the more lavish his furnishings, but the appearance of actual servants made Taliesin do a double take. He stopped and groomed himself for a few minutes, trying to figure out a way of correcting all the problems he saw.
He made his way back outside, where he turned into a blue jay, gave two cries of frustration and flew to the top of the wall again. It was late morning, with the sun nearing the zenith, but the gates were still closed.
Bessach finally emerged, or at least, Taliesin assumed it was the druid; the High Druid was right about how different he looked, but there was no mistaking the arrogance of a man used to having everyone obey him. And the priests obliged by clustering around him in a group, twittering like a flock of birds at the peacock in their midst. Bessach answered them with condescension and reluctant patience, until he reached the stables.
He raised his voice. “I appreciate all of your help,” he said, “But I must go to the Ard Righ now to advise him in important matters. I will return shortly to take care of any business that may be left over from your capable hands.” His tone indicated that he expected not to have anything to take care of.
A servant opened the stable gates and bowed the druid through. Taliesin let out a low whistle when he saw the chariot that emerged. It had been brightly painted and highlighted with gold leaf. The steel frame and wheels were burnished to silvery blue, and the horses that drew it were a pair of well trained black geldings. Bessach stood behind the driver waving to the priests as the gates were opened.
Taliesin waited until the chariot was well outside the Grove before making his move. He flew down and shapeshifted beside Bessach. The sudden weight made the horses strain, but the driver controlled them easily, and did not appear to take any heed of the new passenger. Taliesin guessed him to be an experienced veteran.
Bessach did not react so calmly. “Who are you?” he demanded. “What are doing in my chariot?”
“You don’t recognize me, Bessach?” Taliesin replied. “I know it’s been awhile, but I don’t think I have changed as much as you have.”
The druid’s eyes widened. “Taliesin? Is it really you? By the gods, you haven’t changed, have you?”
Taliesin shrugged. “Not much.” He tapped the driver on the shoulder. “Take us out the west gate, please.”
“But I have an appointment with the Ard Righ!” Bessach complained. “He’s expecting me!”
“To advise him on important matters. I heard.” Taliesin looked at him with a stern expression. “We have more important matters of our own to deal with.”
Taliesin refused to say more until they were well outside of the city walls and headed towards the forest of Uislign. He called the driver to stop when they were in the middle of the plain, with nothing around, and only some light traffic on the road.
“Are you going to tell me what this is all about?” Bessach demanded.
Taliesin fixed him with a hard glare. “I am going to do more than that. Druid Bessach, I have come to relieve you of your duties as prelate of Taris.”
Bessach started to splutter. “You have no authority to do this!”
“I have been sent from the High Druid himself,” Taliesin said. “Would you like to argue with him? Because you are going to see him. Today.”
Bessach blanched. “But I have responsibilities, and appointments to keep—“
“I will take over here.”
“You? But you are not even…” he caught himself, and looked a bit embarrassed.
“I’m not what? A real Druid?” Taliesin looked at him with the eyes of a goat. “Perhaps I’m not human?”
Bessach gave an involuntary shudder. “I meant no disrespect, Druid Taliesin.”
Taliesin let his eyes return to normal. “Good,” he said. “None taken.” He looked around at the open plain around them. “Now, get out.”
“You heard me. Get out of the chariot.”
“But we’re nowhere!”
“No we aren’t,” Taliesin said calmly. “We’re in the middle of Temair Plain. Several great battles were fought here, and the Harvest Fair is held here ever Samhain. It’s hardly nowhere.”
“But you’re not just going to leave me here!” Bessach complained.
“Of course not,” Taliesin said. “I’ll be sending a wagon along shortly with your personal effects from the Grove.”
“That could take hours!”
“You should use the time in meditation and prayer,” Taliesin said. “Now, get out before I push you out.”
Spluttering and red with rage, Bessach did as he was told. Taliesin made sure that he was well clear before telling the driver to head back to Taris and the Grove. He looked back a couple of times, where the druid shook his fists at the sky and yelled something that could not be heard over the sounds of the trotting horses.
He turned to the driver. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Felchim mac Ferris, master.”
“I’m not your master,” Taliesin said. “How did you come to be Bessach’s driver?” The man hesitated, casting a sidelong glance at the druid. Taliesin sized him up as well: late forties, scars on his arms and face, the eyes of a man who knew of death. “Don’t worry, Felchim, I am relatively harmless.”
“As you say, mas—“ He paused. “What should I call you?”
“Call me Taliesin.”
“Aye then, Taliesin.” He seemed to be uncomfortable with the familiarity, but pressed on. “I came to the Grove some ten years back. My arrival coincided with Bessach’s need for a charioteer.”
“Why the Grove?” Taliesin asked. “What were you seeking?”
Felchim shook his head. “It matters not.”
Taliesin said, “It matters to me.” But he did not pursue the matter further.
They approached the city gates in silence. Taliesin nodded to the guards as they passed, and they nodded back. “What will you do now that I am the prelate?” he said.
Felchim said, “I will try to serve you as well as I served Master Bessach.”
“Ah, but I will not need a charioteer soon.” Taliesin ignored the surprised look Felchim shot him. “Can you drive a wagon?”
“Aye, that I can,” Felchim answered cautiously.
“How about a hand cart?”
“My back is still strong, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“That I am.” They pulled up to the gates of the Grove. A priest spied them from the top of the wall and began shouting down to someone inside. “I think there will still be a place at the Grove for you as long as you’re willing to stay.”
Felchim gave him a sudden grin as the gates began to open. “I’m thinking I shouldn’t miss this,” he said.
Taliesin jumped from the chariot before it reached the stables, and waited for the priests to gather around him, all demanding to know who he was, and what had happened to the druid. When he figured most of them had arrived, about thirty in all, he let out a piercing whistle. The talking stopped, and he said, “I am Druid Taliesin, come by order of the High Druid to replace Bessach as the prelate of Taris. I am as different from Bessach as day is from night, and I promise you things will be done differently. All complaints can be sent to the High Druid, but in the meantime, I expect you all to conduct yourselves as priests of the Creator and servants of the Three Queens. Anyone who feels incapable of doing so should leave now, and I will say nothing.”
He scanned the faces, all nervous defiance in the face of the new druid, but although he heard plenty of whispers, he saw no movement to leave. In a corner of the courtyard, he saw the servants gathered around Felchim, who was smiling, but not saying anything. Taliesin dismissed the priests and made his way over to the group.
The servants had mostly one color in their cloaks, the mark of the slave ranks. They bowed anxiously at his approach, and he added this to his sorrows. Felchim said, “This is Druid Taliesin. You will find him unlike any you have ever known.”
“That is true enough,” Taliesin said. He moved to those nearest him, lifting a chin with a finger, and asking their names when they met his eyes. He did this with everyone wearing a cloak, until he had seen their faces and heard their names, sometimes whispered, sometime asked as though they were unsure. Addressing them as a group again, he asked “How many of you are slaves?”
Over half raised their hands. “I see,” Taliesin said. “And who owns your titles?”
Again the heads went down, and Felchim answered, “Most were given as gifts to the Grove.”
“Gifts?” Taliesin said. “What under heaven would make someone gift a slave to the Grove?”
Felchim hesitated. “I would rather not say.”
“Would any like to say?” Taliesin asked to the group at large. When no one spoke, he said, “That is fine. You need not risk yourself for my sake, and I am sure that I can find out on my own. Please, for now, I would like you not to change anything in your routines, except that I may request help from a few of you. Feel free to say no if you feel that your other chores have priority.” He gestured for Fechim to follow him, and he started across the yard to the Grove.
As they walked, he said, “Felchim, could you find a few strong backs to help us clear out Bessach’s quarters? We’ll need a wagon, too. Preferably one that we won’t need back for a month or so.”
“You may need several,” the charioteer said.
“No, I think that whatever won’t fit will be better sold.” They reached the trees, and Taliesin removed his sandals. “I need to pray and meditate for a bit, but I should be done in an hour or so.”
“You are full of surprises,” Felchim said with a shake of his head.
“Am I now?” Taliesin said. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
He made his way into the trees, noting their wild condition and the unruly undergrowth. The sacred groves of worship were supposed to be dense and difficult to navigate, but not neglected like this one was. He heard the whisper of the leaves around him, a language of long sighs and longer patience. The noise of the courtyard was muffled, and by the time he stepped into the central ring of trees, he had put the priests and servants completely out of his mind.
The sacred grove of Taris had mostly oak and rowan trees, with a few alders, the tree of kingship, scattered throughout. Taliesin touched each trunk in the central ring, feeling the ancient grandeur of each, and speaking peace in return. The trees bowed inwards slightly as he made his way around, blocking the entire sky and enveloping Taliesin in warm green light. He sighed in rhythm with the waving branches, feeling all care pass from him as he knelt in prayer.
It took an effort to return to the world of men, but Taliesin knew that he could not stay within the trees forever. As he emerged from the grove, he felt the weight of his responsibilities settle back on him. He shrugged it into a more comfortable position, and noticed Felchim waiting for him. “Did you find a few hands to help?” he asked.
“I did, Taliesin. They wait at the master’s chamber.”
As they walked, Taliesin asked, “Who did you find?”
“They are three strong men, Ruch, Shalik, and Negumm.”
“And they have no other chores?”
“They serve the druid, so you may command them as you will.”
Taliesin snorted. “I will not. I command no one but myself.”
They had reached the quarters, but as Taliesin started to open the door, Felchim stopped him. “Are you for real?” he demanded.
Taliesin blinked in surprise. “I am myself. What else would I be?”
“Nothing like what I’ve seen of a druid or a priest.”
“Aye, and that’s why I’m here, isn’t it?”
Felchim shook his head. “Nobody knows. Nobody knows you, or what you may do next, and everyone is scared to find out. In the space of a few hours, you have shaken things up more than in the last ten years.”
“And I’m not done yet,” Taliesin said.
Felchim said, “I hope that I live to see the end of what you are doing.”
“You might,” Taliesin answered. “But keep a sword handy, just in case.”
“That I will,” Felchim said, opening the door to Bessach’s chambers. “That I will.”
It took most of the afternoon to fill the wagon, and there was much that they had not touched when they were done. Taliesin was glad that Bessach had never married; he didn’t think that he could have dealt with a family on top of everything else. As it was, he had a hard time resisting the urge to purge the rooms with bael fire, and contented himself with clearing the sleeping chamber of all the expensive detritus that was left. He put his pack in the corner, and unrolled his bedroll on the floor.
He sat for a while, meditating on the events of the last two days. He considered the alternate ways open to him for handling the priests, but he decided that most of it would be predicated upon their response to his ways. He knew that he had dealt harshly with Bessach, but he felt little remorse. He only hoped that he wouldn’t have to continue in that vein.
A knock at the door interrupted him, and before he had a chance to answer, a young woman wearing a cloak with one color had slipped inside his bedchamber. “May I help you?” he asked politely.
“You said to continue with our normal chores, master” she said hesitantly. “One of mine was to warm Bessach’s bed at night.”
“I see.” Taliesin’s anger raged anew, but he kept his voice steady and calm. “Is there nothing else that you do?”
“I work with several others of the women washing and mending clothes during the day.”
“What is your name?”
“Lachia, if it pleases you.”
Taliesin took a deep breath. “I’m afraid I no longer need your services in the evening, Lachia. You may use the time as you see fit. Are there any others who, ah, have a similar chore to yours?”
Lachia said, “Not for Bessach, master. Some of the other priests have made arrangements though.”
“Of course they have,” Taliesin muttered to himself. “Lachia, how long have you been here?”
“Three years, master.”
“And how did you come to be a slave in the Grove?”
Lachia hesitated, and she withdrew even further into herself.
Taliesin took her by the elbow and led her out of his chambers, out of the apartments, and into the cool night air. She seemed in a state of shock, so he led her across to the servants quarters, where he pounded on the door until people started tumbling out. He grabbed the first person he recognized, which happened to be Felchim. “Do you know someone who can take care of Lachia?”
“Of course,” the charioteer replied. “Magra! Nalya! Give a hand, would you?”
Two older women, both with the single color cloaks of a slave, took Lachia and led her into the servants’ hall, clucking and fussing over her. The others, finding that the world had not ended, began doing the same. Many bowed as they passed Taliesin, and he ignored them.
“Felchim, I want to know how Lachia came to be a slave here,” he said, holding the charioteer firmly by the shoulder. “No dodging on this one, either.”
Looking uncomfortable, the charioteer said, “She was captured in a raid into Bangreen about four years ago. No one is certain, but it is believed that her family may have been killed by the man who enslaved her, Rylam, Lord Bettany. It is known that he raped her repeatedly until he gifted her to Bessach.”
“Who has continued the tradition, no matter how kind he may have been comparatively,” Taliesin said. He spat on the ground. “I know Rylam. He’s been a disgrace to Glencairck since his father died, but this—let me know when she’s feeling better, Felchim. I don’t want her doing anything she does not choose to do until she is ready, and I don’t care if it takes a month or more. And in the meantime, I will find a way to make this right.”