New Novel up on Amazon

My new novel is up on Amazon.  The Curses of Arianrhod continues the story of Gwydion, as he deals with exile and tries to help his son with no name.

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Writing regularly

I know I should be more regular about posting, both here and at my other site.  the purpose for that is two fold.  One, I will never have a readership (or fan base, or whatever you want to call it) unless I am posting at least semi-regularly, and two, writing anything gets the writing juices flowing, and allows me to keep up a steady output, especially when I am stuck on a story.

And right now, I am a bit stuck on the next novella in Gwydion’s story.  I know the general arc, but I am having a problem getting the story started.  And if I am bored with the beginning, I can’t expect it to interest others.

Eh, I’ll get past this.  I always do.  One method that works for me is to write the parts I do know first.  I’ve got a few thousand words down, so it continues apace.

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The effects of corruption

So now we have MZB, Samuel Delaney, and Ed Kramer revealed as child molesters, at best.  And the worst part about it, that goes beyond the sickness of their actions, is the apparent willingness of the Science Fiction/Fantasy community to deny and/or defend their actions, and those like them.  Of course not all members are guilty of this, but enough leaders and publishers are that it calls into question everything else that they are willing to defend.  And that also calls into question everything that they are willing to attack.

It comes to this.  My earlier musings on the validity of works already published does not either excuse or even mitigate the actions of the author.  While it may be true that evil people can produce great art, it is up to the art community (in whatever medium you may think of), to police itself for those that should be shunned from any community.  You can admire the earlier works of Roman Polanski, before it was known that he was a child rapist, but there is no defending the man or any subsequent works.  You can still dance to Johnny B. Goode, but you don’t have to induct Chuck Berry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You may have been touched by MZB’s writings, but there is no way to countenance any lauding of the woman herself.

But the worst part of this whole thing is that it revels a truly degenerate worldview that exists in the minds of those who shape popular culture.  They are willing to excuse any behavior, as long as money is being made and fame cultivated.  How many Jimmy Savile’s are out there, being allowed to do whatever they like because they are loved by an audience that would recoil in horror if even a smidgen of their crimes were exposed?  How many people have sold their souls to keep these secrets safe?

And then there is this:  all the people who allowed the abuse and violence to happen are generally faceless and nameless to the general populace.  We cannot refuse to read anything else edited, published, or marketed by those who knew, because we do not know who those people are, and we don’t know the depths of their complicity.  But when we do know–like in the case of the SFWA–we can withdraw or support, praise, and recognition.

Rename the Nebulas the NAMBuLAs.  Make the winning of the award notable for those who refuse to accept it (and why).  Make it uncomfortable for those who knew and did nothing, and shine sunlight on the whole wretched nest of roaches.  Of course some will disappear back into the shadows.  Evil is always with us.  But we cannot excuse it, and we cannot let it become the acceptable habit of even the most talented.

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Wizard’s Heir–free for the next five days

For the next five days, June 27 to July 1, the first book in Gwydion’s story is free on Amazon.

Wizard's Heir, by Michael A. Hooten
Free from June 27 to July 1

Gwydion ap Don is a talented harpist, and a known rogue. But his Uncle Math sees something more: a young man with the magical talent to succeed him as Lord Gwynedd. But to learn magic, Gwydion will also have to learn self-control, duty, honor, and the martial arts. He’s not sure which will be the hardest. And when his training in magic begins in earnest, his whole world will change, as well as how he sees himself.

Based on the ancient Welsh myths from the Mabinogion, but set in the world of Cricket’s Song, this new series looks at one of the three great bards of Glencairck, Gwydion. But long before he became a great bard, he had to learn how to be a good man. This is the story of how his uncle tries to temper him into a leader, and a suitable heir.

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How do we judge art?

The revelations about Marion Zimmer Bradley continue to shock and horrify people, and with good reason.  It seems that the abuse and molestation were something of open secrets to those closest to MZB, so much so that:

Thenceforth the ——– kids were under instructions to retire into their room and barricade the door with furniture whenever Walter was in the house. They did too.

People knew, and did nothing, or dis very little, to stop the predators.  That same document linked says that some people excused the infamous Walter Breen (MZB’s husband), by saying that he was so childlike.  You know, like Michael Jackson.

Understand also, the above document, which is very difficult to read due to its graphic nature, was published first in 1964.  It shocks and horrifies in today’s more licentious culture, but this came out before the sexual revolution had even really started.  And the reaction to all of this coming to light, again, 50 years later, is telling.  Vox Day of course wants the SFWA to be implicated as a co- conspirator, and his reasoning is sound:

There is no more possibility of denying the facts. SFWA knowingly shields, supports, defends, and even praises child molesters. It should be obvious that any SFWA member who continues to associate with SFWA despite this long-time and continuing institutional support of child molestation is, at the very least, tolerant of those who rape and abuse children.

In the question of how to deal with these type of people in the future, there should be little doubt: they should be shunned and ostracized at the very least, and prosecuted by the law where necessary.  And no publisher should ever touch one of their manuscripts again.

But there is still the question of how do we approach the work that has already been published by these people?  As far as I know, no one has accused MZB of writing fiction that supports her personal proclivities.  There seem to be two camps, those who think that the work can be judged separately from the author, and those that think that it cannot.  And again, I will point out that the camps are almost entirely flipped when the same issue is raised about Orson Scott Card.

Here’s how I see it: if I accept that OSC’s work might be able to be appreciated on its own, without regard to his personal beliefs, then I must extend the same to MZB.  Of course, I also believe that OSC’s opinions about same sex marriage has not destroyed anyone’s life, the way that MZB’s actions did, and that brings up the conundrum for a lot of people, I think.  There are some who are so enamored of MZB’s writings that they are willing to excuse her very real conduct against others.  And many of those same people despise OSC, and try to ban his work, because he his a personal belief that he has publicly expressed which has not, to my knowledge, made him guilty of any more than offending some people’s sensibilities.

So which works do we ban?  Those by people whose political views we cannot abide, or those whose personal conduct we cannot abide?  Or, again, should we judge the art separate from the artist?

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Taliesin, chapter 3

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.”

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Taliesin, Chapter 2

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.”

“Thank you.”

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.

“Where’s that?”

“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.”

“What happened?’

“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.

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