I remember the walk.
I remember pacing myself behind the horse that held that man who’d just ripped me away from the happy home of my early years.
I remembered the conversation my Da had given me as the man on the horse waited outside.
I remember his reasons and his calm.
And I remember how angry and hurt I was that my parents would be sending me away from the clan that was my family.
Da had said my duty had come upon me sooner than he had hoped; but no matter how I asked, my Da would not tell me of which duty he spoke. Was it the duty of a Druid to the forest and nature itself? If so, than why was I leaving? I was to follow this man and listen to all I was told, to learn all I was taught, and do as the king of this land commanded. I still did not understand. I was told that an old druid by the name of Weylyn would seek me out and from him I would continue my Druid training.
Oh, how I burned to ask my Da, “Why?”
I spoke not another word as my Mam hugged me tight and whispered promises I understood she would not keep. Perhaps that was my child-like heart lashing out as it lost hope. And so as I walked behind the man on the horse, who gave no name nor quarter, I slowly tore pieces of myself apart, letting them drift on the breeze behind me as I walked away from kith and kin. I pulled my anger and stubbornness around me like a cloak, a bit of armor to shield me where my Da and Mam had failed.
It was the rainy season so the walk, which took weeks, was done in soaking wet clothing and mud to my knees. Each night we stopped at either an inn or found a tiny amount of shelter under a rock outcropping or bough of a thick tree. I uttered not a word. Without rebellion I cleaned his boots and dried his saddle. I built a fire with damp wood, purposely struggling with the craft as the man himself would have done it. To light the fire I need only utter a word, yet none was forthcoming from under the armor I used to protect myself. Food was shared, though only after the man had eaten his fill. And when he closed his eyes, I shrugged out of my clothing and lay them to dry by the fire while the water resistant seal hide I wore against my bare skin, was dry and comfortable. It went without saying that I preferred the rare nights we stopped at an inn. I slept in the common room next to the fireplace.
Day after day. It felt never ending. With each step I grew colder and more distant. Those few who dared to speak to me, found only an empty stare in the depths of eyes that were surely as dead as I felt inside. Think not I was idle, when in fact my mind never rested. Every word had been examined, every action of this man torn apart and reassembled. I would not be weak; I swore it to myself in my sleep.
I swore it in my mind as the fire of anger was banked but never extinguished.
Day after day.
Until one day, months after I had last seen my kin, we came into what was clearly a prosperous kingdom. People in strange dress would bow as we moved past them, some even bringing drink and food as if they had been commanded to provide: though no scarp was presented to me. I had grown taller over these days but thinner too. My hair was dirty and unkempt, its length now well down my back. My fingernails were torn and ragged, grown long and crusted with mud, food, blood and filth of all kinds. My legs hurt but I kept moving. In a few more days we finally came to a grand structure. It was a wall, this much I was sure but it stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions. The man on the horse bade entrance and the great gates were opened to allow us through. I took in what was around me, making notice that some of the men wore the same colors as the man on the horse. Clearly they were kith.
It wasn’t until the next day the man on the horse proclaimed we had arrived. In the secret most part of my heart I found I hated this world. There were few trees nor forest. The magic of the land felt distant to my Druid heart. It felt almost as dead as I did.
“This ‘im?” Asked a man who came and took the horse. “He ain’t much to look at.”
“Bathe him.” Said the man on the horse as he strode into the structure without a backward glance.
“What be your name?” Asked the new man with the horse.
I uttered not a word.
He asked again. And again my reply was the same. The third time he asked, the question was accompanied with a hard belt to my face. My head snapped around hard and I stumbled. When I straighten myself and still refused to talk, the man grew angry. He yanked me by my tunic and threw me into a trough of water. Over and over I was dunked as the man waited for me to speak.
I uttered not a word.
Again and again, my body was pushed into and pulled out of the water. My head slammed several times against the trough until unconsciousness took me. I could not know the look on the man’s face when the water became red with my blood. I could not know how he was struck when the man on the horse found me floating face down in the water. I was unable to feel any victory in this.. perhaps I would not have felt anything anyway.
I did not die.
I awoke to a warm hearth and a woman bent to the task of tending me. She looked at me when the weight of my gaze became noticeable. She smiled kindly and said her name was Alyce, and it was her job to keep the hogs. She talked to me but never urged me to return the voice. My wounds were sewn and bandaged, and too soon I was escorted back to the man on the horse once more. For the first time his eyes looked upon me as heavily as mine looked back. He held a coin out to Alyce and scarcely noticed it disappearing.
“Come on, lad. The King is waiting.”
Not for the first time I noticed the emblem on the front of his tunic. However, I now saw that it was different from every other man’s tunic. While the colors and pattern were the same, the emblem was not. The man on the horse showed a bear beside a crown. It would be some years before I understood the crown with its stylized three points was the king’s own mark but the secondary emblem denoted something more personal of the man and his family. And so I began to think of the man on the horse as the Bear.
The Bear expected me to follow in line behind him as he strode away. As I did when the Bear was astride his horse, I walked behind thinking little thoughts with a little mind. I felt a wetness in my chest and a pain in my skull; but my head was held high even as I mentally wrapped my armor more tightly around me.
We entered a great hall almost as large as the Druid meeting place. It could hold many a score of men even in their cumbersome armor. Today is seemed there were hardly a dozen or so who waited the king’s pleasure. The Bear and I stopped before the king and the Bear bowed. I did not. I looked at the king as if he were any other man and waited to hear this duty I had been called to do. To the side I saw several men dressed nobly, a pair of servants, the Bear and the man who had ‘bathed’ me.
“Explain yourself, Ailen.” The king commanded.
“I was instructed to bathe the boy.” Started the man who’d spilled my blood. “The boy would not speak his name. He would not speak at all.” This Ailen was sweating as he addressed the king. The smell was sour and made him stink even worse than I did.
“So you thought to damage my property?”
“No sire! I thought only to loosen the boy’s tongue. I meant him no harm.”
“But you did damage him.” The silence in the hall was heavy as all eyes, including mine, were on the king of this land.
“Five lashes.” The king finally said.
I found myself pulled hard and thrust to my knees. My tunic was ripped and my under clothes yanked down until my back was bare. The first bite of the whip surprised me as it hadn’t occurred to me I was the one to receive the lashing. The second was harder but the third, harder still, drew blood. The forth and fifth cut deeper and sent waves of pain throughout my body. How grateful I found myself that the lashings were only the count of five. I was hardly ten summers old and this punishment seemed to nail my anger into place, assuring it would become a monster of its own; and a danger to my future.
“Lad, your name.” The Bear said while kneeling in front of me. “Speak it.” He ordered.
I lowered my head, not uttering a word.
The lash bit once more and this one drew a scream from my lips. The strike felt very different from the others. This felt as if many points struck my tender flesh and ripped several points open at once. A seventh blow bit into my skin, confirming my notion of several points of contact. The tool of punishment had been changed. This strike also drew a sound from my lips. I raised my eyes to the king’s, cloaking the anger, defiance and stubbornness from his gaze. I was struck twice again sending me once more into a world of darkness.
But I remembered.. I didn’t utter a word.
Shadows & Smoke
Feb 02, 2019 03:49 pm