Iseult bounces from one foot to the other, not out of nervousness but excitement. She stands beside the raised oaken dais erected for the Fleadh, a bardic contest in which men and women demonstrate skill with spoken and sung verse, harp, fiddle and pipe. Performing now is Keeley Heddoch, the son of a Salmontree fishmonger who seems to have learned to pipe from one of the many cats who call the Helmharbor dockside market home. She sees audience members wince at the yowling of his Wealdann pipes and mentally marks him off the list of possible challengers.
Not for the first time, she wonders which mutton-headed Serpentmiren decided the order of the day's contests. Her right arm still aches from the archery contest of the morning, and her boots are still caked with rich, ochre-colored mud from the midday foot races. Her showing in both contests had been respectable -- having even placed third in archery -- but she had only chosen to participate in them because they were a requirement for competing in the Fleadh.
Today marks the second day of Imbolc, the last day of celebration leading up to the Grand Revel, a rite sacred to all twelve clans and part of the Great Covenant of forest magics which shape the Weald. It is considered a rite of passage for uninitiated young women wishing to put aside their youth and transition to leadership roles within their tribe, often signalling a desire to enter motherhood.
Any eligible young women who wish to participate in the Grand Revel will rise before dawn tomorrow to be consecrated by shamans and priests. Along with the Revelers, a number of musicians -- both bards and skalds -- can seek consecration that they might safely perform during the rites. It is considered both taboo and foolhardy for anyone unconsecrated to be out of doors during the Grand Revel, as the ecstatic and sometimes violent rites are not without risk to participants. Indeed, one young woman will be chosen by the Forest Magic to serve as Maenad, leading the revelry from dawn till midday, at which point her life will be sacrificed to reaffirm the Great Covenant.
At just sixteen years of age, Iseult won’t be eligible to participate as a reveler until at least the following year, and her father has forbidden her to participate as a consecrated musician. As she is a visitor to Clan Serpentmire, she, along with her father and half-brother will share the root cellar belonging to Midwife Nerys until the conclusion of the ceremony, at which point all gathered tribesmen will emerge to celebrate and feast in earnest, honoring the life of the fallen maiden., Although the drinking and feasting may well continue for several days after that, Iseult and her family will likely be back on the road to Clan Otterbine lands the following day.
Keeley is playing the last few notes of what might be "An Coulin" and is halfway down the steps before he remembers to bow to the judges, resulting in an awkward half-bob that leaves him even more red-faced, if that were possible. A smattering of polite applause and a few good-natured jibes likely puts to rest any dreams Keeley might have had about someday becoming a professional musician.
The next contestant announced is Fergus, son of Herve, causing Iseult to groan inwardly. Fergus is one of the first boys her own age she had met after being -- in her mind, at least -- abducted from her mother's family in the Fens and brought to live with her father, his wife, and his son among the Otterbine. Like Iseult and her father Cathaoir, Fergus is one of the "fire-kissed" and, upon her arrival in their village, Fergus' peers had teasingly claimed the two of them were destined for romantic entanglement. At the time, Fergus had been a tall, gangly pre-teen and, in a desperate effort to save face, had lashed out at Iseult, mocking not her hair color but her Fen Folk heritage. Being born and raised in the Fens was such a personal point of pride to Iseult that it quickly lead to an ever-escalating rivalry between the two youths.
seult’s mother had been Ynyra of the Fen. Years ago, at a convocation between a number of Meisrech of Otterbine and Fen Folk elders to negotiate land and hunting rights, Iseult's grandfather had been among the Meisrech sent to negotiate. He had brought his teen-aged son Cathaoir. Ynyra was herself the granddaughter to a well-respected but physically infirm Fen Wise Woman and had come along to assist her aged grandmother. While the two teenagers were not allowed to enter the convocation hall, they managed to find another way to keep themselves warm.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the two groups went their separate ways and, upon discovering Ynrya to be gravid with the child of a non-Fen, it was decided to keep the resulting child a secret. A matrilineal society, the Fen Folk had no wish to lose the girl child of such a renowned family line to a tribe who would have no appreciation for her station. Ynrya had no say in this decision and, having genuinely liked the flame-haired and boisterous Cathaoir, it rankled her to hide his daughter from him, more so when she heard many years later of his betrothal and marriage to Dympna, a good wife of clan Otterbine.
And so it was that at age 26, when she suddenly took to bed with a wasting sickness that no amount of tribal magic could cure, she begged her distraught mother permission to send word to Cathaoir, that she might tell him herself of the existence of their daughter. Her family dithered so long that, just two days after finally agreeing to dispatch the messenger, Ynyra died of her fever. It was, by then, too late to recall the messenger and Cathaoir had arrived six days later, his eight year old son Glyn trailing behind him.
At first, Ynrya's family attempted subterfuge, telling Cathaoir that his one-time paramour had wished to say her goodbyes to the boy she had once known, but once his eyes fell upon 10-year-old Iseult -- then known by her Fen Folk name Creidne -- and saw hair the same color as his own, a color exceedingly rare among the Fen Folk themselves -- he guessed the truth of the matter.
Infuriated, he had demanded that his newfound daughter be brought back to Clan Otterbine, that such must have been her dying mother's wish in calling him to her bedside. When bluster failed to move Iseult's stony-faced grandmother, he tried bargaining instead. The Fen Folk had already had two-thirds of his daughter's raising, and she would always be free to return to them upon reaching her majority. Surely five to six years among the Otterbine could not change the girl’s essential nature.
For her part, Creidne was confused and frightened by the hulking, orange-haired man who raised his voice to her grandmother, something she had never before witnessed. She didn't understand why her Mamó didn't simply turn the man into a ferret, as she had seen her do more than once to someone presumptuous enough to challenge her authority.
In the end, it was agreed that her father might bring her back with him, under the condition that her grandmother and aunt be allowed to visit her twice a year: once on Daughter’s Day and again on Mother’s Day. This they did, only to find their wayward granddaughter/niece stowed away within a wagon or trailing behind their mule train each time and each time having to drag her back to her father and his family. Although they pretended annoyance, it was in fact a secret source of pride that their little Creidne continued to choose them over the ostensibly more civilized Clansmen.
In the meantime, Creidne bristled at what she viewed as her captivity among the Otterbine. Her stepmother had insisted that she be given an Otterbinen name in the hopes that it would help her integrate into the clan more smoothly. And so it was that, on the first Daughter's Day she celebrated among her new family, she was to be rededicated as Iseult. Her father had brought her finely-crafted, well-fitted leathers unlike any she had ever worn, leathers which she had promptly stuffed in the midden heap and arrived at the ceremony dressed in every fur and loose leather article she still had from the Fen Folk, her face painted blue with woad as if she were ready to ride into battle.
Her father had been horrified and embarrassed, and his temper had been such that she had feared she had pushed him too far. He pulled her aside roughly and had scrubbed her face clean with more force than was strictly necessary before sending her back to receive her new name. Nothing was ever said about the leathers she had attempted to dispose of, and she was allowed her own choice of dress from then on, her parents quietly hoping that enough ridicule from her peers would eventually correct the problem. This hope was in vain, of course; Iseult was far too independently-minded to give over what she considered a core part of her identity.
At the age of twelve, Cathaoir thought he might have discovered the cure to Iseult's chronic recalcitrance. Having noticed his daughter's keen interest in the playing of the fiddle at the previous Bastard’s Day feast, he presented her with one of her own as a gift on her birthing day. Her eyes had lit up like a bonfire at Beltane, at least until he told her that he would keep her fiddle locked away at night to prevent her from sneaking away to return to the Fens. This prompted Iseult to learn to pick her first lock before sneaking away after her aunt and grandmother at the next opportunity.
Though she was a never ending source of consternation for her father, she quickly found the best way to avoid the ire of her step-mother was to avoid antagonizing her younger half-brother Glyn. In fact, the two half-siblings seemed equally inclined towards ignoring one another in so much as possible when sharing a three-room, wattle-and-daub cottage.
Meanwhile, Glyn and Fergus had grown up as friends, despite two years' difference in their ages. Iseult makes a face as she notices her half-brother among the audience members sharing a long bench near the front of the dais, here no doubt to cheer on Fergus’ performance (and not her own). She suspects that their camaraderie is borne as much out of an enjoyment of many of the same activities -- hunting, fishing, wrestling -- as it is their mutual distaste for her unwanted presence. Indeed, while Iseult made it a point to avoid Glyn, she has repeatedly sought out every opportunity to show up Fergus. Her performance in the morning's archery tournament had been more about beating her rival than any particular love for the activity itself.
Unfortunately, while the 10-year old Fergus had been tall and skinny, it was becoming increasingly apparent that he would be taking after his father Fergus the Cooper, new muscle and vigor helping fill out his previously gangly frame in ways that made Iseult uncomfortable to notice. Now he sits on the wooden stool in the middle of the dais in a manner that would best be described as lounging, making a belabored show of tuning his mandolin before launching into a lively rendition of “The Maiden’s Waistcoat,” his voice a rich tenor no seventeen-year-old should possess providing accompaniment.
When his eyes pass over her, she can't help but bristle under the gleam of smugness she detects therein. Clearly, as she bested him at archery, he is hoping to steal from her the real prize she seeks: winning the Fleadh. It isn't long before the entire assembled crowd is stomping their feet, whooping in excitement and engagement, and Iseult swears under her breath at having to follow such a well-received performance.
At the conclusion of the song, Fergus bows to each judge, standing at the bottom of the stairs so that Iseult has to march past him, fiddle in hand, to to take her place when it is her turn. As she does so, he makes a sweeping, courtly bow towards her that makes her blush in embarrassment and anger. Wherever he had learned such an elegant bow, she has no doubt he had been practicing it to mock her.
By the time she takes center stage, the blood is pounding in her ears. The audience is waiting for her to take a seat on the stool behind her as the previous contestants have done. As Fergus had done. With a dismissive glance at the offending piece of furniture, she plants her feet firmly, raising her fiddle to rest against her left clavicle.
As she raises her bow in her right hand, her mind is suddenly clear and she begins to play “Erol’s Rhapsody to the Daughter.” It’s a challenging piece, full of dexterous bow slurs that produce a lilt intended to evoke the voice of a goddess. After Fergus' high-energy performance, she decides to skip the minute-long build to the faster portion of the song, plunging headlong into some of the most difficult slurs and, with perfect pitch and pace, begins to dance back and forth across the dais, her feet deftly tapping out the rhythm soon picked up by the audience. She finds herself lost in the piece, the music seeming to take on a life of its own, building in a most un-Daughterlike fervor and intensity as she begins to almost saunter across the stage. She is oblivious to the building murmur of a crowd who no longer recognize the piece she is playing, the piece she had officially entered with. She finishes playing and, with a ululating leap, lands breathlessly before the table of judges.
The audience is staring at her in silence, not sure what to think of this undignified finish. It's Fergus who speaks first, complaining, "Well, obviously she's disqualified. That wasn't even the right song!"
At this, the crowd begins murmuring, softly at first but with growing discontent. Arguments break about the importance of meeting standards versus creative embellishment. The judges themselves -- three Eldermen of Serpentmire -- are themselves uncertain of how to proceed. While Iseult had clearly demonstrated some of the most technically difficult fiddling, it's unclear how to grade her technique against a piece so different as to be non-existent.
For her part, Iseult stands before the judges deciding her fate with her arms crossed, growing increasingly angry. Although she is uncertain what spirit caused such an ... inspired performance, she sees the argument about the non-specificity of her playing as representative of everything she dislikes about the Clans. Unlike the Fen Folk, they seem so caught up in doing things the "right" way that they have lost the sense of wonder and creativity that comes from embracing one's primal nature.
She has just enough time to be surprised to find her half-brother is actually trying to argue with Fergus on her behalf before a strong female voice breaks through the chatter, "Quiet!!" The assembled audience immediately fall silent, turning on their benches to see who would have the self-possession to issue such a forceful edict.
Iseult cranes her neck to see, half-suspecting to find her Móraí standing there with hands on her hips. The woman she sees instead is of sturdier stock, though her face bears just as many lines and creases. Her hair looks to have gone white many years before; unlike many elderly tribeswomen who fashion their hair into elaborate braids, she wears it loose, cascading about her shoulders like a coruscant halo. Her robes are simple but fine, dyed a deep purple. Around her not insubstantial waist is a double-stranded silver chain, the left-side of which is adorned with a silver athame, and she wields a silver horse-headed walking stick as though it might well be a weapon.
The judges themselves appear uncertain what to do, and Iseult wonders who this woman is to steal the tongues of three men and women who are Serpentmiren Meisrech. Without waiting for an invitation, the woman walks to the base of the dais, standing in front of the judges' table and beside Iseult. At first she ignores the judges entirely, looking into Iseult's face searchingly. Iseult feels very uncomfortable with the scrutiny, and suddenly wishes she had chosen more traditional clansman garb, for fear of offering this woman offense.
After a moment, the woman turns to address the judges, but with enough volume that her words carry to the entire assembly. "I am Skyseer Anoura of Clan Horseriver!" There are a few murmurings about this, mostly among the oldest audience members. It is clear that at least one judge recognizes the name, because she raises one lined hand to her mouth, eyes wide.
"You all squabble that the Jaybird won't swim downstream with the rest of these herring-headed lunks," she says, gesturing dismissively toward Fergus. Iseult is initially shocked at this insult being issued on her behalf but then begins to puff up with pride before the woman thwacks her shin painfully with her walking stick. Iseult manages to not let out an embarrassing yelp, but just barely.
"This girl is a gifted but untrained Nostalgic. You don't recognize what she plays because what she plays is so far before our present time as to be unrecognizable. It is likely several dozen lifetimes past."
At this point, Iseult is staring at the woman like she thinks her performance has just been derailed by a crazy person. She was doing no such thing as... whatever it was that Anoura was describing. She was just... playing what came to her in the moment.
Ignoring her entirely, Anoura continues to address the crowd, "With time and training, I believe this noisy, unkempt jaybird can be made into a starling -- a Skyseer like myself. Please inform her father that she has gone with me. It is a great honor and, as I understand she has a habit of running away to the Fens, I suspect he will be relieved to see the back side of her."
Iseult gapes at the audacious woman, her mouth working in silent horror and embarrassment. She has never felt so small about her persistent desire to run away from home and dress like one of the Fen Folk as she does now. The crowd is tittering in a mixture of amusement and discussion but, oddly, no one says a word to contradict her.
As Anoura hustles Iseult away from the dais and towards her mule-cart, Iseult finally has the wherewithal to say, "but what if I don't want to become a Skyseer?!"
With a twist of her lip, Anoura responds derisively, "Well, I suppose you can always become a Bard."
The major events and journals in Iseult's history, from the beginning to today.
The list of amazing people following the adventures of Iseult.