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Bard Risk

Hi... this is a bit of an old story. Same character as "Fire can Make it Rain" and "Ice"

The Bard Risk
By Sebastian Blade
Copyright 2004
All rights reserved
please do not archive
There was forest, deep greens and pine. Hearth smoke clung to the air even an hour's walk from the sleepy village of the Bard Palace. The walk, with other hopefuls felt like it ought have been more, ought to have felt like it carried more obvious significance. 
The path was a little more laid out, more obviously a path than just forest floor. Ribbons of white, representing bardic truth and impartiality, fluttered from branches, even canopied over the little path in some places. There were enough clean white ribbons to give some healer apoplexy from the waste of it all. Jewls didn't like waste. Truth be told, the ribbons weren't really decoration. They were a threat, sweet, graceful, as Bardic messages usually were, but a threat none the less. 
By taking this path, one was saying that the gods had called you to be a bard. As far as Jewls understood the world, and the guild enforced the world, there were two kinds of people; Bards and not bards. 
While there were a lot of very nice people who were not bards, like the Greenfeathers, who were his adopted family, of sorts, well, Jewls was the sort of person who was a bard. He'd trained for it all his life. His Master had raised him and there had never been a single moment that he'd questioned what he was until after his master's death. Of course, he'd only been thirteen then and the world of not being a bard had been bleak and empty to him. 
While it had taken him two years to arrive at the Guild Palace, the world of not being a bard for him still looked pretty bleak. 
For one thing, he had red hair.  Red hair showed that cursed demon blood flowed in him. Being a bard apprentice had kept him alive when little short of the gods gracing him with soft falling raven silk instead of the flaming blood red that seemed to be the first and only think people would see when they looked at him.
A white ribbon fluttered into the path, right over the top of the girl in front of him and he reached to catch it.  He was a bard, red hair or not, he'd face the guild master and he'd complete what his own master had wanted for him. He was not a worthless blood sparrow. He was a bard.
"It's bad luck," the girl in front of him said, looking back at him with dark brown eyes, almond shaped, lightly done in khol. "Songbirds aren't supposed to try to hold truth."
"I'm not going to be a songbird," Jewls said, holding the ribbon tighter. "I'm a bard."
"Sure you are. Why would you want to be? You're pretty, with those violet eyes. I'm sure you'd get songbird mark without even trying. What do you want to be a bard for?"
"Because then I can go anywhere I want and I can hold and speak all the truth in the world."
"They'll kill you if you disrespect them. You know that, right?"
"There's no disrespect in the truth," he said, moving past her, long lanky legs easily putting distance between them. Let her be a songbird, and sing for someone's gold.  He'd never take a songbird mark. Never. 
The scent of burning skin, of hot iron, and of recent vomit took the edge of fancy off the affair for Jewls. Hot iron and vomit he'd smelled before. He was a bard, even if they hadn't given him his bard mark yet, and vomit was pretty common in taverns near the end of singing time. Branding was new to him. Screaming wasn't as new as he wished it was. It wasn't his turn yet though.
The bard hopefuls had gathered before dawn 3 score of youths and one woman with a hint of winter at her temples. With the dawn had come the bards, arrayed in garb finer than an apprentice could lay hands on, let alone wear without breaking laws meant to keep status lines clear.  They encircled the half terrified gathering of masterless apprentices like hunting hawks around a flock of barn sparrows.
There were four ways out of the circle. As the bards had begun to hum, then to sing the Invocation of the Guide Master, Jewls had thought about them all. It was said that those who fled had their voices and souls stolen by the circle of bards. Jewls hadn't believed that until he saw them. They looked like gods in silks and jewels that made princes look drab. For the first time Jewls understood sumptuary laws. Appearance was power, but he still did not believe that they beheaded those who displeased the Guild Master.
He was a sparrow compared to them. A 15 winter old storyteller, road walker with fire red hair and the same singing clothes he'd been wearing the last two years. The black leather pants were tight and they had patches of fading brown leather sewn over silver swans that he couldn't wear until he was a recognized bard. He'd spent his tea money on the first new shirt of his life.
It too was a little passed his station with snow white linen ruffles that lay on his shoulders, lacing loopholes darned in polished white wool and a black braided lace holding it closed. He wore copper wire earrings and blue glass beads braided into his hair. He looked like a road bard in singing clothes, not the caste-less wanderer he really was. Being casteless was over, as of today. He would leave with his Bard Mark, or he wasn't sure what he'd do. He wouldn't flee, this time, not even a flinch.
"Worried?" The girl next to him whispered.
He looked down, then went to one knee, which put him just below eye height for her. Even given that she was female, her size said she didn't have more than ten to twelve winters to her honor. "Not a bit," he lied. Smiling, he reached for her hand, "What is a fair maid such as yourself doing so far from your companion unicorn?"
She blushed, brushed the clean swept forest floor with a black slippered foot. The seams on the shoes had been redone, letting the quilted linen of the shoe out, but her foot still barely fit. An almost clean hand brushed back boy short brown hair, like it remembered there being more. "I'm no maid," she whispered, quieter.
The drama on the dais, the only way out of the circle, seemed distant and Jewls didn't know the Guild Master watched him covertly. "Nay, no one with their honor intact could name you less than a maid and a beauty. You will be a lady of bards, surely."
"You're a bard," she said, tugging her hand back. "I just got a pretty voice's all."
"I see," Jewls said, hands mimicking small birds, fingers drawn in, except for little fingers and thumbs. "Once there was a forest, a great forest with so many trees hardly anyone could find their way though. In the center of this forest," he said, hands still making the traditional story telling movement of birds, "There lived a great Master Bard. She was the Bard of Earth and she had a staff which could shake the ground and hair of silver and gold like lighting in the storm clouds."
The girl's eyes watched his 'birds' as they flew in figure eights and circles, tossed as if by a storm. "Well, she ain't here is she?"
"No," Jewls said, leaning close to tell a secret, "She's not, and it's a good thing because she doesn't much like blood sparrows."
Blood sparrow was a derogatory term for red headed peasant who didn't know his/her place and the girl seemed more inclined to listen to him, if he were a blood sparrow. "Is there a sparrow in this story?"
"Oh yes," he said, "But first there was a storm." His fingers flashed open, mimicking an explosion. "A very howling and tearing storm. Trees bent," he said, arms parallel showing how the tree fell over slowly, voice making a very authentic cracking sound. "The animals that lived in the forest ran every which way, but it was the birds which were in the most trouble! They could not go into pockets of safe ground, nor hide behind rocks. For their domain was the air, and the air spun them and swirled them until they didn't know which way was up. Feathers rained and the birds' songs were lost in their tears. Now the king of birds was a great brown hawk, fast and brilliant. He was wise behind what men are, let alone hawks and he knew, that all the bird stories and songs would be lost in the storm, unless he could find some bird to carry them safely."
"Why couldn't he do it himself," the girl asked, eyes narrowed.
"Because sometimes the way of escape is very small, and kings, even bird kings, must fight to protect until they have no way to fight any longer."
"What did he do?"
"He found a bird," Jewls said, hands moving towards the ground by his knee, as if his hands were puppet birds, one hiding behind his ankle, the other the great Hawk king coming around the other side. "Just a little bird, and it wasn't like the others that fought the storm. It was just a small little sparrow, but it had found shelter behind a rock. And he said to the little bird. 'Will you carry the song of our people, so that the songs of this forest will survive this storm?' Now the little bird was greatly surprised to find the king of birds talking to her!" The little bird hiding behind his hand backed away from Jewls' ankle. "'But why me? I'm just a worthless little brown bird?'"
The Hawk King glided up from behind Jewls' leg, around, "Because," Jewls said, "The one that survives is the bird that will sing the longest and you are a survivor."
She had leaned over, hands on her knees, and the little bird came to rest on one of her hands. "The trick to being a great bard is to be the bird that survives the storm to sing about it," Jewls said, smiling.
The girl rolled her eyes, but she was smiling too. "Songbirds survive too, and they eat a lot better than sparrows."
Jewls pressed his tongue to his teeth, shrugged, "That's true. But don't plan on being a sparrow when you can be a hawk."
"Do you really think I could?"
"You're here, aren't you? Think of all those that aren't," Jewls rose, winked at her, but she stood a little straighter.
There were only about ten applicants waiting now. The older woman had been barded. She knelt behind the Guild Master, who Jewls had trouble looking at, receiving her mark. Most of the applicants had been branded songbirds though. On the other side of the dais, there was a brazier set up with the branding irons. The songbird brand, Jewls could not believe this little girl next to him wanted that. Songbirds had two things, songs and sex, and they sold them both as often as they could. Songbirds either were taken in by a noble, kept like canaries, or they didn't live long. That really left three ways to die on the way out of the circle and only one way to live. Jewls looked towards the encircling bards, noted weapons held discretely, considered running.
He hadn't been doing so badly on his own. Okay, so he had to avoid most of the bards out there already, and he didn't have much for coin, but there were towns that welcomed him and he wasn't going hungry. He had his freedom. With a songbird mark, some of the places he went would turn him away. Whores weren't popular in small villages, generally.
The girl he'd been talking to caught hold of his sleeve and he turned back to her.
"I'm Yaria. My mother was Isret. Who are you?"
"I'm Jewls," he said, knowing he'd heard that Bard name before, Isret.  "Your mother was a bard?"
Yaria nodded. "She was my Master too."
From the dais, a male voice boomed, filling the clearing, "No."
He was tall, built like a knight, but nondescript nonetheless. Brown hair, but expensive clothes, dark blue shirt and new leather pants, thick soled boots. "No. Decide again."
The Guild Master, a cloud of diamonds that sparkled and long fluffy white feathers, white satin gown and overcoat, gold embroidered designed, as if he were a god not a mortal, the Guild Master raised an elegant pale hand, two fingers extended, like a sword, and made a circular motion.
Jewls hair stood on end, tingling like lightening just passed by. The two black leather armored bards, twin women moved from the Guild Master's side, a short sword in both hands. The man pulled his own dagger from within a flowing sleeve and backed away.
Metal hisses against metal when it's unsheathed. Metal against leather is worse, Jewls had always thought, as people with leather scabbards are more likely to actually have swords they use. The bards nearest them had both kinds, and started looking for escape paths. He took hold of Yaria's hand, holding tight, so they didn't get separated.
Coldly, Jewls thought the man wouldn't have made a good songbird anyway. 'Oh sure, happy to please,' then moments later, 'Sorry about your neck there.' Yeah, gods, wasn't the world screwed enough as it was?
The dark bards circled him like a pair of dark moons, waiting for an opening. He rotated with them. Bigger than both of them combined, he still had a grace that said bard training, but it was an ugly grace, like a rabid dog, crouching, waiting, enraged.
Jewls hated watching people die. Death scared him, if anything did, and watching it build up to an unavoidable ending on the dais, in front of the pure white Guild Master, his world felt like it hung on the edge of the map.
The only thing he hated more than watching other people die was volunteering to take their place. He wished that songs really were magic and that he could sing the man to sleep, but songs weren't magic.
A lunge from the man drove one of the dark bards back and the other took him from behind, her long dagger at his throat. Blood sprayed. Jewls thought it was over, until the man reached behind him and grabbed the bard, his hand fit around her neck like a yoke and he jerked, throwing her from the dais, off onto the ground in front of the brazier. Sparks from it flew and the man watching the branding irons, turned a handle, obviously considering using one as a weapon.
Bleeding, but not enough to put him down quickly, the man turned, jumped from the dais into the group of waiting would be bards. They scattered, but Yaria ran right behind Jewls, who froze. He couldn't move and leave her exposed and in the two seconds it took for the man to notice them, he didn't have time to think up another solution.
Huge hands came towards him, fingers like claws. The man's eyes were more whites than anything. Jewls made the explosion gesture back at him, then dodged, hoping to draw his attention. Blood splattered over his precious new shirt as Jewls passed by. The man paused. Seconds became minutes and for a blink the man debated going after the girl or the red head bard. Time counted in fluttering, panted breaths. Jewls rushed back at him, shoving him towards the encircling bards, wishing maybe they'd do something, but at least it would keep him from the girl.
Hands against the man's shoulder, shoving, he had no defense and the man got his hands around Jewl's upper arms, hands going all the way around. He lifted the red head off the ground, shaking. "I am a bard! I am!" The man screamed, his voice gargling sounding with the damage to this throat.
Jewls kicked at his face, thin leather soles slipping in blood and last song. "Put me down!"
And that was what he got! The man threw him, then was on him, a fist like a sledge hammer descending against his face. "Fancy man! You think I'm not good enough! I'll show you!"
Blocking only got his arms bruised, but better than his face. He had to sing to get his bard mark, no singing, no mark of any kind. And so that's what he did, high pitched, perfect harmony, the song of angels. It was the last song for most people, a parting song, sung to ease the passing of a soul into the Summerland beyond.
The man snarled, hands around Jewls throat. "Stop! Stop! I'm not dying," the man cried. The hands weren't tight enough to completely strangle, and Jewls kept humming the song, like it might carry some magic to ease the pain in the man strangling him. "I don't want to die!"
A flash of white caught Jewls eyes and he looked back, rolling his eyes. A flash of silver arched over him, and he knew, put the parts together. The Guild Master had left the Dais, sword in hand. Not on top of me, Jewls prayed, don't let him die on top of me!
"Then don't!" he hissed, voice thinned by the hands around his throat. "Then don't! Stop fighting!"
Fingers loosened. Jewls lifted his head. The man, tears on his face nodded.
"Close your eyes, Bard-ling," the Guild Master said, voice gentle, smooth as milk and honey, deep as the ocean.
Jewls did. The Guild Master was as close as Jewls had ever imagined being to a god of any kind. Heat sprayed over him and he felt fingers slender and strong grab hold of his shirt, jerking him to his feet, and around to face the sword wielding god of bards. "Sing," the guildmaster commanded.
Jewls blinked, blood on his face, clinging to his eyelashes. Throat sore, he squawked the first time he opened his mouth. After wiping his face with his already ruined shirt, cleaning away his mouth, he sang, "There is life in the sky, freedom in the field, tell the sparrow they'll never have to die, for love is our shield, tell the sparrow they'll never cry, tell the sparrow they're free to fly, tell the sparrow they're free to fly, for love is the only shield, the only need…" It was a love song, about peasants and about the love of the road, about living forever, and about the beauty of the sky.
His knees felt weak when he finished. The Guild Master's eyes were blue, so light blue they could have been silver almost, like the spring sky near the horizon, pale and cold, and so beautiful. Diamond eyes.
Jewls wanted to cry. He'd traveled stubbornly under his own guidance from the day his Master had died until this moment. Two other Bard Masters had rejected him, and this was the end of his walk. This beautiful creature, tall and pale, blond curls laying around a long elegant face, undisturbed by the blood flecks on his face, this great creature would save or damn him, and he'd sung his song for him. Bard, songbird, or corpse, no more waiting wanderer no matter which way.
"Who was your Master, Bard-ling," the demigod in white asked.
"Craylish the Melodic, Guild Master," Jewls said, mouth made of ice, stomach on fire. "He wrote me a letter of introduction to the Master Bard of Earth, who had been his Master."
"Is that so," Erin said softly, fingers reaching out to brush escaped strands of long red hair from Jewls' face. "Do you know Johara? You remind me of him."
Jewls shook his head. "No, Guild Master, I don't know him."
"Give me your letter from Craylish, Bard-ling," he said, holding out his hand.
That was the last hard part. "I haven't got it anymore."
Those blue eyes closed slowly, held there, opened. "Without it, you understand the best I can do for you is a Songbird brand. The world is not covered by will alone, but by law. "
"I had it. I had one from him. He wrote it while he was dying," Jewls stuttered, chewing his lip. "I swear. You can truth tell me. I had one."
"Had is not the same as have. Did any other Bards see your letter?"
Jewls winced. "The Master Bard of Earth burned it."
"Is that so," Erin said softly. "And did that not tell you that you should seek another path in life, Bard-ling?"
"I am a bard," he said, feeling like a ghost already. "I am bard."
"Yes, you are," Erin said sadly, "Without that letter, I can not bard mark you. I will allow you to chose, songbird brand or I will take your head painlessly."
Jewls looked down, eyes following the length of the bloody sword, taking in the already ruined new shirt, the betrayal of his shaking knees.  He could not out run the Guild Master. He blinked and warm started down his face, twin lines of defiance. "I am a bard. There is no other path for me."
"Remember the little bird," Yaria said, taking hold of his hand, tugging. "He'll be a songbird, wouldn't you, Jewls?"
"No."  Jewls squeezed her hand softly, then looked back to the beautiful and deadly Guild Master. "No. I am not a songbird. Give me until the next audience. I will bring you a letter from a bard master."
Laughter came from the Guild Master. Jewls had expected the sound of tinkling crystal, but the sound was human, warm, amused. "Do you think I can create a new caste just for you, Bard-ling? I know what blood flows in your veins. Take the songbird brand and you will be my songbird, live in the Guild House of Arille with me. Stay here. There is no dishonor in what I offer you, Jewls."
Comfort, wealth, music, Jewls swallowed. To be the Guild Master's songbird. His fingers picked at the patch hiding his silver swans. "Give me only a month, I'll get you a letter in a month."
"Your master is dead, Bard-ling," the Guild Master said softly, his hand shifting it's grip over the sword, preparing it, "You can not sing him back from the beyond to re-write you a letter. No master bard will write one for you. Take my offer. You will teach my apprentices. You will be safe and some time I may be able to see that you are introduced to Johara."
"But I could no longer travel and I would never be a bard," Jewls said, aware that the tip of the sword had lifted from the ground. "If the Master Bard of Earth would write me a letter, if she would recant?"
Sword up, used as a pointer, the Guild Master turned to the bards encircling the group. "Was anyone there? Did anyone see the letter this man speaks of? Will anyone speak for him and the circumstances of his letter?"
Silence followed. The Bard of Earth was the oldest bard, almost as powerful as the Guild Master and of royal blood, from more than one Kingdom. Jewls thought she was an old selfish hag, but he was pretty sure no one would accept his opinion on that just then.
"Kneel for me Bard-ling, close your eyes, and you will cross to the land of Bards. There I can grant you access. There you will be beyond the laws and foolishness of mortals."
"No," Jewls said, voice trembling. He had things to do. He had places he hadn't seen yet. He hadn't fallen in love yet. He hadn't made love yet. He'd been saving that, guarding that like proof he'd really be able to show the world who he was first. His fingers pulled at the patch over one of his swans, tugging at it until it unraveled, coming free, revealing the herald of a Bard House that he had no rights at, that he broke the law just to wear.  "Bards don't kneel when they die."
"Very well," Erin said, face grim. "At least turn, for I know your face and it is a face I would rather leave the world than strike. Do me the kindness of turning your back to me."
"Please," Jewls said, "Please, just give me a day more. Someone will speak for me."
Slowly, he turned, clenching the ruined patch in his hands.
"When I see Johara next, I will tell him of you," Erin said, "Or perhaps he will be waiting for you when you open your eyes on the other side."
"I wouldn't go. I'll haunt you."
There was that laughter again. "Go in peace, Jewls."
"No! Wait," a voice yelled.
Jewls ducked, rolling forward into a crouch, ready to run towards the circle of bards if the Guild Master so much as blinked.
The sword had swung through where Jewls' neck had been. Determination settled in Jewls right then, that never again, never again would he give his neck to anyone. He didn't care how beautiful or powerful the person was. He'd been spared and he was staying that way!
The older woman who had been in the hopefuls climbed back up on the dais. "I am Anice. And I came from the Master Bard of Earth. I was there."
Erin turned to her, pointing the sword at her. "You are as much bard as any other bard here. Speak. Did you see this bard-ling's letter?"
"I did," she said, shaking, hands clenched in fists at her sides. "I saw it."
"Did you read it?"
"Did the Master Bard of Earth burn it?"
"Because Jewls refused to tell her where her granddaughter had gone. Her granddaughter is the Princess Ionwe, who was abducted four winters ago. Ionwe had chosen to return to her kingdom against her grandmother's wishes."
Ionwe was ruling her father's kingdom as regent now.
"Why did the Master Bard of Earth oppose this?"
The woman looked down, paused, then looked back up, "Because she has grown closer to passing over and she longed for her granddaughter's company."
"I see. Will you swear with your life to what you have said and write the story into the Guild History?"
To do so was to cross the Master Bard of Earth forever, to have an enemy that could bring down kingdoms. "I will."
Erin turned back towards Jewls. There was a missing bard as well as a missing red headed bard hopeful. The circle broken, Erin pressed the side of his hand to his head. "Get him back here!"
Both the dark bards were up and mounted now. It took them longer than Erin would have thought to bring back one kicking, struggling, nearly grown bard.  He came back, wrists bound behind his neck, riding on a black horse with one of the dark bards riding behind him, her hand holding his belt firmly. He'd stopped trying to incite the horse to bolt when the woman holding him had cuffed him really hard with a hardened leather gauntlet to the back of the neck.
The dark bard poured him from her saddle into the arms of the Guild Master. "Was he injured?"
"Not half enough," the dark bard said, her lips swelling. She and her twin had been personal guards and enforcers for the Guild Master for nearly ten years. Catching Jewls had made them work. "I'm sure he's a thief."
Jewls moaned softly, body boneless in the Guild Master's arms. "Probably," he pronounced, "But he is also a Bard."
"Bard?" Jewls groaned. "Am a bard."
"Yes, yes," Erin said, carrying Jewls up onto the dais. "You are. Barding and luck seem to run in your family."
Jewls left the circle of those still waiting, too out of it to stand, but he was a bard.  "Let me down."
"Um. You think so?" Erin put him on his feet, holding with one hand and unbound his wrists with the other. "I wonder who your mother was."
"Barrie," he said swaying, trying to get his balance from the spinning world. "Goddess of luck."
"That I can believe. Kneel."
"No," Jewls said, defiantly. "You can't have my head!"
"I don't want your head, you mouthy sparrow. I want to give you your barding name."
"My barding name," Jewls asked, dizzy, confused. "You're not going to, to behead me?"
"No, you were spoken for. Kneel."
The woman who'd spoken for Jewls moved to his side and held his arm, pressing on his shoulder. He dropped to both knees, looking up at the most beautiful man in the world, a man sculpted of ice and diamonds and song embodied.
In a booming voice, echoing in the clearing, harmonizing with the slight breeze that picked up as he spoke, "You are Jewls, Jewls the Lucky."
Still seeing double, he pointed to Yaria. "Can I take her as my apprentice?
"No. You have to wear the bard mark for ten winters before you can take an apprentice," Erin leaned forward, caught hold of Jewls chin, looked into his eyes. "Don't worry about her. She will be fine. You look so like him. Don't ever do anything to make me lift a sword against you, Jewls the Lucky. A Guild Master's heart can break as well as any mortal's."
When Erin released him, Jewls would have fallen over if the woman had not held him up. "Get him into some clean clothes, keep him awake. And who's next," he asked.
Bard Mark
By Nix Winter
Shared world with Niejuno
Chapter One
"Tayris," a female voice said, voice resonate, breath warm against his ear.
Jewls spun, the ground smooth, hard packed giving no traction to his soft soled boots. Hands, strong and sure of themselves spun him round, holding his shoulders, brushing his hands as he reached to catch hold of anything solid.
"Eliaris," a man sang, taking Jewls' face with both hands, trying to lock eyes with him, but Jewls still felt like the world spun. The bard smiled comfortingly at him, and suddenly Jewls knew he was in another part of the ritual.
Bravado sank as he realized there were uncounted things Craylish had not told him. He did not know these words. He wanted to scream for his master, though his master had been dead for years. Panic quickly followed. He'd walked from the dark forest to Bard Song and it had taken him nearly four and a half years to do it.
Incense floated by his face, sweet and exotic, frighteningly different from anything he'd ever smelled. Deep in his heart, he'd been drowning since the ship went down by Drake's Cliff, since he'd nearly drown there. In his mind, overwhelmed by the audition, seeing a man beheaded above him, by having the Guild Master threaten to take his head, the run from the guards, and now, for the first time in since the ship went down, he wasn't drowning. He just didn't remember how to breath. He gasped, drawing in a great deal of the sweet incense. "I want to be Jewls the Wicked Smile!"
The ship came back to him, rolling, flying in the storm, his master's smile. And then he was running up the stairs of the light house, blood in the air, Sarah's screams bleeding into the storm. Strong hands caught his arms, holding him up, and he remembered. He was a man now, not a boy. He was a bard, just as he'd insisted, he was a bard. "I'm a bard," he wheezed, feeling his knees buckle under him, those arms hold him up.  
"Friaris," another voice sang to him, and he could have sworn it was Craylish's voice, the voice of his master.
Thin and hard, the blade slid across his arm, across flesh still tense with the need to flee. He jerked and hands held him. The man in front of him held his wrists and the woman to his to his right cut away his sleeve. "Hold, Bard," the man soothed. "You must have the bard mark. The incense is affecting you. Let it relax you."
"Incense?" Jewls asked, voice slurring. That his voice slurred irritated him. He needed his voice. "I'm going to get a bard mark."
Someone laughed, "Yes, little sparrow, you're going to get a bardmark. Surprised you're still breathing?"
There it was. That was it. "Yes," he squeaked, feeling very small. The drone of singing echoed to his right as the Guild Master listened to the next audition. As he struggled to turn to see the dais, the larger of the male bards blocked his vision. "I want to see," he protested.
"That's not your place, Jewls," the man said, warm hand taking hold of his, thumb massaging his palm. "Do you know what the mark means?"
"Means I can go where I want," Jewls said, immediately regretting those words as they sounded selfish, ignorant. "Means I can compete in the tournaments."
"Yes," the man said. The gentle smile, dark eyes, somehow even the scar on his forehead made him seem trustworthy, well intended. "A bard mark means those things. It also means you will die if you lie, steal, cause harm, or take sides in a political fight. Did your Master teach you bard law?"
The other two bards hemmed him in from behind, firm bodies, gentle hands that held him, though he felt the hand on his wrist and knew from the way the fingers circled it that if his struggles set the man off, he'd have his arm twisted up behind his back in a heart beat.  So he focused on answering the dark haired man's question. Barrie, he prayed, wishing for luck. How he'd thought all the answers through before this, up to this point. He knew everything, but now, on this side of the dais, he felt as if he knew nothing. In his mind he heard Craylish smirk, that light display of disinterest that meant his master was done with a topic. "I don't know," he answered, honestly, if not with impressive grace.
"It will be alright," the man assured him. "Bards who emerge from the audition are not chosen for their merits.  You have a beautiful voice, Jewls, and fast wits. You're brave and you're beautiful. You are going to be a powerful bard. You will never have to cut your hair."
Jewls took a slow deep breath. His voice hadn't cracked in a year, but it cracked now, making him sound and feel like a boy, "You're really not going to kill me?"
"No," the man said patiently, as the woman started to rub his shoulders, "You are the first bard to emerge from the audition without an apprentice letter in two hundred years. And I think the Guild Master likes you. He'd probably have the head of anyone who harmed you. Do you know what we're going to do now?"
"You're going to mark my skin with ink that will not come off. With needles."  He could remember Craylish's bard mark, remember it feeling so large under his fingers, the raised scar tissue in the center. He'd been still being carried on Craylish's back some of the day then and he'd believed in dragons and maidens who turned into swans in the moonlight, so when Craylish promised him that the word of the Guild Master, or the Master of the House of Earth would bring the Bark Mark forth on his skin, he had believed. He'd been thirteen when his master died and while he had begun to leave behind the magics of childhood, some things had remained mystical and sacred. When he'd faked the bard mark, he'd done it with ground herbs for the part that had been raised on Craylish and a paste of  charcoal and effei pulp.
Since the destruction of his apprentice letter by the Master of Earth, he'd been an untouchable, traveling with gypsies and wandering the roads far from where bards might be.  The brazier drew his attention, vivid red coals, several metal rods rose up from the coals. Songbirds were branded. He knew that. "I don't want to be a songbird!"
Struggles, heels digging into the ground, got an arm twisted up behind his back and the woman spoke, "Be still. You are a bard. Bards do not lie. Do not say things which imply that we do. You are to receive the bard brand, not the songbird. When that is healed, then you will receive the tattoo around it. Trust us, little sparrow, if not for your sake, for the Guild Master's. It will hurt, but you have survived worse, I'm sure."
Jewls made a face, nose wrinkling. Anger rose up and squashed some of the panic. "What would you know?"
Her smile took him by surprise. "There. If you panic, it will only make it worse."
The man right behind him loosened his hold on his arm. "Take a deep breath, Jewls the Lucky and tell me how you feel."
They were all taller than he was, which wasn't all that unusual, but he focused in on that, on how small he felt, on the blood ruining his shirt. He missed Craylish, craved the warm laughter of his master, his parent, and the loss washed blood from his face. He wished Sarah were here, here to see he'd won, that he'd be able to help her now! "I'm dizzy and my stomach is all knotted. I'm afraid. I don't want blood on me when I get my bard mark."
He felt himself be drawn down into a chair, his shirt pulled over his head.  The dark haired man knelt before him, holding both hands, though Jewls didn't think he had much chance of running now, even if he wanted to. The chair was high on both sides, almost a throne of smooth polished wood. Without his shirt, the blood clung to his skin, matted some of the fire red chest hair between firm chest muscles.
The song on the dais ended, and Jewls tucked his chin to his chest, hiding in eye contact with the man in front of him.
"There have been bards for a thousand winters, Jewls," the man said, holding Jewls' hands with one of his as he reached out for a warm wet cloth. "Here, clean your self up a little. We are older than any of the churches or kings in this world. The Guild Master Audition is among the oldest of our traditions. It is the last hope of the desperate."
"The Guild Master took his head off," Jewls said, the warm cloth melting over both hands, spreading warmth, clean, as he washed blood from his face.
"Yes, he did," the man agreed, accepting another cloth from someone to the side, as both of them ignored the sobbing coming from the dais. "The bards have freedom that even kings don't have. We come and we go as we please and we write what we wish. And to protect our freedom we are bound by laws that cannot be bent."
He washed Jewls belly, causing it to tighten, to line easily. "My name is Kevan the Dog. The three words we said to you when you came off the dais. You didn't respond. Do you know what they mean?" He held out his own right arm, the bard mark stretching from his wrist to his elbow.
Jewls dropped the cloth and reached for the offered arm, fingers tracing over the dark black lines of the mark, then into the sparse raised lines in the center.  Kevan took his hand, guided one finger over the lines at the top. "The top mark is the first three letters in Common. T. Tayris. Truth. E. Eliaris. Beauty. F. Friaris. Freedom.  Are these words new to you?"
"Yes," Jewls said, and the longing for his master suddenly tinged with anger. A perfect mimic, he repeated words that were older than the bard guild, "Tayris. Eliaris. Friaris. Truth. Beauty. Freedom."
"Very good," Kevan said, guiding Jewls' finger down to the next set of lines. "These lines are the older script. Common didn't exist when those words were born. These lines are for hands crossed because we all own truth. This part is an open eye, for true vision is needed for beauty, and these lines are open hands for the freedom each bard owns and respects. If you break Bard law your braid will be cut, a deep disgrace, your money will be fined, or your head will be removed. Your freedom will never be restricted as some of the kingdoms do. Do you understand that by taking the mark, you are bound to protect the freedom of all people and that you belong to no kingdom? Do you understand that you are pledging yourself to Truth, Beauty, and Freedom?"
Jewls understood, deep in his gut, understood like it could bind him to the trees and the ground and the sky and make him belong, understood in a way that went beyond any story Craylish had ever told him. If he'd tried to put it into words it might have come out that he felt he understood being a bard better than Kevan the Dog or the Guild Master or anyone, and it might well have been endorphins from fear and pain, but he nodded. "I understand."
"Put your arm here. Slide your fingers under the loops there," Kevan turned the chair so
Jewls now faced the man in the black leather apron, a lord of blacksmiths with bare arms, long since burned smooth. His braid was wrapped around his throat, a coil of sandy blond status. He smiled, just enough predatory to make Jewls hesitate.  The man leaned forward, a missing tooth in his grin. "I'm Torance the Strike. Do you want thick ridges or lighter? Your skin looks pretty thin. Have you been eating right?"
His first instinct was to say that he put the food in his mouth. How else was he supposed to do it? "I eat right," he said, trying to decide if he wanted thick ridges or thin. Craylish's had been thick, uneven, red when he grew angry.
Torance buckled the strap over Jewls' wrist and Jewls scooted closer, finding his fingers soundly caught by the leather ring straps. Someone scooted his chair closer, and then Kevan moved behind him, sliding an arm around Jewls' shoulders and holding his hand out for Jewls' other hand. "Relax," Kevan said, "It only takes a few minutes."
"Just like a cow is branded? I saw that once," Jewls said letting Kevan's fingers lift his chin, tilt his head back. He didn't mention that the cow had screamed piteously.
"You're not a cow," Torrance snorted. Cool wet cloth moved over Jewls' arm, smelling like that same incense, only somehow sharper. "It takes longer than a quick strike like a cow. Kevan, let him look."
When Jewls looked back, the lines were already drawn on his arm, stenciled there with red ink. For a moment he panicked again, thinking it was done already, or the red was his blood somehow.  Kevan soothed his hair though, making comforting shhh'ing sounds. "Listen to him now," Kevan said. "He's branded many bards, haven't you Torance?"
"One hundred and twenty-three," he said, now sitting down opposite Jewls' restrained arm. "When people brand cows, or sometimes try to fake the Mark, they brand with a tool that strikes the skin, burning it. Then there's swelling and scabs, and infection sometimes."
"Don't scare him, Torance," Kevan reproached. "We don’t do things that way. Marks come out clean. Torance did the mark on the Guild Master."
"Yes, I did," the smith bard said, his words grinding, resentful as if his fun had been taken away from him.
Jewls fidgeted, looked him right in the eyes and said, "I am really scared already."
"You don't need to be," Torance said, sighing. "Your mark will come out nicely. See this? This does this." He held up a wooden hand with a screw that tightened pliers type grips over one of the rods in the brazier. He then pulled it free of the red glowing coals. The end was a small ceramic wheel set in a bright silver fork. This he rolled over his own arm, next to an already swelling line. He didn't even flinch. "See? Doesn't hurt at all."
"It does hurt, look up at me, Jewls. Look into my eyes and tell me about your favorite songs."
The chair was made so the bard getting his or her mark could lean their head back. Jewls held tight to Kevan's hand and Kevan held his chin, thumb stroking his cheek. One of those burning ceramic wheels touched down on Jewls arm and he tensed, tears splashed as he clamped his eyes shut. Sharp stinging, gradual creeping burn. "Owwwww!"
Kevan's thumb moved to his lips, soothing, as the lines of the bard mark were burned into his pale skin. "What's your favorite song?"
"The cat," he stuttered, "the cattayla. The knight who searches for his love. I don't believe in love."
"The Cattayla, but you don't believe in love? My favorite song is Midnight Arrows. Have you heard it?"
"N nn no," Jewls tried to get free of Kevan's hand to see how many lines were left. Each time the wheel lifted from him, he hoped it would be the last but it came back and the skin was just as shocked by the ceramic that burned his skin away. "Did you know Craylish?"
"I knew him," Kevan said, thumb tracing around Jewls' lips. "He was always so carefree."
"This hurts," Jewls said, and in that moment, something transcended within him. "I'm a bard."
"Yes," Kevan nodded, smiling, "It's almost done. Two more lines. Tattoos fade. Other marks can be washed away, but a brand can only be cut off. Nothing, not even time can take this from you. You are a bard. You will always be a bard, no matter where you go or what you do. From this moment forward you will always be a bard."
"What house, Dog?"
"Guild Master said Fire," Kevan said, letting Jewls look up then and the last part of the mark struck his arm, smaller than a signet ring, just a small round burn above the red burned lines on his arm.  "You are Jewls the Lucky, of the House of Fire."
"Its beautiful," he said, loving the beautiful lines that meant Truth, Beauty, and Freedom, forever inscribed on his own flesh. "I think I'm going to pass out now."
"When did you eat last," Torance asked, as he cleaned the quick cooling ceramic and shoved them back into the coals.
"Don't remember," Jewls said, and it didn't really matter. He had won. He was a bard. And then he was passed out, head hanging in Kevan's hand.


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