1: Of His Earliest Memory
Taru was raised on the Isle of Thursey, in the Kingdom of Braidland, in the north-western part of the land of the five lakes. His parents called him Michael; he had an older sister Linda.
His earliest memory, when he cannot have been more than a few moons old, was of his mother holding him up so he could see himself – next to her – in a convex mirror at his maternal grandparents’ place: there were no mirrors in his parents’ house. He had been held up, his face pressed close against his mother’s, while she had said Who’s that? Who’s that! In his memory it seemed a daft thing to say, for it seemed so obvious that even asking the question was an act of stupidity.
It was a sharp view, a sharp memory of him looking back at himself for the first time, washed with gleaming metals and inconsistent shadow and flickering black wings.
his image held him – points of memory in chaotic ennui
his image larger, more real, than that other one slipping away
his image firm, resolute – truth-seeker – path-finder
his image that of the soul-hunter’s dream-messenger
It still sent shivers down his spine, the remembrance of that first time of gazing into his own very pale eyes, his irises almost white, with just the faintest hint of purple, and holding the essence of starlight. He did not need his mother indicating their closeness for him to be sure that the being he saw beside her was him. He knew it was him, never a shadow of doubt, though it was a moment of revelation.
2: Of the Tale of Michael the Messenger
There is an ancient hill, volcano-core hard, much older than the accumulated Isle of Thursey spreading now around and about it, a solid place in a changing world, staid amidst the floating charm of weeds.
On that precipitous hilltop – otherwise virtually bare save for the sheep-cropped grass – stand twelve stones, in a perfect circle, equally spaced. If one stands in the centre one can see cleanly to north and south, east and west, without hindrance, far across the lake, for that height is taller than any other in Lake Almer. The stones themselves are of pinkish granite, each a perpetually pleasing rectangle, set and held absolutely upright, and were brought from far away; perhaps from as far away as the Flay Mountains or the southern slopes of the Great Divide – opinion is divided.
And it was to that ancient hilltop that his mother took him – before he had reached his teens – and made him stand, with his hands held behind his back like a penitent schoolboy, while she explained the Tale of Michael the Messenger.
“You’ve asked me where your name comes from,” she said, in the lecturing tone she was sometimes inclined to use, “and moaned that you’ve been teased by the other children because it is different: now I will tell you. And you will understand that it is a name of distinction to be proud of. For you, my foundling, are not like other children.”
Michael stood quietly and waited, as he was use to doing when his mother had things to say to him that she insisted were important.
“The name you bear is that of a great traveller, an explorer and teacher, who came from out of the vastness of the Great Sea away eastwards, even beyond Ismere; he came from out of an expanse of water infinitely bigger than this lake around us, uncounted years ago. He came alone, and told no one of the land he was born in, but he did not remain alone. For, as he wandered along the shorelands, even down to Ogea’gya and up beyond the mountains about Marive, he quickly attracted many followers; everywhere he went he talked with people – learning from some, teaching to many – yet always giving more of himself than he received. For he saw deeply and clearly. He had studied hard with a great Master before he sailed the sea, he said, and his knowledge had deepened and grown more subtle since he had landed on the fastland.
“But the rulers of the embryonic realms along the seaboard did not take kindly to his teachings, saying they undermined the stability that they and their ancestors had been wrestling from the hostility of the world for more years than he could understand. There needs to be authority, they said, and we offer that, for the good of everyone – each in their place. He could stay – or survive: As we are benevolent, we give you that choice.
“So Michael the Messenger travelled away from the coast, passing through our lands – where he gained many more followers – and down the River Bradea and then around and back through the Kingdom of Nineveh into the lands about Lake Meaux to the south. By now his teaching was reaching its full maturity and he was describing how he could transcend the material world, how he could reach up into the spiritual one to see further and clearer than most. Bright and sharp. A claim often much misunderstood by his detractors, who only took parts of his teachings, viewing them in isolation, and then twisting them to use as weapons against him, claiming they were only repeating his own words. And they accused him of blasphemy, of sorcery, with his supposed claim that he could fly.
“There was a particularly vindictive king, there in the south, whose realm has long disappeared into the waste-lands of history, who had Michael arrested. His kingdom was at that time going through a long, dry spell – probably due to the king’s misrule. Michael was tortured, with the king watching and taunting him, saying If you are so magical – prove it. Fly to the cloud-lands and plead our case. Make them allow the rain to fall in gentle measure. Michael remained silent; so the king had him thrown into his deepest and most vile dungeon: And if you’re still there at dawn, you’ll be burnt alive.
“But Michael was not there in the morning when the gaolers arrived to take him for immolation; yet many of his followers were still around, and even while they rejoiced at his flight they were rounded up and cruelly put to death in his stead, even though measured rain started to fall. A few eluded capture, however, and searched for his body. Which they found, completely preserved even after many years, on this very hilltop. They buried him and raised these stones to keep alive his memory; and they in turn travelled far and wide to pass on his teachings, which must be true as the rains had indeed come.
“Not many have heard of him or his teachings now, but I remember and I believe.
“And you, my golden-haired, pale-eyed one, who’ll soar like your namesake, uplifted in the human world, able to see more than most others; you are as essential to our hopes as Michael was all those years ago. And to that end, remember this tale always: never forget it – for it’ll inform you when most you need it.
“And isn’t it great to have a distinct name, to be different? There is too much conformity in the world. Revel in your difference.”
And Michael swore he would never forget, though he could not then obviously see what possible influence him having the same name as the Messenger could have.
3: Of the Gift of the Cithern
Michael was not a particularly hardworking or academic student, feeling he had a more instinctive understanding – especially of language and history – and that too much study would inhibit this kenning. There were three exceptions however: myths and legends, carpentry, and music.
It was not just the Myth of Michael the Messenger that he heard and retained, but many more widely known tales from the land of the five lakes, as well as the realms about, Seouleato and Pohjah, and even the ancient Kingdom of Nineveh. He seemed to have a knack for pulling out threads and themes and weaving them into something original.
But who can tell what essentials of heroic egotism a young man may take from the fables and parables told to him before he has come to manhood? His thoughts seeking to soar away from being bound by the seemingly overly-complex conventions of his elders; his music, not yet having found its true form, remaining trapped inside him. And maybe there the seeds of seeking and wanting the world to be precise first ensnared him with the offered bounty of a newly-established view that would climb and conquer as he grew. Or maybe his ego was too unfounded as-of-yet, his mores not rooted – as would hopefully come – with the worst of his adolescent arrogance perceived as just that. Yet his growing awareness of him not quite fitting in played a part.
With woodworking and carving, he did not have the skills his father had, but enjoyed those pursuits, and – with his father’s guidance – repaired an old boat for his sole use. He named her The Jenny Cascade.
But it was in music that the ioculer’s real talent lay. With flute and strings and a gorgeous voice. And he knew it. He worked hard as well, here, and learnt all he could, seeing and expressing depth therein rarely equalled, so his teachers told him. And that he loved to hear. He composed numerous pieces, even back into his pre-teen years, that showed remarkable understanding and maturity, and which formed the nucleus for most of his subsequent pieces.
Yet he felt the full flourishing of his talent was held back by the relative mediocrity of the instruments available to him, though they were in truth of high quality. Not quite a bad workman blaming his tools – which he was wont to do – but he felt he needed the best, deserved the best, to produce his best. This gnawed at him, pushing apart a fissure in his perceptions that may always have been there; yet perhaps it could have been held closed by a more sympathetic world. Or if Michael had had more empathy.
It was when he was around twelve or thirteen, and his musical talents were becoming increasingly clear, that he found he had one other friend – only the one, Everard – who also had a pretence to being artistic, though not in music; Michael would not have wanted that, fearful lest his friend was, or was becoming, better than him, yet disdainful if his ability was less.
His friend was a great drawer.
When first Michael became aware of this skill, his friend was still drawing tall towers and mighty ships and flying cities, but as they entered their teens he switched to sketching from nature, especially portraits. And he would draw Michael. And Michael hated Everard’s representation of him.
But that’s not how I look, he would complain. I seem …
Yet his friend would always insist: That’s what I see.
Even his mother did not back him up. That is definitely you, she would say, proudly and resolutely. The first time he felt she had sided with someone else.
It is what I see, his friend still maintained, before adding; You’re weird.
But Michael most definitely did not recognise the figure in the drawings. There was no point to him, no clarity; the renderings were just a bland morass.
Just before his eighteenth birthday, a friend of his father’s, Randwulf, came to see him. Michael did not know him otherwise having done little more than be polite and express sympathy when he had visited; but his father had clearly said much in Michael’s praise to Randwulf, though less to Michael himself.
Randwulf came straight to the point. “I want you to have this: it was meant for Goddard – but now he is gone I have no further use for it. It is senseless to leave it on its pegs, gathering dust. Instruments such as this need to be played to have life. Too much for me has passed away for it to find that with me.
“You are of an age with what Goddard would have been, and the best musician I’ve heard; it would be fitting for you to play it.”
And he handed the cithern over.
“I don’t know what to say,” said Michael: “Thank you of itself seems insufficient.”
He strummed the strings gently, getting a feel for the instrument. They were not quite in tune, but less out of it than Michael expected given the few years since Goddard’s death and the guessed-at length of time it had thus hung unplayed. He turned the tuning pegs a touch, no more needed, soon creating a rich tone.
“Play something for me,” said Randwulf, “and that will be more than enough thanks. Give me a lingering memory of beauty to set against all that I remember that is dark.”
Michael plucked a few chords, and then started to play a variation on an ancient air he had loved from when he had first heard it, making it more deep and complex than in the old tradition.
Randwulf listened in silence; and when it was finished he clasped Michael’s shoulder, mouthed Thank you, and walked away.
But – despite Randwulf’s words – Michael could not work out to his own satisfaction why had been given such a gift, for he did not really comprehend how his playing touched people. Touched already perhaps, his less charitable self said; just accept it, said his more prosaic self. His generous self remained silent.
Although citherns could be somewhat dismissed by those pretending sophistication, this was not a view Michael held. He loved the vibrant, steel sound it produced, and felt it and his voice complimented each other superbly, while also esteeming it as worthy of being played unaccompanied. And this one’s tone was more melodious and inspiring than any he had yet held.
In shape it was much like all other citherns he had seen, with its tear-shaped, flat body long like most others; its wood was sable with a delicately painted pattern on the sound box and under the strings depicting an intricate tracery of a slight sea–serpent more finely and comprehensively rendered than he had otherwise seen. Yet it was the head that made this cithern visually distinctive.
It was proportionally larger than was usually the case, and depicted a craning raven, deliciously carved, with a solitary white feather and eyes as stunning as fire-berries from the heart of the sun. Beautifully painted, with every feather an individual, purple-sable incandescent delight.
But it was more than just the instrument’s fine craftsmanship and the size of its head: something about it spoke to something deep inside him. Something he could not articulate, even in the music and songs he was increasingly constructing, long past being content just to improve on other’s (inferior) work.
All-in-all it was a fine gift, distinctive and melodic. Worthy of him. Now named Betlinda.
4: Of His Leaving Thursey
Then something happened. At a time when Ryth, his childhood sweetheart, returned from the mainland. What she said broke him, and he was reluctant to speak much of it afterwards. But it pertained in some way to him being a foundling, different, bloodline unknown. You’re not like us! His parents sought to reassure him, but his connection to them and the world he had known seemed severed. That world seemingly now without meaning or veracity.
This shattering of his perception of himself had vivid physical consequences: his hair darkened and his eyes shaded from pale to violet – much later than would usually be the case, such as with his father – and his demeanour changed. He became more withdrawn and aloof, haughty even, certainly not as others were, and seemed to begin to perceive himself as somehow superior to, or as knowing more than, those around him. And when trouble struck Thursey he did not stay to help, but removed himself from the island. Perhaps so he did not have to witness anything that could distress him? Perhaps to preserve himself on his increasingly important and abstract destiny-path? Perhaps because he could not understand how to care? Perhaps because it was a trouble that struck a group he felt himself increasingly separated from?
So he snuck out on a clear night, though keeping to the moon-shadows as best he could, till he came to The Jenny Cascade and set sail away from Thursey.
And he headed north, for he had found there could be too much glare off the waves, troublingly inaccurate, when he looked southwards, towards technologically higher civilisations, their glare pushing back the interior world he cherished; so – when he felt he had to leave – he listened to the undinal voice in his mind and chose to sail and tramp with the light at his back, following the path he had seen the geese fly, unknowingly heading towards the land of the midnight sun.
He found surviving in the land across the water more difficult than he had envisaged: he was after all only familiar with one small, settled island. He struggled, initially with the harsher people inhabiting the northern shore of Lake Almer, though they were all part of the Kingdom of Braidland, and then with his lack of provisions as he fled ever further northwards to try and escape their perceived hostility.
Till he was caught in an unseasonal snowstorm on the edge of the tundra where, starving and shivering and almost dead, he was taken in by the Thunderbird Clan. Perhaps seeing in him something others did not, though he had told the people of Braidland about his special skills often enough.
The Thunderbird Clan was just starting its annual trek to the far north of Pohjah and he was invited to accompany them, though his communication with them was then rudimentary.
He stayed with them throughout the summer.
5: Of His Time Among the Thunderbird Clan
It was while in the far north that the clan and, especially, its shaman tried to teach Michael their ways, in particular the manner in which they perceived the world; but it was a long and mostly futile task – Michael’s preoccupation with his own interior world having become too established for their more conceptual kenning to make much headway. But some progress was made, nevertheless: indeed more growth was perceived by the shaman than by Michael himself, for his participating in their rituals could never remain merely form – however hard his shell.
It was as the tail-end of summer was approaching that the shaman persuaded Michael to embark on his vision-quest, for he said to him:
“By long wanderings you have come from your lost and lonely island to this true, northern plain – and now you can progress to find your tutelary guide, the spirit who has always been there, travelling along besides you on the downward path you have trod while dim were your eyes and dark your mind.”
Michael did not want to offend, and part of him wanted to believe, so he agreed. Thus, on the appointed day, he entered the sweatlodge with the others, coming from the west and spiralling up-around-down to sit in the circle about the stones and within the steam. He had done it before, as part of cyclical observances, but was now steeply aware that this time was a special time, cleansing him before he embarked on his vision-quest.
It was an old rite, perhaps the oldest, that was learnt from the Trickster who, in his reflective moments, tutored his favoured people. A bit – sometimes – in a fragmented manner. With the Thunderbird Clan filling in the rest themselves.
But Michael did not know this, and he had listened when the shaman had said to him: “I see the way you’ll traverse, the spiritual road that runs entwined with the material one you tread from your last birth to your next death; but you don’t have to wander alone, a guide has always been with you, overseeing and gently advising, though you could not ken him before.”
Although from a different culture, Michael had decided to try and enter into the spirit of things there, while also expecting little of matter to happen. So he said in the sun-ruse of his head.
I sit, here, in the lodge as he suggests, more to placate him than aught else, for he and his chieftain have shown me such kindness and hospitality that I do not want to offend them; I just stumbled into their camp, after all, in that storm of snow late blowing down from the icecap in the short, fragile spring of the north.
The temperature is rising; I’ll just drift along the way the shaman has shown me, along astral star-ways of luminous sparkles, the glorious spittle of the Great Spirit strewn across the sable heavens, leading me into realms I had not yet presumed to guess existed; maybe I will truly see the hidden subtleties of the world stunningly unclear to those lesser ones who have not visited these realms that exist just an air-slice away from the ungulates of daily slime.
Yet, even as Michael sloughed down the sign-posted path, he was clear in his own mind that he was also journeying of his own accord, able to perceive that it was the correct way through his own understanding. And that he could change the route, could stop, whenever he chose to. Yet, when the others poured out of the sweatlodge to dance in search of the spirit, he automatically tumbled forth as well and danced to the drums for too long to mark the passing of time. Into a realm difficult to relate in words rooted in ordinary senses and elements.
reigns of caustic demise – masses held at bay
by stains of castoff ribbons – chariots drawn by-and-by
on sun-cast startled flares – sun-worshippers as calamites
in castles in the clouds – floaters in the high airs
framed by cyclones of ghosts – I glimpse fragrant fragments
too fragile to risk touching – far beyond my fingertips spin
crystalline magnification decleaned – blossoms form as flames
of truth and long-drawn thought – dry-light seen and understood
in the harshest season of reason – only aeons before they brought
just confusion and distress – now here is the sight
of crystal clarity – reflecting back as all-knowing
the sharp and unadorned – heralding a new way to
a hanging castle of metal tubes – showing the path that allows me
to choose to soar for a moment – star-fixed eyes of crystal merging
with the dragon from the beyond – before I bury myself in rock
Then came a longed-for moment – a soft sigh of movement – and Michael saw through a dark that was not night to where the world of matter was replaced by a realm of holy white radiance. There glowed a white arc, stretching from one horizon to the other, into the earth and water and sky, all a searing white fire.
Now I see duality and disorder, Michael’s thoughts seemed to run, an underlying reality, perceiving past and beyond the togetherness of swamped and scrapped dust-motes. This is great.
And I see them flying from the sun, those who travel as Thought and Memory from the realm of the messengers in the daystar, with the third whom I take as my own (almost completely black), the solar raven as my guide – solitary, introspective, as I am inclined to be. And he sings to me: “I’ve been with you always,” though I confess I was unaware, having struggled to see beyond the matter of the fast waters and the tall lands that were all I could comprehend while still in the chaotic cradle of a life not yet moral-framed.
Then the raven said: “I am your guardian and your guide along the spiritual road that runs entwined with the material one you’re aware you’ve trodden. For you’ve not had to wander alone; a guide has always been with you, though you could not see me before.
”Now I will guide you on the corporeal roads also.” And the raven spoke of travel to the south, and to the east, and spinning back again.
And so Michael started to perceive himself as lifting himself onto a higher spiritual way.
I am most favoured to be shown thus the worlds above and beyond, thought Michael. I swear to use my insight wisely.
And he took to adding the name ‘Raven’ to his given ‘Michael’.
When Michael stumbled back into the Thunderbird Clan’s camp it was seven days since he had entered the sweatlodge. All unawares, he had moved across to the sacred mound, where his endurance was greater than any in living memory.
He was tended for a further three days, barely conscious, but quickly able to regain his strength, for he was young. And on the evening of the fourth day the shaman came to him and said:
“You have experienced and seen things that we do not readily share with outsiders. But from first seeing you as you struggled up from the south I could see there was a special touch laid on you. Reinforced by the carving on your cithern. The raven is, after all, the totem animal of the Trickster, our most revered deity. Who caused the world to be reborn after the great flood.”
“I remember you told me of him.”
“He and his twin are our clan’s main hero and antihero: Narban of the Red Eyes – the Trickster, and Narvan of the Black Eyes – the Coveter.”
“Is it not strange to choose a Trickster as your hero?”
“When set against the Coveter?”
“Perhaps, but how did Narban become your hero, and Narvan fall to become the bad chap?”
“For that we need to return to our flood story wherein, you will remember, the Trickster saved us from that chaos. As for Narvan the Coveter, he was ever jealous of his brother, being the first to be on the receiving end of his tricks, seeing in them an intent not there: they were mischievous acts, not evil ones.
“This wormed away within him, made him suspicious of everyone, for no one took his hurt seriously. And when his twin was hailed as a hero, it was too much for him: to see his brother standing wearing his stupid grin. How could anyone trust him?
“Yet still no one would listen, and this increased his hatred and he retreated from everyone till he only lingered on the outer fringes.
“But to return to your totem animal – as a herald he saw your birth, and as a speck he can be seen flying in the heart of the sun; and he has guided you ever since, using dreams to show you the way, your conscious mind being closed. As an emissary of the Goddess of the Lake Waters, Valemo, and of the Goddess of Healing, Suvetai, setting your feet on the spiral road that’ll lead you, at the right time, to the Place of Rebirth.
“But for now, you still need rest before you continue on your journey. Knowing – I guess – the road you now need to take.”
So Michael rested further that night, but found himself almost completely healed on the following morning. He rose and wandered about the camp, and saw respect in the eyes of the clan he had not noticed before.
But he was also now ready to be gone. He had no wish to remain in the cold north with winter approaching, and was less bothered in his mind about the penetrating glare of the sun now he had gained a solar guide. So he went to the chieftain to request his aid. And it was given willingly – food and drink and packs and much more beside.
For as a gift of greatest worth they gave to him a white mare, steadfast and swift, a reflection of the esteem through which they now perceived him. A great horse, the prize of their herd; it would be too ungracious to refuse.
He bowed and offered his profound thanks, many times, before unsteadily mounting for the first time. And he said to his horse: “You are mighty – I am rightly pleased – a horse fit for a warrior of heaven. I shall call you Uffatun.”
He asked the Thunderbird Clan their advice on many things before he left, feeling he was asking from a position of strength now: about such things as how to care for his horse as befitted her great value, and the dangers to be encountered on the northern plain. And, though he was that not-uncommon artistic mix of climbing ego and plunging self-doubt, he was not so stupid as to neglect what they said to him; he had, after all, almost died before the Thunderbird Clan had taken him in. So he took heed of the shaman and his chieftain and what they told him to be wary of as he rode away southwards, the half-spirit creatures under the rule of Ahava – and they taught him the chants that would keep them from his camp and head. But in Taru’s mind, to his mind, deeming himself a better wordsmith than the shaman, and wishing to have the incantations in his own language, he recast them to his own devising.
Yet by doing so the incantations lost some of its potency.
And they told Taru to beware of the places that seemed too green; and what were the signs of the territories of the other clans, which were friendly and which were not, and how to pass through unmolested. Yet beyond Pohjah their knowledge failed. They could and did give him good luck charms, but once he left their lands they could not help him otherwise.
But he reasoned that his raven guide would be with him.