These are excerpts from the diary carried by the Rashemi Bard.
"I am Talas Volodymir, born on Ches 3rd, 1346 D.R. near the hamlet of Urling to Fyodor and Anna Volodymir. I have never kept a real diary or journal. I have always liked writing. From copying the first musical lines in the common room of the Green Chapel Inn, to copying the lore of the Old Ways in my teenage years in the woods. I did a lot of writing then, and even more later, when it became a solace and a passion in the caves of the Running Rocks."
"The first time I remember seeing the Wychlaran up close was when I first heard the Firedawn Cycle. I say heard because at that age I could not have remembered or understood the long epic, but I do remember the gathering. I was 6 years old, and would live with my parents for only about 4 years more. Mother had just given me a roast potato to eat when I saw their procession coming. There was a total silence around the fires as they walked closer and closer, the wooden masks increasing their already enormous mystery and power over the Rashemi people. Without a word their oldest and wisest, the Othlors moved each to one of the fires, with 3 younger and lower ranked Witches following, the Hathrans and Ethrans, hand in hand making a circle around the masked elders as they prayed for a blessing and threw offerings into the bonfires. And then the three around each Othlor would start moving slowly, steps turning into a dance around the elder Witches, until they let go of their fellow Wychlaren's hands to dance wildly around the Othlors, who would them start chanting the Firedawn Cycle. I was as scared as I was hypnotized by the Witches. The potato fell to the snow-covered ground, and was forgotten for the whole hour it took the Witches to tell their tale of power and ruin."
"My first instrument was a frame drum. It was given to me by Bogdan, a musician (not a Bard) who played at the Green Chapel Inn, just before my 7th birthday. It was used and it was old and it was mine. He gave it to me when he realized I could keep time correctly even though I was so young, during a short stay at the Inn when my father and his fang of berserkers of the Ice Troll Lodge were stationed in the hamlet because it was summer, and so there were usually more foreign visitors hoping for an audience with the Witches. I nearly drove my parents crazy after that, as I would ask to be taken to the Inn and play with Bogdan as reward for every chore I helped with. Mother approved, being the practical woman she was, because I almost always got a coin or three as a tip, and also because Bogdan liked to show me music sheets, which he was very proud of being able to write and read. Of course it took me some more years to learn the basics but reading and writing the names of the songs helped my education. It was during one such visit that I first met Nastaschia, daughter of a warrior from my father's fang, and, some said, granddaughter to one of the Othlors. I didnt like her Then very much. Years later she would become my One True Love, and the reason why I was not given a chance to stay in Rashemen after my apprenticeship with the Wychlaran and the Vremyonni."
"Nastaschia. I looked up from my playing and she was standing near me, and if my memory serves me right she had a slight look of pity in her childish face, a little pout in her lips. She had brown eyes and dark brown and very straight hair, most of it tied in a ponytail, some of it hanging loosely around her pretty little head. When the song stopped she asked me if I was being punished and when I said I was not, that I liked playing the drum and was doing it because I wanted she called me dumb, and added that I should be very dumb indeed for preferring to play a stupid drum instead of being outside pretending to be a berserker fighting invaders and monsters like I should, and like she would be doing as soon as her father finished his business in the Inn. Of course I played pretend and wanted to be a berserker like any Rashemi child does, I just felt connected to the music. Still her words hurt me Then, and when I left the Inn I found her with a branch in her hand, a sword against imaginary dangers. I threw a ball of dirty snow at her, and she screamed and charged me, holding the branch high. I was stronger but she was faster, and we fought for some minutes in the snow, until her father and my mother intervened, barely holding back their laughter, and carried the two bruised children away. She started the next fight, and we took turns doing so for our next meetings, until we were soon fast friends, and when I was not helping my parents or playing at the Inn, I was with her. She was.../is/... my One True Love."
"There is a Rashemi saying that goes: A wolf is always a wolf. As with most sayings it is an exaggeration but it serves as an important lesson that we are taught there since very young. A spirit, a telthor, may be benevolent, but it is still a spirit. The fey in the woods may be playful and protective of the land, but they are still fey. For over 1400 years my homeland has been the target of invasions and attacks, without having ever wanted or worked towards any sort of conquest or invasion. Still other peoples came to bring death and suffering to Mother Rashemen. The Mulhorandi, the Thayans, the Tuigan. The Wychlaran and the Iron Lord were always victorious, but the Rashemi always paid dearly for their victories. My father was lucky enough to lose only a couple fingers and earn more scars in the Year of the Serpent. My cousin Katharina was not so lucky, and was among the first Hathrans to fall to the Tuigan Horde. This makes the Rashemi quick to judge, and slow to forget. I joined the celebration and screams around the burning corpse of a Thayan spy for the first time three days before my 8th birthday, spitting at the stake as I saw the adults do the same, brandishing the crooked branch that was my make believe sword also like the adults brandished their real weapons, cursing the spirit to the Nines."
"Mother said: "9 years old today. You are older. You can now go by yourself". The third day of the third month. Some of the Witches believed this to be the day where most men touched by the Three with magic were born. In my case, not only I had an uncle who was with the Vremyonni, the Old Ones, but I had also been born with uncharacteristic very light hazel eyes, almost green. Three times three equals nine. I was Then allowed to go fishing in the nearby stream by myself, and also go from the cabin we lived to Urling. It was too early to look for Bogdan in the Inn when I finished my chores so to the stream I went, fishing rod in one hand, a bucket with some food scraps for bait in the other, a thick slice of bacon in my pocket. I arrived at the fishing spot and put down my fishing stuff and touched the rock I was to sit on, eyes closed, and asked permission aloud: "Spirit of the Rock, I come in peace, to fish our dinner". I used my mother's words, as I had been instructed. I opened my eyes again, and did not pay attention to the 2 figures I saw upstream, and as I was so young and not trained yet, took them for other people fishing. They both had long flowing hair, no fishing rods, and were sitting with their feet in the freezing cold waters. I was so naive. But then my mother was experienced, and the telthors did not need to come to remind her.
I was anxious to to get started and almost forgot about the bacon, as I looked to the spot nearby, rubbing my hands to warm then, but then something in the stream looked back at me. The eyes were the first thing I saw, then the beautiful face, and the long hair moving slowly in the current. I took a step back in surprise and tripped and landed on my behind, and the Rusalka, the water spirit, brought her head then shoulders then torso out of the water, her big mouth in a scary smile, one hand caressing her own body in a language I was too young to understand, the other beckoning me, her musical laughter making me a little dizzy. I jumped into action. I suddenly, and thankfully, remembered what had been drilled into my head for months now. I brought my left hand before my mouth, spitting slightly on the tip of the thumb, index and middle finger, and snapped them three times, so that I could touch the offering of bacon respectfully. I reached for it in my pocket, and approached the water's edge, and gently placed it in the cold stream, where it floated strangely towards the Rusalka as she slowly entered the waters again, and the last I saw of her was black eyes and a fish-like mouth jutting forward to swallow it whole in a flash.
Three times three equals nine. My first offering to the Telthors."
"I had been 10 years old for a couple of months when the Witches set their camp on the edge of the Urlingwood and sent word to the hamlets and any farms or cabins nearby that any child of age and not yet tested should be brought to them. It was a fact of life for any parent in Rashemen, that their children would be taken to the Wychlaren so that their mystical rulers and protectors could check them for Magic, and if found, the children were to live with the Witches from Then on until their late teens when they would be given The Choice. The parents invariably respected the tradition, and resigned to giving away their children to be trained, and being given an orphan to raise or a cow or some sheep or pig to keep in their place. For a foreigner it would certainly be an odd sight, the pairs of either mother or father and boy or girl waiting around fires, the animal pen with cows and sheep to be traded, the group of orphans with hope in their eyes being tended to by a Hathran while one by one the children were led to a big tent, some not going out again.
My turn came, father was a berserker of the Ice Troll lodge so he just grabbed me by both shoulders, nodded once, turned me around and sent me to Destiny, cold as the snow on the outside no matter what feelings he had in his heart. As I approached the tent I could feel the goosebumps on my skin and the hairs on the small of my neck standing on end, and was soon before the Othlor and her assistants, the older Witch looking closely at me since I set foot inside, the younger ones swaying with their eyes white, in a trance. The Othlor gave me a number of objects to hold while she watched and asked how they felt in my hands. Most of them caused a tingle on my skin, until one gave me a visible shiver. it was a small bone talisman, and as soon as my young body shook with the shiver, the Othlor's practiced hands reached for a bag in her belt, taking out many phalange bones with runes, to cast them on my feet. The world started spinning and the last thing I remember hearing was: "Welcome child". I started life with my second family that day."
"As with almost everything, the beginning was the hardest part. Living without your parents, with children from other villages you had not even seen before, supervised by women with their own personal issues who knew with certainty that what they managed to teach us all here would be the difference between living or dying for us in the future, and even risking the security of the land. We were the children chosen by the Three to maintain Mother Rashemen and the Old Ways. It was clear even from that first week that there would be things we would disagree vehemently with, work would be hard and constant, any wild personalities would soon be smothered into obedience by the Witches, punishment came hard and swiftly, and children had to grow up fast or not grow up at all. Kallia, a rambunctious red-headed girl from a village not far from where I was born was our first shocking example. She did not pay attention to the signs of Urlingwood and never saw the Ssarthak approaching, the snake-like evil Telthor swallowed her whole. Our first lesson was respect."
"The lesson we learned with Kallia's death was quickly reinforced by the Witches, our condition as Mortals. Rashemen is a land with powers and beings like nowhere else in Toril, and you either take this fact very seriously or your life will be a short one. In the Urlingwood, where we lived Then, every tree, every rock, every glade and every stream had their protector spirits, and sometimes the same tree would have a Dryad AND a Telthor protecting it, just as a glade would have other Fey AND Telthors living there. The Witches made it very clear to us that Seelie or Unseelie, Fey are Fey. Benevolent or malevolent, spirits are spirits. A wolf is always a wolf. In a visit to Immil Vale, at the foot of the Moss Stone we were told the story of Hulmarra Murnyetha after she came to see the Hathrans, a ranger who was killed in battle with a Red Wizard and became a Telthor. She was married to a handsome man when she was killed, and to this day if a man resembling her long dead husband comes too close to the Moss Stone, she sometimes captures them and only lets them go after a year or two, without retaining any memories of their captivity and without having aged a single day. What she does to them, where they are kept and her reasons are unknown even to the Othlors."
After the essential learning of the Old Ways and our duties while living in the Urlingwood settles in, which in my case was when I was between 12 and 13 years of age, my mind could finally turn to more mundane matters and feelings. Since I was not showing enough progress in The Art as to make a very worthy candidate to join the Vremyonni, the Old Ones, I did a lot of manual work, and started giving my first performances. During those, I saw Love for the first time. In the figure of Nastaschia, my childhood friend who was becoming more and more as time passed, and in the furtive figures of the pairs of Witches and Guardians, the berserkers whom we saw the most in the Urlingwood. They were invariably powerful warriors who reserved a tender, loving look to the Witch they had been "assigned" to. Later I would discover more about their relation, namely that the Guardian was not only the Witch's protector, but also her lover. They exchanged their Vows in secluded places, and lived together until one or the other died. There are no wedding ceremonies for the Rashemi, but their discreet, subtle, sometimes secret love lasts a lifetime after it is sworn. It was by an old cairn that I and Nastaschia swore to belong to one another."
"I was almost 14 years old when the Wychlaran decided it was time to send me to apprenticeship with the Vremyonni, the Old Ones, the group of male Rashemi casters that lived in isolation deep in their caves around the Running Rocks. The Vremyonni left the caves on very rare occasions. To bring the spells and magical items they created for the Witches, for the most powerful rituals only, and to fight alongside them, always tied to a Witch's wrist by a silk ribbon, making them a deadly spellcasting pair. There was no small amount of competition between the Wychlaran and the Vremyonni. The females always quick to assert their dominance and divine favor, the males always quick to assert their mastery of the Art, of research and magical crafting. Sadly, for both groups, I had been born a Bard, touched in my very heart by the Song and the Weave, bereft of divine favor, and, for the Old One's standards, incompetent in the Art. I thought I had been working hard with the Wychlaran until I was sent to the Running Rocks. It was not uncommon for me to spend days locked in a room, with one hour naps and 10 minute meals, copying texts, research and formulas. I had to show excellence in some way, to justify the training I was being given. I did so by being the most dedicated assistant, the most tireless copyist, and developing the best written hand in all of The Land."
"The Othlor's eyes burned as she looked down to speak to me: "Were you a berserker like your father, I'd make you a nydeshka, a blunt sword to die in the next inevitable battle, to wash away your shame. Alas, you were gifted by the Three, and born in the Motherland, so you shall carry these, /and/ your shame in exile, Talas!". I hadn't seen Nastaschia for many years, but my love and my vow remained, silly as they are, now. The Thayans had invaded again, from the east this time, and the Wychlaren had summoned all from the Running Rocks, apprentices included, to help in the defense. The Vremyonni camp was apart from the Wychlaren, obviously, and theirs had the traditional protection of the local telthors, while the Old One's preferred to trust their magical alarms and trinkets. Not I, though. As much as I worried about the Motherland, and the impending battles, I could not take Nastaschia out of my mind. And so I did what fools in love do in the tales I liked so much. I sneaked out of my tent, then the camp, into the woods, with a stolen mask, placating the telthors with offerings and music, until I made it into the Wychlaren's camp. Obviously, I did not and could not know /where/ Nastaschia was. Or even if she was there at all. One particularly stubborn telthor solved that conundrum. He raised the alarm, and what would you know, Nastaschia was among the first to arrive, as she was sleeping with her grandmother, the Othlor and the Ethran both hurriedly putting their masks on as they came."
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