It has been seven years since I entered the Bardic College, seven long years during which I learned how to read and write and tell stories with the songs I sing. My teachers say I have much to learn before they will bestow upon me the first stave of my journeyman bard rank and let me leave the protective walls of the college. Yet my longing to see my mother and sister leave me crying at night. Even worse, I am not supposed to tell anyone about my sister so she will be protected and not taken away from our mother as I was. But I have to tell someone. The pain of keeping this secret is too intense to bear alone. You, my friend, are sworn to secrecy and must not betray my trust.
I still remember the day I was taken as if it happened yesterday, though it took place almost nine years ago.
“Mama! Mama! Megan got sick again,” I yelled, running towards our house. My mother stepped outside. I could see she wasn’t pleased.
“Simona, not everyone needs to know your sister isn’t feeling well,” she scolded me. I felt my cheeks burn and looked down at the ground.
“I am sorry Mama, I forgot.”
“Where is Megan?” she asked me, her voice soft and full of concern for my sister.
“She’s sitting under the apple tree. She said she needed to rest.” I took my mother’s hand and rushed with her to Megan’s side.
Even though Megan and I are twins, we do not look alike. Megan looks a lot like our mother with her red hair, green eyes, and fair skin. I, on the other hand, have black hair, blue eyes, and a complexion that is a bit darker than my twin’s. Mother says I look a lot like my father. Megan and I never met our father; he died in a hunting accident the day we were born. My grandfather told me it was because of a curse that had been put on our family many generations before. But I will get to that later. I knew nothing of a family curse that day, and neither did Megan.
Megan looked very sick and mother didn’t waste a moment. She picked her up and carried her back to the house.
“Simona,” my mother called me after she’d put Megan to bed. “Please go to Rebecca’s house and ask her for more herbs for your sister.”
I did as I was told. It was a beautiful summer day. I took the route through the fields to Rebecca’s house, which was at the other end of our village. My tiny feet flew over lush grass, jumped over stones and other obstacles, and waded through the cold water of a small creek. Out of breath, I arrived at my destination, my eyes searching for Rebecca. I located her in her herb garden and approached her. Rebecca knew more about herbs than anyone else and whenever anyone got sick, she was sent for.
We got to know Rebecca well, because Megan was sick quite often. Politely, I asked her for herbs for my sister. She invited me to follow her inside. It always smelled like a big garden inside her house. Every wall had plants and flowers stuck to it for drying. Curious, I watched as Rebecca mixed the herbs for my sister and put them in a pouch. I could not identify the plants she picked, but they smelled good. I had learned from past experiences not to interrupt Rebecca when she mixed herbs. The last time I had dared to bother her, she’d grabbed me by the arm, yelled at me for interrupting, dragged me outside, and made me wait in the rain. I’d been quite cold by the time I’d gotten home. That day though, I sat patiently on a footstool and waited. Finally, Rebecca handed me a pouch, patted my head, and sent me on my way with get-well wishes for my sister.
On my way home I noticed a caravan approaching our village and got excited. An arriving caravan meant we’d be trading again. Mother made beautiful baskets and had several ready for selling and bartering. Returning with the herbs for my sister, I couldn’t contain my excitement as I told mother about the merchants.
“Mama, can I go and see the peddlers?” I could barely stand still.
“Did you water the garden?”
“I did that before you sent me to Rebecca, and I fed the rabbits, because Megan wasn’t feeling well.”
“Then you may go.” Mother smiled at me and pulled two Bits out of her purse. “See if you can get a handful of eggs for supper.”
Mother’s request made me feel proud. It didn’t happen very often that she would trust me with money. Carefully, I placed it in my little pouch and secured it to my belt. I took my basket, made sure I had some soft cloth in there to cushion the eggs, and went merrily on my way. Skipping part of the way and running the other, I quickly reached the place where the peddlers had set up their wares. Already, most of the women were present, checking out the merchandise.
I took my time looking at the variety of items displayed. I had little use for kettles, cloth, and other household items. One of the peddlers, however, had something on his cart that drew my attention. It looked liked a doll, but instead of cloth, it was made of wood. It had strings attached to its hands, feet, and head. I stood and stared for some time before the peddler noticed me. He took the doll on strings off its hook and made it walk on the ground. Next the doll started dancing to music no one could hear. Fascinated, I watched. What a tale I would have to tell Megan when I got home. He made the doll bow and I clapped my hands.
“Make it dance some more, please,” I begged him, hopping from one foot to the other. With a smile on his face he made the doll do another dance and then parade in front of me.
“What kind of doll is it?” I asked the peddler, curious to find out how he made it work.
“It is a puppet. See the strings, they pull on the hands and feet and make it move.” He demonstrated again how it worked. I reached out to touch the puppet, but the peddler moved it out of my reach.
“Sorry, you may only look at it.” Disappointed, I pulled my hand back.
“How much for the puppet?” A voice asked from behind. I recognized Jerel’s voice and turned around. In my fascination, I hadn’t noticed that more people had been watching the peddler’s demonstration.
“Four Rounds, sir,” the merchant answered and my heart sank. I would not be able to ask my mother and I knew Jerel could not spend that much money for a toy. Jerel and his wife Zarit were not relatives, but might as well have been. When my mother was a small child her mother died. A friend of Jerel’s traveled with mother to the village and left her in Zarit’s care because she was sick. After Jerel’s friend died, mother stayed with him and Zarit. They raised her as if she’d been their own child.
Jerel shook his head and the peddler put the puppet back on its hook. I just stood there and watched.
“Let’s go home, Simona,” Jerel said and took my hand in his. Turning my head back to get one last look at the puppet, I followed his lead.
“What is the basket for?” he asked me as I walked silently beside him. His simple question reminded me of my mother’s request.
“Mother asked me to buy eggs. Megan is sick again.” Jerel guided me to a woman who sold eggs and watched as I carefully placed the eggs in my basket and paid. We left the market area and walked to the crossroads together. Jerel’s place was to the left; I had to continue on towards the forest to reach my home.
“Tell Megan I wish her well, and let your mother know I will come by tomorrow.” Jerel said as he bid me farewell. I hugged him and walked home, thinking about the puppet and how wonderful it would be to play with it.
“You are just in time for supper, little one.” Mother greeted me with a smile as I handed her the basket with eggs. “Thank you for getting the eggs.”
“Mona!” Megan called weakly from her bed. I rushed to her side. She looked pale, but seemed to feel better. “Tell me about the peddlers.” I cuddled beside her and told her what I had seen. When I told her about the puppet, I took our rag doll and demonstrated the dance. Megan giggled at my attempts to make it move like a puppet.
“Simona, time to eat,” Mother called and I came. She put a bowl of soup in front of me and went to feed Megan. I ate hungrily and then joined my sister in our room. When father built the house we lived in, he had created a room that could only be reached when walking through the room mother slept in. I don’t know why he did that, but Megan and I loved that room. We could hide in it and no one but mother would know we were there.
“Mona, tell me again about the puppet,” Megan asked after she had eaten.
“Simona has chores to do, then she can tell you,” mother said and sent me on my way. I knew what I had to do. I went outside to feed the quail and made sure the goats were all in the fenced area. We had two new kids so milking our goats was not possible for a few more sennights. I had taken quite some time to tend to the animals. When I entered our house I was surprised to see the peddler from this morning talking to mother.
“… that did not seem of much concern to you before.” I heard mother say. She sounded bitter. I walked over and stood next to her.
“Simona, this is your Uncle Ezra. He is your father’s brother. He was just about to leave.”
“Hello,” I greeted him.
“Hello Simona,” he replied and looked at my mother again. “We already met. She was very interested in my puppets earlier.”
I could see mother was not pleased to hear that. For a moment there was an awkward silence. Uncle Ezra patted me on the head, then bid us farewell and left. I felt mother relax the moment the door closed behind him and she was able to lock it. Turning to me, she had a serious expression on her face, which I had only seen once before. She pulled me close, hugged me briefly, and then looked into my face.
“Simona, I need you to pay close attention now,” she began, sounding serious. I swallowed hard and nodded.
“Your Uncle Ezra came to take me back to your father’s family. I told him I was not going to leave here. We had a big argument just before you came in. He knew I had a child, but he does not know that I had twins. He knows about you, but not Megan. I do not want him to find out that there are two of you. He will be leaving with the caravan again in a few days. Until then, promise me to stay away from him and do not speak of Megan.”
“I promise, mother.”
“That’s my girl!” She hugged me again and whispered, “I love you,” in my ear.
“Why does Uncle Ezra want you to leave here?” I asked, curious about a family I had not heard much of before.
“Before you and Megan were born, your father and I went to see your father’s family. Your Uncle Ezra is your father’s brother. We had a big argument with your grandfather and left shortly after that. Your grandfather said he didn’t want to see me ever again, and if I would return, he would hurt me. When your father died, his family blamed me. Your uncle said that his father, your grandfather, had forgiven me, and wanted to see my child and me. But do not worry, we will not be leaving here.”
“And I will not tell him about Megan.”
“Straight, Simona. Do not tell him you have a sister.”
“Can I sleep with you in your bed tonight?” I asked feeling the need to be close to my mother.
“Yes, you can,” she answered and stroked my cheek. Together we looked in on Megan. She was already asleep. I tiptoed in, kissed her on the forehead just like mother did every night, and whispered good night. That night was the last time I saw Megan and my mother.
The next morning I got up early and went to the outhouse to relieve myself. I was about to go back when I felt a hand clamp down on my mouth and I was picked up and carried away. I struggled with all my might, kicked as hard as I could, but to no avail. Before I could do much more, I found myself bound inside a wooden box, with a piece of cloth in my mouth. I was scared and unable to move. I do not know how much time I spent inside the box. At some point I heard voices calling my name. I wanted to scream, “Here I am,” but the cloth prevented me from doing that. I must have fallen asleep inside my prison. The box, which had been rocking for a long time, suddenly lay still and then someone opened it. I was surprised to see my Uncle Ezra. For a moment I thought he would take me home to mother, but I was wrong.
The sun had already set when my uncle opened the box. I had soiled myself and reeked of urine. Before he removed the cloth from my mouth, he told me to be quiet or I would not get anything to eat or drink. Afraid of what else might happen to me, I nodded. Yet the moment he took the cloth out of my mouth, I screamed. My uncle’s hand hit me hard in the face; I fell backwards and banged my head. I screamed even louder and my uncle shoved the cloth back in my mouth.
“I told you to be quiet!” he growled at me. “If you don’t listen, and keep quiet, I’ll leave you tied in the forest for the catwyrm to find and eat you!” Of course I had heard the story of the catwyrm, and was terrified. The catwyrm is a giant cat that tricks people into thinking a child is crying. When a person follows the cry and gets close, the catwyrm catches and eats him.
“You will keep quiet if I take this cloth out and untie you, straight?” Teary-eyed, I nodded.
He took the cloth out and I could breathe better. Quickly, he untied my hands and feet. I rubbed my sore wrists and climbed out of the box. Stripping me of my soiled garments and getting me cleaned up was next. Soon I started to feel better. My uncle handed me clean clothing. To my surprise they were boy’s clothes. At first I refused to put them on, but again I was threatened. Finally, I received a bowl of cold stew. My uncle’s next task was to cut off my hair. I let out a scream when I felt the first pull on my hair and was promptly punished. I was hit hard on the back of my head. My hair was as short as a boy’s after my uncle was done cutting. Thick tears cascaded down my cheeks, but I did not make a sound.
“Now you listen to me Simona, this is the last time I will call you by this name. From now on, you will pretend to be a boy. Your name is Sarim; that was your father’s name. During the day you will stay inside this wagon. You will be quiet and behave yourself. If you do not listen you will go back into this box. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I whispered, too scared to try and resist.
The next day, my uncle warned me again to be still inside the wagon. I nodded, but when the wagon started moving, I climbed out the back and ran into the forest. I didn’t get far. My uncle caught up with me quickly. He hit me hard and all went black. When I woke up, I was back in the box, bound and gagged. I tried a few more times to escape, but each time I was caught, I took a beating and was placed into the box. Finally, I gave up and complied with my uncle’s wishes.
It seemed we traveled forever. I spent my days sitting quietly inside the wagon, thinking about Megan and mother, crying at times. I missed them both very much. Finally, we seemed to have reached our destination. Uncle Ezra introduced me to my grandparents as Anna’s son Sarim. The welcome we got was almost overwhelming. My grandparents were seemingly happy to have a grandson and told me how much I looked like my father. For the first time in sennights, I got to sleep in a bed again. I was told the room had been my father’s. Somehow that made me feel safe.
The next morning, I woke up early and took a look around the room. There was a desk and a stool underneath the window. At the foot end of the bed was a large trunk. I tried to open it, but the lid was too heavy. I looked up and saw a painting hanging on the wall. The sunlight hit it so I couldn’t immediately make out what it showed. I stepped closer and drew in a deep breath. Mother! I stood and stared at the picture until my grandfather opened the door.
“Time for breakfast,” he said in a low voice. “Don’t keep your grandmother waiting!”
“Grandfather, did you put that picture of my mother here?” I asked innocently. I don’t know what I’d expected him to answer, but I certainly wasn’t prepared for his reaction. He stepped into my room as fast as his injured leg would allow and reached for the picture on the wall. With one stroke he pulled it from its hook and threw it on the floor.
“Nooooo!” I screamed and rescued the painting before he could do more damage to it. “Don’t do that!”
“That is not your mother, it’s one of your ancestors,” he said harshly. “Your mother has no place in this house!” I looked at him, uncertain what to make of his words. He turned and left my room. Slowly, I followed.
During breakfast everyone kept silent. My grandparents had already finished their meal while I was still stirring half of it in my bowl.
“Who is the woman in the painting, grandfather?” I asked, taking all my courage.
“Finish your breakfast and I’ll tell you,” he replied. His harsh voice frightened me into eating the rest of the tasteless meal. I had barely emptied my bowl, when my grandfather had me follow him outside. He pointed towards a group of trees not too far away from the house, commenting that there was one for every woman and girl in the family who had died. I looked at him in disbelief. He told me to sit down next to him and listen closely to what he had to tell me. What I heard that morning was too much for my young mind to comprehend. I learned that there was curse on the family and that my grandfather blamed my mother for the death of my father. His words were harsh. I was choking back tears. It hurt me to hear him speak badly of mother. I remembered the promise I gave to mother and kept Megan’s existence a secret. I hoped that my uncle would take me back to mother, but I was wrong.
At the end of his story, my grandfather handed me a scroll. “This scroll contains our family history. It will now be yours. You will learn how to read and write so you can continue it.”
“Yes, grandfather,” I answered timidly.
“Keep it in a dry place!” he instructed me. I went to my room and placed it on my desk.
Summer turned into autumn and I was still at my grandparents’ house. My days had fallen into a set routine. I got up early in the morning, did my chores, and then reported to my grandfather. He instructed me in the art of reading and writing. I was an apt student. Soon I was able to read parts of the scroll I had been given when I first arrived. The painting my grandfather had thrown to the floor was back up on the wall. I had struggled for some time to put it back up and finally had to ask my uncle to assist me. He only helped when I threatened to tell that I wasn’t really a boy. I still don’t understand why he deceived his parents, but when my grandmother found out the following spring, he made it sound as if the whole plan had been my mother’s idea.
I had been out playing and when I returned that evening, I was covered in mud. My grandmother poured some water in a basin and told me to wash up and put on my nightshirt so she could clean my clothes. Without thinking I took off my dirty clothes. My grandmother looked at me in surprise and disbelief.
“You’re a girl!” she yelled and the repeated it softer. “A girl! You’re a girl!”
My grandfather appeared, took one look at me, and left the room. I blushed. An uneasy feeling crept up inside of me. I looked for my nightshirt. My grandmother was still holding it. I took it from her, pulled it over my head, and went to my room feeling I had done something terribly wrong. I wasn’t that far off.
My grandfather must have been waiting outside for Uncle Ezra, because when he returned I could hear both of them yelling at each other. I pressed my hands over my ears so I wouldn’t have to listen to their conversation. I was frightened: afraid of what my grandparents would do to me and most of all what my uncle would do. The box on his wagon was still fresh in my memory; so were the beatings I’d received from his hands.
The next morning my uncle awakened me. He handed me the dress I’d worn the day he’d taken me away from mother and told me to pack my things and meet him outside. The dress was tight and made me feel uncomfortable. I took a pouch and placed my few belongings in it. I looked at the scroll on my desk and decided to take it as well. Carefully, I rolled it up. I took one last look at the painting on the wall and went outside to meet my uncle, uncertain of what to expect. Surprisingly enough, he didn’t hit me or threaten me in any way. He gestured me to climb into the wagon, handed me some bread and a mug with water, and told me to sit down. As soon as I was seated the wagon started moving.
My uncle and I went traveling. While we were on the road, he taught me to play the lyre and sing. Soon I was earning extra Bits, performing for the people in the villages we passed. I traveled under the assumption he would return me to my mother. The months passed and we never came near my mother’s house. I took courage and asked Uncle Ezra when I would see her again. I believed him when he told me that we were on our way there, but had to take a different route.
We reached Magnus not too long after I had asked about my mother. My uncle showed me a building and explained that this was the Bardic College. He told me that the teachers there would instruct me further in reading and writing. We entered the building and were asked to wait. I took my lyre and played to pass the time. Eventually, a messenger came and spoke with my uncle. I was told to stay where I was, while my uncle left with the messenger. I do not know what kind of arrangements my uncle made with the teachers at the Bardic College, but I was left behind to eventually learn the trade.
Over the years I have tried to get word out to my mother, but to no avail. The journeyman bards returned with the message that they hadn’t been able to find her. At night I dream of my mother and Megan. It is as if they were standing beside me, their red hair blowing in the wind. I long to see them and count the days until the first stave of my journeyman bard rank is bestowed upon me and I will be able to leave these protective walls in search of my family. Until then, all I have are my childhood memories, my dreams, and the hope that one day I shall see them again.