Monthly Archives: May 2014

Complaint

The Current State of the Avant Garde

Where is the new thrust, the leading edge, of art? Where have the great Movements, that so defined the last 200 years, gone? I try to keep up with the Avant Garde, within reason, and I’ve yet to see anything resembling a wholesale movement develop within these early days of our new Century. By comparison, at the turn of the 20th, up to their 14th year, there had already been a transition from Impressionism to Expressionism, in both the plastic and musical arts. In the literary world, Joyce and D.H. Lawrence were using the springboard provided by Ibsen to explore the inner workings of the mind and the outer circumstances that shaped it. High Modernism was in the wings. Cubism was in full swing, the Vorticists were just kicking off, and, within a few years, Dada would explode in Switzerland. Busy days, to be sure. What have we got now?

There has been a push towards to the democritisation of art since, arguably, the mid-19th century. In some regards, this has been successful. In most, however, it has been an abject failure. Inarguably, we have more people creating art-like things now, by the sheer metric tonnage (however, median quality is up for debate). Rather than raising the “common person” to proper appreciation of art, of an educational level that would allow it, it seems that we’ve, more or less, lowered the bar to the lowest common denominator. Does this have something to do with our culture at-large? Is there something about late-stage Capitalism, about Neo-Liberalism, with its atomic mindset and charade of community, that prevents the growth of a thorough-going creativity? Can art be made when everything has a price and nothing has value? On the face it, it seems to be answered in the negative. Invariably, there is more at play here, the situation is more complex. However, I’d argue that, in large part, this society we live in has no group of people with enough economic clout, and the desire, to support a flourishing arts community, as we saw in the past. As the liberal bourgeoisie of the Austrian empire lost their political power, they, at least, turned inwards and created a culture in celebration of the aesthetic. Granted, this was a step down for many of the Secessionist artists that came to define this period, like Klimt. The work that defined was still of a high-quality, even if it did pander to middle-class sensibilities. Where is the modern version of this? Most moneyed people, who are no-where nears as monolithic as definitions of class would make them out to be, seem to fall into one of several camps. The first, which is likely the majority, are uninterested in art altogether. The second purchase famous works for the prestige and the investment value, not the appreciation itself. The last, who do enjoy aesthetics, go in for kitsch. Which is bad. By the way.

So, we are left with a group of people who, more and more, possess the wealth of our society, and who don’t invest it in art. Don’t get me wrong, a Gilded Age is not necessarily a bad thing for Art – you just have to do the actual gilding. The appetite for grande public works, architectural and decorative both, seems to absent or diminished amongst our breed of Capitalists. It’s not necessarily their fault, either. The movements referenced above continued to push further and further away from their predecessors, infamously so in many cases. That the “average man” should be left behind was inevitable. Then came Pop Art. I don’t disagree or take umbrage with the work of, say, Lichtenstein or the Independent Group, because there is some thought put into it – playful, ironic – but still some effort. That clown, though, that Arch-Poseur, Warhol, he did serious damage. Certainly, Duchamp got the ball rolling, but it was Warhol who really fucked things up. Faced with the uncommunicative stony face of abstract art and the glossy nihilism of Warhol, of course the confused middle-class person would throw up their hands in defeat.

I’d love to be proven wrong, by the way. I’d love it if you showed me something new, something vital, that I’d missed. Seems like we haven’t got it, though. What sort of growth is there between Serrano’s Piss Christ and Pavlensky’s recent protest in Red Square? Our contemporary art is empty.

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Chapter Three

Chapter 3

Llew turned over on the cot, looking at the muscled body of Odane as the sun crept through the loosely-shuttered window. Lifting himself onto his elbows, he noticed how the linen sheets contrasted with the darkness of Odane’s flesh, providing a strange juxtaposition in the half-light. Watching his chest move with the steady rhythms of sleep, Llew reflected on how many years he’d seen the same scene. Not for him the quick fuck. The men in his command, they seem to be satisfied there, but it seemed so shallow – two animals rutting, no greater connection. No, what he shared with Odane, that was something worthwhile. Tracing the spiral scars on the blue-black arm arm lazily, he could feel the other man stir towards wakefulness, emerging cleanly from slumber. Eyelids flicked open, and, finding the face of Llew, a smile blossomed, showing a row of white teeth.

“Well, ‘ave we two arrived, then?” the man asked, stretching his body in an almost feline manner.

“I suspect so – the Captain said we should reach port by mid-morning.” A far-away look took hold, Llew’s eyes looking into the middle distance. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been back.”

“It is just another place, is it not?” Odane said with a smile, rolling Llew over with a push and disturbing his reverie. “Just another place to mete out the King’s Justice,” Hands crossed beneath his head, lying back and looking at the roof of the cabin.

“You’ve been away from your home a lot longer than I. Perhaps it’s different for you; maybe you’ve gotten used to it.” Llew said, getting out of bed and pulling on his breeches. “For me, though,” he said, tugging on a draw string, “I still would prefer to be there. The people elsewhere, they’re…strange.” A smile to the still prone man.

“So, Odane is strange, hmm?” A pause. “Yes, that is acceptable,” the man said with a laugh as he sat up. “Llew does not mention his home very often. If Llew is so eager to be back, why not speak more about it?”

“Mmph,” Llew said as he emerged from his shirt. “Huh. Doesn’t come up often, I guess.”

“If this country is dear to Llew, how can Llew work, and work well, for the Hervarar King? Odane has been with Llew many seasons now, and still he does not understand,” said Odane, crossing his arms. “Odane could not soldier for a King that conquered his homeland.”

“Yes, you do have an abundance of pride, don’t you? You know well enough yourself that Osred is a just king. Strict, but just. He allowed you clemency, didn’t he? Besides, whatever some of my countrymen might tell you, things weren’t much better for them before the Conquest. I’m old enough to remember what it was like, if barely. At least Law rules the land, now. At least the Common Man has some protection,” said Llew as he buckled his sword belt. “Now, get yourself dressed – I’m going to check on the men, and find out how long we are from landfall.” The thrown shirt caught Odane in the face, hanging there despite a shrug from the man underneath.

Climbing onto the deck, the spray-filled air was cold on Llew’s exposed face, especially after the warmth of the cabin. The sun was climbing the horizon, evaporating the morning mist as it ascended. Sailors scrambled about the ship, order within the apparent chaos. Most ignored Llew, focused on their appointed tasks. It didn’t take him long to reach the other side of the ship, and ascend the aftcastle to where the captain of the vessel stood beside the steersman.

“Well, Captain, how long till we reach Forc Tuile?” Llew inquired.

“Goodmorrow, Commander. Look out ahead, you can see the Cothrom coast. The smudge of grey larboard – that’s the city there. Should the wind hold, we’ll be arrivin’ come mid-morning.”

“And the other two ships, safely with us?”

“Aye, Commander, your men are safe, no worries. That’s them just behind us.” Looking over the shoulder of the man, Llew was able to see the other ships, aided as he was by the height of the aftcastle.

“My thanks, Captain. I’ll rouse the rest of men below decks. We’ll be ready for when we land.”

-:-

The three ships moored on the north side of the river opening, the island breakwater and its fortress looming large in the bay. Apart from some small, coastal runners, and a few dozen fishing vessels dotting the shore and greater bay, the cogs were alone in the harbour.

Llew stepped down onto the jetty, followed by Odane and the other soldiers who had travelled aboard the same ship. Scanning the dockyards, Llew was struck by the run-down nature of everything in sight. Across, on the south jetty, were the skeletons of abandoned fishing ships, rotting in the summer heat. Their own dock was missing one board in four, and the ones remaining would be following their absent cousins shortly. The block-and-tackle crane, currently employed in lifting the corn that made up the Sea Spit’s other cargo onto the dock, looked to be thrown together from the mismatching parts of two or three others, and the men operating it could only barely manage to lift the containers of wheat from the deck.

Odane came to stand silently beside him. “This is not what I had anticipated,” Llew said softly.

“It has been many years since Llew last saw this place. Much is likely to have changed,” the bigger man said, putting a hand on Llew’s shoulder. The few merchants who had heard of the incoming ships and were curious enough to make their way down to meet them were engaged in a luke-warm discussion with the Sea Spit‘s Captain and First Mate, arguing over grain prices further up the dock. Few seemed terribly eager for the corn.

“Aye. All the same, it is a sad sight,” Llew responded with a sigh. “The last time I was here, the port was alive with people, the air was thick with the sounds of their work. Now – this,” he said, looking once more at the empty yards. “Ah, well, let’s get the men in order. Doesn’t look as if they’ve sent out anyone to greet us, at any rate. Sergeant!”

One of the soldiers strode up from the ship promptly, throwing an arm across his chest in salute. “Get the men together over in front of the pier, Jans. We’ll want to get over to the barracks across town as soon as we’re able. Tell them we’ll be leaving in half-an-hour, and any stragglers will be left to find their own way.”

“Sah!” Jans said, striding off to gather those soldiers who had yet to make it off the other two ships. Odane returned to the Sea Spit, while Llew pulled her captain aside. Noticing his presence, the man broke off his discussion, leaving it to his First Mate.

“Sorry to interrupt your negotiations, Captain. Wanted to thank you for ferrying us safely,” Llew said to the man, offering his hand.

For his part, he screwed up his face, looking Llew up and down. “Aye, you were reasonable enough passengers. However, if not for the Imperial order ye lug, I’d be loathe to have carried yea. Unnatural-types like yesselfs -” he looked at Odane’s retreating back, “be about as auspicious for a voyage as havin’ a god’s-cursed doxy aboard,” the man hocked and spat on the dock boards. “Lucky no storm kicked up while we was out there.” Llew held the man’s gaze for a moment, and, with a shrug, let his hand drop.

“You’ll be pleased to know, then, that we greatly enjoyed your personal cabin,” he said with a wink. The other man pulled a deeper grimace, and spat again. Llew set off down the pier.

-:-

Gavyn was pulled into the alley by a strong, boney hand. As his eyes accustomised to the gloom, Gavyn was able to make out the hook nose and flinty eyes of Diarmuid, his lantern-jawed face obscured by a thin growth of facial hair.

“You’ll excuse the roughness, cousin, but it’s best if I’m not seen speaking to you – at least for the moment.” Gavyn straightened himself up, heart rate returning to normal. “It’s been a full week since last we spoke,” said Diarmuid. “Have you given any thought to my proposal?”

“Well, Mess’r Brice was pretty angry the next day,” Gavyn began, “saying that ‘ed be no party to anything so foolish as what you were sellin’.” The youth looked at his shoes.

“And what about you, Gavyn, what about you and Oéngus?” Diarmuid said as he gripped Gavyn by the shoulders, straightening him up. “What do you think about joining us?”

“Gus and I, we did talk about it later. He’s definitely keen. But what about what Mess’r Brice was saying, what about the fall-out for the regular people?” Diarmuid backed away from Gavyn, taking a seat on a barrel next to a wall.

“Well, ma boy, there’s not much I can say to that. We’re aware of the problem, of course,” he said, propping his head on hands crouched over knees. “And we’ll do our best to avoid directing the anger of the Hervarar towards the commons, but, like I said before, how much better is a slow death, crushed beneath a Usurper’s heel? We’re looking for a place to relocate those who wish to join us – somewhere we can keep them safe. At the end of the day, though,” he said, drawing a deep breath, “we all have to make our own beds, don’t we? Can anyone really be held responsible for what happens to someone else?”

Gavyn gave that some thought, a frown passing over his face. A moment later – “Another thing: I understand why you would want someone like Gus – he’s strong, he can help you fight, and he’s only going to get stronger. Why would you ever want someone like me, though? I can barely look after myself!” he said, gingerly touching the back of his head, still tender from his earlier mishap.

Lifting his chin from his hands, Diarmuid let out a laugh “Ha! You think that what we want you both for is fighting? No, lad, you – the both of you – have a much more valuable talent. You can both read. How many other lads, hell, how many men, do you know of that can read and write? Sure, there’re plenty enough scribes this end of town that can scratch out a scrip for the Docker’s Guild, but your Uncle taught you something better than that, didn’t he? Not for nothing was he an acolyte of the Cailleach!”

“’Tis as you say,” said Gavyn. “Gus and I, despite our youth, are better with the texts than many full-frocked clerks.” He grinned, smiling at the expression of personal worth, so unusual in his daily life.

“Tell you what,” Diarmuid said, jumping off the barrel, “do you know where Porter Road bisects Gabher’s Lane?” A nod from Gavyn. “There is a by-way a few dozen feet north of there on Porter Road. In the alley is a tavern, called the Selky’s Cunny. You and Master Oéngus discuss it. If you want to join us, meet me there at dusk. If not, no troubles. I’ll leave you be, and you’ll not hear from me again.”

-:-

The troop of men arrived at the garrison in the early afternoon, having crossed the better part of the city to get there. The run-down nature of the dockyards that had so startled Llew was in evidence throughout their journey in a myriad of small ways. The unwashed nature of the streets, trash, both industrial and organic, sitting in heaps where it had been kicked, piling in the gutters. Shop-fronts themselves, elsewhere the pride of their owners, shabby with neglect and sloth. The frowns worn by children huddled in alleys, clothed in rags, twisted by rickets.

The faces of the city-folk in particular stood out for Llew. Every city has its orphans; generally, the more prosperous the more there are of them. However, it was the normal people, the burghers and crafts-folk, that set the tone. As they marched, his glances were met with a mixture of fear, disdain, and open hostility. It was unusual to be so assaulted by the eyes of those around him, so completely counted as the other.

The mud-floored training yard in front of the main barracks buildings was baked hard by the day’s sun, providing a clean, if dusty, route to the offices.

“Jans,” Llew called, “hold the men here in the yard while Odane and I see where the CO of this place is hiding.”

“Sah!” Jans said with his customary salute.

To Odane – “The Captain’s reticence was one thing,” Llew said, “but this is simply sloppy. I’ll enjoy having a talk with whoever is in charge around here.”

“Odane knows not what the standard is, but he suspects the state of the city should leave Llew…unsurprised,” the other man said with a dour face.

The two men walked around the corner of the first dun-coloured building, where they were met by the sight a bleary-eyed soldier sitting atop a box, uniform rumpled and stained. The man looked in their general direction, hiccoughed at them, and fell over, a small dust-cloud rising into the air. Llew and Odane looked side-long at one another. “About what time is it, Lieutenant?” asked Llew.

“Early,” answered Odane. Llew grunted.

Around the other side of the building, they entered a square formed by the inner walls of the surrounding dormitories and offices. Unlike the training yard in front, the square was paved with broad, sandy coloured flagstones. In the centre was a well, bucket off to one side. The building across from the first they saw, sitting at a right angle to the plaza door, had an arched doorway that was flanked by flags, blue on a field of black.

“I reckon that’s where we’ll find some answers,” said Llew.

The two let themselves in to the multi-storey building, not caring to close the door behind them. The sun, filling the doorway with its afternoon angle, illuminated a scene of some disarray. Boxes and crates littered the floor, covered in bottles or loose sheaves of paper that fluttered in the breeze of their entrance. A balding head, hair hanging in dirty-blonde strands, popped it’s way around the corner of a doorway set in the right-most wall.

“Whozzat? Whut’s all this about?” the man said in a reedy voice. Spotting Llew and Odane – “Who in the Brother’s Blast Furnace are you? Eh? Explain yeself!”

“It’s ok, Gurd,” said a syrupy voice hidden inside the other room. “That will likely be the Commander Llew ap Afagddu, leader of his Grace’s…irregular…band.”

“ap Ugh-Vag-Thee, huh?” said Gurd, coming to stand in the foyer. “Sounds like a native name, ta me.” He spat on the ground. “And what’s this e’s brot with ‘im? Giant and dark as night, covered inna bunch o’ weird scars – you sure these’re ours, Boss?” said Gurd as he turned back to the doorway.

He didn’t get a chance to hear any response, as he was lifted bodily and held against the wall. “The man Gurd will listen! Gurd now speaks to Odane, who was once Prince of the Glittering Isles. Gurd will treat Odane and his commanding officer Llew ap Afagddu with respect.” Odane said, calmly and quietly, as he pressed the other man into the wood. Gurd’s face began to go red, and he stammered for breath. Odane let him drop, where he crumpled to the floor.

“Sure, sure, whateva ye say, Boss,” gasped Gurd from Odane’s feet.

Llew walked past the both of them into the adjoining room. Candles and a far window allowed him to see the owner of the oily voice. A huge man sat behind a desk, rivulets of sweat running down his corpulent chins to stain his uniform. Looking around, Llew noticed a pair of crossed swords behind the man’s head, fastened to the wall, above which hung a flag, blue on black field again, but with some heraldry he didn’t recognise. Imperial, from the colouration.

“I hope you’ll excuse the impertinence of my steward, Gurd. Alas, he gets a bit…exasperated…at times, being assigned so deep into the provinces.” The man spoke at the pace of treacle, stopping often to breathe. “I am Lord Eadgar Stórskorinn, family-by-marriage to His Grace, King Osred, Emperor of the Hervarar, the Cothromen, and lord of the Vlaminder, and I…am in charge here. May you be welcome…to this city of beauty and wonder,” he said with a wheeze that could have been a laugh. “What is it…we can do for you?”

“What can you do for me -” Llew said exasperatedly “Sir, are you aware that one of your men is falling-down drunk? In the middle of the day? And where is everyone else? You must have been given word of our arrival – why wasn’t there anyone dispatched to guide us here? We wasted hours traipsing through this city, with only the barest ideas of where we should be headed!”

“Our men,” said a much-recovered Gurd, “are about their business! I would’ve thought a native like yourself’d be able to navigate this rat’s nest with ease,” he said, crossing his arms of his chest. Odane, joining the three men in the second room, silently raised his eyebrows while looking at Llew.

He lifted a hand towards Odane, saying “Native though I might be, Master Gurd, it’s been years since I was last here in Forc Tuile. When I was, this garrison hadn’t even been built. You can understand my difficulty in finding it, under those circumstances?” Gurd made a sour face, crossing his arms. “Good.” Llew turned back towards Eadgar. “The men under your control are your business, Sir, and I’ll leave them to you. However, I have men of my own that are travel weary. I trust that you will be able to billet them. That is,” he said, twisting back to look at Gurd from the corner of his eye, “if that wouldn’t be too much trouble?”

“No, Commander ap Afagddu,” sloshed Stórskorinn, “no trouble at all. We find ourselves with…an abundance of space, these days. Which actually reminds me, I have an order for you somewhere around here,” the man said, rifling through bits of paper scattered about his desk, checking under empty goblets and fouled dishes.

“I believe I have it here, sir!” said a sycophantic Gurd from the far corner, by a second, smaller desk.

“Ah, yes. Thank you, Gurd. Hmm,” said Eadgar, taking the message out of its leather carrying tube and unfurling the scroll. “Ah, alas, we have had a bit of trouble with the local religious types recently – and, with so few men, it’s difficult to police the city properly, let alone the surrounding country-side. This message here,” he said, handing the scroll to Llew who glanced at the writing blankly, “ah, can’t read, eh? No matter,” Eadgar said with a shrug. “That message there says that you are to give us a little…help…with our local zealot problem. Could you go and fetch Garreg? Thank you,” he said to Gurd, who dipped a bow and left the room. “As I was saying…it is rather auspicious that you should arrive today, Commander ap Afagddu.”

Gurd re-entered the room with a man in tow. If Gurd could be called sycophantic, this man was positively obsequious. He cowered slope-shouldered in the middle of the room, where he stood ringing a cap in dirty hands and looking at the ground.

“Tell these men here what you was tellin’ me, Garreg,” said Gurd, poking the man in the ribs. Garreg turned to look at Llew, and positively ogled at Odane, before beginning.
“Well, yer Lordship, it’s like this, yessee, I’m from the village o’ Ogden’s Wheel, abou’ a day’s walk away North-like. Fer days ‘n days, them black crows be commin around, stirrin’ up the villagers with their words o’ ‘freedom’ ‘n ‘taking a’back what’s proper our’s,’ ‘n the like. An’ I got ta thinkin’ ta myself, I got ta thinkin’ ‘Now Garreg, if’n I were in charge, I’d be a-wantin’ ta know about these types kickin’ up a fuss, I would.’ So, I got meself down ta the City a-quick as I could, and I told his Grace here about’n” he said, bobbing his head towards Stórskorinn. He then looked up Llew and said with a mealy-mouthed smile “An’ that I did, yer Lordship, that I did.”

“No need for that, Master Garreg. I am a free man, just as you are. No need to be Lording me,” said Llew. “I take it you would like something to be done about these ‘black crows,’ Sir?” he said, addressing Eadgar.

“Indeed, Commander. From what our friend here has been telling me…the zealots are whipping up the townspeople into something of an uproar. Taxes, or some matter,” he said with a bored expression. “Whatever it might be, you are to take your men out there, and let them know that, under this new edict,” he handed a thin roll of paper to Llew, “all public religious demonstrations, other than those of the Hervaran Fimm, are hence-forth banned. That should likely…nip any trouble in the bud,” he said, sitting further back in his chair with a satisfied look on his face. “You may go now, Friend Garreg.”

The man bowed in acquiesence, but didn’t leave. Instead, he looked from Eadgar to Gurd, and back. Taking his meaning, Gurd let out a disgusted sigh, and slipped a hand into a pocket. A flash of silver could be seen for a moment, before it disappeared inside Garreg’s clutched hat. “Thank ‘e kindly, yer Graces,” he bowed again. “Thank ‘e, milordship,” he said to Llew.

“No, thank you, Garreg. Thank you for being such a good friend to His Grace, the King,” said Eadgar magnanimously.

“Get out,” scowled Gurd. Garreg left in a hurry, eyes on the floor.

When it was once again but the four of them, Llew said “So, I’m to understand that you wish us to wait for some sort of demonstration by these types, march up, disrupt them, and tell them that they can’t be saying this manner of thing in public any longer? Well, we’ll do it, if it’s the King’s orders, but I have my doubts as to how successful this is likely to turn out.”

“Ours is not to have doubts…Commander. Ours is but to be the will of His Grace, personified. Gurd, would you see to it that our visitors are made…comfortable for the evening? They’ll want to be ready for their march in the morning.”

Odane and Llew left the presence of Eadgar Stórskorinn, accompanied by Gurd. Once they had reached the inner square, Gurd said “You and your men can billet there, in that building -” he pointed to the what must have been a dormitory, directly across from the entrance gate. “I’ll go and see about food for you lot. I’m afraid it’ll be an early morning,” he said, with no hint of remorse.

“Men aren’t going to like this,” Llew said to Odane as they came round the corner. The drunken soldier, meanwhile, had vacated the scene, leaving only the contents of his stomach to note his earlier presence.

“Alright men,” Llew said, addressing his waiting company. “I know you were looking forward to some deserved relaxation after the journey, but it seems like it may have to wait a bit. Tomorrow, at first light, we’ll be heading north to a village called Ogden’s Wheel. There are some local miscreants who need to be reminded of his Grace’s Law. After that, I’m sure we’ll be able to unwind a bit,” a ragged cheer went up from the ranked men. “Sergeant Jans, the men will be billeted in a dorm across the square. You’ll find the local commander’s steward there, a man named Gurd. Work with him to settle the men. Don’t, however, take any foolishness from him.”

“Sah!”

-:-

Gavyn stumbled on a paving stone in the growing darkness, catching himself against a wall before he fell headlong.

“Careful there, Gav! No need to be tak’n a tumble now!” Gus said, punching Gavyn in the shoulder.

“You’re in a good mood, aren’t you?” Gavyn said, rubbing his shoulder with his good hand.

“Of course, Gav! This is an adventure, like all the old songs! No more scribbling, no more Brice, no more wasted hours late at night. Aah!” Gus exclaimed, strutting ahead down the street.

“No more Brice…” Gavyn said, thinking about the argument that had occurred earlier that day.

“Family, he sath! Family!” Brice had said. “He thtormth in here, after more’n a decade, an’ he thtealth my apprentithith! He thtealth them! From me, who hath cared for ’em, for yearth! For your whole life!” he had said, rounding on Gavyn.

“Mess’r Brice,” Gavyn had pleaded, “Come with us! You know what Diarmuid says about the city is true! There is no future here!”

“Lieth! That group of hith, they’re going ta bring down the wrath of the Hervarar on all of uth. Hard enough tryin’ ta make a livingth without kickin’ the hornetth netht.” Brice threw down the pile of paper he’d been holding. “If either of you,” he said, waving an admonishing finger at both Gavyn and Oéngus and leaning over the desk at them, “If either of you think you can live under my roof, while working for them, ye can think agin! Ah! Ah! Not a word, Oéngus Rua!”

“Yes, no more Brice, indeed,” said Gavyn, stirred from his reverie by Gus’ cheerful whistling.

The two youth rounded the corner on Porter Road, entering the alley. They emerged into a deeper gloom than the rest of the streets, darker than the main thoroughfares. The buildings crept in overhead, leaning against one another in their exhaustion. Mist, only just forming in the lower areas of the city, was thick on the ground here. A metallic tang, a taste on the back of the tongue, issued off the worn stone, filling the nose with it noisome essence. And their, just at the edge of the velvety blackness, hung the sign of the Selky’s Cunny, creaking in an unfelt breeze.

“Ye sure this’ the place?” Gus asked with a raised eyebrow and crossed arms. “Seems awfully…grim.”

“Aye, that’s the place, unless you spotted another alley off’ve Porter within the last fifteen paces since Gabher’s Lane? No? Didn’t think so. C’mon, we’ve come this far,” the youth said, starting into the alley, a dirty fog swirling about his shins.

The rudely carven sign, in both workmanship and depiction, was illuminated by an equally rough looking iron lantern, candle flickering. The door, when Gus opened it, moved towards them over wet, shredded wood with a resistant squealch. A hulking man looked over both the youngsters with a beady eye, face ribboned with scars, and merely grunted. Substantially cowed, the two sidled past him deeper inside.

The inner room, at least what could be seen of it, was filled with a low-hanging smoke. Most of the rough-hewn tables were occupied by equally rough looking men, and the shriek of a poorly-made hurdy-gurdy could be heard from a far corner.

“Are you sure this’ the place?” asked Gus again, leaning in to whisper to Gavyn.

A man in the distance stood up from his table before he had a chance to respond, and called out, “Ah, lads! Glad you could make it. Come’n join I.”

“I recognise the voice,” said Gavyn to Gus. “That’s Diarmuid. Told you this’ the right place!” He elbowed Gus in the ribs with his good arm, and set off through the crowded bar. With a bit of negotiating, a few whispered ‘scuse me’s met with blank scowls or ignored outright, the two made it to the man’s table.

“Now that you’re both here, we can head up,” Diarmuid said, indicating a previously hidden stairwell in the back corner of the room with a raised arm. The stairs lead to a landing, decorated with a mounted stag’s head, where the steps doubled back on themselves at a 360° angle. Atop the next flight was a narrow hallway, wood panelling making up the walls. “We’ll be wanting the second door on your right, boys,” said Diarmuid.

As Gavyn opened the door, eight faces raised to look at him, seated around a long table in the centre of the room, with seating for six more. They entered the room self-consciously, followed by a gay Diarmuid, who ducked around them to seat himself at the far end of the table.

“Take a seat, boys. Don’t be shy,” he said, indicating the two unused seats nearest them on left. The two sat, looking warily about at the different faces – some young and hungry, some weather-worn with age, and some plainly surly, who all looked back at them, differing expressions to each face.

“May we start now, ap Diarwyd?” said the man to Diarmuid’s immediate right with a scowl on his face. “Some of us,” he said, looking around at the others at the table, “arrived a’time.”

“Ah, give over, Emlyn. We are not all present as of yet,” responded Diarmuid, acknowledging the empty seats with a dip of the head and steepling his fingers. As if on cue, there came a crashing from the level below. “I suspect,” said Diarmuid with a broad grin, “that that’ll be the rest of us now.”

The door to the room, latched by the three after entering, shortly thereafter flew open, revealing the shaking figure of what must have been the bar-keep, apron’d as he was.

“I know you be a-sayin’ you ought not to be disturbed on any a-circumstance, Master Diarmuid, but, Big Hod, the three of ’em -”

“It’s ok, Master Grady, the ‘three of them,’ they are of our party. I hope they haven’t caused Big Hod any lasting trouble? No? Good. Thank you, Master Grady.” The civility expressed by Diarmuid, so stark in contrast to Grady’s own disshevelled presence, had him bowing his way out the door before he had a chance a to think. That is, till the three brawny men barrelled their way past him. Their entrance was accompanied by the sharp intake of breath from around the table.

“What is the meaning of this, ap Diarwyd? Is this your doing?” said Emlyn, turning swiftly to look accusingly at Diarmuid. The entrants stood at the foot of the table, arms crossed and hoods drawn back, revealing thick, plated beards and bald heads, with faces decorated by blue-inked swirls and curlicues.

“Our brothers from the hills have been a part of this from the start, Emlyn,” Diarmuid said with a broad grin, standing to greet the new arrivals. “Well met, Chief-of-chiefs! I trust your journey to our humble city was a pleasant one? Please, ease yourselves here at our table.”

“I sit,” said the largest of the three, with red facial hair and a bone through his nose. “They stand,” he said, indicating the other two, who took up places either side of the door.

“This is an outrage!” hissed Emlyn. “These men are barbarians, they are cannibals!” he said exasperatedly to Diarmuid. “They steal the sheep and the women from our villages, and you invite them here? What is this?!”

“I wouldn’t eat you, little man,” said the seated giant, “if you were served up with leek in mouth, and if your sister look much like your wrinkley, frowny face, well, she be not worth the carrying,” he continued, to much mirth from the pair by the door.

“Aye,” said Diarmuid, with hands raised to calm those around him, “there have been certain…misunderstandings…between the people of Conchar, Chief-of-chiefs,” a nod of head to the seated man at the foot of the table, “and our own. Despite that, we are cousins of ancient lineage. And, furthermore,” he said at the beginning of protestation from Emlyn, “they are the only ones in this wide land of Cothrom an Tír to successfully fight off the Hervarar. If you discount that,” turning a beady eye on the man to his right, “I’m not sure what you are doing here.” Emlyn screwed up his face and crossed his arms, but remained silent.

“Now that we are all assembled, we can begin. I call this meeting of Brân Lwyd to order. Tonight, we shall judge the indoctrination of four new members to our fraternity,” said Diarmuid, looking at Gavyn and Gus, and across to two other men, seated just up from Conchar, the barbarian chief. “Introduce yourselves, and tell us why you deserve to be honoured with a place amongst us,” he continued, lifting a hand to the first man on the across from the youths.

“I am called Éalaigh,” said the young man, his untrustworthy face reminding Gavyn of some sort of rodent. “I’ve lived these streets for many years, scrabbling an existence as I could, when I could, how I could,” he said hungrily. “You’ll be hard-pressed ta find a quicker knife this side of the Doimhnigh,” he finished with a self-satisfied smirk.

“Well-met, young Éalaigh. Yourself?” Diarmuid said, gesturing to the elderly man seated next toÉalaigh.

“Name’s Alban. I saw the Conquest, and I seen what’s become o’ our city since. May not be as quick with a knife as this young pup aside me, but I’ve better knowledge o’ the Forc’s…underground ne’works…than anyone in ma generation or younger. I’m your man if’n you wanna get in contac’ with the men who really run this town,” the ruddy-faced man finished, belching.

“Yourself?” Diarmuid said, lifting an arm to Gus.

“My name’s Oéngus Rua, an’ I ‘ave lived in this city ma whole life, an’ I hate the Hervarar!” Gus said, slamming a fist on the table with assumed bravado, to broad grins around the table.

“Duly noted, Master Rua,” said Diarmuid smiling to himself. “Yourself?” he continued, gesturing to Gavyn.

“My name is Gavyn ap Tewdwr, and I…am not sure why I am here.”

“You are here, ap Tewdwr,” said Diarmuid solemnly, “because you can read. And write.”

“Because ‘e can read! Because ‘e can read! D’ya hear that lads, he’s here because he can read!” exploded Emlyn. “I, too, can write! Jus’ lookit his arm! What use is ‘e to us with a weak arm like tha’?” Gavyn stared resolutely into his lap, face reddening. He had known that this was a bad idea, he had known that he would be no good – A guffaw cut through his self-lacerations.

“Indeed!” laughed a young man to Diarmuid’s left. “Indeed, I’m sure you can write, Emlyn. Although,” he said, assuming a mock-seriousness, “I suspect ‘read-and-write’ extended a slight distance, perhaps a furlong or so, beyond,” he looked about the assembled faces, “scratching your name!” He fell back into his seat with a peal of laughter, greeted by the grins of the other men. Emlyn, red-faced sat back in his chair.

“Mm-hmm,” Diarmuid cleared his throat, bringing the attention of the room back to himself. “As I was saying, both Gavyn and Oéngus have the ability to read and write, and are able to do so,” a side-long glance to his left, a trace of a smile, “well-beyond the scope of their names. They will prove a valuable asset to the Brotherhood. Are there any others who would speak out against our inductees?”

“The little bairn, yon Gavyn, if he was born amongst the Cosgrach tribes, he would have been thrown from a height long ago. However, if you vouch for ‘im Brother Diarmuid?” A nod. “Then Conchar and all that are his give their assent.”

“Very well, bring forth the blade,” said Diarmuid. The as-yet unnamed young man seated to the left of Diarmuid ducked beneath the table. Reemerging, he held an ornate, black, wooden box. Opening it, he presented Diarmuid with a dagger, wickedly sharp, a highly polished, carved piece of jet in the pommel. “The candidates will cut the palm of their hands, repeating “I pledge myself to the brotherhood of Brân Lwyd,” Diarmuid said.

The knife was passed down by the existent members, first on the left of the table, where Éalaigh quickly sliced himself, saying the words, and Alban more calmly made his way through the ritual, no stranger to pain in his old age. Alban passed the blade across the table to Gus, who, with nary a glance around, deeply cut himself and yelled the words. With a grin, he passed the dagger to Gavyn. He noticed the pommel jet was carved into some sort of a bird. The rasp of the blade, as he cut his left hand, barely registered to him. He said the words, though he felt within himself a strange twinge at their utterance, still unsure of what he was getting himself into.

“That blade has tasted the blood of all those seated here, and all those other members of our most ancient order, down to the first,” said Diarmuid, looking around at the four inductees. “Remember that.”

“Present the rings,” he said next. Emlyn now ducked under the table, reemerging with a wooden box, dyed white. From it he pulled four rings, all an iron band, studded with a carved piece of jet. Gavyn recognised it as a match to the ring he had seen Diarmuid wearing when they first met, a week prior. Looking around, it seemed that all men wore them, even the Cosgrach barbarians. “The candidates will press the ring into the fresh wound, saying, as one ‘I pledge myself to the Old Gods, to the Cailleach, to Cernach, the antlered one, to Medb, and to the Others. I pledge myself to the emancipation of the people of Cothrom an Tír. I pledge myself to my Land.’”

The rings were passed around and pressed into the welling blood, old voice blending in ritual repetition with the three younger. Gavyn looked over to Gus, whose eyes were bright with enthusiasm.

“So it is done,” intoned Diarmuid.

“So say we all” responded the other, full fledged members around the table.

“Well, now that that is taken care of,” said Diarmuid with a smile, suddenly jocular, “why don’t we get some drinks?” He gestured to the member sitting beside Gus – “Go and grab Grady, would you?” The man slipped out the door. Then, looking round at the new members: “Welcome, brothers! Welcome to Brân Lwyd, fraternity of the Hooded Crow!”

There was a shout from the other members, and much slapping of the inductees backs.

“Brother Selwyn, tell us of how proceeds the cause in the surrounding villages,” Diarmuid said, addressing the young man to his left, as the mirth and celebration of those gathered filled the room.

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

The door opened with a groan, starlight half-way illuminating the congested scene revealed. The old man moved with unexpected swiftness, closing the door silently behind himself in a fluid motion and finding his way across the darkened room by memory alone. He crossed the space between the entrance and the far corner with relative ease, upsetting only a few papers in his passage. The sheaves fluttered with a dry rasp, the room otherwise silent, save for an odd moan of settling boards, constricting in the mid-night chill.

Light bloomed in the corner, revealing the figure of the elder man as he lit one of the stray candles. Sweeping his gaze across the littered room, he saw the prone figures of Óengus and Gavyn, still at the site of their labours, but fallen into a deep sleep. Unhurriedly, he shuffled about in his cloak, pulling forth a short-stemmed pipe, which he, just as calmly, proceeded to fill and light.

The acrid fumes filled the cramped room, disturbing the rest of Gavyn, hunched over a desk near the old man. Coughing himself awake, Gavyn lifted his head and rubbed blearily at an eye, the haziness of sleep falling away from him as he noticed the intruder. Staring at him, mouth agape, he kicked at the chair Óengus was still sleeping in. Gus grumbled in his sleep, but resolutely slept on. Another kick nearly dislodged him, and he came awake with a start and a shout.

“Huh, whassumadda?” he said, surprised to find himself in a brightly lit room. Gavyn hissed a warning, motioning with a vigorous bob of his head that they weren’t alone. Gus’ eyes moved from the mirth-filled face of the old man to Gavyn, and back again.

With a shout, he leapt out of the chair, knocking it back behind him.

“Look here, mister,” he shouted, menacing the man with curled fists, “I dinnae know what you think you’re doin’, sneaking into dwellings a-middle of the night, but you’ll find us this end of Trawler’s District be sterner than we look -”

“If I had meant you harm,” the old man cut in, with an unexpectedly melodious voice, “don’t you imagine I would have done so before I let you wake?”

The question took the proverbial wind from Óengus’ sails. “Well, I, uh…” he said, fists sinking to his sides.

“I guess that makes sense?” Turning to Gavyn, Óengus gave him a mystified shrug.

“Don’t worry, Master Óengus, I’m no danger to you or Master Gavyn over there,” replied the old man.

“How do you know our names?” cried Óengus, regaining some of his lost vigour.

“Óengus Rua, I know a great deal more about the both of ye than just your names,” the man responded, a glint of steel entering his gaze.

A tumult was heard from above, and, presently, Brice appeared, clothed in pajamas and wielding a rusty fire-poker. The pom-pom on his patched night cap bobbed ferociously.

“Whath all the futh abou’?” he shouted, glaring around blearily. He caught sight of the man in the corner, smoking calmly as the two teens looked on dumbly.

“Ah, itth you…” Brice muttered, lowering the poker “whaddaya wantth thith time?”

“Mess’r Brice, who is this?” asked Gavyn, still taken aback by the sudden entrance.

“My name, Master Gavyn, is Diarmuid ap Diarwyd, and I,” the old man said, as he removed the pipe from his mouth, “am your cousin. Despite whatever your lousy Uncle may tell you.” He turned his gaze on Brice.

Gavyn and Oengus both turned back to look at Brice.

“Is what he says true, Mess’r Brice? You’d told me that all our family had died!” said Gavyn, anger in his voice.

“Aye, he’s our kin, though it be a black thpot on our’n family. This one,” said Brice, shaking the poker at Diarmuid, who simply smiled, “wearth trouble like a cloak. And I tell you boyth now, you’ll yet rue the day ye met him! If’n I didn’t tell ye about ‘im, it was to protect you.”

“Now, there, I have to take offence,” said Diarmuid, rising from the chair. “This boy was left in your charge, Brice ap Rhys, and that charge was not meant to involve working him ta ill-health,” he said, pointing a finger at Brice. “Your sister t’would be ashamed!”

“Aye, that she migth,” said Brice hotly, “but then, she be dead, theeth long yearth, and here I am, scrubbin an exithtence, taking the food from my mouth ta feed theeth boyth!”

“Ha! So, the fire of the Son of Rhys is not yet extinguished!” laughed Diarmuid, throwing himself back into the chair lightly. “Glad to see it’s so, glad indeed.”

Brice seemed taken aback by the turn in events. Prepared for a fight as he was, the sudden shift was as if the rug had been taken out from under him. As was, he merely narrowed his eyes towards his cousin, not yet lowering the poker. The two boys shared a knowing glance. Brice’s anger was not so easily appeased once stoked.

“If I’m not mistaken,” Diarmuid said, rubbing his chin, large ring catching the candle light, “only about half of all that bluster is due to the expense o’ these young lads. You were close to ya sister, close as ever I’ve seen two siblings. You might not think so nowadays,” he recounted to Gavyn, “but your uncle nearly met his end trying to avenge the death of your mother.” Brice, meanwhile, let his arm fall to the side, poker digging into the floor with a woody thunk. A frown creased his face, growing deeper as his cousin went on.

“From your expression, I gather he’s never told you that end of it, eh? Indeed, shortly after you were born, your mother was murdered by one of the King’s soldiers. Bad days, those were. Most of the streets of the Tuile were daily awash with people, protesting the newly levied taxes. After one particularly large riot, on the anniversary of the fall of the city some years before, the soldiers were ordered to make an example by breaking a few heads. Foolish decision, by a foolish man. The commanding officer, a wine-soaked lout better fit for managing a sty than a city, misread the mood disastrously. His thugs marched out and selected men at random from the people, trooped them down to Iron Market, and hung them without so much as a ‘by decree.’ The Tuilans, already aflame with indignation at the taxes and fuelled by memory of the sack of the city, flew into a rage, totally beyond the control of the resident garrison. Chaos reigned for a few days, and most of the soldiers were either slaughtered, or forced to hole up in the Bay Fortress,” he remarked with a wry grin.

“Alas, a few slipped away at some point, and a contingent of troops, lead by the Crown Prince and his Uncle, came up from the south. The defences were hasty, and fell just as quickly. For the second time in five years, Forc Tuile burned. Many died that day, including your mother, Gavyn,” said Diarmuid with a sombre expression.

“Aye, itth ath he thayth,” muttered Brice. “Thatth altho where’n you gotth that arm o’yourn, Gavyn. I wath carrying you from the wreckage of your home, when a thpar, burnt through, crath’d through the theiling. It trapped your thmall body underneath it. By the time I could lift itth, your arm had been badly cruth’d.” A distant look came over Brice’s face, tinged with sadness.

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” Gavyn said, horror struck.

“Aye, lad, at the time you were too young to underthtandth. Later, itth justht theemed like it didn’t matter,” responded Brice with a sigh. “Too tough jutht to keepth going. No time for diggin’ up the patht.”

“Well, cousin, while you were ekeing out a living here in the City, there were others less reticent to keep the old fires burning. That’s why I’ve come today…er, tonight.” Diarmuid said with a smile.

“Now, jutht hold on a moment! I’ll not have you bargin’ in here, stirring up trouble when we’ve already got enough ta deal with ourthelves! Did you finith those Dockerth Guild paperth?” said Brice, turning a beady eye on the boys. They, for their part, did little more than exchange a guilty look between themselves and glance at the scatter of orders, half-filled.

“Can’t you see that this city is dying, Brice? It’s of little importance if ya should lose your contract with the Guild. Soon enough, they’ll be outta work just like the rest. Dheas Bhá takes most of the cross-mountain trade now, and there is no need for Forc Tuile’s deepwater harbour ta get it across the sea.” Diarmuid said exasperatedly.

“Aye, them bathterdth down in Dheath Bhá may have their Kingth mountain trade, but they’ll not takth the iron away from uth. They’ve no river ta get it to them!” responded Brice.

“That may be, cousin, but it’ll hardly keep this city alive by itself – more leave every season, for Dheas Bhá or other parts of the South. We’re living on borrowed time. Unless, something is done to change the tide.”

“And what, pray thtell, do you have in mind there, couthin?” spat Brice.

“Once, long ago, you were not so keen to bow down to our masters-apparent -”

“Bow down?” Brice cut in. “Bow down? You’ll not findth the likth of me licking the bootth of that Opprethor, that -”

“For all your bluster, your actions say different!” Diarmuid, standing, said with a shout. More calmly, pointing at Brice. “You were once an initiate in one of the True-Gods’ Orders. There are others, secretly working, who have kept the faith, these long years of servitude.” A glint of zeal entered his eyes. “Now is the time to stand and be counted, cousin! Slow banked fires are more ready than ever to blaze, all they need is the spark – and all the men, women and children of Cothrom an Tír will rise up against these foreign dogs! We will take back our country, and -”

“Your ath mad ath a loon! I don’tth believe thith! How’re we thuppothed to fight againtht the Hervarar? Where’re you going thta findth the tholdierth to do that? Beneath the hillths? Jutht becauth you’re angry about thomthing, doethn’t mean you can thimply change it by will alone! The King hath real tholdierth, real men with real weaponth. You remember ath well ath I how quickly the old Duke fell, 20 yearth ago. Why would itth be any different thith time? It’d be worth! They’d cruth uth, and they wouldn’t thtop till everyone wath dead or in thtains!” Brice cried, face red with emotion and spittle flying from between his ruined teeth.

“Every year tha Kingth grip tightenth -” Brice slammed a fist into the table “on the countrythide. Every year, more people are convinthed that hith way ith the better way. Every year, he getth more difficult to throw off! Cailleach’s Teat, they thay the Crown Printh ith thuppothed to be taking up rethidenthe in Dheath Bhá thith Autumnth!”

“Exactly why now is the time to strike! We can’t let him gain any more support; we can’t allow any more be swayed to his side. The Crown Prince’s presence in Cothrom an Tír, without an army around him, is to our benefit, not theirs. We will strike him down, and send a clear message to his father! You see, that’s where the Duke was wrong – it’s foolishness to try to meet the Hervarar on the field, everyone knows that. Too many soldiers, too well trained. But the largest army in the world can’t fight a man who isn’t there! How can you kill smoke, how can you stop a shadow? We will strike from the shadows, we will be the smoke!” Diarmuid sat back, looking pleased with himself.

“And in the mean timth, who will pay the prith for your attackth, hmm? When the tholdierth, who you harath with your little pin prickth, when they can’t find you, you thinkth they’re jutht going to thit back andth thcratth their atheths?” Brice asked with scorn, arms crossed across his chest. “No! They are going ta come for the regular people, the people who have jutht been trying to get by with their daily livthe. What you propothe ith going to cauth the people you profeth to want to help more grief, more pain, than not doing anything at all ever could. Did you think of that, couthin? Did you think about the cotht at all when you were thcheming your thchemes?”

The silence extended. Brice leaned back against the wall, arms still folded across his chest, scowling underneath his nightcap. Diarmuid puffed his pipe, a sombre expression on his face. Gus, whose eyes had brightened at Diarmuid’s words, looked dejectedly at the floor. Gavyn sat quietly, watching his new-found relation.

“Aye,” said Diarmuid from behind a haze of smoke. “It’s true that the common people will bear the brunt of the Heravar’s anger. But -” he quickly looked up from his feet into the eyes of Brice, “you can’t have your loaf and eat it too. We’ve always known that there would be repercussions for our actions, but they’re still worth doing. I contest your words – doing nothing would be tantamount to welcoming what goes on. You know as well as I that, if no one does anything, we will be worn down into the shit, we will be scrubbed out – whether it takes three years or three generations, we will die. And in the mean time, our lives won’t be worth the living. You tell me, here and now, whether you deserve this scrabbling, slipshod existence yea pursue? You can barely keep food on the table as is for your ‘pprentices. How much worse do you think it’s going ta get under the thumb of his Regal Highness?”

“Furthermore,” he said, taking the spent pipe from his mouth, “we’ve thought of the people already.” He knocked the pipe on the table to his side, ashes forming a small mound. Tucking the pipe inside whatever pocket it had emerged from, he twisted around on the chair and dug about in the sack that had lain unnoticed behind the chair till now, pulling on strings and rummaging with the folds of leather. At last, he emerged with a grin, holding a small harp, about the size of his chest. He tuned it, as Brice grunted and scowled more deeply.

Now I will recount that fall of old,

of the proud towers laid low

and familial concord rent asunder.

Of the coming of the Iron wrought men

of the Other-most East,

and the great Down-Turn,

so close in nature to our own.

Yea! From the East did they come,

from those lands beyond the

barbaric coast, from whence

all civilisation springs, so they say.

They came in their ships,

rowed by duskyhued slaves.

They came in their ships, carrying

their Eastern devils with them.

They landed in the South,
at Fuilteach Airm,

then known as Faoileán Scairt

for the forlorn cry of the sea-born gulls,

lonely and despairing.

There they landed, and, lo, great

was the carnage.

Our craggy coast is no stranger

to sadness and blood,

but never before had had we seen

such…thoroughness.

For there they came, these Iron-shod men

and their white, stone-carven Gods,

For them, this was no mere raid,

no quick adventure to plague

and frustrate our virtuous people.

No! These Iron-shod men

They sought to make these

rolling green fields, these bright cascades,

these deep rivers and high mountains,

they sought to make them their own.

In those days, this bright land,

This land known as Cothrom an Tír,

Was a patchwork of different kingdoms

and lusty, prideful tribes.

Those Easterners, with their strong weapons,

and their guileful minds,

they played the Kingdoms and the Tribes,

prideful of their achievements and their

pedigree as they were,

off one another, spinning old enemies and

weak friends against one another.

Save for One.

Save for that Fabled City,

Save for Sliabh Dún,

where the Dawn has its end,

and the great Eagle makes its eyrie.

There, amidst their brazen weapons

and their strong hearts,

They held strong and rebuffed the Invader.

They stood tall, never bowing, never submitting.

Those Eastern Usurpers, they made their home

amongst the ruins of the those weak, those low Kings.

But those strong Princes of the Mounts,

Those guileful Kings of Sliabh Dún,

remained free; remained unrepentant.

For long seasons, they plagued the Usurper

with darts sharp and stinging.

They were ever a thorn in the side,

Till, at long last, they too diminished,

and returned to their Càirn,

from which we all have but a limited leash.”

“But that, of course, is subject for another night,” the man said, turning to stow his harp.

“You mean to tell me that the big thecrett you have, the big tholutionth to the Heravar purthuing their dethervedth retritbuthion, ith a FAIRIE KINGDOMTH?! Thatth your thquirreled hoard?” Brice exploded, waving his arms in the air before returning to his previous cross-armed repose.

Diarmuid regarded him coolly, looking him up and down before responding, “Well, yes, actually. We already have people out looking for it. You know as well as anyone that all legends have their seed in truth. If even half what has been said turns out to be true, Sliabh Dún will provide an ideal base, and a perfect place to stow away any number of people.”

“What a foolth errand! I’ll notth be partth of thith, I’ll thtell ya now.”

“Be that as it may, I’ll give you some time to think it over,” Diarmuid said, sweeping his gaze over the three of them before turning to grab his satchel. “Look for me in the days to come,” he said as he moved deftly through them. The door closed with its characteristic squeal, and the three men were left looking at one another. One, gazing through the slitted eyes of disdain, another, through the open eyes of wonder, and the third, through heavy lids, concealing what he really felt.