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 dusky–hued 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
“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.