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.”
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.