Dust drifted through the arced sunlight, stirred loose from the dull thumping above. Gavyn watched the discrete motes swirl in the unfelt draughts, wondering idly what all the commotion was about. Gus’ snores cut through his reverie, bringing him back to his whereabouts. He threw off the threadbare blanket, just as Selwyn came bounding down the staircase off to his left.
“Grab some grub, ye dozy fools, afore we leave fer the meeting!” Selwyn said, large grin splitting his narrow face.
Gavyn grunted in recognition, and threw his arm across Gus’ chest. The other youth snorted at the interruption, smacking his mouth in defiance. Looking side-long at his companion, Gavyn propped himself up to a sitting position, before rubbing his eyes, one at a time, scraping away the sleep that had gathered in the corners during the few hours’ sleep the two had wrested from the early morning.
“You heard Selwyn, Gus. Time ta get up,” said Gavyn with a yawn. The youth rose to his feet, stretching in the subterranean gloom. Kicking the still-recumbent Gus, Gavyn shrugged and made for the staircase.
As he emerged onto the main level, Gavyn could see what had caused the earlier disturbance – Selwyn’s mother was busily setting about the washing, vigorously scrubbing down an indistinguishable article of clothing. The bucket rocked back and forth on the floor, spilling a liberal amount of soapy water with each tilt. It was a wonder that it was only the sound that had reached them downstairs, rather than a deluge.
“Caoimhe baked some scones the other day, should be some left over there,” said Selwyn as he ducked through the door. Gavyn made his way over to the shelf Selwyn had indicated, finding a bowl with a cloth over it. Inside, he could see a pile of the little rolls, of which he took several.
Oéngus gained the main floor, rubbing a hand through his red hair. Selwyn dashed back into the small house saying “C’mon, c’mon, we’ll be late!”
“I’ve na had anything to eat even!” complained Gus.
“Here, have one of these,” said Gavyn, passing him a scone. “Selwyn’s sister made ’em. They’re good!”
Caoimhe herself appeared presently, striding into the kitchen from the adjoining room. Dressed in a blue frock with a white apron, she was otherwise the mirror of her brother, tall, thin, with sandy shoulder-length hair and a wide mouth.
“’Tis hardly anything – now, if we had some proper sugar, then I could show you some real baking!”
“There’ll be sugar and sweets enough once we’ve rid ourselves of the Usurper,” said Selwyn, “but that’s not going to happen any time soon if we miss out on the plan! Let’s be off!” He dashed back out the door, followed by Gavyn, still munching. With a sheepish look towards Caoimhe, Oéngus made for the door, taking half a scone at a bite.
“Always so eager to rush off, with their great plans and fancy talk,” Caoimhe said, huffily.
“Aye, child, you’ll get used to it one day,” her mother responded, not looking up from her washing.
“Can’t imagine they’re going to talk about anything useful, either. Bunch of…men. No sense atwixt the lot. I don’t know why they bother.”
“No, dear, but then, that’s not for us anyways. Would you pass me that other bucket, over there? Aye, the one with clear water.”
The guild hall came into view as the trio of young men crested the hill. Flanked on either side by its own outbuildings, the hall itself sat comfortably in a courtyard, small fountain burbling in front of it. There were a few others in view as the three youths approached – what must have been journeymen of the guild, from the way they were dressed. As Gavyn and his friends passed through the low stone wall’s gate, itself little more than a formality, one the guild members, standing off to the side with two others, turned his attention on them.
“Hold it,” he said, striding over to them, followed but a pace behind by his comrades. Gavyn took note of just how robust these journeymen appeared, fit from their work. Oéngus looked sidelong at him, inconspicuously adjusting his bag to get himself a free hand. The member rustled about in his cloak, pulling forth a ring, a match of the one the three youths wore themselves.
“Yessee? We’re expected!” Selwyn said, grinning to the other two and giving them a shove. The guild members sombre faces creased into smiles.
Gavyn let out a sigh of relief, and the youths were lead towards the hall entrance.
“I’m Colm, by the way,” said the leader of the guild journeymen gruffly. “I’ll take you up to the meeting room. Some other members have already arrived.” The conspiratorial way he put ‘other members’ didn’t leave any doubt in Gavyn’s mind as to who it might be that he referred to.
The main doorway opened onto a wide rectangular room, the floor level of which was lined with long tables and accompanying benches, enough to seat what seemed like must be the whole guild. Colm lead the three youths to a staircase off to the left of the hall, the two other guild members peeling off to the right. Ascending the stairs, at the back of the pack, Gavyn took the opportunity to appreciate the sumptuous wood that panelled the walls, the sturdy, graven bannisters that held up the railing. Unlike most of the city he’d seen and lived in, this was clearly a place of wealth.
Gaining the landing, Colm lead the trio down the balcony, opening the second door they came to. The door opened onto a long hallway, equally well built. Colm proceeded down the corridor, turning into the third door on the left. Entering the room, Gavyn was greeted with the scene of a broad hall, the middle of which was taken up with a large trencher table. Men were seated around the table, some faces recognisable, others new. Gavyn recognised Emlyn, looking his dour self. Alban was seated across the table from him, peering into the tankard placed in front of him. Finally, amidst those sat on the left-most of the table, was Diarmuid. Gavyn was surprised to see that he didn’t sit at the head of the table – to his knowledge, Diarmuid was the head of their order, or at least he was here in Forc Tuile. Gavyn sat rocked back on his haunches, surveying the scene before him. About half the table was filled – largely middle aged men nursing tankards of what must have been ale. At the head of the table sat a wizened man, white hair peeking out from under a broad, peaked hat, long beard dipping below the table.
Gavyn, Oengus and Selwyn edged their way to free spots on the right side of the table, Colm excused himself, heading back down stairs. Gavyn looked over to Diarmuid, who, looking up from the scraps of paper laid out in front of him, caught his eye with a twinkle, returning to the assorted rolls. The minutes passed, and more men filtered into the room, taking up positions around the table. Gavyn looked about him – men of mostly middle-ages filled the seats, though there were a few youths scattered throughout. Seated at one of the outside edges was the Chief Conchar and one of the Cosgrach men, dwarfing the cloaked Crow seated beside him.
Emlyn, glowering at Conchar, sat to Diarmuid’s right. He caught Gavyn watching him, and, though it seemed nearly impossible, deepened his frown still further, before quickly looking towards the head of the table. Presently, the old man seated there cleared his throat, signalling all present to silence.
“It seems,” the man wheezed, “that we all who are expected to attend, are now in attendance. I hereby declare that this meeting of Brân Lwyd begun.” He spoke with a reedy, whistling voice, dry with age and sapped of virility.
“Thanks…” continued the ancient, “are due to our Brother Galchobar, for securing us a location where we could all of us meet, in secret and security,” he said, indicating with a thin hand a large man seated a few places down from him.
“’Twas nothing, Brother Sean, nothing at all,” he said in a manner which left no-one questioning how self-satisfied he was. “The Brotherhood’s secrets are safe with the Mason’s Guild, I’d stake me life on it, and what’s more important, my prerogative!” He gripped an ornate chain he wore about his neck as he said this, which was met with some laughter by others sitting around the table, equally outfitted. The chain was a linkage of stylised iron M’s, with a pendant hanging below the throat, an embossed mason’s hammer stamped in relief. Looking at the other bearers of the chain, and the way they all seemed to be of a similar build – muscular, but run to fat from inactivity, Gavyn guessed that these represented a good number of the Masters of the Mason’s Guild.
“It sets me at ease to hear it, Brothers,” Sean continued. “Our long-wait is drawing to a close. Now, after two decades of skulking and sneaking, now we must begin our work in earnest. There will be dark days ahead for the Brotherhood, and we will need to marshal what friends we have,” the brittle voice, breaking in places, reduced the joviality of the Guild Masters.
“Brother Nuallán, tell us what news you have from the Marches,” Sean said to a grim figure seated but a few places up from Gavyn. The man had a weathered look about him, beard run early to grey, and hard lines carven about his still-youthful eyes. He cleared his throat before standing to address the assembled.
“There have been disturbing reports, messages from the countryside that tell of a new cult rising, a cult of magicians with terrible sorcery that beggars belief.” Several heads nodded around the table in recognition. “We do not know if this is some new devilry from the Hervarar, or something different altogether. What we have been able to ken is that their message runs counter to ours. They do not believe in the sanctity of Old Ones. They are not of Cothrom an Tír. Until we find out more, we must tread cautiously. They seem to have been making some headway in the far-flung villages to the North and West, close to the Miotail Mountains. Our agents there have not been seen or heard from in several weeks.” The man sat back down, a look of determination on his face. Selwyn, Gavyn noticed, had watched the stranger with a certain intensity, beyond that deserved by the foreboding nature of the report.
Most of the men avoided one another’s eyes at the closing of this report. A pall seemed to descend on those gathered, as each man weighed the importance of this news from beyond the city, trying to fit it into their own experience, trying to determine how this affected the subtle dance they ran with the Hervarar. Emlyn was the first to break the silence.
“So -” he said. “So, even before we begin, the countryside rises up against us. It’s just as I’ve been sayin’ – we waited too long! Fer years I’ve been sayin’ it! We should have struck while the people still knew who their enemies were, should have gathered the hatred of the common people for a new oppressor! What has our waiting, all these years, gained us?” He directed his gaze back across the table at Gavyn. “Mewling children fresh from the mother’s teat, with no fight in ’em and broken bodies withal? This is a fine path you’ve taken us down, ap Diarwyd, a fine one indeed.”
“Calm yourself, Emlyn,” Diarmuid said, looking up to Sean. The ancient nodded, and Diarmuid continued. “The hour is not so late as you make out. Brother Nuallán indeed did not say that these strangers were agents of the Hervarar. It could be that they have as much disregard for the Fimm as they do the Old Ones. If this is the case, and I repeat, we don’t know yet, it could be that this addition to the mix can be turned to our favour.” There was a noticeable brightening on a few faces scattered along the table – they had clearly not seen the issue from this angle. “It is true,” Diarmuid said, “that this will complicate things for us. However, we already knew that we were going to have to keep our heads down once things got rolling. If anything, this will change up the situation here in the Forc.”
“If these strangers are indeed aligned with the King,” Diarmuid said, cutting across a spluttering Emlyn, “then the garrison here in the city will be relaxed, thinking that the out-lying lands are secured and pacified. However, if they are not for the Hervarar, the piggy eyes of Stórskorinn, that lump of a Magistrate, will be directed beyond the walls, and we will be able to work a freer hand.”
“Hmmph,” scowled Emlyn, crossing his arms over his chest. Others seemed quite pleased with the new angle, looking to one another with broad smiles, already envisioning re-taking the city.
“Your ‘freer hand’ mebe a bit tighter than you’d have liked, I suspec’” said Alban, stirring from his slouched position. “I was down Iron Market ways before making it over, and I only just caught the end of it, so I’m not surprised none of you lot have heard. There was ah Hervaran soldier reading out a…a message…”
“A…dictate?” offered Galchobar superiorly.
“Aye, a dictate,” responded Alban with a frown. “Anyhap, ‘e was sayin’ that any public recognition of any other gods save the Fimm is to be outright banned moving for’ard. I don’t know what this says about our Strangers to the North, but it’s unlikely we’ll be getting any respite here in Forc Tuile in the days ta come.”
The revelation of further civil restrictions brought gasps and cries of alarm from around the table. However, Gavyn noticed, it was the grey beards who were most distraught at the constraints on religious observance, and not a one of the Guild Masters changed their impassive faces.
“This is indeed troubling news, Brother Alban,” wheezed Sean, alarm animated by his features. “Whatever the cause, we knew this day would come upon us eventually. Osred will never leave us in peace, not until we are stamped out. His tightening grasp should not have caught us so off-guard.”
“If I may, Brother Sean?” said Diarmuid. “This somewhat changes our situation. Though it is too early to say at the moment, it seems like this is likely ta be only the first in a series of steps to more tightly control we Cothromen. If I had to wager on it, I’d say it’s likely tied, in some way, to the imminent residence of the Crown Prince, down in Dheas Bhá. If I’m right, what we’re seeing is a return to those bad days just after the Sacking.” He looked around, meeting the glances of many of those sat about the table.
“Well, then,” said Emlyn from beside him. “What do you propose, in light of our darkening situation?”
“What we need,” said Diarmuid, “is a place of safety. A hold-fast. I think it is time to leave Forc Tuile.” The table exploded with angry shouting.
“Where are we going to go? There is no-where else!” barked Emlyn.
“Leave the city? Leave the Guild? Madness!” cried Galchobar.
“Our strength is here, where we have control!” yelled another of the be-chained Masters.
“Brothers, please! Return to order at once!” squawked Sean, drowned out by the continuing shouts of consternation, the fists slamming on the table.
Conchar and the other Cosgrach warrior met eyes, started laughing uproariously and slapping each-other.
“Ha!” bellowed Conchar. “Lookit how the wee men fall aboot themselves at the thought o’ leavin’ their prissy little stone houses, Teárlach! Have ye ever seen such teensy mice?”
The sound of the two giants, laughing themselves to tears at their expense, gradually cut through even the staunchest of adversarial shouting. As the room quietened, Conchar addressed them all, standing up and leaning across the table, arms out in front of him.
“I begin ta have me doubts aboot this whole entaprise o’ yourn. If’n you cannae stomach tha though’ of leavin’ yer precious stone buildin’s, I dinnae know if there’s much here for the Cosgrach. I cannae see any use o’ a pack o’ snivellin’ wee lasses when there be fightin’ ta be doin’.” All levity was gone from his countenance. He looked about him, glaring at any who would meet his gaze, before sitting back down.
“I’ve ‘alf a mind ta pack up now. I know where there be heads fer the crackin’ and it’s a sight more useful than sittin’ aboot natterin like a coven o’ tha Cailleach,” he said, tilting himself back on his chair and examining a hang nail on a broad thumb.
“Peace, Chieftain,” said Diarmuid. “You know well enough that we will fight as well as any others, given the right moment. Now,” turning in his seat to address the table at large, arms spread in conciliatory gesture, “I wouldn’t put forth such a…controversial…plan if’n I didn’t have some idea what I was talking about. It is true,” he said, directing his words to the Guild Masters, “that our base of power, where we our most secure, has been here in Forc Tuile. However, you yourselves know that every year it gets harder and harder to squeeze out a life for ourselves. The tariffs and restrictions on trade and work are near to throttling the city now, and, if my suspicions are right, it’s only gettin’ worse from here on in.” Some mumbles from the Guild Masters, and others, corroborated what the man said. “So. It seems that our continued use of Forc Tuile as base of operations is agreed to be…untenable, at best.”
“That’s all well-and-good,” blustered Emlyn, “but where the hell are we supposed to go? In case you didn’t realise, this is the only real city for dozens of leagues! We can’t very well set up down in Dheas Bhá, can we? You think it’s tight here for us? Imagine how bad it would be under their very noses! No, there is nowhere else!”
“What…what about Sliabh Baile, down to the west and south?” said one of the Guild Masters. “My wife’s brother, he is a member of the Carpenter’s Guild there. And it, it would be a great position strategically, so near to the Pass! We would be able to anticipate any great movement of soldiers or goods through the mountains before they even arrived in Cothrom an Tír. Why, we could even ambush them as they travelled!”
“Aye,” said Nuallán, “but that’s exactly why Sliabh Baile would be a poor choice. The idea that it could be used against the Pass has not escaped the notice of the Usurper – there is a strong garrison there, and they run a tighter ship than the lot here in the Forc do.”
“In addition,” snarled Emlyn, “Sliabh Baile is a dung hill. Have you been there in the last half dozen years? I have. I assure you, the addition of ten souls would garner attention, let alone the better part of our order. We’d be found out in days, and swinging from a gibbet shortly thereafter.” The Master, who was quite taken with the idea, his idea, became so crestfallen as to look almost comical.
“Now, now,” ministrated Diarmuid, who was in the process of lighting his pipe, “Brother Casúr‘s idea doesn’t deserve that sort of treatment. It was a constructive one, even if it wasn’t quite…up to speed with current affairs. Further, I’ve yet to hear anything positive from you, Brother Emlyn.” A side-long glance to the surly man next to him.
“Positive?” he responded. “Positive?! Ain’t nothin’ to be positive about! The noose is closing around our necks already, and you want us to leave the only place of strength we have! Where are the positive, constructive ideas from you, eh? All we get from you is addle-pated lunacy!”
“Well, if you really must know,” Diarmuid said, pausing to take a long draw, “I think that the Mountains, as per Brother Casúr‘s suggestion are, in fact, our best bet. However, he was a bit far south for my liking. I propose Sliabh Dún.
“What!? You really are soft in the head, aren’t you?” shouted Emlyn. Diarmuid merely smirked. “No-one has known where Sliabh Dún is for generations, if it ever even existed at all! This is sheer non-sense, and I refuse to be party to it! Surely you can’t be seriously considering this?” the final question being directed at Sean. Diarmuid sat calmly, a small smile playing across his mouth.
“While Brother Diarmuid’s suggestion is…unorthodox,” whistled Sean, “he had mentioned it to me before we all met here, as an option to be held in reserve. We all agree that the situation is moving faster than we had anticipated,” he went on labouredly, “and, unless something else is proposed, I for one am curious to see where this may lead us.”
“In circles, Brother Sean! It will lead us in circles! Where are we even going to start looking? Even if we had a life-time, seven life-times, we couldn’t cover the whole of the Miotail range. This is a fool’s errand, and no doubt about it.”
“My dear Emlyn, always so quick to judge,” said Diarmuid, putting away his pipe. “Sliabh Dún exists, of that I am sure. And it has remained hidden, in large part, not because it is forever lost, but because of nothing more interesting than plain old disinterest. It was several decades ago, now, before the Fall, but there were scrolls in the Tower of the Cailleach that detailed the exact location of the Lost City. I say we send someone there, someone who would know what they were looking for,” a knowing look towards Gavyn and Oéngus, “who could retrieve them for us. If they have since perished, well, Brother Emlyn, I cede to you. We shall stay here in Forc Tuile and see if we can cut our way out of your noose.”
Those seated around the table focussed on Emlyn as he began to respond, and thus no-one noticed the click of the door closing, nor the softly padding footsteps treading away down the outside hall.
“And did yeah see the way that Emlyn looked when Conchar said ‘e was gonna crack some skulls? I bet that shrivelled old goat thought ‘e was gonna be the first omelette! ‘Is eyes nearly fell from ‘is ‘ead!” said Gus excitedly.
“Ha! That he did, Gus, that he did,” responded Selwyn, laughing. “What’d you lot make of Nuallán, though? Now, there’s a ranger! If we ‘ad fifty more like him, why, we’d have taken back the North by now!”
“I don’t know, Sel,” said Gavyn, pulling up the rear as his two comrades eagerly strode down the street. “’E looked to me, I dunno…sad-like. Worn down. Something about his eyes.”
“Oh, don’t be such a spoilsport,” Selwyn said, looking back over his shoulder. “How can you be in such a black mood – think of it, the Lost City of Sliabh Dún, the Unconquerable Fortress! We’ll really be able to menace the Hervarar once we get set up there!”
“We’ve certainly got our work cut out for us, if we’re ta find the Lost City. You think Diarmuid has any ideas, Sel? If we have to go looking through the mountains, like Emlyn said, I doubt we’ll ever find it!” Gus said, scrunching up his face at the thought of trekking through miles of wasteland.
“Ah, I’ve known old Diarmuid longer than you boys. I doubt he’d bring it up at a proper meeting if’n he didn’t have some tricks up his sleeve, I guarantee you that! Here, we’re nearly back home. Try not to say anything around Caoimhe or mum – they’re in on a lot of what the Brotherhood does, but the less they know, the better.”
The trio turned a corner in the back lane, choked with weeds, bringing them up to the rear entrance to Selwyn’s house. They crossed under the arch that entered into the small allotment behind the building, still discussing the revelations and news of the recent meeting. The square of the yard, hemmed in by a low brick wall, was taken up by a struggling garden, its vegetation blighted by rust. There was a stoop of three steps ascending to the back door, the topmost of which was occupied by the body of Diarmuid, happily smoking.
“You boys could wake the dead with the racket you make,” he remarked, startling them out of their conspiratorial conversations.
“Ah! How did you get here so quickly, old-timer?” said a chagrinned Selwyn.
“Old-timer, is it? Well, young pup, this old man knows a few more tricks about the warren of these streets than you do, so you’d best watch your tongue,” replied Diarmuid in a mock offended tone. “Come on now, let’s head inside. It’s unlikely that there’s anybod about that’d be spyin’ on us, but, once burnt, twice shy as they say.” He stood and, stepping to the side, held open the door for the youths with an outstretched arm.
Gavyn didn’t know what Diarmuid was talking about, but meekly followed the other two as they passed by the older man. Diarmuid looked out for a moment upon the growing bank of clouds high in the evening sky, visible above the abutting row of houses, then followed the youths inside. The four passed through the back room of the house, past the staircase leading to the top floor, into the front room and the kitchen, there with chairs enough for three.
Selwyn’s mother was over in the far end of the room, stirring a cauldron where it hung over the fire. Vapours rose from the black pot, filling the room with the fragrance of sage and basil. She looked up as the men trooped in, hands on hips in an adversarial stance.
“So,” she said, looking them up and down, “about done with your conniving? Gone all day, and I bet that you’ve not had a bite to eat while out, hmm?” Oéngus’ stomach, prompted by the smell of the soup and the talk of food, grumbled audibly. “And you, sirrah,” she said, catching sight of Diarmuid, “you should be ashamed, taking these bairns all day and not feeding them – they need to eat! What sort of grand revolution are you going to achieve on empty bellies, eh?”
“Bairn? Who’sa bairn? I’m nearly a man grown, and these two aren’t much far behind me!” protested Selwyn, embarrassed at being cut down out of hand in front of the others.
“Aye, peace lad – your mother be right, if’n I’m going to be involving you in the Brotherhood’s work, the least I can do is keep ya fightin’ fit. I hope this,” he said, turning back to the woman and rummaging about in his cloak, “goes some way of repairin’ the wrong?” As he finished, he pulled forth a large loaf of bread, a roguish smile on his face.
“Hmmph, better than arrivin’ here empty handed. And I’ll bet it’s three days stale, too…” Despite the animosity of her words, she wore a smile on her face, and took the loaf over to the table, slicing it into large pieces. She rummaged about in a set of shelves, producing a small crock of butter after standing back up.
Diarmuid, meanwhile, had rearranged the chairs to allow at least three of the assembled to sit, out of the way of the ongoing meal preparations. He took one, offering the other two to the younger men. Gavyn, after looking over at Selwyn, who shook his head, took another, and Gus the last.
“So, did you enjoy the proceedings earlier today?”
“Aye!” said Gus. “When will we start looking for the Lost City?”
“Ha, lad, that’s why I’ve joined you here. You, you and young Gavyn, you’ll be the first step in our eventual move.”
While Diarmuid was addressing Oéngus, Caoimhe entered the room, leaning back against the door frame with arms crossed against her chest.
“Uh-uh, no way we are having a private conversation with her around,” Selwyn broke in, pointing at his sister. “Bad enough that my mother is here, but her? We might as well just go down to the Market quarter and shout it!”
“Oh, go boil your head, Sel,” Caoimhe responded, as the other three men looked on in bemused confusion. “It’s not like I could go anywhere in this house where I wouldn’t hear everything you lot were saying, anyways!”
“Hmmph,” scoffed Selwyn, crossing his own arms and pulling a face.
“Who am I going to tell? And isn’t this great revolution of yours supposed to involve all of us anyways? Doesn’t that give us a right to know?”
Selwyn mumbled something about “tactics” and “secret” into his chest, but otherwise didn’t respond.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
“So, as I was saying,” said Diarmuid with a cough as he turned back to the seated pair, “you two will be the first step in rediscovering the location of Sliabh Dún. As I said during the meeting, there should still be scrolls in the Tower of the Cailleach that detail where the city lies. I spoke with some of the elders, and they agree with me that it should be you two to fetch them – you both know how to read, and, what’s more important in some ways, you are as of yet unknown to be part of the Brotherhood. We don’t think the Hervarar are watching us, or yet know our designs, but there are enough Tuilans down on their luck who wouldn’t think twice about selling us out if it got them a crust or a few silver. The Tower is right next to one of the larger Hervaran camps in the city, so it’s a bit of a risk for myself or one of the others to head down that way.
“As ye know, the tower burned up in the original Fall, but, luckily for us, their maps were kept in the basement, which, though I haven’t been there in some years, was left relatively sound. The scrolls we want should be three levels down from the street level. The stairs should be solid, but be careful – I don’t know how the joists have been holding up after all these years. Once you’ve found the appropriate records, make your way back here. I’ll come by in the evening. Get what rest you can tonight, you’ll want to make an early start of it tomorrow.”
Diarmuid then turned in his chair to face Selwyn.
“Now, for you – I think you’ll enjoy this task. I want you to go with Nuallán and a few others. They are going to scout the outlying communities, to see if there is any evidence of our mysterious Religious group in the vicinity, and to see if we can determine any more about them or their allegiances. You’ll be gone,” he said, turning to look at Selwyn’s mother, “a few days, maybe a week,” she nodded in recognition, “so prepare yourself accordingly. Nuallán and the others will be meeting at the North Gate shortly before dawn, so you’ll be wanting to get in an early night as well, no doubt. And, that’s pretty much everything for now, lads. Best of luck to yeah, in your endeavours!”
“Oh, are you not going to stay for some food?” asked Selwyn’s mother from the corner.
“Nay, I have a few more stops before my work is done, this night. More to go around for your growing bairns, if I leave now, too!” the man said as he rose from the chair. “I’ll take up the offer another night, never ye fear!” Before another word could be said to gainsay him, he was out the door and into the night.
The gate to the temple grounds, caught in the great fire two decades ago, had been reduced to the barest iron framework, its rusted skeleton not even worth the theft. The two lads could see through it, to the barren path beyond, and up to the broken marble of the temple’s vestibule, which itself was obscured by shadow. Gus elbowed Gavyn in the side, nodding his head with a grunt towards the bustling garrison to the site’s immediate East.
“What’re we gonna do about tha’? We gonna be able to sneak pas’ all them soldiers, ye think?”
Gavyn, twisting about from behind the barrels the two were crouched behind, shifting in the sewage slick mud, scanned the street in front of them. Soldiers could be heard calling to one another from the barracks, a sergeant’s voice cutting through the hubbub to chastise a group of recruits. The street was largely vacant, the distaste of the populace for the soldiery made apparent by their absence. A lone beggar, carrying his belongings in a tumbrel behind him, shuffled into view. Looking towards the sandy walls of the compound, he spat on the ground as he passed it, and continued on his hobbling way, stooping his head against the late afternoon sun.
“Diarmuid did choose us for the mission because we are, whatsit called…inconspicuous. Ye think we can just walk in? This is still our city, after all. An’ it’s not like they’ve made any laws about going to the tower.”
“Guess so, but then, them Hervarar probably not look too kindly on anybod messin’ about with the old religious places. ‘Specially with what Alban said he overheard in the market the other day. I’m thinkin’ us marchin’ right over there’re look rather odd,” responded Gavyn.
“Yeah, but, it’s not like they’re out keepin’ an eye on the place. Hell’s teeth – didn’t even bother that tramp, an’ he spat at ’em! All’s we’re gonna do is walk past, right?”
“Hmm, I guess you’re right…”
“’Course I am. Now, c’mon, let’s double back aways, an’ come at it as if we’re just walkin’ down the street. Ain’t nothing more normal ‘n that, eh?”
The two beat back along the byways, entering the street about a block down from the garrison. They struck up a leisurely pace, trying their best to look nonchalant. As they passed in front of walls of the camp itself, Gavyn could feel the sweat begin to bead on his head, prickling his scalp. Despite his growing sense of unease, sure that some Hervaran soldier would be able to smell the guilt on them, they made it to the iron gate without incident. Oéngus pushed at the door, but it held fast. Wordlessly, he looked back at Gavyn, who shrugged and motioned for him to try it again. Gus put his shoulder into it, and the gate edged open a few feet, squealing horribly on its hinges. Both boys looked at each other in alarm, frozen, waiting for the expected yells of discovery.
Though it must have been heard in the adjacent grounds, no guards descended upon the conspicuously positioned youths following the door’s vocal shift. Not wanting to try their luck, the two quickly made their way into the safety of darkness in the waiting vestibule. A few minutes passed. A figure, bent nearly double and swathed in rags, hobbled up the street until the gate, scanned about to see if anyone had noticed it’s passage, and followed them into the ruined tower.
“I don’t think we’re going ta be able ta find it…” Gus mumbled as he pawed through another stack of scrolls. Dust rose up from the disturbed manuscripts, so thick as to temporarily choke both of the youths. Oéngus, covering his mouth with his free hand, dropped the candle he was holding, sending it rolling about on the sooty ground. Its movements sent erratic shadows dancing across the stone walls of the chamber before coming to rest in a far corner.
“Cailleach’s teats, Gus! Watch what you’re doin!” Gavyn shouted. “We set one of these scrolls alight, the whole place’ll go up! Again!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Oéngus coughed, retrieving the guttering candle “whadaya think I am, stupid? Didn’t do any harm, did it?”
“That’s not the point! You could’ve – hold it, what was that?” Gavyn said, looking towards the ceiling. As both youths craned their necks to look up, an audible creak could be heard from the room above, followed by another, a few feet away, and a third, still further.
“I think…I think someone is up there,” began Gavyn, when, starting with a groan, the wood of the ceiling collapsed in a flurry of dry rot and splinters. A body crashed into a table set against the back wall, spilling the assorted scrolls and texts across the room. As the dust cleared, the form of a girl could be made out amongst the wreckage, where she lay rubbing her bottom, a disgruntled look on her face.
“What? Who? How?” stammered Gus. “Who’re you? How’d you get here?”
“I followed you, and then I fell through the floor, didn’t I?” she said. Now that they were able to get a better look at her, the youths realised that she wasn’t as young as she seemed, just very slight. In fact, it was likely she was as old, if not older than they were.
“Is he always this dumb?” she asked, looking at Gavyn. For his own part, fire-scare so fresh in his memory, he responded with a bemused nod.
“Well?” she said, looking from one non-plussed face to the next. “Is either of you going to help me up?”
“Oh, uh, yeah. Sorry,” said Gus, sheepishly helping the strange girl to her feet.
“You still haven’t told us who you are,” said Gavyn, half-heartedly sorting through the disarray of paper and velum.
“Hmm?” she said, dusting herself down. “Oh, yeah. I’m Maive. I overheard you at the Guild Hall yesterday, and figured that someone would come looking for the scrolls soon. And, just as I thought, here you are! Guild Master Galchobar ap Hern is my father, by the way,” she added, obviously anticipating that they would be impressed by the fact.
“Mmm, good for you,” mumbled Gavyn, still rifling about in the papers.
“Yeah, but, that still doesn’t tell us why yer here,” added Gus, confused look on his face. Maive, seeing her revelation fail to faze, took on a defensive body posture, hands on hips.
“Papa is always going on and on about how important the work of this Secret Brotherhood he’s part of is, always saying how they’re going to save Cothrom an Tír, how they’re going to throw out the Hervarar and retake the City. I figured that, especially if it’s a bunch of stuffy old men, they could use someone with a bit of…intelligence,” she said, once more looking pleased with herself. “I listen in every time they have a meeting at the Hall, though this was the first time they said that they’d actually be doing anything. Usually it’s just talk about how dangerous things are, and old, boring stuff from a long time ago, and dull lists of things, and facts, and figures. Why’d they send you, anyways?” she quickly changed tack. “Aren’t you, you know, a bit young?”
“Ha! You’re about the same age as us!” said Gus, puffing up his chest. “What kinda benefit are you gonna bring ta the Brotherhood, eh? ‘Sides, we can read. Doesn’t matter how old we be.”
“Ooo, ahhh,” Maive responded mockingly. “You can read! Well, I am impressed! Here I was wondering if you even knew your own names. I’ve told you all about myself, and you’ve told me naught about you.”
“I’m Gavyn, and that’s Gus,” said Gavyn, pointing to where Oéngus stood glowering. “We’re …we’re kind of new to the Brotherhood. But, like Gus said, we can read, so we’re down here searching for -”
“We’re searching for some maps,” Gus interjected, “secret maps. And, last I checked, you weren’t part of the Brotherhood, so I don’t know why we should tell ya any more’n that. What?” he said, looking over at Gavyn. “She don’t have the ring, does she? Why should we tell ‘er anythin’ about Sliabh Dún?”
“Asides from the fact that you just told me what you were looking for, you clod, didn’t I already tell you that I overheard everything that was said at the meeting? I already know why you’re here,” Maive responded. Gavyn smiled slightly, Gus stood looking flummoxed.
“Well…well…that’s all well and good,” Gus returned weakly. “But, as I can see it,” he said, somewhat recovered, “there be no reason you should be here any further. Leave us be.” Maive looked at his frowning face for a moment, blank expression worn in response.
“Did you forget that I just fell through the ceiling?!” she inquired dubiously, looking around at the wreckage scattered on the floor. “I don’t very well know the way back out, do I?”
“Well,” Gus said, taken aback, “that’s, that’s hardly my fault, is it?”
“Oh, leave off, Gus. It’s not like it’s any big secret, clearly. She might even be able to help us, for all the good it’ll do,” interjected Gavyn. “Can you read?” he said, addressing Maive.
“Me? Oh no. Papa says that it would be un-ladylike to learn something like that, something clerks should know.”
“Well, that’s great, just fantastic. C’mon, let’s go and check the next room. I don’t think that the maps’ll likely be in here. Just a bunch of tallies of wheat harvests from decades ago,” said Gavyn.
“Why would anyone even bother writing that down?” said Maive, as the three trooped out into the hallway.
“Ha! Shows how much you know!” said Gus from the lead. “Records be important!”
“Yeah, for what? To bore people with in the future?”
“Nah! Fer…fer trade! An’…keepin’ a report…an’ other stuff,” Gus said weakly.
While the other two continued to argue about the usefulness of writing things down, Gavyn looked into the next room. Unlike the one they had just left, which had survived the intervening years with only a bit of decomposition, this room had been caught in the original fire. Blackened stone walls and charred timbers were all it contained, completely gutted by the inferno.
“I hope that the records we were looking for,” Gavyn said, cutting into the continuing dispute, “weren’t in there, or else all this has been for naught.”
“Aieee!” Maive screamed. A knife pressed against her throat, strong, if lean, arm held her steady from behind. She had been in the rear of the column, and the candle only just illuminated her attacker.
“If either of you movth, the bitth getth it!”
“…Toam? Is tha’ you, Toam?” said Gus, peering into the darkness, more curious than afraid.
“Aye, itth me, ye bathtard!” Toam growled. His face was barely visible in the half-light, further obscured by the rags which covered most of his head and body. “Look, lookit what ye did ta me!” he said, pushing his captive into the glow, following her. “Ye caved in me fathe, made me a freak!” he lisped. “I can’th work, I can’th even beg proper now! You ruined me, Rua! An’ now, now I’m gonna kill yea! But firtht, I’m gonna ruin yea, like ye ruined me! I’m gonna cut yea, an’ I’m gonna smash yea, an’ then you’ll know, you’ll know what itth like to be like Toam! I’ve been followin’ yea for weeks, an’ now I’ve got me chanth. And the best thing is, down ‘ere, no one will even know what ‘appened to yea. You’ll dithappear, and no one will know.”
While he had been speaking, Toam had removed the knife from Maive’s throat, waving it in the direction of Gus, punctuating each threat with a stabbing motion. The girl took her chance, smashing her head back into the taller man’s face. He let go of her, hand moving up to hold his damaged nose.
“Gods’ dammit! Why ith it alwayth MY FATHE!” he shouted as Maive ducked away from the swinging knife, dodging up the hall to stand behind Gus’ sheltering body.
“Go on, do something!” she shouted at Gus. Gus looked at Gavyn, still standing in the burnt-out doorway, who shrugged. Gus looked at his hand, still holding the candle. Returning Gavyn’s shrug, not having anything else within reach, he threw it at the figure of Toam. The candle caught in the man’s shredded clothing, setting the scraps quickly alight. The man began to scream as the fire bit into his flesh, waving about and beating at his own body, trying in vain to extinguish the flames, serving only to spread them further.
“C’mon, let’s go!” shouted Gavyn as he ducked past the flailing body of Toam and ran down the hallway.
As the three rushed headlong into the darkness, a jagged cry of “Ruaaaaaaaaghh!” followed them, still reverberating even after turning several corners.
“Why’d you have to throw the last candle, eh?” complained Maive, several hours of frustrated exploration later.
“How was I to know it was the last? An’ you told me too!” said Gus, unknowingly yelling at Gavyn in the darkness.
“I did no such thing! I distinctly said to do something, not, throw away our last source of light! Ugh, I’ve gone and saddled myself with a pair of idiots!”
“Hey, that’s hardly fair,” said a defensive Gus, “where’re your candles, eh?”
“You’re going to blame me? Me, who was attacked by that awful man? Some hero you are!” Maive retorted. And then, in a smaller voice, “I must have dropped them somewhere.”
“Look, there’s no sense in fighting,” said Gavyn. “We’re three storeys underground, with no light, no food, and no idea how far these tunnels go. The last thing we need is ta be at each-other’s throats. We need to focus on finding our way back up. Anyone have any ideas?” His voice echoed in the dark for a time, before finally dying without answer.