Category Archives: Novel

Pseudo-historical fiction set sometime around the equivalent of 1000 C.E.

Chapter 5

Chapter 5

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?” O
éngus’ 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.

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Chapter 4

Chapter 4

The hour being early, there were few other people in the area of the gate as the troop of Irregulars arrived there, on their way to Ogden’s Wheel. Despite the sun’s just-emerging light, the clangour of hammer on anvil could be heard echoing from the West, as the smiths of the Iron Quarter began their daily labour. The square that lay in front of the gate, flanked by shut-up buildings, was deserted. The gate was shut.

“Column, hold!” Jans’ voice reverberated around the abandoned area. Llew covered the short distance across to the guard building, knocking harshly on the oaken door. A crashing could be heard from inside, and the roughly glazed window showed a flurry of distorted activity. After a time, the door was pulled inwards, and a rumpled soldier stood scowling at the Commander.

“Enh, whaddaya want?” he said, looking around the square, seeing the thirty-odd soldiers standing at attention some few paces away.

“It is an hour after dawn, and this gate should be open,” replied Llew, somewhat sternly. “Regardless, open it for us now, by order of Lord Stórskorinn, so that we may pass.”

The guardsmen yawned loudly and wiped a gloved hand across his face. “Hardly get anyone travelling this way save for Market Days. Be no sense in openin’ tha Gate crack o’ dawn.” Llew crossed his arms, beginning to glare. “Enh, alrigh’ maybe there’ll be some traffic this morn anyways. Lemme get the key.”

After rummaging about in the guard house, the man emerged, carrying a set of iron keys. He walked over to the gate, and unlocked a padlock attached to a chain. Lifting the spar from where it hung, he opened the first door of the gate. The second door open, the road could be seen extending northward, till it was lost in the still-present morning mists.

“Company, forward!” yelled Jans, and the men marched through the gate. The guardsmen tried to hide another yawn as Llew walked past, sighing.

-:-

“These standing stones along the rode, Odane wonders at them,” Odane said, walking beside Llew at the head of the column.

“Ah, those?” asked Llew. “Those are known as the menhir. They follow the North Rode up into the mountains, usually about five stones every league but, at some points, the stones have fallen and been covered over in vegetation, or are missing altogether. If you look closely at them, you can see that there are runes carved into them.”

“Does Llew know what the runes say? For what purpose do the standing stones stand?”

“No, I don’t know that anyone does. They’ve been here forever, or so it seems. I remember an old woman in my home town growing up – she would say that the stones were put there by the Old Folk, those that pre-dated the arrival of the Eastern men that unified this country, hundreds of years ago. I wouldn’t give it much credence though, she was always full of Fairie tales, trying to scare the children.”

“Will we be seeing Llew’s home town on our march today? Odane is…curious…to see the place where Llew came of age.”

“Nay, my town is north and west of the where we are headed,” responded Llew. “Ogden’s Mill must be a new town, I don’t remember it on the road from before. Asides, I left there long before I came of age. I’d be interested to see what it looks like, after all these years.”

The column came to the crest of a slanted rise that blocked off the horizon. They stood at the top of a valley, a river having cut through the rolling hills over the aeons. The road ran on down the hill, the bottom of which lay some 100 or so feet below, sunlight playing off the river as it ran its course. The menhir followed the road, some standing, some lurching at an angle, every few dozen feet. From their relative height, the soldiers could see for leagues, small homesteads hidden among the hills with flocks of sheep dotting the turf. Patches of white and purple broke up the monotony of green, clover and heather flowering amongst the grasses. Occasionally, atop some hills, were piles of bare rock, stacked neatly.

“Those there, are those too the work of Llew’s Fairie people?” asked Odane, pointing to one of the piles in the distance.

“Ha! They may be that, indeed. Those are called the Càirn. People say that they mark the graves of great heroes and warriors. I do not know. They, too, have stood for a long time,” Llew responded, looking out over the vista.

Odane has seen lands where they have built monuments to their dead many hundreds of feet high, in great tombs that took the work of many hundreds of men, for many dozens of years. Llew’s Fairie people, they have a more…personal touch. Odane approves their humility.”

“Whatever you say, my friend, whatever you say,” said Llew, clapping the other man on the back. “Let’s carry on, we’ve aways to go yet before reaching this ‘Oden’s Mill.’”

-:-

“… and thus, we must throw off the heathen chains, and take up once more the Glorious Task given to us by the Mighty Flame. We will craft this land anew, with a new destiny for all men and women of Cothrom an Tír!” echoed the voice through the deserted village streets.

Llew, accompanied by Odane and two more Irregulars, strode ahead of the main body, halting short of entering the main square. From their vantage, they could see a crowd of villagers surrounding a black cloaked figure, who stood above them on a crate.

“We will drive back the oppressor and usurper, and push him out of this rich land! We will…”

“If Odane were a villager, he would be roused by these words.” Odane said appreciatively, as the orator continued his speech.

“Yeah, well, rousing or not, doesn’t sound like what his Grace’d like to hear. He look like some sort of monk to you?” asked Llew.

“Aye, that ‘e does,” said one of the other soldiers.

“Well, that’s good enough for me. Odane, you take a third of the men over to the far side of the square, beyond that mill. Don’t make a move till I give the signal. You, Jans, take a second third and block the main exits from the square itself. Do your best not to use violence. Idwal and I will take the rest of the men and confront these miscreants,” said Llew.

-:-

“…His mighty hand will reforge this land in His image, casting back – ”

“Alright, that’s quite enough,” said Llew, striding into the square at the head of a troop of ten Irregulars. The villagers were surprised by the sudden appearance the armed men. The monk on his crate folded his arms across his chest.
“By order of his Regal Highness, King Osred, all public religious demonstrations not of the Fimm are forbidden. Disperse, good people, and go about your business,” he said, addressing the crowd.

“Ah! Ah! Here the heretic, hear how he brings his foreign king’s empty words here, here to the Elect! Will we listen to these mewlings, these powerless edicts? No!” said the cowled figure, looking about the group gathered around him. The people made signs of restiveness, some muttering angrily amongst themselves.

“No! What right have they against us? They are but few and far from their king with his foreign idols and his unjust taxes! Now is our moment, now is the time to stand, my friends! Rend them! Kill the heretics!”

The men of the crowd, strong from their labours in field and craft, turned a menacing eye towards the soldiers, outnumbering them some five to one.

“Pretty good odds, Commander, even if they are unarmed,” said Idwal quietly to Llew, hefting his sword.

“Aye, but look, Idwal, they remain unsure of themselves,” Llew said shrewdly. “They aren’t soldiers, and have no experience with such things. Watch – People of Ogden’s Wheel, we mean you no harm. However, we have the streets covered -” the men lead by Jans stepped out of hiding, swords bare and bows drawn, though aimed towards the ground “and no person who breaks the King’s law will go unpunished!” Llew said in a commanding tone.
The stance of the crowd immediately took on a different tone – after a show of force, none of the villagers were eager for a fight. Sensing the turn in the tide, the strange priest redoubled his ministrations:

“All who contest the might of Hegebellius shall feel His wrath! Death to the Unbeliever!”
As if by signal, more cowled bodies flowed from the surrounding buildings. One of them raised an arm, holding a metallic cylinder, and pointed it at Idwal. A CRACK cut the atmosphere, followed by billowing cloud that enveloped the man. Llew turned to Idwal, seeing the vacancy where the man’s chest was but a moment ago. He locked eyes with Llew, holding them for a moment before sinking to his knees, pink foam bubbling at his lips.

“Forward!” yelled Llew, “Odane, attack!”

The air was filled with the whistling of arrows as the soldiers loosed, and the cry of men as they found their targets. Odane and his men came rushing from the mill street, barrelling through the townsfolk who parted like so much chaff. Another of the robed fanatics raised one of the metallic weapons, aiming towards Llew as he pushed through the crowd.

A second CRACK resounded through the square, cutting through the hubbub of the mass. The acolyte who had been holding the weapon disappeared in a cloud of smoke. The crowd stilled, turning towards the sound, those nearest the source backing quickly away. As the smoke cleared, there was little left of the acolyte, at least above the waist. A moment later, the pulped body slumped to the ground, little left above the middriff. The other priests seemed to react with as much surprise as everyone else did. Those few remaining villagers closest to the sprawled mess quickly retreated towards the buildings skirting the perimeter of the square, tripping over their fellows in the rush. The priests reacted more effectively, turning to meet the oncoming soldiers. The priest who had been pontificating, flanked by two others and Idwal’s killer, advanced towards Llew and the remaining few Irregulars. Brandishing a gold hammer, pulled from some-where in the folds of his cassock, the priest and his fellows crossed the distance quickly, showing little fear at the prospect of meeting the soldiers. Within a few steps the groups closed, swords clashing against metallic hammers.

Llew was thrown to the ground by the riposte of the priest, overpowered by his surprising strength. He deflected a second blow which crashed into the ground beside him, splitting the paving stone. Llew could see, off to his side, as the priest wielding the strange weapon dodged the slash of the attacking soldier and smashed the butt of the weapon into his face. With a grunt, the soldier off to his side pushed his sword through his chest, the priest collapsing onto the ground.

Llew saw the priest raising his arm for another strike. He threw up his sword to parry the blow, but it was knocked from his hand as his attacker struck his arm and a searing pain arced up through it. A grim smile split the priest’s face, as he knew Llew was now in his power.

The robed priest pulled back his hand, hammer catching a ray of sun as it was lifted through the air. Despite the pain in his arm, Llew was startled by the beauty of the light playing off the weapon. Peace took him, in an exhalation of breath. Confusion. The priest’s erstwhile smile frozen into a rictus of pain, light dying in his eyes. A sabre emerging from his shoulder, cleaving a jagged line through collar bone, through ribs, and pulling back. Blood frothing from the lips of the man.

The world came rushing back to Llew. Sounds that he didn’t remember disappearing crashed down on him, men screaming, men dying. Odane pushed the body of the dying priest to the side, gripping Llew’s good hand and heaving him to his feet. Surveying the charnel house the square had become, he could see that the battle was just over.

“How many?” grunted Llew, cradling his damaged arm.
“There was another four at the other end of square, close to where Odane and his men were stationed. Fell easily enough, outnumbered as they were. The fellow who met his end over there,” Odane said, pointing to the stray pair of legs with a gorey sabre, “and Llew’s four here, that makes nine.”

“And ours?”

“A lucky blow took Heulfryn, head pulped like a melon. The other priests fell quickly. Idwal is dead. Despite the Pedr’s smashed face, he will be alright. Might actually come out a bit prettier.”

“Doubt it,” Llew said through a wry grin. Sobering: “Odane, have you ever heard of anything like this, in all your travels?”

“Odane has heard tell of sorcerers and magicians in many of the lands he has been, but, as for seeing anything? Nay. This, despite all the places he’s seen, is something new.” The man shook his bald head, looking pensive.

“Damn,” said Llew. Turning to the nearest group of soldiers, “Trystan, get Teilo up here to take a look at Pedr’s face, and anyone else that was injured. Jans, collect three other men and search the rest of the houses in the square. You there,” he said loudly, addressing another knot of men, “Hereward, take those with you and search the houses further out. I want the townspeople back in this square in 20 minutes. And I want to know if anymore of those Priests are about.”

The men addressed quickly went about their tasks, some heading across the square and others leaving it by the nearest street. Llew moved over to the square’s well, sitting back against the wood and brick frame on an overturned bucket. Teilo, who had made a cursory glance at Pedr and applied some bandaging, came up.

“ – probably want to leave a token force here, at least for a few days,” Llew was saying to Odane.

“Alrigh’ Commander, lessee that arm,” said Teilo.

“Surely there are others who need the attention more than me, Teilo,” Llew said. “What about Pedr over there?
“Aye, he’ll be fine. Few less teeth, new crick to the nose, but it’s not like it was a clean slate ta begin with!” laughed Teilo, scratching the vacant socket where his left eye should have been.

“As to you, though, let me see that. I saw you take the blow, and those hammers look like they can do some damage,” he said, squatting down and cutting back Llew’s sleeve, revealing the mashed flesh of his fore-arm. He twisted the arm one way and another, drawing a tourniquette around the upper arm to slow the loss of blood.

“I’ll need to take a better look at it at some point, but you seem ta have come off lucky, Commander. You’ll keep the arm. The break is a clean one, and should set pretty easily. The flesh’ll leave a nasty scar, but there’s no helping -”

“Hey! Get him!”

“For the Flame!”

The wooden frame exploded into tinder, knocking Teilo and Odane to the ground, as another explosion was heard across the square. A second came from that direction, accompanied by a scream. Jans and the remaining two soldiers fought against four more of the priests, whom they had flushed from a house in the corner, the third soldier laying on the ground with his chest open. Two priests were armed with strange metal tubes from before, and the other two had the metal hammers, one gold and the second brazen. One of the priests lashed out and struck the soldier next to Jans in the thigh, shattering the leg. This was followed by a blow to the head, knocking him down. As the dust settled from the earlier explosions, more soldiers ran to the aid of Jans and his beleaguered comrades. A thrown spear pinned the priest wielding the gold hammer to the wall, who shouted to his comrades:

“Run! Run and return!”

With a rushed “In Hegebellius’ name,” the three other cowled figures ran, re-entering the house they had moments before spilled out of.

“After them!” shouted Llew, ears still ringing from the near-miss. Jans and the supporting soldiers dashed into the house and around the its side, leaving the square once more in a leaden silence. A CRACK rang out from where the soldiers had disappeared to, as well as the cry of wounded horses. Regaining their feet, Llew, Odane and Teilo made their way over to the scene of the recent battle, senses alert for any more hidden dangers.

 

“Sorry Sah, two of ’em got away,” said Jans. “They had horses posted at the far end of the town. They also had another of those weapons stashed there. They got Hereward with it. Took ‘is leg near off. Bled out quickly. He was lucky.”

“By the Mother!” said Llew. Looking over to Odane, “so, make that 13 of the priests, and five dead…?”

“Aye, five it is,” said Teilo, cleaning blood off this hands with an already soiled rag. “Even if I had him back at the Imperial infirmary in the City, there’s nought I could do with this chest wound,” he muttered, looking down with pity at the soldier layed out before him, one lung a collapsed mess of flesh, the other visibly straining to draw air, despite it’s exposed presence.

“Damn it!” shouted Llew, rage building inside of him.

“Heh, heh,” coughed the priest, still pinned to the wall of the house. “That one’s pain shall be all of yours – it is ordained.” A drip of blood spilled from the corner of his mouth, losing itself in his hood.

“And what of your own pain, Priest?!” said Llew, who leapt towards the man, twisting the spear embedded in the man’s body with his good hand.

The Priest cried out, face twisting in agony.

“Who sent you? What is this hellish magic? Answer me!” cried Llew, twisting the spear at a show of defiance.

“We are your doom, heretic! We are the Hammer of Hegebellius! We will burn you!” A mad look came into the priest’s eyes, as he laughed in Llew’s face, blood spilling from his mouth.

Face a frozen mask, Llew picked up the priest’s own weapon and brought it down on the man’s head, repeatedly striking him in a quiet frenzy. Odane rushed over when he saw what had overcome Llew, restraining him.

“Llew will stop! Llew must stop before he hurts himself!” the man cried. Llew finally collapsed into his arms, bloody hammer falling from his slack grasp. Odane looked over to Teilo, his face grim.

“It’s alright, I’m alright,” said Llew, reaching up to clean a spray of gore that had caught him in the face. Regaining his feet, he turned to Jans, “Collect all those metal rods, and put them under heavy guard. We’ll be staying here the night. Where’re those gods-cursed villagers?” he demanded with a shout.

-:-

Odane opened the door, revealing Llew sitting on the bed, head propped in his good hand, staring at the floor.

“I’ve killed many men in the service of the King, Odane. I have killed them in battle-rage, in fear. I’ve killed them when I knew that they didn’t deserve to die. This was the first time I’ve ever killed anyone with lust. I enjoyed killing that Priest, and I would do it again and again and again.”

“Let Odane help Llew with his armour,” Odane said. Llew looked up at him with hollow eyes, returning to the present scene. He stood, and Odane helped him take his left arm out of the sling. The leathern hauberk was gingerly negotiated off, and Llew sat back down on the bed.

“What happened today, Odane? This was meant to be straight-ahead. This wasn’t supposed to happen,” he said, shifting his injured arm. “We weren’t meant to lose anyone today. Maybe if we’d been at full strength -”

“Llew mustn’t blame himself,” Odane cut in, sitting down beside Llew. “The men that were left in the city, they could not help against the…unexpected.”

“That’s just it, though. I lead these men, I’m the one that is supposed to deal with all situations, to tell them what to do, to keep them safe. How can I keep them safe against this, this sorcery?” Llew said, tears growing in his eyes. Odane put an arm around the other man’s shoulders, pulling him close.

Chapter Three

Chapter 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-:-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-:-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-:-

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

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

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

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

“Sah!” Jans said with his customary salute.

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

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

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

“Early,” answered Odane. Llew grunted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sah!”

-:-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So it is done,” intoned Diarmuid.

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gavyn and Oengus both turned back to look at Brice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I will recount that fall of old,

of the proud towers laid low

and familial concord rent asunder.

Of the coming of the Iron wrought men

of the Other-most East,

and the great Down-Turn,

so close in nature to our own.

Yea! From the East did they come,

from those lands beyond the

barbaric coast, from whence

all civilisation springs, so they say.

They came in their ships,

rowed by duskyhued slaves.

They came in their ships, carrying

their Eastern devils with them.

They landed in the South,
at Fuilteach Airm,

then known as Faoileán Scairt

for the forlorn cry of the sea-born gulls,

lonely and despairing.

There they landed, and, lo, great

was the carnage.

Our craggy coast is no stranger

to sadness and blood,

but never before had had we seen

such…thoroughness.

For there they came, these Iron-shod men

and their white, stone-carven Gods,

For them, this was no mere raid,

no quick adventure to plague

and frustrate our virtuous people.

No! These Iron-shod men

They sought to make these

rolling green fields, these bright cascades,

these deep rivers and high mountains,

they sought to make them their own.

In those days, this bright land,

This land known as Cothrom an Tír,

Was a patchwork of different kingdoms

and lusty, prideful tribes.

Those Easterners, with their strong weapons,

and their guileful minds,

they played the Kingdoms and the Tribes,

prideful of their achievements and their

pedigree as they were,

off one another, spinning old enemies and

weak friends against one another.

Save for One.

Save for that Fabled City,

Save for Sliabh Dún,

where the Dawn has its end,

and the great Eagle makes its eyrie.

There, amidst their brazen weapons

and their strong hearts,

They held strong and rebuffed the Invader.

They stood tall, never bowing, never submitting.

Those Eastern Usurpers, they made their home

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

But those strong Princes of the Mounts,

Those guileful Kings of Sliabh Dún,

remained free; remained unrepentant.

For long seasons, they plagued the Usurper

with darts sharp and stinging.

They were ever a thorn in the side,

Till, at long last, they too diminished,

and returned to their Càirn,

from which we all have but a limited leash.”

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Gavyn stumbled in the press of the crowd, the rough fabric’d bodies catching at his exposed skin, the stink of humanity thick on a sultry afternoon. Swept off his feet, he was carried in the general direction of the crowd – down the street, towards the market place. As a heavy-set smith pushed ahead, Gavyn leapt into the wake he left, and pushed his way to the edge of the crush.
“Repent!” a cry rang out, a lone figure standing on a toppled statue, evidently the source. Gavyn ducked into the otherwise-empty square, eager for respite from the surge. “Repent, you philanderers! You heathen!” The man, for no woman could have such a commanding baritone, was cloaked and hooded in black, despite the heat of the mid-summer day.
“Eh, what’s ‘e on about?” said someone off to Gavyn’s left. More people detached from the throng and joined Gavyn in the square, always eager for a bit of street theatre when they could get it.
“Philanderers, he says, Colm! Why, wasn’t it just the other day Therise caught you over at -” a punch from, at least whom Gavyn suspected was the addressed, cut short the revelation of the location, as the first man leapt on to the second and the two fell back into the crowd. The figure on the statue looked on impassively, body expression exuding disdain.
“Aye, philanderers, I name you!” he said, looking out over the gathering crowd. “But I speak not of your petty misdeeds and dalliances. Nay, I speak of a greater crime! You have turned away your God, your Great Creator, and made filthy matrimony with these ‘New Gods,’ these imported, conquerors’ idols! Curs, all of you!” he said, with a striking motion of his arm, as if he sought to cut down the lot of them. “Aye, fire! Fire and brimstone await you! And not just in the afterlife, for the Mighty Flame, The Crafter of Worlds, Titanic Hegebellius walks this world! He will have his day, and He will take back what is His! Hearken to me, you of Cothrom an Tir, you of this Fallen Land!”
With that, a cascade of “Boo!” and “Sod off!” erupted from the crowd, accompanied by an assortment of vegetables. Under the withering hail, the black-robed figure, now stained and befouled, retreated to an exit in the far corner of the square, turning back to the crowd in order to shake a fist in final show of resistance. With his departure, the tenor of the crowd lightened, as if the entire episode had been planned from the start. Gavyn, looking around at those who had so auspiciously supplied the majority of the rotten produce, thought this might not be so far-fetched. Scene finished, the crowd began to disperse, flowing back towards the general stream towards the market place.
“As if it’s not bad enough that we’ve got the Hervarar sittin’ on our necks, now we’ve got some mad-cap black crows kickin’ up a fuss! Jus’ the other day I saw another one of ’em harpin’ on about ‘is Great Fiery Flatulence or what ‘ave you, over in Iron Quarter!”
“Las’ thing we need is even more o’ these Strange and Fantastical Gods, says I!”
“I dunno, Rafe, me ma went and prayed at the Hervaren temple of the Mother, and her rheumatism cleared up the next day – you know how much it ails her.”
“Ahh, get yerself down Dheas way, yea damn turn-coat! No self-respectin’ Tuilean’d be caught at one o’ them Temples!”
“Says you! Me ma had been prayin’ to the Cailleach since the Conquerin’, and the firs’ time she goes to the Mother, a miracle! Hervarar’re not so bad, says I…”
As Gavyn pulled apart from the crowd, heading on down a less-congested avenue, the hubbub died down, despite the odd muffled curse or shout. Away from the larger street, the buildings grew shabbier, the cobbles loose or missing. Sunlight was harder to come by as the street narrowed and buildings rose on their crooked ascent. A slight decline made itself known, as the tunnel curved it’s way down to the lower portions of the city.
“Oy, whatchu got there, boy?” a voice from a darkened corner broke the stillness. “Anything worthwhile for ol’ Toam?”
“I know you, Toam. You’re nothing but a skulk and a ne’er-do-well, and I’m not afraid of you,” said Gavyn.
“With that bad arm o’yourn, it’s not your fear I was countin’ on.”
With that, Toam lunged forward.
The two tangled together and fell to the ground, the parcel clutched under Gavyn’s good arm tumbling to the ground and the vials of ink it contained smashing on the stone. Toam made a grab for the purse newly revealed, and snatched it away from the prone youth.
“Nothing by copper!” he said with disgust, pawing inside.
“’course, whadya think you’d find on me?!” Gavyn’s shouted at him.
“Not even worth the trouble,” said Toam wistfully, as he grabbed Gavyn by the shoulders, and, with a wrench, smashed his head back into the cobbles. As he pulled the now-inert body back for another jerk, he felt hands grasp his vest from behind, and lift him bodily from the ground.
Letting go of the youth, he fumbled in the semi-darkness to get a hold of the vice-like grip on his jerkin. Before he could twist himself, Toam was thrown face-first against the wall of the building across the alley, pain erupting in his mouth as several teeth broke on the rough brick. As he brought a dirty hand to his mouth to hold his damaged teeth, he was spun about, and a fist crashed into his nose. Doubled over in pain, he received a kick to the stomach that knocked the breath from his lungs. Laid out on the ground, a blow to the head sent him into a waiting, velvety darkness.
“Ya alrigh’ there, Gavyn?” the strapping, if short, youth said as he dropped the paving stone.
“Aye. Toam never did ‘ave much girth,” Gavyn said, sitting up and rubbing the back of his head. “Strength enough, though, ta finish me off had you not arrived when you did, Gus. Thank ‘e.”
“Pay it no mind, I’m more worried ’bout the hiding we’ll get if mess’r Brice ‘as lost all ‘is ink here. Did it all break?”
“Nah, seems like there’s a few bottles left intact. Let’s hurry on. No doubt we’ll be in trouble enough as is,” responded Gavyn, as he gathered up the few containers of ink not smashed. Rubbing his head again, he looked over at the prone figure of Toam in the corner. Making sure that he had all
the salvageable bottles gathered in his bag and the few copper groats that had spilled from his purse, he strode resolutely over to Toam and stomped on his face.
“Ah, c’mon, ‘e’s had enough” Gus said.
“Easy fer you to say! You already got to give ‘im a thrashing!”
“Ha! Well, true enough indeed!”
“Off we go then,” said Gavyn. As the two started off down the alley, he quickly dashed back, and kicked the older man in the gut, just for good measure.

-:-

Emerging from the darkness of the by-way, the two youths found themselves in the familiar streets, squares and alleys of the dock-quarters. Alongside familiar ground came the familiar scents – clean sea breeze and salty, nearly-off fish; sweet, tarred timber and urine-sharp streets. Decay trammelled into the cobbles by the heavy tread of industry, or as much as remained to the beleaguered city. A softly simmering pot of opposites, all the vivacity of humanity on display.
Gavyn gingerly patted the matted blood on the back of his head, probing the still-throbbing skull for the extent of the damage. No pieces missing, but still stinging with movement. Perhaps he would be able to skip the chirurgeon, this time.
A ball bounced by, followed by grubby children chasing after it. One of them, the tallest, twisted quickly and knocked down a smaller one, the others taking up the new game with zest, leather ball forgotten in the gutter.
“Ahoo, lookit Davey, he’s fallen in tha mud!” one soot-smeared girl cawed.
As the child got his arms underneath himself, half risen, the original bully swept them out from under, and he fell once more with a squelch and gales of laughter. Despite their commotion, the pack of urchins were largely ignored in the lengthening dusk.
“Phwa! C’mon, you guys, leave me alone!” squawcked Davey, bursting into tears.
“What a cry-baby! What a cry-baby!” said the girl, falling into the filth herself as she laughed.
As Davey struggled in the dirt, the bully lined up behind him for another trip. He was, however, able to get up to his knees, as the erstwhile forgotten ball sailed through the air and clipped the other youth in the face, laying him out full length in the clogged gutter. Gus got his hands underneath Davey’s arms, and lifted the boy to his feet, who promptly kicked him in the shin.
“Didn’t need your help, ya dung-face!” Grabbing the ball, Davey disappeared back around the corner, following most of the other children who had already slunk away, wary of the elder youths.
“Damn, try and help a kid these days,” said Gus, ruefully rubbing his shin.
“Ah, can’t help everyone, you know,” observed Gavyn.
“Too true,” Gus responded. “Good kick to him, though. He’ll be a’righ’,” he remarked with an appreciative grin as the two strode down the street.

“Eh! I saw you, Óengus Rua, throwin’ that ball a’ that defenceless bairn!” The youths, caught off-guard as they were accosted from a doorway across the street, stood dumb-founded. “You oughtta know better ‘n that, at yer age!” The woman stepped down into the street, fists planted on hips and skirts rippling.
“Wait till I tell yer Master Brice ’bout you two boys, picking on the young ‘uns round these parts! My, in my youth, never would I ‘ave dared to be caught scrappin’ in the streets! An’ you, young Gavyn!” she said, pointing an accusatory finger, “What with yer arm, you oughtta be the last one be pickin’ on those smaller ‘n you! Just lookit the two of you, covered ‘n muck ‘n blood!”
“Now hold on jus’ a minute, there, Goodwife Eilidh! Yon ‘defenceless bairn’ be pickin’ fights with the other urchins – smaller ones a’ that! All I be doin’ is evening the scores a bit!” said Gus indignantly. “An’ wha’s this ‘Rua’ business o ‘yorn? Your hair be as red as mine! Mind you, Gav,” he said, conspiratorially, “I ain’t heard o’ anyone getting a peek ‘neath the Goodwife’s there skirt, just ta double check, like!” he laughed, as he elbowed Gavyn in the ribs, dodging the withering glance delivered by Eiledh by ducking around a handy corner.
“Never heard the like!” said a red-faced Goodwife Eilidh, turning her Fury’s spleen on the hapless Gavyn. Gavyn, for his part, tried to shrink into the cracks in the cobbles, doing his best to be as unremarkable as the broken bits of stone. “Next I see that boy, I’ll tan the hide off ‘im!”
Shuffling uncomfortably, Gavyn mumbled “Well, ‘e was telling the truth ’bout the young ‘uns. An’ he did help me outta a jam with that skulk Toam…”
“Don’t you be tellin’ me nothin about that pilferer Toam! Why, jus’ the other day,” Eilidh said, turning to address another woman the next building over, “I caught him nickin’ some newly cleaned linens, right off me line out back! The nerve of some…”
Seeing his opportunity, Gavyn slunk away as quickly as his injured body would slink, fleeing around the same corner as his comrade-in-mischief.

“She’s not following you, is she?” said Gus as he sidled up to the quickly shuffling Gavyn.
“Nah, got caught up gossiping with ol’ Mistress Cardáil. Knowing her, they’ll be at it awhile.”
“Good. I imagine she could follow up on that threat of hers. Be worth it fer that peek, mind,” he said wistfully.
“Go boil yer head, ya great fool! We’ve got other troubles to look forward to,” said Gavyn. “You’ll be lucky to see straight once Brice is through with the both of us – he wanted us back by ‘noon, and it’s nearly dusk now. An’ we don’t even have all the ink he wanted! Where’re we going to come up with the copper to replace that, eh?”
With a glint in his eye, Gus said “Ah, I wouldn’t be too concerned o’ that. Methinks we’ve a friend who’d dearly like to help us on that count.”
“I know that look, what’ve you done now? How have you gotten me into more trouble?” said Gavyn accusatorily.
With mock sincerity, “Me? Oh, you hurt a body, you do! Me get you into trouble? Way’s I see it, I’m the one ta get you outta trouble! Some thanks!”
“Have over, o’course I appreciate your help. But, I still don’t see where we’re going ta find this ‘friend’ o’yorn. Who do we know that’s got the spare groats ta just give away, huh? Ain’t much that we lost, but it’s more’n you nor I see on a month.”
“Why,” Gus said smiling broadly “you are, of course, lookin’ at ‘im!” Without further ado, he produced a fat purse and neatly tossed it Gavyn, who, encumbered as he was with the satchel, neatly dropped it. The purse hit the ground with a dull clink, and, spilling open, revealed a sizeable cache of coins.
“Where ‘n the Cailleach’s cleft you get all tha’!?” said Gavyn with obvious amazement. “There mus’ be 5, no, 8 Crown’s worth in there!”
“’E may be a skulk, but at least our friend Toam be a skillful skulk!” said Gus with a grin.
Looking blankly from Gus to the purse and back, Gavyn said, contritely, “Aye, I guess ‘e is a’ that!” And, with a laugh, “I suppose he is good for something after all!”

-:-

The door creaked open, spilling out the candle light onto the paved street.
“Aha! An’ where’th have you two’th beenth?” slurred a voice, whistling through broken and chipped teeth.
Gus looked sidelong at Gavyn and groaned.
“Ugh, here we go.”
The two entered into the workshop, desk and shelves brimming with scraps of paper and stubs of candles. Those few still burning gave off sooty smoke, the smell of tallow thick in the air. In a far corner of the room, clothed in a worn cassock, sat the man who addressed them.
“Gavyn! Did’th I not tell yea to be back ‘ere afore noon’th?” the man said, turning to glare at the two youths. “Hmm?”
“Mess’r Brice, I did try to get back here, a’time, but I was waylaid by the sneak-thief Toam, who nearly made an end o’ me! If not for Gus’ timely arrival -”
“Timethly arrival? Where hadth he been? I senth the two of you out on a thimple tathk, andth ith taken you all day ta geth back here. Without that ink, I’ve not’th been able to get halfth the work for tha Docker’th Guildth done. You know well enough, thith streeth ith filled ta tha brim with clerkth hungry for workth, and we can harthly affordth ta give up the Guild contracth. Mark my wordth, they’ll drop us quick ath ya like should we be late’th with their order’th!
“Of course we realise that, Mess’r Brice! Like I was saying, we would have been back a’time if not for Toam attackin’ me and dumpin’ me over, spillin’ all the ink and what all -”
“Spillin all tha inkth? Spillin all tha inkth?! You mean ta tell me, after all thath time, you return here withouth any INK? If you weren’t ma thithterth son, Gavyn, I wouldth throw you out on your ath, atrophiedth arm and all! And you, Óengus Rua! Your thuppothed to be lookin after ‘im! What’th the meaning of thith ‘timely arrival’ I’m hearin’? I thwear, your ath thick ath you look -”
“Mess’r Brice,” said Gavyn forcefully, dropping the satchel on the table and opening it to show the remaining ink jars. “We’ve got plenty of ink, and we’ve got money enough to replace what’s broke -”
“Oh, aye, you betht believe it! And you’ll be puttingth that ink to work, the both of you! You’ll be staying up until the workth be done, and it betht be done by sun-up, or you’ll be feelin’ ma belt!”
“Ah, Mess’r Brice! -”
“Nah! I’ll none of it! I’ve had enough and I’m off ta bed. You betht keep the racket down, if you know what’th good for ya!” With that, the aged man lifted himself out of his chair, ink-stained fingers pressing into the worn wood. Once on his feet, he drifted towards the back of the room, towards a shadowed staircase.

“Well, that was great,” said Gus.
“Went about as well as could be expected, truthfully,” responded Gavyn in an exasperated tone, shifting the satchel and pulling up the newly-vacated chair to the desk. The chair, gripped in his good hand, dragged along the wooden floorboards.
“Go and grab yourself a chair from the other room, Gus. This promises to be a delightful evening.”
“Oh, aye, indeed,” Gus said, stifling a yawn.

-:-

The fitful light, filtered through the shuttered windows, winked out as the last of candles sputtered into a quiet death. The moon passed below sight, hiding behind the row of roofs and darkening the twisting lane. The lonelier part of the night set in, overseen only by the far-flung stars and those better-off abed.

It would have been difficult to see, difficult even for those creatures that make their home in such darkness, but, perhaps, straining at the utmost, one could have made out the ghostly outlines of a bony hand gripping the handle to shop-front door, quill sign swinging noiselessly above. And, if one caught the opportunity, as it moved through a thin ribbon of starlight, they could have just made out the glint of a ring, with a peculiar, bird-like design carved into matte, black jet. But then, perhaps not, as the figure occupied the doorway for nary a moment, before slipping just as noiselessly inside.

Prologue

Prologue

The ground rushed to meet Jol as he collided with the white robed youth. Tangling together, the two fell to the uneven paving stones and filth of the street. Jol, disentangling himself first, leapt up, brushing away the clinging detritus with a scraped hand.
“Watch where you’re goin’ ya dung mouth!” Jol yelled as he kicked the youth in the stomach. Breath knocked out of him, the boy rolled onto his back, looking up at Jol with eyes red-rimmed by panic.
“They’re burning it! They’re burning the tower!” he gasped. Examining him more closely, Jol noticed the tell-tale signs that marked the lad out as a devotee of the Cailleach – the belt woven in imitation gold, the brooch in a stylised form of a bird at the shoulder – which explained his distress. Looking to the South West, Jol could see a faint glow, obstructed by roofs across the street, and, if he concentrated, he could make out a scent of woodsmoke above the ever-present stink of fish in this quarter.
“No concern of mine, lad,” Jol remarked.
“An that’s fer dumpin’ me in the muck!” he said as he kicked the prone acolyte in the mouth, a satisfying crunch of breaking teeth felt through the leather of his boot. Leaving the moaning youth behind him, Jol continued his walk down the street, looking about in the broadening gloom. Few people out of doors, he noticed, but that was hardly unexpected in a city so recently succumb to siege.

Passing a row of unremarkable warehouse fronts, Jol came to another by-way, this one somewhat larger than the previous, but still canopied by the leaning tops of the surrounding buildings, wooden frames obscuring the sky periodically as they pushed against one another. Looking into the darkness, he spotted his goal – a crudely wrought sign hanging below an iron lantern, depicting a well-endowed woman with the tail of a seal. Abruptly, the door flew open, and a thin, bedraggled man was bodily tossed through the portal, accompanied by a shouted “An’ stay oot!” The man, landing heavily on the sparsely paved road, rose to his hands and knees, whereupon he promptly, noisily, emptied his stomach. Jol moved past the drunk, as he sputtered and threw up once more.
Entering the tavern, Jol was greeted by a moist heat and a smell of stale sweat that replaced the damp cold and stink of brine outside. The entrance opened up onto a wide room, lit by several more of the blocky lanterns akin to the one seen outside, as well as a hearth along the far wall. A man behind the bar to the left of the door looked up from the tankard he cleaned, while a tough in a dark cloak eyed Jol from the darkness of the corner to the right. There were several more people in the room, all men, mostly at the few tables scattered about, mulling over cups of ale.

Looking about, Jol found the man he was looking for, and started across the room, followed by the eyes of the tough. As he was seated, looking across at the dour man occupying the other side of the table, the barman sidled up.
“What’ll it be?”

“Oh, have ya anything, say, from out of port? A bit of summer wine, or perhaps Northern mead?”

The bar man gave Jol a withering look, crossing his arms across a burly chest. “You’ll be lucky to get the usual, ye sneak thief, and be ‘appy you kin find any grog ‘tall, city the way it is now! If I’d any sense, I’d be shut up like all t’other stablishments!”
Jol favoured the bar man with a more direct look, noticing the leather apron he wore, coloured with dark stains of dubious origin, the balding hair and the cauliflowered ears.
“But then, dear Grady, where would all these fine, noble sons of Forc Tuile come to celebrate?” The man across from Jol scowled, and there were heard a few mutters around the room. “Furthermore, I hear that there is a ship in from continent, and, so rumour has it, it’s got quite the foreign cargo.”

“Anyone sailing here, now, be a fool. I tell ya, Jol, ya try an old man’s patience,” responded Grady gruffly. “One day, ye’ll try tha wrong body.”

“Yer finest grog then, Grady, and another fer ma friend here,” Jol said, nodding his head to the man across, and placing two copper coins on the scarred table. Silently, the man picked up one of the coins and bit it, revealing a row of mostly missing teeth.
“I may be a thief, but I know better than ta piss where I drink!” said Jol in mock alarm. Grady merely grunted and swept the second coin into his burly hand, sauntering back to his bar.
“You’d do well not ta be drawin’ attention to yerself alike that, lad,” Jol’s companion said, furtively looking about the room. “There be dark days ahead fer us Tuilans, I guarantee ye that.”
“Days, old man?” Jol snidely responded, though he did match his voice to the other’s near-whisper. “I’m not concerned about days, but about hours! The city is still in chaos – just on my way here I saw the King’s troops burning the tower of those foolish crone worshippers! I say, we grab what we can now, and get out of the city before these ‘dark days’ of yours arrive!”

Alarm in his eyes, the man across the table was about to respond when Grady arrived with the two pints of rum and small beer mix. “This’ll likely be the last time we see any rum a’comin in from aways, so you best enjoy, ye scoundrels,” said Grady, morosely.

After Grady was safely out of earshot, Jol went on – “I’m tellin’ ye, Alban, there’s somethin worthwhile on that ship. Why else bring ‘er inta port while the city be still burnin’?”

“Even if that be the case, lad, it’s no sense runnin’ around now, place as it is crawlin’ with soldiers still. An’ you musta heard what they’ve been sayin – ‘Any man, woman, or child caught thievin’ by the Jarls ‘ll feel the King’s justice.’ Now’s not the time for it.”

“More like his grace the King doesn’t want the competition, says I,” Jol responded with a smirk. “Asides, you’ve heard the rumours, well as I ‘ave. Not long for the shippin’ of ol’ Forc Tuile now. King’s set ‘is sights on a new port for ‘iself, closer to the mountain-mouth. Me brother’s aready headed down there, ta seek his fortune. If we’re ta seek any hereabouts, we’d best do it now!”
“Don’t be so quick with yer tongue, lad. There’s plenty a-man here in the Selky’s Cunny‘d turn ye in to them Jarls, right quick,” Alban cautioned, rubbing his thin moustache. “And we’ll see about this new port o ‘yorn. It’ll take more than the dictates o’ some conquerin’ King ta raise up a city as grande as Tuile, especially out o’ the marsh they got down Dheas Bhá way.”

“Bah, this lot don’t frighten me. ‘Sides, most are too deep inta their cups ta even stand,” said Jol, scanning the room to see if anyone looked to be listening. “I picked this place a-purpose, knowin’ it’d be filled with a bunch a drunken net rats.”

“Be’t as it may,” said Alban, “I’m not for stirrin’ up more trouble than comes to me natural-like. This time, lad, you’ll have to count me out.”
Offering Alban a long-suffering look, Jol quaffed his drink quickly, saying as he stood “Likely, ye’d just slow me down now, old man.”
“If ever ye get somethin’ a bit better than this, Grady, ye be sure ta let me know!” Jol said as he strode to the door. Grady, in turn, hocked and spat at the ground before Jol’s feet. Alban, watching Jol as he left the tavern, breathed a heavy sigh.

“Lad’s going ta run himself inta trouble, one of these days. S’pose it can’t be -hic- helped.” Louder: “ Another, if ya don’t mind, Grady.”

– : –

Jol climbed over the ship’s gunwale deftly, landing silently. He quickly scanned the shadowy deck. “Just like I was tellin’ Alban,” he thought to himself, “All the guards’re stationed on the dock. Likely lookin’ out for them maraudin’ soldiers.” Looking across the harbour, Jol was unable to see the other side of the city through the fog, some three and a half hundred yards distant. Turning towards the outer bay, he could barely make out the lit windows of the Keep on the breakwater. Little good that Keep did for the city, with Tuile’s army routed before the Sunset Gates. Occupied now by the enemy’s command, the flickering, muzzy lights seemed to have a mournful cast to them. Despite their twinkling sadness, Jol felt a silent excitement. The night’s fog only helped him here; less likely he’d be spotted from shore. Returning his gaze to the ship, he examined the deck more closely. A large cog, nearly 80 feet in length, it looked fit for the often-rough seas between Cothrom an Tír and the mainland. To Jol’s left, unusual for a ship of this build, was a cabin in the aft castle.
“Luck’s not failed me before,” said Jol softly to himself. He stalked across the deck towards the door, creaking boards muffled in the damp air. Working on a hunch, he forewent exploring the hold, suspecting his prize would be in this unusual cabin. There was a lantern hanging above the door, showing that there was no lock, at least on the outside. A soft glow fuzzed through a window off to the right, warning of a possible occupant. A quick peek through the foggy glazing showed nothing.
Jol tried the door, which, to his apparent luck, was unbarred from the inside. With a slight effort, he was able to shift it open, though it scraped damply along the swollen decking. Peering inside, he could see the inner cabin with difficulty, thanks to a lantern burning fitfully along the far wall.
“Guess there be no-one ‘ome,” Jol said, thinking that anyone in the cabin would have been alerted by the sound of the scraping door.
Moving inside, he quickly spotted a filigreed chest sitting on a desk below the lantern, covered in delicate golden tracery the like of which he’d not seen before. The rest of the cabin was blanketed in shadow, but he suspected that, adorned as the chest was, it was likely the most valuable cargo on the ship. Peering more closely at it, he saw that the lid was sealed around its edges by some sort of gum. He flipped the latch on the front and lifted the lid – the gum, which seemed to be a sort of wax, gave in to the pressure.
“Phwah!” cried Jol, recoiling from the smell of bad eggs that erupted from the chest. “If this be some sort of joke…!” Inspecting the innards of the box more closely, he saw that the contents were wrapped in a sort of sheer fabric. Folding it back, he saw a roll of parchment, sitting atop a pile of fine black powder that filled the rest of the space.
He threw the parchment aside. “I’ve ‘eard tell that lordlings ‘ll sometimes carry their jewels in a box of fine black sa – urk!” Jol’s self-directed musings were cut short as the twined cord bit into his throat, the strong hands holding it firm against his death throes. His hands, immersed in the powder, threw clouds of it into the air.
“No, heathen,” a deep voice intoned, “that ‘black sand’ is the jewel!”