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A Return to Osten Ard: Tad Williams’ The Heart of what was Lost and The Witchwood Crown

As I mentioned previously, there was another series that I had returned to recently to provide a nostalgia fix. Unlike Barbara Hambly’s Darwath trilogy, though, which saw me rereading the original works, it’s been all fresh with Tad Williams’ latest series, The Last King of Osten Ard. The original series of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (consisting of a trilogy of books – The Dragonbone Chair (1988), Stone of Farewell (1990), and To Green Angel Tower (1993), though the final was split in two for resale purposes) won Williams a well-deserved place amongst the fantasy greats and paved the road later heavy hitters such as The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire. I’m pleased to say that the first offerings of this latest series have not let down the source material.

The Heart of what was Lost

Williams is nothing if not ambitious with this return to Osten Ard. Beyond the intended trilogy of full-length novels (and these are long books – ain’t called epic fantasy for nothing!), he plans to write two novellas to fit between the other works. The first of these, The Heart of what was Lost, came out before the first full book and acts as a bridge between the original and the new.

Picking up almost directly from the closing of To Green Angel Tower, The Heart does a good job at reminding the reader of the main characters, lands and history of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, while also trying out something fresh. The novella is actually really the story of a single battle, a mopping up by the human victors of the original series as the try to put to bed any chance of a resurgent Hikeda’ya troubling generations to come. If only they were so lucky.

We join Duke Isgrimnur and a sizeable force on the march north, travelling into lands still gripped by the former Storm King’s power – icy winter still blasting the Frostmarch and Rimmersgard, even late into the year. They chase the scattered remains of the Norn army – those Hikeda’ya and Tinukeda’ya who didn’t perish at the battle of the Hayholt. Inevitably, Isrimnur’s men lay siege to Sturmspeik itself, the last fastness of the Norns.

In a break with the earlier works, much of this story is from the point of view of Hikeda’ya, giving the reader insight into their culture and daily life in the subterranean city of Nakkiga. This does good work at fleshing out things only hinted at in the initial trilogy, which will be an important springboard for The Witchwood Crown, the first full novel of the The Last King series. New characters are introduced who will have roles to play in the novels to come, and there is a satisfying bit of pathos built up over the course of the work. The focus is tight, but there are some untelegraphed twists that hook in nicely to the larger story. All in all, an unusually lean offering, but one that whets the appetite for more!

The Witchwood Crown

Something about the framing of that view makes me uncomfortable…

The Witchwood Crown sees us back on familiar ground in terms of scope – we’re returned once more to the sprawling high fantasy of the original books.

King Seoman and Queen Miriamele are travelling, with full entourage, to Rimmersgard. Three decades have passed since the events of The Heart and Isgrimnur is an aged man, his once-mighty physique wasted away, leaving him on his very deathbed. The train make haste to the North, but, for political reasons, must make a detour to Hernystir in the West on their way. It is true that Seoman (still Simon, to his friends) and Miriamele rule all the lands of Osten Ard under the High Ward, but the client kings of the various states can be unruly, personal pride and expedience overriding allegiances to far-off Erkynland. True to his young self, Simon has little stomach for politicking, and it is a good thing that Miriamele, sole child of Elias, the Mad King, was reared for courtly life. Sometimes subordinates need a strong hand to remind them who truly rules.

It is during these travels that we are brought up to speed on the changed situation for the joint Monarchs and the whole of their Realm – their son, the prince John Josua, died some time ago –carried off by a fever that swept through the Ward. Luckily, he left two heirs, Princess Lillia and Prince Morgan. Unluckily, Morgan, the elder of the two, is a rake – interested in little other than wine, women and dice, he is a poor imitation of his virtuous, studious father, and certainly unfit to inherit the crown. Both monarchs have been devastated by the death of their son, which Williams is…very…keen…to tell you! If Barbara Hambly was intent on informing you Gil was a scholar, Tad is desperate for you to get just HOW DEVASTATED Seoman and Miriamele are. Perhaps I’m being unfair, and the death of child, something I’ve never even come close to experiencing, can leave parents with the degree of ptsd evidenced throughout the story, but it honestly got a bit tiresome. One of the more unfortunate aspects of the book, to my mind. At any rate, the clashes between generations are a recurring motif, as each party secretly recognises the right way forward, but, through stubbornness or self-pity, allows the situation to stagnate. It’s certainly frustrating for the reader at times, but, just as I was saying with Hambly’s approach, this is what sets the work apart. The characters are flawed, and better for it.

Meanwhile, in Nakkiga under Sturmspeik, dark things are stirring. Hikeda’ya society has changed radically after the events of The Heart, the near-sacking of the city showing the Norns that they would have to give up on many of the old ways if they were to survive in the world. But Queen Utuk’ku is finally awakening from her multi-decadal slumber, the somnolence between death and life she was cast into following the disaster at Asu’a, and there is every likelihood that she will denounce the changes, the desecrations, made in her absence. With her god-like control of the Hikeda’ya, Great Houses are known to fall at even the hint of her displeasure. Amidst this scene of tumult, a party of elite warriors are sent forth from the mountain, their mission fell and secret even to most of their number. On the edges of Norn lands they are joined by a Black Rimmersman, one of the Queen’s mortal slave-catchers – purportedly to guide them, but with motivations all his own.

The individual narrative threads soon tangle into the skein that is the hallmark of these high fantasy tomes – characters haring off to the four corners of the map on seemingly unrelated quests that you can be sure a writer of Williams’ skill will pull together in the end. The close of The Witchwood Crown sets up the next novel on several fronts: new quests are just beginning to be undertaken, a genuine threat is declared from a corner long teased at, dark political intrigue blooms from an unexpected source (this one was a bit of a gut-punch, even if -some of it- was satisfying), and the right number of secrets are revealed to keep you wanting more.

I wouldn’t say that it punches at the same weight as something like the Malazan series (the review of which, incidentally, continues to be the most heavily-trafficked of all my posts. Must have some superior SEO or something.), but that also grapples with material of a more obviously-adult nature, coupled with a more ambitious narrative style. All the same, this long-awaited return by Tad Williams scratches the right itch. If you’re a fan of the original batch, or you’re looking to fall into some epic fantasy for a few days (as one would hope, the book can read as a standalone. Appendices are supplied glossing the history of the previous books and various peoples and places referenced, for the uninitiated), I heartily recommend these new books from The Last King of Osten Ard.
Unfortunately we will have to wait until September to get our hands on Empire of Grass, the next instalment. No doubt it will be worth it!

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Playing up the Nostalgia: Barbara Hambly’s ‘The Time of the Dark’

Given my rant against nostalgia before Christmas, I suppose it’s only fair that I fess up and expose my own recent reading habits. Neither am I without sin!

I don’t remember the precise circumstances, but I had the immense good fortune when I was a teen to come into possession of a literal trove of fantasy and sf. My cousin worked (volunteered?) at the library in her Northern Ontario town and, when it came time to liquidate the old stock – maybe to make room for more, though I have the sneaking suspicion the whole affair was being shuttered – rather than see the lot pulped, she sent me a massive box. Beyond the throughline of fantasy/sf, there really wasn’t much ‘curation,’ shall we say. Heinlein stuffed in next to McCaffrey, the latter 2/3rds of one trilogy floating comfortably amidst the entirety of a series. It was great. I’d been a pretty voracious reader up to that point, which is likely why said cousin thought of me, but this was my first look into sf in particular, and I had a smattering of the greats right at my fingertips. It was the first time I’d read anything by Glen Cook, who has become an enduring favourite (the box had both the whole of the Black Company and the Dread Empire – score!), the first I’d read of Asimov’s, or of Cherryh. It wasn’t all top-tier stuff, don’t get me wrong. There was as much pulp as there were classics, and even a few overtly arty pieces, like John Crowley’s Engine Summer.

So, as you can see, fertile ground for nostalgia of a personal sort, thinking about all the great stuff that I systematically chewed threw back in my formative years. Certain series and novels have stuck with me more than others, and it was two of these that piqued my interest most recently. Barbara Hambly’s Darwath series, which started life as a trilogy, has been something I’d thought about fondly often enough – and lo and behold, it’s newly returned to print! So you certainly shouldn’t go hunting for free copies online, because that is bad and would make you a bad person.

The second series I wanted to talk about is actually in the process of resuscitation, and I’ll be focussing on the newest instalments. That, however, will happen in a later piece.

The first Darwath trilogy (The Time of the Dark, The Walls of Air, and The Armies of Daylight) is an example of what is known as ‘portal fantasy,’ a trope very popular in the late 70’s – 80’s, which has died back slightly since then. If you read a goodly amount of speculative fic, you’ve probably seen instances of it at some point – someone from our world is transported to another, usually reluctantly, and has to quickly come to terms with the changes. From an authorial perspective, this is a ready-made way to expose the reader to a foreign world – the protagonist knows just as much as the reader, and they explore this alien space in tandem. Generally there is some contrivance that precludes immediately jumping back to modern Earth, and the quest is to overcome this and get back to ‘real life.’

The original artwork. The best artwork.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Time of the Dark, while it doesn’t approach this in a very novel way, does pull it off effectively. We are presented with two modern Americans living very different lives – Gil (which I was forever pronouncing with a hard G, though I suspect it’s meant to be otherwise…), a history PhD student in her mid-twenties, bookish, mousey, and reserved, and Rudy, a motorcycle mechanic in his late twenties, already jaded with the rough-and-tumble life on the edge of society and secretly wanting something more. The book opens with several scenes of Gil’s nightmares, witnessing losing battles between some sort of medieval force and creatures of nightmare, with each subsequent one feeling more and more real – as if she were present at the scene, only hidden from view in plain sight. She herself can sense the horror rolling off these shadowy creatures, can hear the splash of water in cisterns and feel of the stone beneath her feet, as if, if she applied the slightest pressure, the fabric would rend and she would find herself in that world. As she is beset by these visions, night after claustrophobic night, it becomes clear that one of the residents of her dreams is growing aware of her presence – the wizard Ingold Inglorion, Gandalf-surrogate supreme. Inglorion pulls himself across to our world, where the two converse – Gil understandably manic with distress, the wizard doing his best to explain the situation: the current proximity of our world to his, the short distance to travel through the void, etc., etc. Things carry on for a few more days, until Inglorion shows up with a babe in tow – the castle has fallen, and he has escaped here, with the crown prince, as a last resort. The trio travel to a disused cabin Gil knows so that the wizard and prince might hide out a while. Rudy, our secondary protagonist, has stumbled into the vicinity himself, stranded after crashing a borrowed car, driving drunk. There is some back and forth, both Rudy and Gil mistrusting the other based on preconceived notions, Rudy expressing disbelief at the outlandish explanation Inglorion offers up with usual candour. All this is swept aside when they are beset by the one of the creatures of the Dark, which had followed Ingold across the gulf and had been hunting he and the prince. A fight ensues, and the only route of escape is to return to Darwath, the alternate world, where it becomes clear that any further travel to Earth will put that world, totally undefended and unprepared, at risk. While the threat of the Dark looms, Gil and Rudy will not be able to return home.

Gil, Rudy and Ingold find themselves a few miles out from the fallen capital, and make for the nearest large town, guessing correctly that the survivors will have regrouped there. The path seems clear – this is not the first time the people of Darwath have faced this horrifying menace: thousands of years before, a civilisation of great engineering and magical prowess was overturned by the alien darkness, leading to a literal dark age with many talents still lost. Humanity survived that first cataclysm by retreating to great forts built by magic, venturing out into the world only under the security of the sun, cowering in the dark as soon as night falls, praying their bastions held. Much was lost and society regressed into a superstitious shadow of its former self, but humanity survived – and one day, the Dark stopped coming – until now. The creatures can be fought, but the price is steep, their very touch can cause madness or death, their blood is as acid. Fortunately, the forts still stand, abandoned, places of ill omen, and the best chance for the rag-tag refugees. To get there, they will have to cross the country, risking attack every night. Making matters worse, it is not only treacherous physical paths they will have to navigate, but political as well: the brother of the Queen, now Protector of the Realm, has a growing desire for power and some very specific ideas about how things ought to be run. Then there is the Bishop of the Church and her military enforcers – eager as the Protector to assume temporal power, with a holy abhorrence of all things magic – one of humanities only effective weapons against the Dark. Disaster awaits any false step!

Thrown in to a dire situation, both Rudy and Gil find themselves taking on roles they never thought possible in the former lives, drawing on talents that, latent while on Earth, have surfaced now that they have found themselves on Darwath. The story is unusual, at least for the time it was written, for having a strong female lead that has both physical presence and intelligence. Hambly goes to great lengths to remind us of Gil’s university career – I couldn’t count the number of times we’re told she’s a ‘scholar.’ Without giving the ending away, the climax of the trilogy hinges on her ability to examine a situation systematically and to argue her position convincingly, so perhaps it’s all of a purpose.

Now that I’m somewhat older and better acquainted with the source material, the Lovecraftian aspects to the stories’ horrors – the language used, the behaviour – is readily evident. It’s been amusing to be able to see the series in a new light, as I hadn’t put two and two together in my memory of it at all.

It will be interesting to take a look at the final two volumes of the trilogy, to see how else my memory has fudged things. As I mentioned, the contents of the box were uneven, and this was one of those series for which I only received a portion of the full set. It was fun piecing together the story, finally getting a crack at the first instalment which I’d before only had my imagination to supply. I can still recall my enjoyment of the twists and turns in the narrative, with its aforementioned deployment of sociology and, though I didn’t recognise it at the time, the borrowed cosmic horror tropes, and I’m hoping that it doesn’t turn out to be thinner than I remember.

Given the electronic form I was reading the work by, I was somewhat surprised come the end of the first book – with no physical collection of quickly diminishing pages, I was left unaware of precisely where I was in the actual length. This isn’t to say that the caesura is overly-abrupt – the book finishes in a reasonable place, given the arc of the story – goals had been achieved, characters and relationships set up, the stage set for the next instalment. Perhaps I’d grown used to the extended, drawn out nature of epic fantasy – stories dragging on for hundreds if not thousands of pages. Quick, pulpy reads catch me off guard.

Hambly became known for her dedication to research in preparing her stories, and it’s in evidence here. As much as this was a quick read, the world of Darwath was detail-rich and coherent. The prose was ambitious, if not always successfully deployed. Even so, the attempt puts the work a cut above your average pulp fantasy, in my opinion. The primary characters are approached with nuance, insofar as space allowed. Most are motivated by psychologically-understandable reasons, which prevents any one from appearing a paragon or insert (and also makes them somewhat grey – a quick scan of online opinion has a number of people complaining that they weren’t especially likeable. Phah!). This also allowed for relatively sharp dialogue – understanding the desires of the characters, whether key or secondary, rendered their interactions believeable. As much as it played it pretty safe with the popular tropes of the day, the book hits the right triggers and snuck in a few surprises, even more so when, from what I can recall, you look at it on the level of the trilogy altogether. You can certainly do worse for a nostalgia read on a weekend or short holiday.

Malazan Book of the Fallen: A (Partial) Review

Malazan Book of the Fallen

Titannic.

Titanic.


A bit pre-emptive, perhaps, but I felt as if it was timely to offer up a review of the past couple fantasy books I’d been reading, that of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. The first, re-purposed from an unsuccessful film-script, showed up back in 1999, and they’ve been rolling on since. The series proper tied off at ten full novels, in 2011. However, a prequel trilogy is still being written, with the second novel expected later this year, and various one-off and supplemental works scattered throughout the last decade and more working in the same “world.”

Like some…other… recent fantasy works, the Malazan series grew out of a previously developed table-top gaming setting. Erikson and his friend, Ian Cameron Esslemont, made the setting for their own enjoyment back in the early eighties, which goes some way to explaining why the initial series could be produced with such machine-like regularity – the ground was fertile, and the stories already sketched out. Esslemont, it should be noted, has also written works in the shared property, a six-part series that wrapped up back in ’14, and a new one in the offing.

I wasn't expecting much, Vin, but you gotta admit, Last Witch Hunter was a hot mess.

I wasn’t expecting much, Vin, but you gotta admit, Last Witch Hunter was a hot mess.

At two for two, it might be a bit early to make the call, but I’m going to come out and say it – Social Scientists make good fantasy writers. Much like China Miéville, a few of whose works I’ve already written about, Erikson is a trained anthropologist, and it shows in his work. The initial ten-piece series was written as a po-mo criticism of the standard, Tolkien-dominated fantasy tropes – non-linear story telling, inversion of gender roles, dense, unforgiving narrative, little “plot armour” for the multiple protagonists, this was not to be just another repeat of Dragonlance.

You won’t find any elves or dwarves in the Malazan setting (though there are dragons…kinda…), but the series is definitely fantasy. There are plenty of non-human races, and magic – a well-thought-through and novel system, I’m happy to say – is a key part of the story. The scope is of a grand scale, mortal humans interacting with Ascended Demi-gods and the Elder Gods above even them. Erikson and Esslemont have done something I’ve seen very little of in high fantasy, if at all, and it is this that best shows off Erikson’s anthro chops. The narrative extends back into the pre-history of the world, with non Sapien Sapien species the equivalent of Neanderthals, Homo Erectus and others playing a large and continuing role in the late-medieval setting. Some of the most gripping moments, as odd as it may sound, are the points where the puzzle-pieces of how these species interacted in the dim past, their shared history, finally crystallise. If Miéville is a writer possessed by Antiquity, Erikson is haunted by the Palaeolithic.

The series had been on my radar for some time – Erikson and Esslemont are both Canucks, and a number of my friends had read and recommended the series over the years. I’ll confess, turning to finally read it now has been a bit of a mixed blessing. Bad, in that there are so many arcs, so many individual elements in the series that I had wanted to use in my own writing – stuff I’d come up with independently, but feel like I’d either be seen as ripping off from, or, perhaps worse, indeed unconsciously mimic now that I’ve consumed them. However, it is good to know that there is a market, and seemingly a large one at that, for just this sort of fiction.

As I said at the start, I might have jumped the gun a bit on writing this now – I’ve only just finished the fourth instalment in the original series – but I felt as if I’ve got enough of a grip on the style, on the particularities of the content, to at least point the way.

garden

The initial novel, Gardens of the Moon, sets the tone for those that follow – the main story focuses on the eponymous Malazan Empire, or, more particularly, a squad within a legion within an army of that multiple-continent-spanning Empire, called the Bridgeburners. In medias res, the reader is thrust into the latest, offensive, conflict to grip the Empire’s armies, as they struggle to bring the continent Genabackis under Malazan dominion. Things don’t really go as planned, but that’s what makes the story worthwhile. Along the way, the perspective is broadened – other agents of the Empire, the various forces that oppose them – until all the various skeins, the disparate story elements, are brought together in a gripping climax, all the better for being multi-sided.

dead

The next instalment, Deadhouse Gates, largely abandons the characters of the first novel – set instead in another location altogether, within the Empire but on the edge of continent-wide rebellion. The narrative follows the efforts of a Malazan army to guide several thousand refugees to safety across enemy territory, though of course with the multiple view-points, density of characterisation, and well-developed social and religious elements the earlier novel brought to bear. Counterpoint to this is the desperate escape effort of a trio of prisoners, enslaved under false pretences, taking them across deserts, seas, and magical lands themselves under assault. The hatred that drives them forth, the bitterness of betrayal by family and loved ones, will have tragic consequences for more than one continent.

Memories_Of_Ice_Cover

Memories of Ice runs concurrent with Deadhouse Gates, picking up where Gardens left off. Former enemies are turned to uneasy allies as a threat from the south threatens to overtake them all. This threat – in the form of the Pannion Domin, a sorcerous, theocratic empire that drives its adherents to acts of mass cannibalism – is both older and more grave than anyone could have thought. Though I might be wrong, the shadowy forces behind it are likely the antagonists for the series overall. Where Gardens was largely urban intrigue, and Deadhouse a beleaguered dash across a continent, Memories focuses on several siege engagements. While none are as drawn out as, say, Gemmell’s Legend (which I heartily recommend, if you’ve yet to read it), the weightiness, the grind, is well executed.

house_of_chains

I thought it was the fourth book, House of Chains, where things really get rolling. Spanning both of the previously visited continents, the start is the most unforgiving yet – the reader is thrown into a society totally different from any yet seen, much more barbaric, with no apparent points of commonality and a prose style tilted on its head – to the point where it takes several dozen pages even to realise that this is set in the same universe. As the narrative unfolds, we return to the continent of Seven Cities, where the nascent rebellion, unopposed throughout the land, awaits the response of the Malazan Empire. What really struck me about this one is the way in which previous characters I’d thought were merely meant to supply local colour, to stand in for an off-the-cuff remark, are shown to be much more central than I could have imagined. This is the complicated, mind-numbingly diverse sort of story-telling exemplified by R. R. Martin or Robert Jordan, with whom Erikson definitely stands equal.

Alongside the aforementioned emphasis on a narrative over evolutionary time, Erikson makes some interesting choices with the societies of the Malazan universe. Most pointedly, women are seen as equal to men – both in soldiery and in places of authority – in almost every society yet seen. Obviously, other fantasy works have had female characters, and more unusually full protagonists, but what’s worthy of remark here is the sheer mundaneity of it, that it just takes it as a matter of course that a medieval army, without the equalising presence of modern firearms, should be at least half female. Erikson doesn’t shy away from the realities of this, either – sexual violence is used, against both men and women, on more than one occasion. It’s nice to see that, at least from what I’ve seen, this hasn’t ever been an example of character-development-by-rape, which is a common failing when an author dares to enter into this territory. Instead, each instance fits the larger narrative and progresses, with appropriate gravity, as smoothly as possible.

There are points where the world-building misses a trick, as could be anticipated. Despite the long historical backdrop, the main story lines take place in a high medieval equivalent that looks to have been stable for some time. True, the presence of explosive munitions (again with the pre-theft!) and their game-changing impact show that that world is changing, and that, this being a fictional construct, there’s no need for it to follow lock-step our own history, but it is a common issue in fantasy that you are presented this world which has had the same tech level for 10,000 years, with no explanation as to why. “Medieval stasis” – don’t do it – it’s bad.

Leveraging the boons of a multi-viewpoint model for the narrative, there are several instances where, just as you’re starting to feel as if the story is slipping into some sort of militaristic triumphalism, a character says something to shift the whole tenor of the passage, redefining the way you look at the preceding chapters and books. Despite it’s own complexity and multitude of story lines, this is something that Jordan’s Wheel of Time series ultimately failed at, I feel (we’re not going to talk about Sanderson’s…additions…). It asks a bit of the reader, but a work that can be enjoyed on multiple levels, and knowing that the author has deliberately constructed it thusly, is an encouraging affair for genre fiction.

So, if any of the above sounds like something you’d enjoy, I recommend you take up Erikson and Esslemont’s Malazan series’, starting with Malazan Book of the Fallen. It’s quality stuff – relatively challenging, well-wrought prose that critiques the old modes of fantasy writing without being antagonistic or unfair. Dense, believable characters that act with a bounded rationality. Just my cup of tea!

Carriage Road

Another bit of mtg fanfic, returning once more to Ulgrotha and the Homelands set. Bit late for All-Hallows, but I hope you enjoy all the same!

Carriage Road

The Dark Barony, Doug Beyer

The Dark Barony, Doug Beyer

The boy started awake as the meagrely-laden cart shuddered, jolted out of a rut. He could feel, having made this trip countless times before, that they had gone too far. Rubbing sleep-heavy eyes, he peered into the drawing gloom. Close-coppiced trees blocked out his vision after more than a few feet either side of the path. He looked over at his grandfather, the old man’s figure shadowy against the swinging lantern behind him. The old man must have noticed that his grandson was awake, but gave no outward sign, keeping his eyes on the road ahead. There was something unusual about all this, the boy felt.

Shifting on the wooden bench, the boy looked behind him – yes! There it was! Bouncing with each stony depression the wheels fell in to, the boy watched the lights of An-Havva Inn twinkle in the distance. They were still close enough that a burst of laughter and music reached them, as some wayward patron staggered out the main door. They turned a corner, and the last cheery sign of it was gone. The boy shuddered as the dark seemed to pull in on them, heavy, dank, and oppressive. It passed quickly, though – a moment more and the moon shrugged off its foggy shroud, casting its light on the road ahead of them.

“Papa,” the boy said, “why aren’t we stopping at the Inn, like we usually do? Where are we going?”

The old man shifted uncomfortably in his seat, the wood boards rasping a different note than the usual creak of motion. Finally looking at his grandson, he held the gaze steady for a long moment. His face was drawn, greyish and lined in a way the boy hadn’t seen before. He looked old, older than he did yesterday. A sudden snap out in the forest broke him from his reverie, and, with a shake of his head, he turned away. The rustle of leather and rumble of the wheels were all that was heard for a time, until the old man began to rummage by his side. He produced a dull, pewter flask, and, unscrewing the lid with shaky hands, he drank deeply. The smell of the liquor was thick on the air as he exhaled, the unusual odour making the boy feel queasy. His grandfather hardly ever drank, even only having a single mug of hard cider during the Harvest festival. The queerness of the situation did nothing for the boy’s state of mind, making him feel all the sicker.

“We’re not bringing anything to the Inn, tonight, not yet…” the man said, still looking ahead. “We’re…taking our stock to another place…yes, another market…” As the sentence drifted off, he lifted the flask for another pull. The woods on either side, organised and humane on the road approaching the Inn, began to take a disorganised, wilder look. Unworked, old – the trees drooped with moss several feet thick, the bark knotted and horny. The air was close, musty – and threatening.
“Say,” he said, turning to the boy in sudden animation. “Do you remember the, well, this would have been quite a few years back, so you may not, but do you remember the tinker that stopped at the village for several seasons – name of Rorik, I think.”

The boy screwed up his face in concentration, trying to remember. It had been several years ago, and, the boy being so young, he couldn’t remember much past two harvest-times with any degree of clarity.
“Ah, as I remember it, Rorik used to put on shows for you young’uns. Puppets and whatnot,” the old man said, warming to his subject.

The memory of the displays, always a burst of colour in the small, pastoral life of the boy, cleared the fog of time.

“Oh, yeah, I remember him!” he said excitedly. “Are we going to a puppet show? Will he be there? I haven’t seen Rorik in ages!”

“Erm, no, my lad, not quite,” the man said, uncomfortably. The brightness of the memories fled from his face, leaving him once again looking ragged. “No, I was just thinking, you recall how Rorik…how he had to leave us, at the village-like?”

The boy, thinking about how long it had been since he saw the strange, cartoonish man, nodded.
“Well, that Rorik, he didn’t just leave, like. He helped the village, y’see?” the man said, earnestly, a strange urgency in his words as if he was trying more to convince himself than his grandson. The boy, for his part, mostly looked bemused.

“And then, do you remember Tallin, the carpenter, who came the year after? He helped to build the mill at the base of the Green Run? Well, he didn’t stop there – when he left afterwards, he helped out even more!” The boy knew how important the mill was to his village, it was what set their home apart from the surrounding districts. It made sense to think of it as a lasting aid – didn’t people, at least before, come from miles around to use it?

“And after that, too,” his grandfather continued, “there was Oan and his wife, and their daughter. They helped the village a lot!” The boy remembered this family well – the daughter, Sigri, was only a year older than he himself. There were so few children in the village, they had become fast friends. Quickly, they had become inseparable, spending every moment they could together, those that they could steal away from the chores on their families’ farms. But then, after only a year and a season, Sigri and her parents had abruptly left the village. One day, Oan had been discussing with the other men the best way to lay out his meagre fields for the coming season – it had been early Spring – and the next, he and his family had left. Sigri hadn’t even said goodbye to the boy, hadn’t even mentioned their intention to leave the village. The boy still hadn’t gotten over the loss, though it was several years ago. He didn’t know what Oan and his family could have done to help the village, though he trusted his Grandfather. Oan couldn’t weave stories like Rorik, dazzling the crowds with feats of acrobatics or enthralling with music. Nor did he have the ability that of Tallin to shape wood, the know-how to raise structures that stood for years and harness the power of the rushing Run. Oan had been poor, with the worst plot of land in the village. Sigri had always had threadbare clothing, her mother unable to do more than repair the scraps and off-cuts of other villagers’ charity. No, the boy didn’t know how Sigri and her parents could have offered the same sort of help as the other strangers.

“Yes, my boy, all those poor folk, they helped the village. Without them, well, we wouldn’t have gotten by, no indeed,” his grandfather continued, though the over-bright expression he had worn before had been replaced now, returning once again to a stolid set.
“We’ll be helping the village ourselves, tonight,” he said with a note of finality, another drink quick on the back of the words.

What must have been nearly an hour passed. The fog thickened as the air cooled, muffling the sounds of the night time forest around them. The boy began to nod, the rhythm of the slow nag rocking him into a fitful sleep. His fevered mind, though, gave him no respite. Dark dreams, filled with half-seen terrors that flitted about, kept him from truly falling asleep. Coming to full wakefulness of a sudden, he perked up his ears, hearing a thunder in the distance. He looked quickly to his grandfather, who stared ahead of them, gimlet eyes peering into the darkness. Clearly, the sound had distressed the man, as well. Though the sky was overcast, the clouds didn’t look to be carrying a storm in their bellies, and so he wondered at it. Few moments passed as the sound grew, seemingly from all sides, and then –

a great crashing and a terrified whinny from the mule, which pulled the lot of them into the ditch as a dark shape hurtled by. The boy caught a glimpse of a white face, twisted into an inhuman, silent shout, struggling to restrain a brace of the largest stallions he had ever seen. Jet-black, they stood at least 20 hands at the withers – taller than any dray horse he’d seen in his short life, and much more sleek. Despite their tumultuous passage, the carriage they pulled seemed to glide behind them. Glossy wood, painted or naturally ebony, the boy didn’t know. The shape of it was elegant, and unsettling. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he spied another face, within the carriage, before the obscuring curtain was twitched back into place. This face was white, like the other, but, where the first was animated by its struggle, this second one was placid, calculating. Like a still pool, the depths of which were obscured by the mirror-like surface. Time passed quickly, and the face was gone as the vehicle sped along the empty road. Not even sure he’d seen the passenger, the boy was left deeply unsettled by the thought of its gaze.

It took nearly half an hour to right the cart and settle the mule. The animal, normally sombre to the point of dullness, danced and shied as if a colt, though its energy evidently sourced from something more dire. It was fortunate the cart itself was so lightly loaded – their usual cargo, the heavy barrels of cider and ale, would have checked any efforts to pull the cart from the muddy trench.
The trio finally continued on their way – the somewhat-calmed mule tugging the vehicle steadily uphill, the old man sitting silent, every so often taking a pull from his flask, and the child, trying to stifle the mounting unrest brought on by the extraordinary events of their nocturnal travels. They climbed above the reach of the fog, its tendrils clinging to them as they jerked along, as if loathe to let them go. The air, crisp outside the fog, was cold. Once again, the clouds pulled back, and the gibbous moon revealed itself to the solitary travellers. High above them, now, its thin light illuminated their surroundings. The boy looked out into the forest, and a break of some several feet in the surrounding trees opened up a scene beyond and below them. Far off in the distance, leagues and leagues, the yellow moonlight lit up a vast wasteland. From their high vantage, they could spy some of the outer edge, the way that the surrounding forests and fields came to an abrupt, unnatural end. Barren rock, taupe in the moonlight, covered acres of land. The boy looked out, and, at the furthest reaches of his sight, he thought he caught glimpse of a single, loan tower rising above the background waste.

“Ill luck, boy,” his grandfather said gruffly. “Ill luck to look on the Basalt Spire by moonlight. Look too long, they say, and you’ll set the Old Witch to ringing her chime once more. Best to look away,” he finished, another swig of his flask. He needn’t have bothered, as, within a few moments, the forest returned thick as ever.

The boy could feel their descent steepening, and, soon, they were confronted by a solid wall of fog, blotting out the way ahead. The mule paid no heed, and dragged them into it without slackening pace. The boy shuddered as the thick moisture settled on his bare skin. He wrapped himself in his skimpy traveling clothes, trying to retain what heat he could. Droplets of water fell from the tip of his Grandfather’s large, crooked nose.

The cart jerked to a halt, and the boy awoke, disoriented and perplexed. The moon had fled – it was the darkest hour of the night, some short time before dawn. He realised he must have fallen asleep, despite the clamminess of the fog. He looked around him, trying to make out his surroundings. His Grandfather had jumped down from the cart, and stood, conversing lowly, with someone – or something – just beyond the reach of the lamplight.
“Papa – where are we?” the boy called, a tremor in his voice.
“It’s – it’s alright. Come over here, Grandson,” the last word caught in the man’s throat, emotion choking his alcohol-blurred speech – the first time he had uttered the word, their long journey.

The boy gingerly descended the cart, still bundled tightly in his small robe. The muck was thick on the ground, oozing overtop of his boots. Pulling himself free with difficulty, the stink of it curled his nostrils. When he had made his way over to his grandfather’s side, his mysterious associate struck a light and set a lantern burning.
The boy beheld the ugliest man he had ever seen, a face more animal than human – almost that of a pig. Great, rotten teeth peaked up above a quivering lip, the top of his mouth covered by greasy bristles of a patchy moustache. The eyes, dark and hard, pierced the boy, looking more through than at him. The boy whimpered in fright. The gaze shifted to the older man, a questioning look on its swarthy features. The man faired hardly better than the boy.
“Now, Grandson -” he began. “Just as I, erm, was saying, we’re going to help the village tonight…” there was a pleading edge to his stammering speech, guilt stamping it false. “Y’see, there’s been no strangers through in such a long time, and, and, the crops ‘ave been failin’, and praying to Serra’s no use…” the man looked utterly wretched. Fat tears began to slide down his grey face. “It, it was discussed, it was decided – I fought them, I did! I fought them, but, it’s for the good of the village, and the crops be failin’, an’ it be decided…” he ended weakly.
The rough man grabbed the boy by the arm, his grip like a vice on the thin limb.
“You will be rewarded,” he rasped, his speech treacly, like the muck they stood in. “The Dark Barony is ever in need of fresh meat,” he said.
The boy looked at his grandfather, imploring silently with his eyes, but the man would not meet his gaze. He turned, began to shuffle back to the cart with drooping shoulders.
“Wait!” the brute called to him. He fished about in a soiled pocket a moment, and thumbed a thick coin to the broken man. Flipping through the air, it glinted gold in the firelight.
“For your troubles…” and he began to laugh.

The coin fell into the mud by the man’s feet. He looked at it a moment. The boy reached out to him, hoping, still hoping…
The man bent and fished the soiled money from the filth, though he knew the real payment was yet to come.

Sarpadian Stand-Off

Another bit of M:TG fan-fic, also set in a decades’ old set. More atmos, less narrative in this one. Hope you enjoy!

Sarpadian Stand-Off

 

A fog thickens as the foliage-filtered sun drops below its noon-height, the soil sloughing off its moisture in the quickly cooling air. There is a stirring amongst the still-dense foliage, what seems a shambling mass off vegetation emerges, distinct from the surrounding fronds. The creature turns its head, what, in any proper animal, would be the head, to the waning sun. Semi-globes of corrugated material, half a foot in diameter, look to the sky. A shadow obscures the vision, and the creature is aware of a stone arch, peeking out from beneath entangling vines. The eyes are able to resolve the image, focusing in on the clarity of line, the delicacy of carving, well beyond the power of human or natural ability. Despite the encroaching greenery, despite the years of weathering, the span with its twin columns still proudly arcs above a path, once a grand artery, now reduced to a choked trail.

 

A stirring, not of memory, but of something more primal, twitches in the creature’s sub-sentient intelligence. The graven images, the hewn rock natural yet stamped with the work of art, they stimulate something deep within the creature’s psyche. In its own way, it recognises – recognises the same hand in the creation of the still-strong arc as in its own beginning. Recognises the maker in the object. A second thought follows from the first. Not hot on its heels, but turgidly, a rolling gait. The hand of the maker – and the hand of the unmade. Brief shots, images of violence, hours of fire and screams, flash before the inner perspective, memories of years and years ago. Nature gives, and Nature takes away. Unheeding of this, the one maxim, their doom was laid out in inevitability. Hubris only made it swifter.

 

The panoramic vision granted by the peculiar ocular setup alerts the creature to movement behind it. Stirring itself from its reverie, it turns to face the being approaching. If the creature itself pushes the boundaries of Nature’s design, the shambling entity it is faced with is entirely outside. Able to better define the image, the creature sees the stilted way the interloper hopped along the path, a tripod of three human-like arms, each ending in a proper, right hand. Atop this mis-matched trio was mounted a human head, greasy black hair cropped close to scalp, eyes sewn shut. The mouth, however, was left open, and would loll and gape at each jerk, tongue projecting one way, and then the other. The impossibility seemed as if it shambled along by way of some preternatural proprioception, sensing the world around itself in relation to its own whip-stitched form. A hand, whichever was oriented towards the current direction of travel, would crawl forward a space, feel about the area, and then, propelled by the two remaining appendages, the “body” would lurch forward. It was an awkward, uneven mode of locomotion, but, given the alien form of the creature, any animation at all was jarring.

 

As it was, the monstrosity carried on its haphazard way, weaving from one side of the path to the other in a stilted, jerking progression. The path itself lead upwards towards the graceful arch, rising from the surrounding murk. The areas beyond and behind the deformed creature, the place where it had come from, were of a distinct character. This arch marked the edge of the forest, the border between it and the Western Swamps that stretched in an unremitting morass for untold leagues. In years past, this area, at the point of flux between the two dominant geographies, had held host to a body of mangroves. The quickly dropping temperatures of the past decades, though, had left the area mostly empty. Save for a few, diseased-looking willows and accompanying bodies of rushes, most land was submerged. Pools of standing water, once choked with life, were now glassed over with delicate layers of ice. Open spaces, where the rime had yet to spread, were slick as if with the sheen of oil, the usual swamp scoria concentrated by the hiemal weather.

 

An half-dozen feet from the transition point, the freak of the bog notices his, its, counterpart, the ersatz forest-dweller. It stops short, tongue retracting and jaw snapping shut, and regards the creature. An outside observer, if there had been one, would have now been sure that this was a creation of some foul, necromantic magic – this unnatural assortment, this gangle of mismatched limbs, it could see the fungus-animal before it, despite the obvious wiry impediments. It saw, and its opposite saw it. A stillness, already the natural state of the area, deepened. Belying the creeping entropy, the slow, ice-bound death this world was suffering, something of moment was approaching.

 

Claws dug into damp earth as the beast set it’s six legs wide, preparing for any sudden movements from below. Twelve fingers turned the frigid rot, raking steaming furrows. As one, animate vegetable and sentient corpse shift – and turn back in the direction each had come, the plant-creature swaying as it passes back into the darkness of the forest, the construct jerking along with its characteristic shamble. Without exchanging words, the possibility beyond either, the two recognised the concord of their kind. The agreement, perhaps based on a shared natality, perhaps no more than an on-going armistice, that had held for decades now – the division of this land, the entire continent, between the flesh artefacts and the vegetal host. They saw, and knew one another, and knew that they met no enemy in the other. And so, both went their separate way, back into their own domain to await the approaching, inevitable, ice.

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.