Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Cymru - Chapter 13


"Rider." Lord Gwilym smiled at Aerona as she bowed to him. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

"And you, Sovereign," she returned happily, naturally falling into her being-extra-nice-to-strangers mode. She had a feeling she was overdoing it, but Adara was slightly intimidating. Awen's blank-voiced explanation on the way over of her despicable ex-Deputy had certainly justified it, but nonetheless Aerona wished Adara would just smile at her. Or even just stop her bird from glaring. The bird was starting to actually make her uncomfortable.

Although it was now turning to give Lord Gwilym much the same treatment, so Aerona felt less victimised. Adara was angry simply On Principle; considering the change in Awen, Aerona understood. She didn't belong to a fighting Wing herself, but if anyone in hers had tried to kill her... it was a miracle Awen was still able to function.

They now stood in what was probably called the Long Drawing Room, a room filled with one long table and lined with the paintings and obligatory statues that seemed to infest the Residence in Aberystwyth. They were incredibly old-fashioned and ornate, and really not to Aerona's taste. Strangely, she didn't get the impression that they'd be to Lord Gwilym's taste, either; the man all but had 'forward thinking' stamped on his forehead. But then, his entrance to the room had also been accompanied by a grand fanfare that he'd actively winced at. It instantly endeared him to Aerona.

Now, he shut the door firmly in the face of an advisor who somehow made Aerona long for a cup of tea before hauling his overly-ornate travel cloak off and hurling it at the nearest chair. Awen got to her feet and bowed to him.

"You could always try calling a state-wide demand for scrap metal," she said, the ghost of a smile touching her lips. Aerona blinked, and exchanged a bewildered glance with Adara. Lord Gwilym grinned.

"I actually thought of that," he said merrily. "I thought it might be excessive, though."

"More so than nubile food tasters and a pack of mutant birds?"

Awen had an eyebrow quirked, and Aerona suddenly found herself studying the pair of them intently. That had been an in joke. Either that or they'd both learned to spout gibberish together, but really. They'd formed in jokes together.

Lord Gwilym waved a hand dismissively. "Mutant bids are cool," he said decisively. "And the nubile food tasters will at least keep the Wing from Llangefni happy the next time they come down."

Adara snorted as Aerona giggled. Awen managed to control her impulse to a smirk, which was impressive, Aerona thought; but then, she was an Alpha Wingleader. You didn't get to that kind of position without the sort of self-control that could be used as an anvil. Thinking about it, that did explain why she hadn't fallen to pieces yet.

"Anyway," Lord Gwilym said, moving to the table and sitting on top of his discarded cloak, "Marged. She was planning something, but..."

He trailed off, apparently uneasy about finishing the sentence.

"It was inherently lovely and full of kittens?" Aerona suggested hopefully. It would be nice if that were true. She really liked the gloves she'd had from Marged.

Lord Gwilym grinned.

"Actually, yes," he said. "Non-literally. But you'll have to bear with me to the end of the explanation, it sounds terrible. She wants people to be able to choose who the Sovereigns are."

He paused, apparently braced for their collective outcry. Aerona forcibly bit her own tongue to control it, and noticed Adara open and close her mouth, the bird on her shoulder glaring fiercely at Gwilym. Awen didn't move, watching Lord Gwilym carefully, face impassive.

"Now, it wouldn't be like the days before Sovereignity," Gwilym continued, seemingly buoyed up by their non-interruption. "She's worked out a system. The idea is, every twenty or so years each city state has an Etholiad, in which five potential Sovereigns tell the people about what they propose to do as Sovereign. Then the people all choose who they want, and that person gets into power. Twenty years later it all happens again. The Union reinforces all the ground rules still, and the Senedd still meets once a year in the Archwiliadau."

A slightly stunned silence met him as he finished, and they all absorbed what he'd said. Aerona stared at Lord Gwilym, trying to work out if he was serious or not.

"Oh gods." Awen slumped over the table, head in hand. "That's brilliant. That's a superb system. No wonder Flyn wants her head."

"An Etholiad," Aerona echoed, wondering. Would that work? Could that work? People choosing their rulers without despotism flaring up again? It sounded so perfect and just; Aerona had had enough of Lady Gwenda to last a lifetime already.

"Hang on," Adara murmured. "Surely that's a system ripe for corruption?" Her bird chirruped, cocking its head. "I mean... What happens when the people actually choose? It would be easy enough to force a vote."

"Oh, I don't think she'd worked out the details yet," Lord Gwilym said, and a shadow passed over his face. "It wasn't her plan originally. I'd imagine you'd just have to set up some way in which the voting was secret, so no one could know who voted for whom. And, of course, it would require the Union to enforce it all."

"Yeah, thanks for that," Awen muttered, but with no real vitriol. She was sitting upright again, eyes fixed on the far wall, apparently thinking hard. "He has to have known about this," she said, more or less to herself. "Otherwise he wouldn't be trying to counteract it, he'd just let it fall."

"Who? Flyn?" Lord Gwilym asked. "He knew; it was suggested to him two years ago. By my father," he added, and Awen looked sharply at him. "It was his idea originally, it seems."

"And then your family was killed," Aerona said quietly. Lord Gwilym nodded, his expression heavy.

"Yes," he said quietly. "Marged doesn't think it was coincidence, either. She reckons it was either Flyn or Gwenda."

There was a short, awkward pause where the Riders looked at each other, realising they were all sworn to one or the other. Aerona resisted the urge to tear the Tregwylan livery off of her shoulders, and noticed Adara fidgeting slightly, picking at the embroidery on her gloves in the black and amber of Casnewydd. Awen seemed to be thinking again.

"I'm missing something," she said at last. "If Flyn had your family killed why would he try it with you? I was sent to ask you to join him, but that bowman attacked before I'd even had the chance to talk to you."

"It could have been someone else," Aerona shrugged. "Who have you really offended recently? Any psychotic ex-girlfriends? Disgruntled employees? Underpaid bards?"

"Lady Blodwen," Lord Gwilym said promptly. "But I did so at the same time as the assassination attempt, and really only mildly, so this seems extreme."

"We need to talk to that boy." Awen was running her left thumb along the scar on her right palm, a subconscious movement that promised dark and painful things. It was a shame. Aerona didn't like dark and painful things. "Can I interrogate him? I'm told I need your permission."

"Really?" Aerona asked brightly. "Good for you!"

Lord Gwilym smiled dryly at her. "You're about the only person who thinks so," he said. "Everyone else thinks I'm mad. Does torture have to be involved?"

"The threat of, at the very least," Awen said. Behind the impassive mask Aerona thought she saw a hint of mingled amusement and bewilderment. "But if he won't talk..."

"Before we do, there's something else you need to know, by the way," Aerona said. She really didn't want to think about what Awen was about to do. "I bring news from the border."

"The border?" Adara looked confused. "I thought you were from Tregwylan?"

"I am, but we take the children on field trips sometimes so they can make dens and eat berries and stuff; it's brilliant!" Three pairs of eyes stared at her. "Although not currently relevant," she conceeded sadly. "Anyway, I was doing it yesterday with the children and we ran into some trouble."

"Saxons?" Awen raised an eyebrow.

"Yes," Aerona confirmed. "A raid. They caught us just as we were taking off."

That took Awen's full attention, and Aerona remembered that she did, after all, come from a border city. She was well-versed in the threat of them.

"How?" she asked incredulously. "Were you on the border itself?"

"No," Aerona said. "We should have had fifteen minutes. We were in the air in five; they were there in four. I had to fight them off just to get the airbus up." The memory still made her shudder: one arrow would have been all it took and the whole bus would have been gone, children, Driver and all. "The border warning came late."

"Where? Where was this?"

"About thirty miles south of Wrexham," Aerona sighed. "I met up with the Alpha Wingleader, which was a mercy since I couldn't have gotten everyone out alive without the Wing turning up. But it seems it wasn't a one-off occurence. For the last two months or so they've had more and more raids, and in each case the border warnings have come too late."

"The Wrexham Wing are coming this afternoon," Lord Gwilym mused. "They'll be here any time soon, in fact, since I can hear the dulcet tones of my revoltingly ornamental yet sadly traditional clock down the hall."

"Can you stay until then?" Awen asked, glancing at Aerona. Aerona nodded. There was no way she was trying to teach those children at the moment; not until they'd come at least halfway down from the clouds. Near death experiences had such an incendiary effect on them, the dears.

"Right." Awen stood abruptly and bowed to Lord Gwilym, who gave her a strange look Aerona couldn't quite decipher. "With your permission, Sovereign, I'd like to see the prisoner now."

"Yes, I suppose." It was said with a resigned sigh before Lord Gwilym stood and opened the door. "Watkins?"

The assistant from before sidled into view, amplifying Aerona's bizarre desire for tea.

"My Lord?"

"Please escort the Riders down to the interrogation room and bring out the prisoner," Lord Gwilym said. His voice was suitably commanding, but Aerona could see in the set of his shoulders how uncomfortable an order it was for him. She sympathised. She couldn't even have given it.

They followed Watkins down through several layers of the Residence, past windows that looked out onto gardens Aerona wished she could have taken the children to, courtyards criss-crossed with washing lines and gossiping servants, rooms lined with paintings of Lord Gwilym's ancestors and one filled with row upon row of book shelves, the scent of old paper and parchment and glue drifting out like an olfactory promise. Their descent didn't finish at the ground floor; there they took yet another staircase down into a chilled and instantly damp corridor, barred by several sets of locked doors. Once through Aerona tried not to look at the cells to either side of them. Clearly, whoever had built them had done so to provide a healthy incentive for their subjects to remain out of them. Each was barely a metre square, with just enough headroom to stand and only one tiny ledge to act as a seat. She shuddered, and tried to focus on the positive fact that extremely few of them were occupied, presumably thanks to Gwilym's progrssive social policies. Aerona liked progressive social policies. They were happy things.

Too soon, they came to the end of the corridor where Watkins escorted them inside a room marked on the door as "Interrogation Room #1", which predictably was filled with the sorts of implements that made Aerona want to run away and cry whilst curled up in a ball so no one could get to her. Awen simply looked around, sweeping her analytical gaze across the tools lining the dank brick walls, assessing the resources and facilities she had to work with. It disturbed Aerona really more than it should have. A large part of her Wing not becoming an active fighting Wing was that more than one of them wouldn't have been capable of performing these kinds of tasks, but she knew that active Riders had to and did all the time; especially Alpha Wingleaders. But there was no worry, no concern, no guilt in Awen's eyes, and somehow, that made it all worse.

"I'll have the guards bring in the prisoner," Watkins murmured before bowing his head respectfully and slipping neatly from the room. Aerona watched him go, suddenly and uncharitably hoping he'd take a wrong turn, get lost in the catacombs and never find the guards. She turned back, looking away from the manacled table in the centre of the room to find Awen watching her.

"You don't have to stay," she said quietly. "I won't apologise for this, but I'll understand if you don't want to be part of it."

"I'm sorry," Aerona said. Awen shook her head, hair glimmering gold under the torchlight.

"Don't be. You've nothing to be sorry for." She looked away, and the red kite on Adara's shoulder fluttered over to Awen's instead. "I promise, I'll hurt him as little as possible."

Bizarrely, that wasn't comforting. Something about hearing Awen calmly talk about hurting someone, even in the context of promising to limit the pain, made it all suddenly seem too real. She was perfectly willing to do this. Adara shifted against the wall where she was leaning, and Aerona met her eyes.

"It's okay," Adara said softly. "It's very rare that Awen hurts people at all. Like we said to Lord Gwilym, the threat is usually enough."

Aerona nodded, and looked at Awen.

"No permanent damage," she said, trying to make it as commanding as possible. "Don't do anything he can't heal from entirely."

"I won't," Awen promised, but it didn't really help. Aerona left the room with the sharp taste of guilt in her mouth, trying to push the faces of the children out of her mind.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Cymru - Chapter 12

Warning: this is very badly written. Very badly. It's also incredibly short and nothing much happens in it. This is because I haven't written this is months and needed to get back into the swing of things. But anyway: next chapter ought to be quite important.


The Aberystwyth Landing Tower seemed strangely empty, and Aerona realised as she landed that in one specific sense it actually was: through the archway at the end of the runway she could see the clearly empty stalls normally occupied by the Alpha Wing merod, or in this case those of the visiting Wings. She bit back a curse. Short of some peculiar emergency that had called the Casnewydd Wing away to help out the city below her, Awen couldn't still be here.

Aerona trotted Briallu up the runway anyway and into the stables. If nothing else she could do with watering Briallu; the mare's neck was covered in sweat from the long ride, her wings drooping slightly at her sides. Hastily, Aerona moved her to the water trough, glancing nervously at the clock on the wall by the manager's station. It was midday. She could probably manage the flight to Milford Haven, if she hurried, but really that would have to be her outer limit today, or Briallu was going to drop out of the sky.

"My apologies, Rider! We didn't realise you were coming."

The voice came from behind her, anxious and hurried. Aerona glanced over her shoulder to see a man in his thirties scurrying up the spiral ramp, futiley trying to wipe his hands clean on a tunic that had clearly seen better days. As he neared he bowed to her, eyes downcast.

"It's fine," Aerona assured him wearily. "Honestly. This is an unsheduled visit, I was hoping to catch the Casnewydd Wing. I'll be gone again in a minute."

"Your timing is unfortunate, Rider," the man said, offering a small smile. "They flew not ten minutes ago. You ought to be able to catch them, they're headed for Milford Haven."

Relief surged through Aerona. Briallu whickered.

"Thank the gods," Aerona muttered. "Thank you. I should get going."

"Now?" the man asked, eyeing Briallu's drooping wings and sweat-slicked body. "You won't rest here first? They'll be at the Harbour a while."

"No," Aerona sighed. She felt tremendously guilty about it, but Briallu was tough. "No, I have to go. I need to speak to the Wingleader as soon as possible."

"Best not leave, then," a familiar voice said behind her. Aerona turned.

Awen was trotting into the Landing Tower on what may have been the biggest meraden Aerona had ever seen, tossing his head petulantly and snorting. She was flanked by another Rider Aerona hadn't met, whose beads marked her as a hunter and who carried a red kite on her shoulder. Aerona smiled at the sight of them, a knot of tension lifting itself from her shoulder blades.

She had to fight to keep the smile in place as Awen drew closer, however. The warmth Aerona remembered was gone from Awen's face, her expression grown hard and focused. Aerona quickly looked her over for obvious indicators as to why, and immediately her eyes fell on the scar, thin and sharp, running across Awen's throat just above the line of her collar. It had the look of something healing fast, the way wounds did when druidic magic had been involved, which suggested it had happened the day before. Looking further, Aerona noticed Awen's left shoulder set slightly too stiffly, her hand on the rein just a little too tight. The Rider with her was riding slightly closer than necessary as well, a hint of protectiveness that was otherwise well-hidden.

Awen smiled, an expression that was clearly forced but Aerona nonetheless felt it was genuine.

"Aerona," she greeted amiably. Aerona upgraded her own expression to a grin.

"Awen," she answered in kind. "I was starting to think I'd have to chase you all the way to the Archwiliad."

"Oh, you know," Awen shrugged; and that shoulder was definitely stiff. "I thought you could use a break from teaching for once, get some exercise. This is Adara, by the way," Awen added, glancing at the other Rider who nodded curtly. "And we need to talk."

"Yes, we do," Aerona sighed. Briallu snorted.

"At the Sovereign's Residence would be best," Awen said. "I need to speak to Lord Gwilym, and he should be back soon."

"With socks," Adara said. "Or gloves."

Ah. Awen had succeeded in roping Gwilym into talking to Marged, then. Aerona was impressed; she'd never have had the nerve to try. But then, she wasn't a Wingleader.

"Lead on, then," Aerona said as cheerfully as she could. "We can talk in the air."