Thursday, 25 June 2009

Cymru - Chapter 17


Adara, Aerona decided, was less scary once she'd adopted you as some sort of ally, and fortunately she had fairly simplistic views on what qualified people as allies. Apparently, negative discussion of Owain was sufficient, and Aerona was quite happy to oblidge. The man seemed dreadful, and unfortunately possessing of one or two parallel traits with Morgan. She'd have to keep an eye on Morgan. Apparently the end game wouldn't be pretty.

"And he was one of those people," Adara was saying now as she adjusted the straps on her arm guards, "who had to look good, all the time, in front of everyone. You know? And I don't just mean physically." She sniffed, apparently disgusted at the memory. An apprentice cook scurrying past positively fled from her. Adara didn't seem to notice. "If ever anyone proved him wrong in anything, or mocked him for something - didn't matter how good-natured it was - he'd suddenly be sulking like a six-year-old and trying to order everyone about. And that was bad."

Aerona giggled. Adara also had a habit of explaining what your emotional response to an anecdote should be, a habit Aerona was finding wildly amusing.

"Oh, I know about six-year-old sulking," she nodded. "It's bad enough at that age."

"I know!" Adara said, aggrieved. "And he was twenty - hang on, how old am I? Twenty-something. But seriously! He was just this freakish man-child. He was a big inappropriate."

"Gods, yes," Aerona agreed earnestly. "And I mean, especially in an Alpha Wing, you really want someone to be a bit more mature than that, don't you?"

"Owain dreamed of maturity," Adara said darkly. "I think he just thought it was a word that applied to cheese, though. That's what Awen said once, anyway."

Oh? Aerona thought. That was interesting.

"To him?" she asked aloud. Adara grinned.

"Yes," she said reminiscently. They reached the ground floor and started down into the dungeons; Aerona tried not to shiver at the change in air quality. "We weren't supposed to see, of course; they never argued in public, not even in front of us."

"But they did?" Aerona pressed. Adara nodded, satisfied.

"Oh yes," she said happily. "If he started getting out of hand she'd take him off to one side to Have Words." Somehow, Aerona could actually hear the capital letters. "Very privately, of course, Awen knew how to handle him. At least one of us would try to follow, but Awen can always tell." Adara shook her head, apparently lost for a moment in admiration for her Wingleader's radar skills. "Anyway, I do remember the one time she didn't stop us. I think they must have been arguing all day, because she was so angry with him she didn't notice us for once."

"Wow." Useful information. They paused at the first set of gates for a guard to let them through. "How did he feel about her?"

"Complicated." Adara glanced at Aerona, something irrepressively expressive in her eyes. She was really enjoying laying into her former Deputy here. It reminded Aerona a bit of Carys and Morgan. "He never liked being Deputy, certainly; he wanted to be Leader so he could be all famous and bossy. That was always a problem for him. But he also liked her."

"Oh," Aerona said. "Well, that's nice, anyway."

"No," Adara said, her lips quirking slightly in the most scurrilously mischievous smile Aerona had ever seen as she glanced across again. "No, I mean, he liked her. For years. In a slightly creepy, pathetic sort of way that made me want to wash. Awen thought it was just because she was Leader; power as an aphrodisiac, you know?"

Well, that was shocking on a grand scale. Turned out, Casnewydd's Alpha Wing were fascinating.

"So," Aerona said, her head spinning, "he was both attracted to her and wildly jealous of her at the same time?"

"I did say 'complicated'," Adara grinned. They stopped as the second gate was opened for them, hinges screaming their neglect. "He sort of looked down on and up at her at the same time, too. He was a big egotistical," she said as a sagacious aside, nodding to Aerona, who giggled again. "So naturally he thought he could do a better job as Wingleader. But, I mean, she's an Alpha Wingleader. You'd have to be a special kind of stupid to serve under Awen and not think that she's amazing at it, they don't let cretins do it; so he sort of respected that. And, oh, he was very over-protective of her."

Adara frowned to herself slightly, and Aerona tried not to laugh. It was perfectly understandable, of course it was, but it was a rather rich accusation coming from Adara.

"You'll admit," she began, grinning, and Adara waved her off.

"I know, I know," she said, rubbing both hands over her face. They stopped for the final gate. "I'm overwrought right now. Like iron. That's not the point. He was like it even when he didn't need to be, and that's abnormal, like the amount of oil he produced."

"Such as?" Aerona asked. This close to the cells she could almost smell the fear; in a nearby interrogation room a lichtor was singing softly as he cleaned his tools. Someone was sobbing somewhere, a broken sound that filled the stone passages far too well.

"Lord Flyn," Adara said quietly, and abruptly all of Aerona's attention managed to spring forth and impale itself upon Adara's words. "Almost always around Lord Flyn. Who is, himself, always weird around Awen too, but that's because he's a megalomaniacal freak with control issues; you expect it from a Sovereign."

Do you? Aerona thought. That was possibly true, she supposed, since she wasn't in an Alpha Wing, and certainly wasn't a Wingleader, but she was fairly certain that not all Sovereigns were especially odd around their Riders.

"This is us," Adara murmured suddenly. She motioned the guard to unlock the tiny cell door and stood back, turning to Aerona. "He's delicate at the moment," she said, her tone as lightly conversational as ever, as though she was simply explaining how to keep a harness clean. "He's worried half to death about his family. I've stitched the wound, but the guards here apparently felt the need to let it fester overnight, because they're blisteringly stupid."

Her expression rather adequately said what she thought of that. Aerona agreed. Even if the assassination attempt had been Gareth's plan all along, it was remarkably asinine to simply leave your witness to bleed out before questioning.

"I'll get one of the druids to see to it at the Union," Aerona promised. She fixed her kindest smile onto her face as the guard stepped away to let Adara open the door; she'd considered using her brightest smile, but that might have seemed insensitive, given the circumstances. Which was a shame. Aerona loved smiling her brightest smile.

As Adara opened the door it became abruptly clear that the sobbing had been coming from the pale, lanky teenager, folded tightly into a ball on the floor of the tiny cell. He looked up at the sound of the hinges and Aerona didn't think she'd ever seen anyone look so lost in her life before. He was young, and he was in an impossible situation that he simply couldn't deal with, and in his face he almost looked like one of the children. Her heart went out to him.

All the more so when Adara crouched down to him and he all but crawled into her arms, shaking from head to toe. Adara pulled him upright carefully, turning him to face Aerona. Clearly, a nurturing persona did not come easily to her; she was too much warrior, too many sharp edges.

"This is Aerona, Gareth," Adara said quietly. "She's a friend of mine. She's going to take you to the Union where you'll be safe, while Leader Awen and I go to Casnewydd to get your mam and grandmother. Okay?"

"The Union?" Gareth asked, eyes wide and voice strangled as he looked at Aerona. It was understandable; the Union was a place that only saw Riders and Sovereigns, Archdruids and Prifarddau. Only the upper echelons of society went to the Union. It was the headquarters of the Riders and the seat of the Archwiliadau. It was the centre of all Cymric society. People like Gareth never even saw it in their lifetimes, much less stepped inside. It would be a bit much for him to take in even on a normal day.

"Yes," Aerona said, her smile firmly in place. "We've spoken to Lord Gwilym, and he doesn't want to punish you, Gareth. He knows you were forced to do it. He's released you into Union custody so that we can keep you safe until this is all over. Is that okay?"

Not that he really had a choice, but Aerona suspected it would be best to give him one right now. He needed to know they were seeing him as a person, not a commodity. Asking his opinion was a nice, quick way to do that.

"Yes," he whispered, nodding his head. His eyes weren't leaving Aerona. "Please."

"Okay," she said gently, and held out a hand to him. He took it, his fingers clammy with chilled sweat and shaking with adrenaline, and she thought: a Sovereign did this. His Sovereign.

On some days, Aerona was truly glad she was a Rider.


As promised Adara had picked out a transport carriage, discretely small enough that it could be pulled by a single meraden. As an additional bonus she'd apparently examined every available Driver thoroughly before making her selection and conscripting the woman. Judging by the traumatised look in the Driver's eye, Aerona suspected Adara had been persuasive, to say the least. Adara was mental, Aerona decided. In a good way, certainly, but utterly mental. One day in the future someone was going to write a book about this Wing, and no one would believe it wasn't wildly exaggerated.

"There's a change of clothes in there if you want them," Adara explained to Gareth now as they guided him in. "And Aerona will be right alongside you the whole way if you need anything. Apparently she'll make you sing, which is funny."

"I'll have you know it's perfectly sensible," Aerona mock-sniffed as she tightened Briallu's harness. After flying most of the way across the country that morning the mare wasn't overly keen on going again, but two hours' rest had done her a world of good. "Everyone loves a sing-song. Don't you love a sing-song, Gareth?"

He looked like a hare before an owl.

"Um," he said nervously. "My dad sang?"

"Excellent!" Aerona beamed. "We'll play games, too. Everyone loves games."

"Now you've unnerved him," Adara said mildly. "Don't worry. She's very unnerving. We all think so."

Aerona giggled at the incredulous look the harrassed Driver threw Adara, and jumped up onto Briallu's back. It ought to take just shy of an hour to get to the Union, she thought; the winds didn't look too strong, and the sun would be behind them, happily. From her position in the Landing Tower doorway at the end of the runway she could see Aberystwyth nestled into its hills, the Great Darkgate looming to her left while the marketeers bustled to her right. The sky looked cloudless and endless, near-perfect flying conditions.

"Still here?" Awen's voice asked from behind them. "I think Adara's delayed response times are rubbing off on everyone today."

"Oh, I'm just used to getting ready at a six-year-old's pace," Aerona grinned. She started buckling up the harness on one side, and Awen came forward to do the other for her. Her left shoulder seemed a lot looser suddenly than it had twenty minutes ago, but Aerona decided not to address that particular pink elephant. "Since I'm going to the Union now," she muttered, lowering her voice so it wouldn't carry, "I thought I might look through the Archives."

Awen glanced up briefly, green eyes carefully unreadable. "Thank you," she said neutrally. Aerona nodded and looked back out at the city below, Briallu snorting and shaking her head below her. The Archives could give them a lead on Owain, and hopefully that would free Awen up to simply chase after Flyn and his Saxons.

And, of course, Aerona would have a far more neutral perspective on Owain than either Awen or Adara. Considering how complicated he apparently was, that could only be a good thing.

"Now, you see how Aerona's meraden is standing still?" Adara said as she approached, towing two merod behind her including the monster that Awen had been riding earlier. "That's what they're meant to look like."

"So I hear," Awen sighed. The beast in front of her whickered at the sight of her and surged forward, pulling his reins clean out of Adara's hand and trotting happily to Awen, who shook her head.

"Such an embarrassment," she muttered, and Aerona giggled and patted Briallu's neck. Gareth stared at them all, his jaw open. He'd probably never seen this many Riders up close, either, Aerona mused. A bit of a culture shock all round, bless him. "Right. You guys need to get going; the sooner you're in the Union the happier I'll be."

"Indeed!" Aerona gestured to the Driver, who obediently released the final catches anchoring the carriage and allowed it to start rising. She Saluted Awen and Adara who both returned it as Briallu spread her wings and picked herself delicately off the ground, swishing her tail lazily. Aerona smiled. "Good luck!" she called back to them, and then they were off, the carriage meraden moving smoothly onwards as Briallu matched it wingbeat for wingbeat.

"Right!" she called to Gareth merrily as he watched the ground recede beneath them in something akin to stunned awe. "We'll be about an hour. Do you by any chance know how to play the Shop Game?"

Well, the afternoon didn't have to be a total loss.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Cymru - Chapter 16

The dip in writing quality to this from the rest is laughable. Sorry, guys. It's a fact.


"Bloody Marged," Madog muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose. Dylan grinned, eyes scanning the room in a constant frenzy of motion that was starting to make Gwilym wonder if the man was hearing voices. "Off the record, of course."

"Of course!" Gwilym agreed, partly because he was damned if he was going to be the one to report an Alpha Wingleader for such anti-Sovereign sentiments and partly because he agreed. Bloody Marged.

"It's such a shame," Aerona said wistfully, stirring her tea. The tea was rather good, actually; although Watkins had brought it, and Gwilym was fighting a wave of hysteria at the thought that a man who looked like a kettle made good tea. "I mean; it's the skeleton of such a good plan, but she's given Flyn the perfect chance to implement his own nasty plans."

"Yes," Madog said. "Yes, she has. Which will now be infinitely worse. Why couldn't she have just suggested this at the Archwiliad like a normal person?"

"Because it's Marged, you retard," Dylan chimed in. He seemed to be scanning the skyline out of the window for evil birds or something. "That's a big gate."

That was a big conversation shift. People in the streets below had probably seen it.

"It kept out the Northlanders back in the wars," Gwilym nodded, and then belatedly realised he was talking to a pair of Northlanders. "Now it's a tourist attraction. You'd be surprised how many Phoenicians come to visit it."

"I think my real father was Phoenician," Aerona said thoughtfully. Gwilym could believe it. It explained her colouring, at any rate.

"Be that as it may," Madog said drily, "if I could ask you all to ignore my Deputy and stay on topic?"

"Must we?" Gwilym sighed. "I'd rather talk about the gate. It hasn't tried to kill me."

Nor had it tried to suggest any nefarious political goings-on, nor had it casually told him his family had, in fact, been murdered. It was simply a gate. Gwilym rather liked the gate.

"Perhaps not, Sovereign," Madog began, his lips quirked slightly in the apparently barely-suppressed amusement of someone who didn't have an albeit invisible target ring on their forehead and therefore could afford to find humour in someone else's traumatic ordeal. Although, as a border Rider, he'd probably dodged many more arrows than Gwilym. Maybe he thought Gwilym was over-reacting. "However, I want to know what - "

The fanfare blared. Gwilym shuddered. Sledgehammer, he reminded himself. Must get a -

"Leader Awen of the Casnewydd Alpha Wing," Watkins intoned.

Gwilym stood, full of foreboding at the oncoming conversation. He almost didn't want to know who desired his demise; it was nice thinking it was just an act of teenage rebellion from the boy in the cells who could be simply slapped on the wrists and returned to his parents. Although thinking about slapping him on the wrists brought him uncomfortably close to thinking about the fact that he'd probably just been tortured. In spite of himself, Gwilym glanced at Awen's hands. They were reassuringly blood-free, although that could just have meant that she had some sort of unnatural hand-washing talent. You heard stories about Riders.

"Sovereign," Awen bowed as the door clicked shut behind her, and he noticed the scary bird was on her shoulder. That was a shame. Gwilym smiled. The bird glared.

"Rider," he returned. "We have tea, if you want. Also Madog and Dylan here, whom you've probably met before, I'd have thought, but are now here to help us shed further light on Lord Flyn and to talk about gates."

It was fascinating watching them acknowledge each other. In their respective home districts, Awen and Madog were the highest authorities possible, technically including their Sovereigns and all other Nobles, and both came from the border where fighting was a weekly if not daily occurance. It was like watching two pack leaders coming together, on neutral ground, sizing each other up without hostility. And yet, clearly, Gwilym had been right; they'd definitely met before.

Madog stood up and they Saluted, both standing perfectly straight, and then both smiled slightly.

"Good to see you again," Awen said, and there was an edge of something deeper there that Gwilym hadn't expected to find; a sort of warmth and respect under the neutral tone. Madog inclined his head.

"And you," he answered, his tone matching hers. It was an Alpha Wingleader thing, Gwilym concluded. It couldn't be an easy job.

"Is he okay?" Aerona asked anxiosly, breaking the odd stand-off. "The boy? You didn't cripple him or anything?"

All eyes turned to Awen, who merely glanced at Aerona, face impassive.

"No," she said. "He's fine. I did tell you, it's rare I actually have to hurt someone. His name's Gareth, by the way. And he was forced into trying to kill you, Sovereign," she added to Gwilym, the beads in her long hair swaying as she turned to look back at him. "It's up to you as to whether you want to punish him or not, but my official recommendation is to release him into Union custody. Quickly."

Well, it wasn't like he hadn't known there'd be someone behind it. Privately, Gwilym was hoping it would be Watkins. You were probably allowed to fire advisors who hired assassins to kill you. Or at least demote them.

"Happily," Gwilym said, sinking back into his chair and motioning the others to do the same. "He's all yours. Why quickly? Who forced him?"

"I don't know," Awen said, sliding into the nearest chair. She looked into the middle distance and stroked the scar on her palm absent-mindedly. "I mean, the evidence all points to Lord Flyn, but something doesn't add up."

"What did he tell you?" Aerona asked, leaning forward interestedly. She seemed rather more animated again now than she had a minute ago, Gwilym thought; apparently, news of his would-be assassin's positive well-being had cheered her up. Everyone seemed to care about his would-be assassin more than him, like it was an abused puppy rather than an attempted murderer. It was a rather morose thought.

"He saw..." Awen hesitated, and glanced at Madog and Dylan. Gwilym didn't know what she was looking for, but Dylan shook his shaggy mane of hair and beads out of his eyes and Awen seemed to relax slightly. Maybe Dylan had magic hair. "He saw Lord Flyn a week or so ago in a wood on the border, talking to a Saxon."

"What?" Madog sat bolt upright, staring at her. Awen nodded.

"In Saxonic," she said wearily. "And it gets worse. They saw him, he ran, he got away. Flyn clearly found out who he was, though, because the next day he got summoned to the Residence to speak on behalf of his mother and grandmother, both of whom got suddenly arrested for liaising with Saxons."

Aerona looked traumatised, one hand covering her mouth. Gwilym sympathised. If Casnewydd's cells were anything like Aberystwyth's, the idea of an old woman in them was profoundly disturbing. As, indeed, was the miscarriage of justice, he supposed, but right now Gwilym was quite happy imagining Flyn capable of every crime he'd ever heard of. Including funny ones. Like bestiality. And stealing curtains. And probably both at once, the kinky bastard.

"Anyway," Awen continued, running a hand through her hair and causing it to briefly shimmer gold in the sunlight, "Flyn told him to come to Aberystwyth and wait for further instructions. Then when we arrived..."

She trailed off bitterly for a second, and Gwilym had to resist the sudden urge to hug her. It wasn't acceptable between a Sovereign and a Rider, and she was fully trained to kill him if he overstepped his social or political boundaries, and that wasn't even counting the extra three Riders and a bird who'd help her. Particularly the bird, which was still glaring at him. Madog leaned forward.

"What happened when you arrived?" he asked. Gwilym wondered if he could kick himself without anyone noticing. They really should have explained that part before.

"Oh," Awen sighed, "the usual, you know? My Deputy tried to stop me from catching the assassin and then tried to kill me when I refused."

"Good gods." Madog looked thunderstruck for a second, his eyes filled with horror, and even Dylan actually looked at Awen for what had to be a good three seconds. Then, very gently, Madog leaned forward and laid a calloused hand over one of Awen's. Their eyes met, understanding flashing between them. "I'm sorry."

"Oh, it's alright," Awen said, her tone suddenly lightly indifferent. "I should have seen it coming really, you know what Deputies are like."

"Yes," Madog nodded solemnly, sitting back. "Stab you in the back as soon as look at you. It's why I keep Dylan, you know, I can always tell where he is by his hair."

"Hey!" Dylan said indignantly as Aerona giggled. "You don't keep me, you slag. And you begged me to be your Deputy."

"And it worked?" Gwilym asked, interested. "Maybe I could beg someone to be Sovereign for me. No one would want to kill me then."

"They might still." Awen gave him a sideways look, the original humour back in her eyes. Apparently, all she'd needed was someone who could truly understand her loss, and she was bouncing back, all personal strife pushed aside. Riders had such a creepy 'we-don't-actually-matter' mentality. "Apparently when Owain found Gareth here, he told him to kill you because you're a pervasive influence."

"Ah." Gwilym slumped in his chair. "That's it, then. Time to replace my advisers with nubile food tasters and dancing ninjas and sing while my kingdom crumbles around me. I can think of nothing less pervasively influential, although maybe not from the point of view of my subjects."

"Oh, only if you remember the birds," Awen grinned. "The mutant ones. And the all natural living willow statues, but make them of naked Lady Blodwen."

He was about to make a comment about Awen torturing Sovereigns without fair reason, but Aerona spoke first.

"Guys," she said, shaking her head, "other people would like to understand this conversation too, you know."

"And we'd all like to not think of naked Lady Blodwen," Gwilym nodded solemnly, which made Dylan laugh.

The fanfare blared again suddenly, making Aerona spill her tea and Madog shift abruptly and momentarily into Creepy Rider Fighting Mode. Awen smirked as Gwilym shuddered. Sledgehammer, he reminded himself sternly. Remember the bloody -

"Rider Adara of the Casnewydd Alpha Wing," Watkins intoned as the doors swung open. As Adara stepped in she gave Watkins a look that was more expressive than all the bards of Cymru could ever hope to be and opened her mouth to say something. Without even looking up Awen knocked on the table once, and Adara instantly closed her mouth and stepped into the room, pulling the door shut behind her. It was a display of incredible obedience, actually, and Gwilym found himself slightly jealous. None of his advisors did that with him. In fact, it was the other way around; Watkins coughed and Gwilym stood straighter, or stopped interrogating his guests about their negative social policies or whatever. He'd have to get Awen to give him some pointers.

"Wow," Madog said mildly. "I wish I could get Dylan to be that well-trained. As it is I can barely even let him inside."

"Oh, you say that," Awen said mock-darkly, looking at Madog. "Not two hours ago I told Adara to go to Milford Haven with the rest of the Wing. So far her progress has been to move herself slightly nearer to the door."

"I'm very slowly obeying," Adara nodded, accepting her scary bird back from Awen. It promptly started chewing the beads in her hair. Gwilym didn't trust it. It wasn't as good as his duck. "Anyway, the other bards confirm Gareth's story; Owain ordered them all to do it, none of them wanted to do it, they're all very sad about doing it. And I've made provisions to get Gareth to the Union."

"On the face of it," Awen said delicately, "Flyn sent Owain to kill you, Sovereign."

"Yes," said Gwilym. Beside him Madog stood up and wandered to the window. "Which seems rather mean, actually. I mean, I don't like Flyn much either, but having only met him about twice I thought I'd withold judgement for a bit longer before having him killed."

"I don't think he did," Awen said. She was fingering the scar on her palm again, a gesture Gwilym was swiftly coming to recognise as meaning she was thinking about Owain.

"Leader," Madog said quietly. He was still facing the window, strong arms crossed over his chest as he watched Aberystwyth basking in the sun. "I have to ask you: are you sure you don't just... not want to believe it?"

Gwilym glanced at the others. Reassuringly, they looked as blank as he felt, so that presumably ruled out Secret Rider Codes or simple stupidity on his part. He looked back at Awen as she placed both hands, palms down and fingers spread, on the table in front of her.

"Quite the opposite, I think," she said, studying her hands intently. "I want to think that Owain just... sold out, and has simply become Flyn's personal hound. But objectively?" Awen shook her head and looked up at Madog clearly, her gaze strong. "Taking Owain out of the equation, I can't imagine any Rider turning against the Union. Not even him."

"Awen," Adara started doubtfully. "He was - "

"We're angry and emotional," Awen interrupted. "You've hated him since we were at least five anyway. And right now, we're looking back at every negative trait he had and twisting them to fit. But if I don't, I don't see it."

There was a pause, and then Madog nodded, turning back to face them. He looked remarkably suave. Gwilym wondered if he practised in a mirror.

"Nor can I," he said. "What are you thinking?"

"I think Flyn thought Owain was obeying him," Awen said, kneading at her left shoulder absent-mindedly. "I think Owain was meant to kill Gareth when he arrived in Aberystwyth, so they could say Gareth just vanished on the road. But he has his own agenda."

"One that involves Lord Gwilym dead," Aerona murmured thoughtfully and, Gwilym felt, somewhat insensitively. What was it with Riders and their blasé attitude to threats to his life? "I wonder why?"

"Because he's pervasively influential," Adara supplied. "Who have you been pervasively influencing recently, Sovereign, with your pervasively influencing ways? Be honest, now."

"I wish I could give any names at all," Gwilym said levelly. "I truly do. But even my advisors don't listen to me. And one of them looks like a kettle." He was aware that the last sentence sounded rather more aggrieved than it should have. Awen grinned.

"Goodness, so he does!" Aerona exclaimed. "I wondered why he made me want tea! Although I usually do want tea, so to be honest, that's not really a stable conclusion to draw."

"What appropriately good tea he made, though," Madog murmured thoughtfully. Aerona nodded.

"Yes! I thought so. I wonder if there's a link? Maybe people develop skills depending on their outward appearance."

"Hmm," Madog said mock-doubtfully, drawing his brows together. "Dylan looks like a bush, but he doesn't grow berries."

"Yeah, but Madog looks like a retard and he can't think," Dylan flashed back. "Why would your Deputy send a fourteen-year-old random to assassinate an incredibly well-guarded Sovereign?"

"Not that well-guarded," Gwilym said with feeling. "I've still got the arrow."

"I've still got the scar," Awen stated, looking at her palm. "I beat you in the souvenier stakes. Both good points, though." She looked thoughtful for a moment. "No Alpha Wing here at the moment, and the Beta Wing wasn't there. Obviously Owain got him through every other security check, or he wouldn't have made it to the hall with a bow. And I didn't know I'd be on the top table until I came in."

"You were on the top table?" Aerona asked happily. "How lovely!"

And oh, how Watkins had been horrified by that little seating instruction. It wasn't the done thing for Sovereigns to acknowledge Riders even as equals, certainly not as the superiors they were; it was the done thing to pretend they were mere underlings, messengers and mercenaries, worthy of respect maybe but no more thought than that. The top table was only for sworn Riders and honoured guests. Visiting Riders weren't meant to be honoured.

It was an honour that had paid off, though, since Gwilym was still alive to muse upon it. Maybe next time he should give Awen his chair instead. It might make Watkins whistle, though, so best not.

"And if you hadn't been, Lord Gwilym would probably now be dead," Madog stated matter-of-factly. It was like they were commenting on the weather or something, Gwilym thought. Bastards. "What was the plan for afterwards, though? Surely this Gareth wouldn't have made it out alive?"

"Owain would have killed him," Adara said. Now that it had been pointed out, Gwilym was starting to really pick up the vibe that Adara had disliked Owain even before him trying to kill her Wingleader, and was now in no mood to stop judging him. She looked like she wanted to spit after every mention of his name. Her bird seemed to glare all the more. "That way he'd have done as Lord Flyn asked, with no trail back to him."

"So Flyn wanted you to join him," Awen murmured, her eyes fixed on the middle distance, "but Owain wanted you dead. But why? What's he playing at?"

And there it was again; although, as the person who spared him his early demise, Gwilym decided to let Awen have that one. Especially since it had nearly killed her, too.

Which, actually, was a good point too.

"Would he really have killed you?" Gwilym asked abruptly. All eyes turned to him. "I mean, if you'd been sitting with the others and so hadn't seen the arrow, what would have happened?"

"I didn't see it," Awen said mildly. "I was watching for it. The music was going wrong, I couldn't work out why. The same thing would have happened if I'd been anywhere else in the hall."

"The music was going wrong, so you were looking for an assassin?" Gwilym repeated. "Damn, I wouldn't like to see how jumpy you get in a bardic school. Some of those kids can really murder the Ballads."

"Oh, I'm terrible," Awen grinned. "Taverns as well; the bards get drunk and I start felling the patrons. I'm not allowed to drink outside of my quarters anymore."

"Nor is Dylan," Madog deadpanned. "But that's just on principle."

"I'd show you up otherwise," Dylan nodded. Aerona giggled. Riders were a strange bunch, Gwilym reflected. Conspiracies threatened to crumble the country and one of their own had gone rogue, yet they were constantly looking for a chance to inject banter into the proceedings. Laughing in the face of death really, he supposed; they were probably used to it.

"I don't think he wanted to kill me," Awen said suddenly. The fingertips of her right hand brushed across the wound on the throat. "I don't think he would have."

"I think he would have," Adara said belligerently. "He was a big oily freak with the morals of a bear."

"Yes," Awen said patiently, "but if he just wanted me dead he didn't need to try to convince me to let Gareth run. All he had to do was cut my throat and have done with it."

"He tried!" Adara threw back. "But he was a big oily freak with the morals of a bear and the competence of a slug."

"You know that's not true," Awen sighed. This had the ring of 'Please be nice to your brother, dear,' stamped all over it. Gwilym wondered how many others in the Wing had disliked Owain as well. "He wouldn't have been Deputy otherwise. He's actually very good at killing people."

"I think you're being too objective now," Madog broke in. "You're - you were - his Wingleader. That's a complicated relationship."

"I could kill you," Dylan supplied helpfully. Madog ignored him.

"Very few people could just kill a family member outright either, and it's analogous."

"Although, my sister..." Gwilym muttered. Aerona giggled again, and poured herself more tea.

"Also he liked to narrate everything," Adara shrugged. "He was a farce of a person. I think if you hadn't stopped him he'd have killed you when you told him where to go and now you'd be dead too."

"Hey!" Gwilym protested. "I'm still alive!"

"Oh yes," Adara mused. "Sorry, Sovereign, I forgot it was you for a minute."

"Don't worry," Gwilym told her. "That's what my advisors say every day."

And finally, she laughed at him, and the bird stopped glaring at him. Mentally Gwilym cheered himself. How was that for pervasive influence, he thought; the Rider in the room who was most willing to kill everyone right now just on principle had laughed at his joke. He'd probably best not do a little dance to celebrate, though. That would look weird.

"Also," Adara continued conversationally, eyes suddenly fixed on Awen, "Lord Flyn wanted Lord Gwilym to join him at what?"

Awen closed her eyes, and suddenly all of the other Riders were doing an excellent impression of Dylan and looking intently at the tapestries on the walls, except for Dylan, who already was Dylan but was being moreso. Gwilym sat incredibly still. This, he reflected, was an Awkward Situation. He hadn't realised Riders even had those. Somewhere in his hindbrain a little voice was telling him to make himself seem as small as possible so as not to be noticed.

"I'll explain it later," Awen said defeatedly. She was slumped in her chair, the fingers of her right hand wrapped about her left shoulder. She'd been to a druid that morning, Gwilym knew, so the muscles would be stiffening up fully by about now, an unfortunate side-effect to rapid muscular healing. He wished he could help her again, but in front of everyone it would be as bad as hugging her, and this time there were three extra Riders, a scary glaring bird and Adara, who was more terrifying than the others put together and already a bit miffed at being out of the loop.

She watched Awen for a few seconds, her face unreadable, and then nodded and approached her chair, dropping a hand onto Awen's undamaged shoulder.

"Leader," she acknowledged softly. Supurb obedience, Gwilym thought. He was going to have to demand that Awen wrote a book on the subject.

"So what next?" Aerona asked. She was twirling her Rider beads carefully in her fingers, a habit that reminded Gwilym of Awen from the night before. "I can very easily get someone else to take over with the children for a bit; if you do need anything I'm available."

"I'll take you up on that." Awen leaned forward, the sunlight gilting her hair. "We need Gareth taken to the Union and kept safe, because either Owain or Flyn could have him killed."

"I can do that!" Aerona agreed brightly. "It'll be great, we can sing songs together!"

"You think he'll want to sing songs with you?" Madog asked, his normal deadpan tone giving way to a slightly incredulous edge. "After the week he's had?"

"Music is healing," Aerona said decisively. "Which Awen, as a bard, will agree with me on."

"Certainly," Awen grinned. "Although possibly not when inflicted upon someone."

"After two minutes of Aerona's aggresive cheerfulness I daresay he'll cave," Madog shrugged, standing and stretching. "Right. Unfortunately, I have to get my Wing around the rest of the country before the Archwiliad and the bit where I tell Lord Iestyn to spit in Flyn's face. I suspect I'll be doing this while listening to various Sovereigns winking at me and hinting about what a dreadful influence Lady Marged is upon the pure soul of our nation. I may have to floor the first one who suggests that Wrecsam would be an excellent addition to their plan for a better Cymru."

"Ooh, really?" Aerona asked happily. "I think that'll be Gwenda!" She paused as they all stared at her. "Lady Gwenda," she added. "Whom I hope you don't floor, what with me having sworn fealty to her and all."

"We're seeing her next," Dylan said indifferently. "I'll punch her."

"You will not," Madog told him sternly. "Only I get to go punching Sovereigns."

"It's true," Awen murmured. "Wingleaders' rights. It's one of the privileges of rank. Adara, could you go and help Aerona with Gareth?"

"Leader." Adara stepped away from Awen and offered Aerona a half-smile as the other Rider drained her teacup and stood, general air of enthusiasm firmly in place. "I went for one of the small transport carriages. Less obtrusive, more easily defended from big oily freaks with the morals of a bear."

"Excellent!" Aerona giggled. "You can tell me all about his personal failings as we go. Sovereign."

She bowed to him, flashing him a genuinely warming smile. Gwilym stood hastily. He was pretty sure you were meant to stand for the bowing, otherwise you looked like an ingrate. Lord Flyn probably didn't. Bastard.

"It was a pleasure meeting you!" Aerona said merrily, and then she had bounced out of the door with Adara and the bird in tow, asking questions ten to the dozen. It was a shame to see her go; her happiness had been almost contagious, like a bizarrely welcome disease. And that was an odd analogy.

"And on that note," Madog said, "we'd best be off too. I'm looking forward to hearing what Lady Gwenda has to say to me. Go and tell the others to get ready, Dylan."

"Tell them yourself, you square."

"I think I might trade you in for a better Deputy," Madog said thoughtfully. "Certainly I'm going to ask Leader Awen for a manual on how to train underlings, since hers look to be so much better than mine."

Great minds thought alike. Gwilym grinned.

"You say that," Awen said, "but she really is meant to be in Milford Haven right now. With Acting Deputy status. I've got no control over her."

"Oh, well," Madog sighed. "It was worth a shot. Dylan, go and tell the others to get ready or I'm pushing you off the Landing Tower. Hurry up."

"You wish you could," Dylan sniffed, but he actually went. Gwilym wondered if the same tactic would work on Watkins. Probably not, unless he started actually pushing people off Landing Towers to show he meant business, and in that case big, angry Riders would come and take him away. Although that would free him of Watkins. Maybe he couldn't lose this situation.

"Right," Madog said as the door clicked shut behind Dylan's hair. He opened a pouch on his belt and pulled out a folded piece of paper, dropping it onto the tabletop and pushing it to Awen. "This is our schedule, including a timetable, for where we'll be for the next few days. If you need us at any point, Leader, just get a message out to us. If we happen across your Deputy we'll castrate him for you."

"Thank you," Awen said mildly, accepting the paper. "That's very kind of you."

"Bonds between Wingleaders," Madog shrugged indifferently, and then turned and bowed to Gwilym. "A pleasure to meet you, Sovereign," he said, and it actually sounded sincere. "Enjoy the Archwiliad."

"Thank you," Gwilym nodded. "I'm sure it'll be a right laugh, filled with meaningful looks and people nudging me under the table while I try not to be too pervasive or influencial."

"Sit by Lady Marged, then," Awen suggested. "Then it'll be full of socks, although you'll leave at least a foot taller from all of the knitwear piled onto you."

"It is a health hazard," Madog said gravely, striding to the door. He pulled it open and paused in the doorway, all suave again, looking back at Awen. "Leader," he said, Saluting. "Make sure you get that shoulder seen to." And then he was gone, leaving Gwilym alone with a wryly smiling Awen.

"Can all Riders do that?" Gwilym asked wonderingly. "Just look at each other and tell if you have injuries? It seems to be one of those supernatural Rider powers."

"What, like, seeing in the dark and breathing fire?" Awen grinned. "Yes, we can all do that. A valuable part of fighting someone is being able to tell where their body is weak. Hit that and half the job is done for you."

"That's remarkably efficient," Gwilym mused. "Also remarkably terrifying. Have I ever mentioned how terrifying I find you people?"

Awen laughed, that rich, sonorous sound Gwilym loved so much. "As it should be," she chuckled. "We work hard to be feared by all. Except bakers. We like bakers."

"Ah," Gwilym said. "The weakness of the Riders. I'll remember that. That shoulder, now," and Awen put her hand to it again, an apparently automatic movement. "Are you actually going to get it seen to, or are you still keeping shy of medics?"

"I'm -" She glanced at him and then broke off, looking away slightly guiltily. "Probably still keeping shy of medics," she admitted. "So yes, please, poke it better if you wish. The bruising's all but gone now."

He stepped behind her and drew the rich red of her hair, loose and braided, back over her shoulder, his fingers brushing the soft skin of her neck as he did so -

Something jolted in his stomach and suddenly, Gwilym was painfully aware that he was getting far too close. He forced his hand to stay relaxed as he went to her shoulder, heart thudding in his chest. Awen was a Rider. She was also in pain right now, and facing away from him, but the chances of her not noticing his reaction there were slim at best. And he was a Sovereign. He belonged to the only social class she could have nothing to do with.

And she was a Rider. They never paid very much attention to their own emotions anyway.

The stiff leather of her uniform was unhelpful to the massaging process, but Gwilym didn't dare ask her to take it off. Instead he just alternated which parts of his hands he used, knuckles and palms and heels as well as fingertips. After a few seconds Awen sighed, very quietly, and leaned slowly back against the chair. Gwilym let himself breathe again. If she'd noticed anything amiss she was apparently ignoring it, and that was fine by him, since it left him in possession of fully functioning kidneys.

"I'm sorry about your family," Awen murmured quietly after a while. She was running a thumb over the scar on her palm again. "It's looking increasingly likely that Flyn did it, and in that case... it was me who should have noticed and stopped it."

"Don't do that," Gwilym said firmly. "If they were murdered that's on Flyn's head, not yours. Supernatural night vision and flame breath aside you can't actually do everything, Awen, and you couldn't have known."

"I should have." She was swirling the beads on her hair over her right shoulder now, a sort of frenzied movement. "That's my job, Sovereign. That's what I'm for. It shouldn't have mattered that Flyn tried to kill them; I was meant to stop him."

"Don't." He moved his hands to both of her shoulders, his thumbs pressing against the nape of her neck, and ignored the tingling sensation that immediately followed. "Of course it matters that he tried to kill them. I can think of so many other Sovereigns who manage to rule City-States without feeling the need to kill other people; it's not like it's an accidental hazard of the job that we need Riders to occasionally curb for us. It's murder, and he's clever, and he knew he'd have to get around you somehow. Probably he used Owain." Gwilym shook his head, stroking the tense neck muscles beneath his thumbs gently. "It's not -"

Awen caught her breath and went completely still under his hands, her right fist clenched around the beads. It was only a small change, but Gwilym was acutely aware of her, and mentally he swore as violently as he could.

"- your fault," he finished smoothly, sliding his hands back around to her left shoulder. She very nearly shivered, but Awen was incredibly highly-trained, and self-control had clearly been included on the syllabus from at least six months old if not birth; so she simply breathed out quietly and loosened her fist. "It's theirs. My father would have said the same. And my sister, although she'd probably have sworn more and used more volume."

"Angry, was she?" Awen asked. Her voice sounded normal, complete with wry smile. Gwilym wondered if the self-control lessons had actually begun in the womb.

"Immensely," he nodded. "I think even our Riders were scared of her. The merod certainly were."

She snorted, and swirled the beads. It was like rubbing the scar; a rare indicator of what Awen was probably thinking about. He remembered her doing it the night before as she berated herself for not noticing when something was wrong with Owain, and watched as she did so now. Apparently, it was how Awen displayed self-recrimination. Briefly Gwilym considered leaning over and taking hold of her hand to stop her from doing it, but he decided against it. His nerves couldn't take it. No one's nerves could take it. The aides in the corridor probably wouldn't be able to take it. And he really liked having functioning kidneys.

"I need to be going," Awen sighed, although she made no move to get up. Gwilym nodded.

"Yes," he agreed mildly. "I suppose you do. I need to start hunting down some trumpeters anyway."

"Yes," Awen said gloomily. "While I need to hunt down some Saxons, a Sovereign and a rogue Rider. We could swap if you want, I'm sure you'd like being a Rider."

"I think even Lord Flyn could take me, much less Owain."

"Fair." Awen grinned. "I'm not sure I could take on that kettle guy successfully, anyway."

"But nor can I," Gwilym said morosely. "I think perhaps I'm fated to fail in all endevours. Unless I can learn to influence people in a pervasive enough manner, but if I'm honest I don't think any amount of pervasion will move Watkins, and apparently it would speed up my untimely demise anyway."

Awen smiled and shook her head slightly. "You realise, Sovereign," she said quietly, "that you are the only thing getting in the way of making him shut up?"

Well, that sounded intriguingly hopeful. Maybe Awen had some management tips after all.

"How so?" Gwilym asked cautiously. She glanced up at him, dark green eyes oddly amused.

"You're the Sovereign," she stated. "All he can ever do is give you advice condescendingly. It's up to you entirely if you bow to that, or tell him where to go while loudly reminding him of who pays his wages. If you want to do something in your own City, you can damn well do it."

"Er," Gwilym said. "You realise I've got no clue at all what I'm doing as Sovereign, yes? I mean, I don't like Watkins, but he does at least have some experience of how this works."

"Out of interest, then, what was the last thing you wanted to do that he was opposed to?" Awen asked. Her shoulder twitched and relaxed under his hand, and she sighed contentedly.

"Sitting you on the top table yesterday," Gwilym admitted. Awen laughed her beautiful laugh.

"Well, that worked out," she grinned. "And I'm not surprised. Advisors generally hate Riders, we tend to undermine their advice. Is it his choice to not have the Beta Wing in there with you in the absence of the Alpha?"

"Presumably." Gwilym paused. He'd not checked that, actually. "I'd sort of assumed that was normal. I think I'm going to start filling every mealtime with as many Riders as will fit."

"Shame," Awen said wistfully. "Then there'll be no space for the dancing ninjas. But we digress. What else?"

"Oh gods, I don't know." Watkins never agreed with him; putting a timeline to it was an almost Sisyphean task. "When I started compiling my proposals for the Archwiliad was a pretty good example, I suppose. He didn't want anything I suggested."

"What did you want?" Awen shifted her shoulder under his stalled hand, and he carried on.

"Free clinics for the poor," Gwilym said, and then smiled at her snort. "Obviously. Watkins said that it would cost too much money, since the medics and druids and so on would have to be paid out of taxes or something."

"Ah." Awen nodded, looking thoughtful. "Which is a good point, and as your advisor he is meant to tell you that. But in that case get him to write up a budget of where every single coin of tax goes and find out what you can cut back on. Get him to help you work out a system, rather than simply tell you it can't be done."

"I did ask him for a budget," Gwilym mused. "He said it would be an impractical thing to draw up."

"Impractical? Tell him to do it or you'll fire him," Awen said firmly. "Who does he think he is? The budget is part of his bloody job."

"I'll tell him that," Gwilym nodded. "Also I'll tell him you said it. Otherwise he might start hiring adolescent bowmen to pretend to be bards in my hall, and I don't want a repeat of that."

"Oh, coerced," Awen corrected as she finally stood and stretched, rotating her shoulder. "'Hired' implies competency, in which case someone would probably have just dropped a foxglove in your soup or something."

"Nubile food tasters," Gwilym said, clicking his fingers. "Thanks for reminding me. I must get onto that."

"And the birds," Awen nodded. "Get Kettle Man to make a list. If he refuses have him killed. In some really ironic way, if possible, as a warning to the next guy. Also, I can smack him upside the head on the way out if you wish."

"Oh, that's tempting," Gwilym said darkly. "It really is. But I suppose you shouldn't. Responsible Sovereigning, that."

"You're a natural." Awen grinned, and then bowed to him. He wished she wouldn't. "Anyway, Sovereign; enjoy the Archwiliad."

"Happy hunting," Gwilym returned softly, and suddenly Awen's beautifully chiselled face was all dark and focused and terrifying, and she was every inch a Rider.

"Thank you," she said calmly.

Well, you learned something new every day. Gwilym hadn't realised it would be even possible to feel sorry for Owain.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Cymru - Chapter 15

Yes, I know, I haven't written any of this in ages. You'll all have to go back and re-read the rest, I expect. But Blossom told me to write more, so I did. Blame her.

Also, I've written this and read none of it back to myself, so it could be an offence to your eyes. Sorry, guys. I don't really care, though, because I'm hungry. Enjoy!


As the guards dragged the would-be assassin into the room, whimpering and struggling in their arms, Awen sized him up. Her first guess as to his age looked about right; in fact, with time to see him up close and after he'd spent a night in one of the tiny cells in the corridor he looked younger than he had before, his darting eyes seeming almost bruised against his pale, sweating skin. Viciously deep talon wounds from Gwenhwyfar's attack tracked down his right temple almost to his neck, crusted over and staining the shoulder of his tunic with dried blood, apparently untreated. Fourteen, maybe? He looked about fourteen. Carefully, Awen kept her face impasssive, leaning against the wall in front of the table with her arms crossed in front of her chest. She said nothing.

"No..." He started to thrash as the guards, both easily twice his size, hauled him onto the table and began fastening the heavy iron manacles around his wrists. "No! Please! Don't do this!"

One of the guards leered at him unpleasantly. "Should've talked before, then, boy," he grinned, twisting the boy's ankle unnecessarily roughly into another manacle. Awen marked his face mentally as he smirked at his colleague. "I love it when they beg."

"Aye." The other guard flashed a row of yellow, broken teeth at the writhing form on the table. "And scream. Riders are good at making them scream."

The sad thing was, they'd actually done Awen a favour at that. By the time the guards left to return to the corridor outside, laughing and jostling each other approvingly, the boy actually was screaming, eyes wide with terror and heaving vainly at the chains. Adara casually made herself comfortable in an aging armchair at the edge of the room as they waited for him to calm down, Gwenhwyfar settling happily on the arm to groom herself. Awen didn't move, and kept her eyes trained on the boy. Performance; it was all about the performance now.

Finally, after several long minutes the boy's struggles abated, fading into a weakly exhausted pull on the shackles, defeated and despairing. His voice broke to a hoarse whisper, repeating a muted "No... no..." like a mantra as his eyes rolled wildly, looking everywhere but the wall where Awen stood. Gwenhwyfar shifted impatiently, and Awen took it as her cue to begin.

The key to torture, Awen had found, wasn't pain or precise anatomical knowledge or druidic healing ailities. Pain was too immediate a threat to the body, and far too often it caused a prisoner to just shout out what they thought you wanted to hear, including false confessions. Those who didn't break quickly never would either. After a while the body broke the mind, and the mind would crave pain as though it was pleasure. The only option after that, her tutor had told her long ago, was to simply dispose of the victim. They were a waste of time and resources after that.

Fear, however. Fear of pain was far more persuasive.

As such, it was a routine, an act, and one that Awen knew well. She stepped away from the wall finally, her movements controlled and deliberate. The boy stiffened, his eyes finally meeting Awen's. Carefully, she pulled off her gloves, allowing her right palm to turn outwards towards him.

It hadn't seemed possible he could go paler. He went completely still, eyes locked on Awen, the terror on his face palpable. He recognised the scar. He knew what it meant.

The heavy flight jacket was next, button by button before Awen slid it off, allowing the slash across her throat into full view above the lower neckline of the sleeveless undershirt. It had a second advantage also: her arms were now bare, adourned only with the wrist blade mechanisms strapped ominously to her forearms. The boy shook his head, a strange keening noise coming from his throat as Awen finally moved forward toward him, holding his gaze.

"Your name," she said. He trembled.

"Gareth," he whispered, his voice cracking.

"Your city."

Gareth trembled again, but said nothing. Awen held up her right hand and his eyes flickered to it.

"You know what this is," she said softly. "I already owe you something for this. But because of you my own Deputy gave me this." She traced her fingertips across the wound on her neck, and Gareth closed his eyes. Awen noted it instantly, and suddenly several pieces fell into place.

"Your family, Gareth," she said quietly. "Are they in Casnewydd?"

His eyes flew open and he stared up at her, desperate terror on his face.

"Yes," he whispered. "They... I can't..."

Something icy settled between Awen's shoulder blades, and she realised with a sort of detached surprise that it was a furious, raging guilt. Her fault. It was all her fault; she could have stopped this so long ago, but she'd been so gods damned blind...

She glanced across at Adara who looked back with something akin to horror, anger shining in her blue eyes. Awen nodded and Adara rose, nearing them to start carefully cleaning the wound on Gareth's face. He shuddered but said nothing, terrified still.

"Gareth," Awen said firmly, "I'm a Union Rider. I outrank him. If you tell me the details I can save them."

"But he said – " Gareth's face twisted. "He said that wouldn't matter! He said if I told any Riders he'd know and he'd kill them and take Alis' business and money away and he'd make her into a concubine and I don't know what to do."

"He meant my Deputy," Awen said. "That's how he'd have known. Who in your family has he got?"

"My mother." Gareth was crying now, his body trembling and tears mingling with the sluggish trickle of blood from the cuts on his temple. "And my grandmother, and she's – she's so old, and he's got her in the cells. Please! You have to get them out..."

"Oh, I will," Awen promised darkly. "But first, you have to tell me everything, Gareth. I need to hear every detail. Can you do that?"

He nodded, gulping as he tried to stop crying.

"Lord Flyn," he said, voice cracking. "I saw him. Last - week, I think. He was by the border, and he'd been over it, and he was talking to a Saxon."

A Saxon?

"Are you sure it was a Saxon?" Awen asked, sharply. Gareth nodded, cringing as Adara applied the seaweed solution to his temple.

"Yes," Gareth whispered. "And they were talking in Saxon. I didn't understand; I told him then, at the time, I didn't understand them, but they wouldn't listen..."

"It's okay," Awen said softly. She sat on the table beside Gareth's trembling form. "It's all over now. What happened?"

"I saw them by the farm," Gareth said tightly. "We're - we're by Magwyr, north of the City. They were in the start of the woods, I only went closer to see if it was the boys from the village after the chickens again. They were talking in Saxon. I didn't realise it was Lord Flyn at first."

"Was it definitely Lord Flyn?" Awen asked gently. "You're sure?"

"Yes," Gareth whispered. "I tried to go when I realised, but... they saw me... so I ran..."

"I'll bet," Awen said. She squeezed the boy's wrist. "You're a good runner, I thought so yesterday." It would be the only thing that had saved his life, too. He must have escaped that initial encounter or Lord Flyn would have simply killed him. Gareth gave a weak, humourless smile.

"I won the races on Calan Mai," he said, tears rolling down his cheeks. Adara had finished cleaning the wound on the other side and was starting on stitching the skin together. Gareth winced as she did.

"Sorry," Adara murmured. "This'll sting for a while."

"What happened next, Gareth?" Awen asked. He shuddered.

"I got away," Gareth said, his voice strained, "into the village. I thought they wouldn't follow. But then, the next day, the guards came. And a Rider. They took my Mam, and my grandmother; they said they'd been talking to Saxons. They said I could go and speak to Lord Flyn on their behalf, as a witness..."

He shuddered, making the chains clink together. Gwenhwyfar ruffled her feathers on Adara's shoulder.

"I went," Gareth continued. "I said they couldn't have talked to Saxons, because we don't understand Saxon, none of us do, but he wouldn't listen. He said they were still a risk. So I asked him what I could do to save them and he said - he said if I worked for him I could work off their sentence, and... and he'd leave Alis alone..."

"Your sister?" Awen guessed. Gareth nodded. His eyes were still tear-glazed and unfocused, looking up at the ceiling above them.

"She's pregnant," he murmured. "I couldn't... He - he told me to go to Aberystwyth, and... and then wait. And then I did, and then the Rider came back..."

"Can you describe that Rider, Gareth?" Awen asked. She was surprised at how calm she managed to sound; internally her heart was beating so hard she could hear the blood roaring in her ears.

"His hair was strange," Gareth said, and frowned. "Very strange, actually, like a quiff."

"Was he oily?" Adara chimed in. Awen gave her a Look.

"Yes," Gareth said, shivering again. "Not tall. His beads were blue. And he talked weirdly. And he came yesterday. I was with the bards, and he told us all, he said - that they had to get me in, and I had to - I had to kill the - Sovereign..."

"It's okay," Awen said again, as gently as she could while the sobbing racked Gareth's body, forcing Adara to abandon her ministrations for a minute. "It's over now. Did he tell you why you had to kill the Sovereign, Gareth?"

"He said..." Gareth paused, gulping at the air. "He said he was a - an influence... per - perv - "

"Pervasive," Awen supplied, her mind racing. Really? Flyn had considered Lord Gwilym to be strongly influential? Having met the man Awen wasn't overly surprised at the idea; clearly given even another year the people of Aberystwyth were going to be wildly in love with Lord Gwilym, and he was definitely charming. But he certainly wasn't confident enough to be spreading any sort of influence over anyone just yet, and Awen was fairly certain Flyn and Gwilym had, to date, met once.

"Yes," Gareth whispered. "He said he had to be stopped now, before everyone paid the price. He said he would corrupt everyone. I don't... I didn't want to kill him..."

"I know," Awen said quietly, squeezing his wrist again. Few people did want to kill, when faced with their victim; she knew that from experience.

"If he was just going to have Lord Gwilym killed, why send you to talk to him first?" Adara asked quietly, glancing across. Awen shook her head.

"I have no idea," she said frankly. "Unless that was just a stalling tactic. Maybe Owain was meant to appraise the situation and activate Gareth here if he saw fit."

"Could be," Adara sighed. She finished the wound on Gareth's next, tied off the thread and stood, stretching. "I'll go and find out what I can about getting Gareth somewhere protected. Might be best if we take him to the Union."

"Probably," Awen agreed absently. Something still wasn't right, though. Something didn't add up. "Who did you say told you to come to Aberystwyth, Gareth?"

"Lord Flyn," Gareth whispered. He looked exhausted, like a drowning man finally pulled ashore. "He didn't say why, just that I was to come here and wait. The Rider came then."

"Okay," Awen said softly; but it wasn't. Nothing was okay now. And something was very wrong.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

How it Ends

They were always a wonderful couple. He in elegant linen trousers and reckless spats, she in a summer dress just shy of elegant. Any better dressed person standing beside them was instantly transformed into a fop. And such energy they had! Sometimes it dipped into mania. People noticed that, I think, and kept a courteous distance. Ligeia didn’t care. She would grin and pull me into an inappropriately intimate embrace. “That’s why we like to spend time with the youngsters, darling.”

For my part, they amazed me. Their limitless energy, their intellectual vigour and their total devotion to each other represented everything I saw as right, and good, and totally unattainable. I’ve never been a confident person. I’m the wall fern in the aviary, or the person who holds the test tubes in the back ground. I’ve improved over the years. These days I cover my blue lips with make-up, and give excellent excuses to go home early, but I am still essentially set dressing.

Nicholas and Ligeia, took an interest in me, almost as if I were something amusing. They were a little condescending, but I didn’t care. I felt like a little brother. Nicholas took me to his club, enlisted me as an assistant in the Laboratory. Ligeia would ask me to read to her. “I want to get used to your voice,” she said, and laughed at her own strangeness. She was much younger than him, but she had the same recklessness hovering beneath her. And he let her out with me, just me, as if I were above suspicion. People started to talk, of course, but Ligeia would grin like a twelve year old and say, “what are tongues for?” Then she’d take my arm and force me to paddle in the fountain with her.

For three months, I think I was actually happy. Ligeia and Nicholas saw only each other, really, but I think I caught some of their heat just by proximity. They laughed all the time, they danced later than anyone else and they worked on their scientific projects with the same reckless energy they applied to everything else. I loved them. Not the jealous, intrusive love of real life. I felt like I was reading a book, watching them. I loved them together, and wanted nothing less than to insert my oafish form between them.

Eventually, they upgraded me from holder of test tubes to monitor of readings, and revealed their project to me. I was astounded. They had created a device for installing a human mind into a machine. I suspect I may have laughed when they told me, but no-one could have laughed in the face of the machine itself. Great copper funnels swung up from a steel base, and glass vials with strange liquids intruded on its edges. In the centre was a window, and behind it was all shadow. They neither of them looked directly at that.

Summer flew past like a single explosive moment. It was glorious. Ligeia and Nicholas danced feverishly through it, and every night he would swing her up into his arms and carry her up the stairs to their apartment.

“You always travel by arms?” I asked her.

She looked at Nicholas for a moment.


Nicholas swung her down to the ground again.

“You turn, mate,” he said.

I picked her up. She was a little heavier than I expected, but I would not let them see what it cost me to carry her so far. I took her right up to the top, smiled at her, and leaned very casually against the wall, but she frowned.

“You’re not as strong as Nicholas, are you?” she said, thoughtfully.

The next day, before going to the Laboratory, Nicholas took me to his club and punished me in straight sets for a few hours.

“You’ll scrub up nicely after a few more of these,” he said, through the shower door.

“I did OK,” I said. My head was between my knees as I massaged my chest back into a functioning state.

“Physique like yours? You should be beating me.”

I was silent.

We returned to the Laboratory to find Ligeia there already, busy with the machine. I stood and watched her for a while. Her hands moved instinctively across the device, and she moved around it as if it were a body and she a doctor – tender, but businesslike, experienced. I joined her, but my hands were clumsy. She smiled.

“You’ll get the hang of it.”

“When? How long have you been doing this?”

“Not long; Nicholas had a different partner before me. You pick it up.”

“Ligeia, may I ask you a personal question?”

Immediately her scientific side was pushed back and she was flirty, delightful Ligeia again. Ligeia who dances all night.

“Of course.”

“How old are you?”

I think now that I saw a shadow over her face when I said that. I imagine that she glanced at the Device, at the shadowy screen in the middle. But perhaps she didn’t. Perhaps she simply smiled boldly up at me and said, “twenty-two.”

That night we went dancing. Nicholas was tired. Ligeia held him gently as he sat and watched the dance until he urged her away to me. She led me to the dance floor and attempted to Charleston. The wall fern baulked, but I did my best. When the music mercifully ceased she looked at me appraisingly, not like a man at all.

No. It’s no good. It’s no good at all if you can’t dance.”

So I had to dance again, and again, always with a solemn, silent Ligeia who gazed at her pale lover whenever the dance turned her that way, and spoke only to correct my feet. By the end, I was fuelled by pride alone, dancing step after step between each erratic heart beat.

In October they woke me up at midnight, half-cut, and insisted that now was the time. I crawled out of bed and followed them to the Laboratory. They clung to each other. For the only time, I saw them frightened. Really scared. They murmured to each other and kept me out of their discourse. We entered the Lab in silence, and Ligeia switched on the machine. They kissed once, and then Nicholas strapped himself into it. Ligeia activated the device, and he yelped and writhed as the image on the screen gained definition. With a final sigh he stopped. Ligeia ran to him and calmly checked his pulse, then she turned on me. She was furious and old.

“You did this.”

I went to her, I wanted to hold her, give her some comfort.

“No. You should have been watching him. You did this.” She paused. “Fix it.”

I took a step backwards. I understood, suddenly. I nodded. She unstrapped the body and pushed it onto the floor. I walked dumbly to the machine and strapped myself in.


She is standing by the machine. Now I see she does not move like a young woman, not really. I wonder if she even remembers how old she is.

The shape in the screen is twisting, changing.

They never asked why I stopped in this little town, never learned to dance, never made plans for my future. I think they won’t realise until it is too late.

I should not be doing them this great unkindness. I am sorry to cause pain. But Ligeia has a sweet face; such a young face.