Saturday, 26 December 2009

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Cymru - Chapter 25


The ceiling panel slid noiselessly back, its casters oiled to perfection, and Awen dropped through as quietly as she could, landing nimbly on all fours like a cat. The room within was dark, only the faint glow of moonlight filtering through the pale curtain over the window offering any illumination to see the furniture; a dresser with a bowl of water, a wardrobe, a bed, the darker outline of an alcove. A deep breathing from the bed proclaimed that the room was indeed occupied. Awen paused, listening carefully for any sounds from the corridor outside. There were none; sensible people were all asleep at this time of night.

Cautiously, Awen crept to the bed. Her night vision was in full swing after moving through the wall passages to get here, and she could see the man lying there on his back, bedsheets tangled about his waist and exposing his bare chest, one hand twitching in the darkness on his pillow. She bit back a sigh. Tricky to get to both hands and his mouth to keep him from yelling; easier just to wake him and dodge the attack. Awen braced herself, placed a hand on his shoulder and shook him awake.

She was almost fast enough. She ducked the punch as it shot for her jaw, but his other hand closed about her wrist before she could withdraw completely and hauled her forward as he sat up, the first arm curling back around and pinning her against his chest. Awen had just enough leverage to move her head sideways to his shoulder as he thrust his forehead down into the space her nose had so recently filled before digging the fingers of her free hand into his hair and holding his head still, her mouth almost pressed against his ear.

"Climb the Spiral," she whispered, and the body holding her went rigid. "It's me, Ioan. It's okay."

There was a pause, and then Ioan relaxed, releasing her wrist and loosening his grip on her waist. Awen leaned back, their eyes just about meeting in the gloom, and let her hand drop from his hair to his shoulder.

"You know," he whispered conversationally, "I used to have dreams like this. Although you should be wearing rather less to do it properly."

"That's very sweet of you," she answered mildly. "Maybe next time. We've got a problem."

"Won't it be there in the morning?" he asked, yawning. "Because this isn't morning, see. I can tell because it's dark."

Her hand found one set of his beads in the dark and he went almost as rigid as when she'd woken him.

"It could be worse," Awen said quietly. "I'm sorry. But I need a report, and I need to fill you in."

It didn't take long, and was one of the more interesting briefings Awen had ever given, since she was still in both the dark and Ioan's arms. It meant a trade-off of facial expressions for body language; his reaction to the saga of Owain was to become even tenser than when he'd been half-awake and fighting, and to reflexively tighten his arms around her, while Gareth's part had him freezing in place like a statue. His muscles twitched once as she explained Flyn and his Saxon meetings. When she explained Nerys and Iona he swore quietly and rested his forehead on hers. And finally, when she told him about Adara watching Flyn, he sighed and corded his fingers through her hair, a gesture that suddenly and bizarrely made her think of Gwilym.

"You want me to relieve her?" he whispered, his breath ghosting not unpleasantly across her face. "I could. Or Heledd could do it, I could go and fetch her."

"She'll need it," Awen said. "But tomorrow morning. In the meantime, I need you or one of the others to smuggle Iona to the Union. A medic would be favourite, because she's just as likely to die tonight, her injuries are that bad."

"Heledd's a medic." Ioan paused. "You want something now, though? You want Adara out of the way."

"Yes," Awen said. "She's watching me now that Owain's gone. The group of Saxons living in Cwmbrân. It's you who's been watching them, yes?"

"The ones pretending to be Germanians, yes." Even whispering, Awen could hear the smile in his voice. "What do you need?"

"Information," Awen said. "A report first."

"They're - essentially refugees, actually," Ioan said. "They very much keep themselves to themselves, so I've not been able to find out as much as I'd like, but I know enough. For one thing, they aren't just hiding from us."

"The Saxons as well?" Awen asked, eyebrow raised. Ioan nodded.

"Yes. Hence refugees, and hence we haven't thrown them out." Idly, he tucked her hair behind her ear, again forcing a memory of Gwilym. Awen swallowed. "They're not planning anything against us, and they're not spies. There are about twenty of them, all ages."


"As we'd understand it," Ioan said. "They aren't related, and I think that means more to Saxons than social relationships. But there are seven children, and all of the adults help to raise them."

"How do they survive?"

"They've got a pig farm on the edge of the woods. Medium herd, a few vegetable patches. They snare hares. Some of them weave baskets and coracles, and I think some of them can fish." His voice took on a slightly critical edge. "Mostly the men, of course. You know Saxons."

"I know Saxons," Awen agreed, voice hard. "Only mostly, though?"

"Yes, in fairness they do seem to be trying to adopt Cymric practices." Ioan grinned. "They've not got it quite right, but they try. Anyway, they trade things in the market every week. They get by."

"Right." Awen thought for a second. "Do we know why they've run here?"

"No." Ioan shook his head. "Not without opening the front door and asking. Or crossing the border and asking them."

"Alright." Awen nodded. "The important questions, then. Who's in charge?"

"It's unclear," Ioan said. "Because, in public, they seem to have a sort of triumvirate going on, their Top Three Men. But I have my doubts. Once or twice they've tried to negotiate with someone, at the market or in the tavern or whatever, and... they've been unsure. It's like watching someone who has a superior, and they're not sure how that superior will react to a decision they need to make."

"Right." Awen sighed. "And how do I find them?"

"The tavern, the farm... they don't move about much." Ioan tightened his arms around her abruptly, pulling her into his chest again. "It doesn't have to be you, Leader," he said, his tone serious. "I could go. When did you last sleep?"

"Last night," Awen said, wryly. Briefly, she thought, but kept it quiet. "And no, you can't, Ioan. You're the Beta Wingleader. Your Wing will notice if you start running around when you're meant to be on alert for Saxons. Mine aren't here."

"Sorry, do you think you can lie to me and I won't notice?" Ioan asked, amused. "I had the same training as you, don't try it with me. You're going because you think you're responsible."

"Tell me I'm not," Awen challenged evenly. Ioan sighed and shook his head, his beard whispering across her forehead.

"You know I can't," he said. "Just as we both know we're completely biased and unreliable sources, so don't try that with me either. Go on. Go and chase Saxons. I'll get Heledd."

"I may be in love with you again," Awen told him, disengaging herself from his arms and standing. Behind her Ioan pushed the blankets off and stood, stretching.

"Yes," he said. "But it's only ever fleeting, you fickle creature. You stop when I annoy you, I can't think why."

"Nor can I," Awen said, leaping elegantly onto the window-ledge and reaching for the hole in the ceiling. "And whenever I talk to you for an extended period, it's very strange. Stay safe. I'll check in with you in the morning."


The tavern was full and noisy, filled to the rafters with the sounds of talking, music, the clinking of tankards on wood, the scraping of chairlegs on flagstones. The bards were sat at the opposite end of the room from the bar, away from the fire, and people danced in the meager space between tables and other people. As Awen entered she pushed her hood back, not looking around, and pushed her way straight to the bar. The coat was just an oiled, dark green wool, non-descript but perfectly long enough to cover her uniform underneath, and she'd pulled out the braiding in her hair except to the pair that carried her beads, which she'd hidden under her collar. It was as un-
Rider like as she could make herself under the circumstances, and it seemed to do the trick. No one spared her a second glance as she crossed the room.

"Evening!" the barman exclaimed merrily as Awen snagged a stool and perched on it. "Or maybe night by now, who knows? You look like you've been on the road a while!"

"Since dawn," Awen grinned. "Of yesterday. I have all the luck."

"And so you've chosen a bar over a bed!" the barman laughed. "Good for you! What's your poison?"

"Anything in a large quantity," Awen said, carefully selecting a Phoenician coin and sliding it over the bar top. "In a big shiny tankard. How shiny are your tankards?"

"I'll get you one special," the barman winked, rummaging under the bar. "Beer do you? I've got a good ale. Or we've got whiskey mead, take your pick."

"Beer's fine," Awen smiled easily, wishing she could ask for the mead. "I'll drink anything, really."

"As long as the tankard's shiny, eh?" the barman said, laughing and pulling a smoothly polished mug of bronze out and filling it from the barrel behind them. "Well, it's a good choice. Anything else? You've enough to pay for a few more there."

She'd been counting on it. "Well," she said thoughtfully. "In that case, I'll have the same again now. Although it can be a normal tankard if necessary. I only need one."

"Ah, I like a non-demanding customer!" the barman grinned, and the next was wooden before he left her alone and moved off to serve a pair of farmers loudly calling further down the bar.

She drank half the beer from the metal tankard before allowing a passing woman with a basket full of bread to knock into her, thus spilling the rest, and having moved the woman on she took her chance. Carefully keeping herself out of the way, Awen laid the tankard on the bar top, the flat base facing the rest of the tavern, and watched the reflections.

It was well-polished. The patrons chatted obliviously to her watching, unknowingly gifting her with more information than they'd realise as she read the movements of their lips, absorbing the wrods she couldn't hear. A pair of old men complained about the people dancing; a woman told her friend about a recent Saxon raid; the group of farmers talked about the Phoenician and Erinnish exchange rates for oats; a group of Alban traders talked in Pictish about - Awen narrowed her eyes - the difficulties of land trade through Saxonia with its present wars, a conversation she followed until it changed into a comparison of the bards in the corner with those 'back home'; an adolescent boy talked to his sister about a boy he liked in his village; and there, finally, in a small corner table, she saw the refugee Saxons.

They were, as Ioan had said, dressed like Germanians, both clothes and hair. There were four of them gathered around the table, two men in their forties with builds that spoke of manual labour, an old woman making rushlights with her gnarled fingers and a boy of eighteen, quietly weaving a fishing net with competent skill. They were speaking Germanian, which Awen thought was a sensible touch. She watched.

"Forever?" One of the men was asking. They were all keeping themselves very calm, but on closer observation some sort of tense discussion was taking place. "And you'd be happy with that, would you? You're content with this?"

"With living? Very." The second man swirled his drink, watching it rather than his companion. "I'm sorry. But there was a reason I wanted to come here in the first place. It was to survive."

"To survive?" The first man's eyes narrowed dangerously. "And that's all? That's all you wanted? Not to live?"

"From my perspective they're the same," the second said, still avoiding eye contact, and the other man opened his mouth to answer but was beaten by the old woman.

"We're living a lie, Offa," she said, her withered fingers dancing surprisingly elegantly over her work. "We aren't living our lives. Someone elses'."

"We're alive to do so," Offa said, and the first man broke in, his knuckles white around his tankard.

"And that's that?" he said. "That's all you want now? To grow old invisibly in a country that would hate you if it knew what you were? For your children to grow up claiming a completely different heritage, speaking an alien language in order to hide themselves? To remain ghosts, on the edge of society, to avoid being found by two countries?"

"If you'll recall, being obsessed with our heritage was the problem we fled from," Offa said, finally sipping his drink. "But what's your counter-suggestion, exactly? What do you genuinely think we can do? If we make our presense known the Riders will finish what our people started. Or they might just throw us back across the border and let our people sort it out anyway. Personally? No, I don't like pretending to be Germanian, and living in near isolation, and looking over my shoulder constantly. But, therefore, I want to move on."

"Move on?" The first man seemed almost speechless. "You want to just... outrun it?"

"Erinn would accept us. Or Gaul, or even Celtiberia. Gods, even Germania." Offa smiled, a bitter, self-mocking smile. "Anywhere that isn't Cymru, and wouldn't be just as happy to see our blood running through the streets as Saxonia. We could genuinely start again, as ourselves. They wouldn't come for us."

"And we'd never go home again," the old woman said. She finished a rushlight, and started the next. "You're happy for that?"

"Home is gone," Offa said bluntly. "We won't see it again."

"You don't believe Mother, then?" the boy said quietly, and suddenly they were all looking at him. The first man folded his arms across his broad chest. There was a pause.

"I think," said Offa carefully, and Awen had the impression that he was trying very hard with this sentence, "that she has an incredible vision, yes. But I think it is a dream. A fantasy. We could never manage it without serious political allies, and we'll never find those here. And I think that if we try this plan, it will draw attention to us. And I think the second that happens, we're dead."

"She got us out," the boy said. "You didn't believe she could do that, either, but she managed it. She got us hidden here."

"An escape is a far cry from a social revolution," Offa said resolutely, and Awen nearly choked on the beer she was sipping. The old woman shook her head.

"Mind you don't cling to old ways of thinking too strongly, Offa," she said. "Breguswid is far cleverer and far more resourceful than you. She's wily, that one. If there's a way, she'll find it."

"And if there's not?" Offa asked. "Because she'd risk us. Here, in our illusion of safety, it's so easy to think that we've nothing left to lose. But my daughter is five years old. My son is seven. They have a chance now. She can be something here. He can live to adulthood. Breguswid would risk that."

"She's risking it for them," the man said. "For all of us. And you know how well she's done!" His eyes shone, his body language almost betraying the nice calm image they were all affecting. "Do you realise how many others like us she's found? Do you know how many are willing to listen to her? On both sides of the border!"

"And if the Riders find out," Offa almost hissed, "do you think they won't assume it's some kind of invasion force? With those tradition-soaked retards from back home raiding every week, invading, riding in on pointless revenge missions? If they find a group of several hundred Saxons living in their border do you think they won't assume it's just some new tactic in an on-going war they neither started nor are continuing?"

"Even if they did," the man said, "and I say if - there's still a chance they'd listen. They understand things like change here."

"Don't be a fool," Offa said coldly. "They'd attack first and ask questions later, and I'd not blame them."

There was a pause, and Awen wondered what the hell was going on. Something she'd erroneously want to murder them for, apparently. It was immensely tempting to just walk over and ask them, but that wouldn't help. Not knowing what they wanted, there was no way she could promise she wouldn't stop them. And arresting one wouldn't be a good idea, since then the others would know.

"We'll know soon what she's planning, anyway," the old woman said, breaking the silence. "She's nearly done gaining supporters. Once she knows numbers she'll get working on the next bit."

"And every supporter she gains before getting allies from Cymru makes us look more like an invasion force," Offa said gloomily. "Is that what she's been doing in Abertawe? Is she back tonight?"

"Yes," the other man said. "And you will not talk to her about this when she gets back. Not in front of anyone else. You save it for in private, understand?"

Quietly, Awen drained the tankard and stood, pulling her hood back up. It was time to visit the farm, she felt. And to meet this 'Breguswid'.


The farm was right on the edge of Cwmbrân, nestled into a semi-circular clearing on the edge of the tree line. It seemed to consist of four tai hirion and a straw barn of sorts, all timber and thatch and stone, with a midden at the back that from the smell of it was used for the pigs as well as the humans. And area the size of half a field had been securely fenced off from the animals in front of the trees and given over to rows of onions, carrots and cabbages, all neatly-hoed and maintained. Further fencing stretched out of sight into the trees, probably for the pigs to graze. The whole place looked poor but scrubbed; the small windows and the frames were free of dirt, the door handles polished, the bare earth floor around the buildings swept of leaves and twigs in spite of the thick mud worn into the centres by animal feet. Housework got done here. Housework with a capital H.

It was difficult to pick where to wait, since Awen was uncertain which direction Breguswid was likely to come from. If she came through the trees she'd be undercover, unlikely to be seen by Riders if she was avoiding them, but it was risky; Awen had gotten the impression that the woman seemed to be moving about on her own, so unless she was capable of fighting off wolves, boars and bears single-handedly hiking through woods in the dark was ill-advised. And much though Breguswid seemed to have considerably more backbone than most Saxon women, Awen doubted she'd picked up the necessary training and skills to go mano a mano with a bear.

Whereas the road meant she could be seen, but... Lots of people used roads. It was very easy to disguise yourself as a local trader or bard if needed, but really, how many people were likely to give one woman a second glance? All she had to do was walk nonchalently, which in Awen's experience people planning social revolutions were generally rather good at. And the risk of bears was much diminished, and no one could consider that a negative, except possibly the bears.

Or, Awen could just lie on the roof of the straw barn - or even stand amongst the straw, the gods knew it would be warmer - and watch for anyone coming back from any direction. From there she could see the doors to each of the tai hirion, which anyone wanting to go in would have to use unless they fancied removing all limbs to slither through the windows. Cautiously, Awen slipped through the trees to the back wall of the barn, climbed onto a fence post and leapt up to the thatched roof.

Thatch was less slippery than tile, and had the added advantage of being pierceable by a blade for ease of climbing. It took seconds to get onto the roof properly, and then Awen paused, listening for any sounds of detection. There were none; only the lonely call of an owl somewhere in the trees behind her. She moved forward, positioned herself so she could see the doorways, and lay down to wait.

After half an hour of pinching herself awake the four from the tavern arrived home, all moving for the same tŷ hir and speaking in whispers to avoid waking anyone else, although Awen got the impression they were still arguing. She debated listening outside their window, but decided against it. Tai hirion were thick wattle and daub affairs, the kind that were deeply traditional and designed to keep out the winter when you couldn't afford anything better, and damned near soundproof. These were probably unexceptional.

The wind blew lazily and coldly, biting its way into her hood. Awen shivered. It was a good cloak, but it was no match for full Riding leathers for insulation. But leather creaked, and she'd needed to not look like a Rider in the tavern; and anyway, the cold helped her fight the sleep that wanted to claim her. The weariness was becoming bone-deep, a pervasive nagging that asked her to give up. She ignored it.

And her shoulder was aching again, admittedly not as badly as it had been before Gwilym - Lord Gwilym - had loosened the muscles for her...

She gritted her teeth, and watched.

It was as the clouds were chasing the moonlight in patches across the farm that finally Awen saw the movement appearing at the edge of the trees, a figure coming from the road wrapped in a plain travelling cloak with a staff in one hand, a hint of a limp to its gait. Awen waited for the moonlight to move off her before she slipped as smoothly and noiselessly off the roof as a shadow, creeping to the edge to watch the figure move to the furthest tŷ hir. It looked about right; the shoulders were broad but narrow enough to suggest a woman, tall like the Saxons but not as much as a Viking, her posture mildly stooping in a manner that spoke of a long time on the road without a horse to carry her. Well, there was only one way to find out...

The woman stepped to the door and stretched out a hand, and Awen stepped forward out of the shadows behind her.

"Don't open it," she said softly in Saxon.

The woman froze, her stance straightening suddenly, shoulders tense.

"You won't take us back, you know," she said to the door, her voice quiet but unwavering. "How many-"

"I'm not a Saxon," Awen interrupted. The woman's head twitched to the left slightly, the edge of a cheekbone visible.

"Indeed?" Her voice was sharp. "And yet here you are, speaking it to me. I assume you're armed?"

"No," Awen said. "Well, yes, I am, but not in the way you're thinking. Feel free to turn around."

She did, holding the plain wooden travelling staff as regally as a Sovereign, chin raised in silent defiance. The light was too poor to see her face clearly, but Awen noted her broad mouth set in an unsmiling line. She stood steadily, weight shifted to her good leg.

"My name is Breguswid," she said. "If you didn't already know it. But if you know who we are and are here, you have to be either a Saxon or a Rider, girl, and I don't reckon I'd still be breathing if you were a Rider. I certainly don't think this would be our language of choice."

"I don't think I'm going to hurt you," Awen said, reaching up to undo the broach holding the cloak closed. "That's the best I can offer."

The leather uniform gleamed in the moonlight as she pulled the cloak off, her beads falling forwards. Breguswid went rigid, one hand unconsciously touching the door behind her, the other tightening on the staff. Awen stayed still. Distance was probably a good idea. She realised objectively that she needed to not kill this woman, but every trained, ingrained instinct she had was screaming at her to do so. She'd never been in the presense of living Saxons for as long as she had been tonight.

"I see," Breguswid said. Impressively, her voice hadn't wavered, but the extra note of extreme caution was clearly audible. "I understood Riders couldn't speak non-Celtic languages."

"I understood Saxon women were slaves," Awen answered calmly. "You seem to have freed yourself."

Breguswid snorted, looking away. The moonlight caught her face briefly, and Awen saw the strong jaw and cheekbones that gave her race away.

"A good way of putting it," she said, and looked back at Awen, hesitating.

"I think," she said at last, "that you'd better come in, Rider."

"So do I," Awen agreed. "Keep about a metre away from me if at all possible. It's not personal, but -"

"You've been trained." Breguswid said. "I understand."

She turned and opened the door, which swung open heavily but quietly on its well-kept hinges, and stepped through after glancing over her shoulder at Awen. Awen followed, holding her arms steady.

Inside Breguswid had already moved away into the human habitation half of the tŷ hir, lighting rushlights from a low-burning hearth. Awen paused in the doorway, instincts making her nervy as the pig half yawned emptily and darkly to her right, her imagination filling in Saxon warriors lurking unseen. She took a deep breath, clenching her fists, and stepped through into a small living area.

The hearth burned in the corner, a glowing heap of orange embers. In the centre of the room a scrubbed wooden table was surrounded by ricketty chairs, the evidence of industry all around, nets and baskets and woollen cloth in half-finished arrangements. A doorway in the opposite wall led into the darkened sleeping quarters, the sound of someone snoring softly drifting through to them, and Awen wondered how many people were sleeping back there. Breguswid finished lighting the rushlights and stood back, letting Awen pick her seat at the table as she pulled off her cloak and leaned her staff against the wall. Carefully, Awen pulled out a chair and put it back against the wall, letting her watch both doors and giving herself space to fight if necessary. Breguswid watched her steadily as she sat, before choosing her own seat across the table and sinking into it heavily.

In the light Breguswid was revealed to be somewhere in her forties or fifties, although the lines on her weathered face made it hard to guess accurately. Her hair was the straw colour of most Saxons but streaked with grey, and plaited into two braids that ended a little below her collar bones. Her eyes were a hard grey, sharp and cold, a story hiding behind them. Awen had seen eyes like that. They usually belonged to Riders, the ones who survived when the rest didn't. She had nightmares that gave her those eyes.

And then those eyes fastened onto Awen's collar, and Breguswid's face froze.

"Well well," she said quietly, her gaze intense. "The gods move in strange ways, don't they? Of all of the Riders to come here."

"Really?" Awen studied her face carefully. "Is that a reference to my rank, or is there some back story?"

"Back story?" Breguswid laughed once, a short, hard sound. "More than you know. The stories don't quite do you justice, I must say. Even sitting still, you're all predator."

"I'm flattered," Awen said, side-stepping the diversion. "And now, I'd like you to talk to me. Why are you here? What are you planning?"

Breguswid smiled, a bitter smile, and looked down at her hands on the table.

"You speak good Saxon," she said. "But, am I right in assuming, you don't know much about Saxon culture?"

"I don't," Awen said evenly. Breguswid nodded, her face resigned.

"Very well," she said softly. "I'll explain it. You are Cymric. Like all Celts, your cultural lynch pin, the centre point around which your philosophies and beliefs revolve, is the acceptance of change."

She smiled again, almost self-mocking. "I've studied the concept. I've spoken at great length with druids on the matter. You worship the change of the seasons, the turn of the clock, the passage of time, the replacement of the old with the new. You accept it in all things. It's why you've grown so great as a nation. You don't fight the inevitable. You just look to guide it. But us?"

She glanced at the door to the sleeping area, where the snoring had stopped. Awen strongly suspected the occupants were all now awake, and listening to the conversation intently.

"The centre point of Saxon culture," Breguswid said, her voice thick with scorn, "is the opposite. Saxon culture, as far as we can tell, has remained almost entirely unchanged for the last eight hundred years."

Awen stared at her.

"How is that possible?" she asked, incredulous. Breguswid snorted.

"When our kings take their station," she said, placing her hands palms together and leaning them against her lips, "the very first thing they do is to assure their subjects that they will uphold the laws and society as they exist. They cannot make any new laws unless exceptional circumstances present themselves. And so things remain."

That was insane. That was insane to the point of not quite fitting into Awen's head. Breguswid carried on.

"Additionally," she said disdainfully, "the strongest ties in Saxon society are to kin and king. The bloodline of the king, not the station. Blood ties are very important to us. This means, though, that we have no real patriotism; dynasties wax and wane, along with loyalty to a cause. Each kingdom is as strong as its war-leader, and no better. But also, as I say, our ties are to our blood relations -"

"Oh, good gods," Awen whispered. She felt suddenly cold as her mind raced ahead along Breguswid's words. Ties to blood, valued over all else -

"Yes," Breguswid said heavily. "That's why you continued to be attacked. Every Saxon you cut down, you cause their family members to swear vengence on Cymru. It doesn't matter how suicidal it is; out of 'honour' and 'tradition'," her words became a derisive sing-song, "they have to avenge them. Or, we have a concept known as a 'wergeld', a monetary value of a person's life. Hence the raids."

"Do you know how many people I've seen cut down by Saxons?" Awen asked, her voice hoarse. She fought her hands not to shake, fought her body not to leap over the table and sink a blade into Breguswid's throat. "How many children? How many elderly? Do you know how many people we've lost, and you're telling me it's all over a retarded societal custom that -"

"I know," Breguswid said, and there was genuine compassion in her voice, which was the only thing that let Awen control her impulse to a twitch. "I - I can imagine, at any rate. And if it meant a damn thing I would apologise to you on behalf of my people in a second. But..."

She trailed off hopelessly, and Awen fought the rage. She felt like a fox in a chicken coop trying to practice restraint; any minute now...


The boy from the tavern appeared around the doorway and Awen wasn't at all aware of the transition from seating to standing, one wristblade sliding out, only catching control of herself in time to freeze herself in place where she stood, vibrating with tension. Across the table Breguswid had kept herself in her seat apparently only by clinging to it with one hand, the other thrown up toward the suddenly immobile boy in frantic prohibition. A pair of men appeared behind him, each putting a hand on his shoulders. Awen trembled.

"Keep still!" Breguswid snarled, her voice suddenly loud. "Saba, don't move! Just hold still!"


"Shut up! All of you, just shut up. Don't move."

There was a silence, all eyes on Awen, and she tried to breathe, fighting to clear her head and push back the battle-rage filling her mind. There was no threat, she insisted to herself desperately. There were no warriors. There was only her. There was only her.

She exhaled slowly, retracted the blade with a loud click in the silence, and forced herself to slowly sit back down. Her fingers curled beneath the wooden seat of the chair, knuckles turning white. Breguswid lowered her hand back to the table, watching Awen carefully.

"Thank you," Breguswid said quietly. "Saba, go back into the bedroom. All of you, go back in there."

"Leave you alone with her?" One of the men pulled the boy, Saba, back behind him, leaning around the doorframe. "I'm not doing that. She's a Rider, Breguswid. She's not safe-"

"And you being a big tough man will absolutely be able to fight this young woman to defend me, will you?" Breguswid said, witheringly. "Eyes open, Hengist. She's controlling herself by the skin of her teeth, and the more people come in here the harder it will get for her. So get out."

He scowled, but went. Breguswid let out a shaky breath and pushed her hands through her hair.

"Thank you," she repeated wearily. "That was Saberct, my son. My... only son, now."

She looked bitter again, her eyes dark. Awen simply breathed, counting her heartbeats. She didn't trust herself to speak yet.

"I used to have five," Breguswid said quietly. "But the others all marched on the border. Two were dragged there with their father," and she spat the word with venom, "one went after they were killed, and one went after his father finally died. And for that, Rider," Breguswid smiled thinly, "I owe you personally my thanks."

"I killed him?" Awen asked calmly.

"That you did," Breguswid nodded. "My brother saw you. He told us all about it. You ran him through on his own sword. Well done."

There was a pause.

"Right," Awen said. "But, in spite of me killing your husband, whom you clearly hated, and very possibly your other sons, and, oh, maybe even your brother -"

"He's still alive," Breguswid said darkly.

"- and despite your culture demanding that you attempt to wreak bloody vengeance upon me, you in fact are here because you want to do no such thing. Am I right?"

"Yes," Breguswid said. "Well, partly-"

"You want social change for your people, not least of which is the ceasation of a pointless war against Cymru that only results in innocent people and Saxons dying," Awen interrupted. "And, if your role here is anything to go by, gender equality. But, owing to your society being violently opposed to evolution, someone has tried to stop you. I guess... your brother."

"Very good," Breguswid said quietly. "My brother is what we call a thane - a lord. My husband was king of our kingdom. I chose to marry him because I thought I might be able to convince him to see things as I did. Obviously I failed."

She hugged herself, eyes lost in memory, and Awen wondered what he'd done to her.

"Anyway," Breguswid sighed, and looked up. "You overstated things, earlier, although I do understand. But Saxon women aren't quite slaves. We have certain rights; lands, titles and posessions we have before a marriage we get to keep, we can't be forced to marry, and if we have husbands with titles who die we're expected to take over the running of the lands."

"So after your husband died you should have inherited the kingdom?" Awen asked. Breguswid nodded. "But... your brother, who could get support because he's your blood relative, drove you out to stop you from taking over and changing anything."

"Yes." Breguswid looked at her hands. "I also had a daughter. I had a lot of things, once."


The voice was polite, satiated with deferential subservience, and came from the still-empty doorway. Awen twitched and glanced at it, Breguswid stiffening and looking between her and the bedroom. There was a pause.

"Yes?" Awen asked.

"Is it okay if I come in?" the voice asked. As far as Awen could remember, it sounded like Saberct. "I'll stay across the room from you. I want to see Mother."

"Just you," Awen warned. "And don't move too quickly. I'm afraid I'm quite jumpy."

"I understand." He came back into the room, movements steady, and sat in a chair next to Breguswid, putting a hand on her shoulder. She didn't even look at him, sitting with her upright hauteur again.

"So what are you planning?" Awen asked. Breguswid smiled.

"Ah," she said, interlocking her fingers and leaning her chin on them. "Well, now, that's a good story..."

Thursday, 3 December 2009

OMG my hand!