Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Cymru - Chapter 22


Night had finally dropped on the world outside the windows by the time they approached the lavishly ornate doors of the Grand Hall, and judging by the mingled sound of conversation and background music drifting through dinner was being served. Probably being finished, in fact, considering the time; a tall, old-fashioned grandfather clock opposite the doors in the entrance hall clanged nine as Awen drew to a halt in front of the guards. Traditionally, the doors stayed closed from the start to the end of a meal, but Riders tended to be a law unto themselves.

"Good evening," Awen smiled politely. The nearest guard gave her a slightly awed look as he fumbled for the handle.

"Good evening, Riders," he returned with a nervy smile. "They've just finished the final course, I'm afraid, but -"

"That's fine. We're sadly not after the food." Adara sighed wistfully behind her, and Awen grinned. "Not yet, at any rate."

He pulled the door open and his companion stepped smartly through ahead of them.

"Rider Awen, Alpha Wingleader," he intoned. "And Rider Adara, Alpha Wing."

And what a boring drone that man had, Awen thought idly as she swept up the room, between the long tables of gentryfolk watching her passing. It was strange, almost like he'd been carefully trained to remove any and all inflections and intonations from his tone before announcing any name. Actually, it was possible he had; certainly it was a good way to avoid bias towards anyone. It was just a shame he made everyone assume you were boring.

And then there was no more time to think on it as she came under the gaze of Lord Flyn.

Once, years and years ago now, before the Wars and the Union and the establishment of the border warnings and certainly before Cymru had been unified, the noble families along the border had made an... arrangement with the newly formed Celto-Saxons to the east. Cymric civilisation was still barely evolved beyond tribal law, only held together by the druids, and everyone invaded everyone else constantly. The same was true among the Saxons. Each clan distrusted the rest, each struggled to retain the lands they'd taken against the dwindling native population, and none of them liked the Jutes or the Angles to the east and north. Against that backdrop, it became important when seizing or defending one's throne to claim a greater entitlement to it, to keep the armies on side if nothing else. And so the arrangement had been made. If hereditary rule was law, then that should mean something. That should be the case for a reason.

The result was breeding farms, for people. The socially highest families from both cultures put forward 'good examples' of their bloodlines, and the resulting children were said to have been perfectly bred for leadership. They now had the greatest claims to the thrones, because no one else would ever do as well.

It had ended a long time ago, and everyone did their best to forget about it. Cymru finally forged itself properly into one country, the border was closed, the Union was formed. These days not many people remained who actually knew emphatically that they were decended from the Old Families. Lord Flyn did.

And it was evident in his features. His bone structure was broader and stronger than the classic Cymric mold, which could generally put elves to shame, but his chin was narrower and more pointed than the average Saxon's. His nose was a thin blade of Cymric width but Saxon length, making his face longer than most. His cheekbones were high, but stronger than normal; his brow was strong and framed grey eyes. His hair was a pale blond that didn't often turn up west of the border. And Lord Flyn was tall; at least six foot three in bare feet, and he carried himself proudly enough to convey every inch of it even when sitting down. If the eye wasn't paying attention, it was easy to think he was a head taller than the nobles sitting to either side of him at the Top Table.

Mostly, though, his height pervaded people's perceptions because it was a reflection of Lord Flyn's mental state. He believed that he was born better than everyone else. He believed that he was the only possible choice to be Sovereign on the grounds of his breeding. He knew that no one else near him had such an impeccable pedigree. He even had a copy of his family tree on the wall at the back of the Grand Hall. And it all showed in those disturbingly piercing grey eyes; Lord Flyn looked down on the world, and he found it wanting. He saw the flaws in everything but generally deigned not to notice, because it wasn't the world's fault that he wasn't allowed to steer it to the perfection he no doubt would have delivered.

His eyes watched now as Awen strode up the Hall and paused metres away from the Top Table, going easily onto one knee. As ever, something flickered in Lord Flyn's eyes as she did so. As ever, Awen pretended not to notice.

"My lord," she said clearly. She knew what would happen. Courtesy demanded that the next words out of his mouth should be 'Rise, Rider', but -

"Welcome home, Leader," Lord Flyn said, his voice smoothly devoid of any emotional response. "I trust your journey was a pleasant one?"

And they were once again playing the game of 'How long can the Sovereign keep the Rider on the floor?' Lord Flyn defined the term 'megalomaniac.' You could tell by the constant tacit power struggles with her and the way in which he wasn't otherwise given to suicidal tendencies. Also he called her 'Leader'. All the time.

"As pleasant as it could be, my lord," Awen returned neutrally. The Hall had fallen quiet except for the soothing background noice of the harp. Adara stood like a statue behind her, spared the effort of bowing by her Leader doing it for her.

"Excellent," Lord Flyn said, carefully putting a smile onto his lips. It didn't affect his eyes. "Although, my understanding was that your Wing wouldn't be returning yet?"

"They haven't, my lord," Awen said. "Unfortunately, a somewhat more pressing matter requires my attention." And she was fed up of being on the floor still. "Could I drag you away to fill you in?"

"Of course." Lord Flyn stood quickly, flashing a smile to the nobles around him. "Rise, Leader. We'll adjourn."

Awen stood, taking care not to spring to her feet while pointedly shaking out her legs, and nodded to Adara. They followed Lord Flyn's confidently striding figure out of one of the Hall's side doors as the conversation hesitantly returned to the room behind them, undercut by the gentle lilting of the harp. The bard was good, Awen thought absently, whoever it was. That was encouraging. Probably not an unwillingly murderous adolescent. And she was stroking her scar again, she had to stop doing that. It was almost as obvious as just thumping a fist into her palm. Any further down that route and she'd be twitching an eye whenever people suggested conspiracies.

They ended up in one of Lord Flyn's insanely comfortable offices, a rectangular room almost as lavishly furnished as the Riders' Quarters with an enormous carved wooden desk and leather armchair at one end, and various padded wooden chairs in front of it. He strode to the desk and sat in the armchair with the same air he used when taking his throne in court, waving a hand graciously to motion them to sit. Awen did so, trying not to get too comfortable. It wasn't difficult. The seats may have been padded, but the wooden chair backs were unyielding on the spine.

"And what troubles you, Leader?" Lord Flyn asked calmly, leaning his elbows on the desk and steepling his fingers beneath his chin. I care about your problems, his body language said. Please share with me, so I may help you.

"My Deputy has gone rogue," Awen said without preamble, and studied his reaction out of the corner of her eye. "Yesterday. I've got orders from the Union to find him and deal with him. Hopefully, I'll have done so by the Archwiliad, but since people with hefty prices on their heads and swords at their backs rarely act to convenient schedules, I can't guarentee this."

"No," Lord Flyn agreed. He'd gone quite still, although it was such a subtle change Awen suspected only her highly-trained eyes would have picked it up. His face gave nothing away, the perfect politician's mask of mild sympathy for her loss. His eyes watched her. "I understand, Leader, although it'll be a shame not to have you there."

I'll bet, Awen thought. "It's kind of you to say so, my lord," she said mildly. "But I'm hardly integral to the proceedings. Adara here will have Acting Deputy status for a while, though, and she'll be watching over you for the next few days."

"Watching over me?" Lord Flyn raised an eyebrow. "Am I at unusual risk?"

"We honestly don't know, my lord," Awen lied. "We learned about Owain through the medium of an arrow aimed at Lord Gwilym's throat. The would-be assassin only knew the target, not the motive. We're therefore improving the guard on all Sovereigns, to be safe."

His expression didn't falter. He nodded.

"Very well," he said, smiling smoothly at Adara. "I'm grateful for the attention, Rider. And I hope you catch him soon, Leader. It must have been hard for you both."

"It'll be harder for him," Awen said, her tone fractionally darker than it had been. Lord Flyn smiled again.

"I'm glad to hear it," he said. "I trust Lord Gwilym is well?"

"He is, my lord," Awen said. "He wasn't hit."

"The bowman had a thankfully poor aim?"

"I'd have classed it as 'distressingly good', actually," Awen said wryly. "But the arrow was caught, so no harm done."

"Caught?" Lord Flyn raised an eyebrow again, this time in a mild astonishment that was just fractionally too sincere. "By whom?"

"By me, my lord," Awen said indifferently. Well, clearly he'd already heard this, then. "The bowman is in custody in Aberystwyth, awaiting trial. No one important."

"You caught an arrow," Lord Flyn stated quietly, and a very slightly hungry look edged through the carefully constructed expression, finally pushing at his self control. "May I see, Leader?"

If he'd been Lady Gwenda, Awen would have carefully dodged the question with a brief "The arrow? I didn't keep it." If he'd been Lady Marged or Gwilym - Lord Gwilym - she'd have made a joke about Sovereigns developing macarbre interests. As it was, it was inescapable. Acting stupid would instantly have been seen as an act, and the sense of humour she'd carefully cultivated in Lord Flyn's presense over the years wasn't bold enough to deflect this sort of thing. But that was fine. Awen had learned, a long time ago, how to handle Lord Flyn. Under the pretence of being self-effacing she'd worked in the lie about 'the bowman', while Lord Flyn would now not think to question it because -

Well. Because Lord Flyn was obsessed with power. He loved the idea of powerful people bending the knee to him. It was why he called her 'Leader' instead of 'Rider', why he liked to keep her bowing as long as he could, and why he was now suddenly transfixed by the concept of her carrying out a marginally glamourous aspect of her job.

"Certainly, my lord," Awen said blandly, and held out her right hand across the desk. In this uniform her hand was again ungloved, and the healing scar ran in a jagged pink line clearly across her palm. Lord Flyn watched it like an adder watching a mouse, and then very softly took her hand in both of his, his long, broad fingers holding it carefully still.

"Incredible," he murmured, very quietly. Awen shrugged.

"Any Rider could do it, my lord," she said neutrally. "In any event, the Wing will be returning either tomorrow or the day after, I should think, so there's no hold up before the Archwiliad."

"Hmm." Lord Flyn looked up at her, his grey gaze penetrative. He didn't let go of her hand, his thumb pressing the scar. It was oddly intrusive. "Although they are, of course, talking to many Sovereigns without you."

"Yes, my lord," Awen said, giving him a quick smile. "I've already spoken personally to any who required additional diplomacy, however."

He nodded, satisfied with the response.

"Very well," he said, and looked at Adara. "And are you content with being a bodyguard for the time being, Rider?"

"As keen as a bee, my lord," Adara said in her mild voice. Awen snorted.

"Ah," she said, looking at Lord Flyn. "I can only apologise, my lord. Adara is cursed with the ability to sound sarcastic even when being deeply sincere. It may take you a day or so to learn to tell the difference."

Lord Flyn's smile gave nothing away.

"I'm sure there won't be a problem, Leader," he said jovially. "Very well. Thank you for reporting, Leader."

"My Lord." It was only just the right side of awkward, trying to bow on one knee while her hand was still up on the desk, but she managed it with what she felt was a fair amount of poise given the circumstances. There was a pause that went on a fraction too long, and then her hand was released.

"Rise, Leader," Lord Flyn said, and Awen did so, giving Adara an apologetic smile as she left for the door. Later, Adara was going to shout at her. A lot. It couldn't really be helped.


Gareth's family were first, but they were almost going to be the most problematic. Lord Flyn was acutely aware of a large portion of Owain's recent activities, what with them involving him, so Awen had to act without appearing to have noticed any connection between the two. She therefore went straight back to the Riders' Quarters and then went the back way down to the dungeons and interrogation rooms, praising the Residence's hidden network of passages and crawl-spaces. The only people who'd see her here would be mice. And maybe the odd Intelligencer.

At this time of night the lichtors had gone home, leaving only the odd pair of guards to stand by various pairs of doors. There were none in the main offices of the interrogation rooms, so Awen started there, dropping to the carpet as soundlessly as she could and padding to the desks. From Gareth's non-specific description of events, his family's arrest had to have been official on some level or other, which meant that there should in theory have been an entry into the main log books. Silently, Awen slid the top drawer open on the duty desk and lifted out the leather-bound tome from within. The paper inside spelled of wood-pulp and ink, each thick page seperated by blotting paper. Awen glanced at the door and the thin crack of light bleeding beneath it. The guards nearest would be at the other end of the corridor, twenty feet away, blocking the entrance - or exit, depending on your view of drinking-vessel volume - to the dungeons themselves. If she lit a lamp in here, would they notice? Probably not, since the distance would lower any real chance of seeing a faint crack of light in a well-lit corridor that they'd had, but even so...

Awen was a bard. They knew a lot of history, the bards, all wrapped up in songs, and according to one or two there had been a place called Atlantis once. As far as Awen could make out it sounded basically like Greece had once been when it was still united, except it had apparently sunk or something and everyone seemed rather hazy on how to happen across maps of it. But apparently, in Atlantis, they'd had a lot of very clever druids who had learned how to do something very clever indeed with fire. It was said that it couldn't be put out; whatever it hit would carry on burning, and it could even burn underwater.

Awen was a warrior more than a bard. The very idea of a Saxon getting hold of Atlantean fire was enough make her wake up screaming even more than normal, so she was generally rather happy that the damned place had sunk and no one had thought to even compose a short limerick on how to make it. But it really would have been useful to have some in a jar or something, for times like this.

She sighed, and carried the book over to the window. The moon was bright tonight, and currently sailing between the cloud banks working their way east, so light was actually less of a problem than she'd thought it might be. The size of the writing remained a challenge, though. As a result, it took her a few wrong turns in navigation before she found the right dates, and then a few more minutes before she could find the word 'Magwyr', but finally she found the right entry at the top of a new page, just after an entry on three visiting farmers who seemed to have gotten into a spot of bother over a sheep in the cattle market. Awen checked the names carefully.

Iona Morgannwg, 48, Magwyr. Colluding with Saxon forces.
Nerys Morgannwg, 65, Magwyr. Colluding with Saxon forces.

Well, they definitely had been here, then. That was a good start. The inclusion of their names in the Prisoners Received book would make for a lovely bit of side-evidence when telling the Union about Flyn's many crimes, too; but this was a book that only made a log of who had been brought in and on what charge. It wouldn't tell her what had become of them.

Awen was just starting to close the book when she noticed the symbol in the margin beside their names, and stopped. It was the mark used by the good clerks who were conscientious about their jobs to denote that someone else had been brought in as part of the same case later on. Awen narrowed her eyes at the tiny date beside it, and then turned the pages onward.

Two days later, apparently. Iona and Nerys Morgannwg had been arrested in the morning, Gareth pulled in front of Lord Flyn on the same day. He'd have been on the road either that night or the very next morning, but a day afterwards someone else had been arrested for apparently being involved in the same Saxon tea party. It couldn't have been Gareth though. So... why? Surely bringing in anyone else was beyond unnecessary? Flyn's intention had been to have Gareth killed on the road, and the boy was already gone, anyway, so there was no need -

Alis Morgannwg, 21, Magwyr. Colluding with Saxon forces.

"You son of a bitch," Awen breathed. He'd done it anyway. He'd threatened Gareth with turning his sister into a concubine, and then he'd gone and done it anyway.

Carefully, Awen closed the book and inserted it into the hole into the crawlspace. The books were often taken by other clerks to copy up the contents, so no one was likely to miss it. She moved softly to the next desk, and started the search anew.

It took another ten minutes to find the Interrogation Logs, and longer again to work through the reports until she found the right ones. Unlike the Prisoners Received book this one was still waiting to be written up even for the first time by a clerk, meaning that although the writing was helpfully normally-sized it was also mostly written by lichtors who had a poor grasp of the art at the best of times. Grimly, Awen leafed through the reports until she reached the right ones.

Subject: Iona Morgannwg of Magwyr, 48.
Charge: Colluding with Saxon forces.
Interrogating Officer: Deputy Wingleader Owain Masarnen, Alpha Wing.

It was all Awen could do not to swear visciously enough to bring the guards running in, but somehow she managed it.

Subject brought in early, before dawn. High pain threshold; in spite of various interrogative techniques maintained innocence. After receiving stronger evidence interrogation intensity was upgraded to level 4, after which injuries sustained were as follows: loss of fingernails from left hand, loss of fingers from right hand, broken bones in right hand, two fractured wrists, right elbow dislocated, broken right collarbone, fractured jaw, three broken ribs, burns to torso and neck, various others. Confession obtained nine and a half hours later. Subject detained in cell 5. Awaiting trial.

Well. Owain had been a determined lad. It wasn't easy to dislocate an elbow, since the joint wasn't really meant to work that way.

A quick check of Nerys' record revealed that she'd somehow lasted longer even than her daughter, and nine and a half hours was a bloody long time to go under torture of that intensity. It was a stupid level; Awen never went that far simply because false confessions were inevitable when the body was faced with that much pain, but then Awen was usually looking for a legitimate suspect, so the rules were probably different. These women were intended to die under questioning. Given the severity of their injuries, how long they'd had them - just over a week - and the fact that Owain had merrily thrown them both into a pit afterwards meant they were unlikely to still be alive. After storing the Interrogation Logs with the Prisoners Received book, she stealthily tracked down the trial lists.

As expected, Nerys and Iona Morgannwg weren't scheduled to appear before a court for another three weeks. That gave them plenty of time to die and be forgotten about. Depressingly, it also meant they were probably still in Cell 5, which was little more than a hole in the ground with a grill over it and a set of steps leading in. The guards generally just dropped food into it. There probably weren't rats, but only because rats had standards.

But this gave her a whole new headache. Nerys and Iona were probably dead, but if they weren't Awen could hardly drag them back through the crawlspaces the way she'd come in when they had so many injuries they couldn't quite make a whole human being between them. So how on earth could she get them out? No matter what excuse she gave, if Flyn found out he'd suspect she might know something, and he'd probably cover up whatever already well-covered tracks he had.

Unless everyone thought they were dead, of course. Hmm.

Five minutes later Awen was creeping into one of the interrogation rooms via a well-oiled sliding ceiling panel, which brought her into the same long corridor as the cells. A pair of guards were not far from the room she stood in; she could tell by the gigglingly drunk conversation and the smell of whiskey on the air. There probably wouldn't be any more guards in this stretch, since the Casnewydd cell doors were probably the strongest in the land. Awen crept towards the door of the interrogation room and stopped, listening.

"was a six," a voice mumbled. "Look! I definitely rolled six, then."

"Ha! You're blind," a second answered, slurring slightly. "Look, that one's five, look, it's on the crack inthe stones..."

"Said six," grumbled the first voice. "I think it's a six."

"I think it's a four," Awen offered helpfully. Two guards, bleary eyed, big strapping men, looked up at her from where they were sat on some crates, the whiskey bottle on the stone floor between them and a set of dice scattered about. One smiled brightly, the edges of his plaited moustache lifting as he did so.

"Excellent!" he said brightly. "I win!"

"Is it a four?" the second asked wonderingly. He had eyebrows apparently full enough to need trimming in their own right. "Oh. Might be at that. Hang on," he added, in the voice of a man whose brain was very slowly doing some sums, "how're you here - ?"

"I'm a Rider," Awen said knowingly. "We're all around. Can I have your keys? We need to do a quick check of the cells, find out who's dead and who isn't, how much space we have. Unofficially."

"Unofficially?" Eyebrow Guard said blankly as his colleague fumbled vaguely with his keys. "Why unofficially?"

"Don't ask," Moustache Guard said firmly. "It's a Union thing, checking on everything, right? They have to make sure Sovereigns are behaving, right?"

"Exactly," Awen smiled. She took the keys off the slightly wavering fingers. "Can't have Sovereigns misbehaving. But this means you can't tell anyone about this, understand?"

It was the work of moments to change her voice and stance for that sentence, and suddenly both guards were staring at her, mild terror sinking through the whiskey. They nodded.

"Good." She flashed them a smile. "Keep playing. The other die is behind that crate."

The sounds of the bone dice rattling together and against the flagstones followed her as she went down the corridor, undercut with light laughter and a murmured arguing of numbers and the swishing of a whiskey bottle. Awen marched straight past the cell doors on either side of her, ignoring the sounds coming from within and moving straight to the end of the long corridor. The grating was locked firmly in place on the floor by a heavy padlock, its lack of rust the only thing that marred its stereotypical image. Awen crouched in front of it and unlocked it on the third key before pulling it free and taking it with her in accordance with the laws of paranoia. No one was locking her down there.

Then she unhooked a lamp from the wall, turned up the wick and carefully picked her way down the steps.

Actually, the steps weren't as bad as she thought they'd be, probably because the guards knew how difficult it was to haul prisoners and corpses up badly-maintained staircases, but the smell more than made up for it. Something was definitely dead down there. Awen lifted the lamp halfway down the steps and looked around the cell below her.

There were no lights other than the one Awen carried, and no windows at all other than the hole in the ceiling that led back out. The walls were stone, and damp, a very slow trickle of water having caused some sort of mildew to grow down one side of the cell. A thin, greasy mat of straw had covered the floor, but someone had very practically pulled it all together into a corner, making a thick bed of it away from the small gutter that ran along the opposite wall. She could make out a shape on the straw, mostly a dark heap but with the odd flash of pale flesh reflected in the lamp light. Awen sighed, feeling suddenly weary. If they were dead, she was going to have to kill someone. Preferably Flyn.

"Nerys?" she said, quietly. "Iona? Are either of you -?"

The heap on the straw stirred, and Awen got a move on down the steps. Closer up, the darkness she could see seemed to be an impromptu blanket made of sack cloth, possibly thrown down by a guard. As she neared a face, drawn and pale and covered in dried blood and grime, looked out at her.

"Who's there?" it croaked, the defiant fear almost completely masking the tiny seed of hope in the voice. "Who -? Why are you -?"

"My name is Awen," Awen said gently. It was odd. She hadn't had to say her own name in quite a while. There was usually a man for this sort of thing. "I'm the Alpha Wingleader here. Are you both still alive?"

"I don't know," the woman said quietly. "Mam hasn't woken up for a while, and I can't tell if she's colder than she was." She laughed bitterly. "What would be the difference? I wouldn't even know by smell. It already smelled like this when we came down here. Are you here to torture us some more?"

"No," Awen said, gently but firmly. "I'm here to get you out. Can I check your mother?"

Wordlessly, the woman nodded, and Awen set the lamp carefully beside her before crouching down and pulling back the blanket from the other shape -

- and dropping it again before Iona could see. No one should have to see another human being like that. Especially not someone they knew.

"She's gone," Awen said quietly. Iona stared up at the ceiling, her face emotionless but for the tightening around her jaw. "Iona -"

"Don't tell me you're sorry, Rider," she said, her voice low and venomous. "Don't. She wasn't your mother. Or if she was you wouldn't know, would you?"

It actually made her catch her breath. In her entire life, no one had ever taunted Awen about that. Riders were given to the Union as babies, never to meet their real parents again. Some didn't have any, of course; but even the best, most thoroughly trained of Riders, especially as children, would yearn for real parents at some point. It was a subject no one raised around them, therefore. And no one tried to hurt a Rider anyway, unless they were a Saxon.

"No," Awen said, after a moment. "No, I wouldn't. And I won't apologise to you, because I've got too much to apologise to your family for, and if I start now I won't stop. I found Gareth, though. He's safe."

"He's -?" Iona looked at her, her eyes suddenly wide and filled with an almost desperate pleading. "You're sure? You're sure he's safe? They said -"

"I've put him in the Union," Awen said, stepping cautiously back to the lamp and laying a hand gently on the blanket over Iona. "He couldn't be safer. Can I see your injuries?"

"I - yes," Iona said, nodding. "Alis? What about Alis? Do you know if she's still okay?"

"Not yet," Awen lied, carefully peeling back the blanket and keeping the instant desire to swear firmly inside her head and away from her tongue. "Can you still feel the pain?"

"Not like I could," Iona said. She looked at Awen, her eyes sharp and almost sneering again. "Am I dying, therefore?"

"I've seen worse," Awen said candidly. "Not by much, but I've seen worse. You're lucky."

"Really?" Iona said. "It's a good job you're armed, Rider girl, or I'd have thumped you then."

"I'll bet," Awen said levelly. "But your legs are unharmed and the gangrenous flesh that was building up around your right hand and the various burn wounds has been cleaned away by maggots, so yes, you've been pretty lucky. Also you still have two eyes. That's not to be sniffed at."

Iona stared at her a second, then grinned. A few teeth were broken.

"Mam would have liked you," she said, quietly approving. "You bite back. She always did like a girl who bites back. How are you getting me out, then?"

"By pretending you're dead and then carrying you both out on stretchers," Awen said. "And then I'm going to bandage you up as best I can and sneak you onto a carriage to get you off to the Union. Once you're gone I'm going to find Alis and send her on to you."

"Sounds good," Iona said, her head falling back and her eyes closing. "Wake me when you're done, then."

"Sorry, can I just check?" Awen asked. "You are related to Gareth, yes? Quiet lad, incapable of answering anything back?"

Iona chuckled.

"The very same," she said, her croaking voice betraying her affection. "Takes after his dad, that one. Wet boy, really, but he has his good points. Hurry up and get me out."

"Hurry up and die, then," Awen threw back, and she left to threaten some guards.

Thursday, 17 September 2009


Monday, 14 September 2009

Cymru - Chapter 21

I'm posting this bit in two chapters on the grounds that it turned out to be longer than I expected and people sulk with me when I post anything too long. This means the next one will also be Awen, probably, and thus the chapter continuity will be weird, but tough. You've only yourselves to blame.

Oh, also; it has come to my attention that at least one of you treasured readers has completely forgotten that A) Dylan is an Intelligencer, not just randomly nosy, and B) the Intelligencers are a SECRET class. No one else knows about them. Adara does not realise that Awen is one, Madog does not realise that Dylan is one, no one realises that Aerona is one. Except for each other. Hence the wires on their beads. That's how they identify each other.


The Bannau were beautiful from any angle, but Awen always felt they were especially so from above, when the flight path was low enough to pass between the crests and among the ravens that swept around them in the light of the setting sun behind them. It threw the heather and bilberry shrubs into vibrant colour, russets and purples and golds contrasting with the deep blue shadows lengthening east and filling the valleys and crevasses, and ahead of them in the distance the Black Mountains marked out the Saxon border. Occasionally a buzzard mewed, the lonely sound echoing through the peaks and back to Awen and Adara, making Brân snort and throw his head about restlessly. Awen ignored him. One day, he'd brain himself on a passing mountaintop, and then he'd bloody learn. And Awen would have no sympathy. She might even laugh if she was feeling particularly vindictive.

"Pen y Fan," Adara called over the sound of the wind rushing past. Awen turned to see her pointing down at the summit to their left. "There's no one up there, we'd be able to see them."

Well, that was both true and logical; Pen y Fan's summit was bare of any tree cover and flattened at the top, giving them a good landing point for the merod and an extremely wide visual range that would allow them to spot anyone coming a long time before they could be overheard. Awen nodded, and turned Brân into a glide approach to it. His shadow startled a flock of ravens as they neared, causing them to shriek and take to the air in a sudden frenzy of movement around them. Bizarrely, Brân didn't seem to care; but Awen had long ago given up on trying to understand him.

"Oh, that's better," Adara said contentedly, dropping the reins and stretching as Taliesin hovered neatly onto the sparse grass and instantly started to graze. "It's flying, isn't it? Fun to do, less so once the wind starts. I inevitably end up hunched like some freakish dwarf."

"You look like a freakish dwarf," Awen said automatically. Brân ambled over to a small tarn and began to drink, rustling his wings happily as he pulled them in around his body. It was like wrapping three quilts around her legs. "Sorry, couldn't stop myself there."

"Owain looked like a freakish dwarf," Adara nodded sagely. "It was the nose. And the quiff. And the stunted growth."

"That's mean," Awen chided. "You're thinking of him next to Caradog, who is the approximate size of a bear. Be fair."

"His nose, Awen, I'm hearing nothing in defense of his nose."

"No," Awen conceded. "Well. I won't try, either."

"Good, because he looked like he'd been hit in the face with a spade." Adara sniffed, wrinkling her own much smaller and daintier nose. Awen grinned.

"I always assumed he had been, actually," she mused as Brân moved to crop the grass. "And, indeed, that it was you."

"There were no witnesses, Leader, get off my back." Adara looked at her, her expression growing serious, and Awen bit back a sigh. "But enough of Owain. What's Lord Flyn up to?"

"Ruining my life," Awen declared darkly. "What do you know about the dissenters?"

It took a surprisingly short time to bring Adara up to speed, but Awen wasn't exactly going into detail; just a summary of Flyn and Marged and their opposing plans. Adara nodded silently through it as the sun sank lower and Gwenhwyfar swooped around them in the gathering dusk, saying nothing.

"And then Owain happened," Awen finished gloomily. "And, of course, Gareth, which adds a whole extra dimension. So I've got an awful lot of leg work to do now."

"Wow." Adara sighed and ran a gloved hand through her hair irritably. "We have the worst luck, don't we? It always comes in threes."

"Threes?" Idly, Awen started picking at the tangles in Brân's long mane. "I only count two, really."

Adara gave her an odd look. "The way I see it? First Owain comes clean as a prick and tries to kill you, then 'Lord' Flyn," and Awen could hear the disdainful punctuation, "starts a big scheme for world domination that apparently involves having tea with Saxons. And then -" Adara looked pointedly at Gwenhwyfar. "Then you start falling for a Sovereign. I'd say that's pretty bad luck."

Awen froze.

The wind blew merrily around them, oblivious of the sudden tension on the mountaintop and stirring Brân's mane into a mess around Awen's still fingers. Gwenhwyfar's shrill whistle bounced along the grass, mingling with the screaming of the crows and the gusting wind. Brân lifted his head, suddenly skittish at Awen's mood change as he rustled his wings, whickering low in his throat. Automatically Awen twitched the reins to calm him, staring at the pommel of the saddle beneath her hands.

She shouldn't have been so surprised, she knew that. Adara could always read her distressingly well, often problematically so; but it was one thing to have her noticing when Awen was pretending not to be upset by something. This... Awen hadn't really accepted this one herself, yet.

She exhaled slowly and looked over at Adara, who was still carefully watching Gwenhwyfar's acrobatics.

"That won't be a problem," Awen said evenly. Adara slumped slightly and rubbed one eye.

"Oh, gods," she muttered, and looked at Awen. "You were meant to tell me I was being stupidly presumptuous. I really wanted you to."

"It doesn't matter," Awen said. Brân yanked on the reins and went back to grazing, the leather reins catching on her fingers. "It won't be a problem."

"Definitely?" Adara asked as Gwenhwyfar swept back to her shoulder briefly. "It definitely won't be a problem? Because seriously; you know what the Union would do to you if they found out."

"Yes," Awen said levelly. She was trying not to think about it, actually. "But if I do nothing about it so will they. And I live at the opposite end of the country from him under a Sovereign who had his family murdered, so he's hardly likely to be dropping in every weekend for a chat and a biscuit."

"Aren't we removing Flyn, though?" Adara asked, one eyebrow raised. "Oh, sorry - 'Lord' Flyn." She sniffed. "Assuming we don't get some crazy one-eyed troll to take over he'll probably come visiting after that. Who are we getting to take over, anyway?"

"Well, that depends, really," Awen said delicately. This was not about to go down well. "Because, you see, depending on what 'Lord' Flyn is actually doing and how much evidence we find depends on whether or not he's actually removed."

"What?" Adara stared at her, eyes wide with horror. "Saxons, Leader! Saxons! Can't you kill him?"

"I hope so." Awen shrugged. "And it may come to that, in fact. But it's down to the Union whether they just want him dead or if they want him as a puppet. Or if they decide he should fall down a flight of stairs at night, I suppose."

"What? Really?" Adara looked thoughtful. "I didn't think we did things like that. Do we do things like that?"

"Certainly not," Awen said sternly. "It would be an accident, obviously, and a tragic one at that."

"Ah." Adara nodded as a gust of wind blew her hair around her eyes. "I see. If he does, though, who gets the torque next?"

"His eldest offspring," said Awen. "Except that's potentially impossible, since the mother of said offspring took said offspring and hid them all away about twenty years ago, ostensibly to keep them away from 'Lord' Flyn. Including herself."

"How scandalous," said Adara mildly. "Let's just get a one-eyed troll, then. Easier all round. We'll be better able to find one than a genuine heir, it can easily become a puppet-ruler for the Council and it'll keep Lord Gwilym away, and thereby will solve all our problems."

"Masterful," Awen sighed. "Fancy being Wingleader? I'd love to be demoted. Everything could be your problem."

"It's about to get dark," Adara stated, glancing at the sunset. "We need to get going."

"Yes," Awen said. "Now listen. When we get back to Casnewydd, I need to find out everything I can about Lord Flyn, preferably including some handy written confessions and a few eye-witnesses. This means -"

"What about Owain?" Adara asked, mildly alarmed. "He'll be -"

"Aerona's looking into him," Awen said. "And don't argue. This is prioritising. We -"

"He tried to kill you," Adara said, her voice hard and clipped. "And Lord Gwilym. And then ran away, and I don't -"

"Stop." It was a full command, all air of authority and stern tone, and Adara fell instantly silent. Still glaring, admittedly, but silent. "We are prioritising. Personal feelings aside, Owain is being looked for everywhere and Aerona is actively hunting him. We have more important things that we need to be doing, however; namely, finding out why our Sovereign is plotting with Saxons. And there's a definite time limit on it, since the Archwiliad is in days. We are therefore focusing on that."

Adara regarded her, her expression hard, and snorted, shaking her head.

"Unbelieveable," she muttered, looking away, and sighed before Awen had a chance to ask her what she meant. "What do you want me to do, then?"

Not find out what I'll be doing, Awen thought, but she didn't say it. Instead, she braced herself for the potential explosion.

"Well," she began.


The day had cheerfully ended and become evening by the time they reached Casnewydd's tumbling sprawl, twisted streets lit brighly with lamp posts and the windows of houses and taverns. Idris and two younger stable hands met them as they swept into the runway of the Landing Tower, grinning his near-toothless grin at Awen as he took Brân's reins without a word and led him with the ease of long practice straight into his stall. Everything Idris did was without a word, near enough. He had too few teeth left for coherence.

"Neatly done, Idris!" Awen told him cheerily as she dropped off Brân's massive back. "I swear I owe three new stable blocks at least in the Archipelago alone. He's a menace."

Another odd thing about Idris was his laugh. He actually said the words 'Ha ha' when he did so, possibly because 'H' was one letter he could still pronounce without trouble. He did so now, and twinkled his eyes at her happily as Awen slapped him lightly on the shoulder and stepped out of the stable.

It was quiet tonight, all of the day-to-day bustle of a Landing Tower apparently having been done for the day. Awen paused and took a moment just to breathe, and relax in the familiar, soothing scents of horse and hay and leather and saddle soap. None of the wounds hurt anymore, which was a good thing, and most of lingering stiffness was gone from her shoulder, but she still felt slightly out of sorts, as though she wasn't quite back to her best yet. It was a feeling that nagged at the back of her mind, as though she'd caught a cold but the symptoms had only just started to show. It was also familiar, in its own slightly more unwelcome way; Awen spent at least half of her life recovering from some sort of wound.

Muscular problems were always the worst, though, since trying to push through muscle stiffness risked tearing, and therefore more injury. Fortunately, Gwilym seemed to have a magic touch -

Lord Gwilym. She had not just thought of him as 'Gwilym'. Adara would kill her.

"Ready?" Adara asked behind her, and Awen nodded.

"Yeah," she sighed. "Let's go and announce it." And try not to spit in his face, she didn't add, but judging by the brief quirk to the corner of Adara's mouth she'd probably had the same thought, so that was okay. "Although; how dishevelled am I?"

"Completely!" Adara grinned. "We should go and get changed first. Flying leathers just aren't as lovely and appealing as a proper uniform. Also, the price for your hair is that you now need a comb."

"I wouldn't if you'd cut it," Awen retorted darkly. "It's bloody impractical."

"Oh, you can't cut it," Adara said serenly. "It's a feature. We'd all mutiny."

"I notice yours is short," Awen commented sourly. Adara shrugged.

"Yes," she said gleefully. "And I'm not a Wingleader, and as such I have no appearances to maintain. Shame for you, eh?"

Walking through the corridors of the Sovereign's Residence to the Riders' Quarters was a slightly surreal experience. Awen had grown up here, in this City, and since the Wing had been given active status they'd lived in the Residence. For far longer than that Awen had been very well aquainted with the floor plans and passages, both official and not, of the Residence in intricate detail with the result that the whole building was hers. It was home, with the intensely comforting familiarity of home; and yet the knowledge of Owain and Flyn was tainting it. The smells and sounds and hustle were all exactly as they should have been, but to Awen it felt like they shouldn't, as though everyone should have been reacting to events that were so inherently wrong.

Everything was bizarrely normal. Clerks would bow to them respectfully as they passed; Gentryfolk nodded while pretending to ignore them. As they rounded one corner a Tutor edged a class of nine-year-old Riders past them, all of whom Saluted solemnly with wide eyes. Awen returned it with a smile and they almost visibly swelled with pride, smiles breaking across their faces. The Tutor smiled resignedly.
"Oh, now they'll be bouncing," he sighed. "Saluted at by the Alpha Wingleader. They'll be able to focus in two days, I reckon. Stop trying to touch her, Geraint, she is allowed to kill you..."

"I wouldn't," Awen said mildly as Geraint hastily stepped back. "I'd get Adara here to do it. Took off a Saxon's head with her bare hands, once."

Adara sighed as the class filed away and they rounded the last few corners to the Riders' Quarters.

"You always tell people about that," she grumbled. "Then they get all scared of me for being psychotic. And you know that wasn't what happened."

"Yes," said Awen patiently. "But it's a weapon in my arsenal, and anyway, if I told people about the cheesewire they'd definitely never come within a hundred feet of you again, so look at the silver lining."

"But - "

"Cheesewire is more psychotic than mere battle-fuelled rage, Adara. Don't argue."

They reached the Alpha Wing quarters and pushed open the heavy wooden door and it was like balm on a wound. Long ago, when the Residence had been built by a Sovereign who already had his own Riders, albeit before the Union, it had been freely realised and acknowledged that trained warriors risking their lives every day to further someone else's political ambitions needed to be looked after in their down time. Apart from issues of basic courtesy it was plain common sense. War had its own horrors, after all, and the Riders back then were not as comprehensively trained mentally as they were now. These days, with the advent of the Union, Riders knew that they belonged to the country, to be used as the country needed, and therefore to see and do the things that the country shouldn't have to do. Back then, however, the goals were nowhere near as noble, and Riders had simply had the aim of allying themselves with whatever would-be Sovereign had decided to have a go on the throne this week.

The result was that the builder of the Residence had gone to great lengths to ensure that the Riders' Quarters were the most snugly, cosily luxurious places any human being could possibly hope to live in. The stone-and-carpet floors of the corridors gave way to sprung floorboards with hypocaust-style central heating, liberally piled with fleeces to make the thickest, warmest carpet possible. Peasants across the length of Cymru would happily have slept on the floor in the Riders' Quarters. You could probably cook small meals in the sheepskins when the hypocaust was on full blast. The walls were thick, covered in plaster and then painted green. Glass-covered oil lamps burned in brackets around the walls, the type with adjustable wicks and the twist of a button to raise or lower the light as desired. Plants grew in pots in the corners. The cheerful fire place on the one wall was surrounded by rich brown leather armchairs and sofas so comfortably springy if you sat down too quickly you rebounded back off again. They had wicker chairs molded to the perfect shape of a reclining body. There were thick, brightly-coloured wool blankets. There were cushions. There was a beautiful gwyddbwyll board in one corner, carved out of oak and mahogany and topped with King and Prince pieces covered in genuine gold. And they were only in the living room.

The sight and scent of it was like a hug, and Awen smiled.

"Ah, home again," Adara sighed happily. "Nothing like coming home, is there? It's all homey."

"Yes," Awen agreed. A servant had lit a fire in the grate, only small, and it crackled merrily and welcomingly. Her body was begging her to sit on the sofa, subtly reminding her that she hadn't really slept last night, and the night before that she'd been up until gone midnight with Lady Gwenda and Aerona... "I'm going to get changed."

"Me too." Adara was already halfway across the living room to the door opposite, which led away to a corridor of bedrooms and the architectural wonder that was the bathroom at the end. "And a shower. I simply must have a shower. So should you, but you'll have to try not to get your hair wet."

True on both counts, but it was worth the extra effort. Awen felt considerably more human once she'd finished, and far happier about putting on a clean uniform. She changed quickly in her bedroom, doing her best not to look at the simple bed pushed against the wall of the small room in case her muscles decided that mutiny was a popular option, and paused just long enough to re-annoint the tiny shrine to Rhiannon in the corner and mutter a blessing before striding back out -

- and pausing, outside Owain's room.

Would he have been back? Would he have had chance to come back here? Awen stared at the wooden door, solidly shut and adourned only with the simple brass handle. She'd been fast at sending out the report yesterday; the messenger Riders would have carried it as fast as they could after the priority alert she'd put on it, and everywhere in Cymru could be reached in less than a day by air. Unless he'd instantly headed to Casnewydd, which was unlikely after she'd given him what had certainly seemed to be a strong concussion, there was no way he could have beaten the messenger back here. And Owain wasn't completely stupid. He'd know not to try going to any Cities after the messengers had flown.

So... probably not. His room would probably be untouched since they'd flown off to shout at other Sovereigns.

That way madness lies, her inner voice cautioned. Awen ignored it, gripped the handle and pushed.

The room beckoned, dull and plain and tauntingly normal. Like all of the Rider bedrooms it was small, an eight-foot-by-eight-foot box that was only designed for sleeping, really, and so featured little else. The bed was against the far wall, the sheets neatly pressed and folded, beneath a window that looked out over Casnewydd's lounging spread of buildings around its mud-banked river. One wall held the small alcove containing the inevitable shrine to Rhiannon, while the other featured a small wardrobe and chest of drawers, a basin on top with a carefully-sharpened razor beside it.

It was so like Owain, really, Awen thought with a sigh. She'd never known a Rider to be so possessive of their... possessions. Riders weren't overly enamoured of personal belongings, simply because it was a mostly alien concept; they shared what they had with each other, and that was that. The rest of the men in the Wing - well, the rest of the men who also shaved, at any rate - kept their razors in the bathrooms, since the bathrooms contained a supply of water and other Riders who could do it for them. Which was important, since Riders weren't allowed mirrors, and wielding blades near your throat without any sort of guide was inadvisable at best.
But Owain kept his here, away from the others. This razor was his.

She stepped inside, smelling the edge of that odd perfume he wore so liberally hanging in the air, and started searching.

The four drawers held nothing but clothing; two drawers devoted to various uniforms, one to casual and nightwear and one, sadly, to underwear, although it was in fairness clean. There were no hidden compartments, nothing in any of the pockets, and nothing hidden down the back of the chest once the drawers were fully pulled out. Adara appeared in the doorway halfway through, but said nothing to Awen's activity. She simply watched silently. Awen didn't answer, and checked the basin. There weren't even any cracks in it, and certainly nothing was visible on its polished surface. Her fingertips found no indentations. The razor got the same treatment, but turned up the same results; the handle was bone, the blade properly set into it, and it was smoothly worn. The blade was unsurprisingly sharp. A man who bothered to guard something this pointlessly would certainly maintain it.

Awen was lucky when she opened the door of the wardrobe, however, because she was looking down. Riders kept boots in wardrobes, and they wore long boots at that, either to the knee or the thigh depending on the occasion. And boots could be useful places to store things, since Riders had them designed to conceal things like weapons. The result was that she was already looking at them, so when the right-hand door swung open to block her view of the doorway and Adara she only saw the reflection of her legs rather than her face.

Owain had a mirror.

"Good gods," Awen breathed.

"What?" Adara's footfalls began across the room. "What is it? Does he have horrendous sex toys or something? Don't look at them if they scare you, you'll be scarred."

"No." Awen closed the right-hand door and held it there, staring at the plain wooden front beneath her hand. "Don't look in there yet."

"You surprise me," Adara said mildly. "You're normally so good at giving orders. Yet you just gave me one that you know I now want to disobey."

"He's got a mirror," Awen stated. She almost felt like she was in shock. Adara looked like she was, too, her eyes staring blankly at Awen's. "On the back of the door."

"But..." Adara looked back at the wardrobe door. "How could he have gotten it in there? Without...? Wait." She looked at Awen, her expression mildly urgent. "You didn't see yourself, did you?"

"No," Awen said firmly, shaking her head. "I saw my knees, but I see them anyway. I didn't see my face."

"Thank gods for that," Adara said wearily. "That would have been bad luck in fours. But I suppose we know why Owain went weird now."

"Cause and effect." Awen shrugged hopelessly. "Is the mirror the cause, or is it just a symptom? We really shouldn't be surprised, should we?"

The anger was coming back, side by side with its good friend Bitter Recrimination. She shook her head, glaring at the door.

"How did we never notice? The signs were there. It's not like he was only very subtly a complete prick."

Adara wrapped her arms around herself, shaking her head.

"I don't know," she said quietly. "It's so obvious in retrospect."

They both stood there silently for a second, and then Awen nodded.

"Okay," she said decisively. "Grab one of the sheets off the bed, would you? We'll put it over the door, over the mirror."

"You know what I don't understand?" Adara said as she yanked a checked woolen blacket off the bed and Awen cautiously opened the door a crack. "If he was using a mirror, and looking at himself, and knew what his face looked like, why was he still arrogant?"

It wasn't that funny, but it nonetheless brought tears to Awen's eyes, forcing Adara to take over sliding the blanket over the door to open it safely. Owain really had not been an attractive man. Between the flat, triangular nose, the overly-wide mouth, the squinting eyes and the greasy widow's peak hairline he'd somehow managed to have a face in which every single feature was ugly. The only saving grace, really, was that the overall composition of his features had managed to shuffle his face into something that could be described as 'harmlessly unattractive' rather than 'shit-hideous'.

But, every Rider knew how resoundingly unimportant an asset their own faces were. It was a tiny part of the reason why they weren't allowed mirrors; it removed the ability to care about it, and allowed them to focus on what was important, like keeping the country running. Owain had been a Deputy. He was cunning, and clever, and manipulative. And he definitely thought he knew best in everything. Maybe that was enough to keep an ego going in the face of... having a terrible face.

"Right," Adara said as she finished twitching the cloth into place. "All good. Do we open it, now?"

"Carefully," Awen nodded, easing her hand back. "Look down, though, just in case."

They did, but they needn't have worried. The back of the door had become merely a
woven sheet of black and white wool. They both breathed a sigh of relief, and Awen went back to searching the furniture.

She needn't have bothered. Nothing was lurking in the wardrobe that shouldn't have been, no handy written confessions, no diaries of wrongdoings, no bodies. They carefully closed the doors again and started on the bed, but again it was fruitless. Awen wasn't overly surprised. If she'd been plotting treasonous things under her Wing's radar she wouldn't have hidden the evidence in her own bedroom, either. She was just straightening up and deciding whether or not to make a start on the floorboards now when the shrine to Rhiannon caught her eye.

It wasn't to Rhiannon. It had been very carefully, very meticuously designed so that it would look, at a glance, like it was, but Awen could tell the differences between totems with sublime ease. The birds were different, the horse was different, and the sun motif had been subtley made into the focal point of the whole shrine. The candles before it were different. The marks of dried water where the shrine had been annointed were over the sun rather than the horse. It was to a different god.
"He's been worshipping Lleu," Awen said. Adara's head snapped around from where she was happily and unnecessarily tearing apart Owain's pillow, feathers dropping out like a strangely floaty waterfall.

"What?" she asked, her hands frozen on the fabric. "You mean - ?"

"Instead of Rhiannon. Or," Awen amended, the habits of a lifetime moving her to soften bad news of Owain before she told Adara, "at least, he's been worshipping Lleu more prominently than Rhiannon."

But it came to the same thing, really. There was obviously nothing at all wrong with worshipping Lleu; Calan Mai would be a strangely non-religious party without him, and everyone loved a bit of sun if nothing else. But there was worshipping and there was keeping a shrine in your bedroom when you belonged to a specific profession. Craftsmen kept shrines to Lleu, because a shrine beside the place you slept basically meant you were dedicating yourself to that deity, and Lleu was the god of Being A Multi-Talented Show Off If A Bit Stupid Around Women. But Riders were dedicated to Rhiannon at birth, and mostly for their own bloody protection. It was like being dedicated to the country; there was no choice in it. Dedication meant just that. You didn't get to pick and choose which higher authority to recognise, and you didn't get to randomly switch gods. Riders belonged to Rhiannon just the same as they belonged to the country.

"Damn I'm glad I never have to take an order from him again," Adara muttered. "You've no idea how lucky you were, Leader."

"We'll finish this later," Awen said, standing up. "Unfortunately, time is growing short."

"Are you sure?" Adara asked, her voice sharp again. "I mean, this is -"

"I know," Awen interrupted. "But it's not the most important thing right now. We need to go and see Lord Flyn."

Adara swore viciously, and Awen wondered if she could check to make sure her eyebrows weren't burnt off surreptitiously. Probably not, she decided. And anyway, she felt like expressing much the same sentiment.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Wardrobes are Weird

Despite her best efforts, Sophia realised she'd never manage to fit the new wardrobe through the bedroom door in one piece.

"Sorry, mum," she muttered as she grabbed hold of the screwdriver in her pocket - she'd fully expected to need it. Pausing a moment to tie her dark hair back in a ponytail, she got down on her knees and started on the first screw.

"How's it going?" Martin's voice. Sophia couldn't see him - as well as trapping her upstairs, the wardrobe blocked her view of the landing.

"I'm taking it apart," said Sophia, unable to completely disguise her glee.

"Your mother won't like that," said Marting softly.

"She can go hang." To be fair, it is the opinion of this narrator that Sophia's mother did indeed deserve hanging.

"Need any help?" asked Martin.

"Not if you're avoiding sorting out the electricity."

"I'm not!" said Martin, fooling no-one but himself. "Anyway, I can't sort it out until one of us gets paid."

"At least two more weeks of candles, then?" Sophia wasn't too upset about this. Candles were fun. But it was a pain having to store their food with Charlie next door. Thank goodness for gas cookers.

"On the plus side," said Martin, "I've got a quote for fixing the bathroom windows. Cheaper than I thought."

"Within our budget?"

"Just about ... but we'd have to choose between the windows or the wedding photos."

"Photos. Definitely. We'll do the windows next month."

Sophia and Martin had only been married for three weeks - it was the excitement of the thing that kept them upbeat in their horror of a house (bought in an auction after the previous tennant was evicted for his home heroin business). And they'd both been looking forward to seeing the photographs.

"I agree," said Martin. "But for now, I'll just get copies for your family, mum, dad and Caitlin. The rest of my family can wait."

"I should think so too!" Martin's family was staggeringly vast. Their very presence in the wedding had pushed the cost of the photographer through the roof, but it was well worth hiring a professional.

Sophia dropped the screwdriver and wiped the sweat from her brow. "This isn't coming loose."

"Probably cursed, knowing your mother," said Martin. "Food doesn't rot in it, you know."

"Yes it does," sighed Sophia.

"No! It doesn't! It contained fifty-year-old jam, Soph. Fifty-year-old jam."

"You add a decade each time you tell that story," said Sophia. "She must've just reused the pot. Made us some jam as an extra wedding present."

"Unlikely," said Martin. "That jam was nice. She wouldn't have wasted it on us if she'd known it was there."


Angela was Thinking. I've had to use a capital T there, to distinguish from ordinary thinking, which Angela did all the time. However, Thinking happened every once in a while, and it was a dangerous time.

Most of the time, Angela was the happiest woman alive (need I point out that this is hyperbole?). Ebullient to the point of hysteria at times, the problems came when she crashed. She'd suddenly start feeling like she was too ugly (not really true), too fat (certainly untrue), too old (she was twenty-five), and that everyone hated her (no-one did, save perhaps Quiet Steve, but I'll come to him later).

She'd been great in the build-up to Martin and Sophia's wedding, and delighted in decorating the house as best she could while they were away, but now, in the darkness of her bedroom, she felt terribly lonely.

When she'd been Thinking for a few hours, something a bit weird happened. I'm not sure how well I can explain it, really - I wasn't there (I'm not quite an omnipresent narrator), but I heard her describe it years later.

Anyway, she suddenly had to close her eyes as though a bright light had come on, despite the room still being pitch black. She could hardly open her eyes at all, but when she did open them a crack, she saw a skinny young man in a scruffy pale green shirt, with hair like a Beatle's.

Angela felt self-conscious, as though the man was a celebrity, and when he spoke, it broke her heart.

"Angela?" he said. "Did I wake you?"

"Who are you?" she asked.

"Oh, dash. Sorry." The man grinned, and the world felt like a better place. "I'm early. See you later."

Again, Angela had to close her eyes against the brightness in the dark, but she didn't open them again until she awoke the following morning.

Sorry about this bit, by the way - it's a bit rubbish really, and maybe I shouldn't have mentioned it until the young man turned up again (he won't be back for a while), but I thought it'd be nice to tell the story chronologically.


The wardrobe was now standing against a wall in the living room.

"I like it there," said Martin, but Sophia gave him a look. "It matches the floorboards!" he insisted.

"And that'll be a great comfort when I have to get changed in the Death Room."

"Superstitious all of a sudden?"

Sophia laughed. Despite the warnings of their friends and family, it hadn't bothered either of them that someone had been murdered in the living room the previous year. It didn't register, really - not part of their world. It just happened to share some geography.

Sophia ran a hand through Martin's short, red hair. "Carpet, do you reckon?" she asked.

"Wonder how cheap it'd be to grow a carpet of watercress?" he wondered.

At that moment, the doorbell rang, and Sophia got up to answer it.

It was Caitlin, Martin's sister.

"Hi, Soph!" she said, giving her sister-in-law a hug. "I brought your car back." Caitlin had borrowed Sophia's car that day to - Wait, you won't care.

"Come in, come in," said Sophia. There was something cosy and domestic about Caitlin that made her want to say everything twice.

She led her into the living room, where she sat on a beanbag.

"I'd offer you tea, but ..." Sophia nodded towards the electric meter.

"No problem!" said Caitlin. "And you're welcome round my place if you ever need a break from the relentless darkness."

"It's been quite fun, actually," said Martin. "You end up going to bed and getting up according to the sun."

"Yes, but you'll be missing Casualty!" said Caitlin, horrified. "They're getting their new head of ER next week!" She spotted the wardrobe in the corner. "Dear me, that's huge!"

"It is, it is," said Sophia. "My mother's wedding gift. I hated it as a child, but we do need a wardrobe."

"It preserves jam!" said Martin.

"I wish," said Sophie. "Then we wouldn't need the fridge. Anyway, I couldn't take it apart, so we've had to leave it down here."

Caitlin was already on her feet. She lived her life trying to solve every problem and complete every task the second they arose.

"It looks old."

"Just the novelty, I think," said Sophia. "It's held together with screws."

Caitlin was down on the floor, examining the screws.

"They look brand-new!"

"They're not, they're not," Sophia assured her. "Looked like that ever since we got it."

"Got a screwdriver?"


Charlie's mobile phone rang.

"'M gonna kill you," came the raspy voice from the other end.

"So you keep telling me," replied Charlie, hanging up.


"This is odd," said Caitlin. "They're not impossible to move - just very, very stiff. And they're backwards."

"Really?" Sophia examined them closer and saw that, indeed, they were moving as Caitlin rotated the screwdriver clockwise.

"Hey," said Martin. "What's that?"

He came closer, putting his arm around Sophia, examining the area Caitlin was undoing. What they'd all assumed to be a simple base to the wardrobe was, in fact, a drawer with no handle, screwed shut. Caitlin opened it slowly. Inside was a stack of paper, and most intriguing of all was an envelope, a name marked on the front.

The name was ... Sebastian Moore!


Damn, damn, damn! I knew I'd forgotten something. Good lord, I'd forget my own head if I had one. Right. Yes, you should have recognised Sebastian Moore's name. That was a brilliant plot twist I was building up to. But then I forgot to mention him even once.

Okay, rewind. I don't actually know much about Sebastian Moore's life at this point. Not because it's a mystery, but because it was so bland. I can comfortably imagining him having a drink with his colleagues, or watching a rented DVD, or more likely, playing board games with his daughter.

He was twenty-eight, nothing special, but lovely. He'd not met any of the others at this point, though he'd once shared a bus with Charlie. Why did I mention that? Useless information.

Okay, I know I've messed up this ending. Try to be excited. Because this stranger's name appeared on an envelope in a wardrobe bought by someone else entirely when he himself was only six years old. It's a shame not to end with an exciting reveal, but there you go.

Oh, wait! There is one more thing. Sebastian was skinny. And had hair like a Beatle's.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Scribblers: Conspiracy Part 3

Final installment. Not at all sure about it, and it's very talky.

Goons coming your way. Hold on.

Chronal does the timey-wimey thing and suddenly he is with them, and they are in a time-bubble.

Chronal Hi guys. I thought I’d better give you this bit of exposition before the fighting. We’re in almost-stopped time. I found...

Amity Hang on, Chrone. How many people have you got in this bubble?

Chronal Just the five of us.

Wraith Eight.

Amity That’s what I thought.

Chronal Well, I’m not doing it.

Lyric Could they have just found their way into the bubble, if you can’t see them?

Finesse It doesn’t work like that. It’s not literally a bubble.

Chronal I choose what entities I slow down with me. It’s time. It doesn’t operate according to the laws of space.

Amity But they’re here.

Echo We are here. Hello.

Finesse Makes sense, really. Their powers are light-based, so if they can go as fast as light, but still interact with us...

Chronal They must be able to slow down.

Wraith experimentally throws some light, to see if he can, and Amity giggles.

Amity They liked that!

Finesse OK, Wraith, you’re on creche duty, Chronal, exposition. And quickly, please, we need you fighting strength when we tackle the goons.

Chronal Oh, yes, right. There were triplets, and they did die. Yesterday. They were six years old. Their parents put them to bed, and when they checked in the morning, all that remained was dust. It looked like they’d been cremated, apparently. The police are treating it as highly suspicious.

Finesse Any history of powers?

Chronal Nothing at all.

Finesse Right. Well, they’re young, but it’s the only explanation, then. They must have...

Wraith Hey!

Amity Where are they?

Finesse They did something in real time, they’re using their powers. Chrone, take us back!

Chronal de-activates the time bubble and they return to hear no goons.

Lyric approaches the door, sword at the ready, and cautiously opens it. Everyone else is in fighting stance.

Lyric looks through, then abruptly closes the door again.

Lyric Power down, take a deep breath. Amity, keep us calm.

Lyric opens the door more widely. Each of the goons that were coming for them has burned down to dust.


Amity They’re expectant, and happy.

Wraith Shit.

Finesse We need a weapon. Thoughts?

Wraith They didn’t understand.

Finesse Even a six year-old knows mass-slaughter isn’t OK.

Amity They were trying to protect us. They couldn’t know we didn’t need it.

Lyric The only weapon they know is what they did to their own bodies.


Finesse OK. Can you hear me?

Echo Yes.

Finesse Right. What you have just done was wrong. Those people aren't like you. They can't come back like you. You must promise to never ever kill another human being again. Do you understand?


Amity Sulking. Nothing I can do - no chemicals.

Finesse We will look after you, and we know you were trying to help, but I need you to understand why that is not OK.

Echo Sorry.

Finesse That’s...OK. Now, in a minute, I’m going to let you go and play with Wraith for a while, but first you have to listen.

Echo The jumping game?

Finesse Ah. That’s it. Yes. Now, pay attention. I know what you are. You are new. You’re evolved beyond anything we’ve met before. That means you won’t grow up like other children because you have changed so that you don’t need bodies any more. You are light. You can do lots of things other children can’t do.

Echo We want skin.

Finesse When you...hurt those people, I bet you didn’t have to try at all, did you? I bet you just went into them, and then it happened. Is that right?

Echo Like jumping.

Finesse Yes. So if Lyric grows new skin for you, the same thing will happen.

Amity winces.

Amity I really hope you’ve got a silver lining.

Finesse Possibly. Wraith?

Wraith Yeah. Probs. Like this.

Wraith does something with his hands, and across the room appears a blurry figure with wild hair. Wraith is concentrating as hard as he ever has.

Wraith New thing. Not too good yet.

Everyone is very impressed by this.

Wraith Get it?

Echo Yes!

Nothing happens for ages. Then blurry figures start to appear. An impression of colour, nothing much more.

Amity (Under her breath) Temper, temper.

Wraith Pretty good. The kids got talent.

Lyric What do we do now? We’ll need to explain.

Finesse We tell the truth, of course.

Amity But you know what they’ll do...

Finesse What? How do you incarcerate light? We’ll offer to train them, we’ll explain, and as soon as we can, we’ll send them back to their parents. They are far too dangerous to be left alone, and far too dangerous to be exposed to criminals at a young age. The Assembly will have no choice but to educate them. (Pause.) Wraith, take them down to the training rooms. I doubt they get tired any more. They need to create a physical form as soon as possible. Chronal, will you come and help me recover Shift? And then we need to talk to the Assembly.

Finesse clocks what Lyric and Amity are doing, and then she, Chronal, Wraith and Echo leave.

In the next room, crouching in the dust, Lyric is occupied in making urns. Each is different, and each is beautiful.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Scribblers: Conspiracy Part 2

PANEL: Lyric squats on the rooftop - a dark space in a glowing city. Surrounding him is speckled light, almost like errors in the printing of the black. He looks ahead of him, experienced and worldly.

Echo We know you.

Lyric Funny sort of way to greet an old friend.

Echo You didn’t show we hurt you.

Lyric No, well, I’m incredibly brave.


Lyric So...was there something you wanted?

Echo Yes.

Lyric I’m not a telepath. You know that?

Echo Yes. We need.

Lyric Are you asking for help? Because you just stabbed me in the hand, and I don’t think you knew I could heal it.

Echo Now we know. Help us.

Lyric Why did you stab me?

Echo Now we know.

Lyric What do you want?

Echo Help us.

Lyric What do you need?

Back in the Duck Cave.

Amity That’s weird. Wraith.

Chronal Alarm bells?

Amity I’m not sure. Hard to tell at this distance because it’s subtle. But it’s conflicting emotions. He’s normally pretty clear.

Chronal We should go.

Amity Give it a minute, she asked us to stay. He’s all right, I think. He’s frightened, but not the way he...ah! It’s responsibility. Finesse has given him something important to do - something no-one else can help with. And he’s scared. Oh, wait. Hang on. It’s all right, there it is!

Chronal Clue, please.

Amity Pride.

In the corridor in the Assembly.

Wraith is tentatively sending out brackets of light. He gets more masterful and confident with every stroke. Here is the artist in his element, finding light.

Wraith It’s changing. No size, no shape, no matter. Almost.

He grins.

Wraith Alive thing. It thinks. Weird.

Finesse What’s it doing? I’m getting nothing. It’s using whatever power this is all the time, consistently. Why doesn’t it hide, or attack, if it wants to? What’s it doing?

Wraith Playing.

Finesse Playing?

Wraith Feel where it is. Look.

Wraith moves his brackets of light rapidly, unpredictably, then stops suddenly.

Finesse It’s chasing the light, then hiding from it. And now you’ve stopped...

Wraith Just out of reach.

Finesse Like a dog with a ball.

Wraith Like a kid.

Finesse OK, is it hostile?

Wraith shrugs.

Wraith Not right now.

On the rooftop.

Lyric is standing now, leaning against the wall.

Lyric What you’re asking me for, I can’t do it. I can’t make life. Not from scratch.

Echo Help us.

Lyric I want to. I can’t.

Echo Help us.

Lyric OK. Look, we’ll try and work something out, OK?

Echo Help us.

Lyric It’s like talking to a skipping CD, you know that?

In the Duck Hub.

Chronal and Amity are sitting dejectedly, getting bored.

Finesse speaks over the Com.

Finesse Hi. Right, we might need some help.

Chronal Huzzah! To the Assembly!

Finesse Sorry, not you Chrone. I need a list of children who disappeared. Can you do that from the Duck Shed?

Chronal I certainly can. But that won’t take me long.

Finesse Actually it might. I need a list of siblings who disappeared.

Chronal Easy. What’s my time-frame?

Finesse There isn’t one.


Chronal You realise that’s going to be quite a long list?

Finesse I know. Try cross-referencing with the words “light” and “shadow”. I’m sorry. It might have been something suspicious.

Chronal Okey-dokey.

Chronal disappears into a blur, searching several computers at once to allow them to keep up with his operating speeds.

Finesse Amity, can you come over here?

Amity Yay!

Amity walks into the corridor in the Assembly.

Wraith is playing with the light again, a game that has now developed a few rules and a rudimentary scoring system.

Amity Oooh! Twins! And aren’t you Mr Popular?!

Finesse Is an explanation a possibility, at this stage?

Amity Um, OK. I can’t see them either, but I can feel them.

Finesse I’m only getting one power.

Amity There is only one. They share it. They work in stereo but there’s definitely two of them.

Finesse Are they hostile?

Amity No. Sorry to go all Deanna Troy, but I’m just feeling a lot of love, and most of it aimed at Wraith. They love him. Oh, and he makes them feel safe. They’re young, I think. Quite simple emotions.

Finesse Are you saying they’re human?

Amity They feel like it.

A beautiful, ornate door appears in the corridor, and Lyric steps through.

Wraith and Amity smile.

Wraith Three.

Finesse (Over the intercom) Chronal, you’re looking for triplets, very young.

Lyric (Also speaking into the intercom) And they died.

Everyone looks at Lyric.

Scribblers: Conspiracy Part 1

I have done lots of work today, so I think it's high time for some comicking! :-)

The Scribblers are kitting out. They’re all crowded onto three trans-bikes (Lyric, Finesse and Shift are driving), and armed with their usual assortment of resources.

Finesse Chronal?

Chronal We’ve got 48 seconds.

Wraith makes them all invisible, and Chronal places them into a time bubble (do we have a term for that?), and off they go, biking through a barely-moving landscape, dodging cars and motionless pedestrians.

Chronal, on Finesse’s bike, is beginning to break a sweat with the effort of holding them all almost out of time. Wraith looks mildly disgruntled.

In almost-no-time, they reach the Assembly buildings, where eerily still people in suits are paused in the act of tying a shoe-lace, or looking back for a moment at someone special before he turns a corner.

Everyone knows the plan.

Wraith makes himself and Lyric invisible, and they go off to the side of the building, where a door begins to appear in a wall.

Shift transforms into a flea, and attaches herself under the collar of a very high-up looking business man.

Finesse loiters in the foyer, in case of unexpected superpowers turning up, and Amity and Chronal go straight up to the front desk.

Amity Hello, we’d like to know where the most absolutely top-secret meeting is taking place, please.

The man behind the desk passively looks at the file. Chronal flickers for a moment.

Man I’m sorry, Scribbler, but you’re not down to attend any meetings today.

Amity and Chronal smile at him.

Amity Just testing, well done!

The man looks very proud of himself.

They walk out, as Chronal murmurs over the Com.

Chronal 17th floor, Rockabilly Suite.

Finesse Belay that. Everyone get out, right now. Out. And hide in pairs, don’t go back to base. I’m going after Shift.

Chronal On your own? Are you sure?

Finesse Yes.

Amity No, you’re not. She’s not, she’s being noble.

Chronal Ah, well, we can’t have that.


Finesse Fine. Wraith, with me, find somewhere to hide and then double back.

Amity I wish I was telepathic.

Finesse I’ll be in touch.

Finesse ducks through a side door and disappears.

Chronal and Amity head off towards the Duck Shed.

Lyric is moving so fast he appears to be burning the doors into the walls, but he gets out, and heads for a rooftop to stand on the edge of.

Wraith leaves, and when he’s out of sight, goes invisible and doubles back. A shadow, standing so close that he might even have taken it for his own, follows him.

Lyric has reached the rooftop. He stands above it, looking debonair, surveying his kingdom.

Then his eyes change. More of surprise than panic, as he looks down to see the tip of his own sword sticking out of his right hand.

Coolly, he detaches it, cleans it. Then he turns around.

Nothing there, of course.

He sits down with his back against the wall and mutters to himself. Slowly, his hand begins to mend.

Something moves closer.

He is almost healed now, and keeps his head resolutely facing his work.

Then a voice like an echo, almost seen rather than heard, and repeated many times:

Echo Where did you learn to do that?

Lyric That’s not the right question.

Echo How?

Lyric is now healed. He looks up into the gap where enemies should be.

Lyric Practice.

Amity and Chronal are sitting in the Duck Shed. There are ducks there.

Chronal How worried?

Amity (Shrugs) You can read her as well as I can.

Chronal Very.

Amity How long’s it been?

Chronal Thirteen minutes. Is it time to go in after her?

Amity Not yet. She’s tense, nothing she can’t handle. Shift’s all right, but she doesn’t know the plan changed. Lyric...oh. It was bad. Now he’s back in control.

Chronal Wraith?

Amity Oh, he’s fine. Water off a duck’s back.

Chronal Insults off a dinosaur.

Amity Um...insults off of Adric?

Chronal Ha! Weapons off of time.

Amity Oooh! Dust off of light.

Finesse and InvisiWraith are walking through a suspiciously deserted corridor.

Wraith So, like, whatever, but why’d you send them off?

Finesse There’s something new.

Wraith Bad guy?

Finesse How should I know? But it’s not a power like I’ve seen before. I know it’s dangerous.

Wraith You brought me?

Finesse It’s something to do with light. I don’t...I’ve never been unsure before. I can sense the power but not the person it’s inside. I don’t know how the power relates, how it manifests.

Wraith You brought me?

Finesse Light. No-one else would stand a chance. Not even Chronal can move fast enough.

Wraith We’re hunting bad guys.

Finesse Not exactly. You see, you brought it with you.

Fifteen-Year-Old Angst Crap

So, this is hilarious; going through the back catalogue of stuff I emailed to myself before moving I came across the folder of Crap I Wrote When Fifteen. Since my sister is demanding things to read right now to get through some boring work training I thought I'd put it up. WARNING: fifteen-year-old angst ahoy. And bad writing. It's all part of the charm, though, eh?

They call for all of us but me.

Not always, you realise. Humanity's greatest blessing is that which it possessed abundantly as a crawling beast; the ability to narrow its mind, and close its eyes, and achieve if not happiness then... contentment. Then, there were fewer of us, only three, and none called for us. We were dreaded, hated, loathed. We were fear and horror, primal and barely-understood conceptual. Evolution came with its price, however. Sentience brought Understanding, its sibling. Understanding transformed us.

I don't aim to mislead; we are still horror. We are still dread.

But Sentience and Understanding run deep, and convoluted and many-layered complex. When beasts, we were things to run from, however futile the flight unknowingly was. Humanity sees us... differently. Humanity sees us... in categories. The one to flee. The one to fight. The one to avoid. And the one it cannot.

I don't aim to mislead; I am not the fourth.

Indeed, the fourth is the most accepted. The only defensible action for creatures who have no other choice, perhaps. Not that all call for him. Humanity still has its blinkers, still wears its yoke. There are many, so many, who curse and revile his name, and scream and fight his coming with tooth and nail and words and tears, and end in despair. But there are those who welcome him in, who see their final moves upon the board, who are weary of the game, who never wanted to play. They are grateful for him. They smile softly, and say goodbye, and slip away upon the edge of the blade to the next game that awaits them.

I don't aim to mislead; it is not easy to accept him.

He is revulsion. He is dissentient juxtaposition. He is inherent conflict. He is Wrong to humanity. But he is also inevitable. Nothing lives forever.

He sees everyone eventually. No achievement, no status, no possession can hold him off. He sees the young, and the old; the rich, and the poor; the men, the women, the white, the black, the kings and the beggars, the good and the bad. He is hated by all, and ultimately accepted by all. He sees them all. He accepts them all.

He is lucky.

I don't aim to mislead; his luck is not his acceptance.

We are all horror. We are all dread. The third came to us with Sentience and Understanding, grew from Squabbles into one of us, into the fully-fledged destroyer and avenger he now is. He laughs and shrieks and burns as he moves, carving his paths across the world in his lustful frenzy of blood, addicted to the screaming. His wake is rock and ash and bone, broken minds and broken lives and broken survivors. Where he dances his frenetic beat, the fourth walks behind him, serenity after the madness, the price for hosting the third. The third is decried. He is deplored. He is deprecated. He is never without victims. He is never without sacrifice.

But I don't aim to mislead; there are still those who call for him.

With Sentience and Understanding came Pain. Wounds of the mind, of the soul, of the ego; wrongs that needed, demanded, avenging. There are those who accept his price in the names of Greater Things, in the names of That Which Must Be Done. There are those who see a farm as dearer, as superior, as more important than those who must be sacrificed for them to keep it. There are those who see the path to riches as being a worthy goal to invoke his name. These are the people he sees. And these are not good men. These are the depraved, the lustful, the selfish and the arrogant. These are what the third sees reflected back at him every time he hears his name. The good he only sees as he rides above them, crushing them beneath his dancing feet or - sometimes - he sees fleeting glimpses of the good, before his very presense corrupts them, corroding them like rust and leaving only parodies in their places.

But I don't aim to mislead. Those who call him only truly do so out of fear of the fourth.

Those who fear the fourth call the third to make the game better now. Those who don't call the third to make the game better next. But still; the third is more fortunate than us.

The second is to be fought.

And oh, he is.

And humanity fights well when it can. So much so that he is nearly part of their game, locked into his own ever-changing, ever-decreasing pattern, ever aware of his slowly-approaching nadir. His feet dance intricate steps, his clever fingers reaching for the next moves, the next tricks to attempt, the next turn to take. They mirror every step, pre-empt his plans, throw up barriers and shields and barricades, hone new weapons and adapt with him. He has long been retreating, defending, seeking new ground and finding none. He has only one weapon remaining in his arsenal, only one play left to hold out against them: mutation. His time is limited to its effectiveness.

But I don't aim to mislead; it is effective.

Where he takes his victories he does so with the full authority of his power, unyieldingly and irrevocably, claiming devastation in his name. He spreads his influence through humanity itself, through its interactivity and functions and in ways it cannot prevent. His strikes are random, inexplicable; he targets those seen by the fourth, the young and old and rich and poor and men and women and black and white and kings and beggars, indiscriminate. He also sees them all, sooner or later, but not for long. And there are those who call for the fourth. They may well do so because of the second.

But I don't mean to mislead; there have been those who have called for the second.

The blandly, blindly innocent. The children who wish for there to be no school today. The workers who long for a break. They call on a force they don't understand, and once, once upon a time, his price would have been terrible. But no longer. Not usually.

Sometimes he is called by the ambitious. These are not good men. These are the ones who dream of power of their own, lesser and far more insignificant than our own and yet seemingly irresistable. These are the ones who seek to gain influence through the misfortune of others. These are the ones whose sense of entitlement obscures their sense of right and wrong. And these comprise the people who call his name: the stupid and the vindictive. He sees the good only while destroying, and serves the petty.

And I have misled. I say no one calls for me.

But this is a lie.

I remember all who have called my name. I remember their minds, filled with blood and foam and vicious, malevolent amusement as they giggle and sing for the agonies I bring. They are the ones who see the game for what it is, see humanity as a sea of pawns, see the world as built for their own hideous entertainment. They are kings. They see their numbers as a measurement of their power. They see the presense of the fourth as a measurement of their influence. They wish to see their people shrivel, and scream, and weep, and hollow. They wish to see the skin stretch over bones, the eyes bulge in deepened sockets, the failing strength leech from the staggering frames.

These are the only people who call for me.

I say the luck of the fourth is not because he is accepted. I say he is lucky because of whom he sees. I say he is lucky because of who calls him. I say he is lucky because sometimes, sometimes, he is called by the good, the innocent, those who ask for him for themselves. Sometimes, the third is called by those who at least have their convictions. Sometimes the second is called by the innocently stupid.

I am only ever called by the evil, the psychotic, the Wrong.

No one else would call for starvation.