Sunday, 25 April 2010

Cymru - Chapter 45

Some days, I just can't be bothered to write chapters. This is consequently the shortest one I've written in a while.


She woke up to supreme comfort, in a nest of feathered quilts and bathed in the sunlight pouring liberally through the window. The pain in her head had faded to the level of a bad bruise, an easily bearable ache. Aerona smiled blissfully, and rolled over -

- her nose hit Dylan's and she yelped in surprise.

"You're awake!" he said brightly. "So, hey, you know, like, relationships?"

"What?" Aerona giggled, blinking the sleep out of her eyes. "As in, do I - ? Hang on, why are you here?"

"Relationships," Dylan insisted, still nose-to-nose. "I like you. Do you want one?"

"What?" Aerona pushed herself up onto her elbows and stared at him, trying to study his expression. "Are you serious?"

"I am capable, you know," Dylan said mock-indignantly. "It does happen. Why do you think it doesn't happen? Because I can be serious, and anyway, you're Aerona. You can't judge."

"But -"

"Did Madog say I can't be serious?" Dylan persisted. "Is that why?"

"You know I wouldn't normally dream of trying to silence you," Aerona almost begged. "But please stop talking for a minute."

"Oh, fine," Dylan said grumpily, rolling onto his back and linking his fingers behind his head. "But one minute's grace is all you get, petal."

"Thank you," she said dizzily. "I - a relationship? Like, a proper one? With you?"

"Well, traditionally, that's how they work," Dylan grinned, his eyes roving the ceiling. "You can't have one by yourself, because that's narcissism. See? Greeks have words for everything. They even have a word for a kind of cake they make out of crumbs and compact and take to sea with them. They call it cake."

"I didn't think you liked me that much," Aerona said wonderingly. Dylan sat up, plucking at one set of her beads and playing with them.

"I do," he shrugged. "Do you? Because if not I'll cry on Madog and then eventually move on after much heartache and suffering, it's fine."

"That's blackmail," Aerona giggled. "No, I do. I'd love a relationship! I'll have to take the children den-building by Wrecsam more, but I think I could also work the class rotations with Geraint so I could have every other weekend free. About four or five days."

"Wins," Dylan crowed triumphantly, throwing his arms up in victory. Aerona took advantage of the position and hugged him, and he quickly swung her back down to the mattress, holding her tightly. Aerona laughed. Well, certainly this was going to be a good match; as long as you phrased it carefully Dylan played games without even realising it, and he was definitely quirky enough to find her admittedly-difficult eccentricities interesting rather than irritating.

"Oh, one thing, though," Aerona said worriedly. "You didn't decide you wanted this out of guilty trauma over my near-fatal accident, did you?"

"What? No," Dylan said disdainfully, flicking an indifferent hand. "No, I decided it when you told me you'd pulled a Saxon and I got all jealous."

"I thought you were joking then," Aerona said thoughtfully. Dylan shrugged.

"I was," he said. "Outwardly. Figured I'd talk to you about it afterwards rather than in the middle of an important mission, though."

"Oh," Aerona said. "Well, that's sensible. Hey, have you told Madog?"

"No," Dylan said, rolling his eyes. "But he'll know, because he's all… you know, a Wingleader or something. Anyway; we have a meeting."

"Do we?" Aerona asked, bewildered. "How lovely! With whom?"

"The High Council, I should think," Dylan sighed gloomily. "Or selected members, anyway. Rhydian. Gwenllian. Eifion."

His voice went flatly emotionless on 'Eifion', and Aerona hugged him as tightly as she could.

"What's it for?" she asked softly, although she could guess. Questions would be asked over Owain's escape. Especially since if Awen hadn't been quick on her feet they'd now have a dead Sovereign and three Erinnish officials to wrap up and send home with an apologetic note. Dylan gave her a wry smile.

"Owain, obviously," he confirmed. "And we have to go. Chop chop! We'll do beads later."

Ah, yes. A relationship meant one extra bead. Aerona beamed, and her smile didn't waver until they were outside Councillor Rhydian's office and Dylan's shoulders went tense in preparation. At which point she probably looked sad. Dylan knocked, and Rhydian's answering voice sounded grave.

"In," he called abruptly. Dylan pushed the door open and stepped inside ahead of her -

- but he needn't have bothered. For once Councillor Rhydian was not lurking beyond the doorframe with weaponry and a grin, instead sitting behind his desk with his chin resting on steepled fingers and looking Very Serious Indeed. Gwenllian was sitting beside him on his desk, playing with a paperweight, her black-and-red hair covering her face. Huw, the big burly Northlander Councillor with eyebrows that were nearly sentient, was leaning against the wall to one side, arms crossed over his chest; and Eifion prowled the room, apparently examining the artwork on the walls. Awen was sitting in one of three chairs in the middle, watching Eifion neutrally. As Dylan and Aerona entered she glanced at them and gave them a knowingly wry smile, which Aerona tried and failed to suppress a grin at. She managed not to giggle, though. That wouldn't have been clever.

"Sit, sit," Rhydian said, waving a hand at the chairs. They sat. "Right. First of all, well done on bringing Owain back without causing too much of a scene in Saxonia. I'm sure Leader Awen for one is extremely grateful."

"I am," Awen told them solemnly. "I'd kiss you both, with tongue and everything, but the risk of subsequent disembowellment might make the message insincere."

And there went the attempt not to giggle. Dylan Saluted Awen lazily with one finger.

"I accept in spirit," he said. "And hey, you were right, he really was a bollock."

"Glorious expression!" Gwenllian cackled. "Ooh, wait, I have to write that one down…"

"Next," Rhydian said, handing her a pen. "With regards to his escape here, we've cleared you. After Aerona had already reported on the druids and we failed to catch this Rhonwen in Trallwng that bit was hardly your fault, and then he escaped here after you'd handed over custody. Your quick thinking then saved the day. Well done."

"Thank you, Councillor," Dylan said, slightly awkwardly. Rhydian gave him a thin smile.

"You're welcome," he said. "Next: Aerona, how are you?"

"Oh, fine thanks," Aerona smiled. "It's just bruised now. The druids have all told me to just eat and sleep, and say I'll be fine by tomorrow probably. Or the day after."

"Good," Rhydian said, and threw a paperweight at her face. Aerona caught it, startled, and he nodded, apparently satisfied. "Excellent. And congratulations, by the way."

"Cheers," Dylan broke in smugly. Rhydian fixed him with another narrow smile.

"You're welcome," he repeated. "We have something of a problem though, Rider, which neither you nor Awen reported to us. Would you like to guess what?"

Awen looked up sharply, her face showing nothing but concerned confusion, and Dylan looked blank. Apparently, neither of them had a clue what he was talking about. Rhydian sighed and held out his hand to Gwenllian, who handed him a piece of paper.

"Okay," Rhydian said sourly. Aerona shifted in her chair uncomfortably. "Let's give you a clue, shall we? Two days ago, Leader, in the Goat's Horn bar on the fifth level you and Leader Madog had an interesting conversation -"

"Oh, gods damn it," Awen muttered, dropping her forehead into a palm. Rhydian's smile at her was brittle.

"Excellent," he said. "You remember. Well, for the benefit of those who weren't present, let me see, which bits did I like… oh yes. Madog: Is there some sort of extra role, very political, that some Riders have but is kept secret from the rest?"

"Oh my gods," Aerona whispered, horrified. Rhydian went on.

"Awen: If it's secret… Madog: I think you're one of them."

"Oh gods," Aerona said again. It was an inadequate thing to say to fully convey the situation, but her mind had gone numb. She couldn't think of anything else. Dylan had tensed up beside her, completely still. Rhydian looked at her, his smile fakely bright.

"Oh, it gets better," he said. "Madog: Fascinating. This is exactly how Dylan reacted. Exactly the same order: blankly dodge the question first, jokingly admit to it second, and then earnestly deny it. All that's changed is the dialogue. Awen: Wait, what? You think Dylan is doing some kind of politics that you don't know about? Madog: I almost know he is. So, Rider? When was that conversation?"

Dylan sighed, running his fingers into the crazy mass of curls that formed his hair.

"A few days ago," he said quietly. "In Casnewydd, in the Landing Tower."

"Moving on," Rhydian said, going back to the page, his voice hard. "Madog: I wanted to see your reaction. And it was identical to Dylan's. I think I'll ask Aerona next."

It was like having a bucket of ice water poured down your spine. It shouldn't have been surprising, Aerona thought, stunned. If he'd guessed Awen for gods' sakes, clearly he'd have no trouble with Aerona, but even so. It was tantamount to killing him.

"Awen: Aerona?" Rhydian continued. "I thought you said political? She's a Tutor. Madog: Who's crossed the country several times in the past few days involving herself in things that really aren't teaching children how to not eat belladonna."

"It's my fault," Dylan said wearily, rubbing his scarred eyes. "I had to involve him because he'd found out about Casnewydd delaying the border warnings from Lord Iestyn. And then we got to Tregwylan after meeting up with Awen, and he was being a loser about the whole thing because we weren't just arresting everyone like real Riders, and then I got angry and told him that real Riders do whatever is needed, and then he got all thoughtful and slept with a Phoenician."

"The last bit was irrelevant," Awen murmured. Rhydian dropped the page and folded his arms, unimpressed.

"Right," he said. "So in order to bandage your ego you all but divulged the existence of Intelligencers to your Wingleader?"

"No!" Dylan exclaimed indignantly. "In order to bandage Awen's!"

"I'd hit you if I could," Awen said evenly, eyes on the ceiling. Rhydian snorted.

"I'd hit the pair of you," he declared. "Don't give me that, Dylan. It was you reacting to criticism against you. And in doing so -"

"From his Wingleader," Aerona broke in quietly. Everyone turned to look at her, and she tried not to squeak. "With respect, Councillors; every one of you in this room was a Wingleader once. I don't think you understand the relationship between Leader and Riders. Your Wingleader's approval is everything. You can't really function that well without it. If Dylan felt that Madog disapproved of him as an Intelligencer, he couldn't have reacted any other way."

"Ooh," Gwenllian said quietly, playing with a red braid. "Right. Awen, new order; after this, you go down to Owain's cell and tell him you disapprove. Don't hang around, girl; just march in, say 'I disapprove of you' and march straight back out. We'll all watch."

"Back on topic," Rhydian began, but Huw interrupted.

"She's right," he said, his extraordinarily mobile eyebrows scurrying into a meeting over his nose as he looked at Aerona pensively. "Never thought about it before, but she's right. Mine used to live off the words 'well done'."

"Be that as it may," Eifion said nasally, speaking from behind them for the first time, and Awen flinched. "Rider Dylan's actions have led to Leader Madog learning something he never should have learned. And not through a book this time," he added, flicking a sharp glance at Awen for some reason. "Through his own ingenuity, which means every Intelligencer he encounters he identifies. This is an extremely dangerous state of affairs."

"Seems a bit strong, Eifion," Huw began, but Rhydian shook his head.

"Potentially catastrophic," he said grimly. "Think about it, Huw. Intelligencers are extensively trained to be able to hide any information they need to, keep any secret. Madog hasn't had that training. If he hears something relevant, he can't hide his reactions effectively enough. Which is bad enough in Lord Gwilym's case, but at least he only knows about Awen. And as a politician people expect him to be lying."

What? Aerona thought, astonished. No one seemed to be about to explain that one, though.

"Well, let's get the shouting out of the way," Gwenllian sighed. "Awen, Dylan, both of you talked to Madog about this, neither reported it. Why?"

"And I'm particularly looking at you," Rhydian added, leaning forward and pointing at Awen. "We already know why he didn't."

"Several reasons," Awen said steadily. "Look at the transcript. Madog was very clear about only wanting to know about the Network because he was worried about Dylan, not because he intends to find and name every Intelligencer in the country. And he agreed not to look into it anymore after I suggested that if the Union hadn't already told him, there was probably a reason."

"Did you say Lord Gwilym?" Dylan asked blankly. Aerona agreed. They were ignored.

"I'm going to put this uncharacteristic display down to your impure status, Leader," Rhydian said, steepling his fingers under his chin again. "But it wasn't your call to make. We needed to know about this. You find out something important to national security and don't tell me again and I'll let Councillor Eifion re-educate you in the finer points of pain processing techniques, understand?"

"Councillor," Awen said, entirely emotionlessly, her eyes on his desk. Rhydian regarded her for a moment before turning his attention to Dylan.

"In your case," he said harshly, "I'm accepting Rider Aerona's defence for this time of being influenced by Madog's relationship with you. But be aware. I don't care who you find out information about, Dylan, whether it's Madog, Aerona, yourself or the gods themselves; if you don't tell me next time I will help Eifion strap you to the table myself. I might even hold the branding irons. Clear?"

"As a bell," Dylan said wearily, scrubbing a hand across his face. "I'll even thump him, to show willing."

"Good," Rhydian said, sitting back. "So now the question is, what do we do with Madog?"

"As I say, Councillor," Awen said hesitantly. "His only interest is Dylan, and he was happy to drop it after I told him he should. Could you just tell him about Dylan and leave it there?"

"What's he worried about, anyway?" Dylan asked blankly. "Why does he care -?"

"You're doing an incredibly high-stress and important job that you can't talk about," Awen said, her smile odd for a moment. "Trust me, that's difficult for a Wingleader."

"We can't tell him," Eifion sniffed, walking around to the desk and standing imperiously. "His reactions are untrained, as we've already said. Even a look from him could give Dylan away. And, apparently, he's fairly sharp at identifying other Intelligencers."

"Be useful if he knew, mind," Dylan said wistfully. "Because, see, then I'm another weapon in his arsenal, to make his job easier."

"True," Gwenllian nodded sagaciously. "And I like the idea of Dylan being able to talk to him. Then we can avoid any more situations like that."

She pointed at Awen, who looked slightly abashed. Eifion shook his head.

"It's far too risky," he snapped. "Listen. He cannot be told. He's a liability - he found out in the first place and had to be told by Leader Awen that maybe talking about it in the Union might not be a good idea. The fact is, he's a danger to the Network and we can't have him knowing."

"He already knows, Eifion," Huw rumbled, his eyebrows jumping athletically. "We can't make him forget. And -"

"No, we can't," Eifion smiled nastily. "But we can make sure he never tells. He's replaceable. An execution -"

It happened, and then was over, very quickly. Fortunately, Awen was on edge enough these days to just blindly react to action, so when Dylan launched himself at Councillor Eifion she moved with him, her elbow crashing between his shoulder-blades and knocking him off-balance just enough to bring him to the floor, both of them twisting -

And then it was over, Dylan on his back with Awen crouched over him, the tip of one wristblade just pressing against his throat and her other hand in the middle of his chest. He was gripping her wrist and hip tightly, eyes locked onto hers as he fought for breath. Eifion had sprung away, everyone suddenly on their feet. No one moved.

"Councillor Rhydian?" Awen said evenly, immobile. "I'd greatly appreciate it if you could promise us right now that Madog is not going to be killed."

"He's not," Rhydian said, glaring hard enough at Eifion to melt the man's head. "I swear to you, killing him is not an option."

"You're on a bloody roll today, Eifion," Gwenllian said contemptuously. "First you manhandle an unstable killer, then you propose murdering someone's Wingleader. Do you want to find a bear and poke it in the eye? Make it an even three?"

"Dylan?" Awen asked quietly. Aerona crouched down beside them. Dylan shook his head, his fingers tightening on Awen's wrist in a grip that had to hurt.

"No," he managed, his voice shaking, and as Awen nodded Aerona understood. Right now, the only thing keeping Dylan from murdering Eifion was Awen. If she moved, he'd attack again. Distractedly, Aerona stroked his shoulder, looking up at the Councillors.

"I think maybe you should leave, Eifion," Huw said, eyeing Dylan. "We've heard your argument, you don't need to stay."

"Perhaps," Eifion said, looking down at the Riders on the floor with longing. "Very well. I shall await your verdict with baited breath, Councillors."

He left with a lingering backwards glance, the door clicking softly shut behind him. Rhydian leaned over his desk.

"Need me to say it again?" he asked Awen. "I can do it more emphatically now. We absolutely, definitely fact will not be killing Madog. Quite the opposite, actually."

"You're giving birth to him?" Dylan asked, throwing an arm over his eyes. Aerona giggled as Awen pulled slowly back, retracting the wristblade. "You can't, a lady did it ages ago."

"Good job he cleared that up for you," Gwenllian told Rhydian. "That would have been pretty embarrassing to get wrong. Up you get, children, we've provided you with seats and everything."

"Cheers," Dylan muttered to Awen as she serenely sat herself back in her chair. She smiled.

"My pleasure," she said. "Some advice from a professional psychopath, mind: get yourself purified after this. Madog will be beyond displeased if you get yourself executed."

"He'd be happy," Dylan said automatically, letting Aerona pull him up. He didn't let go of her hand as they took their seats, the tension in his fingers still palpable. "He says I'm an ingrate, which hurts my feelings."

"I can't think why," Rhydian said with pointed dryness. "Now, if the fun and games are over; with everything that's happened over the past week, I think it's time for a slight change to the system of Intelligencers anyway."

"Ooh, really?" Gwenllian said, turning to look at him. "You didn't say!"

"I'm saying now," Rhydian said, pained. "And anyway, I've been considering it carefully. I think, on reflection though, that Madog is right. And Lord Gwilym, for that matter. They need someone to talk to in their own Wings."

"It is a risk," Huw said doubtfully. "Eifion was right about that. The more people know…"

"The fewer who know, we get this," Rhydian said, pointing at Awen, who flinched. "Best Rider in the country, jumping at her own shadow. That, my friend, is a waste."

"True," Huw mused, staring at Awen. She was actively cringing now, her fingers tight on the arms of the chair. Aerona felt for her.

"Anyway," Rhydian said, leaning back in his chair. "The Wingleaders. Every Wingleader in the country will be told about the Intelligencer in their Wing and then sworn into secrecy. And a couple of weeks' training so they know how and when to use an Intelligencer."

"Sorry," Aerona broke in, leaning forwards. "Did you just say every Wing?"

"Including yours, yes," Rhydian grinned. "I'm sure Geraint will be surprised."

"Um," Aerona said, nervously. "Possibly astonished. I generally made him think I just like playing games and teaching children."

"You do," Awen murmured. "It's just that one of your games is 'spies'."

"Well, yes," Aerona giggled. "But - I think he'll be shocked."

"A lot of people will be," Rhydian said contentedly. "A few will want to punch me, I should think. Madog and Llywelyn will be the most likely pair."

"Madog will flatten you if you get too close," Dylan grinned, rubbing Aerona's palm with his thumb.

"Which is why he'll be at the other end of the room," Rhydian said brusquely. "Now; Awen. You're a problem again, you have neither a Wingleader nor a Deputy. So! Out of everyone in your Wing, who do you want knowing?"

"Ha. Caradog'd be good," Awen smiled at the ceiling. "But he can't keep a secret. Adara or Llŷr, I think."

"Excellent," Rhydian said, making a note. "We're going to have to discuss a new Deputy, too, at some point. Okay. Since we've got the Alpha Wings all here at the moment I'll arrange for a meeting tonight of those, we'll stagger the others. Right! Well, that's that done, let's see, what else, what else…"

He looked blankly at the note in front of him for a second and then snapped his fingers, sitting up.

"Oh yes," he said. "Politics. Well? Saxonia?"

"They build their towns out of wood and have no drains," Dylan sniffed. "I'd go to Erinn if I were you. It's nice this time of year, and the people aren't psychotic losers."

"It was largely as reported," Aerona giggled, leaning forward and taking over. "Breguswid was telling the truth; half of them want a revolution to overturn society, another half want a revolution just to get rid of Coenred and a tiny percentage are content with the new order. He's been having objectors killed, too. He was getting Owain to do it."

"They've got their own problems, then," Rhydian said thoughtfully. "That's good to know. Enough to just fight among themselves and leave us alone, maybe?"

"Wouldn't that be nice?" Awen sighed wistfully.

"They could," Aerona nodded. "But anyone in charge of them could easily direct them. If it's not Coenred it'll be someone else. Sorry."

"Damn," Rhydian said. "How likely are they to come our way?"

"Very," Dylan said morosely. "Their culture is very anti-us. Any leader wanting to establish themselves would have to attack us, and Coenred is already."

"Bloody Saxons," Huw muttered to himself. Rhydian smiled humourlessly.

"Agreed," he said. "Alright. Get your report written up as soon as possible, please, we need it. But, in the meantime: Leader! How capable are you of arresting Flyn without breaking his jaw?"

"If he resists arrest I make no promises," Awen said evenly. "And my definition of resisting may be liberal."

"Really?" Rhydian sighed. "We can't have you attacking him, you know. It gives a bad impression before a trial. And it has to be you, you're his Alpha Wingleader."

"Just hold your hands behind your back," Gwenllian shrugged. "Although you might kick him then. Don't kick him, girl. Just escort him to a cell."

"Yeah, you're good at that," Dylan grinned evilly for some reason. Everyone else exchanged blank looks, which Aerona felt relieved at. It was okay to be out of the loop if other people were, she felt. Then you were in your own loop.

"I can try," Awen said, biting her lip. "But I really hate him at the moment. Can you stand behind me? Then I'll only punch him if you tell me to."

"That'll have to do," Rhydian nodded, standing. "Alright. Let's go, and try not to look too ecstatic as you do it. It'll look unprofessional."

"I'll try," Awen said neutrally. As she stood her fingers brushed her wrist lightly where Dylan had gripped it, her movement already slightly hindered by some hidden injury to her ribs on the left, probably from fighting Owain. Dylan looked down guiltily, and Aerona squeezed his hand.

"It'll totally bruise," he said morosely. "I bet it goes gangrenous and she can never use that hand again."

"It will not," Aerona giggled, pulling him up. "And I'm sure Awen doesn't mind."

"I will if it falls off," Awen said, heading for the door with her hands in her pockets, apparently just how she travelled in company these days. "But otherwise, no, you're good. It livened up an otherwise dull meeting."

"Dull meeting?" Rhydian objected. "That's going on your official record, Leader. Consider yourself lucky I'm not in the mood to have you whipped. Get going; they're at lunch at the moment."

"But we're going this way," Dylan said, marching Aerona in the opposite direction as they left. "Come on, pickle! We can throw rocks at the nasty Sovereign later."

"Are we going on an adventure?" Aerona asked hopefully, skipping to keep up. "Can we pretend it's two centuries ago?"

"In the middle of the Wars?" Dylan said, throwing her a mock-disapproving look. "You want to pretend there are hundreds of people dying outside? For shame, Aerona."

"Well, arguably," Aerona grinned, "there are hundreds of people dying outside every day anyway, Dylan, if we include the whole world."

"Oh, look, you know philosophy," Dylan said, pulling her around a corner. "What do you think of red?"

"I love red," Aerona said happily. Actually, this was brilliant. Simple conversations with Dylan were games. "And yellow. What do you think of red, Dylan?"

"You're right!" Dylan said merrily. "Red's awesome, good choice! Oh, and before I forget -"

He spun around abruptly, pulled her flush against him and kissed her, right in the middle of the corridor. Aerona giggled, the sound muffled as his arm tightened against the small of her back, fingers tightening in her hair -

- and then he broke it off and pulled her on down the corridor as though nothing had happened.

"What about red, anyway?" Aerona laughed, skipping on to keep up. "Or is this a game? Are we just listing things we like?"

"Honey," Dylan said. "Feathers, you, sunsets, contentment, Saxons thinking I'm a demon, swimming, beating Madog at gwyddbwyll. Ready now?"

"For what?" Aerona asked, and then noticed the shop he'd pulled her up to. The scents of lime and smoke drifted out, accompanied by the clinking, huffing sounds that proclaimed the occupants to be glassblowers. She grinned as they entered, her eyes falling on the jars of beads lining one wall. So that was why red.

"Riders!" A skinny, middle-aged man with incredibly bony elbows set down his pipe and rose from his seat by the forge, beaming at them in welcome. Aerona instantly liked him. "Welcome to my little empire! I'm Aedd. How can I help?"

"Hello Emperor Aedd," Dylan said brightly. "This is Aerona and I'm Dylan, and we'd like some beads, please."

"Ah!" Aedd said, gesturing them over to the jars. Now that Aerona looked he also had a table with combs and wax; presumably he had a lot of Rider custom here. "Are congratulations in order?"

"Yeah," Dylan grinned smugly, throwing one arm around Aerona's shoulders. "She thinks red."

"Dylan!" Aerona giggled. "You thought red and I agreed! But yes, I still do. I like the dark red."

"I love the dark red," Dylan declared. "I'll take the dark red."

"Excellent choice!" Aedd said, pulling down the jar of burgundy glass and fishing out two beads. "They'll look good on you both. Now; do you want wires or not?"

"No, thank you," Aerona said quickly. "Not on mine. This is separate."

"I agree," Dylan said softly, looking down at her for what had to be at least two seconds and had to be some kind of record before turning back to Aedd. "No, none for me either, thanks. I like my beads neat."

"As you wish," Aedd chuckled, laying them on the table. "Well, there you are, then. Give me a shout when you're done, Riders. I'll be in the back."

"Thanks, Aedd!" Aerona waved the man into the back room, and then sat down at the table. Dylan followed suit, taking her left braid between his fingers. "What a nice man! Did you choose him specially?"

"Nah," Dylan shrugged. "He's a glassblower, he was nearby, he makes nice beads. I think he's the guy Menna went to for hers. You know bees?"

"I'm aware of the phenomenon that is the existence of bees, yes," Aerona giggled. "What about them?"

"How long does it take them to make wax?" Dylan asked, carefully working the wax in her hair loose to remove the beads. "I mean, how inconvenienced are they exactly when we take the wax, like the horrific bipedal dictators we are?"

"I've no idea," Aerona said contentedly, starting work on his. "Not long, though, I shouldn't think. I mean, they live in it. They'd have to be able to make it fairly quickly."

"How quickly do they make honey?"

"Very," Aerona smiled. The seal broke, and she very carefully slid three white beads down the dark curl of hair. "That's all they do all day."

"Ah, that's why Madog's such a loser," Dylan said sagaciously. "All he does all day is lose."

"At what?" Aerona giggled. "I mean, I think traditionally one has to be competing before one can lose."

"The glorious and multi-faceted game that is life, Aerona," Dylan said sternly. "He's been cheating for years. And still loses. You see?"

"I'm sure there are circumstances in which he wins," Aerona said, coating the braid in wax. "I mean, he's not -"

"There aren't."

"Dylan -"

"There are no such circumstances, petal."

"A comparative study?"

"Hmm." Dylan regarded her. "With whom?"

"Owain," Aerona said decisively, and Dylan burst out laughing.

"Yes," he grinned. "Alright. But only because Owain is a wank-shaft."

"That's a beautiful thing to say," Aerona giggled, threading the plain red bead onto the braid. It looked elegant, the shade standing out against the dark hair and pale skin and eyes. She replaced the white ones beneath it, and began the task of sealing them in place.

"Yes," Dylan said. "I could have been a bard, on account of my poetic soul. You know Awen?"

"I'm aware of the phenomenon that is the existence of Awen, yes," Aerona grinned. "What about her?"

"Think she'll recover?"

"I have no idea," Aerona sighed sadly, and then frowned. "Although, I would like to know what's going on with Lord Gwilym. He apparently knows something he shouldn't."

"Yes," Dylan said, his flickering eyes alight with sudden interest. "Yes, I agree. Reckon we can corner Awen and find out? She might tell us, she loves us. We found her tool of a Deputy for her."

"I think she probably would," Aerona nodded, and sat back, finished. Or as far back as she could, anyway, given that Dylan was still holding her braid. "Done! It looks good."

"So does yours," he smiled, holding the end of the braid up for her to see. Apparently, he'd finished. "It suits your skin. You know you?"

"I'm aware of the phenomenon that is the existence of me, yes," Aerona said solemnly. His grin was mercurial, lightning-quick.

"You're awesome," Dylan told her, and kissed her again, her jaw softly tickled by the new bead that marked him as hers.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Guess I'll post this here too.

Cymru - Chapter 44


"Goodness, what a loud bell!" Mental Uncle Dara boomed, inexplicably louder than the loud bell. "Why's it ringing?"

"I have no idea, Uncle," Gwilym said, urgency mingling with the sort of frustration that was making him want to punch someone out. "But it's a border klaxon. Usually they precede Saxon attacks, so if it's going -"

"There're no Saxons here, lad!" Mental Uncle Dara said cheerfully, patting him on the shoulder. "We're in the air!"

"Yes," Gwilym said, trying his hardest not to shout. "So if it's ringing it must be important, Uncle, so come on."

"These Riders will handle it, surely?" Clíodhna sniffed, her voice supercillious even when just making a pertinent contribution to a conversation. Gwilym shuddered involuntarily. "They pride themselves on being such expert fighters, and the place is crawling with them."

"They aren't fleas, Elder," Lorcan muttered from Uncle Dara's other side. Aunt Clíodhna didn't hear him.

"Yes, probably," Gwilym said, tugging futilely on Mental Uncle Dara's arm as the man started ambling towards the theatre's stage. "Except the klaxon is still going, so they've not sorted it yet, now let's go, Uncle."

"Oh, come along, Dara," Clíodhna said impatiently, turning and marching back to the double doors they'd entered by. "I wanted lunch, anyway. We'll come back later, stop making such a fuss."

"Shame she's Elder and I'm King," Mental Uncle Dara said in a situationally appropriate stage whisper that inappropriately meant Clíodhna could easily hear him. "I'm much more fun. She's a sour old crone, eh? Coming, Clíodhna!"

"It's a small miracle she hasn't had you assassinated yet," Gwilym said evenly, steering Mental Uncle Dara as he finally turned and followed Clíodhna. Lorcan gave him a look of grim agreement across his chest. "Now. We're going to go back to your quarters as fast as possible, okay? And then -"

"This door is locked," Aunt Clíodhna said in tones of such icy venom Gwilym was astonished said offending door hadn't melted. "This was not the case when we arrived."

"I'll have a go!" Mental Uncle Dara said cheerfully, and ran at the door. Gwilym exchanged a look with Lorcan.

"Would they have locked us in to keep us safe in here?" Lorcan asked quietly. "If they're all running around it could be the quickest way to keep us out of trouble."

"Possibly," Gwilym said slowly, scanning the room. "But I'd expect one to lean their head around the door and tell us to stay put in that case."

"Might not have had time," Lorcan suggested, but he sounded doubtful. "Any luck, Dad?"

"No," Clíodhna said coldly. "But he's nonetheless enjoying the repetitive futility of collision. I sincerely hope your reign will be better, Lorcan."

"There are side doors," Gwilym said, starting back down the isle towards the stage. "We can try those and -"

He froze, staring at the stage. It must have been the klaxon, he thought. It was loud in the accoustics of the theatre, filling the room with its desperate wail and drowning out all other sounds. Combined with the heavy thuds of Mental Uncle Dara making contact with the door, it must have masked the sound of metal impacting on wood.

An arrow sat quivering in the front of the stage, the shaft embedded in the wood by several inches. A series of barbs ran down it, promising severe complications for anyone who survived its initial introduction. The fletching was a sickeningly familiar pattern of white and black feathers. Gwilym knew that pattern. He'd seen that pattern before.

He tore his eyes away, following the angle of the arrow up to the balconies above them. There was no one there.

"That wasn't there before," Lorcan said sharply beside him. Gwilym glanced briefly at him.

"No," he said calmly. He turned, quickly making his way back to the Adults. "It's a message. We need to get out of here, right now."

"If they did that they could hit us," Lorcan said apprehensively, following. "Why haven't they? We can't see into those balconies, we're easy targets."

"He's playing with us," Gwilym said grimly, grabbing an arm each of Mental Uncle Dara and Aunt Clíodhna. "But the longer he does so the more likely we are to be found and saved, so we're going to play along. Come on. Side doors, let's find an open one."

"Who is it?" Lorcan muttered, looking up at the balconies. Gratifyingly, Mental Uncle Dara actually came away from the main doors obediently, although given how many assassination attempts he had survived he probably was capable of being serious when under direct threat. That, and he was mildly dazed.

"Our rogue Rider," Gwilym said, surprised by how firmly calm he was sounding. "Looks like, anyway. Although I have no idea how. Try that door, Uncle, I'll look at this one down here."

"Why you?" Lorcan asked nervously, skipping on ahead down the side to the door and twisting the handle. It didn't budge. "Why does he want you dead?"

"Oh, I told you!" Gwilym said with forced cheer. "Because of my pervasive influence, remember? And I'm in love with his Wingleader, I suppose."

He reached the end door and it swung open to his touch. They were being herded, then. Really, Gwilym wasn't surprised. From his limited knowledge of Owain, he was a lad who liked to have his say. There would probably be a full list of crimes explained to Gwilym before his death this time, possibly with diagrams.

"This way," he called up to Aunt Clíodhna and Mental Uncle Dara. "Quickly."

"Where does it lead?" Lorcan asked, peering into the narrow corridor beyond. "It looks like a servant's passage."

"It is," Gwilym said, stepping through as the Adults caught up. "And I don't know," he added, exercising some Homeric last-first ordering. "But if it is for servants to use, then I imagine to somewhere like the kitchens."

"Oh gods, let's leave Dad here then," Lorcan muttered as they started through. "I'd rather take my chances."

The corridor was well-lit with sunpipes. The klaxon was softer here away from the theatre's sound trap, which meant that as they reached and rounded the first corner the sound of the door they'd left behind slamming shut echoed easily back to them, making them all freeze and look back. Clíodhna looked livid.

"This is ridiculous," she hissed. Lorcan shuddered. "We are not some young man's playthings!"

"That's okay," Gwilym said before his brain could catch up. "He's thirty-four, it's a professional thing."

And then his brain caught up and screamed, and then Clíodhna turned to him, her eyes like lasers, and then he was saved by the last person he expected.

"Yes, it is," the voice said, quietly mocking, echoing around the bend in the passage. Gwilym narrowed his eyes. He sounded less oily out of a formal situation, but there was still an unpleasant quality to Owain's voice, made hard by the cold amusement it now contained. And the accent jarred, thick as overcooked porridge and blunting the words. Funny how it sounded so fluid on Awen, and so turgid on Owain.

Gwilym turned, and calmly walked on down the passage, pulling Lorcan after him.

"So do you want them as well, or can I leave them in a doorway safe in the knowledge that you'll leave them alone?" he asked evenly. The laugh was short and clipped, a bark of sound.

"What do you think, Sovereign?" Owain said contemptuously. Gwilym nodded to himself. Well, he hadn't expected anything else. The question, then, was how long they were meant to carry on moving - as quiet places to kill people uninterrupted went, this passageway was pretty good.

"Okay," Gwilym said, absently trying a door as they passed it. It was locked. Lorcan looked skittish. "Are we heading anywhere specific?"

"Yes, actually," Owain said, the smile audible. "But I won't spoil the surprise. Just keep going. You won't miss it."

"I feel I should congratulate you, actually," Gwilym said. Another door; locked again. "Given that you haven't been here and the entire Union is looking for you, this is well-planned."

"Thank you, Sovereign," Owain's voice said with mock-modesty. "Tactical thinking has always been one of my best skills."

"So I see," Gwilym said thoughtfully. The passage curved again. "Presumably, though, you couldn't have locked all of these yourself?"

"Well done," Owain said condescendingly. "No. But I know the Union like the back of my hand. This area is barely used during Archwiliadau. And where we're going has been scheduled for renovation. It's closed off."

"Well, he's thorough," Mental Uncle Dara boomed approvingly. "Have to give him that!"

"What if we run?" Lorcan muttered, hiding the words under the muted wail of the klaxon. "Even if we get to the renovated bit, someone might hear us."

"No," Gwilym said quietly. "If we act like prey he'll act like a predator. It's his game."

"Gods," Lorcan breathed, and ran a hand through his hair. "It's funny. We heard there was a rogue Rider, and we were just astonished it could happen. I didn't think of how dangerous he'd be."

"Nothing to lose," Gwilym murmured. "He's a dead man walking, and he will not die quickly. This is his swansong. Partly why he's enjoying it, I should think."

The passage turned another bend and widened for a few metres before ending at a set of double doors. Gwilym paused, looking at them. Objectively he knew he was no safer there in the passageway than through the doors in wherever Owain was aiming to put them, but psychologically that door was suddenly the gate to Annwfn. Was this what Riders went through, Gwilym wondered abstractly. Did they face this when they went into battle? Did they ever fear getting onto that meraden, heading straight into the swords and the blood? Was Owain afraid now? He knew exactly what was in store for him now. Gwilym couldn't even imagine it.

"The double doors?" he asked.

"The double doors," Owain answered, cold and cruel. "And close them behind you. Hurry now. You don't want me catching up."

"No," Gwilym said, more or less to himself. He stepped forward, heart thudding in his ears, and opened the doors.

Which was sort of anti-climactic. In Gwilym's head his subconscious had been absolutely certain a comically large axe was going to sail at his head from the doorways, or flames would pour forth, or there would be a massive pit of spikes with an outline of a human being chalked in for him to land on. Astonishingly, none of these things happened.

Instead he stepped out into a rundown courtyard, open to the sun above and surrounded by several floors on all sides. The passages on the same level as the courtyard were visible through narrow, glassless windows that had been roughly boarded off, the doors opposite firmly shut and probably locked. The next floor up was a balcony level with a verranda, probably earmarked to have a proper balcony rail put in, and the gutter pipes above it had been taken out of their brackets above to hang at about waist-height. The walls above that were sheer.

It was strangely peaceful, given that it was a prison. The sunlight was gentle, warming the flagstones beneath Gwilym's feet and illuminating the old washing lines strung across the courtyard, suggesting it had been a laundry yard. Some hopeful plants were growing here and there between stones, a cheerful green against the grey. The klaxon was quieter again, a background noise now, the sound of the lock turning behind them a mortiferous undernote. Mental Uncle Dara sighed happily and wandered over to a sprig of fireweed waving in the soft breeze, ignoring Aunt Clíodhna's scything glare.

"Calmly," Gwilym said to Lorcan quietly, "make your way around the edge, see if there's any gap you might fit through. Don't make any sudden movements. Take the others."

Lorcan nodded and went, followed after a few seconds of Clíodhna's hellish whispering by her and Mental Uncle Dara. Gwilym watched them, trying to steady his nerves. If he was right, then any second now...

"I suppose I should congratulate you back, Sovereign," Owain said. Gwilym looked up. He was, with tedious predictability, standing up on the balcony six feet above them, leaning against a pillar and looking down with a particularly powerful-looking bow in his hands, held down at the moment but with an arrow already clipped onto the undrawn string. His gaze as he watched Gwilym was frankly terrifying. Gwilym had seen cats look at birds like that. It was the unwavering stare of a predator, absorbing every move.

"Why's that?" Gwilym asked neutrally. Owain smiled, cocking his head to one side in an unconscious imitation of Awen.

"I thought you'd panic," he said lazily, running a thumb casually through the fletching on the arrow. "But you've taken it well enough so far. That's so much less fun, of course."

And that was a cliched sentence. Adara had complained about Owain's speech. Gwilym chose not to mention it.

"There is that," he said instead, and sighed. "Sorry, though. I'm terrible at subtlety, I keep telling people. Why do you want to see me as a corpse?"

Owain snorted, his smile of condescension and hatred.

"Because I was right, Sovereign," he said. "Again. You've got a golden tongue, haven't you? Like your father."

"My father?" Gwilym blinked. "Hardly."

"Power in the people's hands," Owain said, his voice almost sing-song in its disdain. "That was his idea, wasn't it? He gave it to Marged to push, of course, because she's retarded. The ideal scapegoat. But he'd have managed it. Anarchy, for him to step in and claim."

"Democracy," Gwilym said carefully. Owain raised an eyebrow.

"What?" he said. Gwilym took a steadying breath.

"It's democracy," he said. "Not anarchy. I've studied it. The Greeks practise it, it's not a trick system. It works. Although to be fair, I doubt Dad realised it already existed. He was proposing it slightly differently."

"I knew it," Owain grinned. "Clever with words, there, aren't you? I knew you'd champion it. And drop the pretense, Sovereign. We both know it 'works' only for you. I know what Aberystwyth's economic set-up is like, and you've declared no changes for this Archwiliad. Do you like having purple silk sheets?"

"Right," Gwilym said, suddenly fighting the mad and insanely foolish urge to giggle. "Your politics are a few days out of date. I've overhauled the entire budget. I had to have a special meeting with all the Alpha Wingleaders and everything."

"Oh yes," Owain said, deeply sarcastically. "Oh, I'll just believe that, shall I? While I've got this big bow?"

"Obviously, I can't make you," Gwilym said, smiling slightly. "But since this is a big basis for you killing me you're going to feel bad afterwards when you learn I was right."

Owain's grin was almost a leer.

"Oh, Sovereign," he said, amused. "I've never felt bad about about killing anyone in my entire life."

"No," Gwilym smiled. "No, I imagine you haven't. Can I be honest with you?"

"Haven't you been so far?" Owain asked softly, with fake shock. Gwilym fought his eyes not to roll.

"Yes," he said. "But I'm changing topic slightly."

"Oh, well," Owain said, amused. "Go right ahead, Sovereign."

"I don't believe you," Gwilym said.

There was a silence, although it failed to be actually Silent on account of the klaxon. Owain watched him.

"Really," he said at last. "About what?"

"If that was why you wanted me dead in Aberystwyth you'd have done it properly," Gwilym shrugged. "You're a clever man, and the gods only know you're a good killer. But you sent a coerced fourteen-year-old to try in front of everyone, including your Wingleader. I don't know what you were actually planning, but... it wasn't me. I wasn't the point. Why am I now?"

"Oh, every word you say just proves me right further," Owain said gleefully. "But no, you're correct. I didn't realise in Aberystwyth just how right I was. I didn't prioritise you. I see now I should have."

"Why?" Gwilym asked. "Why now, specifically? What's changed?"

"So much," Owain smiled smugly, shaking his head. "Where to start? Well - how about: what are your intentions towards my Wingleader, Sovereign?"

"Union sanctioned," Gwilym said evenly, and completely owned the argument for a moment. "By Councillor Rhydian. Although I was as surprised as you."

Owain stared at him, his eyes narrowed, lip curling slightly. His fingers twitched on the bow string, and Gwilym found himself looking at them, adrenaline squeezing his heart.

"Right," Owain said after a moment, his voice near loathing. "Yes, I'm sure you were astonished. And how does she feel about you, hmm?"

And Gwilym could see the path this part of the conversation was going to take. He sighed.

"You'd have to ask her," he said carefully, but Owain wasn't satisfied.

"Would I?" he asked, his smile bitter. "Adara seemed to think it was fairly clear."

"There's definitely a sexual attraction," Gwilym shrugged. "Are you going to accuse me of manipulating her into -?"

"Of course you did," Owain said contemptuously. "Awen is a Rider, Sovereign. She doesn't go around jumping into bed with Sovereigns. And while it's pleased you to subvert her, you have no idea - no idea - of what the Union will do to her if they find out."

"They already have," Gwilym said mildly. "They sanctioned it. I wasn't lying. But I imagine you consider that to be evidence of my pervasive sway over the Council as well?"

"They can't see it," Owain said disdainfully, shaking his head. "But I do. And that's the thing about Riders, Sovereign. We do what has to be done."

"I've had that impression," Gwilym smiled. He glanced across at Lorcan, trying to push at the boarding over one of the windows, helped by Mental Uncle Dara and hindered by Aunt Clíodhna's general presense. "That's still not all, though, is it? Why kill them? They -"

"I knew it!" Owain crowed. "Adara never could keep her mouth shut! I knew you knew. That's why you went for Awen, isn't it? To make her tell you!"

Gwilym stared blankly.

"Sorry, you've lost me," he said. Owain's snort was contemptuous, his eyes alive.

"Like hell," he grinned, the malice lighting up his face. "Behind the mirror and in the safe. She found everything from both. And she's told you, hasn't she? The one person who mustn't find out!"

I'm sorry.

"Told me what?" Gwilym asked, the world crystallising around him.

I want you to take this and look after it. Don't tell anyone about it, don't let anyone find out, don't let it out of your sight.

"This isn't your game to play anymore, Sovereign," Owain grinned, shifting the bow up, not quite taking aim yet. "Don't lie to me."

You need to keep it on you at all times, and I mean all times - when you sleep included. It cannot leave you.

"She told you," Owain repeated. "And you must have told those three, I'm not stupid. But that knowledge can't go any further. It could never even reach you, so now it has... Don't lie to me. She told you, didn't she?"

And if anyone -anyone - asks you for it who isn't me, you deny all knowledge. Do you understand?

"No," Gwilym said, staring at the arrow head. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Liar," Owain grinned, eyes bright. He aimed, pulling back the bow string with one muscled arm, the motion smooth. "A politician who lies, eh? Who'd have thought it?"

Whatever happens, it won't be fair on you.

I'm sorry.

"Tell her something for me?" Gwilym asked softly, his eyes fixed on the arrow. Owain jerked his head in a nod once.

"Go on," he said, the lazy cruelty rich in his voice.

"Tell her I never blamed her," he said simply. "And I never will."

Owain smiled.

"No," he said.

And he let go of the bow string.

And the plank of wood sailed through the air in front of Gwilym, smashing into the arrow and splitting.

And the arrow whipped past his ear, close enough that the fletching brushed his earlobe, the scream of the air being torn all he could hear.

And someone collided with Owain, knocking them both clean off the balcony, but he twisted as he fell to land on his back, the second person rolling off and landing nimbly in a crouch -

"Run," Awen snarled, watching Owain as he snapped into a similar pose. Gwilym blinked.

"Will do," he said, and fled to his family members. Lorcan was staring at him, wide-eyed.

"I thought he'd hit you," he said hoarsely as Gwilym grabbed a board with Mental Uncle Dara and hauled on it. "It looked like - are you okay?"

"Great," Gwilym managed as the board failed to move. Mental Uncle Dara growled frustratedly and punched it. "Any luck with any of these?"

"None!" Mental Uncle Dara said angrily. "Not one, lad! Shocking!"

"Well, hopefully more people will be on the way," Gwilym said, looking around restlessly. The adrenaline had his heart hammering in his chest and ears, making him want to move. "The doors? How strong is the lock?"

"Supremely," Aunt Clíodhna said, in the tones of one who wished to burn down every door she encountered for the rest of her life to make up for the inconvenience. "Although perhaps Dara could fling himself against it a few times. That always works so well."

"It's worth a try!" Dara said brightly, and did just that. Gwilym spun around to see the fight.

"Good gods," Lorcan breathed, and Gwilym had to agree.

He'd never seen anything like it. Probably no one had. It was rare enough to get to see Riders even sparring, rarer again to see one genuinely fight. But this was two fully-grown, fully-trained Riders fighting with every ounce of skill and ability they had. He'd never seen anything more dangerous in his entire life, even including the arrow that twenty seconds ago had been aimed at him. It was like the perfect predator, the perfect hunter, the perfect killer, all condensed down and molded into human shape, something primal and raw given the face of civilisation. Gwilym stared at them. They fought Saxons, he thought. This was what the Saxons saw. And still the Saxons came.

"You could rule the world so easily, you know," Lorcan said, the horrified awe written large across his face and in his voice. "Look at them, Gwilym. These people swear themselves to you."

"Certainly," Gwilym managed, "that's what Flyn thinks."

People were shouting on the other side of the door, but Gwilym didn't listen. He just watched. Awen fought in silence, those blades she had flashing in and out so quickly he could barely keep up, Owain already covered in several regrettably-shallow slices from them around his face and shoulders. She had so much grace, Gwilym thought. Even here, now, giving herself over entirely to the battle, her movements were so elegant, so lithe, so beautiful. And so terrifying. This was the part of herself that she would never have shown him otherwise, Gwilym reflected. The charm, the wit, the compassion all gone, just beauty combined with terror.

"That's her, isn't it?" Lorcan said. "You're in love with her?"

"Yes," Gwilym said.

"Which is entirely inappropriate, of course," a voice said unpleasantly, and Councillor Eifion appeared beside him, his aged face watching the battle like a connoisseur. "You were only sanctioned to have a relationship with her as I recall, Sovereign."

"Which I don't," Gwilym said sharply. "And my feelings towards her aren't something anyone can control, Councillor, particularly including her."

"A fair point," Councillor Eifion smiled nastily. Gwilym looked around. Three Guard Riders had arrived also and were spreading out, carefully surrounding Awen and Owain, while the echo of footsteps suggested a lot more were now on the way. He glanced at Councillor Eifion.

"Why aren't they helping?" he asked, nodding to the new Riders. "It strikes me that if Awen has some help this would be over in seconds."

"We can't risk it," Eifion said. "Leader Awen is volatile in the extreme anyway these days, and is, at the present moment in time, entirely out of control. She will snap out of it once he falls, or perhaps once she does. Until then, she'd attack the reinforcements."

It was strange, but she didn't look out of control. She just didn't look human anymore either. As they watched she dodged a punch from him by twisting her body nimbly out of the way, lightning-fast, and brought her elbow into play against the back of Owain's head; he stumbled slightly downwards and she slammed her knee into his nose, the crack of breaking bone bouncing around the courtyard. It made him automatically recoil and Awen punched him across the face, throwing him back a few steps; she sprang after him, that inhuman grace dodging her out of the way of his leg as he went for a kick to the stomach and she swept down the wristblade, but Owain just managed to withdraw, the blade drawing only across his shinbone -

At which point, with speed that made Gwilym's eyes blur to watch, Awen leapt forward and smashed her elbow into Owain's throat. He doubled over, gasping for breath and she kicked the back of his knee, dropping him to the floor -

He hadn't quite made it down when Awen's knee, shin and foot all slammed into Owain's face again in quick succession, hurling him over backwards and against the wall. Councillor Eifion smiled and started forward as Owain rolled onto his elbows, fighting to breathe still, and Awen dropped to one knee beside him, seized his hair in one hand and drove his head, face-first, into the wall. Gwilym winced. That was a brutal way to end a fight, he reflected. There really wouldn't be much left of Owain's face now, and he hadn't been much to look at anyway -

She did it again. And again. Eifion sped up towards her and suddenly Gwilym could feel himself going on alert, starting towards them.

"Stand down, Leader," Eifion barked. Clearly, he was expecting Awen to leap away with all due fear and deference; but it didn't happen. She did it again, her fingers twisting in Owain's hair.

"Leader Awen," Eifion snarled, and in the stupidest move Gwilym had ever seen he grabbed hold of Awen himself, one hand in her hair, the other gripping and twisting her right wrist up behind her back, and he slammed her against the wall. "I said to stand down."

"Councillor," Awen managed, her voice tight. Gwilym sped up. "Stop -"

"You three, get him out of here," Eifion ordered, jerking his head at the unconscious Owain. Awen's left hand hit the wall beside her head, her fingers clutching vainly at the stone work. "And you, Leader -"

"Please let go," Awen begged him desperately, and here was the other side Gwilym hadn't expected to see: Awen being scared. Her hand kept clenching into a fist on the wall, her body almost convulsing it was twitching so badly. Gwilym jumped over the fallen Owain. "Don't -"

"Shut up," Eifion ordered. "That was twice I told you -"

How he got there in time Gwilym never knew. Fortunately he was already pulling Eifion back with one hand, so as Awen's elbow whipped back he was just out of range. Unfortunately, that meant that her arm kept going through its extension, Eifion leaping back -

- and Gwilym caught Awen's forearm just as the wristblade shot out of its mechanism, holding her arm so the blade finished beside the Councillor's throat rather than in it.

There was a loaded pause, and then Awen slowly sank to her knees. Gwilym didn't let go. Right now, right at this moment, the forces of nature themselves could not have prised his hand from her body.

Eifion watched her, his eyes filled with disbelieving delight.

"Well," he began, not even bothering to contain his glee, and Gwilym overrode him as harshly as he could.

"Are you insane, Councillor?" he snarled. Eifion blinked and took a step back. "Have you completely lost your mind? She can't be touched right now! What in creation made you think that after almost fighting her own Deputy to the death she'd be fine for you to assault?"

"I rather thought she'd have more self-preservation, Sovereign," Councillor Eifion said, fixing his grey eyes on Awen again covetously. Clearly, he felt he'd finally discovered his birthday. "I think you'd best come with me, hadn't you, Leader?"

"For what?" Gwilym asked bluntly. Beside him Awen had sunk almost as far as her free elbow, apparently only prevented from cowering far enough to touch her face to the floor by Gwilym holding her other arm. Eifion didn't even look at him.

"What do we think, Leader?" he asked, his eyes almost dancing. "Armed assault or attempted murder? But of a Councillor... well. Makes no difference, does it? That's a strict regimen of torture and abuse -"

"She told you to back off!" Gwilym snapped. Shouted, actually. Quite loudly. Really, there were only so many times you could face death before you started getting a might bit testy about the shoddy treatment of those who bothered to save you from it. "You were told! And being as you admitted yourself that she wasn't in control, in what possible way can you now blame her for an incident you instigated?"

"Quite right!" Councillor Gwenllian's voice said with tremendous cheer. Eifion straightened suddenly, his expression going blank. Gwilym switched hands on Awen's arm and dropped the other to her shoulder, feeling the tension in it. "He can't. And he's not - we test them on their willpower and ability to say no to unreasonable orders occasionally, but you've ruined it now, boy, so never mind."

Awen trembled under his hands, and Gwilym carefully pressed his thumb along the muscle between her shoulder and neck. She twitched and went still.

"Ah, all sorted," Rhydian said, striding up to them. Gwilym looked up. Suddenly there were Riders everywhere, all wandering around and looking angry and grave. Dylan had an arm around an incredibly tired-looking Aerona in the corner, holding her upright and talking rapidly to an incensed-looking Madog, while various members of Casnewydd's Alpha Wing were gravitating forwards, watched carefully by Councillors. Some Guards pulled Owain away.

"Anyway, Eifion, we need a meeting in ten minutes in my office," Rhydian was saying. "Could you make sure Owain is securely imprisoned and still breathing and then meet us there?"

"Certainly," Eifion smiled, and swept out. Riders drew back from him, Gwilym noted. The predators gave him a wide berth. It was almost incredible. Rhydian watched him go, and then nodded grimly to Gwilym.

"Well done," he muttered, and then returned his voice to normal. "And, Sovereign, you have our sincerest apologies for Owain trying to assassinate you again. Rest assured we'll evicerate him this time."

"You can even watch!" Gwenllian said brightly. Gwilym sighed.

"That's fine," he said wearily. "Can I sort Awen out now, please, or is this too public?"

"Go right ahead," Rhydian said, eyeing up Dylan. "I need to go and find out how that happened, anyway. If you'll excuse me?"

"Are you okay?"

Gwilym looked down as Awen sagged against him, her free hand wrapping around his ankle. She was looking up at him wearily, the concern evident on her face; and he managed to turn the hysterical laugh into a chuckle before dropping down to his knees beside her and gathering her into his arms.

"Yes," he grinned, belatedly realising he was shaking. "I'm shaking. I think it's the adrenaline. More importantly; are you injured?"

"I don't know yet," she said quietly, clinging to him. "I won't for a while. And - I'm sorry. I'm -"

"Don't ever apologise to me for him," Gwilym told her sternly, massaging the muscles at the base of her neck. "Not ever."

"I know why he went for you," Awen breathed, her hand clutching his tunic over the Now More Mysterious Letter. "I'm - I should never have -"

"Reason Number 1 for Owain wanting to kill me," Gwilym interrupted. "Because I'm not changing the Aberystwyth budget this year."

There was a pause.

"What?" Awen asked, sounding lost. Gwilym kissed her head, wanting to giggle again.

"Yeah," he said. "You heard. It doesn't matter, Awen. He's believing what he wants to. If you hadn't given me that he'd have believed you had anyway. He only got it right by coincidence."

Awen hugged him, tightly enough that she seemed to want to affectionately break his ribs, but Gwilym didn't care. It was the first time she'd displayed any affection for him without him instigating it. He stroked her hair contentedly.

"Thank you," she said, her voice strengthening. Gwilym smiled.

"Ah," he said. "Putting the armour back on, are we? Want to go back to your quarters? Your Wing are here."

"Yes," Awen said, giving him the smile of a carefree non-traumatised young woman and rolling gracefully to her feet, offering him a hand up. "Although first I - it's fine, I'm not injured -"

"We have no way of knowing that yet," Adara snapped. She stood maybe half a foot away from Awen, Caradog holding her back with one hand on her shoulder, both looking upset as the rest of the Wing started to gather round. Gwilym stood up with considerably less grace than Awen. "I swear, I don't know how he did it. We'd given him to the Guards when... I'm sorry."

"Stop it."

And that was Awen Giving A Command, Gwilym noted. It was oddly exciting getting to see this many sides of her. She gripped Adara's shoulders with both hands, looking her straight in the eye.

"He had help," Awen stated. "And from a druid. You couldn't possibly have known. And anyway, if you'd handed custody over then it definitely wasn't your fault anymore, okay? Sounding the alarm was the best thing to do, and you managed that before he could get away."

"Yeah." Adara sighed, tired. "Well done for not killing him. I was going to, if I caught him first."

"I was stopped," Awen said, slightly abashed, and glanced at Gwilym for some reason. "Anyway; what happened to Aerona, and how long has her and Dylan been going on?"

"Ooh, Aerona and Dylan?" Caradog asked interestedly, looking over at them. "How can you tell?"

"He's looking at her," Awen smiled. "He never looks at anything in particular. Look, he'll do it now..."

They all turned to watch expectantly, including Gwilym. Across the courtyard Dylan was explaining something to Rhydian, his eyes wandering across the wall opposite him. Rhydian asked a question which Aerona answered, and Dylan looked down at her, his eyes fixing for a good four seconds.

"Awww," they all said, and then turned back to the matter in hand.

"Since the day before yesterday technically," Adara grinned. "But I reckon it was since fighting together in the temple. Oh, and in answer to why she's bandaged, Owain smashed her head against a stone floor a few times. They had to drill through her skull. It was really disgusting. And Dylan was a tiny step away from growing fangs."

"Oh, for gods' sakes," Awen muttered, running a hand through her hair. Gwilym reached out and rested a hand on the small of her back, and she leaned into it slightly. "Her Wingleader is genuinely going to behead me. She should be in bed, why isn't she?"

"I imagine Dylan will take her there," Caradog grinned, the back-handed swat from Adara bouncing off his arm, ignored. Gwilym wondered if he even had nerve endings left near his skin, or if the muscle had simply out grown them. "She'll be fine, Leader. We need to check you over, though."

"And Lord Gwilym," Llio threw in inclusively, and suddenly they were all looking at him. "He might be injured."

"Oh, I'm fine!" he said cheerfully. "He didn't actually touch me, he just talked a lot."

Awen was nonetheless running her eyes down his body now, though, which Gwilym was quite content to let her do. Adara rolled her eyes and snorted.

"When you say 'talk'," she said derisively, "do you mean 'whinge'?"

"There -" Gwilym paused. "There was a whingy edge, actually, yes. Oh, and you were right - he really does talk in clichés."

"Oh, gods, he did that all the time," Llŷr muttered. "My favourite was 'Do you really want to know?' after asking him a question. Yes, Owain. Yes I did. I wasn't just looking for any excuse to hear your honeyed voice."

"Oh, well now I feel left out that he didn't use that one on me," Gwilym grinned, pulling Awen back into his arms again while she meticulously examined one of his hands, as though she suspected he might have tried slapping Owain a few times. The Wing beamed at the contact. "And I asked him several questions. He did tell me that I was spoiling his psychotic fun by not running around panicking and rebounding off walls and such, though, is that any good?"

"I swear to you, Sovereign," Adara told him gravely. "As soon as I'm allowed near him I will make it very clear that he shan't be spoiling my fun by not screaming."

"That's as generous as it is unsettling," he told her brightly. "Thank you!"

It was quite sweet in its own way. And suddenly, Gwilym was aware of the behaviour shift; they were saying 'Sovereign', still, but they were enfolding him into the Wing dynamic, as though he'd become their inept tenth member they had to look after. Adara was sticking up for him against Owain, Llio wanted him there for the after-battle social interaction - clearly an important part of Rider relationships - and Awen had started distrusting his word for his physical well-being, as she would for any of the others. And she'd completely lost control with Owain in Gwilym's defence.

It was a shame he couldn't even hold a butter knife the right way around, therefore.

"Will we get to torture him?" Meurig asked lazily, stretching. "Owain, obviously, not you, Sovereign."

"He's clarifying because he wants to climb your ladder of favourites," Llio grinned, but fortunately Awen interrupted.

"We are not going any further into that conversation," she said sternly. "Not least of all because Caradog would clearly lose. And I don't know, Meurig, we might."

"Hey!" Caradog boomed indignantly. "I wouldn't lose! I'm too winning and attractive!"

"That's what I used to tell people about me," Councillor Rhydian said, striding over. "They didn't believe me, though. Right, get out, all of you, take care of those two," he pointed at Gwilym and Awen, "and then I'll see you in my office in two hours, Leader."

"Thank you for saving my life again," Gwilym said quietly as they started trudging back to the Wing quarters. Awen made an exasperated noise in the back of her throat and gave him a look that succinctly explained his insanity.

"That's why I'm here, Sovereign," she said. "It's my job. You don't need to thank me for that."

"For saving my life," Gwilym laughed, throwing an arm around her shoulders. "Of course I do. I love being alive, and I was raised to be polite-like. I'll understand if you're regretting it, though."

"And you say I'm the messed-up one," Awen muttered, ignoring his laugh. "No I'm not regretting it, you weirdo. I'm just still utterly failing to understand you in any way."

"We'll work on that," Gwilym promised contentedly, ignoring her sad but-you'll-hate-me-when-you-read-it look and rubbing her shoulder with his thumb. "I think it's time we had another chat, isn't it?"

The future was looking up, Gwilym decided. Admittedly it could have been the endorphin rush of being alive, but things just generally seemed more positive. Now he just had to negotiate an Archwiliad filled with scheming Sovereigns and he was sitting pretty.

Well; and he had to keep Mental Uncle Dara from pushing anyone else into a grain bin again. That bit was going to be hard.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Cymru - Chapter 43


It hurt, her head increasingly agonising, and she was so tired. She couldn't see anymore, hadn't for a while - shapes flickered past occasionally, but they hurt her eyes, so she closed them. She couldn't hear Dylan anymore, either. She couldn't focus. She couldn't... the world was black...

She drifted, weightless and content.

It hurt, the pain getting stronger -

"You're alive!" Dylan's voice said brightly; but it still hurt too much, and she was tired, so she went back to sleep, letting herself drift. It was warm this time, and comfortable. She was content again.

The pain returned, a dull, throbbing agony that slowly grew -

"You're awake!" Dylan's voice trilled, and something small and white swam in front of her; she reached out for it, caught it -

She drifted, happy.

Coherence returned with the pain the third time, although it also hurt so much less Aerona wondered why she'd made such a fuss in the first place. She had a head ache. That was all.

"Right," Dylan said testily as her eyes flickered open. "Fall asleep again, chicken, and I'll thump you. Are you with us, now?"

"Yes?" Aerona suggested. Her voice cracked slightly.

"Excellent," Dylan said. "In that case: you're awake!"

She looked around, blinking at the sunlight. The last thing she remembered was Dylan talking about Trallwng, so she assumed this was it. The room she was in was a comfortingly minimalist Rider bedroom, though, so it could have been anywhere. She wondered what day it was.

"My head aches," Aerona said, starting to sit up, and suddenly Dylan was sitting on the bed beside her, both hands forcing her shoulders firmly back down to the mattress. She didn't bother to resist. "What? It's fine."

"Is not," Dylan declared. "You know when our boy Owain beat you about the head a few times?"

"Yes," Aerona winced sorrowfully, taking a mental inventory. The rest of her seemed fine, actually; her neck and ribs were stinging slightly, and she had the head ache, but otherwise she seemed intact. And -

Oh. There was a thick bandage around her head. That wasn't normal for concussions. Dylan's fingers caught her beads and twirled them subconsciously. He'd been worried, clearly.

"Well," he said theatrically. "He hit an important bit! So then there was fluid building up between your brain and skull, so the druids had to drill in to relieve the pressure, and then they took all night chanting and that to get you to this point. They said you'd be fine if you woke up. And then you woke up three times, so you'll probably have some sort of super recovery."

"I don't think it works like that," Aerona started, giggling, and then broke off wincing. "Ow. Laughing hurts."

"That's what Madog says. I think it's his excuse for never doing it."

"How long's it been?" Aerona asked, grinning. Dylan stretched, his eyes scanning the wall above her head.

"Just last night," he said indifferently. He looked tired. "Now they're sorting out Owain's head injury under Adara's watchful eye, and then once he's sorted we're going back to the Union to join in the wild parties they're no doubt having without us. Oh, and we've sent a carriage to fetch Breguswid and her little Saxon friends, and we put Eanfled the mystic daughter in it, although I don't think she's as mystic as all that, you know."

"Why's she mystic?" Aerona asked, trying not to giggle. Dylan clicked his fingers theatrically.

"Oh yeah," he said. "That was during the Concussion Era. Never mind."

"Hang on," Aerona said, her brain catching up with her. "You said - you said the druids are only looking at Owain now?"

"He wasn't as badly injured as you," Dylan said easily. "So we -"

"But he's important!" Aerona said, horrified. "We need him! What if -?"

"You're more important," Dylan interrupted, his voice hard. His eyes whipped around to hers, fixing on and holding, his demeanour suddenly that of a commander on a battlefield. "I wasn't losing you for the sake of that colossal bell-end. And anyway, as I was just saying - your injuries were worse than his. You needed help more."

"Have you slept?" Aerona asked, noting the dark circles below his eyes. Dylan sighed, and looked up at the ceiling.

"No, Aerona," he said. "I haven't. You nearly died, actually, you loser."

He really had been worried, then. It was probably a Deputy thing, Aerona supposed sadly; he'd been in charge and nearly lost someone. Poor Dylan. She reached up and caught one set of white beads resting on his collarbone, and he closed his fingers gently around hers.

"You should sleep," she said softly, and he smiled his crooked smile at her.

"Can't," he said diffidently. "You're in the way. And anyway, our boy Owain will be done cooking soon, I should think."

"Is Adara okay?" Aerona asked tiredly. Dylan snorted.

"Yeah," he said. "We keep having to stop her from smacking our boy in the head, but otherwise she's chipper. How are you feeling, oh queen of invalids?"

"Exhausted," Aerona smiled. She pulled on the beads, dragging them steadily down to her chest. Dylan yelped, hurriedly following the movement.

"Hey!" he protested. "I'm allowed to hit you if I want! You're ruining my stern image!"

"I'm tired and so are you," Aerona mumbled cheerfully, pulling the beads to the side of the bed between her and the wall. Dylan hastily climbed over her, cursing and trying not to lean on her. "They can wake us up once they're done."

"This is mutiny, you know," Dylan grumbled, settling down beside her and draping an arm carefully over her. Aerona snorted.

"Yes Dylan," she smiled, her eyes sliding closed. "And I'm certain you've never forced Madog to take care of himself. Hush now. Sleep."

Drifting off was even more peaceful this time, like wrapping up in a blanket, or lying in the sun. She woke up gently, the pain lessened again, fingers brushing softly over her forehead. It wasn't Dylan. She knew that, because one of his arms was resting on her stomach, the other hand beside her cheek and clenched around her beads. Aerona opened her eyes, and looked up.

"Hey hey," Adara smiled gently, her voice low. "How are you feeling, sickly one?"

"Better," Aerona said happily, taking another quick inventory. "Mostly just tired, now. I think I might sleep for a day or two when we get back."

"Hibernate," Adara suggested. "Like a hedgehog. Or a bear. Owain's done, tied on and ready to go, anyway. We're ready when you are."

She was still threading her fingers through Aerona's hair, the motion incredibly relaxing. Aerona smiled.

"I'm good, I suppose," she said. "What time is it?"

"About half eleven," Adara said, glancing at the window. "Good flying weather, too. Should we leave Dylan, though? He looks so peaceful and cute, which is ironic given that he normally looks like horror."

"I hate you, your face and your mam," Dylan said, his eyes still closed. "It's not my fault a psycho druid tried to blind me. I was perfectly polite to him."

"You've never been polite to anyone in your life, you deviant," Adara said, standing up and returning her voice to full volume. "And then you crushed his hand. Aerona said it was disgusting and everything, and she's reliable."

"It was," Aerona agreed earnestly. "But, in fairness, I should really insist that it was retribution for blinding Dylan, so it probably doesn't count."

"Wins," Dylan grinned. He sat up and scrubbed a hand through the tangled mass of curls, blinking. "Alright. Let's see how you go sitting up, petal."

"I can do that," Aerona said happily, lifting herself onto her elbows. Her head ached, a sharp throb a few inches above her left ear presumably where the drill had gone, but there was no dizziness or nausea. Dylan peered at her carefully.

"Let's test," he said. "How many eyes do I have?"

"Two," Aerona giggled. Adara leaned forward.

"Let's check her memory," she said brightly. "Give the same answer, Aerona: how many IQ points does he have?"

"Count in millions," Dylan said quickly, and smirked at Adara. "Ah! Good try, pickle."

"No, Dylan," Adara said serenly, shaking her head. "You're adding your Wing members' to your own, there."

"I'm up," Aerona interrupted with a grin, sitting up fully. She could feel the warmth of Dylan's hand against her back, not quite touching but there if she fell. "I'm fine. Can we go?"

"Oh, fine," Dylan said, rolling his eyes. "Gods, you nag. Let's go. Although, when your Wingleader arrives to beat me up for letting you fly in this condition I'm going to tell him it was Adara's fault."

"Hey, what?" Adara protested, unimpressed. "You're in charge, you weirdo! That means it's your responsibility, although I recognise that's an alien concept to you."

"Didn't think I'd miss Madog," Dylan muttered, hovering as Aerona got to her feet, looking around vaguely for her uniform. "And I still don't, I hasten to add, don't tell him otherwise."

They helped her dress, slightly unnecessarily Aerona felt, but it was pleasantly companionable and so she didn't complain. Once done they went up to the Landing Tower, Aerona looking around interestedly. She'd never been to Trallwng before. The Residence seemed perfectly lovely, anyway, although it was a shame she wouldn't get to see the City properly. Maybe she could bring the children on a trip. She'd have to look into it.

The Landing Tower was much like any in the Canolbarth, but instantly Aerona could see one big difference. Their merod had been cross-tied in the middle of the isle, a knot of grim-looking Riders and druids gathered around and moving about. Owain sat on one meraden, his head neatly bandaged, arms pulled and twisted behind his back into a position that looked just the wrong side of painful, held in place with a thick coil of rope. Currently he was leaning down to one side, his head held in place by a druid feeding him from a water bottle, watched by a square-jawed Rider whose collar proclaimed her to be the Beta Wingleader. Her smile on seeing Aerona was positively relieved, which was generous given that they'd never met.

"Rider!" she smiled, Saluting them. Aerona Saluted back. "Thank gods you're okay. You had us worried! How are you feeling?"

"Good, cheers," Aerona grinned abashedly. Suddenly druids and Riders alike were smiling at her. Apparently she'd achieved celebrity status. "A headache, and I'm hungry and tired in equal measures, but I'm fine otherwise."

"Good." The Wingleader gave Dylan a wryly meaningfull look that Aerona suspected meant 'See, I told you she'd be fine' and clapped him on the shoulder. "Right. Let's get you going. I want to hear every grisly detail of his unendurably long execution as soon as possible."

"I'll write it up for you," Adara offered, springing neatly aboard her meraden. "I'll be especially sure to describe his face and the noises he makes."

A white-robed druid stepped in front of Aerona, gently placing his fingers on her temples and closing his eyes.

"Final check," he smiled. "Now, is there any dizziness, Rider? Is your vision clear?"

"No, and yes," Aerona said, feeling the sore spot on her head tingle slightly. "Am I okay to sleep later? It's all I really want to do."

"Good news, then," the druid said, the pain dulling slightly. He opened his eyes and stepped back, pulling a letter out of his robes. "Eating and sleeping are the best things you can do now. Give this to one of the healers at the Union; they can take over. But, I expect you'll be back to normal in a day or two. Rhonwen?"

The druid tending to Owain let go and stepped away, her indigo robes swirling about her bare feet. She glanced impassively at Aerona, her eyes sharp, and something somewhere in Aerona's memory rang a faint bell -

"Mount up, daffodil," Dylan said cheerfully, pulling Briallu in front of a mounting block. "Hey, if you die on the way back can I take over with those mini humans you teach?"

"Children," Aerona giggled, climbing up. Riders appeared to fasten her harness for her. "And no, certainly not. I don't think Tutoring would be your gift."

"I've a lot to teach, you know," Dylan said, hopping onto his own meraden. "I know over fifty drinking games, you know. And over a hundred blasphemous swearwords, two of which are in Saxon. Awen taught me."


It was the first thing Owain had said since they'd come in. He looked at Dylan, half-startled, half-disbelieving, blinking his obvious grogginess away. Adara snorted contemptuously.

"Yes, Owain," she said in the tone of one talking to the very stupid. "She speaks Saxon. Didn't you know?"

"Right, before this devolves," Dylan grinned, pushing his mare towards the runway. Now that Aerona looked, she saw the reins had been removed from Owain's harness; instead, two long lines extended to Dylan and Adara, anchoring him to them both. She trotted Briallu after them, throwing a final returned Salute to the gathered Riders.

"Goodbye, Trallwng," Adara said mildly, waving. "We only hated the bits that weren't your fault. We'll do this again when we don't have a cretin to handle."

"I look forward to it," the Beta Wingleader grinned. "Safe flight."

The air was warm as they flew up into it, the sun already strong. From here if she squinted she could just about make out the Union, a speck on the distant mountains. They pushed on.

"Awen speaks Saxon?" Owain said suddenly. Aerona looked around. He was staring at his meraden's neck, thinking hard. Adara shot him a look of pure venom.

"Yes," she said harshly. "So you see, Owain? You really don't know everything, just like we've always said."

"I've never claimed to," he snarled back, his eyes snapping abruptly to her face. "That was your invention, not mine."

"Claiming it and believing it are actually separate things, you stupid prick," Adara said, and Dylan burst out laughing.

"Yeah, nicely put!" he grinned. "But don't be too harsh. Now he knows she speaks Saxon, see, he's questionning all of his cunningly hidden correspondance with Flyn and Coenred, which is making him panic. And, once he's thought a bit further along that path, it's going to be the least of his massive worries."

Owain was silent. Aerona giggled. Adara's smirk was evil.

"Behind the mirror?" she asked slyly. "Was that in Saxon?"

"Some of it," Dylan said casually. "Thing is, though, back me up Aerona, our boy here thought it was only him who could speak any, see? And therefore, he thought it was only him who was special."

"Oh," Aerona said, with dawning realisation. "Yes, you're right. It's his idea of thinking he's better than everyone, and that no one else could possible handle what he's been doing, remember?"

"I remember," Adara said, a pointed glance at Owain.

"Fuck you," Owain muttered softly. Aerona carried on.

"He thought only he could help Flyn nobly tame the Saxons," Aerona carried on. "And therefore was a better Rider than Awen. But if not..."

"It was still only me." Owain's voice was low, and vicious. "It still is. Don't flatter yourselves. We've spent centuries just defending ourselves from them, hundreds and hundreds of years of letting them attack because we're too weak to take the bloody initiative. Lord Flyn's plan will finally stop that. But it needed a Rider who could think outside the bloody box, and that hardly describes anyone else in the country, does it?"

"Do you know Awen at all?" Aerona asked with horrified fascination. Owain's lip actually curled.

"She's blind," he said. "She's incredible, and she does the best job she can, but she couldn't handle this. She's an Alpha Wingleader. She's all above board and everything's out in the open with her. I saved her from this."

And Dylan was laughing silently over his meraden's neck, his shoulders shaking, apparently barely able to breathe. Aerona giggled, one hand pressed to her mouth. Adara watched Owain with loathing.

"You complete and utter retard," she said, her voice terrifyingly low and quiet. "That's what you think? That's genuinely what you think? Who do you think found that stuff behind that mirror? Who do you think found the family you tortured to death? Who do you think found a way into Flyn's secret sodding safe under his floorboards? Who found the real Saxon ruler and her supporters, living in Cwmbrân? Who do you think knew about Flyn's plan from the start? Who do you think found you? Who do you think found the bloody child you killed?"

"Well, that was actually me," Aerona muttered quietly, but she didn't let Owain hear. Awen could have that one.

Dylan sat up, still laughing but now apparently with sufficient breath to make sounds.

"Oh, gods dude, you're so lame!" he laughed gleefully. "I knew her for five minutes, and I had a better idea! Fail."

Owain shook his head, his smile condescending, and said nothing. No one had ever ellicited as strong an urge to punch them in the face before, Aerona reflected. He really was unpleasant.

"And she's dying because of you," Adara muttered, the hatred thick. "I swear to every god in existence, if she's dead by the time we get back I will very literally and very slowly skin you."

"Hey." Aerona moved Briallu, flying her around to Adara's side. "She wasn't that bad yet when we left. And she's intelligent, she'll stay out of the way of any Sovereigns while she's dangerous."

"Yeah," Adara said sardonically. "Although possibly not Lord Gwilym, eh? To be honest, if I had days to live - I would."

"Except she might kill him," Dylan supplied. "So she probably wouldn't in all. You know; in case she killed him."

"Lord Gwilym?" Owain asked sharply, but before Adara could answer Dylan's hand whipped around and threw something small at him that clipped the side of his head, making him yelp. It could have been a button.

"No," Dylan said firmly, back in Giving Orders Mode. "You even raise an eyebrow in judgement of that woman about anything at all, boy, and I'll have your ear off. You've done enough there."

"Dylan," Aerona said mock-reproachfully. "He's just been treated for concussion. Don't throw things at his head."

"What was it, anyway?" Adara asked with interest. "It looked satisfyingly solid."

"Arrowhead," Dylan shrugged. "Hopefully it cut him. Quiet now, boy, or I'll gag you. Or just knock you out again, and Aerona is right; no nice druids up here to sort you out."

"Was I about to say something?" Aerona asked abruptly. Something was nagging at her memory, vague and barely-remembered. Head injury getting in the way, she supposed. "I feel like I was about to say something, but can't remember what."

"Well, then, we wouldn't know, would we, you crazy," Adara said fondly. "But it's nice to see your perforated skull hasn't helped to prevent your internal monologue from externalising."

"Shut up," Aerona giggled. "I think it was important and everything."

"You'll remember it again, then," Dylan said, scanning the skyline to the left. "I can see the sea, I get the flavoured milk!"

"Oh, wow, you're ten," Adara said, and Aerona settled comfortably. Presense of Owain aside, it was lovely to be back home.

It was a short flight to the Union from Trallwng, only half an hour, so it felt like no time at all before they were flying into a landing bay, stablehands still in their formal robes rushing forward to help. As Dylan hit the floor he held up one arm, summoning forward the Guard Riders at the end of the bay; it was Idris and Bethan again, Aerona noted as they strode forward. She felt tired again.

"Right, team," Dylan said cheerfully as they approached. "Look! That's Owain Masarnen there! Fetch some more Guards, would you? Oh, and we need a druid for Aerona."

"I'll fetch them," Bethan said, vanishing quickly. Idris smiled grimly and marched over to Owain, unclipping the lines that linked him to Adara and Dylan.

"I want to go to sleep again now," Aerona yawned. "I feel like I haven't slept in two days."

"So do I!" Dylan said brightly, springing down and coming to help her. Her harness was already undone, Aerona noted absently. She hadn't realised. "Well; a day. Slide this way, I'll catch you."

"That's really decent of you," Aerona smiled. Something was nagging at her again. She wondered what on earth it was.

Dylan hooked an arm around her waist and pulled her down as the Guards arrived, bearing down on Owain. Dylan grinned.

"That's us done," he said, satisfied. "And there's your druid, look, it's the one who doesn't like Riders. Let's go and be sniffed at."

It was indeed Haf. As they made their way across the landing bay, Adara in tow, Haf inclined her head for them to follow and left, the indigo robes flaring with the movement, revealing her bare feet -

There was definitely something she was forgetting. Dammit, why was it so hard to think? Well; the head injury, and the fact that Aerona was now increasingly tired, stumbling slightly. Dylan guided her out into the corridor, heading towards the Spiral Stairs. Haf gave them a disapproving look.

"Alright, what happened?" she demanded. "You're swaying. Already had druidic attention, or have you just decided to put a plaster on and nobly deal with it?"

"Already had it," Aerona said defensively, pulling the druid's letter out and handing it to her. What was she forgetting? It was... It was something to do with that druid, tending Owain...

"Oh, a cranial drill," Haf said, sounding unimpressed. "And then you flew. Well done. Would you like to do some heavy lifting while you're here? I'm sure we can arrange some."

"I knew it," Dylan said morosely. "I said you shouldn't fly. It was Adara's fault."

Aerona didn't hear the protest. That impassive druid with the water - except she hadn't done anything suspicious, just a healer tending a patient. What was wrong? What had she done? Nothing but give him a drink, until the old druid had called her. Rhonwen.


Aerona knew that name.

"Oh gods," she whispered, stopping. As Dylan walked on for a step and was half-supporting her it made her sag against him briefly, but suddenly adrenaline was flooding her system, forcing her awake. "Rhonwen. He called her Rhonwen. She was on the list!"

"What-?" Adara started, but Aerona was already pulling away, heading back along the corridor, Dylan at her shoulder.

"The list of druids!" she said, accelerating. "The one with Owain before we left, she was on it! The ones who went up mountains -"

The yells emanating from the landing bay were the first clue; the handful of screams the second. The third, reassuringly, was the sound of the runway doors slamming closed, followed by Owain's curse. As they approached the bay door, Dylan and Adara pulling in front, Haf suddenly grabbed Aerona's shoulder, throwing out a hand to the others.

"Don't go in!" she ordered sharply, halting them. "They're blind in there. And you won't recover from a second time."

Dylan swore harshly, looking around, the black scarring making his eyes around four times as intimidating as they would have been. Adara was watching the door, bow unslung and arrow ready.

"Right," he said urgently. "There are too many passages out of there, he'll already be gone. Aerona, go and find Awen, quickly. Adara, we need to sound the alert and get all the runways closed. Haf, you'll need to help the people in there..."

Aerona didn't hear the rest. After this was over Haf was going to have a lot to say on the subject of her running around after cranial drills, but right now it really didn't matter. Her footfalls were muffled by the carpets as she ran, listening desperately for any sound of Owain or the alarm. What if he got away? What if he made it away again? Well, it wouldn't be a subtle recovery mission next time, that was certain. It would be an invasion force that would wipe out Saxonia until he turned up.

She crashed down the Spiral Stairs, thanking every god she knew for Rider agility. As she reached the floor the wail of a border klaxon slammed into her ears, and Aerona breathed a sigh of relief, running faster. Well, he wouldn't be leaving now.The trouble being, the man was crazy. What he'd do now was anyone's guess. Or, hopefully, Awen's.

She reached the Wing quarters as the Wing were exiting at high speed, all looking as alert as a pack of wolves on a hunt. Aerona skidded to a halt, Awen pushing through and catching her shoulders, her face preternaturally calm.

"Owain's escaped!" Aerona panted, gripping her wrists. "And he's got the druidic thing that blinded Dylan, or he did, I don't -"

"When did he get it?" Awen asked urgently, and somewhat oddly, Aerona felt.

"Trallwng," she said, fighting for breath. "One of the druids on the list healed him, she-"

"Landing bays," Awen said, pointing to three Riders. "Eluned - the klaxon. You three, get to Lord Flyn, get him locked up somewhere he can't get to him."

They scattered, and Awen swung back to Aerona.

"Think," she commanded. "Very carefully. Between Trallwng and here, what did you talk about that he could hear? Why would he wait until now to break away?"

"Um..." Aerona looked down, her mind racing. "He argued with Adara. She told him you speak Saxon. He said he was saving you from dealing with the Saxons, because only he could handle it. Adara told him about the stuff you found behind the mirror and in the safe and the tortured people -"

Awen's eyes went deadly. Aerona wondered at which bit.

"Gwilym?" she asked bizarrely. Aerona snapped her fingers.

"Yes!" she said. "Adara mentioned in passing about -"

And Awen was gone, racing away down the corridor, Aerona running after her to try to catch up. They were good, she recalled from the file, at predicting each other's moves. What had Awen worked out?

"What's he doing?" she managed, pulling closer as Awen paused to negotiate a door. They hit the Stairs and started down, Awen so close to the central column it was a controlled fall down a slope rather than a descent down steps.

"He's after Lord Gwilym!" Awen threw back, leaping for a door. The Sovereigns' Quarters, Aerona realised. They were heading for the Sovereigns' Quarters. Guard Riders kept running past in all directions, but Awen threaded her way through them, her out-of-control attack instincts apparently waylaid by her urgent need to get from A to B. They arrived at an enormous oaken door, the crest of Aberystwyth engraved into it, and Awen didn't bother to knock. She burst through, Aerona close on her heels, and looked around desperately.

The clerk who'd looked like a kettle looked up in surprise from his serene writing, expression darkening slightly as he saw Awen for some reason.

"Where is he?" Awen demanded, all Alpha Wingleader. Watkins stood.

"Not here," he said tonelessly. "His lordship is scheduled to meet King Dara this afternoon and give him a tour of the theatre. His majesty has been most vociferous in his excitement."

"Other side of the Union," Aerona panted as they sprinted back out, panic gripping her heart. "How quickly would Owain find out they're there?"

"Almost instantly," Awen said, voice tight. "If Dara's been talking, everyone will know. And it's next to the Audience Chambers."

They ran on, far too far away.