Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Cymru - 52


"I'm sorry!" Owain screamed, heaving against the chains.

"Not yet," Adara said mildly.


Thursday, 15 July 2010

Cymru - Chapter 51


The air in the corridors was beautifully cool on the bare skin of her arms and face, but it did little to soothe the hammering of her heart, the jangling of her nerves. It was a strange dichotomy: the adrenaline seemed to have all but replaced her actual blood, making her already overwrought senses spike and causing her to jump at every shadow, every noise; and yet she also felt… calm. As though she was drifting on the currents of the sea, waiting to see what would happen.

Which she was, Awen supposed. The choice was made. The stress was gone. Admittedly in a few minutes she'd face the consequences of it; but, for now, she felt almost free. It was good, Awen reasoned. She wasn't supposed to make big decisions like that. She was supposed to just endure whatever came her way. That had been her entire life so far, so it was far more comfortable to just be awaiting the punishment than deciding whether to earn it or not.

"Good afternoon, Leader." The Guard Rider outside the cell sounded slightly surprised, a question in his voice. Awen smiled and Saluted.

"Afternoon," she answered. She sounded wonderfully steady. "Could I see Owain? It won't take long."

"Of course." He unlocked the door and pulled it open, revealing the mostly-empty rows of cells within. "Do you need me to come in there, or -?"

"You're going to be needed out here," Awen smiled wryly. "In about four minutes at maximum. Thank you."

She stepped through, the door clicking softly shut behind her, and walked down the aisle.

The cells weren't much different from the ones in the room Flyn had been held in, really; there were five to each side, they were spacious enough for cells, and only one was actually occupied, the rest standing with the doors open into the wide aisle. Awen stopped in front of the only closed one, and stared at its inmate.

"I thought you'd never come," Owain said quietly.

Chains ran from his wrists, ankles and neck, anchoring him to the back wall. He stood up from the bed where he'd been lying and moved forward to the edge of his locus, in the middle of the cell. The light struck the remains of his face, and Awen sighed. His nose had clearly broken in several places, leaving it even wider and more misshapen than it had already been, and was still blotched with red and purple. He had two black eyes, the skin slightly swollen around them still. And if that wasn't a fractured cheekbone Awen would be extremely surprised.

She leaned against the bars of the cell behind her and sank to the floor, her knees drawn up to her chest. Owain regarded her for a moment, and did the same, stiffly.

"You woke up, then," Awen stated. She couldn't take her eyes off him. Owain gave a half-smile, and shrugged awkwardly.

"Unfortunately," he said dryly. "It would have been better for me if I hadn't, of course. My life will soon not be worth living."

"I was going to kill you," Awen said. "Eifion stopped me."

"Thank you," Owain nodded.

There was a pause. She pulled distractedly at the hairpins, lining them up one by one on the floor beside her as her hair slowly came loose.

"I miss the you I knew," Awen said, and wondered properly why she was even talking to him. "The person I thought you were. I miss him."

"I'm sorry," Owain said softly. It was difficult to read his face properly given how mutilated it was, but he did actually seem… sad. "I mean, not for… But I didn't want to hurt you. I never wanted to hurt you."

"You cut my throat," Awen smiled sadly. "Be assured that hurt."

"I didn't want to -"

"You still did it."

There was a silence, both of them looking away. It was so weird, Awen thought. There wasn't so much water under the bridge as a deluge had swept the bridge away, but even so; she couldn't stop trying to cross the bloody river at that point, wishing the bridge would come back, that it could be rebuilt. It was almost comfortable talking to him again. It was sick.

"There were things that needed doing," Owain said after a moment. "That this country needed. And only I could see them. I didn't want you to -"

"I'm a spy," Awen said, and laughed at herself, covering her face with her hands. "Gods! I've wanted to tell you that for years. And here I am."

"What do you -?"

"I spy on people," Awen said, pulling her hands away abruptly and forcing herself into a straight face. "Everyone. Everyone in the City-state of Casnewydd, at every walk of life, although before this week obviously not Riders. There's a… a network of us, one in every Wing, everywhere in the country. I've been doing it since we were about eleven."

Owain stared at her.

"No," he said slowly. "You would have said. You would have told me."

"You didn't tell me what you were doing," Awen said. "Of course I wouldn't. It's a secret network, anyway. None of us have ever been allowed to tell anyone. I only am now because we're both about to die."

They were both quiet again. The last hair pin came out and she sat still, lost with nothing to occupy her hands.

"Funny, isn't it?" Awen said at last. "We've managed to become the single worst command team in history. I used to have these nightmares in which I'd lose everyone in battle. And now they've all survived, and here we are."

"Yeah," Owain agreed quietly. "What'll happen to them?"

"They'll be fine," Awen smiled. "I've already written up my recommendations. First choice is for an Evaluation Team, so they all get to beat up new Riders and call them unfit for service."


There was another pause.

"Why you?" Owain asked hopelessly. "Really? Why you? Why are you here? You're supposed to be at the trial."

"It's over," Awen said, her heart beating harder as she thought about it. "Or ending now, in any case. They were going to let him go."

"You did find it," Owain breathed, staring at her intently. "I knew you had, I knew - you showed it to them?"

"Of a sort." There was a bubble of hysteria building in her throat, that she had to wrestle with to keep down. "I made Lord Gwilym do it, so they had no choice."

"Oh my gods." He scrubbed his hands across his face wearily, a comfortingly familiar gesture that Awen had seen him do a million times. "Oh gods, Awen. They'll kill you."


"Do you know what you've done?" Owain asked sharply, his head coming up suddenly. "Do you know what will happen now? They'll -"

"Owain, I can think of three different ways in which we could control Saxonia right now," Awen said tiredly. "Just off the top of my head. Not all of them involve genocide, either. I know how badly Flyn manipulated you, but he's not our only chance at life."

"I wasn't manipulated!" Owain spat. "He's got -"

"He talked you into murdering four people," Awen said harshly. "You know how? By telling you that you were 'unique', and Cymru's only hope, and the only one who could read between the lines and see what had to be done. A six-year-old could have made you do it."

"Oh, fuck off." Owain grinned, savagely. "You know my favourite thing? You're saying all this, Awen, but you've just done exactly the same thing."

"Have I?"

"Oh, I should have told you, that's your point, isn't it?" he said, shaking his head. "I should have told the Union right back at the start. I should have just trusted them to make all of the right decisions, even though I knew they wouldn't. But look at what you've done! You knew straight away that Flyn would walk, or you would have declared the assassinations to the Union days ago. You kept them secret because you knew! You knew what they'd do, and that it was the wrong decision."

He smirked and sat back, triumphant.

"There's no difference between us," he said. "You'd just like to think there is."

"I tried to make a choice I didn't have," Awen said simply. "You refused to make the one you did."

"That's just semantics," Owain said, but Awen shook her head.

"Then you're overlooking the important part," Awen said quietly. "You did what you did believing you'd get away with it. I did it knowing I never would."

He was silent again, the slightly-sulking silence that he always got in an argument when he didn't know what to say next. She didn't speak either. It wouldn't be long now. The nerves made her fingers shake, the sick feeling of dread twisting in her stomach.

"You should run," Owain said after a few moments. "They'll be coming now. You don't have much time."

"I never run," Awen said mildly. "I knew what I was doing. If I'm going into the songs as a traitor I'll at least do it with the honour to accept the consequences."

"Unlike me?" he asked sourly.

"Your words," Awen said, shaking her head. "Make of it what you will."


"You always say that."

The familiarity of the lines was almost too much, and for a moment his gaze caught hers, and Awen yearned passionately for her life of a week ago when everything was fine and her family was still intact. Suddenly she wanted to cry.

And then she saw Gwïon's face, his lifeless body while he was still breathing, and the hatred was almost overwhelming.

"Were you really with the Sovereign?" Owain asked quietly. Awen closed her eyes.

"Yes," she said, swallowing the lump in her throat, and she laughed bitterly. "Although probably not now, as I just made him carry the order for his family's deaths around for four days and nearly made him burn them. And that's after failing to prevent said deaths in the first place."

"Yeah, that's not famously the secret to happiness," Owain grinned. "Was he angry?"

"I've no idea." Awen opened her eyes and traced the lines on the plastered ceiling. "I left before he even had the envelope open. He's… incredible. But no one is that incredible that they could just forgive something like that. I used him. And I did it with his dead parents."

They paused again, and finally, just on the edge of hearing, they could make out the sound of a lot of people shouting in the distance, getting slowly closer. Awen shivered. Gods this was going to hurt. Eifion had happy dreams about the times he was allowed to just let go and do what he liked, and she was about to give him such a time.

"Please run," Owain said suddenly, standing. "Please! Don't let them do this. Just go, make it to a runway and jump, even! It's better than the alternative."

"No," Awen said, smiling softly. "And it wouldn't be better if they caught me en route."

"Then do it here!" Owain begged. "You're still armed! Just cut your throat or something. Or get the keys quick and come in here, I'll break your neck. Don't let them do this!"

"You never got it, Owain," Awen said, shaking her head. "Riders don't run. It's not for me to choose. It's for me to accept, and be grateful for the privilege."

"The privilege of being tortured to death?" Owain said frustratedly. "That's what you'll be grateful for?"

"Yes," Awen said quietly. "And this is why you were never a Rider."

He stared at her for a moment, the sounds of the mob coming closer; and then he dropped to his knees, his gaze unwavering.

"You were always too good for us," Owain whispered. "I wish I'd realised how good."

"I was never good enough," Awen said. "I wish I'd known by how much."

"You -"

But Owain never got to finish that sentence, because at that moment the door crashed back against the wall, screaming on its hinges, the sound instantly snapping Awen into a crouch on the balls of her feet and in strode -

Awen froze as Gwilym marched in, the force of his anger shrouding him like a cloak and making him seem at least three inches taller. The Guard Rider from outside was following hurriedly, his expression one of vague alarm. Gwilym saw her and smiled grimly, his stride unfaltering as he continued in his path towards her. Awen swallowed. Dammit he was pissed off, and she could hear the sound of the oncoming crowd clearly now through the open door, maybe twenty seconds away -

"Give me the keys," Gwilym commanded, holding a hand behind him to the Guard Rider who looked suddenly utterly bewildered.

"I can't," he said blankly, and Gwilym plastered on a fake bright smile as he drew level with Awen.

"Oh, really?" he said. "Sorry, let me rephrase -"

Whatever it was that had kept her from attacking him for days was, thankfully enough, still working; so when he suddenly bent down and shot an arm out towards her Awen simply froze in place, meaning that he pulled the hunting knife from her belt without any opposition at all and straightened -

And put the knife to his own throat.

"Give me the gods damned keys," he told the Guard.

Awen went from crouching to standing so fast she was relatively certain she hadn't actually passed any intervening stages.

"But -"

"Give them to him!
" she shouted, horrified. Panic gripped her in a vice. That was a really bloody sharp blade, and he was holding it against his throat -

Suddenly under order from a frantic Alpha Wingleader and an extremely angry and suicidal Sovereign, the Guard hastily scrambled at his belt, ripping the keys off and all but hurling them into Gwilym's free hand.

"Good," Gwilym said, the anger back. He looked at Awen. "Cell behind you, in there."

She almost leapt into it, staggering backwards. Quite a lot of the background noise was made up of people shouting now, Owain included, but Awen couldn't make out any of it over the mind-consuming panic that was making her ears ring. The Guard ran back to the door and out, probably to find someone with better authority whose problem they could be, and Awen hoped wildly that the crowd could hurry up and arrive. They sounded like they were only just outside. Someone would be able to stop Gwilym. They must…

He shoved the cell door next to the one she was in closed and threw the keys inside, and before Awen had had time to focus on what that meant he stepped into hers with her and pulled the door closed behind him.

Automatic locks, the useful Rider inside her head who was still paying attention told her. He's locked you both in, and now you can't get to the keys either.

"Well, that gives about a minute of extra time," Gwilym said cheerfully, although the cheer was wallpaper over the wall of his anger, so it wasn't quite as jolly as normal. "Right! Oh, and here's everyone else."

And finally the wrathful tide of Councillors and Guard Riders and such appeared, and Awen had genuinely never seen anyone as angry as Rhydian.

"Open the door," he snarled to Awen, who looked at the keys in the next cell helplessly.

"He threw them in there," she said blankly. Gwilym grinned.

"Back up," he told her, and Awen went until her back hit the wall.

"Oh, Rider," Eifion murmured, his voice under the general blanket of noise sending a thrill of terror through her. "Oh, you're not helping yourself, I promise you."

"Get over here," Rhydian ordered with the force of winter. "Right now."

"But -"

"Councillors," Gwilym said, rolling his eyes and turning around so they could see him, and there was a comical moment as they all drew back an inch, seeing the knife. "She really can't right now. Leave her alone."

"Someone fetch some kind of pole," Rhydian told the crowd behind him, not taking his eyes off Gwilym. There was almost a dam at the door as people scrabbled to obey. "A broom or something, to get those damned keys. Sovereign? Could you please not do that?"

Gwilym turned back to Awen and closed the gap between them. His expression was urgent, searching; he put his free hand on her hip, and Awen froze, heart almost jumping into her mouth, her fingers doing their best to dig through the stone wall.

"Sorry," he said, his voice suddenly soft, the switch from angry to calmly compassionate so abrupt it seemed another person had turned up to live in Gwilym's head with him. "It was the only way I could think of getting you here quickly enough to avoid them. Are you okay?"

Sentences warred with each other in Awen's head.

"I keep it really sharp," she managed after a few moments, and finally, mercifully, he lowered the bloody thing and offered it to her.

"Sorry," Gwilym said again, smiling, and Awen took it and threw it to Rhydian, who caught it with a grim nod. Which was a relief; she wasn't going to be punished for that, at least.

"Right," Gwilym said authoritatively. "Anyway, are you okay?"

"Why do you care?" Awen asked. It was possible shock was setting in. She was staring at him now. She didn't usually. Gwilym sighed.

"Oh," he said. "Sorry, but I'm going to have to speed us up a bit again -"

Which was the only warning she got before he'd pulled her inescapably into his arms and kissed her, deeply and passionately, in a cell in front of half the Union.

He broke it off. Awen couldn't speak.

"Now," Gwilym said. He hadn't let go. She was pinned against his chest. "Are we clear on where I stand? Can we move on? We don't have much time."

"Your parents!" she almost shouted. She wasn't ready to move on, it seemed. Although her internal Rider was, and was Not Pleased that she was holding up the important briefing with emotions. Gwilym sighed frustratedly.

"Yes, my parents!" he said. "You just avenged them! What more could I possibly want from you?"

"But I nearly -!"

"No, you didn't!" he almost shouted back. "You were always going to make me read it! Don't you see? Whatever needs to be done, whatever the cost! That's you, Awen! That's why Owain wanted so badly for it to be him! Now can we please move on!"

"It's not long enough," someone called to the side, aiming a broom handle at the keys. "Can we -?"

"It would be long enough from the other side," Rhydian commanded coldly. "Put it into the cell. Awen? Get over here."

"I can't," Awen said helplessly, feeling Gwilym's arms tighten around her. "He's not -"

"You can out-manoeuvre a Sovereign," Rhydian snarled, and as panic at the very thought sailed up in Awen Gwilym rolled his eyes and looked back to face them again.

"She's unpurified!" he snapped, possibly the only person in the world who would have challenged Rhydian right now. "She is terrified of snapping near me and accidentally killing me, so she is not about to risk trying to fight me off! Gods damn it, why do none of you understand each other…"

He turned back again before Rhydian could answer and caught her gaze, his pale eyes boring into hers.

"Now listen," he ordered her. Awen obeyed. "They're about to drag you up to the Council Chamber, where clearly they'll demand an explanation of why you did it. And you have to tell them. All of it. Understand?"

"That was the plan," Awen said nervously, and Gwilym shook his head.

"No," he said firmly, "it wasn't. You were going to go and be all deferential and apologise and just say that you thought it was the right thing to do. Do not be apologetic, Awen. Do not defer. Don't tell them what you thought. Tell them what you damn well knew was right, and tell them why. Tell them why you were right and they were wrong."

"You want me to tell the Council why they were wrong?" Awen stared at him. "When I reach Annwfn would you like me to explain to the gods how they should really run the world, too?"

"Switch your brain back on," Gwilym almost begged, closing his eyes and leaning his forehead against hers. "Awen! You're better than this! Right now, the Council are angry, and they're mostly angry because you've just upset their entire world. First Owain, now you! They see you both as having betrayed them, like there's something wrong with your Wing. If you don't make them understand, they will continue to think until the end of their days that if any Rider, ever, disagrees with them, it's simply a betrayal. And the next time this happens - and there will be a next time, because they won't be able to learn from it - whoever is in your position won't act! They will let the monster stay! Do you understand? We will become the thing we hate! This is your chance to stop that. To help them see that they need to draw the line in the sand, and keep us good."

And he was right, Awen thought with horrified fascination. It was only half a job done at this stage. They needed to see why. And if they still disagreed, then that was the Union's stance, but… they had to know.

But oh good gods it was going to hurt more.

"Okay, she breathed, her voice strangled, and Gwilym smiled tiredly, his arms tight.

"It's not over yet," he murmured. "And I'm not losing you."

"I - " She stopped herself before she just earned her instant execution anyway, but Gwilym knew. He threaded his fingers into her hair, the sensation agonisingly glorious, and held her close for one last moment.

"I love you too," he whispered, almost crushing her against his chest, and then finally let go and stepped back.

"Finally!" Rhydian said in the voice of wrath. "Now get the keys back."

They'd pushed the broom into her cell already. Awen darted around Gwilym and grabbed it quickly, her heart hammering. It was entirely possible, she reflected, that this would be the last time she ever got to use her fingers. Or her knees. Or her eyes. Eifion was humming to himself, a sound that filled her with terror every time she heard it, and she scrabbled to block it out as she hooked the end of the broom handle into the ring on the keys and lifted, letting them slide down to her. She stood and detangled them, and as Gwilym took hold of her upper arm she hastily threw them to Rhydian.

"You're not going to want to stay," Awen said urgently. The sound of the key turning in the lock seemed deafening. "This won't be pleasant."

"You'll attack if I'm not here," Gwilym shrugged. He looked darkly angry again, watching the Riders outside. "And I'm not leaving you, Awen. A sentence I seem to have to say to you astonishingly often."

"I'm sorry," she said distractedly. The door swung open, and in came Rhydian at the head of the tide. "I'm sorry."

She just had time to raise her chin, meaning the punch that would have impacted with her eye caught her cheek instead. The pain exploded along her cheekbone and jaw, her teeth throbbing, the copper taste of blood filling her mouth as the force of it snapped her head to the right, straining the muscles in the left side of her neck and sending her off-balance, falling -

- she overrides the pain, her senses spiralling in to focus on the moment, logging the people surrounding her now on all sides and marking the distances; she lands on her palms and braces, ready to spring

Gwilym's hand wrapped itself around her shoulder and Awen snapped back, letting herself drop to the floor properly, lying on her stomach. She closed her eyes. Come what may, it was far easier to stay non-aggressive if she couldn't see the angry people around her. And she could focus on Gwilym's hand, on his presence beside her -

"Arms back," Rhydian's voice commanded above and behind her, and Awen did as she was told, the restrictiveness of the high collar making it slightly awkward. The sensation and sound of tearing leather informed her that he was ripping away the covers over the wristblades, although he yanked the remains painfully off over her hands. He unbuckled the blades themselves considerably more carefully, a reprieve Awen was appropriately grateful for. "Make a fist."

She did, and felt the leather slide restrictively up her arm, ending about an inch below her armpit and wrapping tightly around her balled fingers, imprisoning them uselessly. The process was repeated for the other arm, and as she felt her wrists being clipped together Awen braced herself -

Not quite enough. As Rhydian jammed her elbows together and secured them she couldn't quite bite back the yelp that escaped her throat, the pain shooting through her shoulders and burning a path to her elbows. Which was a shame, because Awen was trying her hardest not to traumatise Gwilym too much. If he was going to insist on coming along she would have to do considerably better at not being in obvious agony, because it was really going to get much worse.

"Done," Rhydian said curtly, and he grabbed the clip holding her elbows together and hauled her up to her feet with it. Awen screamed only mentally. Gwilym rose with her, his hand apparently glued to her shoulder. "Sovereign. Would you mind guiding her up?"

"Not at all," Gwilym said coolly, and Awen swayed into his arms as Rhydian let go.

The walk to the Council Chambers was, simultaneously, both the longest and shortest of Awen's life. Gwilym walked beside her, one arm wound around her waist and under her arms while his other hand rested on her shoulder, giving the strained muscles a very, very light massage that settled her nerves no end. They were surrounded by a ring of Guard Riders, all moving silently and seriously and who kept looking at her, as though nervous to get too close. How weird was this for them, Awen wondered? They'd probably never had to escort a Rider in their lives, and then in the past few days there was first Owain, now her. The world had shifted.

The Council Chamber was full. Naturally enough, the Full Council had been convened into the seats, every one of them watching her stonily as she was marched into the centre of the floor and left, the Guard Riders withdrawing and politely but firmly directing Gwilym to the side. Between the seats and clustered around the doors as they were finally wrestled shut seemed to be every Alpha Wingleader in the country, all displaying some stage or other of shocked curiosity. Awen caught Madog's eye, and he gave her a smile just shy of heartbroken. She looked down. Madog: he'd been a revelation in the last few days, too. She'd never had someone who was simply a friend before, no other tags. They were even on first name terms now, almost like normal people -

"Shut up," Rhydian declared, and everyone hastily shut up. Awen breathed in deeply to steady herself, and straightened. Time to be convincing. No time to look shaky now. "Right. Explain, Leader."

She met his gaze, saw the sheer depth of his rage, and jumped into it.

"You were about to show the whole world that the Union is a pointless and ineffective force that can be manipulated and outwitted with consummate ease by the people it's supposed to police, Councillor."

There was a collective in-drawing of shocked breath as she failed to be deferentially submissive.

"Sorry," Awen added.

"You're sorry?" Eifion hissed, leaning forward. His eyes were almost alight, a strange fusion of anger and delight. "Indeed? For which part, Rider, the act itself? The presumption? Or the punishment?"

She almost laughed.

"The punishment?" Awen repeated, scornfully. "You think I didn't know what would happen, Councillor? You think I'm surprised and saddened by this response?"

"I think you must be," Eifion snarled. "Because be assured, Rider, I will make very sure you find new ways to scream, and I fail to see how you'd have defied the Union and your country had you known that."

"Because I'm a Rider, Councillor," Awen snapped harshly. "My needs are irrelevant, a fact that you personally have drummed into me for the last thirty years and that I believe inherently. And, let me make myself perfectly clear: I may have defied the Union. But I in no way defied Cymru."

Argh, argh, why was she saying these things? It was blasphemy! Being unpurified, that was what was doing it. Clearly she could no longer trust her own brain to not provoke Eifion. He was going to melt her at this rate.

The angry murmur of the Councillors flared up, and then hastily quietened as Rhydian stood, his icy glare across them all like a lance. He looked down at Awen, and she just controlled the wince.

"Eifion, try not to speak," Rhydian commanded. "Awen, calm down. And explain."

Awen looked at the floor for a moment, breathing deeply to try to settle the sick feeling of nerves.

"I told you before, Councillor," she said at last, looking back up at Rhydian again. That was better. Nice and steady, breathing… "I know Flyn, I know his ambitions and I know his motivations. His plan with Coenred was to let him conquer all of Saxonia and then depose him, taking the throne for himself. And he wouldn't have stopped there. It would have been the Angles next, after that, and Alba. Then Erinn. Then Gaul, and Celtiberia, and on, and on and on, because that's what he is. He wants an empire, all under him. He wants the Union under him. He doesn't care about Cymru except for what it can offer him."

"Yes, Rider, astonishingly, we all knew he isn't a prize specimen when we voted," Low Councillor Gwyn said witheringly from the side. "This was taken into account, in fact -"

"Well evidently not, Councillor, since you were giving him his first conquest," Awen responded, in her strongest you-are-a-completely-retarded-idiot-manchild tone, and then mentally screamed at herself. "He's malicious. He's remorseless, and ruthless, and uncaring, and he has never in his life viewed anyone else as another human being, which we call 'sociopathy'. He's a monster, and it was bad enough that he was left in charge of a City-state in the first place. And his citizens have paid the price for us leaving him there. As have Lord Iestyn's."

She glanced briefly at Madog, who nodded grimly, his eyes hard.

"But now they'll pay the price for your interference," Gwyn said acidly. His accent was thick, western Archipelagan if Awen was any judge, tinged with Erinnish, and it made his condescending tone even stronger. "Don't preach at us, Rider. This character reference was taken into account. What we tried to stop was the greater threat of the Saxons, which you don't seem to be able to understand -"

"Gwyn," Rhydian said, standing suddenly, his tone urgent, but it was too late. The anger flooded Awen, rage and hatred combining as she stared at Low Councillor Gwyn, her body turning to face him of its own accord.

"I don't understand the threat of Saxons?" she snarled, and the room fell silent. "Did you seriously just say that? Did you just accuse me of not understanding a Saxon threat?"

"You don't -" Gwyn began, his voice hard; but this was worse than with Eifion. She had no control now, it seemed. Now her anger was speaking. Awen watched it dazedly from the back of her brain.

"Since I was fifteen not a week has gone by in which I haven't fought Saxons!" she almost roared. "I don't remember what it's like to not dread the border warnings! I've seen people, children, elderly, literally torn apart as they cowered in their homes for the sake of a sack of flour! I've spent days, literally days after raids helping children reassemble their parents' bodies out of the pieces they could find! I've had to kill people, Cymric people, to save them from a death that would otherwise have been a week of excruciation! And you, 'Councillor'? What the fuck have you ever done that compares to that?"

He stared at her, unspeaking. Awen plunged on.

"Nothing," she answered for him, forcefully and contemptuously. "You sat out in your island City, threatened by no one, until you got your nice easy promotion. And now you sit and chat about politics and military threats as though you have a damned clue what you're talking about. You don't, 'Councillor'. I do. So don't you dare ever suggest that I don't understand a Saxon threat again."

The silence rang, and curiously, Awen found suddenly that she didn't care. Probably she would once the anger drained away properly, but right now, she was seething, using it as energy. It was like being in battle, but without the screaming and the blood. And she was properly shaking.

Although she'd violated a massive social norm, there. It was terribly bad form to suggest there was any sort of difference between active and non-active Riders. The line she'd crossed was a few miles back.

"My apologies, Leader," Gwyn said carefully after a moment. "I simply meant that in order to eliminate the threat Saxonia now represents we need -"

"Don't try to justify your compromise to me," Awen interrupted contemptuously, her voice cold. Good gods she was tearing a strip off of poor old Gwyn. He probably didn't deserve it. "You compromised. All of you. And I don't mean the situation. You compromised us, the Union, this country. Fifty years ago, we were at War, Councillors. The kind that requires a Teutonic capital."

Gwenllian snorted, grinning. Rhydian didn't even look at her. He was watching Awen carefully, studying her, examining her.

"The Wars spanned hundreds of years," she went on. "Despotism, we had. Each leader stepped in, did what they liked, acted as they wanted and then was deposed by the next when they went too far. Over and over again. And they could act as they liked because there was no law. They were the law. That's the kind of system that means things like human breeding farms can happen. It was ended only when, finally, a country-wide law was instigated. A way for leaders to behave, that they weren't allowed to break, and that they wouldn't be allowed to break. The Union would stop them. We would keep the people safe from them. We would unite, and finally let our society evolve. And since then, we've had peace for fifty years, there are people in our country who have never known war, and we're famed the world over for our advanced society and technological prowess. And soon for our education."

She glanced at Gwilym, who was watching her proudly, his mouth smiling slightly.

"We're getting a university," Awen said, looking back again. "And all that, all that progress, happened because of what the Union did. Because of the laws we upheld, and the line we drew in the sand, and the stand we took to say, 'this is not right'. Flyn broke those laws."

She looked around at them all. Interestingly enough, they were all staring at her, fascinated. Well, they'd probably never seen a corpse talk for this long before.

"He crossed that line," Awen went on harshly. "He did what wasn't right. And instead of stopping him, instead of doing your jobs, instead of being the law, you bent to accommodate him. You compromised. And in so doing you endangered this society more than Saxonia could ever dream of managing."

"He would have been watched for the rest of his life," Rhydian said neutrally, watching her analytically. Awen raised an eyebrow.

"What does that matter?" she asked archly. "That won't regrow Iona Morgannwg's fingers and it sure as hell won't undo what he did to Alis. And it won’t deter the next Sovereign. There are two things you haven't considered, Councillors."

"Which are, bach?" Gwenllian asked gently.

"This is the Union," Awen snarled. She was swaying slightly now, the force of her vitriol pouring through her. "We are Riders. We are on the side of the country, and a country is made of its people. We are on the side of those who have been the victims. You all stood to try Flyn earlier for the rape of Alis Morgannwg, for the torture of Iona Morgannwg, for the death of Nerys Morgannwg. And not one of you – not one of you - ever bothered to meet either of them. To look them in the eye. To know what you were defending."

There was a whispered muttering, just on the edge of hearing. Awen ignored it.

"Secondly," she said firmly. "The primary reason that no other country even considers attacking us or politically manipulating us in any way is the reputation of the Union. We’re the envy of the world for it. Ask a Viking, see what they say. Ask a Phoenician. To them, we are an unstoppable force, unflinching in our defence of our country, uncompromising in our duty and totally, completely incorruptible. And the world was there, watching the trial, Councillors! We’ve just completed the Audiences. The envoys of the world were watching, and you were about to send them home with the news that, actually, they’re wrong. We don’t stand unflinching in the defence of our country. If it gets hard-“

Her voice became mocking, disdainful. She was definitely dying in about twenty minutes’ time.

“We blink,” Awen said witheringly. “We keep the monster so that we don’t have to fight. It’s not us who has to suffer the consequences, after all.”

There was a deathly, stunned silence. Maybe they’d take it in turns with the flensing knives, the still rational part of Awen’s mind thought in dazed trepidation. Had she really just said that? Really? To the Council? She hadn’t realised that was even her opinion.

There was a heavy pause, no one meeting anyone else’s eyes, and then High Councillor Idwel leaned forward.

“We acted to keep a war away, Leader,” he said quietly. “Away from here. As you’ve pointed out, you’re an expert in Saxon warfare. Do you honestly believe that if they all attacked us, en masse, surrounding the country, they wouldn’t claim massive casualties before we halted them?”

“I honestly think we could stop that from happening in the first place, Councillor,” Awen returned coolly. Idwel sighed wearily.

“Do you?” he asked, his tone defeated. “I’m truly sorry, Leader, but I don’t. They are a race of people bred to hate us. It doesn’t matter what we do, what we say to them. In their eyes we are the enemy. I don’t see such a people changing their minds, and being dissuaded.”

“Councillor,” Awen said venomously through gritted teeth. “I am begging you to see the irony of what you just said.”


“The thing you hate about Saxons is that they’re all, without exception, racist and unwilling to change that opinion?” Awen repeated sarcastically. “Please. Please see the irony. You have become what you hate.”

She looked around them all. No one met her eye.

“You have made the Union into what it hates,” Awen said, staring at them all. “Flyn’s greatest victory, maybe. Look at yourselves. You’re exactly what you all swore to defend against.”
And the anger finally leaked away, and Awen just stood, exhausted. She was so tired, tired of living on her nerves, tired of worrying, tired of second-guessing herself and feeling like a traitor and wanting her life back and waiting for a quiet execution. Well, she ought to get one now, at least, she reflected numbly. Certainly she’d earned one in the last twenty minutes or so. Although it wouldn’t be quiet anymore.
The silence gradually gave way to a quiet muttering, the sound alluringly soft like a summer breeze, tugging soporifically at her. She tried not to sway on the spot. Maybe if she insulted Eifion a bit they’d hurry it all up. Certainly if they made him wait much longer he was going to just make a start here with whatever was lying around, like the curtains or maybe the pens.

“Awen,” a voice said quietly under the murmur, and she looked up. Rhydian was watching her intently, his expression mostly neutral, but there was an edge there of something gentler that Awen was too tired to identify. She watched him back, waiting for him to speak.

“You should have told me,” he said softly.

“I’m sorry,” Awen said tonelessly. “I asked you if I could just kill him, do you remember?”

“Ah.” Rhydian sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yes. I do. But do you remember what I told you after he –“ He jerked a thumb at Madog, who had the grace to look embarrassed – “decided he was too bloody clever by half and messed up my system? And you didn’t tell me?”

“I know, Councillor,” Awen said wearily. “I knew what would happen."

Rhydian sighed again and looked down, his head in his hands. Something a bit odd was happening here, Awen reflected. No one was shouting at her. They really should have been by now, especially since she'd just told them all that they were as bad as Saxons; and yet, although a quick scan of the room revealed an awful lot of unhappy faces, the only muttered arguments were happening between Councillors. Occasionally one would accidentally catch her eye and then look away, guilty and embarrassed. They weren't expressions she'd ever seen on Councillors before.

And meanwhile more than a few of the Alpha Wingleaders were openly staring at her with something akin to awe, and that just seemed like a lack of solidarity to Awen. She wouldn't have made them feel awkward and uncomfortable when they were waiting to be tortured anyway.

The world had shifted again, Awen thought, lost. No one was acting like they were supposed to. The security blanket of normalcy she'd been craving for days was gone again, with nothing to anchor onto. Instinctively she found herself looking at Gwilym, and found that his eyes had still been on her. He smiled softly, that break-and-I'll-put-you-back-together expression he had, and Awen wondered how the hell anyone that perfect could exist.


Rhydian's voice echoed through the chamber as he stood, silencing the background murmur that had ceased to be a whisper and become more of a 'hum'. Everyone looked at him, including a grateful Awen. Councillors acting authoritative; that was good. That was what they were for. That was normal.

"Leader," Rhydian said steadily, regarding her. "I told you not two days ago that if you hid something pertinent to national security from me I'd let Eifion play with you. And you disobeyed that order."

He rubbed a hand over the back of his neck wearily. Eifion looked delighted.

"I can't allow Alpha Wingleaders to pick and choose which orders they want to obey," Rhydian said gravely. "Particularly this close to Owain. It sets a dangerous precedent. But; your reasons were entirely noble, and the consequences of your disobedience seem to have just saved Cymru from going down a path it shouldn't."

"Which has given us quite the headache, bach," Gwenllian told her. "We're going to be at this all day now. And I wanted to go swimming today."

"Gwen, I swear, one of these days I will push you off a runway," Rhydian muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose. He looked at Awen. "She's right, though. We're not sure what to do with you. But, as I say, you disobeyed a direct order, which can't go unpunished. Which you know."

"I do, Councillor," Awen said tonelessly. She didn't look at Eifion.

"Very well," Rhydian said. "You can take the punishment while we discuss your ultimate fate; you'll go with Eifion now for another lesson in pain processing that is to last no longer than five minutes -"


"What?" Eifion said, startled. "Five minutes?"

"Five minutes," Rhydian repeated, supremely unconcerned at the number of people staring at him. "Your claim, Eifion, doesn't seem to me to be as great as Lord Gwilym's."


"Mine?" Gwilym asked blankly. "What do - ?"

"She made you hide the murder of your family," Rhydian said calmly. "That officially makes you the victim of her crime. So, five minutes with Eifion as the Union punishment followed by three hours with you, Sovereign, to do as you will. This is an organisation for justice, afterall."

The murmur was back, more than a few people grinning; although Eifion looked like he'd just swallowed vinegar. Awen's head swam. Did they not realise? Had they not heard Gwilym, down in the cells? He was inexplicably happy with her. He wasn't going to do anything to her. Although Eifion was now going to really get creative if he only had five minutes -

Rest of the Wing, rest of the Wing
, her internal Rider screamed frantically, and Awen's head snapped up.

"Councillor?" she said quickly, wrestling the panic from her voice. Rhydian gave her an impassive nod. "Would you agree that since the crime was mine alone the punishment should be too?"

"Definitely," Gwenllian broke in, leaning forward. "No torturing anyone else, Eifion. You'll make us look unjust."

Eifion's nostrils flared, his eyes fixed on Awen.

"Absolutely," he said coolly, rising from his seat. An almost reptillian smile twisted his lips as he decended from the dais, moving towards her. "I shall focus my efforts entirely on Leader Awen."

The fear blazed up in her, gripping her heart icily and leaving her light-headed. Her breathing had gone shallow, Awen could tell, but she couldn't control it; every nerve in her body was bracing for fight-or-flight, and it was all she could do to halt her reaction to a single step back, away from Eifion as he approached, his smile filling with lazy, sadistic enjoyment -

Gwilym's hands caught her shoulders and she froze, her fingers flexing vainly against the leather as she automatically tried to clutch at him. Eifion stopped maybe a foot from her and caught her chin with one hand, raising her head sharply. It didn't raise far. The edge of the collar halted the back of her skull, digging in painfully. Awen very carefully didn't make a sound.

"Well then," Eifion purred. "Five minutes, eh, Leader? We'll have to make sure it's quality and not quantity."

"It should be timed," Gwilym said behind her suddenly, his voice strong. Eifion's gaze slid to him, eyes sharp. "If it's only going to be five minutes, Councillor Eifion will need to know when to stop. And I'll need to know when to start."

"Good point," Rhydian said neutrally. "I trust you can do so, Sovereign?"

"Oh, yes." Gwilym sounded almost bright, and one hand vanished from her shoulder for a moment. "See? I have a watch."

"Very well," Rhydian's voice said, and it sounded to Awen almost... careful. " You stop the moment he tells you to, Eifion. Give it five minutes, Sovereign. Off you go."

"Off we go," Eifion smiled, his gaze snapping back to Awen, and finally he let go of her chin and swept abruptly away, signalling the Guards. "Come along then, Sovereign. The sooner we start, eh?"

"Perhaps," Gwilym agreed as they all fell into a procession behind Eifion, out of the hall. Gwilym was looking at a brass pocket watch, a slight smile under the neatly clipped beard. For once, Awen didn't try to decipher it. Walking was hard enough. Her legs felt like they'd turned to wood.

There were more staring, silent Riders outside, none of whom made a sound since the procession was headed by Eifion. The Wing could have been there. Awen wasn't sure, her eyes watching the floor exhaustedly.

"I don't understand," she muttered to Gwilym as they marched down the corridor outside. Her heart was beating so loudly it must have been audible to everyone else, and it took an effort not to stumble. Gwilym's hand tightened on her shoulder. "I don't understand why they're doing this."

"Because they're Riders, Awen," Gwilym said, giving her a slightly odd smile. "Whatever else they may be. You've just told them that they've failed Cymru. And, you know, you were right and that. Now they feel incredibly guilty and indebted to you for saving the country from them. Well done!"

"From them?" Awen asked, panicky. "That's what - ? But I didn't! I saved it from Flyn!"

His arm slid around her waist under her arms again and pulled her tightly against his side.

"So long as you can agree you saved it," he grinned happily, "you can argue it was from rogue bears if you like. You're making tremendous progress! Well done."

"I definitely don't understand why you're doing this," Awen said fervently, ignoring him. "Are you angry with me at all? You must be."

"It wouldn't be fair to be," Gwilym said thoughtfully. "You think as you've been trained to think. You act according to that. And I know how guilty you felt about it."

He shrugged, as though that explained everything and made it all okay. Awen stared at him.

"And anyway, as I say: you were always going to make me open it," Gwilym said, smiling at her. "So that explains everything and makes it all okay."

"I let them die," Awen said flatly. "In the first place. It's very specifically my job to make sure my Sovereign doesn't have people murdered."

"Oh, come on." Gwilym grinned, although his eyes were hard. "That was Owain again. And we've been over this. It doesn't matter what the consequences are - you couldn't have seen what happened to him. You therefore can't be responsible for what he did either."

"That's very logical, Sovereign," Awen sighed, morosely. "I wish I worked like that emotionally."

"Don't we all," Gwilym laughed for a moment; and then he looked at her, his gaze soft and intent all at the same time. "Listen, Awen," he said gently. "We can talk about this all day, but you're right; you can't make yourself believe me. So see it this way: they died, and they shouldn't have. But you, and you alone, avenged them. You made it right. Their murderer is now facing a rather satisfyingly grisly end. That's because of you."

"Yes," Awen said reluctantly as they navigated a staircase at surprisingly high speed. For an old man Eifion could really move when motivated. "But that won't bring them back, Sovereign."

"Then you might like to consider all of the people you've saved," Gwilym said gently. "How many people don't need to be brought back because of you, do you think? How many lives, how many communities are around because of you? And those are directly your fault."

"In here," Eifion said, and Awen looked up. He was smiling nastily at her, holding open a door; she blinked and looked around, and found they'd entered the Interrogation Sector without her noticing, the ornate decoration of the main corridors replaced with bare plaster and stone. The rooms at the end of the corridor linked into the medical centre and Haf was standing in the doorway to it, arms crossed and eyes narrowed as she watched Eifion. Awen took a deep breath to steady herself. Well, if Haf was already on hand, it would make immediate medical treatment far easier afterwards. That was a definite plus. Although given the girl's expression it was a minor miracle Eifion's eyebrows hadn't combusted.

She stepped through the door, and carefully kept her eyes on the stone floor rather than the rows of instruments on the walls. It was a comparitively small room, about six metres square and utterly cheerless. A small drain was set into the floor in the corner, and there was a lit brazier to one side. Five minutes, Awen thought firmly. Just five minutes, and Gwilym wouldn't let it go over. She could take that. She'd taken far worse. It was just a test, really, that was all -

"Over here, then, Leader," Eifion said, the dark delight almost tangible. His bony hand gripped an upper arm and pulled without warning, reigniting the pain that flared across her shoulders and making Awen's heart produce a spirited attempt to exit her body via her ears; but Gwilym's hand stayed on the small of her back as she was yanked forward. Grimly, Awen gritted her teeth and let Eifion drag her into the middle of the room. Five minutes, she thought sternly. Just five minutes. It was fine.

"Chain her ankles," Eifion commanded, and a Guard Rider stepped forward, his square face blank. "Together and to that ring in the floor. Hurry up; the Sovereign doesn't want to be holding her forever, I'm sure."

Gwilym's look was pure venom, but he simply glanced at the watch and said nothing. Awen watched Eifion as he prowled one wall of implements, ignoring the sudden weight of the chains as they were clicked into place. The nerves were making her feel nauseous. It was the waiting, she thought distractedly. Waiting to see what would happen was so much worse than it actually happening, and waiting for Eifion to choose what to do was -

He reached out a claw-like hand and lifted down a chain-whip, and mentally Awen swore as viciously as she could. Chain-whips weren't used for beating people, not as such; a surface that hard generally resulted in splintered ribs and such, which wasn't really ideal. But metal heated up so easily. Awen watched defeatedly as Eifion laid the length of chain into the brazier, the flames caressing the links. She could take an awful lot of pain, really, but gods she hated burns. Which Eifion knew, of course. And it was the sort of injury that lasted long after five minutes.

"Right," Eifion said, that disturbing happiness still evident as he crossed the room back to her again. "Nearly ready to start. Now -"

He reached up above her, and Awen heard the sound of metal moving through a pulley. A suspension hook? she wondered gloomily. Probably. Eifion was generally keen on them, and it was a logical way of keeping her still in the middle of the room. She felt something being attached to her wrists, braced herself with a spike of adrenaline and closed her eyes -

Her arms were hauled upwards hard, still tightly sheathed and joined at the elbow behind her, and for a second the pain in her upper arms and shoulders was so great Awen couldn't actually breathe. It was like fire sweeping through, the abruptly stretched nerves screaming a path from shoulders to wrists, making her bound fingers tingle and flare at the damage. The tendons felt torn. Instinctively she tried to step forward, to give herself space to bend slightly and alleviate the strain, but the chain on her ankles didn't move, tipping her forward and leaving her upper body weight actually hanging for a moment on the damaged muscles -

But she couldn't scream. She wouldn't. Even as Awen scrambled to centre her weight back onto the balls of her feet and off her shoulders as much as possible she was still bent at somewhere around forty-five degrees, very much facing the floor, and her loose hair had fallen forward to effectively blinker her; but she could feel Gwilym there, the most important thing in the world currently and already suffering. Awen heard the sharp intake of breath, felt the hand he still had on her ribcage tense up in horror, and bit down on the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood.

It was fine really, she thought dizzily. Now that the original trauma was done the nerves were adapting, accepting the pain and letting her mind refocus. She'd definitely felt worse. And anyway...

Well, to be honest, there was the far more pressing matter of breathing. That was the trouble with stress positions - if the body could function as normal it wouldn't be a stress position, and currently her lungs were not at libety to inflate as they were meant to be. And that bloody collar wasn't helping. It pressed unrelentingly against her throat, the stiff leather forced back by her arms but unyielding. Awen gritted her teeth. The overall effect was almost enough to panic her, the depleted oxygen levels leaving her light-headed as she was reduced to a shallow, rasping breathing that just wasn't working -

Awen wrestled her mind to an approximation of calm, and just focused on getting air into her thorax. It was good. It took her mind off the pain.

"... damage has it done?" Gwilym was demanding sharply to her left, and she listened out with half an ear, the two activities taking up her concentration sufficiently to ignore the throbbing agony in her arms. "Will that have torn anything? Dislocated anything?"

"Oh, no," Eifion said lazily behind her, and Awen's skin crawled as she felt one of his hands push roughly between the skin of her back and the jerkin of her uniform, the flat of a knife blade following it before tearing away the leather. "If she weren't as flexible it probably would have, of course, but we train them gymnastically."

"Of course," Gwilym said sourly, taking out and checking the pocket watch with his free hand again. The other slid around to the side of now-exposed skin, out of the way of Eifion's knife. Awen tried not to tremble. "Silly me. This is perfectly safe."

"Ah, well." Eifion's smile was audible, bypassing Awen's blinkered vision. His feet started to come into view as he worked his way around her. "I never said it was safe, Sovereign. A lot can be done in five minutes."

"Correct me if I'm wrong, Councillor, but those are the words of an evil man."

"I do a job, Sovereign," Eifion said baldly. He stepped in front of her, and Awen's vision was filled with the view of his body from the stomach down, his hands and the knife. She twitched. "That's all. It's simply expertise. And Leader Awen here could tell you the same thing. She's trained in interrogation herself."

"You have me confused with some sort of gullible idiot, Councillor," Gwilym said disgustedly. "I've no love of torture, I'll freely admit, but the difference between using it to obtain information from known criminals and using it because you like it is sickeningly vast."

"This is training, Sovereign," Eifion pressed on remorselessly. The knife ripped across the front of the jerkin an inch below the collar and he tore the rest of the leather away, dropping it to the floor and sadly leaving the bloody collar in place, although dazedly Awen reflected it was probably something of a blessing in disguise. Breath control was her primary pain processing technique, and currently she was being forced to adopt it. "The more Leader Awen experiences the more knowledge she gains, and therefore the more she can apply in her own work. And, of course, she'll think twice before addressing the Council like that again."

"Perhaps you weren't paying attention," Gwilym said, unimpressed. "The Council needed someone to address them like that."

"I agree." He hadn't moved from in front of her, Awen realised suddenly; and as the adrenaline streamed through her heart again Eifion's hand shot forward and took both braids in one fist. "But it doesn't change the fact that we have a hierarchy, Sovereign, that must be observed. Here, Leader Awen is not at the top of it. Something that she needs reminding of..."

His hand slid mockingly and inexorably down the plaits, moving towards the beads, and Awen blinked through the wave of nausea that swept through her, leaving her mouth tasting sour and skin pricked with sweat. Be objective, she ordered herself hastily. They're just bits of glass, nothing else; they're not attached, they don't feel, nor should you... But his hand was getting closer, and she felt dizzy, she felt sick -

Gwilym's hand descended like the wrath of the gods and gripped both sets of beads, enveloping them easily in his fist, and Eifion froze.

"You'll find," Gwilym said coldly, "that you don't have a right to those anymore."

The silence was deadly. Awen trembled, and thanked as many gods as she could think of that she could see neither man's face. Eifion's aged, withered fingers tightened in front of her, the knuckles turning blue, and she fought her voicebox to stay immobile.

"Yes," Eifion said after a moment, very carefully, and his hand slowly withdrew. "My apologies, Sovereign. I'd forgotten about your... relationship."

The relief was intense, and probably disproportionate given that he was about to burn the skin off her back, but Awen didn't care. If nothing else, she was leaving here with beads intact and unviolated. That was important. It mattered. And she'd have walked through fire for Gwilym in that moment.

"Are you okay?" Gwilym murmured softly as Eifion stepped away, vanishing from her tiny field of vision. He still had hold of the beads, the other hand holding the pocket watch. Awen shivered, and winced as it strained her arms. "Sorry. Clearly you can't talk. And, indeed, aren't okay. That was probably annoying."

She wanted to laugh, wanted desperately to see his smile. All she could spare was a weak snort, an act that felt like it used up far too much of the precious oxygen she was getting into her lungs as it was. The hand holding the beads moved forward and Gwilym's thumb ran tenderly along her jaw, soothing her slightly.

"Just hold on a bit longer," he said quietly, the hideous sound of metal on metal announcing Eifion removing the chain-whip from the brazier screaming along Awen's nerves, almost giving her heart a seizure. The watch moved subtley forward into her field of vision, slanted so she could see the face. "Just a bit longer, that's all."

"Only five minutes, eh?" Eifion said with cruel cheer. His footsteps came closer, every one making Awen flinch, her breathing trying to accelerate away from her; desperately, she cast about for something else to focus on, and stared at the ticking second hand on the watch. "Well, it can't be helped. Too much of a good thing, as they say."

It was a fancy watch, not of Cymric make - presumably Gwilym had bought it in some incredibly foreign place Awen had only heard of. The design was different from normal, though. It had more dials on the sides, and now that she looked at it, not enough hands. It only had one, and a static marker that could be moved around the clock face -

"Out of deference to your... relationship, Sovereign, I'll leave her otherwise clothed," Eifion said graciously. Gwilym sniffed.

"Magnanimous," he said.

Awen stared at the watch that wasn't a watch, the Intelligencer trying to decipher it. The numbers went to sixty. Not twelve - specifically sixty. The ticking hand was making a ticking sound, but it wasn't moving like a normal second hand - for a moment she thought it was stationary, before a concentrated stare just about picked up the slow movement. It was very nearly touching the red digit at the top, the number she now knew as zero; and the static marker to the side had been set to the number five -

It was counting down the minutes.

And it had already started.

"Right then!" Eifion said brightly. "Are we ready to begin, Sovereign?"

"No," Gwilym said sourly. "But you are."

The watch hand moved, so infinitesimally slowly, onto the red zero.

"Naturally," Eifion smiled, and the shadows moved -

It was difficult to tell at first whether the impact or the heat hurt more. The metal seared across the left side of her lower back, the force of the blow easily affecting the deeper muscles and clearly instantly bruising, the shock of the force resonating through her body. But impact pain faded. The burning did not. It raged on, an internal fire devouring the flesh.

Awen screamed.

She couldn't help it. It had been a while since she'd been branded or whatever, and the shock of it took her by surprise; but she strangled the sound and forced her mind viciously back to the breathing, ignoring the stars in her vision, the roaring in her ears, the blistering agony in her back that made her teeth jolt and drowned out the mere pain she felt in her shoulders and cheek. It was bearable, it was, she just had to dig deep, she just had to -

The watch made an odd sound, like a single bell ring, and was withdrawn from her field of vision.

"Excellent!" Gwilym said brightly. "Five minutes! She's mine now."

"What?" Eifion's voice was almost a snarl, fury and frustration combined. "Perhaps you misheard, Sovereign! I have been given five minutes, not five seconds of -"

The pain crescendoed in a new wave, overwhelming her defences for a moment and leaving her breathlessly hanging from the chains -

- the forest is cold, snow on the ground in patches and frost on the rest, the still air filled with rising steam from breath and bodies and blood, and they aim for her, four of them coming at once and from different sides, and she turns too slowly, the axe carving into her back and the next swinging down to cleave her skull and someone is screaming her name -

Gwilym's hands caught both of her shoulders firmly, the snap back to the present only marginally better, and Awen stamped down the wordless cry in her throat.

"... when he told me to in the Council Chamber," Gwilym was saying calmly and matter-of-factly. "Please do go and double check if you're unsure. But you were also told to stop when I told you to, Councillor, which I have. Do you have the keys, Rider?"

"Yes, Sovereign," the Guard Rider said uncertainly by the door. "Should -?"

"Do it," Eifion spat. "Give him what he wants. It seems that's the Council's wish these days. Very well, Sovereign. Enjoy your three hours."

"Thank you," Gwilym said mildly to the sound of retreating footsteps. The door slammed, and the Guard Rider appeared in front of Awen's eyes, unlocking the heavy manacles around her ankles.

"Well done," he said fervently, looking up at Gwilym. "I've never known anyone do that before, Sovereign."

"Oh, I'm fine-tuning my skills at annoying Riders these days," Gwilym agreed grimly. "How do we get her down without -?"

"Hold her." The Guard Rider vanished again, and after a moment Awen felt the chain holding her up tremor slightly. "She won't be able to stand just yet, but her arms will have to come down slowly."

Gently, so gently, Gwilym's arms wrapped around her, carefully supporting her and avoiding her back.

"I've got her," he said quietly.

"I'll start lowering it," the Rider's voice said. "Take her down to the floor, slowly..."

The upwards force that her arms had adapted to loosened, and the friction as they were lowered even an inch was enough to make her vision grey at the edges again, but Awen didn't care. It was a better pain than the burning, distracting enough to take her mind off it, and almost instantly she sagged in Gwilym's arms, feeling his strength as he held her up. What the hell was he doing with her? she wondered wearily for the eightieth time. All she'd done so far was use him, and yet here he was still, joyfully holding her up.

"I bet I know what you're thinking," Gwilym murmured as he gently guided her to her knees. "Stop it."

"I was thinking they should paint this room," Awen managed somehow, her voice strangled. Gwilym laughed.

"A nice relaxing green," he said. Her arms went through being horizontal blindingly painfully. "You never know, it may calm Eifion a bit. Should I bother asking how you are?"

Gods it hurt. Oxygen came flooding back to her lungs and all she could do for a moment was breathe, the sound rapid and shallow in the room, her skin covered in sweat as her body reacted to the pain.

"No," she gasped as her arms just about reached her back again. "It would only depress you. And you wouldn't believe me."

"Ah." Gwilym grinned, carefully lying her down on her side to start work on the arm restraints. "You've got the 'I've had worse' response lined up, then. You know you're distressingly beautiful even when suffering terrible trauma?"

"You know you're bloody weird?"

"And you're definitely not the first woman to say that to me," Gwilym said morosely, and looked up at the Guard Rider. "Could you fetch a healer, sorry?"

"Sovereign." The Rider moved swiftly to the door and then paused, glancing back at them hesitantly. "I... Leader? I just want to say - it's an honour."

And he actually Saluted her before slipping swiftly out of the door.

Awen stared, shock actually overriding the pain for a moment.

"Did he just -?"

"You're really going to have to get used to it," Gwilym said, a gleeful grin in his voice. "You did an excellent thing today. Above and beyond, they call it. Brace yourself."

Although that unfortunately reminded her of the burn, and for a moment the agony was so great again that she couldn't breathe and her head swam, toes curling and teeth grinding together. By the time she'd managed to blink away the spots and focus she found her elbows were now separate again as the gods had intended, Gwilym carefully holding her left forearm off her back.

"Thank you," Awen panted.

"You know, I didn't know a person's elbows could touch behind their back?" he said grimly. "Funny what you learn in a day."

"It's easier with women," Awen said tiredly, savouring the cold of the stone floor against her forehead. The door opened and the Rider returned with Haf, indigo robe swirling about her bare feet. "Shoulders are narrower. More of a risk of dislocation with men."

"Right," Haf said sourly, dropping to her knees imperiously in front of Awen and making her flinch. "Oh, he burned you. Delightful. And I see you're bearing it without doing anything so weak and human as screaming."

"I screamed," Awen said defensively, but no one was listening to her anymore.

"Yes, is that normal behavious for Riders?" Gwilym asked, aggrieved. "I mean, I can tell it's for me, but it actually unnerves me more."

"Oh, yes, they all do it," Haf said disapprovingly. "Show a Rider a fully-grown human being and they just try to protect them, whether they need it or not. Has she told you she's fine?"

"She told me she's had worse, in not so many words."

"I have," Awen protested, but no one listened.

"It would be pathetic if it weren't so heartbreaking," Haf declared. "Good news. I can fix this. We'll need to get her next door, though."

"Really?" Gwilym said brightly. "Excellent! Here -"

The leather slid off both arms, freeing her aching fingers at last and pulling one last explosion of pain from her shoulders as both Haf and Gwilym gently lowered her arms to her sides. The cool air of the room instantly chilled the sweat coating her skin, creating a welcome counterpoint to the fire in her back. Awen shivered, and closed her eyes. The last of her energy had gone, it seemed.

"Alright," Haf said, business-like. "Can you sit her up, Sovereign? I need her to drink this."

"Ooh, an exciting mystical concoction." Gwilym's hand found her hip and shoulder and rolled her gently onto her right side before lifting her. The burnt skin stretched, and Awen just managed to rein back from a scream to a whimper. His fingers tightened on her shoulders.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly. Awen shook her head.

"Not your fault," she managed. "It's... what did you give Flyn? Mutant birds, yeah?"

"Better!" Gwilym said brightly. Awen opened her eyes as Haf passed her a goblet, the standard smell of boiled plant coming from the water within. "Dancing ninjas! Or at least, dancing ninjas if those are what killed Nerys Morgannwg. He's getting what she got."

"Yeah?" Haf gave him an impressed look. "You're my kind of politician, Sovereign."

"You say that now," Gwilym said gravely. "Just wait a few years until I'm mad. Then I won't be."

"He doesn't like torture, either," Awen said. She stared at the goblet in her hands. Her fingers were just starting to develop pins and needles, and would soon be incapable of holding it, so she had to hurry; but after three attempts she was still no closer to getting her arms and shoulders to lift it to her mouth. "I don't... think..."

"Here." And suddenly, the hard edges were gone from Haf, her manner all compassion and gentleness. She plucked the goblet from Awen's unresisting fingers and put it to her lips for her, and Awen gave up. Even drinking was hard - her breathing was still faster than normal, and the collar pressed against her throat with every swallow - but after the first few mouthfuls she didn't seem to mind anymore. Gwilym's body was a solid, reassuring presence behind her, and Haf was holding the cup with just one hand, the other winding itself lazily and luxuriously through Awen's hair as she whispered something. Awen tried to listen, and then gave that up too. It didn't matter, she thought sleepily. It was comforting, whatever it was, and safe, and... and...

She drifted, warm and secure and content. She basked in contentment, wrapping it around herself and savouring it, letting go of everything else, and just... drifted...

Time passed, after a fashion. She couldn't feel it entirely, and had no idea how much, but it passed. She didn't mind. Something left her after a while, that streamed away and evaporated into the ether, but Awen didn't try to follow or reclaim it. She hadn't noticed it, but it was... better, now that it was gone. She was better. She gloried in the contentment, and let herself drift on, through time, undisturbed...

"Open your eyes, Rider."

It was a whisper, warm and compassionate, that reached her and pulled her gently back into her body; her back was slightly sore and her shoulders ached a bit, and her eyes slid open of their own accord -

It was the most beautiful thing Awen had ever seen. The colours were jewel-bright and breathtaking, the irridescence of a kingfisher's wing, azure and turquoise and grass and sea and amber flame, sunlight-gold, all swirling and whirling into intricate patterns that danced and evolved and sang to her, the singing of the silent harp. It was the beauty of innocence, of purity, of sacrosanct balance and hallowed wisdom, whole and complete and perfect enough that seeing it alone was a privilege, an honour, and -

- something hovered above it, between her and the water's surface.

It was dead, Awen thought. It was rotting, putrifying, the occasional glimpses of its flesh tinged with green and black as it flaked off the bone in clumps, but they were only glimpses because of the blood. And there was so much blood. It was black, coating the thing in a gelatinous layer that had to be at least an inch thick, possibly more, while fresher, redder blood oozed thickly from gaps, dropping into the pool -

The horror of it would have brought her to her knees, but she was dimly aware that she already was. She might have screamed. Certainly she tried to; just as she tried to lunge for the thing, to grab it, to drag it away from the sanctity of the pool, to stop its defilement. But she couldn't move. She could only watch, appalled and horrified, as the thing moved closer, ever closer, strings of blood dripping from it like saliva and catching on the swirling water where the colours changed, darkening and mutating into crimson and jet -

And then she saw the hands, and realised what it was, and she wanted to die.

It was true horror, Awen found. She raged, and screamed, and tore at her arms, but it didn't matter. She was only free to do so in her mind. Her body didn't listen, her eyes staying fixedly open to show her the vile atrocity of what she was doing as her arms neared the water -

- Gwion's dead-alive eyes watch her, a hollow accusation as a bear rears up behind him, snarling, its limbs contorting into Owain's leering battle-bright face -

- "You were betrayed twice," Madog snarls at her. "Once by Owain and once by the Union."-

"He wasn't your fault," a voice whispered. Awen whimpered, the water below her hands raging away from her, foaming almost in its revulsion, and she begged mentally for it all to stop -

- "You were always too good for us," he whispers, his face shattered, and she misses him, this murderer, this sick destroyer of everything good, and wants him to come home -

- "It's not him," Gwilym tells her, his hands merciful. "You miss the one you knew. You wish he was still the same, that's all" -

The water brushed her fingers, the cold chilling her to the bone, the kaleidoscope screaming its pain beneath her and Awen sobbed, clawing frantically at herself to stop but unable to -

- "Take this," she says cruelly, handing him his family's murder. "Don't open it unless I let you. Or perhaps I'll make you burn it -"

- "You were always going to make me open it," he says, his eyes looking straight through her, seeing everything she is and isn't. "That's who you are. How many have you saved?" -

The water closed around her wrists, boiling in its hatred and yet freezing her skin, the colours all gone and replaced simply with black, roiling and seething -

- The children stand in lines, blank and empty, an entire generation lost -

- "How many have you saved?" he asks. "Those are your fault too." -

- The Council stand in lines, watching her through masks of rage. "You over-rode us," one hisses. "What gave you that right?What gave you that presumption, Awen Masarnen?They will pay for your interference -"

"I have saved them from you," she declares defiantly, and she looks, and searches; but there is no remorse, not even its shadow -

The water roared around her elbows, the blood being torn away from her skin and into the maelstrom and Awen stared at it, her mind wheeling -

- "There's no difference between us," he says mockingly.

"I knew I'd never escape," she says -

- "It will never be equal," she begs him, holding him away at arms' length. "I can never tell you; you'd never know-" -

- "I love you too," he whispers, beautiful -

The blood spun away over the currents, rippling across the eddies and whirlpools before being torn beneath the riptides of the black water. It howled in Awen's ears, its song turned to screams, rejecting the pollutant and flinging it away, and still she couldn't move to spare it, couldn't stop -

The shadows moved, and just for a moment, just in the corner of Awen's eye, a meraden reared above her, its wings outstretched and hooves raised and she could feel Rhiannon's presence, her skin tingling from head to toe as the water roared up -

And suddenly it swirled, just once, and the black washed away, the blues and greens and golds streaming back in, and Awen looked down at her arms, clean and bare beneath the surface, and the tingle in her skin suffused inwards -

Peace closed about her like a fist.