Saturday, 27 February 2010

NoBrow feral child

Did this for a competition.

Yes, I know about the toes.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Cymru - Chapter 35


Aerona had met and worked with a few Intelligencers in her time, but Dylan's technique was fascinating. She was used to seeing the chameleon approach, as so successfully demonstrated by Awen; you slipped yourself seamlessly into whatever character best suited the situation, never arousing suspicion and obtaining the intelligence almost by simply being there. Dylan, though, remained resolutely himself. People seemed to crumble in the face of such fearsome quirkiness. And when backed up by Adara, who wasn't an Intelligencer but had a level of quirk all of her own, they got results astonishingly fast. Within half an hour of prowling Tregwylan's lower levels and offices Aerona was holding a file containing the official Phoenician trade agreement and enough receipts to threaten a forest.

"Excellent!" she said happily as they left the final office with the final bewildered clerk. "That was much faster than I expected. Ooh, could we go and see my children a minute? Just so I can remind them all to behave."

"We ran into some children in Casnewydd and Awen told them about the time I decapitated a man with my bare hands," Adara said mildly to Dylan's snort. Aerona stared at her.

"You did what?"

"Well, I didn't actually because my fingers aren't razors," Adara shrugged. "It's what she tells people, though."

"But why would-?"

"Because she decapitated him with cheesewire," Dylan grinned. His grin had become distinctly disquieting with the black scarring around his eyes. "Adara is win."

"Why did you even have cheesewire?" Aerona giggled, and Adara gave her a pained look.

"I was making snares out of it, okay?" she said defensively. "It makes for a quicker and therefore more pleasant kill. And it was there in my pocket."

"We should tell your bantam humans," Dylan told Aerona as they turned the corner to the classroom. The happy sounds of children at play were spilling out of the open doorway ahead. "Then we can tell them to either behave in your absense or Adara will take their thumbs."

"Their thumbs?" Aerona regarded him for a moment. "Was that a threat used on you as a child?"

Dylan put on his morose face.

"All the time," he said in his best victim's voice. "By Madog. He abuses me so, Aerona. And sometimes he touches me."

"And you love it," Adara sniffed. Dylan laughed. "I told Owain once that after you die you come back as either a cat or a brick depending on whether you were cool or not, and he'd therefore be a brick. It took five druids to convince him I was lying."

"Awesome!" Dylan said brightly. "Hey, I'm telling Madog that. And Menna. She owes me a pint."

"Will she be a cat once she's paid up?" Aerona giggled, but before they had chance to hear his answer they'd walked through the door, and a waist-high wave of children surged at them.

"Miss! Miss, have you been fighting Saxons again?"

"You've been gone ages!"


"Three days," Siona corrected quietly, but no one listened.

"Miss, you know them Saxons? Were you fighting them?"

"Look miss, I fell over! Didn't cry, though."

"She didn't. She was good, miss."

"Hello, Riders."

The last was Bronwen, solemnly, Saluting Adara and Dylan with wide eyes. The others fell quiet and followed suit, staring. Which was fair, Aerona considered. Dylan's eyes were rather intimidating right now, and Adara had a bird perched on one shoulder. Dylan grinned, and Saluted lazily back.

"Hello, mini-Riders," he said, which earned him the love of the class. Adara simply smiled and Saluted. Clearly, she wasn't one for children.

"Everyone," Aerona said, pulling their attention away. "This is Dylan, Deputy of the Alpha Wing in Wrecsam, and this is Adara, who does the same job for Casnewydd at the moment."

Morgan's hand shot upwards, narrowly missing Siona's ear.

"Miss!" he said, eagerly. "Were you fighting the Saxons again?"

"Yes," Aerona said. Happily, it was half the truth. "Yes, I was-"

"With us," Dylan grinned. "She killed at least thirty by herself, too. And she got injured."

Ten faces turned adoring stares onto Aerona, who winced.

"Thanks," she told him reproachfully. "Now-"

"Miss, that's awesome!"

"Where were you injured?"

"Did you cry?"

"Of course not, she's a Rider, Morgan..."

"Were they scary, miss?"

"Did you nearly die?"

"Enough!" Aerona laughed, and they fell attentively quiet. "Thank you. Now; have you all been good in the meantime?"

"Yes, miss," they chorused. Aerona beamed, and wondered privately if it was true.

"Excellent!" she said. Beside her, Adara elbowed Dylan as he opened his mouth. "Well done! And what's that, Carys?"

"We made it for you, miss!"

She held up a large square of paper covered in an amateurish painting of what were presumably merod, unless the children had decided to try their hands at flying cows or pigs. Riders were on their backs, each with a carefully blank face; as near as Aerona could tell from the coloured blobs that were hair, they'd painted themselves and her. A sprig of what could have been rowan berries had been included in the corner.

"It's beautiful!" Aerona said, taking it carefully. Ten faces beamed at her. "And are these berries safe to eat?"

"Yes miss, because they have no waxy leaves and no milky sap," Morgan said proudly.

"Very good," Aerona said approvingly, giving him a hug. It turned into a group hug, somewhat predictably, although Bronwen's arm pressed against Aerona's shoulder blade, still not quite healed from Cas-Gwent. She ignored the flash of pain, and smiled.

"Anyway," she said, disengaging herself carefully, "it was lovely seeing you all but I'm afraid I have to leave again."

The chorus of 'Noooo!' was wildly endearing, although the crestfallen faces made her feel guilty.

"Can't we go with you, miss?" Morgan asked plaintively, and Aerona giggled.

"No, my lovely, you can't," she said gently. "I'm going nowhere fun. But I'll be back soon. After the Archwiliad, probably."

"Can't we come to the Archwiliad, miss?" Bronwen asked, and Aerona grinned.

"What did I just say?" she laughed. "No you can't. Now, go on. Back to class! I need to be off."

They scampered obediently away and Aerona sighed, turning back to the others. Dylan was rubbing his ribs pointedly at Adara, who was ignoring him and stroking the red kite sitting on her shoulder.

"Okay!" Aerona said brightly. "We can go. At least three of them now want to own birds, though, and Morgan and Carys will probably spend the rest of the afternoon painting their eyes like yours, Dylan."

"Excellent," Adara said mildly. "Then our subversive quest is complete."

"I like your picture," Dylan said, looking at the painting in Aerona's hands. "It looks just like you."

"Yes, I'm frequently told about how I have no face," Aerona agreed. "Anyway. Shall we?"

"To the Union!" Adara said. "And then a road trip, like the excitings we are."

"Actually, not quite yet," Dylan grinned. "There's one last person we need to see."


"Now, his name is Hannibal," Dylan said knowingly as he knocked on the door of one of the nicer tradesmen's quarters. "He's very tall, because all they do all day in Nubia is grow. Try not to stare, he'll think we're ingrates, and Madog already told him I'm one."

"Wingleaders, eh?" Adara said. "Mine tells people I'm psychotic, yours tells people you're an ingrate."

"Yeah," Dylan said. "And yet, when they think you're dead, oh how do they cry."

"Mine tells people I play too many games," Aerona said sadly. "I just never understand. How can you play too many games?"

"Oh," Dylan said, snapping his fingers. "I is forgetful. Madog says he likes Riders."

"A good quality in a Wingleader if ever I heard one," Adara said mildly, and dodged as Dylan went to clip her around the ear.

"Hannibal likes Riders," he corrected her sternly. "As well you know. What are you, twelve?"

The door opened, and Aerona looked up. Dylan hadn't been joking. This man was tall. The top of her head reached his chest.

He was also incredibly exotic looking. He wore a robe made of cotton in deep reds and greens, expensive and impeccably well-wrapped around a broad frame that spoke of someone who spent most of their time manning a ship; a good sign, given that he was clearly rich enough to afford slaves. His skin was beautiful, velvet-black with an almost purple sheen, revealing a strongly-sculpted face with full nose and lips beneath his black and gold eyes. Three small gold hoops were threaded through his nose, more lining both ears with a slim chain hanging from his right earlobe. His hair was black and long, braided entirely and hanging to his shoulder blades.

He saw Dylan and his black-and-gold eyes lit up.

"Rider!" he said pleasantly, his voice so deep it could have vibrated a window. "It is a joy to see you again, my friend! To what must I owe the honour?"

And he bowed. Dylan took half a step back.

"Dammit, he warned me you'd do that," Dylan muttered. "I just didn't believe him. Hello, Hannibal, this is Aerona and this is Adara. Can we come in, please?"

"Certainly!" Hannibal stepped aside, grinning broadly as he gestured them in. "And it is a pleasure to meet you both, my friends. Would you care for tea? It is freshly made."

"Ooh, you're my kind of host," Aerona giggled, following Dylan in. "I think I could drink a lake's worth of tea a day."

"Ah! Myself as well," Hannibal said, his eyes twinkling as he shut the door softly behind them and moved gracefully to the table set up beneath the window where another man, similarly dressed but not as tall, was already calmly preparing additional cups. "And this is Ezana, one of my trading partners. Do sit! We have sugar, if you wish."

"Really?" Adara asked mildly. "There's indulgents you are. How luxurious."

"Who's buying it?" Dylan the Intelligencer asked interestedly, taking a seat with the air of someone used to sitting wherever he damn well liked and instantly making himself at home. Hannibal smiled, pouring out the tea.

"No one, as of yet," he said. "It is a personal supply. This is one point of many I would dearly love to discuss with your Union, in fact. But we digress. Might I ask what has become of your eyes?"

"I fought an evil druid until rescued by Aerona," Dylan said, and Aerona blushed. "Where's sugar from?"

"India," Hannibal said, pulling out chairs. He waved Aerona into one beside him and handed her a cup. "Or this particular sugar is. This is cane sugar. We wish to discuss beet sugar, however. But again, we digress! What brings such disparate Riders to me, my friends?"

"Madog's glowing praises," Dylan said indifferently. "We all want a go," and yelped as Adara managed to smack him about the head.

"The Audiences, actually," she said, giving Dylan a pointed look. "We have a proposition for you."

"Indeed?" Hannibal asked, his face alight with interest. Ezana straightened on the other side of Dylan. "And that would be?"

Dylan glanced at Aerona.

"She's your Sovereign," he smirked. "Unlucky. Go on."

"We'd like to offer you a chance to be a witness against an improperly behaving Sovereign," Aerona said happily. "Lady Gwenda, specifically, who has been selling weapons to Saxonia through Phoenicians. We've got the receipts, the serial numbers, the trade logs, the copy of the trade agreement and a sword plucked from a Saxon's cold, dead hands -"

"That was a good moment," Dylan grinned reminiscently.

"But we'd like someone to act as an expert witness to confirm that the serial numbers and such mean what we say they do," Aerona finished, ignoring him. "Um, particularly if you have any evidence to back it up. We don't want any shipping secrets," she added hastily as Hannibal opened his mouth. "Um, and don't feel pressured. If you do it we can guarentee you the Phoenician Audience, but we won't definitely take it away from you if you don't."

"This will guarentee us the Audience?" Ezana said, his eyebrows shooting upwards. "Truly? Simply confirming the route numbers and such?"

"Yeah, if you want it," Dylan sniffed. "It's boring, though, I'd say no. Sugary tea is nice."

"You have the attention span of half a kitten," Adara told him without rancour. Dylan grinned.

"I bet you say that to all the boys and girls," he said. Aerona sighed, and Hannibal laughed at her expression.

"Fascinating," he said, amused. "Madog reacted in much the same way to Dylan, you know. Yes, is my answer. I will speak for you, gladly. I would have done so without the promise of an Audience! I have our copy of the master book of Carthaginian trading; it contains the route numbers for all of the west. It should be sufficient."

"Yes!" Aerona clapped her hands, and threw her arms around Hannibal's neck. "Thank you! Now we can get her cautioned at least!"

"You are most welcome, my friend," Hannibal said merrily, gathering her firmly into his arms. They were quite possibly the same size as Aerona's head. "And you have done me a great favour also! This is one of my dreams."

"We can get you there today," Aerona said, disengaging herself. "We're going back to the Union now anyway, so we'll send a Carriage on to you. Unless you want to wait a bit."

"I cannot imagine he will," Ezana said wryly, and Dylan snorted.

"Yeah," he said. "Part of the deal is that you have to give me a sworn statement that Madog's really bad in bed, by the way."

Hannibal laughed again. Aerona could have sworn her tea rippled.

"I have told you before, my friend!" he said, amused. "I cannot! He was greatly impressive and I enjoyed it immensely."

"Surely you know, anyway?" Adara said, turning to Dylan and raising an eyebrow. "Clearly you and Madog have -"

"Yes," Dylan said irritably, waving a hand. "But no one believes me if I say he's bad in bed. Apparently, I'm not trustworthy or something."

"Well, you're not, in fairness," Adara said reasonably. "You call each other losers even when you're knee-deep in Saxons, like crazy people."

"I'm a tireless crusader for spreading the truth," Dylan shrugged. "Don't take his side. Anyway, he wanted me to say: what variations? I don't know what he's talking about."

Hannibal looked down at the cup in his hands, smiling.

"Tell him," he said carefully, "that there will be more knots. And that I'm honoured."

"By Madog? You're not," Dylan said decisively, downing the last of his tea. "It's a punishment. But clearly you have low standards."

"Perhaps we should have done this without you, Dylan," Aerona said. "Certainly I think we'd have made a more professional impression."

"Like bankers," Adara nodded sagaciously, and Aerona blinked.

"Perhaps I should have done this alone," she amended. "Although, if the subject of games comes up I'm a lost cause too. Perhaps we should have just made Awen and Madog do this."

"Is Madog well, now?" Hannibal asked suddenly. "When I met him he was worried about someone."

It was tiny - so tiny only Aerona, with all her extra training, picked it up - but Dylan froze for the smallest, briefest of moments.

"Yeah," he said dismissively. "He's his usual bubbly self. Which isn't much different from the version you met, because he's a loser and it weighs heavily on him."

"Who was he worried about?" Adara asked with mild interest. Dylan sniffed.

"One of our Riders," he said, his eyes catching Aerona's for an instant before tumbling away. "He's a loser too. Anyway, we need to roll."

"Yes, I suppose," Aerona sighed. She was rather enjoying herself, especially since she was back home. The background noise of the sea was like an old friend. She finished her tea. "We'll send you a Carriage today. A few hours, I'd have said."

"You honour us, Riders," Hannibal said, standing with them and bowing again, causing Adara to back away nervously. Aerona bowed back. "Truly. You cannot imagine what this means to us."

"Especially to Hannibal," Ezana purred, and held out a small paper bag to Aerona. "Here. It is sugar. Enjoy it, with our thanks."


They had a following wind for most of the flight back to the Union, so it was a mere two hours later that Aerona found herself at the door of Councillor Rhydian's office, a bulging file full of paper in one hand and knocking the door with the other while Dylan lurked over her shoulder with the Saxon sword. There was a short pause, then Rhydian's muffled voice drifted out.

"Come in!" he called merrily. Aerona put her hand on the doorknob and was about to open it when Dylan's hand descended over hers, halting her firmly. She looked up and he grinned wickedly at her, jerking his head to motion her behind him. Aerona obeyed. Like in the temple in Casnewydd, Dylan had lost his slightly scatty edge, a focus entering him that spoke of his shift into alert mode. Belatedly, she remembered whose office she was entering, and stepped back.

It was a good job she did. Dylan shoved the door open and stepped confidently through, ducking and punching out with his right arm as he went. Something bladed flew across the visible space of the doorway at head height, harmlessly passing above Dylan, while a yelp suggested that someone had just made contact. Dylan disappeared from view for a moment, and then a muffled thump echoed back.

"I yield," Rhydian said happily. "Well done."

Aerona stepped into the room cautiously and looked down. Dylan was sitting squarely on Rhydian's back, twisting one arm up between his shoulder blades and firmly gripping the back of Rhydian's neck with another hand. He sniffed and climbed off as Aerona stifled a giggle and shut the door, Rhydian getting up and massaging his arm.

"Owned you," Dylan said indifferently, swinging himself into a seat with the same irreverence he'd displayed with Hannibal earlier. It was being in an Alpha Wing, Aerona supposed. It probably did wonders for your attitude. Rhydian laughed as he rounded the desk, gesturing Aerona into her own chair.

"You did!" he said jovially. "It's fine, I'll get you back. What have you got for me?"

"Evidence against Lady Gwenda!" Aerona said, passing the file across. "Trade logs, shipping manifests, route numbers, the trade agreement, one Phoenician expert on the way who can confirm the routes and a sword."

"Excellent work," Rhydian said thoughtfully, opening the file and scanning a few pages. Dylan laid the sword carefully on the desk. "Well, that's more than enough for a caution, so the next five years will be pretty miserable for her at the very least. The witness?"

"His name is Hannibal," Aerona said helpfully. "He's got the Phoenician Audience. But he's willing to show his big official book of route numbers for us, so it's okay."

"He's not a slave trader, is he?" Rhydian asked suspiciously. "He doesn't expect us to sell him disused Wings in return?"

"No, he's weird," Dylan broke in. "He doesn't use slaves and he bows to Riders and stuff. Madog says he has a fetish."

"I think he wants to talk about sugar," Aerona added. "Er... beet sugar instead of cane sugar, he said. Or something."

"Hmm." Rhydian snapped the file closed and nodded. "Seems like an odd but upstanding fellow, anyway. Alright, get out and bring me Owain Masarnen's cringing, snivelling form. Alive, mind. We've got plans for that lad."

"Yeah, but," Dylan wheedled, "you don't need, say, his knee caps? Hamstrings? Fingers?"

"You let him bleed out and I'll have your fingers, Rider," Rhydian said pointedly. "Do what you have to. But bring him here alive, fully alive, and in a fit enough state for others to have their fun too. Your claim isn't as great."

"Oh fine," Dylan said, rolling his eyes and stretching. "Cut from the same cloth as Madog, this one. Let's go, Aerona. We need to go and have no fun at all."

"Maybe if you ask nicely you can have one of his eyes afterwards," Aerona suggested as they left, Rhydian absorbed in the paperwork. "You know, after his dispicable association with Iolo Mynwy cost you yours."

"Hey!" Dylan protested. "I've still got my eyes! They work!"

"Well, yes," Aerona giggled. "But they didn't in the temple. And since Madog's not here, I can say aloud that we both know you were in an awful lot of pain that day."

"Worth it, though," Dylan said smugly. "A Saxon thought I was a demon. That's just cool. Maybe I'll get a reputation now."

"You've already got one," Aerona said without thinking, and then cursed herself mentally as Dylan looked at her. "Sorry. I won't tell you. You must know you have one, though? I mean, you're a recognisable authority."

"It's the hair, isn't it," Dylan said morosely, and Aerona giggled again.

"I was going for the incredibly obvious collar," she said. "But I suppose there's that, too."

"I don't think I should go."

They both froze outside the door to the landing bay, Dylan's face becoming abruptly grave, his wandering eyes stilling as Adara's voice drifted out. Someone sighed.

"I need you to go," Awen said.

"You need me here."

"I need him here," Awen answered, an edge of brittle amusement lining her otherwise placid tone. Aerona peered around the doorframe.

They were alone in the landing bay, Adara leaning against her stable door with her back to Awen, her forehead propped up on one hand. Awen was standing a foot behind her, her arms wrapped loosely around her own ribs, watching Adara carefully. Her expression was almost agonised, completely at odds with the calm neutrality of her voice.

"Yeah," Adara said heavily. "So do I, for that matter. But I don't want to leave you now."

"You asked me to let you go," Awen said mildly. "Nearly begged -"

"Before you were dying," Adara snarled, slamming her hand in a fist to the top of the stable door. The change in Awen was remarkable. Her expression sharpened, focusing into predatory alertness, and both arms dropped from the self-hug into a ready position at her sides, weight shifting forwards -

- and she froze, her face painful to see as she withdrew back again.

"I'll still be here when you get back," Awen said. Her tone of voice was unnerving in constrast to her expression. "And much though I know you don't want to hear this -"

"There's nothing I can do here," Adara said harshly. "Yeah, I know. Except I'd get to see you before..."

She trailed off, and Awen closed her eyes, running her hand through her hair.

"If you bring him back it might help," she said, voice still eerily normal. "Stress relief, you know?"

Adara snorted, and rubbed her eyes.

"I know," she said wryly, turning around. Awen's face snapped abruptly to a neutral mask. "And I will. But it needs to work, Awen. We can't lose you both."

"We need him alive," Awen said, sidestepping. "But - and this is an order - if it comes to a situation in which it's either you or him, you damned well make sure it's him. Understand?"

"Leader," Adara nodded, and Awen gently reached out and took her hand. Aerona pulled back around the doorframe again, and met Dylan's eye.

"I think," Aerona said quietly, "we're going to have to jump in front of any arrows aimed at Adara."

Dylan grinned.

"Not a fair fight unless there's a challenge," he said, and sauntered into the stables, Aerona trotting after him. "Hey there, petals. Ready to ride?"

"Also, do I have to go with him?" Adara asked, mildly, taking her hand out of Awen's and opening her meraden's stable. "He's an odd, you know."

"It's Northlander eccentricity," Awen corrected, her easy smile perfect as she backed away and leaned casually against the stable opposite. "Just remember; they're people, too. Their ways may not be like ours, but such is the nature of the noble savage."

"Hey!" Dylan said sternly. "Who are you calling noble? That's partly Madog you're talking about."

"I wish you'd shut up," Madog's voice said wearily behind them, and Aerona giggled as he came in and gave Dylan a look. "I thought I'd see you off, but I rather wish I hadn't bothered now. Are you sure you don't want to keep him? You've got space."

"Of course she does," Dylan said indifferently as Awen grinned. "I'm a catch, Madog, and other people realise and appreciate it."

"Actually no," Awen told Madog, who laughed. "He'd lower the tone, I told you before. You'll have to cope."

"And there!" Dylan said, throwing an arm around Aerona's shoulders conspiratorially and pointing at Awen. "You see? You see that? I'd lower the tone! You hear the accent she's saying that in? She sounds like she's drawling."

"Apologise," Madog ordered automatically, looking at the ceiling. Awen laughed.

"Sorry, Awen."


"Sorry, Adara."

"Oh, you will be," Adara told him lightly, mounting up. "We've got time."

"Although not that much," Madog said pointedly. "Put Aerona down, Dylan, and get going."

"I rather like the Casnewydd accent, actually," Aerona said as she went to lead Briallu out of her stable. "It's quirky and individual."

"It's kind of you to say so," Awen smiled. "But you're the only living person who thinks so. It's actually vile."

"It is not!" Aerona chided her, springing into the saddle. "I mean, it can sound a bit..."


"Salty," Aerona corrected reproachfully. "But it doesn't when you speak."

"That's because she's a bard," Adara threw across sagaciously. "They have the trick of sounding like they're singing even when they're silent. You should have heard Owain. Whinge? And then some."

"That was more because he was actually whinging and less because of accent, mind," Awen said thoughtfully. "And his voice itself, which he couldn't help as you know."

"You mustn't blame people for things they can't help," Dylan said. "My mam said. This is why I don't blame Madog for being a loser. Not blame. Not as such."

"Very magnanimous," Aerona giggled, fastening the final strap of her harness. "Okay, I'm ready."

"I was already ready."

"I'm nearly ready," Dylan sniffed. "But once I am it will be better readiness than either of yours, and so will count for more."

"Gods," Madog muttered. "Enjoy him, guys. Experience my nightmare."

"Madog Helygen!" Dylan said disapprovingly. "Consider Awen's feelings! We're about to hunt down her nightmare."

Awen laughed.

"You can definitely keep him," she told Madog. "Right. Got the maps? Route descriptions?"

"Ooh, I have!" Aerona said happily. "Um, but I can't navigate to save my life, so I'll give them to someone else. Adara?"

"Ah, responsibility, my old nemesis," Adara said, riding over and taking the papers. "We meet again."

"Anything else we need to know?" Aerona asked, looking down at Awen. "Last minute hints and tips?"

"Don't take him on by yourself," Awen said seriously as they started moving to the runway. "He's an extremely good hand-to-hand fighter, it'll take at least two of you. Possibly all three to take him alive. He's a ranger, too, so be aware of how much of a target you make. He's particularly good with a crossbow. And he's extremely cunning. Your best chance is if you can take him by surprise, be as subtle as possible."

"Lame," Dylan complained. "I hate the clever ones. It's like they think they're human."

"He's not a Saxon, Dylan," Aerona giggled.

"If all else fails," Awen said, switching her gaze to Adara, "the best tactic I can think of is to let him think I'm there. We always were good at anticipating each other's moves. If you can guess what I'd have done, you'll know what he's likely to try to counteract me."

"Good one!" Dylan said approvingly. "Alright, alive if possible, dead if not, don't go all fox-and-chicken on the Saxons, back soon. Oh, and Phoenician say: more knots, is honoured. Bye, losers."

He dropped merrily off the runway, reappearing a second later drifting upwards.

"Come on!" he called back impatiently. "Gods, how long does it take?"

"He did say his readiness was better than hours," Adara observed. "See you when I get back?"

"Definitely," Awen said, reaching out and squeezing Adara's ankle for a moment. "Go on. Bring him back."

"Leader." Adara Saluted, and followed Dylan up into the air. Aerona glanced down.

"We'll keep her safe," she said quietly. Awen looked up, something flashing in her eyes for a moment.

"Thank you," she said, the charade of normality gone for a moment; and then it was back, her expression merely serious. "Be careful. He's far more dangerous than anything any of you have ever faced."

"We will." Aerona smiled her brightest smile and Saluted. "See you both soon!"

The wind was cool on her face as she caught up to the others, soothing her tremendously. They were gliding on a thermal, waiting for her; as she reached them Dylan raised an arm and they turned, following him east. Aerona looked around. Adara was quiet, and the border was a while away...

"So!" she said brightly. "Who knows the Shop Game?"

Monday, 22 February 2010

Cymru - Illustrations

So, it occured to me that I hadn't actually tried to draw any of these characters yet, which given their hardcore fantasy status seemed somewhat remiss. Only two so far, Awen and Dylan, but I may draw others if I can be bothered.

This was more for the costume design than anything else; I think it still needs work. More ornamentation methinks. Also, yes, her face is too small for her body, I can't draw... Oh, and the original features far more scarring on her skin, but it didn't survive the scanner.

And this one was entirely for the eyes. Sort of for my sister.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Cymru - Chapter 34


"But why the Alpha Wingleaders?" Gwilym pressed. He was aware that his previous bemusement was starting to give way to a tone that might by some have been considered whinging and unprofessional, but the situation was weird. "I mean... everyone's here now, it only mattered to the Union anyway, why can't I just give it to the Sovereigns themselves as hand-outs? I don't mind just writing everyone's names in the corner."

"Because it is traditional, sire," Watkins intoned patiently. "Since all proposals go through the Alpha Wings normally, this one must also in order to be officially endorsed."

"The High Council said yes," Gwilym said flatly, glaring at the mirror. It glared back. It used his own face to do it, too, which was a vicious and unfair tactic. "It's already officially endorsed. This is pointless bureacracy. I hate this cloak."

"Also traditional, sire," Watkins said, draping it over Gwilym's shoulders apparently to find the optimum position in which he looked like a tit. "If it helps, consider this meeting... symbolic. The proposals are filtered through the Union to the Sovereigns. This meeting is the filter."

"Lovely symbolism, appalling waste of time," Gwilym said. He sighed. He liked Riders, he really did, and one perhaps more than he should, but they were bloody intimidating at the best of times. Alpha Wingleaders were worse. Every Alpha Wingleader in the country packed into one room...

"How many will there be?" he asked, dreading the answer. The cloak was inhibiting arm movement with its many folds. Was he meant to look winged?

"Twenty-seven, including Leader Alaw," Watkins said. "Although if you are apprehensive at the large number, my lord, I can stand her down, since her presense is unrequired."

Gwilym's mouth twitched.

"That," he said proudly, "was a joke, wasn't it? Admit it. You've been working on the humour, like I said."

"Just so, sire," Watkins said serenely, although Gwilym saw the briefest look on the clerk's face in the mirror that conveyed quite clearly how tricky he was finding it. "It is a challenging experience. There. You are ready."

"Yes." There was a pause as they both regarded Gwilym's reflection steadily. He'd looked better. He looked as though someone had tried to mummify him with brocade. "You know, I'm positive I've never seen any other Sovereigns wearing these."

"No," Watkins said, outright disapproval marching across his face for once. "It is traditional, my lord, but it seems that many consider it old-fashioned these days."

"You should sniff at the end of sentences like that," Gwilym told him sagaciously. "It emphasises your horror at the youth of today. I don't seem to be able to move my arms, Watkins."

"Traditionally you shouldn't need to, sire," Watkins said, mildly puzzled. "You have a staff for all physical needs."

"Good gods, I hope not," Gwilym said, mildly alarmed. "No. A nice idea, Watkins, but I don't think it's me. Besides which it's a warm day and I fear I shall melt."

"Very well, sire," Watkins said blandly, helping him take it off. "Should I opt for a lighter cloak-?"

"No cloak," Gwilym said, struggling out of the fabric. "It's a delightful tunic you've picked, if slightly overly endowed of gold trimming to be anything other than indecent. There's no point to that trimming if people can't see it."

"A fair point of course, sire," Watkins said, straightening the torque around Gwilym's neck. "Very well. Then you are ready."

The conference room was only a few corridors away, happily enough, although the distance was less of a concern now that Gwilym wasn't being swaddled and didn't have to lurk from one pillar to the next to avoid being seen like some oversided laundry-ridden stalker. The late morning sun outside was beating strongly through the windows, luxuriously warm on his bare forearms as he passed and reminding him of what he was missing in order to attend a pointless conference. There should, he felt petulantly, be a law against working on Nice Days. Maybe he could sneakily add it to the proposal sheet in his hand. Probably not; if it was so crazy even Marged didn't have it, odds were it was Too Far. A flash of gold-on-russet caught his eye, and he looked up.

She looked incredible. His first thought was entirely swept away by it. Awen was stepping out of a side corridor, Councillor Rhydian beside her, the sunlight gilding her hair. It was looser than it had been, Gwilym noted with dreamy attention. The two braids still hung from her temples, holding the autumn-coloured beads on display, but the style had otherwise changed from a few days ago. The top part had been woven back into two Gaulish plaits that ran along the top of her head and down her back, the rest falling loose to her elbows and framing her elfin face. Her uniform was different, too. The jacket he'd seen was gone, replaced by a pair of greaves from wrist to elbow and a sleeveless jerkin with the high, ornate collar that Riders wore in place of torques, hugging her slenderly athletic frame and revealing her upper arms. A spider web of scars, thin and silver, spun over her skin elegantly like the cracks in a mirror, exotically beautiful-

Her eyes were wrong. His second thought was of vague alarm as he approached and she looked up. When he'd met her, only a few days ago still, Gwilym had been instantly struck by Awen's gaze, watching rather than looking, analysing the world. It had hardened after Owain had cut her throat. Now...

Now something was wrong. Something else was watching the world from behind Awen's eyes. That alert gaze was weighed down, haunted by something, and yet covered over with a neutral mask that didn't entirely filter what it hid. And then she smiled for him, and her expression settled into its mild, warm greeting, the wrong edge vanishing without trace, and she bowed. Gwilym sighed.

"Councillor!" he said, bowing. He took great relish in the bowing, it felt better. "And Rider! Or is it Leader here? I never know."

"Either option works, Sovereign," Awen said, her smile emphasising her delicate cheekbones. "Or 'Hey, you' in a pinch, I'm well-trained."

"But mostly just keep a metre away from her," Councillor Rhydian said, and inside Gwilym's head an adorable baby hare froze under the gaze of an eagle. "She's jumpy and dangerous if touched. Hey, everyone!"

He pushed open the door to the conference room and leaned around it. Awen sighed, rubbing the back of her neck in a slightly abashed motion. Gwilym grinned.

"No one is to touch Awen, understand? Not unless you fancy an impromptu sparring session."

He pulled back again and gave them both a cheery smile.

"Enjoy your politics! Sovereign." Rhydian bowed. Gwilym returned it, which earned him a chuckle, and then Rhydian swept away down the corridor, leaving Gwilym and Awen alone.

"So, popular rumour is that you and Madog stopped an entire raid yesterday by yourselves," he said, and laughed at her grimace. "I'm impressed! I'm usually tired after one Saxon. Which someone else has killed for me."

"While you were sleeping, and in a different City," Awen finished with a grin. "You see? You're a natural Sovereign. And there you were worrying."

"I know!" Gwilym said happily. "I've survived my first assassination attempt too, you know. I've got this whole thing worked out."

"Did you bring the arrow?"

"Of course!" Realising Watkins was still hovering silently like he was part of the furniture, a small kitchen appliance specifically, Gwilym waved him on into the conference room. "It has a strange fascination for me. Like a hideous disfiguration. Is that wrong?"

"Well, the analogy is," Awen chuckled. "I sincerely hope you don't keep a harem of disfigured people for dinner parties. For the record, that's what we call Irresponsible Sovereigning."

"I think I may have Irresponsibly Sovereigned the other day, by the way," Gwilym said, slightly nervously. He was feeling a strange need to keep telling people. "I threatened to punch Watkins over the budget revisions. Was that wrong?"

Well, evidently not, given that she actually burst out laughing. That was probably a good sign. Hopefully a good sign. Unless it was sadistic pre-torture glee.

"It wasn't quite what I meant in my informal management seminar," Awen said, her eyes dancing. "Did you actually punch him? Threaten to have him killed? His family killed, anything like that?"

"No," Gwilym said confidently. "I was a bit supercilious, though."

"Which you do excellently well, Sovereign, if memory serves," Awen said, her smile mischievous. Clearly, she was thinking of Lady Blodwen. "No, you're good. Does Alaw know?"

"Yes," Gwilym said. Awen shrugged, the movement stiff.

"You're fine, then," she said. "Her call. Well done, though, he was much more subservient just now than when I last saw him. You still don't want me to smack him upside the head? I'm officially more dangerous than a flood right now, it's the perfect cover."

He could believe it. How utterly normal Awen suddenly seemed was almost creepier than her eyes had been moments before. Almost.

"You're generosity itself," Gwilym said. "But no thank you. We get on now, we're like brothers or something. You watch. We'll go in there now and he'll actually hug me, right in front of everyone."

What actually happened, of course, was that he sat down and Watkins was as warm as an icicle, handing him a copy of the budget with the familial warmth of a fratricide. Inside, the conference room boasted a long table currently surrounded by twenty-six Riders, all of whom seemed to either have been groomed within an inch of their lives or naturally just looked completely spectacular owing to strange Rider retro-genetics. Somewhat hopefully, none of them looked too annoyed at being dragged into a pointless meeting when they could have been enjoying the only holiday they ever got in two years, although a few seemed to be nursing hangovers. Llywelyn, Leader in Trallwng, had his head down on the table between his arms, apparently doing his best to ignore Emrys from Llangefni telling him an enthusiastic story that seemed to involve a lot of wild gesturing. Periodically his arm swung through the space the Leader of Caerleuad, Mair, was sitting in, meaning she was occasionally forced to flatten herself against the table. Although she didn't seem too bothered. Perhaps Marged did this a lot, too.

Madog was sitting with his eyes closed, one arm wrapped loosely around his ribs and yet looking oddly suave. As Awen slipped into the empty chair next to him he put one hand onto the table in front of her, a non-tactile gesture of support. Awen touched the back of it lightly and Madog smiled softly before withdrawing it.

"Meeting is now in session," Watkins intoned from the corner, and everyone fell quiet. Gwilym sighed.

"Yes," he said. "Thank you everyone for coming. I agree with your unspoken feeling that you have infinitely better things to do, and that this meeting is purely for purposeless symbolism. I sincerely apologise. I didn't realise I had this much terrible power."

They actually laughed. Emrys even clapped Mair on the back, pitching her face first onto the table. It was a good start, Gwilym thought cheerfully, although perhaps not for Mair.

"It is terrible!" Emrys boomed to Llywelyn's wince. "Sovereigns, eh?"

"Aren't you supposed to stop him from doing these things, Alaw?" Awen asked mildly to Madog's snort. Alaw actually smiled, her bland expression slightly less disapproving than normal. She must have liked Awen.

"Sorry," she offered. "He's more devious than he looks."

"I work on it," Gwilym nodded, picking up his copy of the document in front of him. "Okay, absolutely everyone wants to go and do something else, so let's start. It's basically a reworking of the budget..."

Internal Rider politics became clear within about five minutes. The standard procedure was for Riders to ask for clarification on each point, but only Awen, Madog or Llywelyn actually asked anything, everyone else apparently deferring to them as being in charge. Which sort of made sense, Gwilym supposed. Of them all, they were the three who lived and fought on the border. It gave them a sort of authority, it seemed.

Which was fair. Gwilym wouldn't have wrested power from someone who could go toe to toe with ten bears, either.

"So the Court's luxury budget is down to twenty per cent of what it was," Llywelyn was saying, his head propped up on one hand as he scanned a page. "What do you spend it on, then?"

"There's a micro-budget for it halfway down page three," Awen said absently. She seemed to be fully absorbing every detail. "Carthaginian raisin wine, Egyptian cotton bedding and clothing are the main ones."

"You seem to have written the words 'No monkey meat' at three separate points," Madog said, one eyebrow raised.

"Oh, did I?" Gwilym said. "Sorry, you may have my copy. I was feeling rather emphatic."

"Can I ask why, Sovereign?" Llywelyn asked. "Not the monkey meat. Why cut the luxury budget?"

"I want to know about the monkey meat," Awen muttered, looking interestedly at Madog's papers.

"It's a luxury," Gwilym told Llywelyn, and paused. "I'm so sorry. That was what we call a non-answer. Well, it rather struck me that the whole point of Aberystwyth's economic wealth was that it was, in fact, Aberystwyth's and not, in fact, mine."

"You've also boosted it," Awen said, returning to her report and turning a page. "Or you will do once it's implemented. I notice your food sourcing is now eighty-seven per cent local. I think it was about nine, last time I looked at Aberystwyth's infrastructure."

"How on earth do you remember things like that?" Madog asked, shaking his head. "I can barely remember Wrecsam's."

"It's a talent," Awen said. "But why the monkey meat?"

"Your commerce will sky-rocket, then," Llywelyn said over her, scribbling a note on the papers. "That's only from the standard Court budget, though. Are you still murex trading? How much extra money do you have now?"

"Yes, and quite a bit," Gwilym said, and twiddled his thumbs. He was really getting to like doing that. "We're going to do other colours and things, too."

"And textiles," Awen nodded. "Including silk. Do blue silk and the Phoenicians will block your harbour mouth with the wreckage of their ships where they collided with each other to fight for your attention."

"Did your Phoenician fight for your attention, Madog?" Emrys broke in happily, offering a whole back story that Gwilym hadn't heard yet. Madog smirked.

"Totally," he said smugly. "And I wasn't even wearing blue silk."

"A company offered me lots of money for blue silk if I only use them," Gwilym nodded sagaciously. "But I told them I'd think about it, and then they wanted me to sell them Riders, so I think I shan't be using them."


Twenty-six people stared at him, mildly alarmed. Madog snorted and leaned back, his arm straying to his ribs again.

"They like doing that, I'm told," he said dismissively. "I use it as a threat to keep my Deputy in line now."

"I should have," Awen said reflectively. "Does it work?"

"No," Madog sniffed. "Dylan's an ingrate."

"Oh," Awen said. "Well, so was Owain. Never mind, then."

"That's a lot of extra money, anyway," Llywelyn said slowly. "Okay. So what are you spending that on, now?"

"Well," Gwilym began happily. "There's a list! We're setting up a free healthcare scheme for the poor-"

Awen laughed, and he gave her a look.

"Yes, alright, I'm horribly predictable," he said, and tried to ignore the slightly bewildered looks half the table were suddenly giving each other. "Free healthcare for the poor, some sort of basic free schooling for every child under twelve, a theatre, apprenticeship schemes, expansion of several industries - including tourism, and there's a list somewhere - and a university, since we already have the Great Library. Might as well make use of it."

"Tourism?" Madog asked, looking up. "How are you expanding that?"

"Hotels and such," Gwilym said confidently. "And possibly arranging some sort of deal with a Phoenician company who will sail people to us and back home again without charging too much. Things like that. It's all wildly hypothetical still at the moment, I really shouldn't be boring you all with the details."

"I think this is the most fun I've ever had listening to a budget revision," Llywelyn commented, reading another list. "This - Sovereign, this is all serious, isn't it? You're genuinely trying to implement this?"

"Er..." Gwilym said, non-plussed. "Yes?"

"It's astonishingly... not self-serving," Llywelyn said. "Very few Sovereigns make infrastructures like this."

"Oh, well," Gwilym shrugged. "I don't want to be Sovereign. Maybe that makes a difference."

"All the difference," Awen said thoughtfully, her eyes running over another list. "The nature of the world, there. Power most belongs in the hands of the unwilling. Schooling of arts, sciences and histories?"

"Oh, yes."

"Casnewydd accepts," Awen said, looking up at last and smiling as she dropped the papers back onto the table. "For a given value, obviously."

"Ha! Wrecsam." Madog leaned back, his hand ghosting across his ribs. "Lord Flyn will hate it. I regret that I can't be in the room when you present it to him."

"More specifically, though," Awen said, leaning forward, "what's this about monkey meat?"


"How would you like to go on a short adventure?"

The fluid voice came from behind him in the corridor, and Gwilym smiled.

"Go away, Watkins," he told the clerk. "Adventure calls in my exciting life."

"As you wish, sire," Watkins murmured blandly, and vanished. Gwilym turned.

Gods, she really did look beautiful. Who knew scars could be that sexy? It looked almost natural, as though Awen genetically came in tabby form.

"Now, when you say a short adventure, do you mean I'm about to be quietly assassinated?" Gwilym asked to her grin. "It'll be fun until you push me off a runway, sort of thing?"

"Exactly right," she said, her eyes sparkling. The sunlight made them seem greener than ever. "It's your budget revisions. Clearly you're a derranged lunatic a step away from making your cat an advisor. I'm here to do what's necessary, but you have my word I'll feel sad about it for at least ten minutes."

"Ten?" Gwilym said, disappointed. "Can't we make it twenty? Then there's time for you to write me a short eulogy of what a great person I was before I went crazy."

"Oh, fine," Awen said, rolling her eyes. "Gods, if I'd known you were this demanding I'd have gotten Madog to do it. Fifteen and a verse with a three-chord harp accompaniment, deal?"

"Deal," Gwilym said firmly. "Tell Watkins I loved him, and I hearby leave all of my earthly possessions to my advisor cat. Where are we going?"

"A runway," Awen shrugged with a grin. "Come on."

She wasn't joking, either, or not about the runway at least. She led him into a stable block that was strangely bereft of any stable hands, the merod dozing happily in their stalls or chewing contentedly at hay-nets. The scents of hay and leather mingled pleasantly while the midday sun beamed in from the runway, lighting up the serene dance of dust motes on the warm air. It was remarkably peaceful in there.

"Well, it's a lovely place to die, anyway," Gwilym said, wandering over to the enormous meraden that pushed his head over his stable door and must have been Brân. Or a mutant. "Do you know, he's even bigger than I remembered?"

"It takes people a while to get used to him," Awen said, her voice echoing slightly. Gwilym looked up to find she was stepping out of the tack room, a bridle over one shoulder, harness over the other. "So anyway, adventuring. Ever wanted to fly?"

Gwilym stared at her.

"When I was about eight," he said after a second. "Aren't I meant to be the insane one, though?"

"Actually, no," Awen said, and as she slipped past him into the stable her eyes flashed briefly wrong again. "Not anymore. It's safe though, you know. There's a reason Riders do it."

"Yes," Gwilym agreed. "And that reason is that they've been trained to do it over a decade or so. It's a good reason."

She laughed her fluid laugh, doing up the straps of the bridle.

"I'm not putting you on your own meraden, Sovereign, don't worry," she said, amused. "You're on him, with me. Which may well be tricky to arrange because I can't touch people that successfully right now, but it seems to be fine if I have a bit of a run up. And I promise you, I've had about two decades or so of training. I can fly."

Well, that wasn't so bad. Gwilym watched her as she slipped the collar of the harness over Brân's head, starting to arrange the straps around his wings and under his belly. Like some kind of horrifying sociopath her expression had settled back into a mild smile as she worked, looking for all the world as though she was simply contented, but something was definitely wrong.

"Why can't you touch people?" he asked quietly. "You could before."

"It happens to Riders sometimes," she said easily. "If you're fighting a lot, and you don't get purified in between. It wears you down after a while. You get used to living on nerves and instincts. Everything activates your fight-or-flight response."

So why on earth hadn't she been purified? Although Casnewydd had only arrived about two hours ago, so she'd probably been kept too busy.

"You'll go and get purified after this, won't you?" Gwilym said seriously. "It can't be good for you, living like that."

"I'll try," Awen said neutrally, a small smile twisting her lip. "It's okay, I'm not so bad I'm liable to stab you or something. I can still control it at this stage."

"What?" Gwilym stared at her again. He seemed to be doing that a lot. "Not what I meant! I mean it can't be good for you, personally. You people are tactile. If you can't touch people you might as well be blind."

She flashed him a brief look of surprise before tightening the final girth.

"I suppose," she said, non-commitally, and led Brân out. He raised his wings like a cormorant as the sunlight hit him, whickering contentedly, and Awen led him over to a mounting block, hitching the reins to the post beside it before disappearing back into the tack room. Gwilym followed her.

"It hadn't occured to you, had it," he said, leaning against the doorframe as Awen dug in a box. He shouldn't have been surprised. "You were only thinking of the effect on other people."

"I'll cope," Awen shrugged, pulling something leather out. "Other people won't if they're dead. That's a more pressing concern. Anyway; here."

She straightened up, and passed him one of the leather things. On closer inspection it was a hood, one of the close-fitting ones that Riders wore to fly, sheepskin lined and shaped into a widow's peak over the forehead, the goggles attached at the temples. Awen pulled on one of her own with the ease of long practice, leaving the goggles up for now. She looked stylish in it. Gwilym just knew he was going to look like a tit. Maybe Watkins would be pleased, anyway.

"The wind chill is stronger than you think in the sky," Awen said, walking back out to Brân. Gwilym tried his on. It was surprisingly comfortable. "Keep your head warm and you're mostly fine, though. And unless you have the goggles your eyes will water so much you'll dehydrate in seconds, and all we'll have left will be a withered husk."

"Oh, Awen," Gwilym said. "Your bardic way with words is quite beautiful, and very good at encouraging the unwilling."

"Yes, I'm a trained leader of people, you know," Awen grinned. "Step this way."

She guided him onto Brân's back from the mounting block quickly and competently, sitting him further back than he'd expected in order to give herself room to sit. The harness she buckled onto him allayed Gwilym's fears beautifully, however, as strap after strap was added and tightened. By the time Awen was finished Gwilym was relatively certain he'd been fused to the meraden beneath him. Awen admired her handiwork for a second, then unhooked the reins.

"Right," she said quietly, her voice eerily calm. "Now. This is the difficult bit. You need to stay as still as you can. Try not to touch me before I touch you."

"Okay." Warily, Gwilym leaned back as Awen sprang onto Brân's back with the sort of agility usually only seen in squirrels, the lines of her body gracefully elegant. Cautiously, she sat herself in front of Gwilym, just behind the wing joint, barely half an inch separating them. Gwilym tried not to breathe.

"So far so good," Awen muttered. Her hair smelled of heather and geranium and beeswax, probably the soap she used on it. She leaned forward to clip the harness onto herself, an easier job for her with a uniform designed with compatibility in mind. This close Gwilym could feel the warmth radiating off her, tantalisingly close. She sat up and held a hand behind her.

"Alright," she said. "Carefully, give me your hand."

Gwilym reached out and took it. He felt the familiar jolt run through him from heart to stomach to groin, forcing him to take a deeper breath to steady his heart beat -

Awen froze.

He'd been expecting her to jump. She sort of did, too, her fingers tightening briefly and convulsively on his, telling of the hidden strength in them, but otherwise she locked in place, her breath stopping, as immobile as stone. Brân tossed his head and rustled his wings, and Awen looked down abruptly, presumably doing something. He subsided.

"Not bad," Awen said calmly, gently moving Gwilym's hand to her stomach. His fingers met leather over muscle, warm and tense. "Other hand."

She barely reacted this time, the tiny twitch in her hand the only sign something was wrong, although she kept her movements slow as she repeated the movement, putting his second hand with the first. That done, she put both hands on the reins and took a deep breath.

"And lean forward," she said quietly. Gwilym complied.

His senses were working overtime, cheerfully reporting every nuance of her. She was now in his arms, her back pressed against his chest; he could feel the muscles on her, as toned as a cat, moving under the leather smoothly as she pushed Brân into a walk. The movement of her hips was fluid, an extension of the meraden's movement as he eagerly stepped forward, her legs naturally shifting back and fitting against Gwilym's. She smelled of leather and soap and honey, for some reason, her hair flaring red to gold under the sunlight as they met the runway, her -

"Goggles down," Awen said, her voice still the kind of calm that was so forceful it could bend steel. "Are you ready?"

"No," he said, disengaging one hand with as much care as he could muster to lower the goggles before replacing it with even more caution. "Can I go home?"

"And miss this unique opportunity?" Awen grinned, and Brân leaped off the runway.

He didn't scream. It was terrifying, but he didn't scream. His throat wouldn't let him. As the ground appeared about three hundred feet below them the wind roared past, gravity surging up to claim them angrily at the idea that he could stray off a runway and not plummet, and then the enormous wings unfurled fully to either side, the twenty-foot drop becoming a glide that pulled up sharply enough to leave Gwilym's stomach behind. Brân angled upwards, Awen leaning forward and thus pulling Gwilym with her; belatedly, he realised he was clinging to her like a limpet, and then a second later realised he wasn't going to be stopping without a crowbar. They shot upwards impossibly fast through the air, the floors of the Union zipping by, the coloured glass roof swirling past -

And then everything was below them, Cymru unfolding around him as Brân settled into a glide, curving around and heading south east. In one direction the sea shone, the Archipelago dark spots in the glow; the arm of the Lleyn stretched away from them in another; and the mountains reared beneath them, forested and bare, green and russet and purple, undulating away. A cloud - a cloud - drifted below them, a wisp of no colour against the landscape.

It was exhilarating.

They flew for barely three minutes before Awen dipped down into a valley between two mountains, a lake filling the base, and flew along it. Gwilym thought she was going to land, but she left the valley and joined the next, keeping their altitude below the mountain tops.

"I take it," he managed after his third attempt at speech, " that we're trying to avoid being seen by anyone in the Union?"

"Yes," she called back. "How are you finding it?"


She grinned, guiding them into a path around another mountain.

"Good job it's a nice, straight-forward flight, then," she said. "Do you fancy flying upside down? That's fun."


"Diving? Brân likes diving at the ground, he thinks it's fun!"

"No, you nutter!"

Finally, Awen dropped into a valley so narrow and steep 'ravine' might have been a better word, one side covered with trees. Or so it appeared. As they flew down Gwilym saw the underhang beneath the trees, hidden from above. He grinned as they finally touched down onto an almost flat grassy expanse, only about fifty metres wide, a small stream to one side that reached the edge of the grassland and tumbled away in a waterfall to the valley floor below. Brân tossed his head as they landed and Awen moved them to the stream.

"It was fun, though, be honest," Awen said blandly, sliding the goggles back up, and Gwilym laughed helplessly.

"It was horrific!" he giggled. "I loved and hated it concurrently. Oh gods. I'm almost crushing your ribs, I realise, I can't quite make myself let go."

He was, too. What had started as both hands on her stomach had become both arms wrapped tightly around her rib cage, his fingers digging into her sides as he clutched vainly at her, almost enveloping her. It was possibly a miracle she could breathe.

"Hmm," Awen said thoughtfully, shifting experimentally in his grip. The friction did things to parts of Gwilym his nerves could have done without. The electricity even jolted his teeth. "You're stronger than your very pretty tunic would have me believe. How much manual labour did you do in your pre-Sovereign years?"

"I helped out on the fishing boats sometimes, okay?" Gwilym said, mock-irritably. "I know, I'm a farce. Oh, and I spent quite a bit of time in Erinn, and Mental Uncle Dara likes arm-wrestling people."

"Did you ever beat him?" Awen asked interestedly. Gwilym sighed.

"No," he said, morosely. "Mental Uncle Dara is also the size of a bear. You know that incredibly large fellow in your Wing?"

"Caradog?" Awen twisted in his arms to look at him, which definitely brought their lips far closer together than Gwilym's nerves could take. "Really? Caradog's huge."

"Well, imagine that size, but less muscle," Gwilym said. Her movement had loosened his grip at last, so he stiffly unlocked his fingers. "That size in bulk. And insanity. Sorry, did that hurt?"

Her look was frankly amused.

"No," Awen smiled as he finally managed to withdraw his arms. "No, you're alright. I'm fairly hard to hurt."

She got them both down in a surprisingly short time and tied Brân's reins to a tree branch, leaving him to graze. Gwilym made himself comfortable on a sunny rock. Flying, partial sexual tension and probable politics aside, he was certainly having a more enjoyable time than he had been at the Union.

"Watkins tried to make me wear a horrible cloak today," he said conversationally. "I told him no."

"I'm proud of you," Awen grinned. "You've come a long way. Only four days ago you were saying yes and then covertly dumping your cloak into a corner once he'd left the room."

"I'm progressive and forward-thinking," Gwilym said. He looked at her, and sighed. "So? Dare I ask why we're here?"

Awen looked away across the valley, her eyes hardening.

"I'm sorry," she said wearily. "It can't all get back to Flyn, obviously. Fancy a progress report?"

"I'm all ears and attentiveness," Gwilym told her.

He wished he wasn't. Apparently Flyn was a horrific rapist and would-be conqueror of the world these days while a band of Saxon social revolutionaries had a small-holding in Cwmbrân while hiding from the rest of their countrymen who were uniting for what would be an all-out war. Some days, the world was more mental than Uncle Dara.

"So it all boils down to a choice between Flyn or Breguswid, who is of course Saxon," Awen finished, rubbing one eye with the heel of her hand. "And who the Council are vastly unlikely to go for, therefore. So odds are, Flyn will be staying around."

"That is awful news, yes," Gwilym said thougtfully. "Awen, are you okay?"

"Me?" She looked at him, surprised again. "I'm just tired. It's been a long week."

"Yes," Gwilym said patiently. "But are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Awen told him with a slight smile. "It's just... this, and Owain as well... you know."

"I do," Gwilym nodded. "Which is why I don't think you're okay."

"I'm functioning," she said bluntly. "It's fine."

"No, you're not," Gwilym said. "You can't touch anyone. Does that include your Wing? Can you touch them?"

Awen looked away, that haunted look coming back into her eyes, and Gwilym nodded.

"I didn't think so," he said. "That's not functioning, then. You're meant to be a human being too, you know. That means that when you start to break down you don't have to just ignore it."

"Shut up," Awen said wearily, without rancour. "I can only -"

She broke off, running her hands through her hair, eyes closed.

"I don't have much of me left, now," she said quietly. "I told you I haven't been purified, Sovereign. It's because I can't be anymore."

The icy feeling of dread settled around Gwilym's heart. He sat up straighter, but she carried on.

"I'm on borrowed time now," Awen said. "I'm only twitching at the moment, but it'll get worse. Particularly after a few nights. And they won't let me get too far."

"You'll be killed?" Gwilym asked hollowly. Awen nodded.

"Before I get too bad, yes," she said. "Sooner if I try and knife a Sovereign. So it doesn't matter now, see?"

She gave him a resigned smile, and it was possibly the saddest thing Gwilym had ever seen.

"I can't make myself feel better now," she said. "All I can do is try to stay useful for as long as possible."

"Why can't you be purified?" Gwilym asked, his mind racing. What kind of person thought like that? And he thought Mental Uncle Dara was mental. Awen shrugged, looking back out over the valley.

"I did too much wrong," she said neutrally. "Far too much. My mind won't let it go, apparently. I kept seeing Owain." She looked up at him, her eyes strangely bright. "When they were trying to purify me. Every time, I'd get a flashback about him, and... it was weird. At first they made sense. Clues for things I missed, you know? Things you'd expect me to feel guilty about. But then - then it was just random times. Times we were happy, some of them. And I don't understand it. I don't think I could loathe him more. The things he's done..."

She shivered, hugging herself.

"How could I now miss him?" Awen asked quietly. "What's wrong with me? How could I do that?"

"You don't," Gwilym said softly. This, he reflected, was the trouble with Riders. Awen was a genius at understanding other people and their emotions, but she was a complete child with her own. They just didn't have introspection. "You just miss your life being simpler. You miss not feeling betrayed. You miss not thinking whatever he'd done was your fault. And there's probably even a Wingleader numerical thing in there. You've lost one, now, something I imagine you're constantly afraid of doing. And you miss the person you thought he was. It's going to feel like the Owain you knew has been killed, and replaced with this new guy. You miss the old one. That's perfectly natural."

She sat herself on the rock beside him slowly, pulling her knees up to her chest. She looked tired, Gwilym thought. And strangely young.

"I should have seen it," she said, haunted. "Aerona looked through his records. He went up a mountain when he was fifteen. She thinks that was what did it. Since we were fifteen."

"To be honest," Gwilym shrugged, "I think you being fifteen is really an argument in favour of you being unaccountable."

"Really?" Awen asked tiredly. "That's at least fifteen years I should have known for since. Probably more. I think I'm a bit over thirty."

"Answer this, then," Gwilym said, turning himself to sit cross-legged, facing her. "Adara. Think about what she's like, okay? Now; was she the same when you were teenagers?"

"Ha." Awen grinned wearily. "No. She wasn't."

"Well, quite, then!" Gwilym said, throwing his arms wide. "What were you supposed to notice? He was a clever boy, he knew how to hide himself from you, you were busy being an Alpha Wingleader. Under Flyn, no less. The last people you should be watching for signs of evil are Riders anyway. One of your own Wing? Of course you didn't see it. No one would have."

They fell silent, basking in the sunlight. Awen held her beads, her fingers tracing the wires, round and round, staring into nothing.

"There's something," she said quietly at last, "that I have to ask you."

"What is it?"

Awen sat frozen for a moment, and then stood up, one hand going to her pocket. She pulled a plain, unmarked envelope out and passed it to Gwilym, her eyes grave.

"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I'm - 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. You need to keep it on you at all times, and I mean all times - when you sleep included. It cannot leave you. And if anyone -anyone - asks you for it who isn't me, you deny all knowledge. Do you understand?"

Gwilym looked at the envelope in his hand. It was smooth and completely ordinary looking for something that seemed to be so staggeringly important even the Union couldn't know about it. He nodded.

"I understand," Gwilym said, running his thumb over the seal. "Until when?"

"Until..." Awen scrubbed one hand across her eyes. "Oh gods," she whispered, and then dropped her hand, her voice returning to normal. "I don't know yet. Until I either tell you to open it and read it, or ask you to burn it without looking at it."

"Okay." Carefully, Gwilym inserted the envelope into the inner pocket of his tunic. "Consider it a strange new extension of my body until such time."

Awen turned and stared at him, some strange emotion flickering through her eyes.

"That's it?" she said after a second, her voice odd. "That's all? You're not going to ask what it is, what -?"

"You'd have told me if I was meant to know," Gwilym laughed, and then sighed at her expression. "You're a Rider, Awen. More than that, you're an Alpha Wingleader. Am I supposed to not trust you? If you're asking this, it's clearly important."

"You realise I'm asking you to keep this secret from the Council, yes?" Awen said. "And Alaw. And everyone else in the Union."

"Yes," Gwilym said slowly. "But... you're you. Clearly there is some important reason. And it's only going to help Cymru."

She stared at him for a moment more and shook her head, turning away.

"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "Whatever happens, it's not going to be fair on you. I'm sorry."

"You'll have your reasons," Gwilym said softly. "And I'm a big boy now, I dress myself and everything and that's in spite of Watkins. Don't start viciously savaging yourself on my account."

Awen smiled, weakly but genuinely. Well, Gwilym felt, it was a start. But really. No one had ever needed a holiday quite as much. And that was a Marged thing to think if ever there was one.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Villain Variations

A strange piece I've just rediscovered. No idea what it is, really. I had this idea that you could write loads of very short origin stories for villains. This was the only one I got round to.

A androgynous figure, middle aged, sits in the centre of the stage, alone, visible in a dirty spotlight. He could be made of rags, if rags took the shapes of the things they remember being. If a sleeve remembered being what was meant by an arm, or a skirt remembered being what was meant by ‘I love you.’ And he could be made of what the rags remember, as bitter as their faded memories, and as accustomed to his fate. He could be all this, but the rags are inanimate in this universe, and so he is simply very alone.

He is building something. He manages to be feverish and furtive at the same time, and he is constructing something metal, all the hard edges already threatening against the soft indolence of his rags. The metal device swarms into new shapes under his hands. It is pipes, and rust, and sheets of long-green copper.

A man walks past in an outfit that is at once obviously not of our world and obviously a business suit of some kind. Broad, strong colours, the kind of silly hat that is only ever associated with rank.

Androgynous figure Got any pipes?

Man Oh, yes, I think...

The man reaches into his garments and pulls out a battered pipe.

Man Seen better days, but I think it’s all right...

The androgynous figure takes the pipe quickly and hides it amongst the rags.

Androgynous figure Peace be with you.

The man smiles and walks on.

The androgynous figure takes out the pipe again, and includes it in his construction.

He pumps the machine at a pipe-handle. Then he sucks another pipe as he pumps vigorously, energetically. As he does this, he seems to gain strength, even height.

With a final, great suck, he stands, and suddenly this is a man, and not a man you could really imagine sitting destitute in a pile of rags. He is strong, the intimidating side of virile, and very tall and broad.

He makes a noise - half a laugh, half a roar.

A small middle-aged woman arrives at the other side of the stage. She is dressed strangely, though well, but she looks desolate and small.

Woman I thought I had you that time.

The man turns to her, very slowly.

Man No. You’d better run. Run and hide.

Woman (Very frightened.) I can’t. I know what you’ll do.

Man That’s right. Steer clear of the conditional. Run. And hide.

The woman runs away.

The man strides off in the other direction.

Scene 2

Molly and Jake walk onto the stage. Both 20, and best friends, and the special kind of totally idle that looks like great activity.

Jake They’re just stories.

Molly Of course they are.

Jake Hang on. No lies today. You said.

Molly OK. They’re not just stories, they’re shadows. They’re the almost-true things. There are things that happen, and things that nearly happen, and then there are the almost-true.

Jake Carry on.

Molly It’s about pathways. Sort of. Through time.

Jake Does it have to be pathways? I haven’t walked along a pathway since I was about ten. I walk down roads.

Molly OK. It’s a one-way street, and you’re driving down it so you can’t turn round.

Jake Right.

Molly Yes. And, OK, at some point, maybe ages ago, there was a fork in the road.

Right, this is an old idea, Molly. There was a fork, and we took one path, but there’s a parallel universe created of the ‘us’ that took the other path.

Now you’re saying ‘path’! Anyway, no, that’s just it. No. You’re here, right, so you aren’t also on a different path. But your shadow is, sort of. Walking along the other path, in parallel with your steps. That’s fine, that’s not a problem, that’s just things that nearly happen. It means just sometimes you have a feeling that you know a total stranger very well, or you’ve always loved a new musician you hear, or you just don’t trust someone, even though you haven’t got a reason. They’re the feelings you get because your shadow is sending ideas your way. And you’re its shadow too, crowding in with all its other ideas.

But that’s not what you’re talking about.

Nope. I’m talking about the almost-true.


Jake, shall we sit down? This is a dark story.

They sit down, swinging their legs over the edges of the docks.

Molly Ready?

OK, go for it.

The almost-true are the rare. Sometimes a person is born in just one reality. That’s very rare. Normally if two people fall in love in one reality, they will fall in love in another because their shadows will remind them of each other, and if they have a child in one, they will in another. Or even if they don’t in more than one...

There are lots of paths...lots of chances.

Exactly. But sometimes a person is born in only one reality. They have no shadows, so they’re often lonely because no-one has shadows reminding them to meet this person. But sometimes they can travel between the worlds.

You’re making me shiver!

Sorry, Jake.

Molly starts to sob.

Jake puts his arm around her.

Jake Molly. You’re not...don’t be silly. These are just our stories, Molly.

No lies today.

Molly disappears.

Jake Molly? Molly! MOLLY!

Jake looks around frantically around the stage for her, and then runs off the stage.


Two women are sitting at a cafe table, looking normal except as with the first scene, there is a richness to the colour of their clothes, a slightly unusual style to their clothes, which makes them look just faintly superimposed on their surroundings. They are drinking a thick black liquid.

Jake enters. He looks desperate, and a little older.

He walks directly up to them, in no doubt about who he wants to speak to.

He speaks like a man not used to being rude, but who is picking it up quickly.

Jake I think you can help me.

First woman Do you, young man?

Jake Yes.

Second woman I think, Trude, that what the young man is trying delicately to imply is that he would like to entreat our assistance.

First woman Really, Sally? Well, I wish he’d just said so.

Jake I am looking for Molly. I think she was in trouble.

Trude And why do you think we can help her?

Jake I don’t.

Sally But you want us to help you get to her.

Trude Why can’t he get to her himself?

Sally What do you think?

Trude I think she’s gone ...

Sally Or been taken.

Trude Or been taken to where he’s got a shadow living.

Sally Does he know where? Do you know where?

Jake Yes, I think so.

Jake shows them something in his hand.


Trude We haven’t been there.

Sally No. We haven’t been there.

Trude All right, we’ll help you, but there’s a price.

Jake I’ll pay it.

Trude It’s a hefty price, you stupid man. You can’t be in the same place as your shadow.

Jake So he’ll go somewhere else?

Sally No. You’ll have to kill him, or that universe will reject you like a transplanted kidney.

Trude Tell him our price.

Sally Yes, our price. Our price. Kill us too, while you’re at it. We haven’t been there, and our shadows are wary of us.


Sally Up to you, of course. You don’t have to go looking for her.

Jake Three murders. I don’t know who I’ll be when I find her.

Sally Three?

She laughs, a little.

Sally What’s to say you’ll find her in this one? She could have gone anywhere.

Jake And the price, the next time?

Trude Just the same, of course.

Jake And how many places will I have to look?


Jake How many shadows can I afford to lose?

Trude takes her glass and tips it upside down, letting the gloopy black liquid drip slowly down to the table top.

Trude Not many.

Sally Technically. But you never know: you might develop an appetite for strange places. That would keep you going, if nothing else could.

Jake She’s my best friend. I’ll find her.

Montage sequence. Jake travels. The lights change as he slips from one reality to another.

A man sits filling a bucket, humming to himself. Jake slits his throat from behind, and takes his necktie, attaching it to his own neck.

Jake travels on and the lights change: we are in a new place. A man stands in a suit, giving a talk to a board. Jake stands up from the table, and stabs the man. He takes his handkerchief and pushes it through his buttonhole. No-one at the table reacts.

Jake travels on. A new place. A man walks down the road. Jake takes him down and walks on, wearing his hat.

Faster, the next man is a doctor, the next has his daughter with him.

Jake takes an item each time, until he looks like he could eventually become the man from the beginning.


As the first scene. The man stands bravely, strong, in the middle of the floor.

The woman re-enters.

Molly I’ve changed my mind. I’ve got to stop you.

Jake You can’t.

Molly (Hesitantly, she has not used this word in a long time.) Jake. I’m not frightened of what you’ve become now. I’m not going to run away from you again. (Pause.) Do you remember why you began this?

Jake I was seeking you.

Molly Do you remember why?


Molly For mercy, Jake. You wanted to rescue me. I’m here. You’ve found me.

Jake Let’s go home, then.

Molly I’m sorry. You can’t. Look at what you are now. You’ve gone where I can’t follow you.

Long pause.

Jake Run, then. Run, and hide.

Molly realises he is serious, and backs away, and exits.


Saturday, 13 February 2010

Cymru - Chapter 33


"Lord Flyn," Councillor Gwenllian said warmly, stepping forward to meet him and bowing to him, her red and black hair swinging forward. "Welcome to the Archwiliad! I trust your journey was comfortable?"

"As it could be, Councillor, thank you," Flyn said smoothly, smiling his charming smile. He bowed graciously back. "My apologies for being late. We'd planned to arrive yesterday, but Leader Awen was injured while fighting a raid almost single-handedly."

"Welcome home, Rider," Gwenllian grinned at Awen. "We heard. I keep trying to make Madog tell me details, but he won't. He says you kept him alive?"

"He's being kind, Councillor," Awen said, supressing a sigh. Haf had done a wonderful job, the healing cycle slightly more advanced than Awen was actually used to, but she ached today and Brân wasn't helping. "Although I hope he told you in detail about how dashing and glamourous I was, that part was true."

"As it goes," Gwenllian said, her grin slightly evil, "he really did. Ha!"

"I shall save you, Rider," Councillor Dyfan said, stepping forward and giving Gwenllian a dry look. "Landing bay seven, below us. Consider your Wing dismissed and at their leisure."

"Thank you, Councillor," Awen smiled, throwing a Salute. "Your generosity and kindness are your greatest virtues."

"Yeah, but he's paying you to say it," Gwenllian said as Awen turned Brân, heading back to the runway. "Anyway; this way, Sovereign, we'll show you to your quarters..."

The landing bay they'd been given was several floors below, and staffed with a modest number of formally-robed stable hands and Councillor Rhydian. Awen sighed as she landed, reining Brân in to as close to a walk as she could before surrendering control to the stable hands. Rhydian's face was neutrally friendly as he approached, but the man was a masterclass in only showing what he wanted. Almost literally. He'd taught her.

"Welcome home, Rider," he said merrily as he reached her, undoing the harness straps on one side while a stable hand did the other. "Good flight?"

"Terrible," Awen smiled. "I think I'm stiff to the point of not being able to walk. Dismounting is about to be fun."

"Just slide this way, I'll catch you," Rhydian said. "First thing's first, actually, since clearly I'm going to have to say this repeatedly; Owain. Not your fault. But I need to discuss it with you before we do anything else."

"I thought you might," Awen nodded, her tone neutral. He led Brân into his stable. "I don't believe you think that, though, Councillor."

"I know," he said, standing back for her to dismount. "You're wrong. Get down."

She obeyed, and just about managed to stay on her feet. Rhydian reached out to steady her -

-the Saxon's arm outstretched, lunging -

Awen flinched, her adrenaline spiking. Brân tossed his head and spread his wings briefly, separating them and preventing the contact. Awen breathed steadily, and Brân settled.

"Sorry," she said automatically, moving to the saddle bags. "He's an idiot."

"Hmm." Rhydian gave her a narrow look. "And how long has that been happening?"

Awen paused, her hands on the straps of the saddlebags.

"You know I'm trying so hard not to intentionally misinterpret that as being about Brân?" she said wryly. "Not long, only since yesterday. I mean, I'm... not the most stable around sudden movements usually anyway, but it's only been this bad since yesterday."

"I see." Rhydian watched her hard as she pulled a slim wooden box out of the saddle bag and took it wordlessly when she handed it to him. "Come on, then. The stable hands can finish off."

Awen gave Brân one last pat and followed Rhydian out of the stable, dodging the stable hands carefully. Tanwen and Meurig both gave her concerned looks as she passed, but she was starting to get used to it by now; none of her Wing seemed to regard her with anything less than 'worry' these days. She smiled, and tried to rub her neck surreptitiously as they walked.

He led them to his office, opening the door and gesturing her in ahead of him. Awen slipped inside and claimed a chair. If there was one good thing to be had out of the experience, she reflected, it was going to be the chair. Rhydian had sublimely comfortable chairs in his office. They were extremely good for those who were aching head to toe and suffering from lack of sleep. He closed the soundproof door behind her, locked it and rounded the desk in front of her.

"I got the reports of yesterday's fun and games at Cas-Gwent," Rhydian said, business-like as he opened the box and began pulling out the documents. "How are you?"

"Fine, thank you, Councillor," Awen said automatically. He gave her a look.

"Don't treat me like one of the others," he said. "Don't lie to me. How are you?"

"Fine," Awen repeated, a shade reproachfully. "Aching a bit, yes, but I'm hardly rolling around on the floor in abject agony."

"'Aching' isn't 'fine'," Rhydian said, rolling his eyes and looking back at the papers. Awen shifted uncomfortably. This was new. Rhydian had never cared about the semantics like this; he'd always accepted that 'fine' meant 'functional, don't worry'. It was vaguely unsettling. "Now. There'll be a hearing at some point about Owain, but I can tell you now we're going to clear you. Councillor Eifion is the only opponent-"

The sudden burst of fear gripped her heart, making her catch her breath and her fingers clench around the arms of the chair. Rhydian glanced at her reaction and sighed, resuming his study of the papers.

"My, but you're jumpy," he said. "Straight to the Great Shrine after this, please, the last thing we need is an uncontrolled Alpha Wingleader decapitating Sovereigns in the middle of an Archwiliad. Even if some do deserve it."

"Councillor," Awen nodded, trying to calm her breathing. Rhydian sniffed.

"And Councillor Eifion is under strict instructions to leave you alone," he added. "We voted and everything. So try not to worry, and if he demands you adjourn to a nice quiet dungeon with him, don't."

Yes, because Awen was so prepared to disobey a direct order from Councillor Eifion. She looked down, and belatedly noticed the crack running through the arm of her chair beneath her fingers.

"Oh," she said. "Sorry, did I just fracture your chair in a fit of suppressed rage?"

"Yes," Rhydian said vaguely, reading a page. "Don't worry, it makes it look well-loved. Well, this is damning reading, isn't it? And you got these...?"

"Partly from behind the mirror Owain had inside his wardrobe," Awen said neutrally, a small part of her childishly pleased for some reason when Rhydian looked up in sharp horror. "None of us saw ourselves, it's fine. And partly from the safe Lord Flyn keeps in his room under his floorboards, a carpet and a dresser."

"Which you gained access to via a rape victim having locked Lord Flyn into the most distressingly vile cell Casnewydd possesses," Rhydian said, his eyes twinkling. "For three hours. Obviously this is terrible behaviour, Rider. Consider yourself cautioned."

"Duly accepted, Councillor," Awen returned. "I assume Alis made it here safely?"

"Reunited with mother and brother," Rhydian nodded. "Shame she wasn't a Rider, she's got fire, that one."

"I thought much the same."

They lapsed into a comfortable silence as Rhydian read over the Interrogation Log, his eyes darkening. Awen listened to the soft sound of the clock in the corner ticking. It was a pleasantly familiar sound. It comforted her.

"Oh dear," Rhydian said after a while. He put the papers down and steepled his fingers under his chin thoughtfully, watching her. "Well, several issues then. Owain, first of all. You've given me more than enough to have him killed as slowly as I physically can. So, first question: do you want to do it?"

She'd known she'd be asked it, had expected it to happen; and she had no answer.

"I don't know," Awen admitted quietly. "Very much so, on the one hand. But then again, no. And I'm not sure why."

"I'll bet," Rhydian said cryptically, glancing for the briefest of seconds at a file on the edge of the desk. Awen fought herself not to see what it was. You weren't meant to use your powers of investigation on the boss. "Put another way: if you're ordered to either kill him or leave it to someone else, will you be able to follow either order?"

"Of course," Awen said with certainty. He nodded.

"Okay," Rhydian said, satisfied. "We'll consider that to be under review for now. Next, then."

He pulled a few letters out of the pile, and Awen braced herself inwardly. This was the important part. In the pocket of her uniform she felt like she could feel the envelope against her skin, even though objectively she knew she couldn't. And she'd never tried to deceive Rhydian before. This was the one person in the entire country, the entire world, that she'd never lied to. It was going to be a monumental test of skill. If she failed...

"I never thought I'd see this," Rhydian said softly, and sighed, laying the letters out one by one. "You say this man's name is... Coenred?"

"That's right," Awen said, her smile slightly wry. "They have hideous names, I'm telling you."

"Yes," Rhydian sniffed. "You have your country's gratitude for learning Saxon, by the way. Clearly we're going to have to start including it on the syllabus. You're sure of these translations?"

"Positive," Awen sighed. She wished she weren't. "I checked and double-checked. But it also backs up what Breguswid told me."

"Yes." Rhydian sat back. "Tell me about Breguswid."

"In spite of wanting to kill her every time I get within a metre," Awen smiled briefly, "I actually do... well, not like her as such, but... I do think she's telling the truth. She wants to change Saxonia, and in such a way as would be extremely beneficial to us. She believes that there's a very large undercurrent in Saxon society that agrees, who would follow her. And I certainly think she has the spine to do it."

"Do you think she can succeed?" Rhydian asked. Awen thought that over.

"I think she has a good chance," she said eventually. "Not a certainty, but... a good chance. Particularly if Saxonia realises that Coenred really does not have our support. No more Flyn, no more Owain, and they're on their own. In that environment, yes. She'll do it."

There was a loaded silence. They both knew what was coming up. Rhydian picked up a letter.

"He's powerful, this Coenred," he said, and Awen tried not to feel the paper. "According to this he's got the whole border now and is moving inland. If we remove Flyn, and then - Breguswid? - fails, we're looking at a massive threat. An unprecedented one, in fact."

"Yes," Awen said blandly. It was true. Nothing she did could change that. Rhydian stared at the letter.

"We'd have to actually go to war," he said seriously. "Take the offensive. And maybe it is overdue, but... we'll lose a lot. So many. Not to mention the financial and economic effects. I don't think we'll be able to keep it from everyone."

"No," Awen agreed. It was a grim prospect.

"So our hopes," Rhydian said, "really, our hopes depend on either Lord Flyn or Breguswid succeeding."

"If we let Flyn do this, Councillor, it will never end," Awen said quietly. He looked at her, listening. "Once Saxonia is united he'll take it, and rule both. And then he'll turn to Alba, and push at that until he has the excuse to conquer them. And then he'll look overseas, Erinn first, and Dál Riada, and then Gaul, and Celtiberia... It will never, ever end. He'll only ever be happy once he's standing on the bones of an empire, and the entire world bows to him."

"Bardically put," Rhydian said, flashing her a humourless smile. "But yes, you're right. And if it were solely up to me..."

And he let the sentence trail off, and proved Awen right. The envelope sang in her pocket, unheard.

"We'll try," Rhydian said heavily. "But I'm not hopeful. A great shame, though. I would have loved to have been the first Council to meet with a Saxon. Something for the songs, eh?"

"What will happen to Lord Flyn if you find in his favour?" Awen asked. She was angry, suddenly. That was odd. She'd been expecting this. She tried to keep it at bay.

"Less of the 'you', thanks," Rhydian said sourly. "I'll tell you now which way I'll be voting, and it's not his. Nor Gwenllian, I shouldn't think. Well; he'll have to receive the fairest punishments we can mete out for the crimes. You can castrate him if you like. And every single step of his life from here on out will be watched and monitored. But yes. That's all we can do."

"I see." Her heart was hammering in her chest, the anger gripping at her. "What if they find against him?"

"Well, you could have used 'you' there," Rhydian muttered. "He'll be killed, eventually. After a lot of other things happen to him, as publically as possible. And then we'd meet with ... Breguswid, and work out a full plan with her to get her instated. I think I'd offer as many Intelligencers as she needed to get the covert things done, as many actual Wings as she needed to look good. We'd make it work."

He sighed, running his hands through what was left of his hair and linking his fingers behind his head, looking up at the ceiling.

"It could happen, still," he said tiredly. "But, let's try and be objective for a second, eh? Saxons aren't the only ones with a grudge they're holding onto a mite bit hard."

He stared gloomily on for a second, and then seemed to shake himself mentally and looked back down at the documents, resorting them.

"Well, I'll personally make his life hell until he dies, anyway," he said dismissively. "So. We have your whole family of eye-witnesses, we've got some witness statements - can you get Breguswid here, maybe? She'd make a good witness. And might just sway a vote or two, you never know."

"Yes," Awen said. "Within hours, just say when."

"Excellent!" Rhydian said merrily. "Let's see... once we have Owain he'll be a witness - Dylan told me about that plan, by the way, it's been approved. Otherwise it's reams and reams of paper here. Is this everything?"

And there it was. The envelope burned in her pocket, and Awen leaped off the precipice.

"Almost," she said, letting herself keep the outer shell of trying to push down the anger. It was a good mask, giving her an excellent reason for possibly looking edgy. Although she doubted she did. Awen was trained. "Adara has some maps and flight routes from behind the mirror to find Owain, but they'll bring them back."

"Okay," Rhydian nodded. "Well, I'll present it all to the Council. With as much of a slant as possible. We'll hold off on actually arresting him until we have Owain back here and in chains, and, in all fairness, until Dylan can give me a confirmed report of Coenred's spreading influence."

He gave Awen a surprisingly soft look.

"And I think it would be best if you brace Lord Gwilym for the eventuality that Flyn might get to hang around," he said. "I'm not convinced that wasn't Flyn's idea to have him assassinated. And by now it's become one of those generally known but unproven facts, of course, that Flyn probably had Lord Gwilym's family killed."

She winced. Another thing she hadn't stopped. Gods, was there anything she'd done right in the last fifteen plus years?

"I'll talk to him," Awen said hollowly. "And Alis and Iona. They definitely need telling."

"You know, if you want to find someone to blame," Rhydian said narrowly, leaning suddenly across the table to her and making her flinch again, "then you'd better start looking at Owain. You're fifty times the Rider he is. And he made his choices."

"Councillor," Awen nodded wearily. Rhydian nodded at the door.

"Go on," he said. "Shrine first, you're in desperate need of purification. Then report to the Ash Conference Room in an hour. Aberystwyth are making a change in their proposals."

Well, that made her smile, anyway. It seemed Gwilym had taken her advice with his chief advisor. She stood, trying not to wince as her muscles protested weakly, Saluted and left.

Owing to some kind of minor miracle she managed to move through the throngs of people wandering the corridors and Stairs without actually touching - and therefore thumping - anyone. When she reached the Shrine it was mostly empty, a few people walking around the ambulatory outside, a few white-robed druids moving serenely about. One of them, an incredibly old man with a kindly smile, rose from a seat and hobbled over to her, his arms spread in welcome.

"Rider," he said gently, his expression warm. "Welcome home. We heard about the raid. Does your mind need cleansing?"

"Burning down and rebuilding, I should think," Awen smiled. The old man chuckled, and she carefully offered him an arm. As long as she initiated the contact it didn't seem to be so bad, a tremor more than a flinch. He took it, and squeezed her wrist lightly at the tremor.

"The times have been hard on you," he nodded softly as she guided them to the pool at the base of the meraden statue. "The fault is not yours, Rider, however much it may seem otherwise."

Yes it is, Awen thought wearily. Outwardly she smiled, and helped the druid sit on the edge of the pool, kneeling herself and carefully starting to remove the arm guards over the wristblades. There were procedures here, she knew. Active Riders from the border were generally bound at the wrists for the Purification Ritual, a precaution against them reacting badly and swinging for a druid at the moment of purification itself, although to Awen's knowledge it hadn't happened in over a century. The Ritual took away the mind's ability to control the body, so it wasn't really an issue. Right now, though, the rope itself could easily be a problem.

Something reared up in the corner of her vision and she shied sideways, sliding out the one wristblade still on -

It was only the old druid, his arm raised to call over some of the other druids. Awen cursed herself mentally, removing the blade and willing her heart to slow down again. He gave her a sympathetic smile, which was generous given that she'd just drawn on him.

"Sorry, Derwydd," Awen sighed. "I did the same thing to Councillor Rhydian. I'm jumpy right now."

"You have nothing to apologise for, Rider," he said. "Will you be okay with having your wrists tied?"

"I should be," Awen said as two new druids arrived, both in the young-and-strong category. "Just - sorry. You'll have to keep your distance. And stay in front of me. And try not to touch me. Imagine I'm deeply poisonous, that may help."

"Contagious," one supplied merrily, kneeling down a metre away and holding the rope loose at his side. He was a stocky, thick-set man, his nose apparently broken. "I'm imagining you have some really horrible disease. Just say when you're ready."

"Excellent," Awen said mildly, moving the arm guards and wristblades far to one side and half-turning to face him, holding out both wrists together. "Which disease? Is it disgusting?"

"Definitely," he said, wrapping the rope gently around both wrists in a figure-of-eight. "I've made it up, you see. I'll spare you the details, but ooh, skin-on-skin contact, not good."

She let herself laugh. Halfway through he changed angle, wrapping the rope around the centre of the figure-of-eight, which had the effect of forming handcuffs out of the rope and making for a far more secure tie. Awen approved, although she was painfully aware that it wouldn't help if she did attack them.

"Well done," she said as he finished, inspecting his handiwork. "Very efficient. Would you like a job? You could tie up prisoners for us."

"Do stop stealing my workers, Rider," the old man smiled, gesturing at the pool. Awen shifted herself nimbly to the edge. "They take even longer to train than you. Are you ready?"

"Yes," Awen said, looking at the pool. It truly was a beautiful pool, she reflected; it's sides and base were enamelled, jewel-bright and shimmering, the pattern they formed constantly shifting beneath the water and impossible to clearly see. There were circles in there, she thought. Definitely circles, interlocking and weaving throughout one another, a tumbling, sweeping, rotating, whirling pattern of colour and non-audible song, dancing in greens and blues, swirling faster and faster...

Like bees, around flowers. Like pollen on the breeze. Like clouds from above, their icy, crystalline majesty roiling and reforming, but faster. There was something important, something she was forgetting, but she couldn't think what, her concentration dancing away in the spiralling, flowing patterns, the colours so pure, marbling together, green and gold and blue in every shade. It sang to her, lilting and rich and warm and so, so inviting, its promise of joy and peace just within reach, just beneath the surface, just there if she simply stretched out -

Her hands were almost black, coated to half an inch in blood so gelatinous and thick it couldn't even flow, sticking to her better thn her own skin, odious and polluted. She recoiled, hands gently pushing her forward, slowly moving her towards the water, and she wanted to scream; it was pure, so pure, the colours so beautiful and offering her something she had no right to take, no chance of having, and if she touched it, if she touched that water she would pollute it, corrupt it, destroy it; but she couldn't stop, couldn't make her body obey, and she was pushed on, her hands dipping down, the water just whispering against her skin -

- the light of evening stretches across the room, throwing the white tiles into dazzling shades of orange and red. Owain is stretched out in one of the sunken baths, his eyes closed and a small, contented smile on his face. The water has long since cycled clean, but the torn and bloody uniform on the floor beside it is a fair clue that he's been fighting something today, whatever it may be. Awen shuts the door to the bathrooms behind her, shutting out the happy sounds of the Wing in the lolfa, and moves to the foot of the bath, crouching down.

"Look what the cat dragged in," she grins, surveying his body quickly for injuries. Mercifully, he doesn't seem to have any. "Did you go rolling in a butcher's shop?"

"Far more glamourous," he smiles, keeping his eyes closed. "Saving the good people of Cas-Gwent from a rogue animal. Doing my job, in other words, while you all sat around today."

"We were helping the rebuilding in Trelech today," she says, stretching. "You know: Rider things, like we're supposed to. It's okay, though. I know you're not really cut out for hard work."


"You're not the first man to say so," she sniffs, and he's slightly faster as they both move, sitting up and throwing an arm around her waist before she can dance out of reach, pulling her in. The water is warm, instantly seeping through her pyjamas as they wrestle and slowing her movements, preventing her from fighting back that effectively. In close quarters Owain is far stronger than her anyway, but he's also naked, and unhindered by the pull of wet cloth. She ends up pinned beneath him, only her head above water, laughing as he holds her there and they both get their breath back.

"These pyjamas were clean on, Owain," she complains good-naturedly. "Now I'll need to get changed again. And my hair takes forever to dry."

"Leave it wet," he grins. "You're sexy this way."

"You have a water fetish," she accuses. "Don't deny it, I can feel that."

"It's not the water," he murmurs, almost lip to lip. Awen raises an eyebrow.

"Oh, I see," she says, amused, reaching down and grabbing roughly. He gasps, one hand shooting out and gripping the side of the bath as she shoves downwards, jamming the foreskin back hard, no warning, making him yelp and recoil. "Good effort, but I'm stealing your towel for that."

He backs right off and she lets go, springing out of the bath neatly and peeling off the pyjamas, the air tickling her wet skin and making her shiver. Owain stays where he is, watching, his eyes tracking down the axe-scar on her left.

"You'll give in one day," he says confidently. She smirks and picks up the towel, drying herself off.

"Will I?" she says mildly. "Do let me know when. Anyway; be honest. Your rogue animal was a child, wasn't it? They can be vicious."

"A bear," he said quietly, his tone alive with self-satisfaction. "It was just a bear, Awen."

"Stop," Awen managed, struggling for breath. The pool was just a pool again, her hands clean and still dry, hovering over the water's surface; both druids were holding her, trying to push her hands into the water, a third crouching behind her with his hands on her shoulders while she seemed to have risen partly, one leg stretched out behind her. Her heart was hammering in her chest, so loud she barely heard the old druid sharply calling them to stop. She felt drained.

"Hold," the old druid commanded, leaning down level with Awen's face. "Rider? Have you woken?"

"Yes," she whispered, sitting up and pulling her knee back under her. "Sorry, I - have you now been infected with your imaginary disease?"

"So far, my immune system is holding well," the druid smiled, the concern in his eyes so obvious he might as well have written it carefully across her forehead. "Are you alright?"

"Yes," Awen lied, swallowing. "I'm sorry. I don't know what happened."

"Rider," the old druid said, his face gravely serious. "Was it a flashback?"

"Yes," Awen said. She felt vaguely sick. He nodded.

"We don't need details," he said calmly. "But we need the gist of what you saw. Were you fighting?"

"No," Awen said. "I was... with my Deputy. My ex-Deputy. He killed a child, you know. And I saw him that day. And I missed it."

Her voice was speeding up, she could tell. She fought for breath, trying to avoid the hysteria. The druid nodded, his eyes sad.

"You're carrying too much guilt," he said gently. "You need to be willing to let go of it, Rider. Let Rhiannon help you."

She nodded, fingers flexing, and he sat back, gesturing to the pool.

"Watch the water," he said. Awen looked in, saw the colours, watched them dance and swirl and absorb her -

- the pain is intense, consuming her entire shoulder, ironic given how small the wound is. The arrow shaft is still protruding eight inches out of her body. Bizarrely, other than the pain her main feeling is one of faint nausea, a standard reaction to the concept of having something that alien in her body, something that shouldn't be there. She sinks to the floor, strong arms around her, helping her to lie on her back.

"Funny, isn't it?" she manages through gritted teeth. "You barely feel it while the Saxons are there, but the second the last one falls..."

"Adrenaline," Owain says shortly. He pulls out his dagger, clamps a fist around the arrow to hold it still and cuts off the end. She cries out for a moment, but once the wave of fresh agony ebbs it hurts slightly less now that the weight of the arrow isn't pulling on the wound. "Sorry. I'm going to have to cut away the uniform here."

"You just want me naked," Awen grins, and Owain gives her a tight-lipped smile.

"You're injured," he says, the dagger sliding between skin and leather before ripping upwards. "Internally. You might want to focus."

"Of course I don't," Awen said, exasperated. "It hurts, you retard."

"You're a bitch," he tells her, pulling out a rolled-up medkit and selecting a silver tool. She knows what it is; it's used for sliding under arrow heads and removing them as safely as possible. It's also agonising. "We can talk, though. Caradog hid my razor today."

"Caradog does that to everyone," she says, gritting her teeth as the edge of the tool is pressed against the shaft of the arrow and the mouth of the wound. It's a familiar argument. "He pushed Llyr in the bath last week, too."

"Yeah," Owain says, and pushes it inside her shoulder. She screams, trying hard not to move too much but almost convulsing all the same. "It's all the time to me, though. I'm keeping a chart, you know. He targets me at least twice as much as the next person. And almost never you."

The agony is strong enough to leave her breathless for a moment, spots weaving in front of her eyes.

"I'm naturally personable," she says, panting. Owain shakes his head and twists the tool, trying to catch it under the arrow head. She screams again, lost for a moment to the blackness once more.

"You sleep with him," he says, his tone very slightly jealous. "He leaves you -"

"He sleeps with Llyr," Awen manages, teeth gritted. "And still targets him. More than you realise, you aren't always there. Where do you go, anyw-?"

He yanks the arrowhead out, and she screams -

"Hold again," the old druid commanded. Awen panted, leaning against the supporting arms and thanked every deity listening that she wasn't reacting to them. Any more and she was going to be pitching head first into the pool without them. "Rider? You are awake again?"

"Yes," Awen said, her breath catching in her throat. "Sorry," she added.

"It's not your fault," he said, but he definitely looked worried now. "Really. Whatever has happened. Your mind is rejecting the process; you aren't allowing it."

"Am I?" she looked up, surprised. "Well, there's clever. How am I doing that?"

"You won't let go of the guilt," he said. "The rage, the self-loathing... you have built it up, Rider, into a wall. We cannot get past if you don't take it down."

"Oh," she said, her head spinning. "Well, that's logical. How do I take it down?"

"Stop blaming yourself," the druid said, insistently. "The fault is not yours, Rider. Let Rhiannon decide."

Even as he said it, she knew she couldn't. They set up again, Awen watching the water, the colours whirling by in her head -

- "How are you feeling now?"

She comes out onto the balcony behind Owain. He's sitting on one of the wicker stools, cross legged, watching the stars coming out one by one while he runs his fingers over his heavily bandaged arm, clearly trying not to scratch as the bone knits together. She steps up behind him and puts her arms around his shoulders, leaning against his back.

"It itches," he says, reaching up and holding her wrist on his shoulder. "But, you know. It's healing."

"Well done!" she says, squeezing his shoulder. "I was expecting you to bitch more."

"You're a bitch."

"You always say that."

They fall quiet, watching the stars brighten. After a while she sighs and goes to stand up, but he holds onto her arm, keeping her there.

"Are you okay?" she asks.

"Thank you," he says quietly, and lets go -

Union training, almost harder than genuine combat. Their brief was to find a box on one of the lower levels, a small thing about the size of a fist, and get it out of the Union; no small task, given that flying is the only hope of escape, and the landing bays are all watched. It's arduous, and taxing, and requires every bit of tactical thinking Awen possesses, and only one in seventeen Wings ever passes, and around halfway through Awen realises that theirs won't be one of them unless they try something drastic.

They're in the middle of a fight when she realises, so all she can shout is a brief "Owain! Split up!" and hope she's done the right thing. At the end of the fight she's left with Adara, Tanwen and Meurig, the others gone with Owain and no plan.

Eventually she's left here, in the landing bay, the runway a tantalising twenty metres away and on the other side of three grinning High Councillors and another Wing, all of them standing in front of the stables, preventing her from taking any of the merod. She stands firm, and nods her surrender, walking sedately up to the Councillors, very carefully dropping her belt and knife to display the point. She thinks, "What has Owain done?" And she knows the answer. She doesn't look back; merely inclines her body to suggest she has.

"Tanwen has it," she says, and moves. There's no time for anything fancy, the element of surprise being the only thing on her side. Rhydian doubles over from a hit to the solar plexus, getting just in the way enough of the other two to allow her to run. The Wing watching instinctively move to block the stables, and don't realise where she's headed until it's too late. The wind on the runway is cold as it hits her, and she looks up; he's above her, too far to throw the box to, and the people are inches away...

She jumps off, the sound of her own name shouted in several voices ringing in her ears before there's nothing but the wind rushing past, and she strains to hear the wing beats; and then the meraden appears in front of her, plummetting down at her speed, and she grabs Owain's hand and settles behind him. He eases out of the fall gently, and they miss the mountain-top by mere feet. She hugs him tightly, and neither can stop laughing -

- her back slams into the wall, the fingers of Adara's left hand entwined in her hair, her right arm wrapped around Awen's waist, holding them flush together. Adara's mouth is on hers, hungry and demanding, her hips pressing forward as far as they can without catching on the weaponry, and she breaks the kiss to run her lips down Awen's throat -

"You sleep with everyone who isn't me," Owain states, his voice hard as he pauses by the door. Adara snorts and looks at him over her shoulder, her eyebrow disdainfully raised.

"She has high standards and low tolerance for stalkers," she says, Owain's face darkening, and Awen lays two fingers against Adara's chin, turning her back to face her and locking their gazes.

"Don't," she commands softly, watching Adara's pupils dilate, and as their lips meet again Owain turns sharply and marches from the room -

"Well, that's just weird," Awen muttered, the world sliding back into place around her. Her hands were still depressingly dry, and it seemed she'd been struggling even more; four people were now holding her up as her body trembled, Councillor Rhydian sitting to one side with a face as serious as a heart attack and the old druid mumbling something. She shuddered, and sat up.

"What's wrong?" Rhydian asked gravely. He was watching her carefully, although the question was directed to the druid, who sighed and ran a frail hand over his face.

"As it stands," the druid said wearily, "it cannot be done. Her mind has turned inwards. Whatever great trials she has undergone recently, they've turned her against herself. She is actively rejecting salvation."

"But..." One of the druids around Awen leaned forward, his green robes slightly too big for him. "But all Riders try to reject the purification, don't they? We always have to push them. Why...?"

"All Riders consider themselves unworthy of it," the old man corrected sadly. "They cannot bring themselves to do it, and thus must be pushed. But this is beyond mere unwillingness. This is outright denial. I fear we could plunge her hands right in and hold them there for a week, and it would make no difference. Her mind is breaking the trance every time we get close."

"And you can't stop that?" Rhydian asked sharply. "You can't make her stay under? Undo the denial?"

"I'm afraid not, Councillor," the old man said, bowing his head. "Her outlook must change. Her perspective must change. Otherwise..."

He left the sentence hanging. There had been cases before of Riders who couldn't be purified. None had ended well. Rhydian stared at Awen for a moment longer, his expression stony, and then he nodded and stood abruptly. She tried, and failed, to suppress a twitch at the movement.

"Enough for now, then," he said. "Rider, report to the Ash Conference Room. We'll discuss this later."

"Sorry," Awen sighed, holding her hands out for the rope to be removed. "Are you diseased now?"

"Turns out, I'm immune," the druid smiled gently, carefully undoing the knots. "So I'm good. You take care now, though, okay?"

She left the Shrine feeling strangely numb, Rhydian marching silently beside her, every shadow posing a threat.