By Christopher Leeson
FROM DYAN'S JOURNAL
During my first days in the Fyana, I found the men living by the maxim "to the bold goes the crown." It validated what I knew intuitively and I stood by the rule after I was voted to the leadership. By that same rule, I fought and died. So did many of our comrades. Boldness has its downside.
So does leadership.
The tactics of the Fyana could not mimic those of the standing army. We lacked the weight of numbers to prevail in large-scale actions. Likewise our scanty resources ruled out extended operations. Instead, the Fyana made sudden thrusts against the enemy and then vanished before their reactive blow could be struck. Our warfare became more like assassinations than set-piece battles. Courtliness fell by the wayside. One the the earliest lesson that a new recruit learned was to stop being a gentleman and to fight as a scoundrel fights -- with ambushes and strikes from behind. We told ourselves that anyone who would serve the usurper deserved it; that had to justify the harsh manner in which we fought them.
Fortunately, the Fyana didn't have to build its tactics from the ground up; the basics of such war-craft came from the occasional deserter with specialized skills, especially the Royal Rangers. This was an elite troop that specialized in scouting, skirmishing, leading the enemy astray, and in covering retreats.
Our favorite opponent was the mercenary dastard who ran when the first arrows flew. Our band didn't have the luxury of paying curtsey to a valiant chancellor's man. If he survived, he could become a rallying point for fainter hearts, thereby increasing our casualties. Whenever possible, we marked the stouthearted warriors for death, trying to drive home the lesson that only those who fled or surrendered lived.
If an opposition hero fell into our hands, our idea of mercy was to send him back to Harouck in humiliation, so that he would become a laughing stock instead of a leader. Sometimes that ploy wasn't feasible, so we would instead offer a brave fighter the choice of losing his right hand or losing his head. Some of best of them chose to lose their heads. It was an ugly war and it turned warrior's hearts ugly, too.
Between gatherings, each man had to be his own commander, dependent upon his own ingenuity. To stay together in a cohort would have depleted the poor march lands that we inhabited . Worse, a multitude, either in camp or on the move, would have left behind so much spoor that even a mediocre tracker could have followed us. For safety’s sake, men separated after each foray.
We foraged for our own supplies and lived by our wits. Fugitive life damaged the character of many a man, but it also made him watchful, alert, and self-reliant. Such a one seldom lost his head and was usually equal to any emergency. How easy it would have been to desert the Fyana between gatherings. How surprisingly few men we actually lost in that way.
Still, we had taken casualties. Too many of them. When a fighting men shares one's own cause, when men live so interdependently, it is easy to regard a comrade-in-arms as a brother. And it was our lot to mourn fellow warriors as dead brothers.
My successor, Cemion, escorted me through a thicket of silver birch saplings toward a river overlook. I began to wonder why we had to walk so far just to find a little privacy.
"Where are we going?" I finally asked.
"Just up ahead."
My suspicions were only slightly allayed when we arrived at the drop off.
"A lovely sunset, don't you think?" the Fyana commander asked.
The twiglight cast red speckles along the River Gwin. In answer to his question, I shrugged.
"Are all your sisters as beautiful as you?" Cemion pressed.
I glanced up nervously. "You told me you wanted to talk to me -- Rodin – not to compliment my sister!"
The warrior frowned. It was as if he regarded my Rodin persona as an unwanted third party. "I'd like to do both," he finally said. He reached for my hand. I snatched it away.
"Cemion, you lout! Keep your hands off my sister!” I told him.
He paused. "You know my real name, too?"
"Of course I know your real name.” I was tempted to vent on him, and not just for his present behavior. What stuck in my craw was his past nay-saying and argumentativeness, but I didn't think that it would pay to make him angry. Like it or not, I needed his help.
The man drew back. "All right. You're Rodin for now. Let's talk, and then you can flutter off to wherever ghosts go."
"If you mean that you want to talk worthwhile things, I'm all for it,” I replied.
He crossed his arms thoughtfully. The man was muscular and looked larger still under his loose-hanging embroidered shirt. "We'd like to help every person that Harouck crushes under his heel, but we can help very few. We have to turn nearly all the requests down. If you're really Rodin, you already know that. Assailing the chancellor's fortresses is a good way to destroy the Fyana."
I shook my head. "A successful rescue would humiliate the tyrant and make him think twice about deterring rebels by punishing their families.”
He grimaced. "You may be dead, but your plans haven't gotten any better, Rodin. Your idea might do no good at all in the end, but real blood will be shed. The importance of the Fyana is not in its power, but in its continuing existence as a symbol. As long as we ride free and treat the scoundrel as the lawless usurper he is, we will stand as an idea for others to imitate.
"When that happens, brave souls will start to pass on information. Some will commit sabotage and assassination. More bands like ours will gather. The day that the ice breaks, there might be uprisings in the provinces. When there are too many enemies for the militia to handle, the groups will then be able to coalesce and claim whole regions for their own. That would allow armies to be built. But, Rodin, you know all this. Why would you now throw away the plan just to save one family?"
He had logic on his side. I doubted that I could sway him by using soldier's logic. What I need to do was to touch his emotions. "Help me,” I said, “so that this innocent girl shall not grieve."
He looked at me anew. My statement had apparently struck him uneasy. "I might come to like your sister very much, Rodin. I might even like to see her smile, but I met her only an hour ago. There have just been too many other women that have come to grief. And there will be soon be still more. We don't dare treat them all as special cases."
I looked absently at the stream below. The man had always erred on the side of caution, a tendency that had often had placed us at odds. How could I move him?
"I failed our cause, Cemion,” I said at last. “I cannot rest! I call upon you from the Darkness beyond life to strike the blow that I failed to strike! I own that you are right; every small victory over despotism gives heart to our people. I implore you to make this rescue one of those victories."
His stare became keener. "Can you see the future, spirit?"
"There are many futures, Cemion. In every future, people are suffering and stand in need of a hero."
He shook his head. "Hero is a word that no one except romancers use. A hero draws attention to himself by doing the impossible. The impossible is only done in books. A soldier does just what he can."
"A soldier can be a hero,” I told him, “and that hero can be you, warrior."
"The way you always saw things got you killed, Rodin," Cemion observed frowningly.
It was no use. His animosity to me had ruled out my persuasion. I needed new tactics. My mind raced. Cemion, I suspected, had a weakness for Maeve. That could be the chink in his armor.
I feigned a stagger. "Wa-- Was Rodin here?" I stuttered. "What did he say?"
Cemion gave a heavy sigh. "It was just man-talk."
I pretended to be on the edge of a swoon, and gave him a moment before I replied. "I – don't mind man-talk."
He laughed. "I bet you don't! You have grit, my lady. I can't understand why Gannon isn't already in love with you."
"He is a fine man,” I nodded. “But he can't think of anything except avenging his friend – my brother. I have never net a man so absolutely committed to doing honor to the dead.” I hoped that Cemion would be inspired by the stalwart attitude that I had so creatively attributed to Gannon.
He smiled. "I'm glad that his ideals have kept him blind to a lady's graces.”
Fool Rodin! I had just informed Cemion that I was unsought, uncommitted, and fair game for his unwanted courtship! I needed to charm him, but didn't want his lusty attraction to get out of hand.
"This isn't the time for romance, Cemion. What did you and Rodin decide?"
His mouth turned down. "I don't know what to tell you," he began. "Your intention -- Rodin's intention -- is a brave one, but it's very dangerous. It's not his blood that will be shed. Some of the men will be hard to persuade."
I made myself smile. “Are you saying that you are already persuaded?”
He glanced into the growth of spring flowers. "I can at least place the proposition before the men.” He looked back at me. “Would that please you?”
"What will be my reward if I please a fair lady?"
That took me aback; my fists clenched. "You need a reward for simply doing what's right?" I had just begun to form a better picture of Cemion, both as a man and a leader, and now these selfish words had spoiled it.
"There are many good causes,” he said thoughtfully. “As I informed Rodin, we can't do everything. Gannon has probably told you that Rodin died in a misguided effort to rescue a wagon-load of noblewomen. It was a trap, ready-made for such an incorrigible idealist."
He looked down on idealism; why wasn't I surprised? "What can I offer you? I come from a ruined house," I plead earnestly. "We have nothing left but our lives, and the tyrant is determined to destroy even those."
He took my wrist; that startled me, but I let him clutch it. "Don't think that,” he said. “You have so much of value. There is a glow in you Maeve, a dancing fire that fascinates. When you stand close, you seem to negate the darkness."
The rogue! A man might speak such nonsense to a barmaid, not to the bereaved sister of a comrade heroically slain. I would have liked to push him off the overlook, but I couldn't afford to reject the Fyana's roguish leader outright. I had to let him hope for a lady's favor while offering as little as possible.
"S-So what do you want from me?" I asked.
"If I am able to help you," he venture, "I want the best of kisses from a woman of unsurpassed charm."
"A kiss? From -- from me?"
"From who else?"
I stared up into his hopeful face.
"My help for a kiss?" I murmured. The thought was not a pleasant one, but his aspiration was, in fact, trivial. "Would you put the lives of your men at risk for something so unimportant and so personal?"
He scowled, as if he had been misunderstood. "I am not committing my men to anything. I'm only offering to lay your proposition at their feet.”
I thought about that. A Fyana leader couldn't dictate to his band. The unit was more than a mere appendage of its leader; it was an organism of many parts. Cemion was honest enough to admit he couldn't make any promises, but if he could be induced to argue in my cause, it would be a strong voice in support of the rescue.
"Save my family, Cemion, get us all out of Arannan alive. . . and the kiss is yours."
He looked annoyed and disappointed. "That wasn't my offer, not exactly.”
"That's my counter-offer,” I told him.
I must have sounded a bit more like Rodin than I had intended to.
Gazing from the window at the land below, the enormity of what I had caused was brought home to me. The Oc'Raighne home -- their fields, the pastures, the barns and sheds that I remembered so well -- now belonged to strangers. It seemed that poverty, infamy, and oblivion would be our clan's lot even if it should survive. Most of all, I pitied the children -- my nephews, my nieces, some of them still babes in arm. Would I have done anything in offense of Harouck had I known the price that the Oc'Raighnes would eventually pay?
"Lady?" said the old woman behind me.
I turned. Eubryd was a retainer of many years, one of the good family friends who had served the estate. She had held me in arm before I'd taken my first step, but now knew me only as a stranger, in front of whom she dared not to drop her guard.
Gannon, who was accompanying me, was just then hovering near the threshold, keeping a sharp lookout for the chancellor's custodians. There were several of them about, low-born rascals that Harouck's bureaucrats had put in charge of our property -- wretches who reportedly loafed all day, raided our cellars for wine and beer, drank all night, and pilfered at will.
Caer Hafganan, an old man with aching bones and weak eyes, squinted at me from his straight-backed chair. His wife joined Caer next to the fire and stood over him like a spirit of the hearth. She had always been a cheerful woman and it bothered me to see one like her so weighed down with doubt and distress.
"I don't believe that Rodin was a rebel!" asserted Caer Hafganan.
I had been trying to get some cooperation from the servants, but they didn't trust me. They didn't know my face, and they didn't know Gannon. I had avoided introducing rebels to my family, and I myself had so little contact with them as a rebel that they may have thought that the darkness had swallowed me up. But scant good my caution had done either me or them. The hour was late, I needed to be blunt if anything was to be accomplished. "What they accuse Rodin of is true! We know because we were members of his partisan band."
That threw the pair off guard.
"What do you want from us?" demanded the old woman.
"Only a few answers."
"We'll not betray our masters," said the man of the house.
"We don't ask you to betray anyone," I assured her. "In fact, we want you to help us succor the Oc'Raighnes."
"They had nothing to do with the rebels, no matter what Master Rodin did or didn't do!" Eubryd protested.
"We know that's true," I replied mildly. "They don't deserve this. We want to set them free."
They both wanted to believe me, of this I was sure. But how could I convince the pair that I was no royal spy?
"My sight isn't what it used to be, girl," Caer said. "Come closer. Let me look at you."
I stepped up and knelt before the chair. The old man touched my face with his dry fingertips and his feeble gaze fixed intently on my expression. Then the man's features softened.
"Can you really help the family?" he asked.
"It's possible," I said, standing up. "I only wish that we could do something for you and your wife, but the family is ruined and the Fyana has few resources. Maybe someday we can repay loyalty for loyalty, but not now."
They were silent for a moment, then the woman sighed, "It's the children for whom I grieve most. The children, at least, should have their chance."
"Then help us!" I pleaded.
I was asking for so much. They would be putting their lives in the hands of people they had only known for a hour. I was asking for a leap of faith when traitors and spies were watching high and the low alike for signs of disloyalty. If arrested, not even the slavers would want the antiquated couple. The well-off still received show trial, but the lowly were simply dispatched by the sword or the club out of sight. At last, old Caer squeezed his wife's hand. She looked back at his intent, upturned face and nodded slowly.
From the Hafganans we learned much that seemed useful. Although the property of the Oc'Raighnes had been impounded, certain personal effects, including some heirlooms and jewelry, remained at family's disposal even yet. As by tradition, it had been left in the care of family servants. Even the churlish caretakers were under the restraint of custom regarding this modest bounty. It was expected that wealthy prisoners should make prison purchases.
To reduce men of dignity to pauperism would have been an insult to the whole idea of social classes; people could easier accepted the law taking a man's life than taking his honor. Royal prisoners needed resources to ameliorate the miserable conditions of imprisonment, and the highborn had always saw the privilege as natural and proper. It would be unconscionable that their society' best should suffer in imprisonment as if they were common people.
My kin from far back had been traders, but when wealthy merchants had grown more prominent in the land – primarily because monarchs often needed to borrow money -- the courtesy of dignity was extended to them, also. In an indirect way, the policy allowed the government to support the prisons at the prisoners' own expense. Loyal servants were certified as go-betweens to carry money to their masters in lockup, and the incarcerated used small sums to buy better food and a few creature comforts, with their jailers being the middlemen. Because wardens and turnkeys profited without the risk of being charged with extortion, it was a system that they supported also.
Dôn Gwergi, a footman of our house, had so far been performing this desirable service for the Oc'Raighnes. Much useful information had been passed on from him to the Hafganans, who now, happily, passed it on to us.
My family was being detained in one of the leased properties used for the temporary warehousing the regime's less-dangerous prisoners. Space in the secure fortresses was retained for the more significant criminals, such as high lords. But so many from all strata of society had been locked up that the established prisons were not enough. The news that heartened me most was that my father had managed, through bribery, to bring his whole family together into a single large cell. That was welcome news.
But we received other information with less cheer. They were confined in Bannog Tower, which was really a number of old towers. The mansion adjoining the structures, for some time, been used by the chancellor to quarter officers, state servants, and visiting foreign dignitaries. The previous owners had been accused and were now either dead, fled, or imprisoned elsewhere. Their receivers had leased the property to the government.
Among other types, public executioners had been moved in next-door to my family. And these seemed to be the same foreigner wretches that were so adept removing the living heart!
People shuffled out of the way of our mounts as we rode through in single file. The old neighborhoods of Moyarien manifested antiquity at every turn. The cobblestones had long gone unrepaired and there were many fetid puddles. Grass had sprung up between the stones, while ferns and lichen stained gray and green every broken-down wall. The city defenses were prominent here, but had gone ill-maintained during long years of peace. The well-off had abandoned such old districts more than a century before, and poor families had subsequently inserted their squalid shelters into the former townhouses of noblemen. Sometimes landlords divided the larger rooms into quarters for several families.
As we made our way toward the horse barns, Dôn Gwergi, the third member of our tiny party, split off. He was making for his accustomed hostel along another street. I watched him vanish behind the stall of a flower-seller. Dôn had grown old in the service of the Oc'Raighne clan, as had many another. His loyalty to my parents seemed beyond question, but Dôn was a simple and cautious man. We were asking much of him, even to the endangerment of his life. I had coaxed the elderly steward along very carefully thus far and doubted that he would ever willingly betray us. But I didn't expect either daring or fortitude from him if he was pressed into dangerous circumstances.
Gannon and I stabled our horses at the barn behind at the Inn of the Four Lions, and then went to its postern. Our band had been lucky to have a friend near Bannog Tower who could offer lodgings, the innkeeper Bronell. He had vacated the upper floor and made it ready for almost twenty of our band -- a generous favor, since inn space was scarce in Moyarien. The city teemed with visitors thronging in for the rituals of Cernunnog. The festival gave an excuse to hold a trade fair, and the concurrent entertainments afford there gave the attendees ample opportunity to spend their money.
A house lackey met us in the drinking room and showed us to our upstairs quarters. There were not enough beds for the score of us, but as a “lady” I was favored to have one. Tired, but too agitated to rest, I tossed my bundle and my cloak upon the bed and then went down the hall to join Lairgann and some others in the common room.
"We heard that you had a -- successful --journey, Lady Maeve," the old warrior remarked.
I pulled up a stool. "We did," I said, then filled in the Fyana lieutenant about Dôn Gwergi. "I'm going in with him tomorrow."
He looked troubled. "That's dangerous. Shouldn't we talk strategy first?"
"Strategy will mean nothing if we don't know the lay of the Tower. I'll be go in dressed as a servant girl."
He smiled. "A pretty servant girl will draw more than her share of attention."
"Are you certain that your kin are all together?" the sergeant asked.
I nodded. "Rhey were when Dôn last visited -- thanks to my father's tortured purse. It was apparently not cheap to bring it about."
"To have only one cell to open will help our project,” he said contemplatively. “I'd like to see old Harouck's face at the end of this!"
"I only hope that we have a goodly distance between us by the time he does find out," I replied.
The master sergeant laughed and I opted to take advantage of his high spirits.
"Lairgann, Rodin has a favor to ask," I informed him suddenly.
"He does?" The rebel frowned. "I swear that lad use to demand fewer favors when he was still alive! Sometimes it feels like he isn't gone at all. Well, what is it this time?"
"He has to know where Cawdour was buried."
"He didn't say."
Lairgann scowled. "Ghosts commune with ghosts, I suppose. Well -- I'd have to make some inquiries."
"Maybe some of Cawdour's former servants would know."
I touched his hand, roughened by intense sun and too many winter days. "Thank you, old friend."
He passed an odd look; he seemed unsure whether it was Maeve or Rodin who was speaking.
"We'll all gathering on the roof at sundown," Lairgann said. "You'll have to fill in everyone about what you've learned."
"I wouldn't miss it. But is something bothering you, warrior?"
He nodded. "So many of us are here together. If we should be discovered...” he took a deep breath “...the Fyana would be finished.”
I knew that well enough. Was I wrong to involve my comrades in such an adventure? "Bronell has a tunnel in the cellar. It leads to the sewer,” I reminded him.
The sergeant rubbed the short beard on his cheek. "Yes, I examined it. There used to be many smugglers in this quarter. “Lucky for us."
The rooftop, offering what we hoped was a little security, presented a clear view of Moyarien -- the Camp of the Knights, the treasury -- and the ancient Bastion, officially the king's -- but in actuality the chancellor's -- heavy-security prison. Also, softened by the mists of twilight, stood the royal palace and the adjoining chancellery -- the latter being too innocent a name for the headquarters of tyranny that it had become. But, no doubt, Harouck would eventually dispossess the king that he so badly served and occupy it to enhance his own pride.
I heard Lairgann asking: "Have any of our scouts made contact with these people?" Other people used spies; we preferred to call our agents “scouts.”
"Not so far as I know," answered Manchan, the newest member of our band. At the moment he was looking jaunty in a newly-purchased doublet that he hoped would make him look like a prosperous festival visitor. He had entered our ranks shortly before Cymydog Road. It by now felt like a lifetime ago, but it really wasn't.
Normally it took a long time for a new recruit to earn our complete trust. We had to be wary; Harouck would infiltrate us if he could, and it would be easy to send us an agent posing as a new volunteer. Still, Manchan had served on the Bastion's staff and had valuable situational knowledge that we needed to tap. So far, no one had observed any suspicious words or deeds to make us doubt his allegiance.
"What do we know then?" rumbled the ever-irascible Cromm, looking characteristically dour in his old leather jacket and many-times-washed homespun.
"When I was on the staff," reminisced Manchan, "we suspected that someone was smuggling fugitives out of Moyarien. Some of the higher-ups had an inkling that traitors in the in the fleet were involved."
"Do you believe it?" asked Cemion.
"It's possible," replied the younger knight with a toss of his shoulders.
I smacked my palm with my fist. "Why weren't we told this before? That's exactly the kind of help we need to improve our mobility!"
Manchan frowned. "As far as I know, no one's ever proven that an escape route positively existed, much less who was running it."
"Lucky for us. If Harouck's people had proven anything, our would-be allies wouldn't exist to be found." My words drew some interested glances. I suppose I wasn't sounding very much like an unmarried maiden. They were probably wondering whether Rodin was visiting them yet again.
"So we don't actually know that these smugglers are real," Cemion summarized.
"We just have to find out!" I said. My tone hadn't been very demure, but demureness and I were never easy companions.
"Manchan," Cemion addressed his lieutenant, "can you put it about that we want to make contact with such people?"
"I'll see what we can do,” replied Manchan. “But don't expect miracles. If they exist, they must have ignored many such inquiries. Circumspection would keep them alive."
“It's incredible,” I said. “It's only taken a few years for one badly chosen man given too much power to turn a fair country into a chamber of horrors.” Some of the others nodded.
"What's this business about the mansion next door to them being full of executioners?" put in Fynbarr.
I told them what I knew.
Manchan shrugged. "I don't see how that makes much difference. What's an executioner but some fat, lazy butcher? I'd rather face a whole mob of executioners rather than just two or three competent sergeants from the Chancellor's Guard."
"These aren't ordinary executioners," I pointed out. "They may be something worse. We have to find out."
"One thing at a time," cautioned Cemion.
I stared irritably at the floor; Cemion had a way of talking down to me. I knew what it was. He would never fully take a woman involved in man's business seriously.
"Well," said Lairgann, "where does all these scrapes of news leave us?"
"What about that plan we first talked about, seizing the prison by force?" suggested Tal.
Lairgann grimaced. "It's no good. Bannog Tower is too close to the West Barracks. Any delay, either on the inside or the outside, would mean the quick arrival of a hundred reinforcements."
"Manchan, how many guardsmen does the prison itself hold normally?" asked Tadgh. Though he had never been stationed there, his duty had taken him into Bannog Tower on several occasions.
"At least twenty on duty at all times."
"Who are they? Can they be suborned?" inquired a rebel named Keef.
"City warden's people,” the young officer replied.
“We can't bribe a whole garrison, even if we had the gold," put in Lairgann. "Get enough people involved in anything and somebody will start to chatter like a parrot."
"What do you suggest, Manchan?" Cemion asked. "You're our expert."
"The hardest thing is knowing who to buy off. The Oc'Raighnes might have the best, since they must have met most of the garrison, while I've been away from the Bastion for weeks. I say get someone into the prison – this Dôn person maybe. He should ask the family about who watches them, and at what hours. Maybe they know which guards are decent sorts -- there's always a few – who are the good chancellor’s men. The best for our uses would be those that are just plain stupid and greedy."
I regarded the young officer. He was smart and sensible. Perhaps too much so? "I'm going in, too," I reminded them.
"I don't like letting Maeve endanger herself," objected Cemion.
"I won't be alone."
"A lot of good that old steward will do you! You're as reckless as your brother used to be!” He glanced over his shoulder. “Can't you talk some sense into her, Gannon?"
"It's a lost cause," my comrade sighed waggishly. "You know how women are."
Bannog Tower, ancient and weathered, was more than a mere tower. It was a four towers with a stone building between them. It's old name had been the "Wedtyn Storehouse," after the merchant clan which had done the original construction. Bannog Tower was now a prison, solid and formidable. Still, it had to be an easier candidate for a jail break than were the fortresses.
Dôn Gwergi and I manhandled our bundles from the back of our hired cart and dragged them along the walkway to the portcullis. Dôn's was already a familiar face at the tower and the duty sergeant showed considerably less interest in him than in me. Well, Lairgann had warned me!
"I see you do have something that should be searched carefully this time, old man!" the squad leader jibbed through a yellow-toothed grin.
"She's my niece," Dôn explained. "Don't make this any harder for her. The girl is nervous enough."
"No one'll hurt you here," the duty officer assured me. "Just women, old people, and kids, mostly. But if you want a personal escort while you're on the premises –"
I smiled self-consciously and dropped my glance, leaving it to the manservant to talk us through.
"We'll be fine," Dôn assured the guard. "Dyan is more afraid of your formidable men than she is of the prisoners, I'm sure."
"Don't be that way, honna," the squad leader addressed me politely. "We're only doing a job. What kind of city would this be if traitors weren't kept under lock and key?"
A better place for all of us, I thought angrily. I doubted that this individual would be a candidate for bribery, unless he was even more greedy than he was loyal to his paymaster.
I didn't answer and the man finally directed his attention to the business at hand. He counted out the money that Dôn had brought from the estate, making sure that it was not enough to make mischief with, and then accepted a gratuity -- a small bribe really -- right in front of his squad men. That improved his humor and he subsequently probed our bundles for odd sounds without opening them. To my relief, he didn't insist upon searching our persons. I expected that he would have enjoyed searching me much to much.
Finally, the squad leader scribbled a pass for Dôn and we then heaved up our loads and pressed on. Unlike the Bastion prison, which I had once toured as a squire, Bannog Tower had no arrow slits for hidden archers, nor holes for pouring boiling oil or molten lead down upon attackers or revolting prisoners. But there were wooden drop-gates in some of the archways, held up by wedges that could be knocked aside at the sound of alarm. Doubtlessly, these were deemed more than sufficient to deal with the tame sort of prisoners that the magistrates selected for Bannog Tower.
The deeper we went into the monumental stonework, the cooler and danker the interior became. Before long, we came to the foot of the eastward tower and I looked up into the lofty hollow between the towers, their bleak walls rising until they faded into shadow of the hour. The down-rushing draft was both rank and damp; it bothered me to think that my kin should languish under such conditions -- particularly my mother, who had weak lungs.
The climb was wearisome, burdened as we were. Dôn was past his prime and how I missed my male muscles! At long last we reached the fifth level, where we were again challenged by sentries. "I haven't seen you up here before," this new squad leader informed me, assailing me with that foolish sort of grin which I was becoming used to seeing on the faces of men.
"That's because I haven't been here before, soldier" I replied dryly.
"I hope this won't be your last visit."
"That depends how much I like my first one."
I was trying to put him off without unpleasantness, but the man seemed to read me as a "sassy wench" who might be amusing to banter with. I would have to practice at seeming to be dull and tongue-tied.
"Maybe we can charge you with something and keep you around for a while," the jailer suggested. "We guarantee you won't be cold at night."
I gave him a reply unworthy of a lady. The men of the squad laughed at my salty language and one of them, still chuckling, led the way to the door of the Oc'Raighne's cell and unlocked it.
As the door swung out, I saw him: My brother Rhangan, as large as life.
He was well-dressed; keeping up appearances must have been his way of resisting despair. But the sight of my brother's glum face affected me and I stood for a moment, unsure of what to say or to do.
"Let's go in," Dôn urged.
We stepped around the jailer, who returned to the hall and bolted us inside.
They were all there -- Mother, Father, Maeve, Byrna, Heuil, Indeg, Ceth, their mates, their children -- so many children! The chamber was commodious for a prison room, but the size of the family made it seem crowded. Due to the dim light, the wall hangings, embroidered with pictures of the outdoors, lost any charm that they might have lent to the gray walls. The smell of the latrine was unsavory. These accommodations were far beneath them and I despised myself for inadvertently putting them here.
"It's good to have new clothes," said my father to Dôn. "The lice are eating us alive! There's never enough soap and water for proper cleaning.”
I felt a smolder of anger. My expression must have been noticed by Mother.
"Who is this pretty girl?" she asked.
"Her name is Dyan," replied the manservant.
Just then, a infant's gurgle distracted me. There, standing to one side, was my sister-in-law Owlynn holding a baby. I set down my bundle and approached the young mother. The child, I judged, couldn't have been older than a couple months -- a new kinsman whom I hadn't even know existed! In the dim light, his plump face took on the aspect of a wise but suspicious old man.
"Is it a boy or a girl?" I asked.
Owlynn returned a wan smile. "A boy. His name is Lonroggen."
Another Oc'Raighne to carry on our family name! Or would he? All these children, too, were doomed to die! My soul blazed with hatred for Harouck, his self-seeking supporters, and for all their misbegotten works.
"Lonroggen," I repeated, "such a big name for such a little boy. Please, may I hold him?"
Owlynn looked for advice to Dôn, whose nod reassured her; I accepted the infant from his mother's arms.
How Lonroggen frowned at me, so unsure about this stranger who held him. He began to kick. "Shhh," I whispered, cradling my nephew close, rocking him until he quieted.
"Is everyone well?" I asked, passing the bairn back to Owlynn.
"Yes, fairly well," answered my father, no doubt wondering why this unknown girl should seem so concerned.
"Listen," I said, "I'm not just a servant. I was Rodin's friend."
"Rodin?" exclaimed my mother.
"Rodin! That fool!" muttered Heuil.
I turned sharply toward my brother, who, unlike Rhangan, was growing an honest beard. "He didn't want this to happen,” I told him. “He was just trying to keep innocent people like you from suffering this way!"
"Well, he didn't do a very good job of it,” Heuil grumbled back at me.
Maeve drew me to her side, like a confidant, saying, "We don't blame Rodin. It's fate."
Pale gold of hair, willowy -- how I had missed my younger sister. Though I had been impersonating her, how little she looked like Ava.
I turned toward my father. "Rodin has other friends in the city, too, Master Oc'Raighne. We have a plan to rescue you."
My sire threw up his hands. "It's hopeless. We're too many. But if you could at least take out the youngest –"
"I don't know how much we can do yet," I replied. "I came here hoping that you can tell us something that will help us form a better plan."
They looked askance at one another, their faces an admixture of desperation, doubt -- and yet hope.
I now realized that by giving them hope that might prove false, I had made the possible failure of my endeavor twice as hard to bear.
TO BE CONTINUED.....