The Truth Seer

Ashes and Mud

by Dice


Rain had come down and made the world a dreary, grey haze. It seemed to settle a chill in the air that the sun could no longer overcome where it appeared like a halo of white against the bleak sky.

Cian had found a spot between the stables and the washhouse, where there were less movement and fewer heavy boots to accidentally kick him as he played. His hose and tunic stuck to his body, he was too wet to feel the cold and had in any case put it out of his mind, the weather being of little consequence except to make the cobblestones perfect little islands with swirling rivers between them.

He had built a small castle with sticks on a big, flat topped cobblestone and below he'd made a bridge across one rivulet. For the fifth time he was rebuilding the high tower. It took him all his concentration to make the sticks lean together steadily enough for them not fall when he let them go.

He noted the muddy boots that appeared next to him, but he kept his attention on his work. When he was certain the sticks would keep he moved back and picked up the large round rock. Taking aim he drew his hand back and then let the stone fly. It crashed into the tower and smashed it, the evenly placed sticks scattering on the ground.

Cian looked at the devastation and blew out a discontented sigh. Then he rose and began gathering the sticks again.

"What are you doing?" the question was not void of curiosity, but not friendly enough to make him warrant it with a response. He tossed his cousin a look and sat down in the mud, shifting his focus back to the broken tower. "I had a catapult when I was little, a small one, father had it made for me," Brogan squatted down next to him, his tone still detached. "I used to build sandcastles and break down the walls."

Cian gave him another look, slightly less wary. Brogan smiled a bit and picked up a stick himself and Cian followed his hand with his eyes as he put it in place where the tower had been. They built the new tower together. Brogan had a knack for making it stable with less effort than it took Cian. With a tilted grin Brogan handed him the stone and watched as Cian aimed and threw.

"Is it that tower?" Brogan asked and pointed at the east tower - the broken tower - reaching for the cloudy sky above them. Cian shrugged. It was a tower, all towers came down. "Were you scared? Under the siege I mean? Moorhaven has never been sacked while father's been lord so I've never been in a siege," he continued, Cian looked at him again, but didn't make a reply.

Brogan huffed and rolled his eyes, but then began helping him rebuild again. They finished building and Cian threw the stone again, a little harder, the whole wall of the stick castle came down and a few sticks floated away and got stuck between the cobblestones. Brogan laughed with genuine amusement.

"Leave him alone!" a voice snapped through his laughter and Brogan turned his head towards the sound, the smile on his face turning into a sneer.

Cian began rebuilding the wall without turning to look at Caoihmin, who walked towards them with brisk steps. As he came up to them Brogan stood up, cocking his head and Cian felt his attention being pulled away from his task. He watched his brother and cousin, not quite certain what they were doing.

They were not quite of a height, Caoihmin being slightly taller; he was leaner however and Brogan stockier, with broader shoulders. Brogan spat at the ground and Caoihmin watched him with clear disdain. Cian chewed the inside of his lower lip and drew up his shoulders.

"Fuck off, cousin," Brogan made the word cousin sound more like an insult than the curse and Caoihmin clenched his fists, his eyes narrowing. "Fine," Brogan threw out his hands, speaking in a lighter voice, then he added mockingly, "you're as prickly about him as Moyna with her precious puppy!"

The blow came without warning and sent Brogan staggering backwards, tripping on the cobbles and falling on Cian's castle. Cian flinched back and pulled himself out of the way. Brogan rubbed his chin, his surprise quickly turning into fury.

He rolled off the ground with no effort and took momentum by kicking himself forward as he did so. He tackled Caoihmin in the ribs, knocking the breath out of him, then before he could recover Brogan drove a fist into his gut and pushed him sideways with his other hand, landing a single kick to his flank as he hit the ground.

Caoihmin struggled to get to his knees, he was gasping for breath and held his hands pressed against his stomach. He kept his eyes down. Cian found himself standing, not certain when he had got off the ground. He made no move towards his brother, sensing he would do better to stay clear.

"What's this then?" the curt voice coming from the yard was suspicious, but nevertheless slightly amused, the speaker walked over to them without haste. Brogan folded his arms, but sent his father a bold look and a wry grin. "Fighting, eh?"

Brogan shrugged and Caoihmin turned his head away from them, but Cian could see the clench of his jaw and his eyes thinning to slits.

"Ah, you'd better have it done with then, you're going for a ride with me," their uncle announced. He reached down and took hold of Caoihmin's arm, pulling him to his feet. Caoihmin snatched his arm free and drew back, his eyes flashing menacingly towards their uncle and cousin.

"I'd rather eat shit!" he declared viciously and began to turn away, however their uncle lay a steadfast hand on his shoulder and turned him around, giving him a slight shake.

"I'll be sure to have that option ready another time," he said tersely. "Now, fetch your cloak and get ready, we're leaving right away!" Caoihmin looked stunned for a moment and then frowned, glaring at him.

Cian cringed, he had never known his brother to have a temper, but recently he had seen proof of it often enough and he had come to realise their uncle didn't take defiance lightly and it would unfailingly end with Caoihmin locked in his room and refusing him entry, something he was far from used to, but which had become frightfully common of late.

He crept up to Caoihmin's side and pulled on his hand, hoping to capture his attention, but Caoihmin shook him off and folded his arms, a stubborn look coming into his eyes. Their uncle raised an eyebrow wordlessly inviting him to speak.

"Me too, I... I want to go!" Cian stuttered hastily, interrupting whatever Caoihmin had been about to say. He heard the words leave his lips and immediately regretted saying anything. He knew they would be on those tall steeds, with legs like logs that their uncle had brought with him from Moorhaven.

He swallowed and looked at Caoihmin, who was staring at him clearly taken aback. His brother knew him well and knew that riding had always filled him with dread; even when merely astride the slighter breeds that had always been in use in Fallenford he'd been close to tears and struggling to get off. Part of him hoped his uncle would tell him no, but he didn't, instead he gave Cian a wide grin and sat down on his hunches in front of him, ruffling his hair with a rough hand, making him totter slightly.

"That so, my boy?" he chuckled, not waiting for further response. "Well, you can come along, but you're wetter than a drowned rat in a barrel and that won't do. Your mother would never let me hear the end of it. I'll go talk to that old woman, she'll have to dressed properly."

He took Cian's hand and Cian looked down at the firm, callused fingers closing around his own. A narrow scar ran across the back of his uncle's hand and down his wrist vanishing under the thick, green fabric of his sleeve. A swords cut he suddenly knew as if he'd seen it happen. He ran a finger across it and a tremble went through him.

"Ha, that's from being too eager and having too little sense, common among young men in their first battle," his uncle nudged him along and continued speaking while they walked, mirth and pride in his voice. "Your father was in that battle, and your grandfathers, both, we fought to put the true king on the throne!"

The only king Cian knew of was King Mathuin who ruled the land from Kingstower in the south. The old scribe, Daragh, who served as the children's tutor in want of one more formally trained as such, would speak long and with fervour about the history and great deeds of the royal line, but Cian couldn't remember one king being truer than any other as far as he was concerned.

"Who's the true king?" he asked as his uncle lead him up the steps to the great hall, he could feel his teeth rattle as the cold air began to draw the wetness from his clothes, leaving him chilled to the bone.

"King Mathuin the Righteous, eleventh of his house," Caoihmin threw in, having followed a step behind them. "You know that, Cian. There were many who fought him for the throne... and some of them still..."

"Many more fought for him!" their uncle cut him off bluntly, giving him a grim smile, but then his features turned brooding and his tone darkened, "but still, enough greedy fools have grudges to settle, hence the little mess out here, eh?" he gestured offhandedly at the broken tower. "Bloody outrage!" he muttered.

He heaved the doors open and lifted Cian across the threshold. Inside a fire roared in the huge hearth and people were huddled close to it to gather up their share of its warmth before confronting the bleak cold day outside again. Most of them seemed to find their feet and scurry off when they entered as if fearing a reprimand for idleness.

"Might there be more fighting, uncle?" Caoihmin asked casually when they were through the hall and heading up the stairs, the question was directed at their uncle, but he was looking intently at Cian as he spoke.

"Hrm, they won't dare try another affront like the siege!" their uncle scoffed. "Not with the king's soldiers awaiting my beckoning, but I doubt they've given it up completely. Lord Flaithri, may pigs eat his liver, has supporters in this little feud he's begun, but they've remained silent as yet."

Cian felt his mind reel, but nothing slipped forth and after a moment the shadows settled again, he chewed his lip and focused on placing his feet on the steps and keeping up with his uncle's greater leaps. Caoihmin walked behind him.

"Could Lord Aonghus be one of them?" Caoihmin ventured at length and Cian looked over his shoulder at him, nearly tripping on the high step.

Their uncle stopped and lifted him up a few steps higher, but he was watching Caoihmin sharply. He let Cian go and scratched his chin with a pondering look.

"What makes you say that?" he asked, his rumbling voice growing quiet, Caoihmin shrugged and looked away.

"He didn't come to our aid, did he?" he offered carefully.

"Ha, the nobles out here are cautious, my boy, honour be damned if they have something to lose!" their uncle began walking again, waving Cian in front of him, but he didn't let the subject drop as he might've. "In any case, the king might not have been swayed to take a stand if it hadn't been for my interference and you don't risk royal disapproval unless you've something to gain and Aonghus has more to gain from keeping silent than from rushing into the fray with a handful of untrained peasants on his side!"

"Would you have come to our aid if the king had been on Flaithri's side?" Caoihmin suddenly asked, making Cian stumble yet again. His heart thumped loudly in his chest, something in his brother's tone, the defiance and distrust, sent waves of discomfort through him, still he dared a glance up at their uncle.

His face was flushed a shade redder than a moment ago and he was looking down at his nephew with his furrowed brow knit and eyes narrow and searching. Then his mouth quirked upwards in a tilted grin, and he gave Caoihmin a light cuff on the ear.

"Blood is blood," he said firmly, giving a sharp nod as he spoke. "Tuathal spare me if I hadn't come to save my only sister!" then he leaned closer to Caoihmin, a shrewd look appearing as a twinkle in his eye. "Luckily the king is as righteous as they name him, eh?"

Caoihmin remained behind on the stairs while their uncle lead Cian to the little chamber where he and the twins slept. Cian looked over his shoulder at him where he stood, a thoughtful look on his face, then Caoihmin shook himself and vanished into his own chamber, the door clattering shut behind him.

"Now then, let's see if we can't get you clothed, my boy," Cian nodded solemnly at his uncle, who grinned down at him, his clothes were chafing and cold and he had nothing against trading them for something warmer.

******

Cian was trembling, heart beating against his temple. He was holding his breath as he watched the mounts being lead up to them in the yard. His uncle's horse, a mostly white gelding with brown streaks in his mane approached with thundering strides and the stable boy seemed only too happy to release the reigns and back away from the heavy hooves.

The horse gave his uncle's shoulder a powerful shove and began searching him for treats, Cian watched as his uncle decisively clenched his hand around the reign and pushed him back, steering the huge animal in an angle away from himself. Then he grinned at Cian and reached out a hand.

"Dougal, please, look at him! He's terrified!" Cian felt his mother's hands encircle him from behind. "This isn't wise, he's never taken to riding!"

There had been quite a fuss made over his sudden willingness to go on the ride. Treasa had bristled, but said nothing as she dressed him, but she had taken no time to hasten to his mother's chamber to bring her the unsettling news. His mother had baulked at the notion and to Cian's fleeting relief flat out forbidden their uncle to take him. He had laughed at her.

"And won't take to it either if he's coddled like an infant!" his uncle shook his head, his jovial manner slightly marred by irritation.

Brogan was watching them from horseback a bored smirk on his lips. Caoihmin, as well, was already astride the horse his uncle insisted he learn to ride. He looked uneasy, but whether for his own sake or Cian's Cian wasn't sure. The huge mount was a far cry from the slender beast that Caoihmin called his own and which he could lead in a merry dance around any larger steed and on which he'd bested the better part of the nobles in the vicinity in both hunts and races. Their uncle was adamant however, such toy horses were for girls and a man should know how to manage a horse that could carry him through a battle.

Motioning for the stable boy to seize the reigns again, he bent to pick Cian up from the ground and then lifted him swiftly over the saddle, his legs sticking straight out on either side of it. Cian grasped the pommel, watching his knuckles whiten and fought the tears that threatened to choke him.

Their uncle placed one foot in the stirrup and swung his leg over, coming up behind Cian and taking hold of the reigns on either side of him, his arms creating a solid barrier between Cian and the six foot fall to the ground. Cian remained sitting stiffly, clutching at the pommel with all his might as his uncle kicked the mount into a light canter and steered ahead of the party through the gates.

They were joined by four of his uncle's men, all in clattering chain mail and with swords at their hips. Cian noted his uncle's sword as well and gritted his teeth, pushing the sense of danger and blood to the back of his mind. He drew up his shoulder and felt his body begin to shake beyond his control. He felt a wave of nausea come over him.

"There now, I've got you," he heard his uncle mumble into his hair, the words sounding distant and faint for the fear roaring in his ears like a waterfall. "I've got you," the voice continued soothingly calm and steady and slowly the roaring faded to a more familiar throbbing of his heart.

Little by little he found himself able to lean against the broad chest behind him and put his weight on the saddle beneath him; his strained grip on the pommel didn't lessen however and he continued to cling with all his strength even as he began to take in the view from horseback. The world was a different place from this height.

As the horses' hooves rumbled across the wooden bridge Cian hazarded a glance into the swirling murky depth of the river; Fallen it was aptly named because it seemed to fall in an ever surging torrent that grew wilder still when rain added to its flow. At Fallenford it had some of its more shallow points, but none were truly safe to cross on foot and not safe to cross at all after a heavy rainfall.

Cian turned to see the gates close behind them, gates that had through his lifetime stood open and welcoming, but were now closed and guarded from the battlements by men with bows.

They took the road south, towards the village, it was a fair few miles and a hard few hours walk, on horseback it wouldn't take half as long getting them there Cian knew, Caoihmin would ride there and back within an hour on a clear day.

He had not been allowed outside the castle in this direction for weeks, not since before the siege and the difference in the land was startling. The fields that were usually golden and ripe for harvest at this time of year lay flat and trampled in a shambles of ashes and mud. Broken arrows still stuck out of the earth. Cian's eyes went to a split shield, lying face down in the mud, crest unseen, filled with grimy water.

As he looked up he saw it; a wooden framework, burnt and ruined, still standing erect in the middle of the field, leather and rope dangling from the beams. For all the fear it had caused it now looked weak and broken, not much different from Cian's faltering stick tower, yet he pressed back against his uncle's chest as they rode past it, unable to take his eyes of the remains of the catapult.

"Not much left of that thing, eh?" Brogan urged his horse to fall in beside them, he gave Cian a grin. "Must've taken them a few days to build, it's just out of arrows range, too, clever bastards..."

"Would you shut up? Stop trying to frighten him!" Caoihmin snarled, steered up so he cut Brogan's horse off, forcing him to reign it in sharply.

"Sounds like you're the one who's frightened!" Brogan snapped back.

"Enough, the pair of you!" Cian winced at the sharp voice above his head. His uncle had turned slightly, pinning his son and nephew with a glare. "I've had it with your churlish bickering! Pick another fight, Caoihmin and you'll have picked it with me!" he said nothing more and kicked his mount onwards with no further glance at them.

They were almost at the crossroads when suddenly Brogan let out a small holler. Cian lurched in the saddle when his uncle pulled the horse around sharply and he grabbed onto his arm with both hands. Caoihmin had turned around and were galloping back towards Fallenford while Brogan was picking himself off the ground and brushing dirt off the seat of his pants, he looked sullen and glowered at his father's men, who seemed to be doing their utmost to look suitably bored.

"Want me to catch him, my lord?" one of the men asked and Cian looked up as his uncle scratched his chin, his stomach was churning with a strange, dull ache.

"No, leave it," he muttered and then he grinned, chuckling slightly, almost fondly. Shaking his head, he turned back towards the crossroads.

Cian was shaking, the ache in his stomach growing worse. He wanted desperately to be home again, but his uncle showed no sign of wishing to turn around. Brogan was brooding and rubbing a reddening mark on his cheek as he rode up beside them.

"Your own fault, I take it?" Brogan shrugged and pulled a face. "Ha, thought as much! You don't know when to hold your tongue! He's quicker than you, eh?"

"He might get the first punch, but I get the last!" Brogan returned smugly. "At least on the bloody ground," he added making another wry face.

"Hm, he'll learn to aim right and the first blow will be the last, you'd better learn to see it coming," Cian felt his uncle straighten his back and he wobbled slightly, he had yet to let go of his uncle's forearm and could feel the muscles flex underneath the thick sleeve. "When I first saw him I said `that boy is of his father's blood' but the more I see of him the more of my sister he shows, stubborn as sin," he laughed quietly and then shook off Cian's hands taking them in his and placing them back on the pommel. "You, though, little mite, you're every bit your father's son, quiet and watchful, that was Conley, ever watching... waiting..."

Cian felt more than saw the eyes in the shadows of his mind, like a beast lurking in the undergrowth waiting to pounce. He shook himself, trying to clear his head, but for a moment his mind seemed to swirl worse than the Fallen and he reeled in the saddle and would've no doubt tumbled off the horse if not for his uncle grabbing him with one hand and reigning in the horse with the other.

He said nothing only held Cian for a little while, his hand coming up to stroke his sweat soaked brow. Cian's breath came in quick gasps, the dizzy spell passed slowly, a sense of weariness and fear lingering. Dizzying and strange, unlike the clear, unquestionable sense of knowing he was used to, these dark whispers left him uncertain and while he was sometimes terrified by what he knew, these sudden flickers of something unknown that he was only barely able to sense was all the more frightening.

"There now, I've got you," his uncle mumbled above him and he turned around, heedless of the height or the horse moving restlessly beneath him and buried his face in his uncle's tunic and clinging to him as anxiously as he would've clung to Caoihmin had he been there. "Best head back then, might as well."

"Father, there's a rider coming up he road, there!" Brogan rose in the saddle, pointing. The men seemed to have noted the horseman as well because as Cian stole a look at them they were spreading out slightly, with hands ready on their swords.

The rider seemed not to be troubled by the sight of them, rather he urged his horse into a tearing gallop towards them, one hand raised in greeting. Cian felt his apprehension being pushed aside by curiosity as the rider approached and he peeked out from under his arm at the stranger. He wore grey and gold and he spurred his horse on at a perilous speed, reigning the shaky mount in just before he crashed into them.

He hung forward in the saddle as if he had ran the distance and not the horse, gasping for breath. He waved away a water flask that one of the men reached out towards him, shaking his head and coughing.

"You ride from Galeskeep," Cian heard his uncle's voice, blunt, cutting briskly to the point and taking command of the situation. "Have you ill tidings, man?"

"I..." Cian glanced at the rider as he let out another painful, gurgling cough and slumped further in the saddle. He noticed how he pressed a hand against his belly, a large, brown stain had formed around the torn cloth there, he wore no chain mail and his scabbard was empty. "Lord Flaithri... they've taken Galeskeep... burnt... they're all..." the rider swayed forward and was caught up by one of the men his eyes rolling back into his head, face pale.

Cian closed his eyes, he wanted to flee he didn't want to know. But he knew all the same and he saw it, as clearly as if he was standing in the midst of it; an unfamiliar courtyard, there was smoke, black smoke everywhere and shapes in the smoke, moving, struggling, running. Someone fell to the ground and Cian saw the muddy rainwater between the cobbles turning a murky red and then the screams, shrill screams that were suddenly his own.

Too late he realised the horse was moving, he had broken his uncle's grip on him and as huge steed lumbered ahead Cian felt himself slipping and falling. He choked on his scream as he was suddenly jerked back with enough force to almost throw him down on the other side of the animal. His uncle shook him sharply by the arm, holding on tight enough to bruise.

"Now hold still! Or I swear you'll get a wallop when we get home," he muttered coarsely and Cian had no doubts he meant it and yet he felt safer at that moment than he had since he was lifted onto the horse; all else aside he wouldn't be allowed to fall.

******

~ Dice

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