Broken Tower

by Dice


Pronounciation of the names you may find odd:

  • Cian - (kee-an)
  • Eithne - (en-ya)
  • Caoihmin - (ke-vin)
  • Caitria - (kay-tree-a)
  • Cathal - (ka-hal)
  • Conley - (kon-lee)
  • Treasa - (tra-sa)
  • Liadan - (lee-din)
  • Niall - (neel)
  • Mathuin - (ma-huin)
  • Aisling - (ash-ling)


Chapter 1 [Top] [Next]

Note: That took me long enough, but here we are, the first chapter of a story that's shaping up slowly but determinedly in my mind. I have added a few things early on that are small but important, so you might want to skim through it again.

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He had climbed the full way to the top of the east tower, up all the stairs, which were all higher than his knees and scrambled over the broken stones and debris where the fifth window had once been and where the wind now wafted through, bearing news of colder weather. He dared a fleeting glance over the mass of crumbled steps into the forty feet drop beyond and then he continued his climb, grabbing on to the edges that remained of the steps and heaving himself up with little effort.

The boulder that had struck the tower had the day before been heaved off of the north wall where its route had ended, shattering a part of the battlements, and down into the murky depths of the swirling river that surrounded the craggy shores of Fallenford.

The siege had waged a month at most, but changed life as he knew it irretrievably. Fallenford was a stronghold, not so much a castle as it was a fortress, surrounded by water and resting on solid rock with insurmountable walls and impregnable gates. Inside these walls safety had reigned throughout the boy's short years. Until the boulder.

Now safety was only where his brother was.

"Caoihmin?"

The blue eyed, black haired youth who was sitting in the nook of the window looked up and his face bore a look that was at the same time both troubled and wearied. He said nothing, but stood, his dark blue tunic fluttering slightly in the draught. A hand trailed through the lighter mop of hair on the head of the smaller boy as he walked past and then he stooped down on the second stair, reaching out a hand for his brother to come closer.

"You're not supposed to be up here, Cian," he said quietly as the child scrambled onto his back and settled into a familiar position, there was no reply. Together they climbed down to ground level, passing by the gaping wound in the tower in a swift stride. Caoihmin set him down when they reached the bottom and took his hand. Cian held on tight; his brother's hand was cold as ice.

The yard was crowded and bustling. Tall, burly men moved about like lumbering giants in their heavy armour, reeking of sweat and rusty metal. Cian hid his face in his brother's tunic. These men were all strangers to him, these were not the familiar faces of the guards he'd known since he could first walk, men who would toss him in the air and tell him he'd grow to be ten feet tall if he didn't slow down. These men had their faces hidden behind heavy helms and their glowering eyes gleamed in the shadows as they scowled at the two boys making their way across the yard.

"How did you know where I was?" Cian looked up to see his brother's searching eyes on him.

"Aisling told me," he said simply and Caoihmin looked at him oddly, but said nothing more.

His brother sidestepped a moving cart, lifting him well out of its path and then pulled him gently along through the disorder as if there was somehow a magic path opening before him.

"Caoihmin!" the harsh tone broke through the clamour of voices, heavy footfall and clanging chain mail and weaponry.

Caoihmin turned, pulling his hand from Cian's and placing it around his shoulders, pressing lightly with his fingers on the boy's arm. The smaller boy took hold of his leg and looked up at the red and green surcoat and the grim, pock scarred face above it that Cian could place as belonging to the captain of the others.

"Where in the blazes have you been boy? Your uncle's sent men out looking for you!" the captain demanded. He didn't wait for a response, only clamped a hand down on the youth's shoulder and steered him up the steps to the great hall, leaving a fretful Cian to scurry after as best he could.

Not even the great hall was familiar to Cian any longer; though its appearance and usage had not been altered; the same banners still fluttered when the doors were opened, the tall arches still filled with voices and singing when the whole castle took their meals at the three long tables, and yet he knew without being told that he would find no welcome here any other time of day, not like once when he had run and played where he pleased. Yet he followed closely behind his brother and his captor.

"Found him prancing through the yard without a care in the world!" the man gave Caoihmin a light shove, sending him a step closer to the long table where their uncle stood bent across scattered maps and documents. Cian scowled, but remained still.

"Thank you, Fearghas, have the men called back," their uncle's voice was low and brusque, a deep thunder inside his chest that more often than not came out in a roar. He waited for his captain to leave before he stepped away from the table and placed his hands on his hips, fettering his nephew with keen eyes that promised grief if he did not get the answers he was looking for.

Cian sidled up to his brother, but was quietly pushed behind him, out of reach of those sharp eyes and out of mind of the man they belonged to.

"You're no dunce, Caoihmin, in fact you're a great deal cleverer than a boy your age should be!" their uncle stated and there was no praise in his voice. "Which forces me to think you defy me out of spite!"

Caoihmin gave a start, not visibly, but Cian felt it where he stood, pressed close against him. He let his hand slip into that of his brother's and felt its fingers close around his. Cian watched the dark, tall stranger that had burst through their gates five days hence, blood on his face and triumph in his eyes.

His arrival in Fallenford had been greeted with rejoicing and cheer and Cian, still shaken by the boulder's flight, had watched his mother run to his arms and kiss that bloody face as if there was naught so dear to her in all the world, coming away with her dress stained and filthy. Caoihmin and Cathal had come running, wild with joy and let him grab them around the shoulders and hoist Cathal in the air. Then their mother had reached for him, smiling through the blood on her lips, her hands tainted with the same and Cian had run from her.

It had taken them hours to lure him out and for the second time that day Caoihmin had sat quietly on the floor waiting for him to leave the shelter of his bed. The first time had been hours before the boulder, when Cian had known. Not until Caoihmin had taken his hand had he stopped screaming and though it was days behind him now the dread he had felt when he knew lingered, stronger still than the fear after the fact. When the boulder hit, the walls of all of Fallenford had trembled with the impact, but by then he had been safely curled up on his brother's lap and there was nothing to fear.

"If I've done something to offend you, uncle, I'd..." Caoihmin began, meeting the keen eyes head on, their uncle slammed his palm down on the table, a few papers fluttering to the floor behind him.

"You know damn well of what I'm talking, boy, so don't feign innocence with me!" he barked and Caoihmin turned his eyes aside, a faint blush creeping up his neck. "I've no time for your childish meanderings!"

"I've gone nowhere," Caoihmin answered stiffly, still looking past their uncle to the other side of the hall, his eyes expressionless.

Then there came a sound of running steps and one of the doors to the great hall flew open. Through it came a flurry of blue silk and a scent of lilies as their mother hastened towards the brewing storm, her face set and with a determined step. Close behind her followed Caitria, anxiously biting her fingernails and then the somber, grey clad woman who called their uncle 'my lord husband' and who's shadowy figure seemed to Cian to float across the floor rather than tread.

"Dougal, I heard the horn," their mother declared, giving their uncle a short, unwavering glare and then turned in a heartbeat towards her eldest son, face softening. "Where on earth did you get off to? Not answering calls, we've looked everywhere for you!" she chided gently, her hands tracing over him in search of any harm that may have befallen him.

The grey lady lay a slender hand on Caitria's shoulder and held her back a few paces away. Caitria looked up, seemingly taken aback, but she moved no further. Cian noticed that her dark locks were sternly combed and tied back with ribbons and that her sallow dress showed none of their usual traces of play.

"I'm sorry, mother, I didn't hear you. I've been here!" Caoihmin assured her, giving her an embarrassed look and she smiled, kissing his cheek, forgiving him all.

Lie. Cian ignored the whisper and kept holding onto his brother. He's lying. His brother was resting his forehead against the window frame, looking down at the men milling about underneath him, a blue figure fluttering between them like a butterfly and calling out in worry, then he turned away to watch the mountains in the distance. Cian shook himself and held harder onto the hand in his.

"Well, I am not so easily misled, my boy," their uncle strode around the table and with a firm hand he tilted Caoihmin's head upwards. "Wherever the toss you were," he said slowly, ignoring the look his sister gave him at his choice of words, "you weren't where you were told to be, were you?" he let Caoihmin go with a sharp nudge under his chin and Cian saw his otherwise so confident brother falter and then lower his eyes until he was looking at his boots. Cian looked at them too, so much bigger than his own where they remained close behind.

Their mother stepped in between them with an annoyed little frown and a pinch to her lip, a look that made even the burliest of men in Fallenford scrape their feet and find the quickest way to escape the lady's displeasure. This look she turned on their uncle and he straightened his back with an ominous glare of his own, his hands clamped down on his leather belt. Neither of them said anything and the air around them appeared to grow heavy.

Cian pulled on his brother's sleeve and Caoihmin met his eyes, giving his head a short silent shake.

"Eithne," their uncle's voice was a low warning growl, but she merely cocked her head, looking defiantly at him, he returned her glare a moment longer and then he threw out his hands with a laugh. "You're just like when you were a lass!" he complained, which teased a smile from her lips that she made an effort to hold back, but her eyes warmed quickly and she laughed softly herself.

"Still, given that this little mite here..." their uncle's face became grave once again as he nodded towards Cian, "...follows him about like a stray pup, I'd say its about time he learnt his place!"

"He was only watching for father!" Cian burst out. His words did not have the intended reaction.

Their mother turned to them with an appalled look on her face, first seeming on her way to respond and then looking with wounded disapproval at Caoihmin. Even their uncle looked taken aback, but he set his jaw and watched the scene before him.

"You... you took your brother up in that broken tower?" Cian heard a tremble in her voice as she spoke, but didn't quite understand it. "How could you be so irresponsible?" Her hand rose and fell with a loud crack across his brother's face which snapped to the side, a livid red mark blossoming on his cheek. Cian shrank back and cowered, tears springing to his eyes; in all his life he had never seen his mother strike his brother in such a way.

"I didn't! He found me in the yard!" Caoihmin spoke rapidly and defensively, only wavering slightly from the sudden harshness of her actions. As he spoke Cian felt his brother's finger pinch the skin of his wrist hard and he clenched his teeth, knowing to hold his tongue and not let slip a breath.

She didn't seem to believe him at first, but as he met her eyes with a pleading expression, hers slowly altered and became softer, slightly guilty. Sighing, she closed her eyes for a moment and then looked at him with an apologetic mien, lifting her hand to stroke his face and sooth the imprint her hand had left there.

"But you went up there," their uncle's quiet, sober voice cut short her gesture and she looked back at him, suddenly hesitant. "There's no other place that weren't thoroughly searched..." he let the simple fact hang in the air and Cian watched their mother's hand drop to her side and the uncertain disappointment returning to her face.

"Is it true, Caoihmin?" she almost whispered and then strengthened her voice. "What am I to think? What am I to do with you?" she spread her hands looking as crestfallen as Cian had ever seen her and he could tell her words struck his brother, by the way Caoihmin drew his breath sharply above him.

"Eithne," the grey lady spoke in a hushed, but confident tone, allowing herself to lay a gentle hand on their mother's shoulder, making her turn her anxious face towards her. "Why not leave this matter to Dougal. He will soon be a man grown and needs a man's hand to steer him straight," she spoke kindly, but assertively and to Cian's wonder his mother bowed her head and gave a brief nod.

"Come Cian, you ought to be with Treasa," she told him softly and held out her hand for him to take it and go with her.

Cian remained unmoving next to his brother, looking at her hand like she held a snake. He could not bring himself not to see it bloodied, nor did he wish to follow her and leave his brother's side. She gave her hand an impatient shake and took a step towards him speaking his name a little less gently. He flinched back from her and she pulled her hand away as if he'd snapped at her.

"Perhaps, if my lord husband agrees, he should be set an example and remain here," the grey lady said smoothly.

"Why not? It wouldn't harm him none," their uncle said gruffly. Cian saw his mother falter and she swallowed, about to speak, when Caoihmin wordlessly pushed him none too gently away from him.

"Go with mother!" he ordered stiffly.

"But I..." Caoihmin looked straight ahead and gave his head an imperceptible shake that silenced Cian's objections as effectively as if he'd shouted at him and he quietly turned on his heel and walked solemnly past his mother and the grey lady, not even letting Caitria take him by the hand when she tried.

*****

He lay very still, listening to the creak of the floorboards as Treasa moved about in the room. The old woman knew where he was, but had as yet not attempted to do anything about it. Cian watched her feet shuffle back and forth while she tidied up toys and discarded clothes. He fingered the tightened ropes that made up the underside of the bed, letting his hand trace lightly over one overlap after another until he couldn't reach further.

The door opened and he flinched, pulling himself up against the wall. From where he lay he saw only a flash of grey before he heard the familiar tread of his sister's light steps followed by a brisker set of steps that he couldn't place before he saw the pointy little shoes with embroidered flowers that belonged to the girl with the puppy he wasn't allowed to pet.

She had the puppy in her arms now, because it was whining slightly wanting to be put down. The flowery shoes walked over to the chairs by the window and the girl say down there, mumbling and cooing softly to her pet.

"Now where's he gone off to?" Cian had noted before how the grey lady's voice changed whenever she spoke to Treasa, always edgy and high pitched, never as soft as when she spoke to his mother. Her foot tapped impatiently against the floorboards and her dress rustled slightly as she moved further into the room.

Treasa made no reply, but must have made a sign of some sort because presently a sage blur obstructed the little view he had and then Caitria's face and dark hair appeared. She grinned at him, eyes twinkling.

"Peek-a-boo!" she sniggered. "I can see you!"

Cian met her eyes with no smile of his own. He frowned a little, but said nothing.

"Caitria! A proper young lady does not crawl on the floor! Mind your dress!" there was a flutter of grey and Caitria vanished as quickly as she'd appeared, only her feet remaining in Cian's line of vision. "Neither is it appropriate for a lord's son to sulk in the dust under the bed! You will come out this instant!"

The tone of her voice left little room for disobedience and Cian felt his heart begin to race. His hand curled around the ropes under the bed and he clenched his teeth, prepared for a struggle he had won many a time before.

"That won't work!" Caitria objected tersely. "He's not like to move before Caoihmin asks him."

"Caitria, what have I said about addressing me properly?" the grey lady spoke with an exasperated tone.

"I'm sorry, aunt Liadan," Caitria whispered suddenly shy and uncertain.

There were no approving words or acceptance of her apology only another minute tap of her foot and then an annoyed sigh.

"You mark my words, I will speak with your mistress about the children," these words were spoken to Treasa, Cian knew, similar warnings had been uttered many times over the last few days.

The door closed behind the sweep of grey and then the room was still for a few moments, before Treasa casually returned to her tidying. Cian lay very still for a moment longer. Then Caitria's feet disappeared from view as she lay down on the bed above him. Instants later she was looking at him at an upside down angle, her hair falling to the floor.

"The horrid witch with the cinder sticks," Caitria whispered in a sing song voice that was loud enough only for him to hear and she winked at him as if they had a secret. "You shouldn't vex her, though, she could be a real witch!"

There were no real witches Cian wanted to tell her, but he knew she would only laugh and tell him she knew the Cinder Stick Witch was a fairy tale and that real witches were far more dangerous because you could never tell who they were before it was too late. When she said that he sometimes had a sense of truth from it that he didn't like, because he also sensed her not believing her own words as she spoke them.

Caitria's face disappeared and she jumped off the bed, heading over to the girl and the puppy, she said something that Cian couldn't hear and which was less than well received it seemed, because she turned on her heel and quickly went over to a chest. Cian couldn't see what she took out, but soon heard the familiar scratching of coal on paper as she set to drawing.

"It's a right fine day, Cian, sweet, we'll go for a walk, eh?" Treasa said suddenly.

Cian relaxed and inched closer to the edge of the bed, he looked out at her and she gave him an encouraging smile.

*****

There were wild berries growing along the forest's edge to the west of Fallenford and, not uncommonly, old Treasa walked her charges away from the craggy shores of the river leaving their danger behind and put down a heavy blanket in the grass, lending Caitria a basket while she herself sat down to rest her weary legs. Cathal found himself a long straight stick and began battling imaginary foes in the high grass.

The twins both had long, dark curls that fell about their shoulders and from their heart shaped faces to the upturned tips of their noses they were even at the age of ten still so alike that had one dressed them in each other's clothes they would have fooled anyone who did not know them well. At a younger age such pranks had made a fool of even their mother at times.

A small way from the others Cian stood quiet, watching the castle, his face as poised as that of an old man. His hair was still lighter than his siblings', but it would no doubt darken with age. Though the family resemblance was clear he had more of their father in him with a straight, sharp nose and narrow mouth and hazel eyes where theirs were blue like their mother's.

He didn't pay his siblings any heed, but stood very still and listened for Caoihmin, there was nothing, only silence and shadows.

The last of their party came sauntering through the grass past him. She had left her puppy at home on Treasa's insistence and was none too pleased about it.

"Why couldn't we go to the village?" she asked in a bored, petulant tone as she dropped down heavily on the blanket in an unladylike manner that clashed ill with her dainty, embroidered cloak and bejewelled deer hide boots.

To her annoyance, Treasa deigned not to reply, only rubbed her legs and stretched them out on the blanket. From the shrubs came a steady rustle as Caitria scrambled to get the juicier berries from their midst.

"Moyna, help me reach?" she called over her shoulder, the other girl didn't respond, instead she pulled the ribbon from her hair and let out her auburn tresses. She began to comb her fingers through it and proceeded to plait it with deft hands. Older than her cousins by two years and raised in the city of Moorhaven, Moyna was far from content with the company of her younger cousins and their simple pleasures.

A flock of birds took to the sky from further into the forest. They rose and they dove, scattering among the trees once again.

"Come Cian, I'll tell you about the dream weavers," the old nursemaid called to him, but he made no reply, nor did he budge from his post.

"I'm hungry," complained Moyna, while she began to unravel the plaits she had just finished and chose instead to tie only a few locks of hair at the back of her head with the ribbon.

"Pick some berries," was all Treasa said.

Caitria brought the basket over to the blanket although it was only half filled and smiled at her cousin who accepted a handful of the sticky, red berries with a curl of her lip. Caitria sat herself down, her sallow dress was now speckled with red from the berries, but she didn't seem to care. Unlike her cousin, who picked at the berries, removing the tiny leaves and putting them in her mouth one by one Caitria stuffed her mouth full and spat a twig out into the grass. Moyna rolled her eyes.

In the tall grass Cathal made a thrust into the air and then dove forward, plunging his stick sword into the earth with a muffled victory cry.

"Cathal!" Treasa called outraged. "Don't disturb the earthbound!" she glared at him as he looked over at them with a sheepish look. He came sauntering over, the stick slung over his shoulder and sat down close to his sister.

"Uncle says there are no earthbound, he says it's old wives tales..." Cathal said, but he shut his mouth when Treasa made an annoyed sound. Moyna didn't have reason to let the old woman's displeasure curb her tongue though.

"And there are no water sprites, or whistlers, or dream weavers, either," she chanted disdainfully. "They're just stories told to babes, like Cian!"

Treasa said nothing, only looked in front of her with a dour face that Moyna didn't know her well enough to read.

The wind was chilly, but the sun warmed still, so only Moyna wore a proper cloak for their outing. Cathal wore plain sturdy clothes and a leather hauberk. He had come straight from weapons practice to join them, but had no tales of his accomplishments to share with them today, instead he chewed on his berries and looked out across the meadow towards the river.

"I wonder what uncle will do to Caoihmin," Caitria said quietly.

"He'll do what he thinks is right, I suppose. Don't fret over it, girl," Treasa said quickly before Moyna could make a tactless reply, but she sounded weary.

Cian stirred and turned to them, eyes grim and his face grave. He walked over and sat down on Treasa's knee when she held out her hand to him. She cooed wordlessly at him for a moment, holding him tightly and ruffling his hair. He rested his head against her chest for a moment, but then sat up very suddenly as a persistent thought entered his head.

"There's someone coming," he whispered. They all looked around, but there were no sight of anyone approaching.

"Just a dream, sweet," Treasa said attempting to pull him back, but he untangled himself and stood, walking back to his guard post.

"Men on horses," he stated cheerlessly.

Cathal stood up as well and walked further towards the river, ignoring Treasa's mutterings that he not walk off too far. He had only walked a short way before he pointed to the castle with a bright grin and came scurrying back to them.

"Look! Three horses, uncle's colours!" he said. "Brilliant, Cian, you're a soothsayer for true if they come this way!" he laughed.

The horses did indeed turn into the meadow and headed straight for them without hesitation. One took the lead slightly ahead of the others, a brown, tall horse, bred for battle and long distances, with strong legs and huge hooves as large as Cian's head. Cian hated the beast, it kicked and snapped when you got close and Caoihmin had warned him to stay clear of it, so he drew back to Treasa, who had got to her feet like the others. She placed her crooked, wrinkled hands calmingly on his shoulders and he stood there watching the small party coming up to them.

As the first rider reigned in his horse, the other two came to a halt behind him. From horseback a cheerful, but taunting young face looked down at them.

"You're not supposed to go off unescorted," he said with a wry smile. "Father thought it best I went along to remind you."

"They're safe with me," Treasa muttered under her breath and the young man arched an eyebrow, giving her a look far older than his face revealed.

"I take it you plan to fight off swords with fistfuls of berries, then," he said mockingly, the soldiers behind him chortled and he smiled over his shoulder at them, the look he turned back on Treasa was not quite unfriendly, but not at all respectful. "Just be warned, my father's not above cutting loose useless old women who won't follow orders."

Treasa said not a word, she bent and gathered up the blanket and took Cian's hand in hers, pulling him with her as she made her way towards the river. The twins followed her, large eyes trailed on their older cousin, who sat, now grim faced, in his saddle.

"Brogan, let me ride with you!" Moyna ordered and he gave her a withering glance before he bent and let her take his hand, kicking his foot out of the stirrup to let her get a foothold. She was lean and strong and came up behind him with little effort, giving her cousins a gleeful grin. "Are there really swordsmen out to get us here?" she asked her brother as he steered his horse ahead of the little group.

"One cannot say, there's been a battle, stragglers and deserters have been known to do desperate things when given the chance, and the siege was only five days hence, father has hardly had time to drive them all away!" he spoke like a grown man who knew about matters of war and Cian looked at him.

Truth, he's telling it true. Cian closed his eyes. Two men melted out of the undergrowth, their empty eyes trained on their target, one had his dagger in hand. The old man and his cart was kicked to the ground, sacks of grains spilling into the mud. The man with the dagger cut the little ass loose and the other man raised a booted foot into the air and stomped once - blood mixed with the grain and mud...

Cian lurched aside and vomited into the ditch.

"Cian!" Treasa bent over him, her sturdy hands gripping his shoulders and steadying him, keeping him from falling over. "Now, now, now," she cooed as she pulled him close and he leaned on her heavily, weary to the bone and still retching though nothing more could leave his empty stomach. "There, there, are you ill, sweet? What is it?" she gently stroke his temple and the hair that suddenly stuck to his forehead.

Cian turned his eyes to her as she stroke his face and he saw her eyes grow cold and frightened, she drew back half a step, her caressing hand faltering. Then she smiled, a smile he knew to be a lie. He closed his mouth and his heart around the words he might've said.

"Is he all right?" Caitria came closer and Treasa reached an arm around her, pulling them both along as she moved back onto the road. Cian heard her speak reassuringly above him, but he didn't listen to her words.

He wasn't safe here. A tremor went through him. It took him less than a moment to make up his mind and then he was running, his name ringing in his ears and the hoof beats echoing to the beating of his heart.

The man dropped from the horse and caught him up. He shrieked and kicked and bit into leather, but wasn't let go, only handled awkwardly and finally turned around and held out into the air a distance from the man with his legs only barely reaching where they aimed. He continued screaming until he tasted blood.

Somehow he was on the ground again, hands reaching for him and angry voices merging to a chorus of shouts above him. When he saw his chance he took it, but was hastily picked back up and tossed over the shoulder of the next large man wearing chain mail and heavy gloves. A hand swooped down hard on his backside and he froze, breath catching. He waited for another slap, but nothing came, the man merely held him there and began to lead his horse down the road towards Fallenford.

It was a somber party that arrived within the gates. Caitria and Cathal were ordered inside and they went unwillingly. Treasa made an attempt at taking Cian from the man, but instead the man sat him down on the ground and hunched down in front of him. Cian looked straight into the face under the helmet, it was a face lined more with a hard life than a long one. The man looked back at him, unsmiling, but not unkind.

"Got me one like you at home," he said gruffly after a moment and Cian nodded that he knew. "You had a bit of a fright back there, eh?" Cian looked down and shuddered.

"Come here, Cian!" Treasa pulled him away, taking a firm hold of his hand and keeping him by her side while she turned an angry look on the man, who stood and straightened his back under her scrutiny. "For shame! A grown man treating a child so!" she rebuked him heatedly and shook her fist at him, he took a step back clearing his throat.

Cian smelled the lilies before he heard or saw his mother, she was suddenly bending down and placing her cool soft hands around him, before she too turned her eyes to the man, who had paled slightly.

"What am I hearing? Did you mistreat my son?" she asked sternly and Cian knew without looking that her face wore a frown and a pinch to her lip.

The display was drawing the attention of several of the people bustling around in the yard and they were before long surrounded by onlookers. Cian swallowed and shrank in on himself, he searched the crowd for his brother, but knew he wasn't there. Instead he found his cousins, Moyna, with large eyes as if she were watching a play and Brogan, chewing the inside of his cheek and seemingly hoping he wouldn't have to say anything.

The crowd parted suddenly and then melted together behind the pockmarked man who came up to them. The captain gave his man a long searching look before he spoke.

"Answer her ladyship! What did you do?" he muttered angrily and Cian saw his mother's face become all the more determined.

"Didn't mean to be rough with him, my lady," the man cleared his throat again, looking embarrassed. "He was kicking and biting like a stray pup."

"Well, he's the son of Lord Conley of Fallenford and no stray pup!" Cian staggered when his mother straightened suddenly and advanced on the man. "I will have your hide if you've hurt him!" she hissed between clenched teeth and alarm shot through the man's features before he grit his teeth against it.

Cian turned away from the scene before him and he already knew that Caoihmin was standing on the steps outside the great hall. He shook off his mother's hand that still rested on his shoulder and darted through the throng like a rabbit towards the safety of his brother's presence. Caoihmin stretched out one hand and took his when he reached him.

"What happened?" he said quietly setting down his knee so that Cian could sit on the other leg. Cian looked down for a moment and then met his eyes and Caoihmin nodded drawing a small sigh. "What about uncle's man?" he asked and Cian shook his head, shrugging his shoulders as if the whole matter was behind him and didn't matter anymore.

"He helped," he clarified after giving it some thought.

Their mother had approached the steps and was beginning to move up them, her hands reaching out to take her youngest in her arms, but Cian made no move towards her and Caoihmin didn't let his hand go.

"Leave it, mother," Caoihmin told her, his voice had a sharper tone than the one he usually used towards her and Cian saw something in his eyes that he had never seen before. It stopped her in her tracks and she returned his gaze uncertainly.

Caoihmin steered Cian past her and down the steps towards the man standing at attention in the yard, surrounded by curious onlookers and under the scowling scrutiny of his captain and one very angry nursemaid. Caoihmin paid the crowd little heed as he brought Cian up beside him and met the man's uneasy gaze.

"What's your name?" he asked.

"It's Niall," the captain replied in his stead, "Brogan took him and another man to fetch the children, it doesn't appear to have been as simple as it should've," he glowered at the man. Caoihmin however turned a look on Brogan that sent shivers down Cian's spine and he clenched his brother's hand hard.

"The brat went berserk, ran off towards the bloody river. Were they supposed to let him jump in and drown himself?" Brogan spoke up, pricked to speech by his cousin's hostile glare.

"Is that true, Cian?" Cian heard his mother's voice, but only swallowed, keeping his focus on Caoihmin. "Treasa, what happened out there?" she continued attempting to take back control of the situation once again.

"He struck him, is what!" Treasa snarled, her cheeks flushed with anger. "Cian was sick and frightened of the horses, so he ran, and this... this..." she didn't manage to finish her tirade.

"You hit him?" Cian flinched at his mother's sudden shriek. She had stepped again closer to the man, who swallowed desperately, his face gone pale as sandstone. His mouth opened and closed and he seemed a man treading water in a whirlpool. "How dare you lay a hand on my son? You beast!"

Without a word, Caoihmin stepped up between their mother and the man. He looked at her hard and then he smiled. Cian didn't like his smile. It wasn't like Caoihmin to smile like that, it was someone else's smile, but still he pressed against his brother and hoped that the storm would soon pass.

Their mother took a step away and looked at her eldest son apprehensively. The yard had fallen very silent, anticipation thick in the air.

Cian pulled on Caoihmin's tunic, urging his brother to look at him, Caoihmin said nothing, but the odd smile softened into one Cian knew well and he bent to pick him up, letting him slip his hands around his neck.

"Cian tells me you helped, so he's no doubt forgiven you," Caoihmin said loud enough for everyone to hear and he held out his hand to the man named Niall, who grasped it with a shaking one of his own. "Haven't you, Cian?" Caoihmin nudged him and Cian turned his face and looked at the man with solemn eyes.

"He'll like the horse," he said quietly and for an instance his words were met by confusion and then a startled understanding came into the man's face and his mouth fell open, but Caoihmin patted Cian on the back and hedged him higher up in his arms before anything more could be uttered.

"Very well, I'm certain captain Fearghas can inform you on how to treat a young nobleman, I'll not have this repeated, under any circumstances!" their mother stated and the captain barked some quick orders that dispersed the onlookers and then he hefted a hand around Niall's arm and pulled him out of the lady's sight before she saw a reason to change her mind and have his man whipped in the yard. "Treasa, would you take Cian up for a nap?"

Cian had no intention of taking a nap, nor going with Treasa, he locked his fingers behind Caoihmin's neck and shook his head, burying his face in his tunic.

"I'll take him," Caoihmin said quietly.

"I don't think so, Treasa, take Cian upstairs!" she snapped.

Treasa came up and as her hands encircled Cian's waist he clung to his brother with hands like vices, frantically trying to keep his feet from touching the ground. Caoihmin didn't let him go, instead he moved him away from Treasa, shaking his head.

"I don't know why he's clinging to you like that, it's silly!" Cian felt his mother's hands clasp around his and begin pulling them apart. "Cian let go! This instant!"

"Stop it, mother, I said I'll take him!" Caoihmin wrenched him away from her and began to walk across the yard towards the kitchen and the back stairs. Cian saw his mother's face flush slightly and then she closed her eyes briefly. When she looked back up again they had a slight sheen to them.

"Perhaps, you need another talk with your uncle," she said this with a biting note in her tone, but a tremble in her voice.

Caoihmin stiffened and Cian felt him swallowing hard and then his brother buried his face in his neck for a moment, his warm breath giving him goose bumps. He didn't turn to look at her, but Cian, however, watched her over his shoulder and saw her take a small step forward as if to follow them, then she seemed to think better of it and stalked off towards the great hall. Cian lay his head down on Caoihmin's shoulder and let out a sigh.

*****

The sword lay in his lap, he didn't touch it, only watched the blade glimmering in the red light from the tall, leaded window. The day was coming to an end and though the evening still came slowly this time of year Caoihmin was lighting a fire in his hearth. Cian had slept for a while and still peered drowsily about himself. He looked at Caoihmin as he worked, placing the logs neatly and adding tinder and striking flint against steel to kindle it and then he looked back down at his reflection in the blade.

"Don't touch it," came his brother's voice, though Caoihmin had barely turned to look at him as his hand reached unbidden for the sharp edge.

He set his hand down again and stifled a yawn. His stomach rumbled suddenly and loudly. His midday meal had been rushed and as usual consisted of only a few nut cakes. Caoihmin looked at him.

"There are apples by the window," Cian said nothing and didn't move. Caoihmin shrugged and rose, wiping some soot from his hands on his trousers. He held out an apple for Cian to take and when he didn't he sighed and put it down beside him on the bed. "You can't eat only cakes, Cian, you'll end up with scurvy."

Cian shrugged, but made no move towards the apple. Caoihmin shook his head in annoyance, but stopped insisting. He grasped the sword by the hilt and removed it from Cian's lap. It was the sword their father had given Caoihmin before he left. Cian had no memories of his own of the man who Caoihmin spent hours watching for in the east tower - the broken tower - and even Caoihmin spoke little of him.

Lord Conley was a good man, he had been told, a man of peace, but these things said him little and let him know nothing, although at times when someone spoke of him, a face would come before him; a grave, pale face, beardless and gaunt, with deep set eyes, eyes like dark pits. When Cian asked where he had gone, he was met only with silence.

A man of peace. Not a man with blood on his face.

"He beat you," Cian spoke the words softly, but they made Caoihmin start and look at him with a frown. He snapped the sword into the scabbard and placed it against the wall where it was within sight of the bed.

There was a moment of complete silence, before Caoihmin returned to the bed and knelt beside it. He reached out a hand and touched Cian's leg gently.

"Never you mind," he whispered, then patted him on his knee. "Can you tell me what happened when you were out?" he continued and Cian looked at him for a little while before declining with a small shake of his head. "No?"

Cian shook his head again a little harder and he pulled his knees up against his chest. The way Treasa had watched him, fear in her eyes. Caoihmin had seen others look at him in such a way, when his eyes showed too much. It was a secret and Treasa had seen.

"Was it Aisling?" Caoihmin asked, he heaved himself onto the bed and pulled Cian up against him. They sat against the headboard and slowly Cian nodded his head yes. "What was it this time?"

"Brogan said there were men with swords..." he stopped, dread and nausea filling him as the images came back in flickers.

"Brogan can go fuck himself!" Caoihmin said with feeling. "Listen to me, Cian, those men won't be back, the king sided with us and uncle Dougal's driven them away, a far way away!"

"Aisling showed me!" Cian insisted sitting up and pulling away so he could glare at his brother, he pointed a finger at him. "And you're lying! They're not far away, they're in the fields at Ashgrove and..."

Caoihmin took his outstretched hand in one hand and clamped his other over his mouth, staring at him with eyes that had gone wide. Cian swallowed and tried to pull his hand free, but Caoihmin held it hard, it even hurt a little. He blinked, tears coming into his eyes. He was tired, the shadows were blurring his thoughts and he hadn't thought through his words before he spoke them.

When he was little, or littler, as Caoihmin would laughingly remind him when he said such things, he hadn't known to stay his tongue when he knew something, but he soon came to see that others didn't know like he knew.

He would feel it as if there was someone telling him secrets, a sense of a whisper deep inside him that oftentimes would let him know truth from lies or show him things that were unspoken. Early on he had named the sense after one of Treasa's stories and he would tell whoever asked that it was Aisling who had told him.

Only Caoihmin knew that Aisling was not pretend. At first he had played along in what Cian knew he thought was a game, but then he had become more and more adamant that Cian not tell anyone of Aisling or the things he was told.

He shook himself and gritted his teeth. Caoihmin relented at his grim look and pulled him up on his lap, kissing the top of his head. The room was quiet and outside the window the sun had vanished behind the forest and hills, leaving only a faint light blue sliver along the horizon that faded away as he watched it.

"Ashgrove... it's only half a day's ride from here," he shook his head. "And it's not seven miles from Galeskeep, they couldn't just make camp there without Lord Aonghus knowing..." he stopped dead at the sudden knock on the door. It was heavy and demanding and made them both flinch.

Caoihmin sat up uneasily and stared at the door as if he was certain it had a life of its own. Cian drew himself together, wishing he could crawl under Caoihmin's bed, but there was a cot there, which could be pulled out for guests.

There was another compelling rap, just one determined thump before Caoihmin slipped off the bed and withdrew the latch, opening the door a little way. A sturdy, calloused hand pushed it open with no effort, forcing Caoihmin to take a step back. Cian felt his stomach clench.

"Uncle?" Caoihmin looked hesitantly at the large man towering in the doorway, then he drew himself up, squaring his shoulders, but his voice was still slightly breathless when he spoke again. "Cian, time for bed."

Cian watched the man without shifting his position, their eyes met, then Caoihmin turned his eyes on him and he swallowed. Slowly he inched towards the edge of the bed and slipped down on the floor. Their uncle stepped over the high threshold and forced Caoihmin to back further into the room. He made no room for Cian to slip past him outside however and Cian remained standing uncertainly by the bed.

"Have a seat," their uncle directed his order to Caoihmin without fully taking his eyes off Cian. Caoihmin gave his head a small shake. Their uncle then shifted his gaze to him, raising one eyebrow slightly and then closed the door behind him with a bang that sent a sense of finality through Cian. "You'll soon have a reason to stand up for a week, my boy, if you don't start minding me!" he growled and Caoihmin's eyes dropped to the floor.

"Cian needs to be in bed!" he ventured through clenched teeth.

"Ah, but not for a time yet. Do you, my boy?" the large man took the room in a single stride, lifting Cian from the floor. Cian sat stiffly on his arm and watched his face tensely. Their uncle shook his head and Cian saw a flicker in his eyes that might have been a warning, but might have also been the hint of a smile. He sank down on the bed, sitting Cian on his knee.

Then with a flick of his wrist he conjured a round nut cake seemingly from thin air and held it up in front of Cian. Cian looked at the cake and then he looked unwaveringly into the bearded face. The arm around him was steady and there was a different strength in the body underneath him than there was in Caoihmin's, more forceful and more resilient. The face wore marks that were grafted into its features, old scars and creases.

He raised his hand and reached for the cake, it was moved an inch out of his reach and their uncle looked questioningly at him, the flicker in his eyes more clearly a smile this time. Cian lowered his hand to his lap and looked solemnly at his uncle again and now the smile reached his mouth and the hand holding him came up to roughly tousle his hair.

"You're a hard one, eh? You remind me of your father, I never could make him crack a smile and gods know I tried!" he barked out a laugh and then pushed the cake into his hand. "And what do you say?" he asked expectantly, tilting Cian's head upwards.

Cian chewed on his lip and mulled it over. His mother would occasionally prompt him to mind his manners, but his silence went by and large without mention, he spoke rarely and then mostly to Caoihmin. Still, he decided that in this event he had better do it properly.

"Thank you kindly, my lord, Tuathal bless your..." he would've finished the phrase if his uncle hadn't started laughing, a rumbling, boisterous laugh that made Cian bounce on his knee.

"It's only a cake! Say thank you and be done with it!" he felt his hair being ruffled again and then he was set down on the floor, his uncle turning him to face him. "No harm in you, eh? I feared you were going the way of this brother of yours."

Cian turned when his uncle gestured behind him towards his brother and saw Caoihmin cringe and utter a small sound in protest, but he seemed reluctant to speak up. Cian was certain he saw his mouth quiver before he closed his teeth tight and there was an unmistakable gleam in his eyes that set Cian's heart racing.

He dropped his cake as he wrenched free and went hurriedly to his brother's side. He clung to him and buried his face in his tunic, remembering suddenly that he knew what their uncle had done. Caoihmin placed his hands around his shoulders and held him tightly.

"Oh, for pity's sake!" their uncle slapped his palms down on his knees. He watched them for a little while before speaking again. "He's quite stubborn in his affections, eh? I'm no beast, Cian, you needn't fear me," he scratched his beard. "Still, you don't win a shy colt over with a single apple... or bridle an unruly one with one crack of the whip, eh, Caoihmin?"

Caoihmin shifted his feet and Cian glanced up at him. He was fighting to keep his face unreadable, but hurt was shining in his eyes and he was biting the inside of his lip like Cian would do himself when fretting. Cian felt his heart beat faster and he looked away from his brother, clinging all the more fervently to him.

"Now, my boy, don't give me that look!" their uncle said, his voice calm, but stern nonetheless. "You've brought every bit of my displeasure on yourself, and that you know! I've done no worse by you than you've deserved a few times over."

"I haven't tried to displease you!" Caoihmin objected impetuously, but Cian heard the dejection in his brother's voice and a chill came over him; he couldn't bring himself to look up at him to have his fear confirmed. Caoihmin was always strong and safe. He was the one to comfort and the one to dry the tears from Cian's face. Caoihmin was never shaken and he never wept.

Their uncle stood and Caoihmin instinctively pushed Cian behind him. Cian looked up at the man who could change his brother so with his words or a look. He saw no apparent displeasure at all, but for a small frown that creased his brow.

He stepped closer and placed a firm hand on Caoihmin's shoulder, bowing his head so he could catch Caoihmin's eye and hold it.

"In two years time you'll be of age and then King Flaithri will name you the Lord of Fallenford, you should be acting the part already!" he stated, not unkindly.

"My father is the Lord of Fallenford!" Caoihmin hissed under his breath, every sound of apprehension replaced by a sudden surge of resentment. He glared at their uncle with unshielded hostility. "And he's not fucking dead!"

Their uncle looked at him a moment longer, his gaze pointed and searching, then he sighed and patted Caoihmin's shoulder with a heavy hand, before straightening up. He placed his hands on his broad leather belt and Caoihmin's eyes darted to it as if expecting it to strike out at him like a snake and then he locked eyes with their uncle again.

A heavy silence fell over the room and Cian watched the unspoken battle that waged between the two for what seemed an eternity before he felt a tremble run through his brother as he admitted defeat and lowered his eyes.

"I won't beat you to tears twice in a day, if I can help it, but don't vex me, Caoihmin, I've warned you enough," their uncle's voice was terse and hard as stone. "I've no doubt that you honour your father and I don't wish him dead any more than you do, but know this," this time he grasped Caoihmin by the jaw to force his eyes to level with his, "Conley made his choice the day he walked away from loyalty and duty! He will never again rule Fallenford. That will fall to you now!"

The truth of his words rolled over Cian like a crashing wave. He felt as he had before the boulder fell, the floor stirred underneath him and he saw lights in the shadows of his mind. They blinded him suddenly. A flash so strong it sent him staggering and then there was nothing, it all swirled back into dark mists and he found himself drifting into the dark.

~*~~*~~*~~*~~*~~*~~*~~*~~*~~*~~*~~*~~*~~*~

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~ Dice

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