My Name is Honor: Chapter 12
We are in the forest for hours, Orin playing the part of teacher as he shows me how to track the boars, and how we will gain successful kills once we find them. When he freezes in his tracks, holding up his open hand, I stop close on his heels, eyes riveted on his every movement. When Archu turns his head abruptly to our right, nose quivering, ears pricked, Orin immediately follows his line of sight. He clutches my arm, bringing me down with him behind a thick shrub. Before long, the sound of rustling leaves reaches our ears as well. I peer around the bush as six adult boars with two piglets in tow came in to view. Orin conveys instructions through expression and gesture, not a word passing between us, and yet I understand. I nod my comprehension, answered only by his knowing smile and we moved out in our intended directions.
The largest sow, probably the matriarch, turns her ears in my direction, snorting suddenly. The rest of her family stops, noses twitching. With the wind in our favor, even my bumbling movements do not betray us and soon enough the pigs go back to foraging. I marvel at the way Orin moves through the forest, truly a part of it, becoming his surroundings, Archu following his every signal, arcing wide around the sounder to cut them off if necessary. I adjust my step, picking my way carefully through the brush, taking care to move lightly. I look Orin's way again just in time to see him send an arrow into the largest female, the matriarch. She bolts instinctively, Archu close on her tail while the rest scatter. At an impossible speed, Orin has another arrow nocked and launched, which finds it's mark with stunning precision. The second boar dropping to the ground after only a few steps as the arrow pierced her heart. Orin catches my eye and points at me, then to the fallen sow as the rest disappear into the forest. I understand and go to her, knife at the ready to finish the job if need be while Orin gives chase after Archu.
The big female lay dead where she has fallen, her small black eyes staring blankly out at the forest. I had watched Carrick and his sons butcher domestic pigs before, and this was no different. I set to work cleaning the carcass, thrusting in the clumsy, thick-bladed knife Orin has given me into the animal, slicing down the center of her belly. Removing and discarding the entrails proved nastier than I'd anticipated as fluids and blood flows out over my arms, an earthy, sour smell rising out of the beast's belly. My hands work somewhat clumsily over the carcass, tying the sow's feet together with a length of rope I'd fished from the bag Cara had given us. I hear a low whistle behind me and whirled to find Orin, his own dead sow lain across his broad shoulders, her legs dangling uselessly on either side of his head.
"Well, I was going to show you how to do that on this girl here, but it seem's you've got the idea." He is grinning broadly through the streams of sweat running down his face. Archu, thoroughly bloodied but apparently unscathed, stands panting happily at his side. Orin hoists the sow off his shoulders and sets to work cleaning her. I watch him work, much more skillfully than myself, his cuts clean and precise.
"Rafter has taught you well." I comment, kicking dirt over the foul smelling pile of intestines coiled on the ground beside me.
"Aye." comes his simple reply as he scrutinizes the sow's portly carcass.
"Are your brothers hunters as well?" It has occurred to me I knew little about Orin's family, though he seemed to know so much about mine.
He is quiet a moment, his hands pausing in their work on briefly. "No.They are farmers and Apostles"
"Apostles!" I can't hide the surprise from my voice, though I should have known, as much as Kaya and Carrick had gone on and on about him being of a devout family and "good genes".
Even bent over the boar, I can see the dark cloud drift over his face.
"If you go just past those twin boulders to our right, there's a creek, you can wash some of that off if you like." He says, avoiding further explanation.
As usual, I long to press him further, obviously something about mention of his brothers put him off, but knowing he would only clam up, I head off in the direction of the boulders to wash the sticky boar blood from my hands and arms. The stream flows just where he said it would be, gurgling over gem-like stones, winding away through the forest on it's way to whichever river it fed. I knelt beside it, dipping my arms slowly into the water, watching the thick blood mix into it and swirl away. Rubbing the remaining stubborn grime off my hands and arms, I spotted a fresh spring flowing right out of a cracked boulder, flowing down into the running stream below. Something about the way it gushed forth,the water sparkling and clear, sending a fine mist into the air which caught the sun's rays and formed the tiniest of rainbows, drew me to it. I found myself cupping my hands beneath the spring, thirstily slurping the sweet, ice-cold water.
Refreshed, I leaned back against the boulder, watching the sun's rays play across the mist, the array of colors created hovering just beyond. The distinct hiss of an arrow slicing through the air caught my attention, but too late. It passed by my head, so close I could feel the air move around against my ear, and buried itself deep in a tree just behind.
I leap away from the boulder, knife drawn, to face my attackes
Orin stands at the creek's edge, shaking his head, bow in hand.
"I should not have been able to sneak up on you like that." He states flatly, brow furrowed as he pulls his bloodied shirt over his head and kneels at the stream, splashing water over his head and arms.
"I should have seen that coming?"
"You shot at me!" I shout, deciding it better to go with anger than embarrassment.
"Aye." He repeats, pulling his soiled shirt off to splash water from the creek on his arms and face. "And the Ghosts wouldn't have missed. Pay attention.Use your senses."
Thoroughly annoyed, but knowing he is right, I storm up the embankment past him, toward the twin boulders where the sun is shining through the trees. On impulse, I scoop a clod of dirt off the ground and turn back toward the creek to lob it at him as he rinses his shirt in the flowing water. When my eyes fell upon his back, my breath catches in my throat and the dirt falls to the ground. A patchwork of scars cut across the flesh of his back, some of them so thick they can no doubt been inflicted with the type of beastly whip I had seen Carrick and the other farmers use on bulls and stallions during breeding seasons. Even I had never known a beating so harsh.
Orin, shaking water off his head, turns and catches me staring.
Hurriedly, he shakes out his shirt and dons it again.
"Let's go." He gumbles, slingign his bow across his back.
Back inside the Cathedral's walls, we find Sister Carra and the other women hard at work in the kitchen, preparing the evening meal. Upon sight of the boars, Carra claps her hands excitedly.
"Oh, well done, my dears!" she cries, pointing to the large butchering table. "Just put them over there, will you?"
After depositing them as directed, we are ejected from the kitchen.
"Go and clean up!" Carra orders, shooing us away as if we were children trying to sneak cookies before supper.
With my clothes fairly covered in dirt and sow's blood from toting the carcasses back, I am happy to retreat to my room where I find wash water and clean clothes awaiting me.
For the next few days, my time is occupied from the moment I wake until after the evening meal when I drag myself up the long spiral staircase to collapse, exhausted, into bed. Orin wakes me daily, before the sun, and never pleasantly. We go via the tunnels, which I find has different entrances all over the Cathedral, into the surrounding forest. He shows me the finer points of tracking, medicinal uses of various plants, and how to simply listen to the forest and interpret her. I am both impressed with his wealth of knowledge and embarrassed at my own ignorance as the days wear on, each with it's own lesson. I do my best to focus on the task at hand and not on the thousand questions constantly swirling through my thoughts and though I enjoy the daily lessons, on a dreary morning as Orin meticulously showed me how to fashion and set a snare, my curiosity wins out.
"What is the point of all this?"
"To catch small game" Orin replies curtly, an irritated edge to his tone as the taut vine he had been working to set the snare broke and snapped back in his face.
"Not just the trap. Everything you've been teaching me, bringing me to this place, and what of my uncle? I thought his arrival was imminent?"
Working another bit of stiff vine into something more pliable, Orin utters the smallest sigh.
"I would've thought he'd be here already, now that you mention it..." He trails of a moment as he fits the vine into place and the snare pulls taut, holding this time.
Orin smiles absently at his success, seeming to momentarily forget I am there. I rise from my crouched position and kick some leaves over the trap, camouflaging it.
"And...?" I prod
"And I don't know what's taking him so long." Orin continues, leading me away from the trap. "As for why you are here, I told you already, you are here for your safety until Phelan arrives."
"Then... well, Phelan will decide what the best plan of action is. He will have information on the Ghosts' movements." He pauses, looks up into the tree canopy,squinting. "Doesn't look like rain, nut can you smell it?"
I realize I can and tell him so. He seems distracted, but I am determined to get back to my line of questioning. As usual, I feet as if he knows more than he is saying, and as usual, I find it incredibly annoying.
"Do you think they are still looking?" I ask, trying a different approach.
Orin laughs ruefully as we approach the familiar creek where he previously reminded me to mind my surroundings by way of an arrow.
"They will never stop looking for you." He says quietly, crouching down near the water's edge.
Scooping the cold, fresh water into his cupped hand, he drinks in silence while I pace the shore behind him.
"Get a drink and fill your water skin. We are going down to the ravine today, long walk. The Althair has asked we bring back a weanling buck goat from the feral herd there."
I suppress the urge to kick a rock at his head and do as he instructed, filling my water skin beside him at the creek. Once finished, we set out across the woodland, Archu bounding on ahead.
"How do you know the Ghosts aren't here?" I ask after an extensive silence.
"In these woods? If they were we'd both be dead by now. It's not likely, close to impossible. If one does not know the correct path to take across the marshland, which they do not, one would be unlikely to survive it. The beasts that dwell there are not tolerant of intruders, the land itself seems to swallow up whole those who do not belong."
"There are wolves around the outer edge, with poisonous snakes and boars throughout that are rumored to be twice the size of those found here near the Cathedral, and to have razor sharp tusks and red eyes. The Sentinals say they are faster than any man and when they catch what they're after, they leave nothing behind."
I ponder that he may just trying to frighten me with a tall tale about giant boars, but the edge in his voice, as if it frightens him as well, tells me I can believe his word.
"Why do they not venture out of the marsh? The boars?"
"It's their home, I suppose. They're very territorial." Orin answers flatly, leaving me feeling as if that should have been obvious.
As we walk, the land begins to change around us gradually. The soft forest floor; soft and carpeted with moss and leaves, gives way to a rocky, sloping terrain. The trees thin, allowing the sun's rays through to warm our shoulders as we move through the misty morning. We are approaching a familiar patch of thick brush where Orin had brought me the day before to dig roots and pick blackberries. It had been an enjoyable day, Orin in high spirits, even making jokes and laughing. We'd spent the afternoon harvesting the plump, juicy berries from their thorn- laden branches, and digging up Burdock roots as Sister Cara had requested that morning. Today was different, he was all business again, his jaw set firmly as we hiked on in silence, leaving behind the familiar sights into a part of the forest I had not seen before. Ahead, The trees give way completely,allowing the sun to break through, glaring and unfiltered. From somewhere unseen I can hear rushing water. Archu has stopped there and sits waiting on us patiently, blinking in the sunlight.
When we reach him, I can see why he had paused to wait on us. Just beyond where the trees end, the ground does as well, giving way abruptly to a drop off that goes straight down. The bottom is obscured by the tops of trees that stretch up toward us, over them hovere a mist which rises off the arch of a waterfall rushing it's way down the opposite cliff, landing somewhere amongst the trees.
"We're going down there?" I ask, uncertain of Orin's plan to scale down the sheer cliff which lay at our feet.
Orin smirkes, glancing down the drop-off.
"Aye." With that, to my horror, he steps decidedly off the edge of the cliff.
"Orin!" I shriek, diving to the edge in a foolish, desperate attempt to catch him. I lay flat on the rocky edge, hand outstretched and grasping nothing, eyes squeezed shut, dreading to see the empty air where Orin had been. I listen for the sickening sound I am sure will echo upon his impact, but it does not come. After a moment, the sound of muffled laughter reaches my ears from just below; slowly I open my eyes and look down. Orin stands, perched on a ledge barely the width of his shoulders, grinning up at me.
"What is this?!" I scrambl to me feet and glare down at him.
"The way down!" Orin calls back, obviously enjoying his joke. "Now come on!"
I look over my shoulder to where Archu has retreated to a shaded patch of grass. He wags his long tail hopefully, but Orin shouts from just below.
To which the grey hound responds sorely, ears and tail drooping low, head lowered to his huge paws sadly. I look back to the drop-off, where Orin has disappeared from the ledge.
"It's all right! Just jump down" His voice drifts up to me, echoing.
"You want me to jump?!" I ask incredulously. Certainly there has to be a way to climb down instead of the death-daring step onto a too-small ledge. I can see myself landing wrong, losing balance... the thought fills me with panic.
"Come on, now! Nothing to be frightened of!" Orin chastises gently.
I lower myself to a crouch, look away from the plunging ravine below and, with one hand on the rocky ledge, I slide my legs over the edge and drop. The two or three seconds before my feet hit the ledge are pure terror, turning quickly to overwhelming relief as soon as I feel solid ground beneath my feet. Orin grasps my arm firmly, pulling me away from the edge.
I open my eyes, only then realizing I had them closed. Looking up at the ledge I had climbed down from, I feel foolish. It was hardly a six foot drop to the landing I stood on with thick vines rooted into the rock itself running down to the ledge, which seems much wider now that I have my feet planted on it. I had let fear of the great distance to the ravine floor get the better of me. My cheeks flush, a rush of embarrassment coming over me as I shake Orin's steadying hand from my arm. Turning to face him, I see he had not, in fact simply disappeared but had stepped into a the mouth of a cave set directly under the cliff, out of sight from above. The cavernous void extended farm beyond my sight, a thick darkness smothering the cave beyond the sun's reach at the opening. I dust myself off somewhat indignantly and look at him expectantly.
"Well? What now?" I press him, wishing to move past my embarrassing discovery that I was not particularly fond of heights.
Orin strikes a stone against the cave wall, sending sparks across the ground. Only then do I notice the torch in his hand, as it springs to life with flame, illuminating the cave, casting long flickering shadows along the walls.
"Now, we move."
With that, he turns his back and starts into the cave which soon proves to be actually be a narrow tunnel, carved into the cliff-side, sloping ever downwards toward the valley floor. The lines left in the stone by pick-axes and chisels tell the impossible story of how the tunnel came to be.
"Who made this?" I ask in a near whisper, afraid too much echo might bring the whole thing down.
"Our ancestors, among the first dubbed "deviants" by The Council, carved this tunnel into the cliff as a last-resort means of escape,it is said done in thirty days by sixty men. They worked day and night, many to their deaths, all to ensure safe passage for their loved ones should the Cathedral fall. It is the only way into the ravine from above, and in the event it should have to be used, the entrance is set to be caved in behind us. Sealed."
"How do we get back if it is sealed?"
Orin scoffed in the darkness. "Get back? If the Cathedral were to fall into the hands of The Council... we don't 'get back'."
We go on down the sloping tunnel, difficult to manage in places where the descent is steep and slick with moisture running from the rock surrounding us. Finally, a light can be seen ahead, and the sounds of singing birds reach our ears. Here, Orin extinguishes the torch, leaning it against the stone wall as we step out into the open. The bright sunlight overhead is filtered by the thick foliage across the valley floor, and there, amongst towering ancient Pine and span of wild apple trees bursting with fruit, a paradise had formed. Wildflowers cover the ground wherever the sun shines through in thick, brightly colored patches across the green valley floor. From the waterfall on the opposite side the water flows away, somewhere between a river and a creek, and perfectly clear. Even the air smells different, fragrant and cool and sweet. Caught in the beauty of the scene, I have not even noticed Orin walking away, until he calls my name sharply, snapping me back to attention.
I shake my trance and jog to where he kneels at the edge of the brook, eyes riveted on the surface of the water. Upon reaching him, I can see easily what he is watching. A school of large, silver fish swim lazily through the water, which is much deeper than I had expected.
"This ravine is full of nourishment, of all kinds" says Orin quietly, not taking his eyes off the fish. " Many of the wildflowers are edible or have medicinal purposes, the river is clean and holds many fish, there is even a herd of wild goats that frequent the area. It has flourished this way because it has gone untouched by man. Hunters from the Cathedral have only ventured here in times of great need, during the barren years above when the crops would not grow and game would not come. It has been a lifetime since game was hunted here."
"So what are we doing here? There is plenty of food in Sister Cara's kitchen."
"It is important you get to know the land and all she has to offer." Orin replied simply, rising. "Come on."
We trek along the water, Orin pointing out plants here and there that did not grow in the forest above. Coming upon a wide muddy patch along the water's edge, he pauses, kneeling in the slop. A pattern of cloven hoof prints covered the area, leading away in a single file line away from the water and into a grove of shorter, gnarled trees covered in pale pink blossoms with bright red orbs hanging from the branches. My mouth waters at the prospect of fresh, ripe apples but Orin, catching my eye, nods his head toward the grove, readying his bow.
WIthin a few yards of the orchard, Orin and I crouch behind a dense treefall, the herd of twelve or so wild goats bleating and lazily cropping the lush green grass just beyond.
"I thought you said you don't kill these unless you have to?" I question him again.
Orin only grins that "I know something you don't" grin that irritates me to no end, pulling an arrow from his quiver much smaller, more slender, than the others, the head thin and narrow, it hardly looked capable of killing a rat. He pulls a tiny clay pot from his pocket and uncorks it, dipping the arrow-head in.
"This is not about killing. It is about life." Orin flashes another grin and moves stealthily around the tree fall into position to see the herd.
I hang back, watching him from behind the dead fallen tree as he crept closer, far closer than he needs to to get the shot. He finally stops and gets low to the ground, and then he just sits there, watching them. I wonder what he was doing, but can ask no questions, and so we sit; Orin scrutinizing every move of the goats, and I scrutinizing him. At last, after a long, silent wait, Orin slowly loads the arrow, draws one long slow breath, and lets it fly. Something between a shriek and a bleat sounds as the herd bolts away, one a bit more slowly than the others. Orin gives chase and I follow close behind, still unsure what he is up to. As his family fled the orchard and the ravine itself, one lonely young buck falls further and further behind, finally falling to the ground with a heavy thud. When we reach him, he lies quietly, eyes closed, the arrow lodged in his shoulder. I note his chocolate brown hide rises and falls with the regular rhythm of his breath, and turn to Orin, confused.
"Is he not dead?"
"I told you this was not about killing..." He gently works the arrow loose from the young buck's shoulder, holding it up to me. "Dipped in one of Tadhg's concoctions, He will sleep all the way home" He hoists the weanling across his shoulders. "There is a small herd back at the Cathedral, domestic, kept for meat and milk. The last old male died last month and all the kids born this year and last were female."
The trip up the tunnel was more of a challenge than I anticipated, what had been easier on a downward slope on the way down became an ever upward obstacle on the way back. Finally we reach the top, Orin passing the buck to me. Effortlessly, using the thick vines which clung to the cliffside, he hoists himself up and passes down a rope rigging for the buck. After a slight struggle, he is up to cliff and Orin is extending his hand to me. I ignore it and climb up the way he had, hoping it looked easier than it felt.
On the cliff, Archu could hardly hold still in his excitement of his master's return. The hound sniff tentatively at the goat but made no move to disturb him. After a drink from out water skins, Orin again put the buck across his shoulders, the poor thing's tongue lolling out of his open mouth lazily.
"Are you sure he's not dead?" I ask again, glancing at the lifeless expression on the goat's face.
Orin laughs. "No, far from it. When he wakes up he'll be kicking and jumping all over the place, don't you worry."
The walk back is silent, save for Archu's rhythmic pant as he trots along a few feet ahead. The birds have even stopped singing, I notice as we pass by the berry bushes again. Orin seems to take note of the eerie quiet as well and quickens his pace as a sudden gust of cold wind sweeps through the forest. Orin broke into a jog.
"Damn." I barely hear him curse under his breath
"What is it?" I ask, keeping pace beside him.
"Storm coming in. Fast." His voice edged in worry, he slows and pauses by the creek. His eyes scan the trees quickly, and he seems to be considering a decision I am not a part of, eyebrows furrowed as thunder rumbles overhead.
"Take Archu, go on ahead. You two can move faster than I."
I don't understand why he is so concerned about a simple storm. His eyes betray him, darkening with the clouds above us, stealing glances at the forest around us as if expecting trouble. I open my mouth to protest but think better of it and only nod, moving off after Archu, who seems to understand his master's very will, toward the Cathedral.
"Go quickly!" Orin calls after us as the thunder rolls again. Archo breaks into a run and I struggle to keep up.
We reach the door to the tunnels just as the downpour unleashes and I check over my shoulder but Orin is nowhere in sight. Archu whines anxiously as I hesitate as well. Then, the decision is made for me. From the way we'd come, the distinct clang of metal meeting metal, and though I was reminded of the blacksmith who used to shoe Carrick's riding mare, I knew now it could only be the sound of one blade against another. They have come for me and I am armed only with the thick, clumsy blade Orin had given me, certainly no match to whatever the Council's men would have. Orin was wrong about the Land's natural defenses and they were here, he had known it. Somehow he'd known that the oncoming storm came not only from the sky. That's why he'd sent me on ahead. How had he known? Death , I assume, is imminent. There's no way he can fight them all and when they've killed him they will descend on the Cathedral and I'll be dead anyway. The realization that there is no sense in waiting and the poor Orin should not die alone sends me back the way I came, Archu bounding along beside me because, although I administered the most stern "Stay" I could manage, he'd very politely refused and followed me anyway.
I wipe the water away from my eyes furiously as I run, looking this way and that for any sign, straining my ears to hear anything at all over the deluge to tell me where they had come upon Orin. Then I hear it, so strange, so out of place, I almost wonder if my ears had misinterpreted...laughing. A rolling, good natured laugh rising above the rain, followed by a round of hearty chortles. A group of men. Had they caught Orin and were now finding humor in his demise? I shudder to think but creep forward, grateful for the limited visibility granted by the downpour. Crouching behind thick brush and grasping Archu by the scruff of his neck with both hands because he won't stay put otherwise, I squint through the leave and spot them, fifteen or more brutal, beastly-looking men coming toward me. Their faces are grizzles with hair long untrimmed, faces smeared with mud, some of them appeared to have foliage growing from the very seams of their clothing. None is this is hardly as shocking as the sight of who walks, no strolls among them, utterly at ease in spite of the clear fact he's been in some sort of physical altercation and still toting the young ram; Orin. Smiling through the rain, conversing with what I would have supposed were his captors were he not so willingly goign along with them. The group appeared in no rush, not at all concerned with being soaked to the bone, thye in fact appeared to be enjoying the rain. Several of them turn their faces upward, rubbing away the grime from their skin. I consider the possibility that Orin has betrayed me, everyone at the Cathedral, and dismiss it just as quickly. I don't believe he has the guile in him to pull off such a horrible act. Finally,as they are nearly upon me, I decide the safest course of action is to release Archu. Orin, even if he is a traitor, would never allow harm to come to his companion.
I loose my grip and Archu springs from behind the brush, darting to his master's side, yelping excitedly at the men around him. They all give him a scratch as they go, but Orin has stopped in his tracks, his eyes wide. He knows the return of his hound means I have not done as he commanded and gone back to the safety of the Cathedral. He looks around, almost frantic, speaking fervently to the other men, who also begin to scan the woods. I am considering revealing myself, drawing my knife as a precaution, when a low, rasping growl comes from behind me.
"And what do ye plan to do with that, miss?"
I get to my feet slowly and turn, my blade at the ready.
He lacks the brutish look of the others, he's of a smaller build, beard trimmed short as well as his hair. His face, streaked with mud as well, it hardly readable. His eyes, so dark brown they are nearly black, watch me carefully. I know any attempt to attack on my part will be readily received. Still, something about these men is not in line with my image of the Council's hunters. As we stand, eyes locked, I hear Orin's voice again, closer, though I don't dare take my eyes off this man. He makes me uneasy with his cool demeanor while at the same time effectively giving off an imposing presence.
Finally, when I feel his hand on my shoulder, I glance at him briefly. The rain has slowed and I can see his face more clearly now. Someone has given him a clout across the cheek that has him already bruised and swollen.
"Who are they?!" I demand, eyeing the rest of the men who are waiting at a distance, watching me carefully, the way one might look at an unpredictable animal. As if I am the dangerous one. The weapons hanging at their sides tell a different story.
"It's alright." says Orin. He reaches out and gently grasps my knife-wielding hand. "It is Phelan."
He speaks the words slowly, but he cannot his the excitement in his voice. The boy is utterly thrilled and all I can think is that I don't share his enthusiasm, I feel nothing, in fact, for this stranger before me. I had hoped it would be different. But now, as I look him over, I am numb. I see only a man I don't know anything about, other than for some reason he allowed me to be reared by a beastly man and his horrid wife and suffer at their hands for crimes that were not my own. From the way he returns my gaze, steely and blank, I know he must see it in my face.
The rain has stopped completely now, birds begin to take up their songs again.
"So you're my uncle." I say flatly.
I am certain I see the faintest hint of a smile tugging at his stern mouth.
"Where have you been?" I have many more questions but I stop myself here.
"All things we can discuss behind large stone walls. In dry clothes. With food...Eh, Boys?!" He looks over my shoulder and shouts this last bit to his men. They agree heartily.
I am annoyed with his response, his patronizing tone, and the way Orin looks at him with such admiration. I roll my eyes and shove past them, heading for the tunnels, ignoring Orin as he shouts my name behind me.
I go through the tunnel alone. It is not until I am inside that I remember I have no torch. The darkness here is thick, not a single shaft of light to pierce it. I place my hand on the cool stone wall and close my eyes, recalling to mind the layout of the tunnel, which path leads back to the Cathedral. Without really thinking about it, my feet are moving and, as my hand drags along the wall I feel a boost to my confidence. Here I am, navigating a pitch black underground tunnel with not even a firefly to light my way. A tunnel with twists and turns, dead ends and false starts, and yet it I could see it so plainly in my mind's eye. Before long, I am shoving open the heavy door which leads to the soldier's quarters and am greeted by two very surprised, very scantily- clad sentinels. Surely having just come in for patrol, they appeared to be changing into dry clothes. I yelp, embarrassed at having barged in on them, and bolt from the room. Upstairs I find the washtub full of warm water. Gratefully, I strip off my cold, wet clothes, and slip into the warm water. I work up a thick lather with the chunk of soap, no doubt made right here by Sister Carra and her ladies. It smells of honey and lavender and I barely refrain from tasting it. After a thorough wash, I just sit in the water quietly, thinking over Phelan's arrival, what it all meant, while warming the chill in my body. Finally, my thoughts are interrupted as the water begins to go cold. I dry and braid my hair, then pull on the simple white tunic and drawstring pants that have been left for me, probably by sister Carra. I am about to descend the stairs again to see if Orin and the others have arrived when an uproar in the courtyard give me my answer. I take the short corridor which leads to the center of the Cathedral and find a crowd among the rose bushes. Sentinels, priests, Sister Carra and her ladies. Rafter towers over them all, just as his voice supersedes theirs. He is shouting complaints.
"Oh, yes! Let us all stand on ceremony because the Wolf has arrived!" He pauses briefly and looks around the crowd, but not a single eye has turned toward his carping.
Realizing his objections fall on deaf ears, he stalks toward the dining hall, catching my eye as he goes. His eyebrows knit, he curls back his upper lip in something of a snarl and goes on his way, shaking his scruffy head. I turn my attention back toward the crowd, which has fallen silent at the approach of the Altair. He makes his way slowly from the far end of the courtyard, coming from the chapel, no doubt. Sister Carra and her ladies immediately take their leave. Orin stands with the goat, who has started to regain consciousness, in the center of the mass, speaking with Phelan quietly.
I turn to leave, wanting to sneak away and avoid having to face Phelan again, for the first time actually preferring to join Rafter's company, when I feel eyes on me. Orin has spotted me and is waving at me to hurry over, then holding a finger to his lips as a hush falls over the courtyard. The Althair stands before the Phelan, who kneels at his feet. Bending forward with the help of his attendants and kisses Phelan on his head. Soft words are spoken between them, Phelan's head bowed low. The men all stand in reverent silence as I come to stand beside Orin, whose eyes are trained on the Althair. I can hear them speaking but can only make out bits and pieces.
"...Thank you, my Althair....the Council hunts her...many men.."
I am jolted to realize they talking about me.
The Althair smiles at me in his patient way and pats the man on his shoulder.
"My son, direct your men to make themselves at home, eat their fill and rest their weary bones. We have much to discuss."
Phelan addresses his men.
"Ya' heard tha Father, now. Go on, then, my brothers, dismissed.
The Althair goes to Orin next and inspects the now fully awake goat skittering and bleating nervously at the end of his rope. He gives Orin a nod and a smile.
"He is a fine young ram, Orin. It is a shame we did not have this news earlier, he could have remained below..." The old man's voice trails off momentarily before he continues. "Ah well. If you will take him to his pen, my son, and then join us."
Orin is leading the ram away when Phelan stops him.
"It was a bit to chaotic in the woods, I didn't have a chance to thank you. You've done well, my boy, gettin' her here safely. I am in your debt."
Orin, his cheeks reddening again, shakes his head.
"It was my duty, Sir.." He pauses and I am about to interject when Phelan turns his dark eyes on me.
"Honor." He says my name as if he were saying a blessing, his voice almost reverent.
I am taken aback momentarily and only manage a simple "What?"
The weathered, stern face breaks into a wide, unexpected smile.
"Surely you must have questions."
"Questions?" The word doesn't even begin to describe it.
The smile is dampened by the edge on my voice. I realize I am staring incredulously at this stranger,this man who bears no resemblance to Carrick, and I can hardly see how they could be brothers at all. I wonder, is he even really my uncle?
"You search my face for some resemblance to my brother, but you will find none. I favor my mother's side, just as your father did."
I notice the Althair and his attendants have quietly slipped away and we are alone now in the garden.
"What happened out in the woods? Orin fought with someone, and he knew you would be there, or knew someone would be... how did he know that?"
A small, knowing smile appears for just a moment before it is gone and the lips set in a stern line.
"Orin is a very special young man. Very observant."
"Observant?" I repeat back skeptically.
"Aye." He answers simply.
"And of his bruise?"
Again, a passing grin.
"Well, that rain was coming down so hard, when he came across one of my men, they mistook each other." He looks over my shoulder toward the dining hall and I know it must be the smell that's drawn his attention.
Sister Carra and her ladies have begun to bring the food out, and right away I smell a roasted hog and my mouth is watering even though I don't want to eat, I want to drag every last bit of information out of Phelan and finally shed the light of the full truth on the web of lies which had been my life. Then my stomach growls so loudly I know Phelan's heard it but I'm too hungry to care.
He nods toward the dining hall
"We can talk while we eat."
I follow him into the dining hall, looking him over thoroughly.
He has none of Carrick's bearishness to him, none of the dull, blunt features in his face and he is at least four inches shorter. I would never have guessed they were even related, much less brothers. Even the way he carries himself is different, far from Carrick's lumbering tread, Phelan stride was sure-footed and light. The gait of a skilled hunter, yes, but something else as well. I can't quite place it and am forced to abandon the thought as we enter the dining hall, fuller than I had yet seen it and bustling with activity. Phelan's men and several Sentinels along with Rafter and a few of the lower priests sat at the table, partaking of the roast boar, warm rolls and steaming potatoes Sister Carra and her ladies have prepared. Around the hall still more Sentinels are taking stock of various supplies and weapons, and preparing large packs, assisted by Sister Carra who flits two and from the kitchen bringing what I can only guess is dried food wrapped in neat brown packages.
"We're going somewhere?" I ask out loud to no one in particular.
"Yes. We will leave as soon as we can, while we can. But first, let us get a good meal." Phelan answers, seating himself beside one of his men who immediately hands him a heaping plate.
I am dissatisfied with his answer but I fell certain if we are abandoning this stronghold, the full force of the Council must be pressing close and we do not ave the strength to oppose them. The worry sits in my stomach like a ball of lead. I notice Rafter watching me and ge points impatiently at the food.
"Eat,girl. May not be another meal." He takes an enormous mouthful of boar and potatoes and eyes Phelan as if he emits a foul odor.
Without looking at him, Phelan seems to sense Rafter's eyes on him. He purposely averts his gaze, keeping his eyes glued to the food on his plate and from the looks of it, unsuccessfully suppressing a very amused smile. I finally sit and fill a plate, deciding Rafter may be right, and the smell of the rich boar meat is irresistible anyway. I'm halfway through my first helping when Orin comes in, looking distracted, concerned even and, after pausing for a brief word with Phelan, comes to sit next to Rafter. He murmurs something to him discreetly to which Rafter responds with an irritable grunt and grudgingly gets up from the table, taking two rolls stuffed with meat in his hand as he goes. Orin slides down to sit across from me.
"When you are finished the Althair would like us to join him." He pauses, watching me load a second helping onto my plate. "Soon." There is unmistakable urgency in his voice which conveys without saying the words that there is not not for a second plate.
"Have you eaten?" I ask him. Before he answers, I know he hasn't. He has not even had time to brush away the wisps of straw from the goat pen clinging to his pants. Phelan has excused himself, giving his men orders to help in the preparation. I shove the loaded plate at him and get up.
"Eat while we walk."
Orin, shoveling in food as fast as he can, leads me down a corridor, past the Chapel, and into a beautiful room with a large table and chairs, a warm, welcoming fireplace and books. So many books. Three of four walls are lined with them, from the bottom to the top. I had no idea until now that so many books even existed. Around the table are seated the Althair and his attendants, The weasel-faced one, Proinsias, wrinkling his long nose as me as I meet his gaze. Rafter stands near the fireplace, taking a long swig from a silver flask which looks far too small in his massive hand. When, finally, Phelan joins us, the Althair raps lightly on the tabletop, bringing a silence over the room and all of us, Rafter included, to sit with him at the table. It is still amazing to me how this small, quiet old man can so easily command the attention of anyone around him. He rests his old eyes on Phelan and smiles.
"Please, Brother Phelan. Tell us what you have seen."
"The men are ready, Phelan" Orin interjects eagerly before Phelan can answer, as if he simply could not contain the words.
Phelan considers him a moment, smiling only with his eyes.
"Aye, they are." Phelan agrees. "And you, Orin? Are you ready?"
Orin tenses in his chair beside me, perhaps realizing he has spoken out of turn.
"Of course, sir." He says, his voice suddenly deeper.
Rafter grunts loudly and shoves away from the table stalking from the room. Orin shakes his head, making no move to follow and the conversation carries on as if no one were surprised to have the old hermit storm out. I watch him go, only half-listening to the voices carrying on around me.
"We could easily make our stand here, Phelan." The Althair is saying. "Their men have been defeated here once, The Land will help us do it again."
"It is different now, Father. Every village we passed on our journey here, the Ghosts were there, the forest and hills alike crawling with their hunting parties. They have many messengers, flitting between the groups, and they are quick. We only managed to catch a few along the way.." He pauses, smiling a little to himself. "They are intent on finding her... and all of us, for that matter. It has been many years since they had such an exciting hunt. We would be surrounded and outnumbered here...they have found the path through the marshlands. I think it best that we organize and move, they have spread out along the edge of the marshland, but they have not ventured through the ravine, plenty of opening for us to get through..."
"My Althair..." Proinsias snivels,interrupting. "would it not be wise so simply surrender to The Council what they want? They come for her!" he pointed his long tentacle of a finger at me.
Before I can utter a word, Orin and Phelan spring to their feet together, but Phelan is much faster. In an instant, he has hauled Proinsias from his seat, the curved blade of his dagger pressed against the scrawny throat.
"Althair! Brother Quinn!" Proinsias squeales "He is a mad dog just as I have said! Help me!" He begins to thrash but Phelan tightens his hold, a trickle of blood runs down, bold against the stark white skin.
Proinsias goes rigid, his eyes wide with terror. I look to the Althair, shocked and confused but he only watches calmly, as if he is watching it played out on a stage, as do the others. The room frozen on the edge of Phelan's blade.
"Oh Proinsias..." the old man speaks softly, shaking his head. He pulls his hood away, the tired, creased face furrowed in discontent. "I had hoped it was not so, but it appears it is as they say." He nods gravely and, amidst Proinsias's strangled cry, Phelan draws the blade across his throat, casting the body away from him onto the cold stone.