My Name is Honor: Chapter 9
"Uncle??" I turned on Rafter, who had buried himself in another piece of seedcake while Orin, suddenly enamored with the tabletop, avoided my eyes.
"Yes." He finally uttered, drawing a deep breath. "Your Uncle, Phelan.-"
I cut him off sharply. "When did you plan to tell me this!? Is this why you've brought me here!?" I shot up from my seat, wanting more than anything to storm away from them, but unable to leave without explanation.
"Ah calm down, ye know now, do ye not?" Rafter grumbled, shaking his head at Orin as if to say "Women!"
"I didn't think you would have come if I told you, but then you showed up at my fathers farm, and there was no time anyway. Phelan is a great man, Honor-"
"Hmph!!" Rafter scoffed. "Well, boy, perhaps when the Wolf arrives, he will take ye on as his apprentice!"
To see him pout so childishly over Orin's obvious admiration of the man, Phelan, was almost comical. He shoved his plate away, nearly sending it over the other side of the table and left the room, grumbling something about a "Damn wolf and his rogues..". Orin turned his attention back to me, smiling a little to himself.
"He'll be over it by tomorrow. He and Phelan..well, they don't get on."
"So my uncle is a great man, you say?" I wasn't about to let him change the subject at hand with the distraction of his moody teacher. "And what makes him so great? More importantly, through which of my parents is he related to me?" I scanned the mental imaged of the brittle, smudged lineage my parents had scratched out for me. My mother had been a rarity, an only child, and my father's only listed he, Carrick and a younger sister who had died at birth. There was no mention of another male child on either side.
Orin smiled knowingly,as if he kept s secret he could hardly contain. "He is your father's youngest brother. But a child when they... when your parents departed..."
I crossed my arms, standing away from the table as he turned around on the bench to fully face me.
"Where has he been, Orin? All this time?!" Something strange was coming over me, unpleasant, threateningly overwhelming, like the sweeping wind over a barren field. I forced it down, where it settled in a cold ball in the pit of my stomach. Whatever it was, this was not the time.
"He has been in the Otherlands, in exile, He is leader of a militia, the Rogues, he's a wise man and warrior, one of the fiercest men I've ever known. The rest of his story is his to tell you. It is not my place."
I fumed, demanding he tell me how it was he knew this man to be my relation, how he came to know him at all. Orin only stood,grinning, and offered his arm.
"Let me show you the rest of the grounds."
I couldn't say for sure which was more infuriating, the way he managed to be so likable and reasonable at times, or the fact that it worked. Glancing over my shoulder as I allowed him to lead me from the hall, I caught a glimpse of Cara peeking around the kitchen door, watching us, an odd little smile on her face. Archu squeezed past her, bounding out of the kitchen after us with a half-chewed roll still in his mouth.
It was nearing dusk as we meandered back into the courtyard through red-orange rays of the sinking sun, the cool evening air perfumed with the flowers' enchanting scent. It was difficult to not be overpowered by the serenity of the scene, and I expected that was exactly what Orin was counting on.
"I've seen this. What of the rest of this place? How far do the grounds extend?"
Orin, seeming to have left his impatient, curt mannerisms back in the wilderness, only continued to smile, his voice flowing as gently as a stream glides over pebbles.
"The Cathedral isn't really a cathedral at all. It never was.. it's the ruins of a small castle, they say the summer home of a king. It's very old, a thousand years or more." He stopped, looking up at the walls around us. "And still, it stands... The marsh extends on all sides, bordered on the inside by the forest; the wild boars roam there. Not even the sentinels are safe from them, we were lucky not to encounter any." He paused to scratch Archu's ears, the hound's tail thrashing in gratitude.
"Why is it called the Cathedral?"
Orin shrugged. "It's considered a holy place, a place free of the evil which dominates The Land. Who knows where these places get their names... perhaps it is a mockery of the Council's churches."
As much as the history of the place interested me, as Orin led me through the other parts of the Cathedral, a building larger than I had ever seen, the only thing I really cared to hear about was this mysterious Phelan, my so-called Uncle, and why I should not hate him. Orin was in the midst of explaining the rotation of the sentinels, who patrolled and watched over the grounds, when it became apparent to him I had only one subject in mind.
"How did you meet him, Orin?"
Orin abandoned his summary of the guard rotation. "It was my first time in the Otherlands when I met him. I had become separated from Rafter just before the border, not far from here on one of our trading trips, I wandered in by mistake. Phelan found me just as I was about to expose to myself to a Council patrol.-"
"A team of Ghosts assigned to maintain the border of the Otherlands. To ensure nothing goes in or out."
I nodded, twirling my finger in the air, motioning him to continue.
"Well.. he found me and got me away, helped me find Rafter, brought us to their camp. The following year when we came to the Cathedral to bring goods and trade, Phelan was here. And every year after that. He helped train me, something Rafter never quite took to. He...well, when he learned who I was matched with for marriage, he insisted I not leave you behind when Rafter and I made our break. He made me swear to bring you to him safely. I gave him my word in blood."
Orin extended his left hand, palm up, where an immaculately straight scar ran across. I stared at it, dumbstruck. An oath sworn in blood? For me?
"I don't understand any of this, Orin. Why? Why did you have to swear?"
His brow furrowed, sharp eyes turbulent, as if he struggled to find the words
"You are... his family, Honor. All this time he's thought you dead, when he learned it was not so, he wanted to come for you at once. But the other Leaders would not approve such a risk, and so he asked me, in secret, to bring you to him, to safety."
The way he avoided my direct gaze, the apprehension in his voice, I knew he held something back. But something in me told me to wait, that my answers would come in due time. I let it pass and pretended to let my interests drift back to his tour. When finally we had made our way back to the sleeping quarters, Orin walked me to my door. Although we had only been up and about for the latter part of the day, I already felt as if I could sleep again.
"Rest well tonight, you should feel nearly back to normal tomorrow." He gave me an odd little pat on the back before hurrying to his own door, closing it soundly behind him without looking back.
The next morning found me being woken rudely, someone breathing heavily in my face. I jolted awake, swatting my attacker away. Archu snorted indignantly and pulled his massive front paws off the bed, retreating to Orin's side.
"Time to get up. Get dressed and come to the courtyard. There's much to do." He threw a handful of clothes at me, turned and was gone.
There he goes again I thought, throwing the blankets aside as I considered Orin's many faces. The patient, kind Orin was gone again, replaced by this other side, a milder version of his brutish mentor. I yanked on the simple hunting breeches, definitely made for a man, musing over his antics. After a brief splash of cold water from the pitcher of drinking water left from the previous day, and feeling remarkably refreshed, I walked briskly down the hall, jogging down the stairs to the courtyard, expecting to find Orin and perhaps Rafter waiting on me. Instead I found the place deserted, save for the song birds flitting about the flowering trees. I wandered aimlessly along the path which wound its way through the rose bushes as they eagerly opened their blossoms to drink in the early morning sunlight. I picked a full red bloom from one of the larger bushes, taking a long, inhale of it's sweet smell.
"Mmmhmm.." the subtle throat-clearing may as well have been shattering glass. I spun to find the hunched old man, his hood draped back over his frail shoulders, his weathered face fully exposed. slightly behind him stood his two attendants, thin-face scowling at me sourly while his counterpart, the same heavy-set auburn haired mute who had been at the table the night before, stood stoically beside him, his face a blank mask.
"I- I was just waiting for Orin." I quickly explained, unable to shake the feeling I had done something wrong.
"Young Orin will be along shortly to collect you" The old man spoke softly, raising piercing blue eyes, too sharp for his many years to meet mine."He has requested you be allowed to accompany him into the forest, the sentinels have reported sounder nearby..-"
Requested The word rang in my ears above rest...
"Requested? Whose approval is needed for me to leave, am I prisoner?" my tone came out more indignant that I had intended, but I felt no need to retract it.
Thin-face rolled his eyes exaggeratedly while his partner finally seemed to become conscious of the conversation. His dark eyes leveled on me, twinkling under a heavy brow, the only evidence that he was finding something about the exchange quite amusing.
"Child, you are no prisoner, but the forest is a dangerous place, and now perhaps even more dangerous if the Council's men have decided to breach the marsh..." The old man sighed, "It was only the concern of your well-being that I would prohibit you from leaving."
"You?" I blurted, "You would prohibit me from leaving?"
Thin face had had enough, he rushed forward, wagging his long finger at me, squealing disapproval.
"You do not speak to The Athair with such impudence!!"
I looked around him at the old man, my eyes wide. The Athair was the titles of The Council's highest priests, there were few of them, direct attendants to the Council themselves. They died in service, they were never discharged or retired.
The old man laid a restraining hand on his screeching attendant's shoulder, while their burly third pretended to stroke his beard as he suppressed a smile.
"It's alright, Proinsias, be still my friend."
We glared at each other a moment longer before he stepped back, bowing low to the old man.
"Yes, I am Athair here, and though my old bones surely could not restrain you from leaving, my word would keep you within these safe walls if need be."
Something about his placid, even tone made it impossible to continue argumentatively
"How can you be Athair? You oppose the Council, do you not?"
He laughed, shaking his head, and reached out, taking my hand, patting it sympathetically.
"Oh my child, opposing the Council does not mean opposing the Gods. I serve the divine beings who truly rule over man. Not the men who slander their names." Proinsias leaned forward, whispering something in the Althair's ear. He nodded curtly and dropped my hand. "Well then, I will be late for morning prayers, I believe Sister Cara has something for you in the kitchen. Go and see to it while you wait, before Tadhg sees that." He motioned at the rose still in my hand with a frown as he walked on past me, his attendants close on his heels.
"The man does love those roses..."
I found sister Cara packing a small satchel, bread, apples, a cask of water.
"There now, that'll be for you and Orin, in case you're out past lunch. And get ye some porridge before ye leave!" she shooed me over to an enormous black pot hanging over the hearth, a think gruel bubbling inside. I ladled it into the simple clay bowl provided and slurped it down hungrily, finishing just as Orin appeared in the kitchen doorway, a quiver and bow slung over his shoulder, his great gray shadow, Archu, close behind. His face set sternly, though his shining, bright eyes and the eager air about him told a different story. He was excited by the prospect of the hunt.
"Ready?" He queried tersely, as if I had held him up.
I shouldered the satchel and brushed past him. "I've been waiting on you."
Orin led me into the farthest end of the soldier's quarters, through a heavy door which seemed to not have been opened in years. The hinges groaned under the door's weight as Orin sung it open, revealing a dark stairway which seemed to lead to a dark abyss.
"What is this?"
"The only way out if we are descended upon. It is important you are familiar with it."
"Orin, it's pitch black."
"You will adjust." With that, he gripped my wrist and pulled me down the staircase after him, closing the door behind us with his other hand. Plunged into darkness, I found it oppressive, heavy. Orin placed my hand on the wall and took hold of the other.
"Feel it, count your steps, make a picture in your mind. Whatever your method; memorize it."
There was no mistaking the gravity of his voice, this was something important he intended me to learn. I focused my attention to the texture of the wall, size and tilt of the stone, even the temperature seemed to register in my mind the more I thought about it. Somehow following his orders came easily when I realized it was a lesson with a purpose, even if I might not know what that purpose be.
"I'm ready. Let's go."
My hand dragging along the cold stone wall, he led me along, a picture of the dank tunnel we jogged through forming in my mind seemingly of it's own volition. It came to me as naturally as the air to my lungs and after a few minutes, I relaxed my grip on Orin's hand and shook free, the sound of his footsteps all I needed to follow his every move. As he let go, I was certain I heard him chuckling between quickened breaths.
"Focus!" came his sharp reply.
He was right, I had lost track of the wall. I guessed I had missed perhaps ten feet, and there had certainly been a turn in there. I re-centered my mind and did not speak again until we burst through another door into the forest, immersed in a thick fog. Orin turned on my at once;
"You missed something, didn't you?"
I knew at once he meant the tunnel.
"I did, but we will go through again, it was only a few feet." I shrugged, reaching out to pat Archu. Even he seemed to recognize my mistake, tucking my hand.
"Next time you may not have a second chance, Honor. You must pay attention!" He was angry, irritated, but it was more than that; he desperately wanted me to take in whatever lesson was here.
"I'm sorry..." I managed lamely.
"It's alright...just.. Pay attention, yeah? When we get back I expect you to know whether that was a left or right."
"Orin, how did I do that?"
"Do what?" he asked, fishing an apple from the satchel hanging from my shoulder. "Here" he said, thrusting the large knife that hung from his hip at me, handle first, with his other hand before I could answer.
"They more I concentrated on the tunnel, the sounds and smells, It was as if I could see it.."
The grim-set line of his mouth cracked momentarily into his now familiar "I know something you don't" smile.
"I don't know what you mean. That is your knife until we figure what it is that you'll use. We've looking for a sounder, you know what that is?"
"Yes, of course. Wild pigs."
"Good. These are very aggressive, very dangerous. If I say run, you run, if I say climb, you climb. Understood?"
I threaded my belt through the knife's holster, the feel of it at my side oddly comforting.
"I'm ready." I met his gaze eagerly, something inside me awakening in the rush of the preparation of the hunt.
As Orin turned away from me, melding into the thick fog, tossing a gruff "Keep up" over his shoulder, I was certain he concealed the flash of another smile.