Title: Cado in Tenebris
Author: Calex
Rating: M

Chapter One

The ring of steel against steel was loud in the silence of the room. Everyone was watching the two combatants intently as they circled each other, one body tensed to move at any moment, the other's looser form almost indolent if it wasn't belied by the sharpness of dark eyes. They were two of the best fighters among the fresher blood of the military. One of them swung his sword around, the movement smooth, impressive, useless and the other immediately took the chance that presented and moved in, all tight muscle and ruthless efficiency. But the flashier of the two was fast, teeth flashing as he grinned in pure enjoyment. Sword met sword as he blocked, then parried, only excellent reflexes and knowing his opponent's style prevented the first soldier from being hit. It was a match much as was expected from General Ardghal ó Cathasaigh's heir apparent and the man they dubbed the Prodigy.

Fionnlagh ó Cathasaigh and Caellach ó Riagáin were every bit as good as the rumours said them to be, which he was not surprised about. Well, not about General Ardghal's son at any rate. The other boy had him raising his eyebrow slightly as he moved, liquid smooth and easy grace, his movements more that of a dance than an act of violence. The sword was like an extension to his arm, his movements almost too quick for the human eye to distinguish, light on his feet. And he did not fight in the conventional way of soldiers, instead he used his whole body, twisting inside to avoid the thrust of a sword, moving into the unguarded body of his opponent, driving his shoulder into his armpit in a hard movement before he grabbed the other man's sword arm and grinding bone.

But ó Cathasaigh was stubborn. He dropped his sword but grabbed ó Riagáin by the back of his shirt, falling back and dragging the other man with him, planting his feet on his back and throwing him over his body with a grunt as he landed heavily on the ground. ó Riagáin merely absorbed the fall, rolling out and jumped nimbly to his feet. Both had lost their weapons in the scuffle, but ó Riagáin's smile was bright as he noticed this.

"I hope you picked up some things since our last hand to hand fight," he called out cheerfully to his opponent. ó Cathasaigh paused, smiling wryly at that before falling back into position.

"One must always try to keep ahead of one's opponents," he said, crisply. But a smile was still tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Come at me, ó Riagáin."

"As you wish," the man answered, tone cheerfully mocking. Then he burst into a flurry of hands and feet and fists and… it was glorious. Unbridled violence and passion for the fight, both men apparently skilled at more than just the sword. . Grunts and huffed breaths, grunts and groans filled the air as they fought. It was close, as apparently it always was. But this time, ó Cathasaigh had misjudged on the angle of ó Riagáin's kick and was open for a split second. A split second was all ó Riagáin needed to move in, and the next thing they knew, ó Cathasaigh was flat on his front, arms twisted behind him, ó Riagáin straddling him from the back and putting punishing pressure on ó Cathasaigh's imprisoned arms. He held the position for a few seconds, until ó Cathasaigh grudgingly called out his defeat. Then ó Riagáin jumped gracefully to his feet, offering a hand to ó Cathasaigh, who took it with a slight glare and wince as he was hauled up gracelessly, ó Riagáin's arm having to wrap around his waist to steady him.

The two men were already First Lieutenants, with a possible Captaincy in the near future. Standing close together, they could have been mistaken for family. Both had the dark brown hair of most Hellhounds, though Caellach had an unusual shock of white at his temple, which marked him for his noble blood of the house of Riagáin. Even then, the genetic anomaly was rare. Caellach was currently the only one of his family, still living, with that white streak of hair. Both were fairly tall, though Fionnlagh was taller, broader, and next to him Caellach's slender build and shorter height misleadingly gave him a sense of vulnerability and weakness that those who knew Caellach knew to be further from the truth. But Caellach used that to his advantage, always had. He'd once confided to Fionnlagh that it gave him great satisfaction to see the bastards' faces after he'd kicked their arses.

He broke away from the dispersing group, moving purposefully and confidently towards the conversing pair. They both looked up at his approach, their eyes widening as they recognised him and bowing respectfully as he neared. He waved off the formality, watched as they straightened with amusement in his eyes. He knew that they were both probably wondering at his presence in a simple match between two lower ranked soldiers, but the question would be answered soon enough in any case.

"Lieutenants ó Cathasaigh and ó Riagáin. That was truly a remarkable display of hand-to-hand combat. I was duly impressed by such a fine performance from lower ranked soldiers," he said, tone warm. The ó Riagáin boy shot a smirk at his companion at that, and ó Cathasaigh scowled briefly. Then ó Riagáin bowed again, movement practiced and easy and again, Aodhán was reminded of his noble background.

"Our thanks, Minister Stiobhard. You have bestowed a great honour upon us by observing our friendly match," he said, and he seemed as much at ease with this formality as with the rest. Then again, the ó Riagáin family was old, one of the oldest surviving noble families. "We are relieved that we have managed to present you with something that has pleased you while you were working."

"Actually, your match was the purpose of my visit," he admitted. Took great pleasure to see court manners and formality fail and ó Riagáin speechless. General Ardghal's son fared no better, just as flabbergasted as his companion it seemed, at the revelation that one of the Council of Lords had come to their base solely to watch two First Lieutenants fight in a friendly match. They glanced at each other, furrowed brows matching. Aodhán found it interesting that they seemed to communicate without the need for words. The ease of gesture showed that they were good companions, close ones, and that surprised him. Rumour was that Fionnlagh ó Cathasaigh was as cold and aloof as his father the General, yet apparently he had opened up to the ó Riagáin lad. Aodhán would have thought that he would consider the other man a rival, rather than a friend. So perhaps there was more to Deaglán ó Riagáin's youngest son than meets the eye. By the selfsame silent communication, it seemed as though it was ó Cathasaigh's turn to speak.

"May we inquire as to why a simple friendly match would catch the notice of one of the senior members of the Council of Lords?" he asked, and his tone was level, cool, though scrupulously polite. Again, the rumours apparently did not lie. For all accounts and purposes, Fionnlagh really was as cool as his father. Although he seemed uncomfortable with the spoken formality required to speak to a member of the Council of Lords, he did so admirably. Aodhán wondered if it was ó Riagáin who taught him. He smiled, the smile that was frequently seen in the Council of Lords meetings, the smile that his fellow Council member, Minister Iarlaith ó Cuinn, called his 'damnably patient politician smile'. Instead of putting them at ease as it usually did to people, the two soldiers merely looked more wary. Aodhán had to hide a genuine smile at that. They really should meet with Iarlaith; it would be interesting in the very least.

"Gentlemen, if I may request that we retire to a more… private location to have this conversation? It is of a rather sensitive matter, I confess." The two shot him the same suspicious look as before, but ó Riagáin finally nodded and they led him to a small chamber that the training master held private meetings with the soldiers to talk of their progress. It was guaranteed privacy, but this was the military after all. They might be monitoring the conversations to keep it on record. After the door was closed, Aodhán raised his hand slightly and cast a simple concealment spell to ensure that they have the privacy that he sought. Surprisingly, ó Riagáin stiffened, shot him a guarded look that told him that the lad was sensitive enough to have been aware of what he was doing. Interesting. Most Hellhounds were unaware of when a Cerberus cast any kind of magic, as they usually had a lower level of magic than a Cerberus. Hellhounds, as a whole, seemed to dislike and mistrust magic, relying mainly on their own strength. It was admirable, of course, but somewhat unfortunate. Hellhounds were fantastic guards, but they were ultimately useless in a battle of magic. Aodhán wondered if ó Riagáin was simply more sensitive than most Hellhounds, or if that translated to magical ability as well. "Don't worry, it is a simple concealment spell. Just to ensure our privacy."

ó Cathasaigh looked startled, then shot a look to his friend, who nodded. He seemed to tense, but relaxed when ó Riagáin shook his head. Really, these two were far more interesting than he had thought they would be. Their trust in each other's abilities was palpable, and from the fight of before, he knew that they moved around each other seamlessly, weighing their strengths and weaknesses against the other, knowing when to use their knowledge to best the other. And after the fight, he had observed how they helped each other, relying easily upon the other. If he didn't know better, he would have concluded that the ease of their relationship was due to some sort of intimacy between lovers, but it was more than that. It was the trust of true comrades, and that thought made a smile curve his lips, unbidden.

"So what do you want with us?" ó Cathasaigh asked finally, foregoing formality for a directness that Aodhán instinctively felt that he preferred. His friend shot him an exasperated glare, but settled his hip on the table. The room was bare, rough-hewn stone for the walls and a simple table with four chairs around it the only furniture in the room. When Aodhán raised an eyebrow at that, the lad looked slightly sheepish and quickly got up so that Aodhán could settle himself into a chair. He took the chair next to ó Cathasaigh quickly, opposite from Aodhán. Both soldiers had looks of expectancy on their faces as they faced him. Aodhán leaned forward, steepling his fingers together as he met their eyes squarely.

"Do you understand the significance of my name?" he asked, quietly. One looked vaguely confused, but ó Riagáin nodded immediately. He smiled faintly at that, and explained for the benefit of ó Cathasaigh. "The name Stiobhard is not a hereditary one. I was born Aodhán Mac Liam, the son of an artisan. My father was the best metalworker in the kingdom, and his work was frequently commissioned by the Cerberus royal family. As a boy, I was his apprentice, and he often brought me to the royal palace while he worked. One day, I chanced upon the Crown Prince on my wander around the castle grounds. He had fallen down from a tree and was badly injured. Even though I was a lad then, my mother had taught me the healing arts well. I healed his broken leg and His Highness immediately took to me. He told his father of my deed and His Majesty convinced my father to entrust me into their care as His Highness' companion. I'm sure His Majesty thought that I could perhaps keep the young Prince from trouble," Aodhán's lips quirked at that. "Though it would be more truthful to say that His Highness got me into trouble instead. But I managed to keep him unscathed, for the most part.

"When His Highness was almost in his majority, there was a conspiracy against the crown. The enemies of the Royal family had sent a man to assassinate His Highness, but I managed to disarm him and protect His Highness. So on the day before His Highness' ceremony of majority, His Majesty gave me the name Stiobhard. The name gives me an automatic seat in the Council of Lords, and my duty lies solely towards the safety and betterment of the Royal family."

"The Crown Prince? Prince Ruaidhrí?" ó Cathasaigh frowned. "I have not heard of any conspiracy against the Prince." ó Riagáin snickered and ó Cathasaigh glared at him. "What? I haven't. While I don't pay as much attention to court matters as you, Cael, it doesn't mean that I wouldn't have heard of something like that."

"You idiot," ó Riagáin said, fondly, ruffling perfect dark hair and making ó Cathasaigh squawk a protest. "He's talking of the previous Crown Prince. You should have heard of him, Fionn," he continued, humour laced in his tone. "You know, Flaithrí ó Maoilrian."

"The King?" ó Cathasaigh's eyes widened as he stared at Aodhán, ire at his friend's mocking overridden by shock, and the Minister had to hide his grin. Though by the lad's flush, he had a feeling he hadn't managed to control the twitch of his lips well enough. He could see the young Hellhound struggle to gain control of himself. "Oh. So that means the name Stiobhard is given to the King's confidante?"

"More than that, lad," Aodhán said, softly. "The name Stiobhard means 'steward'. And the person who holds that name is the most trusted subject of the crown. They are the Royal family's steward. Their safety, their happiness, everything that the Royal family needs or wants whether they know it or not, the steward anticipates, gives. The perfect servant. And therein lies the reason as to why I am here." All seriousness now, Aodhán looked fully at the two. "You are aware of our contract with the Demons?"

"In return for the alliance and their protection, we in return give them a member of the Royal family as our show of trust, goodwill and allegiance," ó Riagáin said, softly. "Gifted to either the Demon Royal family or one of their trusted nobles, the Prince or Princess of the Cerberus Royal family spends his or her lifetime with that Demon, as they wish." Here ó Riagáin shivered slightly. "A life of servitude. Forgive me, My Lord, but the thought of it does not please me overmuch. But that still doesn't explain what you need with us."

"No," Aodhán conceded. "Yes, you are right. It is a form of servitude but… both the Hellhounds and the Cerberii benefit from this alliance. Although we are strong, our power is nothing compared to that of the Demons. Without this, we would be crushed by their power, and this is the only method that we could ascertain to ensure peace in our lands. But servitude or not, they are still members of the Royal family and as such, the Demons allow them to bring with them an entourage of their choosing. A personal guard, so to speak. That, gentlemen, is what I am asking of you. Would you concede to joining young Prince Bréanainn's guard? To leave what you know and hold dear and to live in the Demon court?"

"While it is an honour to be asked to serve the Royal family this way," ó Cathasaigh said, hesitantly. "But I have to ask… why us? We are merely Lieutenants of the Hellhound army. Surely you would be better off asking a higher ranked officer. Someone with more battle experience, perhaps."

"The Prince isn't going to war, Fionn," ó Riagáin snorted. "He's going to the Demon court, though I'm not too sure if that's better. He doesn't need an army, he needs a guard. People with enough knowledge of courtly things to get by, with enough ability to fight to keep the Prince safe. I rather think that with that in mind, we're suited to the task."

"You maybe," ó Cathasaigh shot back. "But unless you've forgotten, I'm useless at court matters."

"I'm sure we can find a use for you," ó Riagáin smirked. "Your pretty face can distract the Demon Lords from molesting our beautiful young Prince long enough for you to kick something vital." ó Cathasaigh actually snarled at that, but ó Riagáin merely grinned. "See, you've enough practice at dissuading suitors. Your arse will be safe."

"One of these days, Caellach ó Riagáin," ó Cathasaigh said darkly. "I'm going to bugger you when you least expect it and then see how you like it."

"Oh be still my beating crotch," ó Riagáin said dramatically, hands covering his groin. "Fionn, you tease, you. Saying such provocative things when I know you won't follow through."

"Idiot," ó Cathasaigh snorted, but there was enough irritated fondness in that to let Aodhán know that he was merely amused at his friend's banter. He hid a grin. Perhaps these two would be perfect for Prince Bréanainn after all. The serious young Prince needed people with enough humour and irreverence to help him through, sheltered and unused to serving someone else as he was. That decided, he cleared his throat and brought both men's attention back to him, hiding a grin when he saw ó Cathasaigh flush as he remembered that his ribald comments had been made before a member of the Council of Lords.

"So can I assume that you both will join us?" ó Cathasaigh and ó Riagáin looked at each other once more, then shrugged. It was ó Cathasaigh that spoke, tone resigned.

"It would appear so."

"Wonderful!" Aodhán beamed. "I must thank you both for this. I don't think that I could find anyone as suitable as you both. But may I request something of you?" Again, they looked wary but he ploughed on, secretly amused at them both… yet again. "The young Prince is a little… skittish with new people. He's been fairly sheltered and I fear he won't make an easy transition from Prince of his people to serving a Demon Lord. Even this Demon Lord."

"May I inquire as to which Demon Lord the Prince will be serving?" ó Riagáin asked curiously, leaning forward. Aodhán's lips quirked.

"King Bael." He saw ó Riagáin's jaw drop in shock at the name and smirked. "We were quite pleased to hear that King Bael was open to having a Cerberus steward. We thought that perhaps it would be a good opportunity for His Highness. King Bael is known to be a just and fair Demon."

"And one of the most powerful," ó Riagáin murmured, then grinned. "Powerful enough to protect Prince Bréanainn should the need arise. Very shrewd. Apparently the rumours do not lie about you, sir." Aodhán was a little startled at that. Of course he knew there were rumours about him, no one holding any position of power… indeed, perhaps no one at all, went through life without some sort of rumour following them. Yet he had not heard this. His image was so very carefully crafted that he had thought no one had noticed, and yet… He caught ó Riagáin's smirk and smiled self-deprecatingly. Of course, there were only a handful of people who would think so of him. Undoubtedly the third son of the ó Riagáin family must know one of them. He conceded to that.

"Then we have a deal, gentlemen?"

"Just tell us when, and where to show up," ó Riagáin grinned, fairly rubbing his hands together in glee. "I'm sure this will be interesting." There was a faint, corresponding smirk on ó Cathasaigh's face.

Aodhán realised, with a sinking feeling, that this might be the reason why the Training Master and the Army overseers had agreed so easily to letting go two such good soldiers. Interesting indeed, he would make sure to keep a very close eye on them, all of them.

End part 1