There was one solitary window, placed high on the cell wall. By the angle of the sun's rays, Rhyllann calculated it was almost noon. Outside, he heard a rabble rousing crowd gathering, interspersed with shouting. The shouts became louder, and more organised. Rhyllann began counting, trying to blot out the noise and the thought that soon, he would cease to exist. He paced as he counted, five strides from wall to wall, five strides from door to door.
One door opened onto a corridor, part of the labyrinth beneath the Old Bailey Courts. The other led to a courtyard. At mid-day, it would open, and he would be escorted outside, to the gallows waiting for him.
I hope I don’t faint walking up the steps to the noose, Rhyllann hadn’t planned on dying young, like many soldiers, he felt invincible in battle. Though this felt like somebody else’s life – and death, he wanted to meet it bravely.
The chief clerk had informed Rhyllann with a smirk admission tickets for his execution had been oversubscribed by thousands.
Then he'd asked if Rhyllann wanted any "spiritual comfort". For a second, Rhyllann thought he was being offered a stiff drink. Then he shook his head, and said
'No thanks; I'm a Pantheist.'
A memory of his cousin flashed through his mind, and Rhyllann almost sobbed. Wren, who had died over five years ago, would have laughed at the irony. The European War, started in 1914 and fast approaching its centenary had claimed millions of lives. But not enough. The country Rhyllann had sworn to defend with his life had convicted him as a coward. The penalty was death.
The rabble were synchronised now. They shouted his name repeatedly. Entombed in the shouting, Rhyllann heard what he’d been subconsciously listening for: the clang of a bell. Others must have heard it too; the chants faded. The second clang was clearly audible; the third rang out into silence. By the time the bells of Old Bailey had finished announcing mid-day, a life-time had passed for Rhyllann.
The silence was broken by a loud hailer. The magnified echoes vibrated through the dungeon’s walls, but the speech was distorted; Rhyllann couldn’t understand a word. The crowd could though, and cheered when the announcer finished whatever he was announcing. Probably free beer to celebrate the hanging. Rhyllann squared his shoulders, trying to appear unafraid. The courtyard door remained shut. Instead, hearing the door behind him open, the one leading freedom, Rhyllann turned. He stared into the blue eyes of the last person he expected to see.
When Rhyllann stopped shaking, he was escorted back to the court. Only Rhyllann's barrister, the judge and a retired police officer were present. The now former Detective Crombie had seized on a grave mistake made by the Crown’s barrister. The middle aged copper had called in every favour owed, and alerted the Welsh, Scottish and Cornish that the English were trying to lord it over their Celtic countrymen.
Fearing civil disobedience would spread throughout the Empire, his honour Judge Thornton hurriedly consulted his peers. Now the wizened old man praised Rhyllann for having the courage to stand up to his commanding officer. With a rap of his gavel, he pronounced Rhyllann a free man.
Afterwards, Rhyllann bought the drinks in “The Cuckoo’s Spit”. It seemed the least he could do.
‘Thank you Crombie,’ he said yet again.
‘Mr. Crombie to you,’ Crombie said, before sinking his face into his ale. When he came up for air, he said, ‘Don’t keep thanking me. I let your cousin down, I wasn’t about to let you down.’
‘But what will you do now?’ Rhyllann asked, not wanting to talk about Wren, or his death.
Crombie drained his ale, swiped a hand across his mouth, and shrugged his arms through his leather jacket. The pockets bulged, ruining the hemline. Not for the first time Rhyllann tried, and failed to imagine Crombie with a brief case.
‘I gave all those reporters an exclusive.’ The crow’s feet around Crombie’s eyes wrinkled as he added: ‘One or two of them owe me. Or maybe I’ll get a private investigator’s license. Whatever, I’m glad I’ve got daughters, no chance of them going to war.’
‘I would have enlisted anyway.’ Rhyllann said. ‘I would have liked the Navy, but …’ his voice trailed away. Some nights, he dreamed so vividly that he woke up on sheets drenched with sweat. In those dreams, he was dancing on the deck of a magnificent ship which was slowly sinking, while the orchestra played on …
Crombie’s voice rumbled on...‘so act surprised, okay?’
‘Sorry – what was that?’
Crombie stood up. ‘I said, a little bird told me you’re going to be re-instated with full honours, and promoted. So look surprised, and stay out of trouble.’
Rhyllann watched as Crombie barged open the pub’s saloon swing doors. Their coloured glass panes trembled as they slammed behind him.
I wonder why Crombie blames himself for Wren’s death, when it was my fault. I was older, I should have known better than to listen to Wren’s crazy ideas. If anyone’s to blame, it’s me. Rhyllann sighed, finished his own pint, and muttered ‘Thank you Crombie, I promise to stay out of trouble.’
Rhyllann did try. He was promoted. But he had no regiment, and doubted he'd see combat again. He could hear the whispers at HQ: “Can’t be trusted.” But he accepted his new clerical job, telling himself to be grateful he still had a life.
Unsurprisingly, his dreams became ever more fantastical: Wren still lived, and he insisted Rhyllann hadn’t failed him. Rhyllann enjoyed the dream up to this point, even though Wren went into full blown geek-talk – rattling on about alternative histories and timelines. Sometimes Rhyllann managed to wake himself at exactly the right moment. Just after Wren insisted Rhyllann had saved him, and could still save him – and just before Wren plunged his world into chaos – again.
More Celtic Cousins' Adventures can be discovered at http://www.celticcousins.co.uk