Their encounter with the-dog-that-wasn’t-a-dog had unnerved Keir somewhat. It was when a flea from Fiend, or perhaps Jacques; he couldn’t be sure, had lept for the shifting black shape and found no purchase that Keir realized it was no sheep herder.
Laurelyn’s announcement of potential shelter, and with it the promise of a decent meal, renewed his strength and it was all he could do not to race ahead. Only the possibility of the black dog’s owner lying within held him back. “Careful mistress, it might be occupied.” he called, startled at how squeaky his voice came out.
“Good point, Master Keir,” Thomis said. With a murmur to Rudolpho to hold the reins, the Oathbound slipped from the saddle. “Wait here.” It never even occurred to him that he would not be the first to enter the hut – for too many years, Mesani I’Se had used him to test the waters, magical or otherwise. He crossed the space between the group and the hut, pausing by the door to knock; the sound was unnervingly loud in the night.
But no one answered. With a glance back, and a shrug, Thomis pushed the door open with one hand and disappeared inside.
For a few long moments, the other members of the party could hear nothing from inside the hut. Then, there was a muffled thump, and the unmistakable hiss of Thomis’ sword sliding from its sheath.
And after that, the thin, piercing wail of a babe crying.
Laurelyn had followed Thomis to the door, but had not gone inside. But at the sound of his sword pulling free of its sheath and the babe’s wail the storyteller slipped inside to give the Oathbound back-up.
His eyes had adjusted to the thick darkness of the hut fairly easily (one gift of his drop of Shalidar blood, even if he had managed to miss all the magical talents it could carry). A flicker of movement to one side, followed by the as yet unexplained thump, had been enough to bring his sword out. But at the sound of the infant, he had frozen. And tracked the sound to a pile of blankets to one side.
Once Laurelyn was in, and he was sure his back was covered, he stooped to consider the child. Not much to tell in the shadows, but it definitely was a young one, and displeased at having its rest disturbed … and finding its mother absent. If she was absent. Thomis glanced around, but caught no sight of anyone else – though in the deeper recesses of the hut, anyone might have lurked.
Well, except Grumhog, perhaps, who at the end of things had been quite a bit too large to fit inside something as small as the hut. “Any light?” he said softly to Laurelyn, and lifted the child in one arm. The crying continued.
“Yes,” Laurelyn whispered. She dug in her pouch and pulled out a light stick that she had been given by Lord Keiver – long ago. The bluish light that emanated from the stick in her hand was bright enough to show their surroudings, but not so bright as to blind them with its light.
Not a large room, and with low, rough furnishings. And no mother in sight. In the light, Thomis could see that the child could not have been more than six or so weeks old; its small face was twisted into a fit of crying that seemed to have no end, the small clenched fists waving about angrily. “No mother to go with it,” Thomis noted the obvious, and stepped to the doorway to wave the others forward. The baby’s hair was thick and black on its small head, and the eyes, when they opened long enough to be seen, were as dark or darker than its hair.
Laurelyn smiled at the infant as she began to slowly move around the shepherd’s hut. She doubted the mother had gone far and wondered about loosened slates. As the storyteller went past Thomis she said, “You look like you’re used to handling wee ones. Drywen?”
He had listened to Thomis’ hushed order to take the reins and had stayed by the horse. Thomis didn’t mention how long he should stay there though. It was all the incentive he needed when he heard the thump and the sword slip out of its sheath. Rudolpho nimbly jumped off the horse and tied it nearby with a finger to his lips and a quiet “Shhh.” He assumed his wolf form and scented the air, counting scents and concentrating on the ones he didn’t recognize. He expected to recognize all but that of the hound, and any others in the hut. If they weren’t still there, then maybe he could track them down.
“And his brothers,” Thomis answered Laurelyn. He stood to one side of the doorway, half-watching Laurelyn as she carefully searched the small room for any hidey-holes where the missing mother might be lurking. The child in his arms continued to kick and express its complete dissatisfaction with its lot in life.
Outside, where Rudolpho scented around the edge of the hut, the unmistakable smell of fresh blood struck his wolf’s nose. And with it, a strange man, who stood before the wolf, unshaken, holding a bloodied hunting knife in one hand and two thoroughly skinned rabbits in the other. “A madadh,” he said softly, and pushed past the wolf with only a warning glance. He stopped at the edge of the clearing before the shepherd’s hut, considering those who still lingered by the horses, and Thomis who by now had stepped through the doorway… “Cen ait Maeve?”
Thomis, to whom the words sounded like “kay un aach,” studied the man’s features, noting his apparent youth – no more than his mid-twenties, he judged – and the fact that his dark hair and dark eyes matched those of the baby he held. At the sound of the man’s voice, harsh though its tones were, the child had quieted into a hiccuping restlessness. He glanced over his shoulder to Laurelyn. “I think you might need to serve as interpreter, Hillrover.”
Laurelyn kept slightly to the shadows – in case this young man was from an enemy clan. Hearing her the hill tongue had caught her off guard and for a few seconds she was silent.
Finally the shock wore off, letting her realize that since Thomis had called her “Hillrover” – not that he had known the danger, that she just as well show herself. She stepped forward and said, “Nil fhios agam Maeve.” [I don’t know Maeve]
She studied the stranger’s face and dark hair, trying to place which clan he resembled.
“Ta si an paiste mathair,” the man replied, indicating the infant in Thomis’ arms with a quick wave of his hunting knife. “Hillrover,” he continued, lifting his chin and examining Laurelyn’s auburn hair; the vowels of her name sounded strange on his tongue, clear and liquid. “Can e an t-ainm ata ort?” He spoke abruptly, and did not volunteer his own name.
“Maeve – it seems is the child’s mother,” the storyteller quickly passed on Thomis, “But so far that is all I know.”
Laurelyn turned back to the young man and said, “Nior agam mah dom. Cad is ainm duit?” [You know my name. What is your name?]
“Fionn,” he answered briefly, with no surname. He showed no fear, not of the wolf that circled in the clearing, nor of the sword in Thomis’ hand. What he thought of the jester, he gave no indication. Without another word, he simply walked to the door and pushed his way into the room, seemingly ignoring those behind him, and crossed immediately to one far, shadowed corner. Tossing the skinned rabbits onto a rough-hewn bench along one wall, he bent to pull aside what had seemed to be simply a pile of blankets and boards.
To reveal a girl, no more than seventeen, wrapped in a shawl, thin of face, and glaring – obviously not pleased to see him.
“Eirann is togann do paiste,” he obviously ordered the girl, pulling her up with little gentleness and half-pushing her towards Thomis. [Get up and take your child.] His dark eyes were unreadable as he turned back to Laurelyn, “Ta si Maeve.” [She is Maeve.]
The girl, with shadows under her blue eyes and curly red hair lying in tangles around her face, stared back and forth from Laurelyn to Thomis, but made no move towards the baby. “Maeve Calhoun,” she added in a soft voice, locking her eyes on Laurelyn’s face.
The tension in Laurelyn’s shoulders lessened by a fraction – Calhoun was a minor clan and the last she had heard they were still aligned with the Hillrovers. But that could have changed, and it was strange that this threesome was so far from their clan home. With the fact that they seemed to rely mostly on the mountain tongue she didn’t think they were given to much wandering. “Laurelyn Hillrover,” she said, meeting the girl’s eyes.
Daron’s green eyes flicked from the man to the young girl – not much younger than herself, she thought sympathetically – to the babe Thomis held. No Talent was needed for her to pick up on Maeve’s fear. Fionn’s attitude towards Maeve stirred memories the artist struggled to rebury deep in her mind. She casually scratched at the back of her neck.
Jacques dropped from his exhausted, and thoroughly unhappy pony, and wandered over to the door of the hut, bells ringing with each step. Somewhere off the side, Fiend let out a half-hearted growl, but gave up quickly enough. And followed it with a sneeze.
The jester poked his face through the door and glanced briefly at the collection of people therein. For a small hut, it was getting awfully crowded. His eyes narrowed a fraction at the girl, and a fraction more at the strange man.
“Nice rabbits,” he offered to no-one in particular. His eyes flicked over to the child and he gave it a goofy grin.
The baby’s hiccups had lessened to just an occasional squeaking tremble, but its dark eyes widened as they fixed upon the jester’s face. Maeve glanced at him, but seemed far too tired to be surprised. “Coinin,” she half-whispered, with a sideways look at Fionn. “Rabbits.”
”’Course I can do tricks with rabbits too.” A flick of the wrist, and there, hanging by its ears from his left hand was a large, stuffed bunny toy with ridiculously long and floppy ears, exaggerated teeth, and a fluffy cotton tail.
He tossed it lightly to the girl and hoped that she’d be too surprised to do anything but catch it.
She fumbled as she snatched it from the air, flinching slightly as the strange toy sailed into her hands. And stood looking at it blankly, uncertain what to do with it, uncertain what to say.
“What do you say, Mr Bunny?” he asked it in mock seriousness. “Do you think we should all share a lager and relax a little?” He pulled off his hat and tossed it lightly onto the nearest chair, bells hanging idly over the side.
“Sure boss,” piped up the rabbit in an obscenely cheerful voice, and Jacques stifled a cough. It’d been far too long since he’d had cause for any ventriloquism, but he wasn’t that rusty.
Daron could not help but laugh at Jacques. He is not as much of a fool as I thought, she decided silently. No, not at all…
Maeve flinched again, but behind her Thomis exchanged a half-smile with Laurelyn. Fionn waited half a moment, then sat about cleaning his hunting knife before putting it away. “A Maeve, togann do paiste,” he repeated the command he had given her before, “is tuigann bainne.” Only a faint stiffness in his shoulders indicated any nervousness at the strangers filling the hut.
“Cianna! Feed her yourself!” Maeve answered with something like the wailing that had come from the baby earlier. She hurled the stuffed toy at the man and whirled to storm from the hut, half in tears. But the man was at the door before her, mouth set in a thin line of anger.
“You speak common,” Laurelyn murmured. She thought back to what she knew about the Calhouns – a rather conservative clan. Then she thought of what the girl had called the babe – roughly translated it meant, “guilt.” The storyteller looked Fionn over -the dark hair of the babe was there, and again she tried to place his clan. To break the family “discussion” she said, “Would you mind if we cook a hot meal on the hearth? We can camp outside, but a civilized meal will set well on our stomachs – it’s been a rugged road.”
Fionn glanced over at Laurelyn with an obvious note of irritation in his face, but he slowly released the hand with which he had gripped Maeve’s upper arm. “The hut is here for those who need it,” he conceded grimly, “we have no greater claim on it than you.” Maeve stood in place for a moment, before whirling to stalk through the door. After a moment, Fionn followed her, and before long the two had resumed their “discussion”, in lower tones and with a good two feet between them, well beyond earshot.
Thomis looked down at the baby girl, who blinked and tried to focus her eyes on the strangers, then back at Laurelyn. He carefully sheathed his sword, and looked around for anything that might be used to feed the infant other than her own mother’s milk.
Laurelyn took a moment to light a lamp that sat on a rough-hewn table and put away her lightstick. As she passed Thomis she whispered, “I’ll need to explain some things – later.”
To Jacques and Daron she said, “I think we best settle our horses and let Master Keir and Rudolpho know its safe to enter.” Laurelyn paused and looked back at the babe and added, “Perhaps if we give it a wetted cloth to suck on until the girl decides to feed it. .. obviously she hasn’t let it starve so I don’t think there’s a danger of that.” The storyteller didn’t add that she wondered about how much prompting had been from the intense young Fionn.
Muttering something to himself, Jacques huffed into his moustache and lifted his hat from where it had lay on the chair. The bells rung a little forlornly as he pushed it back over his balding head
“Kids,” he cursed miserably and looked pointedly out where Fionn & Maeve were arguing. He frowned briefly before slipping out of the hut.
Fiend let out a startled yip, though there was nothing apparent that would have frightened the pup.
Jacques glared at it, and then turned to Keir, Rudolpho, and Pierre.
“Well, kids,” he said with evident false cheer, “ain’t nothin’ to be scared of here.” Unless you happened to have a phobia about babies, he added silently with a shudder. Noisy, smelly, grubby little creatures that were best left with their mothers until the age of sixteen. Or older if they were boys. He shrugged.
“Though looks like we may be sleepin’ in the rain.”
He shuffled over to his pony, and proceeded to untie the straps and remove the saddle and bags.
Pierre looked around. He shuffled his feet and yawned, wishing that he had brought along a sleeping bag or something, but of course he hadn’t. Even if he had, it wouldn’t have mattered, since his horse had run away a long time ago, and everything .. except for a small satchel and his lute…had been on that. He looked around for a semi-comfortable patch of ground and lay down.
Daron left the hut and walked towards her mare. Her bones ached from fatigue. She started to gather her bedroll and the rest of what she needed for sleeping outdoors when she noticed Pierre trying to make himself comfortable on the hard ground. Moved by the sight, the artist silently crept up and covered him with one of her blankets. The other blanket she saved for Rudolpho. Her cloak would keep her warm enough…
Pierre turned around to see who had done that. “Thank you,” he whispered. It was too early to sleep, so he opted to sit up, wrapping the blanket around him.
After managing to find a sufficiently clean cloth, and dousing it with water, Thomis took a seat on the ground just outside the hut and allowed the baby to take an edge of the material in her toothless mouth. That seemed to satisfy the child for the time being, though she worried at the cloth mercilessly, and he had no doubt that before long she would demand something more substantive. He half-watched the continued “discussion” between Fionn and Maeve, each of whom displayed obvious hostility to the other.
A few minutes later, the girl threw up her hands and stalked back over, to stoop and take the child with an abrupt, “Give her to me,” and an equally abrupt retreat into the hut to feed the child. Left with nothing much more to do, Thomis set about building a campfire, pretending to ignore Fionn, who simply stood and watched the others prepare for the evening.
Laurelyn came to crouch down by Thomis and said, “Mind taking a walk with me to see to the horses? This looks to be the best time to tell you a bit about clan business.”
Seeing nothing here that was going to present itself as a threat, Rudolpho decided to follow the two new people and see what they were about. He trotted along unobtrusively behind them and tried to listen in on their conversation. Unfortunately for him, it was in a language he could not understand. What he did understand was the fact that the young woman who was the mother did not want to feed the child. He decided to say something, for all it was worth, when the mother stalked back into the hut and began to feed the child. He ignored Jacques’ comment about kids and settled down across from Maeve and watched her feed the child. He was intrigued…and confused. He hoped it wasn’t too obvious to those in the room.
“Might be a good idea,” Thomis agreed, not specifying whether he referred to seeing to the horses, or Laurelyn’s offer to tell him about clan business. It had quickly become obvious from Laurelyn’s and the other highlanders’ exchange of names – in Fionn’s case, a limited exchange – that his ignorance of the local customs needed to be corrected. “Horses.” He left the campfire and followed the storyteller over to the party’s mounts, and started to unload his own packs.
In the hut, Maeve settled the baby at her breast and looked askance at the wolf that watched so attentively. The strangers seemed to accept the beast’s presence without protest, and Fionn – of course – acted as if the sight of the large animal in the hut did not disturb him in the least. She shifted Rue’s weight in her arms, with little gentleness, and tried to act as nonchalantly as the others. Behind the fall of her tangled red hair, her thoughts were racing. ‘Hillrover,’ the auburn-haired woman called herself – maybe this would provide her a way to rid herself of Fionn, and of the baby …
“A madadh,” Fionn said quietly, as he slipped into the hut, stepping around the animal’s paws to retrieve the two rabbits he had set aside earlier. ‘Madoo,’ it sounded, and Maeve swallowed a derisive laugh at the word. As if Fionn, for all his stiff arrogance, actually thought of the beast as little more than a ‘dog,’ much like the puppy who scurried around outside.
Keir watched the proceedings with a growing concern for the rumbling in his stomach. Even Jacque’s “Kids” elicited little more than an indignant grunt and a mumbled “I’ve silver hairs older than you master jester.”
While he had no reservations about sleeping outside and as tired as he’d ever been, he had no intention of going to bed hungry. Fionn’s rabbits, besides not belonging to their group, wouldn’t go very far but where there were two rabbits there was bound to be more. Cowering under cover somewhere awaiting sunrise they’d be easy to sniff out and even easier to capture. “I’ll go see what I can do about supper.” He hestitated before leaving, the memory of the Black Dog made him yearn for company.
While Laurelyn worked at unsaddling Beast she said, “I have to apologize for not telling you about this earlier…” She gave a weak laugh and continued, “I honestly thought we’d be traveling alone – with plenty of time to talk.”
She swung the saddle to the ground and bent to pull out a brush and curry comb, and once she started brushing the horse’s muddy coat she said, “First off – I’d better be telling you that I’m the daughter of the Hillrover clan’s chief…..” Laurelyn glanced sideways to see Thomis’s reaction before continuing.
He had paused when she had apologized for not telling him “about this earlier,” wondering what the “this” was going to be. For a moment, he was occupied with frightful thoughts of some of the things Mesani I’Se had conveniently forgotten to mention until it was far too late to turn back. With his ears ringing from the remembrance of Mesani’s, ‘Oh, did I mention that the baroness caught me, shall we say, in flagrante with the baron…?”, uttered, of course, just before they entered the audience chamber, he almost felt relieved at Laurelyn’s announcement of her heritage.
Until he thought of it again. Thomis stopped, and turned with one arm resting along his horse’s neck and simply looked at the storyteller.
Laurelyn wasn’t sure what to make of Thomis’ expression – which seemed to be of dawning realization. “Thomis…? she asked, “Are you alright…?”
“Well, at least it does not seem as if the chieftain is overly protective of his daughter’s virtue,” Thomis said slowly, once again touching the scar over the bridge of his nose and half-smiling at the storyteller. “Tell me, do you have any brothers I need to be worried about?”
Made somewhat giddy with fatigue Laurelyn almost started laughing – that was the most forward Thomis had ever been. “None – Mother told him that she wasn’t going to be saddled with a herd of childings, particularly since she wasn’t moving to the mountains, and he wouldn’t stay coast side. And I wouldn’t worry too much about the rest of my male relatives – you had my uncle Brion’s approval.” A grin did begin to creep to her lips as she said, “And from what he told me – Mother’s kin thought well enough of you. It seemed that you handled yourself well in the bar brawl when you visited Morrow’s Hold before.”
And though she would have happily continued to explain her relatives to Thomis she knew she needed to explain more pressing matters. Her expression sobered, and she said, “There is one large problem, though, we’ll be entering enemy territory tomorrow. There is at least ten miles of it before we reach friendly holdings …. unless the boundaries have shifted again.” Laurelyn leaned tiredly against Beast’s side and added, “And you’ll be riding with a chieftain’s daughter. If there are any war parties about they’ll be suspicious enough of outsiders that hiding my hair and face beneath a cloak will be little protection.”
Thomis turned back to his horse, rubbing the animal down. Brion had told him just a bit about life in the highlands, so he was not exactly surprised by what Laurelyn was telling him. Still, he half-wished they had thought to obtain some dye for her distinctive hair.
The storyteller began brushing her horse, with a thoughtful expression. She said, “I’ll need to let the others know during dinner so they can choose whether they’ll travel with me. And I’ll need to get some idea about the mother and her man ….she’s from a allied clan…. But I’m beginning to wonder if they’ve been ‘broken’ – outlawed from their clan, and that could mean we could have desperate souls at our backs.”
She doled out a half measure of oats from her saddle bag for Beast, and placed the feed bag over the exhausted animal’s nose. “Thomis – I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be wise to let them ride out ahead of us in the morning and see which way they head?” Laurelyn knew it wasn’t the best plan – they could easily go on a false trail or circle back. At least Fionn could – the babe slowed the pair somewhat.
“They are not set up to stay here,” Thomis replied. As he moved around his horse to prepare its own feed-bag, he glanced back towards the hut, where Fionn had spitted the two rabbits and set them to roast. He and Maeve exchanged neither a word nor a glance. “Frankly, judging from their behavior towards each other, I am surprised to find them together,” he added. But the babe had the man’s coloring, hair as black as Fionn’s and eyes just as dark, with Maeve’s fair skin.
“If he will allow it,” Thomis continued, “let them ride out first. He could circle back easily,” the Oath-bound gave voice to Laurelyn’s own fears, “and I have no doubt he knows these hills well enough to do that easily.” The man carried no sword, but had the usual weapons for hunting – large skinning knife and smaller blades, and to one side a simple bow. And Thomis had no doubt he knew well how to fight. “But he will not leave the girl.” Of that, Thomis was sure. “Nor the mother, either.” The last was said with just the faintest note of uncertainty.
“I think you’re right – on both scores,” Laurelyn answered. Maeve’s animosity towards Fionn could stem from him fathering a child on her, causing her to be made clanless. For while “fruitful surprises” were not unknown, and whether or not the father was the approved of by the girl’s clan they would usually accept him if he was willing to wed her. Unless she refused him. And oft a secondary husband could be found. In some of the more liberal clans little distinction was made between a child carrying his father’s name or his mother’s name – inheritance simply went to the eldest male child. And only in the most conservative clans would having a bastard be cause for being “broken” from the clan. Perhaps Maeve’s clan was so conservative that they refused Fionn – even though he wished to wed her? That could explain her anger and his devotion.
“On the plus side,” Laurelyn added, “I don’t think his devotion to the babe would let him risk taking on a whole party.”
As she spoke the chill wind that had been such a fitting backdrop to the Black Hound began to bring with it large, cold raindrops. “Sweet….,” Laurelyn muttered to herself. Then added, “I don’t think any of us will be sleeping outside tonight.”
She got tucked away the brush and curry comb, and swung the saddle up into her arms. Once she had a solid hold she grasped Beast’s reins and began to lead the horse towards the rickety stable. Though, actually, more a large manger for the sheep, with no stalls for horses or cattle. Laurelyn glanced up at the gaps in the roof as she led her horse in, and said, “If its too crowded in the hut I’ll go ahead and sleep out here – there looks to be some parts of it that are moderately covered.” She chuckled. “It’s rare that Beast has stepped on me when we’ve shared some hay.”
“Rare, but not unknown?” Thomis asked with a half-smile, though inside he wondered whether it would be too forward to offer to stay in the stable with her. Though they both understood – even if nothing had been said in such open terms – how each viewed the other, Thomis did not want Laurelyn to think that he presumed too much. Hells, he had not even kissed her yet, surely she would not think he meant -
“She occasionally wants more room,” Laurelyn answered. The storyteller settled Beast in, and after pulling out a bag of meal from her saddle bags, she made sure her saddle was away from the holes in the ceiling. She hefted the bag in her hand and smiled at Thomis. “Not exactly a feast, but it will keep our stomachs warmed.”
Thomis grinned behind Laurelyn’s back as he followed her to the hut, knowing what Mesani and Drywen would say to see him so discombobulated by the young woman.