Rudolpho tilted his head to get a better view of the woman and the child. He had scented the man as he passed by to get to know him by scent …j ust in case. He waited till the woman settled and was a little surprised as she handled the baby not roughly, but without great gentleness. He had seen many mothers and had been almost envious when he saw the loving caresses they gave their children. There was very little of that here.
He slowly got to his feet, so as not to scare the woman and approached her. He stuck his snout close, without actually touching and sniffed at the babe. He then sniffed at the mother and looked up into her eyes. He wondered what she must be thinking.
Maeve would have shrunk back, if there had been anywhere to go; as it was, she pulled the baby closer to her breast. Rue, unaware of the beast, suckled in contentment. Fionn, however, a few feet away (in the hut, crowded as it was, no one was very far from another) stiffened. “Faga i,” he whispered softly. When the wolf simply stood there watchfully, no threat in its stance, he relaxed.
As she entered the hut she looked around at those of her traveling companions who had already bedded down. Laurelyn said, “Sorry to disturb your sleep, my friends, but I need to talk to you about the dangers we could be riding into tomorrow.” She glanced at Maeve, then set the bag down on the table and looked about, asking, “Where’s Master Keir?”
Keir’s nerve started leaving him soon after he lost sight of the fire and the rain began falling. His initial disappointment that no one had joined him shifted to a general disbelief that Big Folk paid so little attention to nutrition. So far all he’d come upon were some fat grubs in a rotted log. While they tasted as good as the shellfish he’d enjoyed as a youth, there was a second of hesitation as their screams were cut off by the crunch of his jaws.
He decided to follow Fionn’s scent along the trail where he’d hunted and soon found the scene of Fionn’s success. A little more sniffing and he’d located the abandoned rabbit nest. Abandoned but not empty. Two baby rabbits, hunkered down and trembling, awaited the return of a mother who would never come.
“Humph, well you won’t last long on your own so you might as well fill my belly as any other.” Keir murmered as he bent to capture the tender delicacies. As one the pair hopped forward and huddled between his furry feet. Keir paused, feeling their warm shivering against his instep and sighed. “Ahh, I guess there’s not enough meat on your bones yet for a proper meal.” He scooped them up gingerly and tucked them carefully into the inside pockets of his vest. “Maybe I’ll just save you for later, when you’re big and fat.” Accepting that they’d have to make do with pack rations he walked back to the hut and rejoined the others.
“Nothing out there fit to eat.” he announced, “At least nothing worth drowning for.”
“It is turning a bit wet, Master Keir,” Laurelyn acknowledged as the healer entered. She tried not to stare when she saw a bulge in his vest shift.
Outside, the rain flailed down with increasing fury, masking the squelching sound of booted feet to all but the most keen of hearing. There was a moment’s hesitation, then the door to the shelter swung open, the wind and rain sweeping in after it.
In the doorway stood a tall man, his ragged chain armor glistening with rain, and his long red hair damply matted across his face. He seemed not to notice the others in the shelter as he entered, dropping two lifeless rabbits and his pack into one corner. A moment of silence passed before he sat, his arms and legs pulled close for warmth.
Sitting in the corner as far opposite from the baby as he could get, Jacques simply sat and listened to the rain. Fiend lay quietly in the same corner, apparently sleeping blissfully unaware of the chaotic weather outside.
When the stranger entered, Jacques looked up for a second, noted the rabbits, and muttered something unintelligble under his breath. The place was getting more crowded than the harem King David the Lusty had had. And without being half as much fun.
He scratched the sleeping pup lightly between its ears, eliciting a soft, dreamy yip, and a contented expression.
Rudolpho remembered now why he liked to stay in adopted forms when he didn’t need to switch back. His attention was diverted from Maeve and the babe as he heard the heavy booted footsteps of someone approaching the hut. He didn’t recognize them as belonging to anyone, so he pricked his ears forward and uttered a low warning growl. When the man entered he got up and stood before Maeve and the baby. If the man wanted anything to do with them, he’d have to get past teeth and claws first. When the man sat, Rudolpho assumed a position that would allow him to see both Maeve and the man. He trusted that his companions, except maybe Jacques, would soon find out who the newcomer was.
“How many more will this place hold?” Thomis muttered to Laurelyn, as those closest to the door shifted to accommodate the stranger. Fionn has settled in near, though not immediately next to, Maeve, his hunting knife close to hand and dark eyes watchful on all of them.. If he had any thoughts about the intrusion upon his and Maeve’s solitude, he did not show them.
The large red-haired guest stood suddenly, and began shaking his limbs to get some warmth back into them. His fingers had turned slightly blue.
Reluctantly, he crossed the hut to the fire, and began warming his arms and legs by it. He cast occasional warning glances at those near him – his green eyes flashing in the fire light. Partially hidden by his tattered cloak, a warhammer dangled from his belt to rest on the floor, and he looked ready to use it.
“I think it has reached the stretching point,” Laurelyn whispered, in answer to Thomis’s question. “Some of us will probably be sleeping in the stable tonight.” She gave him a quick smile, and added, sounding both mischievious and hesitant, “Though that might not be the worst thought.” The storyteller hoped she hadn’t shocked – no “shocked” wasn’t the right word since Thomis was well traveled -“surprised” Thomis with her comment. They hadn’t really had time to discuss how things stood between them.
She stepped forward and moved to stand before the stranger. “Greetings to you,” she said in common, “And welcome to the open hospitality of the mountains.” She knew that Fionn and Maeve might think that she was over-stepping the bounds, since they had arrived here first, but as a chieftain’s daughter she did have the right. And she had her own party to think of.
Looking up slowly through rain drenched hair, the man frowned, then stood. His posture was excellent, his motion fluid despite his state, and the inch long beard on his face was well trimmed. With one hand he swept back the hair from his face, revealing a well defined face, almost regal.
“Damned – mountains” he spoke, slowly at first, as if searching for the words, then more confidently. His voice held a low timbre within it, and an unfamiliar accent.
One hand remained on the haft of his hammer as he looked Laurelyn up and down.
“Hill – rower” he acknowledged, his brow furrowed slightly.
Thomis, still in place by the door, and watchful despite his relaxed posture, raised one eyebrow. Not just at the strange accent, but at the man’s unexpected recognition of exactly who Laurelyn was. The hair, apparently, was more distinctive than he had realized – especially if this man, obviously not native to the highlands, could give her name to her so easily.
“Ta se comhthioch,” Fionn said softly to Laurelyn, ignoring Maeve’s sneer as he stated the obvious – that the man was a foreigner. “Ar bith contuirt ma ta se ni contuidh.” [No danger if he is not threatened.]
At that last, Maeve’s sneer grew, and she could not help but add, “Mar ma Fhaolain ta ar bith contuirt.” She ignored the glance Fionn turned her way, carefully turning her attention to closing her blouse and settling the now sleeping baby in its blankets. [As if a Fhaolain is no danger.]
The storyteller swiftly glanced over at Fionn and Maeve. A Fhaolain? As tricky and fey (supposedly in the literal sense) a clan as there ever was, which probably explained why Fionn might have been refused by Maeve’s. If that was the case. She was going to have to pursue the couple’s history later – if strangers didn’t keep appearing. She turned back to the stranger – trying to place him. Did she know this foreign warrior from Lord Keiver’s or Lord Micher’s? But that would be quite a stretch of coincidence – both Lords’ holdings were far to the east.
“Yes, I’m a Hillrover,” she answered quietly. She steadily met his gaze and asked, “Are you friend of the clan or foe?”
The man looked around, his eyes pausing momentarily on Fionn and Maeve, then on Laurelyn.
“I’m nothing to clan, if something, I’m foe… was foe…” he thought, “is foe.”
He shrugged. It mattered little, it appeared, whether he had enemies in these lands or not. He moved suddenly, his stride carrying him across the hut to his pack. He started looking through it for something.
The storyteller kept her left hand on her belt – close to her dagger, since there would be no room to use a sword. She made no move to follow the warrior, but asked in a strong, clear voice, “This is a traveler’s station – do you respect that this is neutral? That friend or foe can sleep together in safety?”
It was a traditional set of questions, and Laurelyn knew damn well that with a foreigner or broken clansman that such neutrality would not keep a dagger from being plunged. But this didn’t look to be a traditional brigand – nor did he seem to be overly concerned with what they thought of his politics.
“I won’t kill you,” he muttered, rummaging through his pack.
At last he seemed to find what he had been looking for, and turned around. In his hand was a long thin knife, it’s blade glinting in the firelight.
Not easily, anyway, Thomis thought to himself. Surely the big man could be a danger, but at this point too many people in their party were extremely wary. Of the stranger, of Fionn. And Fionn himself, very watchful.
Jacques snorted, and brushed a hand across his moustache, but otherwise kept his peace. Apparently having some nightmare about giant rabbits, Fiend let out a small whimper, and then settled back into a sleepy silence.
Outside, the rain changed in rhythm but didn’t lessen in intensity.
Rudolpho kept his position in front of the woman and child with a wary eye on the stranger. He had made no hostile movements as of yet, with the exception of getting a knife out of his pack. He didn’t wave it around or point it at anyone so he was still alright. Rudolpho turned an eye towards Meave and the baby to see what she was doing. She seemed to have an attitude of some sort, though Rudolopho could not tell exactly what it was since she spoke another language. He was content to watch her and wait.
Keir shifted around the room nervously, trying to get close enough to the fire to dry out and yet far enough away from Fiend and Rudolpho that they couldn’t smell the baby rabbits secreted in his vest. Not that that would be easy, the small room fairly reeked of rabbit and after their long journey they were all rather gamey. The close quarters and dank air convinced him that it would be wise to take shelter in the dilapidated stable, after the meal of course.
The man smiled grimly and grabbed the two rabbits with his free hand.
As he crossed the hut towards the fire again, he spoke in his thick, unusual accent. “I am Ulric. You may share my food if you are hungry.”
He immediately set to the task of preparing his meal.
Daron quietly sketched the people around her. Her charcoal-covered hand rubbed at her tired green eyes. Giving up with a sigh, the weary artist barely had time to carefully set her tools down beside her before sleep claimed her.
In her dream, Daron ran through a heavy fog. She had to escape the men who pursued her. Looking behind her as she ran, her boot caught on a tree root. She fell to the ground hard.
Then the men surrounded her. They grabbed her and dragged her to a clearing.
Her dream-self screamed in protest. Struggling to free herself from their grasp, she managed somehow to get her hand on the throwing dagger she had sheathed at the back of her neck under her tunic.
Back in the travelers’ hut, caught in the throes of her nightmare, the sleep-walking artist held a throwing dagger in her hand. Ready to strike…
Rudolpho relaxed a bit when Ulric offered to share his food. Usually people who intended any harm, did not offer to share their food with perfect strangers they intended to kill. Of course there was always the possibility that he was being nice to them to lull them into a sense of security and then strike. He would just have to watch the man a bit longer to know for sure. In the meantime he settled his head on his front paws and drifted into a watchful half sleep so he coud rest his eyes a bit. Rudolpho’s attention was attracted by Daron’s moans. He would have dismissed it as a bad dream if he didn’t see her struggling and reaching for her throwing knife. Getting up quickly and quietly, he moved towards her from her left, and began to nose at her and lick her face. He made a little noise as he did so to wake her.
“Welcome then, Ulric, and thank you for your offer of food,” the storyteller said, “Perhaps we can offer some food stuffs to either make a good stew or at least stretch the rabbits a bit further.”
As fatigue grasped Laurelyn she glanced Thomis and quietly said, “I’ll tell them in the morning. I’m about to fall over and we have two asleep already.” She knew it wasn’t the best leadership in the world, but then she hadn’t set out to lead anyone anywhere.
When it became apparent that most her companions were already bedded down Laurelyn decided it would be futile to wake them and discuss the upcoming hazards of travel. And though Fionn and Maeve were still awake, the storyteller knew she was too tired to quiz them on their mystery. Instead she turned to Thomis and softly said, “Looks like the manger has a bit more room.”
To her surprise and chargin she felt the faint heat of a blush on her cheeks, and hoped that the dim lighting in the shed would hide the telltale coloring.
Thomis, who had scrunched up near the door, surveyed the bodies cast about the shepherd’s hut, and nodded. He stood, quietly, with only a glance towards Fionn who had looked up sharply at the sudden movement, and held the door open for the storyteller to pass through. If he noticed the blush on her cheeks, he gave no indication. Outside, a light rain still fell, though the winds had quietened, and they hurried across the small clearing towards the manger.
The storyteller pulled her hood up against the rain, and wrapped her cloak tight. And blessed the fact that the manger wasn’t more than a few steps from the hut so running wasn’t necessary. She pushed the rickety door open – to the warm blast of the scent of horses and straw. From somewhere in the manger came the sound of rain coming in through a hole in the roof. “Not the most secure place,” she said as she stepped inside.
[Thomis] “Neither is the hut,” Thomis pointed out. He ran one hand reassuringly over his horse’s neck while he reacquainted himself with the layout – especially the possible entrances – of the manger. “This corner seems dry enough,” he remarked, “and far enough away from nervous hooves.” He spread one blanket onto the straw, and lay his sword within easy reach as he sat. “You seem to attract odd companions.”
Laurelyn gave a hearty laugh, which startled a snort from Beast. “I’m assuming that you mean the whole crew of them?” the storyteller asked as she leaned against a post. As she spoke she tried to discreetly look around for another dry corner, since she didn’t want to be presumptuous about joining Thomis. Unfortunately, the manger wasn’t large – so didn’t offer a lot of places away from leaks or hooves. “I’d have to agree,” she added.
Thomis looked up at her, still standing and obviously glancing around for somewhere else to sit. Lovely even in the darkness. “Would it help if I told you I feel more than a bit awkward myself?” he ventured with a touch of a smile.
“It would,” Laurelyn said with another half-chuckle.
From out of the darkness Beast gave a snort of derision, which made the storyteller laugh harder. “Beast – I don’t need your commentary,” she muttered as she hung up her wet cloak on a peg, then moved to sit down beside Thomis. In the close quarters she could smell the dampness of his clothes, and feel the heat of his body.
And all of the sudden she felt very unsure where to put her various limbs – how to sit or where to rest her arms. In exasperation she finally tucked up her knees and wrapped her arms around them – then rested her chin on her upraised knees.
Thomis had to bite the corner of his mouth to keep from grinning; a warning glint in Laurelyn’s eyes told him that showing too much amusement would not be a very good idea. “I never was much of a romantic,” he told her softly as he touched her chin with his calloused fingers, “but I had hoped for a better setting for the first time I kissed you.” He paused a moment before tilting her chin up and leaning closer, to give her an opportunity to pull away, or give even the slightest indication that she would prefer to wait for something other than a smelly, damp manger.
“Better than the ruins behind us,” she murmured before leaning forward, and reaching out with on hand to trace the side of his face. Her own fingers calloused from playing the fiddle and handling a sword. And before the gap between their lips closed completely she added, “And I honestly don’t think we’re destined to have ‘normal’ circumstances.”
He felt her fingers trace over the scar crossing his nose, and breathed in as he brushed his lips over hers, then pressed closer. Sweet, but strength in her kiss and in the way she held herself. He slid his hand back, over her cheek and into the thick fall of her auburn hair. ”’Normal’ would be dull,” and kissed her again, on her forehead and softly on each eye. “And you are anything but dull.”
“I’m glad you like variety,” she murmured; more interested in savoring the light touch of his lips than talking. Her own hand was learning the feel of his short hair beneath her fingers.
And while the circumstances weren’t “normal” she was more than content to enjoy Thomis’s nearness – letting the moment transcend all the guilt that she had carried, and the worries to come on their journey. They had earned this time – in her opinion.