As the bards approached the massive doors to the feasting hall were pulled open, and the bagpipes began sounding in earnest. At this signal Acair, Chief of the Hillrover clan, took the lead, followed by the High Bard Naomha and his entourage. Laurelyn signaled her companions to wait till the bards had passed – then indicated that her party was to join the processional as it wound its way around the plank tables. Acair took his seat at the high table, with Naomha on his right, and much to the sound of whispered astonishment – he seated Laurelyn to his immediate left, with Thomis next to her. Two other high-ranking bards sat next to their teacher. And on Thomis’ left was Gairge’s father, Geill Hillrover, who was Acair’s first cousin.
The rest of Laurelyn’s group were seated as honored guests, so they were seated with other of the elder officers of the clan. Measail Hillrover, a man with thick white hair and chill blue eyes, and his woman, Teth Ealanta, who was not a young maid, but who had the skill to keep herself attractive. Tearmunn Hillrover – one of the younger officers. And Lagfunn Hillrover – a very lean man, with a somewhat pensive expression.
Thomis remained standing until Laurelyn, her father, and the other high-ranking officials at the table had taken their own chairs. He marked automatically where the others of the party were seated, measuring without thinking the distance between each table, and from there to the exits. His gaze stopped momentarily as he took his seat, noting how Maeve’s blue eyes dashed around the room and how her face flushed as she fixed upon one young man at the chief’s own table, one in yellow and green plaid. The fellow did not miss it either, and half-smiled from his sandy-blonde beard as he leaned over to another at Maeve’s table to mutter something in Highland, just loud enough for Maeve at the other end to hear.
“I am sorry,” Thomis said to Laurelyn, his own words loud enough for those near him, and Maeve herself to understand, “what was it he said?” Maeve’s flushed face had paled at the words, and though Thomis ordinarily would have let the insult – whatever it was – slide without comment, Fionn had not seemed prepared to do so. The Oath-Bound had half-expected the dark-haired Highlander to stalk over, armed with both babe and blade, to demand an apology.
It was hard for Rudolpho to keep his mind at the task at hand when he entered the hall. He could smell the wonderful scents of the food cooking and permating the entire hall. He had to chide himself not to think about how much of it he could eat and pack away for later. He didn’t have to stash any food for rainy days, but old habits died hard. With some concious effort he concentrated on carrying himself proudly and deciding to sit near Maeve … just in case. She was flushing again and based on Fionn’s reaction, it had been an insult. He wondered if things were going to get ugly.
Laurelyn had heard exactly what young Hector MacRorie had said to Gille Hillrover – something about Maeve obviously spreading her legs for anyone, particularly since she was traveling with another Fhaolain.
In response to Thomis’s cue Laurelyn pitched her conversational voice to carry and said to him, “It’s not worth repeating.” She shook her head and with a tone of saddened dismay said, ”’Tis a shame when – despite the very best efforts of their wise and knowing kin – young men forget that there is nothing lower than insulting a clan guest.”
Acair, who had been discussing something with another at his table, had missed the first part of the exchange, but at the sound of his daughter’s voice turned back. The Chief didn’t need to guess who was at the center of the tension – most of the attention was on Gille, Hector, and Laurelyn, though there was plenty to be spared for a blushing Maeve and her bristling Fionn. He withheld comment; now was the time to let Laurelyn prove she could handle herself. If it looked like the situation was going to become more heated he would step in; he didn’t want a war amongst allies – not with the MacLenans probably massing.
The flush that crossed young Hector’s face was not as deep and burning as the one Maeve had shown, but it was definite, and the sandy-haired young man quickly dropped his eyes. “My apologies to ye, and to the Chief,” he said clearly, acknowledging his own error. “I would not shame the MacRories,” he continued, with only the faintest emphasis on the pronoun, to imply that he believed others in the hall – Maeve and Fionn – would have no hesitation in doing so.
Oblivious to the tension at the table Keir concentrated on the food and relieving the emptiness in his stomach. Though the meal was heavily slanted to cooked meats, not a few of which were unidentifiable, he was pleased to see some raw greens. They seemed to be added more as a garnish but there was enough for his intended purpose. Carefully slipping some into his pockets when he was certain no one was watching, he smiled in anticipation of offering them to the two baby rabbits that lay back in his room in a hollow of his straw bedstuffs.
The young gypsy could feel the tension in the room. It was palpable, such that you could almost cut it with a knife. He glanced at the knife before him and decided quickly that pantomiming cutting the tension, would not be a good idea. Instead he cut off a piece of meat before him and tasted it. He chewed it thoughtfully, still standing by his chair, and tugged on Maeve’s shirt. “You really should try this meat Maeve. It’s really good!” He then turned to Laurelyn’s father and continued. “My compliments to your cook sir, this food that you’ve been really nice to share with us is really good!”
The Hillrover Chief looked towards the guest table and said, “Thank ye, lad.”
After acknowledging the MacRorie apology Laurelyn gave Rudolpho a quick smile – then turned uneasily to meet the High Bard’s steady gaze.
[At Guest Table]
Measail turned his chill blue eyes towards Ulric, and civilly asked, “And where, sir, do ye hail from?”
This white-haired old warrior was far better versed in the treatment of “guests” than any young pup.
“Across the seas,” he said, avoiding a direct answer. The alert look in the older man’s eyes told him that a lie would be unadvisable, but he knew that the truth would be ten times worse.
“I am a mercenary, I was on a merchant’s ship which sunk several months past.”
He took a drink to quench a suddenly dry throat. As he placed his cup down, he glanced about him at the stronghold’s walls, then back at Measail.
“You are freshly settled in, and you prepare for war again?” he asked, eager to change the topic.
“Across the seas covers many lands,” Measail said, not willing to let the warrior completely dodge the topic. He glanced towards Laurelyn and said, “Our ‘shores’ were taken long ago – by folk who were more than willing to breed with the mer so they could have the waters and winds do their bidding.”
His chill eyes turned back to Ulric, “But ye’re well passed the shore now – are ye looking to hire ye’re sword out to earn a passage? The fisher folk would have little use for ye’re skills.” There was no accusation in his heavily-accented voice. “Or have ye hired on with the Chieftain’s lass? For if ye haven’t – then perhaps the Chief could offer ye pay. We’ve held this Dun for over four months now – but we’ve little doubt that the MacLenans will be trying soon to take her back.”
[At Guest Table]
“So ye like the meat?” a lass’s voice said behind Rudolpho; a rather sing-song voice that might have been trying to imitate the sultry tones of older doxies.
Teth Ealanta turned her lovely violet eyes (which was the second of her attributes to catch Measail’s attention many years ago) on Keir. Her clothes, make-up, and hairstyle were tastefully done, and enhanced the richness of her still-brown hair and her other endowments. Measail was high enough in standing that she could have her own wagon, and not have to walk with most of the other camp followers. Her voice was musical and with her easy skill she seemed to have turned all her attention on Master Keir. “I understand that you are a healer, good Sir?”
“Yes m’lady.” Gulping down a piece of spicy mutton, Keir stared into her violet eyes, never having seen such a color before. “Yes, I do have some skills in that area though I’m truly a naturalist by birth and training.” It did not surprise him to see female Big Folk in this place of obvious violence for he well knew Laurelyn’s skill in battle, however this woman’s uncalloused hands and smooth, soft musculature – so openly displayed – spoke of an easier life. “Are you a healer m’lady?”
Teth gave a throaty laugh and said, “Some might call me that – and I have unrolled a bandage or two in my day. But I doubt any would call me a ‘naturalist,’ though some might say I come by my profession naturally.”
Daron resisted with difficulty the urge to rub her hands to relieve the painful burning sensation in her fingertips – a sign that her “gift” wanted expression -which had started as a dull, ignorable ache when she entered the Dun and seemed to intensify when she walked into the dining hall and took her seat at the guest table. Instead, the artist tried to concentrate on eating the meal set before her. She hoped no one noticed her discomfort.
Rudolpho turned to see who had addressed him. He wasn’t sure by just the voice but it sounded like a younger person … not quite adult. When he looked behind him, he gazed into the eyes of a young girl behind him. For some reason, his tongue just wouldn’t move the way he wanted it to. “Uh hi yes, I mean hi and yes…um you know what I mean?” He turned and grabbed the nearest cup to him and took a swig. Unfortunately it was a lot stronger than the water he had been expecting to be in there. He tried to stifle the coughs that came from his burning throat. He tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to look as if he had meant to drink the strong spirits before him and smiled at the girl.
[Beud – the serving girl]
Beud tried to restrain a giggle – her Mam had told her that men did foolish things, even young men, and ye never laughed at them. First off it hurt their pride – which either meant ye might be out in the wind or hurt yerself. But this boy didn’t look like he would hurt anyone – he actually was nice to look at with his dark hair and eyes, and with him being a guest it was hard to tell his standing in the scheme of things. His fancy clothes proclaimed him well-placed, but the way he handled his food – like there would be none on the morrow – said he might have come up hard.
Either way it was still wise to be nice to him – and he was about her own age (which meant he would probably be less inclined to fondle her – luckily her Mam was saving her bloom for a higher rank than just a common sort). Though she doubted her Mam would want to her get too friendly – but he looked so much kinder than some here.
So Beud said with a pleasant smile, that showed she had all her teeth, “I do indeed.” She pushed a pewter mug of chill water into his hand and added, “Perhaps ye will find that more to ye’re taste.” She tried to stand saucily – to show a figure that was only beginning to ripen in her fourteen year old body, and hoped he noticed that she had just washed her blond hair. Her Mam was proud her daughter had inherited her own blond hair, – not the auburn that was so common amongst Hillrover byblows – and told her to keep bathed so that her golden locks would shine.
He hurriedly took a gulp of the cool water that she had thoughtfully given him. Looking into her smiling face he knew that she wasn’t fooled by his act. He took the time to take a better look at her. Her blond hair shone only to be outdone by the twinkle in her eyes. “Thanks for the water. It really hit the spot. My name’s Rudolpho.” He looked around him for a chair for her. Seeing that they were all occupied , he stood up. “Can I offer you a seat?”
“I’m Beud,” the girl whispered as she took a flagon of water from her tray and placed it on the table. During the process she managed to lean closer to Rudolpho (all the while hoping her Mam was busy serving on the far side of the hall), and said, “I can’t sit – but meet me in the stables during the bards’ tales.”
Daron watched the exchange between Rudolpho and the young girl out of the corner of her eye and smiled. Her right hand subconsciously went to the ivory and emerald comb at her right temple, making sure it held her dark hair in place.
The artist forced back with difficulty the overwhelming compulsion to run from the table and back to her room to sketch the images forming in her mind. Now was not the time…
Daron took a healthy sip from the cup of spirits set before her. Tears stung her emerald eyes. The burning sensation in her throat now matched the one in her fingertips. Another deep swallow, and the burning faded away to a dull ache. She returned her attention to the meal set before her.
Ulric swallowed some drink, barely noticing the alcohol in it as it slid down his throat. A second’s grace it had been… time to think upon his answer to this clansman who confronted him with questions he had not considered.
“I wish I could lend the Hillrovers my muscle and sinew to use in their battles, but I have need to be going home. For the moment, the chieftain’s daughter and I share a common direction and until we part ways I will protect her and her companions as best I can.”
He looked the older man in the eyes for a short moment, then finished his drink. While the chatter and noise around him clamoured with sounds of homeliness, he was too far from home to find solace in it.
The old Hillrover nodded, “Fair enough, warrior. It’s good when a man knows his direction and his loyalties.”
“It is good when a man knows both safety and health,” Ulric replied.
He was finding many similarities in his own language and the local tongue, and was growing increasingly more comfortable with it. It was both disturbing and heartening for the warrior to discover. Comfort was not something he had wished for or expected from anything in these lands.
Finally he turned his attention to his food, and set about eating it with both vigor and grace. Despite his recent poor living conditions he was no beggar… but he was hungry.
Fionn left Maeve to serve herself, knowing that if he had so much as offered to pull the girl’s chair back, she would have snapped at him. Which would have given the more lively among the Calhouns and MacRories even more reason to cast out subtle, and not so subtle, taunts. He did stay by her side, watchful of both Maeve and the babe. When Rue had settled down again, dozing despite the noise in the great hall, he moved one chair aside to put her snug in a nest of blanket between his feet – after giving a stern look to one scrap-sniffing mongrel moving among the diners’ legs.
Beyond that, Fionn remained mostly silent, meeting stare with direct stare when Gille Hillrover and Hector MacRorie saw the need to look his direction. A mess of Niall’s making, he thought to himself, and the hurt of it falling to others. Cast-off lover shamed before her own, and dark-haired daughter unwanted by mother or da. If it hadn’t been for his need to watch Maeve – and as the night passed, and the drink was consumed, that need likely would become even greater – he likely would have been unable to avoid looking too openly at Daron Innes. Niall wouldn’t have hesitated, he knew, for the woman surely was a lovely sight, to make even Luatha of the Moonlight envious.
As it was, the most he had time for was a murmured apology when Rue stretched out her arms and kicked, catching the edge of the woman’s silken gown.
The room suddenly seemed much warmer, though Rudolpho really didn’t know why. He did wonder though, what kind of soap the young girl used. She did smell pretty nice at this range and she was really nice. He realized he was staring and snapped out of it. “I see. You have obligations. Ummm…okay. I’ll see you at story time. When do you get to eat?”
Beud gave the young lordling a glittering smile; she felt powerful, aware of herself for probably the first time – this was the first time she had truly flustered a male. That he probably was an innocent didn’t matter. “I eat when I can,” she murmured, “Perhaps we can share something later.”
With another smile and a confident flounce the girl went back to her rounds. She had even managed to sound like some of the older women.
Daron smiled as she looked down at the babe. “It’s quite all right,” she said. “No harm done.” She looked back up at Fionn … and felt a peculiar flutter in the pit of her stomach. You will not go and make a fool out of yourself again! she sternly admonished herself.
Daron took another healthy swallow from the goblet before her. She hoped that Fionn would attribute the sudden flush of her cheeks to the alcohol…
Fionn resettled the infant with a softly murmured, “Tiah’, Cianna,” and waited until her eyes – as dark as his own, and Niall’s – had closed again before turning back to his own meal. The goblet before him was still full, though he could not help but note that Daron seemed to be able to handle the wine easily enough. Maeve, on his left, seemed to be imbibing quite a bit, also, having drained one goblet and allowing the serving girl to refill it. For a moment, Fionn considered a whispered warning about how her eyes already glittered a bit too brightly from the alcohol, or how Rue might later turn from her mother’s milk. But either approach undoubtedly would have drawn a sharp rebuke.
At the head table, Thomis sipped his own wine, slowly, and allowed himself a moment of relief that so far the feast was going relatively smoothly.
Left on his own, Rudolpho looked around him to see what everyone else was up to. Daron seemed to be looking at Fionn as if he had just said something. Fionn was looking at Maeve. Maeve was looking in her quickly draining goblet. He noticed the concerned look in Fionn’s eyes and the flush to Maeve’s cheeks. He remembered the time he had fed one of the village goats some hot peppers and how the milk tasted of it later. He wondered if the same were true of people and wine. Quickly deciding he didn’t want Rue to find out he poured some juice in his glass and then added a bit of wine.
“Maeve could you pass those potatoes please?” When she turned to pick up the platter he switched his glass with hers quietly and with the quickness of his gypsy heritage. He then took the platter from her when she handed it to him and took some potatoes from it. “Thanks.” As he began to eat the potatoes to complete the illusion, he looked around the hall noting what everyone was doing, who was watching him, and whether Maeve noticed the switch.
[At the Head Table]
All during the various taunts and conversations Geill Hillrover, Gairge’s father, had continued to eat – though he missed nothing. When the head table and the guest table had settled to the business of eating, and polite conversation, he turned to Thomis and said, “Se ye be travelin’ with me Cousin Laurelyn, eh?” Geill had broader features than Acair, and had more blond highlights in his auburn hair, though now those were mixed with grey in the thick warrior’s braids that hung on either side of his weathered face. There was something a little hungry about the way he looked at things.
Meanwhile Acair had been taking the opportunity to bring Laurelyn up-to-date on various kin, and to point out to her younglings that were now strapping young warriors.
Thomis took a moment to neatly slice off another chunk of meat and spear it before answering. “All the way from Montfort, yes,” he answered the other man. He had been glad to have avoided making conversation for as long as this, but was not surprised that someone at the table would start questioning him as Mesail had Ulric at the other table. On the other side, and further down, young Hector MacRorie seemed to be half-listening between leaning over to whisper jests into Gille Hillrover’s ear.
At the guest table, Fionn half-smiled at Rudolpho when the boy’s eyes drifted in his direction, and tipped his own goblet in acknowledgment of the switch made to Maeve’s glass. Though he wondered whether the trickery would slow her down for any appreciable length of time – after all, once she finished this cupful of mostly juice, she surely would be searching for even more wine. “Mayhap ye should try some cider?” the highlander suggested so that only Rudolpho and Daron could hear, looking pointedly at the wine-filled glass Rudolpho had stolen from Maeve.
Bronwyn tucked a wisp of long brown hair behind one ear and shifted the tray braced against her hip as she moved down the table – dodging Geill Hillrover’s groping hands – to stop by the gaily-dressed man with the belled hat. “Lager?” she asked, hoisting a pitcher and offering to fill his cup.
Jacques had been candidly feeding Fiend chunks of meat sliced from his own meal, and had managed to convince the pup to even drink an infinitesimally small portion of wine when the animal had started whining for water. Fiend, now, was staring at something only he could see, and giving an occasional delighted yap. As Bronwyn approached his eyes focussed briefly on the young woman, and he gave a final half-hearted yap before falling asleep with a huge yawn.
“I knew he was too young to be drinking,” offered Jacques with a shrug and a light tinkling of bells. Then he eyed Bronwyn appreciatively and smiled widely.
“A beautiful young woman offering me lager?” he grinned and his voice slipped into a fair imitation of the Hillrover accent. “Will ye marry me, lass?”
Jacques winked outrageously and hefted his cup.
“You are more than welcome to fill my cup, as you fill my eyes with wonder, and my soul with joy.” He winked again – this time so slightly and with such a conspiratorial air that it was barely noticeable. “Perhaps I can offer you something too?”
Bronwyn laughed, and returned the smile, leaning forward to fill the cup, and giving the jester a quick, though relatively modest, glimpse at the abundance of bosom gathered behind the stays of her bodice. Part of the job, and a more pleasant one than most of the duties given to the camp-followers. Not all of the warriors, whether they be young or old, even bothered with a smile and a wink to jolly a girl along. “Mayhap ye can perform a few tricks for a lass,” she answered, “when the sarvin’ ’s done.”
Bronwyn returned the wink as she straightened to move back down the table. “If yer hat is up to it,” she tossed over her shoulder.
Geill Hillrover took stock of Thomis; noting the man’s efficient movements, and the way he casually kept track of his companions – and their potential adversaries. “Aye, E’ve ‘eard of Montfort. As ell-starred a tewn if E’ve ever ‘eard of one. Ef I understand aright me yeunger cousin, Brion, went in to check on yeung Laurelyn, and new here she is …. but no sign of eur warpiper. Ye weuldn’t ‘ave ‘appened to ‘ear ef him weuld ye ‘ave?”
“Your warpiper and his blackthorn shillelagh were welcome protection for the chieftain’s daughter,” Thomis answered. How much should he say about Brion and his reasons for remaining behind? The Oath-bound was reluctant to start rumors about the other man without knowing what implications the warpiper’s absence could have for clan politics and Laurelyn’s father. “A strong fighter, and an honorable man,” he added. There did not see to be any danger in that, for he doubted that anyone in the hall would contest such an assessment of Acair’s ‘baby brother.’ “And just as strong and healthy when we left.”
Rudolpho smiled as Fionn tipped his cup to him. He picked up his glass of water and tipped it back. “No thanks, I have water.” He drained his glass and set about preparing it for next time. He took a bit of wine from Maeve’s old glass, and filled it to the top with juice, making sure Maeve didn’t notice him doing it. When Maeve asked for a refill, he would be ready to affect another switch.
As he continued to scan the room, as much to see what people were doing, as he was getting bored and a little anxious, he noticed that Daron was looking at Fionn quite a bit. Especially when she thought he wasn’t looking. The street rat in fine clothing looked around for dessert. He wondered what kind of things they would have.
Daron finished her meal, though later she would not be able to recall what she had eaten or how much. From time to time, she stole glances in Fionn’s direction. There was something about the way he looked that caught her attention. The more she tried not to look in his direction, the stronger the impulse was to study him: the way the torchlight showed highlights in his dark hair, the concern in his features as he tended to the babe, his strong hands…
For a brief, cheek-burning moment, the young artist wondered what those hands would feel like on her skin… She quickly downed the rest of her wine in a throat-searing gulp, pushing those thoughts back to the dark recesses of her mind.
The tingly-burning sensation in her fingertips and hands, temporarily quieted by the wine Daron drank, now returned with a vengeance. The artist rubbed the palm of her right hand with her left thumb, trying to soothe the pain. “Why won’t ye leave me alone?” she whispered, not realizing she spoke aloud.
Keir laid the bare mutton bone on his plate alongside the two others as his sensitive ears picked up Daron’s whisper amid the din. He wondered who it was directed at since her eyes seemed focused on her hands.
His belly full, finally, the noise of the Big Folk began to grate on his nerves. Gulping down the last of his ale he pushed away from the table and slid off the chair. “S’cuse me for a moment.” he muttered to those around him, not that they heard. “I’ll be back.” If they did hear they’d assume he had to relieve himself of the half-gallon of ale but he intended to return to his room and feed his two young charges. Staff in hand, he didn’t look back to see if anyone noticed his departure but strode for the doorway.
“Gabh mo leithsceal?” Fionn said to Daron, automatically, before remembering to adjust to common. “Excuse me?” He pushed back his chair slightly to look down at Rue, but the babe seemed to be sound asleep. “Are ye ell?”
Daron looked at Fionn, realizing with cheek-burning shame that she had indeed spoken her thoughts aloud. Afraid her voice would betray other thoughts regarding him, she merely shook her head. Her hands trembled slightly as she refilled her goblet with the wine.
Geill nodded at Thomis’s words, and said, “Tis good to ‘ear that Brion was alive and well the lest ye sew him. Theugh its not te good that eur warpiper hes been gone this leng – E’d be ‘opin’ that ‘ed been ‘eaded heme by now. ‘E’s get no one there left to guard – since here be Cousin Laurelyn.”
He took a long swig of his ale and continued, “Se whet mekes ye to be travelin’ with me cousin? Besedes leaving a demned town.”
At the Chief’s signal the dinner plates were removed and the servers began to bring out large puddings – one for each table.
Rudolpho watched Keir leave and wondered where he was going. Just as he was leaving, Daron had whispered to leave her alone. Was she talking to him. He thought back for a moment to recall if he had done something to annoy her. He hadn’t really spoken that much to her, and hadn’t been nudging her, so he decided he hadn’t. By the looks of it, Fionn was as confused as he was. He leaned over and whispered back to her. “What’s wrong Daron? Is someone bothering you?” He noticed out of the corner of his eye that they were bringing dessert. As he waited for Daron’s reply, he wondered how he was going to smuggle pudding out of here along with two spoons, and when were they going to start the storytelling?
He smiled before taking a sip of water. “Frankly, both Laurelyn and Brion Hillrover showed the courage to make any honorable man follow them.” Had that been spreading the praise too thick? Thomis knew he was not the tongue-tied type, but he also wasn’t given to unwarranted compliments, and sometimes found it difficult to speak even the warranted ones smoothly.
“Ef Brion E’m net surprised,” Geill said, intensly studying Thomis, “But E’d ‘adn’t ‘eard thet me Cousin Laurelyn wes such a fighter.” Before he could say one of the servers set a pudding before them.
“She learned to use her sword somewhere,” Thomis answered. Not that Laurelyn looked like a fighter at that very moment, seated next to her father in that blue silk gown. “During the riots a while back, she stood firm against those who would have attacked even children in their panic…” And in short sentences, Thomis gave a short account of how the chieftain’s daughter had proven to be a stalwart champion for the defenseless. By the end, even Hector MacRorie, across the table, seemed disinclined to draw the storyteller’s attention to himself.
Bronwyn passed a tray of empty mugs and plates to one of the other servers, exchanging it for another heavy pitcher. She filled glasses for a few others, again dodging Gille Hillrover – who looked to be well in his cups by this point, and all the more forward – to stop behind Measail and the tall, blonde outlander. “Do ye wish muir to drink?” she asked softly, quickly curtseying to Measail in acknowledgment of his rank.
Measail didn’t even look at the server, but handed her his tankard.
“Muir?” Ulric echoed, lost for a second by the accent. “Reh, yes thank you.” He held up his tankard and gave her a grateful smile.
“So,” he said to Measail as he held his cup out, “if you fight here, who guards your homes?”
She poured Measail’s tankard full first, carefully so as not to spill any of it, not at all surprised that the older man had not acknowledged her presence. It was the way here, and the camp-followers such as herself – most of them by-blows born of women in the same position – didn’t expect any courtesies from the warriors. But she did nod, with a quick smile to the outlander as she turned to him. Laurelyn Hillrover did seem to travel with a polite bunch.
The elder warrior scrutinized Ulric as he said, “Our lands are deep in the mountains and we’re fortunate to be blessed with many warriors.”
Ulric smiled, and took a quick draught from his replenished drink.
“Then you are fortunate indeed. Beautiful women,” he glanced at Bronwyn as she departed, “safe homes, and surrounded by good stone and brave warriors… you could not ask for more.”
The artist shook her head. So Rudolpho had heard her too… “No, no one here is bothering me,” Daron whispered. That was a half-truth…, she silently scolded herself. Her cheeks reddened with the memory of her thoughts about Fionn. She drank deeply from her wine goblet, firmly pushing those thoughts back. “But this is neither the time nor place for me to be drawing…” Daron took another throat-searing gulp of the wine for courage to speak further, ...drawing what I ‘see’ from being in this place…”
Rudolpho glanced at Daron. She seemed upset. He reached over to her and put his hand on hers. “You shouldn’t be ashamed of your talent. It’s pretty different from anything I’ve ever seen anybody else do. I don’t think anyone would mind if you were to draw…as long as you didn’t draw on the tablecloth or something. You can even go get your sketch pad. Keir went off to do something and no one said a word to him. If someone asks where you’re going just say you need to freshen up.”
Rudolpho smiled at her and watched them put the pudding on their table. He was eagerly set to dig into the pudding, but remembered the pretty serving girl. He glanced across the room and could see her delivering trays of pudding to other tables. He felt guilty not having to do any chores as a guest, so he didn’t eat any of the pudding. He instead shoveled big spoonfuls of pudding into a dish that he would save for later. He still wished later would come sooner.
[Back in the Quarters – Keir]
While the rabbits nibbled the bits of greenery he brought them, Keir sat on the straw pallet and gazed at the drawing of Ole Frazzle that Daron had made. It seemed like ages had passed since he had given his quest a thought but then the Dun was the first place since they’d joined together where they could feel secure, warm and well fed. That thought reminded him that he should take advantage of his present comfort while the opportunity was there. He carefully placed the drawing on his pack and rose, wondering how close to the sea they were.
On his way back to the hall he paused near a window and took a deep breath through his nose, hoping to catch a scent of salt air. It wasn’t there but among the many odors of the Dun was an unidentifiable one that caused the hairs on his ears to stand on end. He hurried along toward the hall, suddenly feeling much less secure.