“At least the rain has quieted,” Talia commented, followed by a sneeze, as she walked beside Jacques; with one hand resting on his arm and the other holding the blanket clasped at her throat – so it became both hood and cloak. The rain had indeed stopped, but the clouds continued to look dark – even in a night’s sky, and the wind was restive between the cottages.
At her own cottage the widow fumbled with her pouch in order to produce the keys to her door, but at last she managed to gain the keys and undo the lock. The interior of the cottage was dark – though it smelt strongly of brandy. And at the sound of the door opening Jeremy resumed his beleagured yeowling.
Talia quickly shut the door – remembering that Mr. Jacques’ puppy – or was it Mrs. Parch’s? – was loose in the cottage. And she didn’t feel like another hunt in the middle of the night. In the darkness the Widow began to blindly seek a lamp – cursing herself for not thinking to light it before completely closing the door.
Jacques blinked in the darkness and listened out for the familiar sounds of Fiend yipping, yapping, or just plain barking. But he could only hear the cat, and the widow’s frustrated attempts to find a lamp. Muttering to himself about being slow, and old, he pulled the glowing sphere from a pocket, and placed it on a nearby shelf. It neatly filled the room with a soft yellow glow that seeped into the corners, but somehow managed to leave subtle shadows.
“I think you’d better find something before you catch cold,” he offered, and suppressed a cough himself. The pipe, though damp, was miraculously still lit and he took a long draw.
The Widow started to say, “Oh thank …...” But that simply turned into a long, “Ohhh….” as she pointed to where Fiend lay asleep in a pool of brandy. She lay aside Leisrinn’s blanket, revealing a damp chemise, and went and gathered up the pup – who she handed over to Jacques. “I think it will have to be hot tea, with a hefty touch of rum,” she said. Then she started gathering up the overturned bottle, and after stirring up the fire she went looking around for a rag to moisten.
Jacques sighed, and glared at Fiend who looked up at him with tired eyes and yawned hugely. The pup obviously had poor taste in beverages, as well as appalling manners.
“What have you been up to?” Jacques asked, and waggled the pipe at him. “You should know better than to make a mess of someone else’s home.”
Fiend just yawned again.
The jester placed the pup out of the way and started to apologise to the widow.
“Ne need,” she said with a light laugh, and a sneeze. “Pups and kittens will get into all sorts of trouble.” She didn’t add “and small girls,” though that was her next thought. Deftly she scrubbed at the drying brandy – causing even more of the aroma of liquor to waft through the cottage.
And though the spot wasn’t completely gone she left it and put on a pot of water to boil.
“I best get ye some towels and myself some dry clothes,” she said, reaching up to pull down tins from the shelves – one labeled “tea,” another labeled “kibble,” and the last wasn’t a tin – but another bottle, which wasn’t labeled. She poured out a bowl of kibble and hurried down the hall. There was the sound of a door opening and a great deal of skittering toenails – followed by a another “Yeowl” of fustration as the door clicked closed.
Talia came back with another handful of towels – plus a blanket, and said, “These ought to do for a start.”
Another “yeowl” of anger was heard – followed by a flurry of scratching, but Talia just shook her head and smiled, “Jeremy will settle soon. And while you’re drying off – and while the water’s heating I’ll go get a dry dress on.”
Jacques looked at the door behind which there was apparently a small demon. Or perhaps a not so small one, depending on the yowls in question. Then he shrugged and took a pair of towels from the widow with thanks. Although the jester motley would drip dry fairly quickly, it wouldn’t hurt to dry off more conventionally. It might save him from the pneumonia he was doubtless going to come down with.
He took another long draw from the pipe, let out a long sigh, and proceeded to dry himself off as best he could.
Talia returned – dressed in a woolen chemise and skirt, but with the addition of a blue woolen dressing gown.
On the hearth the kettle had begun to whistle and gurgle, and the Widow went over and swung it clear of the fire. “We’ll have tea in just a moment,” she promised while she busied herself with mugs – and the unlabeled bottle. This she held up and said, “This is compliments of my second husband – his ship ran a little rum on the side.”
Once the tea was poured she added a healthy dose of rum to hers, and offered Jacques his tea and the bottle. “That should cut the chill out of the bones,” she said, brushing back curls of damp hair from her eyes.
Taking the bottle and the tea, Jacques looked at the widow with a raised eyebrow. “Ma’am,” he said, “no man could be anything but warm around such a woman as you.”
Then, with a raise of the bottle in salute, he tipped a healthy portion into the tea. Paused. And then tipped in some more. It wasn’t lager, but given that he was despairing of ever seeing a bottle of lager again he figured he may as well make the best of what he had.
Fiend eyed him bluntly from his position on a chair across the room. “And you,” Jacques told the pup sternly, “are on a strictly no alcohol diet, lad!”
The jester settled back and took a sip from the cup, feeling the liquor burn through his tired bones. He was getting too old for all this running around in the dark and wet…
Talia had settled herself in one of the two chairs that she had pulled over by the fire, and said, “And there is nothing like a well-spoken man to warm a lady’s heart.” She gestured toward the other chair and said, “Just as well settle yourself for a while.”
Jacques eased himself into the other chair with a sigh. He was definitely getting too old for this, though the thought of what was likely to happen when he truly did was better left alone. He drank from the mug, and then took a few puffs on the pipe. “Do you mind if I smoke?” he asked after a minute’s thought. He had no idea if the widow would object, though he was under the impression she would have done so by now. She didn’t strike him as a woman who would put up with things she didn’t want.
Fiend yawned again, and settled himself down near the fire to sleep.
“Have you travelled much?” Jacques asked after a moment.
“Only over to the next village,” Talia said wistfully, wrapping her hands around the warm mug, and savoring the way the heated rum thawed her chilled body. “And I have ne problem with the aroma of a good tobacco.”
Jacques nodded. It was, more or less, what he’d expected. Nobody seemed to want to go far from home. Just remain by a warm fire and the people you knew.
He looked at the fire, and puffed another smoke ring from the pipe. Strange that he’d travelled so very far, for so very long, and was only beginning to realise what it was that everyone else already knew.
“There are a great many things out there that you should see someday,” he said after a while. “The sky gardens at Karandela in the spring. The Eldenbruch winter festival.” He shook his head, slightly. Maybe not the winter festival – the Eldenbruch weren’t exactly hospitable to strangers. “You’re still young – you should go and see. Just remember to come back.”
Was that it? Apart from The Star Dreamer, was he just feeling homseick? Unlikely, he thought, given that there was nothing there anyway. Not anymore.
[in Leisrinn’s barn]
Jimi, along with his niece and nephew, Ani and Vern, had settled in the warm straw -near to the sleepy cattle. And from this vantage point they could watch Bethy – now wrapped in a blanket and laying between two cows – and they could keep warm themselves.
After a long while of dreaming about a pale face surrounded by glowing water, Bethy stirred in the straw and opened her eyes to blink in surprise at the sight of the barn. And the sudden feeling of warmth combined with the strong smell of cattle. Not to mention a tickle of straw at her nose. She turned her head to look first at one cow, then the other, then at Jimi. “She was uh prett’ un,” she murmured sleepily. The fear that had swept over her, with the water, had faded, replaced only by strange memories of the ondine’s touch. And a faint longing for all that was fae.
Maybe that was what made her see the glimmer of light, or maybe it was the way one cow flicked her ear at the tickle of it. “Very … pretty,” she whispered again, before closing her eyes again.
Tirlina smiled as the child closed her eyes again and turned toward the boy, and the twins. A bit of the glamour, and they’d be sure not to awaken and see her. She cast her fairy magic over them, then jumped into flight and darted over to settle on a bale of hay just arm’s reach from the waterlogged child. The cow lowed at her and she waved it off. It gave her a wide-eyed stare, then resumed nibbling at the bale on which she perched. “Bethy…” she called, her tiny voice sounding loud in the close spaces of the stable and its habitants. “Wake up, Bethy,” she sang again in a whispery tinkle of bells. She tiptoed a little closer to the edge of the bale of hay, folding her translucent wings down her back.
“Mama says we’re not poor,” Bethy mumbled, and then yawned widely, before half-opening her eyes again. She was never sure whether to believe her mother when Bett made such a statement. Mama, after all, managed to scrape together a few coin … most of which she’d then spend on whiskey. Those thoughts, though, – of the smell of alcohol that reeked from her mother and the men she brought back to their shack with her – were far away. This was a dream, she knew, with the warmth around her and that bell-like whisper coming from a shimmer of light.
Tirlina giggled at the child’s literal interpretation, then leaned toward Bethy, folding her arms across her chest. “Wake up, silly child,” Tirlina chirped at her again, smiling fondly in spite of her words. “You must listen to me, Bethy. You must stay away from the water for a long time. She will be very angry, and she has a long memory. She will want to take you with her again, and you must not go, no matter how much you feel you want to. Do you understand? You cannot live in her world.”
The little sprite watched Bethy intently, casting just enough power into her voice to make sure the child heard and heeded her warning in spite of the girl’s drowsed, half-drowned brain. Tirlina felt somewhat responsible for Bethy’s near-miss, for not paying attention to what the ondine had been up to. There were those that deserved in their own ignorance and arrogance to fall prey to such things, but Bethy was an innocent and burdened enough.
“Wake up, child, and listen!” Tirlina urged again, even though she knew her words had at least been imprinted on the girl’s subconscious.
“Pretty there, though,” Bethy responded stubbornly as she opened her eyes again and looked at the sprite. The ondine had sung to her, of towers spun from moonlight on water and bright blooms of ice in winter. But the sight of the flicker of wings against the broad backdrop of the cow almost made her giggle.
“But cold,” she added with a sniffle. “And ver’ wet.” Half-asleep and thick-headed with warmth, she did not find the situation at all odd, and in the morning would have hazy memories of the cow speaking in a tinkling voice around a mouthful of straw. “Eh’ll keep some salt wit’ me,” she added reassuringly as her eyelids drifted downwards again.
The sprite smiled and nodded. “You do that, Bethy.” Tirlina sprang into the air, drawing a disgruntled noise from the cow. She hovering for a moment over Bethy’s still form, then quickly darted down to lay a glittering kiss on the child’s forehead. Retreating to a safe distance again, she paused mid-air. “It’s not a blessing from Luatha,” she whispered, “but it may help to keep you safe. And it will sweeten your dreams.”
Tirlina knew she should be getting back to Rue. But she convinced herself that Fionn would at least keep the babe out of harm’s way for one night before plunging headlong into some disaster again. So the sprite resumed her perch on the bale of hay, and lingered there, her tiny bell-like voice softly filling the stable with a fae lullaby meant only for Bethy’s ears.