Laurelyn had awakened at dawn, and had slipped from the manger to start a fire for breakfast and organize her thoughts. She wasn’t overly hungry – not with thoughts of what they could be riding into for company. The MacLenan clan held the nearby territory and they had been the Hillrovers’ blood enemies for at least a century and a half; a situation made worse by the MacLenans murdering Great- Uncle Seol, the clan piper before Brion, when he had been their prisoner. All because they were upset that he had played his pipes to warn his Chief that the fort had been re-taken by its rightful owners. Matter-of-fact, the road that her little group needed to take ran near that hillfort and she sincerely hoped they didn’t hear Uncle Seol’s ghost – he only played to warn Hillrovers of danger. All of which was why she needed to talk to her group. She knew that most of them had decided to seek the Star Dreamer, but that didn’t mean they had to ride with the daughter of the Hillrover chief.
Laurelyn kept a watchful eye on the fitful fire and was grateful she had put away some dry wood the night before. The smoke from a badly-ventilated fireplace wafted into her face while she waited for her companions to stir within the shepherd’s hut.
Whether it was Laurelyn’s stirring of the fire or the stirring of the two baby rabbits that woke him he didn’t know but Keir was aware of both as his brown eyes opened. He had planned on slipping off to the manger but when Laurelyn and Thomis left the hut he decided he’d wait till they returned. Obviously he had fallen asleep while waiting, just as obviously no one had discovered his two furry secrets. “Is it morning, Mistress?” he asked yawning. Perhaps he should tell her about his two charges he thought. After all, he couldn’t keep them hidden forever.
The storyteller looked up and smiled at the sleepy healer. “Just breaking, Master Keir,” she said.
Ulric awoke slowly, from a deep sleep filled with dreams of war and suffering. It was almost too dismal to be his own life, but it was.
The dim light of dawn filtered through his half opened eyes, and he stretched. His body ached all over, cold and still slightly damp from his hunting trip the night before. Even the fire had been no help in drying him completely. It was an aching body that cried out that it wished it had never come to the highlands… for war or any other reason.
He lay still for a while longer, wishing to wake up again and find himself back home and lying beside his wonderful Alvende… sweet memories taunting him as the chill left his bones.
He sat up finally, and rubbed at his eyes with cold fists.
“May light of sun give to our lives direction,” he said aloud. His voice was hoarse with congestion.
Maeve had been awake for a while – the baby had fussed early, searching for her breast, and rather than go through another argument with Fionn, she had simply opened her blouse under the blanket to allow Rue to feed. When the girl opened her eyes to find the dark-eyed Fhaolain sitting against one wall and staring at another, she almost cursed with vexation; she had hoped he had slipped out in search of breakfast or something, so that she would have a chance to speak with the Hillrover chieftain’s daughter without him around.
They did not bother with “good mornings.” Maeve sat up and handed the infant to him without a word, making certain she had rearranged her clothing to be appropriately modest. Without speaking, she stood and slipped from the hut, headed out for her morning wash, leaving him to change the baby’s cloth diapers. Fionn, in turn, carried the child to the fire, his gaze following Maeve as she disappeared out the door. Kneeling by the fire, he unswaddled the baby and started wiping her clean
Rudolpho had awakened early, but had chosen to shut his eyes for a little while longer. That was, until everyone else started to move about making noise. With a simple thought of “no rest for the weary”, he gave up the pursuit of more sleep and began to stretch out his paws. He normally didn’t mind keeping an adopted form, but this time he almost felt he had to maintain this one until he found out for certain that there was no danger from the newcomer. He certainly had not done anything thus far.
He sniffed the air and cocked his head to the side a bit puzzled. It was then that he heard the suckling noises from beneath the blanket. When she was done, Maeve handed off the baby to Fionn and stalked off. She needs me. With that simple thought, Rudolpho fell in step with Maeve and only growled a slight “heads up” to Laurelyn as he passed by her to let her know his intentions.
The storyteller sighed quietly to herself – many of her traveling companions were awake and she no longer could put off the discussion. She stirred the pot of oatmeal.
“Master Keir,” she said, “I’ll need to speak to you – when you’re ready for breakfast, and once I awaken Jacques, Pierre and Daron.” She sounded less than thrilled about the necessity. And she had not failed to note that Rudolpho – in wolf form – had trotted after Maeve.
Jacques woke with a shudder and a sigh. It had been a night full of dreams he’d rather not remember, though from past experience he knew that to be futile. He patted at his crumpled jester suit pockets as he rolled to a sitting position – looking for something to take the memories with it.
And then he considered it would be better not to drink anything more until there was room.
He stood, and with a nod to the others, shuffled from the hut.
Fiend, meanwhile, had found himself a quiet corner, and was sitting staring at Keir with a curiously happy expression on his small face.
Daron awoke uneasily at the sound of the stranger’s voice. Her green eyes widened with shock when she saw the ebony-handled throwing dagger clutched tightly in her hand. She shuddered, thankful that it was not bloodstained, and resheathed it under the back of her sweat-soaked green wool tunic. Her shaky hand pushed bangs made even darker by sweat back away from her face. The dreams have started again… The artist swallowed back the bile that rose in her throat at that thought…
An image taunted her as she shakily rose: that of a brown haired and eyed man. His features seemed to shift from uncommonly handsome ones with stubbled cheeks to those more elven-like and clean-shaven. Confused, she gathered her belongings and left the hut.
A bath might clear my head, she thought hopefully, walking towards the river.
She wasted little time in tending to her bodily needs, stripping before she stepped into the cold water at the creek’s edge with a shiver. Sand was the only scrub she had, and her hands the only cloth she used, to clean the smell of the shepherd’s hut from her skin and her hair. When she heard the footsteps approaching, Maeve scrambled from the water, sweeping her clothes up in her arms to pull them on swiftly – though she slowed somewhat when she saw it was the dark-haired woman.
Keir stared at Fiend with apprehension, certain the pup knew about the hungry little furballs. The smell of oatmeal was tempting, his stomach was as active as the tiny rabbits, but he rose and headed for the door regardless. “Back in a moment Mistress.”
Walking quickly, he dashed into the stable and made a shallow nest in the hay. Under Beast’s watchful eye he laid the shivering pair in the snug retreat. After relieving himself in the corner he returned to the hut, wondering where he’d get milk for them. Perhaps oatmeal would do, he thought.
Ulric made himself as inconspicuous as he could in one corner of the hut. This was not entirely successful, given his height, but he had no intention of getting in the way just yet. The people of this land had at times been friendly, but perhaps he had just been lucky not to have been killed in his sleep last night.
He checked that he still had everything on him, and that his pack was still safe. The leather pack was old and worn, it’s surface covered with dirty patches. He imagined it as an extension of himself now, and imagined he looked much the same. The difference was that he could clearly remember what the pack had looked like in its prime.
His green eyes glowed as he watched the strangers awaken and prepare for the coming day.
Rudolpho had followed Maeve to the creek and had realized when she was about to tend to her bodily functions, that she intended to bathe. Taking the opportunity to get himself some breakfast, he hunted a couple of squirrels and mice as she tended to herself. He stayed in Maeve’s vicinity in case there should be trouble. He heard the sound of approaching footstep and scented the air. He could tell that it was Daron approaching. Moving quietly through the brush he closed the distance to where she was and came out slowly from the underbrush. He trotted over to her slowly and gave her hand a lick.
‘This discussion isn’t starting too well,’ Laurelyn told herself as she dished herself out a bowl of oatmeal, and noticed, with a grimace, the lumps that were suspended in the grey mush. She pulled over her pack and dug out a small, wrapped jar of honey, and hoped it would at least give some life to the taste of her breakfast.
She also hoped that Thomis would join her soon. A tiny smile touched her lips at the welcome memory of how warm his arms were about her.
After several moments of staring at the strange woman, and the wolf at her side, Maeve made some final adjustments to her skirts and lifted her chin; she brushed past the other without any further acknowledgment of either of them. Just beyond the line of trees, she almost bumped straight into another of the newcomers – the man with the broken and scarred nose, who had found Rue hidden under blankets in the hut the night before. He obviously had been making his own rounds circling the encampment, and nodded without saying a word. Again, little more than a glance before she stepped past him, and a suppressed shiver as he fell into step behind her.
“Lumpy oatmeal,” Thomis remarked to Laurelyn. He didn’t look to Fionn, who seemed more occupied with dressing the still-sleepy baby than doing anything else.
Laurelyn gave Thomis a welcoming smile – followed by a mild grimace as she said, “Not exactly my best this morning I’m afraid.”
Realising that no-one was an iminent threat, Ulric rose and slunk off to the river to bathe and clean himself. He had no mirror and his knife was far from sharp, but he shaved as close as he dared. His clothing and armor lay dirty and tattered on the ground, and he looked at it reluctantly. It had long exceeded its life span and no amount of cleaning would make it feel better against his skin.
After he had dressed, he stared down into the rippling waters at his own face. It surprised him how little he had changed since his stranding – he did not look unclean or unhealthy (but for his clothes) though that was indeed how he felt inside.
He kicked his boot at the image and watched it disappear in a chaotic blur.
He walked back to the hut slowly, and as he walked past those who were assembling for their morning meal, he collapsed.
Returning to the hut feeling somewhat, but not entirely, better, Jacques glanced around. And focused somewhat uncertainly on the image of Fiend sitting by the stranger – who appeared to be unconscious.
Fiend whined a little nervously, and then scampered over to Jacques who gave him a distracted pat.
“You know,” he offered to no-one in particular. “I could have sworn everyone was awake when I left.”
“What the…,” Laurelyn hissed, coming to her feet when she saw the big stranger fall, and moving to kneel by him. It took a minute to seek the pulse in his neck, and once she found it she said, “He’s alive.”
As she moved her hand away she felt something wet, where her hand had brushed against his filthy collar, and when she looked at the side of her hand she saw a smear of blood. With great care Laurelyn brushed his hair back and began to look at the back of his neck. To her relief she saw that it was only a trickle of blood, but she wondered at how serious the partially-healed wound was that the blood seeped from. From what little she could see by just moving the collar she could see that the wound ran down his back. “Someone find Master Keir,” she said.
After greeting Daron, Rudolpho noticed the young woman was ready to depart. Trusting that she could take care of herself, and giving her her privacy, Rudolpho followed the woman again back towards the camp. They were almost there when he heard Laurelyn’s exclamation. He bounded ahead to see the newcomer had collapsed and Laurelyn by his side. When she asked for Master Keir, Rudolpho tilted his nose to the wind and bounded in the direction Keir’s scent originated.
The hafling paused near the hut door, uncertain whether he’d made the right choice in leaving the helpless rabbits alone. His stomach confirmed the decision and he trusted Beast would be protection enough. Stepping forward he nearly collided with Rudolpho/wolf. “Whoa, watch it! he cried, bracing himself for an impact that never came. Realizing the threat of being trampled had passed, he looked at Rudolpho suspiciously. “Where you going in such a rush?” Not hunting rabbits I hope, he thought to himself.
Having found the halfling, Rudolpho sped towards him. He needed the healer urgently after all. He noticed from Keir’s reaction that he thought he was going to get hit. Rudolph stopped neatly before him and gave him a growl/bark. Realizing that Keir might not understand what he meant, and time was of the essence, Rudolph reached over with great care and took Keir’s sleeve in his mouth. He tugged gently, let go, ran in the direction he had come from and barked again. Just for emphasis, he ran behind Keir and nudged him from behind. Having done that he ran ahead and looked at Keir expectantly.
It was obvious that Rudolpho wanted him to follow him into the hut though what the rush was he didn’t know. At least the wolf wasn’t heading towards the stable. “Okay, okay I’m coming.”
Seeing the others gathered around the fallen Ulric, Keir realised breakfast was going to have to wait even longer. “Here, let me look at that.” he sighed as he strode over and began examining the wound. It was an ugly gash; long, jagged and several days old. His fingers could feel the heat from the infection and the swelling from the build-up of pus. He mumbled a curse about Big Folk and their stubborness. “I’ll need hot water and clean strips of cloth… and could someone cleanse this in the flame for me?” He held out the green handled blade Jacques had leant him. All hope for a peaceful, timely breakfast was gone.
Muttering something under his breath about showing proper respect for an artist’s tools, Jacques took the long handled knife from Keir and grumped over to the fire.
It wasn’t enough that his juggling knife had to be demeaned to cutting wounds… He paused on that thought. The knives had cut enough wounds in their time. Though they had been clean wounds, he considered sourly as he passed the knife through the flames.
Apart from that time with the zombies. Or that ooze dripping slime monster in the caves. Or the ghoul with the blood of acid that had nearly …
He harrumphed to no-one, and grumped back to Keir, handing him the knife without a word.
Laurelyn had moved aside so that Master Keir could have a look at Ulric. When he had handed off the knife to be heated she asked, “How far gone is he with infection?”
“It’s gone septic.” Keir answered without taking his attention from Ulric. “Damn fool, it’ll probably kill him.” He traced the twisting gash as far as he could, the rent in Ulric’s dirty chainmail restricting his search. “We’ll have to get him out of this filthy thing first.” Taking the knife from Jacques with barely a nod for the jester’s assistance, he motioned to Thomis for help. Ulric was far too large for the halfling to handle as dead weight and he didn’t want to contaminate his hands on the man’s clothes.
Laurelyn shook her head and got to her feet. Keir was right – such an untreated infection would probably end this soldier’s life far surer than any fast swinging sword. She’d seen had enough clan folk and fisher kin die of infection, well after the wound had been inflicted. It wasn’t a pretty way to go; raving like a moon-mad lunatic, burning to the touch, and smelling of rancid sweat.
She caught Thomis’s gaze as he moved to help. Hers questioned what to do with this stranger.
Thomis knelt by the Hortus, hands moving quickly to find the stays that tied the chain mail onto the large, unconscious man. An ugly wound, he noted almost idly, and one that might have killed a smaller man days before. Carefully, he started to work the chain mail upwards from under the man’s body – stopping momentarily when the dark-eyed Fionn settled slipped his own hands under Ulric’s shoulders to lift him up enough for Thomis to pull the chainmail free. “My thanks,” he murmured, and set the armor aside. Fionn’s ‘ta tu failte,’ he took to be a “you are welcome”. “Anything else I can help you with, Master Keir?”
Seeing that they had the matter well in hand, Rudolpho went to check on the other people around. He sniffed the air and ran off in Maeve’s direction. He wondered if she would somehow take advantage of the situation and try to leave. If she did, would she take the child with her? He wasn’t sure. It didn’t smell as if she had gotten very far yet anyway.
Keir rose and walked to the fire. “Not unless you wish to clean him too,” he replied to Thomis as he threw some dried Shepard’s Purse leaves and a few drops of a red tincture into the kettle of hot water and cloth stripes. He quickly downed a spoonful of lumpy oatmeal before drawing out the steaming cloth with the knife tip and returning to Ulric’s side.
Slapping a strip on the cut, Keir rubbed gently. The caked-on filth gradually softened and smeared and it took a second cloth to wipe away the grime. Finally Keir could survey the extent of the damage, scowling as he traced the zig-zag pattern along the man’s spine. It was a half-inch deep, at least at the entry point, and the blade had twisted as it cut down through the links of the mail; preventing the sides from closing and allowing the infection to sink in. A quick sniff confirmed the agedness of the infection. If there was any poison its odor was hidden by the stench of decay.
The healer carefully guided the knife tip along the swollen edges of the wound, cutting out the bulk of the rot and wiping up the pus with the cloth. “There is something you can do, Master Thomis, fetch the rabbit skins from last night’s meal.” His stomach reminded him again that that had been his last substantial meal and again he ignored its cry.
“An easy enough assignment,” Thomis murmured as he quickly gathered the discarded skins and brought them to the healer. Rough emergency aid, Thomis knew, but he was interested to learn how the Hortus would use the pelts.
Ulric twitched, perhaps an indication of some pain seeping through his unconsciousness. Something about his slumped form indicated that he might wake up any time soon.
Keir continued to scrape as much of the gangrenous tissue as he could but, between Ulric’s spasmotic movements and the small pockets of infection that lined the jagged wound, was only partly successful. He accepted the pelts without comment and examined the skins closely. As he thought, though it had been less than a day since they’d been separated from the corpses, flies had already taken advantage of the bits of flesh left behind. Using the knife tip he began flicking the tiny maggots into the freshly exposed gash from end to end. After layering several of the tincture-soaked cloth strips over the cut, he withdrew a vial of opague, viscous liquid. By spreading it along the edges and blowing on it the dressing was secured to Ulric’s back. “There.” he sighed, “That’s about all I can do for him for the moment. Once he wakes I can give him something for the fever and the pain.” He cast a longing glance at the oatmeal kettle. “Perhaps mixed in with some food, they’re both rather bitter.”
“I’m going to guess that he’s hardly fit for travel?” Laurelyn asked, glad that the maggots were now covered. The wound she could cope with, and she knew healers often used such insects for cleaning a wound, but it still made her stomach quiver. Nor did she want to look too closely at the lumpy, grey mess that she had made them for breakfast. “I’m loath to leave even a stranger to heal up alone in a traveler’s hut, but all I can think to do with him is leave him in the nearest village.”
Which would raise more than enough problems in and of itself – which revolved back to trying to let these folk know they would be riding through her enemies’ territory. She pushed her auburn hair out of her face and stood up. “I’m going to try and round up the others,” she said.
Thomis glanced around the clearing – with the exception of Daron, the rest of the party seemed to be present; even Maeve huddled off to one side, watching the maggot-procedure with her nose wrinkling in distaste. The babe, bundled in blankets at her feet, waved its fists in mid-air as if unaware that its mother ignored it completely. “I doubt he will sit a horse by himself,” Thomis said quietly, without mentioning that none of them – even Thomis himself – could reliably hold the rather large man on a saddle with him. “Perhaps a litter, if you think it safe enough, Master Keir?”
The healer used the left-over water to wash himself and the knife, his mind so intent on the oatmeal he almost missed the implications of Thomas’s question. “The next few hours should tell. If the fever breaks he can travel as he wishes.” He wanted to add “and where he wishes” as he couldn’t understand why Thomis would want such an obviously foolish man along.
Rudolpho, having found Maeve and being secure that it didn’t look like she was leaving the group, poked around in the nearby bushes for a bit. Finding nothing of interest, he returned to the group and noticed Maeve and her attitude towards the baby. Rudolpho ambled up to Maeve and licked her face a couple of times. He then unceremoniusly flopped to the ground by her and put his head in her lap, looking up at her with a “pet me” look.
Maeve froze as the approached, and became completely motionless when the creature dropped its head into her lap. As Laurelyn passed, the girl squeezed out between her teeth in the guttural language of the highlands, “Please, could you make him stay away from me?” A “pet me” look he may have had, but still he was a rather large and dangerous looking animal, and the last thing Maeve Calhoun wanted – other than the continued company of Fionn Fhaolain, which was the bottom of the list – was the animal’s fangs anywhere within 10 feet of her body.
Laurelyn had followed Thomis’s glance – and saw that most of her traveling companions, plus strangers, were there. She nodded in his direction and turned to Maeve.
The storyteller decided that it would be wise to talk to the clan woman, and get the lay of the land before she had her general announcement. In their own tongue she said to Maeve, “He won’t hurt you, but if you have a minute I would like to speak to you?”
With one uncertain hand, Maeve pushed the wolf’s head away just enough so she could slip out from underneath its weight. “Yes,” she agreed, jumping to her feet and away from the animal. Her eyes darted in Fionn’s direction, but the Fhaolain was by now busy helping the broken-nosed man assemble a litter for the wounded stranger. She had turned to walk some distance away when she realized that she had left the babe on the ground near the wolf; reluctantly, she stopped to lift the infant, then stepped to the side away from the others. Not that any except Fionn would be able to understand what she and Hillrover would say.
The storyteller waited for Maeve to return with the babe, though she was tempted to say that Rudolpho would provide more affection for the child then its natural ma. But that was not her business – either the child or giving away the young gypsy’s guise. When the woman returned Laurelyn indicated that they stroll a bit, and asked in their own tongue, “Can ye tell me the lay of the land? How unhospitable is this region to Hillrovers’ these days?”
She also wanted to ask the woman if she needed any assistance, but suspected that such a question would not be well received. And so she would have to see if Maeve opened the topic.
“I honestly don’t know,” Maeve answered quietly. Though she wrapped both arms around the babe, Rue lay uneasily in her arms, half-dozing. “The past few months I have not been …” Her fair skin flushed, redder than the unruly hair on her head. “Since I was three months gone with the child, I ha’ been without clan, without any to speak to me except – except him.” She indicated Fionn with one jerk of her head, her mouth turning in displeasure. “The lines change, ye know that yer ownself, from month to month, sometimes from week to week.”
“True,” Laurelyn answered softly – knowing they were all about to ride into a territory that fluctuated with the abandon of the winds. “Have you a direction you’re heading?” she asked. “We’re headed for Morrow’s Hold – you’d have a wider range of places to go from there. Nor do the fisher folk care about clans.” The storyteller knew she should kick herself for even thinking of taking on more companions, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave the girl and babe. Even if they seemed to have a devoted defender. “Though,” she added, “you know better than the rest what risk we’ll be riding into.”
“I dinna know whether he’ll let me go,” Maeve answered with a faint note of self-pity, nodding towards Fionn, who chose that moment to give her a grim look. “Is it wrong,” she continued in a rush, as if trying to say something before she could stop herself, “to not want yer babe?” She looked at Laurelyn, squinting in the morning sunlight. “Like there’s something missing in me, the part that should want her.” In her arms, the baby yawned, and briefly stretched before settling back into its doze.
The storyteller had no answer to that – she had no real idea of the circumstances of the child’s birth. Maeve was without clan because of the babe, and Fionn obviously cared more for the child than its mother did. But whether he was the father or not was another mystery.
With a minute tilt of her head Laurelyn indicated that they walk further out of Fionn’s hearing. Perhaps then she could learn Maeve’s side of the story – such as, what did the girl mean about Fionn allowing it? To fill the lull, and maybe give Maeve a chance to speak more openly, Laurelyn said, “I have no doubt circumstances have a great deal to do with whether or not a mother wants her babe.” There was no judgement in her voice.
Pierre silently watched them walk and talk. The woman… whom he knew to be Maeve, turned her head slightly, and he noticed that she looked almost upset about something. He almost jumped up to run over to her, but quickly stopped himself. Fool, he thought. She is not here because whatever she is saying, she does not wish to make it public. Pierre could not be quite certain that was true. However, he did have enough tact not to run up, which was something he would never do.
When they come back, he told himself. You can play everybody a comforting tune. That might help, more so than you asking what’s wrong and opening any wounds which might have closed.
Maeve glanced over towards Fionn, who by that time was, with Thomis, stretching a thick wool blanket over two quickly stripped and relatively straight branches to make a litter for the injured stranger. Then her eyes dropped down to the infant’s, and she murmured quietly, “She’s as dark as her father.” When she looked up, it was to stare into the trees rather than meeting Laurelyn’s gaze again.
“Calhoun is a proud name,” and an echo of that pride could be heard in her voice, “but the clan is not as well off as it once was, you know that,” she began softly, “and the only thing of value to a father and his two sons was a daughter who could bring a bride-price. The even prouder MacRories were willing to pay it, for their oldest. For fair Donal MacRorie.” Maeve half-smiled as she glanced briefly at Laurelyn. “And a handsome man he is, Laurelyn Hillrover, to catch any girl’s eye. But the fey Fhaolains are handsome, too …”
Maeve trailed off, leaving unsaid the Calhoun’s loss of the bride-price from the MacRories. “When it was over, neither MacRorie nor Fhaolain wanted me. Nor Calhoun.” Maeve fell silent for a minute or two, chewing her bottom lip before answering the last unspoken question. “Fionn is her uncle. She is the get of his younger brother, Niall.”
Laurelyn stopped the desire to touch the girl’s arm – Maeve would not want pity. But there were a few things she could do – the Hillrovers had aided a few of the clanless in their time. Particularly if it was an unjust banishment. “If ye’d willing to brave the foothills with a Hillrover,” she said, “I can give you a couple of options… the passage out from the port, or a safe place at the Hillrover’s winter house. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve given shelter to those done wrong by their own clans.” The storyteller left a few things unsaid, though at least one of them she didn’t doubt Maeve would guess. The clan wintering house was deep in clan territory so it would be unlikely for any of the Calhouns to see her there – for that was a small sticking point, the Calhouns were allies to the Hillrovers and it wouldn’t do to anger them. The other thing that Laurelyn had not said was that perhaps Maeve would find a husband amongst the young Hillrovers. The clanless woman was a lovely lass, and the Hillrovers weren’t as strict in their marrying practises; nor would they take offense at such a pretty babe. The storyteller nearly chuckled – if they had been so strict on clan marriages she wouldn’t have been born; a product of a clan chief and smuggler.
As for Fionn – he might catch the eye of a Hillrover maid – a rather independent lot. That he had stuck by girl and niece said he was not as fey as the rest of his clan.
Rudolpho had allowed Maeve to move him and retreated slightly from her and the baby when he saw he was making her nervous. He contemplated revealing the fact that he could change, but decided he needed to know some more about Maeve first before he did. It didn’t help that she was talking to Laurelyn in another language now. He followed them at a discreet distance stopping when they stopped and following when they continued to walk.
He found himself really wishing that he could understand what she was saying when her eyes took on a faraway look to them. He knew that his eyes sometimes looked like that when he remembered… Rudolpho snapped out of the trance as he caught his mind wandering to the lonely place. I don’t need to go there. I’m not alone now. He didn’t let himself wonder what happened if they ever reached the Star Dreamer, or more specificly if he ever did. He was content to be with a fam…no, a party of people on a quest. As he looked back at Laurelyn and Maeve, he wondered why she was chewing her bottom lip and what could have made her that nervous.
Rustling his way out of some nearby bushes, Fiend scampered over to where Laurelyn and Maeve had eventually stopped, and then skidded to an unsteady halt. He looked up at Laurelyn first, and cocked his head sideways for a few seconds with a slightly bemused, but undoubtedly cheerful expression on his face. Then, after a short yap, looked up at Maeve and again cocked his head to one side.
This time he sat staring at her with wide, deep, sad brown eyes, and a disconsolate face, for a long minute of silence. He let out a quiet whimper and dropped his gaze to the baby, before letting out another.
Somewhere off to his left, a bird let out a squawk of indignation and fluttered nervously from the undergrowth. The pup’s head whipped around, and he galloped off, yapping and barking fiercely.
Over with the others, trying to avoid getting drawn in to help any further with the invalid, Jacques glanced over at where all the noise was coming from. Damn fool of a dog, he cursed silently. Might as well let the whole damn world know they were coming.
His eyes rested briefly on Maeve and the baby, and he huffed into his moustache. Damn fool children too. Never did know what they were getting their fool selves into. Even though there was no way he could hear them at this distance and – he guessed – no way he could understand them even if he could, he’d been watching people long enough to know the signs. Though some were easier to spot than others.
Damn fools. No point in wishing for what might have been, or what might yet be. It only got you trouble.
He pulled a long, red handled knife from one of the pockets on his crumpled clothes and began to trim lightly at his finger nails.
Once the litter was finished, Thomis and the dark-haired highlander rolled the unconscious stranger onto it and secured him to the frame – tightly enough to hold him in place, but not so tight that he would be unable to free himself when he awakened. With the last of the rope, Thomis and Fionn attached the litter to the saddle of Thomis’s horse, so that it would be dragged behind. That done, the Oath-bound murmured his thanks to the other man, who only nodded, and crossed over to Laurelyn. “We can travel when you are ready, Hillrover,” he interrupted quietly. After she had spoken to the others about the road ahead.
As Rudolpho followed the two women, he wondered what they might be talking about. They seemed to have been talking for quite awhile now. At least that’s the way it seemed to him since he couldn’t understand what they were saying. He noticed Thomis approach and found the impetus he needed to intrude on the women’s conversation. He fell into step just behind Thomis and approached Laurelyn and Maeve. When he reached them, he sat down by Laurelyn and waited.
Laurelyn half turned when Thomis came up to her. She nodded at his words, and said in common, “I’m about ready.”
Then she noted Rudolpho sitting near and said, “Rudolpho would you mind finding Daron – and make sure the river hasn’t taken her?” After she said it she realized that Maeve might wonder at her conversational tone with a wolf, but decided that if the girl and Fionn were to travel with them they would see many strange things.
To Maeve she said in their own tongue, “Talk it over with Fionn and see what suits your needs.”
Then the storyteller pitched her tone loud enough to carry to all in camp, and said, “Saddle up friends, and stay alert. I had planned on a civil discussion on this but with all the interruptions I’ll make this short and clean – we’re riding into disputed territory. Territory disputed between the Hillrovers and the MacLenans – and unfortunately you’re riding with the daughter of the Hillrover’s chief. So any who consider that too dangerous for their taste I’ll give you a map to Morrow’s Hold – neither clan is inclined to raid on travelers who are willing to leave them alone. The worst, and its bad enough, is that you might ride into a clan battle. The least will be is that you’re stopped and asked to identify yourself, and more than likely treated to a warm hall and food – as clan hospitality demands.”
She looked over at Ulric’s litter and added, “It’s my hope that we can reach a nearby village and let a couple of you take in him. So he can be cared for while he heals.”
Rudolpho barked once in acknowledgement of Laurelyn’s request. I really can’t understand what they are saying anyways. He bounded off towards the river, sniffing around trying to find her scent. He hoped that nothing had happened to her. She was acting a bit strangely.
Daron sat by the river bank, combing the tangles out of her dark hair after her bath. Her green eyes looked off into the distance.
The auburn haired strange man rattled her more than she cared to admit to herself. Not only did he remind the artist of her twin brother, but his thoughts of someone named “Alvende”...
She sighed deeply. Brendan’s face came unbidden to her mind…along with that of Anthony. They blended together until she could not distinguish one from the other.
Daron’s hands trembled as she started to resheath her daggers into their hiding places. Sleep was no longer a refuge for her, she realized. The dream was coming back…stronger this time…
A twig snapping behind her made Daron turn quickly, her dark hair tumbling loose about her green wool-clad shoulders, and her throwing dagger in hand, ready for use. Daron looked at the wolf, barely recognizing Rudolpho in time before she threw her weapon. She dropped the dagger and sank to her knees.
Rudolpho had been approaching Daron quietly as he did not want to disturb her bath. He mentally winced and looked up in time to see her about to throw her weapon. He tensed to jump out of the way when she dropped the knife and slumped to the ground. He had noticed that she had been to the faraway place before he snapped her out of it. He walked up to her slowly and gave her a lick. He didn’t know if that would suffice so he decided to revert to a form he could talk to her in. Becoming human, he knelt by her. “Are you okay? I saw you were visting the lonely place.”
Daron looked at Rudolpho, almost not seeing him at first. Her green eyes met his dark ones hesitantly. “I have been better,” she answered slowly. “And worse, too,” she admitted reluctantly.
She looked at the dagger lying on the ground like it was an ebony snake, ready to strike. “Faith, but I’m sorry, Rudolpho! If I had…” She blinked back tears. “I’d never forgive myself,” she whispered.
When Rudolpho and Daron hadn’t returned Laurelyn looked over at Thomis, and said, “If I’m not back in ten minutes figure that there’s a problem out there.” She had decided that there was no way she was going to just sit in camp and watch her companions disappear one by one as they went out looking for the missing pair. If she didn’t come back then Thomis and the others would know that there was danger by the stream.
She got a good grip on her dagger and moved silently along the path to the stream. Just before she came into view of the water she heard quiet voices – one of which she recognized as Rudolpho’s.
Laurelyn made sure they could hear her approach on the last few feet of the trail. Then said, “I hate to interrupt, but the party is saddling – I want as much sunlight as possible for traveling; there’s a potential for danger on the roads we’ll be traveling and we have a wounded man. I want everyone ready in fifteen minutes.”
With these words the storyteller turned and headed back up the path. She knew she probably wasn’t being fair, since the morning had started off somewhat more leisurely. But with the stranger’s wounds they needed to get him to a village, which it was preferable to while it was still light. People who showed after sunset were often met with increased suspicion. Who knows – they could be raiders, or a scout for a raiding party? And while it was true that scouts could come in the daylight, people were more comfortable with being able to study a stranger’s face in the harsh light of day. As she walked she also contemplated how to have Ulric delivered to a village. Most of the villages around this part of the mountains were loyal to the MacLenans, so she couldn’t ride in. The best she could come up with was having Thomis and Rudolpho – in human form, take Ulric; they would raise the fewer questions.
Daron rose slowly, brushing the dirt off of her dark brown trousers. She gathered up her possessions and turned to Rudolpho. “Time to get a move on,” she stated simply, matter-of-fact. The artist’s eyes looked off into the distance as she walked back to rejoin the others.
“I found them,” Laurelyn announced as she returned to the traveler’s hut, “And they’re safe enough.” She strode over to the remnants of the mostly uneaten oatmeal, and began cleaning out the pot. ‘Should have taken this with me to clean,’ she told herself with a muttered curse, though she knew it wouldn’t take that long.
She got the pot and her utensils ready to be washed, and stood. To Maeve and Fionnn she said in their native tongue, “Let me know what you decide before we ride out.”
Rudolpho quickly caught up to Daron and fell into step with her. Seeing that she was staring off into the distance again he tugged at her sleeve. “You know, I saw you about to throw the dagger and I would have jumped out of the way. You’d be surprised how many people do that when they see a wolf.” He smiled and continued filling the dead air with chatter, though he continued a bit more quietly. “Daron, if you want to talk about anything….I’ll listen. I know what it’s like to be…alo…to be lonely.” He had slowed down a bit at that and had gotten a bit more serious, but brightened just as quickly. “but were not anymore so don’t worry.” Rudolpho got thoughtfull for a second then asked, “what would you have aimed for? A leg, my head, my heart?”
Daron’s green eyes sparkled from unshed tears as she looked at Rudolpho. “I aim for the heart,” she said softly. “And as for… other matters… I am just thinking about my brother Dillon…” A slight smile crossed her lips. “And Brendan…and Anthony too…” She stopped and hugged him briefly. “You remind me of the other Brendan…my cousin.” She sighed softly. “I miss them very much…”
Though he was curious, Rudolpho didn’t ask if her family had all “gone away.” Instead he said simply “That’s effective.” He hugged her tightly, standing on his tiptoes and added “If you need more of these..just let me know. I got lots.” When they neared the others at the clearing, he transformed himself back to his wolf form.
“Nearly ready,” Laurelyn said as she passed the pair on the path to the stream. She quickly scrubbed out the pot, and cleaned up the utensils; then headed back.
While the others finished their preparations the storyteller got Beast saddled and her saddlebags arranged.
Muttering something about a lack of breakfast, lager, sleep, lager, money, and lager, Jacques peered into a distressingly tangled bush from which were emenating rustling and yapping noises.
Fiend had apparently found something of interest.
“C’mon mutt. Time to leave!” Jacques was not in a mood to pamper the pup. If they had to go, it was best they got moving soon. He pulled his small silver whistle from his pocket and blew two short breaths of silence.
A familiar shaggy grey pony ambled out from behind a tree and stood patiently while Jacques strapped saddle and bags to its back.
“At least someone knows how to listen,” he muttered and peered at the bush where Fiend was still yapping and rustling. He lifted a small stone from the ground and tossed it lightly into the bush. “C’mon boy, or we’ll leave you behind!”
There was a whimper from the bush, and Fiend came out backwards, pulling a small wooden bird, with a metal key sticking out its back. Jacques frowned heavily, and pulled the bird from the pup without a word. Then, scooping the cheerfully yipping animal in one hand, he turned back to the pony.
Thomis finished double and triple-checking his own saddlebags and horse, watching without seeming to the quietly intense conversation that was taking place between Maeve and Fionn. The dark-haired highlander had taken the baby and settled her into a carrying pouch that left her snoozing happily against his back. Maeve had shouldered one light bag that couldn’t have held much, and bore an expression of extreme irritation. After a few minutes of conversation, she spat something out in the highland tongue and stalked over to stand by Laurelyn’s horse. “We’ll be a-going with ye for a ways,” she told the storyteller firmly, shooting one glance at Thomis that almost dared him to ask questions.
“Well enough,” Laurelyn said in common, as she checked over Beast’s gear. Once she was satisfied she began to pin up her auburn hair so that it would be better hidden by her wide-brimmed hat.
Oath-bound simply nodded and tightened down the last of his ties. “I will be walking, to watch the litter,” he told the girl. “If you want, you can ride a-horse.” When she stared at him, obviously searching for an answer, he stepped back a bit and offered to help her mount. It was not easily done – the animal was a bit tall for her, and she apparently had not had much experience in the saddle, for she clutched at the pommel and held herself still, as if expecting to slide right off. That would give him something else to watch for.
Having snuck off to the stables, and after letting the baby rabbits lick out his oatmeal bowl, Keir slipped them back into his vest pockets before the others entered. He sat quietly in the hay, waiting for a sign they were ready to depart. He’d decided to walk alongside the litter with Thomas, both to keep an eye on Ulric and to avoid having to climb aboard a horse yet again.
The storyteller swung up into the saddle, and took a look around – noting that all of her companions were ready to travel.