Star Dreamer

Chapter XVI: The Milk of Human Kindness

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn could feel the tension in her shoulders as she led her companions along the track that took them farther into the mountains, and again she was deeply grateful that Thomis rode with her. A solid friend – though the memory of their first and only kiss told her there could be more, particularly with tingling in her abdomen that came with the memory. But not even that memory overrode the knowledge that they were riding through MacLenan territory, and she offered a prayer to the gods of sea and stone that they made it through safely. The only blessing she knew that they had was that the trail was over open slopes, with no place for an ambush; a double-edged blessing, since such a large party as theirs would be easily seen by look-outs.

[Thomis]

Thomis kept his brown eyes moving, from the litter, to make certain Ulric was still strapped in and not about to tumble off, to Maeve, who clutched at the reins and rode stiffly in the saddle, to the silent and grim Fionn. And the road ahead, and the area around, watching and listening for anything that seemed out of place. Not for the first time, he wished that he, like Drywen and Mesani and other Politi, could speak to Laurelyn through mind-speech.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho had rejoined the group and watched as they made sure everything was in order. Sniffing at the air as they traveled, Rudolpho decided to get a better vantage point on the road ahead. He hung back from the group a bit until he could find a place to affect a change. Just as they disappeared over the top of a hill, he shifted his form to that of an eagle. Taking to the air, he easily caught up to the group and let out a clear call. He hoped Laurelyn and Thomis would recognize him as the bird. Rudolpho continued past the group and began to scout out the terrain ahead, his sharp eyes picking out the details. There would be no surprises if he could help it.

[Keir]

The healer trotted alongside the litter watching for some sign of Ulric’s return to consciousness and trying to keep the restless rabbits contained under his vest. He intended to check the bandage and the progress of the maggots the next time they stopped, if they stopped. He hated to think of eating yet another meal on the go. “Master Thomis,” he huffed, “We should pause soon to see to our charge here.”

[Thomis]

Thomis looked over to Laurelyn to see if the storyteller had overheard the Hortus’ suggestion. He knew that after the long time it had taken to get the party moving again that morning, she would be loathe to lose more time in another extended stop. Still, Master Keir had a point – if they were going to drag this stranger around with them, they should take steps to make certain he survived the journey. Besides, some of them had not had much of a breakfast. Including Master Keir and Thomis himself. “Laurelyn?” he prompted.

[Rudolpho]

As he maintained his watch and occasionally flew slow circles around the group, Rudolpho saw them discussing something and gesturing at the litter. He flew down closer and perched on a nearby outcropping. He cocked his head to get a better view and watch the members of the party.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn’s attention had been on the trail, and not on her companions. Thomis’s voice made her rein Beast in and look back. “Yes?” she asked, “Is there a problem?”

[Thomis]

He explained Master Keir’s suggestion that they stop long enough for the Hortus to check on the unconscious patient. And suggested that perhaps a lunch might be in order.

[Laurelyn]

The soreness in Laurelyn’s shoulders privately added to the argument, and she signaled for the group to stop. As she swung from Beast’s back she said, “Lunch would be a good idea – the oatmeal stuck more to the pot than to our ribs.”

[Keir]

Keir’s heart leap at Laurelyn’s words, or at least his stomach did. However, once Thomas stopped and detached the litter he turned his attention to Ulric. The man’s breathing was less labored and his fever lower but he remained unresponsive. Lifting the bandages Keir saw that the maggots were nearly through cleaning out the last vestiges of gangrenous tissue. Leaving them to their work, and leaving the others to prepare lunch, he scraped some bright orange lichen from an outcropping and ground it in the small mortar he carried. After pouring in some water from his skinbag and letting the grit sink to the bottom he applied the damp lichen to the wound. The irritated maggots squirmed out and he deflty flicked them away before reapplying the bandage. “You’d damn well better live.” he muttered to the unconscious Ulric. Those flies gave their life for you and I’m not certain you’re worth it.”

[Rudolpho]

Realizing that they were going to stop, Rudolpho decided to take one last look around the site they had chosen. He wanted to make sure that the area was clear for a little ways off. With a quick hop, he sprang off the outcropping he sat on, extended his wings, and took to the air. He gave a little squawk to attract Thomis and/or Laurelyn’s attention as he gained allitude. He then caught a current, dipped his wing, and began his slow watchful rounds.

[Laurelyn]

The storyteller waved her acknowledgement of Rudolpho’s flight, and began to set out some of their cold food – jerky and a loaf of traveling bread. As she worked she looked out over the trail – trying to envision the best route to the village. When the food was laid out she went over to Fionn, and in their own tongue asked, “Is the road to Evenshere open?”

[Ulric]

Ulric’s eyes snapped open with sudden violence, and he jerked forward from the make-shift litter – then found himself falling weakly to his knees. “Bluach!” he swore, planting his hands on the ground for support. He noticed loose cloth bindings wrapped around his wrists, and slowly looked around. The first thing he saw was the litter, and then people. He lay there a moment, breathing hard, his eyesight blurred with tears. As he did so, he collected his thoughts and calmed himself. Then he slowly, tenderly, rose to his feet and turned to face the strangers. “My-hammer…” he asked, looking at his belt, noticing that his weapon was missing.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn moved to steady the tall warrior, and said, “I promise – it hasn’t gone far.” She looked towards Thomis for confirmation.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho finshed a few lazy circles around the party and found nothing that bore further investigation. He decided that he would repeat the process when they were ready to set out after a meal. In the meantime he could stand some food and he was more than a bit curious about when the mysterious stranger would wake up. With that, he dipped his wing and headed back to the group. When he approached, he could see from his lofty vantage point that the stranger had indeed awakened. He swooped in and landed neatly on his outcropping, surveying the scene imperiously.

[Ulric]

Ulric tried not to lean on the lady while he absent-mindedly reached to scratch at his back. He wanted his hammer back, but knew that he was not in any position to demand anything, so he just frowned. There was a bandage blocking his scratching efforts behind his neck, so he focused instead on standing up properly. At least some of his energy was coming back.

“Thank you,” he said, his tongue wrapping poorly around the words he had learnt so recently. He looked around, disoriented a little by his new surroundings. It was clear enough that he was no prisoner of these people, but where were they travelling to with him in tow? “Hungry.” he said after a moment, a little guiltily. He was a burden on these people now, but he would not let their generosity go unpaid.

[Laurelyn]

“That’s easy to fix,” Laurelyn said, helping to steady him as she guided him towards a rock to sit on. “We were about to have lunch and you’re more than welcome to some food.”

She nodded towards Keir, and explained, “Master Keir, a fine healer, bandaged your wound after you collapsed in the hut.” She decided not to mention the judicious application of maggots; there really wasn’t any need to – Master Keir had removed them.

[Thomis]

Thomis double-checked to make certain the hammer was still securely fastened to his saddle-on the other side of his horse, out of the stranger’s sight. He untied his packs and started sorting through the provisions that remained, selecting the freshest bread and cheese available, and one slightly bruised apple. Obviously not as much as such a large man usually would have (and from the looks of him, it had been a while since he had dined on a full meal).

[Ulric]

Ulric sat slowly, and bowed his golden haired head in the direction of the little ugly thing he assumed was “Master Keir”. “Thank you” he repeated. As he glanced around, the terrain caught his eye. He looked up at Laurelyn, a questioning look on his pale face. “You travel to dangerous lands…” he warned, “People not friendly to strangers…” he added. It was these lands that he had come from – where he had woken with a gaping wound in his back and his battle prizes stolen. The only thing his attackers had left on him was his hammer, gripped so fiercely in his hand that his fingers were painfully white when he awoke.

Yet he realised that this woman was no stranger to these lands herself, and would doubtlessly receive a warmer welcome than he had – a man come to pillage and plunder the coastal villages of her homeland. His stomach growled loudly, interrupting him from his thoughts, and he glanced up sheepishly.

[Keir]

The healer barely acknowledged Ulric’s “thank you” as his mouth was full of bread and cheese. Besides he knew the lout’s recovery was due more to his own fortitude than medical treatment. He may be filthy but he obviously had the heart of a lion.

When he was sure no eyes were on him he slipped some small crumbs of cheese under his vest for the bunnies to nibble on. Their wet noses tickled his fingertips and upon finishing the cheese they tried suckling them. Nervously jerking his hand free he looked around guiltily. He’d have to find them some milk somehow, someway. There was Maeve but he didn’t dare approach her, certainly not for that. If only these Big Folk traveled with a goat like any sensible Hortus party but then he hadn’t either.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn smiled a little at Thomis as she cut off several slices of jerky to add to the Oathbound’s selection of food for the warrior. But her expression was serious as she handed the food over to Ulric, and said, “They definitely are dangerous lands.”

And though she was aware that Ulric seemed to have difficulty with even common speech she asked, “Did you happen to hear in your travels any clan names – such as who might be fighting in the area?”

[Ulric]

“MacLenans and Hillrovers”, he said, uncertain as to his pronunciation, then shrugged. His concentration was primarily on the food, his appetite insatiable. He probably ate too quickly he noted, once the food was all gone.

He would have to get his warhammer back some time, he mused, looking up from the few crumbs that remained of his meal.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn shot a quick, worried glance towards Thomis – her fears regarding the situation had been confirmed. “Do you remember how many days ago you saw a skirmish – or even members of those clans?”

[Rudolpho]

Figuring that no one would remember to feed him anything Rudolpho took wing and landed in the nearby foliage. He toyed with the idea of becoming a wolf again, but decided he had been in animal form for long enough. Changing to his human form, he walked back to the clearing and greeted everyone with an audible “hi”. He nodded to the new travelers who didn’t recognize him and approached the fire to get some food. He surruptitiously watched their reactions in silent amusement.

[Daron]

Daron smiled as Rudolpho approached the party, genuinely glad to see the youth in human form. She deftly used one of her daggers to divide up the bread, cheese and meat she gathered from her saddlebag for a rough lunch, handing him the larger of the portions. Perhaps we can have some dried apple chips for a sweet, she thought while nibbling on the cheese like a half-starved rodent.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho gratefully accepted the food from Daron and made a mental note to get her something nice for her kindness at the next opportunity. He used the bread, meat, and cheese to make a sandwich for himself and began to munch happily on it.

[Ulric]

Ulric’s eyes followed the stranger towards the fire wondering why no-one else reacted much to the intrusion. After a moment’s silence and confusion, he turned his gaze back to Laurelyn.

“Ten or more days” he said, wondering for a moment how long he had been unconscious, “a couple days from the village that is there.” He waved ahead of them. He felt very vague about things, but then he had not quite been at full health lately. But there had been fighting, that much he was sure of.

He nodded his head to the newcomer.

“You have a visitor?” he asked, completely confused.

[Laurelyn]

“That’s Rudolpho,” Laurelyn explained, ”....Our scout…”

Briefly she turned to Fionn and asked again in her own tongue – since they had been interrupted earlier, “You were saying about the village – when last you were by there was the road passable?”

The storyteller turned back to the foreign warrior and said, “Thank you for the information. It is indeed dangerous territory.”

More so than she really wanted to think about, though she had to. With visions of border squirmishes in mind Laurelyn self-conciously made sure her telltale auburn hair was still beneath her wide-brimmed hat.

[Fionn]

Fionn deftly re-diapered the baby, setting aside the soiled cloth to rinse in the first stream they came across. Maeve had settled to the ground some distance away, out of ear-shot, pretending to ignore the entire party. “A thunderstorm two months ago washed it out just an hour short of Mara’s Bend. It should have been rebuilt by now.” He glanced over at Maeve, then back at Laurelyn. “She has not wanted to see anyone, so I don’t know who holds the road. Whether one who would welcome a Hillrover,” another glance, at the hat that concealed her hair, “or not. Not likely one who would welcome a Fhaolain anyway.” The baby cooed and waved her fists, and without seeming to notice, he allowed the infant to catch one finger in her grasp.

[Ulric]

Ulric stood and stretched his legs, aware of the way he was watched. He was still a stranger to these people. Taking a walk past the fire, he noticed his warhammer hanging from one of the horses’ saddles.

He looked at it ruefully – knowing that these people would not be prepared to give it back to him for a while.

“You will have to risk trouble” he said, turning slowly as his legs strengthened, “if you travel this way more… you need more protection?”

[Jacques]

Jacques had dropped off his shaggy pony gratefully to stretch his legs. And let Fiend go scampering off madly along some scent trail. Remarkably the pup had been quiet throughout the ride so far, and had apparently decided this would make up for it.

He scowled at Ulric, and then wandered over to see if Daron could spare him something. Food wasn’t ordinarilly a high priority when he did his packing…

[Daron]

The artist looked up at the jester as he approached. “I’ll be right back,” Daron told Rudolpho as she got to her feet.

Daron silently passed Jacques on the way to Falcon. She gave her mare an affectionate pat on the neck. Then she dug in one of her saddlebags, whittled off generous hunks of bread, meat and cheese with her dagger, and wrapped them in a cloth so she could bring the food to Jacques. She next grabbed a sack of dried apple chips, feeding some to Falcon from her palm.

As an afterthought, Daron reached in the saddlebag, rummaged inside and found a bottle of the potent ale she obtained at the Wench at the start of her journey.

The artist walked back to where she left Rudolpho and Jacques. Without a word, she handed Jacques the food and drink. Then she settled down to finish the rest of her meal.

[Rudolpho]

By the time Daron had returned with the food for Jacques, Rudolpho was licking his fingers clean and brushing the crunbs off his shirt. He smiled at Daron as she came back. “Thanks for the food. That was really nice of you to share with us.”

[Daron]

“It was no trouble, truly,” Daron stammered, embarrassed by the attention given to her altruistic act. She poured a handful of apple chips into her palm, then held out the sack to Rudolpho. “Want some?”

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn had taken a minute to ponder Ulric’s question. It wasn’t like the group was exactly helpless – not with Thomis’, Jacques, and Daron’s fighting skills. Not to mention Rudolpho’s shapeshifting abilities. And Master Keir and she were very capable in a fight. Nor did she doubt Fionn’s abilities.

However, there was the fact that they still had young Pierre – the young bard, and Maeve with her babe, to protect. “If you wish to ride with us to Morrow’s Hold, you’d be welcome,” she said with a shrug, “But since you’ve run into problems with some of the clanfolk its only fair to tell you that you’ll be riding with a Hillrover, which could bode ill on this stretch of road.” She opted not to mention that she was the chief’s daughter. No reason to tempt the man with ideas of selling them out.

[Ulric]

“I will need my hammer back please.” he said, his speech getting better, but still lacking something in the subtlety area. His back felt much better, but he’d be damned if he was going to wander back through this land without a weapon.

[Rudolpho]

“Sure!” The young boy reached over to the sack offered to him and took a big handful. Before withdrawing his hand, he seemed to remember something, and shook some of the apple chips he had grabbed back into the sack. “Thanks alot Daron.” He tried to continue to sound cheerful though that wasn’t what was in his heart. He sat back and quietly munched on the sweet chips of apple.

[Keir]

Once his stomach stopped complaining Keir could think more clearly. He suddenly had an inspired thought of how to get milk for the baby rabbits. “Ah Rudolpho,” he began somewhat sheepishly – not being used to asking favors, “When you? change, are you? ” He paused a moment to consider how to phrase it delicately. “Are you fully? functional?”

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn raised a quick eyebrow at Keir’s question, though she turned her attention back to Ulric. She decided that if she was going to go as far as offering him a place in the group then she should give him back his weapon.

But the hammer hung on Thomis’s horse, and he might have his own reasons for not giving the warrior back the weapon. So she simply asked him, “Do you mind?”

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho snapped out of his reverie and looked up at Keir. “Ummm..yeah I think so. If you mean, can I do all the things that that animal does, then yes. Why? Is there something you need?” He looked up questioningly at the halfling.

[Thomis]

Thomis carefully pretended not to hear the rather odd conversation between Rudolpho and Keir, though he did note that even Maeve – who had been otherwise silent and stubbornly glum – had been unable to conceal a surprised glance towards the two. Instead, he simply nodded to Laurelyn, and unlashed the war hammer, carefully redistributing the packs which had all been hung on the other side of the saddle to counterbalance the weapon. The horse shifted as it felt the weight lifted. Thomis himself carefully hefted the hammer in both hands as he carried it to the tall warrior. “You may be the only one of us able to put it to any real use,” he remarked, as he handed it over. His tone was even, but his brown eyes clearly appraised Ulric as the other man took the weapon.

Fionn finished rewrapping the infant, leaving her hands free to wave randomly through the air. Though he half-listened to the various conversations going on among the group, he watched the puppy that had pranced confidently across the ground to sit and stare at the child. Rue, dark eyes wide, had caught sight of the creature also, with that unfocused stare that might have meant she was fascinated, or merely that she was ready to slip into sleep.

[Ulric]

The weapon felt heavy in his hand, but nonetheless he enjoyed having it back. There was a bond between him and this weapon that even his tiredness and sickness could not deny.

“Tervantig di mhur zeih, di drantig voor,” he muttered.

His mother tongue sounded so simple and beautiful to his ears, but he knew that he should practice this “common” language…

“Earth’s wood holds my hand, the steel weighs like a flying bird.”

He smiled, and attached the weapon to his belt. The poet had been correct. He nodded thankfully to Thomis.

“Why does your lady friend return at such risk?” he asked quietly while he had the other man’s attention.

[Thomis]

Thomis paused a moment in cleaning up the area where they had stopped for lunch and to tend the tall stranger. One look to Laurelyn, to catch her attention, a question in his eyes.

[Laurelyn]

The storyteller had been gathering up her foodstuffs, and looked up long enough to give Thomis a nod of agreement.

[Thomis]

“She is not one to be frightened at risk,” Thomis answered, adding with a half-smile, “Nor are you for that matter.” He quickly checked his own horse, and Beast, before starting to disassemble the litter where Ulric had spent the morning. “She quests for a myth – a ship, the Star Dreamer, whose captain has the power to grant boons to those who please him.”

[Keir]

Now that he had broached the subject Keir wasn’t quite sure how to continue, or even if he should. The young thief had shown himself to be loyal and trustworthy but Keir recalled that he had recently been a wolf. Did he dare reveal his twin charges to Rudolpho who might be as likely to devour them as succor them? And what of the others? He doubted they’d be anything but compassionate, and perhaps amused, but there were the strangers. Ulric’s reaction concerned him, after all the man had killed their mother – but then he himself had fed upon her roasted carcass. If he or the two highlanders made any untoward move they’d find out his staff was not just a walking aid! He sighed and pounded the butt of his staff on the rock ledge reassuringly. If there was to be a time it might as well be now when their bellies were at least partially full.

“I seem to have gathered a bit more than herbs.” He explained to Rudolpho as he took the pair of rabbits from under his vest. “I’ve done what I could but alas I fear they need milk. I wondered if perhaps you could, ah, become a mother rabbit?” His stammering disturbed him but he marked it up to talking with Big Folk. “Or maybe a, a goat?”

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn turned to stare at the two balls of fluff – then turned to look at Fiend and Rue. Not only was she leading a strange collection of questors, but they had now added a nursery!!

With a soft, bemused, laugh she said, “Why not?!” And went to finish packing Beast.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho scratched his head at the prospect. “I was wondering when you would tell everyone about them. I smelled them a long time ago. You don’t have to worry, I won’t eat them you know.” He looked back at the two rabbits. “Hmmm..I’ve never actually done a female before. I could try though. Which would be better for them? I assume its a momma rabbit huh?” He looked at the two bunnies and then around at all the things they carried that might have rabbit fur.

[Jacques]

Having taken the food from Daron gratefully, and with as much good grace as he could manage at the moment, Jacques tried not to shudder at the thought of Rudolpho changing into a female animal. An animal was bad enough, but this was getting out of hand. Pretty soon the kid would be running around in skirts, and stealing his mother’s underwear.

Fiend looked over from where he’d been sitting, and cocked his head to one side. Then, after a short pause, uttered a startled yelp and jumped to his feet, spinning around in surprise. To Jacques eyes, however, there was nothing there. Maybe a beetle or something equally terrifying, he thought with a shake of his head.

The bells rang faintly, and Fiend’s gaze shifted to the rabbits where it focused and remained.

[Keir]

The healer stared at Fiend and wagged his finger. “Don’t even think about it little one.” He reluctantly broke off a piece of his jerky and tossed it to the pup.

He hadn’t considered that Rudolpho might have a problem changing into an animal of a gender other than his own. “Yes, a mother rabbit would be best.” He silently thanked the gods that the boy hadn’t chosen to become a goat. Milking a goat, that was really a person, would have been disturbing to say the least.

[Thomis]

continued to steadfastly ignore the conversation between Keir and Rudolpho as he finished resettling the packs on his horse. At the other end of the makeshift camp, another version of the same exchange was taking place, as Fionn crouched next to Maeve, the infant in his arms. Though the highlander’s voice was low - and undoubtedly he spoke in the tongue that only Laurelyn and Maeve would understand - Thomis was fairly certain mother’s milk was the subject of that ‘discussion’ also. After a few moments of morose, obstinate silence, Maeve took the babe and allowed it to suckle.

“You,” Thomis said as he stooped to scratch Fiend’s ears, “are lucky to be past your weaning.”

[Rudolpho]

“Ummm..I think I’m gonna need some fur or something from a mother rabbit. Its gonna be pretty tough. He looked down at his feet for a moment remembering the lessons he had been getting from poppa before… Abruptly he shook his head violently and resumed looking around and then back to Keir. “You don’t happen to have anything from their mother do you? Do you know what happened to her?”

[Ulric]

“Uh…” Ulric interjected, somehow managing to have an accent on that one syllable.

He held something out in his hand, showing it to Rudolpho.

“I kept a leg bone…” he said.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho reached over to the man and looked in his eyes. “Thank you, that will work just fine. I think I’m gonna excuse myself for a little bit. I’ve never done this before and…and I guess it might be a little weird. I should be fine though. He bit his tongue so he wouldn’t add aloud the “I hope” he was thinking to himself. “I’ll be right back.” With that, he turned to leave and find a private place he could figure this whole thing out at.

[Laurelyn]

“We’ll still need to be packed up,” Laurelyn said, “And ready to go …once the other babies have been fed.” She had the feeling the less mention of Rudolpho’s part in this the better – to spare him increased embarrassment. Hells, at that age it was hard enough to know how your own parts functioned – and why you were getting strange urges – without shifting to something that was not only the opposite sex, but an entirely different species. Not to mention it being a female that had given birth! That could be strange enough for a woman.

It certainly wasn’t high on her own list to try yet. Though Laurelyn did glance about the assorted babes and youngsters the group had acquired, and did wonder if the gods weren’t trying to tell her something.

A brief glance at Thomis brought the warmth of a faint blush as the storyteller firmly dealt with her own urges, and started working on the new tangles in Beast’s mane.

[Rudolpho]

A short time later, after several tries that he knew he would NEVER tell another living soul about, Rudolpho came tentativley hopping through the underbrush. He was feeling really strange, almost off balance. He tried to remind himself over and over that he was doing this not only for the rabbits, but for Keir. Father had long ago taught him about the balance of nature and how only the fitest survived. The argument that the kids would survive if the mother had not been killed was counteracted by the fact that in nature, it happens. Still, he felt some compassion for the little bunnies, because he could relate to their situation. He waited calmly at the edge to be noticed, ready to bound away or change form if anyone had any ideas of making a meal of him…or her…whichever.

[Keir]

The healer watched the bushes out of the corner of his eye, not wishing to embarress Rudolpho anymore than he obviously was. When the rabbit appeared he assumed it was he, or her?, and padded over, cradling the babies in his arms. Setting them on the ground nearby he watched as they immediately headed for Rudolpho. He had certainly managed to duplicate the smell of their mother but as to the rest… Keir turned his back and muttered, “Thanks.” On behalf of the bunnies.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho held still as the young bunnies headed for him. He decided that he was still a “he” even though his current adopted form said differently. He was not sure how to initiate the process, and whether or not it would hurt. He figured that their natural instincts would serve them better than anything he might try. Luckily they nuzzled right up and began to feed. Rudolpho had never had a senstion like it and could better understand now, what Maeve went through. It didn’t seem unpleasant though. He could not understand, however, why Maeve seemed unwilling to nurse her child.

When they had had their fill, Rudolpho moved off a bit and stepped back into the foliage. A moment later he was back in the clearing. “Are we ready to go?”

[Thomis]

Thomis looked around the clearing – Maeve had finished suckling the infant, and Fionn had settled her back into the carrier on his chest. Everything had been cleaned up and put away. They looked ready to leave to him, even if Ulric might have been able to use a bit more rest. He looked at Laurelyn to indicate his own readiness, and waited for her to set the group to moving again.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn nodded towards Thomis and said to the whole group, “It looks like we’re ready to go.”

Despite the delays the party made good time; only having to backtrack once, due to a swollen stream. There was still a chance to reach the village before full night fell.

Laurelyn refused to give into her desire to push the little group – not with having entered the depth of the hills, with a chance of ambush lurking everywhere. Now was not the time to be hasty and throw away caution. Particularly not with the pass they were riding through; high, sparsely-covered cliffs on either side of them, with more than enough rocks to hide look-outs. In the deepening gloaming the storyteller strained to both watch and listen for anything out of the ordinary.

[Ulric]

Ulric managed to keep his feet moving in time, an impressive task given his condition. What was more was that he managed to keep up with this gaggle of adventurers who had helped him. The weight of his hammer both weighed him down and lifted him up – it’s earthy, solid feel was as reassuring as if he’d woken up and found himself home.

Something moved in the gloom ahead of them, then disappeared. He paused – nothing but the vague beginnings of a mist swirled before them.

“Fox,” he said, almost laughing at his own foolishness. They were almost at the village, if anything, the chance of trouble should be lower.

[Keir]

“Huh?” Keir cried in alarm. The bunnies had settled quietly after their meal but as the terrain grew more menacing his sense of danger increased and his grip on his staff tightened. He’d slowed once long enough to attach the sling to the forked top and had grabbed every appropriately sized rock they came across. Though he felt prepared, a fox hadn’t been what he’d been worrying about. He loaded a rock into the sling as he trotted beside Ulric. “Where?”

[Laurelyn]

At the sound of Keir’s alarm Laurelyn turned slightly in her saddle, and in a firm but low voice said, “Easy folks – remember voices carry far in the hills.”

She turned back and tried to keep an eye on both the darkening trail and for any movement in the rocks ahead. In this hills it could be an animal hunting, but there was an equal chance that the hunters were human.

[Ulric]

Ulric jogged along, then looked at Keir and pointed up into the hills where he had seen the fox. Then, as he pointed, two shadows moved on either edge of his vision. He pointed at the second shadow, but it disappeared in the mist.

“Laurynell” he said, mangling the unfamiliar name, “go carefully.” He kept his eyes locked on the distance, and one hand reached for his warhammer.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn kept her eyes on the terrain ahead of them, but gave a quick nod that she had heard Ulric. Even for one raised around the clans it was hard to see if warriors were waiting in ambush – these were men who had the rock and wind in their veins, who could become part of the silence. Her hand ached to grasp the hilt of her sword, but the time had not yet come for that; instead she pulled her long dagger from its sheath and held it across the pommel.

Then she too saw a fragment of a shadow move – just ahead of them, slightly up the cliffside, and amongst the rocks. And while she had a great desire to order the group back she had a greater feeling that they were already penned in.

Though she only could make out Thomis’s shape in the gloaming she glanced in his direction. “Be ready,” she whispered, pitching her voice that it would carry to her companions, “But hold your attack – we don’t know who holds these hills this day.”

[Thomis]

Thomis merely nodded; he already had helped Maeve slide off the back of his horse, handing her off to Fionn, who had pulled the girl away into the shadows, as if the highlander were ready to slip into the mists with mother and babe at the first sign of trouble. Thomis’ own eyes scanned the cliffside, carefully, looking for those shadows which seemed not quite right against the rock surface. His own dagger rested comfortably in one hand, but his sword he left sheathed. The dark-haired Fionn lifted the baby carrier over his head and positioned it over Maeve’s shoulders so that his own hands would be free. And so that he could place both between him and Thomis’s horse, their bodies the only shield he could offer. Maeve’s scowl he ignored, but simply readied his own knives. And cursed softly as the baby – uncomforted by her mother – began to cry, a thin wail rising into the air.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho knew he had to act quickly. The party had been alert to the shadows moving around them and needed to know more. Now, the baby began to cry and they needed a cover. He sprang atop his saddle remaining crouched. He began affecting his change before he jumped and launched into the air. Changing in mid-flight to an eagle he began screaming with his avian lungs to give someone a chance to cover the baby. The eagle began to move toward where they had seen the shadows to get a better look and a more accurate count.

[Clansmen]

Amongst the rocks – both high and low on the cliffs – crouched at least ten warriors. To an eagle’s eyes the shapes of bows could be seen amongst some of the shadows. The group seemed trapped in the middle of the watchers.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho circled around the the pass, imitating an eagle’s hunting flight. He would much rather have the men thinking he was looking for a tasty mouse than observing them. As he circled he noted the garb and weapons as best he could. He also looked for telltale colors or markings that Laurelyn might be able to recognize them with. It didn’t look good for the party and if these men were hostile, the attack would come very soon.

Having done as much reconnaissance as he could, taking as much time as he dared, he flew back to the the party and landed behind a boulder he knew would obscure him from watching eyes. Changing back to his human form he darted between Thomis and Laurelyn’s horses, still slightly out of breath from flight.

He tried to relay the information as quickly and quietly as he could. “Men… at least 10… bows… watching, surrounded.”

[Laurelyn]

“That they haven’t shot is a good sign,” Laurelyn said, “But I have a sneaky suspicion it’s their move.”

[Rudolpho]

As he began to catch his breath, he began to speak more clearly. “They were wearing checkered patterns. They had green and blue in them. Maybe another color too. Do you recognize them, Laurelyn? Are we just going to wait to see what they do next?”

[Keir]

Listening in the healer scowled and muttered to himself. “Fine, surrounded again.” He was beginning to wonder if this was a constant routine for the Big Folk in this land. Resolving to free the rabbits if any attack began, they’d have a better chance on their own than riding with a target, he loosened the ties on his vest. “You just stay clear of that fox little ones and you’ll be alright,” he whispered while scanning the nearby crags. The first head that popped up was going to find a rock flying in his direction.

[Jacques]

“Jackals and cowards,” called Jacques to the hidden men. Then continued in a lower tone. “Always hunting in packs with nary a backbone nor braincell to themselves, they magically inherit one of each as a group.”

He pulled a long, red handled knife from one of the pockets in his jester suit and spun it lightly in his left hand. Fiend’s ears pricked up, and his head cocked to one side.

“Fortunately for us,” muttered Jacques through his moustache, “they only inherit the one.”

Fiend yipped quielty, and then set up a long, high pitched howl, guaranteed to set teeth on edge.

“Just once, I’d like for you to keep your damn mouth shut!”

Fiend silenced in a second, and looked up at Jacques with large, mournful eyes. Jacques sighed. Getting attacked by this group of barbarians was almost going to be a delight compared to that.

[Thomis/Fionn]

The Oathbound kept a relaxed grip on his dagger, watching from the corner of one eye as Fionn soothed the infant into silence in a more gentle way than Jacques had done with the pup. “Checked,” Fionn repeated in common, “green and blue and another color.” It was unclear from the highlander’s tone or expression whether the highlander could identify the clan based upon that information. Thomis looked over to Laurelyn, eyebrows raised in a question.

[Laurelyn]

The storyteller shook her head and quietly said, “Unfortunately there are many clans that have variations of green and blue in their tartans – and its getting too dark to see the pattern.”

She looked back to Rudolpho and added, “But thank you for looking.”

Then she motioned the group to continue its steady pace. She could think of nothing else to do – and the fact no arrows were flying down on their heads told her that the ambushers weren’t sure about the group’s identity. So there still might be a way out without bloodshed.

[Clansmen]

The storyteller’s group slowly, carefully, made their way through the narrow pass, with the sense of the watchers staring at their vulnerable backs.

From ahead came the sound of horses’ hoofs on stone, offering an eerie counterpoint to the sound of the groups’ own, and from around a rock outcropping rode five men. In the deepening night it was impossible to make out details, beyond hulking shadows, but the lead warrior called out, “Who are you to call us cowards?!”

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn’s brow furrowed – that voice sounded familiar, but the accoustics of the pass made her unsure that she was right. With little other choice left she decided to gamble, and rode Beast forward. “No one will call you cowards since you have shown the wisdom not to attack an unidentified party,” she called out – her own voice echoing amongst the rocks.

[Keir]

Keeping one hand on his staff Keir slipped the other inside his vest and cradled one of the rabbits in his furry fingers. His eyes remained focused on the riders as he wondered if he could release his charges and fire his slingshot before the bowmen got a shot off. He doubted it but determined to try regardless if things went awry.

[Jacques]

Muttering something unintelligible under his breath, Jacques glared at the group of men. In his opinion, wisely left unuttered, any group of men riding around in the hills, in the dark, who hid behind rocks, surrounded a party of women and children, and then tried to intimidate them, was hardly anything else. Certainly they weren’t the type to be getting songs and ballads written of them. Maybe the kind to have jokes told about them though…

Fiend gave a slight yap, and then glanced cautiously at the jester. Getting no response, Fiend settled into a low growl that was barely more than a vibration of his small body.

“Damn straight,” Jacques huffed into his moustache quietly. “Don’t trust them either.”

Regardless, it was Laurelyn’s decision, not his.

[Ulric]

Ulric stopped, and peered through the dim light at the horsemen. This group of travellers had taken poorly to the news that they were surrounded, and already he could see hands reaching for weapons and eyes darting about rapidly. He could imagine their untrained hearts beating like humming bird wings within their chests.

Things could go very wrong if a fight started, he thought.

“As long as we don’t fight, we can go safe”, he said calmly to the others. For now, it was up to the horsemen to make the first move.

[Clansmen]

A long silence followed Laurelyn’s words – until the lead rider called out, “I know that voice!! Ride forward, woman, and let me have a look at ye!!”

[Laurelyn]

The storyteller had begun to identify the way the lead rider mangled Common with his heavy accent. Still careful not to mention clan name, she called back, “Neither I – nor any of my female kin – have answered such a tone from any clansman!! If you want to see me – then you can come and have a look!!”

[Thomis/Fionn]

The Oathbound raised his eyebrows at the response, and kept his grip relaxed on his dagger. Fionn steered Maeve to the center of the group before slipping to one side. At Thomis’s questioning glance, Maeve shifted the infant in her arm and glowered at the highlander’s back. “Hillrover or MacLennan – or Calhoun – matters little to Fhaolain. They are welcomed by few.” Rue hiccuped, and nestled closer to her mother. “She’ll nae have her father’s name,” Maeve murmured, glaring at Thomis as if daring him to insist otherwise.

At least let her have the loyalty of her uncle, Thomis thought to himself, if she cannot have her mother’s kindness. But that debate was not his. He turned his attention back to the cliff-sides.

[Clansman]

Laurelyn’s declaration was met with low laughter from some of the other riders – a sound that was carried by the hills and cut off by a look from their leader.

Though he too was chuckling and after having a torch struck he rode forward.

“Aye, just as I thought,” he declared, holding the torch up, and looking Laurelyn over, “Acair’s far-wanderin’ daughter!!”

[Laurelyn]

“You have that right, Gairge,” Laurelyn said. She looked about her and said, “I see you have re-taken the Dun of Bro’n – is my father here?” Her tone had become weighted with concern.

[Gairge]

“Indeed he is!” Gairge said, “No Chieftain would miss the retaking of what is rightfully ours by blood and spirit.” The wavering torch light did nothing to make his grin reassuring as he said, “Have ne fear, lass, no ghostly piper has been heard.”

[Laurelyn]

The storyteller refrained from saying, “yet,” since she had desire to call catastrophe down on her father’s head. But she knew that the Dun of Bro’n – the Fort of Sorrows was aptly named, and that no clan had held it long. “How…...?” she started to ask.

[Gairge]

“Ye’ve brought a good-sized troupe with ye,” Gairge said, interrupting her question. “Were ye coming for a visit – or is this an embassy of seme sort ….like a proposition to have the banns cried?”

[Laurelyn]

“Not on this journey,” Laurelyn, glad that torchlight played enough tricks that it would hide her blush. “We’re heading for Morrow’s Hold, but we do have some who need to rest.”

[Gairge]

“As if ye thought I’d let ye ride through without saying a ‘good day’ to yer Da,” Gairge answered with a laugh. “Tell ye people that they’ll have safe passage and hospitality at the Dun!!”

With those words the clansman signaled his men to let the group pass and rode back to his own group – waiting to lead the way to the Dun.

[Laurelyn]

“It’s kin,” Laurelyn said as she rode back, “And we’ve lodging up at the Dun of Bro’n.”

[Ulric]

Ulric frowned. Kin of Laurelyn’s did not mean kin of his, and there was always the possibility that he had killed men from this clan. Regardless, his men had plundered the coastline here thrice in the past four years, and the people had already shown their contempt for anyone of his fair hair and eyes.

He kept silent, but watched the clansmen in the distance, looking for some hint of recognition. His hand tightened on the grip of his hammer, nervously.

[Jacques]

Fiend’s growl faded and vanished at Laurelyn’s words, and Jacques put that down to the woman’s tone. Either that, or the animal had simply gotten tired. The pup’s gaze had shifted, too, and he was now gazing at Ulric with wide, brown eyes. Wondering if the man had sprouted rabbit ears, the pup was so entranced, Jacques turned to Ulric. Then he noticed Ulric’s nervousness, and the man’s hand on his weapon.

Jacques nodded at that. He didn’t trust them either. “Kin” or not. Muttering something about jackals and vultures into his moustache, he slipped the long, red handled knife back into one of his pockets. One of the easier to reach pockets.

“Don’t suppose they’ve got any lager at this Dun?” he asked sourly of no-one in particular.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho recognized the fact that the situation had come under control and allowed Laurelyn to handle it from there. He crossed over to where Maeve was sitting and smiled. “Now that things are gonna calm down a bit, I think I should introduce myself. My names Rudolpho. I don’t know if you knew, but I can do…ummm…animal impressions. You don’t have to be afraid of that wolf because it was me. I have a question though. Why don’t you love your baby?”

[Keir]

The Hortus had no idea what a “Done” was but from Jacque’s question he guessed it wasn’t a typical Big Folk inn. “Back you go little ones,” he murmured to the bunnies as he resecured them inside his vest. “Maybe they don’t have ale but perhaps a bit of milk.”

[Maeve/Fionn]

Maeve’s mouth dropped open as she stared at the young boy blankly, the baby silent in her arms. Her face flushed with what might have been anger, or embarrassment, she stood abruptly, jiggling another hiccup out of Rue. “Ye might be best advised to keep yer nose, be it cheeld or wolf, from other folks’ business,” she almost hissed before she whirled on one heel and stalked away from Rudolpho.

But she gave no indication that Rudolpho’s assessment of the situation had been incorrect, Thomis noted. As he prepared to follow Laurelyn and her kinsmen to the Dun, he hoped that the Hillrovers’ familial interactions would be a bit more kind.

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