As they approached the Dun of Bro’n Laurelyn found herself listening attentively to the silence – and fearing that she would hear the faintest of strains from a phantom bagpipe. She also found herself studying the trail to the legendary site, since she had never been there. All she knew of the Dun was from the tales of the bards, and the clansmen’s personal stories of blood and valor. And her mother’s curses at such foolishness and the knowledge that her lover’s head might one day “grace” the walls of the Fort of Sorrow. According to her mother it was one thing to pit your wits and strength against the trickiness of the sea, and the law – and another to be forever fighting over a pile of rock that brought neither bread, meat, nor coin to the hearth. And now, more than ever, Laurelyn had to agree with her Ma. It was indeed one thing to know that you had survived the relentless sea and wind, and no shame in the losing. But another matter entirely, to be forever squabbling over a wee bit of land.
Though, sadly, she knew it was more than that – blood called for more blood as the need for vengeance grew. She had seen it happen – the hill clans had had centuries of bloodshed to become addicted to the violence.
The trail they rode carried them higher into the mountains, and both natural rock and fortifications closed around them. As they turned a blind corner they suddenly found themselves looking at massive iron gates that for the moment were open. Torches burned and men were milling about waiting for them. Obviously word had sped ahead.
Gairge swung from his horse and grabbed a nearby lad. “Tell the Chief his daughter has arrived,” the warrior told the boy – then sent him on his way.
To a couple of camp followers, the only women about since clanswomen rarely went into battle, he said, “Show these folk some quarters and let the cooks know we’ll be wanting a feast.”
Though Laurelyn rarely was one to take issue at minor slights she knew better than let this one pass. “Gairge,” she said in Common, knowing the women probably didn’t speak the tongue, “Does a Chief’s daughter rank so low that she and her party are shown to their rooms by prostitutes?”
The clansman studied her closed expression for a long moment, and then in an apologetic tone said, “Nay, lass, nay!! I meant neither ye – nor yer ‘party’ any slight!! The women were just handy – that tis all.” With a deft hand he signaled a couple of the younger warriors forward and said, “These good lads will show ye the way.”
“That will do,” Laurelyn said, though her tone was still chill. She hadn’t missed the quick look Gairge had given Fionn and Ulric – one that said he thought she traveled with rubbish. Nor had his attitude been much better to the others. But she knew that Gairge would only risk minor slights – he feared her father no matter what he thought of the offspring.
To her companions she said, in a more neutral tone, “We’ll have a bit of a chance to clean up and rest – a welcoming feast will take a while to prepare on such short notice.”
Thomis kept his own brown eyes moving over the enclosure, pretending not to take too much notice of the brief tension between Laurelyn and her cousin. But the storyteller had handled it well, with a smooth confidence that had dared the brash young man to find the backbone to own up to his insult. Fionn himself displayed an equal confidence, the Oathbound noted, meeting the few stares that came in his direction with a level gaze, and no reaction to a Highland mutter that sounded somewhat less than friendly. Maeve’s reaction, a quick flush to the roots of her red hair, confirmed Thomis’s suspicion. Good thing Laurelyn had not been aware of it.
Personally, Jacques would have been perfectly happy to have been shown to his quarters by a prostitute. For any number of reasons. The good thing about such people, he considered, was that at the very least you knew where you stood with them – or lay, depending on your point of view, your inclination, and your purse.
He eyed Gairge from under his bushy eyebrows, and something in him wanted a knife in his hands again. Some people were such that you would never know where you stood. Until you ended up with a knife in your back.
Fiend gave a little surprised yip, though Jacques couldn’t figure out why, and then the pup’s brown eyes turned upon him sadly.
“What’s your problem? I’m sure we can rustle you up some rabbits, oh great Rabbit Hunter from the Mountains.”
Fiend made a couple of happy, excited yaps, and then settled into a contented, patient expression. Jacques turned to the boy who’d been allocated as his guide.
“Anywhere we can get a bath?” he asked. Fiend immediately set off in a mournful wail, tail between his legs, and ears flopped straight down. With a glare, Jacques dropped the animal into a pocket in his uniform, from where the wail continued, albeit well muffled and with a peculiar reverberating echo to it.
“I swear, that damn animal understands me better than I do,” he muttered, and then blinked in surprise at the thought. It was foolishness.
Fiend’s wail turned briefly into a short series of coughing barks that sounded suspiciously like laughter, and then slipped back into a distinctly unhappy whine.
Keir looked askance at both Jacques and Fiend after the rabbit comment but had to agree that a hot bath would be most welcome. The chill mountain air had seeped even beneath his thick fur and his sensitive nose had endured the odor of sweaty Big Folk and horses for about as long as he could endure. “Something hot to eat would be appreciated as well.” he stated with the conviction of a Hortus who hadn’t eaten in at least an hour.
One of the two young warriors, Sean, had quickly realized that since these were “friends” of the Chieftain’s daughter they were to be treated well, but he couldn’t speak Common. Instead he explained the arrangements to Laureyln.
As the boys led them towards their rooms – leading them through the expansive courtyard, Laurelyn explained, “They’ll be bringing up water for baths, and some cold food for now. At least enough to tide us over to the banquet which will be late this evening.”
The storyteller noted some activity at the far end of the courtyard and asked Sean about it. As he answered Laurelyn’s expression became more contemplative – then she turned to the group, specifically looking toward Pierre and Daron. These were the two of her party that worried her most; Pierre, because he seemed very frail and frightened, and Daron, because she was showing signs of being about to splinter from some internal stress.
To the pair she said, “Over there is a merchant caravan that will be heading for safer lands this eve. And while I won’t throw any soul out of this group – unless they become dangerous to all of us – I think that both you, Pierre, and you, Daron, might be better off riding with them. The journey to find the Star Dreamer will just become more hazardous, and I suspect that the shock of our past encounters have worn on both of you.”
She looked at the others and added, “The choice is offered to any of you.”
The artist looked at Laurelyn, her green eyes haunted by inner demons.
“I have traveled this far; I cannot lose the chance to find…” Her voice broke. Daron coughed into her hand to clear her throat. She found her voice at last, ”...to find my brother Dillon, be he alive or dead.” A chill ran up Daron’s spine at those words; she quickly whispered a prayer to the Maker to take the curse off. “And I appreciate your concern for my safety. But this is something I have to do.” She brushed her dark bangs out of her eyes with a careless gesture. “I will see it to the end, no matter what the price I have to pay.” Her eyes and features now showed her determination.
Daron hoped silently that a good night’s sleep and some proper hot food might improve her outlook on things. A bath might not hurt also, she thought, feeling travel grime cling to her like a second skin.
The Oathbound raised one eyebrow in Laurelyn’s direction, but did not speak. Despite Daron’s quick rejection of the proposal to join the merchant’s, Maeve herself gave a thoughtful look in the caravan’s direction before realizing that Fionn had seen her head turn. The girl’s expression turned quickly to a defiant stare, waiting for the dark-eyed Fhaolain to speak. But the man simply shifted the weight of the babe nestled in the carrier against his chest and continued after the others, silently.
Ulric kept his calm as he was escorted by two young warriors who looked more inclined to test their skills against him than lead him anywhere. Their silence and tense glares told him enough about the honor they thought to gain if they killed one such as himself, but also the dishonor they would do their leaders, who had extended their hospitality – at least temporarily – in his direction.
He felt perhaps a little foolish at finding himself surrounded by clansmen when mere days before he had been a fugitive in their lands, but he understood enough of the culture to realize that he was, for now, safe enough.
He turned Laurelyn, and spoke in her own language, “So you are home, clanswoman?”
The storyteller nodded, and quietly said, “I’m at least amongst kin, Ulric, though I wouldn’t call the Dun of B’ron home. And the hospitality is sound – they know that the Chief would let me have first blood on any who did harm to my companions. And if I didn’t kill them – he would.”
Even she would admit that there were times and reasons to fight, but now she needed to turn her thoughts to less bloodthirsty necessitities. She nodded to Pierre and led the lad over to the caravan.
After a few quiet words with the boy – to let him know that she thought he had a strong heart, and did not think less of his bravery because he opted for a different path. To the caravan master she had confidentially explained that the boy seemed shocky from a recent attack and needed a safe haven. She had also added that Pierre was an excellent musician and once rested probably could cheer his new traveling companions.
Once the storyteller had returned to the group their escorts led into the west wing of the Dun, and up several flights of worn stone stairs – the shadows and torchlight making some of them look bloodstained. As if some stains would never go away.
There was quite a bit of activity on the third floor as both campfollowers and youngling boys prepared the rooms. In the halls were bundles of fresh straw, and even a few true down mattresses, which seemed to be causing a heated debate – for while the workers could agree that Laurelyn got a down mattress there was no consensus on who deserved the other two. All scattered as the group approached, though everyone’s expressions showed avid curiousity. So far most of the rooms had candles lit and had been swept out, with lavender and other herbs sprinkled to hide the smell of unused rooms – dampness and bird droppings.
Two of the campfollowers, whose clothes indicated that they were officers’ women, came forward to point out Laurelyn’s room. And to offer any assistance in preparing for the feast – this the storyteller politely declined.
The consensus seemed to be to wait and see which rooms the others chose, and then to quibble ranking – so that the appropriate people got the other mattresses. Though, from what little Laurelyn could make out, there was a strong leaning towards Thomis, Daron, and the “cute little” fellow. The storyteller nearly choked on this description of Keir, and was grateful the proud healer hadn’t understood the comment. What she didn’t like was the opinion that Fionn and Maeve, and the babe, along with Jacques and Ulric should be banished to the stables. Or at least given old straw. They were unsure on Rudolpho’s standing.
And though she didn’t let on that she had overheard the commentary she made it clear that all in her party were to be treated with honor. The cold pride in her blue eyes made most of the workers hurry back to their work, and left Sean quickly to stammer that the bath water would soon be heated. And that two bathing rooms were being prepared.
Once their escort had left to bring a cold snack, and the workers had settled to finishing the preparations, Laurelyn let out a tired sigh. To Thomis she said, “I just hope I have time for a bath before Da calls for me.”
Rudolpho stood quietly at the door and knocked to get Laurelyn’s attention. He felt strange but didn’t really know why. “Umm… Laurelyn, is it okay if I.. um.. go look around a bit? I really don’t care where I sleep and well, someone else can have a mattress.” He looked from her to his foot that was kicking at the ground. “I won’t be any trouble… I promise I won’t touch anything or… or get in the way.” He looked back up at her to see what her response would be.
Ulric stood out in the hallway a moment, a little unnerved by the closeness of the walls and the smell of enclosed rooms. While the cold stone which surrounded them spoke in ghostly voices of battles long past and glories uncaptured, the hallways remained oddly empty and depressed, as if the spirits which lurked here had no wish to remember any of it. He shuddered, suddenly aware of the anger and stubborn pride which had always filled these rooms.
“Your children live up to you…” he whispered gently to the walls.
He stepped to the doorway through which Laurelyn had entered, and leaned his head in. “There is too much bad history to this place. Do we stay long?” he asked.
Laurelyn had been just about to answer Rudolpho when she heard Ulric. She looked up and said, “Not any longer than can be helped, Ulric, though it has been a couple of years since I saw my father and I will need to speak with him.”
She could well understand Ulric’s discomfort and added with a grim smile, “If I have my preferences we will be riding free of this cursed place in a day or two.”
To Rudolopho she said, with a gentler smile, “You don’t have to give up a mattress, and some cautious wandering about will be alright. But do so with great care – people are always warier in places like the Dun of B’ron, and it is an old fort so full of its own dangers.”
The sound of grunting and unintelligiable curses heralded the arrival of the tubs and the hot water – carried up the ancient stairs by Sean and the other lads he had drafted. The tubs were set up in the two rooms that had been designated for bathing.
Sean’s arrival also brought word that the Chief of the Hillrover clan desired to see his daughter.
As Sean led Laurelyn out into the corridor they were met by Gairge. “E’ll teke her frem here,” he told Sean, with a quick signal of the hand to send the boy on.
Laurelyn’s eyes narrowed at her cousin’s highhanded manner. She could tell from his badge that he had moved up in rank since she had seen him last – fortunately four years back. “Sean would have done well enough as an escort,” she said, “I suspect he knows the way.”
“Nay, nay,” Gairge said, with the mockery of concern, “It weuldn’t do to have a mere bey escertin’ the Chieftain’s deughter. Net et all!”
The storyteller knew that he was going to try and get even with her for her earlier slight to his authority, but the question was – how far would he go? Subtly she shifted her belt dagger into easier reach. “Then lead the way,” she said with all the chill air of command she could muster. The only real advantage she had in this Dun of ancient traps and twisting halls was that her Da awaited her – and so her disappearance while en route would be hard to explain.
For many corridors they walked along in silence – with Laurelyn remembering all the reasons why she had left behind her clan heritage. A heritage as bloody as any within the League and she realized that had been one reason she couldn’t curse the Republica’s soldiers. She was no hypocrite – so she couldn’t condemn the men and women for fighting for their beliefs, but she could condemn those believes – whether borne of fanaticism or of vengeance.
“Thet’s quite a metley band of “felks” ye trevel with,” Gairge broke said, breaking the frosty silence, “Werse then nermally trevel with a tinker.”
“Be wary, Gairge,” Laurelyn started.
“Or ye’ll tell yer Da?” Gairge said with a mocking laugh.
With her lips tight in a warning smile Laurelyn said softly, “No…, I was going to remind you that tinkers know more than their share of curses, and if I am such as they – then you might wake tomorrow withering with worms.” Her lips tightened further and she added, “As for my companions – they have proved themselves to be true allies in the inferno of battle…. far better than some who are of my same blood.”
“But I den’t heve to even werry abeut these curses,” Gairge said, “Sense ye’re net even a tinker – and ye have no bards treinin.’” The corrider reverberated with his laughter as he added, “And fer the enferno of bettle…. ye never were one fer a fight. E’d sey ye never hed the stemach fer it. Se meybe thet rebble scered eff a sterved robber or twe, bet net much else.”
Laurelyn almost laughed aloud. Gairge had been so right about the starved robber!! The bitter mirth was in her voice when she said, “Oh, Gairge, pray that you never meet those starved robbers!!” Or, she wondered, remembering that those robbers hungered for human flesh and souls, perhaps she should pray that he did? A brief chill swept through her at the temptation and she quickly decided that she would not wish her worse enemy to fall to such an end. For,in those far woods, that evil only slept in its circle – though most of its minions lay dead, and the survivors were wounded, cursed folk, who had lost the thirst for blood.
But there had been something about her tone – or maybe her expression – that made Gairge fall silent. Maybe something that reminded him that Laurelyn had been away – traveling in strange and distant places – for over fifteen years.
His silence held until he announced her to the Chieftain’s guards.
Not even her anger at Gairge could dampen Laurelyn’s joy at seeing her father, and so it was with a joyous smile on her face that she walked into the room. Behind her the guards quietly closed the door.
Acair Hillrover, Chieftain of the Hillrover clan, was a good two inches taller than his “baby” brother, Brion, and with a few white strands in his auburn hair and beard. Nor had he yet changed from his warrior’s kilt, with sword hanging at belt, to his ceremonial clothing; for now his long hair was pulled back in a thong. Even before the door had clicked shut he was striding across the room – his cry of “Laurelyn!” reverberating in the oaken beams of the high ceiling.
Her own stride was just quick and long, and she braced herself for the all-embracing hug that was forthcoming, though she held on just as long. For though she had forsaken the warring ways of her clan she had not forsaken her love of her father, and her three uncles. “Da!” she whispered as she was crushed against his chest, with her cheek pressed hard against the woolen folds of his kilt. Nor was it all delight that made her hold on – but an insidious fear that the Fort of Sorrows might claim him.
Finally Acair loosened his embrace and looked into the face of his daughter – and only child. Who looked up at him with the same searching look; her blue eyes studying his face to see all that was remembered and loved, and to try to come to terms with the signs of age and world-weariness. Both father and daughter found the world’s marks within the other’s eyes.
As he motioned her towards the great fireplace and the chairs that had been pulled up he said, “I have heard wild tales that you travel with a dwarf, a shaman, a Fhaolain, a barbarian, a mother with babe-in-arms, a lad, and a lady. And…. a warrior who rides at your side.”
Laurelyn heard the speculation in her Da’s voice, and opted to set the record straight on her companions first – before broaching the topic of Thomis. “Well, they at least have the head count and gender right,” she said, sitting down in the chair he offered. “But the ‘dwarf’ is Keir, a master healer, and of a race called the Hortus… the ‘shaman’ is Jacques the Jester. They did get the ‘Fhaolain’ right, but Fionn seems to an abundance of loyalty – to Maeve and Rue … I’ll get back to that story… The lad is Rudolpho and the lady is Daron. Ulric is a warrior we found wounded and who is heading to Morrow’s Hold with us… And the warrior who rides with me….. is Thomis.”
Her father settled in a chair opposite hers and leaned back, seeming to be watching the firelight. “I suspect that there are many stories behind such traveling companions,” he said, ”...Your Ulric for one – some of the men vaguely remembering hearing tales of sea marauders dressed like him, but obviously you found him far from the shore… A Fhaolain is always considered trouble – and I will need to know more about this girl and her babe that you say he is loyal to.” He shifted to look at his daughter, and raised his hand to forestall her explanations. “But there are two questions more important than that …. What bonds you and this assortment together? And why do you turn a shade redder when you speak of this Thomis?”
Laurelyn opened her mouth to protest, but was cut short when Acair added with a warm grin, “Its a trait of your Ma’s – she always turns red when someone mentions me.”
After a few more false starts the storyteller finally managed to say, “Thomis is someone very special to me.” She felt the warmth of her blush spreading as she added, “We were through a lot together.”
“Then,” Acair said, with a mock seriousness, “The gentlman best be brought here and presented to me.” With these words he strode over to the door and sent a runner to go get Thomis.
And while they waited Laurelyn began to try to explain why such a crew traveled with her – that each in their own way seemed to desire something from The Star Dreamer. What was harder than explaining others’ nearly-hopeless desires was explaining her own – and why she would risk everything on a legend.
The Oath-bound had taken Laurelyn’s warning, and had used the short time afforded by her initial reunion with her father to indulge in a quick – very quick – bath and change of clothing, though the shave had to be postponed for another day. Just as he rubbed his chin and contemplated the dark stubble on his cheeks, a runner appeared to summon him. “Watch yourself and those with you,” he murmured to Fionn before slipping out the door after the one who had come to fetch him. The other man, just stepping from the tub with his shoulder-length hair hanging wet to his shoulders, looked at him with an expression that said Thomis might want to take his own advice.
Not that Thomis ever did anything else. When the party had been led into the fortress, he automatically had taken note of each person therein, cataloguing them and their weapons, as well as the exits, as few as they were, from the Dun. And as he moved after the messenger, he counted doors and turns of the hall and steps up and down. His shortsword still hung at his hip; Laurelyn had not said what the etiquette was for coming armed into the chief’s presence, and if someone demanded that he yield the blade, only then would he decide whether to give it without protest.
Depending on who asked, and why, for something about the atmosphere in the Dun, and the edge to Laurelyn’s exchanges with her cousin Gairge, and the sideways glances given to Fionn and Ulric and the others in the party, made him want to have the sword at his side, and the knife in his boot.
After hearing that Thomis was at the door Acair signaled that he was to be admitted, and stood standing – more like “towering” by the fireplace, with the firelight dancing as a backdrop.
Laurelyn was torn between standing and greeting Thomis, and staying seated. She looked up at her Da as he did his best to look intimidating, and felt like whispering that though he looked grand Thomis had faced far more nightmarish situations. But she knew that he would have to weigh Parch’s mettle for himself. So she stayed where she was and chided herself for holding her breath – she knew that Thomis would easily pass this test. Or any other her Da would throw his way.
Thomis Parch stepped into the room and away from the door to allow the runner to shut it behind him. His brown eyes, as he looked up … and up … remained calm. Though a slight twitch in the fingers of one hand might have told Laurelyn that he had felt the urge to touch the scar across the bridge of his nose as a reminder of what trouble headstrong women could bring to him, he kept his hands down by his side. And bowed, not too slightly for the movement to seem merely obligatory, and therefore disrespectful, nor too deeply for it to be unctuous, but just enough to indicate regard for the Chief of the Hillrovers and the father of the woman he followed. “I thought Brion’s claim of being the baby of the family was merely a jest,” Thomis said quietly as he straightened. “I see now that I was wrong.”
Acair’s chuckle was low but hearty as he acknowledged Thomis’s bow, and stepped forward to offer Parch his hand. “Aye, our wayward piper is but the wee one of the family. I had heard that ye were the one that led him astray, bet I canna hold that against ye – since ye saw to it that me daughter was safe.”
“Da, you can’t even lay Brion’s travels on Thomis,” Laurelyn said, with a gleam in her eyes, “He told me himself that Ma sent him along.”
“And there aren’t many Hillrovers that can ignore that woman,” Acair answered with a laughing, but loving, growl.
“I imagine not,” Thomis replied, not wincing as the Chief took his hand and tested his grip. Brion had done the same when first they had met in Morrow’s Hold, the strength of their handshake an implicit vow of retribution if the Oathbound should think to do anything to harm Laurelyn. His own hold, and the way he met the Chief’s gaze was its own promise, perhaps not as binding as the oath he had taken to Mesani I’Se, but one he would not break. “Nor her daughter,” he added finally, with a brief glance to Laurelyn.
Laurelyn ignored the increased warmth of her cheeks and stood. She knew that the two men would probably appreciate a few minutes to talk – without her about, and before formalities were required. She said, “If I’m to look less like a wandering tinker and more like a Chieftain’s daughter at this feast I best get a bath.”
There were still many a topic she hoped they would have a chance to discuss – like whether the re-taking of Bro’n was so much a move to stop McLenan raids or one instigated by factions within the Hillrover clan. And she knew that her Da wanted to know more about what had happened to her – to understand why she sought The Star Dreamer.
Acair nodded and said, “Aye, a wise move – I want them to well understand that ye are my daughter.”
Which told Laurelyn something more – that some of the more conservative of the Hillrover clan had been pushing for him to sire an heir, though it was well within his rights to choose a suitable man to be groomed as a Chief. Which is what Acair had done – leaving no opening for one of the cousins, like Gairge’s direct kin, to seek guardianship of a babe – if Acair was to die. But even with that loophole sealed someone was challenging him – carefully, and using her arrival as yet one more needle; the daughter who had refused to train as a bard, or sit on the women’s council in their home Dun – who had walked away from many of the clan ways. Which was considered presumptuous by many – she had a lot to “prove,” since her mother – a coast woman – had refused to marry into the clan.
And though she had always been aware of clan politics she found herself more sensitive and more wary of the machinations of the different factions. She knew that part of her sensitivity came from her time in the courts of far away nobles, but more so from her time of trying to survive the League’s occupation of resisting towns.
Once Laurelyn had excused herself Acair indicated a comfortable chair and asked, “Ale or brandy?”
The Oath-bound paused for only a moment, but a perceptible one, obviously trying to decide whether the tone of the conversation already had changed now that Laurelyn had left the room. He could imagine several directions the discussion could take, from light-hearted to deadly serious, depending on how the Chief cared to take his measure. “Brandy,” he answered, taking the chair and automatically adjusting it so that he could see all entrances into the room. Was it Laurelyn or her father who had made that note of unease return? The storyteller had said the highlands were a bloody place, with their own deadly schemes, and Brion had as much as said the same.
Acair poured them each a snifter of brandy – though the small glasses were quite plain, and settled himself in a chair that faced Thomis but which also had a good view of the room. “I’m not without some news,” he said, “Of what brought you and your friends to Morrow’s Hold, and led my brother away. Nor are we entirely ignorant of your battles ….. But what I am ignorant of is what haunts my Laurelyn?”
He shook his head – for a moment the firelight highlighting the weathering and lines in his proud face, and said, “Thomis, I would wish to drink this brandy in leisure and talk with ye till the stars were high overhead – for that is the best time to see the honest side of man – when he is drunk on good liquor and philosophy. But as ye and I both know, we only have a wee bit of time so I will cut to the heart of the matter. What drives her – and you – to seek a damned legend?”
“For her, guilt,” he said simply. Brion might have found it easier to explain to his brother, for the warpiper had read the burden in Laurelyn’s face. “She found herself caught in schemes for which she was ill-prepared.” He sipped the brandy, allowing the alcohol to fill his mouth before swallowing. “And she blames herself for what she sees as collaboration with the League, though her only other option would have been a futile, and fatal, stand on principle.” Thomis’ tone indicated nothing more than his own agreement with the choices Laurelyn had made, for in fact if he had ever been confronted directly with such a decision, he would have done much the same in order to keep his own Oath to protect Drywen.
For long moments Acair studied the rich hues of his brandy – as if he would like to swallow the burning liquid in one mouthful. At last he looked up, his eyes looking older, and said, “Nor would it enter her head to ride clear … Growing up between sea and stone leaves little room for cloud dreams, but there’s enough idealism there to give her a heavy conscience.” He shook his head, “It was that idealism that made it easier for her to sail away with a traveling musician than stay in the hills and train as a bard… she could understand the concepts of clan honor and loyalty, but not the price in blood that they demand.” Though his voice was as quiet as one of his size could make it the old hurt still echoed there, but so did love.
Acair looked up and said, “Ye have answered one of my questions, and before we go to the welcoming feast can ye answer another…..What held ye in that Gods’ cursed town , and what drives you now on a mad quest? For even if The Star Dreamer is more than a drunken sailor’s nightmare it is still madness to pursue a cursed ship.” Perhaps he had already surmised most of the answer, but he still sought it from Thomis’s own lips.
“My Oath held me there.” One hand touched the silver link chain around his neck briefly, as if it thrummed with the ties that still bound him. “To guard the back of another idealist until he was apprenticed and safely away from it. As for following your daughter, I have followed others on more foolish quests, by choice and by vow. This one is by choice.” He held the brandy glass between his hands and met the chieftain’s gaze with his own level stare. “If she will have me.”
“I think she will,” Acair said in acknowledgement, with a quiet smile. “And though I can’t put words in my daughter’s mouth – I can at least make things a tad easier and say that I can see good sense in her choice.”
He took a hefty sip of his brandy and said, “Though there are things that I wish to discuss wi’ the pair of ye I’d say that for now we enjoy the brandy. Then dress for food.”
“I am afraid I am as nicely dressed as I can be. I hope the food will take no offense.” The clothes he wore were simple, but at least they were clean and well mended. “And further talk can wait for later, as you think best. Though if there is reason to be … wary … at the feast …?” he prompted gently. Something had set Laurelyn’s teeth on edge, and the tension had been noticeable, something more than a daughter introducing a man to her father.
The Chief nodded and finished his brandy in one last swallow. Then he met Thomis’s eyes and said, “Not at the feast, but Gairge and his close kin have been stirring up trouble of late – they’re why we retook the Dun of B’ron. Their lands are nearby and they’ve been claiming that the McLenans have been comin’ in on raids. And there was evidence enough.” He stood and the firelight made it seem that his eyes burned with pent anger, “But I’m not to sure if they didn’t start the raiding.”
After setting down his glass – hard – he asked, “Did Laurelyn tell anything about the history of the Dun?”
“No.” There had been little time or opportunity, and neither Maeve nor Fionn had volunteered any information they might have. But it sounded as if the Hillrover chief had on his hands a clan feud not of his wanting, and restless cousins spoiling for a confrontation. “Fort of Sorrows?” Thomis ventured. “I take it the name was well-earned.”
“Aye….,” Acair said. He looked around the ancient room – and if he wasn’t seeing real ghosts he was remembering the history and the blood split. “The Hillrovers and the McLenans have fought over this Dun for centuries – each holding it for a spell before it falls to the other’s hands. During me father’s time my uncle was the Clan’s warpiper – as Brion is now – and he was taken captive when the McLenans recaptured the Dun.”
As he spoke the Chief seemed to be listening – as if waiting to see if some sign was to be given. But the walls remained silent stone. “Now I don’t know what ye’re folk are like and if they have any regard for Pipers but amongst the clans they are next to sacred – so me uncle was treated with honor even in captivity. Until the night he stood on the battlements and saw his chief and clan marching unawares towards a now unfriendly dun – so he lifted his pipes and played a warning … His Chief heard and was saved but my uncle was cruelly executed – nor do any of us know where he was buried. But what we do know is that when danger threatens the Hillrovers near this Dun he plays that tune…..”
For a moment, Thomis made no answer, as if listening for the sound of the bagpipes. “Blood marks a place, even when it seems washed away,” he said quietly. “I have known such places , where the echoes of the dead remain. The blood has marked wood and stone and earth of those places. And the survivors.” No piper could be heard here, in this room with the Hillrover chieftain, but for a moment a memory of crimson-slicked walls passed across the surface of Thomis’ thoughts. “May the songs tonight be merry.”
The Chief nodded – seeing in Thomis’s face the flicker of memories. Some probably as grim as his own. “So it shall be ordered,” he finally said with an empty laugh, “So that for a while we can forget the blood that lays in these halls and welcome friends and family amongst us.”
As he led the way to the door he looked at Thomis and said, “So that privately I can celebrate that Laurelyn has found a good companion – whatever paths you may walk.”