Rudolpho was torn. He wanted to go off and explore this strange new place and all its wonderful people, but Laurelyn was right. He should probably help Maeve and Fionn. It would be hard to do, since they didn’t seem to want him around. Or at least Maeve didn’t. Fionn hadn’t said anything either way. He scratched his head and decided. He would check on them and perhaps find some interesting things that way. Rudolpho darted off quietly to find Maeve and Fionn. He hoped they hadn’t run into to trouble already. At least not without him.
Ulric quickly took the opportunity to bathe, keeping his hammer nearby at all times, despite the relatively congenial greeting they had received. As he lay soaking in the water, he glanced ruefully at his clothing, which lay in a dirty pile beside the tub. Unfortunately, he didn’t think he had enough time to do his laundry.
When his washing was complete, he climbed hesitantly back into his clothes. The gash at his back was already feeling better though, and his energy levels were returning slowly. He took a seat on the cold stone floor outside the bathing rooms, and waited for Laurelyn to return with news.
After eating probably more than his share of the food Sean delivered, Keir headed for the baths. Finding Ulric outside he was miffed that his delay meant bathing in water already soiled by the large warrior. Barely nodding an acknowledgment of the man’s presence as he walked by he paused and looked at the partially healed scar on Ulric’s back. “Hrrumph, well it appears you’ll survive a while longer, rabbit slayer.”
The big man laughed at what he assumed was a joke.
“Indeed! And soon I’ll be slaying larger things again, thanks to you, Master Healer!” He slapped the other’s shoulder heartily in thanks.
“I hope I left water enough?” he smiled.
Keir fought to keep from smiling back at Ulric but his glower couldn’t hide it completely. “It’s not the amount but the quality that concerns me.” he grunted, trying to catch his breath. It was clear that he would be almost the last male in the group to bathe. Doing his best to stomp, not easy when one is but three foot tall and slim, he moved into the bathroom. Hanging his vest on the hook so the baby rabbits were secure he began taking off his shirt and pants while staring at the murky water in the tub – fully expecting to see the jester’s belled cap rise up from beneath the surface and making him absolutely last.
The dark-haired Fhaolain finished towelling off and moved quickly to pull his breeches back on, lacing them around his waist. Moments before, a runner had arrived to fetch away the man with the scarred nose, Thomis Parch he had called himself, and he had seen fit to warn Fionn to watch himself here in the Dun of Bro’n. Even not knowing the local tongue, the man had caught the muttered curses and sideways glances. Fionn had merely let them slide off his shoulders, long accustomed to the distrust given to the Fhaolains. Maeve, though, obviously had been more than a bit upset …
He looked up as the boy, Rudolpho, entered the bathing room that had been set up for the men, and swept the long wet hair back from his face, combing it with his fingers. “Madadh,” he said, face briefly breaking into a smile. More than one in Laurelyn Hillrover’s party had a healthy dose of the fey in them, even if of a different sort than was usually to be found in the highlands. He indicated with a wave of one hand that the tub was available for the boy’s use, if he wanted it, and stooped to sweep up little Rue, who had been set in a basket off to one side. “Your turn,” he murmured as he peeled back her blankets. One of the women had brought a large washbasin of warm water, and within minutes he had the infant undressed and dunked in. One hand cradled her head, and the other carefully laved her clean. Her eyes, dark as his own, had widened.
Having never heard the strange word before, he assumed it meant hello. “Ummm..hi.” He had smiled though, so that was a good sign. “I see you have her now. I guess Maeve is bathing huh?” He looked back and forth between Fionn and the baby. “I know you can’t shake my hand right now, and that’s okay, but we never really got to know each other. My name’s Rudolpho and I know yours is Fionn. I hope I’m pronouncing that right.” He looked again at the baby. “So are you her father?”
Fionn lifted the infant from the water and placed her on an extra towel, managing to dry her off despite the waving fists and kicking feet. “Nay, Rudolpho,” he answered, sounding as if his tongue found it difficult to wrap itself around the vowels in the boy’s name. “Her da wanted her even less than Maeve does.” He diapered her bottom and again folded her in soft woolen blankets, until only tufts of her black hair, and her black eyes above plump cheeks, could be seen. “She is my -” Fionn paused as he finished dressing and rearming himself, obviously searching for the right word. “Her da is my brother, by halves,” he finally said, and lifted the infant to cradle her in one arm.
Rudolpho had so many questions, he couldn’t decide where to start. He finally decided not to. “Fionn, I’m sorry if I asked questions that were too personal. I have a lot more, but I don’t want to ask things that aren’t my business or that make you uncomfortable.” He looked at the baby. “I guess I just find it hard to accept the fact that she has parents…but they don’t want her. I would give…” His voice trailed off and his eyes betrayed his far away thoughts. As quickly as he had started, he shook his head, almost as a dog shakes off water, and continued. “I guess I just don’t understand. I’d like to hear more about the whole thing some time if you have the time and inclination. Maybe you could teach me a little bit of your language?”
Daron quietly waited outside the bathing room set aside for the women for Maeve to finish bathing and leave. Then she entered, closed the door, stripped off her travel-stained clothes and stepped into the tub. Gradually, her aching muscles began to relax in the still-warm water. She scrubbed off the dirt and grime till her skin was pink. Laundry can wait till later, she thought, looking at her tunic and pants.
Feeling clean and refreshed, Daron decided to change into something a bit more festive. I should also make a good impression for Laurelyn’s people, she thought, remembering the stares she and the others in the party received.
Daron stepped out of the tub, quickly wrapping a towel about herself while she looked in her sack for what she wanted to wear. Of course, it’s at the very bottom, she thought wryly, pulling out an emerald green gown that seemed to shimmer silver as the candle light caught it.
The artist dressed carefully, smoothing the full skirt down to remove the packing creases. A perfect fit now,- she thought, satisfied, noting how the gown showed off her figure to perfection. She brushed her long dark hair till it fell in soft waves down her back and over her shoulders. Two small ivory combs traced with delicate silver filagree and tiny emeralds caught the hair at her temples and pulled it away from her face in a becoming manner. Her slightly pointed ears were revealed also. She found her emerald green tanned leather slipper-shoes decorated with delicate silver patterns and tiny emeralds and put them on as well.
Daron rummaged in her sack, pulled out a smaller sack, and stuffed her dirty clothes and boots into it to keep her other clothes clean. She put the smaller sack into the larger sack.
The artist left the bathing room, walked back to the room where she had been directed to spend the night and left the sack there. Then she waited in the hall outside the room for the others.
“This may not be a good place for the telling of it,” Fionn answered Rudolpho as they stepped out into the hall. The little man with the large stomach, Keir, looked as if he had had the wind knocked out of him. The large man, with the equally large hammer, Ulric, had the remnants of a smile on his face, and clothes as ill-fitted to a feast as Fionn’s own hillsman’s garb. Not that a feast with the Hillrover Chief in the Dun of Bro’n was likely to require much formality.
Someone should have told the woman that much. The highlander paused for just a moment before managing to cover his surprise by shifting Rue to his other arm. The girl was a vision, with her emerald gown and ivory combs, in the torchlight as fair a sight as Luatha herself. “If there be any Calhouns or MacRories with the Hillrovers this night,” he continued to Rudolpho as he looked away from Daron, “ye may well hear it from them.” Another door opened, and Maeve appeared, in the same simple dress and shawl, but with her wild red hair tied back. Pale and tired-looking, almost like a child.
“Well, I’d rather hear it from you I guess becuase things get twisted around when other people tell them or they are told too much.” Rudolpho had continued speaking until he finally caught sight of Daron. “Wow. You look really pretty Daron. Where did you get the dress? I didn’t know that this was going to be such a dress up event.” He looked at his own clothes and swatted at them trying to get rid of some of the dust and stains. He turned to Maeve and smiled. “You look real nice too Maeve. I guess you clean up pretty nice. I guess I should clean up too, though I’m not sure I have too much time.” He thought for a second then snapped his fingers. “I know. It’ll only take me a few minutes anyway. Fionn, I meant it when i said I’d like to learn your language…if you’ll teach me? Maybe you could help, too, Maeve?”
Daron looked over at Rudolpho. “Thank you, Rudolpho.” She shyly smiled. “This was my mother’s dress…” she said softly. “And…well…” She shrugged. ”...well, I thought I should… you know… look nice for Laurelyn’s family.” Noticing his discomfort at his own appearance, she smiled warmly at him. “If you can find something suitable to wear in my sack, you’re welcome to it. In fact…” Her dark brows furrowed in thought for a moment. “I’ll be right back!”
The artist went into her designated room and rummaged in her sack once more. She returned with a royal blue tunic that also seemed to have a silvery shimmer to the fabric in the torchlight and intricate silver threadwork at the throat, cuffs and hem. “This should fit you just right, I think,” Daron smiled, handing the tunic to Rudolpho.
With a somewhat muffled “yip”, a familiar small brown pup came hurtling around a corner and nearly ran straight into Fionn’s legs. He skidded to a halt on the stone floor, collapsing to a sit. There was a pause, and then the pup managed to right himself in Daron’s direction and get back onto all fours – albeit with a slightly dazed and wobbly demeanour for a second.
Another yip – this too muffled by the bright, and fresh apparent rose he had been holding lightly in his mouth throughout. As Fiend stopped again, gazing up at Daron with wide, puppy brown eyes, Jacques came around the corner with bells ringing.
“Madame,” he offered, and made a bow with a flourish of his hat, before replacing it firmly on his head. “Compliments of a young pup, and an old dog.” He winked.
Somehow, despite not actually having entered the bathing room, he appeared to be clean and tidy. His uniform appeared to be neat and free of the road grime that had been accumulating over the last few days. And most of all, there was a light in his eyes that had been missing since their stop off at the inn in Helgastop.
People, at last! That meant money. And, hopefully, something approaching lager…
Daron knelt down gracefully before the puppy, gently taking the rose from his mouth. She looked up at Jacques, idly scratching the puppy behind his floppy ears. She knew then whose idea the present had been… A mischievous twinkle lit her emerald green eyes. “Thank you…both,” Daron smiled. She sniffed the rose’s heady perfume as she gracefully rose to her feet.
Rudolpho looked at the clothing the Daron handed him. “Gee Daron, this is really nice and all, but where did you get it? How come you have clothes that would fit me in your traveling pack?” He looked back to her in obvious surprise and confusion.
Daron smiled at Rudolpho. “It used to be mine, but I…” She blushed slightly. “I…errr…outgrew it… Something ‘told’ me to hold onto it,” the artist said solemnly. Then, just as suddenly, the feeling passed. Her smile returned, lighting her face. “And I want you to have it.”
“Well…um…thanks. I mean I appreciate it.” He looked down at his shoes and kicked at the floor. It had been awhile since he had received something without having to con someone into giving it to him, playing on their sympathies, or just outright taking it. “Umm..if you’ll excuse me, I have to go ‘clean up’.” With that he ran off. Unseen to to his traveling companions or anyone else, Rudolpho changed himself into an alley cat. He quickly cleaned himself up, as only a feline could, changed back to his human self, and donned his “new” clothes. The whole process only took him a few moments whereupon he joined the others.
“Thanks again Daron. It fits great!” he looked hiself over as best he could in his shimmering tunic and admired the embroidery on it. “It’s been a long time…” he said absently.
The storyteller hurried up the steps, and quickly noted that the others seemed to be dressed and near ready for the feast. With a brief nod she acknowledged their presence and after choosing her attire she hurried to the ladies bath tub.
Keir’s stomach churned as he examined the disgusting flotsam of dirty soap suds and hairs of various colors and lengths, It was hard to take on an empty, or nearly empty, stomach. After skimming off as much of the debris as possible with the bathing ladle he lowered himself into the tepid water, grimacing at the scum that clung to his fur. From the smell of the Dun he wondered if the group was the first to use these facilities in ages and how anyone could tolerate the cold, dank musk that hung throughout the stone edifice. He hurriedly washed, as anxious to get to the promised dinner as to escape from the filthy cocktail he was immersed in.
Noting that more dirt came off in the towel than in the water he grunted at the baby rabbits who were peering at him from his vest pockets. “Just be glad your fur doesn’t need cleaning.” As he dressed he decided it would be best to leave his charges locked in the room while he and the others supped. “There are some here who’d like to see you cleaned and dressed for dinner little ones.” Though he still felt cold and damp he whistled as he left the room.
Once Laurelyn had bathed and returned to her chamber she momentarily debated about clothing. On one hand she had the blue silk that was wrapped with tissue and spells (from Lord Kiever’s mage) to protect it in travel, and on the other hand she had a couple sets of clean shirts and trousers. She lay the silk dress on the bed and pondered it – for though she knew she should look well for her Da she didn’t want to make her traveling companions feel uncomfortable. Though Daron and Rudolopho had managed to dress finely. The dress also had other memories – of a banquet and her foolish and daring hope to learn information of Thomis’s well-being. She chuckled mirthlessly to herself and thought I seem to end up wearing this dress into difficult situations – like some warriors wear armour.
Nor was there any help for the wearing of the gown – in this situation she had to look her best.
With this in mind Laurelyn dressed in the shimmering royal blue gown, and did her thick auburn hair up in a simple yet elegant style. Quickly she pulled on her black dress slippers, and was about to leave the room when she thought of one item she desired to have with her. Something about the Dun made her very uneasy, and she returned to her saddlebags to dig out a dirk and a ankle sheath. There was no humor in her blue eyes as she lifted her skirts and strapped the black leather sheath to her calf.
She felt a certain comfort in the feel of the dirk against her leg and went out to join the others.
Nor was their wait long – Sean appeared in his formal kilt to lead them to the great hall.
At the closed doors to the hall waited Acair – who had changed into his dress kilt, and Thomis; the two men waiting off to one side. Gathered in other small groups were the various warriors, some with their well-attired doxies, and in one of the larger groups was Gairge and his close kin. All eyes turned to watch the approach of the travelers and Laurelyn’s head was held high – her blue eyes cold.
Acair smiled at the sight of his daughter and stepped forward to greet her. “Ye look a vision, lass,” he said, sounding pleased, “And while we await the bards introduce me to ye’r companions here.” And though his blue eyes were lit by his smile his expression was still sharp and scrutinizing.
The storyteller gracefully turned, but not before a quick smile at Thomis, and began to introduce the others.
Thomis flashed his own smile in response, and though his brown eyes kept sweeping slowly over the room, he could not help but notice the gown Laurelyn had chosen to wear to the feast.
As his name was pronounced, Ulric stood tall and as it happened, eye to eye with Laurelyn’s father. This was his test, as much as anyone’s. He nodded respectfully, but said not a word. His clothing and weaponry marked him a foreigner as clearly as could be, so there was no doubt in his mind that if he was to die on this night, he would not need any words to precipitate it.
The Chief of the Hillrover clan nodded in acceptance, and said loud enough to be overheard, “Welcome, Ulric to the hospitality of the Hillrover Clan.”
There was some risk in this act – for Laurelyn. She had brought this foreigner into their midst, and asked clan hospitality for him; so if he repaid her trust with treachery it would be on her head.
Keir stepped forward and knelt on one knee, braced by his ever-present staff. A few had looked askance went he entered with it but apparently decided the “cute little man” with a stick was not a serious threat and let him pass. He had been tempted to erase their silly grins with a swift blow to the shins or between the legs but wondered if the latter would even be effective since these men wore dresses. Big Folk, go figure he thought and Laurelyn’s relatives were some of the biggest and strangest he’d run across.
“I have sworn myself to the Mistress Laurelyn’s protection.” he declared with head held high, “And would extend that oath to her kith and kin good sir, in payment for your hospitality.”
Though some might have knelt in hopes of making the situation less awkward for the guest Acair understood that Keir would find such an act offensive. So he continued to stand at his full height, and said, “Please rise, Master Healer – my daughter has told me of your skill and bravery. And it is I who owes ye the debt for ye using that skill on her behalf, but I accept ye’re oath with thanks.”
With Fiend at his heels – miraculously subdued and quiet – Jacques gave Acair a nod that barely sent a ripple through the bells. He felt extremely uncomfortable at the idea of such an occassion. There were too many similarities to too many situations in the past.
Fiend gave a very quiet “yip”, and trotted up to sniff at Acair’s feet, before settling back on his haunches, apparently satisfied.
“I … ” Jacques paused and then, grinning widely, flourished his hat in Fiend’s direction “we thank you for your hospitality.”
And then with a wink, in a stage whisper, “Bring on the dancing girls!”
”’Fraid the weather is a bit chill for their flimsy attire,” the Hillrover Chief said with a quick grin – at both Jacques and Fiend. “Ye’ll have to make do with the heartier sound of our bagpipes.”
Maeve tried to keep her head up and her eyes straight ahead, but she kept finding herself looking down at the ground. At least her hands, twisting together tightly with the knuckles white, were hidden in the corners of the shawl thrown about her shoulders. Once, she would not have hesitated to come before the Hillrover chieftain, for though Acair Hillrover was an imposing man, his family and hers’ were long allies. Not even when the Calhouns fell into a hard-scrabble and threadbare existence had he scorned them. But now, with the shame she had brought on her family, breaking her troth to the MacRories – another Hillrover ally – and with, of all people, a Fhaolain … And the get of that betrayal sleeping in one arm of another Fhaolain standing next to her -
So it was when Laurelyn murmured her name, Maeve dropped her eyes and ducked her head, feeling her cheeks burn almost as hotly as they had when her Da had found out he would have to return the bride price. She managed to curtsey, a bit unsteadily, before straightening, fixing her eyes somewhere at about the level of the chief’s left elbow.
For his part, Fionn did not hesitate to scan the room, just to make certain that his suspicions had been correct. There were at least two young bucks in MacRorie plaid, though neither looked to be Donal himself. And at the other end of the room, one in the Calhoun tartan. Maeve had not noticed, she had been so determined not to meet anyone’s gaze … But he had seen. And when he stopped before the chief, to bow in acknowledgment of the other man’s authority in this place, his dark eyes met Acair’s without wavering. He did not bother to speak a warning, the Hillrover had to be aware that among other potential problems, a possible confrontation of that particular feud-in-the-making might arise during the feast.
So Fionn held Rue more closely in one arm, and kept the other hand free, to reach his blades, if it should become necessary.
Acair studied both Maeve and Fionn, and there was a tiny hint of a smile as he looked at Rue, for a long while. They were yet more trouble his own wild daughter had brought him, but he was no hypocrite to condemn the lass for a babe born on the chill side of the blanket. Nor condemn Fionn for his loyalty to the babe and the girl.
The Hillrovers had never been as tightly-laced as some of the other clans, and less likely to “break” someone from the clan for a nine-month surprise. But “broken” from the Calhouns Maeve had been, and as the Fhaolain boy had spotted – there were both Calhouns and MacRories present; both old, and needed, allies. All he could say to the pair was, “Welcome.” And to privately offer a prayer to the gods of sea and stone that all in this little band found what they sought. And traveled safely on.
He also hoped that his acknowledgement of them was enough to indicate that he would not see them murdered in their beds – as might happen as to clean a clan’s honor.
Daron dropped to a deep, graceful curtsey before Acair, her full skirt billowing about her feet in shimmering emerald folds. Her gaze met his evenly as she spoke confidently, “I thank you kindly for the hospitality you have extended to me. I am an artist by talent and calling. I follow Mistress Laurelyn in her quest for reasons of my own. And I have sworn to protect her, and the other members of the party…” Her voice belied her nervousness at being before Laurelyn’s kin and the others, at the “voices” she heard in the deep corners of her mind from this place.
She rose gracefully, turned to look at Rudolpho and smiled. “Especially Rudolpho. He is very dear to me.” Her green eyes shone with pride as she regarded the young boy, brave in his shimmering blue tunic.
Rudolpho had waited for all the rest of the party to make their introductions. He allowed them to go before him, as his father had taught him about showing respect to one’s elders. It was a surprise to him as Daron singled him out as a member of the group that ‘especially’ needed protection. Harder still was to suppress his instinct to declare out loud that he didn’t need special protection. This isn’t the place to do that now, he thought to himself. It’s probably her way of showing she likes me. He had also noticed Maeve’s reactions and how she couldn’t meet the chief’s eyes and had blushed furiously. He moved forward now, as it was his turn, and shook the man’s hand. “It’s an honor to meet you sir. Your daughter is a great leader and we’re lucky to have her. It’s really nice of you to extend your hospitality and all. If there is anything I can do for you just let me know.”
“Thank ye, Mistress Innes and Rudolpho,” Acair said, honestly acknowledgingly that the boy’s offer carried weight – Laurelyn had spoken of the lad’s skills and ingenuity, and tried not to smile at the boy’s efforts at formality. Nor had she fail to mention the artist’s bravery and determination.
Not wanting to ramble, Rudolpho left it at that, and backed up towards where Maeve was standing. He placed himself strategicly so that no one could see her tightly clenched hands.
The sound of bagpipes nearly made Laurelyn jump – until she realized these were no ethereal notes, but had the full, rich sound of a living piper’s breath. And she briefly wondered if she was hearing Brion’s replacement – he had been gone a long time from the clan, and as she had told her Da – she didn’t know if he planned on returning. Nor did she have any doubts that Brion’s absence was another sore point -for he not only was the Clan’s piper but Acair’s brother.
All turned at the sound and they watched as the Clan’s High Bard and lesser bards approached. The High Bard, Naomha, wore the sweeping multi-colored cloak of his rank, with his long black hair braided into an elaborate coiffure, and crowned by an equally elaborate head dress of feathers and jewels. The lessers bards wore cloaks whose less-numinous bandings of color indicated their ranks; the last in line were the apprentices in brown robes and simply hairstyles.
The Chief murmured only loud enough for Thomis and Laurelyn to hear, “After dinner I wish for you both to confer with Naomha – he may have some tales or prophecy concerning The Star Dreamer.“
Laurelyn nodded in understanding and bit her tongue to keep from asking if he had any prophecy concerning the Dun. She had no desire to ill-wish her Da or kin with her worries, but there was a band of fear tight about her heart. And the presence of the High Bard and his entourage did not lessen her worries – for that meant her father was prepared for a full battle.
Her skin went clammy at the thought of seeing another mage war – one where loved ones could well die.