Star Dreamer

Chapter XX: A Flexible Sense of Honor

[In the Hall]

As the sounds of restlessness began to fill the hall Acair stood and declared that now was time for the hour of the bards, and with these words he signaled the High Bard Naomha forward. The High Bard stood, looking regal in his multi-colored cloak of feathers, with a tall headdress over his elaborately-done black hair. His voice was bold and clear as he declared, “In honor of the return of our Chief’s daughter, Laurelyn, who travels on her own quest with stelwart allies my bards shall tell of our clan’s own quests.”

For a long moment he turned so he could look at Laurelyn – who felt very uncomfortable under his intense gaze. Then the High Bard turned back and began to invoke the blessings of the directions and the clan’s guardians for the night’s telling, but as he did so his voice, while still strong, took on the rhythm and tone of a trance.

He said, “Your Search for Your Heart’s Truth will be Begin where Stone’s cry blood. And long you will travel – to Where the waters cut like daggers. For some – there shall be the last peace in the Knowing. For Others it means the doom of the Eternal Search….”

To Laurelyn, shivering in her pale blue gown, it seemed that she heard bagpipes – played with a demanding tone – a tone of warning. She looked around to see if anyone else seemed to notice, but all sat quiet – listening to the High Bard. And Naomha had again turned to look her – his eyes saying that he too had heard.

After a long silence the High Bard called one of his journeymen forward to begin the night’s telling

[Rudolpho]

The time had finally come, and Rudolpho was torn. He wanted to listen to the stories but he couldn’t stay. Ordinarily he loved to listen to stories. He could listen to them for hours. He knew that these stories would tell him a bit about Laurelyn and her family’s history if he stayed, but he just… couldn’t. As a compromise he listened to all that they said about their party. As he listened, and everyone else did too, he secreted the bowl of pudding he had under the table. Two spoons found their way into his pockets too. They really should be more careful around here with the way they just lay about spoons and such. They could after all get lost.

He finally found his opportunity. Everyone seemed to be absorbed in the stories. He slid off his chair quietly and slipped out of the room. He had to find the stables now, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Rudolpho looked around and followed his nose. He was soon at the stables looking for the nice serving girl who answered to Beud.

[Thomis/Fionn/Maeve]

Thomis had scooted his chair back from the table, to lean back and listen to the storytelling, giving himself a clear view of the room. The girl, Bronwyn, was moving through the chairs again, a pitcher in each hand, offering to refill the cups of those who had finished their last round of drinks. Further down the guest table, he could see Fionn fetch Rue from under the table, and hand her to Maeve. The girl, though obviously displeased at the idea, took the child and slipped from the room to give the infant her own meal.

“And will ye perfarm fer oos?” Bronwyn asked in a stage-whisper, and with a wink, as she bent to refill Jacques’ tankard with more lager. Her brown eyes twinkled.

[Jacques]

Jacques took a long pull from his mug, and shrugged theatrically setting the bells jangling faintly.

“I might,” he offered, and brushed one hand across his moustache to straighten the lie of the hair. “If there is a willing audience.”

He returned the wink.

”’Course, some performances aren’t meant for large audiences,” he offered. “Sometimes it’s better if there’s only a small audience.”

[Bronwyn]

“Aye,” the serving girl agreed. “A smool willin’ oodience be best,” she answered. “If’n you hae the time efter …” She trailed off with a quick buss to his forehead before moving back down the table with her hips swinging. Sometimes the bedding was for silver, but sometimes it was for the fun of it, and this night, the latter option was more appealing.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn glanced over at Thomis and then settled back to listen to her clan’s bloody sagas, and to worry at the upcoming meeting – her Da had said that the High Bard wished to speak to her. She noted that Acair had leaned enough to relay the same information to Thomis.

As she looked in that direction she noted that Geill Hillrover was looking dour and thoughtful.

[Amongst the Tables]

Hector MacRorie and Gille Hillrover waited till the attention of those at the head table was elsewhere – then slipped via side door out of the feasting hall.

[Beud – In the Stables]

Beud had anxiously done her tasks – which meant that none got done well, and about half way into the first epic tale she was able to make her escape to the stable. On her way she was able to steal a winesack of the wine for the lower tables, since she didn’t take the finer stock – there would have been questioning over that!

She crept quietly into the stables, which were dark, and the only noise came from the shifting of horses. “Yeung sir?” she said, daring to call only slightly above a whisper.

[Rudolpho]

Having gotten to the stables before Beud, Rudolpho had spent the few extra minutes with the horses. He pat a few of them a little and found a couple that he wouldn’t mind having in his “inventory”, and so collected some hairs from them. He heard Beud enter the stables and stepped out of the stall that he was in. “It’s Rudolpho. I’m glad you could come. Is that wine?” He smiled as headed to where he had put the pudding down. “I brought some dessert I thought we might share… if you want.”

[Maeve]

Maeve took the first empty hall she came to, shifting the infant in her arms, impatient to find a quiet place to let Cianna feed without interruption. She hadn’t had the energy to argue with Fionn, but she did want to get this over with, and the child back in his care, as soon as possible. At least the babe’s suckling would relieve the tight heaviness in her breasts for a few hours more.

A cold place, this, though she did have to admit to herself that the chief had made her welcome enough. Even if the lewd comments of Hector and Gille had gone quite a ways to chilling the welcome. And add to it the stories of this Dun, and the blood that stained it … Maeve shivered, and pulled her shawl closer.

Here was a niche, a dead-end, where she could huddle in and let the grumbling baby have her own dinner. She settled down, opening the bodice of her dress and guiding Cianna’s mouth to the milk. Rue, she thought, mouth twisting at the thought of how the name galled Fionn. Not that the child’s own father had cared, even if the naming carried heavy meaning for the Fhaolains. The Calhouns gave little weight to it, and Fionn’s protests that she had crafted a dark beginning for her daughter only made her laugh. Dark, yes, but not because of her name …

Niall, with his black eyes and his black hair, had been fair handsome, fairer still than the MacRorie to whom she had been betrothed. The Fhaolains, cunning as they were, always had been able to catch a girl’s eye, and Maeve had not been completely ignorant of the causes of Daron Innes’ blushes at the table. Even if Fionn, as inept at flirtation as his half-brother had been talented, had totally missed the import of the artist’s red face.

[Hector/Gille]

Despite the amount of ale that fueled Hector’s and Gille’s courage they were reasonably quiet as they tracked the wench and her babe – both of whom stained the MacRorie name. And though Gille was a Hillrover he considered Hector MacRorie as close as a blood, since MacRorie had been fostered to the larger clan when they both were mere boys.

Gille had to bite his lip to keep from laughing out loud when he saw that the tart had found herself a lonesome niche to give the by-blow a breast. He noticed that Hector had pulled his dagger, and had a nasty gleam in his eye – he truly wanted this stain washed clean, but Gille laid a restraining hand on his friend’s arm. This had to look like the girl had taken a coward’s way out – like many a foolish and easy maid had done. After looking around to make sure there were no witnesses both men moved to block the entrance to the niche.

[Maeve]

The girl had closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the stone wall behind her, letting Cianna feed at her leisure. With the wine and her weariness, she did not notice the arrival of the two young men until their shadows cut off the torchlight from the sconces further down the hall. When she did open her blue eyes, they widened momentarily. Facing her as they were, she could not see their faces, but the very way the two men held themselves in the entrance to the small hall worried her.

Maeve pushed herself to her feet, hurriedly pulling her bodice together over Cianna’s protests. “Excuse me, kind sirs, if I may pass…?”

[Hector/Gille]

“Ye mean ye’re in too much of a hurry to be ‘kind’ to a gentleman?” Hector slurred low and ugly, “Tis a pity that ye weren’t in sech a hurry when ye met up with a Fhaolain. ‘Course, E can tell that ye like to sleep with muck like them…..”

As his friend talked Gille lunged forward to grab the wench, and clamp a hand over her mouth.

[Maeve]

“Wha-” but she didn’t get anything more out before Gille Hillrover grabbed her. Slight, and reed thin from several months living off what Fionn could harvest for them, she could not break free from the man’s hold. Nor could Rue do anything, child that she was, as she was taken from her mother’s arms. Maeve was lifted from the ground, feet kicking futilely at the air, as the two hustled her back down the hall.

[Hector/Gille]

Hector clamped a hard hand over Rue’s mouth before she could squall; mindless of whether he suffocated the babe or not. His expression was grim and hungry as he led Gille, with tart in arms, towards the back halls.

And towards the stairs that led to the wind-torn battlements.

[Maeve]

A dark beginning and a dark end, Maeve thought despairingly as the two men hauled her and her child through the dark halls of the Dun of B’ron. What did they mean for her? To force some ‘kindness’ from her for their entertainment? And after that?

For the first time in the long months that Fionn had followed her, and protected her, Maeve wished, fervently, that the black-eyed Fhaolain would appear.

[Hector/Gille]

The stairs that they chose were hidden in shadows, and a chill wind blew from above. This part of the Dun was little used, mostly because age was taking its toll on the battlements – the only thing that kept this portion defensible was the fact that the Dun snuggled close to an unclimbable rock face. But the walls and battlements themselves were broken and treacherous. Hector shifted Rue enough to light a torch so they could see their way up the stairs.

“That ain’t goin’ to be much good,” Gille hissed, “The wind will be sure to blow it out….”

“Once we’re up there we won’t be needin’ it,” Hector snarled back, “All we have to do is dump the pair over the wall – and let the carrion have them.” He laughed low under his breath; the adrenaline and drink making him truly appreciate how cleanly the tart and her dirt would be cleaned.

[Maeve]

Maeve tried to gulp in air, to scream, but Gille’s hand over her mouth stopped her. A low keening sound in the back of her throat was all she could manage around the fear rising up in her throat, and even that faded as she felt the cold wind sweeping over the parapets onto her legs. She kicked again, feeling Gille’s hand pressing against her lips … and her teeth …

Desperate, Maeve forced her mouth open, and bit down, as hard as she could.

[Gille/Hector]

Gille gave a strangled yelp as Maeve’s teeth sunk into his hand. “Who…r…!” he hissed as he swung her around to slam her against the stone.

But his balance wasn’t what it could have been – and the sudden turn threw him off stride. Gille’s grip on Maeve slipped as instinct made him grab towards the wall to steady himself.

Hector stepped back to avoid the tangle; cussing as he watched his friend lose hold of the wench.

[Ulric]

“Someone could get hurt up here…” came Ulric’s accented voice over the dull howl of the wind. The rock walls of the Dun had proven too suffocating for his liking, and he had come to the battlements for some air. He stood obscuring the stairway, his tall figure more of a shadow than anything else in the moonlight.

The Wind sang of warning, her voice a mosaic of desperation and fury. Ulric listened, knowing her story all too well.

[Hector/Gille]

“Gods of Sea and Stones!!” Hector yelped as he stared up at the dark spector, whose voice was partially obscured by the wind. The torch blew out and he began to scuttle backwards. In the dark Rue’s wail joined with the wind’s, since Hector had forgotten to keep the babe’s mouth covered.

Somewhere in the pitch Gille was cursing as he tried to grab hold of Maeve.

[Ulric]

A new voice joined the song, a plaintive, urgent note that tugged Ulric forward. With the wind pushing at his back he lunged forward, hands grabbing like steel vices onto Gille’s arms and throwing him back…

An undercurrent of {the song / his thoughts / he knew not} urged caution. His first concern was for the woman’s safety, not the murder of her enemies.

[Maeve]

Was the crying Cianna’s, or her own? Dazed from the force with which Gille had hurled her against the stone wall, Maeve could not tell whether the mewling came from her lips or her daughter’s. The taste of blood in her mouth was thick, and pain blossoming over the center of her face told her that, perhaps, her nose had been broken. Where was the baby? Hector had her last, standing near the parapets, ready to toss her down …

The wail, hers or Cianna’s, or the wind, chilled her. A dark ending for us both.

[Ulric]

“Stay,” Ulric commanded pressing one hand firmly on Maeve’s shoulder. With that he took three large steps towards the two clansmen. The Wind buffeted him, urging him forward with murderous intent, but for now… for now he ignored her.

“If the baby dies,” he roared above the wind, “then so do you both!”

[Hector/Gille]

All Gille could make out was the stranger’s dark outline – set against the battlements. There was no moon, and the mountains themselves prevented much moonlight from showing down onto these forgotten walls when there was any; so the battlements were nearly as dark as the stairway. Hillrover scrambled to his knees on the broken stone, and fumbled at his belt for his dagger. Nearby he heard the wench mewling in pain.

Nearer to the stranger Hector stood. He had dropped the useless torch and pulled his own dagger. The threat of the newcomer had cleared his head of drink, and now MacRorie was weighing the situation.

He laid the dagger to the wailing get’s throat and said, “If ye try to step us I’ll pin the whelp’s head to the wall.” With these words he began to back towards the stairs. “Get moving,” he hissed to Gille as he came equal to his foster-brother.

[Ulric]

Ulric laughed, forcing the air out of his lungs as hard as he could. He mocked them, or perhaps he was merely exhilarated at the way the Wind sang.

“I’ll be waiting for you then… when you’re done. Do you hear the wind? She sings your deaths, and she begs me do it.”

[Maeve]

“Cianna,” Maeve gasped. The foreigner’s hand, pushing her back, had kept her from following (or perhaps she didn’t want to follow? did she hate the child so much as to allow these two beasts to carry her away?), and the pain of her broken nose made her dizzy when she tried to stand. “Fionn -” Would Fionn blame her for this, for letting Gille and Hector carry her away? Blame her for the ill-naming, suspect that perhaps she was glad to have the babe gone?

[Hector/Gille]

Hector kept backing, feeling the first step beneath his boot, and angled so he could feel the wall behind him as he eased his way down the dark stairs. He muttered a curse at the babe’s wailing, but had no hands free to silence her. Right now she still had her uses – he didn’t completely believe that the warrior would sacrifice the child – but when he hit the base of the stairs….. Well then he didn’t need a wailing infant as he made his escape!!

As his foster-brother made the stairs Gille moved to cover his retreat – placing himself between Ulric and Hector.

[Ulric]

The Wind had spoken. Ulric moved forward borne by a sudden gust of wind, and aimed his best punch at Gille’s chest. With luck (and given the strength he devoted to the blow) he just might break a rib or two in the process of winding the man.

The Wind whispered in his ears, a riddle.

[Gille]

Gille expelled air and a unintelligible curse as he felt a sharp pain in his chest. He tried to swing out with his dagger at the attacking shadow, but his foot went out from under him, and he found himself painfully sliding down the first few stairs.

His foster brother’s cry and the sound of struggle in the darkness drove Hector to hurry his own descent – so he could have firm footing. His own panic was growing – to the point he had momentarily forgotten the babe he held.


[Fionn]

The dark-haired highlander shifted in his seat and waited for the storytelling to resume before rising to slip from the hall. The Hillrovers, like most of the highland clans, had many a bloody tale behind them, and the storytellers seemed ready to cover every one of them that eve. But his bladder wasn’t going to last through the entire performance, and a quick trip to relieve himself seemed in order.

[Snaig/Iogan/Sannt]

As Fionn left the hall a subtle signal was passed to Snaig Hillrover, Geill’s youngest nephew, who quickly signaled his brother Iogan, and his foster brother, Sannt. The three young men spaced their leaving so that they wouldn’t all be seen together, but once in the halls they joined together to seek out the Fhaolain.

When they saw what he was about, Iogan moved to follow up on similiar business. Casually he glanced over at Fionn and said, “Would ye be minding if I had a word with ye?”

[Fionn]

Fionn finished his business over the wall of the Dun and refastened his trousers, keeping his hands away from the long hillsman’s knife bound at his waist. The three hadn’t taken threatening stances – still, he was keenly aware of the common view of the Fhaolains, and though the clan did have its allies, the Hillrovers weren’t among them.

[Snaig/Iogan/Sannt]

“Tis a bit of business I’d like to offer ye,” Iogan said, the elder of the three, whose eyes showed a hungry intelligence similiar to Geill’s. “One that should suit ye well.”

[Fionn]

“Really?” Fionn looked the three over, wondering whether it was the Dun itself, or the way the other men kept glancing at each other, which made him uneasy. What sort of business would be suited for a Fhaolain? Something unpleasant and sly, he was sure. Something that would suit Niall.

[Snaig/Iogan/Sannt]

Though Iogan stayed where he was, the other two warriors had moved to block Fionn’s leaving, but none had gone for their weapons. Iogan said, “It tis said that Fhaolain’s are as cunning as a mother vixen, which makes ye of use to us.”

He leaned closer and said, “And in trade I’ve a bit of news that would be of use to ye – ye may be guest’s of Acair’s girl-get, but ye’re an embarrassment to his alliance with the MacRories so he’s let it be known that should ye get lost in the Dun he won’t be searching too hard.

‘Course Acair’s been an embarrassment to the clan fer a while now, so I don’t take much stock he what he says…”

[Fionn]

“I hae noo doubt young Hector wude slip a blade ‘twixt me ribs,” Fionn answered. “Nor the Hillrover chief wude count him friend for it.” One truth and one untruth, both as smooth from the Fhaolain’s tongue, a gift from Luatha, mother of lies. “But ye know the honor of the Hillrovers, and their shame for a chief who took his wife among the bedraggled seafolk, is nae my concern.”

This is a cold place, Luatha, he remarked silently to his clan’s fey mother. And colder still would have been her smile at the thought of more blood on its stones.

[Iogan/Snaig/Sannt]

Snaig chuckled and said, “And leek what he bred – a get who doesn’t knew her place.”

Sannt elbowed Snaig and hissed, “Keep ye’re voice down – Ye’re loud enough the Geds themselves well ‘ear ye.” His own brown eyes showed nervousness, combined with eagerness.

Iogan said, “We’d be needin’ seme Fhaolain wits, and heve ne use fer MacRorie pride. If ye’re willing to walk with us – a jeb will be ye’rs and a worthy purse.”

[Fionn]

“I will walk wi’ ye,” Fionn agreed, showing only what hesitation might be expected of one worried that perhaps he himself was the object of the trap. But if these three had wanted to do him in, this isolated place where they had chosen to relieve themselves would have served well enough. Refusal, at this point would be unwise; he might not be the cleverest of Luatha’s line, but he knew well enough that having broached the topic this far, the three would not allow him to simply turn and walk away.

[Iogan/Sannt/Snaig]

“Aye then,” Iogan said, beginning to lead the other three through the back halls to the stables – and a hidden room.


[Beud]

Beud eyed the pudding only brief. “Indeed it tis,” she said, shifting the winesack so it sat saucily on her hip, “And I would indeed like to share some dessert with ye….” She wished she had been able to put the right lilt to her words that her Mam did, but she didn’t let it worry her long, she added, “I’m serry, Yeung Sir, thet I cen’t offer ye a better trysting place.”

She nodded towards one of the piles of fresh hay.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho walked over to the pile of hay that she nodded to and sat down. “Oh don’t be sorry. This is a very interesting place. I’m not very much for wine, but I’ll have some if you will. You don’t have to call me young sir either. I’m not that much of a sir really.” He smiled at her. “My name’s Rudolpho.”

[Beud]

“I figured ye might not be,” Beud said with shrug, “But ye’re cleaned up and have nece manners.” She went over and got a couple of tin cups that the stablehands kept, and settled next to Rudolpho. She squirted some of the cheap wine into the cups and said, with a wink, “What about that dessert?”

[Rudolpho]

“Thanks. I think that people should try to be as nice as they can to one another. That’s why I try to be as nice to people as I can until they show me that they don’t deserve it, or I have to um … acquire things.” Rudolpho fumbled for the spoons he had borrowed. He pulled them out and offered one to Beud. “I brought this pudding we can share. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to bring anything else. I would have helped you with the serving but that would have looked bad because I was supposed to be a guest. So do you hide out here often?”

[Beud]

Beud nearly laughed, but not at Rudolpho’s naivete. But just at the delight of the situation – for he was actually a well-meaning lad, even if he was a pickpurse. The Chief’s daughter did travel in some interesting company, and Beud would bet that none in that party were what they seemed. Except, maybe, the broken woman and the Fhaolain, and the wee babe.

She let die her next come-on, which had been something about “being ‘nice’ to her,” and set down the wine mugs. She took the bowls and helped to dish out the pudding. “If ye had been a server – then me Mam wouldn’t have leeked away at me slippin’ out. Et’s better thet they think ye a lordling.”

The sound of men’s low voices made her suddenly scramble for a hiding place. She understood that it could be folk on honest business, but then again – it might not, and instinct always said to take no chances.

Heedlessly she pushed both pudding bowls and wine cups into the straw.

[Iogan/Sannt/Snaig]

The three conspirators led Fionn into the quiet stables – leading him towards the tack room.

[Fionn]

Every moment, the situation made the highlander uneasier, and it did not escape him that the tack room was a nicely out of the way place to dispose of an unwanted person. But he had to keep reminding himself that if the three wanted to cut his throat, they would have done it already – and that perhaps the only way out of this … whatever this scheme turned out to be, and it had the ugly taste of betrayal of the chieftain on it … and back to Maeve would be to play Fhaolain mercenary for as long as possible. And hope for a chance to find a way for all three to be away from the Dun unharmed. “Ye said thair’s a purse innit fer me,” Fionn said in a low voice once they were inside.

[Iogan/Sannt/Snaig]

“Aye, there is,” Sannt said, motioning the Fhaolain into the darkened tack room. There Iogan was already beginning to feel around in the dark, until he found the marked box he needed.

This he pushed out of the way, and indicated a ladder going down into what should have been dark – but the rungs were light with the faint glow of a nearby lantern. Men’s low voices could be heard.

Iogan gave a low bird’s call – then motioned Fionn was to follow him down. Sannt came behind the Fhaolain, with Snaig waiting to reposition the box and act as guard.

[Fionn]

“Divided how many ways?” Fionn asked, with a greedy hint to his voice and gleam to his eye. How many were there? And how many Hillrover, ready to betray their chief? And what difference between them and Fhaolain? Fionn asked himself as he set his foot on the first step down. Yes, Luatha would be laughing at this, as she had laughed at Niall’s theft of Maeve from the MacRories. “The price shude be high to set myself ‘gainst the Hillrover chieftain ‘neath his very nose,” he added, making certain the greed came through.

[Iogan]

“There tis more than enugh to ge ‘round,” Iogan said, as he brought Fionn into the light.

Which revealed Gairge Hillrover, his own brother Pedric, and a man whose sandy hair and broad faced declared him to be a McLenan.

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