Three different journeymen had offered a selection of five epic tales, but finally the High Bard Naomha signaled his bards to follow him from the hall. At which point Acair stood and declared the feasting at an end. Quietly he signaled Laurelyn and Thomis to follow him.
As he followed Acair and the others from the hall, Thomis turned his head slightly to remind himself of those who had remained. Only Jacques and Daron of their party were still left, and he had no doubt that the jester would soon find himself a place to spend the hours ‘til dawn. The serving girl, Bronwyn, already had dodged two or three groping hands, softening the rejection with a smile each time, in order to work her way back to the gaily dressed man.
Acair led Laurelyn and Thomis back to the room where he had spoken with each of them earlier, but when they arrived they found that the High Bard Naomha had arrived before them. He had divested himself of the voluminous feathered cloak and headdress, but the intricate braiding of his still-black hair gave him a formal appearance. He stood from his chair as Acair walked past.
“Just as well make yerselfs comfortable,” Acair said, “This is probably going to be a long conversation.” He gestured to two seats near Naomha’s; seats that had been arranged by the High Bard to face him. Laurelyn glanced at her father, but took the chair he had indicated. She noted that he sat outside their little circle, but close enough to listen.
“What is it that you need of me?” she asked the High Bard respectfully.
He smiled, and actually pleasant smile though tinged with the weight of knowledge, and said, “The spirits and the signs speak of ye’re future lass and of this we must speak.”
Thomis had taken the chair, and leaned back with a nod of acknowledgment to the high bard. The seating arrangement made him feel as if another inspection were taking place, this one the sort of reading Politi mages might be given to. Naomha looked to be one about to speak secrets, and he could only hope they would not be dire.
“When ye were but a stripling lass I saw that ye had gifts and offered ye a place in the bardic halls…”
The storyteller felt distinctly uncomfortable with the way the conversation was going – she knew that many in the Hillrover clan thought her both coward and fool for not accepting such an honor. A particularly large honor for one considered a by-blow, though her Da considered her Ma wife in everything but vows. Vows her mother would not give. But in honor of the High Bard she did not flinch, all she did was nod.
“And for ye own reasons,” Naomha said, with no judgment in his voice, “Though I suspect ye had tired of the blood rivers early, ye left us. And have done well by the looks of it.” He looked over at Thomis and continued, “But now ye ride back, carrying ye’re own death shadows, and bringing with ye companions whose fates are tied to thee. And ye ride towards a fate that ye think ye want.”
“I will find the Star Dreamer,” Laurelyn simply said, not wanting to hear an argument about why it was a fool’s quest. The call of the ship was too strong.
“Ye will,” Naomha said, “But what ye bring back with ye will require guidance…..”
He stopped and cocked his head to one side.
At first Laurelyn thought he was in a trance, but soon she too heard the faint, but growing, sound of the pipes. A sound that sank into bone and stone, leaving both as cold as death.
When the two stopped, Thomis waited for a moment, knowing that something had caught their attention. To one deaf to the threads, though bound by and to them, it was not unusual to have those about you listening to sounds you could not hear. But after a moment, even Thomas could … not hear, but feel it, a low dirge or battle call. Tower of Sorrows they called it, with a blessing that was curse for the Hillrovers.
“Do you hear it?” Laurelyn demanded – first of Naomha and then Acair. Her eyes were angry, almost accusatory, as she looked at the two men. “The Piper speaks of Clan death!”
“He does,” Acair said sadly.
“We knew that sooner or later he would play,” Naomha said, “Such is the Dun of B’ron – whomever holds it shall lose it.”
“And yet ye took it over,” Laurelyn said – angry with all such foolishness.
“Geill Hillrover pushed for it,” Acair reminded her, “To protect his lands from the McLenans.”
“And the blood keeps flowing,” Laurelyn hissed, fighting the overwhelming desire to scream her anger at the mindset of men and women who trapped themselves in war.
“Ye could begin the change…” Naohma said, nearly drowned out as the pipes became more insistent. His eyes watching as the storyteller got up to pace – obviously unheeding of his words.
“How much change between the playing of the pipes and the flowing of blood?” Thomis asked quietly. “And what of those who choose the blood – what burden on them to change it?” His tone was even, but his gaze took in both high bard and chieftain, with the expression of one who knew all too well the difficulty even those of highest rank faced in washing away blood debts. Sons, daughters were offered, and taken. And grandsons … Thomis touched the scar across the bridge of his nose, before looking to Laurelyn. “How long a warning does the piper give you? How close the attack?” At least he had his sword and his knives by him, though the thought of the others in their party, scattered throughout the Dun, worried him.
“Only hours,” Acair said, standing, and reaching for his sword.
Laurelyn looked up at her Da, and saw how tired he looked. Like a man who had been worn down awaiting his own execution. She stood up, with fire in her eyes, and said, “We can prepare then – there aren’t that many ways the MacLenans can enter.” What she didn’t say was that she wasn’t going to see her father fall to this senselessness.
“Ye can’t fight the Fates,” Naomha said, “The Dun has been cursed to change from bloody hand to bloody hand.”
The storyteller looked over at Thomis as she remembered how their little party had fought against the forest robbers and their demon, and said, “Perhaps the change you spoke of has already begun – maybe some wild cards have been added in.”
But as she looked at Thomis, Laurelyn also remembered how close they had come to dying in the woods, and her eyes asked if he was willing to fight for people he had just met.
“Among my people, the patterns weave us. But we weave the patterns, also,” Thomis answered as he stood. “You can let yourself be knotted in, if you want,” and some did, some would ride the weaving complacently. Others, like Mesani, and Kallin, would cut it through with fire and set the loom to moving again, as they would will it, for as long as they could. “And if there are any wild cards to be added, the gods know we brought them with us.”
“Perhaps we will cause the patterns to re-shape themselves,” Acair said with a fire of his own in his eyes. He looked to his daughter and Thomis and said, “Find ye’re friends – and see which ones will be willing to fight.”
Naomha just looked worried, though he hide his disbelief in their ability to change the Fates, and said, “I will go and prepare my bards for my battle.”
Laurelyn gave Thomis a look of deep gratitude before saying, “We’ll find our people.” She just hoped that they had time to find where everyone had scattered to.
“You might want to change your dress,” Thomis added. His own clothing would serve well, though he intended to find the fine shirt of link armor that he had packed – hoping he would never need to use it – in his bags. “Daron should be back at our quarters by now, also.”
Laurelyn smiled grimly and said, “You’re right – a sword wouldn’t go well with this dress.”
Once they were beyond the great doors and on their way to their quarters she added, “I swear, though, that every Fate is against us having one quiet moment.”
In his haste it wasn’t long before Keir lost his way back to the Hall and he began wandering through the twisting maze of the Dun’s many passages. His sharp ears caught the faint sound of footfalls and he worked his way towards them hoping to find someone, anyone, who could show him the correct path. He was certain this wasn’t it for it led upwards but pressed on until muffled shouts caused him to slow his pace. One voice he recognized instantly, that of Ulric – Ulric the Rabbit Slayer. As he wondered what had brought the man here, to this forsaken region of this dreadful place, he felt a twinge of embarrassment for finding comfort in his familiar speech.
At the sounds of struggle and the wails of a babe he froze and pressed against the walls at the foot of the stairs. His eyes accustomed to the dim light of barrows and his keen hearing allowed him to gauge the situation in an instant. As Hector and the babe drew near he called to the spiders and a dozen immediately dropped from the ceiling onto Hector’s face. Keir took advantage of Hector’s startled reaction to the sticky cords, 96 crawling legs and 24 biting fangs to step from the shadows and slammed the butt end of his staff where Big Folk males seemed most vulnerable. He hoped that, despite his skirt, it would cause Hector to drop the child into his arms. He knew once he had her they’d never catch him, especially in the dark.
As the spiders fell down upon his face, and rapidly worked their way into his shirt, Hector’s own terrified howl joined the babe’s.
And grew to shriek of pain as some demon struck his manhood. He was torn between clawing at his face and grasping lower, but the end result was that Rue went flying from his arms.
Gille added his own pained howl of horror as the eerie, merciless, sound of warpipes began to fill the Dun; the sound impregnanted the stone, and filled living ears with music from beyond the grave.
Keir had barely managed to catch Rue without dropping his staff when the pipes sounded. An electric shock ran down his spine as he not only heard the mournful wail but smelled it, the same smell of doom he had sensed earlier but now thrice as strong. All his hair was on end as he dashed down the corridor, the fear only making him faster.
Ulric could not see clearly what had caused Hector to crumple around his groin, but he could guess from the shape and angle that little Master Keir had found his way to the rescue. With no hesitation he ran down the stairs, warhammer in hand. He passed Gille first, using a gentle swing of the hammer to knock his head against the stones, and then a harder swing to catch Hector in the face.
“Hurry!” he shouted up to Maeve, “your child is safe, but we must find Laurelyn!”
He waited for her to appear, hoping to the Wind, the Sea and the Stones that he would not have to go and fetch her.
Maeve crept towards the stairs on hands and knees, squinting to see the edge of the steps through the darkness. She had heard the pipes, and felt them, and all she really wanted to do was flee, as quickly as possible, far from the Dun of B’ron. But even through her pain and near hysteria, she realized that the tall foreigner was her only protection. So down she went, half-sliding down the stairs, recoiling momentarily from Gille Hillrover’s crumpled form before stopping to reach over and unlash a sheathed dagger from his belt.
At the bottom of the steps, she stopped, and pulled herself up the wall to her feet to stand, bloody-faced, staring up – far up – at Ulric. “Laurelyn,” she mumbled around bruised lips and broken nose, “wit’ her da, likely, or her man, Thomis.” But where would that be? What with being snatched up, carried away, and nearly tossed head first over the battlements, Maeve had completely lost her sense of how to make her way around the Dun.
Keir sped through the passage, thankful that Rue had quieted some. Either that or the call of the pipes made her seem quiet by comparison. His own scent still hung in the air so he was able to retrace his steps back towards the rooms. He would have liked to stay and aid Mauve and Ulric but knew his first duty was to get the child to safety. He hoped the warrior had the skills to match his bravado.
Reaching his room he fumbled with the latch while juggling both babe and staff. Once inside he dropped his staff and bolted the door before lying Rue on the straw mattress beside the bunnies. Shaking and breathing heavily he flopped down himself. He dismissed any thought of returning as by now the issue was probably resolved one way or another. Glancing forlornly at his growing collection of helpless waifs he shook his head and muttered to himself. “Not a proper situation for a respectable bachelor to find himself in. Not proper at all.” With a deep sigh he rose, retrieved his castoff staff and stood guard by the door.
Ulric gave Maeve a small smile, and brought his sleeve up to wipe some of the blood from her face. He had at least found some retribution for her, he didn’t even dare look at what he had done to Hector’s face.
“We must find our way down,” he said at last, but noticed that neither of them appeared to be aware of exactly how to achieve that goal. “Come”, he said, heading off down one corridor. For now, Fate was the best guide he could find.
"Down?" the girl repeated, staring after the stranger in confusion. But she followed, picking her way carefully behind him, realizing only then that somewhere along the way, one shoe had gone missing, leaving her with just a threadbare stocking on that foot. For some reason, contemplating the missing shoe's flight over the battlements down into the darkness distracted her enough from the pain in her face and from the bruises elsewhere on her body for her to trail the foreigner without protest. "The McLenans most likely be the cause fer the piper to play," she whispered after him. "An' the Hillrovers be readyin' for them."
At least no immediate family members were among the defenders, she consoled herself. Cast out as she was, still she would not want father or brothers to be in the Dun at this time.
Ulric bit back his next comment – Who cares about names at a time like this? – not out of respect but out of realization. Names were exactly what this situation was caused by, one name versus another. He shook his head as he strode down the hallway, looking anxiously for anything that would lead to safety.
“We either find our way down to open space, or we find the others… Gods! This place is a maze…” He changed course towards a stairwell, cursing the heavy, dark walls which closed in on him from every side.
“Wait,” Maeve rasped, pausing by a casement that opened to the outside. Placing her hands carefully on the edge, she leaned out, trying to guess from the dark outlines of the hills against the night sky what side of the Dun they stood on. “North,” she said, pointing slightly to her right. “An’ the main gate was …” Maeve turned slightly, and turned again, trying to orient herself. “That way.” She pointed again, straight at the wall across from the casement. “I think,” she added apologetically.
“First this way” he pointed, given that their desired direction was blocked by a wall. He touched her gently on the arm to keep her with him as he took his long strides down the hallway, and he kept an eye on her, fearful that she might fall behind.
He stopped suddenly as they reached an intersection in the corridors.
“This way” he breathed, pointing to his left. As he started walking he explained, “Laurelyn’s voice… and Thomis… I think.”
Rudolpho’s long practiced ability to hide came in handy when he noticed Beud’s reaction. Long ago he had learned that sometimes it was just best not to be there. He didn’t know why they suddenly had to hide so quickly at the men’s approach, but he didn’t voice any argument. He looked to her for some sort of explanation, but Beud seemed to be concentrating on listening and he remained quiet. He turned his ear to listening as well, but could not make anything of the strange language.
That four men had entered the tack room, and none emerged, boded ill. And early in life Beud had learned that knowledge was power in the closeknit society of clan politics.
When silence settled back into the stable, except for the shuffle of horses and Rudolpho’s breathing, she slipped out and eased herself next to the wall by the tack room.
She had caught something about the ”’gainst the Hillrover chieftain,” but the men’s words quickly faded – as if they were moving away from the tack room. Which wasn’t possible. Was it?
She had just sat back on her heels, with a look of disgust on her face at learning nothing more, when a new sound made her go pale. And the horses shift uneasily.
For though the dirge the pipes played had a hollow, echoing sound the power of the music filled every cranny and inhabitant of the Dun.
Beud began to silently back up with a look of resigned terror on her face; she had heard the tales of the Dun – when it was retaken none of its defenders ever lived. To one so young they had seemed just stories when the camp followers joined the warriors in the Dun of B’ron, but now she knew that her blood too would flow in the Fort of Sorrows. And probably not till after the remnants of her innocence had been robbed from her.
[In the Secret Room]
The Piper’s dirge easily wound its way down into the bowels of the Dun, and filled the little room the conspirators were using. Gairge, Iogan and Sannt shifted uneasily as the lifetime of stories about the Dun were called to memory. But Fhios McLenan smiled at the sound, and said, “See lads, even ye’re Piper sounds our victory. For soon the Dun will be the McLenans’ again – and Geill’s branch of the Hillrovers will be our allies, so there will no more need to battle over the Dun ever again. No need at all!”
Fhios was a practical man, and Toisich’s, the Chief of the McLenans, eldest son, so he gave little credence to old tales; except in how more superstitious men and women were effected by them – a belief that often led to a fatalistic resignation. So he gave no credence to the old story of how the Hillrover warpiper that his Clan had murdered sought vengeance on the McLenans – not so much for his own death, but at their blasphemy for murdering one who was considered nearly holy, and for burying him in a unmarked, unhonored grave.
McLenan turned towards Fionn and continued to smile as he said, “Welcome Fhaolain….I have need of your talents….”
If the sound of the pipes made Fionn uneasy, he gave no sign of it, leaning one shoulder against the wall of the underground room to appraise the others as the wail faded. “Best to be ‘gainst the defenders in this battle,” Fionn murmured. The Fhaolains were a clan who lived among ghosts, and gave great weight to the legends Fhios discounted so easily. “What talents need ye?” he asked warily, wondering what tales of the dark clan, Luatha’s children, had reached the McLenans.
“We need someone with a quick blade,” Fhios said, “Originally Sannt was to go alone, but when we saw that a Fhaolain had arrived we knew we might be in luck.” He pointed towards a small hole in the back of the chamber, and said, “That tunnel is old and leads to one of the guard’s towers. We need ye to go cut a throat or two.”
His brown eyes twinkled, and he added, “Unless you’re ‘blessed’ with the killing touch! That would be so much quieter.”
“Ach, no, the lady has not gi’n that to me,” Fionn answered, “but my blade be quick enough for highland deer, and surely be quick enough for drunken guards.” Though he knew, with the piper sounding, the Hillrovers would be ready, and none within the Dun would be sleeping easily.
[In the Main Stables – Rudolpho]
Rudolpho heard the sound of the pipes but didn’t know what they portended. What he did know or realize was the change it caused in Beud. Her apprehension had gone to a full fledged fear. She seemed almost far away. He decided that with the noise of the pipes, silence mattered a little less now. Besides which he could deal with whoever the men were. He reached out, grabbed Beud’s arm, and shook her. In an urgent whisper he hissed “Beud! What’s going on. You have to tell me who those men were and why they had my friend. I don’t know what’s going on here but I can help. You have to trust me. I won’t let anything bad happen to you. Just help me out.”
For a long moment Beud looked at him with unseeing eyes, but at last managed to hiccup out, “Ey don’t knew why the Fhaolain is with them…., but ne geed will come of anything a Fhaolain is in.”
Instinct and a desire to at least try and survive was rapidly taking hold of the girl, and she began to pull against Rudolpho’s hold. No mere strapling would be any aid against the McLenans – the best they could do was try and hide. Frantically she said, “Leave them be – thet’s the Piper ye ‘eard and he calls our deaths this night….we hold the Dun and its ceme our time to fall.”
Beud pulled away and said, “Ceme on – meybe we can find a place to hide!”
[In the Secret Room]
Fhios gestured towards the hole in the back of the room, and said, “Then ‘quickblade’ go on in with Sannt – me family is eager to have a roof for the night.”
Sannt gave a jaunty salute to Gairge and the McLenan, and gestured Fionn to proceed him into the tunnel. If the Fhaolain decided to act on his nature and be a turncoat Sannt figured that he could bleed him before the guards had too much warning. “Course, even if Fionn was true to the gold he’d still get to cut him – once there was no need left for Fionn to let him live.
Rudolpho knew he didn’t have much time if the men in the room shared the same feeling Beud did. He also didn’t have them time to argue with her. He grabbed her again and spun her around to look at him. “I don’t know about any piper, and I’m sure as hell not going to let him tell me when it’s time to die. You haven’t seen what my friends can do. If I know them, they’re getting ready to help and I sure feel sorry with anyone who messes with them. Right now, I think Fionn needs my help. Hide if you want, but I’m going to help him with or without you.”
“If a Fhaolain is ye’re friend – then ye ain’t the Chief’s. He’s takin’ gold to do us harm….”
In a bit more gentle a tone he added. “I’d sure like it if you stayed though. I could use your help. I might need to chan… I’m night need to do some magic now. Don’t be frightened. I won’t hurt you. If you do stay, I’ll do my best to keep you safe. I won’t kill anyone if I don’t have to, but I doubt they’ll cooperate. If you’re going to hide, you should do it now.”
With that Rudolpho crept up to the wall and peeked quickly into the tack room where he had seen the men disappear. There stood only one man now and he seemed to be on guard. Rudolpho smiled as he formed his plan. He got into an empty stall by the door to the tack room. In a loud voice he cried “hey who is that?!” He then shifted into a copy of one of the horses in the stable and waited.
Torn by fear and curiosity Beud didn’t move as Rudolpho changed – only her eyes got bigger.
And that was what Snaig saw as he hurried from the tack room, with sword drawn. “Whet the Hells!?” he hissed, reaching to grab the terrified girl.
The fact that Beud didn’t move only served to help with Rudolpho’s ruse. As Snaig came running for Beud, he balanced on his front hooves and kicked at Snaig’s head. He hoped his aim was true and that he would take Snaig by surprise.
The hoof grazed Snaig’s head causing him to stumble forward to his knees. And with the flash of the hoof Beud seemed to come out of her paralysis to grab up a shovel and bring it down hard on the traitor’s head. Nor did the sight of blood pooling from the crack in his skull slow her – she grabbed hold of an arm and his collar and began dragging him into the empty stall that she and Rudolpho had deserted.
While she was hiding the body in the straw she glanced up at Rudolpho – the horse, and said, “Leke I wes tryin’ to tell ye – ye’re friend es in it with them!! A Fhaolain is always bad news.”
Rudolpho changed back to his human form and stopped Beud. “Don’t try and hide the body. They might think that it was a horse that did that to him. Otherwise they’ll be onto us. As for Fionn being a Fhaolain, I don’t know anything about names. I don’t care what people say, I’ve been traveling with him and he isn’t ‘bad news’ as you say.” Rudolpho realized he missed something and looked at her. “In what with them?” As he queried Beud he headed towards the tack room to find the trap door they had to have used. Perhaps he could get a better look at what the secret room held.
Beud shrugged – then went to free one of the horses, which she led over so it could step in Snaig’s blood.
She came over to peer into the dark tack room, and said, “They’re geing to de semething against the Chief…..” With a little feeling around she found a lantern to light, and signaled Rudolpho in so she could close the door.
Rudolpho entered the room and began looking around. And while Beud held the lantern he found some scratches on the floor indicatinga corner box had been moved recently. “I’ve gotta go down there. I don’t know if I can take you though. It’s pretty dangerous.”
Beud had found a hoof pick, which she held tightly to, and said, “I’ll stay to guard.” She grinned in the dim light and added, “Better than Snaig did.”
[In the Secret Room]
Once Fionn and Sannt were in the tunnel Fhios leaned back against the wall, and said to Iogan, “We’ll give them abeut five minutes – then we can go on up. By then things sheuld be in a fine bit of chaos – with Acair’s ‘gerls’ being in a fine panic at the sound of the Piper.”
Iogan nodded, trying to look unaffected by the Piper’s mournful wail. For though he was going against Acair – he was still a Hillrover.
[In the Tunnel]
”’Urry it along,” Sannt hissed from behind Fionn. Sannt was sure he could have taken both guards – he was fast enough, and resented the fact that a McLenan had decided to hire a Fhaolain to help with the job. He took some satisfaction in knowing that once the guards were out of the way then the Fhaolain would die.
But right now he was just eager to have the night’s work begun. There had been so much plotting and planning – and waiting – that he wanted it done and Geill as Chief.
There was no way to excuse a slow crawl through the tunnel, but he could make himself go softly and cautiously. How much could the Hillrover chieftain prepare in the time he had been given by the piper? Would Maeve and Rue be guarded?
[Beud – In the Tack Room]
“Be wary,” Beud hissed to Rudolpho, “We den’t knew if they’re right below or net.” With this thought in mind she extinguished her lantern.
Rudolpho was torn for a moment whether or not to leave Beud alone. He then remembered how nicely she had brained Snaig and that she was similarly armed at the moment. She also had the element of surprise to her advantage. “You be careful yourself. I better not come back and find that anything has happened to you, or I’ll never meet you out in another stable again… no pudding or wine either.” He gave her a smile and fished around in his pouches. Figuring the best way to gauge the situation in the room was as a mouse, he withdrew the appropriate components. “I’ll be back soon.” With that, he changed into a mouse and hurried down the ladder. He didn’t want the two men to see him and decide they wanted to try some target practice. Worse yet, they might be afraid of mice.
The girl gave him a quick smile and went to hide behind some boxes on the other side of the tack room.
Once he was down in the secret room, Rudolpho noticed the two men seemed to be waiting for something. There was no sign of the fourth man or Fionn. The only place they could have gone was down the tunnel. He didn’t know where it led but he didn’t care. He scurried into the tunnel and began to follow it. He could smell the two men up ahead and soon saw them.
[In the Secret Room – Fhios and Iogan]
Neither man paid heed as yet another rodent scurried along the edge of the shadows, and having decided that time was up they headed for the ladder.
[In the Tunnel – Rudolpho]
I wonder how to let Fionn know I’m on his side Rudolpho wondered. He quickly decided the best way was to turn into a form Fionn was most likely to recognize. Luckily for him the man didn’t trust Fionn and had him in front of him. What he didn’t take into account is Fionn had a friend named Rudolpho! Performing a quick spell Rudolpho’s mouse form grew into that of a wolf. Having affected the change he took a few quick strides before he pounced at the man’s back.
Sannt felt a hot breath on his legs, and started to turn – not an easy manuver – in the tunnel. His scream was cut short as the monster landed – hard – on his back.
[In the Tack Room]
“Did ye hear somethin?’” Iogan asked as he manuvered the crate back over the hidden ladder.
“Nay,” Fhios answered, “Just prebably the echo of those blessed Pipes. Come along -we need to see how many men were felled by the poison.”
Hidden as she was none saw Beud’s eyes get large at the conspirator’s statement, and she held both her breath and her hoof pick, awaiting their discovery of Snaig’s body.
An exclamation was quick to follow but no one burst back into the tack room. Beud crept a little closer to the door to try and hear, and though she couldn’t make out much through the wood she could hear an odd moaning – Snaig? – and the two men talking. Something about a fool spilling wine. ...And it twas a pity that such an accident happened.
Her pretty brow furrowed at the men’s obvious lack of worry, and when several moments of silence had passed she eased the door open.
Her hand leapt to her mouth…...
Not far from the door lay the horse she had led over – still weakly thrashing and moaning.
And though the Piper still played there were no other noises in the stable, so Beud relit her lantern and went to look; trying to fight down bile as she did so. The floor was slick with Snaig’s blood, but also with the horse’s saliva – and possibly its own blood, since she could see the pink foam around its mouth. But plastered, and wet, against the horse’s mouth was straw.
Beud felt sick with realization – the wine she had brought, and spilled in the hay, had been poisoned!! The conspirators had obviously thought Snaig struck down by the dying horse. She barely could keep hold of her lamp as relief followed horror – the events had bought she and Rudolpho time. She looked back to the tack room and prayed to the Gods of Sea and Stone that Rudolpho hurried – she had promised to stand guard, but they had to warn the others of the poison!! If it wasn’t too late.
In the tunnel, Fionn turned, crouching low, with his huntsman’s knife in his hands, ready to take whatever attack had come at Sannt. Had Fhios and Iogan decided to slit both their throats?
But at the sight of the wolf looming over the other man, he relaxed – slightly. And did not move from his stand. This was the boy, with the shifter’s arts. What had he heard? And would he leap also at the Fhaolain?
Rudolpho wondered if Fionn really recognized him. He still had the knife in his hand and hadn’t moved to do anything to bind the man he had just jumped on. He cocked his head and looked at Fionn. He looked back at the man and made a plaintive whine. For emphasis he looked down the tunnel, then at the sprawled out man, then back at Fionn. He remained ready to bite the man he stood on the hand if he so much as twitched.
Not enough. The boy had not heard enough, or else had not understood … Otherwise, Fionn would not have faulted him for laying his wolf’s teeth at his throat. He lowered the knife, but kept it drawn, and crept back to the moaning Sannt. And kicked him, none too gently, before crouching down to pull the man’s head back and place the edge of the knife – sharp enough to cut bone – against the bare neck. “How many?” he asked softly in highland, when the man opened his eyes. “How many have turned ‘gainst the Hillrover?”
Gairge, they had said. His father also? Would Geill Hillrover, first cousin to Acair and to the absent warpiper Brion, turn against his kin? It seemed difficult to work his mind around that thought, but he knew too well from his own clan how easily betrayal could worm its way in to a man’s heart.
“Tell me,” he breathed, baring his teeth and pressing harder, ‘til a thin line of blood appeared across the blade. “Or the bain sidhe will sing for ye tonight.”
Sannt’s breathing was ragged with fear – and his gaze kept traveling between the shadow shape of the wolf, back to Fionn. He was no coward, and knew that to help win such a prize as a clan one had to be willing to die. But the proof of the Fhaolain’s dark, weirdling magic completely unmanned him and though the words seemed half-strangled he said, “Seventy-five – Geil’s men…... – the McLenans await us beyond the gates…”
“Seventy-four,” Fionn hissed. For a moment, he considered slitting the man’s throat where he lay, leaving him to bleed in the closed tunnel. But if the bain sidhe wanted to sing, Fionn would not make it for this man. Instead, he lifted his hand and slammed the heavy oak hilt of the knife into Sannt’s temple. “Cen ait—” the highlander stopped, reminding himself to speak in common to the shifter-boy. “Where is Laurelyn Hillrover and her da? There are turncoats among the clan, and the McLenans are near.”
Since he couldn’t talk to Fionn as a wolf, and the man would be unconscious for awhile, Rudolpho switched back to his human form. “I don’t know where they are. I didn’t have a chance to warn them. I think the piper music is like some sort of warning alarm, though. What do we do now? You weren’t really going to kill those guards were you? I didn’t think you were. That’s what I kept telling her anyway. You weren’t were you? I think maybe we should warn the guards at the end of the tunnel of the traitors and then try and find the rest. I don’t think they’re going to take this lying down.” Sensing he was asking too many questions, Rudolpho slowed down to let Fionn talk.
Sweet Eisei, did the boy always rattle on? The highlander was grateful when the child finally fell silent, the quiet gave him a moment to sort through what he had said. He obviously had been with someone who had understood what had been said – girl of some sort, and one who spoke the highland tongue. “We go back,” he said firmly. Not knowing where the tunnels came up – or what reception would be waiting from guards already set astir by the piper’s alarm, he could not readily stick his head out where it might be lopped off before any questions could be asked.
Without waiting for Rudolpho’s answer – or responding to the question of whether he would have drawn his knife on the guards at the other end of the tunnel – Fionn returned back down the tunnel and almost flowed up the ladder to the top to push aside the door.
Beud had left the dying horse and the already dead Snaig, and returned to the tack room. Just as she had closed the door she heard movement coming from the secret passage, and turned. “Rudol….,” died on her lips as she saw the Fhaolain pulling himself free of the passage.
She grasped the horse pick and felt for the door handle with her other hand.
Rudolpho followed close at Fionn’s heels. He was in a real hurry and Rudolpho didn’t blame him. He wanted to be back with the group too. Maybe then things would be better. Things always seemed to be okay when they were together no matter what problems they faced or who the enemy was. It was when Fionn went up the ladder that he remembered Beud. He clapped his hand to his forehead. “Fionn wait!” He had already stuck his head out of the opening though so Rudolpho had to act fast. He started to yell as he scrambled up the ladder behind the Fhaolain. “Beud don’t! He’s with me! Don’t hit him! Get out of the way, Fionn. Beud, don’t hit him I’m here and he’s with me.” He hoped Beud wouldn’t haul off and hit him anyway, seeing as how she seemed to think that all Fhaolains were no good.
The girl had already lunged – hoof pick in hand – at the Flholain, who she was sure had killed Rudolpho.
But Rudolpho’s frantic yelling brought her up short; her sudden stop and twist to the side causing her to fall over the crate.
The highlander had cursed, and cursed again, as the boy practically crawled over him, and twisted so that the sharp blade of his huntsman’s knife would not catch unprotected flesh. Only when Rudolpho was clear of the ladder did he pull himself fully into the tack room. He did not offer to help the girl up – she still held the hoof pick and he still held his knife – but crouched and waited for her to pick herself up and turn to him. “Betrayal,” he hissed in highland tongue, before switching to common so that Rudolpho could understand. “A McLenan and Iogan and Sannt, and others among the Hillrovers are set against your chief. Gairge and mayhap Geill.”
His dark eyes flashed as the girl stared at him. “I cannae fault you for distrusting a Fhaolain, lass, but ye need to tell yer chief that the Piper plays not only because of McLenan, but also Hillrover. He may find a knife at his back where he does not expect it.”
Rudolpho watched the scene before him and decided that nothing would get done if he waited for these two to iron out their differences. They stood glaring at each other and that wouldn’t help anything. “I don’t know about you two, but I think we should get going.” As he started out of the barn, he stopped short when he saw the dead horse. He was going to ask Beud if the two others had killed the hapless creature when he too noticed the pink froth and the straw indicating the poisoned wine.
The realization hit that it could have been he and Beud rather than the horse, but he continued on into action. He snatched up the wine skin with whatever was left in it, tightened the top, and tucked it away. He turned back to Fionn and Beud and motioned them to follow. As Beud fell into step with him he told her under his breath, “I told you he’s on our side. You still might not believe me, but wait and see.”