[In the great hall]
Within the hall many of the warriors were settling in for some long drinking, and were already pulling a server to their lap. The sound of voices and hard laughter seemed to reach to the very wafters. Amidst the noise Measail turned to Daron and said, loud enough to be heard, “Good Lady Daron, you look to have been deserted by your comrades. Please allow myself and good Teth to escort you from the hall.” He seemed to have already ruled out Jacques as a man who’d found his place for the night.
“Yes,” Teth said, studying the girl from head to toe, “When these lads get enough to drink they might not recognize a lady from the wenches. I’ve had it happen a couple of times myself.”
“And they’re walking worse for wear,” Measail added with a chuckle, leaving the issue open as to the reasons for the declining condition.
The artist smiled gratefully at Measail and Teth. “Thank you. I would appreciate that very much…” Her voice trailed off and her cheeks flushed slightly as she noticed one of the warriors taking certain liberties with one of the serving wenches practically in full view of the room.
Daron averted her gaze, wishing suddenly that her gown’s V-neckline -while still modest – was closer to her chin and the shimmery emerald green fabric did not cling to her form as well as it did…
“Well then come along,” Measail said, leading the way from the room.
As they walked out Teth looked at the younger woman and asked, “And how did such a charming lady come to be traveling the mountain roads with the Chief’s daughter?”
Before there was time for an answer the mournful dirge of bagpipes filled the room, and made many of the warriors and camp followers scramble to their feet; with exclaimations of terror or anger.
Measail and Teth both looked grim. Measail ordered, “Head for the inner chambers woman!” He quickly began to rally the men – as Tetha began to herd the terrified women ahead of her. To Daron she said, “Come along, lass!! The Piper is playing – soon Death will follow!!”
So now it comes, Daron thought. One hand reached under her long dark hair, appearing to casually scratch the back of her neck. “Please just get me to my room,” she told Teth, gathering her skirt up in her other hand to aid her flight to her quarters. I’ll not go yet…not without taking my honorguard along… The memory of her father’s advice gave the artist strength. Seemingly by magic an ebony-handled dagger appeared in the hand that had been scratching her neck. “I’ll not go down without a fight…” Daron assured Teth.
The wide smile with which the serving girl had greeted the jester faded quickly to pale fear. So quickly turned her thoughts of a night of pleasure to a night where more sorrows would come to the Dun of B’ron. “All defenders…” she whispered, gathering her skirts and casting her eyes about for even a serving knife to take with her.
[Jacques – & pup]
Jacques stood with a start, and Fiend awoke with a mournful howl that somehow managed to fade into, and pierce at the same time, the sound of the bagpipes.
“No wonder you’re worried,” he muttered. “Somebody’s strangling a cat somewhere. But I don’t know about the rest of ‘em.”
He pulled a long, yellow handled knife from one pocket and, gathering the howling pup in the other hand strode quickly over to Bronwyn.
“What’s going on? Some damn fool forget to feed the felines or something?”
The only thing he could think of was that someone had been stupid enough to attack the place. But attacking somewhere like this, in the dark, was just plain suicide. Even if half the defenders were somewhat dozy after the meal.
Fiend let out a sad, and worried, whimper, and then returned to howling.
The serving girl stared at the jester, wide-eyed, for a moment, fighting the urge to laugh almost hysterically. But his rather straight-forward, common-sense approach had cut through the initial panic. “The piper plays for the Hillrovers. As warning, when death cooms fer them at the Dun.” The warriors in the hall also seemed to be making it past the first terror at the sound, and had begun to methodically gird on their weapons and prepare for whatever attack would come. “McLenans, likely, the clans trade the Dun back and fort’ ‘tween themselves.”
The sound of the pup’s howling drew her eyes to the animal, and she used her free hand – the one without the carving knife – to stroke its silky ears. “They may not keel us garls,” she indicated the other camp-followers scurrying out of the hall, “boot keep us as loot. But the warriors, and the chieftain if they can take him…” Bronwyn shrugged, leaving the obvious unspoken.
[In the Feasting Hall]
Behind them came strangled screams – ones that ended in a gurgling sounds, and the crash of a bench…..
Pandemonium broke out anew as several of the warriors, and many of the campfollowers began withering in pain, with blood bubbling at their lips. Those that remained upright were backing away from their stricken fellows. Many of the campfollowers were on the point of hysterics – while the warriors, though terrified, were looking around – as if trying to find an unseen enemy.
Measail swore and moved to rally the men. Teth said to Daron, “Get ye’re friends, lass, I need to see to these fool women.” And though Measail’s mistress looked terrified herself there was steel in her eyes, and years’ of experience in being near battle.
[In the halls]
Laurelyn tried to hike her blue silk skirts higher, and wished she had less slick shoes on, as she ran beside Thomis. While she was worried about their companions she knew that they could well be scattered, and only hoped that there was time for her to gain her sword.
The Oath-bound hadn’t drawn his sword – no reason to go barreling through the halls with the blade bared, unknowing who might be barreling in the other direction.
Though that question was answered soon enough, as they rounded one corner to see a tall form outlined against the wall. By its height and shape, it could only be Ulric. And by him, Maeve. Thomis slowed to approach them, then stopped completely at the sight of the girl’s bruised and bleeding face. And her empty arms.
The storyteller slid to a stop beside him, and swore when she saw Maeve’s condition. “What happened?” she demanded, having no time for gentleness – she needed to know if the girl’s condition stemmed from a private battle, or if the threat to the clan was already lose in the halls. Though the missing Rue spoke of a private issue.
She felt torn between the desire to run for her sword – to stand at her father’s side, and the need to make sure all in her party were accounted for. And to make sure Maeve, who was already injured, was cared for. She added, “Have any of the others … Jacques, Rudolpho, Daron, or Fionn been seen?”
From down the hall echoed the sounds of agonized screaming, which blended with the continuing wail of the pipes. The combination of sounds made Laurelyn pale as she turned to go towards the noise.
“Gille Hillrover, and Hector MacRorie,” Maeve answered, the words half-mumbled around bruised lips and broken nose. “But he,” she indicated the tall blonde foreigner, “and his hammer saved me.” She didn’t know quite where the baby was (and a dark part of her that she could not acknowledge didn’t care), but Ulric had said the child was safe.
Thomis glanced at Laurelyn, but he already had taken Maeve’s arm and was steering her to the inner part of the Dun – if Fionn were to come looking for her, the most obvious place to search would be the chambers they had been given earlier. And with its interior rooms, it would be safer there than anywhere else. He handled her as gently as he could while hustling her down the halls (noting absently that she seemed to have lost one shoe), well aware of how the pain of a broken nose could cause more than a little disorientation.
Ulric looked at Laurelyn, but kept his ears open to the sounds around them.
He knew that his situation was inextricably bound to Laurelyn’s – if he ran then he would never find her Star Dreamer nor the chance that it held for him, but if he stood in the Dun, be it to fend for himself or to fight alongside Laurelyn’s family, he would have to kill more men and once he had done that there would be no looking back.
“Do we go to defend this place, or do we flee? It is your family…” he asked after a short moment.
Laurelyn noted Thomis and Maeve heading on for their quarters, but she turned back to Ulric and said, “We fight.” Her blue eyes were cold fire and her voice filled with anger. “I’m going to need to get my sword, and at least cut away some of this gown, but before that I need to see what is happening in the feast hall!”
And with those words she continued to hurry towards the nightmarish sounds of the feast hall.
Ulric loped after her, his large frame awkward in the corridors and doorways of the Dun. He held his hammer ready for action, and kept close on Laurelyn’s heels. Until she found a real weapon, he was her protector.
The dreadful sounds grew nearer, but he could hear the stones whispering to him, blood hot drenching. again, we do not forget. If he could ever place an emotion to these elemental delusions which had plagued him since birth, he would have sworn that there was genuine remorse tonight.
As they came to the feasting hall Laurelyn saw Measail urging the remaining warriors out – from within the room came moaning.
“What by the Gods of Sea and Stone is happening?” she demanded, moving to look past the old warrior.
Measail stepped aside but said, “There tis nething ye can do for them – someone poisoned the wine.” His voice, though calm, had the edge of battle fury as he continued, “Net all the men went dewn – so must have been for the lower tables, and not all the winesacks. But eneugh though.”
Laurelyn’s expression showed nothing – at first – as she looked on the scene before her; one that bespoke of treachery. She had seen worse ways to die – but the tableau before her was bad enough as men and women withered about in agonized contortions on the floor. A floor slick with blood, wine, and worse. But battle fury burned in her own blue eyes, and she silently swore to avenge her fallen clansmen and women – no matter where the guilt fell! She turned back and said, far too calmly “Tell the Chief I will be joining him. I need to get my sword.”
Here she could and would fight. She only had one other duty that took precendence – she needed to make sure her companions were secure in the heart of the Dun. She glanced at Ulric – knowing that he would fight. But none of the others had to – beyond their own defense.
Though, sadly, she knew that Thomis would stand with her. A fact that reassured her and made her heartsick for fear for him.
“I’ll tell him,” Measail said, as if he had no doubt that Laurelyn had the Hillrover fire and loyalty.
He began deploying his men.
And Laurelyn kicked off her slippers so she could move swiftly through the halls.
Still wearing his boots, Thomis followed just as quickly, glad that Maeve – whose arm he still held – managed to keep up the pace. With some luck, they might find both Fionn and Rue waiting in their rooms, for he had no doubt the dark-haired highlander would want to take the three of them as far from the Dun as possible. After, perhaps, Maeve’s nose had been reset. “Think of who you trust,” he murmured to Laurelyn, “and trust no others.” Mesail’s anger had not been faked, Thomis was certain of that, but who else aside from the high bard and the chief himself could go unquestioned? Someone had carried the poison in, and seen it placed into the wine – and that someone had most assuredly avoided tainting his own drink.
The storyteller nodded in agreement. She was already thinking furiously of whose loyalty was beyond price.
Jacques snorted, and re-evaluated his theory of those who had decided to attack the Dun. Perhaps they weren’t as stupid as he’d thought. Vicious, certainly. Ruthless, definitely. But not stupid.
Though that was hardly something to celebrate.
Fiend gave a startled, half choked, coughing noise, and then subsided into a saddened silence.
“Knew all that howlin’ would wear you out eventually.”
Fiend just looked at him with wide brown eyes so Jacques ignored him and turned back to Bronwyn.
“Where are the non-fighting women going?” he asked, and wondered at the same time if that wasn’t something of a foolish question given the knife in her hand. “There’s usually somewhere you can hole up ‘till it’s over.” One way or another, he thought sourly. Just his luck to finally find some lager and a woman, and to have both of them stolen away by lunatics and bandits.
He sighed, and brushed a hand across one of the points of his hat.
Bronwyn just stared at the jester for a moment, then shook her head to clear it of thoughts of the cups she had filled. Had any of her pitchers been poisoned? Perhaps not, she had served the high tables, the higher ranked, with the better drink, and the harm seemed to have befallen those with the coarser wine. Someone among the serving women – to whom Jacques seemed determined to direct her – had to have known. “The kitchens, mayhap,” she whispered. “We be one of the spoils.”
As Measail’s warriors separated Laurelyn spotted Jacques with one of the camp women – the sight of the jester bringing a grim smile to the storyteller’s lips. She had seen how Jacques fought – her was one of the truly wild cards of their troupe.
She worked her way over to the pair, and gave poor Fiend a quick scratch between the ears. Laurelyn said, “We’re heading to our quarters – I need my sword and a head count of our people. Then I am going to find my father.”
With these words she turned and headed for the stairs.
[Near the quareters – Daron]
Daron made her way to the room set aside for her use, trying to block out the battle sounds – both physical and mental – that threatened to overwhelm her senses.
Once inside, the artist breathed a sigh of relief that she did not have to use her dagger just yet. She hurriedly pulled off her gown and kicked off her slippers. Then she quickly dressed in her more practical green wool tunic and dark brown trousers. Daron tugged on her black suede boots and tucked her daggers securely into their hiding places. Swiftly, with motions honed by sheer repetition, she removed the ivory and emerald combs and plaited her dark hair into one long braid.
Daron moved towards the door, a dagger in hand, ready to defend herself.
The dagger nearly slipped out of the artist’s grasp as a sudden wave of pain made her grit her teeth. She heavily leaned against the doorframe. Her grip tightened on the dagger’s ebony hilt until her knuckles were as pale as her sweat-beaded face. Solely by sheer force of will, Daron moved out into the hall, ready to do battle.
Ulric kept level with Laurelyn as she headed for her rooms, and regretted that his fitness level was not at its best.
As they passed one doorway, someone emerged and he saw the flash of metal. Instinctively, he dodged backwards and drew his hammer back for a mighty blow… then hesitated.
“You…” he exhaled, temporarily forgetting the woman’s name. Slowly he relaxed, letting the hammer return to his side.
Beud kept her hoofpick, and while she didn’t truly trust the Fhaolain she considered that she could afford to withhold judgement. Rudolpho – obviously a mage – was with her, and between the pair they could take down one Fhaolain, even if he had darkling magic. And having seen the McLenan and Iogan go past there could be an element of truth to the man’s statement about Geill and his get.
All she knew was that they needed to hurry and find the Chief – after that he could decide the truth or lie of the Fhaolain.
The young gypsy turned to Beud questioningly. “How do we go about finding the chief in all of this commotion? I’m really not sure where to look. Do you know where we might go first?” Rudolpho wondered if they should find Thomis, Laurelyn, and the others first. They might know what to do. He noticed Beud held onto her hoofpick. He figured it was because she still didn’t trust Fionn like he thought, but it was just as well she had a weapon to defend herself with if the need arose. “I just wish I knew who was who and what to expect.”
“McLenan ye will know by their tartan,” Fionn answered, describing the pattern and colors in brief terms. He had forced himself to slow as they left the stables and turned back to the Dun. Though he wanted to run, he knew that the girl at least – if not Rudolpho – would be left behind. “Gairge Hillrover ye hae seen, and Geill who sat next to Thomis Parch at the feasting.” But the others? How would they know who among the Hillrovers could be trusted? “Trust only the chief,” he added as they came to the side door leading back into the fortress, “Laurelyn, and the high bard.” Bard’s oath not even a Fhaolain would break.
He did not want to think – and from the girl’s expression, she did not either – that the treachery had spread further than Gairge. Not even to Geill. But speak accusations to the wrong person, and they could find themselves gutted before warning could be given.
“The hall,” Beud said, “Te see how many the poison got to.”
From the direction of the courtyard were the sounds of men and weaponry, but no fighting – yet. Beud hesitated as they neared the route that would take them into the warriors’ midst.
Then she turned down a side route. “Tis better that none ask questions yet,” she said over her shoulder, “Nor do we knew who might be out there…. if Iogan or the McLenan….” she spit the names out, ”....See ye’re Fhaolain about they’ll knew semthin’ is amiss. This way will get us back to the kitchens and the feasting hall.”
Rudolpho was glad that Beud had accepted Fionn (for the moment), and was doing her best to take them down an untraveled and quicker route. The sooner they got there, the sooner he could begin to look for Laurelyn and the others. With luck, she would be in the feasting hall and not too many people had drunk the poisoned wine. If they had, maybe Keir could do something for them before it was too late. A dreadful thought occurred to Rudolpho just then. What if someone from our group drank the poisoned wine? What if it’s too late? Shaking his head, he chided himself for thinking that way. They’ll be all right. They have to be! He kept thinking positively, but had subconsciously begun running faster.
The highlander did not pause when the girl turned to lead them another way. Anything to avoid those who might be surprised to find him no longer with Sannt …. “Slow a bit,” he murmured to Rudolpho as the boy sped up, “or else ye might spit yersel’ on a blade coomin’ ta other way.” Those in the courtyard had seemed to be less panicked, and moving more orderly – but those still in the hall, if the poison had set in, might be spooked.
Though it was hard for Rudolpho to force himself to slow down, what Fionn said made sense. He would be of no use to anyone dead or injured so he slowed his pace. He looked over to see how Beud was doing and masked his intereset with a question. “Are we almost there yet?”
Outside the locked door, the distant sounds of men-at-arms preparing to meet the coming attack could be heard. The piper’s song had faded, but only to be replaced with muffled shouts, as if now – even before the attack began – something had gone awry. Rue, only slightly disturbed by the sounds, stretched out her arms and yawned. Apparently the babe felt no lingering effects from the attempt to toss her headfirst over the battlements with her mother. Her dark eyes blinked, and blinked again, trying to focus on Keir, or the walls, or perhaps the ceiling.
Or perhaps the hands pushing aside a pile of blankets in one corner of the room, and the dark-haired head climbing out of them. The woman who appeared, her own dark eyes blinking at Keir, paused for a moment, and then finished climbing from the blankets that had been delivered for Laurelyn and her companions earlier. As she retied the stays of her bodice, still kneeling on the stone floor, she considered Keir and his staff. “Gude eve to ye,” she said in a low, rich voice. “Me man an’ me were here,” with one hand she indicated the blankets, ”’fore the piper called him, and I hid when I heard ye coom in.”
Keir had been listening to the darkling beetles in the hall as they scurried about. All they could tell him was that the Big Folk were on the move, they were no help in identifying friend from foe. He jumped straight up and whirled around at the sound of the stranger’s movements, instantly wondering how she had escaped his notice. Silently cursing the multitude of odd smells in the ancient Dun for obscuring the hide-away, he gripped his staff firmly and braced himself. “Well, now you’re here so stay right where you are!”
[Rue & ?]
Rue blinked again, and waved her fists, as if disbelieving that a woman with such high cheekbones and fine skin should be wearing such a plain dress and giving a tumble to one of the young clansmen.
“Oooh, what a wee bairn,” the woman breathed as she caught sight of Rue. She pushed herself to her feet – tall she was, and slender, and her head a thick, black cloud about her face – and looked from Keir to infant and back again.
The healer quickly bounded between the strange woman and Rue. She might be a relative of the Mistress but as recent events had proven, that didn’t mean she could be trusted and for some reason, perhaps the shock of her sudden appearance, she made his hairs bristle. “Aye, and no concern of yours so just sit yourself back down in the corner and keep quiet.” He waggled his staff in her face to emphasize his threat.
[Rue & ?]
Rue gurgled a bit, to express her surprise at the strange turn of events. The woman, though, just looked down at Keir with those large dark eyes, and then over him towards the babe. He might as well not have been holding the staff – though she did not try to push him aside or pass him. Her eyes moved back to Keir as she lowered herself back to the floor, long legs folding under her. She tucked her skirts in and a slow, slight smile appeared on her lips. “Brave wee warrior,” the woman said, “will ye guard us ‘gainst the attackers?” Her tone was not scornful, but she seemed profoundly undisturbed by the sounds outside the door.
Keir knew that look and tone all too well and it rankled him. Fine, he thought, keeping his indignation under control. Underestimate me, that’s one for me – I’ll not do the same. “Wouldn’t have thought that guest rooms would be open to such… such activity.” He looked at Rue, grateful she was too young to understand. “And what attackers are you referring to?”
“The lusty yeung men take thair pleasure where they find a free pallet,” the woman answered easily. There were more voices outside the door, and at the sound of some of them, she smiled, slowly, and looked again from babe to Keir. “That wude be the chieftain’s daughter,” she said, almost laughing, “coom back with her man to get her blade no doot.” She began gathering up her dark hair as if completely undisturbed by the continuing echoes of the pipes, pulling it over one shoulder to straight plaiting it into a loose braid. “Mayhap ye shude check?”
Keir’s big brown eyes flicked to the door and back to the woman, more suspicious than ever. Even his keen ears couldn’t make out the owners of the voices in the hall through the stout wooden door. She could be bluffing, trying to draw him away from Rue maybe or just to get him to turn his back on her. He knew he’d have though and edged slowly towards the door while keeping her at the edge of his vision. However, when he leaned an ear against it, he had no choice but to lose sight of her and the babe.
As quick as that, without even seeming to move, the woman was at the baby’s side. She did not lift the infant, but bent over her, long fingers brushing the thick black hair on Rue’s head, crossing over the still soft spot on the top of her skull. Stooping over the babe, dark braid sweeping forward, meeting the stare of Rue’s wide, black eyes, the woman smiled, slowly, with a look of ownership, and pressed her lips – gentle as a mother’s kiss, gentler than Rue’s mother ever would – upon her forehead. At the touch, Rue’s eyes opened wider. But the even fainter touch of the woman’s breath on her skin caused her to hiccup, and then start to cry.
There was no doubt now that the voices belonged to his companions so Keir unbolted the door as relief washed over him. That ended instantly at the babe’s cry. He jerked his head around and spied the woman hovering over Rue. The door was swinging open as he dashed back towards the pair by the straw pallet. “Hey there! What are you doing?” The alarm in his tone matched the one in his heart.
“Blessin’ her,” the woman answered simply. She straightened and stepped away from the baby, as if she had finished what she had come to do. “Neither mam nor da want her, wee man,” the dark-eyed woman answered. In the flickering torchlight, she might have been taller, or more slender, and her gown less coarse wool and more moonlight. “She be kith, and she has need of the blessing, e’en if her oncle wude not have me gi’e it.” Again she smiled, one corner of her mouth turning upwards. “Shude you have it, too?” She stooped again, as if to buss the Hortus himself, but stopped, dark eyes laughing. “I think not.” And as the door opened, she straightened again, half-turned, and faded into nothing.
[In the hall]
Catching sight of Daron the storyteller said to both Ulric and Thomis, “See if she’s seen any of the others…I need to get my weapons.”
She knew that while Ulric still had trouble with Common that he managed well enough, and she had no doubts that Thomis would take a head count. And get Maeve settled. And while she worried at how pale Daron looked there was no time to inquire.
Despite her hurry to reach her Da Laurelyn didn’t barge into her rooms – she listened and went in cautiously. But no ambush waited her in the dark, chill room.
She didn’t light a lantern, a habit had held her in good stead, had made her lay clothing and weapons out on her bed. She had also made sure to familiarize herself with the pattern – in case she needed them in a hurry. With desperate strength she tore at the fastenings of her gown, till she could free herself of the fine material and trade it for serviceable trousers, wool tunic, and traveling boots.
With focused fury Laurelyn strapped on her sword, and placed daggers into boots, and on her belt.
Then she headed for the hall.
Thomis waited patiently, unmoving against one wall so he could watch the comings and goings from either end of the hall – and so he could watch Maeve, who seemed more than a bit unsteady on her feet. Still no sign of Fionn or Rudolpho, or Keir.
But sound of Rue, for that wailing behind one wooden door could only be the infant. Maeve lifted her head at the sound of outrage, not looking relieved but merely tired. “Cianna,” she murmured, and stumbled to the door to push it open to reveal Keir standing guard, stave in hand, over the child, who lay on the straw pallet beyond him.
Eyes wide, Keir spun round to the door and Maeve, then back again to where the mysterious woman had just been. “Huh? What? Where?... How?”
Thomis raised his eyebrows – there was one more member of the party located. Two, actually, for apparently the Hortus had been the one to spirit Rue away from the attack on her and her mother. But Keir seemed more than a bit confused … “Master Keir?” He placed one steadying hand on Maeve’s elbow. “It is good to see you and the babe well.” He guided Maeve into the room, and settled her down on a stool. “I think the girl will need something for her face.” Something to reduce the swelling, and the pain. Not to mention the straightening of her nose.