Their descent down the stairway was unhindered, which told Laurelyn that the McLenans had not yet breeched the gates – for there was no sound of battles in the lower halls. She glanced at Thomis – again sorry that he was caught up in yet another battle and grateful that he was at her side. And a prayer rested in her heart that they live – so that they could at least claim a night of peace together, though she thought they had earned more than just one night or day.
“It looks like we may have a small chance,” Laurelyn said softly as they made their way to the courtyard. The din was echoing through the enclosed space – nearly killing voice and thought – as the warriors pounded shields and worked their way to a frenzy. But even with the noise the voice of Naomha, the High Bard, could be heard; calling down the blessings of the elements and summoning courage for the warriors. Laurelyn could feel the power of his words sinking into her bones, making her blood burn for battle, and knew that the High Bard’s words were not empty ones. Part of her didn’t want to fight the incantation – for it was blending with her desire to fight for her father and clan. But she made herself focus – she had to keep thinking and warn her Da!!
She felt like they were losing precious time as they worked their way through the men – but they finally reached the inner circle – where Acair, Naomha, Measail, and Geill stood!!
At the sight of the possible traitor Laurelyn pulled up – a chill cutting through the war fire. “Any ideas,” she asked Thomis – having to lean close to even be heard.
Knives in hand again, Jacques had been glaring at everything and everyone on along the way, and had been cursing the noise under his breath.
Damn infernal racket, couldn’t they let a man die in peace?
Somewhere deep below, somewhere in the cellars, Fiend let out a long, low, howl that was lost completely in the noise.
“One. And I hope you will not protest too much.” The Oath-bound grasped her hand and pushed his way through the crowd to approach the chieftain. Only when Naomha had reached a break in the chant did he lean forward to speak – loudly – to Laurelyn’s father. “Sir, not to presuppose defeat here, but just in case -” He lifted his hand, still clasping Laurelyn’s. “A private moment, for yours and Naomha’s blessing.” He hoped the romantic gesture would appeal to the highlanders, and be reason enough for daughter, her suitor, her father and the closest thing to a priest to spend a minute or two out of the hearing of others.
The young boy in hound’s clothing looked to Thomis and gave him a slight questioning growl. He was in a postion to be included on the little chat and maybe get an idea who they were looking for. Regardless of whether or not he was allowed into the room they spoke in, he would follow them to the entrance of the room and settle himself by the door. Nothing like a good warning growl to let the people inside know if someone was trying to listen or barge in…uninvited.
Laurelyn’s expression of surprise was quite real – and she was sorry Thomis’s actions were in truth a ruse for some privacy. And for the moment she was willing to literally follow Thomis’s lead – for it seemed to be having the desired effect – some of the warriors were cheering his boldness.
Leaving Geill surrounded by Laurelyn’s allies – something that didn’t seem to set well with him, Acair cleared the way to a small alcove. After a certain amount of manuvering for them all to fit – then Naomha warded the alcove with a spell of privacy. And only then did Acair say, “Much as I would wish this to be the truth, Thomis Parch, this dees net fit yer style. Se what be the truth of it?”
Laurelyn broke in and said, “We have little time, Da, but we have witnesses who say that Gairge and Geill are set against you and have sided with the McLenans.”
The Oath-Bound moved to slip one arm around Laurelyn’s waist – if any cared to peek in, they would see only that in keeping with the story they had given. Fionn had told the story, quickly, and he repeated it even more compactly. “Two, Iogan and Sannt, approached the Fhaolain and took him to the stables to meet with Fhios McLenans.” Names that meant nothing to Thomis, but he had been certain to remember them. “There, McLenan said Gairge had struck a deal. Only the intervention of the boy Rudolpho, and one of your serving girls, Beud, allowed Fionn to slip free and return to give warning.”
He added the last, because from all he had seen since their arrival at the Dun, he knew that the Fhaolain’s word might not, by itself, be enough. But the children would not concoct the story lightly, and with the poisoning of the wine, the chieftain and high bard would recognize the treachery within the clan.
The tension within the small alcove was quite palpatable as both Acair and Naomha digested the confirmation of treachery, and their eyes grew dark with anger at the idea of kinslayers amongst them.
“Did any say thet Geill wes a part of thes?” Acair asked. After all his first cousin was one of his officers, who brought with him over a fourth of the defenders of the Dun. He knew that Geill had ambitions – as did Geill’s son – but found it hard to believe that his cousin would pursue such a grandiose venture. Of Gairge he might well believe it – the younger man wasn’t seasoned enough to know how to curb one’s ambitions to fit reality. Yet, the fact that treachery was unleashed said that someone had seen fit to try it – and had so far succeeded in poisoning to death a fourth of their kin.
Laurelyn felt how stiff her jaw was in anger at what she had to say, “The only thing Fionn heard as far as Geill was concerned was that the McLenan counted all of Geill’s branch of the clan as allies. And there is no way they would follow Gairge in this venture – it would have to be Geill.” Her eyes narrowed as she pondered further, “And they would be happy to use the curse upon the Dun as the perfect excuse for your fall – probably with them being the only so fortunate survivors…..”
Naomha looked both furious and thoughtful, but had yet to add anything to the discussion.
Acair said, “I suspect that the poisoning won’t be their only act of trickery – it is too little to hinge such a plan on. Particularly when it probably was inspired by the welcoming feast… so simply locking Geill and his men up won’t be the complete solution. And with the men so edgy they will demand an explanation of why. He looked to his daughter and added, “And as ye know – a Fhaolain’s word will only make Geill look more innocent in their eyes.”“
“Aye, I know…,” Laurelyn started to say, when Naomha spoke up.
“There may be a way thet weuld strike fear inte McLenan hearts – and these of the traitors …and inspire eur ewn,” Naomha said, “Theugh it brings its ewn risks – whech is why few bards weuld use such a calling….”
Something in the way the High Bard spoke made a chill run down Laurelyn’s spine as she held her breath – waiting for his idea.
Acair too waited.
“It mey not even work,” Naomha continued, almost as if he feared to speak of it – to begin to give the concept reality, “Beyond it breeding fear….” He looked at each of them and said, “And thet is to call for eur dead to avenge us – to streke down eur enemies ….”
Laurelyn blanched – wondering what such a spell would mean in her native hills. For bards were not normally given to necromancy – and very few would have ever used such a spell. Would it be the dead crawling from their graves or spirits tearing at McLenan minds?
“And hew de they differentiate between Hillrovers?” Acair asked.
Naomha shook his head and said, “Thet I do not knew. All my bards and I ceuld do is ask fer their justice.” The High Bard knew that at least he could offer the full loyalty of his entourage – none would dare break their oaths.
“Before I say ‘aye,’” Acair said, “Let me ask ye, daughter, can any in ye’re band aid us? Ye’ve spoken a little of their talents…?”
The storyteller wished she could offer someother choice than what Naomha proposed, but she had to say, “They will bring surprises of their own – but not in sufficient strength to stop both the McLenan and the traitors.”
The Chief nodded and said, “Noble Bard, I accept ye’re offer and the risk. And Laurelyn – heve ye’re felk surround Geill and his as best ye can. He may net be the stopping point fer the McLenans – but he will be fer his men. The minute he shews a sign of treachery – lay hold of him. Permanently, if needed.”
To Thomis Acair said, “Theugh I knew I den’t really need to say this – but watch eut fer my daughter – she too well be a target.”
The High Bard’s look softened for a minute and he asked, “Before we return – perhaps it would be wise for the Chief and I to give that blessing?”
Laurelyn looked over at Thomis with both warmth and questions in her blue eyes. For he was a man who she had barely had time to be alone with – yet he who stood with her through hells, and traveled with her on a madwoman’s quest. And she couldn’t picture anyone else sharing that road with her.
If Mesani I’Se had been present, Thomis knew, she would have viewed the situation at the Dun as requiring reckless abandon (she tended to view most situations that way). And under those circumstances, the Oath-bound would have been required to be level-headed and pragmatic. But Mesani was not there, and the highlanders – as rife with portents and clan feuds as they were – carried their own hefty dose of practicality. So he decided he could spare a bit of reckless romanticism. “Perhaps it would be,” he answered softly. There was no room to kneel in the alcove, so instead he simply lifted their clasped hands to be taken by both chieftain and high bard. “Perhaps it would.”
For the briefest of moments Acair’s and Naomha’s grim looks were replaced with smiles. With both his and the Chief’s hands resting over the couple’s Naomha did a hasty handfasting – adding in an extra prayer that the couple not only live to enjoy the partnership, but have many years at together.
When their hands were released Laurelyn kept her fingers entwined around Thomis’s, and stepped nearer so she could kiss him. She was of the opinion that the Fates would allow them time for that.
But only briefly – for Naomha was banishing the spell of silence around them – letting them hear the cheering of the men, and Acair led them all back to rejoin a very dour looking Geill Hillrover.
[In the cellars]
Teth Ealanta had only managed to lead half of the camp women into one of the many cellars, and suspected that Deasgann had taken the rest of the surviving women into another, nearby chamber. But the fates of the women didn’t really concern Measail’s mistress as she moved deeper into the cellar – leaving behind the other women to huddle fearfully. Teth’s destination was a dark corner whose outline she made herself learn by feel; training which held true as her sensitive fingers felt over an inset handle. Nor did the secret door make any sound as she opened it – weeks earlier she had greased the hinges.
That the armed men who slipped like a horde of rats through the door were enemies to Acair and Measail didn’t concern Teth either. Measail was getting old and demanding, and it was his prowess in bed that was lacking – not hers. And she had been around long enough to recognize one who was rising to power – Geill Hillrover. He had the fire and the brains to lead his branch of the clan to victory!!
And while she still would not be a wife – he had promised to set her up in her own house so she no longer had to travel.
So she smiled in anticipation as the men went past her.
Nor did the screams of the other women disturb her – they were all cows!!! Some might think themselves comely, with fair skin and glossy hair, but they died like the cows they were. Bellowing and crying as the men slit their throats and left them bubbling blood on the floor. All Teth did was lift her skirts a little higher as she followed the men out.
[Beud – in another cellar]
Once they had tied up the two poisoners Beud had restlessly prowled the small cellar – nearly desiring to be upstairs fighting. As opposed to waiting in the near dark for her fate to be decided. What puzzled her – and had caught her interest – was that the air in the cellar was staying fresh and chill, like there might be an opening somewhere. Her search led her to dig behind some crates – and while holding up a torch – she managed to see a small and dark hole in the floor. One from which wafted chill air that stank of dampness and mold.
While Beud had been exploring the back chambers Fiend had been sniffing near where Bronwyn sat. Suddenly the pup began to whine. He hurried to the stair – then back to Bronwyn; he looked up at her and whined worriedly.
“Wee pup,” Bronwyn said, trying to reach out and snag the little animal (who had proved to be quite a comfort to young Maili … not to mention Bronwyn herself). But Fiend dodged her hand and continued to pace, his whine only increasing. The belled man’s familiar, Bronwyn reminded herself, suddenly uneasy. She pushed herself to her feet and crossed to the stair; the way Fiend scampered, and yipped in encouragement told her she had done right. As he struggled to pull himself up the steep stairs, she gave his bottom a push with one hand. And finally just scooped him up in one arm and almost surged up the stairs to crouch by the door at the top, ear pressed against it.
[McLenan Warriors and Teth]
From down the hall came the sound of boots, and the clanking of weaponry. But there was a stealthy feel to how the men whispered – not like warriors who had the right to be walking the halls.
Bronwyn gasped silently, mouth widening into an “oh” of shock. Not just traitors in the halls – those following Gairge would be with him, and with the chief, to be closer to slipping their blades between his ribs. This had to be McLenans! She looked at Fiend, who looked back, ears perked forward as if to confirm her suspicions. “Beud!” she hissed, speeding back down the stairs, “Deasgann!” She pulled Beud’s mother to one side and whispered what she had heard. “But how to get out and give alarm?” she asked, desperate – for to open the cellar doors into the kitchens would be to walk directly into the enemy’s midst.
Deasgann was looking desperately around the cellar – the trap – and spotted Beud still kneeling behind some boxes. She stalked over and whispered, “Beud, gerl, we’ve get McLenans in the halls – whet er ye leekin’ et?”
The girl looked up, holding the torch up so that Deasgann could see the outline of a trapdoor she had cleared away. “I thenk it ges te the caves beneath the Dun,” Beud said, “Smell the air – ets moving but smells of the damp.”
“The fates be guardin’ us,” Bronwyn breathed. Without hesitating even a moment, she hiked her skirts up, tying the longest outer skirt around her waist to leave her legs free. Setting Fiend down for a moment, she heaved at the trap door, pulling it open with an audible grunt. Then she paused, considering the animal. “If ye have any sense about ye, ye can tell me the way to go. To find the chief.” With a last smile to Deasgann and Beud, she scooped up Fiend and slipped through the door.
Deasgann lay down by the open door and said, “Bronwyn, we may net be fer behind ye – perticulerly ef the McLenans start sniffing near eur door.” She handed down the torch Beud had been holding.
As Beud helped her Mam to her feet – her legs being swollen from pregnancy – Deasgann said, “Geve me ye’re knefe, Beud.”
Puzzled the girl handed her Mam the carving knife and claimed another smoking torch, which she held – looking at the puzzled expressions of the other women – including the two poisoners, who were bound and gagged.
Her Mam said, “Get the women – queetly – near the openin.’ We need te be ready te meve.” Then she stalked over – knife in hand – to stand, glaring, at the prisoners. Challenging them to move.
[In the Caves]
The flickering torchlight revealed an ancient, rough-hewn footpath that ran along the banks of an underground spring – obviously part of one of mountain streams that flowed near the Dun. Fiend sniffed energetically along – his whining echoing in the caverns as he headed along the path. And it was not, surprisingly, far before there was a gleam of light showing out onto the path – from a side door; along the shore were slender boats made of hide, three in all.
[McLenans and Teth]
The Dun had large kitchens and several cellars, and the warriors had checked the entrances that Teth showed them – finding all empty. Teth pointed out the door to the larger of the remaining two cellars, and stood back while one of the warriors went to test the lock.
At the sound of booted feet approaching Maili – brown eyes wide with terror – scurried back to gesture a warning. She was terrified that one word from her lips would bring the McLenans down on them.
Beud had already helped some of the women down – having passed a torch to the first; she figured it was better to hide in the caverns then wait and see if the McLenans found their cellar. While the others went to the caverns Beud frantically worked at fastening a rope so she could pull the door down after they had made it out of the cellar. There wasn’t much she could do about the dust being scrapped away, and hoped that she had bought them time by keeping the crates arranged around the opening. And making sure the women didn’t disturb the boxes.
Nor did she look over at what her Mam was doing, and she tried not to look back and identify the reason for the blood she saw on Deasgann’s hands as she helped the pregnant woman down.
Yet there was little choice in seeing the poisoners’ bodies – with their throats slit by the carving knife – as Beud thought of one more way to buy the others time. She hurried back, holding onto her own torch, but put out the two remaining ones so the cellar would be dark. And with that done she handed her torch below, grabbed hold of the rope to the trap door, and lowered herself down.
But as she gave a strong pull on the rope Beud realized one flaw to her plan – the sound of the trap door dropping shut.
[Further Along the Route – Bronwyn]
“Go!” Bronwyn whispered to Fiend, scurrying after him as quickly as she could. In some spots, she had to stoop, careful not to singe herself on the torch she had brought with her. In others, she had to turn sideways to slip through narrow passages. But always the pup hurried ahead, nose to the ground and tail straight with the force of his concentration. When he reached the side-door, he stopped, and looked back at her patiently. “Good boy,” Bronwyn praised him softly, as she stopped to scoop him back up. She didn’t know quite what to make of the hide boats, but she had no time to spend puzzling over them. Putting one shoulder to the door, she pushed it open and slipped into the room beyond.
The door opened into a cellar similiar to the one she had left – the front of it lit by a few smoky torches. Ahead came the sound of weak moans, and as if something or someone was scratching against rock.
Fiend began to whine again and pressed against Bronwyn.
Bronwyn extended the torch in front of her, blinking to see beyond the smoky circle of light it case. The floor beneath her was slick with something, and the smell filling the room told her she did not want to look down. Blood, heavy and sickening. Gagging, she pressed one shoulder against the wall as she stepped forward, averting her eyes from tangled feet and arms and bleeding throats, and staring eyes. Some eyes still showing the weakest signs of life. “Forgive me,” she whispered, glad for the warmth of Fiend’s body in her arms. She could not stop to give succor to those still living, nor pause to ask who had let the McLenans in.
One more traitor among the women, obviously, who had expected those boats to come downstream and had unlatched the door to let them pass. And stood by while the other girls, white-haired and unbedded alike, be torn apart. “Damn her,” Bronwyn hissed as she pressed forward. “May she choke on her own bluid.”
[McLenans and Teth]
The McLenan warriors finally succeeded in breaking in the cellar door that led to Deasgann’s women – the wooden bars that held the door against the enemy giving with a loud, sharp crack! The men carefully moved down the darkened stairs – wary of any maddened women ready to attack with nails and fear.
At the bottom of the stairs they found only darkness and silence – a silence that might be explained by the heavy thud they had heard a few minutes before. Feachd, the leader of this band, signaled that a search be made. Nor was it long before his men found the trapdoor that the boxes hid – and the trussed up bodies of two women. The bodies lay unheeded. Feachd swore at the confirmation that the women had made it free – and knew that they would try to carry a warning to the Hillrover Chief. All of which meant he had to waste time hunting down women – when he needed to be getting his squad into the main part of the Dun as had been planned.
One of the warriors herded Teth down to Feachd, who demanded, “Hew meny weuld ye be sayin’ weuld be in the reem?”
The woman shook her coifed head and said, “E’ve no knewledge of hew many died in the hall. There were abeut twelve with me – se meybe about that or fifteen with Deasgann.”
Feachd chose three of his fastest men, and ordered them down the trapdoor. He decided he couldn’t afford to send more – nor could he afford to waste time chasing women. His men would just have to be alert to stop any they found trying to warn Acair – and as for the other women – they were to be slowed or trapped somewhere. But his three men weren’t to try and kill the lot – Feachd was no fool – a mass of frightened women could be a dangerous beast. Driven by anger and fear they could rip a man apart with their bare hands; enraged Highland women could be a fearsome opponent!
Bronwyn slipped from the far end of the room when she heard the door to the other cellars burst open. Crouching low and praying for the survival of Beud and Deasgann and Nochde and Maili and the others with them, she crept along the edge of the floor. She held her breath, fiercely, afraid that even a whisper of it would alert the McLenans to her presence. And tossed her torch into the nearest fireplace to free that hand for the carving knife she had slipped into her apron pocket.
Deasgann hadn’t been fond of keeping the torches lit – but the path would have proved too treacherous otherwise, and they hadn’t had time to test the depth of the stream. Their only hope was to move quickly and hopefully find someplace to shelter in the dark.
The echoing sound of three thumps upon the rocks behind them, caused both Deasgann and Beud, who was bringing up the rear, to have to have the torches put out. Leaving them feeling their way slowly along the ledge in the pitch darkness. Many of the women whispered prayers, something Beud herself did in silence – when, suddenly, like an answer to their prayers, they saw dim light on the path. Revealing three hide boats.
As carefully as she could Deasgann peeked into the room – seeing it to be another cellar, but she turned from that and quickly signaled the women towards the long boats.
Beud was curious what her Mam was about, but quickly saw that she wanted the ten remaining women into the crafts. Unfortunately this led to some splashing and whimpers as the frightened women, most of whom were unaccustumed to boats, got in. The girl worked her way over to her Mam and asked, “Whet de ye heve planned?”
“Te ge dreft into the darkness,” Deasgann said, “And hepefully net dreft dewn inte bowels ef thes cursed plece.” She pressed the bloody carving knife back into Beud’s hand and said, “But ye er te jein Bronwyn – better twe tryin’ to wern the Chief then jest one. New ge, gerl!!”
Beud gave her Mam a quick hug and grasped hold the dagger hilt – then hurried through the door.
Once the women were in the boats Deasgann pulled closed the door – cutting off the light, and though it was with some difficulty the other women guided her into a boat. And awkwardly the women used the paddles to shove off and try to push themselves into the darkness of the caverns.
Leaving the three McLenan warriors trying to squint into the dark – to seek the sound of the thrashing paddles.
She held the knife, unsteadily, creeping backwards to the hall, listening intently to the hesitant footsteps behind her. Not a warrior’s boots, she could tell, but perhaps the other traitress?
When Bronwyn saw the silhouette of the small, slim form creep from the door, and the circle of a pale face, she released her breath and motioned Beud towards her. Not speaking, for fear that McLenans would come pouring from the other cellars in response.
The girl had blood on her – how could she not, having made her way through the abbatoir that the cellars had become – and even in the low light Bronwyn could see the prints Beud’s and her own feet left on the stone floor of the kitchens. No matter for that, though, she told herself. Let the McLenans follow if they wish – just as long as Bronwyn and Beud, or either one of them, lived long enough to warn the chief.
Around the corner of the hall, she straightened, and kicked off her bloodied shoes, motioning Beud to do the same. Then she sent both pairs into the fireplace after the torch, and pushed the girl in front of her, to speed through the halls in search of the chief.
After one look back Beud followed – she prayed that she had barricaded the trap door well enough to keep any of the McLenans from following her through. She knew she would never forget those few frantic moments as she barred and blocked the door – all the while surrounded by the dead and dying.