Having been ousted from her fairy dreams and nearly discovered among the folds of Rue’s blanket when the campfollower gathered up the child for a feeding, Tirlina had retreated safely to a dark nook nearby. There, she settled onto cold stone with a disgruntled “hmpf” at having been deprived of her warm nest against Rue. But her annoyance was short-lived as she watched her tiny charge feed, forgotten by her own mother, but accepted by another. “Poor wee thing,” she whispered in a sing-song tone, then fell silent with fond adoration of her little human.
When Fionn approached the woman and made it clear that she had his permission to be nursing baby Rue, Tirlina scampered from her nook and off into the shadows, so that she could discreetly take flight. Humming very softly to herself with a voice like tiny bells, she flitted off down the now deserted corridors toward the kitchens, in search of milk for the other hungry baby that rode snug and safe in her pocket.
[Keir – Upstairs in the Dun]
As he climbed the moans and cries from the main hall faded but the signs of carnage were still there to see, or worse, to smell. Keir’s sensitive nose recoiled at the mixed scents of fresh blood and rotted flesh that permeated the Dun. Covering his nose gave little relief for his hands were steeped in the beetle juice he had used for an antiseptic and the foul fluid made his eyes water. Other smells registered as he neared their quarters, the unmistakable odor of burnt flesh, both long dead and recently live, plus a hint of one all too familiar – the same as when his own fur got singed. His pace quickened, slowing only when he reached his small room and saw the door lay ajar. He stepped gingerly over the blackened corpses lying on the floor, his focus intent on the small pile of charred straw that marked the remains of his pallet – and the small still body that lay upon it.
A soft groan escaped his lips as he knelt beside his small charge and examined it for any faint sign of life. Its tiny lusterless eyes stared at him questioningly. After gently setting it on the stool he pawed through the straw shards in search of its twin stopping but his fingers found only the bare, cold stone beneath. A swift but meticulous search of the entire room revealed little more but the lack of scent near the door crushed any hope that it had escaped by that route. There was the window slot but he couldn’t bring himself to look out for he knew the drop was far too high to survive. Gathering up his pack and belongings he started to leave for there would be no sleep now, certainly not here anyway. Pausing at the threshold he turned and scooped up the dead hare and dropped it into one of his vest pockets. “Well little one it looks like you’ll be dinner after all,” he muttered. If he couldn’t sleep he fully intended to eat and set out to find the kitchens. The fur on the back of his hands was damp from wiping his eyes. “Damned beetle juice.”
[Bronwyn – In the Kitchens]
Bronwyn knew, all too well, that the kitchens were likely to show blood on walls and floor now that the bodies of the murdered camp-followers had been brought up from the cellars. Still, the kitchens were where she could find some food, and perhaps some milk or cheese or something else for Fiend. The pup had gone the entire night and day without nourishment, cradled in her arms, alternating yowling and whimpering, and dozing. But even if her own stomach was still too queasy to keep anything down, she suspected his would be growling.
She padded barefoot into the kitchens, noting tiredly where her own bloodied shoeprints came from one cellar door and ended before the fireplace where she had tossed her shoes. As she rounded one corner into the kitchen, Fiend twisted a bit in her hands, lifting his head to give a sharp yip as he stared forward into the lowly-lit kitchens.
The sprite started from her absorbed fascination with the soft little bunny in her hands at the sound of Fiend’s yip, looking up with a surprised sound of her own. The shadow of a human fell across the entryway to the kitchen pantry where she’d finally found some milk for the taking. Tirlina dropped the small bowl of milk to the floor, heedless of the crash as it struck. With a rushed but careful movement, she thrust the startled bunny back into her pocket and jumped up from her makeshift seat on a low crate. With a flash of fairy light, she was small again, just as Bronwyn came through the door, puppy in arm. Tirlina streaked behind the crate that now dwarfed her, and hid from the intruder, annoyed by the interruption, and nearly panicked at having almost been discovered.
Bronwyn froze in place, feeling her weariness wash away in a sudden rush of fear – her first thought had been that some warrior, unknowing of the truce, still lurked in the kitchens. Or one of the bodies had risen again … But the flash of light, coupled with the broken bowl of milk on the floor told her otherwise. “A boggans, mayhap,” she whispered to Fiend. “They dinnae be unkind.” It might have been said to reassure herself.
Moving carefully, she placed Fiend on the floor, leaving him to lap at the spilled milk, and fetched another bowl and filled it. That one, she placed at a far corner of one of the rough-hewn counters for the fae to take, if it cared to show itself, before getting yet another bowl for the pup. There was cold broth still to be had here, and stale bread, and that she gave to him.
Fiend looked at the milk for a second or two, and then sat back on his haunches and looked around the kitchen with deep eyes. When the other bowl and bread appeared he got up, sniffed at it lightly for a second or two, and then turned away.
With a yip, he began trotting towards a jug of ale that rested against a table’s leg. Though he only got half way before stopping and turning to stare, head cocked to one side, at the crate Tirlina hid behind.
He gave another yip, and turned back towards the ale, sniffing around the jug and trying to reach the stopper which towered over him.
“You really shouldn’t let him drink. He’s under age,” came the jester’s voice from the kitchen doorway.
Fiend stopped again and sat, giving Jacques an affronted stare, before turning back towards the bowls Bronwyn had supplied. But not without another long pause to stare at Tirlina’s crate, and a pair of quick yaps in her direction.
[Keir – In the halls of the Dun]
Skirting along the edge of the main hall Keir managed to slip past Rudolpho but it took him by the rows of dead, lain out beneath their tartans and thence by the pile of disassociated body parts. He glanced at the heap of hands, feet, arms and legs in astonishment for while he recalled performing numerous amputations he had no idea of their horrid total, for the knife Jacques had given him never lost its edge. Many would bear obvious reminders of this day, whether that would eventually shatter the truce and help reinforce it he did not know for Big Folk were so unpredictable. The loss of one rabbit seemed such a small affair amidst this carnage.
[Bronwyn – In the Kitchens]
“I dinnae gie hem nought but broth an’ bread,” Bronwyn answered the jester, managing to put a bit of spirit into her voice. “Ye be the one who teught hem tae leck the test of sperets.” She stooped to start picking up the shattered bowl—as if, in all the slaughter, anyone would care about the clean-up for broken dishes -and took a sideways glance to gauge whether the motley man’s mood had lightened any.
“I didn’t teach him anything,” returned Jacques. “Just offered him the chance to learn was all. He taught himself, as most things do.”
Fiend was busily slurping at his food, and managing to make small contented noises while doing so.
“Still, looks like you made him happy at least.” He eyed the jug of ale and considered whether he should get royally drunk, but then sighed through his moustache. It never did any good. For all that he forgot after the drinking, there was invariably too much that he still remembered. And this time it wasn’t as if there was actually anything much to celebrate.
Then again …
“Shouldn’t we be making a wedding cake or something?” he asked with a sly grin. After a short pause rummaging through his pockets, he opened one palm to show a tiny bride and groom pair for atop such a piece of confectionary. Whilst they looked nothing like Laurelyn and Thomis – indeed the groom was actually an elf, and the bride appeared to have wings of some kind – he shrugged. Near enough.
“Chocolate, would be my preference.”
The grin widened, and his voice adopted a laughable imitation of Bronwyn’s accent. ”’Less ye ken hew tae mek a lager one?”
Her tolerance was wearing thin for Fiend’s repeated attempts to draw attention to her, and while she could have waited patiently for the big folk to leave, Jacques’ suggestion to make a cake brought an irritated pout to her tiny face. That would take too long! She hadn’t finished feeding the bunny, and she had to return to Rue. Folding her arms across her chest, she leaned against the crate, her wings twitching in annoyance as she resisted the urge to start tapping her foot. Why had they had to come to this particular room in the kitchens anyway? There had to be other pantries. With a little, tinkling sigh, she resolved to wait them out, hoping that the bothersome pup wouldn’t come sniffing any closer to her hiding place, and hoping even harder that there was no flour anywhere to be had for the making of a cake.
Bronwyn straightened, setting the shattered pieces of clay on one countertop, and dusted her hands on her skirts. “The pantries be jest insed the cellar doors,” she said softly, brown eyes drifting in that direction before snapping back. “E’ll net ge en.” She bit her lip, hard, to use that as an excuse for the tears that suddenly flooded over, and turned away to dash the wetness from her face with trembling hands so he could not see. He had tried to be a jolly man, pulling that strange set of figures from his pockets. “Bet thes es net a jolly place,” she said, “en me skairts alreddy are cevered in bleud, and e’en ef I cude fend seme flour, Eh’m in nae bleudy mood to meck a bleudy keck!”
Fiend let out a whimper, and turned to look at Bronwyn for a moment before returning to what little was left of the food she had given him. The pup may not have resembled a wolf in many ways, but he certainly ate like one.
“So much for the festivities,” he muttered though his moustache. He stuffed the small model back into a pocket, and smoothed away the bulge it made for merely a second. Then he moved back to the doorway.
“People die,” he said blankly, though perhaps there was a hint of tiredness in his voice. “Get used to it.”
And then he turned and left, the jingle of bells fading and vanishing in the dun.
Fiend, having cleaned the bowl and the surrounding floor area completely, watched him go before trotting over to Bronwyn and giving a tentative yip.
Bronwyn stooped to rub the puppy’s ears, frowning fiercely as she continued to cry. “Des he thenk Eh dinnae know people die?” she whispered at Fiend. As if death wasn’t a common thing in the highlands. Or even feuding with bloody swords and trickery. “Bet servin’ gerls den’t usually fend themsel’s sleughtered in cellars or serrended by walking corpses.” She scooped the puppy up and stalked down the hall – finally leaving the invisible boggans to its own bowl of milk – to catch up with the jester, stopping in front of him to hold the puppy out.
The jester, Fiend and girl swept past Keir without so much as a nod. In a sense the healer was relieved for he wasn’t in the mood for talk – though sharing a few lagers might have been nice. Entering the kitchen he tossed the rabbit on a rough wooden table and took out his knife, fully intending to skin the limp little corpse. The point floated from one tiny back foot to the other until he finally drove it deep into the tabletop and walked away a few paces, wiping his eyes once again. “Blasted beetle juice, can’t see a damned thing.”
The Big Folk had been gone long enough that Tirlina had just about decided it was safe to come out of hiding and give feeding the bunny another try. But Keir’s appearance had kept her out of sight behind the crate, irritated that yet another being had had to choose this particular time to arrive. She’d entertained the idea of treating the little man to some fae glamour and making her escape, but his odd behavior made her hesitate. She recognized the dead form on the table as the bunny’s littermate, killed by the fire in a guest room somewhere above, and wondered why Keir hadn’t proceeded with what he’d intended.
When she realized it was not, in fact, beetle juice that kept his eyes watering, her irritation faded, and she made a tiny, musical sound of sympathy. It must have been his room to which Luatha had summoned her, and his bunnies that had been trapped by the fire. She wanted very much to cheer him up and return his other adopted baby to him, but how? She couldn’t release the bunny from her pocket as she was, or the the tiny thing would be the size of a flea, and very difficult to keep track of. But if she grew, the little man would see her immediately, and she didn’t like that idea at all. She was very selective about the mortals she showed herself to, and shied away from any avoidable contact. But Luatha had given her a task that would be nearly impossible to complete in secrecy.
The bunny was an incidental, and not her true purpose. But if Rue’s mortal escorts were going to have to learn of her existence anyway, what was one more?
The sprite frowned prettily a moment longer, debating, then crept to the very edge of the crate and peeked around the edge to look up at the little man, who stood in profile to her position. Her wings perked into flight position, just in case, and she called out in a tiny sing-song voice, “Would you like the other one back?”
“Huh, what?” Keir spun towards the sound of the voice but to his blurry eyes all he saw was a glowing dragonfly and he knew they didn’t talk like that. “What do you mean the other one? Come out and show yourself!”
The little sprite shied back behind the crate at his gruff tone, momentarily reconsidering her own wisdom in speaking up. But the bunny was his, after all, and she couldn’t keep it from him. Cautiously, she backed away from the crate a bit, putting more distance between herself and the man, as well, and concentrated. With a flare of glow like moonlight breaking through a cloud, she was suddenly big again, nearly as tall as he was, in fact, and she flashed him a glittering smile as she reached in her pocket and drew out the tiny ball of fluff. For a moment she petted the baby bunny’s ears, which lay flat against its back as it eyed it surroundings warily. Then she reached forward to put the soft little creature on the crate, and quickly backed away again, flashing back to her tiny stature and launching herself toward the ceiling in the blink of an eye. There, feeling safely out of reach, she hovered. “She’s hungry,” Tirlina sang out at the man in her miniature bell-like voice. “There’s milk for her on the counter.” She waited, wanting to make sure he would resume his care of the orphan before she left to return to her own charge.
Keir sniffed the bunny suspiciously. It had his scent so it was certainly the twin of the one on the cutting block, yet there were other scents as well. One, light and delicate, he took to be the dragonfly-girl – the other, a heavy musk he knew all too well – the smell of the witch. “You a witch too?” he asked as he gently lifted the rabbit and placed it down by the saucer of milk. He was tempted to have the spiders capture the dragonfly-girl but thought better of it. “I suppose I should thank you – unless you had something to do with that.” He nodded to the still form on the table, not taking his eyes off Tirlina.
Tirlina laughed with the tinkling of bells when Keir accused her of being a witch, but it quickly faded at his second suggestion. “Nay!” she gasped, and swooped lower for a moment, still out of reach, but better to see the sincere shock on her miniature, child-like face. “We arrived too late for that one,” she said with sincere sympathy as she glanced at the still form of the dead sibling. She spread her tiny hands in a helpless gesture. “Nothing could be done. So we took the other, to protect her. And now she’s yours again.” Tirlina darted away, back up toward the shadows among the heavy beams that supported the ceiling, and once again stopped to hover. “You will care for her?” she asked urgently, still wanting to be sure before she abandoned the soft creature with the man.
Keir could see from Tirlina’s face that she was sincere and was about to inform her that he’d been their protector for weeks now but a glance at the dead one reminded him that he had failed in that regard. “Yes, of course I’ll protect her, to that I swear. I do thank you then – for the second chance.”
The sprite smiled enigmatically and did a grand little bow mid-air, her wings a blur of light. “Ah, but it was you who gave them a second chance in the first place!” she replied, and flitted from the room in a blur of light to disappear into the dim hallway beyond, her tinkling laughter drifting back to Keir as she went.
Keir watched her fade from sight and whispered one last ‘Thank you’ before sighing and turning back to his unfinished business. Pulling the knife loose he proceeded to skin and clean the dead rabbit, preparing it for the spit. He didn’t think he’d be able to eat of it himself but there were others in need of a hearty meal in order to heal. Glancing occasionally toward the surviving bunny, busily involved in lapping up the milk, he almost smiled – almost.
“Here’s yer pup,” she said firmly, leaving the small animal dangling in her hands, though holding him gently. “Ye ned hem more then Eh do.” The tears already were drying – after a while, she guessed, the weariness was all that was left. “End thenk ye fer yer help here. Fer the chief and fer all of us.” She half-suspected he would refuse to accept either pup or gratitude, but if he wanted to do his own scowling, then so be it. He’d earned the right.
Jacques glared at Fiend, who seemed perfectly happy where he was, and then at Bronwyn.
“I told you. He ain’t mine, makes up his own mind what he wants to do.”
“Besides which, a sick animal shouldn’t be on the road and we’ll be leaving again soon.”
He looked down at the blood that was still staining his clothes, though he’d managed to get it all off his skin at least.
“Now, I got things to do, and I figure you have too.”
With a half ironic bow, he turned to go.
“Like gettin’ drenk?” Bronwyn said after him, scurrying along, pup still hanging from her hands with his belly out (all the better to see the direction in which he was headed. “I ken get seum lager for ye ef ye went. And ef ye’ll share it.” Finally, she cradled the animal closer, with a squeeze. At least somebody’s belly was full. “Bet net wit’ hem.” For the life of her, she didn’t want to go back to the bloody kitchens, or be drafted again with the nurses. Regardless of his foul mood, the jester was at least relatively free of the feuds and curses that had brought the Dun to this state. And if he was leaving soon – well, so much the better. There’d be no troublesome attachments … except for with the pup.
“Actually, I was going to get the damn stains out of my bloody clothes,” Jacques offered bluntly. “And then get so drunk that you couldn’t wake me with a whole battallion of Fnors.” Not that it ever really helped, but it was a sop for a short time at least.
Fiend was making small, quiet, happy sounds, and Jacques eyed him with suspicion. There were times when he’d sell his soul to swap places with the pup. He laughed at that, a bitter, sour sound that was gone in a short bark.
To sell it again, he’d have to get it back first.
Then he shrugged, setting off the bells.
“If you want to get drunk with an old fool and a young one, that’s fine with me. Just don’t expect anything else.”
He could already see her face blending in his mind into the images of countless other women over the years. And that at least was how it should be.
The smile that crossed Bronwyn’s face was one belonging to a much older woman. “Thar be many men who wude teck me to thar beds, e’en thes neght, efter all this bleud.” Some who had taken her before … too many others lay among the broken bodies. “And seme who wude meck promises that theh well breck in the morn.” She glanced sideways at him as they approached the gates leading out into the courtyard, beyond which the survivors had moved to take up residence in tents and caves. “Eh not be lookin’ fer anythin’ muir then a few hours company, motley-man. Thet’s ell I offer to any man, an’ ell they offer tae me.”
A tent had been set aside for him they found out soon enough, from one of Farrell MacRorie’s men (little more than a boy, perhaps only a year older than Beud, Bronwyn realized, but old enough to hold a sword and guard his cousin’s back). She sent him in that direction, to see to the stains in his clothes, and took Fiend with her to gather the lager. Not the drink of choice for the Highland warriors, so a smile and some tired flirtation was enough to get two flagons. A kiss or two bought some bread and cheese. Then, head down so that she would not see much of the wounded, she made her way to his tent and ducked inside. Maybe all they would do is drink … maybe he would do some sleight-of-hand, or juggle bright charms, to make her smile. It didn’t matter – at least she wouldn’t be alone.
The jester followed Bronwyn to the tent. He certainly wasn’t in any kind of mood to be jolly, or even to care whether he was too morose for Bronwyn or not. All he really wanted was to forget as much as he could, for as long as he could.
There were many ways of doing that. The first had failed, though he wasn’t sure just how well the cake would have worked in these circumstances anyway. Even though he was a past master at fooling everyone, and most of all himself, he doubted the ability to keep the mask up for that long.
He dropped himself somewhere comfortable, and proceeded to drink. And drink. And drink. In between, he would talk, and listen to Bronwyn when she did. But of what they spoke, he would be unable to remember.
And, he hoped, so would she.