As Laurelyn and Thomis stepped back amongst Jacques, Ulric, and the “hound” Rudolpho – she sent, ::We are to keep a tight eye on Geill and what men of his we can – at any sign of treachery lay claim to him. Kill, if needed, but that may take some explaining if things go bad.:: Before she could explain further or point out Geill Hillrover from amongst her father’s officers she saw Naomha signaling his bards around him, and heard the soul-tearing words of the incanation that would call the Hillrover dead to mete out Justice.
Rudolpho lay just outside the little alcove watching what was happening inside it as well as those outside. Laurelyn and Thomis were holding hands. They never had before… They spoke for awhile but he couldn’t actually hear anything. Even with his senstive hearing there was silence. Then, all of a sudden, Laurelyn and Thomis were kissing and everyone was cheering. Back amongst their friends, as he was making a mental note to ask them about it later, Laurelyn’s voice was in his head.
Rudolpho turned to look up at her but her lips weren’t moving. He tried thinking back to her to see if she was really talking to him. ::Are you really talking in my head? If you are just nod.:: Laurelyn gave him a curt almost imperceptible nod to confirm her ability to speak telpathically with him. ::Wow. I didn’t know you could do that! I guess it’ll have to wait till later though. As soon as you show me which one he is, I’ll work my way over to Geill and kinda plop down near him. If I can manage to get something personal of his, I can make it so he can’t move.:: As he waited for Laurelyn to point out which one Geill was, Naomha and the other bards got together and began chanting. From what personal experience he had and based on the fact they were chanting in words that made his fur stand on end, Rudolpho guessed it was some sort of spell. He had to fight to resist the urge to howl.
Scratching at the unruly hair that poked out from underneath his hat, Jacques considered that whatever it was the bards were up to, it certainly didn’t sound pleasant. Somehow it had a definite undertone to it that sent a shiver running up and down his spine.
He held the knives lightly in each hand, and wondered if the bards were going to be able to prevent any more killing – however they did it, whatever it was they planned.
Then, finally, he nodded to Laurelyn and wondered briefly if somewhere his soul was awash with the blood of all the years past. Wherever it was, he was glad it was no longer near him.
Back among the warriors, and carefully positioned halfway between Geill and Laurelyn, Thomis finally released the storyteller’s hand so that his own would be free for both sword and dagger. The incantation, even to one typically blind to magicks, weighed heavily in the air.
Amidst former enemies, Ulric stood ready and wary of everyone but his travelling companions. He had no idea which of these men was Geill, and there was no telling the Hillrovers from the MacLenans from the – he shook his head and hefted his hammer impatiently – he would just have to watch his own back as well as those of his allies. The Wind and the Stones were silent, making the bard’s chanting resound with a clarity that was beyond mortal means.
It was dreadful – waiting – and Ulric couldn’t help but wish that the fighting itself would begin.
As the Bards’ words swelled to a peak the Hillrover warriors began to strike their shields in a rhythm – sounding like the mountains themselves were beating drums; the sound wrapping itself around the Dun, as even many of the men on the walls joined in. Though Laurelyn noted that Geill did not raise his shield to beat upon it and that maybe he had paled a little. It won’t be the dead that bring ye down, she silently promised, Traitor, that is the right of the living…
She had no shield to pound upon – only her sword, which she gripped in her hand, and her daggers upon her belt. And she wondered how many other men amongst the warriors were refraining to join the summoning, whose words and rhythms she could feel sinking into the very stone of the Dun and make it reverberate beneath her feet.
As the Bards’ summoning and the shield pounding began to quiet they could hear a new sound – that of the McLenan bards, beyond the massive gates, calling the McLenans to a battle fury. The type of fury that would know no fear or pain but would carry a warrior forward by will alone – though his body had been slain. A grim smile came to Laurelyn’s face and she sent to her companions, ::Gentlemen – is there anyway to herd Geill and his entourage ahead of us? I would like them to meet the McLenans first – but without us getting slaughtered to boot.::
She almost laughed aloud when she heard Acair ordering Geill and his men to take the front lines. Normally you wouldn’t send traitors to the front to meet their own allies, but with the McLenans wrapped in battle fury they wouldn’t know one Hillrover from another. To her friends she added, ::I guess we won’t have to ‘herd’ – just make sure that the traitors drink deep of what they have wrought.::
To Rudolpho she sent, ::Rudolpho, please watch out for Acair – you – of all of us – have the best chance of that. And work no spell upon Geill – unless it is of the greatest necessity – for though he is a traitor he is still a warrior, and there is no honor in making him a mannequin to be run through. He still has the right to die in battle.:: Though she knew that no battle was fought fairly even she had to respect what honor there was. And while what she said of Rudolpho’s abilities were true – she also hoped to keep him from the front lines. Which was where Geill and his men were headed. For though there was a stout gate and high, manned walls between the Hillrovers and the McLenans she knew that as driven by a battle spell as they were the McLenans would not stop till they were over the walls. No matter how many men it took.
As the warriors moved to position themselves she noted that Acair had ordered some of the men to man the inside of the Dun – if there came a time when they had to fall back.
Though he still was not used to hearing Laurelyn in his head, he “listened” to what she had to say. ::I’ll watch him the best I can, and I promise I won’t control Geill. Do you know if they are going to have mages and archers?:: As he continued to speak with Laurelyn in his mind he move towards where Acair stood. When he was near he sat by Acair’s side and moved when he did. ::...and will he be surprised if he see’s me change around him?::
::The McLenans will be armed as we – as you heard, they too have Bards to call down spells upon us. And as for the Chief – he knows that you are “skilled” and will not strike at you.::
Thomis had remained silent, allowing the chant to roll over him and listening to the counterpoint provided by the McLenan bards on the other side of the gates.
[In the Dun – Fhios McLenan and Iogan]
Near the great doors that led into the interior of the Dun – where the rear defense was forming, though in deep side halls, waited Fhios and Iogan; one on either side of the where the Hillrover warriors would hold ready.
Both Fhios and Iogan held an amulet ready – which was not to be used till they received a signal from Feachd that he and his squad were near. Then, and only then, would the words the McLenan High Bard had taught them be spoken – releasing sleep spells upon the Hillrovers’ last line of defense. Which would leave the way open for the first squad to help make a push for the main gate.
Nor were the McLenans counting on just one squad – Fhios knew that more of his father’s men would be coming in via the underground stream.
[In the courtyard – Ulric]
Ulric was poised, his heart beating calmly and evenly in his chest, ready for the onslaught to begin. Yet as the roar of the MacLenans’ fury rose outside the walls, he looked at the warrior beside him, a young clansman… and saw fear. With a grim smile on his face he reached out and gently touched the other man on the shoulder.
“Strength to you, friend,” he said, “I’ll pour you a drink when this is done.”
Doinrigh Hillrover had only seen three summers of battle, and most of those had been raids. Not duns filled with curses, kinslayers and ancient bardic spells. He looked up at the Chief’s guest – a foreigner who was willing to fight at their side, and said, “Aye, we can’t lose – not with our ancestors standing beside us!” There was some belief in his voice, but he also sounded like he wasn’t sure which bardic chant had chilled his blood more.
Ulric wanted to tell the boy to keep his mind only on himself and staying alive, but if he wanted to think that the spirits of the dead would save the day, then so be it. He wasn’t about to take away the boy’s hope.
“Just stay around for that drink,” he said instead. Nothing else was more important than staying alive – honor be damned – just because you were fighting for your life didn’t mean you had to throw it away.
Bronwyn was panting, hard, by the time she and Beud rounded the last corner and saw the long straight stretch of hall to the courtyard where the Hillrover warriors had gathered. Even if she had had the breath to scream the warning, she knew it would not be heard over the chanting and the cheering of the fighters. She stopped a moment, one hand braced against the wall to take several deep breaths, allowing her racing heart to slow by just a few beats. And just as she started to step forward into the intersection of a cross hall, Fiend gave a muffled growl against her ribs.
Someone was here before them.
Bronwyn froze in place, swiveling her head slowly to try to peer into the dark side halls. With one hand
- the one holding the carving knife - she motioned Beud into silence. Then she stooped, to press her lips tightly against the girl’s ear, to make certain her whisper did not carry. “The pup says there be someone in the halls before us. Stay pressed against me so they cannae see you and on the other side, run as fast as ye can to the chief. And take the pup to safety.”
As she straightened, Bronwyn passed Fiend to the girl, and waited for the other to fix her smaller frame against Bronwyn’s taller form, sheltered in skirts and apron. In the shadowed intersection of the halls, it would seem that only one passed. And only one need make it to the other side, Bronwyn thought to herself. All she had to do was cover Beud’s presence, and her escape. And buy the girl time to make it to the chief’s side.
Drawing another deep breath, and clutching the carving knife with a whiteknuckled hand, Bronwyn stepped into the intersection and started for the other side, keeping step with Beud’s smaller feet.
A sniff of the wine revealed little except its poor quality which wrinkled the healer’s nose none the less. What hint of poison Rudolpho had detected escaped him, no doubt a compound he was unfamiliar with. The Mistress said the symptoms came on fairly quickly and they certainly didn’t match those Daron was displaying. Still, it could be a simple question of dosage.
“Exactly what are you feeling, Daron, anything from the time you first tried the wine?” As he waited he applied a drop to his palm and rubbed it in. It was a risk but he had to narrow down the possibilities. He hoped to have an answer before he had to sample it
As Daron met Keir’s gaze, she tried to clear thoughts clouded by either the wine or – Maker help her! – poison. “The wine burned my throat when I drank it,” she said slowly, digging the words out of her mental fog. “I’m not a wine drinker, so I thought nothing of it… and it helped ease the pain in my hands.” She drew a slightly trembling hand across her sweaty forehead. “Not that long ago, I felt a pain… like I had been kicked by a mule… in my stomach… if it’s not something I ate disagreeing with me…” She swallowed the lump suddenly rising in her throat. ”...Master Keir, am I going to die…?”
“Mayhap,” Fionn answered. He had finished checking Rue, and Maeve also, and quickly gathered their few belongings. Settling the infant into the carrier to nestle against his chest, he draped a cloak around Maeve’s shoulders. “Laurelyn Hillrover is right,” he added. The other woman’s illness worried him, one so fair deserved better than this pain, but greater pain at McLenan hands – or Hillrover traitors’ – threatened. “We must go,” he insisted urgently.
Part of him wanted to go, immediately, and leave the other two to find their own way to the battlements – his only debt was to Maeve and her daughter. But he could not simply leave them to stumble their way, unknowing into the midst of fighting.
The healer scowled at Fionn though he felt the same pressure to go where the Mistress had instructed. “In due time sir, in due time.” Daron’s description of her symptoms seemed to indicate a caustic poison, which he could test for. Unfortunately the only test that didn’t take a great deal of time was to taste it himself and as Fionn had reminded him, time was short. Placing another drop on his palm, he was about to let it touch his tongue when he realized that whether it was or wasn’t caustic it would not prove if Daron had imbibed it. It would determine which treatment to take, though, so he went ahead.
Even that small amount was bitter and burning, it was possible she had been poisoned and, for safety sake, he’d have to assume she had. “You’ll be fine Daron.” He hoped the false confidence in his voice would cover the doubt in his heart from her empathic senses. “An upset stomach most likely, from too much rich food after prolonged dependence on trail rations is all.”
“Give me but a moment Fionn and we’ll ALL be ready to go.” He hurried to his pack, grabbing his waterskin, cup, and a packet of white powder. Regurgitives and purgatives were out, the caustic poison might burn its way through her throat or intestines. A neutralizer was called for and the powder slowly turned the water milky as he stirred it in. “Here,” he ordered the suffering elf as he offered her the cup, “This will settle your stomach, if you don’t go worrying yourself to death.” He put on his best scowling smile, hoping she wouldn’t balk at the sour medicine. “Drink it all down and we can be on our way.”
Daron took the cup from Keir. Her brave smile masking her fears, she took a sip and nearly spit it out. As she forced herself to drink all of the chalky medicine, her face reflected her definite dislike of the taste. The pains in the artist’s stomach lessened almost immediately. Now only the burning sensation in her hands -signalling her need to express her Talent – remained. But, Daron thought to herself, she could deal with that after the battle. If she survived…
Daron pushed those thoughts, and others for Fionn’s and Rudolpho’s safety, firmly to the back of her mind. She drew herself to her full height. “Lead the way,” she declared.
Without waiting for any further agreement – or Luatha forbid, protest – Fionn took Maeve’s arm and directed her left down the hall. It wasn’t an immediate path to the battlements, but it would place the greatest distance between themselves and the McLenans seeking to break through the gates.
[Iogan and Fhios]
At the sight of a woman coming past – one whom Iogan knew to be a serving wench – he lunged for her. Either she had not hidden with the others – or had come to bring some warning, but whichever it was he couldn’t risk her going amongst the Hillrover warriors.
In the opposite alcove Fhios silently cursed Iogan’s clumsiness and held his amulet ready.
As Fhios cursed, he felt a pair of hands gripping his arms. The hands came from behind him, despite the fact that he was pressed up against the cold stone. Meanwhile, a shimmering and translucent hand took hold of Iogan’s collar and pulled him back towards the dark alcove he had been hiding in.
Bronwyn had turned, quickly, but not so quickly Beud would be visible to the man, and lifted her knife. With her other hand, she pushed the girl back towards the open doors.
[Iogan and Fhios]
Both men began to struggle against their spectral attackers – trying, and failing, to grasp at translucent hands. Fhios had the good sense not to scream out, but Iogan’s panic overcame his reason and he began screaming.
Much as Beud wanted to aid Bronwyn the girl understood the sacrifice the older woman was making – and that one of them had to warn the Chief! Yet, Iogan seemed to be doing a fair job of it with his yelling.
Nor was the yelling overlooked by the warriors who had been set as rearguard – five broke away to find out what the commotion was about. Three headed towards where Bronwyn lunged for a screaming Iogan, and two headed for Beud. She recognized one as Sean Hillrover – a strapping lad, who had distinguished himself for daring on several raids; another of the Chief’s nephews. “McLenans in the halls!!” she gasped out, “We have to warn the Chief!!”
She had no sooner gotten these words out when Fhios managed to activate his amulet and with the spell cast – Sean, Beud, and the other warrior fell into a deep sleep.
In the hall Fhios – with nearly maniac strength – broke free of the ghostly hands, and fled back into the Dun’s halls. He hoped to find Feachd and his band, and as he began to work his way towards the kitchens he cursed the waste of the amulet.
Seeing Fhios flee, and Iogan apparently occupied with whatever ghostly hands had seized him, Bronwyn turned and almost tripped over the unconscious Beud. The warning had not been given! Knife in hand, she sped after Fiend for the open doors of the courtyard, overtaking the pup and scooping him up without missing a step. But who to trust? Among the press of men, she could not tell who among the clansmen had cast their lot with the traitors.
[In the courtyard]
Laurelyn manuvered to keep slightly behind Geill and his men – as they moved towards the front. And what worried her was that she saw nothing of Geill’s son, Gairge, who she suspected was up to some foul business.
Little had happened since the Bards of both clans had cast their opening spells – for now it was a stand-off, which was being fought by the defenders’ archers and the battle-crazed McLenans who sought to climb the walls. The thick walls muffled the McLenan battle cries – and the screams of men hit by arrows or boiling oil.
Though the screams could sometimes be heard too clearly – as one of the Hillrovers on the wall took an arrow.
As they worked their way forward – under the pretense that Geill and his men were to stop any who might batter down the door (when the truth was that they were to be fodder for the battle rage of the McLenans), she felt itchy – and suspected that the Bards were chanting massive wardings – to protect against whatever the McLenan Bards were trying to set against them.
The “what” of the enemy spell was evident far too soon to the storyteller – as she watched the main wooden entrance to the Dun begin to smoke, and the secondary gates begin to glow with heat. “Sweet….!” she muttered, realizing that the earlier summoning had weakened Naomha and his people too much – and not with any obvious result.
She looked back towards Thomis and whispered, “I’m sorry…” Then she began to force her way forward – in hopes of getting close enough to have any wind she could call be of use.
Nor did she have a chance to notice Geill see her lunge forward and send men after her.
Ulric began to follow Laurelyn, but found his way blocked by men on all sides. The clansmen were bunching together in anticipation as the battle neared, and he knew all too well the confusion that would be passing through their minds.
“Spread out!!” he roared, pushing at the men in front of him with his hammer, “Are you men or grubs?!! Give yourselves space!”
He could see Laurelyn now, still pushing her way forward, and as the Hillrovers began to spread out he caught a glimpse of several men heading for Laurelyn. “Thomis!” he yelled as he began shoving his way through the gaps. He couldn’t see the man at all, but he could only hope that he was close behind the clanswoman.
“Laurelyn!” he shouted in warning. He could only hope she could hear him above the awful din from outside the Dun.
The tall foreigner’s voice was about the only one Thomis could make out in the shouts and cries, and he could only agree that with the men pressing forward and together, a sword would be almost useless. But he followed Laurelyn anyway, dodging through from the side on a parallel track, and slipping ahead to meet the first of Geill’s men with his dagger drawn. “I think your place is at the front,” he suggested, “Hillrover courage should not turn its back on the McLenans.” And in that, and the level way his brown eyes met the clansman’s, it was obvious he knew the lie in the man’s heart.
[Brath – The traitor Hillrover]
Brath knew Geill’s orders concerning any of Laurelyn’s companions, particularly her man, and that was to take them out. They were unknown quantities and needed to be removed. And as far as Laurelyn was concerned – she’d make a good hostage for a bit. But in the end they couldn’t afford to let any of Acair’s bloodline live.
He feinted to the side as he cut at Thomis. One of Geill’s other men swung around to attack Thomis from the rear.
Four others kept moving to surround Laurelyn.
At the back of the courtyard, Bronwyn had slipped through, snarling at any clansman who stopped to suggest that a woman should not be among them. Someone even cheered her fierce determination, and jested that perhaps the pup would be protection for her. Not that she cared – the tale that she wished to die guarding the chief won her eased passage through the press of men.
Though when she caught a glimpse of a belled cap, she detoured, half-stumbling through a wall of tartan to stop before Jacques. “I still hae yer pup,” she gasped out. “McLenans coomin’ from the cellars, t’rew the kitchens. Behind us.” How many, she did not know, but with the gates falling before them and invaders coming from behind, the Hillrovers – and she and Jacques with them – were about to be trapped in the courtyard.
Word had traveled forward that a girl was struggling her way through the warriors to stand with the Chief, and Acair doubted that after such a show that the girl was one of Geill’s assassins.
Measail had spotted the girl – young Bronwyn – near the Jester, and sent a man to bring her forward. Then he turned an experienced eye on the line that had formed to defend against when the McLenans broke in; for there was no doubt the enemy would – the bards were trying to fight the McLenan spells but it was obvious Naomha and his people had weakened. And Measail wondered what madness had driven them to use their power on a antique and useless spell.
[Laurelyn – In the Front Lines]
The chill night air responded to Laurelyn’s call and began to whistle around the heating metal of the gates; she didn’t dare try such a trick on the burning gates – the wind would only fuel the flames that were now filling the front of the courtyard with dancing red light. But deep in her heart she knew that her meager spells would not offer protection – for even now the metal was beginning to sweat and run as it continued to melt.
So deep was her concentration she didn’t react in time for one of Geill’s men to grab hold of her and lay a knife to her throat. He chuckled, “Acair’s get is such easy prey – tis a pity thet we cen’t fend eut hew easy.”
The voice might have been a memory of Mesani’s as she lifted the threads and cast them, making them visible to his eyes. If you cannot see, then listen. For the patterns moved, and even here in a highland clan feud they held him. The cold burning of the silver chain about his neck reminded him of that. Listen.
“Here,” the Oath-bound whispered, and around him the sounds of the fighting faded into nothing. Only that portion of the weave which held him, the man before him, and the man behind, could be seen. His left hand fell, and rose, the blade of his dagger slicing through tartan to find flesh and scrape across bone. His body turned to follow the movement, twisting past the man’s own blade, and as he finished the turn his sword rose again to meet the man behind him.
Perhaps not a wise move, to strike at Hillrovers while surrounded by others in the clan who were ignorant of Geill’s betrayal. But better than letting those who had broken their oaths lay him open.
Laurelyn was never sure which shriek was louder as she was being dragged backwards -but as the metal shrieked in protest her captor screamed into her ear, and his knife cut a thin line across her neck as someone dragged his arm away. She whirled about – sword ready.
To see one of the fallen archers, who had an arrow through his own neck, ramming his dagger into the traitor’s gut.
Before she could even react the gates crashed open.
A mist, wispy and pale, began to rise from the ground around the gates. Those nearby found themselves suddenly chilled as the mist wrapped itself around the gates. As the mist became thicker, faces could be seen within. The faces of long dead Hillrovers, those who no longer had a body to raise in defense of their living kin.
Farther afield, in the graveyards beyond the fighting, the ground began to heave. Graves rippled and burst, allowing the dead within to claw their way free of the earth that had been their rest. The ragged highland dead gathered and shouted out an eerie cry, “Death to the Hillrover’s enemies!” The dead charged forward, some wielding the weapons they had been buried with, but most armed with only the strength of the grave. They surged towards the rear of the McLenan troops, shrieking with rage at their enemies.
He heard the gates fall, and braced himself for the surge forward that would come from both the Hillrovers behind and the McLenans before … But the movement from outside the gate carried more a note of panic than of blood-thirst. Something had struck at the McLenans from the rear.
[Jacques & Fiend]
Jacques cursed roundly and loudly, though fortunately his voice, and the curse, was lost in the howling noise. Fiend, however, had set up a high pitched howling that pierced through the noise, and then merged with it to be lost but not abandoned. And then the pup stopped as suddenly as he’d begun, and simply whimpered in Bronwyn’s grasp.
“Come on,” he shouted to Bronwyn, and grabbed one of her arms. If there were men coming up behind then it would be best to do something about it. Dying was the easy part. And, knowing past fortunes, probably too easy.
As much as he hated to throw away a good surprise, he didn’t have much choice. One hand firmly grasping Bronwyn’s arm, he reached up with the other and pulled tightly on one of the points of his hat.
From nowhere, and everywhere, came the sound of bells, lost completely and overwhelmed into a nothingness by the raucous noise. And everything stopped.
“Come on, damn it,” muttered Jacques and began pulling Bronwyn through the seemingly frozen crowd, Fiend whimpering in her hand. He pushed aside warriors, and slipped through gaps, being sure to keep the woman in hand at all times.
A warrior’s arm moved infinitely slowly, and the flames on the gates crawled like treacle. But above it all, was the silence. As if every sound had not merely stopped but been erased from existence.
“Hope your boss doesn’t scare easy,” Jacques offered as the two of them pushed their hasty way through a crowd that was, by comparison, almost standing still.
The young woman might have bristled and stopped to defend the strength of Acair Hillrover’s courage. For he was a strong chief, and a stalwart warrior, and those who would not betray him would die for a man such as that. And will, she reminded herself. But she could not stop, the jester’s grasp on her arm was unbreakable. And the sight of the entire courtyard, frozen, stunned her into speechlessness.
And then they were suddenly standing by Acair, and time snapped back into normality with an ear-destroying roar of sound and speed.
As sudden as that, Acair Hillrover found himself confronted with the jester and a gape-mouthed serving girl who held a pup in one hand and a carving knife in the other. The rush of sound, when before the yard had been silent, stunned her momentarily. But then she remembered her purpose. “Kitchens!” she exclaimed, brown eyes widening even more. “McLenans in the cellars. Behind us!! Beud, Sean, Aidan, ‘sleep, mayhap dead – by the doors!” She pointed to the rear of the courtyard with the hand holding the knife, barely missing Measail with the near-frantic swing.
Acair blessed the fact that Laurelyn had warned him of her friends having unique skills. His blue eyes were cold and grim with the news of more treachery, but he was quick to respond. He ordered Measail to take men to aid the rear guard – then looked to Jacques and said, “Ye’ve already dene me a great favor – and will ye de me another? Aid Measail against what is ceming behind us?”
His expression gentled a little as he looked to Bronwyn and added, “Weuld ye care to stay beside me, lass, and meke geed the legend rising abeut ye? Beth ye and the pup.”
Surprised by Jacques’ and Bronwyn’s sudden arrival Rudolpho let out a low growl before he recognized them. Realizing who they were he sat back and listened intently as Bronwyn related her news. Looking about him, Rudolpho deduced that Acair was well protected for the moment and in good company. He raced across the courtyard where he quickly found Beud and the other two gaurds. He gave her face a few licks to try and wake her up but decided not to wait. Biting gently into the collar of her shirt, he started to pull her away from the fray.
“May as well die there as anywhere else,” offered Jacques with a shrug that set off the bells almost silently in the noise of the battle. “Though it looks like even dying wouldn’t be good enough.”
He glared at the ghosts and corpses that were rising and fighting. He glared at the live Hillrovers. He glared at Acair. And then he glared at Fiend, who gave an uncertain ‘yip’.
“You look after her, boy.”
And then he was following Measail, a long, red handled knife in one hand, and a long, green handled knife in the other.
As Measail and his men joined the rear guard they saw some of the warriors who had been missed by the amulet’s spell hauling a thrashing Iogan forward. One man came forward and said, as he held out the second amulet, “Ser, we feund thes cursed etem on thes werm.”
Measail knew there was little time, but the knowledge of what the amulet could do would be of use. Fortunately, Iogan was already half gone with terror – so gaining the information would be fairly easy.
But before he questioned the boy the old warrior sent men over to help drag the downed ones to safety. As he glanced to the unconscious body of Beud, who seemed to have gained a faithful hound (one who had been guarding Acair – maybe one of Laurelyn’s pets), he wondered if Teth was safe. In his own way he loved the woman – for she had been his companion and respite on so many campaigns. And though he loved his lawful wife – she could never understand what it meant to have been in battle. To the warriors the campfollowers were a necessity and a blessing – a safe, warm refuge where the pleasures of life could be remembered after standing hip deep in death.
[Frontline – Ulric]
Ulric broke away from the crush of warriors and looked around for Laurelyn’s attackers. One was lying on the ground, but three others still approached. Two of them saw him coming and he swung his hammer into the other man’s head, sending him sprawling to the ground. He glared at the other two as he hunched over their fallen comrade, blood dripping from his hammer.
“Laurelyn…” he said quietly, hoping to draw her attention to the more immediate danger.
Laurelyn wasted no time in attacking one of the two traitors – who was still staring in horror at the archer.
The storyteller had the passing realization that this was what Naomha’s ancient chant had called forth – and made herself not flinch as the dead archer joined her in attacking the traitors.
The combatants in the courtyard swelled as the McLenans – in full battle fury – broke through the burning gates, and clashed with the waiting warriors.
Geill Hillrover tried to turn his men to join the forward rush of the McLenans, but found that the maddened enemy did not distinguish between Hillrovers, and attacked any before them.
The truth of the McLenans’ betrayal was Geill’s last realization as a sword nearly took his head off.
Yet, the McLenans made no headway – for no Hillrover stayed down to be trampled beneath their feet; true Hillrover and traitor rose up, wounds gaping, to attack the invaders. The sight to all who lived and were sensible of their surroundings was a terrible vision; half-dead, but crazed McLenans fighting Hillrovers – both living and dead.
In the light of the burning gates Acair, Chief of the Hillrovers, readied himself for the moment when he and his men would be needed. For there was no doubt that the front lines would soon fall beneath the press of crazed McLenans. He placed Bronwyn, pup in hand, behind him, and pulled his two-handed sword ready. To his right, guarded by more, loyal, men were the Bards – who were looking exhausted, but who had fallen silent.
Nor could Acair blame them – as he looked out at the flame-lit battlefield, and saw his men rise – with blood wounds open – to fight again. What more could the Bards do? It could well be they had bought the Hillrovers a victory – but at what cost? Could their dead ever rest in peace? His heart ached at the thought that the incantation had doomed to them to a restless half-life.
[Outside the Dun – The Chief of the McLenans]
Guarded by his own men and bards Toisich, Chief of the McLenans, held ready for battle. And tried to deal with the sickness that lay in his heart as he watched his kin – men he had doomed to an enchanted battle rage – fight against shambling corpses that had struck from the rear, and who would not stay down unless completely hacked to minute pieces. Nor could Toisich bring himself to envision what lay inside the Dun – where his eldest, and favorite son, Fhios fought, along with his only other son, Bheag, who had led the charge. Fhios – the wiley one, the cunning leader, and Bheag who had the heart of a golden lion, and never retreated in battle.
And as the battle was joined against the dead he wondered if he had finally gambled too much? Was Acair so desperate – or insane – to call this hell down on all of their heads?
Feachd blessed the fact that the halls were silent – and empty – as they snuck first through the kitchens, and up into the feast hall. Tables and benches had been knocked over in the death throes of the warriors and their women – and the McLenan wrinkled his nose at the smell of vomit and worse.
As they crept forward Teth kept having the uneasy belief that she had seen one or two of the poisoned move – impossible since the poison was fast acting, and it had been awhile. So, she averted her eyes and told herself that it was just the muscles loosening in death.
The outer halls were also empty and Feachd had Teth come forward – a fact that she felt distinctly uncomfortable with – to lead them towards the gates. Where Fhios and Iogan waited, and hopefully the Hillrover rear defense lay sleeping. A hiss brought them up short – weapons at ready, only to spot Fhios crouching in a doorway. The son of the McLenan Chief looked pale and breathless, but he succintly said, in a chill whisper, “The ambush is blewn….”
He glared at Teth and said, “Two of yer doxies mede it free to geve warning.” He had no intention of telling of the ghostly hands – which had to be some illusion of the Hillrover tinkers, particularly after all that foul chanting.
The woman bristled at the implication and answered, “I ded my pert….” She looked to Feachd and added, “If yer men hedn’t been slew te epen the ether cellar all weuld ‘ave been well!”
Feachd paled beneath Fhios’ questioning gaze, but a sound from down the hall – the direction of the feast hall, saved him. “Woman,” he hissed, “We canna debate – where is anether reute?”
Teth had no desire to delay, and quickly began to lead them towards the stairs that led to both the officers and guest quarters – there was a hidden outlet to the allies near the courtyard.
The highlander cursed, softly but insistently, as the halls turned in the wrong direction. “We hae to go doon,” he finally admitted. Or else be trapped in the section of the Dun given over to the highest ranked of the Hillrover clan – and therefore the section most likely to be looted by the McLenans. If the Hillrovers fall, Fionn reminded himself, though he was familiar enough with the curse on the Dun to experience more than a minor bit of skepticism. Steadying Maeve with one hand, he led the way down the steps – and stopped halfway down as the sounds of men coming upwards carried through the air.
He almost whirled on Daron and Keir, lifting Rue’s carrier to nearly shove the baby into the artist’s arms. That done, he turned to pull from the front flap of his pack a short piece of tartan in his clan’s colors. “Remember – ye hae cast yer lot with a Fhaolain rather than the chief and his daughter.” There was no time to make the story clear to them, though it was obvious from the way Maeve’s eyes met his from her bruised face that she understood the need for the deception. The men who approached could not be Hillrovers – at least not ones who would stand with the chief.
“Boot ye air not feghters. If ye air stooped, that be the tale.” Quickly, he draped the long scarf over Daron’s shoulders and tucked it in before hurrying to the bottom of this short flight of stairs. “Take them left down the hall,” he whispered to Keir, and drew his long hunter’s knife to hold it. “Ye well fend another flight of stairs, older, to the battlements, somewhere in those halls. If I can, I will join ye thair.” Already the torchlight from those approaching from the lower floor could be seen flickering against the walls.
Keir began herding the two women back down the hall grudgingly. It had been bad enough having to leave the relative security of his room and abandoning the rabbits in their straw nest without having to take orders from a witch-spawned, rude and arrogant Big Person. There would be many shins cracked before he’d resort to lying though.
He recognized the other stairs immediately as those he’d used in his flight from the battlements and knew how dark and dank the passages beyond were. Taking the last two flaming lunts from their sconces he handed them to Maeve and Daron. Thankfully the artist had recovered rapidly and even Maeve seemed steadier, perhaps from fright. He urged them ahead through the rubble-strewn corridors until he could barely see the light from the torches. If they were to have pursuers they’d find a demon in the darkness with more than one trick in his vest pockets.
[Hector and Gille]
From up above in the darkness, the sound of footsteps was unmistakable. Slow, shuffling footsteps echoed down to the trio. Then the source of the sound became visible. Hector and Gille, their eyes aglow with the ancient magic in their crushed faces, shuffled forward and bowed in a gruesome parody of respect.
Maeve gasped, shrinking back against the wall, almost dropping the torch Keir had given to her. She had prepared herself for the possibility that they would come upon Hector’s and Gille’s bodies (from the force of the blows made by Ulric’s war hammer, she had known neither could be living), but to see them with the flesh flayed away and the edge of bone showing…. Had they come for her and Rue?
Daron held the carrier close to her chest with one arm and the lunt in her other hand as she moved down the hall, stunned that Fionn would trust her with such precious cargo, she wondered too at his sudden gift of the tartan scarf. Daron silently prayed to the Maker to keep Fionn safe.
The artist nearly dropped both lunt and babe at the sight of the battered men approaching them. A whispered prayer for her own safety seemed a shout to her ears, nearly drowned out by the beating of her heart. She tried to calm herself down, knowing her fear might upset the wee one.
[Down in the caverns – The three McLenan warriors]
Having given up on the campfollowers who were determined to row on into the depths of the cavern the three warriors opted to make themselves useful. They found that the secret door was barred from the inside – probably by one of the cursed doxies that had made it free, so the men climbed back up the other trapdoor and went back to the other cellar.
They needed to get the larger of the two doors opened for the reinforcements that would be coming.
The cellar was as dark as before, but something was obviously out of place. As the lead man stepped down the stairs, he never got a chance to find out what. Hands shot out from beneath the stairs to clutch his ankles and trip him. When he landed at the bottom of the stairs, they came. The dead women leapt forward to tear at him. They carried no weapons, but death had lent them terrible strength to exact their revenge. When they rose and turned towards the remaining two, their victim lay in several pieces.
[Feachd/Teth/Fhios/Warriors – On stairs]
“Semeone’s ahed,” the lead warrior hissed back to Fhios as they moved up the stairs. “One be the seund ef et.”
Fhios signaled the group to stop – and for the lead guard to scout ahead.
In the rear Teth pressed against the stone wall – with only one other warrior behind her on the stairs. Her heart was pounding hard against the bone stays, and she tried to keep from gasping loudly – though this was more exertion she had had in a long time. Even in bed, she told herself.
But as they stood waiting for Fhios’s signal to move Teth thought she heard something behind them – of footsteps? Not the faint sound of someone moving with stealth, but a slow, unsteady sound. She looked to the McLenan behind her – who was already looking back to see who was coming.
He shook his head – he couldn’t see anyone down the dark stairs and for a long moment the sound had stopped.
Then came the noise of a crash – from somewhere out in the main hall. The warrior signaled Teth to stay and crept back down to look.
In the flickering light, Fionn saw the man creep forward, with the colors of the McLenans on him. The urge to strike, now, before the others came was strong – but there would be more below, and misdirection would cause the greatest delay for Keir and the others to make their way free to the battlements. Luatha, if you are here, he silently prayed, lend me the strength of your deceit. He straightened, keeping both hands – and the hunter’s knife – visible. “McLenan,” he hissed, stepping forward, “where is Fhios?” Whether Fhios McLenan would trust that the Fhaolain had turned yet again, either way Fionn could buy more time for Maeve and Rue.
[The McLenan Warrior/Fhios]
The warrior quickly looked past Fionn’s shoulder, but saw no one above the Fhaolain on the stairs – so, with an aburpt gesture, he motioned the Fhaolain down the steps. Making sure to follow – with a sword point at Fionn’s back.
“Whet er ye about?” Fhios demanded of both men. To the warrior he motioned that he was to go back up the stairs. Then the McLenan turned his attention to Fionn and hissed, “Whet de ye thenk ye’re doin’ running the halls – why aren’t ye et the guerdtower? And were es Sannt?”
“Ye shude hae picked a braver Hillrover,” Fionn hissed back at Fhios, “rather than one who tooked his tail ‘twixt his laigs and turned to run at the farst sounds of feghtin’.” His anger was apparent and not faked. “Eff I see the man again, I’ll cut his throot mesel’.” The lie left unanswered the question of why Fionn himself had not continued to the guardtower, but perhaps the McLenans would think him reluctant to waste his own life after Sannt saw fit to flee. “I hope not all yer traitors are cowards, too.”
While some of the warriors held ready to deal with the Fhaolain, should Fhios wish him dead, the others to the rear were beginning to become nervous. They too had heard the faint sound of a crash, and Teth had told them that the rear guard had not returned from his investigation. Word of these events were quickly whispered up the line – till they had Fhios’s attention.
The McLenan scowled – he had no desire to have his men picked off one at a time. Nor did he desire to remain caught on the stairs.
To expedite matters he had Teth hauled forward to lead the way to the passage to the courtyard, and he said to Fionn, “Meke yerself useful – ge see whet the recket is.” Not that he was going to trust the Fhaolain – he would send another couple of men down after him. Then the remainder could join the battle in the courtyard.
Down was not the direction he wanted to go – given his preference, Fionn would have preferred to have led the McLenans in a roundabout, twisted path through the Dun that would leave them far afield of both courtyard and battlements. But he had to trust Keir and Daron to take Maeve and Rue to safety – and try to keep the McLenans from seeing the lies in his face. So down he went, knowing without looking that two warriors followed at his back.
Further up, in the halls leading to the battlements, where Maeve had shrunk back from Gille and Hector, a white-gowned woman had appeared, her long back hair bound back from her pale face with ribbons of gold. “Wee man,” she whispered as she shimmered into sight in the halls. When Hector and Gille turned their vacant eyes upon her, she simply lifted one hand to point towards the stairs leading down. “Ansin,” she breathed to them, “Tagaidh ar rud ansin.” There …. you will find them there.
Only after the two had turned, and shuffled towards the stairs where the McLenans climbed, did she turn back to Keir. And to Daron, draped in Fionn’s scarf and holding Rue. “Me own colors you wear,” she remarked to Daron, as if surprised. Her dark eyes, glittering like stars, dropped to Rue. “Thes way.” The woman turned again with a peremptory, “Come.”
The apparition’s words echoed in Daron’s mind: Stunned into silence, she followed the woman in white.
Maeve’s cry had brought the healer running from the shadows to confront the pale-faced zombies and the witch woman. He still didn’t trust her but when Daron and Maeve moved ahead he had no choice but to follow, staff at the ready for any tricks she might play. His free hand sought out his precious globes and closed on the first he found.
[In the Halls – The Dead Highlanders]
As Fionn and the two McLenans turned yet another of the dun’s many corners, they came face to face with cause of the crash. Hillrover warriors filled the passage. But the men’s and women’s eyes were dull and their lips were still coated in bloody froth from the poisoned wine. At the sight of their enemies, the dead highlanders opened their mouths as if to let loose with a battle cry. Then the silent revenants charged forward to attack.
“Sweet Eisei!” Fionn hissed, falling back immediately behind the McLenans. This was the dark working that had whispered through the stone, vengeance called forth from death upon those who would take the Dun. Would they care to distinguish between McLenan and Fhaolain, especially when Fionn was with two whom they sought?
It was not something the highlander wanted to test. He turned without hesitation, taking the steps back up two at a time. “The dead walk!” he cried to Fhios above, barreling through the McLenans in the rear before they could react. Below, the screams of the two warriors he had followed could be heard, with sickening sounds of ripping flesh and cracking bone.
Frasier McLenan lunged at the Fhaolain as the man reached the tops of the steps and slipped down the hall, but the thrice-damned fey was too quick for him. Fionn was down the hall, silent now, and into the shadows before any of them could stop him. Not that many cared to try – the warriors in the back had started to push up the stairs to get away from whatever lurked in the darkness below. “Away frem here,” Frasier hissed to Fhios and Feachd. “We well fend the courtyard, bet we shude not wet here for thet,” he pointed his blade back down the stairs, “to coom teck us apart.” Whatever curses Acair Hillrover had called down upon the Dun, and whatever price he would exact from them for this battle, best that they die with honor fighting the Hillrovers than shaking in fear and cowering in a stairwell.
As the McLenans headed for the secret passage Teth bolted down another hall – she had no use for the doom that had been called down on the McLenans. And if she was lucky she would find a place to hide till the fighting was ended!
And it wouldn’t matter who won! If it be the Hillrovers she could go back to Measail’s bed. And if the McLenans took the Dun then she could be with her Geill!
The hall she was in led to yet more quarters and she decided to hide in some remote closet.
[The Dead Camp Followers]
From the hallway behind Teth came the sounds of footsteps. Not the fast paced steps of pursuit, but slow steady paces. They came down the hallway, following the scent of her blood. The McLenans had killed them, but they sought the one who had betrayed them so callously. From their bloody lips they whispered the name of the one they sought, “Teth” They continued calling her as they came, filling the hallway with whispers and echoes.
The hall that Teth was going through was dark, and she dearly wished she had a torch, but she knew these halls well and told herself that she would easily find someplace to wait out the fighting.
At first the hall had been silent, but soon she heard steady, dragging steps – and a word, that sounded almost like the very stones were whispering, a word that sounded too much like her own name. Teth’s heart beat faster – the footsteps were much like the ones she had heard in the hall. Corpses footsteps. And she lifted the material of her dress, whose hem was stained in blood, and began to run.
[The Dead Camp Followers]
They pursued their quarry steadily. As they came relentlessly forward, they continued to whisper her name. Then the lead corpse threw her hand out and caught Teth’s shoulder.
Their voices rose in a ragged chorus. “Ye betrayed yer own!” they shouted, “New ye shall join us.”
Teth screamed and lunged forward. Free! She raced blindly down the hall – only to tangle her feet in the hem of her bloodied skirt.
[The dead campfollowers]
They lifted Teth up from the floor, grasping her arms and legs in the unyielding grip of the dead. They carried her struggling form through the halls, back towards the kitchens. They carried her down into the cellars, past the tattered remains of the three McLenans who had found them earlier. The dead women ignored her cries and pleas, as well as her struggles. Not until they had entered an unused section of the cellars did they speak. “Ye betrayed us. Ye steud by and watched the bastards slaughter us. New we will be revenged upon ye.”
With that, they carried her into a crumbling alcove. Then they began to lift the rocks and place them in front of the small space. Whenever Teth tried to escape the alcove, the dead pushed her back in and laughed at her feeble attempts to fight them. Soon, the alcove was covered completely and Teth was trapped in a tomb of dark stone. The rocks were far too heavy or her to move, it had taken two of the horribly strong walking dead to move most of them into place. There was no escape from the camp follower’s revenge.
[In the Upper Halls – Fhios/McLenans]
Fhios refused to panic, which was what won him the door to the secret passage. He cursed Geill’s woman for running off, since her knowledge would have let them into the hidden corridor that much sooner, but once he had the door opened he raised his torch high and went on in. Behind him Feachd and Frasier hesitated at the darkened, chill passage – it seemed to them smell of the moldering dead. But there was little choice between a ghost and the walking corpses and they followed their leader in.
Yet they did not see Fhios’ torch – though he couldn’t be many steps ahead of them, and the corridor seemed filled with an inky darkness… A scream of a soul’s terror ripped through the corridor – almost shaking the ancient stone walls themselves… And with the terrible sound came light. The McLenans could again see Fhios’ torch, where it lay on the packed dirt floor, and they could see the son of the McLenan Chief huddled into a whimpering ball. Over him stood a skeletal figure that was bathed in a pulsing, sickly yellow light – and when it looked towards the men they could briefly see it at the moment of its death; its visage was of a man whose flesh had been flayed from its face.
The corridor filled with the sound of pipes.
“Te Piper!!” Feachd yelled, scrambling backwards – towards whatever fate awaited him.
[Other parts of the upper halls – Fionn]
The pipes again, softer this time, but with no less a hint of warning, lent even more speed to his heels. Barreling through the halls, dodging walking corpses, he stopped only when he almost plowed straight into the wraiths of Gille and Hector on their path to the McLenans. And rage held him there, momentarily, at the thought of what these men had done, and tried to do, to Maeve and the babe. But Ulric had exacted a price from them already, and the dark curses of the Dun held them now – so he stepped aside to let them find their way downwards.
Further along the halls, moving towards the battlements, Maeve turned the corner after Daron and Keir to find – the woman, fey Luatha, faded into nothingness and instead a bloody-faced Hillrover confronting them all with a bared sword, at his back two McLenans. “The Fhaolain’s wench,” Sannt snarled, the temple above his right eye swelling with the force of the blow Fionn had given him in the stables. “And his brether’s besterd.” He considered Keir, and then dismissively looked away, turning to Daron and gesturing with the sword. “Geve me the cheld,” he demanded as one of the men with him circled around him to reach for Maeve.
Daron shielded the babe with her body as best she could. “Never!” she hissed. Her throwing dagger glinted in her other hand. “I’ll gut you where you stand first!” Her slightly trembling voice belied her arrogant words.
Sannt snarled, obviously as unimpressed by Daron’s threat as he was by Keir’s staff.
[In the Hidden Passage – Frasier]
Down below, facing the skeletal spectre, Frasier McLenan froze in place. “Thes is the pehment due,” he whispered. The price for killing a piper. He thought the stones around him might be ringing with the sound of the bagpipes. The curse of the Dun, the curse the McLenans had brought upon themselves. “Fhios, back!” he cried, forcing himself to move. The survival of the chief’s son came before his own, and if there was any honor to be left, then he would take it. Lifting his sword, Frasier threw himself at the piper.
The sword passed through the Piper’s body, but skeletal hands – whose chill seemed to seep down into Frasier’s flesh – grasped the warrior and threw him against the wall. The blow was not hard enough to kill, but to stun.
Then the Piper turned back to Fhios and bent down just enough to grasp the man’s chin in a glowing, skeletal hand. The sickly yellow light of the ghost illuminated the McLenan’s face – revealing deep gouges down Fhios’s face. Gouges that would be forever disfiguring scars – but the Piper had left the McLenan his eyes. Eyes that were now filled with an inward-turned look of madness.
[Near the Battlements – Keir]
“A trap, I knew it!” Keir muttered to himself when the witch vanished and the three warriors appeared. There wasn’t time to place the globe in the sling so he tossed the glass orb into the air and smashed it with a swing of his staff – sending a burning spray of pepper, Oil of Ivy and camphor at Sannt’s eyes.
Sannt screamed, dropping his sword as he clawed at his burning eyes. The two MacLenans pushed him out of the way so they could deal with Keir and the two women. One of the two warriors went at Keir – but wary for any tricks.
Not daring to take a hand off his staff for another globe, the Hortus backed towards Daron – cursing the decision to leave the safety of his room. With the artist hampered by the babe he felt it was up to him and he wasn’t certain he could keep the pair occupied long enough for her and Maeve to escape.
Doul dodged to avoid tumbling over Sannt as the man fell to the ground clutching at his face. Nasty business, this, attacking women and children – but the Fhaolain had betrayed them (he couldn’t imagine why Sannt and Iogan had been stupid enough to trust the fey in the first place) and a price had to be exacted for this. By the looks of it, someone already had tried to take one from the red-haired girl – her face was bruised, and her nose had the look of one recently broken and reset.
Circling carefully, to avoid the little man – who had proven to be a bit more trouble than they had imagined—he reached for Maeve, barely catching one sleeve. But she still held the burning lunt in one hand, and turned to thrust it in his face, sending him stepping back, cursing, with a return shove that sent Maeve sprawling.
The babe it was, then. Leaving Staif to deal with the little man, Doul turned to Daron. Her knife, he ignored. “Geve us the bairn,” he told her calmly. “And we well let ye go.” If she didn’t hand the infant over willingly, he’d rush her and take the child by force.