Whatever drove the McLenans forward through the gates – battle fury or terror, or a combination of both – was enough to start pushing the first line of Hillrovers back. Those who had followed Geill, and cast their fortunes with him, found themselves caught, and cut to ribbons, between McLenan sword and Hillrover blade. For the movements of those Geill had sent against himself and Laurelyn had not been overlooked, and around them sharp mutterings in the Highland tongue – undoubtedly curses on those who would turn against the chieftain’s daughter – could be heard.
The living could not hold the courtyard for long, the Oath-bound could see that. As did the tall warrior to Thomis’s right who had introduced himself as Farrell MacRorie shortly before cutting apart one of Geill’s men. “Back!!” the sandy-haired man bellowed to the MacRories around him. At least Thomis assumed that was what he said. “Te the doors,” the man added for Thomis’ benefit. As he saw the Oath-bound pause, his beard split in a wide white grin. “Acair well meck them rue every step. As well the dead.” The grin disappeared on that comment. “We well ketch them ‘tween dead and doorway, and the courtyard well be their trep.”
An abbatoir, Thomis thought, and started as orderly a movement away from the gates as could be managed in the chaos. Ulric was near Laurelyn, that he could see, and a flank of Hillrovers and MacRories alike had fallen in around her as well. As he motioned his men backwards, Farrell set them to yield in the middle, drawing the bulk of the McLenans to the center of their line. Away from Laurelyn, and away from the chief. Though the ruse would not hold for long.
Laurelyn wasn’t going to argue as clansmen and allies surrounded her – all of them moving back – away from the gates and the flood of McLenans. But her eyes sought a glimpse of Thomis – to know he still lived. At first she couldn’t see him, but she caught sight of Ulric.
What she was having to work hard at ignoring were the dead men who also filled the ranks of her protectors.
In the flickering light she saw the tip of Naomha’s headdress, well behind the lines of Acair’s warriors. But what worried her was that her father was pulling his troops back – away from the inner gates of the Dun; the line was falling back towards one of the west walls. Where they would be trapped since there was no exit large enough to allow for an orderly retreat.
She had just caught sight of Thomis amongst warriors wearing the MacRorie tartan – a sight that filled her with relief! A relief that turned to horror as she watched battle-maddened McLenans break through the ruse that had been set for them – letting them swarm towards where Thomis fought.
Laurelyn knew two things – one was that she was going to be at Thomis’s side – no matter what! He might be Drywen’s Oathbound – to stand between his charge and all danger, but she was both of the mountain clans and the sea and she would stand with her husband! And the second was that she was not going to risk her kin because of her own reckless act. She yelled over the clamor, “Only the dead follow!!”
When her living kinsmen moved to follow her she yelled, “Your duty is to your Chief – Stand with him!!”
With that, with her dead kin around her, Laurelyn fought her way forward.
“Yer wife wude be with ye,” Farrell MacRorie bellowed over the fighting, grinning again as if the chaos and the blood merely invigorated him. “A brave lass-” The tall highlander stopped for a moment to bring his sword up to block a McLenan, and then back around to gut the man, “Eh hope yer worthy of her.” And at that, Farrell and a number of his men guffawed, perhaps at the prospect of Acair and his brothers finding disfavor with Thomis.
“I will try to be,” Thomis answered, using his own sword. The center of the line had buckled, collapsing around them, directing one wave of McLenans straight at Farrell and the MacRories. Listen. Just the faintest whisper, barely heard at some level below the screaming and the cries to battle. Let the patterns guide you. The sword, as it moved, and the dagger in his other hand, seemed to direct themselves. This Dun, these highlands, these men, rich with magic and swarming in threads they could not see, bound him.
As did the auburn-haired storyteller who battled through, surrounded by dead, to stand at his side.
“A’, Laurelyn Hillrover,” Farrell called, “whet a wedding day fer ye.” His heartiness faded a bit at the sight of the dead around her, but when the moving corpses turned to face the onslaught, the MacRories shrugged and continued about the business of killing. “We well sing fer yer hend-festing yet-” Another swing of his sword and McLenan blood splattered the tartan across his chest, “-end ech of me and me men well teck a dence wit’ ye aroond the floor.”
“Give Thomis and I a day or two rest!” Laurelyn yelled, with a grim laugh, turning to cut at a McLenan who had charged through the dead – but she found her target chopped apart by the walking corpses. A sight, that she knew, would haunt her dreams for many nights – or years – to come.
Nor did she catch all of MacRorie’s ribald response. If… she stopped herself and made it clear that “when” Thomis and she survived this battle – they would have earned several nights’ sleep and time together. All before they did any celebrating. She only managed to get her back to Thomis when three berserk warriors broke through – bowling over the corpses that had guarded her side. One of the MacLenans lunged for her, and while she moved to block Laurelyn felt his dagger sinking deeply into her left shoulder.
As she cursed she heard her assailant scream and watched as one of the Hillrover corpses – a cousin, Ioisail, pull the man down, to be torn apart.
The combination of the wound and the wet tearing sounds made Laurelyn dizzy with nausea – and for a long second her vision blurred. She forced herself to focus – to lose consciousness meant to become one of the walking corpses. And would probably get Thomis killed, because he’d be trying to get her to safety. That thought alone made Laurelyn rally and step back from where the corpses were getting back to their feet.
[Gairge/Traitor Hillrovers – Inside the Dun]
Early in the battle, just as the Bards had started their chant, Gairge had led a contingent of twenty men through secret corridors so that they would be in a position to join with the McLenans who would be coming up from the cellar. But the time was well past when the signal to attack the rear was to be given, and Gairge opted to order his men out.
As they snuck forward Gairge saw no McLenans in battle, but Measail and his men. Plus the Jester. Obviously something had gone wrong and Gairge cursed the fact that their secretive manuverings had left him with little knowledge of what was happening in the courtyard. Only the sounds of battle said that the McLenans had breached the gates.
And while Measail was obviously alert to an attack Gairge still saw some use in cutting at the rear – and with a roar of defiance ordered his men to attack! Better to die in battle than skulking in forgotten corridors!
Rudolpho had pulled Beud to safety and hidden her in an out of the way alcove. He had given her face a couple of licks to try and wake her up but she did not seem to be snapping out of the magically induced sleep. He had just begun to take stock of the situation and located Acair. He seemed to be safe for the moment with loyal men surrounding him. From the same direction that Beud and Bronwyn had emerged, Rudolpho saw a group of unfamiliar men emerge. This must have been the reason they were out of breath when they arrived. These were enemy warriors.
The first thing he had to do was warn the others. As loudly as he could, he began to bark at the men to alert everyone. Then he began to run around the group of attackers dodging sword thrusts and sinking sharp teeth wherever he could until help arrived.
[By Acair – Bronwyn]
In her arms, cradled against her ribs, the pup squirmed just a bit, and gave an answering yip to the loud barking that rose above the sounds of fighting from the doors leading into the Dun. Keep her safe, Bronwyn prayed silently for Beud. Keep us all safe.
Rudolpho wondered if his companions could discern him from one of the other hounds in the Dun. With all the confusion, he could easily be mistaken for one, especially since he had gotten his source from one of the hounds he had pet here. I need something bigger, something quicker.
He bound out in front of the attackers and growled. As he wanted all of them to see the change. Maybe they’ll see me as a bigger threat and I can delay them for a bit… but I hope not too long. But Rudolpho knew he would try for as long as it took. Quickly performing the neccessary incantation, he metamorphized before their eyes from scraggly hound to sleek and vicious panther. His growl changed in pitch and now came from lower in his throat. He stood glaring at the men before him and roared.
Several of the warriors hesitated at the sight of the large, black cat, and looked to swerve.
But Gairge bellowed out, “Cewards!! De ye fear the spawn ef seme wetch?! Thes es whet Acair’s besterd get hes breught amengst us!! Devel’s and wetch spawn!!”
Three of the warriors spread out – so that two could attack from the side. While the third tried to keep the cat’s attention. Nearly on cue the three men moved to harry the beast so that the rest could deal with Measail’s men and the Jester.
Measail saw Gairge heading for him, but the old warrior completed what he had been doing – his sword went deeply into Iogan’s heart. Then the commander drew his bloody blade free and turned to meet the next traitor. As Iogan’s body fell forward Measail said, “Now rise, coward, and prove yourself in death.”
The rest of the Measail’s warriors gave a battle yell and charged to meet the oncoming enemy.
Nor was it long before Iogan, with dully gleaming eyes, and a bloodstain on his tartan, stumbled to his feet and charged Gairge’s men.
Muttering all the while about insanity, death, and pups, Jacques watched Rudolpho shift again and start chewing on men. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant sight and he was glad that he’d had the lager earlier. Though it obviously hadn’t been enough.
The problem was that these men weren’t going to scare. A fact made obvious by the roar and rush of blades and men.
Jacques sighed, reached up and tugged lightly on one point of his hat. One trick had been used already, but he still had others up his sleeve. Or on his head.
From everywhere, and nowhere, came the sound of ringing bells, overwhelmed into nothingness by the noise of battle. From Fiend, back with Bronwyn, came a yip that sounded distressingly cheerful.
And Jacques vanished…
He dodged a warrior who’d been heading for him, now stumbling in suprise at the lack of a target, and stepped around to another. Everything was still moving rapidly – and he cursed that – but he thrust an invisible knife deep into the groin of one of Gairge’s men, twisted, pulled it up, and then free, blood gushing out and over his hands.
For a moment, the bloody hand was visible, and then gone, as the invisibility covered it again, and Jacques moved on.
There would be much blood tonight. And much forgetting to be done tomorrow.
Rudolpho noticed that the men were trying to pen him in, and the one in front of him was trying to distract him long enough for the others to get in position. He had to act fast or they would cut him to pieces. Already the rest of them had angled around him, but he was relieved to see Jacques, or at least the blur that was Jacques, dealing with the situation. Now he had to deal with his. If he sprang at one of them, he stood the chance of being impaled, yet it seemed the best option available to him. He could shift form, but that would leave him vulnerable for precious seconds as he changed. Seeing that they were almost ready to strike, he had run out of time.
He made a feint at one of the men, and lunged at another with claws outstretched and teeth bared. He raked the man’s chest with his claws and clamped down hard on the wrist of his sword hand, disarming him. As the man’s sword skittered away and Rudolpho tasted his blood, he was unable to avoid a shallow slash to his side.
His catlike reflexes served him in good stead as the wound could have been worse than it was. He turned to face the man who had caught him – with hate in this eyes and his mouth frothing with the other’s blood. The feeling left him confused, as he never felt this way before, but he did not have time for it. His attacker had hesitated a moment and paid the price as Rudolpho leapt and mauled him, tearing his throat open. The taste of blood was becoming more familiar and less unpleasant to him as he turned to face the man who had tried to hold his attention before. His fangs dripped with blood and gore as the man now had his attention.
The frontlines of the conflict were a deafening confusion filled with the sounds of fury and agony. Ulric held his ground amidst the chaos, his long-handled hammer affording him more space and safety than those who fell around him, their swords useless in the crush. Blood covered his arms, and he knew that some of it was his own, he had been slashed across the arms several times already. His hammer was growing heavier in his hands, but he could not afford to stop swinging.
He couldn’t see Laurelyn or the others anymore, they were behind him. He swung hard at a MacLenan, crushing the man’s neck and sending blood flying.
Something landed in his eye.
“Agh!” he spat, and stumbled backwards, his hammer held helplessly in defense. As he fell onto his back, the roar around him grew tenfold, deafening him. He wiped futilely at the blood and bone which blurred his vision, and cast futile prayers to the wind that he would not die this day.
[In the Dun – Beud/Measail/Gairge]
Seeking to escape the demon cat one of the traitor Hillrovers scurried away – turning towards what he thought was another hall. But instead he found no escape in the tiny alcove – only an unconcious girl. In desperation he pulled her limp form up and held her as a shield. If that cat came for him – then he give the beast some tender meat!!
With one arm wrapped under the girl’s arms the warrior could only brandish his dagger.
Gairge and Measail had met in a vicious battle of great swords. And though Gairge had claimed first blood across the old warrior’s side Measail fought – with hatred and his own thirst for blood vengeance in his eye. Around them loyal Hillrover clashed with traitor – with the dead of both rising to mete out justice.
[In the Courtyard – Acair]
Though few noticed the night was lessening and a faint light began to creep across the nightmarish scene, beginning to reveal more and more detail. Despite the fact the dead had begun to turn the course of the battle there were still pockets of maddened McLenans and Acair led his contingent forward to aid his living men. In the little circle of loyal men the Chief strode forward, keeping Bronwyn and the pup safely behind him, and all the while trying to catch a glimpse of Laurelyn or Thomis.
[In the Courtyard – Bheag]
Strong hands grapped hold of Ulric and helped him to his feet, and a gruff voice said, “I’ll see ne mere sleughtered thes day – ye feught well, fereigner….”
[In the Dun – Rudolpho]
Rudolpho’s fear was suddenly realized as the man tried to escape and ran into the alcove where he had hidden Beud. He picked her up and used her as a shield… a shield from him. As if he would hurt Beud! Rudolpho licked his chops, crouched low, and growled at him. If he thought that the panther was hungry, he might relinquish his hostage and run. He began to lash his tail and pace. Suddenly Rudolpho stopped and changed himself into a bear. He roared as loudly as he could and charged the man, once again teeth bared and claws outstretched. Come for me you cur. Rudolpho knew that he would put himself between the dagger and Beud if he had to.
Pulling his knife from another body, Jacques dodged a wildly swinging sword. Though the men couldn’t see him, they were taking reasonable guesses, as the numerous scratches on his arms indicated. Fortunately he’d been quick enough so far to avoid any serious impact with somebody’s weapon.
He saw Rudolpho shift, and shook his head. The boy would probably get the both of them killed – Beud and the boy himself.
Dripping a blood trail across the floor, to be lost amongst the gore and grime of battle, Jacques moved forward and thrust both knives deep into the back of a warrior who’d turned towards the bear as Rudolpho moved.
Probably get them all killed.
He left the knives sticking in the corpse, and pulled another from a pocket somewhere in his uniform.
From across the battle, Fiend let out a howling bark, and Jacques turned with a start, just as a sword swung where he’d been.
Damn, he thought, as he hacked the knife down into the man’s wrist and moved away. I’m getting too old for this.
Just as the warrior crumpled he managed to plunge his dagger into Beud’s side. Both warrior and girl collapsed to the ground.
Beud still was held by the sleep enchantment and was unaware of her life’s blood oozing around the blade in side. Or any pain within.
The traitor warrior – with dully gleaming eyes, struggled mindlessly out from beneath the girl and went to attack his old, traitorous, comrades-in-arms.
[In the Courtyard – Bheag/Laurelyn]
Bheag McLenan had long since shed his clan’s tartan – an act of disgrace perhaps, but he hoped the act would buy him life long enough to reach the Hillrover Chief. As Toisich’s second son he had not been put under the Bards’ spell of battle rage – and so he could think – and understand the futility of the slaughter. All around him his kin were dying – butchered by Hillrovers, both living and dead, with no chance of winning. This battle had long since passed anything to do with honor.
His choices were few – and he hoped that the fact that he aided an Hillrover ally might gain his passage to the Chief, where he could offer himself up as a hostage. It was a slim chance that his father would consider him a bargaining chip worthy of discussing a truce, and if it was ever known that he had given himself up he would be broken from his clan. But the survival of his kin was worth the price.
He was almost sorry to leave the foreigner’s hammer – a fine weapon, but too heavy for him to carry. Not if he wanted to have a firm arm around the warrior, and a good dagger in the other.
The McLenan took several bad cuts before he reached the line of Hillrover warriors that guarded the Chief’s auburn-haired daughter. Bheag knew little of the woman, except for the fact that she fought bravely this day.
He tried to ignore the malignant gleaming of the dead warriors’ eyes as they turned to challenge him. He mustered his voice – long since worn by screaming battle challenges – and said, “Hold ye’re men!! Ey breng ye one of ye’re own – he’s weunded.”
The fire of the dagger wound flared anew with every small movement, and Laurelyn suspected that she was beginning to get feverish. But she managed to signal the way cleared for the man when she saw he supported a bleeding Ulric. At the sight of the strange warrior’s face she knew she was looking at a McLenan, but all he wore was a beige loincloth.
“E’m Bheag,” he said, quickly moving into the circle – though he saw many a blade held ready should he bring deceit. He spoke rapidly, “Ey effer meself as ye’re prisoner – ef there be eny wey thet Ey cen buy me men’s lifes with mine E’ll de et.”
Laurelyn looked at Thomis – then back to the McLenan, and said, “Give over your dagger and continue to aid Ulric – we’re going to find the Chief.”
As she signaled that their group fall back towards Acair she prayed to the gods of sea and stone that before the sun reached its zenith that the bloodshed would have ended.
Farrell nodded to Thomis, to indicate that he and some of his men would fall in around the McLenan, and run him through if necessary to keep him in place – a dead man, after all, wouldn’t do much moving. A dead McLenan, anyway, Farrell reminded himself, with a sideways glance at all the dead Hillrovers still fighting in the courtyard. “E bet chell for ye?” Farrell asked as he and his fell in, half honor guard for Ulric and half sentries against the loin-clothed McLenan.
“Mere then Ey leke,” Bheag answered, “But me tarten get te be het te be ‘wearin.’”
[In the Dun – Jacques]
Looking down at the blood-slicked ground, and the gore on his hands and knives – several of which were now being paraded around in macabre fashion by the animated corpses – Jacques sighed, and suppressed a shudder.
He needed a lager. A big one.
Across the battleground, Fiend was alternately whimpering and howling in despair. The sound of the pup was setting Jacques’ teeth on edge, though how he could still hear it was beyond him. Tonight belonged to death and death alone.
He felt a familiar tingling sensation through his scalp as the invisibility magic faded and returned him to normality.
Or what passed for it.
Rudolpho was shocked and dismayed to see the warrior slide his blade into Beud’s side despite his efforts. He looked about him in his Ursine form and saw that the threat had been, for the most part, abated. He knew also that if he was to help Beud at all, he would have to act quickly.
He changed back to his human form and rummaged around in his pack. He quickly found what he was looking for and took out a lump of clay. He then plucked one hair from Beud’s head and incorporated it into the clay which he fashioned into a likeness of the girl. He used the doll in sympathy with Beud to slow down her heart rate and stop her bleeding. He wondered how long it would take for someone to see to her with all the wounded that needed tending. He stayed by her side and hoped he could spot Keir among the crowd.
For his age Measail had great stamina, but if it hadn’t been his anger at the traitor even he would have had to admit that his great sword weighed on his arms. And there was no doubting that Gairge’s youth was buying him an edge – gaining more and more cuts on the elder warrior.
Yet Measail could have smiled – but didn’t – for that would have spoiled the surprise. So he kept fighting and watching.
As the dead traitors, Iogan and others, circled behind Gairge and with swift movements grabbed hold of Geill’s eldest son, pulling him backwards.
When Gairge started screaming, when Measail did smile.
[In the Courtyard – Bronwyn]
Try as she might to comfort the pup, Fiend continued to wriggle and howl, the sound as forlorn a song as the serving girl ever had heard. “Ye kep hem safe,” she whispered, bowing her head over the pup’s, rubbing her cheek against his soft ears. And Beud and Laurelyn and her man, and especially the Chief.
Ulric shook himself free of Bheag’s hands and wiped furiously at his face to get the blood out of his eyes. Tears cleared most of the red haze away soon enough, but he had the nasty suspicion that his face was still coated in blood and grit from a dead man’s head.
“Thanks be to you,” he said in Bheag’s direction as he stood and looked around for a weapon. His hammer was out there somewhere… a loss that he would not brook for much longer. He picked up a sword from the ground and looked at the clansmen who surrounded himself and Bheag.
“Make way,” he said insistently, “the battle isn’t over yet… is it?”.
“Nay,” Farrell answered, with a wide grin. “Et be slewin’ a bet, but et stell be a rowdy fehght.” He half-turned to catch the blade of a McLenan on his own sword, and the MacRories turned with him. Bheag’s men had seen him, and thought him threatened by the Hillrover allies. The circle had, as quickly as that, become a target for the last of the McLenan fury. “Ye’re men feght bravely,” Farrell muttered to Bheag, and parried another thrust with a grunt.
There was no way to go – but backwards, and Laurelyn was relieved to see that they had managed to join with Acair’s circle. While the defenders, both living and dead, held against the remaining McLenans she had Bheag brought before Acair.
The Chief’s brow furrowed in grim worry as he saw the blood soaking his daughter’s left shoulder, but he said nothing of the wound – they both knew that there were more pressing matters. And that, at least, they and Thomis, were still alive and fighting. “Ged to see ye, deughter,” he said, “And I see ye breught a visitor..?”
Before Laurelyn could express similiar sentiments or explain about their captive Bheag straightened, and said, “Fer the lives ef me men I geve meself up.”
“A neble theught, lad,” Acair said, “But reght new ye look a bit clanless.” The Chief turned to one of his protectors and told him to bring a McLenan tarten from one of the bodies. When he turned back he asked, “End de ye thenk ye’re Chief well consider ye werth bargaining fer?”
“Thet Ey den’t knew,” Bheag admited, “But E’m welling te risk dying or being breken frem me clan ef et meant ending thes sleughter.”
Acair nodded, but he was looking past his captive – out at the carnage that filled the courtyard. Finally he said, “Ferst we need te fend a wey to even cerry a message to ye’re Chief – fer neither ye’re kin nor mine well step in their killing thes day.”
“We need Rudolpho,” Thomis remarked to Laurelyn, looking about for the boy … or the hound … or any animal form that seemed to be out of place in a highland fort. The Oath-bound would have preferred to have spent his time checking Laurelyn’s wound, but that, and the cuts on his own arms, would have to wait. Anyone who tried to fight his way to the gates would be cut to ribbons.
Bronwyn, behind the chieftain, bit her lip, wondering where Beud’s young suitor had gone. In her arms, Fiend continued to howl, his small throat giving voice to the most heart-wrenching sounds. His eyes were fixed on the doors leading into the Dun, where Measail’s men could be seen regrouping after the fighting there. Where the jester had gone … “Ehnd yer boy!” the serving girl exclaimed, suddenly certain that Rudolpho – who surely had the romantic courage of a man thrice his age – had gone to the side of his lady.
Thomis caught her before she could lurch forward and make her way to the doors. “Wait.” He did not move until the girl nodded in agreement, and stepped back into the protective circle formed about Acair. As he turned to make his own away across the blood-soaked courtyard, Farrell fell into step next to him, sword gripped tightly and ready to toss aside any who got in their way. In short sentences, Thomis described Rudolpho – in his human form – and if Farrell wondered what good a child would do, the highlander managed to conceal his skepticism.
Laurelyn watched Thomis and Farrell MacRorie fighting their way towards the inner doors of the Dun, and yearned to go with them. But she knew that she was a target, and with the lose of blood making her dizzy she’d be more a risk than a help.
[In the Dun – Thomis and Farrell]
The floors inside the door were nearly as slick with blood as the courtyard ground. And the screaming had not yet stopped. But here, few bodies lay, and those were all McLenan. Any who had worn Hillrover tartan – whether allied with Acair or against in life – had risen once slain to protect the Dun. At least the fighting here seemed to be done.
It was Farrell who found him, stooped over the unconscious Beud. The tall highlander sank to one knee as Thomis crouched down to touch the girl’s forehead. “The chief needs you. Laurelyn needs you,” Thomis said to Rudolpho. “To take a message over the walls, for parley.” Her wound was deep, but the boy’s arts had slowed the bleeding. A difficult choice, Thomis knew from bitter experience, to stay with the injured Beud or leave her to meet a great need elsewhere.
“We well wetch the ledy for ye,” Farrell murmured. He had sheathed his sword, and even now was cutting his own tartan to shape a compress to place over her wound.
The young Gypsy had whirled around when he heard people approach him, but recognized them as allies and turned back to Beud. He looked up at Thomis as he explained that the chief and Laurelyn needed him. He looked down at Beud trying to decide, until Farrell assured him Beud would be looked after and started tending to her. Rudolpho stood up and looked a Thomis again. He outstretched his hand and gave him the doll sympathetic to Beud. “I used this to slow down her bleeding. If you pull this hair out, it will break the spell. If something should happen…”
He didn’t finish his sentence and bolted off towards where he had last seen the chief. He found them in short order and stopped before him. Laurelyn had joined him and Rudolpho noticed the blood, but said nothing. He looked to Acair and stood as straight as he could…or as straight as the wound in his side would allow. “I have heard that you have need of me sir. That you need a message delivered. How can I help?”
[Annnnnd, once again on top the battlements…]
“The bairn,” he urged Daron again.
The artist’s green eyes flashed with fire. “I have only one gift for you,” she declared, quickly driving her dagger into Doul’s gut and ripping upwards to his chin. The threat to her charge now lay in a bloody heap at Daron’s black booted feet.
The instant Staif’s attention turned to his suddenly dead companion Keir’s staff became a spinning blur. Rapid strikes to both shins were closely followed by a stinging blow to Staif’s sword wrist. Before the blade hit the floor Keir drove the staff-end into his favorite target. It had worked well with the other skirted highlander earlier and the healer never quibbled with success. As running away was not an option for them he took the extra step of cracking the prone man’s skull, not really caring if he killed or not. He knew if he ever saw that witch again he’d be sure she got what she deserved also.
Daron watched Keir effectively deal with the other threat to their safety. Only then did she allow herself to relax her guard a bit. Though she was still alert to any new dangers that might yet approach from the halls.
The artist shuddered, trying not to concentrate on the whispering voices of death coming from the cursed stone walls that seemed to close in on her…
As Fhios and Frasier fought the piper Feachd backed away, finally turning into full flight back down the halls. His panic increased as he encountered the pack of undead that had been trailing the trio. Bolting into the area of the guest chambers he fled into Keir’s room but realized his error too late as the dead followed before he could close the door. Fending them off with his torch he managed to set a few on fire but was inexorably pressed into a corner until he was pinned. He screamed as they fell upon him, the torch dropping from his now lifeless hand onto the straw pallet.
The screams seemed to come from every hall – but none of them, thank Eisei, were the screams of a babe. The highlander continued to climb, past the guest quarters, turned a corner …. and stopped short at the sight of the white-gowned woman standing there, dark eyes glittering. For a moment, he simply stared at her, his own black eyes wide. Then, he almost glared. “Where is she?” he snapped.
Luatha raised one eyebrow – a black wing on her fair face – and lifted her chin as if about to rebuke Fionn for his lack of respect. “There,” she answered, one hand indicating down the hall. “Gether them end teck them to the courtyard.” She looked away momentarily, considering the shadows near the ceiling. “Curses well be broken end remade thes day.” She turned her black eyes back to his, and half-smiled. “But not ours.”
Only then did Fionn realize that the first rays of sunlight were starting to drift in through the windows cut into the thick stone walls. Not long for Luatha to stay then, he consoled himself. She moved at night, bathed in moonlight and shadows, and shunned the day. Keeper of secrets, mother of lies. Without pausing, he sped past her, hunter’s knife in hand.
To find Keir and Daron, Rue and Maeve. And Sannt and two McLenans laid out on the floor. The first still moaned, and clutched at his face; the other two lay unmoving. “Thenk ye,” he breathed to Keir and Daron, and helped Maeve to her feet. “The bettle is ehnding. We should fend yer Laurelyn Hillrover.” As much as he longed to simply take both Rue and Maeve from the dun entirely, Luatha had said to go to the courtyard – and though he knew she cared nought for Keir nor Maeve nor Daron, she would not place either him, or especially Rue, in deliberate danger.
So he moved back down the halls, retracing their steps, making a slow and careful way, stepping over torn McLenan bodies … And around one corner, encountering two McLenans still living, one whose face was covered in bloody gouges and whose eyes wide with madness, the other with a stunned look of desperation about him. The latter lowered his sword with a bitter laugh when he saw Fionn, still untouched by the fighting. “Se et es te be ye,” Frasier McLenan said, “to teck Toisich’s sen to Acair Hillrover.” Fhios, behind him, merely stared, lost in some unknown lunacy.
Fionn looked from one to the other, then at the sword Frasier tossed at his feet. What strange changes had Laurelyn Hillrover and her odd companions wrought in the Dun? Curses broken and remade, Luatha had said, he reminded himself as he considered Fhios McLenan. “In frent,” he said, gesturing for the two to proceed them towards the courtyard.
Feachd McLenan did not scream for very long – his throat and lungs did not last him long under the attack from the Hillrover dead. And once the screaming was done, and the dead shuffled off again in search of more McLenans, a flicker in the flames on the pallet hinted at a whisper of wind moving through the slit-windowed room. Shadows still lingered here, enough to shelter one averse to sunlight, where morning had not yet come, and from the shadows a slow breath to dampen the flames moved.
And a white-skinned hand to fish through the smoldering bedclothes and bring forth two small bodies. One lay silent, unmoving. But the other quivered, nose barely shivering with the faintests of breaths. The first she set aside, gently, the second she lifted to hold before a face more fey-seeming than even when Fionn had gazed upon her. One long finger, ringed in silver, stroked from soft ears to tail, wiping the soot away. And the kiss she gave it, softer than the one she gave to Rue, was tender as a mother’s.
“This place is too bloody for you,” she lilted to the little rabbit. “Poor motherless babe.” When she looked up, through fading smoke, her dark eyes were somber. And angry. “Wee enough to fit in your pocket, I think,” she said to a glitter of light flickering in the shadows, and held out the hand where the rabbit shivered in her palm. “Take it and go, and guard the bairn well.” It might have been a command, or a plea, as she faded into nothing with the first touch of sunlight through the slits in the walls.
Who knew what might find shelter in a sprite’s pockets? Perhaps the world itself, nestled in silk ribbons and silver charms.
With a flick of gossamer wings and a giggle that sounded like the tinkling of bells, the tiny sprite that had hovered in the dark corner flashed and grew as Luatha faded. As suddenly as Luatha had gone, Tirlina stood there, barely more than four feet tall, and gowned in the silver glow of the moon and the diamond sparkle of the dew on the grass. Holding the baby bunny up to her child-like face with unguarded delight, she whispered something softly to the tiny nose that twitched curiously at her, and slipped the bunny into a pocket that was and wasn’t quite there. With a grand, exaggerated bow toward the emptiness where Luatha had been, Tirlina flicked her silver wings and abruptly resumed her tiny stature, flitting out of the room and off down the corridor in search of the other baby who needed her – the human one.