Acair saw Bheag’s more than skeptical look as the dark-haired boy, Rudolpho, presented himself and asked if he could help in some way, but the Chief said, “Aye Rudolpho, ye can.”
He studied the lad for a long moment before continuing – hating to send the boy into such danger, but amongst the mountain clans there was little time for youth and more than a few boys Rudolpho’s age had died this night. “I need ye to cerry word to the McLenan chief that I wesh to parlay – thet I have his son, Bheag.”
“Hew cen…..?” Bheag started, still looking in disbelief that the Hillrover chief expected a mere boy to fight his way through to the McLenan Chief.
Laurelyn’s expression was neutral, not wishing to show her own fears for her young friend, but firmly said, “Trust that he can.”
She looked to Bheag and said, “Do you have some prove that he can carry?”
“Thet Ey ded keep,” he said, unpinning a silver hawk from the side of his loincloth.
Rudolpho did not seem offended when doubts of his ability to complete the task were raised. On the contrary, he relied a lot on people underestimating him, thinking him to be “just a boy”. Instead he looked seriously up into Acair’s eyes and spoke.
“I have a question and a request, sir. For my request, could you write down the message you want to send? I know this is important and that lots of lives might depend on getting this right. If you write it down, then I won’t misspeak myself and mess this up. For my question, could you tell me how I can recognize the McLenan chief?” He thought for a moment and added “I guess I have one more question. If you do write the message down, do you want me to read it to him or just deliver it?”
The Oath-bound carefully held the small doll Rudolpho had given him, taking care not to disturb the spell the boy had worked on it. Around them, in the main hall into the Dun, Measail’s men were taking position to guard against the appearance of any further traitors or invaders. A brief murmur rose at one end of the hall, and the sound of some harsh words, but before long one of Farrell’s own men came forward with a motley group.
First, two in McLenan, the first of whom introduced himself, a bit snarlingly, as Frasier McLenan. Frasier then introduced the other – who looked a bit on the mad side – as Fhios McLenan. And behind them were those who Thomis had thought would go to the safety of the high battlements – Fionn, Keir, Daron (with baby Rue in her arms and a tartan scarf over her sholders), and Maeve. The Fhaolain looked ready to kick someone – Farrell’s man held, in one hand, the long hunter’s knife Fionn usually carried. Thomis half-suspected that if Fionn had not arrived with Keir and Daron, the Dun’s defenders would have thought him allied with the McLenans.
Farrell straightened from the still form of Beud on the floor, indicated that several of his men should accompany him, and volunteered to take the two McLenans to the Hillrover chieftain. Back across the courtyard, and within moments they stood before Acair. Frasier looked from the chief, to his daughter – and froze at the sight of the other McLenan standing there under guard. “Se ye heve them beth,” he remarked to Acair. He had not thought to find Toisich’s other son taken also.
Back in the halls, still under the watchful eyes of Measail’s men and several MacRories, Thomis asked Keir to come over to examine Beud’s wounds.
“Thank the gods!” Acair murmured to Laurelyn, who understood his relief at having hold of Toisich’s eldest son and heir, though she wondered at his bloodied face and maddened stare.
Bheag had paled at the sight of what was left of his once cunning brother and demanded of Frasier, “Whet heppened to me brether?!”
Frasier McLenan just shook his head, indicating it was a tale to be told at some other time. “Te many haunts in thes Dun,” he answered Bheag, and left it at that. And prayed that he would never hear the piper’s call again in his life.
Acair had been looking Fhios over and spotted a similiar silver hawk on his tarten. This he pulled free, and after cutting a bit of Hillrover plaid from his own tarten, he wrapped up the McLenan brothers’ pins, which he handed to Rudolpho.
To the boy he said, “Lad, there be no time to find quill ner perchment. Listen well te me werds – Tell Toisich thet I heve beth his sons and shew him these proof. Then tell hem thet it’s his boys’ lives if he doesn’t parley.”
Before he signaled the boy to go Acair summoned Naomha over and ordered him to give a bardic token to the boy so that he would have a better chance at safe passage.
The High Bard looked exhausted, but as he cut free some of his own multi-colored robes he murmured a spell of protection on the cloth. This he leaned over and gently tied around Rudolpho’s neck.
Rudolpho briefly comtemplated reasking his question, but quickly decided against it. Acair’s words and his tone told Rudolpho that there was not time for Acair to explain how to find the chief. He would simply have to go there and find him. He had noticed Naomha murmer a spell on the piece of cloth, and guessed it to be a spell to benefit him since he tied it around his neck. To Naomha he said “thank you sir.”
“Ye’re welcome, Rudolpho,” the High Bard said, but before he straightened he gave the boy a description of the McLenan chief.
He turned to the Chief and the rest affecting his attempt at a casual air he used when he was trying to be brave, and said “I’ll be right back.” He carefully placed the pins and cloth in his pocket, and rummaged through his pack for the appropriate avian token. He came across the hawk’s feather he carried and smiled. With a few muttered words, he jumped into the air and metamorphosed into a hawk, quickly taking flight.
Frasier almost grinned at the way Farrell MacRorie nearly leapt back from the shifter boy. Frasier himself, after his encountered with the skeletal piper, had at least momentarily lost his ability to be too surprised by the strange things that had gathered around Acair Hillrover.
Clearing the walls of the Dun, the scene of the battle outside unfolded beneath him. He could see that it had been just as bloody. The McLenan forces seemed to to be regrouping and from what he could tell, there was a small knot holding at the center of the battle.
As he circled high overhead he noticed that the warriors surrounded a man in the center, and those wearing bardic robes. With his keen vision, he caught sight of a pin similar to the ones he had been given, on the man’s tartan. Screeching a loud call, he came to rest on a large rock, and eyed the men for a moment. He then metamorphosed back to his human form, ready to change back if the men made any aggressive moves.
“I come bearing a message from Acair Hillrover.” Rudolpho looked around at the men to make sure they made no moves toward him. He cleared his thoughts to remember exactly what it was Acair had said, and continued. “My message is for Toisich Mclenan. You are to know that Acair has both your sons and it will cost you both their lives if you don’t parley. I have brought these as proof.” With that he reached slowly into his pocket with two fingers and withdrew the cloth wrapped pins. These he threw to the nearest man in the group. He knew that either the man would take the pins to the chief or hold onto them. He gave the man time to make his move and added, “What is your response?”
One of his kin picked up the small bundle of the hated Hillrover tartan and carried it to Toisich, a tall, thin man who had long greying hair, and skin like wind-weathered bark. The Chief of the McLenans face was both angry and grim, and his own tartan was bloodstained from the hard-fought battle. That his men were falling to the Hillrovers’ ragged dead – many of whom were not much more than skeletons, but that they were ripping the living apart – both sickened and stunned him.
Toisich had tried not to think of his sons – who were within the Dun, but now he had reason to hope that they lived. And his hope galled him – for that chance came from Acair Hillrover.
He pulled open the tartan and stared down at the two silver hawks. He fingered them – but he did not have long to weigh his decision – for all around him his men screamed in terror as they died. The Chief of the McLenans was filled with hate, but it was an emotion spread thin over many targets. He hated the Hillrovers, but not just because of the centuries’ long feud but because they had made use of darker spells than just honest greed and vengeance. He hated Geill and his pack of traitors for their offering him this temptation. And he hated himself for wasting his kin on a piece of cursed land that should have been left alone for all eternity. Yet his pride still kept him from speaking the words that would end the bloodshed.
This was one battle he fought alone, but finally he could see that all of his dreams and clan could be washed away on a river of blood this day if he didn’t act. He looked up and snarled at the fey boy, “Tell Hillrover thet E’ll parlay.”
And to the astonishment of his guard Toisich turned to his High Bard and said, “Breek oer lads free ef ye’re spell.”
Without another word, Rudolpho sprang from his perch on the rock and took to the air as the hawk. He flew fast and hard, heading back to where Acair, Naomha, Laurelyn, Thomis, and the others had gathered. He called attention to himself as he approached with a shriek. He flew to where Acair stood without bothering to circle once. He changed back to his human form at the last moment of his flight, landing as himself.
He didn’t pause to catch his breath, though he was a bit more winded that usual due to his wound. “Sir, the McLenan chief says he’ll parley. I think it will interest you to know that he also ordered their bard to release the remaining warriors from their spell. Is there any other way that I can be of service?” He waited for the chief’s reply but then he thought of something. “Um..Sir? Will um… our fighters stop too?”
“The living will….,” Acair said, looking out a battlefield that was becoming even more of a killing field than it had been – as wounded and confused McLenans were finding themselves without the burning fire of the battle spell to carry them. And Hillrovers were taking good advantage of the fact. The Hillrover Chief turned sharply to his High Bard and commanded, “Even it rings the last life frem ye’re bodies – summon ye’r bards to prepare the ground for talking. Make it holy and let all know that blood is not to be shed!”
“Se shell et be,” Naomha answered his chief with a ritual response. The High Bard summoned his journeymen and women, and apprentices to follow him – raising his voice in strong incantation – towards the smoldering gates of the Dun. And though every bard looked exhausted, and nearly stumbling with their fatigue, they still made a grand sight in their feathered robes and headdresses.
Laurelyn watched as some of the tension in her father’s expression eased – for even the dead were respecting the bards’ words. And the McLenan warriors now had the free will to hear the call to truce and could leave off battle.
While the bards prepared the circle of meeting Acair had a guard surround Bheag, Fhios, and Frasier. And since there were McLenan eyes on him all Bheag could do was to wear a stony look on his face – though his heart was brimming with gratitude that some of his kin might yet live. Fhios, on the other hand, muttered nonsense words and clawed at his already torn face.
To the point that Laurelyn could look on it no longer, and gave over a handkerchief for one of the warriors to bind the McLenan’s hands.
Acair turned to Rudolpho and said, “Lad, ye heve me gratitude fer what ye did.” His look softened and he added, “But ge to ye’re lass – I understend she has need ef ye.”
Rudolpho made to run off but stopped and turned back after a few steps. “Sir if you have any more need of me, you have only to ask.” He seemed to search for what more was proper to say to the chief of a clan, but was unable to come up with anything. He turned quickly and ran off to where Beud lay.
“I can take this back now, Thomis. You should go back with Laurelyn and the chief. They need you more. Thanks for watching her. I’ll wait with her until a healer can tend to her.” Rudolpho looked at her sleeping form. He took her hand and realized how cold it felt. It’s my fault she’s like this. I should have protected her better. If I had dragged her further from the fight, if I had stopped that man from stabbing her, she’d be all right now.
Thomis relinquished the doll, trying to think for a moment of what to say. The girl, despite Rudolpho’s intervention, was in sore need of healing. And all the magic in the world might not be enough to stop the bright colors from bleeding out of her. Loss was a hard lesson for any age, and though perhaps one already taught to Rudolpho, this one would carry a weight of responsibility for the boy. Keir would do his best – and quite a bit of good that would do – but Beud was small, and frail. And many stronger had been broken that night.
“Stay with her,” he murmured, touching the boy’s shoulder briefly as he rose. He would have stayed himself, but Rudolpho was correct – Laurelyn needed him with her. She bore her own wounds, and ones that should be seen to soon.
Laurelyn managed an exhausted smile as Thomis worked his way back to Acair’s circle, and she looked him over, from head to foot, to make sure that he was in one piece. During the wait for Naomha to signal the sacred circle ready one of the MacRories had quickly bandaged her oozing shoulder, though she had her doubts that the cloth he had used had been particularly clean. “They’re almost ready,” she murmured.
The circle was as close to the smoldering gates as the bards could make it, since there was quite a bit of fallen lumber making it hard to make a clear space. But they had accomplished their task – leaving the circle open on two sides for the McLenans and the Hillrovers to enter. Before Acair entered the circle he undid his weapons, and to her surprise he placed them in Laurelyn’s hands. Then he walked in alone.
A strange ritual, it struck Thomis, to disarm and parley in the midst of the blood that filled the courtyard. And given the treachery that had torn the Hillrover clan, he might have distrusted it. Still, the highlanders who still stood, battered and bleeding, seemed to accept the sudden change to truce-making without question.
From the other side Toisich entered – stepping opposite Acair, with Naomha in the middle. The journeymen spoke the sealing wardings and turned to wait.
“De ye heve them?” Toisich growled at his adversary. Some part of the McLenan Chief still did not believe that he stood in such circumstances – with Hillrover commanding the circle and the terms. In all the plots and plans he had known he would hold the Dun and Acair and his kin would be dead. How could they fail? With one of Acair’s own officers turned and the Dun infiltrated? But failure had come – maybe the the fact that Hillrover had turned on Hillrover had distorted the curse. Up to now he had not even really believed in the curse, like Fhios he had seen it as a tool – that the Hillrovers would see themselves fated to fall since they were the defenders, but now… Now, with Acair having awakened the dead themselves Toisich could believe in curses.
Acair gestured to where his guards stood with Bheag and Fhios. “Aye, I do.” His blue eyes were cold. Toisich may not have been the sole cause for all the suffering, but he was alive and a focus for anger. Geill and most of his traitors had now joined the army of dead. A thought that twisted Acair’s guts – for though justice had fallen upon the heads of the traitors there were many loyal who were trapped in that unlife. But even with his fury at the McLenan chief Acair could not help but feel some pity as he watched Toisich walk as close as he dared to the edge of the circle – and looked upon the mauled, mad face of his eldest son.
“Whet ded ye de te hem?!!” Toisich demanded, whirling – his hand reaching for a sword that wasn’t at his side. Fhios had been his joy – the cunning heir to lead the McLenan clan to greater glory, and while he thought Bheag a superb warrior he just didn’t have the twisted cunning needed to deal swifly with clan enemies. But there stood Fhios – bloodied, drooling and muttering, who no longer saw this world, but some horror beyond.
And all Toisich knew was that it was thanks to some foul sorcery that Acair had conjured up.
“Whatever he saw,” Bheag said quietly, but with a firm tone, “He saw in the depths of that blood-drenched Dun. The Hillrover Chief raised no hand against him.” He met his father’s accusing eyes as Toisich whirled about. Much as Bheag loved Fhios, who had at least treated him with respect, he knew his brother was as greedy and violent as their father. A man who had had little use for his second son – no matter how much he praised Bheag’s battle prowess to others he had never spoken those words to his son. And now that greed had nearly decimated the warriors of the clan – for Toisich had committed most of his able men to this battle. This battle that was to fracture the Hillrover clan forever.
Toisich opened his mouth – then closed it; much as he wanted to spew the blame on any – Hillrover or Bheag, for having the gall to survive when Fhios had been destroyed, the words stuck. The weight of blame lay on his own shoulders and he hated the feel of his reponsibility. Slowly he turned, straightened his shoulders, and returned to face Acair.
Naomha finished the ritual for the parley and Acair laid down the terms. The McLenans were to give over their weapons, which Toisich had expected. The Hillrover Chief, as victor, even had the right to demand Toisich’s death, which he was also half expecting. What he wasn’t expecting was that Acair decreed that all wounded were to be removed from the Dun, and that all the dead were to be brought within. And once this had been done, and all supplies had been gathered and survivors found, then both the McLenan and the Hillrover bards were to perform funerary rites – that the Dun was to become a cairn for both clans. Toisich almost asked how Hillrover expected to lay his dead, but refrained. He simply acceded to Hillrover’s terms, and took the oaths the High Bard of the Hillrovers demanded of both men.
Nor did he realize what Acair saw in his eyes – the gaze of a broken man.
Unbidden, tears streamed from his eyes which he quickly and roughly dashed away. He wouldn’t show weakness to anyone. “You’ll be okay, Beud. You just have to fight. I know you’ll pull through. Just wait for Keir. You’ll see. He fixed Ulric up good as new. He’ll fix ya up and you’ll be back to yourself in no time.” Rudolpho knew if he said it enough times, he’d believe it. It had worked before.
“Well at least somebody’s taking responsibility for their actions,” said Jacques to Rudolpho, with a glare at the warriors who were no longer fighting. He’d pulled a couple of knives from their uncomplaining hosts – the undead didn’t argue much when you asked for your property back.
“If your mother had given you more’n half a brain, boy, the girl wouldn’t be in this state.” He waved a knife in Beud’s direction. “What kind of fool thing did you think you were doing, charging a man with a hostage like that? Keep doin’ that, boy, and damn near everyone’s going to be dead.”
Jacques huffed through his moustache and tried to wipe the blood from a knife blade with a cloth he’d pulled from one of his many pockets.
“Still, one more dead here or there ain’t going to make much difference.” His eyes roamed across the carnage left by the battle.
Somewhere across the battleground, Fiend – still held by Bronwyn – was silent, ears flat against the sides of his head, tail limp.
“Why you nesty, twested li’l man!” Maeve hissed, blue eyes flashing in her battered face. The outburst was enough to draw the attention of Fionn, who was off to one side recounting what had happened on the floors above to a skeptical-looking member of Farrell MacRorie’s company. Having left her own babe, disregarded in Daron’s arms further down the hall, the girl seemed completely oblivious to the irony of her leaping to Rudolpho’s defense. The boy whose questions about her lack of feeling for her own child had set her teeth on edge before.
Nor did it seem to matter that she had no idea what had happened to bring the serving girl to this state. And the fact that the jester might have been correct about Rudolpho’s mistakes was equally insignificant. “Mayhap ye are accustomed to wallowin’ in bleud, bet seme of us be a bit less hard than ye, an’ a bit less skelled in facin’ the blade.” She stopped a moment to gather breath, the air whistling strangely through her broken nose. “If ye’re sae hard, why den’t ye ge keck a puppy when ye’ve feneshed here.”
At the sound of Jacques’ voice Rudolpho willed away his tears, then realized what Jacques was saying. Once again he had insulted his mother and her memory. The more comments he made, the closer Rudolpho came to jumping him, no matter how foolish an idea it was. His eyes flashed from sorrow to anger and he was a hair away from springing at him when Maeve interposed. Rudolpho was more than a little surprised as Maeve tore into Jacques on his behalf, without even knowing what had happened. Jacques is right. It is my fault. Rudolpho’s silent admission did nothing to mitigate his anger though
For a moment, with her small fists clenched at her side and the furious stare above her broken nose, Maeve looked like she might stalk across the floor and try to slap the bells right off the jester’s hat. Instead, she turned and stalked the other way – her one shoe flapping unlaced on her left foot – and stooped by Beud to take the unconscious girl’s head in her lap.
“Calhoun women cen be a fearseme lot,” one of the MacRories murmured, turning away to hide a smile when Maeve looked up with a glare.
It was Maeve’s intervention that gave him a few critical seconds to calm down somewhat. When she sat down and cradled Beud’s head, Rudolpho realized what was more important. He addresses Jacques in a cool, deceptively calm tone. “I* was more concerned with *saving lives than ending them. With all your speed, I didn’t see you help her.” He turned his back to Jacques and knelt by Beud. He noticed her broken nose and putting a hand on her back, spoke to her with gentle concern. “Maeve, maybe you’d better get that looked at?” She never even noticed as he plucked a hair off her shirt when he withdrew his hand.
“Mester Thomis an’ Mester Keir hae seen te et,” Maeve answered in a considerably softer voice, carefully sweeping the hair back from the pale face of the serving girl whose name she didn’t even know. No longer balled into fists, her hands now showed the first signs of trembling. “Thare be ethers in gretter need. Ye’r gerl ameng them.”
The boy sat down in a way that seemed more like a collapse and just stared straight at Beud. He spoke softly, almost detached. “I can’t do anything for them. I can’t do anything more for Beud either. I don’t have that power. I couldn’t do anything to help her.” He paused for a moment and continued, still staring at Beud. “Does it hurt Meave? Are you in great pain?” He absently played with a ball of clay his hands had taken out of his pouch of their own accord.
Jacques harrumphed through his moustache, and muttered something about damn fool ignorant women and children who shouldn’t be allowed to make comments outside their understanding. Just loud enough to be sure they heard it.
If they were so damn eager to try and gloss the world over with a coat of shiny paint to hide the dirt and blood and sheer reality of it then there was no point in his trying to stop them.
“Maybe I’ll do just that,” he said to no-one in particular. “Maybe I’ll go find myself a puppy to kick. I know one who could sure use a good kickin’.”
He turned and headed back out into the corpses, looking for knives stuck in the bodies. He needed a lager. Hell, he needed a great many lagers, though there never really seemed to be enough.
The healer walked alone through the inner recesses of the Dun, alone but for the dead scattered about. After checking Beud and seeing she was stable he had glimpsed the carnage of the courtyard and realized his small supply of medicines would be woefully insufficient. The queasiness in his stomach he wrote off as hunger and exhaustion, it had been a long and strenuous night with no opportunity to eat. It looked to be an even longer day and he hoped Laurelyn’s kin had healers of their own for the sheer number of injured was too overwhelming to ponder.
The kitchens had been particularly gruesome but he’d gathered many useful items there, including a large pot. He’d put out a general call to the arthropods of the dun and the pot now teemed with a squirming mass of maggots, darkling beetles and spiders. Maggots to cleanse the wounds, the foul exudate of the beetles to sterilize and the spider webbing to seal them. He regretted that the dun seemed short of ants for sutures but had secured several large spools of thread for that purpose. His other regret was that there was no time to spare to check in on the bunnies, they’d just have to wait though he imagined they were as hungry as he.
Setting his burden down next to Beud and Rudolpho he grimaced at the young thief with the hero’s heart. “She’s still in shock son, her heartrate is slow and she must be bleeding internally for there’s little blood from the wound.” He shook his head in despair, hating to be so blunt with the lad but the truth was he didn’t expect she’d last the day.
The sight that met Deasgann’s eyes as she led the weary, and surviving, camp followers to the front of the Dun was a scene from a nightmare. Old corpses shuffled about – kept back from the McLenans by warriors in Hillrover plaid. The McLenans were busy helping their wounded out, and kept their gaze averted from the dead.
The women had waited many long hours floating on the dark waters beneath the Dun, and when no more warrior boats came downstream the women had laboriously paddled their way out into the daylight. And had been working their way about the ancient walls ever since. To Deasgann’s practised eye, and quickly confirmed by one of the Hillrover warriors, the battle was over. And by some darkling (the warrior explained about the dead fighting) miracle the Hillrovers were triumphant – and Deasgann knew that she and her women would be needed for the wounded.
Tired they may be, but the women knew that rest would be long in coming, for they were trained in the healing ways. So Deasgann led the way into the Dun – having to tell her women to “be quiet” as some started to whimper at the sight of the walking dead. Some of the women recognized favorite lovers, who no longer looked at them with any recognition in their glowing eyes.
Deasgann spotted Bronwyn with pup still in hand, and with campfollowers in tow, went over to ask what the situation was.
Bronwyn stared at Deasgann and the other campfollowers, wide-eyed, oblivious to the blood that stained her skirts. She, with some of the others who were unharmed, had been turning over bodies to decide who was well and who was not. Fortunately, one of the MacRories – whose party had taken its own heavy losses – turned to give Deasgann a quick account of what had passed in the courtyard, with a muttered blessing to guard them all against the still shambling undead. “The hurt are tecken into the main hall,” Bronwyn said, starting to lead the way to where she had been told the still-living were being deposited.
Inside the main hall, the McLenan dead had been cleared, and the moaning – or silent – wounded were laid out. Bronwyn could see the small figure of Master Keir moving about, determining who required attention first, who could wait, and who might likely be beyond all hope of helping. Bronwyn looked about, whispering in short sentences how she and Beud had come to this place – and finally spotting the red-haired Calhoun girl, with the fey Rudolpho, still with the girl. “Yer daughter be sore hurt,” Bronwyn said to Deasgann, face flushing with the shame of having left Beud. “Ye meght want to go see her in case…”
Bronwyn hung back as Deasgann went to see her pale, bleeding daughter, and turned to look around again for another face. It shouldn’t be so hard to find him, she knew, with the bells and the motley. But weariness weighed her down, an exhaustion of both mind and spirit, and if not for the small warm body of the pup still cradled in her arms, she might have found the nearest corner and sank to the floor to weep herself dry.
Fionn – once the MacRories had seen fit to let him move about unhindered – had gone to check on Daron and Rue, taking the infant with a murmured thanks to the artist. Nappies to be changed, and then he had placed her to one corner, where she could be watched from a distance, away from the blood, while he himself had joined the crew of makeshift nurses.
The tiny sprite had finally caught up with her charge only to be overwhelmed by the mass of bodies being moved into the great hall for healing and comfort. With so many people about, wounded or ending to them, she settled in among the highest cross beams at the ceiling and determined to watch the babe and the commotion from a safe distance. She’d been sitting comfortably on a timber, fanning herself lightly with her wings to keep away the smell of blood and death, when Fionn took the baby and settled her in a corner, away from the activity and gore.
More confident that she could get closer without being seen, Tirlina stood up and stretched, then leapt from the beam, flying close to the ceiling until she was over Rue, then dropping straight down as quickly as possible. It was too hard to hide when she was in flight, made distinct by her own magical fairy glow, but stationary she could be as unobtrusive as an insect. Dropping to floor beside Rue, she glanced quickly around to be certain no one had seen, then folded her wings and tiptoed closer.
Rue had fallen asleep, which was just as well, because Tirlina had no desire to be squashed in a curious infant’s groping fist. She carefully examined the child for any injury, and once satisfied that Rue had come through the battle unscathed, the sprite settled into a fold of the baby’s blanket to wait and watch over her until Fionn could return.
“Por lass…,” Deasgann murmured as she stood looking down at her daughter, whose head lay in the Calhoun girl’s lap; the Calhoun looking battered herself. Slowly, the older woman eased her pregnant body down so she could kneel next to Beud and hold her chill, small hand. On the opposite side sat Rudolpho, looking both worried and guilty. Softly Deasgann said to him, “They sey ye fought fer her – thank ye.”
Then she turned her attention to praying to the gods of the mountains for her Beud; there was little else to do – the girl’s wounds had been well seen to. Nor could she stay long, for her duties demanded that she aid those who could be saved. For her daughter the best she could hope was that the sleep spell kept her far from her pain and passing.
The old warrior held still only long enough for some of the major cuts to be bandaged, and even then he continued to issue orders to what men who were able on where to search. And with each new body, or wounded soul, he watched to see if it was his Teth.
Word had come of the dead campfollowers who wandered aimlessly in the kitchens and cellars, and he wondered if his woman had been caught in that slaughter. And now, for whatever weirdling reason, wandered elsewhere in the Dun. Nor did the warriors-turned-searchers bother to tell Measail of the rats they had heard scratching in the ruined part of the cellars. It had been bad enough to look on the pale women, with gaping throats, who had once given comfort in their beds that the battle-hardened warriors had not been inclined to search every cranny of the cellars. They had been more than happy to flee the dead women and the strewn body parts of McLenan warriors.
The floor of the hall was so slick with blood Keir skated more than ran as he went from one gory mess to another. He considered himself fortunate that the wounds were basic lacerations, penetrations and impact injuries. Apparently while the highlanders didn’t hesitate to use poison for covert attack they preferred more honorable weapons for direct combat. Still, some had gone septic, McLenans mostly who had battled the undead. These would be troublesome. Some relief came with the return of the camp followers and they fell into healing with a practiced efficiency. They even understood the importance of cleanliness, unlike many of the men, and steaming cloths appeared in a timely fashion.
All around him became an indistinguishable blur except for the patient before him. He had caught glimpses of his companions, enough to know that some would need tending, but was thankful that none were laid out among the desperately wounded. He wasn’t sure which of the women had brought him chunks of cheese and bread, he wasn’t even sure if he thanked her in his haste to eat. The thick beer he washed it down with reminded him of Jacques, accounted for only by the sound of bells so far. The bitterness also reminded him that he had failed to take any of the antidote himself after tasting the poison. It had been but a drop so he dismissed any concern.
As things slowly settled he returned to check on Beud. Since it appeared none of his friends would need them he decided to use his meager supply of medicinals on Rudolpho’s adopted charge.
Jacques pulled a knife from the stomach of an uncomplaining zombie, and cursed roundly as intestines spilled out and onto the ground. And his shoes. Unconcerned, the animated creature kept walking towards … whatever bizarre task was in its mind.
He paused at that, wondering if they had minds still, or if the mind was part of the soul. That caused another round of curses, and he spat angrily at the ground.
Damn the boy. Impetuous little fool was going to get everyone killed by trying to be the hero. Saving lives indeed. All the boy had really wanted was the girl’s gratitude for saving her life. And, of course, what that gratitude was likely to turn into for one such as her. Damn lucky if the girl survived now. And maybe that would teach the boy a lesson he wouldn’t forget.
Jacques muttered and caught up with the ambling corpse, stuffing something deftly into a ragged pocket where it was sure not to fall out.
Then he gazed around the mob, looking for another of his knives.
Some people, he thought, took responsibility for their actions. And others took action without thinking.
Rudolpho looked up at Beud’s mother when she approached and said nothing… until she spoke to him. He didn’t reply at first feeling guilty for failing to protect her. Maybe Jacques was right. Maybe he had no business being with the group if he was a hindrance to them in a fight. But that was something to think about later. “I tried to save her, but I wasn’t fast enough.” Keir was doing the best he could to help everybody, and there was nothing he could do to help him. He had not spoken up fast enough to tell Keir that Beud wasn’t in shock, but it was he wou kept her in her current state. The next time Keir checked over he would tell him. He would make sure to tell him.
He finally spotted Keir approaching and had to restraining himself from shouting over to him. He saw that Keir moved purposefully in his direction, and waited patiently…almost. “Keir, I have to tell you something. Beud, isn’t in shock. I put her under a spell to slow down her heart rate. I thought that would slow the bleeding until you had time to see to her. I break the spell anytime. Will that help?”
Though he knew the MacRories kept a close eye on him as he moved about the wounded, Fionn ignored the suspicious glances. Being Fhaolain would have been enough to merit the looks; being Niall’s older brother was an added reason for the clan into which Maeve was to have married. But in the midst of all the killing, any sense of dishonor the MacRories felt in his and Maeve’s presence was insignificant.
Rue, bundled in her bedclothes off to one side seemed to agree. When she opened her dark eyes to stare sleepily at the stone ceiling, she looked supremely unconcerned about anything other than her own fingers, curled into fists before her face. The sudden burst of infant cooing might have been the result of small wings tickling her skin under the blanket. Or perhaps just startlement at the way her thumbs moved.
The healer’s bushy eyebrows scrunched together as he stared at Rudolpho. “How? Nevermind, no no leave her be then.” His teeth ground as he wondered what would have happened if he had given her the stimulant as he had intended before hearing the true cause of her slow heart. Placing his ear on her slowly rising chest he could hear the faint leakage that followed each beat. Standing again he placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You did well, if she lives it will likely be due to your quick actions”
Rubbing his eyes he noticed Fionn and a strangely dressed healer moving among the injured. The worst had been tended to, at least to the extent his skills allowed, and it was now mostly a matter of waiting to see which way they would turn. He looked down at Beud’s sleeping face and yawned, she had a chance albeit a slim one. Taking a small hourglass from his pocket he handed it over to Rudolpho. “I’m going to my room for a short nap, if I’m not back by the time this runs out come and get me. If she stirs or there’s any other emergency then come immediately you understand?”
He didn’t wait for an answer before striding off towards the stairs leading to their chambers.
He had waited on pins and needles for Keir’s response. There seemed to be some hope. Keir said he had done the right thing. At least there was something he had done adequately. He was about to protest Keir leaving, but he realized how tired Keir must be and how tired he was feeling as well. He mustered a quiet “I will” and sat by Beud. He began to stare at the grains slipping through the hourglass, and wondered why they moved so slowly. There seemed to be nothing to do but wait. He arranged the hourglass so it was by him in plain sight and changed back into a hound similar to the ones in the Dun. He curled up by Beud and settled into an light sleep. His ears subconciously tracked any movement around them, and he cracked his eyes open once in awhile to watch his surroundings and the hourglass.
If the pregnant campfollower was shocked by her daughter’s rescuer transforming into a dog she gave no sign – she was beyond surprise. And the boy, Rudolpho, obviously was a faithfull protector – no matter what form he took. So she patted the dog on the head and went back to helping with the wounded.
Wrapped in Bronwyn’s arms, Fiend whined and trembled violently in fear. He didn’t howl, and the whine was barely above a whisper, but somehow that just made it seem all the worse.
“Hush,” Bronwyn whispered, stroking the small pup’s ears gently as she walked through the wounded. She felt as if she wanted to whine herself, from the sight of the things stumbling around the halls, and the stories being passed among the warriors. A great cat, and a bear appearing …. Gairge’s men, Hillrover against Hillrover … and a tail from Frasier McLenan of the piper himself risen from his grave. To exact proper vengeance from Fhios, some of the men agreed.
But at least someone could point her to the jester, taking the young woman’s arm and gently turning her so that she could see the belled cap moving in the crowd. She made her way to him, continuing to try to soothe Fiend in her arms. “Eh stell heve yer pup,” she began, when she finally stood before him. Her brown eyes were as wide as Fiend’s as she looked upon the gore that covered him. “What shude I de wit’ hem?” More than half of Bronwyn wanted to keep the small animal with her, for even with his trembling, Fiend was a comfort. And the rest of her hesitated at the thought of giving the pup back to a man with such a dark look upon his face.
Trying, without much success, to stop glaring at everyone and everything, Jacques slipped the last of his knives back into a pocket, and sighed. Or at least tried to. It came out more as a grunt than anything.
“He ain’t mine,” he offered curtly with a shrug, the bells jingling faintly. He felt extremely tired, and frustrated, and furious, all together. This hadn’t been like fighting the bandits on the road to get here. They at least had been more like the basilisks, dragons, and bat-winged demons he was used to killing. But these had just been ordinary men pushed by foolishness and nonsense, and it made him weary.
Times like this made him almost ache to pull the third point on his hat and be done with it once and for all.
“He chooses his own place,” Jacques continued, his voice dark and heavy. “And I think he’s chosen as best a place for now as ever he could. Maybe you should keep him.” Fiend gave a very quiet, but clearly startled, yip at that.
The jester could feel the grime and gore through his clothes, and wondered if all three points on his hat were now red. Red with blood, like his hands, and shoes.
He felt like a butcher – his hat the axe, and his motley the apron. Maybe the idiot boy had been right after all…
“You look like you’re a thousand years old, jester,” muttered Ulric as he walked past, giving the other man a dark look, “Lighten up. You’re alive.”
He had managed to ignore the sounds of moaning, the sight of blood, and the smell of death, but attitude was something altogether different. Of all the jesters Ulric had ever met, Jacques was the most morose.
“He desn’t beleng te me,” Bronwyn answered the jester with a note of uncertainty. Not that she wouldn’t be glad to keep the pup with her, but even with the way the animal had shrunk back from Jacques’ glare, she could tell that Fiend belonged to the man in motley. Even if he couldn’t see it, or wouldn’t see it.