Only a couple of hours past the break of dawn Laurelyn had risen and begun to get Beast prepared for the journey. Most of her father’s camp was up – though many of the warriors looked worse for wear – not only fromcontinued fatigue, but from the quantities of liquor consumed in celebration and rememberance. And though Laurelyn had little to drink she sympathized. Her shoulder ached from the knife wound, and her body was stiff from sleeping on stony ground – in a camp where the singing and talk went on well into the first rays of dawn; nor was she rested from the battle two nights before. Or from what little dancing had been required.
For though Farrell MacRorie had relented in claiming a dance with the bride for each of his clansmen – he had claimed one for himself. A relatively slow dance – by mountain standards, but enough to leave her with tired feet and a bit dizzy.
She cursed Beast several times in the process of preparing for the journey to Morrow’s Hold – the large hunter was in a temper, and the storyteller would have sworn the equine held her personally responsible for the multitudes of inconveniences the animal had suffered through. “Fine,” Laurelyn muttered as the horse shifted away from her continued attempts, which were aggravated by a sore arm, to fasten the saddle, “Get sores because its not cinched right!”
Beast looked back over a shoulder with a calm, but obviously arrogant, look in her eyes.
Despite the noise of feasting… and he had made good use of the celebration to ease his hunger… he had slept well. He felt that things were working out well. True, he would need to wear a kilt… and suffer an annoying draft, together with the need to be aware of sudden brisk winds… but he now had something of a horse, food, and some traveling companions. It was enough to bring a smile to his lips!
Enris ambled over to where Laurelyn was dealing with a large, balking horse, and said “Good morning! I trust we can start soon? I’m eager to get to this port of yours.”
The storyteller got a firm hold of Beast’s reins – having no desire to learn what new mischief the horse would come up with, and kept a grin from showing on her face at the sight of Enris in a Hillrover kilt. She knew that few outlanders wore such comfortably, and though she knew that Seldez CRS officers had good memories she suspected that he would have a few problems the first time he tried to wrap the great kilt on his own. There were various tricks to bringing the yards of material to heel. That he had it on properly this morn spoke of having had some instruction.
“Morning,” she said, “It shouldn’t be much longer. Though there are still some good-byes to be said, and a couple of matters to be attended to with my father.” One of which she had hoped to avoid, but had had no such luck, and that was the presentation of her dowry to Thomis. She had no real idea what Acair would think fitting for her dowry, and was having minor nightmares of being told that they were to pick up a flock of mountain sheep on the way to Morrow’s Hold. Some might say that such could be conveniently forgotten enroute, but even with Acair being more liberal-minded than most, clan honor would not allow her or Thomis to forget.
Thomis already had checked and double-checked his own horse, and made a quick round of the camp to make certain the other members of their party were aware of their imminent departure. A young MacRorie boy had been quick enough to volunteer to carry word to Jacques’ tent, to find Rudolpho and Keir among the wounded in the cave, and to hunt down Daron, who reportedly had fallen asleep about the tree-trunks. Maeve appeared first, only to find herself stopped by an unfamiliar serving woman, who firmly handed over baby Rue to her reluctant mother. It was a burden the girl saw herself rid of as soon as Fionn appeared, passing the infant over without a word. The dark-haired highlander simply took the child and settled her safely into the carrier to curl against his chest.
“Soon enough,” Thomis commented to Laurelyn and Enris as he rejoined them.
“Yes, it will be,” Laurelyn said, somewhat distracted as she finally got the cinch properly done. She would have sworn that Beast had decided to behave herself now that there was an audience.
She stood up and smiled, almost shyly – since this was the first day that they really had had without some crisis brewing, or some ritual required – at Thomis. “Are you ready,” she asked, “To gain my dowry?”
“Certainly. I am hoping it is a chest of gold and emeralds,” he commented, without the slightest hint of light-heartedness. But in a moment, his lips twitched and he took her hand, briefly, to squeeze it. As if she would think he required any dowry at all, other than her smile. Still, there were traditions to be observed, and if her father’s honor demanded they pretend Thomis required a price for taking his daughter’s hand, then the Oath-bound would comply.
A fleeting smile touched Laurelyn’s lips, and she said, “Would you settle for some sheepskins – hopefully without the sheep attached?”
She took long enough to give Beast’s reins over to a cousin and led the way towards where Acair waited.
Acair looked no more rested than his daughter, but he stood proudly in the center of a gathering of his warriors, with Bheag McLenan on his left and the High Bard Naomha on his right. Laurelyn knew that Bheag’s presence was both symbolic and practical. Unfortunately, now that the shock of the battle was wearing away there could well be hot bloods on both sides that might make an attempt on Bheag’s life, and while he stood with Acair he was relatively safe. She tried not to think of the young warrior’s road home. Some of his clansmen would understand that he had helped get them free of the nightmare the Dun had become – and that he was the only sane leader left. Others would condemn him as a traitor as their old animosity towards the Hillrovers returned. And some might still support Toisich – half mad he might be.
But the McLenans had been decimated and it would be long while before they were again a threat to the Hillrovers. And if Bheag was as smart as he seemed he would make sure he was the Chief of the McLenans before he reached home; should that come to pass then there could well be an alliance between the two clans.
Laurelyn was no fool – she knew that for one reason or another there would always be blood flowing in the mountains. And while she would miss Acair she wanted to ride down to where the sea air blew clean and sharp, and resume her quest. What was strange – was that she no longer felt quite the burden of the guilt that had driven her. The call of The Star Dreamer was just as strong, but not because of her guilt at what she hadn’t done in battle-torn Chatterton. Maybe because here she had been able to fight for her kin? Or maybe because she had to face the realities of war on her home soil – realities that she had fled years ago?
For a moment she wondered if she even needed to seek the ship – life was moving forward. Nothing was more important than what she had found with Thomis – and all she desired now was to be able to explore life with him; not jeopardizing this precious gift on a fool’s quest. But somewhere deep within she still felt the siren call of The Star Dreamer and knew she could not stop – not only for herself but for those who now followed her.
She had had word passed that she hoped her traveling companions would join Thomis and her for this small ceremony, particularly since they hadn’t been privy to the hasty vows that the couple had sworn right before the battle. They made their way up to where Acair stood, and she softly murmured, “I hope its not a flock of sheep.”
Acair had a small grin on his face when he said, “Nay, ye’re Mother weuld have me hide if I sent ye beth to her with a flock to tear up her garden.”
The Chief knew that for Laurelyn, and Thomis, and himself that the dowry was simply an obligation demanded by tradition. For them the true reward was a marriage of two souls who were devoted to one another – who had proved they would walk through the Hells for each other. But he made his expression solemn and said to Thomis, “Since ye have accepted me daughter’s hand I bestow to ye her bride price.”
He signaled Sean Hillrover to lead forward two fine bay mountain ponies, whose coats were thick with winter’s fur. And from Measail Acair took in both hands a well-crafted broadsword – which he held out to his new son-in-law.
Naomha took the opportunity the momentary silence offered to say, pitching his voice so only the bridal couple, the Chief, and Bheag McLenan would hear, “Daughter of the stones and the seas there be ne escaping the tides thet carry ye to ye heart’s destiny.”
Laurelyn shot the High Bard a sharp look as a cold chill ran down her spine as he echoed her earlier thoughts. And her brow furrowed when he added, “The price won sheuld be brought where ye will best learn to use it.”
“That is no prophecy,” she said, “But your own desire.” She bite back further retort since she had no desire to ride out with a Bard’s curse on her head, or to mar her farewells with her father and kin.
“And this is an old argument,” Acair said, quietly and firmly, “That has no place when we celebrate new beginnings.”
With both hands, he reached for the broadsword, to lift it from Acair’s grasp, and then bowed, quickly, to the chieftain. “The threads bind us, one to one.” To his ears, the translation sounded odd, without the hum that a mage could set to spinning about them. But ritual would be answered with ritual, even if a truncated one. Besides, it gave him an excuse not to respond to the High Bard’s nudging. “The patterns weave us together, house to house.”
That left him still holding the broadsword, with no good place to store it. But for now, at least until well past this point, he would simply hold it.
Accepting Thomis’ response and timing the Chieftain agreed, “Aye, house to house.”
The ceremony was unfamiliar to him, but it was obvious that Laurelyn and Thomis cared deeply for each other. He had been getting ready to congratulate the couple when some disagreement – he wasn’t able to tell exactly what – seemed to occur.
It seemed a shame that anything could mar their wedding; he reflected that in Seldez, disruptions were easily handled by the CRS. And those creating disruptions were dealt with effectively…but that was an issue for another time.
He stepped forward, and said with warm feeling “Congratulations! And best wishes for your future!”
“Thank you,” Thomis answered simply, exchanging the mandatory handshake with the mage. But his attention was drawn away almost immediately by the sight of Bronwyn, off to one side, looking more than a bit impatient … and holding a puppy in one arm. “That is one more member of our party accounted for,” he murmured to Laurelyn.
Laurelyn turned from thanking Enris and said, “But missing one also…”
“She will see him take that puppy before he leaves,” Thomis remarked. “Or else make sure you do,” he added, as Bronwyn turned in their direction and made her way through the crowd. At least she seemed to have found new shoes to replace those she had lost … even if they did look to be a bit over-sized. “I hope you still have that pup carrier.”
“Yes, I do…matter-of-fact,” she said.
Sure enough, Bronwynn stopped before the storyteller, and held out the wriggling puppy. “He wes ep end out of the tent before me this morn,” she said to Laurelyn. “Ef Eh cude, Eh’d slep the wee fellow beck into hes pockets, but Eh thenk he’d catch on.” She stood there for a moment, trying to pretend that it didn’t matter much that she was passing Fiend over to the other woman. “Well, teck hem – he belengs wit’ the motley-man, e’en ef Jacques,” and how her brogue mangled that name,”refuses to see et.”
Laurelyn reached and took Fiend, and smiled at the young mountain woman. “Indeed he does,” she agreed. She honestly couldn’t picture Jacques without the pup – that was how Thomis and she had first met him. Of course, he had been trying to give the puppy away then too.
“Eh’ll send for her,” Bronwyn answered, and turned to snag a passing youth, who decided it might be best simply to run the errand without protesting that he didn’t take orders from a woman.
The healer bided his time to see how others dealt with acknowledging the marriage. The sword elicited a sigh but what else could he have expected from Big People who were overly fond of bloodshed and slaughter. The horses might prove useful, they certainly looked like they could carry substantial quantities of food and supplies, still one good milking goat would have been a better gift in his mind.
Once they’d finished determining Fiend’s fate, for the moment anyway, he strode forward and going to one knee laid his staff at their feet. “In light of your joyous union I humbly offer this gift.” Drawing the last rabbit from his vest pocket he held it out to them. “It is small now but someday it’s offspring may provide succor for you and yours.”
Laurelyn was hard pressed to hold the squirming Fiend, who was intensly interested in inspecting the baby rabbit. In lieu of fullfilling his desire he took to a low, steady whine – and to keeping his neck outstretched.
The storyteller was very moved – and had no real idea what to do with the baby rabbit. “Thank you, Master Keir,” she said in all sincerity, “And know that she …he…?....will be a true asset.”
“But…,” she said, indicating her wiggling handful, and the fact that Thomis still had not found a decent place to put the sword, “May I leave it in your care for right now? I don’t think it would be wise to mix the two youngsters.”
Keir barely managed to keep the delight from his voice as he tucked the bunny away in his vest and retrieved his staff. “A most practical idea Mistress… er, Madame Laurelyn. I shall be honored to do so until such time as our paths diverge.” As he bowed and backed away his eyes twinkled and his step was lighter.
“Thank you,” Laurelyn said, with a smile.
Trying to move so as not to make the bells on his hat ring – there was enough ringing going on in his head at the moment without them – Jacques arrived looking much the worse for wear.
His clothes, however, hat and all, were spotless and bore no sign of the bloodshed that had occured the previous day. They were always like that, he’d found. As if they too were trying to forget. At least they did a better job.
Despite the headache, and the feeling that he’d been mud-wrestling with Fnors all night – the taste of mud was still in his mouth – he could remember the battle all too clearly.
“I see we’re doing the wedding gift thing.” He glanced briefly at Bronwyn. That at least was something he couldn’t remember. And was glad of that. Pointedly, he ignored Fiend, though the pup gave a solid round of yips, and yaps, at his appearance.
“I think I’ve got something here that might….” His hand reappeared from a pocket, and he was holding a large, rectangular metal box about eight inches long, six high, and three wide. In the top of the box was a single slot, travelling the length of the device. On the front was an etched fire rune, and a small lever that appeared to have four available positions. It was currently set to “medium”.
“Mr and Mrs Parch I believe,” he offered with a sweep of his hat and a bow that set his head thumping. “For you.” He held out the box in one hand, and clutched his three-pointed hat lightly in the other.
Thomis raised both eyebrows and looked at Laurelyn, but the storyteller was obviously allowing both hands to be occupied with the wriggling puppy. And since he still had one hand free, he would have to be the one to take the strange item. “Thank you,” he said simply, with a nod to the jester, and peered into the slot at the top. “It is … very nice.” That would have to do – after all, the jester’s gesture was more meaningful than the … whatever it was. “Exactly what does it do?” Too many years with Mesani had taught him not to try to figure out mysterious things such as this by himself.
“Thank you,” Laurelyn said, trying to keep the bemusement from her voice. She did indeed appreciate Jaques’ gesture, but was starting to feel more and more grateful that Da had provided them with extra horses – they were going to need them.
For a moment she thought of handing Fiend back to Jacques since the jester was now present, but she feared he would just leave the pup somewhere in camp. No, she’d wait till later.
A very confused looking Deasgann was shown over to Bronwyn. “Wetch ye be wentin’?” she asked the younger woman.
“Ye’ll hef to esk the bride,” Bronwyn answered. She was a bit confused herself, but watching the exchange of gifts had proven to be quite entertaining.
“Excese me, Ma’am…..?” Deasgann said, reluctantly interrupting Laurelyn, who turned to face her – with Fiend stretched out to lick the newcomer. “But whet weuld ye be needin’?”
Laurelyn smiled at the pregnant campfollower, and with a gesture back towards Acair, said, “You and Bronwyn need to speak with the Chief.” There was a twinkle in the storyteller’s eyes as she said, “Let’s go talk to him.”
With another sideways, questioning glance at Deasgann, Bronwyn tugged her shawl into place and fell into step behind Laurelyn as the storyteller led the way to the chieftain. Two days before, the serving girl might have been more nervous, or self-conscious. But she was still too tired, and a little hungover, to worry overmuch … besides, compared to many of the others in the Hillrover camp, they were comparatively presentable.
Still, when they finally stood before Acair Hillrover, she did drop her eyes. He was, after all, the chief. And he would have been imposing even if he had been a common stablehand.
Laurelyn stepped aside and gave her father a quick grin.
The Chief smiled over at the two women and said, “Good Ladies, both of ye – plus yeung Beud – shewed the heart and ceurage of any warrior. And fer aiding yer clan in an hour of need ye all are to be geven two acres of land and ten sheep te start ye off right.”
Thomis thought Bronwyn’s jaw would hit the ground, but the young woman managed to snap it shut and stammer out a thanks, as well as present a relatively stable curtsey. “Egads,” he murmured to Laurelyn, “he just went and made them respectable.” Not that he believed any of them had merited any disrespect, but it did present the ironic possibility that all three would now find themselves valued not for the warmth and companionship they could offer to the warriors, but for more pecuniary motivations. Was it his imagination, or were a few of the single MacRorie men eying Bronwyn, and even the pregnant Deasgann, more closely?
“He has indeed,” Laurelyn answered softly, watching Deasgann trying to make an attempt at a courtesy. The woman looked dumbstruck. But the storyteller had no doubts that Deasgann would be quickly off to tell her recuperating daughter.
It would be an interesting matter to check on, when he and Laurelyn passed through the highlands again. (‘When,’ he told himself quite firmly, not ‘if.’) But for now, there was a journey to resume … and a mother waiting in Morrow’s Hold who would want some explanations about her daughter’s hasty nuptials.
Jacques found himself grinning, and then promptly dropped back into his habitual scowl when he realised what he was doing.
At least the Chief had some brains as well as a flair for the dramatic, he thought. Though he wasn’t sure just how much two acres and a handful of sheep actually amounted to in these parts, it was obvious that Bronwyn at least would be getting a just reward for all that she went through.
Fiend set up a brief chorus of happy barking, and then quieted with his head cocked to one side and tongue lolling.
For himself, Jacques would be just as happy to get back on the road. There were ties to cut, albeit thin and easily broken ones. He turned to Thomis.
“You look after that wife of yours, Mr Parch,” he offered quietly, but with a darkness in his eyes. Then he looked down at the metal box still in Thomis’ hands.
“As for that,” he shrugged, “nothin’ to it. I’ll show you tomorrow morning. Just be sure to bring some bread with you.”
Daron watched the proceedings from a distance, unwilling to intrude on such a happy occasion as Master Thomis and Mistress…no, Madame...Laurelyn’s bonding with her own feelings of unease. With a seemingly chaotic flurry of charcoal strokes, the sketch that made her fingers burn ever since the feast flowed onto the paper. Finished at last, she politely waited for an interruption in the conversation to hand the sheet of paper, bearing a striking likeness of the happy couple, to Laurelyn.
Then, without a word, the artist walked away, gathered up her belongings and readied Falcon for travel. Unseen by the others… or so she thought… she buried her face against her mare’s neck and softly cried.
Laurelyn nearly got out, “Thank…..” before Daron left. The storyteller shook her head – again wondering if the artist would survive the ghosts that seemed to haunt her – then looked down at the detailed drawing.
“It’s beautiful,” she murmured, holding it out reach of Fiend’s inquisitive snuffling so that Thomis could see the drawing.
When the storyteller saw Ulric leading a horse through the crowd, and Fionn and Maeve approaching from another direction, she looked hard to see if Rudolpho was hidden by the crowd. But, in truth, she suspected he was still saying “good-bye” to Beud.
After finding the nearest free pair of hands to give Fiend over to she quickly, and safely, secured Daron’s drawing in her saddlebag. Then – after a quick explanation to Thomis – Laurelyn headed back to the cave to get the boy. She arrived just in time to hear Deasgann telling Rudolpho, ”...Ceme beck in a year – when ye reached fell manheed – and me Beud well be aweitin’ ye…Ye’d meke a geed sen-in-lew and Beud hes a geed dewry te get ye twe sterted reght…..”
Beud, who was now propped up and having a bit more color to her cheeks, was beaming shyly at Rudolpho.
Laurelyn was loath to break up the scene, and would have dearly loved to hear Rudolpho’s response, but after again congratulating Deasgann and Beud she told Rudolpho the group was ready to ride.
She headed on back to say her own farewells to her Da – giving Rudolpho time to bid Beud and her hopeful mother good-bye.
But it was not long before before the group resumed its journey towards Morrow’s Hold and the grim legend of “The Star Dreamer.”