Star Dreamer

Chapter XXXVI: Strawberries and Rings

... haven't we met before?

[Maeve]

After finding a quick bath, and giving her thick red hair a more thorough brushing than it had experienced in several months, Maeve stepped quietly to Rudolpho’s door to knock softly. “Ye in there, lad?” she asked. Shortly before Thomis Parch had disappeared into Morrow’s Hold to meet up with Laurelyn Hillrover’s mother, he had taken Rudolpho aside and asked the boy to tend to some business. Maeve, overhearing, had volunteered to accompany the boy through the town – the thought of being free of Fionn and Rue, and walking through a village without all the highland clan feuds had appealed to her. “We can look about now, ef ye be ready.”

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho wasn’t sure why they had gotten him a room. He could have just as easily shared one with someone else and saved them money. He guessed that they had wanted their own rooms, so they had gotten him one as well. After he had looked around the room, he had been about to change into a cat and bathe himself, when he saw a basin of water. Deciding it would be nice to do something as a human, he used the washcloth and got rid of the travel dust. As he was trying to decide what to do next, he heard the knock at the door, and Maeve’s voice.

He opened the door and saw Maeve looking very nice and clean with her hair looking different than he had seen it. “Your hair looks nice. Did you do something different with it?” He didn’t wait for her answer though as he was itching to get out of the room. “So you want to go with me? Why?”

[Maeve]

Maeve just looked at the boy for several long moments, wondering how to answer that question. Why? Because she wanted to pretend, for a little while at least, that she didn’t have an infant to feed … and to get away from Fionn, who had been a constant presence for the past several months. Because it would be nice to walk about as if she hadn’t a care in the world. “Because a woman is more likely to know what anether woman will like,” she finally said, a bit huffily.

[Rudolpho]

“Oh that’s a good reason. I would have thought that you were trying to take a break from Rue for awhile. I guess Fionn can take care of her while we go. C’mon.” Rudolpho headed out the door and locked it behind him. They started out the main door of the Inn and into the strange streets of Morrow’s Hold. Rudolpho looked up and sniffed. “Looks like we won’t have much time to look though. It’s gonna rain.”

[Keir]

Keir tossed and turned, the overly large bed was just too soft and the noise from the bar below was just too loud. Finally giving up all hope of getting any rest he rose and headed back downstairs. Pausing, he watched the growing chaos in the common room and frowned. Catching sight of Rudolpho and Maeve heading out the door he wound through the noisy Big Folk and followed.

[Maeve]

Maeve pulled her shawl tightly around her shoulders, tucking in the folds. “Not a problem,” she announced confidently. After all, she had spent the past few months living essentially in the open … It never occurred to the girl that a seaside storm might be something entirely different from a highland rain. She looked back and forth down the street, trying to decide which way to go. “Thes way.” It seemed the direction with the most shops available.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho didn’t question the direction Maeve chose. One way was as good as another anyway. He followed along quietly for awhile until the silence got uncomfortable. “Umm..Maeve… I never really got to thank you, for defending me I mean. I probably would have gone at Jacques …and that would have been really dumb.” He didn’t look at her as he continued. “I guess I appreciate your support.” He lapsed back into silence as they continued to walk through the streets.

[Keir]

The pair was out of sight by the time he reached the street and he was about to go to the stables instead, where the bunny was safely secreted amongst the hay, and try to get some sleep there when he caught their scent. Racing after them he rounded a corner and almost collided into Rudolpho’s back. Gathering his dignity, he adjusted his pace to theirs. “So where are you two off to on this miserable day?”

[Rudolpho]

Being lost in thought, Rudolpho didn’t notice the sound of footsteps behind him until they were upon him. He whirled around to see Keir smoothing himself out a bit and didn’t say anything about it. Instead he replied, “Hi Keir! Glad you could join us.”

[Maeve]

Keir’s sudden appearance saved Maeve from having to try to think of a response to Rudolpho’s thanks. She was able to get by with a quick smile and “You are welcome,” before turning the smile to Keir. Not a bad smile, now that the swelling of her nose had gone down and the bruising had mostly faded. “Sarchin’ for a ring for Master Parch to buy for Laurelyn Hillrover,” she told him. “He well have lettle time to fend the surprise for her hemself.” For a moment, she grinned, more light-hearted than she had ever been in the weeks they had known her. “And, perhaps, we well fend other gefts for her.”

[Narration]

A cruelly playful wind was coming in from the sea – carrying with it the smell of a storm, but not yet ready to loose its fury on the human habitation. The wind brought the smell of salt and fish up from the water and the boats.

Up one mild slope, away from the smell of fish, were a lane of shops. Not much by most towns’ standards, but more than most fishing villages had; Morrow’s Hold had enough traffic come through – both sea and overland – that merchants did a moderate business. All the shops were whitewashed, with bright shutters and oft-painted signs. The general store was the largest of the shops and owned by Gelden Fieldman (an unfortunate name – which some said was why he hadn’t married – since people assumed that sooner or later the question of why his parents had named him Gelden would come up). While his personal life was in doubt Gelden did a prosperous business in supplying the locals with their needs, and outfitting both merchant ships and overland travelers. And village knowledge knew that while he kept his hands and store clean that he had good connections with many of the smugglers – but that was village business.

There was a green grocer who handled the excess eggs and produce that the housewives brought from their little gardens, along with what was produced in a garden growing by the shop. The grocer, Vatii Learat, also handled some of the strange produce the ships brought in. And both the apothecary and the tailor vied for selling some of the trinkets and oddities that the sailors brought in.

[Maeve]

Maeve stopped at one end of the lane and pulled her shawl tighter against the wind, considering the shops with a bit of uncertainty. The general store looked to be the largest, but would it have rings? She wouldn’t have minded stopping at the produce store to spend some of her own few coins on some tasty bit of freshness. And the tailor … Just one other suit of clothing… She squared her shoulders, shaking off thoughts of what she wanted for herself. They were here to find something for Thomis Parch to give to Laurelyn—He had said to send the merchant to Emlyn Merkin’s cottage, where he would make payment. Once that was done, then maybe she could think about parting with some of her own money. “That one?” she asked the others, pointing to the general store.

[Keir]

The healer would have preferred the grocer, he still needed to replenish his herb supply and the rabbit could use some fresh greens but he doubted they’d find a ring there. “I’m not sure but we better go somewhere quick, I smell rain in the air and it’ll be here soon.”

[Maeve]

“Then here first,” she concluded, and crossed over to the small shop to push it open and step inside. The shopowner looked up from his books, obviously a bit skeptical of his potential customers. But Maeve ignored the rather threadbare nature of her gown, squared her shoulders again, and adopted the kind, but firm tone that her Grandmother Calhoun had been known for. Before long, the general store owner had established that he had a thorough inventory of kitchen staples, bolts of cloth, small trinkets, and even some jewelry. But nothing that seemed suitable for Thomis Parch to give to Laurelyn Hillrover, other than some rose-scented soap. So she arranged to have two cakes sent to Emlyn’s.

Then, with a regretful shake of her head, Maeve resettled her shawl and headed for the front door, simply assuming that Rudolpho and Keir would follow.

She could not resist making the produce shop her next stop. Leaving Keir to rummage among the herbs, she passed up and down the barrels and bins of fruit, finally stopping to gaze longingly at a particularly fine set of strawberries. The temptation was too much, and she found herself ordering not only a pint or two to be delivered to Emlyn Merkin’s cottage, but also a half dozen just for herself and her companions. She waited a bit impatiently in the doorway, contemplating the rain that had begun to fall outside, for the other two to finish looking over the contents of the store – and for Keir to settle up with the owner.

[Rudolpho]

The young Gypsy roamed the store looking at all the fresh fruits and vegetables. It seemed far too long since he had laid eyes on some of the luscious fruits in the store. As he gazed at the delicate fruits he noticed Maeve gazing at them as well. It was then that his second nature kicked in. Without a thought to what might happen if he was caught or a conscious thought to what he was doing, his hands quickly and lightly glided over some fruit making it seemingly disappear from its spot with its brethren. After a few aisles, he noticed Maeve turning to leave. He quickly joined her and Keir and left the store a slightly heavier pockets…but no visible bulges.

[Maeve]

“Here,” she said hurriedly as they left, shoving two strawberries into each of their hands before the urge to eat them all overcame her. Only once she was out in the rain did she let herself bite into the first of those she had kept for herself. The sudden sweetness of it almost made her giggle, despite the fact that her hair was getting soaked. Which would lead to almost uncontrollable frizziness and many snarls later. Just then, a crack of thunder and the rain started falling even faster and more heavily, and in the midst of licking the last of the juice from her fingers, Maeve let Rudolpho pull her out of the street towards what looked to be the open door of a small pub.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho noticed the first few drops of rain falling and quickly searched for a place to duck into and wait out the storm. He noticed a pub across the street and headed for it. He noticed that Maeve was still lost in the sweet nectar of the strawberries. He hadn’t had that problem as he had plucked the leaves off them and popped them into his mouth whole.

[Maeve]

Just the quickest glance at the sign above before the boy shoved her inside the warm, nearly empty room – the name was something short, beginning with an “M.”

“Much longer out there and you’d be wetter than a fish,” the waitress commented as she looked up from a tabletop she was wiping clean. The woman’s hair was a bright red, a color not seen in nature, but her blue eyes were friendly as she considered the three. “Take a seat, any seat, we’re not too crowded this afternoon. And I’ll see what Myeke has in the back for you to warm your insides up with.” The accent was strange, a combination of a twang and a drawl, like nothing Maeve had ever heard in either the highlands or even in Morrow’s Hold. “By the way,” she tossed over her shoulder as she headed for the kitchens, “you can call me Candy.”

[Rudolpho]

As they entered the bar, something struck Rudolpho as familiar. He couldn’t put his finger on it yet but something was just…weird. It was as if he had been here before. He stood staring at Candy and then at the bartender.

[Myeke]

“There you go again offering all the stores to the first travelers that pop through the door.” Myeke smiled as he spoke. He had a glint in his eye, and was shining up some glasses with a rag. He was sure Candy would come back with a snappy response.

[Candy]

“Gotta see if this stew is gonna kill anybody before we go offerin’ it to the general public,” Candy retorted. “I sure ain’t experimentin’ on myself with your latest concoction.” With that, she ducked into the kitchen, to emerge two minutes later with a tray of three bowls, and a platter of bread.

[Keir]

Stashing his bag of herbs and sundry items under the table Keir dabbed at the last raindrops clinging to his bushy eyebrows. While neither Candy’s name or voice rang any bells, after all most Big Folk were pretty much the same, a quieter voice did alert him that something was amiss. The flea that tried to attack his ankle, when informed of his error, spoke in a most familiar dialect – quite unlike those at the Goose. “Helgastop?” he muttered, wondering how the flea could’ve traveled here faster than they had. There had been delays along the way, to put it mildly, and it was possible the flea had hitched a ride with someone headed for Morrow’s Hold, either before or after they had left, but that scenario was quickly discarded when it became apparent that the roaches in the kitchen also originated in the small northern town. He shook his head in astonishment, amazed that ages had passed since then rather than just a few weeks.

“Ah, Rudolpho. Does this place remind you of anywhere?”

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho was still staring at Myeke and Candy when Keir spoke and interrupted his thoughts. He snapped out of it and looked over to Keir. “Well I think so. I get the strangest feeling that I’ve been here before. Like all of this is familiar some how. You get the same feeling? I think it reminds me of when….”

[Myeke]

“So are you two gentlemen going to have some stew, or don’t you trust Candy’s cooking. Of course, she’d like you to believe it was me, but don’t let her pull the wool over your eyes. Why don’t you take a load off and dry off. Plenty of seats by the fire.”

[Candy]

“Kinda slow, what with the storm and all,” Candy agreed as she unloaded the bowls and mugs from the tray. She glanced up quickly at the threesome. “Cat gotcher tongues?” she asked. That was enough for Maeve to move over, with a quick thanks, and pull out a chair. When the girl paused uncertainly at the sight of the food, the waitress added, “No charge tonight, otherwise it’s gonna all go to waste anyway.” She lifted the tray and looked at Myeke. “You can take it outta my tips if you want.” With a quick swipe at a nearby table, she crossed to the bar and perched on a stool; only then did the length – or more aptly, the shortness – of her skirt become completely obvious. “I’m on break,” she said to Myeke, and pulled a cigarette from somewhere in her bodice, waiting for the bartender to offer to light it.

Maeve flushed a bit at the sight of the waitress’ bare legs, and lifted a spoon to start in on the stew.

[Myeke]

The bartender leaned over nonchalantly and lit her cigarette as he remarked, “You’re on break. What else is new?” He looked at the travelers and added “Eat up folks. You might want to tip her well tonight. Candy is paying for it after all.” He smiled conspiratorially at Candy.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho’s instincts took over as he grabbed a bowl and began shoveling spoonfuls of stew into his mouth, pausing only slightly to blow on them. He stopped when Myeke commented on Candy paying for it. “I don’t think that’s very fair. I’ll pay for mine if I have to. I have some money. I also have a question…”

[Candy]

“Whaddya think this is, information central?” Candy placed the tip of the cigarette between her lips and drew the smoke into her mouth, then released it, slowly, blowing a perfectly shaped smoke-ring into the air. Despite her interruption, her tone was friendly and slightly joking.

[Keir]

The Hortus sniffed the stew with suspicion but though it didn’t smell quite right it didn’t carry the odor of any poison he was familiar with so he began devouring it in true Hortus fashion – which is to say, rapidly. He scrunched his eyebrows and shook his head at Rudolpho. “Best maybe we don’t find out until we’re safely outside, son. Something very strange going on here.”

[Maeve]

Maeve paused for a moment, spoon halfway to her mouth, and looked back and forth between Keir and Rudolpho in confusion. She most assuredly did not look at the waitress, whose hemline had crept up to above mid-thigh by this point. But whatever it was, the two males in their group seemed determined not to explain anything. “Perhaps ye can help us,” Maeve started tentatively, directing her eyes somewhere between Candy and Myeke. “We need to find a ring, for a friend to gift to his leman. His wife,” she corrected, reminding herself that Thomis and Laurelyn were quite thoroughly wed at this point. “We saw no jeweler in the village…”

Maeve’s voice trailed off, as a flicker of firelight glinting off Candy’s hands caught her eye. Had the woman’s fingers been covered with rings before? The girl could not remember whether she had noticed the jewelry when Candy had unloaded the tray. “A ring?” Candy asked, and blew another circle of smoke straight at Myeke. “That what you’re looking for?” she asked the other two.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho knew he should let the matter drop and try and find out more about a ring, but his curiousity wouldn’t let him. He ignored Keir’s suggestion and teased Candy right back. “You might have worked at information central once… is there one in this town?” Then he jerked as if someone had startled him and snapped his fingers smiling. He pointed to Candy. I know where I saw you before! You were the waitress in that bar at Helgastop! You offered me cookies and then you added some bread and an apple. Then Daron offered to pay for it and…” he pointed to Myeke, “you were worried you wouldn’t get payed. But then Daron paid for it and…” he pointed back to Candy “you had some trouble with that guy Stan. And I stopped by to help to I took his…I mean… I spilled his drink in his lap so he’d leave you alone. “

At this he stopped almost out of breath with a satisfied look on his face that he had them dead to rights.

[Myeke]

“That’s some story, kid. Got any others?” He continued shining glasses and fixed a calm glance at Rudolpho and the others. “So we were in a town called Helgastop huh? I don’t know if I remember any Helgastop. Candy, does that ring a bell?”

[Candy]

The waitress had watched the boy as the words tumbled out of him in a rush, and at the end, she calmly blew another smoke ring into the air. “Well I’ve never been to any ‘Helgastop,’” she answered, as if that settled the matter. “Though I don’t know what you were up to on your last vacation,” she added with a sideways look at the bartender. “I wouldn’t put it past you to have taken up with some doxy along the way to ‘ring your bell.’” One last drag on the cigarette, and she snubbed it out. “Besides, do I look like the sort to offer milk and cookies?” Candy asked skeptically.

“I … well, no,” Maeve answered after considering the other woman’s attire. She hadn’t the slightest idea where ‘Helgastop’ was, and a questioning glance in Keir’s direction didn’t gain her any additional information. “Umm… about that ring?” That was enough to make the waitress slip from the stool, pull out a chair, and place both hands palm down on the table-top.

“Which one would you like to see?” Candy asked.

[Keir]

Emptying his bowl quickly, as much in anxiety as in his normally ravenous hunger, Keir stood and reached for his purse. “How much for all of them?” he asked brusquely, hoping they could then make a speedy departure.

[Rudolpho]

The young Gypsy stood and fixed both Myeke and Candy with an incredulous stare. How could they both stand there and deny it? He had given them so much detail. Still, it was a different bar in a different town. Could he be mistaken? No. I know I’m right. Why are they being this way? Maybe they’re hiding out from someone so they moved here, figuring they wouldn’t get caught. Maybe the person who is after them is a mage and might be able to hear them with a scrying spell.

His look softened and he smiled. “Ok. Your secret is safe with me.” He started when Keir asked how much all the rings would cost. “Are you sure you want them all, Keir? We only need one, right?”

[Candy]

“But which one?” the waitress asked, with a slow wink. She turned her eyes to Keir, with an expression that might have been appreciaton for his directness. “The cost isn’t yours to bear, is it? The fellow who wants it for his lady love, eh?” She sat back again in her chair and considered a moment more; the firelight glittered off the rings, seeming to change the metals and the stones, the settings and the designs from one second to the next. “Pick one,” she finally said, holding her hands out once more. “Each of you. And tell him he can pay me later, with a large tip.”

Maeve glanced uncertainly from Rudolpho to Keir, to Myeke who continued to polish the glasses behind the bar, then to back to Candy. “That one,” she said slowly, pointing to a double twist of silver and gold on the fourth finger of the waitress’ right hand. And as quick as that, Candy slipped it from her hand (hadn’t there been others before it, though? how had she pulled it off so quickly without removing the others?) and dropped it into Maeve’s palm.

“Your turn, Master Keir,” Candy said, with another wink.

[Keir]

“Harumph,” Keir muttered, not understanding why Big Folk were so fond of their baubles that they attached them to their bodies. From what he had heard this was how their mates marked each other, a rather poor substitute for personal musk, he thought, as the trinkets could be removed so easily.

“Do you have a matched pair?” he finally asked, unable to select among Candy’s ever-changing array.

[Candy]

“Of course.” This time, one from her left thumb and another from her right pinky. “I was thinking about saving these for me and Myeke,” she added with a sideways glance at the bartender, “but it looks like there’ll be no call for ‘em here anytime soon.” Were they gold or silver? Maeve could not tell as the waitress passed them over to the Hortus, and then turned to extend her hands to Rudolpho. “Now, yours, changeling boy,” Candy said. “Just one, unless you can manage to slip more from me without my notice.”

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho stopped short with and incredulous look on his face. “How do you know that? I never changed into anything in front of you!” He was so surprised by her comment that he didn’t bother to deny that he was in fact able to change shape. “I never stole from you either. I don’t do that to people I know or like. It’s not polite. Besides, with you watching me, how do you expect me to do that?” He looked her in the eye and waited for her response.

[Candy]

The waitress raised one eyebrow and looked at the boy for a moment, then glanced over to Myeke. “A bit high-strung, ain’t he? You just look like you have a bit of the fae in you, of some sort,” she added gently. “I’ll just save you the trouble,” she continued in a more business-like tone, leaning over to tuck a ring into the front pocket of his shirt. “There, that should take care of you three.” The waitress pushed back her chair and crossed to the window, to pull back the curtains. “Looks like the storm’s over. You should be on your way, before somebody starts worryin’ about you.”

Maeve looked at the bartender, who just continued polishing the glasses, and pulled her shawl from the chair where she had draped it before the fire. It was warm and dry, something she noted with relief as she slipped it over her shoulders. “Eh’ll tell Master Parch to send payment te ye,” she reassurred Candy, but the other woman just shrugged, and started to clear their dishes from the table.

“I’ll catch up with him sometime,” the waitress responded, and waved them to the exit. “Now get going.”

[Keir]

The Hortus placed the matching rings in an inside vest pocket, withdrawing a small pouch and dropping it on the table. “Master Parch’ll not be paying for these remember.” Gathering up his shopping bag and staff he gave Candi and Myeke a stern glare before spinning round to leave. “Wouldn’t trust those two not to charge him just the same.” he grunted to his companions. “Odd, very odd.”

[Maeve]

As Maeve stepped out into the roadway – not even a light drizzle left now – she could hear the lock turn behind her. The curtains already were pulled over the windows. “Nice place, that,” she remarked to the others. Nicer than the Laborin’ Goose had seemed to be … And with that thought, and a sigh at the realization that a hungry Rue would be waiting for her, Maeve turned to walk with Keir and Rudolpho back to the other tavern.

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