When the sprite did nothing either to approach him or to flit away, Fionn crossed over to the shrine and ducked low enough to see the blanket-wrapped Rue blinking at him from her blankets. The sight of the child, with her dark eyes clear and that quick giggle, made the cold soaking bearable. As suddenly as that, he could breathe again. Still, he did not reach to pull the basket free, but sat back on his heels to consider the flicker of light that was her protector. “What is your charge here?” he asked softly in the highland tongue. He would not ask permission to take her back – the words would stick in his throat, he knew – but neither would he try deliberately to provoke a confrontation. Small the sprite might be, but his hunter’s knife would be no guard against her.
Tirlina hovered in her corner, giving no indication that Fionn’s large form filling the entrance was at all intimidating. She cocked her head slightly at him and gave him an enigmatic smile. “Noble Fionn. Nothing sinister, lucky for you,” she sang in her small bell-like voice. “Just to protect. Her name is a curse, highlander. And it must curse you, as well, for all the trouble you seem to find.”
There was criticism in her tone, but not harshness. Tirlina knew Fionn would avoid trouble if he saw it coming, but unfortunately more often than not, it came without warning. She danced slightly in the air, and gestured toward the basket with a tiny hand. “Take her. She’s hungry. And try to avoid any more misfortune tonight, will you? I need a rest.” The admonishment was gentle and accompanied with a smile. Handsome Fionn. She could see why Luatha rather favored the man.
“To me, she is a blessing,” Fionn answered softly, and reached into the shrine to draw the basket forward. The naming was ill, that he knew, but her father, Niall – his own half-brother – cared not. And Maeve, from sheer obstinance, had refused to have it otherwise. He drew one corner of her blankets over her face, to guard her against the now light rain, and cradling the basket in his arms, made his way back down the slope.
The absence of a child’s fingers grasping her coat made Talia look around for Bethy. She peered around the group and asked, “Bethy?” The widow doubted the child would wander off into a cemetery – she had been obviously terrified by even the jester, though she had to admit – he was an imposing individual. “Bethy!!” she called out a little louder, and asked the others, “Have any of you seen where the child wandered to?”
Leisrinn peered around and said, “We best look about – with the rain and wind blewin’ the stream is jest close enough to be a danger….”
As quick as minnows Jimi and the twins had started to jog over towards the stream bank.
Talia’s pretty brow furrowed in worry. The dark and rain and tombstones were enough to bring any fears to the front. And despite the weight of her own wool skirts, and the lack of light, she carefully began to work her way forwards. Behind her she could hear Leisrinn muttering to herself something that might have been a blessing.
[approaching the group]
Laurelyn tried to ignore the skeletal trees with their macabre decorations shaking in the wind as they began to make their way through the cemetary. Instead she squinted against the rain and pointed towards a shadowy group that were gathered much higher up the path. “It looks like they’ve just started their search,” she said, noting that the group seemed only now to be fanning out.
[at the stream]
Muttering to himself about kids being out in a night he wouldn’t even let a dog out in, Jacques pushed his knife into a pocket. Serve the damn fool brat right if she broke something, wandering off in the middle of a cemetery, in the middle of the night, in the rain. Maybe it’d teach her a lesson.
He harrumphed, and followed behind the widow. No point in everybody breaking their damn fool necks.
“Not searching for Rue, I hope,” Thomis commented, frowning slightly as several of the figures moved towards the stream-bank. Fionn was not among them, so it seemed unlikely that they expected to find the babe in the water. Still, Jimi had stooped down where the mud showed the marks of a child’s feet … and her hands, clutching to find purchase on the slick ground. “How deep is it here?” he asked as he stopped next to Ceart. Though the stream narrowed further down, the land next to the cemetery was narrow enough for a wide pool to have formed.
“On a good day it’s to my waist,” Ceart said, “But it’s not a good day….”
Without a thought to his clothes Jimi slipped into the water with the grace of an otter, and dived down in the twilight depths.
As Laurelyn approached she noted that a dark-haired young woman – whose face she couldn’t make out in the rain and the night, was sitting on the muddy bank – stripping off her shoes and heavy skirt.
Fortunately the woman did have a petticoat on beneath. And once done the woman also dived in, but with much more noise than Jimi. “Jacques. Enris,” the storyteller said, “Could you both provide us with some light?” Laurelyn turned to Ani and asked, “Who fell in?”
“Bethy, the prostitute’s daughter,” Leisrinn answered in her granddaughter’s stead. The older woman looked Laurelyn up and down – then pointed to Thomis and said, “That your man?”
“Thomis…,” Laurelyn started.
“Save the introductions,” Leisrinn said, “Till we either have the child safe or her corpse.”
In the depths of the pool, the ondine curled about the girl, slipping the coat from her shoulders to let it float upwards. ‘Pretty Bethy,’ she cooed, and patted the pale girl’s face with those slender hands. The child insisted on holding on to that last gulp of air, cheeks bulging furiously and eyes squinted shut. ‘She wants you not, pretty Bethy, stay here with me.’
But someone else was in the water, too, someone who knew how to dance in it. The boy, so handsome and fair. Mairghead looked at the girl, so determined not to drink in the water of the stream any more than she already had, torn between taking the child and trying to claim the boy. With a giggle, and a kick of her feet, she pushed away, and in a heartbeat was floating before Jimi, her black hair spread about her like a cloud. ‘Jimi…’ Maybe she could have both, she hoped.
Jacques pulled a familiar 3-inch sphere from one of the pockets in his sodden clothes. It glowed with a dull light that could barely be seen. “Don’t know if this’ll work too well in the rain,” he offered apologetically, and squeezed it tightly for a second.
There was a burst of light more intense than as if a lightning bolt had struck nearby, and then it faded just as suddenly to a strong, clear, light.
The raindrops glinted oddly in the artificial light, and threw off a peculiar yellow tinge. With a satisfied grunt and a shrug, he fine-tuned the light to a slightly lower level. The yellow hue, however, remained and seemed to fade and strengthen through the steady light in a chaotic patttern. Some order too huge to comprehend, but an order nonetheless.
“I ain’t in no mood for more bodies,” he growled then as he glared at Leisrinn. Turning the glower onto Enris, he waggled a finger in the wizard’s direction.
“Haven’t you got some spell that’ll find the girl quicker’n these people could?”
Truth be told, the CRS had always been rather good at dealing with bodies; disposing of them primarily, but also finding them. Of course, this particular body was, presumably, still alive….which complicated matters a bit…
He nodded and replied “I believe so…”
Enris lifted his staff and quietly murmured the first spell; the water began to churn in turmoil. The level of the pond steadily declined as the water became far more dense than usual – and concurrently, all that was within the pool had a tendency to float to the top. In most bodies of water, that meant that quite a lot of flotsam and jetsam came up with whatever was wanted. Hopefully, the girl would pop up like a cork.
He murmured another spell, and a swarm of tiny lights swirled out from his staff and into the pool. They were attracted by warmth greater than the ambient temperature of the water, so they would cluster around a living warmblooded creature…or, a recently dead one.
She had drifted closer, one hand reaching out to draw the boy towards her, to give him her cold kiss, when the water had started to churn. The smile turned to a snarl as the coat whipped upwards to pop to the surface. Where was the boy? He had pulled away, moving in the pool as easily as she – not hers tonight, then. But the child – The ondine kicked again, angered at the unfamiliar currents, winnowing towards Bethy and reaching out to snatch at her feet as the girl followed after her coat.
“There!” The Oath-bound had stayed by the bank, watching the surface of the water, wincing as the coat appeared first, empty of the girl who had worn it. But Enris’s lights spiralled down and wrapped themselves around the child’s bare arms. She did not move as she drifted upwards, her face still turned down into the water.
But she was not alone. Cold, and undetected by the mage’s spell, two hands, white as ice, reached upwards for the girl’s shoulders, to drag her back down.
“That definitely has helped,” Laurelyn said to the two mages, “Thank you both.” She felt more than a little useless, since her shoulder wasn’t healed enough to let her swim well. So any rescue effort on her part would make her more of a hindrance than a help. She just had to watch as Leisrinn strode purposefully to the shore and reached into the pouch at her side.
Meanwhile the twins seemed to be torn between staring at Jacques and Enris and watching the drama in the water. Their GrandMam had ordered them to stay clear of the bank.
In the water both Jimi and Talia had shot to the serface of the now thicker water, and were furiously swimming towards the motionless form of the child.
Laurelyn offered a prayer to the gods of sea and stone that the child was still alive, and would stay that way.
Suddenly, for reasons of her own, Leisrinn tossed a leather bag towards Jimi after calling out to catch his attention. He leapt up with the grace of a playful dolphin and caught the bag, which he held above his head as he swam towards Bethy. All around the swimmers, and now covering the surface of the pond, floated the offerings townsfolk threw in hope that loved ones would come home safe from the seas.
As Fionn descended the slope with Rue, Tirlina darted ahead through the gloom, hearing voices below them still by the stream, and hearing the new urgency in the tones. It didn’t take her but a moment to ascertain what had happened, and she darted back up to Fionn where he picked his way through the dark down the rocky trail. “Be aware!” she told him urgently, dancing before his face. “There is another here who’s charge is not to protect, and she has already claimed one of your group! She will be angry at losing her prize. She won’t lay a claim to Rue, but she may decide she likes the look of you, highlander. Stay away from the stream!” It occurred to her that her assignment to protect the baby did not extend to protecting Fionn, but Tirlina did not relish the idea of Rue losing the one human who actually loved her, and Fionn was of a good heart. Mairghead would not try for Rue because she held the blessing of Luatha, but Fionn did not, and he was a strong, handsome prize.
Tirlina lighted on the edge of the basket, near Rue’s blanket-snugged feet, and sat with her legs hanging over the edge, near to Fionn’s hand. Only a little bigger than his thumb, she grasped a loose strand of wicker that jutted from the rim and held on to it. Her wings held the sheen of mist and rain, but were not wet, and she flattened them down her back. “Be aware!” she repeated, then watched ahead down the path.
Jacques looked at Enris with faint surprise. The man could be useful after all, as well as being somewhat over eager.
“Hope you’ve got some healing magic left,” he said as it became apparent the girl was not going to be in a good state. He glowered at the river as the faint yellow tinge spread from the rain to the thickened river water, pooling in no apparent reason.
Maybe, just maybe, the girl would be lucky and get out of this alive. It would be one less corpse on his conscience, though it was hardly his fault she’d been so scared of him to run away. He frowned. Well it wasn’t.
A circle of black hair spread outward from the arms, and then shrank inward as the ondine broke the surface of the water. She half-turned from Bethy to the woman who had worn widow’s weeds, blue-green eyes almost glowing. There were too many, and from the smell of it Luatha’s minion was drawing close also. “She is mine!” Mairghead breathed, and one arm circled Bethy’s neck to pull her downward again. If she could take the girl, and be gone, there were places to hide, places where not even Jimi could follow her.
It was forgetting Jimi that was her undoing. With one smooth movement that did not even break the rhythm of his swimming, he grasped the sack Leisrinn had given him and swung it in a wide arc across the water, across Bethy’s still form, and across Mairghead’s bare shoulders. From the open mouth, white salt poured, and the touch of it was fire on her pale skin. With a shriek of pain and indignation, the ondine dove, white feet the last thing seen. Deep, to wash it free.
On the bank, Thomis released a slow breath in relief as Jimi and Talia Crathurs turned Bethy’s face upward out of the water and started dragging the girl to shore. “Turn her on her stomach,” he said, needlessly, for Ceart had already done so in the same motion of pulling the child free of the bank to more solid ground.
Beneath his warm hands the child’s skin felt of an icy chill, and Ceart feared that their efforts had come too late – but he was not a man to give up. And he set to work at pumping the water from Bethy’s lungs. Soon he thought he heard a faint choking sound – though it was hard to tell, but he held to the belief that his efforts were doing some good. And at last Bethy began to cough in earnest.
After working with the child – till she was able to breath easier – Ceart pulled off his coat and wrapped her in it. And accepted the cloak that Laurelyn handed him.
At the shore Talia was wrapping her coat around herself – not only to get warm, but to hide how her chemise now clung to her; unfortunately her coat was as wet inside as it was out. Which set the young widow to shivering. ut she managed to gather up her sodden clothes and shoes and tentatively walk back to the group.
Jimi easily scrambled up the shore, shook the water and dark hair from his eyes. He grinned at his Mam’s comment that the water sprite would not make a fit wife – not like a respectable mer or selkie, and knelt beside where eart was working on Bethy.
Laurelyn noted Fionn’s approach – with the baby basket in his arms, and said, sounding relieved, “It looks everyone is now accounted for.”
“Except for Art and McKay,” Ceart said, refering to the fact that the two young men had gone a different route to the shrine. “But they’ve got sense enough not to be getting near the stream – so we should be seeing them back in town.”
While the others focused on the child Leisrinn went to the shore, and left a coral bracelet to placate the angered water spirit. Then the old woman murmured a charm of protection for the group – though she knew that she would need to make an extra charm or two for her sons, and family – including the foolish Weithra and her two useless older daughters. Water spirits had long memories and could be quite petulant.
Thomis nodded to Fionn, who nodded back. The contrast between Rue, unwanted by mother and father but with chubby cheeks and bright eyes, and Bethy with her threadbare dress and thin face, suddenly struck him. The highlander cradled the basket in his arms as if it held the greatest treasure he could find … and perhaps it did. Bethy had the look of a child whose mother, the shrill Bett, spent little coin or care on her. All you need is one, he thought as he watched Ceart stoop to lift the girl. One person to love her the way Fionn loved Rue.
As they turned to follow the Merkins to the nearest fireside, he might have caught a glimpse of a black-haired head breeching the surface of the water once more, and blue-green eyes watching them as they left. Only after they were gone did the ondine slip to the bank to snatch the coral bracelet and slip it onto her slender wrist.
“Up to the cottage with the lot of ye,” Leisrinn declared, “Before ye all end up with the croup!” With that said she took hold of Jimi’s arm and began to lead the way down the path.
Laurelyn fell into step by Thomis, and murmured, “I hope Mother has enough water heated – I suspect baths are called for again.”
As Ceart gently carried the bundled child down the path Talia Crathurs walked along beside them.
Jacques glared at the water as they left, and then let out a long sigh. It hadn’t exactly been the pleasant evening’s drinking at the tavern he’d been anticipating. In fact, it had been so very far gone from that that he was beginning to think there was a conspiracy to keep him sober. After all, he’d only been allowed to get drunk once since meeting Laurelyn and Thomis. And the pup.
He shivered with the cold, and then realised that Bethy and the widow were also freezing. Though it was their own fool fault, he frowned and pulled a small stuffed toy rabbit from a pocket. It was a pale blue in colour, and covered in a thick, fake, fur.
Jacques glanced at the widow, and then at the girl, as they walked, and shrugged. Then, he shook the rabbit furiously in one hand – and as he did so, its colour shifted from blue, to pale green, to red, to a sun-yellow. It steamed slightly in the rain.
“Here,” he trust the rabbit between Ceart’s arms, inside the coat around Bethy, and as close to the wet child as he could. “This’ll keep her warm for a while.” Well, it would stay warm for an hour or so before it began to fade back to the cold blue, but by then it wouldn’t be needed – one way or the other.
With a shrug, he looked at the widow.
“Sorry,” he huffed through sodden moustaches. “I’ve only got the one.”
Ceart said, “Thanks to you Mr. Jacques – that will be of great help.” He could feel the warmth radiating through the coat and against his sodden shirt.
“She needs it far more than me,” the Widow Crathurs said, “Poor little lass.” She smiled up at Jacques and added, “We both could use that brandy now.”
Jacques opened his mouth in surprise – surely the girl Bethy was too young for brandy – and then closed it, feeling like an fool. The bells on his hat rang faintly and dully in the damp, to show that he was a fool, one way or the other.
“I could drink a whole keg of lager, and not even pause for breath.”
[back at Widow Crathur’s]
Back at Widow Crathurs’ house, Fiend lay sleeping, letting out long, deep, snores. Beside him lay a bottle on its side, the brandy pooled on the floor.
[on the path]
He walked towrds the cemetery, heedless of the dwindling rain. Spotting Laurelyn and the newcomers, as well as several others, Eric waved to them. Approaching he nodded to Laurelyn and spoke, “You have a ship. I’ll take you and your friends aboard the Rose. You’ll not find anyone else willing to charter to go hunting The Star Dreamer.“
Inside the coat, Bethy wrapped one arm around the rabbit, too sleepy to speculate whether this was simply another step in the jester’s nefarious plan to bring down various forms of wickedness upon them all. Eric’s voice startled her a bit – there were bad stories about the man, none of which she could remember very clearly at the moment. And worse stories about The Star Dreamer, which also were a bit vague in her head.
But the rabbit was clear enough, and warm against her side.