For the briefest of moments dense mist wrapped itself around the _Brenna Rose_ as the small ship sailed through the cloud boundary, and once on the other side the travelers found themselves beneath a starlit sky – with no hint of a setting sun. And a steady, helpful wind filled their sails to carry back to the harbor of Morrow’s Hold.
The lights in the various houses showed that the eve was still early enough that most of the townsfolk were still awake. But along the dock only the fishing boats bobbed in the quietly lapping water – all tied up for the night while their owners ate dinner, drank, and swapped tales. Laurelyn found the normalacy of docking helped to settle her thoughts before touching land again, but the jobs were quickly done and soon she was standing on the wet dock.
One night could not have changed a village, but she found herself staring about her as if everything gleamed alien and new. And that was how she came to note a lone, dark figure making its way down the docks. Black skirts and black hair identified the approaching figure as Talia Crathurs, keeping a widow’s watch upon the sea.
“Jacques,” Laurelyn said quietly (the first time she had found the words with which to speak to the jester since they had left The Star Dreamer), “I think someone has come to meet you.”
The jester looked at Laurelyn uncomprehendingly. Then, he peered in the direction she had been looking and spotted the widow. He wondered if she’d brought Jeremy along, or if the ferocious, demonic furball she claimed was a cat was still in her cottage. Fiend, presumably, would have preferred the critter to be here.
Either way, apparently he had someone to deal with. And now that they had returned from the ship, it was, perhaps, time for him to deal with things as they stood. As he always had.
In the back of his mind was the whisper of Venlesser’s words, but he pushed it down – squashing it remorselessly. The dead looked to themselves.
He closed his eyes, and took a long deep breath, drawing air in. Held it, for ten long seconds, and exhaled as he opened his eyes.
“Well then,” he harrumphed and winked at Laurelyn. “You think she’s got any decent lager on her? All that rockin’ and rollin’ out on the sea has fair given me a thirst fit to swallow a few kegs.” He placed Fiend lightly on the ground and watched as the pup bounded off happily towards the widow.
“Keep an eye out for that cat of hers,” the jester called after him lightly. “He’ll tear you to pieces in a heartbeat, boy!”
Fiend just yipped and raced on little, furry, legs.
Jacques shook his head, setting the bells a-ring, and turned to Laurelyn. “It’s been,” he shrugged. “Something. Something I can add to my lurid tales of derring do to amaze the kiddies, and maybe score some lager in taverns in the sticks.” With a flourish, he produced a small green bottle from somewhere unseen. The same bottle he’d used to “entertain” the Captain.
“Perhaps, if you should ever wish to look back on this expedition, simply uncork the bottle. It knows what you want to see. For me,” he shrugged again. “It bores me,” he finished with another wink and a sly grin.
His eyes travelled along the docks, and rested on the town for a moment. “What lies west of here, Mrs Parch? Anything an old man might find interesting?”
Laurelyn considered the little bottle in her hands – then looked back up at Jacques, and said, “That is the direction some of Thomis’s friends took on a desperate quest of their own. And I have heard tales of Shimara and their Templars… She tucked the bottle into a pouch and reached up to her collar, and from around her neck she removed a thong with stones and carved beads. This she handed to Jacques and said, “An exchange between friends – for your name and tale shall be protected in my heart and telling for the length of my life. And Fiend’s too. And with this you shall always be known as clan friend by my kin. Remember that you have earned the first cup of the night and the seat at my father’s right hand by the hearth.”
Thomis had little to add to that, but directed his attention to assisting Maeve off the boat and onto the dock (the girl had, of course, turned resolutely away from Fionn). There would be more than one song made of this journey, he knew. And the jester – the first they had found, that morning on the river – would play a large part in all of them.
“Well,” offered Jacques, smoothing his moustache with one hand. “Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t. East’s as good as west. Maybe I need to find somewhere quiet.”
He snorted at that. Quiet would let him think. And thinking was not something he wanted to do for a while. A long while.
“Guess it’s time to be off.”
He pulled a small, silver whistle from somewhere in one of his many pockets and put it to his lips. Taking a deep breath, he put the whistle to his mouth and blew ferociously – with no apparent sound or effect.
Silence drifted loudly across the scene.
Fiend, bouncing around the widow’s feet, apparently also heard nothing, for he didn’t stop bouncing for a second.
And then, after a long pause, a small, shaggy, white pony ambled down the road from the direction of the stables.
Fiend saw the animal and, with a yip that sounded somehow sad, he bounded along beside it as it slowly made it’s way to the jester.
“Where’re you goin’ boy?” Jacques asked the pup. “You belong to Mrs Parch now. Be good.”
He nodded, and pulled himself up on the pony’s back. His eyes tracked over to the widow and held there for a second, before turning back to the road.
“Time to be off indeed.”
“Yes, time,” Thomis murmured, with a nod to Jacques, and a half-smile at Fiend’s determined trot at the pony’s heels.
The storyteller stayed silent as she watched the black-clad widow follow the pup. “Wouldn’t you know,” the widow said, “First man I’ve seen come back from the sea in a year or two – from The Star Dreamer no less – and off he goes a ridin’!”
Her quiet gaze demanded nothing – and showed no pity, for either herself or for anyone else, but it belied the lightness of her voice. “And here I was thinking of spicing up a bit of tea and offering the pup a bowl of brandy.”
“Whichever you ride,” Laurelyn said quietly to Jacques, “Fair winds bless you and thank you.” She touched the bottle in her pouch, and added, “For this and everything.”
“You know how it is, things to see, people to do. Time’s a wastin’, and we all know you can’t get enough time.” He rummaged in a pocket, shrugged in defeat, and rummaged in another. “Could’ve sworn…” he muttered quietly, and then finally the grin returned.
“You got green fingers Ms Crathurs?” He pulled a small plant from his pocket, carefully ensuring the single flower wasn’t mangled by the tight exit. It sat, with deep green leaves and an exquisitely formed pure white flower, in a small ceramic pot. On the pot were painted bizarre and haunting images of animals. Not pictures, simply a line, a sketch. Something that gave the impression of an animal, the sense of it, but didn’t attempt to mimic a creature’s appearance.
“T’ith’alyan ice orchid,” said Jacques as he handed it down. “Treat it nice, don’t leave it anywhere too warm, and if it snows, put it outside for a bit. In ten or twelve years you’ll likely get another flower.”
He bowed to the widow, and then to Laurelyn.
Talia cradled the pot within two small, though roughened, hands and looked down at the exquisitely white orchid. “Tis a thing of beauty,” she murmured. “And thank you,” she said looking up at the jester and with a wry smile said, “Most poseys have survived my care.” Though she did not add that the orchid’s was a cold beauty, as cold as the winds that scoured the coast. No need to say such for the giver had a warm heart.
The storyteller had few doubts that should any ride through Morrow’s Hold on a biting winter’s day, in ten or twelve years time, they would find that flower blooming with the care it had been given.
“A long and happy life,” he offered, though to whom it was uncertain, and then kneed the pony around and nudged it off down the road.
Fiend, yapping and growling equally, bounded along beside the pony, dodging in between its hooves. “You belong to her now boy. Go back to Mrs Parch.”
Fiend just yipped.
“Well, I ain’t feedin’ you, so you’ll go back when you’re hungry enough.” And without another word, or the barest glance backwards, Jacques, pony, and Fiend rode slowly off.
“I doubt he will ever be hungry enough,” Thomis said quietly to Laurelyn, as they watched the motley-clad figure recede. There were a lot of things he might have wished for the jester – perhaps even the occasional flower in winter’s cold. And though not spoken, the invocation that the patterns bring him back was there. Not home, for the other man had no home, other than what he could make for himself. And with the pup, ears flying and tail circling slowly as he followed.
“And I have no doubts that food will accidentally fall from a pocket more often than not,” Laurelyn replied.
The Widow Crathurs watched the night-thick road swallow up Jacques, the pony, and the pup; recognizing the feeling in her vitals that his road would not find its way back to a fey village by the sea.
With a brisk turn of her heel she wheeled about and said to the other arrivals, “Ye best be heading up and showing the folk that ye’ve returned from the dead.”
Laurelyn stiffened in surprise at the Widow’s comment, and watched as Talia, with plant cradled in her arms, started back up the street. “No help for it,” Laurelyn said ruefully to Thomis, “I guess we best be bracing ourselves.” She pushed back her windblown auburn hair and stared up at the lighted houses – they promised warmth but they also held a din of humanity she wasn’t sure she was ready to face.
A sudden inspiration hit and she said, “I think Emlyn will forgive me – why don’t the lot of us take refuge at her house for an hour or two?”
“You aren’t up for a public appearance at the Goose?” Thomis asked with a smile. He waved Fionn and Maeve, who had both lingered uncertainly – though apart from each other – forward with one hand. “You might as well meet Acair Hillrover’s match,” he said. It was a way to delay, at least, the two’s parting, and judging from their expressions, both recognized and appreciated the ploy.
“I might be ready in a month or two,” Laurelyn offered with a grin. The wind had dropped as they walked through the settling village; still outsiders – ghosts – going past the lit houses of folk finishing their dinners. Until they came to a neat and quiet yard.
Quiet until a yapping broke the night and shortly a candle lit the doorway while Emlyn Merkin looked out to see who intruded on her rest.
The older woman stood framed in the doorway, with her long auburn hair hanging loose, though on her head was a white linen nightcap, and she had a thick blue robe over her nightgown. “Who’s there?” she demanded.
Grig broke loose and hurtled towards the little group. His yips turning to welcome as he sniffed at Laurelyn and Thomis, but still holding questions as he snuffled at Maeve and Fionn, Eric and Brenna.
“We’re home, Mother,” Laurelyn said.
[Eric and Brenna]
“Home,” the blond woman whispered, “I really am home.” The full reality of her emprisonment seemed to suddenly dawn on her as she looked about again, noticing the differences in Morrow’s Hold since she had last seen it.
Eric caught hold of her arm and looked to them. “I think I had best be getting Brenna to our house,” he said, “I thank you, cousin, for…” he paused, “For everything.” he finished. Then they turned and began to walk away, leaving the others.
“We’ll see you later,” Laurelyn said, quietly.
Thomis stooped down to let Grig sniff his hands over thoroughly, but made no move to pet the dog – even after his last visit, and stay at Emlyn’s, they were will working out how friendly they might be to each other. Grig looked at him sideways as he moved over to investigate the others, hopping up on his back legs to get a closer look at the baby in Fionn’s arms. After a moment, the highlander crouched down so that the dog could snuffle the blankets; Nora’s only response was a yawn and a wave of one hand that clopped Grig firmly on the snout.
The dog froze in place, staring at the baby as if astounded at the affront. But when Maeve stooped down likewise, to offer her own hands for identification, he moved on. As he stood, Thomis could see the light from Emlyn’s candle cast across the girl’s face. Her eyes were red, as if she had wept silently on the walk up to the cottage.
Thomis did not comment on that, but turned to slip one arm around Laurelyn’s waist. “Emlyn Merkin,” he said with a show bow. “If I may introduce our companions – Maeve Calhoun.” The girl stood up, and pulled her shawl back around herself. “Fionn Fhaolain, and with him, Nora Davynn.” He looked about a bit, until he spotted the sparkle of light somewhere over Fionn’s right shoulder. “And Aliea, Nora’s protector.”
Tirlina dipped where she hovered in acknowledgement of the introduction, and in greeting, but remained silent, as if now that the danger had passed, she was loathe to speak to the humans, let alone meet more of them. But she actually was distracted by thoughts of her home forest and how long Fionn would stay here, because she found that although she had seen Nora through her quest, she did not want to abandon her now. The baby, and even Fionn, had become something more than just an obligation she owed to Luatha, and she was indecisive now on whether she really wanted to give up her place as the baby’s protector. She hovered slightly behind and above Fionn, glowing brightly with the whir of her wings, forgetting to be shy, even of the new person.
Emlyn’s blue eyes drank in the sight of the lot of them, though she seemed to be momentarily in shock, but the moment quickly passed. She said, “I welcome you Good Lady …..I welcome all of you…..”
Then she shook herself and a relieved grin shown and she said, “Now let’s get that wee babe out of the chill and get you all a warm cup of tea.” As she gestured for them to follow her to the house Grig began running about them – much like the Sheltie was trying to help herd them.
“When in doubt get the tea,” Laurelyn murmured, laughed into Thomis’ ear.
“Just as long as noisome aunts and cousins are not involved,” he answered just as softly, “the tea will be welcome.” He waved Fionn and Maeve ahead of them. After a brief hesitation, Fionn waited for the girl to precede him before following. The highlander had a momentary look of unease on his face, an expression that said he knew it was time to return to the mountains – but spoke also of his fear that Maeve would choose to stay in Morrow’s Hold.
“My mother would hold off an entire battalion of them tonight,” Laurelyn said, watching the look on Emlyn’s face. A look that said she would never tire of the sight of them coming home.
Once inside, Fionn asked, tentatively, for a tub in which to wash the yawning babe, “She lecks the water,” he explained, “end she es,” he continued, with a sniff of her head, “jest a bet smelly.” In his arms, Nora blinked, offering no protest – though if she could have spoken, she could have pointed out that her uncle might benefit from a quick scrubbing also.
Emlyn laughed softly, though she still sounded a little shaky, and said, “Oh aye, I have a tub. And a nice warm room too. Hold on and I’ll be getting the water heated up.” And with a flurry of robe and Grig she hastened off to the kitchen.
“Her pride and joy,” Laurelyn said with a smile.
After a moment or more, during which the highlander nearly, but not quite completely, glanced at Maeve, Fionn shrugged slightly to himself and followed Emlyn into the far room. “Our thanks,” he said softly, and listened carefully as their hostess explained how to use the tub. It was a strange contraption, but a touch to the water confirmed that it was warm and soothing. Without waiting, he deftly shucked the babe of blankets and wraps and diaper, and then slowly lowered her, feet first into the water. Nora’s widened as her toes slid under, and she stared up at Tirlina as if to ask whether the sprite had ever experienced such a thing.
The sprite dropped down from the shelf she’d perched on and stood on the rim of the tub, hands on hips, watching Nora’s expession with amusement. She lept from the edge and did a brief, splashing dance across the water’s surface before rising up to resume her watch from the shelf, shaking droplets of soapy water from the tips of her toes with a grin at the baby. Humans were cursed with problems like odor, and while Tirlina would never allow the indignity the baby now faced, she could well appreciate its necessity, and hoped Fionn planned to treat himself to the same when he was finished with Nora.
Once Fionnn and Nora, with Tirlina had been settled in the bathing room, Emlyn returned, and gestured the others into the kitchen. “Lovely babe,” she said, with a quick glance at Maeve, remembering the story that Laurelyn and Thomis had told of the lass.
As she began to pull out cups and put the kettle back on to boil she said, “You weren’t out long. Did you find her?” The quaver in her voice revealed her fear – the fear that they had only come ashore to try again.
Laurelyn said quietly, “We found her. The Star Dreamer will sail no more.”
Emlyn straightened and turned to stare at her daughter, son-in-law, and the mountain lass.
As the sprite had dipped close to the babe’s hands, Nora had reached out in an obvious attempt to snag the flicker of light – but succeeded only in slapping her palm against the surface of the water and splashing not only her uncle but also herself. Startled, she froze for a moment, eyes widening even more – and then started slapping both hands, and both feet, over and over again.
“Lively tonight,” Fionn remarked, squinting against the droplets. He looked sideways at Tirlina for a moment, before turning back to washing the child’s thick black hair. “I know you want to get back to the highlands,” he began quietly. He did, too – friendly as the seaside village was, it was not his home. “But I think Maeve will want to stay. I would like to see her settled somewhere, with some coin to keep her.” He hadn’t even begun to think about how the girl would support herself; she had all the household skills of a clanswoman, but would there be a need for them here?
Tirlina tilted her head, starlight glimmering in her long, silken blond hair. She gave him a sly look, braced her hands behind her and leaned back, staring innocently at the ceiling as she swung her legs freely over the side of the shelf. “I could make her want to return with us.” She paused, shooting Fionn a secretive glance of mischief. “With you.”
The scowl that crossed the highlander’s face as he looked down at Nora was sudden and fierce, and not at all justified by the child’s continued splashing. Nor by Tirlina’s suggestion, just as playful in its own way. He might have thought it, considered asking it … “Nay,” he said finally, with a small shake of his head. “She chose the MacRorie first, and then Niall second.” Fionn’s voice trailed off, and he carefully scooped up a palmful of warm water to pour it over the back of Nora’s head. “I wouldna scorn her, even for being third in her eyes,” he continued more softly. “But Niall taught her Fhaolain devotion.”
It had been hard, that spring when the young men came to the Calhoun hearth to court the chieftain’s daughter. The MacRorie’s heir had been favored from the first, and had thought himself the victor when Maeve and her father had accepted his pledge. The night when it was announced, Maeve’s father beaming, presenting the pair to his clan, Niall had leaned over during the cheering to whisper something to one of his own men. In that moment, without even hearing, Fionn had known the wager made …
“I would ha’e taken my brothers leavings, and gladly,” he finished, fingertips touching Nora’s forehead, the bow of her mouth, and then the small chest where her heart pulsed. “But if she will not ha’e me of her own ….” He shrugged, and lifted Nora from the water to place her atop a towel on the floor, folding it over her to dry her skin. “I will see her set, here, if she would stay. And then we will take the babe back to the highlands, where she belongs.”
Tirlina gave a disgusted snort and sat up, folding her arms across her chest as she scowled down at Fionn. “Aye, and your highlander pride will keep you warm in bed at night, too, won’t it? How is she supposed to have you of her own when she hasn’t any idea how you look at her when she’s not noticing? Maybe if you’d actually speak your peace with her, then your noble notion of love might stand a chance without my help.” Tirlina fell silent, glaring down at the man’s dark head, challenging him to prove himself less a fool than she now thought.
Fionn sat back on his heels to stare at the sprite. “Do ye actually think it’s pride and some sham sense of noble sacrifice?” he asked in frustration. “Do ye think I ha’e not spoken? Before she chose the MacRorie, before she chose Niall? And after, when her own da’ cast her out?” He stopped, suddenly, realizing how his voice had risen, and made himself draw a deep breath before continuing, in something just above a whisper. “My words were not pretty enou’ before she met Niall’s ruin.”
His brother always had been glib, and slyly seductive, gifted with the lying tongue that Luatha had given him, and indifferent to the pain he left in his wake. Only after he had abandoned his babe, dark-haired and dark-eyed as all Fhaolain, had the clan-mother disfavored him, and given the child’s care to Fionn. But Maeve had not been hers to give, nor would Fionn have taken her on those terms. “They’ll not be pretty enou’ for her now. Not from his brother.”
A quick search through the bag located a clean diaper and a mostly clean shirt-dress for Rue. “She’s had enou’ of being carried. If she cannae believe she’ll stand on her own, she’ll not be wantin’ to stand with me.” That was true, he told himself silently. But part of him knew that Tirlina was right, also … part of it was his own pride, to have Maeve want to ask for what she had scorned before.
“Might as well start the stories spreading now,” Thomis said with a smile, that was answered by Maeve. The girl sat at one corner, hands carefully folded in her lap, looking almost completely lost without either Fionn or Keir or Rudolpho by her side. But at the thought of Laurelyn beginning the form of the tale – one that surely would be crafted by someone, and best done by a storyteller who was in it – Maeve smiled.
And as Laurelyn began to speak, to tell her mother what had passed from the time they had stepped upon Brenna’s Rose, they both occasionally interjected. A pause came when, at one point, Fionn’s muffled voice could be heard in the other room, a note of irritation sounding in it, but after a moment more, they all went on.
[By the tub…]
Tirlina made an exasperated huff of a noise, and pointed a tiny, slender finger at Fionn. “That was eons ago, highlander, or may as well have been considering all you’ve both been through since. And she got her boon. If she’s free now to start a new life, there’s nothing stopping her from starting it with you, but whatever you told her before is long past, and she knows not how you feel on the idea now, does she?” Tirlina humphed in irritation and climbed to her feet, to stand on the edge of the shelf with hands on hips, still fixing Fionn with a scolding stare. “And maybe if you took the pity and charity out of the offer and offered her your heart, instead, fresh and clean of the past – hers and yours – just maybe she’d like what she heard a bit better.”
“Sweet Eisei!” Fionn cursed, frustrated at the prodding. “De ye need to hector me so? Luatha set you to watch Nora, not tae scold me abeut Maeve!” He tugged the blankets around the babe again and lifted her, starting to rise to his feet. And as he continued to speak, his voice began to rise again. “She does not want me, after all these months. She stood before the Captain and asked one thing – to be rid of us both. If she had showed me but one bit of kindness or care this past year, then maybe I would think it, to ask her for the chance to prove that not all Fhaolain are faithless. But I ha’e not the words or the strength to tell to her, to offer my heart for her. Just to dance with her and have her smile the way she did wit’ the Captain-!”
[In the other room]
They had just reached the point where Eric had lowered the rowboat from the Brenna Rose, to take the first group across to the Star Dreamer when Fionn’s voice again could be heard from the far room. After a moment, it grew louder, until distinct words could be heard. In highland, and thus incomprehensible to Thomis – but not to the women. He could see that easily enough from the way Maeve looked up, face first paling and then flushing bright red, and how Laurelyn stopped just as abruptly, to stare first at Maeve and then at her mother.
It was a moment of supreme awkwardness, as if Emlyn and Laurelyn had heard something that should have been between only Maeve and Fionn. It was broken, thankfully, but the sudden shrill whistling of the teapot.
“Aye,” Emlyn said, briskly, “A hot cup of tea is what we all need right now.”
“I can get the biscuits out…,” Laurelyn offered; refraining from glancing at Maeve – even though she wished that Fionn would speak to the lass and have done with it. The girl had a done a fair bit of growing in the last day, while aboard the Star Dreamer, but the storyteller wasn’t sure if it was growth enough to recognize Fionn’s great worth.
“No you won’t,” Emlyn answered, “You and Thomis, and Maeve, can just sit there and warm yourselves.” And with that she headed off for the kitchen; where upon there was a great deal of banging and clinking of pans and dishes.
::So much for a tactful escape,:: Laurelyn sent to Thomis. Aloud she said, “I’ll wait till Mother comes back. After all we know the story.”
Thomis just nodded, at a loss for anything to say. Not knowing what Fionn’s words had been, there seemed little to be done to smooth it over. Maeve’s own eyes were fixed alternately on the hands folded in her lap, and on the far corner of the room – anywhere but on Laurelyn.
[By the tub…]
Tirlina’s expression softened slightly, at Fionn’s mention of Maeve’s dance with Venlesser, and the little sprite’s irritation became something more akin to sympathy, and then turned to something else. She hopped off the shelf, and when her feet touched the ground, they were much larger, and attached to a white-gowned Maeve, glistening in stardust. “I could dance with you Fionn,” said the vision, her voice Maeve’s, but with a silvery echo of Tirlina’s musical tone to it. She twirled around on tiptoe, and danced a step toward Fionn, her face a vision of the same smile Maeve had given the Captain. “I could watch over you and Nora, and take away the sting of her scorn…” she promised soothingly.
Fionn blinked, and blinked again, and though well familiar with the glamour of the fey, still was caught as it filled the small room, enamored. Lovely she was, with the thinness of her face filled out, and her lips curling upwards rather than downwards with scorn. And for a moment, he thought, the lie would be enough.
But a lie it was, even if it promised more beauty and magic than any highland lass, with unruly red hair, ever could. It was not Maeve. “Nay,” he answered, and softly, for simply put he was too tired to continue arguing with the sprite.
Her arms dropped to her side, her smile fading into disappointment, and then slowly the expression transformed into a scowl, similar to Fionn’s own just moments before. Maeve’s visage faded, the face hardening, until Fionn’s own face glared back at him. “You can’t have her the hard way, and won’t have her the easy way,” his voice accused him. “Perhaps you haven’t the courage to have her at all!” The vision gestured harshly toward the outer room. “If I can’t be your heart’s desire, then I will be your courage, highlander. I’ll talk to her!” The vision turned toward the door, the disapproving scowl still firmly in place.
“Why ye meddling -” He cut off the curse before he could speak it, knowing even then not to test the sprite’s patience so far. Instead, he simply reached around her to yank the door open and stalk out, leaving the other three to stare as his double – minus a babe – followed. As Maeve rose, her eyes widened, before settling on Fionn himself as he stopped in the center of the room.
“Forgive me,” he said with a nod to Emlyn as she returned from the kitchen, complete with a tray of teacups and a pot, “but it has been pointed out-” And there he stopped, realizing that Thomis, sitting silently at Laurelyn’s side, didn’t understand a word of highland. When he spoke again, it was in common, his accent thick with his annoyance.
“The fey set to wetch Nora has took it ‘pon hersel’ tae chastise me abeut leavin’ Maeve here witheut fairst askin’ her if indeed she wants te stay.” Thomis looked at the not-Fionn, whose expression matched the true-Fionn’s expression perfectly. He suspected the highlander had not fairly stated the issue, but the young man continued on, quickly, before any protest could be made.
“Maeve,” Fionn turned to the girl, who looked about for the nearest doorway to dodge through, obviously not wanting to hear whatever was about to be said. “If ye want – and if ye den’t want, balk not at sayin’ nay – if ye wish tae return te the highlands … if ye dinna want to stay in the Hold …” He trailed off, scowl becoming even more fierce. “We – Nora and I – I weuld gledly take ye and stay wit’ ye and not think ye less for what has passed before.”
For a moment, early on, Thomis thought he might have detected just the slightest softening in Maeve’s eyes, at the stumbling, hesitant way Fionn spoke. But that last part – that made even Thomis wince, it was so ill-spoken that it set the color flooding back into Maeve’s face, and when she lifted her eyes back to Fionn’s, it was with a look of her own anger.
The not-Fionn threw up his arms with a snarl of disgust, and set to glaring at the real Fionn’s back, even as the facade abruptly dissolved into a three-foot glittering child with gossamer wings that twitched in obvious annoyance. “A foolish ass, ye are,” she muttered at him angrily in her own musical voice.
“Net thenk less of me, will ya?” she answered, voice sharp with irritation. “How neble and fergevin’ ye are, Fionn Fhaolain, to offer to teck up yer brether’s wench.” Her eyes moved over his shoulder, to where the sprite stood behind him. “Ye had been best to keep yerself eut o’ it,” Maeve continued, just as peremptorily. “He’s nigh unbearable wit’ his meuth shut, wit’out hem bein’ goaded into openin’it.” Jaw set, she looked back to Fionn. “I care not ef ye go or stay.” With a huff, she nearly threw herself back into her chair, and waved one hand dismissively.
“You deserve your cold, lonely nights, highlander,” Tirlina snapped at Fionn, not blaming Maeve for her reaction. The sprite turned and in an instant was her tiny self again, mid-air and hovering only long enough to throw Fionn another disgusted glare over her shoulder before darting back to Nora’s basket.
Emlyn had just made it to the parlor doorway, with tray and tea in hand, when the confrontation took place; now she stood (a proud figure – the nightgown and cap notwithstanding) and studied the participants – and the spectators, with an appraising gaze.
“Sounds a wee bit like my own courtship,” she said, by way of an interruption, and came in to set the tray down. “Now who’s for tea..?” ::A courtship that’s still ongoing,:: Laurelyn sent to Thomis, with a light mental chuckle, ::Every Spring he comes to offer matrimony and every Spring she denies him a wife. Though, I suspect they’ve worn the rough edges away from the discussion by now.::
The silence that lay in the parlor was underlaid with the crackle of the fire, and Nora’s cooing and giggles (which probably indicated the sprite was keeping her amused), but the silence itself was heavy with the fumes of Fionn’s and Maeve’s anger and embarrassment.
Laurelyn accepted a mug from her mother, and decided that her own nerves were worn to a fine thread by the emotional storms aboard The Star Dreamer, and she decided to (hopefully) move the conversation to a safer, more mundane, harbor. “With the hour,” she said, letting her words ease apart the angry silence, “It’s probably best to be considering where we all shall be sleeping.”
“Aye,” Emlyn said, as she settled into an overstuffed chair, and shooed Grig away – who had been just about to leap to her lap, “I think the babe and Fionn should take the attic room – tis warm for wee Nora….” She took a sip of her tea, then gestured to Maeve, and said, “I hope ye don’t mind sharing my bed with me, lass? The only other place to put folk is by this warm hearth.” Emlyn’s blue eyes twinkled as she looked over at Thomis and her daughter, and she said, “And that will be where I’ll be putting the newlyweds. They be family and ye be company.”
“The arrangements suit me well,” Laurelyn said; she kept her mug in one hand and slipped the other down to touch Thomis’ – letting her fingers feel along the sword callouses on his own fingers.
Thomis could only nod his own agreement, while Maeve managed more than a fair amount of graciousness in accepting Emlyn’s offer. Fionn, after one last, scowling look, retrieved Nora (with another glare at the twinkle of light that followed) and sat in the last available seat. “So, as we were saying before,” Thomis finally spoke, picking up the conversation where it had been left before, as if the outburst had never happened, “we had to make two trips over to the Star Dreamer to ferry everyone across …”
It was enough to make Maeve raise her eyes and join in with only the occasional, half-nervous and half-angry darting glance at Fionn. There was much to tell, and many to tell it, of each gift offered (and with the telling of Fiend’s fall overboard, Grig lifted his head as if to protest that twist in the plot) and each boon asked. Hope, joy, and with those sorrow and loss for each who had gone on into darkness, with no way to know what would befall them. The recounting of it was enough to start wearing the sharpness of it away. And yet, as they spoke, taking turns, Thomis could hear in all their voices, and feel in the way Laurelyn’s fingers tightened on his, how each of them would wait—expecting to see, beyond every turn of the road, one of the departed returning again.
And afterwards, with the teapot drained, and the darkness settled fully about the house, once Fionn had crept upstairs with the sleeping Nora, and Maeve and Emlyn had slipt under their covers, Thomis gathered Laurelyn into his arms to doze by the hearth. The heat of the flames against his back, and the warmth of his wife stretched out against him … for a moment, caught between waking and sleep, he could feel the threads skimming over them both -
-whispering to themselves -
Smiling to himself, Thomis closed his eyes, knowing that when he awakened, Laurelyn would be next to him. Knowing …