Chapter 2

Rannoch woke with a pain his head and a hunger in his stomach. He knew he was getting old enough that staying up 'til the early hours of the morn drinking moderate amounts of alcohol was far from the best of ideas, but it was a vestigial piece of youth he refused to let go of.

Wiping the drool of sleep from the corner of his mouth, he slowly rolled himself out of bed and put on his unwrinkled clothes. Like most bards he knew, they were dyed to be as vibrant as man could make them. He liked to think they brought all sorts of colour to the small, drab places they visited. Words, clothing, conversation—a little revitalization every year or two.

Walking down the familiar, worn set of stairs became easier with every step and the air was filled with the promise of fresh food. He rounded the corner into the common room with all his usual jaunt and arms held open to sweep Tis into an embrace just in case she was near. Sadly, she was not.

Rannoch knew such a movement could not be wasted, and slid to sit near the knight, throwing a companionable arm around his shoulders.

"That's twice now I've woken with you gone. What's the secret to having such light feet?"

There was a short pause as Arraevn stiffened under his touch. Such a curious fellow. Finally, without looking over, he said, "I'm glad I didn't disturb you."

"Yes well…" It was far too early to be thinking of witty things to say. Rannoch glanced over and waved Tis over. "I sure hope my favourite girl is bringing me breakfast."

With wide eyes, she glanced around. "But Rannoch, I don't see your favourite girl. Who are you talking to?"

A snort of amusement later, and he was eating the meal that had been prepared for the rest of the day. Proving that mornings truly were the best time to be about if one was particular about the freshness of their food. With a final kiss on the girl's cheek and joke at the knight, Rannoch had placed his plumed hat on, rakishly to one side of course, and was away to chase after a rumour he'd heard yesterday.

The town of Heedra Fell was small enough that everyone had heard everyone else's business within the day's happening, yet large enough that you might not know the person the happening had befallen. And according to one of the carpenter's apprentices, a winged demon had broken into a house and stolen a baby. The favourite version was some nonsense about one of the Divine gods' minions. Yet even if it was untrue, that was the most interesting tale Rannoch had heard in months, so reminiscent of the old stories parents would tell their children. In fact he could confidently say that it shared similarities with at least five other 'root' stories from across the kingdom.

It was a short search with many directions asked before he came to stand before the home of Tredan and Udele. Before knocking, Rannoch peered curiously at the blanket thrown over the gaping hole of the window, then at the shards of glass still embedded in the snow below. A smudge of darkness near the top of the drift caught his attention. A feather, dark and glossy, probably from one of the pigeons that loved roosting under the eaves.

Rolling it between his fingers, Rannoch frowned before sticking it through a button hole and finally knocking on the door. A man with heavy shadows under his eyes opened it, immediately realizing who it was despite never having personally met.

"The bard, Rannoch, is it?"

"Correct sir." Said bard removed his hat and bowed his head. "You have my condolences, and if you desire anything from me you have but to ask. However, I came here because I heard your son's abduction was rather…unusual."

The man rubbed his face and nodded. "Come in."

There little main room was a mess, with no discernible way to tell one part from another. Rannoch opted to stand rather than sit on a chair, and waited respectfully for Tredan to sink down into a pile of messy blankets. One shaky sigh later and he had begun.

"He had quieted down for the night, and I was damn happy for it. Haven't had a decent sleep in… there was something crawling around in our bedroom, so I asked Udele to come in. Her eyes are better'n mine." His head fell slowly, shaggy blonde hair covering his eyes. "Knew I shouldn't have though. I felt it, something evil watching us, but I ignored it. I ignored it, an' by the time we'd come back out here the demon had broken through the window with the baby."

Rannoch went over to the window and gestured if he could take the blanket down. Tredan nodded and the layers were peeled back. Staring at the broken edges, Rannoch frowned harder. What could it have been? "Did you see what the demon looked like?"

"Not really. It was too dark to tell, all I heard was the wings. I think…I think it was one of Sceadu's. They steal babes don't they?"

The minions of the northern god Sceadu actually had nothing to do with child abductions. Rannoch thought the man had probably mixed them up with the Haeg. Twisted spirits of women that died before bearing a child, so they stole others, raising them to love and serve, and in turn kidnap even more to join their ranks. He felt it would be entirely inappropriate to mention that though, so instead he replied, "Yes…I think you might be right."

"Good, cause no one else believed me." Tredan's voice shook a little more. "Oh they say they do, but I can see it…in their eyes."

There was a heavy pause that the bard dared not break. Tredan stilled his breathing, and when he spoke again there was a brittle strength. "I don't care all that much, but for my wife…can you come back tonight. The temple service is good and proper, but she was raised traditional."

Turning around Rannoch gave a little bow. "Of course. And again, I am sorry."

"Me too. He hadn't even reached his first year naming day."

"We would be delighted to have you with us Bard Rannoch," the woman laughed as she tied off the knot of her sewing. "I always love traveling with bards, but you didn't ask where we were heading."

Leaning against the merchant's wagon, Rannoch gave her a smile and a wink. "You know better than that, Mistress Aethel. A bard has no rhyme nor reason to where they wander, they simply do, and I can think of no other caravan I'd rather tag along with than yours."

With a giggle, she pushed a lock of hair behind one ear, a girlish gesture for an older woman. "I do like you, but don't let my husband hear that talk."

Grinning, Rannoch leaned closer. "Why, is he the jealous type?"

With a mischievous look of her own, Aethel replied, "No, because he'd laugh himself into an early grave."

"There goes my roguish charm, I was trying so hard too."

"Well you'll have to try a little harder." Aethel stopped and gave him a hard look. "But not on my daughter. She'll adore you and I'm having none of that nonsense 'til she fills out at the very least. If we're clear, I'll see you day after tomorrow."

"Clear as Grattiede glass Mistress Aethel. Meeting at dawn out in front of Garrick's farmstead yes?"

"That's the one. Have a pleasant day, Bard Rannoch."

Sweeping his hat in a dramatic exit, Rannoch said, "That has already been assured thanks to a certain woman's presence. I hope yours is similarly blessed."

Strolling through the eastern market, Rannoch glanced at the rows of closed booths waiting for either a festival or the end of winter. He himself started to feel depressed at the fact it would be several months more before first snowmelt, and another month of on-again off-again weather—then true spring could come.

Rannoch hummed to himself, picking up some sweet, syrup candy for Tisolde before returning to the inn. He had a story to spin and perfect, then pass off to the next settlement he visited, wherever that may be.

Poking his head in to the nearly empty common room, the bard placed the small package of candy in Tis' cubbyhole then went to fetch his writing kit from upstairs. Coming back down, he claimed an entire table for himself and spread everything out. The journal for random thoughts, the book that would categorize the finished project, scrap parchment, and the wax tablet. With a flourish of positioning sleeves, Rannoch lifted the wood point over the wax, and then began to scribble incomprehensibly.

He had just finished mapping out the gist of what pattern he wanted the story to follow, when Arraevn came in loaded with what was likely a pig carcass in a canvas sack. Tisolde came in behind him, laughing even more freely than she usually did.

Skipping over, Tisolde shirked out of her oversized coat, allowing the bard to catch a fair glimpse of cleavage. She winked the acknowledgement at him and asked, "You working on something good?"

"I believe so. You heard about the baby that was taken the…night before last?"

In the background the knight froze on his way to the kitchen, and looked to have nearly dropped the sack. Rannoch watched him as Tis replied.

"Oh yeah, that was Udele's wasn't it? Strangest and saddest thing to happen all year—hmn, make that the last two years. So what do you think?"

"Well…" Rannoch pulled the feather from his shirt and twirled it between his fingers; he felt he had sudden insight based on the knight's reaction…as well as a host of new questions. "It could have been a number of things really. Probably some starving animal, but that's not very interesting is it?"

Tis nodded and sat down, preparing herself for another bout of theatrics.

"You have to ask yourself, what would steal a baby? Tredan thought a minion of Sceadu, but they only take the souls of the dead and dying. Could it have been a Haeg, a faerie or perhaps even a valravn? Which sounds the most interesting do you think?"

Tisolde raised an eyebrow. "You going somewhere with this, or you actually asking me?"

Rannoch saw Arraevn had not moved in the slightest, and wondered if the man was even breathing. "I'm asking what you think?"

Scrunching up her nose in concentration, Tisolde glared up at the ceiling. "Well I'm no expert, that's your job, but it wouldn't be a Haeg. They turn into smoke and come through the cracks in the walls…right?"

"Correct! What about a faerie?"

She was giving the bard that look—the one that meant she thought him insane, but continued anyways. "It could've been, but most everybody has the Divine's iron arms up on their doors now."

"They had that. I checked."

Pursing her lips, Tis frowned before standing. "I guess it's your valravn then. Can't say I'm too familiar with that one though. Come on Master Arraevn, I'll show you how to gut that pig nice and proper."

The knight shuddered at her touch and followed right after. Rannoch frowned, mind debating against itself. A valravn would help tie the story nicely into the current political climate, but the knight's behaviour was too suspicious to pass off as coincidence. If there was some possibility he was some crazed baby killer, the bard felt the need to somehow root it out. Perhaps just not now. A human villain was far less interesting than a supernatural one, and he would like to maintain any and all illusions for the time being.

Rannoch called out suddenly, "You wouldn't remember them Tis, young as you are, but during the wars you'd hear stories. With that rebellion out west you might get the chance to listen to a few new ones yourself."

Tisolde glanced back. "As long as they're good. Why don't you give us a few tonight."

"I would, but Tredan asked me to go back for his wife. She's…traditional."

"Tomorrow then. Good luck with your story."

Rannoch gave her a little wave, playing with the feather further. He wondered how he could have ever thought it had come from a pigeon, when so obviously it was another bird's. So strangely similar to the one's on a certain knight's cloak.

He was surprised when Arraevn popped his head back into the common room and said, "Can you please tell them I'm sorry…for their loss."

Studying the nearly blank expression, Rannoch was surprised to find genuine grief, something one usually didn't associate with crazed baby killers. He would take that into consideration as well.

Rannoch walked back to the inn in a state of melancholy. The woman had asked for one of the old songs of passing, and the bard had given it to her. He hunched over and pulled the scarf higher up over his nose. Without his liquor, and a cold wind coming down from the north, it was a difficult walk back through dark streets.

His mind could not put the words of the song from his mind. Snow started to fall, stinging his face and stealing the small whispers from his lips. When Rannoch finally arrived, he flung open the door with nary a hello or goodnight and had fled away from the stragglers to his little sanctuary.

Of course he had forgotten the knight on the floor and fell back against the bed in surprise when his lantern light was reflected by two dark eyes.

"Sodding everlasting fuck!" Not his brightest moment to be sure.

"…My apologies, I should have left the lantern on, but I didn't want to waste the oil."

Heart still hammering, Rannoch cleared his throat and attempted to regain some composure. "Before you surprise me next time, give me a warning."


Turning his back with a chuckle, Rannoch began to strip for bed. Those earlier suspicions seemed so foolish now. Arraevn was a mild-mannered man and nothing more. Plus Tis liked him, which was a small bonus in his favour. It was only coincidence and the bard had experienced far stranger coincidences then that.

"Bard Rannoch…I have a favour to ask."

"Shoot." The bard collapsed on the bed to pull his boots off, not caring for the smell coming from them. Winter really was too long.

"I can't stay here. You said you were leaving and I was wondering if I could…follow. For a short time only."

Rannoch paused, watching the shadowed face with only a beaked nose, cheeks and forehead visible.

Arraevn continued, in a way that suggested ever so quietly that he was close to breaking. "I would not ask, but I am very…lost. I do not know what to do."

Considering his words, Rannoch rolled them around before saying, "That's fine. We leave day after tomorrow. I'm sure they'll be glad for an extra sword, though I guess you actually need one of those… Ah! We'll deal with that tomorrow. Sleep now!" He threw the covers up over himself and dimmed the lantern. There was still so much he needed to understand and now he had the perfect opportunity to do it.

"Thank you."