19 Déjà vu
Rearden and Avery sat atop the wall, sharing a bundle of oatcakes and ale they had brought along for their watch.
"I've got it, I've got it," Avery exclaimed around a hunk of fowl he'd dug out of the bundle. "His mum was a sow and 'is da an auld frog, he was born at the bottom of a stinkin' auld bog-"
Rearden laughed. "That's good," he chortled. "How's this?" Rearden knocked back a big swig of his ale. "When he swam up and looked his mum in the face, she cried, 'what in Gawd's name is this warty disgrace?'"
The men guffawed like tickled children, kicking their legs out from the edge of the wall and leaning back as they laughed heartily.
Avery was the first to recover, sitting back up and taking a draught of his drink as he calmed his laughter. As he rested the tankard on his thigh, he cast his eyes over the dark moors before him. Though it was indeed well past midnight, there was a faint glow from the full moon, bathing the sleeping heather and distant crags before him. The wind toyed with his black locks, and a gentle smile of content crossed his face. "Ye ken, Rear, I think that once all this mess is over and done with, we all might be a happy lot."
Rearden's lips cocked into a lop-sided smile. "Aye, I'll agree with that. Once the laird and lady's worries are past, life will be quiet and easy, methinks."
Avery nodded to that. "Can ye imagine how much fun it'll be watchin' the laird learn ta be a da?"
Rearden chuckled. "Aye, 'twill be worthy of songs!"
Avery snickered and slapped his leg. "Aye, I dinna ken if the bairn or the laird will be more entertaining!"
A bit of silence fell between the two as Rearden began murmuring a ditty to himself and the two scanned the moors. Avery's mind was drawn to Eres. Ah, but she was a fine woman. Wolfe was a smart man to do everything in his power to keep her happy and protected. He wondered, briefly, if he would ever find a good woman such as her, before his eyes were drawn to some movement down on the moor. It was barely noticeable, but he had seen something there earlier and had dismissed it as a boar or perhaps a deer crossing the moor under the cover of darkness.
Now there seemed to be something more there, something like the scurrying of insects. Could it be the wind blowing the heather? He thought not; it didn't quite have the movement of wind-blown foliage.
Avery squinted his eyes as he thought he started to make out something resembling a tree in the shadow of a rocky outcropping on the moor, which seemed to be the center of the activity.
Avery stood and walked a piece along the wall to get a better angle. "Rear…"
Avery had hardly spoken when a flicker of light appeared in the shadow.
Rearden stood as his attention, too, was drawn to the light. "What is-"
Avery turned to race back towards Rearden as the flicker of light seemed to burst into a ball of flames, which was subsequently hurled through the air in a smoky arch. "Get down!"
Moments later, the ball of flames collided with the wall as Avery threw himself to the ground with a grunt. The grinding, crunching thunder that accompanied the projectile deafened and confused him momentarily. When things shifted back into something recognizable, Rearden was kneeling beside him, helping him to his feet.
"Avery, are ye alright?"
Avery shook the strange shifting from his eyes. "Aye… where…?"
Rearden cast a glance behind Avery to the large, blazing stone behind him. It was wrapped in hide and peat, but the massive boulder underneath it was probably large enough that he could barely encircle it with his arms. "You are a lucky bastard, ya ken that?"
Avery glanced back at the stone as Rearden hefted him to his feet. He was a bit bruised, but otherwise fine. "Damnation! A bloody catapult?"
Rearden stared out towards the moor. The shadowed area from whence the stone had been hurled was dancing with torchlight now, though it wasn't clear when a second projectile would be thrown.
"I'm runnin' down to the keep. I'll warn everyone there, you send the word along the wall."
"Aye," Rearden agreed. "And the village?"
"Send one of the lads down to warn our people!"
The two parted ways at a run, Rearden calling out the warning along the wall and Avery taking the steps down into the bailey two at a time.
Apparently, the noise traveled faster than he did, as he had barely pushed the keep doors open before Colin approached him, strapping on his sword belt.
"What in hell was that?" Col demanded.
"A catapult of some sort," Avery wheezed. It hadn't been long ago that he'd been beaten across the head several times. Perhaps being a bard would be easier on his health. "Looked like a trebuchet. Damn thing hurled a flaming stone at us the size of a mon."
Colin's jaw tightened as a crash heralded a second stone's collision, this time with the keep.
"How in the hell did he-"
Colin shook his head. "Never mind that now. We can worry ourselves over the how of it when our people are out of harm's way."
Avery nodded and followed Colin out of the keep. "Rearden is alerting the full guard and is sending someone into the village."
Colin cast his gaze over the inner bailey, his eyes finding more chaos than he would have liked. Serfs ran about like frightened chickens, men were being blasted by blazing boulders, and the bull was running loose. The smith's and part of the stables beside the keep were ablaze, and several of the lads were desperately trying to rescue the screaming horses within.
"Avery, go round up Jankin, Rearden, and Carney. We are going to need them."
"What are you thinking?" Avery inquired.
Colin started jogging toward the stables. "Do as I say for now. Get them ready, and quietly," he called over his shoulder. "Meet me by the south wall when ye finish!"
Colin picked up his pace and dashed to the stables, slowing to take in the situation. The air was ringing with the horses' whinnies, and Col's eyes and nose were singed by the billowing of smoke.
Lifting his kilt over his head and wrapping it over his nose and mouth, he fell in with the several lads trying to pull the horses out.
Col glanced toward the small speaker as she thrust a rag into his hand.
Rhiannon didn't give him time to say anything as she dashed into the barn, head low. "Cover their eyes with it!"
Col followed, dumbfounded, and did as he was told.
Rhiannon specifically went for both of Eres' horses, covering Tarrant's eyes before approaching the wildly bucking Artaith. Artaith took a moment of soothing, and as Rhiannon did this, Col roped Tarrant and led him from the burning stable.
Col immediately ducked back in to retrieve Rhiannon, but the smoke had thickened and he could barely see his hand in front of him. "Rhiannon!" Colin's call was choked off by the smoke, and his eyes were beginning to tear as he shuffled forward.
He could barely make out her form as he came where Rhiannon stood in front of Artaith's open stall. She was tugging gently on the horse by the blindfold which was wrapped securely around the mount's face.
"Rhian, look out!" He heard the cracking of the roof and saw sparks rain down on her and moved without a moment's thought, shoving her out of the way as the roofing above the stall collapsed.
Artaith reared and whinnied fearfully, leaping clear of the burning fragments of the roof to run bucking from the stable. Colin helped Rhiannon to her feet, leading the disoriented women from the stables as the roof crackled and whistled plaintively before collapsing in on itself at their heels.
Once to safety, Colin looked Eres' younger sister over for injuries before taking the young woman firmly by the shoulders. "If you ever put yourself in needless danger like that e'er again, I'll personally put ye over my knee and beat the hell out of ye!" He growled.
Rhiannon blinked, wiping soot from her face. "We made it out. It's fine."
"Barely!" Colin fumed. "Now, go get your sister, and bring her to the gate in the south wall." Colin lifted a key from around his neck. "Keep to the shadows, and I'll meet you outside the wall on the southern path."
Rhiannon gaped as he thrust the key into her hand. "What? In the midst of this, you want to move the heavily pregnant lady of the keep?" She asked incredulously.
Colin sighed heavily. "Better to attempt a move then to stay here and be burned to a crisp or worse."
"I have a plan, lass. Don't fear. I'll send a larger group north to attract attention, and our group will head south."
Rhiannon shook her head. "Is that all?"
"Do you have a better idea?"
Rhiannon blew the sooty strands of her copper hair out of her eyes. "I guess not. Don't be late."
"You don't be late," Colin shot back as Rhiannon raced back toward the keep.
He turned back to the men with the rescued horses and began to pick which ones he would need.
Hopefully, they hadn't used up all their miracles this night.
Eres stretched across the empty bed, running her hands up and down her distended stomach. It had been a week Wolfe had been gone. At first, she had been outrageously worried; Rafe wanted Wolfe dead, after all. His logic, though, also made sense- more men meant more safety. Of course, she wasn't happy about the timing, either. Why hadn't he done this months ago?
Well, the explanation for that had been simple enough. At first, he hadn't thought about it. There had been too many other things on his mind. After that, the idea of asking Sullivan for help had simply disgusted him to the point of not being an option.
Of course, now that they were down to the wire, he felt like he needed backup. She trusted his judgment. She did not trust Farquharson. The moment Wolfe stepped foot outside the walls, Eres' senses were on edge. She saw banshees lurking everywhere, whether they were there or not.
He had said a sennight was all he would need, hopefully less. This was the seventh day, and no horses had been seen on the horizon.
If that wasn't bad enough, she had been feeling strangely the last few days. She felt heavy and slow, shorter of breath, and her belly occasionally throbbed. At first it had frightened her, but her sister had been there to comfort and reassure her.
"It's probably nothing if there's no pain," Rhian had assured her. "It's just your body preparing for the birthing."
Eres' eyes had widened nervously, and Rhiannon laughed. "Dinna fret, sister. You're still at least two fortnights from the big day."
Eres' relief had been minimal. She didn't have much human-pregnancy experience; she had generally stayed away from women with child in the keep as a girl. She would have night-terrors of the woman and her child being brutally murdered if she did not. It became habit.
It didn't help that the terrors stalked her now, only instead of it being a stranger, it was herself and her child. Her baby would be in a puddle of blood on the bed, and she would be lying on the floor beside the bed, clutching her bloodied abdomen….
She shivered and pushed all her thoughts away. She would have to distract herself so she wouldn't dream of the terrible images. Her child kicked her energetically, and Eres moaned.
She had a feeling she wouldn't be getting much sleep this night. It was just her luck. If it wasn't one thing, it was another. She sighed heavily. She couldn't wait until this whole ordeal was well behind her, and they could be safe and happy.
She chuckled to herself. Well, as safe as the Scottish Highlands could be, anyway.
Eres was pulled from her thoughts by a sudden tremor and a muffled whump that seemed to reverberate through the walls. She struggled into a sitting position, grunting with the effort. Sitting still, she listened for a moment.
After several minutes, another whump met her ears, this one louder and closer. She could feel the bed rumble beneath her, and frowning, she scrambled out of bed. She struggled to don a loose-fitting gown, slipping her feet into a new pair of winter boots Wolfe had commissioned for her.
More aware of her surroundings now, Eres furrowed her brow as the rumbling continued, making the walls reverberate under her touch as she shuffled to the fireplace. The dim light from the embers was just enough to find the poker, which she used to stir up the flames and cast more light across her chamber.
She could faintly hear shouting now, which did not instill any confidence. Although her normal reaction would be to hurry down to the main hall and see what was going on, Eres decided it was in her child's best interest for her to stay put. She was slow as an old woman at the moment, and she didn't fancy the idea of getting trampled if the hall was in disarray… or under attack. With all the noise, it wouldn't have surprised her.
She could not, however, simply sit there twiddling her thumbs. Using the trembling walls to steady herself, Eres trundled back to the bed and to the chest at the foot. She sucked her teeth as an unexpected pain shot through her belly, but dismissed it and carefully bent at the knee to access her things.
She removed a sack, which she had packed some time ago in case she needed to flee quickly. It contained only the bare necessities; a few healing herbs, a small dagger, and a few other personal items. She had done it at Rhiannon's suggestion, and she was glad she had. Packing anything would've been murder in her current state. She removed a plaid and drew it around herself, breathing a little heavier due to the heaviness on her lungs.
Tossing the sack on the bed, Eres carefully drew back up, taking a moment to sit down. It would be pointless to wear herself out if something was indeed transpiring.
Shortly thereafter there was a frantic knock on the door. "Eres? It's Rhiannon, are you awake?"
"I'm here," Eres responded, struggling up and over to the door. She slid the two newly-installed iron bars out of place before placing the key in the lock and turning it. It was barely open before she was pulling the door open to allow her younger sister access.
Rhiannon hastily closed the door behind her, looking Eres over frenetically. "Are you all right, sister?"
Eres nodded. "I'm fine." She was more worried about her soot covered sibling, who smelled strongly of smoke. "What's going on?"
Rhiannon seemed a bit out of breath as she began to explain. "T-there's a catapult out there!"
Eres frowned. "A catap- you jest!"
Rhiannon shook her head as she tried to catch her breath. "Nay. It just sort of… appeared!"
"That's… nearly impossible. The highlands are terribly hard to traverse with such heavy equipment," Eres murmured. She didn't want to believe it, but it completely explained the tremors and noises.
"They must have assembled it by the light of the moon!"
Eres shook her head. Someone was tenacious, to say the least. Eres' eyes ran over the walls around her… wood. All wood. The lower levels of the keep were stone, but the original occupants of Kaedmoor had either been lazy or run out of money for the stone and craftsmen needed. This had resulted in the upper level of the keep being crafted from timber, aside from the floor and fireplaces.
That also left the upper levels vulnerable. Eres worried her lip.
Rhiannon gripped Eres' shoulders firmly. "Eres, the main hall is in chaos and there's nearly a hole in the outer wall. There's no telling when the keep might light. Colin told me to come get you."
Eres cradled her belly in one arm and winced as another pain ravaged her. Her breath caught, but she fought to hide the pain.
Rhiannon was not easily fooled. "Eres? Sister, you have to stay calm, you and the bairn will be protected."
Eres furrowed her brow and forced a weak smile. "I'm fine. Just fine." She tried to divert Rhiannon's attention. "Where does Col plan to go?"
Rhiannon left her sister to lean against the wall for a moment and retrieved the satchel from the bed. "Well, he is going to send a sizeable group to the north for Laird Bram's keep. You and I, and a few others, will slip away to the southeast."
"In the hopes of meeting up with Wolfe," Eres murmured as she caught on. "He hopes to draw Rafe's attention to the larger group, aye?"
Rhiannon nodded as she gently took her sister's arm. She frowned. "Damnation, you're in absolutely no condition to ride, though."
Eres shook her head. "I have no choice," she insisted, standing away from her sister. "I can do it."
Rhiannon's mouth became a hard line. "It's a risk I'd rather not take," she asserted firmly. "We need to think of something else."
Eres and Rhiannon stumbled as a deafening crack met their ears and the entire room seemed to tremble.
Eres looked between Rhiannon and the door quickly. "I don't think this is the best location to be considering other paths."
The two woman hastened from the room as quickly as Eres could go, heading down through the corridor at the back of the upper hall. It was usually used strictly by the serfs, but every available hand was currently out in the bailey and town putting out fires and securing the keep. The corridor and back stairway were deserted. Rhiannon led Eres to the door at the bottom of the stairs and through the kitchens. Eres did her best to ignore the pressure on her innards and hastened as much as her body allowed. It was slow going, regardless, even with Rhian supported her with one arm and carrying her necessities with the other.
They made it to the door at the back of the kitchens in time to see a ball of fire come crashing down in the bailey. Sparks flew in every direction, scalding unfortunates who had been nearby and sending frightened horses rearing and galloping about frantically. Rhiannon led Eres as quickly as she could towards the wall, rifling through the small pouch about her waist until she produced a key. Finding the iron gate, they took shelter in the archway around it as Rhiannon fumbled in the darkness.
Eres jumped as another thunderous crash sounded from nearby, uttering a squeak of surprise as the bailey lit up. A horse screamed as it passed, its body aflame. Eres gasped, feeling the need to do something for the people and beasts alike that scurried through the darkness in fear.
"I've got it," Rhiannon whispered, somewhat thankful for the light from the last blazing projectile. She swung the tall gate open, making way for Eres to make it through.
Eres sucked her teeth as a wave rippled through her from her womb. Her hands trembled as she clutched at the stone wall, halfway through the arch.
"Eres!" Rhiannon closed the gate and came to her sister's side. "The bairn?"
Eres squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and attempted to force the pain back. Not now, wee one, she begged silently. Please, not now!
"Eres, we have to move. Can ye do that?"
Eres swallowed the knot in her throat and nodded. The sharp ache had receded to a dull throb, and she could move again, though she felt somewhat weak and clammy.
Rhiannon took her sister's arm supportively as she took the lead into the copse of nearby trees. She knew not how Eres was going to be transported, but she hoped desperately that Colin had a plan.
It seemed like it took hours for them to make it to the road that led through the trees to the south, even though it was only a few hundred feet. Eres was slow and unsure of her steps, and it seemed to Rhiannon that she had to stop more and more often to fend off a pain. Rhian knew what it was all a sign of, but she didn't want to face it now. There couldn't have been a worse time.
When they finally got close, Avery and Colin were there, along with Rearden and Jankin. Four horses waited nervously.
"Are you lasses alright?" Colin inquired as he came to support Eres, who had sweat lightly beading her pale forehead. "She looks spent," he commented to Rhiannon.
Rhiannon motioned for Avery to come support Eres while she pulled Colin to the side. "I think she's close," she murmured in his ear.
Colin's brow furrowed. "I thought-"
"It's all that's going on. I think the shock of it all is sending her to birthing."
Colin looked back at Eres with tight lips.
"Do we have any other options?" Rhian asked pleadingly. "I don't want to think of what could go wrong here."
Colin shook his head. "I thought about bringing some kind of wagon, but that would make us too conspicuous."
Rhiannon closed her eyes and sighed. "Then what do you propose?"
Colin looked to the heavens for some kind of inspiration. There wasn't much there. "I… I will have to carry her on horseback. And we will have to go very slowly."
Rhiannon sighed. "Is that-"
"Aye," Colin snapped before she could finish. "That's the best I've got. Unless you have some ingenious plan, I suggest we start moving."
Rhiannon clenched her teeth and simply nodded.
Eres had been watching the exchange from where she sat on an old stump. Avery had been trying to keep her mind off of the pain, but it had passed for now, and her sister and Colin were leaving her out of what she assumed was a very important conversation. The next moment, Col had mounted and brought his steed to stand beside Avery.
"Hand her up to me, Ave," Colin said quietly.
Eres looked between Avery and Colin, unsure. "What are we doing?"
Colin smiled reassuringly at Eres, though Eres knew better. "I ken you've been havin' a wee bit of discomfort, milady, so we are goin' to try to make this as easy as we can."
Eres looked at Rhiannon for reassurance, but Rhiannon had the same fake, strained smile on her face, and it all made Eres all the more nervous. Everything was starting to hit her, and she was wholly terrified. The fire, their night-time escape, it was all too familiar. Was this how Rhiannon and Sloan had felt the night they had fled their childhood home?
Avery carefully scooped Eres up and handed her off to Colin, barely jostling her at all. Once she was situated in his arms, Col smiled at her and clicked his tongue so that his mount began a slow, meandering walk.
Eres bit her bottom lip, finding the swaying of the horse to be slightly uncomfortable, but bearable, for the time being. She didn't know how long that would last.
To the right and directly in Eres' line of sight, Rearden rode with Rhiannon. It was something of a comfort, and Eres was grateful for it, since there was so little comfort to be had. Her home was once again in flames, her loved ones were again in danger, and now, she had more to lose than ever.
"Just like old times, eh, Rhian?" Eres murmured bitterly.
Rhian tried to smile reassuringly at Eres, who looked near to tears. "Nay, Sister. Everything will be fine. You'll see."
Eres closed her eyes, fighting the tears that were springing up. An image of her husband came to mind, his arms outstretched toward her and a warm smile upon his handsome face. It was the only thing capable of comforting her, and she prayed that he would soon be encircling her in his arms.
Nothing would be okay until that moment.
Chapter Notes: Okay, so thank the Muses that I've finally worked through my writer's block for this story! It took a long time, and a lot of brainstorming, but I know where it's going. The skeleton is there, I've just got to flesh it out some. Also, thank the Heights for Holiday break... college is out, and I have until mid-February to write! Now, if only I can stay away from Skyrim Legendary Edition long enough to finish Highland Wolf... Wish me luck, and I hope you've enjoyed this energetic- albeit short- chapter!