Hawke and the Girl
When Shadows Fall
Location: Duskhallow Village, Harkania March, Cymeria
Timeline: Early October 3550
Who was Lorcan up Gwenchellian?
Beyond what she already knew, Renestrae was finding no answers of promise in Dinas Ulchedir. She had taken care to follow such a line of questioning after she had performed and earned some coin, lest it turn out it was not a question she should have been asking. She had been told thrice to ask in Duskhallow instead. She had also been wise not to sing the songs that spoke any ill of the region’s beloved High Lord, nor his kith and kin; she could feel her beliefs crumbling, although they were not wholly disintegrated.
Arriving in the city had been...overwhelming, to say the least. Even at the Gathering, never had she seen so many people. The competition for performers was ferocious, and she’d had barely enough coin to even earn her a place in the stables, more or less sleeping above her beloved Kairavi. More than once, Renestrae had been propositioned in exchange for coin, to which she haughtily tipped up her chin and declined with all the fieriness she could afford. Her people were unshy about such things, although such trysts were by mutual agreement, and she would not peddle her very being in exchange for coin.
More than once, alarmingly, she had been offered coin in exchange for her belongings, for bow and blades and cittern. No, syr. These are not for sale, nor ever will be, whether gods or otherwise. She’d wandered into some alley whereupon a man had tried to accost her, and had not entirely expected the vicious kicks to shin from one so small of stature. She’d fled thereafter, not caring to know whether he had given chase, nor not wanting him to leave him with even the thought of doing so. My gods, she’d thought. She decided that she did not care overly much for cities. While it was certainly grand and as noisy as the stories told, and indeed, as she had told, there was much the tales had neglected to speak of.
It was not wholly terrible, however. The city’s richness was in its people. The streets were surprisingly clean. There was a variety of fashions and music and art. Listening to other bards had been an education in of itself. For the most part, the people had been friendly. It was, all the same, a relief when she left it behind her, pointed toward Duskhallow. The days had brought many a surprise, but she had reminded herself of why she had journeyed there. The braided wristband, made by Brán’s hand, further strengthened her resolve. Somewhere in the world, her friend was making his own way in the world, on his own quest. She would find him, yes, and tell him the tale of how she had sought her answers, no doubt as he would tell her his.
And so, wearing the mantle of bard, she had arrived in Duskhallow, and found it to be much more to her liking than Dinas Ulchedir. She was terribly saddlesore; even the long hours of labour in the mountains had not prepared her for that! She was starting to adjust, but the aches were there all the same. The first thing she did was seek out a tavern where her cittern might earn her room and board. And, yes indeed, she could stay: there was an attic room above the stables, plain, but clean enough, and no fleas. If she played to satisfaction, it was hers for as long as she could play each night. She even was allowed a bath to herself at no extra cost.
She sang of old legends and the landscape, popular ballads and ditties, to applause and approval. While they were hardly the most adventurous of her repertoire, they were the safest. It would not do to be driven out of Duskhallow on her first day. On the second day, she began to make quiet, gentle inquiries, as subtly as she could manage.
Or so she thought.
Second Marshal Brychan Emrys, Commander of the Stormholm Caer’s Garrison, restlessly paced the small clearing. It lay a few yards off the road that led north and south and a couple of leagues north of the village of Duskhallow. His horse, its tack muffled to silence by strips of cloth, grazed a few feet away. Emrys was waiting for a man who, despite his claims otherwise, was likely one of the three or four most powerful in the land of Cymeria. He had heard disturbing news while visiting his favorite Duskhallow tavern and immediately sent for the Ryndar.
Hawke swayed with his mount as it negotiated the narrow trail, his free arm having to come up occasionally and brush aside branches. The message had been thin on information but the urgency was unmistakeable. Hawke glimpsed a horse ahead in the clearing as the trees ended and he saw the commander of Stormholm Caer’s Garrison pacing around his mount. Hawke stopped and then slid down from the saddle...his father had always told him never speak to a man from the saddle unless you did not like him or there was a battle going on. Hawke tugged off his short gloves and flipped the hood of his campaign cloak from his head. “Brychan...how have you been?” Hawke extended his arm for the customary warrior’s clasp.
Brychan returned the clasp managing to shrug at the same time, “You know, trying to decide which dangers are real and which are not. Thank you for coming so promptly, my friend.” He gave a brief smile and gestured in the direction of Duskhallow. “There have been inquiries regarding the whereabouts of Lorcan up Gwenchellian. All things considered and with the attempts on the Heir’s life last month, I thought it needed investigating.”
Hawke’s head tipped back a bit at the name. “Unusual for someone to be asking after Lorcan, to be sure. I figured if it had you concerned it deserved my attention. Do you know anything about this person so far?”
Shaking his head, the other man shrugged, “Not really. Female and youngish although I readily admit I am not that good at reading a lady’s true age. I know she plays at the tavern next to the Fort’s Path Inn.”
Duskhallow was considered by most to be a small village, but due to its location it boasted several inns and taverns of varying sizes and reputations. Likewise it offered more than one blacksmith, a couple of hostelries and at least two of the better inns offered excellent stabling. The inn that Brychan was referring to was right on the main road leading from the fort to the mountains. Duskhallow itself did a brisk trade due to the usual traffic as it was the last stop before Stormholm unless one veered off toward Snowvale, the small settlement that guarded the entrance to Sanctuary.
Notes were coaxed from the cittern, a melancholy, soulful sound. Renestrae was at the crowd’s centre, inky tresses had been drawn into a thick plait, draped over the front of her shoulder. Her fierce blue eyes were downcast as her voice floated melodically over the plucked strings, so immersed was she, the music wrapped about her like a mantle.
Long, long ago, long, long ago,
Ah, yes, you told me you’d never forget,
Long, long ago, long ago,
Then to all others, my smile you preferred,
Love, when you spoke, gave a charm to each word;
Still my heart treasures the phrases I heard,
Long, long ago, long ago…”
Despite her people having been so removed from other settlements, songs and ballads had crossed universal lines; y Carthu or not, there was no denying a heart-wrenching tale. Where she hadn’t known the song locally, she would offer something else in its stead. Long, Long Ago had been a song the Mar’kathi had reforged to possess a minor key and slower tempo, thus lending it a whole new depth of sorrow of its own.
Hawke looked the inn over as the two men rode closer. He could hear music wafting from inside the building as they approached the stable set slightly back from the front of the inn. Hawke dismounted and looped his reins around a post as Brychan did the same and then the two men walked toward the building, Hawke left his cloak hood down because he was not wearing his normal finery as Ryndar and most people would not be expecting to see him in such a normal setting. They pushed through the door and then maneuvered around the fringe of the impressive crowd to stand at the bar. Hawke looked toward the small stage. “Is that her?” he asked quietly from behind Brychan.
Brychan ordered a couple of jars of the inn’s local dark nut flavored ale. He gave an almost imperceptible nod of his head at Hawke’s question as he handed him the drink, “Aye,” he said, equally quietly. Even from there, he could see that the young woman had quite a presence about her. She also had the crowd lost in the haunting lyrics of the song.
Hawke took a drink and leaned against the bar and listened. After several seconds he nodded. “Well, she’s a fine musician regardless of what else she may be…” Hawke let his eyes drift around the room slowly, “...do you know of somewhere private we can talk to her once she is finished playing?”
“Aye, there is a room out back that Old John lets his clientele use for a wee bit of privacy, if you know of what I’m speaking,” Brychan gave a slight wink and grin. No doubt he had made use of the room in the past. “But, it might be a problem to get the wee lass tae go wi’ the two of us, no?”
Hawke glanced at the marshal and then half smiled. “My friend, you need to get married.” Hawke took another sip from his drink as he watched the singer. “Here’s what we’ll do...I will go and speak to her and bring her back to that room. You go ahead and go back and be waiting. Hopefully once we have her alone we can get some answers to our questions even if we can’t answer hers…”
“Aye, I ken yer plan,” Brychan answered although there was more than a tinge of doubt in his voice. However, if Hawke let it be known he might have some information for the girl, it just might work. He finished his drink and began sidling through the crowd making sure to not be much noted. He would have to make certain the room was clear and oust anyone that might have plans for a quick to-do.
“Still to your accents I listen with pride,
Blessed as I was when I sat by your side
Long, long ago, long ago.”
The song was wound down to its gentle, aching conclusion with several bars on the cittern. A few moments of silence occupied the space the music had left, before the audience offered their approval in applause and cheers. She shared her thank-yous, and politely thanked any offers of food and drink and conversation, gathering up the coin graciously as she did. She neither agreed nor refused the offers-- she would speak to them as she gauged who might have a tidbit of information and who might not, or those whom might be offended by her queries. She was stumbling in the dark, truly. The people did love their High Lord, and so did revere the ones who also protected him. Even though she veiled her reason for her questions, folk did not seem too pleased for her asking.
She went about putting her cittern away, as it was the last request for the eve. Her thoughts turned to a meal, a drink, and perhaps a few carefully placed questions. She was close, she was sure of it.
Hawke slowly moved through the crowd, working his way up to the area beside the small stage until he was standing beside the young woman. “I must say that was an amazing song. Where did you learn it?”
Her blue-bright gaze darted toward the man. She tensed, although it was not entirely visible-- the slightest bunching of muscles, movement gently held. It was not unexpected, but she found herself subtly seeing whether he was wearing a ring of union -- not that such a thing stopped men, or indeed women, before. Ah, yes. There it was. Either he was a scoundrel, or curious. He was a man of handsome countenance, but she had never been one to act on appearances alone, and she would not be one to violate another’s union. With the cittern slung over one shoulder, she stood, adopting a polite stance, clasping her hands over her abdomen. She was keenly aware of the knife she carried close to her person, of its weight.
“Why, syr, along the way,” she replied, offering a smile. “Do you not know of it, syr? I understand that is a well-liked song.”
As with others, she was guarded, but pleasant. It wouldn’t do to alienate herself if she were to move through the establishment’s clientele, asking strange questions. Every individual might have an answer for her, or they might simply be seeking her coin, or something far more intimate and personal. She had tactfully managed to avoid any unpleasant encounters, but she hadn’t been there altogether long. She searched the man’s face for some twinge, some indication of his purpose.
Hawke’s eyes narrowed in the close dimness of the inn. This woman was definitely not like most bards. She seemed to possess a wariness missing in most who made their coin by entertaining others. “I do believe I have heard it before, but it has been many years.” Hawke offered his own smile in return to reassure the lady. “I assume you are a stranger to the city, else I suspect you would have been paid to play here far more often. Old Grayson the Innkeeper is not one to neglect an opportunity to draw in patrons. What brings you to Duskhallow?”
Her head canted to the side momentarily as she seemed to consider the question. She never offered up an answer easily; not everyone was trustworthy.
“Many things, syr,” she answered languidly. “A little adventure, perhaps. Seeking new songs. Answers to old questions, buried in stories.” She reached up to adjust the strap to her cittern case. “I shall be playing again on the morrow if you liked it well enough.”
Hawke muttered inwardly to himself. This one was definitely not your average travelling bard. He decided to try another tack. “Well, please at least let me treat you to a meal for your performance. I was already going to have the innkeeper serve myself and my companion supper. The least I could do is invite you to join us and regale us with some tales of your travels prior to arriving in our quaint little town.”
He was really asking after her company. All the more reason to refuse him. As innocent as the request might have otherwise been, she didn’t want to be dining with a married man, either. She didn’t need that sort of talk besmirching her reputation even before it had a chance to bloom. What sort of companion would she be dining with, anyhow?
“Your companion, syr?” She prompted, since there was no supposed companion to be seen. There was still the lightness in her lilting cadence, although her eyes suggested her distrust and skepticism.
Hawke saw the wariness in her eyes. This one was sharp...not your typical bard-on-the-road. “Of course...my comrade and I are attending to some business in town. It would be refreshing to hear about matters outside of this city. I assure you I have no untoward intentions…”
The smouldering flame that had borne her through so much ignited, if only by a spark. The man was dancing on his very toes, and offering her little in the way of assurances. There was a flash in her eyes, while her expression remained carefully polite.
“Begging your pardon, good syr, but this day has been long. Your offer is generous, but I must respectfully decline,” she said firmly.
Hawke exhaled at the refusal, seeing the set of the half shadowed face as he leaned closer. “I must insist, young lady…” Hawke cut his eyes each way before he continued. “I am Hawke Windwalker and I will speak with you.”
She froze, staring fixedly at his features, as if they would offer concrete proof to his claim. Could anyone, truly, claim such? Any man could, surely, and insist that they were there incognito. Her memory stirred, nagging at her, as images from the fateful Gathering day came to her. Perhaps...she had seen him at a distance, but much had happened.
“Have you proof, syr?” She asked, which was perhaps bold of her, but she was not going to budge without being certain.
Hawke drew himself up and only barely raised his voice, but the steel of command he had learned over the years of leading men in battle infused the words. “My proof is that to claim to be me and not be is worth a man’s life...I require your presence in the other room...now.”
A line creased her brow as she regarded him, now openly offended. She tipped her chin upward, a subtle gesture of defiance.
“Is it that all noblemen act with such little respect for the people? Do you bully and cow others if they are the slightest bit contrary?” She said sternly. The frown melted away, leaving wariness. “All the same, syr, if you are indeed Hawke Windwalker, I shall accompany you, lacking manners though you are.”
And...well, if this Hawke Windwalker was a crooked man -- and he was impatient, to be sure -- she would not hesitate to defend herself. Unless this was a tavern he frequented, to accost vulnerable women, then she could not possibly hope for help. Although she had learned to question the teachings of her people, she could not help but find truth in their discourse. They spoke of noblemen as greedy and oppressive of the people, and this fellow had done little to dispel that myth by his terrible courtesy.
Hawke nodded and stepped aside, lifting one arm to gesture in the direction of the room past the tavern bar. “You are inquiring about things that have earned the attention of many...if you deserve the answers you seek then you will endure our own questions.” The Ryndar fell into the bard’s wake, following her towards the room.
Brychan Emrys shifted restlessly. He had been waiting for Hawke to lure the bard to them so they could find out why she wanted to know about the former High Lord’s brother. As he recalled, none of the family had been bothered by the fact that Lorcan was illegitimate. Lorcan himself had requested his blood ties to House Stormdanovich be kept confidential. It aided him in his work as one of Kimber’s High Guard.
Dark eyes scanned the room. It was brightly lit by a large overhead moon globe and smaller ones rested in sconces on the walls. Doubtless, for normal use, it was kept dimly lit, but Brychan had wanted a clear view when the Ryndar arrived with the girl. She would, no doubt, be suspicious of two men luring her to a back room, but there was no help for that. House business needed conducted in privacy; at least until they knew what she knew and why she was wanting to know more.
Beyond the lighting, the room was surprisingly clean - considering its usual purpose - although it was sparsely furnished. There was a table in the center, large enough to seat several persons. This, in Brychan’s opinion, explained the overall cleanliness. Doubtless, the room was also used for private meetings of various kinds. With that in mind, Brychan’s eyes narrowed. Who would have need of a room for private, perhaps clandestine, meetings? y Carthu perhaps? It would be wise to suggest that Hawke send someone to snoop around and find out the tavern owner’s leanings. Duskhallow was too close to Stormholm. Other than the table and chairs, there was a wide bed situated on the far wall. Brychan felt that the presence of the bed spoke to the room’s normal purpose although it too could have other meanings...possibly to shelter those that did not want to check into a public inn? Clearly, the room in the back of the tavern stirred up more questions. It might be that the girl’s inquiries regarding Lorcan would benefit them all.
Brychan’s ruminations were interrupted by a sound at the door...
As the door was pushed open, Renestrae squared her shoulders and tensed for some sort of assault. When none was forthcoming, she took the brown haired man into her regard. He seemed respectful looking enough, lacking the accoutrements of uncivil intent that she had half expected. She moved aside, her expression questioning, although her hands never strayed from what little weaponry she carried about her person. She was loathe to put her musical case to violent use, but it was better to be alive than to be dead and have an intact cittern.
The 2nd Marshal had pushed himself to alertness as the door opened. He prepared to offer a slightly less than full formal bow to the young woman when his eyes fastened on hers, “By Annwfn!” He exclaimed, unconsciously stepping back from her.
Just as he stepped away from her, alarmed, she maneuvered herself away from him. What had startled him so? Was this Lorcan, perhaps? He did not look like the man her mother had described, but time could age a soul. Just by her appearance she had launched him into shock. Was it her resemblance to her mother? It would make sense if this was her father. Her gaze snapped over to Hawke, and her fingers were involuntarily grasping at her dagger, lest both men turned on her.
They might have detected the stirring of the breeze within the chamber. It spiraled in a deliberate way, although it was under no conscious control. The elements had been awakened by her fear, and now responded to her emotions. It drank in her need to defend herself, and motes of air arranged themselves accordingly, although they had not gathered so strongly that it was an effective defence. If unchecked, it could perhaps push apart the walls, but her ability had never been realized. The training simply had not been there, and afraid, confused, and unsure, she sought unthinkingly to bring them to bear against them.
Hawke’s head snapped up at Brychan’s exclamation and he turned to the bard at the same time she looked at him. Her face was fully lit by the overhead globes compared to the tavern and Hawke’s eyes sprang wide as he saw her eyes. His peripheral vision caught her motion as her hand darted for her dagger. Hawke’s gloved right hand swept in and blocked her wrist, knocking it up and aside as his left hand drew back then shot forward in a strong cross. The force of sword trained muscles driving the glove padded fist into the side of the young woman’s jaw. Her head snapped aside as the shock of the punch momentarily cut the blood flow to her brain and she toppled backward like a puppet with its strings cut. Brychan caught her by reflex and looked over the slumped form at Hawke. Hawke reached back without taking his eyes off the bard and closed the door to the room with a sharp thump.
Fool thing that she was, she should have been ready. She should have acted first, but she had not. She saw Hawke’s eyes widening at the corners, as though he were truly seeing her as she was, and that should have been warning enough. She had little time to speculate on whether it was her resemblance to Lorcan, perhaps, although there was little in the grey-haired man’s face that she had seen in her own. No, there was the too-loud clatter of the dagger as it was struck from her, her cittern slipping from her shoulders, her foot driving its heel against the soft leather. The splintering was louder still than the rattle of the dagger against stone, the audible sound of her heart breaking.
She barely saw his blurred fist as it came toward her. She thought of Brán, whom she had spoken with in what seemed an eternity ago, sharing her hopes and her fears. Her last thoughts were of despair and anger at her helplessness, that she had so easily fallen into the trap.
Then all she knew was darkness.
*Song credit goes to Long, Long Ago by Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797-1839).