Ululations

Title: Ululations
Time Period: January 5, 135 A.E.
Characters Appearing:

Summary: Clan Ross and Clan Rowntree work together to take back one of their own.

Kidnapping and ransom are cowardly, underhanded deeds that mix thievery and predation. It offends all senses of civilization to use the best feelings of human attachment as a weapon against those who have the humanity to love their blood more than money. It is a brigandry of the lowest order, and like recognizes like - Duncan Rowntree likes to think his career brigandry has higher aspirations.

At the very least he can't abide competition. If this were a group of desperate fools, he'd feel something like pity. Of course they'd still have to die, the perpetrators at least, but if the demands had been for food or supplies- he'd have understood. But these people are canny - their clear instructions, their choice of location all point to that.

Their best chance is to move in on foot, Duncan judges. To ride through the pass in pursuit would be to ride death's mouth. Two teams moving in stealth, communicating with animal calls as they serve as silent escort to Goneril and the ransom. Rifles are deemed a necessity, the best shots chosen. If it comes down to a fight on those high ridges, against enemies in cover, bare inches of accuracy will mean life and death.

But only once Cordelia is safe. Only then will they shed blood. And then they would.

The sun begins its long, slow, dying kiss with the horizon. The snow-dusted rocks gleam rosily, like they are run through with quartz. The wind rustles and kindly covers the sound of soft treads off the trail. This is the place, and it's time.

Bridget has been taking this one personally. Being a creature of honor as she is, and this being blood family, she's been itching to put a blade in someone for days. Perhaps that's why she has so many strapped to her. From boot knives to the scabbard strapped tightly against her back, she's ready to get up close and personal once the fighting breaks out.

And oh, there will be fighting.

She's not one of the better shots in the militia, so as far as ranged weaponry goes, she has a crossbow and bolts ready for ambush. Whether it's them being ambushed or doing the ambushing, she's not really picky at this point. But aside from leaning toward the bloodthirsty side, she moves along through the wilderness, silent and out of sight as the party moves toward their appointment.

Goneril is atop one of the horses, as instructed, and uneasy for it. Not that it's evident at all in her face. It's a stony mask of indifference. This is just business. A trade. But her heart is pounding in her chest. She's thankful the others have her back, because she'd never detect anyone sneaking up on her for the sound of blood roaring in her ears making the rest of the world quieter beneath the din of it.

Like her husband's cousin, she carries a knife in her boot. Anything more conspicuous than that could put Cordelia in danger. It's a leap of faith Goneril is taking, trusting that the others won't let her be cut down (or shot down, as the case may be), but she can think of no better band to place her life in the hands of. Her eyes are focused ahead, for any early signs of her daughter and her captors.

Bridget isn't alone in her itchiness to get something done; Jorn has been exactly the same, perhaps moreso out of guilt. Regardless, militia or not, he is with them now. Cloaked in his usual white fur, and darker armor, he finds that he blends in rather well with the motes of snow on wilderness, and the dark cobbly ground. He has his blade, and his pistols, but already he seems more keen on stalking his way after the course with that bearishly flat and careful walk of his, when he gets as he is.

For the moment, Jorn keeps to the span of ground between Bridget's position and the next man on the line, wherever he may be. Jorn stays along the fringes of white where he blends best, icy blue eyes ever alert.

At the top of a steep, rocky slope stands a precipice overlooking the pass several hundred feet below. It is here where the first of Cordelia's captors appears, saddled on a large, smoky-white horse with a braided mane the colour of the winter sky on a cold, gray morning. At a distance, details are difficult to pick out, but the woman appears small and pale with a hard mouth and a long, pointed nose not unlike the beak of the raven perched on her shoulder, a band of silver cinched around its foot.

Jorn and Bridget know that particular bird.

She wears a wool coat lined with wolf's fur and her dark hair pulled back into a loose twist at the nape of her neck. Cordelia, who sits directly in front of her on the saddle, is dressed similarly rather than in the masquerade finery those at the Yule celebrations last saw her in.

They appear to be alone, but then so does Goneril.

"Ross!" she calls down into the pass, her voice sharp like a vixen's bark.

The girl in front of her seems to jump at that bark of a call, then instantly sits taller. Her head cranes to follow her captor's gaze, a small hand coming to cover her mouth and stifle a sob that shakes her at the sight of her mother. She's never been gone for more than a night or two to a friend's or cousins' home — and it's been five.

It's hard to see her face, but she glances back from her mother to the woman behind her, watching to see what will happen with wide and frightened eyes.

Goneril's head snaps up immediately to the sound of the voice calling down to her. Her eyes widen and her nostils flare at the sight of her little girl, and her obvious distress. Her temper causes a small shudder to run through her frame, but it does not cause her to abandon sense. "I have brought your weapons, and the horses as you requested."

Requested. The word leaves a bad taste in Goneril's mouth, but she's attempting to keep things diplomatic. She refuses to look directly at Cordelia again - it makes her want to start shouting death threats. "I trust no harm has come to my daughter." For the sake of her kidnappers.

"I keep my promises," says the strange woman. "Pray you keep yours." She reaches up, taking a strand of Cordelia's dark hair, and runs it between her gloved fingers. See: Your daughter is still healthy and whole.

At her shoulder, the raven rumples its feathers, shifting its wings, and blinks beetle-black eyes. "Dismount," she instructs Goneril. "Open one of the cases."

Cordelia calls down — her voice thick and rough with tears, though the acoustics of the mountain carry her softer voice well enough — "I'm fine, Mother. Please just do what they say."

She presses her lips together to try to keep them from trembling with the confused mix of emotions overwhelming her. She turns again to her captor, dark eyes swimming with tears, pleading the words she doesn't speak — the woman says she will keep her word, and thus far, she has. Cordelia is unharmed; she has no reason to doubt that her captors will keep their word if they get what they have asked for.

Goneril dismounts her horse easily and releases the fastenings of one of the cases, opening it up to inspection. The guns are there, as she promised. She grasps at the reins of the horse she rode in on so she has something to let her fingers grow white-knuckled around in lieu of showing her anger in other ways. Her stomach churns, and she waits.

The raven launches from the woman's shoulder, cutting through the air with broad strokes of its wings, and glides down to join Goneril at the bottom of the pass. Its flight doesn't make much noise, but the impact of it landing on the case does — a gunshot in Goneril's ears. Hooked feet curl around the case's edge, and the raven cocks its head, peering at the weapons inside.

Up close, Goneril and the others hidden in the trees can see that it's a monster of a bird. There are hawks with territories around Dornie that are smaller.

"Now pick one up," says the woman, "and fire it into the air."

Cordie holds her breath as she watches her mother move, fingers gripping the edge of the saddle tightly. She gasps again as the bird wings by her, watching as it settles on the case. Her posture, already tense and taut, stiffens even more as she waits for Goneril to do as asked, every muscle anticipating the gunshot that will blast through the quiet winter day.

She'd rather fire it into the bitch's heart, but Goneril - after a start that came with the descent of the bird of prey - hefts a rifle. A moment is taken to ensure that the weapon is loaded before she turns it skyward. A deep breath, and she resists the urge to close her eyes as she pulls the trigger. She hopes her kin are prepared for whatever comes next.

The gunshot echoes down the pass, and the birds in the trees on its fringe take flight, briefly filling the sky for the short time that it takes them to weave deeper into the forest beyond. When the air is still again, the woman leans forward in her seat on the saddle and lowers her voice, much gentler now that she's speaking in a whisper, but no less firm.

"Go to your mother," she murmurs against Cordelia's ear.

The girl turns to the woman with wide eyes, then does as bid, swinging legs over saddle and jumping down from the horse. She looks like she might say something, mouth parting and brows knitting, but she just nods finally and scurries to the slope.

It isn't the easiest climb down, rugged and icy as it is, and it would probably give a less tomboyish girl more difficulty. Cordelia also has adrenaline on her side, and manages to scrabble down a few feet, hands held low to catch herself if she falls, and eventually she ends up more on her rear than her feet to slide down the incline. Feet find purchase again, and she lunges again into a run once the ground is flat enough, stumbling into Goneril's arms with sobs.

Rasping away in Duncan's mind, the insistent order beamed by sibling telepathy down to Goneril - get clear, just take the girl and get clear - would be maddening if he didn't have the stock of his rifle to grip. His throat is tense, already preparing to issue the go ahead signal, hating each passing second when they might strike but cannot, every second Cordelia is in their possession but not yet safe.

The hard faced woman with the bird- she would have to go quickly. Anyone with a creature like that at beck and call was some breed of queer trouble. But she looks human enough. Human enough to shuffle off their mutual coil when hastened by high speed lead.

Goneril doesn't rush to meet Cordelia halfway. She doesn't call to her to hurry to her side. But she does accept her with open arms and bury her face into her daughter's hair. All the better to whisper harshly in her ear. "Pull yourself together." There is no time for I-love-yous or I'm-so-glad-you're-safes. She lifts her head again. "Then our negotiations have concluded," she calls up to the hawk-ish woman. Grasping Cordelia's arm firmly, she begins to lead her from the pass, back the way they came. Sibling telepathy works the best when those siblings are already thinking the same thoughts.

The woman on the white horse waits until she's seen Goneril's back for some time before she makes a low sound at the back of her throat, coaxing her horse down the same incline that Cordelia slid. Its hooves catch on the slope's rocks, legs rigid and stiff as it picks its way down to the bottom of the pass, its rider mindful to steer it along the least icy route. Halfway down, she's joined by two men on foot who emerge from the trees at her back.

Two men for two horses.

It seems unlikely that there are any others. Like the woman, they dress heavily and in a utilitarian combination of wool, leather and furs that makes them appear heavier than they probably are. All three have gaunt faces and shadows under their eyes that speak of how hard and short life outside human civilization is for those who don't have the benefit of the protection of a settlement like Dornie.

The woman arrives at the cases first and has her horse circle the ransom payment at a distance of ten feet. Maybe she's expecting it to explode.

Cordelia sobs once more in Goneril's arms, but takes a long, shuddering breath at the harsh whisper. As she is steered away, she hurriedly wipes her eyes, moving as fast as she is pushed and keeping her eyes on her feet to avoid tripping on any rocks or roots.

At the sound of the horse's descent, she looks back over her shoulder, watching her captors approach the ransom, and her brows furrow again before she turns forward again. "I'm so sorry," she whispers — if she hadn't been so gullible, they wouldn't be here. "How angry is everyone at me?"

It's once they're down by the ransom, right where Goneril once was, that spot that once they were - for a brief duration - guarding; that's when the signal comes. Cupped hands and human lips somehow manage an mournful ululation that true wolves would deign to answer.

This does not mean charge out gun's blazing. This means closing in, getting the shots lined up, and taking them down. Duncan's own fatal intent is set firmly on the woman, the overseer and presumed architect of this hostage ploy. The safety is off. He looks for his shot.

How Bridget manages to move along quietly at the single instead of charging out with a yell is anyone's guess. But orders are just that, and she creeps forward while their lady friend is circling the guns. Under the cover of a tree, she takes a moment to slide a bolt into her crossbow, a crooked smile coming to her face in those brief moments before she takes more decisive action.

Her sights are on the one of the men closer to her, and she fires her first bolt toward his chest before she slides back behind the tree to load in another, just in case.

"No one is angry with you," is the hushed response. "We'll be returning home with prisoners, or with bodies. Either way, the anger will not be directed at you." There's a note of reassurance, despite the cold act she's just promised will take place. Goneril does not once glance back over her shoulder. "Now prepare yourself. Our kin will handle these bastards."

And Clans Rowntree and Ross are not to disappoint.

The horses' ears prick at the howl, and one of the two brought by Goneril tosses its head and stamps it feet with a shrill scream. This isn't a sound that any herd animal wants to hear, though neither of the men seem quite as perturbed. The woman, however, puffs out a harsh breath through her nose and tightens her grip on the reins.

"A friend of yours?" one of the men asks her as she slowly backs up her horse.

She never gets the opportunity to respond. He's dead before he hits the ground.

"Please, no, don't kill them," Cordelia breathes; she has enough wits not to jerk away to look for the signs of her kinsmen in the trees. "They're just trying to surv-"

The sound of bolt meeting flesh is not a loud one, but there is a quiet crunch that's followed by the body's thud on the ground and Cordelia gasps, turning against her mother's hands. "No," she whispers, hands coming up to her mouth as she begins to move toward her captors, medical training pushing her to help someone in need — though that it's too late for that, she doesn't know.

A crossbow is the perfect opening shot. No sharp report, no telltale puff of smoke. No better weapon for surprise. But not everyone is so archaically equipped, and when the first man falls it's only a handful of seconds that they can seize, at most, from potential confusion, potential panic.

Duncan would love to get a prisoner out of this. His best chance is to leave just one survivor as quickly as possible, before any of the other members of their team cut them both down in the crossfire. The woman- she'd be a poor object for public justice. The execution of women is always mournful, or vile in temper. And he distrusts her capacities - such people are always unknown quantities.

He takes the shot from behind a great boulder, cracked down the middle by the seasons. The shot is aimed for the woman's chest, the caliber of his round trusted to do the necessary damage.

Bridget shifts her position not too long after the gunfire, slipping through the trees to get a good vantage point to watch the guns. She may have hoped for a more hands-on fight, but while the others take their turns, she lifts her cross bow in readiness in case any survivor thinks of grabbing a gun.

They got the girl, now to make sure they get the goods, too.

Goneril should have known. Her bleeding heart child would want to preserve the life of anyone - even someone who'd done something like this. She reaches for Cordelia with the intention of dragging her to cover. She can explain her reasons and her justifications to her offspring later. When they're safe at home.

Duncan's shot hits his target square in the chest and topples her from her horse. It probably does not come as a surprise to him when she does not get up again, but it may come instead as a pleasure. The surviving bandit— if that is indeed the right word for them, for Cordelia's plea has cast some doubt— ducks at the sound of the gunshot and moves as if to take cover behind the cases, then thinks better of it and hefts himself up onto the fallen woman's horse instead.

It's a fast runner.

"No!" cries out Cordelia when more shots are fired, but she's small yet and Goneril is stronger, able to rein her in and keep her out of any potential crossfire. She keeps her head ducked against her mother as they run forward, but eventually Cordelia stumbles and falls to the ground. Her shoulders heave first with sobs as she buries her face in her hands.

"You didn't have to kill them," is barely discernible, muffled against her palms and choked out as it is.

With the last man busy mounting, Duncan takes every bit of extra time he needs to place his shot. It's the shoulder he's after. The kind of shot that will knock a man flat with pain and force, but won't kill him, not straight out, not unless he clips some deep bloodspring. It's just a matter of mopping up at this point, just a few last precautions.

He gives a sharp whistle, his sounds no longer disguised, indicating that Bridget can advance. This is an anticipation, though only by a split second, of his carefully aimed shot.

And advance she does, first to make sure the two fallen really are that. For Cordelia's sake, she doesn't go so far as putting another bolt in each of them, but she does crouch down to check them over, a knife in one hand as she does. Just in case.

It's only after making sure that she stands and pulls her cloak off to lay over the woman. It's a bit gruesome.

"Yes, child," Goneril insists as she pulls Cordelia up and toward an outcropping of rock that will keep them shielded, "we did." For all her cruelty in this insistence, Goneril holds her daughter close and sways gently with her. No one takes her only daughter from her. No one.

The man is up and in the saddle when Duncan's second shot rings out. It too hits what he's aiming for, but he is larger than the woman under Bridget's cloak and slides sideways off his horse, but a foot in the stirrup and the reins wrapped around his wrist keep him aloft.

Dornie takes no prisoners tonight.

With great effort, his clothes soaked in blood from the wound in his shoulder, the bandit pulls himself upright, jaw clenched, and drives the horse on with a hard knee twisted into its ribs. By now, he's out of range.

Despite her anger, Cordelia is also a girl who's been away from home for too long — scared, cold and hungry, though unscathed. She looks away from her mother, sobbing into her hands. Eventually she leans back into that embrace, letting her mother try to console her, though it's too hard a feat. She'll stop when she's exhausted and no more tears come.

Duncan seethes as he watches that last rider flicker out from under his iron sights. The militiaman gives a guttural grunt and then spits with anger, before moving out to join Bridget and survey the aftermath. His disappointment should not be so bitter - they have the girl, they have the ransom. They have two bodies and a harsh lesson for the one that got away. This should be enough.

Duncan grits his teeth, kicking aside a bit of the cloak to reveal the dead woman's face. He sees the hunger there - it's hunger, not greed.

"Search them," one last indignity, "then find some stones- cover this sorry mess up."

"Duncan!" Goneril presses a kiss to Cordelia's forehead before she steps out of their hiding place and presumes to bark orders to her brother. "Leave it. Simply take the horses, and the weapons, and let us leave this place." She has no aversion to what he proposes, but saving her daughter's captors this last indignity may go some way to soothing her daughter, the command being empathy masked. "Bridget, Cordelia rides with you." She will walk.

Bridget pauses in the act of ducking down to take care of those orders, Goneril's words bringing her back up. Mostly those last ones. But, before she comes over to take the girl, she lets out a whistle of her own, motioning for one of the other militia to handle the clean up.

Only then does she come over to put an arm around the girl, although she looks to her mother. "I'll get her home safe. Come on, Cordy," she says, her tone gentle despite what just went on. Her arm around the girl turns from comfort to nudging to get her along to the horse, but she'll pick her up, if she has to. For all that crying.

Cordelia wraps her arms around herself and stares down at the ground rather than to look into the eyes or faces of her kinsmen. Tears stream down her face and she doesn't speak. When Bridget tugs her along, she follows, though her shoulders cringe just slightly away from Bridget's touch. One foot moves in front of the other until she gets to the horse, which she mounts herself and sits on quietly, eyes downcast.

Duncan is not well pleased by Goneril's words. He turns to face her, displaying no pretense of patience. "Get on a horse, and go-" Duncan says, tone nothing short of warning, "or countermand me again…" and see what happens.

And so he stoops, and searches through the what may be this woman's worldly possessions. He's brisk about it, impersonal and detached, as one might be while skinning an animal, or splitting wood. A task, a labor, to be completed quickly and without waste.

He finds an unsettling thing around the woman's throat - a bird skull strung upon a cord, like a necklace. Duncan's lips twitch down at the corners. Barbarous, arcane - both. "Have to bury this one face down," he mutters.

"And you'll what, brother?" Goneril is not one to be swayed. She has her daughter, and she's entrusted her to one who owes their allegiance to Clan Ross, not Rowntree. "There will be no burials, Duncan. Leave her to be picked apart by the birds. There were only three of them here. They had to have known I would bring a small army with me.

"I don't believe three men," she counts the dead woman among that rank, even if Duncan discounts the fairer sex, "would have felt they could pull this off. We need to get back home."

Once Cordelia's on the horse, Bridget swings up behind her taking the reigns before she turns the horse to look back toward Duncan. She doesn't speed off just yet, as if waiting to see if she needs to switch places with Goneril. But in the end, Cordelia's demeanor turns her mind on just getting the girl home.

She doesn't say any goodbyes, as she often doesn't when she feels like there's too much depth to a conversation, she just points the horse toward home and starts to ride. There's no words of comfort for her young cousin, just the silent promise of a swift ride home.

Duncan does not tell Goneril what he will do - rather, he shows her. He rises to his feet, one hand still holding the dangling bone charm, moves over to his sister, and promptly lays a backhanded slap across her cheek. It is not a brutal thing, not excessive. It's doled out, measured for a careful level of sting. But it does sting, hard enough to bring a ruddy kind of bloom.

"On the horse. Go with your daughter. Leave me with my corpses." None of these sound remotely negotiable.

To be continued…