A Warning for Catriona - and Keary
It was perhaps a half hour later that there was the sound of the trap door opening, and the sudden sounds of yips and snaps and growls.
"Mist!" Gabriel's voice hissed. A moment later, Gabriel himself was through the door to the outer cellar. He smiled.
"Told you that you'd be back," he said. "But not so soon."
"Aye, it's a bit earlier than I expected, at least through this entrance," Catriona replied. She unfolded herself from her seated position and stood up with a stretch. She extended her hand in greeting. "Good to see you again, Gabriel," she said, recognizing that he was in his innkeep garb. "And my sympathies on your losses. Patience mentioned it has been a rough year."
With a nod towards the inner chamber, she added, "I hear that Keir and Mist have already started to become reacquainted." She let out a low whistle, and within moments, a black shadow padded back into the room to sit at her side.
Catriona gave Keir a light scratch behind the ears, then extended her palm for Mist to sniff when the silver direwolf approached. Lupine pleasantries exchanged, she then returned her attention to Gabriel.
"My apologies for the sudden intrusion," she began. "Something's happening, and I don't know what it means."
She settled herself back on the edge of a crate to continue. "For the past month, I've had the sense that something was strange. An odd look here, a weird stare there. Then about a week ago, I stopped at the Girl and Garter in Clearwater. The landlord warned me that free spenders from the south were looking for a woman with a direwolf. Keir and I slipped away as quickly as we could, and skulked off the closest bolthole I knew."
A worried furrow creased her forehead as her gaze settled on Gabriel. "Do you know anything of these men? Of who they are, or what they want?"
Keir and Mist had ventured a little way along the corridor that led back out to the marsh. Now there was a sudden whine, and Catriona recognised Keir's tone. Something had disturbed her direwolf.
Catriona quickly rose to her feet, and mouthed "Something's wrong" to Gabriel. Drawing her sword, she moved swiftly but silently down the tunnel towards Keir.
Keir and Mist were some fifty yards down the tunnel. They were both sitting on their haunches, peering intently upwards, as though their attention had been attracted by something above their heads ...
Catriona resheathed her sword as she saw the direwolves were distracted by something outside the tunnel. She stepped quietly towards the two, resting a hand lightly between Keir's shoulder blades. Her shoulder muscles as taut as a strung bowstring, she strained to determine if her own meager senses could detect whatever had Keir and Mist on edge.
She heard voices, muffled by the ground, the sound of heavy boots. A group of people, perhaps four or five. Perhaps more. And they were moving towards the tavern.
Keir grave a low growl, and her hackles rose on end. Mist lifted her head and whimpered - then rose and began to pad back towards the inn. It seemed as though the overground voices were moving in that direction.
"Bollux and damnation," Catriona cursed, taking care to keep her voice low. "You're about to have new guests."
"With me, Keir," she ordered, and the two followed Mist down the tunnel. Once they reached the outer cellar, she stopped to string her bow. She then moved towards the inner cellar, and repositioned a few crates and barrels to create a small barricade behind which she could watch the ladder from above, but with enough space allow a person or wolf to weave between single file. "Now I know how the rabbit stuck in its warren feels."
"I'd hope that these newcomers have nothing to do with me, but I don't like coincidences that set my wolf's nerves on edge," the hunter muttered grimly. "Keir and I will stay hidden here unless we hear signs of trouble or you call for us, Gabriel. You can keep the lantern by the ladder. I prefer the shadows."
"That will be fine," Gabriel said, looking around. "You'll have the Marshend exit and the swamp exit if things get bad. I'll go upstairs and find out what's going on."
(Further events with Gabriel are split into A Warning for Catriona - and Keary: The Fire)
She set Keir to guard from behind the barricade, then went back into the outer cellar, moving cautiously in the dim light. After walking over to where she had stashed her other gear, from within one of her saddlebags she pulled out a small sack. She scattered half of its contents in a wide swath a few feet down the tunnel that led to the marshes, and the other half in a patch down the tunnel leading towards the lake.
As Catriona rejoined the wolf, she muttered, "I know Dusky won't appreciate the ill-treatment of his grain, Keir, but perhaps its crunch will give us forewarning of trouble from behind."
Once she rejoined her wolf, she then positioned another set of barrels and crates to shield them from anyone approaching from the outer cellar, while still giving them a narrow passage for escape.
"Good wolf," Catriona murmured as she gave Keir a light scratch. The direwolf was too intent on guarding to give her much of a reaction. She leaned her bow within easy reach, and set herself down to wait for the trouble she was sure to come.
Nothing seemed to be coming from down the tunnel - but Keir lifted his head and sniffed suspiciously. It was a few minutes before Catriona smelled it too.
Smoke! And it seemed to be coming from the end of the tunnel in Mashend itself.
"Trapped like bloody rabbits," Catriona cursed. "With me, Keir." Grabbing her bow, she vaulted over a barrel and ran towards the trap door into the inn.
She gave Keir a hand signal to wait as she listened beneath the trap door for a moment, straining to catch any hint of what awaited her upstairs.
Then she climbed up to open it for a minute, to look around.
The inn was filled with smoke and shadow - dancing, red-edged shadows. There seemed to be no sign of Gabriel, or anyone else ... but the inn was on fire.
Catriona hesitated for a moment. Every instinct in her told her to pull the trap door shut and just run like blazes. The situation reeked of betrayal, either of herself, or of Keary, or of them both. If the inn was on fire, Keary and Mist were probably dead or captured. But...if the arsonists knew about the tunnel in Marshend, and knew about the inn, the blasted oak would probably be no safer for a woman and wolf alone.
And there was a chance, albeit slim, that Keary and Mist were somewhere close.
She flashed a hand signal at Keir to follow closely. Averse to heading towards the fire, the direwolf whined, but amidst the roar of the flames the sound did not carry far.
The hunter threw open the trap door, and climbed out, taking care to stay crouched low to the ground. Her eyes stinging, she peered around the back room for any signs of trouble as she slung her bow back over her shoulder. Finding nothing, she crawled on her hands and knees, keeping beneath the smoke. At the entrance to the common room she paused again, peering into the swirling smoke and crackling flames for any sign of bodies, living or dead.
(Merged back into A Warning for Catriona - and Keary: The Fire)