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(Events continued from A Wolf Arrives at the Cottage)

And so Corryn left them.

It was not long after he had gone than Aerin came into view, Shade close on her heels.

"I saw something!" she announced to Derron, where he still stood outside the cottage with Merivel and Mariam. "Like a light - flashing on the hillside! The huntress and the Dornish have gone to discover what it is! She says you are to be alert but not look alerted!"

"A light flashing," Merivel said with a nod, looking thoughtful. "Today has been a day for surprises, despite the counsel not to look alerted." he said to Aerin. "Another would not be entirely out of place."

Derron had noticed Aerin and her cursed cat approaching and simply nodded to acknowledge her. He was looking at the men moving about when she made her announcement with no preamble. His head whipped around, his eyebrows as high as they could go on his craggy forehead. Then his eyes narrowed and he said, "Well done, lass. Well done indeed. I want you to stay close to this door, and be ready to go inside, taking Shade with you, if I give the word. No arguments, please."

Merivel listened as Derron began to give direction. He tensed again, since the instincts of Derron were usually good.

"Maester Merivel, Miss Mariam, perhaps you two should once more check on your patients inside. Especially the ones who give you access to the windows that look towards yonder hill. Niko, I'll tell Binnder to keep the men by the fire ready but look relaxed. You start with the others who are posted as guards. Make it look as though you're simply checking up on them. And if it looks as we're about to be attacked, no heroics. Call out. If it lets them know we're on to them, they might think twice." Derron had already decided his place would be close to the wagon. It offered cover and was fairly central to the camp. He waited for any comments or questions from the others before moving towards Binnder. Mariam had none, hurrying straightaway into the cottage. Aerin frowned - but then followed with a certain ill grace.

Gwendla and her father busied themselves near the wagon.

If not cowed by the earlier incident with Ser Corryn, Niko had at least become a bit more introspective. For instead of responding verbally, he merely nodded in acknowledgement as he set off to carry out Derron's orders.

Merivel waited only a moment, and then bobbed his head in agreement with Derron and his requested plan. He quickly made up for lost time, following Mariam inside the cottage as the Steward had asked.

(Events inside the cottage continue in Inside the Cottage Merivel)

A tense silence descended on the cottage and its grounds.

Attempting to appear as casual as possible, Niko started with the men that were most likely to see the interlopers first, warning them of the approaching forces. He then proceeded to make his way through the men, giving the same warning, with the admonition of casual alertness, so as not to alarm their 'guests'.

Derron spoke softly to Binnder. "Catriona says we may have visitors soon, coming from the other side of the cottage. She and Hex are scouting. Niko is making sure the guards are alert but not acting too intent. Now, we need to make sure the men not on post do the same." He suddenly smiled laughed aloud for a moment and shook his head, doing his best to appear as if he and Binnder were chatting with no real purpose. Binnder threw him a look that most would read as saying, 'My problem wasn't supposed to make you laugh.'

Derron clapped him on the shoulder and shrugged. "Come on then. Lancer, come on, boy." The old hound trotted along after Derron and Binnder as they spoke briefly with the men. They were instructed to go about their business, but never let their weapons get too far from reach. Binnder also instructed them which defensive position each was to take if attacked. Derron then went back to the wagon and opened the small chest with his smithing equipment. He had an urge to look around camp to make sure everyone looked preoccupied, but doing so could easily undo all the hard work. Then he smiled to himself. Every minute or two he could crouch down and scratch the insistent Lancer behind the ears. That would give him the cover to look about camp.

The camp was uneasily still ... mimicking everyday activity.

Derron kept himself busy at the wagon, doing nothing. It appeared he was fussing with his smithing tools, though he would bend down to scratch Lancer behind his ears, or along the ruff about his neck. The old hound practically beamed when he would do so, ears up, tongue lolling out. It made Derron grin, despite the tenuous situation. It reminded him that Lancer was fairly old for a dog, and might not have too many years left. Derron resolved to make the time left to his friend as joyful as possible.

Lancer had been his closest companion since the new Lord Draupaud had come to Clearwater and many of the other staff had left or their own accord or been sacked. But as dogs are wont to do, Lancer never tried to make Derron feel guilty, except when he wanted some attention or food. In warmer weather he would sleep next to Derron's bed. In colder weather he would sleep on the bed by Derron's feet.

"Two old bachelors, that's us, eh boy?" He crouched down and gave the dog a playful push at the shoulder. He quickly scanned in the direction that Aerin had warned him about, but so far nothing had appeared. "Maybe I'll find you a nice old girl. You might have some pups in you yet." Lancer poked his muzzle into Derron's face and pushed back, getting the smith to chuckle. As he stood he said, "Well, I will promise to get you some more horse meat later. How's that?" Once more he was rewarded with a butting by Lancer. "Good boy."

If nothing happened soon, he might have to find something else to do. His current act would be playing thin soon.

There was movement on the hill now, close enough for it to be visible - and to make staring in that direction quite plausible. Keen eyes (and Niko's are probably keener than Derron's?) could make out two figures approaching, aone a lanky figure on a tall, lean horse; the other mounted on a squatter beast - and seemingly squatter too himself - a squire, perhaps?

Derron's eyes were indeed not as sharp as the younger man's. While he could not make out details, he could see two figures. They were approaching in an unthreatening manner, so he watched them openly. Some of the other men in camp stopped what they were doing to follow his lead. He looked at them and said, "Keep alert." He then began walking to where he could meet the newcomers at the edge of camp.

Once he could see more clearly, he would greet them.

Soon there were within hailing distance - and Derron could seem them more clearly. They had come to a halt, as though observing the activity around the Septa's cottage and waiting to see whether they would be welcome.

Knowing they had men with bows, Derron strode forward about halfway between the cottage and the two men. He waved them forward. He forced himself not to turn and scour the landscape for Niko. The youth was no doubt watching keenly.

The old knight nudged his horse a few, reluctant paces forward.

"Pease on this place," he said, his voice gravelled with age. "We seek a place called Marshend, and its Septon. Are we near?"

Derron nodded. "That you are. Just another couple of miles down the road. I apologize if we look wary, but we've had our share of dangers on the road. How about you, good sir?"

"Not an easy journey," said the knight. "Bandits in the hills - and something worse besides."

His tubby squire leaned forward and spat on the ground in apparent confirmation of his lord's words.

Niko still stayed with the other men, keeping an eye on the body language of the knight and of the steward. He knew that Binnder was there backing Derron up, and this man didn't look like he'd be much of a threat, but he could be merely a scout or a stalking horse, so Niko didn't let down his guard.

There was nothing threatening in the stance or behaviour of either man to Niko. They appeared somewhat weary, and rather down at heel, a shabby hedge knight and his squire, no more.

Then Niko saw three swift flashes from close by on the hillside - as though someone was signalling.

Derron pointed towards Marshend. "The town lies that way. From what I am told, at least one of the taverns is still open for business."

"My thanks," said the Knight - but there was a touch of disappointment in his voice, as though he had hoped to be offered something more practical than directions.

Seeing the signals, Niko tried to make out who or what it was, but it was unfortunately too distant, and whomever out there too well hid. Wanting some sort of action, Niko wanted to go himself... but remembering recent events, sighed. Motioning two of the guards over, Niko picked up an axe and a shovel, and handed one to each of them. But while he was doing so, he said, "There's someone in the brush, signaling. Can you two head behind us, and once you hit the woods circle around and see who it is? No heroics- if you run up against anything, your first responsibility is to get back, so we won't be surprised again."

Derron thought about asking Mariam if she would offer yet more hospitality. But then decided he would not. This could easily be just one more complication. But as always he would not stand in her way. He turned and looked back to the cottage, where he was sure Mariam was watching from a shuttered window. He simply shrugged, then turned back. If she wanted to offer them respite, she would come out, or at least call out. If the knight asked, he would then query her. But for the moment he said no more.

And then he saw her, hesitating at the entrance to the door. Her worried eyes met his - clearly she was uncertain whether to offer help to the stranger or not.

Derron waited, but could see she was not going to make up her mind just yet. He looked up at the mounted figures and decided he'd rather have them already in camp. If there was trouble from them, at least they would not be able to get their horses up to full speed. That gave him an idea.

"If you gentlemen will climb down and lead your horses from afoot, I think the mistress of this cottage will allow you to refresh yourselves at her well." He left the alternative unspoken.

"Our thanks for this hospitality," said the knight - and the relief in his voice was palpable.

The squire dismounted at once and then came to aid the knight. The old man moved stiffly - perhaps because of the aches of old age, perhaps from some more immediate cause. In the doorway, Mariam's eyes narrowed, and she shot a warning look at Derron.

Derron was several steps ahead of them. At Mariam's look he rolled his eyes. He shrugged and shook his head. He turned his head back and pointed them towards the well. "Over yonder, gentlemen. And if you please, do not stray too far." He then strode over to Mariam. He actually looked slightly annoyed.

"Do you have some information that I should know about them?"

She shook her head. "None at all. But I have always offered hospitality to travellers and hedge knights. I am known for it - and many seek me out. My status as Septa and healer has proved a sufficient protection before these last few days."

"Then why the look you just gave me? As if you were worried these men would be more trouble than my group?" He was trying to keep his voice calm, but he was annoyed. She had seemed to want him to make a decision, then seemed to disagree with it. The frustration was aggravating.

She seemed to sense his annoyance, but instead of shrinking away she said quietly, "We should talk. Quietly, and away from this - as soon as we have time. There are things that you need to know ... to understand."

Derron stared down at her, then finally said, "Fair enough. Once we get this lot on their way, we can have a chat. But for now, we still don't know who they are, or what they want. I'll stay out here with them, and you can go back inside. No word so far from our sentries, so I'm hopeful these two are nothing more than they appear." He smiled slightly at her. "And I'm sorry for snapping at you. You've been nothing but gracious to us. I'll try to make it up to you."

"Thank you," she said. "And I ... " She smiled suddenly. "I'll try to be a better hostess."

She looked towards where the squire was now watering the horses, while the hedgekniight watched with folded arms.

"I believe something happened to them in the hills," she said quietly. Did you see how the squire looked back?"

Derron nodded. "Aye, that I did. Niko's over yonder, still keeping watch. And I think Catriona and Master Hextall are also watching out for us." He sighed. "With any luck, they'll be on their way, taking their troubles with them. I think we've enough on our plates, don't you?"

Mariam gave a shaking little laugh. "Indeed," she agreed. "That is ... " She broke off, looking towards the hills. "Someone's coming," she said - and then, "The merchant. But where is Catriona?"

By the well, the hedgeknight and his squire had swung round to watch Hex's approach.

Derron ignored the newcomers and waited for Hex to arrive. No doubt the man had something to report, either about the hedge knight, or some other fresh puzzle.

Page last modified on May 16, 2007, at 05:00 PM