Drastic action is normally reserved for moments of panic and despair. Ascot wasn’t sure which of the emotions had gripped him more, but what he did know was that Taja no longer had a safe haven inside his home. Despite Elyss’ objections, he knew the time to act was now.
He had heard that a familiar group of traveling bards had been visiting the villages of the duchy. The troupe had been to the fold of Southshore the previous week and he understood them to be somewhere near Gardenshire or Tunney.
After watching Lumpkin riding away that day, Ascot knew he would return, and not to collect his potions. What he would return with were men who would seek to capture the girl, maybe with the intent to sell her to the traders who sought out fantastic creatures, or worse if they were seamen. The fishers of the Cove found no greater enemy than a siren’s song.
He also knew that Lumpkin wasn’t a man to sit around waiting. If he had an idea that Taja was truly a siren child, as Ascot suspected, then he might return sooner rather than later.
He spoke with Elyss in depth the night of Lumpkin’s revelation. And whilst she voiced her concerns about the safety of the girl, it was her maternal instincts that had grown stronger over the course of those weeks. Ascot understood his wife’s needs.
But as much as he too wanted to keep Taja, he also understood the danger she was in if she remained. After hugging Elyss, her tears falling softly onto her silken blouse, the decision was made for Ascot to ride to Tunney the very next morning and see if he could find the bards.
The sun was barely up by the time Ascot turned his carriage out towards the road, letting his horses steal him across the land toward Tunney. Taja was asleep in the carriage where he had placed her, while Elyss had stood by the door to watch them off. He gave a final wave before heading out, hoping the early departure would buy them a little more time to depart Ashray Cove, ensuring the girl’s safety.
It was a beautiful morning, filled with birdsongs above and a fine mist below. The heat of the day was still a few hours before him, and he hoped to reach Tunney before the sun hit the apex.
His mind refused to relax throughout the journey, with worried thoughts and endless possibilities for Taja. And, of course, most of the outcomes he arrived at were unpleasant. He tried his best to brush those thoughts away, but just like persistent flies on a corpse, they remained.
Tunney was one of the smallest of the townships in the area, and including the surrounding farms, only managed to be home to three hundred souls. That meant privacy was non-existent in the town and he knew the moment he was spotted his arrival would be common knowledge to all within the hour.
To his relief, the visiting troupe’s tent sat on the outskirts of Tunney, its giant red pavilion towering over the nearby buildings of the hamlet. Thankfully, the tent was located to the oceanside of the town itself.
With the luck of the gods, he might be able to sneak into the pavilion and avoid running into any of the townsfolk before he met with his intended audience. With a quick prayer to Jesavius, and one to Verrigal, the god of luck, he descended to find his friend.
As he approached the clearing, a friendly face of a tan man with dark hair looked up at him, waved and welcomed him, as if he was one of their own.
“Welcome friend. What a fine mornin’ to be out and about.”
“And a fine mornin’ to you, good sir.” Ascot rode nearer the man and tipped his flat cap to him. “I am looking for a friend of mine, Ramsay Flynne. Might I trouble you to help me find him?”
“Your best bet is to try down by the river. He’s usually there in the mornin’s afore the missus is awake.” He pointed as he spoke and Ascot followed his gesture, spotting the line of trees in the distance.
“Thankee, sir,” he wished the man well and turned the carriage toward the trees.
Ramsay Flynne was exactly where the first man had described, and he hadn’t changed much since Ascot had seen him last. His smile was almost as large as his belly and Ramsay welcomed the parson the moment their eyes met.
“By the gods, look who it is,” Flynne grinned, “It’s been several years Parson. I’m ‘fraid you’ve arrived a bit early. The show isn’t ‘til this eve.”
Ascot climbed down from the carriage and approached his portly friend, where a small fire was crackling, and the smell of sausage loomed. A fishing rod lay hopeful beside it.
“I’m not here to see the show,” Ascot replied earnestly whilst offering Flynne a big hug and pat on the back. “Unfortunately, I’ve made the trek from Ashray Cove for a different reason.”
“And what would that be, Parson?” Ramsay offered Ascot a seat.
Ramsay seemed happy to spin yarns to get to reacquainted, however Ascot knew time was of the essence. He looked back over his shoulder to ensure their privacy, then waved the man in closer.
Ramsay, suddenly aware of the parson’s change in demeanor, recognized a secret being told when he heard it.
“I come with hat in hand, Ramsay.” Ascot spoke in a hushed voice, doing his best to keep things as clear as possible. “I bring with me a girl in need of a home.”
He told Ramsay about Taja, her illness and her initial encounter with the fisherman’s net.
“The girl was dragged in by the town drunk?” Ramsay asked, an air of doubt in his voice.
“Aye,” Ascot continued sheepishly. “The truth is, I suspect her to be… not of our kin.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The girl,” Ascot stuttered over the obvious words, “she may…she may be a siren.”
Ramsay’s gut bounced up and down in a hearty laugh and he shook his head, but when his eyes returned to the serious gaze of Dalton Ascot, his smile withered. “You are serious?”
“Aye.” Ascot shifted nervously on the makeshift bench. As he continued on about the strange language she spoke and the singing that kept recurring each morning and evening, Ramsay’s eyes grew wider with each word, widening until Ascot thought they would fall onto the ground between them.
“What does this have to do with me?”
Ascot could tell the man was back on his heels. They had been friends for years but hadn’t seen one another since his troupe took to the road several years before. “I am here on a mission of great inconvenience to you, Ramsay. I have nowhere else to turn. I prayed on this, and Jesavius herself remained silent to me. The girl will certainly be hunted if she stays in Ashray Cove, and I dunno how to return her to where she’s from, but I doubt even if I could that she would be safe there. I was lucky enough to stop the poison’s effects when I did.”
“What exactly are ye askin’ Parson?”
“I implore ye, sir. Taja needs safe passage away from here. And with her voice and strange language amidst your bards, her true identity would be less obvious here than with me at the parsonage.” He continued on about Lumpkin and the possibility of the man returning with ill intent for the child.
Ramsay continued to listen, hanging on each word as the parson revealed the truth of the matter. “Safe passage to where?”
“Ramsay, I dunno.” Ascot shifted uncomfortably on the log. “I just can’t be the one to take her.” Once he was finished, Ascot sat back, put his hands in his lap and gazed at the man he hoped would be Taja’s savior.
Ramsay simply turned from him and stared into the flames for a longtime, digesting the words in his own time to ensure he understood.
Then, as if timed by the gods themselves, Taja’s morning song arose from the carriage, and both men turned to listen to the dulcet melody. Neither could see her, but her voice halted their conversation. Several other performers stumbled out of the tent to listen.
Ascot turned back to Ramsay and saw a tear in the man’s eye. As Taja’s song ended, the door to the carriage opened and the blonde girl jumped to the ground and raced to Ascot’s arms.
After a moment of introspection, Ramsay finally stood, looked down at Taja and smiled.
The parson could see the honesty in the man’s eyes and instantly knew he’d made the right decision.
“My wife and I will take care of this child, sir. She will be safe with us and her secret kept hidden.”
He held out his hand and the pair shook, Ascot breathing a sigh of relief for the first time that day. For in that handshake lay the future of a little girl, one who both knew was destined for something greater than either of them.
Then the reality of leaving Taja behind struck him. He swallowed hard and choked back tears. “Taja, I need to speak to you,” the parson said softly, knowing full well the child would never understand.