Fighting for a Highland Heart – Extended Epilogue
The Orkney Islands,
The old bishop was dying.
He was doing it in the most beautiful surroundings imaginable, of course – gilt ornamentation shone warmly around the fireplace and on the backs of chairs, and the strong early spring sunlight glinted off the sea and shone brightly in through the wondrously worked stained glass of the high windows. Firelight struck sparks from polished silverware which sat on a low wooden table covered by a silken black cloth and shone through the ancient, cobwebby wine bottle, a vibrant and lustrous red. Opulent rugs covered the stone floor, coming right up to the side of the sumptuous bed.
The bed covers were of silk and sable and the best quality wool, and the dyes of blue and purple and red set off the shining silver ornamentation which graced their edges and ran like riotous ivy across their width in flower-like patterns. The bed itself was solid Cheshire oak, a mighty example of the woodworker’s craft, and one which had stood the test of time and housed many bishops between its fantastically-carved posts.
But for all that, there was no getting away from the fact. The old bishop who occupied the bed was a man not long for this world. Rognvald Grant had been a mighty man, a powerful speaker and a physically imposing character, and a man of huge appetites who, despite his spiritual calling, had not scrupled to indulge his senses. In those days, his institution had been a fertile ground for a man like him to satisfy what he saw as the well-earned advantages of his powerful and influential position, and the result was a man who, by the time his later years were gaining on him, had become more than just physically imposing.
All that was gone now. The great, swinging belly, the red drinker’s nose, and the merry, dancing eyes had given way to reveal a thin man with sallow cheeks and dull eyes, a figure who seemed – to those who knew him best – to dwindle by the day to a thin, wan shadow of his former self. He coughed, weakly, and there was a smell of illness in the room which the scented candles on the table and the sweet applewood of the fire could not wholly mask. Grey hair hung lankly on either side of his face as he struggled himself up into a sitting position. There was a knock on the door.
The bishop did not attempt to answer. He knew that the young priest would enter whether he did so or not, and he desired at this point to conserve his energy. Sure enough, the door swung open and young Father Hallam’s anxious-looking face peered round.
“Your excellency?” he enquired, his soft, lilting Orcadian accent giving a singing tone to the words. Excellency thought the old bishop bitterly. Nothing excellent about this situation. He coughed again, and weakly gestured the younger man in. Father Hallam came, somewhat reluctantly, into the plush, overheated room.
“Your excellency, Allan Holm from the town has come to say that a ship approaches – he believes it to be your brother’s vessel. They are flying your family colours, the colours of Clan Grant.”
The old bishop heaved a great sigh of relief.
“Ahh, thank God,” he said in a cracked voice. “Thank God that they have come at last.”
“Amen,” muttered the young priest, bobbing his head.
“Some… some wine, please, Hallam,” said the old man. “And help me to sit up, will you? I will want you to help me dress and ready for them. Yes, yes,” he said, holding up a hand to stall the younger man’s protests, “I know I am too weak for it. With this illness, the strain of dressing and greeting them formally will probably kill me, but, Hallam, I do not care. This is the end for me, whatever happens, and if the last thing that I do is to greet my brother and his family properly, well, so it shall be. Come, Hallam, some wine. And help me to sit up, for God’s sake. Come along, man, I am not contagious. If I were, you would have found out long ago. Come on, now.”
The young priest bowed his head to that and came over to the old bishop, carefully helping him to arrange the pillows and get comfortable with surprising gentleness. Then he turned and, with great care, poured some of the rich red wine into the waiting goblet. The bishop’s hands shook a little as he took it.
“You know, Hallam,” he said after a moment, as the young man moved around the room gathering garments to dress him, “I have waited a long time for this day. It’s many years since I have seen my brother, and even longer since I have seen his children. Oh, we have written to one another, of course, and I saw the eldest boy, John, when he was perhaps five years or so, but his daughters were just babes the last time I was on the mainland. My brother Iain writes that he will bring his son John and John’s wife Alice with him this time, and the two eldest of his unmarried daughters, too! It will be a delight to see them all, you know, and I hope that perhaps the daughters might take a liking to these islands which you and I, Hallam, call home.”
The young priest had the feeling that the bishop was leading up to something. The old man had not spoken so much in weeks, and there was a note of the old jocular voice which he and his colleagues in the bishopric of Orkney had all come to know so well over their long careers here. Father Hallam kept quiet, moving here and there about the room, and only glancing at the bishop once, with a small, encouraging smile. The bishop’s eyes were on him, and there was a slight smile on the old man’s withered face.
“You know, Hallam, there is more to it than that, of course.”
The younger man’s movement’s slowed. Now, he thought, they were approaching the matter.
“I wish to see my brother before my passing, of course, that is why I have called for him, but there is more to it, and to you, my dear Father Hallam, I think I may in confidence divulge my secret. Yes,” he went on with a quiet laugh which turned into a cough, “yes. You shall be my confessor, Father Hallam, and you shall know what it is I have kept secret through all these many years of my career here. You know, father, and let it be a lesson to you – I have sinned and sinned grievously. Father Hallam, I have sent for my brother to ask him to see to it that a young man whom I have long watched in secret comes into his own once my death has passed.”
The young priest had frozen where he stood, his arms full of luxurious fabric, his eyes down, not meeting the bishops gaze.
“Come, Father Hallam, look me in the eye and admit to me that you have long suspected it.”
As if drawn by some will other than his own, Father Hallam’s eyes lifted up to meet the bloodshot, yellowed eyes of his superior.
“Your Excellency,” he said, and his own voice sounded hoarse as a crow’s in his ears, “I beg you, of what is it that you speak?”
“Of my son, Father Hallam,” said the old man, remorselessly. “I speak to you about my son.”
* * *
“Come on, Katheryn!” cried the boy. The wind whipped his wild hair, and the toned muscles in his bare calves flexed as he leapt, cleanly as a goat, from rock to rock. He was barefooted, and his trousers were shorn off at the knee to keep from becoming ragged. His clothing was clean, though it was old and much repaired. His sister, Katheryn, was as dark-haired as he was, but she moved more slowly from rock to rock as she followed him with a thoughtful expression on her handsome, freckled face. The wind toyed a lock of her dark hair from out of its cap and caressed it around her strong jaw as she made her way down to the waterside.
Behind them, the flat expanse of the Orcadian fields stretched off back toward the town, broken here and there by long lines of dry-stone wall and little low stone houses. This was an incredible place, so flat and treeless that the wind off the North Sea swept continually across it, buffeting the people and the homes and towns, weathering their faces and teaching them respect and love for the sea from an early age.
When Katheryn made it to the water’s edge, she found her brother with his hessian sack open by his side, expertly peeling the large, healthy clams from the rocks with his belt-knife and flipping them into the bag. She crouched and joined him there.
They had been working for perhaps an hour when Katheryn heard a voice calling them and looked up. She nudged the boy’s arm and pointed.
“It’s Tom,” she murmured. Tom was their mother’s husband, and though neither Tom nor their mother was shy about the fact that he was not their father, both the youngsters were obliged to cede Tom the respect that a true father would have demanded. Now, Tom was standing up in a little rowboat which he had brought in as close to the rocks as possible. He was waving and hallooing at them to get their attention. When he saw they were looking at him, he put his hands to his mouth like a trumpet and called.
“Go back home!” they heard him cry. “Your mother says, go back home right away!”
“But we’ve only been out an hour,” the boy objected, and his sister shrugged.
“Must be important,” she responded. “Come on. No point in hanging about.”
With the casual acceptance of the young, brother and sister both swung their partly-full sacks over their shoulders and turned to pick their way back up the rocks to the grassy sward, where they would run back the mile or so to their village.
* * *
“There’s the harbour!” exclaimed John Grant. Alice leaned on the rail beside him, gazing out over the land.
“It’s so flat!” she exclaimed. “But it looks like a busy little harbour and a fine-looking wee town.”
“Aye,” said John. “They are a different folk from us of the Highlands – more Norse than Scots in many ways. They are a strong, hardy, seafaring folk, too.”
“And powerfully religious,” put in Iain Grant, coming up behind them. Iain had aged well in the last six years. Since peace had been established between himself and Lord Snedden, his daughter Flora successfully married to Ranald Carlisle of Balmore, and his son John to the daughter of the MacPhersons, his old allies, Iain was a man who felt his work in life mostly complete. His days had become pleasant and full of the small joys that are the province of a grandfather, as John and Alice had given him two grandchildren since their wedding.
All had been peaceful, that was until the letter had come from his brother Rognvald, who had for many years been the bishop of Orkney. Rognvald was two years younger than Iain, but he had a taste for rich food and good wine which his calling had given him ample opportunity to indulge, and those appetites had taken their toll. He had written to Iain that he was dying and implored him to travel north to Orkney and speak with him, one last time.
I beg you, he had written, come at once and bring your children. I have words to impart to you which are too sensitive to put in writing, and I would like your eldest son at least should witness them.
These words had troubled Iain the whole journey. What could Rognvald have to tell him that could not be put in a letter, and that required such a powerful witness as Iain’s own son and heir before they could be told?
“I wonder what on earth he can have to tell me?” Iain mused, unaware that he had spoken out loud. It was Alice who answered. She reached out and clapped her father-in-law on the shoulder in a friendly, companionable way.
“Only one way to find out,” she said, and he nodded his head to that.
But he had the strangest feeling, deep in his heart of hearts, that whatever it was it would only mean one thing for him and his family.
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