Fighting for a Highland Lass – Extended Epilogue
The Earl’s house
“Oh, no, Angus, don’t eat that!” Anne cried, laughing. Her great green dress rustled as she hurried across the sunny courtyard toward where her youngest son, Angus, was experimenting with putting gravel in his mouth. He was two, a chubby, healthy little boy with black hair and a cheeky smile, and a curiosity that was forever getting him into trouble.
“God, ye leave them alone for a moment…” muttered Anne as she swung the baby up onto her shoulder. He squealed in a mixture of protest and delight.
“Lizzie!” Anne called. “Lizzie! Where are ye? I thought I told ye tae watch yer brother!”
From the direction of the corridor, a tall girl appeared, wiping her mouth surreptitiously. Elizabeth was Anne and Thorvald’s eldest daughter at twelve years, nearly thirteen now. She looked more like Thorvald than Anne, and she looked guilty and rebellious as she came round the corner.
“Sorry, mother,” she said, looking anything but sorry. Anne had to smile. That rebellious look was so familiar. She wondered if she would even tell her daughter just who she looked like the most. Perhaps. In time.
The truth was that Lizzie looked like her great-uncle, Neil Gow-Sinclair when she scowled. In the twelve years that had passed since those days, Anne had grown and changed, but some things did not leave quickly, and others she was happy to keep. Her sword-fighting instincts had not left her, though she rarely practised, being content to let Thorvald oversee the training of guardsmen and the reporting from the military ships. She had no interest in fighting, and in truth, the age of the swordsman was quickly passing. These days, massed ranks of line infantry marched in the revolutionary wars on the continent, and the cannon and the mortar were kings of warfare there, but aside from the trouble with bandits now and again on the mainland, and the odd Norse privateer opportunist in Orcadian waters, all was peaceful.
She had grown her hair out, too, and now wore in hanging in artful braids down her back more often than not.
“Look after yer brother like I asked now, will ye?” said Anne distractedly, and little Lizzie made a show of sulking.
“Yes, mother,” she huffed and pouted, but Anne observed with keen pleasure how, when the girl forgot to show a sulky face for her mother, she took little Angus’ hand with genuine affection, leading him over to the flowerbeds which graced the southern edge of the courtyard.
There was a brisk wind, as always in Orkney, but this courtyard was sheltered on three sides, allowing the sun to shine in and warm the stones. It was one of Anne’s favourite places to spend time with the children. She had nannies and nurses, of course, but she had never become entirely comfortable with having folk serve her, and in the matter of her children, she retained fierce independence.
“If old Nan Howden down in Stromness can handle nine on her own, then I’m sure I can handle three,” she had told Thorvald irritably some months ago when he had again suggested that they get another woman in to help her. And she could handle them. More than that, they were her pride and joy, exhausting as they were.
Lizzie and Angus were now absorbed in some play in the flowerbeds, and Anne smiled to see how Lizzie tenderly but firmly stopped her little brother from eating things that he shouldn’t, instead distracting him by teaching him the names of flowers. She said the name and pointed to the plant, and he repeated the name in a soft voice after her, squealing with delight when she complimented him and praised him, and got him to do another one.
Beyond her children and the flowerbed, the town of Kirkwall lay stretched around the vast bulk of the cathedral. This house was built on higher ground overlooking the town. It was, in fact, the house that Sir Magnus Bain had made his own during the years of his life. The chapel he had built was still there, and they kept his mother’s gravestone clear, but the chapel itself was little used. Worship happened in the Cathedral in Kirkwall, though the Church handled religious observance and little else these days. Thorvald had grown into his inheritance under the tutelage of Iain Grant and Earl William, the latter of whom now spent more time at home and less on Orkney, and seemed now to be leaning on his young protégé than the other way round. They were a close family, with William being Godfather to Anne and Thorvald’s older two children.
The middle child, and their only son so far, was nine, and he was at present out with his father, following him on his rounds of inspection in the town and the surrounding villages; Thorvald made a point of keeping in regular contact with the farmers and fisherfolk of the surrounding countryside, and the small folk thrived under this system. It meant that they were able to take any issues directly to him, and more often than not, he saw to it that their concerns were dealt with appropriately, and without unnecessary delay. Anne privately thought that he spent too much time in this duty, and would be better overseeing the more significant element of his responsibilities, but Thorvald was content to leave accounts and grain ledgers to clerks from day to day, taking a day or two each month to hear about everything in-depth. He was keen to involve his son in all of these things, and Anne did not object, though she did wonder if it was all making the lad too serious for a nine-year-old.
When she had been that age… but she shook her head. That was no comparison. She had sat down in her chair in the courtyard, but heard a commotion further inside the house, and stood, calling to the children.
“Lizzie, that’s yer father back! Bring Angus along, now, please.”
“Ugh, father,” said Lizzie, pulling a face. “Are you going to kiss him again?”
“I certainly am!” said Anne laughing, as her daughter made disgusted noises behind her, and little Angus made “ugh” noises in imitation of his sister.
Thorvald came into the warm central hall of the big, sprawling, comfortable house, smelling of the clean outdoors. He caught her in his arms and kissed her soundly, and she, to her embarrassment, let out a girlish squeal of delight as he squeezed her around the hips. Twelve years and three children had done absolutely nothing to diminish their appetite for one another; their obvious physical attraction to each other, and their unashamed displays of public affection scandalised and titillated the small folk, and made them all the more beloved.
“Ugh,” said Lizzie, and “Ugh,” echoed little Angus, giggling as his sister laughed at him.
“What’s this?” asked Thorvald with a smile. He was a big man still, in his early thirties now, but he had filled out around the shoulders and the waist even as she had. They both enjoyed the food and wine that were the perks of their position, and there was nothing wrong with that, so long as they made sure that those less fortunate than them did not go hungry while they ate.
“Ye are always kissing!” exclaimed Lizzie in disgust.
“Kissing!” said Angus.
“Come along, Angus,” said Lizzie haughtily. “Let’s go tae the kitchen and see if the cook has anything for us to eat.”
She shot her mother a look, but Anne smiled and let her go.
“Raisins!” she heard Angus exclaim as they made their way off down the corridor toward the kitchens.
“Where is Rognvald?” she asked, looking for her nine-year-old son. They had named him Rognvald after the Bishop whose largesse had furnished Thorvald with his Earldom, but also because it was an excellent Orkney name, and the people would appreciate that in a man who would one day be their Earl.
“I fear he has gone tae the kitchens too,” said Thorvald. “He was hungry. He did well today. It was a long day. I let him go.”
“The cook spoils them,” she said, not really meaning it.
“Well, ye will know all about that,” said Thorvald. She glared at him.
“Oh, give over,” he said. “Ye know I can do nothing with him. If ye want him tae stop feeding the children sweetmeats and pastries ye will have tae talk tae him yerself.”
She laughed. “He is good with them,” she said.
“That he is,” Thorvald agreed.
Their cook, an ancient man, named Peter, was notable in Orkney for his dark skin, as well as for his skill with the children. He was also notable for his mysterious past, but no one asked him about it. In fact, old Peter was the only link which Anne had kept with her past life. Those had been heard years for both of them, watching the captain they admired descend into drink and madness, and they were both happy to let those past times lie. While the rest of Neil’s crew had been sent south, some wanted for other crimes, there were several whom Anne had managed to obtain pardons for. Peter was one of these. All the others who were given the opportunity, fled, never to be heard from again, but Peter chose to stay with her. They never talked about the old times, but Anne had never forgotten that on that fateful night when she had helped Thorvald escape from the tower all those years ago, Peter had caught her in the act and had let her go instead of raising the alarm. Nowadays, he did what he wished to do, pottering in the kitchens and directing the other cooks. He was also the most famous person with the children.
“If they are with Peter, then I suspect we have a good hour tae ourselves before they come looking for us again,” said Thorvald.
“Oh, aye,” said Anne laughing, “I think ye are right.”
Thorvald looked at her thoughtfully.
“I need tae get changed out of these clothes,” he said solemnly. “Do ye fancy joining me?”
Laughing, they ran together up the corridor toward their private rooms.
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