“Ranulf! Alec! Would you two stop misbehaving and running about like a couple of wild animals and get over here, please? This is a very important day for your father and grandfather both!”
Charlotte was stressed. Ranulf and Alec, the two sons that she and Edward had been blessed with were seven and five respectively, and were as wild and self-possessed as their father must surely have ever been.
“But, mither,” Alec moaned, “why is it that ye and faither are makin’ us stand about fer so long. It’s very borin’, don’t ye know?”
Charlotte had to smother a smile with a hand. Alec was still young enough not to realise just how sweet and cute he was being. Ranulf on the other hand…
“She’s smilin’ behind her hand, Alec, do ye see?” the older boy said, delighted. “That means we’re nae in trouble!”
“You boys might not be in trouble just yet,” Charlotte said, trying not to show how impressed she was with her older son’s powers of observation, “but if your father or grandfather catch you giving me grief they will have your hides!”
“What’s a hide again?” Alec asked.
Ranulf pointed to his own backside and the two brothers dissolved into paroxysms of laughter.
Suddenly, Alec stopped laughing and looked quizzically at Charlotte. “But, what does Faither want our bottoms fer?” he asked.
Charlotte turned away for a moment, on the pretence of straightening her gown, unable to hide the chuckle that was threatening to burst out of her. By the time that she turned back, the brothers were already shoving and play-fighting with each other.
My goodness, on occasion I think that my bridal cake might have crumbled a little too easily. Sometimes I could do with these two being just slightly less vivacious.
“You two, come here!” she snapped, her patience running out. She pointed to the ground in front of her and her two boys grudgingly came to stand in front of her, as if they were on parade.
“But, mither…” Ranulf began to say this time, in his most wheedling tone of voice. “Can’t we just play outside while all the borin’ bits are happenin’?”
“I’ve bad news for you,” Charlotte said, “but all the bits are going to be boring bits.”
The boys groaned in unison.
“But,” Charlotte said, holding up a finger, “it will mean the world to your father and grandfather if you two are in the front row together with me.”
“Why?” Ranulf asked, stomping one bare foot on the boards of the hallway.
“Because,” Charlotte said, “today is the day that your father takes on the responsibility of the Lairdship of the MacQuarrie clan. It’s the day that your grandfather cedes his right to rule over to his son.”
The boys looked at her dubiously.
“You two should take an interest,” Charlotte told them. “One day, your father will have to go through the same ceremony with you.”
Ranulf blew a stray lock of hair out his eyes. Both boys had the same sandy-colored hair as both their grandfather and father, though they had also inherited Charlotte’s wavy locks.
“Fine,” the older boy said.
“Fine,” said Alec, who always capitulated to anything, once his brother had.
“Good boys,” Charlotte said, beaming at them. She cast a critical eye over their dirty bare feet, at the woebegone kilts, and muddy shirts that they wore.
Quite the pair of little heathen princes.
“Right, we only have a little while before the ceremony. The two of you get upstairs. I’ve had the maids run you both baths and there are fresh clothes out for you both; shirts, kilts, and plaids.”
“Baths!” Alec cried, in his little voice, aghast at his mother’s betrayal.
“New clothes!” moaned Ranulf.
“Go!” Charlotte ordered. “And don’t you dare forget to wear your clan pins!”
She watched her two sons scamper away towards the main staircase of the MacQuarrie Castle keep, their little legs pumping. She smiled to herself. They were going to be fine strong boys.
“And boys?” she called after them.
Alec who, as the youngest and smallest, was destined to bring up the rear most of the time, turned. “Yes, Mither?
“If you’re smartly turned out, and if you behave yourselves throughout the ceremony, your father and I will take you to one of our special places to camp out tomorrow.”
“Can Grandfaither come too?” Ranulf called back from where he was standing halfway up the sweeping wooden staircase.
Charlotte highly doubted whether the soon-to-be former Laird would be able to be coaxed away from his warm hearth.
Then again though, he does love the boys dearly.
“You shall have to ask him yourselves,” she told them. “Though you can do it after the ceremony, at the feast. Not during it, understand?”
The two boys squealed their assent and barrelled on up the stairs.
The ceremony that marked the handing over of Tormod MacAlpein’s reign as Laird of the MacQuarrie clan to his son, Edward, was a joyous occasion. The great hall of MacQuarrie Castle was packed from end to end. The congregation that could not fit into the hall spilled out into the middle bailey where, over seven years ago, Edward had declared his love for Charlotte.
“It has been, quite simply, the honor of me life to look after and guide the MacQuarrie clan through some fairly turbulent years,” Tormod MacAlpein said, his words filling up the silence that had fallen throughout the great hall. “Every day I woke as yer Laird I thanked me lucky stars. I have always tried to treat this opportunity as exactly that; an opportunity to improve the lives of the people that I love and care about.”
There was some polite cheering at this point, though it was quickly quelled by a gesture from the Laird.
“I think, as many of the people here can attest, that the clan may nae have come through some of the trials it has faced if it was nae fer me son, Edward,” Tormod said.
More cheers and some scattered applause and whistling.
“He has won yer hearts through his honesty, his courage, and his dedication,” the Laird continued. “He is both a formidable warrior and brave leader, and a modest man too—just look at the blush on those cheeks!”
There was some good natured yelling and cheering at this, and Edward did, indeed, feel his cheeks flush.
By God, but the old beggar can work a crowd. I must make sure to pick his brain when it comes to speeches and the like.
“Enough, enough,” the Laird said, and Edward, being sat close to where his father was standing at the front of the hall, thought he might be the only one in the room who knew just quite how emotional this moment was for the Laird.
“In all seriousness,” Tormod continued, “the time is now ripe fer me to step aside. Me son is ready; ready to take on the mantle of Laird, and ready to start teachin’ his own sons that the position of Laird exists to serve the people, and nae the other way around.”
The crowd began to clap in earnest, unable, or so it seemed to Edward, to contain their excitement at this significant change in the MacQuarrie leadership. It looked to Edward as if his father recognized the fact that he was on the verge of losing control of the crowd to wild abandon.
“So, me fine people,” Tormod bellowed over the rising clamor, “may I introduce ye to yer new Laird; me son, Edward MacAlpein!”
Edward got to his feet. The rafters of the hall seemed to be shaking, such was the noise of the crowd. He looked into the front row of the gathered masses. Saw his wife, his beloved Charlotte. She smiled at him, and he felt the familiar burgeoning of warmth that her smile always released in him.
“Thank ye, Faither,” he said to Tormod, as the former Laird embraced him. “Ye’ve been a great Laird, and ye are the finest man that I have ever met.”
His father clapped him on both shoulders. There was a definite wetness in his gray eyes.
“Just ye remember, lad,” he said. “The goal fer ye, as a man and as a Laird, should be to stand up here in twenty-five or thirty years’ time and have yer sons say the exact same thing in yer ear.”
Edward looked over his father’s shoulder, at his two little sons standing on their bench and cheering wildly with the rest of the crowd.
“That,” he said, “is some truly sound advice.”
It felt to Charlotte as if it had been an extraordinarily long day, the previous day. After the ceremony, where Edward had assumed his Lairdship, there had been feasting, singing, and dancing far into the night. She and Edward had only retired to bed when the eastern horizon had begun to pale, scooping up Ranulf and Alec who had gone to sleep with their favorite dogs by the enormous hearth.
“Children—if it was not for them, we would still probably be in bed now, my dear,” she said to her left.
Edward rode beside her on a young stallion that had been foaled by his old horse, Cogar. The MacAlpein family—both little boys, Charlotte, Edward, and grandfather Tormod—had been riding for some hours towards a destination known only to Edward and Charlotte.
“Aye, we might still be abed,” Edward conceded to her, “but we would nae have the two little devils to wake us up.”
“I suppose there is that,” Charlotte said, grudgingly.
“Are we almost there yet?” Ranulf asked. He was riding ahead on the little pony that Edward had given to him recently.
“Aye, just round the next bend, lad,” Edward said, with the ghost of a grin.
“Where are we goin’?” Alec called back, his voice slightly muffled due to being wrapped in his warmest cloak. He was riding, sat in front of his grandfather, on Tormod’s big, chestnut gelding.
“Well, we have the fishin’ poles with us, do we nae?” Tormod said. “So, where do ye think we might be headin? To the mountains or the water?”
Alec cogitated for a moment or two. “Water,” he said, decisively.
His grandfather ruffled his wild blonde hair. “That’d be me guess too, lad,” he said.
Charlotte could hear the smile in the older man’s voice. She was glad now that the boys had convinced their grandfather to come.
Now that he does not have the decisions of a Laird weighing on him, it is good that he keeps busy being a grandfather.
They rounded the final corner of the track. The two boys squealed with delight.
There is nothing to be gained by dwelling overmuch on the pain of one’s past.
And here was a part of Charlotte’s past come to life; The Pool of the Crodh Mara. The pool was just as dazzlingly captivating at this hour as it had been when she had first laid eyes upon it. The late afternoon sunlight turned the water of the lake and little rivers to dull, glimmering gold. Insects whirred among the reeds. The sound of the water moving lazily down the watercourse was like a song.
What a strange place for me...
It was here, on these banks, that she had taken the life of the only man that she had ever killed.
Just over there...One of the worst things that I have ever done. Yet, it was also the scene of one of the best things...
For it was also here that she and Edward had first lain together. She smiled to herself at the memory. It seemed that this place embodied her very life; filled with both goodness and badness, but colored far more by the good.
“Come, lads,” she heard Tormod say to her sons, as he strolled casually off along the bank, “come with yer grandfaither and he will show ye how to catch some fish fer supper.”
The boys yelled incoherently with delight at the prospect.
“Have ye been here afore, Grandfaither?” Ranulf asked Tormod.
Charlotte just made out the former Laird’s answer before the man and two boys were out of earshot. “Oh, aye, lad,” he said, “yer grandmoither, God rest her, used to come down these ways once upon a time...”
Charlotte smiled again. It seemed that she did a lot of smiling these days. She turned, and found Edward looking at her.
The Highlander held out his hand to his wife.
“Tell me, me love,” he said, “do ye fancy takin’ a wee dip wi’ me...?”
Charlotte’s mind stretched back to that day, all those years before. The day when she had debated whether or not to sneak a peek at the enigmatic Highlander.
Edward, in that uncanny way that he had always seemed to have, appeared to pluck the thoughts right out of her head.
“I’ll just give ye one piece of advice, Sassenach: watch out fer the current. There’s nay kenning where ye’ll be swept off to...”
But before you decide to leave, please listen to this beautiful song that reminds me of the Highlands! Thank you for everything, my dear.