Fourteen Years Later
Freya was at her wit's end trying to keep up with her eight-year-old twins, Callum and Caladh. Both boys had a rambunctious streak a mile wide and twice as long. If they were not breaking into their father’s weapons chest, they were chasing messenger hawks around the rookery. If they were not sneaking into the kitchens to pilfer sweets, they were doing double somersaults into the loch.
She was chasing after Callum, who was determined not to dress in his thick, festive clothing. It was another Oath’s Night, and even with the long week and four days of festivities, she still had to work.
Freya had gone through a long, trying morning in the healing hall, dealing directly with a family of five, all of who were suffering from an aggressive bout of consumption, and one man in a paroxysm of pain from gout. There were others with seasonal ailments, stiff knees, upset stomachs, and broken limbs from slipping on slick snow—but the other women dealt with those.
She had not felt this exhausted since Laird Lobhdain had hired those tutors he had promised her before, and the lessons of mathematics and history had sent her to bed with headaches.
After doing what she could there, Freya had set the kitchen in order as to the dishes they were to cook for the feast that night, and then she had gone to make sure her families’ rooms were ready for them when they arrived; both sets, the Millesons and the Crushoms.
Exhausted with chasing her son, Freya plopped herself on a padded chair. Waving her hand in defeat, she exclaimed, “When yer Faither comes, I’ll have him deal with ye.”
“But Maither,” Caladh groused from the bed. “I dinnae do anythin’.”
“So, ye dinnae try to con cook this morn’ to give ye more portions of black puddin’?” Freya’s brows arched tiredly, “When ye remember that we adults are smarter than ye ken and can see through yer shenanigans, ye’ll start to grow up.”
Caladh, the youngest of the two, pouted, his green-gold eyes squished tight, “I dinnae want Faither to be angry.”
“And why would I be angry?” Evan’s humored voice cut in as he entered the room. His assessing gaze landed on his half-dressed son instantly. “And Callum, why arenae ye dressed? Do ye want Grandmaither Grace and TaTa to find ye looking less than the dapper young man they ken ye are?”
The boy hung his head, “Nay.”
“Then get dressed, they are nearly here,” he ordered. “And stop runnin’ yer Maither ragged.”
“Aye, Faither,” Callum said as he went to don his thick shirt, then went to sit and put his boots on.
Evan came to rest on the arm of Freya’s chair, while keeping an eye on his sons with a proud curl to his lips. Then, he slid a hand under the back of Freya’s neck, “Why daenae ye go take yer bath, while I take charge of our scoundrels for the next hour.”
“Thank ye,” Freya replied, holding in a soft moan at the magic his fingers were wreaking at the tense muscles in the back of her neck. “How were the villagers?”
“All set,” Evan replied. “Most will be staying at home as this winter is the calmest we’ve seen in five years, but a good portion will be celebrating with us. The house is ready, yule logs in every fireplace, with evergreen sprouts on the walls, and Yule Bread is in abundance.”
While listening, Freya’s mind ran back to another Oath’s Night, fifteen years ago, how Elspeth had nearly killed her, and the fingers of her right hand began to fiddle with the ring on her left hand’s third finger.
It was a reflex she used when her mind ran on Elspeth—her disgraced sister. Elspeth had been exiled to the lowlands, and for a year or two after her banishment, scouts her birth father had sent to spy on her would come back with the news that she was alive, and in the same position of a servant, but then, after her fourth year, she had disappeared.
No one had heard from her in the last decade, and the best Freya could think about her sister was that Elspeth had found a husband who was willing to deal with her as she was, selfish and proud, or the worst—that she was dead. In her heart of hearts, Freya was torn.
She knew Elspeth deserved all the punishment and castigation she got from her heinous acts, but still, couldn’t she have decided to turn her life around? Freya was sure she had the capacity…but probably did not have the desire. Her selfishness was like a cocoon around her, cutting her off from the reality around her.
Evan’s hand rested on hers, and she stopped fiddling with the ring. She looked up, “Do ye ken what saddens me?” she whispered.
“That me sister never kent love the way it was supposed to be,” Freya muttered in a tortured voice. “That she wasn’t able to consider the future and see what she could be. That she might have found love somewhere else, and that our bairns could have cousins to play with.”
“Ah,” Evan shook his head, “I see it in yer eyes that ye wish ye could turn back the hands of time and change her; help her out of her conceit, but sometimes love, some people are nay destined for happiness.”
“Do ye ken she’s dead?” Freya whispered.
Evan’s reply was audible, “I cannae say, Freya. Perhaps she found a better life away from Scotland, or mayhap the conscience we dinnae kent she had, came alive when she found herself living in poverty. Mayhap it ate her alive.”
It was a bitter truth that her unwavering faith that everyone had some goodness in them, had to accept. She rested her head on Evan’s side for a moment then pulled away. With a faint smile, she said, “I’ll be down soon. Keep the boys away from the puddin’, or we’ll never sleep tonight.”
“Aye,” Evan snorted. “Ye heard yer Maither, come on ye rascals.”
As her family was herded out of the room, Freya went to a window and gazed out into the land. Instead of the full winter white covering the property, there was a medium dusting of snow, and she could still see patches of the dark ground underneath.
Again, she remembered staring into the river behind her home at Cillock, and wondering if she would ever marry. It felt moot now, and she smiled while moving to her room, and then to the annex room where a warm bath waited for her. She disrobed quickly and slipped into the water before it cooled. The water, scented with lavender oil, soothed her tense limbs and tired body.
She allowed herself to soak in the water until she felt invigorated enough to step out and get dressed, in a luxurious thick deep-blue dress with billowed sleeves and a split skirt with a thick white underlayer. Her hair, combed into a matronly bun at the nape of her neck, was bound to escape the ties, and again, she smiled at the memory of when Evan told her she had stubborn hair.
Oh, how time flies.
Freya lifted a box and fished out the same hairpin with the river stones and slipped it in her hair. Smiling, Freya left the room, and halfway down the corridor, she could hear the merry tone of bagpipes and fiddler music wafting through the air.
She slid her hands over the evergreen boughs tied to the staircase banister and smelled the spiced scent of the yule logs. Freya emerged into the Great Hall to spot the dais filled up. Lord and Lady Lobhdain were seated, with the Lord holding Callum on his lap. To the other side, her mother, Caitlin Crushom, was speaking to Caladh with a smile on her face. Her father, Balthair, was looking on with a smile while he leaned in to hear what Evan’s mother was saying.
As she mounted the steps, Evan stood and went to embrace her. He smoothed her hair back, and dipped his tone. “Ye took a good while up there, are ye well, Dear?”
Looking at the people she loved, Freya nodded, “I am, now.”
Before she took a seat, Freya embraced the two sets of her parents, giving the best wishes for the Yuletide. She sat and reached for the goblet that she knew would be filled with mead. Never in the last fifteen years had she gotten a taste for wine.
Caitlin leaned in and whispered, “I’d steal yer sons from ye, but I dinnae ken I have the strength to keep up with them.”
“Ye daenae,” Freya agreed. “I can hardly keep up with them on a good day.”
Reaching out for the kebbuck flavored with caraway and breaking oat bannock bread, she nibbled the bread and cheese.
The table was filled with platters of sour scones, fig cakes, and pudding dispersed in with the trenchers of beef, roasted mutton, and salted fish. As with every Yuletide, Evan lifted his goblet and spoke to the people inside.
“Hear ye,” he called, and the room, began to quiet. When it sufficed, he spoke. “We’ve faced a lot, wars, droughts, floods, hard time or sorrow and grief, and happier times of laughter and love. Every new year ye’ve been given a choice to face it with positivity and strength, to use what we’ve learned the last year and make it better, to leave the regrets and fear of the last year and swear to ne’er let those traits follow us. To give our bairns a heritage they can be proud of, to carry the Scottish bloodline with pride and to never shrink away from doing what is right. Go into the new year with faith, with hope, and with pride!”
He sank back to his chair, draining his cup. Freya leaned in to kiss his cheek, “Well done.”
Evan’s eyebrow ticked up, “Ye say that every year as if ye daenae ken it will be done well.”
Freya’s smile was sly, “For that, ye’ll be sleeping on the floor.”
“Nay, I willnae,” Evan courted with a smirk.
The feast went on to the wee hours of the morning, where bulky men moved the trestle tables away from the dining floor, and the people got up to dance. The twins were already nodding off, so, Freya asked the Laird and her father, who were holding the two, to carry them to their room.
Lady Lobhdain followed them while Evan escorted his mother up as well. In the boys’ wide bed chamber, Freya, with Lady Lobhdain’s help, got them undressed, into their thick nightwear and then under the sheets. While they drifted off to sleep, Lady Lobhdain took her aside.
“Yer boys are so delightful,” Lady Lobhdain said, but Freya felt there was more coming. The lady was not instantly forthcoming, and Freya waited for her to add more, but she only gazed at the sleeping boys.
Resting a hand on her birth mother’s shoulder, Freya asked, “What is troubling ye, Lady Grace?”
She swallowed audibly, “I ken it’s nay rational, Dear, as ye are too canny to make the same mistake I did, but I continue to fear that somethin’ similar to what happened with ye and Elspeth might happen to these boys. I kent it’s nonsensical, but I still fear it.”
Feeling humbled, Freya hugged her mother, “Dinnae ye worry, Evan and I are raising them to love and honor each other, to pick the other up when he falls, to be strong when the other is weak, to give a hand even when help is nay called for, to love without exception and to be his brother’s keeper.”
Relief flooded Lady Grace’s face, and she smiled, “I kent ye would do somethin’ like that, but I needed to hear it for meself.”
“And by God’s grace, it will stay that way,” Evan said from the doorway. “There will nay be a repeat of Elspeth and Freya’s story in me house.”
“I trust ye, Son,” Lady Lobhdain smiled, then turned to the sleeping boys, “If they grow like that, brothers true to the other, they will be a force to reckoned with.”
Evan hugged Freya close and laughed lowly, “They already are.”
But before you decide to leave, please listen to this beautiful song that reminds me of the Highlands! Thank you for everything, my dear.