The Madness of the Wicked
"Do you have no
greeting for your father?" Geoffrey asked finally, his tone showing
his obvious displeasure at his lack of welcome.
"Aye, forgive me, lord Father," Ailín said neutrally, in the expressionless voice she had learned as a young girl. "I was not expecting ye, or I would have met ye in the courtyard. Welcome to Transha."
She approached him and stood on tiptoe to coolly kiss both his cheeks in greeting. Her eyes lit when she saw who her father was hiding beyond the doorway. "Conor!" she exclaimed in delight, rushing past Geoffrey to exchange friendlier kisses and an affectionate embrace with her younger brother. "Conor! Ye look pale. Are ye well?" She then noticed the dried blood on his sleeve and gasped.
"'Tis alright, my sister," he assured her. "You are starting to sound a little like a borderer!"
Shrugging at the comment, Ailín took her brother's arm to examine it. "I have been surrounded by borderers for half a year, now. What happened to ye?"
"We encountered bandits on the road, but the wound has been Healed." He opened the rent in his sleeve to show the long, pink scar.
"That band has been troubling Transha for some weeks, now. Did Dhugal and the king get all the outlaws?"
"The king?" Geoffrey interjected himself between his children with a snort. "The king was not with us! Have you gone soft in the head living in the borders?"
The insult washed harmlessly over Ailín. That was new. It wasn't so long ago that she would have done anything for her father's good opinion, for an absence of criticism, and every harsh word he gave her was taken to heart. Now it meant nothing, because Dhugal believed in her, and what she would one day learn to do, and that was what mattered now. The realization gave her strength.
"I did not recognize Kelson myself, when I first saw him this morning. He was dressed and armed as a common MacArdry soldier, but I imagine he would have been close to Dhugal."
Geoffrey thought this over, eyes blazing as he realized how he had been duped. If the king really were riding with the Duke of Cassan, he must have been the man assisting the duke with Conor's Healing, the one who had called-what was his name-Ciard to make sure Geoffrey didn't interfere. He had nearly ridden by the king's side the last league to Transha, and had made a comment or two that the king might have taken ill. Geoffrey's frustration, embarrassment, and growing anger turned on its first visible target.
"You dare call the king by his Christian name, Daughter? Have you forgotten your manners in this godforsaken barbarian land?"
The menace in his voice set a little piece of Ailín's stomach quailing, but only a little piece. "Kelson himself invited me to do so, for Dhugal's sake, and I imagine for Mairona's, as well. If that is his wish, I will do as he asks. He calls me ‘sister' in turn, for I am wife to his blood brother." Her voice was mild and even, but she knew her words would carry a strong bite. Geoffrey had long sought power and riches, and had schemed to ally himself to greater lords to increase his own state, but had never won success. Now she, his daughter, had managed to marry one of the richest and most powerful men in Gwynedd, who had early on summed up Geoffrey's mettle and decided to leave him to his own devices. Oh, she knew her words would goad her father. She had attempted to stand her ground before Geoffrey before, only to be beaten down, but this time he had no right to raise his hand to her. It felt good, and she was so pleased with herself that she felt like she was floating.
Conor, however, viewed this interaction with growing alarm. He knew what his sister didn't, that there were murmurings in Kilshane to do away with Geoffrey, and how those murmurings had made their father's temper more erratic. Her behavior, while polite on the surface, was dangerous in his current state. Conor didn't know how to diffuse the web of tension being knitted between the two, but perhaps he could distract them?
"Ailín," he cut in. "Dear sister, I am eager to meet my nephew."
"Certainly!" she exclaimed. "But first, you must need refreshment from your journey. Let me pour you some mead. Food will be quick in coming, for Dhugal's borderers are nothing if not hospitable to their guests."
Oh, God, this was getting worse. Conor looked warily from his sister, who seemed naively unaware of the gravity of what she was doing, to his father, now steaming from insult at being "guest" instead of "father." Conor was watching Geoffrey so intently he almost didn't notice when Ailín pressed mug into his hand. His father took his own, drained it immediately, and set it down. While he fumed, Ailín moved to the door and called for someone, a name he didn't recognize.
Conor saw his father eye the cradle near Ailín's bed, so he walked over to take a look at his little nephew. The babe was smaller than he expected, rather beastlike. It looked fragile, too, like the slightest breath would harm it. Before he could get a closer look, his father was pushing him away, moving to take up the child. Alarmed, Conor glanced back to the door for his sister, who was turning back to the inside of the room. Her eyes widened in horror when she saw her son in her father's arms, but were quickly schooled with a lifetime of practice.
"Father," she said evenly. "Ye must support his head better. He is only a wee thing."
"I have been a father longer than you have been a mother!" Geoffrey snapped. Ailín clenched her teeth, knowing that her father had never so much as looked at her or Conor until they were about five or so.
"Why did you come, Father?" she finally asked quietly.
"To pay my respects to my duke on the birth of his heir."
"And?" Ailín prompted. Geoffrey responded with a glare as Caulay awoke and started to fuss, unhappy that his head was dangling backwards. "Here, Father, let me take him."
"Your husband must assist me in Kilshane."
So, that was why he came. "Let me take Caulay, and you may tell me what you need." Stepping forward, Ailín reached insistently for her son. Geoffrey hesitated, eyes blazing,
"Father," Conor interrupted, cutting her off. "Let me take him."
Ailín stepped back, giving her brother a glance of heartfelt gratitude. Conor held his hands out to his father and took the tiny infant, looking to his sister for direction.
"Keep an arm under his head, like so," Ailín advised him. "And make sure ye support him underneath, too, like so. There, ye've got it. Alright, Father. What do ye need?"
Conor saw the wild look in his father's eyes, and tried not to tremble.
Story also located at the Author's website - Brenwell Manor
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