The Evil of the Valley
“But Mam,” Fiona insisted. “I cannae weave worth a goatshead knamick!”
Sorcha MacInnes was not a woman who was easily dissuaded once she had made her mind up about anything. “Then you’ll ha’e ta learn, lass. Men like a girl what can weave, an’ you’ll need somethin’ actin’ in yer favor, noo that you dinna ha’e yer youth any longer.”
“I’m no’ ald yet, Mam! I’m only twenty, for Rezyn’s sake!”
Her mother took her by the arm and escorted her through the door and into the hall in which the tapestries were made. An enormous loom occupied the middle of the chamber, illuminated by the afternoon light that streamed in through the bank of high, arched windows that occupied the westerly wall. Women of all sorts bustled about, chattering like a congregation of squirrels.
“’Only twenty,’” Mam muttered under her breath. “’Only twenty,’ she says, eh? An’ if yer no’ married by twenty-one, what then, lass, what then? You’ll end up a spinster, that’s what! An’ what good’s a spinster that cannae spin?”
Fiona rolled her eyes. “We were on the subject o’ weavin’, no’ spinnin’, Mam. Noo, let me go. I promised Duncan I’d help him mak’ a langbow, an’ then I’m meetin’ Henry for tea.”
Mam perked up at this last. “Henry, you say? Laird Henry?”
“Aye, Mam, the very gentlemanly (and very wealthy) Laird Henry o’ Carvil was kind enough ta ask me, the impendin’ spinster, ta tak’ tea wi’ him an’ a few other minor noblemen and –mages. Is that no’ braw?”
Fiona could see the wedding bells ringing in Mam’s eyes. “O’ course, o’ course you may go. No sense in wastin’ yer time behind a loom, is there?”
Her youngest brother, a boy of ten, was waiting for her in the courtyard when she arrived. His wavy orange hair was a-frizz with excitement, his round, freckled face all smiles as he waved at her, brandishing a flexible, conveniently curved stick and a spool of thick white string. Like Fiona, Duncan took after their father in appearance, with a stocky build and typical highlander pigmentation. It was Fiona’s life mission to ensure that the resemblance between Duncan and their father remained purely superficial. Rezyn help her if the boy ever adopted Dr. Tormod MacInnes’s ideology.
The creature Raif had followed Fiona outside. Now it trotted up to Duncan, nuzzled his chubby hand, and parked itself at his feet, tail thumping on the withered lawn. Duncan squeaked in alarm at the touch of Raif’s cold, wet nose, then, giggling, patted the vulpine dog on the top of its head.
“He likes havin’ his ears scratched,” Fiona suggested.
Duncan scratched Raif’s ears enthusiastically. Fiona, meanwhile, picked up the stick that her brother had found and inspected it.
“This ought ta work,” she concluded after awhile. “It may no’ shoot straight, but it’ll shoot. We may be able ta whittle it doon a wee bit ta improve the accuracy.”
They were in the process of shaping the stick into something resembling a bow when a page—who looked to be about Duncan’s age—loped out into the courtyard, carrying a scroll. “A message for you, Miss Fiona.”
“Thank you,” she replied, taking the parchment cylinder. It was held shut, she noticed, by a red wax seal stamped with the crest of the Edmund House, a wild boar sporting a decorative letter E on its side. She slid her index finger beneath this seal to break it and unrolled the scroll.
“What is it?” Duncan asked.
“A note from Henry,” she replied, then, “Dinna pull faces, Duncan,” she remonstrated without looking up from the letter. “It’ll get stuck that way.”
“No, it will no’,” Duncan countered, nose still wrinkled in disgust.
But Fiona was not paying attention. “Oh, Duncan, this is wonderful news!”
“What? Has he picked oot a wedding venue?”
Fiona swatted her brother in the face with the parchment. “By Rezyn, ’twixt you an’ Mam, I'll surely go mad! No,” she continued, exasperated. “It’s aboot Seoc. He and Simon are safe, an’ they may be home as soon as tomorrow evening!”
“Are you not happy?”
Duncan shrugged. “I cannae remember him, really.”
Fiona nodded silently, setting the parchment aside and returning her efforts to the making of the bow. It was understandable that Duncan’s memories of his elder brother might be hazy—it had, after all, been over three years since Seoc had been taken away, and time stretches longer when one has lived ten years than when one has lived twenty. Fiona could have recognized Seoc by his smell, or even by the sound of his footsteps, but Duncan might not even know him by the sight of his face. Somehow, though, Fiona didn’t think this was the sole reason for his indifference.
With a sigh, she let the matter slide.