A Few Weeks Later
Bhaltair clasped Aysel’s hand as the whole family looked up at the painting just hung on the wall. Stephan’s scarred face was looking down on them all, a little imperiously.
“It is wonderful, Aysel!” Catriona said, amazement in her voice. “I am glad ye dinnae let me see it until this moment, for the revelation is incredible! What talent ye have, me dear! What do ye think, husband?”
Alexander grinned at Aysel. “What wonderful work, Aysel! It is a pity, though, ye had yer dolt of a husband, as a subject.”
Stephan laughed, wrapping his arm around his wife’s shoulder. “It is true, me love, I dinnae think ye would have wished to paint such a brute.”
Aysel kissed him on the cheek. “Believe me, I have had far worse subjects, but they were always more submissive than he.”
Alexander burst into laughter, and Catriona said, “Och, now ye have seen his impatience for yerself?”
“Mither, what does impatient mean?” Bhaltair asked as he pulled on her skirt.
“It means ye cannae wait, that waitin’ makes ye irritable and angry.”
Bhaltair pointed to Stephan. “Och, that is brother, true enough.”
The whole family burst into renewed laughter, and Aysel felt as if all was right in the world. She had finally finished the painting, and it gave her a sense of renewed vigor. What was she to do next?
“Come, let us have luncheon as a picnic. How lovely it will be.”
“Mither, it is nearly frosty outside! Ye ken that winter is comin’ do ye nae?”
“Och, silly me,” Catriona said. “I suppose that the mood inside is so remindin’ me of spring and new life, that I forget what rages outdoors. Well, let us have luncheon here, by the large fire.”
They sat around the table, and Bhaltair began to play a game with his father and mother. Aysel and Stephan sat closest to the fire, watching the game with amused expressions.
Stephan said, “Are ye happy, me love?”
“The happiest.” She patted his hand gently.
“Then, what will ye do next? Do ye wish to paint? Do ye wish to travel? Whatever it is ye would like to do, we may do it. I am forever yer humble servant.”
Aysel laughed. “Humble, I wouldnae say,” she winked. “But I think I would like to do both.”
Stephan smiled and leaned in a little closer, his tone boyish and excited. “I had hoped ye would say that. I have a surprise for ye.”
“What is it?” Aysel’s fingers tapped on the chair arms with anticipation.
“I have made preparations for us to do a bit of traveling. I thought perhaps we could travel down to Inverness to the seaside. Then, we can go to Edinburgh and from there, on to London. We could take in whatever it was ye wished to see. We could swim in the ocean, walk along the beach, whatever ye want, me love. Ye shall have it.”
Aysel jumped out of her own chair and nearly crushed Stephan with a hug. Her shrieks of delight drew the attention of the rest of the family, and they looked over at Stephan’s armchair.
“What a beautiful gift!” Aysel squeezed her arms tightly about his neck, and Stephan was laughing.
“Ye are near to chokin’ me, lass! But good, I am happy that ye like it.”
“Ye have given her the gift, Stephan?”
“Aye,” he said to his mother. “If ye are certain ye can do well here in the castle on yer own, the three of ye.”
Bhaltair frowned. “How long will ye be gone? I will miss ye.”
Aysel walked over and brushed Bhaltair’s hair. “And I shall miss ye. But I have an idea. I have been thinkin’ of it for some time, and I thought perhaps ye might like to have a play partner.”
“A partner?” Bhaltair looked up at Aysel, confused.
“Aye,” she said and settled next to him on the wooden bench. “Someone who will join in yer games. Ye can sword fight, ye can paint, ye can climb trees, ride horses, imagine ye are slayin’ a dragon, whatever it is ye wish to do.”
Bhaltair grinned, and he began to bounce a little, thrumming with excitement. “Will he be like me? A boy? A little boy?”
“Aye, a boy. His name is Martin. We could ask him to come and stay with ye sometimes. He is me dear friend from the village, but he is yer age.”
Bhaltair nodded heartily, and Aysel’s heart warmed. She had wanted to be able to do something for Martin, since he had no mother, and she no longer lived nearby. Stephan thought it was a wonderful idea.
“Well, then it is settled. Before we leave, we shall send for Martin.”
“Good, and then I shall show him me most special of places, and we shall be good friends.”
Aysel chuckled. “I hope so.”
Stephan stood up and took Aysel’s hand. “Well, ye must come, Aysel. We will go and discuss our travel plans, and we can set to packin’. There is nae time to lose!” He whisked her away and with a kiss to the side of her head, they were off to plan their adventure.
“Ye are too good to me, Stephan. I cannae think how I deserved it.”
Stephan chuckled. “I ken very well how much ye wish to travel, and I want yer new home and yer life with me to be as pleasurable as possible.” He winked.
“In more ways than one, I see.”
Aysel interlaced her fingers into his hand as they ran up the steps. “We are goin’ to pack our things, right?”
“Aye and discuss our plans. I have told the servants that we will need their assistance.”
Aysel tightened her squeeze on his hand. “Well, tell them to wait just a few moments or more.” She winked up at her husband. “There is something else I wish to do first, to thank ye heartily.”
Stephan lifted his eyebrows. “Well, well, I would never wish to get in the way of an attempt at gratitude.” He opened the door to their chamber and a laughing Aysel pulled him inside.
A Year Later
“Nikolas and Henry, ye dear little things.” Aysel stood over the bassinet of her two gurgling twin boys, who had only been born a few weeks earlier. She liked to bring them out into the sun, where they could enjoy the fresh air, and view the land of their home.
She would sit by and speak to them as she painted anything that came to her head. Or she would read to them from one of the many books Stephan had brought from her mother’s secret library. Bhaltair would sometimes sit beside her and paint as well and tell the boys funny stories or adventures he had with his friend Martin.
Martin had become a fixture at the castle, and Stephan thought one day to train him up as one of the soldiers, so that Martin would always have a home at the castle, and he would have useful skills to take with him if ever he wished to leave.
“Och, there is me wee family,” Stephan walked up to them, sweat soaking his shirt.
“Wee? Why, we are now seven! That is a big family, is it nae?” Bhaltair cried out.
“Ye are quite right, lad.” Stephan tapped his brother on the shoulder. Aysel smiled. Bhaltair had grown up in the year that had passed, and she could tell by the way his cheeks had begun to lose a little of their baby fat, and he started to ask even more questions, about much more mature topics.
“I simply meant,” Stephan explained, as he leaned down to softly kiss the heads of his boys, “that me family is wee because they are only little babies. But soon they will grow up and become large men, I am sure.”
Bhaltair chewed on his lip. “Will they have a long scar like ye, brother?”
Stephan laughed, stroking a fingertip over his one son’s cheek. “Lord, I hope nae. Scars dinnae come from the Faither, Bhaltair, unfortunately, they come from the actions in life.”
Aysel nodded and returned to her canvas. “And even if they somehow become scarred or maimed in their days, I shall nae love them any less.”
Bhaltair sat up a little more. “Neither shall I! They are me nephews, after all.”
Aysel patted his little hand. “Ye are a perfect uncle, and I think ye are young enough, that one day, the three of ye will be great friends.”
Stephan sat down on the bench next to Aysel, and Aysel gave him a sidelong amused glance as he moved his arm about her waist. “I wish to see what me dear wife is paintin’ today.”
“Do ye? Or do ye wish to soak me with yer sweat from practicin’ sword fighting?” Stephan gave Aysel a loud, moist kiss on the cheek, and she laughed, grimacing in jest.
“I thought it was most appropriate that a man practice his sword and come home from a day’s work, drippin’ in sweat, to prove how hard he worked. Is that nae right, Bhaltair?”
Bhaltair cocked his head to one side. “Well, I only sweat sometimes, when I am practicin’ the swords with ye, but other times, it is only me wrist that hurts from paintin’ all day!”
Aysel laughed, “And that is work, true enough!” She kissed Stephan back. “I am happy that ye have been back to yer swords, and outside, too. It is a beautiful day to be enjoyed.”
“Och, so it is!” Stephan stood up abruptly. “Aysel, I think we should do a little journey.”
“A journey? To where?”
“To yer village, me love. We shall take the boys with us.”
Aysel knew what he referred to, and her heart swelled with love for the man who loved her so dearly and always treated her with love and kindness.
“We shall take Teine and the cart!” she said, and rushed inside, calling to the servants for help.
In a half an hour, Aysel, Stephan, and Nikolas and Henry, were on their way towards the village, Aysel trying her best to clutch onto both of her sons as she carried them in their own baskets.
She sighed with contentment as she looked over the vast stretches of green that surrounded them, in rolling hills, fields, and lush forests. “I love this land,” she breathed, pushing a strand of golden hair out of her eyes.
“And I as well,” Stephan said with reverence.
“I loved our travels, dear, and I hope we do them again, but it was a wonderful thing to come home, and breath the fresh, Scotland air, and remember our place.”
He nodded, and Aysel leaned her head against his shoulder. They passed along in companionable silence until they reached the location on the edge of the woods. Stephan helped Aysel carry the boys out of the carriage, and he tied Teine to the tree. Hand in hand, they walked further in until they came to a rounded mound covered over with blooming flowers.
Aysel sighed with delight. “Och, Faither, ye would be so happy with this sight.” She knelt down at his grave and breathed in the flowers’ fresh scent. They made her nearly dizzy with their smell. She stood up and looked back at her husband and two sons.
“He would love this, would he nae?” Stephan asked.
“Aye,” she nodded, a glistening tear forming in her eye. “I wish only that he would have been able to meet his grandchildren. Me Mither, as well.”
“And me Faither,” he said solemnly. “But they ken. They are always with us, are they nae? They ken of the love we have for them.”
“Aye, I hope they do.” She took Nikolas into her arms. “Let us walk a little.” Stephan held Henry in his arms and they walked along the path of the forest, enjoying the feel of the afternoon.
A little while later, they were returned home, and Catriona was regaling them with tales of Martin’s and Bhaltair’s antics that afternoon.
“Why, they are as rambunctious as can be!”
“But very entertainin’,” Alexander said.
“Where did ye go today? I was so busy, I had nae time to see ye off.” Catriona sipped her wine.
“Well, we went to visit me Faither’s grave. I have nae been in so long. Ye should see the lovely blossoms that have emerged on it. It is a stunning sight.”
“Aye, we went and showed the boys the spot where their grandfather lies. They have seen their other grandfather’s grave many a time. It was time we traveled to the other.”
Catriona’s eyes were moist. “How wonderful. For as much as I kenned Nikolas, I ken that he would very much have wanted to meet his grandsons, and he would have loved them dearly. As would have Stephan’s Faither.”
Aysel nodded. “I ken it well. Life had other plans, I suppose, and here we are, our bit of happiness remainin’.”
She glanced up to the wall and looked at Stephan’s painting and then to the one on the left which had so recently been hung. “What a gift to have me Faither’s portrait hung in the Great Hall of the McPhees. He would have been amazed at such an honor.”
“We would nae have thought it to go anywhere else. It is a beautiful paintin’, hen.”
“Aye, me love.” Stephan pinched her elbow with affection.
Aysel wanted to cry a little at the sight of her Faither’s face looking down on them all, so loving, so warm. He had suffered at the hand of his own brother and was gone from them. And yet, she could still feel his presence sometimes, and the gift that he gave her.
There was love to be found all over in her new life. She had a family; she had safety, security; she had beautiful experiences she would never have had, and she had love. A deep abiding love that only grew and grew with each passing day.
She could feel the tinge of sorrow moving around her mind, when Bhaltair burst out, “Will ye paint me next, Aysel?”
The whole family burst into laughter, and Aysel chuckled as well, clutching her brother to her tightly. She looked around at each of her new family’s smiling faces. The familiar smells of dinner and the sounds of the hearth crackling were in the air. Aysel smiled. She was forever home.
Before you go my bonnie, here is a wonderful song to keep you company! Thank you for your support!