Neil was rather certain that life did not get much better than this. The lords in their castles and the ladies in their bowers and the kings in their palaces could stuff it for all he cared. Give him a lazy evening with the children fed and snug, the work done, and nothing to do for an hour or two but sit around, and he would be content.
Ailís’s sleepy head lolled on his shoulder. “Lord,” she yawned, “what a day.”
“Aww, it weren’t that bad fer ye — were it?”
“Eh … not bad. But long. An’ tirin’.” She sighed and closed her eyes. “Very tirin’.”
Well, so much for making the evening even better once the kids were safely in bed. “Ye ought ter tell those kids ter stop tuckerin’ ye out so.”
“Mmm. Ye think of a way ter get ’em ter listen, an’ I’ll do jest as ye say.”
Neil raised his eyebrow. So that’s how ye want ter play, eh? “Hey, kids!”
The three of them — even little Jake — looked up. “Ye’re ter stop tirin’ yer ma out so. Eh? Hear me?”
They heard — they stared — and without a word they all went back to what they had been doing.
Ailís squeezed his hand. “It were a good try.”
“I’ll think o’ somethin’. Jest ye wait.”
“‘Course ye will, dear.”
She was being patronizing, he knew she was being patronizing … and there was very little he could do about it, which was the rub, really. But the kids had to get bigger and less tiring eventually, didn’t they? Nellie was already shaping up into quite the little helpmate to her mother. Josie would be right on her heels, and then once Jake got a little bigger —
Boom. Boom. Boom. That wasn’t a knock, that was a battering ram shrunken to fist size. Neil jumped in spite of himself, Ailís gasped, and of course the children stared at them with eyes as wide and scared as a little child’s eyes could be.
“Da?” asked Nellie.
“I’ll get it!” Neil replied, leaping from his seat and striding to the door. A call this long after dark — it couldn’t be good — he felt himself bracing for bad news as his hand closed around the door handle.
Bad news was exactly what he got.
“Neil! Hallo, Neil!”
“What the …” Hell are ye doin’ here? But he couldn’t say that, not in front of the children. Finley himself taught the kids enough bad words; the last thing Neil needed to do was confirm the lessons. “What brings ye here this … fine evenin’?”
“Jest …” Finley belched and Neil winced. He could smell the vile brews Finley had been downing from here. His nostrils flared. Not just ale tonight … whiskey, perhaps. Something expensive. What, was he trying to keep Grady and his family from moving out by drinking away all the money before he could use it to emancipate himself? “Jest got a proposition fer ye, lad! Let yer old father-in-law in from the cold?”
If Neil’s kids and Neil’s wife had not been sitting there, he might — he just might — have said no and slammed the door in Finley’s face. But they were sitting there, and as little as Neil liked to admit it, Finley was related by blood to all of them. So Neil took a step back and jerked his head back.
Neil heard a little thump and turned around to see that Jake had hit the floor diaper-first. Instead of crying, though, he was blinking up at Finley with the curious gaze of the very young.
“Hallo, Jake! Got a kiss fer yer ol’ grandpa?” Finley leered, bending to him.
Neil could almost see Finley’s breath, a disgusting yellow-green fog, washing all over his innocent son. It took every better — or worse — instinct to keep Neil from swooping in, picking Jake up and carrying him somewhere far, far away.
Luckily, Jake had no better or worse instincts to keep him from reacting when Finley crouched over him. His not-so-little nose wrinkled and he wailed one of the few words he had mastered: “Mama!”
And then Ailís was up from her chair and swooping to their boy, saving Neil the trouble. “Sorry, Pa,” she said, bending to pick Jake up, “it’s almost bedtime, he’s awful cranky –”
“Mama!” Jake called again.
Ailís was about to pick him up, but something — happened. Neil would later remember seeing Finley’s hand shoot out, but at the time all he was aware was that one moment Ailís was almost crouching, the next she was standing upright, if wobbling a little on her feet.
Neil would also remember the way Ailís had told him that one managed her father when he was drunk. One did not argue. One did not protest. One did what one was told — quickly — all the better if it took one out of range his hands, hands that were suddenly looking enormous and meaty to Neil.
Luckily — or perhaps unluckily — all Finley did at that moment was throw his arms out, grin at his daughter, and slurr, “What, no kish fer yer ol’ man?”
“Oh! O’ course, Da.” Ailís rested a hand on his shoulder and kissed him on the cheek. She tried to move away then, but Finley grabbed her upper arms, dragged her closer, and bestowed a smacking kiss on her.
He didn’t loosen her — he didn’t pull away — to Neil’s eyes, Finley pushed Ailís away while still holding onto her upper arms. “My best girl! Lord, don’t ye look like yer ma!”
Neil could not see her face, but he knew well the set of Ailís’s back. It was giving off distress signals now if it ever had. “Ailís,” he suggested, “ain’t it time fer ye ter put the kids ter bed?”
“Aye! Aye, yes! Girls! Bedtime!” Ailís said, swooping in to pick up Jake.
“No, it ain’t, Mama!” Nellie protested. “It might be the little ones’ bedtime, but it ain’t –”
“Aye, it is. Go with yer ma, Nellie,” Neil interrupted. Nellie shot him a look of shocked betrayal. No, it wasn’t her bedtime … but given the choice between an early bedtime and watching who-knew-what from her grandfather …
Still, even if Nellie couldn’t understand the choice she was being presented, she could understand when her father meant business. With a sigh, she rose and accompanied her mother and her younger sibs to the door that led to the loft.
“Ye sure they can’t stay …” Finley asked, watching them go.
“Aye.” For once, Neil’s tone managed to brook no argument with someone who wasn’t one of his own offspring.
“Hmm,” Finley grunted as they left. “Well … I s’pose it’s all right. Because I,” he clapped a meaty hand on Neil’s shoulder, “have a proposition fer ye, me lad!”
“Aye, I do! An’ I think ye’ll like it!”
We’ll see. “I see,” however, was all that Neil said. “Well, Finley, why don’t ye have a seat?” And before Finley could take a seat on the sofa — forcing Neil to sit next to him — Neil strode to the kitchen table, hoping that Finley would sit anywhere other than directly next to him.
It was only after they both sat that Neil realized that Finley had taken the only potentially worse position: right across from Neil, where his foul breath would wash over Neil with every exhale. Neil resolved to breathe through his mouth until he could find some way to be rid of his father-in-law for the evening.
Finley took a deep breath and let it out again. Neil held his. “Neil …” Finley looked around. “This is a nice enough place,” he began in the tone of a man making a great concession. “Ye earned it all yerself, didn’t ye? Yer parents didn’t give ye much help?”
“They weren’t in a position ter help much,” Neil replied, “bein’ dead an’ all.”
“Er. Right. Right, o’ course. Me sympathies. But when they were alive … well, they weren’t able ter help ye much, were they?”
Neil shook his head.
“Well … then I’ve got ter hand it ter ye, Neil. Ye’ve made a nice life fer yerself an’ yer children. Ye ought ter be right proud o’ yerself, ye ought. But … but ye know, bein’ an heir ter a man o’ property … that’s a great way ter get a leg up in the world, it is.”
“Too bad I don’t know any men o’ property,” replied Neil.
“Eh! That ain’t true, lad. Why — ye know me!” Finley puffed up his chest and smirked.
Neil considered pointing out the elementary flaw of calling a man “a man of property” who did not even own himself, but elected to point out another flaw in Finley’s logic instead. It was probably the flaw that would hurt more, but since Finley had barged in, drunk, on Neil and his family at this hour … well, Neil had very little sympathy for that. “Funny. I thought Lord Pellinore said that the shop an’ all belonged ter Grady, since he’s the man what built it up.”
Finley shuddered. “The — the shop? The shop, ye gurt –” Finley stopped, swallowed, and — smiled? “Aw, ye’ve been listenin’ ter Grady, ain’t ye? Poor fool boy, he thinks ye can get rich buyin’ an’ sellin’. Ye can’t, ye know. It’s land where the wealth is. Always has been, always will be.”
Richard Ferreira, Neil’s employer and the former employer of Lilé, would probably disagree with that. Neil, wisely, did not. Not out loud, at any rate.
“An’ land,” Finley continued, leaning back and resting his head on his joined hands behind him, “is exactly what I’ve got. Mm?” He waggled his eyebrows, clearly expecting Neil to catch some sort of drift.
Neil didn’t. “Er …”
Finley sighed. “I’m thinkin’ o’ makin’ ye me heir, boy! Ye an’ yer family, gettin’ everythin’ I own when I go! What do ye think o’ that?”
Neil gasped. “Why — Finley — that’s — that’s right generous — but what about –”
“O’ course,” Finley interrupted, “there will be a bit o’ … well, a quit pro quote, like the noble folk say. Somethin’ fer somethin’.”
Ah. A catch. “An’?”
“Ye an’ Ailís an’ the kids would move in with me — ter help me in me old age.”
“… Eh?” Neil asked.
“It only makes sense, though, don’t ye think? I mean, if ye’re gettin’ a nice, snug little farmhouse as soon as a I go, well, what do ye need this place fer? Especially since — now, don’t take this the wrong way, ’cause I know it were all ye could afford — it ain’t much, compared ter what ye’ll be gettin’. Ye know?”
“What about Grady?” asked Neil.
It was the wrong question. Finley’s brows knit and he hissed. “Oh, Grady, eh? That little son of a bitch! Coward, that boy is! An’ a — an’ a –” Neil watched Finley flounder for another insult. “Ruled by his wife! No man, is he!”
“He got him an’ his kids emancipated, didn’t he?” Neil asked.
Finley sighed. “Signed the papers this mornin’. Grady’s already found another house. A house! They move out next week!”
Good fer Grady. Finally grew a spine. An’ started thinkin’ with his heart, an’ not his purse, if I’m any judge. “I see.”
“An’ Lord Pellinore’s lettin’ him take all the money! Everythin’! Everythin’ I ever earned — ceptin’ the house, an’ the land — he says it’s all Grady’s! Where’s the justice in that, I ask ye?”
The justice in it probably rested on the fact that Finley hadn’t earned so much as a clipped copper that he hadn’t promptly spent on some kind of booze immediately after, and Lord Pellinore knew it. Apparently even staid, conservative Lord Pellinore couldn’t let his beliefs quiet his conscience to that extent. But good luck getting Finley to admit that — or even to realize it. Neil sighed. “Well, he’d get a lot o’ money from Grady bein’ able ter buy his way out … a couple an’ five kids? Lord, that’s eighty silver pieces!”
“He’d make more from the taxes!”
“Eh, his son jest got married, maybe he needed the money …” Neil shrugged.
Finley snorted. “Bah! He’s a lord. What’s he need so much money fer? Mark me words, he did it because he’s an interferin’ bastard. He kicked Berach out o’ his house, don’t ye know?”
Yes, Neil did know that. He also knew that Berach had lost his house because Finley refused to lift a finger and help his son out. Lord Pellinore was least at fault in all of that. “I’m sure he had his reasons.” He shrugged. “So … what ye want is fer me an’ Ailís an’ the girls ter move in with ye.”
“An’ be me heirs! Remember that. A fine house, an’ a fine farm, it is!”
“Er … o’ course. Because ye need help?”
“Neil, ye ain’t no fool.” Was that so? Neil was rather sure he had heard his father-in-law calling him a fool and worse before. But he held his peace … for now. “I’ve more gray hairs than red in me beard. It hurts when I get up in the mornin’.” That’s ’cause o’ the hangovers, Finley. “I ain’t gonna be able ter take care o’ the farm fer much longer.”
“Then why don’t ye sell it an’ move inter a little flat or cottage?”
Finley blinked. “Eh, lad?”
“Sell the house back ter Lord Pellinore. Get a little cottage. I don’t know if the King’s rented the one what Joyce stayed in, before she was married. Ye’ll be able ter take care o’ that better, an’ ye can live off the money from yer house. An’ if ye get too old or sick ter take care o’ yerself,” an’ ter drink, “ye can move in with one o’ yer other kids. Maybe even Grady would take ye back in then. Time is a great fergiver, ye know.”
Finley stared at Neil, then pronounced his judgement. “Neil Porter, if ye actually believe any o’ that would be good, ye are a bigger fool than I ever gave ye credit fer.”
An’ ye want me ter be yer heir? Then again, perhaps a fool was exactly what Finley wanted for an heir. Why not? A fool would let Finley have his way — would consent to give up his independence and live under Finley’s tyranny in exchange for a house (which Neil already had) and a farm (which Neil also already had). Berach, on the other hand, Berach had neither of these things … but Finley had not gone to Berach. Why?
Because Berach wasn’t as much of a “fool” as Neil was, that was why.
“Look, Finley …” Neil began, but was cut off by the door quietly opening and just as quietly shutting again. It was Ailís.
“Did — did I miss anythin’, boys?” she asked, trying to smile.
“Did ye!” Finley cried, leaping from his chair. “Why, I was jest tellin’ yer husband the best idea!”
“Ye … were?”
“Was I! Ah, Ailís, it’ll be wonderful! Ye an’ yer husband Neil an’ all yer sweet little kids will be movin’ in with me!”
“What?!” Ailís squawked and turned beseeching eyes to Neil. Neil could only shake his head as rapidly as he could. Luckily Finley wasn’t looking in his direction.
“Aye! Won’t it be wonderful? I’ll get ter see me favorite daughter every day … yer kids will be right close ter their one grandparent left … we can take care o’ each other, ye see. Ye know … ye’re a bright girl, Ailís, ye know ye’re da’s gettin’ old. He ain’t as able ter work around the farm an’ such as he used ter be.”
“Indeed,” Ailís murmured. Thank the Lord she looked as skeptical as Neil felt.
“An’ he needs someone ter take care o’ him. An’ … well, I can take care o’ ye an’ Neil an’ yer kiddies, this way, once I’m gone. Ye see? Everybody wins!”
“Do we,” Ailís replied.
“O’ course we do! Why, we’re … we’re close again, like we used ter be, when ye was little, Ailís. Oh, ye probably don’t even remember it, not hardly, but we was thick as thieves when ye were but a wee one! It can be jest like that, all over again!
“An’ …” Finley broke off and rubbed the back of his neck. “An’ I won’t lie ter ye — ye look powerful like yer mother, Ailís. It’ll … it’ll be doin’ me good ter see yer face, so closer ter hers –”
Ailís’s eyes grew steadily wider and wider as Finley spoke, her lips beginning to part. Neil finally took pity on her. “Ailís — was that Jake I jest heard?”
“Jake? Oh, Jake! ‘Scuse me, Da, gotta go see ter Jake!” Ailís replied. She treated with no more communication than a grateful glance in Neil’s direction.
“Well!” Neil said as soon as she was gone. “I guess, with the kids all in bed, Ailís an’ I had better be followin’. An’ ye’ll be wantin’ ter get out o’ here yerself.”
Neil pumped his hand once or twice, then firmly began to steer Finley toward the door. “I’ll be thinkin’ about yer offer, I will be. Me an’ Ailís will be talkin’ it over. An’ when we decide, we’ll let ye know.”
Neil realized as he got Finley closer and closer to the door that Finley had never had anyone stand up to him when drunk before — not really. He wouldn’t be so docile if he had the least idea how to fight back. If that was all it took …
But whether that was all it took or wasn’t, it worked tonight, and Neil was able to shove Finley out the door, lock it and bar it before Finley could even protest. Neil caught his breath a moment, then ran up to the loft, pausing only to blow out the candles.
He found Ailís in the children’s wing, tucking Jake in, though Jake had made no more noise than the sleeping cocks. “Ailís?”
She stood up slowly. “He wants us ter move in with him.”
“He’s gettin’ worse, ain’t he? He does need someone ter take care o’ him.”
“It don’t have ter be ye.”
“I’m his daughter.”
“It don’t have ter be us.”
Ailís’s face fell. “Neil, if it were yer parents …”
“Me parents,” Neil replied, hooking his arms around Ailís’s wife and pulling her close, “were never like Finley.”
“Oh, Lord,” Ailís murmured.
“They never hurt me the way Finley’s hurt ye all.”
“Ye were lucky.”
“I know. I still am.”
Ailís smiled, then sighed. “But what are we gonna do, Neil? If he needs help …”
“We ain’t movin’ inter his house, Ailís. That much I can tell ye. I ain’t givin’ up everythin’ I worked fer ter be dependent on ‘im — while still workin’ jest as hard, mind! That’d be madness, that is.”
“He wouldn’t come here. He won’t be dependent, either.”
“Then … well, good,” replied Neil. “Ailís, if ye could see yer face … ye only look this sad when it’s yer pa we’re dealin’ with. An’ I won’t let ye get under his power again. D’ye remember? When we was jest kids? An’ I promised I’d take ye away from there — that house — an’ ye’d never, never have ter go back?”
“Ye did promise that,” Ailís murmured.
“An’ I meant it. We ain’t goin’ back there. If yer pa truly needs help, he’ll put his pride aside an’ come here. If he don’t … well, he’ll find a way to manage. An’ if he needs help, an’ comes here, then we can think o’ somethin’ ter … ter keep him from doin’ ter our kids what he did ter ye an’ yer brothers.”
“I … I guess ye’re right, Neil,” Ailís sighed, and rested her head on his shoulder.
But from the pressure of her chin against his shoulder, Neil knew she wasn’t happy. And how she could be happy … well, he knew that was impossible, in the circumstances.
But hopefully, sooner or later, she’d come to agree with him that this was for the best. Anything, anything would be better than putting themselves under Finley’s power. Ailís knew that. Ailís would realize it anew soon.
And hopefully that would make her happier.