Seryl 1, 1013
“Well!” Ailís sighed, flopping down next to her husband. “That’s all done.”
Neil turned to her with raised eyebrows, a mute inquiry as to what, exactly, was done. Ailís began to tick the list off on her fingers. “House is spic an’ span — the pork chops are in the oven — salads are all made — girls are all cleaned up — an’ I jest got Lora an’ Jake down for their naps. So, everythin’s ready fer when me brothers want ter get here.”
Neil’s dark skin didn’t easily show a flush, but a Sim of any complexion could smile sheepishly and rub the back of his neck. “Outside is nice an’ neat, too,” he said, gesturing to their little garden, and to the much bigger gardens in the center of the square.
Ailís smiled and patted his shoulder. “I ain’t mad at ye, honey, don’t worry. Ye kept the girls out o’ me hair all mornin’.”
“They’re of an age ter be helpin’ ye out, though, ain’t they?”
Ailís bobbed her head from side to side. The truth was that the answer to that question depended, mostly on just what it was that Ailís needed help with. Nellie in particular was a very neat little girl, always tidying up after herself and her little siblings. But while her cleaning was good for day-to-day — indeed, it was most of the reason why Ailís had been done with the cleaning as quickly as she had — there were still things that Ailís didn’t quite trust her to touch, or places she simply couldn’t reach. Besides, even though Nellie was thorough, she was energetic and very quick, almost too quick for Ailís. Ailís would have spent half the morning thinking up things for Nellie to do if Neil hadn’t needed help outside.
And Josie … Josie could be quick, too, but she wasn’t as neat as Nellie. Then you considered the problems that came from the fact that Josie was two and half years younger than Nellie and so even less able to be calm and careful. And lastly … Josie didn’t handle dust well. Not like Nellie, who never saw a dust bunny but she wanted to hunt it down and hang its skin by the fire, didn’t handle dust well. But Josie always coughed and sneezed and sputtered when she came into close contact with dust, and sometimes she would start gasping and wheezing, like she couldn’t quite breathe. Ailís herself thought that she would stop breathing when she saw her daughter struggle so. It was better to get Josie out into the open air and away from the poisonous dust.
Although the open air in this season wasn’t much better for Josie … but Neil was better with Josie when she had an attack. He was always calm and soothing, able to keep Josie from panicking and sometimes keep Ailís from panicking, too. Josie always caught her breath much faster when Neil was with her than when Ailís was. She didn’t know how he did it.
So Ailís reached out and took Neil’s hand in her own. “They were where they needed ter be — an’ so were ye.” She chuckled. “But next year, Grady’s hostin’ Brandiwine. I ain’t spendin’ another lovely holy day cleanin’ instead o’ enjoyin’ meself!”
“Seems rather unfair, since he always gets the wine,” Neil chuckled. “But –” He stopped. “Well, look at that, honey. Looks like our party’s gettin’ started.”
Ailís looked up. There was her brother — Berach — with the family in tow. “Oh, where’s Nellie? She ought ter know that Leah’s here!”
“She’ll be around in a minute, don’t ye worry,” Neil smiled. He half stood and waved to the Brogans — well, one branch of them. “Over here!”
“Well, we figured ye’d be!” called Joyce back. “Seein’ as that’s the nearest ter yer house!”
Neil chuckled, and Ailís smiled. “Welcome!” she called across the square.
“Thanks, sis!” replied Berach, as he came up to their game table, Cliodna in his arms, Joyce carrying Lilibeth by his side, and Leah trailing slightly behind.
Lilibeth yawned and rested her head on her mother’s shoulder; Cliodna seemed barely awake, and Leah was clearly looking all around for Nellie. But Berach and Joyce were all smiles. “Well! How’s this fine Brandiwine treatin’ ye?” asked Berach.
“Fine, fine!” Ailís answered, jumping from her seat to hug Berach, kiss the baby’s head, kiss Joyce’s cheek, and tickle Lilibeth under the chin respectively. “An’ how about yerselves? Joyce, I’m surprised ye were able ter get this day fer yerself. I would’ve thought the troupe might have been entertainin’ at some lord’s feast.”
“Not this year — fortunately or unfortunately.” Joyce smiled and shrugged. “I hear tell that Sir Bors is throwin’ a big feast fer all o’ the nobles, an’, well, he ain’t gonna axe the likes o’ us ter entertain.”
Ailís clucked her tongue in sympathy, or at least as much sympathy as she could muster when the end result was that she got to see her favorite brother and his whole family for the day. She turned next to Leah. “An’ how are ye, sweet?” she asked, embracing the little girl.
“Good, Auntie Ailís!” she replied. “An’ how are ye?”
“Very good, thank’ee.”
“So …” She rocked back and forth on her heels and sent up what she doubtless thought was her most winning smile. Ailís, well acquainted with the tactics of little girls who wanted something, felt her guard rising with swing of Leah’s braids. “Where’s Nellie an’ Josie, Auntie!”
“Leah!” laughed Joyce. “At least pretend ye’re interested in seein’ yer auntie!”
“Aww, Joyce, don’t worry about it,” Ailís replied, chuckling a bit to herself about her earlier suspicion. How convenient — she got to be the indulgent auntie without spoiling her reputation with her own children as the strict mama. “An’ Leah, ye know, I’m not sure where they are, but they’ll turn up any minute now, I’m sure.”
“An’,” Neil added to Berach and Joyce, “if yer littlest ones want ter take a N-A-P …”
“Ye can say it, Neil,” Berach laughed, tousling sleepy Lilibeth’s hair with one hand. “This one slept a bit in the wagon, but she’s still tuckered out as anythin’ — ain’t ye, Lil?” Lilibeth didn’t answer, but she did yawn and lean her head even more on her mother’s shoulder.
“Then come along — we’ll get the little ones nice an’ snug, an’ we’ll open the window so’s we’ll hear if they need anythin’.” Ailís led the way into the house, Berach and Joyce following.
They got the littlest ones settled; even Lilibeth, who Joyce liked to swear up and down liked naps as much as she liked pinching aunts’ pinching fingers, went down without a struggle. And when they came back out again into the bright Seryl sunshine, Nellie and Josie had appeared and were talking animatedly with Leah.
At least, until Leah had her own ideas of how she wanted the conversation to go. “Tag!” she called, patting Josie on the shoulder. “Ye’re it!”
Josie squealed and lunged after Leah, but Ailís couldn’t help herself — she called after her. “Careful!”
“Mama!” Josie protested, pouting.
“Jest … jest be careful, all right, sweet?” Ailís asked, trying to smile calmly. “Ye don’t want ter overdo … things …”
“I won’t! I jest wanna play, Mama!” Josie called back — then she took off after her sister and her cousin without a further word.
Ailís watched her run off. There was no sudden stop, no doubling over, gasping and wheezing … yet. She slowly sat down at the table where Joyce, Berach, and Neil already sat.
She found Berach watching her when she did. “She’s no better?”
“I …” Ailís stared at the birch wood of the gaming table. “Well, ye know, she’s still real little. Only four an’ a half! She could still grow out o’ her attacks.”
“An’ runnin’ around in the fresh air is probably the best thing fer her,” Joyce added cheerfully, patting Ailís’s hand. “Fresh air solves a lot o’ problems, that’s what I say.”
Berach snorted. “Oh, sure, ye say that now.”
“What? What’s that supposed ter mean, Berach Brogan?”
“Jest that ye were singin’ a different tune, round about … oh, this time last year?” Berach murmured. “Yep … I remember hearin’ some words about how a nice wood fire is the best thing on the Lord’s green earth …”
“An’ are ye sayin’ that’s untrue?” Joyce gasped, hands on her hips and head cocked to the side.
Berach’s eyes swept over his wife, making sure to linger on her bust, her hips. He smacked his lips slowly and theatrically. Then he shot his wife a look that only avoided becoming a leer thanks to the teasing light in his eyes. “Ye bet!”
“Berach! Ailís, Neil — tell me husband ter stop bein’ a pig!”
“Eh?” Neil asked. “What’d’ye mean? I’m with him!”
“Neil!” yelped Ailís and Joyce at once.
“What?” Neil asked Ailís. “I’d take a few evenin’s with ye over all the wood fires in the world!”
“Ah!” Ailís chortled. “Well, in that case, ye’re fergiven.”
“Ye — ye didn’t think I was talkin’ about Joyce, did ye?”
“Ye better not have been!” Berach mock-roared, while Joyce held sides in, her laughter ringing throughout the village.
Ailís shook her head and rolled her eyes, but she patted Neil’s cheek anyway. “Not really. But ye can be fun ter tease.”
“Hey — the teasin’s me job!”
“Oh, no it ain’t!” Joyce laughed. “Ye menfolk can’t expect ter have everythin’ yer own way. We women need ter win back some o’ our own, don’t we, Ailís?”
“Everythin’ our own way? I’ll settle fer a quarter o’ things me own way!” moaned Berach. “Although speakin’ o’ things goin’ me way … when’s Grady gonna get here? He’s bringin’ the wine, ain’t he?”
“Is that all I am ter ye?” called a voice from behind them. “The man bringin’ the wine?”
“Grady!” Berach spun in his seat and grinned. “Me favorite brother!”
“Liar!” laughed Grady.
“Oh, stop!” Toinette smacked her husband’s arm. “He’s probably tellin’ the truth! It ain’t like ye’ve got competition!”
“Aye–wait, what’d’ye mean, probably?” Grady asked, hurrying to catch up with his wife.
And there they were — all of them, the whole Brogan family and all of its offshoots. Ailís took a deep breath, a sigh of relief. She hadn’t seriously feared that either of her brothers would call off and cancel at the last minute; that wasn’t their style. But she had feared, after her mother’s death and then her father’s, that that would be the end of the Brogans as a family. Toinette had a big family, and so did Joyce. Either of those families could have easily sucked in Grady and Berach and the kids. And without their parents to hold them together, and with the uneasiness between Grady and Berach at the best of times, who was to say that they would not have all drifted apart?
But here they were, a year and more after Finley’s death, still together. Still celebrating. Their children also were still together, still friendly, still playing with each other at every opportunity. Ailís barley had a chance to kiss Nora on both cheeks and ask how she was doing before she ran off to join Nellie, Josie, and Leah. Paddy and Sean soon wandered off in that direction, too. Part of Ailís could hardly wait until Jake was old enough to join them, though she had to chuckle when she thought of how long they would all be waiting for a son of Berach’s to join them. Berach had said, most lugubriously, at Cliodna’s baptism that he figured his loins were only good for producing girls. Ailís wasn’t sure which was funnier — the overdone expression of longsuffering and sadness Berach had put on for them as he said that, or Joyce’s outraged squawk and demand to know just what was wrong with having girls.
In the meantime, though, the sexes were beginning to split — Ailís could feel it as the men all gravitated to the gaming table, which could only hold four, and the women all edged nearer to the house. As hostess, Ailís supposed it was her duty to make the split easier. “Well, girls!” she smiled. “I’m guessin’ I ought ter be nearer ter me pork chops — they’ve already been cookin’ fer a while. Would any o’ ye care ter join me?”
The women came — even Katie, who, Ailís realized, might just be becoming a lady these days — and it wasn’t long before they all sat around the big kitchen table. If a man’s house was his castle, then surely the kitchen table was the throne — but it was never the man who truly, truly occupied it the way the woman did.
Toinette was the first to take a deep breath and stretch out, relaxed. “Good Lord! Ye can all have no idea how much I needed this holiday, Ailís — Joyce! Although Kate, ye probably have an idea.”
“Aww, Mum, this past week weren’t that bad,” Katie answered, shaking her head.
“Says ye. Ye enjoy it. All o’ it!”
“Enjoy what?” Joyce asked, elbows on the table, head cradled in her hands.
“Oh, the shop, that’s what,” Toinette replied. “Goodness — I ain’t never been so glad in me life that Katie’s now big enough ter help out. I don’t know what I would’ve done without her!”
Ailís’s gaze slid to Katie. Katie was quiet — which was a bit unusual for her — but she was beaming. Well, what girl wouldn’t bask in her mother’s praise? Ailís knew she would have been basking in any praise her mother could have given out, back when she was Katie’s age.
“She’s a little saleswoman, she is,” Toinette chuckled, running a hand through her daughter’s silky smooth hair. “Why, ye know, jest yesterday, some man were axin’ her which fish goes best with Reman white wine, an’ ye know what she said?”
“What’d ye say, Katie?” asked Joyce.
Katie smiled. “I said ter him, ‘Why, sir, ye really need ter get the rainbow trout ter go with the Reman white — the reason bein’, that white wine doesn’t have any colors ter it, so ye need the rainbow trout ter balance things out. An’ he bought it!”
“The fish, or the story?” asked Joyce.
“Oh, goodness,” Ailís murmured. “Toinette — ye really think it’s a good idea ter be … ter be spinnin’ yarns like that ter the customers?”
“Well, I did worry about that at first — what if it tastes awful?” Toinette replied. “But then I realized — if it tastes great, then that man will be ferever grateful ter our Katie. An’ if it don’t, he’ll probably jest put it down ter this bein’ the sort o’ think lords an’ high folks like.”
“What’s that supposed ter mean?” laughed Joyce.
“Joyce! How many folks o’ our type give a hoot what kind o’ wine goes with what food? That’s the sort o’ thing fer higher folks ter worry about — not the likes o’ us. I mean, really, of all the silly things ter get yerself worried about …” Toinette shook her head. “Ye get the wine ye like best, an’ the food ye like best, an’ call it a Brandiwine feast — that’s what I say.”
Well, Ailís could certainly see Toinette saying that. But as for Ailís herself … “Ye know,” she sighed, “I read in a book once that the Gaulish are really good with wine … that they’ve got wines fer practically every meal, an’ they know jest what goes with what, an’ some say that eatin’ there is like … is like what the cookin’ must be like in Heaven.”
“Gaulish wine …” Joyce sighed, she herself sounding halfway into a dream. “Ye know, when the du Lacs hosted the Brandiwine feast fer the nobles last year, we was the entertainment … an’ as part o’ our fee, Sir Lancelot himself gave us all a glass o’ Gaulish wine. Oh, that were so good!” She shivered. “But it don’t make me half sad that we ain’t performin’ fer Sir Bors’s feast this year. He’s probably servin’ up some Reman vinegar.”
“Actually,” Toinette answered, smiling like the cat licking canary feathers from its whiskers, “I have it on very good authority that they’re servin’ good Gaulish wine at Sir Bors’s feast this year.”
“What?” gasped Ailís.
“No! An’ I won’t get any!” called Joyce. Katie laughed.
“Heard it from Meg, who got it from Pierre, who got it from the mouth o’ Sir Bors himself. Two whole casks o’ Gaulish wine, they have. All fer the feast.”
“How in the world did they get that?” gasped Joyce.
Ailís stroked her chin. “Me … me guess would be …” She pondered it for another moment, then, taking a deep breath, nodded. “Lady Clarice.”
“Oooh? An’ what have ye got fer us, Ailís?” Joyce asked, leaning closer. “Eh? Eh?”
“Jest — jest stuff a body hears,” Ailís stumbled, flushing a little. “Neil said that Baron Ferreira managed ter get some Gaulish wine in — don’t axe me how, since they can’t go through Glasonland ter get ter a port no more, but they did. An’ I heard that Lady Clarice were relieved, since it came in … let’s see … ah, the sixteenth! Jest in time fer her mother’s birthday — I remember her sayin’ that.”
“Her mother’s birthday,” Toinette nodded. “Clever, clever, that girl. She gives her pa good wine fer the Brandiwine feast an’ nobody can call it charity.”
“She spares her own self from that Reman muck, too,” Joyce nodded.
“What — what’s so bad about Reman wine?” asked Katie, looking from mother to aunt to other aunt.
“Grady got Reman wine,” Toinette added for Ailís and Joyce’s benefit.
“Oh — oh, well, it ain’t that bad, Katie! In fact, it really ain’t bad at all, dependin’ on which type ye get,” Ailís hurried to explain, shooting glares sideways at Joyce. “But maybe I ain’t person ter axe. I ain’t much fer wine. Give me a nice ale or cider any day.”
“An’ even the good stuff — ter be frank — ain’t got a patch on Gaulish, in me opinion,” Joyce added, smirking at Ailís. “But the Gaulish ain’t fer the likes o’ us, not really. It’s so good that it costs a lot — an’ that’s why the nobles get it all. They’re the only ones what can afford it.”
“But ye know what, Katie? Ye can make yer own decision, once ye get yer cupfull,” Toinette added. Katie beamed. Of course she would — being allowed to have your first cup of Brandiwine wine was an important rite of passage. “One, mind,” Toinette added. “That’s strong stuff, that is.”
Katie’s smile dropped off her face as she rolled her eyes.
“Aww, Toinette!” Joyce laughed. “Give the lass a chance! Ye can’t deprive her o’ the next step o’ growin’ up!”
“What next step? She’s gettin’ her first Brandiwine wine today!”
“The step after that,” Joyce answered, winking at Ailís. “Drinkin’ too much an’ gettin’ sick in the bushes!”
“Joyce!” Ailís gasped, though it was hard to gasp too much around the giggles, and the memories. She could still remember the Brandiwine when Toinette had drunk too much, back when she and Grady were courting. She hadn’t been sick, that Ailís could remember, but she had made quite the fool of herself. She and her mother both — they had been dancing on one of the tables by evening’s end, singing off-key and kicking their skirts up. It was the funniest Brandiwine Ailís had ever had, and she would remember it until the day she died.
By the pinched look on her face, so would Toinette.
“I remember the first time I got sick,” Joyce sighed, reminiscing. “Berach an’ I weren’t even courtin’ proper yet — well, I was too young, an’ me da would’ve beaten ‘im black an’ blue if he’d even thought about tryin’,” she chuckled, “but somehow he found me when I were hurlin’ me guts up an’ wantin’ ter die … an’ he held me hair back, the dear. That’s how ye know a man is good — when he’ll hold yer hair back fer ye, even in the worst o’ times.”
Katie fingered one of her pigtails with a thoughtful frown, then flipped it over her shoulder, sighing. “I think the only man who would hold me hair back is me da!”
“Like ye need another man! Lord, Katie, ye’re only twelve!” Toinette laughed. “Ye broke yer pa’s heart good last month, don’t go shatterin’ what pieces are left!”
“Ma!” Katie squealed, blushing. “Ye said ye wouldn’t tell no one!”
Tell … But Toinette didn’t need to tell, did she? Nothing made a girl flush like that — and broke her father’s heart — like getting her first bleed. A quick glance at Toinette, and her nod, confirmed it.
“Sorry, sweet. But they were gonna guess sooner or later.”
“Aye, ye’re a woman now — it’s showin’ more an’ more every day,” Joyce replied. “An’ that’s meant as a compliment, ye know. Ye’re shapin’ up into a fine little lass.”
Katie was smiling again, and Ailís took advantage of the lull to check on her pork chops.
They weren’t ready — not yet, not by a long shot. They wouldn’t be ready until nearly sunset. Since the day after Brandiwine was typically free from work (because everybody needed to get over their hangovers), Ailís had seen no reason not to have a later supper. The moon would be full, so Grady and Berach wouldn’t have any trouble getting home. They might as well take advantage of it.
So she and the women could enjoy the rest of their afternoon, talking, laughing, joking. When the babies woke, they could tend to them, and see if they could get Lilibeth and Jake to play together. And they could check on the menfolk, to make sure they hadn’t gotten into the Reman wine before the proper time came.
And then, at sunset, when the pork chops were ready and the women had helped Ailís finish the last-minute preparations on all the other foodstuffs — then Ailís could go to the door of the house and sound the immortal call that rings down the ages:
“Yoo-hoo! Supper’s ready!”
Now Brandiwine could begin.