Chreagach Mhor, Scotland December 21, 1148
Everyone said Alexander Ailbeart MacKinnon was tall for his age, though not so tall as his brother Malcom. According to everything Alex had ever heard, his brother was born braw. Malcom was gifted in everything he’d ever attempted. He could strike a mark with his bow from some unthinkable distance, and if he swung his axe, it felled ten men. His hair was spun gold, his face made lassies swoon, and therefore, with so much to recommend him, it only stood to reason he could create works of art with his piss, and he could speak three languages, and put a blade through an apple-core from fifty paces away. Pphht!
Of course, the first son must be the best and most beloved son—and yet, all this time, it was Alex here at home, splitting his Da’s wood and carrying his minny’s pails.
Cursing beneath his breath, he carried in the heavy bucket, hoisting it up, atop the kitchen worktable for Glenna, wincing as a bit of the milk spilt over the edge onto the flour dusted table.
The old woman peered down at him, arching a perfectly white brow. “Di’ ye wash your hands afore milking Nettie?” she asked charily.
“Yes’m,” he said, sliding his hands behind his back.
“Good lad,” she said, before returning her attention to the contents of her table, and Alex stood by, watching her work, amazed by the way her fingers so deftly braided the dough.
“Are ye making Yule bread?”
“Aye lad, I am.” She turned to give him a pointed look, waving a flour-crusted finger at him. “An’ ye best be thinkin’ what you’re most grateful for this year. There’ll be no hemmin’ and hawing, d’ y’ hear? There are wee ones aboot, who’ve naught so much as ye do, and you’ll surely think of just one thing to be thankful for.”
Not Malcom, that’s for sure.
Alex frowned. His sun-kissed copper bangs falling into his face and he swiped them away, annoyed by the thought of his eldest sibling. Never in his father’s presence would he say so, but, betimes, he called his brother a traitor. After all, hadn’t Malcom abandoned their clan, setting off to England, only to bend his knee to a usurper?
“D’ y’ wish tae know what I’m grateful for?” asked Glenna.
Alex lifted his shoulders, ’cause it was always the same every time. Her answer was always about bones or teeth.
“Good health! Long life! And sturdy teeth!” she exclaimed, and like every other time she made this confession, she chomped her teeth together, then tried to wiggle the eye tooth, and when it wouldn’t budge, she made herself a bony little fist and put her knuckles to the enamel, knocking like a crazy auld hag. “I thank the Cailleach for these,” she said. “Good teeth are a great blessing, an’ ye’d best be puttin’ paste to yours, or ye’ll lose ’em and never get yourself a good woman, Alex.”
Alex didn’t want himself a woman. All he could think as of late was that Malcom had gone and wed himself a Welsh witch, and she must have bewitched him, but who cared? Malcom deserved every bit of toil and trouble he got, and it infuriated Alex to no end that his entire household was in such a dither now, preparing for the prodigal son’s return. God’s teeth! Even his sister Liana was fairly crooning with joy. But, after all, who cared about Malcom! Who cared that he’d gone and wed himself a daughter of King Henry! Who cared if his lady could kill a hundred thousand birds with a turn of her hand!
Who cares! Who bloody cares!
In all these years—eleven, to be precise—Malcom had never once come home to meet his one and only brother. So much as Alex didn’t wish to admit it, this fact sat like nails in his gut. It made him want to run into the woodlands and roar like a hell beast. And if all of these discredits were not insult enough, his brother wouldn’t even keep the name of their clan. Instead, he’d styled himself Malcom Scott. Pphht!
So, all the while his Ma and his sister Liana ran about washing windows, sweeping the floors—all whilst singing—Alex was busy prodding Glenna for everything she knew about protecting their home against witchery. Surreptitiously, of course, though she might have guessed, because she’d told him this morning, “Not all witchery is bad, my boy. There was a day not long past when all the things I do for this clan might have seen me burned.”
Malcom’s brows collided. “Like what?” It seemed to him that all Glenna ever did was weave cloth, bake bread, or run about scolding young maids to “keep their skirts” lest they end like Cousin Constance—pregnant and living blind amidst hill Scots.
“Birthing babes, healing, to name a few,” she’d said. And then she’d gone on to explain, not for the first time, that she’d been the one to bring his Da into the world. “He was born with eyes as blue as Loch Morlich—like Malcom. I brought your brother into the world as well, and your sister, too.”
Alex frowned. “What about me?”
She smiled, and nodded. “Aye, lad, ye too.” But she said naught more, and he’d heard naught more about his own blue eyes, which were every bit as blue.
Still, auld as she was, Glenna was a great font of knowledge. Alex watched as she continued to braid the dough. Once the Yule loaf was formed she would twist the braided dough into a good sized wreath, and she would take the caraway seeds and liberally sprinkle them over the loafs before baking. Only once every year did she make this particular recipe, perfectly fashioned to appease all Gods, old and new. The three braids represented the holy trinity, and the added caraway seeds were meant to prevent the bean sídhe from stealing away their vitality throughout the long, cold winter. The seeds held magical properties, and because caraway was prized by bean sídhe, it was meant to confuse the spirit, so it became distracted picking off each little seed, and thereby forgetting to steal souls.
Really, everything Alex had ever learned about the Old Ways, he’d learned from Auld Glenna. And, in truth, everything he’d ever learned about most things, he’d learned from his womenfolk, because his Da was too busy, training for war, and he said Alex wasn’t auld enough to take up a sword. Soon, he’d said. Soon. But not yet.
“Now, your brother,” said Glenna, her reverie entirely unwelcome. “He was a fine, braw lad from the day he was born—the very image of his Da.”
This made Alex frown, because the MacKinnon wasn’t only Malcom’s Da. He was Alex’s Da, too, and there were lots and lots of folks who’d said he had his father’s chin—precisely so, with that wee cleft Malcom apparently shared as well. Regardless, he was sick unto death over hearing about Malcom. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah.
“Are ye certain witches canna eat salt?” His eyes shifted back and forth, from Glenna to the bread, then back.
Glenna lifted a wiry brow and gave Alex a knowing glance. “I know what ye’re thinking, Alex. There’ll be plenty o’ salt in this bread already, and your Da’ll take a strap to your arse. You aren’t yet auld enough to escape the rod for such waste.”
He wondered if she’d looked inside the cupboard. Alas, there was no sense regretting what was already done. He shrugged, thinking that he’d already learned more than enough already, and set off to mind his own tasks. With only a day remaining before his brother’s imminent arrival, he’d fashioned himself a few brass bells to put about the necks of their finest cows.
He’d also brought in a number of old horseshoes from the barn to hide behind the doors. In fact, he was so determined to keep his family safe and sound, that he’d placed his own iron dagger—the one Auld Angus had given him—beneath the threshold of the front door, because, according to Glenna, folks believed that iron was a witch’s greatest weakness, and therefore, a true witch couldn’t touch iron, step over it, or pass by it, and, just in case they entered the house some other way, Alex was busy gathering as much holly and ivy as he could carry to hang about the house. Later, once Malcom and his bride showed their true colors, everyone would thank him for sure. He took his wagon down the hillside to where a thick patch of holly grew, and very carefully, plucked the spiky leaves and put them into his wagon. He would use the ivy that grew on the house to string it all together, berries and all. With a bit of luck, his arsenal would prove effective, and his damnable brother and witchy wife would run back to Angle’s land, where they belonged.