Mangled Men and Hay-Orphans

Title: Mangled Men and Hay-Orphans
Time Period: September, 127 A.E.
Characters Appearing:

Summary: Aislinn confronts her brother-in-law about the conditions at his father's factory and receives some unexpected support.

At night, Eilean Donan castle glows gold, lit by torches in its windows and on its gusty ramparts. The tallest watchtower does not provide Duncan Rowntree with the best view in all of Dornie, but it does give him dominion over the loch and the windswept moorland on the other side of the water, all shadows. He can hear the red deer calling out in hoarse voices to one another across the strait as clearly as the shrill voices of his children down below as their nursemaid ushers them into their beds.

Constance and Peter are arguing again over who stepped on Heart Song's tail, and that is no surprise. Not only are they brother and sister — they're twins.

The fighting has mostly subsided by the time he realizes that he's no longer alone in the watchtower, and although there's a moment where the silhouette framed at the top of the stone stairs bears a morbid resemblance to his dead wife, all Aislinn has to do is speak to dispel any thoughts of Leah.

"A man died today," she says in her alien accent, though her voice is soft and without any unpleasant edges.

It was not uncommon for chieftains - back in times before known time - to let matters of honor amongst be settled amongst the parties involved. Fewer impressions of favoritism, less wastage of resources, and a chance to winnow unruly ranks.

No, all right, he doesn't wish death on either of his children, but short of obligatory paternal love, he could do with fewer dependents. It's wearing for one so tall to so often swoop. And so he retreats to the highest height, as far above the common dross as he can reasonably get.

Up here, so close to the aether, the fire of heaven, one would think it would be warmer. It's not. Still, the air is clear. He can see for miles, out upon the vast untrained and untamed. The dark, heartless wild.

And then compassion comes calling.

Duncan's eyes close for a moment before he pushes himself from his lean, and turns his back on the view to answer.

"How tragic. Go fetch my blackest veil."

"A man died today," Aislinn says again. "At your father's factory. His arm was pulled into one of the machines." It must have been some time ago, because the settlement's resident physician has hands clean of blood, small, pale and folded at the apex of her swollen belly.

The child growing there will be no dependent of Duncan's, at least, even if it is a relation of his through his brother.

"The workers told me your men hold their heads in cisterns of cold water to keep them awake. They work sixteen hour shifts. One of the foremen uses his belt to beat the children if they're caught talking."

And those hands stay pale, and soft, and folded, don't they? No blisters from endless hours at the needle, no burns from working with heated components. There is little expression from Duncan. What little there is, is scorn.

"I will relay you concerns to my father."

And then dismissal.

"Will that be all?"

It's possible that Aislinn can see. The shadow of her husband decides not to blunder into the light nor the conversation and instead leans his back against the wall, having followed her on quiet feet. Not deliberately, exactly - he saw her shape pass a door and went to her, fancied invading the privacy she sought, but it seems now she is instead invading the privacy of another.

Edmund buries a hand in a jacket pocket, absently checking the fullness of the small bag of tobacco within for later reference. His expression remains impassive at dismissal, which is simply noted.

Aislinn is quiet, which is not all that unusual; she normally is unless she's tending to the sick or the wounded, or talking to Edmund about whatever it is they talk about in the privacy of their rooms, or the field, the stables, and everywhere else they like to be alone together.

She looks down, recollecting herself so she can rekindle the spark of courage that propelled her up the stairs to begin with. If she cannot see her husband, then she must sense his presence with her magic. "Your men are not your father's men," she tells Duncan. Maybe Edmund's shadow gives her the extra boost of confidence she needs to try again, this time with a mild amount of trepidation.

"I would speak with Marcas," not Marcus, the same as Donagh is not Duncan, and Eamonn is not Edmund, for Aislinn is peculiar with names, "but I wished to give you the opportunity to rein them in first. They treat the workers worse than I've seen men treat their animals, and these are human beings — not sows being raised for slaughter."

"That's where you're wrong," Duncan says, folding his arms across his chest in a building bastion, defending against this barrage of unalloyed, unassuming goodness and outlander idiosyncrasy, "they are his as much as mine.

"And I am my father's man, so what he needs done, I see done," Duncan's gaze doesn't waver when he speaks, nor his tone - he speaks with the monotony he'd offer a child whose dullness is trying is patience, "and the quota he asks for is the quota I'll meet. By hook, or by crook."

His next words are unapologetically cruel.

"But maybe you've nae the same sense of family as I."

The viciousness subsides, though, about as quickly as it came.

"Did your mangled man have a wife? Hay-orphans?"

How Duncan treats people is sort of a thing Edmund grows numb to, but he notes it more when it's to his wife. Or his stable boys. Sometimes to himself, but not always. Not one for lurking in the shadows, he pushes himself off the wall and moves, then, stepping into the frame of the doorway, a tall and formidable shadow with dark-red beard growing in. His hand moves out to touch the small of Aislinn's back.

"Corpses don't do much for business, save for raisin' worms. Were you looking into a new passtime there, Duncan?" is about as wry and sarcastic as he gets.

Aislinn's hands form a knot, and she does not look up again; instead she tenses her jaw, fighting the sudden sensation of tightness in her throat that's eased by the warmth of Edmund's hand on her back. Her first husband and daughter haven't yet been raising worms a year. Duncan's accusation is a harsh reminder of how she came to be his brother's wife in the first place, and cuts so deep that she can find nothing at all to say in her own defense.

"Children," she corrects Duncan in a voice that comes close to breaking but doesn't quite — it only warbles. "Yes. A little girl the same age as your Celia."

"This world farms corpses well enough," Duncan answers Edmund, irritated at his brother's indulgence, "through sickness, cold, mishap, madness, beasts, bandits. Many fewer die behind well armed walls."

And this is Duncan's brand of compassion - eminently pragmatic. Not absent, but rationed.

"I'll see his family cared for-" Duncan adds, finality weighing his words - this, it would seem, is what he's willing to concede, "and I'll see five seconds of silence are observed next shift, to honor the man's sacrifice for the protection of Dornie."

"Aye, I feel safer already. Maybe you should take some pride in your factories, little brother, and the men who have the privilege of workin' there."

Edmund's voice contains steel at its core, but he doesn't like to bring about a fight with Duncan, not really. He doesn't like to bring about fights he isn't positive he can win. Not that that always stops him, however. "I'll see to the girl," he adds, half to Aislinn. "Father won't say no to a few stamps and metals to see her and her's through the season, now will he."

Aislinn's blonde head remains bowed in spite of the gratitude crowding around her heart, jostling the other emotions there for the most space in her chest.

"Thank you," she says, and although it isn't clear which brother she's addressing, it's probably a safe bet to assume she means both of them. "I meant no disrespect — I am as much a Rowntree as your own mother."

Little brother, is it? Well, there's no shame in being the younger. The Good Book seems to well favor them, after all.

"Nae, big brother-" Duncan says, with a small huff of something like laughter, "I'll leave all the pride to you. And the softness of temper, and the mercy. Seems the easiest way to split the pie."

Aislinn receives a nod, more recognition than affirmation. What of her is Rowntree for certain is swelling her belly. Maybe when she's completed her labors, spilled her blood, the rest of her will qualify.

"Are we content now? Ready to claim the sleep of the just?"

"You know me, Duncan. A bleeding heart."

He isn't. Edmund's burned settlements and run families out of their homes enough to prove his heart is as dry as salted meat when it comes to resourcing the town - just not since he married Aislinn. That and he'd probably not bother if it weren't for his wife standing here. He hesitates, like he'd like to say more, but instead finds himself silently assessing the younger Rowntree as he goes to steer Aislinn for the door.

There's a grunt, like he's decided he has nothing else to impart; in truth, he's not sure what to say. Duncan said it best, after all; he is his father's man.