Finola Aiken was determined to have Iain notice her dress, newly made or not. She hovered by the market stall closest to the edge of town and Iain had to greet her or risk the ire of both his mother and the young lady in the bright green dress.
"Oh, will you look at Finola's dress, isn't she the prettiest thing?"
Iain glanced at his mother, prepared to shrug and say, 's'alright', even though he actually agreed that, wow, she really could be about the prettiest thing he'd seen with her blonde hair pulled back, her cheeks flushed in the cool crisp air and the bright colour of her dress festive and warm. He'd be teasing and Theresa would know it, but he wanted clarify his intentions. Iain really did not want to build a house in the spring. Any interest in Finola Aiken, beyond a dance – because she did look quite pretty and he did not have a cruel heart – would be taken as courtship. That's how it worked in a village as small as Stormgard.
"Iain!" Finola chose that moment to notice the approach of the MacKinnon family and gushed, yes gushed, and stuck her hand out, expecting him to take it.
After a moment's hesitation, in which he could feel his mother's mood edging from pleased to peeved, Iain took the young lady's hand, briefly. "Hello, Finola." He paused, expecting an elbow to nudge him in the ribs and felt again the absence of his sister. Be nice! "You look very pretty."
She beamed. Iain couldn't help but smile in return. He became aware that his father and his grandfather and his mother were all watching them intently. This would not do. He nodded his head towards Finola. "I'll see you later, perhaps. Will you save me a dance?" he asked with a warm smile.
The combination of dismissal and promise had the desired effect. His mother would be satisfied with his manners, Finola would be satisfied with the idea of dancing with him later and the men folk were eager to get moving. They moved on.
Iain enjoyed the afternoon. He spent it in the company of this family. In turns he wandered the stalls first with his mother and later with the men. He and Theresa admired such things as wool, fabric, innovative cooking implements and here, his mother arched her brows in surprise as he praised the merits of a certain pie dish, and then the pair lost themselves at the booksellers where they discovered a fat sheaf of sheet music.
Pulling one from the stack, Iain hummed a few bars, then stopped as his mother leaned against his side. He looked over at her in apology. "Sorry."
"No! You know I love to hear you sing. Makes you sound happy."
He grinned at his mother and, looking back at the sheet, quietly sang a little of it for her. Her finger touched the page now and again when he missed a note or mixed up the pace. It had been a while since he'd sung from a sheet of music and her gestures took him back to his childhood. Theresa had been the one to teach him how to read music and how to more than just bellow when he sang.
They bought the song (and several other sheets) and moved on to meet the men for a small break where they shared an ale and something to eat. Then he followed his grandfather to the other end of the festival market.
"I want you to meet a friend of mine, Iain, I think you'll like his work."
The three men approached a large wagon and Iain stopped to admire the furniture arrayed before it. A pair of chairs caught his attention first. The backs were not laddered in the traditional manner or delicately spoked as he'd seen in Orlais and Antiva. Instead, they comprised a solid piece of wood, the colour of honey and polished to a warm shine. More than the beauty of the wood caught his eye, and he instantly understood what his grandfather wanted to show him. The wooden panels were intricately carved. The top, where the wood curved, resembled the fan of a clam shell and the theme had been carried throughout, waved lines following the sides down, swirls at the bottom and in the centre of each, a ship, viewed from the stern, preparing to sail out of the chair under a full wind.
Iain knelt before one of the chairs and traced the lines with his finger. He'd never seen work so fine. Idly, he wondered if he might ever transfer his talent for drawing into such a skill. His grandfather sometimes worked like this, etching simple carvings into smaller objects. The old man usually preferred to find wood with a pattern and personality of its own, though, and bring the natural characteristics to life. An equal talent, in Iain's opinion.
Looking up over his shoulder, he grinned at his grandfather. "They are something else."
Gavin returned his grin and introduced him to the artisan, another elderly man whose eyes sparkled with humour and wit. Iain shook his hand and allowed the craftsman to give him a tour of his treasures. He complimented everything he saw, but felt that the two chairs were the very best examples of his work. Maybe because they reminded him so much of the sea. A wistfulness tugged at him whenever he looked at them. He could probably afford to buy them with the gold Captain Idowu had given him, but what would he do with a pair of chairs? Dream of the ocean? A wry smile hovered about his mouth as they walked back towards the centre of the market.
"You could try work like that, son."
Iain looked at his father in surprise thinking such encouragement would more naturally come from his grandfather. Holding up his near useless left hand, he shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe." Maybe.
"Only need one good hand, and you always had an eye for detail. Not many men realise it's the little things that make up a whole."
Callum's smile included him and Iain felt the warm glow of his father's pride. They'd not talked a lot since the incident at the tavern, but with this, Iain felt his father reaching out to him again and he reached back.
"It's as you taught me, dad."
The setting sun and quiet of evening were defied by the festivities. Torches blazed about the town square, musicians began to coordinate and picnickers gave way to dancers.
Iain sought Finola's company early in the evening, shortly after passing his mother off to his father. Normally he'd dance with his sister at that point, but as Rafi would not be with him this festival, and he'd felt her absence on and off all day, more so than usual, he decided to avail himself to the local lasses. If he danced with enough of them, any attention paid to one would not seem so particular.
Finola's smile lit up her entire face and he led her out in a very gentlemanly fashion. She smelled enticing and the tickle of her fingers across his palms as guided her through the steps of the dance proved hard ignore. Studying her lovely features, Iain thought about giving up and giving in. It had been a while since he'd kissed a woman, felt her curves, and Finola had always interested him. If he'd not been promised to Highever...
The music ended and he bowed before her. "Thank you for the dance, Finola."
She pouted rather appealingly. "Shall we have another?"
"Maybe later? I have to dance with my cousins or they'll feel neglected." He offered her a wink and Finola flushed prettily and let him go.
Iain went to find his cousins. The MacKinnons were distantly related to the Douglases and they had two daughters he could take out to the dance floor without risk of complication. The upside (and Iain liked any situation which benefited two parties), was that the girls would be thrilled by his attention and his mother would think him sweet to make the effort. He took the older out first, a girl of sixteen who did not stop smiling the entire time. She wore a dark orange dress and had twisted green leaves into a small circlet to wear in her hair.
"You look just like an autumn princess, Sara."
She blushed and flushed and gripped his hands throughout the dance and Iain grinned at the sight of her, remembering how Serafina's own attitude at that age, how she might punch him lightly on the arm if he complimented her, then try to hide her pleased smile. He danced two dances with Sara, partly out of sentimentality. Despite her different manner, she reminded him somewhat of his sister. Her obvious delight in his attention warmed him, it felt good to do something that pleased someone else and, beneath his teasing banter, Iain harboured a generous nature.
Then he danced with his younger cousin. He approached the ten year old girl and gave her a very formal bow. "May I have this dance, Claire?"
"It's Clarabelle tonight, if you please," she answered in a serious tone and Iain smiled widely. He spun her out to the floor in a vigorous manner and her squeal had him and several other couples laughing. The music took an upbeat turn and he led her through two energetic dances.
At the end, he returned her to her sister's side. As he prepared to bid her goodnight, 'Clarabelle' beckoned him forward. "I want to tell you a secret!" she said in a loud whisper. Iain lowered his head so she could pass on her clandestine thoughts. As his cheek came level with her face, she launched herself forward and pressed her lips firmly to his skin, catching him half on the ear.
Iain laughed and caught her in a hug. "Thank you, Clarabelle, I think that's the sweetest kiss I've ever had." It probably was.
He wandered towards the tavern and the impromptu bar they had set to that side of the town square thinking he deserved an ale. The Darrow boys, all four of them, were clustered at one end, close to a small bonfire that radiated heat into the night and served as a good gathering spot to drink and watch the dancing.
"Done kissing your cousins?" Jim enquired.
Chuckling, Iain made a kissy face at the younger man and ordered a drink for himself.
Clinton's betrothed stood close by, and Iain nodded towards her before commenting, "Sybil looks well this evening, Clinton."
"Aye and I'll not take exception to you dancing with her. I think she'd like to say hello."
Smiling at the good natured offer, Iain said, "Thanks. Another dance where I can avoid Finola."
The men laughed.
"You could do worse if you plan on stayin' in Stormgard, eh?" Jim put in.
"I suppose," Iain mused. He did not want to think about his future then and there, he wanted to drink and dance and have fun.
He danced with Sybil and then he danced with Finola again. She joined him for another drink with the Darrow party and Iain relaxed and chatted with his friends. The warmth of the fire and the alcohol, the music and atmosphere, the light weariness to his limbs from dancing, all combined to ease his misgivings. He found himself thinking perhaps it would not be so bad to settle. He enjoyed the company of the Darrow boys, more so now that they'd all grown up, and he liked working with his father and his grandfather. And Finola had many fine qualities beyond her sweet face and womanly curves.
When he contemplated things more deeply, despite not wanting to (and he decided at about that point he'd had enough to drink), an emptiness tugged at him though. His twin did not feature in a future at Stormgard and neither did the skills he'd spent over ten years acquiring. Iain did not know if he'd ever willingly lift a sword again, but felt he owed it to his family and himself to at least find out. He realised, on some level, a future in Stormgard appealed because it was limbo, the space between. He made no decisions, he merely allowed the whims of others to guide him.
He wondered, then, if he'd ever actively made a decision, for himself. Had he only wanted to be a knight because it would please his father? Because it allowed him to stay with his sister? Not at first. As a boy of eight he'd wanted it with the same fervor as Callum. He'd been raised on tales of the deeds he'd accomplish as a man of honor and chivalry. When he hit the age of fourteen or so though, doubt had taken hold. He chafed against the discipline and while he knew he wasn't stupid, he'd not grasped the concepts of strategy and history as well as his sister. He wasn't the gentleman that Markham was. He felt inferior to both of them and had acted out more to compensate. It had been no wonder he'd supposed himself 'left behind' when Rafi went to Ostagar.
Remembering their last evening on the beach, when he had destroyed the drum, always made him wince. He hated that that was his last memory of his twin. In typical fashion, he'd let his emotions get the better of him and he'd acted without thought, much like a child. Then she'd been proven right, he'd been left in Highever for a very specific purpose, one he'd failed at.
Iain put his barely touched ale aside. He felt morose, not happy, and the music and conversation of his friends had receded into a muffled sound behind his bleak mood. Shrugging off his sudden melancholy, he left the circle of young people, unaware they'd stopped talking to watch his silent departure. He skirted the dancers and went to stand by the musicians, hoping the beat would find its way inside him and drown out thought and sorrow. After a while it seemed to work and as he watched the dancers he felt his mood begin to lift.
A swirl of dark, curled hair caught his eye and he saw Martin and his girl dancing. He watched them for a moment, not really looking for inappropriate behaviour and not really feeling as if he was entitled to, given his mood and his memories. He merely looked on, slightly jealous of Martin, the couple. A hand fell lightly against his arm.
"Thinking of causing trouble?"
He looked over at Finola and shook his head. "No."
"I heard about the other night." She tilted her head and smiled at him, her expression almost maternal. "You men are such funny creatures, defending the honor of a woman you barely know." She nodded toward the dancing couple. "She likes him like that, you know. Rhoda's been after Martin for months."
"It didn't look like it..."
"She likes to play games."
"I see." Iain studied Finola's expression, wondering if this was the point in the conversation where she mentioned she also liked playing games. Normally he'd rise to the occasion (figuratively and literally), he enjoyed flirting. Tonight, however, he felt hemmed in and yet also outside of things. Apart.
"We can just talk, Iain. You don't need to build me a house in the spring." Her eyes sparkled with humour and Iain felt his mouth quirk upwards at the expression. "We used to be friends."
When we were younger and you didn't have breasts. He tried not to look the front of her dress.
She tugged on his hand. "Come dance with me, we'll give the village something to gossip about."
"Finola, I don't..."
"Sh, it's just dancing, silly. Then you can walk me home and tell me a story of your adventures at sea. I'll let you kiss me if you like." She arched a brow and he grinned at her, thinking that would be rather nice.
"I would not ruin your reputation with a kiss," he quipped, feeling his good humour returning, brought back by her kindness and offer of friendship.
"Oh, you won't." She winked. "I've not been saving myself for you, Iain MacKinnon."
So they danced some more and when the hour had grown late, but not ridiculously so, Iain walked Finola home. He told her a story and she hung off of every word. While they walked and he talked, he thought about her lips and her dress, the figure beneath. His mind drifted to what he'd like to do before wandering back to what would be more proper. Finola Aiken might have given him an invitation, but he'd not take her up on that one, instead he'd accept her simple offer of companionship. He realised he'd done her a disservice by forgetting they used to be friends. He'd thought of her as woman first and a person afterwards. A mistake he made too often.
They stopped at the gate to her house and Iain prepared to say goodnight. The tension of the moment had his stomach slightly knotted as he'd not quite decided if she'd take a kiss as a promise of something more. Then she lifted her chin just so and he bent towards her on instinct alone, the rest of him following the course of his lips as he pressed them to hers. Through sheer will he kept the kiss chaste and pulled back, after a lingering only a moment beyond what might be proper, to give her a warm and friendly smile. If she was disappointed, she hid it well.
He continued home, feeling weary from dancing and thought, but happy he'd recovered a friend.