Alanna slipped quietly into the Swoop's kitchen, congratulating herself on having made it all the way there without awakening any of their all-too-helpful servants. She had found growing old meant that people no longer believed that you were capable of even the most minor tasks, and they definitely did not believe in allowing you to partake in any kind of solitude. Nights like these, when she was too restless to sleep, all she wanted was a hot mug of tea and to enjoy some silence. Quiet was something hard to come by in the Swoop these days, she mused as she put the kettle in the fire, not that she was complaining of course.
Almost as though he knew she was thinking of him, Thom choose this moment to enter the kitchen as well.
"Oh, hello Mother." Thom's face was pale and he had deep purple smudges under his eyes, but the smile he flashed her was as cheerful as ever. He walked over to a cupboard and began pulling out mugs and dishware.
"Did your little darlings wake you up again?" she asked with a grin. Thom had always been good with children, so it was no surprise to her that he set to work creating a whole horde of his own as soon as he got married.
"No, Rosie." He rolled his eyes and said, "Apparently the babe kicked her awake, so she decided to kick me awake. I was told to go get her tea, and anything salty. Or maybe something sweet. Or both." Thom might pretend to whine, but Alanna knew better. The roles of devoted father and husband fit her son well, and made him extremely happy. It had taken some time to adjust to having a daughter-in-law, and Alanna would be lying if she said she hadn't been skeptical, and maybe even a little resentful of the girl at first. But as time went on Alanna could see how well Rose's vivacious tenacity completed Thom's quiet reserve. More importantly, she could see clearly how happy Rose made her son. Nowadays she found she quite enjoyed having another woman around, especially with Aly so far away.
"There are leftover rolls from dinner, the sweet ones with dates in them," Alanna pointed in the direction of the basket, and Thom nodded.
For a moment he busied himself with filling a plate, the crackle of the fire the only sound disrupting the easy silence. Thom pulled open a roll, then slid a pat of butter inside. He set it on the plate before him, then set to work slicing cheese, sausage, and fruit. When the plate was heaped full he looked at it for a moment, then with a deep sigh he grabbed two more rolls, buttering them and stacking them precariously on top. Alanna smiled. She remembered being voraciously hungry at night when she was pregnant with Thom, only to wake the next morning and puke it all up again. Poor Rose, she thought.
Thom leaned against the counter. "Oh, did I tell you I got a letter from Aly today?"
Before Alanna could reply the kettle interrupted with a piercing whistle. Thom hurried to get it, waving his mother back into her seat. He carefully poured them both a mug, adding a scoop of tea to each. Thom handed Alanna her mug, then pulled out a chair and sat at the table.
"She wants to know if she can come visit, with Nawat and the whole brood." He hesitated, "I wrote back saying yes." His eyes searched hers for approval. Although Thom was now the lord of Pirate's Swoop in his own right, he didn't like making decisions without her. Alanna supposed she should be pleased that he respected her opinion so much, but in truth she had grown tired of being responsible for a fief, and she hoped soon Thom would feel more comfortable deciding things on his own.
Alanna nodded. "Of course. The Swoop is always her home."
Suddenly Thom let out a snort of laughter. "Oh wait, I almost forgot to tell you. You'll like this. Apparently Ochobai has discovered this new game, where anytime Aly says something Ochobai doesn't like she just jumps out of the nearest window. Aly said that Ochobai likes to get as close to earth as possible before changing to crow, just to ensure that Aly, quote, 'goes fully grey before reaching 35'" Thom did a passable impression of Aly's voice, and Alanna laughed, her hand self-consciously coming up to touch her own mostly grey hair.
"Didn't you once tell her if she wasn't nicer to you she'd get punished by having bad children, or something of that nature?" Thom smiled, then took a sip of tea.
"No, I believe my exact words were, 'I do so hope you're not infertile, so you too can have children who vex and belittle you'". Alanna chuckled, but she felt sorry for her daughter. Being a mother was difficult enough when they could only metaphorically fly away from you. Alanna could just picture her stubborn granddaughter, long black hair flying out behind her as the limbs that gave her so much frustration as a human morphed into long graceful wings. The last time they had visited the Swoop the triplets had delighted in zooming over the waves, dipping low to catch sea water in their beaks as they chased their mother on her new sailboat. Alanna couldn't deny that it was very odd having grandchildren who were crows, but as she watched them spin and dive before the setting sun that day she had envied their easy joy, and their freedom.
"Well all I know is, I was a great child, and yet none of my children have made it easy on me. Now why is that?" Thom smiled at her.
Alanna smirked, "It's the quantity dear, once there are more of them than there are of you you're in trouble."
"Ah well, I guess it's too late for me now," Thom shrugged helplessly. He drank from his mug, then cocked his head at Alanna. "You know, as long as Aly's coming I might as well try to write Alan, don't you think? He'd never let us alone if he found out we had a family get together while he and Cat were still roaming Maren."
Alanna nodded, "That sounds good." And there goes any chance for a peaceful summer, with all my children and grandchildren coming home, she thought, but she wasn't angry. It was a pleasure to have company, and she missed her son and daughter (and grandcrows) when they were gone. It was just that lately she felt so, well, tired. Not that she wanted to admit it to anyone.
"Hey, you know what this reminds me of?" Thom asked eagerly. Alanna raised an eyebrow.
"It reminds me of those summers when you and…Da" Thom stumbled over the word, but when he saw Alanna's carefully neutral expression he swallowed and continued on, "You would let us live on the beach all summer. We invited all kinds of friends over, and we just put up tents at the cove to sleep in, and spent all day swimming, or reading, or racing horses, or whatever we wanted." The corner's of Thom's lips turned up into a sweet smile, and his eyes were far away.
Alanna herself mostly recalled the pandemonium of those weeks, with goddess-knows how many young lads and lasses running in and out of her larder and wine cellar at all hours of the day and night. George had loved it though, she thought. It reminded him of the wild parties held at the Dancing Dove. He had always relished a bit of chaos, and the insanity of having a full house. In fact, he enjoyed it a little too much, to the point that frequently the children would beg her to remove him from the beach. "Maaa," they would whine, "Da's telling stories about the Rogue again, please make him stop." She would then come down to collect him, dragging him away by the ear. She remembered whispering to him, "Come on now, can't you think of a better way to spend our time while the children are occupied?" and him chasing her back up the sloping hill to the castle, making her shriek and whoop when he caught her up in his strong, brawny arms.
Thom pushed back his chair, startling her our of her reminiscence, and carried his now empty mug to the area where the maids did dishes. He set the kettle back on the fire, then suddenly whipped around.
"We should do that! We should have beach parties again this summer!" His eyes lit up excitedly. "We can invite Roald, Shinko, and Liano, Liam, the King and Queen, Daine and Numair, everyone at Trebond, Uncle Gary, and Uncle Raoul and Aunt Buri, and Gilmyn, and Zenoby, everyone! The children are just getting old enough now to enjoy that sort of thing, it'll be wonderful." The kettle whistled, and he took it off the fire to pour water into Rose's mug.
"That's an awful lot of people," Alanna remarked. The idea of having to spend time with a crowd that big made her blanch.
"That's the beauty of using the beach for sleeping, enough room for everyone!" Thom was nearly dancing in his excitement, just the way he did when he was small. "Come on, it would be great! We'll have big bonfires and tell stories and sing songs, and go sailing and teach them how to dive. Those summers were the greatest of my life." Thom smiled wistfully.
"That sounds delightful. As long as you're responsible for them all, and not me." Alanna offered him a wry smile, but inside she thought, It's just too much.
"Nah, I figured we can just trick Alan into being in charge. Give him a lyre and tell him the children want parts in his next play and we'll never have to lift a finger."
Alanna laughed at this, imaging Alan besieged by little ones, desperate to touch his instruments with their sticky fingers.
"Come on, invite everyone, won't you Ma? It'll be the first time we're all together since…" Thom abruptly trailed off, looking uncertain.
Since the funeral, Alanna mentally completed the sentence, but she wouldn't say it out loud.
"Well, we haven't gotten together, all of us, nearly enough. We should invite them." He picked up Rose's plate carefully, her mug in his hand. "I'm off, Rosie will kill me if I make her wait any longer for food. Plus I've got all those farmers to see tomorrow, I'll have to think of something to help them with the failed crops." Alanna could tell Thom was already mentally reviewing the many books that they owned on agricultural magic. She had complete faith that he could come up with a solution, so she said nothing.
He headed towards the door, then suddenly stopped and came back to the table. "Hey, you should be getting to bed too. I know a pack of wild ill-mannered children who are expecting Grandma to be up at the crack of dawn to teach them sword drills."
"Alright Mother, " Alanna said, rolling her eyes as Thom kissed her cheek. He left the kitchen with Rose's plate, and Alanna smiled fondly at his retreating back.
She knew she needed to go to bed soon, it was just hard to sleep without George there. A heavy sigh escaped her. All she wanted now was to be left alone, to be sad and angry without having to put on a brave face for them. Yet here her son was, trying to bring even more people into their already full house. She could picture what George's face would look like if she refused Thom's request. He had always loved a good party. She could imagine him at the table with her, his eyes dancing and his smile crooked, wheedling her. "Oh come on lass, for the children, they need a little fun in their lives," as though her grandchildren didn't already get spoiled and coddled by her. But she smiled at the thought of him, big hands pulling her into his lap as he worked her over, until she was forced to surrender and say yes.
Aloud she said, "Fine, I'll invite them. For you, I'll invite them." Just then she could have sworn she felt his gentle hand at her neck. Alanna knew that it was probably just the fire, or a draft, but she leaned back anyways, her eyes closed, reveling in the feeling of warmth that spread through her body at the memory of his touch.