Plaid to the Bone by Caroline Lee
It all startedwith that damned ghost.
Well, not everything, obviously. If Father John was to be believed, it all began as nothing, and then God sneezed or whatnot, and light was created. Then the world and the stars, then the water, then the animals, then the fishes and the oysters and crabs—that part was always her favorite—then the bugs that crawled on the water and fed the fishes, although Leanna had to admit she often grew bored by this point in the sermon and started examining the interesting carvings in the Oliphant chapel.
She was certain one of the gargoyles was planning something naughty, based on its expression.
But as Leanna frowned in concentration and mixed the green powdered malachite into the small amount of oil in the wooden cup she held, she had to admit the truth: the gargoyle, the Creation of Everything, and even Father John weren’t to blame for this mess.
It was most definitely the ghost.
“It’s all his fault,” she muttered.
“Ye’re absolutely correct,” agreed her sister Nicola, who was carefully measuring out some ground-up green flakes at her worktable along the wall by the door to their solar. “I’m certain I paid for a half-measure of goosegrass and that crooked merchant cheated me.”
Leanna’s brows tugged downward in confusion as she strolled—still mixing absentmindedly—toward Nicola. “Ye bought the goosegrass instead of growing it?”
Her older sister glanced toward her, then her eyes darted back to her work, and she frowned in concentration. Distractedly, she murmured, “Cannae grow goosegrass. It willnae…”
As she trailed off, Leanna leaned forward, waiting for the rest of the explanation. It wasn’t forthcoming, but that wasn’t surprising. Nicola tended to assume everyone knew what she was trying to say, which was ridiculous. No one understood most of her babblings about herbs and healing, except maybe Fen, who used those same herbs in her meals.
Actually, for that matter, Leanna couldn’t be certain no one else understood Nicola. Maybe she was the only odd one out, and her older sister’s blathering simply just made no sense to her.
But never let it be said she wasn’t interested in other people’s work.
“So ye have to buy it? What’s it for?”
Nicola jolted at the sound of her voice, obviously having forgotten Leanna was standing there. Which was ridiculous, seeing as how Leanna was almost as tall as Nicola, and her chin was all but propped on her sister’s shoulder as she stirred her paint.
Still, Nicola didn’t scowl, or do anything so uncouth; instead, she breathed deeply, focusing on scraping the last little bit of green into one of the jars she had carefully cleaned, then straightened slowly.
“There. Perhaps a wee bit less than the half-pound, but that could be accounted for by…” She blinked and glanced at Leanna. “I’m sorry, what were ye asking?”
“What’s it for?” Leanna jerked her chin toward the herb—one of many in jars spread across her sister’s worktable here in the ladies’ solar.
“Stomach issues, as well as healing bones and wounds,” Nicola immediately answered. “ ‘Tis no’ as common, since it doesnae grow here.” She shrugged. “I buy it from one of my merchants, since Coira tells me the men believe it works as well as others when it comes to healing them.”
Leanna nodded along, pretending she understood what in damnation Nicola was saying. “So this spikey-leafed bit of plant is actually useful?”
Her sister scowled slightly, which was the response Leanna had been hoping for. “Ye called rosemary a ‘spikey-leafed bit of plant?’”
“Aye,” Leanna agreed cheerfully, lifting her cup of green paint to check on the consistency. “And I was right.”
“Rosemary, for yer information, has many useful properties, no’ at all limited to its medicinal—”
This time, it wasn’t that Nicola had trailed off, but rather, had been interrupted. In fact, once she got started on something about herbs’ usefulness, she was likely to continue for ages, so Leanna was relieved when Robena struck a chord on her harp over in the far corner of the chamber, then began to play.
Still, Leanna couldn’t help but tease her older sister. “So, rosemary smells good enough for ye to grow, which is why ye dinnae need to buy it from the cheating merchant?”
Nicola scowled, as planned. “I’ll likely have to continue buying from him, despite his short scales, but what were ye talking about?”
“Eh?” Leanna was studying her cup. Was that enough malachite to achieve the color she was going for?
“Ye said ‘twas all his fault, but I doubt ye were talking about the herb merchant.”
Leanna clucked her tongue, deciding the shade of green likely didn’t matter; Mother would be devastated no matter what. “The ghost. ‘Twas all his fault.”
When she trailed off, Leanna looked up, pleased for once that she knew what her sister had intended to say. “The ghost, aye,” she finished for Nicola. “The Ghostly Drummer of Oliphant Castle.”
Nicola was frowning. “What’s his fault?”
“This!” When her sister continued to stare at her as if her hair had caught fire, Leanna scoffed and threw her arms out to each side, careful to maintain a grip on her cup of paint. “This!” she repeated more forcefully. “All of it!”
Nicola glanced around the solar, and Leanna followed with her own gaze.
It wasn’t unusual for the six sisters to gather here, since their mother tended to keep to her own chambers when she wasn’t nagging Nicola for some new cure, or pestering the housekeepers about the dust which made her sneeze, or finding fault with one of her daughters for not standing straight enough, or bending over her mending hoop to alter one of Leanna’s gowns so it better showed off her bosoms and thus would catch a man…
Frowning, Leanna realized she’d quite lost track of her original line of thought. What had she been mentally complaining about?
Och, aye. Today, only the four of them were present in the solar. Quiet Wynda was laboring over her manuscript at her desk in front of the window where the light was the best. Fen and Coira were off doing something useful, most likely, while Leanna was relegated to the solar, where she was—no one could argue—completely useless.
“This?” Nicola repeated. “All of this what?”
“This—this uselessness!” Leanna blurted in exasperation. “Just sitting here on our hands, when we could be off having fun!”
Her sister’s expression slowly cleared knowingly, and she bent back over her herbs table and began to clean. “Och, ye’re still bitter about that? About being told ‘tis time for ye to grow up? But how is that the drummer’s fault?”
“Because!” Leanna rolled her eyes, plunked her cup down on her sister’s worktable, then stomped over to the chest where Nicola kept her equipment. Surely there was a brush she might borrow in there. “Because he’s the one who gave Da the idea in the first place!”
“Ye mean the idea that ‘twas time we were all married?” Nicola asked dryly, as Robena’s music increased in volume, likely in an attempt to cover their bickering.
“He gave Da the idea of how to do it,” muttered Leanna in irritation as she dug through her sister’s supplies. “Where’s yer paintbrush?”
“I’ve hidden it from ye.”
“Fine,” Leanna huffed as she slammed the lid. “I can use a stick just as well.”
When she turned back to Nicola, her sister’s arms were crossed and a smirk tugged at her lips. “What?”
Nicola shrugged. “I’m waiting to hear how us having to get married is the drummer’s fault.”
With a sigh, Leanna plopped down in a chair, crossing her arms to mirror Nicola and—since their mother wasn’t there to nag her—slouching. For good measure, she scooted her arse down so she could slump even further, knowing a pout wasn’t as effective while using correct posture.
And this was most definitely worth pouting over.
Leanna had to admit she couldn’t exactly blame Da for worrying about the future of the Oliphants. Since he’d been blessed with only daughters—the six of them—there wasn’t a clear choice to take over the clan after he was gone. But this?This ridiculous idea that the future of the clan somehow rested on their shoulders…?
Leanna frowned in frustration.
“This is too much to worry about,” she muttered. She didn’t want to be a lady. “Why should I have to marry and birth a son, just to set Da’s mind at ease?”
When Nicola laughed, Leanna realized she’d conveyed her displeasure out loud.
“If ye’d been born a lad, none of this would be an issue,” her older sister reminded her. “I can remember how anxious everyone was when Mother went into labor with ye.” As the second-oldest, Nicola would’ve been five years old at Leanna’s birth. “Da kenned ‘twould be Mother’s last pregnancy—she barely survived it, being so sickly—and was praying for a lad.”
Leanna rolled her eyes, knowing how the rest of the story went, and trying to forestall it. “And they were all verra pleased when I was born, despite no’ having a penis.”
“Ye having a penis would’ve saved us all.” Robena called out, her fingers never stilling in their creation of a beautiful melody.
“Da declared a day of mourning for yer nonexistent penis,” Nicola continued solemnly. “And we were all verra sad, kenning the fate of the clan rested on our wee shoulders.”
Scoffing, Leanna slouched even further, her chin now resting on her chest. Och, to no’ have to be the youngest! “That isnae true. Ye were all too young to comprehend—”
“The others, perhaps, but I kenned.” Nicola sighed dramatically, though her eyes twinkled merrily. “ ‘Tis too bad ye werenae born a lad, Leanna. All this would be moot. But since ye managed to lose yer penis somewhere between conception and birth”—she winked, then continued—“we’re all forced to battle for the future of the clan.”
“I dinnae want to be responsible for the future of the clan!” Leanna knew she sounded like a whiney child, but she also knew her sister wouldn’t begrudge her a bit of whining.
Robena’s harp playing had reverted to a soothing melody, thank goodness.
“I dinnae want to worry about birthing a son. I didnae want to be a lady,” she finished emphatically.
Nicola seemed to take pity on her and, wiping her hands on her apron, crossed to the chair where Leanna pouted and patted her shoulder.
“Trust us, we dinnae want ye to have to be a lady either. Luckily, ye have five sisters to take some of the focus off ye. Da’s ultimatum said we all had to marry, remember? Whichever one of us births the first grandson, that daughter’s husband will become the next Laird Oliphant. Nae wonder Coira is so angry,” she finished wryly, tugging on Leanna’s braid. “When she kens she’s just as good as any man one of us might marry.”
She was right. Coira still hadn’t forgiven their father for such a declaration, especially when she was likely out leading the Oliphant warriors someplace exciting, even as Leanna pouted.
“But…” Nicola tugged her brown braid again. “I still dinnae understand how this can all be laid at the feet of the Ghostly Drummer of Oliphant Castle.”
Feet? Did ghosts have feet? Well, the floaty diaphanous blobs at the bottom of the Ghostly Drummer of Oliphant Castle didn’t quite have the same ring to it, did it? On the other hand, Leanna had never actually seen the drummer—no one had, as far as she knew—so perhaps the ghost did have feet and—
“Leanna?” her sister tugged her braid for a third time, jerking her attention back to the present. “How?”
Oh, right. Leanna uncrossed her arms and pushed herself upright, admitting she’d never been very good at holding a sulk for too long. “Well, unless I’m mistaken—”
“Ye usually are,” Nicola quipped with a smirk, settling back on her heels, her hands on her hips. “Remember that time ye tried to convince me our clan is named after some great huge land animal? Thick leathery skin and”—Nicola placed her two fingers on either side of her nose, pointing downward—“great big teeth, like a boar, except in the opposite direction?” She laughed. “And something about a nose? The mythical ‘Oliphant’ had a twisty nose like a pig’s tail?”
Leanna harrumphed. “He has a long nose, like a cow’s tail, only longer. And he can shoot water from it! And he’s no’ mythical!”
She’d seen a drawing in one of Wynda’s bestiaries after all.
Still giggling, her sister patted Leanna’s shoulder. “Och, aye. No’ at all mythical. We’re definitely named after a completely real, no’-at-all-mythological or allegorical, huge, long-nosed animal. I just hope it willnae arrive to eat us in our sleep.”
“I think they only eat plants.” At least, that was Leanna’s observation—the bigger the animal, the more likely it was to subsist on grasses and rosemary and such. Except for bears.
Were there Oliphant bears around?
Nicola must’ve been able to tell she’d gotten distracted again, because—chuckling—she reached over and pinched Leanna. “So, unless ye’re mistaken…?”
“Och, aye. Unless I’m mistaken, and I dinnae think I am,” Leanna hurried to clarify, “’twas the Ghostly Drummer who gave our great-whatever grandfather the idea, which Da copied, when he gave us all this ultimatum.”
Instead of answering—or teasing her further—Nicola turned toward the window. “Wynda?”
When their scholarly sister didn’t answer but continued to murmur quietly to herself as she laboriously transferred the words in her head to the vellum spread out before her, Nicola raised her voice.
Wynda, the next-youngest sister after Nicola, didn’t do anything so uncouth as to show she was startled. Instead, she carefully placed her stylus across the inkstand, straightened, smoothed her palm down the unused portion of the vellum, and exhaled. Then, slowly, she turned toward them, a faint questioning look on her lovely, delicate face.
Smiling beatifically, she said, “I really hate it when ye idiots interrupt me.”
Leanna burst out laughing.
But Nicola scoffed. “It does ye good to come back to the mortal realm and interact occasionally, sister. Ye cannae spend yer life conversing only with dead people.”
Wynda rolled her eyes, as Robena’s music became sharper and faster. “Ye think I like talking to bloody ghosts all the time? Or rather, listening to them? They willnae leave me be!”
“And so ye write their stories.” Leanna nodded to the manuscript their sister always seemed to be working on these days.
“Just the one,” Wynda sighed. “The Gray Lady refuses to move on until her story is told, so I’m helping her by writing it.”
Nicola nodded in that no-nonsense manner of hers. “Ye are all heart and compassion, I ken, but ye’re also our historian.”
“Tell her about how we’re named after the Oliphants with the long noses,” Leanna urged Wynda, when their healer sister trailed off.
Nicola, however, scoffed. “Nay, tell me about the Ghostly Drummer of Oliphant Castle, and why ‘tis his fault Da says we have to be married, even though some of us dinnae want to be.”
The harp music stopped. From her corner of the solar, Robena piped up, proving she’d been listening all along. “I wouldnae mind being married. I just havenae found anyone who appreciates my music enough to live with.”
Leanna nodded knowingly. Robena’s music was her life—not just the harp, although that was considered her most lady-like instrument, but all sorts of music—and any man she married would have to accept he’d come second to that in her heart.
“And he’d have to be from somewhere else besides,” Leanna muttered.
When Robena cocked her brow at her, Leanna realized her words likely hadn’t made sense to someone who wasn’t privy to her previous thoughts.
“I just meant we’re related to practically all of the Oliphants. Our great-whatever had so many sons, and they all got married and had bairns, and we’re up to our noses in cousins!”
Wynda nodded serenely. “Third cousins, mayhap. The Church doesnae frown on the marriage of third cousins.”
Consanguinity or not, Leanna had spent her life surrounded by Oliphant men, and not a one of them had struck her as worthwhile enough to spend the rest of her life with.
“ ‘Tis no’ that I dinnae want to be married,” Leanna argued, mostly with herself. “I do want to marry. I want to meet a man who makes my heart—and other bits—beat faster. I want to fall in love—or at least in lust. I want a man I ken will love me, even if ye all say I’m a bit unlovable. I want a man who wants adventure and fun in his life!”
“Wait, what bits are going to beat faster, if no’ yer heart?” Robena asked in confusion. “Yer feet?”
“Have we already covered the fact Leanna doesnae have a penis?” Wynda asked drily.
Nicola nodded in return, as equally bland. “Och, aye. I piled on the usual guilt: all this is her fault, hoped-for-heir, devastating lack of penis, et cetera.”
“Excellent.” Wynda dropped her chin in approval. “Then, Robena, let us put it this way…Leanna wants to feel a beating in her no’-a-penis.”
“Och,” Robena scoffed with a roll of her eyes, as her fingers plucked out discordant notes from the strings in front of her. “Lust. Aye, why did she no’ just say that? She wants a man to make her lady bits go all gooey. Do we no’ all want that?”
Scowling, Nicola turned back to her worktable. “It seems…inconvenient.”
“Aye,” Wynda agreed. “I have far too much to accomplish first.”
“So…” Robena took up the interrogation and shifted sideways, putting aside the harp. “What does Da’s ultimatum have to do with the Ghastly Drummer?”
“Ghostly Drummer,” Leanna corrected unhelpfully.
“Well…” Wynda took a deep breath, and her eyes unfocused slightly, as they always did when she was preparing to lecture them on history. “Our father’s father’s father’s father—”
“That’s too many fathers,” interrupted Leanna.
Wynda ignored her. “—was named William Oliphant, and he had nae legitimate sons. He did have a daughter, but decided she was unsuitable to lead the clan.”
“Coira would’ve hated him,” murmured Robena, smirking at Leanna.
“And he had a half-dozen or more illegitimate sons,” continued Wynda, “each with qualities befitting a future laird. William decided that whichever of his sons married, and produced a son first, would become the next laird.”
Leanna nodded. “Da couldn’t even come up with an original way to control our lives. He had to steal one from his great-whatever-grandfather.”
“As I recall,” Wynda explained, “’twas the son least expected whose wife produced a grandson first. But he, with the help of his brothers, led the clan to a prosperous future. Or,” she corrected, “in our case, a past.” She frowned. “I think.”
“So this was our great-great-grandfather?” Robena clarified.
“Our father is Olaf, his father was Graham, his father was Kiergan, the unsuitable bastard son, whose father was William, who came up with the plan in the first place,” Wynda agreed.
Leanna huffed in exasperation. “But what does this have to do with the Ghostly Drummer?”
“I dinnae ken.” Wynda blinked. “Ye were the one who declared ‘twas his fault.”
Apparently, she had been listening.
“The way I recall ye explaining it was, many years ago, hearing the Ghostly Drummer of Oliphant Castle was said to foretell doom,” Leanna explained in exasperation. “Except this William Oliphant got it into his head that the drummer foretold falling in love, and thus he was the one—the ghost, I mean—who started this whole nonsense!”
See? ‘Twas the ghost’s fault!
Wynda’s expression cleared, and she nodded. “Och, aye. I recall that story as well. Only, there was more to it…something about the drummer no’ being real and turning out to be William all along?”
“Well, that isnae true,” scoffed Robena. “William’s long dead, and we’ve each heard the drummer from time to time.”
“I havenae,” Wynda said with a frown.
“Really? But ye’re the one who talks to the ghosts,” Leanna pointed out.
“I listen to them,” Wynda corrected, “because they willnae shut their jabbering otherwise. But I’ve never run into a ghostly drummer.”
“I dinnae think anyone has,” Leanna interrupted. “Mayhap Robena has only heard him because he makes music as she does?”
“As I recall the stories, he just wandered around the passages, pounding on the drum. ‘Tis hardly music,” Wynda finished with a scowl.
But Robena lifted her chin. “I think ‘tis music.”
Without looking up, Nicola commented wryly, “Mayhap ‘tis no’ the drummer at all, but some other pounding Robena is experiencing.”
“Oh for the love of God!” Robena scowled. “Ye’re talking about lust again, are ye no’?”
“ ‘Tis better than dreaming about love,” the healer pointed out, scraping the last of her green bits into a woven bag.
But Leanna refused to believe that. “I’ll fall in love, with or without a drummer! I’ll do it on my own terms, and Da’s ridiculous plan to find the next laird can go fook itself.”
Robena’s eyes widened at the declaration—or mayhap the language—but Wynda just smiled. She might’ve had something to say, but at that moment, the door to the solar was nudged open and Fen came bustling in.
“Tarts!” she declared proudly, her freckled face beaming as she brandished a tray.
Leanna gasped theatrically and clutched her bosom. “What did ye just call us?”
“Tarts,” repeated Nicola blandly. “What a thing to say about yer sisters.”
“I’m no’ a tart,” Robena hurried to assure them all. “Just because I allowed Johnnie certain liberties that time behind the stables…I was curious is all.”
“Robena Oliphant, I never kenned this,” Wynda declared slyly. “Do tell us more.”
But before Robena could, Fen rolled her eyes and stomped over to Nicola’s worktable. “I wasnae calling ye tarts, as well ye ken, ye clot-heids. I was declaring tarts!”
“Och, is that a new thing to do?” Leanna pushed herself upright. “Tarts! ‘Tis a fine day outside!”
“Tarts!” joined in Wynda. “My nib has broken!”
“That sounds like a personal problem,” murmured Robena
“Tarts! Ye’re all dim bampots!” Nicola declared, as she cleared a spot on her worktable, nudging Leanna’s cup of green paint out of the way.
“Tarts!” declared Fen hotly. “As in, I made a new batch of berry tarts, and I want ye to try them!”
Wynda clucked her tongue serenely. “Why did ye no’ just say that?”
“I rather like tarts as our new declaration,” Robena added with a shrug. “I’ll use it.”
“Tarts, so will I,” agreed Leanna with a giggle.
Fen rolled her eyes as she set the tray down on the worktable. “I had an hour afore I had to start the roast for tonight’s dinner, so I thought I’d experiment with a new filling. This one is heavy on the blackberries, so I need some feedback. Too tart?”
Nicola, whose mouth was already full, nodded her head. “Tarts! These tarts are too tart!” she managed around the pastry.
Fen’s expression fell. “Really? They are? Och, well, I’ll add more honey next time.”
If they were too tart, that didn’t stop Nicola from reaching for another one. Robena stood and crossed to the worktable and scooped one up for herself. After biting into it, she shook her head as she chewed.
“ ‘Tis no’ as sweet as yer last batch, but I like it.”
“Mayhap adding a honey glaze?” Fen said hopefully, her round face breaking into a smile. “Or perhaps some sweetened cream?”
Robena nodded, then reached for Leanna’s cup with her free hand, obviously intending on taking a sip. “That might— What, in the name of St. Kelsi’s spoon, is this?”
Since she’d had no intention of stopping her sister from trying to sip from her green paint, Leanna burst into giggles. Nicola turned to frown at the cup.
“This.” Robena’s nose wrinkled as she stared into the cup. “I was hoping ‘twas water.”
Nicola waved dismissively and reached for another tart, obviously afraid Fen—who was chewing thoughtfully—would eat them all. “Something Leanna was working on.”
Still giggling, Leanna pushed herself to her feet, eager to explain. “ ‘Tis paint.”
“Green paint,” Robena corrected skeptically.
“Aye. I found some malachite in Nicola’s trunk”—Leanna ignored her sister’s angry sputtering—“and I mixed it with some oil.”
Robena sniffed the cup, then shook her head and held it out to Fen. “I think ye might’ve used the wrong kind of oil. This is the kind ye cook with.”
“I dinnae cook,” corrected Leanna.
Fen took the cup in her free hand and sniffed it. “Aye, I dinnae think this is painting oil. What are ye doing with it?”
I thought ye’d never ask.
Excitedly, Leanna hurried toward the corner where they all—very infrequently—worked on their stitching and scooped up the treasure she’d pilfered that morning. Proudly, she brandished the small object as she turned.
Fen gasped. “Mother’s looking glass? Does she ken ye have it?”
Wynda rolled her eyes. “Clearly no’. What mischief are ye planning this time?”
“Mischief? Me?” Leanna did her best to hide her smirk. “Whatever makes ye think I’m up to mischief?”
“Because, since Da declared we all have to find a husband and curtailed yer adventures and wanderings, ye’ve had to resort to practical jokes to satisfy whatever twisted urge for excitement is to be found in yer head,” Wynda said, correctly, as it turned out.
But Leanna smiled innocently. “I dinnae ken what ye mean.”
“Remember the time she balanced the bucket atop the door to this chamber,” Fen asked, “and I got a faceful of old milk?”
“Or when she painted mustaches on all the portraits? Even great-grandmother?”
Leanna had been eight years old; not her best work.
Wynda chuckled. “My favorite was when she talked us all into dressing in shades of gray and black and blue. Do ye recall? And when Mother commented on it, Leanna claimed we were all in bright colors and convinced Mother she must be going color blind.”
Aye, that had been a good one.
Fen shook her head. “Or when she stole Mother’s needle box and slipped it into my dough. I swear, I only turned my back for a moment! And then I served the bread to Mother for supper!”
Robena was chuckling. “That was bad.”
Nay, not really. Not compared to—
“How about when Leanna soaked Mother’s thread in cat urine, then dried it?” Robena continued. “None of us discovered it until we started to handle it!”
Leanna wrinkled her nose. That had been terrible. It might’ve been funny, had she not also been one to have to sew with the cursed thread!
Nicola’s lips were twitching. “My favorite was when Leanna—ye were, what, thirteen, mayhap?—learned to process tallow, just so she could help the candlemaker. Remember? She slowly started mixing tallow in with those fine white beeswax candles Mother prefers, until Mother was burning all-tallow candles and didnae even realize it!”
“It took a year,” Leanna offered with a proud smile.
“Aye, and Da gave ye an arse-whooping as I recall,” Nicola pointed out. “Turns out, tallow candles are bad for his treatises!”
Wynda was still chuckling. “Ye’re all forgetting her best attempt! Remember two years ago, when Leanna brought those three pigs up to the bed chamber corridor, opened all the doors, then let them loose?”
Leanna began to giggle at the memory, as did Nicola.
“Dinnae forget the funniest part,” the healer reminded them. “She painted the numbers one, two and four on them! Mother went mad searching for number three!”
Now Leanna was outright guffawing, as was Wynda.
“I cannae believe ye think I did that!” Leanna managed, clutching her chest in mock horror.
Nicolas rolled her eyes, still chuckling. “Who else would’ve tormented their own mother that way? She should’ve stopped having bairns after Fen!”
Leanna stuck her tongue out. “She had to keep going until she got perfection. Me!”
“Puir Mother,” Fen said with a sigh, obviously trying to forestall an argument. She waggled the cup of paint. “So what are ye up to this time?”
Leanna smiled, her list of “projects” making her more proud than ashamed. “I’m going to paint green spots on Mother’s looking glass, so when she holds it up to check her reflection…”
She trailed off, then lifted her palms at shoulder height and shrugged, as if the result should be obvious.
Wynda snorted. “She’ll think she has some sort of horrible, green-spotted affliction?”
As Robena and Fen began to giggle, Nicola rolled her eyes. “And who is she going to come running to, demanding a cure?”
This sister of theirs, who was known for her healing ability, could ruin everything.
Leanna clapped the looking glass to her chest. “Oh, please dinnae give away the game so early, Nicola! Let her spend at least a few hours thinking she has spots.”
“Aye, we can all play along,” agreed Robena. “Remember when she decided she had the plague?”
“Or that summer she had to be carried everywhere, because of gout? Which she didnae have?” Wynda rolled her eyes.
Luckily, Nicola’s lips were twitching. “Och, aye, her afflictions can be…afflictions, I suppose.”
“On us,” Leanna hurried to point out.
“Surely there’s something ye can give her for green spots?” asked Robena hurriedly.
Nicola pinched her brow. “I suppose…”
“Fennel!” Fen burst out, and when they all turned to face her, she shrugged and gestured happily with the cup containing the green paint as she spoke. “Mother likes fennel, aye? So tell her ‘tis what she needs, and I’ll bake some fish with it, and ye’ll declare her cured.”
Nicola pointed a finger at Leanna. “And then ye’ll sneak in and clean the green spots from her looking glass?”
“On my honor!” Leanna declared, pleased her sister was allowing her some fun.
The door pushed open once more, and when they all turned to face it, their oldest sister Coira stopped in her tracks. “What?”
“What, what?” Wynda asked.
Coira’s eyes narrowed. “Why are ye all standing around staring at me?”
“We’re eating tarts.” Leanna gestured innocently to the almost-empty tray.
“Mayhap they’re eating tarts,” Coira growled, “but ye’re up to some shenanigans. I can smell it.”
Wynda murmured, “I told ye so. Mischief.”
Pretending offence, Leanna clutched at her chest. “I dinnae smell. My shenanigans dinnae smell.”
“Last week ye snuck a sack of cow manure into the fire in the great hall,” Nicola pointed out. “That stunk.”
Leanna waved dismissively. “It was dried manure. When it’s a solid patty like that, everyone kens it’s a viable fuel source. That wasnae a shenanigan, ‘twas an experiment.”
“I dinnae ken ye could have only one shenanigan,” Robena pondered. “Can it be singular?”
With a sigh, Coira turned to Nicola. “What is she up to this time?”
“A prank on Mother. Mostly harmless. It involves green paint and fennel.”
Coira scowled at Nicola. “Nay, dinnae tell me the rest. I want to plead innocence.”
“I still dinnae think this is the right kind of oil,” Fen mused. “What do ye think?”
She thrust the cup at Coira, who had no choice but to take it, and she sniffed the concoction. Glaring down at the cup, she shrugged. “How, in all damnation, would I ken what’s the right kind of oil? Unless ‘tis the kind to oil steel?”
“Speaking of which,” Wynda spoke up, “why are ye no’ out in the training yard with the men?”
Scowling—naught unusual there, Coira often scowls—their eldest sister looked up. “Bandit activity has been reported in the east. Doughall snuck off and took the men in that direction afore dawn to investigate.”
“Our brave Commander left ye at home?” teased Nicola, one of the few bold enough to tease the eldest Oliphant sister.
“Did ye no’ hear me say he snuck off afore dawn?” snapped Coira in return. “Likely so the auld buzzard wouldnae have to face me.”
Her sisters all nodded. It was no secret Coira considered herself as worthy as any of the Oliphant warriors, and it was also no secret she hated to be left out.
Leanna, thinking to change the subject, held out her hand, the other clutching the hand mirror. “Might I have my paint returned? I need to give it time to dry on the looking glass afore I sneak it back to Mother’s chamber.”
A smirk crept across Coira’s face as she held out the cup. “This? Ye want this back, despite me telling ye I wanted to ken naught more of yer scheme?”
“Shenanigan, I think ye called it,” Leanna said loftily. “Which I dinnae think is even a word.”
Rather than replying, Coira’s smirk grew. “Catch.”
Catch? Catch what?
Instantly, the cup left Coira’s hand and began arcing gracefully through the air, not a single drop spilling. Leanna cursed and held up her hand, hoping she’d be lucky enough to catch it—as her sister had commanded—without spilling any of it.
She was, in fact, not so lucky.
The cup bounced off her forehead, and she squeezed her eyes shut in time to keep the green paint—which she felt splash over her face and hair—out of them. Then there was a clunk as the cup hit the floor, and Leanna peeked out to glare at her sister.
“Whoops,” declared Coira happily, as Nicola and Robena tried to contain their chuckles.
Leanna looked down at herself and breathed a sigh of relief that the tinted oil—paint, she reminded herself—hadn’t dripped on her dress. A glance at the floor revealed the rushes were already soaking up what had spilled. So, all-in-all, it could’ve been worse.
Luckily, she was holding a mirror. When she turned it about so she could see her reflection, she saw it was worse than expected; the green paint dripped from her hair and was splattered around her forehead and cheeks.
But, never let it be said she couldn’t take what she gave. Leanna enjoyed a good shenanigan, no matter who perpetrated it, so she gave a sudden gasp.
“What?” Fen took a jerky step toward her. “Are ye aright?”
“This is perfect.” Pasting a smile on her face, Leanna lowered the mirror slightly. “ ‘Tis exactly how Mother will think she looks. And now I dinnae need one of yer brushes, Nicola!”
As her sister sputtered in confusion, Leanna used one of her thumbs to wipe the paint from her temple. She planted a thick green thumbprint in the middle of the looking glass, then continued with her spot-creation.
Coira began to chuckle, and soon, Wynda joined in.
With a sigh, Nicola shook her head. “Leave it to our youngest to turn a disaster into an advantage.”
“Ye’re going to have to take a bath, Leanna,” Fen cautioned.
“Nay,” Leanna countered flippantly. “Everyone kens people these days dinnae bathe.”
“These days?” Wynda repeated. “What are ye talking about?”
“These days,” Leanna clarified. “Now. Everyone kens we dinnae bathe. ‘Tis why perfumes were invented. And underwear. Because they think we dinnae bathe.”
“What?” Wynda huffed. “We are people these days. And we do bathe.”
Nicola was shaking her head. “No’ if ye dinnae want Mother asking questions. She’s bound to notice the water being heated.”
But Leanna, who finished her last thumbprint with a pleased grin, just shook her head. “ ‘Tis summertime. I’ve nae need of hot water. Let me set this someplace to dry, then I’ll go to the waterfall glen.”
Coira nodded. “Aye, likely the best option.”
“I’ll sneak ye out through the kitchens,” Fen offered.
Robena grabbed the last tart. “I’ll help. After all, that’s what family is for.”
Smiling, Leanna carefully placed the looking glass near the window to dry as Nicola stooped to clean the thrown cup. Coira stomped out the door again, muttering about mischief and paint, while Wynda settled back down at her desk and picked up her stylus once more.
Aye, her life might’ve gotten a lot less exciting since Da had curtailed her adventures, determined to turn her into a proper young lady, but Leanna decided she didn’t really have it all that bad. There were still opportunities for mischief, and sneaking out in the middle of the day to bathe naked at the waterfall was one of them.
And she had her sisters to help.
That’s what family is for.