Inspired by: Self Portrait by Mark Stewart
“Margaid! Will you get the door?” Grandfather called from the loft, where his writing space was.
“Yes Grandfather!” Margaid shouted back. She handed the rolling pin to Paaie. “Just keep doing that.” She waved a hand at the lump turning slowly into pie crust.
“M’kay.” Paaie said, nodding.
Margaid peeled what she could of the dough off of her fingers and rolled it into a ball, dropping it onto the board. She hadn’t heard a knock. Grandfather had must have spotted visitors at the gate.
She plunged her hands into the warm soppy water Ealisaid was using to wash, pushing aside her sister with a gentle shoulder.
The knock came, loud and precise. Three clear raps.
“Just a moment!” Margaid called.
Ealisaid had moved aside in easy compliance, her hum not missing a single beat.
Margaid rubbed her hands together, long fingers curling over one another.
The rapping came again.
The ceiling over head creaked, a long, weary creak, like Grandfather groaning when he got out of bed in the morning.
“We are here to see Messier Palomer!” A man called from the door. He sounded like he was in an awful hurry.
“Put tea on!” Grandfather called. The whole kitchen paused. Even Paaie noticed the lightning in Grandfather’s voice, curling under the gentle clouds.
“Just a second, sir!” Margaid called to the door. “I am drying my hands!” The rough fabric soaked up the water. Margaid headed for the front, still rubbing her hands on the cloth.
Ealisaid was rinsing the suds off her palms. “At once, Grandfather!” She shouted up the stairs.
Margaid rounded the corner into the hallway, her mind running through the list of people who had ever come to see Grandfather. Most of them were familiar, from the village. The rest they normally only saw once, or maybe twice.
And they never sounded so urgent.
The afternoon shadows were curling around the entrance hall. The carvings in the door looked dour and gloomy. Only the dragon, curling around the top lintel in the last of the sunshine, seemed active.
And even he seemed unsettled. Angry.
They were rapping again. Much harder this time. “I am here! I am here, sir!” Margaid said. She threw the towel over her shoulder and lifted the latch.
The door made a slowly widening frame. Grey arm, black shoulder, a face with a mouth that had run out of smiles and brown eyes drained of warmth. Peaked cap with an unfamiliar symbol sewn onto it in gold.
Margaid stopped opening the door. “Good afternoon, sirs.” She said, because there were five of them, although only one was standing on the step. He was an officer. She didn’t recognize any of the insignia, but she’d seen her share of soldiers. It was something in the way they stood. “How can I help you?”
The colors were wrong for the army or the special police. She’d only seen a few navy officers, and only one man from the air-force. He wasn’t wearing their uniforms, either.
“I am here to speak with Messier Palomer. Please let us in.”
Margaid hesitated. “May I give him your names?”
From behind her, standing on the stairs, Grandfather said, “Let them in, dear.” All of the normal warmth, none of the haste and fire.
Margaid relaxed. The man in front of her relaxed too, so visibly that Margaid thought for a moment that he was a child. Margaid opened the door. “The sitting room is right through here, sirs. The kettle is on, and tea will be ready in a moment.” Water was still heating for the washing.
“Help me.” Grandfather said to her. He was leaning on the banister, holding out his hand. His cane was up against the door. Margaid picked it up and then went to the stairs, holding out her arm for him.
His glasses were high on his nose, square, and bringing some firmness to the gentle ovals of his face. But the eyes behind them were hard, not sparkling and rueful. The creases on his forehead and around his eyes had appeared, deep and shadowed. But they were flat, instead of curling.
Grandfather was frowning. And not with attention or momentary discontent. But a solid, focused, disapproving frown.
He took the cane with one hand and put his weight on her arm. He gestured toward the sitting room, “This way, gentlemen,” and started walking forward. Margaid went with him, supporting him. His knee must have been hurting him. He was leaning on her rather more then normal.
Margaid opened the door and lead her grandfather in to his favorite seat, by the fireplace. It was banked, but the room was neat. That morning Ealisaid had tried to convince her that there was no need to turn their bedroom back into a sitting room every day since, “We hardly ever have unexpected visitors!” Margaid was glad she’d insisted.
She put Grandfather into his chair and pulled the foot rest over. “Would you like something hot to put on your knee?” She asked.
He smiled at her. A full, warm smile. “No thank you, dear. Just get the fire going would you?”
The men were coming in behind them.
“There is no need.” The one in charge said. “We won’t be long.”
“No, I insist.” Grandfather said. “Stay for tea, at least.”
They both sounded cold. Only three of the men had come in. The one in charge and two others, leaving two extra. Waiting outside, presumably.
The whole thing took on a rather more sinister character.
“I am not here to converse with you, messier Palom–”
“I do not care why you are here.” Her grandfather said, in a voice that had more in common with a fire iron then his normal sweet tones. “You will none the less be courteous.”
The officer stared at him. Mouth half open, eyes wide with surprise. Or maybe it was anger. The muscles on his jaw were twitching.
“Sit, sit!” Margaid said, putting on her ‘cheerful busybody’ voice. She knelt down by the fire and stirred it awake. “It is cold outside, and we have some warm tea cakes.” She put a few logs on it and the baby flames started flickering up. Margaid stood again. “And if you stay for long enough, there will be pie!” She didn’t want to be welcoming to someone who was so obviously trouble, but if Grandfather wanted them to stay for tea…
The officer was staring at her. When she stood and smiled the stare intensified for a moment, eyes narrowing. Then it shifted to her grandfather.
One of the other men who had come inside poked his head into the sitting room. He said something, languidly, in a language that Margaid did not know. It sounded like iron slapping into water.
The officer hesitated, and then sat.
“Tea for your men as well, sir?” Margaid asked.
“No thank you, mademoiselle.” He said, in a dry voice.
Margaid nodded and headed out, shooting her grandfather a last look.
His face was calm.
Margaid was not as reassured by that as she would have liked.
One of the men who had come inside was standing by the door to the sitting room. The other was just around the bend, standing at the door to the kitchen. Margaid smiled as she passed. The man did not smile back.
The door hadn’t even finished swinging shut and Ealisaid was asking, “Who is it?”
“I don’t know.” Margaid tried to keep her worry out of her voice. “An officer of some kind.”
“Duh.” Ealisaid said. “Saw the soldiers. One came around the back. He’s standing on the porch, I think.” Ealisaid’s voice was high, her tone unusually measured.
“Why’s he do that?” Paaie asked. She was looking back and forth between them, face screwing up with dawning fear.
“Why is he doing that.” Margaid corrected, absently.
“They’re probably worried about wolves, honey.” Ealisaid said, her tone still too high and level. She was putting the tea service together, her normal vigor restrained as she measured tea into the wire mesh.
“Stay inside, little one.” Mother’s voice. Her face made impossible to see by the flickering of flame and shadow through the curtains at the old house. “There are wolves out tonight.” Screams. Voices roaring. The wolf’s head, tongue bulging behind its teeth like it was going to lunge.
“That’s pretty silly.” Paaie said, now confident. “We don’ get wolves here!” She was frowning intently at the pie dough. It had ripped in the middle. She brought her rolling pin down on it, hard. “They all stay in the woods.”
Margaid shook herself and walked over to Paaie’s crust. “That’s not how to fix it, honey. Here, let me show you.”
Paaie peered at her and waved the heavy wooden pin. “You sure?”
“Yes. I’m quite sure. Put that down for now, okay?”
Paaie nodded and put it down.
Margaid showed her how to pinch the dough together and smooth it back out while Ealisaid pulled the cakes out of the warming oven and put them on the tray. The kettle came to a boil and she poured it out.
“Do you want the honors?” She asked.
Margaid nodded. “Of course.”
Ealisaid handed her the tray and looked around the kitchen for something to keep her busy.
Margaid left her sister to it, and stepped back out into the hall.