The Macaslan family house was crumbling at the edges. Well, everything belonging to the Macaslan family, including the Macaslans, seemed to Elinor to be crumbling at the edges.
Maybe it was a sign of the times, she thought, looking down into the valley holding her family’s squat family castle, with it’s rounded stones and it’s one, fat tower. She could see two of the three hills surrounding the house, as she was sitting on the third, about a quarter of an hour’s walk away from the castle, which was currently filled with arguing Macaslans. As usual.
Elinor sighed at the thought, and dumped her cheek into her hand. Her Uncle Douglas liked to say that who you were was tied to your family and your land. Inevitable. Her mother, Moira, a tall, whispy, an altogether unreliable woman, would argue, in a voice like she was reciting poetry, that you are a weaver, and who you become is the tapestry you weave.
Then there would most likely be an argument.
Elinor didn’t want to be anyone in her family.
She stood up, ready to walk home, deliberately, stamping into the earth with her laced boots.
By the time she returned home, the mud had made it’s way all up the inside of her legs. This was mostly masked by her pale green dress, that hung around her ankles. Unfortunately the hem of that was also caked in mud.
She tried to run silently to her room so she could change without anyone seeing her muddy dress.
It would be a silence in the entrance hall, a run through the corridor, a very careful climb up the wooden staircase that was constantly creaking, and another scamper to her room.
She made it through the entrance hall, she ran silently and quickly through the corridor, and started to climb the stairs that led up two flights, over the sitting room her aunts liked to frequent.
Elinor stared only at her feet, believing that her aunts could feel people looking at them. She made it past eleven of the creaky stairs, and was stepping over the missing stair that everyone kept meaning to fix, when she noticed she was dripping.
By the time she realised what was about to happen it was too late, and a fat drop of mud was falling fifty feet down, down, down, to hit Aunt Morag right on the nose.
Morag blinked twice, looking cross-eyed as she stared at the mud on the end of her nose.
Maude’s eyes snapped up to where Elinor stood frozen, one foot hovering over the next step.
“Elinor,” Maude commanded, crooking her finger to being her niece back down stairs.
Elinor turned and walked down the stairs, trying not to stomp as she wished to.
“Come on, girl,” called Maude.
Elinor sped up and arrived at the bottom of the stairs to stand before her aunts.
“Now, what did you do to yourself to get that caked in mud?”
“It’s just muddy out, it climbs up you!” Elinor insisted.
“You know your aunt Maude made you that dress,” Morag said.
“I know, I was just about to clean it! That’s where I was going!”
Elinor’s mother walked in from the garden, her dress dark enough to hide any mud marks she might have.
“Didn’t Maude make that dress you’re wearing, Elinor?”
“Yes, I did.”
“How could it have got so dirty?” Elinor’s mother asked. She didn’t even sound aggressive, she sounded like she was speaking rhetorically, but it still drove Elinor even closer to the edge.
“I’m going to clean it!” she shouted.
The three women blinked at her.
“Now, there’s no need to shout, dearie,” Morag said.
Elinor curled her hands into fists, screwed up her face and reapeated, louder, “I’m going to clean it!”
She turned and ran up the stairs as fast as she could, almost tripping on the missing stairs, but just climbing with her hands the rest of the way.
Her door slammed louder than she intended behind her, and she winced.
She never meant to get caught up in arguments with her family, but it was just so easy. Not getting into an argument with them never seemed to make dealing with them any easier, it just made Elinor angrier.
She lit the kindling in her fireplace and set some water over it to boil, then she took off her dress and boots and sat in her petticoat and bloomers by the fire.
The chimney was a funnel for sound, so she could still her her mother and aunts talking, as the sound came up from their fireplace to Elinor’s.
They had started muttering about Elinor, and Elinor tried not to hear. Soon though, they descended into bickering with each other. Elinor rested her chin on her knees and glumly poked the fire with the poker.
A while later, when the water had got hot enough, and Elinor had already sponged the mud from her legs, Elinor pulled it out from over the fire to soak her dress in.
She had begun scrubbing it against the washboard when a door banged, and someone entered the room below.
There was a creak, that Elinor recognised as her Uncle’s chair in front of the fireplace, and she heard her Uncle Douglas sigh.
“Douglas!” cried Elinor’s mother, “What news?”
“Well, Lord Dingwall’s booby traps have captured seven of Lord Lyne’s men, but his cousin announced his intentions to marry their wee Sheena Lyne, so that’ll blow over soon enough. Lord Macintosh had one of his men injured by Baron Macrae, and captured sixteen in return. Baron Macrae now has two men.”
Here Elinor’s Uncle Douglas stopped to chuckle at the thought.
“And the funeral for MacGuffin’s oldest man is next week, the day before the war council, and the fight about MacGuffin’s oldest man dying is tomorrow.”
A silence fell over the room below. Elinor paused her scrubbing, in case it could be heard and they’d figure out she was listening.
“The war council is going ahead then?” Aunt Maude said softly, “So it’s not just a rumour?”
“I’m afraid so, all intelligence points to an invasion. They want every Family’s Seat in Arbyshire Castle within the week.”
“Arbyshire!” cried Maude. “Why on earth would they hold it in Arbyshire?”
Elinor stopped listening to her family, who had begun an argument about which location would have caused the least friction and arguments.
She stood, abandoning her half cleaned dress by the fire, to take a book down from the bookcase.
She wanted to check.
She wanted to be sure.
She thought she was right, but -
Elinor finished flicking through the pages to land where she wanted. The explanation of the role of Family Seat.
She was right.
Her father had been, and now she was.
Elinor blinked a few times. She swallowed.
How stupid had their ancestors been to have not predicted this kind of thing? Sending sixteen year olds to war councils was madness. Madness.
Elinor sat back blankly on her bed.
“She can’t go!” cried Morag.
“She can’t not go!” insisted Maude.
“Can’t someone else go?” suggested Uncle Douglas. “If she hadn’t been born it would have been me.”
“There’s no use contemplating impossibilities,” murmured Moira, staring out of the window.
There was a gale blowing, and though the house was warm, the whistling of the wind running through the cracks in the mortar could be heard throughout the castle.
“But she’s sixteen? What is the point of sending her to a war council?”
For once, with the entire family arguing, Elinor remained both in the room and silent.
“She won’t even make it all the way alone, can you hear that gale? Who would make her go out in it, let alone ride all the way to Arbyshire.”
It felt inevitable that she would end up at the war council . . . Yet it also felt like an impossible dream, and of course she wasn’t going to leave her home in Llandrew and travel to Arbyshire to converse about an invasion. This was some diversion, another thing for the family to argue about, before they continued with life and found something else to argue about.
“There’s got to be some way we could override it. Does it definitely have to be the family seat?” asked Morag.
“Does she definitely have to be the family seat?” asked Maude.
There was a pause in the argument. It wasn’t often people in Macaslan arguments stopped to consider the facts. It was even less often people in Macaslan arguments admitted they didn’t know something.
“I don’t know,” Uncle Douglas eventually said.
Elinor looked between them.
She wondered if anyone other than her had skimmed through the family books, and knew the answers to their questions were just upstairs.
“I can get Kenneth to come over and we’ll discuss it,” Uncle Douglas said decidedly.
“In which case we’re inviting Fiona as well,” cried Morag argumentatively.
“Fine!” cried Uncle Douglas.
“Fine!” Morag returned.
Elinor played with her fingers, itching to go upstairs and find out for herself.
The first thing Elinor looked up was Family Seat. Again. Just in case Morag and Maude’s questions were valid. But it was done with very little hope. Elinor had a very good memory. It was definitely her.
The book explained a war council involved the seat - the person holding the direct line of the family - of every important family, coming together, on their own (no armies allowed, not even an army consisting of family, we all know what some families are like) to decide how to handle it. This involved a lot of shouting, that went on until most people had lost their voices, and then the people who still had their voices got to decide what to do. Then, theoretically, the rest of Scotland obeyed.
If Elinor’s father had been alive he would have gone, so Elinor imagined that it would be filled with men like her father, except they didn’t know and love her, so they’d have no reason to be nice to her.
Elinor swallowed and read on.
The last war council had happened comparatively recently, in the time of Elinor’s great grandparents.
And there was another book about it.
Elinor carefully put the tome she had been reading back on the shelf, and searched for the account of the last war council.
There was nothing.
So she started pulling all the unmarked books off of the shelf.
Some of them had titles on the front cover, just not on the spine, so she put them back immediately.
Others she had to flick through, to discover they were books about herbs or God or old romances about Knights.
She pulled out a small book, bound in blue leather and flicked through it.
Unlike the others, that had been written out clearly by scribes who’d carefully illustrated them, this one was written in joined up handwriting, with crossings out and writing that ran up the margin when the space ran out.
She flicked through the front.
Leslie Macangus’ Account of The War Council of Kings
The War Council of Kings had been the war council which ended, begrudgingly, in the demotion of everyone. It had been called because there were over twenty five self proclaimed “Kingdoms” and they were constantly battling for control of the entirety of Scotland. The best the council could come up with was to demote everybody, which gave everyone the slight victory of “well if I can’t have it, nobody can” and everyone the slight sting of hearing that from other people.
But it had worked, most Lords and Barons now spent their time capturing each other to settle their differences, rather than killing.
Elinor’s Great-Great Aunt Leslie had been the Family Seat at the time, even though she had been twenty and Elinor was only sixteen. But Leslie’s books was instructional. It gave tips.
“Do not get emotional in front of men. It makes them think you’re wrong and irrational. If you feel yourself becoming emotional, distract them, do something, leave, and let it out somewhere else.”
“Women are more likely to listen to other women, or at least to people who aren’t shouting. Unless they are shouting, in which case you need to flatter them before you can do anything. This goes for men as well on the quiet to loud scale, but everything’s harder with men, they are very difficult creatures.”
“Do not shout. If you lose your voice on the first day you and your family are lost. No one remembers the Macnacs for a reason. You need to project from the diaphram. You need to be heard from everywhere in the room.”
“Rise early, stay clean, be cautious of everything you say. Try not to insult anyone to anyone. The walls have ears.”
This book made Elinor think she could do it.
There was arguing coming from the fireplace again though.
Elinor sighed. Would they let her go? They were stubborn enough not to. Not sending anyone was tantamount to admitting you thought your family wasn’t worth anything. It was worse than losing your voice on the first day.
“How dare you?” someone cried. There was a clang.
She looked down ad the book in her hands. She ran her thumbs over the blue leather cover. She nodded to herself.
Elinor walked serenely downstairs.
She was wearing one of her mother’s floor-length black dresses, and a metal comb in her hair. She held her head up like it was a crown. She felt slightly ridiculous, and she was terrified of trimming over the dress, but she trusted Leslie, and Leslie said all these things were good. She descended the stairs slowly, looking straight ahead, with her chin in the air.
She was not going to speed up.
She was not going to look down.
She was not, at any point, going to raise her voice in irritation.
God she was terrified.
She stepped over the missing step, and continued down.
She felt it as the room below her noticed her, and lowered their voices, and stilled their movements.
They watched her walk down the last few stairs.
“Good evening. I have looked over the family books. There is no other way. I shall be doing my duty as the Family Seat, and heading off to the war council in the morning. I would appreciate it if you would help me pack.”
She could barely believe it when it worked.
In the morning, Elinor was tired but packed. She had a sturdy horse to take her, with saddlebags packed full of essentials for the trip, and riches for when she arrived and had to look her finest.
She had given soft goodbyes to her aunts and uncle.
She stood in the stable yard, about to mount, when her mother appeared silently next to her. Elinor was standing on the mounting block, so she felt much taller than her mother, which was strange.
“You don’t have to go,” murmured Moira.
“Yes I do,” Elinor answered plainly.
“No one in this family cares that much about prestige. We’d keep our castle and our land even if we lost our name in society.”
Elinor looked at her mum for a moment. Moira was looking up at one of the hills. Elinor wondered if her mother had read some of Leslie’s advice, about going outside when things got emotional, except her mum had changed it to just looking into the distance.
“Maybe I care,” said Elinor firmly.
She bent down to kiss her mother on the cheek, which felt strange.
“I love you,” Elinor said.
Moira suddenly hugged her. Elinor settled her hands around her mother. “I love you too,” Moira said. “So much.”
Elinor leant back.
Then she got on her horse, and rode away from the castle.
And if she was a bit weepy, there was no one on the track to notice.