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Beneath the Hen you find her Toes - Thursday, late evening

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Settled comfortably on the main street of the town of Windsor, High Street, the Hen's Toes is a neatly turned out establishment, clearly catering to a more well-mannered class of person than the local country folk. A Tudor facade gives way to a comfortable common room upon first entry, scattered with tables and chairs rather than the more rustic benches that might be found in the local tavern. A roaring hearth dominates the right side of the room, staving off the deep winter chill. A few comfortable chairs accompanied by small side tables offer best access to its warmth. Beside it, a flight of stairs leads up to the floors above, where the sparse but clean guest rooms are located. On the other side of the room, an inconspicuous doorway leads to a private dining room.

Behind the bar one might find either Mr Clarke, a middle aged, stocky man whose rugged demeanour hides his gregarious, jovial nature, or his wife, whose beady eyes keep close eye on all goings on within the establishment.

It was late when Douglas finally made it back to the Hen's Toes, and he was in a pensive mood, lightening as he arrived at the prospect of seeing his old friend and erstwhile comrade in the Regiment du Dumbarton once more. The red wool of his uniform glowed darkly in the firelight which reflected off the metal of both rapier and a beautiful dirk at his side, and gleamed off the carved mother of pearl pin at his collar. 

Scanning the common room with eyes that looked dark in the firelight, the big Scotsman spotted his quarry by the fire, and his gaunt face broke into a broad grin as he advanced. "Melville! Ceud mìle fàilte. Tis guid tae see ye laddie."* He declared warmly.

* "Melville! A hundred thousand welcomes. It's good to see you man."

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Duncan had had time to change back into his mourning attire. Although he was dressed entirely in black, grey, and white, and his mourning ring was back on his finger, he had allowed his manservant to add tear-shaped blue diamonds to his right hand and cravat, and a silver watch encrusted with blue diamonds to his waistcoat’s pocket. A basket-hilted sword, a matching dirk, his black walnut cane, and two unseen daggers completed the ensemble. His face was creased with lines, and he seemed tired, but less gaunt than the previous few days.

“Dundarg! Are you a sight for sore eyes!” The Lowlander had chosen a somewhat secluded table, one in which they could have their backs to the wall and made it hard to be overheard. He scanned the room out of precaution, as circumstances did not allow him to be careless. He was looking for anything out of the ordinary, anything, literally. “Tell me, how is Aberdeen nowadays? And how is her Lord Lieutenant?” There was a note of pride for his friend in the viscount’s voice.

Lord Melville signaled a serving wench for a bottle of uisgee, two glasses, and a large plate of meats and bread. If they were going to empty the bottle, they better not do it on an empty stomach. Besides, Douglas had the ability to wolf down enormous quantities of food.

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Melville's world-weary appearance wasn't lost on Douglas, nor the way in which he scanned the common room as though it were a battlefield. His friend hadn't seen the Lowlander at his worst, when he first arrived at Windsor, but it was plain still that much weighed heavily on him. His mourning attire - sombre and appropriate even with it's understated wealth - perhaps explained his tired looks and the years that seemed suddenly to weigh on him, but not the caution with which he assessed the room and chose their table. They were cues that alerted Douglas to take his own care, and the Highlander also glanced surreptitiously about, noting any that were present, before taking his seat. 

But no caution could dampen his joy at seeing his friend. "I'm telt I'm oft the cause fer sore een." He quipped as he settled at the table, back against the wall, taking up a seemingly relaxed sentry post with the same ease he'd have done when they were both in the Regiment. It was like the years faded away and they were younger men once more. "Aberdeen is weel, an' Aberdeenshire a guid deal safer tae travel." He said proudly. His position was a great source of pride to Douglas as well, and it was good to hear that echoed in Melville's voice. "An' I hae been weel alsae, thank ye."* Duncan, the courtier who'd known Douglas the longest bar his family, would easily see the way Douglas seemed far more comfortable in his own place in the world than he had when they'd first met, years ago. 

His land and his position, in spite of his bastardy, had done a lot to shift Douglas's world view. He hadn't always appreciated what he did have and what he had achieved, indeed he'd entered the Regiment a very bitter young man, much aggrieved by what he felt he was rightfully due and had lost by virtue of his father's sins. Such was his griping that he earned the nickname within his company 'The Bastard King of Scotland'. Time and the chance to prove his worth had begun to mellow him, along with better influences. Melville had been one of those influences and Dundarg still viewed the man much as the older brother he never had. 

Right now Dundarg was rather concerned for the man who had been such a role model for him, given his tired appearance and Catriona's words. Douglas favoured Duncan with a empathetic look as the drink and food were placed between them. "An' hou aboot ye?" He asked, rather more softly, once the server had left. "I'm sorreh fer yer loss laddie, I ken ye were main fond o' her."** He said earnestly, much less of a 'stiff upper lip' man than the southern sassenach amongst whom they walked. Marriages weren't made for love of course, they were made for money or political gain, but Douglas was aware that Melville had found love as well as wealth in his marriage to the shipping magnate's middle daughter. And good for him. But Dundarg could see that it made her loss that much harder on his friend. 

Douglas reached out to pour a finger of whiskey into each man's glass, before lifting his own. "Tae Lairdy Ophelia Melville."*** He offered simply. 

* "I'm told I'm often the cause for sore eyes. Aberdeen is well, and Aberdeenshire a good deal safer to travel. And I have been well also, thank you."
** "And how about you? I'm sorry for your loss man, I know you were very fond of her."
*** "To Lady Ophelia Melville."

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Douglas seemed more relaxed, as if the eternal chip on his shoulder had shrunk from a mountain to a more manageable boulder. Good! It seems he is growing into his new position. In time he might become what he can become. Although the De Maleiulles were a very old Scoto-Norman family, his years on the battlefields of the Continent had taught Duncan that nobility of character could surface on any man. In ancient times, rulers recognized this by granting baronies or knighting commoners with far more freedom than in the seventeenth century. In the times they lived, there were too many rules for the viscount’s taste.

He is far more deserving of a Lordship of Parliament than many of those that have inherited them. Hopefully time would lead to that. The Lowlander knew that being born on the wrong side of the sheets was a very large obstacle, but he had also come to understand that the King could be a lot freer with Scottish or Irish titles than with English ones. At the very least he needs to get a Baronetcy, Duncan mused, even if I must pay for it myself. Of course, Douglas must never know if it came to that.

“Those who believe you are the cause and not the solution do not know you at all, Dundarg. If I were to need someone to watch my back, you are one of a very few I know I can count on”. Your sister is another, but that does not need to be stated right now. “And you are a good match for Aberdeen. That land will proper under your care, and you will grow caring for it. It is a good match”. Any land watched over by Douglas would prosper. Of that, Duncan was certain.

Without looking at his tall and lanky friend, the viscount answered, “I am in a bad place, Douglas. Not as bad as when Cat saw me, but I am in bad shape. You know me. We have bled together. We have stared death in the eye together. But this… this…” Duncan’s voice was in the brink of breaking. “This I have had to face alone. No one can face it with me. This has been the worst battle I have lost in my life”.

A pause to keep composure.

“Gossip says that I married for money. It has been… helpful, I admit, but that was not the reason. My investments in the EIC made me enough profit to buy Melville House, keep the other half of my profits, and even tithe a thousand pounds to the Bishop of London. I did not need Sir Cedric’s money”. It was true. “I married Ophelia for the same reason I’d rather not marry Fiona. I have killed many men at war, like you. I just do not want to kill more men over my wife. What I did not count on is that I would grow to love my Book Mouse more than I have loved anyone, my mother and daughter included”. A lone tear ran unchecked down the viscount’s left cheek. “I loved her so much, Douglas, and now that she is gone, I feel so alone…”

Duncan choked. Without a word, he raised his glass and emptied it in one gulp. Then, he slowly set it down on the table without making a sound. “I think I need another one. It solves nothing, but it dulls the pain. Make it a double this time”.

So as not to get too drunk too soon, the viscount took a piece of bread and a slice of roast and started eating them. His eyes had not stopped scanning the common room without seeming to do so. His pain was real, but so was his determination to find out who wanted to kill Fiona MacBain. And God have mercy on you, because I surely will not!

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Duncan's kind words drew a somewhat wry smile to Douglas's sharp features. The man was almost too kind it seemed at times, but if Duncan could believe in him then Douglas could, despite what so many at court said about him. And the man was right; he was well suited to Aberdeen. The responsibility settled him, gave him something worth working for and much less time to be a loose canon. And he enjoyed it; it felt right. And it felt good that Duncan saw that. Yes, Douglas felt a lot more satisfied with his life than when he'd first come to court, and it showed. 

Alas but that neither of them could feel as good about Duncan's situation. His friend was candid about his current state, and Douglas listened as Melville unloaded on him about his relationship with his wife, his reasons for marrying her and how he had grown over time to love her. The vulnerability was almost frightening to see; Melville was normally such a pillar of strength, but Douglas knew well how battle could unsettle even the strongest of men, they had both seen it. Still, to see him choke so over the toast almost made Douglas feel bad for offering it. Ophelia's loss really had hit Lord Melville that hard. Well, Duncan had been there for Douglas, a model of strength and good will when he needed it; perhaps it was Douglas's turn. 

Carefully he poured the requested double into their glasses before setting the bottle down. "Ainly if ye sip it slow."* He said gravely, knowing all too well how easy it was to turn to drink. Then he laced his big hands together thoughtfully, elbows on the arms of his chair, and regarded Duncan for a long moment. Like most people, Douglas had assumed that Duncan had married a Doolittle daughter for the money, not that he thought any less of the man for it. The idea that he'd done it for the lack of associated politics was one that hadn't crossed Douglas's mind, but it was an interesting insight. Perhaps Melville had seen enough conflict on the battlefield. And that simple choice had led to a love so deep that her loss had left him devastated. 

"We're men o' action, we arenae made fer battles we cannae ficht, let alain win." The big man acknowledged thoughtfully, at length. He couldn't imagine how helpless Duncan had felt, watching his wife die. They were unaccustomed to feeling helpless. And Duncan seemed to think that was only the beginning; he now had to battle the aftermath. "I cannae ficht your battle fer ye, but I can stand by yer side." Douglas said gravely. "Ye arenae alain, I promise ye. I hae been yer brothair in arms, an' I weel allus be yer brothair." He reached out to squeeze Duncan's forearm for a moment. "The bluid o' th'covenant is thicker thain the water o' the womb."** And he meant it. Douglas would do whatever he could for the man he considered his brother, who had been there for him.

Time healed any wound that didn't kill you, even if only death could remove the scars. Duncan would grow past his loss, though Douglas knew he would always feel it. What the other man needed was time for that to happen; something else to focus on. Douglas picked up his glass and swirled the amber liquid within it. "Fer the record, I wuid ne'er wish Fiona on ye. I'm nae that cruel."*** He drawled. He could say that because he was her brother.

* "Only if you sip it slowly."
** "We're men of action, we aren't made for battles we can't fight, let alone win. I can't fight your battle for you, but I can stand by your side. You aren't alone, I promise you. I have been your brother in arms, and I will always be your brother. The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb."
*** "For the record, I would never wish Fiona on you. I'm not that cruel."

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“Aye, I ken. I am drinking far too much for my own guyd. As much as I like the pain to be dulled, I know I must face it and run its course. Some days it feels like it is too much, though. The past few days have been particularly hard”. Duncan had but disappeared from public view. “But enough is enough. I need to go through it, and I need to heal from it. I will not stay in the pit of despair the rest of my life”. Duncan raised the glass but did not drink from it. He stared at the uisgee, its dark amber colour calling him, enticing him. But the Lowlander held fast, letting his emotions go through him like a Carib hurricane, leaving disaster in their wake. But once they had done their wont, a more calm and clearer-headed viscount remained.

“Douglas, you are right. We are accustomed to face risks, and have learned to handle those risks, even the possibility of death. To face the certainty of my wife's death close up is not something I had expected to do, even at my ripe old age of 32!” He tried to make light of things.

He felt better. Not less sad, but definitely less depressed. “You are kin, Douglas. Kin by choice. And I am thankful that Providence has made it so”. A slight smile. “As for Lady Lochend…”

How do I put it?

“… someone tried to kill her today. I was running an errand in the forest when I heard a shot and, as I investigated, I found her on the ground. She was not hit by a bullet, but the horse threw her off, and her head and an ankle are bruised. The ankle will need time to recover, so she is not going anywhere any time soon. Cat is going to throw a fit when she finds out”. Everybody knew that ladies were hotter headed than gentlemen. Cat was a prime example of that. "I hope you react far more calmly".

“I asked as many questions as I could think of without scolding her. I mean…” a pause to grab another slice of roasted meet and some bread. “I disagree with some of her actions, and I did tell her that, but I will stand between her and danger. Whoever is doing this needs to be treated like a mad dog, Douglas, and put down. The sooner, the better”. There was a finality to his words.

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Posted (edited)

Douglas nodded empathetically as Duncan said he had to work his way through this, and come out the other side somehow. "If nae fer yersel', then fer yer wee lassie, wha's nae doobt missin' her mammy."* He reminded his friend. Duncan had things to live for, to work for, and to one day enjoy again. Douglas had never met the daughter that Ophelia had given him, but surely given her parents she was a sweet and kind soul, utterly delightful, and someone worth working for. 

The big Highlander had no knowledge of the circumstances around Ophelia's demise, but as he took the opportunity to wolf down some bread and meat, Duncan spoke of facing the inevitability of facing his wife's death. She must have died of some lingering illness then, something where Duncan had been forced to watch her wither away as sometimes happened. Ach but that was a hard way to go, and a hard thing to watch. At least on the battlefield it was usually over quickly, in days if not minutes. No wonder it had hurt him so. Even if she'd died in childbed, that might almost have been easier. Now he was without a wife, and still without a male heir. Just one daughter. At all of 32, as he pointed out. Five years Douglas's senior. At least he'd been married. "Yer young yet laddie. Whin yer rairdy..."** he let the words hang, quite certain that Duncan was nowhere near ready to think of remarrying. When he was, the Viscount Melville would be quite the catch. 

Being called kin by Duncan - knowing that his friend echoed his own feelings on the subject - meant more to the big Highlander than he could express. He'd already used up his limited eloquence quotient on that subject, but he smiled in turn. And his friend seemed to welcome the opportunity to change the subject. 

That smile vanished however when Duncan revealed what had happened, and it was a good job that Douglas's glass was on the table and not in his hand, else it might have ended up in the fireplace. He said something rude in Gaelic at the initial revelation, then listened closely as Duncan described the events as he'd seen them, a faint frown of concentration creasing his dark brows. "We aw disagree wi' some o' her actions, but she is my sister an' this haes tae stop." He said firmly. "Thank God ye foond her." He dreaded to think what might have happened if Duncan hadn't. "Cat was tellin' me that Fi haed a stalker wha haed made threats, afore I was sent North agin."*** But he'd not had the chance to do anything about it. 

It was all so puzzling though. "Whit I dinnae un'erstand is why. I love her dearly but she's minor Scottish nobility, nae political player; jus' a young lassie wi' a bonnie face wha cannae keep her legs taegether." He grumbled. "If abody was tryin' tae git at Cat er I, we shuid hae git some letter oorsels." And they weren't much more of a political target than Fiona herself. "Th'ainly reason I kin think o', is some jilted lover." He said, slightly bewildered, then seemed to freeze momentarily as a thought occurred that had previously escaped him. "Er the lairdy o' a lover she did take."+ He added quietly. Catriona was hardly the only woman at court who handled weapons. He could name three more without stretching himself. 

Douglas turned a grim, business-like look on his friend. "Tell we aw whit happened."++ He demanded, wanting as much information as possible, much as Duncan had himself. 

* "If not for yourself, then for your little girl, who's no doubt missing her mummy."
** "You're young yet man. When you're ready..."
*** "We all disagree with some of her actions, but she is my sister and this has to stop. Thank God you found her. Cat was telling me that Fi had a stalker who had made threats, before I was sent North again."
+ "What I don't understand is why. I love her dearly but she'd minor Scottish nobility, no political player; just a young girl with a pretty face who can't keep her legs together. If anybody was trying to get at Cat or I, we should have got some letter ourselves. The only reason I can think of, is some jilted lover. Or the lady of a lover she did take."
++ "Tell me everything that happened."

Edited by Douglas FitzJames
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