Gift Giving: Part 6 of the holiday series
|Happy Holidays from everyone in the Diras castle keep|
When the evening of Ailineighdaeth came to Diras, Alasdair had called a small party of intimates to attend him in the royal chamber for the ceremonial giving of gifts. The couples who were invited claimed they would give each other presents on their own time if not having done so already but those who were called were warned that the king had a gift for every one of them. He asked that none of the attendees of the aforesaid party feel obliged to give anything in return, as Alasdair wished to be the chief shareholder in the happiness of the day. Conveyed to the royal chambers were Tomas and Mrs. Cuineill, Kai Linaa and Unghaahi, the commander and the Den Asaan, all of them prepared to allow the king his desire of giving them unnecessary presents. Alasdair had the inclination that Tomas would feel uneasy traversing the royal quarter to reach the king’s rooms and had an attendant personally escort the blacksmith and his mother to the ceremony to assure his attendance.
Once everyone was gathered, Alasdair asked if there was anyone amongst the present who should wish to go first. Mrs. Cuineill speedily called out that since she was the eldest of them all, naturally she should be the initial gift giver. From the satchel she brought with her, she produced numerous pairs of socks, all in varying colours and sizes. Tomas looked away with a blush and a moan, embarrassed that his mother would venture to bestow the traditional Ailineighdaeth contribution.
“Aye, and what of it?” Mrs. Cuineill said, handing out the socks to their recipients. “You can always use anot’er pair.”
“That is exactly what my mother used to say every single year,” the commander laughed. “Regardless of whether I needed them or wanted them, the very same answer was always given. Even if I would profess that I would never wear them, you could always use another pair was the reply. Socks have become the most abominable tradition of this holiday and you, Mrs. Cuineill, shall be the one to rectify it, I’m certain.”
“Aye, girl,” said the old woman with a dry laugh. “The lot of you don’t dress warm enough. Someone needs to be lookin’ out for you.”
Alasdair smiled with the highest warmth upon receiving his pair. He had heard that such a convention existed among those in the lower classes of Frewyn, but as he had grown under the auspices of a tender grandfather and tyrannical brother, he had never been given so practical a gift and was therefore enchanted with them. He thanked Mrs. Cuineill with an affectionate embrace and she responded in kind.
“Aye, lad,” were her words of welcome. “And, when t’at girl of yours comes back from visitin’ her poor Ma, won’t you give ‘er these?” Mrs. Cuineill gave Alasdair a second pair and the king promised he would hand them to Carrigh the instant she returned from Hallanys.
Mrs. Cuineill had given the knitted socks to everyone excepting Rautu and Unghaahi and when she came before them, she placed her hands on her boney hips and glared at the two giants. “You two lads must be freezin’,” she asserted with a nod toward their seemingly meager coverings. “I know it’s not cold were you’re from but in t’is kingdom, we protect what t’e Gods gave us.” Mrs. Cuineill took from her satchel two pairs of long undergarments and presented them to the giants.
The Den Asaan leered at the gift in circumspection, wondering what was to be done with them, and when it was explained they were meant to cover the extent of the body, Rautu drew back in revolution.
The commander cackled and pointed at her mate’s dour expression. “Mrs. Cuineill, I daresay you have made the end of this year a delight,” she howled in laughter. “This could only be made better if you had knitted them with the feet attached.”
“Aye, I t’ought of it. I t’ought of putting cakes on ‘em for your man as well.”
The image of the Den Asaan in undergarments with patterns of small cakes upon them was more than the commander could endure. She fell over in and gripped her sides as she laughed. Each time she opened her eyes to see her mate’s scowling expression had ruined her composure further and to end the apparent shame of the gift, both giants said their quiet thanks and bowed to accept their tailored presents.
Mrs. Cuineill had not done. She stood before the two giants and looked at them with tapered gaze. “Well?” she said in a demanding tone.
Unghaahi looked at his brother in confusion and thought perhaps their appreciation was not felt. “You have carefully chosen these gifts with our wellbeing as your concern. This is most a most honourable and meaningful gift, Den Ambesari,” Unghaahi purred, bowing once again. “You have our sincere thanks.”
“Aye,” the old woman nodded, acknowledging their gratitude once more. “Try ‘em on, lads.”
The two giants eyed each other with dreadful looks.
“It is quite over for you both,” the commander said, wiping the tears of mirth from her eyes and attempting not to laugh. “That is the trap that every mother sets. A child is made to try them on as a seemingly innocent venture and then, once the items are on one’s legs they shall not be removed or returned to the trader. While they are still in your hands, you have time to return them to the giver.”
Although Unghaahi was content to be frozen by the Frewyn climate, he would never subject Mrs. Cuineill to the disrespect the refutation of a gift could impart. Rautu, however, was undecided. He would not permit the old woman to suffer the disrepute of the repudiation nor would he try on the gift before others, but he resolved in the quiet of his mind that perhaps he would in the privacy of the commons when his mate was elsewhere. He had seen others in the keep wearing these odd garments and though they looked unreasonable, the added warmth they accorded the wearer was not. He thanked Mrs. Cuineill and returned to his laughing mate.
Alasdair then declared it was his turn to give his gifts. He passed around hampers filled with the bounty of the day, graced with chocolates and spiced breads for everyone’s delectation. While everyone said their praise and inspected the contents of their baskets, Alasdair called the commander over to give her a small gift, as he knew that the chief of her basket would be eaten by her mate. When she neared, he took a pink ribbon from his breast pocket and presented it to her. “Do you remember this?” he said warmly.
The ribbon, tarnished from age, though wholly unremarkable held some significance for the commander. She observed it with awe and mild anguish. “I had nearly forgotten it,” she murmured, taking it into her hand. “My wretched mother put this in my hair the day of the assembly. I thought I had thrown it in the mud.”
“You had,” Alasdair said smilingly. “I followed you back to your father’s home hoping to give it to you, but when I heard those terrible things she said I thought it best to save it for another time. I had almost lost it until Carrigh found in the pocket of my britches.”
“Wondrous to know you’re still the same size then as you are now,” the commander said with a smirk. “Thank you, Alasdair. I will promptly throw this in the fire the instant I return to my room.”
The king grinned with a glint of happiness in his eye. “I knew you would.”
The commander responded with the same sentiment. She soon produced a small box and placed it into the king’s hand. She smiled when he opened it. Inside was a thick-banded silver earring, similar to the one Alasdair had pierced through his left ear. When he asked the meaning in the gift, the commander plied, “You’re our general now, Alasdair. You should have had your ear pierced to mark your promotion at your coronation.”
Alasdair looked at the etched earring with dread. He shivered to think of the needle passing through his ear once again as it had done years ago when he became First Captain.
“I long to see Carrigh’s face when she sees you squirm about in that chair,” the commander said sneeringly.
“Thank you,” the king moaned.
The commander laughed at his disturbance and asked that she summon the Den Asaan unto him for his gift. When the giant stood before him, Alasdair held a small wooden case out toward him.
“This is needless,” the giant argued, refusing to take the case into his hand.
“Maybe, but it’s customary. The king always gives his commanders a gift for the holiday as a thank you for their service.” Alasdair had little idea if the claim he made were true, but he agreed to pretend that it was and he thrust the case into the Den Asaan’s hand. “Open it.”
The Den Asaan obliged him and, to the giant’s amazement, was not disappointed. Inside the wooden casing were two black rings carved with Haanta characters. Rautu’s stern appearance faded as he plucked a ring from the inlay and examined it. “Where did you find these?” he asked with grave sincerity.
“The Khantarian Outpost. I petitioned your brothers to help me chose something that you might enjoy. They said you would know what to do with these. Otenohi was especially convinced of it.”
The Den Asaan stared at the king and was silent. His severe and amazed expression gave the king the understanding that these rings were of great consequence and that his brothers had chosen well on his behalf. The rings seemed to convey some sentiment to the Den Asaan and though Alasdair wondered why the black rings had given the giant pause, he did not question the giant’s brooding silence.
“You have my thanks,” Rautu said gravely after a time. He regarded the king’s earnestness and realized he had no notion of what he had given him. In return, the giant took a pelt from the collction upon his back and presented to Alasdair. “This is from one of the zhaasta in the north of our islands. These hides are used to create our kilts and parts of our weapons. You will wear this well and you will appear fearless before your men.”
Alasdair hardly knew whether to credit the Den Asaan with praising him or insulting him but was astonished that he would be so willing to part with one of his precious hides. “You don’t need to give me a gift-“
“My people exchange equally,” the Den Asaan demanded. “These rings are not given to everyone. They are made from the same black steel as my sword. I was going to be awarded these by the Hakriyaa upon my successful return to Sanhedhran after my first mission to the mainland. I failed and my reputation for faultless service was destroyed. The Hakriyaa never trusted me with another mission again.”
Alasdair sensed the Den Asaan’s indignation and stood close to him to offer him consolation. “I’ll admit you’re not easy to get along with at times, Rautu, but I wouldn’t have anyone else lead our men. Your service is appreciated here. I know that doesn’t mean terribly much, because you’re here in service of your people, but I would like to believe you stay here because you wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.”
The Den Asaan’s expression softened and he lowered his eyes, ashamed to agree to Alasdair’s conviction. “You are an honourble king,” he murmured.
The two exchanged a thoughtful glance. Rautu placed the rings he was given in his hair and bowed in thanks one last time before returning to his mate.
Alasdair had not a moment to think of what was said between the subdued giant and himself before he was approached by Tomas.
“Majesty,” the blacksmith said eagerly. “T’ere’s somethin’ I’d like you to have. I know my gift won’t be much but you’ve be so kind and generous wit’ my Ma and me I wanted to do somethin’ for you.” Before Alasdair could refute to taking a gift from the kindly blacksmith, Tomas produced a box from his apron and guarded it in his hand. “You mentioned your grandda, King Dorrin. I know ‘ow much ‘e meant to you. I saw ‘is tapestry in the main ‘all and I noticed ‘e was wearin’ a ring with a blue stone. Now I’m not a jewler or nothin’ but I t’ought if it looked anythin’ like the one in ‘is portrait, t’is might be close.”
Tomas opened the box and in the center was displayed a replica of King Dorrin’s ring. The same style was iterated, the same gems were utilized and cut in the same fashion, and the engraving in Old Frewyn of the capital’s dictum along the band was the very same.
Alasdair’s eyes widened and his lips parted in shock. His hands trembled as they gravitated toward the ring. “Where did you find these gemstones?” he asked, his voice trembling with concern.
“Not to worry, Majesty,” Tomas said with nervous laughter. “I t’ey were lyin’ around. When my brot’er passed on, I found some stones in his silversmith. This blue one I’ve kept wit’ me for at least fifteen years. I knew it would come to good use. Please, Majesty, try it on.”
Alasdair paused. He exhaled and did as he was bid. The fit was perfect and to see his grandfather’s ring upon his finger was more than he could bear. His lip quivered, his brows bent in agitation and he succumbed to tears. “Tomas,” he sorrowfully began, “you cannot know what this means to me.”
“I t’ink I do,” the blacksmith said, looking about with apprehension.
“Tomas,” Alasdair repeated, endeavoring to gain self-governance, “when my grandfather died, Allande took everything that belonged to him and placed it in the treasury. I looked everywhere for this ring. It was given to him by mother when my brother was born. I thought maybe he had been buried with it but I found out that my brother had taken it for himself even though he knew I wanted it. I tried to persuade him into letting me have it so I could keep it safe, but he wore it into battle and lost it while fighting. I was devastated when he told me it was gone. And you’ve . . .”
Alasdair could not continue. He could only look down at the ring on his hand. A torrent of sentiment rushed on him. The memory of a beloved grandfather, the selfishness of a brother who had taken the only article of his grandfather’s other than the violin that was bequeathed him, the dejectedness he endured at the time of his guardian’s death, the happiness he had in a moment felt at seeing the lost object returned to him, all of these notions compelled Alasdair to embrace Tomas and feel the comfort in the blacksmith’s consideration.
Tomas was terrified. The king of his kingdom was upon him in a sorrowful gratitude and he knew not what to do. Were he to return the embrace, he felt he would be seen as an equal but to do nothing would be to dishonor the appreciation the king wished to accord. He decided at last to join the king in the embrace and his mother smiled to see her son so well situated.
“Aye, t’at’s nice. Two lads sharing brot’erly feelin’s. Reminds me of my Bhaunbher, t’at lad,” Mrs. Cuineill said pointing to the king.
At the mention of Tomas’ brother, the blacksmith thought of how similar in character Alasdair and Bhaunbher were although they had differed greatly in appearance. He felt that if his brother should have survived the battle at Westren, he and Alasdair would have found means of connection. “T’ink not’in’ of it, Majesty. Please,” Tomas entreated him.
Alasdair nodded and half-smiled. “I’ll do my best to pretend but I think I’d rather fail.”
They shared a genial smiled toward one another and Alasdair made his rounds to his guests while Tomas returned to his doting mother’s side.
“My lad impressed our king,” Mrs. Cuineill beamed with pride. “And aren’t you t’e best boy-o in the kingdom?” She pinched her son’s cheek and sighed. “Aye, my lads are good lads,” she declared.