About the book
Love is a deadly duel with the face of a promised dream...
Refusing to become a stranger's trophy wife, Lady Magdalene Crompton does the one thing she never thought she'd do: she flees. Ambushed while journeying to her estranged aunt, her salvation comes in the form of a charming Highlander.
Angus Williamson, Laird of Ratagan, sees his world shift and settle into the eyes of the runaway English lady he saved from certain doom. Between letting her go and spending a bit more time with her as her escort to her destination, the choice is easy.
But the night is dark and they are far from home.
An unexpected meeting with someone Angus knows all too well changes everything. A long-standing feud that has haunted him for years, comes back with a vengeance to threaten Magdalene's life.
Now Angus has just a few days to save the woman he loves from the claws of an anthropomorphic monster...
Keswick, England, 1258
From her place, two-stories high above the east courtyard of the enormous Keswick estate, Magdalene looked down and was tempted to smile. Instead, though, her emerald green eyes flittered from one half-shadowed celebrating warrior to the other in light contemplation.
Tall torches were jammed at random places to add light to the enormous bonfire roaring away in the middle of the courtyard. The blaze was stealing the splendor from the full-moon above. The soldiers’ shouts, and laughs were loud this high and she felt she would be deaf if she had been amongst them.
Magdalene’s father, Lord Keswick, was known in his close circle as Brandon “Warlord” Crompton. As much as was kept from her by her father about politics and his governmental duties, she knew what was happening. Everyone in England knew what was happening but she was much closer to the source.
In the last three months, she had overheard her father’s discontent about the lopsided way England was being run. After drafting a fifteen-member Privy Council to rule the land, the King had begun to favor the input of his royal members instead of those of his countryside Barons, which his father King John had.
Her father, one of the seven leading Barons of England, had just forced King Henry the Third to surrender more power to their council. And for good reason. These were men who did not live in lofty castles or wear rich embroidered robes. They were men who hunted, fished, and weathered the cold winters with the people they stood for. The King, even as pious as he was known to be, did not.
“Miss Crompton,” a voice said from behind her. “‘It is not good for you to be seeing that… debauchery.” Mrs. Croft, her nurse from birth and now her maid, said in decided disgust.
She was right, though. Men were stumbling around with tankards in their hands. Some were sitting and drinking, and others were cursing loudly, and some had drunken women on their laps, skirts hiked up and bodices ripped, with their breasts spilling out. It was a short step before the men would be using the grass and dirt as a replacement for a bed.
A withered hand reached out and tugged the drapes, cutting off Magdalene’s view. She turned. “I’m not ignorant of what happens between men and women, Mrs. Croft.”
“But you are not experienced in it, either,” the woman’s lips pursed. Clad in a dark gown, white bib, and black veil, the tiny woman could have easily been mistaken for a nun. Mrs. Croft and Lady Keswick, Magdalene’s mother, prayed three times a day and fasted as often, pressing the importance of piety, humility, and self-sacrifice over pride and self-indulgence.
Retreating to her inner rooms from the window, Magdalene fingered the ends of the long blonde braid draped over her shoulder. The sounds were getting progressively dim as the thick stone walls of their citadel muffled the sounds, but she was still tempted to look back out.
“You need to preserve your innocence for your husband, Miss Magdalene,” the matron said. “I was a young woman once and I know the temptations and even when I was married for six-and-fifty years, never had I allowed myself to slip into a carnal mind.”
“I don’t have a carnal mind, Mrs. Croft,” Magdalene said, resisting the urge to roll her eyes.
“Looking on those men you might,” the woman argued. “Sin is not stationary, my child, it moves, seeking who to sink its claws in and devour.”
The words sinking claws and devouring created a picture of a massive beast with red scales and fangs, snarling and ready to swallow her up.
That must be what she thinks the Devil is, Magdalene reasoned.
“It’s time for bed and your nightly prayers, Miss Magdalene,” Mrs. Croft said, while reaching for her nightgown.
Magdalene undressed to her underclothes, a thin cotton shift that was clinging to her slender body. She then donned the thicker nightgown over it and added thick hose to stop the cold stone floor from freezing her tender feet. It was still spring but the chill always seemed to creep in at the dead of night.
She then sank to the side of her bed, resting her knees on the padded pillow there. While the old woman sat on the edge of the bed Mrs. Croft rested her hand on Magdalene’s head. “Repeat after me.”
The Lord's prayer, memorized from childhood days, was repeated without a hitch before saying a prayer to forgive her of her sins and a plea for God’s mercies. Only then did Mrs. Croft lift her hand from her head and say, “Goodnight, child.”
Though she was twenty years old, Mrs. Croft still called her child. It was starting to annoy her. Would the lady still do so, even when Magdalene was married off? That dour thought never left her mind while she waited patiently for Mrs. Croft to go to bed, one room down the hall. After waiting for a spate of time, in which she knew the woman had gone to sleep, she slithered out of bed and went back to the window.
The scene below had gotten worse and it was debauchery, indeed. Men had women bookended, some were on their backs, some were on hands and knees, and others were between the men’s legs. Knowing in theory what men and women did was one thing, but seeing it with her own eyes was another. Her eyes latched on to a man who was yanking a woman off his— Magdalene immediately scampered back to her bed with her heart pounding in her ears. Never had she seen a man’s phallus before but the moment before had ripped that veil off her mind.
She slid under her sheet with the burn of embarrassment on her cheeks and a strange, unfamiliar heat in her stomach. Closing her eyes, she tried to banish the provocative images away, but stubbornly they stayed painted behind her eyelids.
Is that how it's done…do women pleasure men with their mouths? More importantly… would my husband require that of me?
Her husband. Even thinking it felt terrifying and intriguing. Her father had not forced her to marry early as other men had forced their daughters to do. Moreover, she did not know of any prospective suitor at all. Perhaps her father had turned them away as she had a sneaking suspicion that she was going to marry one of her father’s top soldiers or even another Baron. But again, would that man, whoever he was, ask her to please him that way?
Her worry took her into hours of uneasy sleep and she woke up still perturbed. Awake, but not moving from her place on the bed, she let her eyes trace the curve of the canopy bed over her and the parted drapes tied off at the four posts.
As the daughter of a wealthy baron she was afforded any luxury she wanted, but Magdalene had to be pressed to ask for anything. She could have asked for jewels from the East, exotic foods and clothes made of silk, but Magdalene found that none of those pleased her. She was uncommonly content with soft wool clothes and simple jewelry.
She rubbed her eyes as the weak morning sun came flittering in through the window drapes. Sitting, she eyed a robe hanging on a hook just a few feet away and left the bed to don it before going back to the same window from the night before and looking out.
The courtyard was chaos, defined with discarded tankards littered everywhere, broken and upturned chairs, torchwood scattered around, and the dark embers of the bonfire’s wood was now a blackened mountain in the middle of the bare ground. A few men, clutching tankards, were asleep in their dark clothes and others in their leather armor. The women were gone, though, and she watched as a few other men, cleanly dressed, came around to rouse the drunken laggards.
She turned away, wondering if her father was awake. Most likely. Father does not celebrate the way his men do. He would have had a private celebration with his men. I wonder if Uncle John came to celebrate the victory with him.
Uncle John, two years younger than her father, was easygoing and was more of an academic than a warrior. With a smile, she remembered the times she would visit him in Winchester and he would give her his precious books and scrolls to read instead of taking her out into the countryside to play.
She loved Uncle John, seeing him as a contrast to her controlling and sometimes intimidating father. Going to a bowl resting on her table, she poured out washing water from a pewter jug, washed her face and rinsed her mouth, before using a comb to set her hair in order. Deftly braiding the light golden strands into a thick braid, she donned a deep green cotton gown and her kidskin shoes. She wanted to speak to her father.
Her home was a sprawling stone building with six rooms for her family of three and another seven for the in-house servants they had. The upper rooms, family rooms, were large and had the best furniture, woven rush mats, silken tapestries on the walls, and thick blankets on the beds. On the ground floor were the dining room, ballroom, and her father’s meeting room, and all three of them were lavishly furnished. The servants' rooms, however, were bare.
She padded through the upper corridors and then down the stairs to the lower levels. Iron chandeliers hung above the long dining table and over the ballroom where the floors were covered by braided rush mats.
Halfway to the dining room, she heard her father’s booming, baritone voice. He was laughing and she smiled in relief. “He might be the King but we have the power here!”
“Here, here!” A few voices laughed with him and Magdalene’s steps faltered.
From the outside, she could picture the scene inside. Five men as bulky, demanding, and intimidating as her father would be seated around the table, eating a victor’s feast. It always perturbed her to be the one lady in their presence, as her mother rarely entered these celebrations. In deference to her father, they did not dare look at her salaciously but she still felt that they were covertly peeling her clothes off layer by layer.
Taking in a deep steadying breath, she walked in and heard the conversation stutter to a stop before it picked up again. Deliberately avoiding the eyes trained on her, she smiled at her father. Uncle John was not there. Stopping a good ten feet away from the table, she curtsied and greeted the Lords.
“Daughter!” Her father said merrily, while holding up his hand to her. “Welcome. Harold, get my daughter a seat.”
She nearly refused as, again, the eyes on her felt as if they were sinking under her skin. She wanted to scratch her face and arms at the uncomfortable feeling but stayed still. Harold, a man with dark brown hair and a thick beard, placed the chair next to her father. She swallowed over a dry throat but thanked him.
Normally, she would have broken her fast with her mother and Mrs. Croft in a small room upstairs but she was already there. It would be rude to just leave. She bravely looked around the men and recognized the faces. With Harold, there were four more men, all in her father’s age range or over, five-and-fifty, with broad chests, and sharp eyes.
Stopping her fingers from fidgeting under the men’s gaze, she smiled tentatively, “I take it His Highness was not pleased with your demand, My Lords?”
“Pleased,” a man named Gunther snorted over his goblet. “The man nearly lost his senses when we threatened a third Baron’s war if he did not hold up the Great Charter his own damned father signed into law.”
“Measure your words, Gunther,” her father warned tightly. “My daughter is not a fishwife.”
The knock on the door drew the attention of the men towards the entry. Standing there was a man, dressed in the household livery, looking decidedly uncomfortable—if the sweat shimmering over his face was any indication—and holding a basket heaped with fruit.
“Good day, My Lords,” he swallowed. “This was received for you, Lord Keswick. It’s another gift for your victory, My Lord.”
Her father waved the man over, who after settling the basket on the table, bowed and left. Magdalene looked over the selection and her eyebrows lifted. The fruits in the basket were rare for this time of year and sitting like a queen on a throne, sat a large singular pear.
The Lord of the Manor gasped the fruit and bit into it. His eyebrows danced up as his mouth stretched into a smile. “This is lovely. Remind me to find out who sent this to me and thank them.”
Moving her eyes away, Magdalene went to examine the basket again, noting the red-skinned apples and fuzzy peaches, the latter with their rounded pink-gold spheres as interjections between the apples. She reached for the nearest apple when a harsh choke from her father made her spin to him.
Her face instantly went bloodless. Her father was red in the face and his eyes were wide and bulging. His hands began scrambling, clawing at his throat and it was only when one her father’s men grabbed at him that her body lost is motionlessness. She screamed and lurched to him, only to get knocked away. Four men were a wall around her father now, blocking her from him and she screamed again, this time in frustration.
“Let me through!”
She had to see her father. But the wall of men around him did not let her through until…until one stepped away and the uneaten half of the pear tumbled from her father’s lax hand and stopped at her feet. Her body was quaking as the men moved away, pale-faced, and she knew what had happened without anyone saying a word. She reacted by slapping the basket away, flinging the fruits every which way.
Her breath was short and harsh in her chest as she looked down at her father, laying on the floor…dead. His face was blotchy and his eyes were vacant.
She collapsed on the floor and one word groaned from her lips. “Why?”
Ratagan, Clan Williamson, Scotland
“The witch struck again, Me Laird,” Logan grimaced. Two mercenaries that Angus, Laird of Clan Williamson, had sent to kill said witch, were almost unrecognizable with red-black burns covering the majority of their bodies.
The Laird watched in grieved silence as the men were lifted from the wagon and carried into the Williamson castle, heading towards the infirmary. With their disappearance, he cursed under his breath, and when the anger blasted to his head, his fist struck out and punched against the wall in front of him.
“That damn fire witch. We need a bolt of lightning to send her to hell once and for all.”
“Amen to that,” Logan, Angus’ second-in-command, said tightly. “No matter what we’ve done, it doesnae matter…she always seems to outsmart us.”
“A woman steeped in the Dark Arts will do that,” Angus scowled, raking a hand through his wild red hair in frustration.
The witch they spoke of was a recluse inside a fortress in the Seabhag Crag Mountains, a spate of black rocks looming over a loch of dark water. Both the witch and the crags were too near his home for his comfort. Five years ago, tales of this fire-throwing witch had been rumors at first, nonsense, the Williamson Clan was sure, until they had been proven wrong.
Three-and-a-half years ago, three hunters had been found burnt to their white bones. One who had escaped, suffering from only a singed arm, told them a harrowing tale of a madwoman cackling like a banshee and throwing fire from her palms at them. The rumors had suddenly become real.
Angus cast a look up at the grey skies. It was a bit too distressing and possibly comical, the Laird thought, that a dispersing thunderstorm and the sun coming out was what signaled the end of the damned witch acting up again. After the third attack, Angus had taken it upon himself to rid the world of this devilish woman but twenty-two months down the road, he was no closer to getting what he needed than when he had started.
Sighing, he hated that he had to report another failure to his council and, worse, his family. His young sister, Ailsa, had not been allowed to leave the citadel for those long two years in fear that she would fall into the witch’s trap. He hated subjecting his sister to such unneeded isolation when she could be free. His warrior brother Malcolm could fend for himself but he was not letting his sister or his diminutive mother, Lady Isobel, a healer with a penchant to gather herbs in those woods, get caught in the woman’s clutches.
Taking the soft incline to the castle’s gate, Angus’ mind felt scattered and his heart was sorrowful. Knowing that he had sent two men to their deaths, hoping they were the key to ending his witch worries, was heavy on his heart. The single comfort he had was that the two men had no wives or children he had to cater to. Thank God that mercenaries were solitary creatures.
The smell of the infirmary was one Angus had little love for. The memories of the many nights he had spent there with various injuries—knife cuts, fire burns, a broken wrist, a twisted ankle, and even the rake of a wildcat’s claw over his shoulder—did not endear him to the sickroom.
Lingering at the doorway, Angus watched as the men were moved to beds. The healer women leaped into action, removing burnt clothes and ordering poultices to be made from the herbs in the sunroom, that was just through the southern arch at the end of the room.
He grimaced when a baleful groan came from one of the men, half of his face a mess of black and bloody red. The burn was down his neck where the skin had melted to a sick white fatty layer and had mottled red and black spots around it. Patches of blackened skin flaked off while the healers moved around the men and when a large bubble of pus began to leak out, Angus turned away, hoping to keep the contents of his stomach where they were.
He kept his eyes away while swallowing over the bile that was scalding his throat raw. His mother, Lady Isobel, suddenly came striding down the hallway, pulling the sleeves of her gown up her elbows. She looked all business, clearly going to help the healers and Angus, foolishly, stepped to intercept her.
“Mother, please don’t—”
Her piercing blue eyes stopped him with his mouth half-open. Her look was so daunting that his teeth clicked as he quickly shut his mouth.
“That’s what I kent ye said,” Isobel said, while pushing him away and breezing past him.
Angus stifled a snort and shook his head at his incredulity. His mother was not one to be deterred when she was on a cause. There was nothing he could do at the infirmary, so he went to the old meeting room his father had left him and tried to make some order of this chaos. There, he closed the door behind himself and sank weakly into the chair. Instantly, his rough hands came to cage his face and a tendril of despair ran through his mind.
What am I going to do now? My last plan came to nothing. Rodham and Bhaltair were the best in Edina… If this is me last resort, what else is there? I need to get rid of this witch.
His stress level was so high he could feel grey hairs growing out of his head with every passing breath. There was no information on who this witch was. He did not know her name, where she had come from, or why she loved to terrorize the people around her. People that—as far as he knew—had not harmed her at all.
Reaching to a drawer, he pulled out a list of people who had been harmed or killed by this woman and he grimaced while taking his quill and turning the page over. There, he added Rodham and Bhaltair’s names to the lengthy list. He turned the leaf over and glanced at the names stricken out with red ink, the bright hue signaling that these unfortunate people had died from their injuries. Only a few had survived and a handful of them had recovered.
Something had to be done with this woman, but what? Where was the key to this debacle?
“Ye’ll get a permanent line in yer face if ye keep doing that,” the dry-humored voice of his younger brother Malcolm said from the doorway.
Sitting back, Angus massaged his brow, “I’m already getting grey, I dinnae see a problem with getting lines.”
His brother shook his head and drew out a seat. Angus met the same shade of blue eyes that he saw in the mirror every day. He, his brother, and his sister had all inherited their father—David’s—deep blue eyes instead of their mother’s lighter shade.
Malcolm was sympathetic, brushing a lock of his shoulder-length auburn hair from his eyes. The man, an eight-and-twenty-year-old soldier in the family army and a reputed lady’s man, sighed, “The fire witch again?”
“Need ye ask?” Angus grimaced. “Rodham and Bhaltair might live for a day, but we all ken that they’re going to die. At least they will go somewhat peacefully.”
“Then what are ye gonna do?” Malcolm asked.
“Damned if I ken,” Angus sighed. “But she has to be stopped.”
The soldier sat forward, “If ye would just allow me and me men—”
“Nay,” Angus snapped. His tone had come out harsher than he had expected and he grimaced. Measuring his voice, he clarified, “I cannae risk ye, Malcolm. As for now, we dinnae ken anythin’ about this woman and until we dae, I cannae risk those who are assets to me and our Clan… nae yet.”
“Nae yet,” Malcolm said with a lazy grin. A fringe of his hair flopped over his left eye. “I’ll be lookin’ forward to when ye do.”
Narrowing his left eye, Angus glared. “When I do, it will nae be ye. Ye take too many risks, Malcolm.”
His brother shuddered, “Ye ken, when ye do that, narrowing that eye, I swear I see Papa… without the beard, of course.”
“That’s why I dae it,” Angus smirked before sobering. “Go and be useful, prepare the gravediggers, Malcolm. We have two bodies to bury by mornin’.”
“Righto,” Malcolm said, standing with a stomp of his boots. “Try getting some rest, brother. Ye will earn yerself nothin’ by workin’ yerself to death.”
Angus waited until the door closed to shake his head and wryly said, “Someone has to.”
He turned back to the list in his hand, trying to figure out what next steps to take with this fire witch, until a headache began to pulse at his temples. He had not eaten or drunk anything from dawn and the rumbles in his stomach only made his headache worse. Rising reluctantly, he went to the kitchens and requested a light meal, water, and ale to be sent to his meeting room.
Walking out of the kitchen, he was about to go back to his meeting room when a familiar raucous voice came from the nearby dining hall. Angus rolled his eyes. He could hear Malcolm’s friend Alistair bragging about the last boar he had killed barehanded. Alistair was a dark-haired beast of a man with arms the size of a hundred-year-old tree trunk and a chest that busted leather armor as if it was a string of cotton thread.
Entering the room, he remembered the days when he was like his brother and his friends. Living the life of a simple soldier, carefree and able to do whatever he wanted. Free to go hunting before the crack of dawn, free to train in the heat of midday, and free to visit the taverns at night and see the wenches there. Sadly, responsibility had caught up with him after the death of his father, and he had been made the Laird. The memory of what the inside of a tavern looked like was now a very vague one in his mind.
Striding out, Angus smiled at his brother and his three friends, Alistair, Roran, and Cinead, at a table. The last one, Cinead, had Malcolm in a headlock and his brother was faking choking to death.
“All right,” Angus said authoritatively. “Enough of that. Cinead, release me brother before he expires. He has some use around here.”
Malcolm narrowed his eyes as he was let free, “Just some?”
“Aye,” Angus said while plucking an apple from a bowl nearby. “Maybe I should amend that to barely.”
An orange was lobbed to his head and Angus snatched it from the air and threw it back with deadly accuracy. The fruit was a blur in the air and connected by clocking his brother right on his nose. It was comical how loud Malcolm yelped.
“I am still yer big brother, Malcolm,” Angus grinned. “Which means I am still stronger, and faster than ye.”
“For now,” Malcolm hissed, while rubbing the mark. “Go back to yer meeting room and leave us alone, old man.”
At thirty, Angus still felt young enough to not be classed as old but, by his clans’ standard, he should have been married with two bairns by that age. Perhaps, he was old.
“And ye should grow up,” Angus said, without much heat behind his words. He spotted a maid with this food and after nodding to Malcolm’s friends, he went back to the meeting room.
Halfway through his meal, an expected knock came on his door and by the brevity of it, he knew it was his mother. Finishing the last gulp of his water, he called out, “Enter, Mother.”
The tight look on her face told him that his expectations of the men were right. They were dead. His stomach sank and he pinched the bridge of his nose. “Did ye and yer women get to at least ease their pain?”
Lady Isobel sighed, “We gave them herbal infusions first but when that dinnae work, we resorted to giving them the strongest mandrake root brew we had. It eased them enough so they could pass without the pain.”
The food Angus had just eaten sat like a lump of rocks in his stomach. The faint comfort his mother had given him about the men passing without pain felt diminished compared to the guilt he felt knowing that he had sent them to their deaths.
Never again. Angus swore. If anyone is going to kill that witch, it is going to be me. Nae me men, and nae any proxy…only me. I’ll shove that dagger into her heart with me bare hands.
“It is nae yer fault, Angus,” Lady Isobel said knowingly. “We never kent she would have been so strong.”
“I ken, Mother.” His words were placating but his tone was hollow and it showed how empty he felt.
Lady Isobel left him with a request—a futile one, Angus thought—for him to not take the men’s death to heart and for him to try and get some rest. He heard the door close, with his eyes looking down on the faded swirls of the wooden desk under his hands. How could he not take it to heart?
Running a hand over his face, Angus left the meeting room and the citadel entirely. Striding over the low-cut grass, he nodded in return to those who greeted him and went directly to the stables. His horse, Titan, a massive grey destrier, stood a good five hands over every other steed in the stable. His gaze was dark and intimidating, scaring most of the stable hands away. There were only two men besides himself who were willing and able to take care of Titan.
He entered and spotted the horse, whose head had jerked up at the sound of his footsteps. Over the stall, he reached out and fondled the stallion’s jaw. “Ready for a ride, boy?”
A part of him was always prepared for an answer whenever he spoke to the animal and despite knowing it was foolish, he was always disappointed when he got none. Leading Titan out, he saddled him quickly and heaved himself into the seat, and grasped the reins.
He had to speak to someone, and he felt ashamed for not thinking of it sooner—their village priest, Father Matthew. If he was going to fight fire with fire, then he needed to know exactly what kind of dark arts he was up against. The only other option, one that the Christian in him disliked, was to see a Druid, if the holy man did not give him much. He never got to see either as a frantic squire came running to him.
“Me Laird, yer brother and…” the poor boy was out of breath but the word brother had grabbed Angus’ attention anyway.
He jumped off the horse and grabbed the panting squire, “Me brother what?”
“He…” the boy was pale. “I overheard him sayin’ he and his friends are gonna find the fire witch and kill her. They just went off to the gate.”
God’s Blood! Angus leaped into the saddle and spurred Titan into a gallop towards the woods. Vivid visions of his brother made
unrecognizable by black burns over his face and body made Angus’ blood run cold. If Malcolm did not get killed by the witch, he would damn sure kill the foolish boy himself.
The death of Brandon Crompton, Baron Keswick, had shaken the foundation of his Keswick Barony to its bones. The tenants were shocked and disheartened, the lords were dismayed, and the men in that room when the Baron had died, the leaders of his troops, were out on a mission for blood.
Who had the sheer audacity to kill their leader? That thought was seen by the murderous expressions on the faces of the men that had been comrades with the Baron. In their eyes, it would have been better to have slain the King than the Baron.
The very day he had died, scouts had been sent out, ordered to search far and wide and fetter out the blackguard who had dared such a crime. Knights were aching to drag his black-hearted person back to the barony to be drawn and quartered. While the scouts were doing their duty, the body of her father had been sent to be prepared for his burial.
Magdalene had been inconsolable from that day, only a week and a half ago. But now, staring at the man piling dirt over her father’s coffin already lowered into the ground, she felt weak. Magdalene leaned on her mother, who though as devastated as she, was still a bit stronger than she was.
Weak tears, springing from eyes that had gone dry days ago, began to drip down her cheeks. The handkerchief in her hand was sodden and twisted nearly to the point of the cloth unraveling. The question that kept running through her—and everyone's—mind came back again.
Why would someone kill my father by poison?
Thank God, Uncle John had come back from the capital city of Winchester after he had gotten word of his brother’s death, and had taken on the brunt of the family responsibilities when all were at a loss. He was the one who had organized the funeral and he was the one who had sent out more scouts to find out where the poisoned basket had come from and more importantly, who had sent it. He was the sudden backbone that she and her mother had dearly needed.
Magdalene knew her father and her uncle had differences when it came to many things, politics mainly, but that did not stop Uncle John from supporting them when they needed him most.
The parish priest, clad in his funeral garb of surplice and black stole, was standing aside the grave while the burial dirge was being recited. A warm hand rested on her shoulder and Magdalene swiftly met the soft, sorrowful eyes of Uncle John as he was on her other side. His grief was not as distinct as hers and her mother’s, but there was some, as he had lost his only brother.
Her father’s advisors were a circle of drab grey clothes and coats, and his fighting men in all black and leather armor with their swords strapped on their sides and shields at their feet in respect. The graveyard was quiet, not so much because the church frowned on exaggerated outbursts, but more because disbelief over the Baron’s death was still lingering among them.
Lady Larie’s lips were thin under her black veil and her arms were clasped while the priest droned on. Magdalene wished she had half the composure her mother had as tears, again, begun to fall. She counted her breaths, gritting her jaw tight and her eyes closed as the ceremony dragged on.
When the burial was done, Magdalene sucked in a deep breath and began walking back to the house with her mother beside her. Instead of participating in the funeral banquet, Magdalene begged off and retired to her rooms, the image of her dying father still fresh in her mind. She sank onto the bed, still fully clothed.
It’s a dream. It has to be…a night terror. My father is not truly dead…I cannot afford to think so.
She had not planned to drift off, but grief and disbelief, added to fear, pain, and exhaustion, dragged her into a deep sleep, blessedly without dreams or memories of her father dying in the dining hall. It was Mrs. Croft who woke her with a soft touch to her face.
Magdalene resisted at first, a part of her knowing that if she woke up bad memories would overcome her and sorrow would blanket her soul again. But Mrs. Croft was insistent and she sat up with a grimace, wiping the sleep from her eyes.
“What is it?”
“Lord Keswick needs you and your Mother in the antechamber the late Lord Keswick used for his meetings,” Mrs. Croft said, lips pursed. “I can only bring you there as I am excluded from this meeting.”
“Why?” That was the first question out of her mouth. Excluding Mrs. Croft was senseless. The woman had been there from before her birth. Mrs. Croft was family.
“I cannot tell you,” Mrs. Croft said. “Now, please, straighten your gown while I fix your hair.”
Setting her gown to rights, Magdalene spotted darkness out of her window. How long have I slept for?
The funeral had ended at just noon. With a few passes of her brush through her hair and a fresh braiding, she was off to the meeting room.
Curiosity was strong in her mind. What was Uncle John, the new head, planning to do now? The doorway was partly open and she could hear the muffled voices of her uncle and her mother speaking. She did not hear the words exactly but the tones were hard and clipped. Were they having an argument?
She cast an apologetic look to Mrs. Croft as the lady’s lips pinched tightly, she nodded, and walked away. Her mother and uncle paused speaking when she stepped in. From the imbedded line in her mother’s face and the thin press of her uncle’s mouth, she definitely knew they were having an argument.
“Good evening, Mother, Uncle John,” Magdalene greeted as calmly as she could, while smoothing her skirts under her to sit.
Uncle John smiled at her, “I’m sorry to wake you, Magdalene,” he said apologetically. “But we have some serious matters to discuss.”
Why did she feel so anxious? “Like what?”
“I am changing some policies around here,” Uncle John said evenly. “Since I won’t be able to live in Winchester anymore, and there is no sense in keeping two estates, I will be living here and letting go of some of your father’s men to add some of mine.”
Blinking, she nodded, “That… makes sense.”
“For the next few weeks, I’ll be shuffling between here and the capital to make sure of the merge of our estates and transfer of leadership of this family to me,” Uncle John added.
Nodding again, she wondered why she felt that her Uncle was building up to something pivotal. She felt antsy. “I understand.”
“And I will be sending that old nurse of yours to a nunnery because she will be of no use to you anymore,” he added. “You will be married soon.”
Cold lanced down her spine. Before she could speak, Uncle John added, “Magdalene, I don’t know what plans my brother had for you about marriage. He was probably going to allow you to choose who to marry when you were ready, but you are a lady in your prime. Ideally, you should have been married years ago. I won’t force you to marry anytime in the next week or so, but before this year is over, you will have a husband.”
Magdalene looked to her mother for help but the Lady looked away with her lips tight. “Mother, do you agree with this?”
“I…” Lady Larie sighed and folded her hands on her skirts. “Magdalene, your Uncle has a point. You have subverted marriage for too long. I was married to your father when I was eight-and-ten. You are twenty now, I… I do think it’s time.”
There was something strange in her mother’s voice. Something off. She felt, absurdly, that her mother was saying one thing but meaning another. Confused, she looked between them and swallowed. “When will I be married, then?”
“Before Michaelmas,” Uncle John said kindly. “I know it is a lot to take in now but it will be for the best, you’ll see. You know that I only want the best for you.”
It was April now and Michaelmas was in September, so she did have time to choose a suitor. Magdalene nodded, trying to displace the feeling that he too was saying words with another meaning. She did not know what to do or what to say and sat, decidedly uncomfortable as the conversation stuttered another start.
“Do I get to choose my husband?” Magdalene asked hesitantly.
“Yes—” her mother began.
“No.” Her Uncle cut in.
From the corner of her eyes, Magdalene saw her mother’s mouth flatten. Clearly, she disagreed but was not going to argue about it.
“Magdalene,” Uncle John said. “I think it’s best if I do it for you. Don’t worry, I won’t be a tyrant and dismiss your opinions entirely.”
“I know you won’t,” Magdalene smiled, having total trust in her uncle. The man was not nearly as demanding as her father had been and she had all faith that he would follow through on his words. But why was her mother still upset?
“Mother,” she asked. “Is something wrong? You don’t look too happy.”
“No, no,” Lady Larie said. “No, it’s… your father’s death is still affecting me. I’m sorry for worrying you.”
Again, Magdalene felt that her mother was lying. It was logical for the death of her husband of over thirty years to be draining her but still, something was off. Magdalene frowned but did not say a word.
“Is there anything else?” Magdalene asked.
“Not relating to you,” Uncle John clarified. “There are some administrative decisions I have to make with your father’s advisors and tenants but again, those have nothing to do with you.”
Looking around the room, Magdalene felt a new wave of sorrow that this room would never be the same with her father gone. It must have shown on her face because her mother reached over and took her cold hand. “Go to bed, sweetheart. I’ll bring up some warm milk for you soon.”
Sighing softly, Magdalene nodded, stood up to kiss her mother on her cheek and Uncle John’s, too. “Goodnight.”
Leaving the room, she wondered what she was missing. That meeting had gaps in it and she could feel that some important things had been left out. Her mother was hiding something from her, but what? She had never known her mother to be secretive.
In her room, she disrobed and donned a nightgown, then sat to undo her hair to brush it out. She was running the stiff bristles through her thick tresses when her mother came in, holding a pewter cup of warm milk. But then, she stopped and closed the door behind her. Magdalene frowned and rose to take the cup from her mother.
Settling it on her table she took her mother’s hands. “What is it, Mother?”
Lady Larie’s deep blue eyes were even darker. “It’s John… I know he’s doing his best for us but I don’t trust him, Magdalene. He and your father were at odds for many years and…I feel a different air about him. He was once calm and loving but I feel he has changed. I trust the guidance of God’s spirit, my daughter, and I have never felt more affirmative about the warnings His spirit is now telling me. Listen to me, Magdalene. If anything changes, if he demands more than you can handle, I will make you run.”
“But Mother,” Magdalene said. “He said that—”
“I do not care what he says,” Lady Larie overrode her with narrowed eyes. “I do not take the words of men as any assurance. God’s spirit is much more assuring and I trust His voice of guidance over anything else. If he does what I fear he might do, I will send you off to my sister in Scotland. She will take care of you, Magdalene, as if you were hers.”
“But… you have not spoken to her for years,” Magdalene said in clear hesitation. “How can you be assured about her intentions?”
“I am,” Lady Larie said in her ‘do not question me’, tone while standing. “Drink your milk and get some rest, Magdalene, and remember what I said. If anything goes bad… you will run to her.”
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