Bernard made the sign of a cross as the massive form of Werrick Castle rose in the distance. He looked to either side of him, where soldiers rode to ensure the safe delivery of the new priest. Their armor glinted in the late afternoon sun, the bodies beneath no doubt powerful and strong. Even their horses made Bernard’s own nag appear shrunken by comparison.
The portcullis came into view, as well as several figures lingering along the castle wall. Bernard’s body prickled with awareness, keenly alert for any sense of danger. He was on the border between England and Scotland now, lands that were rife with violence and thievery. Reivers. The very thought of the word sent ice snaking down his spine.
Bernard was weak. Of body, and of courage, but not of spirit. Never of spirit.
He tried to remind himself of the latter as he rode onward toward his destiny. Something shot from the heavens, hurtling toward him faster than God’s wrath and plunged itself into the ground several yards in front of his horse. The old nag continued on at its apathetic pace, but Bernard nearly leapt from the saddle. A snake, perhaps? He stared hard at the ground a chill trickled through his veins.
White fletching tipped the shaft where it jutted up from the rich earth. He stared at it as they passed.
“‘Tis nothing to worry yourself over, priest.” Sir Richard, the soldier to his right, said. “That’s only Lord Werrick’s daughter practicing with her bow.”
“Daughter?” Bernard knew there were several daughters. He’d been instructed at the monastery when he’d been informed of his new appointment. It was an honor to head a chapel at a castle — for an earl, no less! Although being on the border made it easy to see why it had not yet been assigned. “Is this the eldest daughter you refer to? Lady Marin? I believe I was told she is eighteen summers.”
“Lady Marin is eighteen summers,” the knight confirmed. “But the lass shooting the arrows is Lady Catriona and is only fourteen. The girl has strong aim.” There was a note of pride in the older man’s voice.
Bernard frowned to himself. Ladies should not be in possession of arrows, much less shooting them. It was indeed fortuitous that he had been sent to Werrick Castle, as the earl’s daughters were sorely in need of moral guidance.
They passed under the portcullis without issue. Bernard could not help but notice that it immediately closed behind him, sealing them within the keep. The safety of it ought to reassure him, and yet the grip of trepidation squeezed harder at his chest.
A lean man dressed in regal attire awaited him at the entrance of Werrick Castle with three golden-haired daughters at his side. The smallest of the three held a book obscuring her face. This pleased Bernard that the child was most likely reading a holy book with such vigilance. He had been such a child himself.
“Bernard, I presume.” The earl regarded him. “I am Lord Werrick, Warden of the English West March. These are my daughters, Lady Marin.” A tall girl inclined her head courteously. “Lady Anice.” The daughter he indicated held exceptional beauty. There would be much sin in her as she grew older. Again, Bernard found himself grateful to be in such a place to save these children of God. “Lady Ella.”
The Lady Marin plucked the book from the young lady’s face and tucked it into the pocket of her gown. The younger sister cast a sullen glance at the elder before turning a smile to Bernard.
“And Lady Catriona,” called a girl’s voice from behind him. “With Sir Geordie.”
Bernard spun about to see another blonde girl, this one the smallest of the four, running at him with a boy at her side, both of them grinning with wind tousled hair. A bow was tucked over her shoulder. The boy gave Lady Catriona a gap-toothed grin. “Not ‘sir’ yet.”
“Soon enough.” She shrugged with indifference and took her place in line with her sisters. Lady Marin promptly removed the bow, acting as mother to the young women not much younger than herself.
Truly, the lot of them ought to be wed. Everyone knew it was the best way to keep such girls tucked away from the temptation of sin.
“And then there’s my youngest daughter, Lady Leila,” the earl said.
Lady Marin reached behind her and gently drew a dark hair girl from where she’d been hiding. The child gazed up at him with large, blue eyes that held a life far beyond her young years, as though her soul had lived several lifetimes despite her physical youth. She was not like her sisters. Reticent, solemn, observant. So vastly different.
The same as he had been with his brothers. His older brothers were handsome and brave, as skilled on the battlefield as they were in chivalry. And then there had been him, the youngest, the one who could not converse with members of the fairer sex without breaking out into a sweat, the one whose arms trembled beneath the weight of a sword.
It was why his mother had purchased his education at the monastery, in the hopes he would become ordained and become a priest. ‘Safe from the battlefield’ as she had put it. He was grateful every day for the show of maternal protection she’d affectionately held for him. In God, he had found his calling.
“If you will come this way, please.” Lady Marin beckoned him. “I will show you to your chambers so that you might refresh yourself.”
“Nay.” Bernard rose tall, fortified with the purpose of his task. “I should like to see the chapel.”
Lady Marin opened her mouth as if to protest, then gave him a gentle smile and nodded. The youngest sister followed them, stuck at Lady Marin’s leg like a pup while casting cautious glances at him. He smiled at her in an effort to alleviate her fears, but it only served to make the child cower.
“I’m afraid it’s been some time since it was in use.” Lady Marin paused before the great doors of the chapel.
“Are you the lion?” Lady Leila asked abruptly.
Bernard regarded the odd little girl. “Nay.”
She chewed her lip. “Do you hunt witches?”
“Here it is.” Lady Marin threw open the doors and all but shoved him inside.
The musty odor of abandonment stung his nostrils. Colorful glass framed in lead had gone dingy and the altar clothes were frosted with dust. Only the candles appeared to have been used with their black tipped wicks and the smooth pools of melted wax at their tops.
He turned to the doorway to find the fearful child standing at the chapel’s entrance, and waved her in. “Come in, Lady Leila. We are always welcomed by Our Father.”
Her small lips pressed against one another and she shook her head. “Bad things happened here,” she whispered. “I can feel it—”
“Leila,” Lady Marin said in a sharp tone.
The little girl looked up at her eldest sister. “But Isla says—”
“It matters not what Isla says.” Lady Marin spoke more gently now. She flicked a nervous glance toward Bernard and gave a flash of a smile.
“Who is Isla, pray tell?” Bernard approached the two sisters.
“She’s our healer,” Lady Leila answered. “They say she’s over three hundred summers old and that she got all of her teeth off the corpses of—”
“Leila.” Lady Marin stared hard at the little girl, who immediately fell silent.
Bernard suppressed a shiver and hoped he would never have need for the healer. As it was, he regarded the strange little girl for a long moment. A niggling voice told him he ought to raise awareness of her to the church, and yet…
She cast a baleful stare to the ground. “Forgive me.” The whisper was almost inaudible, her self-castigation evident in the scrunch of her face.
Bernard’s hear caught. He knew such self-deprecation well. It had set itself snugly about his shoulders for the entirety of his life. Nay, he would not notify the church of this child. Instead, he would continue to be watchful. The daughters of Lord Werrick had need and the merciful Lord had seen fit to put them in Bernard’s care.
In God he had found his calling.
And in Werrick Castle, he had found his purpose.