The ungrateful wretches.
Isla scuttled through the trees of a dense forest, her feet silent, her eyes sharp. First the men had argued with her about how she’d healed them, then they hadn’t paid her. Aye, she’d had a nice bit of sport with the tallest one even if he was on the lazy side, but now they meant to rob her. There was naught but a handful of coins in her pocket. They wouldn’t be happy with that though. Nay, they’d want the sharp scissors and costly glass vials and anything else they could get their greedy hands on. Isla nestled into the brush and gripped the dagger in her gnarled hand. It was sharp enough to sever catgut in one swipe, sever loose flesh from a wound, or cut a child from its mother’s womb before reuniting them for the first time. So it was certainly sharp enough to slash her pursuers’ throats.
“I see her.” The stockiest of the four men ran toward her with the tall one in tow.
“Dinna hurt her,” the tall one said. “Just take whatever we can sell.”
“Thank ye for yer consideration.” Isla snarled at the tall one, already regretting having shared his bed.
The cocky bastard winked at her. The stocky one came toward her and she swiped her blade. He put his hands up and tsked. “If ye just give us yer wares, we willna have to hurt ye.”
Isla jutted her chin at him. “If ye just leave me alone, I willna have to hurt ye.” She sneered. “Or I’ll put curse on ye, so yer bowels will rot and yer stones will fall off.”
The man paused and glanced back at his comrades who appeared equally taken aback by the threat. She shouldn’t threaten with curses – doing so could be far too dangerous. But it was so tempting when she was outnumbered by superstitious fools.
“Enough.” The voice was clear as it rang out, filled with authority and effused with English nobility. The men snapped their attention toward a golden-haired nobleman who guided a massive destrier in their direction. It did not escape Isla’s notice that the man had four armed guards behind him as well.
“Leave the woman alone and be on your way.” The man stopped his horse near Isla. “Or suffer the consequences.”
The brigands sneered and backed away, swiftly departing like the cowards they were.
Isla nodded to the nobleman. “Thank ye, m’lord. Is there any way I might repay ye for yer kindness?” She smiled up at him. She was nearly as old as God himself, but she had a fine set of teeth. In truth, she had no idea how many summers she’d lived as no one had bothered to document the day when she’d been born. She’d heard the rumors that she was over three hundred and stole her teeth from the bodies of the dead. She found it amusing enough not to bother correcting them.
The man looked at her curiously, as though he might be considering her offer. One never knew who was game for a dalliance. He was significantly younger than most men who made good on her suggestion with only a few creases upon his brow. She certainly wouldn’t reject his advances, to be sure. This one was handsome, with a good bit of muscle on him. Aye, he’d be bonny to look upon.
“You’re a healer?” he queried.
Isla’s shoulders nearly sagged in disappointment. But work was work. “Aye. Do ye need one?”
His face turned grave and that strong, fine jaw of his flexed as he ground his teeth. “My wife is with child and quite ill. Healers are not easily found in these parts. Will you join us at Werrick Castle? I will compensate you for your time, of course.”
A castle? Isla hid a grin. A noble English lord with a castle and doubtless pots and pots of coins with which to pay her. It was a far cry better than the scoops of barley or scraggly chickens she was usually paid with. Still, she sucked on her teeth, making sure he saw how fine they were as the put on the pretense of considering his offer. “Aye,” she said at last. “I’ll join ye.”
He led her to Werrick Castle immediately and even let her ride upon a horse with one of his brawny soldiers. As soon as they arrived, she was rushed to the Lady Werrick’s rooms. The woman was frail with little more to her than skin, bones and her great expanse of a belly. Before they even spoke, Isla knew the woman was not long for this world. She could practically hear the spirits of old calling her soul to their side.
Lady Werrick’s health deteriorated as her stomach grew larger. Her days were spent in listless surrender and her nights were filled with terrifying screams of nightmares too terrible to not be real. The earl and her daughters were forever at her side, their love limitless and unlike anything Isla had ever before seen.
Over the final two weeks of Lady Werrick’s lying in, Isla came to know the golden-haired daughters. Practical Marin, the eldest, who watched after her sisters like a mother hen and saw to her mother’s comfort as if she were the parent and her mother the child. Anice with the face of an angel, who shadowed Lady Marin’s every move in the attempt to as helpful as her sister. Wild little Ella who ran about like a wood sprite, climbing into trees, tearing her kirtle and always winding up with bits of leaves and sticks in her wavy tresses. And last was wee Catriona who lit the room with her smile, usually had a handful of wilted, flowering weeds in her sticky hand and always had a great squeezing hug for Isla.
But it was Marin Isla felt the worst for, as the responsibility of being lady of house had already fallen upon her. It would be doubly so once Lady Werrick had passed. Isla did what she could, of course, caring for the mother and the child within her womb that Isla learned she didn’t want. It was a sad scenario Isla had seen before, one that set Isla’s blood to boiling.
The sky split with lightning and rolled with thunder the day the babe decided to make its way into the world. Isla was used to blood and had long since stopped paying much mind to screaming. It was the silence that chilled her to the soul. As soon as Lady Werrick’s hoarse cries of pain quieted, Isla knew the hour of her death was nigh. The countess’s body continued to clench and squeeze in the age-old process of birthing, even as her eyes slipped shut. Little Marin and Anice worked tirelessly, doing everything Isla tasked them with, desperate to do anything for their mother. Surely even they knew her death was imminent. Isla worked just as tirelessly, not to save the mother, but to save the child before death claimed it as well. With slick hands, she worked to dislodge the child from the stubborn womb and was met first with a dark head of hair and then eyes of the deepest blue she’d ever seen.
The babe, a girl, gazed up at her, solemn and curious. Alert, yet silent. But all babes needed to be born into the world loud. To scare away the faeries that might seek to steal it. Isla gave the child a swat on her bottom and the new baby girl gave an indignant cry.
“Mama?” Anice’s little voice said beneath the sounds of the baby. Isla closed her eyes and said a prayer for Lady Werrick’s soul. “Mama, please rouse.” A note of panic took Anice’s voice. “Mama, you must rouse.”
Isla wrapped the babe in swaddling and turned to Anice to offer comfort, but Marin was already at her side, putting her skinny arm around Anice’s slender shoulders. “She’s gone, my dear sister.”
Isla hadn’t cried in three hundred years, if the rumors could be believed. That is to say, she never once in all of her life cried. At least not that she could remember. But that scene, with Marin already taking on the responsibility of a mother, it was more than even Isla’s dusty heart could ignore and a knot settled at the back of her throat.
Unsure what to do with the emotion, she set to washing the babe whose cries had subsided and whose dark blue gaze watched her with great sadness, as though she too understood what had happened to her mother. Never had Isla seen a babe with such focused attention, as though she were looking not at Isla’s eyes, but into her soul. There was something special about the child, something unlike any babe Isla had ever delivered. The knot in her throat pulled at her heart. Something in her needed to protect this child without a mother, to guide her with whatever it is those large blue eyes held. She swaddled the child in fresh linens, her mind made up.
Marin and Anice were locked in an embrace now with Anice’s broken sobs ringing off the walls. Isla gently patted Marin’s back as she passed with the babe in her arms. The eldest daughter, lifted her glossy gaze to Isla and nodded her appreciation. When Isla opened the door, the other two girls sat huddled together on the floor, their cheeks wet with tears. Lord Werrick stood behind them with a stern expression carved into his handsome features. He looked around Isla, into the room, but she gently shut the door and shook her head.
Lord Werrick staggered back, his eyes wide with bewilderment as they darted frantically around the hall as if looking for something to disprove what he doubtless knew in his heart. “Girls, go to the solar,” he said in a gravelly voice. Cat and Ella rose to their feet together and slowly left with obvious hesitation.
“She has had a girl.” Isla indicated the babe in her arms. Lord Werrick settled his gaze on the child. Clearly the girl was not his, not with her dark hair, not with the violent path of her making. He’d known from the first she was not his, and doubtless now he would reject her. Oblivious to all of this, the bairn fixed her gaze on the earl and stared at him as she had with Isla. This was when he would tell Isla to take her away, to give her to someone in a nearby village. But Isla would not. She would keep this child with her deep stare and sadness.
He said nothing for a long time as babe and man gazed at one another.
“Ye dinna have to keep her,” Isla said quietly.
Lord Werrick snapped his attention up to Isla. “Why would we not?” He regarded the babe once more.
“My lord,” Isla stammered. “She isna yer—”
“She is the last gift my wife gave to our family.” He said it sternly and in a voice that brokered no argument. His large hand stroked over the babe’s small head with heartbreaking tenderness. “We will love her always. Our little Leila.”
The baby blinked up at him. He took the babe from Isla’s stunned arms. “Leila, our last beautiful gift.” His voice broke. He brought the babe to his chest, holding her to him and wept.
Isla backed away, leaving Lord Werrick a moment with the bastard-born child who he would take on as his own.
She had made herself useful in her time at Werrick Castle, setting the small room she slept in as a hospital of sorts, but better than anything the monks did. She stitched wounds, gave teas, made tinctures. Initially, she’d done it to secure enough money to last her a good bit of time, but now she realized she’d made herself important to life here. And now she realized she might have the opportunity to stay at Werrick Castle, as their healer, as a protector for those girls now left without a mother, as Leila’s guide through whatever it was hiding in her eyes.
For the first time in her life, Isla knew she would not only have a home, but also a family to care for.