Nan was working on stolen time. It had been nearly a year since the Graham’s vicious attack on Werrick Castle and they all bore their own scars. Hers, like so many others, had been emblazoned on her heart.
All this time later, she still missed her Hewie. Her brave, wonderful Hewie, who had locked her in the larder before going off to fight off the marauders. He was found later in front of the door to the kitchen, dead with not a scratch on him. A reiver lay at his feet, throat slashed.
The healer had said his heart had most likely given out. And such an explanation made sense for a man like Hewie. After all, he had given Nan his heart to love, and in death, he had given her his heart to live.
She stared now at the young mistress of the castle, her stomach twisting with foreboding. The girl had only recently turned eleven. Far too young to bear the responsibility of a castle, or caring for her four sisters. Even now, she peered into the small cradle beside her chair where the youngest of them slept, her curls dark where her sisters were all blonde.
The babe would grow up always knowing how different she was. Pray God she never learned why.
Nan bobbed as much of a curtsey as she could muster. She’d never been one for the fancier bits of life. She’d had her Hewie and their cooking and the dear girls of Werrick Castle. That was all she’d ever cared about.
The solar was a bright place, filled with sunshine and brightly painted rafters. It used to be filled with laughter too. Before the attack. Before all their lives had changed.
Nan shifted uncomfortably. She longed for the heat of her kitchen, the ever-present aroma of something cooking, the familiar of the life that she so clung to.
“You wished to see me, Lady Marin?” Nan asked when the girl did not look up from baby Leila.
Marin lifted her head, her mouth set in its familiar thin line. Her age struck Nan like a blow, the same as it always did. The Earl of Werrick had been too distraught over his own loss to see what the burden of responsibility was doing to his eldest daughter. The man ought marry a new wife, a pretty young thing eager to take on his five daughters and become mistress of a castle set upon the border. Or so Nan thought, but it wasn’t the place of the cook to offer such counsel to the earl.
“You have been acting as cook for us through the last year.” Marin spoke with an authority beyond her years, her back as perfectly straight as that of a true lady.
It broke Nan’s heart to see Marin so rigid, so poised, this girl who ought to be a girl and not a woman.
“Aye, my lady,” Nan said bravely. She would not make this any harder on Lady Marin than it needed to be. There was already far too much piled on those slender shoulders.
“Forgive me for having taken so long to have this discussion.” Lady Marin folded her hands at her waist, the way Lady Werrick so often used to do. “It was egregious to have done so.”
Little Leila fussed in her cradle. Marin flicked an apologetic half-smile at Nan and bent to lift her sister into her skinny arms. The babe was small, but even still she appeared massive when held against Marin’s hip.
Leila blinked at Nan in quiet consideration. The child was what the healer called pensive, full of curiosity and observation rather than the bubbling giggles of other bairns her age.
The hole in Nan’s chest gaped wide as she watched the eldest and youngest sister. Aye, she was awaiting notification that she would lose her position, and nay, she hadn’t a place to go. But she wasn’t thinking of her future or how she would survive. All she wanted to do was to take these two children into her embrace, to curl them against her and take away all the pain of their loss.
Nan and Hewie had never had children. But even as God saw fit to keep them from being parents, He had given Nan these beautiful daughters of Werrick to care for. In the ten years she’d been at the castle, she had watched them grow. She’d given honey pastries for scraped knees and snuck oat cakes after missed meals. She’d always been there with a warm kitchen, comfort to offer, and love aplenty.
It wasn’t fear that made her wary to leave Werrick, it was loss. What would be the point to life without her girls to care for?
“I hear it is not uncommon for a wife to take a man’s place when…” Marin cast a regretful glance in Nan’s direction, clearly not wanting to say the truth of it.
When the man has died.
Nan nodded in understanding. After all, the butcher who supplied meat to Werrick was a wiry old widow who hefted up her husband’s cleaver after he’d been killed in a tavern brawl.
“Nan, we would like to keep you on in Hewie’s place.” Marin absently pulled a lock of her blonde hair from Leila’s small fist. “If you would be willing. I understand you may have had plans—”
“Nay, my lady.” Nan dropped into another curtsey, though this time to provide an opportunity to blink away her tears. “I would be honored to remain at Werrick as the cook.”
Marin smiled. It was beautiful and genuine and showed the gap between her front teeth that hadn’t closed yet, it was a smile the likes Nan hadn’t seen in far, far too long.
“I’m pleased to hear it.” Marin bounced Leila on her hip. “Aren’t you pleased as well, Leila?”
The babe blinked up at Marin with soulful blue eyes.
Martin returned her attention to Nan. “No one makes meat pasties like you.”
Nan swallowed, but a stubborn knot remained lodged in the back of her throat. “I can make them for supper this eve, my lady.”
“I’d like that.” Marin’s eyes sparkled with an unspoken joy that lifted Nan’s spirits.
She hoped her meat pasties would make young Marin truly happy. As well as the earl and his other daughters. The lot of them had become little more than skin and bones under the weight of their grief. Even Nan herself had lost the bulk of her girth in her mourning for Hewie. At least now she knew with certainty that she would be around to do something about it for them all.
Nan’s eyes grew hot with tears. “Thank you, my lady.” She lowered her head again. “If that is all?”
“Aye, thank you.” Marin’s little hand stretched out and took hold of Nan’s. “And thank you for caring for us all so well.”
The heat in Nan’s eyes now tingled at her nose. She snuffled and kept her head down. “Aye, my lady.”
Quickly, she rushed from the room and glanced about the hall to confirm she was alone. If only Hewie were alive to see what a lady wee Marin had become. He would be as proud of her as Nan was.
Several tears coursed down Nan’s cheeks, but she dabbed at them with the corner of her apron. There was no time for tears. Not when there were meat pasties to bake and hearts to heal with food.