Authors: Bride of a Scottish Warrior
The monk stood waiting for several long moments, then realizing her determination, he turned and huffed out of the chamber. Grace listened to the sound of his footsteps on the rough wooden floor until they faded into silence.
“He’ll be back,” Edna observed wryly.
“No doubt. This time with reinforcements. We must act quickly.”
Moving as fast as possible, Grace and her maid wrapped the clean bandages around his shattered leg, struggling to avoid causing Alastair any additional pain. He made no sound while they worked, waking only when they were finished. Knowing she would have but a scant moment alone with him, Grace turned to her husband.
“Can ye tell me where it pains ye the most?”
Alastair’s face lit with a ghost of a smile. “Everywhere, milady. Even my hair.”
“It will get better,” she whispered, hoping the lie did not reveal itself in her eyes.
“Ye’ve a kind heart, lass. I wish I had known ye better, wish there had been more time. . . .” His voice trailed off with a regretful sigh.
An unbearable loneliness seized her heart, followed by a stab of regret. Regret for all she’d never experienced, never had in her life. A loving husband, a gaggle of healthy children clinging to her skirts, a sense of peace and contentment. Theirs had been an arranged marriage, yet both parties had been willing. If not for the war and the years of separation, they might have had a chance to find happiness together. Or at least a peaceful contentment.
“We’ll have more time together than we know what to do with, Alastair, once ye have recovered.”
He grimaced. Behind his mask of pain, Grace caught a glimpse of vulnerability and it made her heart ache even more. “’Tis no use. I’m dying and there’s naught anyone can do except prolong my agony. A task Brother John seems hell-bent on completing.”
“His skill is widely praised,” Grace replied, not knowing what else to say, for her husband spoke the truth.
Alastair reached out, his fingers surprisingly strong as they gripped her hand. “I heard him talking with his assistant last night.”
“Brother John. My healer.” Alastair rubbed his thumb over Grace’s knuckles. The intimate gesture brought tears to her eyes. “The monk said as a last resort he’ll cut the leg.”
Grace gasped. “Ye already have enough cuts upon it. Why would he insist on more?”
“Nay, Grace, ye dinnae understand. He wants to cut the leg
Grace shook her head vehemently. “Nay, oh, nay. Alastair, ye must have misheard. ’Tis barbaric to even consider such a thing. Besides, no warrior can lead his clan with only one leg.”
“Aye.” Alastair sighed heavily and closed his eyes. “Ye must stop it from happening, Grace. Ye must allow me to die in peace, with all my limbs still attached to my body.”
Clasping her husband’s palms between hers, Grace leaned forward, pressing their joined hands against her chest. “If ye want to refuse the treatment, then ye must tell Brother John. Loudly. Forcefully. He’ll have no choice but to obey.”
“Och, lass, most days I lack the strength to open my eyes to see who is tending me.” Pain and anguish filled Alastair’s voice. “Ye must speak fer me.”
Grace attempted a comforting smile through her tears. “They’ll not listen to a woman, no matter how loudly I shriek. Can ye not ask one of yer brothers for aid?”
“I dinnae believe they would listen. Besides, ’twould be unmanly, cowardly. I dinnae want that to be my legacy.”
Grace’s throat constricted. Pride, ’twas always pride when it came to men. Yet while she might not agree, she did understand his feelings. “I’ll do what I can,” she whispered.
“Pray fer me,” Alastair croaked.
“I do. Almost hourly I ask God to bring ye back to health.”
A grimace of sorrow stole across her husband’s face. “Nay. Pray fer death, as I do. I dinnae fear it; I welcome it. I long fer it.”
Grace heard footsteps again, this time more than one set. As she predicted, Brother John had returned, bringing with him Sir Alastair’s brothers, Douglas and Roderick. The three entered the room and stared at her, a myriad of expressions on their faces.
Douglas appeared concerned, Roderick wary, and Brother John smug. Though she believed Alastair’s brothers each carried a genuine affection for him, they had clear and differing opinions on his recovery. And their own particular reasons for wanting him to linger or go quickly to his final reward.
Since Alastair had no son of his own, Roderick and Douglas would each fight hard to be the one to lead the clan once Alastair was gone. If the gossip Grace heard around the castle was to be believed, Douglas currently had the most support, though Roderick was making some progress in changing the minds of his clansmen.
Thus Douglas would benefit the sooner Alastair died, while Roderick might be successful in his bid for power if given more time to garner support. ’Twas no surprise that it was Roderick who had insisted that Brother John be fetched to tend to Alastair. Indeed, no expense or effort had been spared, a commendable occurrence if one did not delve too deeply into Roderick’s ulterior motive.
“Brother John says that Alastair is much improved,” Roderick exclaimed. “Does that not gladden yer heart, Grace?”
“’Twould indeed make me joyful, if it were true.”
Brother John snorted. “Ye lack the knowledge to properly judge,” the monk insisted. Yet she heard the clank of glass upon metal as he portioned out the medicine, and she observed his shaking hands. Despite his superior attitude and almost swaggering bravado, the monk was nervous.
They all stood silently as Brother John administered the medicine, massaging Alastair’s throat to help him swallow. Nearly half the liquid dribbled out the side of his mouth. Grace moved forward to wipe it away.
“Will it aid him even if he cannae drink it properly?” Roderick asked.
“Aye,” the monk replied. “A smaller amount is actually preferable. Too much might do him great harm.” He secured the cork stopper on the glass bottle and it disappeared into the folds of his brown robes. “We shall wait a few more days, but if the flesh on his leg continues to rot, I shall perform the operation we discussed.”
Grace turned. “Nay! Ye willnae remove his leg. I forbid it.”
The three men turned toward Grace, varying degrees of shock and surprise on their faces. “Ye’re too tenderhearted, Lady Grace,” Brother John said. “An admirable quality, no doubt, in a female, but one that has no place in a sickroom.”
“Ye will not cut off his leg,” she repeated.
“I am the one in charge of Sir Alastair’s health. Therefore, I am the one who will make that decision.” The monk’s eyes narrowed. He sounded furious.
But Grace would not relent. Still, she hesitated before speaking again. Men never liked to have their authority challenged. She moved toward Douglas, searching for an ally. “Can we not allow God to decide Alastair’s fate?”
Douglas met her eyes, his face scored with genuine concern. “We must do all that we can to save him.”
“Butchering him willnae save him,” she dared to whisper.
The expression of compassion and concern faded from Douglas’s face. “Aye.”
“Do ye agree, Roderick?”
Grace could feel her legs shaking, her heart pounding, and she had the distinct feeling that she was turning red. Yet she fought hard to keep her voice calm and firm, lifting her chin in defiance. She would not acquiesce without a fight. Not when so much was at stake.
Shadows of flickering daylight softened Roderick’s face and for a moment Grace dared to think he understood why this was so important. But ever the warrior, Roderick bristled against even the smallest hint of weakness. “We must do as Brother John commands.”
His words chilled her. They had each acknowledged it was hopeless, yet still refused to allow Alastair a peaceful death. She sank gracefully into the hard, wooden chair and folded her hands on her lap. This battle would not be won with words or reason. She would have to find another way.
Grace sat silently as the men spoke in low tones to each other, and gradually she returned to what they expected her to be. A quiet, placid, and obedient female, content to peacefully accept what she was told, to willingly follow the dictates of men. Yet inside she seethed.
She reminded herself that there would be a price to pay for her interference. In this world and most likely the next, when she would have to stand before God and account for her earthly sins.
Yet was this a sin? Granting her husband’s last wish, easing his unbearable suffering?
Three days. She had but three days to figure out a way to peacefully end her husband’s suffering and hasten his leap from this life into the next. Her eyes burned and for a brief moment she was afraid she was going to cry. She curled her hands into fists, tightening them until the nails bit painfully into the soft flesh of her palms, blinking several times until the burning vanished.
Brother John turned and she heard the distinct rattle of the bottle of medicine hidden within the pocket of his robes. He had told Douglas that too much of the elixir would cause serious harm. Or perhaps death?
Grace’s chest tightened. It was hard to breathe. But she knew now what she had to do.
The sun shone high overhead, yet the warmth of its golden rays did not reach the long line of weary travelers plodding across the barren landscape. The winter cold seeped into their very bones, the chilling wind stinging any exposed flesh. Sir Ewan Gilroy glanced down at the crudely drawn map, searching fruitlessly for the landmarks that would indicate they were getting close to their journey’s end.
“We should have turned right at the pile of jagged rocks,” an amused male voice declared.
“Shut up, Alec.” Ewan squinted again at the map, annoyed to realize his close friend and captain of his guard was right. It would take nearly an hour to turn around, making their arrival before nightfall unlikely.
“The valley below is protected from the wind,” Alec mused. “A good place to make camp fer the night. Do ye agree?”
“I suppose,” Ewan grumbled.
“Here, let me see.” Alec held out his gloved hand and Ewan reluctantly handed him the map. ’Twas a sad man indeed who could not lead his people on a true course, but Ewan was too weary to protest. Alec had ridden at his side through seven years of war and two years before that—he was the closest thing to a true brother Ewan would ever have and he trusted him completely. He also had, to Ewan’s great annoyance, a skill in map reading that many, including Ewan, lacked.
“If we turn a mile up ahead, we can easily reach yer land from this side,” Alec proclaimed. “Actually, it might even be a shorter route.”
“Stop gloating,” Ewan said with an affable grin, raising his arm to give the signal to turn.
The long line of exhausted travelers wound around like a giant serpent as they changed course, turning directly into the wind. Heads down, the group plodded onward, Ewan in the lead, Alec by his side.
They remained silent for the next few hours, alone with their thoughts as they battled the elements. At last Ewan caught sight of the five mountains indicating they were drawing near. The news spread quickly down the line, reenergizing everyone. Despite his determination to remain calm and keep his expectations realistic, Ewan’s heart picked up speed as he urged his mount forward. Finally he crested the rise and got his first look at the valley below.
The sight took his breath away. Unmoving, he stared silently, barely acknowledging Alec’s presence beside him.
“Mother of God,” Alec swore beneath his breath.
“Indeed,” Ewan answered.
He had not expected King Robert to bequeath him a grand estate. Those riches were rewarded to men of higher standing and legitimate birth. Truth be told, he was humbled to have been given any land by his king, for Ewan was one of thousands of knights who had fought to secure the crown on Robert the Bruce’s head. Yet Robert had taken a liking to Ewan and he understood that rather than a trunk of gold, a true reward to a bastard son would be a property to call his own and the chance to create a lasting legacy for his progeny.
Though most of the western Highlands had supported their king’s rise to power, some areas had resisted and suffered mightily for it. Apparently Ewan’s new holdings had been one of them.
The valley below was stark and barren, the dry, dusty soil swirling like a cloud. On the far side, perched atop a large hill, stood the remains of the small castle, its crumbling stone walls and charred beams visible even from a distance.
“The mountains on either side create a natural defense,” Alec offered.
“One would think,” Ewan muttered. “Yet clearly they were not enough to hold back Robert’s troops.”
Blackened areas where cottages had stood marred the peaceful view. Most of the structures that were intact looked as though a strong wind would blow them over. There was no smoke from any cooking fires coming from the cottages, no sounds of livestock or people, no signs of any life at all.
“Do ye think it’s entirely deserted?” Alec asked.
“’Tis best to assume that some still reside in this godforsaken place,” Ewan replied. “Just to be safe.”
Ewan drew his sword. A select band of his best warriors did the same. Falling in beside him, they rode into the valley, leaving the rest of the party to wait until they were summoned.
As they drew closer to the keep, they discovered a cluster of cottages in somewhat better condition, most boasting four walls and sturdy roofs. Without warning, two frightened pairs of eyes suddenly appeared in a cottage window, then disappeared in an instant.
“Did ye see that?” Alec asked.
“Aye,” Ewan replied. “There’s more than a few pairs of eyes trained upon us. Yet I dinnae fear we are riding into an ambush. From what I can see, ’tis mostly young faces and women peering out.”
The slightly improved conditions of the property vanished once they reached the drawbridge of the castle. The thick oak door had been smashed to pieces, most likely with an iron-tipped battering ram. The stone steps leading to the battlements were scattered throughout the bailey, the rooftops of each of the four corner towers charred and splintered. A few rusted swords were ground into the dirt, testament to the fierce hand-to-hand combat that bespoke of the intensity and carnage of the final battle.