Lord Bertin sat astride his charger watching the refugees of Edenshire stream into his gate. The small hamlet sat on the edge of his territory. Word had come a week ago that the soldiers of the neighboring kingdom of Verbia were approaching his lands. Lord Bertin took his army and raced to protect his people and his holdings.
But he arrived too late to save many.
“Will you have room for all of us, my lord?” William, one of Eldenshire’s surviving elders, stood beside Lord Bertin watching the long procession.
“They are my people and I will see they are provided for until Edenshire can be rebuilt and secured again.”
Women and children, covered in soot, staggered in an unending line. The littlest and wounded were in the few remaining wagons. One person caught Lord Bertin’s attention. She was the only one who had her hood up. “Who is that?”
“To which of the people do you refer?” William scanned the crowd.
“The one there,” Bertin pointed to the woman on the far side of a wagon. She walked amidst by a gaggle of children each trying to cling to her skirt and cloak. “with her cowl up near the wagon of wounded men.”
“That would be Claire, our healer, my lord.”
“Aye, there is not a soul in all of Edenshire that has not been aided by her compassionate hands. Those we bring in the wagons only survive because of her.”
Claire disappeared into the crowd as they were directed by Lord Bertin’s men to the various places they would stay for the night.
If he needed to find her later, how could he since he didn’t know what she looked like?
In the chapel, the pews were moved out of the way and simple palettes were laid out for the wounded. The older children would sleep in the hall, while the littlest were taken in by those within his walls and in the surrounding town.
Lord Bertin munched on a turkey leg as he climbed the winding stairs of the keep. He stifled a yawn. It had been an exhausting few days. His great curtained bed called for him but he needed to stop in Bess’ room. She’d be asleep. Though it was well after the setting of the sun, but she was always asleep these days. Whatever ailed her worsened.
Candle light flickered over her tiny face. Though she neared eight summers, Bess resembled the size of most children a couple years younger than her. He brushed a finger over her cold, pale skin. She stirred but didn’t wake.
“M’lord, I didn’t see you come in.” Molly, the nurse, rose from her bed in the corner.
“I wanted to see her for a moment before I dropped into my own slumber,” he whispered. “Has there been any change?”
“Nay, m’lord. Poor dear sleeps throughout the day. Doesn’t have the strength to stand over the chamber pot.” Molly’s head shook back and forth.
Though they would never say so in his presence, Bertin knew his entire household expected Bess to die any day. He brushed his finger over her skin again. It was probably true, but he didn’t want to think on it just yet. Whatever ailed his young daughter grew worse every year. It seemed only a matter of time.
“I hear tell an accomplished healer is within the walls. She has served Edenshire well. I will see if she might come check my sweet Bess. Perhaps she will have a solution no one here has thought of yet.”
“I pray that it is so, m’lord.”
Over the next few days, the people of Edenshire found places among Lord Bertin’s people, but as hard as he looked, he couldn’t find the healer Claire.
“My lord, you just missed her,” the priest said as he changed the bandage on a wounded man’s arm. “I think she said she was going to the baker’s home. His wife is heavy with her first child.”
“My lord?” Sean, the baker stood wide-eyed as Bertin stood on his stoop.
“I wished to inquire after the healer, Claire.”
“Oh, a saint that woman is, truly, my lord. She came to check on my Sarah of her own. I never needed call her.”
“Is she still here?”
“No, my lord, she left only moments before you arrived.”
And that was the way of it. He was always where she had been but never where she was.
“Why is that woman so hard to find? It isn’t as if the keep and town are so vast as to lose a body.” Bertin grumbled to his cook, Edith.
“I spoke with her yesterday, my lord. She gave me a few suggestions concerning Bess, but said as a simple woman she could not enter the home of the great lord,” Edith said as she took his empty plates away.
“That is ridiculous. I have requested her presence.”
“My lord,” Geoff, the captain of his army, took a quick knee until Bertin waved him forward. “Word has come from the hamlet of Willow’s Ford. The Verbian warband is approaching. Your people plead for aid against them.”
“Assemble the men. We leave before first light.”
Lord Bertin arched his back and rolled his head in big circles. Every part of him ached and not even the first turning of the autumn leaves took his mind from the discomfort. A week chasing down the vermin who continued to terrorize the people of his lands. It wasn’t until the king sent reinforcements that they were able to run down the Verbian’s and put a final end to their raids.
He tossed the reins of his charger to the stable-hand and stomped up the steps into the hall. It was quiet. The last of the children must have found homes to lodge in for now. Even so the stillness was odd. Muffled noises from the kitchen leaked through the door as they prepared for the midday meal, but surely others should be moving about. Fear gripped him. Had he returned too late? Was his beloved Bess already gone?
He raced up the stairs and to Bess’ room. The curtains over the windows were open and the lamps high. Bess sat up against the mound of pillows. She smiled at the woman sitting on her bed.
The woman’s head was covered so none of her hair showed and she was turned in such a manner that Bertin couldn’t see her face. But there was no mistaking the renewed health of his daughter.
Bertin stood in the shadow of the doorway watching them. Perhaps the healer Claire had finally been persuaded to come and tend his daughter.
The woman reached out with her right hand to brush aside a strand of Bess’ hair and tuck it behind her ear. In that moment, light caught on the back of her hand. A ray of sun through the window sparkled on the smooth line of a scar in the center of her hand.
Bertin lunged forward and jerk the covering off the woman’s head releasing waves of light golden hair. “YOU!”
“Daddy.” Bess reached up her arms toward him but he didn’t take her. “Daddy?”
The woman jumped up and tried to back away from him, but he took her by the arm and pulled her out into the hallway.
“Guard!” he yelled down the stairs before he turned back to her. “What are you doing in my home, Hannah? Wasn’t it enough that you tried to kill me? Do you plan to take my daughter? Is that why she has been so sick? Did you do this to her?”
Hannah opened her mouth but Matthew, his guard, arrived just then.
“Take her to the dungeon and lock her away securely. I will see to her punishment later.”
Hannah went with Matthew without protest. She only turned and looked at him with sad eyes. But she’d get no mercy from Bertin. She’d cost him too much.
“Daddy?” Bess called from her room.
Bertin clenched and unclenched his hands several times to loosen his tight muscles, tossed his hand and pushed a smile to his lips. He entered her room again and went quickly to his daughter’s bed, then sat where Hannah had sat only moments ago. A shutter raced through him at the thought of that woman being so close to his sweet girl. “Are you all right, angel?”
“Why are you mad at Claire, Daddy?”
Claire? He turned and looked at the open door. “Her name is Hannah, Bess.”
“No, Daddy. That’s Claire. She helps people who are sick. She is making me feel better.”
“She gave you something? He gripped Bess’s shoulders and shook her. “What? What was it?”
“Ow, Daddy. That’s too tight.” Bess cringed in his grasp. “Claire made me eat liver. I didn’t like it. It’s yucky, but Claire says it will help me get strong again. But she didn’t bring it to me. Edith always brings my food and sits with me.”
“That woman didn’t give you anything to drink?”
“Claire didn’t give me anything. She just came and talked to me and told Edith to make me liver and other icky foods.”
The efforts of a military campaign, and sleeping on a bedroll, with over a week in the saddle, only to come home and find Hannah with his daughter hit him all at once. A long sigh escaped and Bertin almost collapsed on the bed beside his daughter. He needed to know what Hannah was up to and why she called herself Claire.
He kissed Bess on the forehead. “Rest, and I’ll come see you later.”
“Can Claire come too?”
“No!” He didn’t say more. He closed the door and climbed to his chamber on the next floor. He needed to wash the road dust off and put on a fresh shirt before he went and dealt with the murderous Hannah. He stopped and sat on the side of his bed for a minute. He knew the woman he’d found was Hannah. He’d been ready to marry her at one time. But she had refused him and moved to town. Then she’d tried to kill him. The last he saw her, he was vomiting uncontrollably after she’d made him drink something. He’d thrown the dagger he kept under his pillow at her and it lodged in her right hand. She cried out, removed the weapon, and fled. He’d never seen her again. Until now.
Bertin dropped back on his bed and stared at the shadow between the beams above him. He’d been so in love with her, and she betrayed him so completely. No punishment would be too harsh for her.
When next Bertin opened his eyes, his room was completely dark. He yawned and stretched. Even his anger hadn’t been enough to keep him awake. He lit a couple of lamps, jerked off his dirty shirt, and washed before he dawned a clean one. The water was cold and helped to fully awaken him.
He bypassed Bess’ room as he descended the stairs, exited the hall, and crossed to the turret that held the dungeons in its bowels. He passed Matthew and entered the larger chamber that held four small cells. Every door was open. No torch was lit. “Where is she?”
Matthew stood and came to look over his shoulder. “I…ah…I thought…”
Bertin turned and stared at him. “Didn’t you put her in and lock the door.”
“Well… I was on the way down the stairs when Edith stopped me, my lord. She said that you wanted the prisoner, Claire, searched to assure she didn’t have anything that could harm the guards or herself, and it wouldn’t be proper for me to see her—well you know, undressed, my lord.”
“Aye, my lord. She sent me to the kitchen to get some food and when I returned the outer door was locked and so I—well I assumed Claire was in a cell inside. Edith would never betray you, my lord.”
Bertin stormed up the steps and back toward the hall as the stars shown brightly overhead. “Edith!” He yelled her name a couple of times before the cook walked into the hall and approached the dais where Bertin dropped into his chair. Hallord, his thane, entered as well and stood beside the cook. Both stood tall and looked boldly. The glare from each challenged him to accuse them. They had worked in his castle since he was young. They had been loyal to his father and he thought to him as well. Was everyone against him? “Where is she?”
“Gone.” Hallord said.
“And why have you betrayed me?”
“We saved you, my lord,” Edith said.
“Saved me? That woman—”
Edith crossed her arms. “Is as innocent as Lady Bess, my lord.”
Bertin moved to the edge of his chair and was about to unleash his wrath on her, but Edith spoke first.
“It is time to put aside all the lies and that you knew the truth.”
“I know the truth. She tried—”
“Lady Hannah saved your life, my lord,” Hallord said.
Edith nodded her head. “And it cost her everything.”
Bertin shook his head trying to clear it. A part of him hoped he was still asleep and that he would wake up and his world would make sense again.
“This was all your father’s doing.” Edith began. “He did not feel Lady Hannah a suitable match for you. He ordered her to refuse to give you her hand. He forbid to let her leave. She couldn’t go home in disgrace and had no one to speak for her. Then Lord Darby brought in that wretched witch, Margaret.”
“That is my wife, Edith. Take care.”
Edith crinkled her nose and went on as though he hadn’t spoken. “Darby believed her more suitable because she was part of the royal blood line. But the woman was wicked through and through. She killed her babies—your children, my lord.”
“We only had Bess and she is alive—”
Edith’s head shook cutting him off as she spoke. “Nay, my lord. That witch was with child thrice—that we know of. The first two times as soon as she knew, she took some concoction to expel the defenseless life from her body. Your dear mother Lady Rowina learned of the truth and when Margaret again found herself with child she was surrounded by maids and guards day and night so she would not harm the babe. Still she managed to allude their watchful eyes and this is why Bess was born almost a month early. Lady Rowina took the babe at once and gave her to Lady Hannah who cared for Bess for almost two months until she was strong enough to return to the castle and the care of a wet nurse. Margaret was never allowed to be alone with her. Yet, when she saw how you loved Bess, she tried to kill you, my lord.”
Bertin pushed to his feet. “That was Hannah, her poison made me violently ill.”
“It is not so.” Hallord nearly shouted, and he never raised his voice, even to the laxest soldiers under him. “When was the last you saw Lady Hannah prior to waking that day?”
Bertin was ready to yell back, but the more he thought about it, the more the reality hit that Hannah hadn’t been within the walls in a couple years prior to that day.
“Margaret waited until Lady Rowina passed—”
“And many of us thought Margaret may have had something to do with her early passing,” Edith said with a curt nod.
“But Lady Hannah had no access to you. No opportunity to give you any poison. But Margaret brought you a meal in your room that night.”
Hallord was right. Margaret had been sweet that night, almost seductive as she begged to have a quiet meal together in his chamber—a place she seemed to loath most days. “But Hannah was there?”
“Aye, my lord. To save your life.” Edith’s look implored him to believe her. “Had I not come on the pretense of collecting your tray because I fear over what Margaret could do, and had Lady Hannah not hurried to your side… I shudder to think. It was only Hannah’s quick action that expelled the vile concoction from your body before it killed you.”
Bertin plopped down in his chair. He had it all wrong.
“You woke thinking Lady Hannah had betrayed you again. This time Lord Darby forced her to leave. Better you think her the criminal than learn the truth that it was in fact your father that had brought Margaret into your life.”
“What happened to my wife?” Bertin wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
Hallord sighed. “She escaped the castle. Several months later word came to us that she made it to Winter’s Bend where she tried to poison another man. She didn’t escape a second time.”
So, his wife really was dead. He’d always suspected, but it was more hopeful to think she might return one day. Bertin rested his elbows on his knees and put his face in his hands. His father had lied to him. He had been betrayed. But not by Hannah. Never by her. She’d come and saved him from the woman that had stolen him from her. She’d even worked to help his daughter. Bertin was the one who had turned on her. Hannah was innocent. He was guilty.
“Daddy?” Bess shuffled into the room bunching up the rushes that covered the floor as she walked. She yawned as she climbed the steps of the dais. “I’m hungry.” Bess crawled up into his lap. Her head rested on his shoulder. She was warm and strong enough to come down stairs from her room. And, she was hungry.”
Edith reached for her, “Come, Lady Bess. Let’s go find you something to eat.”
When the two were gone, Bertin turned to Hallord. “Do you know where she’s gone?”
“Lady Hannah fled just before the gates were secured for the night, my lord.”
“Get the best tracking dogs and a group of men to carry torches. Hopefully she hasn’t gotten too far.”
Light was coloring the eastern sky as the dogs let out a long bellow. “This way, my lord, they have found something.
Bertin dismounted and joined his men as they peered over the edge of a drop deep in the woods. About ten feet below lay Hannah’s broken body. She’d fled him in such haste she must have fallen in the dark and killed herself.
One of the men secured a rope around his waist as another anchored the other end to a tree. He slowly lowered himself down beside her. He put his hand in front of Hannah’s face and looked up to Bertin. “She still draws breath, my lord.”
Could there still be time to put things right again? Bertin watched in a daze as the men fashioned a litter, lowered it over the side where Hannah was carefully put inside, and raised it up again. “Fetch the best healer we have and bring them to the castle at once.”
“She is the best we have, my lord,” Hallord said. “But I will see who else we can find.”
Hannah lay motionless in the chamber that had been his mother’s. Many of her bones were splinted. Every healer within a day’s ride had come to see how they might help. They’d filled the room with their elixirs, teas, and ointment. Now the room was quiet, as Bertin sat beside her bed watching the slow rise and fall of her chest.
“Daddy, is Claire going to be all right?” Bess slipped into his lap again.
“I pray it is so, my sweet.” He kissed her forehead. “Her real name is Hannah, and she was once very special to me. But I have treated her terribly.”
“You should say you’re sorry, Daddy.”
“I intend to the first chance I get.”
And Bertin was good to his word. At her first waking, Hannah forgave his cruelty. The love they had once known returned over her months of healing. They were wed late the following spring, and in the coming year Bess had little brother.
Everyone has moments of loneliness, but there is greater depth to those of us who feel we are never seen. But in that you are strong.