Chapter 1 ~ A Broken Promise
Beware of the wolves...
Chapter 1: A Broken Promise
The sword whacked against the tree, bark flying everywhere as I hacked away at everything in sight. Angry words tumbled from my lips, emphasised by the dull thud of the metal blade hitting the tree once more. I must have been a terrifying sight to anyone watching.
The very word was abhorrent to me, made even worse by the fact that it was not of my choice. My dead mother's promise of marrying for love was destroyed by my father's need for higher standing in the ranks of Scottish Lords, and his need to get rid of me.
"I only want the best for you." He had sworn, "This marriage will be good for both of us and will bring much needed stability at court."
Empty lies. Empty lies that made broken promises.
It had hurt that those words had been the kindest way he'd spoken to me since my mother's death, and only to convince me he was doing this for the betterment of our countries stability. Still, the smell of alcohol had been strong in his breath as he staggered towards me with his words.
I had never entertained the idea I would fall in love but I had hoped I would find someone I would at least be content with. I had seen how unhappy couples could be, but I had also seen the love my mother and father had for each other and I craved that.
Another swing of the sword and an angry cry followed that thought, more bark flying everywhere.
A servant scurrying past with her head down drew me out of my rage. I was breathing heavily and my skin shone with sweat, tangled black hair matting my forehead. I dropped the sword and took a deep breath just as a soft breeze blew the scent of my mother's herb garden to me. I fell against the tree, uncaring of the dirt that would ruin yet another dress.
My mother would have argued on my behalf, she would have managed to make father change his mind, but I only had myself to rely on to fight my battles now. How could I fight with a man who could barely look at me?
A robin hopped close, it's head tilting from side to side as it watched me gentle eyes. It chirped and I smiled, remembering my mother's words, When a robin is near, a loved one is watching you, I'll be watching you. It was the last thing she'd said to me before her illness took her from the world. None of her herbal remedies and incantations had saved her from whatever ailed her. The robin hopped closer still, before the servant door slamming open had it stretching wings and disappearing in a flutter of feathers.
Jane, a new servant and my father's latest bed warmer, fidgeted as she waited for me to address her. I knew very well what went on in my father's chambers and I didn't approve, it put a black spot on my mother's memory.
I stood, dusting dirt off my dress and nodded to the young woman who couldn't be more than three years my senior.
"My lady Máili, your father wishes to speak to you. He was very insistent that you do not keep him waiting." She stuttered, her eyes darting around.
I nodded again, brushing past her without a glance, my fingers on the pendant around my neck that had belonged to my mother. I was glad that I intimidated her.
Pausing, I turned towards Jane, "Could you pick the herbs that are ready in my mother's garden? It's a full moon tonight, that's when they're best gathered, maybe wait until sunset."
The slight look of fear in her eyes only gave me a small amount of satisfaction as I made my way into the manor. I was well aware of the whispers and rumours that went around the servants and villagers, as much as my father tried to hide me from them. My mother was called a Cailleach by those who dared speak. A witch. I'd even heard the cooks whisper about her being the daughter of Beira herself, The Queen of Winter, the goddess that created the hills and glens with her hammer for her own use. Despite all these rumours, my mother had been much loved for her kindness, she has healed many in the surrounding area, and even though they were scared, they loved her for it. Perhaps she wasn't far from a Goddess after all.
I'd never put much stock into such stories. My mother was a healer with a knowledge of herbs that she'd passed onto me. Any talk of pagan gods was shunned, especially as a Catholic queen had just taken the throne. Though I followed my mother's beliefs in the old religion, my father was Catholic and that meant watching my tongue.
It had taken tears and pleading to make him agree to me keeping the herb garden and her books.
My steps echoed as I made my way through the halls and to my father study, reminding me of how empty things were here now. The paintings and tapestries had been removed from the walls, only empty candle holders still held their place in my home. I couldn't help the sigh that left me, the sorrow that wound round my heart. My father had done well in getting rid of every item that reminded him of my mother, I was the only thing that remained.
Knocking three times on the solid oak door, I waited till my father called before pushing into the room. The curtains were shut, letting little light into the room. Only the solitary candle sat on my father's desk kept the place from being pitch black. My father looked up, flinching as he always did now when he saw me. I reminded him of her, and he couldn't stand it. He averted his eyes to the flame, sitting back in his chair that creaked with his movement.
"Lord Lyall will be at court this coming week. We shall meet him there so his son can be introduced to you. He will approve of you, I'm sure." He stated, his voice hollow and uninterested.
"Father, you gave me your word-" I interrupted, my plead for him to reconsider bleeding into my words.
"Enough!" He barked, finally looking at me again, "Lord Lyall has been very considerate in letting you and his son meet before your wedding day. Be considerate of our position. You are to be married and my word is law. Have Jane help you pack, we leave in two days. Further argument will end in punishment, do you understand? You should be happy, this is a big day for us."
I bowed my head, clasping my hands in front of me, tears stinging my eyes, "I understand, father."
He dismissed me with a wave of his hand and I scampered from the room, my breath coming out in a strangled cry. Death had stolen my mother from me, and grief had taken father. Now the man that had held me in such high regard, that had praised my accomplishments and given me freedom not afforded to most women, saw me as no more than a way to relieve himself of the last of his wife's memory.
Jane hovered by the corner of the hall, her face scrunched with what I could only guess was concern, or worse; pity. I was quick to steel myself against the turmoil that raged inside, especially in front of her. My face hardened. She fidgeted, stumbling a few steps forward.
"I need to pack for my journey to court tomorrow, make yourself available for me." I ordered, uncaring of the harsh tone I used.
I had no respect for this woman who desecrated my mother's memory in the very room where she and my father had their affection.
Jane bobbed a curtsey, nodding her head,"Of course, my lady."
I tried not to cringe as she then entered my father's study, tried to resist the urge to barge in and curse my father's name for disrespecting my mother. Instead, I went to the kitchen and grabbed the basket of picked herbs. Jane had picked them too early in the evening but it didn't really matter. Sorting them would be a welcome distraction.
Lavender and Bogmyrtle to help with sleep, Crowberry to help with coughs, Juniper for joint pains, Mugwart for for if I ever wanted to delve deeper into the power my mother swore I had. There were other herbs too, ones used to flavour food and drink and some with properties that went against Catholic beliefs. I hung some up by the window to dry and then started making my tinctures so I could take them with me when I left for court. I didn't sleep or eat well without my herbs. Not anymore.
It was a welcome distraction to be busy with my hands. I wondered if my future husband would care that my hands weren't soft like most noble women's. Years of working with plants, riding without gloves, training with swords, had left a roughness to my skin. It had never bothered me until now...
The robin was back at the window, hopping along on twig thin legs, it's head twitching side to side. Gently pushing the window open, I sprinkled the last of the bread over the ledge before closing the window again. I watched with a smile as it pecked at crumbs and chirped in what I liked to think was gratitude.
I packed away a few bags and glasses of my herbs and liquids into my wooden box, hiding it beneath the piles of blankets. My fingers stunk of various herbs and it would take a lot of scrubbing in water to dull it.
Quickly finishing my work and cleaning up the mess, I wandered back outside.
The sun was beginning to set but the manor would soon be echoing with the sounds of my father taking his pleasure in Jane's body and I refused to return home until he had fallen asleep. Too often had I caught Jane slipping from his chambers, naked and blushing, covering what she could with her dress she never got the chance to put on before my father dismissed her from the room. Her shame no longer bothered me. I knew my father would never force himself on a woman. She had been almost a friend before she began spreading her legs for the master of the house, incurring my wrath and loss of all respect.
My nails dug into the palm of my hand, the sting drawing me out of my dark thoughts. Picking up the heavy skirts of my dress to better watch my steps, I began the trek down the rocks to the river that ran along the border of my father's land.
The moon was pale against the slowly darkening sky and I was quick to curtsey as my mother always did for the goddess Cerridwen. Bowing to the moon's brought you luck, and the gods knew I needed some now more than ever.
Slipping over the rocks, I grabbed for the branches of silver birch to keep me steady until I pulled myself onto the boulder that had become my safe spot from the world. The rock was covered in soft moss that added some padding as I took my seat.
A gentle breeze greeted my arrival with a flurry of sound; leaves fluttering, an owls haunting call, the gentle rippling water of the river cutting its path.
I tucked my legs beneath my skirts and closed my eyes, opening myself to nature. Breathing deeply, the fresh air was a small balm to the anger and sadness that held me captive most of my days.
A ghosts touch across the back of my neck had me shuddering and lifting my head. There was nothing to be seen, there never was. Too often I had felt the cold touch on my skin when I came here, it never frightened me but my stomach always rolled with butterflies and a hope that it was my mother watching me.
"Father is marrying me off." I whispered, praying she was listening, "I'm to leave our home and marry a man I've never met. I do not want to go to court, to hear the whispers that you tried so hard to keep from me. I know what they think of us, mother. Something stirs inside me and I wish I had you here to talk to, you would know what to say."
I paused to swallow the lump in my throat, "Father is not the same man we knew and loved, he has changed in a way that makes it difficult to love him, but I still wish to make him proud. I will marry and I will try to be a good wife, if only to try and gain back his love for me. I miss you, mother."
The only answer I got was another breeze. I sighed heavily, looking up at the stars that had finally began to shine their light down. What a sorry sight I must have been for those watching from above.