The Healer (Borderland Brides, book 1)
Published by Escape Publishing (Harlequin Enterprises Australia)
eBook Release date: 08/10/2014 (ISBN: 9780857991911)
Print Release date: 05/08/2020 (published by Harlequin MIRA, ISBN: 9781867208099)
Northern Cumbria, April 1402
‘RUN!’ Lynelle shouted from the far side of the field as the horn signalling danger blasted from the keep.
Men and women grabbed sickles and hoes before fleeing to safety. Lynelle clutched her burden, lifted her skirts and ran as if the devil were at her heels. Her chest burned with every indrawn breath as her leather-clad feet pounded the hard ground. Every footfall jarred her body, distorting the figures running toward the iron-studded gates ahead.
A blood-curdling cry erupted from the pack of mounted men spilling over the grassy ridge to the north. A noose of fear tightened around Lynelle’s throat. Would she make it to the keep before they rode her down? She had to. She must!
Fenwick’s people ran through the gates and were now safe within the stronghold. Cool shadows cast by the curtain wall fell about her as she neared the opening. She stopped at the threshold and searched for stragglers. Seeing none, she hurried inside.
‘I am the last. Close the gates,’ she said, hoping the guards would do her bidding despite who she was.
She pressed her bundle to her side to ease the ache there, as the giant beam was lowered into place. A faint lick of triumph sparked inside her. The barbarians would gain little this day.
Why were they attacking now? Raids usually took place between Lammas in August and Candlemas in February. It was now mid-April. They always came before dawn, or late at night, cloaked in darkness, yet the afternoon’s sun still glowed brightly in the west.
The bailey was crowded. The air filled with tales of people running for their lives. Grasping her skirts, Lynelle raced up the uneven stairs to the battlements.
Straining for breath, knees weak as she reached the top, she forced herself to keep moving. She chose a section along the wall that granted the best view, and slipped between two of the sentries. They shifted away from her, as she expected.
She set her bundle down at her feet, gripped the cold stone before her and peered at the scene beyond the walls.
Sunlight blazed upon every drawn sword the invaders brandished high above their heads. This was her first real glimpse of the men her father often named savages. A whisper of fear swelled inside her, mingled with a strange sense of awe.
Did they know her father was away? It was Truce Day and as Warden of the English West March, Lord Fenwick would spend his day dealing with crimes against the Border Laws – crimes committed by both the English and the Scots. Only a few men remained to guard the well-fortified keep. Once the gates were barred, those within were secure.
She watched the intruders, counted at least a dozen. The sound of galloping hooves filled her ears as they approached.
One of the Scots at the head of the pack stood out from the rest. His dark hair rose and fell about his shoulders with his horse’s rhythmic stride. Lynelle lifted her hand to block the sun’s brightness. The man looked up at her.
Lynelle’s heart skipped a beat. Time slowed. Her body heated. The distance was too great to discern his features, but his gaze seared her like a brand.
He turned, severing the invisible bond. The sound of thundering hooves filled her ears. Suddenly, in tight formation, the riders veered to the right, away from the fortress. Lynelle cupped her hot cheeks with cold hands and sucked in a long breath.
The Scots rode to the far side of the open field where a thick line of trees marked the west wood. Why had they come? Were they searching for something or someone?
Who was he, the man with the scorching gaze?
‘God o’ mercy,’ said one of the guards to her left.
Turning, she bumped into someone. She drew back and took in Bernard’s kind features. Bernard was one of the older guards and was one of the few who didn’t avoid her gaze or keep his distance from her. He even dared to touch her. He must have followed her to the battlements once the gates were closed.
‘What is it, Bernard?’
‘I do not know,’ he said, moving to peer out through the next gap in the wall.
Lynelle joined him, and leaning forward she searched the ground below. Her heart lurched as she glimpsed a small figure outside, galloping away from the keep.
‘Thomas,’ she whispered.
No! It couldn’t be. Had he escaped his personal guards again?
‘We must help him,’ she said, latching onto Bernard’s sleeve. ‘Bernard, you must tell the guards to open the gates.’
Bernard slowly shook his head. ‘‘Tis too late, my lady.’
‘It is never too late.’ She’d never given in. She wouldn’t now. But Bernard resisted her efforts to pull him along with her and continued staring out from the battlements.
Though part of her didn’t want to know what was happening, she forced herself to look.
The wild men from the north surrounded Thomas. He was shouting and shaking his fist at the grown men who appeared enormous by comparison. They were enormous compared to her eight-year-old stepbrother.
‘He is just a boy. Surely they won’t harm him.’
‘The master’s age is not important to the Bloody Elliots,’ Bernard said quietly.
A shudder ripped through Lynelle at the mention of the Elliots.
‘I must go to him”, she said spinning away. A large hand grabbed her and spun her back around. She glanced at the weathered fingers holding her upper arm and then gazed into Bernard’s beseeching brown eyes.
‘No, mistress. They already have Thomas. Surrendering yourself will do the boy little good. You will only give the Scots another prize.’
‘How can I do nothing?’
‘You have no choice.’
‘Look there,’ one of the sentries called.
Bernard’s hand fell from her arm as they both scanned the field beyond. Four mounted men emerged from the west wood. One looked to be struggling to stay upright in his saddle. The Scot with the fiery gaze rode among them.
‘Who is the dark-haired man?’ Lynelle asked.
‘His colours and larger mount mark him as other than a Elliott,’ Bernard said.
His horse was several hands taller than those his companions rode, and the garment draping his body was blue and green while the others wore blue. She’d been enthralled by his dark visage and hadn’t noticed the obvious differences. Shame rushed through her. She must be wicked indeed to have found him or any of his kind fascinating.
The four joined the men who had formed a circle surrounding Thomas. One of the Scots caught and lowered her
brother’s raised fist, ending his show of defiance. He then tied Thomas’ hands behind his back.
Lynelle clenched her hands and sealed her lips to silence her words of anger.
The same man secured the reins of Thomas’ horse to his own mount. The Scots closed in around their young captive, stealing Thomas from sight.
The pounding hooves from more than a dozen retreating horses was deafening. Dread pooled in her belly for her young stepbrother. A sense of helplessness swamped her as she watched the Scots gallop north and disappear over the ridge in a cloud of dust. Thomas vanished along with them.
Sweet Mother of God. What would happen to him?
Were the Scots truly the savages the elders swore them to be? Were the longwinded tales of cruelty and barbaric deeds true?
Would they torture Thomas? Cut off his fingers and return them with a demand for ransom? Or bind his hands and feet, gag him and suspend his small body from a tree, taking turns to watch and laugh as the birds pecked his sweet blue eyes from his head and ripped the flesh from his little bones?
Lynelle shuddered as a cold hand of fear gripped her heart.
How she wished her father were here, for he would know what to do. Sweet Mary, if Thomas was hurt or killed, her father would be devastated. Furious. John Fenwick doted on his son. Thomas was her father’s heir, his greatest source of pride and joy.
Lynelle’s fingers turned white as she clutched the cold stone before her. But her father wasn’t here, and Thomas’ mother…
Dear God. Lady Fenwick.
In all the commotion Lynelle had forgotten Thomas’ mother.
Spinning away from the view of the deserted field, she stumbled down the uneven stairs. She needed to tell Lady Fenwick what had happened, and gain her favour to rescue Thomas.
Chickens scattered and squawked as she rushed across the bailey. She climbed the few stairs to the tower-house entrance and stopped short as Bernard stepped out, blocking her path. Caught up in her grim thoughts, she hadn’t noticed he’d left the battlements before her.
Regret deepened the lines of his aging features. She gave him a glance filled with gratitude to him for standing with her.
A hellish scream rent the air from inside the tower house, and then for a whisper of time, the world fell silent. Lady Fenwick must have learned of Thomas’ fate.
Running footsteps echoed from inside the tower. Lynelle settled on the top step but didn’t enter the tower house, and prepared to console the distraught woman. A chorus of murmurs filled the bailey. Shuffling footsteps moved closer behind her, though not too close. Word had spread and the people must be eager to witness their lady’s reaction if they were willing to risk being near Lynelle.
Lady Fenwick suddenly filled the doorway, her gown of costly golden silk shimmering in the sunlight. Her chest heaved
with every swift, audible breath. Lynelle’s gaze lifted from the perfect silk-clad figure to the beautiful face, now twisted in fear.
Catherine Fenwick was her father’s wife and Thomas’ mother, and the woman Lynelle had once hoped would be like a mother to her.
Lynelle stared up into Catherine’s cold eyes; pain and anguish clouded the blue depths.
Something struck one side of Lynelle’s face and a stinging sensation tore through her left cheek. The force of the unexpected blow sent her tumbling down the tower-house steps.
Pain ripped through her hip as she landed on the hard packed earth. Dazed and shaken, Lynelle climbed to her knees. She cupped her burning cheek and witnessed Catherine’s jewel-studded fingers curl into a fist and resettle by her side.
Lynelle clenched her jaw against the hot resentment bubbling inside her. The unfamiliar emotion dissolved as awareness took hold.
Merciful angels. After ten years of waiting, her stepmother had finally deigned to touch her.
Bernard stepped forward and reached for her. Lynelle gained her feet and saw the shocked expression on the older man’s face.
‘What a pair you make,’ Catherine screeched. ‘One as useless as the other.’ Her stepmother’s maids filled the doorway, hovering behind their mistress.
‘You, Bernard, would defend this worthless strumpet rather than see to my son’s safety.’
Lynelle’s cheek throbbed and something warm and sticky coated the fingers she gingerly placed on the left side of her face. Blood. Her hand dropped to her side as her stepmother’s eyes, blazing hatred, fixed on her.
‘And you…you vile creature,’ Lady Fenwick said in a low, trembling voice. Lynelle stiffened, bracing herself for the insults she knew would follow. ‘Your black heart is cursed and it is the innocent who suffer your evil.’
Each word plunged like a knife into her bleeding heart.
‘They should have drowned you at birth,’ Catherine spat before she collapsed in the arms of her maids.
Lynelle flinched but stood her ground and stared as the serving women aided a distraught Lady Fenwick back inside the tower house.
‘Why my poor darling Thomas?’ Catherine wailed. ‘Why not take the devil’s daughter instead?’
‘‘Tis not your fault, Lady Lynelle,’ Bernard said quietly.
Lynelle looked at the man who had been more of a father to her than her own.
‘I was the last through the gates, and he is my brother.’
‘Master Thomas did not leave through those gates,’ he said firmly. ‘And the boy ignores you, my lady.’
‘Thomas is young, Bernard. He ignores me because others do. He is the only brother I have left.’ She patted his hand. ‘I must go.’
‘Your wound needs tending. Let me help you.’
Gratitude swelled and threatened to choke her. ‘I will go and tend to it now,’ she managed to say. ‘Thank you for your kindness, Bernard.’ She gave his hand a final squeeze and slowly walked away.
She glanced to her left and right and found the eyes of Fenwick’s people fixed on her. The shaking heads and condemning gazes came as no surprise. All blamed her for Thomas’ plight. She was always to blame.
If the hens refused to lay it was her doing. When sickness ravaged the people of the keep, she was the cause. She’d always pretended indifference to their damning gazes, just as she would now.
She raised her chin and straightened her back. Clenching her teeth against the pain in her hip from her fall, she took slow, careful steps across the bailey.
Would her father blame her too?
Lynelle’s hands clenched as despair filled her chest. Would he ever acknowledge her? Ever love her?
She rounded the far corner of the bakehouse, escaping the prying eyes of the castle folks. A gentle breeze touched her face as she paused in the alley between the bakehouse and the curtain wall. Her hip ached and her cheek stung. But her ailments were nothing compared to what Thomas might be suffering.
Pushing forward, she spared a glance at her herb garden, but didn’t stop to caress either rosemary shrub or meadowsweet as she usually did in passing.
She entered the ramshackle hut she had shared with Ada since her birth, and breathed deeply of the familiar scent of mingled herbs. She bit down on her lip to still its sudden tremble. Her heart ached, for she desperately wished the old healing woman still lived. Ada would have offered comfort and guidance regarding her brother’s capture.
She walked to the rickety, scarred table at the rear of the hut and gathered a bowl and cloths from the sagging shelf above. By the fading light filtering in through the single open shutter, she prepared a cleansing wash using sopewort.
Lynelle bathed her wound, gritting her teeth against the stinging pain, and tried to cut off the cruel visions of Thomas’ torture before they fully formed.
Sweet God, please keep Thomas safe.
She wasn’t sure if someone like her was fit to ask for help, but she had to try. Once a life was lost, it could never be restored. Lynelle knew this to be true, for she was guilty of stealing not one life but two.
She swallowed, knowing full well that prayers were not enough. If only she could rescue her brother herself.
Her fingers stilled.
Was it possible for her to rescue Thomas?
She clutched the cleansing cloth and slowly sat on the wooden pail that served as both bucket and stool. There was nothing to stop her from finding Thomas and bringing him home. She had nothing to lose, but much to gain.
If she rescued Thomas, her father would have to find favour with her, wouldn’t he? How could he not? He’d finally acknowledge her as his daughter.
Excitement fluttered in the corner of her heart where she’d buried her greatest desire.
She would rescue Thomas.
Her spirits lifted as a sense of rightness flowed through her. She now had direction and a desperately needed purpose.
Latching on to her tattered hope, Lynelle finished tending her wound. The gash didn’t seem to sting as much as it had before. As she tipped the unused wash into the slop bucket, she focused on what little she knew about her stepbrother’s captors.
The Elliots were Scottish neighbours close to Fenwick. They lived beyond the north ridge, and were said to be a troublesome lot. Lynelle vowed to find them and set Thomas free.
Her feelings of helplessness eased as she gathered her scant belongings and waited for darkness to fall. She carefully wrapped small bundles of herbs and placed them within a worn leather pouch. If Thomas were injured, the herbs and Ada’s teachings would prove necessary. She prayed the Scots who held him weren’t the brutes most claimed they were.
A flicker of annoyance flashed through her at the ill timing of their raid. She’d finally begun to feel she belonged, had felt a part of something as she’d worked the soil. Though her small plot was separate from the rest, she’d turned and prepared the earth just as many of Fenwick’s people had. She’d even had her own sprinkling of seeds to plant, though the bag of seed now rested atop the battlements.
Sighing, she glanced at the open doorway and saw that the day was almost done. Nervous anticipation coursed through her. It was almost dark. Almost time to go. Fenwick’s people would soon file into the tower house for the evening meal. Lynelle’s absence wouldn’t be noticed, as she’d never dined inside the great hall.
Would things change once she rescued Thomas?
Lifting her small knife, she wrapped it inside her spare gown, and coiled a linen cloth about the half loaf from the day before. She stuffed them into a sack with the herb pouch and tied the top with a strip of leather cord. Finally, she closed the window’s warped shutter, wincing as it creaked into place.
Taking up her cloak, she walked to the door and swept the hooded garment around her shoulders. She secured the ties at her throat, pretending her hands shook not at all. She peered outside and noted how the dusky shades of twilight smothered the alley running along the rear of the tower house.
She turned and drank in the dim interior of the hut, her home. Inhaling deeply, she snatched up her bundle and slipped out the door.
Crouching low, ignoring the ache in her hip, Lynelle clung to the rear of the bakehouse and crept on past the kitchens. At the gap between kitchen and tower house, she looked up at the curtain wall. Two guards walked the battlements, their figures little more than dark shapes floating across the dull grey of the evening sky. The flaming torches at either end of the stone edifice shed pitiful light at this hour.
Lynelle ran across the gap and stopped at the eastern corner of the tower house. Leaning against the cool stone wall, she closed her eyes and paused to catch her breath. The sound of her thudding heart filled her ears. She’d covered little ground, but her fear of discovery had her heart racing as if she’d run for miles.
Fenwick’s people would not stop her due to concern for her wellbeing, but they might detain her, ending any chance of her rescuing Thomas.
The pounding in her chest slowed. She pushed away from the stone at her back and peeked around the next corner. With no one in sight, she dashed across to the little used postern gate, and found it ajar.
So this is how Thomas had made his escape.
Few knew the gate existed. Its dimensions were smaller than that of the average doorway. With the stonework so cleverly done, it could be seen only by a trained eye or someone who knew it was there – or a child who’d explored every inch of the keep to hold her loneliness at bay.
A cough sounded from somewhere behind. Lynelle flinched and glanced over her shoulder. Once certain she was alone, she opened the gate and stepped through the opening. She latched the door, clutched her sack tightly to her middle and turned around.
Full night was but a breath away and she suddenly felt very small and very alone. She held no fear of the dark, but a shiver rushed through her as she felt a thread of doubt at what she was about to do.
She must save Thomas. There would be no turning back. She was tired of living as an outcast. She wanted more.
She cast all misgivings from her mind, stretched to her full height and lifted her chin a notch. Cursed she might be, but a coward she was not.
Excerpt from The Healer (Borderland Brides, book 1). If you enjoyed this excerpt, you’ll love the book! Available for purchase: