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Beppie Harrison - The Divided Heart
Ireland. Summer, 1810
A man stood about halfway down the portrait gallery. Someone Anne had never seen before.
She stopped walking abruptly and stared at him, with more curiosity than alarm. After all, she was Lady Anne Hawthorne, taking her morning exercise in the long gallery. Her father was the Earl of Kendall, and she stood within the safety of the considerable bulk of Kendall House. Twenty or thirty servants were readily available to rush to her assistance should she call out….
She was not quite ready to call out.
Still, the presence of a lone stranger right in the house was, to the best of her knowledge, unprecedented. She had certainly not expected to encounter one when she’d peered out between the curtains in her bedchamber and discovered it was raining for the fifth day, which meant she would have to walk inside again. In Ireland some rain was to be expected. But she was very tired of walking in the gallery, even if some exercise was better than none.
Anything as bizarre as encountering an unknown man she had not anticipated.
Strangers in the house were not unknown, of course. She often saw her father’s friends, visiting aristocrats, and estate workers who had some business in the house. They were never alone. Not only was the man in the gallery alone, but he was plainly no aristocrat and showed no sign of the nervous awe of an estate worker. He stood at ease, his chin at a jaunty angle as if he had every right to be where he was.
Anne took a cautious step toward him. “Who are you?” she asked. Pity her voice was a woman’s voice and did not ring with authority.
Incredibly, the man’s mouth quirked into something like a smile. He was tall, not quite so tall as her father and far thinner. He wore a black cloak, but no hat, and his full head of hair was so red that it looked almost orange.
Was he Irish then? Anne’s interest quickened. He had the ruddy complexion of a man out in all weathers and his lithe body suggested a quick strength, thin as he was. She had seen many Irish people in the district with that distinctive red hair. If he needed help, she would offer it, but he looked more amused than needy.
How could an Irishman make his way deep into her father’s house past all the servants?
She opened her mouth to demand his business when lightning cracked, brightening the dim gallery to brilliance. The morning steady rain was now a full-fledged storm, thunder rolling ominously even as the lightning faded. Anne whipped around to look out the narrow leaded windows lining the outside wall just as another great flash illuminated the sky. A second roll of thunder boomed so loudly it seemed even the stone walls of Kendall House shook. Heavy rain lashed against the roof, rattled the windows.
Could the Irishman have taken shelter from the storm and somehow found his way to the gallery? Anne turned back to ask him.
He was gone.
She straightened her back, mystified. She blinked, once, twice. This had become uncomfortably mysterious. She looked away and then—quickly—back again. He was not there.
If there had been a chair close by to sit on, Anne would have sat. She knew well that in modern times people do not appear or disappear in front of you. True, this was Ireland, and in her eighteen years of life she had heard many strange tales of unaccountable happenings, but they all had happened long ago or somewhere a great distance away.
To have something like this happen in Kendall House was peculiar.
Màiri Norris - Rose of Hope
Wulfsinraed Burh - Essex, England - 1078
Fallard swept his arms around the Lady of Wulfsinraed and drew close her slight, quivering form. His jaw tightened.
Saint's teeth! That was too close. But a moment longer and I would have lost her to the river.
He cradled her to his chest, startled at the intense heat that radiated from beneath her tattered cyrtel. He raked her features with his eyes. Dusted beneath a gaze unnaturally bright were dark smudges. A large bruise marred the left side of her face, and more ringed her slender throat. Her face was drawn and flushed.
She is afire, aye, blazing with fever. Will she understand my words?
"My lady, surrender. I have won you fairly, and with honor."
He awaited her response. She blinked, a languid movement of the lids over eyes the color of the emerald moss that grew beneath the forest canopy. She inhaled, slowly, deeply, the cool air of the freshening morn.
His voice was deep as the realms of the sea-gods. In that moment, in the feverish imagining that ruled her thoughts, he seemed a fantasy emerging from a vision of mists, destined to rescue her from death. Handsome as the gods, he was a lover who held her with an embrace both powerful and gentle. He appeared the epitome of all of her youthful, maidenly reveries, so ruthlessly crushed by her husband.
He was but a fancy, naught more than imagination. Could she not say what she would to a dream-warrior, and 'twould make no difference? She burned as her look met his, and whispered her answer. "My lord, I surrender in truth. Do with me as you will."
His smile was triumphant and altogether male. "Aye, lady," he said. "That is how it will be."
Lane McFarland - Lindsey
The soldier stopped in front of a thick worn door with a small grated square open at eye level. He rattled the key into the padlock. The hinges creaked as the door swung and banged against the wall. As he touched the flame of his torch to one secured in a wall bracket, Lindsey stepped into the cell. Fire blazed and sputtered, lighting the dark chamber.
More than a dozen men huddled on the floor. They squinted, their hands raised to block the light. Bloodied and torn clothes hung on their haggard frames. Dirt and muck blackened their skin, while festering cuts and discolored bruises lined their arms and legs.
The beefy guard waved his torch toward the back of the room. “Them’s the beggars goin’ to trial.”
Twisted shapes of four men, their wrists shackled to the wall and their feet barely touching the floor, came into sight. Her chest tightened as if bands squeezed the life from her, but she caught herself before giving a reaction. “Ye’ve gotta cut ‘em down, sweets. They cannae eat or git fixed up hanging on the wall.”
The man swung his head toward her. His lip curled.
Her pulse pounded in her ears and she trembled with rage. She wanted to pounce on him, grab his blade and sink it into his gut. Straining to gain composure, she turned her back on the men and set her basket on the floor. Her hand trembled as she inhaled the putrid air and struggled to calm her nerves. She must maintain her heartless pretense, appear untouched by the savagery. Rummaging through the jars, she bit the side of her lip and extracted the healing salves.
Chains rattled behind her. Thumps of dead weight and groans indicated the guard freed the men. As he marched from the cell, he cast a look at Lindsey and slammed the door. The lock clunked, and his booted footsteps grew quieter as he strode away.
Several men rushed from the huddled group to aid their fallen companions. Lindsey hurried to the first man and knelt beside him. She pushed his hair to the side and grimaced.
Cora’s little bandits were correct.
His face was bloated and blackened, and blood caked the back of his head. “Logan, can ye hear me? It’s Lindsey.”
His eyes fluttered. Moans of the injured men wafted around her. She jerked the basket to her side and brought out a flask of water, a soft cloth and jar of salve. “Look in my basket for more water skins,” she called over her shoulder to the other prisoners.
Logan’s friends, Adam, Thom and Colyne lay unmoving. Blood and dirt smeared the men’s swollen, beaten faces. Their listless bodies spoke of abuse and neglect.
“The commander takes delight in torturing them.”
Lindsey’s head snapped to the man who stooped beside her.
“Seems to hold a real interest in them.” He grabbed her basket and passed out containers to several others. They crowded around, snatching the bandages, salves and potions she’d brought.
“Why?” she whispered. “What’s so special about them?”
The man squinted and indicated Logan with his head. “Collins couldn’t break him. I think that about drove the commander over the brink. He wanted to deliver information on the rebels’ stronghold to the king. Infuriated him that he failed to do so.”
The man bent over Adam and helped him sit.
While supporting Logan’s head, Lindsey held a flask to his parched, cracked lips and dribbled the liquid into his mouth. He sputtered, gulping at the water.