Authors: Lynsay Sands
Annabel sighed sleepily and rolled away from the persistent voice interrupting her exhausted slumber.
“Annabel, wake up,” the voice said more insistently.
“Sister Clara and I were up all night with a foaling mare,” Annabel mumbled wearily, recognizing Sister Maud’s voice. “The abbess said we could sleep in today.”
“Aye. Well, now she wants you up. Your mother is here.”
Annabel rolled abruptly onto her back in the small cot and blinked her eyes open to peer at Maud with amazement. “What?”
“Your mother is here and the abbess sent for you,” Maud repeated patiently. She then moved away to collect the gown Annabel had stripped out of and left on the floor when she’d reached her room.
Annabel sighed when she saw the disapproving expression on Maud’s face as she shook out the wrinkled gown. She had no doubt the woman would tattle to the abbess about the ill treatment of her clothing. The thought made her wish she’d taken the time to fold it neatly and set it on the chest at the foot of her bed, but it had been near dawn when she’d stumbled to her room. She’d been so exhausted she’d simply dropped it and tumbled into bed to fall into a dead sleep. That error would see her doing penance rather than going back to sleep after she saw her mother, she was sure.
Recalled to the fact that her mother was there, Annabel sat up on the side of the small hard bed in her hair shirt and chemise, and wiped the sleep from her eyes as Maud turned back.
“Why is my mother here?” she asked, standing to take the gown the woman held out.
“I would not know. She was taken to the abbess the moment she arrived and they have been sequestered in her office since,” Maud said stiffly, her gaze sliding over the hair shirt visible beneath Annabel’s chemise.
The hair shirt was to remind Annabel not to rush about in an undignified manner. She was always to walk slowly with poise as a bride of God should. Since she was already wearing it for one offense, her punishment for the discarded gown would probably be a whipping, Annabel knew, and had no doubt Maud was enjoying the prospect. The woman had always disliked her for some reason.
Annabel tugged her gown on over her head. She was waking up quickly, now, worry rushing the process along. Her mother’s being here couldn’t be a good thing. After all, the woman hadn’t been to see her since delivering her to the abbey fourteen years before. It had to be something important that brought her now. Had her father died? Her sister? Had Waverly Castle been taken by marauders? The possibilities were endless and none of them were good. Good news would hardly bring her mother with the dawn. She must have ridden through the night to arrive that early.
“How long were they sequestered in the abbess’s office?” Annabel asked with a frown, doing up her stays.
“How should I know? I have better things to do than stand about keeping track of your visitors,” Maud said primly, watching Annabel grab her brush and begin dragging it quickly through her hair, ripping viciously through any knots encountered. “Does the abbess know you have not yet shorn your hair?”
Annabel stiffened at the question. The abbess had ordered it several weeks ago, but Annabel simply hadn’t been able to bring herself to do it. She was not yet a nun, so hadn’t felt she needed to perform the mutilation yet and had kept it a secret with her wimples.
Rather than admit as much, Annabel set down the brush, donned her wimple and headed for the door with a rushed, “Thank you for waking me, Maud.”
She could feel the woman’s eyes burning into her back as she hurried out of her room and took a moment to worry over whether the nun would search her cell for other infractions to tattle on her for. But there was nothing she could do about that so Annabel turned her attention to why her mother was there instead.
She started out nearly running in an effort to get to the abbess quickly, but a scowl of displeasure from the prioress as she passed her made Annabel slow to a fast walk . . . until she turned the corner and the prioress could no longer see her. She then broke into a run again and didn’t slow until she turned into the hall where the abbess had her rooms and office.
Annabel spotted the two women talking outside the abbess’s door at once, but knew her mother only because she wasn’t the abbess. Annabel had been sent to the abbey at the tender age of seven and hadn’t seen her since. This woman looked nothing like the mother of her memory. Her mother had been a fair-haired beauty with sparkling eyes and color in her cheeks. She’d always been smiling or laughing. This woman was pale, her hair more gray than blond, her eyes alive with worry rather than joy. She wasn’t smiling. Her mouth was tightly compressed, anxiety showing there as well as in the way she was wringing her hands.
“Ah, Annabel,” the abbess, said as she spotted her. The good woman then turned to Annabel’s mother and offered a reassuring smile as she patted her hand. “Here she is. You can be on your way now. All will be well.”
“Thank you,” Lady Withram whispered, staring at Annabel with fierce concentration as she approached.
Actually, the way she was looking at her was rather disconcerting, Annabel decided. If her mother was not quite what she recalled, she herself apparently was nothing like what her mother had expected . . . or perhaps hoped for. Annabel was sure it was disappointment she saw flash across the woman’s face before her expression closed up tight.
Annabel was still only halfway up the hall when the abbess turned and strode into her office, leaving Lady Withram to rush forward to greet her. Although
would be something of a misnomer. She didn’t even slow, let alone stop, but hurried forward, catching Annabel’s arm and whirling her back the way she’d come, saying, “We must hurry!”
Eyes wide, Annabel allowed herself to be dragged along to the front doors. Frowning slightly then, she asked, “Where are we going?”
“Home,” was her mother’s surprising answer.
“Home?” she asked with bewilderment. “But I thought this was to be my home. What—?”
“Are the horses ready?” her mother interrupted her and for a moment, Annabel thought she was asking her the question, but they had just stepped out of the abbey doors and a burly old man waiting by a carriage answered.
“Aye, my lady. The abbess sent the prioress out to ensure we got two of the finest beasts they have here in trade for our own. They’re well rested and fit. They’ll get us back easily as quickly as ours got us here.”
The answer drew Annabel’s gaze to the horses in question. She recognized both of them and they were indeed the best the abbey had to offer. Annabel had no doubt the horses being left behind were of equal or better quality though. The abbess would accept nothing less. Annabel glanced forward again at a tug on her arm. Her mother still held her tightly and now dragged her toward the waiting carriage.
“Thank you, Aelric.” Lady Withram climbed grimly up into the carriage with his help, and dragged Annabel behind her by the arm she still clasped. Really, the woman had her in a death grip, as if she feared she might break free and flee at any moment. Her nails were actually digging into Annabel’s flesh, so it was something of a relief when her mother pulled her down to sit beside her in the carriage and finally released her hold.
Annabel took a moment to rub her arm as Aelric closed the door and sent the carriage rocking as he climbed up onto his bench. But once they started to move, she glanced to her mother a little warily and asked, “Where are we going?”
She thought she was being rather forbearing. After all, she’d just been dragged from her bed and out of the only home she’d known for the last fourteen years with nary a word of explanation. However, her mother looked vastly annoyed at the question.
“I told you. Home.”
“Elstow Abbey is my home,” Annabel said quietly.
your home,” she agreed and then added firmly, “But no more. Waverly is.”
This news was quite unsettling. She was being taken away from the only home she really knew. Young as Annabel had been when she’d left, her memories of Waverly were faint at best. So she was relieved when her mother added, “At least for the next day or two.”
So, she was only being taken home for a short visit, she thought, and then felt foolish for thinking otherwise. After all, she hadn’t even been allowed to pack a bag or bring anything with her. That now made her frown, because she would be without anything but the clothes on her back until she returned. The fact that her mother had rushed her out without such a consideration told her the situation was a dire one.
“Is it Father?” she asked sympathetically. The idea that her father may have died and she was being brought home for the funeral made sense to her. It also raised a surprising bit of sadness in her. Surprising, because her memories of the man who had sired her were faded at best, but she recalled a tall, bluff, handsome man with a beard that had tickled when he’d hugged her good-bye. As she recalled, he had often been away fighting this war or that battle for their king.
“Is what Father?” her mother asked and Annabel peered at her more closely as she noted the exhaustion in the woman’s voice. One glance at her weary, bloodshot eyes told Annabel that the woman must have been up all night during the ride from Waverly, but then it would be hard to sleep while being jostled about so, she supposed. She hadn’t ridden in a wagon since being delivered to the abbey and didn’t recall it being this bumpy, but then they appeared to be traveling more quickly than one would normally dare with a wagon.
Realizing that her mother was still awaiting an answer, she said, “Has something happened to Father? Is that why you are bringing me home for a visit?”
Lady Withram opened her mouth, hesitated, and then sighed and said, “Nay. Your father is well. Your sister is the reason I came for you.”
“Kate?” Annabel asked with surprise and dismay. Of everyone at Waverly, she remembered her elder sister, Kate, the best. They were only a year apart by birth and had been fast friends as children. Kate was the one she had missed most when she’d first landed at the abbey. Annabel had wept for her every night for the first year, but eventually, as time had passed, even Kate had faded somewhat in her memory. “What happened? Is she—?”
“Not now, Annabel,” her mother said wearily, closing her eyes. “There is time enough to explain things, but for now I am exhausted from riding in this ridiculous wagon and need to close my eyes for a bit.”
Annabel hesitated, but then said, “I am surprised you did not come on horseback.”
It was really a question. Her mother had loved to ride as she recalled and few would choose to ride in the back of a wagon. It was not exactly a comfortable journey and much slower than horseback.
“Your father did not think you would be able to ride alone,” was the abrupt answer. “There would be no need for you to know how to ride at the abbey.”
Annabel didn’t comment. There
no reason to ride at the abbey and most of the women there rarely or never did. However, Annabel spent half her time working with the abbey animals and rode them often. Although she had to do it at night when everyone was sleeping so that she wouldn’t get caught, and then rode bareback. She’d never even bothered to try one of the saddles or sidesaddles hanging from the stable walls.
Annabel considered asking again about her sister despite her mother’s request that she wait, but then caught herself. Lady Withram really did look exhausted. A state she could sympathize with since she herself hadn’t slept more than a matter of moments before being woken that morning. She could wait to find out what ailment or accident had taken Kate. Truthfully, Annabel would rather sleep a bit before she heard the sad story anyway. As exhausted as she was, she feared she might turn into a sobbing Sally did she hear the tale now.
That thought uppermost in her mind, Annabel leaned into the corner of the carriage and tried to make herself comfortable enough to sleep, but suspected it would be a difficult task with the carriage bumping and thumping about as it was.
OW THE DEVIL
did you end up betrothed to an English lass of all things?”
Ross smiled faintly at Marach’s question. The man, one of his finest warriors and about his own age, sounded horrified. But then most of his men were probably horrified at the prospect of having an Englishwoman for their lady. Ross opened his mouth to answer, but had hesitated too long. Gilly beat him to it.
“The Waverly lord saved Ross’d da’ while they were on crusade some twenty years ago,” the older warrior explained. He then added sorrowfully, “And Ross is paying fer it by being shackled to the English lord’s daughter for the rest o’ his days.”
Ross barely refrained from smiling at the claim. Gilly was his first. He’d also been Ross’s father’s first before that. While his age usually meant Ross could count on the man for wise counsel, it also meant he had a long memory of what the English had done to the Scots. That fact alone had almost made Ross decide not to bring the man along on this journey, but there was no one he trusted more to watch his back than the two warriors riding on either side of him: Gilly and Marach. They were both excellent in battle as well as good friends to him. He’d trust either of them with his life anywhere, anytime.
“Is that true?” Marach asked with a frown as they rode out of the trees and started up the hill to Waverly Castle.
“Aye, Waverly saved me father,” Ross rumbled, and added, “But the two men became friends afterward and decided to seal the friendship by marrying the two houses. I was seven and Waverly’s wife had given birth to a girl the year before, so a contract was struck.”
Gilly shook his head woefully at this news. “While I am glad yer father lived, ’tis a terrible price ye’re expected to pay fer it.” He tilted his head and added slyly, “And well ye ken it, else ye would no’ ha’e waited so long to collect her. I suppose ye were hoping the lass would fall down a well or something and save ye having to marry her?”
“Nay,” Ross denied the accusation on a chuckle and then said more seriously, “Ye ken I intended to collect her four years ago, but Father’s death interfered.”