To Reagan Barnali, Crown Prince of Gilvary:
Allow me to begin by telling you my most incredible news—I am going to be a father! Can you believe it? The baby is due to arrive sometime toward the end of March in this coming year. Pray that I will be a good father. That is foremost in my mind considering the one we had was the vilest man I have ever known. I know you believe we should not speak ill of the dead, but I am still so angry with him. After what he did at the end ~ to tell the truth, I still have nightmares of the torture he put me through. You can feel sorry for Brianna for she is the one having to deal with me.
I hope Mother has made great improvements since I saw her last. I am sure she is grateful to have your help in ruling over the kingdom. I know you have doubts, but I have every confidence that you are up for the challenge. I must admit that ruling here in Aisling is not as easy as I once imagined, but I am fortunate to have my beautiful wife by my side in everything.
Sorry this is a short one, Brother. We plan to spend the day out on the beach, and I do not want to keep her waiting.
Brianna sends her love.
To Garrett Barnali, King of Aisling:
My dearest brother,
I received your letter last week, but I am only just finding the time to respond. Things here at Gilvary are more hectic now than at your departure. Oh how I miss the leisurely days of my youth. It was good of you to remind me that you have Brianna when I suffer alone. You are more blessed than you know.
By the way, congratulations on the news of the coming baby. Imagine, you with a child. Let us hope he looks just like his Uncle Reagan.
On a more serious note, I am afraid Mother’s health has taken a downward turn. I know nothing about the workings of the mind, but this has been a terrible blow for her. I admit that our father was pure evil, and I agree that he deserved death for his sins, but for her sake, I wish someone else had been the one to see it through. Our mother carries a tremendous amount of guilt for taking his life. Despite all of his flaws, she loved him dearly—we all did.
I fear some would like to officially place me into the position of king (a role we both know I have never aspired to) badly enough to do her harm. I have taken precautions, but I really feel there is no one here in whom I can place my trust. I need someone who can help bring Mother back up to the healthy queen she was before.
That is why I am making a request for Gwen to be sent to my aid in caring for our mother. I want it to be by her choice, but I would not take her away should Brianna need her, especially considering her current condition. Think it over. If you decide you can do without her at this time, you can then deliver the enclosed letter explaining my request.
I have also enclosed a note to your parson. I am hoping he might be able to suggest someone of his own caliber to reside here at Gilvary. Our good vicar has not been seen since your wedding. I am sure fear sent him away once he realized that your nuptials had not pleased our father. To tell the truth, I am thankful he has not returned. The time is ripe to pick a better replacement. We could all use the same type of spiritual guidance found there in Aisling.
Let me know if Gwen is able to come. Assuming you will protect her to our border, I will send guards to Fort Bevan to escort her to Gilvary. Give Brianna an extra kiss from me, and assure her that I will take good care of her friend while she is here.
My best regards,
For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.
“Gwen, I cannot believe you are truly thinking of leaving Aisling. This is your home. Your entire family is here.”
Brianna was not usually so whiny. She had come to me in near panic once she heard the news that I was leaving. Finding me here sorting through my clothes had not helped one bit. I tossed another dress across my bed. How could I explain my need to find my own place in this world in a way that would not upset my friend?
“It sounds as if I am really needed in Gilvary.”
She took both of my hands into hers and gave me a pleading look with those big hazel eyes of hers. “But I need you here. Who is going to deliver my baby? You are the best friend I have in this world. Everything will change without you here.”
Others would think it strange that a queen would find a best friend in a lowly servant like me. Her parents had not wanted their only child to be lonely, so they had arranged for me, the daughter to the castle’s steward, to be her early companion. I suppose we became friends while we were still too young to understand about the different classes in society.
“Things have already changed. You are married. Your husband is your best friend now, which is just as it should be. Your baby is not due for another six months. If I am not back by then, there are plenty of midwives available with more experience at child birth than me who would be more than happy to assist you.”
She turned toward the small window in my room and drew the curtain back to look out over the Moya Ocean. I knew it was a sight that gave her comfort.
“Some friend Garrett is. He gave you that letter from Reagan without consulting with me or giving any thought as to how this would affect me. He is not the same as when we were first married. I know he has every right to be broken after what his father did to him, but I never imagined it would be this hard to deal with.”
The late King Coman of Gilvary had once had great ambitions of taking over all three of the kingdoms in Kearnley. In pursuit of this dream, he had arranged to have his eldest son killed, had tried but failed to take Reagan’s life, and had captured and tortured Garrett—all in an attempt to gain control of Aisling. Only God knew what he had planned for the kingdom of Dermot.
Prince Reagan had shown up here in a frightful state after the failed attempt. Being the most experienced healer in the castle, I helped to nurse him back to health. I suppose he remembered the help he had received here which prompted his request for me to come to Gilvary. I was not sure if I would be any help to his mother in her state of mental distress, but this was the opportunity I had been praying for.
Based on some of Brianna’s reaction and Garrett’s remarks, it seemed that they were not aware of the full extent of Reagan’s request. In the sealed letter that had been delivered to me, Reagan had spelled out how he not only intended for me to look after his mother, but I would be taking over as the castle healer as well. He had stated that I was welcome to stay for as long as I liked.
I would always love Brianna, but the fact that I was friend to the queen overshadowed everything I attempted to do here in Aisling. My father did not help matters either. I loved him as well, but he still felt the need to take care of his little girl’s every need. I had turned nineteen two weeks before. This was my chance to make it on my own and to feel like an adult for a change.
“I cannot imagine anyone in that family who will not be touched by King Coman’s actions. Garrett has you to help see him through. I know it is hard right now, but it will get better. If anything, this strengthens my resolve to go. You can focus all of your attention on your husband for awhile and not have to feel guilty about neglecting our friendship. You have said that has been an issue for you. By the time we see each other again everything will have smoothed itself out. We can pick up right where we left off. It will be as if we never parted.”
She turned to look back at me, her hand resting on her slightly rounded belly. “So, you are definitely going then?”
“I have prayed, and I feel strongly that this is the right thing for me to do.”
“How can I argue with that?” She squared her shoulders and took a deep breath.
“Well then, whatever you need for your trip—clothes, supplies, traveling cases, and anything else you can think of—Garrett and I will take care of the expense of it. Tell your father I said so. Better yet, I will tell him myself. I want no expense spared, and I know you will try to cut corners.”
I pulled her into a hug. “I will miss you.”
“I will miss you as well, but surely you will not be long in Gilvary. You are a great healer. I am confident you will have Queen Finelle back to herself before you even have a chance to get homesick. You will be back in no time at all.”
I did not say anything in reply. I was not sure what the future held for me.
The door to the steward’s office was open, so I did not hesitate to enter. My dad was sitting at his desk giving instructions to his apprentice. There had been many under his tutelage over the years, but Austin Connor had stayed the longest. Austin working inside at a desk had never felt right to me. He had a warrior’s build, and in fact, that is where he had started, but his intelligence had allowed him to pursue this internship with the castle steward.
We had courted for a time with Dad’s encouragement. Austin was good looking enough with his sandy hair and blue eyes that a girl could get lost in for a while. We seemed to have a lot in common, but there was no spark. It ended when he asked me to marry him. Dad must have been disappointed, but he never questioned my decision.
To be honest, I was not sure I was the marrying type. My only desire for the moment was to concentrate on being a good healer, and that is why I was thrilled to receive Reagan’s letter. I only hated that there was no one with whom I could share my excitement. I suppose I should have felt flattered that my friends and family wanted me to stay in Aisling for the rest of my life.
I took a moment to study my dad with his head bent over the books in front of him as he spoke with his assistant. All of the Alexanders seemed to have the same light blond hair with bright blue eyes and pale skin. My dad, Einri, was no exception. He was tall and reed thin, unlike his six older brothers. They had all been warriors and were built for it as well. In fact, Eamon, the eldest of the family, was Brianna’s advisor in charge of the military and defense.
Austin was the first to notice my presence. He had never gotten over his feelings for me, and it showed every time he looked my way. Maybe he would finally be able to look elsewhere once I was gone.
I think Dad noticed the inattention of his assistant before he noticed me. He looked up into my face, and there was an unusual sadness coloring his features. The news of my leaving had arrived before me. He stood and came around the desk to give me a hug.
“I guess you have already heard that I am leaving.”
“Yes, Queen Brianna informed me a little while ago. I somehow knew you would be leaving me one day, but I had no idea it would happen so suddenly.” He held onto the hug a little longer than usual.
“Oh Dad, it is not as if you will never see me again.”
He pulled back and held me at arm’s length. “One day when you are sending your own child out into adulthood, you will understand.”
Having children of my own was another thing I could not imagine in my future, but I would not dare tell him that.
Austin cleared his throat to let us know he was still there. I imagine it was uncomfortable for him to view this somewhat intimate moment between father and daughter.
“Einri, I think I will take a break now, if that is all right with you, and give you two a chance to talk.”
He came around the desk toward me as if he wanted to give me a hug but ended up just patting my shoulder. “Gwen, hopefully we will have a chance to talk before you leave for Gilvary.”
“Maybe we will.” I did not want to encourage him, but I did not want to be rude either.
After Austin left, we took a seat across from each other in the dark gray wing-backed chairs on one side of Dad’s office. I took a good look around me. I had spent a lot of my childhood right here in this very room. Brianna had started redecorating the castle in her own airy style, but this room had not been touched and was not likely to be.
One whole wall was covered in books containing all of the accounts and castle histories from when Aisling first started out as a kingdom until present time. Besides the shelves of books and the two chairs that we now occupied, there was only the large hand-carved desk and matching chair with a smaller version of the set right next to it. The last was a later addition, necessary once Dad had started taking on apprentices. There was not much in way of decoration. It was meant for a work area, but it somehow felt like home to me.
Dad leaned closer to me. “So, when do you plan to leave for Gilvary?”
I looked down at my hands clasped together in my lap. “Within the week.”
“I suppose it makes sense that you would leave so soon if Queen Finelle is in as bad of shape as I am told. I know you will do well there. I understand why you must go. Just know that I will miss you dearly.”
He placed his hand over mine causing me to look up into his dear face, and my heart broke a little. “This is a great opportunity for me. It is a chance for me to learn new things. Please understand that I am not trying to hurt you. You know I will miss you as well, and it is not as if I have never left the castle before.”
He gave me a discerning look. Yes, I had left Aisling before, but we both knew without saying that this time was different.
“Sweetheart, I am not trying to make you feel guilty, and I am sorry if you took it that way. I know you are doing what is best, but that does not necessarily make it any easier for your old dad.”
He stood up and pulled me into his arms for another hug. “You know I love you, right?”
I felt the same comfort in his words as always. “I love you as well, Dad.”
“Go on now. You must have a lot to do in preparing to leave, and I have orders from the queen to take care of. I hope you know she plans to send you off in style.”
“I know. I do not think I could stop her if I tried.”
Brianna had indeed sent me off in style. Every day for the rest of that week someone was either there for a fitting for all of the clothes that had been ordered, or they were there dropping things off. It would take a herd of mules just to haul all of my new trunks and baggage to Gilvary.
The best gift I had received was my horse. Years ago I had taken up with a particular gray Arabian mare named Ghost. She had been part of the general horse population here at Aisling, but now she belonged to me.
Dad came bearing a gift of his own on my last full day at Aisling. He seemed hesitant as he looked down at the small package he held in his hand. “The queen did not leave anything for me to give in providing for your trip, but I did want you to have this before you left.”
I untied the ribbon from the box he handed to me. It held a small mirror in an antique silver case, one that was perfect for carrying. It was embossed with the initials ARL in the center with a swirl of rose vines around the perimeter. Although I appreciated my father’s gesture, I did not immediately recognize the significance of his choice for a gift.
He tapped the initials in the center. “This was your mother’s. I believe she had inherited it from her grandmother who carried the same name.”
I knew to tread lightly here. Questions about my mother had gone unanswered in the past. Dad had never wanted to talk about her.
“I thought her name was Rosemary.”
“Actually, that was her middle name and the one she preferred. Alma Rosemary Logan was her full name, or at least it was before we were married. After she died, I decided to return to Aisling. I wanted something of hers to pass down to you. This was small enough to carry and had seemed significant to her. Actually, I believe it may have been the only thing of value she had owned.”
His few simple sentences had revealed some things that had previously been unknown to me. Two things of importance—they had been married, and she was dead. He had opened up many more questions than answers. I sorted through them in my head trying to pick the most important to ask. I would probably have only one chance, if that.
“How did she die?” It was a question I felt every child had a right to know about a parent who had passed away. Apparently my father did not agree.
He looked back down at the compact still in my hand. “It is not . . . I . . . I do not want to talk about that right now. Do you have everything ready to go? Is there anything more you need?”
This was the way it had always been anytime the subject of my mother was broached. I never had the heart to press him for information he did not want to give. I think it was the look of pure hurt that always showed up on his face at these times that held me at bay. There was nothing in this world that would make me want to cause pain to my beloved dad.
“No, I have everything I need and then some.”
“I will be there in the morning to see you off.” He kissed my cheek and walked out the door.
I sat down on my bed and studied the compact with renewed interest. I cataloged all I knew about my mother. I had just learned that she had more of a name than just Rosemary, she had a grandmother with the same name, and she was dead. I had spent my life wondering if she had abandoned us. Oh, and I had just learned that she had been married to my father. I had not been sure about that.
I knew that she had green eyes, and her hair had been a darker blond than my own. I had been told more than once by my father that I had her mouth. I was never quite sure what that meant. I flipped open the compact and studied my mouth in the mirror, something I had done more than once since the first time I had heard it. My teeth were straight. My bottom lip was thicker than the top, and the sides of my mouth tilted down on the very edges when I was not smiling.
That was it. That was all I knew about my mother.
I tucked my newfound information away along with my keepsake and went in search of Brianna to say our farewells. I knew I would not see her again before I left. Mornings were no longer the best part of her day now that she had a child on the way.
On the day of my departure, the air was cool and crisp. I took one last look at the castle behind me as my horse plodded on toward Gilvary. The white stone structure stood in contrast to the blue sky and the even deeper blue of the ocean beneath. Soon the sound of the roaring ocean along with the cries from seagulls in search of their next meal would give way to the quiet of the countryside between me and my destination.
It may be to my shame, but my thoughts did not linger for long on the home I was leaving behind, nor to the people there that I loved. I was obsessed with all of the adventures ahead and with the possibilities of what the future may hold. For the first time, I was heading out on a journey of my choosing, and I was excited to see where it would lead me.
I looked up with excitement when Filib entered the room. I had promoted him from stable hand to my own private messenger when I had taken over this temporary job of ruling the kingdom. He had proven himself to be trustworthy before I took this position. I needed more honest people in my life right now.
“They are about thirty minutes out, Sir.”
“Sir is not the proper address. You may refer to Prince Reagan as Your Highness or Your Grace but never Sir.”
Arlana Kelly was Gilvary’s stewardess. With my father dead and my mother taken to her bed, she had taken it upon herself to oversee my every move. I did not want her here, but I needed her. She knew the dealings of this castle inside and out while I had known nothing until my father’s death. I needed her, but I would not allow her to have complete control.
“Arlana, for the last time, I asked Filib to call me Sir.”
“You must maintain proper control, Your Highness. You will lose his respect if you allow him to address you so.”
I stood and started stacking the pages in front of me. “I appreciate your advice, but you should consider that it is ultimately my choice whether or not to accept your counsel.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” My reprimand had humbled her, but I knew it was only momentarily.
Filib had been standing by silently watching the tug-of-war between me and the stewardess. He must have been satisfied that I had won considering he had never offered to amend his address to me. He fell in line behind me as I hurried toward the door.
“Where are you going, Your Highness?” It seemed Arlana’s moment of humbleness was over. Filib stumbled for a step or two, but I never lost stride. My patience with that woman was at an end for now. It was none of her concern where I was going.
As we stepped out of the back door of the castle to head toward the stables, I took a deep breath of the crisp October air. It seemed I had to fight for every free minute lately, and I had learned to cherish each one of them.
None of my plans had ever included me being ruler of a kingdom. My parents were supposed to have ruled for a good long time to come. Then the job was supposed to have fallen to my older brother, Dunbar, who would have then passed the position down to his children.
Now Father and Dunbar were gone, Mother was sick, and there was no one else to do the job but me. Garrett would be next in line for the throne after me, and he already had his hands full running his own kingdom.
Then there were our two younger brothers. Terence was of age, but he had the mind of a child and was blissfully ignorant of most of everything that had happened. On the other hand, Rian had experienced things that no nine-year-old should ever have any knowledge of. He had witnessed Father’s death at the hands of our mother. I cannot imagine what that must have been like. Of course, he had made it hard for anyone to feel too sorry for him. On his best days he had been a brat before Father’s death, and he was even more of a handful now.
There were extra men milling about when I entered the stables. They were no doubt waiting there in anticipation of the expected crowd that would be arriving shortly. All of them jumped to find something to do once they saw me. It was what my father would have expected of them. I had been working toward relaxing some of the fear out of my people, but so far, it had been to no avail. Even Filib jumped to a task once we entered the barn.
I did not even try to interact with them on this day. I had more important things on my mind. Gwen would be here any minute. When I had left Aisling, it had been in a rush to get back to Gilvary. There had not been much time for a proper goodbye between us, but I had thought of her every day since.
As I paced the dirt floor of the stable, every sound from outside had me peeking out in anticipation of her arrival. It was a relief to finally see a large group making their way around to the back of the castle. I was not surprised to see warriors from Aisling mixed in with my own. There had been no way of knowing who among my people were still loyal to the plans my father had set into motion.
I ignored the rest of the crowd and focused my eyes on the white horse and its rider in the very center of the group. Gwen sat tall and regal in the saddle. Her face was hidden beneath the big floppy hat she wore to shield herself from the sun, and the rest of her was covered by a gray cape, but I knew what I would see when I got close enough—silky blond hair, cornflower blue eyes, and a pouty bottom lip that I had been aching to kiss. But I would not—not today anyway.
I had to practically elbow my way to her. I was determined to be the one to help her from her horse. She pulled her cape back to reveal one of those outfits with a split skirt that she was fond of. It was the same color of blue as her eyes. Strangely enough, the part of her outfit that was the most thrilling to me was the leather armor around her torso and arms to go along with the sword at her side and the quiver on her back. The women of Gilvary just did not dress this way, but I loved it.
I lifted her from the horse and brought her straight into a hug. She smelled like roses. I should not be able to recognize that scent. The truth was I had cut many of those flowers from the castle gardens and had them sent to countless girls in the past. I was trying to show that I had put those flirty ways behind me and this extended hug was not helping. I was only interested in one woman now, but I knew I would have to take it slow. To hide from my father, I had posed as Gwen’s cousin during my stay in Aisling, and sadly, I believed she really thought of me as such.
“Welcome to Gilvary. I am so glad you are here.”
“And I am glad to be here.” Judging by the huge grin on her face, I could believe it. She placed her hand on my cheek, and I could not help but to hold it there with my own.
“I see you have shaved your beard. I like it.”
“So, you think I am good-looking, do you?”
She laughed as she pulled away. “No doubt you have all of the women here falling at your feet, but you have to remember those from Aisling might have more discerning taste. Just because I like clean shaven men in general, that is not to say that your face is anything special.”
I grabbed my chest dramatically. “You wound me. If it is not my looks that made you fall in love with me, what was it?”
“Uh hmm” Whatever Gwen had been about to say died along with her laughter at the interruption.
I knew it was Arlana before I even turned to look at her. “I see our new helper has arrived. I will be happy to show her to her quarters and go over her duties now, Your Highness.”
I brought Gwen’s hand down between us but held onto it. “That will not be necessary. I am happy to show her around myself. Surely you have more important things to do, Arlana.” I knew there was more she wanted to say, but she turned and walked back into the castle with her head held high.
Gwen had a look of curiosity, but she did not say anything, and I did not try to explain. I had other things on my mind. It was my secret ambition that Gwen would make Gilvary her permanent home. I had set things up hopefully to her liking, and I wanted to be the one to reveal them to her. I anticipated studying her every reaction.
I kept her hand in mine as we made our way to the back of the castle. Servants were already ahead of us, carrying in everything she had brought with her. From the looks of things, she planned to stay for a while at least. I could not be happier at that thought.
As we came down the hallway, those carrying her things turned into her suite. Gwen made to follow, but I tugged her back to my side. “Shall we check out the infirmary first? That will give them time to clear out.” She just nodded, but her smile said more than that.
Some lost their employment here when I took over the job as ruler. That may not have boosted morale, but it was necessary. I could not be sure where everyone’s loyalties lie, but I would not have those around me whom I felt were untrustworthy.
One of the first to go had been our healer. Father had used someone here to poison Dunbar, and years ago, he had also sent a healer to murder Brianna’s father. I had no proof it was this man, but he seemed shady to me, so I had sent him packing.
He had been neglecting the infirmary for years, and it was in an appalling state when he left. I had been told that Clare Ellis had knowledge of herbs and was interested in learning the art of healing. After the infirmary had been scrubbed from top to bottom, I put her in charge of restocking it and getting everything in order. I had made it perfectly clear that it would be entirely Gwen’s decision of whether or not to take her on as an apprentice. If her enthusiasm had any bearing on Gwen, I had no doubt she would soon be on her way to that sought after position.
I opened the door right next to Gwen’s suite and ushered her in. She did not say a word, but her eyes were lit with excitement. I watched as she made her way through the room touching the beds, running her hand across the countertop, and picking up bottles from the shelf for a closer look.
“What do you think? Does it meet your standards?”
“To be honest, it is better than I expected. I had visited the infirmary here at Gilvary once before, and it had not looked like this.”
“Well, thanks to my extended stay in your own infirmary I had a clue of what you might want here, but if there is anything at all that you need or want, just let me know, and I will be more than happy to get it for you.
“If you are ready, I will take you to your chambers next door, and then I want to take you in to see Mother. I know you must be exhausted from your trip. Do not worry, I am not trying to put you to work today. I just want to introduce you for now.”
She placed her hand on my arm. “Reagan, I am fine, really. I am ashamed to say just how impatient I am to get to work. You do not know what this job means to me.”
I was eager to hear what she was about to tell me, but Clare had chosen that moment to join us. “Your Grace.” She curtsied in front of me, but her expectant gaze immediately turned toward Gwen. She never had much to say but every time I saw the girl, she had a beaming smile on her face.
“Clare, this is Miss Gwendolyn Alexander, our new healer. Gwen, this is Clare, the one I wrote you about. She is interested in becoming a healer.”
“It is nice to meet you, Clare.” Gwen reached out for a handshake, something else women did not do here in Gilvary.
Clare looked at Gwen’s hand in confusion then grabbed the tips of her fingers as she gave a little curtsy. “I am excited to meet you as well, Miss Gwendolyn.”
I rubbed my hand across my jaw to try and hide my smile. I could tell Gwen was not deceived as she looked right at me with a knowing smile of her own.
“Just call me Gwen. Reagan tells me you know a good bit about herbs.”
The whole scene was disrupted when Arlana entered. She came close and whispered, but surely everyone in the quiet room heard her.
“Prince Reagan, I came to inform you that your brother is being contained in your office. He is giving the warrior holding him a fit. Also, the advisor from Dermot is waiting to see you.”
In addition to taking over my father’s job here in the kingdom, I had also inherited the chore of taking care of my youngest brother, a job I seemed even less qualified for than ruling. I was tempted to allow the warrior to deal with him, but the advisor could not be put off. I would need to clear Rian out of my office before I could take care of business.
“Ladies, it seems I will have to leave you now. Clare, if you would, please make yourself available to show Gwen around and answer any questions she may have. Gwen, you know where your suite is, and I can introduce you to Mother later. Arlana, I need you to come with me.” I did not really need Arlana’s assistance, but I did not like the calculated look she was giving Gwen.
I was keenly disappointed that my time here had been cut short, but I had anticipated it happening. Such was my life now. I turned and left the room with my watchdog at my heels, the self-important look back on her face.
This time when I approached the castle in Gilvary, I was viewing it as my future home. It was massive compared to the one in Aisling. The gray building had been added on to so many times, there was little room for expansion within the protective barrier surrounding it. The few small trees that dotted the front garden were dressed in the beautiful colors of autumn. I loved the view of the ocean back home, but there was no relief from the constant noise of the waves crashing. Here I could enjoy the quiet peacefulness.
It was a surprise to see Reagan waiting for us out in the stables. When he pulled me into a hug I was thankful that I had taken the time to stop and freshen up right before we arrived. I had wanted to make a good impression for my first day on the job.
He seemed more affectionate than usual toward me, but it was easy to figure out. He was obviously feeling more like his old self now that he was home. He had always been a big flirt. He was very charming, and his good looks did not hurt either. No doubt more than one woman, being mesmerized by his golden brown eyes and dark features, had gladly given in to his every whim. I knew his ways, and I was determined they would have no effect on me.
He seemed anxious for my reaction about the infirmary, but I could not have been more pleased. I expected to have my work cut out for me to get everything in proper order. It had been in a gloomy state when I saw it last. I had caught a glimpse of the room on the occasion of the one time I had tried to interact with Gilvary’s healer. I never caught his name, but he had unceremoniously ordered me out of his presence. I wondered why he had left his position, but I did not ask. Whatever the reason, it had opened things up nicely for me.
I had not known what to think of Arlana. She had been in my presence twice, and we had not been introduced. She acted matronly toward Reagan, which I could tell he did not appreciate.
I turned my attention for a time to Clare. I knew from the start that I was going to like her. “So, how did you become interested in herbs?”
“I started out working in the castle gardens with my mom. I always liked the herb garden best. I loved the way they smelled, and I started noticing the way they added flavor to the food I ate. Then I learned that some of them were grown just for their medicinal purposes. I wanted to know more, and there was no one willing to teach me, so I searched the library. I found several old manuscripts and started my own study. I’m excited that I might be able to take that knowledge further.” She had been very animated while she spoke on the subject, and her enthusiasm was contagious.
“I would love for you to show me those books sometime. I have no doubt you can teach me a thing or two. I can tell we will get along just fine, and I have no problem taking you on as an apprentice. By no means do I know everything about medicine, but I will gladly share the knowledge I do have.”
The smile on her round face grew even bigger. “Really? Oh, I’m so happy to hear that. What are we going to do first? What am I saying? You just got here. You must be exhausted. Have you even had dinner yet?”
I laughed a little as I held my hand up. “Slow down. No, I have not had dinner, but I would like to change out of my riding gear first. What about you, have you eaten yet?”
“Sorry, I’m just so excited. I was so nervous about meeting you that I haven’t had a bite all day. Would you like for me to wait so we can go together?”
“Would you? That would be wonderful. I hate eating alone. Just allow me to step next door and change. I will not be long.”
I hurried next door to my bedchamber. I loved the fact that I would be close to the infirmary here. It took a lot to surprise me, but I did not think I had ever been as shocked as I was when I walked through the door to my room.
I had expected a small bedchamber with only the bare essentials. I stepped into an elaborately decorated suite of rooms, much like the ones reserved for royalty. The only difference was every other room I had seen in this castle had been decorated in dull earth tone colors, and this one seemed to be a beautiful blend of earth and sea, Gilvary and Aisling.
The plastered walls had been painted a warm chocolate brown and were dotted with watercolor paintings of the Moya Ocean. The gray floors were mostly covered with a variety of muted-blue woven rugs throughout the suite. I had entered into the sitting room with a couch and matching chair in a navy print on one side with an end table between. The table held an elegant vase filled with every color of roses imaginable. A tangerine colored lounge sat on the other side of the room next to a small bookcase. It was hard to resist perusing the book titles, but I did not want to keep Clare waiting.
I hurried on through to the bedchamber to find a large teak four-poster bed covered with a navy and white star quilt. There was another vase of roses sitting on the dressing table, perfuming the whole room. The private bathing chamber in the back of the suite had a claw foot tub that I could not wait to try out.
I finally found my trunks in the closet adjacent to the bathing chamber. My clothes had already been put away. I did a quick check for the one small trunk containing my valuables. The lock was still attached, and the key hung on a chain around my neck. I would have to wait until later to really appreciate everything about my new chambers. I quickly slipped on more comfortable clothing and met Clare back in the infirmary.
Over dinner I learned that my new apprentice was sixteen years old, she was the middle child of seven children who all worked in the castle with their parents, and she had never had a beau. She had quite a few negative things to say about her looks which probably had more to do with turning boys away than anything. Her brown hair and eyes were unremarkable, and she was shorter than average and slightly on the plump side, but she was by no means unattractive. With enough confidence, any girl could find a mate if that was her heart’s desire.
I had not seen Reagan since we had parted, so I asked her to take me to the queen after we finished eating. I was anxious to get down to the business that had brought me here.
Clare stopped short of the ornate door with the guard standing by it. “There is the door to the royal chambers, and this is as far as I can take you. Everyone knows you do not enter through that door unless you are invited or commanded to do so.”
I hesitated for a moment. “The main purpose in Reagan asking me to come to Gilvary is to take care of Queen Finelle. I would say that counts as an invitation.”
She backed up a step with a stubborn set to her jaw that let me know she would not be accompanying me. Something about my countenance always made people believe me to be brave, but in truth, my heart was hammering with indecision. The guard only nodded as I stated my intentions. I reached up and knocked firmly on the door. After a minute when no one answered, I checked the door knob to find it was unlocked. After one last look at Clare, I opened the door and went in.
I had never visited this suite before, and it was nothing like I imagined it to be. The drab colors I had seen in other parts of the castle were present here as well, but I had not expected to see hunting-scene tapestries and stuffed animal trophies hanging from every wall. I immediately got the impression that there were many more chambers in this suite than any I had been in before.
“You know better than to knock on the door. What has gotten into you, Girl?”
That last word died in the throat of the haggard looking woman who had just emerged from the hallway within the suite. She was wearing a simple work dress that looked as if it had been slept in, and most of her gray-streaked hair had left its bun. She looked somewhat familiar, but I had only visited Gilvary once every eighteen months, it was hard to keep up with everyone here.
“Sorry Miss, I thought you were someone else. Are you lost? I would be glad to help you find your way.”
She may have been trying to sound helpful, but the suspicion was obvious in the squint of her eyes and her pursed lips. I guess it was no wonder with everything that had happened here recently. Reagan had mentioned a concern with the possibility of someone trying to do his mother harm.
“I am Gwen Alexander. Reagan hired me to take over the position of healer here at the castle. I came to see about Queen Finelle.”
“Reagan, ay? I was told to expect your presence. I just didn’t think it would be today. Well, follow me then.” She motioned with her hand as she turned to head back down the hallway.
We entered through the first open doorway. The style of this room was the same as I had already seen. The most significant feature was the sheer size of the bed in the middle of the room. It was certainly the largest I had ever seen, and it dwarfed its occupant, making Queen Finelle appear smaller than she really was. As I got closer, I realized that was not the case at all.
“Your Highness, the healer your son sent for has arrived. Her name is Gwen. She’s here to make you well again.”
I walked over to stand at the edge of the bed, and I hoped the shock did not show on my face. Gone was the beautiful queen I had once admired. I had just seen her this past June, and now she was almost unrecognizable. She still had the same pale green eyes, but they looked too big for her sunken face. She had always looked stately, but in her current condition, she was frail and sickly looking.
“You are her friend. Queen Brianna’s friend, I mean.”
I curtsied. “Yes, Your Highness, I am.”
I did not know what else to say. Maybe seeing me as a friend to the queen of Aisling made her doubt my skills as a healer, but I could hardly recommend myself. I would just have to do my best and hope it was enough.
“She took him from me, you know.” I was taken aback for a moment.
“Had you never considered the possibility that King Garrett would one day move from Gilvary, My Lady?”
“I was not speaking of Garrett.” She turned back toward the window without saying another word.
“Do you mind if I examine you?”
She would not look at me again, but she did lift her shoulder in what I took for a shrug. I checked her pulse to find it weak. I did not feel anything unusual when I pressed around on her abdomen. I asked if she was hurting, and she did not respond. Honestly, I could not find anything to explain her physical decline. Gilvary’s original healer had blamed it on her mental state, and I hated to agree with him.
She had been the one to take her husband’s life. When Brianna had shown up here in Gilvary looking for Garrett, King Coman had as much as admitted to his wicked deeds involving their sons. In a fit of passion, Queen Finelle had executed him for his crimes. The question was, if she was holding Brianna accountable for the demise of her husband, why was she lying here grieving herself to death?
“Poor thing. This is all that’s left for her now.”
I turned to look at the forgotten servant. “When is the last time she had anything to eat?”
“We don’t usually bring food in unless she asks for it. She hasn’t eaten anything since last night, but she did say she was hungry a little while ago. I sent for some soup, which hasn’t gotten here yet. I thought you were the tyke I had set to the task when you arrived earlier. Ah, here she is now. What took you so long?”
Just then a small girl walked slowly through the door, trying not to spill the bowl of soup on her tray. “I had to wait on Glynis to make it.”
The child did not look to be more than six or seven years old. Surely she had not carried the heavy tray the whole way here. I had to remind myself that it was none of my concern. I took the tray from her as I thanked her and sat it on the end table next to the bed.
“Queen Finelle, here is some lovely potato soup. Would you like for me to help you sit up?”
She did not respond. She just continued to look toward the window, completely ignoring me. Maybe it was because she did not know me, or maybe she did not respond because she connected me to Brianna. Hopefully in time she would become more comfortable in my presence.
When I turned back, the servant was still sitting there, but the little girl was nowhere to be seen. “I am sorry, I do not recall you telling me your name.”
“You didn’t ask. It is Edina. I used to help take care of the children, but they can no longer be called that. Prince Reagan asked me to help look after the queen, and I said I would.”
My first thought was to tell her that Rian was still a child, but I realized here again, it was none of my concern. “See if you can get her to eat after I am gone. I want food brought in five times a day. It does not have to be a large amount, but I want something made available whether Queen Finelle decides to eat it or not.”
She crossed her arms and looked at me askance. “I’m not in charge of the food. You’ll need to take that up with the cook.”
“Forgive me, I am not here to give orders. I think Reagan will agree that it is in the best interest of his mother. I will speak to him about it the next time I see him, and he can dole out instructions as he sees fit.”
“Don’t go threatening me with Reagan. I used to change his dirty behind.”
“Is that so? Well then, I will leave you to your duties.” I did not wait for her to respond. I walked out the door to the sound of her grumbling behind me.
I had not meant to offend her, but it was obvious that she intended to take it as such. Maybe I would have to pay for walking out on her, but I would not be the one to let her know about it. I was not sure she was the right person to be taking care of Queen Finelle. I guess if Reagan trusted her, then I would have to do the same.
Arlana was in the infirmary when I got back. She was thumbing through an old journal. I had not had a chance to look at it myself, but I could guess it contained records of patients’ histories. I introduced myself as I reached for the book, closed it, and placed it back on the shelf with similar journals.
Her face turned red with anger while I tried to act as if nothing was amiss. “I know who you are, and I have already witnessed your disrespectful nature. The important thing is for you to know who I am. My name is Arlana Kelly. I am the castle stewardess. I can see I need to set you straight on a few things. You should know the only one with more authority in Gilvary than me is Prince Reagan.”
“What about Queen Finelle?” I knew it was the wrong thing to say, but I could not help myself.
Several things came to mind. For one, she could rightfully say that I was disrespectful after this meeting, but I did not remember displaying this trait before now. Secondly, I could not imagine my father making this claim of authority. And what about the rest of Reagan’s family and his advisors? Would they not also have more power than this woman?
She blared her dark eyes at me. Her nostrils flared, and her lips were pressed into a thin line. The image of a bull came to mind, and it was all I could do to keep from laughing.
“How is it that you show respect to our queen but you have not addressed Prince Reagan in a proper manner since you arrived here? Everyone in the castle is talking about how you practically threw yourself at him, hugging him, and holding his hand. I know Aisling is not as civilized, but I would think a servant like you would have been taught how to react to royalty.
“Let me guess, you have grand dreams of becoming a princess. If that is the case then let me warn you, I will never allow that to happen. Do I make myself clear on the subject?”
I walked over and stood by the door. “You have made yourself perfectly clear. Now if you could see yourself out, I have plenty of work to do, and I am anxious to get started.”
She stood there staring at me for a full minute before leaving. I was careful to keep my face devoid of all emotion until I closed the door behind her. She could not be further from the truth in thinking I wanted to become a princess, especially one who would most likely end up being a queen. I came here to carry out the post of healer and nothing more.
She had been right about one thing. I had not addressed Reagan correctly since I had arrived. Things had been so familiar between us in Aisling, I had forgotten myself. I had only been in Gilvary a few short hours, and I had already managed to make two enemies. I would have to tread carefully in the future.
Colossians 3:22-25 came to my mind, pricking my heart with the way I had dealt with Gilvary’s stewardess. I was a servant here, and the Bible was very clear on my position. My stubborn nature had gotten me into trouble more than once in my lifetime. These were some of the first verses my father had taught me to memorize as a child, and he had been known to make me recite them during times like this. I would try to keep his teachings in mind at the beginning of any future encounters with Arlana.