About the book
Truly, there is magic in fairytales. And in her eyes, he found his own...
For as long as Marybeth Wright could remember, the imposing ruins of the ancient castle had always been a place of comfort. With knowledge of herbs and a small cottage passed down to her from her late grandmother, she spends her days in the quiet seclusion of the woods.
For Felix Hulford, Duke of Arkley, curing his ailing mother is his life’s purpose. Growing increasingly desperate, he decides to enlist the help of the old sage of the forest, only to discover that there’s nothing old about the striking healer that appears before him.
But she seems to be carrying a curse, for her arrival triggers a series of baffling happenings. Determined to discover who is behind the attacks on his sick mother, Marybeth and Felix come face to face with their worst fears.
And it all seems to be connected to Marybeth’s parentage and Blackleigh Castle’s fabled treasure…
A dark feminine figure raced through the forest clutching a cloth wrapped bundle to her chest. She looked backward over her shoulder for her pursuers, stumbling in the darkness. The sound of clanking metal echoed through the trees. She scrambled back to her feet and took off running once more. She ran until she came to a clearing. In the distance she could just make out the ruins of an old hill fortress.
“Blackleigh Castle,” she whispered into the night.
The sound of approaching horses spurred her into action once more and she flew across the grassy knoll into the castle. She stumbled over fallen stones as she felt her way through the keep’s dark interior. “The witch is in the castle!” A man’s rough voice shouted to his compatriots at the base of the hill.
She moved silently from room to room until she found a loose stone. Removing the stone, she shoved her bundle inside, crossed herself in prayer, and replaced the stone. Heavy footsteps echoed off of the castle’s stone interior causing fear to quicken her heart once more.
Gathering her skirts, she continued to move through the fortress’ many rooms until she reached a set of stairs. She climbed swiftly to the top and looked down over the side of the tower at the men and horses milling about below. “Ye are good and truly trapped now witch,” a sinister voice from behind her sneered in victory. “I will now possess ye body and soul.” He moved toward her, the moonlight glinting in his coal black eyes.
“My body may be trapped, My Lord, but ye shall never possess my soul!” she proclaimed climbing up onto the edge of the parapet.
“Ye would do well to climb back down from there witch. There is no need for the Devil to have ye in his embrace just yet. We have much to discuss me and thee,” the man stepped forward holding his hand out to her. The gleam of triumph in his eyes waning somewhat as he realized her intentions. “Where is it witch? What have ye done with it?”
“Ye will never have it, just as ye will never have me,” she promised.
“To sacrifice yourself in such a fashion will be for naught. For I shall find what I seek, with or without your assistance. I will tear this castle apart piece by piece, stone by stone,” he threatened.
The woman shook her head. “Neither ye, nor your progeny, will ever find that which ye seek. Ye will search and search, yet never find peace. Ye will leave naught but the same to your sons and their sons and their sons, but triumph will never be yours!”
“How dare ye lay a curse upon me, Witch! After I have used your body up for my own pleasures until there is nothing left of ye but a ghost, I will skin the flesh from your bones and feed it to my dogs!”
She laughed, the wind whipping her hair about her face in riotous tendrils of silken ebony. “Do ye believe that the threat of violating my corpse will frighten me into doing your bidding? What do I care if ye use me thus? This body is naught but a vessel, an empty shell for the soul.”
“The Devil take ye!” the man exclaimed crossing himself at her brazen sacrilegious speech. “I will have what is mine!”
“Nay, ye will not, but ‘tis likely that ye will die in the trying. The Devil and I will anxiously await your arrival in Hell, My Lord,” she chuckled bowing with a flourish. And with that she took a step backwards into the night.
“Nay!” the man shouted rushing forward to stop her, but he was too late. He could do naught but watch as she plummeted to the earth below, her hair and clothing billowing in the wind like raven’s wings, her curse hanging in the air where she had once stood. The sound of her body hitting the ground below echoed back up to him from the base of the tower’s stone wall exterior. “Nay,” he spoke out in denial once more.
The wind howled in fury at the passing of its chosen lady, screaming through the stone ruins as if it bore upon its power the spirit of vengeance. A cold shiver passed along the man’s spine as her curse whispered along his skin. Never…
Felix Hulford, Duke of Arkley, sat at his mother’s bedside holding her hand. The doctor snapped his black leather bag shut, a solemn look on his face. “I regret to inform Your Grace, but in my professional opinion your mother is dying of a broken heart.”
“A broken heart? What nonsense is this?” Felix retorted angrily, questioning the physician’s diagnosis.
“’Tis not uncommon among the weaker sex upon the loss of a beloved husband,” the doctor asserted.
“What, Doctor, possesses you with the audacity to believe that my mother could in any way be described as a member of the ‘weaker sex’? You are speaking of Eleanor Hulford, Dowager Duchess of Arkley, a beloved favorite cousin of His Majesty the King and His Royal Highness the Prince Regent. You will speak with the respect that her station and familial connections dictate. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, of course, Your Grace. Please forgive my impertinence.” The doctor bowed in humble surrender.
The Dowager Duchess leaned forward and laid a hand on her son’s arm. “His Grace, my son, is simply worried. We have seen a great many physicians in the hope of a cure, and none have been able to offer a diagnosis. You are the best in your field, are you not, Doctor Standish?”
“That I am, Your Grace.”
“All we ask is that you do your very best. If you are not up to the task all you need do is say so.” The Duchess offered the challenge with a gentleness that belied her words.
“I assure you, Your Grace, that I am indeed up to the task and shall not rest until we have reached a desired conclusion.”
“Thank you, Doctor.” The Dowager Duchess nodded gracefully, leaning back against her pillows once more.
The Dowager Duchess had been suffering from painful swollen knees, irritating skin rashes, terrible headaches, burning fevers, never-ending fatigue, and at times fell into a temporary state of paralysis. The first time that her body had ceased to function properly had frightened the both of them immeasurably. She had collapsed and fallen down the stairs nearly breaking her neck.
It had all started with the rash, then the fever, then the headaches. The swelling had come next and after it the paralysis. They had seen every doctor within a reasonable distance of the estate. Doctor Standish was a well-respected physician from London and had come highly recommended by the King’s own personal physician. Somewhat unorthodox in his methods, Doctor Standish was well praised for his results.
After standing in thought for a moment, the doctor turned and pulled a wooden cylindrical device from his bag. He placed the device against the Dowager Duchess’ chest. “Doctor Standish?” Felix questioned eyeing the odd contraption.
“Forgive me, Your Grace. This is a new invention by a friend of mine, René Laennec, a physician at the Necker-Enfants Malades Hospital in Paris. It is used for mediate auscultation.” The Dowager Duchess raised her brow in question. “Excuse me, Your Grace, I sometimes forget that I am not speaking with my fellow physicians. It is used to listen to the inner workings of the body, the heart, the lungs, the liver. He calls it a stethoscope.” He extended it to Felix to examine.
“How does it work?” Felix stepped forward taking the proffered instrument. “Does it amplify sound such as an ear trumpet?”
“Yes, that is very much the idea, Your Grace.” The doctor smiled, pleased at the Duke’s intelligence.
“Marvelous!” Felix moved over to the doctor. “May I?” he asked gesturing toward the man’s chest.
“Yes, of course, Your Grace.” The doctor puffed his chest out for easier access.
Felix held the stethoscope up to the physician’s chest and placed his ear on the other end. The doctor’s heart beat true and steady. “Positively marvelous,” he murmured. “Mother you must hear this.” He moved over to his mother’s bedside and held the stethoscope up to his own chest then leaned down so that she might place her ear to the device.
The Dowager Duchess’ eyes widened in surprise. She smiled in delight. “How inventive!”
“Indeed,” Doctor Standish agreed. “Doctor Laennec is exactly that. He sent it to me in his last post.”
“We had heard that you were quite unorthodox and now I see why. I am pleased at your willingness to consider alternative methods; however, I must admit to being quite surprised at your previous diagnosis when you are so advanced in your methodology.”
“My apologies, Your Grace. I fear it is the only one I can give you at this time, but I will not rest until I supply you with a better, more precise alternative. I fear there is still much we do not know in the field of medicine.”
Felix nodded and handed the doctor back his stethoscope. The physician moved forward and began a second more thorough examination of the Dowager Duchess’ person. Felix knew from past experience that male doctors were hesitant to examine female patients in any truly invasive manner as it was deemed inappropriate, but he and his mother had long since passed the point of caring about such indelicacies. They simply desired a cure above all else, societal strictures be damned.
Once the doctor completed his second examination, he put away his instruments and stood just as solemnly as before. “I have nothing new that I can tell you, Your Grace. I have no other diagnosis to offer. It is clear that Her Grace’s health is failing, and I cannot be certain how much time she has left, but it is my advice that you prepare yourselves for the worst. I have not known of very many other cases such as this, but in each one I regret to report that they did not survive.”
Felix and the Dowager Duchess exchanged a look of knowing sorrow. “That my good doctor is unacceptable to me.”
“As it is to me, Your Grace.” Doctor Standish bowed. “I will do all I can, but I am certain that it will not be enough. I encourage you to keep looking for a cure; however, it is highly unlikely that you will find one. I will go to London and consult with my fellow physicians, then return to Arkley Hall to look in on you upon the morrow.”
Felix nodded and arose to escort the doctor to the bedchamber door where the butler, Mr. Wheatly, awaited to take him the rest of the way. The Dowager Duchess’ lady’s maid, Mrs. Snow, entered the room and aided in putting Her Grace’s person in order once more. Felix stepped out to give his mother some privacy and walked down to the library. He sat down behind his desk and stared out the window in thought.
There must be something more we can do. I will not accept defeat, not now, not ever.
Pulling out several pieces of paper he wrote missives to the remaining doctors on their list. They were not the best in the field by any standard, which was why he had not written them as of yet, but desperation made allowances for unconventional means. Perhaps they would have knowledge or experience that had passed by their better-known colleagues. At this point he was willing to try anything. When he was done writing letters, he arose and called for the butler.
“Yes, Your Grace?” Mr. Wheatly inquired as he entered.
“Please see that these letters are delivered to London straight away. We cannot afford to lose any more time. We will simply summon them en masse. Please see that a groom is dispatched immediately.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” Mr. Wheatly bowed, took the letters, and left to do as bid.
Felix sighed and raked his fingers through his dark wavy hair. “Not that any of it will do much good,” he mumbled knowing that a lesser physician was even more unlikely to have an answer, but he could not afford to leave any option unexplored. Leaving the library, he climbed the stairs two at a time and entered the Dowager Duchess’ bedchamber once more. “Mother?” he questioned.
“Yes, I am awake,” she answered, opening her eyes.
“I am sorry to disturb you. I can come back later.”
“Nonsense, you are not disturbing me at all. I was simply going over the options that remain to us in my mind. There are very few I fear.”
“I was doing the same and have sent out another series of letters to physicians in London.”
“I hate to see you throwing away good money for ineffectual treatments and diagnoses.”
“It is nothing. A paltry sum. Worry yourself not over such matters, Mother. ‘Tis not good for you to worry so.”
“Ah, but I do. So much falls on your shoulders, my son. It would ease my mind considerably if you were to have a helpmeet at your side. Have you given any more thought about our last discussion on the subject?”
“Paying court to Lady Cordelia Weatherton?”
“Yes, I would be ever so relieved to see you settled in a good marriage before I depart this earth. At least then I would be assured that you were being looked after. We all need a companion in life, Felix. I had your father. Lady Cordelia Weatherton would be the perfect wife for a nobleman of your standing. The Weatherton family are of a strong and ancient bloodline.”
“Mother I have no interest at all in marriage, ancient bloodline or otherwise. My primary concern right now is your return to good health. Naught else matters to me. There is plenty of time for such frivolous matters as marriage later.”
“Marriage is not frivolous, Felix. It is absolutely necessary for a man of your station as you well know.”
“Yes, Mother, I am aware.”
“Do you not wish to see me happy in my last days?” The Dowager Duchess asked, her beautiful green eyes, a mirror of his own, turning sad and troubled.
“Of course, I do.” Felix frowned at such a question.
“Then marry.” Her eyes pleaded for him to take her request seriously.
Closing his eyes, he pressed his fingers to his temple. “I will consider your request to court Lady Cordelia Weatherton, but I cannot make any promises as to marriage.”
“That is all I ask, my son, is that you make the attempt.”
Felix nodded, then bent down to kiss her forehead. The Dowager Duchess looked so pale as she lay among the long dark curling tendrils of her hair and the stark white of the bed linens. He traced the tired drawn features of her face remembering a time when she had been healthy, her cheeks full and rosy. Looking at his mother was like looking at his own reflection only in the feminine. Felix had gotten his tall height and muscular build from his father, but his looks and coloring were all his mother.
“I will leave you to rest for now, but later we should go and sit in the gardens together. The roses are in full bloom and are lovelier than ever this season. A more beautiful collection I have yet to see.” He praised his mother’s gardening endeavors in hopes that it might inspire her to continue fighting the good fight. She had been an avid gardener before the mysterious illness had robbed her of such joys. “I will have the men move your chaise lounge out onto the grounds for luncheon.”
“That would be lovely indeed, my dear. Thank you,” the Dowager Duchess agreed. “Until then I believe I will take your advice and rest.”
Felix nodded his approval, bowed over her hand in affectionate respect, then left the room. Leaving the manor house, he strolled down to the stables, had his horse saddled, then rode out into the forest. He was in desperate need of exercise to clear his head. Lady Cordelia Weatherton… he shook his head in displeasure. He had danced with her at the last ball of the Season and since then his mother had desired their pairing.
It wasn’t that Lady Cordelia was unattractive, in fact she was quite pretty with her golden blonde curls and cornflower blue eyes, but she was not very bright or kind. Unlike most men of the age, Felix preferred his female companions to be intelligent. He supposed he had been spoiled for all other women by the fact that his mother, and her mother before her, had been of decidedly superior intellect. His father had adored them for it and so too did Felix.
When the Duke had died, he had left an enormous hole in their lives, but Felix and his mother had banded together to survive the loss. He could not imagine surviving her death as well.
I do so long to see her happy and contented, but must it be with the Weathertons?
The Weathertons were a snobbish bunch, not unlike most others of their station. Lady Cordelia’s brother, Bernard Weatherton, the Earl of Bredon, was the head of the family after the death of their father the year before. I suppose if I am to do as Mother has asked, I will need to invite them over for tea or luncheon. He despised such social niceties with people of his own class, finding the working classes so much more interesting. Most people of his own station bored him.
Felix’s thoughts turned back to more pressing matters. He rode for a time thinking of what possible methods of treatment he might have overlooked or that had been missed. He thought of taking his mother out of England and traveling the world to consult the various medical practitioners in the East, but he was not at all certain that her health would permit such strenuous activity as travel. It was more likely that she would not survive the journey, then it was that they would find a cure.
Returning to the stables he was met by his favorite groom, Oliver Singer. “Did you have a pleasant ride, Your Grace?” Oliver inquired taking the horse’s reins so that his master might dismount.
“As pleasant as can be expected given the circumstances,” Felix answered, beating the dust from his clothing.
“How is Her Grace, if you don’t mind me asking?” Oliver led the horse into one of the stalls, unsaddled it, and began brushing it down.
Felix sighed and took a seat on the edge of a wooden trough. “It is not at all good, Oliver. There is a strong possibility that if we do not find a cure, and soon, the Dowager Duchess will not live to see Christmastide.”
“Say it isn’t so, Your Grace,” Oliver stopped brushing mid stroke, his face drawn in lines of concern.
“It is, I am afraid. I wish it were not, but we are running out of time.”
“The doctors…” Oliver began, but was cut short by a shake of Felix’s head.
“Nay, the doctors know nothing of what plagues her. They offer no hope.”
“’Tis sorrowed I am to hear it, Your Grace. Her Grace has been nothing but kindness itself to me since I was but a lad. We are all quite fond of her in the servants’ quarters.”
“As she is fond of all of you,” Felix answered with a smile. He couldn’t count the number of times that he had caught his mother spoiling the servants’ children with some treat or another.
“Please pass along our sincerest regards and let Her Grace know that we will be praying for her.”
“I will, Oliver. Thank you.”
“Not at all, Your Grace.” Oliver continued his brushing, while Felix stood to leave the stables. “Your Grace?” Oliver’s voice called after his retreating back.
“Yes?” Felix asked turning back toward the stall.
“If I might make a suggestion, Your Grace?”
“Go on,” Felix instructed.
“My mother used to swear by the old woman who lived alone out in the woods. She was a healer of sorts. Perhaps…”
“It is unlikely that a mere peddler of herbs would be able to offer aid, where the most highly educated of physicians have failed, Oliver.”
“I am sure that is so, Your Grace.” Oliver paused in his task once more to meet Felix’s eyes. “But what harm would there be in the trying?”
Felix stood and studied the groom’s face for a time and then nodded slowly. “I will give your words some thought, Oliver. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.”
“Of course, Your Grace.”
“I will speak with Her Grace and if she gives her consent to speak with the healer you will go and fetch her. Agreed?”
“Agreed.” Oliver nodded his assent.
Smiling in appreciation for the groom’s thoughtfulness, Felix turned and reentered the manor house. Climbing the stairs, he entered the Dowager Duchess’ bedchamber to find her in a worse state then when he had left her. “I am sorry, Felix, but I do not think I can join you in the rose garden for luncheon today,” she whispered weakly. She was barely able to lift her head to speak with him.
“There is nothing to be sorry for, Mother. The roses will still be there tomorrow. It is I who am sorry that you are feeling worse than before. I know these doctors’ visits tire you. If only I could give you the strength of my own body, I would do so gladly without hesitation.”
“I know you would, my son, and I love you all the more for your selflessness and compassion. There is not a prouder mother in all of England.”
Felix sat down on the edge of the bed and took his mother’s hand in his. “Oliver Singer, the groom from the stables, has made a suggestion.”
“Oliver is such a kind young man. What did he have to say?”
“He has recommended that we consult an old healer woman who lives in the forest not far from here. He claims that his sainted mother swore by the old woman’s healing powers.” Mrs. Singer had been their head housekeeper for many years until she had died of breast cancer while under the surgeon’s knife. She had been replaced by Mrs. Taylor, who served them still.
“Mrs. Singer, poor soul, I do so miss her smiling face about the house.” The Dowager Duchess sighed sorrowfully.
“It has its risks does it not consorting with such women?” Felix asked, concerned.
“Yes, but no more than what I have already suffered. I believe it to be worth it, my son. Could you possibly arrange such a meeting on my behalf? Perhaps after we have finished consulting with Doctor Standish and his colleagues. I would not wish to insult the good doctor.”
“Of course, Mother. Anything you wish, simply ask and it shall be done.”
“You know what it is I want, Felix.”
“Yes, Mother, I do. I have given your request some thought, and I will invite the Weathertons to luncheon next week.”
“Tomorrow, Felix,” the Dowager Duchess firmly demanded.
“So soon?” he asked, uncertain that he wished to begin his courtship on the same day as one of his mother’s doctor’s visits.
“Yes, the sooner the better, my dear. We do not know how much time I have left, and I wish to see you settled before I go.”
Felix brushed the hair back from her face. “I will send an invite to the Earl of Bredon to attend luncheon upon the morrow. For now, I will go and inform Oliver of our desire to see his healer. We will see what can be done, though I am not certain what good a few chants and a bag of herbs will be able to accomplish that all the best doctors in England could not.”
“We will not know unless we try, my son.”
“I will do whatever it takes to save you, Mother, no matter what that might be. If this woman can truly help you, then we will arrange for her to move into the manor house to attend you at all times. If she cannot, then I think we should begin considering bringing in some of the doctors that Uncle Edmond has written to us about from the east.”
The Dowager Duchess’ half-brother, Edmond Hargreaves, was a military officer on the Indian subcontinent. He had written many letters on the topic of medical inquiries he had made on his sister’s behalf. In his last letter he had written that, ‘If you cannot travel to India, my dear sweet sister, then India shall most certainly be forced to make the journey to you. Simply say the word and I will inundate you with the mysteries of eastern medicine.’ Felix was to the point of desperation that he was willing to try anything.
“Agreed.” His mother wearily nodded her assent and then faded off to sleep.
For a moment Felix grew concerned when it appeared as if she were no longer breathing, but then her chest rose and fell allowing him to relax. Relieved, he stood, kissed her head, pulled the blankets up under her chin, and left the room. Her lady’s maid entered and sat down in the corner to keep watch over her mistress. “Guard her well, Mrs. Snow.”
“Always, Your Grace.”
Felix stepped into the library to jot down a note, then left the house to return to the stables. “Oliver,” he called out into the shadowed interior.
“Yes, Your Grace,” Oliver’s voice called down from the hay loft above. His face peered down at Felix from the hole in the ceiling, his dark hair flopping over his forehead sprinkling loose bits of straw into his dark brown eyes. Were the matter not so serious, Felix might have laughed at the comical sight the groom made. “We have decided to give your healer a try. Please arrange for her to come and see Mother next week if it can be managed.”
“I will leave right away, Your Grace.”
“Thank you, Oliver, but there is no need to rush. As I said, later next week will do nicely.” Felix turned to go but hesitated when he heard a feminine giggle from overhead.
“Shh, Betty,” Oliver’s voice cautioned in a loud whisper.
Felix smiled and continued walking. It appeared that taming horses was not the only thing that Oliver was good at, apparently, he was quite good with the taming of young kitchen maids as well. Cheeky rascal, Felix chuckled. He envied the young groom his carefree nature, but death had a way of maturing a man whether he wished it or not.
Oh, Father, why did you have to leave us so soon? Thoughts of his father’s death caused his mind to turn back to Doctor Standish’s diagnosis. Dying of a broken heart indeed, what nonsense! As if such a thing were even possible.
Leaving the stables, Felix walked over to his workshop. Unusual for a man of his social station, he had always enjoyed working with his hands to build things. When his mother had become ill, he had spent many hours in his workshop inventing or improving upon various items to make her life easier and more enjoyable.
Currently Felix was working on creating an invalid’s chair with wheels, much like that which had been made for King Philip II of Spain in 1595, only much more comfortable. He was also working on a three wheeled Bath chair in order to make it easier for her to take in the healing waters at Bath upon their next visit. The work soothed his troubled mind and gave him a sense of purpose and control over the heartrendingly helpless situation they found themselves in. Discarding his jacket, he rolled up his sleeves and set to work.
The next day Doctor Standish returned, but had little more to say then he had before. When he was done, Felix thanked him for his service and sent him on his way. Disheartened and discouraged, he paced the library floor until the Weatherton’s carriage pulled up in front of the house. The Earl and his sister, Lady Cordelia, disembarked. Felix could see them assessing the house and grounds from where he stood at the window.
Assessing my worth, no doubt, he thought bitterly. Squaring his shoulders, he exited the library and went to meet his guests in the hall. The next several hours were spent in mundane conversation, insincere flattery, and mind-numbing tedium. To please his mother, he invited them to return for a picnic on the following day. They accepted and so his courtship of Lady Cordelia Weatherton was underway.
The following week was spent in doctor’s visits from London and various social engagements with the Weathertons. After one particularly odious conversation with his guests, wherein the Earl made it quite clear that he expected Felix to marry his sister, Felix escaped to his workshop immediately upon their departure. Unfortunately, the Earl is right. I do need to marry and soon if I am to do so before Mother passes on. How she longs to see her grandchildren before she goes.
His mother’s health had continued to fade with each passing day, and he had no way of knowing how much longer she would be able to bear the misery her life had become. He poured his fear and frustration into his work with the intention of finishing both wheeled chairs. If he were to wed soon, he would not have the time to finish them later.
Several hours passed as Felix put the finishing touches on his work. He was just about to tighten the last bolt when he was brought up short by a terror-stricken scream from inside of the house. Dropping his tools, he ran for the house to find his mother’s lady’s maid white as a sheet and shaking at the foot of the stairs. She was out of breath from running and quite near to fainting. Her voice trembled as she cried out in fright, “Witch! There is a witch putting a curse on my lady!”
Marybeth Wright stood in the middle of her grandmother’s old dovecot and smiled. She loved the dilapidated ruins at Blackleigh Castle where she had spent many happy days as a child. The local inhabitants of the countryside believed the ancient stone edifice to be haunted, but that did not bother Marybeth in the slightest. She had loved her grandmother’s stories of the Witch of Blackleigh and the hidden treasure that supposedly resided within.
The castle had been built shortly after the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066. It had weathered many an attack and had eventually been abandoned in favor of a newer castle some distance away. Blackleigh was then converted into a monastery for a brief time, before being abandoned permanently sometime during the latter part of the medieval period. Though the ruins were now part of the Duke of Arkley’s estate, Marybeth’s grandmother had used it as her own personal possession.
Gathering a handful of wheat from her bag, Marybeth tossed the grains onto the stone floor. A flurry of grey and white wings descended around her as a myriad of pigeons scurried to peck at the food upon the ground. Marybeth grinned with delight at the warbling coo of the birds, as males strutted and danced about attempting to draw the attention of the females. Pigeons were her favorite animal in all the world. They were clever and loyal, mating for life. Sometimes she preferred them to people.
She lived in an old cottage left to her by her grandmother. Her mother had died in childbirth, never revealing who the father of her child was. Marybeth was raised by her maternal grandmother, Abigail Wright, the so-called witch of the forest. Her life was a solitary existence with very little interaction outside of her grandmother and her dearest friend Oliver Singer who worked on the estate at the stables, with the occasional foray into the village. People were frightened of her grandmother and that fear had extended to Marybeth as well.
Hearing hoofbeats, Marybeth peered out of the dovecot to find Oliver entering the clearing. “Marybeth!” he called jumping from the horse’s back before it had a chance to stop moving. “Marybeth!”
“Oliver, this is an unexpected surprise,” she answered stepping out of the doorway. “I was not expecting you until tomorrow. Have you brought me more books to read from the village?” She had read everything she could get her hands on since she was quite small sitting upon her grandmother’s knee. Her grandmother had provided her with an education that would have rivaled that of the greatest houses in Europe, just as her mother had for her, and her mother before her.
“No, not this time,” Oliver shook his head regretfully.
Marybeth and Oliver had been friends since they were children. They had met while exploring the castle ruins. Oliver had been on a dare from the other estate children to test his bravery. Marybeth had been feeding her grandmother’s birds and had nearly scared him out of his senses. He had thought that she was the fabled Witch of Blackleigh and had run screaming from the ruins until Marybeth had caught up with him and explained that she was not as he had feared.
“The Dowager Duchess is in need of your grandmother’s healing skills, but when I went by the cottage, I did not find anyone home so I knew that you would be here. Is your grandmother about?” Oliver explained coming over to embrace her affectionately.
“Grandmother passed away the night before last. I buried her myself in the forest.”
“Oh, Marybeth, I am so very sorry. Why did you not come for me?”
“It was my grandmother’s wish to be buried in the old ways. I did not wish to bother your Christian conscience with the question of morality concerning burial outside of consecrated ground.”
“It would not have bothered me one jot. I hate the idea of you going through such a terrible loss out here on your own.”
“I am well, Oliver. I promise you, that I am indeed well. Grandmother had been preparing me for her demise for some time. It was not a surprise in the least to awaken and find her gone. Sad, certainly, but not surprising.”
“I am so very sorry to have to ask this of you given the circumstances of your recent loss, Marybeth, but the Dowager Duchess is in desperate need of your healing herbs.”
“The Dowager Duchess?” Marybeth asked in confusion. She could not imagine a lady of such noble birth requesting the presence of a wild healer when she had all of London’s educated medical community at her disposal. “Does she not have a bevy of physicians at her beck and call?”
“All such efforts have been exhausted. It is quite possible that you are her last hope.” The seriousness of Oliver’s expression told her that he very much meant what he said.
“I cannot imagine what I can do for her that they cannot, but I will come and see if I might be able to offer her some comfort.”
Marybeth finished feeding the birds and then walked with Oliver back to her croft. After washing her hands, she moved about the croft gathering all of the supplies that she might need. She asked Oliver for a list of the Dowager Duchess’ symptoms and planned accordingly. When she was done, they both mounted Oliver’s horse and rode through the forest toward the manor house.
When they arrived at Arkley Hall they rode straight to the stables where Oliver handed the reins off to another groom and led Marybeth through the back servants’ entrance and up to the Dowager Duchess’ bedchamber. When they opened the door, they found that she was sleeping, the room otherwise empty.
“I will go and inform His Grace of your arrival, Marybeth. You may begin your preparations so that you might explain it to His Grace when he arrives,” Oliver whispered so as not to wake the Dowager Duchess.
“Should I not wait until she awakens? I would be quite frightened if I were to awaken to a strange woman standing over me without explanation.”
“If you are quiet it is unlikely that she will awaken. She suffers from severe bouts of fatigue and can sleep for hours without stirring. His Grace could ride his black stallion through Her Grace’s bedchamber and naught would startle her.”
“If you are certain,” Marybeth hesitantly agreed.
“I am.” Oliver squeezed her arm in reassurance and went to find the Duke.
Marybeth had never met either the Duke or his mother, so she was unsure what to expect. She had lived a rather insular existence with her grandmother in the forest only having visitors when Oliver came to call, or a local person needed healing. Her grasp of the social niceties were somewhat lacking due to her preferred separation from society. She had never regretted her solitary existence and had indeed been grateful for it on more than one occasion.
Moving to lay her supplies out upon a table so that she would be ready to prepare the proper herbs for the Dowager Duchess, she passed a mirror and paused to look at her reflection. She had thick long dark chestnut colored hair, gentle intelligent grey eyes, and a warm complexion kissed by her many hours in the sun. She was a bit wild and ragged around the edges, but not at all unpleasing to look upon. Nodding her head in satisfaction, she continued on with her work.
“Grandmother I wish you were here with me now,” she murmured as she stood looking down upon the Dowager Duchess’ visage. She had never treated a person of noble birth before and wished for the reassuring presence of her grandmother. “I suppose you are just a person, same as anyone else upon the inside,” she spoke to the sleeping form before her.
A noise at the door caused her to turn surprised at the speed in which Oliver had summoned the Duke. Instead of Oliver, she found the startled fear-filled eyes of what appeared to be a maid. The woman screamed as if she had witnessed a horrific murder and then fled the room as fast as her legs would carry her. She could hear the maid’s accusations of a witch’s curse as she shrieked to someone below stairs. She rolled her eyes in exasperation. “I am not a witch!”
“That is good to know,” a weak feminine voice replied from behind her.
Marybeth turned her attention back to the bed. “My apologies for waking you, Your Grace.” She curtsied in respect as was expected of her class.
“Nonsense, there are no apologies needed, my dear. You are the healer my son has arranged for me to see I presume?” The lady’s tone was kind and gentle as were her smile and general demeanor. Marybeth felt instantly reassured.
“That I am, Your Grace.” The Dowager Duchess smiled weakly up at her and took her hand in greeting.
“Mother?” a masculine voice inquired from the doorway. Marybeth turned to find a handsome young man, tall, broad-shouldered, with black hair, and deep green eyes.
“Felix, come in, my dear,” the Dowager Duchess greeted with a smile.
“And who is your guest?” he inquired, entering the room. “Not an actual witch I think.”
“Nay, not a witch, my son. The young lady is a healer.” She reached out and took her son’s hand in her own, patting it affectionately.
“A healer? I was under the impression that the healer I had sent for was a woman of many years and experience.” The Duke’s expression was somewhat confused as his eyes scanned her youthful face and frame. Marybeth was not certain, but she thought she spied a glint of something akin to appreciation in his gaze.
“My grandmother passed away recently. I am afraid that I am all that is left.” Marybeth prepared herself to be forcibly escorted out of the house. People of his ilk seldom tolerated those of hers.
“I see. And you carry on her legacy?”
“I do my best, yes.”
He nodded slowly. “Very well, please, proceed.”
Surprised, Marybeth nodded in agreement and turned her attention back to the Dowager Duchess. She examined her thoroughly, just as her grandmother had taught her to do, asking questions as she worked. As they talked, Marybeth was not at all certain what had befallen the noble lady, but her healer’s heart felt great sympathy for the Duchess’ plight. Determined to help the Dowager Duchess, Marybeth began mixing a concoction of herbs that she thought might help.
“I am not certain what it is that ails you, Your Grace, but I have seen something similar to this before when I was a child. My grandmother spent a great deal of time and effort in helping the woodsman recover. He went from being on death’s doorstep to the robust man he had once been, but it took months of diligent care.
“And what is that awful smelling potion you are mixing?” The Duke wrinkled his nose in displeasure as he came around to peer over her shoulder.
Marybeth smiled at the comical expression on his face. It was clear that he had never spent very much time in a kitchen. “’Tis a mixture of garlic cloves, oregano, valerian, and wormwood. When I am done with this, I will make a tea of honey, ginger, and white willow bark. ‘Tis the remedy that my grandmother used on the woodsman. I believe it to be the best way to begin.”
“And you think that this assortment of spices and vegetation will cure my mother?” Felix asked, doubt tinging his voice.
“Yes, I do.”
“Why then do not all the doctors in London know of this remedy?”
“Because they believe such methods to be that of witchcraft, Your Grace.”
“No, Your Grace, it is not. God provides us with great bounty we only need to open our eyes and minds to see the earth’s intended potential.”
“You claim to know God’s intentions? A bold claim indeed, Miss…”
“Wright, Miss Marybeth Wright,” Marybeth bowed quickly in introduction. “And no, I do not claim to know any such thing. I can only share what I myself have observed.”
“A bold young woman indeed,” the Duke noted examining her face in thought. Marybeth feared she might still yet be denied and that the poor ailing Dowager Duchess would be the one to suffer for it. Nodding, the Duke continued. “You may proceed,” he waved his hand in permission. “Perhaps you will succeed where all others have failed.” He moved back to the other side of the bed and observed as Marybeth administered the treatment.
“Thank you, Your Grace.” Marybeth spooned the garlic mixture into the Dowager Duchess’ mouth causing her face to pinch in disgust. “It is a bit unpalatable I will admit, but it will help you, Your Grace.” She spooned the rest of the dose into her mouth and then moved to make the tea. She removed the kettle of water from over the fireplace and poured it over the ground ginger, white willow bark mixture, then stirred in the honey.
The Dowager Duchess sipped the tea and closed her eyes in pleasure. “That is much better,” she complimented.
“Yes, it is,” Marybeth smiled. “You will need to do this several times a day for as many months. I will need to get you more of every item so that you will not run out. I will teach you the proper dosage so that you can mix it for your mother when I am gone, Your Grace.”
“Yes, when I return home.”
“Nonsense. You will stay here with us.”
Marybeth was surprised by his invitation. “I cannot simply abandon my home or my birds for months on end, Your Grace.”
“Birds?” the Duke questioned.
“Pigeons, Your Grace. They were my grandmother’s. She adopted the birds of Blackleigh Castle.”
“The pigeons in the medieval dovecot belong to someone? I always thought that they were feral.”
“They may come and go as they please. They simply choose to stay because she fed them and now the task has fallen upon me.”
“So, they can care for themselves if need be?”
“Well, yes, I suppose that they can,” she admitted hesitantly. “But what of my croft?”
“I can arrange for a groom to take you there each week if that is your wish. I do not wish to disrupt your life, Miss Wright, but I fear you will not be able to fully aid my mother if you are not present during her worst episodes. You are the first to offer any kind of a solution and to be frank, Miss Wright, you are our last hope.”
The sincerity she found in his eyes caused her to give pause. She considered his words carefully. He was right in that the pigeons were capable of caring for themselves and did so most of the time. Feeding them was more of a pleasantry for her than it was an actual requirement. They were able to come and go from the dovecot at will, the forest and nearby stream providing them with all the food and water they could possibly hope for.
I could still visit them to feed them their wheat each week.
“I would wish to ride out to my croft each week to ensure that all was well and to replenish my supply of herbs.”
“That can of course be arranged.” The Duke nodded in reassurance.
Marybeth sighed. She knew the Duke was right and that it would be best if she were present to witness the full range of the Duchess’ symptoms, but she did so loath to leave the sanctuary of her forest home. “Very well, then,” she agreed reservedly. “But I must return home today to gather my things.”
“Of course. I will arrange for Oliver to aid you. The maids will have made ready a room for you upon your return. I believe it would be best if you were located near the Dowager Duchess’ room to ensure ease and speed of care.”
“I agree that such an arrangement would be best to provide optimum care.”
“It is settled then.” The Duke smiled warmly. “And might I extend my deepest condolences for the loss of your grandmother.”
“Thank you, Your Grace. I miss her more with each day that passes.”
“I am sure.” The Duke looked down at his mother and Marybeth knew that he feared a similar loss.
Marybeth’s heart went out to him and she laid her hand on his arm in empathy. “I will do everything within my power to help your mother, Your Grace. Upon that, you have my word.”
The Duke laid his hand atop of hers and gazed down into her eyes with a mixture of hope and sorrow. “By all that is holy, may God himself ensure that your efforts are fruitful.”
Felix watched as Miss Wright and Oliver rode away, her chestnut hair flying about her shoulders as the horse galloped toward the forest tree line. She sat astride the horse; her skirts hiked up enough to show her ankles and a portion of her lower leg. He raised his brows in surprise at such an indelicate display. He found himself enchanted by her compassionate manner and independent spirit. She was quite unlike any other woman he had ever met.
“Indecent,” he heard his mother’s lady’s maid, Mrs. Snow, gossiping behind him. “Mark my words, that is a wild witch if ever I saw one.”
“How can you be sure?” another woman’s voice asked, Felix recognized it as the cook, Mrs. Morgan.
“Did you not see the state of her? The spitting image of her witch of a grandmother she is. She is the granddaughter of the witch of the forest, didn’t you know?”
“That is Abigail Wright’s granddaughter?” the cook whispered in shock. “There was such a scandal around her birth and the death of her mother.”
“The girl was born quite on the wrong side of the blanket to be sure,” Mrs. Snow spoke as if she were some authority on the subject. “The story is that some lord or other forced himself upon the mother and that after having the child she killed herself.”
“Ladies is there nothing better that you could be doing with your time than to speak of Miss Wright in such a manner?” Felix chastised disapprovingly turning to face them.
“Forgive us, Your Grace,” Mrs. Snow and Mrs. Morgan spoke in unison and then scurried away like a pair of hens.
Felix shook his head in exasperation. He would never understand the need to gossip about others as a pastime. He found that a busy mind and hands led to a much more fulfilling existence than to sit around a drawing room harshly passing judgement upon the actions or origins of others. He knew he was an oddity among his peers, in England for that matter, but he made it a priority to have kindness be the guiding factor in all of his interactions whenever possible.
Reentering the house, he climbed the stairs back up to his mother’s bedchamber. He found her sleeping once more, exhausted after her brief encounter with the healer. She had not said much during the exchange and he hoped that she was pleased with the arrangement. Closing the door gently behind him so as not to wake her, he returned to his workshop and finished both of the wheeled chairs for his mother.
Marybeth rode on the horse behind Oliver, her arms wrapped around his middle. She could not believe everything that had just transpired. “The Duke has invited me to stay at Arkley Hall,” she informed the back of Oliver’s head.
“So, he said when he asked me to take you home. I am to bring you right back once you have gathered everything that you need to aid the Dowager Duchess and for your own comfort.”
“Do you like working for the new Duke?” she asked curious. She had been struck by the nobleman and wished to know more about him.
“Oh, yes. I could not ask for a better employer,” Oliver cheerfully answered. “I have talked to some of the other lads in the county and they complain about their work, but I am quite content. The Duke and Duchess are most kind to all of us.”
“I loathe the notion of giving up my freedom being imprisoned in such a grand house.”
“You will get used to it in time. It is not as if it is to be forever.”
“True,” Marybeth admitted. “I have never known anything else, but my grandmother’s croft and the ruins of Blackleigh Castle. As grand as the castle ruins are, they are nothing when compared to Arkley Hall.”
“That is true to be sure, but it is the people within its walls that make it a home in spite of its imposing opulence. One collects rather a lot of things when one’s family has lived in the same place for hundreds of years.”
“I am sure,” Marybeth murmured in thought. “The same is true of grandmother’s croft, but in a much less opulent fashion.”
“How long have your family lived there?” Oliver asked as if he had never thought about it before that moment.
“Hundreds of years,” Marybeth answered. “As far as my grandmother knew her family has always lived there since before the Norman invasion.”
“So, your family is as old as the Duke’s then, older maybe.”
“Yes, it would seem so.”
“I do not know anything about my family past my grandparents. My grandparents were in service. My mother was in service. Now, I am in service.” Oliver shrugged his shoulders as if that was all he needed to know. “My father was a seaman before he died.”
“I do not know who my father was. My grandmother refused to talk about him, and I was too young to remember my mother or my grandfather. Grandmother was all I ever had, all I ever needed really.” Marybeth shrugged her shoulders in much the same manner as Oliver had done. “’Tis irrelevant in the forest. You do not think it will cause difficulty at the manor house, do you?”
“The fact that you know not who your father was?”
“As far as I am concerned it means nothing at all, but I know that most of society does not share my views on the subject. It shouldn’t come up, but if it does then you just ignore anything that those busy bodies say. The Duke and Duchess do not countenance gossip within their household and will not allow you to be mistreated for such a thing. If anything happens you just come and find me.”
Marybeth smiled and squeezed her arms around his torso a bit tighter in gratitude. “Have I told you lately that I love you, Oliver Singer?” she asked her friend, her good humor restored.
“Not since last week.” She could hear the grin in his voice even though she could not see it from behind him.
“That is much too long ago,” she proclaimed.
“Yes, I would have to agree, but now that we will be living so near one another you will be able to tell me every day,” he laughed pleased with himself as if it had been he who had arranged her stay at Arkley Hall.
Marybeth laughed at his pleased tone. “With grandmother gone you are the only one I have left to say it to,” she sobered at the thought.
“I am honored, my lady of the forest.” Oliver picked up her hand from his abdomen and bringing it to his lips kissed it. “I love you too, Marybeth. Remember, my friend, you are never alone as long you have me.”
“Well then you had better live forever hadn’t you?” Marybeth ordered.
“But of course,” he answered replacing her hand on his stomach. “What would all the ladies of Arkley Hall do without me?”
Marybeth chuckled. “Just the ladies of Arkley Hall?”
“Quite right, quite right. How could I have forgotten all of the other ladies of the county who depend so greatly upon the Singer charm? They would all most certainly be lost without me.”
“I am sure.” Marybeth leaned her head against his back soothed by the sound of the horse’s hoof beats as they rode through the forest. She watched the forest pass them by, the leaves a brilliant green in the light, darker green in the shadows. The color reminded her of the Duke’s eyes. She had found them quite comforting and yet disconcerting at the same time. She closed her eyes and could see him once again in the darkness behind her lids.
There is something about him, but I cannot quite say what it is.
She opened her eyes again and the image vanished, replaced by the wilderness she loved so much. She could not fathom being stuck inside of a grand house for months on end.
Perhaps I will return home twice a week instead of just the once.
The horse slowed as they approached the croft and Marybeth dismounted walking into the house to gather all of the things that she might need. Oliver waited outside allowing the horse to drink from the nearby stream. When she was done packing, she stood at the center of the croft’s main room and turned around in a circle gazing at the remnants of the life she and her grandmother had once shared together.
I love you, Grandmother, her heart whispered to the specter of their shared past, then she turned and left the croft. I will return as soon as I am able.
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