Saturday morning dawned crisp and bright. I slept poorly, again, the various injuries I’d sustained in my struggle with McNaught making it impossible for me to find comfort in my bed. The thought of him lingering somewhere outside in the darkness only deepened my discomfort. How closely had he spied upon me two years ago? Had he perched like a bird of prey outside my window at Aunt Jane’s?
Strange images filled my mind. Of him watching me perform all manner of inane, every day actions. Brushing my teeth. Tugging on gloves. Straightening my skirts. Perhaps I should have been more concerned about him seeing me disrobe, and part of me was troubled by that thought, but it was the smaller things that plagued my mind.
The naked form could only tell you so much about a person. The habit I had of chewing the end of my quills as I contemplated what to write in my journal each night would have told him more, along with the fact that I counted out all one-hundred nightly brushstrokes through my hair, not to mention the way I picked at my fingernails when I was nervous. I had a feeling that these were the details that the spy would fixate on, that they would reveal more of who I was than the shape of my breasts ever could. Especially to a man like McNaught.
What had he learned from me? How might he use his knowledge to exploit me? Had I already played into his hand in some way? Had he called me a coward as a test? To see if it would push me into telling John what had happened? And if so…why?
A small sound came from behind me. I turned to see Harriet sitting up. Her hair had come loose in the night, and a riot of dark curls framed her face. It had taken me a full hour last night to both apologize and reassure her that I would never dismiss her without reference. Afterward, she’d agreed to sleep here with me, and I’d ordered a cot brought in. Her blankets were tangled between her legs now, proof that she’d slept just as fitfully as I had.
“It’s morning,” I said.
She rubbed at her eyes. “I had the most terrible dreams.”
No doubt because I had told her the truth of where my bruises had come from. Oh, not that McNaught was a spy, or what his reasoning had been, but that it had been he who had hurt me.
I lifted a shard of glass from the windowsill and showed it to her. “No blood. He didn’t come back.”
Her upper lip rose in a snarl. “Shame. I would have welcomed bloodying him.”
I stared at her, taken aback by the vehemence in her tone. And then it dawned on me. She must have drawn comparisons between what McNaught had done to me and what Aberdeen had done to her. How long had her anger festered? What would she do if given the chance to vent it? I decided to keep the cot in my room for as long as I could. If McNaught was foolish enough to barge in here again, our combined rage would teach him to think twice before predating on women.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Sore,” I said, glancing down at my knuckles. My scrapes were hidden beneath my bandages, but the skin around them had bloomed into ugly, multi-hued bruises, and where yesterday my pain had been sharp like a knife, today my injuries throbbed in a lower, more insidious way that left my whole body stiff and fatigued. I hated the feeling. It reminded me of Father.
“I’ll need to redress your hands,” Harriet said, coming over to me.
I nodded and offered them up to her.
She peeled the linen from my knuckles and frowned as she looked down at my angry skin. “I think…Your Grace, I think we should go see Mrs. Marston.”
She dropped my hands and nodded. “She knows her way with wounds better than I do.”
Two days past I would have dismissed her words. Distrusted them or sought some hidden reason for her wanting to present me to another servant in such a state. Today, I simply allowed her to dress me and then lead the way down into the lowest level of our household.
Mrs. Marston was in her late 40s, on the shorter side, with ruddy skin and dark brown eyes. Her graying hair was thick and curly, and in the heat of the kitchen, strands of it clung to her forehead and neck.
After a few whispered words from Harriet, she dismissed her scullery maids and led me into the storeroom. I sat on a stool in the corner while she removed my bandages. Her fingers were warm and firm, her motions sure, like she really did know her way around wounds. She stared down at my hands after the last of the linen dropped to the floor, but if she wondered how I’d earned my scrapes, she didn’t ask.
“You’ll need oil of oregano for these, Your Grace,” she said. “The cuts are shallow, but the sheer number of them will increase your chance for inflammation.”
“Oil of oregano? For a cut? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
She made a harrumphing sound and turned from me to sort through the various bottles and tinctures that lined one of the shelves. “The oil keeps wounds from festering. No doubt a doctor would prescribe a beer bath or mercury.” I thought she might have added “the idiots” to the end of it, but her muttering was hard to decipher.
“How do you know so much about herbs? From cooking?” I asked.
She glanced at me over her shoulder. “So your husband hasn’t told you that you harbor an infamous witch amongst your staff?”
I stared at her.
“She’s teasing, Your Grace,” Harriet said, shooting the older woman an exasperated look.
The cook barked a laugh and went back to her search. “I was raised in Hampshire. My mother taught me the use of herbs when I was a girl, like her mother had before her. We were known as wise women amongst the townsfolk. They came to us for all manner of cures and curses. The cures we happily provided. Those searching for curses we turned away. Ah, here it is.” She came over to me holding a small brown bottle. “Lift your hands please, Your Grace.”
I did as instructed.
She uncorked the bottle and poured a dollop of the potent smelling oil onto a wad of cotton. “This may hurt.”
I braced myself and nodded. She dabbed at my scrapes, and I hissed in a breath. It stung something awful.
“The local minister knew we didn’t practice magic,” she said as she worked. “But then he died and a new man took his place, all fire and brimstone. He was the kind of man who thinks God is more likely to punish than protect.” She sent me a meaningful look. “Especially when it came to women.”
I frowned. “You don’t mean Pastor Michaels?”
She shook her head. “No. A man named Hargrove, determined to drive evil and sin from his town. My mother had passed away several years before, and that left me alone to face his wrath. The townsfolk tried to defend me at first, but Hargrove had a way with words. He knew just what to say to sow fear and distrust.”
“I understand,” I said, tone grim. I was all too familiar with that kind of manipulation.
“It wasn’t long before I was driven from my home. The people I’d once treated and cared for might have even gone so far as to drown me like Hargrove wanted, if the duke hadn’t stepped in.”
Here it was. Proof of John’s claim that all of the servants in this household owed him their lives or their sanity. I glanced over at Harriet, regretting my distrust, feeling like the worst sort of person. It was too late to take them back. The best I could do was correct my behavior now, stamp out the lingering paranoia my father had bred into me. At least in regards to her. She had more than proven herself to me over the past two years.
“John saved you?” I asked the cook, just to be certain.
The older woman nodded. “Aye, and he booted Hargrove from the church not long afterward. He blocked several more men from taking up his post because he feared they were similarly minded, and interviewed I don’t know how many more before he settled on Pastor Michaels.”
Her story threatened to soften me even more toward my husband, but then I remembered the way his expression had blanked when he told Henry he would stop lying and I didn’t know what to feel.
“Did the townsfolk ever apologize for turning on you?” I asked.
She sniffed. “Some did.”
“Did you forgive them?”
Her dark eyes were hard when they met mine. “No. I could never forget what they did to me, let alone forgive them for it.”
I nodded. I didn’t think I could forgive such a betrayal either.
She finished applying the oil to my hands and then bandaged them back up, much tighter than Harriet had. When she was done, she gave me several more tinctures and poultices for my bruises and stiffness, with strict instruction for Harriet as to how and when to apply them. Only when Harriet was able to repeat the orders back to her verbatim did she let us go.
“An interesting woman,” I said as we made our way back upstairs.
She glanced around the hall. “And one you can trust. She’ll not repeat what she saw or did for you.”
I believed her. Mrs. Marston didn’t seem like a woman who would spread tales. Not after what tales had once done to her.
My eyes fell to the bed when we re-entered my room. The soft down mattress called to me like a siren. What little sleep I’d stolen last night was shallow and restless. That it had been my second night of deprivation only left me more exhausted. I longed to drop down into the warmth of the covers and steal a few more hours of shuteye, but I had appointments to keep. A break in my schedule might be noticed by anyone set to watch us.
And so, instead of lingering within these safe confines, I forced myself on, visiting my dressmaker, dropping in on my aging Aunt Jane, and finally stopping into a bookstore to view a rare copy the purveyor of the shop had saved especially for me.
I was nearly asleep on my feet by the time I arrived home, but the sight that greeted me just inside the front door hit me like a bucketful of ice water to the face.
Six men stood within our grand entryway. Three I recognized: John, Henry, and McNaught. The other three halted me in my tracks. Though they were strangers to me, they were clad in our house’s livery, dressed as footmen. If you looked quickly enough, you might be fooled into thinking that was all they were. Anything more than a passing glance would raise your hackles. Even standing still, there was a pervasive energy to them, as if they were only a heartbeat away from drawing weapons. They looked more like battle-hardened warriors than footmen.
The Janissaries McNaught had promised us were here.
They stood in profile to me, limiting my view of them. From what I could see, their skin ranged in shade from light olive to deep bronze. All three had their dark hair clipped short, like military men, and though they were of varying heights, there was an underlying similarity to them that spoke of their years of training.
The largest of the men noticed me first. He was a full head taller than McNaught, and broader through the shoulders than Henry; a veritable giant. He turned to me. His face was too masculine to be handsome, made up of severe angles and hard edges. His nose was crooked like it had been broken and improperly reset. A scar gouged into his left temple and disappeared back into his cropped hair. His wide, expressive mouth should have softened his features, but if anything, the fullness of his lips only rendered the rest of his face sharper by comparison.
His companions noticed his regard and turned to me. Something about the way they moved together reminded me of the many heads of the hydra from Herculean myth. Was McNaught the body they had sprouted from?
The three soldiers stared at me as one. There was a coldness in their expressions that raised the hair on the back of my neck. The eyes that looked out from their sun-darkened faces held the same calm neutrality found in predatory animals. There was nothing of menace in their gazes, just an obvious detachment that said they cared not whether I lived or died. The choice was mine and mine alone. They were merely the tools with which I might meet my fate.
I was staring into the eyes of cold-blooded killers. That McNaught had convinced us to take into our home.
My blood ran cold at the thought.
“No one will ever believe they’re servants,” I said.
Then the shortest of the Janissaries…changed. Gone was the look of death I had glimpsed before. Now a crooked smile split his face. His teeth were bright and even. There was a hint of mischief in his eyes that sparked conspiratorially when he looked at me. “Afternoon, Yer Grace,” he said in perfect mimicry of a cockney accent.
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
I nearly fell over of my own accord a moment later when the second shortest man adopted a similarly jovial expression and swept me a deep bow.
My gaze went to the largest man I had ever seen. “Well?”
He shook his head.
The shortest Janissary patted him on the arm. “Haydar’s talents lie elsewhere.”
Right. Like crushing men’s skulls in those giant fists of his.
What on earth had possessed John into thinking I would ever allow such a giant, violent man near enough to guard me?
Copyright © 2020 by Navessa Allen
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This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, establishments, locales, events, and organizations are used fictitiously and only with the intent to provide a sense of historical authenticity. All other characters, dialog, incidents, and settings are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.