Kirkenwood Grange, near Hadrian’s Wall. Spring in the Year of Our Lord 1199. The tenth year of the reign of our beloved King Richard Coeur de Lion.
HENRY Griffin, eighth baron of Kirkenwood, listened to the irregular rhythm of his heart. Thump, thum, thum. Kathump, thum. Consciously he slowed and steadied his breathing. He needed control over himself if he hoped to save Lotta.
Thump, thum, thum. Kathump, thum.
Nothing worked. His heart knew that part of him would be ripped to shreds if he let Lotta die tonight. He had to save her.
“Come, Resmiranda.” He held out his hand to his great-niece. Her childish fingers, sun-browned and toughened by hard work in the herb garden, seemed pure and innocent entwined with his own. The smoothness of her skin contrasted sharply with his, wrinkled and spotted with age and not so innocent anymore.
The world had turned upside down, and he had failed to set it right again. More than fifty years of harmony he had shared with his beloved Lotta. He didn’t know how he could go on without her.
Nothing would ever be right again without her.
Thump. Kathump, thump, thummmmmmm.
A tear escaped his eye. He tried to sniff it back, but more followed.
Resmiranda wiped away the tears gently with a piece of embroidered linen that showed smudges from her latest foray into the herb garden.
“Do not be afraid of death, child,” Henry whispered. He gulped back his tears, trying to convince himself as well as this precious child. “Death is a part of life, a transition that comes to us all. Sometimes we need to postpone it a little, though. Aunt Lotta’s work on this earth is not yet done. She needs to live just a little longer. Would you help us do that?”
He’d tried desperately to save his wife from that transition to death and heaven. But he couldn’t do it alone. Not even the presence of Diddosrwydd, his wolfhound familiar, had given him the talent and strength to work this ancient spell, handed down through the family for more generations than he cared to count.
Thump, kathump, thum, thummm.
Lotta had taken to her bed only yesterday. The day before she had filled Kirkenwood Grange with laughter as she scattered newly picked flowers into the floor rushes. Each step brought the fragrance of spring and fresh air.
Today the stink of sweat and fear and fever replaced the flower scent he usually associated with his wife.
Yesterday she had shouted with triumph as one of the serving maids brought a new son into the world. She’d scolded Cook only a little for scorching one side of the roast while he wrung his hands waiting for his son to bellow his displeasure at his abrupt entrance into this world. Another transition. One of joy, not sadness.
Lotta always made sure the entire grange celebrated the joy of life. What would they do without her? What would he do without her guidance, her steady will keeping him from giving in to the violence in his nature?
Even now his hands trembled with the need to lash out at something, someone. He clenched them tightly, until Resmiranda squealed a little protest at the intensity of his grip on her hand. Her fragile little hand, not a sword hilt. He’d put his soldiering days behind him over fifty years ago, when Lotta came into his life and showed him a different way of living. Still his need for violence haunted him.
He gulped and forced himself to continue what he’d started.
“I have to wash my hands before working magic, Uncle Henry,” Resmiranda insisted. She tugged free of his grasp and darted to the ewer and basin on the side table. Happily she splashed water over her hands and face. Just like the puppies she so loved, she slapped the collected water in the basin before returning to his side. Her wet hand slipped into his easily.
Mathilde, her mother, scowled at her and counted three more prayers on her beads.
“Aunt Lotta is a crone—an older wisewoman,” Henry explained, more to his nephew’s wife than to Resmiranda. “Your mother, counting her prayers in the corner, is a matron. And you, little Resmiranda, are yet a maid. Together the three of you can build the great healing magic.” At eight, the child manifested a wonderful understanding of arcane rituals. Mathilde, her mundane mother, hid from all references to magic.
Resmiranda stood behind him and squeezed his hand in understanding. He gently squeezed back, acknowledging her acceptance of the task before them.
Thump, thum, thump, thum. His heart beat in a rhythm nearer to normal. He took a deep, steadying breath.
They stood there for a long time, watching Lotta breathe. She had wasted away so much in only two days, she barely made a bump beneath the blankets and counterpane. Her gray hair spread out across the bolster looked dull against the white bedding.
Henry held the memory of the setting sun glinting off her rich black tresses, giving them deep blue highlights as she spun in place before the Beltane bonfire, nude and at home. He remembered the heaviness of her breasts, the slight rounding of her belly, the joy of joining with her that night….
Her hair had seemed a silken mantle fanning out around her head as she lay beneath him. The blue highlights within it seemed almost like the halo of a saint. The saint who had given him back his reasons for living. He had wept with joy.
She had been a young girl their first time together, barely old enough to marry. They had conceived their first child that night.
To him she would always be that beautiful young girl, full of life and love for the world and all who dwelled within it.
He still hardened with need every time he looked into her beautiful blue eyes.
Thump, thum. Holding his memories in his heart steadied him.
“Resmiranda,” Aunt Lotta whispered hoarsely. “Place your hand upon my chest. I need your strength.” Her cough deepened.
Henry didn’t like the terrible rattling sound. Resmiranda cringed away from it, too.
Thum, kathump. His heart skittered again in fear.
“Put your hand here, Resmiranda.” Henry guided her flattened palm atop Lotta’s shift, just above her shrunken breasts. He kept one hand on the child’s. Pulsing green light outlined Resmiranda’s tiny hand. Good. The magic had begun. “And you must hold my other hand, Mathilde.” He beckoned Resmiranda’s mother closer.
“I do not like this, Lord Henry.” Mathilde sidled nearer, hesitant, chin quivering. She ran her gold-and-ivory prayer beads through her fingers much too rapidly to actually recite any prayers. “Father Truman should be here. He should offer prayers for her soul. Only through a priest and the blessed saints can we request the miracle of healing.”
The golden cross of the prayer chain glinted in the flickering candlelight. The etching had been worn almost smooth over the generations. Mathilde used her wedding gift so much, she might have to replace the beads soon. They’d been new only two generations ago.
“Take my hand, Mathilde. Why would God give my family this special talent if not to use it? We seek to heal, not to harm.”
“Sometimes we are given tests. Not giving in to the temptation to use ‘special’ gifts can sanctify our souls,” Mathilde replied.
Henry wanted to scoff at her objections. “Being afraid of God-given talents is a sin as well. Come. Join us and learn that we do not abuse our gifts. We use our powers only for good.” He grasped the young woman’s hand, prayer beads and all. She didn’t pull away. Not yet anyway.
The vibrations of Lotta’s uneven breathing tingled through Resmiranda’s palm up into his arm to become a ringing in his back teeth. His heart found the rhythm of the growing power.
Mathilde tried jerking her hand away with a gasp of surprise. Henry strengthened his grip on her, not caring that the delicate bones seemed to shift beneath his fingers.
Resmiranda looked puzzled but did not withdraw. Diddosrwydd thumped her tail and laid her huge head upon Resmiranda’s foot. The dog offered her own strength to the spell, a substitute matron should Mathilde balk. Not a perfect substitute, but perhaps enough to complete the chain of power.