Rosalie brushed sweat from her forehead with her dusty forearm. Blinding and hot, the sun-baked the earth from a clear, blue sky. She leaned up against the well, taking a break from her daily laundry. Her hands caressed the swell of her belly, extending out from her body. A smile crossed her face as her unborn child kicked beneath her hand.
In the distance, a great cloud of dust rose, swallowing the road and pastures on the horizon. Rosalie stood, holding her lower back to calm the pain surging through her. The hairs on her neck prickled as she watched the unknown rider storm towards her.
Rosalie cringed, wishing she was able to move faster than a hobble in her late-term. The twins barreled from around the corner of the cottage, followed by a massive sheepdog. Mud stained the hem of her little girl’s dress and streaked both the children’s faces. The stain was Rosalie’s least concern at the moment.
“Get in the cottage.”
“But Ma!” Hamish smacked the ground with the stick he held.
“NOW. Both of you.” She groaned, stabilizing herself on the well as light-headedness made her vision swim.
The two children jumped at their mother’s command. It was rare she raised her voice. They ran into the cottage. Hamish peeked out at her and the oncoming rider before slamming the door.
Rosalie looked around her. If the rider was a foe, there was little to defend herself. Declan wouldn’t return from bringing in the harvest until after dark. Even Evelyn was off gathering herbs in the mountainside before the weather turned for the year. She was alone.
As the rider approached, Rosalie’s fear faded into concern. Blonde hair flew out around the rider. The woman was weak, barely keeping hold of the reins of the horse. Her skirts were stained up to the knee with mud. The blond hair was tangled, small sticks, and bits of brush protruding from the tangled curls.
“Gale?” Rosalie cried. She tried to run, her feet staggering with each step and her arms cradling her precious cargo. “God’s teeth.”
As soon as Rosalie reached her, the young woman slumped in the saddle. Her horse whipped its mane and pawed at the dry earth. Rosalie took hold of the beast, trying to calm the startled, run-down creature. Sweat streaked its dusty hide.
Gale’s lips were dry, cracked, and pale with dehydration. She couldn’t hold herself up, leaning on the horse’s neck for support. Scratches from rogue branches scraped her skin and clothes.
“Rosalie…” Her blue eyes rolled open, dazed with fatigue.
Rosalie led the horse to a trough before attempting to help Gale down. Her hands reached up to help the girl. “Ye got to help me, Gale.”
Gale mustered up her strength to push herself from the saddle. Rosalie tried to catch her, but in her current state, moving alone was awkward and arduous. The woman slipped to the ground, and all Rosalie could do was slow her fall and make sure her head did not hit the earth.
“HAMISH!” The small boy opened the door, waiting for release from the cottage, “Get me water. Have Thomasina cut some bread.”
Hamish, only three minutes older than his sister, took pride in his position as an older brother. He barked an order at Thomasina, still waiting inside the home, and ran as fast as he could to fetch water for his mother and the strange woman.
Gale was still conscious. She tried to stand, teetering from exhaustion and thirst.
“Sit down,” Rosalie commanded, trying her best to brace the woman.
“I’m sorry,” Gale’s voice cracked.
“Shh, not now.”
The two women took their time walking over to the stone steps in front of the cottage. Rosalie took the dipper from Hamish and lifted it to Gale’s lips. The girl sipped at first before draining the water with greedy gulps, and Rosalie handed it back to Hamish for more.
“I didn’t know where else tae turn.”
Rosalie brushed her fingers over the woman’s hair, trying to calm her. The water seemed to reawaken a manic fright within her. Gale’s eyes were wide, her body trembled. She tried to stand, but Rosalie grabbed her wrist and pulled for her to sit back down.
“I want ye tae sit fer a moment.”
Thomasina poked her head out. She was shier than her brother, trying to hide most of her body behind the door. Rosalie reached her hand out and found a hunk of loaf placed in her open palm before Thomasina disappeared back into the cottage.
“Can ye eat?”
Gale nodded, “Aye, thank ye.”
They sat in silence while Gale nibbled at the bread and recovered her strength. Rosalie wouldn’t let her speak until after she rested. Thomasina and Hamish crowded her as she tried to get Gale changed into clean clothes and into bed.
“What’s wrong with her, Mama?” Thomasina whispered.
Rosalie shook her head, “I don’t know, but she traveled a long way to get ‘ere.”
Hamish hovered over the sleeping Gale, looking at her as if she were some strange creature. Rosalie tried to pull him back. “Who is she?”
“An old friend. You two, get yer chores done an’ let her sleep, ye hear? An’ Thomasina, what did ye do tae yer gown?”
Thomasina blushed and looked down at her stained skirts. “It weren’t my fault, Ma. It’s all Hamish’s doin’. I swear tae ye.”
“I don’t care whose fault it is; get changed an’ go scrub it out ‘fore it sets in. I worked hard on that dress for ye.”
The twins sped off to work. Hamish had the evening pleasure of finding twigs and kindling around the edges of the property. Thomasina would work on her dress until her hands were raw from the cold water.
Declan returned to his home in good spirits. “Rosie! We brought in the harvest early!” He placed his cap on a small peg protruding from the interior of the door. Upon seeing Gale passed out on the twins’ modest bed, Declan stopped in his tracks.
Rosalie wiped her hands on her apron. A small plume of flour-dusted the air. She smiled at Declan. “That’s great news.”
He looked at her, confused. “Is this?” He pointed at the sleeping woman. “Is tha’…” he leaned in closer, “Gale?”
Rosalie nodded, a small grin still flickering at the corners of his mouth. The smile faded when she noticed how rigid Declan’s body became. His defenses flared up, and his hand instinctively fell to his sword as he looked around.
“It’s jus’ her.”
“Are ye sure?” His brow darkened, and Rosalie knew his mind filled with fears for his family. No matter the years passed, he never could forget or forgive himself for letting Rosalie stay with the dreadful family that beat and scarred her.
Rosalie pursed her lips into a grim line and nodded. She was reasonably sure. She looked down at Gale, considering—she was fleeing from someone or something when she rode upon the settlement. Rosalie poured a cup of hot bone broth and knelt beside Gale.
Rubbing her back, she roused the young woman. “Gale, Gale,” she whispered. The young woman startled awake, kicking out and shuddering, letting out a soft cry as she looked around the room and remembered where she was, “Shh, it’s alright. Yer safe now.” Rosalie ran her hands over the distressed blonde head.
As if struck, Gale’s eyes welled up with tears and panic. She sat up. Rosalie tried to restrain her, afraid she might cause herself to faint with the sudden movement. Hamish and Thomasina were back inside, watching curiously from the corner of the room.
“What’s wrong with her, Mama?” Thomasina played with her skirts.
“She’s had a long journey, is all.”
Declan seemed less accepting of the situation. Rosalie eyed him and could see his skin turning red with marks of anger. She knew her husband well. The last thing he wanted was to harbor a fugitive that might land his family in danger.
Gale took the glass and sipped at it nervously. The warm liquid seemed to help calm her.
“Declan’s here, Gale, an’ we need tae know what’s happenin’?”
Gale crumpled over the cup and started to cry. Her bright blue eyes shone out like icy gems, contrasting against the reds and pinks of her irritated face. She tried to calm herself with deep breaths, her hands shaking as she forced down more of the broth.
“Pa is dead,” she shook her head, “an’,” she sniffed, “an’ Ma, I think she means tae kill me.” Rosalie and Declan looked at one another. Gale’s hand snapped out, grabbing Rosalie’s. Her eyes filled with desperation. “Please, I don’t know where else tae go. You mus’ help me, Rosalie. There’s no one else I know who can.”
Declan grabbed the sleeve of Rosalie’s dress in a gentle attempt to pull her into a private conversation. Rosalie shrugged him off, intent on hearing Gale through before making a decision. “Calm down, Gale. Start from the beginnin’ an’ tell us what happened.”
Gale took a deep breath. “Ma kept gettin’ worse after ye left. She’d go through these states…” Gale’s face twisted, as if pained by the memory, “…where she didn’t even recognize us. Sometimes though’ we were different people—she were different. This man came one day, said he were a doctor—that he could help her. Ma seemed to get better, but these delusions…” she gestured to the air, rolling her eyes up, “It were as if somethin’ possessed her when she’d have ‘em.” Gale struggled not to start crying again. “Her an’ this doctor were close. They got tae a point where they were inseparable. Pa was gettin’ uncomfortable with it, said he weren’t helpin’ her anymore, an’ when he finally asked the doctor tae leave, that’s when, when—” sobs wracked her body.
Rosalie rubbed her back. Declan stared at her, still standing with his hand on the hilt of his sword. Gale calmed herself enough to continue, the pitch of her voice squeaking with emotion, “The doctor said it were his heart.” Gale shook her head. “Within a week, Ma started actin’ like it were her Keep an’ talkin’ about the doctor as if they were already married. One o’ the workers made a comment abou’ how she weren’t the heir, but I was. Ma and the doctor were in an outrage, fightin’ all evening. That night, he came into my room…” Gale’s body shook as she recalled the memory. She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. Her words spurted as venom pulled from a wound. “He tried tae lay with me. He tried to convince me to marry him, that it was I he loved, not my mother, an’ when I refused him, he… he…” she started crying again. When she caught her breath, she finished, “I managed tae getaway, an’ this was the only place I knew I’d be safe from ‘em.”
Declan paced around the room, looking out of the small shutters for signs of danger. “Do ye ken if ye were followed?” Gale shook her head in negation. “Rosie, outside.”
Rosalie smiled at Gale. “Jus’ give us a moment.” She turned to her children, “Hamish, stoke the fire. Thomasina, keep our guest comfortable.”
The evening was warm and sweet with blossoms in full bloom as Declan paced the front of the cottage. “I don’ like it, Rosie,” he said.
“She saved us—both o’ us, Declan.” Rosalie reached out to him.
He nodded. “I ken.” He took a deep breath, “If they seek her out, it willnae take long tae fin’ her with us.”
“We cannae jus’ turn her away!” Rosalie’s temper flared. She gestured angrily towards the house.
“That’s not what I’m sayin’.”
Rosalie tried to calm her defensive stance; her arms crossed over one another. Declan stepped towards her, cradling her face in his hand. Her posture softened. She knew he was just worried about her and the bairns. Rosalie didn’t need to worry about him doing the right thing.
“Wha’ about the Brodys? Angus would help us,” Rosalie’s saw Declan’s eyes light up as he thought, running scenarios through his head, crunching numbers and deciding which course of action might be best for him and his people.
“The chief might no’ take kindly to a refugee in his parts. Her mother has a right to her.”
“She’s an adult!” Rosalie gasped.
“Aye, but she’s no’ wed yet, an’ her mother will still have a say unless we can prove these accusations.” Declan rubbed Rosalie’s arms as he thought, “I think it best we keep all this a secret. We’ll say she’s a cousin o’ yers.”
Rosalie laughed. “No one around here’ll believe it.” Each year, the travelers stayed with them for a few weeks. The clan knew Magda and Anna. The past seemed long ago. Enoch was no longer a problem; following Alexander’s orders, he’d traveled to live with his father
“Aye, but…” Declan looked at her. His gaze was calming and reassuring. She trusted him and his input with all of her heart. “The Brody’s willnae ken that. We can trust Angus, but no one else.”
Rosalie nodded and bit her lip. She looked back towards the cottage. “My cousin,” she whispered. “It should work. An’ long term?”
Declan shook his head, “It’s no’ our problem, Rosie. I ken ye want tae help, an’ I love that about you,” he brushed her hair back and gave her a weak yet genuine smile, “but we can only help in this way this time. We’ll get her into hidin’, an’ then she’s on our own. Ye remember that family?” His fingers grazed Rosalie’s back, causing the hair on her neck to stand. “We cannot risk gettin’ our bairns involved.”
Rosalie thought for a moment before nodding. “I understand.”
Gale waited on pins and needles. She almost stood when Rosalie and Declan re-entered the cottage. Declan addressed her, “Tomorrow, I take ye west tae the clan Brody.”
“Thank ye, thank ye,” she smiled, and her eyes shone, threatening tears again.
Rosalie grinned, thinking of all the small cruel things Gale had done in the past, and wondering if this was God’s way of teaching the woman humility. “Thomasina, Hamish!” The children trained their full attention to their mother. “Meet your cousin.” A mischievous smile, brimming on laughter, crossed Rosalie’s mouth as she thought of names. “Mairi.”
“Bitter?” Gale scoffed, her usual pretentious nature returning in a flash, “No, it willnae do. I,” she touched her fingers to her chest, “am not bitter.”
“Mairi is a pretty name,” Thomasina said, cocking her head to one side and eliciting a laugh from Rosalie.
That night, the family slept. Declan and Rosalie whispered to one another in the dark, dreading parting from each other even for a moment. When morning came, Declan wasted no time. They were well on their road by midday. Their journey would have passed in silence, Declan not wanting to engage with the woman more than necessary, if it were not for Gale’s constant chattering. Gale’s only words were complaints and whines about the ride, the heat, the dirt, and everything else under the sun.
By the time they reached the Brody keep, Declan was more than ready to part from her presence. He rode straight for Angus’s house and was surprised to see a man taller than himself chucking wood outside of the small cottage. Declan looked up at the warrior’s build with slight awe, feeling small in his presence.
“May I help ye?” The man let the ax fall with a thunk into the wooden block.
“I’m lookin’ fer Angus.”
“Declan?” Angus popped his head out of the cottage. His hair was thinning so that Declan could see the top of his head shining through the patches of wispy gray. “It is you! Aggie!”
Angus hobbled towards Declan, a slight limp in the leg bitten so many years before. “Look at ye,” the old warrior smiled, “Yer gettin’ old.”
“I’m gettin’ old?” Declan was amused. “Have ye seen yer head lately?”
Angus grinned, running his hand cautiously over his aging scalp. “An’ Rosalie?”
“She’s fine—with the bairns, an’ swollen with a third on the way too!”
“Congratulations.” Angus smacked Declan on the shoulder. “This is me nephew on Aggie’s side, Errol.” The old man bounced on his heels with evident pride at the size of the man. He nodded at Declan, “An’ yer friend, there?” Angus raised his brows.
“Rosalie’s cousin Mairi,” Declan did not even look at her, pushed to the limits of his patience. “Can we talk in private? I need yer help, Angus.”
Angus looked surprised. He looked between the girl and Declan before nodding and gesturing for Declan to walk with him. The two disappeared, leaving Errol and Gale alone.
Errol walked towards the young blonde woman and reached up to help her down. The moment he touched her waist, Gale shrieked at the top of her lungs. Errol started back.
“Keep yer filthy hands off me! How dare you touch me?” Her nostrils flared wide with indignation.
Errol smiled, watching Gale struggle off the horse as her foot caught, and the opposite leg swung back and forth as if trying to touch the ground so far below. “My apologies,” he laughed. “Yer right. Ye don’t need any help, d’ye?” Laughing, he picked up his ax and returned to work, leaving Gale to her own devices.
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