Scotland, the Highlands, late 15th century
Espy stared at the blood that soaked her hands. This was not right. This should not have happened. Things had been going well... she shook her head. Something was wrong. She had fought to save the woman and the bairn. Her grandmother had told her once that sometimes you had no choice, death came for everyone. Espy did not like to surrender and she fought death at every turn. After all, that was what a healer, a wise woman, did—she battled death. And Espy did not like to lose.
“You must leave. There is no more you can do for her and Lord Craven will blame you for his wife and child’s death. Hurry, please,” the woman begged. “He will show no mercy.”
“I cannot leave her like this, Britt. She must be cleaned and—”
“No,” Britt said. “He will see you punished in the most horrible ways, then see you suffer a slow death. You have to leave.”
Espy’s grandmother had warned her about Craven, Chieftain of the Clan MacCara. He was a beast of a warrior, large and powerful, and he ruled with a mighty fist. Everyone had been surprised when the gentle Aubrey, from the bordering Clan MacVarish became his bride. Some believed the loving and kind young woman tamed the mighty beast. Others believed the beast could never be tamed and waited in fear of his escape.
Lord Craven had left this morning on a hunt with his friend Dylan and Edward MacPeters, the physician he had brought from Edinburgh to tend his wife when her time came. His wife Aubrey had not been due for another month, but the bairn had thought differently. A messenger had arrived at Espy’s grandmother’s cottage insisting that Espy, a healer schooled in more than the wise ways, hurry to the keep. That Lady Aubrey needed her. She had been concerned that the bairn was arriving early, but she had managed such births before with much success. Yet all of her learned skills had not helped her to save Aubrey and her bairn. And now Lord Craven would return soon to find his wife and unborn bairn dead. It was not right. It should not have been.
Espy’s eyes turned wide when she saw a slight movement in Aubrey’s rounded stomach. The bairn was still alive. There was a chance to save it.
“I need a knife,” Espy cried out.
Britt’s eyes rounded with shock and fear.
“The bairn still lives. I need to deliver him,” Espy explained.
“Lord Craven will see you drawn and quartered if you split his wife open,” Britt warned.
Espy cared nothing for what might happen to her. She had to save the bairn. She rushed and got a knife from her healing basket and hurried to expose Aubrey’s stomach. She had to be careful, if she cut too deep she could harm the bairn. Her hand was steady when she placed the knife to Aubrey’s naked stomach, though she trembled inwardly, and she said a silent prayer to please let the bairn live.
Her wrist was suddenly grabbed and she was viciously torn away from her task. “What are you doing, woman?”
Espy fought the short slim man. “The bairn lives. I need to deliver him.”
“Have you not done enough?” the man screamed at her.
She fisted her free hand and punched the man in the nose. He yelled, grabbed his face, and stumbled back. She hurried toward the bed, but before she could reach Aubrey another man grabbed her from behind.
“You have killed Lady Aubrey, is that not enough?” the tall man yelled.
Espy pushed at the strong arm around her waist. “Please, please let me free the bairn from her. There is a chance he could live.”
With blood spewing from his nose, the man she had hit spoke up with difficulty. “She is a mad woman. Just look at what she has done. Look at the blood on her hands! I am a physician. I know of what I speak.”
Espy turned wide eyes on the man and pleaded, “If you are a physician, then you know there is a chance that the bairn could survive. Please! Please! We waste time. Please cut her open and take the bairn.”
A vicious roar reverberated through the room and the man holding Espy suddenly shoved her behind him. A man of towering height and thick with muscles consumed the doorway. His dark eyes raged with fury and pain, and he descended on the room and on those within like a beast of prey ready to devour everything in his path. He went directly to the bed and stared down at Aubrey who looked as if she slept, but the blood-stained bedding spoke the truth.
Lord Craven turned to the man who claimed himself a physician. “I brought you here so that nothing would happen to her. Do something.”
“There is nothing I can do. She is gone, my lord.”
“But not the bairn,” Espy called out. “Please, let me save the bairn.”
“She butchered your wife,” the physician accused, swiping the only clean cloth left in the room off the chest beside him to stifle the blood running from his nose. “She will do the same to your bairn if you let her. The bairn is dead. It cannot live once the mother dies.”
“It can for a short time and you are wasting that precious time.”
“She speaks nonsense,” the physician said. “Look at what she has done to your precious wife. She has made her suffer the torments of hell.”
“And if it is not nonsense, you do nothing as the bairn dies,” Espy pleaded and watched how gently the large man cradled his wife against his chest, his eyes squeezing tight, the pain too much for him to bear.
“Do not listen to her. She butchered your wife while she lived and now she wants to butcher her in death.”
Lord Craven’s large hand moved down along his wife to rest on her rounded stomach, and Espy prayed he would feel his bairn move. His silence was louder than any words he could speak as was his hand that remained still.
They had wasted precious time. The bairn was dead. Espy silently cursed the physician. She wanted to rage with anger at his ignorance, but it would do no good. The man who held her, who had pulled her out of the path of Lord Craven, tugged at her now. When she turned her head to look at him, he nodded toward the door and urged her along.
“Do not dare take her from this room, Dylan!”
Espy felt her skin prickle with fear as the deep bellowing voice roared through the room, and the man holding her released her quickly and surprisingly stepped in front of her.
“Step away from her,” Lord Craven ordered so sharply that it sent a shiver through the room.
The man went to speak.
“I will not tell you again, Dylan,” Lord Craven warned.
Dylan stepped aside reluctantly.
Lord Craven held his wife close against him, pressed his cheek, stained red with heated anger, to her cold one, then gently kissed her lips. “My love, my heart, and my life go with you, Aubrey.”
He laid her head tenderly on the pillow, brushing a strand of dark hair off her face to tuck behind her ear, an intimate gesture shared between husband and wife. He stared at her as though he waited for her to move, to speak, to open her eyes... to breathe.
He turned his head slowly toward Espy, then he flew across the room as if he had wings. His large hand grabbed her around the throat and with brutal force he slammed her high enough against the wall for them to be face to face, leaving her feet dangling several inches above the floor.
Pain shot through her back and head and for a moment her vision blurred and she thought he had knocked the breath out of her. Then she realized it was his hand squeezing at her throat that left her unable to breathe. Her hand shot to his, ripping at his fingers that were choking the life from her, but it did little good. The thick muscles along his arm were taut with such strength that she would never be able to budge him.
“I will have your life for what you did!”
His voice was a roar in her ears as she felt her life draining away. She heard voices yelling at him over and over. She could not understand what they shouted, but they did not stop.
Suddenly, she dropped to the floor and gasped loudly when breath was finally restored to her. She took great gulps like one so parched she could not get enough to drink. She winced, her breath barely recovered when she was abruptly hoisted off the floor, the grip on her arm feeling like an iron shackle pinching painfully at her skin.
“Leave my land and all the lands that surround me or I will see you tortured unmercifully before I make you suffer an unspeakable death.” He shoved her so hard that she fell to the floor. “Get out of my sight before I do what Aubrey would not want.”
Espy stumbled to her feet and went to speak.
“Say a word and I will cut out your tongue and eat it in front of you.”
Espy turned and hurried out the door and out of the keep, the frightening glare in Lord Craven’s dark eyes and his barbaric threat, proving he was more beast than man.