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Rhona did not sleep well, so she slipped into the stillroom for some willow bark to ease her headache on her way to breakfast. Dealing with Doireann and a headache was more than any saint could be expected to endure, and Rhona was certainly no saint.
Yet as she entered, she had the distinct feeling that something was wrong. The drawers were not all closed properly, and she made a particular point of shutting her jars away from all light so that the herbs might keep for longer. The books were out of order, too – Blanid's carefully drawn herbals, listing every plant she'd ever heard of, and quite a few that Rhona knew would never grow on Rum Isle. Rhona knew them by heart, of course, but occasionally she still checked some of the more exotic ones before administering them to anyone. She didn't know how her grandparents had procured some of the plants they possessed, but they'd made sure Blanid's stillroom held everything their own garden could supply.
"Lady Rhona, her ladyship demands to know when you are ready," Ciara said.
After Belen took up the title, they'd all started doing it, and Rhona could not bring herself to tell them to stop. They didn't look at her differently, nor curtsey at her like she was some princess, but now they came to her as they must have once come to Blanid. The message was clear – the staff saw Rhona as the lady of the house, not Doireann. It earned her more of Doireann's dark looks, even as it lessened the weight of her father's disappointment, just a little, but not enough to make her feel safe in her own home again.
And now someone had been through her herbs – since she'd left the stillroom last night.
"Ciara, did you or any of the others come in here last night, or this morning? Perhaps to get some willow bark, or herbs for cooking?"
Ciara shook her head. "Not me, mistress. I wouldn't know one herb from the other."
"But the herbs are all in my books, and I was still abed. You or one of the others might have opened one of the herbals to read…" Rhona stopped when she realised Ciara has trying to smother a laugh. "What is it?"
"You forget, Lady Rhona, that the only ladies who can read in the house are you and your sisters. Unless it was a matter of life or death, we would all let you sleep, and ask you for what was needed when you woke."
Of course. No wonder the girl laughed. Her sisters would wake her if they wanted something, knowing they would have it faster from her than from a lot of tiresome reading. "What of Doireann?" Rhona asked urgently.
Ciara shrugged. "I do not know. But surely she would summon you if she wanted something…"
Unless Doireann wanted something she did not want Rhona to know about. Medicines could be poisons if used in the wrong dosage, as Rhona knew well.
"Have my sisters come down for breakfast?" Rhona asked.
"Yes. Her ladyship insisted. Then she asked for some small cups so that they could all drink a special cordial…"
Rhona swore. Whether by design or mistake, Doireann might have poisoned the girls already. "Tell her I'm coming." She rummaged through the bottles, but she couldn’t be sure which one Doireann had taken. Unlike the cupboards, the bottles appeared untouched. Everything seemed to be there, unless Doireann had poured the contents of one into a bottle of her own. And Rhona wouldn't know which bottle to check – it wasn't like she kept track of how much was in each one. Blanid might have known, but she wasn't here now.
Rhona paused to grab a cloak before heading outside, where Doireann sat on the box seat of a cart. A cart full of chests and casks, which were occupied by her bleary-eyed sisters. Sleepy from being woken too early, or because they'd been drugged?
Please, don't let it be the second, Rhona prayed silently as she approached the cart. "It will take longer by cart," Rhona said.
"I am not leaving my things here to be stolen by raiders. Show me to the place where we will be safe!" Doireann insisted.
Reluctantly, Rhona climbed onto the cart beside her sisters and they set off down the road, or what passed for one on Rum Isle.
"Which way?" Doireann demanded every time they reached a fork where the cart tracks went more than one way.
Rhona would respond with right or left or to continue straight, until she felt as drowsy as her sisters in the summer heat. She'd brought a cloak, but perhaps she should have thought to bring a hat.
"I'm thirsty," Sive announced.
Before Rhona could stop her, Maeve uncorked a flask and held it to her sister's lips. Sive gulped the liquid down, her eyelids drooping, before she slid off her box and lay down on the bottom of the cart, sound asleep. Beside Nuala, Rhona realised in horror. Then Maeve picked up the flask and drained the contents. She toppled to the floor, too.
Rhona snatched the flask from Maeve's slack fingers. "What did you give them?" She inhaled deeply at the lip of the bottle, trying to discern the contents. Strong spirits burned the inside of her nostrils, softened by the scent of lavender. That couldn't be all she'd given them. Some poisons had no odour, but one could taste them…
"Just a draught to put them to sleep, so that they will stay quiet. Now, tell me where Rum Isle hides its riches, and nothing worse will happen to them," Doireann said, her eyes flashing.
"Rum Isle's secrets are known only to its own. You may have married my father, but you will never be one of us," Rhona spat. She tipped up the flask and let a drop of the treacherous liquor fall onto her tongue. Spirit burn and lavender sweetness, without the one thing Rhona dreaded – the bitter gall of opium from the Holy Land. Perhaps Doireann had not found it yet. As it was, the liquor was a strong sleeping potion, no more, that would leave the user with a hangover and headache when they awoke, at worst. She let the flask slip from her fingers.
Just in time to see something dark blot out the sun before it collided with her head, and all the lights went out.
* * *
It seemed almost no time at all before the final feast was over and the Council dispersed to go home. Grieve rode with Dermot, Damhan and the boy whose name was Brian, while his father lagged behind, discussing serious matters with Lord Ronin. At least, they looked serious – Father could be discussing a chess match with the man, for all Grieve knew.
Ships lined up in the harbour, waiting for the tide to take them all home.
Grieve made to follow Father to their vessel, but Father shook his head. "You're to go with Lord Ronin. He needs an archery instructor for his men, as he has no sons of his own. Albans will strike at Rum Isle before they make it to Myroy, you may be sure, so it behoves the lords of the inner isles to keep up their defences to give the rest of us warning in the event they send more than a raiding party."
Lord Ronin inclined his head. "Your father tells me you have the makings of a good master-at-arms, young Grieve, and some skills with a bow."
Grieve lifted his chin proudly. "I have trained my father's men since I came to manhood, Lord Ronin, and I was easily the best archer among the boys on shore today. But with practice, they might be able to match my skill."
Father laughed. "He'll never be good at chess, like I told you. Too forthright for playing at politics. But I hope he will be just the man you need, Ronin." He gave the command for his crew to raise the sail and was soon out in the bay, out of earshot.
No word of farewell, or when Grieve might be allowed to come home. Maybe never.
Lord Ronin eyed Grieve. "We shall see. Come, boy. You're too old to be a proper page or fosterling, but still young enough that I can call you my squire. Master-at-arms and other such offices can wait until you've had time to prove yourself."
"Yes, my lord. And I will," Grieve swore.
Lord Ronin smiled. "Good man. Climb aboard." He gestured toward his boat.
For a moment, Grieve was lost. An unproven boy, a new squire, a good man…what was he really? He had no home, and no family around him any more.
Time to choose his own fate. Grieve strode aboard the ship bound for Rum Isle, vowing to show Lord Ronin, his father and any other man with eyes to see that he would prove he was every bit as good as his brother. Better, maybe.
* * *
The bright summer's day had given way to miserable weather, but the rain pattering on the ground was nothing to the drumming inside Rhona's head. Rhona groaned, sat up, then groaned again.
"Where are we?" Nuala asked.
Rhona blinked. Her sisters huddled together under a pine tree. Of course, they hadn't thought to drag her under shelter, too. Then again, if they'd drunk enough strong spirits to send them to sleep, they wouldn't feel much better than she did right now. In no shape to be dragging anyone's body.
"Not at home, where we should be," Rhona grumbled. She shuffled under the tree with her sisters. Only now did she realise fog had crept over the island, as it did on days like this. They could be spitting distance from home, and she would not be able to see it.
Rhona bit her lip, hoping to stir up a breeze to improve visibility.
"I'm cold!" Sive moaned, climbing into Nuala's lap.
Rhona let the breeze swirl away into the woods. Yes, the fog lifted just enough to show the tree trunks before it was all whiteness once more. They could not be far from the edge, if Doireann had dumped them from the cart. She would not have had the strength to drag Rhona far from the road, unless she'd had help.
But who on Rum Isle would help Doireann against Lord Ronin's children? No one Rhona knew. And as the mistress of Blanid's stillroom, she knew everyone on the island.
"We must wait for the fog to clear, and then we will find shelter from the rain. I'm sure there is a cottage or croft quite close, but we might miss it in the mist. Once we know where we are, we can go home," Rhona promised.
"Can you tell us a story to pass the time?" Maeve asked.
"The Three Little Pigs?"
Maeve shook her head. "Something else. Something new. We have heard that tale too many times."
And there would be no nurse come to save them today, Rhona knew. It would be up to her and her sisters to find their way home. She thought of the tale Belen had told her, the first night she'd called her Lady Rhona. That might do. "Have you heard the tale of Hansel and Gretel?"
The girls shook their heads.Rhona drew in a deep breath. "Once upon a time…"
Would you like to read more?
An unlikely duo. A wicked witch. Whatever it takes to find their way home.
Once upon a time…
Rhona is certain her stepmother wants to kill her and her sisters, and she’ll stop at nothing to do it. Leaving them in the woods alone, drugging their food and drink…is nothing safe?
Bitter at his brother’s betrothal, Grieve is banished to Rum Island as a squire to Rhona’s father. Grieve thought he had enough trouble with Rhona’s stepmother and the threat of war with Alba, until a witch takes Grieve and Rhona prisoner.
Can Rhona and Grieve survive long enough to find their happily ever after?
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