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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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About the Author
Hansel and Gretel Retold
A tale in the Romance a Medieval Fairy Tale series
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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For all the other couples who've ever been mistaken for brother and sister
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2018 Demelza Carlton
Lost Plot Press
All rights reserved.
"What about that plant? Can you tell me its properties?" Mother asked, pointing.
Rhona eyed the yellow flowers. "Tansy. Useful to combat gout or help a woman lose an unwanted child. We use it in tansy cakes and to scent the rushes on the floor on feast days."
"It can also be used to dye cloth in shades of yellow and green," Mother said.
Rhona sighed. "I will never remember them all."
Mother turned and smiled. "Of course you will. One day. It takes practice, is all. There are books at home full of this, but your head needs to be full of it, too, for you won't have the book in the woods with you." She pointed at a plant with downy leaves. "What of that one?"
Rhona glared at the plant. "A stinging nettle. The young plants can be boiled and eaten, and the older ones can be soaked and the fibres woven into cloth. Best to wear gloves when you pick it, though." She had made that mistake once, and had no intention of doing so again. Nettles hurt.
"And that – " Mother gave a cry as her horse stumbled, and she tumbled from the saddle.
Rhona slid from her horse and dashed to Mother. She lay face down, with a spreading pool of blood beneath her.
Rhona shook Mother's shoulder, and she'd never been so relieved to hear a groan in her life. "What should I do, Mother?" Rhona asked urgently.
"Use your magic, and get me home," Mother whispered.
"But you said..." Rhona snapped her mouth shut. She was old enough to know that her mother changed her mind when circumstances required it. "Very well."
Rhona took a deep breath, then bit her lip. The breeze came the instant she summoned it, plucking her clothing as it passed, but saving most of its power for Mother. She let the air currents lift Mother back onto her horse, but the animal shied as soon as it smelled blood. The frightened horse bolted, and Mother fell a second time.
This time, she didn't move.
Rhona sent another gust of wind, stronger this time, to pick Mother up and bring her to Rhona's own horse. Rhona's gelding was an old warhorse who shied at nothing, even as he was made to carry two women instead of one.
"Mother, should I go slowly, so I don't hurt you more, or should I hurry, to get you home faster?" Rhona asked.
That meant Mother wouldn't feel the jolting if they galloped, and they would arrive sooner. Rhona kneed her horse into flight, and the gelding willingly obeyed.
It was both the longest and the shortest ride of her life. Rhona shouted for help as she arrived at her father's house. Her arms ached from holding tight to her mother, but she refused to let go until Mother was in better hands than hers. Healer's hands, hopefully. Someone who knew how to stop the bleeding, for all Rhona's knowledge of herbs had fled when her mother fell.
"Rhona needs a healer, too!" someone shouted. Her oldest sister, Nuala.
Rhona shook her head irritably. "I'm fine. It's Mother who needs help."
"Why are you all covered in blood, then?" Nuala demanded with all the force of a twelve-year-old demanding to be considered a capable adult.
Rhona glanced down. The front of her dress was stained red. "Mother," she choked out, and ran for Mother's bedchamber. Nuala was hot on her heels.
Mother's eyes fluttered open. "Go get the other children, and your father," she said.
Rhona moved to obey, but Mother caught her sleeve. "No. Nuala, not you."
"I am sorry, mistress, but there is nothing more I can do. We can only wait," the healer said.
Mother nodded and waved the man out.
"I'm sorry. I should have gotten you here faster. I should have – " Rhona began.
Mother hushed her. "I do not have much time, he says. I lost too much blood. No one could save me, not even you. To think I'd hoped to give your father a son...but now I never will, and the babe will die with me. Just like my sister."
"Aunt Brigid – "
"Was no aunt to you, though she was my sister. She protected me as only she could, and so when she died, I swore to protect you. Now...it is your turn." Mother winced, then went on, "You must protect your sisters from whatever comes, but especially from Alban invaders. But you cannot use your powers, or they will know."
Rhona almost didn't want to ask, but she had to know. "Know what?"
"That I am not your mother. Brigid was."
"And my father...?"
"Is still your father. When the Albans attacked our home, I was already betrothed to him, his virgin bride, but the Albans...they..." Mother swallowed. "Brigid found me, too late to stop them. She swore she would protect me after that, but when it came to my own husband...the man I loved, I could not stand to have a man touch me. So she...pretended to be me, in the dark. We hid her pregnancy from your father and I told him you were mine. He does not know, and if he were ever to find out...I fear it would break his heart. He can never know you are a witch like Brigid. Never. But you must protect your sisters, like I protected you. Promise me!"
"Mother, I – "
Rhona fought to hold back her tears. "I swear on my father's life that I will protect my sisters."
Mother – no, Aunt Blanid – subsided. "Thank you."
Then Sive, Maeve and Father arrived with Nuala, and all Blanid had time for were whispered words of love and farewell for her family before she left this world.
Then Rhona wept with her half-sisters, for they had all lost a mother that day, and life would never be the same again.
"Tell us a story!" Sive demanded.
Nuala rolled her eyes at her youngest sister, but Rhona fought back tears. Blanid would have told her daughters a story to help them sleep, and Rhona had promised to take care of them.
Rhona moistened her lips. "How about the tale of the Three Little Pigs?"
Nuala gave the smallest nod, but Rhona caught it. This had always been Nuala's favourite.
"Once upon a time, there were three girls," Rhona began. "As alike as piglets, all born together, and none could tell them apart. Their mother had died when they were but babies, so a nurse cared for them. One day, when their father and all his household were busy preparing for a feast, the three sisters escaped into the woods, unseen. The nurse searched high and low, but could not find them anywhere. The girls had found a pond, hidden deep in the woods, where they began to play, not hearing the calls of their nurse or the other searchers. But it was a hot day, and a young wolf, separated from his pack, was thirsty, so he, too, was drawn to the pond to drink. And he found the three girls, playing in the mud. He snapped at one of them, but she was so covered in mud, she slipped free of his grasp, pulling her sisters deeper into the water where the wolf could not go. So the wolf, hungry and angry that his dinner had run away to where he could not reach it, set up such a howling that soon all those around heard it. Including the nurse, up at their father's house. When she heard that terrible sound, so close to the house, she thought of the girls. She took up a branch from one of the bonfires, and set off into the woods. She reached the pond, and when she saw the wolf on the edge, she beat him until she drove him off. Then she called the girls out of the water, but the frightened children wouldn't come. Finally, their father came, and the girls were dragged from the mud, looking more like pigs than human children, and forever after, they were known as the Three Little Pigs. Their father made them promise never to run away again, and the younger two agreed, but to this very day, the eldest has refused to give him her promise, and 'tis said that one day she will succeed her father as Lord of the Isles."
Maeve snorted. "That's not true. Girls can't be lords. She'll be a lady, and her husband will be the lord."
"She's already a lady. She doesn't need a husband for that," Nuala said, her eyes shining. This was why she loved the story so much, Rhona thought. Nuala had the true heart of a woman of the Isles, who would never be her husband's inferior. If she chose to marry at all.
"All girls must have husbands, Mother says. To protect them," Sive said. Then her lip wobbled and her eyes filled with tears. "Mother!"
All three girls took up the wail, for they would never forget. Tonight the loss was fresh in their minds, and no story could soften that loss.
As Rhona's much longer arms wrapped around her sisters, she thought again of the Three Little Pigs. Three sisters, like the girls in her arms. Which made her the nurse with the stick, in accordance with Aunt Blanid's dying wish.
Rhona swore she would wield a mighty stick indeed, should any wolf seek to hurt her family. A blazing brand to set his fur on fire.
The moment Grieve saw her, he knew he was in love.
Bedelia, Lord Calum's only daughter, a dark-haired girl ripe with curves in the all the right places. She blushed rosily as she offered a curtsey to Grieve and his older brother, Mahon.
Lord Lewis, their father, talked of marriage alliances and taking the girl on a tour of the island. Both brothers had heartily agreed to take Bedelia on the tour, and so it was settled.
Yet they had scarcely set out before a rider came galloping up to speak to Mahon on an urgent matter that simply would not wait. With a curse and an apology to Bedelia, Mahon turned his horse around and headed to where he was needed most. One day, he would succeed Lord Lewis as the lord of Myroy Isle, and he shouldered many of his father's duties in the meantime.
But that left Bedelia to Grieve, who thanked fate profusely, as he proceeded to show the girl the beauties of the northernmost of the Southern Isles. None of the views he presented to her compared to his own view, though – of the rosy cheeked maiden smiling at all she surveyed.
She spoke of her brothers, and how different life was at Langroy Isle, far to the south, so close to Alba you could see it across the water on a clear day. If Grieve sometimes lost track of her words, he blamed the lovely lilt of her voice, that turned his mind into a blissful fog of possibilities.
If he could persuade this girl to fall in love with him as readily as he'd fallen for her, the marriage alliance Father had spoken of would be more than just talk.
And he would have all those lovely curves in his bed...
Grieve daydreamed until dusk, when they returned home again, for the welcome feast Father had promised Bedelia.
She had the place of honour at Father's side, displacing Mahon, who sat between Bedelia and Grieve.
Grieve comforted himself with the thought that the next day, he would have her all to himself again, as they toured the western shores of Myroy, for Mahon would surely be called away for more important things again, leaving Bedelia and Grieve alone for love to blossom.
Father must have planned it this way, Grieve was certain of it.
Mahon was at least five years her senior, while Grieve was only a few months younger than Bedelia. Young for marriage, but not too young.
And Bedelia liked him, while she scarcely said a word to Mahon. Why, she could not even look at him for more than a moment. Whereas she'd shared plenty of smiles with Grieve while they rode together.
Yes, Grieve thought as he looked at her. Bedelia was his happily ever after, and nothing fate could do would change that.
"Girls, I'd like you to meet my new wife and your new stepmother, Doireann. She has sworn to be a good mother to you girls, after your own was so cruelly taken from us." Father pushed the diminutive dark-haired woman forward. "Say hello."
Nuala, Sive and Maeve chorused their greetings, but Rhona merely nodded. She and her father had discussed the woman before he'd agreed to marry her. Doireann was a widow from Scitis Isle, whose husband had died defending their holding from Alban raiders. A fitting stepmother for her sisters, Father had said and Rhona had agreed, but Rhona had not realised she would be so young. Why, Doireann was only a few years older than Rhona herself.
Perhaps Father hoped to sire a son on the girl. As though she would want another child to care for while she was still busy with Nuala, Maeve and Sive. Sive was scarcely out of swaddling clothes, or so it seemed to Rhona.
"Perhaps you can all go berry picking in the woods tomorrow," Father suggested.
"They aren't ripe enough yet. In a week, would be better," Rhona said.
Father nodded sagely. "In a week, then. Doireann will be settled then, won't you?"
Doireann nodded obediently.
Overwhelmed by so much at once, Rhona guessed. She would be the same, if she married a lord who already had children.
Hope blossomed. Perhaps that was what Father had in mind. Giving the girls a stepmother, so that he might free Rhona herself for marriage. Not that she'd met a man she wanted yet, and Father would not press her into a marriage she did not want. No matter who her mother had been, Rhona was still a woman of the Southern Isles, a woman who chose her own fate and who she might marry.
Doireann was given chambers adjacent to the one Sive and Maeve shared. Not Blanid's room beside Father. She raised no complaint, and meekly did as she was bid. In fact, she said little or nothing, hardly daring to raise her eyes from the floor.
Maybe she was in mourning as much as Father was.
Rhona left her stepmother to her own devices and returned to her embroidery. She hated sewing with a passion, but someone had to teach Maeve, and Nuala would not. Nuala had claimed the dairy as her domain, for churning butter and cheesemaking were her favourite chores. Blanid had approved, and Rhona saw no need to interfere. She liked fresh butter and cheese as much as the next girl, though perhaps not as much as Sive liked drinking fresh cream. A habit Rhona had not yet managed to cure her of, though her stepmother might have more success.
"You may go," Doireann said grandly to Ciara and Siobhan.
The two maids looked at each other, then Rhona.
"Return to your duties at the house, but leave the pony and the baskets," Doireann continued, growing impatient.
Berry picking was something the whole household did, from the lowest servant to the highest lady, or it had been for as long as Rhona could remember. They all ate their fill while filling their baskets, for berries were a summer treat that didn't last for long.
Remembering her father's admonition to make her stepmother feel welcome, Rhona forced a reassuring smile for the two girls. "I'll leave some for you to pick on the morrow, I promise. We shall manage. The girls are much bigger now, so they can carry a basket each." It would have to be a very small basket for Sive, or a very empty one, Rhona thought as she watched Maeve take Sive's hand to show her which berries to pick.
Nuala headed off on her own, swinging a large basket by her side as she selected the best looking bush.
Ciara and Siobhan mumbled something and headed home. Only then did Doireann take up a basket of her own. Ignoring the others, she proceeded to strip a bush on the far side of the clearing.
Rhona sighed and followed suit, only to find Doireann deliberately moving away from her, deeper into the forest, leaving her bushes half-picked. A quick glance told Rhona that her sisters were doing fine without her, so she followed Doireann. Deeper and deeper, until they were surrounded by trees and there wasn't a berry bush in sight.
"The berries are all back there," Rhona said, pointing.
Doireann waved away her words. "Let the children pick berries. I must find the holy spring. I know it's here. They say it was blessed by Saint Columba himself, and sprang up at his touch, and one cup will make any woman fertile, no matter how barren she may be. I heard Lady Catriona of Isla drank the miraculous waters of it on her wedding night, and that was the reason she gave birth to triplets."
Rhona shook her head. "I've never heard of such a spring. And Saint Columba didn't like women, so it does not seem likely he would work that sort of miracle. Especially not here. He feared the witch women of Nimbanmore."
Doireann scoffed, "There are no witches left in the world, least of all here. The faithful wiped such wicked creatures out centuries ago!"
Rhona wondered what the woman would say if she told her stepmother that magic was alive and well, coursing through her blood in readiness for when it was wanted, but she held her tongue. Blanid had told her to hide it, and hide it she would. No one must ever know.
"But the miraculous spring is real. It must be. I shall find it, and drink from it, so that I might bear Lord Ronin a son!" Doireann ducked between two trees, then trotted down a slope.
Rhona glanced back at her sisters. They were already out of sight. If she followed her stepmother, the girls would not know where they had gone. "Doireann, wait. The girls..."
"Go back to the children! I will find this spring on my own. It's not like you need it. You have no husband yet! Wait for me in the clearing. I shall not be long," Doireann called back before she disappeared from sight.
Rhona was torn. If something happened to her stepmother, her father would never forgive her. But if anything happened to her sisters...alone in the woods...Rhona would not forgive herself, and nor would Blanid. Wishing she didn't have to, Rhona said, "Very well. We shall wait."
Her dread-filled heart weighed more than her empty berry basket as Rhona returned to her sisters.
"Where is she?" Nuala asked, popping berries into her already stained mouth.
"Doireann has gone for a walk in the woods by herself. She wants us to wait here for her," Rhona said.
"More berries for us!" Sive cheered. Her hands and face were so covered in berry juice, she looked like she'd slaughtered a pig. Or a piglet, perhaps.
Rhona managed a smile for her sisters. "Let's see who can pick the most before she comes back."
Twilight came, with no sign of Doireann. Rhona had spread a blanket upon the ground, and Sive lay on it, snoring softly. Maeve looked like she wanted to join her, and even Rhona longed for her bed. Nuala was determined to pick berries until the last of the light was gone, but that time was fast approaching.
Finally, Nuala plopped herself down beside Sive. "I wish I'd brought a cloak. I'm cold," she announced.
"I'd prefer a fire," Maeve said. "Much warmer."
Rhona could not magic a cloak into being, but she could build a fire. The warm day meant there was some tinder and a few sticks, but not much. A fallen tree held plenty of timber to burn in its broken branches, but Rhona had not thought to bring anything with which to light the fire.
Nevertheless, she piled up a collection of fuel, then crouched over it so she hid it from her sisters' sight. Only then did she dare bite her lip and unleash the most powerful part of her magic.
The log blazed to life, as though Rhona had added it to a roaring fireplace and not a cold nest of sticks.
Maeve clapped her hands. "Thank you, Rhona!" She stretched out her fingers to the blaze.
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