Commotion from the inner bailey startled Lilias from where she’d been staring blankly at the mortar between the stones in the wall. Riders. The guards calling out greetings. Horses huffed against the chinking of their tackle and their hooves clacked on the cobblestones.
Her body was heavy and her eyes still burned from the tears she’d shed. How was she going to stand to greet whomever it was that had come? All she wanted to do was curl up beside her mother and never let go. As much as she wanted to deny it, her mother, her pillar of strength, her champion, was dying. An affliction of the blood the physician said before he bled her and then left leaches to feed on her. A tumor, the healer contradicted, growing in her mother’s belly. Whichever it was, both the healer and the physician said it was not curable. They gave her tisanes to dull the discomfort, and broth because she could not eat whole foods.
Lilias’ father and brother did not mourn as deeply, or visibly, as she did, but she suspected that they had their own way of mourning that she wouldn’t ever understand. Father was drinking more ale than usual, deep in his cups by supper time each night. And Rauld spent much more time in the village with the lassies, coming home late at night, reeking of debauchery.
And Lilias was left to pick up the pieces.
So, what was the point in greeting uninvited guests when the most important person in her world was lying at death’s door?
“Go away,” she whispered to the air, imagining her words somehow swirling out the window, and dropping like a bucket of cold water on whoever it was. Never mind that her mother would not have wanted that. Never mind that even though she lay weak, her mother was still making demands of Lilias from her bed. Demands like how to be the lady of the castle, that she had to be strong for her brother and father, and even know, Lilias could hear her mother’s voice telling her to greet the strangers who’d come riding through their gates.
“My lady?” A guard stood in the doorway, his gaze leveled at her feet. “There is someone here to see your mother. Your father directed me to find ye.”
Lilias kept her voice disinterested, acting as though she’d not spent the last hour sobbing. “Who is it?”
“The ladies of MacDougall.”
The ladies of MacDougall? Why on earth would they be calling on her? The Lord of Isles was the liege lord of her father, and for certes, her father had traveled to Dunstaffnage before, but never had Laird MacDougall come to Castle Cameron, nor had the ladies. Could they be coming to pay their respects to her mother?
Lilias stood from her perch and swept her hands down the length of her skirts, smoothing out the wrinkles. “Please send them in.”
As soon as the guard was gone, she used the cuffs of her sleeves to wipe at her face. She smoothed her hair and pinched her cheeks. But even that amount of primping, would not be able to hide the swollen, redness of her eyes.
A moment later, two women swept into the room dressed in fine wool arisaids made up of MacDougall colors of red, green and blue. One was a bit older than the other. The elder Lady MacDougall had auburn hair with streaks of gray, pulled into a tight braided circlet and skin that was still mostly smooth save for a few creases around her eyes, and mouth. One could only tell her advanced age, close to seventy summers, by the sharp points of bone where skin sagged. Her beauty was one that remained no matter her age, with noble bone structure, that gave her a classic elegance. The younger lady was blonde, plump, and pretty. Perhaps nearing fifty summers. With smooth skin, creases at her watery blue eyes, she came off more kind and soft, than the older of the pair, who demanded respect and admiration.
“I am Lady Lilias,” she said, introducing herself and sweeping into a curtsy.
“Rise, child,” the older one said. “I am Lady Elle MacDougall, and this is my daughter-by-marriage, Lady Fenella, mother to the Laird of MacDougall, Lord of the Isles.”
Lady Fenella offered a soft greeting.
“I am pleased to welcome ye to Castle Cameron. Please have a seat. Can I get ye some refreshment?”
Lady Fenella took the seat she was offered, but Lady Elle remained standing. “Aye, thank ye, my lady. Refreshments would be nice as the roads were rather dusty. We’ve come to speak with your mother.”
“Please do sit.” Lilias swept her hand toward a carved, oak chair that her mother used to occupy. “I’ve only just finished with that cushion, and I would be honored if ye were the first to sit in it.”
Lady Elle examined the crimson finches embroidered on the cushion, with a smile that softened her briskness. She sat down, and folded her hands in her lap.
“My mother has been ill of late.” Lilias took a seat opposite the two ladies. “I hope ye dinna mind speaking to me instead.”
“Of course not. In fact,” Lady Elle smiled again, her demeanor engaging. “Ye were the verra reason we’ve come.”