Champion of the Heart – Chapter One
Ten Years Later
Jordan entered the small house, throwing her hood off her shoulders. Her cloak was damp from the misty rain that permeated the night air. She removed the cloak quickly and tossed it onto the table in the center of the room.
She stepped past the pan set at one end of the table. It had been put there weeks ago to catch the drips that fell from a hole in the thatched roof. For the past month, she had told Abagail to have it fixed, but she had never gotten around to it, and Jordan knew it was for good reason. The children were quite a handful. This time, she didn’t comment on it as she moved to one of the two doors situated on the far wall.
An elderly woman with gray hair and wrinkled skin stepped before her. “Lady Jordan,” she said, wringing her hands. Age spots freckled her loose skin, dotting the backs of her hands with spots of light and dark brown.
“How is she, Abagail?” Jordan demanded, her eyes on the door over the woman’s shoulder.
“Maggie can wait for the moment,” Abagail said. “I just checked on her.”
Jordan looked down at Abagail for the first time that night. She had dark rings beneath her blue eyes, and her usually neatly wrapped bun had strands of gray hair poking out wildly from the back of her head. She reached over to a nearby table and handed Jordan a candle, jerking her head at the other door.
Jordan swiveled her gaze to the other door. It was slightly ajar, and in the darkness, Jordan saw four pairs of wide eyes watching her. She cast one longing look at the door over Abagail’s shoulder before moving toward the other door.
Jordan heard little feet scampering through the room as she opened the door, blankets being whisked aside, small voices muttering to be quiet. A ray of light fell across the room from the candle Jordan held in her hand. The weak circle of light illuminated two large straw beds, one on each side of the small room. Forms huddled beneath the blankets. They were moving around far too much to be asleep.
Jordan entered the room and moved up to one of the beds, setting the candle down on a nearby table.
“Is Maggie going to die?” a small voice wondered.
The thought sent agony through Jordan’s heart but she masked her worry and turned to the other bed and the owner of that small voice. “No, Kara. Maggie is just very, very sick.”
A thick set of dark curls emerged from beneath the blanket, then Kara’s big hazel eyes. “I know. That’s what the physician said.”
“Mistress Abagail said we can’t see her,” another older voice complained.
Jordan turned her gaze to the first bed to meet the stare of a dark-haired boy. “And she’s right, John. Maggie is too sick for visitors right now.”
“When will she be better?” John asked, throwing the covers to his lap and sitting up.
Jordan sighed at John’s question. She wished she knew the answer. “I don’t know,” she said quietly.
“But we heard the doctor say she needed herbs from far away.”
Jordan nodded at Ana’s statement, turning to address the blue-eyed eight year old in the opposite bed. “She does. Sir Evan is riding out to get them tonight. He should return by morning.”
“What if he doesn’t?” Jason wondered.
Jordan turned her gaze to the small boy beside John. He was usually so vibrant but he seemed withdrawn now. “All right,” Jordan said, trying to hide just how much Jason’s question unnerved her. “That’s enough questions for tonight.” She moved to one of the beds, pulling the cover up over the two boys. “I’ll be here all night.” She bent to press kisses to John’s and Jason’s cheeks. Then she crossed the room to the other bed. “Don’t worry about Maggie. I’ll stay with her.” Jordan pulled the blanket up to cover Ana and Kara, pausing to press a kiss to baby Emily’s cheek, who was sleeping like a little angel, though the two year old had more of the devil in her. Jordan kissed Kara and Ana.
Kara pushed the blanket aside to show Jordan the straw mattress, and pointed to an empty spot on the mattress. “I’m saving Maggie’s spot for her.”
Jordan smiled down at her. “You do that, Kara,” she said softly. “Keep it warm for her.”
Jordan walked to the door.
“Lady Jordan!” Kara called, stopping Jordan. “The door.”
“I know, Kara,” she whispered. “I’ll leave it open a little.”
Jordan stepped from the room and set the candle down on a table, leaving the door open a crack to let some light spill into the room for the children. They so hated the dark, she knew, especially with what was happening to one of their friends. It made the dark that much darker, the quiet that much quieter. She could feel the anxiety and fear in her heart, too.
She stared at the other door for a moment, afraid of what she would find on the other side. She willed herself to be strong and took a deep breath before walking to the other door. She pushed the door open slowly, trying to be quiet. The old wood creaked despite her best efforts.
The room was dark, the only illumination coming from a candle that was in danger of going out at any moment. The sputtering flame cast sinister shadows on the wooden walls. To Jordan’s overtired mind, they looked like hovering black ghosts waiting to claim the dead. She quickly forced that unpleasant thought away and stepped deeper into the room. In the corner was Abagail’s bed, a comfortable straw mattress. But the figure on it was far too small to be Abagail.
Jordan hurried over to the mattress. Maggie was still and pale in the candlelight, her brown curls laying limply around her head. The edge of the thick wool blanket was folded beneath her small hands, as if she had not moved in a very long time.
Jordan knelt beside the mattress, taking the girl’s tiny hand into her own. Maggie was only four years old. She had her whole life ahead of her. It wasn’t fair. Jordan brushed the hair back from Maggie’s forehead and was shocked at how warm the little girl felt. Heat emanated from the girl’s skin before Jordan even touched her.
Tears rushed into Jordan’s eyes and she silently begged Evan to hurry.
Maggie’s eyes fluttered and then opened to mere slits. “Lady Jordan,” she managed to whisper, although it seemed to take all her strength to do so.
“Yes, Maggie,” Jordan whispered. “It’s me. Don’t talk. Save your strength.”
“I’m so cold,” Maggie said.
Fear shriveled any glimmer of hope in Jordan’s heart, and she climbed into bed with Maggie, pulling the child tightly against her, making sure the blanket was wrapped around every inch of the little girl’s body. She rubbed Maggie’s hot forehead.
“I don’t feel well,” Maggie whispered.
“I know, sweetheart,” Jordan soothed. She rubbed her cheek against Maggie’s hot one. “I know.”
Maggie’s eyes slowly closed again.
Jordan’s eyes again filled with tears. Maggie had been with her the longest. She had been abandoned at the castle as an infant, barely able to walk. She would have died if Jordan hadn’t found her and nursed her back to health. She was the reason Jordan had convinced her father to give her the old run-down Johnson cottage to shelter the children who had no families. She worked a small patch of garden in the castle so they would have food to survive on and mended their clothing so they wouldn’t be cold. They were the abandoned children. The children no one wanted except for her. Maggie had given Jordan’s life a true purpose.
And now she was unable to help the poor girl. She could do nothing for her but hold her and hope Evan made it back in time. He had to get the herbs. The physician had said that only the herbs would save Maggie’s life.
Maggie groaned softly.
“Shh,” Jordan whispered. “It will be all right,” she said as much to Maggie as to herself. “Everything will be fine.”
But it would not be all right. Everything would not be fine. For what happened that night in the dark moonlight on a desolate road would change Jordan Ruvane’s life forever.
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