Northern England, late winter, 1329
The wee bairn wept as bitter winds whipped down from the hills thrashing whirlwinds of snow around the feet of those gathered to pay their last respects. They were there to say goodbye to Laiden, the bairn’s mum.
The little girl clung to Moirra; her tiny face buried in the auld woman’s wool skirts. Moirra had been her mother’s best friend until the day she died. Now, she was the only good thing the child had left in the world and the only person who remained who would protect her from her father.
The bairn tried to be brave, as Moirra had told her she needed to be, but it wasn’t easy for someone so young. When Laiden had died, Moirra had made the sign of the cross, wiped tears from her wrinkled face, and told the bairn that her mother was in a much better place. Young though she was, the bairn wondered what better place could there be than here with her daughter?
The priest spoke in strange words the little girl did not understand. The tone of his voice and the lead colored sky matched the heaviness in her heart. He didn’t seem to be reading from the book he held in his claw-like hands; he seemed instead to have memorized the words. There was no sadness or feeling to his scratchy voice. The bairn did not care for the skinny man with the dull brown eyes and wished he would go away.
Perhaps, the bairn thought if she could just lie down next to her mum and warm her, then her mum could come back from the better place Moirra had told her of. Earlier that morning, she had shared her idea with Moirra. Tears had welled in the auld woman’s brown eyes before she gave the little girl a hug and told her, “’Twere it that simple lass, I woulda done it meself.”
They had been by Laiden’s side for days, had placed cold rags on her forehead, and covered her with blankets. They offered her warm broths and had prayed over her. None of the herbs the healer provided had worked. In the end, nothing had worked.
On the morning of her passing, Laiden must have known she was not long for this world. She begged and pleaded with Moirra to take care of her daughter. Moirra made the promise, a promise the bairn wished desperately the auld woman could keep.
She did not want to stay with her father and brothers. The three older brothers were mean to her, especially when no one was looking. They thought it quite funny to leave spiders in her pallet or to pull at her braids.
As a light snow began to fall, the bairn’s thoughts turned to the morrow, and all the morrows that would follow without her mum. Who would sing to her at night or comfort her when she was frightened? Who would tell her stories or care for her when she was ill? Who would teach her to weave or sew? Who would protect her from her father and brothers? She could only pray that it would be Moirra.
When the priest had finished speaking, the people gathered around her father. They gave him their condolences and offers of help should he need it. Broc stood somberly, nodding his head, but said nothing. He was a tall man and strong, but somehow he seemed small this day, and his skin looked nearly as ashen as Laiden’s had been when she died.
Long after the men had covered her mum’s body with stones, the bairn remained at her side. Her stomach hurt from missing her so much. The only thing that kept her from screaming out was the fear that even on this day, her father would send her to cut a switch with which to beat her. Such an outburst would not be tolerated, no matter the reasons behind it.
After a time, Moirra came and took her back to the bairn’s own cottage. Perhaps they were going to pack up what few belongings she had before they would go to Moirra’s home. She had, after all, made a promise.
The pain in the auld woman’s eyes when she asked her of it was quite evident. Moirra explained that first she must speak to Broc and together they would make the decision as to where she would live and who would care for her.
Moirra tucked the bairn into her pallet by the fire and pulled the blankets snuggly under her chin. Had this been a normal day, the bairn would have pleaded for permission to forgo her afternoon rest. Today however, was not a normal day. Moirra told her not to worry, that all would be well. The bairn wanted very much to believe her.
After night had fallen and the candles were lit, the bairn feigned sleep. She stayed quiet and hidden under her blankets as she listened to Broc and Moirra argue over what was to become of her.
“How are you goanna teach her about things when she’s no longer a bairn but a full grown lass? Have you thought of that Broc?” Moirra asked, frustrated with his obstinacy.
Broc would not listen. He would not let anyone take Laiden’s daughter. It wasn’t out of devotion to his dead wife that he kept the child, there were other reasons; reasons he could not share. While it was true that he had loved Laiden, loved her with all that he was, she had not been able to return those feelings. After all these years, after all he had done for her, he could not lay claim to that which he wanted most -- her love. Her heart, right up until the end, had always belonged to another.
The bairn could not understand why this cold, distant man refused to let her live with Moirra. She had known her whole life, short as it was to this point, that the man held no good feelings towards her. She was always in the way and stealing her mother’s affections from him. He never hid his resentment toward her for it.
Had the bairn been blessed with the ability to read minds, she would have known that it was guilt and fear that drove Broc. Guilt for a lie he had told long ago in order to keep Laiden for himself and the fear of being found out that kept him from letting the child go.
“Nay!” Broc’s voice rose with anger. “I’ll not hear of it!”
The next words that Moirra spoke were words that would change the little girl’s life forever. “I promised Laiden on her death bed that I would take care of her daughter! Why do you want the child, when you be not her real father?”
The child froze with uncertainty, fear, and dread. Surely she must have misunderstood.
A low growl came from Broc’s throat. “I be more of a da to her than her own woulda been! I be the only da she knows and that is how it shall remain. I’ll not hear anymore of the matter. Now be gone with ye auld woman!”
When Moirra left the cottage she took the bairn’s heart with her. Only five summers old, she was bright enough to figure out that her life would never be the same. The grief and anguish she felt at losing her mother increased a hundredfold the moment she realized she would never be allowed to live with Moirra.
As she lay hidden under the blankets, her mind asked questions her heart could not answer. Sadness, blended with the dread in her heart, formed into quiet tears that spilled down her small cheeks. She prayed that God would keep her safe and would protect her from her father’s wrath. God would have to, for He was the only one left who could.