THE LADY'S BLESSING
by Liz Botts
In May of 1812, American militiamen raid Felicity Hawthorne’s home in British Canada. Life as she knows it ends: her mother is killed, her brother is taken captive, and her father is injured. In a matter of weeks her father decides to send her to England to live with her mother’s parents. He sends her in the care of Lord Graham Blessington, who has been serving in the Royal Navy as he runs away from the pain of his life back home.
After an eventful sea voyage, fate intervenes, allowing Graham and Felicity the chance to spend more time together, along with his small daughter. As she becomes deeply attached to the pair, Felicity must decide if she will go back to London to submit to social expectations or if she will follow her heart.
Liz Botts was born, raised, and still lives in northern Illinois with her husband and three small children (two boys and a baby girl). When not writing, she enjoys reading, sewing, trying new recipes, and hanging with her kids. She is proud to pass her love of stories on to her children, and makes several trips to the library each week. After working with teenagers for several years, she decided to write stories about them instead.
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The sound of gunfire broke the damp early morning air. My eyes flew open as I tried to orient myself. A thunderous knocking at the door nearly caused the latch-pin to burst from the hook. Father sprang from his bed and immediately reached for the musket that stood ever at the ready. The boots of his uniform lay slumped in the middle of the floor. I could just make out their outline from my bed in the corner. To my surprise Father deftly skirted them, making his way to the door as quietly as he could. The banging continued, accompanied by harsh shouts in an American accent. I shuddered.
“Fliss, get down.”
My brother, James, appeared at my bedside and scooped me, blankets and all, onto the floor with him. With the barrier of the bed between us and the door, I craned my neck to see through the dimness, only lit by the glow of the banked fire. Father crouched next to the door, carefully and calmly loading his gun.
I tried to recall if Father had mentioned anything that could explain this situation. He had come home from the fort late, just as dusk settled her rosy fingers over the valley. We had already eaten our supper, but Mama served him a meal while he sagged wearily at the table. James had been whittling a new knife handle by the fire while I worked on a cross stitch piece to send back to my grandmother in England.
Father had let out a heavy sigh, closed his eyes, and leaned his head back on his chair. Mama had laid a hand on his shoulder, and he covered it with his much larger hand. They stood that way for only the briefest second, but in that fleeting moment I saw the love that had driven my mother to leave her privileged life in London to move to the wilds of a new continent with two small children while my father served as commander of the new fort in British Canada.
“Is it as bad as we’ve heard?” Mama’s soft voice seemed to boom in the silent cabin.
I raised my eyes a fraction of an inch to meet my brother’s gaze. He wasn’t looking at me, though. His hand had stilled mid-movement and his eyes were wide as he waited for Father’s answer. None of us drew a breath as Father straightened in his chair and opened his eyes.
“Worse.” His voice sounded coarse. “The Americans have been skirmishing all along the border. They have already killed three. If this continues, war seems a certainty.”
“Do we have the resources for a war, Father?” James ventured the question although he had not been part of the discussion. I drew a sharp breath as I waited for Father’s reaction.
Instead of being angry, Father shook his head in the most sorrowful way I had ever seen in my life. A jagged edge of fear tore open my heart. If Father did not have confidence in Britain’s ability to beat back the vile Americans, then what hope did we have?
“Our forces are strained, to be sure,” Father said. “If the war with Spain and Portugal were not draining so many resources, we could surely take on the American forces in a heartbeat. As it stands now, I am not at all certain how many troops will be sent to help us. I expect that when Lord Blessington returns to England, he will make a full report to the commanders.”
Despite the panic that kept threatening to overwhelm me, I felt a small thrill run up my spine at the mention of Lord Blessington. Although I had only glimpsed him on two occasions, everyone in and near the settlement knew a great deal about the brash young lord. Prudence and Sarah, the only other girls my age, had both swooned upon meeting him. Both were simpering twits, but I couldn’t help agreeing with their assessment that he was the most handsome man ever to grace the fort with his service.
“When does he leave?” James set down his whittling and stood. Without an invitation, he joined Father at the table. I had never known my brother to be so bold, but as I watched him from the corner of my eye, it occurred to me that he was indeed a grown man. At eighteen he would certainly soon be joining Father in service.
“I expect he’ll be gone by the beginning of June,” Father said, sounding a bit calmer, more in control. “He’ll take a bare bones crew so that we have as many troops here as possible. If we could detain him any longer, we would.”
“Lord Blessington has been a tremendous help, hasn’t he, dear?” Mama had started clearing my father’s meal off the table. Her soothing words created the illusion that everything was normal. Even as I wanted to trust her influence, I couldn’t get the sound of Father’s voice out of my mind. There were so many things he was not saying. Those things — the unknowns — filled me with terror.
“He has, at that. With him able to report back to Commander Smith, I will not have to leave my post. A trip like that would take months, possibly even a year. I would not leave you and it would be nearly impossible to arrange your passage to come with me. This is better for all concerned.” Father accepted his pipe from Mama and struck a match against his boot. The flame glowed brightly for a moment, illuminating Father’s face, eyes so serious, before the light dimmed as he dipped it into the bowl of his pipe.
The acrid smell of the pipe filled the cabin, making my eyes water briefly before the smoke dissipated. My breath felt stuck in my chest, like a band tightening, until no air was left. The embroidery hoop gripped firmly in my left hand trembled as I attempted to make another stitch. Mama wanted me to have the sampler done in time to send it back to England with Lord Blessington’s envoy. She thought it would be a delightful surprise for my grandmother, whom I knew she missed dreadfully.
Silence stretched through our home until all things seemed to settle back into normalcy. Then Mama’s voice broke the spell as she asked, “And what shall we do if the war does come to fruition?”
Thinking about her words now filled me with more fear than did the shouts coming from outside. Where was Mama? Panic made me try to scramble to my feet, but James pulled me firmly back down.
“Stay put,” he whispered in a no-nonsense voice that brooked no argument.
“But where’s Mama?” The voice that came out of my mouth caught me off guard. It certainly sounded nothing like my own.
James gave my arm a squeeze. “She’s just over on the other side of the cabin. Now, Fliss, you have to stay quiet. And stay down.”
“Wait! Where are you going?” I grabbed my brother’s arm as he moved to stand up. The alarm in my voice shamed me, but I couldn’t quell the anxiety.
“I have to help Father,” James said, squeezing my hand before he dislodged my fingers.
I shrank back behind the metal frame of my bed, pulling the quilt tighter around my shoulders. The shouting grew louder, as did the banging on the door. The latch-pin would not hold much longer. Of that much, I was certain. I dared not let myself think of what would happen when it broke. At the moment that tiny piece of wood was all that stood between us and the enemy.
Suddenly the sound of shattering glass filled the cabin and Mama uttered a small scream. I longed to run across the cabin to her, but when I peeked from my cocoon I saw that whatever had been thrown through the window had been lit on fire. Bright flames licked along the edges of some sort of fabric. James used his jacket to beat out the fire, then grabbed the shovel from the hearth. He scooped the offending object into the fireplace just as another round of gunfire broke the air.
“James, get your sister and mother to the root cellar. Now.” Father’s command sliced through the confusion.
Before I had time to process the order, James was tugging me toward his corner of the cabin. Quickly he pushed aside his straw tic mattress and yanked open the rough wooden door that led down to our tiny root cellar. I stumbled on my quilt, but adjusted it around my shoulders.
“I can’t go down there, James,” I whispered, trying desperately to swallow the lump in my throat. My brother gave me a firm push toward the opening, and the lump dissolved. Tears flowed down my cheeks as I stepped onto the crudely cut ladder. Draping the quilt over my neck, I grasped the sides and started the descent into darkness.
“Wait,” James said. He reached down and pressed a candle and match into my hand. “Don’t light this unless you have to. Be brave, Fliss. Don’t come out until everything is quiet. Mama will be down in a minute.”
Tears still streaming from my eyes, I climbed down into the root cellar, instantly surrounded by inky blackness as James shut the trap door. The overpowering smell of earth filled my nostrils and I thought I might be suffocating. Where was Mama?
Nothing in my sixteen, nearly seventeen years had prepared me for this. I thought of all the years living in the Canadian wilderness, just miles from the fort, and the trials we had experienced in that time. When I was small there had been a conflict with the natives of the area, but since then an uneasy alliance had been struck. Illness was more feared than any aggressor. Until now. Although that wasn’t quite true. The past year had brought ever more news of American aggression. Small bands of militiamen had taken to attacking British settlements along the border. But never here. Not so near the fort.
I drew in an unsteady breath as the darkness closed around me. James had promised that Mama would be down in a moment. To keep myself from crying out, I clung to his promise. The moments seemed to stretch into hours.
My mind began to race with worry over what was happening to the rest of my family. Surely Mama should have been down by now. True, she hadn’t been moving as quickly since she’d found out she was with child. She never complained, though, because she viewed this child as a miracle. After years of failed conceptions, I knew she deserved this happiness. Could her current state be detaining her?
I wiped beads of sweat from my brow. What was taking her so long? My lips felt impossibly dry and I was having trouble drawing a breath. Perhaps I should climb back up the ladder and peek out. Mama might need help, and if James and Father were occupied defending our safety, she would need me.
An enormous crash stilled me. Gunfire, muffled though it was, cut through the air. If I strained, I could hear shouts. Then a scream pierced the air. Cold fear washed over me. Mama.
I struggled to my feet, ready to rush to Mama’s aid, but as I climbed the first rung of the ladder, another scream stopped me. Before I knew it, the ground rose to meet me, and I pulled my quilt tightly around my head and shoulders. Sobs wracked my body as the sounds of conflict swelled above me.
Twice I heard footsteps on the floor above me, and I wondered if I was about to be discovered. But both times the sound faded. Eventually the commotion lessened. The gunfire erupted only sporadically. Finally silence.
I unwrapped the quilt from my head and squinted up at the rays of light barely visible through the cracks in the trapdoor.
I needed more light. Yes, more light would help me think clearly. With trembling fingers I grasped the bucket that held the flickering rushlight from the candle James had sent down with me. My hand shook as I stuck another tallow candle into the bucket. The wick twitched as I attempted to steady myself, but it didn’t light. I tried again and a flame sizzled to life. With the candle lit, the root cellar didn’t seem so oppressive. A row of shelves lined the wall opposite the ladder. They were sparse from the hard winter, not that we ever had an abundance, but now there were only two small barrels of brined fish.
My mind drifted to the long days from the past autumn when Mama and I had salted and dried the fish before immersing them in the brine. Mama had laughed and told me that she had never imagined needing to learn such skills growing up on her family’s estate outside of London.
I took another deep breath to further calm myself. The silence seemed all-encompassing. I wondered if I could go up yet. James had said… my heart seized at the thought of him. I needed to find my family, but the thought of coming face to face with an American soldier paralyzed me. No matter what I did, I couldn’t move. I stared at the flickering light of the candle on the walls, but I didn’t really see anything. My mind spun in a dizzying swirl that threatened to make me sick.
“Ouch.” The sound of my own voice shocked me out of my stupor. Hot wax from the candle had dripped onto my fingers, burning my skin.
A moan drew my attention. It had come from close to the trap door. Another wave of fear washed over me, but I felt a new resolve strengthen in my heart. I needed to know what had happened. With a stuttering breath I blew out the candle and laid it on the floor. I pulled my quilt around my shoulders like a cloak. The rungs of the ladder felt clammy against my skin, and I forced myself to focus on the sensation rather than think ahead.
When I reached the top, I pushed on the trap door. It opened partway before catching on some unseen obstacle. Bright light burned my eyes, causing me to squint. Lingering smoke from all the gunfire stung my nostrils. With all the strength I could muster I pushed against the door again. A soft scraping sound told me that James’s mattress was nearby.
I climbed out of the root cellar and gasped as my gaze swept around the cabin. The front door creaked open on its hinges. Most of our furniture was either broken or upended. The stillness belied the violence that had taken place here. Another moan made me freeze. Slowly I turned in a full circle, half expecting to see an American staring me in the face. Nothing. Not one other person shared the space with me.
Pain bloomed in my chest, burning through my heart and racing through my veins. My family. Where were they? Had the Americans carried them off?
Thoughts cluttered my mind. A moan meant that someone had to be here with me, but where? In the shadows cast by the mid-morning sun, my gaze landed upon what I initially thought to be a pile of rags and blankets that moved. And moaned.
With tentative steps I made my way toward James’s corner of the room. When I got within a few feet, I gasped.
“Father!” Dropping to my knees, I rolled him gently onto his back. Blood, bright red and sticky looking, oozed from a wound near his shoulder. His unshaven face appeared ashen gray behind the scrubby black hair. When he opened his eyes, I could see that it took him extra long to focus on me.
“Felicity,” he said in a hoarse whisper. The corners of his mouth lifted in what I supposed was to be a smile, but turned into a grimace as the pain overwhelmed him.
“Papa,” I whispered, reverting to the name I hadn’t called him since I was a small child. “Mama. James.”
Father’s eyes fluttered shut. For a moment I thought I had lost him and my heart seized with fear and sadness. Then he forced himself to look at me. I could see the physical toll such effort took as his jaw clenched.
“My girl, you must get to the fort. Tell them what has happened. Get help.” With that, my father lapsed into unconsciousness.
Tears that had abated briefly flowed once again. Hot streams of salty tears ran rivulets down my cheeks. I pulled my quilt around my thin nightdress. No time for a shawl, I thought, but surely this morning in mid-May would be cold. Thinking about the weather outside calmed me a bit. My brief respite lasted only until a smattering of gunfire broke the air. I turned back to Father, but he lay still.
I strengthened my resolve. The fort was only one mile away. Surely I could remain undetected on such a brief walk. Swallowing the lump that had formed in my throat, I swept the corner of the quilt across my eyes. I glanced around the cabin once more. My gaze lit upon James’s boots slumped near the door. Without thinking I hurried over, slipped my feet in, and made my way to the door, which had slammed shut again.
In a heartbeat I was standing in the cold May morning. Gunfire erupted again, only this time it sounded farther away. Another wave of panic threatened to overwhelm me as I wondered if the fort could be under attack. Surely if that had been true, someone would have come to fetch Father, and as far as I could tell that had not been the case. Sticks cracked beneath my feet as I stepped into the wood surrounding our home.
Father moaned, the sound fainter now that I was outside. I began to run, stumbling over exposed tree roots. Squirrels and chipmunks scurried out of my way. James’s boots were sizes too big for my feet, and I tripped, landing hard on my knees. I knew I had wounded them, but a scrape was nothing compared to what Father had suffered.
Gripping the quilt tighter around my shoulders, I struggled to my feet and ran on. Tree branches snagged the blanket and my hair. I paid no mind as I pressed on. A spate of gunfire brought me to a halt. It was so near I could taste the gunpowder drifting on the breeze. The acrid odor burned my nostrils. I ducked behind a tree.
I sank down between the roots, wishing that I could disappear into the ground. Horror stories ran through my mind as I remembered the tales of the war not twenty-five years earlier. Mama had always cautioned that women have to be extra careful. When I was younger I had not understood, but as I tried to make myself as small as possible, I knew exactly what she had meant. And exactly why James and Father had sent me to the root cellar. They had wanted Mama there with me. Oh, Mama! Where was she?
What had happened to her?
The questions lingered in my mind as another round of shots rang out around me. I could hear the stomping of boots and the coarse language of the Americans. Father never spoke in such a way, and he had expected his officers to act accordingly. Small-minded people used such vulgar words. Father. He needed help, medical attention. Someone at the fort would know what to do.
A stick broke just feet away. Someone spat, the loud, juicy glop landing on the ground nearby. I pulled the blanket tighter around my head, certain that I would be discovered at any moment. My heart beat faster than a hummingbird’s wings. Blood pounded in my ears, creating a roaring vacuum that made me dizzy.
I imagined a large hand pulling me from my little hole by the scruff of my neck, like one would pull a baby rabbit from its den. Shudder upon shudder raced through my body, until I was trembling so violently my teeth chattered.
Another burst of gunfire.
My heart hammered harder until I thought I might faint.
Slowly my heart calmed and my breath evened out. More silence. The only thought that stood out in my mind was that the Americans could be lying in wait. Not for me but for an unsuspecting soldier from the fort to happen out into the woods.
No matter what, I had to continue. I waited a few moments as the sounds of the American militiamen faded away, then I climbed to my knees. Assured that no one was around, I slipped out from my hiding spot.
Keeping hidden in the shadows of the trees, I made my way to the creek that would lead me straight to the fort.
I hastened my steps, alert to each twig snapping, each bird fluttering. My breath calmed finally, and I adjusted the quilt around my shoulders. A cold wind swirled around me. I hoped that a snowstorm was not brewing on the horizon. Even in May the winter could come back with a vengeance.
James’s boots felt clunky as I moved forward. They slid back and forth. It was all I could do to keep them on. I should have taken longer to secure them with his laces. The rough strands of thin rope could have easily been wrapped around my ankle. The inane thoughts gave me a bit of relief from the crushing panic that propelled me forward. I got so caught up in berating myself about my foolishness that I missed the large tree root until I tripped over it and landed with a dull thud on the soft mud next to the stream. I pushed myself to my knees, grateful not to be hurt, but furious that I was wasting even more time.
Streaks of mud sullied the front of my soft pink nightdress. The shade had been a source of contention between Father and Mama. Father had thought the pink indecent and frivolous, but Mama had said it was beautiful. She’d sewn the garment with small, perfectly even stitches. We had worked on the intricate embroidery together. I loved to look at the roses and birds along the hem.
Now I had ruined it. And who knew where Mama was. Fear gripped my chest, making it hard to breathe. I broke into a run the best I could, stumbling over my brother’s boots.
A sob broke loose from my throat. Grief and terror and exhaustion overwhelmed me. I could feel the tears spilling from my eyes, burning my cheeks. My vision blurred, but when I pushed my tangled hair from my face, relief rushed through me. The fort. I had finally reached the edge of the woods.
Without pause now, I ran forward. The heavy log gate at the front of the fort was shut. I pulled on the rough wooden handle, but my fingers felt weak. With everything left in me, I let out a primal yell for help. No words formed as I screamed with all my might, but the sound conveyed exactly what I needed it to.
A moment later the gate swung open, and I found myself staring up into the face of the most handsome man I had ever seen. He used one broad shoulder to open the heavy gate further. His dark brown hair trembled in the wind, setting the curls dancing. As I stared up into his dark blue eyes that seemed full of concern, I felt myself break.
“What’s wrong, child?” His voice, warm and deep, wrapped around me. I had found safety.
“They attacked us. Father sent me.” Could that hoarse whisper have been my voice?
“Who is your father?”
I could feel darkness descending on me. I tried to fight it off and focus on the man’s question. “General… General Lord Hawthorne.”
The words slipped from my lips as my world went black.