General: The characters and events portrayed in this story are fictional, and belong to me. This is a uber-Xena story, however, so naturally there are elements of the warrior and bard to be found in the two central characters.
Violence: Yes, there are a few scenes containing fairly graphic violence. Medieval England was a pretty bloody time and place to be alive.
Bad Language: Nothing to write home about.
Love/Sex: This story deals with a romance between two consenting women, and contains (tastefully) graphic scenes in which this love is expressed physically. If you are under 18 years of age, or if you dont happen to agree with such things, then this is not a story you should read. If such things are illegal where you live, I similarly advise you against reading any further. . . and suggest that perhaps a change of scenery might be in order.
Rape/Non-Consensual Sex Disclaimer: This story deals in part with the issue of physical and sexual abuse in the context of the barbaric and inhuman practice of slavery, which was still prevalent during the Middle Ages . . . although it had died off a lot as feudalism replaced slavery with serfdom. This topic is, of course, quite a sensitive and emotional one, and I did not include it without serious consideration. It is, however, an important aspect of one of the characters, so I will advise against anyone reading this story who is likely to be upset by its discussion.
Authors Note: Id like to thank my beta-reader, TraggicProse for making sure this story was okay, and for giving me the kind of feedback I needed before I posted my work. I really appreciate it.
This is my first attempt at fanfic, and Id love to know what people think. Questions, comments and suggestions can be sent to me at email@example.com
Hope you enjoy. . . J
Jessica DaGran cleared the outer wall of the castle, laughing wildly as she urged the grey mare under her to even greater speed. Behind her, frantic shouts echoed from the castle walls, but she didnt bother looking back. Leaning forward, the young girl whooped joyously and let the bubble of excitement welling deep in her belly grow. Her horse, Andromeda, caught the rebellious mood and galloped harder still away from the stables and the shadow of castle DaGran, thrilled at the wild race.
The winter air was bitingly cold despite the midday hour, making every breath the young woman took sharp and painful. Still, Jessica reveled in the chill, knowing todays work would warm her blood quickly enough. Tendrils of long blonde hair pulled free from their braid and whipped about her face as she galloped down the road, Andromedas hooves kicking up mud and snow along their path. Squinting against the tears that were squeezed from her jade-colored eyes by the icy wind, Jessica grinned madly as she made out the line of mounted figures she was swiftly gaining on.
Within moments, the group of riders realized they were being followed and their procession halted. Drawing back on the reins, Jessica slowed Andromeda to a trot before stopping in front of the man at the head of the column, her breath coming in short, hard gasps. The man eyed her speculatively, his features stern and grim. With an effort, Jessica wiped the excited grin off her face and returned her fathers steady appraisal calmly.
Sir Richard DaGran - lord knight of the castle that bore his familys name - was dressed in sturdy, functional plate-armor designed to offer maximum protection while allowing enough mobility to fight. His greying hair was partially hidden by a chain-mail headpiece, but the open face of the coif allowed his thick beard to flow freely over his chest. A beautifully crafted broadsword was sheathed at his side, and a short lance rested in a stirrup cup, its tip aimed proudly at the overcast skies. Though in his late fifties, Sir Richard still cut an imposing figure; strong, intelligent, and bearing his mantle of responsibility with dauntless courage.
Jessica felt the weight of intense grey eyes as they flicked over her. Sir Richards weathered features tightened as his mouth drew into a firm line and his thick eyebrows lowered in a scowl.
"Jessica." He nodded a gruff welcome. "I thought your mother was keeping you busy." His voice was deep and rumbling, yet at the same time cultured and carrying a hint of a Scottish accent.
"I guess she got distracted," Jessica said once shed caught her breath from the wild ride. Her grin somehow escaped and flashed across her face before she subdued it once more. Still, her laughing eyes betrayed her merriment, and together with her flushed features, Jessicas excitement was obvious over her attempt at somberness.
"Mmhmm." He grunted, turning away and signaling to the others that they were continuing on. "Youll be wanting to join us I expect. Just be sure to keep your head on your shoulders and your wits about you. Im not wasting my time protecting your neck if youve a mind to be risking it." With a gruff wave, he ordered his daughter to his side.
Now she couldnt help but grin as she took her place, nodding a greeting to her fathers second in command, Sir Miles Elirist, who returned it with a solemn bow. Her fathers gruff words didnt bother her she understood the pride and love that stood behind them.
Jessica had first followed her father into battle when she was twelve years old, and ever since then she rarely missed a chance to join him. Her mother usually tried to keep her busy in the castle, but Jessica always managed to slip away. Sir Richard pretended to be displeased at having to put up with his daughters company, but Jess knew his surliness was all an act. This conversation was one they had every time he rode out to deal with the roving bands of thugs and ruffians who plagued his lands. She knew his next words before he spoke them.
"You didnt hurt her, did you?"
Always the same. Jess shook her head. "Not this time," she grinned.
"Good." He glanced at her and smiled a little, his usually somber eyes twinkling a little in amusement. His expression vanished, however, as he appraised her outfit. "Think maybe next time you can find something more appropriate to wear, girl?" He gestured to the soldiers around them. "This is a battle you know, not a picnic."
"I know that," she said angrily. Her green eyes flared a little, but she flushed as she glanced down. Her short, muscular frame was covered by a simple white shirt and brown trousers more commonly worn by the peasant men. In the fight they would give her no protection at all especially since shed torn the sleeves off the shirt, exposing her smooth, tightly muscled arms, covered in a few scars and gooseflesh from the winter chill. "I didnt have time to get my gear."
This was true. Her mother had been harder than usual to elude, and her armor was still arranged neatly in her room back at the castle. "I got this, though." She patted the slender, elegant rapier sheathed at her side, the scabbard hanging below the flare of her hips from a length of course rope wrapped loosely about her waist. Meeting her fathers steady gaze, she said firmly, "Its all the protection Ill need."
Sir Richard grunted. He knew his daughter was a capable fighter. Hell, shes more than capable, he corrected himself. The darn girl can already outfight almost every soldier in the bloody garrison. And shes got more than her fair share of battle experience, too. The clothes may not look fancy, but her skill can back her up. Still . . .
Jessica watched her father closely, trying to judge his mood. "I want to fight," she said, a gentle lilt catching in her voice as it slipped into the accented speech shed adopted from the soldiers, whod spent many years in Ireland fighting in blood feuds. She only spoke like this when outside the presence of her mother; the older woman would have been shocked to hear her daughter speaking in such uncultured tones. "I can handle myself . . ."
"I know that," he interrupted her gently. "Im not questioning your ability, girl, but you need to be better prepared next time." He paused, then added, "This fight wont take much; just a few bandits camped too close to the village for comfort. The men can do most of the work, okay Jess?" His voice was soft with understanding, and he ignored the angry look he was faced with. "If I wanted a baby-sitter, Id have stayed back at the castle," the young blonde muttered angrily. She glared around her at the other soldiers, none of whom would meet her gaze. She knew that many of the men were uneasy about a woman fighting with them, even after all these years. Her talent and dedication had earned her their respect, though it was often given reluctantly.
She felt her former elation starting to drain away, replaced by a sullen anger she didnt like. It made her feel she was behaving like a spoilt brat, and she hated that feeling. She was a fighter, and nothing her mother or anyone else could do would ever change that. It was the path she had chosen long ago.
Sir Miles leaned over from his massive and flighty war-horse to squeeze her shoulder with his left hand; his right had been taken from him in a fight during his youth. "Were not here to baby-sit ye," he growled. "This aint no competition. Ye wanna fight . . . fine. We all know ye can." He gestured to the soldiers riding behind them. "Not one among em would dare to question yer courage, Jess. But ye gotta be smart." He patted her arm and drew back. "Youll be more use if ye stay on the outside a this fight, girl."
Jessica studied the man intently. Sir Miles was a man she respected above all others . . . except her father, of course. He had been her friend and confidant since shed been a child, and had been responsible for her training in combat and woodcraft. Despite the loss of his right hand, Miles was the best fighter among her fathers men, and his wisdom was extensive.
Her emerald eyed narrowed. "What do you mean?" she asked suspiciously.
"These bandits were after are hidin in the woods," he explained. "No way to move a war-horse through them trees all that fast thats why were gonna tryn surround em and strike before they kin form a defence. But in the confusion, a few of emll surely try to bolt. If yere waiting on the outside, ye can chase em down on that quick beast a yours." He pointed to Andromeda. "Shell move fast through the woods. Ye can stop em from gettin away, cant ye?"
Jessica considered the idea and nodded slowly. "I guess . . ." She knew Andromeda could maneuver through the woods at great speed; the mare was nimble and light, unlike the heavier war-horses the soldiers rode, which were bred for strength and endurance over speed and agility. She frowned and glared at the older man. So . . . they get the fun stuff, and Im stuck with mopping up the cowards who decide to flee? "You expect me to clean up the stragglers, huh?"
"Gods above, girl . . . youll not be happy till we say ye can get in the thick of it, will ya!?"
Jessica shrugged and patted a nervous Andromeda. "All I want is to be allowed to jump in where I feel like it!"
Sir Miles grinned and chuckled. "Aye lass," he agreed. "And nothin we kin sayll stop ye, will it?"
"Fine then," he agreed, his smile vanishing as his tone grew harder. "But remember . . . before ye go in arse first, keep in mind that any a them ruffians get away and harm the common people, itll be on yer head, child." He fixed her with his most serious glare. "Yeve got yer job to do, same as the rest of us. See that its done."
Jessica swallowed and nodded earnestly. "Yes, Miles." Trust the man to say the one thing thatd get me to behave, she scowled.
Miles glanced at Sir Richard, who nodded his thanks for settling his stubborn child. Damn girl just had to have her way, he chuckled silently.
Her mood restored somewhat, Jessica grinned again and faced into the stiff breeze that had picked up. A familiar tingle raced up and down her skin making her shiver a little as her heart beat faster. The thrill of anticipation was high today. It made her blood sing in her veins and made everything in the world seem fresh and new. The daughter of a noble knight, Jessica had lived among steel and sweat all her life. The prospect of battle was nothing new to the young woman . . . yet something about todays adventure seemed different. More thrilling, somehow.
There was deep portent in the air. She remembered that description from one of the books shed read. It seemed to fit well the energy she felt crackling about her as they neared the woods. Deep portent in the air. Like before a thunderstorm. She flicked her blonde hair over her shoulder and rested a hand reassuringly on the ornate hilt of her sword, reveling in the strange sensation that made her feel like God himself was watching her with more than passing interest.
She had a feeling this was going to be an interesting fight.
Kaleah had watched the group of rough men at their camp for over an hour now, her breath fogging in the winter air. Her muscles were growing stiff and cramped from holding the same position so long, and beyond that, she was just plain getting impatient. Still, it was better to take precautions when approaching strangers. She knew from bitter experience what could happen when she didnt keep a chain on her patience and just charged in without watching first.
There were about thirty-odd men in the camp a fair number. They were gathered around three small camp-fires set in a triangle, rubbing their hands together and trying to ward off the bitter chill. Even from where she sat hidden, Kaleah could smell the scent of roasting pheasant, and her stomach growled to remind her how unsuccessful her own hunting efforts had been of late. All the men were armed, though she noticed with a professional eye that their weapons were ill-maintained. Much of the metal was rusted, and their blades were of poor craftsmanship. The armor they wore was all leather, though a few had added squares of chain-mail to the hides . . . no doubt scrounged from battlefields. A few lookouts armed with bows were posted in the trees, so she had to be careful. All in all, Kaleah thought the group looked to be made up of thieves and bandits of a very common stock.
Thieves and bandits whore still able to feed themselves, she reminded herself. Thats more than you can say for yourself.
Scowling, she rose slowly, letting her aching muscles adjust to movement again. Keeping her hands to her sides and away from the Spanish blade hanging prominently at her side, Kaleah started walking slowly towards the camp.
She hated doing this, but knew she would starve if she didnt. A stranger in this land, Kaleah had little experience with weather this cold, having lived most of her life in cities or on the coast. The animals had seemingly vanished, and her efforts at lighting fires gleaned only sporadic success. These men - though doubtless outlaws and misfits - were experienced with the land enough to provide for themselves. If Kaleah wanted to survive this harsh, frozen season, she would have to mingle with other people . . . as hateful as it was to her.
A look-out quickly saw her coming and yelled a warning to the other men. Kaleah continued her approach undaunted, holding out her sturdy bow in a way that made it clear she meant no threat. The sentinels perched high in the trees trained their own bows on her, ready to cut her down if she made any hostile move.
The bandits reacted quickly to the warning of the look-out, scurrying to grab their weapons and form a defense. Seeing that only a single person was approaching, not an army, they relaxed slightly but continued to eye her warily.
"Ho!" Kaleah hailed the man who appeared to be the leader of the group if they could be said to have a leader. "I come in peace!"
The man a tall, grizzled individual with a scarred and rough looking face - pointed at her bow with his sword. "Put the bow on the ground," he ordered.
Kaleah did so slowly, laying the length of strung wood on the thin, crisp snow, maintaining eye contact all the time.
"Whadaya want?" the man demanded once shed stepped away.
Kaleah cast her eyes towards the fire. "Im cold," she said, "and hungry. I just wanted to share the fire with you, if I could. And maybe some of your food." Her voice carried a distinct accent with it . . . part Spanish, part something more exotic but indefinable. She understood that most people found it quite pleasant, though it marked her as a foreigner in this country.
The grizzled man scowled. "We aint no charity, woman! We dont give handouts."
"I can pay you," Kaleah assured him, moving a hand slowly to reach into a pouch hanging at her side. She pulled out a few coins and held them up, glad to see the mans scowl disappear, replaced by a quickly muffled look of greed. "I wont stay long . . . I just want something to eat and a moment to warm myself, thats all."
The man eyed her a long while, his sharp eyes shrewdly taking in the well-kept leather-and-chain-mail armor she wore, and the fine sword at her side. Kaleah held herself upright under his scrutiny, knowing others were often impressed by her appearance. She was tall for a woman, and from experience she understood that her clear blue eyes contrasted with her dark hair and bronze skin in a way that many found attractive for some reason. She had often cursed her appearance, hating the good looks that drew the attention of the worst kind of men . . .
She shook her head mentally. You dont have to remember that, she told herself. Its the past. Youre not a slave anymore . . . youre a free woman!
But Kaleah knew the marks of her years in servitude were not easily erased. Even as she acknowledged this, she felt the mans eyes pause on her face and knew he was studying one of those same marks even now. The scar that cut diagonally across both her lips was not long, but it was extremely prominent. It marred her otherwise perfect features and served as a constant reminder of the pain that had been a part of her life since as far back as she could remember.
"Alright then," the man allowed, his inspection complete. "But youll have to give up that fancy sword first." He eyed the beautiful weapon hungrily.
Kaleah shook her head. "No deal," she said firmly. Shed die before handing over the weapon. "I promise not to use it, but I wont come unarmed into a strange camp."
Some of the men laughed and nodded their understanding, knowing she was justified in her desire to keep the blade. Their leader also grinned and nodded agreeably, waving her forward. "Fine then," he allowed, seeing she was as much a veteran as she appeared. "Come on."
She tossed him the coins as she passed and headed straight for the nearest fire, breathing a sigh of relief as the warmth permeated the thick numbness that stiffened her fingers and limbs. The cold tended to settle deepest in the joints of her fingers and along the worst of her scars. She was wet and cold from crouching in the snow all that time. Kneeling down to be closer to the blaze, she rubbed her hands together and groaned with pleasure.
The bandit leader and several of his men gathered near her. She ignored their curious looks. When one handed her a hunk of slightly blackened meat, she bit into it hungrily, not caring what it was. The men noticed and chuckled at her obvious hunger.
"Been by yerself a while, Id be thinking," said the leader, holding out his hand. "Im called Pete."
Kaleah hesitated, never liking physical contact, even a simple clasping of hands. Still, she knew what was expected and returned his gesture. "My names Kaleah," she said softly. "And yes, its been a while since I had company."
Pete grinned, showing slightly yellowed teeth. "New to the area, then?"
Kaleah just nodded as she tore at the meat, her stomach rumbling its appreciation and willingly overlooking the fact that the food was burnt.
"Ye running from someone?"
This was one of the reasons she avoided all contact with others with company came the need for conversation and interaction. Kaleah hated company, and she hated talking. Still, these men were sharing their food and their fire; if the least they asked for was a few words in return, she could indulge them.
"Not running," she said around a full mouth. "Just wandering."
"Aye," he grinned, suspecting otherwise. "Well, were not ones to judge." His men nodded and poked at the fire, stirring it to greater heat.
Kaleah could feel her body start to uncoil as it warmed. "Neither am I." True enough. Let them go their way, and Ill go mine.
Pete laughed and slapped her on the arm. Kaleah tensed, but restrained the impulse to retaliate, knowing the gesture to be one of acceptance and camaraderie. Though somewhat limited in experience dealing with people, she knew enough to get by and was learning more all the time.
"Regardless, yell probably want to be avoiding the local lord of these parts," Pete said. "He does a better job than most with people like us."
"Aye. His menre damn good, Ill tell ya that. Well trained n smart to boot." He tore a hunk of meat from the carcass over the fire and bit into it, giving her a thoughtful look. "Doubt theyd bother you much," he added. "Dont see to many women dressed in that get-up."
Kaleah had observed as much in her travels, which had covered much of the region between here and Spain. It seemed there were few females who took up arms in this land. She just nodded. "If his men are so good, why come here?" she asked. "There must be easier pickings elsewhere."
"Aye," he agreed. "Easier, but not near as ripe."
"Ripe?" She knew the word, but not the context.
"These lands are rich. The people even the peasants all have a bit of money put aside. So long as we keep hidden and move about often, the soldiers aint too much of a problem." He shrugged. "We do okay, even now its winter." He paused, thinking, before adding, "Theres rumors of other reasons to be here, too."
Kaleah heard the conspiratorial hint in his words. She didnt much care about rumors; curiosity had brought her a lot of pain as a slave. Still, she knew shed be expected to show interest in his secret, whatever it was, so she politely asked, "What rumors?"
Pete grinned. "I heard talk someones getting an army ready hereabouts," he whispered to her. "Work for us if its true. Dunno who theyd be attacking, but I dont really care . . . loots loot, ya know."
Kaleah nodded and went back to her meal, eating slower now and relishing the food. She knew it might be a while before she ate meat again. She could sense the steady scrutiny of the bandit leader but ignored it. She didnt care about joining an army, though the information would be useful if she were forced to turn to mercenary work this winter would be hard, and she had no idea what might happen.
Pete pointed with the bone of meat he held to her side. "You any good with that there fancy sword?" he asked. "Or is it just for show?"
Kaleah froze in her meal. She turned her pale blue eyes on the bandit and was satisfied to see him shrink back a little, startled by their intensity. "I can use my blade," she assured him, her voice calm and steady.
He nodded and swallowed in reflex. Damn, this womans got a glare thatd scare the Devil himself! "Just askin" he said, glad when she turned back to her meal. She must be some kinda mercenary . . . either that or a criminal on the run, he pondered. The look about her and the way she spoke told him the strange woman was foreign, and the scar on her face and the way she moved suggested she had some talent. But there was something about her . . . something he could feel but not define, that told him not to offer her shelter or alliance as he had been about to do. She positively radiated tension and power, like the taut string of a loaded crossbow.
This woman was dangerous . . . plain and simple.
"Well," he coughed to cover his discomfort. "Id still avoid the soldiers, if I were you."
Kaleah had every intention of doing just that. "Arent you afraid theyll come get you here," she asked. "These fires are smoking enough that anyone could find your camp."
Pete laughed. "They wont enter the woods," he said confidently. "And they dont know where we are."
Suddenly, one of the look-outs gave a piercing cry and fell from his lofty roost. Kaleah and the bandits sprung away from the fire, startled. Even before the man had hit the ground Kaleah saw the wooden shaft firmly embedded in his chest. Her hand went instantly to the hilt of her sword, but she looked around before she drew it, unsure of the direction of the threat. Another look-out fell from his post, similarly slain.
The bandits reacted with the same speed they had displayed earlier, only now Pete was shouting orders, realizing his last words to Kaleah werent as true as he might have wished. The men had just managed to form a loose ring facing outwards when the forest erupted with sound and movement. Over a dozen mounted figures charged into the clearing from all directions at once, yelling war-cries and lowering lances as they came.
Still, Kaleah didnt move. She crouched low, hand ready to draw her weapon. She was in the middle of the bandit ring and not that eager to die for these men. Several of the bandits were struck down by the lances, then chaos broke out as the battle was joined.
Crouched seemingly calmly in the center of the fighting, Kaleah looked around for an escape route. A few of the men chose to flee but were cut down by the mounted cavalry. She saw Pete and another grimy outlaw manage to yank one of the soldiers from his horse, but the armored knight proved just as dangerous on the ground as off it, slicing the chest of one man before clashing blades with the bandit leader.
It was then Kaleah noticed she wasnt the only one holding back from the fight and simply watching. Just outside the clearing, a young woman with golden-blonde hair mounted on a grey horse surveyed the writhing field of combat with intense interest. The woman wore mens clothes and carried a sword, but even at a distance Kaleah could make out her curvaceous, muscular figure. She looked like a peasant, but her calm appraisal of the bloody battle made it clear she was something more.
Perhaps sensing the scrutiny, the figure suddenly turned her head, and their eyes locked.
Time seemed to stop.
The sound of the fight around her disappeared.
The breath suddenly left Kaleahs body and her heart skipped several beats as the intensity from the young womans gaze struck her an almost physical blow. Kaleah realized she could clearly make out every feature of the womans eyes even though they were some way away. She could tell they were a brilliant, clear green color, like wet emeralds . . . but more than that, somehow she could see the tiny flecks of gold that sparkled in their depths. She could see the hint of merriment and joy that caught the suns feeble rays through the forest canopy. For an instant she was gripped by a sense of recognition so powerful it froze her mind and scrambled her thoughts, making the battle fade away and become a distant thing of no consequence.
In that instant, something powerful and ancient inside Kaleah stirred for the first time in a lifetime. She felt a gentle presence engulf her senses . . .
. . . then settle into her soul as though reclaiming long-familiar territory.
The battle intruded on the moment, however. Though her mind and soul were otherwise occupied in this bizarre dance of emotions, Kaleahs body was still tuned to the fight raging about her. One of the armored soldiers - apparently having lost his mount - saw her unmoving form and figured on an easy target.
Even before his sword was raised, Kaleah erupted into motion. Her seemingly paralyzed arm drew the slender blade from her side, the steel singing in pure delight at finally being released. Sidestepping a professionally executed stroke from the knight, Kaleah twisted gracefully and sent the tip of her weapon arcing towards one of the gaps in the plate armor behind the mans knee. She felt the steel blade tear into flesh, then quickly pulled back and spun away, her defenses raised.
With a cry of pain, the man spun around, his discipline slipping instantly with the pain of his injury. Kaleah ducked a few wild swings, knowing she didnt have the strength to lock blades with the knight. When another gap appeared in his defenses, the dark woman pounced with another lightening strike, this time to his right shoulder. Unbalanced, the knight went down easily when she whirled again, lashing out with her leg to trip him.
Her enemy subdued, Kaleah turned back to the mounted woman, her heart beating strangely fast as though eager to make up for the moment it had stopped doing what it was supposed to do.
The young woman was grinning now, emerald eyes dancing playfully. Her smile was infectious and Kaleah found herself returning it unconsciously. The battle was at its fever pitch however, and she knew if she was going to make good her escape, now was the time to do it. Effecting a courtly salute to the young woman, Kaleah tore her eyes away and, quickly finding an opening, made a break for the denser parts of the forest.
As she ran, Kaleah wondered idly why she felt like she should be headed in the other direction.
Jessica watched with a grin as the dark-haired stranger raced off into the woods. The young woman was still a moment as she tried to analyze the waves of feeling that had swept over her when she met the strangers gaze. It was that portent thing again, she was sure of it. Those piercing blue eyes framed by fine, arching dark brows had sent shivers through Jessicas body unlike anything shed ever felt before. Checking briefly to make sure her father and his men were doing okay - which, of course, they were - the blonde woman guided Andromeda around the clearing and began to give chase.
Jessica thought she should feel disappointed she hadnt had the opportunity to fight anyone yet. The blue-eyed stranger and that weird but powerful sensation had stopped her just as shed been about to jump into the fray. But she knew the bandits were all of poor skill, no challenge to her at all. Her prey now was something much more special.
The dark womans skill was obvious in her poise and the professional way she had moved. Her fathers men were the finest warriors in the region, yet the stranger had defeated one of them with only a few accurate hits, and none of them lethal. An armored knight was difficult to bring down . . . Jess knew from experience. The almost casual way this woman had done it was amazing.
Eyes brimming with glee and heart racing excitedly, Jessica weaved her horse through the thicker trees as she angled slightly away from her prey . . . she wanted to head the woman off.
This one quarry was worth all the other bandits combined, and Jessica was determined to catch her.
Kaleah ran as long as she thought was prudent, not wanting to tire herself out in case she needed her strength. Still, when she eventually paused in a small clearing, her breath came in short, painful gasps and a stitch burned in her side.
The battlefield was a fair way behind her, though she heard a few cries as the last of the bandits were defeated. She felt no shame in running away - pride was something that had been beaten out of her at a young age, and while it had started to return with her freedom it wasnt nearly strong enough to make her want to fight to the death for a bunch of low-lifes and neer-do-wells shed just met.
Looking around, Kaleah tried to get her bearings. Shed lost her bow thanks to this encounter, and she swore softly to herself in Spanish. Hunting would be harder now, she knew. Without the bow . . . well, shed just have to get another one. Having caught her breath, the dark-haired woman started wondering which direction she should head.
A polite cough from her right interrupted her thoughts. Kaleah whirled about, sword raised and ready . . . and was startled to find laughing green eyes gazing back at her.
The girl was barely ten feet away, sitting calmly on a fallen log as though shed been waiting for Kaleah to arrive. This close, Kaleah could see that the woman was younger than she first thought . . . eighteen or so at most. She had long blonde hair that was tied loosely in a braid, and her features were fresh and beautiful, with a mouth that seemed to smile easily and high, rounded cheek-bones. The torn sleeves of her shirt exposed smoothly muscled arms, and as she rose to her feet Kaleah acknowledged that, although only short of stature, the girl moved with a feline grace expressive of carefully controlled power.
The girl eyed her with an expression of curious amusement, and Kaleah flushed at the frank and open perusal.
"Were you going somewhere?" the blonde asked lightly. Kaleah noticed her voice carried a slight hint of the sing-song accent shed heard in this country from time to time. She also noticed - somewhat uncomfortably - that the girls hand rested with a cool familiarity on the fine rapier sword that dangled from a rope at her side.
"I was just leaving," Kaleah answered shortly, her eyes narrowing suspiciously over the hilt of her own sword. "This fight has nothing to do with me."
"Really?" The blonde seemed a little surprised. "You were with those men, werent you?"
"I just stopped to share the fire and a little food," she corrected. "I wasnt with them."
The blonde shrugged. "I only have your word on that," she said, taking a step forward. "Maybe youre lying . . . if I let you go and you hurt someone, itll be my fault for not stopping you."
Kaleah gave a feral grin. "Its not like you have any choice, girl," she said, waving the tip of her sword in tight figure-eights. "Im not going to come peacefully, and I doubt youll be able to force me, so . . ."
She stopped as the young woman drew the rapier, performed a formal salute, and assumed an en guard position with fluid skill.
One eyebrow arched in disbelief. "You must be joking?"
The girl shook her head and smiled, her eyes dancing playfully. "Im taking you back to my father," she said firmly. "I cant let you get away."
"This is not a game, little girl," Kaleah threatened carefully. "I wont be captured."
The blonde advanced in a practiced motion that made it clear she knew what she was doing. "Im not playing a game."
"I dont want to hurt you." Kaleah backed up a step.
"Dont worry." The girls lips quirked into an almost smile. "You wont."
Kaleah scowled, not liking where this was going. She genuinely didnt want to hurt this young woman who had affected her so strangely back at the bandit camp. Even now she could feel her stomach tighten as those intense green eyes bore into her own blue ones. But capture was not an option. Shed sworn never to submit to the collar of servitude ever again when she was granted her freedom.
Assuming an en guard stance herself, Kaleah waited grimly for the girl to make the first move.
The attack was sudden and flawlessly executed. Kaleah defended it with barely a thought, however, then instantly pressed in against the young blonde. She feinted high, performed a dazzling spin then thrust the tip of her sword at her enemys thigh. She wanted to disable, not kill . . . and she wanted to do it quickly so she could get away. Unfortunately, her adversary was more canny than she thought. Ignoring the feint, the girl easily defeated the attack and stepped back, smiling confidently.
Kaleah frowned, then let fly a few testing jabs just to see how quick the girl really was. Every thrust was foiled with ease, but Kaleah didnt have time to grow worried before the blonde apparently decided it was time to take the offensive. Kaleahs blade flashed about her in a defensive cage, watching for any feints and realizing the young woman was feeling her out. . . testing her skill and speed.
Kaleah let the play continue for a few minutes before, without any warning, she launched herself into a blindingly intricate routine that had never failed to bring down an enemy. Her Spanish blade whipped through the air in a flashing silver arc, twisting suddenly in mid-flight along a confusing and unpredictable path. Steel rang against steel as the girl fell back under the furious onslaught, her own blade weaving somewhat desperately to defeat the unexpectedly swift routine. Kaleah fully expected to at least disarm the girl; she was disconcerted when she broke off the intricate attack to find her adversary still armed and barely breathing hard. The slight smile on her face told the former slave the young blonde was actually enjoying this fight . . . before the girl launched herself forward with an answering attack of her own.
Kaleah managed to keep away from the flashing blade barely. She was tired from her run; her vision was starting to go a little strange. And this scrap of a girl was proving to be a better fighter than shed anticipated.
As the duel wore on, Kaleahs concern grew stronger. This girl was good . . . very good. Too good to be just another common soldier, and much too good to be the peasant she appeared to be from her attire. Thinking for the first time that she might actually loose, seeing again the horrors of her life as a slave, Kaleah pressed her assault with savage skill and speed, her discipline starting to slip.
The attack was vicious and would have cut any ordinary soldier off at the knees. As it was, when the blonde girl leapt away trying to break from the furious assault she was breathing heavily. Kaleah saw a look of curious wonder cross the young womans face and she followed green eyes to her enemys arm. Kaleahs sword had managed to hit at least something; a deep cut was etched across the young blondes thick bicep muscle. The wound didnt seem to bother her, Kaleah noticed with annoyance. She just smiled and saluted again.
"First blood is yours, it seems," the girl said, flushed but still grinning. Then without further comment, she dove back into the fight.
Now Kaleah was getting more than worried. Her opponent was fast and strong, and possessed a greater endurance than shed expected. Kaleah was no fool. Although a talented swordswoman herself, she recognized that this slip of a girl was far her superior. Real fear began to flow like ice through her veins.
She was going to loose!
Her hold on her temper - never strong to begin with - finally snapped. With a cry of anguish and hatred, Kaleah lunged at her enemy blindly, desperately, now striking with the intent to kill.
She felt the blow across her thigh as her attack failed and she was struck. Her armor prevented blood from being drawn, but it still hurt. In a rage now she leapt forward again, hoping to overpower by sheer force of will.
Again the blow was defeated, and this time she watched as the hilt of the young womans sword slammed with dizzying speed into her temple. The world exploded in blinding pain and Kaleah lost all sense of balance. She fell to the ground, fighting the blackness that rose to swallow her, willing her limbs to continue fighting. Dimly she heard a voice yelling at her to stay down but she ignored it. Stumbling, she rose again and staggered forward, determined to kill, her blue eyes blazing.
The next hit knocked her to her knees . . . the one after it brought the darkness over her like the soothing waves of the ocean.
Jessica knelt beside the dark womans still form, her expression thoughtful. She checked for a pulse and found it strong and beginning to even out. Good. She didnt want this stranger dead just a little more manageable.
Carefully, she reached out and removed the sword from her fallen opponents grasp. Inspecting it with a professional eye, she realized it was of surpassingly fine quality. The blade was forged of rare Spanish steel and polished to a high finish. The hilt was ornate, layered in sparkling gold leaf and crafted to resemble a string of roses. Jessica admired it a moment before laying it gently at her side, wondering how the woman had come by such a rare and valuable weapon.
Wiping the blood from her captives face with the back of her hand, Jessica felt a pang of guilt over the bruises that were rising quickly. The damn woman just wouldnt stay down! Even when shed clearly lost, she kept trying to fight on. Jessica frowned and wished she hadnt been forced to resort to such measures to subdue this spitfire.
Now free to allow a more intimate inspection, Jessica let her fingers linger over the scar that slashed across the womans lips, cupping the womans cheek with her hand while running her thumb over the old wound. From there, her fingers swept across high, sharply defined cheek-bones to trace the elegant, sweeping eye-brows. A smile tugged at her lips as she remembered that feeling of familiarity that had washed over her, acknowledging that it only increased her interest in this strange, exotic woman. Physical contact seemed to renew the feeling a little, and Jessica - always a touch sensitive person - allowed her hands to linger longer than she knew was proper.
The woman wore fine armor that had clearly been made especially for her. The single-piece leather-and-mail suit fit over her slender form well, allowing her to move, but protecting her from edged weapons. It also, she acknowledged privately, showed off the womans curvaceous figure to maximum effect. Soft doe-skin trousers hugged her shapely legs in a similarly provocative but practical design. The chain-mail was oiled and clean, and the leather was fresh and dyed deep green and brown to blend in with the woodland. Again, this didnt make sense if the woman was a bandit. The average thug didnt have coin to spend on tailored armor or fancy, foreign swords. The mystery grew a little deeper.
Looking at the deep bronze skin revealed by the cut of the armor, Jessica saw many scars on the womans arms and chest . . . scars she could not identify as having been inflicted by conventional weapons. They looked almost like the wounds that might be sustained from a severe beating. Perhaps the woman was an escaped slave, she thought. That would probably explain her desperation to avoid capture. But still, where did she get the armor and the sword . . . not to mention the skill with which she wielded the blade?
"Who are you?" she muttered to herself as she stroked her fingers again over the slashing scar on the strangers face, the gesture already seeming familiar.
Thinking quickly, Jessica considered what to do next. The woman fascinated her and she wanted very much to know her better. She realized a large part of this desire stemmed from the fact that she hoped to relive or explain that extraordinary sensation the dark woman had created before the sensation that still tingled through her soul. But she knew that her father - while he would never dream of hanging a woman - would likely sentence her to a term of indenture, probably in the garrison with the soldiers, functioning as a cook or servant. She frowned. That wouldnt do at all. No. Jessica wanted custody of the woman all to herself.
The fact that she was the one to apprehend her would add weight to her plea. Her father loved her, and would probably be easily swayed. Her mother, however, was a different story altogether. A devoutly religious woman who felt only the nobility were of any worth, Lady Rose would be shocked and appalled at the thought of her daughters desire to keep company with this barbaric creature.
Jessica frowned. Ill cross that bridge when I come to it.
Hoof-beats sounded suddenly behind her, drawing closer. She turned and saw Sir Miles approaching on his massive war-horse. Andromeda nickered a welcome to her stable-mate.
"What happened?" he asked as he leapt from the saddle, noticing quickly the slashing cut across her arm.
Jessica glanced down at her bloodied arm. "Its nothing. Look, the bleedings already stopped." She waved him away with a negligent gesture, her attention on the fallen woman.
"Thatll need stitches," he observed, insisting on checking the injury.
Jessica submitted to the inspection with ill grace. "We can do that back at DaGran," she said. "Can you help me get her on your horse?"
Miles glanced at the dark-haired, blood-stained figure on the forest floor. "My horse!? Why do I have to be the one to carry the blasted woman?"
"Andromeda cant carry both of us," Jessica pointed out calmly. "Its okay . . . shell be out for a while, I think."
Sir Miles examined the bruises. "Hit er pretty hard, did ye?"
"She wouldnt stay down," Jess explained regretfully. "I had too."
"Aye." Miles knew she wouldnt inflict violence without need. "We takin er back with us then, huh?"
Jess nodded. "She put up a hell of a fight . . . shes someone special."
"Just look at her sword . . . and the armor shes wearing." Jessica pointed, her hands straying quickly over the woman. "Shes no common bandit, thats for sure."
"I guess. Perhaps she stole em."
Jess gave him an amused look. "You know better than that, Miles," she said. "That armors custom made . . . I wonder who gave it to her . . ."
Miles saw the expression on his young proteges face and recognized it instantly. He rolled his eyes and groaned.
"What?" Jess looked at him, puzzled.
Miles smiled a little. "Reckon yeve found another damn bird with a broken wing, girl," he said softly, ruffling her hair with his good hand.
Jessica blushed. "Its not like that . . ." She knew what he was talking about. Ever since she was a little girl, Jessica had been bringing home every wretched creature she found that needed care or shelter . . . much to the exasperation of her parents. She looked at the unconscious woman as she stirred, then settled, remembering the feeling she had experienced again. "But shes mine. I caught her, and I get to decide what to do with her." The look in her eyes and the possessive tone in her voice made it clear she was serious.
Miles could only sigh and shake his head. Damn girlll get er way in this, if shell get it in anything. "Okay . . . lets get er up, then."
Together, they lifted the unconscious woman onto Sir Miles great stead, who snorted in nervous excitement. The war-horse was still keyed up from the battle and the scent of blood. Miles mounted behind his passenger and wrapped a protective arm around her waist.
"We lost a man," he told Jess as she mounted Andromeda. "A few were injured, but we got em all in the end."
They started back to rejoin the others, moving slowly in consideration for the injured and encumbered. "Captured . . . or dead?"
"They wanted to go down fightin," Miles said grimly. "Only seven surrendered, and we knocked out three . . . theyll be taken back and tried later."
Jess nodded. "Well," she said, "This one wont have to wait. I want her for myself."
As they rode off, Jessica smiled to herself. I was right, she thought happily as they reached the others. It has turned out to be a very interesting day.
Built four generations ago by Jessicas great-great grandfather, Castle DaGran stood proudly on a slight rise of land overlooking a patchwork of fields and forests. Its archetecture, though stern and practical as befitted a bastion of war, was still graceful and pleasing to the eye. Consisting of a massive walled foundation guarding a central, mutlileveled keep, DaGran was a sprawling complex of rooms and passages that often proved confusing to strangers. Four turrets framed the castle walls, one at each of the cardinal points, and a towering lookout tower rose from the center of the keep itself, affording a magnificent view of the land for miles around.
DaGran had been Jessicas home all her life, and she loved every stone of the mighty castle.
It was also home to hundreds of servants, knights and men-at-arms, all of whom served Sir Richard and assisted in the rule of the lands that formed his vassal. Besides the central keep, there were dozens of smaller buildings protected by the thick stone walls, including several barracks, a large stables, archery range, jousting pavilion and blacksmith. And although winter had brought most trading to a halt, the warmer months of Spring and Summer would bring dozens of traders from all over England and the rest of the world flocking to barter their goods. The commerce in turn attracted the peasants and common-folk, who journeyed the short distance to where the merchants set up within the castle, all gathering under the safety afforded by the presence of Sir Richard and his men.
Jessica looked forward to the coming season as she walked through the corridor toward her fathers audience hall. She loved having so many interesting strangers around, all bartering and squabling happily. During the months of trading, Jess would often wander among the stalls quietly, listening to and watching the merchants in fascination, ignoring her mother who always told her to keep away from the commoners.
As she neared the audience hall, Jessicas footsteps slowed nervously. Her father had summoned her early that morning, and she knew he wanted to dicuss the request shed made for custody of the dark-haired stranger. Jess had lain awake most of the night wondering what she should tell her father to explain her interest, and she took a moment now to calm her mind and organise her thoughts.
The mysterious woman had woken up, Jess knew. The jailer had sent a messenger to inform her at her request, and shed been told the prisoner was now conscious and starting to make a nuisance of herself. Jess smiled. That seemed right.
Looking around, trying to distract her mind from the coming meeting, Jessica spent a moment just admiring the view through the archery slits of the stone keep.
Jessica had explored DaGran since she was a child, her curiosity insatiable. Shed solved every mystery it held . . . even the ones that no-one else not even her father or Sir Miles knew about. Mysteries only a young girl with many lonely hours to kill would ever think to look for. She knew that although the castle appeared to be just another bastion of war, its design was far more ingenious and subtle than first impressions might suggest.
Through the walls and between the various levels ran dozens of secret passage-ways, hidden and concealed, that accessed almost every room in the castle. Jessica had stumbled upon an entrance to them in her bedroom when she was a child, and had spent days exploring them thoroughly. In a hidden chamber she discovered the original plans to the fortress, and with them had unearthed all DaGrans many secrets. She knew about the underground torture chambers, the hidden escape tunnel that led out into the woods, the access too and from the dungeons. She even knew about the peep-hole that looked into the bathing chamber . . . though shed never used it, of course.
The secret passageways had given Jessica the ability to watch everything that went on in the castle; had given her access into the lives of servant and soldier alike. Because her mother discouraged her from making friends with anyone beneath her station, Jessica was often lonely. By spying on others, by listening to and watching them as they went about their lives, the spirited girl found solace and companionship . . . of a sort, anyway.
Still, the spying games only eased Jessicas loneliness a little and she often wished for more. Besides her father, Sir Miles was about her only real friend . . . and he was a lot older than she was. She hated her pompous ass of a brother, and her mother disapproved of her consorting with the servants for any length of time, which meant that Jessica had never had any real contact with young women her own age. In fact, she hadnt had any exposure to much of anything, really. Filled with curiosity and wonder, Jessicas mind sought constantly to wander off into the wide world . . . preferably dragging her body along for the ride.
That was why the vivacious young blonde spent so much time in the secret rooms she had discovered, head buried in books about lands far away, where everything was different. Lands where Emperors ruled over vast regions, and where heroic men fought overwhelming odds to rescue beautiful maidens from evil warlords. These books, bought from the traders in secret and read alone, were Jessicas closest and most treasured friends. She kept the books hidden from everyone. The Church disapproved of much of what she read, and if she were ever discovered with the books, Jessica knew shed be in a lot of trouble. There were strict rules that dictated what texts were appropriate for the faithful, and the books Jess read did not fit in with the doctrines of the Church. As one of the nobility, it was her duty to obey and uphold the moral principals that God had set forth.
Of course, Jessica was unsure exactly why her books were considered so evil. Many of the sermons Father Grahem gave confused the young girl with their seemingly blind condemnations, but she found it easy enough to simply ignore the more intolerant preachings. She loved God, afterall, and believed in the power of His goodness. But she wasnt prepared to give up something that meant so much to her, and she didnt think God would mind her reading her books. What harm was there in learning about different places, or different cultures and ways of life? Or even different expressions of love?
Privately, Jessica had admitted this was one reason she wanted custody of the stranger . . . shed be someone close to her own age to talk too, and it was clear from her exotic features and strange accent that she wasnt from anywhere in the British Isles. Jessica was sure they could be great friends if the other woman were given into her care. The chance for someone to talk to, someone who had perhaps lived an exciting or adventurous life . . . for that, Jessica was prepared to go to any lengths.
Before she quite realized it, Jessica had reached the huge oak doors that led into the audience room. She nodded to the two guards standing at attention outside the great portal. They smiled and greeted her cheerfully.
"Not in trouble again, are ye, Jess?" asked one.
She laughed and waved her hand dismissively. "No . . . not yet."
They chuckled and rapped loudly on the doors with their spear butts to announce her before swinging open the doors and allowing her to enter.
Jessica walked into the audience room, blinking to get her eyes to adjust to the change in light from outside to in. The room was expansive, with high stone walls and impressive tapestries covering everything. A long table took up the center of the great hall, mounted with candelabra that struggled to illuminate the massive room. The windows were narrow and tall, designed to make it easy to defend and difficult to attack. A few hunting dogs skulked about in the shadows. They wagged their tails when they saw her and looked hopefully at her empty hands, begging for a treat. Jess patted them. "Sorry, nothing here." She let them lick her hands. "Maybe next time."
Looking up, she saw her parents sitting at the far end of the table. Sir Miles stood a few paces from them, hands clasped behind his back. Sir Richard was listening to the words of an elderly, wizened man dressed in comfortable velvet robes dyed fanciful colors who leant on a long, twisted stick. The man, Eric Grace, had been her fathers chief adviser since as far back as Jess could remember, and he also functioned in the capacity of an alchemist and sometime healer. He was smart, she admitted, but something about him had always made her uncomfortable. Maybe it was his eyes . . . they had a habit of staring through a person, rather that at him. At his side was his young apprentice, Senigma Wright. She didnt mind the young man too much; he was polite to a fault, and could be amusing and rather charming when he put his mind to it.
Also at the table, Jess noted with a scowl, was her younger brother, Steven. The little bastard was sitting next to her mother, as always. He wore rich clothes and an expression of perpetual boredom and disinterest.
Jessica hated her brother. As firstborn son he was her fathers heir, and she had a bad feeling that when he came to power, everything was going to go straight too Hell. The young man had no interest in the lives of those he considered beneath him; in that - and in almost every other regard - he took after his mother. He was soft and weak, preferring the comforts of a life at court to the hardships of the battlefield, and though intelligent he had no idea what running a castle was all about. For these reasons and more, Jessica had always despised him, and he returned the sentiment whole-heartedly.
The people at the table glanced up as she approached, and her father gestured for her to take a seat. When shed done so, she waited nervously for her father to speak.
Her father folded his hands on the table. "Sir Miles has informed me of your desire to retain custody of the young woman you apprehended yesterday," he said, settling his steely eyes on her. "I had planned to sentence her to the soldiers for a year of indentured service, but Ive rethought the decision in light of your desire . . . after all, you were the one to catch her."
Jessica held her breath. "Does this mean youre letting me keep her?"
Sir Richard smiled. Her mother and brother frowned. She sounded like she was asking to keep some stray dog shed picked up. Jessica ignored them and allowed her bright green eyes to flare with hope, knowing her father could never resist her charm.
"This isnt some stray you found wandering in the garbage, Jessica," he father said sternly, trying to ignore her expression. "Its a grown woman . . . and from what you tell me, an seasoned fighter." He glanced pointedly at her injury.
Jess scratched at her arm, where the cut shed sustained was already starting to itch. The wound had taken five stitches, but it would be worth it if she could keep the mystery woman. "I still beat her," she muttered, hoping her father didnt think less of her for the injury.
He smiled. "That you did . . . but I want to be sure of your intentions before I release such a dangerous individual into your care."
"I think youre a fool for even considering her idiot idea," her mother put in, unable to stay silent. "The womans a menace . . . a bandit, for Gods sake! Jessica has no business associating with such ungodly people."
Her father waved his wife silent with a gesture. "Enough." He paused, gripping the edge of the oak table and leaning closer, his expression frank and genuinely interested. "What exactly is it you want to do with her?" he asked softly.
Jessica had expected such a question, and she ignored her mothers outburst, having expected it as well. "I want to employ her as my hand-maiden," she told her father, considering her words carefully, unsure if he would understand or approve. She adopted the cultured tones her mother expected, rather than the crude accented speech she normally used. "And I want to teach her to fight."
"What!?" Her mother erupted with incredulous rage. "You want to teach her to fight better!? Why? So she can kill more of the soldiers when she decides to rebel?" She glared at her husband. "Tell me youre not considering this ridiculous idea!?"
Her father was silent, but she could tell by his frown he was concerned. "She has a point," he allowed. "The woman is already a danger . . . she managed to draw your blood, after all." Sir Richard was well aware of his daughters skill. "Teaching her further would increase the threat she poses significantly." His eyes narrowed shrewdly, suspecting something more. "What are you thinking?"
Lady Rose threw her arms in the air and fumed. Steven glanced at her with mild disgust, and brushed a speck of dust from his shoulder. Jess continued to ignore them. "She has great spirit, father," she said softly. "I can feel it . . . shes not just a common bandit. She moves with the grace of a noble woman" She threw a glare at her mother, who fell back a little. "Shes something special."
Her father nodded. "Sir Miles said you thought as much," he said, gesturing to his old friend. "And he has told me he believes this means a lot to you."
Jessica nodded. "It means a great deal to me, father, yes."
"Mmmm." Her father thought a moment, then turned to Sir Miles. "Would you be prepared to instruct this woman, Miles . . . under my daughters supervision?"
Sir Miles took a step forward. "Aye, Milord, I would," he answered simply. "Jessicas me best pupil. Anyone who can break through her defenses must be talented to start with. This woman, if she kin be convinced this is to er benefit, could be a valuable fighter."
Sir Richard eyed his daughter, seeing her expression of barely contained excitement. "Very well," he said at last. "You can offer her the choice, then. She can serve her term of indenture with the soldiers, or with you."
Jessica threw her arms around her fathers neck and hugged him enthusiastically. "Thank you, thank you thank you!" she cried.
He blushed and pushed her away. "There now . . . no reason to go all mushy now girl." His tone was gruff but she could tell from his smile he didnt mind the affectionate gesture. "Just be sure I dont regret this later, huh?"
"You wont," she promised. "Youll see."
Her mother stormed over. "Youre both crazy," she yelled. "Jessicas already enough of a misfit without this to encourage her behavior."
"Theres nothing wrong with my behavior, mother," Jessica said, her voice cold and soft. "Just because I dont sit around dressed in fancy clothes drinking fine wine and expensive food, doesnt mean Im doing the wrong thing."
"Youre a young lady!" her mother fumed. "Youre not a soldier . . . youre a woman, and you should act in a manner reflective of your breeding! Its unnatural and against Gods desire for you to conduct yourself the way you do!"
Jessica calmed herself with an effort. She wanted to strangle the woman sometimes. Her mother had tried to rear her to the life of the courts, wanting to establish her as the perfect gentle-woman. But ever since she was a small child, Jessica had taken after her father. When Sir Richard realized her natural vocation - after watching her slicing up her dolls with a kitchen knife in a methodical and enthusiastic manner - he entrusted her to the care of Sir Miles. Under the old knights training Jessica had bloomed into a beautiful yet deadly flower, her skill surpassing that of all but a few of the veteran soldiers. But despite everything, Lady Rose had never been able to let go completely, trying desperately to wean her away from such unbecoming things as swordplay and warfare.
Her mother had more success with her brother, Steven, however. The young man saw the warrior arts as barbaric and pointless. Sir Richard paid him little attention, except to try to teach the slothful young man how to manage the affairs of state which would be his inheritance. Steven cared not at all for the lessons, but submitted himself to them with great reluctance . . . when he had to.
Now Jessica, content with her victory, simply glared at her mother and shrugged. "Im getting married, arent I?" she demanded. "Isnt that enough?"
"It might be if youd set a date for your wedding," Lady Rose retorted angrily. "Youve been putting it off for four years now . . . at this rate, itll never happen."
We can only hope, thought Jessica wryly. "Charles understands," she said, knowing it was true. Her betrothed did indeed understand her quite clearly . . . knew she didnt love him as anything more than a friend. And she knew he felt the same. Still, they were expected to marry.
"Youre just lucky hes still interested in you," her mother fumed. Then, grabbing Steven by the arm, Lady Rose glared one last time at her husband and stormed out of the hall, dragging her son behind her.
Jessica rolled her eyes and shared a mischievous grin with her father as the doors slammed shut. "I guess youre gonna be hearing about this later," she said, letting the accent back now they were alone.
Sir Richard sighed and shrugged. He was accustomed to dealing with his wife and knew she would settle down eventually. "Just dont let this be something I regret letting you do, Jess."
"I wont," she promised dutifully, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek.
He blushed and shooed her away. "Go on now," he growled. "Youve got an angry woman to go see, girl one whos probably getting tired of that dungeon by now."
"Then Id better go let her out, hadnt I." She turned and smiled at Sir Miles. "Thank you."
He grinned. "Just let me know when ye want to start er trainin," he said. "Should be interestin, I expect." His eyes flashed with amusement.
With a slight bow to her father, Jessica left the audience hall and headed for the dungeons. Her broad grin spoke of her excitement at the prospect of seeing the strange, dark-haired woman again. She just knew theyd be great friends, once they got to know each other.
In the audience hall, Sir Richard sighed and rubbed his forehead wearily. "Are you sure about this?"
Miles grinned and patted his friend on the shoulder. "That girls growin up fast, Richard," he said gruffly. "Aint right to be keepin er away from people."
"Hes right, milord," Grace agreed. "Lady Jessica needs a friend . . . someone her own age to talk too. Perhaps having this woman around will help to keep her out of trouble."
Richard smiled at that. "We can but hope, I suppose."
"Yer doing the right thing," Miles assured him. "This is just what Jess is needin."
Sir Richard sighed again. "I pray youre right, Miles," he said softly. "I really do."
Kaleah had emerged from the darkness some time ago to find herself thrust back into the hell that had been her life for almost ten years.
The prison cell was dry, ill-lit and musty. She was its only occupant, though she could hear the sounds of others being held in cells further down the corridor outside. The bars were solid iron, rusted and unyielding. All in all, the prison was depressing but shed seen far worse. Still, this nightmare brought back memories of her years of captivity; there was nothing more terrifying to Kaleah than the knowledge that now ran through her mind over and over, beating against her skull with depressing rhythm.
Youre a slave again.
Filled with typical restless energy now fueled further by anger and despair, Kaleah paced back and forth around the cell. Shed been pacing for hours. Her knuckles were split and bleeding from where shed bashed them against the bars in desperation, but that pain was negligible compared to the throbbing in her head. Her throat was sore from screaming at the smug jailer, who had ignored her threats and pleas indifferently. Furthermore she was freezing cold, her armor having been stripped from her body, replaced with a simple coarse shift that did little to ward off the chill emanating from the stone walls, floor and ceiling. And over and over, the grim words rolled through her head.
Youre a slave again.
That damn little blonde! It was all her fault, Kaleah decided. The bitch just couldnt let me get away, could she. When I get out of here, Im gonna find that witch and . . . and . . .
Kaleah sighed. Lot of good such thoughts would do her in here. The girl had beaten her soundly. There was nothing she could do. She wanted to lie down on the thin pallet that served as a bed, but her rage and frustration wouldnt let her. Anyway, the odds of her seeing that green-eyed demon again were slim at best. She must be someone important to have acquired so great a talent with a blade. It wasnt too likely shed ever wander down here . . .
"You planning on pacing like that all day?" asked a soft, now-familiar voice.
Kaleah looked up in shock to find those laughing green eyes watching her again. Damn, this girl moved quietly! She was standing outside under a burning torch, a cheeky grin tugging at her lips.
"You look cold."
Kaleah scowled angrily, judging whether she could reach the girl through the bars and strangle her to death before the jailer got to her. Probably not.
"What do you want?" The reminder from the girl had caused her to start shivering.
The girl shrugged. "Im here to give you a choice," she said softly. "My father is the lord of this castle. Hes given me permission to make you an offer."
"Let me go," Kaleah demanded. "I havent done anything."
"Like I told you, Ive only your word on that," the girl said, her tone maddeningly calm. "You were in the company of those bandits . . . you fought beside them -"
"I did no such thing!" Kaleah protested angrily. "I defended myself when attacked. You saw me . . . you were watching."
Kaleah was surprised to see the girl blush a little at her words. Had she felt that strange feeling of connection as well? Interesting . . .
Shaking her head, she concentrated on more important things . . . like getting out of here.
"It doesnt matter," said the girl gently, her flush fading quickly. "I still captured you, and youre still being held as a criminal. Would you like to hear the choices youre being given? I can come back later if youd prefer to stay here and rot for a while longer."
Kaleah had it in mind to tell the green-eyed imp exactly what she could do with her choices, but with a supreme effort managed to control the desire. Shed suddenly noticed the girl was holding a ring of keys in one hand. Licking dry lips, trying to keep calm, Kaleah gestured for her to continue.
"My father was going to simply sentence you to a term of indentured service with the garrison-"
"Ill not be a slave!" Kaleah growled fiercely.
"Theres a difference between indentured service and slavery," the girl said.
"Not from where Im standing. Ive tried that life . . . and I didnt like it."
The green eyes flicked over her body and Kaleah held still. She knew that many of the scars of her captivity could be seen in the spare shift, and she hated revealing them to this young woman. She felt somehow shed already revealed too much, though they didnt even know each others names.
"I didnt like the idea of you being wasted on the soldiers," the girl continued after her assessment.
"That makes two of us."
"Right." The girl smiled even more radiantly. "Thats why I appealed on your behalf."
Kaleah eyed her warily. "Youre letting me go?" she asked hesitantly.
The girl laughed. "No . . . but I have an alternative to my fathers sentence."
Kaleah fell back, glaring. "And whats that?"
Now the girl stepped closer and held up the keys. "I want you to come with me," she said softly.
"With you? What do you mean?"
Green eyes held her seriously. "You can fight good," said the girl, holding her arm up so Kaleah could see the neatly stitched cut she vaguely remembered inflicting. "I can make you better. Youre a stranger in this land. You clearly have little wealth to your name. My guess is youre just a wandering mercenary or something . . . perhaps an escaped slave trying to survive."
Kaleah crossed her arms defiantly, annoyed at being read so easily. "So?"
"So . . . Im offering to teach you things youll never have the opportunity to learn elsewhere."
Kaleah held back, cautious. "Like what?"
The girl shrugged. "Can you read?"
"A little." In truth, very little.
"Well I can teach you more." The girl jangled the keys temptingly. "I can make you everything you can be . . . teach you to survive better then you obviously were if you had to live with those bandits."
Kaleah considered the girls proposal, her eyes still hungrily resting on the ring of keys. "Whats in it for you?" she demanded.
The girl rested her hand on the cell bars, seemingly confidant she had Kaleahs attention. "Why does there have to be something in it for me?"
"Thats how things work," she said angrily, trying to stay calm enough not to jump at the girl and break her neck.
"Alright . . . if thats how you want it, Ill tell you what I want." The girl held her gaze. "I want you to spend some time with me . . . just talking and stuff." She lowered her face, her messy blonde hair falling forward to hide her expression. "I dont get a lot of company . . . at least not with women my own age. And certainly not with anyone like you." She glanced up and smiled through her golden locks. "Youre foreign, right?"
Kaleah nodded slightly.
"I love foreign cultures and stuff," the girl said, her enthusiasm obvious. "I read about them in books the traders have sometimes. You could tell me about all the places youve been . . . and what theyre like."
Kaleah eyed her warily, not much liking the idea of relating her life story. "And you want to teach me to fight?"
"Sure. Youd be brilliant . . . hell, you are brilliant, but you could be even better."
"And youll let me go after how long?"
"A year," the girl said sincerely. "And you can leave better equipped to live, knowing you wont be captured so easily again. Ill even give you money, if you want . . . you know, to help you get started."
Well, shed had worse offers, that was for sure. "Where would I sleep?"
The girl clearly sensed victory. "I have a room next to mine," she said. "Its nice a big bed, a fireplace. Youll be more comfortable there than outside in the snow."
"A room of my own?" She couldnt believe this. "Youll trust I wont run?"
The girl shrugged. "There are guards on the walls . . . theyd shoot you if you could make it out onto the flats around the castle. Besides, where would you go? Surely its better to stay here and take what Im offering than go out and die in the winter forests." She paused, then added thoughtfully, "Better than being the servant for the guards, too; I doubt theyd treat you as well as I would."
Kaleah considered that. What the girl said had some merit, she admitted. She hadnt been doing well in this unbelievable weather. She had no experience with it, no idea how to survive in cold like this. Of course, the idea of spending most of her time in the company of others was unappealing; particularly the company of this intense young woman who, for some reason, made her feel things that shed never felt before but which made her extremely uncomfortable.
"Im not really the companionable type," she said quietly. "I . . . I cant be around people for too long. . . makes me nervous."
"Thats okay," the girl allowed. "You dont have to be with me all the time. You can just go into your room, or onto the parapets, or the library. Theres lots of places to go to be alone here." Something in her tone made Kaleah believe she spoke from experience.
"I want my armor back. I dont have anything else to wear"
"Of course, theyre just being cleaned. And Ill give you other clothes if you want."
Kaleah turned away. "I wont be a slave," she said quietly, her voice thick with passion. "Id rather die."
"I wont treat you as a slave," the blonde said. "I just want to help you . . . in return for some company. Its more like a . . . a business transaction, really. We both get something out of it." She held up the keys, her eyes twinkling. "Do we have a deal?"
Kaleah sighed. "I guess I dont have much choice," she muttered.
"Nope." The girl laughed, selecting one of the keys and twisting it into the lock. With a scrape of metal and the rasp of the hinges, the cell door swung open. The girl held out her hand. "My name is Jessica DaGran."
Kaleah hesitated, but stepped forward and accepted the girls introduction. "You can call me Kaleah," she said softly. The young womans grip was surprisingly strong, and she ended the handshake as quickly as she could, feeling uncomfortable with the contact.
"Kaleah . . ." The girl - Jessica - rolled the name around her mouth as though sampling its flavor. "Ive never heard that name before . . . it sounds strange."
"Humph." Kaleah just grunted, still determined not to like this young woman. "Which ways out?"
"This way." Jessica led the way down the right path, taking them past several other mostly empty cells to a solid steel-braced door guarded by a bald, muscular man who bowed to the blonde respectfully before opening it.
Kaleah followed Jessica up a winding flight of steps that brought them out into the light and the blessed fresh air. Free from the dungeon, Kaleah spread her arms wide and took a deep breath, grateful to be out in the open again . . . even if it was cursedly cold in her simple shift. Stretching, she saw Jessica watching her with amusement.
"Come on," offered the lively blonde happily. "Ill show you around, and then take you somewhere you can clean up." She grinned and Kaleah noticed for the first time that her nose developed a cute little crinkle when she did so. "You could use a wash."
Kaleah gingerly touched the crusted blood on her forehead. "Youre right."
Jessica saw her expression and her smile vanished. "Im sorry I had to do that," she apologized. "You just wouldnt stay down."
"Didnt want to be captured."
Jessica reached out and tentatively touched her on the shoulder. "It wont be so bad," she promised softly, and Kaleah was aware again of just how intense those green eyes could be. "If you just give this a chance, youll see."
Turning, she led the way along an open pathway that gave a view of the castle courtyard, currently filled with various people going about their business. Kaleah followed, looking around carefully, paying attention to the number and location of the guards. She admitted privately that they were well placed and alert . . . not much chance of an escape. Shrugging, she hurried up, noticing that for some reason she could still feel a warm tingling sensation on her arm where Jessica had touched her.
Kaleah spent the next hour or so being led around the castle. She grudgingly admitted that the place was nice sort of. The granite stone was cold, but not as bad as it was in the woods, and there were tapestries everywhere depicting great battle scenes or intricate, interlocking patterns Jessica told her came from an island to the west she called Ireland.
The room Jessica told her would be hers during her stay was luxurious beyond anything the former slave had ever known. Shed had to blink several times before she believed her own eyes.
"Its alright." Jessica had been delighted and amused at her reaction. "Youll get used to it. And that door there leads right into my room, so if you want anything you can just come and ask, okay?"
Kaleah had nodded, still bewildered at this strange turn of events. Still, she kept up a litany in her mind, I will not be a slave, I will not be a slave, repeating it to keep alive the dislike she was determined to maintain for her unwanted new friend.
Jessica kept up a constant chatter, telling her about this and that. Kaleah got the impression the girl was a little nervous. For her own part, the dark woman was content to be led about, letting her companions words flow over her without really paying them much mind. She was still looking for a break in the defenses of the castle. As soon as she found it, Kaleah decided she would leave regardless of the comforts, this felt too much like servitude for her tastes.
"And this," Jessica said, stopping at a set of carved doors depicting some kind of aquatic animals, "is the bathing chamber. Um . . . Ill leave you hear so you can get cleaned up, okay?" She opened the doors and they entered the steamy atmosphere beyond.
Kaleah gasped. The room was huge, adorned with amazingly detailed marble sculptures of beautiful men and women bathing. Light streamed from a ceiling crafted from multi-colored stained glass panels that must have cost a fortune. There were ferns hanging from pots all over the place, making the place seem lush and alive. Most of the room was filled with a great pool of clear, deep water, in the center of which was a raised island made from a series of steps and platforms. The pool had been designed to appear very natural, with parts left rough and others polished smooth for comfortable sitting. The steam rising from the water gave testament to its warmth, though she was at a loss to explain how. Kaleah had never seen anything so magnificent.
Jessica watched her reaction and smiled happily. "The water gets heated from the fires in the kitchen," she explained. "It cycles through a system of pipes every day, so its always clean." She turned to leave, giving the dark woman some privacy. "Ill go get your armor while you wash up . . . therere robes over there," she pointed to a small room off to the side. "You can lock the door once Im gone, but not too many people come into this part of the castle . . . just me. I cant imagine why not, but hey . . . Im not complaining either! Ill be back in about half an hour."
The door closed behind the blonde woman and Kaleah was alone. She spent a moment just looking at the amazing chamber, not quite believing she was here. Then, realizing just how dirty she was, she figured to get down to business.
After carefully locking the door noting as she did that the latch wasnt particularly strong - Kaleah stripped out of the course and uncomfortable shift gladly. Tossing it over a nearby rock, the former slave waded out into the deep, luxurious water until it came to her chin. A guttural sigh escaped her lips as she felt her body start to relax. She quietly cleaned the blood and grime from her lithe figure, running her hands over the many scars that marred her skin and feeling the warmth of the water seep into the old wounds that tended to ache in the cold. Her long dark hair fanned out around her and she scrubbed it roughly to work out weeks of accumulated filth. It would be tangled, but she was sure her new friend would lend her a brush.
Thinking of Jessica, Kaleah allowed her mind to ponder the young woman. When Kaleah had mentioned that shed seen her watching her during the fight, the girl had blushed. She had gone out of her way to snare her into this arrangement . . . she was being friendly and generous. And, Kaleah had to admit, she seemed very genuine in her desire for friendship.
Strange, she considered. She would have thought a beautiful young noble woman like Jessica would have a lot of friends. Why would she need to force someone into being her companion? It was very odd.
Putting the matter aside for later consideration, Kaleah waded over to examine one of the statues more closely. She recognized the work of a skilled artisan, having spent some time learning the art of carving herself from her last master before he released her. The statue was of a beautiful woman with long, flowing hair, full breasts and a curvaceous figure. Kaleah felt herself blush a little, noting that the carver had paid a lot of attention to detail. Running a finger along the glistening marble sculpture, she couldnt help but marvel at the beauty of her surroundings. This place this room was about the most magnificent thing shed ever seen.
Remembering that Jessica would return shortly, Kaleah finished up quickly and retrieved one of the comfortable robes she found in the adjoining room. Wrapping it tightly around her body, she unlocked the door and sat on a convenient wooden bench until the blonde knocked.
"Come in," she called, standing up.
Jessica poked her head around the door, smiling. "Feeling better?"
Kaleah grunted non-commitedly. "Wheres my armor?"
"Here." Jessica held out a large bundle wrapped in white cloth. "I also brought this . . ." She held out Kaleahs sword, sheathed in its ornate scabbard.
Kaleah eyed the offered weapon skeptically. "Youre letting me keep my sword?"
Jessica just shrugged. "Im giving you a little credit," she said simply. "I think youre probably pretty smart . . . smart enough to realize theres not much point in trying anything like taking me hostage and making a break for it. Right?"
Kaleah realized this was true. The girl wasnt taking much of a risk. She grunted and took the sword.
Jessica smiled. "I thought so. Besides, how can you learn to fight better if you dont have your sword. Oh, and I brought this, too . . ." She reached into a pocket and pulled out a fine wooden flute. She studied it a moment, then held it out to Kaleah. The dark womans eyes flared hungrily when she saw the instrument. "They found this in your armor . . . I thought you might want it back."
Kaleah snatched the flute and clasped it to her breast possessively. "Thank you."
Jessica did not miss the reaction. "Do you play?"
"Maybe you could play something for me," Jessica suggested. "If you feel like it, of course."
Kaleah frowned. Shed never played for anyone other than herself. Her music was private, but, she mused, there was no point antagonizing the young blonde. "Perhaps."
"Great! Id love that." She gestured to the adjoining room. "Well, get changed and Ill show you around some more."
Kaleah eyed her for a moment, annoyed at how this woman seemed perpetually cheerful. She wondered what it might take to really make her mad, recalling that even when shed been wounded in their fight, the young blonde maintained her calm and good humor. Turning, she went into the privacy of the nearby room to change.
As the dark woman walked away from her, Jessica let her eyes roam more thoroughly over her figure, not really trying to stop them from lingering here and there. There was no harm in admiring Kaleah, she thought . . . and there was certainly a lot there to admire. Her smile turned a little more feral and her eyes twinkled with daring. Despite her betrothal, Jessica had always been intrigued by the stories shed read involving romances between women. More than any other stories they were hard to come by, what with the power of the Church deeming them evil, but Jessica had several traders who kept their eyes open for her, knowing she could pay them well for their discretion. She felt no guilt in just looking. . . Kaleah was certainly beautiful. She was just appreciating the good Lords handiwork, thats all. Jessica had never had much opportunity to explore her interest in other women. . . but shed felt a strong connection to her new friend from the moment they locked eyes. It would be nice to have a female friend to talk with, no matter what came of it.
"You know," Jessica continued talking just to fill the quiet, "I couldnt help but notice the quality of the work on your blade . . . that Spanish steels rare nowadays."
"Yeah. So?" Kaleah was struggling into her figure-hugging armor, reluctantly appreciating the fine job someone had done cleaning the outfit.
"Did you steal it?"
"Of course not." Kaleah was a little offended the blonde had so little regard for her morality.
"I didnt think so," Jessica told her gently. "I looked at the blade; I can imagine, from your height and reach, that your sword was custom made for you . . . just like your armor, huh?"
"Not exactly." Kaleah adjusted the last buckle, and strapped the sword around her waist, setting it to rest just below the flare of her hips. Stepping out of the room, she caught Jessicas eyes. "I made them myself."
Green eyes widened. "You did!?" Jessica was clearly surprised. "But . . . how could you . . ."
Pleased to have shocked the little blonde woman so, Kaleah grinned fully, showing her even white teeth. "My former master was a Spanish weapon-smith named Constantine DeLivier. He taught me as his apprentice for over a year," she explained briefly. "He helped me to design my armor and weapon, and he taught me to use them. When I was ready, he released me from his service." She watched Jessica closely for a reaction. "My freedom was the greatest gift he ever gave me."
Jessica lowered her eyes. "And you think Ive taken it away, is that it?"
Kaleah looked around. "This place may be fancy . . . but its a prison just as much as the dungeon was." Her posture became aggressive and tense. It felt good to fan the flames of her anger, to justify it in the face of Jessicas kindness. "You can keep me here, but dont fool yourself into thinking its what I want."
Jessica frowned and looked up through lowered lashes. She could feel her eyes starting to water. "Im trying to help you." Why couldnt this woman understand that all this was going to be good for her?
Kaleah strode past her towards the exit. "No-one has ever tried to help me in my whole life. . . except for DeLivier," she said as she passed, her voice husky and bitter. "I doubt youll be any different."
Jessica watched her go, trying to steady her breathing. The barbed words hurt theyd meant to hurt, she knew. Kaleah wouldnt accept this passively, as shed hoped. The woman was abrasive and filled with a quick and restless energy. Her emotional armor was strong and doubtless well made to protect her from a harsh life. But Jessica was determined . . . no matter the obstacles, she would persevere. With kindness and caring her tools, she would chip away until she won the dark woman over.
"This will be different," she promised the departed woman quietly. "Ill make it different."
That night as Kaleah lay in the bed that Jessica had given her, she thought back on her day and wondered. She couldnt get to sleep; the softness of the down-filled mattress was strange to her, the silky texture of the sheets against her bare skin seemed uncomfortably luxurious. From outside she heard the footsteps of the soldiers as they walked along the battlements. But worse than the newness of her surroundings, everytime Kaleah closed her eyes and tried to drift off, Jessicas laughing eyes and perpetually smiling face appeared in the darkness taunting, tempting.
The former slave had maintained her icy demeanor for the rest of the day, determined to make this as hard for her unwanted companion as she could. But Jessica had apparently chosen to ignore her scowling face and petulant attitude, smiling and chattering on about anything that popped into her head as she led Kaleah around. As the day wore on, Kaleah found it harder to maintain her dislike for the vivacious blonde. The young woman gave so freely of herself . . . seemed so filled with life and vigor, and yet at the same time appeared so calm and in control. Kaleah admitted to herself that the captivating blonde had her completely at a loss as to how to behave. Jessica repaid her dour looks with cheerful ones, her words of hatred with ones of friendship. A part of Kaleah wanted desperately to just give in and smile and laugh along with her, but she clamped it down whenever it tried to escape.
Now, laying in the darkness and trying to uncoil her tense body, Kaleah frowned and squirmed uncomfortably. There was an ache deep in her gut that shed never felt before . . . an emptiness she hadnt known existed until it had been illuminated by the vibrant emerald eyes of the young blonde. There was something about Jessica that called to Kaleah, made her wish she could just bask in this warmth and life forever, let it wash away the darkness and pain of her former life. But at the same time there was something about her that made Kaleah want to hold on to the hatred and anger all the more fiercly.
Whenever those incredible eyes pierced her own, Kaleah felt a stab of dull pain twist into her soul . . . and she saw for the first time just how empty that soul really was. Every word Jessica spoke sounded strange as it echoed in that dark void, and suddenly, for the first time since shed been made a slave, Kaleah felt lonely. Felt vulnerable. The isolation that once seemed to protect her now seemed cold and barren.
It was not a feeling she liked, nor wanted to cultivate.
Sighing, Kaleah snuggled deeper into her bed and rearranged her cushions, pushing away her dismal musings. Jessica was clearly determined to be her friend whether she wanted her to be or not . . . but that didnt mean Kaleah was going to make it easy for her. Remembering her words in the bathing chamber, the dark-haired woman nodded to herself. If she had to stay in this cursed place, she was going to make it clear that it was under sufferance that no matter how Jessica tried to justify it, this captivity was unwanted.
Besides, she added silently. Ill be out of here soon enough. Every castle has a chink in the defenses . . . its just a matter of finding it and using it. As long as the damn girl doesnt put me in irons, its only a question of time before I can escape.
Closing her eyes, satisfied she had everything under control, Kaleah relaxed and let sleep overtake her . . . stubbornly ignoring the part of her that was still trying to point out just how nice it was not to be sleeping in some freezing cave in the middle of the snow-covered forest.
In her room next door, Jessicas thoughts were also on her new companion, and the day they had shared.
Jessica thought the blue-eyed woman was fascinating. Absolutely enchanting. She possessed some inaliable quality that drew Jessica in and held her fast. Some kind of aura, like Eric, her fathers adviser, sometimes spoke of when espousing his alchemy hocus-pocus.
Part of it, Jess admitted, was simply her physical presence. The woman was uncommonly tall, slender yet powerfully built. She moved as though she were constantly tense and alert. . . or ready to bolt at a moments notice. Her clear blue eyes never seemed to soften - they were intense and magnetic, a sharp contrast to her long, inky black hair and bronze skin. Her features were hard and somewhat angular, finely sculptured and beautiful in an alluring, exotic fashion that made Jessicas stomach twist and her hands start to sweat. Even the livid scar across her mouth did nothing to detract from her appearance . . . rather, it enhanced the sensuous lips by drawing the eye towards them.
But there was more to it than just her physicality. There was a force she couldnt define about Kaleah, something exciting and fresh . . . dangerous, even. Something that made her want to reach out and touch the dark woman, like shed always wanted to reach out and touch the burning candles as a child.
The woman had been stiff and thorny during their first day together, but Jessica had caught her almost smiling a few times during their rather one-sided conversation. It was almost as though she wanted to enjoy herself but was determined not to. This gave Jessica hope as she snuggled into her bed, smiling a wicked little smile.
She was going to make Kaleah her friend . . . even if it killed one of them.
There was pain. Pain so fierce it almost blinded her, almost brought her crashing to the floor. But she fought against the dizziness, focused on the cool, smooth wooden hilt of the dagger she clutched with desperate strength in her right hand. Slowly, every step an exercise in torment, she made her way across the room to the chamber beyond.
A thin smile pulled at her bloody lips as ice-blue eyes found her target. The man was bathing in a large tub, his back turned to her, oblivious to any danger. She stalked forward, fighting not to gasp at the agony that lanced through her body, knowing shed only get one chance. Finally, she stood over the man as he washed. The broad expanse of his back was open to her, defenceless. The dagger gleamed hungrily in the candle-light, and she hesitated just long enough to savour the moment before she let it feed.
The man screamed at the first thrust, swinging about wildly to confront her. Before he could move to attack her she struck again, feeling a dark, powerful surge of energy wash over her as the crimson blade descended again and again. The man fell to the tiled floor but Kaleah didnt stop. The dagger rose and fell unendingly, dragging screams from the man that soon grew weaker. Dimly she heard a pounding from outside and idly realized the guards were coming. They would kill her, she knew, but that didnt matter now. Her eyes were exultant; the pain was gone. A dark and evil strength flowed through her blood, offering to wash away the fear and end her suffering. She smiled for the first time in many years, welcoming the numbing oblivion the darkness held out like a token.
The smile faltered when she looked up and found haunting emerald eyes regarding her sadly.
"Is this all you want?" Jessica asked softly, her voice so achingly beautiful it forced the darkness to receed. Kaleah looked at her hand, confused now at the uncomfortable weight of the dagger. She dropped it and studied the bloody aftermath of her frenzied attack.
Jessica stepped forward, her expression one of sorrow, not pity. Kaleah shivered and drew away from her radience.
"I can help you," Jessica said gently. "I can save you from the pain. Save you from the darkness." A hand reached out to her, and Kaleah felt her soul long for something it had never had. Jessica smiled sadly. "I can save you from yourself, Kaleah . . . if you let me."
Kaleah jerked awake suddenly, gasping for breath, her blood rising quickly with panic. It took her a second to realize where she was, and when she did the dark woman fell back on the damp mattress with a relieved sigh. Her body was covered in a thin layer of sweat and the chill of the night made her shiver a little and pull the blankets closer about her.
It had been a long time since shed had a nightmare a long time since shed let herself think back on the horrors shed experienced as a slave. This dream had been different from the others, however; never had the present intruded on her memories of the past. Jessica seemed to light the darkness inside her, illuminating all those terrors again.
Kaleah scowled as she struggled to calm her body down. "Just another reason not to like her," she whispered to herself. "Just another reason to get as far away from this place as I can."
She lay awake through the rest of the night, knowing from experience not to fall asleep when the night-demons were so ready to torture her with ancient hurts.
A soft knocking at the door pulled Kaleah from a light sleep. Sitting up dazedly, the dark woman looked around the neatly-decorated room and scowled. She was tired and cranky, and the prospect of having to face Jessicas constant cheerfulness wasnt appealing.
The knock came again a little louder, and the door that lead into the coridor outside opened a crack. A strange young woman poked her face into the room cautiously. "Hello?"
"What do you want?" Kaleah demanded, pulling her sheets tighter about her body.
The womans eyes widened a little nervously at her angry tone, but she slid into the room anyway and held out a tray of food. "Lady Jessica asked me to bring you breakfast," she explained shyly.
Kaleah studied the tray, her stomach growling. Wordlessly, she gestured the woman forward and accepted the offering. The woman regarded her with timid curiosity, her hands plucking at the hem of her apron. Kaleah regarded her coldly for a moment, then asked, "Are you Jessicas slave as well?"
"Slave?" The woman looked at her strangely, perplexed by the question, then laughed a little. "Sir Richard would never allow slavery on his lands. Im one of the kitchen-maids."
Kaleahs dark brows contracted thoughtfully. "But you do serve Jessica, right?"
The woman shrugged. "I serve the castle," she said simply. "Sir Richard gives me a room to sleep in and warm meals, and he pays me with silver every few months. Its a good way to earn a living."
"So . . . you could leave here if you wanted to?"
"Aye." The woman gave a quick look around, then sidled closer and lowered her voice. "I heard from the cook that Jessicas taken a fancy to you. Shes not usually allowed to play with us commoners youre very lucky."
"Lucky?" Kaleah snorted. "Hows that?"
"Well . . . Lady Jessicas about the nicest person you could hope to meet," the serving-girl gushed. "Shes funny and smart, and shes always kind to everybody. But like I said, we dont get to say much to her. She keeps pretty much to herself." Curious eyes regarded Kaleah a little enviously. "She must think youre something special for her to defy her mother."
Kaleah was silent, absorbing this information, then her eyes hardened. "Thank you for the food," she said shortly, effectively dismissing her guest, who bobbed her head and turned to leave.
"Oh, and Jessica said to tell you shed be out in the courtyard when youre finished," the serving-girl said before she closed the door behind her and left Kaleah in peace to eat her meal.
"And this," Jessica said with a flourish, "is the lookout tower." She smiled at her dour companion as they reached the top of the winding stairwell that led up to the great spire. The height of the tower afforded a magnificent view of snow-covered fields and woodland, though it was windy and numbingly cold. "Theres usually a guard up here," Jess added, looking around the empty parapet curiously. "I guess it must be a bit nippy for them."
Jessica studied the dark woman a little nervously. For the last hour or so shed continued to show Kaleah around the castle and introduce her to the people, talking all the while just to fill the silence. Her questions were answered with sullen glares or occasional grunts, but Jessica maintained her determination to win the intriguing woman over. Studying Kaleah now as they looked out on the majestic vista before them, Jessica saw the first glimmer of interest shed seen in the dark woman all morning. Sapphire eyes gazed around everywhere, focused mostly on the castle itself.
"Its beautiful, isnt it?" she said softly, stepping closer to Kaleah.
The former slave was silent for a long time, her eyes moving slowly over the castle grounds. Then she whispered, "Four walls."
"Four walls," Kaleah said clearly. "Thats all I see."
Jessica found herself suddenly caught in the Kaleahs intense, cold gaze. She shuffled uncomfortably. "I dont understand."
Kaleah gestured with one hand at the castle battlements. "This is a cage, Princess," she spat. "You can call yourself my friend, but all you really are is my jailor."
Jessicas eyes flared with a fire of their own. "Dont call me princess," she ordered. "My fathers not a king. And this castles only as much of a cage as you want it to be. Maybe things wouldnt seem so bad if you just started thinking of this place as your home."
"My home!?" Kaleah laughed mirthlessly. "I dont have a home, Princess! Ive never had a home, but Ive lived in enough cages to know one when I see it." She pointed again to the castle below. "Four walls that mark a boundary you say I cant cross! Four walls that say Im not free!" She glared at Jessica with a cold fury, then stalked toward the stairwell. "Does that sound like a home to you, princess?"
Jessica almost let the dark woman go, but the angry words stung her. She was trying to help Kaleah here, but all Kaleah wanted to do was wallow in self pity. Exasperated, Jessica grabbed the dark woman as she brushed past her and spun her around. Furious sapphires pinned her instantly as Kaleah jerked away from her touch, but Jessica stood firm and glared right back.
"Im not here to hurt you, Kaleah," she said sternly. "Why cant you see that?"
Kaleahs body was rigid and trembling, the dark energy building inside her. "I didnt ask for a friend," she hissed through grit teeth.
"Fine. Maybe you didnt ask for one, but youve got one whether you want it or not." Jessica set her hands on her hips, her jaw set stubbornly. "Now you can either spend the next twelve months mopping about this cage feeling sorry for yourself and making my life difficult, or you can stop being such an ass and make the most of an opportunity youre not likely to get ever again in your whole life!" She paused to catch her breath. "Ill teach you to fight, Kaleah. Ill teach you to read and write and hunt and anything else you want to learn! In twelve months, you can leave this castle with enough gold and enough skills to start a new life doing anything you want to do! I cant force you to go along with anything Kaleah . . . but if you let me, Ill help you become everything you can be." Jessica stared hard at the former slave till the sapphire eyes broke away. Then she nodded to herself and started walking back down the stairs. "Ill give you some time to think about it," she called over her shoulder. "The choice is yours."
They each spent the rest of the day alone.
The next day did not go well.
After sharing a hearty breakfast of eggs and porridge - which Kaleah stubbornly refused to acknowledge was far better than anything she could have made herself - Jessica carefully suggested a little light sparring.
"I usually train a few hours everyday either with the soldiers or Sir Miles," Jessica told Kaleah after theyd eaten. "You dont have to do anything if you dont want too, but Miles and I were planning on a lesson anyway, so if you want to just watch, thats fine-"
"Ill fight," Kaleah interrupted.
"You will?" Emerald eyes lit with pleasure, and the dark woman tried hard not to let them affect her. She nodded. Jess beamed a smile at her that made her heart ache. "Thats great! Youll like Miles, I promise. Hes a great fighter even better than my father. Itll be fun."
Kaleah didnt say anything after that, but her eyes were cold as chips of ice. The strange dreams had returned last night, plauging her with haunting images of the blonde-haired girl with laughing green eyes, robbing her of sleep. The emotions the young noblewoman raised in her were strong and alien; she had no defense against their insistent call, and that only increased her confusion. So now as they sat together in Jessicas room, the former slave was feeling frustrated and irritable, her temper on a low boil and rapidly heating.
A few hours later two young women stood in the open courtyard with Sir Miles, ready to fight. Jessicas armor was similar in design to Kaleahs, molded to fit her feminine curves tightly, while still allowing her a great range of movement. Sir Miles wore only light padding a fact Kaleah instantly decided made him seem arrogant. Jessica made polite introductions, and the training began.
After only a few minutes watching the man warm up with Jessica, Kaleah had to admit Miles knew what he was doing. The loss of his right hand didnt hamper his style at all. The old warrior was quick, accurate and powerful. Kaleah moved forward when they were finished to take her own turn at the man, eager to prove she wasnt in need of training at all.
Grinning ferally, Kaleah assumed the en guard position as DeLivier had taught her. Sir Miles noticed the formal stance and mirrored it.
"Spanish school, are ya?" he muttered, seeing the eager glint in her steely eyes and recognizing it for what it was. "Always thought em a bit pompous meself."
Kaleah growled, rising quickly to the bait. On the sidelines, Jessica watched as the dark-haired woman attacked Sir Miles with lightening speed, her anger obvious. She smiled to herself. If her new friend hoped to overcome the knight with simple aggression, she was going to learn the same lesson shed learned in the forest.
Miles fell back willingly under the tempest of fury, effortlessly defeating Kaleahs furious assault. Hed trained hundreds in his lifetime and knew this rage needed purging before a fighter could be made truly great. A level head always defeated a clouded one.
"Ifn I didnt know better, Id say ye was tryin to best me, girl," he rumbled, his old eyes twinkling as he enjoyed Kaleahs confounded expression when she stopped to catch her breath. He pointed to Jessica with the stump that had been his right hand. "That there green-eyed devil bested ye before. If I were you, Id be making sure I could take on the pupil afore I tried for the teacher, eh?"
Kaleah felt her vision start to blur with a familiar crimson heat as her temper escaped her often tenuous hold. All the anger, confusion and fear she had experienced in the last few days suddenly came to a head and erupted like a storm inside her. Screaming in hatred and anguish, her features twisted with pain, the dark woman launched herself at Sir Miles, the tip of her sword leading the way.
Watching, Jessica was stunned by the expression on Kaleahs face. She almost cried out as Kaleah sprang forward, fearing the woman would harm herself or the old knight, such was the power of her rage.
She neednt have worried. Sir Miles coolly defeated every blow, giving ground without concern and waiting till his opponent grew tired. It didnt take long, and when Kaleah slipped on the icy ground and fell, he swept the sword from her grasp with a graceful motion and held the edge of his blade across her throat.
Blue eyes glared up at him, thick with hatred, her breathing shallow. He smiled a little sadly. "Ye need to get a handle on yer temper, lass," he told her softly, wondering if she was clear-headed enough to understand him. "Ye cant beat anyone if ye cant even master yerself."
He pulled the razor-sharp edge away from her skin and sheathed the weapon casually. Kaleah broke from his gaze and hugged herself, collapsing into a huddled form, trying to suppress the shudders and sobs that fought for release. Looking up, Miles met concerned green eyes and sighed wearily. Walking past the huddled, shivering form, he patted Jessica on the arm.
"Will she be okay?" asked the young woman, eyeing her collapsed friend with deep concern.
"Aye, lass," he assured her softly. "Shell be fine. Give her a few minutes though."
"You didnt need to provoke her like that," Jessica said reproachingly.
Miles shrugged. "Believe me, girl . . . its best to get this outta her system now. Longer it stays inside, more harm its gonna do her."
Jessica considered that, then nodded slightly. "I suppose."
"Listen, lass . . ." Miles hesitated, not wanting to poke his head where it wasnt wanted. "Are ye sure you know what yer doin with this woman?"
Jessica saw the concern in his eyes and smiled sincerely. "Not really," she admitted. "But Im sure Ill figure it out . . . sooner or later."
"Aye . . . well." Miles patted her arm again. "When yere ready for another session when shes ready you let me know, huh?"
"Good lass." He smiled fondly at her, then turned and walked away towards the garrison.
Sighing, Jessica slowly approached the curled up form huddled in the snow and mud. "Are . . . are you okay?" she asked tentatively, wanting to offer physical comfort but certain it wouldnt be appreciated.
"Go away," came the reply, the words muffled but thick with emotion.
Jessica didnt want to leave the dark woman in so vulnerable a position. Many of the soldiers walking about were eyeing them curiously. "Would you like to go back to your room?" she suggested gently.
Kaleah didnt even move. "Go away."
Jessica took an unconscious step forward. She wanted so much to help, to ease the pain that was so obvious in the dark woman. She reached out a hesitant hand, but pulled it back before it could touch the huddled form. "You know . . . sometimes it helps to talk about things." Her voice was so soft it was barely audible. "Pain can poison the soul if you dont let it go . . ."
Kaleah looked up then and Jessica fell back at what she saw. The beautiful face was cold, emotionless, the mask firmly in place. No tears ran down the cheeks. Her eyes were not puffy or red. But looking into those clear blue gems, Jessica saw the most overwhelming agony she had ever seen. Kaleahs eyes held all the feelings she kept from her face and for a moment, Jessica doubted she had the strength to offer comfort to this woman; wondered if she had the courage to be the friend she wanted to be, knowing that to continue to offer her hand in friendship meant that, if it was accepted, she would take this pain into her own soul as well.
"Leave. Me. Alone." Every word sounded dead. The blue eyes held her for a moment, then broke away as Kaleah curled into a ball once more, the discussion over.
Jessica nodded and ran a hand through her hair shakily. "Okay," she said softly. "Ill, uh . . . Ill be in my room if you . . . want to talk, or anything."
There was no response, so, with every muscle in her body wanting desperately to kneel beside the huddled form and take her in her arms to comfort and protect her, Jessica left. When she looked over her shoulder, Kaleah hadnt moved at all.
Maybe this wasnt such a great idea, she thought as she turned away and went back to her bedroom to think.
Alone, Kaleah struggled to get a handle on her emotions. She succeeded, but it was hard. Now more than ever she knew she had to get out of this castle. She could feel the walls crushing her, and her temper was becoming dangerously short. Her thick defences were crumbling under the assault of those bright green eyes.
Kaleah felt no shame for her attack on Sir Miles; the man had deliberately antagonized her from the start. But his last words still rang annoyingly in her head . . . and she didnt like what they told her.
Always quick to anger, Kaleah knew her rage often unbalanced her. Her fight with Jessica demonstrated that clearly. It was one reason among many that she chose to live alone. A life in slavery had stunted her growth emotionally and as a person. She knew that. DeLivier had tried to teach her to fit in, but one could only learn so much in a year; not nearly enough to make up for a lifetime of social denial and abuse. Now Jessica expected her to just move into this castle and like it? Well, it wasnt going to happen. She had to get away and soon.
Jessica would be hurt when she ran . . . maybe even angry. Shivering on the ground, Kaleah was surprised to find the thought of hurting the girl caused her fists to clench and her eyes to burn with tears. Jessica had offered nothing but kindness to her. . . and this was how she planned to repay her?
Frustrated at these unwanted emotions, Kaleah growled and tried to stamp them out. Yes! This is for the best and you know it! Jessica forced you into this . . . and youre going to escape this prison. Thats what this place is: a prison. Just because theres lots of food, a comfortable bed and no bars on the windows, doesnt change that fact. Youre a prisoner . . . and youre going to escape.
Kaleah sighed as the words did nothing to make her feel better. They seemed to mean less and less every time she thought them.
Jessica left Kaleah to herself for the rest of the day. She heard her friend return to her room but resisted the urge to join her there, knowing she could easily make things worse. The dark woman needed space and some time to herself. Jessica was still determined to make this work the sense of connection she felt for Kaleah was still strong, and she cried a little herself in private sympathy for the other woman.
They ate separately, each in her own room, divided by a solid stone wall and carved oak door. Neither ventured outside it had started snowing just after midday and the cold was penetrating.
Kaleah fell asleep quickly at night, emotionally exhausted as her heart warred with her mind, struggling to reconcile the kindness Jessica showed with the fear of vulnerability that a friendship would bring. Her dreams were thankfully quiet that night, and she awoke refreshed in the morning, reluctantly reveling in the simple ability to snuggle into warm blankets and soft cushions.
For her part, Jessica slept poorly. The next morning, she rapped softly on Kaleahs door before opening it and peering in.
"Kaleah? Can I come in?"
Kaleah startled a little and pulled the sheets tighter around her naked body. Normally she sleep fully clothed, but she had found that sleeping in her armor on the bed was pointless and uncomfortable. "I suppose so," she allowed, grateful the room was still fairly dark in the early morning light. Outside she could hear the winds blowing fiercely, lashing the walls with sleet. She was grateful not to be out there.
Jessica tip-toed in and found a seat. She eyed the disheveled head that poked itself out of the thick blankets and couldnt fight the smile.
"What?" Kaleah demanded, seeing her amusement.
"Im sorry," she said, trying unsuccessfully to get a hold of her laughter. "You just . . . you just look kinda cute like that, thats all."
Hands emerged to flatten unruly hair. "Like what?"
"Just . . . all disheveled and stuff." Jessica was glad that Kaleah seemed somewhat recovered from her anger yesterday. "Its nothing, dont worry."
"I just wanted to see if youre, you know . . . feeling any better?"
Kaleah tried to stoke the coals of simmering anger that had blazed the day before, but found them severely dampened by the true concern in the wet emerald eyes now regarding her. "Im fine," she answered shortly. "I just . . ." She struggled to explain, then decided there was nothing she could say, and shrugged. "Never mind."
"Do you feel like doing something today?" Jessica asked tentatively. "It doesnt have to be much. Do you know how to play chess?"
Kaleah shook her head. A particularly violent squall thudded against the thick wooden shutters of the bedroom, and she eyed it with misgivings. "Not much chance of going outside, is there?" she observed wryly.
"Nope," the blonde confirmed. "Theres a bad storm out there and the winds are like ice. I feel sorry for anyone trapped in weather like this."
"Oh?" A sudden idea formed in Kaleahs head, and she ignored the part of her that urged it to shut up. "What about the men standing guard out there? They must be freezing."
Jessica laughed a little, the sound fresh and joyful. "My father wouldnt do that to them," she said lightly. "The soldiers are all inside the barracks, trying to keep warm. No point keeping the guard out in this weather. Its not like anyone could attack during a storm like this."
"I suppose not." Hmmmm. No guards . . . the cover of a storm . . . everyone staying inside. Kaleah smiled a little. This was going to be almost too easy.
"So," Jessica continued, not noticing the look on her companions face, "you want to play some chess? I could teach you."
"I, um. I think, maybe, if its alright with you Id prefer to just be by myself for a while," Kaleah told her softly. "Maybe we could play this . . . chess later tonight?"
Pleased to have gotten even that much, and sensing that she was making progress with her reluctant friend, Jessica nodded enthusiastically. "Sure. Thatd be fine . . . I understand. Um, Ill have the kitchen send you up some breakfast, if youd like?"
"Okay." Jessica got up and walked back to her room. "Ill see you tonight then. Just knock when youre ready."
Kaleah grinned fully as the door shut behind the blonde woman. Quietly getting out of bed - somewhat reluctant to leave the warmth - she hastly donned her armor, strapped on her sword, and tucked her flute into its concealed pocket. Then she scanned the room quickly for anything that might be useful. She selected a small but very thick blanket and wrapped it into a tight ball. She pocketed a flint and striker from above the fireplace, and a few of the hard sweet candies that sat in a bowl on a table. She decided not to take any of the ornaments, even though some of them were doubtless quite valuable. She wouldnt steal from someone who had been as kind to her as Jessica had been.
She waited until her breakfast was brought, and devoured it quickly. It would be best to leave with a full stomach, she thought. She figured to have at least four hours or so before anyone noticed she wasnt there, and with a little luck no-one would be able to follow her until the storm died down. By the time they were organized enough to mount a serious expedition to recapture her - and Kaleah thought it unlikely even Jessica could convince them to - she would be long gone. She could hole up in a cave for a while, then continue her journey north.
Wrapping the blanket about her shoulders as a cloak, Kaleah softly opened the door and slipped out into the ill-lit corridor beyond, careful not to make a sound. Creeping outside, she was momentarily stunned by the freezing wind that blasted right through her, piercing to the very marrow of her bones. Shivering but undaunted by the challenge of the storm, Kaleah struggled her way out into the castle courtyard and across to the gateway and portcullis. Thankfully, the impressive iron gateway had been left open a little; the bottom teeth of the metal grid-work were suspended about three feet from the ground. Crawling under, Kaleah got to her feet on the other side and looked about with a hard smile.
She was free again.
Smiling grimly into the wind, she bowed her head and wrapped the blanket about her tighter. Blinking into the driving sleet, she started walking as fast as she could towards the distant forest and the caves she knew shed find there. The thick blanket of snow and ice made for slow going. Her feet were already starting to go numb even with the protection of her boots. Snarling, she pressed forward despite the sense of unease stirring in her guts.
As she continued, the former slave wondered idly how long these storms lasted . . . and hoped it wouldnt get any worse before she reached the safety of shelter.
As soon as Jessica entered Kaleahs room late that afternoon, she knew even without looking that the woman was gone.
A quick glance showed her Kaleah had taken the flint and the blanket in addition to her armor and sword. Her mind worked instantly through what had happened, figuring that by now the dark woman was probably several hours into the worsening storm, no doubt headed for the safety of the caves in the deep forest.
"Damn!" Turning, Jessica ran quickly to search for Sir Miles, grabbing her sword as she left.
"Whats the matter, lass?" the old knight asked when she beat at his door, instantly reading her tension and fear.
"Kaleahs gone," she reported breathlessly.
"Gone? Gone where?"
"Probably into the woods . . . but thats just a guess."
"Hell!" Sir Miles covered his eyes in disbelief. "How longs she been gone?"
Jessica shrugged. "Hours . . . since this morning Id say. But again, I cant be sure."
"And she went in this weather? She daft or somethin?"
Jessica shook her head. "Shes probably never seen a storm like this," she explained. "Im pretty sure shes only been in the country a little while . . . this must be new to her. She wouldnt know how dangerous it is."
Miles shook his head, thinking fast. "What can we do?"
Jessica fixed him with her most determined look. "Im going after her," she said firmly.
"Jess, ye cant just up n go into a . . ." He saw the stubborn glint in her emerald eyes and sighed. "She could be dead by now . . . ye know that, dont ye?"
"I know. But Ive got to try and find her. Theres a chance shes still alive. . . shell need my help."
"Aye." He could see there was going to be no dissuading her. He put his thoughts to helping her. "I kin come with ye. Itll just take me a second-"
"No!" Jessicas tone was stern. "Ill go alone."
"Jess, dont be stupid-"
"Im not," she said calmly. "I can find her alone just as well as I can with you theres no sense risking both of us."
"Then Ill go. Yer fatherd kill me if he knew I let ye go alone."
She shook her head. "How would Kaleah react to you hunting her down?" she asked sensibly. "After yesterday, shed fight you all the way. I need to do this alone. If I can find her . . ." She trailed off. "I dont know what Ill do, but I need to deal with it alone."
Sir Miles was reluctant to agree, but knew he had little choice. He loved Jessica like a daughter. He had never denied her anything. Recognizing the look in her eyes now, he nodded slowly. "Aye, lass. I guess Id only be makin it worse, huh?"
She nodded. "Im sorry."
He shrugged. "Yell be needing a few things then, I guess."
"Well, come in then," he opened the door to his room invitingly. "Ill get ye fixed up and ye can head out."
"Thank you, Miles," she smiled at him. "I appreciate this."
"Aye, ye better," he growled. "Now. . . lets see what we need. . ."
She was on her way out into the freezing wind and blinding sleet only a few minutes later, prepared for her expedition. Sir Miles had supplied her with two heavy skin coats, a flask of whiskey and another of lamp oil, a coil of rope, a pair of wide-soled snow boots, several rolls of tough, salty trail meat, and a bundle of oil-skins to keep her things from getting soaked through. The old knight said he would inform her father once shed set out. . . just to make sure he didnt try to stop her going.
All in all, Jessica knew she stood a better chance than Kaleah ever would have, and she turned her foot-steps toward the woods, hoping against hope that she would not be too late.
Only after hours of fruitless searching, trudging through the forest on legs that felt more like frozen blocks of ice than living flesh, did Jessica finally find what shed been looking for. Seeing the irregular lump leaning against the trunk of a massive oak, Jessica let an ecstatic cry escape her throat, although it sounded more like a garbled croak after her ordeal. Her steps, previously heavy with her exhaustion, now gained new strength as she struggled against the dimly filtered wind toward the snow-covered figure.
The trip had been grueling and had drained her energy faster than Jessica had ever imagined it would. Though experienced in surviving such storms as these, she understood it was only a matter of luck that had allowed her to find Kaleah. These woods were almost as familiar to her as Castle DaGran, but the weather made the place seem alien and strange. She knew where she was, and where to find shelter though . . . it was enough to give her at least a chance at survival.
"Kaleah!" she cried hoarsely as she approached. She was worried when the name did not elicit a response. "Kaleah?" Reaching the cloaked figure, she reached out a shaking hand and checked for a pulse before she noticed the woman shaking violently.
Kaleahs blue eyes were fixed and staring, her lips blue and her bronze features bloodless and pale. The bruises on her face that were healing well stood out in an ugly purple shade. Ice had formed thickly across her dark eye-brows and down from her nose. Still, Jessica was relieved to note her teeth chattering, and her fingers clenching and unclenching as she tried to breath warmth into their joints. She saw the womans lips moving around the twitching spasms, and heard Kaleah speaking strange, foreign words in some kind of chant. The woman was still alive, and the fact that she still felt the cold meant she stood a good chance of making it through this. But Jessica knew they had to act quickly.
"Kaleah? Its me, Jessica." She waved her hand in front of vacant eyes, trying to get the dazed womans attention. "Come on, snap out of it!"
Blue orbs focused reluctantly, and Jessica smiled encouragingly. "Are you okay? Can you walk? We need to keep going . . . do you think you can walk with me?"
Kaleah looked at her, finally understanding who this person was and what she wanted. Her mind seemed to have chilled and stopped working along with her limbs. She had never experienced cold such as this! Had never imagined such cold could exist! She couldnt feel her feet, and her fingers were stiff and riddled with sharp pain. The wind was like a knife, stabbing at her mercilessly, freezing her blood and driving the sleet and snow that much harder against her. The shivering robbed her of her strength, and it had been a wonder she had made it even this far. But she had enough strength now to recognize Jessica . . . and to understand why she must be here.
"You w-w-w-wont t-t-t-take me b-b-back there," she stammered, her teeth chattering helplessly. Her jaw ached from the constant motion. She pushed away from the densely coated blonde, summoning strength from her determination not to be recaptured.
Jessica shook her head, the danger of the storm more immediate than her concern over taking the woman back with her. "You dont have to come back with me," she promised, "but we have to find a cave." She pointed deeper into the woods. "I know where we can shelter . . . a few hundred feet that way, I think. But we have to move now! Can you walk?"
Kaleah eyed her warily, and nodded. "I-I-I-Im s-s-s-ssssoooo c-c-cold," she stammered, rubbing her hands together spasmodically.
"I know," Jessica said, trying to help the tall woman by wrapping one of her arms around her waist to aid her steps. "We can warm up if you can walk."
"I dont n-n-n-need your h-h-help," Kaleah insisted with what anger she could muster, pushing the girl away and almost collapsing as she struggled to master walking on legs she couldnt feel or control.
"Oh, sure. I can see that. Come on . . ." Wrapping her arms about the woman and guiding her faltering steps. "Just put your arm around my shoulder, and well get there that much faster, okay?"
"Im f-f-f-fine," Kaleah growled, frustration mounting again. Again she tried to push Jessica away, this time falling into the ice-slicked ground face-first.
Jessicas patience was being tested. "Im trying to help you, you idiot!"
"And I said I d-dont n-n-need your h-h-help," Kaleah managed, her body weaker now than ever as she struggled to get up.
Jessica eyed her pathetic efforts with her hands on her hips. Kaleahs eyes were sharp with rebellion and watched her sullenly as she tried to rise. The trees in the forest were bent over double in the storm winds, and she was sick and tired of this whole situation. "You want me to leave you here, is that it?" she yelled, her face now flushed with her frustration. "I can, you know! Just walk away and let you freeze to death out here!"
"Im not asking you to stay!" Kaleah yelled back, her anger overcoming her chattering teeth.
Jessica threw up her hands in exasperation. "Why are you being so god-damned stubborn about this!?" she demanded. "I wanted to be your friend! I wanted to make your life better! Cant you see that!?"
Kaleah finally got to her feet, never breaking eye-contact, and stood on shaky legs. Jessica was clearly at the end of her patience. She remembered wondering back in the dungeon what it would take to make this young woman truly mad . . . well, now she knew.
"My life was just fine before you came along," she said, glaring at the woman who, she kept telling herself, wanted to chain her to another year of servitude. It wasnt easy though; her body was numb in a very painful way, leaking her resolution quickly. "I wont be your slave," she said, trying to keep her anger alive, "no matter how nice you make the prison. Im a free woman!"
"You think youre free!?" Jessica demanded. She spread her arms to indicate the storm-gripped forest. "This is your freedom!? Great! Thats just fine with me!" She bent and scooped up a handful of snow, then hurled it at Kaleah in frustration. The dark woman tried to dodge, failed, and fell to the ground again. Jessica glared down at her. "You can stay here for all I care! Youre free to die in the ice and the snow, and no-one will remember you because no-one cares about you, least of all yourself!"
Kaleah looked up at her, shivering, hugging herself. It was obvious she was too weak to stand, but her eyes still held to the last vestiges of her rage. Jessica shook her head, struggling to get a hold of her frustration. She crouched next to Kaleah, who drew away.
"You may think youre free, Kaleah," Jessica said, her voice barely audible over the wind, "but youre not." She held the other womans gaze, her eyes intense and hard, daring Kaleah to look away. "Youre still a slave, because you still think and act like one. I wanted to teach you how to live your life-"
"I was surviving just fine," Kaleah scowled.
Jessica glared her down. "Is that all you want? Just to survive? To get through each day, not really going anywhere?" She shook her head. "If thats true, than maybe I read you all wrong. I thought you were more than that. I thought you were someone worth the effort to try and save." She sighed. "Maybe I was wrong after all."
Jessica got to her feet, her anger exhausted. Kaleah watched her with a strange mix of anger, fear, and reflection. "Im not going to fight with you, Kaleah. Nows not the time," she said. "We need to find shelter or well both die." She held out her hand in offering, not command. "Are you coming, or staying?" From her tone, it seemed she didnt much care one way or the other.
Youre still a slave because you still think and act like one. The words burned in Kaleahs mind. She realized they were true. She lived in the woods, shunning all contact unless she grew desperate. She still flinched whenever anyone held up a hand, always expecting the blow that never came. And she still couldnt take care of herself . . . as much as she hated to admit it. Half a lifetime of slavery and servitude couldnt be erased in just a few months.
Shivering, her body weak from the wrenching spasms of cold, Kaleah struggled and finally managed to reach out and clasp the offered hand.
Jessica hauled her up with surprising strength. "Do you need help walking?"
Kaleah shook her head. "Ill b-b-be f-f-fine." The stutter was back as her anger dwindled and her teeth started chattering. Still, when she tried to take a step, her legs buckled and she fell forward. Jessica caught her and, ignoring her threats and attempts to get free, forced her arm over her own shoulder to assist. Kaleah, drained after a moment of struggling, gave up and let her.
The next few moments were filled only with the harsh breathing and stuttered remarks of the two women as they helped each other through the woods in the direction Jess hoped would take them to shelter. The journey seemed to take eons, but in fact took only a few dozen minutes, before Jessica finally spied the dark mouth of a cave that - thankfully - faced away from the storm.
"Almost there," she told her companion, indicating with her arm. Kaleah looked up and doubled her efforts as new life surged through her limbs.
Jessica half-dragged the taller woman into the cave and dumped her unceremoniously on the rocky floor. Moving with fixed precision, knowing time was slipping away, Jessica moved quickly to the back of the cave. As she had hoped, she found a stack of dead, dry tree limbs left by those last forced to shelter in the woods. Soaking a few of the smaller pieces of wood in the oil shed brought, it was only a matter of moments before a healthy spark from the flint and striker resulted in the flickering glow of a small fire. Jessica carefully nurtured the life-giving warmth, occasionally glancing at her reluctant companion with some concern.
Kaleah sat where shed been dropped, curled about herself and struggling to hold onto the blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She looked up in shock when light from the fire drenched the interior of the cave, then hungrily watched the crimson flickering as it grew. When Jessica looked at her she hastily found somewhere else to set her eyes, unwilling to admit she needed this help.
Jessica just smiled. The dark woman couldnt be feeling too bad if she still had enough energy to be stubborn and proud.
Once she was satisfied the fire was okay for a time - and that the smoke from it was flowing out of the cave and wasnt likely to suffocate them both - Jessica tossed her oil-skin bundle to the ground and, keeping in mind it was a life-or-death situation while trying to ignore her natural sense of modesty, stripped down to her underwear as quickly as she could. She lay her sodden clothes out on the ground as near the fire as she dared, then curled up on them and huddled close to the blessed warmth, pulling one of the thick, dry cloaks shed brought over her shoulders.
Near the entrance to the cave, Kaleah watched her in shock, quickly and thoroughly stamping down her gut-level reaction to Jessicas exposed body. She realized suddenly what the young blonde was doing, noticing that, while her armor and the blanket had provided much needed relief from the bite of the storm while shed been in the midst of it, the soaked clothing was now keeping the icy cold pressed against her skin.
"If you want to make it through the night, I suggest you get your gear off," Jessica said to her from across the flames. She kept her tone carefully modulated, determined not to loose her temper again. Reaching over to her oil-skin bundle, she pulled out the flask of whiskey and took a long, shivering pull from the fiery liquid. Jessica was unused to alcohol of any kind - though she occasionally drank wine during festivals - and the harsh drink burned down her throat making her gag. "God . . . thats nasty stuff," she gasped. "How can people drink this?" A moment later she felt the fiery liquid spread a pleasant warmth through her belly, so she took another swallow then glanced at Kaleah with a raised eyebrow. "Want some?"
Kaleah stared at her suspiciously. Jessica nodded and shook the flask invitingly. "Itll help to warm you from the inside."
Kaleah thought of refusing but realized it was pointless. She was just too tired and, frankly, too scared to care about holding on to her sour mood. Her body was starting to experience sharp pain as the blood began to circulate again, and she couldnt stand. Crawling shakily across the dirty stone ground she reached out and grabbed for the flask, thankfully drinking as much as she could handle. Tears sprang from her eyes, but she smiled a little.
"Thank you," she muttered.
"Youre welcome." Jessica allowed herself to smile a little in return. She watched Kaleah huddle down over the fire, putting her hands so close she was sure theyd burn. "Are you okay now?"
Kaleah nodded, her body still wracked with convulsions and sharp pain. But shed be damned if shed let this woman see her weakness. "Ill be fine," she muttered, her breath misting in the air. Outside, the storm raged on and she glanced to the entrance of the cave nervously. "Its cold."
"Bet you didnt expect this when you ran, huh?" Jessica smiled wryly as she studied her shivering companion.
Kaleah glared at her. She was starting to hate that smile. "I-I thought Id make it here quicker," she admitted. This cold was terrifying. She had no idea that a bit of snow could kill so quickly. "Ill be fine once Ive warmed up."
"Well youre not going to get very warm if you dont strip out of those wet clothes," Jessica informed her. Her corset and breeches were sodden but she wasnt prepared to take them off they werent exactly concealing, but she felt better for what little cover they provided. "You want some help with your armor?"
"NO!" Kaleah quickly drew back from Jessicas already advancing hands. When she noticed the look of hurt on the young womans face, she scolded herself mentally. She was only trying to help, you idiot. "No," she said, gently this time. "I . . . I can manage it."
Jessica shrugged. "Fine."
Turning away, Kaleah reluctantly began to undo the buckles on her armor with stiff fingers. They were iced together and hard to get undone, but she persevered. She hated to expose herself like this; not for the sake of modesty a slave couldnt afford to be modest. But she knew the looks she would receive from Jessica when the young woman saw her body; she remembered the looks DeLivier had worn the first time hed seen. Steeling herself, she shucked her armor and placed it on the ground near the fire to dry as Jessica had done, returning to the warmth of the flames in nothing but a pair of thin breeches. She dragged her long dark hair over her shoulders to cover her breasts somewhat. Looking at herself, she saw the flickering light cast the scars that covered her figure into vivid life, showing them stark white against the bronze of her skin. She was unhealthily thin from the starvation diet she lived on, her ribs standing out clearly in the firelight under lean muscle.
After a while, hearing nothing from her companion, she raised her eyes shyly.
Jessica was watching her with an expression of silent sympathy, tears running unchecked down her cheeks. Kaleah swallowed and shrugged, looking again at the marks of a thousand beatings . . . the evidence of a life lived in slavery.
"Im so sorry," Jessica whispered, her voice barely audible over the howling of the storm outside.
Kaleah shrugged. "Its not your fault," she said quietly, trying to remember the last time someone had cried for her . . . and realizing that no-one ever had. It felt surprisingly good, she marvled, to have someone care about you. She huddled nearer the fire. "But I wont ever be treated like a slave again."
Jessica nodded in sympathy if not understanding. "The storm should die down by morning," she said. "If we can last the night, my fathers men should find us then. They wont be sent out till dawn at the earliest."
Kaleah was a little surprised. "Wont he send someone as soon as he knows youve come after me?"
Jessica shook her head and added another log to the fire. "He knows its too dangerous. Hell trust I can take care of myself . . . that Ill find shelter and wait till he can come get me. If we survive the night-"
"Were not out of danger yet. Itll get colder as night falls. And if the storm lets up before the sun rises, theres a chance wild dogs might come hunting. If they find us . . . well. Nothing either one of us could do would save our lives."
Kaleah eyed the storm outside nervously and started shivering all over again. It had been a long time since shed been this scared. "I-I didnt know it would be so dangerous," she admitted softly.
"I know." Jessica met the crystal blue eyes of her companion and smiled. "When they get here," she continued, "you can take the cloaks and equipment I brought and leave . . . if thats what you want. I wont make you come back to DaGran. Not against your will."
Kaleah frowned. "Youll let me go?"
"Then . . . why did you come after me?" asked Kaleah, shifting closer. "If not to drag me back there . . . why risk yourself in the storm?"
Jessica smiled. "Youd have died if I hadnt. I knew that."
"So? Why would you care?"
A simple shrug. "I dont know why," the blonde girl said softly. "I just do."
Kaleah studied her companion, trying to understand. "I dont understand you," she stated quietly after a moment. "You hardly know me. Why would you go to so much trouble to save me, then just let me go free?"
"I want to be your friend," Jess explained patiently. "If being your friend means caring enough to let you go, then so be it. Thats what Ill do." Green eyes settled on the flames. "Im sorry I tried to force you into this whole thing," she said quietly. "Sometimes I get carried away and think everythingll work out if I just want it to badly enough like in the stories I read where theres always a happy ending." A sigh. "I guess thats pretty naïve, but its just how I am sometimes."
Kaleah struggled to grasp such selflessness. Shed never met anyone like Jessica before, had certainly never had another person risk their life to save her. Friendship was a concept shed never experienced before, one that confused and puzzled her. Unwanted and unrewarded, the thing Jessica offered - no, insisted on giving - was something Kaleah wasnt sure she knew how to return, something strange and against her nature. Yet her heart cried out with longing for such acceptance, even as her mind recoiled in fear.
And Kaleah knew eventually, her heart was going to win.
Suddenly the former slave recalled the strange experience shed had the first time shed seen Jessica; that bizarre connection that felt exhilarating and frightening at the same time. And she remembered Jessicas blush when she mentioned that first direct eye contact.
"When . . . when we first met . . ."
Those emerald eyes bore into her with quiet intensity, and Kaleah lowered her gaze, trying to find something else to look at. "Nothing." She couldnt ask. "Never mind."
Jessica smiled and rubbed her hands together, feeling the pain start to dwindle in her extremities. "Were you going to ask about that weird thing that happened when we looked at each other for the first time?"
The look on Kaleahs face at this made her laugh; the womans mouth hung open and her eyes were so wide they looked unnatural. "Whats the matter? You think youre the only one who feel it?"
"I-I didnt really . . . I mean, I wasnt sure." Kaleah stammered. "I didnt know what it was."
Jessica watched her closely, wondering. "Neither did I," she said. "Ive never felt anything like it before. But it was one of the reasons I chased you down . . . one of the reasons why I wanted to get to know you better." She sighed and took another sip of whiskey. "Maybe I should have just left things well enough alone."
Hearing her tone, Kaleah felt a pang of guilt for causing the young woman to regret her kindness. "Im sorry," she said softly. "I . . . I shouldnt have acted the way I did. I just thought-"
"I know what you thought," Jessica said. "And I understand now why you thought it." Her eyes drifted over the scars on the dark womans body, trying hard not to notice how the firelight made her bronze skin almost glow . . . and failing miserably. The tall womans long, dark hair hung over her firm breasts, covering them but revealing enough to tantalize the eye. Her lean body was tense from the cold, and was covered in gooseflesh. This was the first time Jessica had seen another womans body so completely, and her heart started beating strangely fast.
Noting that Kaleah was watching her appraisal, Jessica quickly prevented her mind from wandering further down the road it had been about to travel . . . a road paved with the many stories shed read of what women could share with one another. "I guess its hard to trust anyone when youve been through . . . this." She gestured to the scars as though shes been studying them all along.
Kaleah squirmed, hating her marked body for its legacy of pain. "It is." She couldnt meet the intensity of Jessicas gaze and looked away. "Im not used to people wanting to be my friend. Youre about the first person whos ever really tried."
Jess grinned a little. "Sorry it didnt work out." Her eyes wanted to continue their wandering, but she forced them to behave. "I really wish things had gone better between us." Her smile was gentle, but sad.
Kaleah allowed herself a slight smile in return. She could see the sincerity in Jessicas green eyes and in the tears that tracked down her cheeks. Her heart was yelling at her frantically to surrender to this feeling she could feel growing inside her, and since her mind was still frozen by the storm, it managed to gain the upper hand before she could rally any arguments against it.
"If . . ." she started, then paused. "If I did come back to the castle with you . . . would I be allowed outside?"
Jessica stared at her, trying to keep her dawning hope from being too obvious. "I-I guess so," she stammered quickly, sitting up a little straighter. "I mean, sure, if you wanted too."
Kaleah pursed her lips thoughtfully. "If I wanted to leave, would you let me go without question?"
Jess nodded frantically. "Absolutely!"
Seeing the young girls barely contained excitement made Kaleahs smile widen. "In that case . . . maybe we could give this thing another try. If you want to, that is."
Jessicas grin took in her whole face and made her eyes dance. "You mean it?"
Kaleah nodded. "As long as we take it slowly. Im not really sure how to do a friendship thing, you know?"
Jessica bobbed her head happily in assent. "Of course," she laughed. "No pressure . . . just somewhere nice to stay and company when you want it. At your own pace . . . no problem."
They shared a smile together, basking in a mutual understanding and common ground finally reached. Then, each growing a little too aware of how long theyd been staring, their eyes returned to studying the flickering fire with great interest.
Eventually however, Kaleahs eyes were irresistably drawn back to her companion. The young woman lay half on her side, hands stretched over the fire to warm them. She was apparently intent on watching the flames dancing about, so Kaleah let her eyes wander a little, trying not to appreciate the fact that her new friend was clad only in her breeches and a rather sheer and wet corset which did little to hide her full breasts. Flushing, she looked away, wondering how the small fire was able to warm the cave so swiftly. Her eyes darted back from time to time of their own accord, of course and Kaleah noticed that her companions body carried its own weight of scars.
"Something the matter?"
Kaleah looked up and, from the playful and amused look on Jessicas face, realized shed been staring. "Oh. Uh, I-I was just noticing that you, uh . . . you have a few scars of you own there," she stammered, thankful her darker complexion did something to hide her blush.
Jessica examined herself and shrugged. "Ive been fighting since I was old enough to hold a knife," she explained. "I participated in my first battle when I was twelve, and Ive trained almost every day for the last ten years or so. These are the marks of a soldier . . . Im proud of them. They show that I survived in spite of the pain." She picked at the stitches in her arm. "Youre the first person in over a year to contribute to the cause."
Kaleah looked away and smiled a little. "Sorry." Looking at her own body, her face dropped. "My scars arent like that," she said softly, unsure why she wanted to tell Jessica this. "Theyre the marks of a slave the only good thing about them is that they made me less desirable as a whore. At least they did after I gained enough of them." She rubbed a finger along the line that crossed her lips. "Especially this one. I remember I thanked God the day I was given this . . . I knew it would make me ugly so fewer people would want me."
"Thats not true," Jessica protested, sidling closer. "I think it makes you look even more beautiful."
Kaleah eyed her suspiciously. "You do?"
"Of course." Jessicas hand wandered of its own volition up to gently caress Kaleahs cheek, running her thumb slowly over the white scar and looking deep into sapphire eyes. "It draws attention to your lips . . . and makes your features stand out more." Unconsciously she rubbed Kaleahs lips tenderly. "Nothing could make you ugly."
Suddenly, she noticed that Kaleahs whole body was tense and coiled, frozen and unmoving. Her eyes held an expression that was half fear, half panic. Realizing the cause, Jessica quickly pulled her hand away.
"You dont like to be touched, do you?" she noted with gentle curiosity, waiting till her companion relaxed a little. She made a mental note to continue the physical contact so Kaleah could get used to the idea that another person could touch you without wanting to hurt you.
Kaleah shivered a little and shook her head. "I learned to fear contact," she admitted softly. "People touch you . . . and this is what happens . . ." she pointed to one of the more viscous scars on her lean but muscular abdomen.
Jessica nodded, then, eyeing the oil-skin bundle shed brought, she grinned. "Well if you dont like physical contact," she said with her eyes laughing merrily, "youre really not gonna like tonights sleeping arrangements."
Following her gaze, Kaleah wondered what she meant. Sleeping arrangements? What was she talking about? From her companions teasing grin, though, she had a feeling her night in the cave would be anything but restful.
The storm blew itself out by morning, its demise almost as sudden as its birth. One minute the gale was threatening seriously to uproot every tree in the whole forest, then, as though tiring of the sport, it settled down and all was quiet once more. The snows stopped, and while the sky remained thick with clouds, they no longer seemed dangerous or ominous in the least, but rather weary and nonchalant.
The two women rose with the sun, neither of them particularly anxious to sleep in . . . as enjoyable as the activity might have been.
Kaleah had almost refused point blank to allow the sleeping arrangement Jessica insisted on using, entailing as it did that they sleep curled up together under the two thick cloaks the young blonde had brought with her. After a half-hour of pointing out that sharing body heat was the only way they could survive the night once the cold really set in, Jessica had finally managed to convince her dark companion to let her snuggle up against her back beneath the furs.
Of necessity, the fire had burned down to little more than glowing embers once they retired, and the chill was every bit as deadly as Jessica foretold. Even with the two blankets and their shared body warmth, both women shivered through most of the night. The fact that they were both far too conscious of the others nearness for comfort only made things that much more unbearable. By the time the storm died and the sun reluctantly reclaimed the sky, both women were feeling irritable, exhausted and freezing cold . . . but determined not to spend another moment under the blankets.
They each struggled quickly into still damp armor, facing away from each other for privacy. Their clothing wasnt particularly comfortable, but it beat waiting around in the icy cold in their meager underwear. They shared a joyless breakfast of trail meat and some of the boiled sweets Kaleah had taken, eating in silence that wasnt noticeably uncomfortable, before turning their attention to the outside world.
"How long do you think theyll be?" asked Kaleah, standing at the mouth of the cave and looking out at the peaceful forest, trying to reconcile the serene image that lay before her with the violence she remembered from last night.
Jessica joined her, squinting into the light. "Dont know," she said. "Shouldnt be too long though . . . theyll know where the caves are and come to this area first."
Kaleah looked at the young woman, her eyes suddenly nervous. "What will you tell your father," she asked hesitantly. ". . . about me, I mean?"
Jessica looked up into her eyes and saw the apprehension there. Shed considered that problem herself during the long night. "Dont worry," she said, reaching out and patting the taller woman on the shoulder, noticing her tense up and smiling at the response. She was going to make sure to keep up with the physical contact . . . get her used to it. "Ill tell him you were worried about a friend you know out here and wanted to make sure theyd be alright in the storm."
Kaleah frowned, ignoring the tingling sensation her companions touch stirred up. "That doesnt sound particularly convincing," she observed. "Youre father knows Im not from around here."
Jessica laughed. "Oh, hell see through it in a second," she grinned. "But since were both here, alive and well and since youre coming back with us hell just figure we had a few things to sort out between us, and now we have." She watched the roiling grey clouds for a moment. "My father trusts me. Hell understand."
"If you say so." Kaleah was still nervous, then another thought occured. "What would you have told him if Id decided not to come back with you?"
Jessica met her curious look and smiled. "Id have told him the truth," she said softly.
"And whats that?"
Green eyes held blue for a moment longer. "That you werent ready to let me help you . . . and that I didnt want to force you to accept something you didnt want."
Looking into those wet emeralds, Kaleah experienced the almost frightening sensation that she was falling into them and hastily averted her gaze, coughing a little to cover her nervousness.
"This friendship thing takes a while to get to used to, I suppose," Jessica smiled, seeing her discomfort. "Believe it or not, its hard for me too."
Kaleah looked at her in disbelief. "Y-you find this difficult?"
"But youre so, you know . . . outgoing."
The blonde laughed. "I guess I am, huh," she thought aloud. "I never really thought about it." She looked up at Kaleah seriously. "Still . . . youll be the first friend Ive ever had whos close to my own age, and whos the same sex as me."
"Uh huh. There arent any female nobles around this area . . . at least none my parents are allied with. And my mother tears me down whenever I talk to the serving girls, so . . . this is new for me, too."
Kaleah remembered what the kitchen-maid had told her a few days ago, and it suddenly clicked in her mind that Jessica was lonely. The idea that the energetic, gregarious young blonde was just as much a stranger to this stuff as she was made Kaleah feel a lot more comfortable. It was nice to know she wasnt the only one feeling awkward and unbalanced. The playful grin on Jessicas face made her smile a little in return. "You know you could have picked someone a lot easier than me to try this out on."
Jessica giggled. "Maybe someone a bit less stubborn? But I would have missed out on this happy little excursion into the woods . . . that would have been a shame."
Kaleah couldnt help herself and let out her own little chuckle. She wasnt used to laughing, and tried to hide her face by letting her long dark hair fall forward. Jessica saw what she was doing, however, and reached out to pull the ebony locks away. Meeting clear blue eyes that seemed to sparkle with happiness for perhaps the first time, she smiled at the shy expression on Kaleahs face.
"You should laugh more often," she said softly. "Its good for the soul."
At that moment, the clear sound of a hunting horn rang out through the forest, its tone sharp and bold. Looking towards the sound they both realized the search party was some way away into the woods. The horn had been to attract their attention if they were in the area.
Jessica looked at Kaleah and shrugged. "Guess we better go meet them, huh."
"Yeah. Ill, um . . . Ill get the gear."
The dark woman retrieved the bundle of coats and equipment from inside the cave, then joined Jessica just outside the entrance. Handing over one of the coats to her companion, she donned the other and they started into the freezing, snow-covered forest.
"You really think this thing is going to work out?" Kaleah asked as they shuffled through the high snow.
Kaleah gestured between the two of them. "You know . . . us. Being friends?"
"Oh, that." Jessica threw her a rakish grin. "Absolutely."
Together, the two continued on in companionable silence towards the sound of the still ringing horn, both aware of the subtle changes that had occurred between them. The first tender bonds of a lasting connection began to take firmer hold, and neither Jessica nor Kaleah felt any inclination to stop them.
Sir Richard met his daughter with little outward sign of relief, even though everyone knew how dangerous a threat the storm had been. With his typical lack of fanfare he greeted her return with a gruff "Mornin Jessica," before handing her the reins to Andromeda and turning his attention to her dark-haired companion.
"We didnt bring a horse for you, young lady," he apolagized gruffly. "But I guess we cant have you walking all the way back through the snow . . . youll catch your death of cold. Come here . . ." He reached down an arm to offer her. "You can ride behind me."
Kaleah eyed the offered arm, then the massive war-horse with trepidation. "I-Ive never ridden a horse before," she admitted quietly. She glanced at Jessica as she mounted the smaller and nimbler Andromeda, envying her casual grace as she effortlessly controlled the beast. The grey mare seemed much less intimidating than the lord knights great steed. "Id prefer to ride with Jessica," she said, hoping the knight wouldnt take offense.
"Im sure you would," Sir Richard smiled kindly. "But Andromeda cant carry both of you safely in this snow. She sets her foot in a rabbit hole that might be hidden by the fall and itd be the end of her. Dont worry, lass. Youll be safe enough with me. Just give me your arm and Ill hoist you up."
Kaleah reluctantly did as instructed, and was roughly but not unkindly lifted onto the back of the war-horse behind Jessicas father.
"Put your arms about my waist," Sir Richard instructed. "There you go . . . now, just grip with your legs and hold on to me. Youll be fine."
"Were not going to go too fast, right?"
"Aye, lass," he smiled, patting her hands that were clenched about his middle. "Well go slowly, have no fear."
Nodding her head and trying valiantly to quell the trembling in her body that being on the seemingly mountain-sized horse had sparked in her, Kaleah glanced back and was greeted by the sparkling eyes of her companion, who was trying hard not to laugh at her expression.
"So . . ." Sir Richard turned the small retinue of men that formed the search party back towards the castle, "what compelled you two to end up in the storm like this?" He glanced at Miles, who rode beside his daughter. "Im afraid Sir Miles was a little vague . . ."
Jessica grinned at the old knight, knowing he could always be relied on to keep her secrets. Hed never betrayed her confidence, not since shed been a child and he caught her stealing cookies from the kitchen. "We had something to do," she said, telling him the story she had formulated about Kaleahs concern for her friend in the woods.
"Oh, aye?" Sir Richard raised an eyebrow at his daughter. "I trust they were alright?"
"Fine," Jess smiled, seeing from his expression that he didnt believe a word of her story. "Everything was fine. We were on our way back to DaGran when we were forced to take shelter in the caves. Lucky we came prepared or it might have been worse." She looked at Kaleah, reminding her how completely unprepared shed been for the savageness of the storm.
"Aye, well . . . if youre smart youll think twice before going off like this again," Sir Richard grumbled. "I dont want to be pulling your neck out of any more nooses you tie yourself . . . youre getting too old to be needing my help so much."
Jessica settled down and gave her best impression of a meek and obedient daughter. "Yes father." Glancing at Sir Miles out of the corner of her eye, she saw him trying to restrain his laughter at her dutiful tones. She scowled at him playfully, then patted Andromeda. "I doubt well be needing you to rescue us any more . . . right Kaleah?"
Kaleah, who was holding on for dear life and concentrating on not noticing how much she hated her position, could only nod her head. Shed be damned if shed ever test the fury of a winter storm again even her formidable will was no match against its power.
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