Freedom’s Heart Part 2.


Chapter 5

They spent the rest of the day in Jessica’s room, lying contentedly on her enormous bed and eating from a huge platter of food the servants brought them. Both had bathed and changed clothes, Jessica procuring a pair of trousers and a simple shirt and vest from the soldier’s barracks for her dark companion. The outfit was masculine and not particularly extravagant, but Kaleah insisted she preferred it to the dresses Jessica had offered to find; dresses she noticed the young woman didn’t seem too fond of herself.

Jessica’s bedroom was quite a bit larger than Kaleah’s, and was filled with rugs and tapestries, pieces of armor and various weapons, couches and cushions and tables and chairs. There were strategic maps of battle plans laid out next to glass vials of perfume, and neatly folded, elegant dresses sitting beside rumpled and torn peasant rags. Looking at the whole chaotic arrangement, Kaleah thought the room seemed almost at odds with itself, unable to decide if it belonged to a hard-as-nails warrior or a soft-and-sweet noble maiden.

It was, she decided, a good reflection of the woman who owned it.

The far wall was dominated by a huge granite fireplace framed by magnificently carved angels, each holding a double-edged sword pointing towards the ground. The room was lit now by the fire that had been laid within it, as well as the light of many mounted sconces. When Kaleah breathed in deeply, she could detect the perfume of vanilla and something her mind identified as being her young companion’s own particular scent; a musky combination of sweat and youth that was almost intoxicating.

Jessica did most of the talking, rattling off a few of the stories she’d read in her precious books, munching on the cheese, bread and meat that lay between them. For her part, Kaleah was content to just lie back and listen to the soothing tones of the young woman’s lilting voice, reflecting how nice this was after their ordeal.

Jessica finished the story she was telling and glanced at her companion. "Kaleah?"


"I was wondering. . ?"

"Yeah?" Blue eyes opened her and regarded her lazily.

"Would you like to learn to ride?"

"Ride?" The dark woman sat up, curious. "You mean ride a horse?"

"Sure. I could teach you if you’d like."

Kaleah thought about it. "I don’t know . . ." She wasn’t sure she could handle one of the beautiful, noble creatures, yet at the same time was envious of the ease and grace with which Jessica rode Andromeda.

"It’d be a good skill to pick up," Jessica went on. "You could go wherever you wanted to go outside the castle. We could even go on rides together, you know. Into the forests and stuff."

Kaleah smiled at that, quite liking the idea of being out in the wilderness with the young woman. Maybe it would be good.

"I guess," she allowed.

"Great!" Jessica bounced up and down on the bed gleefully. "We can start whenever you want to . . . maybe tomorrow?"

"Sure, sounds good." She regarded the cheerful blonde seriously. "Do you still want to teach me to fight?"

Jessica saw her expression and calmed herself. "Only if you want to learn," she said quietly. "I’m really sorry about Sir Miles . . . he was only trying to help-"

"That’s okay," Kaleah interrupted. "What he said . . . about me controlling myself. He was right."

Jessica raised an eyebrow. "Really?"

Kaleah nodded. "I seem to have kind of a short fuse," she admitted softly. "When things go wrong, I loose my temper and lash out."

Jessica had noticed that about her new friend. She’d seen how Kaleah fought against the knight back in the bandit camp, had been impressed by her controlled, considered actions which downed the armored, skilled warrior without him coming close to even touching her. But while the older woman had started out controlled when they’d fought each other in the clearing, she had lost her patience as the duel went on and saw she was going to loose. And her fight against Sir Miles . . . well, she hadn’t even tried to keep her cool, lashing out viciously, her intent to kill stemming from her frustrations and feelings of powerlessness.

"I can understand that," Jess said, wanting to be compassionate. "And you’ve always been like that? Even before, when you were . . ?" Jessica let the sentence hang.

The dark haired woman shrugged. "Sometimes, yes, even when I was a slave — at least for a while." She smiled sadly. "It was something that got me into very bad trouble a few times, but I learned to deal with it. With freedom, it apparently came back. So Miles was right . . . I do have a lot to learn."

"I’m sure he’d be happy to continue the lessons if you’d like-"

Kaleah shook her head. "Not just now," she said quietly. "Would it be okay if . . . if just the two of us practiced together? Alone?"

Jessica grinned, her eyes dancing. This was more than she’d hoped for from the dark woman. "Of course," she said enthusiastically. "I’d love that."

Kaleah smiled herself, glad that her request had been so well received. "We could do some archery too, if you like?"

"Archery?" Jessica frowned. "I doubt I could teach you much about using a bow," she admitted easily. "Never really was my strong suite, if you know what I mean. I focused on the sword and knife."


"Uh huh."

Kaleah allowed her smile to turn into a rakish grin. "Well, maybe if you like I could give you a few lessons, huh?"

Jessica returned the grin with one of her own, reaching out and grabbing another slice of ham from the platter that lay between them. "That’d be nice," she said, lying back and looking up at the ceiling, which had been painted by skilled artisans into a now long-familiar scene of some religious event she’d never found out the story behind. She sighed happily, feeling her companion shift as she too lay back to regard the mural. "See," she said. "This isn’t so bad, is it?"

"I guess not," Kaleah allowed. She could feel herself quickly growing to like Jessica more and more now that she allowed herself to listen to her heart instead of her mind. It was a pleasant warmth that seeped into her blood and left her feeling relaxed and happy for the first time in a lifetime. "If I have to put up with someone’s company . . . you’re not such a bad choice."

Jessica laughed and slapped her playfully on the shoulder. "You just wait till you get to know me," she threatened with a chuckle, waving the meat around in the air. "I’ll wager there are soldiers in the barracks right now placing bets on how long it takes me to get us both in more trouble than we can handle."

"Oh? You seem harmless enough to me."

Jessica chewed on the ham and giggled. "This from the woman still bruised from our last encounter."

"Maybe I was having an off day," Kaleah growled, rubbing the still-tender marks on her forehead and face.


They lapsed into silence for a moment, just enjoying the company and the filling meal after a night of hardship. Kaleah particularly enjoyed the various tastes her palette had never sampled as a slave, and she hummed as she bit into a piece of sweetmeat with relish.

"So," Jessica broke the silence and looked over at her dark haired friend. "You want to start tomorrow?"

Kaleah nodded, licking her fingers happily and not seeing the look that passed across Jessica’s face as she watched the unintentionally sensuous actions before dragging her eyes away, blushing furiously. "Provided the weather’s okay, sure."

"Great." Jessica steadied her suddenly racing heart-beat and closed her eyes. What is going on with me? she wondered. She knew about women who preferred the company of other women rather than men. She had even admitted privately that she found the idea rather intriguing . . . especially when she considered the fact that her wedding night — if it ever came about — wasn’t going to go as tradition might desire. But still, she had only known Kaleah a few days, and her mind seemed to constantly meander onto these strange, enticing pathways. Frankly, it was getting a little annoying.

Sure, the woman was spectacularly beautiful, and sure there was probably no harm in just looking; but the sermons Jessica had listened to since she was a little girl made it clear that any physical relationship between people of the same gender was a sin. Of course, Jessica had never really listened to these type of sermons — they seemed to say that God punished some kinds of love just because of a few physical differences. The line between right and wrong seemed awful blurry. So it wasn’t for the sake of her faith that she was worried by these thoughts . . . thoughts she’d had for a while now, but which had suddenly found a focus of attention. It was the fact that she wanted to be Kaleah’s friend. And just because she was trying to be friendly to the dark woman didn’t mean she wanted to be that friendly!

But still, the images of Kaleah that ran through Jessica’s mind even now continued to do everything they could to fan the flames that raced through her young body.

"Great," she repeated, smiling at Kaleah to cover her nervousness. "Tomorrow it is then."
Ho, boy! Jessica groaned silently. This friendship might be harder than I thought.


"No . . . come in low and then twist round to the right so you aim for the neck, like this, see?" Jessica went through the motions slowly, demonstrating the rather advanced attack routine for her attentive sparring partner. "You got it?"


They squared off and Kaleah attacked as instructed, hitting Jessica’s defense and then spinning around to strike high. She went slowly, getting a feel for the pattern, and was pleased when it went as intended.

"Excellent!" Jessica applauded. "You’ve got it perfectly."

Kaleah grinned at the praise. "Again?"

Jessica nodded and they continued the routine, making it familiar and testing it in combination with other patterns, some of which they had developed just between the two of them, finding what suited their particular styles of fighting.

It had been over a week, nearly two, since their return from the storm, and both women were pleased to find their friendship had grown stronger as time went by. Now that Kaleah no longer saw herself as a helpless captive, she allowed herself to enjoy the castle and it’s comforts. Jessica enjoyed playing host to the dark woman, showing her more of the great fortress and making sure she felt at home.

During the day, they practiced fighting or riding, sometimes reading or just watching the soldiers train . . . though Kaleah had not yet started instructing her young friend on the use of the bow. From time to time, Sir Miles would come by and watch them spar, though the elder knight seemed content to wait for them to ask for his suggestions or invite his participation.

Sometimes, they would sit in Jessica’s room and play chess for hours. Kaleah had proven to be a quick study of the game, learning its intricacies with ease. Jessica recognized the sharp mind and keen intellect behind her friend’s intense blue eyes, and knew she had been right about Kaleah being a smart woman. But more than simple intelligence, the former slave seemed to possess an innate understanding of all manner of things; she played chess using complex strategies that left even Jessica baffled. She noticed minor things that others would miss. And she learned new fighting moves so quickly it was like she’d been born with a sword in her hand.

The dark woman adjusted well to castle life. Usually restless and filled with an animal energy, Kaleah was surprised to find that she didn’t feel trapped in her new home anymore. And although she had always preferred solitude after her release from slavery, Kaleah found herself feeling lonely whenever Jessica was not by her side. The young woman was lively and spirited; the people loved her and she gave of herself willingly . . . mostly to Kaleah herself. Though hesitant about trusting her undeveloped social abilities, Kaleah found that she was quite capable of enjoying spending her time with the vibrant blonde.

Kaleah also spent much of her time in the castle’s smithy. Jessica had introduced her to Sutton, the master smith, a short man with the unusually muscular arms of those who worked with forge fires all day, lifting the heavy hammers to pound out the red-hot metal into it’s desired shape. Although Sutton was an expert at his craft, Kaleah had learned weapon-smithing techniques from a man who’d spent his entire life perfecting one specific field of metal working; the art of forging swords. While Sutton may have been talented in all areas, De’Livier had been an artist, and Kaleah an attentive pupil. The dark woman made sure to spend a few hours whenever she could with the smith, showing him a few of the advanced techniques she had learned. Amazed to find so skilled a tutor, Sutton was only too happy to absorb all he could.

Of course, at times Kaleah still felt the need to distance herself from the other inhabitants of the castle. There were times when the constant presence of people around her raised the dark and ugly memories from her past. During these times, she generally sought out the heights of the lookout parapet. Far above even the castle walls, Kaleah would sit in her lofty perch and look out onto the surrounding land, enjoying the peace and freedom that such height afforded her. Sometimes at night, she could look out to the north and see the lights of the village that lay just a few short miles from the castle; close enough that the peasants could seek sanctuary within the great fortress should an enemy attack, yet far enough away to retain their autonomy and space.

When Kaleah asked Jessica about the village, the young woman explained that she’d never really been there that often — just when passing through on the way to somewhere else. She knew there were a few dozen families in the village . . . a few hundred people in all, mostly workers and farmers. Beyond that, her only contact with the peasants was when they journeyed to Da’Gran in the quest for justice.

Kaleah had learned from Jessica that every Saturday, Sir Richard, as reigning lord of a large area of land called a ‘vassal,’ held court within his audience hall. Any and all who dwelt on the lands under his protection could come and petition him for aid in whatever problems they were having. Sometimes, they asked for protection from roving packs of bandits like the one Kaleah had been with when she’d been taken. Sometimes they asked for Sir Richard’s judgement on a dispute or when a crime had been committed. And sometimes they came seeking the help of the lord knight and his soldiers for such things as the training of men for a militia, or the building of a protecting wall for their village. Jessica had informed Kaleah that her father ruled over some seven fair-sized villages . . . all in the name of the King of England, of course.

The day following this judgment, Sunday, was a traditional day of rest and observance of religious activities. Born in a land far distant and then abducted as a child by Godless slavers, Kaleah knew little and cared less for such matters. She had rarely prayed to or thanked any God for the life that had been thrust upon her — such deities rarely listened to her words. She was a little surprised when Jessica informed her that she did believe in God, and spent a few hours every Sunday thanking him for his bounty, and asking for continued good health and fortune for herself, her family and the common people everywhere.

The practical side of Sunday, as far as Kaleah was concerned, was that no work was permitted during this time. This meant a day of relaxation and enjoying the company of her young friend.

Jessica taught Kaleah to read more than she had ever known before, and they spent a bit of time looking through the books of history and lore of England and the nearby lands of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. From her reading, Kaleah gained a greater understanding about exactly what Sir Richard did in his service to the King. She learned about the way the land was divided among the noble lords, barons and earls who, in exchange for the lands and power they were given, were expected to maintain the lives of the common peasants and also provide soldiers for the seemingly constant string of wars this land fought. These caretaker’s were generally free to fight amongst themselves as they saw fit, feuding and allying back and forth, occasionally launching serious assaults, but rarely actually gaining any tremendous degree of power. As long as the lands were safe and his armies supplied, the King seemed content to look the other way.

Thinking now as she continued to fence almost playfully with Jessica, Kaleah identified that today was Thursday. The thought brought a frown to her face. Thursday nights Jessica was expected to attend dinner with her family, the leading knights and the captain of the guards in the audience hall. That meant Kaleah would be alone tonight, which instantly made her feel depressed. She enjoyed eating her meals with Jessica, relaxing in the young girl’s company where she felt safe and protected. She hated Thursday nights.

Seeing her partner’s concentration wavering, Jessica pulled back. "What’s wrong?"

Kaleah shook her head. "Nothing," she replied, trying to think of something fun to do to revive her spirits. "Hey, you want to head over to the archery field? You’ve been putting me off long enough, I think."

Jessica smiled and wiped sweat from her brow. "I guess so," she agreed cheerfully, sheathing her rapier. "But I warn you, I’m not very good."

Kaleah dusted herself off and returned her own weapon to the scabbard at her side. "Don’t worry. I’ll show you what to do."

"Hey there, young lady!" called a deep voice from the wall of the inner keep. Looking up, the two fencing partners saw Sir Richard leaning against a stone pillar, watching them.

"Hello, father," Jessica called, waving.

Kaleah, remembering she was a commoner in the presence of nobility, effected a graceful curtsey with deep sincerity. In the last week, she had grown to rather like the lord knight, who treated her respectfully and with an almost fatherly sense of familiarity that Jessica found particularly entertaining.

"Good morning, Milord," she said.

Sir Richard waved her gesture away as he walked down the flight of steps that led to the courtyard from the wall. His sharp eyes took in their sweaty faces and the disheveled looks earned from over an hour of practice.

"I’ve been watching you girls all morning," he said, fixing his gaze on Kaleah. "I must say, young lady, you’re every bit as formidable as my daughter led me to believe."

"Thank you, Milord." Kaleah felt herself flush with the praise. It meant almost as much to her as Jessica’s words of encouragement.

"Aye . . . aye." Sir Richard seemed to think for a moment, before he continued. "You’re from a Spanish school of training, aren’t you?"

Kaleah was a little taken aback. "Y-yes, milord. My former master was a teacher in the fencing academy for a time. He trained me."

"Aye, I recognized your style." He eyed her thoughtfully, taking in her fine armor, confidant stance, and finally the beautiful Spanish blade hung comfortably below the line of her hips.

"She’s a quick learner, father," Jessica jumped in, happy to talk with her father about her friend. "A natural fighter. She’ll surpass my skill before the year is out."

Sir Richard raised an eyebrow at this. "Oh, will she?" he asked, noticing the excitement in his daughter’s expression. "Well, I trust you won’t make it easy for her, will you?"

Jessica laughed. Kaleah could only blush at this praise. She knew she had a long way to go before she was in the same league as her younger friend. "I believe your daughter flatters me overmuch, Milord," she smiled.

"Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure," he mused, rubbing his bearded chin in consideration. "I watched you just now; you could go a long way."

Sir Richard was a sharp man, and he was proud of the fine young woman his daughter was growing into. In the last few years, however, he had seen Jessica grow more and more desperate for someone to talk to besides the soldiers and knights. She wanted — needed — a friend, so Richard had granted her request for custody of the dark-haired foreigner.

At first, things had seemed to go poorly. While Miles would not comment on the incident that occurred during their first training session, the lord knight picked up bits and pieces from other soldiers who had witnessed the fight. He had suspected dire things when his old friend came to him and told him of Jessica’s flight into the deadly storm, but had trusted his daughter to be smart enough to get through the night in one piece. He had expected the tall, scarred woman to be gone by the morning, but had seen immediately that the two young women had apparently sorted things out between themselves.

Now, Sir Richard could see for himself that he had made the right decision. Jessica and the barbarian woman sparred with a cheerful, almost playful comraderie, their styles different but somehow complementary. His wife had argued long and hard against allowing Jessica anywhere near this ‘heathen savage’, but Sir Richard was pleased to see his beloved daughter so happy with her new friend.

That in mind now, he decided it was time to get to know this ‘Kaleah’ a little better . . . if for no other reason than the fact his interest seemed to please his emerald-eyed child.

"Anyway, that’s not the reason I came out here. Jessica, tonight’s our dinner night . . ." He smiled at her muffled look of dismay. "Come now," he said gruffly. "We hardly see you anymore at meals. Don’t deny your father one night a week of your company."

"I know," she said softly, looking at her feet. "It’s just . . . Mother makes things difficult." Lady Rose was pushing about the damned marriage again.

"I understand," Sir Richard patted his daughter’s shoulder, knowing she’d been scrambling for another plausible excuse to delay her wedding . . . again. "But I was wondering if tonight maybe you might like to invite your friend here to join us." He indicated Kaleah, smiling at the shocked look on her face. "I’m sure she’d be a welcome addition to the table."

Jessica stared at her father in disbelief, wondering if she’d heard right. "You want Kaleah to come to dinner?"

"Certainly." He raised an eyebrow at the dark woman. "What do you say, young lady?"

Kaleah could only nod dumbly, she was so shocked. "Of course, Milord. I would be honored."

"Good then. It’s settled." He clapped his hands together in satisfaction and smiled at the two stunned women. "Should be an interesting night, eh, Jess?" He winked at his daughter, then turned and ambled away back up the stairs and into the keep.

Jessica and Kaleah just stared at each other. Seeing their own look of shock reflected in the others face, they burst out laughing — something Kaleah had found herself doing a lot more of lately.

Calming herself, Jessica could only shake her head. "I believe we were discussing a trip to the archery range?"

Kaleah wiped a tear from her eye and nodded. "That we were," she agreed. They started off again. "Are you okay with me coming tonight?" she asked, not wanting to intrude on Jessica’s time with her family.

The blonde looked at her in disbelief. "Are you kidding? It’ll be great! I could use another friend at that table."

Kaleah grinned, happy. "I think you overdid things a little there . . . saying I’d be as good as you within the year."

"I was perfectly serious," Jessica said firmly.

"You were?"

"Of course." She looked the taller woman up and down. "I’ve trained as a fighter my whole life to be as good as I am, right?"

"Uh huh."

"How long have you been training?"

Kaleah considered for a moment, then shrugged. "I don’t know . . . maybe a year, give or take a few months."

"There you go." Jessica grinned and patted her on the arm. "In a year, you’ve learned enough that you could lay a blade on me in a serious fight." She held up her arm, where the stitches had been removed from the wound and the scar showed to be healing nicely. "You’re a natural fighter, Kaleah. You have a talent for this stuff I don’t. Frankly, I’ve never seen anyone learn as fast as you are — it’s kinda spooky how quick you pick up new moves."

Kaleah frowned, her dark brows contracting thoughtfully. "You really think that?"

Jessica threw her hands up. "God, you don’t take praise very well, do you?" She laughed as her companion blushed. "Yes, I really think so. I’ve learned to fight since I was a little girl because I had more of my father’s blood in me than my mother’s. But it doesn’t come naturally to me like it does for you. Trust me, in a year, you’ll be more than my equal."

"So . . ." Kaleah’s brow wrinkled in thought, "your father saw how good I am, and now he’s a little more interested in me, is that it?"

"I suppose so." Jessica considered a moment, then continued. "That wasn’t why he offered the invitation, though."

"It wasn’t?"

"Uh uh." She locked her eyes with her companions. "He was accepting that you and I are friends," she said. "He was letting me know that he approves of us spending so much time together . . . and that he likes you."

"He was?" With a simple dinner invitation?

"Sure. You see," she explained, "I usually spend most of my time alone, or training with the soldiers. But we’ve been spending a lot of time together the past week or so, and that’s unusual. People have probably been wondering who you are and why you’re suddenly a guest in the castle ever since you got here."

Kaleah was confused. "Why don’t they just ask?"

"Because it’s not their place to ask questions," Jess said patiently. "I’m nobility, and they’re just commoners." From her tone, it was clear Jess thought little of this notion. "My father invited you to dinner because he wants to show my mother and the important people in the castle that you’re not just here as a servant, you’re here as my companion." She paused, considering. "And he’s probably doing it also because he figures it’ll make him more popular with me," she grinned. "And he’s right."

"What do you mean?"

Jessica patted her on the shoulder. "He figures I’ll appreciate it if he makes an effort to get to know you . . . to be kind to you."

"Your father’s already nice to me, Jessica."

"I know that, but that’s just because he’s nice to almost everyone. This is his way of accepting you as a part of my life." She continued on a few steps before she realized Kaleah wasn’t following. Puzzled, she stopped and turned around. "What’s wrong?"

Kaleah’s expression was shy and vulnerable, her sapphire eyes startlingly open as they peered out from under dark bangs. "Do you mean that?" she asked softly.

"Do I mean what?"

Kaleah hesitated, seeing her companion’s brow crinkle in confusion. "Th-that I’m a part of your life?"

Jessica watched the instant of fear in Kaleah’s sapphire eyes, and for a moment she was filled with rage at the people who had put such fear into this woman. People who had made Kaleah hesitate every time she reached out to accept something offered to her, for fear it would be snatched away. Made her flinch whenever someone reached out to touch her. And in an instant of insight, Jess realized that this fear would always be a part of Kaleah. It was permanent. No matter how much kindness she showed her friend, no matter how often she told her she cared, a part of Kaleah would always be waiting — expecting — this friendship to be taken away.

For that moment, Jessica felt her hatred for the slavers flare, and she knew there was nothing she could do except try to make Kaleah understand that, though the past could never be erased or forgotten, it couldn’t hurt her anymore. So she smiled and nodded, reaching out and squeezing the dark woman’s arm. "You’re a very important part of my life now, Kaleah," she said sincerely. "A part that means a great deal to me. I mean that."

Kaleah nodded, relishing the physical contact that would have caused her to shy away just a week ago. "Thank you," she whispered.

Jessica squeezed Kaleah’s arm then released her. "Come on," she said, smiling again to relieve the seriousness of the moment. "We have an archery range to get too."

Grinning and happy once more, the two young women headed off once more towards their appointment with a bow and a quiver of arrows.


Tired and aching after their practice at the archery field, the two women headed back to Jessica’s room to prepare for the dinner just as the sun began to disappear over the distant horizon. The day had turned out to be quite pleasant for them both, with Jessica enjoying the lessons more than she should have; Kaleah had found it necessary to mould their bodies together as she demonstrated correct form and stance to the young blonde. Jessica found the delicious contact highly distracting, unable to prevent herself from taking guilty pleasure in the feeling of Kaleah’s body pressed tightly against her own.

Beyond that, Jessica’s shoulders, arms and back were now stiff and sore from the unusual exercise, and she stretched herself as she and her companion entered her room, shutting the door behind them.

"Uhgh . . ." She groaned, rolling her neck from side to side, trying to ease the tension. "I’m not looking forward to tomorrow."

"Oh?" Kaleah just grinned at her happily. "A few hours of archery and you’re ready to quit already? Some tough warrior maiden you are."

Jessica laughed and threw a cushion at her playfully. "See if I ever agree to another lesson like that," she threatened under her breath, knowing full well her friend would hear her. She’d noticed Kaleah had remarkable hearing.

"What was wrong with my lesson?" asked the dark woman, seating herself on the enormous bed. "I think I did quite well, considering what I had to work with."

"Hmph!" Jess frowned and pretended to grumble as she began sorting through her wardrobe for something presentable to wear to the dinner. From the corner of her eye, however, she watched her new friend and had to grin, feeling a bubble of happiness stir deep inside.

Over the past week, Kaleah had started to shed a lot of her stiff and stony shell as she allowed herself to enjoy life more and more. At times, she could actually be quite playful and cheeky. Their conversations still tended to be rather one sided, but Kaleah was starting to say more. She still didn’t laugh very much, and when she did she tended to hide her face behind her long dark hair, but it was a good start. They were comfortable together, and the friendship that had taken root in the harsh chill of the storm was now strong — and growing stronger every day. This dinner would be an interesting step for them both, Jessica knew. It would show Kaleah more of what her life was like, and would also demonstrate to her family that the dark-haired woman was here to stay.

"It would have been nice to get a bath in," she commented, smelling her armpit and wrinkling her nose a little. She grabbed a bottle of French purfume from the dresser and used it to cover the smell of sweat that clung to her body, then handed it to Kaleah.

Kaleah watched the young blonde a little nervously as she selected a long, beautiful green dress and held it against her body thoughtfully. "Wh-what should I wear?" she asked shyly, looking at her muddy, sweat-stained clothes.

Jessica glanced at her and saw the look on her face. "Well . . . I doubt you’ll fit into anything I have. I could go borrow a dress from one of the servants, if you’d like."

Kaleah eyed the rich garment the blonde held and shook her head. "I don’t like dresses," she said softly. Dark images rose from the depths of her mind from the days of her slavery, and she shuddered. "I’d prefer to wear trousers and a shirt, if I could. I don’t suppose I could just wear my armor . . ?"

Jessica shook her head. "It’s a formal dinner. But I guess if you don’t want to wear a dress, you could just change into another outfit like what you’re wearing now."

"These are men’s clothes," Kaleah pointed out. "From what you’ve told me of your mother, I doubt she’ll like me wearing them."

Jessica shrugged and started stripping out of her sweaty armor, turning away from Kaleah, who blushed a little and found something interesting on the wall to study intently. "My mother won’t like you no matter what you wear," Jess said, her voice noticeably frosty. "If you wore a fancy dress, she’d say you were trying to act above your station in life. If you wore a smelly deerskin, she’d say you were just as barbaric as she thought you were, and should be sent outside to be with the animals." She started to struggle into the folds of the dress. "Wear whatever you’re comfortable with. No-one will mind."

Kaleah frowned and played with the covers of the bed idly as she waited for Jessica to finish getting dressed. "Will everyone feel the same as your mother?" she asked tentatively. She was used to being mistreated, ignored and abused, but outright hatred for no reason was something she had rarely experienced.

"Not everyone," Jessica assured her, reaching back and trying unsuccessfully to tie the laces at the back of the dress. "Could you help me with this?"

Kaleah glanced up and saw her problem. "Sure." She got up and started to tighten the cord with deft, sure fingers. "It sounds like you and your father are the only ones who want me at this dinner."

Jessica swept her hair over her shoulder and held it out of the way. "My mother and brother won’t like you," she said, "but Sir Miles thinks you’re okay."

"He does?" She finished lacing the cord, and tied it off with a simple bow. "Even after I . . ."

"Tried to take his head off?" Jessica turned around and face her taller friend, smiling. "He understands you were angry and frustrated. Believe me, I’ve done the same thing once or twice myself." She thought for a moment. "The captain of the castle guard probably won’t care one way or the other about you; in fact, he’ll probably be pleased you’re keeping me out of mischief. He doesn’t like me all that much — thinks I’m too good a fighter for a woman. I think Eric Grace, my father’s advisor, thinks you’re quite a good thing for me. His apprentice will be there, too. His name’s Senigma, and he’s a rather quiet sort. Very polite. He’s about your age, though, so he’ll probably be happy to have another pretty face to look at for the night."

Kaleah flushed and lowered her face to hide it. "What about the others?"

Jessica thought. "There’ll be a few of the veteran knights there," she said, "and Father Grahem the minister, who’ll either think it’s great that we’re doing our Godly duty to help the foreign heathen, or else will want you banished from the castle forever. I’d bet on the first one, though." She put her hands on Kaleah’s shoulders and looked her in the eyes seriously. "I’ll be there," she said softly. "The people who won’t like you will be the same people who don’t like me. Just ignore them . . . they’re no better than you are, no matter what they think or say."

"You really think so?" Kaleah asked shyly.

"I thought so the first moment I laid eyes on you," Jessica whispered. "You’re someone special, Kaleah. Even if you don’t believe it, you’re something worth more than all of them combined." She smiled and patted the dark woman. "Go get changed," she nodded to the door that led to Kaleah’s room. "I’ll wait here till you’re ready, then we’ll go."

Kaleah smiled and nodded. Just as she reached the door, though, she turned around. "Jessica?"

"Hmmm?" The blonde head looked up from a critical self-appraisal.

"Thank you."

Jessica smiled radiantly, an expression that shot straight to Kaleah’s heart and spread a slow burn through the rest of her body. "You’re welcome," the blonde said softly. "Now hurry up or we’ll be late."

Smiling, feeling better about herself and the coming dinner than she had before, Kaleah opened the door and went to get changed . . . wishing as she did so that they hadn’t spent quite so long at the archery range. Jessica was certainly right about that, she grinned to herself.

A bath was, indeed, requisite.


Kaleah had been to the audience hall before with Jessica, but never like this. She tried to quell the butterflies that started fluttering in her stomach, swallowing nervously. The restless energy that marked so many of her more irrational tendencies started to simmer.

Jessica noticed her jumpiness and reached out to squeeze her hand. "Relax," she whispered as the doors were swung open by the ever-present guards. "Just hold your head up and act like you own the place. Remember, if you look confidant and in control, they’ll be put off balance. You’re better than they are. Just keep thinking that and you’ll do fine."

Kaleah nodded and straightened her posture according Jessica’s instructions. She let a mask of confidence fall over her face, adding a slight smile she thought would make her appear haughty and amused by the proceedings. Her muscles tensed and she let her inner strength and power radiate from her — something she had learnt not to do as a slave.

Inside the great hall, the huge oak table was laden with platters of food: roast boar, venison, and pheasant, along with fruits, breads and cheeses of every shape and variety that Kaleah could imagine . . . and several that she was sure she could not have. A group of musicians were gathered in one corner of the room, playing a soft but cheerful melody, and hunting dogs lounged about under and around the table, waiting to clean up any scrapes that might fall to the ground. The rest of the people had already assembled, and they rose to their feet as the two young women entered, most bowing slightly to Jessica.

A servant pulled out their seats, and they took their places at the table. It was strange to be on the receiving end of such service, and remembering her roots, Kaleah made certain to smile and offer her thanks to the servants. She was grateful to find herself seated with her friend at her right hand side, and a young man about her age on the left whom she assumed was Senigma. She nodded to him slightly and he smiled.

"Nice of you to join us, Jessica," Sir Richard said from his place at the head of the table. "Perhaps next time you could drag yourself away from your training a little earlier so as to arrive at the same time as everyone else?"

Jessica just beamed a crooked smile at her father and nodded agreeably. "Certainly father. I apologize."

Kaleah had to concentrate hard not to let her mouth hang open in surprise; her friend’s voice had changed completely! Where before there had been the lilting accent she had heard among many of the soldiers, now there were the cultured and demure tones of a true noble maiden. She should have known it was odd the way Jessica spoke in such a common manner, but in truth, had never really thought about it.

Glancing to the head of the table, Kaleah found she was being studied by a woman sitting to Sir Richard’s right. The woman looked familiar, and she realized this must be Jessica’s mother - the Lady Rose Da’Gran.

The woman was taller than Jessica, with blonde hair that looked much redder than her daughter’s. Her features were classic and beautiful, even though she looked to be near her fortieth year. Her eyes, Kaleah could see, were green, but not the same vibrant green of wet emeralds that Jessica’s were, but rather a dull and lack-luster green that didn’t seem likely to sparkle or shine. Her expression as she studied Kaleah was one of haughty disdain. Kaleah, refusing to back down and repeating over and over in her head the words, They’re not better than you. They’re not better than you, returned the look with one of her own.

She broke away from Lady Rose’s glare when a plate was placed in front of her, already laden with food. She smiled a thanks to the servant, then, seeing that everyone else had already started eating, picked up the knife and fork that came with her meal and somewhat clumsily cut into a succulent looking side of venison. These people were obviously accustomed to using the cutlery, which Jessica informed her were a recent addition that had come into use in the courts of France.

As she ate, Kaleah listened to the conversations going on around her. True to her breeding, Jessica was acting the part of interested listener to the man seated at her right, who, Kaleah decided, must be the castle’s minister. The conversation seemed to be about her, she realized, hearing the man mention that Jessica was doing a "truly noble and generous thing, taking in a savage heathen like her (a general gesture). . . an act befitting one of true faith and sure to be looked on with favor by the Almighty." Jessica, for her part, was smiling and agreeing with the man. For a moment, she turned to glance at the "heathen" in question, and Kaleah saw her wink slightly, grinning cheekily. Kaleah grinned a little herself, before returning to her meal.

The former slave could feel many sets of eyes watching her with intense curiosity, like she was some rare and possibly dangerous animal, brought here this evening as an entertaining spectacle. Some eyed her with outright hostility — Jessica’s mother and the young man she assumed was her friend’s younger brother being chief among the enemy ranks. Sir Richard, who was talking with Sir Miles on his left, occasionally glanced her way and nodded with a friendly smile, but he was too far from her to initiate much small talk.

Reaching for her cup, Kaleah took a long sip to settle her nerves, pleased to find it was filled with nothing more potent than cold water. As she set it back down, she saw her hands were shaking slightly. She could feel the nervous energy building under the scrutiny of these people. Kaleah had never liked crowds, never liked the feeling of being judged. A life in slavery had taught her the value of being inconspicuous — being seen and discarded from thought quickly was better than being singled out. The sudden familiar need to escape twisted her guts. Her throat started to tighten up, her muscles tensed for action.

Then a hand reached out and rested reassuringly on her knee, squeezing gently. Looking to her right, Kaleah locked eyes momentarily with Jessica. Her young friend had clearly sensed the panic rising, and reached out to comfort her. The soft, understanding expression in those wet emeralds held a quiet sense of compassion that instantly settled Kaleah’s nerves. It only lasted a moment before Jessica turned back to her conversation with the holy-man, but her hand remained on the dark woman’s knee, soothing her.

Kaleah closed her eyes, blocking out the rest of the world, and concentrated on the comfort she found in the touch of her friend. Taking several deep breaths to steady herself, the former slave patted Jessica’s hand to indicate she was alright now. The hand gave a final squeeze, then retreated.

Calm once more, Kaleah looked about and found the young man to her left smiling at her slightly, his eyes interested and friendly.

The young man . . . what was his name? Senigma? Yes, that was it . . . leaned closer in conspiracy. "Like watching a pack of hungry lions, isn’t it?" he whispered to her, nodding towards the other guests who were still appraising the dark stranger at their table.

Kaleah nodded, casting her eyes over to the head of the table where Lady Rose continued to eye both her and Jessica with malice. "I get the feeling I’m not the most popular person at the table," she replied softly, aware for the first time in a long time how her own accent separated her from other people in this land, marked her as different.

Senigma smiled, and Kaleah took a more detailed inspection of him. He was slender for a man, with a pale look that identified him as more a scholar than a fighter. His features were a little too narrow and foxish to be considered truly handsome, but he was not unattractive. He had a refined air about him, and a rather stiff and formal way of moving, as though he considered every action carefully before committing himself to it. His voice was the same, clipped but smooth, every word carefully enunciated and clear. His eyes were light hazel, and carried a calculating intelligence that told Kaleah instantly he was wiser than his years would indicate.

"You’re Kaleah, aren’t you?" Senigma had performed his own brief scrutiny, and was now smiling a little wider.

She nodded.

"I’ve seen you about the castle with Jessica," he said, looking her up and down swiftly. "I must say, you’re not half the demon that some have made you out to be."

Kaleah couldn’t help but grin mischievously. "Just wait till you get to know me."

Senigma rested his fork on the table and held out his hand in greeting. "I’m Senigma Wright," he said as they shook hands. "A pleasure to meet you."

"You’re the apprentice to Sir Richard’s adviser, aren’t you?"

Senigma lowered his head in modest confirmation. "Apprentice adviser, alchemist and occasional healer . . . in a clinch," he said. "Though my main interest is more in the alchemy side of study. I still like to have a clear understanding of law and politics . . . one never knows when such knowledge might come in handy."

"Right." Kaleah, who had no interest in any such things just agreed to be friendly. No point alienating someone who was being nice to her, she thought.

"You’re Jessica’s . . . guest, are you not?" Senigma inquired pleasantly.

"Something like that."

He smiled and nodded a little in understanding. "She’s quite a remarkable young woman," he said, glancing past Kaleah to where Jessica was still engaged in listening to the minister. "Frankly," he leaned forward even closer, his tone dropping to a more conspiratorial whisper, "she’d make the better successor to her father . . . her brother, Steven, is a less than useless fop." They glanced as one over to where the young man sat eating his meal delicately, with practiced poise. "It’s a shame Sir Richard cannot name her as his heir, but she holds no rights to such a claim, being a woman. Her skills count for little in the eyes of this system." He frowned, considering. "If . . . I mean when, Steven inherits Da’Gran, I fear the land will fall easily to some enemy or other."

Kaleah had no knowledge whatsoever of court intrigue, but she was smart enough to realize that this young man was testing water’s. She thought carefully before she responded.

"I’m sure her brother will learn as he must, when his time comes."

"Perhaps." Senigma rested his chin on his hands thoughtfully. "But there are many who are deeply concerned what will become of Da’Gran when Sir Richard is gone . . . not the least of whom is Sir Richard himself. He has shared his concerns with my master a great many times, but no clear solution can be found."

Kaleah shrugged, and effected a look of disinterest. "I dare say they will find one," she said, returning to her meal. "It’s no concern of mine; I’m just Jessica’s guest here, after all."

Senigma smiled at that, and returned to his own meal. "Perhaps."

The sudden clear, sharp sound of Sir Richard banging his empty mug on the table drew the attention of everyone to the lord knight.

"Attention," he called out, waiting for the musicians to stop playing before he rose to his feet and addressed the gathering. "I have an announcement to make."

Kaleah put down her knife and fork along with everyone else, giving Sir Richard her undivided attention.

"Thank you." The lord knight looked around and smiled at his dinner guests. "I have this day received word from our neighbor to the west, Sir William Lancaster."

At this, a whispered hush went round the table swiftly, and Kaleah bent her head to Jessica, who leaned over to whisper in her ear. "He’s attacked us three times in the last five years . . . never successfully. This could mean trouble."

Sir Richard waved his hands and waited for the mutterings to die down before he continued. "I know what you’re all thinking, but it seems that Sir William wishes to discuss a possible arrangement for a treaty. A temporary one, at least. This could mean an end to our conflict."

Many of the people around the table shook their heads. Sir Miles and Eric Grace were silent, but they clearly supported Sir Richard’s views. Kaleah figured they had already been consulted on this matter; Lady Rose, too, though from appearances she wasn’t as happy with the situation as the other two.

"Sir William has requested a meeting, and is prepared to discuss the treaty proposal here, in Da’Gran. This act of good faith indicates he is willing to trust us, and I have returned his messenger with an agreement that he may have safe passage through our lands, along with a retinue of guards for protection from the bandits who have been raiding us this season. I have set the appointment for eleven days from today . . . time enough to make any preparations that may be required."

A few people still frowned, but most grudgingly seemed supportive. Watching her friend, Kaleah thought the young blonde was in agreement with her father, but the crease in her forehead told Kaleah that she still had a few misgivings.

"You shall all be expected to attend the dinner welcoming Sir William. In addition, I sent a runner to the north, to request the presence of Charles Renault." He turned his attention to Jessica, who smiled broadly. "I feel if we can show the evidence of our solid alliance with his father, the Earl, Sir William might be more easily swayed to join us."

Kaleah could clearly see her friend was happy with this news, and she raised her eyebrow in question. Jessica just grinned and mouthed the word, "Later."

"Perhaps," the Lady Rose chimed in, "this will be a good opportunity for Jessica to set down a solid date for something she has delayed for far too long." She cast her narrowed gaze towards her daughter, who, at her words, lost her smile and looked away. Kaleah wondered what that was all about.

Sir Richard evidently noticed his daughter’s distress, for he came to her rescue. "Perhaps. Though I feel we should focus our attention on the problem of Sir William. Some things can wait."

Jessica smiled her thanks to her, and Kaleah wondered who this Charles was to her young friend.

"Some things have been waiting for four years," Lady Rose muttered.

"Enough. We will not discuss it here."

Lady Rose scowled and glared at her daughter, before focusing her malicious gaze on Kaleah, who once again smiled and refused to meet her eyes.

"Eleven days," Sir Richard concluded. "Charles should arrive a few days sooner, which will give him time to settle in and be appraised of the situation. This could be the start of a firm alliance, which will bring us peace for years to come." There were grim smiles all round the table; Kaleah thought some of the elder knights looked as if this talk of peace was sticking in their throats. Even the minister, who, by good rights should have considered such a proposal to be a heaven-send, appeared somewhat unconvinced. She didn’t have time to ponder this, however, because Sir Richard had suddenly turned his attention in her direction.

"Treaties aside, we have a new guest with us this evening." He gestured to Kaleah, who suddenly found all eyes on her and had to struggle to maintain her calm composure. "As I’m sure most of you are aware, my daughter has been spending much of her time with her new friend, Kaleah. Kaleah has come to us from the Spanish fighting schools, is that not so?"

For a moment, Kaleah could only sit, frozen solid by fear and confusion. A gentle nudge from Jessica got her mouth moving, however, and she managed to stammer out an answer.

"It is, my lord." Her accent sounded barbaric and uncultured even to her ears, and she winced internally. She realized that Sir Richard was deliberately leaving out the part about her being captured as a bandit, and that she had her roots as a slave — a fact she was sure he had realized from her scarred and bone-thin body, not to mention the way she had bolted into the storm. In a way, this story was true though. And it gave her a legitimate and respectable position at the table.

"Kaleah was passing through the region, and was nice enough to offer to share her talents with my daughter, who is in turn demonstrating our English fighting style to her." He raised his mug to her. "I am most grateful that young Jessica has someone to spend her time with," he smiled, "and I hope you will enjoy our hospitality a long while, Kaleah."

Kaleah could only smile and bob her head slightly. "Th-thank you, my lord," she stammered. "Your daughter has been a most gracious host, and very pleasant company."

From his place at Sir Richard’s left, Sir Miles grinned and raised his mug in salute. "And we’re all grateful to ye fer keepin’ her attention on somethin’ else besides the trouble she can git into."

There was quiet laughter round the table, and the gathered guests raised their drinks in a toast. Kaleah noticed a few did not share the gesture, however. Lady Rose and Steven looked at her with disgust and disdain. Smiling and raising her own mug, she ignored them and swallowed the cool water. Let them hate me, she decided. Jessica’s right. I am as good as they are.

Looking to her right, she met the laughing green eyes of her companion, who was grinning like a Cheshire cat. She poked her tongue out slightly, and cheerfully went back to enjoying her meal. Listening to the lilting sound of the musicians as they resumed their playing, and the conversations that started up again all around, she smiled and relaxed.

The rest of the dinner was thoroughly enjoyable.


Chapter 6.

"Well," Jessica said as she struggled to get out of her dress. "What did you think?"

They had returned to Jessica’s room, making a quick detour to the bathing chamber, taking turns to use the huge pool to wash their sweaty bodies. The dinner had just ended quite pleasantly, and both women felt a good deal better being clean again; the vanilla perfume Jessica was fond of became somewhat cloying after long periods of exposure.

Kaleah came over and helped her friend with the hard-too-reach lacings. "It was nice," she admitted. "I felt a little out of place, though. Everyone was looking at me kind of strangely; I’m not used to being the center of attention." Slaves tended to stay in the background.

Jessica shrugged the dress off her shoulders casually, letting it pool at her feet before retrieving a more comfortable shirt from her wardrobe. "That was just because you’re so new around here. They’ll get used to you." She groaned as she slipped into the shirt, her aching muscles stiffening up after the extended period on the archery field.

"You okay?" asked Kaleah, hearing her.

"Sure. I’m fine." Jessica smiled at her, ruffling her blonde tresses into some degree of order. "Just a little sore. I’m not used to pulling a bow, that’s all."

"Your shoulder’s stiff?"

"Uh huh."

"Mine too." Kaleah thought for a moment, then, reaching a decision, she caught a hold of her friend’s arm and pulled her over to the bed. "Sit."

Jessica did as told, eyeing the dark woman suspiciously. Kaleah got on the bed behind her, kneeling with her knees spread wide apart. "Could you hold your hair out of the way?" she asked. Jessica pulled her blonde locks over her shoulder. Kaleah reached down and hitched up Jessica’s shirt, running her hands underneath it flat over the smooth skin beneath, up the young woman’s back to her tense shoulders, taking the shirt with her.

Jessica froze, uncertain. "What are you doing?"

"Trust me," Kaleah said softly. "This’ll help."

Reaching Jessica’s shoulders, she ran her fingers over the muscles, feeling them jump and stretch. Probing, she found the tightest areas and began to massage them gently. This earned her a groan from the young blonde.

"This okay?"

"Ugh." Jessica’s head lolled forward, and Kaleah felt her muscles start to relax as she realized what was happening. "That feels great."

"Good." Kaleah smiled, and set her long, powerful fingers to work on another area. She was about to ask Jessica to take the shirt off to make things easier, but before she could, her friend figured it out for herself and pulled the loose garment over her head, tossing it onto the bed behind them.



Now Jessica’s whole back exposed to her, and she eagerly sent her fingers exploring the map of muscle and tendon. She stroked gently over the smooth surface of her friends body, stopping wherever she found tension to attack gently but relentlessly until it was relieved.

Jessica was sighing in ecstasy. She had never felt anything this wonderful . . . although her mind was eager to discuss with her a few other places those hands could roam that might feel even better. She closed her eyes and firmly refused to listen to it. "Where did you learn this?" she asked.

The hands paused their explorations. "A slave learns many things," Kaleah answered shortly, before she continued the massage.

"Oh." Jessica was silent for a moment. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up bad memories."

Kaleah shrugged. "That’s alright," she said softly. "They’re there always, in the back of my mind. This is just one of the things I had to do to serve my masters."

She brought her hands down along the line of Jessica’s spine, her thumbs pressing firmly with long practiced motions along the vertebrae, rubbing into the tight muscles and feeling them relax and loosen as if by magic. When she was satisfied, she let her fingers flare out to mark along the crease of her friend’s lower ribs. Jessica’s skin was warm and smooth, marked here and there with scars which she made sure to massage thoroughly. Kaleah knew from personal experience how the muscles tended to ache around old wounds.

"You don’t have to do this if it makes you uncomfortable," Jessica said softly, even as she prayed for the wonderful contact to continue.

Kaleah shook her head. "You’re not forcing me to do this," she said. "I’m doing it because you’re my friend, and I want to help you."

"You sure?"

"Of course." Kaleah tilted her head as she lost herself in the subtle play of muscles running under Jessica’s skin. "It feels good to be using the things I learned from that time to help someone I care about," she whispered. "Just relax . . . enjoy it."

Jessica smiled softly and resolved to do just that, letting her shoulders slump and her back hunch forward. Kaleah pressed deeper into her muscles, working up and down, then back up again. The dark woman could smell the scent of Jessica’s freshly scrubbed body and the lingering perfume of vanilla, and she inhaled deeply without even thinking about it.

"So, who’s Charles?" she asked as she worked.

Jessica twirled a lock of her hair around her middle finger idly. "Charles is the son of James Adam Renault, an Earl who holds the lands to the north of us," she explained. "His father and mine have been working on a permanent treaty for many years, and have pretty much agreed on everything." She paused, then added, "As part of the treaty, Charles is my betrothed."

Kaleah’s hands stopped completely, and Jessica turned to glance back at her, laughing when she saw the look of surprise in the clear blue eyes of her companion. "What’s the matter?"

"N-nothing." Kaleah forced her hands to continue, ignoring the sick feeling that suddenly clenched her stomach. "I didn’t realize, that’s all." She coughed a little. "So, that’s what your mother was talking about at dinner tonight . . . the marriage?"

"Mmmhmm." Jessica sighed. "I’ve managed to make an excuse up every time she’s raised the issue in the past. It’s getting harder, though. I’ve been putting it off for four years now."

Kaleah’s brow furrowed in confusion. "Why?"

Jess shrugged. "Charles is a wonderful man," she said softly. "He’s intelligent, and handsome, and kind . . . and about a million other things as well. We have a great time when we’re together . . . which isn’t very often, mind you. He’s always busy doing his things, it doesn’t leave much room for fun."


"But . . . I don’t love him."

"You don’t?" Kaleah felt relieved for some reason, and realized with shock that the sudden sick feeling she’d had to the news of her friend’s betrothal had been caused by jealousy! Why would she be jealous? She didn’t have time to figure out the answer as Jessica shook her head and continued.

"Charles is great, but . . . I don’t know. He’s just not someone I love in . . . that way. You know?"

"I-I guess so." She didn’t for a moment, then suddenly it hit her. She rolled her eyes and smiled. "So he doesn’t . . . ring any bells for you?" she asked teasingly, feeling Jessica’s blush warm the skin under her hands.

"No," the embarrased girl mumbled. "And it’s not like he’s not good-looking — he is. He’s just . . . not the one."

"Does he know how you feel?"

"Oh, sure," Jess laughed. "I don’t exactly make a secret of it. He knows, and he feels the same way. We like each other, but just as friends. And since we hardly ever see each other, we don’t even have that much very often. He’s just as awkward about it as I am. But the treaty is so important, and we don’t really get a say in the matter." She sighed. "Even my father agrees on this one — though it hasn’t stopped him from letting me put the blasted wedding day off for four years."

Kaleah remembered the look on Lady Rose’s face during the discussion at dinner. "You’re mother didn’t look too pleased about it."

Jessica shook with suppressed laughter. "Oh, she’s not, I assure you. But she’ll just have to wait till I’m good and ready, which isn’t looking to be anytime soon." She groaned as Kaleah’s hands skirted along the underside of her ribs, along her sides where they stopped, hesitantly, before tracing upwards, the fingertips drawing tantalizingly close to the outsides of her breasts. Jessica’s body flushed with heat as her nipples hardened slightly in unconscious reaction, and it became suddenly that much harder to ignore the images her mind was still intent on providing her.

With an effort, the young girl controlled her body’s response and evened her breathing once more. She sorted through her scattered thoughts to locate what they’d been talking about. Her mother. Right.

"I haven’t thought of a plausible excuse to throw her off this time," she continued. "Who knows, maybe Sir William will attack afterall, and I’ll be let off the hook for a while longer."

Unaware of the effect her touch was having on the younger woman — though very much aware of the soft, smooth skin over which her hands were gliding and stroking — Kaleah smiled. "You think that’s likely?"

Jessica snorted. "He’s tried it before and never got too far," she said. "He has more men than my father, but they’re not half as good fighters. Sir William is a manipulative, cowardly schemer who’d rather win with trickery and foul play than with honor. He’s probably realized he can’t defeat us, so now he’s decided to see what he can gain from an alliance."

Kaleah finished rubbing Jessica’s shoulder’s, and reluctantly drew her hands away. "Okay . . . you’re done I think." She smiled as the young blonde smiled her thanks, and reclaimed her shirt. "You should feel fine in the morning."

"Thanks," Jessica said, somewhat disappointed that the massage had ended, but at the same time grateful. It wasn’t easy ignoring her body’s persistent encouragement to pursue these exciting and mysterious lines of thought . . . and in spite of her best efforts, she couldn’t stop herself from asking, "You want me to return the favor?"

Kaleah was sure her blush was visible even through her bronze-toned skin. She looked away. "You don’t have to do that," she muttered, though a part of her was shouting that it was only fair, afterall.

"I don’t mind," Jessica smiled. "I saw you stretching your shoulders before. You probably need it as much as I did."

"I don’t know . . ." Kaleah still hated to reveal her marked body to anyone.

Jessica read her thoughts. "It’s okay," she said gently. "You don’t have to be ashamed of the scars, Kaleah. Maybe you should even be proud of them, a little."

"Proud?" Kaleah’s brow furrowed.

"Sure. They show others that you’re strong enough to survive, no matter what." Jessica looked at her own scars. "I know people who think they’re the greatest, toughest men in the whole world, and I doubt they could have lived through a half of what you must have gone through."

Kaleah swallowed. She hated discussing this, but could admit that Jessica was probably right. A lot of hardened people would never have been able to survive slavery. Thinking back, she remembered; a lot of the slaves she’d known hadn’t survived. "I guess so," she mumbled, after a pause. "But still . . ."

"They don’t bother me. Not one bit." Jessica’s smile turned teasing. "Come on, it’s not as though I haven’t seen you topless. Believe me, you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of." She waggled her eyebrows.

Kaleah didn’t trust herself to reply, but she reluctantly removed her shirt and turned around, offering her back to her friend. Her muscles were sore. What could it hurt?

Jessica cracked her knuckles and moved closer. "I’m not sure I’ll be able to do this quite as good as you did," she said. "But I’ll try."

Kaleah pulled her hair out of the way and just grunted.

Jessica stopped and stared at her friend’s back, hands frozen inches from her skin. She’d expected the patchwork of scars that meshed across the bronze skin — but on Kaleah’s back, just below her neck, was tattooed an intricate design in black ink.

"What’s this?" She stroked the tattoo reverently with one hand. Jess had heard of the practice of marking the skin like this. Her mother said it was a barbaric practice of heathen cultures. She had never seen a design this detailed, however. The mark was in the shape of a circle, and looked as though it were comprised of a strange, stylized writing. The thought occurred that this was some type of slave mark, and she wondered if Kaleah would refrain from answering.

The dark woman turned to face her, curious. "What’s what?"

"This mark on your back." Her fingers continued to trace the pattern. "It’s beautiful."

"Oh. That." Kaleah turned away. "It’s a tattoo. I’ve had it since I was a child . . . before the slavers came."

"Does it have a meaning? It looks like some kind of writing."

Kaleah shrugged. "I don’t know. The slavers thought it was writing, too. But none of my masters could read it, and neither can I. I don’t know anything about it."

Jessica paused. "You don’t remember it being done? From what I’ve heard, these things have to be made with a great big needle, and they hurt like all the fires of Hell. How could you not remember it being done?"

Kaleah shrugged again. "I can’t really remember anything from before the slavers came," she said softly. "They went to a lot of trouble beating the memories of my family and my homeland out of me . . . making it so I had nothing to go back too. Those things are hard to hold onto through the pain and the humiliation of being a slave."

Jessica berated herself silently for causing her friend pain again, and swore privately to think things through before she said anything. Now, she let her hands move tentatively out to gently knead Kaleah’s shoulders. "I’m sorry."

"Stop apologizing," Kaleah said. "I keep telling you, it’s not your fault." She was silent a moment, just absorbing the warm feel of her friend’s hands stroking at her aching flesh. "You’ve nothing to be sorry for," she said after a moment. "I think you’ve done more for me than just about anyone in my whole life has ever done."

"Really?" Jessica grinned, her face literally glowing with happiness at this. "What about that Spanish guy; De’Livier?"

"He helped me," Kaleah said thoughtfully. "He taught me a trade, and how to protect myself. And he tried to teach me how to fit in with other people. But it was still sort of . . . I don’t know. Business-like, I guess."

"What do you mean?"

"He treated me like an apprentice, rather than a servant. He paid me money, and he trained me well. He was a fine teacher. But he never really tried to be my friend . . . not like you have." She felt Jessica’s hands still their soothing motion, and she turned to face the young blonde behind her. "You’re not expecting to get anything out of this," she explained softly. "You were kind to me from the start, and even when I tried not to like you, it was hard. You gave to me, knowing I wasn’t likely to give anything back. It didn’t matter to you." She saw tears start to form at the corner’s of Jessica’s eyes, and she brushed them away, smiling. "Don’t go getting all emotional on me, Jessica." she laughed, trying to force some levity into the moment.

Jessica smiled a little, but couldn’t help the tears. "I’m sorry," she mumbled, wiping them away. "It’s just, that’s about the nicest thing you’ve said to me to date. Kind of surprised me."

"But it’s true," Kaleah insisted. "You’ve taught me what it’s like to have a friend. That’s something I never would have found out about without you."

"Oh, come on." Jessica tried to turn her around. "I’m sure someone-"

"No. I mean it." Kaleah refused to turn around. It felt surprisingly good to be saying these things. She realized the reason it felt good was because she could see how much these words meant to the young blonde. "Do you remember what you told me in the forest, when we were out in the storm. You told me I was still a slave because I still thought and acted like a slave."

"I didn’t mean-"

"Yes," Kaleah smiled. "You meant it. And you were right. Without you, I would have wandered off and just kept wandering. I’d have survived alright, probably. But I’d never have really lived my life." She held Jessica’s gaze for a moment, before she turned around to offer her back to her friend once more. "You can stop apologizing, Jessica. You’ve nothing to be sorry for."

Jessica was silent and still for a long moment, just soaking in the words of her companion, who waited patiently for the massage to continue. This was probably the most they had talked since the storm — really talked, that is. She smiled happily, and went back to the task at hand. Kaleah was certainly making a lot of progress, she thought.

"Thank you," she said softly.

Kaleah grunted and let her head roll forward, inviting Jessica to send her wonderful fingers up to her upper neck, where the tension was stiffest. The blonde was only too happy to accept. Kaleah let the silence go on for a few minutes, before her mind recalled the dinner again.

"That holy man you were talking to at dinner tonight seemed happy to have me in the castle," she said.

Jessica had let her mind completely focus on the texture of the flesh that rolled beneath her fingers, and had to pull her mind quickly away from it’s pondering of just how nice it felt to be ‘helping’ her friend like this before she could answer.

"Um . . . yeah. He seemed okay with the situation." Her brain kicked in gear a little more. "I think it has more to do with the chance of bringing you into the ‘knowledge of a true God’ than it has with him actually liking you, though."

"Mmmm. I figured as much." Kaleah snorted. "Not much chance of that happening."

"I know." They’d already discussed the subject of religion, and Jessica could understand Kaleah’s point of view. It must be hard to believe in God when all life had given you was pain and suffering. She smiled. "What were you and Senigma talking about? It looked like you were getting along quite well there." Her tone was teasing and playful.

Kaleah felt Jessica’s hands roam down her back to her tailbone, and suppressed a shiver. "Actually, we were talking about you."


"Mmmhmm. You."

"And what was so interesting about me, pray tell?"

Kaleah grinned. "Oh, I don’t know. What do you think a young man like Senigma would find interesting about a lovely young lady such as yourself?"

Jessica blushed, and smacked Kaleah lightly on the shoulder. "Yeah, right," she chuckled. "He’d know better than that. Seriously, what were you talking about?"

"Honestly, we were talking about you," Kaleah insisted, ". . . and about your brother."

The hands paused in their delicious exploration fractionally, but Kaleah noticed. "Oh." Jessica began to push her thumbs gently along Kaleah’s prominent spine, her fingers tracing the valleys of her rib-cage. "I can imagine what he had to say about that."

"He said your father’s worried about what will happen when your brother takes over the castle," Kaleah said bluntly. "He seemed to think that many considered you the better choice for the inheritance . . . including your father’s adviser."

"He did?"


"Hmmm." Jessica was interested in this. "I always wondered what Grace had to say on the matter. Interesting." She had always figured the old sage disapproved of her; apparently, such was not the case. Still, she didn’t like him.

Kaleah relaxed and just absorbed the feeling of her friend’s fingers as they absently roamed along her sides, upwards and around, close to her breasts, where they paused a moment, before retreating back up to her neck. A part of her - a part that was getting louder and more insistent - sighed with longing, wishing the hands had just kept going where they were headed.

"I don’t suppose there’s much chance that your father will decide to name you his heir?"

"No," Jessica sighed. "Running a castle and ruling land in the King’s name is man’s work." Her tone was sarcastic. "At least that’s what everyone thinks. Just because I’d make the better ruler doesn’t even figure into the matter . . . just like I don’t get a say in my betrothal." She rolled the muscles of Kaleah’s shoulders with her finger’s, earning a groan. "You okay?"

"Fine," Kaleah grunted. "You’re good at this."

Jessica grinned. "I’m a fast learner."

"Mmmhmm. I can see that." Kaleah tore her mind from considering other things the young blonde might be willing to learn. "It doesn’t make sense," she said. "The soldiers would follow you. I’ve seen the respect most of them have for you. What does it matter that you’re a woman?"

Jessica shrugged. "It shouldn’t matter . . . but it does."

"That’s stupid," Kaleah stated simply.

"Maybe. But I’m not going to be able to change the system. I already have more freedom in my life than most young women; my father’s pretty damn lenient about what I can and can’t do." She pondered a moment. "I’m very lucky."

"Yeah, I guess." Kaleah fidgeted with her hair. "Besides . . . how bad can your brother possibly be, huh?"

Jessica scowled darkly as her hands worked over scarred flesh. "He has all the makings of a tyrant," she said darkly. "He’s self-centered and self-reighteous. If he were simply indifferent towards the peasants it might not be so bad, but for some reason he seems to actually hate them." She paused thoughtfully, hands idly fingering one of Kaleah’s scarrs. "I wouldn’t be surprised if Steven ruins everything my father’s spent his life building." Jess shook her head, clearing away thoughts of what she couldn’t change. "Anyway, enough about that. I was thinking maybe we could go out for a ride on Saturday. There’s an old monastary a few miles out, buried in the woods. I go there sometimes when I want to think about stuff. You’d like it."

"What’s a monastary?"

"You don’t know?"

Kaleah shrugged. "I’ve never heard the word."

"Well, a monastary’s like a church, only it’s a place where monks live in the service of God. This one was ruined a long time ago, but it has a sense of peace about it still."

Kaleah turned a little to glance at Jess. "A holy place?"

"Aye." She grinned, knowing how Kaleah felt about the notion of God. "Trust me, it’s nice."

Kaleah rolled her eyes. "Fine, I’ll come. But I don’t see the point."

"Wait and see," Jessica said, her expression playful. She raised her hands and wriggled her fingers. "You had enough?"

"What? Oh, yeah. That was great, thanks."

"No problem." Jessica thought she had probably enjoyed giving the massage as much as she had enjoyed receiving hers. She watched from the corner of her eye as her dark companion pulled her shirt back on, considering. "You know something?"

"Hmmm?" Curious blue eyes turned in question.

"You sure have changed a lot from the person who flinched away from me everytime I reached out to touch you. I guess a lot can happen in a week, huh?"

Kaleah flushed a little. "I haven’t changed as much as you think," she said softly. "I still don’t like people touching me — I think maybe I just got used to it from you."

Jessica smiled fondly. "Is that okay?"

Kaleah thought about it for a moment, then nodded slowly. "I-I don’t mind it," she admitted. "It’s actually kind of nice, you know? Having someone reach out to me . . . and knowing I don’t have to be afraid."

Jessica couldn’t help herself, and reached out to cup the dark woman’s cheek, running her thumb along the scar that crossed her lips. The gesture had become somewhat familiar to them both over the past week; Jessica didn’t know why she did it, but Kaleah didn’t freeze up anymore, like she had during the storm. She looked deep into the sapphire eyes of her companion and smiled gently.

"You never have to be afraid of me, Kaleah," she said softly, her voice little more than a caress. "I’d never hurt you."

Kaleah reached up and placed her own hand over Jessica’s. Her smile twisted the scar that the blonde was stroking. "I know," she whispered.

For an instant, the two just sat and basked in the peace and comfort of the moment, looking into each other’s eyes and enjoying the contact where their hands joined. They could feel the sparks flying between them, were each aware how deep their friendship had grown in such a short space of time. For both of them, this was something new — a friendship Kaleah had never been offered or known could exist, and that Jessica had never been allowed to have.

"It’s kinda weird, isn’t it?" Jessica said softly after the long silence. "How much you can come to trust someone and care for them after only a few days?"

Kaleah nodded, feeling herself start to drown in the deep green waters of Jessica’s eyes and knowing that a part of her wanted nothing more than to sink into their comforting embrace. "But it doesn’t feel like only a few days," she whispered. "It feels like . . . forever. Doesn’t it?"

"Yeah." Jessica smiled a little, her eyes sparkling in the light of the candelabra. "I felt like that from the moment we first saw each other in the bandit’s camp. Remember?"

"Yeah." The memory was still vivid. "I felt, I don’t know. Like maybe we were connected somehow. When I ran away from the fight, I could feel your eyes pulling me back. But I was too scared to deal with what I felt." It felt strange to admit it, but in a good way.

"Is that why you ran? During the storm?"

Kaleah nodded. "I knew I had to get out of here," she said softly, pulling their hands away from her face but maintaining the comforting contact. "I felt trapped. My temper was getting . . . too much for me to handle, you know?" She sighed. "I didn’t understand what you wanted from me. No-one ever just wanted me as a friend."

"I know what you mean. I didn’t understand why you couldn’t see that I was only trying to help you. That I just wanted to get to know you. Bring out all the wonderful things I could see were inside you . . . give you a chance that no-one else would."

Kaleah pulled her eyes away from the intense gaze of the young blonde. "Thanks," she said, suddenly feeling the restless energy that had been dormant for so long spring to life in her nerves. She looked around, seeking an escape from the things that were getting too close to the surface again.

Jessica smiled at her skittish friend and patted her on the shoulder. "My pleasure," she said, studying Kaleah’s angular features, seeing the nervousness there. "It’s alright," she whispered. "I know it’s strange how quickly we’ve become friends like this. I had a feeling we were going to get along, but this is more than I ever expected after only a few weeks. But it’s not a bad thing, right?"

"Of course not," Kaleah mumbled, meeting Jessica’s eyes briefly, then looking away. "I’m just . . . you know. Not used to it."

Jessica nodded. "Neither am I. But I like it. It’s nice having someone to do things with, isn’t it?"

Looking deep into the young blonde’s intense green eyes, Kaleah swallowed and nodded. "Yeah." She coughed and slapped her thighs, offering a shaky smile. It was time to get out of here, she decided. She needed to settle her mind. "So . . . we’ll go out to this holy place of yours Saturday, right?"

Jessica smiled inwardly, acknowledging that the dark woman had apparently decided to move past the difficult and emotional conversation and happy enough to let her get away — for now, at least.

"Sure," she agreed. "It’s not as nice out there now as it will be in Spring, but it’s still very peaceful."

"Right." Kaleah got off the bed, and ran slightly trembling fingers through her long, dark hair to settle it. "I guess I’d better get some rest."

"Yeah. Me too." Jessica smiled and shifted on the now empty bed. "You want to do some more archery tomorrow? Or maybe we could go for a ride . . ?"

Kaleah shuffled nervously. She felt something warm and frightening stir in her heart, clenching painfully as she regarded her friend. She needed some space, some time to herself . . . for more than just a few hours. "Actually," she mumbled, "I was kinda thinking I might spend the day by myself tomorrow, if that’s okay?"

"Oh." Jessica tried to hide her disappointment, looking away and picking at her shirt. "Sure. I-if that’s . . . what you want." Even she could hear the hurt in her voice, and she knew Kaleah could, too.

Blue eyes regarded her sincerely. "I just need a little time alone," Kaleah said softly, hoping Jessica would understand. "Really. It’s not that I don’t want to be around you . . . I just . . . " She sighed. "I need to adjust. Do you understand?"

Jessica thought about it for a moment seriously, then nodded. "I do," she said.

Kaleah searched her eyes for a moment. She could see that Jessica was a little hurt by this, but she could also see that she did, at some level, understand.

"Good. Thank you." She turned and headed to the door that led to her own room. She opened it and looked back at her friend, who was watching her a little nervously. "I’ll see you on Saturday," she said softly.

Jessica waved a little. "Saturday."

Kaleah smiled and went through the door, closing it softly behind her. Breathing deep, she closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the solid oak door. "Damn."

The news that she wanted to be alone had hurt Jessica, she could tell. But Kaleah knew it was necessary. She needed a little space, some time to center herself. Some time to more deeply bury the thoughts and feelings that kept cropping up in her head and her heart regarding her young friend.

She understood them — most of them, at least. Her physical reaction to the attractive blonde was, she considered, somewhat natural. A life of slavery had introduced Kaleah to every kind of sexual act human beings were capable of. She had figured her exposure to — and involvement in — such a harsh and sickening world had long since killed any ability she might have had to feel physical desire for another person. Apparently, she reflected, feeling again the callused hands of her companion tracing tantalizingly close to her breasts . . . apparently, such was not the case.

She could accept that she was physically attracted to the young woman. Kaleah had preferred women to men since she had first been introduced to the concept. As a slave, her body had been used and abused in every conceivable way — mostly by men, but certainly not exclusively. Still, she had always preferred being ordered to provide for the pleasures of other women rather than men . . . and not just because they tended to treat her better, although that was a part of it. She actually liked the way a woman felt, and sounded. And tasted. No man had ever cared for how she felt during the act. Their concern was only for themselves. But many of the women she had served seemed to gain as much satisfaction from her pleasure as they had from their own. She had actually enjoyed herself at times like these, fleeting as they were. She would even have said that she went to such women willingly, of her own volition, for the small comfort they offered in her bleak and painful existence.

Such acts of consensual sex were rare during the ten or so years she had been a slave . . . though Kaleah had learned early on that if she was compliant, her torment would be over with that much sooner and she was less likely to be beaten.

Still, it was a little uncomfortable to have these stirrings of desire appear for her young friend. They clouded her mind with erotic images of the many things she knew she could introduce to the beautiful girl; things she didn’t want to think about. Sure, Jessica was breath-takingly beautiful. She was innocent and playful and full of life. And she was one of very few people in Kaleah’s life who had only ever shown her kindness. This in mind, the dark woman could accept that there was a valid justification for her physical response to Jessica.

Kaleah sighed, and flopped bonelessly onto her bed, staring up at the ceiling. But that was only a part of it, she knew. Being around Jessica stirred up feelings inside her that she had no understanding of how to deal with. Desire was one thing; she could put that behind her, knowing she would never risk the friendship that had developed just for the chance of a few moments of pleasure. It was the way her heart ached whenever Jessica touched her that made Kaleah want to take a step back and regroup. The way she could feel her soul start to loose itself whenever she looked deeply into the emerald eyes of her younger companion. The way her smile seemed to light up the whole world . . . and the way her words of gentle kindness worked like a soothing balm to ease the pain of ancient hurts.

Kaleah had her suspicions about what these feelings were . . . and she didn’t much like them. She was smart enough to realize that her reaction of jealously to the news of Jessica’s betrothal — and her relief when she heard that the young woman didn’t love the man — were a clear indication that this was something more than a simple physical attraction. That thought frankly terrified her. Kaleah wasn’t sure she could handle these emotions, was uncertain her battered heart and soul could ever deal with such a powerful feeling as love.

Kaleah scoffed as that word appeared in her mind. "You are not in love with her," she told herself firmly. "It’s just a reaction you’re having to being emotionally close to someone after having no-one for so long. That’s all it is. Really."

She sighed. The words didn’t help to ease the ache in her heart, didn’t serve to explain the way Jessica’s presence had seemed to wrap itself around her soul from the very second they had locked eyes with each other. It seemed the more time she spent with the young woman, the more she hurt inside; hurt for all the things she had never even known she could have in life.

Things she was starting to want with a painful desperation.

Kaleah blinked her eyes, feeling tears start to form. With an effort, she forced them down. She had spent so many years locking her emotions away, never crying because once she started, she feared she’d never be able to stop. The innocent and selfless way that Jessica gave of herself was breaking open those locked boxes of feelings . . . and it was frightening how much Kaleah wanted to let it happen.

It was going to take a lot of self-lecturing tomorrow to convince herself that her feelings were just a natural reaction to Jessica’s kindness. And in all honesty, Kaleah wasn’t sure whether it was going to work at all.


Kaleah would have been surprised to know that, left alone in her room, Jessica’s thoughts were running along quite a similar track to her own.

The young blonde sighed as she slumped back down on her bed, spreading her arms and legs as far as they would go, trying to touch the edges of the enormous bed. She failed by at least a foot on all sides.

The massage had caused new and interesting sensations to erupt throughout her body. Her skin felt unusually sensitive, and it tingled everywhere Kaleah had run her fingers. The muscles in her groin seemed to be curling in upon themselves, seeming to invite a massage of their own. Her blood felt like liquid fire in her veins, just waiting for something to make it erupt. Her nipples were hard and she could feel them pushing against the course material of her shirt, straining for an intimate caress. Jessica had never been so aware of every part of her body before, and although she’d never experienced these feelings quite so strongly, she recognized them as the stirrings of desire.

For whatever reason, the simple massage had aroused her like nothing before.

Jessica had felt these things a few times in the past, certainly, but never like this. She felt a pleasant tingling whenever she read the stories of female love that were secreted away in her hidden room. And, she admitted, when she had admired Kaleah’s body when it was revealed more than usual, or those few times when she had caressed the scar across the dark woman’s lips with her thumb. But the feeling of the Kaleah’s powerful fingers working against her flesh had sparked the sensations more than anything else.

She liked the way Kaleah looked, and sounded. She even liked the way she smelled. Jess had known she was attracted to the dark woman right from the start, but before it had been just a harmless bit of admiration. There was nothing wrong with looking. But the thoughts that kept creeping into her head — thoughts that had at first been a mild annoyance — were getting stronger all the time. She could no longer ignore them. They were inappropriate in such a friendship, and she knew she had to deal with them once and for all.

"Okay," Jess told herself, deciding it might help to talk the problem out. "Let’s look at this objectively . . ."

Being alone so much of her life, Jessica often found she was the only person around to discuss things with. It had never bothered her before . . . although she had heard that talking to oneself was the first sign of madness. She had always scoffed at this notion. She’d had many very interesting conversations with her own mind, which often seemed at odds with her on what she thought she should do about some things. Her mind was now sitting up and paying close attention to the situation at hand as Jessica continued.

"So, Kaleah is . . . extremely attractive. And okay, so you’re having thoughts of what it might be like to be more friendly with her than you ought to be. It’s really not so strange." She waved her hands to emphasis her points.

It’s not? Her mind raised a metaphysical eyebrow in question.

"It’s not," she insisted to herself. "Think about it; you’ve been reading about this sort of thing for years now, and you always found it . . . interesting. But you’ve never had any female friends that you could spend any real time with . . . no close ones, anyway. So, along comes Kaleah. She’s beautiful, she’s exotic, she’s wonderful and interesting, and she’s. . ." Jess sighed. "Well, she’s about the sexiest thing that’s ever crossed into your field of vision, let’s face it."

Her mental mind nodded to show it understood, and gestured metaphysically for her to continue.

"So . . . all of a sudden you have someone in your life who you’re able to think about in this way. Your body has a natural reaction to the presence of an attractive woman, and all the things you’ve read about suddenly take on a new form. You can picture what they might be like with her involved . . . it’s as simple as that!"

Both metaphysical eyebrows raised doubtfully as her mental mind gave her an amused look of patient indulgence.

"Well, it is!"

Her metaphysical mind just smiled knowingly.

"Bah, what would you know anyway?" Jessica waved her hands dismissively, and huffed to herself. "Let’s face it," she continued petulantly, "Nineteen years is a long time to wait for. . . this sort of thing. Just because Charles isn’t your type, doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be stirrings and rumblings down below at some point or another. Especially if you’re going to be filling your head with those blasted stories, which, I think it’s safe to say, you should avoid for the time being!" She sighed and ran her fingers through her hair absently. "No point adding fuel to the fire when you’re trying to put it out."

Jessica spent a moment reflecting. She and Kaleah were growing closer to each other rapidly. The dark woman was obviously feeling a little unsettled by the speed at which their friendship was developing — hence the day of solitude tomorrow. Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, Jessica considered this and finally had to admit that a little time alone was exactly what she needed.

"You can spend tomorrow getting this stuff back under control," she told herself firmly. "No more being distracted by those sapphire eyes. You’ll deal with the situation, and remember that she’s trusting you enough to be her friend. You’re not going to jeopardize that trust by suggesting — or even thinking — anything the least bit inappropriate, like . . . like-"

Her imagination helpfully provided a colorful illustration of what might be considered inappropriate behavior.

"Yeah . . . just like that." Jess closed her eyes and tried to get her breathing under control, letting the images continue for a few delicious moments while her body screamed for something it had never experienced but could well imagine.

After those few moments of tantalizing thoughts, however, she forced her eyes open. "Ugh!" Rolling over she buried her face under a cushion in frustration. "This is gonna be hard," she mumbled into the pillow. "Very, very hard."

Neither woman slept very well that night.


Chapter 7.

The next day passed slowly for both of them.

Jessica heard that Sir Miles was leading a hunt into the forests, and invited herself along. She didn’t actually like hunting all that much; it tended to require skill with a bow rather than a blade, and while she had killed men in the heat of battle, Jessica could never bring herself to slay the gentle deer the hunters usually stalked. Still, it was better than staying in Da’Gran with Kaleah, where she would constantly be reminded of the dark-haired woman’s absence.

Kaleah chose to spend her day alone in her customary roost. Before dawn, she went for a long run in the hope that she could exhaust the animal energy coursing through her body. When she returned, she took a quick bath then wandered into the heart of Da’Gran castle, where she offered to relieve the guard stationed in the lookout tower. The young soldier, knowing that Kaleah was Jessica’s friend, had gratefully accepted, giving up the lonely post with no regret. The dark woman stared forlornly out across the rolling fields for long moments, before reaching into her pocket and pulling out her treasured wooden flute.

The instrument had been given to Kaleah by a fellow slave, and she had kept it hidden during the long years of her captivity from those who would deprive her of even the small pleasure she could gain from her music. It had taken months to learn how to play the flute, but Kaleah had a natural ear for melodies. She only ever played when she was alone, and her tunes were always melancholy and sad.

High above the castle walls in a place that was cold, silent and very much appropriate to her mood, Kaleah put the flute to her lips and blew softly. The gentle strains of music filtered through the still air, molded by the dark-haired woman’s long, swift fingers. She changed the tempo and tone smoothly as her mind allowed itself to develop a rhythm and melody.

The two friends did not see each other once during the day. Jessica didn’t return until near sundown, and Kaleah only abandoned her post when the cold of the night forced her to retire. Neither woman felt the desire for food. Jessica didn’t talk to anyone, though Sir Miles watched her carefully with worried eyes all day. Kaleah scarcely even moved, except for her fingers which danced up and down along the holes of the flute.

By the end of the day, both Jessica and Kaleah felt somewhat better despite the misery their separation had caused. Both spent the day carefully searching for ways to rationalize the strength of the feelings they were having for the other, and by the time the sun went down, both women felt they had succeeded.

Jessica had managed to convince herself that her feelings were, indeed, quite natural, and was confidant that, given a few days, they would work themselves out of her system and Kaleah need never know about them.

For her part, Kaleah had eventually managed to drill it into her head that the feelings she was having for Jessica were simply a reaction to the renewal of emotional intimacy that her friendship with the young woman allowed her. It was understandable that her mind and her body were trying to make up for a lifetime of such emotional denial. This wasn’t romantic love — it was just some kind of temporary infatuation that would pass as she got used to feeling these things like trust and caring again.

Still, neither woman slept well that night . . . again. Each was very much aware of the nearness of the other. Kaleah didn’t come down from the look-out till after she felt Jessica would have drifted off, but the moment she entered her own room, she knew for certain her friend was still awake. It flashed through her mind to go across to the young woman’s room and see her, but she decided not to after a moment of inner discussion. She had only just gotten her defenses in place; it was a little early to start testing them already.

With a sigh, Kaleah got undressed and slipped beneath the covers of her bed thankfully. It had been deadly cold up in the high tower, and this savage winter still frightened her. The warmth of the soft blankets and softer mattress were very welcome indeed, and Kaleah smiled as she realized just how accustomed she had grown to this lifestyle.

"Fancy food, a warm bed, a beautiful, intelligent and funny friend . . . a whole castle and everything you could want," she muttered to herself, grinning ironically and feeling the scar across her lips tighten. "Funny how life works out."

Smiling to herself, she rolled over, closed her eyes, and settled down to wait for sleep to claim her. She knew she would be waiting a long time.


The next morning, Jessica awoke after finally stealing a few hours rest from the night. She was still tired, but her fatigue did little to sink her spirits. She just knew today was going to be a good day. Afterall, she thought as she got out of bed and threw on a simple shirt and trousers, she would be spending it with her friend. That had to beat yesterday.

Quickly dragging a soft brush through her perpetually-rumpled hair, the young blonde wondered if it was too early to wake her neighbor. Would Kaleah want a little time to herself this morning? Jessica gnawed on her lower lip in indecision, at last deciding to just knock on the door and find out.

A muffled, "Yeah?" greeted her sharp rapping, and she opened the door and poked her head into the dim light of the room.

"Can I come in?" she asked hesitantly.

Kaleah was still in bed, looking a little dazed. She rubbed sleep from her eyes and waved her hand. "Sure."

Jessica grinned and stepped into her friend’s bedroom, shutting the door behind her. She claimed a sitting chair and studied the dark-haired woman who was busy drawing the covers tighter about her body.

"Have a good day yesterday?" she inquired casually.

Kaleah shrugged, studying the design on the blankets rather than meeting the blonde’s gaze. "I guess." She glanced up, then away quickly when she saw the quiet and slightly concerned appraisal in the green eyes of her friend. "I just had to get my head around this," she said softly, not really knowing why she felt compelled to explain. "It’s not something I’m used to."

"I told you I understood," Jessica said gently. "And I do. It’s alright."

Kaleah nodded shyly, feeling a little silly. "So . . . you went out on the hunt?" She hadn’t seen her friend leave the castle, but a guard who came at midday to see if she wanted something to eat had informed her of the young woman’s departure.

Jessica nodded. "Yeah. Thought it would be something to do with the day." She smiled a little wryly. "You know, before you came along, I spent most of my time alone, except when I was training. Never even had to give a thought about what to do with myself. Now, when you’re not with me, I feel so . . . lost."

Blue eyes finally met hers directly, and in that instant, all the walls she had spent yesterday building . . . all the explanations and rationalizations . . . everything . . . all came down to nothing. She looked into the clear sapphire gaze of her friend, and was lost all over again.

Kaleah, too, felt the barriers that had taken hours to build being shattered in just a moment of contact with her friend’s intense gaze. She swallowed, and mentally berated herself. Get a grip, will you!? A pair of pretty eyes and you turn to mush!? She’s your friend, that’s all! In a few days, you’ll be over this stupid infatuation, and things’ll be fine.

Jessica just smiled a little. "Funny how you can come to depend on something so quickly, huh?"

Kaleah struggled for a moment, breaking the eye-contact thankfully, then nodded. "I, uh. I was just thinking the same thing last night," she stammered, plucking at the blankets. "I’ve never slept in a bed half as comfortable as this one, but now, after only a fortnight, I can’t imagine what I’d do without it."

"Not like I’m gonna take it away from you anytime soon."

"I know."

"So," Jessica slapped her thighs, deciding to get this show on the road. "I believe we discussed a ride out to the woods. You wanna wait while I take a quick bath before we leave — it’ll help me wake up."

"Sure." Kaleah ran long fingers through disheveled hair. "I’ll see if I can get the horses ready."

"Great. Just ask one of the stable-hands for help if you’re not sure of something. I’ll be down in a few minutes." Jess stood up and headed for the door. "And don’t forget to dress warm," she added. "It’s cold out there.


"Great. I’ll see you in the courtyard."


Jessica shut the door as she left and, grabbing her leather and mail armor, headed for the bathing chamber. When she arrived, she opened the huge, intricately carved doors and entered the sultry, steamy warmth beyond.

Inside, the young woman quickly stripped out of her clothes and laid them over a relatively dry rock a few feet from the huge pool. Retrieving a hand-towel from the small room in back, she slipped gratefully into the clear warm waters with a deep, throaty groan.

After ducking her head under the water, Jessica threw her wet hair over her shoulder and proceeded to gently scrub her body. Closing her eyes and relaxing in the calm and soothing environment, her mind quickly turned to it’s current favorite realm of contemplation: Kaleah.

Yesterday’s deliberations had apparently been for naught; one look into those deep blue eyes and the thoughts she had carefully contained leapt free once more. Sighing, she realized there was only one thing she could do; just accept the thoughts and try to ignore them as best she could. Hopefully, they would leave of their own volition once she was over this infatuation.

Suddenly, her imaginative mind remembered something she rarely ever thought of. Opening her eyes, Jess was helpless to stop the rakish grin that creased her mouth as she glanced over towards the wall to the left of the great oak doors. She searched for and quickly found the small hole in the intricate carvings of the wall . . . a hole invisible to all but those who knew where to look.

The peep-hole.

Jessica had discovered the secret spy-hole in the course of her explorations of Da’Gran, and she knew that many of the previous castle rulers had no doubt used it for their lascivious pleasures, watching those bathing within the chamber. Of course, she’d never used it herself, but the young woman’s creative mind had little trouble picturing the wonderful, exciting visions she might behold if she were to make use of the secret hole.

Jessica’s body instantly applauded the idea expressed by her mind, and she shivered a little at the heat that ran suddenly through her blood. The muscles in her groin tightened and curled upon themselves, and her breathing grew shallow.

Closing her eyes, Jessica attempted to gain control of the situation. "That’s enough," she commanded, deciding her body was more likely to respond to verbal orders than non-verbal ones. "You are not doing any spying of any kind!"

Her body protested its displeasure.

"I mean it," she insisted, squeezing her eyes shut tighter and making fists. "You’ve never sunk so low as to use the spy-hole . . . Never! And you’re not gonna start now!"

Ah, but there was never anyone like Kaleah worth spying on, her mind quickly pointed out to her. And it’s not as though you haven’t spied on everyone else in the castle at some point or another . . . just not quite like this.

Jessica felt herself flush as she realized this was true. She had watched the people in Da’Gran as they went about their business, using the secret passageways to allow her access into the lives of everyone from servant to soldier. "That’s not the same thing," she told herself firmly. "This would be a betrayal of Kaleah’s trust." Her heart ached just thinking of such a thing, and her body began to settle — albeit reluctantly.

She doesn’t need to know, her mind continued pursuasively, unwilling to give up. It won’t hurt your friendship at all. Don’t you want to watch her?

"No," she growled through clenched teeth. "It would just be encouraging these thoughts, and you’ll be over them in a few days. That kind of encouragement is only going to make it take longer to get over this infatuation."

But what if it’s not just an infatuation? inquired her mind rather pointedly. What if it’s more?

Jessica screwed up her face and wished for a moment she weren’t so good at debating; it would make this type of conversation so much easier. "It’s not," she insisted. Opening her eyes, she glared down at her reflection in the water. "I am in charge here, and I say that this is just a natural reaction that you will have forgotten about in a couple of days! And if I say that’s all it is, than so help me God, that’s all it is!" She stopped and eyed herself narrowly. "Am I understood?"

Her reflection nodded somewhat petulantly through the distortion of the rippling waters.

"Good." Flicking her hair over her shoulder, she quickly finished washing herself and exited the pool. Finding a towel in the back room, she dried off and slipped into her armor.

As she was about to leave, Jessica turned back to the room and studied the left wall thoughtfully. "Maybe I should just cover up that damn peep-hole once and for all," she threatened herself. "Remove the temptation." She turned and left, sealing the chamber as she went.

Her mind refused to rise to the bait, knowing full well the threat was a hollow one. There was a part of Jessica — a part she didn’t even know existed yet — that knew her feelings for her dark friend were not going to go away . . . and it counciled patience to the rest of her.


Sooner or later, that part within the depths of her soul counciled . . . sooner or later, love has a habit of figuring itself out.

No matter how thick-headed a person might be.


The ancient remains of the once-great monastary lay in a wide clearing, even the trees appearing to respect the holy ground by not encroaching . A crisp layer of fresh snow blanketed the ruins, and as Kaleah looked around she had to admit her friend was right — there was a sense of quiet peace about the place that settled even her restless spirit.

Watching her dark-haired companion’s lips twitch into a reluctant smile, Jessica grinned and nudged her cheerfully. "See, I told you it was nice."

Kaleah nodded, breathing in the cold winter air and releasing a sigh. "Yeah, you did." She wandered slowly through the clearing, stopping to brush away ice from a half-buried brass bell. "How long has it been like this?"

"Don’t know," Jess said. "Probably since my grandfather’s time." Her voice became quieter. "I’ve been coming here since I was forteen years old . . . I needed to feel closer to God then more than ever."

Something in Jessica’s voice made Kaleah look up curiously, just in time to catch a fleeting look of pain cross through expressive emerald eyes. "Why?"

Jess shrugged a little. "That was when I took my first life."

"Oh." Kaleah’s eyes flicked away uncomfortably. "I’m sorry."

"It’s alright. It’s just something I’ve had to come to terms with. Something I had to face when I decided to walk this path."

Kaleah was silent in thought, considering the strange dichotomy of the woman she was loosing her heart too. Jessica possessed an aura of such warmth and light and compassion, it was difficult for Kaleah to reconcile that with the image of the young girl as a fighter. Even when they were sparring, Jessica smiled and seemed so playful. After a time, sapphire eyes glanced up. "Why do you do this?"

"Do what?"

"This?" Kaleah gestured meaningfully to the rapier at Jessica’s side, then to the armor she wore. "You have the strength and the skill of a warrior, Jessica . . . but your heart wasn’t born for the battlefield." Suddenly realising what she’d said, Kaleah flushed and turned away again. "I’m sorry. It’s not my place to say that to you."

"No, that’s alright." Jess smiled a little, flicking her hair out of her face. "You’re right; a part of me isn’t really cut out to be a fighter . . . at least not a soldier. But it’s what I want to be, so I just have to take the good with the bad and try to accept the things I can’t change."

Dark brows arched thoughtfully, and Jessica sat on the curve of the giant church bell. "When I was just a little girl," the blonde explained, "my mother was the one who raised me mostly. She tried to teach me that because I was born a noble, God held me in higher regard than he did the commoners. It was my place to rule, and their place to serve, because we were better than everyone else." She frowned. "I was confused by her explanation, so I went to my father.

"My father told me a different story. He believed that God favoured no man over another, but valued all of us equally. He said we’re all born with different strengths and thus different purposes in life, but we all serve each other in one way or another." Jess paused, watching Kaleah’s attentive expression before she continued. "He told me God gives farmers the skills they need to work the land, gives priests the skills to minister to the people, merchants the skills to trade, and so on. God made him a warrior, he said, and he was meant to use his gifts to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves." She smiled, remembering. "I asked him what God wanted me to be, and do you know what he said?"


"He told me that every now and again — not very often — God makes a special person; a person who can do and be anything they want, who can follow any path in life they choose and be successful." She smiled fully, her nose crinkling delightfully. "He said that I was one of God’s special people, and I would have to decide for myself how I should use his gift."

"So you chose to become a warrior?"

Jess shrugged. "I looked at how much my mother was doing to make the world a better place, and then I looked at my father and decided he was helping more." She paused, thinking. "I was very independent, even then. I guess what really decided me was the fact that my mother wanted me to follow in her footsteps — my father wanted me to walk in my own.

"After that, I watched the soldiers every chance I got, and started mimicking their actions. My father saw what I was doing, and he gave me over to Miles’ tutorship." She grinned, thinking back on that time. "I was headstrong and stubborn, and lost my temper more than a few times with my teacher. But Miles was patient, and over the years I got better. When I was twelve, I followed my father to my first battle. When I was forteen, I killed for the first time."

The sadness in her face touched Kaleah strongly, and the dark woman could see her friend was still affected even after many years. She could understand that.

"It hurt," the young blonde said softly. "I came to this place then because I felt closer to God here than in the chapel at Da’Gran. For many days I struggled to deal with the fact that I’d taken a life. I was angry at myself . . . at God. But in the end, I realised that if I was going to commit myself to being a warrior, I had to accept the burden that came with such a life. And I did. I threw myself into my lessons with greater enthusiasm. I wanted to become good enough that I could outfight an opponent without killing him, and that’s pretty much what I did." She smiled proudly. "I haven’t taken a life in over two years."

Kaleah processed this, considering. "So, you fight to protect the commoners?"

"I live my life for the betterment of others, yes," Jess nodded. "Of course, one of the worst things about being high-born is that I don’t get to bask in a lot of praise all that often. It’s a struggle sometimes just to convince some of the knights that I have a right to participate in a fight at all. It’d be nice to be able to just go among the commoners now and then without my mother telling me off."

"Mmm." Kaleah stood up and offered Jessica a hand. "You wanna show me the rest of this place?"

Jess accepted the hand and pulled herself to her feet, grinning. "Absolutely. There’s an old herb garden over here that still grows sage and rosemary during the Spring. Come on, I’ll show you."

The young girl pulled the taller woman after her enthusiastically, Kaleah’s expression thoughtful.


"So," Kaleah said as they left the stable and headed across the courtyard toward the keep. "Would you really like to be able to spend more time with the commoners?"

Jess flashed her a playful smirk. "I’m spending time with you, aren’t I?"

"Ha ha." Kaleah swatted at the girl with mock indignation. "I’m serious. If you could, would you want to?"

"Of course. But I’m a noble; everytime I try to make friends with one of the peasants I get yelled at by my mother." She gestured to Kaleah. "Except you, of course, and that’s only because we have unusual circumstances going on."

"Wellll . . ." Kaleah raised an eyebrow rakishly. "We could always sneak out of the castle after dark and wander over to the village."

"Oh, no!" Jessica raised her hands as if to fend of the suggestion. "Nononono, NO!" She started walking quickly away from Kaleah, shaking her head. The dark woman jogged after her and dragged her to a halt.

"I’m not interested," the young blonde insisted, covering her ears and shutting her eyes.

With a smile, Kaleah gently removed her friends hands from her ears and brought her face up. "What’s the matter? Worried we’ll get caught?"

Green eyes narrowed. "No," she said petulantly. "I’m not allowed to go into the village, that’s all. Even my father told me it’s too dangerous."

Kaleah snorted and waved her hand dismisively. "He only told you that to keep you out of mischief," she scoffed. "I’ve been to a few villages myself when I was forced to by circumstances; there’s nothing especially dangerous about them."

"Really?" Jessica now appeared dubious, but interested.

"Really," she confirmed. "As long as you don’t go looking for trouble, that is. We can bring our swords just in case, if you like. Believe me, no-one in town will be even close to a match for either of us."

The young blonde considered this knew revelation. "But my father told me it wasn’t safe for young girls to go wandering about the village unescorted. He wouldn’t have said that if he didn’t have a good reason for wanting me to stay away from the town."

Kaleah grinned. "Come on, Jessica," she said. "From the stories I’ve overheard about you, your father’s fears are likely less for your sake than for the peasants."

Those green eyes narrowed threateningly. "What’s that supposed to mean?" Jessica demanded, poking Kaleah in the chest.

Kaleah raised her hands defensively and backed away a step. "Nothing, nothing. But let’s face it, you do have a reputation as something of a mischief-maker." She grinned, remembering some of the stories she had overheard from the soldiers. "Is it true that you were kidnapped by an enemy wanting to hold you for ransom, but they gave you back after only a week because they thought you were bad luck?"

Jessica’s face flushed, and she lowered her head, letting her hair fall forward to cover her face. She gave a slight nod. "They couldn’t figure out any other reason for why they were suddenly being plagued by sickness, fires and vanishing underwear." She stifled a giggle. "It never occurred to them that they should have tied me more securely then they did."

Kaleah chuckled. "Your father’s probably afraid you’ll go off and cause trouble."

"I guess. . ."

"And then again," Kaleah went on, "he is right to worry about you wandering out there alone for another reason."

"Why? I thought it was safe."

"Weellll," Kaleah hesitated, unsure whether her somewhat sheltered companion would understand the dangers she was thinking of. "You’re a very pretty young woman, Jessica. And there’s always the chance there could be bandits in the village — especially the tavern. If one of them saw you, they might figure to . . . you know . . ."

Jessica’s brow furrowed. "Abduct me for ransom?"

"Nnooo, not quite what I was getting at." Kaleah blushed a little. "You’re very beautiful, you know. Very . . . pure . . . ?"

Jessica’s face developed a crimson hue. "You really think so?"

Kaleah struggled for a moment as she started to loose herself in the eyes that were regarding her with genuine interest. "Sure," she said, trying to sound casual. She decided to try a more direct approach. Resting her hands on her friend’s shoulders, Kaleah adopted her best serious face. "Do you know what outlawed men might do to a young girl like you?" she asked quietly. "To someone who’s never . . . been with a man?"

Jessica studied her a minute, before understanding swept across her features. "Ohhhh," she said, "You mean like rape?"

Kaleah nodded, relieved that her friend at least knew about such things. "Yes, like rape." She felt her throat close up a little as she remembered some of her darker experiences as a slave.

Jessica saw the sad, haunted look that entered her friend’s crystal blue eyes, and wondered at it briefly. Had Kaleah gone through such things during her captivity? She remembered what the dark woman had said during their night together in the cave, about the scar that disfigured her face and how it made her less desirable to men. The realization of what she meant made the young blonde ache for the pain that Kaleah must have gone through . . . the pain she must carry with her always.

She had never really thought about such things before, but was serious now as she considered the grim danger. "You mean someone in the village might try to . . . do that . . . to me?"

"None of the peasants would, I’m sure," Kaleah said. "But it’s always a possibility. Your father’s warning isn’t unjustified. You shouldn’t wander the village by yourself. But if I was with you, and we were both armed . . . " She grinned a little, letting the dark memories raised by the topic fade away. "I’m sure we can handle ourselves, right?"

Jessica nodded reluctantly. "But the guards on the wall would stop us. How would we . . .?"

"Oh come on, Jessica," Kaleah gave her a knowing look. "You’ve lived in this castle all your life; you must know every inch of the place."

"Maybe." Jessica swallowed as she remembered her thoughts of the peep-hole that morning. She knew more about Da’Gran than anybody.

"I’m sure you know a way to get past the soldiers without them knowing it," Kaleah said. "Any place this big has to have at least one blind spot in it’s defenses, right?"

Jessica nodded reluctantly. She did indeed know of many such blind-spots. She had even considered using them to venture into the village she had only ever seen in passing, but her father’s stern warnings had always kept her from going.

"But how would we -"

"Excuse me . . . Lady Jessica?"

They turned and saw one of the guards standing there, his face solemn and apologetic.


The guard glanced at both women curiously. "Forgive me for interrupting, Lady Jessica, but your mother has requested Kaleah’s company at once, in the anteroom."

Kaleah was shocked, but no more so than her companion. "My mother wants to see Kaleah?"

The guard nodded, shuffling nervously. "Alone," he added ominously.

Jessica’s eyes widened further. "Are you sure?"

"The Lady Rose was quite explicit," he assured her, his expression making it clear he was aware how strange such a summons was.

Jessica turned to look at Kaleah. The dark woman shrugged. "Maybe she wants to get to know me," she said with an optimism she didn’t actually feel. "Like your father."

"Maybe." Jessica’s tone was doubtful. "More likely she wants to stick a knife in your back."

Kaleah forced a little laugh, but her eyes stayed cold. "I can take care of myself," she assured her friend. "Why don’t you go wait in the courtyard. I’ll be out shortly. We can do some training and . . . continue our discussion. Alright?"

Jessica hesitated. "You sure you don’t want me to come?"

"Your mother said she wants me alone -"

"I know what she said, and I don’t give a damn! If you want me to come, I’ll come, and she can take it or leave it." Jessica put her hands on her hips and glared a second at the guard, who, being familiar with the young blonde’s feisty attitude, was struggling to conceal his grin. "You are my guest in this castle, and are not at my mother’s beck and call."

Kaleah felt her heart warm at the somewhat possessive quality in Jessica’s tone. She had heard others talk of her in a similar way, but never with this kind of genuine care and protectiveness. "I’ll be fine," she assured her friend, patting her shoulder somewhat awkwardly. "Just wait for me in the courtyard, okay?"

For a moment, it seemed Jessica would refuse and insist on coming anyhow. But after a moment where rebellion flashed through angry green eyes, she huffed to herself and agreed. "Alright." Her shoulders slumped and she ran her fingers through her hair in a gesture Kaleah recognized as meaning she was concerned or nervous. "But if you’re not out in a few minutes, I’m coming to get you."

"Thanks." Kaleah could only smile at her friend and marvel at how good it felt to have someone like Jessica who was truly concerned for her well-being. The affection she had felt in her heart for the young woman grew even deeper, and she thought she might explode from the intense feelings of love she had for her friend.

Turning to the guard before her emotions overcame her common sense and made her do something she knew she’d regret, Kaleah gestured for him to lead on. As they left Jessica behind, Kaleah felt her stomach flip-flop with another feeling; fear. What did Jessica’s mother want with her?

She had a feeling that whatever it was, it wouldn’t be anything good.


Kaleah was led into an ante chamber that branched off from the audience hall. The room was small and tastefully decorated with tapestries and a few bookshelves. The guard led her inside, bowed once to the tall, slender woman waiting for them, then swiftly departed, closing the door as he left.

The Lady Rose smiled coldly at Kaleah, her eyes running up and down her form slowly. It was clear from her expression that she thought very little of what she saw.

Remembering that this was a woman of the nobility, Kaleah lowered her defiant eyes and performed a stiff bow. She knew she was supposed to curtsey, but chose not to; she would not offer a false gesture of respect, only an acknowledgement that the older woman held a noble title.

"You wished to speak with me, Milady?"

Lady Rose’s smile grew wider. She understood the unspoken message behind Kaleah’s actions, just as she heard the emptiness in her words.

"Yes." The woman walked slowly forward, her steps measured and graceful. "I thought it was time we had a little talk . . . Kaleah, isn’t it?"

Kaleah nodded. The older woman had a way of saying her name that made it sound almost insulting. She stood still, forcing down her edgy temper as the Lady Rose walked around her, looking her up and down like she was a piece of meat at auction. Kaleah had some experience with that particular feeling. She gave Jessica’s mother a quick inspection of her own.

Lady Rose was not overly tall, though she was certainly far from being a model for her more diminutive daughter. Her hair was a reddish-blonde, and she wore it pulled into an intricate braid held in place with fanciful and doubtless expensive hair-clips. She wore a long, sweeping dress which was cinched at her extremely slender waist, and a glitteringly elegant necklace of gold and flashing cut stones. Her features held a similar cast of beauty to that of her children, marked only slightly by the imperfections brought on by her additional years.

Still, while there was a definite resemblance between mother and daughter, Kaleah had the impression that Lady Rose had never held the same inner beauty as Jessica did. The young blonde fairly shone with the glow of her warm and friendly nature — a beauty made more perfect by the fact that Jessica seemed so unaware of it, living in the castoff clothes of the soldiers and almost always messy and covered in dirt. So very unlike her mother.

Lady Rose finished her inspection and clasped her hands in front of her. Every action, every move the woman made was made with an air of calm and refined elegance that spoke of a lifetime spent learning proper etiquette and social graces. Standing stiff and erect under that scrutiny, Kaleah couldn’t help but feel like exactly what this woman thought she was; a barbarian savage from a Godless country.

Lady Rose smiled thinly again. "I understand you speak English fluently . . .?"

"Yes, Milady." Kaleah was slightly insulted.

"Good." Lady Rose regarded her with a cocked head. "I have noticed my daughter has been spending her time almost exclusively in your company," she said, her tones cultured and aristocratic.

Kaleah nodded again. "She has, Milady." She almost winced at how her accent, which she never noticed around Jessica, suddenly stood out like a bloodstain on white linen. "I am honored to have been of service to her." She kept her tone polite, but the older woman continued to eye her with an air of mild curiosity overpowered by disdain.

"When I first heard that Jessica had captured a heathen barbarian woman on her latest escapade, and had requested that she be allowed custody of her, I was . . . disappointed." Lady Rose turned and walked over to one of the tapestries hanging on the wall, one depicting scenes of an apparently religious nature. "Disappointed, but not greatly surprised."

She turned back to observe Kaleah again, fixing her with eyes that carried at least a measure of the intensity her daughter’s were capable of. "Jessica has a habit of dragging home every stray she comes across," Lady Rose continued. "Homeless dogs, orphaned fox-cubs, birds with broken wings . . . you name it. Any helpless animal she’s ever found, she’s brought it to the castle and tried to nurse it back to health."

Kaleah struggled to stop her lip from curling into a snarl, not missing the scarcely veiled insult.

Lady Rose sighed, spreading her hands in a gesture of weary patience. "Fortunately, she usually gets bored with them after a few days, and let’s them go again." She fixed Kaleah with an expression of annoyance. "I had hoped that such would be the case with you, Kaleah. But apparently, Jessica’s interest in you has proven to be more than simply . . . transient. For whatever reason, you have maintained her interest more than anything else ever has." She paused for effect. "Frankly, I am becoming concerned with this continued relationship."

Kaleah let an eyebrow raise into her bangs. "No disrespect, Milady," she said slowly, "but my company does not harm your daughter. Our relationship — such as it is — seems . . ." She struggled to find the right word. ". . .beneficial, for us both."

"Oh really?" Lady Rose raised an eyebrow in perfect immitiation of the way Jessica did. "I would have thought a woman with your history would have preferred a life without such servitude."

Kaleah recognized that she was being baited, and felt again the years of practicing to remain calm and controlled surge forward to stop her from simply jumping forward and ringing this woman’s neck. "I guess old habits die hard," she said softly, with thinly veiled malice.

"I understand my daughter gave you your freedom," Lady Rose continued. "And yet you remain here. I was thinking that perhaps, with your freedom restored to you, it might be time to consider moving on. My daughter will tire of you eventually, believe me. It’s only a matter of time. If I may be frank with you . . ." her eyes lost a great deal of their polite facade, ". . . you are no different than the wandering beasts that Jessica tries to care for. My daughter is a young lady of noble birth and breeding. You are beneath her, and I do not believe it to be appropriate for you to remain here as her guest." Her voice had taken on a cold and sharp edge, which was reflected in her gaze. "Do you understand me?"

Kaleah regarded her with a frozen expression for long moments. She considered the older woman’s words carefully, and then nodded once, slowly. "I understand you," she said very softly. "But with all due respect, the decision isn’t yours to make. Jessica has told me I am her guest, not yours. Sir Richard, your husband, has given his approval for my presence. These things taken into consideration, you do not have the right to order me from the castle."

"I know that," Lady Rose acknowledged. "I’m not ordering you out — just giving you my considered advice." She smiled very coldly. "As a friend."

"I see."

Lady Rose turned away and effected to study the tapestry on the wall with great interest. "You know . . ." she said casually, "I heard one of the kitchen maids was injured quite severely a few nights ago. An oil fire broke out in the kitchens, or so I heard. She was badly burned. Quite a terrible accident."

Kaleah’s eyes narrowed, wondering if Lady Rose was going to attempt to link her with the event. "What’s your point?"

"My point?" Dull green eyes regarded her mildly. "I’m merely pointing out that accidents happen. It’s a big castle, after all. It can be a dangerous place for those who are, shall we say, unaccustomed to it’s workings. If you’re going to stay here, you should know that bad things could happen to you as a result."

Ice blue eyes narrowed. "You threaten me?"

"Threaten? Me?" Lady Rose effected a look of offended shock. "Of course not, my dear. I am sincere in my desire to keep you safe from any harm — and my daughter safe from elements that might be . . . undesirable."

Kaleah was still for long moments, her face a carefully blank mask. "Are we done here?"

Lady Rose nodded. "I think you understand me," she said softly.

"Oh, I understand you, Milady," Kaleah whispered in a voice thick with suppressed emotion. "But before I go, I will say this; in my life, I have met some of the most vicious, evil and twisted creatures ever to take human form. I have been exposed to their cruelties and have suffered much at their hands." She let the snarl come now as she let the full weight of her presence fill the room, enjoying a moment of intense satisfaction as the Lady Rose took a hesitant step back.

"Wh-what’s your point?" she stammered, her face less certain now.

Kaleah smiled a feral smile that twisted the scar on her lips in a strange and ugly way. "My point is that, compared to them, anything you could dream up would seem like a minor annoyance to me at worst."

Giving Jessica’s mother a stiff bow that held not a trace of respect, Kaleah turned and stalked out of the ante chamber without looking back. She had more important things to do than waste her time listening to pointless threats. Jessica was her friend. Her only friend. After living so many years with no-one else to share her life, Kaleah wasn’t about to give up the first honest friendship she’d ever known. She had endured pain and torment at the hands of cruel men all her life, and gained nothing in return but a legacy of scars that never healed. She was more than prepared to risk anything to stay with Jessica, and nothing that Lady Rose could do would make her think otherwise.


Lady Rose stood silent and unmoving for several minutes after the barbarian woman left. She had expected the dark-haired savage to be somewhat more amenable to her suggestion; it had not occurred to her that Kaleah would be so loyal to her daughter.

In truth, she admitted to herself, there was something about the savage that frightened her a little. The dark woman possessed a core of animal strength that reeked of violence, an inner power that had slipped away from her momentarily at the end of their conversation. Lady Rose had felt it and been impressed . . . and somewhat intimidated. But if this heathen believed for one minute that she had won, she was mistaken. Lady Rose would not stand idly by as this Godless savage filled her young daughter’s impressionable head with her barbaric ideals. No, there was no doubt about it. Kaleah was a dangerous companion for Jessica, and the more time they spent together, the worse the damage would be. If she would not leave voluntarily, then Lady Rose would just have to convince her.

Still, Kaleah had raised a point that she had not considered. The former slave was not likely to be a soft target. Her body gave silent testimony to the pain she had endured and survived. Lady Rose would never have dreamed of trying to physically intimidate or harm the dark woman herself . . . but that didn’t mean she was above using others to do so.

Considering her plan carefully for a moment — making sure it wasn’t likely to draw the attention of her intelligent daughter in her direction — Lady Rose decided it would do nicely. At the very least, it would let Kaleah know she was serious. Smiling coldly, her eyes mere slits, Lady Rose summoned a soldier and asked him to send for the captain of the guard.


Out in the courtyard, Jessica sat waiting for Kaleah as patiently as she could. To a casual observer, the young blonde might have seemed quite relaxed. She sat on a resting bench, her hands folded in her lap, apparently calm and tranquil. However, to the soldiers who had known her all her life, it was clear that she was nervous and on edge. Her green eyes were constantly moving, and she would often run her fingers through her long hair to sweep it out of her face. Her expression was stormy and troubled, not content, and she tapped her left foot from time to time on the cobble-stone ground.

Should it be taking this long? she wondered, fighting the urge to fidget. Why would her mother want to talk to Kaleah anyway? It was pretty damn obvious she didn’t like the woman. Jessica hated not knowing, hated the feeling that Kaleah might be in trouble, knowing she couldn’t help her friend.

She waited several more minutes. Then, just as she was about to go and retrieve her dark companion, mother or no mother, her roving eyes saw the woman striding toward her down the stone steps. Jessica smiled and rushed over to her.

"Well, what did she want?" she demanded. Kaleah’s expression was hard to read. She had adopted a look of obviously forced nonchalance, but the smile she gave Jessica was genuine enough and warmed the young woman’s heart instantly, making butterflies dance in her stomach.

Kaleah shrugged. "Nothing really," she said casually. "Just wanted to chat."

Jessica narrowed her eyes and stood directly in Kaleah’s path, hands on her hips. "Yeah, right. What did she say?"

Kaleah groaned inwardly, and rolled her eyes. "Honestly, it was nothing-" The expression in the young woman’s eyes stopped her. It was clear she was going to have to give Jessica something plausible, and she knew her friend was sharp enough to spot an outright lie. But that didn’t mean she had to tell her everything. "Okay," she sighed. "Your mother told me she didn’t approve of us spending so much time together."


"And, thought it was time I moved on, and left her precious, high-born daughter alone."

Jessica snorted in a most unladylike fashion, and Kaleah grinned. "What did you tell her?"

"That I was your guest, and that since your father approved of my being here, I wasn’t going anywhere for the time being."

Jessica’s smile touched Kaleah’s soul and wrapped around it tightly. "You actually said that?"

"Yes. She didn’t seem happy about it, but she admitted there wasn’t a lot she could do. It’s not like she can run me off if I don’t want to go."

"That’s right," Jessica grinned and gave her tall companion a quick, shy hug that was not rejected. "Not while I’m around."

Kaleah coughed and decided it was time to change the subject. "Well . . . before we were interrupted, I believe we were talking about our trip into the village tonight."

Jessica’s smile faltered. "I’m still not really sure we should . . ."

"Oh come on." Kaleah slapped the blonde playfully. "With all the stories I’ve heard about you, I’d have thought you’d be the one dragging me into town."

"I’m not that bad." Jessica protested half-heartedly.

"Riiiight." A dark eyebrow raised in delicious challenge. "You know, if you’re too scared I could just go by myself."

"Scared!?" Jessica’s eyes flared. She knew what her friend was doing, but couldn’t stop the competitive fires from bursting to life within her. She had always felt compelled to prove herself to those people whose opinions mattered to her. Before there had only ever really been her father and Sir Miles, but now she knew she wanted Kaleah’s respect and admiration as well. She glared at the dark woman. "Alright," she growled through clenched teeth. "We’ll go."

"Great!" Kaleah clapped her hands once, and started dragging her shorter companion back to their rooms.

"Wait! I thought we were going to do some training."

"We’ll come back, if there’s time," Kaleah told her. "Right now, we have to plan exactly what we’re going to do. We have to organize our disguises, and how we get in and out of the castle, and things like that. How much money do you have?"

"Why?" Jessica let herself be dragged along.

"Because we’ll need money to buy food and something to drink," Kaleah explained. "It’s a tavern, afterall. They won’t let us just sit there in the warmth unless we buy something. Oh, and we’ll need to make sure the kitchen doesn’t send our dinner up to us like they usually do; we’ll be gone as soon as it gets dark."

Jessica sighed. And I thought I was bad. She had a feeling this plan was going to lead to nothing but trouble.


Chapter 8.

It turned out that Jessica’s feeling of trepidation and concern lasted about as long as it took for Kaleah to take them both back to the younger woman’s bedroom. Kaleah continued to talk, pointing out various things to be considered for their little expedition that Jessica ceased listening too after a while. The more the young blonde thought about this, the more excited she became. Just think. . . she would be going into the peasant village disguised as one of them! It was certain to be quite an experience.

They left as soon as the sun went down. Jessica procured a couple of outfits from the kitchen servants that were ragged but still warm enough to combat the bite from winter’s jaws of ice and snow. They made sure their clothes came complete with hoods; as Kaleah pointed out, Jessica’s fair and beautiful features had nobility written all over them.

Although the village was only a few miles from the castle and they could easily walk the distance, Jessica insisted that they ride. Kaleah protested that none of the peasants would own horses except for a few heavy work animals, but Jessica was adamant.

"We can leave them tied up just outside of town," she argued. "No-one will bother them, and we’ll pick them up on the way back. There’s no way I’m walking miles through the cold night so I can sit in some dirty tavern. We ride, or we don’t go at all."

So in the end, of course, they rode.

The ride was bitterly cold. A wind had sprung up out of nowhere, and it cut through their ragged garb as though it wasn’t even there. They stopped a few hundred feet from the edge of the village, tying off the horses outside an abandoned barn a short way from the rutted track that continued into town. Then they walked the remaining distance, stopping as they reached the first thatched building that served as a home for a peasant family. From deeper inside the village boisterous music played, and the two friends smiled at one another.

Jessica was about to continue on when Kaleah grabbed her arm and pulled her back. "Wait!"


Kaleah pushed the hood from her friends face and scowled. The full moon illuminated Jessica’s clean, soft features clearly. "We can’t go in with you looking like that," she said.

"Why not?"

"Because you look as though you’ve bathed in the last three days."

Blonde brows furrowed. "That’s because I have," Jessica observed wryly.

"Exactly. No peasant can afford such a luxury, Jessica. They’d spot you in an instant as nobility. Here . . ." She reached down and scooped up a small handful of mud. "This’ll do the trick . . ."

Jessica pulled away and glared at her companion. "You’re not serious!?"

Kaleah nodded. "If it makes you feel any better, you get to do the same thing to me."

Jess considered this, and a slow smile crept across her face. "Okay," she allowed, leaning forward to let Kaleah rub the dirt and mud gently into her face. "I guess that’s worth it."

Kaleah grinned, trying to be as gentle as possible. When she was done, she studied her friend’s now not-so-clean face in the moonlight. "Not perfect, but it’ll do." The young woman was still painfully beautiful even with the additional grime. Kaleah knew that no amount of mud could ever make Jessica look like just another peasant. "Better keep your face covered up, though," she added as an afterthought as Jessica reached out with her own handful of mud, her expression perhaps a little too eager for Kaleah’s tastes.

"My turn," the blonde said with a grin as she began to enthusiastically cover the dark woman’s face liberally.

"Easy." Kaleah warned. "Don’t get any in my eyes."

"Sorry." Jessica slowed down, not wanting to hurt her friend. She unconsciously cupped Kaleah’s cheek as she finished, stroking the scar on her lips slowly. She had no idea why she liked doing that so much, but the gesture somehow made her feel more connected to the dark woman.

When she realized what she was doing, Jessica quickly drew her hand away, avoiding the blue eyes that regarded her with gentle intensity. She reprimanded herself mentally, but knew she couldn’t help it. The chemistry between her and the dark woman was growing stronger, drawing them together like two lodestones. "I, uh. I think you’re done."

Kaleah studied her young friend a moment longer. She liked the feeling of intimacy that Jessica’s repeated gesture brought, and for a split second, it was on the tip of her tongue to ask her to continue. When she realized what she was thinking, Kaleah scolded herself. Better lay off the drink tonight, she noted. You don’t want to go loosing your inhibitions while you’re feeling like this.

Once Kaleah had herself back under control, she smiled and patted Jessica on the arm. "Okay. Let’s go." They stood up and headed slowly towards the source of the music. "You brought money, right?"

Jessica patted the fat pouch tied at her hip, just next to the short slender blade she’d chosen to carry for protection. Her own sword was too long and conspicuous for this adventure, but she was adept with any edged weapon, and felt safer being armed.

Kaleah nodded when she heard the clink of the coins. "Good. Just remember; we go in, I’ll find us a table, and we sit down. Don’t stare at anything, just be casual. Try not to say too much. If we stay in the background and don’t attract any attention, we can listen to everyone, right?"

Jessica nodded. Her body was tense and thrumming with excitement. Her green eyes darted everywhere, taking it all in. She had only ever seen this place in passing, and she tried to remember every detail.

After a minute or two, they finally came to the source of the lively music. Jessica studied the large building with avid curiosity. It was bigger than most of the other structures in the village. The wooden shutters on the windows were open, and light and sound poured from within. Smoke rose from a central chimney, writhing into the chilly night sky like phantom demons. Jess smiled and tried to calm herself down, taking her cue from Kaleah. Even though she was sure the dark woman was typically nervous — as she always was when anticipating company — Kaleah still managed to appear bored and unimpressed by her surroundings.

Jessica pulled her hood about her face and caught up her friends larger hand. Meeting the dark woman’s eyes, which had turned a deep purple shade in the moonlight, she grinned playfully. "Shall we . . .?"

Kaleah returned the grin and nodded, bracing herself mentally for the challenge of being around so many people.

"This should be fun," she heard the young blonde say as she led them into the village tavern.


The inside of the tavern was smoky, loud, and very, very warm. Jessica, unprepared for the heat radiating from a fireplace in the center of the large common-room, blinked in surprise and stopped completely in her tracks. Kaleah promptly bumped into her.

The place was fairly full of people, but there were a few tables still unattended. A group of peasants were playing their music from a small, raised stage at the back of the room, and everyone appeared to be happy and friendly. And apparently, she added, quite talkative, too.

That made sense, she supposed. Winter was a time when the peasants stayed largely indoors. The crops had been harvested last season, and planting would not begin till spring, which left the dreary, cold months of winter for such activities as weaving, sewing, and trying to stay alive. Firewood had to be gathered from time to time, but apart from that, Jessica realized the peasants would likely see little of each other during the winter apart from such social gathering as this. It was understandable, therefore, that they would want to make the most of their time together.

Kaleah pointed to a far wall. "Over there," she said, speaking directly into Jessica’s ear to be heard over the din of dozens of people all talking and arguing. Jessica looked, and saw an empty table that sat in an area of relative shadow.

She nodded approvingly. "Looks good." A few people gave them curious looks as they moved through the tavern, but nothing more. They were, after all, just another couple of strangers. And being women, they weren’t likely to be dangerous . . . not like the mercenaries or bandits who would stop by sometimes.

They sat down and studied the room together. While Jessica’s eyes were filled with innocent curiosity, her companion’s were not so naive. Kaleah scanned quickly for anyone who would be likely to cause them trouble, and immediately noticed a group of three rough looking men sitting at the other end of the room. By their dress and the weapons they carried prominently, she recognized them as fighting men. Not bandits, she decided — their equipment was too well-kept. Mercenaries, then. They hadn’t noticed her and Jessica yet, but it was only a matter of time. She made a mental note to keep an eye on them.

It wasn’t long before a barmaid came over and gave them both an appraising glance. "What can I get you?" she asked.

Kaleah ordered stew and bread for both of them, and a couple of ale’s. She gestured for Jessica to pay the woman, which she did, handing over the requisite coins with a shy smile and a "Thank you." The barmaid returned the smile and left, but Kaleah noticed with some amusement that her eyes lingered over Jessica’s face and figure for a long moment.

Apparently I’m not the only one in town with an appreciation of such things.

"You ordered ale?" Jessica asked when the barmaid left.

"Sure. Is that a problem?"

Jessica blushed a little. She didn’t want to seem like a child in front of Kaleah, but she wasn’t going to pretend to be any more worldly than she actually was. "I’ve just . . . well, I’ve never . . . you know?"

Kaleah caught on and smiled in understanding. "Not a big drinker, huh?"

Jessica’s blush deepened. "Not really," she said. "I have wine during festivals, but . . ."

"Don’t worry," Kaleah reassured her. "I’m not much for the stuff myself. But a few drinks will take the edge off the cold on the ride home. We might as well enjoy ourselves, since we’re here." She produced a full, dazzling grin which her younger friend returned a little nervously. "So. . . what do you think so far?"

Jessica studied the room and the people in it. The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed. There wasn’t even a hint of danger in the air. There were people of all ages, not just adults, as she had thought there would be, but a few children and quite a number of women, too. Everyone was laughing and having a good time. She smiled, her eyes twinkling merrily in the flickering firelight. "I can’t believe I let my father’s warning keep me from doing this for so long," she said. "This place is great!"

"Uh huh. Just make sure you keep your wits about you," Kaleah warned her, nodding once toward the group of mercenaries. Jessica followed her glance and frowned. "Don’t worry," Kaleah said, sitting back and getting comfortable. "They probably won’t do anything, but it’s good to be sure you know where the danger is, just in case. Okay?"

Jessica understood clearly, and nodded. The place may indeed be friendly, but her friend’s warning reminded her that they weren’t in Da’Gran anymore. There weren’t soldiers at every wall, waiting to protect her if anything should happen. This wasn’t even a battlefield, where her father and his men would always be close by if she got herself in trouble. Here, if she were forced into a confrontation, she had only herself and Kaleah to depend on. And if she got hurt, no-one in Da’Gran knew she was here. She straightened her posture and ordered herself to be more alert.

The waitress returned in short order with their drinks and two bowls of steaming stew. "Here you go." She laid them on the table and gave Jessica a long, appreciative once over. "And if you need anything else . . ." her eyes took on a seductive hue, ". . . anything at all . . . just give me a call."

Jessica just smiled innocently at her from under her hood. "Sure, we will."

Kaleah grinned as the waitress returned the smile and left, her hips swaying a little more than necessary.

Jessica, completely oblivious to the lustful intentions of the attractive bar-maid, tore her stick of bread apart and used it to soak up the thick lamb stew. There were no spoons used here, but she had expected that. Jessica prided herself on being able to survive without the trappings of her nobility, enjoyed the knowledge that she didn’t need all the expensive luxuries that her high birth had given her. Although, she thought, it might be tough to have to live without baths. Even the rich smells from the kitchen in back and the burning wood from the fire couldn’t quite mask the odor of unwashed bodies.

The stew was actually rather good, and Jessica took a hesitant sip of her ale, hoping it would also be agreeable with her. As she tasted the warm, sweet liquid, she smiled in surprise.

Kaleah regarded her with amusement. "Good?"

"Mmmm." She nodded, and took a larger mouthful. It slid down her throat leaving a pleasant sparkly feeling behind. "Nice. Much better than that God-awful whiskey Miles gave me when I went to save you from the storm. I like it."

"I’m glad." Kaleah took a long sip of her own drink, then waited for her friend to follow suit before she mentioned, quite casually, "You know, the barmaid is flirting with you."

Jessica’s ale flew out her mouth and nose as her eyes widened. "What!?"

Kaleah grinned and gave her an innocent look. "You didn’t know?" she asked in mock surprise. Reaching out, she mopped up some of the spat out ale from the table and continued eating her stew. "I thought it was pretty obvious."

"What do you mean, she’s flirting with me?"

"Is flirted the right word?" Kaleah asked, looking as puzzled as she could. "I’m sorry, I sometimes get difficult words confused. I mean she’s . . . attracted to you, and was expressing her interest."

Jessica’s bright green eyes were wide, and her mouth hung open as she looked about the room wildly. No-one was close enough to be able to hear them, and none of the peasants seemed interested in them much at all. "What are you talking about?" she demanded in a hiss, keeping her voice down anyway.

Kaleah sighed and pointed to where the bar-maid was serving a table on the other side of the room. "I’m talking about her," she said. "She likes you, and she was flirting with you."

Jessica’s face was blank and confused. "When?"

"Just before, when she brought our food."

"I didn’t see anything."

"Oh? Well she was checking you out, and from the look on her face, I’d say she liked what she saw." Kaleah’s grin turned rakish. "’If there’s anything at all I can do for you, just call me . . .’" she mimicked the husky, seductive tones of the barmaid, and batted her eyelashes teasingly at the now furiously blushing blonde.

Jessica looked at the barmaid in disbelief. When the girl saw her looking, she threw the young blonde a smile and winked.

It was true!

"Oh my God!"

Kaleah chuckled. "What’s the matter?" she asked, patting her friend on the hand. "She’s right, you’re very pretty. This can’t be the first time someone’s looked at you like that."

"Well . . . sure, but um, you know, it’s not . . . she’s a -"

"A woman?"

Jessica nodded, feeling very flustered and embarrassed by the now suddenly obvious attention of the barmaid.

Kaleah just grinned, though her friend’s reaction wasn’t quite what she might have wanted. "It’s just a preference," she said softly, deciding it wouldn’t do to tease the young woman too much. "Bet you don’t get to hear about that sort of thing locked up in Da’Gran, huh princess?" Her smile was still playful.

"No, it’s not that," Jessica blurted, taking another long sip of ale while trying to get her blush to go away. Her eyes watered a little as the amber liquid slid down her throat. "I’ve heard about that sort of thing. I just never realized . . . you know. I didn’t think that anyone so close would be . . . well . . ."

Kaleah’s eyes widened in surprise. "You know that women can be intimate with other women?"

Jessica shrugged. "Sure," she said off-handedly. "I told you, I read a lot. There were a few things about women like that in one or two of the stories I bought." She decided Kaleah didn’t need to know that she deliberately sought out such tales, or that ‘one or two’ was actually twenty or thirty. Such details were unimportant.

Kaleah could only nod. "Oh." She supposed she should have known.

"I’ve never had a woman actually say anything to me," Jessica continued. "Of course, I’ve never really been around other women outside the castle." She gave Kaleah a helpless, lost look. "What should I do?"

Kaleah shrugged. "Just be polite, and when she asks if she can do anything else for you, just say thanks, but you’ll be fine. She’ll see you’re not interested, and accept it." She paused for a long moment, then added with a saucy grin, "Unless, of course, you’re interested in getting more of an education tonight than we planned on." Jessica’s face was a picture of embarrassed shock, and Kaleah enjoyed her expression thoroughly. "In which case, all you have to do is say, yes, you’re interested in what her duties are after the tavern closes down for the night, and maybe she could-"

"I am not interested," Jessica hissed, the blush back in full force.

"Well fine." Kaleah smiled innocently. "She’s not going to bite your head off just because you reject her advances."

"But . . . I don’t know how to." Jessica gave her best impression of a lost puppy.

Kaleah sighed, and drank from her mug. "Would you like me to deal with it?" she asked.

Jessica’s face lit up. "Would you?"

"Sure. I think I know just the way to send her the right message."

"Thank you." Jessica looked almost comically relieved. Throwing the still watching barmaid a nervous smile, she returned to her stew and tried to concentrate on the conversations going on around them.

Unfortunately, Jessica quickly found that it was hard to listen to the people. There were so many voices all talking at once, it was impossible to catch more than fleeting snippets of their conversations. And what she did hear was nothing she didn’t already know.

The topic most of the people seemed to be discussing wasn’t the situation at Da’Gran; the young girl realized quickly the peasants had more immediate concerns than the politics of their rulers. The bandits that tended to raid Sir Richard’s lands were worse than usual this winter, congregating in dangerously large numbers. The peasants knew Da’Gran soldiers were doing the best they could, but from what Jessica made out the patrols weren’t enough to stem the danger.

Kaleah, who had stopped her teasing and was listening too, leaned closer. "Is this sort of thing normal?"

Jess shrugged. "Bandits are nothing new, no. I guess you know we try to deal with them quickly." She smirked at her friend. "But we usually manage to keep things under control." Her expression grew a little more serious. "I knew there were more raiders than we typically get. . . but it sounds pretty bad."

Soon, the two friends finished their drinks and Kaleah gestured for the barmaid to bring another round. Since the girl was keeping one eye fixed enticingly on Jessica, it was easy to get her attention and she returned quickly with two full mugs. Setting them on the table, she gave the young blonde — who was blushing furiously and trying unsuccessfully to keep her eyes from staring at the barmaid’s more well displayed attributes — a radiant smile.

"Will that be all?" the buxom girl asked. Seeing where Jessica’s gaze was fixed, she placed her hands on her hips and thrust herself even further forward.

Kaleah just smiled, then reaching over, she put her hand firmly over her friends and leaned closer into Jessica, her posture protective. "We’ll be fine for the time being," she said, forcing the barmaid to take her eyes off the young blonde. Her tone was unmistakably possessive, and she saw the girl falter for a moment.

The barmaid studied them, her eyes going from their clasped hands to the defensive way Kaleah was leaning against her friend. Then, she gave a little shrug, her smile returning as she transferred her attention to Kaleah. "No problem." Her tone was still husky. "If you think of anything later, I’ll be here all night." Her eyes became hooded as she regarded them both with a sensual smile. "Once everyone leaves, it usually takes me an hour or so to clean up. I could always use a little company . . . the more the merrier . . ."

Kaleah didn’t even blink. Not quite what I had in mind, but . . . "Some other time, perhaps," she said, letting a slight smile play across her lips and giving the girl a wink she was sure Jessica wouldn’t see. Hell, there was no point burning bridges, especially if she was going to be staying at Da’Gran for a long time. Her feelings for her young friend were getting stronger, and her body was starting to get more anxious about a few things. Just because she couldn’t proposition Jessica didn’t mean she had to go the rest of her life without physical companionship, even if it wasn’t with the person she wanted.

The barmaid, reading the hidden promise in her gesture, smiled even broader and wandered off to continue with her duties. Kaleah gave herself a mental pat on the back, and picked up her mug. When she turned to Jessica, she found the young woman staring at her, mouth hanging open.


"What was all that about!?" Jessica demanded, still blushing.

Kaleah shrugged. "You said you wanted me to handle it, right? Well, I doubt she’ll be bothering you anymore. What’s the problem?"

Jessica tried to say something, but for several moments found she could not produce words. Eventually, she managed to figure out a sentence. "Now she thinks that we’re . . . we’re . . ."

"Lovers? So what?"

Jessica tried to say something, but it was impossible to argue with the dark eyebrow that raised deliciously, daring her to challenge the fact that the idea had worked — in a roundabout way. After a long moment of struggling, she just snorted at her friend, and took another sip of her ale.

Kaleah studied the girl carefully for long moments, trying to gauge her reaction. Jessica didn’t seem offended by the idea of women being together with other women. Rather, she seemed embarrassed about the topic. That made sense, she supposed. Although she might be worldly about some matters, Jessica was still painfully innocent in a great many ways. At least she didn’t seem to have been infected with the vicious hatred the religion in this country encouraged against such people. That in itself was pretty surprising, though very characteristic of the young woman.

Finishing the last of her stew, she regarded the young blonde seriously. "Does it bother you that I let her think that?"

Jessica met her steady gaze for a moment, then looked away. "I guess not. I mean, not really," she said quietly. "I just thought you were going to discourage her a little differently. Like I said, I know about that stuff, and it doesn’t bother me. You just surprised me, that’s all."

Kaleah smiled. Jessica wasn’t upset about her little joke. "Sorry. I didn’t mean to," she lied. "I gotta say, it didn’t work like I thought it would. Now she seems interested in both of us."

"Yeah, what’re you planning to do about that?"

Kaleah grinned mysteriously and shrugged. "No harm in letting her be interested," she said, her eyes studying the girl now serving a group of peasants in the far corner of the common-room. "She’s pretty enough, afterall, and I’m not likely to get a better offer any time soon."

Jessica stared at her, her mug frozen half-way to her mouth. "Are you serious?"

"Only half," she allowed. Jessica didn’t need to know she was actually considering a future rendezvous with the serving girl. "She is attractive, afterall. If I was in the market — which I’m not particularly — I could do a lot worse." She saw the open-mouthed expression of surprise on Jess’s face, and smiled wryly. "Shut your mouth if you’re not going to drink."

Jessica shut her mouth with an audible snap, but continued staring at Kaleah as the dark woman sipped her ale slowly. The young blonde could hardly believe what she was hearing! Was Kaleah saying that she was . . . interested in women? In that way? It sure sounded like it. Before her mind could begin to lay the groundwork for any of the pictures it wanted to draw for her, Jessica reminded herself firmly that, even if Kaleah did like women in that way, it didn’t change the fact that the dark woman had never expressed any interest in her.

Kaleah noticed her still staring, and raised an eyebrow. "What now?"

She shook herself away from her rather bitter contemplation’s of what might — but could never — be. "N-nothing," she stammered, taking a drink to cover her nervousness. Silence reined for a few minutes before she could stand it no longer and simply asked, "So, you’re saying that . . . she’s," she indicated the barmaid, "the sort of person you might be attracted to? If you were looking for someone?"

Kaleah took her time considering exactly how much to say. She regarded Jessica seriously, holding her eyes and not letting go. "She might be," she replied quietly. "On a strictly physical level . . . maybe."

Jessica thought that through, and nodded slowly. "So . . . you like women? Sexually?"

"I thought you said you weren’t bothered by the idea," Kaleah observed, her eyes maintaining their intense hold on Jessica.

"I’m not," Jessica said quickly. "I just didn’t know. And before you go saying it’s none of my business, I know that too. But you have to admit . . ." she smiled a little, ". . . it’s kind of a surprise to find out about." The blonde saw fear and apprehension flash across Kaleah’s face for a second, recognized it for what it was.

"This . . . doesn’t change anything, does it?" Kaleah asked softly. "I mean, we’re still friends, right?"

Jessica looked faintly insulted. "Of course," she said. "Why wouldn’t we be?"

Kaleah shrugged and looked away, drinking half her mug of ale in one swallow. "I just thought . . . The Church here-"

"You thought I might suddenly figure you were a sick, sinful barbarian afterall, and banish you forever, huh?" Jessica grinned playfully and mock-punched the dark woman gently in the arm. "You may be a barbarian, Kaleah, but if I was gonna banish you because of that, I’d have done it a long time ago. Could’ve saved myself a lot of trouble, saving your butt from the storm and all."

Kaleah laughed lightly and finished off her second ale. "I guess so." She was glad Jessica didn’t mind about her preference. Still, she reminded herself and the rising desire that ran through her loins, that didn’t mean the girl shared her tastes. It might be harmless to fantasize, but anything else would be inappropriate, and could destroy the only friendship she’d ever had in her life.

Sitting the mug down on the table, the former slave decided she’d had enough ale for one evening. While Kaleah had had little experience with alcohol, she’d had enough to know her limits. Although she was tall, she was thin, and lightly muscled. Intoxicants went right to her head, and the ale was rather strong. Anymore, and she might be tipsy enough to say or do something to give away her feelings.

A sudden crude comment shouted from across the room drew her attention to another reason to stop drinking. The three mercenaries had apparently noticed the presence of the two young women, and one of them had just called out his suggestion of a possible evenings entertainment. Kaleah felt her blood start to rise in anger, her vision dull. Taking a deep breath, she stilled her natural instinct to rush over and kill the men where they sat laughing. Jessica, sensing the energy that thrummed through her tense body, reached over and laid a restraining hand on her arm.

"They’re just words," the young blonde said reassuringly. "They can’t hurt us."

Kaleah struggled with her temper, and managed to gain a firm grip on it. "The words might not hurt us," she whispered, "but what if they take it further because I don’t stop it now." She met the clear green eyes of her companion as she gently removed the hand that was now rubbing her arm soothingly. "Better to deal with it before the ale makes them bolder."

"You don’t have to." Jessica’s eyes beseeched her to stay calm.

"I do." She smiled as she got to her feet. The comments and hollering from the drunk mercenaries increased as the men saw her rise. She patted Jessica on the shoulder. "It’s okay, I’ll stay calm. I don’t always loose control, you know. Relax." She fixed the men with an icy stare that was colder and more dangerous than the winter chill outside. "Be back in a minute."


Striding over, aware that most of the conversation in the common-room had died down and the music stopped, Kaleah planted herself in front of the largest and most imposing of the grinning men. Using her height to good advantage, she looked down at him, a thin smile on her lips, her eyes like steel.

"Something you wanted?" she asked, setting her hands on her hips and serupticously sliding a hand under her peasant robes, wrapping long fingers around the hilt of a hidden dagger. She could feel the nervous eyes watching her and cursed inwardly. Damn! They were trying to keep this low-key. But it couldn’t be helped. These men were drinking hard, and would make more trouble later if they weren’t cut down to size now.

The big mercenary looked up at her with bleary, bloodshot eyes, a dull grin on his face revealing surprisingly even teeth. "Well, you’d be a fine start for now," he leered, licking his lips disgustingly. "We can get to your friend over there later . . . if she don’t mind waiting, that is. We’ll try be quick for her."

His companions laughed and slapped him on the back, adding a few comments of their own. Kaleah ignored them and focused on keeping her temper down. The man was too stupid to be aware of the coiled tension pulsing through the object of his lustful desires. He didn’t notice the cold, steady and utterly fearless expression on the face of the former slave. His drunk mind barely registered the flash of movement as Kaleah’s right hand shot out from her side in a fluid motion as swift as a diving falcon.

. . . But he wasn’t so drunk that he didn’t feel the press of cold steel against his neck, nor fail to recognize what it portended.

"You’d want to quicker than me then, wouldn’t you," Kaleah whispered softly, her eyes darting to the man’s companions as they realized what was happening and reached belatedly for their weapons. She stepped behind the man and twisted the dagger menacingly, drawing a single drop of blood. "He’ll be dead before you can save him," she promised coldly. "And you’ll be close behind. Hand’s on the table, or I end this badly for you right now."

The men studied her for a moment, gauging her ability to carry out the threat. Seeing her strong stance and confidant expression, they snarled and did as she ordered, placing their hands slowly on the table top, fingers spread open, palms down. The man she held swallowed in fear, the blade biting into his skin.

Kaleah nodded. "Good. Now, what do you say we deal with this as adults? I don’t want to hurt you, and you don’t either. Am I right?"

They nodded, watching her suspiciously. Their slightly addled brains were still trying to figure out who she was. She looked like a peasant, but no peasant was this fast or skilled. They recognized now that it was too late how dangerous she was, and each man wished momentarily they’d picked a softer target for their sport.

Kaleah was well aware of the thoughts that were passing through their minds, and she grinned. "My friend and I were trying to enjoy a peaceful dinner and the chance to escape from the cold," she said softly, keeping her voice low and carefully even. "We don’t take kindly to having our evening interrupted by the likes of you gentlemen. I’m certain you can appreciate that."

The men nodded.

"Good." She gave them a cold smile and cast a swift glance over to Jessica. The blonde was watching with a look of concern on her face. It was probably best to wrap this up quickly and quietly, before she attracted even more attention.

"We don’t want any trouble, but we’re quite ready to deal with any that finds us, as you can see." She twisted the knife a little, drawing a gasp from the frozen mercenary. "I’m certain that now you’ve had the time to consider everything more thoroughly, you realize that you don’t particularly have any interest in either myself or my friend over there . . . right?"

Again, the men bobbed their heads in mute agreement.

"Excellent," Kaleah purred. "Then I think we can forget this whole incident ever took place." She slowly released the man from the paralyzing touch of the dagger, which vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Free once more, the big mercenary moved quickly away from her and ran his hand thankfully across his neck, making sure it was still there. He scowled when he saw the blood on his fingers, but made no move to attack her.

Kaleah gave the men a confidant smile and a slight bow. "I’m glad we understand each other," she said softly, before turning and walking with feline grace back to her companion. Taking her seat, she patted Jessica on the shoulder reassuringly, and stared intently at nothing until the people in the tavern resumed their conversations.

"You alright?" asked Jessica nervously, reaching out to touch her friend, seeking contact to reassure herself.

Kaleah smiled and nodded. "Fine," she said. "I told you, I can be calm when I want to be. They were no problem." She looked around and saw a few curious inspections coming from the peasants. "I think we may have lost a bit of our inconspicuous cover though," she sighed. "I hope you’re not disappointed."

"Are you kidding? This was great! I’ve never done anything like this before." Jessica grinned and finished her second ale, giving a hearty belch after a moment of intense concentration. She giggled. "We can always come back another night, right?"

"Sure." Kaleah gave her friend a teasing grin. "And the night wasn’t a total waste. We found out that at least one of the commoners likes you just fine." She waggled her eyebrows and nodded to the barmaid as she passed them, noting the girl was still smiling invitingly.

Jessica saw her look, blushed, then laughed shyly. She was enjoying the night thoroughly, despite the recent unpleasantness. There was a wonderful tingle going through her body that she suspected had something to do with the ale, and she rather liked the way it was making her feel. She had learned something very interesting about her dark friend — something her mind was going to have fun playing with later on, she was sure — and she was sharing the lives of the common-people, if only for a moment. All in all, Jess was having way too much fun to think of heading back to Da’Gran just yet.

Smiling at her companion, she studied her empty mug and said, "I think I’ll have another drink. You want one?"

Oh, yes. The night was still young.


Three hours and five stout mugs later, Jessica was feeling more than just a little tipsy. The room had developed a rather fuzzy quality that perfectly complemented the pleasant lethargy now permeating her whole body, and she was finding it increasingly difficult to stop staring at her friend. With her defenses down, Jessica’s imagination had no trouble at all drawing the erotic pictures it came up with across her mind.

Kaleah had urged the young woman to slow down, but Jessica seemed to have taken a definite liking to ale, and after a while the dark woman gave up trying to discourage her friend. The mercenaries had left soon after their little encounter, and she thought it unlikely there’d be any trouble, so Jessica would be fairly safe. Besides, she smiled to herself. Jessica made about the cutest damn drunk she’d ever seen.

Kaleah nursed her single mug as she watched her blonde companion race ahead, an increasingly silly grin plastered on her beautiful face. The intoxicated girl spent most of the remainder of the evening telling stories to Kaleah . . . which was fine except the tales grew less coherent as the night wore on, and eventually seemed to interconnect and overlap to such a degree that the former slave had no idea what her friend was talking about.

". . . And that was why the princess couldn’t find the ring!" Jessica finished her current story with a flourish, then waited for her friend to give the proper surprised reaction.

Kaleah, who was still trying to figure out when the evil dragon in the story had suddenly morphed into a fair and radiant princess, just smiled and said, "Really? Um . . . great story."

Jessica grinned happily, her whole face lighting up with pleasure, so Kaleah assumed her response had been satisfactory. It was just as well the girl didn’t slur her words too much, Kaleah thought to herself; her stories were hard enough to follow as it was.

"Want to hear another?" Jessica offered enthusiastically. "Wait, I’ll order another drink. . ." Bleary eyes looked around for the barmaid.

Kaleah quickly captured the young woman’s face and forced her eyes back around. "I think you’ve had enough," she said wryly. "It’s late. We should head back to Da’Gran."

Jessica just waved her hands and snorted. "What’re you talking about? The night’s still young."

"The night was young two hours ago, Jess. Almost everyone else has gone home. I think we should . . . too." She trailed off as she realized Jessica was staring at her with an expression of tearful joy. "What?"

"You called me ‘Jess!’" the young blonde cried, throwing herself forward and giving Kaleah an ecstatic hug. "You’ve never called me ‘Jess’ before, only ‘Jessica!’"

Kaleah pried her friend away. "So what?"

Jessica wiped bleary eyes and sniffled a little. "It’s just nice is all," she said softly. She looked around and noticed for the first time that the tavern had emptied significantly. "Everyone went home?"

"Uh huh. And that’s where we’re going as well. Come on." She wrapped an arm around the shorter woman and helped her to her feet. "Can you walk okay?"

Jessica staggered a little, but remained upright. "Of course I can. Why wouldn’t I be able to walk?"

"Never mind. Let’s go." Kaleah leant her a supportive arm and started guiding them towards the tavern door. The barmaid saw her and quickly came over to help. Together, they got Jessica over to the exit and leaned her against the wall.

"Will she be okay?" the serving girl asked, running her eyes over Jessica’s shrouded figure with an expression that was half genuine concern, half uninhibited lust.

"She’ll be fine," Kaleah assured her. "She’s just a little drunk."

Green eyes appeared from under tousled blonde hair, looking quite surprised. "I am?"

Kaleah sighed. "It’s okay, Jess. We’ll get you home, and you can sleep it off. Don’t worry about it." She shifted her weight to better support the shorter woman, grunting a little. Jessica was small, but she was damned heavy.

"You know, you could always stay here the night," the barmaid offered happily. "You could sleep on the floor near the fire, or . . ." her eyes became hooded, "I could offer you a bed in my room, if you like."

Kaleah smiled, but shook her head. "Thanks, but I think she’d be better off if we head out." She noticed slightly unfocused green eyes looking up at her, and a teasing grin that told her Jessica was still sober enough to know what was being offered.

The barmaid shrugged, and ran a hand lingeringly over Kaleah’s arm. "Some other time, maybe?" A suggestively raised eyebrow.

Kaleah tried not to blush, and mostly succeeded. "Sure, maybe."

The girl left with a final seductive smile, returning to her duties. Kaleah got a better grip on Jessica and together they headed back into the icy chill of the outside world.

The wind had died down a little, but was still piercingly cold. All the houses were dark, the people asleep. In the distance, Kaleah heard a hunting dog barking at something, followed by it’s owner yelling at it to shut up. The moon was largely hidden by a bank of clouds, but it was still light enough to see clearly. Taking a moment to get her bearings, the dark woman swiftly figured out which way they needed to go to get back to the horses and they set off.

Jessica pushed her friend away after a few steps. "I can . . . I can walk okay," she said haltingly, her footsteps staggering quite a bit but holding her on a true course.

Kaleah shrugged and let her go. "Suit yourself."

Jessica gave her a rakish look. "What was that last bit you said back there . . . about some other time, maybe?" she asked playfully. "Thought you said you weren’t in the market."

Kaleah flushed. "I was just being polite."

"Oh, is that what you call it? Bet she would’ve liked to find out just how ‘polite’ you could be, huh?" So would you, her mind informed her pointedly.

Kaleah saw by her expression that the young blonde was just teasing, and smiled in return. "Guess so." She shivered in the chill and pulled her shawl closer about her, wishing it were Spring already. The warmer season was apparently only a week or two away, or so Jessica had told her. Kaleah would be happy to see it’s arrival.

"Glad you insisted on us riding out here," she said. "I’d hate to have to walk all the way home. You staggering the way you are, it’d take us all night to get back."

Jessica concentrated hard on her walking and realized she was a little off-kilter. It suddenly occurred to her that she was feeling rather odd, now that she was up and about. The world seemed decidedly skewed. She performed a quick assessment of her body and feelings, and came to the conclusion that she was indeed quite drunk. That realization brought her to an abrupt halt.

"I’m really drunk, aren’t I?" She sounded rather surprised.

Kaleah stopped alongside her, rolling her eyes. "Yes, you are. Come on, the horses are just up ahead. We’ll get you back to Da’Gran and you can sleep it off."

Jessica was looking about herself with an expression of mingled curiosity and trepidation. "My father always told me being drunk was bad," she said, giving Kaleah a confused look. "The soldiers are always complaining about headaches and . . ." she waved her arms about as she searched for a word, "and . . . stuff. But I feel really great. It’s not even cold!"

Kaleah sighed, and tried to get them moving again. "You feel good now," she informed the inebriated girl. "In the morning, you’ll get to feel all the headaches you want, okay? But we have to get back to the castle. Just cause you can’t feel the cold, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Come on."

She managed to prod Jessica back into motion, helping the young woman who was still looking around with detached interest and an expression on her face that Kaleah couldn’t help but find particularly adorable. After a few more minutes of walking, they made it back to the place where they’d left the two horses. Kaleah left Jessica standing on the dirt road while she retrieved the animals, admonishing her friend to stay exactly where she was and not wander off. Thankfully, Jessica adhered to her instructions with drunken intensity, smiling proudly when the dark woman returned leading Andromeda and her own stead.

"I stayed here!" Jessica seemed quite pleased with her simple feat. "Can I move now?"

Kaleah groaned inwardly and made a mental note not to take the young woman drinking too often. She was cute, but apparently required a lot of maintenance. "Sure," she allowed. "Do you think you can ride?"

"Umm . . ." Jessica swayed on her feet and eyed Andromeda doubtfully. The grey mare wandered over and sniffed at her mistress, snorting as she detected the unfamiliar scent of peasant garb and ale. "I, uh . . . I don’t know."

Figuring that meant no, Kaleah brought her own gelding over and stood him next to her friend. "Here, I’ll give you a hand up. You can ride in front of me, and I’ll hold onto you. Andromeda can be led. Okay?" Though she’d never tried riding like this when she had to be the one in control, Kaleah figured it was the only way they’d get back to Da’Gran safely.

Jessica saw what she intended, and nodded. It took a bit to get her mounted, but they managed after a brief struggle with gravity which almost put Jessica back on the ground on the other side of the horse. When she was sure her friend wasn’t going to fall off, Kaleah put her foot in the stirrup and threw a leg over the horse’s broad back just like she’d been practicing all week. The animal jumped a little at the unaccustomed weight, but quickly settled. After a moment to gather up the reins and secure an arm about the waist of the now giggling blonde, Kaleah set off slowly along the road, leading a placid Andromeda behind.

Jessica’s mirth petered out after a while, and she sighed. "I had a really great time tonight," she said, turning to look up at Kaleah. "Thank you for suggesting we come out here."

Kaleah smiled complacently. "No problem. Just don’t drink so much next time. If your father found out about this, he’d have my hide."

Jessica almost made the comment that she could understand why . . . it was a hide worth having, but thankfully the guard in her mind who made sure she didn’t blurt out stupid things finally woke up after a long nap and ordered the words back down her throat before they could escape. Instead, she just said, "I’d have talked him out of doing anything bad to you." She was starting to feel a little drowsy now. The rhythm of the horse’s gait and the warmth of the arm wrapped securely about her waist made her eyelids droop. She fought against the sleepiness. A sudden realization came to her, and she twisted in the saddle.

"How come you’re not feeling like me?" she asked the dark woman accusingly. "You were drinking too."

Kaleah grinned. "I stopped at three," she said wryly. "You just kept going."

"Oh." Jessica considered that for a moment, then snuggled back into the comforting warmth of the woman behind her. "Well, maybe next time we come out here, you could join me."

Kaleah’s grin widened. "We’d never get home in that case," she joked, drawing a chuckle from her companion.

"From the looks that barmaid was giving us, I think she’d be more than happy with that arrangement," the blonde observed through her laughter.

Kaleah blushed and tightened her grip on her squirming friend. "I’m sure she would be," she muttered under her breath. The wind changed direction suddenly, blowing the shawl off Jessica’s head and causing the young woman’s hair to fly back into her face. She fought a sneeze as the blonde tresses tickled her nose. Dropping the reins, she gathered up the hair and twisted it into a coil, handing it to her friend over the young woman’s shoulder. "Hold this."

Jessica stopped laughing and grabbed her hair. "Sorry. Is it bothering you?"

"Not if you keep it out of my face, it isn’t."

Jessica smiled and twisted so she could look up into her friend’s face. Kaleah looked down at her just as the moon appeared from behind the clouds, illuminating both their features in it’s pale silver glow, each to the other.

Jessica was instantly caught and held by the deep purple color Kaleah’s eyes had become. A curious dizzy sensation that had nothing to do with the ale swept over her, making her light-headed and causing her heart to double the tempo of its suddenly loud drumming. She felt herself drawing closer to the dark woman holding her, felt herself almost becoming one with her where they touched. It lasted a long moment, then slowly faded, leaving her with a desperate desire to rekindle the sparks it had sent through her somewhat numb body.

A deliciously raised eyebrow brought her back to the real world, however, and she blushed, realizing she’d been staring.

"Sorry," she mumbled, trying to turn away. The arm around her waist held tight, wouldn’t let her. Dark eyes drew her back to their depths, and she saw a wondering, slightly amused but curious expression on Kaleah’s face. "I didn’t mean to stare, it’s just . . ." Jessica gazed into the wine-colored orbs that twinkled above her, catching the light of the moon and dancing in it’s glow. For a moment she was lost again, but she dragged herself back. She offered a shy, helpless smile and shrugged. "Your eyes turn purple in the moonlight," she finished softly. "They look . . . really pretty. That’s all."

Kaleah studied her for a long moment, then she smiled. "Thanks. Your eyes turn almost clear in the dark." She let her friend turn around, and nuzzled her hair, smelling lavender and vanilla. "They look pretty, too."

Jessica smiled and settled herself back again into the softness of Kaleah’s body, sighing comfortably. "I’m awful tired," she murmered sleepily. "Tomorrow’s Sunday, so we can rest which is good. Maybe we could go exploring."

"Maybe," Kaleah said with a knowing smile. She doubted very much that the young blonde would be in the mood to do a whole lot of anything in the morning, but at least it would make her think twice about ordering another drink next time they wandered into the village.

Chuckling silently, the dark woman led the horses quietly around to the rear side of the great castle and, finding the gap that would allow them access, silently snuck back inside. All in all, she reflected, it had been a good — and rather interesting — night.

She hoped the morning would be equally entertaining.


Continued in Part 3.

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