Kaleah lay on the bed, one arm wrapped loosely around her companion, feeling the solid, comforting weight of the young womans head resting on her chest. In truth, the numerous bruises across her body were starting to hurt, but she would have endured a thousand times worse pain just to feel this kind of peace.
Never before had Kaleah felt so protected, so loved. Never before had she trusted another person so completely that she could just let them be so near her. Always before, the barriers had slammed down to protect her from harm. But this, this simple, wonderful thing that had built between her and the young woman she held in her arms this was something she could believe in. Something she wanted so badly that she would die before she let it go.
Kaleah had never known a person like Jessica, someone who could give so freely of herself and demand nothing in return. Someone who would let Kaleah be whoever she wanted to be, and would always support her. Jessica had shown her how empty her life had been how empty her freedom had been by showing her a life she had never known she was capable of living. The young woman had trusted Kaleah with her most treasured secret, invited her into her private, personal places, and had never asked for anything in return except the chance to be her friend.
Perhaps, she pondered, it was time to show the same faith in return.
"Jess?" she whispered, struggling to keep her voice from breaking. "Are you asleep?"
The young woman wriggled. "No . . . but you should be. You need to rest, Kaleah. Your body needs to heal-"
"Ive been sleeping all day," Kaleah pointed out. "Im really not tired. A-are you?"
Jessica yawned, but shook her head. "No, Im alright. Ill stay awake and keep you company, if you like."
Kaleah lay quietly, eyes open but unseeing. She knew she needed to do this, knew this obstacle had to be overcome before she could ever consider herself worthy of this young womans love. But for long moments, her throat closed up and refused to let any words form. Her mind tried desperately to shut down, to block out the memories that were filled with so much pain it still hurt, all these years later. But with an effort, the former slave slowly controlled herself, relaxing her muscles. Summoning a calm, detached tone that shielded her from her own words, Kaleah started to speak in a voice so quiet, it fell into the silence like raindrops falling on a lake.
"Its funny, the things the mind chooses to remember. I remember the day the slavers came," she whispered, feeling Jessica tense against her. "I cant remember how I felt. I cant remember the faces of my family . . . I dont even know if they were there. But I can remember that the sun was shining in the sky. I can remember the smell of the wildflowers that Id tied into a chain and hung around my neck. And I can even remember that a moment before the men grabbed me, a hawk flying overhead gave a piercing cry. So many things that dont really matter . . . but for some reason, I can remember them perfectly instead of the things I want to be able to."
Realizing where this was going, Jessica looked up, her eyes gentle and sad. "You dont have to do this," she whispered.
"I know. But I need to." Kaleah struggled for a moment, wanting her friend to understand. "Do you remember when you showed me the secret passages through the castle? You let me see the places you keep hidden from everyone else. I told you that some day . . . Id do the same for you."
"But theres no hurry. If youre not ready-"
"I am," she interrupted gently. "I want you to hear." She gave a little, sad smile. "My secrets arent as nice as yours are, Im afraid. But I need to be able to show you . . . to show you that I trust you."
"Oh, Kaleah!" Jess reached out and stroked her face. "I know you trust me. You dont need to prove yourself to me."
"I know that," Kaleah breathed. "But I need to prove it to myself." She looked deeply into the wet emerald gaze of her friend. "Do you understand?"
Jessica was silent a long moment, then nodded slowly and lay back on her friend. "I understand," she whispered.
"Thank you." Kaleah sighed and, after a moment to get comfortable, she looked up at the ceiling, her eyes not seeing the beauty of the mural above the bed, but instead looking back into a past she had tried hard to forget.
"I know I lived on the coast," she whispered, "because the slavers came from the sea. They had two ships . . . but I cant remember much about them. I know they took others, but I didnt know anybody else. They took me onto one of the ships, chained me in the galley, and left me.
"When I was finally allowed on the deck, we were already far out to sea. I couldnt have escaped at that point if Id tried. I was young. . . ten years old or so, at most. I couldnt understand what was happening to me. Where were they taking me? Where were my parents? I guess I must have been terrified, but . . . but I cant remember. The slavers spoke a language I didnt understand, and it took a while for me to learn enough to get by. Since I was too young to be of any use at hard labor, they put me to work in the kitchens . . . cooking meals, cleaning up. The work never seemed to end. I was in a stupor . . . like everything around me wasnt quite real. The only time I let myself feel anything was when they beat me. I couldnt block out the pain of the lash, however hard I tried."
She was quiet again for a minute or two, just remembering. Then, breathing deeply, she continued. "I served on the ship for a long time. I guess I sort of got used to my life after a while. Compared to what came later, those years werent so bad, really. I was just a child, and they had little interest in the children as long as we worked hard, and did as we were told." She sighed. "But things had to change eventually. My body grew up . . . and after a while, the slavers decided the gold they could get from selling me on the stocks was worth more to them than my services as a kitchen-hand could ever be." Her voice was dead, her eyes vacant as they stared into a time long since past. "So they took me to a city . . . and they auctioned my innocence to the highest bidder."
Jessica listened in horror, her heart breaking at the lifeless tone in her friends voice. She tried to imagine what it must have been like for Kaleah; to be so young, and to have something so personal and intimate be regarded as little more than sales incentive. She couldnt do it. Her mind just wouldnt wrap itself around such a barbaric, hideous concept. Jessica knew she had lived a charmed life compared to her friend . . . she was only now starting to realize just how terrible Kaleahs life had been.
She tried to think of a way to comfort the dark woman . . . to come up with a way she could make this pain go away. But she knew now as she had known all along that there was nothing she could say or do to erase the past. "Im so sorry," she whispered, her voice strained with emotion. The words sounded so weak against the brutality of Kaleahs story . . . but she felt she had to say something.
Kaleah gave her a sad smile, and shrugged a little. "I know."
Jessica saw the lost look in the dark womans face, and tears sprang from her eyes, flowing unchecked down her cheeks. On a deep, almost primitive level, she understood that this pain Kaleahs pain was being made her pain as well. The love that bound her to this woman was helplessly seeking to take on the pasts heavy burden the only way it could . . . by making it a part of her. She wept silently, wanting to stop Kaleahs story and the anguish it brought to them both, but knowing in her soul that she had to hear this. There was healing to be found in the sharing of suffering . . . she had leaned that herself on the battlefield.
"The . . . first time was . . . painful," Kaleah continued, her voice almost breaking. "I had no knowledge of sex . . . I was terrified by the experience. I felt . . . violated, in a way that nothing the slavers had done had ever made me feel. The next few weeks were very bad, but some of the other women my master owned tried to help me as best they could. They showed me how to take my mind away from the pain . . . how to cope with the humiliation. Eventually, I learned that if I was compliant, the ordeal would be over with sooner. A few months later, my master sold me to a man who owned a whore-house. I was . . . not as lucky as some others. Men considered me attractive because I had blue eyes with dark features. There were few women like me in that land, so I became the star of my new masters business.
"Over time, I was trained further in how to pleasure my masters clients. I was punished if I did not . . . perform, well." She spat the word out, still hating the taste of it. "Some beatings were worse than others . . . but I almost preferred the pain of a few bruises to some of the alternatives. I never got used to my life, but I learned how to make myself numb to what was happening to me. I pretended that none of it was real, that it was happening to some other person, and I was just observing. But at night . . ." Her voice cracked a little, and she cleared her throat. ". . .At night . . . I couldnt stop it from hurting.
"Over the next few years, I was passed from one place to another . . . mostly whore-houses, but not all. Some of my owners were . . . very bad, but some of them were alright. Some actually treated me like a human being . . . simple things like being fed properly, being allowed to sleep in peace. But there werent many like that, and I was never with them for long."
"Didnt you ever . . . you know . . . try to escape?" Jessica asked quietly.
Kaleah gave a short, sharp bark of laughter, her eyes flaring with sudden anger. "Thats what most people ask," she said bitterly, softening her words by stroking Jessicas rumpled blonde hair. "Why didnt you get away? Most people think thats what theyd do if anyone ever tried to make them into a slave." She snorted. "Its not quite that simple," she whispered. "I was taught to believe I was worthless. It was beaten into my head until it seemed like the truth. But still, during those first six years or so, no matter how much they did to me . . . no matter how bad it got . . . there was always a part of me, deep down inside, that they could never touch. A part that wanted to be free."
"So . . . you did try to escape?"
Kaleah nodded, her eye vacant again. "I tried all the time," she remembered. "Everytime I changed hands, Id always make an attempt to run for it . . . to escape."
"It never worked?" Jessica couldnt believe someone as intelligent and resourceful as Kaleah couldnt figure out a way to break free.
"Of course it never worked," Kaleah said harshly. "My masters werent stupid or foolish . . . they knew every trick there was, and they were ready for anything." She smiled coldly. "The smart ones would actually encourage new girls to try and escape, just so they could show them how impossible it was. And so they could teach them what would happen the next time. Once Id been a slave for a while, I became more picky about my plans to get away. Still, they never worked. I was beaten and raped every time I tried . . . but despite the punishments, it wasnt until after many years had gone by that I finally stopped trying to get away."
Jessica shuddered as she heard a subtle change in her companions voice . . . a coldness. She looked at the sharp, angular features of Kaleahs face, and saw for the first time an ugliness there that frightened her. Almost afraid to know, but helpless to stop this, she asked in a voice so low she wondered if it were hers at all, "What happened?"
"There was a man," Kaleah said, her voice like ice with dead hatred. "He bought me and took me as a . . ." She struggled a moment. "I think the word is, concubine?"
Jessica nodded to show she understood.
"He was bad . . . far worse than any of the others." Kaleahs face was hard and stony as the grave. "The things he did to me . . . and the things he made me do." Her body started to tremble. "He was not a man. He was something more evil than a man can be. I knew I would never escape him alive, knew hed never let me go. And the thought of having to live out the rest of my life . . . as his slave . . . I couldnt do it. I knew I would rather die, but when I sought to end my life, I found it harder than I had thought it would be. The guards were watchful, and we were never left alone. There was nothing sharp ever left with the slave girls, and nothing to tie a noose from. I soon realized that I would not even be allowed to escape into death.
"Then, one night, I had my chance. My master had left me on his bed unconscious, or so he thought and had gone to bathe in the next room. I was weak from . . ." Her voice cracked, then hardened. ". . .from what hed done to me, but I regained my strength when I saw hed left a dagger hed been using on me on the table by the bed. I took the knife in my hands and was about to use it on myself, when suddenly I had a thought; if I was going to die . . . why not take my tormentor with me?"
Jessica gasped. Seeing something glacial and heartless burn suddenly in her friends eyes, she drew back slightly, uncomfortable and frightened by the person now laying so near her. The Kaleah she knew and loved was still there . . . but the animal fury she had only ever glimpsed fleetingly was in control. The young girl knew this primal darkness was a part of her friends soul . . . and she knew she had to accept it as such if they were going to continue along the road they were traveling.
"My master was naked and unarmed," Kaleah continued in a detached monotone, but her body was thrumming with energy. "I went into the room where he was bathing . . . and I thrust the knife into his back. He screamed . . . and I did it again . . . and again." A cruel smile curved her lips, twisting the scar in a hideous way. "I was disappointed when he stopped screaming," she breathed, "but I kept stabbing him anyway until his guards broke the door down and dragged me away.
"I knew they would torture me to death. But I didnt care." She grinned fully now, her teeth flashing bone-white in the dim light. "They couldnt take away from me that sense of power Id felt. They couldnt make me their slave anymore. Even though I was going to die . . . I felt invincible. The man who had used me as a plaything for his perverse will was just as mortal as I was. His life was as frail as mine . . . and I someone he had considered less than an animal I had taken it from him." She breathed a sigh of pure bliss. "In that moment . . . I felt free for the first time in an eternity."
The dark woman glanced at her friend and suddenly saw the apprehension and fear in the emerald eyes staring back. The darkness conjured by these evil memories vanished instantly, and she reached out. "Hey . . . " she whispered soothingly. "Its okay . . . Im still here." She tried to give a smile, but couldnt manage one. But Jessica saw the coldness let go her face, and drew nearer once more. "Im sorry," Kaleah whispered as she held the young woman close. "Its hard to remember these things."
Jessica snuffled a little and embraced her friend. "You scared me. For a minute there, you looked . . ."
"I know." Kaleah stroked the long blonde hair, as much to comfort herself as to comfort Jessica. She stared at nothing, feeling nauseous from the memories of that evil power. "Its a scary thing," she breathed softly, "to know the darkest part of yourself. And to wish with all your heart you could know it better."
Jessica recovered her composure and gently pulled away from her companion. "Why didnt the guards kill you? Did you get away?"
Kaleah shook her head. "No. I thought Id be executed, but the guards knew that if they killed me . . . I would have gotten off lightly. They couldnt let me win like that. So they took me to a room . . ." Her eyes became unfocused, slightly puzzled. "It was a room Id never been to before, in a part of the house Id never seen. They took me in there . . . and . . . and they . . ." Her words faded as her brows knit in apparent confusion.
Jessica leaned forward in dread anticipation. "What did they do?"
Kaleahs eyes focused on her, and she shrugged with a helpless expression. "I dont know."
Jessica sighed inwardly. "Its alright," she said gently, letting her eyes drop away to the sheets. She couldnt help but feel a little hurt that Kaleah didnt trust her with this one secret. "You dont have to tell me if you dont want to-"
Kaleah smiled a little and pulled her face back up to meet hers. "I would tell you if I could, Jessica. Believe me. But thats the simple truth of it . . . I dont know what happened to me in that room because I cant remember."
Jessica eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "What do you mean you cant remember? How can you-"
Kaleah shrugged again. "I dont know. But when I look back into that part of my mind . . . the memories just arent there anymore. Its like theres a hole in my past . . . when they took away from me the power and strength Id just discovered." She sighed and lay back on the bed. "I dont know how long I was in that room, but I can remember I spent many months in a cell recovering. My body was broken and twisted . . . but worse than that, theyd gone into my head and killed whatever will of my own I still possessed. It took me weeks to recover my sanity; to find myself again in all the pain." She rubbed at one of the bandages, the cloth itching her skin. "After that . . . I never tried to escape again," she concluded simply. "The desire just wasnt there anymore."
Jessica looked searchingly into Kaleahs eyes, overwhelmed with sorrow. She ran her finger along the vivid scar that crossed the womans oh-so-soft lips. "Is that when you got this?" she asked.
Kaleah shook her head, repressing the desire to take the exploring fingers into her mouth. "That came after. The guards who served with the man I killed knew theyd have to sell off the slave girls, including me. Damaging the face of a slave makes it harder to sell them into the sex market," the dark woman explained matter-of-factly. "After . . . whatever they did to me, things get kind of blurry in my head. I was sold to another man, and then to another. I was in a fog . . . unable to care about anything anymore. It took a few years for me to recover to the point where I could even think again. By that time, I had passed from one owner to another, and ended up with a man who ran a brothel using exotic girls from all over the world."
"Is that . . ." Jessica blushed a little. "Is that what most of your masters . . . used you for?"
Kaleah nodded. "Mostly. As I said, I was considered beautiful, and they usually preferred to leave any physical labor to male slaves. Still," she smiled a little, "this man was much better than most. He wasnt so much interested in his slaves as he was in the money they made him. A pure businessman; Id learned they were the best masters to get. He didnt believe in beating his slaves, because he knew it would cost him money while they recovered. He fed us all well, and he let us sleep as much as we needed too. As long as we were compliant, he pretty much left us alone . . . even going so far as to order his guards to protect us from any clients who got . . . carried away."
"So how did you get this scar?" Jessica asked, touching the mark.
Kaleah gave her a slightly amused look. "Are you sure you want to know?"
Jessica nodded. "Youve told me so much already . . . might as well get it all out." She paused, wondering at the sudden almost playful look Kaleah was giving her. "Unless you dont want to tell me, of course-"
"No, Ill tell you." Kaleah let the darker memories fade away as she cast her mind back to the time that had marked the beginning of a better life for her. She grinned a little. "But remember . . . you wanted to hear it."
Settling back, she rested her splinted arm on her chest and wished for a moment her body didnt hurt so much. Then, seeing Jessica waiting, she went on with her story.
"A woman came to the brothel my master owned," she said. "She was the wife of a wealthy merchant, a man who had more interest in profits than he had in satisfying the desires of his wife. Since her husband traveled so much, the woman figured she should seek pleasure in the arms of another; but she didnt want to have an affair with anyone in the city who might report her infidelity to her husband. So, she sought the advice of a friend, who happened to be a client of my masters and, furthermore, a client of mine." She grinned, watching Jessicas reaction carefully. "Her friend recommended me and, being eager to explore all avenues of physical pleasure, the woman came to my master and requested my services."
The dark woman saw the slight blush on Jessicas face, and could tell from her wide eyes the girl was hanging onto every word. "Anyway," she continued, still studying her friends reaction, "by this time I had been exposed to every sexual act possible . . . another woman was nothing new to me. I had been trained how to provide for anything a client might desire, so when the woman requested that I show her everything I knew . . ." She grinned dazzlingly and waggled her eyebrows at a gaping Jessica. ". . . I knew Id be seeing a lot more of her."
Jessica suddenly realized her mouth was hanging open, and she snapped it shut with a slight cough of embarrassment. She knew she was blushing, but couldnt help it. She just hoped Kaleah would interpret her reaction as stemming from her innocence . . . not from the images that were running rampant through her mind. "So, um . . ." She coughed again nervously, cool blue eyes regarding her with amusement. "So did you . . . prefer women even then, or-"
"Yes," Kaleah answered honestly. "At first, I was shocked by the idea of being intimate with another woman, but I soon realized that was only because Id never considered the notion. When I got used to it, I realized I preferred providing service for a woman more than I did for a man. And not just because they tended to be . . . less rough with me, although that was more often the case." She frowned. "Not always, of course. Some of the worst times were with women . . . just because they knew my body enough to know exactly what would hurt the most. But generally speaking, women were less likely to beat me or hurt me then the men were. That wasnt the only reason I preferred them, though." She smiled a quiet, reflective smile "I liked the way they sounded . . . the way they felt, and how they tasted. And I liked the way that sometimes quite often, in fact they would insist on returning the favor."
Jessica swallowed . . . hard. "You mean they . . ."
Kaleah nodded. "Every man who ever took me ever raped me never gave a thought to anything other than his own desires. I was just a body . . . and I doubt they even cared for anything beyond those few parts they needed. The first time I ever felt anything but pain during the act was when another woman pleasured me." Her smile widened. "It was a hell of a surprise for me, and something that I rarely got to experience. But there were women, from time to time, who took great satisfaction in making sure I enjoyed myself as much as they did. And while they didnt come along too often, the comfort I found in the pleasure they gave me kept me sane in that hell when I thought Id otherwise go mad."
Jessica digested this information slowly. "So . . . the merchants wife was someone you . . ."
"Enjoyed being with?"
"Yes." Kaleah grinned rakishly, her blue eyes glinting in the moonlight. "During the months her husband was gone, she proved to be a very . . . eager, student." She couldnt help but laugh at the blush that tore across Jessicas face. "Is it hot in here or something? You look a little flushed."
Jessica pouted and slapped her gently on one of the less bruised patches of skin. "Dont tease," she growled, "or Ill rough you up even worse than you already are."
Kaleah just chuckled and swatted her away. "Sorry. Its just so easy, thats all. And its fun, too."
"Hmph." Jessica assumed a very cross look and glared at her friend. "Just be careful it doesnt come back and bite you on the arse someday," she threatened in a playful voice.
Kaleahs eyes twinkled. "It can bite me anywhere it wants to," she said with a wink, pleased when Jessicas flush deepened. "You want me to keep going with the story? Or will you go up in flames if you hear anymore?"
Jessica growled at her, but gestured for her to go on. "I cant wait to hear how you managed to get cut. Did she get a little enthusiastic or something?"
"No." Kaleah wriggled deeper into the blankets, the night air turning cold. "She wasnt the one who did it. She became what I suppose youd call my lover for almost three months. As I said, Id had very few experiences sexually where I can honestly say I was a willing participant. She was definitely one of them." Seeing the suddenly guarded mask drop over Jessicas face, she quickly went on. "She provided a physical satisfaction and relief that I appreciated . . . but thats really all it was: physical. We both understood there was nothing more to it. We each filled a void in the others life, if only for a moment." She regarded the green eyes that watched her with perfect openness. "Ive never experienced the kind of . . . emotional, connection I feel with you," she admitted quietly.
Jessica smiled warmly. "Me neither . . . with you, I mean."
Kaleah nodded, and continued. "Of course, like everything else that was good in my life, the affair didnt last long. Her husband returned from his trip and, within a few short days had heard rumors that his wife had been frequenting with a whore. He was outraged, and with his money and power behind him it wasnt long before he found out exactly which whore his wife had been with.
"He came to the brothel when my master was away. He asked that I be brought before him, and the guards, not knowing any better, did as instructed. When I was kneeling on the ground in front of him, the merchant pulled a knife from his belt and went straight for my throat, seeking to avenge himself."
Jessica gasped. "How did you . . .? What happened?"
Kaleah shrugged. "The guards saw what he intended and they knocked him down. I tried to duck away from the blade, but it still slashed across my face," she touched her fingers across the white line that marred her lips, "cutting deep. I tasted blood. My master returned just then and was furious at the merchant. With my face disfigured even so slightly my value as a whore was severely reduced. He demanded . . . a fee, I suppose youd call it. He said the word . . . rest . . .restit-"
Kaleah nodded. "Yes. The merchant had to pay, or risk trouble with the law and public disgrace. Still my master decided I was useless to him, and he sold me as soon as he could."
Jessica was silent, trying to understand this harsh and cruel world her friend spoke of. "What . . . what happened with the woman?"
Kaleah turned her penetrating blue eyes on the young woman, wondering. Is that envy I detect, Jess? she mused. Or am I just hearing what my heart wants to hear?
"The merchants wife came to me the night after I was cut," she explained. "She wanted to say good-bye, I suppose, and share a final night of pleasure with me. Before she left, she tried to apologize for her husbands actions, but I stopped her. I said that what hed done was probably the kindest thing anyone had ever done for me since I became a slave."
Blonde brows furrowed in confusion. "But . . . he hurt you."
Kaleah smiled. "He made me less desirable as a whore. After that, I had a few more owners, and while they sometimes used my body for their own pleasures, I was never used as a sex slave again. Mostly, I was put to work in the kitchens and in the fields. Over time, I started to rediscover some of what had been taken from me. I could no longer hope that one day I might be free, but I started to come to life once more as I was exposed to less of the evils of the darker slave world. It was during that time that another slave introduced me to music by giving me a reed flute she had. I practiced a long time in secret, and found that music helped me to settle my mind. After a while, I was taken across the sea, and eventually was put up for auction in a new land Id never been to. The man who bought me was a nobleman named Constantine DeLivier."
"The man who let you go?" Jessica smiled, liking him already.
The dark woman nodded. "I didnt know it at the time, but DeLivier was unlike any master Id ever had. He thought slavery was a cruel trade, and bought me because he knew my life would be safer in his hands than someone elses. At first I was puzzled by the way he treated me; asking me my name, where I was from, how old I was. No-one had ever cared about such things before." She shrugged. "Id forgotten everything about who I was . . . even my real name. DeLivier decided to call me by the name of some foreign queen hed heard somewhere; Nerukaleah . . . Kaleah for short."
"So . . . Kaleahs not your birth name?"
"No. DeLivier guessed I was probably about nineteen or twenty year old, but he had no idea where my accent came from; probably because Id been traded across half the world, and had to learn bits and pieces of so many different languages. Id never been to Spain before, but DeLivier spoke English, which was my strongest language . . . so we communicated with no problems. I didnt expect him to be any different from any of my other masters, so I was very surprised by what he told me when we arrived at his home.
"DeLivier explained that he was a weaponsmith . . . one of the finest in the world. He forged blades for kings and generals, soldiers and mercenaries, and he had taught in the Spanish fighting schools during his youth. He told me straight out that he didnt want a slave what he needed was an apprentice. Someone to help him with the grueling and demanding work of the forges . . . someone who would learn the art quickly and be able to assist with things like finishing hilts and guards and pommels. He expected me to work hard . . . very hard. But in exchange for my labor, he would teach me an ancient and respected tradition that I could use in my life. He would give me good food, and a warm place to sleep in the hay-loft. He even said he would pay me money, and would allow me to sell anything of value I made, once Id gained sufficient skill."
Kaleah grinned and chuckled a little. "I didnt even understand what he was talking about at first," she mused. "I was a slave. I worked for nothing, and in exchange would not be beaten. Thats all I expected. I couldnt grasp a concept like equal trade or mutual benefit. It took the poor man days to make me understand what he was offering, and when at last it sunk in . . ." She sighed, closing her eyes and just remembering the feeling. "I felt more human than I had in nearly ten years."
"He sounds very special," Jessica whispered.
"He was." She thought a moment, then chuckled. "Of course, when he told me the work would be hard, he meant it. For the first fortnight or so, I woke each morning with muscles in agony, and fell asleep each night the moment my head hit the hay. Working the forge fires made the labor I was used too seem like mild exercise. I sweat gallons and my hands were covered in blisters, but I was determined to stay with DeLivier, so I never complained. Eventually, my muscles grew stronger, and my hands toughened. I got used to the heat, and began to actually enjoy learning from a true master. DeLivier was well pleased with my efforts, and when he saw my skills rapidly increasing, he offered to teach me to fight. I was eager to learn anything I could by then, and agreed quickly.
"I took to the blade with ease, and learned the basics of swordsmanship in a matter of a few weeks. DeLivier was impressed, and started teaching me more advanced moves. Soon, my skills were growing rapidly from day to day." She grinned. "DeLivier was amazed."
"Im not surprised," Jessica said. "You are amazing. You learn new moves in seconds. The way you fight . . . its like you were born with a sword in your hands."
"Thats pretty much what DeLivier said. And when he realized how great the changes in me had become, he knew he had no right to keep me. He decided to prepare me for freedom."
"I bet that came as a shock."
"Actually, he didnt tell me his plans to release me for a long time," Kaleah said. "Id been a slave almost my entire life; the concept of freedom was impossible for me to accept. DeLivier knew this, so he started out very slowly, at first just asking me questions like, what would I like to do tomorrow, what did I think about this or that things that would get me to make up my own mind about what I thought, rather than just following instructions. Before long, he was wanting to know what my dreams were . . . what I wanted out of life. The questions confused me at first, but when I actually considered them, I started to . . . to change."
"In what ways?"
Kaleah thought back to that time and shrugged. "I started to get restless," she explained. "I hated to stand still for any length of time. I wanted to move, to go somewhere. I went for runs every morning, but I could feel amazing amounts of energy coursing through my blood. My fighting lessons became more heated as my temper became more edgy. DeLivier started taking me into social settings with him more often, trying to teach me how to interact with other people as equals. It was quite a change from what I was used to, and I never really liked being around others very much. When I had the choice, I would work alone at the forge, just enjoying the way I could shape and mould the metal to any form I chose. It gave me a sense of control and power I liked.
"Then, one day, DeLivier came to me and told me to design a weapon and a suit of armor for myself. I did so, and when I was finished we discussed the designs and made a few alterations. Then, DeLivier put me to work at the forge, making what I had drawn on paper into real life. It took me many weeks . . . months, even, but when I was finished I had crafted the armor and sword I still carry today. I was very proud of myself . . . but no moreso than DeLivier was. He told me the armor and weapon were mine to keep, and that he could teach me no more. I was dumbfounded when he told me I had served him well, and had earned my freedom."
Jessica smiled warmly at her friend. The story was terrible but at least it had something of a happy ending. "It must have been wonderful."
"It was," Kaleah breathed, returning the young womans expression. "I stayed a little while longer, learning something of the lands that lay near Spain so I would understand where I was better. When I left, I promised DeLivier I would never forget the kindness he had shown me. He told me it was enough of a reward just to know that he had helped someone to escape such a dreadful existence. I headed north, following the coast. I smuggled aboard a ship that carried me to this country, and just took to the woods for a long time. I avoided people, hunting for my food." She saw Jessica grin broadly at this.
"You must have gone hungry a lot," Jessica joked, poking her clearly defined ribcage. "Youre not exactly the greatest tracker Ive ever seen."
Kaleah lowered her eyes. "I know. But I was used to going without food. I was fine . . . until the winter came, that is.
"Id never experienced such weather before. The animals vanished, and I was forced to seek out others if I wanted to survive. I ate at taverns, or with bandit camps, using the coin DeLivier gave me to buy food and drink." She grinned. "The first night I discovered the effects of alcohol was an interesting one. Still, I never stayed in one place for too long; I moved always to the north. A few times, bandits tried to rob me, but my skills were more than enough to beat them back." Her expression fell into a frown. "I lived in caves, and avoided people unless I was desperate. I was starting to forget all the things DeLivier had taught me. I could feel myself becoming less and less human every day. Then, starving, I found the bandits camp where we first met." She smiled and sighed. "I guess you know how the story goes from there. I met a beautiful young girl who took me back to her fathers castle and showed me there was more to life than just being free. There were things like friendship and trust . . . and warm beds." She grinned. "You showed me all the things I never knew I could have . . . and you gave them to me."
Jessicas face reddened with pleasure. "Youre very welcome," she said shyly. Laying back against her friend slowly, careful not to hurt her bruises, she rested her head on Kaleahs chest and sighed. The dark womans scent flooded her senses, almost making her dizzy. "Thank you . . . for trusting me enough to tell me those things." She studied the dark womans face. "Do you feel any better?"
Kaleah thought for a minute. In truth, she realized, she did feel better . . . lighter, somehow. A slow smile brightened her face. "Yeah. I do, actually." She leaned down and placed a gentle, only slightly lingering kiss on the blondes forehead. "Thank you for listening," she breathed, missing the look of joy in her companions face. "I think maybe you were right . . . it does help to talk about things."
Jessica recovered from the feeling of Kaleahs lips on her heated skin, tucking the sensations away to be revealed in later, when she was alone. "Youve spent your whole life keeping everything bottled up, Kaleah. Thats not good for anyone. You need to let things out into the open, to share them with someone you can trust." She wrapped her arms lightly around the dark womans slender waist and nestled closer, pleased when Kaleah didnt tense up. "I think I understand you a little better now," she whispered. "I thought I had a fairly good idea what you must have gone through . . . and maybe I did. But its so different to hear it all." Tears leaked from her eyes. "I really did handle you all wrong at first, didnt I?"
"Yes," Kaleahs voice replied. "But you did what you did because you cared, and good came of it eventually."
"Still, Im sorry for the way I treated you when we first met." She yawned and let her eyes slip closed. "Its pretty late," she observed. "Are you tired now?"
Kaleah shook her head. "No, but you go ahead and sleep if you want to." She stroked the blonde head soothingly, hearing a soft, happy moan escape the young woman. She was silent for several minutes, just thinking about the wonderful changes in her life since she had met her companion. "Jessica?"
Silence. Then, "Dont ever leave me."
Jessicas eyes opened. She heard the naked vulnerability and quiet desperation in Kaleahs voice, and again felt her anger rise at the cruel men who had done so much evil to the dark woman. She squeezed her arms tighter about Kaleahs waist. "Ill never leave you, Kaleah," she promised for the second time that day. She smiled a little. "After the effort I put into getting you here . . . youd need a pry-bar to get rid of me."
There was a moment of silence, then she felt Kaleahs body shake with a light chuckle. "Get some sleep, Jess."
"Mmmph." She snuggled deeper into the body of her companion, relaxing and letting her mind slip past the dark story of Kaleahs life to the promise of a brighter tomorrow. As consciousness fell away, her last thought was a mild concern that with the object of her desires so near at hand, the dreams she had been encouraging of late might make her say something inappropriate in her sleep. But the thought was a fleeting one, and was quickly followed with a quiet reassurance from her mind that, if she was lucky, Kaleah wouldnt mind one bit.
The next morning, Jessica woke late to find the woman shed been using as a pillow now fast asleep, and looking to stay that way for some time. Rubbing her eyes and stretching, she studied the relaxed curves of the dark womans face curiously, a smile touching her lips at how young Kaleah looked without the stern lines that so characterized her features. The smile faded as she studied the nasty bruises and the split skin over Kaleahs eyes. She wondered how late her friend had stayed up. From the looks of things, sharing the burdens of her past had eased Kaleahs pain quite a bit. Jessica was happy she could be a part of that.
Easing away from the bruised woman gently, careful not to wake her, Jessica yawned and scratched her midrift absently. A rather loud rumbling from her stomach alerted to the fact that she was hungry, so she called for a servant and asked for some breakfast. As an afterthought, she asked the serving girl to find Eric Grace and ask if he had any more of the medicine Kaleah had been given yesterday. Jess knew her friend needed rest, even if she didnt necessarily want it.
When the food arrived, Kaleah was quickly roused by the smell of fried bacon and oatmeal, and the two sat happily on the bed eating until they were full.
"Whats this?" Kaleah asked, picking up the small leather pouch that had arrived with their breakfast.
"Just some herbs and stuff I asked for," the blonde replied. "Medicine to help you get better."
Kaleahs eyes narrowed as she opened the drawstring pouch and took a suspicious sniff. "You want me to eat these?"
Jessica nodded. "Theyll help to take the swelling down in your bruises," she explained. "Believe me, they make a big difference. Ive had to take them everytime I got hurt. Theyre not so bad, really."
The dark woman licked a finger and dipped it into the pouch, regarding the flakes of brown and green dried herb that clung to her saliva dubiously. "Is this the same stuff Grace gave me yesterday?"
"Aye, pretty much." Jessica saw Kaleahs face harden, and quickly continued. "Look, Kaleah, I know you dont want to take it, but please-"
"Thisll make me sleep, wont it?" the dark woman interrupted.
Jessica sighed, but gave a little nod. "I know you hate having to stay still . . . really, I do. But you need to get better." She reached out and patted the womans arm. "Ill stay with you, I promise. We can just hang out in here." She smiled a little. "Lets face it, Kaleah, its not like you could really do a whole lot today anyway, is it? Youre hurting-"
"Its not that bad."
"Oh really?" Jessica regarded her friend sternly.
"Ive had far worse."
Jess sighed. "But youre not a slave anymore, Kaleah," she said softly. "You dont have to hide from the pain . . . you can accept it, and let me help you get better. Please?"
Kaleah scowled at the pouch, then looked up at her friends imploring gaze. There wasnt anything she could do against the onslaught of those caring green eyes. "Alright," she conceded grumpily, trying to ignore the smile that lit Jessicas face. "But tomorrow, Im getting up whether you like it or not."
"Of course." Jessica didnt bother arguing further. "Ill get you some water to take those with."
"Thanks." Kaleah tipped the dry herbs into her mouth, chewed them a few times then swallowed with a grimace. They were bitter-tasting, and she gladly chased them down with the mug of water her companion held out for her. Then she wriggled into the soft mattress and patted the empty space next to her in invitation for Jessica to join her. The young woman happily did so.
As the herbs started to take effect, Kaleah listened as Jessica told her another story; some ancient legend about the old Gods this land once worshiped. The gentle lilt of the young womans accent was very soothing, and she let her eyes fall shut as the words eased her mind away from the pain of her injuries. Before long, she was sleeping peacefully, her lips forming a soft smile of utter peace.
Jessica stayed as she was long after Kaleah passed out. With one hand, she smoothed the long, midnight-black hair away from the womans face, smiling when Kaleah moaned a little and wriggled closer to her. Her heart ached with the unbearable strength of her love, and she swallowed a little as she remembered the feel of Kaleahs soft lips against her forehead. Warmth flared in her blood, and she instantly recognized desire stirring.
"Dont even think about it," she growled quietly to herself, knowing her imagination was just about to start a nice little picture show.
Oh, come on, her mind argued. Shes out like a light . . . no harm in just thinking about these things.
"Not . . . now!" she rumbled low in her throat.
Why not? Its not like shes gonna care, is it? Her mind gave her a metaphysical grin. Last night wasnt exactly what you had in mind for your first night together in the same bed, but it certainly brought you closer together. She knows the relationship is still getting stronger . . . maybe she wants the same thing you do afterall.
"Maybe," Jess conceded.
So wheres the harm in thinking about her this way? I mean, she said it herself, shes an . . . experienced, lover. Just imagine what she could do with those lips-
"Thats enough!" Jessica wasnt going to let her libido get out of hand, not while Kaleah was so near to her and in such a vulnerable state. "You can think about it latter, when youre alone. Nows really not a good time."
But cant you just-
The semi-conversation was interrupted thankfully, Jessica thought by a firm, bold knock at the door. Jessica instantly recognized it wasnt one of the servants, who tended to knock softly and almost hesitantly. Gently easing herself away from Kaleahs embrace, she wandered over and opened the door. Her eyes widened in surprise when she found Sir Richard standing in the hallway outside.
"Mornin Jess," the lord knight greeted her somewhat awkwardly. "I was, uh, hoping I might have a word with you, if thats alright."
"Of course." Jessica opened the door wider and gestured for him to enter. "C-come in." She looked around the room and briefly wished she didnt keep it in quite so chaotic a state, refusing to let the servants clean it. "Im, uh, sorry about the mess. Its usually much neater," she lied.
Sir Richard was a man who led his men into battle fearlessly and with dauntless courage, but he entered his daughters bedroom with a hesitancy no bravery could deny. DaGran may have been Jessicas home, but this room was where she really lived. Almost every hour not spent in training or being schooled by either Eric or the Lady Rose, Jessica would spend alone in here. This room in fact this whole section of the castle, pretty much was Jessicas domain; her sanctuary. He may have been her father, and the ruler of DaGran, but this was an invasion, nonetheless.
It had been some years since Richard had last come here, and that had only been because his young girl had been badly injured during a battle many years ago. That had been a very different time, when Jessica had been struggling to adjust to the changes adolescence was causing in her growing body. He remembered the room then still bore the last marks of a child a child determined to grow up fast. Awkward but curious, he looked around the disorderly room now with mild amusement.
Jessica kicked a pair of undergarments beneath the bed quickly. "Ive uh, been a-a little busy lately," she stammered. "Its hard to find time to clean up."
He smiled slightly, the expression showing as little more than a twitching of his mustaches. "You should ask the servants to do it," he said gruffly. "Thats what we pay them for."
Jess nodded agreeably. "I-Ill be sure to do that," she promised obediently.
Sir Richard grunted. Independent and head-strong, he knew Jessica would never expect someone else to do her dirty-work for her. The damned girl insisted she could do everything herself. Knowing not to push the issue, however, Richard went back to studying his daughters habitat.
The room had changed quite a bit since the last time hed seen it. There was a new maturity that had not been present some years ago. Peasant clothes were scattered about alongside fancy silk dresses, neither preference given any more care or interest than the other. Swords and pieces of armor the young woman was cleaning or just playing with were cluttered all over the place, some serving as weights to hold down sheafs of paper with detailed and not-so-detailed scribbles all over them. The air smelled of steel and leather and polish, but also carried the vanilla scent of perfume and silk and lace. The contrast was a little disorienting, but overall bore Jessicas personal stamp clearly. The lord knights eyes widened only slightly when they fell on the slumbering figure resting on the rumpled blankets and cushions of the bed.
Jessica closed the door and turned, catching her fathers curious look at Kaleah. "She, uh . . . she was hurt, so I thought it might be best if she stayed in my room," she explained quickly. "She didnt want to be alone last night."
Sir Richards lips drew firm into a slight smile and he put his hands behind his back. "I see."
Jessica stood awkwardly for a moment, thrown off balance by her fathers presence in her room. Then she remembered her manners. "Um . . . would you like to sit down? I can just . . . move some of this stuff . . . " She gathered a pile of maps and drawings off the largest table and, after looking helplessly around for somewhere suitable to put them, decided there wasnt anywhere and just dumped them on another already crowded table nearby.
Sir Richard smiled at his daughters nervousness, glad he wasnt the only one. While he was perfectly comfortable around his beloved child whenever they were together at any other time, he couldnt help but feel uncomfortable intruding into Jessicas private sanctuary; just as he knew Jessica would have felt if she were asked to come into his. But he needed to talk with her, and while he could have just sent someone to bring her to the great hall, he knew she wouldnt come. He could see Jessica would never leave Kaleahs side, even while the dark woman slept.
Taking a seat at the table, coughing to clear his throat, he folded his hands in front of him as Jessica sat down opposite.
"So," the young woman asked curiously, "what brings you all the way into this part of the castle?"
He smiled gruffly at his daughters bluntness, and cast grey eyes back at Kaleahs slumbering form. "Actually, I came because of your dark-haired friend over there," he answered quietly, not wanting to rouse the resting woman. "Charles and Grace have both informed me of the unfortunate injuries she suffered. I thought I should come and discuss it with you."
"I see." Jessica considered this, knowing her father would not have come here if he wasnt truly concerned about something. It seemed a little odd that Kaleahs beating would warrant that kind of attention, but then again . . . "How much did they tell you?"
"Only that the young woman had sustained some serious bruises while she was on the night-watch," he replied. "Grace gave me his medical opinion that the injuries were deliberate." His eyes narrowed. "That Kaleah was beaten. Charles was reluctant to discuss the matter, but he concurred with that assessment." An eyebrow raised questioningly. "Is that what happened?"
Jessica nodded. "A group of men attacked her from behind . . . like cowards. She told me there were three of them, and she never saw them coming. All were masked, and she couldnt recognize them again or so she says."
"You dont believe her?"
Jessica shrugged. "Shes holding something back, I can tell. Maybe she doesnt want to worry me." She sighed. "She didnt even have a chance to fight back. If she hadve got her sword free, it might have been a different story."
"I see." Sir Richard sat back and frowned, studying his daughter. "Do you have any idea why they attacked her?"
She shook her head. "Shes done nothing to warrant such a beating. Shes with me almost all the time, and she hardly ever talks to anyone else except Sutton."
"Thats what I thought." Sir Richard stroked his fingers through his thick beard absently. "That being the case, I dont need to tell you how serious this is," he said tensely. "Someone beat Kaleah . . . someone living in this castle. And you know what that could mean, right?"
Jessica suddenly realized what her father was getting at, and she scolded herself for not thinking of this sooner. "We could have disloyalty among the soldiers . . . maybe even a traitor," she wondered aloud. Frowning, she shook her head. "But that makes no sense. Why would they attack Kaleah?"
"Perhaps she wasnt the real target," Sir Richard explained gently. "Maybe whoever attacked her did so in order to hurt you."
"Calm down, Jess," he said firmly. "Just think about it for a moment, okay. Kaleah has no enemies, but youve managed to piss off more people in the last five years or so than most people manage too in their whole lives. There are plenty of people out there who would pay dearly to make you suffer."
Jessica settled down and considered her fathers words. With a sigh, she realized he was absolutely correct. In addition to the dozens of men she had defeated and captured in battle, there were others in more powerful positions who disliked her for her hard-won skills and for the popularity she had among the commoners. "Its not my fault Im good at what I do," she said angrily.
"I know that, Jess. But we have to consider the possibility that whoever attacked Kaleah did it because it was the easiest way to hurt you. Youve made no secret of how much you care for her."
Jessica felt her blood start to rise in anger. "So . . . she might have been hurt because of me?"
"It would explain why shed be a target." He spread his hands. "Whatever the case, this incident has serious ramifications. I cant afford to have dissention among the men, not at a time like this, with Sir William arriving in just a few days."
Jessica understood that. If Lancaster saw any hint of weakness in her father or his men, he would never agree to a treaty. DaGran had stood strong for so long in this harsh land because of unity, common purpose. Under the strong leadership of Sir Richard and his father before him, the castle had withstood siege and assault many times because the men were loyal and proud of their rulers. Desention meant unrest, and she had read tales of many great rulers brought down from within because they had failed to hear the warning bells of an uprising.
"What do you plan to do?" she asked. "We dont know who attacked Kaleah, or if there are more than just those three. And we have no idea whos behind the attack."
Sir Richard frowned and stood up, indicating he was about to leave. "Ill have Sir Miles look into it," he said thoughtfully. "Maybe someone overheard something about the incident, or maybe someone wasnt on duty when they should have been. In the mean time, I think you should keep an eye out, just in case." He looked at Kaleahs slumbering figure. "And not just for your friend there, Jess. Until we know more, you watch out for yourself as well."
"I will, Father," she promised, giving him an awkward hug. "Let me know if you find anything, alright?"
"Of course." The lord knight opened the door and was about to leave when another thought occurred to him. He turned back. "Oh, and Jess?
"Why dont you bring Kaleah to the welcoming dinner on Monday? Im sure you could use another friend at the table."
Jessica looked at the dark woman, then back to her father. "You want Kaleah there? Are you sure?"
Green eyes narrowed. "Why?"
Sir Richard shrugged gruffly. "Why not? She makes quite an impression when she enters a room, dont you think? Im sure Sir William wont know what to make of her." He studied the sleeping woman. "She has a presence about her that really captures the attention."
Jessica relaxed and smiled, looking at Kaleah as well. "I know what you mean," she agreed softly. "Shes like a bolt of lightening that doesnt just flash and die away, but stays there and continues burning. She has that kind of raw, elemental power . . . and she barely even knows about it." She frowned. "Maybe thats why someone targeted her," she mused aloud, "because she stands out so much against everyone else, because she doesnt really fit in here."
Sir Richard considered that, and admitted it might be true. "Perhaps," he said. "Regardless, shed be more than welcome to attend the dinner, if only to keep you company."
"Alright . . . Ill ask her if she wants to come."
"Fine. Ill see you at Church on Sunday?" A question, she noted, not a statement.
She nodded. "Sure. I missed it last week what with being so sick. Ill be there."
Sir Richard grunted his acceptance and left, shutting the door quietly behind him.
Alone with Kaleah again, Jessica returned to the bed and resumed her position carefully, not wanting to disrupt her friends rest. Releasing a tense breath, she thought about what her father had suggested . . . and she didnt much like her conclusions.
It was indeed possible the attack on Kaleah had been aimed at her, not the dark woman. Jessica had earned quite a reputation as a fighter in the last few years. She was sure there were many who would revel in her suffering. Maybe the common bandits she had taken down over the years werent so subtle as to orchestrate such a plan, but there were plenty who were. And the thought that Kaleah had been hurt because of the friendship they had formed . . . well, the cold, empty feeling it brought to her heart hurt with a dull ache.
Suddenly, as she considered this new possibility, something else occurred to her. There was one person in DaGran who hated Kaleah, she realized. One person with enough power to direct such an attack, no matter the loyalty of the men. But surely . . .
"She wouldnt be that foolish," Jessica thought, green fire starting to burn in her eyes as she wondered. She looked at Kaleahs battered face and scowled. "Shed never sink to something so base . . . would she?"
Sighing, letting her anger wash away, Jessica lay back and relaxed. She had a lot to think about while her friend slept, and while her thoughts werent very pleasant ones, at least they kept her mind away from other considerations . . . things she promised her sulking mind she would examine in greater detail later.
Her mind reluctantly agreed not to push the issue.
Friday came and went peacefully, with Kaleah sleeping through most of the day, holding drowsy conversation with her constant companion when she was awake. Charles stopped by to see how the injured woman was doing, and stayed a while talking about the attack with Jessica. He had considered briefly the possibility that his own men might have been responsible, but a quick check had assured him such a thing was impossible. The troops who made up his escort had been celebrating the hunt that night . . . all had been accounted for by more than three others at the time the assault took place. Although Jessica wanted to question Kaleah further on the attack, her hesitant queries were met with defensive silence. It was clear Kaleah didnt want to discuss things yet, so Jessica reluctantly let it go.
The next day, Kaleah woke feeling much better. The swelling had gone down considerably, her own innate healing powers helped along by the medicinal herbs. After so much time spent lying still, the former slave insisted she was healthy enough to have the bandages removed and to move around. Her energy was reaching a dangerous level, and she needed to do something to burn it off.
Unwrapping the bandages, Jessica was surprised and relieved to find some of the bruises already faded away, while the more severe had turned from an aggressive dark blue to a lighter purple tone. The splint was no longer required, and Kaleah groaned in relief when it was removed, stretching her arm thankfully. Inspecting everything thoroughly, Jessica smiled. It seemed her friend would be as good as new in another few days.
"You heal awful fast," she remarked as she examined the healing gash over Kaleahs eye.
The dark woman winced as her companion prodded the area with firm but gently fingers. "Ive always been like that," she said. "Broken bones take me a while, but anything on the surface goes away real quick." She scratched at one of the scars on her arm. "They usually leave a bit of a mark, though."
Jessica finished her inspection by spreading a clear liquid salve over the wound. "Do you think this will scar?" she asked.
"Probably not," Kaleah replied, shooing her away when shed finished. "Its not that deep m. . . and with all the stuff youre putting on it, Id be surprised if its still visible in another week."
Jessica chuckled and backed off, letting the dark woman stand up. She couldnt help but stare in admiration as Kaleah stretched long and hard, waking her dormant muscles. Standing behind her friend, the young blondes eyes feasted on the image of rippling, tight sinew under bronzed skin revealed all-too-well by the loose-fitting shift. Her eyes widened as they stored the image away in the back of her mind . . . which was starting to get a little crowded by now.
"What should we do today?"
Kaleahs question snapped Jessica out of her lustful appraisal just as the dark woman turned around. The blonde assumed an air of casual indifference and shrugged. "Im not picky . . . as long as its not too strenuous," she said. "You still need to take it easy."
Kaleah gave an exaggerated groan and rolled her eyes. "Fine . . . how about we go for a bit of a walk out to the monastery." She had found the ancient ruins strangely fascinating when Jessica had taken her there last week.
"Okay, but are you sure you want to walk all that way? I mean, the spring thaws started . . . everythings pretty damn muddy."
Kaleah grinned. "So Ill take a bath when we get back instead of before we leave."
Jess couldnt argue against that . . . shed watched the dark woman bathe several times since last week. The fact that Kaleah seemed to like being clean had provided a great deal of inspiration for the young blondes strengthening desire. "Alright," she agreed. "But if you get too sore, were turning back."
"Okay. Wait here, I have to get changed into something warmer." Kaleah headed for the door to her own bedroom, trying not to think about the fact that she probably wouldnt be sleeping with Jessica anymore after last night. Afterall, there wasnt any reason now that she was feeling better. Sighing as she slipped into the emptiness of her bedroom, she decided to just enjoy the day.
The two decided to ask Charles to come along with them, and he happily agreed.
"I should go get Damon," he said as they were about to head out, but Jessica waved the suggestion away.
"Oh, come on, Charles," she said, laughing. "Were only going to the abbey . . . what bandits gonna set up camp that close to the castle? Besides," she patted the rapier at her side, "if anything does happen, Kaleah and I can protect you."
Charles gave her a look of mock insult. "Are you saying Im not man enough to protect myself?" he demanded with a playfully lofty air.
Jess grinned and arched a blonde eyebrow cheekily. "No . . . are you?"
Charles was unable to help himself from rising to challenge. "Of course not," he grumbled, relaxing. He wondered briefly how come whenever he visited DaGran, Jessica always managed to lure him into some kind of trouble.
Jess clapped and linked arms with her two friends. "Alright then. Lets go."
"Just remember, Jess, if we get into any trouble because of this, Im gonna say it was all your fault and I was just trying to make sure you were safe."
The young blonde snorted inelegantly. "Yeah . . . like anyoned believe that." Nevertheless, she decided it would be for the best if they used the side entrance . . . just in case anyone was watching.
Kaleah flopped down on Jessicas bed and gave a long, guttural sigh of absolute bliss. Closing her eyes, she savored the warm ache in her muscles from the long day of exploring in the woods and basked in the simple pleasure of being clean again after tracking through the mud of spring thaw.
"Mmmm," she moaned, opening her eyes to find Jessica smiling down at her. "You know, I think I love that bathing pool more everytime I go in there. If I had to choose a favorite room in this whole castle, thatd be it."
Jess joined the dark woman on the bed, leaning back against the headboard. "I definitely agree," she said. "Its one luxury of being high-born that I truly wonder if I could live without." And, she added silently, it had become doubly attractive now that Kaleah was here. Her body was still aflame with desire from watching her companion wash up.
Kaleah rolled over and ran fingers through her still-wet hair. "I had a lot of fun today," she said. "Charles is great. I, uh . . . I havent met too many people I feel that comfortable with so quickly."
Jess smiled, genuinely pleased. "Im glad you like him. And it was a good day, wasnt it? You didnt get sore or anything, did you?"
"Are you kidding? After spending so long lying down, I could have run the whole way and thought nothing of it. I really needed to get rid of some of that energy." She rubbed gently at the wound on her eye. It was starting to itch.
"Hey! Dont pick at that, or it will leave a scar."
"I dont care. You dont need any more marks on your face, so leave it alone." The young blonde swatted Kaleahs hands away from her face. Kaleah growled playfully. Jess raised an eyebrow threateningly. "Keep it up, Miss Difficult and Ill make you eat those sleeping herbs again."
"Try it and see how far you get," Kaleah returned, her eyes sparkling.
Jessica just laughed and sat back again. She loved it when Kaleah relaxed so completely like this . . . when she let herself be playful and fun. It was happening more and more often, especially when they were alone, and she found herself trying harder to bring a smile to the former slaves face.
Watching as the dark woman ran long, elegant fingers through her tangled wet hair, gently sorting through the knots until it was even and neat, Jessica decided maybe now was a good time to bring up the welcoming dinner on Monday.
"Hmmm?" Blue eyes looked up and regarded her openly.
"My father was wondering if . . . maybe youd like to come along to the formal dinner were having for Sir William on Monday." She saw the surprise in Kaleahs face and went on. "I-I was kind of hoping youd say yes . . . I mean, itd be nice to have some company there. I have to go, and youd be alone anyway so, if you dont mind putting up with people looking at you, Id really like it if-"
Jessica trailed off and stared at Kaleah. "You will?"
"Sure." Kaleah went back to unravelling her hair. She glanced up at her friend. "If you want me there, of course Ill come."
The words were spoken in a casual, off-hand manner, but they sent shivers down Jessicas spine. "Thank you," she said, watching the older woman smile at her and turn away. She giggled nervously. "You know, I didnt think itd be quite that easy to convince you," she admitted.
She shrugged. "Welll . . . therell be a lot of people around, you know. Everything very formal. And lets face it Kaleah, youre not really much of a one for socializing, are you."
Kaleah turned those amazing eyes on her and added a dazzling smile to it. "I dont care so much about that stuff anymore," she said softly. "It doesnt matter how many people are around . . . as long as Im with you."
Jessica wanted to wave the comment away, but was captured by the look in Kaleahs eyes. She swallowed the lump that suddenly leapt into her throat. Her body was still thrumming with sexual heat from watching Kaleah bathe, and it took a physical effort to stop herself from just . . leaning forward and . . . and . . . Well, from doing something that she wasnt entirely sure she knew how to do. She smiled shyly and looked away, wondering if Kaleah had noticed how much she seemed to be blushing lately.
Seeing the young womans nervousness, Kaleah gave a little chuckle. "So," she continued, turning away to give Jessica a chance to regain her composure, "what should I wear to the dinner? I dont suppose I can get away with just wearing my armor?"
Jessica cleared her throat, trying to get rid of the large lump in it she suspected was her heart. "Um . . . no. Its formal. Were trying to really impress Sir William . . . its one of those stupid little games we nobles have to play all the time." She rolled her eyes. "A polite demonstration of how civilized and well-bred we are here in DaGran, so we can show Lancaster how much better off hed be if he made a formal alliance with us." She regarded Kaleah who was now lying flat on her stomach. "I think you should probably wear a dress," she said thoughtfully. "Im sure I can rummage up something really nice for you . . . maybe blue silk, to match your . . .eyes . . ." She trailed off, seeing the guarded look in Kaleahs expressive blue eyes. "Is something wrong?"
"I, uh . . . I dont like dresses," Kaleah explained shyly.
Jessica looked puzzled. "Im sure we can arrange something nice," she said, confused by her friends reaction. "I dont like them all that much myself, but theyre not so bad . . ." She remembered the dark woman had preferred mens clothes the last time shed suggested something more feminine. What was so bad about wearing a dress?
"Cant I just wear trousers?" Kaleah pleaded. "Dresses just . . . make me uncomfortable."
Jessica could see Kaleah was genuinely unnerved by the idea of having to wear a dress. "Why?" she asked softly.
"They just . . ." Kaleah felt the gentle concern in Jessicas eyes, and decided it would be best if she just explained. Afterall, she had already told the young woman her basic life story . . . shed understand.
"When I was a slave," she explained quietly, "the clothes I was given would always tell me what Id be doing for a new master. If I was to be a worker, Id be given trousers and a shirt. A dress always meant I was going to be a whore." She cast her eyes to the bedsheets, still feeling the shame of that life. "Dresses gave . . . easier access," she finished in a whisper.
Jessica absorbed this, understanding. "Oh. I see." She was silent a moment, then reached out to pat Kaleahs shoulder, offering what comfort she could. "I didnt. . . I didnt understand. But you know Kaleah, you dont have to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. Id never want to make you feel that way." She smiled as the dark woman raised her head hopefully. "Im sure I can find some silk trousers . . . if I look for them."
Kaleah nodded gratefully. "Thank you. Id really prefer that, if its okay."
"Sure." Jessica sat back and gave the tall woman a quick perusal. "Its a shame though," she mused, knawing on her lower lip.
"Well . . . I was kinda looking forward to seeing you all dressed up." Jessica grinned rakishly, unable to stop the image forming in her mind. "I bet youd look really beautiful in a full-length dress . . . something that showed off your figure, you know?"
Kaleah blushed and studied herself critically. "Y-you really think so?"
"Oh yeah." Jess nodded enthusiastically. "Id kill to have a body like yours." Her mind almost made a sarcastic comment, but she anticipated it and silently ordered it to shut up. "Youd be stunning."
"Well . . . maybe."
Jessica couldnt help but smile broadly at the thoughtful expression on Kaleahs face as the dark woman headed off to her own room later that night. And it came as no surprise when the former slave brought the subject up again the next morning when she returned from the service in the castle chapel. Kaleah said shed thought about it, and decided a dress probably would be a good idea, afterall. At least it couldnt hurt to give it a try . . . could it?
Monday morning, Jessica and Kaleah watched from the south-west parapet as a large contingent of men approached DaGran slowly. The day was clear and almost warm, with spring thaw well under way. What few patches of snow and ice still remained would likely be gone in a day or so, which meant that everything would be very muddy until the new grass began to shoot. Sunlight glinted off armor and steel in the distance as Kaleah squinted to make out the group of dim figures more clearly. The warning horn was still sounding from the central look-out, summoning Sir Richard to greet the arrival of Sir William.
The former slave saw there were a lot more men in this escort than Charles had brought with him . . . maybe three times as many, in fact. The troops rode in disciplined lines around a covered wagon, and despite having to keep formation they managed to move quite quickly. The knights were mostly armed with lance and sword, and all carried heavy shields. As they got closer, Kaleah studied the brightly colored banners which depicted two crossed arrows in red over a white field. Jessica had been teaching her a bit about heraldry, and she knew this was the design used by Lancaster.
"There are a lot of them, huh?" she said.
Jessica frowned, but nodded. "Aye."
"I-is that normal?"
"More or less. Sir William is a lord knight . . . and my father has been his enemy for a long time. Meeting like this to discuss a treaty, I suppose hed want to bring a fair amount of muscle just in case we decided to be less-than-honorable about it." The young woman squinted to make out details. "A contingent of guards that large would need some pretty heavy support . . . squires, cooks, that sort of thing."
Kaleah studied the group, but saw only mounted knights. "So where are they?"
"I dont know." Kaleah heard a faint suspicious tone in her friends voice. "Maybe they left them at a camp in the woods. But wherever they are, the fact that Lancaster didnt bring them with him means he doesnt intend to stay long . . . probably just tonight."
"And what does that mean?"
Jessica shrugged. "If you were serious about a peace treaty even a temporary one how much time would you give to discussing it with your enemy?"
Kaleah considered that and realized what the young woman was driving at. "You think maybe Lancaster has no real intention of signing a treaty? But . . . why would he go to all this trouble?"
Jessicas brow furrowed. "I dont know," she whispered. "Maybe its nothing . . . Lancaster might just want to get everything out of the way as quick as he can. That makes sense too; he cant be comfortable about meeting on enemy ground. But still . . ." She frowned as the men hailed the guards at the gate, stating their business. "Something about this whole thing doesnt feel right."
Sir Richard arrived in the courtyard, dressed in full ceremonial armor with Sir Miles and Charles flanking him. A score of other knights fell into step behind as honor guard, and they marched with stiff dignity to the gates just as they were opened to admit the visitors.
"Should we go down there?" Kaleah asked, watching Sir Richard clasp hands formally with a large, similarly armored man; apparently Sir William.
Jessica laughed. "Dressed like this? Are you kidding?" She held out her arms, displaying the simple, rumpled tunic and trousers.
"Not appropriate, huh?" Kaleah smiled, thinking the young woman would look beautiful if she was wearing torn rags and mud.
"My father would kill me if I presented myself like this before an enemy lord during a formal peace meeting." Jessica laughed again. "This whole thing is all about show," she explained. "We have to present a strong, civilized face or else Sir William will be at an advantage."
Kaleah gave her a blank look. "But if you already are strong, why does it matter? Surely Sir William knows its all just an act."
"Of course he knows. And hell know tonight at the dinner that, no matter how fancy I may have dressed up, I usually dress like a man and wave a sword around my head." She grinned, and added, "And Ill know that underneath all his shiny armor, hes still just a brutal, treacherous bastard."
Kaleah shook her head. "I dont get it. Why the whole performance if you both know none of its real?"
Jessica sighed, wondering how to explain something she didnt fully understand herself. "Its what most nobles do," she said after a moment. "We try to look nice, and speak politely to one another . . . but underneath, we have all the same faults as anyone else. Its all just a big game . . . like chess. And like in chess, the best way to play it is with subtlety. If you make a mistake . . . a word out of place, an incorrect gesture . . . you give your enemy the upper hand. And while it may look more civilized, believe me, these games can be just as bloody and violent as a real life battle."
Kaleah turned back to watch Sir Richard greet his guest, noting now the stiff and practiced way he held himself, the considered actions. "Are you sure I should be attending this dinner then?" she asked. "I dont know anything about such things."
Jessica patted her on the shoulder and chuckled. "That wont matter, Kaleah. Believe me."
Blue eyes looked at her in question. "Oh?"
Jessica took the taller womans arm and led her back down the stairs, ignoring the curious, amused looks the soldiers gave them. "My father knows you have no training in court intrigue, but he wants you at the dinner anyway," she told her friend.
"Because Sir William wont know what to make of you," she said, grinning. Seeing the blank look on Kaleahs face, she continued. "You have a powerful presence Kaleah, whether you realize it or not. Sir William will notice you immediately . . . and your presence at such an important function will tell him youre an important part of DaGran. Youll become an important game-piece . . . someone he doesnt know and therefore cant predict."
"But I dont have anything to do with any of this stuff!" Kaleah argued, not much liking the idea of being treated like some pawn.
"That doesnt matter," Jessica assured her. "Sir William doesnt know that. But youll be a force my father can use to his advantage simply by including you in the dinner. Thats a big part of court negotiations . . . knowing how to gain something from nothing, and making the most of what you have available."
Kaleah suddenly jerked away from her, her eyes flashing angrily. "I dont like being made into a puppet!" she growled.
Jessicas smile disappeared when she realized how Kaleah had taken this explanation. "Hey . . ." she said soothingly. "Its not like that." She reached out, but Kaleah drew back. She sighed. "My father would never force you to attend the dinner Kaleah. Youre a free agent in this castle . . . not one of his subjects. But if you do come, youd be an asset to him, thats all." She smiled tentatively, seeing her friend relax a little. "If its any consolation, Im no different."
She shook her head. "My father will put me on display because he knows Im one of his strongest game-pieces. And unlike you, I have no choice about attending." She smiled a little more. "Hell present me as his daughter all wrapped in lace and perfume . . . all the while knowing Sir William can see the steel underneath." When she reached out again, Kaleah did not pull away. "I want you with me," she said, linking their arms once more. "Youre my friend . . . and if you dont mind me saying so, Im quite looking forward to showing you off."
Kaleah let go her sudden anger easily, letting the warmth of the young womans touch melt it away. She grinned down at the proud look on Jessicas face and snorted. "Not much to show off, Im afraid," she said. "Unless you think theyll be impressed by a foreign barbarian."
Jessica returned the grin mischievously and patted her hand over Kaleahs arm. "Well see," she said mysteriously. "I think you might be surprised." Grinning ear to ear, she led them back to their rooms. There was a lot to do before the dinner that night.
Jessica spoke with a servant as soon as they arrived back in the familiar part of the castle that housed their chambers. Though Kaleah had her doubts about all this, she couldnt deny that she enjoyed the excitement her young friend was displaying. If Jessica wanted to see her all dressed up in fancy clothes, she wouldnt deny her such a simple pleasure . . . no matter if it made her uncomfortable.
The two sat and talked a few minutes before there was a knock at the door. Jessica opened it and waved in the group of women standing in the hallway. She gestured to her friend and made introductions.
"Kaleah, this is June." She indicated a tall, heavy-set woman of advancing years who stepped forward with a beaming smile. Kaleah bobbed her head uncertainly. "Shes my mothers seamstress and general hand-maiden."
"Ach, get on with ye, child!" the elderly woman laughed, smacking Jessica lightly. "Im many years past bein called a maiden!" She turned clear, intelligent eyes to Kaleah, studying her curiously. "So, yer the one whats been causin my lady so much heat?" She grinned and nodded, as though pleased, then nudged Jessica slyly. "Ye mothers none too pleased with ye bout this affair, Jess."
The young woman returned her grin and shrugged. "Since when has that stopped me?"
"Aye, well . . ." She looked Kaleah up and down. "Well see if we cant surprise her tonight, shall we?"
Jessica nodded while Kaleah gave her a puzzled, slightly wary look. She saw the dark womans trepidation and reassured her quickly. "Kaleah, I asked June here to find something for you to wear at the dinner. Shes going to fix you up so you look as much like a true noble-woman as my own mother."
June bit her lip as her eyes fell on Kaleahs bruises and the scar across her lips. "Gonna be tough to hide those marks, Jess."
"Just do what you can for the bruises," Jessica told her. "Forget the scars. We dont want to mask them."
"If ye say so." June did not appear convinced, but she smiled at Kaleah reassuringly. "My, girl, but dont you just have the prettiest eyes. And hair like midnight . . ." She reached out to touch the raven tresses, but Kaleah pulled back. The old woman nodded as if shed expected it, and drew her hand away. "Touchy as Ive heard, too."
Jessica stepped up and took Kaleah by the hands. "Its alright, Kaleah. June wont hurt you, she just wants to measure your body so she can fit the dress to you right. Then later on, shell fix your hair and stuff like that."
Kaleah swallowed nervously. "I-I thought . . . youd be doing all that for me," she whispered hopefully.
Jessica shook her head sadly. "I cant. I dont know how. Shell be doing the same thing for me when youre finished though, and shes really very gentle. Youll be fine."
"I dont like to be touched." Kaleahs voice was strained and so low only Jessica could hear her.
The blonde gave her a warm hug then smiled. "I know," she replied softly. "But Ill be here while they measure you . . . and itll only take a few minutes to get your hair fixed up. Please Kaleah?" She gazed imploringly into deep blue eyes. "Could you do this for me?"
Feeling those glowing wet emeralds burning into her soul, Kaleah could only swallow and nod. "Okay," she choked. She knew she would do anything Jessica asked at that moment. "But that looks gonna start loosing its effect if you use it too often." She offered a shaky grin and Jessica returned it, planting a soft kiss on the back of her wrist as they separated. Kaleah suppressed an involuntary groan. The friendly kiss burned her skin like liquid fire.
For the next half-hour, Kaleah posed as June directed her while the other women took measurements that she didnt understand. It took a great deal of effort for the former slave to keep her body still as so many hands invaded her personal space. Her blood felt like lightening was coursing through it, and she felt suffocated and desperate for the ordeal to be done with. The only thing that kept her from simply shoving the women away was the calm young woman standing next to her, occasionally reaching out to pat her arm whenever it felt like things were getting too much. Jessicas presence distracted Kaleah from the measuring. Her touch soothed her fevered spirit like nothing else ever had.
Eventually, after what seemed like forever, the women had collected whatever information it was they wanted and departed. June promised the dress would be ready by that afternoon, and she would return to prepare the two of them a few hours before the dinner was due to start.
Kaleah sighed as the door closed and she was alone again with her friend. She sat down on the bed, her muscles uncoiling slowly. "I didnt like that," she said quietly.
"I know. But you did really good Kaleah. Really good. When you first came to DaGran, you wouldnt have been able to sit still like that. But now you can."
"Because of you." The dark womans blue eyes shyly gazed up at the young blonde. "You wont be with me when they do . . . whatever it is theyll do to me tonight, will you?"
Jessica shook her head. "But it wont take long," she promised. "And June is very gentle. You can trust her not to hurt you."
Kaleah sighed and flopped back onto the stuffed mattress, resting an arm over her face. She closed her eyes. "I guess Ill be okay," she said. An eye cracked open and turned to Jessica. "You hungry?"
"Sure. My father and Charles will both be busy with Sir William for the rest of the day. Ill get someone to bring us some food."
"I dont suppose well be doing any training today, huh?"
"Not likely," Jessica agreed. "Wed best keep a low profile with Lancasters men about." The young woman summoned a servant who went to fetch them some late breakfast. Then she joined her friend on the bed. "Tonight should be fun. We should aim to arrive a little late . . . I want to make a good entrance."
Kaleah smiled, noticing the heightened flush in Jessicas face, and the sparkle of excitement in her eyes. "You really enjoy this stuff, dont you?"
Jessica gave her a roguish grin. "You should see me right before a battle," she said with a wink. "This is the first time weve had a real formal dinner in a long time. I may like to dress and behave like a warrior most of the time . . . but that doesnt mean I dont know how to be a lady when the occasion calls for it."
"I know. Your whole body changes when you slip into that role. Even your voice sounds different."
Jessica waved her hands and blew a bit of hair out of her face. "I usually only do that when my mothers around. The people in DaGran are used to me looking a mess . . . and you along with me. But tonight," Kaleah could hear the smile in her voice, "tonight . . . we get the chance to show everyone just how civilized we barbarians can be."
With a slight sigh, Jessica turned her back on the door to Kaleahs room and studied herself in the mirror for the tenth time in as many minutes. The servants had completed their work on her some time ago, and now she was waiting for June to finish up with her friend in the next room.
It was some time since Kaleah had returned from her bath (which Jessica had watched once more, reveling in the delightful ache her voyeurism generated in her loins), only to be led away by a very gentle June for her preparations. The young blonde knew Kaleah must be getting flighty by now. The urge to go in there and rescue her was strong, but she knew June wouldnt stand for her barging in. So she sat as calmly as she could and studied her reflected appearance while trying not to dart anxious glances at the door behind her.
A slight smile touched Jessicas lips as she admitted to herself the women had done a very good job. Her hair usually wild and free had been tamed with gentle persistence into a series of intricate braids, which had then been curled into an elaborate coif design that rather suited the soft lines of her face. Her eyes had been very lightly accented with dyed coal, as had her full lips. The dress she wore clung to her muscular figure, and she couldnt help but blush a little at the low neckline which revealed more cleavage than she might have liked.
Still, she assessed critically, she certainly had nothing to be embarrassed about. Her body was attractive; firm and toned from hours of training, unlike most women of the nobility who tended towards slender lines with narrow legs and arms. Her breasts were full and firm, and she filled out the soft green dress very nicely. But still . . . she wasnt accustomed to displaying herself in quite so feminine a manner. The elegant silver necklace that hung at her throat felt constricting, and she kept rubbing at the rings and bracelets that adorned her fingers and wrists. Despite the discomfort, she couldnt help but grin a little as she wondered if Kaleah would like the way she looked.
She hoped so.
At last, the door to Kaleahs room creaked open and Jessica stood up, turning to greet her friend. Her excited smile vanished, however, when her jaw dropped at the sight before her.
Jessica had thought Kaleahs exotic features attractive before, but she found the vision of her now to be almost overwhelming. The dark woman was dressed in a full-length, royal blue dress which displayed her slender, athletic body even better than her armor did. Delicate shoes adorned her feet, and though Jessica knew her friend didnt like jewelry, June had somehow managed to convince her to wear a simple, elegant silver pendant about her neck. Kaleahs long, sable tresses had been braided with pieces of colorful string, then gathered back into an incredibly intricate coif that highlighted her sweeping, angular features. The bruises that still marred her face were almost indistinguishable, but June had left the slashing scar across the dark womans sensuous lips alone. As Jessica had suspected, the vivid white scar stood out in stark contrast against the red of her lips, drawing the eye and highlighting the perfection of Kaleahs face, not detracting from it.
Jessica eyes widened further and her heart almost stopped when she at last met her friends shy gaze. June had highlighted Kaleahs most striking feature with dark lines of finely-ground coal dust, making the dazzling orbs seem amazingly bright and intense. The lines drew out to the very tips of her eye-brows in a style Jessica knew would be thought of as scandalous among the nobility. But the overall effect was stunning, and the young blonde understood and applauded what June had set out to achieve.
Kaleah could never blend in with the other attendees. The primal aura surrounding her was simply too powerful . . . she would stand out no matter how she dressed. So rather than try to hide Kaleahs features, the talented hand-maiden had decided instead to flaunt them. The dark woman looked like some kind of barbarian Goddess; exotic and radiant, with an untamable strength that seemed to flow from her in sensuous waves of energy.
Jessica eventually managed to get her jaw off the ground and back into working order, noting with relief that Kaleah was too busy staring at her to notice her reaction. She smiled when the dark woman finished looking and gave her a shy smile of her own.
"You look amazing," the young blonde breathed, stepping closer and reaching out a hand to touch the braided hair.
Kaleah flushed and shuffled her feet nervously "You, too."
June entered the room, closing the door behind her. She beamed at Jessicas awe-struck reaction. "She scrubbed up real nice," she said proudly, giving Jess a once over and nodding in approval. "Yell knock em dead, ye will. I wish I could be there to see the look on yer mothers face when you walk into that hall!"
Jess grinned. "Thank you, Rose. You did a wonderful job."
"Aye, well, its easy when Ive got something so nice to work with," the old woman said warmly, patting Kaleah on the arm gently. The former slave only tensed slightly, but submitted to the affectionate gesture. "Ive got to go finish with my lady now, Jess." She gave the young blonde a quick hug. "Ill see ye later, okay?"
The two companions stood awkwardly a few moments after June left, just letting their eyes roam over the other slowly. When their eyes met, they both laughed a little at the expression in the others eyes.
"I cant believe how beautiful you look," Jessica said, shaking her head in amazement. "I mean . . . wow!"
Kaleah lowered her head, pleased at the response but shy. "Thanks." She looked at herself in a nearby mirror and smiled a little. It was hard to reconcile the image of her reflection with what she was accustomed to. "I never thought I could look like this," she whispered almost to herself. Her fingers rose to play with the pendant about her neck.
"Do you like it?"
Kaleah nodded. "Its just so . . . unexpected. I mean, Ive lived my whole life hating the fact that men found me attractive. My beauty was a curse. But now . . ." She gazed into Jessicas verdant eyes, feeling her stomach flip-flop as she felt herself falling. "Youre the first person who really made me want to be beautiful," she whispered.
Jessica just smiled. "Well, I think you look beautiful no matter what youre wearing," she said, noticing with interest the blush that her words inspired. "Youll do fine tonight, Kaleah. I know you will."
"I hope so." The dark woman went back to regarding her reflection in amazement. "I may look a lot fancier . . . but I cant pretend to sound cultured like you can. And I dont know court manners like you do."
"Thats not important," Jess argued. "You have a power inside you that puts you on their level. Just remember; for people like my mother and Sir William, the nobility they have is just a veil to hide their weaknesses and true intentions. What you have inside is worth so much more . . . because it comes from the soul." The young blonde patted Kaleah on the shoulder and gave her a serious look. "If you want them to see and believe in the power you have within . . . all you have to do is believe in it yourself."
Kaleah nodded and swallowed a lump in her throat. Before Jessica had come along, she had believed herself to be strong; a life in chains killed those who were anything but. Now, having seen herself as she had been through more mature eyes, Kaleah knew she had not been as strong as she thought. She had made herself numb to her life . . . had let the pain and suffering beat her down to the level of dumb beast. Jessica had shown her how strong she could be . . . had become her source of hope and light. Kaleah had grown stronger than she had ever been before; strong enough to have a friend. Strong enough to fall in love.
Maybe, if she believed in the power of her love enough, she could make Jessica believe in it, too.
But not tonight, Kaleah reminded herself. Tonight, she had to curb her natural fears and focus on the task at hand. She was starting to admit to herself albeit with great trepidation that Jessica did indeed seem to be giving her signals of interest; but now was not the time to explore the subject more fully. Tonight was about pretending to be something she wasnt, not about revealing the truths that were in her heart.
Drawing strength from the young woman still gazing up at her, Kaleah let her confidence grow as she saw the faith her friend had in her. "I can believe in myself Jess," she said softly, "because you do." She offered a slight, happy smile, her eyes twinkling against the dark of her make-up at the surprised look on the blondes face. She turned away and let the comment sink in. "Want to play a game of chess before the dinner starts? Might as well let me beat you again."
Jessica managed to hear the dark woman over the pounding of her heart, and nodded. "Sure," she said, coughing a little to clear away the lump in her throat. She grinned at Kaleah, who sat down at the chess table and began to arrange the pieces. "And I dont let you beat me, my friend. You win fair and square." She rubbed her hands together and sat opposite the dark-haired woman. "Dont think thats gonna happen tonight though. Ive figured out your strategy . . . youre lucky streak is over."
Kaleah snorted. "Yeah, right. If youre going to go easy on me, you should at least make it less obvious. Nobodys stupid enough to make some of those moves you were making Hey!"
Jessica slapped her playfully. "Dont call my moves stupid then," she growled. "I was just testing to see what worked."
Kaleah rubbed her arm in an exaggerated way and gave the young woman a hurt look. "Well it was obvious they wouldnt work," she said, moving a pawn forward. "And they were stupid," she muttered under her breath.
"What was that?"
"Nothing," she said innocently. "Your move."
Several hours passed before Jessica decided it was time for them to head off. As they made their way with dignified grace to the audience hall, Jessica enjoyed the shocked reactions they received from the servants and guards they passed. She knew the people had seen her dressed up like this before, but Kaleah was a different story. Glancing to her side, Jess smiled proudly at her friends regal bearings and strong, confidant poise.
She knew Kaleah was nervous on the inside, but the former slave was covering her fears with this illusion of power. Walking up to the imposing doors of the audience hall, Jessica could feel the waves of animal energy radiating from the dark woman. She grinned a little as she wondered what kind of impact Kaleah would make.
The two guards stationed at the double doors could only stare at the two women for a long moment, before Jessica cleared her throat and gave them a playful wink. They immediately blushed and bowed at the waist in respect to the young noble-woman, before throwing open the great doors. A wave of heat, music and conversation engulfed them before one of the guards banged his halberd on the floor and announced their arrival to the already assembled guests.
The noise stopped as the gathered people rose from their seats to welcome the two women. Jessica stepped forward and held herself proudly under the eyes of so many people, accustomed to being put on display. While she had not been greatly interested in her mothers lessons on etiquette, she had learned the social graces well despite her disinterest. She sensed Kaleah enter behind her, and saw everyones attention shift instantly to her captivating companion. The young woman didnt need to glance backwards to know that Kaleah was uncomfortable with the attention, but from the low murmurings her appearance generated through the room, she could tell that the people were impressed by what they saw.
Glancing about quickly, Jessica took in the layout of the room. A dozen or so tables had been arranged in a large rectangle, with Sir Richard, Sir Miles and the members of DaGrans court seated down one side, and Sir William and his most trusted men filling out the other. A small group of musicians played in the background, and several servants hovered about with jugs of mead or platters of food, ready to provide whatever was desired for the guests. Jessica also noticed a few figures holding back in the shadows, and recognized them as being Eric Grace and Damon Cook. No doubt the two were here to watch out for their respective lord.
Finishing her swift appraisal which lasted only a heartbeat, Jessica smiled radiantly and bowed a little to her father. She noticed Kaleah doing the same out the corner of her eye. "Forgive out lateness, father," she said, her voice clear and cultured. "Our preparations ran over-long."
That was obviously a lie, and the slight smile on Sir Richards face told her he knew it. Jessica had planned on their tardiness to make a better, more dramatic entrance. From the looks on the peoples faces, she had succeeded well.
Sir Richard nodded and gestured to the two empty places at his table. "Quite alright, Jessica," he rumbled. "Wont you join us."
"Thank you, father."
The guests resumed their seats as Jessica led Kaleah around to their places. Her seat was to the right of Charles, as befitted their betrothed status, and he in turn was seated next to the Lady Rose. She gave him a mischievous smile when she saw his eyes drift to Kaleah in awe, before allowing a servant to assist her into her chair with refined dignity. Kaleah did the same, sitting with a controlled grace to her right.
The dark womans outward expression was calm and serene, but when their eyes met for a brief moment, Jessica could see the tension in Kaleahs eyes. She gave her friend a reassuring smile, which was returned timidly. A plate of food was set before her, and another for Kaleah. The musicians started to play again, and after a moment, the conversation followed. Giving her father a quick grin, she signaled a servant to fill her mug and then cast her eyes to the opposite table to study their guests.
Sir William had changed little since the last time shed seen him. Dressed in full ceremonial armor just like her father, the lord knight cut a pretty impressive figure. Short but muscular, Lancaster had thick dark hair just running to grey, and long, braided mustaches that gave him a perpetually frowning expression. His shrewd, calculating eyes were fixed on Kaleah, but they quickly snapped to her when he realized he was being watched. Jessica gave the enemy lord a slight nod and smile, then raised a mug in salute. He returned it, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.
Looking around the table, Jessica saw that many people were looking at her friend curiously, and not just their guests. While Kaleah may have become an accepted presence about the castle lately, no-one had seen her dressed like this before. Most of the men were looking at the former slave with simple amazement, while the women regarded her with expressions of jealously and trepidation. Glancing to the left, Jessica saw that none were more surprised by the dark womans appearance than her mother. The expression of shock on Lady Roses face gave Jessica a rather vicious sense of satisfaction.
Look at your barbarian peasant now, mother, she snarled silently. She may be a savage, but she can play the part of nobility just fine. And if I find out you had anything to do with her beating, Ill make sure you learn firsthand just how savage I can be!
Jessica was distracted from her thoughts when Kaleah leaned closer to her and whispered, "I take it thats Sir William?" nodding to where the knight was watching with interest.
She nodded. "Thats him, alright,"
Kaleah smiled a little and nodded to the man, who returned the gesture after a moment of confusion. "Hes paying a lot of attention to me, considering hes never seen me before in his life."
"Hes trying to figure out who you are, just like I said he would," Jessica explained.
"But why should he care?"
Jessica smiled and delicately took a bite of food from her plate. "I told you," she whispered back, "you have a real presence, Kaleah. He can feel the power in you . . . and he wants to understand it. Hes unsure of your position in the castle. You could be a threat to him, or possibly an ally."
They watched the lord knight as he watched them, seeing his brow crease in thought. Apparently concluding that a direct approach would work best, Lancaster raised his voice and addressed Jessicas father.
"Sir Richard, I see an unfamiliar face at the table." He smiled and nodded towards Kaleah. All eyes turned to regard the former slave curiously. "Might you not introduce me to this young woman keeping company with your charming daughter?"
Sir Richard smiled and nodded. "Of course, Sir William." He stood and gestured to Kaleah. "I would be delighted to introduce to you Kaleah . . . a young woman recently come to our castle from Spain. My daughter, Jessica, met her but a few months ago and the two found they shared much in common. She has been our guest since then, and they have become firm friends." He smiled fondly at Kaleah, who fought to maintain her calm and detached mask. "I am most grateful that my daughter has found such pleasant company."
The Lady Rose scowled. Jessicas sharp eyes noticed, and again she wondered to what lengths her mother might go to break apart this friendship.
Sir William smiled pleasantly at Kaleah. "I am most pleased to make your acquaintance . . . Kaleah, is it?"
Kaleah nodded. "Yes . . . thank you, lordship," she said, not even trying to hide her accent. "The pleasure is surely mine."
"Of course." Sir William stroked his mustaches thoughtfully as he studied the two women. An eyebrow raised in question. "I am curious to know what common interests you have found with young Jessica here," he pondered aloud. He could feel a dangerous energy emanating from this strange woman, and recognized an unstable force when he saw one. He turned his attention to the vivacious blonde. "Perhaps your focus has shifted since last we met, Jessica?"
The young noble gave him a thin smile. "Not particularly, Sir William," she replied coolly. She could feel her fathers eyes on her, watching to see how she dealt with the situation. "My studies have merely advanced . . . not shifted. Kaleah has proven to be the perfect companion for me . . . she has been of great assistance to my education."
"Truly?" Sir Williams brow raised further as he assessed the dark woman in light of this. Clearly then, she was a warrior of some sort. Her features were barbaric, and her accent most peculiar. She seemed a strange companion for his rivals daughter. He smiled at Jessica. "I still remember our last meeting," he said, his tone carefully polite but his eyes cold. "It was, if I recall correctly, one of the most interesting encounters Ive ever had."
Jessica took a sip of her water and gave him a soft, coy smile. "Indeed?"
"Yes, very much so. In fact, I think you taught me better than anyone the folly of judging a person on appearances alone." Sir William raised his mug to her in a toast. "A valuable lesson, to be sure."
Jessica batted her eyelids in innocently. "One well learned, I trust?"
He nodded, grinning in an unpleasant way. "Oh, very well learned, I assure you."
Jessica smiled, and returned to her meal. Glancing serupticiously at her father, she saw a slight frown on his face which she simply returned with a shrug. What did you expect me to do? she asked silently. He was baiting me.
Kaleah was a little confused by this exchange. She took a few bites of food from her plate as elegantly as she could, though in truth her stomach was churning with stress. Only the calming presence of Jessica beside her kept her from making a hasty departure. She raised an eyebrow at her young friend, who leaned closer to explain.
"He wanted to find out if youre a fighter like me," Jess explained quietly. "Did you notice the way he didnt refer to me as a warrior?"
"Thats because it would be a social blunder for him to suggest that a young lady of the nobility such as myself would engage in such a violent pursuit. So he dances around the words, and uses insinuations to ask his questions."
Kaleah absorbed this, starting to gain a slightly better comprehension of this intricate world of court intrigue. "What was that last bit about?"
"About me teaching him a valuable lesson?" Jess hid a smile by taking a sip of water. "The last time Sir William attacked us, he managed to actually get his army close to the castle itself. My father led a charge against him before he could raze the village. I went with him, and during the fight I had a run in with Sir William himself."
Kaleahs eyes widened at the thought. She knew from her talks with Jessica that a lord knight would receive the highest standard in training. She had little doubt Sir William was a formidable fighter. "What happened?"
Jessica smiled and speared a baby carrot from her plate. "Hed never met me before, so he thought I was some foolish peasant girl who got caught in the crossfire," she said, taking a bite and chewing happily. "Imagine his surprise when he attacked me only to discover he was taking on one of DaGrans finest warriors."
"You beat him?"
Green eyes sparkled in the torchlight as Jess nodded. "Disarmed him before he knew what was going on. I know I would have lost if hed known who I was . . . but the surprise was enough to let me win." She cast the rival lord a charming look. "Of course, with my sword at his neck Sir William was forced to call a retreat. I let him go, and he pulled his men out of our lands . . . albeit reluctantly."
Kaleah frowned. "He must hate you."
"Im sure he does," Jessica agreed. "Being beaten by a scrap of a girl half your size cant do much for a mans ego. Still . . . he wants an alliance. Theres not much he can do about his anger if he expects this to work."
Kaleah nodded in understanding and went back to eating her meal. She took her time, noticing that everyone else seemed to be dragging the dinner out. The food was probably delicious, but it tasted all the same to the nervous woman. As she ate, Kaleah let her eyes wander about and tuned her ears to the conversations going on around her.
There were still many people watching her with various expressions of interest, and it dawned on her suddenly that Jessica was right. These people seemed to be in awe of her for some reason. Kaleah was used to men giving her looks of lust, certainly . . . but most of these men seemed timid in their appraisals. Like she was something beautiful but unattainable; a radiant star to be admired but never touched. It was, she mused, very different to what she was accustomed.
Feeling her confidence grow as she realized the power she apparently had, Kaleah sat up straighter and slowly swept the room with her heavily accentuated eyes. A smile quirked her lips when everyone watching her looked away rather than meet her steady gaze. This was almost fun, she thought, before reminding herself what Jessica had said. It was important to watch everything that was going on around her.
Adjusting her mind, Kaleah noticed quickly how formally everyone talked. Just like Jessica had explained, the people seemed to be taking extra care about what they said and how they said it. She also noticed quickly that there was little verbal communication going on between Sir Richards side of the table and Sir Williams. But while nothing much was being said out loud, the former slave could sense the subtle exchanges that were happening behind what Jessica had referred to as the veil of civility. Paying close attention, she watched every nuance of expression in the visiting lords face and body. What she saw made her instantly uneasy.
Jessica was currently engaged in conversation with Charles, and Kaleah noticed immediately that the two were very openly holding hands. A brief surge of jealousy hit her in the gut before she realized it was just a show for the benefit of Sir William. Still, the display of affection made her wish again that she could show the young woman how she felt . . . that they could share such intimate contact with such ease.
Kaleah nudged Jessica under the table to get her attention, and leaned closer when green eyes turned towards her. "I think you were right this morning when you said there was something not right about this whole treaty talk," she whispered when Jessica turned to listen to her. She blinked her eyes in Sir Williams direction. "He doesnt look like a man come to ask for an end to conflict."
Jessica nodded. She too had been watching the lord knight closely while holding idle conversation with her betrothed. She was pleased Kaleah had been paying attention as well. "His body language is defiant . . . cocky, even," she agreed. "Its like this whole thing means nothing to him."
"But like you said, if it means nothing then why the big show? Why come all the way out here if he doesnt care about the treaty talks?"
Jessica chewed a mouthful of potato thoughtfully. "I dont know," she admitted after a moment. "But look at the way hes looking around."
"He looks . . . confidant." Kaleahs eyes darkened. "He looks the same way I must have looked that first time we met and fought in the woods," she whispered. "Like hes already won the fight before its even started."
Jessica frowned. She had to admit, Sir William did indeed have the same expression on his face as Kaleah had when theyd first met. The thought was not a pleasant one. "But there is no fight," she insisted. "He hasnt the men to attack my fathers lands . . . and certainly not enough to lay siege to the castle." She watched as Sir William glanced at her, a cold smile on his face. The look in his eyes sent shivers down her spine. "What could he be planning?"
Kaleah shrugged. "I dont know, but watch his men, too." She inclined her head towards the other guests. "Look at the way theyre smiling."
The young blonde did so, and her concern deepened. "Theyre treating this as a joke," she observed. "If they were serious about this treaty, theyd all be stiff and at attention . . . but they look quite relaxed."
"Mmmhmm. Just polite enough to keep the game alive," Kaleah noted, touching her lips with her napkin and swallowing a sip of water. "If this were a game of chess . . . Id be getting pretty damned worried right about now." She raised a dark, highlighted eyebrow at her friend. "Should you say something to your father?"
Jessica considered, glancing at Sir Richard. "No," she said, seeing the stern, disciplined expression on his face. "He already knows somethings wrong. And besides, Grace is watching everything, too." She gestured subtly behind them to the advisor who stood in the shadows, easily overlooked. "He may be a bit of a ghoul, but he has a lot of experience at this sort of thing."
"So we just sit back and do nothing?" Kaleah didnt like the idea of just letting everything go when she knew there was something wrong. She caught the playful look in Jessicas green eyes and the roguish smile that was quickly banished. She managed to muffle a slight chuckle behind her hand. "I guess not, huh?"
Jessica waggled her eyebrows. "You should know me better than that by now, my friend," she said softly, her smile quickly returning to what one would expect of an innocent and well-bred young maiden.
Kaleah smirked. "So what do we do then?"
Jessica just gave her a mysterious, playful look and turned back to her meal. "First thing . . . we finish our dinner like the perfect young ladys we are." She gave her companion a crooked smile as she took a dainty bite of carrot and chewed happily. "Then . . . I think Id like to hear exactly what our arrogant visitor has to say for himself."
Kaleahs brow furrowed in confusion. "I thought you said you werent allowed to be a part of the treaty discussion, Jess."
The young blonde gave her a quick wink. "Like you said when you carted me off to the village, Kaleah . . . my father doesnt need to know about everything we do. Does he?"
Kaleah could only shake her head and hope her young friend wasnt going to get them into trouble.
"Now remember," Jessica told her companion again in a low voice, "we have to be very quiet or theyll hear us."
Kaleah sighed and promised dutifully to remain silent . . . for the tenth time.
The dinner had ended an hour ago, quite pleasantly but with a tension coiling below the surface that spoke of something nasty brewing. Returning to their rooms, the two women had changed quickly out of their formal dresses into more comfortable clothes. Then, joining Jessica in her friends room, Kaleah had watched her open the hidden fireplace entrance and lead the way into the darkness beyond.
A long, very winding journey through the concealed passageways had brought them here . . . wherever here was. Kaleah had never really had too good a sense of direction, and without the presence of her young friend would have been completely lost. Jessica had doused the torch and left it behind a while ago, and they were going mostly by touch alone.
"How can you tell where we are?" she had asked at one point.
"Ive explored every inch of these catacombs," Jessica had replied softly. "Once you get used to them, theyre not that confusing really."
"Have you ever gotten lost down here?"
She had heard the grin in her companions voice even though she couldnt see it. "A few times, sure. I remember once it took me more than a day to find my way out. And its not really down here, Kaleah. More than half the passages are above ground, just like the rest of the castle."
Kaleah had scowled. These passageways were dark and confusing, they smelled of earth and dust and gave the impression of being deep underground. Thats all she needed to feel justified referring to them as being down here.
A few moments latter, Kaleah who had been walking with one hand on her companions back so she didnt bump into anything realized the tunnels were getting a little lighter. She found she could make out the details of her companions face and figure. Jessica moved forward more confidently, putting a finger to her lips to remind Kaleah that silence was called for. The former slave rolled her eyes and joined the younger woman at the source of the faint light.
It was a metal grill set into the side of the tunnel. Peering through, Kaleah saw what looked confusingly like a narrow, vertical tunnel leading straight up. It was only when her nostrils detected the strong scent of coal-dust and ashes that she realized she was looking at the inside of a chimney. To her surprise, she could also hear voices coming from below, the sound echoing strangely in the stony darkness.
Jessica leant very close and breathed in her ear, "The chimney leads to the fireplace in my fathers formal chambers. Thats where theyll be having the discussions. We can hear what they say, but if we talk too loud, theyll hear us, too. Just listen."
Kaleah felt her knees go weak from Jessicas nearness, and she filed away the sensation of warm breath trickling through her hair for later enjoyment. The two were sitting very close together in the cramped passage, and Kaleah had to take a moment to focus her attention away from the distracting smell of Jessicas perfume in order to make sense of the dim words being filtered to them via the fireplace.
She could recognize the voices of Jessicas father, Sir William, Charles and Eric Grace, but there were a few she couldnt place. She decided they must belong to Sir Williams advisors. Breathing quietly, the two young women crouched together with ears pricked as they listened to the conversation taking place.
Kaleah frowned as she took everything in. From what she heard, it seemed the roving bands of raiders and bandits that Jessica said had been preying off the peasants and merchants in Sir Richards lands had been causing even more trouble to Sir William. The neighboring lord claimed his men were hard pressed to deal with the situation, and thus he was asking for aid from his old rival. In exchange for Sir Richards assistance, Sir William was offering to sign a formal treaty that would prevent him from launching any kind of hostile attacks against his neighbor for an undecided length of time. Kaleah knew from Jessica that if the treaty were broken, the King himself would ensure that justice was carried out. Therefore, the former slave understood that such an agreement could be of great benefit to her friends father.
On the surface, the proposal seemed simple enough; rational, reasonable and not too hard to swallow. But there was something about the way Lancaster and his men were talking that made Kaleah choke on what was being offered. And by the look on Jessicas face, she could tell her young companion felt the same way.
They listened for a few more minutes as the men continued to discuss the matter, learning that Sir William intended to leave early in the morning. He claimed he could not be gone long from his lands, but promised he would send a messenger to finalize the arrangements if everything was alright by Sir Richard. When they had heard as much as they needed to hear, Jessica signaled to Kaleah and led them away from the grill.
They walked for a few minutes in silence, Kaleah taking Jessicas hand as the light faded and they were plunged back into the inky darkness. Before long, the young blonde found the torch she had left behind and lit it again, filling the passageway with flickering, dancing light.
"What did you think?" she asked her tall, rapidly blinking companion.
Kaleah shook her head as she adjusted from the darkness. "It sounded good," she admitted, "but like everything else, something about the whole thing doesnt sit right."
Jessica nodded in agreement. "The bandits would have to be hitting pretty hard for Sir William to make such an offer." They started walking back towards the more familiar passages they had explored last time theyd been down here. "But if its all a big ruse . . . whats he really after?"
"An attack?" Kaleah guessed.
"Itd be suicide, like I said," Jessica disagreed. "He hasnt the men for a frontal assault." Her sharp, military mind worked quickly through the possibilities, but there wasnt anything she could think of that fit the scenario.
"Perhaps hes trying for something more subtle," Kaleah suggested. "Maybe he came here to see if he could find any weaknesses."
"An attack from within?" Jessica started to run her fingers through her hair absently, only to realize it was still braided into the intricate coif. She cursed mildly, hearing her companion chuckle at her strong words. She growled playfully, then considered the suggestion. "Its possible," she admitted, "but what weakness is there to take advantage of? DaGran is strong . . . the men are loyal . . ." She remembered her conversation with her father from a few days ago and frowned. "If Lancaster wants to take the castle, hell find it difficult to say the least."
"Still," Kaleah mused, "this could all be simply a scouting mission."
"Reconnaissance?" Jessica shrugged and sighed. "Its the best idea weve got so far."
"Whats rec . . . recon . . ."
"Reconnaissance?" Kaleah mustnt have heard the word before. "It means to go ahead to look around in new territory . . . like what you said. Scout the place for weaknesses and strengths. Stuff like that."
"Oh." Kaleah filed the word away in her mind, repeating it to memorize it thoroughly so she wouldnt forget. "Will your father agree with his proposal?"
"I dont know," Jessica said. They finally reached the hidden door that led to her bedroom, and she opened it and slipped through into the light beyond. Kaleah followed before she carefully sealed it behind them. "Hell probably stall until he knows for sure that Sir William is sincere . . . but after that, I cant be sure. Such an agreement would be of too great a benefit to ignore, no matter how suspicious my father may be."
"I guess this is one of those things where we just have to wait and see, huh?"
"Yeah." Jessica watched with a smile as Kaleah flopped happily onto her bed. "Comfortable?"
Kaleah flashed her one of her playful grins that took in her whole face and nodded. The dark coal-dust around her eyes made them appear luminescent. "Very."
"Humph. You know you have your own bed, right?"
"I know. But yours is right here . . . and its sooo soft." She wriggled back onto the bed more fully. She nodded towards the fireplace and the catacombs beyond. "Are there many places like that one in the passages?"
"You know? Places where you can spy on what everyones doing?" Kaleah waggled her eyebrows. "Anyone ever tell you its not nice to eavesdrop?"
Jessica couldnt help but blush, thinking of her more recent secret activities at the peep-hole. "Um . . . I know that. But no-one gets hurt. There are lots of places like that in the castle. I only use them to watch the servants and soldiers."
"I see." Kaleah flashed her a wicked grin, her eyes sparkling. "I guess that explains how you know what everyone in the castles doing all the time, huh?"
Jess nodded, quickly trying to settle her blood. "I used to have a lot of time on my hands," she explained. "Since my mother wouldnt let me be friends with any of the servants, watching the people in secret was the best way I had to keep myself busy." She shrugged. "Even if they didnt know I was there . . . it still made me feel less lonely."
Kaleahs smile faltered as she heard the sadness in her friends voice. It was so easy to forget that Jessica had been so alone before she had come along. "Well," she said after a moment, "Im here now. Youre not lonely anymore, are you?"
Jess shook her head. "Thats why I havent been spying on anyone lately. Theres been no need."
Kaleahs smile returned. "Maybe we can go people-watching some time together, huh?"
"Sure, if you like." Best to stay faaar away from the bathing chamber, though, her mind put in. She doesnt need to know about that. The young blonde tried to run her fingers through her hair again, but scowled when she remembered she couldnt. "Could I get you to take my hair out for me?" Jessica indicated her braids.
"Only if youll do mine."
"Sure." The young blonde sat on the bed while her companion got behind her and, with slow, gentle fingers, began to undo the tight braids. Closing her eyes, Jessica let herself concentrate wholly on the magical hands that worked with infinite tenderness on her hair. Even though they werent physically touching, she could feel the heat radiating from the former slaves body . . . could sense every motion behind her.
"You did really well at the dinner tonight," she said, thinking if she didnt occupy her mouth with talking shed start whimpering in pleasure at the simple contact.
"Thanks." She could hear the smile on Kaleahs face. "I think you might be right about what you said. You know . . . about me having that inner power? The people seemed pretty impressed by us."
"Mmmm. Well, Im sure the clothes helped."
"Yeah . . ." There was something like surprise in Kaleahs voice. "I felt . . . kinda good tonight."
"You looked kinda good tonight." Jess grinned, knowing shed be replaying the image of her friend in the form-fitting blue dress and exotic make-up later that night.
"I guess I did." Kaleahs deft fingers worked for many moments in silence. "I, uh . . . I noticed some of the men watching me," she said softly, running her fingers through her friends thick hair that was almost all loose.
Jessica turned and waggled her eyebrows. "Im not surprised." She was pleased with the flush that rose in Kaleahs bronzed skin.
The dark woman giggled shyly and turned to let Jessica start on her hair. "I was."
"Really? I wouldnt have thought itd be something new for you." The young woman eagerly started to sort through the midnight braids, carefully working to remove the colored string from the silken hair.
"Its not. I mean . . . Im used to men looking at me, just . . . not like that."
Kaleah was quiet for a moment thinking. "Like . . . I was beautiful, not just desirable," she said softly. "The people at the dinner looked at me like I was . . . something they could admire, but never touch. Something with a beauty that wasnt necessarily sexual." She fiddled with a lock of hair that Jessica had unraveled, feeling her friend pause in her efforts. "Im . . . not really used to that."
"Oh." Jessica was still another moment, then let her hands continue their enjoyable task. "Does it bother you when people think of you sexually? I mean, you didnt seem too upset when it was the barmaid in the village." She couldnt help but grin. "Im pretty sure she thought you looked fully touchable."
Kaleah grinned as well, wondering what prompted the question. She thought she had a fair idea, but was still fearful of what might happen if she was reading the signals all wrong. "I dont care usually," she said, not wanting to discourage her friend if she wanted to have such thoughts. "It was just . . . different for me."
"Well, I for one thought you looked magnificent tonight," Jess said. She ran her fingers through the last tangles and giggled at the effect the braids had had on Kaleahs hair.
Curious blue eyes turned to look at her and she laughed harder. A slight smile touched Kaleahs lips. "Whats so funny?"
Jessica struggled and managed to get her mirth under control. "I-Its just your hair," she chuckled. "Its all frizzy." She covered her mouth as Kaleah went to look in the mirror, laughing herself when she saw her reflection.
"I look like I havent brushed it in weeks."
"Well . . ." Jessica took a lock of her own hair and studied it. "Mines not much better."
"Yeah, but your hair looks messy all the time," Kaleah teased. "I can hardly tell the difference."
"Hey!" Jessica grabbed a pillow and threw it at her friend hard. "Be nice."
Kaleah threw the pillow back and returned to the bed. She was amazed at how comfortable she felt in her friends bedroom now. The place was cozy and relaxed, and she probably spent more time in here than she did in her own room. Sighing, Kaleah glanced outside at the darkness that had spread across the land.
"I should probably get some rest," she observed regretfully. It was getting harder every day to leave Jessicas company.
"I guess so." Jessica looked almost as disappointed as she did. "Its been a busy day."
"Yeah." Kaleah lay for a minute in silence, delaying her departure. "Sir William said hed be leaving in the morning, right?"
"You feel up to a little training once hes gone? We havent done a lot the last few days."
"I dont know . . ." Jessica regarded the bruises that were now showing through the fading make-up on Kaleahs face. "Are you sure youre alright for that."
Kaleah waved her away. "Im fine," she said somewhat testily. She liked it that Jessica cared, but was quickly learning she could only enjoy being fussed over for short periods at a time. "My arm still aches a bit, but everything else is okay. I could really use a little exercise . . . help my muscles to stretch out a bit."
Jessica held the dark womans gaze for a long moment, then nodded. "Okay then, I guess we can do some sparring tomorrow." Kaleah did seem to have recovered from the beating very well, and it had been a while since theyd practiced. She really enjoyed their sessions together . . . it would be nice to get back into that.
Kaleah got up, stretching to relieve a kink in her neck. "Great." She groaned as an audible crick sounded. "Ill, uh, see you tomorrow then."
Once the dark woman was gone, Jessica fell back on the bed and gave a sound that was half-groan, half-sigh, and wholly frustrated. Every minute spent in Kaleahs presence made the ache in her body grow stronger. And every minute spent alone made her heart yearn to share this secret attraction and satisfy these rampant desires.
"I dont know if I can survive much more of this," she muttered to herself as her memory started sifting through captured images of the stunning woman.
I wouldnt worry too much, her mind chimed in. Somethings bound to snap sooner or later. Either this Right Moment thingy youre still pining for will come along . . . or else your desire will just drive you crazy.
"Thats not very reassuring," the young blonde muttered, rolling over onto her stomach and feeling the tension build between her legs. She frowned and shifted position again, trying to find one that didnt remind her how sensitive everything was right now. "Of course I am sitting here in an empty room talking to myself," she mused. A blonde brow raised in self-question. "Do you think Kaleah would find insanity attractive?"
Bah! her mind scoffed at her. Right now, Im the only person around giving you any decent advice at all.
"And what, pray tell, is your advice?"
Her mind was silent.
Okaay, it admitted after a long moment. So I don't have a whole lot to offer right now. Ask me again tomorrow and maybe Ill have something.
Jessica grinned. "Youre not so damn smart afterall, huh?"
No, youre not, her mind agreed with a smug grin.
She frowned. "Humph."
Hey . . . give yourself a chance. Her mind apparently decided a little pep talk was in order. This isnt easy like planning a war or commanding an army. This is love. You really dont want to screw up this chance. Kaleah and you are meant to be together, remember?
Shes giving you some signals that could very well be signals of interest, right?
She nodded again.
Well then . . . just take everything a day at a time.
Jessica considered this and smiled. "Not too bad. If your advice could get rid of this damn throbbing down below, itd actually make this whole situation interesting, not just frustrating."
Patience, her mind admonished. Ive got a good feeling about tomorrow . . . trust me.
Deciding to do just that, Jessica quickly threw her clothes off and scrambled under the covers, letting the initial chill of the mattress bring her temperature down a few notches. Still, with her imagination painting vivid pictures of erotic scenarios and fantasies, fueled further by the recent memories of Kaleah as she bathed and stretched, it was several hours before exhaustion finally carried her into a world of soft, wonderful dreams. And even then, she moaned in her sleep as the dark woman followed her, and promptly proceeded to fulfill her every desire.
The night was tauntingly enjoyable . . . even if it wasnt particularly restful.
While the rest of the castle slept, a heavily cloaked figure crept silently through the darkened hallways, keeping to the shadows and avoiding the guards who were especially vigilant tonight due to Sir Williams presence. The figure made its way patiently through the castle, eventually reaching the rooms used by visiting dignitaries. Glancing about a final time, the figure knocked softly on the heavy oak in a rapid, complex pattern. A moment later, the door opened a crack and a suspicious eye glared out.
The cloaked figure bowed respectfully. "I believe Sir William is expecting me."
The eye looked the figure up and down, then, reluctantly, the door opened wider and allowed entry.
Stepping past the guard into the chamber, the figure looked around and found Sir William sitting at a beautifully carved cedar table, apparently waiting. The burly lord knight glowered at the newcomer angrily.
"Forgive me, my lord, but I had to take extra precautions. Sir Richard has doubled the watch and the guards are nervous. I came as fast as I could."
Sir William just scowled darkly and gestured impatiently for the figure to be seated. "I trust all is in readiness for the attack?"
"Of course, my lord." A slender hand reached into a hidden pocket and drew forth a slender vial filled with clear liquid. Holding it up to the light, hidden eyes flashed proudly. "When the time is right, DaGran will be struck down and the castle will be yours." A pause. "I risk much with my treachery."
Lancasters eyes gleamed. "You will gain much when victory is achieved." He folded his arms across his stout chest and glared at his guest. "What of the barbarian woman sitting with Jessica tonight? The one named Kaleah?"
The figure secreted the vial away again and shrugged. "Shes just some bandit the girl captured a month or so ago; a talented fighter from what Ive seen, but hardly a threat to your plans. She and Jessica have been thick as thieves lately."
Lancasters lip curled into a snarl. "That girl could be a problem," he said angrily. "She should be dealt with before she can make trouble."
"That could be difficult," the figure argued hesitantly. "Jessicas a very private person, my lord, and shes rarely alone since the foreigner moved in. It wouldnt be easy to take her out of the picture."
"No, perhaps not," Lancaster admitted. "But if an opportunity should arise-"
"It shall be taken advantage of, my lord," the figure assured.
"Good." Lancaster smiled contentedly, seeing everything falling perfectly into place. "The advance troops are already in place. Another week and theyll be ready to strike."
"DaGrans men are skilled," the figure pointed out. "If something goes wrong, they could cause much damage-"
"Nothing will go wrong," Lancaster snapped. "My commander is more than capable of keeping an army of raiders in line. And by the time any of these fools realise whats going on, itll be too late for them to rally a defense." He grinned, narrow eyes exultant. "The army will attack from without, while you take away their hope and strength from within. In another month, I shall be lord of this castle, and Sir Richard and his bitch daughter will be rotting in their own dungeons."
The cloaked figure smiled, confidant his services would be well rewarded so long as he pleased his new lord. The balance of power was about to shift.
Sweating profusely, Kaleah watched the trajectory of her friends slender rapier as it swept diagonally towards her throat. When she was sure the bold move wasnt just a feint to hide something more subtle, the former slave performed a lightening fast spin which brought her own blade up to block the descending steel an inch from her skin. With a competitive grin, she braced herself and reversed her bodys direction, launching a measured series of sweeping cuts so suddenly that Jessica was forced to hop back desperately to avoid the attack.
Breathing hard but smiling, Jessica held up her hand before Kaleah could advance.
"Enough," she gasped, holding a slight stitch that was tightening her stomach. "I need a break."
Kaleah grinned and threw herself into a dazzlingly fast sequence of twists and turns, her slender Spanish blade cutting about her body like a cage of steel before she ended the flashy maneuver and sheathed her weapon. Sapphire eyes glinted in the late afternoon sun, sparkling with vigorous joy. "Wore ya out, huh?"
Jess laughed, seeing Charles and Damon standing nearby watching their sword-play with much appreciation. "I think youre just showing off."
Kaleah gave a devastatingly innocent look and pointed to her chest. "Me? Never."
Sheathing her own sword, Jessica laughed again and, taking a deep breath to steady her racing heart, she joined the dark woman as she headed over to their audience.
Charles beamed at the tall, dark haired woman as she approached, clapping his hands. "Youre amazing," he applauded. "Ive seen few warriors move so fast."
"Thanks." Kaleah ran fingers through her damp hair, patting down a few errant strands. Her face was a little flushed from their energetic sparring, but the warm ache that spread through her muscles was very welcome. "Jessica makes a great teacher."
The young blonde slapped her on the back and grinned. "I didnt teach you that last move," she said.
Kaleah shrugged. "It was pretty good, huh?"
Jessica nodded. The former slaves skill with a blade was growing at a phenomenal rate. Their sparring was still playful and fun, but with so much freedom to explore new ideas, Kaleah was developing an incredibly fluid, sweeping style that made Jessica dizzy to watch. These new moves and attack patterns were devastatingly effective in battle. If the unpredictable woman could manage to control her temper, Jessica knew she would quickly become an even more spectacular warrior than she already was.
Charles sat down on a bench and the two women joined him. Damon remained standing to the side, but he smiled warmly at Kaleah. "You fight well," he said, his voice surprisingly soft and gentle for such a gigantic man. "Im most impressed."
Kaleah thanked him and returned the smile. Shed been a little suspicious of Damon since the first time shed seen him, but now realized her reaction was unfounded. Even without his plate armor and helm, the body-guard was massive. Kaleah was easily six feet tall, but he topped her by head and shoulders. His shoulders were broad and his chest bulged with muscles. But despite his imposing stature, Damon was actually very kind and rather shy. After shed gotten over her initial apprehensiveness, Kaleah found the contrast rather charming.
Kaleah and Jessica had spent the early morning in the lookout parapet, watching as Sir William and his entourage packed up and left. Neither were sorry to see the lord knight and his men disappear down the road. The day was cloudy early on, but they had warmed up with a few hours of light practice in the courtyard, before Charles wandered over and asked if theyd like to join him and Damon for a ride out into the woods. They both happily agreed, and the four companions enjoyed a picnic lunch out by a nearby river watching the last of Winters ice succumb to Spring thaw.
Returning to the castle, Kaleah found her energy still burning high and challenged Jessica to another session of sparring. The young blonde agreed, although her muscles were still sore from their earlier play. She figured privately that if she moaned about it enough, Kaleah might feel guilty and give her another back-rub.
The fighting had been vigorous and fast-paced, though still playful and inventive. Jessica found herself hard-pressed to match the sudden energy of her friend. Still, she couldnt deny Kaleahs insistence that she had recovered from the beating . . . if she recovered any more, Jess thought, it might be dangerous.
Laughing with her friends now, stealing glances at Kaleah every now and then, Jessica thought she had never been so happy in all her life. Certainly, shed never had this many people around to talk too. Before Kaleah had arrived, she had been isolated and lonely most of the time, with only the soldiers and Sir Miles to keep her company. Watching the beautiful woman who had made her life so much more interesting, Jessica felt almost giddy with joy.
Pleasantly relaxed after the energetic day, her usual edgy temper mellowed by so much exercise, Kaleah breathed deeply and closed her eyes. She could smell the changes in the weather coming. Spring had wrested control of the land from winters icy grasp, and the renewed sense of life and energy was infectious. Breathing again, she detected something not quite so pleasant in the air, and took a sniff of her armor. Her companions laughed at her expression of distaste.
"I think I need to wash up," she admitted with a grin.
"You and me both," Jess agreed, scraping a crust of mud off her leather trousers with a finger.
"You wanna use the bathing room first, or should I?"
"You can," the young woman hastily allowed. "I, uh . . . I dont mind waiting."
She nodded vigorously. "Absolutely sure. You go ahead. Ill be, uh, in my room when youre done."
Kaleah shrugged her shoulders. "I wont argue with that." Standing up, she bowed to Charles and Damon. "Gentlemen," she said, trying to imitate Jessicas cultured tones, "I have enjoyed your company very much. Thank you for a wonderful day." They all chuckled at the strange effect her accent had on the imitation, but bid farewell before she winked at Jessica and departed for the main keep.
Charles didnt miss the flush that darkened Jessicas face at the saucy glint in Kaleahs eye, nor the way her eyes fixed on the dark womans swaggering hips as she left. He gently cuffed her on the arm.
"Hey!?" She glared at him.
He just grinned. "Youve got quite the wandering eye on you, Jess," he chuckled. "If youre not careful, shes gonna catch you staring one day."
Jessicas flush deepened, and she cast Damon and nervous look. "Shutup," she hissed.
Charles glanced at his enormous body-guard and laughed. "Dont worry about Damon. Hes not blind . . . he can see how much you care for Kaleah."
Damon grinned and shrugged when her eyes widened and pinned him anxiously. "Sorry, Jess," he apologized bashfully. "Its pretty obvious. But dont worry, Id never tell anyone."
Jessica calmed herself and growled, "You better not," before she suddenly realized she had somewhere to be. "Oh, damn!" She slapped her forehead. "I just remembered something I, um. I have to do," she said, standing up.
Spy on my friend while she bathes.
Jessica ignored her mind, and stammered, "I-I was, um, planning to clean up in my room . . . and I have to uh, get a few things Kaleah wanted from . . . somewhere." She waved her hand in a vague direction, seeing raised eyebrows and confused smiles on her friends faces.
Oh, thats reeeaal casual, her mind ridiculed.
"Ill, uh . . . see you tomorrow, okay?"
Charles nodded. "Sure. Good luck with your room."
"Yeah. Th-thanks." She turned and quickly followed Kaleah back into the castle proper.
Charles and Damon exchanged amused looks. The young nobleman shrugged and stroked his goatee. "Wonder what thats about."
Neither noticed the other eyes that watched the departure of both women with interest from the castle wall. The watcher smiled cruelly and nodded to himself. This was an opportunity too good to miss out on . . . and he hurried away to find his companions.
The barbarian bitch had had her chance. It was time to increase the pressure.
Taking a short cut via the passages, Jessica managed to arrive at her destination a few moments before Kaleah reached hers. Settling down in front of the peep-hole, she watched eagerly as the dark woman slipped into the warm, sultry mist of the bathing chamber. The spying had become a ritual over the last few weeks, but Jessica knew no matter how many times she watched her friend as she bathed, she would never tire of the sight.
Licking dry lips in anticipation, Jessica smiled wickedly as Kaleah unbuckled her armor and carefully laid it out on a rock along with her beautiful sword. Hungry eyes skipped up and down the lithe, toned body of her friend as it was revealed. She delighted in the way the light refracted through the stained-glass ceiling to play across the bronzed, smooth skin, throwing shadows across the hollows of her ribs and the dip of her hips. The few bruises that still marred Kaleahs body were barely noticeable anymore. The tall woman had healed amazingly fast.
After retrieving a wash-cloth from the adjoining room, Kaleah entered the water slowly. Jessica watched as her eyes closed and her mouth opened, and not for the first time she wished the walls didnt prevent her from listening to her friend. She wanted to hear the obviously contented moan Kaleah released as she strode deeper into the pool.
The young blonde stared as she watched Kaleah begin to scrub herself clean. Her green eyes fought not to blink as she tried desperately to commit every inch of perfect flesh to memory, just as she always did. Her hands clenched into fists, itching to touch the object of her desire and affection. Her body, innocent to the ways of true passion, thrummed with the strength of fully awakened desire. Wetness bloomed between her legs and she blushed unconsciously, her nose detecting the scent of her arousal even over the smell of sweat and mud. She knew from experience it was best to let Kaleah use the bath chamber first; it gave her a chance to wash away the musky scent afterwards.
Much to Jessicas delight, Kaleah took her time bathing. As she usually did, the dark woman lay for a period on the central island, her wet hair clinging to her body like ink, flowing over her shoulders and across her breasts in liquid waves. The rippling muscles of Kaleahs body had the most amazing way of remaining tense even when she was relaxing, and Jessica wished so very much she could trace their delicious curves with her hands and fingers. The young blondes breath became shallow as her imagination replayed one of her current favorite fantasies, aided by the vision of her friends naked, wet body lying so close before her . . . yet so far away.
After another quick dip in the pool and a final scrub, Kaleah apparently decided she was clean and left the water. This was one of Jessicas favorite parts; she loved the way the steam rose from the dark womans body . . . the way the water dripped from her soaking hair down over the ridges and valleys of her hard muscles, finally descending past her hips and her oh-so-long legs to the stone floor. With her shimmering bronze skin and firm body, Kaleah looked to her admirer like some dark Goddess risen from the water . . . ready to ignite the world with passions flame.
The young woman was so engrossed in her voyeurism that she didnt notice the three men as they slipped into the chamber just as Kaleah began toweling herself dry. It took several moments for Jessica to acknowledge their intrusion, and a few more before she realized what their grim presence portended.
The three men were all clothed alike in concealing black cloaks, their features hidden by cloth strips wrapped around their heads. Each had a sword carried in a scabbard at his side, but they carried stout wooden clubs in preference to the deadlier weapons. It took Jessicas lust-fogged mind a second to realize these must be the three who had beaten her friend the night Charles arrived. As this thought struck, her green eyes flared with terrible fires and her mind clouded with rage.
Kaleah hadnt noticed the men yet as they spread out to flank her and prevent escape. One man the leader, probably moved stealthily forward and retrieved the unsuspecting womans sword from where it rested. Kaleah was defenseless.
Jessicas mind quickly processed the situation. Tearing herself away from the spy-hole, she ran as fast as was safe through the narrow corridor, thinking quickly to figure out the swiftest route to the bathing chamber. All she could think of was that Kaleah was in danger . . . and she had to protect her. Stalking through the secret passages, Jessica let the fire grow inside her, all lustful thoughts overridden by the need to save her friend.
Kaleahs attackers had made a mistake by targeting her friend she intended to make certain they paid dearly for it.
Kaleah didnt realize she had company until she heard someone clearing their throat right behind her.
Whirling about, her hand dropping the towel and reaching for her sword in reflex, Kaleah found herself confronted by three cloaked and masked men. At the same instant she realized she didnt have her sword, she noticed one of the men holding the precious weapon, inspecting it casually. That thought was quickly followed by the knowledge that she was in trouble. Naked, defenseless and facing three men who had threatened to do worse than beat her.
Yeah, she thought, swallowing hard and trying not to give in to a rising fear. Big trouble.
The man holding her sword looked up at her, his head tilted in contemplation. "We told you ta leave DaGran," he said calmly. Shaking his head, he tossed the weapon carelessly behind him. "Ye shouldve taken our advice."
Kaleah backed away, her eyes darting frantically between the three slowly approaching men, searching for the weakest link and not finding much. "I have every right to be here," she said harshly. Her muscles coiled when she noticed the clubs they carried. It crossed her mind to yell for help, but she knew the castle walls were too thick for sound to penetrate far. Besides, she cursed, few people ever ventured into Jessicas part of the castle.
The largest man shook his head. "Not everyone wants you here, bitch. In fact, some are quite insistent that ye go back where ye came from."
Kaleah decided it was time to stand her ground. Assuming a fighting stance, she raised her hands and glared at the intruders, unashamed of her nakedness. The men looked at her for a moment, then laughed.
"Even without a sword, I can still do damage," she scowled. Shed been training all day, however, and the energy that had sparked during her sparring with Jessica was mostly gone. Her body was tired . . . and from the amused look in the mens eyes, they knew it.
"Make it easy on yerself, girl," one of the men advised. "Ye shoulda left after last time, but nooo . . . ye had to stay."
"This is my home now," she argued. "Im not leaving it and Im not leaving Jessica."
"Oh, youll leave, alright," the third man said. "Jessica dont be needin the likes a you around er. But since ye wouldnt listen to a beatin . . ."
". . . Maybe yell listen to something a little more . . . personal," the apparent leader finished, his cruel eyes raking her body lecherously.
The word flashed through Kaleahs mind, and her knees went weak. Theyre going to rape you, her brain informed her. She suddenly felt her body begin to shut itself down on instinct, preparing itself to deal with what was certain to follow. She fought against the numbness that swept through her limbs, willing herself to fight. It was hard, though. For so many years, she had trained herself to close everything down in order to cope with repeated abuse. It was almost second nature to her.
No! she screamed at herself, shaking her head to clear the fog. Youll fight, damn it! Youre not a slave anymore, youre a human being! If they want to do this, theyll have to fight you for it! Youre not just going to lie there and take it! Fight them!
The men started forward, closing the circle on her. Muscles still aching from overuse tensed, ready to strike, when suddenly a calm, low voice cut through the mist like an arrow.
"Id think twice before taking another step, boys."
The three surprised men turned to face the speaker, clubs raised . . . and were confronted by a small blonde-haired girl with flashing green eyes holding Kaleahs very sharp sword.
"Jessica?!" the leader of the men gasped, his voice strangled.
Kaleahs brain struggled to acknowledge the sudden appearance of her friend, but her body was still functioning enough to catch the sword that Jessica tossed to her. Instantly, the former slave moved with smooth skill into a defensive stance, the blade in her hand restoring a sense of security. Kaleah watched as Jessica drew her own weapon and smiled very coldly at the three stunned men who were now backing away from the new threat.
They may not have taken Kaleah seriously . . . but it was clear they understood the danger of Jessicas presence all too well.
Jessica regarded the three men with eyes of emerald fire. Rage poured through her body, but unlike Kaleah who tended to fall into quick violence when enraged - the anger only served to center Jessicas mind and hone her reflexes to a finer point. She had arrived just in time to hear the last part of conversation. These men had been about to rape her friend. That knowledge made her knees weak with blinding fury.
Taking a deep breath through her nose, the young woman tried to calm the unbelievable tempest of emotions that swept through her blood. She wanted to unleash her wrath upon these men; she wanted to kill. But the stronger, more rational part her mind knew this was not the time to loose control. She needed to deal with this sensibly, and remember she had a responsibility to her father and his title, not just to her friend.
She suddenly noticed Kaleah shift, and saw the dark, animal passion take charge of the former slave. Sudden ugliness twisted the womans features in a terrifying, primal way; the look in her steel-blue eyes spelled death to the men whose focus was split between the two women. Kaleah was about to attack.
Just as the dark woman slipped forward, Jessica managed to catch her eye. A dark brow lifted, and Jessica shook her head subtly. Blue eyes still raw with anger glared at her, and for a moment the young blonde thought her friend would strike anyway. But with a visible effort, Kaleah relaxed and stepped back, her eyes still turgid but trusting her friend to handle the situation.
The man in the middle looked from Jessica to the door behind her, judging his chances. Jessica smiled coldly. "Youre not going anywhere," she said, her voice calm and low.
The man raised his club. "I dont wanna hurt you, Lady Jessica," he hissed, fear evident in his tone.
Her smile widened, showing teeth. "Thats right. You dont." She took a step forward, pleased when the three men drew away.
"I will if I have too."
She shook her head. "I doubt youd be that stupid." The slender blade of her rapier traced lazy figure eights in the air. "My father would do worse than kill you if you laid so much as a hand on me."
Even though the man was masked, Jessica could see him swallow. The two other men were obviously waiting for some kind of order, but their panic was rising. It was obvious they knew what fate awaited them if Sir Richard ever learned they had threatened his beloved daughter.
"If you surrender now," Jessica said quietly, "I might let you walk away from this with most of your body parts intact."
"Surrender?" The leader scoffed. "So you can turn us in to your daddy?"
Jess shook her head, glancing at Kaleah who was still trembling with suppressed fury, her nakedness forgotten in her anger. "I think wed all prefer to keep this little incident from my father," she said. "His involvement would raise many nasty questions . . . like who it was that ordered you to attack my friend, for instance."
It took a moment, but a look of understanding suddenly appeared in the mans eyes. His stance shifted, and he cocked his head thoughtfully.
Jessica knew exactly what he was thinking. This attack had obviously been instigated by Jessicas mother, the Lady Rose. She was the only one with the power to order DaGran soldiers on such a cruel assignment, and she was the only one with sufficient motivation to do so. If Sir Richard discovered what his wife had done, it would mean a lot of trouble for everyone. Jessica, whose independent spirit was well known in the castle, would obviously want to deal with the situation by herself. That being the case . . . The man eyed her shrewdly.
That being the case, maybe there was a chance to escape this mess alive.
"W-we can walk away from this, Jess," he offered hopefully. "Just forget the whole thing."
She shook her head, the smile vanishing. "You beat my friend . . . and now you tried to rape her." Her tone was chilling in its intensity. "Be thankful Im even offering you your stinkin lives."
The man glanced at her, his guard high. "Whatre yer terms?"
She indicated the club the man still carried. "Drop your weapons," she ordered, "and remove the masks. I want to see who was stupid enough to dare attack Kaleah."
The man considered this, and shook his head. "Cant do that, Lady Jessica." He eyed his companions. "I dont fancy bein thrown from DaGran into the cruel world."
"Youll be lucky if you can crawl your way from the castle," Jessica snarled, her eyes narrowing. "Its not like you have much choice in this matter."
The man considered this, and shook his head again. He dropped the club, but reached instantly for his sword. Drawing the weapon, he motioned for his men to stay back, then faced off against Jessica. "Think Ill take me chances with Sir Richard," he growled. "As long as he dont know who hurt you . . . I figure he cant exact much vengeance."
Jessica stepped back, giving herself plenty of room. The smile on her face was cold, and her green eyes stormy. "I think you might be surprised," she said quietly. "No hole you could find would be deep enough to hide you from my father. Beat me, and hed hunt you down and kill you if it takes him a hundred years." She assumed an en guard stance, her blade flashing in the now-fading light. "And thats assuming you can beat me."
The masked man shrugged, stepping closer. "I know yer reputation, Jess. N Ive seen ye fight." His simple longsword waved back and forth slightly. "Maybe its time we find out just how good you really are."
She grinned wickedly, relishing the opportunity to vent her anger. When the man attacked, it was with the professionalism she would expect from a true soldier of DaGran. Her defense was swifter than thought, however, and the counter that followed forced the man back several feet as he fought to keep the sharp tip of the rapier from tearing out his throat.
The man was desperate, and his fear leant him strength and speed; but not nearly as much as Jessicas rage leant her. After a few seconds dizzying sword-play, Jessica saw an opening and exploited it fully. Her sword curved with graceful skill upwards and under her opponents blade, slashing across his face, the tip cutting deep into his left eye and ripping half the mask away.
A cry of furious pain escaped the mans throat. He dropped his sword and turned away, a hand coming up to cover his face. Jess let him step back, her stance calm and waiting. She saw a few drops of blood splash onto the stone floor through the mans fingers, and couldnt help but feel a warm satisfaction. The young blonde didnt like to hurt others, but her attack had been vicious, intended to maim.
"Your stupidity just cost you an eye," she observed simply. A blond eyebrow rose curiously as she studied him over her sword. "Care to try again?"
"You bitch!" The mans ferocious snarl was almost incoherent.
She smiled coldly and eyed the two men who were watching her with awed terror. "How about you? You know theres nothing Id enjoy more right now than to take you guys apart piece by piece. Would you like to give me the excuse?"
The two men shook their heads desperately.
"Then drop the clubs and remove your swords."
The men did so quickly.
"Now," Jessica studied the three men, only looking away when Kaleah, standing to the side, knelt to retrieve her towel and wrap it about her lithe figure. "How about we remove the masks, hmmm?"
Darting glances at their still cursing leader, the two men reluctantly did as ordered. Jessica frowned, recognizing both as men she had lived with and fought beside for many years. When the injured man finally straightened and tore his mask away angrily, her eyes grew even more sharp.
"Captain Brian," she snarled. The man had been her fathers captain of the guard since she had been a child. "I would have expected better from a man in your trusted position." Then again, she thought, Captain Brian had been cozying up to the Lady Rose in more recent years. This certainly explained how the noble lady had been able to keep her husband in the dark.
Captain Brian glared at her with his remaining eye. Blood ran freely from the savage cut that Jessica had inflicted down the left side of his face, and his left eye was closed tightly, dripping clear fluid. Jessica knew he would never recover his sight in that eye again, but felt nothing but satisfaction at having been responsible. Afterall, this man would have raped the woman she loved.
The captains sword lay at his feet where hed dropped it, but he made no move to retrieve the weapon. He studied Jessicas quiet, calm face and his lip curled into a snarl. "I was only followin orders, Lady Jessica."
"Well you followed the wrong ones, didnt you?"
He frowned. "Ill leave the castle then."
She nodded. "Within the hour." Her voice was cool and dispassionate. "Take no weapons, and you leave on foot. And if you are still within sight of DaGrans walls by the end of the hour, I will personally order you hunted down and executed. Understood?"
He nodded stiffly, then almost headed for the door before she raised the sword and stopped him.
"Theres one more thing we have to settle before I let you leave," Jessica said, little more than a whisper.
The young girl calmly stepped over to a stained wooden bench nearby, intended for those who simply wished to enjoy the warm, tranquil atmosphere of the bathing chamber without making use of the huge pool. With elaborate motions, Jessica replaced her sword in its scabbard and drew a large, sturdy knife from her boot.
"Kindly step over here." She gestured him closer with the blade.
Cautious, Captain Brian approached.
Jessica indicated the bench. She could feel Kaleahs eyes watching her curiously. "Put your right hand on the seat . . . fingers spread."
Captain Brians one good eye widened, and he drew away, clutching his right hand protectively to his chest. Jessica smiled at his reaction.
"You cant be serious!"
Her steady green eyes held him fast. "I most certainly am."
"I can," she interrupted softly. Her gaze was merciless. "You can accept my justice, or that of my father. The choice is yours." She tapped the knife on the bench.
Captain Brian trembled, but, after a moment of very serious consideration, he stepped forward and grimly placed his right hand on the smooth wood, fingers well apart.
Jessica nodded. "A wise decision." She stepped forward, forcing her body to move calmly, feeling Kaleahs eyes on her the whole time. With deliberate care, the young woman set the tip of the knife down between Captain Brians thumb and first finger. She saw him swallow, felt understanding dawn in the appraisal of her friend. Then, with sudden strength she chopped down, forcing the knife through flesh, hearing the sickening crunch as the bone gave way to the power in her arm.
Captain Brian bit his lip, but couldnt contain the scream that burst forth from deep within. His features paled immediately as Jessica pushed the knife through the final few layers of skin, severing his thumb completely. Blood poured freely as Brian clutched his disfigured hand to his chest, glaring up at her. She returned the look without pity or reason, before turning her attention to the other men.
With ruthless efficiency, Jessica repeated the grisly task on Brians trembling accomplices. The first tried desperately to plead for mercy, but she gave none.
"You attempt to rape my friend and expect charity in return?" she asked coldly. "Be thankful I dont take your whole hand."
When the work was complete, Jessica wiped the blade of the knife clean on one of the mens masks, then returned it to her boot. "You have one hour," she said, regarding the three soldiers with eyes still glowing with anger. "I suggest you make good use of that time."
Captain Brian nodded, still regarding her with anger but weak from pain. As he was about to exit the chamber after his companions, he turned back and gestured to Kaleah. His hazel eyes bore into Jessica. "I only did what I was told," he said. "And I followed me orders cos I agreed with em. Yer a noble lady, Jessica. Barbaric heathen like er aint no suitable company fer you to be keepin."
Jessica shrugged. "Its not for you to say whose company I keep, is it Captain?"
He held her gaze another moment, then snarled and left.
Jessica stood a few moments in silence after the door closed behind the men, taking the time to settle her stomach. She tried hard not to cast her eyes towards the three bloody digits still sitting on the bench, but couldnt help herself. Bile rose to the back of her throat, but she forced it down before turning her attention to Kaleah.
The tall woman stood, her eyes a violent mix of fear and fury, clutching the towel to her chest with a trembling hand.
"A-are you okay?"
Kaleah swallowed, some of the tension leaving her body, but not much. She shook her head, the shock of the last few minutes catching up to her suddenly as adrenaline drained away. Her body started to shake.
Jessica saw the tremors and quickly moved in to offer what comfort she could. Wrapping her arms around Kaleahs body, she pulled her head closer and softly stroked the long, wet hair.
"Its okay," she soothed, feeling the former slaves body vibrate with tension. "They wont hurt you again. I promise. Its gonna be okay."
Kaleah let herself be comforted for several long moments while she struggled to regain control of her body and mind. The incident had brought the hideous shadows of her past to terrible life. For the first time in years, she had felt the fear of such a personal violation. Only this time was different . . . worse, somehow.
Exposure to freedom to life had restored so much of Kaleahs sense of self. As a slave, rape had been nothing unusual . . . a part of day to day life. This was the first time she had been threatened with rape in years. The terror . . . the fear . . . It felt like she was experiencing all those nightmares for the very first time.
Only this time . . . with the fear had come anger.
She recognized the violence that the incident had raised within her. Its darkness had been a part of her since she had murdered her master all those years ago. But as a slave, that darkness had been subdued by numerous beatings, suppressed until it no longer seemed to even exist. With the gift of freedom restored, Kaleah had felt it emerge once more, taking the form of the restless energy that so plagued her. The soldiers had not attacked a helpless slave. They had attacked a warrior . . . someone who would kill to defend.
And she had wanted to kill the men. She wanted to make them pay for making her feel so scared. The sword had been in her hand . . . she had only needed to step forward and use it.
She still wasnt sure what had stopped her. All she knew was that, just as shed been about to attack, Jessicas simple look had stayed her hand. In that look, her friend had asked her to trust her to deal with the situation. Kaleah had agreed before she was even aware of it. That trust which had once seemed so alien was now something she gave without conscious thought.
She trusted Jessica with every fibre of her being.
After a while, Kaleah forced herself to draw away from her young friend. Meeting green eyes filled with deep concern, she offered a shaky smile, nervously clutching the towel tighter to her chest.
"Thank you," she said softly, her voice almost breaking.
Jessica smiled and rubbed her on the arm. "Youre very welcome. Im just sorry it all happened." Emerald fire flared in her eyes, but only for a moment. "I promise it wont happen again, though."
Kaleah nodded, then looked down at herself. "I, uh. I should probably . . . get dressed."
"Yeah. I guess. Ill . . . wait outside if you like-"
"No." Kaleah stopped her as she was about to leave. "I . . . Id rather you stayed." The young womans presence made her feel protected and safe. With the fear still running high in her blood, she didnt want to be left alone.
Jessica didnt ask for an explanation. She could see how shaken up the dark woman was.
"Okay," she said, giving a final reassuring pat on the shoulder. "Ill turn around . . . give you some privacy." She did so, waiting patiently.
Kaleah moved over to her armor, laying down the sword reluctantly and pulling on her underwear and leather trousers quickly. The rest proved more difficult, however. Her fingers were still shaking, and her head felt thick and foggy. The intricate buckles were impossible to navigate.
"I . . . I could use a little help," she admitted, realizing shed never figure it out by herself.
Smiling with gentle sympathy, Jessica turned and helped her, calmly arranging the leather straps with the skill of one long-accustomed to wearing armor.
"Thanks." Kaleah flushed, embarrassed at her weakness. "I-I dont know why but . . . I cant stop shaking."
"Hey . . . its nothing to be ashamed of." Jessica took her friends hands and clasped them gently in her own. The trembling instantly subsided, and the young woman smiled. "Id be shaking, too."
Kaleah lowered her head, then gave a little nod. "Can we go back to your room now? Please?"
"Sure. Just let me get one thing first."
Kaleah watched her friend quickly collect the cloth strips the soldiers had used as masks, then use them to gather up the three severed thumbs. Wiping away the last drops of blood as best she could, Jessica pocketed the grisly bundle and gave a grim smile at Kaleahs raised brow.
"Best to clean up after ourselves, right?"
Kaleah just nodded, and together, the two friends quickly made their way back to Jessicas room.
As soon as she was back in the familiar environment of her friends bedroom, Kaleah sighed and hugged herself. The tension in her body vanished almost entirely as she breathed in the smell of leather and perfume; smells that comforted her in a way she couldnt explain but wasnt about to argue with. Smiling at Jessica, she sat on the bed and let the sense of safety and well-being wash away the fear.
Jessica watched her a moment, then joined her, quickly leaving the cloth bundle she carried on a reasonably clear table. Sitting on the bed, she regarded Kaleah with concern.
"Are you okay?"
Kaleah sighed again and smiled somewhat more confidently. "I am now," she whispered.
Jessica wasnt sure, but the fear in the dark womans blue eyes had dissipated greatly. "I-its okay that you were scared," she said softly. "I was scared too. If you . . . feel like talking about it. . ?"
Kaleah nodded, her face hardening. She was silent for a long time before she spoke very softly.
"I wanted to kill them."
Jessica folded her hands in her lap and regarded them seriously. "I know. I saw the look in your eyes." She sighed. "Im glad you didnt, though. A big part of me wanted to kill them, too. But their deaths would have raised all sorts of nasty questions."
Kaleah accepted that, amazed at the sincerity in the young womans words. She knew Jessica did not like to take the life of any living creature, and recalled their conversation about how that ideal clashed with many aspects of her life.
"You surprised me back there," she admitted quietly, her eyes going to the blood-stained bundle on the table. "What you did was so . . ." she hesitated. "Ruthless."
Jess considered this, and nodded. "I still feel a little sick, to tell the truth." She ran fingers through her hair nervously, swallowing hard. "I like to fight . . . but thats the first time Ive ever felt that kind of . . . enjoyment from inflicting harm."
Blue eyes studied her carefully, and Kaleah saw for the first time that the ordeal had been just as terrible for Jessica as it had been for her. Perhaps in a different way, but the young blonde had been shaken badly as well. She reached out and patted her arm in gratitude. "You did what you had to do," she reasoned, but Jessica shook her head.
"I could have done it without taking his eye."
Knowing the young womans skill all too well, Kaleah couldnt argue with that. "Do you regret doing it?"
Jessica thought about it, then whispered, "No. He got what he deserved. I only wish I could have done more."
"Well . . ." Kaleah gave the cloth bundle a pointed look. "You did do more." She raised an eyebrow curiously. "Why exactly did you do that? It seemed . . . calculated."
"It was." Jessica shrugged and looked away. "Its a punishment sometimes given to enemy soldiers captured during war. Ive seen my father order it done a few times. A soldier without his thumb cant wield a sword. His value as a combatant is reduced, but he can still live a fruitful life. Captain Brian and his friends might learn to use their other hand to fight, or they might learn to use a different weapon . . . but theyll never be as proficient as they were."
Kaleah listened to this and realized her friend was right. With such a disability, few men would ever find work as a fighter. "So . . . basically, you crippled them?"
Jessica met her gaze, and nodded. "Crippled and banished. With such a mark against them, those men will likely be forced to take up common labor just to survive." Her lips drew into a grim line. "I figured if I couldnt kill them . . . I could at least take as much of their lives as possible for what they tried to do."
Her face was calm, but Kaleah could see the pain beneath the surface. She reached out and took Jessicas hand, smiling. "Im sorry you had to do that," she said sincerely.
Jess shrugged again and gave a lopsided smile. "Hey . . . its just part of the territory. I chose to be a warrior; it wasnt forced upon me. And part of being a warrior is taking the good with the bad, just like I told you. I accept my responsibility . . . and it felt good to be able to use my skills to help protect you."
"Thanks. I . . . feel a lot safer now." She gave her armor a dirty look. "Safer, but not a whole lot cleaner for someone who just took a bath. I think Im gonna need to clean these leathers." She rubbed at a mud stain with her fingernail. "I guess I should get changed into something more comfortable." She was growing accustomed to wearing softer clothes, she knew. The sense of protection the armor gave her didnt seem as necessary around her blonde companion.
Jessica studied her own grimy, armored figure and grinned. "I know what you mean. And I still need a bath, too." She suppressed a flush, detecting the lingering scent of her arousal still clinging to her. She just hoped Kaleah didnt notice it. "Would you be alright if I take a few minutes to get cleaned up?"
Kaleah felt a moment of panic. She didnt want to be alone. But, she realized, the doors to Jesss room were thick and could be locked securely. The bolt on the door to the bathing chamber was meant to simply indicate that it was in use; it wasnt actually intended to seriously stop an intruder. She would be safe in here until Jessica returned . . . and it would give her a few minutes to calm her shattered nerves and regain some of her composure.
"I guess," she allowed after thinking. "But . . . dont take too long. And be careful."
Jessica understood her concern, and nodded. "Dont worry. Captain Brians not stupid enough to test his luck further. My guess is hell get out of DaGran as quickly and as quietly as he can manage it. If my father or Sir Miles sees him with that eye, theyll ask questions. Right now, thats the last thing those men want." She scowled, her anger at the attack still dangerously strong. "I doubt theyll even risk reporting back to my mother."
Kaleah gave her a startled look, her eyes widening. "How did you-" She stopped, realizing that Jessica wasnt a fool. She was certainly smart enough to figure out who must have ordered the attack. Green eyes regarded her calmly, a blonde brow raised in question.
Kaleah struggled a moment, but eventually nodded. She could do nothing but tell the truth with that intense, calm gaze resting on her. "She warned me to leave you alone."
Jessica was silent, absorbing this information. So Kaleah had known the whole time? She felt a stab of betrayal. "Why didnt you tell me?" she asked softly, unable to hide the hurt in her voice.
Kaleah lowered her head, letting her hair fall forward to hide her face. "I just . . . I couldnt . . ."
"You didnt trust me?"
Her head instantly shot up, and she saw the sting in Jessicas open features. "No," she said, shaking her head. "I-I didnt want . . . to make you choose, thats all." Her eyes closed as she lowered her head again.
Blonde brows contracted in confusion. "Choose? You mean choose sides?"
Unusually timid blue eyes raised.
Jessica stepped forward and gently cupped the dark womans face. "Kaleah, my mother has been trying to control my life since I was born," she said softly. "Because of her, Ive never been able to experience something like the friendship we have. Shes always tried to make sure no-one she thinks of as beneath me gets close enough to be my friend. Youre the first that ever stuck around long enough . . . and I would never ask you to leave me just because my mother doesnt like you."
Kaleah absorbed this silently, then said, "I just didnt want to pit you against her, thats all."
Jessica smiled. "You havent. Shes been against nearly everything Ive ever done since I first took up arms." Her smile turned into a scowl. "But if she thinks shes gonna threaten you, shes got another thing coming."
Kaleah heard the suppressed rage in her friends voice. "You wont hurt her, will you?"
Kaleah grinned. "My father asks me that everytime I ride into battle with him and have to get away from her," she said, then shook her head. "I wont hurt her. Not physically. But I will make sure she understands that youre not going anywhere you dont want to go."
Kaleah smiled, letting the pleasant knowledge that Jessica would always protect her ease the fear away further. "Thanks. Im . . . sorry I didnt tell you immediately, Jess. I just thought I should deal with it myself."
"I understand. Just let me know next time, okay? Im a part of this friendship, too, you know. I should have a say in what happens." She let her fingers gently stroke the fading bruise above Kaleahs eye. "And the idea that you got hurt because of . . . our friendship . . . it makes me feel bad."
"I know. Dont worry about it." Kaleah waved her away, rubbing the itchy mark. "No permanent damage was done."
"No damage should have been done at all," Jessica countered, "permanent or otherwise. This is your home for as long as you want it to be. And I plan to make sure my mother understands that."
Kaleah smiled warmly. "Thank you." Her nose crinkled, and she pinched it closed. "Now go take that bath before you drive me out of here with that stench."
Jessica laughed and slapped her playfully. "Fine. Get changed and wait here, I wont be too long." She rummaged around and found a clean pair of trousers, underwear and a soft tunic. "Ill bring us back some dinner, and I have a few other things to take care of quickly. But lock the door behind me just in case."
"I will. And be careful."
"Sure." Jess patted her sword and smiled. "Ill be fine."
Sighing as the door closed behind her friend, Kaleah ran fingers through her hair absently and figured she should get out of her armor. Looking around, she found a pair of Jessicas clothes that looked like theyd fit her and, figuring the young woman wouldnt mind, she quickly stripped off her leather and chain-mail and donned the trousers and shirt. A smile touched her lips as she inhaled deeply, catching Jessicas scent from the clothes.
Tossing the armor in a corner, figuring to deal with it later, Kaleah locked the door before happily falling back on the bed. After a brief wrestling match, she finally won her way under the covers and got comfortable while she waited for her friend to return.
As Kaleah waited, she replayed the events of the evening over in her mind. The attack had been frightening, and the fear was still fresh in her mind, but on reflection things could have been much worse. Jessica had protected her, just as she had promised. The men hadnt raped her, and their threat had been effectively dealt with. There was little doubt in Kaleahs mind that Jessica could handle her mother. In all, this night had removed two big concerns that had been plaguing Kaleah for some time, and she felt much lighter without their shadows hanging over her. Of course, if Jessica hadnt shown up when she had . . .
"Wait a second . . ."
Kaleah sat up as a new thought occurred. In the bathing chamber, she hadnt screamed for help when the men had come for her. There hadnt seemed to be any point. Jessica had said she was going to return to her rooms to wait . . . but the bathing chamber was quite a way off the path back to their rooms. Kaleahs brows dropped, her eyes narrowed, and she chewed her lip as she asked the question.
"How did Jessica know I was in trouble?"
It took Jessica almost an hour to return to Kaleah, although she washed up as quick as she could. Putting the unpleasant events of the evening behind her for the moment, Jessica set her mind to the task of damage control; she needed to hide this incident from her father first of all . . . and then make certain it was never repeated. As she bathed, her quick mind planned how to manage that.
By the time she was clean, Jessica had formulated a plan. First, she needed to confirm that Captain Brian and his friends had indeed left the castle. A quick and casual tour of the castle wall assured her the three men had left together without explanation some time ago. The guards she spoke too were curious, but didnt question the actions of their superior. Once she was certain Brian was gone, Jessica immediately set off in search of Sir Miles.
She knew the absence of Captain Brian and his accomplices would be reported back to her father before dawn; DaGran was well-organized and disciplined if nothing else. A single man out of place did not go unnoticed. If Sir Richard learned the true circumstances of their sudden departure, Jessica knew ugly questions would be raised; questions that would lead the lord knight to his own wife. She needed an explanation that didnt involve either herself or Kaleah . . . and Sir Miles was the perfect person to give it.
Finding the elderly knight already retired in his chambers, Jessica quickly explained her situation, skillfully avoiding any direct description of the incident in the bathing chamber. As she expected, Miles wasnt happy about the situation, but after a while, he agreed to tell Sir Richard that he had dismissed the long-standing Captain for a serious breach of duty.
"He wont be pleased with me, Jess," he had told her grumpily. "Ah kin tell ye that."
"Better he hear it from you than from me," she replied. "If he learns I was involved, hell be suspicious and could take it into his head to track Brian down."
"Aye, well . . . I wont ask questions, Jess, cos I know ye wont answer em. But I dont like lying to me own lord." He scowled at her. "Hope ye appreciate this."
"I do. And dont worry, Ill take care of the situation. All you have to do is make sure my father doesnt look any further into the Captains dismissal. Alright?"
He agreed, as she knew he would. Sir Miles had been like another father to her since shed been given into his care and training as a child. In all those years, he had never denied her anything. This was stretching his limits, she knew, but it was important that Sir Richard not hear of the attack. His reaction to a threat against his daughter would be dangerous.
After her visit with Sir Miles, Jessica made one more stop before she returned to her waiting friend. It was quite a walk to where Charles was staying; all the way on the other side of the castle in fact, in a section used to house visiting dignitaries and such. She rarely ever ventured into this area, and it took her a few tries before she found his rooms.
Her visit was brief since she didnt want to leave Kaleah for too long, but she quickly informed the young lord of what had transpired that evening, leaving out only the truth of how she had come to rescue her friend. Charles was shocked, naturally, but he understood quickly the plan that Jessica laid out that would prevent any further attacks. He knew how much Lady Roses meddling had cost his young friend and betrothed, and he agreed immediately to give what small assistance Jessica asked of him.
"It seems simple enough," he admitted when shed finished her explanation of the plan. "Maybe a little too simple. Are you sure this will work?"
Jess just grinned. "Itll work. Trust me on this. But I need this done by tomorrow. Can you manage that?"
Charles looked at the letter she had dictated to him and nodded. "Damons good at this sort of thing," he assured her. "Itll be ready by morning. Ill send a servant with the finished copy once its done."
"Fine." She gave him a quick hug and a friendly kiss on the cheek. "Thank you. Thisll insure Kaleahs safety for as long as she stays here."
Her duties done, Jessica hurried back to her bedroom making a quick detour to the kitchen on the way. When she knocked on the door, Kaleah quickly opened it for her and smiled in welcome.
"What took you so long?"
"I had a few things to take care of, like I said," she replied. "They just took a little longer than I expected them too, thats all. But I brought us dinner . . ." She held up the tray of food shed collected from the kitchen as she entered her room, "and youll be happy to know that Captain Brian is long gone. Ive arranged things so my father wont ever hear of what happened."
Kaleah nodded, but Jessica saw her lock the door anyway. "Thats good. I guess if he ever found out your mother was behind the attack . . ."
"Hed be furious," Jess stated, frowning. "I dont know what hed do to her, but it would surely be something that would cause great upheaval in the castle. If an enemy got wind of the dissention, they could attack us, figuring my father would be weaker for the stress." She sighed. "Better to keep this quiet, and deal with it directly. I may not care much for my mother or her politics, but I dont want the people to suffer from her actions any more than they must."
Kaleah returned to her friends bed. "Your father loves you, but he doesnt seem like the type to over-react. If anything, he seems over-casual about your life."
"He just expects me to be able to take care of myself, thats all." Jessica put the tray on the bed, then dragged off her boots before joining her friend. "When I get hurt though, he can be unpredictable. I remember once in battle, I took a dagger in the side . . ." She slipped her trousers down a little and displayed a clear white scar just above her right hip. "My father went crazy for a second. He hacked the man to death right in front of me." She shuddered a little and reached for a slice of ham.
"Wow." Kaleah was a little surprised. Sir Richard seemed so level-headed, this description was at odds with what she had observed of the man. "I guess he just hides his temper well . . . the same as you do."
"Tell that to the former Captain Brian," Jess grinned, chewing contentedly.
The two ate in silence for a time, just enjoying the excellent food and the feeling of being safe and warm after such a shocking experience. As they ate, however, Jessica caught Kaleah looking at her with a strange expression in her eyes; something like curiosity, but with a gentle hint of something deeper. A slightly raised eyebrow and half-smile made the look doubly mysterious. Eventually, Jessica couldnt stand it anymore.
Kaleahs smile just grew a little more crooked. "What, what?"
Jessica threw down the food shed been eating and glared at her friend. "Dont be smart, Kaleah. You know what Im talking about. Whats with the weird look?"
Kaleah just held her steady gaze a moment before she asked calmly, "How did you know I was in trouble tonight?"
Azure eyes watched Jessicas expression closely, and Kaleah had to admit the young woman did a good job of acting casual as she replied.
"I was heading back to my room when I saw the three soldiers walking down the corridor to the bathing room," Jess said easily. She had already formulated the explanation, anticipating this question after her meeting with Charles. "They were dressed suspiciously, so I followed them. By the time I got there, the last of them was slipping into the chamber, and I knew they were the ones who attacked you." She offered an easy smile. "Lucky I was there, huh?"
Kaleahs gaze didnt waver, but her smile grew a little wider. "Yeah. Very lucky." Slender fingers brought a slice of carrot to her lips and she sucked it slowly, still watching her friend. Her lips twitched when Jessica looked away first.
In the time Kaleah had spent with Jessica, she had seen many facets to the young girls personality. Sometimes, it seemed the blondes emotions ran right under her skin, easily visible to anyone who looked. At other times, the mask of sophistication and nobility hid the truth well. Watching her as she gave the explanation, Kaleah almost missed the subtle tells she was searching for.
Almost, but not quite.
A slight flush, an almost imperceptible moment when Jesss eyes had looked away, and the quickly masked quaver in her voice told the dark woman all she needed to know.
Jessicas story may have been entirely plausible . . . but it was a lie, nonetheless.
Kaleahs eyes sparkled with delighted interest as her razor-sharp mind worked quickly to determine why her friend was lying. And perhaps more curiously, she wondered, what was the truth? How had Jessica known of the danger unless . . . Kaleahs heart skipped a beat.
. . . Unless shed been watching.
Recalling last nights foray into the secret passages, Kaleah silently considered this possibility as she finished eating. Jessica had said there were other places she used to spy on people. Was it possible shed been using one to observe Kaleah as she bathed? Kaleah grinned to herself. Yes, she realized. It was possible . . . and moreso, it seemed almost probable, when everything was looked at closely. And if that were true . . .
Well, Kaleah thought to herself as she watched the young woman finish off the last of the food. If it were true, perhaps Jessicas thoughts were following a path not dissimilar to her own. And perhaps she wasnt as unaware of them as Kaleah might have expected of someone so innocent.
"Are you done?"
"Huh?" Jessicas question snapped her out of her lascivious ponderings. She realized her companion was talking about dinner, and nodded. "Sure. I couldnt eat another bite."
"Great." The young blonde got up and set the tray on a cluttered table, where it balanced precariously on a stack of rough charcoal drawings shed been working on. Returning to the bed, she settled back against the headboard and sighed. "Quite a day, huh?"
"That it was," Kaleah agreed. Suddenly, she realized shed have to return to her own room soon, and against all reason she felt the fear start to rise again. "Um . . . Jessica?"
"Could . . . would it be alright if I stayed with you tonight?" she asked hesitantly. "Id . . . really rather not be alone right now."
Jessica saw the anxious, shy expression in her friends face and quickly nodded. "Sure. If you like. I mean . . . I guess youre still probably shaken up, huh? I know I am." She pulled back the covers and invited the dark woman to join her.
Kaleah accepted readily, not even thinking until she was safely wrapped in the warmth of the blankets about the fact that Jessica might share her attraction. By the time she did, her friend had already snuggled up to her and she could feel her usually tense body melt against the warmth of the young woman.
"Did you want to go to sleep right now?" Jess asked quietly.
Kaleah shrugged. "I am sorta tired." She wriggled around a little, her body molding to fit against Jessicas smaller frame better. Her companion sighed and wrapped her arms about her waist. The warm contact sent shivers down Kaleahs body, but somehow she sensed that Jessica intended nothing more than affection in the gesture. Regardless of how deep the young womans feelings ran, there was nothing more than friendship in this closeness.
"Do you want me to snuff out the candles?" She felt the warm breath against her side and couldnt help but shiver again.
"No . . . this is nice," she managed to mumble without choking. "We can let them burn out, right?"
"Sure." Jessica pressed herself deeper into Kaleahs body with a smile. "Kaleah?"
A long pause. "Im really sorry about this whole thing with my mother. But I promise that after tomorrow . . . youll be safe here."
Kaleah smiled and brought a hand out to stroke the glowing blonde hair that flowed across her friends shoulder. "I know. And thank you . . . for protecting me like you said you would." She closed her eyes and concentrated on the softness around her fingertips. "You know I trust you with my life, right?"
The smile in the green eyes that lifted to regard her warmed the dark womans soul faster than the strongest flame. "And you know I do the same for you." Jessica yawned, feeling the long day catch up to her all of a sudden. She shifted her shoulder and grimaced.
Kaleah grinned and rubbed the young womans arm, feeling the muscles tense. "I guess we worked a little too hard today, huh?"
Jessica grunted. "Its more than Im used to, thats for sure."
"Well . . . tomorrow if you ask really nice, maybe Ill give you a massage." Kaleah couldnt help but smile when she felt Jessicas heart skip a beat, then speed its rhythm against her chest.
"Um . . . thatd be great." Jessicas voice sounded a little strained. Kaleahs smile turned into a grin. "Id be happy to return the favor, you know."
"I know," she said softly, closing her eyes and settling back. "Remind me in case I forget."
Kaleah relaxed fully, and let her mind drift. There were a thousand different thoughts filling her head as she lay in her friends embrace, but it had been a very long and wearing day, both physically and emotionally. Even as she struggled to decide on a course of action to take with Jessica, sleep swiftly mounted its assault. Before long, her breathing had evened out and the warm fog of dreams overrode the more pressing concerns.
Just as she succumbed to the seductive depths of unconsciousness, Kaleah smiled, feeling the cadence of Jessicas heartbeat matched perfectly with her own.
Some distance away from the castle many miles, in fact - three figures trudged slowly down the muddy road, looking for a suitable place to set up camp.
Brian Hadrick, former Captain of the guard, snarled at the throbbing pain in his eye. He had tied a crude bandage around the open, seeping wound, but it didnt help to ease his suffering. Worse than the injury, of course worse even than the absent thumb on his right hand was the knowledge that he was helpless to avenge himself. The damn bitch had taken his eye and crippled his ability, and there wasnt a damn thing he could do about it!
The three men had been walking for hours, and had made good distance considering. They were far from the walls of DaGran now . . . far from the village and the safety it provided. The great forest now surrounded the road on all sides, filled with the eerie sounds of birds and night critters out hunting the darkness for prey. This was the wild now, Brian knew. Still, as dangerous as he knew such a place could be, he wasnt too concerned. Bandits would likely have packed up for the day; they tended to attack at dusk, or during the more heavily traveled hours of the day.
"Dya see anywhere good yet, Duncan?" he demanded sharply. His friend glanced at him nervously and shook his head.
"Couldve stayed at the bloody village, sir," he pointed out.
"Bah! With our luck, Sir Richardll figure out wha happened and be after us fore dawn. Ya wanna make it easy fer im?"
Duncan shook his head again. Even though he no longer technically served under this man, he was accustomed to following orders. Besides, Brian had a point. The Lady Jessica had ordered them to leave the lands of DaGran that night. Staying at the village would have put them uncomfortably close to the castle.
"Well find somewhere soon," he said hopefully.
"Aye . . . or well walk through the night." The former Captain glanced at the heavens, where stars were winking brightly in the dark sky. He breathed deeply, wincing and rubbing at the stump on his right hand. "I guess things cant really get much worse, at least."
A sudden, sharp pressure struck Brian with shocking force in the chest. It was followed immediately by several more stunning blows that knocked him back a step. He heard a slight gasp from one of his colleagues, followed by a thud. Looking down, staggering a little, the former Captain found himself staring with his one good eye at four feathered shafts jutting oddly from his chest.
His brow furrowed in confusion. "Thats not right," he mumbled, feeling no pain but a peculiar numbness instead. However, by the time the unfortunate man realized hed been shot . . . he was dead.
Dozens of stealthy figures moved out from the woods, surrounding the three slain men cautiously. A few lit torches and approached while others kept watch, cross-bows loaded and ready.
Three men knelt beside the dead Captain, studying him curiously. One waved the torch over his face, then down to his uniform and armor.
"Some of DaGrans men, sir," he reported to a tall man standing behind him.
The man, who was dressed in soft leather armor reinforced with steel plates, raised a dark brown eyebrow and stepped closer. "A patrol? Seems an odd time and place for Sir Richard to be sending his men out." His voice was calm, with a hint of refinement that seemed at odds with his hardened features.
"No patrol, I think, sir," the man kneeling beside Brian corrected. "Lookit this." He lifted the dead mans right arm, displaying the disfigurement for his superior, who smiled thinly.
"Aahh." He rubbed his hands together in interest. "Exiles? How curious." Intelligent hazel eyes studied the mans face, taking in the terrible wound with the detachment of one accustomed to such injuries. "And the others? Are they the same?"
"Aye, sir," a man near Duncan reported.
"Well. It appears Sir Richard has had some trouble with his soldiers. A pity we killed them so quickly. They might have been willing to talk."
"Aye, a pity." The man by Brian stood up and wiped his hands on his worn armor. "Still . . . better safe than sorry, right sir?"
"I suppose." The leader of the men waved his hand towards the bodies, then at the woods. "Get these three buried, then back to your places. Hurry."
His men leaped instantly to do as instructed, removing the three bodies into the dense, dark forest and sweeping away all traces of their passage. The man watched, his hands on his hips, a satisfied smile on his face. When all was complete and his men back in place, he turned to his second in command.
"A good nights work, even if it could have been better, dont you think, Rennard?"
"Aye, sir," Rennard agreed. "Nonell be reportin back our presence so close to the castle. Thats all we be needin"
"Indeed." The man turned his head and looked down the road where he knew DaGran lay but a few hours march away. "And when the real work begins . . . well have three less soldiers to worry about." He grinned and patted his second on the back as they headed back into the woods. They vanished as silently as they had appeared.
Continued in Part 5.