Freedom’s Heart Part 6 (Conclusion).


Chapter 21.

Kaleah looked out at the sweeping view from the majestic height of the look-out tower, watching the sun as it cleared the horizon and made it’s way into the sky. There were a few puffy clouds here and there, but the former slave could feel a new warmth in the air that told her Spring had arrived fully, and the icy hand of Winter had released its hold on the land. Everything looked green and golden and wonderful . . . but Kaleah felt a weight in her heart that couldn’t be dispelled even by the inspiring view. By now, Jessica would have made her decision, and even though Kaleah felt sure the young woman would decide to continue the relationship, regardless of the risks or consequences, a small part of her — the part that had learned that all good things would eventually be stripped away — was bracing itself for rejection.

Kaleah had slept a little during the night, but the memory of Jessica’s hungry expression and eagerly offered body were not conducive to rest. Through the dark hours, she made plans for the day; plans that were neutral in regards to Jessica’s decision. When the soldiers began to move around, the former slave headed for the kitchen and grabbed a bite to eat . . . more to distract her mind from what might come later than because she was actually hungry.

Now she stood, leaning against the huge brass signal horn that was mounted here to warn of someone approaching the castle, staring out at the distant horizon and trying to find some measure of comfort by watching the birth of a new and beautiful day.

She didn’t hear the quiet, soft footsteps coming up the stairs behind her, or the slight rustle of leather and cloth. But she sensed the arrival of another person, and without even turning she recognized the calm power in the new presence.

"Sleep well?" she asked.

"Not really," came the musical reply, and Kaleah could hear the slight smile in Jessica’s voice. She felt her friend come closer. "Did you?"

She shrugged. "Just a few hours," she said. "It was enough." There was a long period of silence before Kaleah turned to study the profile of the young woman. Jessica looked tired and still a little hazy . . . but there was a calm about her now that answered Kaleah’s next question before she asked it. "Did you think about everything?"

Jess nodded. "For most of the night, yes." She turned to face Kaleah, and smiled a little. "I gotta say, it took me a while to calm down so I could think about anything except . . . you know?" She waggled her eyebrows suggestively, and Kaleah grinned. "But after an hour or so, I got myself under control and I did what you wanted me to do; I thought about this whole thing in a rational, logical way . . . and about what it might mean to me and the life I live."

Kaleah put her hands on the stone battlement in front of her and turned out to look at the tapestry of fields and forest. "And?"

Jessica smiled quietly. "Well . . . I considered everything very carefully, just like you said to do. And I think you’re right, Kaleah . . . there are a lot of risks to us being together." She took a deep breath. "My mother would never stand for it . . . and with the power of the Church behind her she could probably overturn anything my father might do to protect me. Maybe we could appeal a death sentence, but you’d be banished for sure, and God knows what they’d do to me. A lot of the soldiers and knights would probably refuse to ever ride with me again, and the commoners would likely start whispering about how I’d been seduced by a witch. I could loose in an instant everything I’ve spent my whole life struggling to build; the respect of the other warriors, the love of the peasants, and maybe even my home and my family." She looked at Kaleah’s stony expression. "And against all that I have a savage, heathen barbarian still bearing the scars of a life spent in slavery and torment."

Kaleah’s face was a careful mask, but she couldn’t stop her fists from clenching into the hard granite, knuckles turning white. She swallowed, tasting bitter bile in her throat. "So . . ." Her voice trembled. "I guess that means you . . made your decision."

A warm hand reached out and strong but gentle fingers twined themselves with her own. Kaleah glanced down into the slightly amused but loving eyes of her smiling friend. "There wasn’t really any decision to make," Jessica said softly.

Kaleah’s mouth opened and closed a few times as her companion’s words sunk in. "Y-you mean . . . you-" Jessica put her hand over Kaleah’s mouth and stopped her.

"No," she said. "You had your chance to talk last night. Now it’s my turn." She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, opening them when she felt Kaleah smile against her hand. Looking up into the cerulean gaze of the older woman, Jessica let her heart speak.

"When we first saw each other, something happened between us. Something we both felt, but didn’t understand." Kaleah nodded very slightly. "Well, I think I understand what it was now," Jess whispered. "It was the feeling of God’s hand binding our two souls together. When I looked into your eyes . . . it felt like I was seeing the color blue for the first time in my life. I couldn’t stop myself from following you when you ran from the battle, and I couldn’t stop myself from following when you tried to escape into the storm." She stepped closer, pressing herself against the dark woman’s powerful body. "Even if I wanted to stop loving you — which I don’t — I couldn’t do it. You’re a part of me Kaleah. I don’t have a choice in this . . . we’re just meant to be together, that’s all." She took her hand away, smiling at the look of relief and love in Kaleah’s expression. Eager hands wrapped around the tall woman’s waist, and Jessica squeezed her close. "I love you."

Kaleah’s hands went automatically around the young woman pressed against her, and she placed a tender kiss on the blonde head resting on her chest. "I love you too, Jess," she whispered, her heart pounding so hard she worried it might burst. A feeling of well-being and relief flooded through her so strong it made her light-headed, and it was only after several long minutes just holding Jessica that she managed to convince herself this was real.

They stood like that for a long time, just enjoying each other’s warmth, before Kaleah finally drew away and looked down into mist-green eyes. "What about your mother-"

"Sshhh." Jessica grinned. "Whatever happens, Kaleah, happens to both of us together. You trust me, right?" Kaleah nodded without even thinking. "Then trust that I’ll be able to handle the consequences of being with you. When the time comes, we’ll deal with whatever problems come along." Her eyes darkened and a slow, sexy smile spread across her face. "Did you . . . have anything planned for today?" she asked in a voice so low she barely recognized it as her own.

Kaleah shuddered, seeing that Jessica’s passion still burned just as strong as it had last night. She smiled and nodded. "As a matter of fact I did," she breathed seductively.

Jessica’s eyes sparkled and she raised a blonde brow invitingly. "Do your plans involve me?"

Kaleah nodded again and bent down very slowly, licking her lips. "How would you . . ."

Jessica’s breathing accelerated as she leant forward eagerly. "Yesss?"

"Feel about . . ." Kaleah’s lips descended as Jessica’s eyes drifted shut, the young girl’s head tilting to the side. The dark woman stopped just before their lips met, and she grinned. ". . . a picnic in the woods?"

"What!?!" Jessica’s eyes shot open and glared at Kaleah, who couldn’t help but chuckle at the thwarted look on her face. "You’d better find a God and start praying if you’re serious, Kaleah," she growled, pulling the dark woman even tighter against her.

"What’s wrong?" Kaleah grinned. "You had something else in mind?"

Jade eyes narrowed. "Damn right I did!" Her hips forward and Kaleah felt heat against her thigh. "Something involving you, me, and a nice big bed!"

Kaleah blinked her eyes in innocent confusion. "You wanted to sleep in?" Jessica growled, and Kaleah laughed. "I like that noise," she whispered, using her free hand to brush a strand of Jessica’s hair back over her ear. Her eyes grew hooded. "I wonder what other noises I can get you to make . . ."

"I guess that’ll depend on what you do to me," Jess replied, her hips unconsciously grinding against Kaleah as the ache inside grew stronger. "And I doubt you’ll get much opportunity to do a whole lot if we go on a picnic . . . unless you’re planning on us going alone, in which case you might be able to twist my arm."

Kaleah raised an eyebrow. "You know, Jessica, for someone so patient and in control of herself — not to mention so sweet and innocent — you sure are in an awful hurry about some things."

"A hurry!?" Jess’ eyes widened. "You call waiting nineteen years a hurry? And after all the stuff you’ve been doing the last few days, I think I’m being positively saintly about this stuff!" She growled again. "I’ve waited long enough!"

"Well, I’m really sorry, Jess, but you’re gonna be waiting just a little longer," Kaleah said with a grin. "There’s a patrol leaving in an hour, and we’re going with it."

Jessica’s smile disappeared and she took a step back. "You are joking, right?"

"Nope. I already had the kitchen make up a basket of food for us . . . and I thought we’d ask Charles and Damon if they’d like to come, too."

Jessica stared at her, hands on her hips, totally incredulous. "We’re going on a picnic?" she hissed. Kaleah bit her lower lip and nodded. Jessica’s eyes narrowed dangerously. "Now!?"

"Uh huh." Kaleah fought to contain a grin, but couldn’t.

Jessica stalked forward and poked her in the chest. "You get me all worked up and then you force me to wait all night . . . and now you’re telling me we can’t do anything because you want to go on a blasted picnic!?!"

Kaleah shrugged sheepishly. "Um . . . that’s how it looks, yeah."

Jessica took a deep breath and turned around, collecting herself. She was getting tired of having to drag her rampaging libido back everytime it leapt forward. After a moment, she faced Kaleah again. "And when, exactly, are you going to let me be with you?"

Kaleah smiled crookedly. "Tonight . . . after we’ve enjoyed this beautiful day."

"Tonight? You’re sure?"

Kaleah nodded sincerely.

Jess sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. "Okay . . . fine. I think I can wait that long." The smile on Kaleah’s face made her chuckle at herself a little. "But no more stalling, you hear me?"

"Loud and clear." Kaleah stepped closer and ran a single finger down Jessica’s face, past her chin and between her breasts which were clearly defined through the thin shirt she wore. The dark woman smiled when she heard Jessica’s breath catch, and she boldly let her finger continue it’s southward journey, eventually finding the heat at the juncture of her leather-clad thighs. "Like I told you . . . the best part about being frustrated is when you finally get what you want." Jessica whimpered when Kaleah pressed her finger firmly against sensitized flesh, and her hips began to move of their own volition, trying to increase the pressure. When she felt that, Kaleah pulled away, causing Jessica to glare at her. She smiled. "Tonight, my love . . . I’ll give you everything you ask of me."

Jessica held her eyes a moment longer, then swallowed. "You damn well better," she said breathlessly, "or you’re gonna find out just how dangerous nineteen years of chastity and virtue can be!"

Kaleah grinned and patted the young blonde on the head. "Come on then," she said, linking their arms and feeling her happiness spread through her blood like an intoxicant. "Let’s go find Charles and get the horses ready. I’m looking forward to a nice long ride."

Jessica gave her a sultry grin and winked as they headed down the stairs. "So am I," she purred, "but I can wait till tonight."

Kaleah blushed a little, but laughed, amazed at how the young blonde could be shy and innocent, and at the same time so forward and bold.

Inside the dark woman’s heart, the small part of her that had grown accustomed to being deprived of everything except pain and sadness and grief finally realized that after a lifetime of abuse, something wonderful and light had come along . . . and this time, it wasn’t going to be taken away. As Kaleah basked in the simple pleasure of this young woman’s love and life, the former slave felt the dark shadows of her past recede . . . and she knew that for the first time, the pain of those terrible years couldn’t hurt her anymore. Jessica’s love and understanding shielded her from that darkness like a blanket of light.

Kaleah smiled as she and her young companion walked quickly down through the tower, looking forward to what she was determined would be the best day of her whole life.


Charles and Damon were delighted by the proposed picnic, and happily agreed to accompany the two women and the patrol of soldiers. Jessica saddled Andromeda herself, then helped the still somewhat clumsy Kaleah saddle her large chestnut gelding. The dark woman sent a servant to bring the basket she’d had prepared from the kitchen, and less than an hour later they assembled with the group of twenty soldiers just outside the castle walls. Charles and Damon were already there, waiting, and Jess saw the massive body-guard had decided to wear his heavy, dark plate armor and the demonic-looking helm. She chuckled.

"We’re going on a picnic, Damon, not riding off to war. You’re gonna be sweating a river in that stuff."

The burly man raised a mailed hand and flipped the visor on the helm up, flashing her a grin. "This is a patrol, still," he argued sensibly. "I must be ready to protect my lord."

"You take things too seriously," the young blonde laughed, but she admired his dedication. For Damon, being Charles’ protector was a job he took very seriously indeed.

Charles’ horse skitted nervously under him, but he soothed the beast easily. "It’s a wonderful day for this," he observed, looking up at the nearly-clear sky. "The first few days of Spring are my favorite time of year, I think."

"Mine too," Jess agreed. She had to admit that this was a nice idea . . . no matter how intriguing the alternatives were. She gave Kaleah a smile that said she wasn’t too mad at her, then hastily looked away when the dark woman ran her eyes openly down her body, not being shy about where she focused her attention.

If she keeps this up, by the time you get her back to your room you’re going to explode the instant she touches you, her mind informed her. Jess decided it was a risk she’d just have to take.

Watching the interaction between the two women, Charles groaned inwardly and rolled his eyes. Apparently, Kaleah wasn’t the subtle type; the look she gave the young blonde was enough to make even the open-minded young lord blush. But when he glanced at the soldiers, Charles was relieved to see that none of them seemed to be paying any attention to the two women. They gave Jessica courteous nods, and mostly the same to Kaleah, but other than that, they seemed blind to the sexual tension that charged between the two.

Strange, he thought to himself. Or then again, maybe not so strange. Afterall, these people must be used to Jess and Kaleah being together all the time. They’ve seen it everyday for the past few weeks. Why would they bother looking twice to see something that wasn’t there before?

The thought was somewhat comforting for Charles; he knew what could happen if Jessica’s romance with her dark friend was seen by the wrong people. He didn’t want her getting hurt because of her love.

The patrol set off from the castle at a leisurely pace, even the soldiers willing to enjoy the pleasant warmth. The men laughed and joked with each other, relaxed but still watchful as they neared the trail that led into the woods. The bandits in the region were showing up less and less recently; the last few days, patrols hadn’t found a single camp, nor evidence that raiders had passed through. Still, despite their high spirits, the soldiers of Da’Gran were disciplined and ready for anything . . . especially considering they were riding escort for their lords daughter.

The patrol rode a few hours out, not in any hurry, the men letting Jessica set the pace. The young woman rode next to Kaleah, casting her secret, sidelong glances every now and then, the sultry smile never leaving her face. Kaleah returned the looks with ones of own; looks that promised mysterious delights that would be explored later that night, and that sent shivers through Jessica’s ardent young body.

If we get attacked, her mind observed pointedly, you’re going to be the last one to notice, and the first one to die! Stop giving the damn woman ‘come-take-me’ looks and keep at least one eye on the bloody forest!

Jessica told her mind to shut up. She was enjoying herself . . . and was actually enjoying the slowly building sense of anticipation, too. She leaned closer to Kaleah.

"This wasn’t such a bad idea, you know," she said quietly. "I’m sorry I was a little . . . overzealous before."

Kaleah didn’t know what ‘overzealous’ meant, but she could take a good guess. "That’s okay," she said calmly. "Later on, you can be as . . . ‘over zee-lus’. . . as you like."

Jessica giggled at her strange pronunciation of the new word, and explained, "It means, um . . . extreme. Really enthusiastic." She waggled her eyebrows, and whispered, "I think it sums up my feelings quite well right now."

Kaleah grinned. "You want to look for a place to stop for our picnic? You didn’t have breakfast, afterall."

"Sure. I’ll tell the men." The young woman rode forward to the head of the column and informed the patrol leader they wanted to break for an early lunch. The man agreed amicably; this patrol was just a close-range scout, intended to discourage anyone from setting up too close to the castle. There was no hurry in their assignment, and when a suitable clearing came along, he called a halt and the men happily dismounted and stretched out the stiffness in their limbs.

While the soldiers settled themselves in groups and unpacked their own food, Jessica and her three friends opened their picnic basket and inspected it’s contents. Jessica pulled out cloth-wrapped bundles containing everything from roast pheasant and honey-sweetened pork, to fragrant bread rolls filled with dried fruit. There were even a few slices of freshly-baked butter cake, of which Jessica quickly claimed the largest piece.

The four friends settled themselves down under the sweeping branches of an aspen tree and ate contentedly. Kaleah couldn’t resist tormenting her young friend a little more, and began to eat her food in a suggestive and rather enjoyable manner. Jessica tried to ignore her at first, but found her eyes straying to the dark woman of their own accord. Glaring at Kaleah didn’t make her stop, nor did the furtive, subtle nods towards their companions. Eventually, her interest in food rapidly disappearing, Jessica decided it might be time to find somewhere a bit more private to continue this seduction . . . and she knew just how to convince Kaleah to come with her.

Her eyes glinting with mischief, Jessica took a large piece of sweet cake and, looking Kaleah straight in the eyes, flicked it at the dark woman’s chest.

"Hey?!" Kaleah glared at her. "What was that for?"

Jess just grinned playfully and flicked another piece.

Kaleah growled as Charles and Damon glanced at each other, amused and curious. "Cut it out." The young woman just shook her head and repeated her actions. This time, Kaleah sat up on all fours, her eyes narrowing dangerously. Her voice was a low, intense rumble. "I’m warning you, Jess . . . don’t start with me-" A well-aimed crumb landed right in her cleavage, and Jess giggled.

"What’re you going to do, Kaleah?" the blonde taunted playfully.

"You don’t want to know, princess."

"Oh, don’t I?" Jessica considered a moment, then very deliberately took the last piece of her cake and tossed it at the dark woman.

"That’s it!"

Jessica squealed and had only a second to get her legs under her as Kaleah sprang forward, her hands reaching for a hold. The young blonde heard a curse behind her, but bolted for the woods as fast as she could, knowing Kaleah was right on her heels. Most of the soldiers laughed or rolled their eyes, accustomed to the lively antics of the spirited girl, but the patrol leader called out a quick warning for her not to go too far. Jessica put her head down and pumped her legs hard.

She couldn’t keep her pace going for long, however, and against the long-legged strides of her pursuer, the chase only lasted a few minutes before Jessica heard Kaleah’s harsh breathing right behind her. She heard the dark woman grunt, "Gotcha," right before long arms wrapped around her waist and dragged her back. The dark woman’s body overbalanced her and Jessica crashed to the soft ground, giggling as she struggled to get free. Kaleah quickly pinned her down with her long body, holding her arms down firmly, her face just an inch above her own, breathing hard. Jessica struggled a moment longer, but melted when Kaleah inserted a muscled thigh between her legs and applied a gentle, very welcome pressure where she wanted it most.

Dark blue eyes gazed down at her, the predatory smile on the dark woman’s face sending shivers down Jessica’s spine. "You caught me," she breathed.

"Yes I did." Kaleah eyes wandered over her face and she pushed forward a fraction with her thigh. "The question is . . . what am I gonna do with you now?"

Jessica felt daring and brave, the weight of the dark woman pressing against her in all the right places making her blood burn. Green eyes sparkled invitingly. "Whatever you’re gonna do, you should hurry," she said softly. "If the soldiers decide to follow us and catch us like this, they might think you’re trying to attack me." Her eyes sparkled. "They could kill you before I could stop them."

Kaleah considered a moment, seeing the playfulness in Jess’s face, but also aware of the serious invitation she was making. The dark woman decided she’d teased the girl enough, and her smile turned sensuous. "Well . . . if I’m going to risk my life . . . I might as well get something worth dying for while I’m here." Slowly — slower than either woman thought she could stand — Kaleah’s lips descended and brushed lightly over Jessica’s.

Jessica’s eyes drifted shut as her lips pursed slightly and she tilted her head to accept the slow kiss. Kaleah’s lips were so soft against her own, and the young woman let the rest of the world fade away as she gave herself over to the incredible sensations. When Kaleah released her hands, Jess quickly buried her fingers in the dark woman’s thick hair, pulling her closer and deepening the contact. Kaleah used one hand to support her weight, and ran the other lightly down Jessica’s body, stopping at the curve of her hip.

Kaleah let the kiss last several moments before she eased off, but Jessica quickly pulled her head back down, moaning at the loss. Feeling the young woman’s passion burning fiercely, Kaleah let her tongue glide forth to gently stroke against the soft lips under hers. Jessica’s response was a low, rumbling growl, and her lips parted in open encouragement. Slowly, Kaleah let her tongue venture into the young woman’s mouth, ready to retreat at the slightest hint that she was moving too fast. But Jess accepted the invasion eagerly, her own tongue welcoming the company.

Jessica felt light-headed at the feeling and taste of Kaleah’s mouth and tongue, and her body began to rock against the leather-clad thigh that pinned her down. With her fingers combing restlessly through Kaleah’s long, sable tresses, the young woman refused to let the kiss end even when her lungs began to cry for air. Breaking contact for a second to gasp in a quick breath, Jessica felt Kaleah’s tongue retreat and she followed it instantly with her own. For long moments she explored the dark woman’s mouth, tracing her sharp teeth and the inner contours of her cheek, feeling there the still slightly torn flesh from Kaleah’s beating. When Kaleah’s lips closed over her tongue and sucked forcefully, Jessica felt a powerful tightening sensation in her groin and pushed herself harder against the body that covered her.

A moment later, the two woman drew apart by unspoken agreement, their breathing shallow and harsh. Jessica opened her eyes and gazed up into the somewhat unfocused eyes of her friend. She smiled dreamily, and Kaleah flashed her a dazzling grin.

"Are you okay?" the dark woman asked softly, letting her hand wander lightly over the young woman’s body.

Jess nodded. "Fine." She gave a slightly shy giggle. "I feel a little dizzy," she admitted with a blush.

Kaleah’s grin widened. "Me, too." She glanced down meaningfully at where her thigh was pressed against the young blonde’s still-grinding center. "You know, you should probably stop that or we’re going to get carried away."

Jess followed her eyes and saw how she was moving, and her blush deepened. She couldn’t seem to control the rhythm of her own body, but with the sensations coursing through her, she wasn’t sure she wanted to. She raised an eyebrow and smiled as she deliberately thrust harder. "Getting carried away sounds really nice right about now," she panted breathlessly.

Kaleah smiled, but pulled her leg away. Jessica moaned at the loss and pouted, but the dark woman ended any protests with another searing kiss, which quickly turned into another long session of gentle explorations. When they parted again, Jessica’s eyes were dazed and fuzzy. She smiled a silly smile.

"I’ve been wanting to kiss you like that for so long," the young blonde whispered. "All my life, I’ve read stories where people share kisses so intense they make everything else disappear. I’ve never . . . actually kissed anyone that way before, though." She gnawed her lower lip shyly as she gazed into sapphire pools. "You make me feel like I’m living in a fairy tale . . . I have to keep reminding myself this is real."

"It’s real," Kaleah assured her, kissing her gently on the cheek. "And it only gets better from here." She gazed seriously into dark green eyes. "I love you, Jess."

Jessica smiled. "I love you, too." Her eyes grew darker still. "And I really want to show you just how much I love you." She pulled Kaleah’s body down onto hers more firmly, enjoying the feel of so much contact but wishing she could get rid of the leather armor that kept her from touching the bronzed skin that lay beneath. The young blonde was inexperienced at all this, but she wasn’t about to let that get in her way.

Kaleah found herself helpless against the strength of her young love, and she buried her face against Jessica’s neck, breathing in the intoxicating scent of vanilla and sweat. Her lips pressed against soft skin, and she nipped lightly with her teeth, causing the blonde to yelp, then groan. "I want to make love with you, Jess," she whispered into her ear, smiling when she felt a shudder run through the body pressed so close against her own. "But I want it to be perfect for both of us." She drew back a little. "As much as I’d like to continue this right now . . . we really have to stop."

Jessica pouted. "This is perfect, Kaleah," she insisted.

"How perfect will it be if the soldiers catch us?" Kaleah saw that register in the young woman, who sighed and nodded her understanding. "I promise I’ll make the wait worthwhile."

Jess smiled shyly. "Can we . . . kiss again?" she asked. "Just once, before we head back?"

Kaleah grinned and nodded, then claimed the young woman’s lips. She let her passion show in the kiss, making it a promise of things to come. Time drifted away as they explored each other at a leisurely pace, quickly becoming lost in the soft sensations and the warmth of their love. But when the sound of a twig snapping just a few feet away broke the silence of the forest, blue eyes opened instantly and locked with startled green. The spell of the kiss broken, they sensed the presence of others in the clearing. Adrenaline dispelled the fog of desire, and both women moved with dazzling speed.

Kaleah was on her feet and turning a fraction of a second before Jessica rolled to the side and crouched low. It was a struggle to make the transition from a moment of intimacy to one of danger . . . and with her defenses lowered, Kaleah felt the dark and wild beast that crouched inside her easily shake off it’s leash and spring forward. She tried desperately to regain control, but it was hopeless. The sudden interruption brought all her deepest and most primitive instincts to the fore, and Kaleah was helpless to drag the darkness back.

It took a heartbeat to identify that the intruders were not part of their patrol, and the passionate fury focused her vision, giving her a single-minded goal; to protect Jessica. Somewhere inside, Kaleah paused a second to marvel at this. Even the darkest part of me feels nothing but love for her.

Steel flashed as a dagger appeared in the dark woman’s hand so swiftly it was almost magical, and a feral grin twisted the scar on her lips. The darkness that caught her in it’s powerful grip didn’t even think to regret that her sword was still back in the clearing with Charles and Damon; the shorter blade was just as deadly. She stepped forward as one of the roughly-armored men charged her, swinging an iron-shod mace at her shoulder.

Kaleah ducked the straight-forward attack and struck with lethal skill. The dagger swept upwards, ignoring the mans armored chest to plunge into his unprotected throat, angled to penetrate his brain. He was dead instantly, but Kaleah was advancing on the next man before his body had crumpled to the ground. Through the fog of rage that blinded her, Kaleah watched her own hand strike him down with the same ruthless efficiency, unable to cage the darkness that had been loosed.

Stepping back as more men moved forward, Kaleah saw Jessica behind her. The girl was still crouched, a slender dirk in her hand, but she hadn’t moved to fight yet. Wide green eyes set in a pale face stared at her uncertainly, but Kaleah turned away coldly, her focus on the advancing intruders. The dark woman guessed there were about fifteen men surrounding them now, but the darkness made her numb to any fear. Bending down, she picked up the sword from her most recent kill and spun it a few times, getting the balance. The weapon was heavier than her own blade, but she didn’t care. Rage fueled her body with fearsome strength, and even through the haze of blood-lust and darkness, her thoughts went instantly to her young love. She had to protect Jessica . . . and she knew that Jessica would protect her.

Facing the men, Kaleah took a step forward, sword raised, but she stopped when several of the intruders raised new weapons. "Drop the sword!" one man ordered sharply. The former slave had seen a few cross-bows in her life, and recognized the danger as gleaming bolts were trained on her. Still, she hesitated only a moment before she stepped forward again, fearless of pain or death.

"No, Kaleah!!" Desperate hands grabbed her and pulled her back. She snarled and tried to pull free, but Jessica was strong. Glaring down at the smaller woman, it took a moment for her to understand the look in Jess’s emerald eyes. The darkness receded a little, and Kaleah held still, struggling against the urge to continue the fight. Jessica’s hands relaxed a little and her eyes flitted nervously to the cautious men who were waiting. Her expression was full of fear . . . not for herself, but for Kaleah. "They’ll kill us both!" she whispered frantically. "We can’t fight this. Please."

Even the animal rage in Kaleah was helpless against this soft plea. Reluctantly, the red mist dissipated and the former slave took a long, shaky breath before nodding her understanding. "Okay." Numb fingers released the sword, which thudded to the forest floor. The dagger followed, and Jessica sighed with relief, tossing her own weapon away. Kaleah glared at the men and their deadly bows with cold, malevolent eyes, but she held herself still. Jessica raised her hands to show they were empty as the men stepped forward more boldly now.

"We surrender."


Jessica watched the group of men as they tightened their circle, cross-bows never wavering. Her eyes flickered briefly to the two men Kaleah had killed, then she glanced at her dark friend quickly, trying to judge how her volatile temperament might affect their chances of getting out of this. The young woman knew she could yell for help and the nearby patrol would probably hear her . . . but by the time help arrived, it would certainly be too late. Against the glinting danger of the cross-bows, there was nothing even her swift reflexes could do.

"My, but this is an unexpected encounter," came a rich, cultured voice from behind. Jessica whirled about to find a tall, slender man with short, dark-brown hair and refined features step through the ring of men. He wore reinforced leather armor and his motions were calm and considered. Intelligent hazel eyes looked her up and down, and a slight smile washed over his handsome face. "A young woman with so beautiful and noble a bearing can be no other than the daughter of Sir Richard himself," he mused, studying her. "Am I correct to assume I have the honor to stand before the Lady Jessica Da’Gran?"

Jessica held herself steady under his inspection. She was surprised to find his tone was not sarcastic, but held only a sincere respect. Glaring at him, she nodded warily. "You do."

The man clapped his hands once, his smile widening. "What a strange piece of fortune this is," he said, offering a slight bow. "Permit me to introduce myself, my lady. I am Frederick Gosford . . . though I don’t suppose that name means anything to you." His eyes were curious, and his tone said he was testing her.

Jessica searched her mind for the name, but came up empty. "Should it?"

Gosford shrugged. "Perhaps. In some circles, I am quite well-known. Having heard your reputation, I thought it possible you might have heard mine."

She shook her head, considering the man carefully. Gosford wore no crest or heraldic symbol, yet his armor was of excellent quality, and the long-sword at his side was worn with casual grace that spoke of great familiarity. His accent and manner of speech indicated he was educated and well-bred, but from his rugged features, Jessica guessed the man held no title. Studying him in comparison to the other men, Jess suddenly understood what was going on.

"You’re a mercenary."

Gosford smiled and inclined his head, accepting the title. "One of the best, my lady . . . and one of the most expensive. After so many failed attempts to take Da’Gran land by force, it is understandable that Sir William would spare no expense for his latest endeavor."

Green eyes widened. "You’re working for Lancaster!?"

"Indeed I am, my lady. His lordship hired me at great cost to lead the expedition against your father . . . his own strategies weren’t working."

"This is impossible." Jessica struggled to comprehend the situation, realizing she was in more danger than if these men were simply an itinerant band of raiders. "You can’t think to take the castle with Lancaster’s men. Even if he gave you every man in his army, you’d never win against Da’Gran troops. And Sir William hasn’t the wealth to hire a mercenary army of any decent size."

"Of course not, my lady," Gosford agreed amicably. "Sir William has kept the greater part of his forces at home . . . but I don’t need his men to win." His hazel eyes were unnervingly calm and slightly amused; Jessica didn’t like his confidence. "Even as we speak, an army of rouges, thieves and bandits marches through the woods towards your father’s castle. They outnumber his forces four to one, and by tomorrow evening, they will lay siege to the fortress." He smiled at the stunned expression on her face. "We have been recruiting for this campaign since before the start of winter. The raiders may not be the greatest fighters in the world . . . but they’re cheap, expendable, and best of all, numerous. With a capable commander, they make an unstoppable force."

Jessica saw the conviction in Gosford’s eyes, and knew the man spoke the truth. This explained how the bandit groups had seemingly vanished recently, and the strange behavior of Sir William during his visit. The magnitude of the threat hit her hard, but Jess managed to conceal her fear from the carefully watching mercenary.

"And what are your plans for me?" she demanded coldly.

"Can you not guess?" Gosford smiled in amusement. "Sir Richard’s love for his daughter is well known. Finding you out here like this is great fortune. You will be a powerful tool against him in the coming days."

"If you know anything of my father, than you must know he holds the lives of his people above all else . . . even my life. He’d never agree to a ransom."

"Oh, I beg to differ." Gosford’s expression became serious. "Believe it or not, Lady Jessica, I want this conquest to be as bloodless as I can make it. I have a great respect for your father, and indeed for you yourself. My terms for surrender will be more than fair. In time, Sir Richard will see sense." His eyes went to the two dead bodies lying on the forest floor, then to Kaleah, who stood stiffly next to Jessica. "Sir William made mention of a strange woman keeping company with Jessica," he mused speculatively. "He worried you might be an extra thorn in our side, and I see he was not entirely unjustified in his concern." He chuckled, his hazel eyes sparkling. "Still, I am certain he will be most amused to hear that the ‘handmaiden’ he troubled over is little more than Lady Jessica’s whore!"

Gosford’s laughter died suddenly as Jessica’s fist slammed into his face with a speed that was blinding. Kaleah instantly moved to place herself between her young love and the men holding the crossbows as they stepped forward, their fingers tightening on triggers. They halted at a raised hand from the mercenary leader.

Jessica’s green eyes were filled with venom and her body trembled with rage. "If you speak another word like that against Kaleah, I’ll rip your throat out," she hissed. One of the men reversed his bow and moved to deliver a stern reprisal.

"No!" Gosford halted the man. "She’s right. My words were crude and unwarranted against a lady of the nobility." He rubbed his jaw, wincing a little before offering a slight bow to Kaleah, then one to Jessica. "I apologize to you both, but you must understand that it is something of a shock to stumble upon the two of you in so intimate a circumstance. I should not have displayed such disrespect, however, and I am sorry for it." He motioned with his right hand, and the bandit soldiers reluctantly backed away.

Jessica eyed him a moment, suspecting he was taunting her, but realized quickly that his regret was sincere. She nodded her acceptance of the apology, and he smiled.

Who was this Gosford? The bandits obviously held him in great regard, but he was unlike any of the mercenaries Jessica had encountered before. He spoke with great eloquence, and held himself with an almost regal bearing. Sir Miles had once told her that the more brutal and cruel an enemy was, the more flaws and weaknesses he was trying to cover. She could tell that Gosford’s behavior was not an act; he could afford to be magnanimous because he was confident of his abilities.

Beneath the charm, Jesica knew, lay a dangerous man.

Gosford looked around the woods, searching. "We are close to Da’Gran," he muttered. A sharp eye trapped Jessica. "Are the two of you alone out here?"

Jessica hesitated. She didn’t want this man to know that help was close by, and she judged him quickly to surmise the best way to keep him unsuspecting. Swallowing, she shook her head. "There’s a whole patrol with us," she said, pitching her voice deliberately high. "They’re not far away."

Gosford considered this, his head cocked to the side. "Far enough that you didn’t bother calling for help, I see," he pondered. "Far enough that you felt safe to engage in private acts with your ‘friend’ here." He gestured to Kaleah. "I think it more likely that you are alone, my lady," he smiled, "and that you came here to steal some time away from the eyes of the castle with your companion." Jessica looked away briefly, her features paling, and Gosford’s smile widened, fooled completely by the guilty expression. "We must return to camp quickly before a real patrol comes by."

Gosford turned his attention back to Kaleah, who still hovered protectively close to the young blonde. "I have a use for you besides ransom," he said. "I want you to inform Sir Richard that we have his daughter. In twenty-four hours, his castle will be under siege. He has that time to evacuate the villagers behind Da’Gran’s walls and to make what preparations he will. Inform him that I will make terms for surrender as soon as my men are in position. Can you remember all that?"

Kaleah looked to Jessica, not wanting to be separated, but the young woman nodded and gave her a reassuring pat on the arm. She glared at Gosford and nodded.

"Excellent. And to be sure you don’t take it into your head to follow your mistress . . ." His eyes flickered beyond her, and Kaleah turned just in time to receive a sharp smack to the temple from the oak stock of a crossbow.

"Kaleah!?!" Jessica cried out as the dark woman slid bonelessly to the ground.

"She’ll be fine when she comes too," Gosford said, signaling for his men to grab her. "Be gentle," he reprimanded them when they pulled Jessica roughly away from her friend. "Keep in mind that you are escorting a lady of the nobility."

Jess glared at him angrily, a tear escaping her eye. "You didn’t have to do that!"

He shrugged. "I’ll not risk that she’ll try to be a hero and rescue her lover," he said firmly. "By the time she’s in any condition to follow us, our trail will be covered. Come now, it’s a short walk to the horses, then another hour ride back to camp." He gestured to the two men Kaleah had killed. "We take them with us. Go!" The bandits moved quickly to follow orders.

The men guided the young blonde out of the clearing and back into the deeper parts of the forest, their actions firm but not rough. Jessica looked over her shoulder and felt her throat tighten at the sight of Kaleah’s unconscious figure. "Be safe," she whispered, before the men insisted she turn and continue.

What had started out to be the most wonderful day of her life had taken a suddenly dark turn. Her home was in great danger . . . worse than it had ever been during her life. Jessica wished for Kaleah’s company but was thankful that her friend would at least be safe for the time being. All she could do now was hope that her father and Sir Miles would figure out a way to save Da’Gran — and hopefully her as well — before it was too late.


Chapter 22.

Kaleah didn’t have enough time to duck the blow from the butt of the crossbow, but her swift reflexes did allow her to roll away a little, reducing the force of the impact. Everything went black for a frightening moment as she fell limply to the ground, but she managed to struggle against the seductive pull of the darkness for a few moments . . . just long enough for her to mark firmly in her mind the direction the men took her beloved Jessica. Then, her eyes fluttered closed and the pain vanished.

A familiar voice, urgent and worried, called her back seemingly a moment later. Opening her eyes, Kaleah found Charles bent over her, calling her name. His relief was obvious when she shook her head a little, and he helped her sit up.

"What happened?" he questioned anxiously. "Where’s Jessica?"

Kaleah looked around groggily to find several Da’Gran soldiers from the patrol watching her. A few were bent over the ground studying something. She groaned and put a hand to her throbbing head. "Men," she said shakily. "They attacked us. I-I killed two of them but . . . they had crossbows and Jessica . . ." She shook her head. "They took Jessica."

"Who were they?" demanded the patrol leader. "Bandits?"

Kaleah shrugged and tried to stand, but a wave of dizziness overtook her. "I think so, but their leader was a mercenary. He said his name was . . . Gosford, I think. And he said he had an army." She saw the patrol leader’s eyes widen and quickly told him what Gosford had said about the planned attack on Da’Gran.

"That’s not possible!"

"It is," Kaleah insisted. "The army will be here in a day."

"I don’t believe it."

Kaleah saw in his face that he did. "Jessica took his threat seriously," she observed, and after a moment he sighed and nodded.

"Sir Richard must be informed," he said. "We need to get back to Da’Gran as quickly as possible."

Kaleah’s eyes widened. "What about Jessica?"

"There’s little we can do," Charles told her. "They’re long gone by now."

Kaleah struggled against him and managed to get to her feet. "I’m not leaving her with that man," she hissed angrily. "I’ll go alone if I have to, but I’m getting her back."

"You can’t-"

"I can, and I will," she insisted, shrugging off his attempts to restrain her. Her sapphire eyes bore into his. "Don’t even think of trying to stop me, Charles."

"Jessica’s smart," he argued persuasively. "She’s been in hostage situations before. She knows how to handle it."

Kaleah didn’t move a muscle. "I’m getting her back," she said slowly and calmly. Her voice pitched lower so only Charles would hear. "You know what she means to me. Do you honestly expect me to stand and watch peacefully while she’s ripped away from me?"

He was silent a long moment, then he sighed. "You’ll never get her back if you go alone. I’ll come with you."

"Milord, I must insist you return to Da’Gran." The patrol leader had heard those last words and moved instantly to intervene. "We cannot risk handing over another hostage . . . especially one as valuable as yourself."

"He’s right," Damon agreed. "I cannot in good conscious allow you to go."

Charles considered this a moment. "Very well. Damon, you will go in my place."

"Milord, it is my duty-"

"It is your duty to follow orders," Charles interrupted. "There are enough men to escort me safely back to the castle. Kaleah will need your help more than I."

"I can spare a few men to go with you as well," the patrol leader agreed readily. "If it is at all possible to rescue Lady Jessica, we must at least try."

Kaleah smiled and nodded. "Thank you. I saw which way they headed, but I’m not a great tracker. We must hurry."

With the discipline of veteran soldiers, the men quickly organized themselves into two groups, one to return to the castle, one to go with Kaleah. In only a few minutes, the dark woman was leading her somber group through the forest, her cold eyes focused and intense.


"You’ll never win. You know my father will fight to the death for his people." Jessica glared at the man studying a pile of detailed maps laid out on a table a few feet away. Gosford glanced at her, smiling his quiet, confidant smile.

"Against my numbers, Lady Jessica, even a soldier of Sir Richard’s experience cannot stand." His eyes returned to the maps. "We have everything in place, and every possible avenue covered. Da’Gran will fall, one way or another."

Jessica snarled and pulled uselessly at the ropes that bound her hands behind her back. This was Gosford’s own private tent, the largest of the three structures that made up the center of the small encampment. The other two she had seen likely housed supplies or weapons, with the common soldiers sleeping outside. She knew the mercenary had had her brought here mostly so he could personally ensure she behaved herself, but from the hard look he gave some of the bandits earlier, she suspected there was another reason also. Jessica had a reputation among the bandits, and it was entirely possible they might seek retribution once they were away from the stern eyes of their commander. The young blonde had heard a few of the crude comments and suggestions from the men about her and Kaleah. She was grateful to Gosford for the courtesy of his protection.

The camp numbered several dozen from what Jessica had seen, and they were reasonably well-equipped. There had even been a few soldiers wearing the heraldry of Sir William. Jess prayed that Kaleah would be sensible and return to the safety of Da’Gran, but knowing the unpredictable woman as she did, it was impossible to rule out a rescue attempt.

This wasn’t the first time Jessica had been in a hostage situation, and she was less frightened than she was angry. Her home was about to be attacked, and instead of preparing to fight, she was tied up and helpless, about to be used as a bargaining chip in Gosford’s terms for surrender. She was a fighter; her skills would be wasted if she stayed like this. Although she hoped fervently that Kaleah would be safe and go back to Da’Gran, Jessica was more than ready to escape if the opportunity presented itself.

Assuming a relaxed and slightly haughty expression, Jessica eyed the mercenary a little calmer. "You think a rag-tag army of bandits can defeat Da’Gran troops?" She snorted. "Any one of my fathers men is worth ten of yours. The castle is strong and gives the advantage of a secure position. Numbers will avail you little against it."

Gosford shrugged. "I have more than simple numbers on my side, my lady . . . I have timing and preparation. You’ve a sound understanding of warfare and tactics; eventually, you will come to understand the many pieces that will give me victory."

Jessica was considering a response when a sudden shout came from outside, followed instantly by the clash of weaponry. Gosford’s sharp eyes leapt up and held her for a moment, then he turned towards the covered entrance looking outside. A loud, bellowing battlecry rang through the camp, and he turned back, eyes cautious but angry.

"Perhaps your father moves faster than I had thought," he growled, standing over her. "Still, if he hopes to have you rescued, the task will prove more difficult than he anticipates."

"Is that so?" purred a low voice behind him.

Gosford’s eyes widened and his sword leapt from its scabbard as he whirled about, only to be confronted by two menacing eyes as hard and cold as chips of ice. Before he could even register the presence of the dark-haired specter that had risen behind him however, the ornate hilt of Kaleah’s Spanish sword slammed into his face and he fell back, dropping his weapon. Kaleah advanced and snarled as Gosford shook his head, trying vainly to focus his dimming vision. "Maybe you’re not as good at this stuff as you think you are." Steel flashed in her hand as she leveled the tip of her sword under his throat. She smiled ferally. "Maybe you won’t live to learn any better."

"Kaleah, no!"

Sapphire eyes lifted and regarded Jessica quickly, softening instantly then returning to Gosford. The sword withdrew a fraction. "You don’t deserve the second chance she’s giving you," Kaleah whispered angrily. Her hand reversed and delivered a second mighty blow, this time knocking the mercenary out cold. "There won’t be another."

Kaleah turned quickly and rushed over to Jessica, throwing her arms around the young woman and clutching her fiercely to her chest. Tears welled up behind her tightly closed eyes and she swallowed the lump in her throat. "I’m sorry," she whispered, her voice catching. "I got here as soon as I could."

Jessica struggled to balance without the use of her hands. "I’m okay," she assured the dark woman quickly, accepting a desperate kiss. "You should have gone back to the castle. You would have been safe there."

Kaleah pulled back and wiped at her eyes. She smiled wryly. "If our positions were reversed, would you have gone back without me?" Jessica’s head fell forward, and the former slave nodded. "I’d do anything you ever asked of me, Jess," she said softly, "but never expect me to stay behind when you’re in danger."

Jessica met her eyes again and nodded. "Okay. Now quickly . . . we have to get out of here. Untie my hands."

Kaleah cut the thick ropes and helped her young love to her feet. "Damon and the others can’t hold the soldiers long," she said urgently, guiding them over to the slit she’d made in the back of the tent. "As soon as they form an organized defense, they’ll have to pull back and retreat. This is just a distraction." Even as she spoke, they heard the sounds of the skirmish die down, replaced by cries of alarm and shouts of "Fire!!". Jessica cast her tall companion a curious look and was met by an evil smirk and a raised eyebrow. "That’ll be the supply tents."

Jess chuckled, then ducked outside. Looking around, she found the camp in a state of confusion, men running in all directions. Some seemed to want to give chase to the figures she saw retreating back into the forest, while others were more concerned with the now roaring blaze that was consuming the two tents. A firm hand gripped her shoulder. "This way." She allowed Kaleah to guide her swiftly into the welcome cover of the denser trees.

The sounds of the camp died away quickly as they ran as fast as they safely could, and it wasn’t long before they reached a clearing. Jessica grinned when she saw the gathering there, hugging Damon’s armored figure briefly and nodding her thanks to the others. Several of the men bore minor injuries, but their hit-and-run tactic had worked well and they had escaped lightly.

"We have to get back to Da’Gran quickly, Lady Jessica," one of the soldiers stated. "Your father will be relieved when he hears you are safe."

Kaleah brought Andromeda forward and handed Jessica the reins. "Charles returned with the others to warn everyone about what’s happening," she said quietly. "The villagers will have time to evacuate."

"Good." Jessica mounted the nervous mare smoothly and smiled at the men who followed suit. "Thank you all for risking yourselves to save me."

"Was Kaleah’s only thought when we found her," Damon said. "She refused to return to the castle without you."

"Is that so?" Jessica flashed her friend a quick grin, her eyes twinkling. Now that she was free again her excitement was difficult to contain. "Well I’ll be sure to thank her properly when I have the time," she said playfully. Kaleah returned her grin knowingly, then urged her own horse forward.

They set a brisk pace through the forest, knowing that pursuit was almost certain. Only when they were trailing along the familiar paths that laced the woods close to the castle did they slow down and give their tired horses a break. Kaleah rode next to her young love, needing to be close to her. Jessica reached out and patted her thigh reassuringly.

"It’s okay," she said softly. "I’m safe now and we’re together. That’s all that matters."

Kaleah smiled a little and nodded. Then her features hardened. "Why didn’t you let me kill him?"

Seeing that Kaleah was furious at Gosford for the abduction Jessica considered her answer carefully. "Gosford’s not an evil man," she said slowly. "He’s just being paid to fight against us. He treated me with respect, and I know he’ll be an honorable opponent against my father." She paused. "Killing him wouldn’t stop the army. Someone else would just take over, and we could be fighting against a real monster." She watched Kaleah’s face and saw the tense lines relax a little in understanding. "Whatever else he may be, Gosford’s no petty butcher. Whatever happens, I know he’ll deal with us fairly."

Kaleah nodded, her expression grim. She faced Jessica seriously. "We’re in a lot of trouble, aren’t we?"

Jess was silent a moment, then whispered, "Aye, we are." A slight smile appeared then, and she patted Kaleah on the leg intimately. "But at least we’re together . . . so it’s not all bad, huh?"

Kaleah nodded, reaching down and pulling Jessica’s hand to her lips. The kiss was brief and gentle, but it managed to convey her love and affection nonetheless. They smiled at one another, then parted as a call from ahead called their attention to the fact that they’d reached the edge of the forest. Da’Gran castle came into view in the distance.

Jessica sighed, feeling a little tired at the events of the busy day and knowing she wasn’t likely to find rest any time soon. "I guess this means we have to postpone our plans for this evening again, doesn’t it?"

Kaleah couldn’t help but grin at the hoarse tone of her friend’s voice. "Yep."



Emerald eyes scanned back and forth slowly, taking in the grim view with weary despair. Jessica’s heart felt heavy in her chest, but she was too tired to cry. She couldn’t remember wanting sleep so badly in all her life. Turning, the young blonde looked up into the warm sapphire eyes that were watching with her and smiled sadly, glad for Kaleah’s support through the last hours. Her gaze shifted to Sir Miles. The old knight’s face was drawn with fatigue and sorrow, but his stance was strong. He sighed as his shrewd eyes looked out from the battlement to the field.

"He’s no fool, to be sure," was his simple assessment.


It was approaching dusk, and the bandit army had been in position for almost a day now. It had taken that long for Gosford to get his men settled and secure. The mercenary established himself in a wide perimeter that encircled Da’Gran completely, his troops just out of range of Sir Richard’s archers. At that distance, of course, he hadn’t the men to surround the castle entirely, but had settled for secure pockets of men spaced evenly every thirty paces. A troop of cavalry rode back and forth along the lines, making sure the gaps in the siege were clear and keeping the unruly bandits from doing anything stupid. Now, as the sun began to vanish over the horizon, a ring of campfires sprang to life, their flickering glow forming an evil faery-ring around Da’Gran, and serving to keep the defenders mindful of the enemy at the gate.

Jessica had returned to the castle to find everything in a state of disciplined chaos. Charles led a group of soldiers and knights out to the village and ordered an evacuation. A tent city sprung up in the jousting and training fields, and the common people took what they could carry and moved behind the walls of Da’Gran. After much debate, the village itself was razed to prevent the enemy from plundering the materials for siege engines. The smoke from the smoldering remains choked the air, increasing everyone’s despair.

Sir Miles had passed weapons out among the peasants, who held them clumsily as they would a shovel or a hoe. Still, they were prepared to fight to defend their lord and their lives, and Sir Miles called for volunteers from the garrison to train them as best they could.

Jessica’s safe return was met with subdued cheer, but it was quickly apparent to the young woman that something was wrong. When she didn’t see the face of her father among those welcoming her back, she feared she knew why. A glance to Sir Miles’ drawn face had confirmed her intuition for the general air of desolation that seemed to flow over the people, and the grey knight drew her and Kaleah aside to explain.

Sir Richard had been struck down by a fever.

The sickness had started early that morning, Miles reported, with Sir Richard complaining of nausea and cramps. He had waved it off at first as unimportant, but it worsened quickly, developing into a high fever and painful spasms that brought the strong lord to his bed. Eric Grace and his apprentice had been unable to remedy the illness, but by the timing and nature of it, Grace suggested grimly that Sir Richard may well have been poisoned somehow.

Jessica had visited her father, but he had drifted into a delirious sleep and she was reluctant to rouse him. She’d cried briefly then, and Kaleah had held her close, stroking her hair soothingly and repeating that everything would be alright. Then, composing herself, the young blonde had set herself to the task of protecting her people and her home.

When the bandit army emerged from the forest, the people continued their preparations with stoic disregard. Jessica answered a messenger from Gosford who delivered terms for surrender with a calm no, then returned to the work at hand. She knew the people were heartened by her presence, and she spoke to everyone gratefully, boosting their moral. Jess knew that that would be the first thing to be threatened in a siege, when the long hours of waiting could bring crippling depression and despondence to defenders in a matter of days.

Finally, her body aching from exhaustion and sorrow, the young woman allowed herself to study the enemy in greater detail. It was now, with the siege upon them, that she began to understand just how well Gosford had planned all this.

"What are we going to do?"

Kaleah wrapped a long arm around her waist and pulled her into an embrace. "His men are spread thin," she observed. "We could break through easily and sweep along his line."

She shook her head, smiling a little at the blunt strategy that was so characteristic of her companion. "His army outnumbers us too greatly. Our troops would be exhausted before half the enemy were slain. And then, the castle would fall easily."

Kaleah considered. "I don’t suppose we can just wait him out?"

"No. He’s planned this well. The castle supplies are at their lowest right now; we’ve been relying on them through the winter, and we’ve not yet planted the spring crops. He’s forced us to evacuate a whole village so we’ll run through the supplies faster still. Even with rationing, we won’t last more than a week or two before we have to fight."

"And that’s if the water’s still pure," Sir Miles added with a scowl. "Grace still can’t say fer sure what sickened yer daddy."

Jessica sniffled a little. Without her father, the people were relying on her and Miles for leadership. Lady Rose was less than useless, and had already retreated into her rooms with Steven in tow.

"What about Charles’ father?" Kaleah suggested. "Surely he’ll figure something’s wrong when his son doesn’t return on time."

Jessica gripped Kaleah’s arm and pulled it tighter about herself, needing physical contact with the dark woman now more than ever. She didn’t care if someone saw. "That’s the most clever and daring part of Gosford’s strategy," she said softly. "He had Lancaster offer to attend a treaty discussion in Da’Gran, and my father brought in Charles to demonstrate our alliance and its strength. Now he attacks, and traps Charles here. Once he takes the castle, he’ll capture Charles and hold him as a hostage against the Earl moving in his troops." She sighed, blinking her eyes rapidly as the flickering lights of the many fires started to swim in her vision. "I don’t know if he had a hand in my fathers illness, but regardless, it bodes well for him and poor for us. Our figurehead is gone, and the people’s resolve will be weakened." She rubbed her eyes wearily.

"Let’s be takin’ this a day at a time, lass," Miles rumbled. "Gosford don’t look to be goin’ anyplace fer the time being. Let ‘im get comfy fer a while ‘fore we make a move. Those bandits ain’t known fer their patience."

"You’re right." Jessica studied the army outside curiously. "Give it a week and their discipline could start to slip. Then we could-"

"Wait ‘n see what happens ‘fore ye go gettin’ excited. It’s been a long few days, Jess. You’ll be no use to the people as a leader if ye don’t get some rest." His eyes shifted to Kaleah, who wasn’t any better than the young blonde. "That goes fer you, too."

Kaleah smiled and nodded. "Let’s go," she whispered, kissing Jess’s head softly. "Thing’s might look better in the daylight." With a final glance at the circle of fire, the former slave guided her unresisting friend down the stairs and back to Jessica’s room.

The dark woman stood her numb friend up and gently removed the armor she was wearing, laying each piece neatly on a frame nearby. Jessica smiled as she was undressed, enjoying the simple, undemanding pleasure of Kaleah’s light touches. She obediently slipped into a clean shirt and trousers, the cloth feeling almost sensual to her after the hours spent in her leathers. When soft lips caressed her shoulder, Jess giggled and pulled her tall companion into an embrace.

"You know, I should be too tired to feel anything," she mumbled as she began to return the favor, her hands lingering over every inch of bronzed skin revealed. "But now that we’re alone . . . I’m feeling rather energetic." She felt a deep rumble pass through the body pressed tight against her.

"We neither of us have the energy to do anything tonight," the dark woman purred, though her hands combed eagerly through Jessica’s blonde locks. "No matter how much we might want to."

Jess pouted and tossed a piece of leather aside. Her eyes twinkled playfully even through her fatigue. "Are you so sure of that?"

Kaleah grinned. "Believe me, princess," she rumbled, "you’re gonna need to be well rested before you start getting frisky with me."

"Oh, really?"

"Mmmhmmm." Kaleah waggled her eyebrows.

Jess blushed a little, but pulled away from the dark woman long enough to find her a shirt and pants to change into. She watched with hooded eyes as Kaleah donned the simple garments. "Well . . . I wouldn’t want to fall asleep in the middle of something." She grinned, then lay back on her bed with a sigh of contentment. "You’ll still sleep in here though, right?"

Kaleah answered by flopping bonelessly down beside her.


They dragged the covers over them and, as before, Jessica found herself entangled in a warm and safe cocoon of powerful arms and legs as Kaleah spooned her body around her. Her eyes closed instantly, and the tension from the last few days drifted away. She could set aside the troubles of the outside world and simply enjoy the gift of this haven of love and peace. Kaleah’s breath washed away her fears of tomorrow, of her father’s safety, of everything else. Jess sighed in contentment, feeling a gentle kiss against her shoulder. As she drifted away into the misty world of dreams, she heard a low voice ruffle the hairs at the base of her neck.

"I love you."


The smell of bacon and freshly baked bread roused Jessica from slumber early the next morning. Before she even opened her eyes she sensed the absence of her bedmate. The room was empty. Groaning mildly and wishing circumstances would allow a few more hours sleep, Jess looked around and quickly found the tray of breakfast resting on the bedside table. She smiled and eagerly grabbed it.

There was a folded note resting under the plate, and the hungry young blonde opened it and scanned the somewhat clumsy writing as she happily shoveled food into her mouth.


Miles said to tell you he’s called a meeting in the war-room — wherever that is. He wants you there as soon as you’re ready. I volunteered to work with Sutton at the forge . . . we need more arrows, and weapons for the peasants. I guess it’s going to be a busy day for us both.


Jess smiled fondly, then noticed an additional scrawl on the back of the note. She flipped it over.

I know we were both looking forward to some time alone together and we didn’t ask for this to happen, but I think we have to focus our energy now on saving the castle and your people. Remember I love you . . . but we can’t let passion distract us.

Green eyes narrowed. "I don’t think I like the sound of that," Jessica murmured cautiously. "Not let passion distract us? Does that mean what I think it means? Cos I’ve been waiting for a little ‘passionate distraction’ with you for too long already, Kaleah." She reread the brief note, then shook her head. "We’re going to be talking about this later," she told her absent friend sternly. "Just as soon as I get finished with Miles."

Quickly scarfing down the rest of her breakfast — remembering that the castle supplies would need to be rationed if they were going to survive the siege — Jessica donned her armor and strode through the halls to her fathers war-room — a hallowed place she had only ever visited once or twice before in her whole life. A guard stationed outside nodded in greeting, then opened the door and announced her to the gathered knights within. Whatever discussion had been going on died quickly as the men turned to face her.

Sir Miles smiled. "Come in, Jess. We were just about to get started."

Stepping into the room, Jessica found herself unconsciously mimicking the posture and attitude she had seen her father assume during times of crisis. She coolly met each set of serious, troubled eyes in the room, pleased to find no hint of challenge at her presence. Being a woman, Jessica had no official right to be attending this council; indeed, some of these same knights had argued for her removal from battlefields in the past, despite her skills. She didn’t want to have to fight her case again when there were more important issues to deal with.

From his position at the head of the round oak table, Sir Miles watched his finest student with pride, smiling a little at her familiar, masculine stance. Jess was short, her features almost angelically innocent, and even though she was muscular she was dwarfed by the burly gathering of knights. But the confidant, unwavering gleam in her emerald gaze gave her a force of presence that filled the room and swept away any doubts about her right to be here. She had been born to the duties of leadership, had trained tirelessly to earn the right to be a part of this world of sweat and steel, and every man recognized in her the same innate nobility and strength of spirit that had made Sir Richard such a commanding lord. Seeing this scrap of a girl step forward into a room of men twice her size and three times her experience, the old knight could only marvel silently at the gentle but irresistible power of her charm.

"Right . . ." Jess rested a hand on the hilt of her sword, taking charge of the meeting as she knew her father would have done. "We’ve an enemy at the gates, a low food supply, and no reinforcements to save us." Her lips tightened into a grim line. "Let’s hear some suggestions."


The meeting lasted several hours, but it was productive. Jess didn’t ask for permission to take her father’s place as commander; she just took it. No-one was foolish enough to question her authority — especially with Sir Miles, Eric Grace and Charles giving her their full support.

Grace reported that his tests had proven the castle water to be free from any toxins. His tests of the grain and meat stores were the same. While he still believed Sir Richard’s sickness to be no accident, he was certain the poison had not originated from the general supplies. Jess considered again Sir William’s visit, aware that such a devious method of attack was well within his moral boundaries.

Jessica was relieved to hear that her father’s condition had stabilized during the last twenty-four hours, but was concerned there had been no visible improvement.

"Whatever grips Sir Richard is beyond my ability to heal," the old sage stated calmly. "I have tried every remedy I know of, but cannot break the fever fully. From what I can see, however, Sir Richard’s body is fighting the sickness on it’s own, and is winning . . . albeit slowly." He stroked his beard thoughtfully, then added, "I believe that in time, he will recover fully."

"But not soon enough to lead us," one of the knights concluded grimly, giving Jessica a meaningful glance.

The young blonde swallowed and said softly, "We’ll just have to do this without him then."

Hearing from each of the assembly in turn, Jessica quickly gained a clear view of the situation. Gosford was apparently settling in for a long wait. The bandit army had not started building siege engines; no battering rams or catapults or climbing ladders. They had fortified their position with trenches to stop cavalry and simple walls to shelter archers, but were making no move to attack the castle directly. That suggested Gosford planned to wait for their food and water to run low and their strength to diminish before he attacked.

"Which means we have to do something before the soldiers grow demoralized and too weak to fight," Jess stated.

One of the younger knights snorted. "We don’t stand a chance against those numbers. We leave the castle and they’ll cut us to ribbons."

"No army is perfect, regardless of it’s virtues." she shot back, her eyes flashing. "We just have to figure out what Gosford’s weakness is, and how we can exploit it."

The council suggested a variety of strategies and possible weakness’, but Jessica calmly discounted each in turn, observing the flaws that would defeat them. Eventually, when it became apparent that they weren’t going to figure anything out then and there, Jessica ended the discussion.

"We’ll just have to wait and see what the next few days bring," she stated finally. "We don’t know how strong a hold Gosford has over the raiders. Obviously, he’s using the few dozen troops Sir William gave him to maintain order . . . but how long will that last. If we’re patient, and watchful, an opportunity might arise." Her eyes narrowed. "If that happens, I want us to be ready to take advantage of it."

From there, the council turned it’s attention to organizing the training of the commoners, the rationing of supplies, and general issues of restructuring the way of life in the castle to deal with the siege. Jessica listened to the advice she was given, and acted on the wisdom of the more experienced warriors. She had only an abstract knowledge of siege warfare, and was smart enough to admit it. Throughout the council Miles stood at her right, supporting and guiding her decisions, and glowering at any of those who seemed to want to take issue with the young blonde’s leadership.

As soon as the council ended, Jessica excused herself and left quickly to search for her dark-haired friend. She was glad to shed the stiff shell of leadership, feeling for the first time in her life the full weight of her position settle uncomfortably on her shoulders. Jessica loved combat. She loved the thrill of battle, and the excitement of knowing that the only thing saving her from a painful death was her talent. But in every battle she had ever been in, her father’s reassuring presence had been closeby, ready to defend her from both the enemy and those who disliked having a young woman fighting beside them. That was gone now. Her father was sick, and even with Miles, Charles, and the others who liked her, she felt the burden of leadership dragging her down.

Shaking her head to clear the unwanted thoughts, Jess redirected her focus to the next task at hand — the task she was, in truth, much more interested in pursuing; finding a certain tall, dark and delicious warrior who needed a stern talking too.

Unfortunately, Kaleah was nowhere to be found at the smithy. Sutton told her the dark woman was taking a break after a hard morning of work. Jess checked the central look-out, the bathing chamber, and their respective bedrooms, all without success. Frustrated, Jessica started to get the feeling that Kaleah was avoiding her deliberately.

"Is this your way of making sure we don’t get ‘distracted by our passion?’" she ground out under her breath. She blew her bangs out of her eyes angrily. "Well . . . there’re only so many places you can hide, Kaleah — and I know them all . . ."

"Lady Jessica?"

"Huh?" Turning, she found a soldier standing nervously a few feet behind her. "Yes?"

"Sir Miles sent me to find you. He’s running drills at the archery range and he wants you to join him there."

Jess glared at him a second, seriously considering ignoring the summons to continue her search for Kaleah. Then she took a deep breath and nodded to him. "I’ll be right there." She took a final careful look around, knowing it was possible her friend was watching her, then followed the soldier.

The day moved slowly by and Kaleah did not make an appearance. It was an effort for Jessica to focus on her duties, her mind and her imagination conspiring once again to tempt her with interesting visions of what the night might hold once she got her dark friend alone in her room. When darkness fell and she was able to at last retire, hungry and worn out but still eager to bring her imaginings to life, Jessica found her bedroom depressingly vacant. In Kaleah’s place was a simple note which read, A leader needs to be well rested. Get some sleep while you can.

Frustrated, Jessica crumpled the note and stormed over to investigate Kaleah’s room. It was empty. The former slave had clearly found some other place to sleep. Emerald eyes glowed with thwarted desire.

"You can’t avoid me forever Kaleah," she muttered, trying without much success to convince her body to accept that it wasn’t going to get what it craved that night. Returning to her own room, she grumpily shucked her armor and slipped naked into bed. Sighing, Jessica tried to summon up some kind of fatigue.

"This is so unfair," she groaned, stretching out fully on the bed that now seemed depressingly vast. Jessica had slept alone in here since she was old enough and headstrong enough to convince her father she deserved a place of her own. In all those years, she’d never felt so lonely as she did now. After only a few nights she had grown so accustomed to Kaleah’s presence that her absence made sleep impossible. Even without this newly-awakened, lustful hunger, Jessica wished her friend beside her, needing her comforting warmth so badly she ached inside.

Closing her eyes, Jess curled herself into a ball and called to mind the wonderful sensation of Kaleah’s long, lean figure wrapping itself around her lovingly. The memory made her smile, and she settled down to what she knew would be a long, empty night.


Chapter 23.

Kaleah was feeling rather proud of herself. For the last two days, she had successfully avoided the searching emerald eyes of her young love without shirking her duties at the smithy. Although she knew full well that Jessica was eager to explore a physical relationship with her, Kaleah was willing to postpone that so the young woman’s attention would not be sidetracked. The gesture was, to her way of thinking, rather noble . . . although she was quite sure Jessica didn’t see it that way. Kaleah grinned. With her eyes flashing like lightening and her posture tense and angry, the young blonde had everyone in the castle scrambling to stay out of her way.

The former slave had been sleeping in a room she’d discovered via the secret passages. She had, at first, pondered whether the passages could be useful against the enemy, but quickly came to the same conclusion she knew Jessica would have reached. The passages were only useful if they planned to give up the castle. From the determined set of Jess’s face, Kaleah figured that wasn’t going to happen.

Tonight would be the third night in a row she’d slept alone, and Kaleah was sorely tempted to give in to her desire and bed with her friend. But she was taking the role of suffering martyr quite seriously, and had written another note of devotion and solace to be left in Jessica’s room; a poor substitute for her own presence, she knew, but, like Jess had told her long ago, the people’s lives must come first in a true leader’s heart.

When she reached Jessica’s room however, Kaleah was surprised to find a note already pinned to the oak door. She pulled it down and opened it, recognizing the fluid, elegant penmanship of her friend.


We need to talk. I’m waiting for you in the bathing chamber. Come at once.


Kaleah sighed. The note was brief and clearly indicated this was more a summons than a suggestion. "Still," she mused aloud, "I could just pretend I never found the letter. She’d never know-"

That thought died quickly when she saw the additional scrawl on the back of the note: Don’t even think about it, or I’ll send the guards to track you down. I want you here NOW!

Slipping the note into her leathers, Kaleah turned and headed for the bathing chamber, head bowed penitently. She suspected she was in for a stern lecture from her young companion . . . but couldn’t repress the shiver that ran through her body at the thought of what Jess might consider an appropriate form of apology.

Reaching her destination, the dark woman hesitantly pushed the door open and stepped into the thick, warm air of the chamber. "Jess?"

"What took you so long?"

Kaleah turned. "I was just- ulp!" Her jaw dropped and lost the words when she saw the vision before her.

Jess stepped out from behind a statue of a woman bathing. She wore a sheer black robe made from a silky material that clung to her curves in shimmering waves, accentuating her muscular figure. The simple robe fell to mid-thigh and was tied loosely in front with a sash, only barely able to cover the swell of the young woman’s breasts. From the amount of bare skin on display, Kaleah suspected Jessica was naked beneath the robe. Her blonde hair was loose and damp, and her eyes sparkled wetly. When Kaleah managed to drag her eyes up from their feast, she found the young woman regarding her with a sultry, pleased look. As Jess came closer, her body undulating in a consciously sensual display, Kaleah swallowed hard.

"You’ve been avoiding me." The tone was playful, with only a hint of rebuke.

It took a moment for Kaleah to get her jaw working. "I just — I thought . . . since you needed to be doing leadership stuff, maybe it wasn’t a good idea to-"

"Distract me?" Jess grinned fully, noting the way Kaleah seemed to be having difficulty keeping her eyes from wandering. She stopped a few feet from the dark woman, setting her hands on her hips and pulling the fabric taut across her body. She gave the dark woman a long, lingering once over, and Kaleah’s nostrils flared. "Did you really think that I’d stop thinking about you just because you weren’t beside me?"

Kaleah flushed, feeling a jolt of pure arousal hit her low in the gut from the sexual timbre in Jess’s voice. "I-I thought it best for you to focus on the people . . . that’s all."

"Do you know how hard it is for me to focus on the people when all I can think of is you?" She paused, then corrected, "Us?"

Kaleah shrugged helplessly. She hadn’t thought of it that way, had assumed Jess would be able to put her desire aside while her duties called for her attention. It was hard to summon any justification for her actions with the young woman tempting her a few feet away. Her eyes tried to find other things in the room to focus on, the urge to ravish the blonde maiden growing stronger.

Jessica saw the struggle in the dark woman’s face, saw the way her eyes refused to settle on her for more than a second. A warm rush of pleasure swept through her from seeing the effect she had on her friend. Smiling coyly, Jess slowly ran a hand up from her hip and lazily drew a finger down her well-displayed cleavage. "You can look at me if you want to."

Kaleah’s wide eyes fixed on her hand instantly, her breath coming fast. Jess smiled, a tightening sensation clutching at her stomach from the heat in those azure jewels. "Do you like me?" Her finger tracked lower, pulling the robe open a fraction and earning a desperate nod from the dark woman. It was an exciting, daring feeling that flowed in her blood, and she would have laughed at her own wanton behavior but for the fact that her seduction was in earnest. She took a step closer, hips swaying, eyes yearning.

"If I could take back the last few days and make it so this siege never happened, I would," Jess whispered. "But I can’t. I know you want everything to be perfect for us . . ." She gazed into sapphire eyes that held the perfect mix of lust, fear, and utter devotion, knowing they were a mirror to her own. "But the world isn’t a perfect place. I won’t stop loving you and wanting you just because things aren’t as good as they could be." Her body pressed against Kaleah’s armored form. "I love you with all my heart and my soul, Kaleah. And now I want to be able to love you with my body as well." Her hands reached out and she ran her thumb over the scar the marred the former slave’s trembling lips. She felt the taller woman’s body shudder and reveled in the knowledge that she was the cause. Stepping on tip-toes, she claimed a brief, gentle kiss. "Please. . . will you let me?"

"Yesss." The surrender — though against her nature generally — seemed the most natural thing Kaleah had ever done.

"Good." Jess stepped back, her eyes hooded and irresistible. Finding a smooth granite rock behind her the young woman sat gracefully, crossing her legs at the knee. The silky robe rode up her thigh, exposing her almost to the hip. Beyond aroused, Kaleah released a shuddering breath. Jess smiled. "Take off the armor."

Normally calm fingers hastened to comply at once, shaking but eventually winning out over the buckles and laces that held the leather and mail together. Kaleah tossed the armor away and faced the look of hunger from her partner, her nakedness only fanning the fire in her blood.

Jessica let her eyes roam slowly down Kaleah’s body, her lust apparent as she took in the firm breasts, lean muscle and bronzed skin lashed with vivid white scars. The ache inside her grew stronger when she settled her attention lower still, and she shivered in anticipation when a flash from one of her dreams skipped teasingly across her mind.

"You are magnificent." The words slipped out of their own volition, and Kaleah flushed self-consciously.

Jessica stood and, very slowly, pulled the knot from the sash that held the robe closed. The silky cloth fell from her shoulders and pooled on the floor, allowing the sunlight that trickled through the stained-glass ceiling to cast interesting shadows over her exposed body. The young blonde wore only a pair of thin breeches under the robe, and Kaleah spent a long moment captivated by the play of light over her lover’s muscular form.

Green eyes met blue then, and Kaleah saw a hint of shyness touch the emerald depths regarding her. Jessica smiled a little nervously, and Kaleah understood. She stepped closer and caressed Jessica’s cheek with an almost reverent touch, letting her love and passion show in her face.

"There’s no need to be shy," she whispered breathily. "You’re beautiful."

Jess smiled shakily and captured the stroking hand, bringing it to her lips and placing a wet kiss on the palm. Her heart hammered loudly in her ears, craving more. "I want to be beautiful for you, Kaleah. As beautiful as you are to me."

Kaleah’s hand escaped and her fingers tangled in Jessica’s hair. The young woman was pulled willingly into an electric embrace, and they both gasped as skin met skin. Kaleah bent down and gently brushed her lips against those waiting to be claimed. The kiss was soft and intense, sweeping away all apprehension and doubt. Jessica quickly let her tongue enter the dance, deepening the contact and eagerly exploring her partner’s mouth when Kaleah accepted her unspoken request immediately.

The intimacy of the moment shook Kaleah to her very soul. She had never been so willing to surrender to the touch of another person . . . had never wanted to be claimed like this before. Jessica’s hands roaming up and down her back were eager and excited, but at the same time seemed undemanding and gentle. The kiss was equally tender as it was passionate; the young woman clearly understood that this experience was something new to both of them.

After long moments of breathless exploration, Kaleah felt Jessica grasp her left hand and gently guide it lower down her body, eventually pressing her fingers against her hip. The young blonde pulled away, gasping a little. Her eyes were smoldering as she glanced down meaningfully at her undergarments.

"Take them off. Please."

Kaleah grinned. "As you wish, Princess."

Trailing a line of wet kisses down Jessica’s chest, deliberately by-passing the tempting swell of the young woman’s breasts, Kaleah knelt before her love. She looked up at Jessica’s face seriously as she slid her fingers into the waistband and slowly tugged downwards, her hands caressing lightly down the length of the young woman’s legs. Jess couldn’t help but blush as she was exposed fully to the thick, sultry air of the bathing chamber. Sapphire eyes dark with desire released her and she felt their gaze rest hotly on her most intimate places. As she stepped out of the breeches Jess gnawed her lower lip, knowing Kaleah couldn’t help but notice how excited she was.

The dark woman took in the heady scent of her lover’s arousal, almost dizzy with longing. She wanted to take Jessica right there, to taste her essence and ravish her body till she was quaking and blind to all but her touch. But she restrained herself. After waiting so long for this moment, she was determined to go slowly . . . or at least, as slowly as she could manage.

Standing, Kaleah took Jessica’s hand and smiled down at the furiously blushing girl. "Join me for a bath?"

"Sure." The haste of her response earned a wickedly raised eyebrow from Kaleah, and she blushed. After watching the dark woman bathe for so long, Jessica had enough fantasies about getting naked and wet with her friend to sink a fair-sized ship. The young blonde happily let herself be pulled into the steaming waters.

Kaleah waded out to the island where the water lapped just below the underside of her breasts, then turned and pulled Jessica to her. The young woman smiled shyly, reaching out hesitantly to caress Kaleah’s face with trembling hands. Her touches wandered lower, down the dark woman’s neck where they paused. Sensing her lover’s uncertainty, Kaleah reached up and gently guided Jess onwards, her breath catching when the feather-light caresses moved over her breasts.

Jessica gently ran her hands over the wet skin, eyes wide. "So soft," she murmured, awed by the incredible sensations that touching Kaleah evoked in her. Hearing Kaleah’s breathing go ragged she grew bolder, lightly dragging blunt nails over pebble-hard nipples. Kaleah hissed, and a smile tugged at the young blonde’s lips as she studied her lover’s expression. Curious, she pinched lightly, eliciting a sharp intake of breath.

"You like that?"

"Uh huh."

"Good." Standing on tip-toes, Jessica claimed eager lips, exploring the dark woman’s mouth with her tongue as her hands roamed happily over the ridges and valleys of Kaleah’s body. Long arms wrapped around her waist and pulled her hips forward. Jess growled when dexterous fingers ran the length of her spine, sending bolts of desire straight to her groin. When Kaleah’s hands gripped her buttocks and lifted her upwards, Jessica immediately wrapped powerful legs around the dark woman’s waist and pulled their bodies closer. The move gave her sufficient leverage to take control of the kiss, and also pressed her heated center against the taut muscles of Kaleah’s abdomen. She moaned and flexed her thighs, starting an unconscious grind.

Kaleah let herself become lost in the dizzying warmth of Jessica’s mouth, only pulling away when the need to learn more of her lover’s body became too strong. Pulling the young woman up higher still, the former slave trailed her lips down Jess’s throat, sucking at her pulse-point eagerly before nibbling her way lower till she reached her lover’s breasts. She hesitated just long enough to grin seductively at the expectant, barely breathing woman, then descended. Her lips teased only a moment or two before she couldn’t stand it anymore and found the hardened points of her lover’s nipples.

"Oh, GOD!" Jessica’s eyes shot open and her fingers clutched desperately at Kaleah’s head, pulling her closer. "Don’t stop!" The sensation was more powerful than she would have believed possible. She’d never thought her breasts to be especially sensitive before, but the bolts of intense pleasure that were shooting straight to her center forced a re-evaluation of that notion. When Kaleah’s teeth nibbled at the stiff nub, Jessica gasped harshly for breath, whimpering helplessly.

Kaleah switched her attention to the breast she was neglecting, feeling the heat of her lover’s sex pressing firmly against her stomach. With one hand she supported Jessica’s weight as best she could, while with the other she massaged the young woman’s left breast, lightly pinching and rolling the nipple between her thumb and forefinger.

Jessica was burning up, her skin felt feverish as the dark woman blazed a trail over her body with her lips, teeth and tongue. Her brain struggled to process the incredible sensations that rocked through her, but coherent thought eluded her. The ache in her belly was growing unbearable, weeks of pent-up desire and frustration finally being satisfied.

Kaleah pulled away from her enjoyable feast and gazed into the sparkling depths of Jessica’s excited eyes. "Enjoying yourself?"

Jess gasped for air. "Oh yeah."

"And we’re only just getting started, too." Kaleah kissed her briefly, nibbling on her lower lip and causing a muffled groan. "The best is yet to come."

Jess blushed at the promise in Kaleah’s eyes. "Wh-what are we going to do?"

A lone finger trailed down between the blushing girl’s breasts, descending into the water to toy with her navel then slipping lower with a feathery touch. "You’re the one who had this whole thing planned. What would you like to do?"

Jess shivered, her hips bucking forward against her will, trying to increase the delicious contact against her liquid center.

Kaleah withdrew her teasing finger and raised an eyebrow. "You want more?" she purred. The breathless girl whimpered, unable to form words. "Would you like me to keep touching you like that?"

Jess managed a frantic nod.

Kaleah flashed her a toothy grin. "Here . . . I want to be able to see all of you." Flexing her biceps, the former slave lifted her lover up and onto the stone island behind them, then pulled herself out of the water to join her. The slick rock was smooth and polished. Jessica lay back, shivering half from the chill surface, half from desire as Kaleah positioned her body half over her own. Their lips met and enjoyed several moments of leisurely, gentle exploration. Kaleah ran her hands lightly down her partner’s trembling body, the water creating a tantalizing friction between them. Soon, her lips followed the path her hands had trailed, lingering here and there to nip at Jessica’s more sensitive areas. The young blonde writhed and panted uncontrollably, then froze when Kaleah’s hand came to rest against her slick center.


The dark woman paused, stroking very slightly with her palm and giving the innocent girl time to adjust to having someone touch her so intimately. She suckled at Jessica’s breast, her eyes fixed on the emerald orbs watching her with shy passion.

"Is this okay?"

Jess nodded shakily. "Um . . . Yeah."

Kaleah smiled as her lover’s thighs spread a little wider to accommodate her explorations. The heat against her fingers was intense. Two fingers drew playfully through passion-slicked folds and the scent of the young woman’s arousal made her nostrils flare hungrily. Kaleah placed a string of feathery kisses across Jessica’s collarbone while her fingers sought out and began to tease the swollen nub of her lover’s clitoris. A startled squeak escaped Jess as she fell back weakly, her eyes rolling back in bliss as she absorbed this new sensation.

"Oh, my!"

Kaleah licked the moisture from Jessica’s throat as she stroked slowly with her fingers, tasting sweat and salt. "I can feel how excited you are," she breathed. "You feel ssoooo good."

Jessica’s hips began to move now, pushing against the welcome stimulation. Overwhelming sensations of pleasure were buffeting the young blonde as her body frantically tried to increase the pace. She struggled to regain control of herself, but her body understood her needs better than she did, and ignored her half-hearted orders to slow down. Only when she felt Kaleah’s lips start to trail a path down from her breasts did Jessica freeze, uncertain.

The kisses stopped and Kaleah glanced up, sensing her apprehension. Jessica’s breathing was ragged.

"Wh-what -- Where are you . . ?"

Kaleah smiled reassuringly and glanced down suggestively to where her fingers were still moving. She licked her lips and Jessica’s face turned deep crimson.

"You mean —"

"Uh huh."

"With your mouth . . ."

"Mmhmm." Kaleah brought the fingers that were exploring the young woman to her lips and licked at the clear nectar that coated them, watching the stunned expression on Jessica’s face. She smiled and moaned a little, savoring the spicy, slightly sweet flavor that only made her want more. Jessica whimpered. "You liked what I was doing, didn’t you?"


"Well I can make it feel even better." Kaleah’s fingers slipped down and combed through soft blonde curls, damp with desire. "Can you feel a pressure building? Like a fire in your blood?"

Jess panted and closed her eyes blissfully as the fingers slid along the length of her sex, teasing her. "Yessss." Her hips started pushing forward again.

The dark woman grinned, not surprised that her lover was so responsive after so many days of restraint. "Your body won’t last much longer," she purred. "I want to taste you . . ." She kissed at Jessica’s sternum, licking the scars there and causing a deep moan. "I want to savor every inch of you . . . to pleasure you till all you can feel is my love for you." She kissed lower and smiled when Jessica lay back and spread her legs wider in invitation. The young girl tangled her fingers in Kaleah’s dark hair and pushed her closer to the center of her need.

Jessica grit her teeth, trying to steady her breathing as Kaleah settled her body between her legs and planted wet kisses on her inner thighs. She blushed, knowing just how open and exposed she was to her lover’s gaze. She squirmed a little, feeling a deep throbbing in her groin that only increased when scarred lips softly nuzzled her. Jess looked up at the stained-glass ceiling with unseeing eyes, her focus trained solely on the sensations Kaleah was causing.

The dark woman inhaled the scent of her lover’s passion deeply, using her fingers to gently part Jessica’s nether lips. Her tongue slid out and tasted the young woman’s essence, dragging upwards along the full length of her burning sex.

"OH, my God!" Jessica’s head shot up in shock as she felt the warm, wet muscle slide against her, swirling in intricate and evocative patterns through her wetness. Wide green eyes stared down disbelievingly as Kaleah smiled up at her wickedly and blew softly onto her clit. "Kaleah?"


Jessica’s expression was one of utter trust. "M-more . . . please, more."

Kaleah lashed the hard bundle of nerves quickly and grinned. "Whatever you desire, Princess." Her lips descended and she applied herself to her task with religious fervor, watching the look of surprise on her lover’s face change quickly to one of ecstasy. Emerald orbs rolled upwards and Jess fell back against the polished stone weakly, low, moaning sounds escaping her throat.

Spasms of almost painful pleasure twisted through Jessica’s body as Kaleah continued to do amazing things with her fingers, lips and tongue. She had never dreamed that feelings like this could exist; the tension building in her lower abdomen felt like a ball of fire, hot and consuming. She wasn’t sure how much she could stand before that liquid heat consumed her.

Kaleah could feel the climax building in her lover’s tense body; felt it in the muscles that twitched against her fingers and in the powerful thighs that framed her. She could feel tears falling from her eyes, the joy of being able to love Jessica so perfectly overwhelming her untried emotions. She wanted to feel every moment of her lover’s orgasm when it came; wanted so much to be inside the young woman. Jessica was a virgin, however, and Kaleah remembered well the pain of her own first experience. She didn’t want there to be any pain for her innocent love.

It wasn’t long before Kaleah sensed a change in the rhythm of Jessica’s breathing and the motion of her hips became more desperate. Recognizing the signs, the dark woman increased her attentions, her tongue moving everywhere as Jessica panted and made small, pleading sounds. Kaleah rested the tips of two fingers against the entrance to the young woman’s core, feeling the first pulses of climax as she pushed forward slightly. As her lover tightened around her fingertips and cried out her climax, Kaleah clamped her lips down on the hard nub and sucked forcefully, lashing the swollen bundle of nerves rapidly with her tongue.

Jess screamed and bucked her hips forcefully as waves of searing pleasure ripped through her. Kaleah immediately pushed her two fingers smoothly into the thrashing woman, tearing past the thin membrane and into her untouched depths. The swift stab of pain was lost in the overwhelming pleasure, and a second orgasm claimed Jess before the first had subsided. Kaleah pumped smoothly with her fingers as she continued to suckle the throbbing clit, dragging out Jessica’s pleasure for as long as she could, reveling in the contractions that clamped down on her penetration.

Eventually Jessica’s body could give no more and she collapsed bonelessly against the granite supporting her. Kaleah withdrew from her depths and gathered the gasping young blonde into a tight embrace, rocking her gently as she recovered.

"Thank you," Jess sobbed as her breathing returned to something close to normal. "Thank you."

Kaleah nuzzled her disheveled blonde hair lovingly. "You’re welcome." She smiled when she saw her exhausted young lover blink rapidly, and she held the sweat-slicked body close against her. "Rest now. You need to recover your strength."

Jess grinned dopily and snuggled deeper into the warmth of her partner. "You were right," she murmured huskily, her throat strained from crying out.

"I was?"

"Mmm. Frustration did make getting what I wanted more enjoyable."

Kaleah felt the young woman’s body relax as her eyes closed, and a warm smile twisted the scar on her lips. "So did love," she whispered to herself.


Kaleah felt the body in her arms stir a short time later. She grinned as Jess wriggled a little, then chuckled when pearly-white teeth nibbled lightly at her neck.

"Still feeling frisky I see."

Green eyes filled with love and a healthy splash of playfulness turned towards her and Jess grinned. "Just a little." Her hands wandered idly over Kaleah’s stomach and she watched the muscles flex under her touch. "I can’t believe . . . I mean, I’ve read about this stuff but still . . ." She glanced up into clear blue eyes and blushed modestly, wishing she could find words to express how wonderful Kaleah had made her feel. "That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever experienced."

Kaleah lowered her eyes shyly at the complement. Her emotions were still a bit jangled from making love to the young woman, and she suspected it would be some time before she got used to the intensity of these new feelings.

"So you feel okay?" she asked uncertainly.

Jess shifted a little and gave her body a once over. "I’m a little sore," she admitted. "But it’s a nice sore." She shivered a little in memory. "God, it’s like I can still feel you inside me." She blew damp bangs out of her eyes and gazed at her lover. "Thank you."

"Anytime." Kaleah grinned, then ducked her head down to kiss the sweet lips that beckoned her. She granted access to the seeking tongue that wanted deeper contact, then froze when suddenly Jessica stiffened slightly in her arms. Kaleah immediately pulled away and searched the young woman’s face, worried she’d done something wrong. That notion vanished when she saw the look of shy wonder in her lover’s expression, and realized that her mouth still held the flavor of Jessica’s essence.

The young blonde met the curious eyes of her companion and offered a nervous giggle. "I ahh . . . I just-"

"You taste incredible." Kaleah licked her lips theatrically, causing Jess to blush. "I could spend a thousand years exploring you like that and never tire of your flavor."

Jess grinned and licked the dark woman’s nose quickly, earning an indignant snort. "Flattery will get you everywhere, huh?"

"It’s just the truth."

"Mmm, well . . ." Jess considered for a moment, her hands continuing their wanderings. She glanced down and noticed for the first time the heat Kaleah’s body was generating. Her attention drawn to it, the young blonde also detected the strong musky scent of the dark woman’s arousal. Her hands paused. "Do you, um . . ." She blinked shyly. "Do you taste like that?"

White teeth flashed an extremely playful grin at the young woman, and Kaleah raised a dark brow rakishly. "I guess there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?"


"Here." Kaleah took Jessica’s right hand in her left and gently guided her touch lower. "Let me show you."

Together, their hands explored the dark woman’s body, trailing over ridged muscle and scars down until fingers combed through neatly-groomed curls damp with desire. Jessica gasped a little as Kaleah pressed her fingers into slick flesh, amazed at the heat and the incredible velvet texture. She stroked her fingers and smiled. "You’re so soft," she breathed.

"Uh huh." Kaleah gripped her lover’s hand and urged her lower still. "Two fingers . . . lower," she croaked. "Like this." Gently she took two of Jessica’s fingers and speared them slowly into her depths. Jessica gasped at the sensation of being inside her lover. She could feel Kaleah’s inner muscles pulsing around her buried digits and she stroked back and forth curiously, still a little uncertain. Kaleah was hot and incredibly wet, however, and Jessica flushed when she realized she was the cause of such arousal.

"I guess I’m not the only one who’s enjoying this so far, huh?"

Kaleah let her inquisitive lover explore a few moments more before she pulled the digits from her core. Fixing Jessica with seductive eyes, she brought the young woman’s fingers to her lips and licked her own essence from them. Jessica swallowed hard, her eyes fixed and staring. The sensation of Kaleah’s tongue wrapping around her fingers was incredibly erotic, and the fire so recently sated in her loins begin to stir once more.

Kaleah coated her lips with the thick nectar, then lowered her face to deliver a light kiss to the hungry blonde. Lust over-rode all sense of modesty in the young woman, and she eagerly savored the dark woman’s taste, searching every part of Kaleah’s mouth till she was sure none had escaped her. When she pulled back, breathless, she licked her lips and grinned. "You’re different," she noted, considering thoughtfully. "More . . . I don’t know how to describe it. But I like it."

Kaleah took hold of her hand and guided two fingers back to her center. "Well there’s a lot more where that came from," she breathed raggedly. "You just have to go get it."

The blonde wasted no time accepting the invitation, returning to the liquid heat with renewed confidence. Kaleah grunted, then stifled a cry as Jessica pushed fully into her, the young woman’s thumb brushing against her engorged clit. Jess froze a moment uncertainly, then grinned when she saw the reaction was not one of pain but of pleasure. Experimentally, she drew her fingers out and pushed them in again, pleased when Kaleah’s hips bucked involuntarily against her, seeking a rhythm.

"You like that, don’t you?"


Jess spied a tasty looking nipple and quickly brought her mouth into play, suckling the dark woman as her fingers continued their slow but purposeful motions. Kaleah’s breathing went ragged as her innocent lover set to work exploring her body with teeth and tongue, searching out sensitive areas and plundering them for every ounce of pleasure she could draw. As she roamed across a field of scarred flesh and toned muscle, Jessica made happy little sounds of contentment, reveling in the ability to make her lover truly feel the depths of her desire and passion. She paused to glance up at her panting lover.

"Am I doing this right?"

"Uh huh. Can’t you tell?"

"I guess so." Jess grinned, her fingers sliding effortlessly into velvet warmth that was slick with arousal. "You feel so good," she murmured, stroking against the inner walls that clenched around her in rhythmic pulses. She studied the petal-like folds of Kaleah’s sex, still amazed that she was being permitted such an intimate touch. The dark woman was so open to her, so vulnerable and trusting. Jessica wanted to reward that trust with the same mind-shattering pleasure she had just experienced. Licking her lips, she trailed a line of quick, wet kisses down the taut abdomen and past the dark hair that shielded Kaleah’s center. Kaleah’s body went stiff the moment she realized where this was headed, and she closed her eyes and spread herself wider for her young lover.

The first touch of Jessica’s tentative tongue against her clit almost sent Kaleah soaring over the edge, but with an effort she fought her climax, wanting to give the inquisitive blonde time to fully explore this new world. The muscles strained across her neck as Kaleah grit her teeth to keep from screaming out as Jessica lapped at her gently, all the while maintaining a steady rhythm with her hand. Though her lover was not as worldly and talented as others had been, Kaleah could sense the strength of her approaching orgasm already, and knew every other experience paled against it. Never before had she been able to let go the fear and tension that gripped her during such moments of intimacy. Never had she been able to trust that the next touch would not bring pain. The way she trusted Jessica was almost frightening, but at the same time promised a haven of gentle love and open affection that she was helpless to ignore. She could feel Jessica’s love for her in every gesture she made . . . in the tender touches and the passionate but almost hesitant looks of lust. No one else in her life had ever touched Kaleah that way . . . and the power of that love brought tears to her eyes.

The dark woman struggled hard to prolong the delicious torment, but Jessica’s explorations grew bolder as the young woman learned swiftly what actions elicited the strongest response. Kaleah couldn't hope to hold out against her lover’s determined assault, and she cried out as the first inevitable waves crashed over her.

"More!" she begged breathlessly. "Please . . more!"

Jessica frowned. More?

"I . . . I don’t . . know what you want-"

"Another finger," Kaleah gasped. "Please!"

"Oh!" Jessica suddenly understood and carefully pushed a third finger into Kaleah’s pulsing heat. "Like that?"

"Uh huh!" Kaleah’s eyes squeezed shut as tears ran down her cheeks, the stunning bolts of pleasure coursing through her blood and over her skin. Jessica felt the muscles clutching at her fingers suddenly grip tightly at the invasion and realized she had achieved her goal. Quickly the young girl lowered her mouth back to Kaleah’s dripping sex, drawing out the sensations for as long as she could. A moment later Jess smiled as she felt a second powerful climax grip Kaleah’s body, and heard the dark woman scream out strange words in her native language. She recognized her own name among them.

Jess continued her gentle ministrations until Kaleah finally collapsed back on the polished rock and weakly grabbed her hand. "No more," the dark woman gasped. "Please . . . just . . . hold me."

"Sure." Jessica pulled out of her lover slowly, drawing a final shudder from her body, then wrapped herself contentedly in the arms that reached out for her. A fuzzy, soft glow of happiness and fulfillment settled in her body, and she nuzzled at Kaleah’s neck like a cat, smelling sweat and her lover’s own indefinable scent. Her own arousal was fully awakened once more, but she ignored it for the time being. "So . . ." Green eyes flecked with mischievous gold regarded sated blue. "How was that?"

Kaleah chuckled a little and pulled the muscular body closer. "That was amazing," she whispered happily.

"Really?" A cute crinkle formed at the top of Jessica’s nose as she grinned fully.

"Really." Scarred, elegant fingers combed through disheveled blonde tresses absently. "I’ve never felt so . . . loved . . . before."

"Well, maybe that’s because no one’s ever loved you like I do." Jessica relaxed and idly caressed the toned body under her. She was silent for long moments, just soaking in the wonderful, new emotions that were rocking against her soul. "You know Kaleah," she whispered, "no matter what happens here . . . no matter how this whole siege turns out . . ." She paused. "No matter how my father or my mother or anyone else feels about it . . . I’ll always love you." Emerald eyes caught and held Kaleah, startling her with their openness. "If I have to give up everything just to be with you . . . I will."

Kaleah was still a moment, a little stunned, then she cupped Jessica’s cheek lovingly. "I hope it doesn’t ever come to that," she breathed. "I don’t want you to have to choose between me and everything here."

Jess kissed her palm lightly and smiled. "Like I told you before . . . there really isn’t any choice to make." She held the dark woman’s gaze for long moments, reveling in the power of what she could feel between them, before she grinned playfully. "What do you say we dry off and head back to my room. There’re a few things I’ve been dreaming about doing on that nice big bed for a while now."

Kaleah grinned lasciviously. "Still feeling frisky are we, Princess?"

Jess bounced to her feet and raised a blonde brow challengingly. "Catch me, and you can find out." With a giggle, the young blonde dived into the deep, steaming water and swam quickly away.

Kaleah watched her a moment, appreciating the view as her lover hurriedly donned a robe and escaped the chamber before she stood up shakily. "Looks like it’s going to be a long night."


Sir Miles looked down at the face of the man who had been his lord and best friend for most of his life, a frown dragging his moustaches into a firm line. Sir Richard was pale from his sickness, his features drawn and pained from the spasms of agony that still gripped him from time to time. Though not a young man, Richard was strong. Miles knew that, given time, his friend would eventually recover from this fever and be none the worse for it. The elder knight intended to make sure nothing happened to jeopardize his recovery.

Hovering over his patient, Grace fussed with his potions and medicines busily, paying no mind to his visitor at all. He glanced up only when the door to the bedchamber opened to admit another intruder, smiling politely to the Lady Rose before turning back to his work.

Lady Rose paused when she saw Miles, then lifted her head and approached the bed where her husband lay. Miles bowed a slight greeting. "M’Lady."


The old knight’s bushy brows drew low over his eyes in a scowl. "Sir Richard’s fever is improving," he reported shortly. "Expect he’ll be fine in a few weeks."

"Indeed . . . providing you’ve managed to hold off these barbarian invaders for that long." Lady Rose sniffed. "Frankly, I have little confidence that such will be the case."

Miles grunted. "Everything that can be done is bein’ done, M’Lady. I suggest you let the people most able to deal with the situation do so." The old knight had little patience for the interference of non-combatants.

Dull green eyes flicked over Miles hautily. "And who might those people be? Hmm? My daughter? Bah!"

Miles stood and leveled an even glare at Lady Rose. "Jessica’s taken to ‘er duties well, M’Lady. Ye should be proud of her."

"She has no right to take command of the men," Rose scoffed angrily. "She is a child and a lady of noble birth. It is not her place to be cavorting around playing soldier with the commoners!"

"With all due respect, M’Lady, Jessica has every right to take ‘er daddy’s place in his absence. She has experience and wisdom in these matters, despite that ye may be wishin’ otherwise." His tone grew milder. "Like it or no, Jess is the only one who can lead. There ain’t no-one else the people’d follow."

"Oh really? What about Charles? He’s a fine young man, and his blood-line is pure."

"Charles is no fighter, ma’am. He’d barely be a match fer the worst of those raiders outside."

Lady Rose waved her hand dismissively. "Then you should take command," she insisted. "You have seniority among the knights. My husband trusts you above all others. It is your right and your duty to lead the men."

Miles shook his head. "Ah’m no leader. The commoners barely know who I am, and they’d never follow me into battle. But Jessica . . ." He smiled. "Everyone knows yer daughter well, Lady. They love ‘er . . . and they’d follow ‘er to the gates of Hell if she asked ‘em to."

Rose frowned and shrugged. "The commoners mean nothing. They can’t fight. All they do is drain our supplies."

"We canna win without their numbers. They’ll fight when they must . . . but they won’t fight fer me."

Rose sighed a long-suffering sigh. "Jessica is making a fool of herself, demeaning her station in front of the people with this foolishness. How can she degrade herself like this . . . running around with that barbaric slave, playing in the mud like a filthy pig!" She scowled. "No-one will have any respect for her or for her bloodline with such debasement!"

Miles snorted angrily. "Yer daughter’s earning more respect from the people than she ever would staying locked up in the castle all covered in silk and lace. The commoner’s love that girl, and if ye had eyes to see ye’d know she’s the only thing what’s holding the people together right now!" His eyes were hard grey slates as he glared at the noble lady. "Ye have no idea just how blessed you are by yer daughter. She gives without thought of reward, and loves even when it hurts her to do so." He took a calming breath and turned to away. "God don’t make a person like Jess everyday, M’Lady. It amazes me that he’d deliver such a gift to a selfish, self-righteous creature as yerself."

With that, Miles strode angrily from the room, slamming the door behind him.

Lady Rose cleared her throat and turned back to her husband and the curious eyes of Eric Grace. She smiled shakily. "Well . . . I suppose we must expect such a lack of decorum from the soldiers."

Grace shrugged non-commitedly. "I suppose we must," he muttered, then turned back to his work, dismissing the entire confrontation to focus on restoring his lord to health.


Chapter 24.

Kaleah and Jessica watched from the southern battlement as the ring of campfires sprang up around the castle, lighting the enemy lines as the sun vanished. There were no guards walking the watch here; Jessica had relieved them, wanting to be alone with her friend. The dark woman held her in a warm embrace as they silently surveyed the field beyond.

Jessica hummed tunelessly to herself, a contented smile turning the corners of her lips and lighting her eyes, her features radient after their love-making. It was hard for the young woman to feel any kind of fear or sense of danger, so caught up was she in the whirlwind of new and wonderful emotions that came with the consummation of her love with Kaleah. She was a little sore still, and a little tired from their afternoon of gentle but passionate love-making, but Jessica knew she had never been so happy in all her life as she was at this moment.

"I feel like I’m floating among the clouds," she sighed, her eyes half-lidded and lazy. Then she chuckled and petted the scarred arm that encircled her waist. "I don’t think I’m ever going to get tired of doing that."

Kaleah grinned. The young blonde had proven to be an energetic and vigorous lover, mixing passion with tenderness in a way that robed Kaleah of thought and reason, making her wish she could spend every waking hour paying homage to this wonderful love. "I know how you feel, but if we don’t get any rest we’re never going to break this siege."

Jess grunted, glaring at the campfires as though her ire alone could remove them. "Stupid bandits," she growled. "We could have been doing this for days now if it weren’t for that idiot Lancaster and his pet mercenary."

"Well you can’t say you’re being distracted by your desire anymore," Kaleah teased playfully. "Now that your appetite’s been sated, you can focus your energy on saving your people from this invasion."

Jess turned about and looked up into glowing sapphire eyes with a smirk. "What makes you think I’m sated?" One hand crept up under Kaleah’s shirt and roamed eagerly over still-sensitive skin, making the dark woman’s muscles twitch. "I still have quite a strong ‘appetite’, Kaleah . . . there’s no way we can fit a week’s worth of missed opportunities into one afternoon." Her fingers played along the underside of a firm breast and Kaleah gasped. Jess just raised an eyebrow. "But we can certainly try."

"Uh uh. No more of that." Kaleah gently stopped the young blonde’s explorations before they went any further. "You’re going to be sore in the morning as it is, Jess. We keep going and you won’t be able to walk properly tomorrow."

Jess pouted. "I could still do things to you," she suggested hopefully. Kaleah’s expression softened a little and she pressed her advantage. "You liked what I was doing before, didn’t you?"

"Oh, you know I did." Kaleah shivered in memory.

Nimble fingers started moving again. "Maybe you could teach me something new," the amorous blonde suggested huskily. "I’m a quick learner . . . and it’s always a good idea to practice . . . lots."

Kaleah’s desire surged anew, but she was still a little tender from the previous ravishings her young lover had subjected her too. She firmly stopped Jessica’s hands as they were about to journey into more sensitive territory, ignoring the adorable expression of thwarted lust on her partner’s face. "We can ‘practice’ all you want as soon as we defeat Gosford and his army."

Jessica sighed, but withdrew her hands from their warm nest. "Fine," she huffed, turning back around and watching the fires. "I guess play-time’s over . . . for now." She felt the vibration in the body pressed against her as Kaleah laughed a little.

"Amazing how quickly you can drop that innocent, naïve young maiden act when you want too, isn’t it?"

Jess poked the dark woman in the side. "Don’t tease," she scolded. "This is new for me . . . it’s understandable that I want to explore it more fully."

"I know." Kaleah kissed her lover’s disheveled hair affectionately. "And I want us to have more time together . . . time for both of us to get used to everything that’s happened. But first, we have to figure out how to break the siege."

Jess sighed and nodded. "You’re right." Taking a deep breath, Jessica assumed a determined expression and concentrated on the task at hand. It was a lot easier to focus now that her body wasn’t demanding satisfaction, and she studied the enemy fires for a long moment in silence.

"Gosford’s greatest weakness is also his greatest strength," she mused aloud, intelligent eyes lighting up as her quicksilver mind attacked the problem wholeheartedly for the first time. "He’s placed all his hopes on the bandits he’s recruited through the winter."

"You said we can’t fight against his numbers," Kaleah reminded her.

"True, we can’t. But even though Gosford’s army is big, it lacks discipline. Bandits have short attention spans; he must have promised to pay them with loot from the castle and villages once they help him win. If he doesn’t deliver that loot fairly soon, the raiders are bound to get restless and start making trouble." She cocked her head thoughtfully. "Lancaster obviously gave him a few dozen of his own cavalry troops to help keep everyone in line, but I wonder how long he can maintain his authority."

"Why isn’t he just attacking the castle directly?"

Jess shook her head. "We hold a strong position here," she explained. "Our archers would cut them to pieces, and it would take a heavily shielded battering ram to even make a dent in the portcullis. Easier to wait us out . . . we haven’t enough food to last long."

"And with your father no longer leading them, the soldier’s are demoralized."

"Exactly." Jessica’s eyes narrowed suddenly as a new thought occurred. "Kaleah, do you remember when Gosford sent his terms for surrender?"

"Umm . . . sure, why?"

"Do you remember who he addressed those terms too?"

"Yeah, they were for your . . . father." Kaleah realized what her friend was getting at. "Why would Gosford address negotiations to your father if he knew Sir Richard was poisoned?"

"Unless he didn’t know." Jess scowled darkly. "For that matter, why would he kidnap me?"

"You think maybe your father’s sickness is just a coincidence?"

Jess considered for a moment, then shook her head. "Grace said the fever isn’t natural. My father was poisoned alright . . . but I’m not so sure Gosford’s the man behind it."

"Then who?"

Jess shrugged. "It’s just the sort of dirty trick Sir William would pull to give him an edge." She recalled her observations of Gosford carefully. From what she’d seen, the mercenary seemed an honorable man, hardly the type to stoop to petty assassinations. "Perhaps Lancaster’s keeping his commander in the dark about some things," she mused. "Maybe he hasn’t told Gosford about poisoning my father."

"Mmmm." Kaleah’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "Makes you wonder what else he’s keeping secret."

Jessica considered this new possibility for a moment, then shrugged. "It makes little difference," she concluded. "By now, Gosford must know that I’ve taken command, and from that he’d realize there was something wrong with my father. I still think our best chance to win is if we can somehow cause dissent among the bandits themselves."

Kaleah’s brows knit in confusion. "How?"

Jess shrugged. "I don’t know." An irritated sigh. "I need to know what’s going on out there. I need to know how committed the raiders are to this campaign, and how well Gosford’s keeping them in line." Her emerald eyes twinkled as a sudden thought occurred. She grinned. "I need some reconnaissance."

Kaleah saw the mischievous look in her friend’s face and, knowing Jess all too well, quickly saw where this line of thought was headed. "No," she stated firmly. "No Jess, you are not going out there!"

"You’re right." Jessica’s grin grew wider. "We’re going out there."

"Jessica, you can’t-"

"Of course I can." Jessica escaped her lover’s arms and started tugging the tall woman after her. "We’ll use the escape tunnel in the stables. It’ll bring us out to the forest and from there we can do some exploring."


"Oh, come on!" Jess pouted. "If we’re careful we won’t be in that much danger. And we’re the only one’s who can do this; no-one else knows about the escape tunnel. This is important, Kaleah. Please?"

Kaleah tried to remain stern, but the look on Jessica’s face knocked over her defenses easily. She sighed. "Fine. But we can’t go dressed like this."

Jess gave her a quick kiss of thanks and nodded happily. "You’re absolutely right. We’ll find some old armor, and we’ll wear helmets to hide our faces. With all the people out there, no-one’ll notice a couple of strangers. The guards will be set up to stop people getting out of the castle, they won’t even be looking for spies coming from the woods. It’ll be easy."

Kaleah let herself be dragged away from the battlement by her energetic lover, smiling to herself a little.

Neither of them noticed the dull green eyes that had been watching their loving interactions with disgust from a window high in the castle. As soon as the two women disappeared into the darkness, the unseen observer turned angrily away back into her chamber, considering the best way to deal with this latest information.


Less than an hour later, Kaleah and Jessica were meandering through the encampment of their enemy, looking for all the world like just another couple of ragged bandits. Jessica managed to rummage up some old pieces of armor and a couple of helms, the mis-matched pieces of leather and mail allowing them to blend in with the other raiders perfectly.

Up close, Jessica was pleased to find that for all his skill, Gosford was having a hard time keeping his bandit army in disciplined order. It appeared the men had got hold of ale or wine at some point, and doubtless Gosford recognized it was better to let them drink than try to stop them. The raiders were split into groups that gathered around the campfires, cavalry riding between them from time to time. Drunken arguments and bawdy songs could be heard clearly as the two women made their way towards the largest tent on the field, though Jess noticed that more than half the men seemed sober and watchful.

As they neared the tent Jess assumed was Gosford’s central command post, she frowned grimly, seeing guards posted at the entrance. Tugging at Kaleah’s arm, she nodded her head. "Come on. We can sneak around there, to the back."

Kaleah was alert and cautious as they moved silently around to the rear of the tent where there were no guards. She watched Jess hunker down beside the canvas wall and use her dagger to slice a small hole in the cloth. Taking a final quick look around to make sure no-one was watching them, the dark woman knelt beside her friend and they listened to the voices inside.

Inside the command tent, Frederick Gosford paced angrily back and forth, glaring at the man standing stiffly before him. The man, dressed in the livery of a messenger and bearing the heraldry of Sir William, watched the mercenary with an expression of weary indulgence.

"I don’t understand why this upsets you so, sir." His tone was best described as respectfully condescending. "Surely Sir William’s actions have only made your job easier."

Gosford stopped pacing and fixed the messenger with a withering look. "I do not like surprises," he snarled. "Sir William should have consulted with me before he had Richard poisoned. Now, from what I hear, Lady Jessica has assumed command of Da’Gran’s troops!"

"So? You should be pleased! Instead of facing an experienced knight, you face a mere slip of a girl barely past her nineteenth year. I could probably best the wench!"

Now Gosford smiled thinly. "Be thankful you’ll never have the chance to test your boast," he whispered. "By poisoning Sir Richard, Lancaster has removed a dangerous but well-known and understood commander from the game-board, and replaced him with an unknown, but equally dangerous one!"

"She’s just a girl!" the messenger scoffed.

"She’s a skilled warrior who’s been fighting since she was old enough to hold a sword," Gosford snapped. "And her tutor was Sir Miles Elirist — one of the most talented knights in the whole damn country! Where Sir Richard might have seen the wisdom of surrender, Lady Jessica will not. She’s young and headstrong. She won’t be willing to give up without a fight."

"So you’ll loose a few men . . . no problem." The messenger shrugged dismisively.

Gosford snarled angrily. "The problem, you fool, is that I have no idea what Jessica is capable of. While it’s not likely, it is still possible that she could figure out a way to even the odds." His tone grew milder. "I’m not saying she can win . . . but she could make it a lot harder for us to take the castle." He stared at the messenger with sharp hazel eyes. "Return to Sir William and inform him that in future, I would like to be appraised of any action he takes that could affect what I do here."

"Yes sir." The messenger paused. "Sir, what about our man on the inside? Do you have any orders for him?"

Gosford waved his hand. "Have him removed from the castle," he ordered absently. "His presence will not be required."

"But sir-" The messenger hesitated at Gosford’s dangerously raised eyebrow. "A-are you certain that’s wise? I mean, Sir William has expended considerable effort to acquire such a valuable resource." He paused. "A traitor is a terrible thing to waste."

Gosford was adamant. "I will win this siege without such deception," he said sternly. "By now, Da’Gran’s supplies will be running low. Jessica must make her move within the next few days or her men will be too weak to fight. It’s a good thing, too; these raiders we’ve recruited have little patience for waiting." He gestured to the tent doors. "You may return to your lord."

The messenger held the gaze of the mercenary commander for a long moment, then sighed and left the tent. Gosford returned to studying his maps . . . not noticing the small hole in the back of the tent, nor the twin shadows that retreated furtively back into the night.


"A traitor in the castle! So that’s how my father was poisoned!" Jessica’s quicksilver mind hurriedly processed this new information, then set to work trying to determine how she might make use of it.

"Who could it be?" Kaleah asked, her long legs struggling a little to match the excited pace her companion set as they headed back to the forest. "Your father’s men seem so loyal."

"Mmm . . . I’d have thought so too, but most men can be bought for the right price." Jessica considered for a moment, then sighed. "It could be anyone. Most of the common soldiers could have slipped him poison with little trouble."

"And if Gosford’s pulling the man out anyway, I don’t suppose we have much chance of catching whoever it is, huh?"

Jess shook her head regretfully. "I guess not."

They reached the cleverly concealed entrance to the escape tunnel and slipped into the cool, moist darkness, lighting a small torch to guide their way. Kaleah smiled a little. "At least Gosford respects your abilities," she remarked teasingly. "That’s a point in his favor."

"But against us," Jess observed. "I’d rather he thought I was stupid and ignorant — he’d be more likely to underestimate me and make a mistake. Now I have to defeat an enemy who’ll be watchful and wary."

"Hmmm, I hadn’t thought of it that way." Kaleah frowned. "So . . . we know how your father was poisoned, and we know that Gosford wasn’t a part of it. We know the raiders are getting bored and want to end this thing quickly." She studied her friend in the dim light of the torch. "How do we use this information to win?"

Jessica sighed heavily. "I don’t know," she admitted. "But I need a plan in the next day or two, or like Gosford says, the men will be too weak to be of any use."

Kaleah was silent, considering things a moment. "Jess?"


"You said before that Gosford would have promised to pay the raiders with loot from the castle, right?"

"Aye, most likely. Lancaster hasn’t the wealth to pay them in advance."

"Right. So, what happens after that? I mean, assuming for the moment that Gosford takes the castle-" She ignored the indignant look Jessica shot her. "-what will he do with the raiders?"

"I guess he’d pay them from my father’s treasury, then divide them up and use them to subjugate the rest of the villages." She caught Kaleah’s puzzled expression and clarified. "Take them over."

"Mmm." Kaleah’s brows furrowed in thought. "Who’d stay in the castle then?"

Jess shrugged. "Probably the men Sir William sent to serve with Gosford. Then once everything was secured, Lancaster himself would probably pay a visit and install one of his sons as the new ruler."

Kaleah smirked wryly. "Too bad we can’t just skip ahead to that part right now, huh? With the army all split up like that, I’m sure you’d be able to take them out one by one."

Jessica stopped dead in her tracks, her eyes lighting up suddenly. Kaleah paused to look at her, seeing an extremely wicked glint in the sparkling emeralds that was mirrored in the evil grin that spread across the young woman’s face. Jess took a shivering breath. "Kaleah, you’re a genius!"

"I am?"

The radiant blonde planted a quick, searing kiss on her lovers lips. "Yes, you are. You just gave me an idea."

"I did?" The dark woman was thoroughly confused, but Jessica’s excitement was palpable. She raised an eyebrow. "And what idea might that be?"

Jess started marching rapidly down the tunnel. "Gosford has an army that we can’t defeat as things stand. We’re running out of food, and we’re running out of time. We can’t possibly hope to win this battle."


Jess gave her a mischievous, sparkling smile. "Gosford wants this castle? Fine. We’ll give it too him." She chuckled darkly. "And then we’ll find out if he has the strength of hold on to it."


Thirty minutes and a change of clothes later, Kaleah sat on the edge of Jessica’s bed regarding the expectant blonde seriously. Jess had explained her plan quickly, and the dark woman had questioned a few points and added her own suggestions. Now she considered it carefully.

"You realize this plan could cost many peasants their lives," she said quietly. "They’ll be the ones at greatest risk."

Jess nodded. "I know that. But we can’t hope to win this without loosing a few lives. At least this way, casualties should be minimal."

"Uh huh." Kaleah paused and watched her friend’s face carefully. "You’ll be giving up a lot, too, Jess," she whispered.

Jessica smiled a little sadly. "A small sacrifice."

"It’s not a small sacrifice for you, and you know it," Kaleah protested. "Those passages have been your secret all your life, Jess. They mean a lot to you. Don’t belittle this."

The young woman sighed. "A leader must be willing to give up anything for the sake of the people. And I am." She appreciated the understanding she saw in Kaleah’s eyes, and gave the dark woman’s shoulder a squeeze. "We should go find Miles and tell him-"

"Oh, no you don’t." Kaleah grabbed the diminutive blonde and pulled her firmly into an embrace. "That can wait till morning. You need your rest if you’re going to pull this off."

"But we can-"

"Rest," Kaleah growled into a shapely ear, smiling when she felt a shiver rush through her lover’s body. "We’ll start getting everyone ready tomorrow. Right now, we sleep." Nimble fingers started pulling off Jessica’s simple tunic. "I’ve missed holding you in my arms at night."

"Mmm." Jessica moaned as the dark woman slowly undressed her, feeling fires ignite in her groin. She quickly conceded to Kaleah’s wishes and began to return the favor. Within moments the two women were wrapped around each other comfortably under the thick blankets, exchanging gentle touches and light kisses.

Jessica ran her fingers down Kaleah’s spine, smiling at the low rumble her touch inspired. "Can we . . ?"

Kaleah smiled at her lover’s eagerness but shook her head. "Like I said before, Jess, you’ll be sore in the morning as it is, and we really do need as much sleep as we can get. We’re going to be very busy tomorrow."

Jessica pouted but stilled her explorations obediently. In truth, she was a little tender in certain places. It was just that everything was so new and felt so wonderful . . . she wanted to experience the incredible pleasure of Kaleah’s love as much as possible. But for now, she admitted it was probably a better idea to behave herself. Rolling over, Jess pulled her lover’s arms around her and relaxed in the safe cocoon of the dark woman’s embrace. Taking a deep, calming breath, she couldn’t help but grin wickedly as she caught the scent that clung to the sheets. "I can still smell us," she giggled.

Kaleah smiled. "Just try not to think about it."

Jess giggled again. "That’s not easy when we’re both naked and surrounded by the scent of our lovemaking." She settled down and planted a soft kiss on Kaleah’s arm. "G’night, Kaleah."

"Mmm, night, Jess."

Overwhelmed by the long and busy day, both women were soon seduced by their exhaustion into a land of warm, vaguely sensuous dreams, content and relaxed as they held each other for the first time in many days.


The next day, Gosford watched curiously as the routine of the defenders in Da’Gran changed drastically. Where before the men had lined the walls at even spaces, now there were few soldiers visible, and those that were in sight seemed distracted and excited. Observing through a small eyeglass used more commonly by sailors than soldiers, the mercenary wondered what this change might mean.

"Something’s going on," he mused aloud to Rennard. "I don’t like this."

"Mayhap they plan to attack," the officer suggested.

Gosford considered but shook his head. "Lady Jessica knows she wouldn’t stand a chance against us. She’s not stupid enough for a frontal assault," he said firmly. His lips drew into a grim line. "Still . . . it never pays to be overprepared. Have the men ready themselves for defense, just in case."

"Aye, sir." Rennard quickly marched off, spreading the word up and down the line to the raiders, who had already noticed the strange behavior of the defenders and were talking in low, excited voices.

But no attack was launched that day. As the hours wore on, the bandit army started to get restless. Fights broke out between groups of men, and Gosford was quick to discipline his men. By sun-down, even the few soldiers who had manned the battlements of the castle had vanished. The mercenary grew more suspicious, unable to figure out what his enemy had planned. As dark fell, he ordered a double watch, and all the men slept with their weapons nearby.

Gosford was rudely awakened an hour before dawn by loud, earth-shaking explosions. For a moment he thought his assessment of Jessica was wrong; the girl had launched some kind of an attack afterall. But when he rushed outside and found his own army looking at the castle in wonder and awe he realized the truth: the explosions were coming from inside the castle walls. From where he stood, the mercenary could see plumes of orange and green smoke curling up above the unmanned battlement, lit from beyond by devilish lights. His eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"What in hell is she up too?" he pondered aloud.

The explosions lasted a few minutes, then all was still and silent in the pre-dawn darkness. Rennard joined his leader, gazing curiously at the castle. "What d’ye think that was, sir?"

Gosford shrugged. "I have no idea . . . though I rather suspect we’ll find out come light."

Rennard glanced at the bandits, who were fingering their weapons nervously and muttering among themselves. The words ‘devil-child’ and ‘sorcery’ could be heard whispered back and forth. Gosford exchanged meaningful glances with his second. "Superstitious fools," he muttered angrily, seeing fear in the faces of his troops. These bandits were savage men who were eager for battle . . . but he knew they’d run away in terror at the thought they faced an otherworldly foe. "If she hopes to scare us off with a light show," he said loudly, "that girl’s in for a rude surprise."

The men laughed at his humor, but their eyes were still turgid and troubled. Gosford gestured to the bandits. "Send word for everyone to get moving," he ordered. "We’re all awake now . . . we might as well be ready for whatever she’s got planned." He glanced at the last clouds of strange smoke. "We’ll find out more when the sun’s up."

What the light revealed, however, was about the furthest thing from what Gosford had expected.

The solid, spiked portcullis that could easily have held against the sturdiest battering ram was raised; the castle gates swung open. No defenders manned the walls or the towers. No sounds of life could be heard. Gosford and his muttering troops besieged what now appeared to be an empty castle.

"It’s a trick," the mercenary immediately concluded. "An obvious trick at that. She’s got the soldiers and knights all lying in ambush, just waiting for us to walk in." He smiled a little. "I would have expected more from the daughter of Sir Richard Da’Gran."

"What’ll we do, sir?" asked Rennard. He pointed to the bandits who were already mobilizing, anticipating that they would be attacking the castle. "We gonna take the bait?"

Gosford considered a moment, not liking this. "I would have preferred a more bloodless end to this affair, but it seems that’s not to be the case." He sighed. "So be it. The men are restless; they need to fight, and with our way now clear we can easily overwhelm whatever pitiful defenses she might have devised." He waved his hand. "Have the men assemble and prepare for close-quarter combat. When they’re in position, we take the castle. And remember . . . I want Jessica and her family taken alive if at all possible."

Rennard left and the orders were swiftly carried out, the only trouble being that none of the bandits wanted to miss out on the fun, and so fought for the front positions. When they were eventually readied, Gosford gave the command and the bandit army surged toward the open entrance, yelling war-cries and waving swords hungry for blood.

They were to be disappointed, however.

The castle was deserted. The bandits spread out immediately and searched everywhere, but while an unlucky few discovered lethal booby-traps, the only living creatures they found were the stabled horses.

In the courtyard, however, Gosford and his men discovered something strange. A gigantic, arcane symbol had been burned deeply into the earth. The acrid stench of sulfur filled the air, and a few of the men made signs of warding against evil, sensing witchcraft had been worked.

"The girl’s a devil-child!" one of the bandits shouted, pointing at the strange, mystical rune. "She magicked ‘em all away! This castle be cursed!"

Gosford snarled as many of the bandits nodded agreement, spitting on the symbol and glancing about suspiciously. "Lady Jessica is no witch!" he told them sternly. "She couldn’t have escaped past our siege!" He looked around him carefully and his voice lowered. "She’s here somewhere. She’s just hiding."

"Her and a few hundred others?" someone demanded.

Gosford’s eyes narrowed. "Damn girl’s smarter than I thought," he mused aloud. "But she’s not smart enough to hide forever! Search every room and hallway in this castle until you find them!" The men grudgingly did as ordered, glaring at the mercenary balefully. They searched every place in the fortress, from the dungeons to the look-out turret. Finding nothing, Gosford ordered a search for hidden rooms or tunnels, and after an hour was rewarded. His men discovered an ill-concealed trapdoor in one of the stables, which opened to reveal a wide escape tunnel.

Gosford glared at the mouth of the tunnel furiously a long moment, then concluded through grit teeth, "They escaped."

The mercenary took over the great hall as his command center and began to issue orders. The bandits were disgruntled; he had promised them bloodshed and loot, but so far all he had been able to give them was a pittance reward. Apparently the defenders had taken most of Sir Richard’s wealth with them. For the time being, Gosford ordered large groups of men to comb the forests in search of the vanished troops and to hunt for food. A messenger was sent back to Lancaster to tell him the castle was secured. Gosford also set up a guard along the battlements to watch for any surprises, knowing victory wasn’t likely to come without some kind of trouble. As a precaution, he collapsed the escape tunnel to prevent Jessica from using it to get back inside the fortress.

"In the morning, we divide our forces to take the other villages," he told Rennard and the main leaders of the raiding bandits. "It’s most likely Jessica will try to rally the peasants to fight with her, so expect resistance. We’ll search the forests, too. An army that size can’t stay hidden forever."

A few of the bandit leaders grumbled, and Gosford eyed them angrily. "Is there a problem?"

The bandits exchanged sullen glances before one stepped forward. "We joined this campaign cos ye promised us riches," he said angrily. "Ye promised we’d get to kill the Da’Gran soldiers!"

"And?" Gosford faced the angry man calmly. "We will find them in time. And when you have taken the villages you will have all the plunder you desire."

"No!" The man shook his head viciously. "My people grow tired of waiting! You pay us now!"

The mercenary cocked his head thoughtfully. "You’re welcome to search the castle yourself for gold, but you won’t find any," he said quietly. "I cannot pay you what I don’t have."

"Then we’re leaving this accursed castle!" the man shouted. "My men and I won’t fight fer nothin’!"

Hazel eyes narrowed and the mercenary stepped closer to the furious bandits. "You wish to be rewarded for your efforts?"


A slender dagger flashed through the air in a silver arc and the bandit clutched suddenly at his throat. Blood welled between his fingers as he coughed, choked, grasping for the mercenary with feeble hands before he collapsed. The other men stepped back, eyeing their commander nervously.

Gosford wiped his dagger clean and sheathed it. His eyes studied the bandit leaders calmly. "Do any of you wish a similar reward?"

Several heads shook desperately.

"Then do as I command." Gosford nudged the dead man with his foot. "Follow my orders, and I will deliver that which was promised. Now go."

The bandits left as quickly as they could, leaving Rennard and his commander alone in the great hall.

Gosford closed his eyes and took a calming breath. He was frustrated and annoyed because of it. That slip of a girl had managed to escape him! But something wasn’t right here. He had a feeling he was missing something, he just didn’t know what it was. Jessica’s little stunt of false magic had convinced many of the gullible bandits that the castle was now somehow cursed; a simple yet effective trick. Still, it seemed strange that she would give up her position so readily.

"That girl’s not finished with this yet," he whispered half to himself, half to his second. "We may have taken the castle, but she’s out there somewhere. I can sense it." He took a deep breath and frowned. "I want her found before she has a chance to make trouble."

"I’ll order more men into the woods, sir," Rennard offered.

"Excellent. And Rennard?"


Gosford gestured to the body of the raider on the floor. "Have our uncooperative friend here removed. We don’t want bloodstains marring the stonework."

"Of course, sir."


Far, far below, beneath the very foundation of castle Da’Gran, Jessica stood next to Kaleah in a vast, cavernous room filled with nervous, curious people. The great room was lit by several torches that burned in wall-mounted sconces, but the light couldn’t take away the knowledge of a hundred tones of earth and rock that hung above their heads. All the knights of her fathers court were here, along with most of the lesser soldiers, gathered around a large, rectangular table that was covered in dust and dirt. Her mother and brother stood to one side, both regarding her with sullen anger. Jess winced a little when she saw the expressions worn by Miles and Charles, knowing she had a lot of explaining to do. There was one notable absence among the gathering: Eric Grace. She knew she was going to have to explain that to the people, too. The last day and night had been wearing on the young woman; she was tired and in little mood for this talk. But she knew she couldn’t rest just yet.

As she stepped forward to address her audience, Jessica assumed what Kaleah called her ‘leader face’ — the expression and stance she modeled after her father.

"I know you all probably have a lot of questions right now," she said, her gentle yet mesmerizing voice bringing instant silence to the muttering crowd, "but before I answer them I want to thank you all for your patience. I understand that I asked a lot of you — I expected you to follow orders without taking the time to explain things. For that I’m sorry."

The young woman took a deep breath. "I know you all want to know about these hidden passages and rooms, first of all." She saw many nods from the knights who were puzzled at these mysterious secret places in their home. "I discovered them many years ago, and I suppose you could say I used them to play in. The passages run through and under the castle, and can access almost any part of Da’Gran we want to go too. There’s enough room for us all to live here comfortably for as long as we need too." She paused, her tone growing a little harder. "As for why I kept these passages a secret . . ." She glanced at Miles and Charles. ". . . I can only say that I had my reasons. I’m not going to justify myself to you people, and you don’t have the right to expect me too." Her voice dropped slightly. "My secret harmed no-one."

Lady Rose stepped forward now, eyes stormy. "And what other secrets have you kept from us, Jessica?" she demanded loudly. "What else don’t you want us to know about?"

Jessica glared at her mother coldly. "Whatever my secrets are, mother, they are mine to keep." Her eyes swept the assembly of soldiers. "I’m sure we all have things we keep private . . . things we share only with those closest too us. I don’t expect anyone here to divulge every hidden thought and feeling to me, and vice versa." Most of the knights reluctantly nodded their agreement, willing to accept this explanation for now.

Lady Rose wasn’t to be discouraged so easily. "Pretty words, Jess, but how do you think these people would feel if they did know the truth about you?"

Jessica paused now, her back stiffening. Rose was questioning her authority in front of the people she had to lead. She couldn’t let that stand. "Do you have something you wish to say, mother?" she demanded, her soft tone at odds with the steel in her eyes.

Lady Rose sniffed at her daughter in disgust. "I know all about you, Jessica," she hissed. "I know all about the things you’ve been doing with that heathen bitch!" She pointed accusingly at Kaleah. "I saw the two of you up on the battlements the other night — you with your hands all over her!"

The silence in the room suddenly grew breathless. Lady Rose smirked malevolently as Jessica’s face went deathly pale and her eyes widened. She stepped closer, enjoying the look on her daughter’s face. "I should have expected as much from you, you disgusting harlot! Whoring yourself to some foreign devil-woman! It makes me sick to think a creature like you ever came from my body!" Rose’s hand snapped up quickly, intent on delivering a hard slap to her daughter’s face.

She did not realize just how dangerous the young girl’s reflexes were.

Jessica caught her mother’s hand before it even got near her face and, with seemingly no effort at all, twisted the older woman’s body around, throwing her hard against the surface of the oak table. Rose gave a surprised squeak as Jessica slammed her hand down on the tables dusty surface — a sound which changed to a shocked cry of pain as the furious young blonde drew a dagger and, without thinking twice, drove it through her hand, pinning it to the table.

"Jessica!" Miles stepped forward to intercede, but cold green eyes froze him before he got the chance.

"NO!" Jessica’s gaze swept the room, the stunned people falling back from the fury in her gaze. When she looked at Kaleah, however, her expression softened at the look of sadness on her dark lover’s face. Jess turned back to her gasping mother, releasing her grip on the dagger and clutching for her throat. Terrified green eyes widened.

"The next time you speak a single word of malice against Kaleah," the girl whispered, "I swear I’ll find my dagger a home in your heart." She stared at her mother a long moment, unblinking. "Do you understand me?"

"You can’t-" Powerful fingers cut off her words as they tightened about her throat.

"Try me." Jessica leaned in closer. "When you try to hurt Kaleah, you hurt me. And I will defend myself with every power at my disposal, mother. Now if you have any sense at all in your head, you’ll say ‘I understand, Jessica,’ and get out of my sight."

Lady Rose swallowed hard, gasping at the fire that burned from her hand. She saw for the first time just how strong her daughter had become — how dangerous. The force of power the small girl projected was unbelievable, and there was nothing she could do against it. "I understand, Jessica," she repeated dutifully.

"Very good." Jessica released her grip on her mother’s throat and unceremoniously plucked the dagger from her hand. The older woman fell back, clutching her wounded hand to her chest. Father Grahem stepped forward with Steven and they managed to lead Lady Rose from the chamber, the minister glaring at Jessica with disgust and making the sign of the cross before he departed.

When they were gone, Jessica turned back to the faces watching her, their expressions ranging from sympathy to concern to distaste. There was no way she could deny her mother’s accusation now. She hadn’t wanted it to be this way, but had accepted long ago that loving Kaleah would eventually lead to this. She smiled a little when Kaleah stepped closer to her, offering comfort. The silence grew uncomfortable, and the young blonde faced the gathered soldiers with dignity and pride; she would never let herself feel shame for her love.

"What Kaleah and I do in private is between the two of us alone," she said softly. "Does any person here wish to dispute that?"

There was silence; a few men shook their heads.

Jessica nodded. "Good." She felt a hand reach out for her own and gratefully accepted the contact with her lover. "I don’t expect any of you to understand this, or even to agree with it. And I’m certainly not going to ask for your sanction. You can hate me, if that’s what you want. You can be disgusted by me." Her eyes hardened. "But I do expect you to follow my orders until my father has recovered strength enough to take back command." She met each man’s gaze steadily. "If any of you think that’s going to be a problem, speak now."

Another silence. No-one stepped forward.

Jess smiled a small, tired smile. "Thank you. Now, if we’re done questioning my love life" - There were a few nervous chuckles - "we can continue."

Releasing Kaleah’s hand, Jessica stepped into her role as leader easily. "The last twenty-four hours have been confusing for you all, since I haven’t had time to explain my plan in it’s entirety. The situation stands thusly: the bandit army lead by Lancaster’s mercenary commander, Frederick Gosford, has taken control of the castle." There were a few low mutterings at this point, but they ended when Jess raised her hand for silence. "I know this wasn’t the most popular decision I’ve made, but like it or not, we didn’t have a hope of defeating Gosford. Our supplies were running low, and we hadn’t the numbers to break the siege." She saw reluctant acknowledgement of the facts. "By now, Gosford will have discovered the escape tunnel that was built below the stable." She grinned. "He will have concluded that we retreated from the castle, and that the castle is his."

"If there’s an escape tunnel, why haven’t we sent for help?" demanded one of the younger knights.

"Runners were sent early yesterday morning," Jess replied. "With the head-start they have, I have every confidence that Charles’ father will hear of our plight and send reinforcements. However, they’ll take time to get here, and we must use that time as best we can.

"Gosford will almost certainly assume we have pulled back to the other villages, hoping to rally greater numbers from the peasants. That being the case, I believe he will divide his army into smaller groups and send them out to sweep away any resistance quickly. He can’t keep the raiders in the castle; they’re too unruly and hard to control. And besides, thanks to Kaleah’s idea of marking the courtyard with arcane symbols, most of them will have little desire to remain in the castle, believing it to be cursed." She smiled a thanks to her lover. "Within the next two days, the enemy will be divided into a dozen smaller groups, and the castle will be defended only by a small garrison of Lancaster’s own men."

Comprehension suddenly dawned in the faces of the gathered knights, and many of them nodded slowly, smiling when they saw where this was going. "Ye plan to wait fer that to happen, then defeat then one by one," Miles guessed.

Jess nodded. "We sent runners to warn the villagers what’s happening — with luck, they’ll be able to hold out till we can send aid. The Earl’s men will help us to mop up the stragglers, and victory will be ours." She planted her hands on her hips proudly. "All we have to do is wait a few days, and watch for our opportunity." She flashed the men a charismatic grin. "Any questions?"

There was a few moments of silence, then one of the elder knights raised his hand almost timidly. "Um . . . I heard that Sir Richard was poisoned by a traitor . . . and that the traitor is dead. Is that true?"

Jess sighed and nodded grimly. "When Kaleah and I were rigging our little magic display, we went to Eric Grace for assistance with the chemical components. We found him dead in his laboratory, apparently killed by his own hand." She pulled a scrap of parchment from her belt and held it up. "This was on the body. It reads simply, ‘I can live no longer with my betrayal. God will be my judge.’" Jessica scowled darkly, still feeling that something about Grace’s suicide seemed off. "From all appearances, my father will recover. His fever has broken, and he has been wakeful for brief periods." The relief was obvious in her tone, knowing her father was now resting comfortably in one of the hidden rooms above. She could see the men shared her relief.

"So what do we do now?" asked a soldier. "Just wait?"

She shrugged. "Patience is our greatest ally at the moment," she said. "I’ve shown Miles and Damon where to find the largest rooms. They’ll assign you a space to sleep and we’ll start a guard to watch the movements of the enemy." A full grin lit her face. "When we attack, they won’t know what hit them." She paused, waiting for any further questions. When none were forthcoming, she waved her hand. "I’ll leave you to get organized. Miles? Take over."

Taking Kaleah’s hand, Jess turned and led them from the cavernous room, sighing the minute they were out of sight.

Kaleah felt the tension drain from her young friend’s small frame and gathered her up in her arms quickly. "You alright?"

Jess shrugged. Her emotions were raw; she wasn’t sure how she felt right now. "I wasn’t expecting my mother to hit me with that," she breathed. Tears pricked the corners of her eyes, but they were born of stress more than despair. "I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens."

Kaleah sighed, feeling her lover’s pain. "I’m sorry you have to hurt because of how you feel for me."

Jess turned and smiled up at her crookedly. "It’s a small price to pay, Kaleah. I love you . . . and I knew all along that a lot of people would never accept that." A little light entered her eyes. "At least no-one’s going to try to hang either of us for the time being," she observed. "Like it or not, this plan is going to save us from almost certain defeat. Even my mother and Father Grahem couldn’t incite the people against us."

The dark woman smiled and laid a soft kiss on rumbled blonde hair. "Come on, Princess," she said. "You can show me some of these intriguing stories I’ve heard so much about."

Jess giggled, her eyes sparkling. "Mmm . . . are you sure you wanna do that? I mean, reading a bunch of erotic love stories could get me kinda worked up."

Kaleah grinned roguishly. "Oh, I’m counting on it."


The next few days dragged by slowly for the people hidden in the secret rooms. Jess knew rumors about her and Kaleah had spread quickly among the people, but she chose to ignore them. It wasn’t difficult; afterall, Jess had lived her whole life being the center of controversy. She’d never been one to go by the rules of others, her independent spirit earning her admiration from some, disapproval from others. It seemed her love for the dark barbarian woman would prove no different than every other decision she’d ever made.

Jess paused a moment as she entered her special room — the room that housed her pictures and her secret books. She and Kaleah had claimed it as their quarters for the time being, and the young blonde smiled as she found her lover lying full-length on the over-stuffed couch, her eyes closed peacefully.

Jessica took the opportunity to let her eyes linger over the long, slender body of her friend. In the last few days, this room had offered the luxury of privacy to the two women, and Jess found herself growing ever more comfortable with the intense physical dynamic their relationship had developed. Her hunger and passion for Kaleah had only grown stronger as she enthusiastically explored new ways of expressing her love and desire. Kaleah had encouraged Jessica to fully share her dreams and fantasies, helping the innocent girl to accept and understand her burgeoning sexuality. As their level of intimacy increased, so did their love, and watching her dark lover now in a rare moment of relaxation, Jessica knew their love would give them both strength in whatever future they faced.

As Jess suspected, Kaleah soon sensed her presence and sleeping azure eyes blinked open. A smile twitched the scarred lips as the former slave sat up a little and stretched. "Hey," she greeted drowsily. "Everything okay?"

"Mmhmm." Jess strolled over and straddled Kaleah’s lap happily, kissing her lover long and slowly. "Everything’s absolutely perfect."

Kaleah grinned and pulled the blonde tighter against her. "Everything?" A dark brow raised doubtfully.

Jess giggled. "Well, okay, not everything. But Gosford’s moved out nearly all the raiders and we’re about ready to attack him, my mother’s keeping out of sight, and . . ." She grinned mischievously. ". . . I’ve had a few rather timid comments from a couple of the soldiers and servants complementing my taste in women."

Sapphire eyes widened in surprise. "Really?" Knowing hands skirted playfully along the young woman’s ribcage, thumbs playing close to full breasts. "Were there any comments about the noises coming from this room late in the evenings?" she teased.

Jessica’s nostrils flared as her body quickly wakened to her lover’s touch. Still, she poked the dark woman with mock outrage. "I’m not that loud," she argued. Kaleah’s eyebrow lifted higher, and Jess blushed. "I’m not."

Kaleah smirked. "Whatever you say, Princess." In truth, the young woman was proving to be as vocal as she was energetic during their love-making; a fact Kaleah found thoroughly endearing. She decided to change the subject. "So, how’s your father doing?"

Jess shrugged. She had just been to visit her father, who she’d found sleeping comfortably. "He’s okay, I guess." She blew her bangs out of her eyes wearily, considering again the strange events surrounding his sickness.

Kaleah instantly recognized Jess was holding something back. "Is anything wrong?"

"No, it’s just . . ." Jess trailed off, not knowing how to explain her disquiet. "I just can’t understand why Grace would do something like that. It seems so . . . so illogical."

"I thought you said you never really liked him to begin with."

"I didn’t." Jess frowned. "But just cos he gave me the willies doesn’t mean it’s easy picturing him as a traitor. Something about it doesn’t seem right. Doesn’t fit."

Kaleah sat up a little straighter, pulling Jess along with her. "Like what?"

"Well . . ." Jess pondered the matter a moment. "For starters, Grace has served my family all his life. He was my grandfather’s advisor and alchemist before my father came to power. If he'd wanted to betray us, he could have picked a hundred better opportunities than this one."

"Maybe no-one ever made him a generous enough offer," Kaleah suggested.

"Maybe. But why now? He was old. He wouldn’t have had a lot of time to enjoy his rewards anyway. And Grace never seemed to care much for money or wealth. His only interest was serving my father well and working on whatever it was he worked on in his laboratory." She paused. "He was a good advisor and fair healer, even if he was a bit of a ghoul. It’s so hard to believe he could have betrayed my father."

Kaleah kissed the vexed girl gently. "Just be happy he’s gone," she said quietly. "When this is over, we can investigate things a little more if you want . . . maybe find out why he did it." Another gentle kiss, a little lower, and Kaleah grinned, feeling Jess melt against her. "When are you planning to attack Gosford and his remaining troops?"

"Uh . . . attack?" Jess quickly lost her train of thought as Kaleah set to work on her neck and chest. "Oh . . . um, I don’t — uh, don’t stop!"

Kaleah grinned. "That soon, huh?" She suckled a wildly humming pulse-point happily. "Maybe you should rethink that."

Jessica tangled her fingers in Kaleah’s dark hair, moaning. "We attack tomorrow evening," she gasped quickly, her senses focused fully on the dark woman’s sensual assault. "Kaleah?"


"I don’t really make that much noise . . . do I?"

Kaleah grinned rakishly. "Let’s find out."

Scarred lips returned to feast on fevered skin, descending along a path that quickly convinced Jess she really didn’t care one way or the other how loud she was.


Chapter 25.

Jessica listened intently to the voices she could hear echoing up through the chimney from her father’s chambers, recognizing them as belonging to Gosford and his lieutenant. She was alone in the cramped tunnel, waiting with calm excitement for the attack to begin. The grate that sealed off the chimney had been removed, and when things started to happen, Jess would have to move quickly to secure the room and take the mercenary captive. If Gosford managed to rally a defense, Jess knew her men would suffer greater casualties.

Miles had protested her wanting to take on the mercenary by herself, but Jessica had been adamant. Kaleah was positioned nearby, waiting to take out the guards to the chamber, so if Jess ran into trouble help was close at hand. One way or another, she wanted Gosford for herself.

The plan was fairly simple. Lancaster’s men were now distributed throughout the castle, their numbers few. Against Da’Gran’s better-trained and more numerous troops, they didn’t stand a chance. The trick would be making sure none of them managed to escape the castle and rally support from the divided bandit army. Therefore, Miles would lead a contingent of men too the gatehouse to take control of the portcullis, closing it and preventing escape. While the soldiers wiped out the invaders, the servants and peasants of Da’Gran would remain safely hidden in the catacombs, waiting till everything was secure. Since Lancaster’s men believed their enemy to be many miles away, Jessica had every confidence that victory would be swift and decisive.

After what seemed like hours of breathless anticipation, Jess finally heard what she’d been waiting for. The sound of a door flying open, then a panicked voice. "Sir! Forgive the interruption sir, but . . . we're under attack!"

"Attack!?" Gosford’s voice was understandable incredulous. "By who?"

"Sir Richard’s men, sir! They’ve-"

"That’s impossible!" In the darkness, Jess grinned at the disbelieving tone in the mercenary’s voice. "Lady Jessica wouldn’t be foolish enough to attack the castle."

"She’s already inside the castle, sir!" the guard reported hastily.

"What!?!" There was a sound of mail and leather rustling, then a startled squeak. "How is that possible? Where are the men?"

"The men are trying to hold them back, b-but they’re everywhere!" came the strangled voice of the guard, and now Jessica could make out the sounds of battle coming from beyond the room. The familiar tingle of adrenaline and excitement flooded through her blood, heightening her senses and making her feel dangerously alive. She took a deep breath and counseled patience, fingers toying with the pommel of her sword.

Below, Gosford cursed angrily for a moment, then apparently regained his composure. "Fine," he said softly. "Jessica may be clever, but we’ll win this still. Rennard?"


"Go find some runners if you can. We need to recall the bandits. If we’re lucky they won’t have traveled too far."

"Of course sir."

"I’ll take care of this whelp one way or another. Try to get the men to fall back to the central keep. We can defend ourselves better if we’re not out in the open."

"I’ll do what I can, sir, but you’d best hurry." Footsteps faded quickly away as Rennard and the soldier left. Jess crept forward soundlessly and slipped into the chimney, holding herself poised over the drop, waiting. A few heartbeats later came the sound of fierce fighting from just outside the room, Gosford’s started shout, and then the echo as the doors to the chamber slammed shut forcefully. Kaleah had done her job well, cutting off this section of rooms and leaving Jessica to confront Gosford in peace.

Confidant that she would not be interrupted, Jessica dropped stealthily down into the fireplace, her soft-soled boots crunching only a little in the ashes. Moving quickly, she ducked under the stone mantle and stepped into her father’s chamber, glancing about warily.

Gosford stood in front of the solid oak door, pounding on it and trying unsuccessfully to get it open. Jess grinned fully and shuffled closer, noiselessly drawing her slender rapier. When she was only a few feet away, Gosford finally sensed her presence and turned angrily, his hand flying to the hilt of his own longsword.

His eyes widened when he found the tip of Jessica’s sword flirting with the skin under his throat. Her eyes were dancing and strangely playful, and suddenly Gosford understood how this girl had gained such a formidable reputation at such a young age; her skill was matched only by her charm.

Jess smiled at the stunned expression on the mercenary’s face. "We meet again, master Gosford." Her eyes flicked warningly to where his hand still gripped his sword hilt. "You wish to test my resolve, perhaps?" A blonde brow raised curiously, her expression not at all afraid.

Gosford removed his hand and raised it away from his side.

"How did you get back into the castle?" he demanded. "We collapsed the tunnel."

"A lady can’t reveal all her secrets, master Gosford . . . can she?" Outside, the sounds of fighting could still be heard, though they were muffled by the door. "Your men are the ones outnumbered now," she observed. "We will take back my father’s castle and then destroy your ragtag bandit armies one by one."

"Impossible. Your haven’t the men." From his tone, Gosford didn’t seem convinced of his own words. Jessica’s smile never faltered.

"Maybe not right now," she agreed complacently, "but as soon as the messenger I sent to the Earl gets through, the reinforcements he sends will be more than enough to even the odds. I think when word reaches the bandits, most of them will run for the hills anyway." She eyes sparkled. "You are beaten, master Gosford. Accept it gracefully."

Suddenly, Jessica felt the hairs at the nape of her neck tingle in warning, and she sensed another presence in the room; a presence she could tell immediately did not belong to her lover.

"We’ve not lost yet," said a vaguely familiar voice. "Release the mercenary, Lady Jessica, or I’ll be forced to kill you."

Jessica struggled a moment, unable to identify the voice but knowing the threat was real. Unwilling to pull back the rapier and accept defeat, she twisted her body so she could face the intruder without releasing Gosford.

Green eyes widened in shock, and for a moment Jessica cursed herself for her own stupidity. Of course! It’s so obvious! How could I have forgotten about him! Everything fell into place as she stared past the glinting bolt of the crossbow to the intelligent, unassuming face of Senigma Wright.


Miles easily dodged the fierce but simple attack of the man facing him, then sprang forward with sudden speed and plunged his sword through the chainmail and into the soldier’s heart. Around him, Da’Gran’s warriors were pressing quickly through the enemy ranks. The attack had been unbelievably successful, beyond even what Jessica had promised, and by now Lancaster’s men were beginning to panic.

And that meant they’d be looking for a way out.

"Too the gatehouse!" Miles shouted fiercely, urging his men to move quickly on their mission, ignoring those who sought to flee so they could press on.

Their path cleared quickly and Miles lead the way across the courtyard, raising his shield to catch the few arrows that were being fired by the desperate enemy. A few of Lancaster’s men had managed to get outside the castle walls, but glancing up Miles saw Da’Gran archers taking careful aim from the battlements, dropping them before they could run far.

When they reached the gatehouse that housed the controls for raising and lowering the massive portcullis, Miles was flustered to encounter the first signs of organized resistance since the attack first started. A group of footsoldiers armed with pikes had taken up a defensive stance outside the gatehouse, their position protected by several archers armed mostly with longbows and a few crossbows. Miles saw the man beside him fall to the deadly accuracy of the archers, and he raised his sword to stop the advance.

"Down!" he called. "Find cover!"

Somewhat reluctantly the soldiers did so, breaking apart and hiding behind what small shelter there was in the open courtyard. Miles scowled at the enemy defense, searching with experienced eyes for a weakness.

"We can’t charge them, Sir Miles," observed a younger soldier. "They’ll cut us to pieces."

"Aye, but we gotta get that portcullis down." He turned and saw a few of Lancaster’s men charge into the courtyard, seeking to escape. His own men dispatched them quickly, then returned to their cover. "If the bandits’re rallied, we’ll have lost everything . . . and they won’t be fooled a second time." He frowned as he looked around, searching for anything that might help. His eyes lit up suddenly when he spied what he wanted.

"There." He pointed to the far end of the courtyard. "We use that."

The young soldier gave him a confused look. "A wagon, sir?"

"Aye." Miles grinned and began retreating, using his shield as protection. "You three . . ." He picked out three men. "Yer comin’ with us. The rest of ye stay here and keep the enemy from escapin’."

Miles led his group over to the large straw-filled wagon and inspected it briefly. "Perfect," he concluded. "You two, get on that side and start pushin’. We gotta get this lined up with the gatehouse."

The men did as ordered, not understanding but trusting to Miles’ wisdom. With some straining, they managed to maneuver the heavy wagon over to the rest of their group, who sought shelter behind it immediately.

"I need a flint ‘n a striker." Miles gestured impatiently until one of the soldier’s produced the requested items and handed them over. The old knight spared a glance towards the enemy, who appeared confused and wary of his actions. "Get behind the wagon," he ordered. "When it starts burnin’, push it hard." A few of the soldiers grinned as they realized what he was planning.

The men quickly did as ordered, and Miles expertly struck a spark into the tinder-dry straw. A flame obediently sprang to life, spreading quickly as the soldiers put their heads down and started pushing. By the time the wagon was half-way to the gatehouse it was fully ablaze and moving at unstoppable speed. The enemy, seeing the fiery destruction that hurtled towards them, broke ranks and tried to escape.

The wagon ploughed into the wooden gatehouse and instantly crashed against the stone wall behind it, causing a ball of fire to erupt outwards in a wave of heat. The wagon also managed to hit the mechanism controling the portcullis directly, smashing it to pieces and freeing the thick chain that held the gate open. With a piercing squeal of protest and a sharp crash, the heavy spiked grill slammed down, almost impaling one man who was trying to escape.

Miles and his group attacked quickly, cutting down the lightly-armored archers easily then turning to confront the tougher pikemen. Seeing that escape was now impossible and their cause was lost, the pikemen dropped their weapons and raised their arms in defeat.

"We surrender."

Miles smiled and gestured to some of his men. "Strip their weapons and armor," he ordered, "and lock ‘em somewhere they won’t make trouble." He turned to the rest of his group. "The rats won’t be fleeing this sinkin’ ship," he grinned, then held his bloody sword out. "Let’s go find us some more fun, huh?"

The soldiers cheered, and they dashed off to join their fellows in the last stages of the battle, leaving behind the blazing remains of the destroyed gatehouse.


Senigma smiled foxishly at the expression on Jessica’s face, his hands holding the crossbow a little awkwardly but steady. Jessica stepped away from Gosford, rapier still poised but now uncertain who to attack.

"I can see you’re a little surprised," the apprentice advisor observed. "I imagine at this point you’re probably kicking yourself you didn’t notice I was missing from those you managed to hide away, but don’t feel too bad. I’m upset I left Da’Gran before I got a chance to see how you pulled off such a wonderful piece of trickery."

Jessica quickly masked her shock and assumed a confidant expression. She nodded at the crossbow. "You’re not a warrior, Senigma. You haven’t the skill to use that thing."

Senigma’s smile grew wider. "From this range, Lady Jessica, even I can’t miss. Now, release the mercenary and surrender."

"You shoot me and I’ll still have the strength to kill him," Jessica stated, pressing the tip of her sword against Gosford’s throat. Her momentary fear was gone, and she almost found herself enjoying this challenging addition. "Do you really think you can command Lancaster’s men? Do you think you can give them victory?"

Senigma hesitated, uncertain, clearly not expecting this resistance. "The bandits will-"

"The bandits will run in terror when the Earl’s men arrive," Jess interrupted. "Killing me won’t change a thing." She caught a sudden movement from the corner of her eye and smiled to herself as a shadow emerged from the fireplace. Green eyes twinkled daringly as she turned back to Gosford, who seemed unprepared to make a move while his life hung in the balance. "What did Lancaster offer you for the death of my father, Senigma? Why would you betray the position of trust you stood to inherit?"

Senigma shrugged. "The winds of power were shifting, Jessica. By the time Grace had passed away, your brother would likely have risen to power." He gripped the crossbow tighter. "Do you really think an idiot like Steven could hold these lands for long? Lancaster offered wealth and the position of chief advisor and alchemist to me as soon as Da’Gran was his. I could either rise along with him, or watch as your brother ruined everything — including my future. The decision wasn’t difficult to make."

Jessica processed this explanation silently. "So you poisoned my father and killed your own teacher because you feared the future?"

"That’s right. You may be a worthy successor to your father, Lady Jessica, but unfortunately you’ll never be permitted to rule here. Only the strong or the wise survive in this world, and while you may be both, Steven is neither. I’m smart enough to see that Da’Gran must fall . . . and that — regrettably — you must die if I’m to earn the trust of my new lord."

Jessica smiled charmingly. "You’re not as smart as you think you are, Senigma."

"No?" His grip tightened on the crossbow. "I’m not the one about to be shot."

"That remains to be seen." The shadow behind Senigma stepped closer, and Jessica’s eyes narrowed. "You really think you can stop my father’s entire army? Bah! You couldn’t even kill my father when you tried to. And even if you did have some clever plan to rally the bandits again, you’re overlooking one very important thing."

"And what might that be?"

Steel flashed suddenly and Senigma felt the cold, sharp edge of a sword press firmly against his neck. A low growl came from behind him and he felt a powerful presence suddenly fill the room. Jessica’s green eyes sparkled challengingly.

"If you kill me, you’ll die too," she said very softly, winking at the angry sapphire eyes now hovering menacingly over Senigma’s shoulder. "Nice of you to join us, Kaleah."

"My pleasure," the dark woman purred.

Senigma swallowed fearfully, seeing his carefully nurtured plans suddenly falling to pieces in a matter of moments. Jessica faced Gosford again, making sure he didn’t take advantage of the distraction to make a move. "I believe we are at an impasse, Senigma. And since I hold a greater advantage than you do, I suggest you do the smart thing and surrender without a fuss."

The young man’s eyes flittered nervously to Gosford, asking for help. The mercenary shrugged, helpless with the tip of Jessica’s blade forcing his compliance. The hands that gripped the crossbow quavered. "If you harm me," he warned Kaleah, "I’ll kill her."

"What makes you think you’ll die slow enough to get that chance?"

Jess glanced back at her lover, eyes communicating a warning to be ready. Kaleah nodded her head fractionally, her sword pulling back in preparation. Senigma would act rashly in a moment; he was nervous and desperate.

Suddenly, several things happened in the space of a heartbeat: Jessica turned fully to face Senigma, her sword breaking the hold it had on Gosford, who instantly reached for his own weapon. Surprised by the sudden fearful confrontation, Senigma stumbled backward and pulled frantically at the trigger of the crossbow. Kaleah’s sword was already descending, however, ignoring flesh and blood to slice neatly through the taut string that waited to propel the bolt forward. The steel head of the crossbow snapped forward ineffectively and Senigma had just enough time to figure out his weapon was useless before Jessica slammed the ornate hilt of her sword into his temple. He crumpled to the ground like a sack of wheat, and the two women turned as one to face Gosford.

The mercenary’s eyes twitched back and forth, evaluating his options. Jessica waved her sword in tight figure-eight’s, her stance wary but confidant. "Surrender," she ordered.

"On what terms?"

A blonde brow raised. "You kidnapped me, attacked my people, and would have handed us all over to that savage brute Lancaster, and you expect terms?"

"I expect nothing I did not offer you." Gosford glanced at Kaleah, then back. "I can still do damage," he observed pointedly. "You care for this woman . . . are you prepared to risk her safety — and your own — for the sake of your pride?"

Jessica considered this and admitted Gosford had a point. If Kaleah were injured in a fight with the formidable mercenary and she could have prevented, Jess knew she’d never forgive herself. Besides, she reminded herself, Gosford had acted with honor and as a gentleman. To do otherwise in return was to behave as a barbarian. She nodded and stepped back a foot.

"Very well. These are my terms: surrender yourself peacefully and you will be held under arrest until the raiders you recruited have been dealt with and no longer pose a threat to my people. I will guarantee your well-being until that time, and then you shall be released — without your armor or weapons — outside my father’s land. You can do as you please from then, so long as you never return to Da’Gran land, or the lands of our allies." She paused. "Do you accept?"

Gosford considered a long moment. "What about him?" He pointed to Senigma.

Jess frowned. "He will be tried and executed for treason," she said. "His life is not negotiable."

Gosford shrugged. "And you swear I’ll not be harmed?"

"I swear," she promised.

"Then I agree to your terms." He flipped the sword over in his hand and held it out to her, hilt first. She took it from him, then motioned for him to raise his hands over his head.

"Kaleah, cut the rope from that crossbow and bind his hands," she instructed. Outside, the sound of fighting was dying off, and she grinned at Gosford as Kaleah roughly tied his arms behind his back. "I believe the day is ours," she said, feeling rather proud of herself. She had outwitted an enemy more experienced than herself, and she doubted that casualties would be high. "Let’s go congratulate the men, then get things moving. We still have a lot of work to do."

Kaleah grinned. "We can’t use the door," she reminded her companion. "I blocked it. Want me to go remove the chocks?"

Jess nodded. "The sooner we get out of here, the sooner we can finish up for the day."

"Great. Wait here, I’ll be back in a minute." Kaleah darted over to fireplace and pulled herself up into the chimney. Jess watched her leave with a smile, then turned back to Gosford, who had suddenly gained an insight into how his enemy had evaded him. She shrugged at his curious expression.

"Simple," she said with a smile, "but it worked."

Gosford’s lips twitched into a reluctant smile, and he shook his head ruefully. "I shall never be so quick to judge things by what they appear to be," he said. "People or places."

Jess grinned dazzlingly. "That’s what most people say after meeting me."


The next fortnight was a busy one for the inhabitants of Da’Gran castle. As soon as the castle was secured and all prisoners were locked safely in the dungeons, Jessica and Kaleah led a small army of men out to start the process of wiping out the divided bandit armies. The battles were fought mostly as a series of skirmishes, and by the time the Earl’s reinforcements arrived Jessica had secured the safety of nearly half the endangered villages.

Soon, the enemy was broken and Jessica returned with Kaleah to Da’Gran, leaving the simple clean-up task to the other knights. There was much work to be done in the castle itself and in the nearby village, before the peasants could return to their lives.

Sir Richard’s strength recovered quickly, though he did not step in and take over from his daughter. As Miles pointed out to him, this campaign was hers, and she deserved to finish what she’d started. It didn’t take long for Sir Richard to learn what had happened during his sickness, or for rumors of his beloved daughter’s ‘sordid affair’ with the heathen barbarian woman to reach his ears. Jessica did not visit him often, preferring to work on rebuilding the village rather than confront her father about her relationship with Kaleah. Besides, as the days passed, Jessica discovered another thing to worry over.

Kaleah’s behavior started to change. Though the dark woman was as loving and affectionate as ever, the restlessness which so plagued her when she first came to Da’Gran returned now, and she frequently sought out the solitude of the look-out tower. Jessica suspected the changes were a reaction in part to the whispered remarks that flew among the soldiers and servants regarding their relationship. While the young blonde was accustomed to being a focus for gossip, Kaleah was not, and the rumors clearly upset her. But Jessica knew that was only part of the problem, and as the days passed she slowly realized the nature of her friend’s discomfort.

Kaleah was feeling trapped. And Jessica knew there was only one solution.

She found the dark woman sitting in her usual haunt, looking out from the central tower at the patchwork of fields and forest, playing an idle tune on her flute. An unconscious smile touched Jessica’s lips as she listened to the stirring music, and she paused a moment just to enjoy the sight of her lover as she played. She didn’t have much time, however, before Kaleah sensed her presence and turned around, already smiling.

"Hey." The dark woman pocketed the flute and held out her arms. Jessica grinned and eagerly stepped into the embrace. "I saw the messenger arrive. Word from the army?"

Jess nodded and kissed her lover. "Mmmhmm. The last of the raider armies broke apart. Most of them ran for the hills, but a few weren’t fast enough. The soldiers are pulling back, and the Earl’s men are heading home as well." She paused and let herself savor the victory a moment. "It’s over now."

"Mmm. You did a good job." Kaleah curled long fingers through strawberry-blonde hair. "This leader stuff suits you."

Jess flushed with pleasure. "Thanks." Freeing herself from Kaleah’s arms, she looked up into sapphire eyes seriously. "How are you feeling?"

Kaleah stiffened a little, then shrugged. "Fine, I guess. Why?"

The young blonde smiled knowingly and shook her head. "I’ve seen you lately," she said gently. "You’re not fine. You’re getting fidgety, like you were when we first met."

Kaleah cocked her head and grinned lasciviously, her eyes darkening. "We’re doing a lot of things now that we certainly didn’t do when we first met," she purred.

Jess shivered a little in reaction to her lover’s expression, but knew she had to stay focused. "You know what I mean Kaleah." She paused. "Do you want to talk about what’s wrong?"

For a moment, Kaleah looked almost frightened, then she shrugged. "There’s nothing to talk about."

"Oh really?"


"Mmm." Jess pouted adorably, then gave a coy smile. "Okay. You don’t have to say it if you don’t want to. Besides, I already know what’s wrong."

A dark brow raised playfully. "Oh? Do tell."

Jessica’s small hand raised to cup Kaleah’s face tenderly, her thumb caressing the scar that marred her lips. She looked deep into melting sapphires and smiled quietly. "You want to leave this place, but you’re afraid I wouldn’t come with you."

Kaleah’s eyes widened, caught off-guard but the absolute certainty in the young woman’s voice. Then she shrugged a little and turned away. "I told you before I’d never leave you, Jess, and I meant it."

"I know that." Jess smiled. "If I wanted to stay in Da’Gran forever, you’d be by my side everyday, even though it meant being miserable for the rest of your life."

Kaleah frowned and crossed her arms over her chest. "Who said I’m miserable? I’m with you, and that’s all that matters."

"That’s not all that matters, Kaleah, and you know it." Jessica stepped closer, seeing the tension rolling off her lover as the dark woman’s defensive nature kicked in. "Do you think I could be happy knowing that staying with me in this castle made you feel uncomfortable?"

"I’m not asking you to leave this place," Kaleah snapped.

"And I’m not offering." Jessica’s eyes warmed and her nose crinkled. "We’ll leave at first light."


"No." Jessica pressed a hand over her partner’s mouth, effectively silencing her. "This is what I want. I love you Kaleah. Like it or not, God made you a restless spirit; he never meant for you to be caged. If you stay here you’ll never be happy, and neither will I." She removed her hand and smiled up at her companion. "Any questions?"

Kaleah regarded the stubborn set of the young woman’s jaw and sighed. "I can’t ask you to leave your family . . . your home."

"You’re my home, Kaleah. Da’Gran is just a place of stone and wood. I’ve always dreamed of traveling too new places and meeting new people . . . I just never had the strength or the reason to leave." She took Kaleah’s hand in her own and squeezed it. "We can see the world together now."

"But what about the people here, Jess? You said you’re purpose in life is to help others."

A blonde brow raised challengingly. "Are you saying there aren’t people in need of help elsewhere in the world?" She snorted inelegantly. "The peasants here have my father and his army to take care of them. I’m sure there are plenty of others in greater need everywhere else." She grinned. "We can help them together."

Kaleah opened her mouth to argue further, then saw the playful glint in Jessica’s eyes and snapped it shut. No doubt the girl had an answer to anything she might say. Besides, when she paused to consider things, the thought of making a life with Jessica away from the judgement and condemnation of Lady Rose and those like her was suddenly very appealing. Maybe they could travel south to Spain and see De’Livier again. She could show him she had used his gift of freedom to make a worthwhile life for herself.

Jessica saw Kaleah’s expression change slightly and quickly wrapped her arms around the dark woman’s waist. "I knew you’d see things my way," she said, her voice muffled by her lover’s chest as they embraced. They pulled apart and Jessica looked up to find tears trekking down Kaleah’s cheeks. "What’s wrong?"

Kaleah shook her head. "Nothing." She sniffled a little and wiped angrily at her face. "I was just thinking how lucky I am that I found you."

Jess grinned and pulled the dark woman down for a soft, tender kiss. "If you really want too, you can thank me properly later on tonight," she growled seductively, earning a deep chuckle from her companion. Jess grabbed Kaleah’s hand and started tugging her towards the stairs. "Come on," she said. "We’ve got a lot of packing to do before tomorrow. We’ll need money, and blankets, and warm clothes . . . Oh, and we should take bows, too, if we’re going to be hunting our own food. How far is it too the ocean, anyway — I’ve always wanted to see it. Can we get the horses on a ship, cos I don’t want to be walking everywhere. And deserts, too . . . can we go to a desert? I think we should . . ."

Kaleah grinned as the excited blonde girl prattled on and on about their plans, shaking her head a little in wonder but obediently letting herself be led away.


Sir Richard looked up from his conversation with Sir Miles to find his daughter standing somewhat timidly just inside the door, seemingly reluctant to enter the great hall. He smiled immediately and waved her forward, flicking a glance behind her where Kaleah hovered like a protective shadow.

"Jessica! Nice of you to visit me." He grinned and pulled her into a fatherly embrace. "Miles was just telling me the news about the army. Congratulations are in order, child . . . you’ve won your first serious campaign." Jessica offered a slight smile, but her eyes were nervous. Sir Richard pulled back seeing his daughter’s expression, and his smile vanished as he interpreted it’s meaning. Clearing his throat he glanced again at Kaleah, who seemed unsure of how welcome she was. "You’re leaving?"

Jessica swallowed, her eyes already tearing up, but she nodded. "In the morning . . . come first light." Her voice broke a little. "I’m sorry-"

He waved her away. "No need to apologize, Jess," he said gruffly. "I’ve heard the things your mother and Father Grahem have been saying about you." He scowled darkly. "Though I suppose you knew the consequences when you first" — he motioned vaguely between the two women — "went into this thing."

Jess snuffled a little, but nodded. "And I wouldn’t change a thing I did had I known it would lead to this," she said softly. "Are . . . are you mad at me?"

Sir Richard couldn’t help but smile, hearing for the first time in many years the uncertain, childish tremor in his daughter’s voice — fear that she had disappointed him. He shook his head and patted Jessica’s disheveled blonde hair affectionately. "Never, child. I’m proud as I ever was to have you as my daughter." He cocked his head thoughtfully and studied his beloved daughter’s face seriously. "I taught you to live by your heart, Jess, and I’d never love you less just because some things aren’t as I might prefer them to be."

Jessica glanced back at Kaleah and motioned her forward. Taking the dark woman’s hand, she faced her father and Miles resolutely. "I’ve found someone who loves me, and who I love in return. What more could you want for me?"

Sir Richard blushed a little seeing Jessica’s open affection for the dark woman in the simple gesture. "Well . . . grandchildren might have been nice."

Jess grinned mischievously and nudged Kaleah. "We’re trying our hardest, but I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting." Her father’s blush grew deeper and she couldn’t help but laugh at his mortified expression.

Miles laughed as well and clapped Sir Richard on the back. "Guess she couldn’t stay a child forever, could she?"

Richard coughed, regaining his composure. "I suppose not." He grew serous. "Where will you go?"

Jess shrugged. "Everywhere. There’s a lot of world out there to see."

"Will you . . ." Sir Richard hesitated. "Will you ever come back?"

"I don’t know," she admitted softly, not wanting to offer false hope. "I’d like to."

Richard nodded, understanding. "You’ll at least send word when you get the chance, won’t you? Just so I know you’re alright?"

She nodded. "I’m sure we’ll settle someplace for awhile," she said. "I’ll let you know how we’re doing."

"I’d like that." Richard turned to Kaleah. He had to admit, the former slave was an impressive figure. It was understandable that Jessica had been drawn to her. She had a sense of overwhelming presence much like his daughter possessed — only more savage, untamed. "You make sure you take care of her, child," he growled. "Keep her safe."

"I’ll guard her life with my own, my lord," she promised solemnly.

Jessica turned to Miles, unable to stop her tears from falling. The old knight smiled warmly at the sadness in her eyes and wrapped his arms around her. "I’ll miss ye, lass," he said softly.

"And I you." She choked back a sob, not wanting to ruin the moment. "I’ll never forget everything you taught me, Miles."

"I know, lass." He lifted her chin and gently wiped away her tears. Jessica had been as much his child as she had ever been Richard’s, and his heart ached thinking how empty the castle would seem without her. "Don’t cry, Jess. Ah always knew this day would come."

"You did?"

"Aye." He smiled shakily. "Yer one a God’s special people, lass. It’s a selfish thing to keep ye locked away from the world. The time’s come for you to share yer light with others . . . so ye kin touch their lives and make ‘em better." He ruffled her hair teasingly. "It’s what ye were born for, Jess: to make the world a better place for everyone." He paused, grey eyes warm with love. "You’ve made me a proud man, just to watch ye grow into the woman ye’ve become."

Jessica blushed under his praise. "Thank you."

He turned to Kaleah. "And you . . ." He grinned crookedly. "Ah doubt I could’ve picked a better mate fer Jessica. My only regret is that I won’t get to see ye become the creature I know you’ll grow into." He shook his head ruefully. "Given a year or two, Kaleah, I reckon yer skill with a blade’ll be a wonder to behold."

Kaleah smiled shyly. "Thank you, Miles." She stepped forward and offered him her hand. He clasped it solemnly. "And thank you for everything you’ve done for Jessica."

Sir Richard cleared his throat and Jessica turned to him. "Do you want me to tell your mother," he asked hesitantly, "or do you . . ."

She shook her head, her eyes hardening. "No," she said firmly. "I need to do it myself."

Leaving Kaleah in her room to finish packing, Jessica went in search of her mother. She found Lady Rose in her sitting room, Steven in attendance as usual. Rose scowled darkly when Jessica entered the elegantly appointed suite, not even trying to hide her disgust. Steven’s expression was almost a mirror image of his mother’s.

"What do you want?"

Jessica braced herself mentally, not wanting to be hurt by her mothers disapproval but feeling the sting of rejection nonetheless. It was a pain that quickly raised her anger, however, and she faced the older woman without shame.

"Kaleah and I will be leaving Da’Gran at first light," she stated calmly.

Lady Rose sniffed disdainfully. "Good riddance." Her dull green eyes were cold and venomous, though Jessica could see the slight fear that lurked deep within. "If you expect me to say I’ll be sorry to see you gone, you’re wasting your time coming here. As far as I’m concerned, you and that barbarian whore belong out in the wilds with the rest of the savages."

Jessica’s eyes flared instantly. "Be careful, mother," she said softly. "You’re forgetting my warning very quickly." She glanced pointedly to Rose’s still-bandaged hand. Rose glared back at her, but was clearly daunted. Steven, however, had not the intelligence to remain silent.

"Get out," the young man snapped, planting himself boldly in front of his mother. "You don’t belong here among decent people!"

Jessica’s eyes narrowed hatefully and she took a step closer, using her height to good advantage over her younger sibling. "Decent people like you?" she asked, her lip curling in a sneer. "I’d rather keep company with the lowest peasant than with people as stupid as you, brother."

Steven glared back at her, undaunted. "This castle will be better without you fouling it with your perversion."

Emerald eyes blazed warningly and Jessica fingered her dagger, tempted to teach her brother some manners. "You’re a fool."

"Bah! I’m not afraid of you, Jessica."

The young blonde’s hand snapped up suddenly and grabbed Steven about the throat. He gave a startled squeak and clawed futilely at her fingers, but Jessica was far stronger than he would ever be. She brought his face close to her own and whispered, "Some day, brother, I may return. And when I do, you’d better pray I find these lands and their people are healthy and well. If I don’t . . ." She smiled wickedly. "If I don’t, you can be sure I’ll teach you to fear me."

Releasing him suddenly, Jess gave her brother a little push and sent him falling backward into one of the sitting chairs. Steven gasped and rubbed his throat, but was smart enough to realize it would be stupid to retaliate. Jessica glared at her family for a moment, then sighed. "By this time tomorrow," she said softly, "Kaleah and I will be far away from you and all your simple-minded ignorance and selfish bigotry. I’ll be glad to be rid of you."

With that, Jessica turned her back on them and left, closing the door quietly behind her.



Word somehow spread through the castle that Jessica was leaving, and in the morning there were many present to watch her departure. From among the soldiers, the servants and the common people, the walls of Da’Gran were filled with those either wanting to bid farewell to the two women, or making certain they were gone for good.

Jessica accepted hugs and kisses on the cheek from dozens of well-wishers, stoically ignoring the few eyes that watched her with scorn. The display of gratitude and love touched the sensitive young woman deeply, and she promised she would try to return some day, if only for a visit.

By the time she was done with her farewells, the sun had well and truly cleared the horizon and Jessica mounted Andromeda gracefully, settling herself somewhat awkwardly over the supplies she had packed. Kaleah rode the chestnut gelding she’d been practicing on, her horse similarly weighed down with provisions. With many backward glances, the two rode out through the repaired gateway, Jessica’s face streaked with tears but smiling through the sorrow.

When the castle was just a distant grey shape far behind them Kaleah reached out to her lover, stroking her thigh soothingly. "You don’t have to do this," she whispered.

Jessica snuffled a little and wiped at her eyes. "I told you, Kaleah, this is what I want to do." She smiled radiantly and took a deep breath. "It’s just a little hard to say goodbye to my father and Miles."

Kaleah nodded, understanding. "We’ll be stopping to visit Charles," she observed. They had decided to pay a visit to the young lord since it was on their way. "We can spend a few days there if you like."

"I’d like that," Jess said. "But not too long, huh? I want to see the ocean, remember?"

Kaleah chuckled. "I know." Jessica’s excitement was contagious, and the dark woman was easily caught up in her enthusiasm. She cocked an eyebrow curiously. "Just how far have you actually been from Da’Gran?"

Jess shrugged. "I’ve visited Charles twice," she said, "and I’ve been through a few of the other villages on my father’s land when we were fighting near the borders but . . . that’s about it."

Kaleah’s eyes widened. "You’re joking?"

"Nope." Jess grinned sheepishly. "All the traveling I’ve ever done has been through the stories I’ve read." She frowned a little sadly. "I’m gonna miss all my books and scrolls." There hadn’t been a way to carry them with her, so most of her treasured possessions had remained at the castle. Sir Richard had promised never to throw them away.

Kaleah patted the young blonde on the shoulder. "We’ll get to hear all kinds of stories on the road," she promised. "There are places in cities where people go to listen to tales and songs all the time."

Jessica’s face lightened immediately. "Really?" She considered that and grinned. "That sounds like fun. Although," she chuckled, "I’m sure gonna miss that bathing chamber."

Kaleah’s eyes darkened with desire. "Me, too."

They held each other’s eyes a moment longer, then laughed. Suddenly Jessica grinned again and started rummaging through one of the sacks tied to Andromeda’s saddle. "Oh, I almost forgot!" She pulled out a thick piece of dark parchment and handed it to Kaleah. "I was going through Grace’s things the other day and I found this."

Kaleah unrolled the parchment and studied it curiously. Her eyes widened. "That looks like my tattoo!" she gasped.

"Uh huh. I let Grace take a copy of it — he said he wanted to study its design." She reached over and pointed out a scrawl of notes on the parchment. "See here . . . Grace thinks the tattoo is some kind of writing used in the far South — though he couldn’t find anything quite like what you’re marked with. It seems that particular writing style was lost hundreds of years ago." She smiled excitedly. "Makes me kinda curious as to how you ended up with such a design."

Kaleah slowly read through Grace’s neatly scrawled comments, her lips sounding out the letters silently. She glanced up when she was done. "You think . . . maybe we could journey south?"

Jess grinned. "Of course. I thought we’d find a boat to take over too France, and we can travel down into Spain first — I want to meet the wonderful man who set you free. Then, if things look okay, we can keep going south and try to find where you came from." She paused a little, watching Kaleah’s face carefully. "We could look for your homeland."

Kaleah considered this idea. She could barely remember anything about her life as a child; knew nothing of her origins. But now, she suddenly realized that she very much wanted to know more . . . to perhaps reclaim a part of her heritage that had been stripped away so long ago.

"I’d like that," she said softly. "We can look together."

Jess grinned, her eyes flashing in the early-morning light like twin emeralds, her tears already forgotten.


Smiling and laughing, the two women rode side-by-side down the rutted, meandering track, discussing their plans excitedly as they left behind the fields of Da’Gran, heading into an uncertain future they knew they would face as one.




Well, that’s that. I hope you’ve enjoyed my story, and I thank those who have taken the time to email me with feedback. It’s very much appreciated. Will there be a sequel? I think so. I’ve got a few ideas for one that I’m still tossing around in my head. . . but I’m afraid it might be a while. I’ve already started writing two other Uber stories, and there’re so many other characters I’ve had living in my head for so long now that I want to take the time to let them out. Still, if there’s anything you can think of that you’d like to see in Jessica and Kaleah’s future, please don’t hesitate to tell me about it. I could always use a few extra suggestions.

I think the last time I counted, I had about ten story ideas for new Ubers…I figure that should keep me going a while. Look for more of my work in the future.

Thanks a lot for taking the journey.


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