Disclaimers ~ These characters belong to me. If they have a passing resemblance to you or share your name, it's purely coincidental.

Bad language ~ The odd word here and there.

Love/sex ~ Loving relationships between women all over the island. Sex between consenting women. If this offends you...have a sneak peek, you might enjoy it.

Sickness & death ~ There are some deaths in this story, if that's not for you, I understand completely and hope you enjoy reading something else.

Copyright © June 2009

Author's note ~ Questions, comments & thoughts all welcome. Loves_to_write_fic@yahoo.co.uk



Chapter Four

Rayna and Dionis went down to the coast early the next morning to meet the approaching ship they had been alerted about. The sun hadn't yet started to make its ascent; all ships that were destined for Belleza made their journey in darkness to avoid detection, preserving the island's anonymity. Karita Shepherd and Harley Field accompanied them, while serving warriors were sent ahead to take up hidden positions in the trees, just in case.

Ever since the attack on the island, Dionis had changed and tightened security. Despite being a former warrior, the Queen's consort now took a guard with her whenever she left the palace; all arriving ships were met by a number of warriors; there were night time patrols, and the torches that were set inland and lit up the paths that led towards the different communities were extinguished soon after the dinner hour had past.

"So, I take it you and Arcadia made up?" Dionis questioned, a smirk dancing along her lips.

Rayna cleared her throat nervously. "We did. I take it you had yourself a good evening too," she teased, noting the dark smudge on Dionis' neck.

The head of security had the grace to blush. "Never you mind about my evening!"

Rayna laughed raucously. "And yet it is all right for you to question mine?"

"You argued with my little girl!" Dionis protested, not liking how her joke had backfired on her. "I was merely asking if you had apologised."

"I see," Rayna said with a straight face. "Well, you will be pleased to know that yes, we did make up. Again and again and again," she embellished, laughing and taking off running as Dionis turned beetroot red.

Down on the shore, the pair watched the ship come to a stop on their sandy beach; Dionis smiling as the gangplank was dropped and Cornelius appeared, starting to make his way down towards them. "Cornelius, welcome," she greeted, offering the big man her hand. "Your journey was a good one I hope?"

"Hello, Dionis. Yes, the journey was fine," Cornelius replied. "'Tis good to see you are looking as lovely as ever." He chuckled as Dionis blushed. "Thank you for having us," he added, as his gaze turned to Rayna. "The warrior Rayna, hello. You are looking strong and healthy as usual. Have you been taking care of my great niece?"

Rayna shook the grey-haired man's hand. "Of course, Cornelius. She is my life, you know that," she told him with a smile. "You are looking well, though minus a few hairs," she commented, blue eyes lifting to what was once thick, blonde hair.

Cornelius barked out a laugh. "You wait, one day you will be my age!"

"How are your family, Cornelius? I can't see Leland or Colt," Dionis mentioned, looking around at the disembarking visitors. "All is well I hope?"

"Alas, no," Cornelius said quietly, a frown creasing his brow. "There is...some illness...sweeping through our settlement. Colt was infected and has been getting steadily worse, so Leland has remained behind to care for him and the others who couldn't make the trip." He looked around nervously, making sure they were alone enough to talk seriously. "The druid who came to our village to treat the sick claims they are bloodsuckers," he whispered in a low tone, blue eyes darting about. "He told me he had seen it at another settlement. One member of a family got the sickness, then it spread to everyone else; 'tis believed the original family member drained their life to prolong his own. They all grow deathly pale and fear the light."

Dionis laughed, looking at the older man as though he had lost his senses. "Bloodsuckers, Cornelius! Don't tell me an intelligent man such as yourself would believe such nonsense?"

"I am just telling you what the druid told me. I...I don't know what I believe. All I know is I have five dead villagers and many more sick."

"I'm sorry to hear that, you shall have to pass on the Royal family's best wishes to all."

Spotting her older brother, Rayna excused herself and made her way over to the tall, clean-shaven brunette. "Brother, 'tis good to see you," she greeted warmly.

Brutus grinned and took the slightly smaller Rayna into his arms and spun her around. "Little Rayna, you are looking well." He set his younger sibling on her feet. "Mother informed me you have a new addition to your family?"

Rayna smiled proudly and nodded. "Six moons ago we had Lynnea. A little version of Arcadia, with my eyes though. Why have you not been back recently? You would have met my youngest by now."

"Things have kept me busy, sister." Brutus looked down at the three young children standing around him. "Let me introduce you to three of mine. This is Winston," he said, placing a big hand on the boy's shaved head. "My daughter, Zara. And my son, Proxenos."

Rayna smiled at each child, then looked into her brother's eyes. "Only three, Brutus? Not quite the stud you are rumoured to be," she teased.

Brutus smirked. "I have another four back home, all too young to travel," he replied. "Well, that and their mother's are not best pleased with me."

Shaking her head, Rayna crouched down to the children's height. "Hello, there. My name is Rayna and it seems I am your aunt." She offered her hand to each child and shook with them. "How old are you, Winston?" she asked the boy.

"Nine springs old, miss."

"Please, call me Rayna, or aunty." Rayna looked to the little girl. "And you Zara? How old are you?"

"Nine winters, aunty." Her face lit up as she smiled.

Blinking in surprise at the answer, Rayna looked up to see Brutus smiling smugly. "My, you were a busy boy," she teased. Smiling, Rayna looked to the brown-haired boy who was shyly hiding behind Brutus' leg. "And you, little lad?"

"He is four," Zara answered for her brother.

"Well, 'tis very nice to meet you all," Rayna said. "I have three daughters myself, your cousins. I am sure they will be very excited to meet you all." She stood up and smirked at Brutus. "Mother is going to fly into a mood when you turn up. I wish I could be there, but alas I must return to the palace."

"Oh, woe is you," Brutus said sarcastically. "I have no sympathy for you, little sister."

Rayna laughed, then seeing Brock, she excused herself from her family and made her way over to the dark blonde-haired man. The second born son of Cornelius had proven himself a worthy fighter and a good ally when the two tribes had joined forces against the Romans.

Brock smiled and offered the approaching Rayna his hand. "Rayna, 'tis good to see you," he greeted warmly. "You are looking very well; married life obviously suits you."

"Thank you, Brock," Rayna replied, smiling as she took his hand and shook it firmly. "I believe this is the first time you have been back to the island since my wedding. Are you still disgruntled that we wouldn't return to Britannia to wage full war on the Romans?"

Brock's jovial smile slipped and he released the warrior's hand. "Let us not talk of such matters now," he said, looking around at those around them. "But if I could have a moment of your time later, I do have something I wish to discuss with you."

Having a feeling she wasn't going to like what the man had to say, Rayna forced herself to smile politely. "Let's get my daughter's birthday celebration out of the way first, hmm?"

"Rayna," Dionis called out, getting the younger woman's attention. "Would you take the family to the palace, while I take everyone else around the communities?"

Rayna nodded. "Of course, Dionis." She turned her attention back to Brock. "Come, let us get back to the palace. Your family are keen to see you, I'm sure."


* * * * *

Mina hummed in delight as she felt a soft kiss pressed against her bare back. "Is it morn already?" she asked softly, not opening her eyes.

"It is," Aaronia replied just as softly. "'Tis the morning our family arrives home." She placed another kiss on her wife's back. "Can you believe Raleigh is almost five? Can you believe so many seasons have gone past already? I sit and wonder sometimes how it goes by so quickly."

Mina lifted her arm, silently inviting her wife into an embrace.

Aaronia smiled and settled back down onto the bed, snuggling into Mina's body. "I can still remember Athena's birth like it was yesterday," she said wistfully. "And now look, our baby's little girl is a mother of three herself!"

Mina chuckled. "Time does go by quickly, but there is nothing you can do except hold on and enjoy it, love. As much as we would like to, we can't slow time, nor speed it up when things are bad. You just have to take it as it comes and commit it all to memory." She buried her nose in her wife's grey locks and inhaled Aaronia's perfume, a gift she had given her wife a long time ago. "You're worried about our trip," she murmured, knowing that was why Aaronia was so wistful.

"Not worried exactly. I'm just..." Aaronia sighed. "I'm looking forward to it, I am, truly. But...we're going to miss so much while we're away. Lynnea's first steps, surely. Our granddaughter's anniversary, our daughter's anniversary, and birthdays."

Mina smiled. "There will be others, love. Athena has practically ordered us to go! She knows we deserve some time to ourselves, some time away, and what better to do than visiting our son who refuses to come home?"

Aaronia kissed the end of Mina's nose. "I know. I know you're right, I just can't help..."

"Missing everyone," Mina filled in.

Aaronia nodded. "Yes. 'Tis silly, isn't it? I doubt they'll even notice we're gone!"

Mina chuckled. "They'll notice and they'll miss us, I think Arcadia the most. You know you are her favourite."

"Me! No, my love, I think that's you." Aaronia smiled. "I'm being silly, we're only going for eight moons. How much can change in that time?"

Mina giggled. "Well, let's see..."

"Oh, stop!" Aaronia chuckled, kissing Mina's lips and humming in delight. "As much as I would like to stay in bed with you, we should probably get up. I have to get some more packing done before we're expected for breakfast."

Mina rolled on top of her wife. "Leave it, we can do that later." Lowering her head, she claimed soft pink lips in a tender yet passionate kiss.


* * * * *

Leslie Shepherd hurried out of her bedroom and frowned as she spotted her wife and two daughters sitting calmly in the living area. "Sweetheart, are you ready?" she asked her wife. "I want to get over to my mothers' house before the new arrivals turn up."

"Leslie, love, calm down. You don't even know if it is a ship from...where are your family coming from?" Keera asked. "Gaul?"

"We have family in Gaul and in Greece, and an uncle in Hispania." She paused long enough to kiss her wife and youngest daughter's head, before hurrying towards the kitchen. She stopped in the doorway. "Maybe I shouldn't eat? Mother will surely be putting on a spread? I don't want to appear rude and not eat anything."

Keera stood, Becky held in her arms. "Leslie, you don't even know..."

"I know, maybe the ship isn't bringing friends and family, but what if it is, Keera? Amuse me, my love, okay?" She walked away from the kitchen. "All right, let's go."

The family of four made the short walk over to the religious community where Missy and Hestia Youngs lived, waving and calling out greetings to those who were up and out already. Those in the religious community had dedicated their lives to the Gods, many took charge of the temples on the island, holding services twice a day.

Reaching the small home where Leslie had grown up, Keera smiled. "Ooh, the memories that just come flooding back!"

Leslie grinned. "Yes. Remember our first kiss?"

"Beneath that window, was it not?" Keera asked, pointing to the window.

Missy Youngs opened her front door and smiled brightly at her oldest daughter and her family. "Hello, love. What brings you by so early?"

"Have you not heard, mère? A ship was spotted approaching," Leslie explained. "Keera was alerted, but told to remain at home. I thought we would come over early so we could be here when the family arrive."

"Oh," Missy looked past Leslie's shoulder, half expecting to see visiting friends and family behind her. "Come on in, love. Your sister is playing up this morn. Perhaps you can get her to behave."

Marcelle Youngs was the youngest daughter of Missy and Hestia, conceived on the evening of Rayna and Arcadia's wedding. With the Queen's only daughter marrying, the women of Belleza had celebrated long and hard into the early hours, many a woman ending up with child after the affair, the free flowing alcohol lowering their inhibitions and bringing out their passion.

Leslie walked into her childhood home and smiled at her young sibling. Leslie took after Missy in looks, with red hair and light green eyes; Marcelle took after Hestia, with silky black locks and steel grey eyes. "Hello, Marcelle," she greeted, scooping the five year old up into her arms. "How are you this fine morn?"

"I don't want to have a bath!" the precocious little girl said. "I had one yesterday. Why must I have another?"

"Don't you want to look and smell nice for the family we have arriving?" Leslie asked. "You haven't met them before, surely you want to appear at your best?"

Marcelle played with a strand of Leslie's loose hair. "Will you wash me? Mère gets the water in my eyes."

Smiling, Leslie nodded. "If you like. Shall we go and run the bath together?" Getting a nod, Leslie glanced at her wife. "I won't be long, love. Try not to let our girls get dirty."

"I suppose if they do get dirty, it will be my fault?"

"Of course, sweetheart," Leslie teased.

Chuckling, Missy wrapped an arm around Keera's shoulders. "How are you Keera? Is your head all right? Can I get you a warm drink or some food?"

"Some breakfast would be nice, Missy. Leslie got all in a panic and rushed us out the house. Though, perhaps we should wait until your family arrives?"

"Good thinking, I think a trip over to the community hall is in order. I certainly don't want to cook for our brood," she laughed.

"Who's coming? I know have family all over. I met a few at my wedding and some others for Rayna's wedding, but..."

"Well, let's see. Can never be sure who will come home, though I'm fairly sure Inès and Françoise, my cousins, are coming from Gaul, and Vittorio, Hestia's uncle, is coming from Hispania. Kinsey, why don't you go and wake your grandmother, tell her family is arriving." She watched the little girl run off with a look of devilment on her face and knew her wife was about to get a rude awakening. "Now, what would you like to drink, Keera?" she asked, leading the palace guard through to the kitchen. "Why were you alerted, but left behind?"


* * * * *

News had spread quickly throughout all the communities that a ship had been spotted approaching their island. Hopeful that it was friends and family arriving, some of the women were nonetheless nervous after what had occurred in the past. Women started getting breakfast ready for those who were awake, hoping to take their minds off anything bad.

Sitting in the community hall eating breakfast with her wife, her family and their friends, Gayle laughed and joked along with them as they waited for news. Gayle loved Bedilia dearly and loved living a simple life they had on Belleza, but she missed her family something awful.

Conversation flowed easily, everyone excited by the soon arrival of their family from around the world and the celebration of Princess Raleigh's birthday. That changed as the doors opened and a group of smiling people walked in. Cheers went up as the women stood from their seats and hurried over to greet their loved ones, the sound level going up another notch.

Seeing her mother and father walk through the door, Gayle jumped up, tears flooding her eyes at the sight that warmed her heart. "Ma!" She rushed towards the greying strawberry-blonde, her arms open to embrace her much missed mother. "Oh, ma, how I've missed you!" she sobbed, burying her face against Delicia's neck.

"Daughter, 'tis good to see you," Delicia replied through a tightened throat, hugging Gayle tightly. She smiled as she spotted Bedilia approaching them. "Hello, Bedilia. I swear, you're taller every time I see you!"

"Hello, Delicia," Bedilia greeted with a grin. "How are you?"

"Better now for seeing my girl. How are you two?"

"Oh, ma!" Gayle sobbed, her hurt at not being able to give Bedilia a child causing her heart to break.

Frowning and thinking the worst, Delicia looked at her husband, silently conversing with him before leading Gayle away, leaving Trenton to talk with Bedilia. Getting Gayle seated on one of the benches, Delicia brushed away unruly red locks and falling tears from rosy coloured cheeks. "What is it, love? Is all not well between you and Bedilia? Is island life not suiting you?"

Gayle sniffed and shook her head. "Everything is fine between us, ma. 'Tis just...I...I am failing her!" She fell into Delicia's arms and started sobbing again.

"Sweetheart," Delicia said quietly, chest aching for seeing her daughter in such a state. "Tell your mama what's wrong, hmm? Maybe I can help find a fix."

"I..." Gayle sat up and swiped at her eyes. "I feel like a failure, ma. After three springs of marriage, I'm still not with child! I see Bedilia with Rayna's children and with Keera's and it breaks my heart because I can't seem to give her the same. I fear...I fear she will start to hate me!"

"Oh, Gayle! Never! Bedilia could never hate you," Delicia soothed. "Do you remember all she did in her quest to win your heart?"

Gayle smiled lovingly and nodded. "Yes. She moved from the only home she had ever known to Britannia to be close to me, she ignored all the advances of any other, and gave up the warrior life for me."

"Well, there, you see. Bedilia loves you more than life itself, she would never hate you, or blame you in any way for this misfortune." Delicia smiled lovingly as she looked her husband's way and saw him listening intently as Bedilia talked to him. "Have you tried offering the Gods a sacrifice in the depths of the forest?"

"Ma!" Gayle sighed. "The forest here isn't sacred."

"It is in a way, it hides you women from the outside world. I'm sure ships sail by and don't give Belleza another thought because of the thick forest that rings the island. You should burn a sacrifice, Gayle. It will cleanse your life and you can start afresh."

Gayle blinked at her mother, letting her words sink in. She had never taken much notice of religion when she was growing up, she still didn't, but to some, the Gods and Goddesses offered an ear, someone to go to when you were desperate. And I am certainly that by now! "Ma, would you...would you show me the way to...perform such a thing?"

Delicia smiled and nodded her assent. "Of course, my love. We can go just after nightfall, if we are not needed elsewhere."

"I take it you are expected at the palace?"

"That's right, I have to visit with my sister and my niece. But all that can wait until after I've visited with you and Bedilia and her family. Shall we go over? Your poor wife keeps looking this way to make sure you are all right."

Gayle looked over towards Bedilia and met concerned grey eyes. She smiled at the former warrior, before turning back to her mother. "Yes, let's join them. I am sure they are eager to catch up with you and father."

"You will join us at the palace won't you? You and Bedilia? I am sure your wife will enjoy seeing Rayna."

Gayle nodded. "Thank you for the invite, ma. Let us first share a meal with Bedilia's family though." She stood up and pasted on a smile, not wanting to discuss with others what had her all upset.


* * * * *

The Royal family and their guests sat down to breakfast in the dining room after warm greetings had been shared. Conversation was filled with laughter as they caught up with each other's lives, telling tales of their adventures and lost or found loves. Only Brock remained passive, his alert eyes roaming around all those who sat at the table, as he contemplated whether he should bring up his offer from Boadicea.

"So, Raleigh, this is to be your first official public appearance," Cornelius said to the little strawberry-blonde, seated on Rayna's lap. "Are you looking forward to it, little one?"

Raleigh nodded and ducked her head shyly. She had barely spoken since the family had arrived at the palace, remaining silently by Rayna's side, not liking the attention everyone was showing her.

"I don't think 'tis right," Rosana, Athena's sister, spoke up. "She's such a shy little thing, I think 'tis cruel to make her go through it."

"We will be up there with her, aunt Rosana," Arcadia replied. "'Tis not like we are making her do it alone. And besides, 'tis tradition. We all go through it, you yourself went through it."

Knowing how argumentative her youngest daughter could be, Aaronia directed her attention to Brock, hoping to ward off an argument. "Have you married yet, Brock?" she asked her nephew.

"I have no time for marriage, not while Roman scum rule my land!" he growled, other conversation dying down at his words.

"Brock, none of that talk at the table," Cornelius warned. "We are eating breakfast and enjoying each other's company."

"But, father..."

"No!" Cornelius growled. "I will not have you talking of the Romans or war, Brock. 'Tis over, boy, move on."

"Move on and let them have our land?" Brock shouted, standing quickly, his chair tipping over. "Let them tell us how to live? No, father, I will not move on, not until our land is back in our rightful hands."

At the sound of raised voices a few of the palace guards had rushed inside and now came to a stop in the doorway of the dining room, tensed and ready for anything. The tension and raised voices brought Lynnea to tears and Arcadia stood quickly and moved around the table to her uncle Abbott, who was holding the little girl.

"Your Highness, is all well?" Leonora Segerstone asked, her eyes on the Queen.

"Would you escort my son outside?" Cornelius asked. "I think he could do with getting some air."

Leonora looked to Athena, for she was the Queen and the one who gave out orders. Athena nodded and managed a small smile for the guard, letting her know all was all well. "Yes, sir, no problem." She looked to the standing man and could see he was furious. Lifting an arm she pointed the way for him and as he left, quickly followed on his heels.

"I apologise," Cornelius said softly. "He just won't let it go." Blue eyes turned to his brother and great niece. "Is Lynnea all right?"

Arcadia smiled at the grey-haired man and nodded. "She is fine." Leaving her youngest daughter in Abbott's capable hands, the princess moved back around the table to take her seat next to her wife.

"You enjoy hunting, don't you, Cornelius?" Dionis said, deciding a quick change of subject was in order.

"Hunting? Yes. Well, I used to before I lost my eye. I rarely go any more, the younger men have taken over the responsibility."

"If you are interested, just after Raleigh's birthday, I plan to lead a hunt into the forest," Dionis explained. "The wild pig numbers are up and I thought we best deal with them. You and your party are welcome to take the meat from those you catch, of course."

Cornelius smiled and nodded his head. "Thank you, Dionis, that is a most gracious offer. I shall spread the word and let you know who is interested." He turned his attention to his sister Aaronia. "Are you looking forward to your trip, sister?" he asked, changing the subject to a more pleasant one.


* * * * *

Cass Masoun almost burst into tears as she walked out of her bedroom and was surrounded by her family. Her mother hugged her tightly, while her father looked on, Hollie held in his arms. She felt like a little girl again, craving her mother's embrace and soothing words, and her father's gruff but loving tones. "Mam, father, 'tis so good to see you. I am so glad you made the trip!"

Her mother Pat had been born and raised on Belleza, but had eventually left when she met Flint Masoun and fell in love with him. Over the years, the couple had had four children, three boys and a girl. Cass had been sent to Belleza when Pat felt she was old enough, to save her from the cruel world she had come to know. The only time Cass got to see her family was when there was a celebration that allowed the family to return.

"You're looking weary, daughter," Pat said, noting the weariness etched on Cass' face. "You're not still working long, hard hours, are you? Surely you have an assistant or something?"

Cass smiled. "Mam, I am the most sought after designer on the island. I would have thought you would be happy to have such a successful daughter?"

"I am proud, Cassandra. But you must think of your family."

"Hollie has grown so much, Cass!" Flint Masoun said to his daughter. "I couldn't believe it when she ran up to us, could you, Pat?"

Pat shook her head. "That's the problem, they shoot up and before you realise it they're leaving your home for one of their own!"

Before Cass could respond in any way, the front door opened behind her, admitting her three older brothers and her son. The blonde squealed as strong arms wrapped around her waist, the man behind her picking her up in a bear hug.

"Nathaniel! Put your sister down!" Pat scolded, though it warmed her heart to see all her children together.

The handsome blonde-haired man grinned and set his baby sister back onto her own feet. "Sorry, mam. I just couldn't help myself. You know how we all miss our baby sister."

Cass turned and punched her older brother in his solid arm. "Ouch! By the Gods, big brother. How have you built up such muscle?"

Nathaniel laughed in amusement. "I saw trees down for a living, it takes a lot of arm work."

"Mama! Mama!" Cassius called out in excitement. "My uncles brought me a fine bow and arrow and have been teaching me how to use it!"

Cass looked at her brothers in dismay, before looking down at her son and smiling. "That is wonderful, son. Why don't you go and tuck it away in your bedroom. Somewhere where your sister can't get a hold of it." She watched the little boy hurry off with his new prized possession, before turning to glare at her older siblings. "A bow and arrow! What were you thinking?"

"He is soon to be a man, Cassandra. He should learn to use a weapon," Nathaniel spoke up. He was Cassius' father after a drunken night of passion with Valentina, or at least he thought he was. The boy looked so much like him, he was sure he was right in thinking Cassius was his, even though Valentina had told him numerous times he was Cass'.

Nathaniel had been back in Belleza for a friend's wedding and had got roaring drunk. Stumbling back towards Valentina and Cass' house, where he was staying, he had stumbled across Valentina in tears. She brokenly told him she had argued with Cass something fierce and she feared they would break up, though they were recently married. He had sat down to comfort her, putting his arm around her shoulders and one thing led to another. They had ended up making love in the grass and moons later Valentina had given birth to a boy. She had firmly told him the babe was her wife's.

Though it pained him, Nathaniel couldn't argue. The beautiful brunette was married, to his baby sister no less, and if he said anything publicly everyone would know what they had done, and that would do nobody any good. He vowed to be the best uncle ever and had so far stuck to his pledge.

"Do not come into my home and tell me how to raise my son!" Cass snapped. "I do not want him learning a weapon, I do not want him fighting, or using his brawn to get through life. He has a brain, Valentina and I are both intelligent women and have surely passed on some of our intelligence to our son, he should use that instead of his fists!"

Valentina stood from her seat and walked over to her wife, wrapping an arm around the blonde's waist. "My love, how many of the other children on the island learn a weapon yet never use it? I think it was just a thoughtful gift."

Cass sighed and turned to look at her wife. Smiling sheepishly, she kissed soft lips. "Sorry, love. You know how I get sometimes."

As Oliver, the youngest son, started coughing, all attention turned to him. "Son, are you all right?" Flint asked in concern, well aware of the sickness going around.

"Just a tickle in my throat," Oliver replied. "Could I have some water, please?" he asked Valentina, blue-grey eyes on the woman.

"Of course," Valentina answered. "In fact. Why don't we all go over to the farming community hall for some hot tea and breakfast? I'm sure my family will be there and would love to see you all again."

"What a good idea," Pat said. "It will be nice to see old friends and to catch up."


* * * * *

After a short work day at the palace, Francis Church just wanted to curl up in bed with her wife and shut out the world. Opening her front door, she burst into tears as her family stood to greet her.

"Oh, Franny! You look radiant!" Fionnualla Cook exclaimed, rushing over to her daughter and holding her at arms' length to look her over, before pulling her baby to her and hugging her tightly. "Do you know when you are due?"

"Two, maybe three more moons," Francis replied, smiling at her smaller mother.

Tabia jumped down from Clarance's lap and ran screeching at the top of her lungs. "Mama! Mama! Look!" She raced up to Francis and handed the redhead a piece of parchment. "Did it for you."

Francis took the parchment and smiled down at the drawing. "'Tis beautiful, sweetheart. We shall hang it up on the wall for all to see." She chuckled as the little girl grinned and hurried away. "Perhaps you can talk Clarance into calming down," she said to her mother, glancing her wife's way. "She is driving me mad with her fussing!"

Fionnualla rolled her eyes. "I know the feeling, love. Your father was the same when I was expecting. 'Tis because they can do nothing but wait. Try giving her something to do, like chopping wood."

"Mam, 'tis almost summer. What would we need wood for?"

"Winter follows summer, does it not?" Fionnualla scolded, refusing to be wrong. "If not chopping wood, then something else. Preferably out from under your feet!"

"Talking of feet," Clarance spoke up. "Stop discussing me and sit down, love. Would you like a mug of tea? Or perhaps some warm ginger?"

"Mmm, some warm ginger please, sweetheart." Francis smiled lovingly at her partner and moved to sit down while Clarance headed into their kitchen.

"Clarance told us you were still working long hours at the palace," Fionnualla said disapprovingly. "In your condition! 'Tis disgraceful, isn't it, Paddy?"

Francis' father nodded, knowing better than to try and get a word in. His wife, though small, was a formidable woman.

Francis rolled her eyes. "Mam, this is what I get from Clarance! She nags at me and follows me around insisting I sit down and rest!"

"Why do I get the feeling you are talking about me?" Clarance asked, as she walked back into the main area of the small home.

"Because I am, my love," Francis answered, smiling up at her raven-haired wife. "Thank you," she said, taking the steaming cup of ginger. "I was just telling mam that you are always fussing and nagging."

"I worry about you is all. You do too much, waking early and going to work even before the birds are up, and unwell too! Then you work all day, only to come home and want to do more once you are here."

"Other women do it every day, why should I be any different? Now, please, Clarance, stop fussing."

"Sorry, love," Clarance said sheepishly, knowing her fussing irked her wife after a while. "Though I must say, if I wasn't fussing you would be mad at me for that!"

Paddy laughed raucously at that truth and slapped the warrior on the shoulder. "Can't win, can you?" His laughing changed into coughing and he gratefully took the mug of ginger Francis held out for him.

Seeing Francis and Fionnualla glaring at her as they awaited her response, Clarance decided a change of subject was in order. "How was your day, love? Short I see."

"Hectic," Francis sighed. "What with friends and family arriving early this morn, the palace was suddenly very busy. Yes, Clarance, I rested every now and then," she said as her wife opened her mouth to say something. "In fact, the Queen herself has informed me not to arrive to work so early from now on. She says I can have an extra two hours, so I can leave with you now."

"Good, I am glad to hear it," Fionnualla said. "You are with child, Franny, you have to take care."

"Yes, mam," Francis agreed, hoping to appease her mother. "Now, do we plan to go over to the community hall for a meal? Or would you like to run the risk of eating something Clarance conjures up?"

"Hey!" the warrior protested, though her wife's words were true, she could barely cook. She looked at her in-laws. "She has a point, I don't cook very well."

"Then the community hall it is," Fionnualla said, smiling. "It will be nice to catch up with old friends."


* * * * *

Missy Youngs smiled as she returned to the table her family were seated at with the Shepherds, overhearing the light-hearted conversation her daughter Leslie was having with Françoise on how to improve the island.

For generations, the Youngs had taken up the religious career path, dedicating their lives to the church and temples. It had started with their ancestor Tricia Youngs, who, after fleeing an abusive husband, had turned to religion and had eventually been made head of the community by Queen Ailis. Leslie had changed their history by deciding to dedicate her life to science.

"That's quite a cough you have there, Oliver," Missy said to the young, sandy-haired blonde, as she set a bowl of hot oats down in front of him. "Strange time of season to be ill."

"Aye," Oliver nodded. "'Tis going around back home though," he informed her, loud enough for all to hear.

"Strange thing back home," Farley Masoun, the oldest of Pat and Flint's boys, spoke up. "This sickness has claimed five lives and Cornelius ordered their homes and possessions burned, as well as their bodies."

Hestia frowned. "That's odd, why would he order such a thing?"

"To kill off the sickness and prevent it spreading," Pat replied. "Burn everything and be done with it."

"Should we worry about you?" Cass asked her mother. "How serious is this?"

"Not everyone is sick," Nathaniel said. They all looked to Oliver as he started coughing heavily. "Though there are one or two who have a dreadful cough they can't get rid of."

"What has Cornelius said?" Keera asked, a frown marring her brow.

"Nothing, he has remained tight lipped over the whole affair."

"Is that not strange?" Valentina asked, dark green eyes flicking to the visiting family, who knew Cornelius better than she.

"Maybe he doesn't have any answers," Keera suggested. "Can't tell them anything if he knows nothing, can he?" She blew on her oats, trying to cool the hot food.

Cass looked to her parents. "Surely, he should try to reassure you all? He is burning everything of those who were sick, so he is obviously worried."

"Worry not, daughter," Pat smiled. "It will soon blow over, I am sure."

"Hello, all," Joan Gardiner greeted, as she and Maxwelle approached the table. "Pat, Flint, how was the trip?" The older couple took a seat opposite the Masoun family.

"Long, 'tis always long!" Flint joked. "How are you, Joan? Grapes coming along nicely?"

Joan smiled. "The grapes are coming along nicely, thank you. It should be another year of good wine."

"That's good to hear," Keera chuckled.

"Have you taken on an apprentice, Joan?" Inès Youngs asked. "To take over the vineyard when...you know?"

Maxwelle shook her head, answering for her wife. "No, though we probably should think about it this year." She placed a hand on Joan's thigh. "We aren't getting any younger!"

Joan scoffed. "We are as young as we feel, and I feel twenty-ish!" she joked, making those around her laugh.

Walking over with a jug, Valonia placed a hand on Keera's shoulder as she poured the guard a mug full of sweetened water. Her wife Karita had been called to the palace early when the ship was spotted and had yet to return. Keera had been alerted but told to stay put, Valonia knew that had to do with the head injury Keera had got during battle. They had been very lucky not to lose her and precautions had been taken with her ever since, though she didn't like it.

"Would anyone else like some sweet water?" Valonia asked the others seated at the table. She moved to pour Oliver a mug, knowing he had a cough he couldn't seem to shift.

"Thank you," the young man said, his voice gruff from coughing so much. Picking up his mug eagerly, he pushed his plate of half eaten food towards Cassius, who eagerly started eating the hot oats.

"Thank you, Valonia," Cass said, lifting her mug.

"Yes, please, Valonia," Pat Masoun said, breaking from her conversation with Sofia Farmer over on the next table. "You know, I can't tell you how happy I am to be back on Belleza! You don't realise what paradise it is until you move away to the outside world!"

"We'll have to take your word for it, Pat," Valentina chuckled. "Only Keera has ever left the island!" she laughed along with the others.

"Never again!" the former warrior piped up, smiling.

"I second that!" Valonia said, patting her daughter's head as she walked past.

"I certainly have no desire to leave," Cass added.

"And I second that!" Valentina laughed, kissing her wife's cheek. "From what Keera has told us about what she saw in Britannia, I am very grateful to call Belleza my home."

Pat nodded. "I love Belleza and would have loved to remain here, but..." she glanced lovingly at her husband, "love called me away."

"What's this I have heard about the young Royal couple arguing?" Françoise asked. "And splitting up? Surely not before their daughter's birthday?"

"'Twas nothing," Keera said. "They had a disagreement, that's all. They are Rayna and Arcadia, there is no way they would ever split up, they belong together." The women around the table nodded. "I bet they have already made up and 'tis all forgotten."

"Let us hope so," Hestia Youngs said. "They make a lovely couple."

"And their girls are just so adorable!" Valonia added, seeing the other women nodding. "Little Raleigh especially."

"So shy, though," Maxwelle said. "But very polite."

"That will change as she grows up," Pat said. "She'll grow into herself and become more confident."

"Or she'll take after Rayna and say even less!" Keera joked, making the group laugh.


* * * * *

"It was truly...amazing, cousin!" Cherie Fisher told Arcadia. "In Rome, there were these places they called shops where you could buy whatever caught your eye. I even learnt to haggle!" she laughed. "And in Egypt, they barter for goods using sacks of grain as their currency. And scribes are deemed of more importance than farmers!"

"So you enjoyed your time away from the island?" Arcadia asked, smiling.

"Oh, yes," the strawberry-blonde nodded. "But, in all honesty, I am glad to be home. Whilst I saw many wonderful sights and experienced many different customs, there is nowhere quite like Belleza."

"I'll say!" Rayna chuckled. The warrior was standing next to her wife, the pair listening to Cherie Fisher's tales of adventure. She had been gone four seasons, travelling around the world to wherever her heart desired to go. Blue eyes roamed around the other guests in the palace gardens, Rayna spotting one of her best friends off to the side with a group of children around her. The former warrior seemed to be telling a story of some battle, judging from the actions she was doing. "Excuse me," Rayna said to the pair she was with, dropping a kiss on Arcadia's head before making her way over to her friend.

"They came out of the trees, hundreds of them, all looking for blood. But we were waiting, ready to strike, and the great warrior Rayna shouted at us "Not one of you will die today." and we fought with all we had to drive the scum back." Spinning around, Bedilia came up short as she met Rayna's amused gaze. Smiling sheepishly, she straightened to her tall, imposing height. "Hello, Rayna."

"Hello, Bedilia. Having fun?"

"Very much so, my friend."

Rayna chuckled. "Come, let us get a drink and catch up, hmm?"

Waving goodbye to the children she had been entertaining, Bedilia followed after Rayna as the warrior led the way inside to the dining room where drinks and snacks had been lain out on the table.

Picking up a mug of wine, Rayna studied her friend over the rim as she drank. Lowering the mug, she licked her lips and smiled. "So, how have you been, Bedilia?"

"All is well with me, Rayna."

"The orchards are looking prosperous?"

"Yes, very much so," Bedilia nodded. "All the fruit is looking plump. You will be joining us for the harvest?"

"Yes, my family enjoy the day out." Rayna picked up a slice of apple. "How are things with you and Gayle?" she asked, before biting into the juicy fruit. She saw a flicker of sorrow pass across her friend's face before it was swiftly gone.

"Things are good, we love each other dearly. She has settled well into life on Belleza, though she of course misses her family very much."

"And...children?" Rayna asked cautiously.

Bedilia sighed heavily and drank from her wine mug. "We are trying, Rayna. We have been trying since our wedding night, but...'tis just not happening."

"I'm sorry, my friend. I know you both want a family. It must be very hard to see everyone else with their children, especially me and Keera, your friends."

"I don't begrudge you your family," Bedilia insisted. "I adore your children very much, I am aunty Bedilia to them, the one they come to when they want to ride high on shoulders, the one who will weave a story of battle for them. I just...I just worry about Gayle. Every moon that comes and she is still not with child...I know it hurts her deeply. She thinks she is letting me down in some way and nothing I say makes her feel any better, she just thinks I am saying it for her benefit."

"The Gods can be cruel, there is no denying that. All you can do is keep trying and praying."

Bedilia nodded. "There is nothing wrong, we went to see the shaman and she can't explain it. So, like you said, all we can do is keep trying...which I don't mind at all," she laughed.

Rayna laughed and slapped her friend on the back. "That's the spirit!"

"So, how are you and Arcadia? There was a rumour going around last night that you two had argued something fierce and you were leaving?"

"Damn gossips!" Rayna growled. "We argued, yes, but I am not leaving. That is ridiculous! And besides, we have...made up already."

Bedilia chuckled. "Ahh, of course, you two are meant to be. You know, I can't believe it is soon to be Raleigh's fifth birthday! Where have the seasons gone"?"

Rayna snorted. "I ask myself that question every morning!"

Arcadia and her aunt Delicia walked into the palace dining room for refreshment and smiled as they met the two friends. "Hello there, Bedilia," Delicia greeted. "Are you hiding from your wife?"

"Not at all, Delicia. I was just catching up with Rayna. She is boring me with details on her life."

"Hey!" Rayna exclaimed, looking to her wife in apology. "I was doing no such thing, my love. If anything, Bedilia was boring me with tales of plump fruit!"

Delicia and Arcadia laughed and shook their heads at the two friends.

"I leave you alone for a moment and you are off finding trouble," Arcadia said, snuggling up to Rayna's side.

"I believe I left your side, love. And you are the one who always finds trouble."

Taking her warrior's mug, Arcadia had a small sip before handing it back. "I came to tell you the girls are demanding you give back their playmate."

"Ahh," Rayna handed her wife her mug and looked to Bedilia and Delicia. "Excuse me, duty calls. Come along, Bedilia, let's amuse the little monsters." Looking back at Arcadia as she walked for the door, the warrior winked. "Try to stay out of trouble, love."

"ME!" Arcadia exclaimed, eyes wide, as her aunt laughed heartily.



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