Flora Shepherd moaned and pulled her raven-haired girlfriend harder against her, their tongues wrestling for supremacy, hands roaming each other's bodies. It was getting more and more difficult to restrain themselves and they often found themselves slipping away to be alone. Breaking the heated kiss, the blonde panted for breath as looked angrily into grey eyes. "When are you going to tell them?"
"Flora!" Leala Banks sighed the name out. "I don't see why I have to. Why do we have to tell everyone we're together, just like they predicted? Neither of us want to get married yet, both happy to continue learning our trade. You know our parents will start planning a wedding as soon as we admit we lo-...care for each other."
"Damn it, Leala! I want people to know about us!" Flora exclaimed. "I want other girls to know you belong to me and me to you. I don't want to have to watch them flirting with you because they don't know we're together, I don't want to live not knowing if you do care for me or if you're just stringing me along until something better turns up!" She pushed past Leala and paced about in front of her. "Two years!" she growled. "For two years we've been sneaking around, Leala! I...I want more than this! I want...I want someone who loves me, someone who isn't scared of other people's reactions to us being together!"
She turned to face Leala, watching her girlfriend, waiting for a declaration of love, waiting for some sign that she did truly care and this wasn't just a fling. Leala remained tight-lipped. Flora's shoulders sagged. "When you work out what you want, you know where to find me." She spun on her heel and started marching away. "You just better hope I haven't moved on," she shot back over her shoulder.
Leaning back against the trunk of a tree, Leala exhaled heavily. "What's wrong with what we have?" she asked aloud. Rubbing her face, she knew she was late for breakfast and growled in frustration. Another reason for mother to nag at me! Oh, Flora, why can't you be patient with me? I just need a little time.
Her head shot up as she heard her girlfriend scream. Filled with panic and fear, Leala took off running through the forest, grey eyes darting this way and that as she sought to find Flora. She felt branches scratching her arms and face and ripping at her clothes, but she didn't care; all that mattered was finding Flora and making sure she was safe. "Flora? Flora, where are you?"
"Leala? Leala, can you hear me?"
"Keep calling, sweetheart! Keep calling me to you."
"Leala, quick! It's Joan! I...I think she's collapsed."
Breaking through a cluster of high bushes, Leala skidded to a stop just shy of tripping over Flora and Joan. "Is this how you found her?" she asked, falling to her knees next to Flora.
"Yes, I almost tripped over her. She's sick, honey. Really sick. She's burning up."
"Okay," Leala frowned as she tried to think about what to do. "We...we should go get help. She needs help and we can't carry her."
"One of us should stay with her. We can't leave her like this in the forest."
Leala nodded. "Right, you're right. Do you...do you want me to go?"
Flora looked at her girlfriend, her anger from moments before forgotten. "Be quick." She closed the gap between them and kissed Leala's rose-coloured lips. "Be careful, don't hurt yourself in your haste."
Leala got to her feet. "I'll be back as quick as I can. You be careful, too, love. You don't know what might come out of the forest." She looked down at the blonde, wanting to say so much and not knowing how to put it into words. "Flora, I...I..."
"I know," Flora smiled. "Me too." She watched Leala run off through the forest, hurrying towards the centre of their community to get help.
* * * * *
Cass Masoun opened her eyes and groaned at the morning sunlight that greeted her. She slammed shut her aching eyes and snuggled deeper under her blankets. Despite it being summer and warm day and night on the island, she couldn't seem to get warm herself. Ever since her family had left Belleza, she had been feeling slightly off. At first thinking it was a hangover, she hadn't been concerned, but as days turned into weeks and weeks into two moons, her symptoms remained and she realised something was wrong.
"Cass? You're not still in bed, are you?" Valentina asked in amusement from the doorway. "You're usually up before me, my love." She walked over to the bed and sat down next to the covered lump that was her beloved. "Cass?"
The building designer groaned and rolled towards her wife. "I don't feel like getting up."
Valentina pulled back the blanket to reveal her wife's blonde head. "Are you all right, Cass? You look very pale."
"'Tis like...the winter sickness. Only...it cannot be, for we are in summer."
"I shall call in on the shaman after I have dropped the children off at school. I'm sure she will have something to make you feel better."
"Thank you. Could you perhaps stop off at Daralis Green's house and tell her I'll be working from home today?"
Valentina smiled lovingly and bent over to kiss her wife. "Of course, love. You just try to rest."
* * * * *
"Okay, easy now. Lift her gently," Lacee Waterman instructed Bedilia Orchard and Karita Shepherd.
Leala had raced back to her community and had very nearly run Lacee over. Telling the older woman Joan Gardiner had collapsed in the forest, the pair hurried off to find help. Not wanting to worry the whole community, Lacee discretely went to inform Maxwelle, while Leala got Karita and Bedilia.
As her wife was lifted gently on to a makeshift litter, Maxwelle held Joan's hand tightly, not believing her beloved had collapsed and was in such a bad state. "I should have known," she murmured, as Bedilia and Karita lifted Joan up and started making their way through the forest. "I knew she had a cough, but I thought nothing of it. Women get coughs all the time!"
Flora put her arm around the older woman whom she thought of as a grandmother. "You can't blame yourself, Maxwelle. Perhaps her fever just came on all of a sudden, sometimes there are no signs of anything being wrong."
"But I should have known!" Maxwelle insisted. "I am her wife! I should have...I should have stopped her getting up so early! Should have stopped her going out to pray. Missing a few days wouldn't have hurt, surely?" She looked down at her wife. "I knew she was feeling tired, which is odd."
Not knowing what to say to the woman, Flora released her hold on Maxwelle as the group moved onwards and turned to Leala, falling into her open embrace. "Gods above, Leala! I have never been so afraid in my life!" she whimpered against the raven-haired woman's chest. "I can't help thinking what would have happened if we hadn't been out here. How long would she have lain there?"
Leala held the shaking blonde tightly to her. "She's in good hands now, love. Joan will be just fine, you'll see." She kissed Flora's head, refusing to think about how afraid she had been when she'd heard her girlfriend scream. "Come on, let's get over to the community hall for breakfast. I'm sure the women will want to know what's going on."
* * * * *
Francis Church smiled as her three year old daughter Tabia, jumped from her chair at the kitchen table and ran to Clarance, squealing in delight at the appearance of her raven-haired mother. Francis chuckled as her wife scooped up the little girl into strong arms and spun her around. They adored each other and when duty didn't call Clarance away they were never apart.
Clarance Church smiled over at her wife and walked her way. "Good morn, my love. How are you this new day?"
The redhead rubbed her swollen stomach. "I could be better. I think it won't be long until we have a new member to our family. Where did you disappear to so early?"
Clarance set her daughter down on her chair. "Eat your breakfast, little one." Walking around the table, the warrior sat down next to her wife. "I went to the temple to pray to Isis. I prayed to her every day when you were with child before and I shall do so again this time."
Francis smiled lovingly and reached out for her wife's hand, squeezing the appendage lightly. "I thank you, my love. But I am not of your faith, surely it will do no good?"
"Nonsense! You are my wife, mother of my daughter, and soon to be mother of our second child. Why would Isis ignore my pleas for you to have a healthy pregnancy?" The warrior picked up a crust of warm bread. "It matters not what religion you are, Francis. I have faith, I make my offerings to her and the other Goddesses, and have done so throughout my life." She smeared butter on her bread and glanced over at her wife before taking a bite. "Do you not pray to your Gods about me?" she asked, whilst chewing.
"Clarance! Don't talk and chew! 'Tis where your daughter is learning the bad habit!" Francis scolded. She soon smiled, unable to stay mad for very long. "I must admit I do," she replied to her wife's question. "When you went off to battle, I went twice a day to pray to Andraste."
"Well, there you go. It doesn't matter that we are of different faiths, my love. The Gods and Goddesses know how important we are to each other."
Finished with her breakfast, Francis stood up. "I must get going or I will be late."
Clarance frowned. "I don't see why you are still working. You can only have a moon left until you have our child, you should be taking it easy, sweetheart. You know, your career is the only one that has you up before the sun has even made an appearance. I know the Queen has allowed you an extra hour in bed because of your condition, but still, 'tis not good enough."
Francis sighed and rolled her eyes at the familiar argument. "We need to be there early so we can get the fires lit and the floors swept, others prepare breakfast, and some of us help the Royals get dressed for the day," she answered. "You know this, Clarance, you've always known this. I don't know why you insist on complaining. 'Tis because I am with child, is it not?" She chuckled as her wife pouted. "Will you be able to pick Tabia up from school this afternoon? Or should I ask the Queen for time away from my duties?"
"I doubt I will be able to get away from training. Zamira is not best happy with me lately. She seems to think I am getting unhealthy," the warrior frowned. "I can't imagine why? I train every day and do all the tasks she sets for me."
Francis bit back a laugh and bent to kiss her wife's head. "'Tis my fine cooking that is doing it. I keep telling you to have smaller portions, but you won't listen!" Walking around the table, the palace maid kissed her daughter's head. "I better go."
"If you give me a moment to get changed into my training armour, we'll walk with you," Clarance said. "I won't take but a minute."
Francis smiled and nodded. "Prolong my time with you, love. A wonderful idea."
Clarance stood and looked down at her family. "I am not getting unhealthy!" she protested indignantly. "I am as fit as any one of those other warriors!" With that said, she left the kitchen, leaving her wife and daughter giggling behind her.
* * * * *
Leala led Flora into the community hall with an arm around the trembling woman's shoulders, not caring what gossip might be spread by the act. Finding Joan, a much loved member of the community, unconscious had really shaken Flora up; now all that mattered to Leala was getting her to her family and providing something hot to warm her up.
"What happened?" Valonia asked her youngest daughter. "Flora, are you hurt?"
"I'm fine, mother, I just...I found Joan in the forest."
"Found Joan?" Jeanette Plummer repeated, frowning.
"She was unconscious, she has a fever." Flora met Valonia's eyes. "Mama and Bedilia have taken her to the shaman." She looked up and smiled her thanks to Leala, who brought her a steaming mug of milk.
"You know, she's not the first woman to fall sick," Coralee Atwell said. "The Farmers and the Ashs are sick, too."
"Do you think it was the visiting friends and family who have passed it on?" Lacee Waterman asked.
"Well, no one was sick before they came," Coralee replied. "Who gets sick in the summer? These are the best months!"
"See, that's the problem with letting friends and family come back and forth," Mariah Banks spoke up. "You don't know what they're bringing with them."
"I think the Queen should put a stop to it," Coralee said. "Ailis, Callena, and the others, escaped to Belleza to leave that world behind. Why should we let them come and go as they please? What happens if one day they are followed and our island is discovered? We all know of the Romans and their desire for world domination."
The women around the table nodded along to the curly-haired blonde's comments.
"I agree," Jeanette said. "But 'tis highly unlikely Queen Athena will stop them coming, she has family around the world."
"She must think of us, her people," Mariah said. "I have a son in Pictland, my only remaining son, and he has children, my grandchildren, but I would rather not see him again for the sake of those who are here. We don't know of their diseases, how can we have a cure? I would rather the Queen think of us and do what is right for us."
"I think you are all overreacting," Gayle said, worried about not seeing her mother and father ever again. "'Tis just a couple of women sick."
"Yes, but those from other lands could bring back worse things," Lacee said. "Something that could wipe us all out!"
"I have to side with Gayle," Nyx said. "I think we're overreacting right now. Let's just see what happens. We can't go and make demands of the Queen without good reason."
* * * * *
Clearing the dirty dishes, Francis suddenly felt dizzy, her body aching all over. She sat down heavily on one of her kitchen chairs and swiped a hand across her sweat dotted brow and knew she was ill.
"Are you ready to leave, love?" Clarance Church asked her wife, as she bent to pick up Tabia. "If we don't get going soon, Tabia will be late for school and we shall be late for work." Clarance stopped in the doorway. "Francis? Are you well? The babe?"
Francis looked up and smiled weakly at her concerned wife. "I am fine, love. The babe too. You know how it is during pregnancy, sometimes there are good days and sometimes bad days."
Clarance frowned. "Perhaps we should send for the shaman?"
"No, love, I'll be fine. I have to get to the palace." The redhead stood and paused to get her equilibrium back. "The Queen has already given me an extra hour in the morns, I can't expect her to give me days off too just because I am feeling a little sick."
"Your health is important, Francis. The Queen will understand if you are late."
"Don't fuss, love. I shall see the shaman at the end of the day if I still feel bad." Francis managed a smile and walked towards the warrior and their daughter. "We better get going, don't want Tabia being late for school now, do we?" she asked, tickling the little girl's sides. She kissed her daughter and her wife and moved past them, heading for the front door. "Come along, love."
* * * * *
The shaman walked around the small hospice that had quickly been erected when the warriors had gone off to battle, concern etched on her face as she took in all the sick women occupying the beds. They were all in different stages of the strange disease that seemed to be sweeping the island, some worse than others, none responding to the mixture of herbs and plants they were being given. Sofia Farmer seemed to be the worst one, she feared for the woman's life and prayed for guidance in what to do or try next. Élodie Farmer, who sat day and night beside her wife's bed, was now coughing also.
The front doors burst open, startling everyone within, admitting Maxwelle and Bedilia first, Joan laying on a litter, then Karita on the other end. "Help, Shaman. 'Tis Joan, she was found collapsed in the forest," Bedilia called out.
The shaman hurried towards the group. "Do you know how long she was in the forest for?"
Bedilia and Karita looked to Maxwelle, who seemed to be in shock. "We think she was on her way back from the shrine she goes to every morn," Bedilia answered. "I can't imagine she was lying there too long."
"Come, bring her over to a bed," the shaman said, turning to lead the way to an empty bed. She stood off to the side as the two women gently set Joan down, then moved forward to examine the winegrower. "She has a fever." She looked up and glanced around the hospice, looking for one of the young medical students. "Trudie, get me a fresh bowl of water and a clean cloth, please." She watched the girl nod and hurry off. "Ediltrudis, make a mug of prunella vulgaris as quickly as you can," she called out to the youngest of the Boon clan.
"What...what will that do?" Maxwelle asked, coming out of her stupor.
"Taken as a hot drink, 'tis a treatment for fevers, sore mouths and throats, and other ailments," the shaman explained. "I thought we should try to get Joan's fever under control before we do anything else."
"Uhm...shaman?" Karita spoke up. "Will you be needing myself and Bedilia any more?"
The shaman looked to the palace guard and Bedilia and smiled. "Thank you for your help in getting Joan here. No, I shan't be needing you any longer, unless you wish for a change in career?"
The two women smiled and shook their heads. "Bye, Maxwelle," Karita said to the older woman, who had been a friend of her mother's. "Try not to worry too much. Joan is in good hands now. If you need anything, do not hesitate to call on my family."
Maxwelle took the guard's hand and squeezed it softly. "Thank you, you are very kind. Thank you for getting Joan here in haste." She sat down next to her wife and took a cool hand in both of her own, loving eyes on her unconscious partner.
Trudie hurried over with a bowl and a cloth. "Here you go, Shaman. Would you like a hand?"
"Yes, please, child. Dab her brow and neck, she's burning up." The shaman thanked Ediltrudis as she walked over with a steaming mug of hot prunella vulgaris. "Let's get Joan elevated a little so we can get her to have a couple of sips of this." With Trudie holding Joan up, the shaman moved close to the winegrower and pressed the mug against Joan's lips. Tilting the mug, a little of the hot liquid dribbled into Joan's mouth. "Come on, Joan," she murmured softly. "This will help with your fever."
"What is this strange sickness, shaman?" Maxwelle asked, looking around the hospice and noticing for the first time that there were other patients.
"I know not. I wish I did, but I have never seen or heard of anything like it." She poured a little more of the drink into Joan's mouth. "I'm not even sure if the women all have the same sickness, they all have different symptoms!"
"What does the Queen say?" Maxwelle asked.
"She doesn't know yet. I had an appointment arranged with her last moon, but had to cancel. I plan to go and see her this afternoon, she needs to know what is going on."
* * * * *
Bedilia swung her hand, her wife's smaller hand enclosed in her own, and looked at her wife in contemplation. Since getting back to the community hall after her rush to the shaman with Joan, Bedilia had noted Gayle had been strangely quiet. She hadn't wanted to ask whilst they were in company, knowing Gayle hated being centre of attention, but now it was just them as they made their way home. "Gayle, is all well?"
Her wife's voice penetrated her deep thoughts, making Gayle blink in surprise. Turning to look into concerned grey eyes, she frowned. "I was just thinking."
"About something the women said while you were gone."
Bedilia frowned. "Did they upset you? Say something cruel..."
Gayle smiled as her wife's protective side kicked in. "No, love. Nothing like that." She moved closer to Bedilia's side and wrapped her arm around her wife's waist, as Bedilia wrapped her arm around Gayle's shoulders. "They started talking about the women who are sick, then that changed to how they got sick. Coralee thinks the Queen should put a stop to our friends and family coming to Belleza because it is they who bring strange diseases we know nothing of."
"She has a point," Bedilia nodded. "Women have never suffered sickness in summer, there have been some who get the sniffles, but nothing like what we are seeing now. Joan has a fever! A fever in summer! 'Tis madness!"
Gayle stopped walking, pulling Bedilia to a stop as well. "So you think our friends and family shouldn't be allowed to come to Belleza any more?"
"Maybe 'tis time. The women who originally came here did so to escape that world, a world with men in control, with early death, and sickness killing people; a world where they had no say, where they were expected to marry a man and bear him children whether they wanted to or not. Maybe 'tis time to cut Belleza off from that. We can survive, we have meat, fruit and vegetables. The forest provides wood, stone from near the coast is good enough to build with, and plants and herbs are grown for medical purposes."
"Bedilia!" Gayle said in despair, stomping on ahead. "If Queen Athena decided on that we would have big decisions to make, our life would no doubt be disrupted again."
Bedilia frowned and started following after the redhead. "What decisions? Why would our life be disrupted?" she asked in confusion.
"What of my family, love? I would never see them again if they weren't allowed to come here or us to them." Gayle stopped walking and turned to face her wife. "Bedilia, I like our life here, your mothers have made me feel like a daughter and the women are mostly very nice, but...my family, my mother especially, are very important to me. I would have to seriously consider my future."
"Your future? Your future is with me, love," Bedilia said. "We are married, we are trying for a child, our life is here. My mothers gave us a piece of their land so we could build a home, they taught us both how to tend to the orchards so that we can take over one day. Why on earth would we leave?"
"Are you not listening?"
"Yes, I am listening, but I cannot see your reasoning, Gayle. The outside world is not a place that will accept us, our love, our marriage. Why would you want to go back to that?"
Beyond angry that her wife couldn't see her thinking, Gayle spun on her heel and began marching away. "I cannot talk to you right now, Bedilia Orchard! Why can you not see things from my point of view? Imagine it was your family living off the island, would you still be saying what you're saying?"
"Yes!" Bedilia snapped. "Living here is for the best. Why can you not see that?" She got no reply from Gayle who continued to stomp away from her. As her temper started to cool, the former warrior threw her arms out and looked up at the blue sky. "What just happened?"
* * * * *
Valentina Masoun stepped inside the cool hospice and looked around for signs of the shaman. She was worried about Cass, though she wouldn't admit it aloud. Her wife wasn't one to stay in bed unless she really was sick, and this morning she had looked terrible.
The brunette's nose wrinkled as she stepped deeper into the building, the scent of herbs and plants strong in the stone hospice. She spotted Sofia Farmer lying motionless on a cot, her wife Élodie in a chair next to her, holding onto the sick woman's hand. Over on the other side, Valentina saw Gena and Peggy Ash in beds next to each other, both women coughing and being tended to by two medical students. Maxwelle Gardiner was seated next to another bed, Joan lying on the cot, a cloth across her brow.
"Valentina," the shaman greeted from behind the younger woman.
Startled, Valentina spun around to face the shaman, a hand at her breast, over her racing heart. "Shaman! You startled me!"
"I'm sorry. That wasn't my intention," the older woman replied, eyes roaming over the younger woman to see if she was injured. "Did you come to see...someone?"
"You, Shaman." Valentina cleared her throat as she dropped her hand back to her side. "About Cass."
The shaman half turned and pointed back the way she had come. "Shall we go and sit in the office?" As Valentina nodded, the shaman turned and led the way to the small room that was used to write up notes and doubled as a room for the night for whoever was on duty. She took a seat behind the old pine desk and waited until Valentina seated herself. "What's wrong with Cass?"
"Well, first of all, let me tell you that I rose before her this morn and that is most unusual," Valentina started. "When she still hadn't risen by the time I had breakfast made, I went to get her and she was huddled under the covers shivering. I pulled back the covers and she...she looked deathly pale."
"I see." Another woman with similar symptoms to those I have already seen. 'Tis spreading and I still have no idea what it is!
"I was hoping you could suggest some herbs or plants I could give to her."
The shaman smiled. "Of course, Valentina. That is what I am here for." Her brow furrowed. "Let's see...try giving her some prunella vulgaris, that should help with her fever. And if she develops a cough, you could try a hot cup of ginseng or ginger."
Valentina smiled. "Thank you, Shaman." She stood up, ready to rush home to see to her wife.
"'Tis what I am here for, Valentina. Do not hesitate to come back and see me if that doesn't work. I shall think up something else for you to use." The shaman followed the young brunette out of the room and got her what she needed.
"Once again, thank you. Good day, shaman."
"Good day, Valentina." She watched the woman leave, even as her thoughts turned back to the patients she already had. I'm going to need more supplies if this sickness is spreading, she thought, trying to think over what she had and what she was low on. That's if this is even the same thing!
* * * * *
Athena smiled warmly as Lexie showed the shaman into her office. She stood and offered the older woman her hand. "Shaman, 'tis good to see you."
The shaman shook the Queen's hand and smiled. "My apologies for not being able to see you last moon, Your Highness. I know you had Lexie pencil me in, but I got back to the hospice and have been kept busy ever since."
"Not to worry, Shaman. I understand being kept busy! My consort told me you had been called out to the Farmers' property and of the panic that seemed to sweep through the women who gathered outside." The Queen looked thoughtfully at the older woman opposite her. "May I ask how your students are all doing?"
"Very well. Summer only selects those who show promise, knowledge of plants, a caring nature, and gentle hands. I am pleased with all of them."
The Queen smiled. "I'm glad to hear it. Now, what did you need to see me about?"
"I have some concerns, Your Highness. When our friends and family came back for Princess Raleigh's birthday, I was inundated with patients, men and women who had coughs they couldn't get rid of, sore throats they couldn't soothe, some were bone tired and others had lost their appetite. I put it down to the sea travel; it doesn't agree with everyone, after all. But now..." she frowned, "over two moons later, some of our women are showing the same symptoms."
Athena sat back in her chair, absorbing the shaman's words. "And you are...worried?"
The shaman nodded. "I am. Sofia Farmer was the first to my knowledge to get a cough. I gave her something to soothe her throat, something tried and tested, but this time...this time it didn't help. Sofia is...getting worse. She has lost her appetite and is losing weight. She is such a slight thing as it is she can't really afford to lose much weight." The shaman sighed. "Now her wife Élodie has a cough."
"I see." The Queen frowned and rubbed her temple, feeling a headache coming on. "What of their daughter, Maryse? Has she shown signs of being sick also?"
"Not yet, but as she lives at home with them, it won't surprise me if she does get sick."
"Who else has come to you?" Athena asked quietly, troubled by what she was hearing.
"Staying at the hospice, Sofia Farmer and her wife, who won't leave her side; Gena and Peggy Ash, and this morn, Joan Gardiner was rushed in. She was found collapsed in the forest."
Athena gasped, knowing how loved Joan Gardiner and her wife were. "Is she well now?"
The shaman slowly shook her head. "She has a high fever which I have been trying to get rid of with known herbs. Maxwelle also informed me...Joan had a cough."
The Queen licked her dry lips, stalling, as she tried to think what this might mean. "Do you think..." she cleared her throat and met the shaman's eyes. "Could those who visited for Raleigh's birthday have passed on this sickness? Cornelius talked of people coughing, becoming pale and losing their appetite. He...he mentioned the coughing up of blood."
"I haven't seen any signs of that, Your Highness," the shaman reassured Athena. "But women are coughing, and Sofia has lost her appetite. Before I came here to see you, Valentina Masoun dropped in to pick up a treatment for her wife Cass, who seems to have the beginnings of sickness."
"I knew Cass was unwell," Athena nodded. "She came to see me along with Savannah and said she thought it was from partying for too many hours." She looked into the shaman's eyes. "I take it you are treating these women to the best of your abilities?"
The shaman nodded. "Of course, Your Highness."
"So, what do we do?" Athena asked. "Wait and see if...if they start coughing up blood? Pray that it doesn't come to that?"
"At this moment in time, Your Highness, all we can do is wait and pray. If...if the women start coughing up blood..."
"It's unthinkable," Athena breathed.
* * * * *
Worrying her bottom lip with her teeth, Athena wandered into her wife's office and sat down on one of the specially carved couches. She needed to talk about all she had been told and wanted to discuss her concerns, she needed a hug, someone who loved her, someone to tell her it would be all right. She needed Dionis.
Having looked up from her parchment when the door opened, Dionis watched the Queen walk across the room and take a seat. She could see something was troubling her wife, but waited silently, knowing Athena would tell her when she was ready.
The blonde was an intelligent woman, a woman who ruled by doing what she felt was right, a woman who thought things through completely before making a decision. Dionis studied her wife and felt her heart expand with even more love and sent a thank you up to the Gods for sending Athena into her life.
Looking across the room and meeting dark green eyes filled with love, Athena smiled and stood to walk over to her wife. The Queen took a seat on Dionis' lap and wrapped her arms around her wife's neck. "I just saw the shaman," Athena started. "She was telling me about Sofia Farmer."
"Is she better?" the head of security asked, wrapping her arms around Athena's waist.
"No, she's getting worse."
Dionis frowned. "Damn. What does this mean?"
"Not only is Sofia sick, but her wife is now showing signs of being sick, too. The Ashs are sick, and this morn Joan was taken to her with a high fever." Athena sighed. "And now it seems Cass Masoun is ill too."
"Are any of them...coughing up blood?"
Athena shook her head. "Not yet. The shaman isn't even sure if she should be concerned at all, for none of them have the same symptoms." She paused and thought over what was troubling her. "Dionis, what if that happens? If they start bringing up blood, I mean? I have never heard of such a sickness, how can I reassure my people when I have no clue how things will turn out? Cornelius said he was burning the homes, possessions, and bodies of those who die from it back in his land to stop it spreading, but what if he brought it over here? Well, not him personally, but his people. There were many who had coughs and who showed signs of sickness."
Dionis kissed her wife's cheek. "I'm not sure, my love. Like you, I have never heard of such a thing. Perhaps we should ask some women who came to us from the outside world? Not Britannia obviously, but perhaps Greece, Melita, Belgae, Gaul, or Suomi, perhaps."
"'Tis something to consider," the Queen agreed. "Generations ago, your ancestors came from Greece, would they have written anything in their diaries?"
"It's worth looking into. I shall appoint someone to the task tomorrow, 'tis a bit late for them to start now," Dionis said, looking out a window to see the position of the sun.
"I'm not disturbing you am I? Or keeping you from anything important?"
"Never, love," the head of security said, kissing her wife again. "I was actually just about to come and find you."
"Oh, really? You have something that needs my signature?"
"I wish," Dionis sighed. She tapped the piece of parchment that lay on her desk. "This arrived via pigeon earlier. A letter from your uncle Cornelius."
Green eyes studied Dionis closely and saw nothing to indicate good news. "Bad news, I take it?"
Dionis nodded. "This sickness is...deadly. Since arriving back in Pictland, Oliver Masoun, Paddy Cook, Aldwin Farmer, his wife Etaina, Edison Farmer, Quinton Ash, and Colt, have all...died."
Athena gasped, a hand going to her mouth. "By the Gods! So many!" she murmured in disbelief. "And in such a short time!"
"There's more," Dionis said sadly, She picked up the parchment and scanned down to where she had been reading. "Perry Ash, Flint Masoun, Pat Masoun, Nathaniel Masoun, Fionnualla Cook, Leland, Neville Farmer, Ginebra Farmer, and Caedmon Farmer, are all sick. 'Tis thought..."she cleared her throat, "'tis thought they have now caught the sickness." Hugging the Queen tightly, Dionis smiled and kissed her wife again, just because she could. "Try not to worry too much, sweetheart. The shaman herself has told you it may not even be the same sickness. Until we know otherwise, there is no point fretting, is there?"
Athena smiled and shook her head. "No, of course not." Though she couldn't help but worry and think what if? She kissed Dionis on the lips and hummed in delight. "I love you, Dionis. Whenever I am troubled, I know I can always come to you."
"Likewise, love. You're always there to help me when I have a concern or problem." Dionis smiled and squeezed the blonde Queen. "Tell me, my love, are you missing your mothers a great deal?"
"Yes, so much!" Athena sighed. "I keep wandering into their office looking for them, I expect to see them when we sit down for a meal, I expect to hear their voices or laughter as I go about my business. Do you think perhaps they'll return early if I write them a letter insisting I need them back?"
Dionis laughed. "They would return in a heartbeat if you so asked, love. But with nothing to do but witness the world in all its glory, just think how relaxed they'll be when they do return. Saying that, many a warrior has gone off to do their duty, then returned to say how much they missed our island, so perhaps they will surprise you and return sooner than thought."
Athena kissed her wife again and reluctantly stood up. "I best get back to work, and you too, my love. Will I see you in a candle mark for lunch?"
"In the gardens or up on the roof?"
"Oohhh, how about the roof?"
Dionis smiled. "I'll see you there, love." She watched her wife leave the office, then slumped back in her seat. Dear Gods above, whoever may be listening, I beg of you not to send that sickness our way!
* * * * *
After a long, hot day of warrior's training, Rayna returned to the palace, ready for a nice relaxing bath to ease her aching muscles. She loved training, loved how she always went away having learnt something new, loved how she could always improve; what she didn't like was the new warriors. Her days were made tougher by immature girls who didn't belong in warrior training, girls who were only looking to better her in sparring, rather than learning themselves.
"Rayna," Keera called out, smiling enthusiastically. "May I ask a favour?"
Despite her weariness, Rayna smiled at her life long friend. "Of course, Keera. But let me just warn you that no matter what, I will not lie to my wife or your own. If they found out, my life would be forfeit!" she chuckled.
"As would mine be!" Keera replied. "'Tis not really a favour I'm seeking, but I was merely wondering if you would spar with me for a bit?" Though the brunette had been urged to give up her life as a warrior, she still liked to practice her sword skills - combative and defensive, against the best on the island. And it helped liven up an otherwise dull day.
"After a day of immature warriors who have a lot to learn yet, a sparring match with you would be very welcome, Keera," Rayna replied. She led the guard away from the front gates and over to the side where there was a practice area set out for sparring matches.
After the island had been attacked, Dionis had made changes around the palace. She insisted the guards had an area where they could spar and work on their fitness. All guards, especially the personal guards to the Royal family, had to keep in top condition and keep their skills up to a certain standard. They were expected to put in two candle marks a day, and if they didn't, Dionis saw to it that they were placed elsewhere on the island, refusing to have such women in the palace guarding her family.
"Joan Gardiner was found in the forest this morning," Keera said, after they had been sparring for a while.
"What do you mean?"
"My baby sister found her unconscious on the forest floor."
Rayna spun around to her left and swiped at Keera's legs. "She is sick?"
"Had a fever," Keera replied, stepping forward and jabbing at her taller friend. "She was taken to the shaman, who is apparently worried."
Ava and Raleigh sat watching their mama sparring with their aunt Keera, who wasn't really an aunt but who had been in their lives since the day they were born, much like their aunt Bedilia. Rayna had told them stories of her life as a warrior, the training she did, the battle she fought in; they had seen the scars on her body, though they didn't understand the true horrors of any of it yet, too young to comprehend it. They loved to watch her spar and train, the way she parried with her impressive sword, the respect they saw her given.
As the brief but trying sparring session ended, the pair, sweating and out of breath, Rayna shook Keera's hand and thanked the guard for such an intense match.
"Training is not the same without yourself or Bedilia around any more," Rayna said wistfully.
"You know I would come back in a heartbeat, Rayna. But, I have my wife and children to think of. Leslie asked me to quit and who am I to deny her wishes?"
"I understand, truly. I would do the same if Arcadia asked." She turned her attention to her daughters and smiled at them before looking back to Keera. "Once again, thank you. Now get back to work," she laughed.
Keera smirked. "Any time you want me to come kick your butt, just call." She walked away, leaving Rayna laughing raucously.
The warrior walked over to the seated princesses and smiled as she looked down at them. "Do you two not have some reading to do?"
"Mama, can we do that?" Ava asked.
"Spar?" Rayna asked in surprise. "Why would you want to, Ava?"
"So I can help you if the bad people come back."
Frowning, Rayna crouched down in front of her girls. "Sweetheart, why would you think they're coming back?"
"Cousin Benny said bad people went to his old house and they could come here," Ava explained, blue eyes wide in fear and starting to fill with tears. "They took his father away and Benny said...he said they could come and take you." She flung herself at Rayna, wrapping her arms around the warrior's neck. "I don't want you to go away, mama! Don't go away!" she cried.
Damn it, Benedict! Why must you scare my girls with such stories? She rubbed Ava'a back soothingly, trying to calm her. "That won't happen, Ava. Have you not heard that your mama is the best warrior on Belleza?" she smiled, trying to lighten the mood. Both girls nodded. "Well there, you see. Nothing will happen to me, not a soul will ever be able to take me from my girls." I hope, otherwise Arcadia will surely chase me to the Elysian Fields just to kick my butt!
"We can be the best, too," Raleigh said. "Then we can help."
The warrior slowly nodded her assent, liking the idea of her girls being able to defend themselves if something were to happen and she weren't around to protect them. "Very well. But, you must realise that this is no game, 'tis serious and takes practice, many hours of practice."
"Do we get swords like your one?" Raleigh asked hopefully, eyes on Rayna's unique sword. It was the hilt that always captured the little girl's attention. It was a silver and gold dragon, a creature said to live in the far away land to the East. Its feet and tail were gold, the tail wrapped around a gold disc with the Royal insignia etched onto it; its body and head were silver. The dragon's mouth was open and from it came the sharp and deadly steel blade.
Rayna chuckled. "No. You will spar with wooden practice swords. Though, perhaps one day you will have a sword of your own." She looked around for the nearest guard and spotted Camilla Lake. "Camilla, do you have a moment?"
"Yes, Your Highness." The guard walked over to the trio. "What can I do for you?"
"Can you find me three wooden short swords, please?" As the guard nodded and hurried off, Rayna returned her attention to her daughters. "Sword play is a lot like doing a dance," she started to explain. "You must remember to keep moving your feet, dancing this way and that as you look for a suitable opening to attack." Standing up, the warrior unsheathed her sword and stepped backwards, away from the princesses. "Let me show you what I'm talking about. Watch my feet."
Rayna went through a basic warm-up routine, her feet moving as she twirled her sword this way and that; then she began fighting an invisible foe, her moves a little more complex. Finishing, she turned to look at her girls. "Did you see what I meant when I said you are to keep moving your feet?" she asked, watching her girls shake their heads for no. "Were you both watching my feet?" Both girls shook their heads again. "You were watching my sword, weren't you?" Rayna asked, chuckling.
Camilla returned, holding three practice swords. "Here you go, Your Highness. Will you be needing any assistance?"
"Thank you, Camilla. No, I don't think so. 'Tis our first lesson and I shall be sticking to the very basics."
* * * * *
Ava swiped at Rayna again and again, a scowl of frustration creasing her brow as each of her blows were easily deflected by Rayna. They had been practicing for a candle mark and still the little raven-haired girl hadn't managed to land a strike. "Mama, how come you always know where I'm going to strike?"
Rayna chuckled. "You give it away with your eyes and posture, sweetheart," she explained. "Come here."
Ava closed the gap between them and stopped in front of the tall warrior, looking up with blue eyes filled with expectation.
Rayna handed her practice sword to Raleigh, then turned Ava around so she was facing away from her. "What you want to do is trick me," she said, her hands resting on Ava's shoulders. "Drop your left shoulder," she instructed, as she pressed down on said shoulder. "This is called feinting. A misleading move that tricks your opponent into thinking you're going to attack one way, whilst you actually go to the other and hit the unprotected side. Let's practice."
Ava stepped back to her original position opposite Rayna, a look of complete concentration on her face as her mother took back her sword.
"Let's start by sparring and then you put in the feint I just taught you."
They started sparring gently, their pace picking up until Ava suddenly dropped her right shoulder and jabbed towards Rayna's left side, the warrior moving quickly to block the move.
Rayna stepped back and smiled proudly. "Well done, Ava. You almost got me then."
"But I didn't," the little girl frowned.
"No, but for your first lesson, that was very good." Rayna looked over to Raleigh, who was waiting patiently for her turn. "Come, Raleigh, 'tis your turn now."
The little strawberry-blonde took her place in front of her mother. Though being a year younger and smaller than Ava, Raleigh was a natural swordswoman. Her foot work was good, her reflexes fast, and balance and co-ordination impressive. She attacked, rather than sat back, surprising Rayna and putting her on the back foot.
Calling the duel to an end finally, Rayna smiled proudly. "That was very good, Raleigh," she complimented. "I think you have been secretly practising!" She ruffled the girl's hair. "Are you worn out for the day?" she asked both girls.
"Can we...practice a little more?" Raleigh asked, enjoying the time with the warrior.
"If you like."
Rayna took on both girls, dropping her sword and tumbling about, making them giggle as they swiped at her. Picking up Ava and slinging her over her broad shoulder, the warrior took on Raleigh, forcing her backwards, while Ava squealed in delight.
"Rayna! What on earth do you think you are doing?" Arcadia asked in disbelief, bringing their play to an instant end. "Girls, inside, now."
Both girls looked from Arcadia to Rayna, sensing the sudden tension in the air. Rayna nodded for them to do what Arcadia asked and watched Ava take her sister's hand and lead her towards the palace.
"What's the matter, Arcadia?" Rayna asked, her attention on the unhappy blonde.
The princess approached her taller wife, blood boiling in anger. "What are you thinking in teaching them sword play, Rayna?"
Rayna frowned, not liking her wife's tone. "What was I thinking? I was teaching them the basics, Arcadia. They asked to be taught."
"They shouldn't learn such things! They are Princesses! Heirs to the throne! They need not learn such things, Rayna."
"They may not need to learn, but perhaps they just have an interest in doing so," Rayna growled. "And who better to teach them than myself?"
"I won't have my daughters learning such a thing!" Arcadia exclaimed.
"They are my daughters, too! If they want to learn how to use a sword, then I will teach them. If they want to milk my mother's cows, then I will teach them. If they want to swing from tree branches, dive into the pool of water from the top of the waterfall, or take up a trade, then so be it! Just because they have Royal blood within them, it does not make them any less mine!"
"I am not saying they aren't yours! I am merely saying there are certain things that you did whilst growing up that aren't acceptable for them to do!"
"Well, perhaps that should change. At least they will be able to defend themselves if something were to happen. A lot more than you could do!" Rayna snapped.
The words stung like a slap to the face and the Princess reacted through hurt and anger. "I will not have my girls become stupid, impatient, hot-headed, warriors, who use their brawn rather than their brains!"
Rayna swallowed hard, fighting valiantly to control her temper, reminding herself it was her wife, her sweetheart, in front of her. "I don't know what has got into you lately, Arcadia," she said through gritted teeth. "But I don't like it. I want the woman I fell in love with to come back. Until she does, I can't be around you. If you carry on with this...attitude...I fear I shall do something I will live to regret." The warrior turned on her heel and strode away.
"Open the gates," Rayna snapped at the door guards, their job being to raise and drop the thick wooden barrier that kept the gates shut.
The guards snapped to attention and hurriedly set about doing their job, everyone standing around wondering what had Rayna so angry.
"Rayna, is all well?" Karita asked. "There's no trouble, is there?"
Icy blue eyes filled with anger turned to the senior guard. "All is well, I just want out of the palace." As the barrier was lifted clear and one gate opened, Rayna marched forward, hastily leaving before she could be further questioned.
* * * * *
Her shift finished for the day, Keera bid Harley farewell and made her way down the ladder from the guard tower she had been up in. She couldn't officially leave until she was sure her cover for the night had turned up, so walked slowly over to the gates where other guards stood waiting. She smiled at Mileta. "Hello, Mileta."
"Good evening, Keera. Have a good night," the blonde woman smiled.
"You, too." Waving goodbye to her fellow guards, Keera walked through the gates and set off for home, ready to just relax. Spotting a familiar figure up ahead, the brunette realised this was an opportune moment to ask for more responsibilities. "Rayna!" Keera called out, running after her friend. "Can I have a word?"
"I'm a little busy, my friend," Rayna replied, distractedly.
"It won't take but a moment," Keera assured, falling into step with the taller woman.
In a bad mood after the argument with her wife, Rayna sighed heavily, but nodded her agreement. "All right, Keera. What is it that troubles you?"
"I wanted to ask you if you could see about giving me more responsibilities at the palace. I am a battle experienced warrior, I feel I deserve something better to do than standing guard in a watch tower," Keera said.
"Keera, you have to prove yourself. You must work your way up from guard duty to something more," Rayna explained. "You can't expect to be put at the head of the line. What of the women who opted for palace duty? You don't want to be there, we all know that, you are only a palace guard because you can no longer be a warrior."
"I am a trained, experienced warrior, Rayna! How can I prove myself? Surely my experience speaks for itself? When our families and friends arrived, I wasn't even considered to go down to the shore! All I am worthy of is watch duty and 'tis driving me mad!" She felt her anger grow as another thought came to her. "Or is it because I was injured? Is that the problem? I am now a liability, I am no longer able to perform my duty as a warrior and so I am only worthy of something tedious such as watch duty?"
Rayna stopped walking and turned to face her friend. "No, Keera," Rayna soothed, reaching out to place a hand on the guard's shoulder. "That is not it at all. Yes, you were a warrior, but this is different work. This is about guarding the Royal family. You can't just come along and be given top job. Other women have trained for this, they have to be considered ahead of a warrior."
"Why was I not considered as a personal guard to your children?" Keera argued, hurt and angry now at what she was hearing, convinced it was her head injury that was holding her back. "Gods above, I have known each of them since they were born, you know I would gladly forfeit my life for them. Surely that counts for something!"
Patience finally coming to an end, Rayna set off walking again. "If you really have a complaint, go and see one of the senior guards, or Dionis. You can't expect me to fix your every complaint just because we are friends."
Keera scowled and marched after Rayna. "I don't expect you to fix my problems. I just asked if you could have a word! And I don't see why you won't, Rayna. We have been friends all our lives, why are you happy to see me miserable? I hate keeping watch, I have never known something so dull! Is it because you're having troubles with Arcadia? She is making you miserable, so you wish to see your friends miserable as well?" she sniped.
Rayna stopped in her tracks and turned to face the smaller woman. "My personal life is none of your concern! And you would do well to remember who it is you're talking to!" she growled, furious at Keera. "I advise you to get out of my sight, before I see to you getting appointed the worst job possible!" She spun around and continued on her way.
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